HiPSTAS, Day 1

The presentations at today’s HiPSTAS sessions laid a groundwork for understanding the scholarly context of current work in digital sound studies. The LBJ Library’s Sarah Cunningham emphasized the urgency of analog-to-digital conversion because of the impending deterioration of many analog formats, and she also stressed the difficulty of prioritizing such digitization efforts. Loriene Roy and, later in the day, Tim Powell emphasized tensions between scholars’ desires for freely accessible, constantly archived information and the need to respect sacred traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions in indigenous communities. Quinn Stewart showed the way that GLIFOS software has increased access to the collections he works with, and John Wheat, of the Briscoe Center for American history, emphasized the undiscovered treasures that currently remain hidden in many audio archives. Al Filreis, who reminded everyone that the first goals of Pennsound are to provide access to sound files and to reach out to potential communities of poetry readers, wondered whether the curated character of Pennsound was fully compatible with the ARLO tools.

Two of today’s presentations, though, were particularly interesting to the way I think about the potential of digital tools to promote our understanding of poetic sound.

First, J. Stephen Downie, of the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, blowed me away with his demonstrations of the digital tools he and other musicologists have been using to explore music. I suppose I knew this sort of search and comparison was going on because I use Shazam regularly, but seeing the tools and interfaces Downie has been developing and using made me think that literary scholars are far behind in using such tools to consider sound. I, and everyone else, was particularly impressed by a demonstration of a tool that compares each second of a song to every other second of the same song to digitally determine song structures (A parts, B parts, refrains, bridges, etc.). When Downie showed that he could click on one of his visualization’s diagonal lines (which imply a song match between two parts of a song and thereby define a section) and have the two parts being compared play at once, many of us gasped. While the spoken-word and recorded-poetry most of us at HiPSTAS are working with aren’t quite as meticulously timed as most music, the demo of Downie’s music tools made clear that literary and historical scholars could be making significantly better use of the sound files now at our fingertips.

The other presentation that will stick with me most was Steve Evans’s talk on “The Phonotextual Braid” of timbre, text, and technology. While Evans’s emphasis on a poet’s performance as the most important scene of poetic sound is one I have some disagreement with, he showed that questions of sound need not be divorced from questions of context, politics, and society. In the talk, Evans worried that the current vogue for the digital humanities might displace scholarly attention to equally important theoretical concerns, but I think it’s worth pointing out that engaging with ARLO has already advanced my theoretical thinking about of poetic sound. I’ve never been one to make the claim that building is the same as theory in DH, but I do think the tension between questions of theory and questions of the digital humanities is not so irresolvable as some seem to think.

Aggregate Amateur Performance as Poetic Sound

The first meeting of the HiPSTAS institute begins in Austin tomorrow, and I want to use the occasion to clarify some of my recent ideas about poetic sound and to describe how I believe the digital tools associated with HiPSTAS can help us explore the same.

A few years ago, as experiments in data mining and mass search began to seem like the next big thing in the digital humanities, I found myself dissatisfied with most of the results. Most big-data approaches struck me as glorified Google n-gram searches, and I thought big data might only confirm our suspicions about what we thought we already knew about literary history. For example, we might do a big-data search on faith in the 19th and 20th centuries to map a decline of the same we already knew was there. Most results just seemed to confirm our presuppositions. At THATCamp Virginia 2012, I proposed and led a session about the place that messy data like image files and sound files have in such a digital humanities environment, and while the discussion was interesting, we didn’t make much headway into specifics or practical applications.

I worried that what most interests me about literature, and especially about poetry—the seemingly unquantifiable, non-semantic aspects of poetic language whose appeal to readers is more elusive than the narrative representation of content—might be wholly inaccessible to the digital humanities. As I described two major sides of my academic interests in a job interview a while back (that is, the side of me that’s interested in modernism, nonsense, and the non-semantic properties of language and the side of me that’s interested in digital humanities and digital culture), an interviewer wondered if nonsense wasn’t finally incompatible with the digital humanities. What place could the messy, intentionally non-meaning words of a Dada sound poem, for example, have in a digital-humanities environment obsessed with and dependent on tidily structured textual data?

At the Society for Textual Scholarship conference 2012 (which was also in Austin at almost exactly this time last year), I presented a paper asking that very question. My paper asked how the digital humanities could begin to consider Hugo Ball’s “Karawane,” whose performance context I explored in my dissertation (and which I blogged about here), as an instance of poetic sound. What would the object of study for a DH exploration of “Karawane” even be in the first place?

The very term sound poem points to an ontology based in sound, but Ball himself never recorded a performance of the poem. Instead, we access the poem through surrogates, either textual surrogates like a famous printing of the poem (whose famous typography was designed by Richard Huelsenbeck, not by Ball) or recorded performance surrogates. The several examples of such surrogates captured by PennSound and Ubu, including a remarkable one by Christian Bök, a notably bizarre one by Marie Osmond, and a somber one by Trio Exvoco, are notably different from each other. Bök’s bravura song-chant contrasts sharply with Osmond’s anglicized earnestness, and Trio Exvoco adds numerous echo effects and uses multiple voices. The situation became even more complicated when I began to consider the numerous remediations of the poem found on YouTube, which audiovisually reimagine the scene at the Cabaret Voltaire and often invent details not backed by the historical record (rotten fruit thrown at a humiliated Ball in one such video is an example). Even as I noted these videos’ departures from fact, I began to wonder why archives like Pennsound would treat Bök’s version of the poem, or Marie Osmond’s, or Trio Exvoco’s, as any more authoritative (and worthy of archiving) than some student’s interpretation of the poem in a student project on YouTube. To be sure, I adore Bök’s reading of the poem—but it almost certainly isn’t much closer to what some original performance of the poem was than is Osmond’s, or a random YouTube videomaker’s.

