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Self-descriptive words, paradoxes, and David Foster Wallace

I have been collecting self-descriptive words ever since my college roommate introduced me to the concept. Actually, it would be more precise to say that I occasionally try to remember as many self-descriptive words as possible and then forget them, always failing to keep an ongoing list. As a mathematician, my roommate was frequently presenting me with various paradoxes (although this interest in paradoxes ultimately seems to have more to do with my roommate and our relationship than it does with math). One day, he presented me with a version of Russell’s paradox (it’s also a version of the Grelling-Nelson paradox):

Imagine a set S containing all the words that describe themselves. This set would include words like “English,” “polysyllabic,” and “vowelled” – words whose definitions apply to the words themselves. These self-descriptive words are “autological.”

Now imagine a set N containing all the words that do not describe themselves. This set includes most words: “green” is not green, “long” is not long, etc. These non-self-descriptive words are “heterological.”

So, does the word “non-self-descriptive”/”heterological” go in set S or set N?

Mmmmm, paradox. A quick attempt to remember some of my favorite self-descriptive words yields the following (some of these are questionable, or perhaps a matter of taste, but I would choose to include them): monotonous, repetitive, polysyllabic, zany, fiesty, acceptable, elegant, daffy, ethereal, juicy, and vigorous. I would also want to give a nod to words like “parallel” that contain some element that reflects their meaning (in this case, the “ll”s are parallel).

You can imagine my excitement in discovering that David Foster Wallace cultivated a similar interest in words with a unique relationship to their own meanings. In her recent account of a trip to visit Wallace’s archives at the Ransom Center (well worth reading for entirely different and more pertinent reasons), Maria Bustillos includes a quiz that Wallace gave to his students:



I will admit to reading the answer to the quiz on the wallace-l listserv and thus not figuring it out for myself, but nonetheless, the answer struck a chord. In the words of Matt Bucher, “the quiz words are words that contradict themselves (pulchritude means beautiful but is an ugly word, ‘misspelled’ is not misspelled, foreign is not a foreign word, etc.). He talks about this in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus.” These words aren’t simply non-self-descriptive; they’re anti-self-descriptive.

Wallace’s interest in such words is perhaps not surprising given his exhaustive knowledge of and playfulness with language. Still, it’s interesting to consider his affinity for words that harbor a sort of inner tension and sense of self-contradiction in light of his life’s work, much of which attended to similar dynamics at play in our daily lives and in American culture generally. Perhaps the most redemptive aspect of Wallace’s writing – that is, the possibility for redemption he offers us in the face of this self-contradiction – comes in the attitude he adopts toward this dynamic, the sense that the contradictions that haunt us can, if not be fully resolved, at least subside in our connections with one another. The quiz captures all of this – the inner contradictions and sense of being not quite settled in one’s own skin (this goes for words, too), and yet a playfulness toward this condition and ultimately the possibility that our intimate familiarity with this dynamic might lead to quality time with the best company around.

Soon, I’d like to take up this theme with reference to The Pale King. Meanwhile, I’d enjoy hearing your additions to my list of self-descriptive words and Wallace’s list of self-contradictory words.

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Definitions, complaint, and belief

In college, my roommate and I explored the genre of complaint letters. Our concerns were honest, but the letters themselves were far from serious. Tonight, I was inspired to revisit these letters after a Twitter friend shared a frustrating story that ended with a complaint letter to an airline. My favorite exchange from college occurred with Meriam-Webster. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of our original letter, but the reply gives a good sense for our concern and our tone. Encouraged by the aforementioned Twitter friend to share the response, I’ll offer it here.

Dear Mr. O’Connor and Mr. King:

Your recent letter addressed to Mr. Webster has been forwarded to me for reply, since regretfully, our eminent forebear passed away in 1843. Here is my analysis of the situation you present (I will keep my discussion very brief in a sincere effort not to become mired in rhetoric):

First, take the definition of disbelieve, as we have it: “to hold not worthy of belief: not believe.” Using our definition of believe, if you do “not believe” something you do not accept it as true, which is very much the same as your “reject as untrue” definition. But you do not yourself reject the existence of God as untrue. You say you think it is possible that God exists; thus, is that not saying that you do not reject the possibility of the existence of God? Therefore, as I see it, you actually do not disbelieve in the existence of God.

