Editor's Column

Keepin' On

by John Kilgore


wish I could tile my kitchen, a job I have been putting off for years, as easily as the computer lets me tile the background of this hasty editor's column.
Squint, and you'll see the ghost of the black bear I photographed in June at the Exit Glacier in Alaska, now transubstantiated via Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver. The jury is still out on whether computers, in the largest sense, the final cosmic sense, will be a blessing or a curse. But I know already that they are an addiction.

The endorsement of the online concept for Agora, in the poll we took in May, was clear but not unequivocal. Admitting the advantages of a permanent archive, greatly increased visibility, worldwide distribution of a sort, and vastly increased space, our respondents nonetheless admitted a nostalgic pang or two for the little booklet that used to be so much fun to hold in the hand. The larger forum is perforce a more impersonal one, and a few people thought they might not be quite as unconstrained in reporting personal news; and several noted that they would now have to be a bit careful about what they submitted, as many journals will consider an appearance here as first publication.

Look over to the left margin, though, and you will see why I find the glass considerably more than half full. There is a real feast spread there—considerably more work than we could have presented in hard copy, more fully illustrated, in a larger font. And what work it is! Thoughtful, informed, challenging, amusing, and touching, the collection speaks very, very well of us, shows us as a Department committed (madly no doubt), to affirming the value of what we do not just as students but as enthusiastic practitioners. Don't take my word for it: quit reading this and start clicking!

. . . But for those few hopelessly linear souls who are still with me, I would suggest a cheery technocratic solution (reductive, of course) to at least part of the oft-mentioned problem of reading comfortably at the screen. From the toolbar that is (probably) displayed at the top of your screen, choose "View" and then "Full Screen." This should substantially increase the area devoted to soothing text rather than blocky displays crammed with mystifying logos. If your "Favorites" are displayed over to the left, you can also get rid of them by clicking on the appropriate logo, a manila folder with a sort of Zuni-sun-symbol thingy on it. And now if you're feeling really intrepid, you can get rid of the last toolbar at the top by choosing "View—Toolbars—Auto-Hide."

If you now find yourself terrified, put the cursor up at the top of the screen: the toolbar will come back, and you can undo everything we just did by following the reverse sequence. If not, I'm out of town indefinitely. Call Ray Watkins.

Kit Stokes, who retired from the English Department in 1992, once told me, "Nature has tried intelligence. It doesn't work very well. Size worked much better for the dinosaurs: they lasted seventy million years." Then and now, the remark strikes me not just as funny but as marvelously apt, pinning down the peculiar dilemmas we face as a species, as historical beings, as inheritors of the Industrial Revolution, as inhabitants of a crowded and unquiet planet. Intelligence may have been a very bad idea; but by golly we are stuck with it, and now what can we do but use it? Hanging in the trees all day is no longer an option; you have to ride the tiger of culture, of history, of progress, wherever it may be taking you.

So on we go, willing or not, and we might as well enjoy the ride. The evidence increases every day that the thing we have long considered definitively human—our grossly excessive brainpower—will prove our undoing at last, through some kind of techological Armageddon. Every increase in power over Nature brings with it commensurate risks, and finally apocalypse looks like an actuarial certainty. I like to think that the end will come, not when some hate-filled punk detonates the Doomsday machine he has cooked up in his garage, but more or less innocently, when a strain of bio-engineered corn (say) turns predatory and strangles us all in our sleep. But come it will.

In the meantime, I am enjoying the Faustian fruits of progress, culture, civilization: health, prosperity, a great job, and at least two decades of life that Nature by itself would never have granted me. The bothersome bifocals through which I stare as I try to figure out this computer. Maybe it all really is a mistake. But if so it was made a long time ago, and the Luddites have never had an answer. Even at the worst, with the end clearly in sight, you discover what became clear to the band on the sloping deck of the Titanic: the cheeriest course is to keep on playing while you can.

Anyway our own ship is still a long way from sinking, our own tune far from over. Whatever it is we are doing, exactly, in the university—this bastion of culture and reflection, this shrine to a vast evolutionary blunder— it adds significantly both to our practical welfare in the short term, and to the verve and pleasure and meaning of the lives we live while we wait for the asteroid. I didn't plan it this way, but as it happens I am finally getting this issue together on September 11. Like everyone, I have wondered just what to do to observe the day. What do you do, what can you do, in the face of all those deaths, all that hatred, all that love, all that courage, all that suffering?

One answer is: you can just carry on.

Welcome back, everyone, and enjoy the issue. Thanks as always to Stuart Balcomb, my mentor and friend, for technical help, to Christy Kilgore-Hadley for ditto, and to all the contributors.


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