Sunday, May 19, 2013

[noun]-porn

In today's NYTimes Frank Bruni used the phrase "hardship porn" to describe "fetishized misfortune," or the cheap use of sob stories to lend seeming-emotional-substance to what are clearly callously manipulative, calculated narratives: American Idol performer stories, politician's tales about their ancestors or past difficulties, and the like.

For years I've been using the phrase "horror porn" to express my inability to watch genre horror films -- or more to the point, what I see and feel when I watch them. The phrase sums up the "emptiness" of the experience for me. However, if you google "horror porn," you're more likely to find videos that combine elements of both genre horror films and actual pornography. My usage hasn't quite caught on.

"Food porn" on the other hand was an established internet visual genre even before Pinterest came along to cement its popularity, and before that the phrase had an earlier life as a statement of feminist disapprobation of a fetishized woman-food connection, and criticism of the food-ad industry. 

The dictionaries I checked (with the exception of Urban Dictionary) make no reference (yet) to this use of "porn," as a noun (modified by another noun), centralizing the negative connotations of the word "porn" while the modifier tells us what category of thing is being disapproved of.

There does seem to be the possibility of confusion -- even "food porn" could be misinterpreted to mean standard pornography that uses food in a sexual way. However, it's interesting to think that someday people might say "sex porn" to refer to what we would just call porn, and use the word "porn" in general to refer to any empty, meaningless, or manipulative narrative fragment designed to illicit an emotional response without an honest or decent (moral) purpose.




Friday, May 17, 2013

Evo / Cog Science and Lit

I decided to start off the summer with a flurry of essays about brain science and literature: Steven Pinker, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, Denis Dutton, and a few others. I still have much to read, but a few initial thoughts:

These authors are quick to scold Literature professors for not being open enough to the Sciences and the ways scientific thought can enlighten the understanding of literature and the Humanities in general. It's a fair statement and I'm sure there are many Lit profs who could stand to be more open to the sciences. What's ironic though is that the same authors who are doing the scolding are clearly publishing essays about writing and reading fiction without seriously consulting someone who actually writes, closely reads, or teaches the writing of fiction. If they had, they might have avoided giving the impression throughout their essays that writing and reading fiction is something our brains do easily. 

Those of us who teach story and the writing of stories can tell you quite confidently that constructing a clear and engaging narrative, whether fictional or nonfictional, is a skill that many very smart people struggle with. We can also assure you that people are very capable of reading a book or watching a film without formulating a hypothesis regarding its meaning -- or they might formulate an understanding that is demonstrably illogical, but persist in believing it, etc.

Perhaps if these essays had been written with the difficulty and rareness (what percentage of any population are its storytellers?) of the deed in mind, they might have begun to tackle the question of why people devote themselves to narrative-building and meaning-making (rather than procreation and resource acquisition). 

They might also have addressed the fact that while fiction can be seen as a "safe space" for would-be dangerous vicarious experiences, people very often seek out fiction that is not "safe" for them. There are novels banned because people think the ideas contained in them are dangerous, and there are stories that genuinely freak people out and make them uncomfortable -- sometimes through content, but sometimes through structure! There are many highly acclaimed and admired books and stories that disturb our understanding of the real and unreal and muddle the line between them. I would suggest that the thinkers I've read so far are speaking primarily about children's stories, but children's stories seem "safe" only to adults, or perhaps to children who know the story by heart. The way we talk about fiction is different depending upon whether we are close to it or looking at it from the outside, and I don't think outsiders have an advantage in their understanding here.

None of the essays I've read so far are as interesting as the 11th chapter of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, written in the 1970s, where he introduces the concept of memetics as an analog to genetics and suggests that information in the form of ideas can behave just like information in the form of DNA. Ideas (memes) that are longer-lasting and more prone to replication will be over-represented in the ecosystem, compared to ideas that lack these traits.

I'd like to read a continuation of this idea, rather than mush about poetry lending a male status among females or that imagination is just a side effect of the survival-relevant ability to anticipate the future. Or even the story-aggrandizing theories that place fiction on the high altar of vicarious wisdom. 

