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Monthly Archives: July 2008

I had dinner and coffee with Dave Humphrey last Thursday night. Our conversation was productive of several things that I have not yet found the time to discuss in this space, and, unfortunately, I will probably not have the time to discuss them until after I return from vacation this coming week. However, one of the things we covered did motivate me to accomplish something this week.

I have been for several weeks wrestling with exactly how to manage my internet research, and I have written about this process in the past. Dave and I were thinking about this particular problem last Thursday, and Dave encouraged me to begin by using and abusing what I already have at hand. It occurred to me suddenly that I might be able to use my LibraryThing catalogue to perform at least some of the media management functions that I need. LibraryThing is primarily intended to catalogue books, of course, not online media, but I have already been abusing this intention somewhat by including my collection of video and music in my catalogue as well, though this has not always been well received by some of the site’s other users. I decided to experiment a little to see exactly what LibraryThing could or could not do for me. The results, while certainly not ideal, are certainly functional.

I have made only eight entries so far, and I have tagged them all, at least temporarily, as Online materials, so that I can easily access them as a group. The deficiencies of the program for my purpose, as I have discovered them so far, are as follows, in no particular order:

1) The Add Book form does not automatically support links, so the links have to be manually html tagged.

2) The Comments section of the Add Book form, though the best place for including marginalia, cannot really support lengthy commentary without expanding entries vertically to unwieldy sizes in the list view.

3) The Publication section of the Add Book form, though the best place for including links, cannot really support lengthy url’s without expanding entries horizontally to unwieldy sizes in the list view.

4) There is no way to differentiate between different sorts of tags to describe an entry’s medium (online, video, avi), to list some of its keywords (media, spectacle, visuality), or to assign it a group (course ID, research projects, interest groups). All of these things must be accomplished with the same set of tags.

There are, however, some benefits of the program:

1) It automatically integrates the online materials that I am using with my offline materials so that I can more easily group and connect these things to each other.

2) The tagging system is simple and robust enough that I can use it to do accommodate everything I need, even if i cannot make higher order groups of these tags.

3) The site supports groups of users, which will enable some of the resource sharing that I would like, though this would necessitate others using the program for the same purposes.

4) The site supports easy export of data, so that I can port the information elsewhere if I discover a better alternative.

For the time being, therefore, I intend to use LibraryThing to manage my media, but I intend to do so in conjunction with the other things that I have at hand online, my courseware site and this blog, which are much more useful for things like facilitating discussion and for publishing than LibraryThing can be. I am taking this approach, not because it is ideal, but because I am beginning to see the value in using the tools that I already have if they will do. Dave keeps telling me that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and I think that the online tools I have already may be good enough to serve until I can find a solution that will be more perfect.

I am continually relearning how to share my kitchen.

I had my first lesson the second year that my wife and I were married. We had baked Christmas goodies together every year since Grade 11, when I used to make her skip class to come and cook with me. The tradition was important to me, and I thought to her also, so I was surprised two years into our marriage when she told me that she would rather not do Christmas baking that year. When I asked her why, she pointed out, quite rightly, that we did not really bake together. I baked. She came along for the ride. I chose the recipes, bought the ingredients, set the schedule, and, mostly, took the credit. Her contribution was almost entirely restricted to helping me mix this thing or peel the other one. I had assumed that I was sharing my kitchen because we were occupying it at the same time, but I had not really learned to let anyone else cook in it, so I had not really learned how to share it at all.

That year, and every year since, we have each chosen recipes, alternating in the kitchen between the baker and the assistant from moment to moment. It was a difficult transition for me, but the tradition of our baking together has grown richer because of it, and we are looking forward this year to having our eldest son take a more active role himself, letting him choose a favourite treat to make and to share with the family.

I have had similar lessons repeatedly over the years. When a family came to stay with us several years ago, I had to adjust to having two others in the kitchen with me on a daily basis, putting things in different places, cooking in different rhythms, even decorating the space in different ways. Yet, when we get together with these friends now, I look forward to being in the kitchen with them again, to share the kitchen again in the ways that we learned to share it before.

