Honors Conference Ideas

April 9th, 2011

Desmond Zantua
English 399
Professor Buell
Honors Conference

Thesis summary: In my paper, I studied attempts at resisting the dependency on technology and society of modernization in Thoreau’s Walden and both the novel (written by Jon Krakauer) and film (directed by Sean Penn) versions of Into the Wild. Both Thoreau’s and Christopher McCandless’s departure/deviation from the constructed modern world are born out of philosophical, ethical, and intellectual agreements with much of society following modernization and increasing technological advancements starting with the industrial revolution. I focus on how both, even in their dispositions to the technologically-influenced world, incorporate technologies, both in terms of man’s inherent mental faculties as well as actual devices, to help them achieve these desired ends of disconnect. With Walden, I explore the way his philosophy of minimalism and purist view of nature assisted his observations of the human condition, how capitalism shapes much human behavior, and how he separates himself from falling into those influences by rigidly structuring his life in Walden. With Into the Wild, I focus on the discrepancies and biases of the narratives due to them being shaped by the statements and opinions of family, friends, and acquaintances of ill-fated traveller Christopher McCandless rather than the man himself. I also focus on McCandless’s philosophy of survivalism, understood through his note-taking revealing sparse supplies for his trip, and a journal that related only observations on food and hunting. Also, focusing on Sean Penn’s movie adaptation allows further exposition on medium-based distortions of message/mood through it’s deliberate structuring; drastically different from McCandless’s deliberately chaotic, free-roaming life.

Possible presentation topics:
Thoreau’s commentary on the “mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation” due to growing malaise among modernized, capitalist man.
Thoreau’s view of nature’s purity
his subversive promotion of teaching young boys to hunt so that they can quickly grow disillusioned by the ethical issues with killing other sentient organisms.
Thoreau’s views on clothing being overglamorized with notions of fashion and trends, leading to expensiveness and lack of originality/creativity/freedom
McCandless’s survivalist supplies
McCandless’s re-naming of himself as Supertramp; his dying return to his birthname
The discrepancies in McCandless’s life being re-told by people other than McCandless himself
The distracting breaking-of-the-fourth-wall self-reference in Sean Penn’s adaptation

Abram

April 6th, 2011

The section of Abram that I found most intriguing was the effect of the change in human writing from symbolic lettering that conveyed the physical appearance of other animals as well as forces and figures of nature like clouds and the sun. With the change from imagery to alphabetic representation, man became more likely to think himself and his uniquely human perspective to be above naturally, immediately occurring sensory perception. This change is a simple yet brilliant way of understanding the societal movement from the universal interplay of sense and nature of animism to the excluding, man-made basis for understanding/communication practices of humanism. In deriving the means of understanding and communicating through alphabetic means, the human race moved from taking on the world just as any other animal does to a system of language with created values and meanings decipherable and determinable only by man. The entirety of perception, and consequently meaning and value, is defined by a system not based out of the natural world, but rather by a means of language of constructed values and systems of language.

The Technic of Live Performance (An Ode to Mic Swinging)

March 9th, 2011

For me, there is nothing in life that brings me more peace, happiness, and sense of purpose or self-value than when I am playing music live. Since my youthful days in elementary school, I’ve always done well with comprehending class lessons and all the desired educational ends of the curriculum. However, I’ve spent the majority of my 17 years of schooling watching the clock, always wanting to be somewhere else. In the past 5 years, I’ve found an always shifting somewhere I’d prefer (be it a stage or a basement) and a specific something (performing music) that I find more desirable. Playing shows, singing aloud my anxieties, euphoria, hopes, and tragedies, I feel every emotion sung acutely, just as strongly as the events that led to their writing. And when I am lucky enough to have people sing back my own words to me, it gives me a sense of commonality and community that I never feel anywhere else in life.

