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In Sickness and in Health

February 21, 2014 - 08:41

Elizabeth Bishop’s most impactful letter of the summer of 1947 was the first substantive one she ever wrote to Robert Lowell.  Written from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia on August 14, that first real letter of the poets’ storied epistolary friendship begins with a parenthetical aside that nods to their new familiarity: "Dear Robert, (I’ve never been able to catch that name they call you, but Mr. Lowell doesn’t sound right, either.)”1  The immediate pause—not so much to find the correct nickname (“Cal”) as to record the effort to find the correct nickname—is so characteristically Bishop that it suggests heuristic significance.  It seems as if everything you might want to learn about the poets’ friendship could be derived from that single aside. 

And perhaps it can be.  For Bishop and Lowell’s friendship is so very storied as sometimes to seem almost overly determined in the criticism of each poet.  When drafting a dissertation chapter on Bishop’s midcentury work several years ago, I set myself the perverse challenge of composing an entire first draft without once mentioning Lowell in the main text.  I did this partly because I was as interested in Lowell as I was in Bishop, I and wanted to push against the sometimes limiting or teleological habits of the criticism of them.

Far less important, on the face of it, than the August 1947 letter to Lowell, are a pair of letters that Bishop wrote that same summer to Dr. Anny Baumann, her general practitioner.  In the first one, dated July 11, 1947, Bishop’s asthma has flared up; in the second, dated July 22, it has only worsened.  Bishop finds this unaccountable, given the clean, cool air of Cape Breton.  The first letter asks for a new prescription and some advice, and so Bishop details the medicine she’s been taking (“I have to take about 2cc [of adrenaline] during the course of the day and 3 or 4 during the night”), enumerates the emotional and secondary physical effects of her asthma (a feeling of discouragement, a rash that “itches like poison ivy but looks more like eczema to me”), and arrives, perhaps wishfully, at a measurement of her alcohol intake (“I haven’t had anything to drink”).2  The effect of all of this is—there is only one word for it—sobering.  

Into this record of her experience of her body, Bishop drops a sentence at once humdrum and startling:  “This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen—much nicer than Lockeport [Nova Scotia].”  On a postcard, one might follow a sentence like that with “Wish you were here.”  Hence my description of it as “humdrum.”  The sentence is startling, however, for many reasons.  For one thing, Bishop doesn’t typically trade in assertions of obvious, unqualified, capital-B beauty in her poems.  Rather than announcing beauty, the midcentury Nova Scotia poems in particular (e.g., “At the Fishhouses,” “Cape Breton”) create, to use the old buzzword of Bishop criticism, “accurate” descriptions of the scenic coastline.  For another, in the more immediate context of this despairing letter, the sentence underscores how gorgeous Cape Breton must really be.  If Bishop can break out of what we might now describe as “quantifications” of her health in the letter—and out of her own standard practices of qualification and restatement—then this place must be truly breathtaking.

Bishop’s July 11, 1947 letter to Baumann, which is exemplary of her correspondence with the sympathetic doctor, offers a précis of just how much time and energy Bishop had to spend thinking about her health, or rather, about her various forms of ill health.  Bishop’s alcoholism remains the most documented of her conditions.  (The resistance that met the first critical accounts of Bishop’s alcohol addiction has long since abated.3)  Yet Bishop’s careful record of medicine, mood, activity, intake, and sleep, in a single letter of the summer of 1947 alone, looks like a kind of low-tech prehistory of the contemporary Quantified Self movement. 

Except not quite.  Among other distinctions from the self-monitoring and self-improving ethos of QS, this letter, like so many others in Bishop’s epistolary record, speaks to the desire or will not to have to think about one’s health or one’s body all the time.  Not to have to quantify, monitor, measure or otherwise tally one’s existence in the putative service of physical or mental wellbeing.  In that one sentence—“This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen”—of the July 11 letter, the measuring lets up.  The poet encounters something outside of herself that cannot be quantified.  And just like that, just in that instant, there is a deposit of unchecked aesthetic and affective exhilaration. 

Bishop spent a lot of time thinking about her body.  She had to.  I don’t mean she was or would have been an exercise junkie (a truly regrettable term) or a fitness freak (ditto), or that she would have loved the FitBit the way Frank O’Hara would’ve loved Facebook.  Instead, I wonder what it might mean, among the many new approaches to Bishop’s career and especially her politics that have emerged in recent years, to think about Bishop’s signature poetics as predicated on ill health and health care, chronic illness and attempts at what we now call “self-care.”  What might it mean, for example, to think about the inconsistency and slightness (in the quantitative sense) of Bishop’s total output as predicated not only on her famed perfectionism and meticulousness, but also on a body uncomfortable, or unwell, in its skin.  Conversely, how does the often elective attention to the single, ostensibly perfectible body (or life) that undergirds QS perhaps undermine the imperfections that must be a part of creative life?

  • 1. Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Words in Air, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (New York: FSG, 2008), 4.
  • 2. Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (New York: FSG, 1994), 144-45.
  • 3. See Brett C. Millier, "The Prodigal: Elizabeth Bishop and Alcohol," Contemporary Literature 39.1 (1998): 54-76; Millier, Flawed Light: American Women Poets and Alcohol (Champaign, IL: U Illinois P, 2009).
Tags: Elizabeth BishoplettersHealthQuantified SelfRobert LowellCreativitySocial Network: Picture description: 

Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Image via Flickr.

Winnie’s Penelope: On Solitude and the Comfort of Strangers

February 8, 2014 - 16:37

I just finished reading a fascinating appetizer to John Carlin’s new book on Nelson Mandela, Knowing Mandela, and it set me wondering what might be the place of solitude in the narration of South African history (see http://www.kenya-today.com/opinion/revealed-nelson-mandela-never-forgave-ex-wife-winnie).   Some of the details of the failure of Nelson’s marriage to Winnie are public knowledge while others are revealed for the first time by Carlin: she a 22-year-old social worker meets him, then 38, and “strikes him with lightning”, as he wrote in one of his many letters to her.  By the time they met he was already a well-known public ANC figure and much sought after on the political circuit.  That a 22-year-old would be tapped on the shoulder by history in the person of Nelson Mandela (because that is what it turned out to be) and that she would subsequently give her life both to the man and to the history that he was making came at great cost.  This highly intelligent, passionate, and eloquent man was not the stay-at-home-type.  We learn from Carlin’s account that Winnie was rueful about not knowing her husband in the way that ordinary wives know theirs: “I have never lived with Mandela”, she said “ I have never known what it was to have a close family where you sat around the table with husband and children.  I have no such dear memories.  When I gave birth to my children he was never there, even though he was not in jail at the time”.  Nine years after they first met came the 1964 Rivonia Trial, at which his uncompromising choice of death as a price he was ready to pay in the pursuit of an equitable society rang out boldly, with his unjust 27-year imprisonment sealing his place as an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle around the world.

Winnie also suffered persecution at the hands of the apartheid authorities, with imprisonment, exile, a ban from setting foot in her home in Soweto, and even a year-long solitary confinement being unleashed by the regime to silence her and break her spirit.  But an innate defiance was also part of her nature, so she rejected all attempts at being muzzled and continued to display the qualities that would cement her place as a political force in her own right.  Her forthrightness in speaking her mind, something she did often and that got her into various spots of trouble, especially on the coming to power of the ANC.  Her forthrightness in speech and the superb capacity for providing the measure of ordinary people’s suffering became legendary.  That she also managed to paradoxically live the high life of the rich and famous was not lost upon both admirers and detractors, but this was obviated by her tirelessness in pursuit of the objectives of the struggle during her husband’s absence in jail.  Then came the many indiscretions that were to damn her. A conviction for assault and accessory to the kidnapping of 14-year-old Stomple  Moeketsi, whom her driver had subsequently murdered provided a galling low point.  She also entered into several hush-hush and high profile affairs, culminating in the one for which she became most notorious.  Her relationship with Dali Mpofu, a lawyer 30 years her junior became headline news in South Africa, finally making public what had been an ill-concealed secret among the ANC. (Carlin’s observes from his interview with her, when she was 53 and still in the relationship with Mpofu, that Winnie has “a coquettish, eye-fluttering sensuality to her” as if to insinuate tht he himself was almost seduced).  When Winnie walked hand-in-hand with Nelson Mandela on his release from prison in 1990 the whole world watched on television and saw in this the fulfilment of a great wish that had been written about many times, turned into anti-apartheid slogans, and even memorialized in Hugh Masekela 1988 “Bring Back Nelson Mandela”. The words “I want to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela” from the song became a well-known chant across urban Africa in the late 80s and early 90s, challenged perhaps only by equally memorable lines from Fela Ransome-Kuti’s trenchant critique of the continent’s  kleptocracies, and by those from Bob Marley’s many ballads and Pan-Africanist songs.  However, the dream of conjugal harmony surviving unscathed through apartheid’s scorching crucible had already been unraveling long before he came out of prison and matters became progressively more painful after that.  When after two years following his release Winnie refused to share a bed with him he knew that the marriage was over.  They separated then and divorced in 1995.  Winnie had refused to give up her affair with Mpofu, even going as far as traveling on an ANC-related trip to New York.  Carlin reports that her husband had begged her not to take the young man with her and she had apparently agreed.  And yet, when her husband called her hotel room in New York it is Mpofu who picked up the phone.  The pain he must have felt can only be imagined, but we must not assume that she did not feel some pain too.

Even though Carlin takes great pains to draw up a sympathetic picture of Winnie, it is clear that his sentiments are on the side of Nelson Mandela.  For who would not gasp in shock at what appears to be a heartless betrayal?  And of a loving and beautiful man such as Nelson Mandela?  And yet it is precisely at this point that to side with Mandela entirely is to completely obliterate what it is to be Winnie, not just as an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle, but as flesh-and-blood woman and human being.  As many scholars of South Africa have pointed out, including most recently Jon Soske in a magnificent lecture he gave at the University of Toronto on violence in the 1980s South African liberation movement, one of the key effects of apartheid and indeed of the long genealogy of white supremacy in the country, has been the separation of families.  This phenomenon precedes apartheid by at least a century.  The reasons for familial separation varied over time, but often included labor migration (in which typically men had to leave their families to go and work in the mines or other industries), state violence, or simply the exigencies of the liberation struggle itself, which often led to thousands of men and women leaving their families either to study abroad or get some form of military training in countries supportive of the ANC.  These countries were both near (Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola) and far (Libya, Ghana, Cuba).  More importantly, the fact of family breakup also became a core feature of all societies that shared proximity with South Africa.  Thus the trope of the male laborer that leaves his familiar environment to go and find money in the region’s largest economy is commonplace, with a poignant recent example to be found in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.  The reverse movement of women fleeing harsh marital conditions, whether from or to South Africa and going to settle elsewhere is also common.  Such familial disjunctures and the exilic conditions that are their source form the centerpiece of Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather and the truly remarkable A Question of Power. And in The Cry of Winnie Mandela Njabulo Ndebele tells the story of the intersecting lives of four different women who have suffered the loss of their husbands to labor migration and politics, with each of them lamenting the loss and embarking on imaginary conversations with Winnie Mandela, whom they all consider to be the emblematic Penelope.  In this light the experience of families being torn apart by the dysfunctional violence of the sociopolitical order must then be understood as central to both black and white lives in South Africa under apartheid (if even to different material effects), such that though remarkable the Mandela’s condition of separation is also simultaneously quite mundane.

