02/15/14

From Folk to Folk

…When and how did ‘oral literature’ become an object of discourse? To that question I have an answer—the curious history I promised you.

Presumably oral literature itself goes back as far as language. Oral literature becomes something that people write about at moments when their written culture bumps up against a non-written culture that for some reason impresses or frustrates it. You wouldn’t find a lot of attention given, in ancient Greek and Roman texts, to the fact that the villagers of Boeotia don’t spend their evenings curled up with a good book. The illiteracy of the peasantry is absolutely taken for granted. The relative literacy of urban dwellers in the ancient world does get some attention—usually when someone has a complaint about it. The following text from Julius Caesar’s narration of the Gallic Wars is exceptional and I will linger over it for a while:

The lore [disciplina] of the Druids is thought to have been transmitted to Gaul from Britain, where it originated. Those who most eagerly wish to acquire it go there for the sake of study…. There, they are said to learn by heart a great number of verses, and not a few of them spend up to twenty years in study. Nor is it considered in keeping with divine law to commit these verses to writing, though [the Gauls] use Greek letters for almost all other kinds of public or private business. It seems to me that this rule was established for two reasons: one, that they did not wish this lore to be acquired by the common people, and two, that they did not wish the learners to rely on letters and therefore apply themselves less strenuously to memorization, as generally happens to those who, through the help of writing, lose their facility of learning and their memory.

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10/22/13

Scott Adams is a strange man

…with lots of ideas about the future of online education.

I suppose by “strange” I mean that his politics (if you look at his blog) operate from a position that imagines itself as entirely apolitical but is nonetheless quite interested in politics. So it produces frequent pox-on-both-houses language, but also pragmatic suggestions for various kinds of things (including online ed, in the link above) with no real concern for what I think of as the “normal” language of American politics (involving concepts like the moral, the just, and so on).

And then you ask yourself — well, who would Dilbert vote for? — and you realize that Adams’s politics are perfectly in tune with the strip, because the answer is totally unknowable. Even the grounds on which Dilbert might vote for someone are unknowable.

01/16/13

Read To Me 2: The One Who Claws At His Names

The wonderful Cabinet magazine hosted a performed bestiary one recent afternoon at the New Museum. For 4.5 hours, a small group of writers, artists, professors, curators, and others talked about a series of creatures in order from smallest (ant) to largest (whale). We each had 10 minutes. It was an absolute blast.

To represent my creature, the phoenix, I wrote and read a short story based on the birds featured in a 19th century text about Mongolian drugs. The key here is to try to shift the way you’re seeing the pages of the text: the words and names and images all become part of a common landscape. Try to see the words not as descriptions, but as a living part of this tiny cosmos. The images are crucial.

It’s a love story, and I’ve read it for you here:

 

12/15/12

Bugs, Bodies, and the Emperor: This Week’s Interviews

For your listening pleasure, you can find two new interviews from my recent podcasty travels on the New Books Network this week. If you’re looking for some stimulating book-related material to listen to while you’re mixing up eggnog or counting down the hours to the end of grading papers and exams:

1. The Poetics of Sovereignty: I had the pleasure of speaking with the very thoughtful Jack Chen for NBEAS about his recent book on literature, rulership, and a fascinating emperor of the Tang Dynasty.

2. The Insect and the Image: Janice Neri and I spoke for NBSTS about her beautiful new book on the imaging of insects in early modernity and its surprisingly wide-ranging consequences for understanding the history of science, art, and global exchange.

Happy holidays!

12/12/12

PODCAST RECOMMENDATION: Lunch Box with Ed and John

The number of podcasts currently available can almost be put in a one-to-one correspondence with infinity.  Which means you might not have heard about this relatively new, relatively small operation called Lunch Box with Ed and John.  The Ed and John here are poet Ed Skoog and novelist J. Robert Lennon.  They talk about lunch, sure, but food serves (as it usually and rightly does) as a vehicle for conversation between good friends about writing, poetry, the ubiquity of sandwiches, and the work of a life.  Consistently good stuff.

ITunes link.

11/11/12

The miracles of human creativity

One of the most amazing things about the digital age’s redistribution of the means of aesthetic production and distribution is that it reveals how much love and ambition remain connected to the work of making. Here you have, for free, a remaking of Star Wars entirely in ASCII. The hours it must have taken to do this are astonishing.

I dream of a world in which copyright, which has become a way for corporations to develop a stranglehold on innovation (and functions, as with Disney, in the manner of primitive accumulation), disappears in the wake of content freely produced for others out of this form of love, and the beauties that attend to it.

For that to happen we must, however, have leisure.

10/28/12

Chris Ware’s _Building Stories_

If you loved Jimmy Corrigan, if you are the kind of person who reads the Printculture blog, if you are a human being with a soul, turn off that commentary on the election and put down that other book you’re reading right now and pick up Chris Ware’s Building Stories. It looks like this, it makes a better bedmate than most people do, (though it’s not as warm and there’s the issue of papercuts to consider,) and it will give you hope for the future of print media.

10/18/12

Marks of Experience

Really interesting series of photos over at the Slate photo blog by Claire Felicie portraying Dutch Marines before, during, and after a tour in Afghanistan. Studying these faces, I tried to articulate for myself the differences among the before, during, and after (but especially the before and after). There’s a certain placidity in the before faces, even in the first one with the furrowed brow, a certain relaxed slackness around the mouth, even in those with pursed or slightly smiling lips, that disappears in the subsequent shots. Editing? Lighting? The framing and titling? I’m sure these all play a role in our perceptions — we’re primed to look for differences, to share in the photographer’s witnessing of changes wrought by war. However inaccessible the internal changes may be, though, the physical changes seem unmistakable.

The photos invite our scrutiny, demand it, even. But the faces, at once open and closed, only give us so much. In the midst of my looking, poring over the gazes, the wrinkles on the foreheads and around the eyes, the set of the jaws, the turns of the mouth, I started feeling a bit unsettled by my own interest in confirming the marks of war on them. I started to worry that perhaps these images, despite what Felicie may have wanted to do, end up romanticizing the experience of combat in the way Chris Hedges argues in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, assuring us that the necessary human sacrifices have been made so that we can keep believing in nobility and goodness.

10/2/12

Watch this if you can find it.

I will never see this show, because I’m not in the habit of going to the theatre (and don’t live in New York), but I was glad to read that a Broadway adaptation of the documentary film, “Hands on a Hard Body” is about to open. Maybe the film will find a new audience and be available for streaming somewhere (it’s currently not available for rental on Netflix or Amazon).

Short plot summary: a car dealership in Texas runs an endurance contest in which contestants must keep a hand on a brand new fully loaded pickup truck. The last person standing wins the truck.

I remember watching the film when it showed briefly in a theater in L.A. back in 1997. The audience laughed  derisively (“look at those hicks!”) when the interview subjects waxed philosophical about the meaning of the contest in their heavy Texas drawls. But the film itself never demeans its subjects. My sense was that the filmmakers went into the project with a certain ironic distance but then got pulled into the human dramas playing out in this manufactured microcosm. A real gem.