Friday, March 30, 2012

Nottingham Wall

"I like a man who grins when he fights." -Winston Churchill

     Fortunately, Lego men can do nothing but. 
     Below is a recently finished stop-motion animation of mine with music composed and orchestrated by my good friend Max. It's been quite some time since I've dabbled in stop-motion, so I went with the most plot-free, dialogue-free, and character development-free subject I could think of. Plus, I like swords. The editing was done in Final Cut Pro, music composition in Sibelius 7, and sound effects are credit of and Apple. The film is only a minute and a half but it can be viewed in HD.

Friday, March 23, 2012


"Nothing tastes better than a cookie baked in a tree." - Jerry the Gourd

     Upon pondering my life the other day while banging on the piano, I was given somewhat of a revelation. There is one chord, in particular--one that I couldn't name to save my soul--that sounds so frank and statement-like when it is banged upon. I've grown rather fond of that chord, and whilst I was banging on this particular one, and reflecting on the blunt jolliness of its sound, I decided that I needed to bake myself a batch of chocolate chip cookies. It had been far too long since I had baked a batch of cookies for the sole purpose of baking a batch of cookies. The last time, as I recall, was several years ago when I started a headed argument between myself and a friend as to the fact that the cookies were not salty enough. They needed to be "sharper,"I argued; something with a more pungent sensation like cheddar cheese or Welsh's grape juice. I'm not sure what recipe we used back, but it certainly wasn't the secret recipe I intended to use this time. Passed down from my great great great grandmother, Nestlie Tollhouse, I found this sacred recipe loving printed on the back of a $5.45 plastic bag of chocolate chips from Wal Mart. Secret recipe in hand, I resolved to make these cookies as close to perfection as possible. I ran down to the chicken coop for fresh eggs, turned on the most epic, cookie-making music I could conjure out of my iTunes library, and set to work. Before long, the kitchen resembled mid February; so deep was the snowfall of all-purpose flour on the counters, floor, and, to my surprise, the ceiling as well. I had briefly considered milling my own flour for the sheer authenticity of it, but no doubt that would have resulted a blizzard too intense for my snow plows. Following my better judgement, I still made sure to add a touch more salt to the recipe, and used even more stirring and mixing utensils than necessary for the mere pleasure of licking them all clean when I was finished. While my cookies were baking, I poured myself a glass of farm-fresh milk and set up some lights to snap my cookbook-perfect photograph. Needless to say, they were terribly tasty, even if they were a touch under baked. Fully baked though, was my desire to make chocolate chip cookies. 
     The moral of the story is threefold: do things you haven't done in a while just because pressing your own envelope is very fulfilling. Second, banging on the piano can give you epiphanic revelations, and third, (in the case of VeggieTales) cookies ward off evil sporks. Sporks be warned. Be afraid. I have cookies.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Frame: A Theory of Textual Interpretation

"Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame." - G.K. Chesterton

     The following is a paper written for a literature class arguing for my (minority) perspective on textual interpretation. I've changed the formatting slightly here and omitted boring endnotes and the list of works cited. It was a fun paper to write, and I hope you enjoy it as well. In the mean time, I'm off to finish that other eight page paper due tonight...

