Sunday, October 27, 2013

Diary: Two lectures and a conference

27 October 2013

On Monday, I heard a lecture by Michael Sieweke, who studies cities like New Orleans and Venice that are shaped over time by the interaction of rivers and the sea. The next night, I heard another by Manuel Castells, a polymath whose current interest is social movements that make use of the Internet to organize and mobilize. On Saturday, I went to a conference on Horst Rittel, Mel Webber, and "wicked problems"* 40 years later. 

A remark in passing by Sieweke to the effect that the current problems in the Venice lagoon (it's turning into a bay) stem from riverine interventions in the Veneto initiated by Venice in the Renaissance reminded me of the singular importance of time. Time was, curiously, mostly missing in the reconsideration of Rittel's notion of wicked problems. (Two people referenced Steward Brand's Clock of the Long Now in the Q&A, but the panelists didn't understand their questions.) The term "wicked problems" itself was questioned - Hugh Dubberly suggested "tangles" and several speakers were at pains to distinguish them from the merely complex. (One speaker noted that so-called "tame" problems are thorny in reality and may be "wicked" without our realizing it.) 

The final conference session, focused on community involvement in the planning process, brought the time issue into focus for me. The discussion hovered around fundamental disagreements about issues. Near the end of his life, Rittel proposed what he called "issue-based information systems," arguing that with community problems, intractable by nature, the best you can do is to track the debate. I think this is true - that unfolding time in fact resolves a lot of arguments, either because the protagonists get past their prejudices or because they die off and the next generation can't see what the fuss was about. 

In the second panel, Stanford's Terry Winograd asserted that we've entered the age of monstrosities, while IIT's Kim Erwin, noting the existence of huge, consequential data pools that contain inaccurate information, said that the problem with "monstrosities" like this is that no one's responsible. (She gave the example of a federal database of people with criminal records. It's estimated to be wrong 6% of the time, and the agency "responsible" won't stand by its accuracy. The current Obamacare portal screw-up and the NSA scandal suggest that "no one responsible" is how the government designs its initiatives.)

Combining these two comments, I immediately thought of Syria, which gives the West no "lever" for intervention (short of armed attack) with the exception of the poison gas removal, an old-style international action for which Assad, of all people, ends up taking responsibility. But I also thought of Castells' discussion of social movements, driven by outrage against larger entities they no longer trust: corporations, the market, and government especially.

Castells' description of social movements "horizontality" and peculiar stasis reminded me of a group process workshop (Tavistock Institute, et al) that I took in the early 1970s - a process without a task. Occupy has tasks, of course, but is studiously leaderless. Castells, who's in the midst of working out a theory, said that Occupy is the confluence of cyberspace and public space. He mentioned what he called the "space of autonomy" - by occupying public space (or any space that is nominally public but in reality controlled by others), Occupy shifts that space temporarily into the public realm, making a broader point - a symbolic point - about how constricted our space of autonomy really is. My sense is that Occupy's influence will be felt later, that it will seem much more impactful in retrospect. Some of that influence may simply be that it channeled the zeitgeist at a time when no one else was able to do so.

Another of the panelists, a Berkeley engineering professor named Eric Paulos, showed a slide of a 1984 project by Mark Weiser, "Aspen TV," that anticipated Google street view by roughly two decades. "I have dozens of examples," he told me later. What he was showing is the lag behind an idea's first appearance and its "sudden" wide currency. Rittel is like that - devoted to the Socratic method, he wrote relatively little, but has had an outsized influence over time, not always with attribution. As Michael Sieweke's Venice lagoon example shows, influence is a two-edged sword. Castells said that social movements aren't always benign, which brought the post-World War I Freikorps and Brown Shirts to mind, the genesis of the Nazi's parallel armed force. The Tea Party was asked about in the Q&A, another social movement that could go either way.

*: "Wicked problems" was defined by Rittel and Webber by a list of attributes. If I were to define it, I would say that it's a problem that can only be resolved, not solved  - that will arise again in some other form. Housing people decently is a classic example - a problem pretty much forever. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Barn Partitas

I. The Road as Lived

1. Journey 
Much that could not be written: the look back
often in company; small wonder, then,
their wariness. He scanned the long horizon:
roads sinuous and tree-lined; shrines, chapels;
terraces; cars and ferries; rooms with views—
all the possible venues that figure
when someone else is the journey’s purpose.
Can one explain the road as lived? Reason
has no answer. When questioned about it,
the I Ching gave him “Splitting Apart,” apt
and to him optimistic: things must break
so something new can gather force, appear.
“Things must”: how fate permeates the road!
And each one sees it as it is for her. 

