My Thoughts on Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram

April 5th, 2011

                If I understood it correctly, David Abram, in his book Spell of the Sensuous, seems to posit that language and sensation have a reciprocal relationship.  He explains that “only if words are felt, bodily presences, like echoes or waterfalls, can we understand the powers of spoken language to influence, alter, and transform the perceptible world” (89).  How are our alphabetically induced words felt? “When those images came to be associated, alphabetically, with purely human made sounds, and even the names of letters lost all worldly, extrahuman significance… speech or language [comes] to be experienced as an exclusively human power” (132).  At this point “civilization [enters] into the wholly self-reflexive mode of animism, or magic, that still holds us in a spell” (132). 

                Our magic is our linguistic technique.  As Abram notes “to spell, to correctly arrange letters to form a name or a phrase, thus seemed at the same time, to cast a spell, to exert a new and everlasting power over the thing spelled” (135).  However, while we are empowered by this ‘magic,’ words as technique wields power over us as well.  We cannot simply walk around spelling out elements as we encounter them because language, as a structure, although arbitrary, preexists and thus molds us.  If you lack a word for something, can you possibly make logical sense of it?

                Similarly, in another one of my classes we were recently discussing the prospect of language preceding thought.  The question then arose: does an expanded lexicon relay a more nuanced and complex perception of the world?  Perhaps not at a sensory level but I would venture to say that a larger vocabulary allows for a heightened level of cognition.  Naming an element appropriates it for our use, changing it from an occurrence of nature into something qualified and thus dominated by humans. 

                Abrams also seems to draw on the notion of literary symbolism perpetuated by a word.  Having grappled with the somewhat foreign notion of mystical symbolism and its relationship with the symbolist literary movement in other classes I began to understand the concept after reading the following excerpt from Gershom Scholem’s book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.  Scholem explains the symbol as “a form of expression which radically transcends the sphere of allegory…the thing which becomes a symbol retains its original form and its original content.  It does not become, so to speak, an empty shell into which another content is poured; in itself, through its own existence, it makes another reality transparent which cannot appear in any other form” (27).”  So a word proves to be a portal for synthesizing and thereby understanding many tenuously related elements.  “The symbol ‘signifies’ nothing and communicates nothing but makes something transparent which is beyond all expressions” (27).  In this vein the ‘word’ certainly acts as a portal for understanding.

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World. New York: Pantheon, 1996. Print.
Scholem, Gershom Gerhard. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken, 1961. Print.

Exercise Endorphins: Aching to Achieve

March 4th, 2011


At the start of twelfth grade I began biking after school.  For this hour and a half my legs burned as I excused myself from responding to phone calls.  Although I could never admit it, I disliked biking company; only my brother proved to be a perfect riding partner.  At six p.m. I returned from riding, endorphin infused, ready to respond. 

As a college freshman, I missed the exercise as I drove to school, anxious to park on Jewel before first period.  Now, regardless of the weather, legs propel me to class each day.  Racing myself, I’ve made the mile in eleven minutes, forty-three seconds.  Often, I retrace this path to school (I love doing the EXACT same thing over and over) even when QC is closed. Completing this short routine, my brain buzzes with lists, graphs, and ideas, having released crucial “happy” chemicals and having been given the chance to tune out, for just a bit, and reevaluate the rest of my world.

Yeats and Technology

February 25th, 2011

            Daniel Albright, in his essay “Yeats and Modernism” explains that Yeats accuses Modernist poets for their “sloppiness of construction and flatness of diction” (63).  What might be of particular interest to us, in the literature and technology seminar, is that Yeats, as a symbolist,  “is always happier with symbols drawn from the traditional stock of conventions than with symbols drawn from modern life” (67). Yeats “purges his poetic vocabulary of technological words” because, for him, “symbolic value can be imparted only by age and long use-no word is fit for poetry unless your great-grandfather uttered it” (68).

