Welcome to an age of sharing

“Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques,” wrote Paul Mason, in The Guardian – just over a year ago now. “It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours. I call this postcapitalism.”

Is it utopian to believe we’re on the verge of an evolution beyond capitalism? Read Paul Mason’s piece before you make up your mind.
Welcome to an age of sharing: illustration by Joe Magee

Welcome to an age of sharing: illustration by Joe Magee

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/17/postcapitalism-end-of-capitalism-begun

 

The iceberg text

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Photo credit: Andrew Shiva Iceberg, Antarctic Sound 2016

Photo credit: Andrew Shiva
Iceberg, Antarctic Sound 2016

In a recent conversation, a friend talked about the kind of writing that is like an iceberg: there’s the obvious bit, the part you can see; but below the surface there’s so much more. He was referring, of course, to Ernest Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” –

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them” (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon – see Note 1).

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway, an aficionado of Spanish bullfighting, “explores the metaphysics of bullfighting – the ritualized, almost religious practice – that he considered analogous to the writer’s search for meaning and the essence of life” (Wikipedia).

Just as only about one-tenth (Hemingway says one-eighth) of an iceberg is visible above the waterline, the bulk of an ‘iceberg’ text – its substance, its depth, its connotations and cultural context – lies submerged beneath the surface of the printed words. Although often complex and richly layered, any ‘meaning’ the reader derives from such a text is invariably apprehended largely at the level of the unconscious; most readers will not think to investigate or question the unseen portion.

A SparkNotes essay on Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” states that “[the author] firmly believed that perfect stories conveyed far more through subtext than through the actual words written on the page. The more a writer strips away, the more powerful the ‘iceberg’, or story, becomes.”

Of course, not all writing is deep and dark and difficult; much of what is written is more-or-less direct and straightforward. In earlier life, when my work was largely in the field of public sector communications, most of what I wrote was as straightforward as I could make it. I recognise that much of my writing now tends, and intends, to be less unequivocal.

Among the kinds of text that qualify as iceberg texts, we would probably want to include many (though not all) works of literature – poems, prose, plays, essays – whose intention is, as Roland Barthes puts it in Essais critiques, “to unexpress the expressible” (Barthes, 1972: p15 – see Note 2 below). But since writing now takes so many forms – including, of course, the still-proliferating variants of social media, web logs, web sites, and ‘apps’, the set comprising all possible types of iceberg text must, in a sense, remain open and incomplete.

As Barthes confidently asserted, “the text is not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning (the message of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (Barthes, cited by Jonathan Culler – see Note 3). Barthes’ approach to literary criticism thus entails “[treating] the work as an intertextual construct – a product of various cultural discourses on which it relies for its intelligibility – and thus consolidates the central role of the reader as a centering role” (ibid).

My friend’s background includes sociology and psychology, so it was not surprising that one of the central metaphors employed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was soon part of our discussion: “the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.” (Haidt, 2012 [p xiv] – see Note 4).

3D wall mural available through DHgate.com

3D wall mural available through DHgate.com

It goes without saying that each reader sitting down with a book, or opening a web page, brings their own elephant into the room. My immediate question is, who is going to ride the elephant? – the reader or the writer? Will the reader surrender to the writer, and allow the text to influence and persuade the elephant? or will the writer and the reader struggle for control?

Assuming Haidt’s hypothesis to be apt and its details accurate, one would expect the reader’s “conscious reasoning” to take in the writer’s text and work with it, integrating it into “the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware”. Uncontroversially, then, the reader is the elephant’s rider. Sometimes, though, we find a text difficult to read – perhaps because it is poorly written; or because it is dense and complex; or because it contains material that disturbs and distresses the elephant. We do well to remember that “the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” So what, then, is the writer’s job?

Before answering that question, it might be worth explaining that, so far, I have treated the reader as the one with the elephant and the rider. But of course, all writers have elephants of their own, and their own riders. We are reminded that each text the writer produces is a product of conscious and unconscious thought processes. Bearing in mind the Jungian concept of the “collective unconscious”, we can confidently affirm, at least, that a shared heritage of unspoken things lies deep within the interior of all language-based communication. Whether assumed (and taken as read) or signalled (however subtly or overtly), there is much that writers and readers share – archetypes, icons, histories, mythologies, memes, and cultural norms.

