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Flourish November 2005

vol. 1, no. 9

This month I've been thinking about whether the word “implosion” can be used to describe certain kinds of writing. Namely, mine of late.

This is the writing where you take a few notes, expand those into a few sentences, expand those into a few paragraphs, and then begin to further research those same sentences. After this research, you start stuffing the sentences you already wrote, adding parenthetical phrases to back up what you already said, then long footnotes about all those with alternate opinions. Then, you begin to bring those alternate opinions up into the text to make their own paragraphs, and then you begin to wonder if you were right, given all these alternate opinions, so you do more research, decide that you weren't right, rewrite the whole thing with other conclusions in mind only to reach the end and decide that, no, you were right the first time round.

Can that be called implosion? I think maybe not because implosion results in a smaller, denser object and this process results in a larger, denser object. Not sure what the word for that is.

My friend Sally says that it's rather like Dr. Who's telephone booth, in the old BBC sci-fi television series, which looks normal on the outside, but is a universe you can spend light-years traversing on the inside. I think that's it: any book is larger inside than it is outside. I feel quite happy when I am zipping around in the universe of my book project, but when I get out of the telephone booth to do anything else it looks so small.

So, what's the key? Should you just stay in the telephone booth as much as possible? Let the outside world become even stranger to yourself? Or try to go in and out as much as possible so it all begins to seem very normal? I would answer that question but it's time for me to go back into the telephone booth. And this one right here, not that inviting one across the street. Although, wait, is that its phone I hear ringing?

More Strange Science

MIT students who submitted a nonsensical research paper to a conference on cybernetics were delighted to learn that “Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy” had been accepted. They used a computer program to randomly generate computer-science language and produce the four-page paper. Unfortunately, their second paper, produced the same way, “The Influence of Probabilistic Methodologies on Networking,” was rejected. After their trick was publicized, the conference rejected both papers and the students asked for public donations to fund an independent session in the same hotel as the conference. Money flooded in and the three graduate students presented randomly generated papers, including Harnessing Byzantine Fault Tolerance Using Classical Theory . At their website, you can generate your own phony computer science paper, download the thirteen-minute videotape of the phony session, or add code to the paper-generating program. (See also the Chronicle of Higher Education articles on the students).

The Horror, The Horror

“Graduate seminars are often salted with loquacious poseurs whose knowledge of theory is little more than a collection of buzzwords and one-size-fits-all templates. But that's what graduate school in the 90s seemed to reward … the only requirements were participation and the submission of a final essay, written in the idiom of some school of theory that one had never been formally taught but was expected to know. … Like many others, I learned how to fake it. … We were taught to praise subversives while leading lives of slavish, affected conformity, not only in terms of theory but clothing, tone of voice, and body language. … By the turn of the millennium, however, the jargon-laden writing was on the wall. Shoeshine boys were talking about Jacques Derrida. You could buy books on Theory at Wal-Mart with a six-pack of Zima and an Indigo Girls T-shirt. And now it seems like everyone is rushing to get out with what's left of their devalued stock. Famous scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Homi Bhabha, and Terry Eagleton have announced that ‘theory is dead.' Of course, at this late date, it's as if our leaders have emerged from months of concentrated thought to announce that Jefferson Starship is no longer on the cutting edge of popular music. … At conferences we stand around and complain about how awful everything is, how there's no point to continuing, but nobody has any idea what to do next. … Most of the post-boomers are still looking frantically for the Next Big Thing and trying to climb aboard it as if it were the last chopper out of Saigon. … I am trying to teach myself not to care about the Next Big Thing. I recognize that, given my position in the profession, I can only get a hot stock tip at precisely the moment when it becomes worthless.” Thomas H. Benton [pseudonym], “Life After the Death of Theory,” Chronicle of Higher Education (April 29, 2005).

News from the Editor

Back in the telephone booth.