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The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

by Allison Bearly

This semester, while interning with the Truman State University Press, I noticed a small, slim book titled Valuing Useless Knowledge: An Anthropological Inquiry into the Meaning of Liberal Education by Robert Bates Graber. The title intrigued me and it kept catching my attention, so I finally picked it up to look at it. I knew I needed to continue reading the book after reading the prologue in which Graber states:

The liberal arts may be defined—impishly, but accurately nonetheless—as essentially those areas of knowledge in which practical-minded parents hope their children will not major. “But what are you going to do,” they cry, “with a major in ——?”

This struck a chord with me because I myself am one of those impractical students who decided to major in English and minor in French and anthropology. And with graduation approaching in just a few short weeks, the “But what are you going to do?” question arises more and more frequently—from my parents, friends, and mere strangers who have only just learned what my degree will be in.

In his book, Graber examines the historical and philosophical roots of the liberal arts, saying that it “is a kind of knowledge noted above all for being relatively useless.” Following this statement, it would be a reasonable assumption that a liberal arts education would not be valued by members of our society; however, that is not the case. Graber claims this mostly useless knowledge somehow has the most value of all for students. It is from this starting point that Graber makes his anthropological inquiry as to why we as a culture should place value on useless information.

An anthropologist himself, Graber cites a wide range of disciplines. He draws from religious figures like John Henry Newman, philosophers including Herbert Spencer and Democritus, scientist and naturalist Charles Darwin, and perhaps most importantly, anthropologist Marvin Harris. Within the field of anthropology, Harris is a cultural materialist, which, in his own words, is a concept that “is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence.” Harris is particularly well-known for his study of the sacred cow in India. It is from this research that Graber arrives at his answer to his inquiry about the value of a liberal arts education.

The gist behind Harris’s study of the sacred cow is that while it seems strange that there is a taboo in the Hindu religion against eating cows when so much of India is overpopulated and underfed, there is actually a nonreligious rationale behind the taboo. It is cows that provide oxen that plow the land that in turn grows the food for people to eat. Harris’s conclusion was that if farmers slaughtered their cattle whenever hunger struck, it would be detrimental in the long run because they wouldn’t have sufficient labor with which to plow their fields.

Graber applies this concept to liberal knowledge, equating it with the sacred cow. If one sees human knowledge as sacred, then, Graber says, there is a taboo against judging its usefulness. Human knowledge needs protection, just like the cow in India, because our judgment of what is useful or not is often narrowly defined and biased. In order to avoid this bias, Graber poses three questions to consider: useful for whom, useful when, and useful how? “We must then value ‘useless knowledge’ precisely because we cannot trust ourselves to know truly useless knowledge when we see it. Our vision is too limited, our judgments too archaically short-sighted, self-centered, and simpleminded,” Graber says.

In other words, what is useful is incredibly subjective. Rather than only valuing what we see as useful right now, we need to protect all human knowledge, or else face potentially grim repercussions — repercussions similar to those that Hindus in India would face if they chose to slaughter their cows. Rather than be faced with a hunger due to a lack of food, we would be faced with a hunger for knowledge and no way to satisfy it. Graber concludes by saying he cannot prove any of this—if he could, it would contribute to the repository of practical knowledge. And after all, he points out, a defense of liberal knowledge must itself be a contribution to liberal knowledge.

So it is this new-to-me point of view, this seemingly useless information in my brain that I must keep in mind in the weeks, months and years to come after graduation. While many may see my degree as impractical and useless in comparison to, say, nursing or engineering, it is up to us as humans to value knowledge for its own sake. I hope that others, future employers in particular, will value my love of the pursuit of knowledge, and I know that post graduation I will continue attempting to satiate my hunger for “useless” knowledge.

 

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The Force of Words: An Interview with Laura Bylenok, Winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize

By Allison Bearly and Hannah Brockhaus

Warp by Laura Bylenok is the winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, awarded annually by the Trhttp://quarterlywest.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Bylenok-Photo.jpguman State University Press to the best unpublished book-length collection of poetry. This year’s judge, Arthur Sze—most recently author of Compass Rose—called Warp “a distinguished book of poems that combines imaginative verve with longing to create a rich tapestry across space and time.” See the rest of Dr. Sze’s comments on Warp.

Bylenok talked with us about Warp, providing insight into her creative process and award-winning collection.

What first drew you to the word warp? All poets have an attention to word choice, but yours is particularly evident, and shows a poignant consciousness of the etymology and different definitions of the word. Do you have a background in linguistics or the sciences that may have prompted this approach?

