Time Changes: Improvisation, History and the Body
June 20-21, 2015, Vancouver, British Columbia
UBC Robson Campus Room C100
10am – 5pm Free
Time Changes is an academic symposium including presentations from artists, performers, scholars and community members from across the continent, with keynote talks by percussionist-composer-improvisers Gerry Hemingway and Billy Martin, who are both performing at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
The colloquium will focus on social, cultural and artistic encounters with, and depictions of, time and the times in which we live. What does it mean to create in the moment? What are the implications of keeping time or of transgressing time? How does the human body sound its time and place? Can improvisation bring about tangible social or cultural change?
Saturday, June 20th
All presentations will take place in UBC Robson Square Room C100.
PrOphecy Sun: The Body, Chance and Improvisation
Panel: Race, Rhythm and History
Emma Cleary, Staffordshire University
Jazz-Shaped Bodies: Mapping Space, Time, and Sound in African American Fiction
Barry Long, Bucknell University
Freedom Songs at the Intersection of Jazz and Journalism
Brian Jude de Lima, York University
Synth-copated Rhythms: Reanimating Dissonance as a Tool for Rhythmic Prolongation
Brent Rowan, Wilfrid Laurier University
The Impact of a Jazz Improvisation Experience on an Amateur Adult Musician’s Mind, Body and Spirit
12:30 pm Catered lunch
Billy Martin: Wandering
Film Screening and Discussion
Moderated by David Lee, University of Guelph
Rupert Common and the Freestyle Rap Alliance: Improvisation in Hip Hop
Sunday, June 21st
All presentations will take place in UBC Robson Square Room C100.
Julia Úlehla: The Dálava Project: Meditations on (musical) evolution and (cyclic) time: activating past, present, and future through song, body memory, and improvisation
Panel: Interfaces – Contact Technologies
Neelamjit Dhillon, California Institute of the Arts
Chapbook and CD Launch
Ammons: A Sheaf of Words for Piano
12:30 pm Catered lunch
Gerry Hemingway: Expression in Music: A Look Inside the Personal Language of an Improviser
Panel: Impacts and Changes
Kathe Gray, York University
All time exists in the present: Utopian moments in improvised music making
David Lee, University of Guelph
Improvised Music in Canada: High Modernism and the Artists Jazz Band
Tom Scholte, University of British Columbia
AYSYNCHRONCITY AND THE EMERGENCE OF MEANING IN THEATRICAL PERFORMANCE: Cybernetically Improvised Performance Texts and their Hermeneutic Impacts
Ben Brown and Michelle Lui: MAM Music and Movement Improvisation
TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival
For the complete Jazz Festival schedule, click here.
Innovation Series Concerts (featuring conference presenters)
The Ironworks Studios 235 Alexander Street
The Pugs and Crows (Ben Brown) Friday June 19th 9:30 pm
Destroy Vancouver (Billy Martin) Friday June 19th 11:30 pm
Samuel Blaser/ Benoit Delbecq/ Gerry Hemingway Saturday, June 20th 9:30 pm
Dálava (Julia Úlehla) Saturday, June 20th 11:30 pm
Paul Plimley/ Joe Williamson/ Gerry Hemingway Sunday, June 21st 11:30 pm
Following the performance of The Muted Note: Songs Based on Poems by P. K. Page by Scott Thomson and Susanna Hood, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation is convening a colloquium called “Extraordinary Presences: Women, Poetry, Art Song” from 2:00 to 5:00 on Thursday, 16 October 2014 in the Dodson Room of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at the University of British Columbia. Two panels of poets, composers, performers and scholars will talk about their own work and their collaborations. Presenters will be investigating the cultural politics of contemporary composition and performance by women: are there particular constraints or challenges that contemporary women artists face? Are there specific musical, textual or performative strategies that women employ in their creative work when faced with such challenges? Is it still necessary or even possible to address artistic work, as performers, composers and listeners, with attention to the complex cultural politics of gender and sexuality? In addition to the two discussion panels, there will be a performance by Lisa Cay Miller of her text-based improvisations for piano, “Lessing Stories.” Admission is free, and the colloquium is open to all, students, artists, academics and the general public.
