Tag Archives: college

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).


Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.

the water’s fine

“All art is or was modern in its time, daring and new, demonstrating a constant change in seeing and feeling. If revival had been a perpetual virtue, we still would live in caves and earth pits. In art, tradition is to create, not to revive.” – Josef Albers, Design, 1946 (quoted in The Arts at Black Mountain College, Mary Emma Harris, 107).

Robert Motherwell, Ile of France, 1945

Robert Motherwell, Ile of France, 1945

My last gasp of summer reading that I squeezed in came from my interest in Black Mountain College – ostensibly a quasi precursor to the college where I graduated high school from (North Carolina School of the Arts – they have a high school for the arts within the University). But I didn’t know of that confluence until nearly the end of my reading. What I did know was that Black Mountain College was a really interesting and influential place. Lasting twenty-four years with a total of around thirteen hundred students (1933-1957) in the mountains of North Carolina, an experiment in education was lived out. A spirited, innovative, creative, floundering, democratic ideal of what a meaningful education alive in the world might look like.

Clemens Kauscher, Lake With Dock,1948

Clemens Kauscher, Lake With Dock,1948

Albers felt that “only dynamic possession is fertile–materially as well as spiritually.” He distinguished between the usual possessiveness or industriousness of the student who mindlessly accumulates and memorizes facts and theories to be regurgitated on an exam to please the teacher and the “dynamic possession” of the student for whom experience and action is an integral part of the learning process (15).

Peter Voulkos, Round Bottle, CA., 1953

Peter Voulkos, Round Bottle, CA., 1953

Albers, one of the founders of Black Mountain College had been a teacher at the Bauhaus.  Fleeing Germany and its fascist government, the ideals of democracy, particularly the expansion of community interests flourishing through hands-on education and art, in both the form and function of aesthetics and creative expression, were some of the very progressive and fascinating experimental ideas in the Black Mountain College education.

“What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. –  John Cage, Silence, 1961 (quoted, 107).

Alexander Reed, Untitled Drawing

Alexander Reed, Untitled Drawing

My interest was peaked by the truly impressive array of artists and thinkers that took part in the experiment. Besides, Alders, some of the notable participants (to me) were Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Allen Ginsburg, Willem De Kooning, Charles Oslon, Robert Creeley, Anaïs Nin, William Carlos Williams, Merce Cunningham, as well as the artist whose work I have included here….it just goes on and on…amazing. Anni Albers, Josef’s wife, brought her extraordinary weaving and textile skills to the college, which I mention not only because they are beautiful but also because the artificial separation between “craft” and “art” was consciously ignored at Black Mountain College. Art for art’s sake is wonderful, but art in form and function is also a worthy pursuit requiring a finger to remain on the pulse of the mundane in a way that Art needn’t, necessarily. And we need art in both the profane and sacred realms…a teacup can transport just as well as a tempest, after all.

The visionary aspects of Black Mountain were holistic, ambitious in their creative freedom, and obviously difficult to maintain – how does one administrate an institution that stands for anti-administration and anti-institutional ideals? Not easily, and not for very long, apparently. But that is hardly the point. The point is that people try – they try over and over again, and the creative results are extraordinary, the human inspiration invigorating. Everything is cyclical, but to have the nerve and verve to let the cycle run is a testament to the spirit of life.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1952

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1952

Today, it seems to me, so much emphasis is put on the material concept of “success.” “Failure” is anathema to our culture – but it is truly the “failures” that make life flourish. That’s where all the beauty and all meaningful success is fomented.  That is one thing Bucky Fuller’s genius proved, with his “magical world of his mathematical models” (151), he was, after all, the self-proclaimed most successful failure ever!  And any school that strove to recognize that is pretty great, and successful, in my book.

Undaunted, [by the failure of his geometric dome due to cost cutting inadequate materials] Fuller explained that failure is a part of experimentation and that “you succeed when you stop failing” (151).

I would only add that success, and learning, depend upon it.


*All photographs (except for the Reed drawing) are out of another very fine book, Black Mountain College: Experiments in Art edited by  Vincent Katz, in which four long essays accompany copious images of the art produced and inspired by Black Mountain College.

