On “Forgetting” Rifles and Sacred Texts

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius

Dover Thrift Edition of the Novel

In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, I was particularly interested in a debate that occurs between David Gamut and Hawkeye concerning religious belief versus pragmatic/empirical knowledge. David, extremely thankful that Hawkeye has just saved his life, praises the scout, claiming that his skills and his bravery prove that Hawkeye is indeed worthy of “Christian praise” (105). David then goes on to posit that divine providence played a role in the situation, and that in due course, some men are destined to be saved while others are destined to be damned. This assertion greatly discomforts Hawkeye, and he does nothing to conceal his disapproval of David’s claims.

Hawkeye asserts that the only reason he could credit himself with the murder of an enemy native was because he experienced the event firsthand, not because it was predestined to occur. What we are observing here is a clash between two different ideological views of the world: whereas David relies on faith, destiny, and the abstract to explain what happens in his surroundings, Hawkeye relies on evidence, experience, and empirical observation to deduce his claims (I killed the Huron native, therefore, I am responsible for what occurred).

Hawkeye assumes responsibility for his actions rather than attributing them to an unseen and unknowable force. Hawkeye’s reliance on personal experience triggers an interesting debate on the differences between textual evidence and experiential evidence: as soon as Hawkeye denies the plausibility of providence, David demands to know whether or not the scout’s claims can be supported by textual Biblical facts: “Name chapter and verse; in which of the holy books do you find language to support you?” (106).

Now, this is where the conversation gets extremely interesting. Hawkeye proceeds to denounce the value of books, stating that rather than relying on a set of words inscribed within a page, he has “forty long and hard-working years” (106) to back up his belief system and his pragmatic approach towards the world. He then mocks David’s views by asking whether his instruments and tools (his rifle, his bull horn, and his leather pouch) are being approached as if they were the passive instruments of a writer/scholar (the feather of a goose’s wing, a bottle of ink, a crossbarred handkercher)—implying that David is not viewing the scout as a rugged man of the wilderness. In a striking move, Hawkeye presents his disdain towards “men who read books to convince themselves there is a God” (106). I couldn’t help but recall Bruno Latour’s views of facts, fetishes, and “factishes” at this point, due to the importance of objects in this conversation, and their role in the construction of knowledge and belief.

Now, what may be noticeable in this conversation is that David definitely fetishizes (in a Latourian perspective) sacred texts and books, for although they are produced and crafted by a human being, the middle-man is forgotten and the object is approached as holy or divine. Belief and divine power are imbued within these textual objects, and their crafted nature is forgotten or simply ignored. Now, Hawkeye seems to be aware of this fetishization of the sacred texts (although he certainly wouldn’t use this term to describe his views), and thus, he deems David’s distorted view as silly or misconstrued. He doesn’t seem to project his belief on a certain object, but rather, his beliefs are projected from the self: something is only true if you are able to feel and experience it.

However, what Hawkeye is failing to see is the fact that his own experiences relied on a set of tools or instruments: without his rifle, Hawkeye wouldn’t have been able to undergo the particular experience of killing a Huron native (at least not in the way that it actually occurred). Without that object, it is questionable whether or not Hawkeye would’ve encountered the degree of success that he did in that moment. Thus, it can be argued that both David and Hawkeye are guilty of the same ‘sin’: David forgets the hand-crafted nature of the divine object, and Hawkeye forgets the role of the object in the definition of his experiences and perceptions.

The material and crafted nature of both the scriptures and the pistol are forgotten during the discussion between David and Hawkeye

What occurs in this situation is a failure to recognize that both figures see fault in the other’s beliefs, when objectively speaking, both systems beliefs are reliant on similar practices of fetishization and forgetting. This failure of recognition leads to a blocking of the communicative passage, and thus, both individuals decide to drop the conversation. What is interesting at this point is that after the debate ceases, both David and Hawkeye engage in the channeling of their belief systems through their fetishes/factishes, even though they are not explicitly aware of the implication of this practice: David places a pitch pipe on his lips and begins to belt out biblical verses in song (interpreting divinity in a material format), and Hawkeye adjusts the flint of his rifle and reloads it with ammo (preparing the instrument so it can help him experience another successful event).