But that doesn’t mean you believe in the existence of God. In fact, it leaves the door open. While not disbelieving in the existence of God, neither do you believe that God exists. For while, certainly, you cannot believe and disbelieve something at the same time (and I see no contradiction in the definition of the term disbelief, simply “the act of disbelieving”), it is actually possible to not disbelieve and not believe something at the same time. Here at play is a subtle nuance of English, a connotation of syntax which is difficult to define. If you had said, “I believe that God does not exist,” you would not then have followed that with your statement “I think it is quite possible that God exists.” But you did not say that; instead, you said “I do not believe that God exists.” “Not believing” in something, as it turns out, simply does not require the same steadfast unwaveringness as “believing” does.

A definition cannot necessarily convey these subtleties; a definition can only say what is denoted at face value by a word; and in that regard, there is, I hope you will see, nothing incorrect about our definitions of disbelief and disbelieve.


D- C-

P.S. It may interest you to know that nonbelieve appears to be a back-formation from the noun nonbeliever (as ghostwrite is from ghostwriter, and burgle from burglar), that is, the noun existed before the verb came into being and the definition of the noun and the verb are directly related. Nonbeliever is defined in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary as “a person who does not believe or have faith in something; a person without religious beliefs; atheist.”

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Imitating Invention

Two posts in a month is unusual for me; two posts in a day might just make The Black Lodge explode.  My earlier thoughts on invention gestured toward my interest in considering the role that identification plays in the process of invention.  If invention suggests a process of creation, identification suggests to me the ways that we situate and orient ourselves toward each other and the world, orientations that in turn inform and constrain the possibilities for invention.

I have also been thinking about how these more theoretical ruminations might translate into the classroom, particularly with reference to the practice of imitation.  In The Future of Invention, John Muckelbauer discusses the role of imitation in writing pedagogy, particularly as an (supposed) embodiment of “repetition, copying, and tradition” that can be juxtaposed with “romantic subjectivity, an ethos that emphasizes creativity, originality and genius” (52).  Throughout his chapter on imitation, Muckelbauer examines and challenges both the limited notion of imitation as repetition and the romantic notion of invention that presumably discourages imitation.  For Muckelbauer, both traditional and romantic understandings of imitation can suffer from too great an emphasis on the model of imitation, whether this model be great, established rhetoricians or the genius, romantic self that gets reproduced in writing.  Reading Quintilian, Muckelbauer emphasizes that “what the ideal student will learn through imitation is not only a style or an ethical rule; he will acquire the capacity to respond itself” (76, emphasis in original).

It is difficult to say exactly what it takes for students to develop this capacity to respond.  There is no set process for acquiring this capacity, and yet, as both Muckelbauer and Alex Reid suggest, our response-ability can be enhanced by adopting a particular style of engagement, a particular frame of mind (“a state of awareness or attunement” as Reid says), a particular attitude that attends to multiplicity, radical alterity, and what Muckelbauer refers to as singular rhythms.  Of course, there is no set process for adopting this particular style of engagement either.  Given the impossibility of proceduralizing this capacity for response, Muckelbauer and Reid, following Deleuze and Guattari, offer one main suggestion:  experiment.  There are any number of ways that this suggestion can be mobilized in the classroom.  Below, I’ll consider some examples that have occupied my thoughts recently.  While these examples might not offer specific practices, I’ll share them in hopes of continuing the conversation on imitation and invention.

At the Humanities Gaming Institute at the University of South Carolina this summer, Tracy Fullerton led a workshop in which we were asked to modify an existing game in order to design a new one.  Our model was “Up the River,” and our main consideration in imitating this game was what experience we wanted the player to have.  Fullerton’s focus on a game’s experience provides a helpful counterpoint to Ian Bogost’s focus on a game’s procedural argument in his Persuasive Games.  As Reid argues elsewhere, gaming in the rhetoric classroom can allow us to do more than reaffirm our traditional concerns with argumentation and cultural critique.  If we translate the question of gaming to the question of writing (recognizing that these overlap in interesting and important ways), we might consider what it would mean to ask our students to focus less on offering a specific argument or interpretation in their writing and more on creating a particular experience for their readers.