Charles Bernstein has argued that we should treat authors’ performances of their poems with a special regard: “a poet’s reading of her or his own work has an entirely different authority,” he argues, from that of an ordinary reader. This philosophy guides the collection of sound at Pennsound. There are exceptions, of course—Jerome McGann’s readings of Edgar Allan Poe represent one, Bök’s readings of Ball another—but for the most part Pennsound is an archive of poets reading their own work.

Beyond his implicit rebuke to the intentional fallcy, Bernstein breaks with another major tradition of poetry scholarship. In considering poetic sound, the individual performance has generally been regarded as subordinate or even irrelevant to the abstract sound of the “poem itself,” by which critics tend to mean some transcendent version of a poem outside any material instantiation. Prosodists and formalists tend to emphasize this idealized version of poetic sound, marked neatly by stressed and unstressed syllables, feet, caesura, and rhyme schemes (some evidence of which is on display at Herbert Tucker’s Scholars’ Lab project “For Better or For Verse”). In this version of poetic sound, sound emerges from the textuality of a poem but also somehow supersedes any given instance of the poem. It’s a model arguably shared by Garrett Stewart, who argues that literature is a “phonotext,” always laden with the potential of sound and, in reading, always actualized, whether silently voiced mentally or voiced aloud, as sound.

If Bernstein emphasizes poetic sound in performance and Stewart poetic sound as sonic potential in a text, another group of critics tends to react against sound altogether. At last year’s STS panel, Laura Mandell echoed some of her earlier comments on poetic sound, claiming that sound is finally a delusion among literary scholars. As she has argued elsewhere, “paper texts themselves cannot in any sense be said to contain sound: paper does not actually utter speech sounds.” Like Mandell, Johanna Drucker deemphasizes sound as the key sensory component of poetry, noting that “Sound is not on the page, even if a graphic transmission allows for its properties to be noted for reproduction in mental or verbal rendering.”

So, put another way, we’ve got three versions of the place sound should have in the study of poetry:

  •  Drucker and Mandell see a poetic critical discourse obsessed with sound but to varying degrees argue that sound has not been nearly so central to poetry as is usually assumed;
  • New-Critical/post-New-Critical formalists and Stewart see a poetic text crackling with the potential for sound, yet insist upon the primacy of the elusive “text itself” over any particular performed instance of sound;
  • and Bernstein, noting that “differences among the alphabetic, gramophonic, and live are not so much ones of textual variance as of ontological condition,” at once recognizes sound in the text and argues that scholars should be paying more attention to poetic sound in recorded and live contexts. The specific recordings he finds most valuable, however, are those of the author herself.

I’m sympathetic with aspects of all of these models of sound. Formalists and Stewart offer admirable models for detecting and making use of patterns of sounds that reside in poetic texts, both when those patterns are intentional and when they are coincidental. The frequency with which I find formal analyses of poetic sound uninspiring or unenlightening, however, makes me sympathetic to Mandell’s sense that an emphasis on textual sound has hindered our understanding of how poetry actually affects readers. I admire Pennsound, and I’m grateful to Bernstein for pushing scholars to understand recorded poetic sound better. Yet Bernstein’s emphasis on the author’s voice leaves me wondering what we can do with poems whose authors are long dead and unrecorded, and also leaves me wondering whether the voices that readers hear in their heads (Mandell would deny their existence) or pronounce aloud don’t also have clear value that can help us understand how poetic sound works.

My exploration of “Karawane” left me thinking that the sound of this sound-oriented poem cannot be understood without recordings. The same poem’s sound, however, is so variable across recordings that it’s hard to fix any of those recordings as the “best” or the most authoritative. To adequately listen to “Karawane,” I argued last year, we would need to listen to all the versions of the poem that circulate on the web at once.

While I’ve so far developed only a basic familiarity with the sound-analysis tools of HiPSTAS, I’ve begun to think that they might let us do so. If I’m right, I think that these tools give us access to a new model of poetic sound that would be hard to use in any practical sense before digital tools: the sound of a poem as the sum total of performances of that poem, listened to all at once.

Now, as I began to prepare for the HiPSTAS meeting this week, I thought this might only be a theoretical assertion, but I’ve begun to think that the HiPSTAS tools might make such an aggregate version of poetic sound a practical object of study. I’d considered the idea (and am still considering the idea) of starting a large archive of amateur readings of poetry. Then, I realized that some of what I was looking for can be found over at Librivox, the site devoted to producing audiobooks recorded by volunteers for public-domain distribution on the web. Librivox has (had?) a weekly poetry project in which volunteers record a series of versions of a poem. And while “Karawane” would be too obscure for such a project, another key poem featuring nonsense language has been recorded by the project. So Librivox features fully 34 volunteer, public-domain readings of “Jabberwocky,” that most famous nonsense poem.

I’ve been trying to think of ways to listen to all these versions of “Jabberwocky,” or at least some portion of them, all at once. In doing so, I’ve taken some cues from Lev Manovich’s efforts to read massive corpora of images. Manovich, for example, arrays thousands of covers of Time magazine in an impressive visualization that he draws on to make claims about the history of Time magazine, magazine design, etc. Simply laying 34 recordings of “Jabberwocky” end-to-end might not be especially illuminating—we’d simply here the poem over and over again in sequence. But isolating specific parts of the poem and laying those end to end might be more interesting. Here, for example, is an aggregate version of the phrase “mome raths,” as read by 34 Librivox volunteers:


And here is the same set of sounds, but pronounced all at once in a symphony of verbalized mome rath:


These files, which I made using the open-source audio-editing software Audacity, probably don’t offer much new insight into the nature of the nonsense words mome rath. But put together, I do think they offer a interestingly realized version of what mome rath sounds like. Together, these 34 different voices saying mome rath don’t become the “authoritative” version of what mome rath sounds like—there have been, and will be, many other voicings of the term. I’m enticed, however, by the possibility of putting together so many different versions of poetic phrases, lines, etc. and figuring out how those aggregate versions of poetic sound might help us think of prosody and performance differently.

