Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"...knowledge unfits a child to be a slave."

I am reading Angela Y. Davis's (the ex-Black Panther) book, Women, Race, and Class, and I am just now in the chapter entitled, "Education and Liberation: Black Women's Perspective." This is basically a thorough and stirring account of all of the measures and lengths and sacrifices and risks that slaves and freedmen went to, and took, for an education, in antebellum and postbellum America--of course risking every kind of wretched form of retribution that the demons and nasferatus who made up the slaveocracy, could come up with. 

"Black people were allegedly incapable of intellectual advancement," Davis writes, but if this was the case, "no prohibition of learning would have been necessary." And of course, there were all kinds of laws forbidding the education of black folks. 

Anyway, the primary reason for this blog entry, is because the following quote from Davis's book, seems like it illustrates quite aptly, how little it really takes to make a space a "study":

"A pile of books is seen in almost every cabin, though there be no furniture except a poor bed, a table and two or three broken chairs."

Friday, September 25, 2009

The view from my apartment...

When I got to the section in our reading from Roger Chartlier entitled, "The library, retreat [my italics] from the world," I got a little tense and thought, "wait a minute, do not tell me this yutz is going to try to illuminate some way in which libraries could be thought to be an avoidance of reality, in the same way--for instance--that some of us feel the banal infinitude of the 'information superhighway' is"! But he of course does not--in fact, this section of Chartier's article rung so many bells in my own head, pertaining to the way in which I value my own relatively small, yet dense and broad collection of books, and the invaluable solace of my "study," that I had to read the section twice. I guess what got me at first, was his use of the word retreat, which makes it sound like one is trying to act like the world is not out there (which definitely seems the case with a great number of the sociopathic misanthropes out there, who seem to have lost the ability to have a face to face, human conversation outside of the false reality that the internet often serves as, and who can only speak in digital type, and mostly with irritating, grammatically challenged grunts, fragments, and acronyms).

Although Chartier does deal with public libraries, the most important sense of the word "library," that he deals with, is actually probably more aptly put, when he calls it a "study." This seems to convey the personal and individualistic importance of what he is examining. Quite simply, he quotes, a study is a "place for keeping 'one's most precious goods', not only useful and rare books but one's own self." I do indeed believe, after a few discourses now with the other "bibliophiles" in our class (and you know who you are), that there are plenty of us that, if we do not necessarily have our own study per se, we by all means have a place in which we can gloat over whatever kind of collection of books we have been able to collect, and an adjacent area that silently tells our own personal history through all of the personal artifacts that end up on the shelves and the walls that surround said collection of books. 

This is not an area, for the most part, to share with many people. It is an area to do essential things like, well, of course read, study, research, and write, but also--for instance--meditate, contemplate, lick one's wounds, burn incense, put one's new skateboard together, clean one's gun (or guns), pace, drink cognac, talk to oneself, pray, take refuge, do push-ups, listen to music, and in general, provide oneself with the solitude that is the grounding and empowering counterbalance to all of the often monotonous, unnerving, and taxing social stuff we all deal with every day, and thus, enable oneself to live a genuinely complete life. I have friends--especially a couple with kids and a spouse--who do not have such an area, nor do they really get much time for any kind of solitude, and thus they are reduced to driving up to the store to buy shit they really do not need, so they can sneak a couple of hits off of a joint, and maybe listen to a little music. Some of us simply could never live that way.

"The hours spent in the library," Chartier explains, "are hours of withdrawal in two senses, which define the essence of privacy in the modern era." These two senses, he continues, are the withdrawal from "the public sphere" and all that it encompasses, and the withdrawal from the often suffocating confines of domesticity. It seems to me, that without the consistent opportunity to enjoy such refuge and solitude, one is not living a genuinely free life. I mean, obviously one's "study" is not going to be as extravagant as that of that Montaigne rogue that Chartier describes, nor is one's own personal book collection going to be as voluminous, broad, and meticulously organized and displayed as John Locke's. And they do not need to be, to serve their purpose. One's "library is a place from which one can see without being seen, which gives a kind of power to the person...[a] power over the knowledge accumulated in the books that the eye takes in at a glance."

