The “anonymity of a murmur” and the so-called Intentional Fallacy

In “What is an Author?” Michel Foucault says that

as our society changes… the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode… All discourses… would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur.

I quoted this striking passage in my paper on memes, “The Anonymity of a Murmur: Internet (and Other) Memes,” because I think it well describes memes. Each, I said, was too ephemeral to be a distinctive work of art; but collectively, they “create a vast susurration that restlessly adapts itself to new technologies and new modes of expression and communication.”

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Given this outlook on memes, there is a sense in which, in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I am creating anti-memes. By writing elaborate commentaries on my dozens of Batman memes, I am elevating each to the status of a properly-authored text, each one small, to be sure, but made by a real author in a real context that the commentaries, after their own idiosyncratic fashion, will attempt to bring out. Continue reading “The “anonymity of a murmur” and the so-called Intentional Fallacy”

Excisions: 3 (You forgot the little wounded duck)

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

wounded-duck

How I hate this meme! It was made impulsively after I viewed the final episode of season 2 of Transparent, on March 8th, 2016. The text of the meme refers to events in that episode. Josh and Buzz (Josh’s mother’s new boyfriend) find a wounded duck and bring it back to Buzz’s apartment. Josh breaks down and Buzz gives him a fatherly hug. (I may have misremembered the details a bit.) I honestly have no idea why I thought this would be a good meme. Maybe the appeal of the absurd?

I posted it on Facebook on March 9th, and took it down about an hour later. It was only going to be included in the book for two reasons. First, and principally, I originally conceived of the book, to a much greater extent than I do now, as a record of the social media art event that was the Batman Meme Project. The book, after all, has the form of an exhibition catalog and it was the posting of the memes on Facebook, between January and March 2016, that was the original ‘exhibition’ (of which the other memes in the book were parerga). I felt, then, some responsibility to include all the memes that were part of that project, even those that were not very good. Secondly, this and one other meme (that will show up in this series of blog posts, Excisions, in due course) were the only ones that were posted and then taken down soon after (or at all, for that matter). I thought of these as ‘ghost’ memes. The idea of ‘ghost’ memes seemed, and still seems, like a cool idea; but its coolness has come to be outweighed, in my mind, by the desire to have only memes that are either good in themselves or the catalysts for interesting commentary. This meme is certainly not good in itself, and I am completely at a loss as to what kind of commentary it might occasion that would be interesting and worthwhile.

Still, as I write this post, I do find myself regretting this meme’s excision for another reason. The book involves a notional split between the artist (who created the memes) and the editor (who comments on them). In excising some of the memes from the original selection, I solidify the ‘totalizing’ character of the book as a whole. That is to say, the fiction of the split between artist and editor becomes more of a mere device that is part of the total work, which in reality is engineered by a single auteur. The notional split is, by contrast, strengthened and made more real to the extent that the memes on which I am now commenting are alien to me. To some extent, that effect is achieved by the passage of time, which inevitably means I forget quite a lot about the memes I created over two years ago. (I wrote about this a bit here.) But it would also be achieved, in an interesting and challenging way, if I disliked and did not want to have to deal with some of the material that required editorial commentary. The true editor, after all, has to deal with what is in front of them, like it or not. Had I not excised this meme, I would have had to deal with it, like it or not, and to that extent, the totalizing aspect of the work would have been disrupted.


OK, once again, I seem to have given a good argument as to why I was wrong to exclude this meme from the book. The point about the disruption of the totalizing nature of the work has utterly convinced me. Very sad now this meme is a goner!

 

 

M.20 “Couples Therapy”

Here is the last of three actual excerpts from my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, posted a while back on the dedicated Facebook page and now transferred to this blog.

M.20 Couples Therapy

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M.20 Couples Therapy. Composed: February 22nd. Posted: February 29th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Arial. TB1: “How about couples therapy?”, black. TB2: “I don’t do feelings!!!”, black.


 

Another therapy-related meme. Not only does Robin acknowledge some sense of dysfunctionality in his and Batman’s relationship, he implies they are a couple. (See commentaries on M.27 and M.35 for further suggestions that the two of them may be intimately involved.) Given how they seem to be locked into a pattern of repeated abuse, it is brave of Robin to make the suggestion of couples therapy. (And see M.75.) Batman, however, contemptuously rejects the suggestion, on the grounds that he “doesn’t do feelings.” As Jennifer Matey (a philosophy professor at Southern Methodist University) pointed out in the comments to the post, Batman most certainly does ‘do’ one feeling, namely anger. (Matey’s sensitivity to the high degree of anger crammed into these memes is expressed in the comments to M.25, as we shall see.) This tension, between an attempt to renounce emotion altogether and the hypertrophy of one particular, often (though we should remember, not always) destructive emotion, is a staple of superhero culture – indeed, a staple of the culture of masculinity.