2:00-3:00 Panel: Extending the Poetics of Song
Scott Thomson, composer and improviser, Montréal and Toronto
Susanna Hood, vocalist, choreographer, Montréal and Toronto
Sandra Djwa, P. K. Page biographer, Vancouver
Phanuel Antwi, Department of English, UBC
Lisa Cay Miller, “Lessing Stories”
3:30-4:30 Panel: Collaborations and Challenges, Sounding Out
Rachel Rose, Vancouver Poet Laureate
Jacquie Leggatt, composer, Vancouver
Bronwyn Malloy, Department of English, UBC
A downloadable PDF version of the colloquium schedule can be found here: Extraordinary Presences schedule
Over the last decade, using various undergraduate and graduate classes as provisional testing grounds, I have been trying to develop what I have come to think of as an improvisational pedagogy. By “improvisational pedagogy” I don’t just mean teaching about criticism of improvisation and the performing arts (music, theatre, dance . . .), although such work certainly forms part of what I might do. And I don’t necessarily mean teaching classes on how to improvise, although techniques derived from the hands-on practice of various forms of improvisation constitute significant elements in a nascent methodology. I mean, I think, an educational practice that engages in real time with its own cognitive, creative and critical horizons, the self-attentive work of thinking on your feet, both before and with other people.
In forthcoming posts over the next few months, I’m planning to write in better detail about what I feel are some of the significant learning outcomes of such a pedagogy – including remarks on technique and nascent methodology, on student reactions, on literacy and critical canon, and on what others in the emerging field have called “the ethics of co-creation” – but for now I want to restrict myself to laying a little personal groundwork for this field of study. I have been participating this past week, telematically, in a think-tank at Memorial University, convened by the new International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, aimed at producing a draft curriculum for a potential graduate program for the study of improvisation. Some tangible results of our discussions and our collective commitment to this process will no doubt emerge in the coming year as this program takes shape, but for the moment I want to note how apparent it became during our meetings that we needed not only to define our field but to do so in a manner that distinguishes its salient characteristics, the traits and tactics that set it apart.
This conceptual winnowing, however, is particularly challenging around the study of improvisation because of its ubiquity: a fact that makes it both essential to study and seemingly impossible to frame as an object of study. At its core, improvisation articulates a deliberate elusiveness; whatever else it does, improvisation defines itself across a vast array of social and cultural practices as a refusal of the definitive, as excess. Whatever else – to repurpose an unsettled line from the self-troubling poet Irving Layton – whatever else, improvisation is freedom. It inclines, in all of its multiple and incommensurate forms, toward “whatever else,” toward not being an “it” at all, constantly worrying at and unknitting the hard knot of that “is” in definitions such as this. It’s a modality, for me, of creative undoing.
improvisation is everywhere, but it is very hard to see. That’s because improvisation is not really a philosophical Haltung for a few people living the artist’s life, but a fundamental mode of being in the world that all of us share.
Everybody improvises, all the time. But next to no one appears to attend with much care or acuity to the implications of the forms and practices of improvisation; like Lewis, and despite my privileging of aesthetic in my own teaching and writing, I don’t mean to aggrandize the role of the critic or the artist or the pedagogue in raising such reflexive awareness, but rather – through Lewis – to affirm the political necessity of such study within democratic space, within the culturally and socially managed domains of that sharing. Improvisation, Lewis asserts, “is the ubiquitous practice of everyday life, a primary method of meaning exchange in any interaction,” but that primacy remains largely unaddressed and under-scrutinized. The task, as Lewis understands it, is first of all to illuminate “the condition of improvisation,” and then to interrogate its affective and material impacts on the conduct of human life:
My overall view of improvisation, which can be described (if not defined) as exploration, discovery and response to conditions, part of a ubiquitous human practice of real-time analysis, generation, manipulation, exchange, and transformation of meaning, mediated by (among other factors) the body, history, temporality, space, memory, intention, material culture, and diverse methodologies. My claim is that improvisation is fundamental to the existence and survival of every human formation, from the individual to the community, through the postnational body to the species itself.
