Monthly Archives: October 2006

smelling memories

(On my way back to Chicago for another meeting.) Sit quietly, close your eyes, and recall the scent of a lemon … soy sauce … pepper … gasoline … a baked apple. Inhale through your nose as you remember these smells. I find this entertaining, and I can get quite precise about it. For example, I can choose whether to remember a bitter lemon smell (with some of the white pith), or the pure scent of the inside of the fruit.

It appears that memories of smells decay more slowly than other sensory memories. This is a bit surprising, because “each olfactory neuron in the epithelium only survives for about 60 days, to be replaced by a new cell.” Dr. Maturin in one of the Patrick O’Brien novels notices the power of smells to restore memories and hypothesizes that it’s because we don’t have many words for scents. He thinks that because we translate our visual and auditory experiences into language, we tend to forget them, whereas we retain our olfactory sensations in their raw form.

When people (like O’Brien and Proust) write about memory and smell, they usually describe the power of real scents to evoke lost memories. The reverse is interesting, too: the power of deliberate recollection to conjure up imaginary smells.

public voice online

I am writing this post in a public voice. I don’t expect to know most of my readers; therefore, I try to say something that might interest at least a subset of the whole population–a “public.” I hope not only to interest readers, but to influence their behavior in ways that are relevant to shared or common concerns. I avoid obscure references to my own life and completely personal issues and interests.

It’s not the number of visitors that makes my voice “public.” When I wrote my first blog post almost three four years ago, I expected hardly anyone to read it. Nevertheless, I tried to use a public style. In contrast, a MySpace user may have 100 “friends” and attract a thousand hits a day, but because he adopts a highly personal tone and talks about private matters, his voice isn’t a public one.

A public voice is a potential source of influence and even power. Young people must be deliberately taught to communicate publicly. Otherwise, their communications in public spaces (such as the Internet and community meetings) will be ineffective. But private discourse is also valuable, and we should be able to keep it confidential. Thus, for instance, email and instant-messaging should be protected against most forms of evesdropping so that private discourse can stay that way.

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free speech and school discipline

The most interesting case discussed at yesterday’s conference involved an assistant principal at a Texas high school. Some of her students had created a MySpace page that ostensibly belonged to her. They made her seem to be a lesbian and attributed various false and inflammatory opinions to her. She was truly horrified by this experience. She felt violated, and she faced tangible consequences (harassing phone calls, comments at work, etc.).

It seems pretty clear that the assistant principal has standing to sue the students in civil court for defamation. I don’t know the legal standards for defamation, nor the whole truth of the case; but civil courts are competent to decide such matters.

The trickier question is whether the school may make a disciplinary case out of such behavior.

On one hand, the students allegedly defamed a member of the school community. Although they probably made the MySpace page from their home computers, the results can be viewed in the school and may affect working conditions and discipline there. Perhaps the school should be allowed to suspend or otherwise punish the students.

On the other hand, the students exercised speech on their own time. For the school (an arm of the state) to punish speech has First Amendment implications, especially since there would be no due process. The alleged victim in the case would be able to decide that the MySpace page aimed at her was defamatory (not mere satire); and her decision could not be appealed.

I felt very sympathetic to the administrator in this case, but I’m inclined to think that public schools should not be able to punish students for acts of expression undertaken off school property. Some expression is unacceptable and even illegal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s schools’ business.

(By the way, I’m not saying that MySpace and other websites are off limits as sources of evidence of student misbehavior. If a kid posts a comment about breaking school rules, administrators are free to use that information. If you don’t want people to read or see something, don’t post it online.)

free speech online

I’m still in Chicago, now for a meeting on Free Speech in Schools (“a McCormick Tribune Foundation Summit on Youth, the First Amendment, and the Information Age”). Because of the schedule for the day, I don’t expect to be able to write a substantive blog post. But the issues that we’ll discuss include the censorship of school newspapers, restrictions on new media such as MySpace, filtering software in school libraries, and students’ support for the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, another Chicago foundation, MacArthur, today announced its big initiative on Digital Media and Learning. One subtopic in that initiative so far has been censorship and free expression online, but MacArthur is also supporting work on civic engagement, gaming, media literacy, credibility, and identity online. The website is worth a visit.

a production of Lear

(Chicago) Last night, I saw King Lear at the Goodman Theater. Stacy Keach was the King, and the director was Robert Falls. It was a “strong” production, in the sense that the director’s choices were bold and potentially controversial. For example, the setting (stunningly produced) was somewhere in post-Soviet Russia or Eastern Europe.* Lear, Cornwall, and Edmund were either gangsters or Putin-like dictators. The “knights” were riot police.

