All posts by rsmylie

Richard Powers: “What Is Artificial Intelligence?”

What Is Artificial Intelligence?
by Richard Powers
(reprinted from The New York Times online)

In the category “What Do You Know?”, for $1 million: This four-year-old upstart the size of a small R.V. has digested 200 million pages of data about everything in existence and it means to give a couple of the world’s quickest humans a run for their money at their own game.

The question: What is Watson?

I.B.M.’s groundbreaking question-answering system, running on roughly 2,500 parallel processor cores, each able to perform up to 33 billion operations a second, is playing a pair of “Jeopardy!” matches against the show’s top two living players, to be aired on Feb. 14, 15 and 16. Watson is I.B.M.’s latest self-styled Grand Challenge, a follow-up to the 1997 defeat by its computer Deep Blue of Garry Kasparov, the world’s reigning chess champion. (It’s remarkable how much of the digital revolution has been driven by games and entertainment.) Yes, the match is a grandstanding stunt, baldly calculated to capture the public’s imagination. But barring any humiliating stumble by the machine on national television, it should.

Consider the challenge: Watson will have to be ready to identify anything under the sun, answering all manner of coy, sly, slant, esoteric, ambiguous questions ranging from the “Rh factor” of Scarlett’s favorite Butler or the 19th-century painter whose name means “police officer” to the rhyme-time place where Pelé stores his ball or what you get when you cross a typical day in the life of the Beatles with a crazed zombie classic. And he (forgive me) will have to buzz in fast enough and with sufficient confidence to beat Ken Jennings, the holder of the longest unbroken “Jeopardy!” winning streak, and Brad Rutter, an undefeated champion and the game’s biggest money winner. The machine’s one great edge: Watson has no idea that he should be panicking.

Open-domain question answering has long been one of the great holy grails of artificial intelligence. It is considerably harder to formalize than chess. It goes well beyond what search engines like Google do when they comb data for keywords. Google can give you 300,000 page matches for a search of the terms “greyhound,” “origin” and “African country,” which you can then comb through at your leisure to find what you need.

Asked in what African country the greyhound originated, Watson can tell you in a couple of seconds that the authoritative consensus favors Egypt. But to stand a chance of defeating Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter, Watson will have to be able to beat them to the buzzer at least half the time and answer with something like 90 percent accuracy.

When I.B.M.’s David Ferrucci and his team of about 20 core researchers began their “Jeopardy!” quest in 2006, their state-of-the-art question-answering system could solve no more than 15 percent of questions from earlier shows. They fed their machine libraries full of documents — books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauri, databases, taxonomies, and even Bibles, movie scripts, novels and plays.

But the real breakthrough came with the extravagant addition of many multiple “expert” analyzers — more than 100 different techniques running concurrently to analyze natural language, appraise sources, propose hypotheses, merge the results and rank the top guesses. Answers, for Watson, are a statistical thing, a matter of frequency and likelihood. If, after a couple of seconds, the countless possibilities produced by the 100-some algorithms converge on a solution whose chances pass Watson’s threshold of confidence, it buzzes in.

This raises the question of whether Watson is really answering questions at all or is just noticing statistical correlations in vast amounts of data. But the mere act of building the machine has been a powerful exploration of just what we mean when we talk about knowing.

Who knows how Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter do it — puns cracked, ambiguities resolved, obscurities retrieved, links formed across every domain in creation, all in a few heartbeats. The feats of engineering involved in answering the smallest query about the world are beyond belief. But I.B.M. is betting a fair chunk of its reputation that 2011 will be the year that machines can play along at the game.

Does Watson stand a chance of winning? I would not stake my “Final Jeopardy!” nest egg on it. Not yet. Words are very rascals, and language may still be too slippery for it. But watching films of the machine in sparring matches against lesser human champions, I felt myself choking up at its heroic effort, the size of the undertaking, the centuries of accumulating groundwork, hope and ingenuity that have gone into this next step in the long human drama. I was most moved when the 100-plus parallel algorithms wiped out and the machine came up with some ridiculous answer, calling it out as if it might just be true, its cheerful synthesized voice sounding as vulnerable as that of any bewildered contestant.

It does not matter who will win this $1 million Valentine’s Day contest. We all know who will be champion, eventually. The real showdown is between us and our own future. Information is growing many times faster than anyone’s ability to manage it, and Watson may prove crucial in helping to turn all that noise into knowledge.

Dr. Ferrucci and company plan to sell the system to businesses in need of fast, expert answers drawn from an overwhelming pool of supporting data. The potential client list is endless. A private Watson will cost millions today and requires a room full of hardware. But if what Ray Kurzweil calls the Law of Accelerating Returns keeps holding, before too long, you’ll have an app for that.

Like so many of its precursors, Watson will make us better at some things, worse at others. (Recall Socrates’ warnings about the perils of that most destabilizing technology of all — writing.) Already we rely on Google to deliver to the top of the million-hit list just those pages we are most interested in, and we trust its concealed algorithms with a faith that would be difficult to explain to the smartest computer. Even if we might someday be able to ask some future Watson how fast and how badly we are cooking the earth, and even if it replied (based on the sum of all human knowledge) with 90 percent accuracy, would such an answer convert any of the already convinced or produce the political will we’ll need to survive the reply?

