Sam and His New Car, June 2004

Writing Sam

Revising 21st Century Education,
by Test Driving a New Form:
Playing with the Letter

A Meditation from his Mother
Anne Dalke
July 16, 2004

In gratitude to web mistress and master,
inspirers who both said, "You're writing a play...."
and who had together, years before,
built the playground wherein it plays out.

With thanks also for further inspiration from
fledgling playwright Paula Viterbo
and dramaturge extraordinaire Mark Lord.

Sam Dalke has just finished his freshman year at Haverford College. During the spring semester, he complained to his mother about how discussion (didn't) work in one of his classes: "There are some students who talk too much." (What do they talk about?) "They talk about what they've read." (That doesn't seem like a bad thing.) "They talk about things they've read that aren't assigned." (That doesn't seem like a bad thing.) "What they say is not relevant...." Sam's mother suggested (mildly) that he might try entering class with the sort of attitude we cultivate for Meeting for Worship, with an openness for what might arise...but he wasn't convinced. Here's her somewhat belated attempt to get him (along with anyone else interested in the form of contemporary education, who might care to listen in...) to listen a little further.

Dear Sam,

We've missed you since you left for Nature Camp--and enjoyed seeing the cartoon rendition of what the entomology class you're teaching there looks like. You've missed some pretty good times here, too. Last night, in honor of my 54th birthday, your sisters staged a play in which they portrayed me as wandering the world in search of meaning. I found a centavo, which I used to buy a cake, which was eaten by a chicken, which was killed by a dog, which was killed by a falling fence pole, which I used as a crutch in my travels, until it fell in the river, where I found a baby floating by, which I picked up and nursed (as I have nursed babies in the past) and also declared (as I had declared each object previous) as "rightfully mine." But then child's mother (who happened also, in the 3-person cast of this play, to be the cake baker and chicken-, dog-, fence-owner) entered, retrieved her baby...and lectured me that I'd never find happiness by grasping at objects (even babies...), that it was fruitless to try and find satisfaction in ownership. The play ends with my floating down the Shenandoah River in an inner tube (as we all used to do together) singing "Summertime, and the living is easy..."

It was a great play, and a wonderful birthday gift. But it actually does NOT represent the surprising way this summer has been shaping up for me--so I thought I'd draw on the inspiration of your sisters' work (along with the inspiration of so many of my colleagues, above) to tell you the story of what's really been happening. It takes, of course, the form of yet another play....and I think, since you are so interested in the study of philosophy, you'll also be especially interested to see that it begins with a letter to René Descartes.

The title of this play, and its playbill (which Paul Grobstein designed, as he designed its further elaboration) arose out of a discussion a group of Bryn Mawr students, staff and faculty held early last April about Religious Diversity. That rich conversation concluded with the suggestion that we keep on talking in a forum "akin to a sports bar"--where, instead of sports, we'd share with one another stories about the various ways in which each of us makes meaning of our lives. There were no further developments in that intiative...

until this past month, when--I've just realized--a very different initiative led us straight back to a discussion of our relation to the universe, and more particularly (given your concerns, above, about the appropriate role of individuals speaking in class discussion), straight back to the query of how education might best facilitate that relationship. Subject (you'll soon see why) to much further revision, I'm calling the play

"Welcome to the Relation to the Universe Bar;
or, What Might Happen If You Get Out of Bed"

Act I, Scene I

Lights up stage right. A 17th-century bedroom. René Descartes just waking, but since he's formed the habit of spending the morning in bed, engaged in systematic meditation, he doesn't move. His bed is piled high with various evidence that he has been working, with considerable success, on the application of geometry to solve algebraic problems. The very success of that venture has led to his current pre-occupation with a new problem: whether " the sciences could be made to yield results as certain as those of mathematics."As he loses (I mean: finds) himself in thinking, the light on his bed dims slightly.

Act I, Scene II

Light comes up simultaneously, stage left. A 21st-century bedroom. Very messy. Piled with books and papers. A philosopher-scientist, also in bed alone, is reading (Descartes). He begins to speak. The audience at first assumes that he is performing an apostrophe (to Descartes). But as he goes on (and he goes on for a while), they settle into a conviction that it is just the old man talking to himself. But then...

