Feldenkrais & Gesellschaft

This piece in the NY Times reports that the latest U.S. Scripps National Spelling Bee co-champions are (again) from South Asia. Jairam Hathwar spelled “feldenkrais” & Nihar Janga spelled “gesellschaft,” arriving at a linguistic stalemate. There is no entry in the online OED for feldenkrais, but Wikipedia tells me that it is a way of training people’s movement to “increase . . . kinesthetic and proprioceptive self-awareness.” Gesellschaft shows up in the OED with this brief entry: “A social relationship between individuals based on duty to society or to an organization.”

Since reading this article a couple of hours ago I have been pondering whether it’s possible to draw any coherent implications from the fact that the two winners “are the ninth consecutive victors of South Asian ancestry, and the 12th in 16 years.” One is tempted to make invidious comparisons between the South Asian immigrant community & American nativist English-only fundamentalists. And though that particular social configuration currently packs a certain political wallop, its arguments are so incoherent they ultimately tear themselves apart.

So why this run of victories by South Asian elementary & middle-school students? My best guess would be that Indian immigrant communities (in the US & elsewhere) preserve the very deep Indian understanding of language. Combine that with the aspirational immigrant respect for education & one can begin to see how this run of South Asian spelling bee victories might happen. The claim about Indian cultural understanding of language would need to be further developed & I’m not expert enough to do that in an adequate way. I would simply note that there is a 4000 year textual tradition that begins with the Vedas. For the first half of that period the “texts” were oral, but there was a highly developed form of “oral literacy” among the priestly class that included an elaborate technology of memorization & error checking. Early Buddhists, faced with preserving the discourses of Gotama, adopted & adapted this set of values & skills for their own purposes.

I assume that the boys’ parents are immigrants who grew up bilingual in English & an Indian language & that the boys have grown up speaking American English. I hope they are also speaking the Indian language(s) of their parents–from the boys’ first names probably Hindi. India is an example of bilingualism / multilingualism on steroids. No doubt the boys’ families created an educational / study environment based on these values. The parents themselves would very likely be prepared to draw on their own traditions to help their children prepare. And this would be true of a certain percentage of similar immigrant parents, thus the long string of victories.1

These two particular words raise a question about how children study for the highest level of spelling bee competition. I assume they simply memorize long lists of common & even not so common words, but at some point this method will reach a point of diminishing returns. At that point competitors will need to shift to phonetics, including the phonetics of words of non-English origin. Feldenkrais is a Ukrainian / Yiddish (?) surname; gesellschaft is borrowed from German. I doubt these were on the boys’ To Memorize list.

 

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  1. I make no claim as to whether such training is in some larger way good–either in general or for particular students.

Guy Clark Dead at 74

The NY Times obituary covers his career but fails, to my mind, to suggest the combination of verbal high wit & deep feeling evident in Clark’s best songs. When the wit failed, as it did occasionally, the songs could slip over into sentimentality, as in “The Randall Knife,” “El Coyote” & “Hemingway’s Whisky.” This happens most frequently when Clark decides to draw a moral or teach a lesson. Clark’s crowd pleaser “The Cape” should fail on these grounds, but doesn’t, saving the lesson through a self-deprecating tone & the slight distancing of a third-person point of view.

Different listeners will have their own favorites, but my nomination for Clark’s best song would be the middle-period “Dublin Blues” & the late-career “Hell Bent on a Heartache” or (from the same album, My Favorite Picture of You) “I’ll Show Me.” Finally, I’m not big on the “novelty” songs like “Homegrown Tomatoes” & “Texas Cookin’,” with the exception of “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis,” which in any case I hesitate to put in the novelty category.

There is No Science of Consciousness; Or, Talking Animals

What follows is either a piece of grammatical / ontological speculation, or a shaggy dog story1–probably the latter. I was reading this report of a conference on the nature of consciousness in the NY Times when it occurred to me that there can be no “science of consciousness” because science is a product of consciousness. We can & do have consciousness of science, because science is a product of consciousness–an aspect–not the other way around. Maybe it’s just a trick of grammar & cannot be generalized, but it’s a trick that reveals something important. One does not say “the science of earth” for Geology (though we might well say Earth Science, which is itself revealing); nor does one say “the science of animals” for Zoology. Should one consider nouns like geology & zoology as highly compressed forms of apposition? If so, what does that imply? And why has no one yet proposed Consciousology as a name for this new science?

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  1. Scouting around for a brief definition of the phrase shaggy dog story, I found Wikipedia straightforward but appreciated the compact irony of the Urban Dictionary: “A joke, usually long, with a silly premise, often involving talking animals.”

Written on the Body?

