Day 2000 - Intellectual Exchange from the Almost Reader

On this day, a long post.

Encouraged by my friend Fadi Abou-Rihan I lightly edited a series of emails with a view of making them available to a wider audience. Here then are the fruits of that effort

September 15, 2003

Dear Linda,

What a delightful postmodern question! Indeed, where am I? Nearly a decade past defending the thesis.

Curious as to what might have prompted the interpellation :)

Very much a para-academic. I contribute from time to time to Humanist, the discussion list moderated by Willard McCarty and devoted to Humanities Computing as well as to the Text Encoding Initiative discussion list.

I've participated (writing a "paper" and facilitating a discussion) in a number of online conferences about online teaching (an area of expertise that grew out of the work I did for the School of Continuing Studies.)

Lately, inspired by a question posed to Thomas Pavel I've rambled through theory with a piece about Lubomír Doložel's presentation of possible worlds and fiction

In short, I manage to write and find a bit of an audience.

Still a bit surprised that you wrote. And not sure if a mention of house, garden and work in the civil service would be more of an answer.


September 18, 2003

Dear Linda,

I'm currently working in the Policy Branch at the Ministry of the Attorney General. The position is scheduled to be surplussed so I'm conducting the ever-familiar job search. Likely to land somewhere within the Ontario Public Service.

I found myself musing over the last couple of days that it would be an interesting project to trace "students" and not just "grads". I can think of a few ABDs that contributed significantly to the student life of Comp Lit while I was there. Perhaps it is an inclusion possible for consideration in prospective tracking/tracing projects. It is a bit less of a challenge for educational institutions to begin thinking about themselves not just as degree/diploma granting bodies but also as facilitators. The academic is but one constellation in a galaxy of intellectual activities.

Others, such as Paul Goodman, have articulated a similar point. And still others are actively risking the extra-mural contact in their seminars and exploiting the fishbowl opportunities offered by new media technologies.

See for example this experiment from Pomona College: [digital decay – url now defunct; reviewing the archive at Planned Obsolescence leads us to believe that the referenced piece is is about incorporating blogging into a class tentatively titled “The Literary Machine”]

All praise to any institution that can tap into the goodwill of its ABDs. I know what tensions reside in that statement. But it’s a nice pivot from which to contemplate the place and pace of convocation and commencement, the role of gathering and scattering of the members of the corporation.

Thanks for your reply which has given me the chance to reflect upon that period where the pressure was on to finish in four years what a dozen would make better and that time where a few non-cynical but skeptical wags would venture to say "publish _and_ perish" and quickly add "but never cease writing". It is perhaps the most valuable experience that the interchange at Comp Lit in the early 90s gave me -- a deep and abiding appreciation for the time to think and that making time to think is akin to disciplined writing and all manner of record keeping. It's kept me in good stead.

Thanks for shaping that place and time which gave me so much.


September 18, 2006

Dear Linda,

My apologies if this subject line [Michael Lynch] came as a blow from the past. I did want it to stand out and catch your attention. The acknowledgements to Sarah Brophy's _Witnessing AIDS_ mentioned you and it led me to ponder.

I have my own selfish reasons for inquiring if you ever wrote an encomium for Michael Lynch and if so might I read it or some part of it? I am struggling with disclosing my own recent change in HIV status with some of my professional colleagues and friends in the civil service. I was wondering how two very articulate and sensitive individuals lived through that time in the early 90s. Not that I am looking for a model. I just want to a decade on to offer you a reader or listener because I vividly remember you walking away from the memorial service held in the old Euclid theatre wrapped in that inward looking look. Then was not the time to ask. Perhaps neither is now.

An interpellation ventured, is one less regret.

Thanks for already I have begun the telling in that most metadiscursive fashion with a story built on a narration that expresses the willingness to listen to a story -- and what more magical addressee for that than yourself.

I hope you are well and la rentrée is the delight it should be -- great students and revitalized colleagues.


October 22, 2006

Dear Linda,

Thank you for your message about Michael Lynch. Your pointing me to his writing (I recall the various pieces he wrote for The Body Politic and of course the one for _Profession_, the MLA publication) helped me recall a conversation. Michael, in those days of frantic grief and anger, where every step singular and collective was a struggle, gave to me in retrospect his blessing to stay in graduate school and continue with my research and studies. He quite gently but firmly evoked the unfinished task of organizing.

