Lessons, Connections and Directions

The summer now underway, it’s a good time to take stock of gains, setbacks, and lessons learned from the semester. This post simply reviews the three sets of work undertaken over the past few months, and then try to detail the priorities and next steps necessary to continue progress towards the dissertation. Between materials, structures, and approaches, more incommensurability than contiguity prevails – yet weak ties persist in imagination and in theory. Broadly speaking, both epistemological and methodological considerations justify holding all three in concert, as parts of the long-term and focused project. And yet this can only hint at a strategy, it seems, and my largest outstanding challenge will be to find the coherent framework that unifies or at least governs the relationship between each of these schools of thought. Continue reading

thesis statement

I study the recordings, writings, and public figure of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Pennsylvania death-row prisoner since 1982. I analyze synecdochic manifestations of his body in space, his oeuvre in time, and the codes of his figure online. This includes examining analog and digital media artifacts, as well as observing figurative representations of both Abu-Jamal and Daniel Faulkner, the police officer that Abu-Jamal is convicted of killing. I use interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological interventions to show how the social and political implications of this polarizing narrative extend beyond either man’s life or death.

statement of purpose draft 2

I am interested in the limits of contemporary forms of communication. These limits are expressed as moments or sites in any communicative exchange where something is lost, exceeded, transported, or transformed. Such limits are especially apparent in communication across boundaries of cultural or technological significance. They could be the result of misinterpretation or mistranslation, the exercise of tact, restraint, or censorship, a lack of mutual cultural context, or constraints of space or time. They might include problems of language, cultural conditions like race, gender, class, or religion, distinctions of political affiliation, distance, artistic or technological media, or difference in and between singular, material bodies. In CCT, I plan to investigate just what those limits circumscribe, how they are formed, and how one can express the limit of communication at all. These limits lead to an end of one form of communication, forcing a change in that form. My interest includes the agency or force of that change in form, which will vary depending on the cultural or technological limit in question. Because this topic is so fungible, I will bring inter-linguistic skills, creative writing, and even my experience in physical labor to bear on these intellectual problems.

For example, translation is a change in communicative form that is imposed by the limits of language. In this case, I am especially interested in what is lost in translation, and how that loss itself can be expressed. I have dealt with translation before. When I compose poetry in English as well as in Hebrew, there are often words, phrases, and even concepts that do not translate into the other language. This was also the case, I found, when translating the poetry of other writers. In these cases, something had to be sacrificed in order to reproduce the poem in the other language: what was lost was usually either poetic form – devices like rhythm or rhyme – or the literal, word-for-word parallel between the languages. Often, the only compensation for that loss was to add footnotes to the translated work. Another time translation became a problem was when I was a production manager for the play Ogu Ndem, which contained some dialogue, narration, and much background information in Igbo, a Nigerian language. Because Ogu Ndem was a staged play, however, the director and actors were able to compensate for the majority of the language by theatrical and multimedia techniques such as intonation, posture, musical accompaniment, video, or extra lines of English dialogue that clarified the meaning of the Igbo lines. Even with those adjustments or additions, it was clear that a change in form was at stake.

Some other limits could be engendered by censorship, mediation, development, or revolution. The latter is a particularly good example of a question I find most compelling: how can one represent the limit of representation? In this case, can one represent the concept of revolution by anything other than revolution itself? On the other hand, might the impossibility of representation itself become the condition of possibility for change? I have encountered manifestations of this problem during my work in construction. For example, repairing or replacing severely damaged parts of a wooden structure often requires the use of materials other than wood – sometimes chemical treatments work, other times metal or plastic are called for.

Physical labor taught me how to approach a problem from start to finish, as well as the importance of interdisciplinarity. It is almost never enough to view a construction or renovation project from the sole perspective of carpentry. A building forms an environment not only through its framing and structure, but also by its use of electrical and plumbing systems, the placement of its openings like doors and windows, its layering of materials that range from concrete to wood to metal to plastic to glass to fabric, and its relationship to the buildings and landscape around it. From construction work, I learned to appreciate and work towards understanding holistic systems, as well as those disciplines that are not my strongest, such as the physical sciences, mathematics, and social sciences. In that respect, the most important thing my physical labor taught me was how to work well in a team, contributing from my strengths and asking for help to overcome my weaknesses. Conversations with people from other backgrounds emphasized the importance of recognizing communicative boundaries.

Understanding what stops us from communicating can only lead to the exchange of more information, at least at the level of information about what we cannot communicate. The communication of the mere fact of communicating itself is (necessarily, and thereby) an establishment of community. I believe that by engaging the limits of communication across technological and cultural boundaries, we push those very limits. This gives new relevance to issues of policy, identity, production, and faith. I am here to find out just how far some limits can be pushed, and what remains when we move from one way of thinking to another.