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What Happened to the Versus?

What Happened to the Vs.
(...and the Verses)?

eolecki: In the first class we already began
discussing the idea of
science versus something.

So: do you think of Obama as a continuation
or a revision of Lincoln?
As opposite or identical?
As "vs." or...?

Ron English, Political Fusion Portrait of "Abraham Obama":

"Some say the comparisons between
Obama and Lincoln only go so far."

Using this concept of the evolving presidency as
an image to set up today's conversation,

about the comparisons between biology and storytelling
which were set up for us on Tuesday.

(One answer to jrlewis's forum question:
I wonder how history fits into the interdisciplinary space
between science and literature?
I. But first, some coursekeeping:
welcome back!
anyone new? (syllabi & sign-up sheets)
sheet for all

26 of you posted, as requested, introducing yourselves--
nice variety among us, where we come from, where we'd like to go--
which we will draw on, play w/, use....

how did the posting itself go?
(a couple of you didn't log in....?)
everyone got an e-mail from Ann re: registration?

reminder: now you can change your password and your user name
(if you choose one not recognizably you, please let us know)
some of your (kcofrinsha?) words ran together--safari troubles?
if you haven't introduced yourself on-line yet,
please do so over the weekend

also go to the course forum and post again,
this time your (less naive?) reactions to this week's conversations

for Tuesday (and Thursday) please also read
Darwin, Historical Sketch-Ch. IV (pp. 79-177)
Paul: any particular instructions on how to read/what to read for?

Okay, so...
What Happened to the

Elizabeth Alexander's
"Praise Song for the Day":
"We are surrounded by noise.
We are surrounded by noise and bramble, thorn and din....
We encounter each other in words,
Words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed...
Anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp..."

"It's poetry; you can leave now."

Why would you want to?
Why (how) would you say "no"?
Or: what is distinctive about poetry?
About "the literary"?
About the interpretation of the literary?
How does it differ from the political ritual that
proceeded and followed it?
How does it differ from science?

- Jillian Ferrara '10:
1. Why do people feel that there needs to be a "versus" relationship between humanities and sciences?
2. When and why did the humanities and sciences start to be viewed as incompatible, when they have traditionally been viewed as courses of study that should be pursued together (in the tradition of Aristotle, DaVinci, etc.)?
3. In what ways are sciences and humanities still related today, in spite of their perceived separation?

The new thing I learned from Paul's talk on Tuesday...
was that Fanny Kemble was an abolitionist

What did you learn?

Paul told us a story about science as

  • an inductive process that does not deal in truth
  • a "loopy" unending process of revision, in which
  • a really good empirical scientist will
    • ask what the observations are, that a story summarizes;
    • recognize that the inconsistent observations are the most important ones, those that don't fit the current summaries;
  • recognizes subjectivity as an inherent part of the process, both
    • a means of selecting among infinite possible summaries, and
    • a way of increasing the number of ways of making sense
      =the number of stories.

    Scientific understandings (in short) are stories that might be otherwise, a continual exploration of the realm of
    possible stories
    that could be written.
  • If we accept that story--provisionally--for now (until we gather some observations that call it into question...)

    ...if empirical science is story, then what is literature?

    How do the practices of science (as described above) resemble and differ from the practices of writing and interpreting literature?

    How well does Paul's story of science work as a description of the work of writing/ reading/ interpreting/ criticizing literature?

    Can you think of any differences between these practices?

    Any similarities?

    Of special interest may be the role of "the crack" (cultural background, personal temperament, individual creativity)
    as a "feature" of, rather than a "bug," in the process.

    Portrait of T. S. Eliot, by Wyndham Lewis

    "Writing is not a science....T.S. Eliot was honest about wanting both writing and criticism to approach the condition of a science...with the writer as catalyst, entering into a tradition, performing an act of meaningful recombination, and yet leaving no trace of himself....For writers, however, Eliot's analogy just won't do....fictional truth is...the watermark of self" (Zadie Smith, "Fail Better," The Guardian, January 13, 2007).

    "scientific statements are ... provisional stories, reflecting human perspectives ... differences among people are an asset to the process" (Paul Grobstein, Science as Story).

    Let's try this out....
    by (of course) reading some verses together.

    O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
    The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
    The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
    While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
    But O heart! heart! heart! 5
    O the bleeding drops of red,
    Where on the deck my Captain lies,
    Fallen cold and dead.
    O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
    Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills; 10
    For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—
    for you the shores a-crowding;
    For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
    Here Captain! dear father!
    This arm beneath your head;
    It is some dream that on the deck, 15
    You’ve fallen cold and dead.

    My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
    My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
    The ship is anchor’d safe and sound,
    its voyage closed and done;
    From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
    Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
    But I, with mournful tread,
    Walk the deck my Captain lies,
    Fallen cold and dead.


    What do you hear?
    What observations can you make about the poem?
    What summaries can we make of those observations?

    Who is speaking?
    To whom are they speaking?
    What are they speaking about?
    Where are you in relation to speaker/audience/object?

    (Have you ever heard of an apostrophe? An elegy?)

    Let's try this from a different "angle of vision":
    What effect did the reading have on you?
    What does the poem do?
    What does it mean?
    How does it achieve that meaning?

