Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hwaet! Zounds! Harrow!

Japes for Owre Tymes features a translation of newspaper comics into Middle English. I particularly like this, which adds a moral gloss to Family Circus.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Let me 'splain. No. There is too much. Let me sum up.

For those of you too lazy to read comments, Steph commented in response to my last post and pointed out that it was Saussure, not Derrida who said that language was arbitrary. So here's your linguistics/literary theory lesson of the day.

Ferdinand de Saussure is called the father of linguistics. He argues that language is arbitrary. Saussure talks about what he calls "signs".

For Saussure, the word "tree" (for example), is a sign that consists of two parts, inseparable from each other, like the two sides of a piece of paper. A sign is made up of a signified and a signifier.

In the case of the word "tree", the signifier is the sound of the word. The signified is the idea of tree that comes with the sound.

The important part, for Saussure, is that there is no inherent connection between the signified and the signifier. It's arbitrary. Saussure didn't think that meant anything profound about meaning, he just wanted to point out that the sounds we make have no inherent connection to the real world objects they describe.

Then Lacan says: no, the signifier isn't the idea of "tree", it's other words. "Tree" has a meaning to me only because "bush", and "shrub", and "forest", and "cat" and "city" also have meaning and I can compare those words to each other. Lacan calls it the "signifying chain".

Then along comes Derrida, who says that language is constructed, and uses the term "deconstruction" to describe his approach to philosophy. Derrida says, in a nutshell, that written words do not stand for spoken words, which do not stand for thoughts, which do not stand for platonic ideas, which do not stand for metaphysical realities. Language, literature, it's all a semantic game. Texts have no particular meaning, because words have no particular meaning. Interpretation is endless, and there's no such thing as "truth".

And Derrida leads to English grad students who can't have a conversation without reminding everyone that the words we are using have no ultimate meaning, and that there is no meaning in texts. That everything can be a "text", and that you don't have to be able to read in order to "read".

And I say: Bah. Because language may be contextual but we exist in a context together, and if we want to, we can actually understand each other. If we want to.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Searle said: "Derrida gives bullshit a bad name"

Okay. Listen.

I know you think Derrida is the coolest. I know that deconstruction blew your mind.

Fine. Language is arbitrary and as a result meaning is contextual.

But you live in the same context as I do, and arbitrary or not we've all agreed together as speakers of this language to attempt to understand each other. Can we move on?


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Give me Liberte or give me death!

Okay, seriously, Liberte yogourt is by far the best thing ever.

Seriously. No exaggeration at all. It is a million times better than anything else in the universe.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Classes began this week.

I'm taking two courses this semester, which is still considered Full Time, because of the amount of work expected in those courses and the other work (researching and writing a thesis, for example) that goes with being a grad student.

Both of these courses (like virtually all graduate courses) are seminars, which means that instead of the professor telling us everything about book history, the professor assigns books which everyone reads and then we have a lively, three-hour-long guided discussion. Typically each student leads at least one of these discussions, which means that on your day to lead a seminar you need to really know the text so that you can ask all the important questions.

My first class is Bibliography, taught by my advisor. Bibliography, for those who don't know, is basically the study of books as objects. I took a course a lot like this at CMU, called "History of the Book" (Hot-B).

This class happens in the back of the library, in by far the nicest classroom I've ever seen at U of M. The chairs are all cushy, with wheels, and the arms move up and down.

It's going to be an interesting class, in both good ways and maybe bad ways too. I'm very interested in the way the material, physical object of a book affects the way we think about things, so that will be cool. But the first class we had a discussion that to me felt more like "Man, kids don't write letters anymore" than anything academically worthwhile. Which was a little frustrating.

The prof, is brilliant, friendly, encouraging and gentle. And maybe that keeps him from saying "No, you're wrong and dumb." Or maybe not, we'll see.

My second class, is called "Writing the City", and it's a Canadian Lit course about cities and the way they get portrayed in literature, and how that affects the way they are in the world. It is going to be an fascinating class, if a little unorthodox.

The professor is a semi-famous Winnipeg author (famous enough that Jan, working in the library had heard of him, not so famous that I had). He's hairy and witty and full of stories about Winnipeg.

For instance, I learned on Wednesday that the first mayor of Winnipeg was the founder of Harlequin books, the largest publishing label to this day. Who knew?

One of the assignments for that class is to take a walk around an area of Winnipeg, and then write about it.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

There's no such thing

The most important thing about school--maybe about life--is finding the free lunches.

If you're a graduate student at the University of Manitoba there are free lunches provided almost every day of the first week of classes.

Now I only have classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays this semester, so it might not be worth going all the way to the University just for the sake of lunch.

Or is it? A bus ticket costs $2.25, so a trip to the University and back would run me $4.50. That's not bad for a lunch.

But there is a catch.

On Tuesday I attended a "Welcome to New Graduate Students" event hosted by the Faculty of Graduate Studies. I attended this, let's be honest, solely because of the promise of Pizza. The event started at 12 noon, and I had my first class of the year at 1pm. I figured I should have time to eat. Right?

You'd think so. But before pizza is served, we have to listen to 5 speakers. The Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies promises that each of these 5 speakers would have a time limit of 5 minutes each. Now I have a minor in Math, so I am able to quickly calculate that the speaking should be done by 12:25. Still enough time for me to eat and make it to my class.

Oh, says the Dean, I forgot, the first speaker doesn't have any time limit. So here he is to explain part of the University webpage.

But the wireless isn't working.


Techs are called, the speaker tries to improvise (and walks away from the microphone, so that I can't hear a word he's saying).

The Dean says this never would have happened on a Mac.

Meager laughs.

Finally the web guy gives up, and we move on.

But the Dean, of course has to introduce each speaker. And spend a little bit of time in witty banter.

The clock is ticking.

At 12:45, the last speaker is finally finished. Pizza, I think!

The Dean comes up to the microphone, as the pizza is brought in.

"The only thing between you and your pizza" he says "is PRIZES! I hope everyone kept their raffle tickets!"

I sigh, and head off to my three hour class, with an empty stomach and a mournful spirit.

There's no such thing as a free lunch.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Meet and Greet, Wine and Cheese

On Friday the University of Manitoba Grad program had their welcome back wine and cheese meet and greet.

I got my official Grad Student day-planner. I met with my professors. I drank some wine. And I'll be back for classes on Tuesday.