Recently I have been prompting class rewrites. It's often hard work. I read essays, add needed comments, schedule room conferences, coax reflection, cajole enterprise, and often promise help till the cows come home. Naturally, my work isn't all that formal, since it ambles casually in and out of classroom doors, plops comfortably down in armchairs, and gets done typically in hallways — often, in a rush, in the copyroom. Frankly, it's mostly messy, but I do like it. It has a nice, real-world, naturally "analogue" feel to it.
I was thinking about that word last week. I was chatting with Mike, a twin I have in English 101 now. Dan, his brother, is the better writer — an artist — but Mike has the more charming, digital personality as you might guess. I remember when I guessed right that Mike is a Fedora-Linux fan, and understandably thinks "open-source" means global salvation. Well, last week, when I tried to convince him that 99% of his life was lived in analogue, wouldn't you know he shot back, "Yeah, but I live for the digital."
So for Mike today — and for you, too — I've thought to provide, if not an Insight into writing as yet, at least an InSite into its current marketing.
Function Follows FormIt renders two very helpful buttons I've crafted to "blockquote" my code above and, indeed, to "pullquote," at left, its point: "Function Follows Form" (indicatively speaking). I've thought to share it to demonstrate how self-referencing recursions can sometimes be partly seen in textual or visual representation, at least if carefully deformed and wholly unworkable. Happily, you can find them both below, even if you can't use them in my two left-hand BQ/PQ buttons.
Naturally, there are more — involving Perl script, ASCII code, binary digits, electrons, quarks, even theorized strings, I hear. All of which goes to show that such backend matters can become enormously complicated.
But it's been that way from the get-go. Indeed, you might recall my first nod to Geoffrey Hartman's apt take on style, "an index of how the writer deals with the consciousness of mediation." So I thought to end by extending Hartman's point with a quotation drawn from a programmer much smarter than I, LeRoy Searle — a Seattle writer who marks Hartman's point also more stylishly than I:
[T]he shape of language, as articulation [Searle writes], is the realization of a potential; and what is produced in the exercise of the power is a form. Linguistic insight is based on the ability to infer from manifest examples the function of the example from its form, as when one recognizes that the relation between a topic and a comment is invariant, no matter what the content of the topic or the comment. So too with subjects and predicates, noun phrases and verb phrases, parts of speech, inflectional patterns, and so on. It follows that items in a language have not "meaning" but only a distinctive shape and that understanding any articulate expression requires assigning an interpretation to that shape.
· Art, Thought, and Technology on Nicholson Baker's "Up" Escalator ·
Today my two previous posts have prompted a third on footnotes. I'm sorry if apologies are due. I take up from the musical world of footnotes sounded first in Adorno's Philosophie der neuen Musik — and reechoed in Bloch's The Historian's Craft — two added notes sounded by Nicholson Baker in his clever first novel, The Mezzanine (1988). If Ode Owed to the Low Art of Footnotes and Footnotes: From Low Art to High Science make my noted theme old, I hope my variations are at least semi-pleasing. Please consider them an allegro, adagio, and presto "set" — with my belated "movement" being too long here.
Baker's first novel, you may know, describes a man's brief ride at the end of his lunch hour from the ground floor to the mezzanine on an escalator. Although Baker's text meditates on the man's brief ascent and, more, on his own needed noon-time purchase of a new pair of shoelaces, the text so well delineates much of what I have said recently that I have thought to share it — especially since citation and acknowledgment epitomize Baker's key themes, namely, physical-textual-dialectical displacements in vertical space and the old debt of consciousness to "the quotidian" — of art and thought to "the technological-scientific everyday."
Here foreshortened from 3 pages, Baker's notes are just 2 among 49 in a text of 135 pages. So fully "contrapuntal" and loopily "digressive" are they, that you might also be prepared for some slight "misquotation" — recalling my U & I post maybe — since the thought is riffed as subtly, cleverly, and trickily as that of a blues musician on speed. To help you follow, I've indeed had to largoize these notes, cutting them down some. So if you want your Baker "up," consider popping on down fast to buy The Mezzanine. After all, your next job is to recheck my notes.
