27 October 2008

'The Early Death and Inevitable Rebirth of 'Message' Politics"

I attended another great lecture this evening, this one in the anthropological vein with linguistic elements (rather than a discussion of literature as the last one I discussed on the blog). It was entitled "The Early Death and Inevitable Rebirth of 'Message' Politics," by Michael Silverstein.
I find that I gain more from these lectures hosted by the academic departments with featured speakers than the class lectures in those same departments. But I'm fairly convinced that's a matter of my treatment of it, because I get genuinely excited for a fresh speaker - what a special opportunity at our university - don't know what to expect beyond what I infer from a well-crafted title... whereas for the courses in which I'm enrolled, it's: oh hey here are the basic tenets of the argument in that article - please share your interpretations of the reading - don't forget your papers are due next class. Oh! - There's maybe a better reason. Everyone who attends these departmental lectures is interested in the subject. They aren't required to attend; therefore, attendance tends to be sparser but discussion is palpably charged, listeners are thoroughly engaged and responsive to the ideas set forth. Heh, and the professor-to-student ratio is much more in favor of the professors.
Okay, okay.

So the lecture itself was on "message" politics, especially in regards to the current presidential campaign. Michael Silverstein is important in the field of linguistic anthropology, highly influential in shaping the way theorists study language in the social context. He's also well-informed in American political history, which he demonstrated tonight. This particular discussion took on the idea of how these messages or brands of the politicians have re-emerged in this electoral cycle as negative messaging. He outlined the rhetorical styles of both Barack Obama and John McCain, the combination African-American pulpit style meeting American civil rhetoric in Obama, and the so-called "straight-talk express" of McCain.
Silverstein definitely drew some laughs when he took some time to decode what he termed the "concept soup" of Sarah Palin's speech - giving examples of these syntactic stretches she joins by seemingly arbitrary connectives. He compared these to the responses that professors are so accustomed to reading on exams, those written by students who only half paid attention in class and have memorized a few key phrases to string together without understanding their meanings. He also discussed the new linguistic features of web campaigning (hey out there, blogosphere!), the trope of place as a source for the essential quality of a candidate (as understood by the media machine), the escalation of campaign slogans and how they play off of each other, and much more that he was able to convey in that hour or so.

A lot of what Silverstein relates to this week's "This American Life" broadcast. You can listen to the program online - follow that link or download it on iTunes. It's a quick, down-and-dirty, yet informative, look at how the presidential candidates are faring in the state of Pennsylvania. There are stories from both the Obama and McCain camps, and what especially struck me was the interviews with self-proclaimed racists who are proud to admit that they're voting for McCain because they're not going to let a black man into office. Honestly, what year is this?

And funneling down to the local level... High heel drag queen race in Dupont tomorrow! Parade from 7 to 9pm on 17th Street between Church and R Streets NW, followed by a race of queens kickin' off at 9. I'm goin' with co-workers, slingin' that cam, and postin' right here soon. See you all there!

16 October 2008

mind breaks

I must strike a balance between input and output.
This is difficult. That is an understatement.
Writing involves discipline, but first one must determine how much energy to invest in keeping the suck of life open, to receive the great loves of our lives, and to seek advice from the known and respected writers past and present. Only after that (though this be ongoing and never, never quite leaning towards completion) can it be prime season for converting these experiences of the sensory and the cerebral into an original form of any merit. I guess most writers just publish their practice until they find that seed.

I mean, at times I think I'm onto something.

Then I'll return, tell myself to go read a book or take a hike or something. It's not enough yet. Need more greats in my head, you know.
Oh, and there's an article by Malcolm Gladwell in this week's New Yorker ["Late Bloomers"] that is fairly reassuring. He claims that many excellent writers (and other artists) were late bloomers, so there's no need for my anxiety over not having a novel published at age 20. Gladwell wants to disprove this popular conception of genius linked with precocity. A nice quote from that: "On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure." Maybe a lot of the reason why I so fear aging is that I'm afraid of not having enough time to share all these words I'm convinced are inside, or at least word-seeds that need a damp little bit of soil.

On another note, are there people afraid to take in the "wrong" stuff? Like somehow baser material will undermine the purity and champion of that stuff they've accumulated thus far? I don't get why a classmate would refuse to read a novel simply on principle, assuming it's not a matter of time or effort. Can't there be advantage to having that knowledge - if not from the material in the text itself, then at least from one's own take on it? How can you dislike a book before you've given it half a chance?

15 October 2008

That beautiful point in October.

Alright, so I'm currently buried deep in schoolwork for midterms, but setting goals anyway. This simply includes finding the time to read a little for myself, getting refreshed on my own fiction-writing, and enjoying the last of the warm weather. Sleep is unfortunately minimal, but there will be time enough for that soon. It's important to have one's priorities in check!

I went to a talk on Monday night by Suhayl Saadi, a Scottish writer and our own British Council Writer in Residence here at George Washington University. His mastery of language is absolutely astounding. And not only of the English language (that's tough enough); he weaves words and phrases adopted from languages such as Urdu into his novel, even changing or combining the words. Supposedly his first novel, Psychoraag (2004), includes a glossary for readers. He stressed the importance of translating more writing, stating that many people are limited to Anglophone texts because not enough literature is translated into English. He explained the essential connections between music and words and silence. I want to attempt Psychoraag when I'm up to the challenge: it's massive, it's multilingual, and it's difficult. He confronts the realms of dreams, alchemy, and space.
We talked for awhile afterwards about the difficulties of finding satisfaction in one's work - he admits going through an average of fifteen drafts of everything he writes, from newspaper articles or radio plays, to short stories or novels. Saadi says that as human beings and as writers, "we've experienced all the possible emotions - the rest is research." Writing is a collective act, of course - we all try to know another. I'm inspired. I'm certain I can make it happen.

09 October 2008

Read all poetry out loud.

I am absolutely enamored with the Romantic poets.

I have a poem to memorize for my course on the British Romantic Movement (I chose Keats's "To Autumn"), and reciting this poem over and over has made me realize how important it is to hear poetry spoken. There's much you can miss by solely doing a silent reading of a poem, or by reading it only a few times. My new goal is to memorize all of my favorite poems. My memory's never been great, but I suppose the only way it will improve is if I work at it.
In reading "To Autumn" out loud many times in an effort to commit it all to memory, I've lulled myself into a dreamy poetic loop that calls for sleep... wow, those images... "Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run"...

04 October 2008

Sant Ocean Hall

Folks, the new Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is aching for you to come visit if you're nearby. It's an extensive, well-designed, and overall aesthetically pleasing exhibition. I stopped in to check it out between classes, so I didn't get a chance to read or watch or explore as much as I would have liked, but I'll be back for sure. Snapped a few photos for ya'll, though!