Still, history is the long process of outsourcing human ability in order to leverage more of it. We will concede this trivia game (after a very long run as champions), and find another in which, aided by our compounding prosthetics, we can excel in more powerful and ever more terrifying ways.

Should Watson win next week, the news will be everywhere. We’ll stand in awe of our latest magnificent machine, for a season or two. For a while, we’ll have exactly the gadget we need. Then we’ll get needy again, looking for a newer, stronger, longer lever, for the next larger world to move.

For “Final Jeopardy!”, the category is “Players”: This creature’s three-pound, 100-trillion-connection machine won’t ever stop looking for an answer.

The question: What is a human being?

Richard Powers is the author of the novel “Generosity: An Enhancement.”

Kevin Kelly talks about his recent book, What Technology Wants

from Faculty member Miranda Mellis:


Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine and former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog (now free online), published a new book this past October: What Technology Wants. Reviewing his own book on BoingBoing, Kelly summarizes a few key points. “Technology is the most powerful force on the planet.” In fact, humanity is a tool itself, and, like all living things, technology evolves, demonstrating certain unconscious “urges” and “wants” in the process. Technology cannot be held back. But we can try to optimize its benefits for human culture, even while potentially trying to limit the amount of technology in our own lives. It’s a heady book, and, perhaps fittingly, Kevin Kelly pulled through Google in November and distilled his new theory of technology in a 40 minute talk. Watch it above…

Bonus: You might also want to check out this conversation recorded at the New York Public Library. It features Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson (author of Where Good Ideas Come From) in conversation with Robert Krulwich, co-host of Radio Lab.

Robin Tremblay-McGaw: About Reading

About Reading

by Robin Tremblay-McGaw

Dear Reader:

“…Reader, where are you inside the future outside the past this letter is addressed to you…”—The Letters of Mina Harker

I recently re-read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, this time in the new dexterous and luminous translation by Lydia Davis, a book very much about reading, and I’ve been thinking about what it means to read and all of the many different kinds of reading we do. We are swimming in words—on the internet, on billboards and placards; there’s email and snail mail, e-books, paperbacks, and hardcover books, magazines, journals and graphic novels. There’s scholarly and playful reading, book clubs, poetry reading, study groups, bedtime reading, airplane reading, reading for pleasure, reading for work, reading for instruction. Most of our reading these days is silent reading, a kind of technology in and of itself. At one time—though there is evidence that reading aloud and silently probably co-existed in the time of the Ancient Greeks—silent reading was a new technology, a source of astonishment to those used to reading aloud or being read to, and a means for establishing privacy as Augustine (354-430) reminds us in his Confessions. Here he writes of, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan:

When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart seized the meaning, while he formed no words with his lips. Often, when we were present—since he did not restrict access to himself, and the names of visitors were not announced—we watched him read, silently as he always did, and after we had been sitting there in a prolonged silence (with none so cheeky as to break his spell) we withdrew. We supposed that he had so little time he could call his own, for restocking his mental store, beset as he was by the problems of others, that he resisted involvement in more such affairs. He might have avoided reading a passage out loud before an alert listener since he could be asked to explicate it, leading to discussion of nice points (113).

Silent reading was not unlike a kind of spell. Reading’s spell, so to speak, might be shared, communicated to others. Later in the Confessions (Book IV: Pontician’s Friends), Augustine writes of a visit Pontician made to the home of Augustine and his friend Alypius where Pontician discovers, much to his delight, a copy of the letters of Saint Paul. Pontician proceeds to tell a story about what happened to several men who had read a book about the life of Anthony: “As one of them began to read it he was stunned and took fire, and even as he read began to consider taking up such a [Christian] life himself” (172). “Book Five: The Garden,” details Augustine’s exile from himself, his struggle with “the higher delights of heaven” and “the joys of temporal existence” (179) and his eventual epiphanic conversion to Christianity, a conversion that occurs, as it did for the men in Pontician’s story, through the act of reading. Augustine explains: “No longer crying, I leaped up, not doubting that it was by divine prompting that I should open the book and read what first I hit on….`Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries…’The very instant I finished that sentence, light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced. I closed the book, marking the place with my finger or something, and spoke to Alypius with an altered countenance…” (182).

This potential spell-like quality of reading is part of its magic and risks. As New Narrative writer Robert Glück writes, “Any fiction wants you to become it–wants to take the place of your reflection in the mirror and calls for your recognition. It makes you become it like a magic spell–with words, with images, representations” (“My Community” 122).


Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), a novel put on trial for obscenity, is about many things not the least of which is reading and the powers and risks of fiction. In Madame Bovary, Emma Rouault is a young provincial French woman of the 19th century who marries a country doctor, Charles Bovary. Emma’s marriage and life do not live up to her imagination, to the novels she has read. She takes lovers and comes to a famous and catastrophic end while one of her lovers marries and the other remains an eligible and amorous bachelor about town. Emma’s husband, Charles, is ultimately destroyed by Emma’s death and debt, and the realization of her infidelities. Their daughter ends up orphaned and in a work house.

