sound culture

Post ALA Panel Notes: Ronald Johnson's Formal, Transgeneric, and Multimedia Innovations by James belflower

For the American Literature Association’s 2019 conference, Mark Scroggins organized a panel of wonderful papers that explored Johnson’s monumentalizing urge, gastrophilosophy, and sound art. It was a privilege presenting with…

  • Sally Connolly: “Formal Innovation and Ergodic Invitation in Ronald Johnson’s ‘Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid: In Memoriam AIDS’.”

  • Devin King: “The Invisible Spire: Ronald Johnson’s ARK 38 and Bay Area Radio Drama.”

The excellent panel presentations helped me decide to start the book I’ve been toying with, a study of Ronald Johnson’s gastrophilosophy. My panel paper explored taste at the bookends of his publishing career, from his first book of poetry, A Line of Poetry a Row of Trees (1967) to his most comprehensive cookbook, The American Table: More Than 400 Recipes That Make Accessible for the First Time the Full Richness of American Regional Cooking. There is so much more, however, mixed throughout his oeuvre. His monument at the beginning of ARK to the Native staple “Bison Bison Bison,” his comparison of the brain to an orange, a critique of Columbus’s misunderstanding of the variegation of Native Corn, a taste of Thoreau’s “Wild Apples,” and a taste of William Bartram’s bitter orange salad dressings. I’ll explore all of these and more. I’ll let you know when the book is out!

L to R: James, Nathan, Devin, Mark. Disclaimer: The Bukowski Bar choice was not based on the quality of his poetry but of the beer list.

L to R: James, Nathan, Devin, Mark. Disclaimer: The Bukowski Bar choice was not based on the quality of his poetry but of the beer list.

Birds Wheeling Flick Audibility by James belflower

For me, lines of bird flight are always audible. Birds wheeling flick the quick wisps of the conductor's baton tip into the blue, they curve shimmering notes up over the top staff line, or they bend like a light arc flickering through a lens pointed into the sun. But even more than resonating with other phenomenon, bird murmurs draw me into that moment of alien self-organization where I am confronted with confluences completely outside myself. Jane Bennett calls minor experiences like this enchanting and argues that they can remind us how wonder reorients our perception toward less habituated modes of experience. What I enjoy in enchantment is that although I associate the organized kinesis of the bird's swooping with musical expressiveness, the fact that birds understand what constitutes music differently than we do means that this expression is not reducible to a culturally legible melody or form. In short, bird murmurs remind me that there is always a pressure on the cultural conditioning my hearing and vision emerge through. I find this pleasure enchanting. 


Bennett, Jane. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001.