josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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12 Sep '15 05:26:36 AM

'Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting: you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself. In the democracies, you may even write and publish anything you please about any governments or institutions, even if what you write is demonstrably false.

The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that you work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. You are free to make several thousand close judgment calls a day. Your freedom is a by-product of your days' triviality. A shoe salesman—who is doing others' tasks, who must answer to two or three bosses, who must do his job their way, and must put himself in their hands, at their place, during their hours—is nevertheless working usefully. Further, if the shoe salesman fails to appear one morning, someone will notice and miss him. Your manuscript, on which you lavish such care, has no needs or wishes; it knows you not. Nor does anyone need your manuscript; everyone needs shoes more. There are many manuscripts already—worthy ones, most edifying and moving ones, intelligent and powerful ones. If you believed Paradise Lost to be excellent, would you buy it? Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?'

9 Sep '15 05:58:39 AM

The work, of late: taking up the Tractatus more seriously, intent on 5.5563:

'Alle Sätze unserer Umgangssprache sind tatsächlich, so wie sie sind, logisch vollkommen geordnet. – Jenes Einfachste, was wir hier angeben sollen, ist nicht ein Gleichnis der Wahrheit, sondern die volle Wahrheit selbst.

(Unsere Probleme sind nicht abstrakt, sondern vielleicht die konkretesten, die es gibt.)'

5 Sep '15 12:49:31 AM

'… might just as easily be rendered "do it again." Had Pound translated it so, the whole history of modernist scholarship would presumably have been quite different.'

2 Sep '15 07:54:37 PM

An under-recognized 'least action' principle: tell students how much they have to do, and they will try to figure out how little they have to do.

29 Aug '15 02:38:01 AM

'What kind of academic outsider goes into university administration willingly, and then tries to militarize it?'

28 Aug '15 03:44:32 AM

'It's so bright in here', I tell the cashier. I do feel amazed, dazzled. It must be the same—mundane, dim the way day-to-day life is dim—but tonight the store looks sparkling, alight like the supermarkets in movies, childhood. I tell her I've been walking out on Summit, where all seems darkened, long shrouded stretches passing by tall peaceful houses isolated from the street by their spacious, manicured yards. Where the people with money live. She can't believe that—how could they not have nice safe streetlights—but I volunteer, maybe with some (justified) spite, that they somehow paid to have the lights turned off so as to discourage visitors. Oh no. But.

The cashier looks uncharacteristically grave. 'We had a stickup here last night', she says quietly, gesturing outside. 'Someone was waiting at the bus stop at midnight. Somebody came up behind him and said, "Gimme your money."' She makes a little finger-gun, points.

'They didn't do anything, though.'

23 Aug '15 02:18:58 PM

'Most members of the service staff shared one thing in common—a quiet alliance against our betters: the guests, and our managers.'

22 Aug '15 06:51:44 AM

The workers call banging on things 'striking'.

22 Aug '15 06:05:22 AM

Well before the slightly impatient desolation of end of shift at the grocery store, yet still getting on toward closing—the night stocker lugging boxes from pallet to aisle, just a handful of shoppers picking over produce and staring distractedly at labels, but the skeleton crew of cashiers not yet looking unlively, steadily ringing people up—a woman crosses my path to head to checkout.

At first, all I see is her skin. There's so much of it, so much more than you generally see in a place like this, upmarket.

And it stands out; her clothes are too young, her skin is too old. The contrast makes her conspicuous. Whatever it was that wore her down, her life has been too hard. Her look brings a handful of explanations to mind, none too certain, none too polite to entertain.

A full cart in the open lane causes a little line to form behind it, so a checker opens another lane for the woman, and then me. Whatever she's buying, it's $1.89. She pays with change, not enough, without making any kind of show of hunting for whatever's left. But with no finality, either. Instead, as the checker scoops the coins up one by one and tallies them aloud, it's as if the woman changes her mind as to how much she can let go of, adding one coin, then sliding another across to the checker, still not to round out the amount due but more as if to balance things. Closer to the total, the checker starts counting the rest out in pennies from the courtesy tray by the register. It takes a lot of them.

While the checker counts, the store rent-a-cop hovers into view, hands on his belt, making himself visibly watchful.

Normally, the checker is faultlessly courteous, even a little stagey, issuing every query and prompt needed to expedite checkout in a chipper bray that never quite seems like it can be her real voice: as if she's projecting her lines to the back of an empty theater. But she lets them go for the woman, doesn't make to extract any kind of excuse or extend any kind of opportunity for face saving. No 'don't worry about that', no remark about everyone coming up short now and then, no joke about raiding the change jar before payday, nothing. With nothing else to say, she counts out enough, thanks the woman, and sends her off with her purchase.

For me, almost as if to acknowledge what she's just been silent about, the checker allows the slightest break in her customary performance. 'How are you doing tonight?' is her greeting, the slight emphasis her unprecedented way of uttering a formality to mean something. Not at all conspiratorially, not a micro-collusion to resume involvement in the community of people who can afford $1.89 at the grocery store, I feel. More that the you that she saw and didn't say needed somewhere to go, to be let out, after she discharged its claim upon her.