Stories, like genes, can seem to have a life of their own. To what extent are there units of thought floating around in the "cultural soup" of our minds (and in the shared mind-soup created by our communications -- our shared experience of the world) and how do these ideas persist, and how do they replicate? How different, really, is the idea of "star-crossed lovers" from a chemical unit of information: a gene for skin pigmentation or long legs or a well-structured heart? The essential difference is that one is physical and the other is not. 

But DNA, while physical, is hardly tangible like a toad or a tomato. We learn about it indirectly, through instruments. Perhaps people are instruments through which stories can be known? I don't know. I'm going to keep reading... 


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Still Banffing After All These Days...

I came to the Banff Centre In(ter)ventions program very certain about my project: I knew exactly what I was going to do and how I was going to do it. Within two days I was completely back to square one. This felt awful, of course, but it is a good thing in the long run. If I'd done what I'd planned I would have created something sorta neat and not terrible. But now I have a much better chance of creating something that really does what I want it to do. It's just going to take a lot longer. I've spent the last week so deep in the throes of this creative trauma, and so diligently re-writing away, that I haven't been able to articulate what's going on with my story in a big picture way. But this morning I bumped into one of my fellow artists while getting a coffee, and in the course of chatting, the whole problem just came out of my mouth in the form of a simple sentence that I hadn't known was true until I said it:
The new medium didn't make any sense until I exposed the hidden themes.
There it is. And that's what I've been doing for the past week-plus: exposing the hidden themes.

Which raises the questions, what where the themes, and why were they hidden?

When I was about four years old, I was attacked by a dog. It was a doberman, and it was as tall on all fours as I was on two. The man sicked the dog on us and it came right for me. I remember trying to run and get away, I remember the dog knocking me on the ground, pinning me down, barking over and over again in my face. I could see all its teeth and down its throat. By some miracle, this dog didn't bite me.

[To answer your questions: we were Jehovah's Witnesses, the man was a sick fuck, the dog went after the smallest target, and I can only imagine he didn't bite me because that dog, even though he was abused and trained to attack, had a measure of decency in him that his owner did not -- or, more likely, it was just luck.]

But none of this is where the story comes from. The story comes from the fact that I've always felt a little disfigured. My internal image of myself is a girl with a scar on her face. Like if I went into the Matrix, I'd be scar-face girl (with awesome leather duster and kung-fu skills). Or you could call it a mild body dysmorphia, mild because I've never felt the need to act on it; I'm just mildly surprised when I look in the mirror and see myself.

And because I've been exposed (through both science and sci-fi) to M-theory and p-Branes, the concept in string theory of alternate timelines a.k.a. higher dimensions (#6 does it, apparently) where all possible things (but contrary to popular delusion no impossible things) are true, I started to wonder if it's possible for echoes to resonate on the branes and get through -- sending suggestions to other realities that might creep into your subconscious and influence you.

What if it was more likely the dog would bite me than not? Then I'm living in a minority world. What if that information could be sensed? Then that might screw with my head a little.

Not that I believe this is necessarily true. It's just a compelling idea. I write fiction. My favorite things aren't true. :)

Anyway, I invented this character named Penelope, who can hear all her alternate selves. She can't hear any/all alternate worlds, just the infinite set (within that infinite set) predicated on other hers, whom I defined genetically, because genes/molecules are a concrete physical reality. So this egg, this sperm, this zygote -- and from that moment of beginning, the branching and breaking infinite possible worlds, which she hears.

So I decided to write this into a story. But I felt weird putting all the science stuff in there, so I left it all out. In the story as I wrote it, Penelope hears these things and there's no real explanation -- perhaps she's got a chemical imbalance, who knows? She and her husband, a wealthy music producer, receive an mp3 in an email with a song on it, which is very sad and poorly produced but super-compelling, and the song leads to a series of supernatural-seeming events. Also, there's a lot of stuff in there about wanting to have a baby.

As a narrative, the story holds together. What's missing is everything that inspired it -- the meaning of it -- everything I hid. Which is why, I think, I wanted the story to become electronic and interactive in the first place: information was missing, and I wanted the medium to stand in for the missing message.

