Quote #23: James Baldwin (1976)

The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic—a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall. This question can scarcely be said to exist among the wretched, who know, merely, that they are wretched and who bear it day by day—it is a mistake to suppose that the wretched do not know that they are wretched; nor does this question exist among the splendid, who know, merely, that they are splendid, and who flaunt it, day by day: it is a mistake to suppose that the splendid have any intention of surrendering their splendor. An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself. Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.

Passage from The Devil Finds Work.

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Lucretian Geometry (a speculation)

Is an hoop just a dot by other means?

A dot and an enclosed circle are certainly more dissimilar than a dot and a connected line in space (i.e. a hoop). A circle is an outline, a trace, history’s most pragmatic abstraction, whereas hoops, loops, Möbius strips – these more closely resemble the paradox of the dot.

If you think about it, dots are simply impossible: they’re either tiny (thick) lines or filled-in circles (i.e.:“a hair or a hairball”). Dots are uncanny.

Dots are not the same as points.

In Euclidean geometry, points are the beginning realities (so called one-dimensional space), but in fact they are complex abstractions of the imagination. If you think about how lines are defined as the shortest distance between two points, this is phenomenologically incorrect since in fact the lines include – or subsume – the points themselves. In this formulation, “point” – or dot – means “end,” an intangible concept denoting the place where a thing ceases to be a thing and instead becomes a not-thing, separated, void. Following Lucretius, who posits that the world is made up only of “bodies” and “void” (and no “third things”), an end is not an abstraction but the observation of void. Consecutively, points (vis-à-vis Euclid) are ill-defined abstractions that seek to make sense of impossible dots, and in turn, impossible realities.

In three-dimensional space, ends become edges, giving further shape to the Lucretian geometry of void and furthering the groundlessness of points.

But knives do cut, you may say.

Importantly knifes do not cut on their own, independently; they cut into other things. We say a knife cuts because we see an apple or a cheese wedge bisection at the point of contact with the knife’s edge. [Furthermore, there is no knife that is not a tool (or a consumer product), hence a further abstraction.] A cut is equal parts cutting-thing and cuttable-thing.

Though it possesses more verisimilitude, the Euclidean third-dimension is in a way the most problematic because it gives body to shapes but leaves out the energy, the vitality, the presence of thing-ness. Disappointingly, three-dimensional space is less-than inert. If you think about a stationary wheel (the one on your bike in the shed), it is not a circle in the third dimension (albeit with the accidental imperfections necessarily added to bring abstract shapes into actuality, through welded metal and molded rubber, etc.). What do wheels do but spin? Balls but roll? Blocks but impede? Pyramids but erode? Three-dimensional space is still abstracted “space” and does not represent “live” space. Motion – kinematics, not time – is the fourth dimension because movement necessarily resembles living bodies – living bodies in active relationships with other living bodies. [It is Lucretius not Augustine who first insists that time is insubstantial: “Time also exists not of itself, but from things themselves is derived the sense of what has been done in the past, then what thing is present with us, further what is to follow after. Nor may we admit that anyone has a sense of time by itself separated from the movement of things and their quiet calm” (On the Nature of Things, 1. 459-463, Rouse & Smith).] The Euclidean spectrum of x, y, z, t is both abstract (as opposed to descriptive) and ideological (as opposed to universal) as it attempts to present the sense of things as a heap of sensible things extra-dependent of nothing, where in fact objects are extra dependent of precisely nothing, of void, that allow for the presence and interactivity of other objects.

A hoop then has two conceptions, one in the third-dimension and the other in the fourth-dimension. A hoop, like a circle, has no beginning or end, except when we remember that a circle does indeed have a beginning (the abstract x center) and an end (the circumference dictated by d distance from x in all directions). Hoops in the third dimension have this same finite quality to them, only with added complexities of gauge and further demarcations shaped by their bloated edgings with void.