If I’m understanding their capabilities correctly, the HiPSTAS’s ARLO tool might help us put into analytical use the kind of model of poetic sound I’ve proposed here. Over the last week, I’ve uploaded Librivox’s 34 amateur, public-domain readings of “Jabberwocky” into ARLO and begun tagging select terms—”brillig,” “borogoves,” and “mome raths” so far—in each of these versions. Here’s what tagging looks like in the ARLO interface, in a few different readings of “Jabberwocky”:

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 11.08.05 PM Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 11.06.58 PM Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 11.06.08 PM

Once I’ve tagged a bunch of instances of “mome raths,” my plan is to ask ARLO to search for other sounds, probably in the Pennsound archive, that look like these various versions of “mome raths.”

“Jabberwocky” has always been recognizably English, even though its first and last stanza are not written using English words that existed before. My hope is that, if I ask ARLO to find words that look like “mome rath,” we can better understand the relationship between putative nonsense and ordinary poetic language.

This “Jabberwocky” experiment will be the first I undertake in the months ahead as I begin to use ARLO to test the viability of a model of poetic sound based in aggregate amateur poetic performance. My hope is that ARLO will reveal such an aggregate model as a useful way to think through the sound of poetry as it occurs in the context of ordinary readers, not just in the rarefied context of an author’s official poetry reading.

Pecha-kuchas in the writing (and maybe literature) classroom

This fall, in the midst of an ordinary writing-classroom presentation assignment, I gave my students the option of giving pecha-kucha presentations. The presentations were so successful that in my Spring courses, I asked all students to do p-k, and the results were again so excellent, even from some of my weakest students, that I expect I’ll be trying to incorporate a p-k assignment into most of my syllabi in the future.

My p-k assignment was inspired by a Profhacker post by Jason B. Jones, a blog post by Mark Sample, and an example p-k by Daniel Pink, The basic idea of a pecha-kucha is simple. Students make a Powerpoint made up of 20 image-heavy slides that display for 20 seconds each. As the slides display for 6 minutes and 40 seconds, the students make an argument that relates clearly to the visual content of the slides throughout.

If students follow them faithfully, the constraints of p-k solve some common problems I’ve encountered with student presentations:

  • Presentations that are too short that undercut assignment requirements and have too little content
  • Presentations that ramble on far too long, take up too much class time, bore students (and the instructor), and simply rehash an argument over and over
  • Powerpoint slides or videos disconnected from the content of a student’s oral presentation
  • Flashy, empty presentations full of Powerpoint transitions or Prezi whiz-bang zooming animation
  • A series of repetitive images all collected on a single slide
  • Students staring at the screen and reading off it instead of engaging the class
  • Repetitive introductions featuring stock questions (“Have you ever thought about the dangers of smoking?”)
  • Long, boring lists of bullet points (irony noted) that simply repeat visually what a student is saying verbally
  • Students getting bogged down in detail and missing the core components of an argument (which, in my writing classes, is the entire point of the course).

Now, Sample has noted that the 20 x 20 format of a p-k presentation does not ensure that students actually use their slides wisely. (He imposes the additional constraint of the 1/1/5 rule–students must have at least one image per slide, each individual image may be used only once, and each slide can contain 5 words maximum). I haven’t yet felt the need to impose such rules, though, because my students embraced the image-heavy, word-light, argument-heavy spirit of p-k so immediately.

In the Fall, my students produced excellent presentations in my course, themed “Giving and Taking Offense.” Topics included the question of when it’s “too soon” to joke about a tragedy, with special reference to 9/11; a comparison of controversial representations of Mohammad by South Park and Danish cartoonists; and the perceived offensiveness of Greek Life on University campuses. A few of these presentations truly represented the best student work I’ve seen as a teacher, and I was sad that I didn’t have a digital copy of them to show students in the future.  And one of my colleagues noted that it’s hard to find solid examples of student p-ks on the web.

So this semester, I gave students the option of recording their p-ks and giving me permission to post them for a small amount of extra credit, and many obliged. One student recorded a p-k from the fall, on the choices companies face when taking on controversial topics with potential to offend in their advertising:

Most of my students, however, recorded their p-ks from this semester, in which my course theme was “College Culture.” Students took on a wide range of topics, and they again produced a strong batch of presentations, covering topics from University admissions practices, to the dual life of a student athlete, to the consequences of UVA students’ obsession with Thomas Jefferson. One student considered the problem of how art students can learn to depart from the styles of their instructors:

The p-k assignment also encouraged some students to experiment a bit. I appreciated, for example, the way this student took a playful approach that still made a clear argument by arguing for a restaurant as a microcosm of UVA life:

I’m consistently impressed with how well suited pecha-kucha can be to a wide variety of topics, including many which don’t initially seem to lend themselves to visuals. Students find inventive ways to use the visuals to illustrate, exemplify, and amplify their points.

