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Note #35: On limitations (2009.2.19)

I’ve got a jumble of thoughts for you today—a brainstorm in digital form, so to speak. It should be a nice change of pace from the very deliberate and long-planned essay that previously occupied the front page.

I got back from a conference last night, a meeting of the Society of Korean Oral Literature. I presented a paper on the trickster archetype as seen in certain figures appearing in Korean folk tales, and it went over pretty well. I’m glad, because the first version of the paper was a bit of a mess, and I was unsure if the surgery I had performed on it had been successful. Fortunately, it would appear that the patient is stable and on the road to recovery.

It was a very short paper (the conference organizers imposed limits on length because so many papers were being presented), but it is a crystallization of what will eventually be my dissertation, so I felt it was important that I get it right. I touched on some fundamental issues that I’ve been dealing with for some time—like liminality—and also tried to flesh out some new ideas I’ve been working on recently. I think the primary new idea was the psychological function of the trickster and trickster tales. For fear of boring my audience, I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say that I believe ultimately trickster’s function is positive rather than negative (some negative theories are that the trickster functions as a warning against excess or as a “safety valve” to let off social pressure). I feel good about the direction things are going, and for the first time I feel like I have finally gotten a handle on my dissertation.

I mention this because it’s pretty exciting news for me, but also because it feels like it ties in with something I was thinking about before I left for the conference. I read a post over on Kevin’s site about Battlestar Galactica (the new Battlestar Galactica, which is apparently very different from the Battlestar Galactica I knew—Starbuck, for example, is a girl), a post that deals with machines and their hatred of humanity in sci-fi worlds. It’s brief, so it won’t take long to read, but the gist is that machines in human bodies resent the limitations imposed upon them by those bodies—such as having to see phenomenon with our incredible limited “gelatinous orbs” (i.e., “eyes”).

This seems to be a theme in recent science fiction dealing with the supremacy of machines over mankind. And it goes beyond the machine vs. humanity struggle. I remember episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation where the crew would run into a race far more advanced than humanity and somehow have to outwit them. Actually, now that I think about it, this theme is extremely common in science fiction television and film. I guess it could be boiled down to this: humanity overcomes a superior foe despite humanity’s apparent inferiority in one aspect or another.

Most often, though, victory is achieved by overcoming these apparent limitations—we can still kick alien butt despite our technological or other shortcomings. But I’d like to move away from confrontations with aliens and back to the original idea, the idea that somehow not being able to see things like gamma rays somehow limits our experience. In particular, I found this quote from Kevin’s entry intriguing:

I can't even express these things properly because I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language!

This will come as no surprise to long-time readers, but I happen to love language. I like working with it, as if it were a malleable metal to be worked into intricate shapes. Sometimes these shapes aren’t always as beautiful as I would like them to be, but I still enjoy working with them. Although I do not write as much poetry as I used to, I particularly enjoy the confined and compressed nature of the art form. I have never been a fan of free verse. I have always preferred poetry with set rhyme and meter. For one, it appeals to the analytical side of my brain (if that makes any sense). More importantly, though, it feels great when I am able to express myself poetically within the confines of a certain meter and rhyme scheme. Poetry that really works within those confines has always seemed to have more power.

And I suppose that’s what it comes down to for me. I find the idea that humanity can overcome its limitations through sheer grit and willpower to be somewhat boring, to be honest—far more fascinating is the idea that humanity’s brilliance lies in those limitations themselves, not in overcoming them. Sure, language may not be perfect, but when a writer crafts a gem of a sentence using that imperfect language, how glorious the result! Think of the music of Mozart or Bach—made by imperfect men using imperfect instruments, and enjoyed by people with imperfect ears.

I don’t know if I’m going to be able to bring this back around to the trickster, but somehow I feel that the ideas are related. I’m not going to try to find an answer, or to push this any further today, but I wanted to start the ball rolling at least. This is more of a collection of disparate thoughts than a refined discussion of the subject, but that’s OK. You’ve got to start somewhere, right?

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