December 2005

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For a few days after Christmas, I had my brother Steve’s best friend Sam and two of his kids staying with me, because there was no room at the inn. Sam is a professional entomologist and Steve an advanced amateur, and they are joint custodians of an insect collection that fills nine large cabinets and includes over 100,000 specimens that they’ve collected all over the world. One evening, Steve and Sam waxed philosophic about the differences between insects and people. We had just been discussing the problems and ramifications of excess flatulence – that is, telling fart jokes.

“People are so gross!” Steve said. “I mean, we’re just disgusting! The human body might look good from a distance, but close up, forget it. I mean, we’re always exuding mucous, sweat, body odor… Insects are clean.”

“Are you saying you actually find insects more attractive than human beings?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah! I mean, insects have this bright, shiny armor surrounding their bodies, and all these cool-looking appendages…”

“What about bombardier beetles, shooting scalding acid out their butts?” Sam asked. “That’s a little gross, wouldn’t you say?” A brief discussion of bombardier beetles ensued.

“I know what you mean, though,” Sam admitted. “I’ll be studying an insect under the magnifying glass for a long time, then suddenly look at my thumb and go, wow. Ewww.”

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Two bright, shiny new blogs caught my attention this past week, and both feature very familiar voices. “Nomen est Numen” has molted and emerged in an adult form as autobiology, where, the author says, “I’m writing because I want to be more accountable to myself.” Meanwhile, someone calling himself teju cole has launched a blog with a life expectancy of just one month. “Mostly, you can expect words and images related to a journey I made to Nigeria in December 2005,” he says, “though from time to time I may stray from that brief.”

Brief is right! Get it while it’s fresh, as the blowfly said to the carrion beetle.

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The New Year’s Eve installment of the invertebrate blog carnival Circus of the Spineless is due out later today at bootstrap analysis, a great blog in its own right. Billed as the “chronicles and musings of an urban field ecologist,” it’s full of great stuff such as book and journal reviews and the low-down on neon-blue rabbit piss. It will make you look at the urban environment in a whole new light.

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Your average “year in review” story describes 2005 as a year of unprecedented natural disasters. But man-made disasters are always more appalling to me – and in many cases, of course, the former grade into the latter, when you consider factors such as ravaged coastal wetlands or shoddily built public schools in earthquake zones.

Worst of all are disasters perpetrated by outworn and dangerous ideologies, such as the gospel of economic growth. Here’s one of the creepiest things I’ve read all year.

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If you’re looking for something to keep you occupied while waiting for the ball to drop, check out The Infinite Teen Slang Dictionary. It’s, like, totally wharf.

Rendition. Such an intriguing word.

Rendition is a legal term meaning “surrender” or “turn over”, particularly from one jurisdiction to another, and applies to property as well as persons. For criminal suspects, extradition is the most common type of rendition. Rendition can also be seen as the act of handing over, after the request for extradition has taken place.Rendition can also mean the act of rendering, i.e. delivering, a judicial decision, or of explaining a series of events, as a defendant or witness. It can also mean the execution of a judicial order by the directed parties.

Wikipedia, “Rendition”

[A] performance of a musical composition or a dramatic role … an explanation of something that is not immediately obvious … the act of interpreting something as expressed in an artistic performance

WordNet Search 2.1, “rendition”

Rendition was infamously used to recapture fugitive slaves, who under the Constitution and various federal laws had virtually no human rights. As the movement for abolition grew, Northern states increasingly refused to comply or cooperate with rendition of escaped slaves, leading to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Wikipedia, op.cit.

[T]he processing and manipulation of information in order to represent it, for instance, on screen or on paper. Not to be confused with conversion. Rendering is, for instance, carried out by a Web browser in order to display an HTML file on screen. Conversion or formatting refers to the preparation of a file so that the browser can display it.

Factory3x5 Glossary of Terms, “Rendition”

The CIA was granted permission to use rendition in a presidential directive that dates to the Clinton administration, although very few uses were documented during that time. The practice has grown sharply since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and now includes a form where suspects are taken into US custody but delivered to a third-party state, often without ever being on American soil. Because such cases do not involve the rendering country’s judiciary, they have been termed extraordinary rendition.

