Flow, Fissure, Mesh

Home » Posts tagged 'University of British Columbia'

Tag Archives: University of British Columbia

Noticing and/as Listening in Edgelands and Wool

Here is some text composed for a lecture for my current class on “Denatured Reading.” I’m making a transtition between Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2011) and Hugh Howey’s novel Wool (2012).
Because of its subject matter and its project, Edgelands is a book its collaborative authors are unable to finish. The last of its seemingly ad hoc jumble of twenty-eight segments—“chapters” feels like too tidy a word for the various unruly trajectories Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts trace through England’s inter-urban spaces—begins by disavowing closure as something fundamentally at odds with these transitional and unfixed terrains: “So where do the edgelands end? How far can the idea take us?” (261). They offer, in place of any conclusion, only another contingent figure, the abandoned and collapsing pier. Humanity marks the limits of its fraught and absurdly enervated dominion over place by extending its spindly architectures off-shore, although, as Roberts and Farley resignedly note, you still can’t tether the tide (262). As a kind of enactment of this futility, they describe the thrill-seeking art of “tombstoning . . . jumping from height into the sea” as a way of testing our human, mortal and English limits:
Piers are among the most inviting of springboards for a jump, but also the most dangerous, as tides can pull the jumper out to sea quickly, or smash them against the iron legs and supports. It’s common for tombstoners to scream as they fall, as if their captive souls have been reintroduced to the wild, albeit only for a second or two, before they hit the water. (263)
Some jumpers, they tell us, “punch themselves in the face, very hard,” a bleakly comedic reminder of the consequences of anthropocentric hubris. The indifference of the inhuman world—uninhabitable all but briefly—manifests itself in the recalcitrant decrepitude and feral reclamation of whatever people try to make or do. Piers represent a last land-bound effort to rationalize and to master the inhuman world and also offer stages on which to enact our temporary, imaginary release from our mortal limits into wild, animal being. The last passage of the book emerges from a description of their visit to the West Pier at Brighton “just months before it suffers a fatal collapse and a series of fires and is closed,” hinting at the fatal finish in burnt-out rubbish—the deferred but inevitable closure—to which all human endeavor in the edgelands seems to come: but that small apocalypse lies in the future, outside the bounds of their writing. Instead, they focus on the gloomy, birdshit spattered remains of the “Laughterland” arcade in the deserted pavilion at the outer end of the pier; connecting the interloping birds, starlings, etymologically with the “sterling” admission prices “still painted on the wall,” they “notice for the first time,” in the book’s last sentence, that the walls had once been painted “a very watery blue, the colour, in fact, of a starling’s egg” (264). Against the lugubrious and moribund image of decaying carcasses (both birds and architecture), they offer an attentive glimpse of oceanic albumen and of these remains as a promise of rebirth, as hybrid human-animal gestation, as egg. The work of noticing that their prose undertakes, even in passing, wants both to describe and to enact—in the verbal textures of their conversation—what I want to think of as an edgelands poetics.
         That work of noticing seems primarily visual throughout the book, but I want to make a case that it’s as much aural as it is ocular, a honed form of listening both to other human voices and to that world’s often incomprehensible soundscape. In “Wire,” they imagine bundles of taken-down chain-link fence as decommissioned memory coils, holding “recordings” of ambient sounds from the past. In “Masts,” they meditate on the “multiple text messages, wireless e-mails and mobile phone calls cutting through” our bodies if we stand anywhere near transmission towers—which have been located in the edgelands as far as possible from “schools and homes” for fear of the dire, mortal effect all that electromagnetic energy can have on us (133). Still, Farley and Roberts nudge us: “Listen to them whisper as they pass through you. Take on the cares of the world.” They seem to want an impossible acuity, a noticing beyond human capacities; but really, what we’re invited to listen for is exactly that—the limits of our attentiveness, of our ability to care and to feel ourselves implicated in these contact zones, these all-too-inhuman spaces. Finally, it turns out, it’s the starlings who come to provide a tenuously viable model for this poetics of listening. In the book’s penultimate section, “Weather,” Farley and Roberts remark on starlings’ ability to be “keen mimics” of whatever they hear: “They’re the samplers among our avifauna, able to incorporate all manner of human, animal and mechanical sounds into their repertoire, and urban starlings are well know copyists of telephones and doorbells, even dial-up modems” (258-9). In their terms, these starling imitations are moments of absurd comedy, audio witness of a feral reabsorption of human technocracy, but they are also instances, they suggest, of the mutating, fractured archive of human presence, an organic version of the chin-link memory coils that still retains vestigial potential to be decoded, heard, observed, noticed:
