C Rock

crock The cracked light turquoise paint clings to the gneiss on the Bronx side of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, forming the canvas for a stenciled C, a character cloud with a silver lining representing Columbia University. I can report with some small relief that elite rowers are in short supply on a cold February afternoon. But the Amtrak trains that roll across the bridge to the west of the Henry Hudson can be seen emerging on the Bronx side and disappearing behind the Big C. While the rock itself has defiantly exacted fissures through serious chunks of this not-quite-elliptical letter, the paint sits truer near the stems. And you can walk a good hard slog through Inwood Hill Park, slipping on the presently icy trails under the Henry Hudson Bridge leading southwest to Dyckman Street, and not know a damn thing about how the C came to be. You’ll run into friendly geese, with their sinuous necks jutting as slow and methodical and as graceful as their struts, and encounter a number of maps displaying city department propaganda about all the forest preservation going on. But what of the origins of C Rock itself? Nothing. An unknown letter defying history, standing some sixty feet tall but somehow still managing to upstage the large chunks of ice now breaking in the water.

It is commonly understood that a rowing team from Columbia University painted the rock out of school pride. Bill Twomey’s The Bronx suggests an alternate theory: that the rock was painted by engineering students from Columbia and the blue paint was purchased by George Younkheere (along with brushes and rope). In 1994, the New York Times reported that the peninsula was destroyed sometime in 1937 to widen the Harlem River Ship Canal, where the C was later painted. The Times also helpfully informs us that the paint is replenished every few years by Columbia crews. But who? And what authority determines how frequently the rock must be painted? Another Times article four years later informs us that the rock was painted by oarsman in 1955, with then Columbia assistant director of athletics Brian Bodine claiming that the work was done with team members suspended from boatswain’s chairs. But was Bodine there? And how does he know exactly? Are there pictures of the initial rock painting that Columbia is sitting on? (The latter Times article also informs us that there was a touch-up job in 1986. But from my observation, it appeared that the C had been painted a little more recently, perhaps at the stems.)

These shifting details still don’t answer the precise origins of the C, and it may be because the C is perhaps one of New York’s largest items of graffiti. The rock is referred to in some quarters as Geronimo, and there are apparently two physical activities associated with the rock. The first supports the Apache reference transformed into triumphant cry: giddy souls sometimes leap from the top into the creek. The second is reminiscent of that silly climactic scene from the film Gattaca: swim across the creek and back and prove your athletic prowess (and presumably your manhood). The site Inwoodlite claims that C Rock was established on a racist note, but is too diffident to share this with us. It is also known that a Lenape settlement was once situated at the top of the rock. This likewise suggests a clash between civilizations, but perhaps not the kind that the Lenapes would be aware of during their residency.

What’s fascinating is that there haven’t been any legal challenges to the rock. The C was painted and it has endured, quietly endorsed by the Inwood neighborhood and the Bronx dwellers living above the rock. Perhaps it is too unwieldy to rub out. Columbia is understood to have marked its turf on a rock cut by workers, leaving one to wonder whether some ambitious taggers might establish an A Rock and a B Rock somewhere along the Harlem River to ensure an alphabetical symmetry. This will probably not happen. They’ve cracked down on graffiti in the five boroughs, and Ivy Leaguers, it seems, are the only one afforded immunity and a natural canvas. The rest evade bulls and whip out cans and try tagging cars at the ends of subway lines, but their screeds and illustrations, however crude, are washed away to avoid permanence. No such fate for Columbia, whose C may very well be cruder and bolder than the output of today’s taggers.

(Photo credit: jag9889.)

Sven Birkerts and the Frightening Fitzroya

Being wrong is wonderful! It’s a bit like accidentally walking into a fitzroya and suddenly realizing that there’s this large evergreen that you didn’t know about. Suddenly, you’re forced to alter your existence to account for the fitzroya. And when you ponder the fitzroya a bit — as Darwin did, dutifully naming it in honor of the HMS Beagle’s captain — you begin asking a few questions. How did the tree get there? Why does it have such a mammoth diameter? And how can all this be used in tandem with other shards of understanding?

I suspect that Sven Birkerts is a man terrified of the fitzroya.