In the fourth dimension of kinematic geometry, however, hoops begin to assemble their symbolic association with infinity and no longer resemble the Gordian knot whose complexity is merely a complicit illusion. This is because a moving hoop, a loop looping, a shaping of objects into a material blur of non-beginning and non-ending, mirrors the velocity of experience. [A model Mobius strip then is really just a three-dimensional representation of the fourth-dimensional hoop.]

When a bus darts past your field of vision, it moves away in a linear vector defined in essence by the surface of the earth’s crust. If you are on a bus darting past Overland Avenue, the earth is transformed into blurring lines of light and matter. The bus stops and the experiential hooping of earth-things comes to an end. Just as waking and sleeping are not fixed points of experience but only definite matters in the abstract (a fact also mirrored in our entire existence of being here and then eventually not), these liminal continuums mirror the experience of being hooped.

Returning to the failures of three-dimensional geometry versus actual “live” geometries, all three-dimensional objects imply a spectral dissection dictated by their coming into contact with experience (i.e. with sense and reflection) and perhaps none so illustratively as a hoop. The are two ways a subject can be presented to a hoop: as a thing-that-hoops and as a hooping-thing. As a thing-that-hoops, it is a child’s hula-hoop or a metal bracelets – but a hooping thing can be any encapsulating space of varying thickness: a belt, a car, a department store floor, the woods, etc. Life cocoons experience, but observers – others – are finite, specifically our widths, even just the space of a brain synapse, or an atom. A loop is a tube in the moment. A moment in a tube is a container. In life, the wild is counterintuitively a confined space. Our conceptions are always-already limited, yet simultaneously more complex than their abstraction attempts to conceal.

Back to the original question: Is a hoop just a dot by other means?

If you go fast enough, all shapes turn to lines, and if you are constantly moving then what’s the difference between the continual line connected in space (a hoop) and a dot? At top speeds, dots become indistinguishable from hoops, not to mention other dots. Dots – not points – are live space when they are blots, spots, smudges, spills, drops – all synonyms of human accident. The information age devalues uncanny dots and their vicissitudes because they avert the binary codes of mobility.

Post-Word Literacy

The state of Michigan, as argued by lawyers for its Attorney General and acting on behalf of Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s office, currently supports the position that its children’s fundemental right to education does not include a fundamental right to literacy. Their motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit suing the State for unlawful failure of duty to students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District states the position bluntly: “There is no fundamental right to literacy.”

There is something in this argument that escapes the typical criticisms of legal cynicism and semantic decadence. In other words, the supposed plausibility that one’s right to education is provided in the tools to learn alone irrespective of results of having learned, or that there are meaningful distinctions to be made parsing the terms education, learning, schools, and literacy are both insulting arguments, but they both also fail to reveal the truly heartless core of the document. The State of Michigan has, to my hears, entered into Lewis Carroll territory of Catch-22 deadlocks and tyrannical fantasies. Rights themselves are based upon literacy. Our legal system is one elephantine literature. As far as the courts are concerned, citizens are already grafted into this literature of laws and rights (our names, social security numbers, passports, driver’s license number, fingerprints) than our corporeal or emotional experience bares witness. One cannot be a citizen without the literacy of citizenry. So to say that students have no fundamental right to literacy is akin to saying they have no rights to rights, or legal recourse: they are always-already unjustified.

In “A Mad Tea-Paty” (Alice in Wonderland Chapter VII), Alice is relentlessly misunderstood, misrepresented, and ignored to the tune of everyone else’s ignorance, arrogance and stupidity:

`[…] I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

`It is the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

Here, the arbiters of logic (Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse) refuse to acknowledge Alice’s inherent human dissonance (i.e. that even though she didn’t say exactly what she meant, she did attempt to communicate with the party with what she did say, and not purposefully confuse the proceedings) while ignoring how their own permutations of proper speech and correct civility reveal further conflict, their absolutist premise that individual particulars always refer to different ideas and never the same breaks down within a few supposedly supportive exchanges.

What makes Michigan’s legal verbiage additionally worrisome is that American society has very recently entered into something close to a post-word era where what you say, what is written, and what words mean, means terrifyingly little. For confirmation of our immediate context, here is The Atlantic‘s James Fallows from just earlier today:

A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies.