Starlings have been observed at abandoned human settlements recreating the noises of former human or mechanical activity: a squeaky water-pump, even though the pump is long seized up, or the rasp of a bandsaw, even though the woodshed is long deserted. Could it be that the starlings that gather here sing a song made from bits of the area’s former soundscape? . . . The area has always been a kind of edgelands, but could it be possible that starlings still carry within their complicated songs some of the sound elements of that former industrial world? Thought of this way, the birds themselves are a kind of information storage system, a winged databank. (259)
The watery blue paint on the walls of the West Pier’s pavilion gestures metaphorically and materially at the starling’s re-populating of waste space not only with their own living murmurations but also with the re-created echoes of human habitation. It’s this sort of lyric performative archive that Farley and Roberts want to sound in their sentences, in their verbal desire paths, their lines.
         We’re making a transition today, according to the syllabus, from reading Edgelandsto Hugh Howey’s speculative fiction in Wool. While we’re shifting genres and, arguably, prose styles as we move from one book to the other, I want to note in Howey’s opening story a few key connections and articulated joints, chiefly around this poetics of noticing. The world of the silo—or of the siloes, as we’ll find out—juxtaposes a panopticon-like architecture (recall Farley and Roberts’s repeated invocations of panoptic surveillance) that governs and sustains human survival by maintaining clear boundaries between the technologically managed interior of the human space and the poisoned and deadly world of the post-natural outside; the hill we glimpse in the images of the exterior world—through illusions of transparent windows that are actually faulty projections made by data projectors on opaque, curved subterranean walls—marks the physiographic mortal limit of human life, as far as those who have been sent out to clean the lenses of the electronic cameras can possibly walk before their bodies give out. Those boundaries are marked by not only by technological illusion—and everyone in the silo appears to recognize that, while presumably accurate depictions of the outer world, those images are also artificial and contrived, signaled by the wear and breakdown of the image into “dead pixels” here and there—but also false consciousness:
a handful of dead pixels . . . stood stark white against all the brown and gray hues. Shining with ferocious intensity, each pixel . . . was like a square window to some brighter place, a hole the width of a human hair that seemed to beckon toward some better reality. (9)
Sherriff Holston’s wife Allison, digging into corrupted, overwritten, archaic and deleted electronic databases, thinks she has uncovered a conspiracy, on the part of the silo’s IT directorate, to manipulate those images (“Nothing you see is real” [26]), and both she and Holston come to believe they understand why those exiled to their deaths through the silo airlock turn back to clean the lenses—because they want the others to see the outside world as they are certain they now see it: cartoonishly pastoral, a world of natural beauty kept hidden from the silo’s inhabitants in order to keep them inside, their bodies docile, law-abiding and well-governed. This is, of course, a fatal mistake—the visuals of a perfect spring landscape are projected on their helmets’ viewscreens to trick them into cleaning, to fool them into walking out of their own volition. The edge or verge into which they walk is a virtual landscape, an overlay of visual membrane masking the decimation of outlying space – think of their proximity to and distance from the destroyed city on the horizon—with an illusion of manicured garden, a space in which nature never did betray the heart that loved her. Once that membrane—screen or suit—becomes porous or breached, the realization that the planet has become an inherently inhuman twilight zone dawns on Holston as a question both of seeing and being seen: “What would they see, anyone who had chosen to watch?” (39). Reality and illusion collapse into each other. “Holston could see,” but what he sees is exactly what he thought he didn’t.

