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Monday, June 08, 2009

Easy as ABC

Apparently I missed quite a day in the wide world of sports yesterday.  Federer wins in straight sets at Roland Garros, tying Sampras with 14 majors, not that he cares about such things, and Tiger shoots lights-out 65 to win the Memorial, not that he cares about such things either.  It seems like it was a really good day for guys who use Gillette Fusion razors.

Hey, I use Gillette Fusion razors!  And I learned something important about them last fall when I was traveling with Jamie to Omaha.  We’d boarded the plane and were just settling in when the flight attendant announced that one of the planeside-checked bags was vibrating.  A silver-colored bag.  My bag.  Alarmed both by the news that my bag was vibrating and by the possibility that I would be detained by TSA, I assured Jamie I’d be right back as I dashed to the jetway and was met by two members of the ground crew, who, thankfully, seemed more bemused than worried or exasperated.  They asked me if I had an alarm clock or an electric shaver in the bag, and as I tore through it I assured them that I didn’t have any electrical anything—ah, wait, I said as I thought to open the toiletries bag, I do have a fusion razor.  Sure enough, it had switched itself on somehow.  And that was how I learned something important about the Gillette Fusion razor, namely, that you should take out its battery when you travel by air.

Speaking of traveling.  I’ve spent the morning pretending I’m going to buy a ticket to game six of the finals in Pittsburgh, even though (a) tickets are going for one quintillion dollars on the Penguins Ticket Exchange and (b) I have to leave for the AAUP national meeting on Wednesday evening, so that I only have three days to catch up with Jamie’s exploits.  Besides, I’m all travel-exhausted again.  I seem to be aging.  But dang, that Penguins Ticket Exchange is a fascinating thing.  When 500 tickets went on sale this morning at 10, of course I tried to buy a face-price ticket, but they were gone by 10:01, and then I spent an hour watching tickets appear and disappear on the Exchange.  It was almost like a “market” of some kind!  But where do people get the money for this kind of consumer activity?  Second mortgages, perhaps?

So I’m now going to spend a few hours downloading Janet’s footage of the Pennsylvania Special Olympics onto Jamie’s computer, editing the stuff, and putting les faits saillants on Ye Olde YouTube for the benefit of the blog-reading public.  In the meantime, here’s a snippet of the kind of thing I sometimes say on these gigs.  I think I now have nine or ten different talks I’ve been shuffling around this year; half of them are drawn from The Left At War, a couple are stand-alone things written for specific occasions, and a couple are reminders of The Next Damn Thing.  One of them ends more or less like so (though I’ve added the appropriate hyper-links).


You’re probably acquainted with the genre of cultural criticism that consists of worrying about the fate of reading in the age of the Internet.  But while it’s true that ours is largely a visual culture, and that nearly everything in the world is available on YouTube, I think we tend to underestimate the degree to which Internet culture is actually a textual culture.  As the blogger known as Fafnir put it in his 2005 State of the Internet Address:

This year brought us the Blog Revolution, which wasn’t that big but moved so fast it went from Blog Bastille Day to the Blog Reign of Terror to the Blog Buncha Ol Fat Guys Talkin About Blog Bastille Day in like a week! The internet has executed all mainstream television news personalities and replaced them with what the people really want to see: scrolling columns of text linking to other scrolling columns of text!

And whenever my students or my colleagues get too depressed about the fact that everyone on campus loves “new technologies” whereas “books” are something like Bronze Age relics, I like to think of this passage from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which suggests that alphabetic writing is one of the most remarkable and impressive technologies humans have devised:

Inventing a writing system from scratch must have been incomparably more difficult than borrowing and adapting one.  The first scribes had to settle on basic principles that we now take for granted.  For example, they had to figure out how to decompose a continuous utterance into speech units, regardless of whether those units were taken as words, syllables, or phonemes.  They had to learn to recognize the same sound or speech unit through all our normal variations in speech volume, pitch, speed, emphasis, phrase grouping, and individual idiosyncrasies of pronunciation.  They had to decide that a writing system should ignore all of that variation.  They then had to devise ways to represent sounds by symbols.

Somehow, the first scribes solved all those problems, without having in front of them any example of the final result to guide their efforts.  That task was evidently so difficult that there have been only a few occasions in history when people invented writing entirely on their own.  The two indisputably independent inventions of writing were achieved by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia somewhat before 3000 B.C and by Mexican Indians before 600 B.C.; Egyptian writing of 3000 B.C. and Chinese writing (by 1300 B.C.) may also have risen independently.

You know, everyone gets all worked up about the wheel, like it was some big thing.  We even tell ourselves we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  Well, compared to writing, the wheel was child’s play.  Literally: the wheel was invented all over the place, time and time again.  It’s as if humans around the globe woke up, fell out of bed, and invented wheels before breakfast—even when they had no productive use for them.  Diamond again: “Ancient Native Mexicans invented wheeled vehicles with axles for use as toys, but not for transport.  That seems incredible to us, until we reflect that ancient Mexicans lacked domestic animals to hitch to their wheeled vehicles, which therefore offered no advantage over human porters” (248).

Diamond’s lively appreciation of the intellectual challenges entailed in the invention of writing reminds me of a passage from Pale Fire, a passage I love not only for itself but for the fact that it comes out of nowhere in one of the most playful, involuted works of fiction written in English.  The narrator, of course, is Nabokov’s idiosyncratic or insane Professor Charles Kinbote:

We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing.  We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats.  What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read?  I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students).

In the pursuit of literature we find that our subject is fugitive—like Pale Fire itself (and a few of its characters).  Sometimes mimesis holds the mirror up to nature, and sometimes it holds the mirror up to a hall of mirrors.  But that’s what happens when writing reflects upon the impossibly difficult and delightful invention of writing; and though I wouldn’t want to resemble Professor Kinbote in any other sense, I do want my students to gasp not only at what they read but at the everyday miracle of its being readable.

Posted by Michael on 06/08 at 11:18 AM
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