** Title taken from John Cage’s poetic response to the controversy over an exhibition of Rauschenberg’s all white paintings in 1953, (page 230):

To Whom
No subject
No image
No taste
No object
No beauty
No talent
No technique (no why)
No idea
No intention
No art
No feeling
No black
No white no (and)

After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in these paintings that could not be changed, that they can be seen in any light and are not destroyed by the action of shadows.

Hallelujah! the blind can see again; the water’s fine.

John Cage, Printed in Emily Genauer’s column in the New York Herald Tribune, December 27, 1953.





Hard to Win Man’s Heart


Write the names out once more and again
making a point to spell them without amend.
Yesterday’s Psychology exam was my bane
today, three more till I come to an end.

Italians, perché tantissimi verbi?
Does it matter that McKinley was called a chocolate eclair?
I just want to know about the center block of Versailles –
what the hell was the last name of that Jules something guy?

Last night my mind was perfectly conformed
Louis Le Vau and the rest, in my head adorned.
Then today it was gone: “interference,” Psych would say,
too much information to retrieve all in one day.

Jules- Jules- I can just see who you are,
but even Vernes’ leagues don’t seem as far!
A last minute look before the test starts,
A way at last! to recall his name and his art-

How could I forget? It’s Hardouin-Mansart.


Prolixity, Thy Name is S.A.T.

Evanesce the pain,
of sitting at the skimpy school desk
gently holding my brain.
Trying to repair the wreck
I wrought; maybe staking a claim.

All the hard looks that say-
you don’t belong here,
are nothing new today.
Never mind the end’s not near,
over the Rubicon I’ll stay.

Another hurdle’s shown,
despite all of my loves,
(someday I’ll have it honed)
it’s the same as it ever was-
I just go it alone.


*Post-SAT fare. Kids, my fellow test takers – don’t try this at home: Spanish Cava and Punitions (a French butter cookie).

Merci Beaucoup

“Griefs, at the moment when they changed into ideas, lose some of their power to injure the heart.” Proust, from How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

I am not really a fan of self help books. Most of them amount to exhortations to just think yourself right out of that ol’ problem of yours. Oh come on, I always want to say, I’ve actually got real problems, you know—house-over-the-head, gas-in-the-car, shoulder-to-cry-on sort of problems. Even still, I always say, it could be worse. Because it could.

So, feeling buoyed by the support of D.H. Lawrence, whom at least acknowledges that our emotional lives are what make us alive so that I don’t feel so bad for feeling it all, I read How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. Botton writes that Proust understood there to be:

“two methods by which a person can acquire wisdom, painlessly via a teacher or painfully via life.” 

Perhaps this is why I enjoy school so much, I’ve had enough of the “life learning” for now, thank you very much. Why I am not already a genius is beyond my comprehension, which may be why I’m not already a genius, but I digress…

“Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” –  Proust

mmmhmm. got it.
Proust is, of course, an extremely interesting man. I love that he himself was extremely kind, but also a complete weirdo of a wreck. In both his and my opinion, it makes him highly qualified to advise and instruct.

“It’s true that there are people who are superior to their books, but that’s because their books are not Books.” —Proust

The chapter entitled How To Be A Good Friend, was very illuminating. I share the proustian tendency towards effusive praise, I’m not a good liar, but if I can find a little thing- I run with it. Often this results in severe disappointment as regards the reality of…people. I had to write a “peer introduction” for an assigned partner in a class of mine last week, the speeches were to be in theme. We discovered a suitable theme to work off of and I wrote my half of the speech,  she missed the class that we were to spend reading each other’s and preparing for the presentation, I felt bad for her that she used her only “allowable” absence so early in the term. Never the less, I practiced and practiced and looked like a mad woman waiting in the car for my son later in the week, practicing some more.

