Ballicatter Defined

Origin of the Term 'Ballicatter'

'Ballicatter' is another name for ice floes. Many alternative spellings are used to represent phonetically this term that, owing to its origins in the Newfoundland and Labrador oral tradition, is pronounced variably around the province.

Ice floes are small pans of ice - floating, unstable fragments that were once part of a larger sheet. Whereas it is generally safe to walk or stand on ice when it maintains its integrity as a great sheet, to walk on a pan of ice can be perilous. The practise developed for crossing these dangerous ice pans came to be called 'copying.' As a single pan cannot normally support the whole weight of person, it is necessary to distribute one's weight over several. This is achieved by running swiftly across the pans, or 'copying' them.

It can be quite dangerous to copy ice floes, and the lives of sealers at work and children at play have been lost. To help one to maintain one's balance, a long pole with a hook on the end, called a gaff , was often used. Originally a fishing artifice, the gaff was borrowed for and given a new function to facilitate this novel practise of copying.

The Need for Ballicatter

The Ballicatter website developed in response to popular accounts of politics in Canada and the United States, found mostly in print and on television. The Internet provides opportunities for political thought and writing that might be deemed unpopular by larger or more influential news-generating/reporting agencies. Ballicatter is a site for the exploration of such opportunities.

Yet Ballicatter does not present itself as an alternative to what could be named, perhaps problematically, 'mainstream' media. Given its obvious roots in other media, Ballicatter may well share too much in common with them, despite the publishers' intention to create some distance. For the sake of critical prudence, we must postpone final comment on Ballicatter's nature. But it must be admitted that my own desire to undertake this project was sparked, at least in part, by my frustration with certain newspapers and newscasts. Private discussions about political matters were also an important motivator.

How much is revealed about me and how much about the media by my emotional reactions remains a question. Since the earliest period of this project's incubation, though, I have thought that Canadians do not challenge themselves in their political discussions. The familiar confrontation of fixed positions generates cynicism - when it does not alienate us or appropriate us to its own ends. Those of us who stand to gain or suffer most by decisions made during these battles do not actively partake in the conversation, nor are we able to determine the form of expression in which our most precious truths might come to be articulated . This is perhaps to overstate the case, for we do sometimes talk politics in this country. But how often do we reflect on the semantic ranges of the terms we use? I think there is good reason to wonder about the meaning of the terms 'conservative' and 'liberal,' for instance, and even to question their value for us. Does the use of these terms encourage or stifle thought about either a specific issue or political matters generally?

The (Floating) Philosophical Foundation of Ballicatter

The original objective for Ballicatter was to free up a new vocabulary with which to assess, and in which to express ideas about, political matters. We were to begin a new discourse in isolation. But is isolation possible? There arose the problem of ensuring that such a discourse would not simply be a derivative of the larger discourse. It was conceivable that through this experiment we might simply deceive and satisfy ourselves with the mere impression of a special penetration into political matters.

I do not know that this danger can be warded off in advance, if ever at all. But our first attempt involved a crude phenomenology of media, from which we drew some tentative conclusions about the kinds of images, words, and phrases that seem to inhibit deeper political thought and analysis. A master list of terms to be censored from Ballicatter was in the works. The very term 'censorship' presents an interesting case - a term that is bound to get backs up, and often for good reason. We intended to have artists and thinkers of all kinds do some work for submission while intentionally avoiding certain terms and images; that is, we had no interest in blocking or editing submissions to the web site after their submission. Instead, by publicizing the list of banned terms and images, we intended to keep them in the mind of the site's visitor, such that they could stand as a backdrop against which to observe political discussions that intentionally avoid mention of them, if not reference to them.

Although I am comfortable with these basic parameters and with the critical function of limits in stimulating creativity, I have philosophical doubts about the possibility of giving birth to a wholly novel discourse of politics. I am inclined now to believe our first concerns were warranted, that the danger of reinforcing the very discourse to which one objects actually grows as one attempts to resist it. In this case, for example, a discussion in which we intentionally avoid explicit use of the term 'conservative' might come naturally to orient itself around that very term. By deciding not to speak about a, b, and c, we would be directing our conversation with reference to them, preserving a relation to them. Given the power of those terms - the power we seek to nullify - there would be a great danger that they would continue to determine our discourse.

This challenge - the same faced by slaves and exiles throughout history, as they sought to redirect the power under or from which they suffered - might leave us feeling even more politically impotent than before. But there is reason to have some faith that change can take place subtly, over time, such that even if a, b, and c have power over our new words today, that power may gradually be diminishing. Moreover, in the very refusal of a, b, and c to disappear from our discourse, there is an important lesson.

The lesson, briefly, is that we may be able to learn a great deal about ' a ' by refusing to speak of it, and instead speaking very busily around it while keeping it in mind . In other words, there is a conspicuous absence that comes to have a very powerful presence under certain conditions. I have long been of the opinion that a well-chosen title exerts great influence over the range of differences it claims to integrate. We can learn about the relation between politics and love, for instance, by titling an issue " Politics and Love, " and then asking artists and readers to operate in the shadow of this title.

That itself is an opportunity for us. But in the grander picture, we might perhaps seize another opportunity by refusing to dismiss or ignore those mainstream media. Instead we might return to consider them in the light of our own explorations about, for example, what is conservative . This is nothing new - scholars do this quite regularly - though it is absurd to think that we can arm ourselves perfectly against the influence of such political instruments as television news. So long as we watch it, we are bound to change in relation to it. But to demonize the media is irrational, to suggest that it has no value simply wrong-headed, and to presuppose that we cannot make use of it in our attempt to become more engaged political agents cowardly.

