Beluga Whales, Facebook & Egypt


Recently at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, we saw beluga whales–beautiful, graceful, snow-white swimmers.  The wall plaque explains that they use echolocation.  In other words, they see with sound. They send sounds from a focal point in their head–the name for this point I forget– then they listen to echoes entering through their jaw.  In this way, says the plaque, they learn about objects that surround them.

Isn’t this what writers do?  We send out sounds, while listening for echoes that bounce back from our environment?  Camus says that art exists only in this relationship; without it, we have made something other than  art.  Art, like us–or because of us–is essentially social, Camus claims.  I tend to agree.

These reflections remind me of the book I am reading, Revolution 2.0–a memoir by a young Egyptian, Wael Ghonim.  He explains how the movement opposed to Mubarak’s regime used facebook to build support.  Most interesting to me at the moment is the incremental way his (anonymously administered) facebook page built its membership.  With previous marketing experience, he strategically sent out sounds to other young people who had had enough of brutal authoritarian rule in their country.  In the early days, his page had 100,000 members, seventy percent of whom were under age twenty-four.  The echoes returning from his posts, in the form of tens of thousands of “likes” and comments  per day, taught him about the political environment.  Formerly inactive students slowly built confidence that their voices were being heard and that their ideas mattered.

Finally, I am reminded–again–of one of Whitman’s poems that continues to resonate with me.  Here it is–because it seems to touch on the beluga’s echolocation and Mr. Ghonim’s experience:


A noiseless patient spider,

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

postscript 1. Artists see and forge connections; that’s what they do.  The threads of this post remind me of  the napkin game I learned from friends during our days in Buffalo, NY.  While waiting for our dinner at a restaurant, Susie drew three lines on a paper napkin.  The person sitting on her right had sixty seconds to draw something that connected these three lines.  Though I do not remember the line set-ups or complementary renderings, I recall the game.  This game represents something that artists do well–they see connections, and, if hard to see, the artists forge them.  I think novels satisfy me partly for this reason.  The last one I read, for instance, John Wray’s Canaan’s Tongue, threads together several aspects of American culture–by weaving a fictional tapestry around a gang of slave traders in 1863 Louisiana who are led by the historical person known, in Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, as “The Redeemer.”  Imaginative fiction, especially longer work like a novel, makes connections by creating an entire world of characters.  Through the process of composing these worlds, the writer finds and reveals connections among threads we might not have discovered by ourselves.  

postscript 2. As a teacher, I feel a bit like the beluga whale.  I use echolocation to learn about students’ spirits, which, in turn, helps me help them.  I  help educ-ate students (lead them out–of themselves), as I learn more about who they are and what they care about.  Assignments and exercises send  sounds, and my assessment reads the echoes.

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