         Notably, too, what initiates this collapse—which is both a realization or groundtruthing and a reinscription of false consciousness—is a speech-act and a moment of public listening. In this world, you break the law and condemn yourself by asking, publically, to go outside: “I want to go out” (23). This demand is both perlocution and illocution, a command that enacts, as it’s pronounced, its own sentencing. When Allison speaks the fatal words, Holston tries to quiet her, but also knows “it was too late. The others had heard. Everyone had heard. His wife had signed her own death certificate” (24). Noticing, in this space, offers only a warrant for execution. But, as the four posthumous sequels emerge from each other as the novel unfolds, we discover that moments of noticing—hearing voices from the other siloes, decoding messages, understanding what the fragment of computer code Allison uncovered actually does mean—are also key to the unveiling and debunking of the coercive governance of siloed humanity, a vital disillusionment that, unfortunately, both Allison and Holston don’t have enough information to comprehend or to challenge. What their speech-acts do accomplish, however, is to open a crack, to prize apart the fatal flaw in their worn, decrepit hegemony. They begin to make the instability audible, like the small skew we’ll hear in Juliette’s well-oiled and carefully-repaired generator.

Talk for Harry Potter, Brands of Magic

Here is the text of the seven-minute talk I gave as one of five panelists at the Harry Potter, Brands of Magic colloquium at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia on October 29, 2015.
I first taught Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonehere at UBC in the winter term of 2002, in a course, not on children’s literature, but on cultural theory, as a sort of case study around the impacts and interpretation of popular media. With the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2000, and the release of the first Harry Potter film in November, 2001, the publishing industry phenomenon arguably passed its tipping point, and Harry Potter became a name – and a literary brand – that garnered global recognition in the media. In the opening chapter of the first book, as the infant Harry is being delivered to Privet Drive (you all know the story), the wizard Albus Dumbledore tells his colleague at Hogwarts, Professor McGonagall, that he has written a letter to the Dursleys that will enable them “to explain everything to him when he’s older.” “Really Dumbledore,” Professor McGonagall replies,
“You think you can explain all this in a letter? These people will never understand him! He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!” (15)
I can’t help but hear this passage as J. K. Rowling articulating a playful fantasy of literary success, as she sits unknown and unpublished scribbling in a notebook in The Elephant House tea shop in Edinburgh in the mid-1990s. This passage not only proves to be strangely and accurately prophetic, but it also sets up what I take to be the core quandary of the whole series of books “written about Harry”: how to understand him, how to read “Harry Potter.” That problem of knowing is positioned initially here as a dichotomy, a choice between worlds: magical or Muggle, Hogwarts or Privet Drive. But we have to recognize that, unpleasant as the Dursleys are, Professor McGonagall is also off the mark herself: Harry doesn’t so much choose as negotiate or mediate between those two poles. He enables us, if you think about it, to read our way between the everyday and the fantastical. Harry both enacts and embodies a specific set of reading practices, a literacy; knowing his name means working to acquire that competence, that mobility, that literacy.

         In the three or so minutes that remain, I’m going to sketch out three key aspects of that literacy, of what the Harry Potter literary brand represents. Those three aspects of reading – you might call them diagonals through this book, mediating between magical and Muggle being – are the material, the heuristic and the haptic.
[The Material]
         When the Dursleys try to escape the onslaught of Hogwarts admission letters addressed to Harry, they end up in “the most miserable little shack you could imagine,” on what Rowling describes as “a large rock way out to sea” (37). Significantly, both Dudley and his father are certain that, whatever else, “there was no television in there.” Hagrid, as you all know, still hand-delivers the letter to Harry amid flashes of lightening – echoes, perhaps, of the scar on Harry’s forehead. Manuscript, signed text inscribed on paper, is consistently counterpoised to electronic media, especially television. (There is no TV at Hogwarts. Mass media, complete with moving images, is displaced into the wizarding newspaper The Daily Prophet, an assemblage of stories, gossip and propaganda that requires reading rather than viewing.) Magic, especially spells, appear to require a return to the material object of the page, the book. And in 2001, too, despite its commercial refiguring in Hollywood movies, “Harry Potter” seemed to represented a resurgence of reading and of book-buying, an antidote to screen and network. Books, as circulating and consumed objects, stood for a particular intimate reactivation of the readerly imagination.

[The Heuristic]
         That reactivation is also figured in the books themselves as heuristic: Harry, Hermione and Ron solve problems by learning to be engaged readers. They decode text (as with the mirror of Erised, for example), text we’re meant, arguably, to decode along with them. We’re invited, you could say, to solve the books. But it’s worth noting that Rowling doesn’t offer up singular solutions, or “correct” answers. She doesn’t keep silent because, following Professor McGonagall, that readers can’t understand, can’t cross into the hermetic realm of magical privilege. Rather, it’s because the process of puzzling out what Harry means to discover is pluralistic and divergent. You might recall the Hogwarts school song, which declares that we will “learn until our brains all rot,” is not choral so much as “bellowed” cacophony, with everyone picking their own favourite tune: an enactment of differential community, a solution that won’t resolve or homogenize.

