web counter VISITORS SINCE JUNE, 2006

Friday, April 30, 2010

Octavio Paz: "Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature" Part 002

In all written word, there appears to be some sort of level that I can only equate to prophesy. This is the case with Octavio Paz' essay on "The Verbal Contract" and how it affects societies. Mind you here is an Octavio Paz writing in the late 1970s, rabid with theories about how technology influences language. I am a true believer in the after-life, and, if it is as Borges once stated (I have always imagined that Paradise is a kind of library), there has got to be a very confused Octavio Paz trying to reconcile his theories to the "conflict" that our new technology has affected on language. The technology Paz writes about in the essay is essentially television. Television came around in the late 40s and early 50s, but it really took nearly 25 or 30 years for scholars to take a good and critical look at it. Even in the early 1980s, Neil Postman was perhaps the only one looking at it from an academic perspective. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman problematizes the epidemic of "educational" television shows and the effect on children who are brought up to believe learning has to be fun, and, even worse than that, educators that embraced (and continue to embrace) the idea that it is imperative to present lessons that are "entertaining and engaging." In this sense, Paz and Postman could have agreed. There's a basic level of rudimentary learning that is not fun, or entertaining, and it is a fundamental part of learning during our earliest years. Many researchers now see the parallel of the argument for "fun" in the classroom with the decline of subjects such as science and mathematics. At any rate, the technology that I wish Octavio Paz had had access to in his time, of course, is the Internet. He states that: "Media, as their name indicates, are not languages. With great brilliance but faulty logic, Marshall McLuhan once tried to demonstrate that the relationship between messages and media was similar in type to that between sound and meaning within language: each medium has a corresponding type of discourse, just as each morpheme and each word emit a meaning or set of meanings.... To a certain degree, the communications media are neutral; no convention predetermines that certain signs will be transmitted and other not. So to speak of the languages of television or films is to use a metaphor: television transmit language, but in and of itself it is not language. It is possible, of course, to say--once again, as figure of speech or metaphor--that there is a grammar, a morphology, and a syntax of television, but not a semantics. Television does not broadcast meanings; it broadcasts signs that convey meaning." I have not reason to disagree, and I strongly believe that his theory becomes even stronger when applied to the Internet, or wireless communications in general. The idea that there are "no semantics" to technology transmitting meaning takes on a life of its own when applied exclusively to text messaging. There, I believe Octavio Paz might have come straight to a dead end; that is to say, text messaging, over the course of just a few short years, has, in fact, developed its own semantics. In this case, symbols do convey the meaning behind the message without having to separate the meaning from the symbol. Various reports about the usage of text messaging by young people conclude that most prefer text messaging to e-mail, and even consider e-mail a thing of the past. I remember the first time--I think it was late 1980s--when I encountered the lexicon of the new technology. I was minding my own business in a chat room (having connected to a local free access Net at the blazing speed of 1200 bauds) when someone made a comment after something I typed. I meant my statement to be humorous, and one of the other people in the chat room typed in "LOL." Well, my interpretation of that was "Loser Online," and you can imagine how I responded. Of course, I was put in my place and realized, even back then, that the technology in this case was molding meaning and that the semiotic convention was evolving too fast to date. Text messaging has its own set of abbreviation meanings that (in my opinion) do convey specific content of semiotic information. Perhaps this is extending the argument, but I am incline to believe that some of the text messaging abbreviated language even crosses cultural boundaries, and, if it is as Octavio Paz states that "Culture is... in the totality of things, institutions, ideas and images that a given society uses, because it has either invented them or inherited them or borrowed them from other cultures. A culture is above all a totality of things..." then there's much to say about the transmission of language and meaning today. Octavio Paz is correct in arguing this premise, and, to his credit, arguing it even beyond his times: if language dictates the development of a culture, and it cannot be transmitted by media in a world dependent almost entirely of media, how then, do we continue to expand knowledge, language, meanings? Perhaps William Gibson's assertion in "Neuromancer," where he coined the term cyberspace, explaining in a rather illogical way that "there's no there there," could have put Octavio Paz in his place. If there's no there, then there's no language or meaning, and whatever is flying around in that space that is not space is not transmittable or meaningful.