What I realized when I got here and started to talking to people is that the medium can't stand in for the message -- I realized, in fact, that the medium seems random and unnecessary unless I expose those underlying themes.

So I went back to the drawing board. Literally. I set the story aside and pulled out my sketchpad and started drawing. Then I got back to writing: way back, back to the source of the story, the reason I wrote it in the first place. I re-imagined the characters from that point in the past. I cut most of what happened and let new events fall on a brand new timeline. I worked through why I used the images and events I had in the first version. Once I understood, I used those reasons to develop new, better images and new more communicative scenes -- images and scenes truer to my intent. I found new language for the things I needed to say. And I was able to explain to myself why this character is interested in a baby, and genetics.

It was a lot of work -- but it didn't result in anything presentable. In fact, I came to Banff with a finished story ready to be transformed into an interactive experience. What I have now isn't even a finished story. It's an amorphous blob of half-finished story, written in fragments, many of which have no place. It definitely feels like I've taken a big step backwards.

And it's a new story, at least to anyone else. To me it's the same story with it's armor plating removed, so you can see its flesh. But I recognize that to anyone else, this would seem like a completely different story, in no small part because it means something completely different now.

Which is, above all, what I needed.

I've worked my butt off for the last week-plus, and it would be really great to be able to come home the (in my head, anyway) conquering hero with a pretty prize to display for my triumph. Instead all my work has been to dig myself a whole new batch of work -- but with better prospects in the end.

Hard cheese to swallow, but I like it.











Thursday, February 14, 2013

Writing. Archaeology.

The more I think about my own writing and look at the literary works I admire, the more it occurs to me that what I'm seeing is the careful reconstruction of fragments.

A memoirist takes sherds of life and pieces them into something recognizable, something with an attractive shape -- and something hopefully true, neither ideal nor grotesque, not a Romantic portrait nor some sideshow monkey-fish mermaid, but a reconstruction of objects that once were, and by the artist's hand become knowable.

A translator picks apart fragments of meaning, or through damaged ancient scrolls, examining the text for its possible relationship to a new language, a new culture, accepting the losses of lacunae and all the poetry which is lost to translation, encouraging the poetry that may be born of it, creating pages that are not reconstructions but approximations and associations.

And then there's fiction, where mosaics are made of the jagged ceramics and tattered papyrus and human remains and ancient roadbeds and debunked theories and irrational numbers and cave paintings and bite marks on bone in the garbage midden -- but what is being made? It's not a re-construction of what was. It's not a re-imagining of what is.

It is a first imagining of what can be.

An experimentalist examines the functions and forms, examines the fragments themselves, pulls them apart and formalizes their function, exposes the processes within. In finished form, much of fiction looks similar to non-fiction or translation, but when we examine the process, there is something, in fiction, missing: a guide. Something that exists outside the process and that the writers are "held to" -- which the fiction author is not.

What becomes the guide? What stands in that spot? The author's "vision." Ideas. Concepts. Vague and hazy abstracts. "What I want to the reader to get." A scene that obsessed me. A phrase someone said. A character got in my head: I had to know where she led. In fiction the roots of the work are random, subjective, and ultimately unaccountable. Only the finished form can be held to task. And so form controls function in a way that is unlikely -- or at least, undesirable -- in a non-fiction text. Effect controls content in a way that is impossible -- or at least, unfaithful -- in a translation or adaptation. What is debatable in these other modes is, in fiction, de rigueur.

Writers of fiction are less fixed. We know that having many choices, while it sounds desirable, actually leads to pain (Dan Gilbert). And so in fiction all is pain, even the ideas at the center of a story, which necessarily evolve as the process of creating a story goes on. Everything is ether, until the form-final end. All fragments are optional and discardable, until the form-final end. All truths may be better told, until that form-final end -- and where is that end? Lost in the swells of this roiling sea, how can I see the shape of the ocean? Does a writer need someone to drag her away from the canvas, like Picasso said he did?