The heart of what I wrote was all about her lovely qualities, wrapped up around our theme of a mutual loathing for the restaurant business and her obvious! impressive! determination! and display of scholastic skill! that would assuredly get her out of the restaurant someday in her glorious future! And then- she didn’t show up. To school. That’s probably number one on the official list of “scholastic skills,” but, oh never mind….
I was abandoned at the lectern, nonplussed and alone, trying not to choke on the unrestrained babble that my speech had become in light of her pointedly un-scholastic behavior and rather shabby treatment of me. All the while thinking— why  am I surprised? this is my life.  I’m not even mad at her, perhaps she had some good reason, perhaps not, it doesn’t matter. I can only look to Proust and say, see, he is worse than me. His excessive praise and self deprecation were truly epic. Maybe that’s why he was a genius and I am not.

Another Addiction to Feed

College students may not be the best influence – I’m not sure what alternate planet I live on but my daughter just introduced me to Pandora Radio. Dammnnn it! I just discovered about a thousand new artists I don’t have time to listen to: companions, distractors and drinking buddies, feeding my pathos. Here’s a good one:

“So why’d you fill my sorrow?
With the words you’ve borrowed
From the only place that you’ve known
And why’d you sing hallelujah?
If it means nothin’ to you
Why’d you sing with me at all?”

Delicate by Damien Rice

AGP seeking SWF

AGP - Ancient Greek Poets

     I was in the college library today working on my statistics homework, it was a good run. I have kind of fallen in love with my calculator, now that I know how to use 30% of the buttons it is quite another game. I was on my way out when I passed the computer consul of the library catalogue. I remembered that I needed a book for my book group, I had sent out an email in the morning reminding everyone of the book to get. I typed in Greek Lyricists and it told me it didn’t have any. A librarian came over to help me, she told me the computer was difficult and to come over to her desk. I felt a little stupid because I was looking for a specific book but didn’t really have the necessary information like: the author or 100% confidence that I even had the title right. I told her I was looking for Greek Lyricists and then out of my mouth came these words, “It was published by the University of Chicago Press.” My mouth clamped down as I wondered what nether region I pulled that fact from. But I was not done, “It’s translated by Richmond Lattimore.” My hand instinctively covered my mouth, Oh my God, my body has been inhabited by someone with a really good memory. How did this happen? Maybe there is something to this school thing after all. She sent me into the rows of shelves, but not for the Lattimore, they didn’t have that one. I didn’t want to disappoint her so I got a different version which will do just fine I’m sure. I came back to check it out, she was so happy, “It’s probably never been taken out,” she said sweetly, “Sometimes I feel so bad for them, they just sit there waiting…”
“Pick me! Pick me!” I offered lamely. She laughed.

Alimentary Algebra

My version of a traditional Sicilian Cassata

My middle son and I attend college together. I kind of forced him to take Intermediate Algebra this term as I wanted to make use of the textbook that I had purchased for myself in the fall. It nearly cost as much as the class. Possibly I love the idea of this more than he does, except as I have recently taken the class, I turn out to be an excellent private tutor for him. We have class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We go early to work on homework in the library and then at noon we head to the cafeteria to have lunch together. I am aware that this is a unique and (for me) wonderful way to spend two days a week. I regal him with all of my “don’t do that” moments of math stupidity, but there is always some mental deficiency to rail against on our drive home.

I have to admit to liking Algebra, an arabic word meaning restoration or, my favorite: reunion of broken parts. A method of reduction and balance is one description I read that appeals to my sense of beauty. I derive a childish pleasure out of reducing, eliminating and balancing the equations. My pencil swiftly crossing out and rewriting with abandon.

Although my son and I are a lot alike, I can see that he “gets” the math more than I do. Sometimes when it gets complicated he wants to, and can, understand the why. I’m interested, but am satisfied in being able to simply apply the rules or formula. This is more revealing of my own limitations than anything else. I try to explain to him my feeling for math: It’s like cooking, I expound, anyone can follow a recipe and if they are literate, get a good result. That is my level of math. But I know that there is a higher level- like when you can simulate a recipe in your mouth before you even cook it, when you know that omitting x and adding y will improve the end result. The improvisational aspects that I can grasp in cooking: I am not there mathematically. I am not saying, if I was so inclined, that I could not get there. I’m sure I could, but these things take time. It took me years to learn to cook at the level of letting the ingredients rather than the recipes lead. I’ll probably never be Emilie du Chatelet, but then again, although I make a mean cassata,  I’m not Jacques Torres either. I’m just trying to press up against the edges of my own mediocrity.