I am reminded of the anti-trust case against Microsoft back in the late 1990s. One of the Senators bringing down the heat on Bill Gates asked the present audience to raise their hands if they primarily a Mac based system; only a few hands went up. When he asked to see how many used a Windows based computer, 90% or more of the audience raised their hands. "You see, Mr. Gates," the Senator blared confidently, "that is a monopoly." I sort of disagree with this method of conclusion/logic, but I do have to think of the importance of the Operating System language. If Windows, in all of its mutated versions, is used broadly throughout the world, say, in Kenya, Thailand, Vietnam, England, Belarus, Romania, and South Korea, the design and interface of the system has, by virtue of its plurality, become a language of sorts, meanings, and even semiotics. While the usage of Macs is on the increase, Windows as a media transmitting meaning through its interface language still dominates. Imagine that, Bill Gates turns over Octavio Paz' theories... techno geek against Nobel Prize winner... who to believe?

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Octavio Paz' "Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature" part 001

The shame of having hold on to a book for this long without reading it finally took a toll on my emotions this week. Just like Zbigniew Herbert's "Still Life with a Bridle," which took me about 10 years to get to it (and I devoured this little book, a delicious combination of essays and apocryphas), Octavio Paz' book "Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature" gathered dust on top of my book shelve for nearly 15 years. I've had a series of false starts with it, never going through the first essay as a whole, and putting it down in favor of something more "digestible." Well, sometimes that's all it takes because, as T.S. Eliot indicated early on, "time is an enzyme," and now I am fully enjoying this book.

Paz' ideas of translation strike me as ironic (all of these essays are originally in Spanish... the praised translation comes from Helen Lane). He problematizes translation in literature as paradoxical at best, and, through a series of historical and self-interpretations he devices a theory that begins in Babel and ends within the enclosure of a New Guinea pygmy community listening to a Edith Piaf song on a record player. First, Octavio Paz takes on the diversity of language and its origins. He doesn't just cite the Biblical principle of Babel as an example--he always had a way of commencing with metaphysics and somehow still be able to explain the concrete. But he uses Babel to expose the idea of unity and diversity. The unity of all humanity under one language led to an extravagant God-like and arrogant pursuit. As a result, Paz holds, the Spirit scattered the language into a million traditions. This diversity of language is "an attack on the unity of the mind," and in the same token a challenge to the idea of God as supreme--if humans fail to comprehend unity in language, how then, Paz asserts, would they be able to conceive of a supreme, unified idea of God? All of this, however, is based on an examination of language; this is where Octavio Paz perhaps develop the rank of ideas that led to a Nobel Prize in Literature. "Plurality is universally taken to be a curse and a condemnation: it is the consequence of a transgression against the Spirit," a statement that, for all intent and purposes, has a blend of the metaphysical and modern interpretation of a multiplicity of languages. Being bilingual or even trilingual begins the to reverse this process, for, as Paz states, "To speak a foreign tongue, understand it, and translate it into one's own is to restore the unity of the beginning." No, Paz is not playing with the circular reasoning of the Russian Deconstructionists, but rather taking on translation as a tool of understanding. He does play a back and forth game, but as confusing as it seemingly is, Paz eventually wraps it all up in a way we can understand: some translations work and some others do not. Pushing the argument to the very limit, he uses a word most of those do not know, or perhaps have never encountered before, but we all know what it is once he explains it.

Speaking in tongues, Paz is quick to introduce, "was not exclusive to early Christian communities. It antedates them and appears in a great many Oriental and Mediterranean cults going back to earliest antiquity." It is important to mention that Paz recognizes the paradox: this "speaking in tongues" has been recognized as holy and evil at the same time; the more conventional the Medieval Church became, the more ostracized speakers of this unknown ejaculations became. Their refuge, as an act of subversion and submission at the same time, became the Protestant Reformation. Even to this day, the Catholic Church discourages this kind of practice, while churches of other denominations embrace it as it takes place spontaneously without regard to rank or title (perhaps this is why the Catholics "dislike" this practice--they have been obsessed with rank and file since the very start). But, if the practice has been present since very early on, why the push and pull controversy of it? It is unifying, Paz states, rather than divisive: "The universality of the phenomenon, and its persistence among historical changes and the extreme diversity of cultures, languages, and societies, incline me to think that we are once more in the presence of a human constant." The official term for this manifestation/behavior is "glossolalia."

