Use of a noun as a verb creates measurable surge in reader’s brain

Emily Dickinson was an avid reader of Shakespeare and took similar liberties with English grammar, as when she coins ‘perfectness’ to convey a uniqueness too intractable for standard ‘perfection.’ In that poem on the impossibility of objective perception (‘Perception and Object costs’) she transforms the passive voice of the verb ‘is situated’ into an ungrammatical active form, ‘situates.’ Each transformation has its rationale. ‘Situates’, like ‘perfectness’, conveys a wilful distance from definition—a disruptive energy crucial to her art. It turns the noun to a verb. Research on Shakespeare’s grammar, in particular his use of a noun as a verb (say, ‘foots it’ for dance), has demonstrated a measurable surge in the brain of his reader or audience. This research is still at an early stage, but one idea is that nouns and verbs may be processed in different regions of our brains, which means that when the usual connection is challenged a new pathway opens up. A ‘surge’ in the brain registers on an electro-encephalogram one six-hundreth of a second after we hear a novelty of transformed grammar.

This surge is said to be a kind of syncopation. In jazz, the jolt of syncopation interrupts the glide of musical pathways. This rhythm, as vital to jazz as to Dickinson’s start-stop lines, has made her appealing to composers, from John Adam’s Harmonium with its marvellously objective choral treatment of ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, to pop stars who adapt her lines. The British pop star Pete Doherty, interviewed on his release from prison in 2006, owned to selling a copy of Dickinson from his Bedford school (as well as a copy of Crime and Punishment from Her Majesty’s Prison library).

‘Actually, I nicked one or two of [Dickinson’s] lines,’ he whispered, sipping a Guinness in London’s Boogaloo bar. ‘Aargh, she’s outrageous man! She’s fuckin’ hardcore! Can’t ignore her.’

What did he pinch?

‘I took one Draught of Life, paid only the market price,’ he quoted. ‘I added, “now I’m estranged”.’ He delivered each word with a point in the air, like an invisible karaoke ball. ‘Bom bom bom bom bom bom.’ He saw his present-day life—estranged, imprisoned, finding solace in words—in what Dickinson had to tell of her time in 1862:

I took one Draught of Life—

I’ll tell you what I paid—

Precisely an existence—

The market price, they said…

Curiously, Doherty expresses a Dickinsonian aversion to public eyes. To perform in public is a nightmare, like war, ‘but to sit down and write in solitude is like a dream.’

Lives Like Loaded Guns, Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon.

fucked yes and damn well fucked too up my neck

Ill put on my best shift and drawers let him have a good eyeful out of that to make his micky stand for him Ill let him know if thats what he wanted that his wife is fucked yes and damn well fucked too up my neck nearly not by him 5 or 6 times handrunning theres the mark of his spunk on the clean sheet I wouldnt bother to even iron it out that ought to satisfy him if you dont believe me feel my belly unless I made him stand there and put him into me Ive a mind to tell him every scrap and make him do it out in front of me serve him right its all his own fault if I am an adultress

—from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, Ulysses, by James Joyce (1922).

A plastic palimpsest: Judge Woolsey’s judgement on Ulysses

James_Joyce_Time_magazineJoyce has attempted—it seems to me, with astonishing success—to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on , not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.

In may places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers … when such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middles class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?

—Judge Woolsey, The United States of America v. One Book Called “Ulysses.”

I have nothing but praise for Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.

I have nothing but praise for Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. I was inspired to read it after watching Laura Poitras’s unsettling documentary about the Snowden leaks, Citizenfour, in which Greenwald features prominently. Given the amount of media attention the subject has attracted you might be forgiven for thinking there is nothing more to learn. There is. What has not been fully explored in the media is the vast scale of the surveillance program conducted by the NSA and its partners in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. The primary purpose of the surveillance is summed up best by former NSA chief Keith B. Alexander’s phrase, “collect it all.” One the quantity of data collected Greenwald writes:

The quantity of telephone calls, emails, online chats, online activites, and telephonic metadata collected by the agency is staggering. Indeed, the NSA frequently, as one 2012 document put it, “collects far more content than is routinely useful to analysts.” As of mid-2012, the agency was processing more than twenty billion communication events (both Internet and telephone) from around the world each day. [Greenwald’s italics]

While the amount of data collected is vast, what is astounding is that this vast depository of data has been of little use in the prevention of terrorism. Greenwald, cites an article from the Washington Post, from December 2013, on the NSA’s phone metadata collection. According to a federal judge, “the Justice Department failed to cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk data collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.”

It’s strange to think of it now, but the Post Office Department was a major federal law enforcement agency

It’s strange to think of it now, but the Post Office Department was a major federal law enforcement agency. On the eve of World War I, the FBI (then called the Bureau of Investigation) was a fledgling subsidiary of the Justice Department. When the Espionage Act was signed in 1917, there were only three hundred Bureau of Investigation agents, and the Secret Service had only eleven counterespionage agents in New York. But the Post Office (an executive branch department in those days) was well established. It had 300,000 employees, including 422 inspectors and 56,000 postmasters overseeing the circulation of fourteen billion pieces of mail every year. The Post Office reached the far corners of the country, and it had been that way for decades. Long before there were highways and telephones there were postal roads and mail couriers. Small towns had post offices before they had cemeteries.

So when the United States entered World War I and the government wanted to censor dangerous words with a nationwide mechanism that had a long history of constitutional authority, it turned to the Post Office. The government gained the power to censor words by mastering the ability to circulate them, and warfare—the other foundation of big government— justified more censorship. This was how the government found James Joyce. The censorship of Ulysses began not because vigilantes were searching for pornography but because censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists.

The growth of the federal government is largely the story of the growth of the Post Office, and a powerful Post Office was the cornerstone of the U.S. censorship regime. Since its establishment in 1782, the Post Office had a legal monopoly over mail circulation, but the government didn’t exercise that power until 1844, when Congress declared that the system’s purpose was “elevating our people in the scale of civilization and bringing them together in patriotic affection.”Out of a diverse population sprawling across the continent, the mail would make Americans. The policy began a half-century expansion during which the Post Office build roads, slashed postage rates and stiffened penalties for private carriers violating the government’s monopoly. From 1845 to 1890, mail volume increased one hundred times over.

The Post Office garnered most of its strength by slashing postal rates. In 1844, it charged twenty-five cents to carry a letter four hundred miles, and if the letter had two sheets, the postage doubled (envelopes counted as another sheet). Seven years later, that same letter could be delivered nearly across the continent for only three cents. Newspapers and magazines enjoyed reduced rates since before the days of Ben Franklin, and yet periodical postage also plummeted. By 1879, newspapers and magazines were grouped as “second-class mail” and delivered anywhere for two cents per pound. If the recipient lived in the same county as the sender, delivery was free. Rates didn’t hit rock bottom until 1885, when periodicals were delivered anywhere in the country for one cent per pound, and it remained that way until 1918.

World War I dramatically expanded postage censorship. Postmaster General Albert Burleson claimed the Espionage Act gave him the authority to judge mailed material without court approval or congressional oversight. When Congress asked Burleson to disclose his surveillance instructions to the nation’s postmasters, he simply refused. The Post Office decided who broke the law, who deserved the rate increases or outright bans and deserved criminal prosecution. Burleson was a man to be reckoned with. He wore a black coat to match the black umbrella he carried at all times, and one of the president’s advisers called him “the most belligerent member of the cabinet,” which was saying a lot in 1918. He once complained about a socialist newspaper’s “insidious attempt to keep within the letter of the law.”

The most dangerous book: the battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham (pp 109-110) (The Penguin Press, 2014).