Seeing Alison Bechdel Speak at RIT

Although I also wanted to go see Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars at the Dryden, I opted for the irreproducible Caroline Werner Gannett Project lecture at RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) with Alison Bechdel. In all honesty, I know practically nothing about Bechdel, instead relying on my faith that the lecture series draws interesting people (perhaps TEDx Rochester could learn a few things.)

Anyway, she's a cartoonist — a self-described not-very-good writer and not-very-good artist that combine to form a rather excellent cartoonist. Her lecture was titled Drawing Words, Reading Pictures. If you had heard of her before, it's likely as a "lesbian cartoonist" with a long-running strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, or perhaps the misattributed Bechdel test for movies (conceived by her friend Liz Wallace and documented in a strip in 1985 … or so Wikipedia says).

She went into great detail about how she constructed one strip and quipped that you just need to repeat that a thousand times or so to make a book. She spoke a lot about her childhood, dovetailing into her most recent book, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. She spoke about her journal as a child where she began to realize that words alone were not adequate to relate an idea, adding small "I think" bubbles in sentences wherever meaning could be ambiguous. Later she started using a large caret-like gesture (^ only bigger) through words, and eventually discovered she could "protect a whole page" with one overlying notation. This eventually led her to using the comic form as a way to reduce ambiguity.

I was thoroughly excited by this notation. A growing panic and frustration develops inside me whenever I begin to discuss the utter inadequateness stemming from the bleeding ambiguity in language. I mean, "the sky is blue" makes perfect sense even though there are clouds that are part of the sky, or it might be the night sky, and blue … wow … I assure you it's not blue like my old Ford Escort which was also blue. So, stealing Bechdel's notation in typographic form, "the ^sky^ is ^blue^" makes much more sense to me. I had to ask if she finds that ambiguity relieved by cartooning (which she did) but I was more surprised at her surprise that I felt that way too. They had microphones up front, and when I was addressing her she probably took two steps back when I relayed essentially what I just wrote.

As such, I felt a kindred connection. I deduced who she was prior to the lecture (an easy task even though I'd never seen her photograph) and had felt that a bit already. I was warmed by the way she stepped partway up the auditorium to observe how the stage and computer projector were set up. And I was amused at a male crew-member gingerly adjusting her lapel microphone as if he were defusing a bomb.

In any case, I bought her book and had a chance to meet her and have her sign it. She even "^" notated my name and sketched her face with a cartoon bubble, "what is Jason really saying?", then with a wry smile added below, "we might never know." [Curiously, I recalled it from memory as "what is Jason saying really?", and "we may never know."]

I'm thoroughly enjoying the book. What I'm finding is that the cartoon format doesn't resolve ambiguity as much as it amplifies the ambiguous parts of the text. So like that "^" notation, it's another way to say, "this is how I think it happened, but you're never going to get it."

On Bullshit at the Bertrand Russell Society Meeting

I headed to The Bertrand Russell Society at Verb Café meeting at Writers and Books (740 University Ave.) for Ted Lechman's discussion of Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit. [Got it?]

The tie-in to Russell was a short pamphlet he wrote in 1943 titled An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish: A Hilarious Catalogue of Organized and Individual Stupidity. Frankfurt's book was written in 2005 and professed to provide a philosophical definition of bullshit (also known as rubbish, malarkey, hokum, and humbug). Lechman generally spoke from Frankfurt's point of view, adding his own views where necessary.

The colloquial definition sets bullshit on the true-false spectrum — that bullshitting is a form of lying. Lechman argued that this is a flawed definition: that bullshit is much more anchored in motive than in truthfulness. My analogy is that fitting bullshit into the true-false spectrum is as valid as fitting apathy into the love-hate spectrum.

I think a linguistic flaw is the concept of opposites: for you can argue that love is the opposite of hate, and (in my opinion more strongly) that apathy is the opposite of love. Yet apathy is also the opposite of hate — and now we've got a triangle of opposites which is logically impossible. As the old joke goes, "two wrongs don't make a right but three lefts do." [Which I credit to 2NU in their song, "This is Ponderous", but I'm sure it's older than that.]

Anyway, Lechman was trying to suggest that bullshit comes from a motive of misdirection, not of deception. Thus, lying is the deliberate act of deceiving — of knowing the truth but professing something else. Bullshit is the deliberate act of misdirecting attention — of not caring about the truth of a statement, but stating it anyway to draw attention to someone else.

I think his perfectly constructed example was of one who states, "America is the greatest country in the world" to other Americans. It's a statement that has no provable truth, for there are statistics that favor America and those that don't. The purpose of making such a statement, though, is to suggest that oneself is great — that by complimenting the country and therefore its people, the people then express praise in complementary appreciation.

However, I deviate from Lechman's and Frankfurt's definition there. I think that bullshit can be as simple as assuming logical fallacy is more valid than logical argument. To me, this definition allows for a more innocent form of bullshit, where the bullshitter actually does have truthfulness in mind, but is ill-equipped to make an argument.

So in the end, I guess I support Lechman's (and presumably Frankfurt's) definition that one form of bullshit requires an apathy toward the truthfulness of a statement and an ulterior motive. However, I feel there is also another form of bullshit which is simply using logical fallacy as if it is superior to logical argument.

California Rollin' and Colonel Sweeto

Since Ali was working her second job, I had the night to myself. And since she's not a fan of sushi, I decided to take the opportunity to once again give California Rollin' at Village Gate Square (274 N. Goodman St.) another try. And once again it's fine. I had a nice time talking with Giancarlo and Brenda and the meal was great. Afterward I headed over to Boulder Coffee Co.MySpace link (100 Alexander St.) I picked up a copy of Nicholas Gurewitch's new book, The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories. There was a big line of people waiting to have him sign it so I decided not to, figuring I'd probably run into him again at some point. I perused the book and was greatly amused, even though I'd already seen about half of the comics. I really like the dense, perverse, twisted style and look forward to what's new. I chatted with some people I knew then Ali came by and we called it an early night.