AL&P: Further thoughts on Leaves of Grass

2007-03-21 00:00

After listening to, and participating in the class discussion yesterday (Tuesday, 20 March 2007), I feel I have a better grasp of the philosophical issues exposed by Whitman’s work, though I’m afraid I have no greater understanding of Whitman’s art. The student facilitator for this class (I apologize that I do not remember the name) started by asking the question, in relation to the poem “Song of Myself” of “What is the grass?” The question itself wasn’t definitively answered in either Whitman’s work or our class discussion, and aside from sparking some side conversations on the nature of grass as a metaphor or symbol of basic human-scale vitality, sparked the question of the difference between philosophy and literature, if it exists. The question of literature and philosophy, and their relationship, is a tangled one, not the least in part because philosophy is written in the same language as literature. In my opinion, philosophy looks upon mystery and wonder to solve them, to explain them, or otherwise make our mystery disappear into an appreciation of the aesthetic appeal of understanding; whereas, literature takes those same mysteries and wonders and embraces their aesthetic wholly, without qualification. Literature lets the unknowable be as pleasing as the knowable and understandable. Philosophy frustrates in the face of incapability. In some sense, if philosophy is restricted to mostly Western traditions, philosophy limits itself to the rational, and literature celebrates the confluence of the rational and irrational, the spiritual and the material. Following this discussion, the question was posed, with regard to Whitman’s idea of the open road (in “Song of the Open Road”), if we have culturally deserted the directly experiential in favour of mediated reality. This is particularly evident with regard to Internet communications (of which this very blog is a part) as, in some sense, the mediated experience of the Internet removes direct experience from the communication. As many of us in the class are rather attached to the idea of the Internet as a good thing, we attempted to grapple with Whitman’s notion and our own notion of the Internet. Whitman seems to propose the lack of control, the unexpectedness, and the equality of travel on the open road as the keys to the proper experience. The question then becomes, can we find the analogues of those forces in mediated reality, and what qualitative changes to they produce? Points were raised regarding the richness of a mediated experience, through something like instant-messaging or email; the communication is text-only, so many non-verbal cues are lost, such as tone and body language, but there are certain other stylistic cues that come into play in text-only communication, particularly instant-messaging which has a plethora of conventions that exist nowhere else to communicate, in part, what is lost from the non-verbal cues. The other important qualitative distinction is one of capability, with instant-messaging, sending links to web resources and images is easy, as is talking about highly technical or textual things (such as programming, mathematics, or scientific theories). The tools used to effect such communication can vary in quality and efficacy, and one of the more overlooked `features’ of this sort of communication is the capability to record it for later reference or reflection, which is usually disruptive or over-complicated in other media. One point to also consider is that mediated communication is usually much more intentional than unmediated, especially when non-verbal cues are removed and replaced by intentional symbols. The question then becomes, are the unconscious cues somehow better? I personally don’t think we can make a value judgement quite yet, thought I can certainly say from experience that the difference in extra-lingual cues leads to an entirely different communication experience, particularly with regard to play with the intentioned symbols that stand in for non-verbals. In closing, Whitman’s attempt to invoke the open road as a great personal force seems based simply on the fact that travel will always require traversing the intervening space (barring some great disaster in physics, at the least), and is, to an extent, and equalizer, even with our great technological capacity to mitigate the effects of distance.

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