A Congolese woman and her two sons were living with us until very recently. The differences in our kitchen practices could only be described as extreme. Even her basic ideas about when meals should be served and how they should be eaten were culturally very different. She made dishes with ingredients that I had never seen before. Even so, only a few months since she has found her own apartment, I find myself wishing for some of the dishes that she used to make, and my own cooking has been expanded by what I learned from her.

I am experiencing much the same thing again, as my mother-in-law has come to live with us. I am relearning that sharing a kitchen means, as sharing anything means, being able to relinquish control of it. It means accepting how other people work in the kitchen, and accepting that working alongside them will involve adapting my own rhythms to theirs. This is not always easy for me. I am fairly obsessive about the things that are important to me, and the kitchen is among the most important.

All of which brings me to the experience of having to share the kitchen with my eldest son this morning. We often cook together, but I have been finding lately that he wants to assert himself in that space in ways that are, in themselves, perfectly acceptable, but perhaps different than I would prefer. I am finding myself asking more often the question of how to let him safely and usefully share in the kitchen rather than just help in it.

This morning we were making cookies. The picture of the hickory nut cookies caught his eye, and he would be satisfied by nothing else. He was entirely uninterested in my explanation that these cookies are usually made for Christmas. Well, I thought, should he not be able to choose the recipe himself, and why should his choice be limited by some convention about what cookies should be made when. So, under his direction, the hickory nut cookies were made. They had slightly more salt than the recipe indicated and that the heart and Stroke Foundation would recommend. They had green food dye in them, quite apart from anything I could find in the recipe at all. I was unaware that he even knew where the food dye was. They were partly his and partly mine, the product of sharing the kitchen.

We were not sharing the kitchen in the way that I share it with my wife or with a friend, of course, but we were certainly finding places in it that could be shared, even if the results were sometimes chaotic. The first batch of dough actually ended on the floor, which was my youngest son’s fault. Several of the cookies tumbled into the oven, which was by own fault. Many more were mashed to bits as they were being dredged in icing sugar, which was my eldest son’s fault, again and again. None of this, however, detracted from what we were able to make and share together.

As we finished, I found myself reflecting on how this kind of sharing differs from what happens in the ideal kitchens that are portrayed on most cooking shows. On television, kitchens are not shared. There is always someone in charge, either explaining cooking simplistically and hygienically in a kitchen that is too immaculate to be a kitchen at all, or screaming at some poor cooking contestants in a kitchen that is too industrial to be a kitchen that I recognize. There is no space in those kitchens for spouses or friends or mothers-in-law or children.

I think this is why so many people are afraid of cooking and of the kitchen. The ideals that have been presented to them do not reflect a functional family kitchen. They may be functional studio spaces, or they may be functional restaurant spaces, but they do not show people how to cook and share in the kinds of kitchens that they know. They do not show how cooking happens in the family and the community and the home. This kind of cooking can only be shared by inviting people into our kitchens and by sharing our kitchens with them.

I lay where the summer had surprised me,
beneath a tree, half lightning blasted, limbs
like roots burrowing into a blue, thin,
transparent soil, the trunk suspended there
above a green, impenetrable sky,
adrift between two heavens and two earths,
surrounded by long shadows, sun flung
and invisible, branches become roots
then cast, insubstantial, on earthen skies.

A month or so ago, my friend Dawn Matheson sent me a link to a discussion between filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris that was published in The Believer. I only found the chance to read it last night, but it was well worth the time I made for it. Herzog and Morris are among my favourite directors, and their discussion, coming out of a long acquaintance, was both illuminating and intimate. The two comment on each other’s work, discuss their perspectives on certain general issues related to documentary filmmaking, and recollect the times when they had visited serial killer Ed Kemper and almost exhumed the mother of murderer Ed Gain. I have not read anything more entertaining in a very long while.

Morris is perhaps the most influential documentary filmmaker of this generation. His first film, Gates of Heaven, was unlike anything that had been made before it. The Thin Blue Line, one of his later films, was the first documentary ever to have a murder sentence reversed. I screened his Oscar winning The Fog of War at my Dinner and a Doc event a few months ago, a film that remains one of my favourites. His newest release, Standard Operating Procedure, which I have yet to see, looks at the photographs that were taken of the torture in Abu Ghraib prison. His subjects are varied to the point of eclecticism (from the forced move of a pet cemetary to the strange and remarkable life of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.), but all are characterized by a sense of narrative and story that distinguish them from most documentaries. They always bear several viewings.