The archaeology metaphor breaks down. The scientist can't choose to discard the bones that undermine her theory, but the fiction writer can (and does) reshape the world to suit her vision. I can discard History, Language, Physics itself.

It's not without consequence, though: each omission leaves a space, some little nicks, some vast as lakes. I can remove Physics from my story, but the omission is an addition.

All I can do is get back to work.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Banff!

When the border officer asked me what my business was in Canada, and I told him I was doing a residency at the Banff Centre, he glanced around and held his face very still, as though he didn't want to be caught emoting on the job, and said, "you're in for a real treat. The Banff Centre is something special. You enjoy that now." And he sent me on my way.

And yes, this place is incredible. It's hard to believe that this beautiful location and these amazing facilities have been dedicated to artists -- artists! -- for the better part of a century. It's hard for me to believe, I guess, because I'm accustomed to thinking of artists as outcast from the material comforts of the capitalist-dominated world, where a lump of dung that gets you a dollar is held in higher regard than a dance that saves your soul, dollarlessly. But it's inspiring to discover that such a place as the Banff Centre exists, and that it is appointed in a way that so clearly respects and supports the work the artists do, and that it is doing this year round, and year after year, giving creatives a place to live and work in comfort and beauty.

I've been here for less than two days, and I've already experienced both a low rise of confidence and a shallow pit of despair as a series of revelations about my art and current project washed over me, pecked at me, and smashed me in the face. This is the kind of trauma that's necessary, I think, if you want to make progress and do something new. But it's not the kind of trauma you have time and space for in your day-to-day life. "You." I mean me. :) In my day-to-day, I rarely have time to fall apart and rebuild myself a piece at a time.

If I hadn't been offered this residency, if my employer hadn't been so generous and wonderful to support my coming, where would this project be? Still in a holding pattern: little to no trauma experienced, little to no progress made. Instead of an interactive story, I'd have an idea sitting on the backburner, screaming to be executed, being ever put off until I can find the time. And then, when I do find the time, I move forward carefully, according to plan, because to question the plan, to re-examine the start of things, that would be madness: what if I discovered something wrong?

Today I reacquainted myself with the dark, slippery center of my story, a handful of questions and concepts and connections that are just beyond my knowing, things I can't be sure of, the things I have to dig in and write and build to try to know. They are not the story I came here with, but the story as it genuinely wants to be -- it's wider and deeper than I'd given it credit for, it's wider and deeper than what I've written, or planned.

So I'm not just making progress on a project, not just finding the time to execute the necessary actions that lead to the final form -- which is what (to my shame) I expected to do. But instead I've discovered the time and space to do something harder, and scarier, but more important: I'm going in big and finding out more about my art and hopefully creating something that needs to be in the world. AND I'm going to execute the necessary actions that lead to the final form. Both. All. Every. Down the rabbit hole.

Or at least so I say on day two. We'll see where this goes...




Sunday, January 6, 2013

More Blessings of Atheism

Susan Jacoby wrote an op-ed for the NYTimes called, "The Blessings of Atheism," in which she argues that atheists need to move away from "defensive" campaigns asserting that you "can" be "good without God," and move towards a more positive vision of what the atheist worldview has to offer.

I agree with her.

But I don't think she does a very good job.

So I want to try.

I want to try because I live happily, every day, in a world that does not contain a deity, and it is, from what I can see, a much happier place than the worlds inhabited by others that do contain a deity. Sometimes this is a coincidence, of course. And sometimes it seems the causation is reversed (a difficult life has led the person to need a consoling/explicatory narrative, true or not, which makes life feel worth living). But often it seems to me that the causation works in the other direction: that believing in the deity is harming them, is making them miserable; meanwhile, it is precisely my deity-free world that has enabled me to experience many of the things that religions claim to offer -- like a throbbingly powerful sense of the transcendent, precious, near-magical beauty of life itself, for example.