I can’t help but wonder what role do factishes and fetishes play in the development of belief systems in the remainder of The Last of the Mohicans. Objects that certainly come into mind are the clothes that the characters don (compare, for instance, the attire worn by Hawkeye in comparison to the war paint worn by Chingachgook). I also am beginning to wonder whether more discreet “objects,” such as skin or hair color, go on to instill beliefs in a similar fashion to Hawkeye’s rifle or David’s knowledge of sacred texts. After all, hair and skin color can ostensibly be approached as a creation (via the mixing of two distinct human genetic codes), yet these creations instill attitudes and beliefs that transcend their physical properties (dark skin and light skin are fabricated though the same processes, yet the act of creation is forgotten, and perhaps overshadowed, by moral particularities correlated with skin pigmentation). Perhaps this is taking the implications of the fetish and the factish a step too far, but the possibilities are indeed seductive.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Decoding the American Scholar: Towards a Distant Computational Reading of Emerson’s Prose

The following entry discusses some ideas that I plan to explore in a research paper that I will write for a course titled “Knowledge, Belief, and Science in Melville’s America,” which is being offered by Dr. Laura Dassow Walls at the University of Notre Dame during the fall semester of 2012.

During my last semester of school work, I became fascinated with the concept of hybridity. Something that became extremely apparent during my readings was the fact that the humanities and sciences are not as opposing as we may initially deem. Also, I became aware of the tantalizing possibilities of approaching humanistic studies in a scientific/quantitative fashion (and the extent of these possibilities is increasing tenfold with a course I am taking in Digital Humanities/Humanities Computing). This research project will be my first attempt to approach a collection of literary texts from a scientific and quantitative perspective using the tools that I’ve encountered in the area of humanities computing. My hope is that this approach will help me to understand the ever-elusive Ralph Waldo Emerson  and the overall patterns and systems that are implemented in his prose.

As readers of my website are well aware by now, Emerson has been an extremely difficult scholar to understand (at least in my opinion). I tend to develop a strange sense of fascination and utter confusion when I read his prose. I also find it tedious to delve into close readings of his essays mainly because he seems to posit ideas that are at times contradictory and difficult to conciliate (check out my past posts that discuss Emerson in order to understand this point). Of course, this is arguably because Emerson wrote in an extremely subjective point of view, but even more so, it is due to the fact that he was trying his best to grapple with notions that are both abstract and elusive: god, nature, humanity, science, religion, and methods. It can also be argued that Emerson had difficulties in terms of separating the objectivity of his idea(l)s from the subjectivity of his personal experiences. This notion is evidenced in essays such as “Experience,” in which he argues that grief is pointless and futile in the vast scope of the universe, yet it is blatantly obvious that the death of his child created an existential chasm within his life (check out his collection of letters that he sent after the death of his child if you don’t believe me).

How do we even begin to understand such a complex and obviously tormented individual? In order to hypothesize answers to these questions, I am going to suggest a rather Thoreauvian move: rather than trying to integrate myself with the text, and rather than trying to figure out Emerson through close readings, I am going to suggest that we should take a step back and try to piece together the mystery of Emerson through a distant reading.

What is distant reading? Franco Moretti greatly pushed forward this practice when he posited that the issue of close reading is that scholars only able to study a very select amount of texts, while virtually ignoring the influence of other texts within a collection or canon. Thus, textual readings are ignored, and instead, the scholar focuses on determining systems, patterns, themes, and tropes that exist within a collection of texts in order to understand a system in its entirety. Now, Moretti is quite aware that when conducting a distant reading, there are definitely particularities and ideas that are lost. This is an extremely pressing issue, especially when dealing with authors such as Emerson, whose prose and poetry were injected with countless political, religious, and social ideologies that are ostensibly lost when approaching the text from a distance. However, Moretti argues that this is perhaps the only way to make the unmanageable and invisible forces behind literature visible:

Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more. (Conjectures…)

How will this notion of distant reading take place within my research? Simple. I created a database of Emerson’s major prose works in digitalized format (using an archive of Emerson’s texts in HTML format), including a selection of his early addresses and lectures, his first series of essays, and his second series of essays. This database of works, adapted from the prose readings available in the Norton Critical edition of Emerson’s prose and poetry, was organized in chronological order and saved within the same archive.

I then used a series of online textual analysis applications known as “Voyant Tools” (which I discuss in length in this post), which use a series of algorithms that will allow me to approach Emerson’s works from a distant quantitative fashion: the program indicates the frequency and distribution of all of the words used within the inputted database, and it is even able to graphically illustrate the trend of each word within the entire scope of texts that I uploaded. Since the database contains the texts in chronological order, this will allow me to observe patterns of word usage from Emerson’s earlier works to his later ones.