Glossolalia is not exclusive to religion. As a matter of fact, poets of the Modernist movement (especially in Latin America) played with similar "artistic" tools. Early in the 20th century, there was a movement of "creationist" poetry--Huidobro being the most extensive practitioner of this method--which used "real" language words and mixed them with spontaneous prefixes and suffixes that made them border on glossolalia. For example, (and even though these are in Spanish, I'll include the translation after each word), "unipacio" (one space), "monlutrella" (a combination of the Spanish words mountain, moon and star). Paz includes--to the delight of those who want to keep the argument on this side of the Modern--James Joyce's 101 letter word from Finnegans Wake, (a word I am not going to include here, not because it is not important, but rather because I am of a divided mind when it comes to Joyce). At any rate, the word can be considered glossolalia because it bespeaks of Adam's and Eve's fall from grace, a Spirit manifestation if there was ever one. Unfortunately, this 101 letter word has to be taken with a grain of sand when it comes to meaningfulness. Joyce came out clean and stated in a little known quotation, that, for the sake of disclosure, I have included here: "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it [Ulysses] will keep the professors busy for centuries over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." There's much in "Ulysses" that can be considered glossolalia, but a quote such as the one here makes on think about the purposes or legitimacy of literary tricks and games. Could glossolalia then be some sort of physical manifestation, a sort of "you-ate-too-much-chocolate-therefore-you-are-hyper" type of thing? But such an idea would be a social convention, wouldn't it? Octavio Paz, perhaps already predicting such an argument, clarifies this type of interpretation, "If the relationship between the signifier and the signified depends on a convention, how could such convention come home without the consent of the speakers? Who is the author of this convention--language itself? In that case, what was there before language and where did it come from? In a word, if the origin of the so-called linguistic pact does not lie in human will, how does one explain the dual relation between language and society?" This quote, of course, sounds like one of those graduate school discussion one tends to try and forget. However, there is something significant (no pun intended) about this argument. Let me put it in context. If I am to speak to a room full of people--about one third of the audience speaks a variety of languages that are not Romantic or even close to a Western-type language--and they are all standing, would I be able to convey the meaning of chair (signified) by using gesticulations, etc.? Here I am trying to educate them about the functions and benefits of a chair, yet every person in the room is standing. Must I have a chair with me in order to get my point across? In a nation-wide tour of my lectures on the benefits of chairs, must I carry one with me from lecture hall to lecture hall? The object is the signified (chair), the word chair is the signifier. In my lecture, I have replaced the word (signifier) with gesticulations and body movements in order to get the point across to that part of the audience that does not speak English, am I breaking the covenant of subject and object? am I, in some sense, by means of my movements to carry meaning across engaged in some different type of glossolalia? There may never be an answer to this, but it's worthwhile to analyze and see the argument for what it is: the space between object and subject--the hidden kingdom, as Paz puts it, that awaits on the other side of things.

Well, this is a bit too complicated, and I think I might have done a terrible job at explaining it. I am, however, enjoying the book very much. Whatever was there at the start 15 years ago that forced me to put this book down is now officially scratched from my list of excuses. The second part of this posting will deal with the relation of taste and sex/eroticism, craftsmanship vs. art, analogies between political preferences and cultural culinary conventions. Don't ask me, really, if you must ask, ask Octavio Paz himself (he's dead, so you may have to buy the book and read it).

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Instant I Forgot I was an American

America the (Un)Beautiful

I grew up amongst the maelstrom of confusion that was the 1970s. Every generation says the same thing about their own time, but the 1970s, anyone would have to admit, were in a class of their own. It goes without saying the 1960s were a tough act to follow and perhaps, due to this, the 1970s are destined to rest on a confused legacy for eternity. During this time, my father was the world to me (not that he wasn't later, but we did have our clashes on and off for many years). He was a Korean War hero, decorated more times than I could possibly recount here, but probably just as many as the times he was stopped at airports metal detection stations because of the shrapnel he still carried on him. I don't say this to augment his image--this man was really something else. As his only male heir to the namesake, he instilled in me great American values: love of country, sacrifice for a cause larger than one's self, pride in the traditions of our history as a nation, etc. I had no reason to doubt him, after all, he was a god among mortals. But what my father failed to understand was that he, of all people to hold these ideas close to his heart, was probably, by virtue of heritage and race, the last person you would have expected to embrace this idealism with all of his heart. He failed to see, or even understand that his accent, his name and his skin color rendered him "foreign" to those same Americans he fought so hard to defend against the evils of communism. He never bragged about his military record; he never carried his Silver and Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, Commendations for Valor, etc. on his sleeve, so how were these people supposed to know they were not in front of an immigrant but rather a true American hero in the truest sense of the word? They never knew.

We grew up (and with "we" I mean my entire nucleus family) outside the diaspora, as far as possible from our people. Early on, I went to public schools where the idea of diversity was brunettes versus blondes. I was never told to feel any different, and I actually never did--my complexion was just about right, as if by some complicated miracle of science my environment was my destiny. Of course my name gave it away, but what did my friends care about last names back then? Besides I was good at baseball, that most American of all sports, and excelled in other school activities. It wasn't until friends came to our home for a visit that they realized they were carousing around with aliens. Needless to say, this was a confusing time for a boy in his pre-teen years to try and investigate his own identity and what it meant in the face of all others.

