Over at Montevidayo, Carina Finn says some interesting things about the idea of mastery which I think you should go read. In her post, Carina identifies two different but complementary models of mastery: the traditional model (apprentice/journeyman/master) and the “fuck it” model.
The first model is what we typically think of when we think about the way higher education works. We enter into a specialized field relatively devoid of knowledge. We then study, work hard, take classes, publish papers, get mentors, etc etc, in order to gain the proper knowledge and capital to move on to the next phase, which is presumably some sort of practicing mastery. In this model, Carina defines mastery as “a level of technical proficiency at which one has full facility with the tools, but what is made with the tools is constantly changing.” Which I don’t necessarily disagree with, but I do have some problems, For example, in poetry, what are the tools we need to master? Line break? Metaphor? Which tools do I need to employ and learn to become a master? Meter? Rhyme? Which is to say, the tools necessary to enter into mastery are themselves chosen and ranked by masters past. It’s a hierarchy, a potentially taste-making regime (as Johannes points out in the comments section). I think the obvious answer to my issue is that all of these skills (tools, abilities, whatever) are equally important and must all therefore be learned and mastered to some degree. Which I guess is fine, but maybe a bit unrealistic.
Another compounding factor on this is something I already alluded to. There is a level of control inherent to any discussion of mastery. Carina points it out in her post:
So last night at the date-y bar we were talking about dominance and Mastery, the sex-/class-/colonial-ist implications of saying “I know how to do this so let me show you.” The other girls thought Mastery was definitively bad, implied a power imbalance impossible to right except maybe in the case of the dominant sexual submissive, and that situation is obviously fraught.
Evan Bryson – lover of audiobooks, designer of Actuary headers – and I both saw The Great Gatsby on Monday. I had already seen it in 3D on opening night a few days earlier, but this was Evan’s first time. I am something of a Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald aficionado; I’ve been waiting for this movie for over a year. Evan, on the other hand, is a Gatsby novice. Despite our varied experiences with this American classic, we both quite liked the movie. It’s big and over-the-top and exactly as non-subtle as you can imagine. But it also does some really strange and lovely things with its interpretation of the book. After seeing the movie, Evan and I decided to do a postmortem here on Actuary. We each asked each other three questions about the movie, and then we went way over the word limit to answer those questions. Here are some thoughts on Gatsby:
I’ve been thinking about the idea of the muse lately and of how it relates to influence. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of a ‘divine muse’. I’ve never felt comfortable placing poetry in the realm of the divine at all; I think that sort of rhetoric makes poetry seem mystical, distant, somehow othered from the body of literature in general. Which it isn’t. Poetry is very much a part of the swam of literature.
Instead, I think of the muse as just a more specific form of influence. For some reason I’ve always felt like the idea of influence was somehow taboo, or dirty, or gauche, as if it were in poor taste to admit to one’s influences. Maybe that’s just my perception. But I am heavily influenced by everything and all of those influences are mangled into my own work. That’s my muse: the weird writhing group of writers/artists/musicians/comedians I’m listening to and thinking about at any given moment. The creative process isn’t magic, it isn’t divine. It happens in my skull, in my brain tissue.
Influence is a more general term. An influence is not necessarily a muse, but a muse is always an influence. A muse is a specific thing which causes a specific creative response.
Note: This is part 2 of the Archiving Poetry Series. I’m currently working on a project about documentary poetry and its connection to the materialization of ghosts in media, which means I’ve been working with the concept of the “archive” a great deal lately. As a way of thinking through the many ways the idea of the archive affects poetry throughout time, I plan to regularly post various theoretical or practical inquiries of the how the archive works in poems here on The Actuary over the next several weeks. This week looks at Susan Howe, communication failure, and the desire for doubles.
