– – / – – / – – – –

Pocket WatchWhen I was a student I used to scoff at putting the date on papers.

It was a few extra seconds of my time that I needed for stressing about the first line of the assignment. It was a line of markings on a document otherwise unblemished by numerical figures – a compliance with the rules of academic paper form, making it uglier than it already was. And, I confess, I didn’t always know what the date was, and I didn’t bother to check.

Writing the date on academic papers had a logical, up front purpose. Now – not having academic papers anymore – I’ve found myself marking my writing journal with the date. (It’s not a daily journal, just an idea vat). I’ve begun scribbling six ugly numbers and breaking them up into pairs with sharp dashes at the top of pages. And I don’t know why I never did this before.

It’s a beautiful thing, really. It’s an acceptance that I am a speck in history, and all I get right now is six (or eight if I’m feeling long-winded) numbers and two dashes for 24 hours before they change.

Now that I’m on this train of thought, I think it goes further than that… Continue reading

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Let Your ‘May’ Mean ‘Might’

This is just an attention-grabber. It has nothing to do with the post.

This is just an attention-grabber. It has nothing to do with the post.

I was reminded of a subtle grammar rule today, and it inadvertently sparked a whole line of strange thoughts. It’s a rule I often forget, and I hope that by writing this I will be able to internalize it. But, also, I had a thought about application that I wanted to share for the fun of it.

The difference between Might and May:

We use ‘may’ to say that something is possible, in fact, that it’s more possible than a circumstance in which ‘might’ is the correct term. Small difference. Continue reading

Poetry for the Prosers

saltflatsposttrek

Intentionality of words is something poets speak of often and value highly. And I think us authors of prose should attempt to cultivate the same efforts of word-smithery. For a poet, each word and grammatical mark – even individual letters sometimes – carries the potential to affect the entire poem and the way a reader views or hears it.  Part of the poet’s genius is in the sound manipulations he or she can create in the reader’s ears.

But can prose manage that?

Considering length it would be difficult to contribute that much care to each mark on the page as many poets do. But what about some of the longer epic poetry like “Paradise Lost” or “The Divine Comedy” (see also “Beowulf,” “things by Homer,” “Canterbury Tales,” “The Waste Land”…) Some of these are probably longer than the last book you read. Continue reading

The Wisdom of Earthsea

Here begins a series of scattered posts where I showcase some of the best lines and quotes I picked up from recent books I’ve read. Sadly, I only just read Ursula K. Le Guin’s frst Earthsea novel, A Wizard of Earthsea,  a few months ago. I’m no longer ignorant to the fact that I was really missing out on a work of stunningly original and wise literature.

I hope that by going back over some of these quotes and themes we might be inspired in our own writing. I want to be able to make something of these catalogues of great lines. Also, if any of you have read this book and have things to add, please don’t hesitate to comment! Let’s keep these stories alive.

For those who have never read A Wizard of Earthsea:

Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea. But he was once called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.

Earthsea

Earthsea

Here is an author who has the wisdom of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien’s capacity for legend. In a world that is more sea than land, where a person’s true name is never spoken except in the greatest of trust or for the most evil of reasons…some of its best lines:

“Ged crouched among the dripping bushes wet and sullen, and wondered what was the good of having power if you were too wise to use it.” [24]

“Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light?” [31]

“…you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act.” [59]

“Enjoy illusions, lad, and let the rocks be rocks.” [60]

“It is the shadow if your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?” [91]

“Go to bed; tired is stupid.” [97]

“…it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.” [107]

“From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things.” [115]

“And the grey sea closed over him.” [120]

“That is between me and my shadow.” [134]

“It is light that defeats the dark,” he said stammering,–“light.” [165]

“As a wizard he had learned the price of the game, which is the peril of losing one’s self, playing away the truth.” [174]

“At the spring of the River Ar I named you,” the mage said, “a stream that falls from the mountain to the sea. A man would know the end he goes to, but he cannot know it if he does not turn, and return to his beginning, and hold that beginning in his being.” [178-179]

“He knew only the torment of dread, and the certainty that he must go ahead and do what he set out to do: hunt down the evil, follow his terror to its source.” [204-205]

“…I had forgotten how much light there is in the world, till you gave it back to me.” [211]

“I was with you at the beginning of your journey. It is right that I should follow you to its end.” [221]

I had many more notes and highlights as I looked back though, but I think these are some of the best. This book comes at my highest recommendation. It could change the way we look at fantasy and add a stronger dose of thought and spirit to the flashy wars and assassin’s creeds of popular fantasy now …“if the wind blows true.”