The day my Americanism arrived for "good," (just like a long awaited birthday gift your grandmother sent but got lost in the mail for two or three weeks), I was around 12 or 13 years old. I was in 7th grade, in Mr. Daniel Light's American history class (imagine that, his desk had one of those official looking name displays that said "D. Light"), and came across a particularly interesting ad on (of all places) a Scholastic Magazine. It was a United States Marine Corps recruitment ad. The photograph showed a variety of Black, Hispanic, White and even a Native American men (ironically enough my first encounter with "diversity") all clad in the distinctive Marine Corps dress blues--probably one of the most coveted military uniforms in the world. The caption to the photograph was like a shot of penicillin to my heart infected with doubts about my identity as an American "other." The caption read, "The wrong team to be on the wrong side of." I was hooked. This was around the same time the cult B-film "The Warriors" was making its original rounds in the movie houses, and just about every kid my age wanted to be in some sort of "gang." To me, the Marines offered everything I needed: a "good" gang to be on... they even had cool uniforms, like the gangs in the film. I was hooked, and I couldn't wait until I graduated from high school to enlist. The Marines offered something else as well: my father's "America First" philosophy and ideology but in a form I could make my own and understand in my own way.

Semper Fi and All that Jazz

I don't have to regurgitate the years I spent as a U.S. Marine, and, to be completely frank, I feel now like my father must have felt back then... "There's no need to talk about it. If people want to know, they'll ask you about it." Nothing was a truer dictum to me as my father's silence about his honored military service. I confess I got a bit more than I bargained for having served during the late 1980s and the top part of the 1990s, but I am not even close to start bitching about it. Friends and past girlfriends always said that I sounded like a broken record when asked about my military service; I nearly always gave people the same line, "Shit, when I signed up, Reagan and Gorbachev were kissing on television... and a kissing war was a war I could deal with." The real gift I take away from the experience is my father's ultimate pride and admiration for what I had done. There were not enough words for him to say how proud he was when I came home from boot camp--this served him just right, since he was never one to tell what he felt, even when it came to love and pride.

But the years following my military service were full of confusing ideas. The world I now inhabited (college) was a world divided along ideology lines... those were days of "roller coaster" ideologies: false ideas, liberals vs. conservatives, cultural inclusivism and diversity, culture wars, and to top it all off, I was in the great state of Ohio... about as far from the diaspora as I could get. Because of my name I was often asked if I had served in the (name of country here) marines, to which I always responded, "No, I served in the United States Marines." For most of my years in college, and later in graduate school, I was "pigeon holed," put inside the slot of ethnicity and not allowed to come out. Whether professors knew what they were doing, or they were still living the "Love Fest" of the 1960s, I never was able to draw a clear explanation. If up to that point I had had questions about identity and self, these very same questions were accented and augmented 110% because of this. Those years, I felt I was not simply living outside the diaspora, but I was in some sort of permanent exile with no ticket home or even a road map to trace my steps back. I have commented before how education is a double-edged sword; what it gave me to expand my mind, also drove me away to a precipice of cultural, political and ethnic identity. It was a dark hole, that, as Hamlet states of the mystery of death, "no traveler returns," and I don't have to quote the bard again to know that it "puzzles the mind" to no end. I was finally able to find my way "home," when I arrived once again in the classroom... this time as a teacher.

As I began my career after graduation, and I was permitted the GREAT PRIVILEGE of teaching and helping young minds grow. I swore in front of God and the picture of my father, that I would never teach a specific ideology, I would never allow students to know where I stood on the issues of our times. On the contrary, I wanted to present my students with clear, logical, reasonable ways of understanding both "sides of the coin." I wanted to help them become critical thinkers in the truest sense of the word. This leads always to a clearer picture of Americanism, one that those interested in teaching from the "Left" or the "Right" simply ignore, and, as a result, border on the brainwashing and indoctrination rather than teaching. America has not only lost its way because we are divided by ideologies, but also because as a nation we continue to saturate ourselves with the banal, the trivial, the fad-infested media whose, it seems, only message is that of "planned obsolesce" and complete hedonism. To put it in context (and also in a nutshell), is it me, or are they coming up with a new cellphone every week?