Other presentations for which students supplied recordings addressed the drinking age, the problems of UVA’s honor system and its “single sanction.” Several student presentations addressed hazing and Greek Life, including this one. Students also talked about accuracy of admissions visits, the traditions of “streaking the lawn” and “guys in ties, girls in pearls” at football games. One student’s skeptical assessment of UVA’s Thomas-Jefferson obsession found its answer in another student’s praise of the continuing Jeffersonian legacy, and another student argued that UVA should do more to memorialize the contributions of enslaved people in the University’s past. While not every presentation is mind-blowing all of them are, in their own way, successful.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the student work that emerges from these presentations strikes me as so good. Some part of it may be that the time constraint means students must spend a fair bit of time prepping their presentations, or that the risk of public embarrassment encourages them to excel. As much of the credit, however, is due to the pecha-kucha format, which helps students who think visually express their points visually, segments an argument into 20 straightforward chunks (and thereby encourages clear claims and evidence), and gets students excited about sharing their arguments with classmates. Whatever the reason for my students’ success with these presentations, the success has been widespread enough that I’m hoping to have students do these presentations in semesters ahead.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I also hope to explore how p-k could work in the literature classroom. I suspect, for example, that using pecha-kucha could help students make energetic but thoughtful close-readings of poetry. I think pecha-kucha would be a great way to have students introduce new authors and new concepts at the beginning of class (after I do the same a few times to give them a clear sense of how it works). Translating P-K to the literature classroom might well be a failed experiment, but if my student’s experience with p-k this year is any indication, I doubt it.

Two Works by Ara Shirinyan

I’m in the midst of finishing up an article on Ara Shirinyan’s Your Country is Great. It’s my favorite recent work of conceptual writing. It’s an absolute delight to read, and for me, it brings together a number of the strains of literary criticism I’ve been most interested in lately—transnational poetics, uncreative writing, digital culture, and theories of laughter. Shirinyan’s method is simple: he goes through an alphabetic list of countries, Googles instances of the phrase “[country] is great,” and makes poems from the results. I paid homage to the book in an earlier post, but here’s a sample of Shirinyan’s “FRANCE IS GREAT”:

Air France is Great!

France is Great
and the rest of the World is Rubbish

Why France is great.

Why France is great.

France is Great
and the rest of the World Stinks

France is Great
and the rest of the World Sucks (105)

It’s a work that’s been really energizing to write about, and I’m excited about the article.

I recently came across another work of Shirinyan’s that uses found text at Ubu. The book is called Speech Genres 1-2, but I’m particularly interested in the first section, “All the Jarrys.” It’s a book indebted to Alfred Jarry, but its debts are literally on the surface level. The “Jarrys” referenced in the title do not refer to the content of specific works, but to the material books in which those works live, presumably as reported on a used-book shopping site. For example:

in French. Book is in
very good condition. Standard used
condition. This softcover is in

good condition no rips or
markings or stains. mass market
paperback – in french – has remainer

mark on bottom edge but
looks near new otherwise —This

is a description of the
exact book we are selling. (7)

Much like Your Country is Great proves readable, even delightful, despite its repetition, something about Shirinyan’s lineation here makes “All the Jarrys” much more than a straightforward report on the material condition of the book objects it describes.

Teaching with Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word

Ascent of the A-Word Cover

In my writing class last week, students read a section from Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, which came out just in time to be included on the syllabus. In an earlier themed writing class on Comedy and Culture, my students had been interested in discussions of humor and bad language (George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television works well as a text for that discussion), a conversation distinct in some ways from our discussions of slurs, offensive gendered language, etc.

Ascent of the A-Word gives students a language with which to discuss some of their intuitions about swear words/curse words/vulgarities/obscenities. I like it a lot as a teaching text, both because it models the style of academic argument we teach at UVA well and because it introduces students to a surprisingly wide variety of linguistic and cultural concepts through an exploration of a word most students would knee-jerkingly assume is merely “dirty.”

Notably, Nunberg’s book avoids the word asshole in its title—“A-Word” and “assholism” are deemed acceptable for bookstore shelves, apparently (although the choice is more complicated, as Nunberg explains in a Fresh Air interview). I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of the book, and I assigned my students a section from the second chapter, “The Uses of Vulgarity.”

Some of the “big ideas” that Nunberg’s book introduced my students to through its exploration of one “bad” word:

  • Language is not fixed, but changes over time: Nunberg’s book offered occasion for me to pull up the OED on the screen in our classroom. Students shared their childhood experiences of looking up dirty words in the dictionary as children, and they marveled at the vast amounts of information contained in the OED. They were astounded when I told them how long it took to make the first edition. Of course, looking up bad words in the dictionary isn’t the most sophisticated form of scholarship—but it did foster the students’ awareness of a really remarkable reference work that’s available to them. And they were truly fascinated by the idea that certain bad words have been around for a really, really long time (but not, of course, asshole, which Nunberg mostly dates to World War II).
  • Denotation alone does not constitute the meaning of language: Nunberg speaks eloquently of the ways in which the connotations and force of a word impact its meaning. Nunberg elegantly shows how a word like asshole can carry a similar denotative meaning to words like lout, bastard, and jerk but have its own distinctive meanings.
  • The words that name concepts can also create and/or shape those concepts: One section in Nunberg, “How to Do Things With Bad Words,” refers to J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words and its understanding of the performative utterance. In the context of Nunberg, this means that the concept of “assholism” couldn’t exist quite in the way it does until after the word asshole had become commonplace.
  • We take complicated cultural assumptions  for granted when we use language: Here, I mostly mean that Nunberg does a great job of showing and describing how we can instinctively identify situations in which asshole would do better than any other alternative, even if we can’t quite describe why. One example is that someone who cheats on a test, exam, or paper isn’t by nature an “asshole,” but someone who cheats on a spouse or partner is. Students liked thinking about the built-in instincts they possessed about the applicability of certain curse words to certain people and situations.

