Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Day of the Dead

Let's face it: some cultures are better than others at shrine-making.

Luckily for me, the area where I live is a hotbed of shrine-ism and, in fact, an intensely rich deposit of Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not the same as Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve. In the European tradition, All Hallows' Eve has its roots in the Gaelic holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow-wen), which came after the harvest, at the end of the year, just before the world died for awhile. It was a liminal time, when spirits came close and magic was strong; and it had the shadow of the dark behind it.

Dia de los Muertos, on the other hand, comes from the indigenous peoples of Mexico, who celebrated the deaths of their ancestors for nearly a month each summer. Perhaps because it is less associated with autumn, with the beginning of the dark and cold, it has an entirely different feel from Halloween. In Mexico, it is a time to rejoice in your loved ones and your ancestors who have passed on to another life. Offerings of food, toys, blankets (so they can rest after their long journey), flowers and so on are put out, in specially-built household shrines or on tables in the yard, for the dead to enjoy. Graves are cleaned and hung with flowers; in some places whole families spend the night at the graves of their loved ones, picnicking and singing, with candles and colored lights.

Children stay up and run around the streets, sucking on sugar skulls. Little statues of skeletons, grinning madly and doing all manner of humorous things, can be found everywhere. Death, in Mexico, does not pall. In fact, it is to be celebrated. Dia de los Muertos is a joyous occasion, full of music and food and lights in the darkness.

There are so many cultures who enshrine. European enshrinement seems to happen largely inside or around specific places of worship, which I find fascinating but ultimately somewhat limited (pictures of one's dead mother/father/brother/etc. next to/under a household cross being a small exception). In some cultures, if there is any reason whatsoever to build a shrine, they will do so.

In Japan, for example, the Buddhists build big temples, and not so many shrines (though there are always examples out there which will prove me wrong; I'm speaking in generalities). The older and more shamanistic Shinto, however, which coexists side-by-side and simultaneously with Buddhism (in other words, sharing worshipers), is a religion that is suffused into the countryside. It is everywhere, celebrated in nature and in the shapes of the landscape, and cannot be separated out. Therefore, small signs of Shinto are everywhere: in little roadside shrines and rocks, in the paper or rice-straw ropes tied around significant trees. True, you can nd large, church-like Shinto "shrines" as well, but even they have an odd quality where the outside seems as important as the inside, and often center around an important landscape quality.

But the best are the tiny shrines, the little places that are used and loved by local people, who believe in kami, little mythical spirit beings, who live in the world with us and think and feel much as we do.

What makes a shrine really a shrine are the offerings, the attention. The loving bits left for whatever spirit dwells there. Without this care, this consciousness of its specialness, it is nothing. The mindfulness is the thing.

Bali has exquisite offerings, made with care and an asthetic eye out of flowers and leaves, and sometimes a sprinkling of rice. Bali is probably one of the most mindful places I've ever been; there is this daily routine to the beauty, the delicate and conscious handling of daily devotion. Everything, everything is carefully, beautifully done: the washing of the steps, the morning laying out of offerings, the care with which people dress. And the festival offerings are really works of art.

One of the reasons, as I said, that I love California is the intense Central American influence. There are many Day of the Dead celebrations to be had - more and more as time goes on and it becomes more ingrained into the culture. I remember the first American Day of the Dead thing I went to, a parade in the Mission District of San Francisco, years ago. I was annoyed with the way that it was politicized, probably for good reason - mourning the U.S.'s transgressions in Central America, perhaps; I was young and didn't pay enough attention. There were a lot of European Americans involved, all wearing sort of Grim Reaper attire. It was heavy and dark, and not very celebratory, and it made me unhappy that such a marvelous holiday - no, festival - could be reduced to such a grim and feeble remnant.

It seems especially reprehensible when you consider the traditional U.S.-based Central American mode of expressing political dissent: the murals. They have colors, they are intense and bright and full of life. They are not heavy, grim, or dark. They are all about empowerment and celebration. They are shrines to what should be. If you like these ideas, and if you are ever visiting San Francisco, take a walk down Balmy Alley, in the Mission district. It's a continuing tradition which is worth a visit.

Now, however, people are catching the idea of Dia de los Muertos. Not only has the cheerful nature of the holiday taken hold, but the color, the joy, and hopefully the thinking of death in a new way, has begun to infiltrate the California culture.

In Oakland, for example, there is a whole weekend devoted to the Dia de los Muertos festival, with a section of 14th street closed and stalls, bouncy castles, sugar-skull decorating for the children, crafts, candles and flowers. People who live there set up shrines. It's a Thing. It's still looking through an American end of a cultural telescope, but it's real, and, well, they're getting the hang of it. And folks love it. Children make little shoebox shrines to their ancestors in school, regardless of race. Chrysanthemums are sold on street corners.

