Monday, May 12, 2014

Brave New World‽

Oh, wonder‽
How many goodly creatures are there here‽
How beauteous mankind is‽ O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t ‽

I was going to write this piece as my final post as a Brooklyn College student, and writer for the Boylan Blog. I wanted it to be on the four-part poem included in my recent obsession: In the Dust of This Planet, by Eugene Thacker. I was going to offer another quartet of commentaries, (which you can find here starting at page 133). I wanted each one on part of the poem to play with the regenerating and re-proliferating of a text that seemed to have been written in as an imaginative experiment in horror/science/darkness mysticism, building off of my last post. This is because I am eagerly awaiting the second volume, Starry Speculative Corpse (Horror of Philosophy, vol. 2), and I would like to get enough people I know to read it when it comes out, so that we can talk about it. Despite my anticipation, The Medieval Congress happened.

Over the past week, something like 3,000 medievalists (+) converged on a small town in Michigan. It was Kalamazoo. Each year, the International Congress of Medieval Studies convenes, holding hundreds of sessions and meetings on various topics in Medieval Studies. While I was both unable and unworthy of attending (little undergraduate, wannabe-medievalist that I am), I was able to virtually join in on a few sessions by extension of the interwebs and the awesome people who live-tweeted the event. Luckily, when the Babel Working Group held their roundtable panel, #;()@?":—*!, there were many tweeters in the room. I was totally taken away from my work and wrapped up in following the stream as best I could...this was a panel discussion on PUNCTUATION. I slowly gathered from the tweets that the first paper was on SPACES...the spaces between words, the spaces that, in fact, compose words by virtue of their utility to separate. It was a truly awe-inspiring revelation. Then, someone noted that a paper would be delivered remotely via YouTube. I quickly searched for the relevant video and posted it. You can find it below:

Yep! This was a paper on THE INTERROBANG: strange, rare, beautiful moment of punctuation that means both the absence of question (pure exclamation) and absolute question (which always already exclaims). Corey Sparks gives a quick history of the genesis of the symbol, before launching into the possibilities that it could open up in poetry, especially in medieval poetry, which is devoid of punctuation, and therefore, devoid of a certain physicalized (paginated?) affectivity. Sparks notes that inventions of language (the interrobang was invented only in 1962) can offer new ways of reading that can be productive– once he applies it to Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, it seems like the only possible choice. In the session, Meg Worley noted that punctuation is the place where affectivity is coded; it is where the writer tries to direct the reader with pauses, breaks, and interjections, and it is also the place where the reader polices the writer, for properness, etc. Punctuation is a place of textual battle.

And so I wondered: can we, more than just apply what seems the proper meaning, develop new meaning with our newly affected punctuation? I think the answer is yes, as evidenced by my alteration of the very-well-known lines of The Tempest offered above. What happens when we actually alter the punctuation of a non-medieval text? I think that the interrobang actually carries over some of what my commentary would have; it is possessor and enactor of cosmic explosion, wonder, terror, curiosity, and awe. When I first came across the line "Brave New World," it was in the dystopian sci-fi novel by Aldous Huxley, so you can only imagine my surprise to find such optimistic ecstasy seemingly displayed in Shakespeare's play. But reading just these lines, one forgets that this is also an irrevocable loss: the loss of childhood, of parent; for Prospero, it is quite literally the loss of magic. And yet it seems that these lines are always read with pure hope, despite Prospero's response, which can instead be darkly foreshadowing: "'Tis new to thee," as in, the world is wonderous because it is new, but only to the person who has newly entered it, because Miranda cannot see the stain that actually exists in the world.

In our contemporary educational system, more people encounter Shakespeare on the page than in the flesh and through the air. This is not a loss, but a place for new opportunity; a place for really reading something into poetry; for absorbing what at first wasn't poetry-of-the-page onto the page, and creating new meaning in the medium. While many (including myself) have and might mourn this, it should instead be embraced. Different mediums also offer new possibilities, and new kinds of textual world-building.

If we replace Miranda's questions with interrobangs, as Sparks has done with Chaucer, the text itself becomes totally new. The wonder can be frightening; the many people only dwarf our individual selves, the beauty of mankind equally carries the terrible and confused construction of the post-modern human, the brave new world begins to take on a Huxleyan edge. There is a new reading to this that is Frankensteinian: what does the new creature, full of wonder and freshly gained life wake up to? What brave new worlds lie before us to be born?

Poetry offers a place in which there really is a battle between the writer and reader, especially when it is being read:

          will you follow the dictates of the line and stop short in the middle of the sentence
Here, where the writer tells
you to? –or will you continue on (ignoring)
the punctuated dashes which stop.
short frusturatingly, Emily Dickinson on her penetrative–
* * *

Our punctuation creates words, creates worlds. And here we must turn to the page, and in doing so, turn to ourselves. What brave new world is this‽

-Isabel Stern

*you can follow the full twitter session through #s391 and the whole conference through #kzoo2014
And get a full recap of all of the BABEL session presentations from Kisha Tracy's blog post.

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