January 2007

Happy Oimelc, everyone! I hope the campus has mutton tonight.


To those of you who attempted to post earlier and whose comments have not shown up, I apologize. My security settings were marked to only allow those who were registered and signed in to post, and it deleted the first six comments before I realized what was going on. I’ve fixed the settings and am checking the spam bin regularly, so no more comments should slip through the cracks. If you had comments among those first six, though, I would still appreciate hearing them, so please post again!

Take a look at this guy’s sculpture. Seem familiar? Good. In fact, you can probably name the artist of the original without even looking at the URL ( you get extra points for knowing what the initials stand for). With that in mind, here are some Bergerian questions to consider when analyzing it.

First, what does the piece say, and how is that meaning affected when it is taken out of the context of the original? For that matter, does the sculpture have any meaning disjoint from the original? Is the artist using the context of this image to support an argument or connect with his audience in a particular way? Is this image ritually obscured by critics and historians, or does it remain in the popular domain of art? How has reproduction shaped popular conception of the piece? Also, how does the change to a 3-dimensional medium comment on the original piece?

For kicks, here’s the URL for the main Escher legos gallery. Lego ought to put out sets like these instead of those nancy, custom-molded starship pieces of merde. The whole point of legos is that you have to build the parabolic curve yourself. Heck! you could teach an elementary mathematics course based entirely off of those little blocks.

For those curious among you, the M.C. stands for Maurits Cornelis.

Today was the fifth time someone here has mistaken me to be Canadian. There must be something in the air; I certainly lack the accent. Even if one counts Ohio as virtually Canadian (which is a stretch), I’ve spent the last twelve or so years in the American south. That hasn’t tempered my English terribly, I admit, and even growing up around many internationals has shaped my vocabulary more than my accent. Embarrassingly, it was my linguistics professor this time. It may have been that I spell liter “litre.” Still, that’s a habit familiar to anyone in bioinformatics, eh?

Upon meeting a person, whether known or unknown, a sales clerk or an intimate friend, most Americans exchange some sort of greeting. It may be a simple “hello” or “good morning,” or a slightly longer inquiry about one another’s health. There are many variations on these interactions, often entirely interchangeable, but some form of greeting is expected. To an outsider entirely unfamiliar with American culture, these interactions might seem, at best, simple exchanges of information, or else entirely pointless. In reality, however, these are culturally loaded questions, however little the participants or onlookers attend to them.

At the simplest level, greetings are phatic exchanges. In fact, the simple “hello” and “good morning” are purely phatic, serving no other purpose than to establish recognition and a human connection between two individuals. This bond is comforting and necessary to interaction in American society. It communicates recognition, respect, and caring, often prefacing a conversation or request, and in a society that places such emphasis on equality among its members, this is crucial.

It is only when people deviate from the prescribed patterns of greetings and health inquiries that the utterances gain communicative significance. This, our observer may notice, happens primarily among close friends and family members. Here, the requests, while maintaining their basic phatic motivation, elicit more accurate information, and both sides may share negative or extreme emotions. Instead of the standard response of “fine, how are you” to a request, the observer might hear “well, the kids are sick again and the boss just trashed my proposal.” Although both responses could be uttered by the same person in the space of five minutes, it is the situation and the speaker’s relationship to the interlocutor that determine which is appropriate. In order to successfully interact in American society (or, for that matter, in most Western cultures), it is necessary to master which greetings, questions, and answers are appropriate in which situations, and our observer should keep this in mind when approaching an interaction.

Alright, it’s time for a real world guest appearance. I am exceedingly unhappy. As it often does, my misery has seeds in prior joy–here, in the infuser my mom gave me for Christmas. It should be evident from this that I have a weakness for tea, especially looseleaf blends. Not that I don’t admire Twinings and Celestial Seasonings for their fantastic bagged teas, but tea bags were an accident. Tea is supposed to be brewed loose. When trading companies began sending samples overseas, however, they packaged them in small cloth bags, and the recievers often brewed the tea in these. So was the convenience born, and there are now some excellent teas available only bagged. I highly recommend Welsh breakfast.

Back to the infuser (and if I have my tea history wrong, please let me know). It was wonderful! I could now make some of my favorite teas by pot or cup without the mess gumming up the spout or drain. At home, of course, we have strainers, but in a dorm room, time, space, and sinks are at a premium. So, for the first week of classes, life was blissful. No stress, no dehydration, no antioxidant-deprived moments.

Familiar as the cliched “all good things must come to an end” is, though, I was not expecting it to be so abrupt. Today, alas, my infuser died. It was quite sudden; two solderings corroded and sprang apart, rendering it unusable. No more imperial green or “iron goddess of mercy” for me, I guess, although the pearls and assam should still work. What really smarts is that I could fix it if I were home, where I have plenty of wire and a soldering iron handy. Can’t think why that wasn’t on my packing list…

The English word ‘culture’ has a long and complex history, and now controls a great deal of semantic space in its various senses. ‘Culture’ derives from the Latin cultura, which grew out of the verb colere–to inhabit, cultivate, protect, or honor with worship. It entered English in the early 15thC via the Fr. culture, which referred to the practice of agriculture, and by the 16thC had been extended to refer to the advancement or cultivation of the mind. The English usage was notably influenced by the development of another word, ‘coulter’ (ploughshare), whose corruptions came to include another ‘culture,’ easing the other’s metaphorical expansion.

Over time, the popular use of the metaphor and the generalization of particular processes allowed ‘culture’ to further expand its semantic turf. Here the adaptations of culture to other languages began to influence English usage as English and continental philosophers exchanged literature and attempted to define the essence of man and society. The German Kultur (originally Cultur, and also from Fr.), at this point, described the secular development of the human intellect or acted as a direct synonym for civilization. From this 18thC Kultur came the most important work influencing English usage: Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. This work spoke, for the first time, of plural “cultures” pertaining to different nations, eras, and social groups, and it was this usage that was adopted and developed by the Romantic authors, who shaped it into a revolutionary replacement for ‘civilization’ and introduced the concept of folk cultures.

In modern usage, there are three (non-biological or -agricultural) uses: as an independent, abstract noun referring to intellectual and artistic work; as an independent, abstract noun describing the process of intellectual development; and as an independent noun indicating the particular way of life of some social group. Here, however, it varies by language and discipline whether culture refers to human or material production, and its many uses have excited considerable debate and hostility. Hostility in English appears to have arisen around Matthew Arnold’s controversial ( if unintentioned) use of the word in reference to class delineation. ‘Culture’ gained further stigmatization around WWI, when so much German propaganda centered around ultranationalistic worship of Kultur. Although that particular hostility abated with time, use to distinguish based on class and educational background is still controversial. Surprisingly, the anthropological uses of ‘culture’ and ‘cultural’ (as in sub-culture) have helped eliminate such hostility, but with so complex and subtle a history, the skerries and even the core of culture are likely to remain under the social and anthropological eye for centuries to come.

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