Doublespeak for fun

Today in my linguistics course we talked about classic scientific writing. You know…passive voice nominalized noun strings if you’re doing it correctly. Actually, our professor admitted that in some circles noun strings are called “noun banging,” but we decided to go with the less offensive name.

Every profession has a list of great jargons in their repertoire. Apparently a group of educators who called themselves the Committee on Public Doublespeak back in the 70s thought they could wipe out what they thought was an unhealthy use of jargon by “mocking it to death” as my professor put it.

They made lists.

Take business for example. These guys created a list of jargons you might hear in any self-respecting business class and placed them in three rows like so:

1. integrated                   management                   options

2.total                              organizational                flexibility

3. systemized                 monitored                         capability

4. parallel                       reciprocal                          mobility

5. functional                  digital                                programming

6. responsive                 logistical                           concept

7. optional                     transitional                      time-phase

8. synchronized           incremental                      projection

9. compatible                policy                                 contingency

Take one word from each of the three columns, say them together and you sound like a smart person! Everyone thinks “this guy must know what the hell he’s talking about. I won’t question his authority.” Try it. It’s a blast!

I personally like total organizational flexibility because it describes my room at any point in time. I’m especially flexible with my organization during exam week.

Integrated reciprocal contingency is another favorite. No idea what it means, sounds great though, and that’s just the point. Drop that phrase around friends and see what you can get away with. You may have friends that will just smile and nod at you. Those are fun people. You can tell them anything.

What the Doublespeak Committee attempted to do was limit the jargon strings by proving how ridiculous it can be next to clear, precise language. (I’m guessing this was in anticipation of the year 1984). But it backfired on them. Is it that we don’t want to use clear language when we could be sounding smart and professional by tossing around key words? Or is it the case that sometimes these are the concise terms that are most helpful? This may be an intriguing pedagogical dilemma, but I’m not get into that.

I just think they’re fun and wanted to share.

Speaking of pedagogy, here’s another list for my teacher friends:

1. curricular                research                    project

2. behavioral              stimulation              validation

3. programmed          implementation      assessment

4. cognitive                 examination            objectives

5. instructional         participation            resources

6. integrated               syllabus                     concept

7. audio-visual          innovation                module

8. interdisciplinary  communication       subsystems

9. multi-media           learning                    evaluation

*Remember to use one word from each column for best effect.

Enjoy

Ambassadors of Lies

He shook his head. Formally, he said, “Language is the continuation of coercion by other means.”

       “Bullshit. It’s cooperation.” (Embassytown, 316)

Right now I’m blogging while my friends are doing homework, and they’re not ok with that – I have to be on the watch for hard objects thrown at my head. But sharing their homework-induced misery can wait because I’ve been meaning to get to this for a while now. My mind has been doing acrobatics with China Mieville’s novel, Embassytown and I want to make an attempt to share. If you haven’t heard of this author I recommend his work. But open one of his books with hesitant curiosity. He offers a wild ride of thought summersaults set in eerily familiar alien-world imagery. But I’m not writing a book review, so that train of thought ends here…

…To pick up another one. Mieville’s thesis, put bluntly: language is scary powerful. And Embassytown is a science fiction that shows us that in a most frightening and helpless way. It’s really not fair, this juxtaposition he creates with an alien race of innocent beings formally called “Ariekei.” Innocent because their notion of language is a vast chasm away from ours firmly placed on the opposite side of our understanding.

It takes Mieville a book to explain this, so I’ll do my best.

