Friday, February 17, 2012

A Design Purge

Over the weekend of February 3 and 4, I presented a paper at an ACM conference held at Cornell College called "The Past, Present, and Future of the Book."

One of the serendipitous events was the purgation of something I hardly realized I'd been harboring. Back in 1999, possibly 2000, I bought a copy of Franz Kafka's The Blue Octavo Notebooks. I remember instantly hating it, even though the words on the pages were treasures to me. The feel of the paper, the deep sparseness of print on the pages, the very dimensions of the book: all awful. These are concerns of paper codex books in our hands and before our eyes.

At the ACM conference, I met a scholar/designer, Brad Coulter at the University of Iowa, who presented his own design work for publishing Kafka's The Trial, inspired by an unusual book from 1968 called The Trial of 6 Designers, which included 6 major designers' approaches to designing Kafka's novel for publication/consumption. A fascinating experiment all on its own.

Later in the conference we had a nice talk, and I brought up the blue notebooks, and we discovered a common disgust at their design. As a character in Kafka, but a character who makes it out of Kafka, I realize at last that the disgust was not only mine--not an alienation response, but a space for collectivity, or sorts.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


My Technology and Ecology in Literature class today worked with selections from Charles Darwin, Samuel Butler, and Richard Dawkins. They did a fantastic job exploring Darwin's metaphors and Butler's eerie proto-The Matrix. A highlight moment was talking these things through with them and then realizing we had a sort of machine consciousness, at least of the variety Butler is talking about (i.e. a governor) right there on the wall, right there inside the room, a conscious machine is calling us and it's right here inside the room with us!

Tonight, I picked up The Foundation Pit by Platonov for a little dinner-time reading, and felt compelled to post the following passage:

"Voshchev, just as before, did not feel the truth of life, but exhaustion from the heavy ground resigned him to humility--and he simply collected, on rest days, all kinds of petty and unfortunate scraps of nature, as documentary proof of the planless creation of the world, as the facts of the melancholy of each living breath."

Monday, February 13, 2012

Deconstruction, not Demolition

My good friend, Michael O'Brien sent me this link to a local story that brings together critical theory and my personal connections to Decorah, Iowa.

The story is entitled "Deconstructing 'Deconstruction'." The title hooked me--after all, I'm an English professor with a keen interest in Derrida. I've been methodically working through his The Beast and the Sovereign lecture series this academic year. Then I looked at the photo and knew the story's context. After decades in Decorah, long under the management of my grandfather and then of my uncles, Wapsie Produce has recently closed down and is now being deconstructed. Not demolished, as the article explains, because the deconstruction crews are dismantling the building carefully in order to save reusable materials.

There is a sadness for me in seeing this architectural manifestation of family history disappear, though I only had one summer of labor experience across the processes of processing capons. Yet, this glimmer of Derridean approach to this gradual event in a public forum is, at least for me, quite a eulogy.