From my "study" (the front room in my apartment), my horizons have no limits. I can see Thoreau writing in his dwelling next to Walden Pond, and also, pleading for the life of Captain John Brown, when all that man wanted, was to free the slaves. I can see Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in nineteenth century Russia, telling a pig that some people have a right to commit crimes. I can see the invaluable, radical, Wobbly labor organizer, Joe Hill, uttering his last words before he was assassinated: "Don't waste time mourning...organize!" I can see Niccolo Machiavelli in sixteenth century Italy, warning men of power for centuries to come, that nothing is more important in the governance of people, than lies and deception. I can see Thomas Paine reminding his countrymen, as America's war for independence was becoming inevitable, that "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace." I can see the German revolutionary and martyr, Ulrike Meinholf, when she warned all of the ex-Nazis that still pervaded Germany's government and academic institutions after World War II: 

"Protest is when I say I don't like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don't like. Protest is when I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too."

And so on, and so on, and so on, and so on...

Friday, September 18, 2009

"...a handful of magic goat dung..."

Robert Darnton writes that, in the old French tale about that rogue, Kiot-Jean, after the father of ol' Kiot-Jean's true love has forbidden the two from seeing each other (because Kiot-Jean is poor) Kiot-Jean decides to consult the wisdom of an old witch. And what does the witch do to help? Well, she gives him "a handful of magic goat dung." And what does this formidable pile of shite do? Well, it makes everyone in Kiot-Jean's love's  family (including his love), fart, uncontrollably. In fact, it makes them fart to the point that they can't get anything done in the household. Not just that, but, the priest, who has the misfortune to be hanging out at the house, ultimately is rendered null and void by what Darnton refers to as "a spectacular string of farts."

What the?

Finally Kiot-Jean promises them all that he can help, in exchange of course for his true love. And seeing that the farting has made life in the household "impossible" (one can only imagine), the father acquiesces to Kiot-Jean's demand, and he gets his girl. Of course, after he "surreptitiously" removes the dung.

I don't know...that very well may be my favorite tale out of all of the tales that we encounter in Darnton's...uh...stirring chapters. It is either that one, or the one about that treacherous old SOB, La Ramee. That story, Darnton explains, is similar to the aforementioned story about Kiot-Jean, in that it follows the time-proven formula of the "underdog boy meets overprivileged [sic] girl." Yes indeed, when the king reneges on his promise to allow poor ol' La Ramee to marry his daughter, by offering up another suitor of higher status to compete with La Ramee, and then forces the princess to sleep with both to choose, La Ramee ends up hustling them all. Of course, he, does not have a gnarly, fart-inducing "handful of magic goat dung." No, no, no, although La Ramee also ends up winning his love, he has to settle with the old sophomoric parlor trick  of "dispatching a flea into his rival's anus." Yeah, that sounds kind of bush-league to me too, especially compared to the daunting power of Kiot-Jean's "handful of magic goat dung."

Mother of babbling god, I have tangentially meandered way off of the coherent path of scholarly discussion which I had intended to follow "in here." All I wanted to start off with, for crying out loud, was the sincere admission that most of the old French tales that Darnton burdens us with in his chapters, are paradoxically some of the funniest, strangest, and most troubling words that I have read in a long while. Of course, as we all know, the tales that I have mentioned above can really be said to be--dear god--light hearted compared to a number of the others. But as Darnton writes, "from rape and sodomy to incest and cannibalism...the storytellers of eighteenth-century France portrayed a world of raw and naked brutality." And he by all means manages to supply us with a plethora of harrowing historical tidbits about widespread acute privations, catastrophes, wars, poverty, and plagues that are all of seemingly biblical proportions, to help explain why these tales are the way they are, and more importantly, what they are.

Which is, in so many words, pressure valves. After all, it must be easy--and dare I say, perhaps even appropriate--to joke and spin about themes such as rape and cannibalism when you've had little or nothing to eat in days (due to reasons of circumstance of course, and not because you're some new-age kook trying out the latest "power-cleanse"), two-thirds of your village is dead and/or dying from a plague started by the fleas on rats, and despite all of this, some royal asshole and his army of murderous dingbats and flunkies still expect their "dues, tithes, ground rents, and taxes." 

