AKMA's Random Thoughts

The sensation of fullness for the whole day. . . .

March 24, 2004

A Little Bit of Meaning

The dumb movie ran late, we spent some time admiring Pippa’s most recent work of art (a full swinging-kitchen-door mural, both sides of the door), and now I don’t have the minutes of awakeness left to produce a fully-realized post on meaning. But to avoid putting it off for another day, I’ll begin what I wanted to say.

A couple of quick responses, first off. I think Dave and I just use the word “accountable” differently. I’m open to the likelihood that Dave has a case that his is righter, but I like my usage, it serves my purposes well, except when it nettles Dave. On this question of usage, I’ll offer politely to disagree with Dave.

The second quick response actually gets at the start of my fuller observations. When I say that if my two initial premises hold (that signifying is ubiquitous and uncontrollable), then my third (that there’s no ethic intrinsic to signifying) follows from them, I don’t mean that expression and interpretation are ethically neutral. No way (as the Apostle Paul would say)! Rather, I mean that the ethical status of our signifying practices derives not from a hypothetical nature of signification, but from other discursive regimes. One could well envision and uphold an Aristotelian ethics of signifying, or a Christian ethics of signifying (starting, perhaps, with the Epistle of James), or a liberal-democratic or an aesthetic ethics of signifying, but none of these would plausibly make a case that their ethic derives simply from the nature of signification.

In order to make an intrinsic ethic of signification work, one would have to be able to account for the vast and persistent domain of signifcation-slippage — to resolve, in other words, the perennial problems of intention, ambiguity, and misunderstanding. So far as my years and perception have enabled me to tell — and that’s not a universal boundary, so I await evidence that has thus far escaped me — the so-called “problem cases” of non-deliberate, ambiguous, and misapprehended signification constitute not a rare aberration, but a tremendous proportion of the cases of signification. I expect that a theory of signifying worth supporting would have a word to say about those cases.

Now, I will close my eyes. Goodnight.

Posted by AKMA at 06:54 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

March 23, 2004

Quiet in the Faculty Meeting

Alex IM’d me in the middle of a suspense movie (sorry I didn’t respond right away, Alex) to alert me that Invisible Adjunct has hung up her blog.

It’s tough to express how this news makes me sad; she showed the grace and clarity and integrity that call together all who have a sense for the issues she voiced, building a community of support and comfort for those working under comparably inhumane situations, and never permitting us who have been her comfortably full-timed colleagues the indulgence of slack consciences. That, as I recall, is the work of a prophet; and I will do what I can to ensure that the resonances of IA’s voice aren’t drowned out once the Faculty Senate resumes its monthly squabbling about who gets the parking spaces.

Posted by AKMA at 11:01 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Antipathetic Magic

I hereby complain to the universe that somebody seems to have made off with my treasured autographed copy of The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode’s brilliant reading of the Gospel of Mark as a paradigmatic instance of narrative’s capacity to conceal as much as it reveals. You lend books to people you trust, and this is what happens.

(Now, allow me to observe that the above is an offical public complaint about others’ behavior relative to me — thus, I expect to find out in a matter of moments, that I am myself the one who mislaid the book, thus humiliating me for blaming others. That is, in fact, why I’m complaining about it publicly in the first place. OK, book, olly olly income free!)

[I was right; no one had borrowed Kermode, but he was resting on the bottom shelf of a bookshelf that had inadvertently been concealed by boxes in an effort to spruce up the basement. I withdraw my accusation, I repent in sackcloth and ashes, and I bask now in the joy of reading this exquisite critical exercise. Now, how can I choose only one chapter for my students to read?]

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March 22, 2004

When I Said “Really,” What I Meant Was. . . .

Today was consumed by high-gear wrap-up from last term, a lightning strike to the Amtrak station in the heart of Chicago to pick up Margaret, and syllabus-prep for tomorrow’s new class. Here’s a question for you: what do you call a professor who, teaching a course for the umpty-umpth time, revamps the whole class yet again?

Don’t tell me your answer.

So I think about all those topics and what I need to say relative to them, but I haven’t had a minute free to write out what I’ve been thinking (much less, to write it out carefully). Not only have I not blogged substantively today, although if I keep going at this rate my repudiation of today’s blogging will count as a substantive blog, but I haven’t even read any blogs today. No, that’s not true, somehow I got pointed toward Dooce’s accounts of childbirth and lactation (and this one), which reminded Margaret and me of our experiences in these areas, only we didn’t experience them in such delicious prose.