It occurs to me that what is apprehended by the unconscious mind of the reader has not necessarily been formulated by the conscious mind of the writer. Some of its references and inferences will have been included deliberately; others will have insinuated themselves into the “multi-dimensional space” – between the lines, as we say – without conscious intent. Other elements of a text may serve as triggers for the reader, who embroiders, interweaves, or overlays threads drawn from their own experience, with no involvement from the writer at all.

I cannot avoid mentioning, at this point, something that has recently been termed “dog whistling” – the use of particular vocabulary, phraseology, connections, and connotations to alert and arouse “those who have ears to hear”. Whilst dog whistling is not new, its role in the transmission of meaning has come to prominence in recent years. And it’s one of those things which detractors (and even some practitioners – albeit speaking behind their hands) take delight in bringing to the attention of readers.

Urban Dictionary gives an example: “Republicans say they want to make civil rights for gays a state issue, which is really just a dog whistle strategy for saying that they will refuse to grant equal rights on a federal level.”

Writing is, as Roland Barthes reminds us in Writing Degree Zero, “an ambiguous reality: on the one hand, it unquestionably arises from a confrontation of the writer with the society of his time; on the other hand, from this social finality, it refers the writer back, by a sort of tragic reversal, to the sources, that is to say, the instruments of creation” (Barthes, 1982: p36 – see Note 5).

And now, once again, that question: “So what, then, is the writer’s job?” Various authors have framed their responses to this question in very different ways.  For the moment, I find myself focusing on words from Anaïs Nin: The role of the writer “is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say” (see Note 6).


NOTES:

  1. Hemingway, E. 1932. Death in the afternoon. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  2. Barthes, R. 1972. Critical Essays. Translated by Richard Howard; copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Translated from the French Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil.
  3. Culler, J. 1983. On Deconstruction : Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. London: Routledge. “First published in Great Britain in 1983 : Reprinted in 1985 and 1987 by Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd.”
  4. Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The righteous mind. New York: Pantheon Books; Toronto: Random House of Canada [p. xiv]. “I developed this metaphor in my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis.” In an endnote, Haidt credits Erikson and Tedin 2003, p. 64, cited in Jost, Federico, and Napier 2009, p. 309.
    Haidt, Jonathan. 2006. The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books, a division of Perseus Books Group.
  5. Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. ‘Part One’, from Writing Degree Zero. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. Translation copyright © 1967 by Jonathan Cape Ltd; Preface copyright © 1968 by Susan Sontag; translated from the French Le degré zéro de l’écriture, copyright © 1953 by Éditions du Seuil.
  6. From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5, as quoted in Moving to Antarctica : An Anthology of Women’s Writing (1975) by Margaret Kaminski.

 

Happiness is the light shining on the water

rippling water #249 (10 Nov 2011)

rippling water #249 (10 Nov 2011)

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Happiness is the light shining on the water. The water is cold and dark and deep. (William Keepers Maxwell, Jr.)

Happiness – however we define it – is something we generally agree we’re seeking. But it seems elusive. In fact, it’s the pursuit of happiness, rather than happiness itself, that is the third thing on the familiar list – after life and liberty. In my ongoing contemplation of the role and function of writing – what it intends, what it affords, what it achieves – I have been thinking about how writing contributes to happiness. And of course, I’m interested in how the pursuit of happiness inspires, motivates, and stimulates writing.

Susan “Honey” Good, who writes for Huffington Post, recently shared a conversation about happiness: “I know I am at my ‘happiest’ and most productive,” she told a woman she had met, “when I am surrounded by places and people that are in sync with me … where I can recognize myself.” Her new friend agreed, adding  that “a feeling of compatibility” also made it easier for her to reach out to new people and new places.