Mumford

March 9th, 2011

“The critical moment, I suggest, was man’s discovery of his own many-faceted mind, and
his fascination with what he found there. Images that were independent of those that his
eyes saw, rhythmic and repetitive body movements that served no immediate function but
gratified him, remembered actions he could repeat more perfectly in fantasy and then
after many rehearsals carry out—all these constituted so much raw material waiting to be
shaped; and this material, given man’s original deficiency of tools rather than the organs
of his own body, was more open to manipulation than the external environment. Or
rather, man’s own nature was the most plastic and responsive part of that environment;
and his primary task was to fabricate a new self, mind-enriched, different in both
appearance and behavior from his given anthropoid nature.”

In the above excerpt from Mumford’s Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine, Mumford characterizes man’s consciousness and resourcefulness as being a characteristic that, upon realizing these properties, lead immediately to seeking commodification of all things occurring independent of his own actions/thoughts out in the world. That is to simply state, man came to seek ways to control and shape the world . This assertion essentially theorizes that man’s penchant for technological advancements are the product of this self-centered desire to test the boundless concepts that the intelligent mind can come up with against what could be tangibly translated into actual creation. To use a very early and basic example, early man growing tired of the cold, and somehow coming to discover the concept of clothing upon discovering the warmth of animal skin. In this sense, the idea that Mumford puts forward about man seeking to create a new self can be understood to symbolically be literal, in covering one’s originally naked body they are achieving a functional improvement as well as a symbolic change between himself as a sentient being and himself as originally born.

Furthermore, this mind-enriched world that man became immersed in upon consciousness  of his own mental faculties seem to calculate for man’s inventiveness as a sort of evolutionary supplement. In science, animals with the desired traits/physical attributes survived, and those that didn’t would die out (think Giraffes with long necks, as well as those unfortunate to enough to not have long necks). Man’s inventiveness from this scope can be understood to compensate for natural shortcomings of man. Clothing, shelter, cooking, transportation, and weaponry are all early forms of technology, spawned from man’s inventive mind and coming from a mindset to compensate for natural shortcomings and allow man to live on (and further create/innovate as the generations carry on).

Where Mumford’s writing seems to come off the hinges abit is when he suggests that man’s intellect/mind is what allowed an understanding to the “dumb cosmic show” of existence that had been going on since its creation. This assertion that man’s mind enlarged the boundaries of the universe just comes off too conceited with regards to man’s importance to existence. The universe was not expanded by man’s realization of his intelligence; he only became better at understanding and comprehending it. Mumford’s perspective is meant to champion man’s mind to the point where it cracks a great mystery/code as to what the universe actually is, but all his assertion does is really convey a sense that the values we’ve found in things are constructed rather than organic.

Story of Epimetheus

March 2nd, 2011

“Now man, having a share of the divine attributes, was at first the only one of the animals
who had any gods, because he alone was of their kindred; and he would raise altars and
images of them. He was not long in inventing articulate speech and names; and he also
constructed houses and clothes and shoes and beds, and drew sustenance from the earth.
Thus provided, mankind at first lived dispersed, and there were no cities. But the
consequence was that they were destroyed by the wild beasts, for they were utterly weak
in comparison of them, and their art was only sufficient to provide them with the means
of life, and did not enable them to carry on war against the animals: food they had, but
not as yet the art of government, of which the art of war is a part. After a while the desire
of self-preservation gathered them into cities; but when they were gathered together,
having no art of government, they evil intreated one another, and were again in process of
dispersion and destruction. Zeus feared that the entire race would be exterminated, and so
he sent Hermes to them, bearing reverence and justice to be the ordering principles of
cities and the bonds of friendship and conciliation. Hermes asked Zeus how he should
impart justice and reverence among men:-Should he distribute them as the arts are
distributed; that is to say, to a favoured few only, one skilled individual having enough of
medicine or of any other art for many unskilled ones? “Shall this be the manner in which
I am to distribute justice and reverence among men, or shall I give them to all?” “To all,”
said Zeus; “I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only
share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has
no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.”