Let’s imagine an assignment in which students are asked to imitate an op/ed piece for the school paper.  This would likely involve asking students to familiarize themselves with examples from the paper, identifying conventions of the genre, and performing these conventions in their paper as they present their argument or position.  Now imagine a situation in which students examine an editorial not to learn its rules and conventions, not to better prepare themselves to advocate and argue, but rather as a launching pad for something else.  Can we take some aspect of an editorial and use it as a starting point for a very different type of experience, perhaps one that is not motivated at all by advocacy, one that we would not expect to have while reading a newspaper?

Here’s another possible starting point for imitation and invention.  One of my favorite ways to think about imitation is to consider songs that have inspired other songs.  It’s particularly interesting when a band covers the song that directly influenced one of their own.  Take the following examples:  R.E.M. – “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“; Sleater-Kinney – “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “Rock Lobster“; Stone Temple Pilots – “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart” and “Dancing Days“.  Each of these songs imitates some aspect of its inspiration.  Michael Stipe gestures toward the lion’s wail at the beginning of “Sidewinder”; both Sleater-Kinney and the Stone Temple Pilots write guitar riffs that draw from their inspirations.  There does not seem to be an equivalent for this in writing.  Of course, we can imitate style or cadence, and we can borrow words from others, but there is something different about playing the same riff in a different context or subtly shifting the notes.  As far as I know, there’s certainly no equivalent in writing for “covering” the source that inspired you.

Not knowing for sure that one of the great riot grrrl anthems came about this way, I nonetheless like to imagine Carrie Brownstein playing through a classic B-52’s song and ending up writing her own.  I wonder what it would look like for students to engage in the same sort of deference and playfulness.  What’s the imitative equivalent here for a rhetoric and writing course?  I don’t have a solid answer to this question, but I’m looking forward to asking my students to select a favorite paragraph or song lyric, to rearrange and play around with those words until something connects, and to see what happens.

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Considering Invention

Steven Johnson and Alex Reid (and Alex again) have turned my attention to invention recently.  (John Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention has been inspiring me as well.)  Johnson and Reid describe invention as a process informed by networks and assemblages, respectively.  For Johnson, “ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”  Reid goes a step further to describe the experiential state of invention:

There is a frame of mind, a state of awareness or attunement, that facilitates invention…an affective state into which one slips in and out, a state that one can learn to enter with increasing ease. And it is a non-deterministic subjective state in that it does not delimit by itself the results on invention in some hermeneutic-methodological way (as critical reading methods tend to do). Instead, as I stated above (and many times before), it recognizes invention as emerging from the particular assemblage to which one is exposed.

Both Johnson and Reid focus on invention as an emergent phenomenon, one that develops out of a particular milieu that is material, mental, and social.  This does not necessarily mean that we can define or describe these networks and assemblages in their entirety, that we can account for every component contributing to them.  Nonetheless, this sense of invention as emergent stands in stark contrast to the notion of invention as pure inspiration, as the product and creation of an individual mind.  This in turn suggests certain possibilities for facilitating the process of invention.  As Johnson notes, if “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts,” then we should focus instead on trying to expand the network:  “The trick is to get more parts on the table.”  In turn, Reid encourages us to develop a particular frame of mind that facilitates invention by attending to the assemblage.

So, invention can benefit from having more parts on the table, from expanding the network, and also from putting ourselves in a frame of mind that better prepares us to attend to the assemblages in which we are situated.  I see this as an opportune moment to add another term to the conversation:  identification. I have in mind not only Kenneth Burke’s understanding of identification as the sharing of properties (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, orientations, etc.) through language and other symbolic systems but also the notion of immediate identifications that occur outside of symbolic interactions and thus are not mediated through representations.  This latter notion of identification emphasizes our exposure and exteriority over the coherence and interiority of Burke’s understanding.  As beings exposed to one another, we cannot rationally control all of our identifications, and indeed this exposure serves as the condition of possibility upon which we construct those rational, discrete identifications.  We can thus talk about identifications as, on the one hand, discrete, identifiable, and given to representation and categorization and, on the other hand, as multiple, incoherent, and beyond representation and categorization.  My sense is that Johnson’s understanding of invention privileges the former notion of identification and Reid’s the latter, but I’ll leave this question aside for now.