And if you're ever driving down the road and see a small, flower-covered place - a little box full of flowers and/or toys, or a bouquet tied to a phone pole - stop for a moment and look. Because that is the place where a person died. And someone who loved that person made a special place, just for them - not only to comemmorate them, but to give their spirit some place to come, and know that it is loved.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Star Trek Translated into Gorey-ese

What can I say? You must read this, by Shaenon Garrity, to believe it.

Weird thing is, I was actually a young teenager visiting Massachusetts in 1980 when Gorey's Dracula was being put on nearby (see the link, they discuss it). I was dying to see it, but couldn't get a ride, and was too young to find another way - it even had Frank Langella, who had starred in Dracula: a Love Story, and on whom I had a massive crush at the time. I have regretted it ever since. Moral: spare no expense to do something you will regret not doing for the rest of your life...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Animation About Clockwork Freedom

Check out The Cags, a stop-motion-and-CG animation from Alexei Petrov. Very cool. I love the endless lines they draw, and the sound they make when they touch.

NaNoWriMo et Moi

Who knows? Perhaps it will become a masterpiece

Okay, I signed up to do a stint on NaNoWriMo, so bear with me in November while I attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I'm going to try to keep doing the blog thing too, if only as a collection of interesting bits I come across along the way. I want to try the palimpsest-world-building idea (at the end of the post, below) beforehand: I'll write a flash fiction thing every day, hopefully, so that I'll have this pile of interesting glimpses into my new novel's world by the time NaNoWriMo starts on November 1st. Maybe it won't all be crap when I'm done on November 30th.

I'll be there under the username Heatherdoodle. Wish me luck!

Anyone else want to write a novel and get it over with? Go to the National Novel Writing Month webpage and join the insanity by clicking on "sign up".

PS. I'm posting my efforts here...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Palimpsests As Metaphor

Photo courtesy of Lou

I recently came across a reference to an "architectural palimpsest", and was fascinated, not only because the term is so interesting and apt but because the way it was used could apply to so many different ideas. What a mental find! My mind went crazy with the different possibilities for a few days. What about the marks that pictures make in the places where they used to be on the walls? What about the dry spot on the ground where a car was parked during the rain?

Historically, palimpsests are parchments made of animal hide which have been scraped "clean" again so that new works can be written on them. Generally, a ghost of the original(s) remain behind the new writing, leaving traces of what once was. Sometimes, the deliberately destroyed work (parchment being more valuable than writings, at times) is the only remaining copy of an old document, and many otherwise lost works have been recovered this way.

So an architectural palimpsest is the ghostly remains of other buildings or parts of buildings that are still apparent on existing buildings. And, it turns out, there are tons of other kinds of extended uses of the term. The art and philosophy worlds are, of course chockablock with them. Archeologists extend the idea of architectural palimpsest into their own study of layered structures, to mean "accumulated iterations of a design or a site, whether in literal layers of archaeological remains, or by the figurative accumulation and reinforcement of design ideas over time." It is a good word for structures or traces which have obviously morphed over time but which defy specific dating.

Photo link

The term is also used by forensic scientists to describe how objects at a site are layered on top of one another, showing the order of events. That in itself is fascinating. Forensic science can be incredibly dull, but in its basic form - the study of the laying-out of objects to see what happened to make them fall that way - it reeks not only of Sherlock Holmes, but of Miss Haversham, that perfect example of creepy time-stoppage.

In more theoretical discourse, palimpsests appear in relation to psychology, culture, and even mythology. Baudriard, that inimical but required author we had to slog through in graduate school, discusses the way modern culture is simply a layered miasma of images of images of images - a totally mediated experience - until we no longer know where or what the original once was. Myths and rituals get worked over by time and human creativity until the originals show through only in glimmers; fairy tales gain and lose characters, nastiness, and motif depending on the era in which we live. Our whole existence could be seen as a long progression of palimpsestic reality, where the old cultures, the old ways, are stripped away but continue to shine through in the ways we do things: our superstitions, our celebrations.

Photo courtesy of Lou

Historians are, in fact, beginning to use the word more and more, not only to describe revisionist histories and how they never work, but to describe history as a whole, in the way people experience time. We all, in fact, wake up every morning with the memory of yesterday all ready-scraped for us to write the new day on. Our whole experience of the world could be said to be like a palimpsest. I could go on and on - it is a lovely metaphor.

And what about technology? My friend Gwyan is interested in virtual ruins, the remains of old websites that linger around the internet, out-of-date and unused. They are archeological artifacts, echos of earlier information which have not yet faded. To some extent hypertext itself is a bit like a renewable palimpsest...or hard drives! Now that's what I call a palimpsest. And, in a cyberpunk future of endlessly re-used technological junk, can't you see old circuitry being re-fitted and re-programmed for new uses by junk-diving scavengers? Talk about re-use. You never know, I might be talking about reality for us all, in the future. The gods we know now and in the known past could be replaced by scraped-over versions at any time.