This is a big claim for what has been, by his own admission, a neglected and marginalized field of study, but I want to be clear that I hear his interdisciplinary sweep not as apologetics or as rhetoric, but as a genuine imperative. Improvisation names a fundamental human relationship to temporality and to historicity, and offers a distinct and crucial means – however plural and however elusive – to address who and when and where we are.
In an effort to stabilize improvisation into something like a concept, I want to invoke Michel Foucault’s reworking of the Aristotelean ἐπιστήμη or “science.” In The Order of Things, Foucault deploys the term episteme to refer to a way of knowing that pervades specific cultural or historical epochs:
In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.
As a “field of scientificity,” an episteme doesn’t define a particular science (Latin scientia, “knowledge, a knowing; expertness”) so much as the range and limits of the truth-value of science as such: what counts and what doesn’t count as knowledge. This formulation strikes me as too inherently rigid, but in as much as improvisation both shapes and evaluates the immediate production and dissemination of knowledge in our present age, in as much as it might name historicity as such – a ubiquitous set of human relations both to and within ordinary time – it strikes me that it might be useful to think it through as one among several entwined episteme of our given moment, as a name for the enactive articulations and mobilizations of knowledge in the human present. Thinking improvisation along these lines – despite Foucault’s early and I think untenable tendency to want conceptually to reduce and to homogenize – might offer an opportunity to describe, if not to define, a finite set of modalities within an extemporaneous science, modalities of knowing less prehensile, less closed and enclosing, than we might expect,— including listening (or better, aisthesis), practicing, collaboration, intersubjectivity, reciprocity, alterity. Improvising might be better understood neither as a method nor as a discrete modality of knowledge creation, but more as a resonant network of commensurate modalities. This list a merely a starting point, and such modalities would need to be much more rigorously investigated and situated, but at least for the present such terminology may offer a means of settling on something approaching a basis for thinking through improvisation.
Coastal Jazz, the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICaSP) research initiative and the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) are hosting a two-day colloquium in Vancouver on June 21 and 22, 2014, focused on the theme of “improvising across boundaries.” Presenters include Neelamjit Dhillon, Michael Blake, Tomeka Reid, Lisa Cay Miller and Rupert Common.
The complete colloquium schedule can be found here: IAB2014.
Here is a link to the Education webpage for the 2014 TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, during which the colloquium is taking place.
I only met Fred Ho once, when I was asked to introduce a talk he was giving — “Identity, Music and the Asian-American Struggle” — in the afternoon of Saturday, February 2, 2002, at the Western Front here in Vancouver. His presentation was highly charged, as full of strident compassion and of life-energy as his music. After the talk, he asked me if he could have a copy of the introduction, and I gave him mine, which had some handwritten notes and corrections. Later, I was contacted to contribute to an anthology of writings about his work, a kind of Festschrift for him, but I never managed to get anything properly together enough to submit; in 2007, I presented an abbreviated version of my work on him as a paper at the academic colloquium attached to the Guelph International Jazz Festival, “Improvising Diaspora: Fred Ho, John Coltrane and the Music of Radical Respect,” the text of which I have posted on my other blog, Frank Styles. This past week, I have been digging through my files to find the text of my introduction, and have finally come across it today. I’ll reproduce it below. I mention how Julie Smith, then the director of educational programming at Coastal Jazz, was working to create a symposium alongside the Time Flies music festival. Now defunct, Time Flies was modelled on Derek Bailey’s Company, an aggregating of free improvisors for a week of performances in ad hoc groupings and ensembles at the Western Front. The symposium eventually led to the Creative Music Think Tank and then, in 2007, to the first of a set of yearly colloquia in Vancouver produced collaboratively by Coastal Jazz and the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research initiative (ICaSP). Here is the text of my introduction for Fred Ho. I remember him well.
