Saturday, March 25, 2006

Part II: Word Craft

As I watched musicians perform on the giant projection screens in the wind tunnel, I figured out what is so strange about the Radical Craft looks more like an awards show than a conference. Think about it. Musical interludes. Short films (including segments from the Muppets and the Simpsons) to introduce speakers. Big corporate sponsorship. Fashion people. Stars!

Anyway - the first speaker in the wolrd craft segment of the show was Erin McKean(see the picture), whose stand-up lexicography drew cheers. It should be noted that McKean had a better dress than any of the fashionistas present. Setting out to dispell the "nun/librarian" myth of the lexicographer, she introdeced the scientist/reporter metaphor in its place. She cleverly walked the audience through the basics of assembling a dictionary, talking about the importance of the corpus with amusing examples (one can hardly resist adding to the Google footprint of "asshat" by including it here...). But her connection to the subject of craft was tenuous. In fact, her talk appeared to dissolve when it came time to "beg" for a new design for the dictionary itself. One was left questioning what kind of room there is for radicalism in a field as inherently conservative as dictionary compilations.

As she was leaving the stage, I began to wonder what place the dictionary McKean was talking about had in the brave and much-hyped new world of Wiki. And show should take the stage next but Jimmy Wales, founder and CEO of, the online encylcopedia. Those who have studied with me in any kind of research capacity know my distrust of the Wikipedia hive mind concept, and I tried ot give Wales a fair listening, but I still felt as though he was missing the point. As amped as he is about making a new encyclopedia available to the world for free, he doesn't seem to realize that the world expects it to be the same kind of authority as the old encylopedia. (Think of Jasper Johns remark about how one who intends to make chewing gum that is used as glue is actually making glue.) So when he points out that half the edits on the site are done by just .7% of the users and that the most active 2% of the users generate more than 70% of the entries, he seems to miss the fact that these are really small percentages - obviously larger than those of conventional authorship but still in figures that sound downright elite. His arguments were weak and biased - after all, can you really trust someone who uses the words "community" and "friends" interchangeably? - and his assertion that Wikipedia's radicalism resided in its open-source ideology struck me as too broad. What's radical and useful about Wiki is the way it reflects its users' understanding of any given subject, and that's also a limitation on it. It may be interesting and, in ways, radical (as if that's really worth anything at the end of the day...) but it's also not an ecylcopedia in the traditional sense.

I really want to dislike poet Billy Collins but one cannot dislike work that's so beautifully crafted. He describes his work as "suburban" and "domestic", and he reiterated a definition of craft offered earlier in the conference ("craft is something made by one person for another") as a way of asserting his reader-consciousness. Rather than lecturing, Collins performed his poems in relaxed way, reading from several collections, including his latest, The Trouble With Poetry. Beyond the exceptional skill with which Collins renders his subjects, his poems are enchanting for the way they are about poetry itself. Just as it seemed that he was going to coast by on the charm of his work itself, Collins let drop a terrific remark about the how art can be evaluated. Talking about haiku, he talked about how the strict, 17-sylable form “offers resistance to your self-expressive tantrum.” That craft might be a form of form – of container or barrier to the fluid nature of content – seemed radical in that instant. And rewarding.
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