Ursula Le Guin
One of my post-sailing-adventure musings is, what if I had read Longitude shipboard instead of The Telling?
There’s no way to know, of course, what would have changed or whether those changes might have mattered, in the end. Captain explained how sailors use the variety of sounds from gongs and bells to triangulate position in fog. “Can you really tell what direction the sound is coming from?” I wondered. “In general,” she replied. So there you would be, unable to see sky or shore, listening. Moving (because how can you stop?), and listening. Straining to hear a hint of familiar sound, constructing a mental map against remembered ephemera, calculating where you must be (the reckoning?), and committing yourself to being there – fixed (dead?) – in that moment. Then, you would begin to move the boat in the direction your imagined memory suggests, calculating speed and direction by wind and current with no other reference point except a longed-for next sound.
Fog is an extreme version. (Definitions of “dead reckoning” describe the process of “estimating one’s current position” and then “advancing … based upon [other] known [facts of] speed, elapsed time, and course.”) In lieu of clear vision, i.e., when one must estimate location, not only might audition take prominence, some neuroimaging research shows emotional perception is also affected.
Ok, yes, you caught me – I am making a big metaphorical leap: from the literal to the representational, from the physical to the symbolic. Loss of clear sight from conditions in the external visual environment or due to perturbations in the internal affective state are not exactly the same thing: but the physicality of impaired vision on knowledge of one’s geometrical position in relation to other physical objects can have (I propose!) similar effects as an internal confusion about one’s status, role, or relationship (to name a few social scientific categories) in relation to comparable “position(s)” of others.
Dava Sobel details instances in which, “Too often, the technique of dead reckoning marked [any random sea captain, pre-chronometer] for a dead man” (1995, p. 14). No one died on our journey (Thank god! I hear the Captain exclaim), but we definitely mis-fixed a few crucial reference points along the way, keeping corrective navigation in turmoil.
Discouraging as Anonymous’ judgment is (a pal wrote, “hey, that “anonymous” poster was way outta line! What was that all about??!!), the solution presented by “Rocks and Shoals” (Articles for the Government of the United States Navy, 1930) imposes a severe lack of ambiguity on relative social position/status. While Captain Donald I. Thomas USN (Ret.) defends the justice meted out under the original document as “speedy and fair, with the rights of the accused properly safeguarded,” he ultimately celebrates the code’s demise. Presumably not only because he no longer had to listen to it being read out loud once a month, but because it was a source of abuse:
“We got the message loud and clear that we were expected to throw the book at the accused and leave leniency, if any, to [a particular Base Commander]. This well-understood command influence remained until 1951, when the Uniform Code of Military Justice came into being. One of its provisions was that “no Convening authority or commanding officer could censor, reprimand or admonish any court or member with respect to findings and sentence adjudged by the Court and may not attempt to coerce or influence action of a court in reaching its finding or sentence.”
Under the Uniform Code, continues Capt. Thomas: “The administration of justice took on more of the characteristics of civil law; not surprising since it was drafted by members of Congress, many of them lawyers who had served in the Armed Forces during the War. Under the Uniform Code, greater latitude was given to peremptory challenges, and the finding of guilt required a two-thirds majority in all but capital cases.” (There may be hope for me, yet!) I have no idea what Anonymous’ invocation of the Rocks and Shoals was “all about,” but the thought that someone I met wrote so starkly is a bit disturbing – I enjoyed everyone I met. And, still, I appreciate the food-for-thought. For instance (in combination with other sources of inspiration and some creative sentence-splicing),
“The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature; [while] the placement of the prime meridian [for fixing longitude] is a purely political decision” (Dava Sobel, Longitude, 1995, p. 4).
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the eighties feminist slogan, “the personal is political.” I absorbed this ethos, and attempt to live its significance. After twenty-some years of practice I sometimes feel as if I’m close (the perception never lasts for long!) I triangulate my reference points broadly: from the interpersonal sphere of my friends, to the international relations such friendships draw me into, and this blog in-between. The third axis is time; that curious dialectic between the present and the future. More often than I prefer to acknowledge, my close-up aim fails because of interference from the past.
What obscured the facts? I think it must, at least in part, be how I look – not my generic appearance, but the particular expressions that cross my face, the movements my body makes when I am feeling awkward, uncomfortable, insecure. Or, conversely, when I’m confident, psyched, exuberant! Whatever internal emotion, mood or attitude inspires the viscera, despite whatever skills or talents I’ve nurtured, whichever socialized or conditioned awful habits I’ve tried to reconfigure – I must still be appear visibly only within a certain range of possibility. And that range is associated with every previous time I “looked” that way, and potentially even with other people who appear/have appeared similarly – whether for the same or different reasons, under alternative or familiar conditions.
Despite my ambition, I am a follower. I “follow” what I perceive, reacting when caught off guard, responding when my act has a little more room to maneuver into a way to fit together. It’s impossible to establish a temporally causal relationship (first this, then that) – I am not attempting such linearity. I am trying to explicate how I get caught playing into roles (behaviors, actions, attitudes) that diverge from intention and desire. How is it, in other words, that I keep appearing in certain ways that invite responses which lead me to feeling unseen?
‘Tis a puzzle, no?
by Steph on July 8th, 2008 at 10:15 am