Rather than develop a master list of terms to be avoided, as though to insulate ourselves from mainstream media or build a discourse in which we could live independently of their activity, we have decided to choose each month, in accordance with the title selected, a small set of terms to be avoided for that edition only . For each new edition, a new set of terms will be blocked, while formerly blocked terms become available again for use.

Logic of Ballicatter

Having defended a claim about the power of naming, I must now offer a word or two about the decision to name the site after ice floes.

The first thing of note about Ballicatter is that it is by definition fragmentary and fragile. Any unit of expression, be it a poem, photograph, or proposition, is likely to share with Ballicatter a fragmentary and fragile being. The discontinuity among the submissions assures them Ballicatter-like existence on the surface of the website. The size of a submission is limited, further to ensure this fragmentary quality; unsolicited essays exceeding five hundred words will not be accepted. To destabilize the submissions, to set them adrift, we have deemed it necessary to remove from them the support of certain terms and images. We hope thus to render the submissions appropriately fragmentary.

More importantly, however, Ballicatter is meaningless to us if considered independently of action. Ice pans that would seem naturally to be inhospitable to human beings can become the site of life-sustaining activity - of work and play - though the conversion of this non-place into a place requires a brave and crazy act, a running over the abyss, a copying. The act to be carried out on Ballicatter takes place several weeks after the publication of the fragments. The act of copying the pans will be performed by a single individual, a single agent, whose objective it will be to integrate the pans. A new copier will be chosen each month, and his/her objectives will be to perform this integration and offer a direction for the following edition. That is, s/he will choose a title and a tentative list of terms and images to be blocked from that next edition. The person who presents him/herself as a potential copier must demonstrate that s/he does not come to the site empty-handed: a gaff of some kind must be possessed.

We have a difficulty. The fragility of the analogy that grounds this site's being becomes obvious. We must be courageous enough to deal with the threat of its collapse and to recognize the opportunities afforded by weakness. What separates this kind of copying from that carried out over true pans of ice is that the failure of the latter is visible, an obvious falling-in. While I would defend the claim that it is within our power as observers to judge whether a particular act of copying on the website actually succeeds, acute powers of perception are required. To encourage a critical spirit, we designate a third moment in the process.

The third moment is one of reflection by the site's visitors about the integrating act, the copying, or about any of the submitted pieces.

Critical comments, like the rest of the website, will be monitored by Ballicatter's publishers. As the publishers are responsible for the maintenance of the site, they will reserve judgement about the content of the site. Submissions and responses will be accepted or rejected; they will not be altered. If after careful consideration the publishers find something objectionable in a submission, a justification on the part of the contributor may be solicited. Should the contributor's defense of his choice of material or form be deemed acceptable by the editors, the piece will be included. Otherwise, it will be rejected, and the publishers' reason for rejection will be published. Contributions, once received, cannot be revised for publication except in rare cases, and then only if there is an explicit error of a typographical or similar nature. These measures are in place to protect the integrity of the contributor's original act, and to deny the publishers any extra creative function.

While artists, where here we mean to include anyone who produces, cannot be expected to provide a final word on their art (nor even an enlightened position with regard to the meaning of their work), they need not therefore be silent as critics of their own work. For though it is one thing to produce a work, in private, as an artist, the decision to offer the work to the world is the decision not of the human qua artist, but of the human qua social agent . It is to this latter that the publishers appeal when concerns about the value of a submitted piece arise, and it is expected that agents, among them those who sometimes act as publishers or artists, can stand and speak for themselves and their judgements.

Responsible for Ballicatter

Several people are responsible for the existence of Ballicatter. These are my acknowledgements, but I cannot claim to be the sole parent or guardian of this creation.

At Memorial University of Newfoundland, in the winter of 2000, Dr. John A. Scott directed a seminar course in which he skipped across the works of Martin Heidegger, steadying and directing himself all the while with his knowledge of Plato and Aristotle. While discussing Aristotle on the nature of act and Plato on the nature of mimesis (imitation), Scott noted how remarkable it was that the practise of running across ice pans in Newfoundland had come to be called copying. Since then, he and I have spoken often about the fragility of language (and of the power that such fragility can afford). Though he has had no direct hand in the development of this site (and therefore cannot be held accountable for any slips on my part), John Scott must be credited with a large role in the conception of Ballicatter.

Paul Sweeney and I studied philosophy together at Memorial from 1996-2003, and Sweeney got a pebble in his boot about language and politics before I did. We began the planning of this project in 2001, and worked out together some of the key philosophical problems associated with this naive undertaking. It was through conversation with Sweeney, and also with Virginia Ryan, director of the Writing Centre at Memorial, that I decided what kind of a chance I wanted to take with this site.

Aside from sharing with me his endlessly challenging ideas about politics and offering suggestions for the site, Sean Ryan has put in some hard hours of editing work, catching me again and again as I fail in my effort to say whatever it is I mean. He has received no compensation for his hours of labour, but he very much deserves this nod in his direction.

Ballicatter has been delivered by Stacy Pawlowich. It was my extraordinary fortune to cross paths with Stacy in Calgary, during my first real leap across this nation in 1999. He is wholly responsible for the design and construction of the site, and he has dedicated countless hours to the development of an idea that resonates with his own artistic vision.

Montreal, Quebec
October 26, 2003