Archive for February 25, 2011

Any Idea upon which We Can Ride.

February 25, 2011

Outlining a “pragmaticist” orientation towards truth, William James implies the importance of narrative devices in the construction of knowledge, where ideas are valuable in so much as they continue to lead us back to our experience; truths appear intermittently as “any idea upon which we can ride . . . any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor” (Pragmatism, 26-27) .

Pragmaticist “truth”, of course, must emphasize its instrumental aspects, leaving the essence of things to experience. All good scientists likely agree – then, in James’s time, as much as in the present day. Suffice to say here that a lack of essence in the narratives we build (or simply use) to explain and convey emergent ideas does not render such tools valueless. In fact, they remain – these narratives, these simplifications, these satisfying links – all that keeps us from silence. Essence can’t be measured, a pramaticist will tell us; truth can’t really be talked about in any meaningful way. But narrative can.

This is some of the intellectual context behind my recent presentation at the 4th International Conference on Writing Research on a panel organised by Norbert Elliot of NJIT and featuring Les Perelman (MIT), Chaitanya Ramineni and Paul Deane of Educational Testing Services. The issue at hand concerns the ongoing technological and pedagogical development of automated grading software, but more broadly speaks to our own increasingly complex relationship as writers to digital semantic technologies. I continue to use them more and more in both my class instruction and my critical work – to say nothing of their growing importance in helping me navigate the text that is my everyday life. Oddly enough, as with many writers using programmable writing tools, the allure was initially a creative one. Text generators and animated writing software appeared first as exciting tools to use to write new forms of poetry.

An article reviewing the panel can be found here in Inside Higher Education. It was reprinted in USA Today the following day.

Bill Tucker adds his comments in his article “Can Computers Assess Writing?”

North of Invention: A Festival of Canadian Poetry

February 11, 2011

The Kelly Writer’s House at U Penn in Philadelphia hosted a two day conference on contemporary Canadian poetry, featuring talks and debates by some Canada’s most interesting, experimental writers. After the conference, the writers were ushered 99 miles east to NYC for a weekend series of “conversations” and readings at Poets House, right here on the Hudson. Happily, for me, many of the guests hailed from Vancouver, giving me a chance to see many good (and missed) friends in a single room. 

It was certainly refreshing to see positions, aesthetics and craft played out among many New York writers and readers. My attendance was unfortunately limited to the Sunday chapter of the festival. If Sunday was any indication of the energy and intellectual clout permeating the entire event, I would definitely recommend accessing the footage and records available at the Kelly Writers House archive.

Robertson and Derksen began their talk, focusing on the concept of what Jeff termed a “radical temporality” in both their poetics. The term directs us to their respective poetic forms, as much as it is refers to ideology. Temporality can serve as a critique here against the more typical conservative idealisation of the past: what Derksen sees as a particularly pernicious example of surplus value in society. Here, the Right’s revolutionary gaze begins with an imagined moment of displaced origins, a kind of primordial explosion that has severed society from its superior, more holistic, morally accountable past. The Left, of course, can only respond by shifting this very same explosion into the future, re-conceiving it as an event yet to be experienced.  Henceforth, any subsequent social displacement emerges as a state to be desired, yielding a progressive response to today’s social displacement. Both positions agree, however, on the problem of the present, and it is exactly here at this stage in the argument that Robertson and Derksen “radically” engage their poetics. Temporality occurs throughout their respective works as a kind of ideological obscenity. This point is more evident in the very language of Robertson’s work. She began the conversation that Sunday, asking “If place is always retrospective, how do we begin?” before deadpanning what is for her the only response possible: “With blatant flaws.”

For me, her use of the conditional voice seems key – upon first reading (or hearing), I am always tempted to accept the voice as normative, as if to ask, how can place be anything but retrospective. To consider place, whether sensually or topographically, seems always to to call up a mode of reflection. I immediately feel the timidity of the uncertain tourist at home. The alienated “I”, dislocated from all surrounding space  thanks, in part, to the disaster of uncontained, unregulated urban development. But again the structure of her work continues to demand something else, leading us to consider the voice in a more rhetorical fashion. IF place is always retrospective, flaws abound.

The question of how best to consider the past (as information, however flawed, as public relations discourse, as research, as mythology, as code) emerges thus as one of the more interesting points of discussion between the two writers.

Here’s a video of Robertson reading the first lines of the much longer “”First Spontaneous Horizontal Restaurant” from Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip (Coach House, 2009).  

I was also amazed as usual by Jordan Scott’s ongoing collision with the corporeal, this time navigated via the discourse of the “interrogation” and various probings around the inherent disharmony between speech and language.  That Sunday he was in conversation with a. rawlings and Maja Jantar.

Here’s another video shot during the reading portion of the event. The inimitable Christian Bok performs an aria that certainly deserves more airplay.

I’ll try and put up more footage as I render it somewhat viewable.