The idealistic view toward poetry is that it’s trying to communicate something. I am not sure I buy into that model. Poetry encompasses so many things and is practiced by so many individuals that to say what its genre aims are is both reductive and embarrassing for those who try to do so. That being said, I think that the most interesting poetry somehow “speaks,” though not of reflection or emotion as the word “communication” might indicate. Rather, it is a transference: of mood or atmosphere or machination. My favorite poetry is the kind that is more about firing the nerve endings rather than the brain stem. Poetry is not interesting when it’s trying to make me ruminate on an intelligible world. Rather, it’s about engaging my senses so that I think I have participated in a thing that I cannot possibly know through an engagement with the writer’s senses. It’s a type of telepathy in some ways, although one that is mediated completely by personal experience and memory. In Olivia Cronk’s Skin Horse, for example, there is no clear communication of theme or character or even setting. It’s all mood, all foreboding. It bears no real experience to my own life but when I read it, I feel somehow as if it reflects the times I’ve watched pick-ups shuttle down driveways and felt despair. Through its darkness and always ellipsed desires, it gets closer to the feeling of walking across sidewalk cracks in a dead town more accurately than if Cronk literally told a story about walking across sidewalk cracks. This is the closest we can ever really hope to come to communication.
While reading John Durham Peters’s Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, I felt that he hit the nail on the head when speaking of the way real communication is a constant failure. Communication is impossible, but that doesn’t mean our attempts to communicate are necessarily failures onto themselves. Rather, the failures are in some ways the most interesting part. The running theme of Peters’s book is that rather than communicating, we are simply reading traces: reading written works, hearing recorded voices, talking over a telephone wire, et cetera. As Peters succinctly puts it: “To interact with another person could now mean to read media traces” (142). In the end, to attempt true communication is to attempt speaking with the dead. “The people who so blithely dream of a robust encounter between two sovereign souls forget the harsher, more uncanny fact that all communication via media of transmission or recording…is ultimately indistinguishable from communication with the dead” (176). This concept fascinates when played through not just literal communication (say, telling a person about a sandwich you ate today), but through the desire for emotional or intellectual communication, which is what we talk about when we talk about communicating through poetry. Is that, too, simply speaking to the dead?
Johannes Goransson wrote an interesting response/elaboration on a post I wrote earlier over at Montevidayo. In it, he links to Joyelle McSweeney’s essay about her concept of bug time and the necropastoral.
Essentially, if I can be forgiven for boiling it down so much, Joyelle’s essay argues against a linear concept of literary movement, and is instead in favor of a proliferating, self-replicating, viral-type model wherein the necropastoral acts as a liminal space for both ‘nature’ and ‘man-man’ to exist nearly inseparably, and in which art is born, replicates, mutates, and dies in a matter of seconds.
5. Historical time—imperial time—corporate time—each of these linear time scales promote the illusion of its own soundness, its own linearity, its own stability, its own economy,each of which claims to be always moving forward towards a more profitable abundant future—in fact these linear, future-oriented time scales shit poison, mutation, anachronism, a flexing and inconstant and wasteful evolutionary time which produces more bodies, more mutations than it needs. Death shits evolution. Evolution is its waste product.
I can’t help but read this as a network analogy. Instead of the progressive picture of literary linearity, it’s a networked image, where each node is independent but constantly interacting with any other node. And more than that, there are viruses all over this system, causing glitchy new nodes to spring up, older nodes to blue screen and disappear, etc.
Whole Beast Rag is an internet poetry magazine that I like. This post isn’t going to do much in the way of analysis, but WBR is beautiful and publishes interesting work and I think is worth checking out / communicating about. I haven’t seen/read much about new online lit journals lately on some of the other lit blogs I read, which seems like a real problem and a shame.
Note: I’m currently working on a project about documentary poetry and its connection to the materialization of ghosts in media, which means I’ve been working with the concept of the “archive” a great deal lately. As a way of thinking through the many ways the idea of the archive affects poetry throughout time, I plan to regularly post various theoretical or practical inquiries of the how the archive works in poems here on The Actuary over the next several weeks. We begin with Roethke.