I have already tested the program using a tentative collection of Emerson’s most famous prose works, and the results have indeed been interesting. I programmed Voyant Tools to remove stopwords from the database, meaning that all grammatical and non-content words were removed from the data that was provided. The application then produced a frequency list of the words available in the entire corpus. The most frequent words found within all of the words inputted into the database were as follows (keep in mind that this list was generated using Emerson’s early addresses and lectures, his first and second series of essays, and his essay on Nature):

WORD/UNIT

Frequency

MAN

966

NATURE

710

MEN

537

WORLD

402

LIFE

390

NEW

338

SOUL

316

THOUGHT

312

THINGS

306

GOOD

300

GREAT

297

MIND

275

LOVE

262

POWER

237

TIME

230

KNOW

224

TRUTH

217

GOD

198

BEAUTY

194

I think it is unsurprising to see that ‘man’ and ‘nature’ are the most common words found within Emerson’s prose, but something that did provoke a vast sense of curiosity was the abstract and conceptual nature of the words on this list. Not only does this provide evidence that Emerson was indeed an abstract writer, but it also highlights an important issue: most, if not all of these words, have various shades of meaning can alter immensely according to the context the word is being used in, and are extremely linked to subjective ideological views of the word. Also, note that most of the words in this list are concepts that tend to be associated with positive feelings and optimistic attitudes (god, truth, love, mind, great, good, new, life, world, nature, men, etc.). I think this says an awful lot about the rhetorical nature of Emerson’s prose, and how it is expected that the overabundance of these positive terms will serve as effective emotional rapport for an audience.

What was even more fascinating was the trend graphs that I was able to generate, which indicate the usage of words across Emerson’s texts in a chronological fashion. Here are a slideshow of the graphs that I generated:

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I think that the graphs tend to demonstrate some very insightful trends. For instance, Emerson’s use of the word ‘soul’ is particularly frequent during his earlier addresses and lectures (with the usually appearing on an average of over 50 times), whereas the use of the term begins to drop noticeably after the publication of his “Over-Soul” essay. Usage of the term ‘god’ starts off particularly strong in his earlier prose works, it drops continuously as he continues to publish essays, and suddenly, towards the publication of his essay on “Nature,” the use of the term sky-rockets. What promoted this sudden interest in god? What led to this dramatic spike in the data?

I thought the graph that illustrated the trend of the words ‘new’ and ‘old’ was very intriguing, for not only is the term ‘new’ being used much more frequently than the term ‘old,’ but both concepts tend to follow the same rises and falls throughout Emerson’s work, indicating that the concepts are frequently contrasted and are perhaps presented in a binary fashion. Notice how these words are consistently used throughout the entirety of the prose works inputted in the collection of Emerson’s prose. I never realized how consistent “newness” and “oldness” were in Emerson’s prose!

The graph that compares the use of ‘man’ versus ‘men’ is also intriguing to me, for not only do both terms tend to demonstrate the same degree of fluctuation throughout Emerson’s works, but there is a noticeable divergence between the lines when they approximate Emerson’s latter works: whereas the plural ‘men’ is being used around 40 times when approaching his essay on nature, the singular ‘man’ is used nearly 150 times (it surpasses the use of ‘men’ by a margin of nearly 300%). Perhaps this is in some way reflective of his increasing belief in the self-reliance of human beings, and his increasing concern with the perils of subjectivity.

I think there is something worthwhile to be studied here. The graphs have definitely opened up questions, but now the issue is to come up with some concrete answers and interpretations. I wonder how these graphs will change when I input more of Emerson’s prose work into the database. I am also concerned with whether or not I’ll be able to develop a full-fledged research project based on this quantitative data. My guess is that I will ultimately resort to close readings in order to better understand the trends and word frequencies produced by the program, but that in and of itself is an issue: I simply do not have the time to conduct close readings of every single one of the essays available in the database (especially considering that I am currently teaching, taking graduate courses, and working on annotations for a book series).

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for this project? Does it seem somewhat feasible and worthwhile? Any and all feedback will be greatly appreciated!

Literature + Computation = Amazing Results

1 word, 2 words, 150 words! So many beautiful words! Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!

As a graduate student in English, I guess it comes to no surprise that I tend to have an inherent aversion to math and anything related to quantitative studies. Even as I child, I was unable to understand why the Count from Sesame Street felt such orgasmic joy as he immersed himself into the realm of numbers. I always viewed language as a safe haven from the influence of the quantitative, but then came Algebra and decided to mix letters and numbers. Let’s just say that I was less than pleased with the combination.