This notion of a world that supports us, mirrors how we see ourselves, and reflects who we say we are, is a cultural artefact. Camille Paglia’s succinct assertion serves my argument well: “Civilized life requires a state of illusion” (see Note 1 below). In Paglia’s view, the construct we call society is “a defense against nature’s power. Without society, we would be storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature.” Whether it intimidates and troubles us, mystifies, perplexes, overwhelms us, or simply presents hurdles we must leap over as we race towards our bliss, nature is a force to be reckoned with. And writing is a crucial component of that reckoning – especially since the role of the writer, as Anaïs Nin reminds us, “is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say” (see Note 2).

An earlier post on this blog argues that writing is, among other things, a response to the realisation that “we are not really at home / in the interpreted world” (words from the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies – see Note 3). The title of that post was borrowed from the Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes, who declared: “Writing is a struggle against silence.” As I said in that piece, the struggle to utter the unutterable is one thing; the struggle against the things that silence us is something else entirely. In our efforts to make sense of the world, writers often find it necessary to grapple with both.

This mosaic from Antioch combines several apotropaic symbols.

This mosaic from Antioch combines several apotropaic symbols.

“Perceptual relations are at the heart of [western] culture,” according to Camille Paglia, “and they have produced our titanic contributions to art. Walking in nature, we see, identify, name, recognize. This recognition is our apotropaion, that is, our warding off of fear” (see Note 4) – which fits with Honey Good’s testimony of happiness and productivity around people and places where she can recognize herself.

Ultimately, the ability to ward off fear is crucial to our freedom to write. “Here is the world,” says Frederick Buechner. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” For many of us, that’s easier said than done. Rather than clinging to my fear as if it were my precious treasure, and protecting it against those who would steal it from me, I call to mind the wise words of Walter Lippmann, who considers we’re all captives of the pictures in our heads, and caught up in “our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.”

Duino Elegies - cover image

Duino Elegies – cover image

Alongside those words, it might be prudent to place this passage from Rilke’s Seventh Elegy:

Nowhere, beloved, will world be, but within. Our
life passes in change. And ever-shrinking
the outer diminishes.

From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

 


NOTES:

  1. Paglia, Camille. 1990 [page 1]. Sexual Personae : Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. London & Newhaven: Yale University Press.
  2. From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5, as quoted in Moving to Antarctica : An Anthology of Women’s Writing (1975) by Margaret Kaminski.
  3. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies. [The cycle was begun in January 1912, and completed a decade later.] The version cited here was “Translated by A. S. Kline ©Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved. This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.”
  4. Paglia, 1990 [page 5]. The word apotropaion links to a page in the German Wikipedia, which includes the image shown above.
  5. William Keepers Maxwell, Jr. The words at the head of this post are cited from Over by the River and Other Stories (1977).

 

 

Senryū #001: Mystery of grace

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Mystery of
grace: the dirty truth is
irrelevant.

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NOTES:

The words of this poem were on my lips as I awoke this morning. I wrote them down, thinking of them as being in the haiku form. I did not know about senryū until I happened to read a post on another blog that included the word in its title. I am happy to have learned the distinction between the two forms.

“Senryū tend to be about human foibles while haiku tend to be about nature, and senryū are often cynical or darkly humorous while haiku are more serious. Unlike haiku, senryū do not include a kireji (cutting word), and do not generally include a kigo, or season word” (Wikipedia: Senryū).

 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014 | Robinson Jeffers: De Rerum Virtute | Tom Clark

“… a cathedral of ancient ice …”

word pond

This magnificent blue iceberg was shot from a ship off the South Sandwich Islands in Antarctica. It’s a cathedral of ancient ice, with a little group of Adélie penguins and a prion perfectly positioned overhead. To catch the moment and frame it perfectly reveals skill, in this case, of a photographer in love with ice: photo by Cherry Alexander, 1995, from 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year: How Wildlife Photography Became Art, edited by Rosamund Kidman Cox (Natural History Museum, 2014) via The Guardian, 17 September 2014

TOM CLARK.

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Chinese arithmetic: not that hard, really

Chinese abacus

Chinese abacus

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At BB’s Orient Express, the Chinese restaurant at which I enjoy a smorgasbord-style lunch once or twice each week, the ladle-wielding owner/manager cannot count.