The toxic, hyper-masculine war on feelings and emotions also connects, in a roundabout way, with the logical and philosophical milieu of the artist. In graduate school, Evnine was drawn to a passage from Andrea Nye’s book Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic (1990):

Desperate, lonely, cut off from the human community which in many cases has ceased to exist, under the sentence of violent death, wracked by desires for intimacy that they do not know how to fulfill, at the same time tormented by the presence of women, men turn to logic. (175)

His interest in the passage, at the time, was as an object of ridicule, but given how well these words capture both Batman in this meme (and the superhero in general) and the stereotypical male logician (and analytic philosopher in general), we may perhaps surmise that the artist came to sense not a little truth in these words, at least as they apply to himself. Indeed, his very ridiculing of the passage as a much younger man probably betrayed an uncanny recognition of himself in an unexpected mirror. If such conjectures are not entirely ill-founded, this meme takes on an almost embarrassingly intimate and confessional tone.

Excisions: 2

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

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Posted on Facebook on March 1st, 2016. The meme represents a cross-over between the world of Batman memes and the real world, my world, of academia in both content and circumstance. It was occasioned by an email from my department chair to the faculty, asking (for a second time) for volunteers to go to an impending graduation ceremony at which philosophy students would be walking. To the best of my knowledge, neither the locution “walk with x at graduation” nor the suggested practice exists, but I needed a way to imply that Batman was expected to wear academic regalia and not merely be in the audience in his Bat-Civvies, so to speak, to watch Robin graduate.

In fact, the meme was was not just occasioned by my chair’s email. It constituted my reply-to-all to it. So in this sense, the cross-over between Batman and academia was not confined to the meme’s content. It was the first time in which there was a real connection between the Batman Meme Project and my academic world. It was also the first time I confronted my colleagues, en bloc, with evidence of the Batman Meme Project. (A couple were Facebook friends and may have seen some of the previous 20 memes I had posted there by that point.) Even though I had not yet fully conceived of the philosophical work that these memes would become a part of, sending the meme in an email to my colleagues was nonetheless a sort of  philosophical ‘coming out.’ So in a way, given its content and history, and the way they are intertwined, the meme epitomizes the entire book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!.

I remember, after I sent that reply-to-all, being a little apprehensive at the step I had taken. What would my colleagues make of my conducting departmental business with Batman memes? What would they make of the meme itself? Predictably, I need not have worried. No-one gave any acknowledgment of it at all. My meme fell still-born from the meme generator. Not a smile in the corridor (or smiley face in an email). Not an irritated “what?” Not a concern that I was having a midlife crisis. And now, here I am, joining in the silence by excluding the meme from the book. Am I trying to reassure my colleagues? “Don’t worry! That was an accident. Won’t happen again! Look, it’s gone!”

If the meme and its initial distribution somehow represent the collision between Batman memes and academic philosophy that the book as a whole embodies, its chilly reception by a bunch of philosophers anticipates the subsequent vicissitudes of my project. Somewhat to my surprise, as I have made parts of the project public and talked about it in various places, I have encountered a small amount of outright hostility and a much larger amount of what I would call “baffled indifference” (if that isn’t too much of a contradiction in terms).

I have, as you would expect, thought long and hard about the reaction my project elicits. I don’t think it is a result of wanting to use Batman memes in philosophy per se. I can imagine ways of using them that I guess would not get the same response. But the particular use I make of them is to heighten all the peculiarities and dissatisfactions that have attended my own trajectory through philosophy.  I won’t attempt a full accounting of those here. The book itself is for that. But super-briefly, I have not settled anywhere; my work has repeatedly shifted its focus and a number of papers are one-off interventions in areas I am not expert in. As a result of this, I have found I have had to struggle to be heard. As happens to all those who engage in this struggle, my voice has had to contort itself and express itself, finally, through acting out. A ‘slap’ delivered by email to my philosophical colleagues or underlying an experimental philosophical work is an utterance in the language of hysteria. And for those not highly attuned to it, the language of hysteria must always elicit baffled indifference.


OK, that’s two for two! Once again, what I have written about this meme makes me sorry that it is being cut from the book. But here is a case where it would have been much more difficult for me to write a commentary on these lines in the book, where the commentator is notionally distinct from the meme-maker. (More difficult, but perhaps not impossible, since I approach some similar issues in my commentary to another meme.)

