Re: Portraiture as a Site of Many Meetings

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The following is excerpted from the Afterword(s) to Portraits and Conversations, my recent collection of fictional essays:

One thing that I find interesting about portraits as a genre of painting is that they are most often considered to be a unique combination of an objective documentation of an individual and the painter’s subjective description of the same individual; another unique attribute of many portraits is that they are assumed to serve as representations of both the physical and psychological characteristics of the individual being portrayed.  The extent to which a specific portrait is interpreted by a viewer to be primarily an objective or subjective description varies depending on a number of factors: the context in which the portrait is presented, the biographies of the artist and sitter, the media selected for the portrait, and the artist’s use of that media.  Whether photographic portraits exist in the same way is open to question since the photograph is usually perceived to have a different relationship to objects and their potentially objective representation than a drawing or painting or verbal description.  Conversations are likewise a unique meeting place of subjective and objective interpretations.  The perspective from which one hears, or overhears, a conversation affects the meanings of the verbal statements in a variety of ways.  “To say nothing of her” is, for instance, an utterance that can be interpreted differently depending on how, why, and in what context it is received.  

About Portraits and Conversations

Why Do You Read Science Fiction?

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Johannah Rodgers
February 11, 2017

I read science fiction for reasons that change on an almost daily basis. Initially, and not all that long ago, I started reading science fiction because I quite unexpectedly found myself working on a fiction project related to the genre of science fiction. Before that time (2008?), I did not think that I had ever read science fiction. This was, of course, not true. However, it was what I believed.

I study, write about, and write prose, both fiction and nonfiction, which are part of what we call, generally, literature. Having studied and been educated in the history of Western literature, I tended to draw distinct lines between “literature” and “non-literature” (whatever that is?!). [In the 80s, it was possible to make a distinction between two categories that were related to one another by capitalizing the first letter of one and not capitalizing the first letter of the other. I believe this practice in some way related to Lacan’s work, but I’m not sure.] Anyway, in the past, I made a clear distinction between Literature (capital L) and literature (lower case l). What literature was did not concern me. However, over time, it increasingly interested me, for various reasons, all of which related in some way to this question: why is it that given the choice to read works of Literature would anyone choose to read works of literature instead? I still don’t have a complete answer to this question, but having spent some time and energy investigating it, I have more of an understanding of what is involved in formulating answers to that question.

Here is the very short version of the answer: literature (lower case l) is a living genre; Literature is not. This fact has mostly to do with economics and economies, but it also has to do with educational systems (defined broadly) and nation states. In other words, the reasons behind how and why and which books are studied and what their import is perceived to be. Literature and literature exist in some relation to one another and sometimes overlap. However how and why these two categories meet is dependent on numerous factors. In particular, the medial environment and affordances of a given culture in any one point in time.

My research and writing are increasingly focused on writing as a medium and as media and on thinking about writing as a set of and systems of technologies. It is these interests, along with the fact that I wrote a writing textbook entitled Technology: A Reader for Writers, that have led me to read more science fiction. What I have learned in the process is that I always read science fiction. However, I did not always know that I was reading science fiction.

Like most people, I read science fiction because I enjoy it and I am interested in it, both as a creative writer and as someone who thinks and writes about technologies and societies. However, I also read and study science fiction because I think it is important socially, culturally, and in the context of literary studies generally.

Some Worries: October 3, 2016

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Should I say what I really think? If I were a German media theorist, I certainly would do that, but I am not. I am an American writer who wonders often whether there shouldn’t be another way of introducing herself since American seems so incredibly presumptuous and is, in fact, simply wrong. I am a United States-based writer, so I am called an American one because, in English, the United States does not have an adjectival form. It could, of course, but it doesn’t.

In addition to worrying about what adjective to use to describe myself, I also worry about how much is being written and if anyone is reading anything anymore. I, myself, have been tending to read only the first sentence of paragraphs. To some extent, this is how one is taught to read in graduate school, assuming one is not a comparative literature major, in which case, you are taught to read very, very carefully and slowly.  The geographer and Marx scholar David Harvey once said that when he offered his seminar on Marx’s Capital to a group of comparative literature faculty and graduate students at Johns Hopkins they never got past the first page of the introduction. For the whole semester, they just read one page. That anecdote, to me, offers a pretty accurate synopsis of what it means to read as a comparative literature major. Of course, even comparative literature majors cannot read in such a way today, when an estimated “3.4 trillion words, roughly the equivalent to the entire contents of the Library of Congress” are posted globally each day on the web (Clive Thompson, “Write from the Start” (2015)).

