"Sexing the Poet"

Like “up the down staircase” and “marching to a different drummer”, we have many expressions to describe those who pursue a vision different from our own. But it really boils down to us vs. them, the insiders vs. the outsiders. Considering that we are all dealing with the same information, or lack thereof, how do we distinguish the signal from the noise? How do we understand information?

Frequently the same data will be scrambled and reassembled, a specialty of today's mashups. Defined as bastard pop, the word originally meant taking the music from one genre and adding it to the words of another, hopefully producing a new beast that is better than either of its parts. The more disparate the forms, the more interesting the result. It began in 1993 with a mashup called “Rebel Without a Pause”, engineered by a group called the Evolution Control Committee. Soon there were album- length mashups, satirical musical combinations called “plunderphonics”, and of course the inevitable lawsuits. As a result many mashups are the work of local DJ's and heard infrequently over the radio.

Mashups has now evolved into a generic term for mixing data from several applications, several websites, and different sources. Yahoo, for example, has released an API (basically the building blocks) for its Yahoo maps, so that you can now find headlines from Yahoo news shown on top of a map of the United States, or location maps (like art galleries) atop a map of a city, or crime locations over a state. The limits of data decipherability are expanding along with the Internet.

So is it the information per se, or rather the patterning of the information, that separates the noise from the music of life? Artists are frequently reassembling data in original ways to create new forms. To the extent that we can relate to these forms we call them art. When we can't absorb them readily, we call the authors psychotic, perhaps autistic, mentally challenged. We boo them out of the concert hall, like a Stravinsky. Another way of looking at the problem is in terms of anticipation: when we can foresee the probability of the outcome, we are comfortable; when the result is unexpected we experience cultural dis-ease. (For more on anticipation as an academic discipline, see http://www.aniticipation.info.

One field that has resisted the siren call of intermingling is religious belief. Dominant and not-so-dominant theocracies are challenging each others' patterns of information in strident tones today. What makes sense to a Muslim may read as false to a Christian. What constitutes logic to a scientist may suggest blasphemy to a theocrat. Is it intellectual conflict that causes such dismay, or is it rather a power struggle to impose one scheme of understanding universally? Does nature or human nature require domination?

Where tribes or nations once fought over geographic territory, long past the need for agricultural sufficiency, do they now struggle to possess minds? After all, the universe of knowledge appears to be infinite. Perhaps its greatest beauty lies in its diversity, and in our expanding ability over the centuries to plumb its mysteries. Is it an accident that opposing philosophies contend so harshly in the early 21st century: some that explore new areas of thought like the Internet, nanotechnology, genomes, robotics, etc; and others that revert to ancient rituals and beliefs? What constitutes the politics of knowledge?

Philip Howard tells us that one Chinese character carries the meaning “unable to distinguish between male and female”. It was first used over a thousand years ago in a poem about a hare running across a field and uninterested in the sex of the poet watching him. If we can ignore the definitive characterization of a supreme being, and instead agree to disagree, if we can unsex our philosophies in other words, then our true genius as a species can rise to the fore. If we cannot, however, then the shadow of a new dark age may well descend upon us. Niall Ferguson, the Lawrence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard, calls the twentieth century "History's Age of Hatred" in his excellent new book "The War of the World" (Penguin). Only six years into the new century, must we travel the same path? How many have to die before the entire planet becomes a gas chamber?

Do you remember Clifton Fadiman? He hosted the immensely popular radio quiz show “Information, Please!” from 1938 to 1952. Few people realize that he was paid $250 a week, an enviable amount at that time, to present listeners' questions to a group of distinguished panelists. The listener that succeeded in stumping the panel won a set of encyclopedias. If we could perceive our religious beliefs as sources of information to be shared with others – an “Information, Please!” of philosophies - we would come a long way toward global peace. The sex of the poet is really irrelevant, isn't it?

c. Corinne Whitaker 2006