Word #5: “verbalism” (n.)


  1. Predominance of what is merely verbal over reality or real significance.

Paulo Freire reads a more political dimension to this dampened significance of words:

An unauthentic word, one which is unable to transform reality, results when dichotomy is imposed upon its constitutive elements. When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating “blah.” It becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 75-76).

Precarity and its Sponsors

When you drive as much as I have this year, sometimes you forget exactly what germinates a line of thought, even an obsessional line of thought. All you know is that you were driving at the time. The image I’m reminded of appears off the main road – it might actually be Main Street – to and from Catskills High School off the NY Thruway: there are beautiful views of the mountains cut in zigzags by rust-belt industrialization, a towering railroad bridge, decrepit estates hugging eroded cliffs, businesses racked by plywood, exhausted human beings. My thought, barreling through beauty and blight, is that while it’s cliché to note how cities are alienated from the natural world, there’s barely a city on earth whose locus isn’t a river, a bay, a lake, a shore—and isn’t that a contradiction? March’s issue of Harper’s features a piece by Elizabeth Royte called “The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn” about urban spelunking and the search for ancient waterways trickling up in New Yorker’s basements. Only a few months after this recollected I time, I moved to a coastal city, which is, topographically speaking, where you’ll find half of humanity on a given day. Long story short, I don’t know why I am fixated on this absurdity of Modernity where, although we predominantly inhabit the world in indifference to or defiance of our natural surroundings, we predominantly  do so at exactly those geographical spots where nature is its most animate and fertile and chaotic and wondrous.

I’m continually fascinated (and a bit perturbed) by how between the disciplines there are many different names to talk about the same thing; this can be instructive, like a kind of academic Rashomon, but also a kind of decadence where a discipline is simply air-guitaring with newfangled jargon (think Silicon Valley). In my reflections above, I am leaning on the words “contradiction” and “absurdity” – which in other disciplines can be referred to as conflicts, paradoxes, tensions, antagonisms, negations, on and on. In France during the Occupy Wall Street heyday, protestors began using the term “precarity” to name what it was they were protesting (OWS in Zuccotti Park were heavily criticized by sympathetic know-betters who said they needed to adopt a platform so they could achieve a tangible result from their work). Precarity in many ways speaks to being stuck driving-while-thinking, and thus unable to write down one’s thoughts (a sociological study of Cuomo’s 91 texting zones or so-called “Text Stops” would be fascinating to read; commissioning the NSA to produce a Humanities study with their illegally mined data and not military-industrial reports would be an interesting act of bureaucratic atonement). Precarity also is exactly the name that fits Deborah Brandt’s definition of literacy in her deeply insightful paper, Sponsors of Literacy. Brandt writes,

“literacy as a resource becomes available to ordinary people largely through the mediations of more powerful sponsors. These sponsors are engaged in ceaseless processes of positioning and repositioning, seizing and relinquishing control over meanings and materials of literacy as part of their participation in economic and political competition. In the give and take of these struggles, forms of literacy and literacy learning take shape.”

Throughout 2016, the question of just what is “literacy” has proven vexing, but Brandt seems to see fluctuating inconsistency as a key feature of literacy, which has all kinds of repercussions for the initial frame of inquiry.

By focusing on the “sponsors” of literacy, Brandt is smartly consolidating a lot of politically-charged language into a term new in this theoretical form: patrician philanthropy, corporate advertising, community organizing, social customs, wealth concentration, resource distribution, political representation, family structures, on and on. Importantly, Brandt’s personified literacy sponsors are not necessarily intentional actors, nor are literacy practitioners self-consciously intentional in a given literacy’s formation, practice, or outcome. I think because of this point of sponsorship, literacy is sufficiently distinct from Dewey’s “education is life” algebra (i.e., education happens, thus literacy is enabled). The following quote is an extended list of this unintended enabling and its outcomes (which now becomes hard to distinguish from what we call “the world” or “history”):

This analysis of sponsorship forces us to consider not merely how one social group’s literacy practices may differ from another’s, but how everybody’s literacy practices are operating in differential economies, which supply different access routes, different degrees of sponsoring power, and different scales of monetary worth to the practices in use. In fact, the interviews I conducted are filled with examples of how economic and political forces, some of them originating in quite distant corporate and government policies, affect people’s day-to-day ability to seek out and practice literacy. As a telephone company employee, Janelle Hampton enjoyed a brief period in the early 1980s as a fraud investigator, pursuing inquiries and writing up reports of her efforts. But when the breakup of the telephone utility reorganized its workforce, the fraud division was moved two states away and she was returned to less interesting work as a data processor. When, as a seven-year-old in the mid-1970s, Yi Vong made his way with his family from Laos to rural Wisconsin as part of the first resettlement group of Hmong refugees after the Vietnam War, his school district which had no ESL programming-placed him in a school for the blind and deaf, where he learned English on audio and visual language machines. When a meager retirement pension forced Peter Hardaway and his wife out of their house and into a trailer, the couple stopped receiving newspapers and magazines in order to avoid cluttering up the small space they had to share. An analysis of sponsorship systems of literacy would help educators everywhere to think through the effects that economic and political changes in their regions are having on various people’s ability to write and read, their chances to sustain that ability, and their capacities to pass it along to others. Recession, relocation, immigration, technological change, government retreat all can-and do-condition the course by which literate potential develops.

