Monday, January 28, 2008

Loving our Frankensteins

Baron didn’t do much for me, other than provide some interesting historical trivia about the history of the pencil, but Hesse and Wysocki/Eilola were really interesting. About those, then:

Hesse’s redefinition of “essay” was interesting in the sense that it claims as the only definition of “essay” the type of essay I have always found most interesting: the one that presents the point of view of an intelligent, curious writer who is trying to make sense of some small slice of the world. I liked this line in particular:

In fact, one characteristic quality of contemporary essays is the attempt to cast the widest net of associations possible, then struggle to bring the gathered ideas into some meaningful relation. (36)

Which reminded me of a passage in David Foster Wallace’s guest-editor introduction to 2007’s Best American Essays, which does quite a bit of intelligent, amusing moodling over the definition of “essay.” As part of his attempt to define the term, Wallace delineates fiction from (essayistic) nonfiction:

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder – because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses – it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc. (xiv)

Both writers are getting at basically the same thing – that an essay corrals a bunch of contemporary life’s stray informational sheep into some kind of interesting/relevant/urgent sweater. What an ugly, bleating metaphor. Here’s why I find this important vis-à-vis technology: that this goal, done well, is going to remain an important one in a culture of more and more Total Noise. We need smart people to make sense of it all, preferably stylishly.

There’s lots of interesting stuff in Wysocki/Eilola, and I’m going to winnow it down so I can go watch Battlestar Galactica. Here’s a passage I’d like to tentatively answer.

If “literacy” is a deceptive promise of basic skills that on their own will fix someone’s life, why do we wish that to use this term when we speak of the relationship we desire for our students and other s to have with newer technologies? (355)

Um, because what more can we as English teachers give them? They’re totally right about the myth of literacy as a panacea to poverty, powerlessness, etc., but that’s a systemic problem. I suspect that we English teachers can only solve one little part of that – ironically, the “literacy” part.

That being said, I loved their answers to their questions of how we might rethink our knowledge and use of information and escape linear, book-based literacy:

This is not about handing books to children or high-school dropouts or the underdeveloped, and hoping that they will pick u enough skills to be able to lose themselves in reading (and so to come back with different selves that better fit a dominant culture); it is instead about how we all might understand ourselves as active participants in how information gets “ rearranged, juggled, experimented with” to make the reality of different cultures. This involves, of course, understanding our selves within the making and changing. (366)

Rearranging and juggling, seeing all of the screens at once, piecing together disparate pieces of information, bricolage – all this stuff sounds kinda like what Hesse and Wallace are talking about with essay writing.

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