He said to me that it was important to graduate, there would always be time later to "activate". I remember fondly the Latinate form of the verb meaning not only to be an activist but also to be something like a Gramscian organic intellectual. My writing to you, my reading your response, helped me recall that conversation of a warm fall day somewhere along King’s College Road before the oaks were replanted --

Michael with that characteristic squint of concentration to make a point then relaxing into an invitation to contemplate the import of what he had said.

In the days after receiving your reply, I found myself thinking about issues of disclosure. So much of the activism of gay liberation and the organizing in response to the AIDS crisis was wrapped up in the tactics of silence breaking, telling stories, bringing to light, speaking out. The coming out questions are still there: who do you tell, how, why? But now in the 21st century, oddly and ironically, the very right to privacy can be enjoyed. I mean I am able to enjoy the work of education and advocacy. The supports are well in place and institutionalized. Such is the case, in the space of 20 years.

Today I was reading one of those marvelous essay-stories by Barry Lopez. The narrator-character references St. Ignatius to the effect that what one does on learning the end of the world is near is not to run to the confessional but to continue with one's activity, with what one is engaged in doing. I smiled.

A sero-conversion in 2006 is far from the end of the world. That said, I’m really only at the threshold of this set of personal experiences. Will the drugs work for me? Will I be able to manage the side effects?

Yesterday, we completed the fall planting of bulbs. This year we also put in a burning bush at the base of the smoke tree -- an elaborate horticultural joke. None of this is intended to have metaphoric import. It does and it doesn't. Gardening is so entwined with our quotidian since we purchased the property back in 2000, it is what we are engaged in doing.

And I write. It is what I am engaged in doing. Oblique interventions on discussion lists. Cross-pollinating comments on academic blogs. And my own short pieces published to the web. Continuing to be interstitial.

I had thought about keeping a journal. But there is other stuff to complete. And my writing is carried on in the space of an avocation -- after a day's work. Being sero-positive just might be the spur for me to take the rhetoric of multimedia that I have planned and sketched and, well, activate it.

Thank you thank you for bringing back to me the wonder of a time and place so important to who I am now and where I might yet be taken.


November 30, 2006

Dear Linda,

The moon waxes and wanes and almost a month has passed since my last not-a-stranger message.

During this particular lunar cycle, I spotted some of the promotional activity for your recent book on adaptation. And I noted that Robert McKee author of _Story_, was in town giving a two-day seminar on how to write for page, stage and screen. I didn't attend. It would have been fun to observe someone deliver a spiel when he is quoted as saying "that writing only for the Canadian audience is too limiting" in the same interview that he says he wasn't coming to teach Canadians how to make Hollywood films.

Your theme of the migration of stories and their retelling and resetting was on my mind when I read Jim Bartley's first novel, _Drina Bridge_. There is a character who "adapts" stories in the sense of producing alternate versions. There is in this novel a character engaged in writing a memoir about wartime experiences. A story will be related and a second and third version immediately succeeded in the narration.