Significantly, Charles Bovary is a man who is not a reader. As a young man at school, Charles “work[ed] conscientiously, looking up all the words in the dictionary and [took] great pains” in his lessons, though “he had almost no elegance in his constructions” (5). While Emma read novels at home and religious texts at the convent where she also listened to sermons, Charles’ grew up in a household with a father who “little concerned with literature, said it was not worth the trouble!” (7). Emma, on the other hand, “had read Paul and Virginia,” and Balzac and George Sand, and at the convent, “the metaphors of betrothed, spouse, heavenly lover, and marriage everlasting that recur in sermons stirred unexpectedly sweet sensations in the depths of her soul” (31). Emma is a reader; Charles is not. Instead of considering Emma’s reading of novels as a weakness, a liability, the source of her trouble, as many readers have, perhaps it is worth wondering what Charles might have understood or imagined had he read more. And what might have happened if Emma had practiced a critical and playful reading of the novels she encountered?


Maybe Emma and Charles needed a community of fellow readers to help them interpret their own narrative immersion? Bruce Boone’s short story, “The Truth About Ted” written in 1984, provides a model of a community of readers. “The Truth About Ted” is a story about storytelling, desire, interpretation, reading and misreading. The narrator, “Bruce” tells a retrospective series of stories about a community of gay men who encounter Ted, a young man who is “straight, but [whose] brand of sociability really suggested something more like camp” (1 [unpaginated]). After cataloging a series of readings of Ted’s life-–“He hung out with gays almost exclusively. He looked gay and acted gay. He talked gay even” –-the narrator asks “So why wasn’t he gay?” (1). Ted becomes an object of gossip for the community as they try to interpret his conflicting messages and their conflicted readings of his sexuality. Speculation about Ted’s sexuality traverses a varied terrain from Gilbert and Sullivan’s nineteenth-century comic or opéra féerie, a French ballet-opera based on fairy tales, Iolanthe, and the Marriage of Figaro, to Rimbaud, Rashomon, Taxi Driver, Lenox china, Sir Walter Scott, the Pope, Offenbach, and the local writing community. The story goes on to generate an orgy of illustrative misreadings and misinterpretations about Bruce’s friend and fellow interlocutor, Bob and his relationship with his former lover Ed, the function of gossip, and Ted’s sexuality. Ted’s situation also becomes an opportunity for literary exercise. The retelling, analysis and fabrication of Ted’s story produces a kind of truth in a fictional direction. Boone writes,

Finally our Ted discussions became technical exercises, occasions for testing our skills as writers. We wanted to be able to verbalize our perceptions of life’s ordinary events accurately, elegantly and truthfully so that other people would applaud us for our socially useful talents. Whatever else it was, Ted’s ‘problem’ was grist for our writer’s mill.

Not that this wasn’t fun. The more complex and detailed (and superficial!) our discussions became, the more it seemed to draw out our deepest feelings. These feelings had to do with ourselves, with the community of gay men and in some odd way with the possibilities of human life, happiness generally. Talking about Ted became a way of talking about the things we cared about most–things we couldn’t have talked about honestly and satisfyingly except as gossip (2).

The reader is strung along in this text as are the community members. Is Ted gay? Straight? The relationship of epistemophilia to erotics, seduction, reading and interpretation is literalized in the text. “The Truth about Ted” ultimately reveals the complexities of narrative, reading, and interpretation. About his relationship with Ed, in Boone’s story, Bob says, “‘It took years to understand that story,’ says Bob” (11), illustrating how meaning may be delayed and retroactive and understood through desire. Boone’s story also illustrates how point of view or narrative focalization may be multiple and contradictory. To Bob, Bruce says about Ted’s sexuality, “the way things stand now, unfortunately, we may never know the truth. Remember Rashomon, that 50s Japanese movie where there were all these possible versions of a the story and you couldn’t say any one of them was the right one?” (8).

“The Truth About Ted” ends up being about the truth about Bruce, or the truth about stories and their relationship to life, or the truth of the self’s continual misrecognition of its own specular image, or the ways in which the subject is caught up in the cogs of narrative, language and desire. Here, the mirror of the story suddenly turns back on its author and readers. It reveals a reflection that isn’t so much Ted’s story, but is the community’s, Bruce’s, and the readers’. If at the close of the story’s first paragraph we read: “It’s his life, after all, not yours” (1), by the end of the piece, we discover that perhaps it is not Ted’s life, but Bruce’s and maybe not Bruce’s but ours.


For a number of contemporary writers (Tisa Bryant, Maggie Zurowski, Harryette Mullen, Dodie Bellamy, Yedda Morrison, Kathy Lou Schultz, Rob Halpern, etc.,) at the forefront of their work are the strategic and highly articulate and conscious acts of intertextuality and reading–in all of its forms and targets or objects: the daily news, novels, songs, visual art, etc. Jocelyn Saidenberg’s epigraphs for her book, Negativity, serve as markers in a labyrinth of other texts for readers to turn to while we dwell in negativity, however capably or incapably. Negativity, a text that is founded on the intertextual, advocates that entering the texts it has included in its textual body and out of which it is partially constituted, is productive and generative, a form of nourishing if also sometimes violent social participation, as even a meal may be. This intertextual world is predicated on relation and proposes in its composition, the selection of its companions at table and sources, each of which carry with them highly specific and yet socially located histories, cultural milieus, and temporalities. At the same time, this intertextual world is conscious of its relation to a writing machine, an alimentary canal, the person at the keyboard or with a notebook, someone who has a body and relationships to disparate categories of delimited identities with respect to specific cultures, languages, diets. These coordinates are always already in relation to and with a cacophony of other cultures, ideological systems, empires of signs and worlds of discourse.