For radiation therapy, the nurse & technician drew little targets with a pen on my abdomen & hip, then used those diagrams to write inside my body with radiation. The metaphor of writing (or, since Derrida, of inscribing) for these professional, routine physical actions feels in retrospect vitiated as well as pompous. Oh, he’s a professor—he can’t write about his treatment in plain terms. It’s not writing, then, though done with accuracy & precision. Both the pen strokes & the focusing & calibration of the photon beam.

The marker with which they drew the target left broad lines & was not cold to the touch during application. The mark, going on, felt slightly oily, not like an ordinary alcohol-based marker. Unlike the MRI, I felt nothing during the treatments themselves. (In the MRI I could actually feel warmth generated in my tissues as the magnets worked. The x-ray photons passed right through me–might as well have been neutrinos for all I could feel. But they had a noticeable effect on the tumor in the bone, shrinking it (I’m told) & thus relieving pressure & pain. My left hip is quite stiff but the back pain, especially while bending, has been reduced by ninety percent.

x-ray-production

And here is a picture of the back pain itself. I drew it while lying on my back at night with the lights out, not looking at the pen or the paper, a day or two before the radiation treatments began. Tonight, perhaps, I’ll see if I can draw a picture of how that same area of my back feels now.

 

Pain drawing
Spine & Shoulder

I’ve been doing a lot of drawing, much of it abstract, but also trying to get down the branchings of the trees I see while lying in bed & looking out the window. And just now I’m feeling my way toward the fundamental difference / similarity between drawing & writing. What I’m doing now, using a keyboard, is very obviously writing, but when I scrawl a note using a pencil (whether a line of poetry or a note when the pharmacist calls about how to take a new drug) that feels a little bit like drawing. And then of course there is drawing: I look out the window & try to capture the curve of a branch. What, then, of a drawing like the one above? Done without looking but trying to catch the phenomenon of a specific pain? And what was the nurse doing in making marks on which to line up a beam of high-energy photons? Her marks contained very precise information. Were they writing or drawing?

Finally, though we are far beyond the “picture theory” of language, even this writing done on a keyboard is a kind of drawing. I want you to see what I can barely see myself–for us to picture things together, with picture being a highly transitive & collaborative verb.

Choosing What to Photograph

When I’m in Vietnam, for example, I take pictures mostly like a tourist, so that I can remember places & people & events; occasionally I photograph more self-consciously, looking for the same sorts of things I look for when taking pictures at home: pattern, quality of light, strangeness, color. For the last couple of years, until it became hard for me to walk around outside, I’ve been obsessively photographing clouds. I don’t generally like vistas or landscapes, though there are exceptions such as the lush absolutely flat rice country of the Mekong Delta. I like abstraction. I like sequences.

I take lots of pictures & erase most of them off the memory card & never think of them again. As a Buddhist, I suppose I should be drawn to the relatively new movement of contemplative photography, which emphasizes spending a lot of time looking before squeezing the shutter. Several photographers I admire have used this method–or at least taught it. Minor White was a pioneer of the contemplative aesthetic & he was the teacher of John Daido Loori, who founded the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism, in which I am a student. Maybe I just don’t trust my technique enough.

As a poet I am committed to technique as a means of elucidating subject matter, but when I pick up the camera, I keep my technique basic. I usually use the aperture priority setting on my camera, which allows me to set the f-stop & control depth of field, letting the camera figure out the correct shutter speed.1 I find it hard to compose in the viewfinder, so I usually crop pictures in my photo-editing software, where I also tend to either punch up the color intensities, or mute them–often all the way to black & white.

With the self-portrait sequence, I decided that taking photographs of my face while I’m ill2 is just too, well, “in your face,” so I settled on taking pictures of things I can hold in my hand. Question: “What has someone’s left hand holding a common object got to do with the self? Where is the self?” Response: The self is a composition of different, ever-changing objects, relations, conditions–or so I was taught in Buddhism 101. The hand & the object hold each other. They need each other.

Whatever the specific object chosen for the self-portraits, it has to be small enough to hold in my hand. The specific objects were not chosen according to a particular plan other than a kind of intuitive attraction, sometimes rooted in childhood memories. That is one source of numinosity–but color plays a part as well, because it seems so fundamental, & cultural allusion. Culture & allusion–a technique from literature–come from widely differing modes of cognition & feeling, but both have operated in the process of selection. And I think this is true of most of my photography–not just the recent self-portraits.

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  1. With these self-portraits, though, there is virtually no technique since I am using my iPhone 5c, hand-held.
  2. I hope I’m not being melodramatic: I have a diagnosis of cancer, but I won’t know for a few days what kind & what treatment I’ll need & my prognosis. Perhaps I’ll get off easy.