 Despite Yeats’s vehement opposition to Modernism, however, Albright cites instances where “the modern world imprints itself upon his work” (68).  A “canceled passage from” Yeats’s “‘Under Ben Bulben’” makes use of the technological term “aeroplane” (69).   Thus, Albright argues, that while “Yeats fights Modernism as hard as he can” he “finds himself acknowledging that he is Modernist to the marrow of his bones” (75).  However, “this paradox is itself typical, for the Modernist often travels a road as far as it will go, only to wind up in some exactly opposite place” (75). 

Albright, Daniel. “Yeats and Modernism.” The Cambridge Companion to W. B. Yeats. By Marjorie Howes. Cambridge [u.a.: Cambridge Univ., 2008. Print.

On Love: Presence and Absence

February 25th, 2011


By Edmund Spenser

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,

But came the waves and washed it away:

Again I write it with a second hand,

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay,

A mortal thing so to immortalize,

For I myself shall like to this decay,

And eek my name be wiped out likewise.

Not so, (quod I) let baser things devise

To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:

My verse, your virtues rare shall eternize,

And in the heavens write your glorious name.

Where when as death shall all the world subdue,

Our love shall live, and later life renew.


A Dream of Death

By William Butler Yeats

I DREAMED that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.



February 8th, 2011

            Although, perhaps, this except is not too subtle, I found it interesting in its questioning an aspect of technology and its influence on life.  It is taken from the February 9th, 2011 edition of JAMA in the article “Life Imitates Work” by Tia Powell.  I connected it with three pieces of literature we read last semester.

“My mother’s mother had dementia and heart block and received pacemaker back in the 1980s.  My grandmother lived for 12 years with that pacer, and her six children deeply regretted every agreeing to this intervention.  Her dementia culminated in years of immobility and muteness and an apparent lack of joy.  Because of that experience, my mother told us never to give her a pacemaker.  She repeated these instructions on various occasions, telling one of my sisters not to do it during a dinner at which my demented grandmother was rattling away in a nonsense version of French.  She told me not to do it a few years ago when we talked about her mother, and my father also reminded me not to give my mother a pacemaker.  As far as advance directives went, my mother did everything right.  She had a child who is a physician and appointed that child as health care proxy.  She formed a specific opinion about a treatment and expressed that opinion in unambiguous terms to many people on more than one occasion.

And yet because the cardiologist had been called, along he came.  An earnest, thoughtful, and respectful young man, he spent a lot of time talking with my family.  He told my siblings that ‘No one is allowed to die of heart block.’  He further opined that no palliative care could be offered, since any symptom would come without warning and would be untreatable.  He supposed that her death would feel ‘like drowning.’  He noted that most cardiologists would refuse to turn off a pacemaker once it was installed.  He himself would consider stopping the pacemaker, but only if all six of my mother’s children agreed I writing that this was the correct choice.  Not only could we lose the option of ceasing treatment if the cardiologist moved or changed his mind, but this last condition-of unanimity- was a way to override my mother’s selection of a health care agent. Now there would be no tie-breaker.  Rather, our large family would be required to maintain the pacemaker if any one of us wanted it.”

Powell, Tia. “Life Imitates Work.” JAMA 305.6 (2011): 542. Print.

Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks

November 13th, 2010


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Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks evokes an interesting aspect of the new city that has not yet been expressed in the other paintings we have looked at in our course.  The first aspect I noticed is the stark contrast between the dark night and the lit diner.  Regardless of this disparity, a gloomy mood permeates the entire piece.  Judging by the women’s short sleeved red dress, the painting is of a summer night.  Yet, there is no one outside enjoying the good weather.  The streets are dark and empty and the storefronts lack the usual decorative signs that incite customers to enter.  Even inside the bar the couple does not seem to be conversing and a man sits alone.  It is as if the precision of the lines of the painting have enclosed the area in their rigidity and have therefore led to the lack of fluid communication inside the diner.  The “clean well lit place” is too clean and too well lit to allow for any fun.  

