Footnotes: On St. Ives, Education, and Death by Andrew Woods

Polymathically Perverse

St. Ives?

Too many books are printed in St. Ives. I came to this conclusion as I harvested publication details for the bibliography of my latest paper. Students and scholars alike dread the tedious duty of transcribing this information—from the name of publishers to the year of publication—into the footnotes and reference lists of their essays. And, according to academic procedures, one must mention where the book was printed. That’s how I noticed that my paperback editions of Nietzsche, Weil, Foucault, Burke, and others all seem to originate from St. Ives. I wonder why publishers seem so keen to print their books in this small Cornish resort. I remember that the band Another Sunny Day recorded a B-side called “A Boy from St. Ives,” but that’s all I know about this seaside town.

Once I completed my bibliography, I took to Google to learn how St. Ives had become a printing hub. The results embarrassed me. St. Ives was not the geographical location of the printers, but, rather, the name of the printing company. For several years, I have written “Printed in St. Ives” in countless bibliographies for college assignments. As misunderstandings go, it is minor. In the aftermath of this discovery, I wonder why including the location of the printers is necessary. Surely, the name of the publisher and the year of publication suffices. I doubt any professor feels the need to call up printing companies—whether they operate in St. Ives or not—to check that they printed a certain book in a certain year.

There are a few theories about why books declare where they were printed. An expert on book dealing suggests that mentioning the location of the printers was intended to prove the authenticity of a book to customs officials. Geographical discrepancies between the publishers’ headquarters and the printers’ offices would raise an eyebrow of suspicion and justify seizure of the contraband. Yet, the image of a customs officer inspecting one’s books seems to belong to a quaint and bygone era. I say, spare oneself the stress and download the PDF. Additionally, the joys and woes of global trade mean that a publisher and a printer can strike a deal despite national barriers. For instance, my copy of Eva Illouz’s illuminating and invigorating Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism was published by Polity Press—based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Malden, Massachusetts—typeset in Hong Kong, and printed and bound in Malaysia.

Despite these changes, the spirit of the inquisitive customs officer still pervades the task of writing a bibliography:

“What are you reading? Who wrote it? Where’s it from? What year was it written?”

Listing citations is like answering a swift stream of questions in an interrogation room.

St. Ives?

The tedious and persnickety ordeal of writing footnotes is one of the humbler tasks of critical thought, because it pushes you to reconsider whether you trust your chosen sources. Not only should you judge the veracity and trustworthiness of your own references, you should take the effort to examine the references of your references. Carefully reading the footnotes of other authors tests your trust in the written word. Not everything printed on a page is an authentic expression of a writer’s thoughts. They might cite a study and contort the interpretations of the findings to suit their argument. Theory can precede data, rather than the other (and right) way around. We live in a time when everyone is urged to check the facts of everything they see and read. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves and others, we might admit that we are not always as attentive and skeptical as we should be. Sometimes, we can be eagerly credulous when someone says something that suits our sensibility and convictions. Writing footnotes forces one to check the basic facts—who wrote this, who published it, when was it published, etc.—and start to build a case for why a source should be trusted or doubted.

Taking the credibility or dishonesty of a source seriously is the sign of a sincere scholar. Questioning the smallest fact—Why are all these books printed in St. Ives?—and seeking an answer—St. Ives is just the name of the company—are two of those intellectual chores that help to cultivate a tidy and meticulous mind. Scrutinizing the words of others teaches you to look at your own work in a more critical light. As soon as one completes a paragraph, one should re-read it and ask oneself, “is this what I honestly think and believe?” I know that struggling to meet one’s deadlines at the end of the semester means that most students do not have the time for this type of intellectual sincerity. Conclusions are often reached for the sake of expedience. Maybe we should train ourselves to think about the task of writing as a more significant endeavor than merely finishing a paper by a certain date. Truly, reading and writing admits you into a long conversation that started before you even learnt to pick up a pen.

In an interview with The Atlantic, the linguist N. J. Enfield attempts to explain why we make small oral sounds—from “ummm” to “mmhmm”—to fill gaps in conversations. Most of these noises are social cues that we are paying attention to the speaker and agreeing with what they are saying. They are the unspoken substance of most human conversation. Enfield talks to the interviewer about transcribing interviews from the recording to the page, and ponders why all these seemingly inconsequential noises are edited out as the conversation is converted into an article. Enfield observes that “conversation is all draft;” books and articles are finished products.

 

St. Ives?