It’s a good book, and it has more interesting things to say about language than its ostensibly degraded topic might suggest. And the book proved useful for introducing some first-year students to a casual awareness of some big ideas about language in a way that struck them as intuitively fun and interesting.

DigiWriMo Scorecard: this post, 684 words; month-to-date 7,100.

Flawed Problem Statements

The theme for my writing classes this semester is “Giving and Taking Offense.” Students have written on a variety of interesting topics of their choosing, including the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake “nipplegate” scandal, Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments, the value of violence in video games, and the uproar over offensive Facebook groups. For the most part, I’ve convinced students to avoid claims that say “X is/is not offensive.” The go-to student impulse has been “X should/should not be banned,” a tangible claim that is pretty flawed but can be pushed toward a more productive place.

One of my favorite teaching strategies, simple though it may be, is to show students two examples of writing side by side and to pick the ones they think would yield a stronger paper. A goofus and gallant approach to writing pedagogy, I guess, but one that seems to yield good results. At the beginning of the semester, when our focus is on main claims, I distribute a list of claims and ask students to rank them in a classic exercise of the writing program at UVA. Students might not always be able to say what they like most about the claims they choose, but their intuitions about what works and what doesn’t are usually pretty dependable.

One of my favorite exercises of the semester, though, involves asking students to write better versions of flawed problem statements. A problem statement is just what it sounds like: a way to convincingly state a problem and a preliminary solution. In UVA’s writing program, we usually teach these in the context of paper introductions, but they show up all over good writing.

The basic parts of a conceptual problem statement are:

  • status quo that states some belief held by the reader, society, or some specific target;
  • destabilizing condition that addresses some aspect of the status quo that is incomplete, flawed, or incorrect;
  • Costs and consequences that state what we lose by not thinking about the destabilizing condition—further questions that addressing the problem can answer, things that doing so can help us understand, and eventually, perhaps, tangible outcomes that the conceptual outcomes might help us achieve;
  • and a solution or promise of a solution that can help address the problem brought up in the destabilizing condition and consequences. In the context of a student introduction, this solution usually becomes the paper’s main claim.

Here’s an example of a solidly formed problem statement, my paraphrase of the problem statement of a Slate article about Sacha Baron Cohen by Christopher Hitchens:

Defenders of Sacha Baron Cohen praise his humor for its ability to bring out the worst in people. When Cohen’s Borat character was able to get an audience from the American southwest to sing along with a song containing the lyrics, “Throw the Jew down the well,” for example, people thought Cohen was exposing a latent anti-semitism in that audience. These defenders, however, ignore many of the ways Cohen gets people to do and say offensive things. His targets want to be nice to a confused foreigner more than they want to attack Jews. Defenders of Cohen misunderstand what his humor actually shows: not that Americans are reprehensible bigots, but that Americans are polite to a fault.

I show my students solid problem statements, but I also show them problem statements that I view as flawed. I enjoy writing these, because they let me both channel the problems I’ve already seen in students’ writing and to try to channel the voices of students. In class, I have them break up into groups. I assign each group a problem statement or two to work on. They diagnose the problem with the problem statement in their own terms, then try to write a better one. The flawed problem statements we’ll be working with in class today:

  1. Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” character seems offensive. But Borat also shows stereotypes. The Borat character is useful and good. People should respect Cohen for what he has done with the Borat character.
  2. In “Cartoon Wars Parts 1 and 2,” South Park makes fun of Family Guy’s comedy, asserting that the show uses random combinations of pop-cultural references to make jokes that do not fit with the show’s meager plots. Family Guy’s humor, while it does follow some of the conventions South Park describes, actually works in the context of that show and helps develop its characters. If people believe South Park’s mockery, they will miss the opportunity to watch Family Guy, and Family Guy will almost certainly be taken off the air. South Park’s creators should offer a public apology and publicly repudiate their over-hasty dismissal of Family Guy’s quality.
  3. Free speech is something we all live with. But free speech can be offensive. People get hurt by offensive language. We should keep free speech but ban truly offensive speech.
  4. People say Family Guy is just stupid humor, but I really love Family Guy. I love the stupid humor, and I think it’s really funny. If people don’t like Family Guy, they’ll miss an opportunity to watch a really awesome show. These people should watch Family Guy because it’s really funny.
  5. Lots of people say that hip-hop music is offensive. But you know what’s actually offensive? Those people! They keep attacking music they don’t listen to, and they’re probably racist. I think they should just shut up and listen to their own stupid music. They’re wrong, and they just don’t get it. They should pay more attention and listen to hip hop music because it’s good.
  6. In “Gay Witch Hunt,” an episode of The Office, Michael learns that his underling Oscar is gay and ends up telling everyone in the office. Michael thinks he is doing Oscar a service, but when Oscar finds out everyone knows he is gay, he is very angry. He thinks that his right to privacy has been violated and that his personal life is none of his coworkers’ business. Michael calls a meeting of the entire office staff, but his attempt at understanding only exacerbates the problem. The episode is hilarious but sad.
  7. Almost everybody believes that all offensive music should be banned. But lots of people like offensive music, and offensive music has value. Clearly people are getting something out of offensive music. Offensive music should not be banned at all.
  8. People say the N-word is bad, but then it’s all over the place in hip-hop music and popular culture. Since it’s around so much, how bad can it really be? Nobody really gets hurt by the N-word. People should just chill out and not worry so much about language, in particular about the N-word.