For her book, Negativity, Jocelyn Saidenberg takes one of its three epigraphs from Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers:

I wanted to swallow myself by opening my mouth very wide and turning it over my head so that it would take in my whole body, then the universe, until all that would remain of me would be a ball of eaten thing which little by little would be annihilated: that is how I see the end of the world.

Rereading Jean Paul Sartre’s introduction to Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers provides useful and delicious rubrics for approaching Saidenberg’s book. Doing so, the reader discovers that Saidenberg, of course, has read Sartre’s introduction to Our Lady. Like Genet’s thief, she steals and reworks lines from it, and we readers are the voyeurs who watch her do it while we participate in its elaborate staging. A portion of the text from Sartre’s “the reader will open Our Lady of the Flowers, as one might open the cabinet of a fetishist, and find there, laid out on the shelves, like shoes that have been sniffed at and kissed and bitten hundreds of times, the damp and evil words that glean with excitement” (3) turns up in “Not enough Poison” in the final lines from “Bird of Prey”: “No wonder the horror. No wonder the panting excitement. No wonder. No wonder. So I as shoes that have been sniffed and bitten and kissed hundreds of times” (44). Isolated, undigested bits of charged diction from Sartre turn up, including pestiferous, “pestiferous doesn’t expiate the ghastly or contrite” (44). Sartre’s, “it is the abstract instant that congeals it into an exploding but static beauty” seems to mutate into Saidenberg’s stunning and contradictory image “the sparrow congeals into disintegration in release” (44). We read Saidenberg reading Sartre reading Genet. And elsewhere in the text we might find Henry James, Barbara Guest, or even Stendhal. The writer thus becomes Genet’s or James’ texts and writing. If we are what we eat, we are also what we read, write, copy, ingest and digest.

In the Language & Thinking Program, one of the practices we regularly engage in is reading—silently and alone or in a group, aloud in small and large groups, in unison or individually, in rounds or in playful interruptions and overlappings that “explode” the text allowing us to enter and revise it. I find these communal forms of reading to be nourishing, a means for critical engagement, and great fun. All these different ways to “voice,” “embody,” even “ingest” and “digest” a text return reading and literature to the social where words, sentences, meaning, and form might be shared, puzzled over, taken apart, questioned, dissected, celebrated, revealing that there is more to reading, and more at stake, than learning to recognize words.

Further reading: See for readings by Robin of Madame Bovary and “The Truth about Ted.” A full review of Saidenberg’s Negativity can be found in ON: Contemporary Practice 2 available at:


Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. Confessions. Trans. Gary Wills. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Bellamy, Dodie. The Letters of Mina Harker. West Stockbridge, MA: Hard Press Inc. 1998.

Boone, Bruce. The Truth About Ted. Berkeley: exempli gratia, 1984.
You can read this text online at:

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Trans. Lydia Davis. New York: Viking Press, 2010.

Genet, Jean. Our Lady of the Flowers. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press, 1963.

Glück, Robert. “My Community.” Discontents: New Queer Writers. Ed. Dennis Cooper. New York: Amethyst Press, 1992: 119-124.

Saidenberg, Jocelyn. Negativity. Berkeley: Atelos Press, 2006.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Introduction. Our Lady of the Flowers. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press, 1963: 1-49.

Erica Kaufman: On Felt Sense: Sondra Perl’s Composing Guidelines

On Felt Sense: Sondra Perl’s Composing Guidelines

by Erica Kaufman

One of the things I enjoy most about the Language & Thinking program is the way students are almost organically led towards the “final essay in the humanist tradition,” a writing experience that enables them to make use of the various and varied kinds of writing, reading, and thinking they do over the span of the class. However, because the question “what does it mean to be human…” is such a rich and daunting inquiry to pursue, one of my difficulties as a teacher has been to create a space where students are able to come up with questions specific enough to serve as the foundation for a paper that goes on a journey—that explores and represents “thought in action.”

In her foundational work, “Understanding Composing,” Sondra Perl writes,

…writing is a recursive process, that throughout the process of writing, writers return to substrands of the overall process, or subroutines (short suc-cessions of steps that yield results on which the writer draws in taking the next set of steps); writers use these to keep the process moving forward. In other words, recursiveness in writing implies that there is a forward-moving action that exists by virtue of a backward-moving action.

When approaching a longer work, a final paper, students often revert to the formulaic modes of writing experienced in high school—make an argument, summarize, use quotes, etc. Even when students spend weeks writing in various modes and forms, this reaction to more high stakes scenarios seems to still surface, undermining the growth they might have experienced throughout the pages of an entire notebook. But, in thinking about the writing or composing process as a process that inherently needs to move both backwards and forwards, the notion of composing takes a human form, represents the kinds of movements our bodies naturally make—aligning the writing process with the question of “what does it mean to be human.”

Perl attributes one aspect of this recursiveness to “felt sense,” a term coined by philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin that Perl employs as “a kind of bodily awareness that…can be used as a tool…It is body and mind before they are split apart.” Felt sense is a technique of acknowledging the importance of the body and the self of the writer. As Perl states, “what is elicited, then, is not solely the product of a mind but of a mind alive in a living, sensing body.” We respond to certain topics in certain ways, and learning to accept and embrace this unique felt sense is crucial to the composing process. Our bodies are often the tools that can help to determine when a piece of writing is working and when it needs work, even if this notion cannot be articulated in words.