Instead, I would like to briefly consider how identification informs our understanding of networks and assemblages.  Johnson encourages us to expand the network, to put more tools on the table, but part of the issue here has to do with what we recognize as tools.  It’s important to remember here that this emphasis on tools points not only toward material objects and technologies but also toward systems of thought, ideologies, attitudes, etc.  But how much do we know about the networks that surround us?  What extent of these assemblages can we identify?  Multiple conversations in rhetorical studies address this question in some way or another.  Actor-network theory and object-oriented rhetorics both come to mind here, as do branches of the digital humanities such as critical code and platform studies.  All of these conversations seek to expand our understanding of the variables at play (and how we identify these variables) in any given situation.  These conversations direct our attention toward the fact that there are already a number of tools on the table that we do not normally consider or recognize.  Putting more tools on the table can mean adding elements that we already know and understand, but it can also mean learning to see new tools that we did not recognize before.

As Reid notes, we also need to recognize how adding certain tools to the table not only expands but also contracts the assemblage.  In the context of rhetoric and writing, Reid particularly has in mind those tools of hermeneutics and critique that suggest a particular mode of invention:

In the humanities, and especially in English Studies where most writing is taught, we tend to view invention as a hermeneutic process, as a product of a reading methodology. That is, how does one know what to write? One reads a text (or texts), applies a critical methodology, and arrives at an interpretive claim, which then becomes the thesis of one’s essay. This is not solely the method of literary studies. It is also the method of cultural studies and the post-process compositions it informs.

By identifying ourselves with particular methodologies, theoretical perspectives, or schools of thought (we could also say, in the broader conversation of social invention that Johnson explores, by identifying ourselves with capitalism, democracy, etc.), we limit the possibilities for invention.  Adding tools to the table might increase the possibilities for invention, but they also narrow the possibilities for the type of invention.  This note allows us to reconsider the notion of identification as exposure.  Reid’s attention to invention’s frame of mind suggests that we can position ourselves in an attitude of exposure, an attitude that does not insist on a particular method of invention but that remains open to the movement of the assemblage.  This is not only a particular mode of invention; it also describes a particular mode of identification, one that (among other things) suspends the notion of “me” as a coherent and unified actor in the network.  By adding a consideration of processes of identification to the conversation, we will be better prepared to consider how the networks and assemblages of invention are constructed and whether invention might exist prior to these networks and assemblages, as a process of exposed and exterior beings.

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I’ve recently been reading parts of Ian Bogost’s Unit Operations and am finding his comparison of Badiou and Deleuze & Guattari helpful and interesting.  My goal here is to continue thinking through processes of identification, the ways that we situate ourselves in relation to others and to the world around us.  Various theories of identification, although they don’t use this term, suggest different notions of counting.  Kenneth Burke’s focus on the ways in which we negotiate identifications symbolically suggests that our experience is countable.  We can identify/list/count the symbols (and thus the ideas, images, beliefs, attitudes, etc.) that we have in common.  In turn, we can reflect on these identifications and critique them.

As Diane Davis argues in “Identification:  Burke and Freud on Who You Are,” Freud offers an understanding of identification that occurs outside of symbolic representation and that thus precludes the possibility of counting.  For Davis, Freud describes an “affective identification with the other (the ‘m/other’), who is not (yet) a discrete object or image or form.  This ‘primary identification,’ as Freud sometimes calls it, precedes the very distinction between ego and model, and inasmuch as it is precisely not compensatory to division, it remains stubbornly on the motion side of Burke’s action/motion loci” (125).  This model suggests that we are not always negotiating our identifications through discrete symbols (i.e., we share the same attitude toward the idea of democracy, toward the image of the president, etc.), that some of our identifications are occurring without reference to an ego that can organize and count them.