2. Memory 
"And what would that look like?" she might have asked.
The question looks ahead, if doubtfully,
but his mind tends toward retrospect: what's formed
has taken place, associative scenes
stretching back to time’s bending point, where he
regained consciousness of self and others.
The scenes arrive like Swedenborg’s heaven:
not a great distance when they first appear
from where he is or was. The observer
in these scenes is also present,
a filmmaker’s eye, but more holistic
in what he takes in on the journey through:
green walls behind the mosquito netting;
white cotton with its narrow line of wet. 

3. Wildflowers 
"Abandon no one": this was his maxim,
not that it was believed. Love and friendship
mix badly between the sexes; they want
one or the other. He learned it slowly,
noting along the way how, unfolding,
time opens life up, makes it possible
to find the river again in that space.
And while she may only put her feet in,
there’s a glint of warmth in her eyes and voice.
All because time has turned the ground over
and those wildflowers that betrayal scorched
emerge, bloom again in a new season.
The gate is always there, the hedgerow
sometimes a wall, else more of a curtain. 

4. Here 
In one sense, visceral, then burned, scattered;
in another, each and every, imbued— 

how quickly memory attaches, grips
one's sideways glance of things, raises places
from their background status. One picks them up;
one picks up on them. Present here, one says,
telling a story that overlays death
with what lives on. I used to picture it
slipping between time's folds, a shimmering
into and out of material life.
It's not quite the Noh play I imagined.
Despite the flames and ashes, so much persists:
not just what we trash or give away, nor
what we think we see. Being here, he, too.  

5. Blue 
Did she notice him, his eyes fixed on her,
line-dancing along the periphery,
gestures toward a sky that reminded him
of the lapping Caribbean Sea, blue
with bars and shoals, the pelicans skimming?
He could picture her at home in that scene.
Would she come closer, answering his wish?
If the room emptied out, then just the two,
alone in the semi-dark, the palm fronds
swaying, imaginary though they were.
Or would he come for her, carried along
by the rising and falling of the song?
Gravely she thanked him as he left; no kiss
but only words, the kiss left unspoken. 

6. Ever 
Whatever else he might have been, he thought,
an opportunity wasn’t it. Still,
he could see why the word came up. Squandered
is how time can feel when expectations
falter. The transformation shocks us. Love
charts a path that rarely proves tenable.
Yet nothing’s lost, the I Ching added, soon
after, but after what, exactly? Words
like disaster came to mind. But was it?
There they were, as close as ever, despite
the distance on some levels. The layers
drop away, the venues change. “It may
just be this,” she told him awhile back. Yes,
it may. Our reality, he’d say. 

7. Winterreise
Sometimes only boughs are visible, near
as passersby on crowded city streets,
close enough to touch, but we hold back, fear
to touch the way we might if between the sheets.
A different season—hedgerows form a square,
hawks drift past the doorstep, the sea fog-edged—
held in the mind, this thought wards off despair,
even as the boughs bend close, winter full-fledged.
They say there are hot springs hereabouts, far
or near, I know not. Heat intuited
glimmers in consciousness like a faint star
and yet proves faithful and deeply rooted.
Somewhere in this Milky Way, steam rises.
Make for that, a traveler surmises.

("Here" is for Donald Cremers in memory of Frank Sclafani.) 

II. Encounters with Others

1. Hints 
So maybe it’s true, these charges leveled.
I could see it. My history precedes me:
a life smooth to the touch and yet beveled,
even knife-like, and sharpened to a T.
Yes, it may be true. I feel like smoking
or playing slow music in a dark room.
There may be a blue lamp, someone soaking,
barely vertical, diktat from the womb.
You know how the chorus goes, the long moan,
the short gasp. Yes, definitely like this.
I’m sure I’m guilty as charged on the phone.
(But one could also say, “An odd life, miss.”)
Imagination plays a role, a touch
of ambiguity, small hints and such. 

2. Heft 
The word from eight (the hexagram): Union.
Life has its hubs or maybe its nodes. One
finds one’s place, tries to avoid confusion.
The whole is organic after all, fun
while it lasted, you could say, a tear
welling up, but then it orbits around
the brass ring you missed might just reappear,
only golden this time, and what’s lost is found.
The whole is dramatic after all; full
of everything that leavens existence—
from bees abuzz to the massive white bull
that carried Europa north. “Resistance
is futile,” she thought, tightening her hold;
imagining its heft had made her bold. 

3. Chemistry 
Melancholic, I read: analytic
and literal. Mix sanguine in and then
you get what Hegel called dialectic.
(It can seem bipolar, now and again.)
Literal, yes, that rang a bell: a clue
why metaphors sink like lead in quicksand.
The glass, famously half empty: that’s due
to some negative universe, a band
most often playing in a minor key?
Mix sanguine in and things look much brighter.
It takes hold so quickly. The chemistry
is such that everything soon seems lighter.