It is when we interpret the extraordinariness of Winnie’s life not just as exclusively pertaining to its political dimensions but also as the volatile combination of the historical familial fracture and the unbearable solitude that is the direct product of this same fracture that we glean something of what must have been and may still be the nature of her anguish.  Since she has never really spoken about her feelings on the breakdown of her marriage except to very close friends, we are obliged to speculate. But our speculation is neither vulgar nor voyeuristic; it is a means of achieving an Aristotelian insight by seeing her and her husband’s life as the unfolding of a tragedy, but with all the attendant dramatis personae, the ebbs and flows of fortune, the large scale interplay of determinism and contingency, and the irredeemable moments of tragic (re)cognition that any tragedy entails. As Martha Nussbaum points out in her superb discussion of the Aristotelian notion of pity to be found in the Poetics and the Nicomachean Ethics, it is our bearing witness to the hero or heroine’s loss of worldly goods that allows us to empathize with them and to draw cathartic insights by which to guide us on our own paths.  However, worldly goods must not to be mistaken for material goods.  They do not include houses, cars, or money in the bank.  Rather, worldly goods are the ineffable goods that sustain our capacity first for relating to others, and second for providing a coherent account of ourselves both to us and to others.  (I am intertwining Judith Butler with my argument here, but please forgive me).  These worldly goods entail family, friends, neighbors, compatriots, and the entire aesthetic apparatus of social relations.  To Aristotle the loss of any or all of these worldly goods fundamentally undermines our capacity to pursue ethical courses of action. We might gloss this view by saying that our capacity for pursuing ethical action is not merely a function of informed individualism but rather the product of our intersubjective relations with a range of others in a series of ever-widening concentric circles. And it is this loss of the capacity for undertaking ethical action and the recognition of the consequences of that loss that triggers pity and fear in those that bear witness, whether circumstantially or by choice.  And in life as in the theatre, bearing witness precludes passivity.  To bear witness entails a form of participation in the formally unfolding character of the tragic action.  For Winnie Mandela the greatest worldly good was without a doubt her unjustly incarcerated husband.  But she also lost several friends and acquantainces to jail, exile, death, and even abject despair during the long years of the struggle.  And while the Soweto funeral, many of which she attended in a show of solidarity, was famously known for providing a platform for launching further songs and protests against the apartheid regime, in reality the sounds of lamentation remained echoing well beyond the funerals themselves.  Winnie experienced these losses on behalf of herself and others many times over. Of course to read Winnie and Nelson Mandela’s lives as revealing a tragic form we will have to break their mutual and interdependent biographies into relevant acts and scenes, a task that would require historical knowledge as well as a capacious creative imagination.  We would also have to show how each segment entailed the exercise of multiple and contradictory choices that appeared equally valid and desirable both to them and to the other historical actors with whom they interacted. We would also have to explore how the choice of any course of action triggered consequences incommensurate to the choices themselves. We can agree with Carlin that for the Mandelas the choices seemed to have been primarily between Politics and Family, but I would add that this binary was undergirded by something much more profound yet by the same token more elusive, namely, the choice between iconicity and being human.

While Winnie’s various amorous relationships must have been joined for a variety of reasons, it is the fact that all her choices were undertaken in the face of history that must have affected her most profoundly.  What response could she have given to a lover’s anxiously whispered question, “What shall we do if your husband finds out?”, when her husband was not only “the” Nelson Mandela but the entire anti-apartheid movement? And how would she have responded to the earnest demand that every lover in the entire history of humandkind has felt impelled to make: “Do you really love me?”  She may indeed have truly loved some of the men she got into relationships with, but how would her simply stated “Yes, I really do love you” have been interpreted by these men?  That she also demanded exclusivity in her relationships with comforting strangers must have struck them as a paradox.  She was extremely jealous and vicious when scorned for another.  As Carlin tells it, Mpufo was at the receiving end of hissing reprimands when she discovered he had also been seeing what she called a "white hag".  Beyond the adulation accruing to her as a legendary political icon - Mother of the nation, no less -- all she wanted was for someone to still the heart that romped uncontrollably in her bosom like the mind of God. What might it be for 27 years to have viscerally felt “What thou among the leaves hast never known/The weariness, the fever, and the fret” (Keats) and yet to have had to cast around for the comforting warmth of a man’s naked embrace (true, not her husband’s, but he was not at home when she needed the embrace most urgently).  And when she surrendered to the reassuring caresses of these men, gently sought or commandeered, did she ever transcend her abject solitude and manage to reach the simple dellirium of being desired whole and in her entirety, with her tired and aching body, her snappy ill temper, her arrogance and pride, and all the flaws that flesh is heir to?  What stray longings must have flitted tremulously across her body and soul at such moments? And so to the luminous words of T.S. Eliot's "Marina":

Whispers and small laughter between leaves and 

   hurrying feet

Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.

I made this, I have forgotten

And remember.

The rigging weak and the canvas rotten

Between one June and another September.

Made this unkowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.

The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.

This form, this face, this life

Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me

Resign my life for this life, my speech for that

    unspoken,

The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

 

What seas what shores what granite islands towards

     my timbers

And woodthrush calling through the fog

My daughter.

 

Even though Eliot's poem is inspired by Pericles's nostalgia for his daughter, the intensified perspectival sensorium that is registered by the lapping water, the plethora of details regarding the decrepit boat, the damp fog, and the woodtrush's calling and calling all coalesce into an emblem of solitude, despair, and forlorn hope.  Marina has in reality been lost long ago so that Pericles' reflections are partly the recollections of a lost familial relationship through the maze of fading memories.  That he moves seamlessley from the condition of the vessel to the vague threats of the eveloping environment and then to the elusive image of his daughter shows how ultimately fragile his mind is. It is a fragility born from longing solitude. Something of this fragility and the maze of solitude may be discerned in Winnie's life too, for we must not suppose that in all her many affiars she ever stopped longing for her first love that may have long past faded or even been lost, and which, given the exigencies of South African family history may never have been retrievable anyway, at least not in its quotidian rhythms and banal articulations.

Scribes will no doubt wrestle mightily with the question of how to represent Winnie Mandela in the historical record.  The fact that she was the wife of Nelson Mandela, the man who forgave his enemies and saved an entire nation will compound their problems.  But if they remember, and we with them, that the real tragedy is ultimately in being human, perhaps we shall all agree that when it comes to our emotions it is an act of extreme hubris to rise up and say: “I am strong and thus can do no wrong”.  

Tags: Winnie MandelaNelson MandelaSouth AfricaMartha NussbaumAristotleTS EliottragedySocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia. Image via Knoxville Museum of Art.

Lafcadio Hearn: Global Before Globalization

February 7, 2014 - 11:42

How could a man born on a Greek island in 1869 be a household name in Japan today? The answer lies in the story of Lafcadio Hearn, whose life was global, bi-racial, and multicultural a century before these concepts became fashionable. Without knowing it, Hearn turned himself into a prototypical individual of the twenty-first century.

He was born on the Ionian island of Lefkada, then part of the British Empire, to a Greek mother, Rosa Antoniou Kassimati, and an Irish Protestant father, Sergeant Major Charles Bush Hearn. And his parentage manifests the ethnic mixing of empires and the ideological divides he tried to bridge all his life between East and West, empire and colony, black and white, journalism and high culture.

This double heritage also instilled in Hearn an impulse for nomadism and travel writing more than a hundred years before Bruce Chatwin explored this connection.  It is no accident perhaps, as Hearn’s biographer Jonathan Colt notes, that Lefkada lies next to Ithaca, the birthplace of Odysseus. 

Unlike Odysseus, Hearn wandered all his life and ever father afield, seeking fortune in Cincinnati, the warm weather and music of New Orleans, and the racial mélange of the Caribbean. And it was this pursuit of the racial Other that eventually brought him to Japan, where he settled in middle age, so far away geographically from Lefkada and Dublin and culturally from Ohio and Louisiana. Few individuals have tried to bring together such divergence of place and fewer still could claim to have encountered or been affected by five empires: the Ottoman, British, French, American, and Japanese.

His life, therefore, is not just a study of nomadism, but also represents a case of how mixed heritage can predispose someone to be more receptive to national, ethnic and racial dissimilarity.

At the age of two, Lafcadio and his mother moved to Dublin while his father was stationed in the West Indies. But his paternal family never accepted the Greek wife and half-Greek child. Eventually Hearn annulled the marriage, forcing Rosa to return to Greece. Abandoned by both mother and father, Lafcadio was raised by an Irish aunt.

As a result of Dickensian circumstances involving a cruel and unethical legal adviser to his aunt, Lafcadio found himself impoverished and without any prospects in Ireland. Thus at the age of 19 he immigrated to Cincinnati, where without any money he slept on the streets. Through many efforts he secured a job as a reporter, eventually working for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer where he wrote about crime but also about the city’s downtrodden citizens. His lurid descriptions sold papers and enhanced his popularity. In a short time, he became the city’s most famous and controversial reporter.

But perhaps his most provocative decision was to marry an African-American woman, Alethea Foley, an unlawful act at the time, which led to the loss of his job with the Enquirer. Unable to bear the complications caused by his marriage and the chilly climate in Ohio, he divorced and in 1877 took a ferry to New Orleans.

In this city he was able to write about the creole population. Indeed, his writings, ranging from voodoo, to cuisine, to lush street life, and colorful music in Harper’s Magazine, Century Magazine, Pippincott’s Magazine and Atlantic Monthly, brought national attention to New Orleans as a distinctive place in the United States. At the same time, Hearn continued to work on cultural criticism and translations of French authors such as Théophile Goutier and Pierre Loti. He also compiled a book of New Orleans recipes, only the second in that city’s long history of cookbooks.

After ten years in Louisiana, Hearn restless perhaps for the azure waters of the Ionian Sea and for the unbuttoned pattern of island life, decided to leave for the Caribbean. He travelled to Martinique where he lived for two yeas as a correspondent for Harper’s. He was entranced by the racial complexity of the island, “ranging up from the black or nearly black through bronze reds and coppery browns and fruit yellows to the dead ivory of the sang-mete.”

Hearn abandoned this paradise after two years and traveled to New York. But unable to bear the “nightmarish” city, he turned his gaze improbably towards Japan, where he took an assignment as a reporter. So in March 8, 1890 he left for Montreal from where crossed the continent by train to Vancouver and then on the steamer, Abyssinia, left for Yokohama.

In Japan he reinvented himself again. When his sponsoring newspaper withdrew support, he stayed on. At first he settled in the town of Matsue, as a teacher in a middle school. He married a local woman, Koizumi Setsu, who stemmed from an impoverished but aristocratic samurai family. Eventually he became a naturalized citizen and undertook the name Koizumi Yakumo.

In 1896, after landing a position teaching English literature at the Tokyo Imperial University, he moved to the capital city. But he continued to write in English about Japan for now a substantial international audience, which included luminaries such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig. Indeed, Zweig described Hearn as someone unique in the world of art, “a miracle of transplantation, of artificial grafting: the works of an Occidental, yet written by an Oriental.” Hearn died in 1904.

Today in Japan, Colt explains, he is honored as an adopted son, and praised as a sensitive interpreter for the world of Japanese literature, religion, and society. It is remarkable that a man born on a tiny Greek island should travel around the world and write so brilliantly about the unconnected places he lived in.

In this he was helped perhaps by his disability -- his half-blindness. As a result of an accident at the age of sixteen, he lost sight in one eye. But this mishap may have sharpened his outlook to the possibility of empathic links between distant societies. Perhaps only someone who was half of something – Greek, Irish, blind, American, Caribbean, and Japanese -- could become, as Tennyson said of Ulysses, part of what he had met.

Note: Quotations are taken from Jonathan Colt, Wandering Ghost. The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn, (New York: Knopf, 1991).

Tags: CincinnatiIonians IslandsIrelandJapanNew OrleansTravel WritingSocial Network: Picture description: 

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

American Dreams in China: Challenges of the Transnational University

February 4, 2014 - 20:56

American Dreams in China (2013) is a Chinese film about upward mobility that will feel familiar to most Americans. It’s sort of a Horatio Alger story about getting rich, sort of a Great Gatsby tale of disillusionment with traditional forms of success, sort of like The Social Network in its glorification of entrepreneurship.

The interesting difference is that all the aspirants are mainland Chinese, and the great prize is the American university degree, guarded by stone-faced visa officers, impossible vocabulary lists, and treacherous cultural differences that force you to pretend to be open, casual, and practical. It’s fun—and only fair—to see American plots transposed west to new settings, with Americans cast in the villain/mentor roles in which American films have traditionally cast British actors. (Welcome, Benedict Cumberbatch, to a long period of remunerative employment!) The movie has been a big hit in mainland China.

But, speaking in my incredibly limited (and yet relevant) role as an American university professor, I was disturbed by the movie’s representation of WHY you might want to study in America. The Chinese students—Cheng, Meng, and Wang—are sympathetically differentiated in their motivations. Cheng Dongqing is the son of the poor farmer whose mother went into debt to finance his education, and is tormented by a fear of failure. He never gets his visa approved—though his beautiful girlfriend does, and leaves him. Wang Yang is the sensitive poet, who has an affair with a pretty American named Lucy (who for some reason is studying in the PRC in the ’80s). He doesn’t get a visa either.Meng Xiaojun is the superior one, who gets his visa and his degree, but finds life as a luckless immigrant too hard and humiliating, and returns to China with an enormous chip on his shoulder.