     The author is to a text as the frame is to a picture. The writer plays the role of the absolute authority over the meaning in a text, defining and complimenting the text, or even intentionally removing himself from it. The job of the critical interpreter is not to “pare” the author from the text (Sontag, 209), or anarchically place himself on the same level as the author, but to continually search for the author’s intention, keeping essential critical distance: constantly asking why.
     The frame around a piece of art tells the viewer where the picture is, and where it is not. But not only does the frame create limitation, the frame must compliment or somehow add to the work. As critical readers and textual interpreters, we should not remove the author from the text to interpret it, any less than we should remove the frame from a picture to view it. We must look at a picture in relation to the frame in the same way we must look at a text in relation to the author’s intention. Like Susan Sontag’s observation that “reducing a work of art to its content” (208) is the modern way of understanding something, it is also the popular interpretive choice to remove the author from a text, reducing the text to less than even Sontag herself may have realized. These theories of reduction run parallel to democratic or even anarchic perspectives, while the author-oriented theory presented here aligns itself more closely with a cautious monarchal perspective.
     Most anyone can tell you that absolutism at its worst extreme is despotism. Absolutism however is not limited to derogatory expression. There is such a thing as benevolent dictatorship, though it is rare and unfortunately carries much of the same baggage as despotism. Democracy and federated republics are inventions to stand in the place of the ideal of benevolent dictatorship. The three theories of interpretation presented by Umberto Eco in his essay The Intention of the Text, namely, the “intention of the interpreter,” “the intention of the author,” and the “intention of the text” mirror these political approaches in their methodologies (210). 
     The intention of the interpreter; the “beating a text into shape” (210), parallels the worst extreme of democratic methodology--anarchy--in which the author and reader are on an equal plane, and there is no governing power or limitation on the interpretation of a text. 
     Eco himself proposes something under the same influences as a democratic federated republic. In his theory, the “intention of the text” (210), the text acts like the elected representative in a republic, a sort of middle ground between the people and the governance. In this theory, the interpreter has nearly complete freedom within the bounds of the author’s intention in a text. Some critics of the author-intent oriented theory will still argue that the author does create the boundaries of interpretation, letting the reader know where he can and cannot interpret. The author creates the limitation but inside that limitation, the work can be interpreted in different ways. In other words, the author is reduced to a limiter and nothing more. Republican government in America, the model of Eco’s theory, was only established in the wake of a bloody separation from a corrupt monarchy. Democracy is a compromise, not an ideal. It reduces governance to a limiter and not much more.
     Eco’s misconception of the “intention of the author” theory of interpretation seems to pair with the methodology of despotism. He argues against this interpretive theory by stating that it is is “very difficult to find out and frequently irrelevant for the interpretation of a text” (210). To the contrary, this method of interpretation is only irrelevant if one disregards the critical distance necessary for discerning the authors whom you trust and those whom you do not. Potential for revolution keeps monarchy in check. Similarly, critical distance and constant questioning will keep the author’s intention from influencing the reader’s own perspective outside the text. Critical distance cannot change the author’s perspective, but it can protect the interpreter’s. 
     After observing the frame around a picture, the critical reader cannot blithely accept the whole. We can never leave without asking why. We cannot leave until we have made the decision to accept the absolute meaning of the author as a monarch, or rather to reject that meaning on grounds of critical distance. Many times, the end result will be rejection, but the reader should always search for a “benevolent dictator”--an author who’s perspective does not run against the reader’s--who will produce ideas that can be accepted.
     Frank Kermode’s theory of interpretation as outlined in his essay, “The Genesis of Secrecy” is closer to to this author intent-oriented theory than the two others excerpted in Text Book. He writes, “to divine the true, the latent sense, you need to be of the elect, of the institution” (208). Kermode here acknowledges that there is such thing as a “true,” “latent” meaning in a text. Where Kermode goes awry though, is when he asserts that this “true” meaning can only be discovered by the “elect of the institution.” Kermode defends this assertion by appealing to the parables of Jesus. He neglects to include, though, the key phrase that follows several parables of Jesus: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear;” a phrase that invites any and all to search out meaning, and is not elitist or institutional in any sense of the words.
     Susan Sontag, a writer and interpreter coming from a more democratic interpretive perspective, argues against the use of institutions to box in the meaning of a text. She argues that fitting texts into pre-determined institutions creates a bloated interpretive textual network that she deridingly labels “the thick encrustations of interpretation” (209). For this argument, Susan Sontag can be praised. Though her theory does allow interpreters to read into a text--to look past the significance of the frame-- and make a text “conformable” (208), her position opposing institutionalized interpretation is admirable. Susan Sontag is also on the right track when she writes, “By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art” (208). Sontag is referring to and arguing against leaving out the form from a text: the “dim lighting” and “refined feelings” that she mentions later in paragraph four (209). While this argument against reduction is a step in the right direction, the need to make art “about something” eclipses the need to keep the author’s intentions the focus of interpretation. Even in Sontag’s theory that bad interpretation is a “paring down” to the “essentials,” she herself pares the author’s intention from a text in order to make the text “about something.”
     It is common to find photographs or paintings hung without frames at all. In the same way, it is common to find works of literature with no pretense of authorial intent whatsoever. In these cases, the author has often (ironically) intentionally removed intention from his text. When interpreting a text without any clue to the intention of the author either in the text or in the textual network surrounding a text, we can then question why an author is so disconnecting himself from his own text. How does the lack of intention add or subtract to the feel the author is conveying in his work? Does this lack of intention add to the chaos of a work? Does it show that the author has succumbed to the “encrustations of interpreters”? Is the author cautious? Or is he silently screaming rebellion against classical literature? Even in an author’s silence, the critical reader should always ask why.
     All to often, problems and blatant misinterpretations arise from either text-oriented or reader-oriented interpretations. In these cases of paring the author from a text, a medieval phrase intended as a mere pithy title can be interpreted as a racial slur, or an amendment to the Constitution intended to promote liberty can be interpreted to drive a boundary between religion and government. If we take the monarchal approach to literary priority, and cautiously and critically look for the intent of the author in the text and in the textual network around the text, the frequency of textual misunderstandings will be greatly diminished. 
     A text’s author should be critically viewed in direct relation with, the sole authority of, and the determiner of the meaning in a text. Even when the author obscures himself, we must continue to ask why. Ceasing to ask why dangerously removes the necessary critical distance, but asking why only after “paring” the author from a text can place a reader on equally dangerous ground for misinterpretation. The frame is a much more important part of the picture than many think.