Sometimes, I get a fleeting glimpse of an idea, and long to make it real. I wonder, in fiction writing, if it might be worth literally creating a type of palimpsest for world-building. What if a writer wrote stories about other stories about other stories, and then used that as a jumping-off point for the real story? Wouldn't the end result be deeply enriched? Wouldn't that writer's built world then take on the patina of a real, true place with actual thickness, rather than that of a stage set or a newly-built suburb? This does happen, to some extent, with fan fiction and with writers who write about the same world throughout their lives. But I'd like to try it as a really disciplined experiment, a rigorous exercise, a buildup of reality for the history of my world.

Ah, well, maybe in that other lifetime I keep saying I'll live. If only we could write over ourselves and live many, many times, with the old self showing through...oh, sorry, I forgot: they do that in India, don't they?

Synesthesia: the Flavor of Music, the Color of Touch

In the late 19th century, synesthesia, that strange and magical condition where the sense are intertwined, was the subject of much research all over Europe and America. The fact that some unspecified number of people experienced sensory crossover was fascinating, but attempting to design tests that would satisfactorily prove its existence, not to mention why it happened, was difficult. With the advent of behaviorism in the 1930s, a field which disallowed any usefulness in internal experience, interest in synesthesia waned, and it became a forgotten science. Then in the 1980s, with the cognitive revolution, science began once again to pay attention to internal states. Lo! Synesthesia slowly crept back into fashion.

We all know stereotypical synesthesia from movies and TV: the idiot savant who sees colors when he or she hears music, or perhaps the brilliant cryptographer whose different letters and/or numbers in different colors move about to solve a mystery. Because I first heard about it as a child, I had a bunch of really wild ideas about the condition, based on a description of a condition where the so-called sufferers' "senses were mixed up". I had imagined people who could taste sound, or see smells; people who felt color or pattern on their skin, or perhaps people who smelled their way through life, instead of looking.

Some of the above are actually documented, but others are (at the moment anyway) merely fancies of mine. When I started reading around in preparation of this post, though, I found a fascinating array of different perceptual issues under the same heading. In fact, as I started reading, I began to realize that I was synesthetic myself.

Drawing of the neural circuitry of a rodent hippocampus

Strangely, I had often thought how cool it would be to be synesthetic, but had assumed, like narcolepsy, that it was relatively rare and rather unmistakable. When someone I knew said she was synesthetic I figured it was a bid for attention, a way of making herself more interesting. I knew that I had some perceptual quirks, but simply put it down to being highly imaginative, or perhaps merely the leftovers of some childhood way of teaching myself things.

For example, when I was first learning my alphabet, I saw the letters as having distinct personalities. I didn't seem to have any choice about what their personalities were, but they were clearly there. Putting together words was much like putting together little conversation groups at a party: the dynamics were different if you forgot one, or put it between the wrong two letters (thus my spelling was always excellent). To this day, I still see the letters as having these same personalities (with some odd effects due to fonts - some fonts I don't like because they warp the poor letters' personalities in uncomfortable ways); however, now I gloss over it. Like so many things when we grow up, we begin to take things for granted, like the motions of driving or the walk to the mailbox. We say to ourselves, there's the oak tree, or oh, it's sunny today, but we say it in shorthand. We don't really look at the oak tree, and we certainly don't stop long enough to actually look at the way the sun is hitting the grass.

So I have been living with these little characters [sic] all my life, without really noticing them much. But if you asked me about them I could tell you all about how the "a" and the "y" don't really like each other - but that might be because the "y" is kind of stuck up, and the "a" is really very down-to-earth. And so on.

It turns out this is called Ordinal Linguistic Personification, and can be identified as true synesthesia by a test they use for many synesthetic expressions, ie. a test where the quality of the picture shown is in contrast with the automatically perceived quality as seen by the synesthete. So, for example, if the synesthete sees a "b" as female, then making a male figure out of "b"s will slow their recognition time.

This form of synesthesia often goes hand-in-hand with Grapheme-Color Synesthesia, which is the most common form: seeing letters and numbers as colored. I don't personally have this form of it, but like many forms of the condition it can be seen as actually colored, or can simply have a strong, automatic color association in the mind of the perceiver. Which makes it difficult to put a finger on, except that tests have proven that people can be confused because of the strength of their perceptions. As one person says, of her grapheme-color perceptions, "I thought this was caused by me over-thinking things." Apparently this is actually quite common, for people (like me) to simply believe they are being imaginative, or making up systems to help themselves (as I did), in school or elsewhere.

A picture of one person's number-form synesthesia, ie. the mental mapping of numbers, from Francis Galton's study, The Visions of Sane Persons

One of my favorite forms is lexical-gustatory synesthesia, where people experience phonemes as different tastes in their mouth. Can you imagine? It would be like the fairy tale of the two sisters who have jewels, frogs, etc. falling from their mouths, except all mixed together, depending on what you were saying. It might be enough to turn one into a seriously laconic individual.

