How It All Got Started

*The organizers of [Speaking in Code][] asked us back in November to write a “How I got started?” narrative. I don’t know how the idea to write it as a confession got into my head, but it did and when I had some free time Friday night at MLA, I ended up writing this…*

Your honor, I would like, at the very start of this, to note that I did not know that overflowing the stack would kill the snake inside my computer. It took my an awfully long time just to get that python inside my machine and to get used to talking to it, so, really, if you think about it, it dying was the last thing I would have wanted.

How’d it happen? Well, sir, it all started … it all started so long ago that … well, it gets fuzzy in my mind.

You see, your honor, I am a plain man, a simple man. I don’t have mighty ambitions. I simply want to understand how people think. I’ve had this fascination ever since I was a young man and I went off to college and I found myself taking both philosophy classes and poetry writing classes. In the writing classes, I eventually wound myself up to want up to write a poem that was like a cathedral. That is, as you read the poem you would get the same feeling you got from being in a cathedral — I confess that I was not long back from my first trip to Europe where I had become quite fixated on rambling around the interiors of every cathedral in France that I could find.

So I had this idea for this poem, which I never really wrote, because as soon as I had the idea for the poem, I wondered how it is one could string words together in such a way as to capture a dynamic experience of space — by this point my college learning was doing me some good and I was beginning to get fond of saying things like “dynamic experience” — let alone communicate that experience to someone else. Luckily for me, in my philosophy classes we had gotten to phenomenology, and I spent the rest of my college years hoping to find, if not the answer to then at least the key to unlocking, my question.

Fortunately for me, the federal government, of which I am normally suspicious as a right-thinking kind of person, your honor understands, decided I needed more schooling — I guess I wasn’t smart enough yet — and so they gave me what they called a fellowship, because I guess I was a pretty decent fellow, to go off to a special school for others like me who needed more schooling. About the only that happened there, your honor, that you are probably going to want to know about so you can understand how I got in this fix more better is that I found myself up to my elbows in post-structuralism, and I took to it like a cow takes to fresh grass after a long winter. (And if you’ve ever seen those cows on Reddit, your honor, you know what I mean.) Those post-structuralists, well, they just seemed like they were asking the kinds of questions that needed asking: things like what was a text and how did things like texts get made and how was it we could pass these things we call texts around, like a bottle of the good stuff on a Saturday night, if you follow me, your honor, and I think you do — you look like a man who appreciates the finer things in life, if I do say so myself, sir.

Asking those kinds of crazy questions, and really wanting answers, kind of got me pushed out of the barn where all those bookish people were hanging out — and, really, your honor, you should send someone by there and check on them: some of them don’t seem right in the head, if you were to ask me. There were some other folks, however, folks calling themselves folklorists — so they seemed all right — that said I should join up with them, and, well, the government folks said I should keep on going to school, that I still had some more learning to do. And so I did.

Now this next part gets kind of tricky, your honor, so try to do the best to follow me, but what happened next, well, it was something else. First off, I got introduced to all those structuralists that all those other folks I had read before were all “post” about and I realized that the questions they, those structuralists I mean, were asking, well they was some kind of questions. There was this Frenchman, who also makes jeans I think, who was actually talking about mapping the human mind just from collecting enough texts and understanding how they operate. And there were a bunch of Russians — I know, your honor, I was right suspicious of them too, being a right-thinking kind of individual — but if you had seen the kinds of things you were doing, well you would thrown in with them just like I did. Those Russians were talking about taking apart stories like nothing I had ever seen before: they even called the parts of those stories *functions* your honor, which got real interesting as I learned more about growing snakes inside my computer.

If I’m lying, I’m dying.

Anyway, your honor, I finally ended my schooling by writing a right technical dissertation in that there folklore studies where I looked very, very close at how people talked when they was talking about the past. I went out and interviewed folks, and I came back and wrote down every word that they had said. And then I broke those words into lines and I marked each line according to how they moved about in time inside the story itself. (I still haven’t figured that space things out neither, your honor, just so as you know.) The three fellers who sat in the room, well, they didn’t quite know what to do with what I had done but they reckoned that folks had spent enough money, including myself, on getting me schooled properly and it was time for me to go out and get a job and start paying taxes and things like that.