I disagree with that judgement. Final drafts and completed works rarely represent an ending. At the same time, a first draft is nothing like the real beginning of a work. No moment of education or stage of composition embodies a start or end. Properly speaking, I think that lessons and essays “come to fruition.” Nothing illustrates the joyful and intense undertakings of learning and writing more than the word “fruition.” Nowadays, the word refers to the realization of a plan or project, or the period when a tree or vine bears fruit. Etymologically, fruition comes from the Late Latin fruitionem, which means “enjoyment.” The fruition of a letter or poem or treatise represents a cadence—perfect or imperfect—in the long, lustful tune of life. Writing is the act of taking pleasure in something beyond your comprehension, in a language that precedes and outlasts us all.

My former professor Anne-Marie Oliver once observed that chalk is the perfect metaphor for the enterprise of education and the transmission of knowledge. She remarks that “true chalk is something marked by an extreme fragility, friability, dustability, temporality . . . These attributes signified that it was once alive and that it possessed still the power of thingness, that is, something susceptible to damage, destruction, death, and accordingly, something human or humanlike. And this stuff was used to form words, dead things that live on and are constantly reanimated in the brains of other beings.” Chalk is formed of prehistoric and fossilized matter that leaves dust all over your fingers and makes marks—equations, illustrations, and quotations—on the blackboard. Coincidentally, the contents of books are printed onto the pulped remains of dead trees. Every page serves as a reminder of death.

St. Ives?

Education and death are more intimately linked than most people think. I thumb through my copy of Vilem Flusser’s Writings (published by University of Minnesota Press in 2002, printed in the United States of America—somewhere—on acid-free paper) in search of his moving definition of human communication. According to this idiosyncratic philosopher and polygot, “human communication is an artistic technique whose intention it is to make us forget the brutal meaninglessness of a life condemned to death.” Writing is the art of making meaning out of meaninglessness. Death—that final moment of becoming nothingness—fuels our desperate need to leave something behind. Oddly enough, there is a striking resemblance between the format of footnotes and inscriptions on gravestones: the name of the author, the title of the work, the year of publication, etc.

Another former professor of mine encouraged me to always conclude with the “thinking answer,” rather than the absolute one. To be honest and ironic, it seems that the only truly absolute answer is death. You cannot argue or disagree with that inevitability. So, what are answers? There are exact answers (printed in Great Britain by the St. Ives Group), elusive answers (“well, it depends on what you mean by ‘advance’…”), and honest answers (“I don’t know yet”). What exactly is the “thinking answer”? Answering a question thoughtfully means that one’s work comes to fruition, rather than to an end. Thinking answers should show the enjoyment of thought, just as writing should convey the enjoyment of words. Although typing up references is the least enjoyable part of the writing process, it is a mark of gratitude. Taking the time to write footnotes represents humility and honesty. Footnotes reveal that you are indebted to those who came before you, and express the hope that you might be able to serve future scholars in a similar way. The old and witty philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once quipped that Western Philosophy is just a bunch of footnotes to Plato. I disagree and claim that philosophy—and thought in general—is just a long line of footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to footnotes. The history of thought is more like the Talmud than the Bible, more like a first draft than a final copy. The footnote protects us from forgetting the origin of originality, and reminds us that no one ever comes up with the absolute answer. More importantly, the footnote is invitation to think with others—from our predecessors to our descendants—and enjoy every thought as it unfolds.

 

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The Waiting Room by Wes Bishop

Cyber Pamphleteer: Imagined Stations

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God waited for the end of the universe. God had begun existence lonely, and God would end it the same way. Scanning the universe once more, God was not surprised to find no sentient being left to talk with. At this late hour in the universe, everything had shrunk down to the size of a galaxy. Within the next few moments the entire universe would violently contract once more, this time to the size of a large solar system.

God tried once again to spread its awareness beyond the great mass collected on the horizon but could not. God had never been able to go beyond the universe. Even in the time of expansion, when the universe had raced across empty space, God had only been able to know what was on its side of existence.

Turning back to the sole remaining galaxy, God listened to the flowers that grew on a particular planet with no name. In an attempt to attract herbivores, the flowers had evolved a curious organ in the interior of their petals. When the wind blew through them they released a beautiful humming noise, bringing massive floating grazers who chomped the flowers with their mouths. The floating grazers loved the flower and stems, but found the roots to be bitter, and therefore spit the roots back out as they sailed above the planet’s orange-red fields. Scattered about, the roots began to regenerate into new flowers, and so the whole process was repeated.