Cheng was searching for the green light

When Meng returns, he finds that Cheng and Wang have teamed up to tutor a new generation of Chinese students in how to beat the TOEFL and the GRE, and win the prize (ironically) that they were denied themselves. Their tutoring company, “New Dream” (loosely basedon the Beijing New Oriental and Education and Technology Group), is a phenomenal success, with increasingly large classes of laughing and excited students. The “losers” are now rich! In the movie’s climactic scene, Cheng crushes and impresses the American legal team who are suing him for what appears to be unauthorized use of TOEFL test questions. He has memorized an entire legal book on the plane, from which he can quote passages at random—in order to prove that Chinese students are just great test takers, a stereotype the movie plays with and rejects, but eventually embraces. The outcome of the legal case is unclear, but at least the Chinese businessmen have finally won respect from the unsympathetic (and generally white) bad-parent gatekeepers.

It’s a satisfying B-movie plot. Possibly it’s Chinese propaganda, as this blogger suggests—but B movies are not usually subtle, and I found this one eminently watchable.

For me, the painful part of the film was its replication of a debate currently ripping apart the American university system about its structure and ultimate ends. Is the university system merely about credentialing—is it an empty machine stamping out degrees that certify economic worthiness? Is it about getting a certificate and passing a test, after which “success” will follow? Or is it even remotely still about “something more”: popular access, democracy, citizenship, human plenitude, imagination, creativity, originality, political questioning, the independent search for knowledge and truth? You are laughing scornfully because you’ve read Bourdieu, and The University in Ruins, and you know that American universities are increasingly enchanted by a corporate model that promises short-term gains built around the intellectually-vacant concept of “excellence.” But I’m upset! I still want some of what’s in category B, the part that this movie (for reasons of nationalism and artistic compression) simplifies away. I’m not in this business to scowl & deny my students advancement.


When wanting “something more” is just a trap

The structure of national longing depicted in the movie is that Americans have business success (as well as every other kind of success), and the Chinese understandably want a piece of that. But Americans have nationalist inferiorities of our own. Sometimes we get bored with mere business success, and historically we look eastward to Europe for some kind of art and culture we can never have. Henry James is the avatar of our own national discontent: Americans feel obscurely that we are not good enough at artistic subtlety and dark psychology, so: well, have you read Portrait of a Lady? Some of those national dreams of beating Europeans at their own game are embodied in American universities—but these Chinese students ignore the atavistic Eurocentric parts of American universities (a.k.a. the humanities) because they can’t translate those courses into success at home. Poetry (as Wang discovers) does not cross borders easily.

The movie’s Chinese students show that the emotional structure of meritocracy can be international: it leaves you with perpetual longing and self-hatred, whether you feel like an insider or (as more commonly) a parvenu, an immigrant, a racial minority, a sexual minority. There’s a kind of solution for this, and it is to come together and recognize our common needs rather than focus just on our own “success.” (It would have been nice, for instance, if Meng had some sympathy for the waitress who under-tipped him—since they are caught in common structures of blue-collar precarity—rather than simply being offended and rejoicing when he surpasses her.) But of course meritocracy is also about the desire for individual distinction, and that’s pretty much the opposite of wanting to share that hard-won respect with others. It’s easier to be generous when you’re at the top—which is why we need at least the fiction that we get our degrees in order to give something back to society. That counterweight to personal selfishness is not just good for those less fortunate; it provides an essential emotional buffer against the fears of personal inadequacy that can make meritocracy so painful.


… but my secret last name is “Loser.”

Both heartless meritocracy and idealistic scholarship can lead to disappointment and disillusionment. But they’re not completely identical: the idealism of scholarship is ultimately to advance the cause of free inquiry and truth, not just individual success. If the American university loses that idealism and turns into a mere degree-granting machine, we will lose part of our raison d’être, as William James warned. Moreover, an entirely selfish meritocracy is almost too painful to bear; you never stop feeling like a loser. American Dreams in China shows that the desire to rise is a powerful force, and its nationalism is kind of understandable, but its depiction of the motivation for success is ultimately narrow and unsatisfying.

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Reference Works, Poetically

January 30, 2014 - 00:59

Why would anyone read a reference work cover-to-cover? Aren't they designed to be consulted selectively, at need? Isn't that why so many of the old standards--the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the Encyclopedia Britannica--have reinvented themselves as searchable web sites?

I've been pondering these questions quite a bit recently. A journal has asked me to write a review essay about the fourth edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2013), a major academic undertaking that from-the-ground up reassesses how scholars around the globe think about and define poetry. I happily said yes.

The PEPP, however, is over 1,600 pages. Large, double-columned pages. I'm enjoying myself immensely, and I'm tweeting about my discoveries as I read, but it's slow going. I also keep asking myself whether I've chosen to interact in a hopelessly old-fashioned manner with a mass of information that has been presented in a nearly obsolete format, the codex ("a number of sheets of paper, vellum, papyrus, or similar, with hand-written content, usually stacked and bound by fixing one edge and with covers thicker than the sheets").

***

 


Page from vol. 1 of my grandfather's copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

On a shelf beside my desk sits a 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that once belonged to my grandfather. Inside the front cover of of the first volume he has written two statements: "This Encyclopedia given to Avery H Reed Jr by his father, Avery H Reed Sr, in October, 1949" and "This entire set was read by Avery H Reed Jr 1965-66." In every subsequent volume, he notes the date on which he finished reading it.

As a kid, I often heard about Grandfather's reading the whole encyclopedia. I imagined him sitting down after work at night, randomly pulling a volume of the Britannica off the shelf, and dipping into it, the way people today dilettantishly explore interesting topics online. Only much later did it sink in that, at least once, he read through its twenty-nine volumes in a doggedly sustained, sequential, completist manner.

Why did it he do it? Was it an act of filial piety? A declaration of his commitment to learning? A way to impress family and friends? Did he approach the Britannica as a series of disconnected entries, like a standard newspaper or a magazine in which one presumes no necessary relation between the stories? Or did he seek something more, maybe access to a world view or a body of knowledge shared by, as they put it at Harvard, "the fellowship of educated men and women"?

***

One of the most provocative entries in the PEPP is titled "Book, Poetic." The author of the "Medieval and Early Modern" section of the entry, William Kuskin (Univ. Colarado at Boulder), explains that, way back in Antiquity when scrolls were still the primary means of data storage and transmission, codices were only "used for notational writing--drafts, lessons, calculations, and lists--and were, thus, secondary."

Things began to change when "early Christian communities at Antioch and Jerusalem" elevated "the codex from secondary writing aid to a major textual form." They did so, it seems, because a codex, as a bound stack of pages, visually "impl[ies] a unified canon even if the actual texts they contain are only fragmentary" (155). That is, unlike a roll, which requires time and effort to "scroll through," codices can be random-accessed quickly and easily. As a consequence, any given page, passage, or text can stand in for all the others. You could just as readily have flipped to another one instead.

Described in this manner, a codex can sound a little like one of today's searchable databases. Yes and no. Materiality matters. Every word in a codex appears between two covers. A reader encounters it as a "tangible," singular object that persists through time. In a sense, a codex "stands outside of chronology, able to communicate an imaginative truth in whatever present it is read." Simultaneously--and without contradiction--it also serves as a reminder of, a physical connection to, a past moment, and as such it affirms that the past is "recoverable," however partially or tenuously (156).

***

My grandfather's Britannica, dated 1911, was given to him in 1949. He read it in 1965-66. Right now, January 28, 2014, I have the A to AND volume laying open beside my desktop. The information contained in this volume has passed through a century of hands. I'm sorely tempted to read it, as my grandfather did, from beginning to end. The prospect of reading this reference work as if it were a scroll appeals to me, sounds like a luxurious thing to do.

Such an activity would make perversely little use of what media studies scholars call the affordances of the technology, the way it enables readers to move swiftly via page numbers, tables of contents, guide words etc., to locate desired information. In compensation, one gains opportunities to relish instead a codex's poetic function, its message-in-a-bottle evocation of a lost world.

I suppose reading a novel could give the same satisfaction, except that reference works more overtly dramatize the ability of the codex to unify fragments and to collate disparate voices into a single statement.

***

As I read the fourth edition of the PEPP, I feel connected to a present that is already on its way to becoming "historical." Timothy Yu's entry on "Asian American Poetry," for example, summarizes recent arguments by Yunte Huang, Josephine Nock-Hee Park, Brian Kim Stefans, and Steven Yao. Wonderful, useful, accurate. But Yu's bibliography ends in 2009. I'm sure, if given the chance, he would now want to go back and add references to (among other studies) Joseph Jonghyun Jeon's Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry (2012) and Dorothy Wang's Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (2013).

The PEPP, read straight through, is already a monument to an era, or at least it conveys the feeling of encountering another era. It presents poetry and poetics, in toto, as assembled during the height of the Great Recession. The codex format is here a means of making history in the sense of giving the past a shape and form--and thereby making it recoverable and intelligible in the future.

A web page attached to a database may serve the same function as a printed reference book but it doesn't have the same affective and aesthetic impact. Web pages are always subject to editing or vanishing, and databases can always be updated or deleted. Books stick around. They can also be quite heavy.

***

In the age of information overload, what can provide more solace than preserving a chunk of ephemeral data as a codex? Consider Paul Soulellis's ongoing art project Chancebooks, which he began in 2013 and describes as:

a publishing-on-demand experiment using Wikipedia and chance operations. Each Chancebook is a one-of-a-kind collection of up to 500 randomly pulled articles from Wikipedia. The selection and sequence of content is generated in real-time as the artist repeatedly clicks the “random article” button that appears on all Wikipedia pages and individually adds each page to the book. The total number of articles is determined by first pulling a random number (1–500) at random.org. The title is determined by the artist from the list of article titles in the book. Only one copy of each Chancebook exists, printed on-demand and delivered to the artist. The book’s design is automated and determined by the print-on-demand service. Included within each book are the date of creation, the location of the artist and the exact time and duration of the content generation.

The last bit there is key, of course--"the location of the artist and the exact time and duration of the content generation." The amorphous mercureal unreliable ubiquitous Wikipedia, suddenly rendered palpable and perduring.

In 2013 Kenneth Goldsmith issued a global call for people to help him print out the entire contents of the Internet and fill a gallery in Mexico City with the results. By the end of the gallery show, he had managed to assemble ten tons or so of printed matter. The photographs of him standing in front of mounds of paper both register an ardent desire to materialize memory--and the impossibility, in the twenty-first century, of doing so except partitively, that is, with a piece (poetically) standing in for an unmasterable, ungraspable whole.

From Goldsmith's mad rhyming dictionary No. 111 (1997) to Angela Genusa's Spam Bibliography (2013) one can trace a genealogy of hybrid reference work/poems. In February the Heyman Center at Columbia University is hosting an event titled "Reference Works," at which poets will "talk about the scholarly resources that inspire them, including poetry anthologies, rhyming dictionaries, standard dictionaries, handbooks of poetic forms, and other resources, such as the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics." Print-based reference works may soon cease to exist as utilitarian functional objects. That may complete their rebirth as a literary form.

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Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

Utopia and the reality of literary study

January 24, 2014 - 07:44

Is there anything more tedious than the facile distinction between university study and the “real world”?  (The only thing that annoys me more is being called “Miss” by teenage restaurant workers—as if nothing could be more gravely insulting to a woman than to address her in such a way that acknowledges her age.)  Tedious and also ubiquitous:  the opposition between the liberal arts and the “real world” is quoted unthinkingly in a variety of contexts, by journalists reporting on the state of the humanities, academic administrators enjoining faculty to increase enrollments, and, most distressingly to me, our own students.  (If college isn’t “real,” does that mean undergraduates abscond to some imaginary plane of non-existence for the duration of their studies?  I mean, certain things about college seem super real to me, not least of which is the loan debt accrued, but also all the things that happen to the body and mind during one’s years as a student.)

As it happens, the humanities are really good at making us aware of our “real,” lived experience; they focus attention on the concepts that structure our daily existence, often by putting pressure on those concepts and then watching what happens under the force of that pressure.  For the past few years I’ve been teaching a class at Cornell titled “Utopia: From Thomas More to Science Fiction” that attempts to render uncomfortable the distinction between the real and the not-real.  Utopia is the perfect genre for doing this kind of work (and here already utopia interrupts my argument to remind me how ironic any notion of “perfection” is in a discussion of utopia!).  The genre was given its name by Thomas More’s The Best State of a Commonwealth (1516), now popularly known as Utopia, the name of the fictional society described within the text (More’s neologism means either “no place” or “not-place”).  Though Utopia is conventionally thought of as the story of an island commonwealth that has eliminated private property, this is but one facet of an extremely complicated text.  The text of Utopia is perhaps best analogized to a series of Russian dolls: the fictional island is nestled within a series of framing devices that precede the description of Utopia and attest to the truth of the story.  These framing devices include a prefatory book that narrates “Thomas More’s” conversation with a Portuguese sailor named Raphael Hythloday, who has purportedly journeyed to the island of Utopia and can thus report back on the structure of its society.  Prior even to this book the reader (depending on the edition) will already have encountered a map of the island, a picture of its alphabet, and a series of letters between “Thomas More” and a number of humanist scholars who testify to the truth of the text.  This constitutes what scholars often refer to as the “game” of Utopia: it looks the reader straight in the eye and claims over and over again that this outlandishly fictional invention is true. 