So I did. I moved to Louisiana, where I wrote a little about this, and a little about that, but I finally settled on writing a book about guys who make these crazy boats that can roll up on dry land as sure as a gator does on a sunny day. What I liked about them was that they were making things, and I was thoroughly into what is now called the maker movement — don’t worry, your honor, it’s not no communists; these are right-thinking people who want to take back our stuff so as we can do with it as we want, which is about how the almighty intended it, if you were to ask me. But as I got further and further along in that work, I realized that I didn’t want to study making so much as to be making things myself. Now, chances of me quitting my job and taking up welding were mighty slim your honor. I may be fool, but I am not crazy. No, sir, not crazy. Now, I had, in the past, built some computers, and I had done some crazy things like trying out that operating system written up by that boy who plays the piano for Charlie Brown.

What’s that, your honor? That the one who totes around a blanket? Yes, sir, I believe it is. But he must be all right. He plays the piano right nice, and that operating system he come up with is a doozy.

Now, I kind of thought of myself as being pretty good with words, your honor, and being so long in school I thought I could string some of them there code words together and make myself something with that. Well, I have to tell you, them code words will fight you. It’s like trying to give the cat a bath: just as soon as you think as you got one paw in, another paw shoots straight out.

I tried a couple of different cats, I mean kinds of words, your honor. At first, because I was hosting my own website using what was then this new-fangled contraption called WordPress — no, sir, you can’t make sandwiches with it — I thought I might try to learn this language called PHP.

What’s that? No, sir, it’s not like French. Not at all. You can count on these here languages to say what they mean, only they don’t say what you think, sir.

What’s that? No, sir, not PCP, PHP, but I have to tell you that trying to wrap my head around it made wish it was the former. Only wish, your honor. I’m a law-abiding man and I would … Just get back to my story? Yes, sir.

So I gave up on that PHP stuff, but I was still interested in learning how to make my website run just the way I wanted to run. It’s like hot-rodding your car, if you follow me. I guess I got that in me. So, it wasn’t long before I was trying Ruby, especially when some feller built a train out of it. I tried building my own train, and as long as I kept to what people told me and I ran it on my own machine, it seemed mostly to go alright, but whenever I tried to do anything on my web server … well, those nice people who provide me with that service, well, they’d regularly have to kill a runaway process.

What’s that, your honor? Do you need to go investigating them? Well, sir, I don’t think so. Those processes lived inside boxes they owned, and so I think they a right to kill them. I really do. Besides, leave bygones to be bygones, I always say.

Anyway, a little over three years ago I got invited all the way out to California so as to build nets of humans, or something like that, and this fellow Tim Tangherlini — is that Italian? I don’t rightly know. He seems pretty American to me, sir — anyway, this fellow Tim Tangherlini roped a bunch of us humanists up and had a bunch of smart math and computer types give us some good talkings to. And, it was like the sheet was lifted from my eyes and I could see. I can’t tell you how excited I was that there was a way for me to begin to understand how it is we think by modeling that behavior using computers.

Am I saying you’re a computer, sir? No, sir, not at all. Why your dog can do more than your computer? Is that right? Well, sir, don’t get me wrong. I seen your dog, and he’s a right smart hound and he’s definitely got a two-duck mouth, but I’m not talking smart like, or thinking like that. I’m talking about breaking off the teeniest tiniest of pieces and just beginning, ever so slightly, to see how it is our minds might work.

And with that as my goal, I pitched myself into learning how to wrestle a snake like there was no tomorrow. This Python is supposed to be what they call user-friendly, but I been using it for a while now, sir, and it’s not so friendly.

Well, I say that. It’s just a computing language and it’s going to do what it does, and I’m just going to have to learn to think like it does in order to get it to do what I want to do.