Some of these statements take problems I’ve seen in student papers to an extreme—I’ve rarely seen a problem statement as grouchy and dismissive as number 5. But these flawed statements do a good job of capturing at least some of the ways problem statements go wrong. Some are vague or wishy-washy. Some are not specific enough. Some present a problem that doesn’t actually get addressed in the claim. Some simply repeat the same claim over and over. Some simply summarize a work of art. And some simply reverse the status quo unthoughtfully.

It’s not the most radical form of pedagogy, but once students have diagnosed the problems in these problem statements, they have a language with which to diagnose the flaws of their own problem statements and those of their classmates. At the end of class, we’ll workshop the problem statements for their next paper—and hopefully the students will be better equipped to do so once they’ve thought hard about these sometimes more obviously flawed ones.

DigiWriMo scorecard: this post 1,273 words; month-to-date 6,417.

“Nonsense Language”

The first of the major types of nonsense that are important to my work is nonsense language, by which I mean instances of language in which an authors or speakers have radically reshaped the structure of their language in such a way that they have defeated forms of reading that depend on normative visions of the sense-making process—or in which readers or listeners rightly or wrongly perceive them to have done so.

My recently finished dissertation and the book project I’m currently developing focus on both poetics and perceptions of nonsense. A poetics of nonsense puts the onus of nonsense-making on authors and speakers. When the focus shifts to perceptions, however, readers and listeners get to decide what counts as nonsense.

Nonsense language, then, involves shifty interactions of intention and reception. It’s possible for an author to intend sense but for her work to be received as nonsense. It’s possible for an author to intend nonsense but for readers to make unexpected sense of his work. It’s possible for an author to make sense in a relatively ordinary matter but for readers to dismiss that work as nonsense, either because of misunderstanding or because of malice. It’s also possible, of course, for authors and readers to be on the same page about the sense/nonsense dynamics of a work.

Different combinations of intention and reception yield a number of discernible types of nonsense language (these mix together to a certain extent, so this should be understood as spectrum more than a series of demarcated categories).

Intended as sense-making, but received as nonsense

The scenario here, then, is that someone speaks or writes with the intention of conveying straightforward meaning, but the reader or listener does not understand it and therefore assumes that it does not actually mean anything.

This type of nonsense is important to my project because it characterizes the experience of much of the public during modernism. Difficult works that under closer scrutiny reveal deeper meanings were widely rejected as nonsense by a public that was either too close-minded or too lazy to pursue their meanings. This has been the scholarly characterization of most assertions of “nonsense!” during modernism. For some in the public, it clearly holds. The public experience of modernism was not nearly so monolithic, however, and a closer look at many of the rejections of modernism as nonsense actually reveals a surprising engagement with and interest in the new art and literature. So to a degree, the understanding of the public charge of “nonsense!” as straightforward rejection of the sense-making is one that my project seeks to complicate.

One can think of other clear examples of putatively sense-making language received as nonsense. To many in the public, academic language in particular has a way of sounding like nonsense—deficits in knowledge and terminology mean between academics and laypeople mean that the academic’s language will never make sense to many readers.

A complicated case of sense-making language being received as nonsense occurs in encounters with speakers of other languages. When a person who speaks only English has a chance encounter with someone who speaks a different language, the two are likely to make attempts to communicate, but both share an awareness that many of the linguistic tools available to them will fail to convey meaning and be perceived as nonsense.

A potentially more malicious version of this misunderstanding of the languages of others occurs when the speaker of one language refuses an effort to make mutual sense with the other speaker. By closing off any attempt at linguistic connection, that listener hears the speaker’s language as nonsense in a way that demeans the other person and the other person’s language. That is, the listener assumes that the other speaker’s language is inferior to the listener’s own and thereby dismisses the speaker as someone unworthy of communication.

One of the bases for nonsense literature, I would argue, lies in imagined experiences of the languages of others—in a way that lies somewhere between earnest attempt at connection and malicious refusal of communication. More to say on that front when I get to nonsense literature. For now, suffice it to say that this kind of nonsense language forms the basis of the type of nonsense literature I would describe as an “utterance willfully misheard” in a revision of John Stuart Mill’s classic gloss of lyric poetry as “an utterance overheard.”

Intended as nonsense, but received as sense-making

Here I’m verging into controversial territory. How can any language, especially any language presented as literature, be intended as nonsense? If nothing else, such language is presented with the intention to produce literature—so it is not really altogether devoid of meaning, even if that meaning comes from somewhere other than straightforward denotation.

When we need to look somewhere other than denotation for meaning, however, an author has presented us with a piece of writing far radically far removed from ordinary language. While many would argue that “nonsense” itself cannot exist because meaning accrues to a piece of writing in different contexts (and especially as an effect of the act of reading), here it’s useful to imagine a spectrum from the most transparent forms of language, those most full of clear sense to those closest to nonsense.

Considering such a spectrum, we might start by considering the word “STOP” printed in the middle of a red octagon and planted on a sign 6–8 ft. high at an intersection. As soon as we see the word, we know clearly what the government that posted the sign wants us to do: to stop.

We’d encounter a lot of language that looks more like the stop sign before we even come close to overtly literary language that seems full of straightforward denotative sense. The menus we order from in restaurants, for example, the instructions on a prescription, or a jury summons. Soon, we’d get into the slightly trickier territory of legal language. The goal of legal language is often to be as clear as possible. As the vast system of courts, lawyers, and laws to resolve disputes over the meaning of such language indicates, however, legal language is rarely so imbued with clear sense as many imagine it to be. The point is, though, that we’d probably move pretty far down the spectrum from “straightforward sense language” to nonsense language before we get to any language that would deign to call itself literary.