Excisions: 1

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

TMI

This was posted on Facebook on February 21st, 2016. It is the first of a group of memes that deal with being in analysis. (Mostly, in the memes, I use the term “analyst.” Here, for reasons I can no longer recall, I have used “therapist.” My preference for the term “analyst,” I fear, betrays a kind of seedy one-upmanship on my part – of which I am not proud! – as if to say, “I’m not talking about any old therapy but honest-to-goodness, genu-ine psychoanalysis.” I wonder if I wasn’t deliberately trying to slap down that tendency in myself by here going with “therapist.” Indeed, as I write this, I now feel I remember that very thought process.) I decided to omit the meme from the final tally because it is quite similar to, though not quite as good as, another, later meme. Continue reading “Excisions: 1”

The adventitious

In a philosophy paper I am presently working on, I lean heavily on the term “adventitious.” I say that the changes an ordinary artifact undergoes over time with respect to its parts are adventitious to it (and hence that a theory of such artifacts that ‘builds in’ these changes to an object’s identity is mistaken). I liked the term “adventitious” here but thought, mistakenly, that I was using it merely as a stylistic variant of “contingent.” I now think, in fact, that it gets at something deeper, or at least other, than contingency (though you’ll have to consult the paper, when it’s ready, to get a sense of what I’m gesturing at).

A few days ago I posted here about how I was re-thinking which memes would be included in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. The book, you could say, was undergoing an adventitious change in its parts. But I am made anxious by these changes. Not because I fear for the identity of the book. It is, in my mind, the very same book, only now with (slightly) different parts. I fear, rather, a different kind of loss.

How have I made the decisions about which memes to retain and which to remove? There are two ways a meme can keep its place. It must either be of sufficiently high quality itself or it must provide me with an occasion for some interesting commentary. While I feel fairly confident in my judgments of quality (only once or twice have I dithered over some meme, wondering if it is good enough for inclusion), I cannot tell, in advance of trying to write the commentary on it, whether a meme will occasion interesting commentary. And that is not an adventitious fact about the work. It is deeply central to what I am doing that I should be open to the adventitious in writing the commentaries. That is the process that underlies the work’s resemblance to the Wunderkammer, the Cabinet of Curiosities.

For example, take the commentary on the Yiddish meme which I have recently posted about three times. It is true that I did have some ideas of what I wanted to write about prior to starting on the commentary (some of which persisted into the final version and some of which did not), but it wasn’t until I wrote about a friend’s remark that the Romanization of the Yiddish gave the meme a “Lithuanian slant” that I took off in the direction of Lita (Jewish Lithuania), the Vilna Gaon, and my own Litvak ancestors. I ended up, quite spontaneously, composing a bibliography of these ancestors’ rabbinic works.

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Continue reading “The adventitious”

The size of things: biz hundert un tsvantsik

When I first started on the book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I thought to include all the memes (53) that I had posted on Facebook as part of the Batman Meme Project between January and March 2016 (including three that appeared only in the movie Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie that was the climactic finale of the Batman Meme Project). Among the parerga were to be six memes I had created at the same time but elected not to post on Facebook (there were others I excluded), and 61 memes I made subsequent to the Batman Meme Project. That made for a total of 120 in all.

I liked that the total was 120 (and determined on it even before finishing all the included post-project memes) for two reasons. First, it is the age by reference to which Jews wish on others a long life (biz hundert un tsvantsik, in Yiddish), in honor of Moses, who was 120 when he died looking over into the promised land he would never enter. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it is the number of the apartment in London in which I was born and in which I lived until, at 18, my parents did cross over into that promised land unattained by Moses, leaving me alone in London, effectively (like both Batman and Robin) an orphan. In a sense, you could say that my delivery was prolonged by 18 years, the apartment being a prosthetic uterus. (I often reflect on the fact that for various periods, my bedroom in that apartment was the very room in which I had been born.) It wasn’t until I was forced to leave no. 120 that I finally, fully, tumbled from fetal grace. That event must have been (I say “must have been” rather than “was” because I struggle to remember my feelings) experienced by me as, well… a slap in the face! (Not that my childhood before then was especially happy. But I was sheltered.)

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In any case, over time, I came to feel that some of the 120 memes were too weak to be included. I also created a few more which I was sorry would not find a place in the book. Finally, after much agonizing, and with the urging of the other University of Miami Center for the Humanities fellows last academic year, I decided to monkey about with the original selection, omitting and adding with the goal of getting the best memes and not trying to conform to this magical number, however personally significant it was for me. There are now going to be roughly 105 memes altogether. I think this is for the best, but I have to say that all of a sudden, the project feels somehow diminished to me. Not just because it has fewer memes in it. Rather, the work as a whole now seems to me less ambitious, less daring. Instead of the envisaged polyphonic texture, in which themes appear and re-appear, cutting across the division into discrete commentaries and the division between memes and commentaries, I now see a series of short essays interspersed with quite a few perfunctory commentaries in which I will have very little to say. Right now, the projected book strikes me as somewhat pitiful.