So:

Let's talk about death. Let's say some total jackhole decides to murder some children. This worthless sack of crap gets a gun, goes to a school, and shoots and kills children. This is horrific. This is crushing. Those deaths are horrible deaths. There are no words. Those deaths require dramatic displays of emotion, of political action, of everything we can muster. We are not going to forget or "get over" those deaths. Injustice. Atrocity. Pain. Anguish. Howling in our hearts, long into the night.

Okay.

Now, let's say some disease decides to murder 50,000 children a year. This horrible disease alters the DNA of the children, so they're born with a progressively degenerating muscular system. The kids will be mentally sharp -- more so than average, actually -- so they'll understand everything that's happening to them. The children will live short, painful lives, unable to run and play or even talk -- unable at the end to even smile at their mothers, whom they love.

The first situation, the guy with the gun, is much more horrible to us -- just look at how society reacts. The disease, we are more willing and able to understand and accept -- and, through reason and science, do something about. We're working on curing it, doing everything we can -- and someday we'll have a cure, and children will no longer have to suffer and die like this. Until then, here is the truth: hundreds of sweet, beautiful children died of Spinal Muscular Atrophy today, but you don't know their names, their faces, and you never will. Instead you know the names and faces of the children murdered in Newtown, Connecticut, because that was horror, that was atrocity.

Numbers of human lives lost aside. Length of suffering aside. Degree of pain aside. It's worse when someone does it on purpose. 

(Please don't mistake me here: I am not suggesting we should be just as upset about children dying of SMA or that we should be less upset about children murdered by jerks with guns -- I'm just pointing out the reality of our experience: it hurts us worse when we know it's on purpose.)

To a theist, any theist, the world is in the hands of the guy with the gun. Everything that happens is at some level on purpose. In the extreme forms of this madness, every tragedy -- a mass murder or a hurricane -- is "God's wrath," retribution for not sufficiently persecuting gay people, or some other asinine thing. But even for the normal non-extreme religious person, this means that every bad thing that happens contains a measure of agony that wears on the believer -- in a way that cannot be met even by tragedies that objectively do far, far more damage in the world, to a non-believer. Only a believer can ask, in honesty and anguish, why do bad things happen to good people? As though being good should get you out of bad things.

As an atheist, I care deeply about curing diseases and stopping mass murderers -- especially deeply because I know that those children (whether shot or smothered by their own DNA), do not still exist (in "heaven" or whatnot), they are gone, and their loss is a pure loss, without consolation, forever and never to be undone. But these occurrences do not stress me in the way they would if I believed they were happening under the watchful eye of an intentional, omniscient god. Instead, I understand these occurrences as the results of influences, events, available actions, and random chance. They still suck, they're still sad, and we damn well better do something about them! But they're not on purpose.

To a theist, every victim of accident or disease is a victim of a mindful, purposeful God with a cruel and heartless "grand plan" that does not make exceptions for the pain and suffering of innocent babies -- it is a plan that may in fact require the pain and suffering of innocent babies. And while I've used as my example the most terrible thing I could think of -- the death of a child -- this concept applies to every little thing that happens in life. This is a universe of belief, a whole way of seeing the world, and it's one that causes believer undue stress and torment. It's a way for bad luck to cause existential struggles, for blind chance to cause howling in their hearts, long into the night.

But the clearest and most direct benefit of atheism is the one that Jacoby does nail in her essay, and that is that "the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth."

Now of course I'm not the first person to point out that most people don't seem to really believe in an afterlife anyway: people who genuinely believed in life after death would not mourn the deaths of children they don't know at all -- they'd just say, oh how nice that little so-and-so got to go to heaven early! And people who mourn the deaths of kids they know would be regarded as selfish -- hey, man, I know you miss little Jessica, but she's with Jesus, and you'll see her soon, you selfish sourpuss!!

But the very common half-belief in an afterlife -- the illusion of eternity we carry with us, allowing us to live our lives unmindful of our short time here -- that is a very harmful thing. Awareness of the shortness and fragility of life -- and of the fact that once it is gone it is gone forever -- is the key to living a full and happy life. Once we understand that every moment is precious, we're more likely to start treating every moment as precious -- to become more understanding and forgiving (because we don't have time to dick around with stupid arguments and endless grudges), to say yes to the rare and beautiful opportunities that arise in life, to live in the moment instead of rushing on to the next thing.