Herzog is, if anything, even more eclectic in his work than Morris. He has directed countless films, both fictional and documentary, has published many books, and has also directed operas. His documentaries range from Grizzly Man, which is more or less traditional in form and is probably his best known work, to My Best Fiend, a personal and often surreal account of his volatile working relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, to Lessons of Darkness and Fata Morgana, highly imagistic and poetic works that rank very highly among my favourite films. Herzog is himself a figure of mythical proportions. Accounts of his exploits on the sets of his films, particularly early in his career, almost surpass believability. He is a person I would both love and fear to meet.

What I particularly enjoyed in the dialogue between these two personalities was the very brief exchange on what Morris calls “ecstatic absurdity”, which he says is something that he understands in Herzog’s films.  Morris defines ecstatic absurdity as “the confrontation with meaninglessness,” and he goes on to say that Herzog’s work “could be considered an extended essay on the meaning of meaninglessness.”  I think that this is a very useful way to talk about what Herzog does in many of his films, particularly the more surreal and imagistic ones, and it may also be a useful way to talk about Morris’s own work, though his films are not so obviously concerned with the absurd and the meaningless.  Perhaps, at the risk of generalizing Morris’ phrase itself into meaninglessness, I might even say that any film worth the name, whether fictional or documentary, every work of art worth the name, any thinking worth the name, should be characterized by this ecstatic absurdity, by this confrontation with meaninglessness.  Though it is not a confrontation that can ever be absolutely decided, a willingness to confront meaninglessness may define best what it is that I value most in art.

In preparation for my course this fall, I have been rereading some of the major texts, one of which is Beowulf. The lines that always impress my imagination the most come late in the narrative, just before the now aged Beowulf goes to face the dragon who will be his destroyer. They are the words of the last of the people whose treasure has now become the dragon’s hoard, and I am drawn to them because they do well what much early-English and Norse poetry does well. They lament the passing of the noble and the heroic.

The translation from which I will be quoting can be found in Broadview Press’s anthology, which is the text that my students will be using. There is another translation that I much prefer, but I cannot seem to find it at the moment, and I do not have the time to make a serious search. The version I quote is more than adequate in any case.

“Death in war
and awful deadly harm have swept away
all of my people who have passed from life,
and left the joyful hall. Now have I none
to bear the sword or burnish the bright cup,
the precious vessel – all that host has fled.
Now must the hardened helm of hammered gold
be stripped of all its trim; the stewards sleep
who should have tended to this battle-mask.
So too this warrior’s coat, which waited once
the bite of iron over the crack of boards,
molders like its owner. The coat of mail
cannot travel widely with the war-chief,
beside the heroes. Harp-joy have I none,
no happy song; nor does the well-schooled hawk
soar high throughout the hall, nor the swift horse
stamp in the courtyards. Savage butchery
has sent forth many of the race of men.”

Whatever advances our civilization considers itself to have made over the one that produced these words, I suspect that there will be few such words of lament when ours passes away. There will be few odes to the businessman or the lawyer, few ballads of the politician or the advertising executive, few eulogies for the banker or the insurance salesman. Our only heroes are such that cannot bear this kind of immortalization without cyniscism: the sports hero, the pop diva, the movie star. These may have their tributes, but none that will bear reading a thousand years from now.

My friend James Shelley recently posted a quotation from R. G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art, a work on aesthetics that was first published in 1938. This is one of the things that I love about James: I can never predict what he will be reading. It might be theology. It might be politics. It might be a more or less obscure work of aesthetics by an idealist thinker better known for his work on the philosophy of history. James reads with an admirable promiscuity.

I have never read anything by Collingwood myself. I ran across some of his work (The Idea of History and Essays in the Philosophy of History) when I was doing research for a course on the language of history, but I had neither the time nor the interest to read them at that time. What James has quoted from Collingwood, however, interests me very much in connection with the kinds of arguments that I have been reading in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and other texts. I am very curious about this idea of amusement.

