Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Middle C: A Review

I agree with The New York Review of Books, that William Gass's Middle C is an antidote to his earlier book, The Tunnel.  Gass's latest is much easier and more enjoyable to read, though it is not more accomplished than that previous work, unless lightness can be counted as an accomplishment.

I have long been a fan of William Gass, ever since I read Omensetter's Luck while acting as fisheries observer on the docks of Prince Rupert and Port Edward, BC.  He is called by most a postmodernist, but as with the best of that so called lot, he defies easy categorisation.  To lump Robert Coover and William Gass together is like putting two cats in a bag.  They don't mix, get along, act in tandem, or resonate except as two exemplars of general cat-ness that need room to breath, roam, and relax into their natural tendencies.  Both Gass and Coover, for example, use language in a breathtaking way to tell stories of great depth, playfulness, and expansiveness.  It is this 'use' of language that binds them, if in any way they can be said to be bound.  Both are masters of the craft of storytelling that goes back to Moby Dick.

Middle C is about more than language though.  Language is the medium through which something more important is explored: music.  Music speaks of things in a way no words can convey.  But music and language act together.  Music, at a 'meta' level, is a kind of language.  Both are memetic. Stephen Jan's The Memetics of Music explains very convincingly connections between music and (cultural) evolution.  Marion Blute's Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution includes sections that do the same thing for language.   The beauty of Middle C is, first that shows, rather than tells (i.e. in academic language), us that music and language share a common cultural evolutionary equivalent in the meme.  Second, it weaves language and music together so beautifully.

When I read Gass I think less of postmodernism or memetics, and more about James Joyce, myths, archetypes, and stereotypes.  The psychological depth of understanding of the main character's split/dual personality Joseph/Joey Skizzen (which means sketch), and the intergenerational trauma from which it stems is, quite simply put, staggering.  Identity is explored from the perspective of a non-Jewish family escaping Nazi Vienna by pretending to be Jewish, a lifelong pretense that stuck.  The trait of lying was so well developed in Joey Skizzen that he perfected its art, reinventing a life that excluded the fleeing incident, replacing it, instead with a fictitious life of a well-heeled Viennese bourgeois who immigrated to America to escape persecution based upon his (fictitious) Jewishness.  The conceit that drives Gass's story is so outrageous and all the more so because it works so well.

Professor Joseph Skizzen is, then, a 'real' fake, one who has had to work hard to undo a devastating legacy of harm instilled by his parents.  Abandoned by his father, Joseph lives with his mother throughout a life lived in a small midwestern town described by Gass (who was born in Fargo North Dakota) in gorgeous detail.  I've heard Gass's work described as 'moral fiction,' and indeed it is.  There is something very edifying in this work that includes, at the same time, as another of its central conceits, something called the Museum of Inhumanity.  This is Joseph Skizzen's incredibly autodidactic (for that is what, at base, he is: an a cranky self-taught fraud) collection of books and newspaper clippings 'documenting' through accumulation (rather than selection) horrible things one segment of humanity has inflicted upon another.  How all this adds up to an incredible feast of a book that was, for me, a page turning thriller, I leave up to other readers to decide.  I don't try to question the magic or the method of Gass.

Face Memes

A recorded episode of 60 minutes last night brought to my attention the growing phenomenon of face recognition searches on the geoweb.  The story was not reported explicitly as face recognition mapping, but logically that is where my mind leapt.  I reproduce in point form some of my thoughts after hearing about the evolution of face recognition software for use in conjunction with CCTV, ubiquitous camera and search algorithms, and society in general:

-the same parts of the human brain are used in the recognition of faces as in the recognition of places (i.e. the hippocampus).  See Borges and Memory at MIT Press (and an earlier blog post).

-there are privacy issues around uses of face recognition technology for marketing, policing and crime -- similar to issues Google faces with its Street View (which I explored in June in my presentation and upcoming paper "Battle to Blur: Counter-Mapping and Politics of Ground Truth" to the Sixth Spatial Sociocultural Knowledge Workshop at Cranfield University in Shrivenham).

-a kind of Google 'face search' will be possible in the near future, alongside image, book, and searches for other kinds of 'representation.'  Indeed, at base, the ethics of face recognition searching is, in addition to being an issue of privacy, also an issue of representation.  What would a post-representational face-scape look like?  (We are getting ahead of ourselves, but that's ok in a blog post).