Am I afraid that it will make me into a robot?

No, sir, quite the reverse. I find that as I struggle, and goodness do I struggle, to understand this stuff, I’m getting better at my human thinking, too. You just have to. And now I not only want to use this stuff to learn how we think when we’re making cathedrals out of words, but I also want to understand how we think when we’re making programs.

What’s that, you think that’s kind of a loopy idea? Well, sir, I have been trying to tell you all this time that it was a loop that got me into this mess. I’m telling you it’s what done overflowed that stack. And when that stack done overflowed, it caused a fatal error. I didn’t kill nothing, I promise. It just up and died all on its own.

You guess it was just it’s time? Yes, sir, I will agree with you on that.

I’m free to go? That’s very kind of you, but I have to tell you I’m a little afraid to go home. What if the stack has overflowed the computer and done spilled that code all over the house. Gosh almighty, it’s gonna be a heck of a mess.

[Speaking in Code]:

My (Re)Turn to Narrative

My first serious research project as a folklorist was an attempt to understand the constructed spaces of Urban Appalachians. I received a lot of nice attention for it, and Erika Brady, who was then editing _Southern Folklore_, shepherded it steadily through to publication. For my dissertation, however, I focused on a kind of sociolinguistic study or oral histories. My original plan had been to return to Louisiana to interview black and white men and women who had worked in the sugar cane industry. I was curious to see who remembered what and how. I couldn’t, at the time, afford the project, and I knew of no funding agency interested in such work.

I took the basic idea, however, and re-focused my efforts on a set of speech communities in Bloomington, Indiana. I had, thanks to a friend, come across a murder that had taken place in 1946 that had galvanized the town and thus had become a kind of legend among middle-aged speakers and, as I discovered, a reference point for older speakers. The project was interesting to me for a number of reasons:

* it took place among members of the Bloomington community who had no direct connection to the university itself, which as anyone who has visited the area knows, dominates the town in the present;
* the speech communities reflected by the individuals I found were not unified, but they were related in ways that I could objectively describe;
* the two speech communities, one black and one white, had been themselves cohesive in the past by all accounts, though they were in the present fragmented with the passing of various members;

While the murder was my starting point, I never really got around to a fine-grained analysis of the different accounts. For one, my ability as a white male researcher to access the full range of accounts was stymied by social stigmas experienced long ago but still painful in the present. That is, the older black men who would speak with me did not want to talk about the incident, pointing, indirectly through the other stories they told, to the racism that frightened them during the period. Older black women felt more free, sense the murder revealed sexual peccadilloes in the white community. Those peccadilloes constrained older white women in their discussion and were transformed into a rape scene by older white men.

Fascinating stuff, and I will write about it one day, but what grabbed my attention in the moment was the range of materials that I gathered that were not in the expected *discursive mode*.[^1] That is, all the literature about oral history and life stories focused on narrative, usually grand narratives of the kind one only encounters from avowed, and revered, tellers in a community.

And yet, and yet, as I listened to hours upon hours of tape on my Sony Walkman D3 (now fondly remembered), I found myself with a diverse collection of relatively small narratives and a whole lot of material which was decidedly not narrative in nature. Often it was what I came to call *oral exposition*, though I never really offered a thorough definition of that term. That is, I had a whole lot of discourse that, if it seemed narrative in nature, it was because the person was walking me through a neighborhood or landscape that had once existed and they used the walk as a way to tour a lost world. It is a highly effective technique, of course (and one I encourage interviewers to use as a kind of memory prompt) but the narratives that are produced are not really stories so much as geographies: “This was here. That was there.” in the form of “And then, if you kept on going down Third Street you’d get to old man McCullough’s store.”