I will try to get to the “meaning” stuff tomorrow.

Posted by AKMA at 10:09 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

March 21, 2004

Really, I Do

I had planned a blog about meaning, accountability, comments, and ethics. But my non-stop Sunday and the cold I haven’t yet beaten (phooey to you, Halley) caught up with me and I’m scarcely able to keep my eyes open long enough to excuse myself. . . .

Posted by AKMA at 09:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

March 20, 2004


I have caught a nasty cold. It’s not worse than most people’s colds, but I catch colds relatively rarely, so I’m unduly cranky about it. It reminds me of the beginning of Kant’s “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wherein Kant complains that sometimes he gets a feeling of intellectual congestion like a stuffed nose of the brain, such that his mind can’t produce clear thought (I expected I’d be able to find a text of “The Conflict” online, but I can’t, not even in German, which makes me even grouchier, and I’m feeling too run-down to ransack the basement to find the copy I have somewhere in a box, so you’ll have to make do with a beclouded vague recollection of Kant’s analogy rather than a quotation.)

My beloved Margaret is in Rochester for 36 hours (and on Amtrak for, oh, another 30 hours, unless she’s lucky) to observe Nate in several performance opportunities. I’d have gone with her, except my last “Passion” gig for now is scheduled for tomorrow; it’s just as well I wasn’t with her on the train, as night train travel gets uncomfortable and un-sleep-able enough, but a coughing, snuffling, restless, ill-tempered lout (which I would have been) next to you will make the trip all the more miserable. That’s the upside for her, but for me it means that the sweetheart who coddles me in my affliction is away for a few days.

I have a pile of final exams to grade, which my wonderful students hand-wrote in bluebooks, some of them with handwriting so fine that it’s hard for my headachey eyes to focus on it. (One of my worries about grading involves the extent to which my temperament at the moment of evaluation might affect the grade I assign; will I show especially harsh judgment this afternoon?)

I have to prep for tomorrow’s “Passion According to John” hour.

Some aspects of my work situation have been especially irksome this week.

Si’s bandmates booted him out of the as-yet-unnamed group, destining themselves to a collective future of mediocrity and futility.

Did I admit that I’m feeling impatient and grouchy?

So y’all are just as well off that I’m not trying to be topical or profound just now. Maybe when my head clears, my revivified brain will have an interesting thought, but right now, I doubt it.

Posted by AKMA at 11:51 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

March 18, 2004


I could’ve blogged today — I want to get back to Gerry and Dave and the Tutor — but I just didn’t feel like it. Gave my Northwestern students their final exam; they were cheerful and sweet, not at all grumpy or whiny. I’ll miss them.

Tomorrow I’ll grade as many exams from that class as I can bear to, put Margaret on the train (to see Nate), and, oh, I don’t know, maybe I’ll really blog.

Posted by AKMA at 11:01 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

March 17, 2004

“Arrrrr, Elron!”

Margaret and I had a dinner date last night, wherein one of the topics of discussion was “Where do we fit on the Tom Coates typology?”

Margaret decided that she is probably a ninja dwarf of a somewhat elven sort; I, on the other hand, felt more like a ninja elf, though a rather task-oriented elf, and a little on the piratical side for a ninja. I’m not acquainted with any of the people in Tom’s upper-right-hand quadrant, but I suppose I’d fit in close to Dan Hon or Lance Arthur.

Walking home, we encountered a panhandler who pretended to be selling Streetwise, the local newspaper for homeless vendors. We paid for our copy, but the vendor suggested that we think of it as a “donation” and let him keep his last copy of the paper (which we did).

As we wandered along toward home, we turned to one and I noted sadly, “He’s not supposed to do that,” to which Margaret responded, “I know; do you think we’re saying that because we’re ninjas?”

(Nate adds, “I guess I’m a ninja,” and I’d say he’s toward the middle of dwarf and elf (not surprisingly, given his ancestry.)

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March 16, 2004


So OK, who’s going to be first with a utility that permits webcam users to blue-screen out their surroundings and paste in a jpeg of the user’s choice as a background?

I look forward to iSight messaging with people from in front of St. Paul’s (perhaps with Gary and Fiona approaching in the background), or from the interior of Christ Church, Oxford, or in front of a group of technorati from BloggerCon or DigID World. . . .