Since about the 1970s, sociologists and media theorists have speculated that we live in an aliterate society, where people can read but chose not to. And then in more recent decades, critics have discussed the “truthiness” of American public and the failure of evidence to effectively persuade or – in the case of Global Warming – progressively build consensus. Recent days have shown that perhaps these are mere symptoms to a far more oppressive paradox of living utterly outside the sphere of poetry, rhetoric, and apparently also meaning.

Victorian George MacDonald speculated on the what a post-word world might look like in his aphoristic “The Prison”:

I think I have seen from afar something of the final prison of all, the innermost cell of the debtor of the universe… It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city of which God is the light—where the evil dogs go ranging, silent as the dark, for there is no sound any more than sight. The time of signs is over. Every sense has (had) its sign, and they were all misused: there is no sense, no sign more—nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him… Soon misery will beget on his imagination a thousand shapes of woe, which he will not be able to rule, direct, or even distinguish from real presences.

This uncanny vision of modern subjectivity trapped in a feedback-loop of solipsistic misuse, unable to grasp the meaning of something even so basic as a sign, is a nightmare curiously attuned to our current predicament where the consensus path of least resistance is often simultaneously considered to flirt with unprecedented disaster.  The twin gods of Fate and Chaos seem to have superseded any and all principles of Modernity that help shape self-governance, conceptions of social responsibly, or mutual regard for the rights of individuals. The state of Michigan is essentially arguing to students, individuals, people, anyone, everyone—like the Hatter to Alice, like MacDonald’s cosmic prison—that they simply don’t exist. What words will convince them otherwise?

Is a Term a Word?

Terminology sometimes refers to specialized language, but it also can refer simply to language that requires more than one word as its signifier. Are terms then in this second sense not also words?

There are two ways that words can contain more that one signifier and still – incontrovertibly – be called words: the compound word (i.e. sailboat, birdbrain, loveshack) and the hyphenated word (i.e. half-baked, gold-digger, mind-boggled). These both leave unaccounted the so-called term (i.e. fish tank, human history, credit cards). Terms refer to a single idea or thing, so in this sense they are cleanly nouns, and yet they are simultaneously not words but are instead a kind of word-set, something universally compounded in usage but never formally linked whether typographically or grammatically. They are paradoxically two-word words.

While this contradiction in the definition of “word” may or may not hold, the OED points to a crack in the foundation of “term” as well:

13 a: A word or phrase used in a definite or precise sense in some particular subject, as a science or art; a technical expression

13: b. In wider application: Any word or group of words expressing a notion or conception, or denoting an object of thought; an expression (for something). Generally with qualifying adj. or phrase.

In the first definition, terms are something specified, technical, scientific and exacting; yet in the second, the thing is general, vague, whimsical, and inexact.

The word “signifier” is a linguistic term that appeals to the ambiguities and tensions of our common conceptions and definitions for the word “word.” Presumably, a signifier refers to what is being used to signal the thing subjected to discussion (signified) whether it is through a hyphenated word, compound word, utterance, term, word-set, sentence, sneeze, or hiccup.

These gaps in clarification highlight just how much grammar (which is a kind of mutant field of philology) and Linguistics (which is both a pseudo-anthropology and a pseudo-neuroscience) are distinctly separate disciplines. Besides their socio-political differences (Grammar is insular, Linguistics is cross-cultural), they have fundamentally different conceptions of what builds our symbolic networks. Each is helpfully insufficient, and both curiously incompatible. Moreover, both the slipperiness of the terms and their porously abstract conceptualizations that attempt to (with varyingly degrees and success) buttress as well as conceal the mechanistic virtues (or even sense) of either further supports the counterintuitive claim that language is far more material and physically resonant than semioticians or grammarians have historically highlighted when configuring the Whats and the Hows of language.