Wikipedia, op.cit.

Instance of a record rendered into another software format by a process entirely within the control of the ERM/EDM system, without loss of content. The content and most of the metadata (i.e. all except the relational linking back to the native format record and details of the software format) are identical. Renditions may be required for preservation or access / viewing purposes.

DataCore Technology, Inc. – Glossary of Terms, “Rendition”

Human rights groups charge that extraordinary rendition is a violation of the United Nations Convention on Torture, because suspects are taken to countries where torture during interrogation remains legal, thus circumventing the protections the captives would enjoy in the United States or other nations in the West. Its legality remains highly controversial, as the United States outlaws the use of torture, and the U.S. Constitution guarantees due process. Rendered suspects are denied due process because they are arrested without charges and deprived of legal counsel.

Wikipedia, op.cit.

Rendition may also refer to the culinary process of rendering, “to heat a piece of fat, or fat meat, slowly in a pan to convert it to liquid form,” as one on-line glossary of cooking terms puts it. (This is also referred to as trying the fat or lard.) The unifying meaning-element for all these definitions would seem to be translation from one state or context to another. As one of the above definitions reminds us, rendition is not to be confused with conversion, which is generally conceived of as somehow altering the fundamental make-up of the thing or person converted. In rendition, as in translation, there is a general presumption that the object of rendering remains largely unchanged and unimpaired in some essential way. Extraordinary rendition is extraordinary precisely because it violates this norm.

Translation, though, is also famously problematic in its own right. Given the somewhat dubious attempts to justify torture as a way to obtain vital information, I think it’s important to consider what happens to thought and language when they undergo translation into simple, binary terms – i.e., into information. What are we to make of tortured words? What happens to a people whose public vocabulary of human rights and freedoms is rendered – boiled down – into the slippery fuel for a war with no concrete enemy and no identifiable end?

No one has pondered the nature of translation more deeply than the literary critic and philosopher George Steiner. According to Steiner, “To understand is to decipher. To hear significance is to translate.” Quoting almost at random from his magisterial study, After Babel:

[E]very act of human communication is based on a complex, divided fabric which may, fairly, be compared to the image of a plant deeply and invisibly rooted or an iceberg largely under water. Active inside the ‘public’ vocabulary and conventions of grammar are pressures of vital association, of latent and realized content. Much of this content is irreducibly individual and, in the common sense of the term, private. When we speak to others we speak ‘at the surface’ of ourselves. We normally use a shorthand beneath which there lies a wealth of subconscious, deliberately concealed or declared associations so extensive and intricate that they probably equal the sum and uniqueness of our status as an individual person. It was from this central fact of the dual or subsurface phenomenology of speech that Humboldt derived his well-known axiom: ‘All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding, all agreement on thought and feeling is also a parting of the ways.’ …But this opaqueness, this part of illusion in all public speech-acts is probably essential to the equilibrium of the psyche. Articulated or internalized, language is the principal component and validation of our self-awareness. It is the constantly tested carapace of individual identity. Yet at the phonological, grammatical, and, in significant measure, semantic levels it is also among the most ubiquitous and common of human properties. There is a sense in which our own skin belongs to every man. This apparent contradiction is resolved by the individuation of associative content. Without that individuation, in the absence of a decided private component in all but the most perfunctory, unreflecting of our speech-acts, language would possess only a surface. Lacking roots in the irreducible singularity of personal remembrance, in the uniqueness of the ‘association-net’ of personal consciousness and sub-consciousness, a purely public, common speech would severely impair our sense of self.