Act I, Scene III

Leaving his various bedfellows behind, the philosopher-scientist gets up, comes stage forward into another room, one with even more varieties of piles than the first. (The lights dim on the 21st century bed; they go out entirely on the 17th). Philosopher-scientist powers on his computer, and sends his monologue (which takes the form of a letter to Descartes, now clearly just a literary device, an occasion for thinking through something out loud) to several dozen friends....

Act II, Scene I

Sporatically and intermittently at first, then more insistently, lights begin to come on, and computers begin to power up, in other rooms. On stage, these form a circle around the first computer. The effect should be of a master chessman, playing a game, simultaneously, with a number of competitors (or of an octopus, ditto). It should be clear that a number of rooms where the letter was sent have stayed dark, and that several are lit only briefly: those occupants glance briefly at the letter, and turn off their computers. Others stay lit for a longer period: the occupant reads, may write back, receive a response...but gets bored, or-- feeling unheard, feeling that he's having no effect on the conversation, is unable to alter its terms or change the mind of his discussant--powers off.

Act II, Scene II

Quite a few rooms stay lit for extended periods, however, and the audience can easily trace how quickly each match is being played, as one computer flashes and another responds, as some ripostes lag, then get picked up again. Letters are being composed by a psychiatrist, a community activist, an about-to-be-graduate student, a few high school teachers, and quite a few college professors, from various disciplines: so far, a chemist, a literary critic, a linguist, an historian of science have spoken publicly. But things are starting to get complicated. The audience slowly becomes aware, both of the extracurricular interests of each of the writer, and of how helpful those interests are in making this academic conversation something more than "academic." One is a painter; she turns from her computer to her watercolors, returns from her studio to add renditions of "being" and "becoming" to the conversation. Another is a biker; he leaves the room for an extended period of time, returning with the claim that his sore legs are an internally sourced sensory input. Another reports in on a conversation she's had with a psychologist; others make references to one movie or another which add yet other dimensions to the conversation.

Act II, Scene III

The audience also quickly becomes aware that many of the respondents bring into the discussion all the books piled about their own beds and offices. There are appearances by a number of other philosophers, including Sextus Empiricus, David Hume and Jean Paul Satre; a cultural historian, Louis Menand and several of the pragmatists about whom he wrote, including William James; a neurologist, Antonio Damasio; a short story writer, Italio Calvino; a mathematician, Gregory Chaitin; a composition theorist, Peter Elbow ; several mentions are also made of the work of feminist theorists who were critical of Descartes' method. Here, of course, is where staging 21st-century education gets complicated; what I envisage is that, each time a respondent picks up a book, leafs through it and finds a quote, the philosopher whose words she's using steps center stage and speaks the words himself.


Respondents are also constantly evoking a range of other conversations in which they have been involved. Clearly, this "new form of education" is getting increasingly difficult (maybe @ this point impossible?) to represent on stage. (This play is bound to remain virtual, unless you've got some good playwriting or directing tricks up your sleeve that I haven't thought of yet.... ) What I would LIKE to represent is the effect that, as various correspondents evoke the earlier conversations in which they have been engaged, lights go up on that range of discussions: about Beauty, about Diversity, about Emergent Systems, about Information, Meaning and Noise, about Language, about Teaching, and a particularly steady study group known as the Graduate Idea Forum. The light on the last of these continues to burn steadily until the end of the play. In a rather unpredictable (that is, not scripted) way, however, each of the other spaces does go dark--as each of these groups is laid down, at least for the summer. When that happens, the figures speaking with one another in one group do not remain in the dark; they leave that room and wander over to a new space, where (for instance) another new group inquiring into Information has just been formed. Some of them also spend time at the beach....