The Creaturely Language of John Clare

 

In a fragment catalogued blandly ‘Taste’, Clare includes “twharling,” a word which when it was first transcribed posthumously from his copious unpublished fragments by one of the Tibbles in 1932 was printed “thwarting”. Here is the restored selection taken from Grainger’s edition of The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare:

the mind delights to indulge in the rambles—this is happiness—to lean on the rail of a wooden brig & mark the crinkles of the stream below & the little dancing beetles twharling & glancing their glossy coats to the summer sun—to bend over the old woods mossy rails & list the call of the hairey bumble bee playing with the ivy flowers till he has lost his way—& anon finds it by accident & wings out of the wood to the sunshine that lead him to his mossy nest lapt up in the long grass of some quiet nook—such is happiness—& to wander a pathless way thro the intricacys of woods for a long while & at last burst unlooked for into the light of an extensive prospect at its side & there lye & muse on the lands cape to rest ones wanderings—this is real happiness—

The question is whether this and other sundry orthographic irregularities found throughout this passage in particular and Clare’s writings in general are vital to Clare’s poetry. How do we find them to be vital and to what degree? More or less, Clare scholars agree that his odd spellings are an important artifact of his biography and some might even say his artistry, his process. But are they important to his art? For me, the fact that different caring editors doubly disagree on both the word itself (which may or may not even be a word outside Clare’s works) and its (mis)spelling precisely at the crux – the sweet spot – of an essay on “taste,” so one explicitly debating what is or is not poetic writing/reading, seems suspiciously more than interesting [NOTE: from this same text, Tibbles and Robinson/Powell record “coy flowers” while Grainger records “ivy flowers”]. The passage – a quintessentially Clare bit of prose – belies claims of country clumsiness or the remnants of the poet’s documented bouts with mania insofar as it is an immersive joy to read: the argument is lucid and clear, its language vivid and animate. Can it really just be an awkward reality that such intelligible writing happens also to be illegible?

Clare’s regular engagements in mischievous orthography is alternatively read as rustic or erratic depending on the critic. Clare’s biographer, Jonathan Bate, notes how Taylor and Hessey chose to publish Clare’s poems to preserve their “rude” presentation: “unpunctuated, unedited, highly irregular in spelling and punctuation” (205). However, Clare’s “rude way” is not simply the product of a unschooled verisimilitude, as Bate readily admits: ”[in Clare] words are made to do things they had never done before” (379). English traditions of onomatopoeias, dialecticisms (even ideolecticisms), portmanteaus (what Bate calls his “nounce-words”), as well as a multitude of regional nicknames for flaura and fauna are all labored into his writings. However, what begins to bring evidence of a truly wild English at work is the fact that these many existing devices for tinkering meaning in early-Victorian literature are not enough to compose Clare’s universal poetic, or as he opines in Pastoral Poesy,“A language that is ever green.” When Clare plays with such poetic instruments – as in: “Young hodge the horse boy with a soodling gait,” or, “The toltering bustle of a blundering trot,” or, “Moozing cool shelterd neath the skirting woods” (three instances from Rural Morning) – the poetic encounter in all its misspelled messiness is so musically peculiar and full of indefinable yet deeply relatable animation and vitality that the questionable language becomes neologistic, a new language created to express inconceivable[1] truths. “I used to feel a pleasure […] reading the oft thumbd books which I possesd till fancy ‘made them living things’, Clare writes in an autobiographical fragment (61). Language and poetry for Clare exists in a kind of biological – “ever green” – state[2] of flux and particularity, and both Clare’s asymmetric repetition of common words that, as Paulin writes, “take on subtly subversive vibrations of meaning” (xxiv), and his neologistic spellings that orthographically mirror the biodiversity of the natural world are indeed vital to this project. [Before reading one of Clare’s sonnets to address how this graphic, morphological interpretation of misspelling could possibly add or aid in the meaning of a poem, it is worth saying that there is not only existing linguistic theory that undergirds. The scientist and writer Alexander von Humboldt wrote theories of language and poetry – his own take on the problems of ‘Taste’ basically contemporaneous with Clare’s own work. When in 1808 the German Parisian wrote, “New forms, too, enter the common treasury of language. The speech of humans is enlivened by everything indicative of natural truth, be it in the representation of sensory impressions from the outer world or of profoundly stirred thought and inner feelings,” (Views of Nature, 141-142) it’s hard to believe he was writing before anyone knew of John Clare the poet, roughly the same year as he wrote Helpstone.