While the Volunteers Slept

As a people, I think it is an understatement to say that Americans have gone a transformation (more like a dark transfiguration). It isn't simply the changes that were ushered on that clear sky Tuesday in September, but looking back a decade before we had already begun the mutation. The 1990s were sort of the 1980s reversed, at least culturally. The United States ushered a historic era of economic surplus, and the lowest unemployment levels since the resuscitation of the American economy during and after World War II. Who cared whether or not Bill Clinton was guilty of personal transgressions? We were willing to suspend our ethics, as long as the economy was strong, the Internet was taking over society as a new form of expression and entertainment, and after "Desert Storm," and the fall of the Soviet Union we reigned supreme as the "only" super power. Whether the new Millennium was about to change all of that or not, we, for the most part, were not interested. The times were "cool," again, and we had our own little response to "The Greatest Generation," in the "Generation X" population. These were the computer wizards, the nerds and geeks that came back to kick sand on the sport jocks of their high school years during the 80s. "They," Tom Brokaw would later state, "came in with the newest ideas, the greatest innovations since Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers and really changed America for the better." A sweeping generalization? Perhaps. What Brokaw failed to notice was that no one was "paying attention." While we basked on the comforts of a new technological America, we were leaving many on the outside looking in, and their resentment was to eventually hit a historic boiling point. When referring to "those on the outside looking in" I am not simply gathering the "enemies," but also those within our society that were left to shoulder the traditions my father taught me at an early age. I am talking, of course, of those who serve our country in the military. They are the ones now shouldering the traditions I have begun to lose one droplet at a time, every day. This is an entirely volunteer force of young people that (perhaps as inspired as I was when I noted that Scholastic Magazine ad) has gone beyond the call to serve four or five tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Away from family and friends, they miss anniversaries, birthdays, deaths in their families, Little League baseball seasons and school graduations. They do this voluntarily. They are the ones now helping me keep the very thin layer of faith I still have in this country, they stop the leaking faucet of my ill-fated American identity. In the same token, they are the ones unknowingly supporting a system of government that's being abused by corporate magnates while elected officials look the other way. If September 11th brought America to its knees, September 12th acted almost as an open gate to the excesses of capitalism, and the mass of unethical executives just "dying" to make a "kill" was on the rise. The American economic meltdown was just around the corner.

The Final Draw of my "American" Patience

This past week I underwent another mutation of my traditional American identity. We've been suffering the economic meltdown since 2008, and, playing around a 10% or more unemployment rate while high executives in all sorts of American financial sectors continue to bask in their safe bubble having landed on their feet with the help of their Golden parachutes. Again, I am not saying I am against capitalism, but I am categorically opposed to its excesses. Why? Because this excess is an insult to American work ethic and the integrity of the traditional American worker. When people complain about their jobs being sent to Mexico or China, most of them miss half of the equation. Why do corporations seek to reduce the cost of their labor in manufacturing or even servicing their customers? Ever wonder where the aforementioned Golden parachutes come from? Now, now... does a CEO really need to make $24 million a year, plus other financial incentives to boot, even if the company fails and goes bankrupt? At the cost of what? American jobs? Is it in the name of "cheap labor" (which, as a matter of fact, includes its own list of ethical guidelines and problems)? Bernard Madoff's numbers game earned him figures in the excess of $90 billion... if that isn't an excess, I don't know what is.

Last week, Goldman Sach executives "testified" in front of Congress. I put the quotations there because the hearings were really a travesty, a slap in the face of any American making a sacrifice, either serving overseas in the military or flipping burgers in the joint down the street to support their families (because it is the only job they can find). Sure, it was entertaining to see Senator Carl Levin repeat "shitty deal" over and over again, and that caught most of the sound bites, but consider that the executives of Goldman Sachs did not answer a single question they were asked during the hearings. Their language was so couched in legal jargon and generalizations that the impression they made was that of having been coached by their attorneys for probably months in advance. No answers made to probably the main factor that fueled the economic melt down: "shitty" mortgages resold and shoved down investors' throat when they were knowingly labeled "shitty" by those same executives. It is perhaps the world's most suggestive and loaded statement to say that America has lost its way. There's no "way" anymore. The ethical void in American politics and economics hammered the final nail in the coffin of my American identity. It makes me want to vomit to admit that I am part of this circus and extravagant buffet of lies, but part of it I am... by identity, definition, and by my father's unending faith in this nation. I am an American lost in this wilderness, this sea of confusion and endless nightmares.

This is the first and last post I am writing on this blog regarding American politics or economy. I got it off my chest now... could this Lady hold the answer to my loss of traditions and identity crisis? Or could this man? So long to the idea of "Americans bow to no monarch." It seems much easier to believe in traditions this way.

Labels: , , , ,