further notes on squibs and science

October 12, 2010

Sometime before I ran away and hid in the countryside all summer, I wrote an essay about my thoughts on squibs. I announced that I was tired of separating my personal life from my academic life, as they are innately inseparable, and that I was tired of neutering my academic writing of its emotional strength. To demonstrate how I felt about this, I accompanied it with a (singularly mediocre) “Midterm about Drinking.” This was my Syntax II midterm, which combined the actual assignment with a fictional narrative framing the exploration of the topic as a demonstration of how my peers and I actually get good work done: that is to say, we get good work done over beers and with friends, through the medium of fights and drinking songs and hugs and hat-stealing and general antics. My actual analysis of the material was flawed, but I still maintain that my presentation of it was not. We do our best work when we don’t separate it from our lives, when we involve it in all conversations, when we care about it enough to bring it up at the bar, or the beach, or in bed.


That said, I’m not really going to follow that template for this next squib. This research was done sitting alone on the floor of my living-room in my crummy apartment over the pizza place on the west side of town. I did the entirety of it in boxers. I text-messaged a lot of people to consult them on basic premises of my exploration, and a lot of the responses were “…What?” I cannot synthesize a situation in which anyone especially cares to debate narratology with me in the Poet and the Patriot on a Saturday night; it is a simple fact that the people who care about this stuff are the ones at home reading on a Saturday night instead. That said, this research is not a-personal for me; where linguistics is my extroverted side, literature is my introverted side. This is the side of my research—which is in essence a different approach to the same material—that I want to do alone in bed, drinking tea and reading poetry, closing the blinds and listening to cello solos until I cry.


Let me explain, momentarily, why this is so emotional for me: the divide between res and vox and intellectus—that is, the Gap, of which I spoke earlier, between “actual” reality, linguistic reality, and mental reality—is where my absolute fear of the abyss comes in. I can approach it from either linguistics or literature; both are my attempt at a scientific, logical, rational way of finding the exact boundaries of the Gap. I don’t honestly believe they are separate disciplines, but rather separate methodological approaches to the same basic question: What in the hell is up with language? Sub-questions include Why and how does this shit work? and What is it about language that we dig so much?


To quote Jakobson (and I’m always up for a Jakobson quote– there’s a reason all my notebooks have “Mrs. Kirby Jakobson” drawn with little hearts on the inside covers): “Insistence on keeping poetics apart from linguistics is warranted only when the field of linguistics appears to be illicitly restricted, for example, when the sentence is viewed by some linguists as the highest analyzable construction, or when the scope of linguistics is confined to grammar alone or uniquely to nonsemantic questions of external form or to the inventory of denotative devices with no reference to free variations” (64). I’ll extend that, though: the insistence on division is also occasionally warranted when poetics starts relying on ex nihil or inductive arguments, where the theory defines the data, rather than the other way around.


To clarify, I am saying that both fields have flaws in their methodological approaches. Linguists can be a bit defeatist or limiting (and with excellent reason; no one knows better than a scientist how goddamn ignorant we are about the world), and (for lack of a better word) philologists can be a bit spurious or overly declarative without sufficient evidence for the arguments they postulate.


Between this, I’m sort of trapped. With the way the contemporary university is arranged, it’s extremely difficult to be both a scientist and a humanist, and there are very few of my peers who are in the equivalent situation of studying their chosen subject from two completely different angles. The only ones who come to mind are people who, like me, find themselves accidentally double-majoring in Literature and Linguistics. There seems no other discipline so awkwardly straddling the divide, and I think this is a downright shame, in a way. Should not a painter also study the physics of light? Should not a singer also study acoustics and phonetics?


No matter; I’m not completely unique, just uniquely complete. I’ll do syntax in bars and poetics under my bed, both by flashlight and with much melodrama, both without any regard for suggestions that I keep my life out of it; this is my life, and I simply could not ask for any greater or more satisfying purpose than to muck around in language forever.

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