What about people who "see" music, or sounds? This is another common form of synesthesia, to have colors associated with specific tones, so that listening to music becomes a more intense and complex experience. I always thought that the little thing I did, where I "imagined" the music as colored ribbons which twined above, and slightly to the left, of my vision, was a sort of game I played with myself, because like a page on a computer desktop I could minimize it if needed. But it was always there, even if I wasn't specifically thinking about it. Apparently, this is not an unusual type of synesthesia for musicians to have.

In fact, it seems to be fairly common for synesthetes to be creative people. "Some studies have suggested that synesthetes are unusually sensitive to external stimuli. Other possible associated cognitive traits include left-right confusion, difficulties with math, and difficulties with writing." [wiki]

Carol Steen's painting of a synesthetic experience of acupuncture

I find this interesting, because I have all of those traits (except writing), and am terrible with numerals. Conceptually, I'm all over math, but when I have to deal with the visual symbols I get lost. On thinking about it, I realize that seeing letters as interesting social groups actually helps me to spell, but it doesn't help with math. The personalities of the numbers confuse me when I'm trying to work with their numeric values.

This human ability to make up stories, to find systems so as to make sense of a chaotic universe, is inherent in everyone, reaching right down to some of our most basic ways of interacting with the world. Like face recognition, storytelling is one of the deep ways we recognize things and organize our world. But synesthesia lies even deeper, right down to the molecular levels of the brain. It is beginning to emerge that the characteristic is X-chromosome-linked, and there is some evidence that some of its effect (though not all) is associated with the hippocampus, a part of the limbic system of the brain which is crucial for spatial memory and navigation, and which is affected by many kinds of altered states of consciousness. LSD, for example, is said to induce synesthesia sometimes, and its effect is connected to the hippocampus. Interestingly, the limbic system is also where many emotional associations are made.

There is some researchers who believe that neonatal brains have minimal sensory differentiation, ie, that we "learn" to differentiate between the five senses; and therefore synesthetes may be people for whom these differentiations have not developed into such specifically walled-off areas. A common conception is that when sensory stimulation comes in from one area, such as the ears, there is a sort of cross-stimulation that takes place where neurons in the sight area of the cerebral cortex are activated as well, causing a visual response.

As Mr Cytowic (see below) says, "Mechanistic explanations have been plentiful throughout synesthesia's history. The notion of crossed wires turns up repeatedly. As early as 1704, Sir Isaac Newton struggled to devise mathematical formulae to equate the vibration of sound waves to a corresponding wavelength of light. Goethe noted color correspondences in his 1810 work, Zur Farbenlehre. The nineteenth century saw an alchemical zeal in the search for universal correspondences and a presumed algorithm for translating one sense into another. This mechanistic approach was consistent with the then-common view of a clockwork universe based on Newton's uniform laws of motion."

There are other aspects to it, which haven't been explored so much, which don't fit in so well with the scientific community's penchant for following single ideas down to their roots. For example, synesthetes generally have very good memory, recalling things such as conversations, directions, and verbal instructions with surprising accuracy. They are very often amazingly good at spatial location "such as the precise location of kitchen utensils, furniture arrangements and floor plans, books on shelves, or text blocks in a specific book. Perhaps related to this observation is a tendency to prefer order, neatness, symmetry, and balance. Work cannot commence until the desk is arranged just so, or everything in the kitchen is put away in its proper place. Synesthetes perform in the superior range of the Wechsler Memory Scale." [Cytowik again]

It is interesting to note how the term "synesthesia" has been used for many years in the world of literature, art and music, not as an experiential condition but as a metaphoric edifice, a sort of symbolic way of expressing things. The metaphors (that storytelling urge, again) which pervade our senses, the smell of green cut grass or the clarity of wetness, are a cultural construct, a direct connection to the arts. Despite this, there are many famous creative synesthetes, who have made their mark, directly or indirectly, on our lives. Vasily Kandinski, a well-known synesthete himself, is quoted many times in scientific literature. His desire to bring the immediacy of his perception to audiences, his exhortation to "stop thinking!" has endeared him to those people fascinated by the wild individuality of the condition, the repercussive echos that it brings to the study of the brain. For synesthesia is, at heart, that most ineffible of things: a creative experience of the world, immediate and unquantifiable, having an everlasting impact on our culture through its artists. It brings to mind what Kandinski said, back in 1910:

"Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and . . . stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to 'walk about' into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?"

Some links:
Richard E. Cytowic's very interesting and absorbing review of the subject from 1995, very worth taking a look at for a more detailed and sensory description.

His book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, can be found on Amazon.

Wired Magazine's 2005 take on the phenomenon.