The word ‘amuse’ comes to English from Latin through French. The English word initially referred to the act of cheating or deceiving people by distracting their attention to something else, even to the act of physically throwing dust into the eyes of shopkeepers so that their goods could be stolen. Its application to the function of entertainment, therefore, was at first intended to be derogatory. To call an entertainment an amusement was to suggest more or less explicitly that it was distracting people in order to cheat them. To have been amused was equivalent to having been beguiled or deluded.

At some point, however, the negative associations of amusement began to fall away, becoming applied cynically by the leisured classes to their own entertainments, and then passing into common usage as virtually synonymous with entertainment and recreation. Interestingly, a similar transition can also be marked with words like ‘diversion’ and ‘distraction’, which were once but are no longer necessarily derogatory when used to describe entertainment.

These changes in usage, I think, reflect how fully our society has become a society of amusement, has subordinated what Collingwood calls “practical life” to the consumption of entertainment. We have inverted the relationship between entertainment and practical life. Rather than understanding practical life to be of primary value and entertainment to be a necessary distraction from the routines of this life, we understand entertainment to be of primary value and practical life to be an unfortunate distraction from entertainment. Anything that is not amusing, anything that is not created explicitly to be consumed as entertainment, has become something to be endured until the next opportunity for diversion. In this way, entertainment actually devalues and cheats society of its practical life. It becomes amusement because it distracts us in order to steal our lived lives.

Our society is, in this sense, clearly a society of amusement. We value the sports hero over the parent, the movie star over the cook, the supermodel over the teacher, the pop singer over the farmer. We value the practical life only insofar as it produces the financial resources that allow us to consume our amusements. Our primary goal is to consume amusement as entirely as possible, with every dollar and every moment.

What is most alarming, as our changing use of the word ‘amusement’ indicates, is that we increasingly accept this society of amusement and natural and desirable. Whereas we once used the word ‘amusement’ critically to describe how entertainment was blinding us, we now use it affirmatively to describe the value of entertainment to us. We no longer recognize how we are blinded and robbed of our lives by entertainment as amusement. We have become blind to our blindness.

This is why, as Collingwood suggests, the majority of society’s members now have the conviction that “amusement is the only thing that makes life worth living.” They have accepted wholly, to the point of belief, that amusement is more valuable than practical life, that it is desirable to have their practical lives cheated from them in exchange for a more and more complete saturation with amusement. It is not merely that they consume celebrity gossip rather than develop real relationships. It is that they believe this situation to be normal and good.

It is for these reasons that I decline to be amused, to be distracted, to be diverted. I will celebrate the festival and honour the holiday, but I decline to let these things cheat me of my lived life. I will live in a way that values the family and the community and the garden and the kitchen and the workshop. I will live in a way that values the rhythms of practical life, with its own celebrations and entertainments, but I choose not be amused.

I think I have probably written on more than one occasion about how much I enjoy the kind of magic realist or fantastical stories authored by people like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka and G. K. Chesterton and Jorge Louis Borges. Unfortunately, because my English Literature degrees introduced me to more literary theory than literature, and because my life now offers me little enough time for books, there is much that I have not yet had the opportunity to read, even of these favourite authors. One such book, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, has been sitting on my shelf for several years now, and probably would have remained there for some time yet if I had not been reminded of it by a recent correspondence with TC, who mentioned that she had read it to her son.

Yesterday evening, however, after an overfull day, my sister-in-law took my eldest son for a few hours, and my youngest son went to sleep for the night. My wife and I made some tea, sat on the front porch in the finally cooling air, and read. She finished Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, which fell somewhat short of her expectations. I picked up Rushdie’s story about Haroun and his Sea of Stories, which certainly did not fall short of mine.

The book is unlike much of Rushdie’s other fiction. It is more explicitly fantastical, closer in this respect to Grimus, his first novel, but it is much lighter in tone than Grimus. It has the feeling of an oriental fairy tale, something like Arabian Nights, but with a decidedly modern influence. It reminded me of some of Neil Gaiman’s writing, though pulling from very different mythological sources.