During my undergrad studies in English linguistics, I came to appreciate quantitative approaches towards texts and language, but I never thought that I would deal with this combination as a scholar of English. However, thanks to a graduate introductory course that I am taking on Digital Humanities (or Humanities Computing) at the University of Notre Dame, I have recently come across some incredibly useful ideas (and online software) that really augment the possibilities of quantitative research within the field of literature. These ideas and tools facilitate what Franco Moretti calls “Distance Reading,” which basically denotes the analysis of hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of literary texts in order to get a better sense of meaningful changes and developments throughout literary history (see my review of his book Graphs, Maps, Trees).

I have recently been dabbling with the interpretation and creation of programming code (using Python and HTML) thanks in part to the Programming Historian 2, a step-by-step tutorial on how to create basic computer programs that can decode and search for basic patterns in digital texts. Nonetheless, the possibilities of the pre-existing tools available on the web are indeed much more powerful and seductive than the basic programs I’ve developed so far. I will focus my attention on two of the many tools I have surveyed as of now: Voyant Tools and the Google Labs N-Gram Viewer.

VOYANT TOOLS

According to their webpage, Voyant Tools is a web-based environment used primarily for the analysis of digital texts. This “environment” allows you to conduct different types of quantitative analyses (word counting, word frequency, etc.) with any text in practically any digital format (html, .doc, etc.). All you have to do is paste the text that you want to analyze or simply provide a web link to the actual text. The application then “reveals” facts, quantitative data, and statistics that are interpreted from the textual input. Not only can Voyant Tools demonstrate the frequency and distribution of particular words across the text, but it is also able to depict graphs and lists that graphically illustrate the prominence of any word in comparison to another.

In order to test Voyant Tools, I simply pasted the URL of the html version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (made available via Project Guttenberg) onto the main text bar, and I clicked on the button labeled “reveal.” My browser then opened the following set of tools:

Now, it is important to note that I applied limitations on the incorporation of stop words into my data in order to limit the types of words that Voyant Tools used and interpreted (which simply means that I requested VT to eliminate “meaningless” grammatical words such as “the,” “a,” “are,” among others, from the interpretations of the data). The application processed the textual data, organized it, and depicted it in an array of useful formats.

The “Cirrus” section illustrates the most common words of the text in a visual cloud, and the size of the word is directly correlated to its frequency within the corpus. The “Words in the Entire Corpus” section lists all of the words that appear in the source text and lists how many times they appear. The “Corpus Reader” section depicts the textual input and highlights the appearance of a word selected within the frequency list. The “Word Trend” section graphically illustrates the frequency of a selected word from the beginning to the end of the text. Note how I selected the word “man” within the Wilde’s novel, and how the Word Trend section illustrates how the word increases in frequency as the novel progresses.

Overall, I think the research possibilities of this program are indeed noteworthy, for it may allow us to offer concrete evidence for some of the claims we make as literary scholars. For instance, if we were to argue that Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein increasingly begins to view the creature as a human being, perhaps we could compare the frequency and distribution of words such as “monster,” “creature,” “devil,” and “wretch” with other terms such as “human,” “being,” and “man” in order to determine when and how the creature is labeled by his creator. Of course, there might be issues with these tools, especially when determining the context of these terms, and whether or not concepts are referenced to using different names. However, as Moretti once posited in his aforementioned work, graphs and lists provide data, not interpretation.

GOOGLE LABS N-GRAM VIEWER

The premise of the N-Gram Viewer is far simpler than that of Voyant Tools: using the collection of digital books found within the Google Books archive, N-Gram viewer allows you to trace the presence of particular words or terms within thousands (and even millions) of books across a specific span of time. All you need to do is type in the word(s) that you are interested in tracing, establish the years that you want to survey, and the literary scope you want to study (English texts, Spanish texts, American texts, etc.), and the app will trace a nifty graph of the presence of this term in books that fall within the parameters you established.

The coolest part is the fact that N-Gram Viewer is able to illustrate the prominence of more than one term within the same chart, allowing you to trace, for instance, the use of different synonyms or of complimentary concepts (e.g. “adult, child, teenager” – “gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual” – “novel, poem, short story” – “Asian, Latino, Caucasian, African American”, etc). Below, you can see the search I conducted for the terms “gay,” “homosexual,” “bisexual,” “queer,” and “lesbian” using a corpus of English fiction between the years of 1850 and 2000. The results were as follows:

It is quite amazing to see these results illustrated in such a clear and concise format. Note how the use of the term “gay” begins to decline after the 1850’s, probably due to its increasing association with homosexuality rather than an emotional state of joy. It is after the 1970’s (which coincides with the establishment of a gay rights movement after the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York) that the use of the term gay begins to increase dramatically in English fiction, leading to a peak of the term in the late 90’s (which happens to be the peak of the nationalization of gay media in television and popular culture). It is interesting to note that the presence of the term “lesbian” roughly begins to manifest and increase during the same time that the use of the term gay begins its ascent.

