Monday, February 25, 2013

Trying to be artful-some thoughts on Ali Smith's Artful

Ali Smith~Artful
I've been trying to finish this post for a week or so now and much of the problem has been that problem of writing about something you like in a way that connects to other people.Especially a book and trying to avoid the rehashing of the entire plot and wanting to communicate what punches or what's worth about the book without giving the whole thing away while also trying to practice a bit of what was picked up in the reading process.

Even the title of the book can be read different ways. Declarative-Artful (by) Ali Smith. Adjectivally-Artful Ali Smith like Dicken's the Artful Dodger who appears and disappears throughout the work. To explore the questions of form, time, edge, reflection Smith creates a/the main character who dialogues with the artifacts and occasional presence of the ghost of a former lover or spouse (hard to tell from the text). Not that it really matters. Artful may also refer to the wanderings that Smith's character takes through the left-behind essay sketches that have been left behind. These sketches become the meat of the explorations of time, form, edge, reflection and edge with various interjections from Smith's character.
Almost exactly halfway through the book, in the "On Form" section Smith states that "Everything can be more than itself. Everything IS more than itself." This book could be read as either a series of narrative-lectures or narrative introductions to lectures or even more complicatedly as explorations of the various connections/interplays of language and text, hidden behind simplicity of text and language. In order to get to the point though of realizing that everything is more than itself requires time, the first essay. In this first essay Smith's character spends time talking about how books require more time than they are often given. And while the character doesn't rub it in, there's obviously been a huge amount of time spent with these texts as they are liberally quoted and occasionally mashed up, including salient points regarding the author's history, biography or the reasons for their (the texts) being written.
Everything IS more than itself. Simplicity can be harder to suss out and perhaps more difficult to dig into because of, at first blush, the limited numbers of ways in or places to grasp hold seem extremely limited. (Think Vonnegut, Saunders, Cummings or even Eggers.)The flip-side of everything is more than itself is that everything connects but only if you know. It helps to know everything but that's usually not possible and so it takes time to grasp the form, examining the edges reflecting on what the text has to offer. Reflecting on what the text 'says' or does. Since the reader is capable of knowing a lot the reader can then recognizing the layers of meanings and interplay that exist between texts. How the ghost of a lover/spouse, leaving behind essays could, possibly, be tied back to Barthes' death of the author. Where the author, imaginary but dead, haunts the reader's character who is also, periodically, the author, flipping the text back and forth for the benefit of the reader while diving off after the plays and subtleties of the whole reason the reader is there in the first place. Time. Reflection. Offer. Form. Edge.

I will say that at the very least, there is now a new e.e. cummings poems on my window, printed out on the plastic sheeting that used to be used for overhead projectors. In order to see out into the hills, and trees outside, in this particular pane, one must read the poem overlaid over the clouds or sky. So that a poem about a day and goodness of the God who created it is held up against that creation as reminder, emblem and reflection.

"I thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of a sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(I who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings;and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting  touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my heart awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
                                                      ~E.E. Cummings

Friday, February 1, 2013

Zeldin on Conversation

I picked up Theodore Zeldin's book Conversation when a patron returned it to the library front desk and started reading, as one is wont to do, the last chapter. I had tried, and failed to read this petite volume several months ago and it had fallen flat. Or at least I had fallen flat. There's some really nice ideas that Zeldin lays out in this last chapter. I offer them to you without commentary for your enjoyment.