It’s a great pleasure for me to introduce Fred Ho today.
This presentation is the first of the Time Flies Talks, a series of lectures and panels that we hope to develop into a fully-fledged symposium on improvisation and cultural theory next year, during the Time Flies Festival of Improvised Music. This year, to help inaugurate the series, we will also have a panel discussion on “How Time Flies in Improvisation,” featuring musicians Marilyn Lerner and Torsten Muller, and CJBS Artistic Director Ken Pickering, and moderated by me. It will take place here this coming Friday, February 8, at 2:00 pm; admission to the panel is free. Special thanks should go to Julie Smith, who has put these events together.
Fred Ho’s music has been described both as “politically charged,” brimming with “slashing energy” and fierce ironies, and as delicately lyrical, organic, graceful, life-affirming. His work offers a provocative mixture of idioms, drawing on — among other influences — free improvisation, traditional Chinese music and what Rahsaan Roland Kirk once described as “Black Classical Music.” His artistry seems to me to embrace both contrariety and multiplicity. Titles such as “Contradiction Please! The Revenge of Charlie Chan” signal his oppositional political stance, his keen awareness of the fraught dynamics of racial and ethnic identity among North American listeners, as well as a darkly comedic recognition of the exclusive and proprietary nature of cultural and musical stereotypes (not to mention a pun on one of bebop’s most famous pseudonyms). But his music and his thought are not simply directed at resistance to racial and social hegemonies; he is also deeply concerned with, as he has put it, “creating revolutionary aesthetics and changing the relations of cultural production”: with affirmation, with liberation, with creation. Fred Ho’s work seeks out a formal connection between the demands of musical form and the politics of gender, race, and class in a difficult and marginalizing world. The excluded, the marginal, the unacknowledged, sing back and sing out in Ho’s music, laying claim to agency, to presence, to immediacy — making themselves heard. His goal, he has written, “is a radical unity of form and content.” By this he means, I think, that the material lived conditions of social and cultural oppression can be engaged, countered and overcome in radical cultural forms, such as improvisation, that insist on a political dimension in the very substance of their articulation: in sound, in rhythm, in tone — in shout, cry, and caress. Fred Ho is a major artist, and a significant force in the emergence of a multicultural aesthetics. His many recordings and performances with his Afro Asian Music Ensemble, with the Monkey Orchestra, with the Brooklyn Saxophone Quartet, among other incredible ensembles, as well as his numerous publications, lectures and academic residences testify to his formidable energy and dedication to the political work of making music. Fred Ho is a performer, composer, pedagogue, political activist, in short an artist to be reckoned with, who calls us to reckon with ourselves and the world we inhabit. He will speak today on “Identity, Music and the Asian American Struggle.” Please welcome Fred Ho.
Here is an audio capture of my part of a colloquium session for the University of British Columbia Department of English Faculty Research series, which took place in the afternoon of Friday, October 18, 2013, on “Teaching Literature in the Time of the MOOC.” I co-presented with Jon Beasley-Murray. (There are a few glitches – I inadvertently call Dave Cormier “Eric” – so I have included a script for the talk below. I truncated the long quotations when I presented. The gain on the recorder was also set a little high — my apologies for any clipping. Jon’s portion of the session can be found here.)