(Thanks to for the image at the top of the post)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Creative Use of Junkyard Find

Check out this sculpture created by a 6th grader at the school I work at. Gabe H., on seeing this adding machine at a junkyard, decided it looked like a car, and wanted to add wheels, so with the help of his dad he welded these sawblades to pipe-axles. Give it a shove and it really travels - but watch what surface it's sitting on...

it reminds me just a little bit of a kind and gentle Survival Research Labs machine (see below).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Wonderful, Bizarre Little Animation

Check out this amazing little thing, by Run Wrake (apologies for not naming him or her earlier). Where do people think of this stuff? The images remind me of some of the things I used to find at car boot sales in England (like American flea markets). I would buy whatever I could, because the whole world depicted in the schoolbooks or blocks or whatever it was was really odd in a way I couldn't put my finger on. I made lots of sculptures with them, trying to figure it out - but this animation really catches it for me (why ink and feathers? Perhaps it's all for the Pen of my Aunt).

Thanks to ZeFrank, one of my favorite silly sites, for the link. Enjoy!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Merkins and Kotekas and Codpieces, Oh My!

This is a silly post. Or rather, about things which might seem silly: genital coverings.

I was sewing a pair of trunk hose for my Significant Other, who has wanted a pair for years. I'm a Faire brat (as in the Renaissance Faire), but not the usual kind. My parents were what is considered the stodge of the Ren Faire: the craftspeople who sell their wares there. A subtle difference from the outside, but important in the social world of the Faire, because the craftspeople were mostly hardworking folk who busted butt all week to create enough of their wares for the weekend, and then sat all day in their booths waiting on people; to them it was a life-saver, a money-maker. It was work. Whereas the actors (the colorful and flamboyant staff) were people with day jobs who came to the Faire to cut loose and be someone else for the weekend. So you can imagine the personality types are very different.

My memories from very young are of taking naps in the top of the booth, with the sounds of the Faire all around, and of running around after dark among the booths where people crouched over camp-stoves or Coleman lanterns, talking quietly, while in the distance musicians sang and drunken people laughed loudly. You could buy your dinner from the sausage place, who served up food for the locals after hours, or cook your own; and there were madly obscene plays held in the theatres for anyone who wished to see them. In any case, despite the fact that I'm not an actor-type, and I am no longer allowed into the inner world of the Faire, I retain a soft spot for the costumery and the general air of the place.

So here I was, sewing trunk hose and trying to fashion a codpiece. The pattern I had, when sewn up, seemed designed to be this terrible thrusting thumb-shaped thing which I found difficult to believe. It was certainly not something designed to actually contain any anatomical parts in a useful way. Looking at the pictures from history that the pattern people provided, I did not see anything like it. Eventually, I designed my own version, but along the way I looked at lots of pictures of codpieces; and began to be really interested in the whole phenomenon of genitalia coverings.

We all know about loincloths. The need to cover one's nether regions, while not ubiquitous, is nearly so. Every land mass in the world has some version of this garment, whether it be called a fundoshi (Japan), a sirat (Borneo), or a breechcloth (Europe). In many cultures, it is the sole garment worn, historically, by both sexes.

Gollum, gollum: loincloths are seen, in Western culture, as primitive and showing a lack of social or cultural development, rather than a simple, comfortable garment

Otto Steinmayer, at the Universiti Malaya, has some interesting things to say about the wearing of loincloths; rather than a modesty issue, he says loincloths are a way to decorate our bodies, a humanizing element to distinguish ourselves from animals. The fact that the genitals become the site for creative expression is related to their social importance - ie, the importance of sex as it relates to marriage and other customs and taboos - and to the fact that restriction of copulation is one of the major points of any civilization. Therefore, loincloths and other genital coverings become important for their expression of that consciousness, that restriction. As Mr. Steinmayer says, " Some South American Indians have expressly said that they ornament themselves because if they wear no ornament they feel there is no difference between themselves and animals." He goes on to make this beautiful statement: "A loincloth is something put on the body. Western clothes that cover everything reshape the person entirely."

Metal codpieces

It is interesting, therefore, that codpieces became such a fashion statement in Renaissance times. Beginning as an easy way to cover the awkward space between the legs of men's hose, codpieces continued to be popular long after those same private bits could be tucked easily into trunk hose or other forms of baggy wear. And the styles were awfully strange. As in my "historically correct" pattern, an erect shape was common, even if it wasn't to my modern taste.

Henry VIII of England began padding his codpiece at some point, which caused a spiraling trend of larger and larger codpieces that only ended by the end of the 16th century. The fact that he may have done it to bandage over the medication of syphilis symptoms did not stop it from becoming a trend. Eventually, the trend died out, interestingly coinciding with the more modest styles of Protestantism/Puritanism. Nowadays, of course, you can still see them in any place where people wear skin-tight, manly apparel, such as in science fiction movies and on rock stars and superheros. Otherwise, all other attempts to bring them back have failed.