Despite its outlandishness and pervasive sense of irony (“Hythloday” is Greek for “speaker of nonsense”), there seems little doubt that More’s fiction is deeply tied to the “real world” of the sixteenth century.  The conversation narrated in Book I (reportedly composed by More after he had already written the description of Utopia contained in Book II), features a debate about the economic privation and injustice that plague Tudor England, an injustice exemplified by the practice of hanging thieves, a form of punishment that rendered England notorious throughout Europe.  But even so, it has proven quite difficult to specify the contours of the relationship between the fictional island and its various frames and the historical “fact” of England’s starved and suffering populace, not to mention Thomas More’s “real” feelings about that suffering.  To my mind, this conundrum constitutes one primary import of Utopia.  It compels us to ask the following questions:  What is the relationship between fiction and the present or “real” world?  And between fiction and “truth”?  If something is “fictional,” does that mean it isn’t “real”?  What do “made-up” stories have to say about the past, present, and future of our own societies? How does fiction change how we inhabit different worlds, such as those we find in books, or at our jobs, or even in the classroom?

My “Utopia” class is about these questions.  This means that the class is also about literary study and its purpose.  Which means that the class is about itself.  And what could be more real than that?

 

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“Utopiæ insulæ tabula.” Woodcut map, From More’s De optimo reip. statv, deqve noua insula Vtopia, libellus uere aureus, nec minus salutaris quàm festiuus . . . (Basel, 1518).

Literary Data and the Bechdel Test

January 21, 2014 - 16:35

I’ll offer a provisional definition of data as evidence, and then consider the Bechdel test’s data as an example whose political assumptions I find provocative and counterintuitive.

I want to think about the commonalities between the different kinds of data we use in literary studies, and I’ll risk, for the sake of argument, reducing “data” to “evidence.” Daniel Rosenberg suggests in “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron that data is that which functions rhetorically as evidence⁠: it’s presented as given, and it backs up and in part generates our arguments.[1] The various forms of literary data, within and outside of literary texts, fulfill the same argumentative functions for bibliographic scholars, sociologists of literature, distant readers, or even Freudian readers—as that which is given, as the evidence we marshal forth. For each of these forms of literary scholarly data, there’s a concomitant form of abstraction, a decision about what counts as data: this becomes a distinction between figure and ground, or signal and noise. Literary data emerges through a decision to engage in a Wittgensteinian seeing-as, as Natalia Cecire puts it, data is a chosen “abstraction we use to certain forms of inquiry possible.”[2]

That leveling-out of “data,” I hope, might help to demystify some digital humanities uses of literary data. Literary data that’s algorithmically collected, I’d like to suggest, is aligned less with the instrumental reason of bureaucracy, surveillance, and discipline, than it is with cybernetic reason, which Andrew Pickering characterizes as a thoroughgoing pragmatism, an approach characterized by “black boxes,” or the bracketing of interiors and particulars, which introduces a tolerance for error in favor of function and scalability.[3] Algorithmically (or formulaically) derived sets of data, whether machine or hand-collected—like Franco Moretti’s analysis of the lengths of novel titles[4]—often aggregate extremely thin slices of data about individual texts to enable scalability.  What I find most interesting, and politically consequential, about literary data in general are the assumptions inherent in acts of selecting what counts as data, the ways of seeing-as that ground the collection of data.

I’ll turn then to the Bechdel Test, which originates neither from DH nor from academic literary criticism, but from websites and blogs. The test rates films on a set of essentially algorithmic criteria, offering a fresh way of seeing the data of film. Several sites and a YouTube channel run by non-academics collect ratings of films based on the test: “one, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something other than a man.”[5] The characters in Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip “The Rule” use Ridley Scott’s Alien as a not-so-innocent example. Bechdel’s test sets aside conventional criteria such as strong female character, individual choices, and interiority, which might qualify Alien as a feminist film. Instead, Bechdel testers ignore most of a film’s content in order to create what is essentially a character-network within each text, where each character is a node, and lines of shared dialogue constitute edges (or lines) between them. The Bechdel Test looks for female community, in both the conventional sense of the word and somewhere near the its more specialized sense in network theory. Bechdel jettisons conventional thinking about agency in literary texts in order to describe it as a network effect: that is, agency in our thoroughly connected world might be described as the potential reach of our ideas within a network. The data of this character network discard most of the literary data we’re used to paying attention to in favor of identifying character networks that leave room for female agency to develop as it will. Significantly for its historical moment—the pre-queer-theory 1980s—the original test avoids prescriptions about the content of female agency by focusing on the social structures through which a resolutely female agency might emerge.

With innovations in the kinds of data we use, then, come new sorts of arguments to be made about literature. If there’s a critical value that I’d most like to emerge here, it’s that we should consider seriously literary data of all kinds, especially as we cultivate the ability to navigate between different forms and scales of data.



[1] Rosenberg: “The term ‘data’ serves a different rhetorical and conceptual function than do sister terms such as ‘facts’ and ‘evidence.’ To put it more precisely, in contrast to these other terms, the semantic function of data is specifically rhetorical” (18). Daniel Rosenberg, “Data Before the Fact,” in “Raw Data" Is an Oxymoron, ed. Lisa Gitelman (Cambridge, Mass: MIT P, 2013), 15–40.

[2] Natalia Cecire (ncecire), “Almost nothing in the world IS data. ‘Data’ is an abstraction we use to make certain kinds of inquiry possible.” 28 October 2012. Tweet. For context, see Scott Selisker, “The Digital Inhumanities?: Responses to Stephen Marche,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 5 Nov 2012. https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/in-defense-of-data-responses-to-stephen-marches-literature-is-not-data.

[3] Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011), 18–23.

[4] Franco Moretti, “Style, Inc. Reflections on Seven Thousand Titles (British Novels, 1740–1850),” Critical Inquiry 36.1 (Autumn 2009), 134-158.

[5] Speaking of data: the user-edited database at http://bechdeltest.com lists 209 movies for 2013, and on January 5, 2014, it had 4683 ratings total on the site.  Anita Sarkeesian’s YouTube.com channel, “Feminist Frequency,” has featured a series on “The Oscars and the Bechdel Test” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PH8JuizIXw8), the latest of which has been viewed 457,000 times. Daniel Mariani, a biology student in Brazil, has done the most thorough and Moretti-esque set of visualizations of the genres, directors, writers, etc., that pass or do not pass the Bechdel Test: http://tenchocolatesundaes.blogspot.com/2013/06/visualizing-bechdel-test.html

 

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Notes for "What is Data?"

January 20, 2014 - 13:22

I want to begin with the premise that literature is the data of literary studies. The OED tells us that the term “data,” from classical Latin, refers to “an item of information” and to “related items of (chiefly numerical) information considered collectively, typically obtained by scientific work and used for reference, analysis or calculation.”1 “Data” is the plural of “datum,” deriving from the Latin “dare,” which means to give.” Hence, “datum” and “data” refer not only to information but also (and more generally) to “something given or granted; something known or assumed as fact, and made the basis of reasoning.”2

To say literature is the data of literary studies, then, is to understand it, first, as something given or obtained for analysis and, second, as something made the basis of reasoning. Although these two understandings are often entwined, I want to draw a bolder line between reasoning and analyzing. I wonder about the potential payoff of considering literature to be data in one sense (as that which forms the basis of reasoning) yet not in the other (as that which we analyze). What would happen if literature were understood to constitute the ground for thinking without being itself the primary object of analysis?

This question was prompted for me by this panel and by recent work at the intersection of sociology and literary studies. I am thinking of scholars such as Rita Felski and Heather Love who have found the work of sociologists like Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman to be methodologically provocative.3 Latour, as Felski notes, has not offered extensive exegeses of individual literary texts, yet what he calls a “continuous familiarity with literature” is central to his sociological program.4 Indeed, Latour does not analyze novels, poems, and plays, but he does consider literature and literary theory to be conceptual “resources,” devices for generating concepts to explain social experience. His influential conception of the nonhuman actor, for instance, derives partly from his reading of narratology alongside works by Richard Powers and Francis Ponge. “When everything else has failed,” he quips, “the resource of fiction can bring— through the use of counterfactual history, thought experiments, and [other means]—the solid objects of today into the fluid states where their connections with humans may make sense. Here again, sociologists have a lot to learn from artists.”5 For Latour, then, literary art performs a pedagogical function, in this case enabling the sociologist to “make sense” of the relationship between human and nonhuman. Instead of approaching literary authors like Powers and Ponge as objects of analysis, Latour enlists them as allies in his ongoing effort to apprehend contemporary social experience.

Across the disciplinary divide, I want to receive Latour’s engagement with the literary as a challenge to think of literature as data in the broadest sense—as not merely something given or obtained for analysis but as something that constitutes the basis for reasoned inquiry into the philosophical and sociological questions that matter to us. I want to read literature, in other words, as both a primary source and a conceptual resource.

  • 1. “data, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.ezp- prod1.hul.harvard.edu/view/Entry/296948?redirectedFrom=data (accessed January 03, 2014).
  • 2. “datum, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.ezp- prod1.hul.harvard.edu/view/Entry/47434?redirectedFrom=datum (accessed January 03, 2014).
  • 3. Rita Felski, “Context Stinks,” New Literary History 42 (2011): 573–591; Heather Love, “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41 (2010): 371–391.
  • 4. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 55.
  • 5. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 81–82.
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Rough Notes for “What is Data?”

January 17, 2014 - 12:20

I want to begin by arguing that the current state of affairs with respect to “data” and “literature,” itself a mirror of the entire structure that organizes the cultural relationship between the digital humanities and literary criticism, is bad for proponents on both sides. I mean in the most general possible way, but here I want to focus especially on the antagonism between data-based analysis of literary texts, which has been called “distant reading,” and the more historically traditional reading practice of focusing on small units of meaning, which we call, pretty loosely, “close reading.”

The first thing to say is that distant reading is not really distant, and close reading is not just close. No reading practice ever maintains itself as one “distance” from a text; rather what we call a reading practice is among other things a pattern of system of habitual distances and relations among those distances. So “close reading” is not always close; rather it pairs a certain kind of analysis of relatively small pieces of text with very powerful analytic tools—the tools of New Criticism, but also of psychoanalysis, deconstruction, new historicism, and so on—that leverage those small pieces of text into structures that are more “distant” from the text than is, say, the sentence or the phoneme. As the farthest level of distance these readings manage to make claims about some of the largest possible conceptual structures in human society, namely the nature of being (or beauty), the organization of the unconscious, the ethics of language, or the totality of an era. On the way they almost inevitably pass through other levels of what we might think of as “distance” from the text, in which they both use (as tools) and make claims about (interpretively) things like subgenres (sonnets, science fiction), genres (poetry, the novel), modes (epic, lyric), and so on.

Close reading is not, I say again, close; it is an arrangement of closeness and distance that behaves as though its epistemological fundamentals took place entirely at the level of “closeness”; whereas in fact as in any system these fundamentals operate as part of a larger pattern. You could say the same for “distant” reading.

What I want to propose is that modes of reading contain buried theories of what kind of information literature is. And I want to suggest that literature is a both a very particular kind of information but also, that this particularity constitutes not a difference in kind from other kinds of information but rather one of degree. I am willing to make this argument both ontologically and pragmatically, but for now since I have no real time I will simply say that pragmatically if we could think of literature as information—the same way we have learned to think of the codex book as a medium instead of the thing that media were against—then we would be on our way to getting rid of the somewhat stupid antagonism between the digital/data-oriented/distant model and the older analaog/close reading model, which would free us all up to do a wider variety of work, and to think our old categories through in interesting ways via new ideas.