In this way, we are always the authors of our natural disasters since, after all, nature cannot destroy nature but merely makes itself look different. Education seems to become another of these “tensions” if not an outright contradiction: it aims to make people not just aware but knowledgeable of the literacies that they are already practicing, while also making them aware of the literacies of others because by doing this they will become more knowledgeable about not just their own literacies but the nature of their sponsorships, whether governing or precarious.

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.

Can you teach counterintuitive-thinking?

I recently read a portion of Thomas Browne’s famous Religio Medici that had me thinking of Seinfeld. The mid-seventeenth century text contains the following passage:

[…] I feele not in me those sordid, and unchristian desires of my profession, I doe not secretly implore and wish for Plagues, rejoyce at Famines, revolve Ephemerides, and Almanacks, in expectation of malignant Aspects, fatall conjunctions, and Eclipses: I rejoyce not at unwholsome springs, nor unsea- sonable Winters; my prayer goes with the Husbandmans; I desire every thing in its proper season, that neither men nor the times bee out of temper. Let mee be sicke my selfe, if sometimes the malady of my patient bee not a disease unto me, I desire rather to cure his infirmities than my own necessities, where I doe him no good me thinkes it is scarce honest gaine, though I confesse ’tis but the worthy salary of our well-in- tended endeavours: I am not onely ashamed, but heartily sorry, that besides death, there are diseases incureable, yet not for my owne sake, or that they be be- yond my art, but for the generall cause & sake of humanity whose common cause I apprehend as mine own […]

Browne implies what a perfect society looks like: not one in which no one gets sick, but one in which those who get sick also happen to be doctors and people carrying expert knowledge about the exact symptoms they then experience. So doctor’s still pay house visits, only they can also stay in bed because they’re the ones sick.

This is a very deft bit of dialectical or counterintuitive thinking. Generally, utopian discourses are based on purgation and exclusion: sicknesses are banished, suffering takes a holiday, longevity reigns (as though the miseries of life would be solved if everyone simply lived longer; hence utopian fiction’s tendency to devolve into dystopian fiction, and visa versa). But here Browne collapses time and space and the cultural divide between doctor and patient to envision a perfect society: What if only lawyers got divorced? Toothaches plagued only those practicing dentistry? It’s still wishful thinking, but it avoids the obvious utopia of envisioning illness gone altogether, or heartbreak, or the sadness of toothaches. Society is not absurdly error-free, just hilariously efficient.

In a silly way, this is reminiscent on Seinfeld joke about opposites:

Waitress : Tuna on toast, coleslaw, cup of coffee.

George : Yeah. No, no, no, wait a minute, I always have tuna on toast. Nothing’s ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of on toast. Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted … and a cup of tea.

Elaine : Well, there’s no telling what can happen from this.

Jerry : You know chicken salad is not the opposite of tuna, salmon is the opposite of tuna, ‘cos salmon swim against the current, and the tuna swim with it.

George : Good for the tuna.


Buried beneath the joke is the claim that there is no natural opposite; no official opposite (perhaps the “official” opposite reflected in illness/no-illness is what Hegel means by conventional wisdom, or meinung, in Phenomenology of Spirit). The notion of opposite presents the illusion of unity when in fact its construction is equally chaotic and arbitrary and tenuous. The opposite of tuna could be “a nut”, because of the conventions of American spelling; or the opposite of tuna could be a salad made from a rusty hook; or the opposite of tuna salad for lunch would be to skip the midday meal altogether and begin fasting in the hopes that this will alleviate your spiritual malaise (malaise, by the way, goes great on a tuna salad sandwich); on and on and on. The nonlinearity of these plausible opposites illustrate that behind every notion of “opposite” is a perspective, a point of view, a particular vantage point that constructs a supposed unity from the immense difference that we identify as opposition; all the while opposition as such is never a given, even if obvious, its truth is faulty. To my mind, opposition in this way shares an ontology with hypocrisy insofar as, qua themselves, neither concept actually exists (they operate as adjectives, all the while we want them to be nouns).

I am left wondering whether this sense of counterintuitive-thinking, or counter-intuition (I want to write: counterintuity) be taught? It can certainly be modeled, and if it can be modeled, then it can be posed as something important, imitatively valued. If as it seems this is a case where the practice – the thing in the doing of it – is what it is, rather than some produced sum, then emphasizing when writers and artists and thinkers practice their counterintuitive art seems to be important (meanwhile: What’s the relation between counter-intuition and invention?). So often the summative So what? in all the Humanities seems to homogenize across disciplines and dilute into the vagaries of platitudes and solipsistic sloganeering, like: “Find what it is for you,” or: “Discover your path,” (in an absolute butchering of Frost).

Instead, I think allowing students to live will best educational summations of all kinds. Education cannot incorporate lives without allowing for their being lived out, not in a potential sense but in an actual one, and for all students. This is the importance of stressing so-called critical thinking in pedagogical theory: it’s not that this thinking is more comprehensive, it’s that such skillsets encourage the whole life of the student to participate. Critical thinking is un-phone-in-able. In fact, critical thinking practiced habitually is not a even a skill but a social enterprise indistinguishable from “real world” (which so often is mistakenly suggested as the opposite of school).