Dictionary of the Possible

Sharon Carson |

Shifter magazine (https://shifter-magazine.com/) has created some intriguing possibilities in collaborative publication, starting as an online publication and morphing more recently into a multi-platform project, including a turn to print.  In some ways, they have followed the opposite track direction as NDQ: we started and ran for decades in print only, and are now mixing digital and online publication with our print issues.  Many interesting trails, it seems, to the hybrid forms.  

One Shifter project which can spark our imaginations for all kinds of similar adventures with quite different participants and topics is their Dictionary of the Possible project, described this way by the editors:

“Over the course of a year and a half Avi Alpert and Rit Premnath hosted a series of public discussions at The New School. Each meeting concentrated on unraveling a keyword – a term that carries with it both a sense of urgency and agency in our present climate. By inviting artists, writers, activists, philosophers and others to propose terms and lead discussions, we opened up our editorial process to the motivations of an interdisciplinary group.”

Out of those public discussions emerged the material for the book,  Dictionary of the Possible, which is available in print at the Shifter website.  And if you scroll down this book page, you will also find the listing of the community meetings which fed the book, and the readings assigned to participants for these discussions.

As Alpert and Premnath explain in their prologue to the written collection, contrary to the usual dictionary project of explaining the meaning(s) of words, this dictionary instead “works to restore words to the insecurity, variability, strangeness, and wonder that they have in our lives.”  The Dictionary of the Possible is experimental, exploratory, poetic and philosophical in its energies, and the entries reveal a playful yet serious imaginative collaboration. It’s not your mama’s OED, which is precisely the point.  Or rather, nothing here is precisely.

The editors and many participants in the project offer us this breaking-open or fluid approach as a way of grappling with this question: “…how is our language shaped by the delicate balance of the probability of meaning, which makes communication possible, and the possibility of meaning, which allows for difference to appear?”  

Here are a few fragments from the entries:  *and for the entry for fragment, see page 70…


Is the “animal” as a category a boundary making tool? Although it may seem apparent what separates a human from a non-human, the animal seems to both transgress and mark these limits.

Who are “the animals?”  What defines them? Is there a universal category of the “animal,” or do different cultures have diverse conceptions of animality?

Where do we draw the line between “them” and “us”? Why do we draw it? At “sentience”? Why?  How do we define this?

Collectively composed after a presentation by Terike Haapoja and Oliver Kellhammer on November 21st, 2015.


Ibn Arabi was born in Murcia in 1165, but spent most of his life traveling through Palestine and North Africa. Arabi was a poet and a writer. He wrote some 700 books, treatises and collections of poetry.  At a young age, Arabi had a triple vision in which he met, and received instructions from Jesus, Moses and Mohammed simultaneously. There began his journey toward becoming a Sufi master who sought to connect Judaism, Christianity and Islam. [He] was initiated into Sufism by two masters, Shams of Marchena and Fatima of Cordoba.

All of these are hard facts.

The story of how he wrote his books was told to me by the artist Khaled Hafez when we met in Porto Alegra, Brazil, in 2011.

While working on a text, Arabi would periodically hand it over to friends and colleagues, who would make notes along the margins of the manuscript. These were comments, questions, suggestions, thoughts and reflections that emerged in the process of reading.  Arabi would then insert these marginal notes into the main text of the next manuscript.  This would go on, back and forth, until there were no more notes to add, resulting in a hybrid text that dissolved the distinctions between speech and writing, text and discourse, reader and writer, center and margin.

Kajsa Dahlberg


Do you have to be a good sport?

Please reply to the following questions.
1. If I were to make a definition of sport, I would surely include the following terms. (Select up to 5):

Sport defies definition, so none of the above.

[ * there is more to this entry; you will need a pencil…sc]

    Rebecca Alpert

One of the most inspiring things about the “Dictionary of the Possible” project, and the resulting Dictionary of the Possible book, is that there are such open-ended possibilities for other community collaborations like this. It really is an invitation for others working anywhere on any subject matter to take this method and run with it.

Meanwhile, Shifter has launched a new project, “Learning and Unlearning” and you can find the details here.


Sharon Carson is Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, Department of English, University of North Dakota and the reviews editor (and former editor) of North Dakota Quarterly.

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