     Now that that thing's over, on a completely unrelated note, my forays into the woods in search of the artesian well have finally produced results. After following two other river tributaries to no avail, I found the source of a third trickling stream to be the spring I was after. Tin ladle and all.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Drifting into Spring

"It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade." - Charles Dickens

     Overall, it's been a mild winter. The weather has been strange all over the place, but despite Dr. Don Easterbrook's declaration of global cooling, Michigan's had one of it's warmest winters yet. That is, until March first. Northern Michigan found itself under 20 inches of wet snow overnight, and the power lines had fallen with it. Without electricity for four days, we survived off of our wood-burning stove and melted snow for water, playing card games by candlelight. But after rescuing two stranded cars, having to move all of the food from the refrigerator to the barn, and throwing out all our backs shoveling snow, winter got old. Fast. 
     Interestingly, the ancient Hebrew cycle of seven Biblical holidays is structured with three feasts in the fall and four feasts in the spring. Conspicuously missing are any feasts in either the summer or winter. These are the dry spells; the long stretches of burning heat or feet of snow. Representing and commemorating historic and futuristic events, one can map out one "year" of Biblical feasts and dry spells over the entire history of the world with each grouping of feasts roughly denoting the time period in which the intent of the feasts were fulfilled. The spring feasts listed in the Bible, Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, and Pentecost, were fulfilled in the life of Jesus and his disciples in the first century, putting an end to the long winter that stretched from the (somewhat ironic) "Fall" of mankind to Christ's birth. This millennia-long winter, as history tells us, was much worse than any comparison with Michigan's winter this season. The wars and disasters of those past centuries were power outages that lasted for years.
     The first century is long gone, and the world has been plunged into the second long dry spell that reflects summer. We are awaiting the fulfillment of the fall feasts at the second coming of Christ. 
     But stepping away from the big picture, I'm still watching our five foot snow drifts melt away as we simultaneously drift into this weird transitory season we call spring. But maybe it's not as transitory as we thought. Maybe, on that grander scale, it represents not the transition but the objective. Perhaps winter and summer are the transitory seasons, and spring and fall are the seasons to look forward to. Either way, I'll be glad when this winter is over for good.

In any case, here's a couple black and white shots from the past few days.