The reader is situated as reading a typescript along with the narrator. The storyteller/writer is a 60-year old refugee raised in Bosnia and Serbia and through most of the novel an inmate in a Sarajevo hospital. The mise en scène results in an odd feeling of being at a remove from the situation of initial enunciation and yet occupying the specular position of the interpellated. And so when three distinct versions of a similar tale succeed each other there is more to the strategy than avoidance of traumatic memories. There is a point about the interchangeable roles in the atrocities. Yet the technique does not result in a simple set of aloof remarks about perpetuation and the repetition of history. It touches the line between adaptation and adoption. There is a passage that seems to both comment on the technique and set up the reader for revelations:
Chance divides the actual from the true. The actual might avoid the true -- for a time. But truth lurks eternal. It's always there, hovering closer to here.
And though it is not explicitly stated in the novel, it becomes evident that stories are bridges. Not only between the true of the there and the actual of the here.
What follows below is the first piece of sustained writing I've done, apart from the odd post to a discussion list or comment to a blog, since I learnt of my sero-conversion. It's influenced by our exchange and by my conversations with a colleague who is directing a student's research project on AIDS and grieving. I think I will now be able to integrate that bit about the actual and the true before uploading the piece to the WWW. Thank you for being an "interlunar" interlocutor. One of the reasons it has been difficult to renew my engagement with writing projects has been a shift in intended audience. When one is too much in touch with one's mortality the temptation is to slip into a mode of addressing posterity. I forgot that my best writing always has had contemporaries in mind. And so being at a keyboard typing and thinking is a much as part of staying healthy as compliance with anti-viral therapy which will begin in the second week of December for me when the results of a bunch of tests are back and the specialist has determined the best combination of drugs. In about a month my theme just might be "side-effects". Enough. I grow prolix. And I have to figure out how to integrate the actual-true theme in the following.
Jim Bartley's novel _Drina Bridge_ is set in the former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian-Serb war. Its narrator is a gay man who has lost a lover. There is an intriguing passage on the nature of grief. The passage in question is conveyed in the voice not of the narrator and certainly not that of the author. This particular view on grief comes from a character who is a writer and also male (but not "gay"):
Grief and language do not intersect. What we can express is sadness or distress or some form of the tragic, but those who have known grief will not find it on a page.
I found myself explicating the passage in a letter to a friend. I took a very Kantian approach to indicate that there is always a hiatus between the expression and the thing expressed. If grief cannot be expressed then neither can sadness nor distress nor even joy. Expressivity cannot be tied to intensity. For the slight stirrings of some emotion by being very minuscule challenges the adequacy of expression. However the non-coincidence of the expression and the expressed is not a failure. For such a _décalage_ opens the intersubjective space in which the listener or the reader can imaginatively project their experience. It is a space through which or into which experience moves. Of course it is not found on the page. The page is a portal.

And yet the page is a surface.

I also in an almost Stein-like moment reflected upon the difference between those who have known it and those that are knowing it. Those who are knowing it will find it anywhere if not everywhere. The past perfect tense that ascribes a pastness to the grief, locks it into a condition of having been known, offers an escape for the careful reader from the "we", the defeatist "we" that would reify the trauma and make it unreachable. It is a tactic that blocks lucid access to the power of the past.

It is quite telling that the next paragraph in the novel, a continuation of the passage quoted above invokes a salvation motif:
I have delayed redemption too long. Let there be a glimmer. There remains hope of an escape, of a new life.
In 1945 was born [...]
The reader forgives the delusions of the character, indeed by this point in the novel, the reader is well acquainted with the feints that help the discourse unroll and the stories come forth. There is no redemption. No escape. No new life. There are stories. Our narrator is an unbeliever and it is through the narrator that the somewhat backward confession of faith professed through the inadequacies of language comes to the reader. The story in its being told offers connections -- bridges -- and that is where hope lies. The redemption is in the delay.

The cost of mourning is not in the loss of stories about the dead. The cost of mourning is about the risk of connecting with the living. There is no guarantee that each interpellation will find acknowledgement.

There is a cruising aspect to the expression of grief. So many connections not made. And some very intense grief encounters that remain anonymous.

In some ways it is not about the process of mourning it is about the question of the place of intensity in one's living. And intensity well-managed requires an exquisite sensitivity to audience.

On the page. Around the page. Off the page.

December 30, 2006

Dear Linda,

I am grateful for your last message and in particular for the mention of my particular situation of enunciation for it got me to thinking of situations of enunciation in general.

Biography counts when it does. Its counting depends on more than knowing the facts. And if the term "situation of enunciation" can be read as a synecdoche for biography, it might explain, at least it explains for me, much of the fear (and sometimes loathing) that has greeted the discourse about the death of the author.

I arrive at this tenuous possibility by way of Barthes. Your mention of situation of enunciation put me in mind of his remarks about "fading". Even when reading an English translation there comes to me the French accent dwelling on the _ing_ sound, a sound of course foreign yet neighbouring. I think "fading" is at the heart of what the character in _Drina Bridge_ was expressing and offering up to resistance. I have been meaning to write something up under the working title _Incommensurabilities: of expression and experience_.