Even once we get into the territory of literary language, many literary examples are clearly closer to straightforward sense than to nonsense. Though it points to all kinds of stuff that’s not on the page, Ernest Hemingway’s relatively unadorned prose should be mentioned here, as should the prose in many popular novels. In poetry, we might point to the efforts of the Imagists to produce a purer language that more closely resembles the ideas it seeks to convey. One writer I’ve spent significant time considering, Laura (Riding) Jackson, also deserves mention here. I’d argue pretty emphatically that I don’t think she succeeds in doing so, but she devoted most of her career to trying to find a language that more exactly means what it says. Especially after she gave up the project of poetry altogether and devoted her efforts to works like The Telling and A Dictionary of Rational Language, Riding seeks a language that defies post-Saussurean assumptions about the arbitrariness of the signifier. She holds to the idea (generally dismissed in literary studies) that there really is a right word to represent the right idea, that is.

As we progress to the other end of this spectrum, however, we’ll begin to encounter authors who demand significantly different forms of sense-making from their readers. In my modernist context, we can start with the kinds of modernists whose work seems to demand a comprehensive reference guide for successful reading. The Ezra Pound of The Cantos, for example, for example, juxtaposes cultural references that seem detached from each other and asks readers to fill in the connective gaps. Yet his work still retains clear, traceable reference to meanings from the world around it. The case of the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake is similar—the reader can build up an involved mythology of what is “actually going on” at any given point in the Wake, and she can track down the various allusions Joyce makes throughout. But it’s hard to say that such research actually gets us much closer to what Joyce “meant” in the language of the Wake.

Farther along, we’ll find authors so close to the nonsense end of the spectrum that I think it’s only critically honest to describe much of their work as “nonsense.” It’s this category of poets working close the nonsense end of the spectrum to which I refer when I call their language “intended as nonsense.” To be clear, as throughout, I do not intend to dismiss such authors by calling their language nonsense—only to properly characterize their writing as nonsense, a category of writing I find both interesting and valuable.

The Edith Sitwell of Façade, for example, retains some of the kinds of reference that Joyce and Pound do, but I would argue that she takes things further: her emphasis falls more heavily on the non-semantic sounds and shapes of words than it does on the meanings that words represent. This passage  from “Sir Beelzebub” is an example:

Beelzebub called for his syllabub in the hotel in Hell
Where Proserpine first fell,
Blue as the gendarmerie were the waves of the sea,
(Rocking and shocking the barmaid).

Nobody comes to give him his rum but the
Rim of the sky hippopotamus-glum
Enhances the chances to bless with a benison
Alfred Lord Tennyson crossing the bar laid
With cold vegetation from pale deputations
Of temperance workers (all signed In Memoriam)
Hoping with glory to trip up the Laureate’s feet,
(Moving in classical metres) …

The experimental work of Gertrude Stein falls squarely within my category of “intended as nonsense.” I tend to believe that readings that “decode” Tender Buttons, as an influential reading by Lisa Ruddick does, are basically incorrect.

Avant-garde poetry, of course, sometimes takes things even further than Stein did. The Zaum poets of Russian futurism, like Stein, might focus on repetition of a word, but their poems tended to avoid even the structures of grammar with which Stein so often plays. Dada sound poetry—Hugo Ball’s is the most prominent example (see an earlier post)—explicitly tries to use no word that has ever been used before (and thereby seeks to find a newly politicized pure language). Further down the spectrum is poetry that avoids the very appearance of words. When poetry begins to take place as non-verbal images, as concrete poetry does, or when it uses recorded, non-verbal sounds, as the sound poetry of Kurt Schwitters often does, we’ve gotten as far down the spectrum of sense and nonsense from the clearly denotative “STOP” sign (whose consistent visual framing begins to circle back around to concrete poetry) as I’m interested in exploring.

So, when I say “nonsense language,” it’s not to dismiss such authors as purely non-meaning or insignificant, but rather to acknowledge their distance from the transparent, sense-making end of the spectrum and their closeness to the messier nonsense-making end of the spectrum that might be represented by total gibberish.

How do we read such language?

First, we acknowledge that the reader’s subjective experience of such language can matter as much as its objective meaning. That is, readers make meaning even when meaning doesn’t seem to be there. Stein describes this scenario: “I made innumerable effort to make words write without sense and I found it impossible. Any human being putting down words had to make sense out of them” (Transatlantic Interview 18). Pablo Picasso makes a similar observation about non-representational painting: “We can write and paint anything—n’importe quoi—as there will always be somebody who will understand it… Somebody will always get it.”

In a great article called “Reading Nonsense: The Experience of Contemporary Poetry,” Leonard Diepeveen breaks down the reader’s process of meaning-making upon an encounter with nonsense along these lines. According to cognitive theory, Diepeveen argues, “The reader perceives the text, and tests it against a structure in the mind” (28). Because reading “is an active form of problem solving” (31), readers do their damnedest to make meaning from even the most seemingly incomprehensible texts: “rather than feeling liberated by pure nonsense, the human mind tends to try to limit its effects. With its purposeful seeking, the human mind ensures that nonsense always borders on sense” (31–32). Therefore, “There is no pure nonsense; there are only tendencies to nonsense. The history of nonsense, of removing sense, is always a history of failure” (35).