At first, perhaps because its tone is so different from Rushdie’s other work, I found the book merely flippant. The easy puns particularly annoyed me, and I prepared myself to be disappointed with the whole. As the story progressed, however, it began to grow into its tone, or perhaps I began to grow into it, and even the puns began to seem appropriate to the lightly ironic sensibility of the narrative. By the time I finished, I found that I was enjoying myself very much, even wishing that the book was a little longer. I would not compare it to some of Rushdie’s more serious work, but it has a novelty of imagination that makes it remarkable nonetheless, and it was certainly a very pleasant way to spend a summer evening on the porch.

I am tired of education.  What I want is an unending conversation: where people come and go; where the disciplinary boundaries are marked only by the interests of those who happen to be present; where there is food and wine, words and ideas, mingled; where there is no regard for marks, and credits, and degrees and careers; where everyone must be prepared only to teach and to learn; where the thinking and the speaking smolder like tobacco in a pipe; where the classroom is wherever we happen to be, on the porch, in the pub, or on the hiking trail.  I want people to take this kind of conversation so seriously that they live their lives in constant preparation for it.  I want it to infiltrate everything, no matter how mundane, so that there need be no end to it.

Dave Humphrey’s comment on my most recent post gives me an opportunity to make a terminological distinction that I recognized myself last night as I was lying in bed: that is, the distinction between what is industrial and what is manufactured. Dave expressed a concern that the logic of my last post was so extreme as to leave no room for humanity in the natural landscape at all, since I seemed to represent all manufactured landscapes as necessarily deformative and since humanity cannot live within the landscape without altering it to provide food and shelter at the very least. It was not my intent, however, to argue that all human alteration of the landscape is deformative and unnatural, only that a certain industrial alteration functions in this way. I would propose, therefore, though I have not had the opportunity to think through these categories in any detail, to distinguish between a manufactured landscape, which is any landscape that has been altered by humanity, and an industrially manufactured landscape, which is a landscape that industrial humanity has altered according to its own deformative logic.

A manufactured landscape, then, is not necessarily deformed. While it will certainly be an alteration of the landscape, it is possible that it may be a natural alteration, in the same mode as ant hills, beaver dams, and bird nests. While it is will certainly be an alteration of human relations, it is possible that it may be a natural alteration, in the same mode as birds migrating or carnivores marking a new territory. In this sense, a manufactured landscape avoids being deformative to the extent that it does not destroy the natural landscape, and to the extent that it does not destroy natural human relations.

Now, I am all too aware of the problems that beset a distinction that depends upon the highly suspicious idea of what is natural, particularly when this idea is applied to the human. I do not even propose to define or defend this idea, for the simple reason that it is probably beyond definition and defense. Nevertheless, despite these problems, I do not think that we can do without the idea of the natural, not if we want to speak usefully about humanity’s relation to the landscape. Though we may not be able definitively to determine what is in fact humanity’s natural relationship to the landscape, it is certainly possible for us to recognize instances that are not natural, that are, in short, deformative.

An industrial landscape is one form of deformed landscape, one form of landscape that is, or should be, clearly unnatural. TIndustrial landscapes are those that are created by production and consumption on an industrial scale according to an industrial logic, whether this appears as the factory floor or the office cubicle farm or the suburban subdivision or the mega-mall or the parking garage. These landscape forms are not even concerned with humanity’s relation to its landscape. They are concerned only with humanity’s relationship to its commodities. They are deformed by the industrial logic that produces them, and this is why I think Ivan Illich’s phrase is so apt in describing them. They are industrially deformed. They deform our natural landscape and our human relations.

There is no mode of manufactured landscape that is entirely deformative, of course, and there is no mode of manufactured landscape that is entirely natural. As I said earlier, I do not even think that it possible to define what an entirely natural manufactured landscape would be. Even if this mode of landscape was definable, it would remain impossible, at least within the current trajectory of our social systems and institutions. My argument, therefore, is not that we need to somehow displace the industrial logic that deforms or landscapes and our relations. This is now and will remain forever impossible. My argument is that we need to displace the illusion that this industrial logic and the landscape that it produces are normal and natural, so that we can resist their effects on the scale of our own lives. We need to defamiliarize ourselves with our industrially deformed lives so that we can reform them to the extent, however limited, that we are able.