-Businesses can use face recognition algorithms that offer deals based upon user preferences when entering a store posting its capabilities on a sign.  The user must agree to be 'recognised' first, similar to how twitter users must turn on 'locate tweets' functionality to benefit from having the locations of their tweets (and their selves) known.

-Are having our faces known analogous to having our places known?  Like a place, it is the meaning we attach to a face that makes it 'real.'  The question is, will the new 'real' (of face-recognition software/algorithms) traumatise, tame, or defame us?  What are the social implications of mapping faces ubiquitously, in the cloud, on Google, in real time?  All open questions.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Mining Anxieties: Harper's New North

The Globe and Mail ran two related stories today. Both focus on the north, and they share an interest in military matters. The top story in today’s paper is notable because it represents a shift in Harper’s northern strategy away from sovereignty towards resources and jobs. Harper’s yearly tour has in past years focused upon asserting Canadian sovereignty in the north. Canada’s Prime Minister put actions to his words when, for example, in 2008 he “declared that all foreign ships entering Canada’s Arctic waters must report their presence to Ottawa. That visit also saw Canadian jets scramble to intercept Russian planes approaching Canada’s airspace, an event the Prime Minister’s Office later celebrated with a photo-op” (“Harper Heads North to Promote Resource Development,” The Globe and Mail, Sunday, August 18th, 2013).

Now, it seems, Harper has changed his tune. With an election in sight and the Senate scandal brewing (The Globe and Mail, Monday, August 19th, 2013, page A4) the conservatives are working hard, it seems, to secure some kind of positive legacy before either re-taking office (unlikely if the scandal stays in the spotlight or intensifies) or being outvoted by the Liberals (with the fresh face of Justin Trudeau actually beginning look like a credible alternative) and the NDP, whose historic high point and a weak Liberal showing in the last election sealed a Conservative majority win. Working this tricky political terrain, Harper almost seems to be diverting attention as the scandal brews in the south with all eyes now looking to the “deep Conservative blue” north (“With election in view, Harper’s northern tour focuses on jobs” The Globe and Mail, August 19th, page A4).

Page A4 of the lead story in today’s Globe also features a big colourful photo of Harper standing on what looks like an airport runway with six Canadian Rangers: all dressed in red with the Rangers logo prominent on the standard issue sweatshirts and caps, and the camo-trousers and combat boots. Harper stands in the middle looking almost like he’s giving a thumbs-up but he’s not. His index fingers and thumbs are, instead, both half extended, and his gaze seems distracted by something, as though his focus this time is perhaps not really on the Rangers. Maybe this time they’re a passing photo-op. They look to be a bit of a ramshackly crew, some appearing pleased and others indifferent to the fact that they’re standing beside the Prime Minister. The Rangers will always be part of any northern plan that includes jobs as historically their role has been twofold. First, the Rangers are there to ‘keep an eye’ on things in the north, as in situ surveillance teams consisting primarily of indigenous and local inhabitants with deep knowledge of local terrain.

Second, the Rangers promote stability and identity in hard-hit northern communities. They provide jobs for local youth who could benefit from learning the knowledge of their elders, knowledge of terrain and techniques for surviving very harsh conditions, they might not otherwise have the chance to learn. So perhaps this is Harper’s reason for including the Rangers in this northern tour: they represent jobs. At the same time, when it comes to jobs in the north, above the timberline and, even farther, north of the Arctic Circle (Harper did go well beyond the Yukon to some of Canada’s least populated areas), jobs really means one thing: mining. This is where the story gets very interesting because there is another quasi-scandal associated with jobs right now, the right side of which Harper seems to have landed. This is the issue of bringing in foreign workers to do mining work. Harper is on the right side of this (in the sense of it benefiting his ratings) because there is new legislation requiring a $275 user fee for recruitment of overseas workers; as well as a French/English-only language requirement (i.e. no other languages are permitted).

Since we cannot reasonably expect Chinese workers to understand or work in Inuktitut, it is not fair to level the criticism that Inuktitut is excluded from this equation. But at some other level it is. Inuktitut and the Inuit are barely mentioned in Harper’s new northern plan and both will surely suffer under its inauspicious debut. Northern mines are notoriously racist and very difficult places for Inuit to work in. Furthermore, mining introduces catastrophic and irreversible change to small Inuit communities struggling to maintain some semblance of tradition and identity in the face of ongoing colonisation of Canada’s north. I have written about this issue in a forthcoming book chapter focusing on mining anxieties among Inuit youth in Quebec’s Ungava peninsula, and how those same youth have become pawns in Harper’s geopolitical ambitions for the north, alternately fodder for its militarisation or, on the other hand, for its industrialisation.