I thought all of the director’s choices were defensible, and some were brilliant. For example, it was a good idea to make Cordelia a quietly rebellious teenager who detests her family’s vulgarity. The actress, Laura Odeh, is small and young-looking and wears plain jeans, whereas her sisters are gangster molls. Her rebelliousness plausibly explains why she refuses to make a speech in praise of her father.

Likewise, the setting reminds us how unjust is Lear’s original regime. He recognizes the injustice himself, once he loses his knights:

…. A man may see how this world goes

with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond

justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in

thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which

is the justice, which is the thief?

I also liked the violent, urban setting. Regan and Cornwall order Gloucester’s castle “shut up” against Lear. The stage directions tell us that the banished men wander on a “heath”–a natural place. Nature is a major motif in the play, always opposed to artifice. Several characters wrestle with whether nature is just or cruel. But the word “heath” is never spoken on stage, so it is a legitimate idea to make that barren place into nighttime streets, populated by the poor, the naked, and the crazy. When Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear are cast out, they become homeless–just like the homeless men in our cities.

Robert Falls’ bold directorial choices remind me of a general point. Any written text dramatically under-describes what is literally going on. It gives us only partial information about setting, clothing, “blocking,” tone of voice, pacing, facial expressions. Even a staged or filmed production must leave much to the imagination and will be seen differently by different people. But the director and cast fill in some missing details.

We might think that their first task is to figure out what is literally going on, so that we can watch and make up our own minds about general themes. But any intepretation of the literal meaning of the text must be informed by a theory of its general meaning. So, for example, Robert Falls knows from the end of the play that Lear will come to see his own kingdom as deeply unjust, arbitrary, and artificial. Therefore, Falls sets Act 1, Scene 1 in a Russian gangster’s club. If Lear’s regime is brutal, then Kent (his most loyal follower) must be a bit of a thug. That is how Stephen Pickering played him last night.

Likewise, toward the end of the play, Regan suspects a sexual relationship between Oswald and her sister Goneril. (“I know you are of her bosom.” “I, madam?” “I speak in understanding; you are; I know’t.”) Therefore, several scenes earlier, Falls introduces Oswald and Goneril in flagrante delicto. That is an extreme case of using gesture and stage position to illustrate a theme.

That scene underlines the play’s pervasive sexuality, which is often overlooked. Regan and Goneril are sexual rivals for wicked Edmund. Falls also thinks that Lear is sexually jealous of his youngest daughter. In this production, the King is not enraged by her first word — “nothing” — but by her explanation:

They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,

That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry

Half my love with him, half my care and duty:

Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,

To love my father all.

Overall, Fall’s production could be described as nihilistic. He chooses, for example, to have Goneril suffocate Regan and then kill herself, joining a heap of bodies on stage. And Albany literally rapes his wife Goneril while he curses her:

Thou changed and self-cover’d thing, for shame,

Be-monster not thy feature. Were’t my fitness

To let these hands obey my blood,

They are apt enough to dislocate and tear

Thy flesh and bones: howe’er thou art a fiend,

A woman’s shape doth shield thee.

I don’t know if those are good choices, but there is no question that Lear is a bleak play. Since it is set in a pagan world, Shakespeare need not assume divine providence or a morally ordered universe. Post-Soviet Russia seems an ideal metaphor for cosmic disorder and cynicism. “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport.”

*Charles Isherwood, the NY Times reviewer, says that the setting is Yugoslavia. That makes sense: a kingdom divided in parts turns to anarchy.