Act IV, Scene I

Complications continue to multiply, in sunshine and in shadow. The play has moved well beyond the dialogic form of the initial letter, even beyond the form of multiple dialogues going on simultaneously with the philosopher-scientist who started it all. A trialogue, some quadralogues, even a quintalogue are being formed. Some of the respondents are married to one another, or have intellectual friendships outside this immediate circle; the audience has a short flash of them reading separate books while in bed together. The audience also sees them get out of bed to put on a dinner party, where a neighbor drops by, then a friend who works at a university hundreds of miles away....The audience also sees several respondents turn away from their conversation with the philosopher-scientist, to explore a wide spectrum of shared--and contested--areas of interest beyond what was laid out in the initial invitation.

Act IV, Scenes II-V

Several of the scenes in this act are particularly striking, as first one respondent and then another channels Descartes; at these points, his room will be lit again, and he will speak the words written by the letter writer. I'm not sure, yet, what to have Descartes do in two other scenes: one respondent writes him directly; another shouts at him to "wake up" and respond to what's being said. More playwriting advice solicited here (as Melville said, this is but a draft of a draft...): should I instruct (CAN I instruct Descartes, his talking spirit, his acting self) to speak back?

Act V

Okay, I think that about covers all the local scenes. But of course they were fueled by ideas that have very long legs in the world: the most obvious contemporary ones have to do with matters of webology and webocracy. Clearly such a widely distributed and serious form of play could never have been written before the development of the internet.

What surprised me, though, as I worked through writing this letter to you, Sam (you still listening...?) was my discovery of the strong literary history for this sort of educating. You'll know that (as a literary scholar, for whom one thought is always webbily and delightfully connected to a range of others, and for whom directing the association is nearly impossible), I'm particularly pleased to be able to call some of them to your attention (as well, of course, to record them here for my own future reference). The tricky part is to figure out how to order the fireworks going off in my brain, to lay out sequentially what was often simultaneous.

Lessee...yet another play?

Yep, that's the thing.

So: imagine, on a stage beside the one on which
"Welcome to the Relation to the Universe Bar" is playing,
a second show, called

Symposium on Fairy Tales
College Seminar, 2003

"A Centrifugal Force; or
Communication Between Things That Are Different "

Act I, Scene I: In Which, Invited by a Friend,
I Begin to Read...and Cannot Stop Myself

Gerry LaChance calls my attention to the work of Italio Calvino, which delights me. I begin reading obsessively (in this scene, I'm on the living room couch with every one of Calvino's books piled up alongside). I finish one collection of short stories, pick up the next without pause, which leads me to eventually to...

Act I, Scene II: A Few More Voices From the Dead

Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium, in which he meditates on the literary values he hopes to see perpetuated in the future (he died before writing the sixth memo, so it's all up to us, guys....)
In his first essay, on "Lightness," Calvino introduces me to Cyrano de Bergerac (not the one I knew as the long-nosed swordsman Rostand created in his play ( you won't trust plays)...

...but himself a significant writer who, according to Calvino, was both "the first true forerunner of science fiction" and "the first poet of atomism in modern literature:"

above all he conveys his sense of the precariousness of the processes behind [the variety of living forms]....That is, how nearly man missed being man, and life, life, and the world, the world.

( you won't trust satirists, either.)

Whatever: this scene will be a very clever one, in which Rostand's de Bergerac takes off his mask to reveal the "real" de Bergerac, who steps center stage and says,

You marvel that this matter, shuffled pell-mell at the whim of Chance, could have made a man, seeing that so much was needed for the construction of his being....But you must realize that a hundred million times this matter, on the way to human shape, has been stopped to form now a stone, now lead, now coral, now a flower, now a comet; and all because of more or fewer elements that were or were not necessary for designing a man. Little wonder if, within a infinite quantity of matter that ceaselessly changes and stirs, the few animals, vegetables, and minerals we see should happen to be made; no more wonder than getting a royal pair in a hundred casts of the dice. Indeed it is equally impossible for all this stirring not to lead to something; and yet this something will always be wondered small a change would have made it into something else.

Act II, Scene I: Duel, to a Draw, Between Saint and Satirist

Mind and Body: From René
Descartes to William James
In which Descartes is replaced (or at least joined...?) by Cyrano de Bergerac as patron saint of the current conversation.

Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac

Born a quarter of a century after Descartes, de Bergerac was a satirist--and one of the objects of his satire was Descartes' idea that animals are soulless machines. De Bergerac's most striking literary gambits involved space travel; he used imaginary visits to the moon and sun to satirize both politics and people. Such travel was also a marvelous way for him to express a sense of perspective larger than would be possible if one stayed grounded on earth:

If there is something you men cannot understand, you either imagine that it is spiritual or that it does not exist. Both conclusions are quite false. The proof of this is the fact that there are perhaps a million things in the universe which you would need a million quite different organs to know. Myself, for example, I know from my senses what attracts the lodestone to the pole, how the tides pull the sea, what becomes of an animal after its death.

Act II, Scene II: Galileo Weighs In

Descartes and de Bergerac are joined by Galileo, another key actor in this drama. I imagine Calvino as puppeteer, hovering above, calling each, in sequence, into play. In the second of his Six Memos, "Quickness," Calvino draws on Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems to show us how he represented dramatically (ah!) two different facets of his own temperament.

Act II, Scene III: The Puppeteer Shows His Stuff

Can you visualize the scene within the scene within the scene, here, the ever-multiplying pairings? I'm calling forth Calvino, who called up Galileo, who created Salviati, "the rigorously methodical reasoner who proceeds slowly and with prudence"; and "Sagredo, with his 'swift manner of speech' and more imaginative ways of seeing things," who "draws conclusions that have not been demonstrated and pushes every idea to its extreme consequences."

Act II, Scene IV: A Return to the Heart of Things

Galileo has Sagredo step forward with a soliloquy in which he proclaims the importance of the alphabet, marveling over how its inventor found

means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, no matter how far distant in place and time? Of speaking with those who are in India, of speaking with those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years?...the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different.

And the audience realizes that they are back at the heart of the play: the use of language to build bridges across difference.

Act III: The Three-Body Problem

However, said audience is getting restless. Frankly, they're very tired of being lectured at. I insert this scene to provide an entirely different point of view--far beyond even what de Bergerac's character would have seen on his travels to the moon. According to Katherine Hayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (Cornell U Press, 1990), and with thanks to Ted Wong (who may not, however, have sensed its ramifications for this particular play):

It all started w/ the moon. If only the earth could have gone round the sun by itself, unperturbed by the complications in its orbit which the moon's gravitational field introduced, Newton's equations of motion would have worked fine. But when the moon entered the picture, the situation became too complex for simple dynamics to handle. The moon attracted the earth, causing perturbations in the earth's orbit which changed the earth's distance from the sun, which in turn altered the moon's orbit around the earth, which meant that the original basis for the calculation had changed and one had to start over from the beginning. The problem was sufficiently complex and interesting to merit a name and a prize of its own. It became known as the three-body problem....

After those fireworks....

Act IV, Scene I: Enter Again Lucretius and Ovid

The focus of the play shifts sharply once again to the level of the human. This scene arises from the most compelling of the chapters in Six Memos, one Gerry flagged for me: the last one on "Multiplicity." It steps off nicely from the last scene, above, because it is grounded in the study of chaotic dynamics--later known as complex systems (simply put by Calvino: the notion that "a whole multitude of converging causes" contributes to any given event). Presuming that such complexity accurately describes the nature of the world, Calvino attributes great value to the sort of literature we find first (in the Western tradition) in the epic poems of Lucretius and Ovid, and to "the idea of a system of infinite relationships between everything and everything else" which their books exemplify. Both Lucretius and Ovid have already shown up on Serendip as ur-texts in the literature of emergence. What Calvino does with them, though, is argue that the literature of our own time is attempting--should be attempting--"to realize this ancient desire to represent the multiplicity of relationships, both in effect and in potentiality."