Although Baker's first note aims clearly to link "shoelaces" and "footnotes," its note-referring sentence — "A glowing mention in William Edward Hartpole Lecky's History of European Morals (which I had been attracted to . . . by the ambitious title and the luxuriant incidentalism of the footnotes* . . . )" — also adds other crucial elements: the central notion, first, that artists and philosophers have quirky habits (I cite just two), and second, repeated news that Baker's narrator had earlier purchased a (Penguin) copy of Aurelius's Meditations, which text provides Baker with an epitomizing theme for all his notes: namely, "Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!" Here foreshortened to essentials, then, is the narrator's 46th note:
*In one footnote [he starts] . . . Lecky quotes a French biographer of Spinoza to the effect that the philosopher liked to entertain himself by "dropping flies into spiders' webs . . ." I crave knowledge of this kind of detail. As Boswell said, ". . . Everything relative to so great a man is worth observing. I remember Dr Adam Smith, in his rhetorical lectures at Glascow, told us he was glad to know that Milton wore latchets in his shoes, instead of buckles." (Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Herbrides, Penguin, page 165. Think of it: John Milton wore shoelaces! ) Boswell, like Lecky (to get back to the point of this footnote), and Gibbon before him, loved footnotes. They knew that the outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph, but is encrusted with a protective bark of citations, quotation marks, italics, and foreign languages, a whole variorum crust of "ibid.'s" and "compare's" and "see's" that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a moment in one's mind. . . . Digression — a movement away from the gradus, or upward escalation, of the argument — is sometimes the only way to be thorough, and footnotes are the only form of graphic digression sanctioned by centuries of typesetters. . . . It is true that Johnson said, . . . "The mind is refrigerated by interruption; . . . the reader is weary, he suspects not why; and at last throws away the book[.] . . . " ("Preface to Shakespeare.") . . . But the great scholarly or anecdotal footnotes of Lecky, Gibbon, or Boswell, written by the author of the book himself to supplement . . . what he says in the primary text, are reassurances that the pursuit of truth doesn't have clear outer boundaries: it doesn't end with the book; restatement and self-disagreement and the enveloping sea of referenced authorities all continue. Footnotes are the finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wiser reality of the library.
Baker's "finer-suckered" image sounds a profound library note, in effect, that sounds "The Bathos," so to speak, "of the Bibliothek." For though it's happily occasioned by an earlier-mentioned (I'd say "Puget-Sound-locked") "octopus," Baker seems rather to anticipate a higher, but still lower, note — one pardoxically ending The Mezzanine. I'll cite it later myself. But for now, with such a "finer-suckered" grasp, Baker turns himself to a reflective understanding of his 49th note, wherein his narrator aptly invokes some "periodicity" (though I'd more simply call it his "style") "ratings." Baker's referring sentence reads: "It was impossible to predict which of the two, Aurelius or shoelaces, would rank higher in my overall lifetime periodicity ratings upon my death.*"
*I am fairly certain now [he avers] that shoelaces will rank higher. In the course of preparing the present record of that Aurelius-and-shoelace noon [essentially epitomizing The Mezzanine], I lived through a rigorous month in which the subject of shoelace-tying and shoelace wear came up 325 times, whereas Aurelius's sentiment cycled around only 90 times. I doubt very much that I will ever concentrate on either of them again, having worn both of the thoughts out for myself. But these sudden later flurries may not count, since they are artificial duplicative retrievals performed in order to understand how the earlier natural retrievals had come about. The very last instance of shoelace thought happened as follows: by chance, I was flipping through the 1984-1986 Research Reports of MIT's Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at my office, and I noticed . . . the subject of the "pathology of worn ropes" . . .
And then [later at the library], checking the 1984 volumes of World Textile Abstracts, I read entry 5422:
Methods for evaluating the abrasion resistance and knot slippage strength of shoe laces
Two mechanical devices for testing the abrasion resistance and knot slippage performance of shoe laces are described and investigated. Polish standards are discussed. [C] 1984/4522
I let out a small cry and slapped my hand down on the page. The joy I felt may be difficult for some to understand. Here was a man, Z. Czaplicki, who had to know! He was not going to abandon the problem with some sigh about complexity and human limitation after a minute's thought, as I had, and go to lunch — he was going to make the problem his life's work. Don't tell me he received a centralized directive to look into a more durable weave or shoelace for the export market. Oh no! His very own shoelace had snapped one time too many one morning, and instead of buying a pair of replacement dress laces at the corner farmacja and forgetting about the problem until the next time, he had constructed a machine and strapped hundreds of shoelaces of all kinds into it, wearing them down over and over, in a passionate effort to get some subtler idea of the forces at work. And he had gone beyond that — he had built another machine to determine which surface texture of shoelace would best hold its knot, so that humanity would not have to keep retying its shoelaces all day long and wearing them out before their time. A great man! I left the library relieved. Progress was being made. Someone was looking into the problem. Mr. Czaplicki, in Poland, would take it from there [my emphasis*].
*Here is room, perhaps, to say that Baker's last chapter shows his narrator returned from lunch — at the "top" of the escalator — looking down finally: "I looked down," Baker's narrator says, "the great silver glacier to the lobby. The maintenance man was at the bottom. I waved to him. He held up his white rag for a second, then put it back down on the rubber handrail." Permit me, but could this itself be a proper acknowledgement of some "tenor" to his "vehicular ride"? It's a good "high note" to end on, at least, and perhaps "sustain" . . .
Trees hereabouts mark Christmas all year. They seem to go with the territory. Of course, you seldom see trees decorated save with what you perceive, rain or shine, quite naturally to hang from their boughs. Here hangs, for example, thanks to the miracle of digital technology, the light of the world caught suspended in fir.
Such radiance seemed to deserve sharing today. Of course, those indoor trees around which we may have gathered will all soon enough be put away and, with them, the bright lights that have artificially but happily, I hope, graced your Christmas Day. In any case, I have thought to reflect on how my own web of words — this technology in which we live and move and have our being — may itself be neither so artificial as is sometimes thought nor so ignorable as might still be imagined. For as old St. John has said, the light of the world does in fact hang in there with trees.