“I see thinking as bringing ideas together, as ideas flirting with each other, learning to dance and embrace. I appreciate that as a sensuous pleasure. Ideas are constantly swimming around in the brain, searching like sperms for the egg they can unite with to produce a new idea….The lively brain picks and chooses and creates works of art out of ideas.  
The peculiarity of humans is that they can watch themselves as they go about their business, as they talk and think…They can be either slaves of their thoughts and memories, or decided which of them are useful, which cause only trouble, and which to put away in a bottom drawer. 
Conversation with yourself is full of risk, because you have to decide how much to enhance your ideas with imagination….Ideas need not just to meet, but to embrace.” (p. 85-88 Conversation Zeldin)

“You may wonder whether the art of conversation should be taught, or can be taught, like dancing. The Victorians thought so. They poured out a vast mass of books on the subject, showing that they felt a new style was needed for their new ambitions. But the conversation they wanted to learn had aims which would not entirely satisfy the present generation: to make time pass more agreeably, to get the good opinion of others and to improve oneself. 
The teachers of conversation neglected the idea of personal contact, of the intimate meeting of minds and sympathies and, above all, of the search for what life is about, and how we should behave. They assumed everybody knew what life was about. They regarded themselves as propagating a branch of knowledge between music and medicine; that is, they became elocutionists, correcting accents and presentation, instead of depending the subject matter of conversation. For most of history, people aspiring to be conversationalists have too often avoided subjects which went too deep or were too personal. 
 They cheated: instead of saying what they thought, they repeated fashionable formulae or found epigrammatic ways of saying things they did not believe. I should like some of us to start conversations to dispel that darkness, using them to create equality, to give ourselves courage, to open ourselves to strangers, and most practically, to remark our working world, so that we are no longer isolated by our jargon or our professional boredom. (p. 94-97 Conversation Zeldin)”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What does authenticity sound like?

This article from the Columbus Dispatch entitled "'Lincoln' full of  authentic sounds" was recently forwarded to me. In order for the rest of this post to make sense you should, dear reader, take 5-7 minutes for a read-through or two of the above link. Clicking the link should open up in a new tab so you won't have to worry about losing your spot here.
There's a couple of really interesting aspects of this article that seemed to be worth commenting on.
1) The title of this article is worth noting. If the title read 'inauthentic' instead of 'authentic' what would an inauthentic sound be? Would it be if, during the movie, the watch was displayed and it didn’t tick or if the sound of the watch was from Big Ben? Or if the sounds of John Wilkes Booth's watch was played when seeing the watch? Or perhaps an inauthentic sound is one that is not historically grounded. But the term “historical sound” doesn't quite fit. I'll come back to this.
2) Additionally I found this article is interesting because it seems to be dealing with a need or desire to explicitly point out the supposed authenticity of sounds in an entertaining/entertainment medium. I think this is due to dealing with an historical subject or biography, with what we refer to as 'historical fact(s)' and trying to use the sound of a legitimate historical object to lend credence to the authenticity of the storyline in a medium that is very much about intertwining truth and illusion.