Now, in this regard, although the tales that Darnton deals with elicit a myriad of different questions, one keeps coming to my mind, and it involves a major and seemingly glaring thematic difference between the old French tales, and the slave tales that we read about in the chapters from Lawrence Levine. I would never want to get into any kind of comparative analysis of which catastrophe was worse, or which conditions and circumstances were worse, or who suffered more between the peasants of eighteenth-century France, and the slaves of North America. The two debacles were deplorable and disheartening, and seem--for the most part--incomparable. It should suffice to say, that the human beings dealing with both sets of circumstances were dealing with circumstances that were harsh and deplorable enough that (as we discussed in class) none of us, by any stretch of the imagination, will ever be able to genuinely relate.   

With that said, I can not help but to wonder why exactly the French tales needed to express such extreme levels of depravity and morbidity, yet the slave tales did not? There are similarities that we have discussed, the most important of which would seem expressed when Darnton explains, that despite the fact that the tales often depicted the "humiliation" and duping of the powers and people over the French peasants (and likewise, the powers and people over the North American slaves), there were few--if any--delusions expressed about conquering these powers and people, or for that matter, altering their circumstances and situations. "In most of the tales," Darnton explicates, "wish fulfillment turns into a program for survival, not a fantasy of escape....despite the occasional touches of fantasy, then, the tales remain rooted in the real world." For the most part, as we have read, this was the case with the slave tales as well.

So, the above is my question--why did the French tales need to depict such depravity and morbidity, yet the slave tales did not? I'm not--in any way--saying it necessarily means that the French were more morbid or depraved than the North American slaves were, or that either situation and set of circumstances were worse than the other, I am just wondering what some of you--my most appreciated academic colleagues--might think was the difference? 

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Islands of seals"

Disclaimer: What follows is a genuine example of something that is truly, "neither here nor there."

I do not know why I feel as compelled as I do, to comment on this, but for some reason it seems related to Dr. Maruca's request for a blog entry pertaining to a "significant [although this is by no means significant] experience with literacy and technology." If nothing else, what follows shows a fairly trivial reason (and there are not many in my case) that maybe this whole technology gig isn't all bad.

So, in the grips of my often dizzying and infinite eclecticism when it comes to music, I have been on a Go-Gos trip the last few days. Now, before you start laughing at me, it is important to remember that the Go-Gos have pretty subversive roots (Belinda Carlisle was the drummer for The Germs after all). Anyway, off of Youtube, I downloaded the videos for "Our Lips are Sealed," and "Vacation" last night (incidentally, if you look up The Go-Gos Vacation 1982, there is a sick live performance). As I scroll down the comments, someone has written that when he or she was a kid, they thought that they were singing, instead of "Our Lips are Sealed,"  "Islands of Seals"--that was her or his whole comment. I'm not exactly sure why, but that struck me as being so completely and totally ridiculous that I nearly shot Cognac out of my nose, all over my Mac contraption from laughing so hard.

Yeah, like I said, this entry was not going to be a real...uh...scholarly one. I have often referred to "the information superhighway," as being made up of a banal infinitude (and I don't mind if you use that one, I'll share), and the above is just one, little, sole drop in that vast, limitless ocean. Which, I guess, is my point. Where else can you express such a fatuous and silly, and seemingly useless fact like "Islands of Seals"? So...uh...yeah, this entry has something to do with technology, but how exactly it might relate to issues of literacy is a whole other...uh...yeah... 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Book as "artefact"?


Disclaimer: Part of what follows is of a relatively personal nature, and includes brief depictions of rude and unsavory behavior...but...is necessary to illustrate my point, so please bear with me. 

Leslie Howsam's Old Books and New Histories may be a short book (in fact, an essay), but as we all know after reading it, it is indeed dense, and confronts and illuminates a myriad of questions, difficulties, and issues pertaining to what she often refers to as "Book History." Consequently, I will be focusing on one particular aspect of her argument, which will also tie in to a personal "significant experience with literacy and technology" that I have had, and which I feel is profoundly connected to one of the points she raises in her book. I say technology, meaning that I consider the book, to be a technological tool--in fact, I consider the book, to be perhaps the most important technological tool.

