Sunday, February 28, 2010

Large unconscious scenery

In the large unconscious scenery of my land with its lakes and forests . . .

-- Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, sec. 14

"It's almost as if they can talk," we say when we see patterned activity executed by the non-human. "It's almost as if they're thinking." Something that looks like art is coming into existence before our eyes, but neither this art nor its creator is anything but the play of some molecules under the explanatory dictation of physical chemistry.

I see blue and orange, overlapping like lacquer plates on a suit of samurai armor. I see the wasp's head, simplified like a Brancusi to its essential parts of a sensing apparatus (dark dull still eyes, bright moving antennae) and an active mouth. Knowing too that what I see is being underwritten by a tourist economy and its requirement for light and color, I see the leaf of a hibiscus, whose color and form are part of Hawaii's currency. Under a brilliant sun, a kind of Sotheby's is being reenacted: one kind of symbol system (call it art) sheared away from its originating biology and consumed by another (call it money).

But here there is no auctioneer to call out words that could give human significance to the exchange of reflex communication. The only words I can bring to the experience are my own. A wordy spectator, all I can supply is a stereotyped explanation of what I'm feeling. This, I think, must be dramatic irony. If only the wasp could speak to me and tell me how to feel. If only she could know.

But on college campuses, grassy spaces full of talkatoria, there are times when the play of instinct does take on words. At those instants, the beauty created by reflex action becomes the beauty of high comedy. Consider, for instance, the text known as the Kaye Report, at

Written by retired Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Judith S. Kaye, dated February 11, 2010, and officially titled "Report to the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York," this text documents what happened after the administration of SUNY's Binghamton campus decided that its basketball team needed some really successful players. An early consequence of that decision played out on October 26, 2008, when one of the team's new stars, Malik Alvin, conducted a smash-and-grab raid on a Wal-Mart and collided with an elderly woman while running out the door with a stolen package of condoms ("Report," p. 42). Apprehended, Alvin was sentenced to an apology and some community service.

That much of the report is history. But its text makes the transition from history to art by presenting us these data in its creators' own words. On pp. 83-84, for instance, the report transcribes for us a series of text messages between Alvin and assistant coach Marc Hsu, with Alvin demanding money from Hsu to pay his community service fee and Hsu complying. Offered the opportunity to explain the words printed out on Judith Kaye's page, Coach Hsu simply denied that they said what they did say (85). It was as if he were creating a poem: playing with words as if they were a basketball in motion, nothing but the visible trace of a play of vanished invisible forces.

And then:
Click to enlarge.

Soberly, in accordance with the canons of academic respectability, the report brackets its editorial emendations: "Where [are you] at[?]" (83). Visually, too, the report is canonically academic. Its font is Times New Roman, Microsoft Word's default for all versions before 2007. Named for the paradigmatically respectable London newspaper that sponsored its coming into the world, Times Roman is a conservative font, with its decorative flourishes (such as its asymmetrical W) serving only to set off its sober ensemble like the tiny pattern on a funeral director's tie. Translated from the sans-serif and primary colors of a cellphone screen to the black and white employed by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, Malik Alvin's words transform their new context just as (T.S. Eliot teaches us this in "Tradition and the Individual Talent") a new poem which enters an anthology makes the whole old book new.

And, again, Coach Hsu simply denies that he and his collaborator Malik Alvin have written a poem. But about that wordy gesture, of course, a poem was already in existence to help us make our way through the expanding cloud of new beauty.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

So thank you, text of the Kaye Report, for your brackets and their graceful educational gesture of homage to the old, dead language which colleges once existed to teach: "I left the stuff from the internet the same so you can know what you[']r[e] changing."  Thank you, Times Roman, for fronting for your content the way American universities front for their athletic programs. But above all, thank you, dull expressionless eyes and tightly packed sphere of thoracic muscles, for focusing the drive of a hard aerodynamic shape toward a hibiscus-shaped reward (you could call it a leaf; you could call it a condom) but never once breaking the beauty of silence to call it anything.