Picture of Edward Hopper:

Electrical Disillusionment

November 6th, 2010

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In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, the electricity connected with Jay Gatsby’s party adds to an idyllic atmosphere but ultimately this reality proves disillusioned.  In preparation for the party “a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden” (my italics-44).  Moreover, the paragraph describing the energy of the party opens and closes with mention of the presence of the lights.  Specifically, at the beginning of the paragraph Nick notes that “the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher” (my italics-44).  Soon there are “wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, [and becomes] for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group and then excited glide on through the seachange of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light” (45).  It is interesting that “this party had preserved a dignified homogeneity, and assumed to itself the function of representing the staid nobility of the country-side- East Egg condescending to West Egg, and carefully on guard against its spectroscopic gayety” (49).  In this way, the party represents an ideal world while drawing our attention to its contortion.  Everyone is the same, enjoying the lights and the progress the lights signify.  However, it is also quite obvious that, beyond the superficial dreamlike reality of the scene, it is so shallow that it needs the mystification of the lights to render it stable.  Thus we see that while some electrification helps to perpetuate the ideal but ultimately unrealistic dreamlike state of Gatsby’s party, the preoccupation with an ideal ultimately causes Gatsby’s death.

Humans and Animals

October 30th, 2010

19th century painting


20th century photo of Chicago’s meat industry…

          Viewed side by side, the world view imparted by these images contrast with each other in what I think is a very interesting manner.  Both images depict human/s and animals.  In the 19thcentury landscape, a lone girl relaxes while six cows graze and drink water behind her.  She seems relaxed and at ease with her natural setting.  The colors are soft and mesh easily with each other.  In fact, the girl’s skirt is, in some areas, the same color as the cow in back of her (the small one immediately above her head) and many other colors used on the girl’s clothing can be found elsewhere in the natural scene.  While the human is at the forefront of the painting, she is in synchrony with the world by which she is surrounded.  Even the stick she holds, which, to a certain extent, is a technology that allows her to control the animals, is made of natural elements.

          The early 20thcentury photograph of Chicago’s meat industry captures a very different scene.  The picture is a visible manifestation of man conquering nature instead of living in tandem with it.  In the 19th century painting animals outnumber the solitary girl while in the latter men line up (or group together) in the act of butchering animals with long, sharp knifes.  Unlike the open space of the 19thcentury painting, this picture is taken in enclosed man-made space and therefore the lighting is dreary in contrast with the natural lighting of the painting.  Moreover, while the girl in the painting wields a power tool which could have been naturally available amidst her setting, these men hold massive knifes, a vicious man made technology, to cut the meat.  One man even holds the knife over his head which could be scene as an indication that the knife actually controls his life as well as that of the animals he cuts.  Thus, it appears that the paradigm of nature, humans, and technology drastically shifts from the 19th century to the early 20th century.

Victor Frankenstein: A New Type of Artist

October 23rd, 2010

Victor Frankenstein: A New Type of Artist…/

     Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is a technician unlike others we have encountered in our literature and technology course.  Frankenstein attempts to wield grandiose powers like those of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s green girdle and The Tempest’s protagonist, Prospero.  However, unlike the magical powers of the green girdle and Prospero, Frankenstein uses powers naturally embedded in the world to create his monster.  In this way he seems similar to Daniel Defoe’s protagonist, Robinson Crusoe.   However, while Crusoe works within nature he does not understand it empirically.  Moreover, Crusoe, as a technician or artist, only attempts to recreate what has already been created.  Frankenstein therefore exists as a new sort of artist.  He wields powers with ramifications as grandiose as those of the green girdle and Prospero but like Crusoe, Frankenstein creates using powers found in nature.  However, Frankenstein differs from Crusoe in that Frankenstein empirically understands the natural “powers” he manipulates and uses these powers creates something new. 