Throughout Howsam's book, the book is referred to as an artefact. I am extremely interested in this perspective of the book, but as it pertains to the book being a personal artefact, more than a cultural artefact. Perhaps I should explain--throughout my travels, and in my friendships and relationships with the myriad of rare, glorious, beautiful, and tragic human beings that I have had the honor and good fortune to encounter in my nearly forty years on this planet, books have served as conduits (if you will) between these friends and I. Books--aside from the literary content within them--have physically and figuratively served as gifts, good-byes, hellos, weapons, insults, break-ups, bandages, encouragements, and reminders that one is "blowing it" (just to name a few functions).

One of the most important ways that books have done this, is by what my friends and I have written in the margins, and on the pages of these books. Howsam deals with the importance of this aspect of the book, as artefact, on page 22. "Another rich resource for the histories of reading and of ideas," Howsam writes, "is to be found in the margins of books where readers recorded their immediate responses." Of course, what I am focusing on here, since I am looking at the book as a personal artefact as much as a cultural artefact, is not merely comments written in the margins which strictly pertain to the text, but also, comments written in the margins (and on the inside of either cover) pertaining to personal relationships, and how--in my case--they generally relate to the text. 

A brief personal illustration might help to clear up what I mean. The last time I lived in San Francisco, I lived with my friend Anthony, and his family. This was about the time that the ugly reality reared its disheartening head, that my dreams of skateboarding stardom had been officially and irrevocably dashed on the rocks of an ACL in my left knee that was hanging on by but a thread. Simply put, I was dealing with the stark reality that I had lived the life that I had planned to live, and was now, "winging it." This entailed, doing a bunch of cocaine with the yuppies up the street, and smoking joints dipped in PCP and drinking "forties" with Anthony's younger brother, and all of his cholo and Norteno friends. "Y2K" was a couple of days away, and one morning, notices were put in everyone's mailboxes stating that the military and medical helicopters were going to practice landing in the baseball field across the street from our home (at 26th and Hampshire), to prepare for "the festivities." I hadn't really bought any of that "Y2K" malarkey up to that point, but those notices struck a chord in my currently paranoid mind, and after living in that home for over a year, I decided to move back home, to Detroit, that day--and I did. I figured, in my confused and paranoid mind, that if society was about to crumble, I should be close to my family.

I didn't even get to say goodbye to anyone. All I left was a box in the closet, with what little possessions I had, and a copy of Love is a Dog From Hell, by Charles Bukowski, for Anthony. It seemed to fit, because Anthony's ex-girlfriend (the mother of his child) had run off with his child, and at that point, he did not know where they were. Anyway, perhaps more important than the actual text (not to say Bukowski isn't the heavy-weight that he most certainly is), was the sentiments of gratitude and regret that I expressed with what I wrote on the inside cover to Anthony. 

I left with a copy of Jack Kerouac's classic, On the Road, which considering the transient and nomadic lifestyle that I have lead, fit quite nicely. On the inside cover, when Anthony gave me the book, he wrote:

"Like Bukowski, Kerouac wrote about the ordinary because it is worthy of great literature. But different from others he saw the ordinary as sacred."

Admittedly, the above is a pretty long way of saying what I set out to say, but I think it efficaciously illustrates what I mean, when I say that the actual texts of the aforementioned books, that serve as conduits between my friend Anthony and I (who I have not seen since incidentally), are almost secondary, to the actual books--as personal artefacts--and the comments and sentiments that Anthony and I wrote to each other, on the pages, and on the insides of the covers. 

After all, one of the most revolutionary things Martin Luther did, was ask for copies of biblical texts, with blank margins--free of the comments of the Church fathers--so that his students would be able to write their own thoughts in the margins. In his book on Hermeneutics, Gerald Bruns writes that by giving his students these Biblical texts with blank margins, Luther "produced for his students a modern, as opposed to medieval, text of the bible--its modernity consisting precisely in the white space around the text."