On Friday afternoon, I entered a Columbia University classroom. Birkerts had come into town for a debate with Jenny Davidson, moderated by Andrew Delbanco, styled Blogging: Good or Bad for Literary Culture? “I can’t tell if we’re positioned at odds,” whispered Birkerts to Davidson before the proceedings started, a foreshadowing of the stalemate to come.

The audience was composed of approximately twenty-five nimble-minded students, many of whom offered interesting inquiries. I felt a tad displaced wearing my The Brain That Wouldn’t Die t-shirt, but sitting in the front row with this sartorial choice seemed the right thing to do. As one of the “reputedly intelligent” figures mentioned in Birkerts’s 2007 Boston Globe article, I thought I’d see what this reputedly intelligent man had to say. After all, our man Sven had called the litblogosphere “too fluid in its nature ever to focus on widely diverging cultural energies” and railed against us being “predatory on print.” (Never mind that Birkerts, as a literary critic, is likewise predatory on print whenever he writes an essay concerning books.)

It should be self-evident by now that I find the idea of one form of writing deemed inferior solely on the basis of appearing in a different medium — whether it be a blog, a hypertext novel, or what not — to be an utterly ridiculous tautology. Sven Birkerts, I’m afraid to report, is a man who specializes in tautologies. This is not to suggest that he isn’t a smart man. Nor is he entirely against blogs. But he is certainly a weary man, a self-described “gradually graying book reviewer with several decades in the trenches.”

He opened his remarks by reading thoughts from a slightly crumpled piece of paper, hoping that in tossing around cerebral softballs, he could perform some off-the-cuff binomial expansion. Here were some of his phrases:

“A whole new paradigm of transmission.”

“We bring forward a technology. It begins to fashion and inform us.”

“Like the car, it has conditioned us and bent us to its shape.”

“The size an scope of an idea. Within the book, ideas formed in certain ways. Exigencies on the thinking life.”

“Notions of authority and gatekeeping and accountability.”

“The technology intricately bound to our mentality. All of the premises associated that will change.”

“One specific development within a very large, vastly distributed tendency fueled by the possibilities of the Internet.”

“Eroding the notion of the single subjective author as the locus of authority.”

“Organization now lateral and associative based on the link.”

“Loss of centralized top-down structure.”

And so on. Birkerts was much better speaking off the cuff. But one sees within this shaky torrent of phrases the main problem with Birkerts’s position. His complaints are centered exclusively around his own perceptive hang-ups. He did not cite any specific examples to justify his line of thinking. I pointed out to him that his gripes were primarily perceptive and conceptual, and he seemed to agree. Birkerts’s position was further parroted by Delbanco, who expressed a mild sense of terror at participating in a Slate roundtable because this involved sending his thoughts off into the ether. He was, however, slightly more open-minded than Birkerts. Slightly. Delbanco’s terror also equated to being unfamiliar with the form. It struck me that writers over a century ago must have had the same fear of the Remington typewriter that these guys have of the Internet today.

By far, the most reasonable participant was Davidson, who advocated blogging, but pointed out that blogging could not directly replace newspaper criticism. She pointed to both the constraints of word count within newspapers, and simultaneously observed that there were certain advantages of concision within the short-format blog post. She pointed to Caleb Crain’s behind-the-scenes approach to blogging, Colleen Mondor‘s well-rounded perspective, and numerous other blogs. She pointed to certain advantages to the blog form, including the ability to quote more of a textual example — something that newspapers were increasingly not in the habit of doing. I did hope that Davidson would be a little more contrarian about blogging. But unlike Birkerts, she had solid examples for her position. Birkerts, by contrast, essentially parroted the same stolid points over and over again, sounding very much like a broken 78.

I do not believe Birkerts to be an entirely inflexible intellect. He did address my line of questioning, which, in Birkerts’s defense, involved excessively effusive delivery on my part. But he did appear quite bored to be sitting in a Columbia classroom. When I came up to him afterwards, he wanted to get the hell away from me as quickly as possible. But I gave him my card.

It has become evident that the biggest problem with this “debate” is the surfeit of stubborn souls unwilling to consider the alternative form, whether it’s the blogger who refuses to consider the virtues of editing or thinking through his post a bit or the print advocate so terrified of anarchic fun that he cannot find it within himself to trust his instinct from time to time. I’d like to think that this can be bridged. But in the meantime, where does this leave the wondrous fitzroya?

(For another take on the talk, go here.)