Badiou and Bogost are counters; they describe processes through which we encounter the world as a series of discrete units.  In Bogost’s terms, “Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems” (3).  Units must be apprehended in their singularity in order to be units, even though they are composed of multiples.  As suggested by the quote, Bogost specifically differentiates between unit operations and system operations, which “are characteristically protracted, dependent, sequential, and static” (3).  System operations tend to be a clunky and unresponsive.  They suggest a sort of thinking and a process of identification that works top down, that organizes the world according to pre-existing categories and abstractions.  Unit operations are more responsive, more attuned to emergent possibilities for experiencing and apprehending the world, for identifications.

On the other hand, unit operations also privilege discrete, disconnected actions over notions of flow, movement, and indivisibility.  Even though units are already multiple – they are composed of other units – they nonetheless make the world countable.  In this sense, unit operations cannot fully account for the type of primary identifications described by Davis.  In Unit Operations, the work of Deleuze and Guattari represents the more open-ended counterpoint to Bogost’s unit operations.  In Bogost’s terms, D&G focus “on removing boundaries, in rejecting the idea that boundaries create meaning” (156).  As translator Brian Massumi notes:

Nomad thought replaces the closed equation of representation, x = x = not y (I = I = not you) with an open equation: …+ y+ z+ a+…. Rather than analyzing the world into discrete components, reducing their manyness to the One (=Two) of self-reflection, and ordering them by rank, it sums up a set of disparate circumstances in a shattering blow.  It synthesizes a multiplicity of elements without effacing their heterogeneity or hindering their potential for future rearranging.  (qtd. in Bogost, 142)

For Bogost, however, this gesture of fidelity toward heterogeneity ultimately fails:

Massumi’s matheme “…+ y+ z+ a+…” explicates Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence on sameness:  here it is the continuous mathematical series, not the disjunctive mathematical set, that best characterizes being.  Nomadism implies stasis as much as it implies movement.  (142)

By processing heterogeneity as undifferentiated, “Nomadism thus risks becoming a system operation” (142).  In other words, by emphasizing movement over discrete units, D&G fail to locate and address true multiplicity (which for Bogost requires a series of discrete units).  D&G privilege an uncountable world.

So, with Badiou and Bogost and perhaps Burke as well loosely aligned against Davis and D&G here, I want to consider how these various models lend themselves to different notions of identification.  Bogost insists on the importance of unit operations – on countability – for establishing a practice of identification:  “Deleuze and Guattari vaunt the power of rhizomatic decision making, but they offer little practical basis for reformulating individual maneuvers” (158).  A similar critique could be mounted against Davis:  if we imagine identification as something that occurs outside of representation, we lack a ground from which to critique and reformulate specific identifications.  Davis’s response would likely suggest that our inability to establish a ground upon which to critique primary identifications does not mean that they don’t occur.

On the one hand, we have the notion that identifications must be in some way discrete and countable, available to representation and critical intervention.  On the other hand, we have the notion that this tendency toward apprehending and appropriating experience into discrete units fails to do justice to the extent of that experience, that something necessarily remains after all of the counting is done.

Bogost claims that this latter understanding reveals itself to be a sort of system operation, registering the world according to an abstract category of difference rather than accounting for actual differences between discrete objects.  It seems possible to make a similar charge against Bogost.  Since units are composed of multiplicities and even systems can function as units themselves, how can we comfortably draw the line between the two?  Unit operations supposedly recognize the emergent quality of experience, but how can we recognize and classify this emergence without recourse to systems thinking?  As soon as we apprehend something as a discrete unit, haven’t we already performed a systems (dependent/static) operation?

Bogost positions unit operations as a sort of middle ground between systems operations and nomadism, but it is not clear that this middle ground exists.  The difference between unit and systems operations seems to always be a matter of perspective and scale.  Both are modes of counting.  Part of the question on the table seems to be whether identification is a countable process.  Ultimately, the answer seems to depend less on arriving at “yes/no” than on exploring the implications of each possibility.  One approach risks failing to take into account the full range of (uncountable) experience; the other approach risks failing to make available any ground from which to discuss and critique specific instances of identifications.