     At the start of the novel, Frankenstein claims to be drawn to the outdated “masters of science” who seek “immortality and power” because “such views, although futile, where grand” (27).  This sort of science borders on the magic portrayed through Sir Gawain’s green girdle and Prospero.   Frankenstein too is interested in things fantastic and wondrous such as “infusing life into an inanimate body” (34).  However, both the green girdle and Prospero’s magic are never understood through empirical means.  In reading Sir Gawain and the Green Night, one cannot know if the girdle holds actual power as a sort of “elixir of life” or if it is indeed merely “a chimera” (27).     Similarly, Prospero studies books to perform magic but does not appear to understand the actual mechanics of his art.  That is why, as I argue in a prior blog (and essay), Prospero announces that his “rough magic/ [he will] here abjure” (Shakespeare V, i, 50-51).  He decides to “break [his] staff/ [and] bury it” as well as “drown [his] book” (V, i, 54, 55, 57).  While Frankenstein may be identified with the green girdle and Prospero for his grandiose scheme he differs in that the powers of the green girdle and Prospero seem beyond the realm of nature in their lack of empirical formulation.          

The Green Girdle at

Prospero at…

     Frankenstein becomes fascinated with “modern masters” who “pour over the microscope or crucible and have indeed performed miracles” (Shelly 28).    Thus, both Victor Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe produce within the realm of nature.  However, Crusoe proves to be a different sort of technician.   He does not venture into the scientific aspects of his creations and one may argue that his attribution of the “grain [growing] without any help of seed sown” to god demonstrates his lack of scientific knowledge (Defoe 58). In contrast, Victor Frankenstein describes himself as “delighted in investigating the facts relative to the actual world” (Shelly 20).  Crusoe and Frankenstein also differ in that Crusoe works to gain “all necessary things” which he might have remembered from home (Defoe 375).  On the other hand, Frankenstein is determined to create outside the framework of what has already been created.  He is interested in “the structure of the human frame” and the “principle of life” (Shelly 30). 

Crusoe at…

     Thus, Victor Frankenstein proves to be a new sort of creator.  Through his detailed and skillful (or technical) work, Frankenstein finally realizes that “what had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world was now within [his] grasp” (31).  Notice the precision involved in Frankenstein’s craft.  It is a process, “not that, like a magic scene, it all opened up to [him] at once” but rather “the information [he] had obtained was of a nature rather to direct [his] endeavors so soon as [he] should point them towards the object of [his] search” (31).  Frankenstein, as a new type of artist, works within and through studying nature and hones his findings to create a force as strong as legendary magic.

  Victor Frankenstein and his monster

     Although I will not examine it in this blog I would also like point out that it may be interesting to compare the reaction Frankenstein’s monster induces in Frankenstein with the reactions induced by the skills of other forms of “techni” we have studied.

Hobbes and the “Artificial Animal”

October 15th, 2010

Thomas Hobbes, in his book The Leviathan (1651) dubs “nature” the “[mechanical] art whereby God hath made and governs the world.”  For Hobbes “nature is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal.”  In the age of empirical sciences and rational understanding man can mimic God’s ability to create autonomous machines that, in the new Puritan sense I emphasis in my Crusoe blog, run without the mystery associated with divine intervention. 

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The image above depicts Hobbes’s notion of the imitable quality of God’s nature quite well.  The grayscale coloring equalizes the steam locomotive with nature for the two are not differentiated by contrasting colors.  In this way, the locomotive is situated comfortably amongst the serene hilltops and trees.  Moreover, the front right shrub and the front left tracks are equally detailed.  Metaphorically, just we can see the clear outline/mechanics of one, we can see the clear outline/mechanics of the other.   Furthermore, the drawing’s clear lines allow us to copy the picture (although I would not try it) in the same way that the mechanics or empirical understanding of nature has allowed itself to be “artificially” copied by human machines.   Hobbes takes this notion further by arguing that if “all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) [that] have an artificial life” than mechanical art should be able to go “further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of Nature, man.”   Thus, the mechanical arts can create “that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man.”

As a side note, Hobbes seems to be differentiating between God’s natural art and man’s “artificial” mimicry.  It appears that, in this sense, there is still something more real and natural in God’s art.   

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