Many times, God had taken the form of the floating grazers and sailed in their large herds, hunting the beautiful melodies.

But alas, in just a few moments the gentle grazers and delicate flowers would cease to exist. Suddenly the universe trembled again, more violent then it ever had before. God braced itself as all of existence began to contract.

+++

            God had not always gone without creatures to talk to. At the universe’s height, it had been teeming with life forms that not only talked, but sang, screeched, wailed, honked, exploded, and chirped.

That was not to mean that God was always successful in communicating with the other life forms in the universe, or that the conversations ever amounted to anything. Quite the contrary, most of the time the interaction resulted in disaster for the species in question.

One of the first species God tried to talk to was a fascinating species of intelligent, mobile rocks. The universe had been young in those days; God had been around for barely a trillion years, but it had grown bored from watching matter race away towards the horizon and seeing giant clouds of gas ignite and explode. So when God had finally discovered another sentient being, it had been overjoyed with excitement.

Manifesting before a particular piece of slate, God began the very first conversation in the universe.

“Hello,” God said.

Startled, the piece of slate looked up from its meal of alkaline metals.

“Who said that?”

“It’s me,” God answered, feeling very proud of itself. “What is your name?”

Of course, God already knew the answer to its question. Being God it could trace every single one of the creature’s atoms back to the creation of the universe. But God thought that showing off its long ability to see would be rude.

“They call me Grag,” the piece of slate answered.

This whole conversation thing is easy. God thought.

Looking more closely at God, Grag asked what it had been wanting to know its entire existence. “So the others were right? You do exist?”

“Uh…” God said. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You are the All-Powerful Mountain, which sprang forth in the beginning to give life to all of us.”

“Oh,” God answered. “Well, not exactly. On your planet, the idea is popular that an All Powerful Mountain gave birth to your people, but that isn’t exactly what happened.”

“I knew it!” Grag shouted. “The Pinnacle Rocks have been lying to us all these years.”
“Well,” God said, “I think they are just honestly mistaken.”

“No,” Grag insisted. “They shattered a piece of quartz last season for denying the existence of the Mountain.”

“Yes,” God said uncomfortably. “I saw that. But you know, what’s done is done. You can’t go back and change it.”

“NO!” Grag yelled. “I will show the Pinnacle Rocks that they are mistaken. I will go to my people and tell them that you have blessed me with your truth. I will be your messenger, and I will- through your glory- spread the truth!”

With that, Grag turned away from God and began rolling away as fast as he could.

“Wait!” God shouted after him. “Come back! I only wanted to talk with you! Maybe we could discuss the weather or something else?”

But Grag would have no part of it. Every other member of the rock species that God spoke to reacted in the same way, until the entire race was at war with one another.

Horrified, God watched as the first intelligent species destroyed itself. Years after its first encounter God witnessed the final rock creature killing its last enemy. As it lay shattered before its base, God once again materialized on the planet.

“What have you done?” God asked.

“Oh, Crystalline Savior! The struggle is finally over, the non-believers have been vanquished. I am ready to reap my rewards.”

“Reward!?” God asked. “Why would I give you a reward? You just murdered one of the last of your kind.”

“But it is written that once the non-believers are destroyed, you will come back and take all that are faithful, polish them, and set them in the heavens to shine down for eternity.”

Following his gaze God looked up at the stars.

“Don’t you get it?” God asked. “There is no eternity with me. Once you die the material you are made of moves to a different state in the universe. That’s all that happens.

“How can I take you anywhere but here? You couldn’t survive on any of the other planets but this one. Where do you want me to take you? A nebula? What would you stand on? Or a frozen moon? Without an atmosphere of helium you would suffocate.”

God finished speaking and sat down in frustration.

“If you are not here to reward me, then what shall we do?”

“Well,” God said looking up in hope, “maybe we could just talk?”

The last rock creature looked at God for a moment and then started to laugh.

“I see, you are not the true God, but are instead the Dark Ravines messenger sent to test my resolve. Very good trickster, but you will not fool me. I will remain dedicated to the Crystalline Savior until he rewards me my thirty blue pebbles and immortality.”

With that, God vanished from the planet, never to return.

+++

            God gazed at the universe once more. The violent contracting had ceased for the moment but it was only a matter of time before it started again. The next time would probably be the last.