When that glass fills up, claret or amber,
the bow, taken up, regains its camber. 

4. Three 
Morphine clears a path; it was requested,
he learned at the wake. The bigger friar
of the two—perhaps he was a father—
set his remarks on women and offspring:
how life’s quickening registered as joy.
(Invoking it seemed oddly apropos.)
Three generations of the female line
were noted. The eldest, recently dead,
witnessed this mutely. My theory (self-awareness
persists a bit) foundered on a body
from which all signs of life had departed.
“All used up” came to mind, admirable
in its economy of means. No doubt
that her material life lost its spark. 

5. Fork 
"Ask someone else," the woman said, turning
back to whatever it was, blocked from my sight.
In the cafés of life, I'm still learning
to distinguish a wrong move from a right.
We spoke of art as he drank his wine, art
that sometimes lived in, the remove as slight
as one remembered. Did he give a start?
Time's distance is no match for the flight
of memory. Like how I can hear you
as they must have too, your door open. "Sounds
like thunder," they might have said. If they knew,
geologic terms could have made the rounds—
seismic, perhaps, or volcanic—but then
memories fork, don't they, now and again? 

6. Neck 
Long-legged with dark slippers, tatami
cushioning the blow; hair clipped, wedding ring
a bronze band; a boyish face. Can't you see?
Her neck was how a lover views it. Sing,
oh muse, of how her back would arch, taken
dog-wise, wet from earlobes caressed, parting 
lips somewhere along the way. Mistaken
as we sometimes are, drifting, departing
all too soon, her cries echoing, leaving
marks, sheets pulled by hands grasping. Holding still
until taken, until taken, the thing
aching as it often does, taken ill.
Impatient as we sometimes are: depart
too soon, drifting, humming, living one's art.

(“Neck” is in memory of Gabriele d’Annunzio, 1863–1938.) 

III. Notes to Self

1. Somewhere 
Inside the room, inside the head: one could
write stories of such stasis: nothing goes
right or wrong; there’s neither must do nor should.
Around the desk, around the chair, life flows
like a mysterious substance. Women
came and went. The book lies upside-down, tent
of paper and board, small markings like Zen:
those koans, so hard to read, if they meant
anything to anyone else: doubtful.
Cats also came and went. A jay lands, screams.
The mind wanders in its confining skull.
Somewhere, it thinks, a woman dreams or creams.

Wake! A cloud of sanguinity draws close.
A black bee, meandering, snorts a dose. 

2. Prokofiev 
Prokofiev wasn't so very nice. 
"Like you," you might have said, eyes turned away. 
His wife, devoted, kept the flame. "The spice 
of cruelty stays with you," I heard her say, 
remembering his self-centeredness. "Tough luck 
if he was cruel; the spice of it rubbed raw 
the mind that animates the parts that fuck, 
and of course he was brilliant, as you saw." 
Your eyes turn back, then look away again—
at least they do so in my thoughts. Days pass 
between us, even weeks. Like a surgeon, 
time cuts things up: big, silent gaps, alas. 
"I light a cigarette," she said, "and touch 
the parts that ache, though by now not as much."

3. Love
I want to write out love’s true story: hearts
melded into flesh, is that how it is?
The truth of love—many scenes, many parts!
Each folds back on the other: how it is.
He takes her trembling self in hand, rocket
that she is. He’s like a match, and as dumb,
column-straight, ignition in his pocket,
then bent down at the gate, mind switched to numb.
How like a horse plowing, running blindly—

love is a field to him, love is a course.
That another's aflame, a rising sea
behind those eyes, deep in that matted source—

these facts pass like trees and houses, the road south,
the beaten path, the curve of lips, the mouth. 

4. Two
I want to write out love’s true story: talk
accompanies love, does it not? Before
and after is the rule, but sometimes you talk
throughout, albeit in single words or more,
short phrases or demands. Conversation
comes in between, those moments of cooling
after the long sprint, the respite of come,
when our beings briefly reign, no fooling,
as twin monarchs of all we survey: bed
and linen, walls, a view. For some reason
the mind is freed. Unwritten, what is said,
yet remembered, some of it—the season,
what you asked, how I felt; reality
consisting then of us, we two, only.

5. Yet
I want to write out love's true story: none
should imagine themselves safe from its wiles.
Promises are made and broken. The sun
is barely risen and we're plunged in: trials
that blaze up at some points or are subtle,
a word or two inserted: how it is.
A once-intact world becomes a muddle.
Where did it go, you ask, where went the fizz?
More to the point, where went concord, hard won?
Time counts for nothing. Years fail to add up.
Understandings fall away. The wan sun
will have set on them long before you sup.
And yet, and yet: desire pulls you in:
a flash of good humor, a look: heaven.