 The Crow  

Clare’s sonnet The Crow uses language in assorted startling ways. The poem recounts the joys of seeing a crow, but the crow is animated by variant language. In its entirety it reads:

 

How peaceable it seems for lonely men

To see a crow fly in the thin blue sky

Over woods and fealds, o’er level fen

It speaks of villages, or cottage nigh

Behind the neighboring woods – when march winds high

Tear off the branches of the hugh old oak

I love to see these chimney sweeps sail by

And hear them over the knarled forest croak

Then sosh askew from the hid woodmans stroke

That in the woods their daily labours ply

I love the sooty crow nor would provoke

Its march day exercises of croaking joy

I love to see it sailing to and fro

While feelds, and woods and waters spread below

The musicality – “speaks,” “croak,” “croaking joy” – and animated imagery – “fly in the thin blue sky,” “chimney sweeps sail by,” “sosh askew from the hid woodmans stroke,” “I love the sooty crow” – are present in abundance and gift the poem exuberance and a feeling of controlled levity. And we sense in words like “hugh” “knarled” “sosh” and even the imagistic nicknaming “chimney sweeps” that the poem is full of instances where Clare is trying to capture a colloquial sense of how people talk[3], as well as poetic spelling that blurs the line between recording regional dialect and onomatopoeia. Yet, the most interesting use of language is in the doubly-unique misspellings of the word “fields”: the third line reads “fealds” while the last line reads “feelds”. How could this be anything but the odd accident? In a humorous and rambling journal entry on grammar, Clare writes the following: “what ever is intelligbe to others is grammer” (accurate spelling recorded[4]). It is tempting to pass off these findings in The Crow as just another soodling gait, except that we find a similar instance in the poem Insects:

How merrily they creep and run and flye

No kin they bear to labour’s drudgery

[…]

Then in the heath bell’s silken hood they flie

And like to princes in their slumber lie.

So here is an other example of a word doubly-mispelled in a single poem. Neither “flye” nor “flie” being properly “fly” – a Clare word spells correctly[5] often enough. Within the rhyme scheme, and in following after “run”, “flye” would seem to suggest the sound of “flee,” neither does he write “flee” nor does reading it seem to infer to mean “flee” but instead only possibly an alternately pronounced “fly.” What is the meaning of all this orthographic drudgery?

Yet a third poem contains double-misspellings, this time alongside its proper construction. Decay A Ballad is a cynical, sly, poignant song of 10-line stanzas and begins melodically, “O poesy is on the waine”, a line which repeats eight more times. However “waine” never shows up again written as it is introduced, the “i-n-e” configuration never resurfacing. The poem oscillates then in no apparent pattern from the correct “wane” to another error, “wain”. “Wane” wins out in the last few stanza, as if to signal yet again that spelling is a kind of tyranny over the whims of poetic musings. In this way, the title “Decay” speaks explicitly to a microcosmic decaying taking place in the surface of the poem as the poet submits to the conventions of English (perhaps in order to sell more poems).

“A language that is ever green” implies Clare’s neologisms are not mere mechanical inventions, however. His words are better viewed as creaturely: they are alive with difference. In this way, Clare’s noting of “feelds” and “fealds” in The Crow describe two distinct fields, or perhaps the same field at two distinct times; both places of the crow’s joyful croaking, though, often imperceptibly, unique. The inconstancy of nature, that which is imprecisely referred to as both impressionistic and uncanny by scholars, is graphically situated in Clare’s “green” orthography that resists the conventions of printed English. Just as repeated signs can call attention to themselves as mere words – something stark and empty which the speaker and the reader desire to be more meaningful than they actually are – negating that repetition through orthographic play preserves the bouncing unpredictable happenings of nature-before-your-eyes. In contrast, Clare’s ode to the specific bird tied together with disparate memories over time figures the fragmented memories of continuously “lonely men” rather than a single sighting affecting shifting emotional states.

