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Week Thirteen (Tues, Apr. 19): What Have We Learned? Where Might We Go Next?


I. Coursekeeping

on Thursday, we'll have a reckoning: course evaluations; we'll also review in our small groups all the requirements for completing the course (final projects, portfolios)

we'll also ask you to sign up then for your final performances,
to be held Tuesday and Thursday next week (n.b.:
don't assume that the technology will work, that your
computer will be compatible with the projector,
that there will be sound, etc. etc. ... if you need to "set up,"
come early, so we can get organized!)

II. today Paul and I promised you to "go first,"
to show/tell you some of what
we have been learning.

For starters, I have been increasingly attuned this semester
to the remarkable applicability of "evolutionary thinking" to a
wide range of cultural matters. For example:

Languages Grew From a Seed in Africa, Study Says:
Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has ...looked at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language.  He has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: a language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.

This pattern of decreasing diversity with distance, similar to the well-established decrease in genetic diversity with distance from Africa, implies that the origin of modern human language is in the region of southwestern Africa, Dr. Atkinson says in an article published on Thursday in the journal Science.

His study was prompted by a recent finding that the number of phonemes in a language is related to the number of people who speak it. This gave him the idea that phoneme diversity would increase as a population grew but fall again when a small group split off and migrated away from the parent group.

Such a continual budding process, which is how the first modern humans expanded round the world, is known to produce what biologists call a serial founder effect. Each time a smaller group moves away, there is a dilution in its genetic diversity.  The reduction in phonemic diversity over increasing distances from Africa, as seen by Dr. Atkinson, parallels the reduction in genetic diversity already recorded by biologists....

"language ....retains a signal of its ancestry over tens of thousands of years."

III. Even more interesting to me than such patterns of past evolution are the possibilities of future ones.
the desire expressed in Generosity "to live long enough to witness a new, post-genomic fiction, one that grasps the interpenetrating loops of inheritance and upbringing so tangled that every cause is some other cause's effect. One that, through a kind of collaborative writing, shakes free of the prejudices of any individual maker", plus cf88's challenge-- that novels such as "Generosity" represent not the future but the past, in which literature was an art form that celebrated individual expression-- has got me seriously thinking about emergent narrative forms (and the need to study them in classes such as these). It's made me more aware of-- and more eager to explore-- alternative web forms such as those showcased in the Electronic Literature Collection.

Doing so puts me in conversation with Harvard literary scholar Margerie Garber, who just published a book on what makes literature literature. “What once wasn’t literature,” ---television, cinema, comic books, biography, Renaissance drama, the novel -- “is now at the heart of the canon.” To Garber, literature is “a status rather than a quality. To say that a text or a body of work is literature means that it is regarded, studied, read and analyzed in a literary way"-- [according to her reviewer, this is] a narrow, naïve insistence that the most “literary” questions are “questions about the way something means, rather than what it means, or even why.” To begin with, it assumes an easy distinction between how and what that rarely exists in practice.... After documenting the protean history of the term, she ends by wanting “literature” to mean only one thing.

IV. Thinking evolutionarily with you all has also emboldened me to think more expansively not only about "what literature is" (and will be), but also about the de-construction of disciplinary boundaries @ Bryn Mawr and beyond (iin participating in "thinking forward" discussions about the role of small liberal arts women's colleges in the 21st century, for instance, in establishing the 360 Program...) and in the meantime, in pushing students in all my courses to explore alternative forms of story-construction on the web.

In doing so, I'm following the lead of quite a few scientists:
a neurobiologist you know, as well as a theoretical physicist
you may have heard of:

Freeman Dyson, "The Darwinian Interlude," in "The Future of Evolution" (Metanexus Institute, The Global Spiral), on the need for a new synthetic biology based on communities and eco-systems rather than on genes and molecules...

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago when a single species, Homo Sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change.... Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, in the last thirty years, Homo Sapiens has revived the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, and the evolution of life will again be communal. If you like, you can call that the evolution of a noosphere.

Noosphere: the "sphere of human thought," third in a succession of phases of development of the Earth, after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life)

V. And yet, and yet (and in contradiction to this focus on the mind??) probably, most significantly, because of so many of the biological skin-bags that surround me (including my own) have been faltering and failing this semester, I've also been thinking about the central role that bodily disease, decay and death play in evolution. You've helped me here, too:

AnnaP: humor is key in evolution because it makes us more resilient…. Adaptation… shows how absurd the world and “rules” of moviemaking can be.... closing down or opening up possibilities?

ckosarek: science and literature both seemed to …pose ... and eliminate possibilities….

hlehman: we discussed whether we prefer adding things or knocking things out when it comes to making sense of the world.

One of my key realizations this semester is that we need to eliminate possibilities in order to make space for the creation of new ones (or: "knock things out" to make room for "adding things"…. and this is hard for me; I'm a clinger!)

One of the key questions still remaining for me is how useful consciousness is in this process--or when it might not be so useful (again, you all have articulated these issues for me--for which thanks!)

tangerines: I think that Adaptation was similar to Generosity in that it showed us "the man behind the curtain" … each piece attempts to make its audience think about the conventions of its medium…. a message I took from both stories was that it's important to pay attention to our own evolution. Without being aware of how we have changed and where we've come from, we can't do anything new.

cf. kgrass: A common theme that seems to be appearing is that in people’s attempt to change... they end up not doing anything at all. Charlie is looking to do something new and exciting, but doesn’t get anywhere… Stone has the same dilemma…. in that process of searching for “new”, he just makes himself stuck.

elly: I like this idea that how we change is through "how we perceive the changes we encounter," but I'm still not sure whether or not we can control this.

skindeep: does memory hold us down and prevent us from moving forward?

alexandrakg; perhaps its a parody of movies trying not to be Hollywood.  The harder you try the worse it gets.

OrganizedKhaos (w/ a hand up from elly on the exact quotation): "these teachers are dangerous if your goal is to do something new. And a writer should always have that goal. Writing is a journey into the unknown, not building a model airplane"…. there isn't an algorithmic process to writing….

or teaching… or learning….

Not algorithmic (formulaic/predictable).

But possible! And "actual"!

cr88: "truth" in filmmaking is ultimately chimeric… the scene where Charlie visits the set of "Being John Malkovich"…. a metafilmic mise-en-abîme demonstrates that even the most realistic film is entirely constructed.

But things that are constructed are real (and so may be said to be "true," as a house is "real" or "true"). They are just constructed (and so can be de-constructed, and re-constructed--just like houses!

VI. So, Paul: what have you been learning about this "process in progess"?