micro metacognition

Maybe because I home schooled my children all of these years and spent a lot of time thinking about how individuals (my guinea pig children) best learn and get excited about learning, one of the things I really enjoy about my college experience is observing how the Professors come to this issue. How to get the students interested. I will leave aside my irritation at the necessity of this in college, but it is there: both the necessity and my irritation.
In one class the professor was talking about Aristotle and wanted to know if anyone knew who Aristotle’s student was. Silence. He would give us a hint – oh goody I thought, what sort of hint will he give? I tried to think of a hint that I might give. I waited, and then he said, “He was from Macedonia.” hmmm, okay…not the hint I might have offered and, apparently, not the hint that had any effect.  “Alexander the Great,”  I answered in the interest of – let’s just keep this moving. An hour and twenty minutes flies by.
I tried keeping my mind from reeling off into an examinational tangent considering how he came to choose that hint and how differently my neural path of breadcrumbs would have lead me. I failed of course and instead began to build a probability tree diagram in my mind. The “event” being, how to either jog the memory of the (largely) sleeping brain matter around us, or get them to an educated guess of Alexander the Great. Using the Fundamental Counting Principle you can imagine that there are a myraid ways to get there. Perhaps the first branch could consist of:
Ancient Greece, Philosophy, Conqueror, Macedonia.
And then the second branch:
AG (i.e. = Ancient Greece): Greek islands, Greek Gods, the Mediterranean;
P:  Plato, Socrates, Locke;
C:  Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun;
M: King Philip, Hellenistic greece, The Aegean Sea.
And so on, we will end up with an enormous sample set, but, if I can mix my statistical metaphors, where does the weight that we assign each piece of information come from? Is it merely a personal inclination (i.e. I like philosophy therefore it is a straight downstream flow: Socrates to Plato to Aristotle to Alexander the Great).  Or maybe you are keen on military conquests, then your flow would stem elsewhere. Or is it simply a frequency pattern? Maybe I’ve just heard of Alexander as Aristotle’s student more times than I have as Darius’ nemesis.
I looked out the window of my mind back to my professor, wondering what this all suggests about his mode of thinking and recall of information: how are we different, how are we the same. How come we that way?

The Blank Page

On ne fait pas d'omelette sans casser des œufs. Or gnocchi as the case may be....

As I turned the page to part 3 of 2666 (The Part About Fate) I thought back to when I used to wonder if my life would take on some sort of  stucture like a book. Would my story have parts, chapters, or would it be one long Anita Brookner novel. It was looking like the latter, but just when you think you’ve got a handle on a certain way of being, thinking, living, seeing, something happens and the rug is pulled out or pushed away.
That moment reading a book, when you turn the page and it’s blank, the next page says part___: That is where I am. I am in the whiteness. The blank page.

I spend an inordinate amount of time talking myself through the void. Just trying to get my mise en place on the counter so that I can get some plan or recipe going…but what do I want to make? I can get so involved in a conversation with myself that I don’t hear anything around me. I don’t think I talk to myself, but I do gesture to myself, which may be worse.

“if you’re worried that you’ve lost your mind, don’t worry, you haven’t, all you’re doing is having a casual conversation.” Roberto Bolaño 2666

Sometimes I do wish I would shut up however; be “etherised upon the table.” This may be why I really enjoy my (online) statistics class. With absolutely no previous indication of any sort of affinity toward maths, I find it quite relaxing. A break from myself. I don’t love math, I just like the hijacking of my brain. I’m internally confident in my other (on site) classes, but every time I speak or answer the questions in class my face burns. The only anxiety I have in statistics is in regard to our semester project whereby we have to do a statistical study of our choice. I have chosen to take a survey on the amount of books read by students at the college in the last 12 months; I don’t know what I was thinking because this will require that I actually have to talk to people, my fellow students, to collect the data. Shit. If only it wouldn’t be ridiculous to distract them from my awkwardness with a brownie or a bowl of gnocchi.