     I would posit that the interest in 'authentic sounds' stems from the desire to make movies about historical figures or history as believable as possible. The concept of originality is rather highly prized in Western art and culture-making where the original is supposed to matter more than an unoriginal or a copy. Hence calling someone or their work/art "original" is truly a compliment while calling someone's work "derivative" indicates that the creative foundations or source(s) of an individual's art work are too easily linked to the influence of other artists and thus does not seem to arise ex nihilio and is therefore not original or not original enough.
     Truthfully I've not actually seen the movie Lincoln yet but the concept explored in this article has been bouncing around my head for the past couple of weeks. In referring back to item 1, if the article hadn't pointed out that particular sounds were from historical artifacts and places, the viewer wouldn't notice. Because the viewer doesn't know that the recorded watch sound is from a watch Lincoln owned, the sound is, of itself, without meaning or weight. Substituting a recorded sound for the watch's true, as it were, tick may actually be less authentic since it is not the seen watch which generates its own tick that is heard. The watch is, if you will, lip-syncing. And in the context of human performance lip-syncing is often seen as one of the deadly sins of live performance, fit for scandal and  wild speculations. (Note the very recent brouhaha of Beyonce's performance at the inauguration. There's whole other area to explore here of the belief in originality and live performance, but that's for another time.)
Adorno suggests that "mass media are not simply the sum total of the actions they portray or of the messages that radiate from these actions. Mass media also consist of various layers of meanings superimposed on one another, all of which contribute to the effect." (p. 164, The Schema of Mass Culture) The sound of the watch must be portrayed as 'authentic' in order to contribute to the overall layering-of-meaning process. The authenticity of the sound is supposed to bring authenticity to the movie, because of the factuality of the sound the rest of the movie now has greater meaning or weight. The contribution of a specific historic recorded sound to the movie watching process, which is filled w/ other, supposedly, historically accurate item, layers on the acting and visual elements to add layers of convincing meaning to the reception of the film. The viewer has no way of knowing this, until educated, but the sound of the watch is supposed to matter more than other sounds.
 "Everywhere the public's nose is being rubbed in the alluring aroma of authenticity so that everyone can experience the intoxication of watching as it happens and Being There...In cinemas every second set of opening or closing credits announces that the film is based on real events." (p. 45 Five Dials No. 26) In the end it doesn't really matter what sound gets used for the watch.  The source of the sound is supposed to give its authenticity to the moment of observing Lincoln's watch. The ticking indicates that what you are seeing is real even though the watcher does not hear the ticking of the watch that they are seeing. They are hearing a second watch, layered onto the visual of the first watch to make the first watch, and the movie by extension, an authentic experience. I would suggest that by engaging in this layering process the notions of original or authentic are actually undermined. To describe this sound as authentic is to engage in what Adorno refers to as the 'jargon of authenticity'. Those art/entertainment-works practicing or using this jargon are ultimately more concerned with the appearance and reception as authentic (realer than real) than actually being so.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Disaster Tourism-Sea Bright, NJ

I grew up 20-30 minutes, depending on the traffic, from Sandy Hook, NJ. Traveling down Rt. 36 to its end forces you to either go left to Sandy Hook and the beach or right onto the barrier island of Sea Bright. If you travel far enough Sea Bright turns into Long Branch and eventually, I believe, LBI. The houses in Sea Bright largely face the ocean with the river at their backs so that even in relatively mild hurricanes or nor'easters there is flooding. My father would often take us down to the beach after a hurricane to see what had changed on the beach or how Sea Bright had fared.
It is deeply sobering to see people's appliances, housing materials, clothes and other more personal materials piled in front of their houses waiting for trash pickup. It was late afternoon as we were driving around so the sun was starting to display the colors of sunset and the wind was chasing the clouds around the sky. There was a strange juxtaposition in the natural beauty of the day and the chaos of carefully purchased household items heaped in front yards and sidewalks. There is an odd aesthetic or architectural sense of awe in looking at how the storm punched out walls or moved houses off their foundation. Some of the houses missing their back or side walls seemed to have been designed that way. They are almost picturesque, framing the now-peaceful river moving in the background. This is not an attempt to diminish the loss or destruction caused by Sandy; rather, impressions received as we drove through and marveled and sorrowed.



Thursday, November 1, 2012

Less Definition-More Action: Doing Information Literacy Better

This post is the result of a failure to read all the details in a particular request for submissions. I failed to grasp the audience was not librarians but that was after I had finished what follows. So rather than consign it to the ether, I share it here. Please comment as able and willing.

The call of a particular publishing organ for an essay defining information literacy prompted the following thought: We don’t need any more essays/articles offering another definition of information literacy. While it is tempting to spend some time crafting a more marketable or catchier t-shirt wearable slogan, another essay that attempts to provide that kind of definition is exactly what is not needed. Instead of quibbling over verbiage in yet another IL definition, what is needed instead is discussions of doing. To that end, this essay will look at two issues that need to be dealt with in any institution, regardless of size. Secondly it will recommend three areas that we need to be better in order to take full advantage of information literacy opportunities.
                Information literacy is not an end to itself. It is deeply intertwined with and rooted in the processes of life-long learning and critical thinking. Successfully realizing an information literacy approach is found when students consistently ask three evaluative questions throughout their research process:

1) “Where do I look to find the information I need?”
2) “How do I evaluate the information that I’ve found?”
3) “How do I correctly use/cite the information that I’ve incorporated into my paper?”