In New Guinea, by contrast, the wearing of Kotekas, or penis sheaths made from specially-grown gourds, is still {according to Wikipedia} going strong. "Campaigns by the Indonesian government to suppress the koteka in Papua occurred in the 1970s. The campaigns have been largely unsuccessful in areas such as the Baliem Valley.
"In 1971-1972 the government launched "Operasi Koteka" ("Operation Penis Gourd") which consisted primarily of trying to encourage the people to wear shorts and shirts because such clothes were considered more "modern." But the people did not have changes of clothing, did not have soap, and were unfamiliar with the care of such clothes so the unwashed clothing caused skin diseases. There were also reports of men wearing the shorts as hats and the women using the dresses as carrying bags.
"Missionaries in the 1950s attempted to alter the local customs by forcing locals to wear shorts. Many of the Dani of the Baliem Valley felt exposed without their kotekas and could be seen wearing shorts with their kotekas sticking out of them. Eventually the missionary effort and the Indonesian government's campaign were abandoned. Nevertheless, western clothing is required in government buildings, and children are required to wear western clothing in school. Kotekas are still considered acceptable attire in church, however."

I love that! I love how strong the people's attachment is, but then I always cheer when attempts to "modernize" a culture fail. Kotekas are interesting, being a social construct only; they hide so little and yet are so necessary to the men's sense of self and modesty. Contrary to Western belief the size and shape of a koteka are not indicative of anything other than practicality and situation. Different tribes wear differently-shaped ones, and size and elaborateness are usually a function of ceremony rather than an individual's social status.

All this is very well, what with penis-sheaths and codpieces, but what about women? We tend, in American culture, at least, to denigrate our nether regions, see them as something to be deodorized and sanitized. The recent cult for shaving and waxing is an example of how we would like the whole part to just stop being so messy. The "landing strips" that you can see on porn stars and, probably, in any women's locker room are a mere nod to the more natural state of affairs, as much a social construct as a penis sheath. The sense of taboo about women's genitalia, the desire to make them vanish or dwindle, can be seen in many cultures, in many guises: the genital mutilation still being practiced in some countries, for example, or the traditional Romany taboo against exposing objects or animals to the underside of a woman's skirts (as in stepping over things), because it will pollute them. And look at how our own Freud describes women as embodying "lack".

Thanks to the Barber Blog for the image.

Into the lines of debate about the size and luxuriance of your patch, there comes that marvelous 17th century invention, designed to hide the signs of syphillus in prostitutes: the merkin, or pubic wig. Not so common these days, except as sequinned mock-merkins in bulesque costumes (to go with pasties, instead of a g-string), merkins are on the rise in Japan under the moniker "Night Flower". Apparently underdeveloped young Japanese women turn to Chinese-made, hand-woven human hair merkins in order to "normalize" their appearance.

And then there are the fun merkins which are making their appearance on the scene. These are the postmodern interpretation of pubic hair which, curiously, does not read as obscene, even while leaving everything looking much the same shape and size as one's natural state. I think my favorite is the one, above, from Burning Man, called the "merkinlight": a merkin with flashlight. It may be silly but damn, it's cool.

On that note, you really should take a look at Merkin World, for a taste of custom merkin shopping...and a fun history of merkins.

Other links:

Nice, and very complete blog post about the merkin by The Capital Letter blog.

A Short and Curly History of the Merkin, from the Guardian archives

The Flow of Information, or: Culture, Shmulture

(Warning: Long Post Ahead)

Having been to two workshop-format writing conferences this year, I've been studying the differences, trying to put my finger on why one was so different from the other. It wasn't until I was home for a few days that I realized why.

Viable Paradise is a workshop for up and coming speculative fiction writers, designed to give you the tools you need to polish up your writing and get it published. The talks are entertaining, practical, and incredibly useful, and the faculty are amazingly available in every way. You can pick their brains, play games that make you all laugh your fool head off, or simply sit around and talk, and they participate actively in all of it. This, in itself, is a world away from the "literary" workshop I attended earlier this year, where the teachers seemed mostly to socialize with each other, not with the students (in their defense, I will say the literary conference was mu-u-uch larger than Viable Paradise, and individual teachers were teaching separate classes).

The two things that struck me most about VP were the intellectual quality of the conversation - on far-reaching topics - and the feeling that everyone was technically savvy, with a strong awareness of modern culture and its modes of communication. Everyone had laptops, email, blogs, myspace pages and so on; everyone followed the far-reaching implications of the electronic culture. Most people were, in the truest and best sense of the word, geeks. And the most interesting thing, for me, was the diversity of backgrounds, of day-jobs, of interests. Everyone there wanted to write; everyone was good at it; but writing wasn't a complete and total end in itself. It wasn't the one and only thing people wanted or knew how to do, and that was all right.