Of course, as with Voyant Tools, the N-Gram Viewer has issues, particularly when it comes to the shifting meaning of particular words, the prominence of a certain term to denote a particular concept, and the sampling of the books themselves (which according to Culturomics, only represents around 12% of all the books ever published). But regardless of these issues, I particularly enjoy the possibilities that these tools present within the realm of distance reading, and I’m looking forward to seeing the new tools that these applications will inspire.

My Own Personal Aporia

“Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”

 —Henry David Thoreau, Letters to a Spiritual Seeker

Who reads, in fact? Is it I, or some part of me?” (de Certeau 173). As I read these words in Michel de Certeau’s discussion of “Reading as Poaching,” I had to take a brief pause to analyze them and let them sink in my mind. Indeed, it is a short sentence, but this string of words sure does pack a punch! Who reads? This is a question that I’ve never really asked myself before because the answer seemed obvious: of course, I am the one that reads. But who is this I that I’m referring to? Am I decoding and interpreting the text, or does another person or institution provide me an ideological lens to “see” it? Am I fully intertwining myself with the reading, or is the self only partially intertwined with it? But an even deeper question that must be asked is whether or not I want to and can incorporate myself fully into what I read. If reading and becoming were approached as an entirely unitary process, then the minds of the Enlightenment were correct: the text imprints itself upon me, it shapes and transforms me…

However, this is indeed far from the case. Reading is indeed a mediation between what was written and what I know/believe, and in this interplay, we find the notions of taste, empathy, understanding, and rapport. The outcome of this interaction is unpredictable… it does not mimic the action of copy and pasting that is possible through a computer or the telepathic transmission of ideas as seen in science fiction movies. We cannot plug our minds into a simulated program and upload information directly. We are limited to language, a method of output that reaches even greater interpretive corruption when expressed in written form, devoid of the non-verbal and phonetic cues that aid understanding in speech. Put 15 different people in a room and make them read the same text, and they will understand it and approach it in entirely different ways, as we can see every single time that our class gathers every Tuesday. A text is the core of a vast network of ideas, symbols, interactions, and emotions, but similar to the golden doubloon that Captain Ahab nails on the ship’s mast in Melville’s Moby Dick, we ultimately project ourselves into the text in diverging degrees, and therefore we achieve different interpretations and assign different values. A text may reach me in ways that they could never reach other people. A text that may seem insignificant to you may be my own personal white whale, and vice-versa. Once something becomes a white whale, it is inevitable for us to begin pursuing it, and trying desperately to poach it. However, we know that the conquering of a text is indeed futile, for although we are able to launch our harpoons, and although we might wound a fin or a patch of skin, the metaphorical whale continues to swim in that vast and unknowable ocean.

What’s even more curious is that approaches to texts increase in complexity because the I, or the self, is also something that is never fixed and that is constantly changing and metamorphosing. For instance, I read fragments from Thoreau’s Walden five years ago for a survey course I took on Early American literature. The text made no impression on me whatsoever, to the point that for a while, I had entirely forgotten that I previously had exposure to the text (interesting how the notion of ‘forgetting’ comes to play here… similar to the example of the door that you discussed in the last class, it is remarkable to see how objects of vast importance lose their significance and fade into our mental background. I guess this occurs because we are not experienced enough to see the value, or because we take the value for granted). However, my experience reading it the second time around was vastly different, and most of the ideas and occurrences are now viewed in entirely different light. The issues and tensions between different functional systems, the search for simplicity, approaching life as an experiment, finding solace in solitude, the fact that we can feel lonely even when surrounded by people. I’m not lying to you: reading Thoreau’s words this time around opened wounds and opened my mind in ways that I never even imagined that it could. And this is precisely because who I am today is radically different from the person that I was five years ago. I now have experiences and sets of knowledge that allowed me to grasp and appreciate notions that I couldn’t possible begin to comprehend back then. Thus, I should’ve said that “part of me” read the text five years ago rather than saying that I read the text five years ago.