The past year has seen massive and radical shifts in the practice and delivery of higher education, particularly around the emergence of the MOOC, the “Massive Open Online Course,” adopted and (as of January 2013) offered for credit through many prominent North American and Australian universities. While some commentators continue to suggest that educators are over-enthusiastically caught up in surging hype around the technologizing of education, hype that will soon deteriorate into backlash, it has become clear that the MOOC represents much more than a passing trend. It signals a fundamental change in the cultural and pedagogical mission of the university – in what constitutes a university, and what constitutes university education, in our time. I, we, believe it is vitally important for academics – not just administrators, not just early adopters, not just those in the managerial echelons of an emerging knowledge economy, but particularly academics in the critical humanities – to address and to interrogate the implications of this change. Because of the velocity of these ongoing renovations to the form and substance of higher education, we need to do more than act as latecomers or followers, to be more than epigone adopters. Bluntly put, our job descriptions are changing, with or without our direct input and even our consent, and it is vital that we find the means, as both pedagogues and scholars, to contribute not only to managing but also to shaping the direction and structure of these nascent developments.
I don’t want to position myself as anything like an expert. Frankly, it’s too soon in the arc – I won’t say history, not yet – in tracing the developmental arc of media-savvy pedagogies for anyone but a few originators to lay claim to expertise, and even then there seems to me to be something endemic to these kinds of digital humanities, something inherent in what has come to be called connectivity, that wants both to exploit and to refuse cults of expertise, cults that have also largely tended to be understood as the provenance of a professoriate. I’m still under the sway, myself, of Paolo Freire’s critique of what he called the “banking model” of education, and I think I share his thorough suspicion of the cultural privilege of expertise. But rather than offer any materially rigorous critique of the economics of knowledge production and dissemination, I’m going to stick to a critique of the MOOC at the level of metaphor, something I feel like I can do with some confidence in my own method. It’s how I work, in my own field, as I understand it. But I want to be clear that I’m thinking of what I’m proposing today, briefly, as gestural and provisional, as a small contribution to a workshop rather than as a definitive or in any way exhaustive reading of the MOOC in our time, in its time.
I should offer at this point a potted history of the MOOC, although in a spirit of appearing to let shallow précis pass for knowledge, I have to defer to Wikipedia, which does a much better job than I ever could at condensing the last four or five years of MOOC history and at naming the significant names. Wikipedia – and Jon can tell you better than I can – in some very telling ways epitomizes the networked, editorial crowd-sourcing that is currently tending to replace expertise in this contemporary educational episteme, the time of the MOOC. So, go read Wikipedia, and find out something about Dave Cormier, George Siemens, cMOOCs, xMOOCs, Coursera, EdX, and the whole whelming business. In a November 2, 2012, article on Education Life, New York Times correspondent Laura Pappano dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” lending an epochal weight to a phenomenon that is, I’m willing to argue, almost without a history, and even without history.
So what does a MOOC have to do with time? I want to gesture at two key aspects of generalized MOOC temporality, both of them catachrestic: packeting and velocity. As one among many formations in the current digitalization (as opposed to the digitization) of knowledge, MOOCs imply a mediated phenomenology, a specific set of experiential markers keyed to time management – or to a common figure in MOOC syllabi, a figure that I’m going to suggest manifests as generic course content around learning outcomes a technological latency, the data packet. For example, Jennifer Shoop’s current syllabus for “English 402: The Poetry of John Milton,” a MOOC from saylor.org, has a detailed segment on “Time Commitment,” which is distinctive to on-line pedagogy:
Time Commitment: This course should take you a total of approximately 73.25 hours to complete. Each unit includes a time advisory that lists the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit. These advisories should help you plan your time accordingly. It may be useful to take a look at these time advisories and to determine how much time you have over the next few weeks to complete each unit, and then to set goals for yourself. For example, Unit 1 should take 6.5 hours to complete. Perhaps you can sit down with your calendar and decide to complete subunits 1.1 and 1.2 (a total of 3hours) on Monday night; subunits 1.3 and 1.4 (a total of 6.5 hours) on Tuesday night; etc.
The precision suggests an empirically obsessive scientism, but also a desire to lay out student commitments with as much transparency and accuracy as possible. Al Filreis’s “ModPo,” a “fast-paced” and much more loosely orchestrated MOOC from UPenn on “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry,” still lays out participant time commitments (“Workload: 5-9 hours/week”) and offers some proleptic feedback in an FAQ on course velocity:
You say the course is “fast paced.” Will it move too fast for me?