                Many approaches to information literacy are often tied to the particular library rather than being tied to the process of life-long learning for two particular reasons:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             1) Time
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    2) Money

                 Often, librarians do not have enough time to spend in the classroom because of the amount of material the class needs to cover.  Attempts have been made to address this with first year programs and various seminars but these are far from being ubiquitously adopted. Technological responses have also been sought where some really nice tutorials/videos/games have been built to help students engage with tools and processes that will assist them. These tools take time to learn and as libraries combat for attention and use for engaging in the research process rather than simply shopping for information.
                 Money is the unavoidable second issue as the libraries are paying many hundreds of thousands of dollars for research database access. Often, these are only available for students as long as they are enrolled at the institution. Once the students graduate and are no longer counted in the full time enrollment, the access to the tools that they’ve been using, and trained to use, for the past 4-6 years are then removed from their reach. Information literacy practices should then focus not just on the habits and use of database searching but at the searching across all kinds of information sources (where do I look?). Because libraries are spending very much money on these resources, some return on that investment would be nice and time is limited so rather than actually teach a fully comprehensive information literacy curriculum, we end up teaching an information literacy that is platform dependent on a particular library and ends up lacking in relevance once the student leaves the institution.

Information literacy is not library instruction. Library instruction is often helpful, if not also deeply necessary, and is a definitive component of information literacy but a library instruction session does not an information literacy approach make. There is the hope that the other classes and training the student has received has equipped them with critical thinking skills so that they are able to track down needed information through other means upon graduation. Library instruction is not, by definition, interested in the students after they graduate. In contrast, information literacy needs to care about the student as a whole person in their educational process through college and continuing on through the rest of their life. Academic libraries do not do a typically good job of passing college graduates onto the public libraries. If information literacy programs are succeeding, public libraries should be receiving college graduates as new patrons. This does happen but not nearly enough as it ought too because more often than not, due to time and money, we settle for library instruction over teaching information literacy.
Librarians need to be better teachers. We need to read more books like Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, The End of Education by Neil Postman, Socrates CafĂ© by Christopher Phillips, Walking on Water by Derrick Jensen, What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain or Teaching to Learn/Learning to Teach by Anne French Dalke.  There’s a bunch of really great examples out there of librarians working to be better teachers. (Example 1, Blog 2, Blog 3, Blog4?)  Good teachers engage their students and try to understand what their different audiences need. In order to do an exemplary job of presenting information literacy practices and not squander the precious opportunities that are available, librarians need to be good at communicating our own passion and joy about using good resources. In short, information literacy cannot be boring, lame or dumb. How can problem-based learning initiatives be incorporated into a class session? How can the Socratic method aid in helping establish a rapport with a class so that they begin to engage with the material? How hands-on can you get? What’s the takeaway or perhaps more importantly, what’s the hook? Why should students even start listening to you in the first place?[1]
Doing information literacy well requires a culture/process of assessment.
How do you know when the session went well or that students got it? As a profession, we’ve definitely gotten better at this, thanks in no small part to the diligent efforts of professionals like Megan Oakleaf, and projects like TRAILS, and RAILS. Most of us don’t have the time, energy or _______, to do a Journal of Academic Librarianship level of assessment on our information literacy sessions. We also don’t need to. Look at what other libraries are already doing and adapt an assessment plan to meet your needs. (Columbia, Cornell, Indiana State, etc.)[2] Subscribe on ACRL’s Information Literacy listserv. These people know what they are talking about and they are way friendly also. You don’t have to create stuff from scratch. Share some of your knowledge occasionally, glean from the threads and a lot of the stress from assessment will melt away.
                Ideally, librarians would work hand-in-hand with each academic department, serving as references for new class design, helping to design assignments, have ample time to spend in group and individual interactions with students, gain the respect of faculty and administration and commute via unicorn. But this is not typical library reality and the long hard process of fighting for information literacy inclusion into/across curriculum is not going to be accomplished with more discussion about definitions. Rather understanding what information literacy is supposed to do, practicing and working to be better communicators and teachers while measuring how we are doing will be instrumental in establishing information literacy as an essential part of the educational process.

