Saturday, September 6, 2008

batteries schmatteries

I haven't posted anything here in about a week. I remember vaguely, last weekend, taking my camera with me out of the house to get some more shots of Tianjin with actual people in them, only to discover that my camera batteries were dead. I still don't have any batteries, but why would that prevent me from writing? When I think about posting something to my blog, do I imagine that this must necessarily include posting pictures? Why do I feel compelled to put pictures up here all the time? Is it because of our visual culture? The commodification of culture? (i.e., I'm in a "foreign" place, therefore I must "get" something from this place to show people, and images somehow seem more tangible) I don't want to become reliant on a camera. Also, it bothers me when people are constantly photographing things. It always has. You can ask my family, or Erin--if I'm in someplace that I think is really fascinating, I get very annoyed at having to stop experiencing to take pictures of it.

When I was teaching composition at Washburn a few years ago many of my students did not respond well at all when we discussed writing in terms of "voice", or the "sound" of a certain writer. This made me curious, so I asked them if, when they read books by different writers, they hear a voice in their heads reading the text, or if they imagine the writing of different people "sounding" different, because of style, word-choice, etc. I think this sound model of discussing writing has been around for a long time, but maybe it's lost some of its usefulness. Out of three or four classes, in successive semesters, none of my younger students said they thought of writing in terms of voice, or sound. I frequently taught evening classes and my students ranged in age from 17 to 55. The older students in my class did tend to discuss writing using words associate with sound, like "tone", "voice", etc. Did the older students feel more familiar with this because writing has been taught to them for so long using this sound vocabulary, or is the difference a result of an actual shift in culture to something more visual? Do people experience writing more visually than they used to? I know I'm kind of going on and on about this, but it's been in my thoughts a lot this week. Some of the reading I've been doing for my PhD comprehensives, and other things I've stumbled across, has mentioned how different groups of poets and writers, at different times, have taken issue with the privileging of the "sound" of poetry, prose, words, etc., over their visual characteristics.

I've read about this tension between the visual and aural qualities of poetry, specifically, a lot, and I thought that I was relatively comfortable in a neutral position, or rather, wanting both qualities to function harmoniously without championing one over the other. My former position of neutrality has been complicated by my daily life here, though, in a place where I have absolutely no written language. I have been experiencing, simultaneously, a renewed sense of respect for the sound of language, just as sound, and a renewed sense of respect for the visual that is not associated with written language. I can try to read the pinyin for a word in Chinese--for example, the name of my neighborhood--but without listening to native speakers say the name over and over again, I can't repeat it in a way that a taxi driver will understand. Also, something strange is happening to the way I encounter the world around me visually. In the states, I have a relatively bad sense of direction. This hasn't really changed in China. What has changed, though, is that my visual memory seems to be kicking into high gear. I will remember a certain bench, or a specific type of lamp post, or what kind of brick the streets in one area have, and as a result, I find that I know what part of town I am in most of the time here, whereas, if I were in a large city I'm relatively unfamiliar with in the states, like New York, maybe, I think it would take me a lot longer to recognize places, because my brain would be somehow lazy, relying on all of the English words everywhere to help me orient myself. Here, I have no understanding of written language, and this is causing me to remember how everything looks. The way things look is vitally important to me in my daily life, because if I don't know what things look like specifically, I won't be able to navigate my way around even my own neighborhood, much less find my way to the school I teach at, which is about twenty minutes by car from where I live. Enter conundrum. Finish very long blog post.

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