The other story in today’s Globe follows just below, on page A4, entitled “Canadian Forces test stealth snowmobile for cover operations in the Arctic.” This is a classic story, in a way, of Canadian technology and its specific struggle with space and communication. As George Wenzel and others have pointed out, the rifle and the snowmobile have transformed the northern economy like no other technology before or since their introduction into Inuit life-worlds. Claudio Aporta would add the somewhat more nebulous “satellite culture” consisting of a suite of devices from TVs to mobile cellular and satellite telephones. The new snowmobile that is being tested is a hybrid electric prototype that would reduce the sound emissions significantly, making them stealthier. However, it is pointed out that such machines are not actually responding to any real need given the lack of terrorist or foreign military incursion into Canada’s north (Russian submarines aside). A quieter north would be a wonderful thing. Anyone who has spent any time in Nunavik, for example, will notice that ‘downtown’ traffic noise can be deafening as locals take the idea of driving everywhere to new extremes.

The military is in stealth mode in Canada’s north as Harper rolls out his new plan timed cynically to coincide with a legacy-building agenda and a need to divert attention away from the scandal-ridden south. This ‘new’ northern plan is alleged to benefit Canadians but it will benefit only mainstream Canadians without addressing real needs of struggling northern and Inuit communities. Experience shows (and I have discussed this in depth in face-to-face interviews with some of northern Quebec’s mayors and elders) that gusts of rhetoric occasionally blow in from the south and these generally last in the media attention along the order of days or a week at most. Northerners, being used to storms, know how to wait them out. They know also that once it has passed it is up to them alone and with very little help from the south to dig themselves out, repair the damage and get on with their lives.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Accidental Indies

Source: MQUP

This is one of the great finds of the summer, great in terms of treatment and brevity, a book about the discovery of the 'New World' by Columbus, with Columbus as the main character.  Written by Robert Finley, The Accidental Indies is prose poetry, but it is, at base, fiction.  The first review I saw inside the dust jacket was by Hugh Brody and I was pretty much hooked.  I got the hardcover for $8 at Westcott Books in its new location at St. Laurent and Duluth.  The cat 'Eliot' was there as usual, and as always I came out of the store with a book.

Last time I was there got a hardcover of Flanagan's book Louis 'David' Riel: 'Prophet of the New World' (U of Toronto Press).  

Source: cabinfeverbooks.com

Returning to Finley's book, it started me on a little tangent, that of looking up authors of novels about famous adventurers, told from their perspectives.  The first hit I got was Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, featuring Gauss and Humboldt.  The narrative style is a bit more 'traditional' in this title so it doesn't draw me in quite as much.  

Source: Google Books

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Great Fire of London//Place Names in Fiction

I was at The Word bookstore on Milton Street today, rewarding myself for having achieved 750 quality words on one of two large research proposals that I'm devoting most of August to completing.  There's a book I've been circling around over three visits to this wonderful place, and today I finally made the right decision to purchase it (at $8 it didn't break the bank either).  Published by Dalkey Archive, Roubaud's The Great Fire of London promises to be a feast of fictional/mathematical experimentation, and I can't wait to indulge in a few more pages each day once I've made my quota.

The Word Bookstore, 469 Rue Milton, Montreal, Quebec
image source: www.quebec-elan.org

The top image in this blog post reflects the cover on the paperback version I purchased, and the one below it is the first image that appears in the book itself.  Dalkey does indeed produce an archive of quality literature that might not otherwise have a very long shelf-life, for the same reason that arty-cinema often doesn't register in the popular imagination.  You have to know where to go, or to look, to find it, and often that takes some work.  You have to want to find it too.

Dalkey does us an immense service by keeping books like William Gass's The Tunnel and Gilbert Sorrentino's The Sky Changes in print.  These are masterpieces of fiction that without such efforts might submerge before receiving their fair share of attention.

It is also always inspiring to find place-based fiction, or at least fiction that is not hostile to space.  Another amazing title with Dalkey Archive is called...Place Names (in English Translation) by Jean Ricardou (see blurry cover image below).

