Poetics of Ventriloquism

word problem subject matter graph

Mentioning posts I want to write seems to be a jinx.  I don’t write those posts.  But I’ll write about Divya Victor’s New Front Row reading.  Well, almost.  I’ll  quote some of Divya Victor’s “Situations” – a portion of what she read. Then I’ll ruminate on them in italics.

Here’s a Situation:

I collect seashells every summer.
my family stays at the beach house for days.
this summer, I found many seashells.
I gave some to your little sister.
she then had some seashells.
I have fewer seashells

The Situations struck me as being made out of word problems.  At the reading, Divya confirmed this.

Once the numbers are extracted from the word problems, the frame stands out.  What the problems teach about the world, under cover of teaching math.

My family stays at ‘the beach house.’  If the word problem can use that casual, tossed-off ‘the’ about “the beach house”, does that mean it’s been in ‘my family’ for generations?

The family can afford a leisurely unnumbered stretch of ‘days’ (not ‘weeks’, as ‘my family’ is not a beach bum) at the (aristocratic, silvery-gray) beach house.

Shells would be the things counted not days.

With these class markers I also notice the gender narratives my mind constructs out of the situation.  “I” gave some to “your” little sister because “I” likes “you.”

Since I’s position in relationship to “you” is abject, in my mind “I” is female – too restrained even to give “you” seashells, instead miming generosity to “your” sister.  “You” doesn’t notice.  But “I” does have fewer seashells.

Poor “I”,  who in this narration to myself, must be me.  Which makes me ashamed of myself for the way I narrate this situation.

Don’t do it, “I.”  Keep your seashells.

you and I made paper planes.
you made half as many as me.
I made many more planes

But here I am triumphant.  A narrative of conquest.  “I” has a superior air force.  “I” made many planes.  “I” deserves more than “you” does.  In fact, “I” has to state this twice.  Maybe in revenge for the seashells.  This “I” and “you” are ungendered here, in my inner narrative.

when a mother is a waitress her shift started at half past
seven and was five hours and twenty minutes long
when a mother finished work.

A powerful situation.  I find myself wondering about the interventions Divya has made – if any  – in that last line.

I think, the shift had a length, reached its completion at five hours and twenty minutes long, only when a mother finished work.  So perhaps it has never ended yet.

The associations of class with gender.  The associations of profession with gender.  When a mother is a waitress – then something is plausible.  Which shift of which work.

I am thinking of a mystery number.
I divide this number then multiply it .
there are results.

Without their numbers to propel them, the Situations are suspended.  You have to know the mystery number to get the results.

Without their numbers the situations also have the ring of wisdom literature.  Gnomic, Talmudic.  The absence of specific numbers implies an infinitely proliferating text.  If there were time to put every number in the spot.

Who has access to the mystery number?  Who stands in the secret?  Who is excluded from the heart of the secret?  Who feels so serene in knowing the mystery number.  Is there really someone who always already had access to knowledge?

In reading those Situations in real-time, I wanted to re-inscribe my listening experience at the New Front Row.  I felt I needed to re-read because much of my specific memory has faded.

But I know what I’m missing, doing it this way –  her reading was so embodied – forcefully delivered and performed.  Turning to the Jacket2 feature Divya curated, Discourses on vocality, I found this quote:

“The conversations locate a specific moment in which we may consider enunciating, performing bodies and the forms with which they conspire to name an emerging poetics of appropriation and ventriloquism driven by a pronounced commitment to defining new feminisms.”

I think about that.  The word problems have been appropriated.  Now they are situations.  We can’t say they are problems, in a certain direction.  Now they are problematic in another direction.

Also they have been intervened on.  Their quantities extracted.  Moved to the main stage, their situational ideology (the beach house, the shells, the sailboats, the squirrels, the shifts, the mothers) can’t claim to be beside the point.

Which feels parallel to the operations of the orthodox word problem.  Or an appropriation of its mechanism.  To backtrack a bit, I realized, working on this post, that I have no idea what a word problem is supposed to do.

What do they have to do with anything?  What, besides ideology, are they intended to teach? My Wikipedia research says that the point is for the student to extract a mathematical model from the words.  You can’t just “mechanically” do the operations:  you have to translate first.  You understand, because you have brought it through.

The idea that you have to understand to translate is interesting to me.  (I never understood word problems when I translated them.  Maybe there’s another post in that.)

I’m also interested to think about the metaphor of translation in reference to Divya’s work, and in reference to defining feminisms.  Watching a woman’s mind and body perform this information about shifts and mothers, it maps differently.  I don’t experience it as abstract; I can’t help but map it onto situations that my body has learned and speaks out of.  Education and experience ventriloquize each other, uneasily.

The Situations are ventriloquized.  They captivated me as spoken, hearing them performed through or from another female mind and body.  Now I run their operations on my own female mind or in my female body and I watch myself.

Translating the word problem this way, it stops solving.  It becomes a situation.  And that Divya has made the problems so much more concrete by making them less specific.

Something about conceptualism here, that I don’t know clearly but would say I’m feeling in the work.  How the conceptual move pushes attention onto the gesture of the author as signifying, since it is harder to read the appropriated text as signifying.  If here the author is – cultural?  Educational system?  The gesture of the system that makes these problems.

Then there is also the gesture that the female author, intervening, makes on the word problem.  By removing.  There is joint authorship maybe.  Or the gestures that the educational system and the feminist author make on or about each others’ bodies.

Here is an ancient Egyptian word problem – thank you, Wikipedia.  It’s from the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus:  There are seven houses; in each house there are seven cats; each cat kills seven mice; each mouse has eaten seven grains of barley; each grain would have produced seven hekat. What is the sum of all the enumerated things.

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