The cosmos had been concentrated on the rim of existence, but as it had shrunk, there was now not enough room. Bits of planets and rocks hurtled through burning stars. Comets and balls of gas, previously separated by light years, were side by side. Black holes, no longer isolated in space, were violently sucking everything towards them.

Materializing on one of the few intact planets, God looked up at the sky in wonder. God had chosen a female Ipswitch to inhabit, mostly because their sense of sight had been unparalleled in the universe. Training her seven eyes on the heavens she watched as millions of objects whizzed by.

Materializing on the surface of an oncoming black hole, God chose the form of a male Spobler, mostly because their sense of sound was exhilarating. Every noise the giant ears picked up created an explosion of color in God’s temporary brain.

Slam, crimson; Crash, yellow; Boom; violet!

Staring at the black hole, her Ipswitch eyes spotted the Spobler.

Straining his Spobler ears, he heard the planet begin to break apart.

Then God appeared between the two forms of itself as a Zezir. Their species were fascinating. They took the noises and sights of the universe and turned them into elaborate interstellar dances. At the species height, they had been one of the most populous in the universe, dancing in the void of worlds. God had often wondered who they danced for, since God and passing comets were the only beings whoever saw them.

Awesome images of destruction danced in her Ipswitch eyes. Terrifying sounds lit up all hemispheres of his Spobler brain. Their Zezir plasma limbs twisted, listening and corkscrewing in ways that communicated the slow loss of space in an infinite loop.

And then it was over. The forms were destroyed and God was returned to its formless self.

God thought about creating a pair of lungs so it could sigh a breath of despair, or a pair of eyes to sob, but decided against it. Nothing would change its feeling of hopelessness.

God was going through one of the most terrifying experiences a life form could witness and had no one to comfort it.

But this had been the story of God all along. No form was ever able to fully understand God. Even the ones that did not destroy themselves were unable to satisfy God’s desire for camaraderie.

But as everything was being destroyed, God could not help but want someone to talk with. And not only talk, but also listen and understand what God was going through.

Although God had done so many times before, each time proving to be unsatisfying, God decided to give it one more try. Concentrating all of its power, God duplicated itself.

“Hello,” God said to God.

“Hello,” answered God.

“This is absolutely terrifying,” God observed.

“Tell me about it.”

“I would, but you already know everything I’m going to say.”

“Right.”

Both of them said nothing for a few moments and awkwardly watched a star go supernova in an area the size of small moon.

“So,” God said finally breaking the silence. “Do you really think that we will cease to exist when the universe is done contracting?”

“I do,” God answered. “Or at least we will cease to exist in our present forms. I can’t fathom that we will be able to survive in that small of a space.”

“Terrifying,” God said.

“Tell me about it,” God replied.

“I would but you… well you know.”

“Right.”

Again, the two became silent.

“You know what we need,” God finally said.

“What?”

“We need a Centapadial.”

“Funny, I was just thinking that.”

“I know,” God answered.

+++

The Centapadials had been one of the few creatures in the universe that had not destroyed themselves once God spoke to them. Long, slender, and delicate the Centapadials had possessed elongated brains that made them extremely intelligent. For millions of years they crawled about their planet living peaceful lives. They never evolved appendages that could manipulate their environments, so they never invented cities. And since they never invented cities, they never needed to have governments to organize them. And since they never invented governments, they never needed weapons to gain more power for those governments.

They were just a highly intelligent creature that enjoyed exploring their world and talking with one another.

God had spent many centuries on the Centapadial’s world, crawling with them, and having discussions. Eventually, though, the Centapadials had died out. A fungus on their world had evolved a deadly spore that infected the Centapadials brains, and slowly rotted them from the inside out. Watching them perish by the millions, God eventually offered its help. The few remaining Centapadials had listened to God’s offer, and after some consideration decided against accepting the divine intervention.

“You have been an interesting acquaintance,” one of the Centapadials said as they slowly died. “But our time in the cosmos is done. Everything must come to an end at some time.”

“But, you have been one of the best companions that I have ever met.”

“Unfortunately, my dear acquaintance, you have no companions. You are one of a kind, and just as it is our nature to exist, then disappear, it is your nature to continue existing alone.”

With that the Centapadial slumped over, and succumbed to the fungus raging through their body.

Unable to watch such magnificent creatures continue to suffer God left the world. Eons later God gave into temptation and tried to create new Centapadials, but eventually their sound reasoning always arrived at the same conclusion: they should not be in the universe anymore and God should accept God’s fate.