I think I am reaching a point where my perspective towards literature, academia, and knowledge is finally beginning to make sense. In my last response, I mentioned how difficult I find it to classify myself as a scholar of a particular type of literature. But in all honesty, my interests and my intellectual affinities are scattered all over the place. For instance, I started off as a student of Psychology during my undergraduate years, and I quickly transitioned to English with the goal of becoming a writer. It was there that I discovered a raving passion for applied linguistics in order to understand bilingualism and language learning. However, I soon took a class on Psycholinguistics and Semantics, and I sailed off into the realm of theoretical linguistics, focusing on how the mind processes meaning. I then started graduate studies in English education, and I developed a newfound obsession with the analysis and teaching of literature… and now I am here, working towards a PhD in American literature. Many have criticized me for being unable to focus my attention on a single area of study… and I must admit that there are consequences to having scattered knowledge: you end up a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I constantly find myself overwhelmed by the ideas that I’m exposed to, and at times I feel down due to my lack of literary knowledge when in comparison to my peers. But perhaps what I lack in specificity, I make up for in breadth.

For once, I’m beginning to view things differently, and I’m slowly but surely becoming reinvigorated and renewed. Rather than keeping my knowledge segregated and compartmentalized, I beginning to see the value of establishing links between the areas, creating a network that is new, scary, but ultimately exciting. The more I read in class, the more astounded I become with the possibilities that can take place in literary study. And that is precisely because I’m realizing that there is more than one way to approach objects and things. I am also beginning to view the world as gatherings rather than a set of individualistic and separable units.  I am opening my eyes to the effervescent and explosive reactions that occur when we cross academic, cultural, and epistemological boundaries. As de Certeau points out in this discussion, “The creativity of the reader grows as the institution that controlled it declines” (172). Call it chance or call it fate, I think that I’m currently in a time in which my creativity has the possibility to thrive. The hegemonic values of stifling institutions within literary study are being challenged with the inclusion of the quantitative, the scientific, the social, and the cultural within our toolbox, and with the view of the world itself as a text. I could pay my respects to the canon while at the same time exploring the peripheries of the literary realm. I’m going to graduate school in a time in which I can analyze graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays… in which I finally have the tools and the opportunity to tackle Sedaris’ text as a noteworthy and valid source of knowledge… in which I can approach a Young Adult Novel with the same degree of seriousness that is applied to canonical texts. And I must admit that this multidisciplinary transcendence is both liberating and electrifying. I am escaping from my own personal aporia.

But more importantly, I think I’m finally beginning to realize that I don’t necessarily become the text, and it is not the text that becomes me. Rather, the text and I are a hybrid being working together to become. De Certeau’s text reaffirms this realization towards the latter part of his discussion:

Indeed, reading has no place […]. [The reader’s] place is not here or there, one or the other, but neither the one nor the other, simultaneously inside and outside, dissolving both by mixing them together, associating texts like funerary statues that he awakens and hosts, but never owns. In that way, he also escapes from the law of each text in particular, and from that of the social milieu. (de Certeau 174)

As I read this passage, my mind starting screaming Bruno Latour over and over again. We see yet another manifestation of the struggle between purification and translation: do we separate the reader and the text? Do we tie reading to a place or a space? Is the process internal or external? Do these binaries mix in any way? The answer is that reading is everything and anything. Similar to the waters that the Pequod ventured through, they are not fixed or static: water flows, evaporates, freezes, paves, swallows, erupts, and connects. Our readings, our positions as readers, are not fixed. We are ships without anchors in search of our own whales… or sharks, or fish, or freedoms, or choices, or destinies, or new lands. And arguably, the same occurs with our writing and our attempts to produce meaning. Over and over again, professors have told me to avoid being personal in my academic writing, to write in third person, to avoid personal anecdotes and distracting stories… but HOW can I possibly do that? You may accuse me of being subjective, but regardless of third person writing or the lack of personal anecdotes, it does not change the fact that what I choose to put on paper is part of me. I think were in a time where rules have to be broken and where experimentation, whether successful or not, has to thrive. How else could we possibly escape the aporia that is not only trying to sink our ship, but that is ultimately trying to drown us all via an inescapable and inexorable whirlpool?

And if our ship happens to sink, will Queequeg’s coffin be there to save us?

Sources:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0520271459/

http://www.amazon.com/Walden-Annotated-Henry-D-Thoreau/dp/0300104669/

http://www.amazon.com/Moby-Dick-Whale-Penguin-Classics-Deluxe/dp/0143105957/

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net