This is not to say that there aren't happy religious people. There are. But I, personally, would be miserable if I believed in a god. If I believed in a god, I would have to believe in a jerky god, a real asshole who doesn't care about anything or anyone. If I believed in such a creature, I'd refuse to have anything to do with it. I'd feel morally superior to it. I'd say, "throw me in your hell, you cretin -- I'd rather suffer forever than be aligned with a big old jerk like you. Because if I play along with your game and try to win your favor, I'm just as bad as you -- who has the power to end suffering but does not." Well that would be terrible, to be stuck believing anything like that. Even worse would be to believe and decide to toady up to this awful creature, trying to win the rewards it promises, trusting in its authority in defiance of evidence and one's own moral sense. I can think of no worse form of moral corruption. A person so compromised would have no moral center, no idea what to think. Unless told. (Shiver.)

Fortunately I'm a realist-atheist, living in a godless universe, and I am very happy. Life goes well, and when it doesn't, it doesn't, but the elements of chance that intervene in things are not on purpose, and don't unduly bother me. Those things I can control and make better, I do. Existence is amazing and precious and beautiful -- and mysterious, but mysterious with the promise of scientific discovery along the way -- and it's all the more beautiful for arising from the cosmic dust without a guiding hand, without a plot or plan, just physical things interacting over inconceivable expanses of time to create complex beings that are more than the sum of their parts, who are the universe of matter regarding itself and saying, wow: let's figure this shit out.



Saturday, August 18, 2012

Unbridled Contempt

Over the summer I've been a part of various workshops and working groups at Drake, in which faculty from multiple departments (and colleges) get together to work on being better teachers and professors all around.

These often require endurance -- some of them are a bit like a college class that lasts all day long, with a sandwich provided and a couple of 5 minute bathroom breaks -- but they're very much worth it. Not only do they dedicate you to working on improving your teaching, but you get to meet and talk to people in other fields, get some insight into their practices and challenges, a fuller picture of what your students are experiencing across the various classrooms that make up their academic world.

But I was not prepared for the unbridled contempt some faculty members in the sciences possess for my discipline entirely.

Contempt, I say, because they seem to think we operate in a universe where there are no rules, standards, or even facts. Unbridled, I say, because they tell you so to your face or in broad public statements, and seem puzzled when you don't happily agree.

The prevailing sentiment seemed to be: you English professors have nothing to say to me, your discipline's work on student writing or critical thinking means nothing to me, because in my discipline "there are wrong answers."

The people who have asserted this view seem unaware of the offense. During one of the workshops, a faculty member asked me to help her with her syllabus. I was glad to do so, until I got to the sentence in which she singled out English majors (not the discipline, the actual students) for ridicule, with an "English majors, your flowery prose is not welcome -- here we value accuracy in language!" sort of line.

As though precision in language were not one of our concerns, as though puffery were something we encouraged, rather than work every day to stamp out.

When I told her that I didn't think it's a good idea to call out a whole group of students like that, she smiled and explained it to me, like I didn't get the joke. 

I genuinely like this person, and it was clear she was not malicious, but simply oblivious to the insult and potential ill-feelings she might evoke with these words. The bias seems to run deep, is persistent, and is resistant to amendment: this week I ran into someone I'd met earlier in the summer at another workshop. She'd made her bias against English known at that time, and I thought the group (and she) had worked past that. But no, just this week she said, directly to me, that her field "isn't English. There are wrong answers."

I feel awful even wanting to say to a colleague the line I must so frequently say to students: just because there is more than one right answer doesn't mean there aren't wrong ones. In fact, the number of wrong answers is infinite, while the number of right answers is limited.

By way of illustration, I offer you a small selection of wrong answers from the world of literature, limiting myself to just one major work:
  • "HAMLET is an exploration of social justice issues from the 14th century." 
  • "When Hamlet and Ophelia get married at the end of the play..."
  • "King Polonius tells Laertes, 'don't go into debt, bro!' "
  • "Shakespeare's focus on women's rights..."
  • "...shows what Shakespeare learned in his college classes..."
  • "The final scene, influenced by the anti-royal sentiments of the French Revolution..."
And this could go on infinitely.

