Monday, July 16, 2012

In Response to Karen LaBonte's Students' Inquiries...

The Alphabet is No Language
Karen LaBonte (@klbz) had included a piece of art I had posted on my blog last week as a text for students in her course, Literacies and Technologies in the Secondary English Classroom, to read.  She included the image on a wiki and then she and students conversed about the text using at least one format (google doc) that she then invited me in to read and to respond. So I thought I would post a response here and perhaps, extend the conversation. 

"The Alphabet is No Language" is a piece I have been working on (& avoiding) for some time. I often do not understand what I am making, but somehow when I slid the man on the bike into the foreground it felt complete--as if the man, who just happens by, bears witness to that which cannot be coded alphabetically.  (...think e. e cummings:  since feeling is first...) He had this WWI feel to him and I still don't know why that might be important, but it is.

I hoped the work might say something to you about the many ways that form (in)forms meaning--conditions it so to speak.  We spend considerable time at school privileging written texts and this overemphasis gives me pause.

There are some things in life for which the alphabet is no language. 

Years ago when I was writing an ethnography about young women who hailed from rural communities and attended a local community college, I met Fran. In receipt of welfare payments, each woman, like Fran, was obligated to attend school and none had been able to exit the remedial program regardless of the attempts they had made to pass the composition test.  At the time I was at Columbia working on my dissertation and was deeply steeped in all things Bakhtin.  And so when Fran, a 20 something year old mom, told me that every bit of bad news she ever received came in the form of writing,
                         her words

gave me

                   I dwelled in words and in ignorance.  Imagine, I had not considered how written text might injure--might kill.   I had been a high school English teacher at that point for more than a decade. I knew so little.

Words had been a significant source of pain for Fran. From eviction notices to court judgments to divorce decrees to teachers' notes sent home with her son--formal written text tended to reinforce difference, strip her of agency, situate her as less than, take advantage of her. 

Like Fran already knew, I too have come to understand that at times, words fail and I look for other ways to sign.

Here's an important moment from 1965 that has such relevance in these CCSS-times.  Then Ludwig von Bertalanffy wrote:
[i]f the meaning of Goethe's Faust, of Van Gogh's landscapes, or Bach's Art of the Fugue could be transmitted in discursive terms, their authors should and would not have bothered to write poems, paint, or compose, but would rather have written scientific treatises (p. 41)
Hmm. We need to expand out notions of composition to include multiple language systems.  Expression matters in and out of English class.  I like to think of transmediation as the work of English teachers. Expression opens possibilities, yes?

(Salton Sea, M.A. Reilly, 2010)
I had come through the desert with my friend Celeste and we came upon a town that had been deserted. The buildings stood.  It was a flat space with hundreds of telephone poles standing with wires strung between them.  And yet, there were no people--no reason for any of those wires to hum.

This place stood right at the edge of the Salton Sea. The memory of it haunted me until I could express it and then haunted me in new ways.

Meaning happens between and among us.  I think Rosenblatt was so right about the poem and how meaning is made between a text and its reader. We cannot forget that, especially as English teachers working in these times.

And so, sometimes I make art.


Work Cited

v. Bertalanffy, L. (1965).On the definition of symbol. In J. R. Royce (Ed.). Psychology and the
(pp. 26–72). New York: Random House


  1. Replies
    1. It is oddly disturbing as tis part of the sea has been abandoned.