I think the impulse to cherish biography, as well as the exasperation with the inadequacies of being true to the intensities that traverse one's life, are related to the urge for continuous adaptation. Anyway by a circuitous route I plan to link some passages from Barthes to a meditation on a picture in Sausure's Cours.

My intent is to describe that at the very heart of the relation between matter and language is a human need to inscribe, nay incise, over and over again ... minutely and at every level to make the story stick.

Conversely we also revel in the unstickiness of stories. It is easier in this short space to convey the thought with an image: I will make marks in the sand knowing and expecting the wave and the wind to do their work.

I have benefited from this thinking about the paradoxical structural durability of stories and the ephemeral touches of narration. I've been tackling scenarios of disclosure. Not rehearsing. Just mulling.

Since beginning antiviral therapy, I've extended the repertoire of conversational gambits. I'm not limited to aping the Alcoholics Anonymous model and its for me bizarre ontological commitment (Hi I'm so-and-so and I'm [an example of]). It is far nicer to approach the disclosure through the punctual (I have tested positive; I have begun antiviral therapy) it leaves so much more room for a conversation and for absorbing the import of maintaining a distance -- not becoming overly identified with the disease and yet not slipping into easy denial.

One step to realizing this was timing the beginning of therapy with the resumption of the discipline of daily writing. Blogging offered just the right place to start. Almost as if it is the spiritual exercise of the 21st century, blogging is marked by a commitment to regular recording and reflection. But not a first person confessional! I maintain what amounts to an open commonplace book with glosses. No comments from readers (I don't want at the present to deal with the reactions of others). And nicely off to the side in a listing where one usually finds favourite movies or books is a wee bit of pharmaceutical discourse: the drugs I take on a daily basis. Those that know will know and those that are curious can find out. And as I write out this little ekphrasis of the layout, I have come to realize that I have a daily visual reminder of the importance of compliance with the regimen but more importantly a visual affirmation of a contract with myself to maintain perspective.

I recall some time ago at one point you had taken up the piano later in life. I don't know if you are still at it or interested in listening to a new piece you might wish to add to your repertoire. Nonetheless I will suggest the final piece in Clint Mansell's score to Darren Arnofsky's film _The Fountain_. There is a serenity to the composition that returns the listener to the mindfulness of practice. I have no idea what it would be like to play.


January 19, 2007

Dear Linda,

The ides have passed and my interlunar phasings are creeping more and more to month's end. Must be the influence of accounting in the air. Various modes of storytelling have been preoccupying me a wee bit lately. A few aphorisms crop up.

-- On the "split addressee" :
The practice of irony is like running with knives.
Non signal splitting safely involves a lot of care.

-- On "going meta" as per Jerome Bruner :
Involution is a necessary step on the way from self-referentiality to self-reflexivity and evolution.

-- From a letter to a friend in part about a piece by Adam Mars-Jones on the depiction of the disabled in film ("Cinematically Challenged" in _Blind Bitter Happiness_) i.e. me quoting myself :
"the gap between representation and reality -- the place where it is possible to imagine the possible. "

This is all connected in some fashion to the discussion we have been having about the incommensurability theme in the discourses on experience's relation to expression.

Hope all is well with you and that the students are receptive.


March 22, 2007

Dear Linda,

February passed by without my sending news. Not without thinking what I might say to you, faithful interlocutor. I've begun the task of sorting through papers and came across a clipping of a review by Michael Lynch and so noted it in the open commonplace book (blog) I keep. I quoted the salient part and gave the entry the rubric "Grappling"
In the middle, straddling two columns of text, the editors chose one key attention grabbing sentence from a review by Michael Lynch of the film Beautiful Dreamers. Now further in time from 17.04.90 its Globe and Mail appearance is a tribute to the author.
Audiences want to grapple with history, not be lulled by it.
"Putting Whitman back in the closet" is the title of the piece.
I've not had the energy for longer stints of writing. As I approach day 100 of religiously popping the antiviral pills there is some improvement in the CD4 count and still a way to go.


It was a treasure find to come across that clipping and a pleasure to report it to you.

I hope the end of term goes smoothly.


April 30, 2007

Dear Linda,

Very last day of the month: time to sneak in under the wire a report some disjecta and let you know that I have continued to meditate on the theme of experience and expression.