Clare was so detailed in his observations of nature that his poems on occasion detailed information undocumented in scientific records of the time and using regional language undocumented in any lexicon. What a dangerous plan for an impoverished person. Yet, this desire to amplify the microscopic is what makes reading Clare’s writings such an expansive delight: “The instinct of the snail is a very remarkable & worthy notice tho such things are lookd over with a carless eye” (NHW, 32)].  In part this what makes Clare’s work so interesting alongside Humbolt: Humbolt had to be literarlly immersed in the screaming biodiversity of South American jungles to develop more-or-less the same ecolinguinstics [compare for example Humboldt’s 1844 writing, “[w]ords, therefore, are more than signs and forms; and their mysterious and beneficent influence is there most powerfully manifested where the language has sprung spontaneously from the minds of the people, and on its own native soil.” With Clare’s lines from Pastoral Poesy: “True poesy is not in words / But images that thoughts express] that Clare ascribed from his homespun corner in the Midlands; according to Bate, except once, Clare never even saw the sea. But he did see crows.

Clare’s creaturely, “twharling” language of orthographic abnormalities and crooked repetitions should be considered as composed with equal attention and care to microscopic detail that he gives to the subjects of his work.

[1] John Ruskin in Modern Painters III defines prophetic inspiration: “[people] who, strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to influences stronger than they, and see in a sort untruly, because what they see is inconceivably above them” (74).

[2] representational not incarnational

[3] Another regional poet writing in the 1840’s, William Barnes, once “declared that ‘the arraignment of the humble classes for speaking bad English’ is ludicrous, since in fact ‘they are the only persons who speak English at all’.” This seems to confirm Clare’s opening couplet from Pastoral Poesy. (Oxford, 2013, xlii)

[4] Editors Robinson and Powell decided to add Band-Aids to Clare’s unpublished prose piece and came up with “intellg[i]b[l]e” as though perhaps Clare didn’t purposely botch this word of all words. (481)

[5] As in Woodpecker’s Nest, just to give one of many instances.

Jargon Alert #1: “impact”

On some unspecified date in the very recent past, the professional class of America decided the word “effect” was simply too difficult to keep storage within a language also housing the word “affect” – and so, a remedial cure was drudged from the vernacular of auto insurance forms: everyone began using the word “impact” in hitherto unknown and morphologically abusive ways that have now stretched the term into a viscous jargon jam currently observing peak, craft-bottled mania.

The term “prevents thought” through what G.K. Chesterton calls a “paradox of death.” The word enjoys popularity because it has a visceral, athletic, even disaster movie-like flash to it. However, as a noun, it is merely an inert placeholder for additional details and, eventually one hopes, meaning. In reality, the word only works as connective tissue in a much larger context, it was never designed to be the story itself. Impacts in what way? Impacts how? Impacts impactfully is nonsensical (ignoring the debate of whether its comprehensible English). More specifically, following Chesterton, it is a particularly “destructive” kind of nonsense:

Nearly all modern paradoxes merely announce death. I see everywhere among the young men who have imitated Mr. Shaw a strange tendency to utter epigrams which deny the possibility of further life and thought. A paradox may be a thing unusual, menacing, even ugly—like a rhinoceros. But, as a live rhinoceros ought to produce more rhinoceri, so a live paradox ought to produce more paradoxes. Nonsense ought to be suggestive; but nowadays it is abortive. The new epigrams are not even fantastic finger-posts on the wild road: they are tablets, each set into a brick wall at the end of a blind alley. So far as they concern thought at all, they cry to men, “Think no more,” as the voice said “Sleep no more” to Macbeth. These rhetoricians never speak except to move the closure. Even when they are really witty (as in the case of Mr. Shaw), they commonly commit the one crime that cannot be forgiven among free men. They say the last word. (“Two Kinds of Paradox,” 1911)

And so, our first “Jargon Alert” has officially been issued. Watch for rhinoceri.