Diepeveen’s description of this reading scenario is spot on, and a similar idea has been used effectively by Steve McCaffery to describe the impact of Hugo Ball’s sound poetry. But I’d add a twist, too. The reader in such a scenario closely resembles the ideal reader the New Critics imagined as part of their imagination of the reading act—that is, the ideal reader of modernist work is patient, careful, learned, and diligent. But many of the readers of nonsense language over the years bear little resemblance to that ideal reader. So their experience of nonsense language is characterized as much by discomfited, disoriented, or laughing affective response as it is by care and diligence. So whatever meaning they draw from such texts is impacted by the material contexts of those texts to an even greater degree than most critics have supposed. In the context of my dissertation, then, the nonsense language of Gertrude Stein is heavily affected by the book object of Tender Buttons (and the cultural scene surrounding Stein). The audience’s interpretation of Hugo Ball’s sound poetry is affected significantly by the outlandish costumes he wore at the Cabaret Voltaire as he performed them. The reader’s interpretation of a book on Bob Brown’s machine is even more straightforwardly affected by the machine on which that reader reads (and which can be said to be performing a technological deformance-into-nonsense of that text). So I try to bring the context of the reading experience and the peripheral emotions of that experience into the picture of reading nonsense language.

So in the category of language intended as nonsense but perceived as sense-making, I offer three key points:

  1. Literary language sometimes comes close enough to nonsense that it’s useful to think of it as nonsense.
  2. When confronted with such language, readers strive to create meaning even when no meaning presents itself easily.
  3. The reader’s meaning-making is affected significantly by the material contexts in which that meaning-making occurs and by the reader’s (irrational) emotions during the reading act.

Sense-making, in a sense, but intended to be received as nonsense

Consider the example of Wallace Stevens’s “Bantams in Pine-Woods”:

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,

Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.

A first reading of this poem suggests a kind of nonsense—the reader’s attention is drawn as much to the sounds of these words as to a scene the words represent. But the language parses. The words have definitions. In the end, this is an inter-chicken conversation, and it can be read as such. Indeed, in a memorable essay Rachel Blau Duplessis puts the poem in context and reads it convincingly as Stevens’s response to a blackface performance of Vachel Lindsay’s Congo—the pieces fit, and Duplessis has convinced me that the chicken-conversation refers directly to Stevens’s real-world experience of Vachel Lindsay’s poetry.

But how can we not call this poem nonsense? The point here is that our academic readings of such a poem are useful and illuminating. But they shouldn’t foreclose our ability to revisit a more naive experience of the poem, which arguably is the experience the vast majority of readers will have with it (and arguably the experience Stevens imagined for the vast majority of his readers). Such a poem, then, “makes sense”—but it also seems intended to make nonsense, to emphasize the non-semantic sounds and shapes of the poem’s words as much as its signified meanings.

That naive experience of the disorienting sounds and shapes of words defamiliarized by poetry is something that I think academic critics should strive to recover—because language can make sense, but it also carries the weight of less definable versions of sense that aren’t explainable in other words, that are, in a sense, nonsense.

So that’s my long summary of what I mean by nonsense language. I could go on, considering, for example, explanations for nonsense language in culture—glossolalia, play, literary intention, etc. But this is already a really long post.

I think three key points distinguish my approach to nonsense language from those that have come before.

First, I think we can think of nonsense language as something that operates differently from literary language considered more generally, even if there is no such thing as pure nonsense. The group of authors that fall toward the nonsense end of the spectrum require different forms of reading.

Second, it’s useful to think of nonsense not just in terms of poetics but also in terms of perceptions. That is, any useful version of nonsense language needs to consider it as form in conversation with authors and readers, not as form alone.

Finally, I think we should strive to keep nonsense nonsense. That is, even when we read carefully and fill in all the blanks of allusion, reference, etc. in the fabric of a literary work, we should recover a more naive, more emotional response to language that at first doesn’t seem to mean.

Coming soon: glossary entries on nonsense literature, logical nonsense, and ridiculing nonsense.

DigiWriMo scorecard: this post 3,001 words; month-to-date 5,144. Clearly not going to be close to 50,000 words, but inspired to keep writing nonetheless.


Nonsense is a key term in my research, and I’ll soon be devoting individual posts to four sub-categories that I see as crucial to literary modernism:

  • Nonsense language: What it sounds like. First, made-up words that lack specific meaning. Just before I was learning to read as a kid, I remember going about spelling backwards—that is, for example, asking which word “yvqeimz” spelled. So I had a basic misunderstanding of language that yielded nonsensical results. Nonsense language is less often a signal of a misunderstanding of the way language works, though, than of an intentional reversal of language for aesthetic purposes. Hugo Ball’s sound poems are a good example, and so, I would argue, is Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.
  • Nonsense literature: A willfully silly literary tradition (which sometimes makes use of nonsense language), generally centered on the work of the Victorian writers Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Lear’s nonsense tends more toward the absurd and preposterous, whereas Carroll’s tends to humorously reverse normative logic.
  • Logical/philosophical nonsense: That is, a willful, often playful and comic, breakage of logic. The category of nonsense that figures into my work the least (I’ll take a stab at elaborating it more soon), though it plays a prominent role in work on nonsense by scholars including Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Gilles Deleuze, and Michael Lemahieu.
  • Nonsense!: That is, a perceiver’s often visceral response that some statement or work of literature either doesn’t make sense, can’t possibly be serious, or must represent a lie.

An emphasis on this fourth category of nonsense—that is, “nonsense!”—is one of the primary ways I distinguish my approach to nonsense from critical studies of nonsense that have come before. In the days ahead, I’ll offer more extended commentary on each of these types of nonsense, which should offer a clearer sense of how each of them plays into my work. Once we get to “nonsense!,” I’ll explain more thoroughly why I see it as the category that explicitly or implicitly hangs over all the others.

DigiWriMo scorecard: this post 331 words; month-to-date 2,143

Documenting digital pedagogy and research about modernism, conceptualism, nonsense, seriousness, poetry, and digital culture