In encouraging and enabling students to enter into “thought experiments” and “language games” that tend to both mind and body, I think students are then able to find that they know a lot more about the project at hand than the previously empty page might indicate. “The physical is an essential aspect of the human experience,” Perl importantly reminds us. And, I wonder if this reminder isn’t exactly what students truly need to hear.

Just as “the loop writing process” enables students to “voyage in” and then “voyage out,” as Elbow calls it, by approaching a writing assignment from a number of different generative modes and angles and then returning to the topic at hand, Perl’s “Guidelines for Composing” taps into the many different directions our minds take when we write. Without prescribing any set topic, yet following almost a mind map of associative questions, these “guidelines” really empower students to actually focus (something Hayles aptly points out that today’s “Generation M” and its propensity for “hyper attention” might not do). Perl writes, “What Gendlin’s felt sense offers is an experiential way of understanding and exploring how we, as humans, operate with and in language.” It strikes me that this organic process of tending to “the knowing” we all experience creates a new (and extremely productive space) where composing in this 2.0 world can take place through real thinking through of ideas (sans Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, etc.) and taking the time/space to allow the writing to happen.

–Erica Kaufman

Sondra Perl’s Composing Guidelines
Felt Sense, publisher’s link

Ben Stevens: The pigeons, no matter

The pigeons, no matter

The pigeons, no matter they flew any higher, caught
fire, drifting through the air askance, soot-

colored and aglow as twists of paper lit —
gently, lest they burn unevenly –, let

go, and spiral themselves into smoke, living
rings of whispering yellow, or sparks given

off of sputtering logs: the sound wind
makes in a furnace, in a city unforged, when

printers’ stuttering presses and type slag
words away in a shimmering draft, sag

low to the ground like glass with age, ash
thick on its silvery breath and skin smashed

open and ragged and feathery light, wings
rustle and curl, with toneless peal sings the

paradise almost lost in the flames, rush of
flames almost invisible for the fire, blush of

darkness visible, the stubble — like grass burnt
down — of the city, the towering unswept

chimney of air unmortared: the church, hot,
tottering, sputtering perch of ardent pigeons.

–Benjamin Eldon Stevens

(Edited 4 October 2009, begun 27 September 2009. Milton, whom I am in time to appreciate as the language’s greatest versifier, was blind long before 1666, when he returned to London in time not to appreciate but to experience — hearing, feeling, probably smelling — the Great Fire, which seems to flicker behind his descriptions of Hell in the first book of Paradise Lost. The detail inspiring this poem comes from Samuel Pepys, who of 2 September 1666 writes: “the poor pigeons … were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”)

Joan Retallack in ARTFORUM’s best of 2010

Joan Retallack, Program Director Emerita’s recent book, Procedural Elegies/Western Civ Cont’d/ was selected as one of ARTFORUM‘s 13 best books of 2010.

Click here for a link to the ARTFORUM write-up.>>

Here’s a review from The Brooklyn Rail.

by Helena Fitzgerald

Procedural Elegies/Western Civ Cont’d
Joan Retallack
Roof, 2010

Procedures regularize, give to an experience a repeatable form. In Joan Retallack’s new collection of works written between 1980 and 2010, Procedural Elegies/Western Civ Cont’d, meaning is located in formal construction. The concern of the collection is procedure, or form, itself, as much as any of the myriad other themes examined and played with throughout these dizzyingly inventive pieces. Retallack references Eliot’s Wasteland in the second poem in the collection; by then I was already waiting for the reference. This collection performs a playful, challenging, and wildly vulnerable confrontation with the entire syllabus of Western Civilization (figured very particularly here as a syllabus) unavoidably similar to Eliot’s famous confrontation with the whole of literature, history, and loss. Retallack, at one point, defines poetics as “an extreme noticing of how language works,” and this kind of “extreme noticing” permeates her work, in pieces that turn in on, examine and unravel themselves, their own procedures and meanings.

The title links the concept of procedure to elegy. In one particularly stunning piece, “AID/I/SAPPEARANCE,” mourning is made procedural, the experience of loss captured absolutely in formal construction. The same seven lines are repeated, but with each repetition, particular letters disappear, until nothing recognizable or intelligible is left. The personal is crammed, heartbreakingly, into a formal container demonstrating the process of loss.

“(Procedure: instructions for how to go on: what Beckett didn’t give Didi and Gogo: what Wittgenstein gave himself in the Tractatus (numerical momentum), etc)”

In “N Plus Zero,” after numerous other definitions of “procedure” and “procedural,” Retallack offers this simplest one: instructions for how to go on. This definition links the procedural and the elegiac as form and content. We give procedures to tragedy in order to be able to go on from tragedy.

Procedures and formal invention are, however, as intensely playful here as they are elegiac. Extreme procedural approaches are also, of course, games. The more formal something is, the more playful it becomes; after all, it’s the rules that make a game a game. Playful spiralings into language and form abound, such as the brief, throwaway “palimpsestina,” in which the author takes the sestina form and halves it reflectively, using three ending words instead of six, so the second three lines repeat the first three backward, marrying the constraints of palimpsest and sestina.