The Ariekei (known to the humans as Ambassadors) cannot communicate with us in a meaningful way. In our mindset the words we say are arbitrary – they are the signifier giving our agreed meanings to the objects signified. Imagine Adam granting all the animals names, pulling imaginary words out of his head to describe what he saw. We see an elephant and name it: elephant. Someone else could come up and say it’s a squirrel, and who are we to tell him otherwise unless everyone has already agreed that that large grey beast knocking down a tree over there is an elephant. But the name itself as a descriptor doesn’t give any sort of truth to the creature.

For the Ariekei it is somehow the opposite. We have no language for their language. Their words are not arbitrary. They are. The humans have no idea how this language originated, but it makes the Ariekei unique in the fact that they cannot lie; they cannot say something that is not because it would be meaningless babble. To further twist things they have two mouths (called the Cut and the Turn) which speak in concert to produce meanings. To say the name of one of the characters, Brendan, they would say in Cut and Turn voice bren/dan, two sounds spoken from one being at the same time. Impossible for us. To communicate with them two people need to produce sounds – their designated parts of meanings – simultaneously.

My brain = toast.

Unfortunately, (humans, being the way they are) discovered that they can confuse the Ariekei by saying things in Ariekei tongue like “red is blue” or “my brain is toast.” This would send the aliens into something like shock, and after this is experimented on further with the right voices, mankind discovers how to make this a drug for the Ariekei.

Only by learning how to create lies themselves can they get around the addictive effects of human words and have their minds back. Because of this their way of life and innocence is destroyed.

~

Two human characters talk this over toward the end of the book. They discuss the pros and cons of human language. The argument was made that maybe the Ariekei didn’t really have language until they knew how to formulate lies. They had no culture. No stories. No way to explain or define something without saying the same thing that was already said. They had no way of creating a religion or a mythology or a clever word pun. They had no way of persuading. They had no way of avoiding the drug of human lies.

 “Language is the continuation of coercion by other means.”

       “Bullshit. It’s cooperation.”

I’d argue that language is also the beginning of coercion. Other means are invented only when language fails (if words won’t do the trick, I suppose sticks and stones will have to do). But in Mieville’s world, the Ariekei don’t know this. Violence comes first. For those puritans who won’t or can’t speak an untruth lest they wish to create an untruth, human language becomes the ultimate form of torture and seduction. The god-drug. The final addictive power. When a lie is born (cloaked by humans as the “metaphor” – that beautiful poetic device) among the unique alien race, it is at the cost of their innocence. There is no retreating back over that line. To be able to speak something new and call it true is a freedom too seductive. It’s eve’s apple.

I can’t say it better than Mieville himself, and even he needs some space to say it:

The said was now not-as-it-is. What they spoke now weren’t things or moments anymore but the thoughts of them, pointings-at; meaning no longer a flat facet of essence; signs ripped from what they signed. It took the lie to do that. With that spiral of assertion-abnegation came quiddities, and the Ariekei became themselves. They were worldsick as meanings yawned. Anything was anything, now. Their minds were sudden merchants: metaphor, like money, equalised the incommensurable. They could be mythologers now: They’d never had monsters, but now the world was all chimeras, each metaphor a splicing. The city’s a heart, I said, and in that a heart and a city were sutured into a third thing, a heartish city, and cities are heart-stained, and hearts are city-stained too (311-312).

So in the end a new culture is born. Beings who, by their very being, were not able to say lies could suddenly speak a plethora of double-truths and double-lies. The Cut is saying “I regret nothing” while the Turn utters “I regret” at the same time (343). Both are true and both are false perhaps? Because of that, what is said is made more meaningful and less meaningful at the same time. You pick the poetry of it. They’re not explaining.  The new Ariekeis have become the master-artists of language performance.

A performance perhaps, but I envy that precision. (343).

Let me try that performance too: I step up to the podium and take a deep breath. The mike is on and my breath breathes around the entire room…

Language is coercion. Language is cooperation.

I regret this.

I regret nothing.