    And yet a third approach:
    what is the most useful context ("crack")
    for understanding this poem?
    What might you research,
    to understand the poem more thoroughly?

    How do you feel, as these questions are
    being asked of you??

    Fear of
    ...all that space?
    ...all that you don't know/need to know/
    need to know how to look for, in order to respond?
    ...all you don't know about relevant context?

    "Meaning is context-bound....context is boundless;
    there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant"
    (Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory).

    From The Cambridge Introduction to Walt Whitman:
    Whitman wrote four poems on the death of Lincoln.... follow[ing] the universalizing tradition of the English elegy (from Milton on down) by witholding the name of Lincoln, suggesting the mythic stature of the dead leader. Everyone knows the one who is mourned; there is no need to name him... "O Captain!" quickly became one of Whitman's best-known and most widely antholgoized poems...The most conventional poem that Whitman published after 1855--with its regular stanza form, rhymes (albeit slant and irregular), and easily recognizable metaphors (Lincoln as the captain of the ship of state)--it is one of the best examples of Whitman's tendency to write more conventionally for the periodical audience. Whitman was asked so often to recite the poem in the year after the war that he ultimately grew sick of it. "Damn my Captain," he said..."I'm almost sorry I ever wrote the poem."

    How could you find out these things?
    What in the poem would nudge you to do some research,
    to discover the missing--or evoked--context?

    My own moment occurred during the first semester of my freshman college writing course. We were reading a Hemingway short story; the professor criticized the staccato dialogue between husband and wife. When I defended it, as appropriate to this exchange, Professor Fehrenbach responded, "All of Hemingway's characters talk that way." And the world opened up for me, into a maze of texts. I realized that, to speak with authority about this one story, I needed to read them all. And so I become an English major, and begin to read, sort of conversationally, sort of systematically, as each text led me into the others that inform it. (Dalke, Teaching to Learn/Learning to Teach: Meditations on the Classroom).

    Reader Response Theory:
    • meaning is not pre-determined
    • it comes into existence when a text is
      read & responded to
    • focus on the transaction readers make with texts,
      ways they actualize them in their own experience
    • meaning persistently revised as readers compare, collate their readings
    • searching for common patterns, recognizing
      when the patterns break down
    • how it works: see Louise Rosenblatt's 1938 Literature as Exploration and Jane Tompkins's 1980 anthology, Reader-Response Criticism
    • why it works--as in Paul's story of science--
      depends on the encounter between the "crack,"
      the heterogeneous personalities of readers
      and the indeterminacy/ambiguity of language
      (=the space for making meaning).
    • Reader-Response under review: art, game, or science?

    Stranger in a Strange Land: Grokking in the Americas--my sabbatical in Latin America/
    learning Spanish:
    The difficulties of reading culture.

    "As a form of public discourse, the fountain certainly conveys a message of high expectations!"

    The difficulties of speaking/hearing/interpreting a new language, are differences in degree, not in kind:
    there is is always a gap of indeterminacy
    in the transaction that is language
    --the gap we saw in our interpretation of the poem
    --a gap that's wonderfully demonstrated in the act of punning.

    From a talk in the Emergence Group
    on Speech Recognition:
    "a machine learns to wreck a nice beach"

    Your offerings?

    What do you get when you drop a piano down a mine shaft?
    What do you get when you drop a piano onto a military base?

    Why couldn't the pony talk?

    What's going on here?
    Why-and-how do those puns work?
    What is the logic of their working?

    ...linguistic presumptions: puns demonstrate the inherent instability of the meanings of words...The distinction between words isn't at all that clear; the "category" that each occupies is very porous. (In other words, they make linguists very nervous!)

"Linguists, arise! We have nothing but our *!"

    See, for example, Catherine Bates. "The Point of Puns." Modern Philology 96, 14 (May 1999) on pun's perfidious status as an aberrant element within the linguistic structure....they give the wrong names to the wrong things....confus[e] sense and sound...subvert the one-to-one relation between signifier and signified...disturb the system of communication

    In On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (1987, pp. 1-16),
    Jonathan Culler suggests that

the act of punning is the exemplary act of
language-play, and of literature-making.

    Culler asks us to"....note above all the complexity and diversity of literature...the possibility of fictionally exceeding what has previously been thought and written....Literature is a paradoxical institution because to create literature is to write according to existing formulas....but it is also to flout those conventions, to go beyond institution that lives by exposing and criticizing its own limits.... 'cultural capital'...But literature cannot be reduced to this conservative social function...literature is the noise of culture as well as its information. It is an entropic force." (Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, 1997; pp. 40-41).

    For literature to "work" this way, though, requires some hard work on the part of its readers:

    ".... a novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal....Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe...that fiction is the thing you relate to ... seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced ... we have to ask of each other a little bit more"
    (Zadie Smith, "Fail Better").

    So...what about that pun we started with...
    "versus" vs. "verses"? Per the O.E.D. Online:

    A succession of words arranged according to natural or recognized rules of prosody and forming a complete metrical line; one of the lines of a poem or piece of versification.

    vers, ad. L. versus a line or row, spec. a line of writing
    (so named from turning to begin another line),
    verse, f. vertére to turn;

    versus: Against; employed in Law to denote an action
    by one party against another.

    ...the cracks? the indeterminacy? ...

Or: what happened to the "versus"?