ModPo is “fast paced” because we will not spend long on any one poet. This is a “survey” course — covering many poets with the objective of conveying a sense of poetic movements and trends. We will study only a few poets in any depth (Dickinson, Williams, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery) but otherwise during each week we will typically talk about poems by three or four or even five different poets.
A sense of depth is sacrificed for coverage, and the learning outcomes are accordingly adjusted, offering gestalt in lieu of detail. Finally, the extensive course matter around Gregory Nagy’s HarvardX MOOC on the Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours explains at some length how pace and segmentation interconnect, a pedagogical strategy as well as a gesture at the temporality of his subject-matter, particularly the Homeric epic. Indeed, of all of the MOOC syllabi I have tried to encounter so far, Nagy’s is the most reflexively sophisticated, and conveniently provides me with something of a test-case for an informed critique of the humanities MOOC.
In an article from The New Yorker earlier this year, Nathan Heller seems to think so too, spending considerable column-length on Nagy’s HarvardX course, and its time-demands:
Nagy has been experimenting with online add-ons to his course for years. When he began planning his mooc, his idea was to break down his lectures into twenty-four lessons of less than an hour each. He subdivided every lesson into smaller segments, because people don’t watch an hour-long discussion on their screens as they might sit through an hour of lecture. (They get distracted.) He thought about each segment as a short film, and tried to figure out how to dramatize the instruction. He says that crumbling up the course like this forced him to study his own teaching more than he had at the lectern.
Presuppositions about attention span and attentiveness push Nagy to “crumble up” and parcel out his material, but I’d like to assert that what’s happening here isn’t so much an effect of his students’ shrinking cognitive capacities, but rather the impact of the structural informatics of media-dense teaching. He’s creating analogues on his students’ screens to the data packets – as distinct, though not entirely so, from the packaging or commodification of information – into which his texts and videos must be divided in order to disseminate efficiently across a network. Data packets are essentially arbitrary segments (blocks, cells) of bits and bytes, of data, into which a text, for instance, must be materially fractured if it is to be transmitted effectively. The process of packet-switching involves a horizontal leveling of parceled information to facilitate exchange across a dimensional (as opposed to linear) network; in a way, you could imagine one of Nagy’s students ranging in an anti-linear fashion through the welter of text, video and assessment tools that make up his MOOC, although that movement is still governed by a broadly linear rhetoric – at least a rhetoric, if not a teleology – of progress and completion, of sectional and totalized learning outcomes.
Efficiency, as a hallmark of good tech, of vibrant network and of functional pedagogy, is tied to velocity or pace, the re-assemblage and the intake of cultural knowledge – in Nagy’s case, of Homeric epic and Sophoklean drama. The trick to success in his course in particular, he suggests, is learning to manage and to adjust your rate of reading, to accelerate and decelerate modes of critical attention. There is, frankly, way too much material on Nagy’s syllabus, as there is on Filreis’s. I have to confess that I signed up for the Nagy MOOC – drawn by the promise of some sort of close-ish link to the cult of expertise that accretes around Nagy’s work on Homer. And I flunked it, mostly because I just didn’t have time to do the reading or to complete the multiple-choice and short-answer assignments. It’s reading, of course that I have done before, for the most part, so that shouldn’t have been a problem, but there is a density of information – something keyed to what I’d like to think of, analogically again, as bit-rate compression – that was frankly overwhelming, particularly as spare-time or extra-to-load reading. Nagy insists in the descriptive matter he writes about how to take up his assigned coursework, that students need to learn different velocities of reading, from fast to slow; the second is privileged, as a mode of close attention that Nagy develops from his own take on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Homeric philology. (I hope you’ll pardon the extensive quotation.)