This portion Plato’s “Story of Epimetheus” helps convey an understanding about man’s tendencies to rely on constructing, both physical places such as cities as well as governments/ruling systems, to be reflective of self-preservation tactics borne out of genetic shortcomings for survival on the Earth as it was upon initial divine creation. Humans are held to be the only of the animals to be of divine likeness, and as such were the only ones who built up the monuments, altars, and places of worship in honor of their divine creator. Furthermore, what man lacked in the powers/physical talents as well as natural habitation that were bestowed upon all other animals were compensated by an ability to use materials from the Earth as resources for creating habitat systems. Within those systems, men also were able to organize themselves, theoretically, to their best direction of group progress through means of government and law that sought to help sustain and push forward the entire grouping. The knowledge of this also said to be a natural mental faculty among all men.

This reflects a sense of celebration of man’s tech-savvy genius from creation being the cause of his self-preservation. This also seems to rationalize the creation of religion, in particular it’s aspects of church and idolatry, as just an extension of man’s inherent divine connection. Man’s survivalism (and often times, lackthereof) at the beginning of the world, in the wild with the more nature-suited animals, is put in a more divine light rather than evolutionary, as it is entailed that man was given the knowledge as to how to construct a safer habitat for himself rather than adaptation being a generationally acquired trait of experience. Furthermore, the notions about theories of government and justice being inherently bestowed upon people is off-base and proven idealistic by modern times, where there are many societies where generations of people are completely in the dark about any ideas of justice or equality due to the ruling powers existing to keep themselves vainly and selfishly empowered rather than seeking to aide the entire population (Kim Jong Il in North Korea comes to mind).

“Autotune is the new disco”

February 8th, 2011

The above quotation is a text message (the most common contact with friends of late– a techno-criticism all it’s own for another day) received from a friend of mine upon the conclusion of the much-criticized Superbowl halftime performance of the Black-Eyed Peas this past sunday.

While humorous, it did get me thinking about both the validity of such criticism as well as the relevance of criticizing the show in general.

Autotune aside, the sound levels during the performance was beyond terrible, with the vocals rising and dipping erratically all through out the set. However, when taking into account the entire set up that spanned the entirety of the football field. Flashing neon lights and costumes heavily-borrowed (or stolen) from the world of Tron set a futuristic theme of what people in 1984 envisioned the year 2011 to look like.

When considering just the musical performance, it was important to note that the Black-Eyed Peas did not perform any of their songs in their entirety. Their set consisted of a medley of their radio hits from the past 5-6 years mixed with an abbreviated collaboration with Usher and a quasi-cover of Guns N’ Roses’s “Sweet Child of Mine” accompanied by GnR guitarist Slash. In accounting for how brief each individual song was covered and how much turnover there was with stage design/extras, the contrast of how long the entire segment conveys a sense of giving into the short-attention span generation we live in thanks to how technologically engaged we are.

The constant song changes recalled the many mid-song skips that most iPod users do while listening to music. The constant visual changes recalled the constant changing of channels that the average American does as their daily exercise. These realizations make perfect sense for the Superbowl, one of the biggest modern American staples of culture. Those constant changes and flashes seemed a compensation for the many Americans entranced in the event; while the millions (billions?) all were watching the same programming, they still were subjected to the jittery and fickle practices that they enact on smaller, individual levels on their spare time.

To close, I’ll bring my thoughts back to my friends titular slant at the performance. I don’t think autotune is the new disco. I think, for the most part, it’s much, much worse. As a musician, I hear the word autotune get thrown a lot. The way it was used in the superbowl performance (and much of pop radio), it is used to distort voices into robotic sounds, eliminating most of the emotion. And often times, with the genres that employ it in such a way, the emotionality of the vocals is a non-factor, as the songs are more geared towards clubs than they are lyric-lovers. There are some uses of autotune that aren’t so awful (such as those which don’t modify the sound of a voice but can correct specific notes in a vocal track to give a more consistent sound) as they still keep the voice human sounding. Disco, while something I can’t completely comprehend from my distance from its prominence, at least had much more musicianship and personality to it.

Nighthawks

November 15th, 2010

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is a painting evocative of desperation. The immediate focus of the diner/cafe contains the only human life visible within the painting, and within that there is a periphery/marginalization/distance between the individuals in the scene. The human figures of the scene are all within a small space, but are all separated from each other: there is a man with his back to the frame, some form of couple, and one waiter/attendant. All of these 3 factions share close vicinity, yet do not appear to be sharing communication nor do they appear to be sharing focus as all the characters are looking in different directions.