I’m going to close by rewriting a couple sentences of the anthropologist Terence Turner’s, which are part of an argument he’s making about the role metaphor plays in the production of social life, in which he (like me) wants to emphasize the contextual, contingent, and essentially degree-oriented differences among various tropic and social practices, against those who want to make those differences differences of kind. I only mention that I’m rewriting the sentences because I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism:

“It is essential to understand the structural continuity of the step from information to literature and back again—in other words, to grasp the nonuniqueness of literature an absolute structural sense—in order to appreciate the nature and importance of literature’s relative specificity and distinctive role in the construction, and continual reconstruction, of new or distinct contexts of cultural meaning and subjective consciousness. That the difference literature makes to the history of information is not fixed and qualitative, but pragmatic and, as it were, quantitative, does not imply that such a dimension of difference does not exist, only that it is a relative, fluid, and quantitative matter.” (Turner 129)

More specifically, I want to ask what happens if we think of literature as the site for the storage l of information, and if we think of literary criticism, then, following that model, as a series of efforts to retrieve that information. We then come back to the question that organizes this roundtable, “What is Data?,” and begin with an answer, not in the form “Data is X or Y or Z,” which I suppose is the usual way to answer such questions, but rather by saying, “Literature (among other things) is data (among other things),” which leads to the question, “What kind of data/information is literature?” … which is a question I would like to answer.

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Data: Three Provocations

January 16, 2014 - 19:00

In my time today, I would like to offer a set of provocations that, I hope, will allow us to expand our understanding of the nature of data, its uses, and its implications for literary study. These provocations number three, and they are each derived from that walking provocation, Thomas Jefferson.

The first emerges from Jefferson’s process of data collection, through which I want to call attention to the materiality of data—of his data, and all data—that is too often overlooked in our digital age. Jefferson was famously aware of his own historical legacy, and took active steps to influence that legacy by amassing an immense personal archive. He sought to acquire “one of those copying Machines” in 1783, almost as soon as he learned of their existence, and in 1804, he would purchase one of the first polygraph devices, which represented the next generation of copying technology.

As a result, the 18,000 documents that Jefferson himself composed and then copied, as well as a significant portion of the 25,000 additional documents that he received and subsequently archived, are now available in digital form. But we no longer have access to, for instance, the texture of the porous copying paper that Jefferson so diligently imported from London; the wetness (and likely, the malodorous smell) of the iron-gall ink that he used in his press; or the sound of the advancing roller, which forced the ink through the copying paper, resulting in a facsimile of the original document that, once dry, could be turned over and read from the back.

Attending to the materiality of this process provides a way to understand how the act of data collection influences the data itself. We might follow this pathway, for example, from the technologies of data collection, to the hands that operated the machines—in Jefferson’s case, not only his own, but those of the series of workers who cleaned the ink from the machine’s rollers, and then filed the archival copies, whose names we may or may not know. This form of “lossy” data is no more apparent to us today—think only of the ghostly hands that occasionally appear in the images provided by Google books—but by attending to data’s materially, we can begin to tell new stories about its collection, its implications, and its use.

The second provocation I want to present relates to the organization of data, and it emerges from another aspect of Jefferson’s archive—in particular, from the classification scheme that accompanied his 1783 catalog of books. This collection was the one offered for sale to the federal government after the War of 1812, and provided the seed collection for today’s Library of Congress.

You can see here an illustration of the scheme’s main attributes: three basic divisions—History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts—which were “applied retrospectively” to the main categories identified by Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning (you can see those noted above). Then you see the forty-four so-called “chapters” into which Jefferson sub-divided his collection—a departure from Bacon—visually represented here as a hierarchy.

This idea for a hierarchical system of classification came from Carl Linnaeus, with whom Jefferson sided against the Comte du Buffon, and his ideas about the negative environmental influence of North America. This is the same theory of degeneration that Jefferson famously aimed to refute in textual form in Notes on the State of Virginia. And in fact, the seemingly utilitarian organization of this library data is undergirded by the same theoretical stance. So attending to these contexts, as literary critics are trained to do, can reveal the argument that underlies the structure of this—or any—ostensibly anodyne list. 

The final provocation I will offer relates to the content of data—that is to say, to what (or whom) the data represents. Here you see presented—in a form not unlike the library scheme—is the data of Jefferson’s Farm-book, the small leather-bound volume in which Jefferson recorded the names, birthdates (when known), present locations, and countries of origin of the men, women, and children he enslaved.

In contrast to the organization of Jefferson’s library, this presentation of people exposes a different system of order and control—one that enabled Jefferson to erroneously believe that the men and women on his plantation might become objects of empirical knowledge, not only controlled, but also understood, through quantifiable, visualizable facts.

This data, and its visual display, thus illustrate the imperative of examining any process that reduces persons to objects, and stories to names. To be clear: I do not wish to draw a comparison between chattel slavery and anything else. Rather, I want to suggest that our role, as literary critics in the data age, is to attend to the epistemological gap made manifest by Jefferson’s farm book, and to consider what new knowledge we might work towards, and what new stories we might tell, through an expanded sense of the uses—and meanings—of data today.

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Copy Press. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

What Isn't Data in Literary Studies?

January 16, 2014 - 17:30

When I began thinking about this, I had to ask “What isn’t data in literary studies?” Everything is data, in some sense, and it depends on the position of the analyst and the nature of the project. So I want to narrow the question by situating it: what is data to whom? and for what?

In this talk, “data” is that which can serve as input for computer analysis, by someone working with texts using the type of Natural Language Machine Learning I’ve worked with to isolate significant word clusters, topic modeling.

That’s pretty specific, but even then there are two distinctions to draw. Lisa Gitelmen points out, in her collection, Raw Data is an Oxymoron, that data is abstract but it requires material expression. So I’ll start with the material form, to argue:

Data is not literature.

I don’t mean this in the sense of cultural value, or even in the sense of what are our primary sources of analysis. But in purely practical terms. Texts have to be prepared as a corpus for computer programs to use them, and the result doesn’t look anything like literature. This is chapter 3 of Great Expectations:

To identify sets of word clusters, or “topics,” you want useful groups of words that can tell you something about the texts, other than that the English-language ones use “the” and “and” a lot. You want to identify groups of significant words, generally nouns and verbs. So you get rid of, “stop list,” all the articles, conjunctions, pronouns. And the honorifics: Mr, Miss, Sir. And the interjections, “Ah!” “Hem!” You eliminate proper names—they don’t tell you anything substantive about thematic concerns, and a topic that tells you who are all the major characters in a book is not very useful. If you are really ambitious, you might want to transform dialect into standard English, so that “guv’ner” and “governor” count as the same word, rather than two separate ones. What’s left is basically unreadable and doesn’t look anything like literature, and that’s without going to the next level and stemming the text, so that all forms of a verb, past or present tense, count as the same word and not different ones.

So postulate #1: The material expression of data is a representation of literature, not literature.

If we turn to the abstract form of data, in this context, the first thing that becomes apparent is that data is a product of analysis rather than its object:

Data is not the ground of analysis but its product

The scrubbing process I’ve just describe is premised on how the algorithm in topic modeling works. It’s premised on a model of what the documents contain, that is, a theoretical version of the data it will analyze. The abstraction in topic modeling works like this, according to its creator, David Blei, at Princeton: 

Documents arise from a particular generative process, i.e., a story about how texts are written. It assumes that writers begin with a group of topics, say 100, and each topic contains an equal number of different words in it. This is the imaginary writer’s imaginary data.

The writer then randomly distributes these topics among all the documents, using different proportions for each. So document a has a lot of topic 1, and document b is mostly topic 2 and a little of topic 1, and so on. Every document has all 100 topics within it, in different proportions; 90% of a document might consist of two topics alone, and the others are barely there at all.

Finally, the writer distributes the words from each topic randomly within the documents, according to the given proportions. Thus: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

It bears no relation to real life, but that’s not the point. It’s a model—an abstraction—of computer-generated documents that another computer program could realistically analyze, using probabilistic modeling. Based on the observable words alone, it can infer the hidden topics and their proportions in the documents and the words per topic that it all started with. Reverse genesis.

So postulate #2: Analysis creates an illusion of meaningful data as prior to itself.

This isn’t a new concept for literature scholars; we know the argument in literary theory that interpretation creates an illusion of textual significance as prior to interpretation. And I don’t see any reason to expect that the function of data’s two forms, abstract and concrete, should be any more or less complex a construct than literature itself.

Tags: literaturedatadigital humanitiesSocial Network: Colloquy: What Is Data in Literary Studies?

Description as Data in Literary Studies

January 16, 2014 - 16:50

[Thoughts delivered at the "What Is Data in Literary Studies?" roundtable at the Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago, IL on 10 January 2014. Roundtable organized by James English.]

Addressing the question, "what is data in literary studies," offers the chance to enlarge our interpretational procedures to include new methods and materials. But also to apply existing methods of analysis to new materials and questions. Quantitative approaches to archives and texts developed by digital humanists have offered one such expansion. These approaches often treat literature as a data mine. In response, I propose that literature is a heuristic for managing and conceptualizing data. In one strain of my current research on how environmental media make claims to knowledge through their form, I locate this heuristic function in climate change fiction and visual culture.

Novels such as Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy comprise the knowledge infrastructure of climate crisis. Now, to say that literature is knowledge producing does not mean that it is all-knowing. Just as climate modelers shelve the Enlightenment ideal of certain knowledge,[1] climate novelists incorporate data with a robust helping of uncertainty. But as part of a knowledge infrastructure, narratives of climate change variously organize and manage data as part of their aesthetic. Devices for information management, they inspire the following methodological question:

How and why might we define the epistemic as a kind of aesthetic?

Kingsolver's 2012 book highlights a version of this problem. The protagonist, Dellarobia, is a stay-at-home mom and lifelong resident of an economically-failing town in Appalachia. About to commit adultery, she stumbles on a wondrous, even miraculous, ecological event: a massive population of monarch butterflies draped like a throbbing, flaming curtain across the forest. Common to other regions, the phenomenon is out of place in Feathertown, Tennessee, but is all the more astounding for that. When an ecologist and his team descend to study the errant migration, Dellarobia learns that the butterflies are a dreadful splendor. In a scene narrating procedures of data collection, she considers that, "if these butterflies were refugees of a horrible misfortune, there could be no beauty in them" (143).

Yet Flight Behavior is a testament to the compatibility of dismaying data and aesthetic beauty. It features dramas of ignorance and attention, of observation and heedlessness, that integrate scientific data and aesthetic experience. The visiting lepidopterist attempts to separate these domains and pronounces, "'Our job is only to describe what exists'" (148). But the novel closes the sharp divide between scientific and aesthetic description. It shows that knowledge only arises through strategies of seeing-as, specifically focalization and simile.

This and other climate novels spark relays between the epistemic and the aesthetic that, for me, invite two inquiries:

First, what are the "epistemic virtues" that fiction espouses, adapts, or challenges? I borrow this concept from Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison's study, Objectivity. They define "epistemic virtues" as "norms that are internalized and enforced by appeal to ethical values, as well as to pragmatic efficacy in securing knowledge."[2]

Broadening the concept of epistemic virtues to the literary field, then, leads to a second inquiry: in what ways do aesthetic features promote knowledge values? These values might be accuracy, humility, subjectivity, or transparency.

These are large questions that these brief notes can't adequately tackle. Instead, I want to highlight a key narrative device for aesthetically disseminating data and establishing epistemic virtues. That device, I argue, is description.

Description is at once a key site for data dissemination in a text and a site where things are made to matter. It calls on readers to attend to the things of the world and, increasingly, to the numerical data that reference those entities. In Cynthia Wall's account, it is a form of verbal visualization that, emerging from a process of selection, "makes something visible, sets it forth, extracts it from its surroundings, and jabs a finger meaningfully at it."[3] Description makes things matter then both by manifesting materialities and by giving them affective and epistemic significance.

In essence, description is a narrative apparatus of information and attention control. Re-examining this instrument of attention—especially in contemporary works that bridge science and art—we might theorize data management within literary studies using extant tools of narrative and formal analysis.

[1] Edwards, Paul N. A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 435.

[2] Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 40-41.

[3] Wall, Cynthia. The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 13.

 

Tags: literaturedatadigital humanitiesSocial Network: Colloquy: What Is Data in Literary Studies?

Omnivorousness, Elite Taste, Literary Scholarship

January 13, 2014 - 12:17

Let’s talk about quantitative literary history and where you can find the best tacos al pastor.

I’ve been spending some time recently researching trends in the history of literary scholarship. For MLA this year, for a panel on “Seeing with Numbers” with Hoyt Long, Richard So, Matt Jockers, and Amy Hungerford, I was thinking about the drive to include more texts among our objects of study. On the panel we focused on efforts to see more of literary history by using quantitative methods. 1 But as I was working on my analysis of the changing (or rather unchanging) distribution of scholarly attention in modernist studies, it occurred to me that it is not only the quantifiers in literary studies who articulate the impulse to include more texts.