Another example of this academic game playing is the imagined dialogue “Witt & Stein,” in which quotations from Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein fall into one another, forced to speak in a dialectic that only further confuses itself, never resolving. Dialogue, intersection, and interaction recur throughout the collection. It’s a performance of intersections and intentional collisions. Disparate thinkers and approaches are impressed into dialogue with one another and personal, banal events crash into historical and intellectual discussions. The title piece, “Western Civ, Cont’d,” chronicles unexpectedly concurrent events throughout history, while at the same time veering into the intensely personal in interrupting sections titled “Breakdance Lecture.” The formal structures break down into the personal and the confessional, but even that breakdown has a procedure to it. In her collaborative piece with Forrest Gander, “Coimbra Poem of Poetry & Violence: Grief’s Rubies,” she and Gander “write through” a conference at the Universidade de Coimbra. This piece presents their combined marginalia from notes on lectures, ranging suddenly from the esoteric to the pedestrian and back again. Here, as in all of the work in this collection, the suddenly personal runs parallel and simultaneous to the academic, and each speaks to the other in a constantly shifting dialogue.

Retallack’s work invites and frustrates understanding. That frustration, the tease and refusal of easy access is, however, part of the high-stakes fun in its reading and subsequent rereading. To attempt inroads to it, to try to take apart and piece back together these performances, dissections, and elegies, is a heartbreakingly playful endeavor, much like the author’s writing itself.

The Brooklyn Rail

Roger Berkowitz: Why We Must Judge

Why We Must Judge

by Roger Berkowitz, Director, The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities

It’s not all relative: Without judgment, a society loses its sense of justice.

In 2004, The New York Times reported that numerous captured Iraqi military officers had been beaten by American interrogators, and that Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush had been killed by suffocation. The Times has also published the stories of the so-called “ice man” of Abu Ghraib, Manadel al-Jamadi, who was beaten and killed while in U.S. custody, his body wrapped in ice to hide evidence of the beatings; of Walid bin Attash, forced to stand on his one leg (he lost the other fighting in Afghanistan) with his hands shackled above his head for two weeks; and of Gul Rahman, who died of hypothermia after being left naked from the waist down in a cold cell in a secret CIA prison outside Kabul. And the paper has documented the fate of Abu Zubaydah, captured in Pakistan, questioned in black sites and waterboarded at least 83 times, before being brought to Guantanamo, as well as the story of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, waterboarded 183 times.

What was missing from these stories, published in the newspaper of record? A simple word: torture.

Read the complete article from Roger Berkowitz in Democracy here>>

Watch Roger Berkowitz’s 2010 Rostrum lecture, “Earth Alienation from Galileo to Google”

Peter Trachtenberg: Losing Time

In the morning I feed the cats, make a pot of coffee, and sit down on the sofa and open a volume of Remembrance of Things Past. This is considered a faulty rendering of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, literally “In Search of Lost Time,” but I’m reading the English translation by C. K. Scott Montcrieff, updated by Terence Kilmartin, and Montcrieff calls it the Remembrance of Things Past. At the moment, I’m on The Guermantes Way, just after Marcel unexpectedly succeeds in kissing Albertine; he reflects on how inadequate the lips are for kissing. This is the farthest I’ve ever gotten in Proust’s world-book. For years I told people that I’d read the whole thing, when in reality I’d gotten no farther than Swann’s Way. I’d feel really terrible about this if so many other people hadn’t told me they’d done exactly the same.

I read for an hour, almost as slowly as if I were reading in French. Sometimes I feel like I am reading in French. To navigate the topiary maze of Proust’s sentences, which can twine and undulate for an entire page, often requires reading out loud. The challenge is not just to follow those sentences’ syntax but also their turns of mood:

On certain days, thin, with a gray complexion, a sullen air, a violet transparency slanting across her eyes such as we notice sometimes on the sea, she seemed to be feeling the sorrows of exile. On other days her face, smoother and glossier, drew one’s desires on to its varnished surface and prevented them from going further; unless I caught a sudden glimpse of her from the side, for her matt cheeks, like white wax on the surface, were visibly pink beneath, which was what made one so long to kiss them, to reach that different tint which was so elusive. At other times, happiness bathed her cheeks with a clarity so mobile that the skin, grown fluid and vague, gave passage to a sort of subcutaneous gaze, which made it appear to be of another colour but not of another substance than her eyes; sometimes, without thinking, when one looked at her face punctuated with tiny brown marks among which floated what were simply two larger, bluer stains, it was as though one were looking at a goldfinch’s egg, or perhaps at an opalescent agate cut and polished in two places only, where, at the heart of the brown stone, there shone like the transparent wings of a skyblue butterfly, her eyes, those features in which the flesh becomes a mirror and gives us the illusion that it allows us, more than through other parts of the body, to approach the soul. (1009)

As much pleasure as my morning reading gives me, it’s also a struggle. This isn’t because of the difficulties of Proust’s style, which, to be honest, is part of the pleasure of reading him—how often do you get to experience a sense of accomplishment while sitting on your ass in your bathrobe? It’s because I came into the kitchen with my Blackberry. If describing a Blackberry for a visitor from the last century—say for Proust, had he somehow been plucked off the Boulevard Hausmann in 1916 and deposited, gasping and palpitating, in my living room in the eastern U.S. in 2010—I’d say it was about the size of a small cigarette box. That might connote the device’s addictive properties. But, truthfully, a Blackberry is more like a black hole, a phenomenon that no one even imagined until decades after Proust’s death in 1922, a black hole that sucks up not matter but attention. Who knows what happens to the matter that vanishes into a black hole? Who knows what happens to the attention that vanishes into a Blackberry? I can’t go ten minutes without looking at it. If no new e-mail shows up in my message box—announced by a tiny red and white explosion that might be made by a tiny bomb—I use the Web browser to read the Times. Often I become so engrossed in an article—or, more often, in the clever or boneheaded but usually vituperative reader comments about an article—that fifteen minutes race by before I think of horny, hyperaesthetic Marcel and his circle, and when I return, the spell they cast on me is broken. I open the book and it’s just words, lots of them. Too many.