First, the hyacinth is blooming and the smell of the six or so plants in the garden is heady. It is a temporary phenomenon all the richer because of its transience.

Second, I found myself considering what I am inclined to call the forgetting of narration. I have observed in some examples of critical discourse that there is a tendency to speak in terms of many narrations and a single narrative. If a phenomenological perspective is introduced then narrative is not seen as a single and unique object of thought (or experience) but as the product of agreement between subjects. The diagram of a diegesis is no less a narration than the many words or images that also give access to similar constructions. It is by agreement that we produce the same story, an agreement renegotiated at every telling.

The same story is always a new agreement. Recall children wanting to hear a favourite story with all the noises and gestures that produce the sense of the familiar. It is a language trap to insist that what returns is the same. It is familiar.

No two cups of tea taste the same yet they are recognized as cups of tea and even tea of the same flavour (but with a wee difference in the intensity due to slight shifts in steeping time).

I have been propelled to this nominalist realization of the instability of any given entity called a "narrative" by recalling a question that Professor Fitch asked at my defense so very many years ago. His question was about Ingarden's notion of concretization. My answer then makes more sense now: a rereading produces a different concretization. Of course some readers would set concretization on the side of narration and a narrative on the side of some unchanging structure. But the structure itself is malleable; its stability, a function of our agreements.

In Saussure's Cours there is an illustration (referenced by Barthes in Elements of Semiology) where there are two flows and samplings from each. Below is a typographic transcription

===== < ============== > =====

.......... < …………………….. > ………….

The famous arbitrariness of the sign is a relation between samplings. The signified is as much an incision into a flow of matter (experience) as is the signifier. All this seems rather obvious to anyone that understands the semantic field to be dynamic. If the pair narration/narrative is isomorphic with the pair signifier/signified, the slippage that is perceived in experience/experience is built into how humans process the relations between language and reality.

And language is a part of reality.

Third of the disjecta, all these musings on the intersubjective nature of the stability of narrative as object of thought or experience came after a lecture by Martin Lefebvre to the Toronto Semiotic Circle where he quoted Peirce to the effect that "every fine argument is a poem or a symphony" and outlined a scheme where habit taking mediates between chance/origin and necessity/telos. This is getting long and convoluted. The following is very sketchy.

involution is not equivalent to self-reflexivity

involution produces a copy of the world in a given state that becomes the base state to compare subsequent states (This is similar to how a computer’s central processing unit keeps a copy in active memory to work upon -- the model can be applied to the act of reading. In my thesis way back when I briefly touched upon the notion of involution in a quick look at the similarities between the semiotic square and the mathematical object called a Klein group. This bit on involution arises from a note in my thesis in the chapter positing the semiotic square as a machine… it of course needs elaboration)

Someone somewhere may have already introduced the notion of states into possible world semantics. This might just give access to a poetics of impossible worlds. Impossible worlds are imaginable as games (considered as moves between states). A focus that might interest those searching to bridge the ludology versus narratology in gaming studies.

Of course I'm left with questions to ponder: How does, if it does, the pair world-state map onto the pair narrative-narration?

And so I take time to breathe and smell the fleeting hyacinth.


June 2, 2009

Dear Linda,

I feel betrayed by the clever Stein-inspired subject line [Beginning Again, Again] that I used for my last message (apologies once more for the blank message). I am doomed to begin again!

I also apologize for the hiatus of over a year. And I thank you for the invitation to resume writing to you -- I particularly liked how you managed to mime keyboard activity to remind me not to be a stranger.

It has been an odd year. A slump both physiological and psychological. After some months of monitoring and observing, medications have been modified thus giving me more energy. I also have been forced to pay attention to diet and exercise. The medications affected appetite which affected food intake. And I lead a fairly sedentary existence. So some weight gain contributed to the physiological sluggishness.

The lack of stamina resulted in a, for me, bewildering retreat from writing. I wasn't depressed -- I could function well enough at work. I wasn't dejected -- I still derived pleasure from reading and watching films. I had become passive. I just wasn't able/willing to devote evening time to writing. It wasn't as if I didn't begin composing in my head. I kept putting off the act of writing. Very odd since writing in a sense nourishes me. Ironic: a year of bad food choices and little writing.