The man with his back to the viewer gives off sentiments of depression and demoralization, as he appears to be slouched and the lack of ability to accurately assess his appearance/demeanor further symbolizes how out of step with vitality and virility he is. This attitude, with consideration to the late hour, gives off the impression that this man is not here by choice, but rather by circumstance. When comparing his deflated demeanor is contrasted with the rows of unlit apartment windows, the diner/cafe seems more like a float rather than a lifesaver; that it is a symbol of the man’s stagnant existence rather than something that restores or progresses the man in any spiritual, mental, social, etc. way.

Another comparison that fleshes out the work’s desperation is the worker’s function. He works at this late-night establishment while the majority of society is sleeping, and with such minimal opportunities or, within this picture, receptive conduits for interaction, he is left with very little to do but contemplate his place in life; the steps he’s taken in life that have brought him to such a lonesome occupation of drudgery, which is only enhanced by he is structurally locked in by both this vibrantly illuminated diner/cafe, as well as the counter in which he has to stay encircled by to make a living.

The couple in the middle of the diner/cafe, while together as implied by their clasped hands, their body language otherwise implies very little connection, in particular their lack of eye contact or even body alignment. That mixed-body language can also be revelatory of the nature of their being out so late at night, as this rendezvous is less a date and more likely a respite from some dramatic, or possibly traumatic event, and the only late night place of habitation is this facility.

There is a general divide between the illumination within the diner/cafe, the sidewalks and street that are illuminated by streetlights, and the unlit apartment buildings. There is certain life, of aforementioned various implied conflicts within the establishment; the implied resting life within the apartment, implicitly recharging their energies for a day of some sort of labor that supports a lifestyle that seemingly keeps them in that part of the socioeconomic binary implied in this painting. The unlit businesses across the street from the diner both serve to symbolize the places which those night-sleepers spend their daytime hours and waking energies on, and the sort of life to which the people in the diner, especially the attendant, are estranged from.

Response Questions: On the ground experience with the modern urban electrified world inform and influence the creation of desperation when realizing how both the high-cost of living in cities of that world, and the high-activity of those areas create such a conflicted mood. With the high-cost of rent space for businesses, some places such as the diner/cafe featured in the painting resort to late hours, sometimes never closing, as a means to offer services to both other workers that have to resort to nocturnal occupations (as potentially represented by backward-facing patron) as well as creating a reputation for itself through that same specialized service for any other potential passerby consumers (as potentially represented by the couple). Specific experiences that can contribute to this are those people who, upon lacking opportunities or successes in occupations of more conventional times, are forced to seek work during the hours in which the majority of society sleeps. Many warehouse workers, taxicab drivers, diner/cafe attendants, inventory work, shipping, etc. become privy to the malleability of their livelihood factors, in particular the social aspect, as they forgo conventional sleep patterns for the sake of making enough money to live. Consequently, in forgoing conventional sleep patterns these workers forgo conventional patterns of consciousness and conscience as they experience the world in a way greatly different from much of society. In a way, these overnight workers form an example of a conflict between technological and primitive humanity: the multiplicity as well as importance of labor to make a living in capitalist societies, as well as the way that same importance of labor to make a living to some extent eschews the implications of the clock.  The way making money supersedes most concerns/foci in the modern capitalist world, job opportunities are created for all hours, with late night/overnight jobs often focusing on essentially setting the table for the morning/day labor . Awareness of the drudgery and transitional aspect of this work brings upon the realization as to how their lifestyle disregards the framework and segmenting of human discourse that resulted from the creation of the clock, as their lives are no longer governed by the segments of the day in which it is more convenient/energizing to be awake and active for, and more for whenever they can punch in and punch out as a means to end for economic sustenance. It is important to also consider that to counteract how the technology of light is employed here to replace the natural solar light-source that is lacking at night. Furthermore, people who were not a part of this workforce, yet were exposed to observing/interacting with this world through various circumstances take note of the desperation of this world. Often times, said exposure results from undesirable causes like family/health emergencies, anxiety, or simply unemployment/lack of anywhere else to be (like the deaf man in Hemmingway’s “A Well-Lighted Place”), all consequently reminded of how dire and empty life can be, both when you see what some people have to resort to just to pay the bills, or ironically when you see the mass of people who spend their lives so steadfastly dedicated to their jobs greatly due to just staying locked into that conventional lifestyle; a seemingly endlessly self-serving , endlessly intimidating influence.

