Quote #20: Ted Hughes (1967)

Words that live are those which we hear, like “click” or “chuckle”, or which we see, like “freckled” or “veined”, or which we taste, like “vinegar” or “sugar”, or touch, like “prickle” or “oily”, or smell, like “tar” or “onion”. Words which belong directly to one of the five senses.

 

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?

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.