On Memory

When one speaks of memory, they more often than not mean one of two things. Memory refers mainly to 1) the ability of recalling to mind past experiences, knowledge, and even vague, seemly unformed ideas, like half-dreams, or illusory sense details; or else 2) the conscious, here-and-now presence of those exact thoughts upon the person. With this second meaning, memory is experienced as the opposite of an ability (like trying to remember the digits of π, or the trivial order of U.S. Presidents, etc.) and connotes instead a kind of involuntary mental flash, an unprovoked assault of emotions, remembrances that well up as though cast by a spell (or, as Proust attests, an olfactory spirit), thus triggering an unintentionally potent emotional consciousness, itself unpredictably recalled. Memory is a human enterprise as much as it is an alienating shock to the system. The question then arises as to whether this is a case of one word meaning two separate experiences – two unique phenomena – or whether these oppositional characteristics are both, paradoxically, essential features of this profound thing we call memory.

Evoking the concept of memory, Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning describes two categories of student assessment practiced in medieval universities (by way of being critical of their supposed distinction): verbatim and ex tempore. Verbatim (still in our colloquial) denotes the quoting in complete passages of existing discourse in order for students to buttress the persuasiveness of an argument or stake directional paths through logical conundrums. This oral feature of ancient societies is today often distained as rote, insulating a kind of automaton-like inhumanity, even though what has replaced the by-gone culture of oral memorializing is one that leaves all data collection and storage to an entirely externalized machine (more often than not, one branded Google). Humanity in effect is perhaps now nothing but the retrievers of answers; we are the dogs of microchips.

On the other hand, ex tempore (modified in the adjective/adverb form extemporaneous/ly) responds to prompts and academic quagmires through more personalized, off-the-cuff remarks designed to highlight either a learned mind or an ignorant one, a sharp philosopher or a stumped lollygag. Ex tempore refers to the impromptu – what Bacon calls “present” (anticipating Bergson’s vitality) – spontaneity essential to human culture that should not be overlooked by grand systems of organization, least not education.

In a surprisingly modern twist, Bacon goes onto the argue that poetry (“poesy”) is evidence that even the presence of blocked intellect (i.e. one who fails at both verbatim and ex tempore) does not prove the quality of mind:

Poesy is a part of learning in measure of words for the most part restrained, but in all other points extremely licensed, and doth truly refer to the Imagination; which, being not tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which nature hath severed, and sever that which nature hath joined, and so make unlawful matches and divorces of things.

In other words, the existence of poetry is proof that this complimentary duality of verbatim and ex tempore is in no way comprehensive of the human mind (or the so-called “domiciles” of Early Modern understanding: Memory, Rationality and Imagination). Herein, memory’s disputed territory is further obscured by its conceptual collision with Imagination, or invention: “unlawful matches” “not tied to the laws of matter”. This creative hybridity is something usually not associated with a memory, until of we realize that, in an age where reference to Rashomon is commonplace, this dynamic understanding of memory as not mere recall is hardly controversial. The concept of a “mnemonic device” is another classic example of how correlative data requires an element of fantasy in order to work with any consistency. The advent of clockworks and increasingly complex navigational tools during this period further lead to Bacon’s pre-Romantic notion that Nature was a machine – a kind of God-clock – of which human endeavors work to uncover little-by-little proof of its ingenious intricacies. No wonder then that Romantics (after Alexander von Humbodt) insist poetry (and the Arts in general) is essential for any scientific understanding.

Applied to the phenomena of memory, memories are analyzed not because they exist but because they are experienced. As much as the research sciences delve into the human mysteries of memory (through neuroscience, the psychological study of PTS and trauma, AI and cognitive robotics, etc.) there will still exist the profound need to creatively express our memories in words, in language, in songs, and in poems. The conundrum then of the contradictory definitions of memory is not located internally in their descriptions per se, but in their non-poetic state, in their failure to account for the creative imperative of memory.