The kind of analysis resulted in very discrete texts that were, I now understand, marked up:

> We can, however, make some distinctions between durations, sorting out lines and clauses by how long a situation lasted, allowing us, as Jean Ellis Robertson notes to determine “what durations events were that people recall in chronological order or else not recall as a chronology” (1983:47). Such a scheme might also reveal whether people recall events of a fairly short duration or enduring situations. Robertson suggests the following time-scale index:
> Table 3.1: Time-Scale (D=duration)
> D0 – Period of time lasting up to a minute
> D1 – Period of time greater than a minute and up to an hour
> D2 – Period of time greater than an hour and up to a day
> D3 – Period of time greater than a day and up to a week
> D4 – Period of time greater than a week and up to a month
> D5 – Period of time greater than a month and up to a year
> D6 – Period of time greater than a year and up to a decade
> D7 – Period of time greater than a decade
> If we return to assign the following values to each of the lines: our “first example where Hugh Goble describes his work as an excavator, we can assign the following values to each of the lines:

> (D7) He was in the excavating business,
> (D2) so he called me to come up and showed me the job.
> (D6) And we dug house basements.
> (D6) And that was when they were remodeling a lot filling stations,
> (D6) making them super service and that sort of thing,
> (D0) so I said, yeah, I’ll take it.
> (D6) So I worked there about two years and a half.
> (D2) And then we came back to Bloomington.
> (D6) At that time, my brother-in-law—
> he’s passed away—
> but at that time he owned a furniture store, United furniture.

At the time, I had no idea that people were writing about things like *TimeML*. I knew that some portion of sociolinguistics was interested in this kind of discourse analysis, but everything with which I was familiar was much more oriented toward making generalizations about particular kinds of performances or about particular kinds of groups or about particular kinds of performances within particular kinds of groups. But I was, and am, interested in something more like structuralism: how these texts are part of a generative model that might possibly be located in the human mind.

It’s taken me a decade, *D6* above, to discover geeks like me who delight in this kind of thing. (Again, my thanks to Tim Tangherlini.)

Of course, I have thoroughly enjoyed in geeking out with the guys who make the crawfish boats and all sorts of other machines and tools that do real work like food come out of the dirt, but I have also observed that the academic audience for such work is very small and the interstice is an awkward one.

The number of folklorists who are interested in material culture studies has always been something you could count on two hands — at peak moments of when you also counted graduate students, you might need to take your sock and shoes off. It has been great to discover the history of technology, and I was delighted by the reception I encountered when I attended the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology, but there the interest in things agricultural and also regional meant a lack of sexiness that I had already felt at the annual meetings of the American Folklore Society. I could carp about this all I want, but it’s not going to change anything. Folklore studies and anthropology have continued to drift apart, which means that academic folklorists in AFS are increasingly housed in the departments of literature and/or languages. They are going to be more interested in texts than in things.

More importantly, the number of folklore jobs will always be limited and occasional. The number of jobs for people doing textual studies is larger, and the number of jobs for those interested in doing so “digitally” is enjoying some prominence now. As the saying goes — and I’m a folklorist so I gotta go with the proverb: *carpe diem*.

So I love the boats, and I love the guys who make them. And I hope the door that it opens onto human creativity is as interesting to readers of the book as it has been to me to write, but it will be the last of that work for a while for me. As my editor generously offered when I last saw him at the annual meeting of AFS in New Orleans: material culture is hard to write about and do it well. It’s been incredibly difficult to balance spending time with my family, attending to the non-stop parade of inanities my university produces, and to maintain a steady stream of fieldwork experiences that I then transform into useful texts that I can then review and fold into a scholarly script.

I’m not saying text studies are easier, but I am ready to spend some time with data that is already at hand and let’s me focus on analytical models and possible connections with colleagues near and far.

[^1]: I prefer *discursive mode* to David Herman’s *text types*. Mode, I think, reflects the generative nature of discourse itself: clauses get strung together, and hang together *qua* texts, through different structuring principles: narrative, locative, descriptive, etc. I’ll have more to say about this in the next few months, as I wrap up work on the boat book and turn to the narrative project/possible book which is tentatively titled _Everything Is Not a Story_.