[The Haptic]

Harry Potter doesn’t so much refuse electronic media as reinsert a haptic interface, through the material technology of the book, into the various circuits of public consumption. Books are tactile; they have to be handled, touched, their pages turned. The demise of Quirrell (and the name suggests, aside from quarrelsomeness, a quire, a fold of pages within a book) has to do with his incapacity to read Harry, to interpret what Harry embodies or even to see the mark of Harry’s mother’s love on his skin. That mark, as Dumbledore tells us, is “not a scar” and leaves “no visible sign” (216). The haptic feedback – the touch – that proves to be “agony” for Voldemort and Quirrell isn’t something that we, as readers, need fear – we’re protected, in a sense, by the opaque surface, the skin, of the pages before us. But it functions, nonetheless, as a form of transmission, an ionizing, organic ether, that the lightning-bolt scar on Harry’s forehead metonymically displaces and displays. The transformative power of that touch, the shift from the distracted reception of screened images to the proactive thoughtful connection to a living world, is what reading Harry Potter might just be about.

Jamie Reid, 1941-2015

I have just learned this morning that the poet Jamie Reidhas died. He was, as many know, a co-founder of TISH at UBC in 1961, and played significant role in the revitalization of West Coast Canadian poetry. Deeply engaged as an activist with fostering social change, he spent a number of years out of the poetry circuit, but the 1994 book that marked his return to poetry – Prez: Homage to Lester Young – represents a landmark fusion of verbal music and aesthetic commitment.
 Here is the joy of pure desire which desires nothing
    but to be lost amongst all of the things which are.

Here is a recording of Jamie Reid reading his poetry at Green College, UBC, on January 17, 2013, for the Play Chthonics: New Canadian Readings series.

On Stephen Burt, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Place

Stephen Burt delivered the 2015 Garnett Sedgwick Memorial Lecture at U. B. C. yesterday on “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Place.” For those who don’t know his work, he’s a professor in the English Department at Harvard University, currently teaching courses on “ways of reading and ways of hearing poetry” and on literature and sexuality; he’s also written extensively on poetry and poetics, particularly on the work of Randall Jarrell, and he’s published three collections of poetry. What I have discovered I like most about Burt’s critical writing, apart from its combination of clarity and intensity, is a willingness – or better, an articulate desire – to recoup lyric vitality from ideologically and aesthetically disparate poets, writers who, as he puts it, tend to disagree “in first principles, and  . . . come from all over,” yoked by an inclination to stylistic difficulty (see his Close Calls with Nonsense, page 6). Poems communicate texturally, for Burt, and those textures can sometimes be recalcitrant and forbidding, seemingly within the purview of intellectuals and literary academics; but poems also communicate, nonetheless and despite themselves, with certain affective immediacies, and it’s that public reciprocity that also draws his eye and his ear. As he puts it addressing himself in “Over Nevada,” a poem describing – circumscribing? – the prospect from an airplane window over Las Vegas, poetry distills formally from language a vital creative muddle, interstitial reciprocity, Simonidean coinage, exchange, indebtedness and gift: “How could you ever sort out or pay back what you owe / In that white coin, language, which melts as you start to speak?“ The communion of readers is fleeting and spectral, , but also, despite its frustrations, it is of this exact shortfall, it is this exact shortfall, that lyric language materially speaks.  

         His talk drew out a conceptual antithesis that marks the lyric, an ambivalence between the transcendental, “departicularized” tendency of lofty abstract language – that it happens anywhere, outside of history – and the concrete particularities of descriptive circumstance, that whatever happens inevitably has to happen somewhere, to someone. What’s interesting for me aren’t the terms of this opposition, which are so general as to be fairly banal, but Burt’s energetic investigation of the tensions between them as the stuff and the source of poetic work. Most loco-descriptive poetry, he argued, connect outward geography – I’d suggest, physiography – with “inner life” – I’d suggest not only physiology but also psychic topography. What persists, despite claims by Charles Altieri and others that the poetry of place has long since run its course, is according to Burt an intuitive sense of commonality tied to imagined place: that place, however articulated, is still  intersubjective, communal. He concentrated on the work of two key poets, for him: C. D. Wright and Mary Dalton. Quoting from Wright’s “Ozark Odes” – “Maybe you have to be from here to hear it sing” – Burt developed the homonymy of here and hear to suggest that Wright’s poems generate the textures and particularities of place apophastically, allowing the reader access through lyric attention, through the melopoeic richness of her geographically precise diction, to a phenomenologically rich encounter with that particularity. You hear the place, you sense it, palpably, in Wright’s words, despite and even because of her skeptical refusal to claim communicative success. The withdrawing “melt” of her language, in other words, is also recombinant and evocative, a plenitude. Burt gestured at Elise Partridge’s poem “Dislocations” (from Chameleon Hours, 2010 version) which also presents a “hybrid” form of lyric apophasis, refusing to lay claim to any naïve or grandiose transcendence while also, at a moment of surprising intensity, discovering how poetic intelligence still fuses to its descriptive objects, as “you feel your strengths intermingling.” One of the pleasures of Elise Partridge’s poetry, Burt said, is that its “attention to place does not preclude migration from one place to another,” and that some of her best work inheres in those transitions and intermediations. He concluded his talk with an investigation of some of the poetry of Mary Dalton. He was especially taken with how human geography and dialect words, in her poems, “imply the physical geography that the words produce.” He focused on the seductive estrangements of encountering the moments when she seemed to open her Newfoundland word-hoard. “Maybe you don’t have to be from there,” he concluded, “to hear it sing.”