Posted by AKMA at 10:35 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

March 15, 2004

Less Random Semi-Thoughts

One of the wonderful gifts from blogging comes when your friends offer you the benefit of their wisdom (sometimes under the guise of saying what they thought you already knew). Tom, for instance, called into question “the part about ‘we’ being somehow distinct from the realm of signification, the way we are distinct from wildfires and other natural forces.”Tom goes on to wonder to what extent we’re distinct from “signification” on one hand and “forces of nature” on the other. Great, great! There are (of course) rough-hewn ways to make those distinctions work, just as there are rough-hewn (and finely-polished) ways to make “intention” work as a criterion, and so on. But Tom’s on the right path, the one that leads to trouble: the rhetoric of obvious distinction represses all the problematic complications that might arise if we looked to closely at the supposed dividing lines.

So, after learning this from Tom, what should I say? Perhaps best to say that when we broach the topic of signifying, we enter a discourse where the recursive character of our expressions and their topics play havoc with the rules. It marks a space where brutal discursive exploitation and radical semiotic trust and intimacy come into play — one reason poets seem to know this terrain so much better than most philosophers.

David nudges me relative to my suggesting (in David’s words) “that there’s no ‘real’ signification that we can authoritatively unearth. Our simple model of communication (inner thought expressed in outer signs) misrepresents the actual situation.” Then, he wonders, should we not be held accountable for the effects of our deliberate significations? (Let’s talk about defining “signifies” as “projects meaning,” but not tonight, okay?)

Sure thing — I am, as Si would have said last year and I don’t know what he’s saying this year instead, all about accountability. Indeed, absent a durable principle of intentionality as the criterion for “real” meaning, I think accountability is all we have left — not only for our deliberate sginficiations, but our inadvertent ones, too. That feels intuitively unfair; the “I didn’t mean to” defense has a long and deeply-embedded history in our social fabric. I’ll venture to suggest, though, that once we admit that intention doesn’t serve us reliably in most such respects, that it’s a necessary placeholder for an unspecifiable factor (and yes, I read Anscombe, which is partly what made me this way), then invoking the unreliable placeholder to exculpate or incriminate runs the risk of compounding the imprecise with the undeterminable. At the end of all our conversations (verbal or gestural or digital), we come to accountability: do we step up and acknowledge that we’re implicated in the various networks of ramifications that flow from our signifying practice, or do we retreat, cover our hinder parts, and endeavor to immunize ourselves from our infiliation in webs we did not make or choose. (I vote for accountability, then, rather than self-justification.) So then, the radical fluidity of signification doesn’t excuse us from responsibility; rather, it radicalizes our responsibility, requiring that we acknowledge the full extent of our participation in the economy of signs, and asking whether we then stand by the meanings we’ve participated in constructing and affirming, or whether we deny our selves.

Chris (in an email) asks, “How does what you're saying differ from what I imagine to be the First Step of a 12-step program for New Age Nihilists: ‘Came to believe I was powerless over the fact that shit happens’ ”?

I suppose that my point converges with this Twelve-Step program — but the myth of control so pervades the discourses within which I spend most of my time and energy working, that it’s worth reminding myself (and innocent bystanders) how tenuous that myth turns out to be. Indeed, often enough it’s tremendously destructive, as people cling to a dysfunctional “control” for fear of a chaos that they posit as the alternative. All the while they wreak havoc for which they don’t feel accountable, since they’re doing it in the name of fending off chaos. But that chaos may not be the only alternative, or may be only a phase thourgh which a different order is passing, or some other possibility that the fear-driven controller can’t see. Let it go, let it go. (Here I hear resonances of Eric’s shower-inspired ruminations that I want to take up tomorrow, after a night’s sleep, ’cause his post makes me want to think in a different direction. He’s way off base about that “brilliant” stuff, though.)

Chris doesn’t ask about the correlation between “signification” and the Higher Power about which twelve-step programs speak (and the God about whom theologians speak). Short answer: it’s far from being adventitious, but I want vigorously to avoid equating the two (three) or suggesting that one is a less-refined version of another. Maybe I’ll have something sensible to add to that tomorrow, in between grading final exams and other errands. In the meantime, thanks for making me think more, and harder.

Posted by AKMA at 10:33 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack (2)

Classic and Free

Anyone with an interest in fine digital type on a low budget must rush over to Igino Marini’s digital type page and download his collection of digital recreations of the Oxford Fell typefaces. He’s licensing them for free, provided that you keep him apprised of how you’re using his work. The faces are full, with abundant ligatures, ornaments, and special characters, and the pirce can’t be beat.