Is the competition between Proust and the Blackberry a competition between literature and news? I don’t think so. If it were an actual newspaper on the sofa beside me, a paper paper, I wouldn’t bother looking at it until I’d read at least ten pages of the Recherche. The competition is one between reading and something that resembles reading but is really a hybrid mode in which the familiar work of decoding clusters of tiny strokes and squiggles and extracting a world from them is a front for the hypnotic activity of pushing buttons and staring at a light-filled screen. The Blackberry allows its users to think of themselves as human while doing what lab rats do, except lab rats get rewarded with pellets of food. The reward of the Blackberry is the buttons and the screen.

Peter Trachtenberg
Copyright 2010

note: A shorter version of this essay appears on The Laughing Yeti blog curated by Shome Dasgupta and can be viewed here

Miranda Mellis: Are You Sure Species Exist?

Thalia Field
Bird Lovers, Backyard
(New Directions, 2010)

by Miranda Mellis

Bird Lovers, Backyard, Thalia Field’s most recent post-genre, polyphonic book is comprised of conceptually and formally interrelated texts concerning relations between animals and storytelling humanimals, lost in space. At the end of one piece we are asked, “Are you sure species exist?” The borders, genetic and otherwise, get blurrier by the day. Less than 10% of our genes are technically human. So what does it mean to be human?

Animal trainer and philosopher Vicki Hearne, a vivid presence in the book, has proposed that we are taught our most valuable lessons by animals. One story is narrated, or taught, by an endangered dusky sparrow in a captive breeding program. His first-person (or last-bird) perspective allows Field to consider conditions under which endangered animals come to live in laboratories with ironic authority; as the bird explains, “Fictional characters know things which are too challenging for the writer to understand.” The book both studies and uses anthropomorphism and analogy. The dangers of analogy are embodied in the person of biologist-cum-Nazi-ideologue Konrad Lorenz, who extrapolated from animal breeding experiments that so-called “hybridity” among humans was a form of degeneration. (Because he was considered “hybrid,” the aforementioned dusky sparrow was unprotected by the Endangered Species Act. Doing extinction math is like being in an ever-diminishing room in which everyone is talking at once. The voices get louder as the room gets smaller.) Field’s mapping of Lorenz’s contradictions exposes how sentimental love for some (his adored geese), and aversion to specific others—the legislations of which are one way of describing nationalism—both motivate and distort scientific findings.

More than half a century ago, Hannah Arendt was already arguing that scientists “move in a world where speech has lost its power.” Field’s book is, among other things, science translated into the discourses of poetry and theater. There is an ethical, interdisciplinary vision underlying the recursive image of a gang of students milling around Bird Lovers, Backyard, replete with notebooks and saddlebags, doing amateur science. They ask questions, connect dots—they’re a chorus. And Field’s books are staged as much as written. In one piece a food court becomes the set for a public “thinking contest” geared towards solving the “pigeon problem.” Contestants observe, hypothesize, and write. “There is the potential to fall into thought and out of time” in this activity, where contemplating birds leads to speculations on history and public architecture. The object here is not so much to solve the pigeon problem as to problematize its implications.

The question of whether there is really such a thing as species remains open. Certainly specialization, for all its uses, has long been the pitfall and a danger of science; Ortega y Gasset argued as much in the early years of German fascism. Field reminds us that now, more than ever, we need interdisciplinary approaches to our technological and ecological problems, as the worst catastrophes of our time, the very advent of the so-called anthropocene (Google it), can be attributed to the widespread, pathological absence of cross-disciplinary understanding and holistic action.

Read the original post in The Brooklyn Rail here>>

How Handwriting Trains the Brain

How Handwriting Trains the Brain
Forming Letters Is Key to Learning, Memory, Ideas

By Gwendolyn Bounds

Ask preschooler Zane Pike to write his name or the alphabet, then watch this 4-year-old’s stubborn side kick in. He spurns practice at school and tosses aside workbooks at home. But Angie Pike, Zane’s mom, persists, believing that handwriting is a building block to learning.

Wendy Bounds discusses the fading art of handwriting, pointing out that new research shows it can benefit children’s motor skills and their ability to compose ideas and achieve goals throughout life.

She’s right. Using advanced tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development.

It’s not just children who benefit. Adults studying new symbols, such as Chinese characters, might enhance recognition by writing the characters by hand, researchers say. Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age.

Studies suggest there’s real value in learning and maintaining this ancient skill, even as we increasingly communicate electronically via keyboards big and small. Indeed, technology often gets blamed for handwriting’s demise. But in an interesting twist, new software for touch-screen devices, such as the iPad, is starting to reinvigorate the practice.