[1] A couple of years ago a student named Chris very candidly remarked to me that “…at the very moment the professor mentions that the librarian is going to be coming to class, at that instant, I already beginning to be bored.” It’s difficult to say how much mileage I’ve gotten out of that quote because that’s what many students are thinking and well, it helps to let them know, that you know, how they might be thinking and also gives a launch point from which to say fair enough-I get it and then change the viewpoint.
[2] Indebted to the ACLR ill-l list-serv for furnishing this list.
Email from Megan Oakleaf on April 25, 2012 “Re:program assessment plans”

Monday, September 24, 2012

Seeing and hearing: Radio and TV in modern culture via Frightened Rabbit's Old, Old Fashioned

Finished reading Jonathan Sterne's excellent book The Audible Past yesterday. Sometimes, in particular works, there are chapters or sections that are well worth the time to be read again and again. The conclusion to Audible Past lands squarely in this category. While effectively wrapping up the entire work, the conclusion also raises additional questions and areas for additional study. One of the more memorable bits in this conclusion is Sterne's examination of the relationship of the metaphors of sight and hearing, especially in Western language and thought. After finishing up this book where the relationship of sound and vision were very much on my mind, my daughter and I were hanging out listening to Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight. The fifth song on this album is Old, Old Fashioned and the lyrics fit particularly well into the thinking about the relationship between sound, , sound reproduction, bodies and media that Sterne has explored throughout the book. So, largely for fun, here's an exegesis of FR's Old, Old Fashioned's lyrics and its connection to listening, sound reproduction and culture.

The first four verses w/ chorus are below with all lyrics available here:

I'll turn off the TV
It's killing us we never speak
There's a radio in the corner
It's dying to make us see

So give me soft, soft static
With a human voice underneath
And we can both get old fashioned
Put the brakes on these fast, fast wheels

Oh let's get old fashioned
Back to how things used to be
If I get old, old fashioned
Would you get old, old fashioned with me?

Put the wall clock in the top drawer
Turn off the lights so we can see
We will waltz across the carpet

So give me the soft, soft static
Of the open fire and the shuffle of our feet
We can both get old fashioned
Do it like they did in '43