In fact, two major transformations-by-inclusion of literary study have been underway from roughly the 1970s on: both (1) the opening of the scholarly and classroom canon by feminist, African-American, postcolonial, and ethnic studies and (2) the scholarly practice of coordinating capital-L Literary texts with other cultural texts, which is legitimated by the New Historicism. Both, in fact, reflect the changing nature of the cultural capital supplied by a literary education as well as major progress in literary-historical knowledge.

Do these transformations participate in a larger shift in taste as well? Sociologists of culture have argued that in the last three decades or so, élites have changed the way they consume cultural products. In their 1996 article “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore,” Richard Peterson and Roger Kern used the results of two surveys of musical preferences ten years apart to show that highbrow taste was changing from being based on an exclusive choice of genres (classical music and opera) to being based on having a taste for more genres (classical and country). Subsequent work (I particularly enjoyed Johnston and Baumann on food writing) has extended this thesis about omnivorousness to other cultural domains: elite taste is marked by the range and manner of appreciation. Thus the lowbrow eater likes only a few kinds of food; the highbrow eater seeks out and appreciates the best of each knowledgeably (not only the most superior haute cuisine but the best tacos al pastor. Chowhound, know thyself).

I think we can characterize literary scholars’ efforts to make expert readings of a much wider range of texts—especially formerly un-Literary or low-cultural texts—as omnivorous too. It is even possible that university literature teaching and the increasing cultural standing of omnivorousness are mutually reinforcing. The analogy between the opening of the canon to ethnic literature and the appreciation of subcultural and minority cultural production is especially close, I think. 2 This would also align with literary studies’ increasing insistence that it is the manner of analysis (“reading”) that is central to our teaching—and that gives value to the text.

This suggestion of mine provoked some skepticism at the MLA panel. Was I saying that DH specialists working on corpora of thousands of novels were displaying their élite taste? Not exactly, especially since the implicit judgments about the texts subjected to quantitative analysis vary. But I am saying that the cultural omnivore hypothesis helps to explain the climate of taste in which the imperative to include as many texts as possible seems legitimate and even urgent for literary experts.

I find thinking about the omnivore hypothesis useful as a reminder that questions of canons and tastes don’t go away when scholarship tries to do aggregating or quantitative analyses. Taste and evaluation continue to be central to the practices of readers, even when we expert readers proudly seize on texts from low and high culture alike. And quantitative analyses are part of the history of literary taste in their way. 3 Thus it’s important to remember that the rise of the omnivore does not imply the end of distinctions according to taste. The studies of omnivorousness I’ve read (and I’m still reading) all emphasize that differences in cultural consumption between status groups continue, and that groups continue to make distinctions themselves. Bourdieu est mort, vive Bourdieu: instead of a homology between classes and objects of taste, there is a homology between classes and modes of taste. You enjoy science fiction novels; I read them as literature. You want Chinese take-out, I want to travel forty-five minutes for the best Sichuanese restaurant.

The cultural capital of omnivorousness might also help explain the relative—and very problematic—lack of attention to the history of reading in quantitative digital literary studies. 4 This inattention reinforces (and is permitted by) a status boundary between expert readers and lay readers, even though it changes the manner of expert “reading” from hermeneutic closeness to numerical processing. In fact the contemporary debate opposing “close” to “distant” reading is among other things a struggle over the criteria of legitimacy in literary expertise. Could the “distant reader” be the ultimate omnivore?

Cross-posted on andrewgoldstone.com.

  • 1. I find I am getting fussier about insisting on “quantitative methods” rather than “digital methods” or “computer-assisted methods.” The methodological distinction we can use is between micro and macro, as Jockers has it in Macroanalysis—or, as I’d prefer, between qualitative and quantitative: not because these terms are particularly enlightening, but because they would help us map our current methodological debates onto divisions within social sciences, directing our attention to the solutions those disciplines have found for articulating the two tendencies. Furthermore, the machine is more a fetish than a method. Quantitative analyses of many texts have more in common with quantitative social science or corpus linguistics than with a machine-driven algorithmic criticism of individual texts. Maybe everyone using quantitative techniques ought to make themselves do a small example by hand before going back to their programs.
  • 2. This is the point to remark that the change from snob to omnivore is not some natural turnover in fashion but produced by social changes. Two prominent possible causes are the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the ascendancy of neoliberalism: both challenge cultural snobism and favor a more pluralized model of cultural taste, though not, of course, in identical ways. My impression is that there is no sociological consensus on which of the many possible causes of the snob-omnivore transition are most significant.
  • 3. Not that every quantifier is an omnivore. John Burrows’s 1987 Computation into Criticism strongly implies that its stylistic analysis of Austen shows her superiority to other writers; Georgette Heyer is selected for invidious, if interesting, comparison. And DH seems to be constantly tempted by the lure of a retrograde canon: justify the algorithm by saying it can tell us why Famous Author X deserves to be famous; justify the enormous labor of digital editing by concentrating on the most celebrated writers; etc.
  • 4. Relative, relative. Two exceptions I have learned a lot from are Anne DeWitt on late-Victorian theological-romance readers and Ed Finn on readers of David Foster Wallace on amazon. I might also mention that if we suspend our digital fetish for a minute we can remember several decades of quantitative work on readers in book history and the sociology of literature. Some favorite examples: Janice Radway; Priya Joshi; Wendy Griswold; Bennett, Emmison, and Frow.
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Tacos al pastor, Mac laptop just out of view. "al pastor, pollo, and a sunkist" CC-BY-SA 2.0 Paul Bailey, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lukács and the Mockingjay

January 6, 2014 - 08:53

How important is Katniss Everdeen, really, to the uprising in Panem? Would she count as a “world-historical figure,” according to Georg Lukács?

I don’t really know, because I haven’t read the third book in the “Hunger Games” series, Suzanne Collins’s teen-dystopia trilogy. Every hint and spoiler I’ve heard on the internet leads me to believe it will be “hard” and “violent.” Fans wonder if the violence will even be representable, though I have great faith in Hollywood’s capacity to depict fantasy violence.


Not a mere tactic

But the second movie in the series, Catching Fire (which I will now be SPOILING MASSIVELY), plays some clever tricks with the concept of historical narrative, and with the hackneyed template of individualist Hollywood epic. Our heroine, Katniss, thinks she’s starring in one kind of story, but then finds herself starring in another. (Is genre-mashup the way we imagine revolution nowadays?) The plot of Catching Fire first seems like a tired retread of the first movie (The Hunger Games), except that this time the Games are set up specifically to neutralize Katniss, who became a symbol of forbidden hope after forcing the Gamemakers to change the rules. In the first movie, her televised mourning for fellow tribute Rue (a young African-American girl) set off a wave of public anger—though in the second movie she is mostly too cowed to rebel. Katniss is sent back into the arena as part of a “Quarter Quell,” in which the victors of previous Games are pitted against each other.

When the first movie came out in 2012, everyone found their own allegory in it. Conservatives saw a rebellion by the Real America against out-of-touch Big Government, like the Tea Party. Liberals took it as a fortuitous mirror of 2011′s Occupy Wall Street protests against the capture of democracy by Big Money. For me, the most powerful part of the story was the despair of the young people trapped by rules they didn’t make. Did this reflect the death of the American dream, since young people in “Generation Screwed” have to carry the twin burdens of debt and falling expectations? Or maybe teens just like dystopias because they dramatize the painful individuation of growing up.


This is just an accident

Catching Fire throws an interesting kink into the Katniss-as-rebel-heroine narrative. We know that Katniss only wants to survive, and her prime loyalty is to her family. In the first movie, the sacrificial moment in which Katniss volunteered as tribute to save her innocent sister Prim was heroic, but not motivated by any larger political purpose. Katniss brings the same individualist family-first ethos to this movie, but the game has changed: her whole society is now organizing around a more collective strategy. Katniss here is like Rick at the beginning of Casablanca, a lone wolf who tries to avoid getting swept up in the Resistance. She just happened to be wearing a pin with a mockingjay on it during the first Games, and so the mockingjay (a mutant bird with uncanny powers of mimicry) became the symbol for the Rebellion against Panem. Katniss is now a figure of popular identification: even President Snow’s granddaughter copies Katniss’s braids, saying that “everybody” wears their hair this way now. But she just wants to be left alone.


Defeat with no honor

It’s easy to identify with a figure of vague rebellion, especially a reluctant and ambivalent one. But I felt that Catching Fire was a little more powerful than the usual celebration of “being yourself” you see in American movies. Maybe this time I felt the weight of American history a little more strongly. Didn’t we once have a revolution for real, with our 13 colonies? And didn’t we ruthlessly crush the uprising of the Confederacy, burning a track through a rebel state?  I got the chills from the hollow vision of the Victor’s Village, with its melancholy Federalist/Civil War/New-Deal era furniture. When President Snow corners Katniss in her library, it feels like he’s in a farmhouse in Appomattox.

Or maybe it’s that more than in the first movie, we’re reminded again and again how spectacle—like the one we’re watching—can be used to crush dissent. Bread and circuses! And romantic fantasy—the hope that one crazy couple can get away from it all, like at the end of Blade Runner—is just pulling the wool over your eyes. “Remember who the real enemy is!” Finnick reminds Katniss, just before they destroy the Quarter Quell arena. I gasped in the theater at that line: “the real enemy”?? You mean winning a rigged neoliberal Survivor-like game is not the best we can hope for? Blogger K-punk enthuses that because of this line, Catching Fire is a truly revolutionary work of art, coming at precisely the right moment.


You shouldn’t want this to work out.

What’s clear is that the Hunger Games doesn’t fit simply into the Twilight template of one girl torn between the two boys she loves (though that plot is also there). Katniss exploited the popular hunger for romance to survive the first Games, and in this film it’s even clearer that the bond between Katniss and poor Peeta (who really does love her!) is the Capitol’s way of diverting attention from real political oppression. But this implies that insofar as we (the pampered spectators) root for Katniss to find love, we’re being lulled into passivity by the culture industry.

The other plot twist that feels politically powerful is the revelation at the end that Katniss (like us) has been in the dark about the whole Quarter Quell. The other victors had already banded together to concoct a plan to destroy the Games as a signal to the Rebellion, but left her out of it—ostensibly because she’s being watched by Snow, but really because she’s too much of a loner. Unlike Rick in Casablanca, Katniss has not yet figured out that there’s a war on, and that she is in it. She’s only an accidental heroine, just as the mockingjay is an accidental symbol. We completely misread her role: she is not in fact (or not yet) the heroine of an epic.


Jeanie Deans’s quest to save her sister

Georg Lukács suggested in The Historical Novel* that the best kinds of historical novel—like the ones by Romantic novelist Walter Scott—don’t focus on the great historical actors. They focus on mediocre, marginal figures like the English squire Waverley in Waverley (1814) or the Scottish lass Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian (1818), who are caught up in larger events. They are forced to reveal their heroism—a heroism latent in all humans—because of the stress of their revolutionary times. But their heroism is intensely context-specific: “Having successfully carried through her aim, Jeanie Deans returns to everyday life, and never again does she experience a similar upsurge in her life to betray the presence of such strengths” (52). The epic, by contrast, focuses on the hero—the king or the warrior—who embodies and maybe transcends historical change. Only in epic is the famous person also the main character of the narrative: “The all-national character of the principal theme of epic … require[s] that the most important person should occupy the central position, while in the historical novel he is necessarily only a minor character” (45). For Lukács, the value of Scott’s novels is to show how history is moved forward unknowingly by large masses of people and not just one or two great men. They’re progressive and implicitly democratic stories, he argues—even if the hero isn’t the one celebrated by history.

So is Katniss the agent of change, or is she just a humble girl (with fantastic archery skills) swept up in a bigger story? Evidence—in this second movie at least—points to the latter. The movie’s last scene, though, depicts Katniss’s face moving from trauma and confusion to anger and resolve, hinting that she’ll take a more active role in events from now on. So probably the third movie will revert to Hollywood archetype and depict a protagonist in more control of her own destiny. If it does, I will feel satisfied—like a Capitol citizen rooting for her favorite—and that will be a little disappointing.

* Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963)

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Archer by Theo van Doesburg (1919). Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest {{PD-1923}}.

