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Thursday, January 16, 2003
By Paul Ford
An academic curiosity, prepared by the author immediately after sending out his graduate school application.
I had reason to be on the campus of a prestigious American university, and given a spare hour waiting for my ride, I asked at the peer center for a tour.
We saw the statue of the founder. A pigeon salaciously poked its beak into his great bronze ear. Then we went to the rocket laboratory, with the huge rotating cylinders filled with light-as-air fluids. We visited the experimental animal husbandry center, which terrified and thrilled me, and I saw Kiki, the Legendary Goatrilla, stuffed and mounted under the light of the glassed-in foyer of the building. With a long beard and marble eyes, she greeted all visitors with one hoof forever upraised in her unique hello. I looked, but the bullet wounds had been covered by the taxidermist. Kiki had been a fascination of my childhood. I lifted my hand and returned her friendly gesture.
My host, a tall, thin, stooped man of 40, led me from the administration, past the library, quoting the number of volumes with pride, and then past the humanities building. Looking up, I noticed a black-tinted window on the top floor. Strange lights pulsed out of the window.
“That's, well. It's hard to define,” said my guide. He thought for a moment. “Have you ever heard of Geoff McKee?”
“He's a cultural theorist.”
“He did a good deal of early work on the genealogy of sweaters. But he was best known as a specialist in post-structuralist interpretation of academic discourse.”
“He had a book, it's a study analyzing cultural theory as a practice through a cultural theory framework. It's called Re/Curse, with a slash between the are-ee and the curse.”
“That's the place for it,” I said. We were continuing on to the famous fountain made of heaped skulls, funded by the Defense Department, called “Defense Department Grant.” “So that's his office?”
“His department. The Department of Sotsotsots.”
I risked it. “What does that mean?”
“Well, Geoff could never have actually founded a discipline because he felt that would exercise undue influence over discourse, and to do that would invalidate the discipline from the beginning. But he felt the need to create a radical break with what he called an 'ugly latent linearity' in modern praxis. So, what he did, he decided to study the origin of the discipline he wasn't founding.”
I waited. My host continued to speak in near paragraphs.
“And the problem was, how do you study the origins of a discipline without creating it? You can't actually create a means for studying it, so you must study the way you might study it. But then you have to study the way you study the way you might study it. You can never actually define how you'll study it because to do so would point the way to an original framework.”
“Why did he do this?”
“Eventually Geoff thought he would hit a point where this process would accumulate into a set of findings which would point to a framework for an entire discipline which was based on absolutely no cultural assumptions.”
“Find it sort of lying there on the ground.”
“Or like those Russian guys who built a supercomputer to get to the four billionth digit of pi, looking for patterns.”
“The Chudnovsky brothers. Other people made that comparison. So the program was registered under SOT. Since it was the Study of the Study of the Study of the Study of the and so on. They put a line over the SOT in the course schedule to show it was a repeating sequence. SOT SOT SOT SOT SOT forever.”
“And McKee is?”
“He's there, in the office. They had an opening with the president of the university. The next day McKee came in with a crate of books he planned not to read, a pen with no ink, and a pad of black construction paper for a notebook. He was trying to pioneer a theory of non-discourse. Something, we have no idea what it could have been because he couldn't have actually done anything according to his own process, um, anti-process, but something made things go wrong with time. The reason the room is dark is that light is slow inside. We had Physics over, they measured. But they were too solution-driven. That was 15 years ago.”
“What did they suggest?”
“They have this thing called a light accelerator, then very new, and they said they could solve the problem, but one of our professors argued that in this context light was socially constructed, and if we manipulated it, we were encouraging photocentric culture and violating McKee's right to free inquiry. Cynthia Corley.”
“Wait.” I did a little jump to jog my memory. “This is the woman who did the book on the interspecies relationships advocating we destroy the Earth rather than travel into space, as a gift to the universe.”
“Wasn't she arrested?”
“At an anti-colonization protest.”
I nodded, remembering the televised image of a broad-faced angry woman biting her tongue and spitting blood into the Senator's face, screaming “that's for the blood of the aliens you may some day shed if there are aliens.” She had a sign in green block letters that read “THE ALIEN IS NOT THE OTHER.” The clip had found its way into a Windowsill video called “Sasquatch,” and was now a classic “text” demonstrating the appropriation by popular culture of political and academic thought, with various conclusions drawn thereof.
I asked, “So what happens in SOTSOTSOT now?”
“We don't know. There's a protective barrier placed by the administration to keep students out. For insurance reasons.”
“What do you think it is?”
“Jennifer Halston, she's at Oxford, suspected he created a negative discourse portal. She said they're very common in France, and Stanley Fish has been inside one for years. That's the best theory we have.”
“A negative discourse portal?”
“It was presented at the MLA a few years ago.”
I wasn't sure how to respond to that. “So no one goes in there.”
“Someone went in a year ago. We tied a rope to one of the students doing his thesis on McKee, he's calling it !McKee, with a pun on the computer science use of the exclamation point and on the !Kung people's use of the click in their language, which has been transformed by Western tradition anthropologists in the--well, we pulled him out of the office after five minutes. He said McKee was sitting at his desk, and didn't look as if more than a moment had passed in the last fifteen years. Then McKee explained that it was very painful for him to return to time, and the major non-accomplishment of what he hasn't done so far is to totally eliminate, or not, the need for time.”
He took a breath and went on: “It seems he's written all but the last word of his major paper outlining the project, but he told us it's going to take over 80 million years to get to the next magnitude of discourse so he can finish. But since there's no concept of time - or concept of the concept - permissible in his project, it's hard to know if he's just exaggerating for effect.”
“Magnitude of discourse? That's what he said?”
“You've got this stuff down.”
“Well, if I really understood it, I couldn't talk about it,” he said. “I was a student in his classes. McKee is a brilliant man, if he can still be called a man. It was -”
He paused a full 10 seconds. “Hmm?” I said.
“The other students tried to take the idea to its conclusions, they wanted to be first to publish with McKee. A lot of them may be somewhere in the office with him, but we never heard from them. Mike didn't see them when he went in on the rope. I tried to catch up but I couldn't wrap my head around it. So I always think....”
“That you should be in there with him?”
“If I was successful, I'd be gone by now.” He leaned his head back towards the black window. “The administration was very understanding. They made a place for me. I'm nearly done.” He was wistful.
I thought, 15 years! I said, “Good for you.”
“It's not good at all,” he said, turning in the direction of the black window. “I hate not knowing.”