Waves, Bits, Memes, and Goals for the Semester

“Black literature is taught is sociology, as tolerance, not a serious, rigorous art form.” – Toni Morrison.

Without presupposing her intentions for this statement, I would like to think of the tone of this epigraph as regretful and ashamed (for now). Perhaps it’s my Geneseo training to believe all things not serious and not rigorous as somehow not valuable and perhaps this is why I would regret this sort of assessment of black literature. One thing I am more sure of is the recursive nature of such an epigraph. It lends itself to multiple interpretations and, thus, multiple iterations and applications and this is why I have chosen it for goal setting this semester.  The goal emergent from this epigraph is this: investigate the ways in which black literature can be taught (and learned) as a serious, rigorous art form.

Ironically, the waves I refer to in my title are not the purportedly “world’s highest” that Beth shared with us, but rather waves in a more abstract sense: waves of communications, waves like “I’m on your wavelength.” Waves can look like fractals and behave like them too. A friend of mine and former Geneseo English student first let me on his wave during a discussion of Ralph Ellison’s jazz writings. He described Ellison’s jazz/democracy comparison as on the same wave as Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. As it turns out, there are many more writer’s riding this wave like Elsa Barkley Brown who likened quilting to jazz in terms of melody, harmony, and rhythm (“African American Women’s Quilting” 925). She even brings in another iteration, Ojeda Penn’s, of the jazz/democracy comparison. What I’ve tried to do so far is demonstrate a very real and vibrant aesthetic in African-American art that Penn describes as emergent from “a rhythmic substructure that can incorporate with ease the most diverse… resources” (qtd in Barkley Brown 925).

I cannot help but recall the modernists, particularly Eliot, who sought a unifying structure or aesthetic for their age. “The Wasteland” similarly attempts to incorporate diverse resources; self-similar sources from cultural repositories were the hallmark of anthropologists James Frazer and Claude Levi-Strauss. What I don’t want to suggest here is that the standard of rigor and seriousness in art and art criticism is found in the often highly conservative work of these white men. Rather, if there are schools of thought characterizing Eliot, Pound, Yeats and others as “serious” art, then perhaps we ought to take a closer look at their criteria. Perhaps we should consider the value of rigor in criticism all together.  My work here is then apologetic (in the Greek sense of the word), yet I also anticipate another post in which I attempt to highlight the values of a tolerant, sociological view.

The quilts obviously come up again. In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” a generational difference between mother and daughter reflects a common discussion among artists, critics, and (I imagine) cultural historians. Wangero tells her mother that she intends to “‘hang them’… as if that was the only thing you could do with quilts'” (Walker).  This tension not only sets up the conflict of the story, it also sets up a meta-conversation in which the art talks about the art. This sort of conversation seems to me to be on a similar wavelength as computing, or machine, languages that use language to convey tone and create meaning in other language. In this way both Ron Eglash and James Gleick (a writer I came across in Dr. Schacht’s ENGL 340 class) can reasonably trace the history of computing through African fractals and tonal drum communication. Notice how the quilts lead to conversations about music again and again. Notice how music can also bring us back to quilts.

Gleick finds the origin of bits (the smallest unit of communication in computing) in the drum communication of Africa’s west coast at the time of English arrival. Similarly, Eglash maps Mandelbrot sets (functions crucial to computing) on to fractal organization patterns in both his TED talk and the chapters of African Fractals we have read so far. The waves grow bigger.  Finally, the behavior of the meme is rather fractal in nature. The meme is of course a cultural phenomenon, perhaps the cultural phenomenon of our moment. Richard Dawkins coined the term to describe the spreading of ideas in a self-similar, repetitious way. In other words, retweets, shares, and posts can also operate like fractals.

What I really want to stress now is that these connections did not occur to me with ease or at random. Rather, they are the product of reading rigorously and  stitching together all of these patches on a quilt. This quilt may not appear “organized” and may look sporadic (as if it is trying to incorporate diverse resources), but it is beautiful all the same. It is the fabric of this class. I hope to come back to some of these thoughts, but for now I’m content to just ride the wave.

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