No, that’s not strictly true. I ask for a three-choice meal, and she always adds something extra to my plate – a fried wonton, an extra dumpling, a morsel or two of crunchy-battered fish (so melt-in-the-mouth tender) …

There’s no charge for a cup of Chinese tea – or for the little bowl of chicken and sweetcorn soup that often gets added to my tray.

Occasionally, when she’s been busy and someone else serves me, she brings soup to my table as I’m preparing to leave.

A couple of times, she has brought a little white paper bag to the table, and she squeezes my shoulder as I peek inside.

Today, it was after two o’clock when I arrived. Most of the regulars had gone back to their offices and meeting-rooms. I placed my order, handed over my Eftpos card, then reached for a pair of chopsticks. When my plate arrived, there were six dumplings instead of the standard-issue four, and, perched atop the heaped plate, a succulent spring roll with a tender, crunchy wrapping. And soup, of course.

Chinese arithmetic can be very persuasive. In the long run, all my return visits add up.

__________

Chinese arithmetic has a reputation for being difficult for western minds to comprehend – hence the phrase, “Hard as Chinese arithmetic.” The Urban Dictionary explains what the phrase has come to mean, but that is another (tangential) story.

Killing our children

memorial for Joe and Jadin Bell

memorial for Joe and Jadin Bell : photo credit, Brendan McCampbell

Jadin Bell dreamed of being a cheerleader.

Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan had all been high school cheer-leaders. In their day, cheer-leading had been an all-male activity. Until as late as the 1950s, in fact, female cheer-leaders were banned.

“The reputation of having been a valiant cheer-leader,” wrote the editors of The Nation in 1911, “is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.” But, like so many other things, cheer-leading in America has changed since those days.

During his sophomore year at high school in La Grande, Oregon, Jadin successfully tried out for the cheer-leading team – the only boy to do so in recent memory. Jadin had hoped that cheer-leading would be a path to some measure of social acceptance in his broader community. It wasn’t.

On the afternoon of Saturday 19 January 2013, carrying a length of rope, the fifteen-year-old climbed onto his school’s playground equipment and hanged himself. A passer-by found him nine minutes later, but in that time all brain activity had shut down, and Jadin never regained consciousness. After ten days, his parents, Joe Bell and Lola Lathrop, decided to take him off life support, and Jadin died on 3 February 2013.

Jadin Bell’s suicide, in the words of Pauls Toutonghi, “became part of the nation’s ongoing dialogue about bullying,” (See Note 1/ below.)

In late April, Joe Bell set off on a walk across the country to share the story of his son’s death and raise awareness about bullying.

On 15 October, The New York Times published an item under the headline, Oregon Father’s Memorial Trek Across Country Ends in a Family’s Second Tragedy. On 9 October, Joe Bell’s life had “ended in an instant on a two-lane road in rural eastern Colorado. He was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer whose driver had apparently fallen asleep, the state police said.”

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year in America, 4,600 young people take their own lives,” Pauls Toutonghi tells us. “This number is astonishing in its bigness. Yet the shocking truth – the idea that the way we live, as a society, is killing thousands of our children each year – produces little disturbance in our collective consciousness. Maybe this is because each suicide feels so individualized.”

On National Coming Out Day (11 October 2013), Brendon McCampbell wrote: “I am queer. With the loving acceptance of my family and friends, I can unabashedly admit this. As a child, however, I struggled greatly with my sexuality. I was poisoned by our society to believe that there was something wrong with me. The truth is this: there is something wrong with our society. We need to accept, support, and love people regardless of sex, gender, race, shape, ability, religion, or politics. Today is National Coming Out Day, and I hope you accept everyone in your life. We need to live in a world where Jadin was accepted by his peers and lived happily with his father and family.” (Facebook, 11 October 2013)

In his posthumously-published autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth), Goethe wrote that “suicide is an event of human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed anew.”

__________

NOTES:

1/ Much of the information I have used in this post was adapted from Pauls Toutonghi’s heartfelt article – “They ripped him apart”: Searching for answers in the suicide of bullied teen Jadin Bell – published in Salon on 8 September 2013.

2/ Read about the passing of Joe Bell on Joe’s Walk for Change. Also see La Grande remembers Joe and Jadin Bell: ‘Stand up to a bully’ .