So what do I mean when I say slow reading and fast reading? Let me explain briefly, starting with slow reading in §5A and then moving on to fast reading in §5B. For the reading of the following paragraph, §5A, you will have to slow down and take more time. For the reading of the paragraphs after that, §5B, §6, §7, §8, and the Appendix, I hope you will feel free to speed up again.
§4a. So here is the paragraph that needs to slow you down until you have finished reading it (and this paragraph includes the moderately long quotation that you see ahead). Please give yourself about five minutes. That said, let me delve into it. When you do slow reading in this course, you have to slow down and give yourself time to stop and think about what you are reading. You have to do this even if you feel at first that you simply do not have the time to do this. You have to develop a sense for feeling that you really do have the time to stop your reading and to think about what you have just read, allowing yourself to make connections with what you have read earlier. Some people think that philology is the “art” of such slow reading. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of these people, and he compared the “art” of this “philology” to the art of the goldsmith:
“Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow – it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today; by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of “work,” that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to “get everything done” at once, including every old or new book: – this art does not easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate fingers and eyes.”
In closing, let me highlight one big change I made in the translation I just quoted: the translator had written “with delicate eyes and fingers,” but Nietzsche in the original German text mentions fingers first and eyes second – in order to drive home his comparison of philology with the art of the goldsmith: when you read slowly, you read with a sense of touch – with “delicate fingers and eyes” (mit zarten Fingern und Augen). We see here an example of reading out of the text instead of reading into the text (I will define these terms in §8).
Now that I am finished with this paragraph, please feel free to go back into a mode of fast reading.
Such Nietzschean tactility feels anathematic to a largely tactless and intangible internet. The manual control of the eye, its kinesis across the liminal surface of a screen, seems to be a transplanted version of formalism or of the deconstructive “slow reading” practiced, or so he says, by J. Hillis Miller. Nietzsche, it sounds like, wants you to run your finger over the paper, tracing each line. But the tactility of translucent fonts is both metaphorical and – despite the existence of the touch-screen and the new Windows touch, say – at best a feint. Stopping to think, rewinding a video, going back over a passage are all embodied reactions, all reading tactics, that have nothing inherently to do with electronic media. Rather, Nagy is cautiously attempting to return something of the material character of the book – of the manuscript, of “hand-writing,” in fact – to a multifunctional medium that fractures, compresses and accelerates. Yet rewinding, as Laura Mulvey reminds us, is a temporal trait – a gestural inversion of what Vladimir Jankélévitch characterizes as time’s essential irreversibility – that remains specific to cinematic media, from videotapes and DVDs to the YouTube videos. The time of the MOOC – that is, broadly understood, its temporal episteme – has everything to do with shaping and managing these recursions and inversions, with stopping and starting, with packet-switching and shifting velocities. In 1993, Paul Virilio asserted with dire conviction that
With acceleration there is no more here and there, only the mental confusion of near and far, present and future, real and unreal – a mix of history, stories, and the hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies. (The Art of the Motor 35)
I want to start to claim here, pace Virilio’s warning, that we need to think carefully about how the anxieties around mass connectivity and the knowledge economy, anxieties that are for me essentially temporal in character, don’t so much impel us to withdraw nostalgically into a world of letters and paper, but help motivate is to address (say, through a more careful interrogation of something as seemingly incidental as metaphor) what it means to teach literature, and what literature and reading might become, in an era when something like a MOOC is even conceivable, let alone a cultural and educational destiny.
Here is an audio capture of a lecture I gave on Wednesday, October 16, 2013, at the University of British Columbia, on two essays by Kathleen Jamie: “Fever” and “Surgeons’ Hall.” Both come from her 2005 collection Findings, which I’m using in my section of English 111, a first-year introduction to the study of nonfiction, to provide a set of thematic and conceptual anchor-points for the course. In the lecture, I focus on Jamie’s sense of the limits of language, of the intersections of body and text, on the concept of intersubjectivity, and on trying to understand the page as a porous membrane.