Ted Nelson and Simone Weil

Two thinkers I’ve never dreamed of associating … but the Web’s recursive intertwingling reveals a deeply intriguing link.

I’m teaching Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines in my Introduction to New Media Studies class right now. My students are pretty well electrified (so to speak) by Nelson’s observations and arguments, and especially by his unusually direct and non-academic prose style. And although at some points Nelson can be too anti-curricular even for me (and that’s saying something), I find myself getting swept away all over again by the energy of his imagination and by the many home truths, at least in my experience, that he speaks. Nelson is very much the Walt Whitman of new media. He sings the learning community electric.

As I prepared for class a few days ago, finding more choice nuggets in an essay in which I’ve already underlined about 70% of the sentences, I was especially struck by these words:

But there is always something artificial–that is, some form of artifice–in presentation. So the problem is to devise techniques which have elucidating value but do not cut connections or ties or other relationships you want to save…. The design of things to be shown–whether writing, movie-making, or whatever–is nearly always a combination of some kind of explicit structure–an explanation or planned lesson, or plot of a novel–and a feeling that the author can control in varying degrees. The two are deeply intertwined, however. [Emphasis added.]

I was first struck by the connection (ah, there I am, mapping and exploring the very territory Nelson describes and inhabits) between Nelson’s words and an article on the role of emotion in learning that I read recently in a new journal called Mind, Brain, and Education. In that article, the authors describe emotion not as the unruly toddler in a shop full of the glass ornaments of reason, but as the very shelves upon which our fragile glass ornaments of reason are supported and made effective for our use. Nelson’s idea of “fantics” is especially resonant here.

But then I was truly brought up short when I read this quotation from Simone Weil over at “Blogging on the Brain,” ATL Graduate Fellow Hillary Blakeley’s blog:

Attention consists of suspending out thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired….

Poise, emptiness, readiness, holding without contact but within reach: Weil’s marvelously evocative language, like Nelson’s, like poetry’s, enacts the very thing it describes. Weil also reminds me that attention is more than hyperfocus, or can be. To paraphrase Milton, they also attend who only mull and wait. At the same time, both Weil and Nelson insist that one can combine analytical rigor (the activity they’re engaged in by writing these ideas down, for example) with puzzlement, suggestiveness, deeply felt experience.

And though to my knowledge Weil and Nelson never met or spoke to each other, and may not have read each other’s works, they too are books in Donne’s library, lying open to each other, reading and speaking to each other over the years, voiced and conversing by means of linkages mediated to me by the expressive capabilities of these new technologies. Books, face-to-face classes, blogging, institutional structures, traditional disciplines, cross-disciplinary conversation, youth and adulthood and middle age, history and the present, serendipity, impulse, intuition, rigor, beauty,courage, anxiety, energy, faith: all in the choir, singing a complex harmony I must both strain and relax to hear.

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