Isabelle Stengers, "the most amiable of philosophers"

I’m intensely grateful to the Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at UBC for inviting Isabelle Stengers to lead a seminar on her reading of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and on what she calls “cosmopolitics.” In practice, she didn’t really lead a discussion so much as aim to foster spontaneous interchange and to interrogate and even challenge some of her own thinking; her recent book is called Thinking with Whitehead (2002, trans. 2011)—rather than thinking about or explaining—and the character and practice of that with-ness, of a reading that involves co-creatively being witha work rather that staging some sort of magisterial (professorial?) exegetical mastery of it, is what I think for Stengers makes philosophy matter.
Still, the seminar involved less mutual interchange—less a practice of collaborative speculation, a discursive echo of the “open ontology” she wants to address—and became more about participants posing questions to Professor Stengers about her work. She had offered two papers for participants to read ahead of time, in the hope, perhaps, of avoiding professing, although given the opportunity of having her present in the classroom, it’s certainly understandable why a rather formal question-and-answer session might happen. Describing, in one of those papers, the emergence of her term “cosmopolitical,” she points to how “gripped by worry,” by what sounds like anxiety over philosophical reach, she “needed to slow down.” That slowing is not a diminution of attention but rather its intensification—an attention, moreover, that remains iterative and hermeneutic, but that also aspires to a reading practice that is co-creative rather than derivative or, in the mundane sense, rather than merely critical. “It’s better to read slowly,” she said in the seminar, “in order not to have understood everything.” Reading doesn’t aim at comprehension, but to actualize the creative potential in careful misprision.

She doesn’t really articulate an aesthetics in Thinking with Whitehead, if by aesthetics you mean a theory of art. But what she calls the “adventure of the senses,” of aesthesis, pervades her meditations on Whitehead’s writing and thinking. What Professor Stengers wants a seminar to become, I think, is something that Whitehead describes, in Process and Reality, as “intense experience without the shackle of reiteration from the past. This is the condition for spontaneity of conceptual reaction” (Process and Reality 105). The active mind slows into the present tense, but that spontaneity—I want to call it improvisation, but Stengers does not—is not without relation to a past, without any iterative purchase on (reading) history. Rather, the active, embodied mind, as one reads, becomes (to borrow a few metaphors from both Whitehead and Stengers) an electromagnetic resonator, an amplifier, an interstitial matrix: “It receives from the past, it lives in the present” (Process and Reality 339). The interstice—the fictive and material space “between the lines” of tissue, of both flesh and text—is a crucial trope for Stengers, marking both a material and a societal openness, a biological and a conceptual betweenness (betweenity?) that offers the condition of possibility for communities of difference, for community as difference, the unresolved and contrary, risky situation of the speculative seminar itself: “speculative presence, and the eventual efficacy associated with it, constitutes the wager of the interstice” (Thinking with Whitehead 514). “Life,” as Whitehead puts it, “lurks in the interstices of each living cell, and in the interstices of the brain. In the history of a living society, its more vivid manifestations wander to whatever quarter is receiving from the animal body an enormous variety of physical experience.” (Process and Reality105-6) Those “vivid” intensities don’t and can’t happen all the time, and I’m not even sure what a seminar conducted along those lines of sustained risk might look like, might feel like, but in the classroom yesterday, what for me was notable was how often Isabelle Stengers laughed. Her laughter was never nervous or imperious or cynical—although she did make it clear that she doesn’t abide thoughtlessness or “stupidity”—but manifest moments of vital warmth, her celebratory enthusiasm for thinking that matters, in the present. I couldn’t help but hear, as well, the nascence of an interstitial poetics, an ecology of writing that attends to some as-yet-unapprehended upwelling of life between its own unfolding lines. 

Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild
Creation of Concepts.  2002. Trans. Michael Chase.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected
edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne.
New York: Free P, 1978.

Audio: A Lecture on Kathleen Jamie’s “Fever” and “Surgeons’ Hall”

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.