Zwickau Press has published my book Boundaries Thick and Permeable. You can find the amazon link here. My undergraduate thesis served as the skeleton for a further year of revising, refining, and expanding that has led to its current shape. I don’t believe that there are samples available for interested parties [update: as of March 8 amazon has a preview available], so I’ll post one of the passages I’m most proud of below. This passage also speaks directly to a lot of the discussion we’ve been having over the last few months on this blog on the topics of art, authentic expression, and creativity. For ease of online reading, I’ve removed all footnotes – but don’t worry, footnotes are there in full abundance in the book.
The rhetoric of Genius is a tricky thing. What constitutes genius? Some kind of transcendence where authorial context need not be considered? What kind of spaces are required for someone create a work of genius? On this blog, I’ve read about the genius according to Proust and Madmen. All this is to say, the language of genius doesn’t sit neutral with me and it appears to carry some weight with both Joel and Gerald.
On the silliness and sadness of genius Virginia Woolf writes this piece describing what it might have looked like if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius:
Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably — his mother was an heiress — to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin — Ovid, Virgil and Horace — and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighbourhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practising his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen. Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter — indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father’s eye. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring woolstapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager — a fat, loose-lipped man — guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting — no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted — you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last — for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows — at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so — who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? — killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.
That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius.
From Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 3.
Often I find myself re-reading the pages of dense philosophical works over and over and over to try and remember what the development of the argument is and its relationship to what they are now discussing.
I decided to try and summarize each page with a sentence or two at the bottom of the page as a way to continually stay engaged with the work. This technique has helped me tremendously for three reasons.
First, I am forced to find the trajectory of the work and what is most important to it for that particular page.
Second, I am able to go back through my texts more easily for summaries and to know whether or not it is completed. When I see a page with a sentence at the bottom I have a feeling of completion.
Third, when I go back to these works, I can check whether my original interpretation is any good. And this becomes all the more profitable because I have a lens to read the work through, which I often find necessary to try and decipher these texts.
I often wonder whether I have turned reading too much into a technique. But I think that having ways of dealing with difficult things (texts, music, life decisions etc.) is a way of engaging that is often the most profitable for both parties.
Having your thoughts published on the internet, or wherever, is a revealing endeavor that leaves one feeling exposed. What if the great idea turns out to be ridiculous, trivial, incoherent, or even racist? Maybe it’s best to just keep silent and comfortable. It’s this point that I’d like to highlight.
A great deal of our ideas about how the world works are what guide our activities, guide our notions of how success (in whatever form) is obtained. When your thoughts are exposed, your life is exposed. So keeping your ideas private are ways we keep ourselves safe, continuing on as we always have. If I open myself up to criticism, my path could change at any moment, derailing my current vision of how the world works, how things are, where I am going and how I will get there. But I believe that opening yourself up to the wisdom and experiences of others is also one of the practices that fosters the most growth. Your ideas will either be met with agreement or disagreement by a community. It’s nice when others like your ideas. But disagreement opens up the realm of choice and deliberate thinking: am I right? why do I think I am right? What do those whom I deem wise say of my ideas? The answers that you give to these questions fundamentally orient your vision, either by entrenching yourself in your position or altering your course.
Disagreements, then, can either be looked at as opportunities to change or to hold your position. The choice is yours. And, remember, it is a choice. One of the freest kinds of choices we have: choose to change or stay the same. The disagreement is the signal that a choice must be made.
So — Write, listen, and make your choice.
I recently attended a town hall meeting to discuss the future of McGill’s libraries. A presentation was given by the oldest architectural firm in North America. “What would a library of the 21st century look like at McGill” was the focus of the presentation. The presentation consisted of images of libraries (like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, etc.) that have recently undergone construction, paving the way for a new future.
The libraries of the 20th century were “static.” The libraries of the future will be “dynamic,” creating spaces for inter-disciplinary research, access to high definition touch screens, video games, smart-boards, and so on.
A student remarked that there were very few books in the presentation. The student said this is a trend: books are off in some big warehouse and are available upon request. Thus, she said, the spontaneity of browsing, which often facilitates research, is done away with.
An emeritus professor of architecture lamented the fact that the entire presentation was very plastic, open concept, lots of glass and light. Walls with detail, paintings, or sculptures were nowhere to be found. Apparently, the future has no room for that sort of thing in libraries.
But what struck me the most was the fact that there was no mention as to “why” the libraries were moving towards a plastic, technological accessible, non-traditional future. Are they doing it because students are researching better? Is their mental health better taken care of? What kind of research are these dynamic libraries privileging, as in, what kind of research is fostered, what kind of research is hindered?
The question, “what is a library” or even “what is a library for” was not answered. True, there was a lot of talk about “the identity of McGill” and how the library should reflect its current identity. An attempt to define McGill’s identity was also missing, I suppose it was up to us at the town hall to tell the architects about our identity. I suppose that means that there was no way that they could have been informed by faculty or students prior to the presentation. In any case, the question of identity seemed like a gimmick. The focus was on the Ivy league schools that are also updating their libraries. The message? McGill’s identity is defined by its competition.
All of this is to say that we need thinking more than ever. We must erect buildings that foster healthy practices. Practices which are only deemed as such as we examine our practices, and more importantly, as we learn how to examine our practices. If the future hails an ethic that no longer cares for an examined life, a thinking life, then we can confidently say that our future is one where we no longer care, and no longer think.
Some of the most intriguing and unsettling conversations I have reside in some of the books I read. These texts keep coming back to me time and time again, their images cemented into present contexts, drawing me into new and different ways of engaging in current conversations. I think this speaks to a kind of wisdom spun through these books.
I am in a second-year undergraduate level course on the wisdom literature in Christian traditions and we are focusing, mostly, on the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. Using some of the lectures and course material, and dependent on the past 5+ years of theological and philosophical undergraduate learnings at a Mennonite university, I’ve written a brief something as to how wisdom can be made sense of: wisdom can be made sense of as the way creatures adhere to and live into their limitations. Learning what these limitations are and how they press themselves o/into our being depends on, at least, two not-mutually-exclusive spaces outside the creature’s self: 1) an imposed terror of something or someone far greater in Being than the creature herself; and 2) a curiosity that pulls the creature into a constant state of inquiry. One way that a creature can lean into this curiosity is by trying to ask “where am I coming from?” and seeking out the limitations that this questions runs up against.
Here is a list of the ten books I have read in the last five years that most appropriately seek out this question “where am I coming from?” After each book’s title I briefly describe how that text asks this question. The list ascends in the order of which books are closer to the asking of this question. So, the last book listed is the one which I think most appropriately seeks to ask this question “where am I coming from?”