Friday, August 2, 2013

Peel - Vendome - Bonaventure (from Metro Montreal)

See also Metro Montreal (one of my other blogs) from which this entry is taken:

Walked down from the McIntyre Medical Building where I often set up shop.  I have this little nook that I like to think of as mine.  It's in the Sir William Osler Library of the History of Medicine, in a spacious and clean part of the the 'bridge' that connects the McIntyre building 'proper' over to some of the other McGill buildings.  It has stained glass windows with various crests.  It's all old and very distinguished looking, but most importantly it's quiet and there are very few students.  I might encounter one student working along the opposite wall in amongst the book shelves behind me, and occasionally I might see some of the library staff on the level below, which is open through the middle part of the floor, giving the whole place a sense of open space.

I usually walk up there from where I work in the mornings at the main McGill library in the Sir John A. MacDonald reading room, where I have another nook with a good view of The Falcon statue by the main entrance to the library.  At 10:30 am I walk up to McIntyre after getting my coffee and watching the news at the Desautels Business Building.  From 11 to 12 I work at McIntrye/Osler then have lunch on floor five of the same building.  There's a row of six industrial-looking microwaves where I usually heat up my lunch.  This building is located at one of the highest points on campus, so you can take your lunch out, walk across the road and you're in the leafy environs of Mount Royal.  Usually I just eat in the cafeteria so I can get right back to work straightaway.

So, today, since it's so nice out, and since I'm probably working tomorrow as well, I decide upon a little metro ride.  I haven't been on the metro since being back in Montreal this trip, and I have this special blog devoted to Montreal's metro.  I head down to the Peel station by way of Stanley Street, and go down.  This station is right across from the YMCA where I used to take french lessons.  It's also right next to one of the better English language bookstores in town, and Indigo is there too.  I witnessed a couple airing their grievances there in public, and quite loudly, a week or so ago.  It was all very touchingly rough and tumble, with men transforming themselves instantly from slouchy-sweaty mopers into straight-back bouncer types to protect the woman from the 'bad guy' harassing her.

Down into that rabbit hole I go, heading for Lionel-Groulx station where I must transfer to get to Vendome.  I try to notice something interesting and it takes a while.  It's like no time has passed at all, and I'm just as jaded and calloused to it all as before I left.  But soon enough something hits me.  I notice that there are many people who will challenge the noise of the metro with their voices, determined to carry on the conversation no matter how loud it gets.  People talk very loudly over the squealing, screeching, and scratching sounds of the underground train, which only adds a whole other layer of madness to the scene, and makes it extra jarring.  There's also the heat generated from the rubber tires, and the heat almost seems to come from the sound itself.

It makes me think, is it possible or necessary to 'talk over the heat' in any sense?  I know this makes no sense, but it seems like something worth testing or writing about at least as a poetic exercise. I also notice at the same time older people trying to keep themselves 'neat', tucked in, hats straight (or neat, as in the rapper with his hat at just the right angle so it looks as though it will fall off his head when he nods off to sleep.)

Walking to Vendome to NDG and the Encore bookstore that is my final destination I think left/right as I'm passing some others on the street, getting tangled up in their trajectories, mixing up how cultural topologies dictate how we should treat each other as passersby.  I can stay on the left or on the right as needed in England or in Canada when I'm riding my bicycle on the road, but when it comes to walking I'm more confused than ever before, tending to chaotic shifting between staying on the left or on the right.  People in Montreal, much like I used to do, seem to want to 'force' things to the right even going out of their way to do so.  I could happily stay left for all I care.  In some places in England, on the tube, one is told (or it is implied for example on certain escalators) to stay right, though it seems against the English rule to drive on the left -- this is why I feel I have the right to do so, even though it violates Montreal cultural protocol.  This for some reason also reminds me how poor my french remains.

I'm walking back through residential Westmount to the almost finished massive McGill superhospital, surprisingly close to Vendome metro, I now see.  It hadn't seemed close in space when far in time it remained rubble pit or dormant structure.  Now this hub, hovering at the edge of Notre Dame de Grace/NDG seems happening.

Waiting in the Vendome metro on those J shaped reddy orange plastic benches that resemble elongated 3D elucidations of sitting the curve & back of the seats is simultaneously funky/retro and uncomfortable.  Video screens add to the retro, though they're flat.  Everything is a bit 'expo '67'.

Vendome to Bonaventure.  I mistakenly got off at Lionel-Groulx (Canada's most romantic metro? or it's most smelly -- I can't decide).  The screens are much larger here and flat against the wall (in fact they are projected images) showing movie previews.  A shot of the Olympic Stadium flashed past at one point with its bird- or alien-head structure and rotten roof (that part wasn't shown).  Georges Vanier - Lucien L'Allier - Bonaventure -- connecting to RTL and the south shore bus line.