“To visit the cemetery is to interpret a historical text, not to receive a spirit visitation.” – John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air
Often, we associate the archive with paper or book-keeping: the library’s special collections department, the museum basement, etc. But the concept of the archive, which has a long and interesting tie to poetry, is evoked in any type of storage or system of materiality. Where lies materials, there lies the foundation of the archive. And what is more material than the body itself? If we think of a material archive of the body, we must eventually end up in the cemetery. In Speaking into the Air, a history of communication theory, John Durham Peters brings up the idea of the cemetery as a kind of archive. He calls the cemetery the “archmedium,” a place where the dead are archived and visited by the living. While thinking about this concept, I immediately thought of my favorite poem, one of the quintessential cemetery poems: Theodore Roethke’s “The Lost Son.”
I keep coming back to “the flesh called fwan” on The Claudius App IV and the issue of reading its memes. In the typical meme construction, you have an implicit meaning and setup for whatever joke the creator intends. These fwan memes purposefully jut against those accepted setups and create these strange images that call to mind the original meme, but break the mold so to speak. It puts these things in the context of meme culture, which is often offensive and juvenile and inane, and I think they do an interesting job of pointing out exactly how inane and absurd memes are.
When I say meme here, I mean the “advice animal” variety, the ones which have some central character or image to give the flavor text a contextual basis. These images are often arbitrary. The original advice animals are all animals: socially awkward penguin, philosoraptor, insanity wolf, etc etc. In these memes, the viewer has to understand or know the name of the meme in order to really get the full context of the flavor text. There are other types of setup memes like this, such as the “one does not simply” meme, which play off of specific cultural products and follow a general grammar. But these are a step less arbitrary as they do have their basis on some cultural moment (the Lord of the Rings scene in the above mentioned example) whereas the advice animals are entirely arbitrary.
Anyway, back to fwan. There are some memes in the piece that actually do follow proper meme grammar. For example, there is a meme that features Fry from the show Futurama that follows the setup “Not sure if x / or y”. The poem’s meme reads: “Not sure if poetry used to exist / or I was just 15” which is the proper setup and execution for that joke. However, the meme below it simply reads “RACISM / SEXIST JOKE” which is a more general comment on memes as whole, but does not follow the image’s implicit meme grammar.
These contrasting type of memes point how incredibly insular these memes are. You need to “get it” in order to understand a given image. These little arbitrary codes perpetuate and mutate through their incarnations and popularity, but they rarely (if ever) experience a radical shift in usage. Socially awkward penguin may go through a phase where flavor text focuses on different social situations, but it will always remain socially awkward.
“flesh called fwan” is an enormous, sprawling thing, and I haven’t really digested it all yet. But the grammar of the poem seems to be doing something like the grammar of the memes it mocks. It sprawls. The poem sprawls downward and outward and thematically; it encompasses. Theres something nonsensical to it in a way I find really engaging. It comments in its own second hand code, one which it both deconstructs constantly, shifts modes and speaker, and one which acts as a pole down its spine.
One last thought about memes: the culture surrounding them is both communal and adversarial. They want as many people as possible to get involved in meme production, but a bad meme is punished harshly. They want memes to be reproduced and shared, but reposting (reusing an already posted meme) is considered particularly offensive. A meme should live as long as its fresh, then become obscure; meanwhile, the meme’s grammar continues on in its newer incarnations.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘doxing’ and what it means to dox a person, where the impetus to dox comes from, and what the dox says about how we view the internet in general. In case you’re not familiar, doxxing is the term given to making a person’s private information public, usually in the form of social security numbers, passwords, addresses, phone numbers, etc etc.
In an email with Thade Correa (a fellow Actuary contributor) he said, “But I am fascinated by this whole thing, and I’ve actually been thinking lately of how media (the internet specifically) can be thought of as a way of freezing or fixing organic “flows of becoming” (like people, for example) to make them graspable and manipulable.” He was originally thinking about doxing, but I think it’s an interesting idea, which is applicable to the larger body of identity construction through media.
In terms of doxing, I think Thade is suggesting that the dox is a way to ‘fix’ a person in time and space, to make their identity completely transparent. In my own experience, doxxing typically happens as punishment; one’s anonymity is taken away for some transgression (real or imagined), which is then usually followed by various forms of harassment. Without that stable body, however, the harassment wouldn’t be possible. In order to punish a body the body must be fixed in space, the identity must be made public. It’s an act of violence, to dox someone, to fix a self in space and time.