The "literary" conference on the other hand, was subtlely different. Of the writers that were invited to teach, all were accomplished authors. They mostly had MFAs and were very good at critiquing writing, good at the underlying motivations of your characters, at the techniques and metaphors in writing literary fiction. But very few of them participated in electronic culture-making. Of the agents and publishers who were brought in to talk about agenting and publishing, very few of them really looked at the Web much. Some of them didn't have email addresses. None of them understood, or had even thought about, the relevance of blogging.

The experience I had, the feeling of a slight flatness, was largely due to the unspoken agenda at the conference, which was pointed toward traditional publishing as the only way to be successful; anything else was lesser, and didn't count. In fact, I got the feeling that most people didn't even think about it. When I told people about this blog, they nodded their heads and said "Ah," and I knew if they looked at it, it would be cursory, if at all.

Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing fame (among many other things), gave a talk at VP about writing practices, and part of his lecture was devoted to his campaign for Creative Commons and the loosening of copyright laws. He pointed out, among other things, that the electronic exchange of information is a creative endeavor, essentially a cultural exchange, and that by the "conversations" we have, the way we share our interests and discoveries, we are actually building culture, just as people used to talk to each other and pass books back and forth, or travel to culturally-rich cities to participate in the exchange of ideas. His point is that by instituting draconian copyright laws, and by enforcing them in arbitrary and pointless ways, the cultural capitalists of our time are suppressing the development of culture.

Because think about it: those culturally-significant cities can now be expressed in terms of online loci, places where people of intellectual similarity and interest gather to discuss the ideas of the day. If, like the Rennaissance man who travels to Florence with a trunk full of books he picked up in Germany, they pass around what they've found, then more people are enlightened, more people know about those books and those ideas, and it enriches the culture. The demand for those books and ideas goes up. We all evolve a little.

Around 1452, religious documents begin to be printed on a movable-type press, invented by one Johannes Gutenberg. The press was a trade secret of Gutenberg's, which he lost to Johann Fust in a lawsuit, resulting in a loss of secrecy which was to have stunning repercussions on European culture. It takes less than two years from this lawsuit for non-religious texts (not books) to begin to appear, and less than three years for another press to appear on the scene. By 1461, books are being printed in local languages; by 1469, the first printing monopoly is granted in Venice. By 1475, printing presses are cranking out books across Europe. And guess what? By 1484, Turks are prohibited from operating printing presses by their own sultan. And so it begins.

Jeremy M. Norman, in his incredibly complete timeline From Gutenberg to the Internet, based on his book of the same name, tells about events that occured at around the same time as Gutenberg was first printing his indulgences for the Church:

"1493: Using European artillery experts and European artillery, the Ottoman Turks break Constantinople's wall, and capture the city, ending the reign of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Constantinople's roll [sic] as the capitol of the Byzantine Empire. Numerous Byzantine scholars travel westward to Europe bringing with them Greek manuscripts of the highest cultural value."

You can see what was out there, waiting to pounce on Gutenberg's invention: hundreds of scholarly works, painstakingly copied and transported, just aching to be broadcast to the thinking populace. In economic terms, the market was hot. It's hard to blame Gutenberg for wanting to keep his invention to himself (or his investor for wanting to have it himself): the thing was a gold mine.

Norman goes on to say:

"[By 1500] printing presses are established in more than 250 cities in Europe. The average print run of a book is between 400-500 copies, with as many as 1000 copies of some books being printed. By this date it is estimated that printers issued from 27,000 to 35,000 different printed works of all kinds, including pamphlets and broadsides as well as books, with a total printed output of somewhere around 15 to 20 million copies.Aldus Manutius of Venice issues an edition of Virgil in Italic type designed by Francesco Griffo. This is the first book printed in Italic type, an adaptation of the best humanist script of the time. Italic type may also have the advantage of having a higher character count, allowing more information to be printed legibly in less space than Roman or Gothic type. Aldus' edition of Virgil is the first of a series of volumes that he issues in the pocket or octavo format. This smaller format had previously been used for editions of devotional texts. Aldus is the first to use the smaller format to make non-devotional literature available in the smaller, more portable format, and at lower cost. Both the Italic type and the smaller format will be rapidly emulated by printers all over Europe."

When Trithemius became Abbot at Sponheim in 1482 there were 40 works present in the library; by 1505 he had expanded the library to 2000 volumes.

This means that within fifty years of Gutenberg's first eye-twinkle, at a time when the population of Europe was only 50 million, the number of books being printed was in the millions, with new formats developing all the time. The total flow of information was expanding exponentially. In Germany and other northern countries, the printing press was instrumental in the Protestant movement not only by the translation of the Bible into German but by transmission of controversial material (think of Martin Luther nailing a copy of his 95 Theses on the door of the church in 1517: how did everyone find out about that?).