What I didn't abandon was reading. I did give up half way through the larger volumes I had been reading such as Edmund White's biography of Genet or Tony Peake's bio of Derek Jarman. However poetry and short prose and would you believe it "food writing" were genres that I frequented.

I made my way through the complete poetry of Gwendolyn MacEwen. She has a wonderful line in a poem called "The Return" , a line that would make a nice inscription around a mirror: "To perceive you is an act of faith". I am able to recall this mainly because the notion was recorded as a blog entry. A short entry. One of the last before a long patch of no entries.

Of course that mirror trick would have been impossible were it not for an encounter with the _Narcissistic Narrative_ a long while ago.

Professor Doložel asked me a vexing question when I saw him at the festivities in your honour. He asked if I missed the university. I hesitated and gave my stock reply about missing the teaching but not being willing to spend years in the wilderness of sessional appointments. He then mentioned a former student of his who has been caught in sessional work for almost a decade. Relief mingles with regret. I like the discursive move to a story about managing one's career path, an exercising of choice. It is a reassuring tale. However it deflects from a sense of rejection (not to have been chosen to be part of the academy). The rejection is the luck of the draw. Up until recently it has been stored as a piece of disavowal. It is amazing to how much pain we can immure ourselves.

The failure to land a tenure track position and the move to another world resulted in the loss of an audience. Not just any audience. A learned audience. In my case the loss was not total. I managed to participate on line and for a while attend conferences. Always though as an outsider.

Outside looking in is not an unusual position and not without its special attributes.

I came to graduate school with a strong sense of the distinction between an intellectual and an academic. I was also heavily influenced as a teenager by having read (twice) Hesse's _The Glass Bead Game_. I was a far less resistive reader then and identified with the character of Knecht who serves the academy and then moves beyond the institutional walls. His life ends with a beautiful and stoic suicide. As a teenager that ending was far off. And the promise of company of other game players, an inspiration. Still would it be possible to rewrite the novel without its suicide ending?

Funny to think it possible to read one's intellectual itinerary as a rewrite of a novel read in one's youth.

I don't plan on returning to Hesse in the near future. I recently have begun reading novels by gay men who first published in the 1980s and have continued to write in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic. Earlier on there is something very arch in most of them. James and Proust are the evident models.

Allow me to conclude with this passage from Andrew Holleran's 1983 novel _Nights in Aruba_. It contrasts nicely with Hesse. From its concluding pages ... our rather listless hero is looking for conclusion if not closure.

I no longer believed when I awoke in the morning that I could, by lying still in my dark room, balance past, present, and future, or figure everything out. I was certain that even death would provide no illumination -- that we died ignorant, confused, like novelists who cannot bring an aesthetic shape to their material.
As I sat there in my silent room I saw these memories would be with me forever, that wherever they were, I was: some part of me. But the life I must begin was my own -- a separate person's.
This was difficult. For I realized that so much memory and desire swirl about in the hearts of men on this planet that, just as we can look at Neptune and say it is covered with liquid nitrogen, or Venus and see a mantle of hydrochloric acid, so it seemed to me that were one to look at Earth from afar one would say it is covered completely in Ignorance.
And the reader is thus left to ponder. And perhaps conclude that a closer view, a view perhaps more down to earth, is possible and through which one appreciates that allegorical figure of Ignorance as the product of a novelist certainly not confused nor ignorant. Our author is in no need of illumination to provide the ending a novel. He knows how to insert a self-destructing allegory. The author is also lucky to find receptive readers.

And now for a bit of bragging that I can share with you because so much of my reading habits were honed in Comp Lit. Recently in a reply to a posting as part of a public discussion about computing and the humanities, Willard McCarty replied to one of my postings by calling me out by name:

"Francois has a gift for almost reading a text, that is, for remaining aware of the ways in which surface-features of a text condition the reading while it is happening. Most of us attend _from_ the many voices and signs and signals to the argument unfolding as we go. He simultaneously attends _to_ them."

It is amazing how I lap up such praise, feed the ego and re-engage with writing and sharing. It's a kind of cool designation to be an "almost reader". :)

Thank you once again for your kind indulgence. It's appreciated.

Thank you for your kind indulgence. Again.

And so for day 2000