I am (fairly) sure this is just a phase and that I will eventually recapture something of the original, animating vision. All lengthy projects involve such phases, surely. The phases are the results of interferences between multiple currents. One current flows from the ‘oceanic feeling’ when the work is not fully formed and contains so much in potential to its birth as a diminished actuality. Another comes in bursts as new ideas unpredictably present themselves, new connections appear. A third involves the relinquishing of anxiety over whether one can actually do what one set oneself to do and a growing amazement at the real little fingers and toes that come into being. And all of these, of course, are superimposed on the currents of the rest of one’s life, with their own vicissitudes. Still, let no-one any longer wish me “biz hundert un tsvantsik.” That number is behind me, not ahead.

… in which I am called out (for humorously linking Batman and Yiddish)

In the on-going saga of my commentary on the Yiddish Batman meme, I mentioned, in my previous post, an ‘irascible’ expert who found the draft of the commentary I sent him to be riddled with errors. af a nar makht men nit kin peyresh, he said. (“One doesn’t write a commentary on a fool.”) It turns out that at that point, he had only skimmed what I had written. Now he has read it fully and things have gone from bad to worse, though the focus has shifted from my scholarly shortcomings to my ethical failures.

At one point in my commentary, recounting a little of the history of Yiddish, I write:

Starting in the second half of the 18th century, Jewish proponents of the Enlightenment began to stigmatize Yiddish as merely a debased form of German that kept its native speakers from accessing European high culture. The image of Yiddish as a comic, backward, folksy language began to take shape, in contrast to dominant European languages, on the one hand, and Hebrew, on the other – an image that even many subsequent supporters of Yiddish have been happy to accept.

In earlier versions of the draft, I then inserted a footnote in which I mentioned a recent exemplar of the “Yiddish supporter accepting the comic view of Yiddish” phenomenon, a book that starts with a joke about a kvetching Jew on a train and then says: “If you can understand this joke, you’ll have no trouble learning Yiddish.” (Because the essence of the language is the ability to kvetch in it, and knowing that smooths the way over all the bothersome conjugations, declensions, etc.) I noted that “such works appear to extoll the virtues of Yiddish, provided one forgets that the works of Cervantes, Swift, Marx, Einstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Whitman, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Milton (to name just a few) were all translated into it.” At one point, I even mentioned, in studied proximity to this footnote, Sander Gilman’s book Jewish Self-Hatred. However, I removed both footnotes because the implication about the book I objected to was clearly offensive.

Continue reading “… in which I am called out (for humorously linking Batman and Yiddish)”

Becoming another

The idea for A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! was born with the impulse to (re)present the memes I had published on Facebook but with the explanations of their more esoteric aspects that I had purposely withheld the first time round. Thus, it was always going to take the form of memes with commentaries thereon. Something that was not built into that very idea, but that fairly quickly took hold of me, was that the commentaries should be written as if by someone other than the creator of the memes.

Why did I make this fateful decision? The whole character of the work is profoundly different from what it would have been had I written about the memes ‘in the first person’ and yet I hardly know why it felt so right to me to do it this way. In 1710, somebody said: “This was, among the ancients, that celebrated Delphic inscription, ‘Recognize yourself!’, which was as much as to say ‘Divide yourself!’ or ‘Be two!'”¹ Was the division of myself performed in unconscious obedience to a demand for self-knowledge? Certainly the project as a whole has been connected to the progress of my psychoanalysis, which is an extended exercise in gaining self-knowledge – but has that quest been abetted by my decision to “be two” in this work? Or has that decision served to help me keep my own counsel under the scrutiny of an over-inquisitve commentator? Both, is the likely answer.

The general form of the challenge raised by my self-division is this. A meme, to be comprehensible, must be supplied with context concerning my own life, thoughts, activities, or writings. The ‘editor,’ being ‘distinct’ from the creator of the memes, does not have automatic access to those elements of context that are not, in principle, accessible to anyone. How, therefore, can he introduce them into his commentary on that meme? I have employed a variety of different solutions to this common problem, ranging from manufactured (i.e. fake) documentary evidence to imaginative recreations of the artist’s state of mind on the editor’s part.