"Right" answers, on the other hand, are limited by the factual reality of the author, his era, and the text-evidenced details of fictional world he created (for example, who is king, what Polonius actually does tell Laertes, and whether or not there is a marriage at the end of the play, or anyone alive to be married). Interpretations may have some latitude, but they must still make sense; they are limited by reason itself. If they are infinite, they are infinite in the way that prime numbers are infinite: not every number is a prime; most numbers, in fact, are not primes. And the higher you go, the longer it takes to find them. It is probable that most of the things you can conceivably say about HAMLET ("Ophelia impaled herself on a unicorn!") are in fact not accurate, reasonable things to say. Right answers are a limited set, tricky in the sense that they are defined by boundaries both absolute (French Revolution) and ambiguous (women's rights), and include things that are both absurd (unicorn) and things just a little bit off from right: "alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well!" is not quite what Hamlet says.

It's not all just about right and wrong, though. There are also, in addition to wrong answers, insufficient answers. This is akin to getting the right final answer on a math test, but not showing any of your work -- to randomly guessing (or just looking up) the precise number of milliliters you must titrate into the solution to get a reaction, without actually performing the experiment. In our discipline, this often takes the form of broad sweeping statements that are not particularly informed, explained, or supported -- statements like, "Hamlet has unresolved issues," or "the play reveals the inefficiencies of monarchy as a system of government" -- these propositions may or may not work out; it depends on where they came from and what you do with them.

If the proposition is the writer's original thought, and is explained with logical reasoning and supported with evidence, it is probably sufficient -- there remains the question of whether the argument holds together and is reasonable, in the end. The point is, these are arguments that can be made, but they must be made sufficiently: informed, explained, supported. The writer must "show the work." A "right" answer, a "sufficient" answer, and certainly a "good" answer in the world of literary interpretation requires a tremendous amount of understanding, creativity, rigor, and work -- many answers can and will be "wrong," "insufficient," and even "bad": this reality in no way conflicts with the coincident fact that there is myriad and diverse answers in each set.

But the statement "there are no wrong answers in English" isn't just insufficient, it's back to the unicorn, just flat out wrong. I just gave an example that had to do with interpreting ideas from a work of literature, which is probably the most "open to opinion" area in English -- but we do a lot more than that, operating in an unbroken spectrum that runs from themes to phonemes, with theories and practices that go back to the beginning of civilization and are still evolving today.

Which brings me to this: when I was an undergraduate, I majored in the hard sciences. I was especially good at organic chemistry, and pictured myself pursuing graduate work in organic or perhaps biochem. I loved difficult problems, I thrived on difficulty. Every class I took made me want to move into something harder, more sophisticated, more advanced.

And then one day I took a poetry class.

And I realized that poetry was the hardest thing I'd ever encountered.

Poems are like formulae that do not begin and end, but instead spiral inwards and outwards simultaneously into worlds of meaning. They are influenced by innumerable mysterious things, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes more clear. They live, like organisms, moving through time and place and human events, and meaning differently in each new environment. Understanding this was the trickiest puzzle I'd ever put my mind to: it was a puzzle that did not end; it was irresistible. I dove into this world and have never stopped encountering mysteries and marvels -- I will never "figure it all out," no one will. But I know that the lack of a single, unambiguous answer doesn't remotely imply that this work is meaningless: to the contrary, to the contrary.

At this point in my life, I am unwilling to dismiss any field of inquiry. A university brings together people with various fields and interests, but none of them is "better than" the others -- and none of them, I should add, is truly "separate from" the others. At bottom we're all philosophers -- lovers of wisdom -- and it is not wise to mock or dismiss things other people love. They may have a very good reason for loving it -- even if it's not a reason that you, at present, fully understand.



Note: I've revised the wording in places and expanded a few sections at the request of friends, but the spirit of the blog post remains unchanged.