The Shock of the Modern

January 3, 2014 - 11:13

The discovery of being culturally late is a profound human experience. This feeling of tardiness often compels us to leave home in search of better schooling and of social advancement. It changes us completely and distances us from our home.

I have written here about my own entry into modernity as a young immigrant to Canada, where I had to confront the metronome efficiency of Anglo-Saxon society.

I discovered a similar experience in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s bildungsroman, Nervous Conditions. Set in Zimbabwe, the novel chronicles the attempts of Tambudzai to gain an education. It begins with a stunning sentence: “I was not sorry that my brother died.” She is not apologetic because her brother’s death enables her “escape” from the drudgery and patriarchy of village life. Seeing her mother’s “entrapment” and the poverty of her home, she longs for social, cultural and material improvement. Now with her brother’s passing, she can take his place in the mission school run by her uncle.

Having performed brilliantly in that school, she then gets a place in the convent run by and intended for whites. But this move too is another step “away from the flies, the smells, the fields, and the rags.” Her mother warns her about the dangers and seductions of “Englishness” and the potential forfeiture of her communal ties. Tambudzai reflects on her mother’s admonition, but her mind runs to the promises of the convent: “The books, the games, the films, the debates—all these things were things that I wanted.”

This personal experience of belatedness has played itself out in global history, motivating projects of modernization and of nationalism. Having come upon this phenomenon in Greek history, I discovered, for instance, that early modernizers were driven by the sense that their society, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire, was backward. Arriving in the European cities like Amsterdam, London, Paris, Munich, or Marseilles to study or trade, these young men entered the modern age for the first time.

In these cities they discovered that Europeans had transformed their economies, politics, bureaucracy, and culture to such an extent that they abandoned the rest of the world to the sluggishness of tradition. In other words, these Greeks came to terms with the sense of being late.

Greek intellectuals came to discover what many postcolonial intellectuals would later, namely that their society had to catch up with developments already started in places like England, Holland, and then France, and Germany. They had no choice but to enter the race in which, as the observers of the current Greek economic crisis could tell you, they are still running, always comparing the successes on the other side of the border with failures at home. In short, these modernizers interpreted for their community the vast disparity they had faced in technological, political, military, and cultural development between home and abroad, and as a result of their discovery, goaded their community to change according to new models.

Perhaps the earliest individual to experience the tremor of modernity is the first American intellectual: the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, whom I discovered in Roland Greene’s new book Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Born in Cuzco in 1539 to an Inca princess and a conquistador of noble lineage, de la Vega witnessed the destructive power and overwhelming advance of the Spanish invaders. His mixed ancestry allowed him access to both worlds—indigenous and colonial. And growing up in Cuzco he learned from his mother’s relatives about the myths, traditions, customs, and history of the Incas.

When still a young man de la Vega left Peru and settled permanently in Spain where he wrote, amongst other things, two volumes of his epic work, The Royal Commentaries of the Incas, published in 1609 and 1616. The first volume dealt with the history of the Incas while the second was devoted to the period of conquest. Unlike later postcolonial intellectuals who interpreted modern society to their own populations, de la Vega tried to explain Andean culture sympathetically to the Spaniards, preserving in this way first-hand accounts of a rapidly changing society. His impetus was less to change than to preserve what had been wrecked.

About 75 years after the publication of de la Vega’s second volume and across to the north, the young Peter the Great witnessed the destructive powers of the new. Rambling through the European district of Moscow, he encountered the technological advances of Europeans. His shock was so visceral that he decided to gain first-hand experience of western progress by traveling incognito in 1797 to Amsterdam, the richest and most modern city of the time. Wandering through the streets as a carpenter, Peter discovered that Moscow seemed eons behind the Dutch city. Upon his return to Russia, he undertook what seemed the impossible, to build a new city, St. Petersburg, on the model of Amsterdam but ultimately to rival that city in glory. He achieved this goal  in part through the ruthless exploitation of labor. 

This is also the case of Dubai today. People may scoff at Dubai’s artificiality, its Disneyland quality with ski slopes in malls dug out of the desert and islands floating on the sea. But, as Daniel Brook has shown in A History of Future Cities, its impulse is, like Peter’s, to catch up and surpass the west. Brook cites an urban planner who was hired by Sheikh Rashid in the 1970’s and was told to bring Dubai “into the first world in fifteen years” and to make it the center of the Middle East. His ultimate directive was to roam the world in search of models.

It seems that we all find ourselves in the race to be modern. This desire joins Tambudzai, Peter the Great, and the Inca Garcilaso on a path that leads to as many gains as losses.

Tags: BelatednessDubaithe Inca Garcilaso de la VegaGreek modernizationPeter the GreatTsitsi DangarembgaSocial Network: Picture description: 

The house of the Inca Garcilaso in Cuzco. Photograph courtesy of Jessica Cornwell.

What the ASA Boycott Actually Says About Academic Freedom

December 21, 2013 - 10:47

Some of you may have been following the recent matter of the ASA’s vote for an academic boycott of Israel.  I was involved in that discussion and favor the boycott, but my blog today will not try to convince you or lobby you.  People of good conscience can disagree.  I do wish, however, to clear up some very serious misconceptions about what the resolution actually calls for.  College and university presidents and provosts, not to mention Lawrence Summers, have come out in criticism of the resolution, as has the AAUP.  This all has been covered widely in the press, including a front-page article in the 17 December print edition of the New York Times.  I’ll get back to that in a minute.

One of the more accurate and balanced pieces is this from the Seattle TimesThis dispatch from Barak Ravid of Haaretz gives an account of the larger, global actions to protest the conditions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.  At the upcoming meeting of the MLA there will be a panel, “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine” on Thursday, 1:45 to 3 pm (Sheraton 1), and at the Delegate Assembly meeting on Saturday there will be a proposal regarding academic freedom in Israel.  Those interested should attend.

This is of course a hot-button issue, and it has touched off a number of quickly-written blogs and opinion pieces from all sides.  For instance, The Nation early on published an op-ed by Michelle Goldberg that was so full of errors that she had to revise twice.  Judith Butler, one of the targets of that piece, wrote this rebuttal.

It is precisely the issue of academic freedom that has been the key issue for us in the academy.  The most passionate critics of the resolution decry its supposed curbing of individual scholars’ abilities to engage with, work with, form partnerships with Israeli scholars.  This is where things go terribly wrong.  For the resolution only states that the American Studies Association, as an organization, is not going to engage with, work with, form partnerships with Israeli institutions.  There is nothing that prevents individual scholars from following their own consciences in this matter, from working with Israeli scholars, inviting them to their campuses, etc; there is nothing that prevents the ASA from inviting both Israeli scholars and Palestinian scholars to its events.  Furthermore, the boycott is an entirely legal means of non-violent protest: institutions do not enjoy the right of academic freedom (individuals do); the boycott is legally protected—it is considered a form of free speech.  It is ironic that in the week that this occurred Nelson Mandela passed away, someone whose cause was aided by international acts of boycott, divestment, sanctions.

The New York Times article ends with a statement from me that they unfortunately did not cite in full.  I have written them to ask for them to publish what I said in full, but in the event they do not, here is the quote they did publish, followed by the remainder in italics.  The statement originally was posted on the ASA website, along with statements from many others:

“People who truly believe in academic freedom would realize protesting the blatant and systemic denial of academic freedom to Palestinians, which is coupled with material deprivation of a staggering scale, far outweighs concerns we in the West might have about our own rather privileged academic freedoms.  There is no restriction whatsoever of individuals’ academic freedom—this is a boycott by an academic organization against academic institutions in Israel.  Individual ASA members are to follow their consciences; both Israeli and Palestinian scholars are invited to participate in ASA events.”

In closing let me say that, again, I am sure many colleagues disagree (even vehemently) with my position, and I thank Arcade for letting me publish this to make my position clear, so that if we are to disagree we know better what we are disagreeing about.  I would of course be happy to, in the comments page, converse with anyone about this.

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Ghostlier demarcations

December 19, 2013 - 11:19
An Honest GhostA Novel by Rick Whitaker   A book that furnishes no quotations is no book — it is a playthingNext to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of itHow frequently the mere purchase of a book is mistaken for the appropriation of its contents.  Many will read the book before one thinks of quoting a passage.   This book consists of quotations and nothing but quotations.  They are ordered according to a rigorous system of semantic relationships, which like an invisible hand guides the seeker to his "lucky” find.  In this case, a love story with a somewhat bizarre and morbid twist.    But isn't that what David Markson did (for longer) in This Is Not A Novel?  No. Not at all. This book is different, for all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax. (Among the quotations included here, Whitaker does includequotations from David Markson and Ludwig Wittgenstein. And unlike this reviewerhe never feels free to alter the punctuation.)  Here's a guy who has turned his genre into a vehicle for serious ideas and serious emotion--and has never, unlike Markson, been tempted to write more than necessary.  Markson hesitates to label his work "experimental" and instead characterizes his novels -- both "literally crammed with literary and artistic anecdotes" and "nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like, an assemblage" -- as "playful."  There is no linear (or nonlinear) sequence of events to exploit with a wink-nudge because there is no novelistic time employed at all, no events that would require such sequencing.   Whitaker deserves more credit.  What he’s doing is harder.  And much more entertaining.  More like Christian Marclay. Watch the Clock.  Time, so to speak, is everywhere in the movies, and the delight of the experience is that the grab bag becomes a fun house: you never know what’s going to pop up.   A book may measure so-called reality as a clock measures so-called time; a book may create an illusion of reality as a clock creates an illusion of time; a book may be real, just as a clock is real (both more real, perhaps, than those ideas to which they allude); but let's not kid ourselves - all a clock contains is wheels and springs and all a book contains is sentences.   But what else is love?  Words heated originally by the breath of others.  The value of a sentence is in the personality which utters it, for nothing new can be said by man or woman. The hidden life of love is in the most inward depths, unfathomable, and still has an unfathomable relationship with the whole of existence. Call those works extravagance of breath, of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer.  And bid them love each other and be blest.  

 

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’If u don’t know who Mandela is, please shut up!’: Victims of Enchantment and the Reign of Emblems

December 6, 2013 - 13:43

The day after the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death the following exasperated note was posted on her Facebook page by Adu Amani, a friend who lives in Ghana:

Pls if u don’t know who Mandela is,
Please shut up, haba! I just saw a girl’s FB update saying ‘RIP’
Mandela, I love your Movies: an Actor is gone, God what is
happening in Nollywood?# hian!

The idea that anyone anywhere in the world would not know who Mandela was seemed at first incredible, but what followed my initial lol! was a pause to consider what it really means to claim to “know” someone like Mandela in an era of global media and mass social networking, and this especially for the younger generation who had no experience of the anti-apartheid movement.  Everyone seems to know Mandela in one way or another and there are now countless stories of how he has affected various people’s lives both directly and indirectly.

Some months ago when news of Mandela’s illness began to trickle into the media I decided try and ensure that my 12-year-old knew something about the great man beyond the coverage to be found on the news.  I sat him down one day after school, and after telling him a bit about Mandela’s early life and the start of the anti-apartheid struggle, read him portions of the his Rivonia trial speech, which of course ended on the now much cited and immortal words:

This then is what the ANC is fighting.  Their struggle is a truly national one.  It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience.  It is a struggle for the right to live.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.  I have fought against White domination, and I have fought against Black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

By the end of the passage my son sat wide-eyed in obvious wonder, but his question immediately afterward almost threw me: “But why is he a great man?”, he posed earnestly.  Gentle questioning on my part (I thought it was obvious) made me see that despite the fact that he had heard and read many comments on Mandela’s greatness he still wanted me to either confirm what he had heard, or at least to help him prioritize among the various contending labels: saint, father of Africa, freedom fighter, one who was able to forgive his enemies, nation builder, and global icon. I sensed immediately that a broader answer was required but only subsequent reflection gave me what answer I was looking for. I now think that Mandela’s greatness did not lie in any of the well-rehearsed labels, but rather in the fact that he did not allow a principle larger than himself to dehumanize him and to turn him into “a thing with one face, a thing”, as Louis MacNeice puts it in “Prayer Before Birth”.  Or indeed into an emblem, a figment of his own imagination.  For the real challenge of being animated by a principle as resplendent as the fight for the freedom of your own people is the danger of assuming that this principle is by itself what magnifies your status, often in the eyes of others that you come to galvanize, yet most dangerously, within the deepest recesses of your own mind.  The principle takes on the guise of a non-negotiable epic totality, which then prevents you from admitting to the validity of perspectives that might counter or indeed serve to qualify the principle.  Tragic literature provides us many such examples, including Clyaetmenestra, Oedipus, Lear, Coriolanus, and Othello, among many others.  But from the theatre of African decolonization there is no better example than the  chastening one we have of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. 