The Great Gatsby

November 10th, 2010

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is rife with the technological influence of identity. The character-driven novel is full of people and actions that are designed and effected by the constructed notion of identity: how they perceive themselves, how they are perceived, and how they wish to be perceived. Through analysis of the ways both individuals attempt to build up their identities and the ways in which society facilitates this self-invention we will see the effect that the technology of identity carries on throughout the text.

Firstly, the distinction made between “new” money and “old” money that outlines the whole West Egg/East Egg rivalry exemplifies a conflict created by the technology of identity. Nick describes West Egg as “the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them” (5).  He describes his nearness to Gatsby’s mansion and general living arrangement as “an eyesore, but it was a small eyesore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of  the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires–all for eighty dollars a month” (5). His comfortable living arrangement signifies a comfortable, rather upper-class life. However, when compared to the living arrangement of Tom and Daisy in East Egg, it seems compartively diminutive:

“Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful-red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens–finally it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from momentum of its run” (6)

That Nick first had a grandiose notion of what an East Egg house would be and that an actual house superseded that tells of how the built-up reputation of East Egg as lavish, classy, and rich is well-known and creates an identity for the area. East Egg, defined by its residents’ wealth being grounded in generational wealth and a continuous culture of prosperity within families. Tom’s fear of the the rise of ethnic people in society and his related affinity for Godard’s “Rise of the Colored Empires” is all tied into his belief in a static, controlling force being derived from traditional notions of power sources.

“The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island sprang from his Platonic conception of himself” (98)

Jay Gatsby represents another example of the technology of identity being a prevailing factor in The Great Gatsby. Literally, Jay Gatsby is a created character; the man who went by Jay Gatsby was named James Gatz. His non-descript upbringing in North Dakota indicated a working-to-lower-class life (“His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people”) (98).  His dropping out of college after two weeks due to his dissatisfaction with the janitorial work he had to do facilitates his notion of aspiration being based off of identity and not work, and furthermore that identity can be built. While he was denied inheritance from Dan Cody, his understudy/the man whose yacht he worked on and with, it left him with the impression of power one man’s identity can have, being left with the “substantiality of a man” (101). It is with these combined factors of desire for social/economic mobility, disdain for the perceived drudgery/ugliness of labor to achieve change, and envy of ostentatiousness, that we can understand how Gatsby became overpowered with the notion of identity, and consequently allowed the guiding compass of his life to be constructing an identity of power. His dealings with bootlegging, the Black Sox scandal, general shady/ambiguous sources of income, and hosting of lavish blowout parties comprised of people he hardly knows all are not thought of ethically or morally, but rather as means to achieving his end of  identity construction, all so that from that identity he can gain the love of Daisy. This belief that identity, and in the particular case with Daisy, attempted reconstruction of the past expresses a superficial notion that identity supersedes anything sensory or contemporary to make decisions of emotional grounding in life.

Landscape and Man-shaped

November 3rd, 2010

There is much to be said when comparing and contrasting these two pictures of two different periods in American history: a photograph of an early 20th century Chicago stockyard and a 19th Century Landscape painting, respectively.

Both share the aesthetic similarity of having a very deep, sprawling background. From this the difference in content of background can offer a greater  insight on the different societies. In the 20th Century Photograph, the background that feeds off of the systematic, gridded cattle pens contains two separate factory facilities, and numerous chimneys billowing smoke into the air. The setting of these factories in the background works to symbolize the supplemental archetypal image of production for the time period to that which is being displayed in the foreground.