As of May, 2015, according to Caitlin Dewey’s calculations at _The Washington Post_, printing out the internet would amount to the same number of pages as 212 million copies of Tolstoy’s _War and Peace_. She does not specify the specific edition of _War and Peace_ that would need to be reproduced 212 million times (there are thousands of editions of the book in print and online). Dewey uses _War and Peace_ to illustrate her point because it is generally considered to be a long book, which it is, particularly the ebook version on my iPhone 4, which comes in at a whopping 8,588 “pages,” i.e. iPhone 4 screens. However, Dewey does cite the importance of Maurice de Kunder’s work to her calculations.  Kunder, though not as well known as Kenny Goldsmith, but who undoubtedly should be, wrote a master’s thesis documenting his development of a tool for dynamically calculating the number of web pages indexed on the World Wide Web. You can still access it at http://www.worldwidewebsize.com/ . How many of these are dedicated to the estimated eleven English translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, five of which are currently in the public domain (Bell, Dole, Wiener, Garnett, Maude), I do not know.

In his 1999 article “The Analog Experience of Digital Culture,” Stuart Moulthrop writes that in all writing about digital media, and particularly with writing published in print, “subject and media are radically misaligned. The first is inherently dynamic, the second necessarily static, and no amount of being-digital rhetoric can overcome this disparity.” While I like to think that Moulthrop’s comment can apply to writing about any subject–the real, even in its non-digital forms, is, after all, also a moving target–I must concur that when writing about topics related to the use of digital tools and technologies, we may experience this distance more acutely. I’d like Moulthrop to write more about what the experience of that distance is like. Is it akin to not trusting a writer when s/he writes about a topic that is well known to the reader? Is it akin to reading a document that is simply wrong or out of date, rather like reading a press release for an event that has already taken place?

In the same article, Moulthrop describes a web-based application that, in 1999, collected and tracked search engine activity  (there used to be more than one search engine! … oh, sorry, Bing user! Two search engines!) and enabled the user of the application to read the search terms that were being entered into various search engines in real time. Since this application no longer exists, it is hard to imagine what today’s snap-shot of any one millisecond of search terms being entered into Google might look like. I have to imagine that it would no longer be a “ticker-tape,” as it was in 1999, but more like a giant word-blob/cloud in a constant state of forming and reforming itself.  Of course, if one were to write such an application for today’s search engine(s), one would also get to decide on the shape and form of its output and, with that, shape, or at least influence, the associations and interpretations attached to it.

Textual Circulation and the Production of Common Knowledge (Robert Frost Edition)

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As my work takes me ever deeper into thinking about the exchange and circulation of textual information and its currency under different technological regimes, I’ve become interested in looking a bit more at the importance of misquoted texts in the production of common knowledge.  Robert Frost’s oft-(mis)quoted line, “poetry is what gets lost in translation” is just one example of this phenomenon.   What Frost actually said, was, “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.” (Conversations on the Craft of Poetry (1959))  

In a July 14, 2016 Tweet, the translator Michael Cole offers an interpretation of Frost’s line that is in some senses much closer to what Frost said in 1959 than to what we now commonly believe he said.  Cole writes, “Poetry isn’t lost in translation.  Poetry is translation.”  If you have any thoughts to share regarding Cole’s statement and/or the genealogy of the misquoted Frost line, please let me know.  Thanks!

“What Does It Mean To Be Able To Write?”

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This question, the title of a 1983 essay by the rhetorician Susan Miller, is one that, as a person who teaches writing and who studies writing practices, I think about a lot.     One of the most interesting things about this question is, of course, the fact that the answer necessarily changes over time.  What it meant “to be able to write” in 1850 is not identical to what it means “to be able to write” in 2016.  As a result, methods of and ideas about teaching writing also change.  The rhetoric surrounding the teaching of writing and how the act of writing is conceptualized also change.  In an ongoing attempt to document some of the changes in the rhetoric surrounding conceptions of writing, I plan to post some current and historical artifacts related to that topic.  Today, I am posting an image of the cover for the 2006 Routledge edition of Pierre Machery’s 1966 book A Theory of Literary Production, the cover for the original English edition of the book published in 1978 by Routledge & Kegan Paul, and the cover of an early French edition of the book.