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Revisiting Rhetorical Peaks

I’ve spent the last few weeks at the Humanities Gaming Institute in Columbia, South Carolina.  My goal in attending the institute was to continue developing Rhetorical Peaks, a video game we have been working on in the Digital Writing and Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.  Two versions of the game – Flash and Second Life – have been tested in classrooms, and although both have been successful in some ways, neither is self-contained.  These versions lack definite endings and win-states, a condition that has proved confusing at times, especially as the game travels beyond UT.  While I believe that there is some pedagogical value in keeping the game open-ended (something I discuss in a piece in the next issue of Currents), I wanted to pursue the possibility of working toward the same rhetorical ends while conforming to certain game conventions.

At HGI, we have had the opportunity to work with Tracy Fullerton on prototyping activities, and one of our main goals has been identifying a core activity or experience that we want players to engage in or have while playing our games.  The question for me became the question of rhetoric’s activities, the way that we understand our own reading, writing, and thinking processes – how we act through them, and how they act upon us.  Of particular interest to me is the way that rhetoric’s activities can be read across the hermeneutic divide, the divide between rhetoricians who take our work as one of establishing the conditions for successful communication, understanding, interpretation, and identification and those who work toward recognizing the limitations of these practices.

Diane Davis’s work on post-hermeneutical rhetorics encourages us to consider rhetoric (in part) as an activity of listening, of attending to the other – but not in hopes of appropriating this other, not in hopes of (symbolic) identification or assimilation.  In “Addressing Alterity: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and the Nonappropriative Relation,” Davis takes up Steven Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics and its supposition that “there is no absolute incomprehensibility between alien cultures. . . . With every community that we recognize as a community, our form of life always overlaps significantly…for it is only against such a background of commonality that we can perceive radical difference” (196-197).  Such a perspective implies a particular conception of the act of listening, one that seeks commonality with the alien, one that assumes that the perceived difference and separation from the other is ultimately a failure to recognize the same within the other.  Once this sameness is discovered, once one has heard oneself in the other, the foundation has been laid for successful communication.

But our ability to hear the voice of the same in the alien other says less about this other than about our own acts of listening, the way that any appropriation of the other already imposes the same upon them.  Of course we find the same in the other; we are just listening to the sound of ourselves, of our own processes of understanding.  For Davis, rhetoric’s ethical responsibility can only be taken up to the extent that we withhold the appropriative acts of understanding, interpretation, and identification.  In “Finitude’s Clamor; Or, Notes toward a Communitarian Literacy,” Davis frames the question of listening in terms of noise.  When our interpretive capabilities are running at high gear, when we are conditioned to hear the other in terms of the self, “the clamor of an inappropriable exteriority” becomes “almost unhearable-or else hearable only as noise, interference” (124).  The ethical response to this situation is to assume the (listening) position of “posthermeneutic noise freaks” (130), attending to the clamoring of the other.

Rhetorical Peaks has taken up the question of listening before, but it has not foregrounded this activity in the experience of game play.  I am imagining the next iteration of the game doing so.  Taking advantage of the space made available by the Unity version, game play can center on a quest that engages the player with a series of voices haunting the space (thinking of Mark Sample and Alex Reid here) and guiding the player toward different possible paths.  The voices would represent different characters from the town of Rhetorical Peaks, each seeking a different resolution to the trauma and mystery of the death of Lisa Sophist (a narrative arc presented in previous versions of the game).  In this sense, the voices – and the paths they guide the player down – would embody different conceptions and practices of listening.

This iteration needs much further conceptual development (something I am working on at HGI), but it opens the possibility of a game that more explicitly engages the player in the activity of listening while also making available different end states.

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Let’s Begin Again

On October 4, 2008, I posted these words on another version of this blog:

“I am starting this blog in hopes of taking the clutter of my mind and making sense of it. My biggest challenge as an academic and a teacher has been organizing my thoughts. The title of the blog refers to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The Black Lodge houses our doppelgangers, our ghostly doubles. As Hawk said, “if you confront the Black Lodge with imperfect courage, it will utterly annihilate your soul.” The stakes aren’t quite so high here, but I do hope this blog will offer an opportunity for self-reflection and even a sort of courage.”

The resulting effort yielded limited results. I’m trying again.

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