In any event, around here it does — and may it do so where you live, too. Merry Christmas!
Electro-Magnetism. Yes, you heard me right, electro-magnetism — the mysterious but mathematically-formulated, exactingly-controlled energy powering our literary relations here at · You Got Style · I think about it often in November, especially when the winds I last wrote about threaten to break the lines linking my machine to yours. Tricky business that, as old Ken Lay would say, and my late dad, who once proudly wore a 50-year IBEW pin as a lineman for the Pacific Electric Railway — where he said, quite properly, "Red Cars" (L. A. style). He also knew how to say, "Hot stuff."
I got to thinking about all this while I was writing Under the Weather Tuesday. You'll recall I was doing a deliberate double-take on weather/whether and a subtler, single-take on rafters. Although I felt like apologizing — even writing first, "Forgive my puns. I couldn't resist." — I decided to drop my sad pleading and, with the authority of James Clerk Maxwell behind me, stand up plainly and honestly for some electro-magnetic juice delivered straight. Maxwell, you say — literally or figuratively? Literally, though it's still, as you'll see, very tricky business.
What I have in mind is the witty first paragraph to his essay "Are There Real Analogies in Nature?" Included in Campbell and Garnet's 1882 biography of Maxwell, it remains a good literary-philosophical supplement to his more famous A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Although Maxwell's scientific equations aren't my subject, his speculations in that essay seem in some ways their equal, especially in the wisely affirmative answer he gives to his essay's leading question (not surprisingly given Maxwell's Scottish-Presbyterian style, the answer has a nice moral tinge — slightly shaded by Kantian reflections on the larger methodological-scientific questions that prompt it). In any event, since my present interests are stylistic, I'll just cite Maxwell's witty (I think you'll agree) first paragraph. The subject is the reciprocal relation of puns to analogies.
In the ancient and religious foundation of Peterhouse there is observed this rule, that whoso makes a pun shall be counted the author of it, but that whoso pretends to find it out shall be counted the publisher of it, and that both shall be fined. Now, as in a pun two truths lie hid under one expression, so in an analogy one truth is discovered under two expressions. Every question concerning analogies is therefore the reciprocal of a question concerning puns, and the solutions can be transposed by reciprocation. But since we are still in doubt as to the legitimacy of reasoning by analogy, and as reasoning even by paradox has been pronounced less heinous than reasoning by puns, we must adopt the direct method with respect to analogy, and then, if necessary, deduce by reciprocation the theory of puns.
Although I don't want to reciprocate the transposition here — by going astray into deconstructive excursions into catachresian takes on Paul de Man, say — it seems worth noting that, stylistically speaking, Maxwell's text seems to be onto something. In any case, as mine has expressly that aim, I thought to conclude with a good short story, one brought to my attention earlier this week in a widely-shared punny email. Slightly edited for dramatic emphasis, I give you
Taco-Bell Liver & Cheese
Three handsome L. A. dogs are walking down Whittier Boulevard when they chance to see a beautifully enchanting Poodle. The three dogs fall all over themselves in an effort to be the first to reach the lovely creature, but all end up arriving in front of her at the same time. The three are speechless before her beauty, slobbering all over themselves — hoping for just one enticing, encouraging glance. Aware of her charms and of her obvious effect on the three would-be suitors, she decides to be kind, telling them:
"The first one who can use the words 'liver' and 'cheese' together in an imaginative, intelligent sentence can go out with me."
The sturdy, muscular black Lab speaks up quickly and says,
"I love liver and cheese."
"Oh, how childish," says the Poodle. "That shows no imagination or intelligence whatsoever."
She turns then to the tall, shiny Golden Retriever and asks,
"How well can you do?"
"Um. I HATE liver and cheese," says the Retriever.
"My, my," replies the Poodle. "I guess it's hopeless. You're just as dumb as the Lab."
She then turns to the last of the three dogs and says,
"How about you, little guy?"
The last of the three — tiny in stature but big in fame and finesse — is the Taco Bell Chihuahua. He gives her a sly smile and a quick wink and, casually waving to a passing Red Car, says to the Retriever and the Lab:
"Liver alone, cheese mine."
"Hot stuff," my dad would say. "Tell me, how much do we owe?"
Those of you who like Dave Barry may recognize an allusion to American history in my title. October 8th — his son's birthday — is for Barry a convenient, all-purpose date. It substitutes in Dave Barry Slept Here for every important political, social, or technological event in American history. It's Barry's uniquely movable, but singular, "point of departure" — easy to remember and, for him, fittingly, happily, and indiscriminately employed wherever, well . . . "the date's demanded."
So why do I invoke it here? It's simply to fix another singularly important birthday in mind, that of my own "point of departure," Movable Type. It's a year old today. It was precisely a year ago today that Ben and Mena Trott released it to the public. Their modest announcement and thanks, to be found here, mark a pair possessed of and powered by Style. I bet old St. Augustine and E. B. White are nodding faithfully in agreement. And more sleepily, old Dave.
"here Here and EveryWhere," I can hear him snore, "October 8th. Yeah, that was when Galileo, or Gutenberg, or, Huh, Who'd you say? . . ."