In attempting to solve this common problem again and again, now in one way, now in another, I have come to have the strangest experience. The memes on which I am commenting were produced about two years ago. (Yes, time really does fly.) As they recede further and further into the past, they really do come to appear to me as the work of another! In some cases, I no longer remember what I was thinking or what I meant. The fictional split between the artist of the memes and the editorial author of the commentaries is gradually becoming a reality in a way I had not anticipated. Perhaps, if the preparation of the book takes enough time, I will truly come to forget what some of the memes are about, or even whether I created them at all.

¹ The somebody was in fact the Earl of Shaftesbury, in section 2 of his Soliloquy: Advice to an Author.

Other voices

I have previously indicated that the spirit of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn hovers over my own efforts in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I first read the Sebald six or seven years ago. In the course of his loosely connected, almost free associative, wanderings from one reflection on death and destruction to another, he describes a visit to Somerleyton, the seat of an unlikely magnate from the nineteenth century, now a crumbling cabinet of curiosities in which a guided tour takes one through rooms of bygone paraphernalia. A camphorwood chest which may once have accompanied a former occupant of the house on a tour of duty to Nigeria or Singapore now contains old croquet mallets and wooden balls… The walls are hung with copper kettles, bedpans, hussars’ sabres, African masks, spears, safari trophies, hand-coloured engravings of Boer War battles… Nor can one readily say which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist… How fine a place the house seemed to me now, continues Sebald, that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.

In order to avail myself of its riches in the execution of my own current project, I recently started to re-read Sebald’s work – with some trepidation, since time leaves nothing unaltered. And indeed my experience of it has been rather different. On my first reading, I recall being enveloped by a single sustained mood, utterly enchanted. Now, owing perhaps to the somewhat difficult circumstances in which I have been re-encountering Sebald’s melancholy ramblings, my experience has been highly fragmented. I have learnt to recognize, and hence occasionally be irritated by, some of his mannerisms. Parts of the book have moved me nearly to tears while other parts have felt forced and predictable. I have little doubt that the differences here come from me and do not reflect substantial variations in the quality of Sebald’s writing.

One mannerism, which I had either not noticed on my first reading or else had forgotten about, is the way in which Sebald mentions a work by some other writer and then begins, without any warning (and hence without the use of quotation marks), to quote from it. One does not always realize this is happening until one runs into the use of a personal pronoun which is clearly the original author’s and not Sebald’s. At this juncture, Sebald will insert text into the quotation that alerts the reader to the dislocation of the personal pronoun, as I did two paragraphs above.

I had determined that I would use this technique to incorporate some of Sebald’s own book into the commentary on a meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne, who himself is the subject of some of Sebald’s reflections and whose own spirit evidently infuses his work.

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Meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne
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Edition of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn at an exhibition on Browne

How thrilled I was, then, when a friend and student, Ted Locke, suggested that I read a paper by the literary scholar Jane Tompkins called “Me and My Shadow.” Ted and I have discussed auto-theory off and on for over a year. Tompkins’s paper is an early manifesto of auto-theory. In it, she expresses a frustration with academic writing and a desire somehow to incorporate a more personal element into her work that exactly reflects (or I should say, preflects, since her essay was published in 1987) my own motivations for and aspirations in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. Having referred to Ursula Le Guin’s distinction between father tongue (which only lectures) and mother tongue (which expects an answer), she goes on to say:

I find that having released myself from the duty to say things I’m not interested in, in a language I resist, I feel free to entertain other people’s voices. Quoting them becomes a pleasure of appreciation rather than the obligatory giving of credit, because when I write in a voice that is not struggling to be heard through the screen of forced language, I no longer feel that it is not I who am speaking, and so there is more room for what others have said.

Sebald’s murmuring prose does exactly what Tompkins seeks to articulate in her essay; it blends the impersonal historical with the personal, it seamlessly incorporates other voices, and it never struggles to make itself heard through forced language. This incorporation of other voices makes his work itself a cabinet of literary curiosities – a work in which one cannot tell what decade or century it is, in which one is as likely to find oneself conjecturing about Sir Thomas Browne’s attendance at a scene depicted by Rembrandt as on the childhood of Conrad, or on the death of Edward Fitzgerald, whose translations of Omar Khayam are so distinctive that they have passed into the English language as something generic –  just one of the many ways English can be – in the way that the King James translation of the Bible has. I have yet to finish my second reading of The Rings of Saturn but the frustrations of my re-reading of its earlier parts will, I feel sure, be entirely reconfigured, and perhaps disappear altogether, owing to Tompkins’s invigorating essay. And for anyone keeping track, you might have noticed that I have been silent on my blog for some time now – this post, “Other voices,” is the first new parergonal material I have been able to create for quite some time.