In the first verse, the act of turning off the TV is turning off a host of other voices and images that interfere with the song's protagonists' own conversation(s).  The speaking of the TV versus the act of having a conversation with the ensuing or desired destruction or silencing of the TV is a popular trope within Western culture. This trope holds that destroying your TV is in the best interests of the individual and his/her relationships. (Good examples can be found by googling kill your tv.) Because we are so easily distracted by the combination of moving images and audio, our conversation cannot transcend or push back that of the TV unless it is turned off.
However something needs to replace the TV as a medium to draw people together. Thus the radio, drawing deeply on the nostalgia of the radio as a centralizing, community-building entity is called upon; see Norman Rockwell illustrations of listeners gathered around the radio. Additionally, turning off moving images forces the erstwhile viewers to look at each other, hence the radio " dying to make us see". Note that the radio which projects no images but only sound is a better conduit of sight because it connect the listeners with, presumably, a better understanding of the real world through personal conversation and interaction. There is the subtext that sound/image are difficult, if not impossible to traverse in conversation but sound only can be pushed into the background so that conversation can be foreground. Additionally, the radio's "soft, soft static" pushes back against the hyper-edited, HD-obssessed TV viewing. The radio as a media object that receives and interprets particular waves, in fact would be useless without those waves, also, in this context, functions as a communicative medium that reconnects two individuals. The chorus's desire to get "old fashioned" and "back to how things used to be" refers not only to the removal of interfering media (TV) but also the restoration of the relationships between the protagonist and his audience. Nostalgia is drawn on heavily here, while nostalgia is often for a falsely remembered golden age, in the case of this relationship the couple is well able to relive their previous relationship by reducing the relationship back to what mattered, time together.
Both verse one and verse three make entreaties to re-enabling the ability to see by the means of listening. The radio in verse one is "...dying to make us see" while verse three asks to "Turn off the lights so we can see". The joint juxtaposition of opposites is mirrored in both verses. Where verse one calls for sound to cause the listeners to see, verse three sees turning off the lights, which mirrors turning off the TV-also light-emitting,calls for the absence of light to cause the individuals see each other. While normally we seek to "shed light on a matter" in this case the reduction of light allows or helps to foster reconnection. Presumably the parallelism between the TV's light and the room's light are both or have been distracting enough to warrant their dimming.
It's particularly interesting in the third verse that time is stuffed into a drawer. Where watching TV kills time or is accused of doing so, here time is deliberately taken in hand to be disregarded until further notice. Rather than wasting time, time is gathered up and subjected to the listener's control in defiance of its passing. Sterne suggests that "In bourgeious modernity sound recording becomes a way to deal with time....moderntiy being assumed to assure the perpetiuty of cages, the constanty of upheaval and transformation. But the sound recording itself also embodies fragmented time. It offers a little piece of repeatable time within a carefully bounded frame." (p. 310) Time now only exists for the listener based on the length of the song. Also, the repeatable time is not only the possibility of replaying a particular favorite song but also attempting to recreate "how things used to be".
The fourth verse re-emphasizes the importance of made sound rather than relying on outside, edited or delivered sound. The singer asks "give me the soft, soft static/ Of the open fire and the shuffle of our feet" The human or organic aspects of the radio static is mirrored in the static created by the interactions of the listeners in and with their environment. The fire is a real fire, not a fake one on TV. Not only is the static generated by dancing feet, but also the static is generated by bodies moving together and over physical surfaces. Since the TV is off there is not danger of vicariously living through the dancing of others. The dance is itself the old-fashioned waltz which is both a way of marking the time signature of a piece (waltz time-3/4-tying back to repeatable and controllable time) and performing an fairly dated dance style.
Sterne, in his conclusion emphasizes the importance of sound culture to our modern way of living. "...we must first recognize that there is a domain of significant and connected questions surrounding the social life of sound in all its manifestations." (p. 348) The enjoyment of sound, via the radio, between two people is deliberately contrasted between the isolation of TV (image/sound) even while being watched by two people. What struck me in playing around this idea and listening is that this song, Old, Old Fashioned, becomes the song playing on the radio. Old, Old Fashioned is itself a waltz and while the lyrics presume a slightly pleading one-sided conversation, the song as a whole calls out on a larger scale to any one listening to join in and dance, turning off the TV to  embrace literally the physicality and immediacy of the available present relationships. Passively listening is not enough. Passivity is for the TV watchers. Dancing or movement is for the radio listeners.
Throughout this song while vision, 'the gaze' is privileged as two individual relearn to look at one another, listening is incredibly important. The dancers must here the music in order to dance to it. Seeing each other is not enough, the dancers must also speak to one another to "remember how things used to be" and stop death. In this song, listening halts the progress of the death of a relationship.
Additionally, to grasp the full impact of the lyrics of the FR song in the first place, one must be able to listen to or hear the song.
 It's interesting that, in this case, I was listening to this song as a MP3 which is the least physical or the least old-fashioned of any of the currently available musical formats. I also, unfortunately, have never heard this song on the radio. Fully embracing the song's calling for an return to old fashioned ways would, in my case, nullify my ability to listen to it because of the changes to how music  is consumed. Except, I think this is missing the point slightly. The medium of the music matters less than the act of listening to it and to the conversation we generate "like soft, soft static" between one another. And not simply passively listening but dancing "like they did in '43".