No wonder that so many of us who, to all appearances, have nothing to hide, still instinctively reject the proposition that anyone has the right to watch our every move, read our every e-mail and get our every word down on tape. And no wonder that those who assert that right tend to be the very same people defending the use of torture, or the right to invade sovereign nations under any pretext. But those who seek merely to colonize our imaginations with mass-produced fantasies are guilty of a subtler and more insidious violation, as a consequence of which the loss of freedom may be greeted with relief, and sensory deprivation or even torture may be actively sought as a respite from constant over-stimulation. If no thoughts are ever truly our own, how do we differ from slaves? Here’s Steiner again:

A diffuse rationalism, the levelling impress of the mass media, the increasing monochrome of the technological milieu, are crowding on the private components of speech. Under stress of radio and television, it may be that even our dreams will be standardized and made synchronic with those of our neighbours.

Welcome to the nightmare world of extraordinary rendition.

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News flash: Rudolf’s nose isn’t exactly red

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We’ve been coming here ever since I was five years old. I remember the excitement, all three of us boys crammed into the backseat of the old Scout.

Dad always made us walk at least a half a mile, for some reason. “That’s where all the good trees are, kids!”

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Of course, the snow was much deeper when I was your age. And the trees were greener, too.

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“What’s the fence for, Mommy? Can’t they just fly away?”

“That’s to protect them from all their fans, honey. Just like those barricades they put up to protect the president on TV!”

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“I think he likes me!”

“Of course he likes you, honey. You’re giving him treats.”

(Sound of chewing.)

“Daddy, can I have a reindeer for Christmas?”

Dear Friends,

Well, Via Negativa is two years old now. I knew the birthday was coming up sometime around the solstice, but I missed it: it was last Saturday. And here I’d been assiduously taking notes for a “year in review” post (which, I see, I avoided doing in the first birthday post). Nuts. Well, here’s that post anyway.

2005 saw a lot of changes in Via Negativa, beginning in her sidebar. Three of my favorite brainiac bloggers – Abdul-Walid of Acerbia (formerly Elck of the vernacular body), Siona of Nomen est Numen, and Andi of Ditch the Raft – hung up their blogging hats. They each had very good reasons for doing so, I think, and it’s not their fault that I felt my enthusiasm for the medium ebb just a little after they left. But now one of them is back, blogging under a new name. Andi took her vows as a Korean Buddhist nun-to-be (haeng-ja), and just last week returned to the blogging fold as Soen Joon, with a blog called One robe, one bowl – the first cloistered blogger in my blogroll.

Three of the bloggers I read faithfully have scored major successes in the world of print publishing this year. Ivy – surely the hardest working poet online – had her first book-length manuscript, Mortal, accepted by Red Morning Press. Patry Francis, who blogs at the aptly named Marvelous Garden, having more than paid her dues with years of waitressing, had her first novel accepted by Dutton. And I was perhaps most excited to learn back in October that Beth successfully pitched her book on Gene Robinson to a small New York publisher. Back in January 2004, Beth’s post about listening to Bishop Robinson preach and then going to a shopping mall sparked a memorable discussion spanning three comment threads. That was, I think, the first really meaty blog conversation in which I took an active part, and it was a revelation to me. I added a comments feature to Via Negativa shortly thereafter.

This past September saw the birth of a new kind of online publication, qarrtsiluni – equal parts group blog and literary magazine. While there are all sorts of equally valid reasons for blogging, those of us involved with qarrtsiluni are hoping to inspire folks around the blogosphere to sometimes take a bit more time with their writing, starting with ourselves. And we want to encourage more collaborative literary and artistic efforts, taking advantage of the much greater opportunities for interaction and feedback available online than in print journals. So far, I think, qarrtsiluni has had a pretty good run.

One thing my sidebar doesn’t reflect too well is the exponential growth in country/nature blogs over the past year (see Rurality‘s sidebar for a good collection of links). I’ve added a few, but I’m always wary of expanding the list of “vaguely compatible blogs” beyond the point where it can still serve readers as a handy guide to a sampling of sites I find interesting. But this past week I decided to put in links to the parent sites of two blog carnivals – regular, community-generated compilations of links to the best posts about a given topic, in this case birds and invertebrates. I coupled them with the useful, weekly compendium of Buddhist-flavored posts at Blogmandu – an old-fashioned meta-blog – to create a new sidebar category, which I hope to expand in the coming year as similar efforts get off the ground, or as I discover more such places already in existence. They offer great solutions to the blog addict’s eternal dillemma: how to read more blogs and still leave time for, well, anything else.