+++

During these final moments of the universe however, God did not care. It simply wanted someone to talk to in the hopes of calming the rising panic.

“Okay,” God said. “You concentrate on creating a solid place for it to crawl. I’ll make a breathable atmosphere.”

“Alright,” God said once they had finished. “Now you protect it from any other objects.”

“Already done,” God replied. Both watched as an entire asteroid belt bounced off the protective barrier they had created.

“Good, keep that up and I will make the Centapadial.”

Concentrating God created the Centapadial. Bursting into existence the new companion began to crawl back and forth on its planetary aquarium.

“Hello,” God said. “How are you?”

“I…I don’t know,” the Centapadial answered. “I was just created for artificial conversation. How should I be? Since you created me, you would have a better understanding of that than me.”

“See,” God said to God. “Nothing like the clarity of a Centapadial’s thoughts.”

Ignoring itself, God answered the Centapadial.

“You should probably be terrified.”

“Oh. And why is that?”

“Because the universe and everything in it is about to be destroyed.”

“Will it be painful?”

“Most likely, yes.” Both Gods answered.

“I see. Well then to answer your original question, I am terrified.”

All three creatures sat quietly for a few moments. Finally one of the Gods spoke.

“This really isn’t all that comforting.”

“I didn’t think it would be,” God replied.

“Sorry,” the Centapadial answered. “Is there any way I can help?”

“Not really.” Both Gods answered.

“Well then what should we do?”

“We’ll just have to wait,” the Gods echoed.

“Will waiting help ease our fear?”

“Actually,” God said as God began to think, “there was one creature I remember who could make waiting for something very monotonous.” Looking at the other God, God asked, “Do you remember the humans?”

“Yes, of course I do.”

“And do you remember their waiting rooms?”

“Yes.”

“Well, let’s create a waiting room and a human to go along with it. I always marveled how humans took horrible situations at their hospitals and made them bearable by waiting in boring rooms.”

“Do we have anything to lose?” The Centapadial asked.

“Not really,” both of the Gods answered.

“Then we should give it a try.”

“Clear Centapadial thinking,” God said to itself. “Nothing like it in the universe.”

“Okay,” God said. “Here it goes.”

Just as God was about to create the waiting room and the human, the universe shuddered so violently that God felt space and time begin to tear.

“Help!” The Centapadial shouted, but it was too late. The force of the universe tore the safe habitat to bits and thrust both Gods closer together.

“Oh no,” God said to itself.

All around them matter had ceased to retain any meaningful form. Mass became energy only to condense back into mass. Light radiated and ricocheted to and fro in terrible bursts of heat.

“I don’t think there is enough room for the both of us,” God said.

“I agree.”

And with that the two Gods became one once again.

Alone, God began to panic.

Make it stop! God thought as the universe pushed in even tighter. Please!

For the first time in its existence God wished there were a higher being in the universe, one that could hear its prayers. But nothing came.

Staring at the center of the universe, feeling the walls of existence closing in, God tried to push existence back. Nothing happened.

The most terrifying thought racing through God’s mind was not that it was about to die, that at least would have an ending, but that the whole thing was just getting ready to start all over.

It didn’t take a Centapadial’s rationality to figure out that God had once came into the cosmos ignorant of everything in existence, and that this beginning had probably been prefaced with a similar destruction of the universe. If it had happened once, it had happened before that, and before that, and before that. An eternity of being born, existing, violently dying, only to repeat the whole process again.

God wanted out. It couldn’t contemplate spending another eternity watching other creatures live, love, laugh, and die. God was horrified at the prospect of being stuck in a never-ending story, a continuous loop.

Can anyone hear me! God thought with all of its might. Can anyone help me!

            In response, the universe gave its final shudder.

NO! God thought.

+++

In one single moment, all of existence occupied a space no larger than a speck of dust. It had done this countless times before, and would do it countless times again.

Just as the whole of existence was beginning to feel comfortable in its tight quarters something awoke. With a tiny nudge, God sent the entire universe into a violent explosion. Racing along at the front of the spreading wave, God marveled at what it was seeing. In all directions, it watched as the universe expanded and disappeared into space and time.

Fascinating, God thought.

Silent for over a thousand years, God watched a beautiful nebula take form and light up with explosions. Gliding through the universe it saw stars spark and begin to burn, planets violently slam into one another, only to reform at a later date. After roughly a trillion years God began to feel lonely.

Curiously, it began to look for someone in which to speak.