That same foreground further defines this period of Industrialization, both by analysis of the commentary it offers on society’s attitudes and systems of the time. The foreground contains a sea of cattle-pens, overstuffed to the extent that there appears to be very little to no walking room available for the cows. This expresses the lack of belief in any notion of ethical/humane treatment of animals, as the comfortability and living conditions of these cows, who are soon to be slaughtered anyway, is completely disregarded as all attention is given to what can be done to maximize the output of product. With this in mind, the systemization of production, generally speaking, is shown in pre-planning in the foreground then implied in the background.

Interestingly enough, the middle-ground/center of the photograph is the men keeping watch of the cattle-pens.  This works both literally and metaphorically to comment on the role of man during this time. On a literal level, the attentiveness that the men have to the cattle gives off the sense of hard, dilligent labor associated with capitalism; that every moment matters and that socializing is unimportant, as very few of them are even looking at each other. Metaphorically, it just offers the notion that everything depicted in both the foreground and background all are caused by and centered around man’s will and whim.  The set up of the stockyard system and the factory in the background are both by-products of man’s technological advancements and ideas for progression in a capitalist setting.

Taking all of this industrialized, capitalist imagery and commentary into account, reading into the thoroughly oppositional, minimalistic qualities of the 19th Century Landscape painting allows for it’s more pastoral story and offering to be better understood/fleshed out. Firstly, this is obviously a rural setting, and in contrasting this with the stockyard photograph, it is a much slower “looking” picture. There is a very still aspect to this scene. This can be attributed to the lack of buildings, and consequent limited human influence. The presence of fences in the foreground imply possible agriculture/farming, but even then it is that of a very small scale.

With this in mind, the attitude about man’s relationship with nature is that of an integrational rather than transformational. In that I mean that man is to work within the frame of nature, and not alter it a la Industrialization. The overall color of the piece offers a very natural feel due to it’s keying on elements like water (middleground), earth (the grass/trees in the foreground), and wind/air (the cloudiness of the mountains in the background).

Victor Frankenstein: Romonstercist

October 28th, 2010

Analysis of Victor Frankenstein’s motives for creation, as well as his creative product the monster, do well to portray Frankenstein as a Romantic creator. Firstly, his interest in the sciences is not culled from aspirations of fame, fortune, or any other material ambitions, but rather from obsession and fascination with the “wild fancies” of Paracelsus, Magnus, and Agrippa (22). This fascination was not grounded in whether or not the information was practical or realistic, but rather the imagination they express and the expansive notions of perceiving the world that they suggest. Furthermore, his amazement at the force of electricity when he was younger (said to have overthrown the control of his mind held by the aforementioned scientists) conveys his interest with harnessing tremendous forces of nature through experiment (23).

Frankenstein is further expressed as a romantic with his very non-religous view of cemetaries:

In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be inmpressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the appartion of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a church-yard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, form being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. (30)

While in some ways this reflects thoroughly unromantic attitudes in its thoroughly callous view of the burial ground of dead life, in other ways his devotion of his time and efforts (both physical and mental) represents a romantic spirit as he in comes to embody a certain supernatural quality to him as he is pursuing re-animation. Such a pursuit is an experiment challenging notions of transience and mortality; a common motif in a lot of Romantic period writings.

The extent to which Frankenstein became so engrossed in his experiment was another reflection of his romantic leanings. The more time he devoted into his work, the less attention he gave to himself. In many ways, his creation of the monster was his romantic work, and the physical strain he put upon himself in his devotion he had represents the romantic obsession he had with his fascination with his pursuit of his seemingly surreal, idealized vision superseding his attention to self-maintanence and sustenance.

Although he does become revolted at his creation upon it’s completion, the monster serves as an extension and reflection of Frankenstein’s romantic leanings. The monster’s struggle to integrate with society, the monster’s ability to appreciate beauty yet feel himself to never be able to integrate that, all are motifs from romantic period literature, and while Frankenstein may not have intended his creation to convey such a message, it is perhaps that lack of expectation/consideration for after-effect render him all the more romantic. Through his re-animation of life, Frankenstein created a work of sorts that went through the scope of human emotions and conflicts between idealizations/expectations and realistic/societal confines. As such, his monster, towering at 8 feet, may be the biggest romantic poem of all-time.

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