Now, it won't be particularly popular, in this particular circle (which is what? and where does it end? nevermind...) Calvino gives the credit for this initiative to the humanities, and argues that their motivation arises from the failure of science to either recognize or realize this aim:

Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes,' into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world....What tends to emerge from the great novels of the twentieth century is the idea of an open encyclopedia, an adjective that certainly contradicts the noun encyclopedia, which etymologically implies an attempt to exhaust knowledge of the world by enclosing it in a circle. But today we can no longer think in terms of a totality that is not potential, conjectural, and manifold....the modern books that we love most are the outcome of a confluence and a clash of a multiplicity of interpretative methods, modes of thought, and styles of expression....what matters is not the enclosure of the work within a harmonious figure, but the centrifugal force produced by it.

Image from Chaos in the 3-body problem: the final state of a scattering encounter between a binary star system and another star depends on the initial phase (horizontal axis) of the binary and the impact parameter (vertical axis) of the incomer....Note the alternating regions of regular (smooth) and irregular (chaotic, resonant) behavior.

Act IV, Scene II: A Scattering Encounter

Hm. Oops. This play is spinning out of control (=out of the sphere of representability) even more quickly than the last, and the trajectory is the same. I've lost my focus on the human center I wanted to maintain until the play's end. As Calvino says,

the manifold text...replaces the oneness of a thinking 'I'...

René! WAKE UP!

...with a multiplicity of subjects, voices, and views of the world, on the model of what Mikhail Bakhtin has called 'dialogic' or 'polyphonic' or 'carnivalesque'....There is the type of work that, in the attempts to contain everything possible...remains incomplete by its very nature....

Carnival, at Indigo Backgrounds
Now, this image of "carnival" gets pretty close to what the web enables, the ways in which patterns, indistinguishable from close up, can be identified from further afield.
Carneval, at Agnes' Free
Cross Stitch Calendary

Hm: see the discussion earlier this summer, in the Information Group forum, about hypernovels, "literature which refuses to make choices," or rather, in this chaotic work/world, "simultaneously chooses them all...and so represents the idea of infinite contemporary universes--refusing to 'lose' any information." See also the proposal offered in this week's Information group discussion, that "relaxing the demand for consistency" might prove useful, "yielding greater completeness" in what we can describe and interpret.

Act IV, Scene III: Recovering the Thread/Reconstructing the Net

Hm: seem, un-Ariadne-like, to be losing my thread, here, unraveling... Can I re-shape what's starting to look like a complex maze back into a labyrinth, a single path with no hidden corners or dead-ends? Maybe Calvino can help. So, dear audience: imagine his talking spirit stepping forth, center stage, speaking directly to you:

The scheme of the network of long novels, the structure of which is accumulative, modular, and combinatory. These considerations are at the basis of what I call the 'hypernovels' sample the potential multiplicity of what may be narrated.

Calvino ends his "apologia for the novel as a vast net" with the question,

...who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable...but think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego....Was this not perhaps what Ovid was aiming at, when he wrote about the continuity of forms? And what Lucretius was aiming at when he identified himself with that nature common to each and everything?

And what Paul was trying for, when he first wrote to René?

What is strikingly clear to me, from the really rapid evolution of this play, Sam, is that contemporary education can work very well when it involves a three-step process:

Joanna Russ said this last thing--this key thing--in "Aesthetics" (rpt. Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Robyn Warhol & Diane Price Herndl, Rutgers U Press, 1997):

There used to be an odd, popular, and erroneous idea that the sun revolved around the earth. This has been replaced by an even odder, equally popular, and equally erroneous idea that the earth goes around the sun. In fact, the moon and the earth revolve around a common center, and this commonly-centered pair revolves w/ the sun around another common center, except that you must figure in all the solar planets here, so things get complicated. Then there is the motion of the solar system w/ regard to a great many other objects, e.g., the galaxy, and if at this point you ask what does the motion of the earth really look like from the center of the entire universe, say (and where are the Glotolog?), the only answer is:
that is doesn't,
Because there isn't.

Act V: The Future

Yep, this one belongs to you, Sam.

What do you think?
How will you write it?
What form will your writing take?

Thanks for listening --
and for giving me an occasion to write.

Love you, lots.
Take care--

P.S. Anyone else want to bite into this apple?

Sam Writes Back: Contributing to the Cathedral-- by "Listening to Oneself"

See on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts.

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