Not surprisingly, given these fulminations, in 1538 Henry VIII issued a decree that all new books printed in England must be approved by the Privy Council before publication. He was followed within three decades by many other countries and principalities, and it's not until 1641 that Henry's decree is rescinded, at which point there is an outpouring of printed works from all across England. The government, seeing this, attempted to once again set up a censor, and instead were greeted with an outpouring of political responses, printed in newsbill or handbill form, speaking out against the new censorship. It was too late: the wellspring had begun. The underground presses were up and running: where there is perceived oppression there will always be perceived subversion.

I was interested to see how the invention of the printing press coincided with the Rennaissance and its eventual movement into later ages of exploration and intellectual advancement (and Wunderkammern, of course). The European Rennaissance is commonly held to have begun in Italy in the fourteenth century, and moved on to the rest of Europe by the fifteenth century and onwards into the 17th century, where culture underwent a sea-change with the Age of Enlightenment. "Renaissance thinkers sought out learning from ancient texts, typically written in Latin or ancient Greek. Scholars scoured Europe's monastic libraries, searching for works of antiquity which had fallen into obscurity. In such texts they found a desire to improve and perfect their worldly knowledge; an entirely different sentiment to the transcendental spirituality stressed by medieval Christianity. They did not reject Christianity; quite the contrary, many of the Renaissance's greatest works were devoted to it, and the Church patronized many works of Renaissance art. However, a subtle shift took place in the way that intellectuals approached religion that was reflected in many other areas of cultural life." [wiki]

So the Gutenberg press came in at exactly the right time, when the new way of thinking was thoroughly entrenched and books were the most important way of moving information around. Before, people were forced to either travel to where books were or get their information transmitted via letter from associates who had the book and could pass on the information. Scientific and mathematical discoveries were often limited to a locality, or even to the person who revealed them in isolation, unless it was written down in a book and the book was allowed to travel. Movement of knowledge and culture was slow, at best, and the retention of information (books and scrolls) was difficult and depended on collectors (churches and nobility) to keep them safe and copy them when needed. And yet, the movement of information has always, despite the hardships, been inexorable, part of being human. Part of our social interaction.

Recent history left us with an impoverished outlet for this sociality. Cheap movies are disappearing fast: the theatres that once showed vintage or second rate films - where you could go with your friends, paying very little to be out checking out the scene, meeting other people, and imbibe some culture - are gone, replaced instead by videos, which people watch at home. So how do people meet each other now? Via the social networks on the Web. Cheap books and comic books, which before the 1980s were commonplace in every corner market, are now pretty much gone, so authorship now is akin to stardom; writers must brand themselves to get the much-competed for publishing spaces, which means that the unheard ones out there must look elsewhere for their recognition. Guess where they go? The Web, of course.

The Opte map of the Internet

Sometimes, information is blessed by the ruling party of the time, as for example when Ptolemy III of Egypt decreed that "all visitors to the city were required to surrender all books and scrolls in their possession; these writings were then swiftly copied by official scribes. Sometimes the copies were so precise that the originals were put into the Library, and the copies were delivered to the unsuspecting previous owners." [wiki] But for the most part, government and commerce has always had a hand in the limitations of information flow. And there have always been those who speak out against it, for which we should be grateful, because if you take away the ability of a culture to pass along the things which are important, you doom to obscurity culturally important things, while allowing short-term thinking to decide what is retained.

It is clear is that people will glom onto what is culturally important for the era, whether it is recognized by industry or not. Look at how people are now using the Internet to publish their own texts, their own music. Look how, despite the fact that businesses continue to do everything they can to make certain that any production of culture must be paid for, people continue to risk being prosecuted for the "criminal" offense of passing information about good things to their friends. Do you think they would take that risk if they didn't like the content? Unlikely. The passing of information is very much like water: it can't be compressed. Crack down hard, push on it all you want, and it will squirt out the edges.

What I am hoping for is that this new way of socializing, of creating culture, will lead in the same direction that Gutenberg was able to facilitate: the blossoming of knowledge, a new way of being creative and interacting with our fellow people. A new degree of literacy New discovery. Perhaps, like the two siblings who speak on the Net in the Ender books, a few intelligent voices will come forth on the Web to lead us out of this mess. Not only people like Cory Doctorow, who believe in the free transmission of culture, but people who are able to lead us to new ways of thinking, will show us new ways of looking at the knowledge we already have. Help us evolve.

It's certainly the reason why I'm here. I want to be here when they emerge.

Links of interest:
Wikipedia article on the spread of printing, which took me awhile to find.

Interesting website with videos talking about the origins of writing and how it spread. Click on the head of DaVinci for a short and interesting video about why the alphabet is important, how it led to Gutenberg, and so on.

Monday, October 8, 2007

My Brain Hurts

I'm just back from Viable Paradise, which is insanely amazing, but it's cooked my brain like an egg. For any of you who are speculative fiction writers, I heartily recommend it. It'll blow your mind with compressed air, as a friend of mine used to say.

Anyway, patience! I'm working on several posts now, fried brain or not, and they'll be up soon.


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