Four-year-old Zane Pike used to toss aside his handwriting books. Now, the Cabot, Ark., preschooler is learning to write his letters using a smartphone application.

Most schools still include conventional handwriting instruction in their primary-grade curriculum, but today that amounts to just over an hour a week, according to Zaner-Bloser Inc., one of the nation’s largest handwriting-curriculum publishers. Even at institutions that make it a strong priority, such as the private Brearley School in New York City, “some parents say, ‘I can’t believe you are wasting a minute on this,'” says Linda Boldt, the school’s head of learning skills.

Recent research illustrates how writing by hand engages the brain in learning. During one study at Indiana University published this year, researchers invited children to man a “spaceship,” actually an MRI machine using a specialized scan called “functional” MRI that spots neural activity in the brain. The kids were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. In children who had practiced printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and “adult-like” than in those who had simply looked at letters.

“It seems there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time,” says Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University who led the study.

Adults may benefit similarly when learning a new graphically different language, such as Mandarin, or symbol systems for mathematics, music and chemistry, Dr. James says. For instance, in a 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, adults were asked to distinguish between new characters and a mirror image of them after producing the characters using pen-and-paper writing and a computer keyboard. The result: For those writing by hand, there was stronger and longer-lasting recognition of the characters’ proper orientation, suggesting that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write aided the visual identification of graphic shapes.

Other research highlights the hand’s unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

And one recent study of hers demonstrated that in grades two, four and six, children wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.

For research at Indiana University, children undergo specialized MRI brain scans that spot neurological activity.

Even in the digital age, people remain enthralled by handwriting for myriad reasons—the intimacy implied by a loved one’s script, or what the slant and shape of letters might reveal about personality. During actress Lindsay Lohan’s probation violation court appearance this summer, a swarm of handwriting experts proffered analysis of her blocky courtroom scribbling. “Projecting a false image” and “crossing boundaries,” concluded two on celebrity news and entertainment site Beyond identifying personality traits through handwriting, called graphology, some doctors treating neurological disorders say handwriting can be an early diagnostic tool.

“Some patients bring in journals from the years, and you can see dramatic change from when they were 55 and doing fine and now at 70,” says P. Murali Doraiswamy, a neuroscientist at Duke University. “As more people lose writing skills and migrate to the computer, retraining people in handwriting skills could be a useful cognitive exercise.”

In high schools, where laptops are increasingly used, handwriting still matters. In the essay section of SAT college-entrance exams, scorers unable to read a student’s writing can assign that portion an “illegible” score of 0.

Even legible handwriting that’s messy can have its own ramifications, says Steve Graham, professor of education at Vanderbilt University. He cites several studies indicating that good handwriting can take a generic classroom test score from the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile, while bad penmanship could tank it to the 16th. “There is a reader effect that is insidious,” Dr. Graham says. “People judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting.”

Handwriting-curriculum creators say they’re seeing renewed interest among parents looking to hone older children’s skills—or even their own penmanship. Nan Barchowsky, who developed the Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting method to ease transition from print-script to joined cursive letters, says she’s sold more than 1,500 copies of “Fix It … Write” in the past year.

Some high-tech allies also are giving the practice an unexpected boost through hand-held gadgets like smartphones and tablets. Dan Feather, a graphic designer and computer consultant in Nashville, Tenn., says he’s “never adapted well to the keypads on little devices.” Instead, he uses a $3.99 application called “WritePad” on his iPhone. It accepts handwriting input with a finger or stylus, then converts it to text for email, documents or Twitter updates.

And apps are helping Zane Pike—the 4-year-old who refused to practice his letters. The Cabot, Ark., boy won’t put down his mom’s iPhone, where she’s downloaded a $1.99 app called “abc PocketPhonics.” The program instructs Zane to draw letters with his finger or a stylus; correct movements earn him cheering pencils.

In children who had practiced writing by hand, the scans showed heightened brain activity in a key area, circled on the image at right, indicating learning took place.

“He thinks it’s a game,” says Angie Pike.

Similarly, kindergartners at Harford Day School in Bel Air, Md., are taught to write on paper but recently also began tracing letter shapes on the screen of an iPad using a handwriting app.

“Children will be using technology unlike I did, and it’s important for teachers to be familiar with it,” says Kay Crocker, the school’s lead kindergarten teacher. Regardless of the input method, she says, “You still need to be able to write, and someone needs to be able to read it.”

Read the original post from the here>>

LTP faculty help welcome prospective students to Bard

Over 100 prospective Bard students—juniors and seniors in high school—signed up to attend sample Language and Thinking sessions during the Fall Conference on Admissions, 11 October 2010 on the Annandale campus. Eight Language and Thinking faculty led sessions in which students worked with texts by Franz Kafka and Hannah Arendt and reflected on their options for future study.

In August of 2010, Catherine Taylor, who has taught with the program since 2006, led a workshop for high school guidance counselors in which they worked with Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” to explore the role of guidance counselors in helping students to choose between the comforts of the familiar and the challenges of the unfamiliar as they consider options for college.

These events were part of an ongoing collaboration between Language and Thinking and the Office of Admissions aimed at increasing awareness of the program through workshops that employ the Language and Thinking approach to address issues of concern to college counselors and prospective students.