Especially churches and other not-for-profits who anticipate someday, under some circumstances, needing a sturdy, authentic, affordable period typeface should download these and keep them on hand. I can’t wait to set something in them, myself. . . .

Posted by AKMA at 08:32 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack (1)

Last In Line

Everyone’s already seen “The Gospel of Debbie” by now, but for the one person who might not have seen it yet — here it is.

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March 14, 2004

Good Things

Today I had a good panel discussion about The Passion, with Rabbi Deborah Newman Kamin of Am Yisrael Synagogue and Pastor Robert Atkins of Trinity United Methodist Church at Trinity UMC in Wilmette; a good conversation about the Lukan Passion Narrative over at Christ Church, Winnetka.

So Duke lost; from everything I heart, it was a good game, and if Duke couldn’t put Maryland away with a five-point lead an under two minutes to play, then three cheers to Maryland for hanging tough and winning the hard way. Duke still got a #1 seed in the South Regional.

I had a good iSight-enabled iChat with Dave “Formerly ‘Time’s Shadow,’ now ‘Groundhog Day’ ” Rogers; he’s great fun to talk with (I wouldn’t mention to him, though, that occasionally his head goes a little blurry and his face turns all pixellated; he might be sensitive about that).

The best good thing of all, though, was seeing Josiah play Rev. Parris in The Crucible last night. I’m not a kind enough soul to cut amateur theater a lot of slack; I derive no great pleasure from seeing haphazard, awkward, sloppy theatrical productions, and “cuteness” or youth or being-related-to-one-of-the-actors does not alchemically change mediocre theater to wonderful, worthwhile theater. I’m a grouch on this subject, and I’m willing to admit it.

But last night’s production of The Crucible blew me away. Si and his colleagues did a terrific job on some complex and improbable material. It’s a shame they couldn’t extend the run, because more people ought to have had the opportunity to see them (and they ought to have had an even fuller benefit for all their hard work). I’m awfully proud of Si, and glad that he was surrounded by a tremendous ensemble.

Posted by AKMA at 10:50 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack (1)

Semi-Random Thoughts

— Everything signifies.

— Significance is not controllable.

— There’s no ethic intrinsic to signifying.

What am I getting at? Nothing original, but matters that I sometimes wish were more prominent in conversations and interactions around us, day by day. Chalk it up to too much thinking about theory lately.

So first of all, I’m proposing that signifying, meaning-making, semiosis, goes on all around, all the time. What you wear signifies, what you say signifies, how you walk signifies, where you live signifies — we’re saturated with signifying, and to keep our sanity we damp most of it down as “meaningless,” but that’s a gesture of force. Nothing is either quite meaningless or quite meaningful, but anything (word, gesture) may be found especially meaningful (or not), depending.

Second, not surprisingly, given what I just proposed, signifying always escapes our capacity to control. We often make to control signifying under the rule of intention (“I didn’t intend to offend you, so it’s not my responsibility if you’re hurt by what I did.”). The rule of intention has long been known to lead to Hell, though, and no other mode of policing signification has proved more effective. If I wear an orange jacket through the wrong neighborhood on St. Patrick’s Day, that’ll signify, whether I intend it to or not, and the significance may be enforced with sanctions that pay no respect to refined arguments about the nature of human intention, or the legitimacy of reader-oriented interpretation.

Hard as people try to build dikes on the river of meaning, to shore up those barriers with all sorts of reinforcement, still significance pours over the retaining walls and floods our homes and fields.

Third, if we can’t control it, and if it’s going on all the time all around us anyway, the notion that there might be an implied ethic to signification, such that if we only truly understood signification we would understand the right way to understand, runs into fatal incoherency. Is there an ethic of gravity? of air? of cosmic rays? There’s just no percentage in trying to draw out the hidden truth of signifying, in order to extract the Right Answer by which we can assess all efforts at signifying, or all inferred significations. We have no more control over signifying than we do over wildfires in the West, or the paths of hurricanes in the East. Signifying isn’t a force of nature; at the same time, it so outstrips our capacities to predict and control that we are not less helpless before the tides of signifying than we are helpless when an undertow draws us away from shore, tires us, and eventually pulls us under the water.

Posted by AKMA at 10:26 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack (5)