Like Mandela, Nkrumah was that rare breed of political visionary that also had a choice turn of phrase.  Among other things he took a bachelor’s degree in Sacred Theology from Lincoln University in 1942 and a master’s in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. Having already trained to be a teacher at Achimota School  in Accra in the 1920s and 1930s, on his return to the then Gold Coast in the late 1940s he proceeded to craft a message that fully encapsulated the most exquisite understanding of political utopias.  On Ghana’s attainment of Independence on March 6th, 1957, he was to utter words that have been engrained in every Ghanaian school child’s mind since then: “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all other things shall be added unto you”.  And also, “We have won the battle and again rededicate ourselves. . . our Independence is useless unless it is linked to the total liberation of Africa!” Despite the beautiful utopian nationalist and Pan-Africanist sentiments of his many speeches, Nkrumah managed to slide into an impervious solitude.  All counterpoints to his views were discountenanced (as in defaced) and many of his opponents were thrown into detention.  He became engrossed with plots on his life,  some would say understandably so given a failed assassination plot on his life.  He gradually lost all interest in dialogue with those that might not have agreed with him, and began short-circuiting the rule of law for his own political devices. All that knew him personally declared him to be one of the most modest and decent human beings you imaginable and yet he became a victim of enchantment, an enchantment  that was nothing less than the epic principle of service to the greater good by which every fiber of his being had been shaped since his early adulthood.  Nkrumah was overthrown, partly with the connivance of the CIA, and died in exile in Romania.  If Nkrumah was an earlier avatar of Mandela in almost every respect, he was different in one, and that is that he completely surrendered to the enchantment of his own principles and thus became dehumanized by them. Both African leaders were placed by History at key conjunctures and given the task of leading their people to freedom from colonialism and the shackles of racism.  But things turned out dramatically differently for each, partly because of the processes by which they came to take on the mantle of leadership, but also, as I am trying to show here, but the degree of enchantment on them exercised by their own magnificent principles.  We must thus not understand Mandela as an isolate, or even a one-off, but always as an aspect of a highly complex process of political self-fashioning that is full of pitfalls.

We must pause then to recall an illustrative passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, after Marco Polo has set up a series of representative yet elusive pantomimes by which to represent for Kublai Khan the many cities he has visited:

Returning from the missions on which Kublai sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret: one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant’s beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl.  The great Khan deciphered the signs, but the connection between them and the places visited remained uncertain; he never knew whether Marco wished to enact an adventure that had befallen him on his journey, an exploit of the city’s founder, the prophecy of an astrologer, a rebus or a charade to indicate a name.  But, obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused.  In the Khan’s mind the empire was reflected in a desert of labile and interchangeable data, like grains of sand, from which there appeared, for each city and province, the figures evoked by the Venetian’s logoriphs.

. . . .

“On the day when I know all the emblems,” he asked Marco, “shall I be able to posses my empire, at last?”

And the Venetian answered: “Sire, do not believe it.  On that day you will be an emblem among emblems.”

Here Marco punctures the Khan’s desire to deploy knowledge as a pure instrument of power by noting that all the knowledge of the world, once fully grasped, converts the knower into an emblem among others.  It is thus an ineluctable totality that also devours the self.

The true mark of Mandela’s greatness, then, is that despite all the clearly painful experiences that he accrued in prison and during the course of the anti-apartheid struggle and the strong principles about freedom that he evolved precisely because of those experiences, he did not surrender his mind to the emblematic quality inherent to such epic designs.

And that is why he has freed himself to be an icon for us all.

May he Rest in Peace

 

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I Can, Therefore I Shall: Identifications from the Novel to Facebook

December 3, 2013 - 09:42

Is there something to be said for looking at Facebook as one of a long genealogy of modes of reader/viewer identification starting from the oral folk tale, through the novel, film and television?  What might such a genealogy tell us about the ways in which our identification with the lives of others has changed at the present time?

I just finished watching a clip of an interview that Jeremy Paxman did of Randi Zuckerberg (Mark's sister) for the BBC, in which she said that parents these days have to ensure that their children have good electronic footprints.  Apparently, since it is assumed that the first thing that anyone does on meeting another person for the first time is to google them, some parents have taken to trawling the internet to make sure that they don't give their kid the name of someone notorious or plain nasty as this might constitute the permanent bane of the kid'a life.  For some reason, as I listened to her I thought of a piece that Slavoj Zizek wrote some years ago in one of the British newspapers in which he ended with the motto "I can, therefore I shall."  It was on the new consumerism and the implication of the motto seems to me to be one of the main drivers of the new technology, such that it is the technology that converts incipient wants into raging needs in its users.

But there there also appears to be something more profound, and for which we have to turn to the stages of identification produced first by the folktale, then the novel and on and on to the era of Facebook.  In simple terms, an orally told folk or fairy tale elicited a mode of identification with its protagonists primarily on the basis of what Abiola Irele has described as the "vital immediacy" of orality.  We should not understand vital immediacy be inherent only to modes of oral storytelling, since all forms of music and even dance also transpose modes of vital immediacy into different formats.  At any rate the novel was to generate a new process of identification for the reader, this time severed from the vital immediacy of orality yet no less profound.  Privacy and silence were its main modalities, but a fertile attentiveness was also central to the means by which readers identified with the protagonist's tribulations.  (We should also add that the novel must be credited with generating a new form of "talking heads", i.e., the process by which a reader proceeds to ruminate inside their own heads about the the characters they have identified with.  The stronger the mental rumination, the stronger the impulse to tell someone about what you are reading. It is almost convulsive, like love).  That the hero/heroine was a composition of words and as such was in a sense aligned to other word-created dimensions of the text (space, time, ethical dispositions, etc), also meant that the protagonist provided the syncing mechanism (think iTunes, people) of an entire universe of signification.  Critics have of course separated the various levels that circulate in the novel around the protagonist and re-assembled them into different templates for evaluation.  At any rate, the novel was fundamental for providing a sentimental education for any number of readers over the nearly two-and-a-half centuries of its classic articulations in the nineteenth century.

Cinema came to interpose itself into the domain of identifications, and with a combination of words and moving images served to re-transcribe the contexts of vital immediacy onto fresh terrains.  The era of the cinema was soon to have to contend with that of the television, and I think it is with the television that the character of identifications was fundamentally altered.  If you think back to the era of soap operas, for example, it is easy to see how such programs got viewers to identify with the lives of persons that they thought to be  much like themselves (in fact, much more like themselves than at least the classic nineteenth century novels had first proposed).  The fragmentary nature of the life narratives of such characters that was relayed day-by-day, or week-by-week, or in whatever scale of regularity was enjoined for the TV soap opera, and the manner by which the soaps serialize and alter the relations between foregrounds and backgrounds for different characters ensured that viewers were being encouraged to tie their imaginary identification to the vicissitudes of the characters in the soap operas.  A great cinematic validation of this point is to be found in both the form and the content of The Truman Show, which I think has not been adequately scrutinized for what it sought to articulate about audience identification at the end of the twentieth century.  That soaps such as Dynasty and Coronation Street and East Enders and Home and Away first reached markets well outside their original viewerships in America, Britain, and Australia and then spawned variants in the telenovelas of Latin America did not alter the efficacy of audience identifications that was central to the soaps' success.

Then came reality TV.  Unlike the TV soap, the peculiar power of reality TV is that irrespective of the format (America Got Talent, X Factor, So You Think You Can Dance, Blind Date, Greatest Losers, Big Brother, etc) they are first and last gladiatorial contests. The mode of audience identification with the gladiatorial contest is arguably different from what pertains to the soap, but essentially requires that as a viewer you want someone to fail so another person of your choice succeeds.  But you can also switch identification from a winner-turned loser to a loser that suddenly looks like a winner, etc.  That there is no bloodshed or death unlike in the era of the Romans or indeed of today's Spanish matadors does not alter the essentially gladiatorial character of today's reality TV.

And now Facebook.  And Twitter.  And Tumblr. And Instagram.  But let's stick with Facebook, since it is that that has had and still continues to have the most telling impact both on forms of vital immediacy and on modes of identification.  The first signficant mark of Facebook is the integration of various multimodal platforms that allows people to combine text, and still photos, and moving images, and links to other pages, etc in curating and constantling changing their identities. However,  it is the fact that people no longer have to necessarily identify with fictional others in stories, novels, films or on TV, but have all the tools at their disposal to insert themselves into the circuits of spectatoriality for others to look at that makes it so profound as the instantiation of a completley new cultural template. This is what makes Facebook such an attractive engine of (non)identification. Everyone is now encouraged to look at me (why watch a soap when you can look at me and I you?).  Thus I put up a picture of the soggy burger and a glass of pale ale I am morosely contemplating right now and expect to get several "likes".  Or else?

I can, therefore I shall.  

 

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Remembering Paul Alpers

November 25, 2013 - 05:24

For those interested in slow reading: The Spenser Review has run an issue remembering Paul Alpers, who sadly passed away last May, and I am one of the six contributors.  I have a great fear (I hope I’m wrong) that Alpers is not so well known to those new to the profession of criticism.  He was a giant, and is very much missed.  I'm pasting in the first three paragraphs of my essay, "Perdita's Flowers," below: 

Why should you read Paul Alpers’ What Is Pastoral?  For many readers of The Spenser Review, that probably seems like a stupid question: Spenserians all know Alpers is the critics’ critic of the poets’ poet.  Yet to the broader world, to undergraduates or graduate students or the mildly curious, it might not seem so obvious why they should read a nearly 20-year-old book that was conspicuously untrendy when it arrived.  Those are, however, the readers to whom Alpers’ book is finally directed, because those are the readers, he will insist, that pastoral tries to imagine.  Finding future readers: that will be the moral of What Is Pastoral?

Insisting upon a future through reading pastoral, though, is not an easy case to make.  Undergraduates immediately notice that pastoral may be the silliest form of poetry ever invented: how can you take seriously poems in which shepherds, and upper-class people dressed up as shepherds, stand around complaining?  Worse: how can you take seriously literary criticism written about such absurd poems?  Future readers, Professor Alpers hears your gripes.  Here is his reaction to Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (1559), the work that set the terms for Renaissance pastoral: “One can hardly believe that such nonsense carries conviction, and there is no way to become a believer short of reading [it].”[i]  Nonsense: that is pastoral in a nutshell.  Nonsense about nonsense: that is literary criticism of pastoral.  But look carefully again at the second part of that sentence: “there is no way to become a believer short of reading [it].”  Where does the conviction of pastoral come from?  It comes from you, from reading in the future. “Short of reading” means “only after reading.”  What Is Pastoral? is a book that shows you how to read—not only how to read pastoral, but how to read literature.  And it tries to make you a believer in the claim on life that pastoral literature can make.  But it is a book whose arguments—for pastoral, for literature, for literary criticism—always depend upon reading in the future.  To become a believer in pastoral, to become a believer in literary criticism, is to become a believer in the future.  That is why you should read Alpers—now maybe more than ever.

What sort of belief is a belief in the future?  The claim of literature on future lives is not exactly a new argument.  Alpers gets his version mostly from Reuben Brower’s now-famous course “Hum 6” at Harvard, where Alpers had been a teaching assistant (he later called Brower his “most important influence”[ii]).  What Brower terms “reading in slow motion”[iii] emphasizes that you read not knowing exactly what is going to happen.  And since you don’t know what is going to happen, slow reading requires a lot of trust on your part.  Alpers’ debt to Brower is clear in the very first sentence of his 1967 book The Poetry of the Faerie Queene: “The purpose of this book is to bring The Faerie Queene into focus—to enable the ordinary reader and student to trust Spenser’s verse.”[iv]  You have to trust the poem to say something, to come into focus, to make its claim.  Alpers writes to help you trust literature.  By believing in the future he does not mean adhering to a metaphysical certainty or treating literature as religion.  He means trust.  Trust happens when there are no certainties...

You can read the rest of the article here.

[i] Paul Alpers, What Is Pastoral? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 123, henceforth referred to parenthetically as WIP.

[ii] See “A conversation with Paul Alpers,” The Sophian, October 24, 2002.

[iii] See Reuben Brower, “Reading in Slow Motion,” in In Defense of Reading: A Reader’s Approach to Literary Criticism, ed. Rueben Brower and Richard Poirier (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1962), 3-21.

[iv] Paul J. Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), vii.

 

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Photo courtesy of Stephen Orgel

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