There can be no program for this defamiliarization and no program for the lived resistance that it should effect. Each instance of normalized deformation will require its own intervention of estrangement, and each will require of us a response that is unique to it and to us and to our time and to our place. The goal is not to change the logic of industrial humanity as a whole. This is impossible. The goal is to change ourselves, in relation with ourselves and with our intimate landscapes. This just may be, here and there, in the cracks and the fissures of our lives, perhaps, at one moment or another, within the limits of our social structures, possibly possible.

I changed the location of the Dinner and a Doc event last night.  We had been meeting in a local church space, but I decided to try hosting the meal and screening at my own place.  I really enjoyed the change.  Some friends brought their young daughter with them, much to the delight of my eldest son, and the kids circulated freely through the house during the meal and the film, their parents following dutifully behind.  My mother brought a crisp of freshly picked sakatoon berries, which beautifully finished the meal after the homemade potato soup.  The atmosphere felt less constrained and more intimate.  I think that I will repeat the experiment in August.

The film this month was Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, which introduces the photography of Edward Burtynsky, famous for his images of industrial, fabricated landscapes.  The film follows Burtynsky as he visits various sites, mostly in China, and photographs the disturbing and yet somehow beautiful landscapes that are the by-product of industrial humanity.  The images are often vivid: a slow tracking shot that moves down a seemingly endless factory floor; derelict ships half-dismantled on a beach; mountains of hand-sorted recycling; people demolishing their own cities, brick by brick, to make way for ships in what will be the reservoir of a new dam.  There are no descriptions that can do these visuals justice.  They need to be seen and experienced.

The effect of the documentary footage and of Burtynsky’s own stills, especially when they are layered over each other in succession like they are in the film, is to defamiliarize industrial humanity, to make strange the economic and social systems that have become normalized for most of us.  There is an overwhelming sense of estrangement from the photographic subjects, as if they have been discovered on an alien planet or the set of some fantastic film.  The film constantly forces the viewer to confront the strange, unnatural, inhuman ways that industrial humanity transforms its own landscape.

The phrase that kept ocurring to me throughout the film is from Ivan Illich.  In several of his books, Illich talks about how social relatations and institutions have become “industrially deformed”, and though he does not explicitly use this phrase in relation to the modern manufactured landscape, I do not think he would object to my using the idea in this way, because the industrial landscape is inextricably linked to other industrial relations and institutions.  It is not that one produces the other, but that they both produce each other, reinforce each other, construct each other as normal and natural ways of being.

By forcing us to confront the strange and unnatural landscapes of industrial humanity, therefore, Baichwal’s film and Burtynsky’s images should also force us to confront the strange and unnatural relationships, institutions, and systems that produce these landscapes.  I am not simply making the obvious argument that our consumption causes us to manufacture landscapes that are unnatural.  I am making the less obvious argument that the defamilarizing function that Manufactured Landscapes plays should force us to see how our own immediate landscapes have become industrially deformed also, to see how the suburban housing development, the strip mall, the parking lot, the gated community, and much more of our own landscape is as deformed in its way as the strip mine and the interminable factory floor.

To make industrial humanity strange for us at the distance of China or even of a local mine is certainly a necessary and useful function, but it falls short  if we do not recognize the implication that our own landscapes and relations and institutions need to be made strange as well.  Burtynsky makes this connection to himself more than once, commenting on the industrial implications of his photography and supposing that he had perhaps used fuel from one of the oil tankers rusting on a beach.  There is no point, however, when the film challenges its viewers to make this connection for themselves.  In the end, it is still possible to finish the film with the sense that our office jobs and tidy homes and ordered towns somehow escape the deformation that industrial humanity has imposed upon its landscapes.  It is still possible to avoid the fact that our own landscapes, though perhaps cleaner, safer, and healthier, are often just as unnatural, abnormal, and inhuman.

This possibility need to be eliminated for us.  We need to be confronted with the strangeness of what we have created ourselves to be.  We need to have our lives made alien to us so that we can see what they have become.