Dancing about Architecture

Long before Martin Mull was featured in beer ads he was a stand up comedian. You know the kind. He went on tour, made live albums, and probably even appeared on the Merv Griffin show. It was way back then when he gave us this oft-misquoted insight:

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Since then, this quote has been usurped by educator and commentator alike who then accredited it to some other source–which may explain the career path of Martin Mull. The first noun has, for the most part been swapped out with everything you can imagine. By those who wish to elevate the mysticism of their chosen content area.

What, me worry?

My question is why do this to dance? Or to architecture? Is dancing about architecture so absurd? I would put it to you the reader that you would rather see me dance about architecture than write about most things. And you know what, it might be good. Think about it. I’ll get my shoes.

In the meantime, we may consider what this type of colorful language means to us in the real world. It causes me to think of those crackpot beat writers who seemed to have a knack for pairing words–Burroughs’ Naked Lunch for example.

I fear that we have lived and are living scripted lives. 

So many digest what is provided with aplomb and grateful for it. Where are the questions? Where is the critique? As a seasoned skeptic and developing curmudgeon, let me tell you that nothing strikes my ire–gets my Irish up (trite)–more than someone who jumps in with both feet (trite) and gobbles up a presentation hook, line, and sinker (trite). Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Nunkus. Nunguna. Goose eggs. I feel, sometimes, like the only sober man at a party. Are you people serious?!

It is one of the reasons that I cannot bring myself to write a book. You see, the researcher must always provide the experts to support assertions by way of citations and references. Their data is subject to evaluation and review by anyone once published. The author is assumed the expert in the content and does not have those same responsibilities to the reader. The reader may even quote prior works of his/her own catalog for support–an honor I thought reserved for the pope.

I close urging a more skeptical approach and an avoidance of the fold-out dance steps that you lay on the floor to learn to move the way others have–be it about architecture or otherwise. Stay away from those overused expressions, myths that perpetuate only in educational examples, and phraseology that serves no purpose to expand the mind and enhance the beauty of our expression. Do something new. Think differently.

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  • You forgot bupkis in your list of words for nothing.

    One of the things that Twitter forces me to do is be brief. I’ve come a long way from my “somewhat wordy” days. I was very wordy. I have the t shirt to prove it.

    I grew up being told, “mind your teacher.” My education vastly improved when I started questioning the teacher instead. That’s when, annoyed with professors who wouldn’t have the decency to say, “I don’t know,” that I started doing my own research.

    The best thing that happened to me in grad school was taking Chaucer for a second time. Professor Miller was the only medievalist left by the time I hit the English Department at NIU. It was either Chaucer or nothing. So I signed up.

    He had us do oral presentations on our research. I chose the Physician’s Tale. As I was in the middle of my presentation, he very pointedly ask me where the physician had gone to college. “It doesn’t say,” I replied. “Could have been Wossamotta U for all I know.”

    The entire room gasped. But he loved it. He loved that I was prepared. He loved that I was not intimidated by him. And, since I went first, I got to join him in asking my own pointed questions. I was in my element.

    And, as you know, I challenge educators all the time. I pretend to be like David Letterman’s dumb guy persona, but people who are astute enough can figure it out.

    Metaphorically I dance around educators and education. Those who respect me read me and those who don’t, well…. Too bad more don’t read me but it’s their loss. I reach who I can however I can.

    How do I keep things fresh? Helps that I am at the school with my nose pressed against the window. Helps that I listen as much as possible and still have a life. Helps that I keep asking questions over and over again until someone notices I am there.

    I love language. I play with language the way that kids play with their food. At the same time I insist on being precise. It irks me when I see people make up words when they obviously have no ear. It’s clunky. It’s inauthentic.

    If I were still teaching, I’d encourage students to pick up words and toss them around. They are words not bombs. Language evolves and words shift. You can keep your word, but you cannot keep a word from bouncing around. Words are far more flexible than we are.

  • I like your response to the quip, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Sure, fine, but what’s wrong with dancing about architecture? The original quip is based on the notion that words fail to capture the richness of experience. For pragmatists like myself, words don’t fail to capture reality if we stop thinking of words and reality (mind and matter, subject and object, absolute and relative, etc.)as discrete metaphysical categories. In the Deweyan view, we don’t have reality on one hand and a set of words on the other where the aim is to make our words hook up properly with reality. Instead our language use is continuous with reality. It is one of our ways we have evolved for participating in reality. Such participation as describing experiences makes _use_ of reality but also contributes to _shaping_ reality. To say something is indescribable is to offer a description. The upshot of the quip in pragmatic terms is not that language is inadequate to experience but that experience never exhausts description–that and the boring observation that writing, music, dancing, and architecture are different human behaviors.

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