An all-white Burkean parlor

Kenneth Burke writes:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (The Philosophy of Literary Form, 110-111)

See the video of this passage with the seemingly affluent characters and all-white cast, implying that it might take more than good rhetorical chops to win a seat at the main table.

Thick description

From Sara Ahmed:

The experience of this process offers us the opportunity to “thicken” our description of institutions. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle suggests that “thicker descriptions” require more than describing an action; it would locate an individual action in terms of its wider meaning or accomplishment. He suggests that a thin description of what a person is doing (such as doodling) requires thickening “before it amounts to an account of what the person is trying to accomplish.” (Ryle 1971: 498)

The idea that the path to an understanding might not follow the orderly categories of some expert’s discipline, but rather a patient method of observation and annotation leading to something that might be as much an account as it is an analysis. A story told by someone who didn’t rush to commence the tale, but who held back, observing and reflecting.

I’d better look up some other discussions of the term, at least in the field of anthropology. Remember, too, that a half century ago an interesting anthropologist had to cast her research as a novel because the field didn’t have room in its analytical categories for accounts based on something like thick description. So she published Return to Laughter under a pseudonym.

The challenge of photography

Because of its unusual slope as it crosses the Saint Joseph river to connect the two sections of the IU South Bend campus, the red bridge is hard to photograph well, especially if one’s purpose is to create the inspiring or magisterial images used to promote a university among citizens, potential students and their parents, legislators, and donors.

This image, featured on a section of the IU South Bend website in 2018, almost entirely masks the slope of the bridge, which is not easy to do.

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Only the small section of the bridge at the far left here, on the north bank, is actually level where it passes over the roadway on Riverside Drive. The main part of the bridge portrayed here slopes substantially toward the bank on the south side of the river. The photographer and/or the Photoshop artist worked skillfully to obscure these facts in the promotional image. Many campus images mask the bridge’s unusual sloping structure as it passes over the river.

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This still image taken from a promotional video gives a better sense of the slope from the north to the south bank. The campus is proud of its mission serving the citizens of the region but tends to hide the architecture of the red bridge.

Rather than hiding the bridge’s design in its publications, I suggest that it should be foregrounded and even celebrated on t-shirts and buttons as a way of looking history, economics, and higher education in Indiana more squarely in the eye.

Knowing more about ourselves increases our chances to do good work going forward.

Indiana University limestone

Limestone is a sedimentary rock, composed mainly of skeletal fragments of marine organisms such as coral, forams, and molluscs. Its major materials are the minerals calcite and aragonite, which are different crystal forms of calcium carbonate, CaCO3. (Wikipedia)

For more than 135 years, limestone has also provided the preferred finishing material for the home of Bloomington’s best-known resident: Indiana University. (Lee Sandweiss)

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Above, a close-up of skeletal fragments in the brutalist facade of Wiekamp Hall* on the IU South Bend campus. The Indiana University Campus Limestone Tour map features photographs and descriptions of thirty buildings featuring limestone exteriors on the large Bloomington campus of IU. Guided walking tours are available that explore the range of styles visible in the major campus buildings:

“Popular architectural styles get revisited,” explained [Brian] Keith. “There is a blend of styles on the IU campus, including variations on Gothic—Victorian Gothic and Collegiate Gothic, in particular—Romanesque Revival, Second Empire, Art Deco and Modern. There is even a style that’s actually ‘no style,’ which we call a functional building.” (Lee Sandweiss)

Limestone weighs about 150 pounds per cubic foot and can be dangerous to work with. Fatalities in the quarrying, preparation, and construction phases of using limestone for building exteriors are not unknown.

The limestone industry forms an important part of southern Indiana history and culture. It has inspired literary works by notable Hoosier writers such as Scott Russell Sanders.

When residents of Indiana visit a campus of their largest state university, they can expect to see buildings faced with metonymic and synecdochic Indiana limestone.

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*According to campus lore, when Wiekamp Hall was bid out for construction, the cost of the limestone was too high and a message was sent to the state’s quarry companies saying that it would be unfortunate if this major building would be the first in the state-wide IU system without a limestone facade. The story concludes with the limestone being offered at a much-reduced price.

Who?

These pieces were not written by the late British poet, Ken Smith (1938-2003), nor the other Ken Smiths who make bass guitars, study marine biology, sell cars, teach card counting, paint war scenes in oils, guide bear hunters in Idaho, teach forest management, study immunology, do war reporting, sell real estate, photograph nature, teach cryptology, provide legal counsel to the gay and lesbian community, realign the spines of athletes, listen for seismic faults in the Sierra Nevadas, operate a 4-axis milling machine, work for sustainable development in Alberta, play blackjack, or criticize Junk English. Nor were the pieces written by the Ken Smith who is “the Elvis Costello of Landscape Architecture” nor the one who has served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives nor the one who hit a home run for the Atlanta Braves in 1983. I only wish.