There are many other things that excite me about the blogs in my blogroll: new experiments in writing or artwork, major life changes for the people whose lives they chronicle. I started jotting down notes, and the list quickly got out of hand. So you’ll just have to click through my links and discover them for yourself, I’m afraid.

I don’t want to sound more selfless than I am, either. Via Negativa has had a pretty good year in terms of its original content, too. Long-time readers probably have their own ideas of what the most significant developments were; here’s what stand out in my mind:

1. I got a camera, a hand-me-down birthday gift from a loyal reader (thanks, Matt!). Though only one megapixel, it’s proved more than adequate for the low-resolution pictures required for the Internet. I haven’t owned a camera since I was a kid – film processing was never something I thought I could afford – and I have really enjoyed the effect that taking pictures has had on my quality of attention.

2. I blogged an epic, Cibola (see sidebar links). At least six people claim to have read it all the way through, not counting myself. It had its moments.

3. An involuntary sojourn in lovely Summersville, West Virginia with a broken-down car led me to read the one poetry book I had on hand with the same approximate intensity with which the survivor of a shipwreck clings to a raft. That book was Paul Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems. Unlike Andi, however, I didn’t ditch the raft once I got home; I made a shrine out of it and began regular prostrations. So far I’ve written thirty-four poems in response to Zweig’s, and the project continues to hold my interest. Let’s face it, we can only ever write as well as we read, so why not make the effort to read more consciously? And the blogging medium seems ideal for experiments in antiphony.

4. After some fourteen months of finding captions for the same cartoon, many of them mildly amusing, I finally ran out of steam with the “Words on the Street” feature early last August. The efficient cause, I think, was that it lost out against my new-found enthusiasm for responsive writing – I didn’t have enough time to write two features in addition to a regular essay. The material cause? I was simply running low on ideas. But the final cause may have been the reality that, with all the photographs, Via Negativa no longer had to rely on a daily cartoon to provide graphic relief. Nevertheless, Diogenes the Bum had become in some sense his own person, and it has proved impossible to keep him from popping back up from time to time.

5. The travelogue I just completed was satisfying to write, and I learned (or perhaps relearned) a couple things from it: First, that the pieces I write off the cuff, following just a few leads, are in many ways more satisfying than those I plan out and research (the ivorybill posts). And second, that the time I spend here at home, following all my usual waking and beginning-to-write rituals, is absolutely essential. I really can’t write anywhere else. But given the necessary distance in space and time from the actual travelling, travel writing, I discovered, can be a blast!

6. Overall, I think I can discern a few trends. The lengthy treatises that I used to inflict on Via Negativa readers with monotonous regularity largely disappeared this year, though I doubt the overall word count has diminished too much. I don’t indulge in nearly as much speculative thinking as I did the first year – whether because I got that all out of my system, or simply because I haven’t read much philosophy lately, I’m not sure. There’s been a much higher proportion of poetry, though some of it has taken the form of prose.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that I can’t remember where I’ve been from one month to the next. On occasion, when I go back into the archives searching for a particular post, I find myself reading the adjacent entries with only the faintest recollection of having written them. That’s good, in a way, because it means I can keep coming up with the same ideas again and again and they’ll seem fresh every time. You may think I’m joking, but many of the poets I most admire seem never to have had more than a small handful of original insights. In fact, that may be part of their charm, what makes their oeuvre seem so tidy and unified in tone. Last year at this time I said, “Long live the melange!” But given my craving for variety, sooner or later variety itself may come to seem tiresome, and I’ll crave the simplicity and mystery of the eternal return. Even now, it might be possible to imagine all the words posted here to date as constituting some kind of interminable, profane mantra. Om mani padme jesus h. christmas hum!

Best wishes for a joyous and safe holiday season. Thank you all for reading, and I hope you’ll find the time to visit often in the coming year.

- Dave