I came across warp by happy accident. I recall I was sifting through the Oxford English Dictionary one afternoon—something I love to do, to start with a word and trace out a net of etymologies—to see how I might flex the meaning in an image of the near-incandescent effect of glacial silt discoloring a lake in the poem “Vessel.” But there, in the entry for the verb warp, I found 54 definitions, a few familiar and many more absolutely startling: ones such as “To lay eggs” or “To trample underfoot” or “Of wind: to rise up.” I found them irresistible because of their strangeness and because of how many of them already contained and suggested scene, tension, and movement. I couldn’t have invented a more compelling interplay of themes: trajectory, impact, distortion, slow accumulation, loss and transformation, reproduction.

The last one—reproduction—is perhaps the most unexpected and the most consequential for my work. In particular, the definition “Of bees: to swarm,” allowed me to visualize reproduction as an act of simultaneous self-splitting and self-preservation, of creation and destruction. This is quite literal: when a hive swarms, which is its method of reproduction, one part splits off, leaving behind the old queen and establishing a new colony with a newly fertilized queen. This splitting happens in our human bodies, as well, with our DNA during meiosis to create the sperm or egg. The gift of warp was that it allowed me to imagine DNA as only one kind of strand on a much larger loom—of identity, of history, of time, of language.

And of course, this brings me to the second part of your question. My first dream was not poetry but genetics. These two are not, I believe, incompatible. I can’t claim a true background in the sciences, but I did study molecular biology as an undergraduate, and for several years I did research in a medical genetics lab. That experience imprinted in me the spirit of scientific inquiry, which is not so different from poetic inquiry. Both share a necessity for imaginative leaps and for searching beneath the visible surface of experience to access a deeper, more hidden reality.

Did you find the quote for your epigraph (“what is a word but wind? … a puff of wind, a word, may warp her”) in the OED as well, or somewhere else? How do you see it resonate with the collection as a whole?

The quote itself was not in the OED, though the entry for warp does reference several other passages from the Ancrene Wisse, the text from which the epigraph is taken. So in a way, the OED did lead me to the epigraph, because I started reading the Ancrene Wisse with an eye to how warp was used in Middle English.

The passage resonates in two ways. First, it unites breath and language with wind, so the natural world becomes a vehicle for the force of poetry. Second, it bestows power on language: language has the power to shape a person and the power to break her. I take seriously Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” and here not only are we cast by language, with this passage we are warped—distorted, thrown down, even put to death—by it.

I should mention I have taken a small liberty with the translation in the second part of the passage: “a puff of wind, a word, may warp her.” The original Middle English “warpen” has been translated into modern English variously as “fell,” “throw,” and “cast down”—which makes sense because those meanings of warp are now obsolete. However, I wanted to restore the plurality of meanings that warp contained.

You play with form quite a bit in this collection, not sticking to any one in particular throughout the work. When you set out to write a poem, do you do so with a particular form in mind or does the form come out naturally as you’re writing?

I almost never have a specific form in mind before I begin a poem. Form often comes, for me, from the first line, or from a muscular phrase that from its inception suggests or demands an echo in rhythm or in rhyme. That said, I try to resist the deterministic impulse of inherited form, to break away from the expectation and closure that may seem to be predetermined by a given rhythm or structure. I’m deeply interested, too, in idiosyncratic rhythms and shapes, and much—most—of the book depends on these.

I love that you say “play,” because there is delight in the word and in the act. I delight in the sheer variety of rhythms available in the English language: hypnotic, insistent, incantatory, fragmented, syncopated. Some of the most delightful iambic lines are not iambic at all, and it is their breaking away from the lull of a regular rhythm that thrills me. Whether within (or against) inherited form or not, sonic play becomes a kind of self-perpetuating engine on the tongue and in the mind.

How do you approach revision? How do you decide when a poem is finished?

That’s a difficult question, I believe, for many poets. In revision I allow full range and departure from any formal or other constraints I might have imposed on a poem. I read a poem many times out loud. I’m an incurable tinkerer, and I will return to poems, sometimes years later. I may keep only a phrase and rewrite the rest, or I may fiddle over a single line break. Calling a poem finished is perhaps as simple as letting go of the impulse to control if or how it will live on in the world. But in practice, when I read a poem out loud and feel satisfied in my blood with the music of the piece—when I no longer feel the desire to tinker—that’s when I know it’s done.

What poets or writers do you read? Are there any you have found particularly influential on your own poetry or on Warp in particular?

For poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins holds the place of first love—for his wild music, his sprung rhythm, his consonants, but also for his metaphysics, and for his anxiety about utterance and inscription. There are many poets I return to continually. To Elizabeth Bishop, for her calm. To Marianne Moore, for her meticulous eye. To Federico García Lorca, for duende. More recently, I’ve been startled awake by Marina Tsvetaeva, especially Jean Valentine’s and Ilya Kaminsky’s translations of her poems in Dark Elderberry Branch. Her work is elusive, irresistible, radically lyrical in her conception of the poem as “a created and instantly destroyed world.”

For prose, I can’t and don’t want to escape the gravity well of Jorge Luis Borges’s fiction, and I share his preoccupations with infinities, labyrinths, and paradox. During the period I was writing many of the poems for Warp, I became interested in quantum physics and began reading essays by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, J. Robert Oppenheimer. At the same time, I was reading a cross section of theoretical and historical texts concerned with the perception of time, including Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, alongside mystical texts by Simone Weil, Teresa de Ávila, and Julian of Norwich. Each of these inflected the poems and will continue to inflect my investigations (through reading, through writing) into both the failures and the pleasures and possibilities of language.

 

About the author:  Laura Bylenok is currently pursuing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah, where she is also a new media editor for Quarterly West. Her poems have appeared in North American Review and Guernica, among other journals, and her chapbook, a/0, was published by DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press in 2014.

Warp will be released from the Truman State University Press in September 2015.

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The Girls of Usually isn’t just for girls

by Corbin Kottmann

“It’s in literature that true life can be found. It’s under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth.” — Gao Xingjian

The Girls of Usually follows the life of the author Lori Horvitz, giving the reader snapshot insights into her family life, her travels, and the relationships she develops along the way. The first part of her book, which comes together as collection of personal essays, grounds the reader in a setting filled with Jewish culture and a search for sexual identity. The inner dialogue present in the essays, along with the image of herself that Horvitz makes so prominent, immerses the reader in the life of the auHorvitz-photothor. However The Girls of Usually is more than just a collection of details surrounding a young, single Jewish girl who struggles to stay afloat in the dating scene while she discovers if she is straight, gay, or somewhere in between. The journey that Lori Horvitz takes, not simply from America to all over Europe, but within herself, calls out to any reader who glances at the page and reads what Horvitz has written about her experiences with past lovers.

Chinua Achebe once said that, “once you allow yourself to identify with the people in a story, then you might begin to see yourself in that story even if on the surface it’s far removed from your situation… this is one great thing that literature can do—it can make us identify with situations and people far away.” Mostly throughout the first part of the book, as we go through Horvitz’s early life, we are introduced to the character of Joseph. While for the author Joseph is a real-life bad ex-boyfriend, to the reader he is every bad ex-boyfriend or girlfriend sitting there on the edge of our memories. We don’t know Joseph, but we know a Joseph, and so feel right at home in Horvitz’s memories of an emotionally chaffing relationship.

Horvitz’s story doesn’t end there, just like our own stories don’t usually end after just one bad relationship. We find more stories to pile on, and Horvitz does so in bulk. Through her essays we are given a first row seat to witness her exploration of the boundaries of human connection. If you were to skim the page you would find simply a story of a girl coming to terms with her sexuality. While that is an important detail in and of itself, a thorough devouring of her story tells us more than what it’s like to be single and gay. It tells us how it is be human, single, and searching not only for yourself but for your place in the world, be it a country, city, or another person. The Girls of Usually not only speaks to the closeted or confused, but to anyone who has felt out of place in a relationship, or even in their own skin.

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A Futile Debate

by Jessica Chiodini

The great e-book versus print debate has been raging since the introduction of the Kindle, the first e-reader, in 2007. The digitalization of our reading experience was right on par with the disappearance of CD collections in favor of invisible MP3 libraries and streaming capabilities of favorite television shows that sent TV Guide right out the window. Listen anywhere, watch any time, read everywhere became a mantra that has replaced the need to make a date with our culture because dates take time, and in our fast-paced world, people only have the length of a subway ride, the wait in a doctor’s office, or the walk to class to digest what’s on a screen before the subway doors swoosh open, the nurse says she’s ready for you, or you realize you forgot about the assignment due in ten minutes. And life starts again.

E-books seem to fit right in with this new mantra. E-books become immediate new additions to our online libraries; they don’t weigh anything or take up space, they allow us to read in the dark or search on a whim–all while engaging our fingers. In the beginning, their success in the marketplace was evident as they were propelled by the technology’s early adopters that made the move to e-books happen quickly.

Despite the early success of e-books, with increases in the triple digits for several years, 2013 saw e-book sales stabilize into single digits. In fact, the first half of 2014 saw printed books outsell e-books, according to a survey by Nielsen Books & Consumer. Hardcover books made up 25 percent of unit sales and paperback books made up 42 percent, for a combined 67 percent of unit sales. E-books constituted 23 percent of unit sales for the first six months of 2014, lower than both hardcover and paperback books on their own. The digital wipe-out of printed books that was predicted to happen hasn’t, and it looks like it probably won’t.

Printed books, while cumbersome in our back pockets or hefty in our bags, still manage to hold a place in our hearts that motivates our wallets. Paper books have no need for electricity. They can survive a coffee spill. You can resell them or give them away without inciting a battle over copyright infringement. Pop-up e-mails and other apps will never be a distraction glowing by the page number. Paper books can’t disappear from your library due to company policy or technical malfunction. And no matter how handy an e-book is, its intangible nature can’t elicit the same sentimental feelings of returning to a dog-eared page or scribbling in the margins.