Tuesday, February 24, 2009

attack of the erotic

I'm led to the inexorable conclusion that my fellow humanities grad students aren't getting much, if any, because nobody who's actually having sex can think about sex ("eros," as they rather pretentiously and inaccurately term it) as much as they do. It took most of my self-possession not to guffaw today when one of them--about Jane Eyre, no less--claimed that Jane's consumptive friend Helen becomes an object of erotic desire because we first see her reading. The twisted path by which this conclusion reached was another one of those examples of faulty syllogisms (reading is depicted as desirable, by which we can only mean one kind of desire; Helen Burns is associated with reading, therefore Helen Burns is desirable). Friendship or parts of human experience outside the sexual never seem to enter anyone's mind. Ergo, Dr. Shannon's prescription is more sex, immediately, or at least some very raunchy porn.

If my last few posts have been a bit joyless, I am actually enjoying most of my classes this semester. Today's discussion of Jane Eyre may lead me to grudgingly admit that there's something beyond schadenfreude to appreciate in the book; a parallel structure exists within that in turn points to a kind of earthly paradise achieved in its second half (same number of cousins, but better cousins, and plenty of others, too) but the unsatisfactory nature of this earthly paradise suggests that the Christian utopian element isn't quite as simple as it seems at first. St. John Rivers is a pretty nasty specimen, in other words. As much as I declaim the incursions of comparative literature students, I've colonized their department as well, and enjoy every Monday (almost on an aesthetic level) the erudition of Robert Alter. I'm grateful for the opportunity to read books all the way through, as we're doing with Mimesis, The Dialogic Imagination, Genesis, The Odyssey, and Ulysses.

Today I got an anonymous note from someone, returning a sensitive document I left in a library book. If that person reads this blog, сбасибо большое, тимофей пнин.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 3:11 PM :: (0) comments

Monday, February 23, 2009


I saw the most amazing thing today while I was at Doe's circulation desk to pick up The Book of Snobs.

DUMB GIRL: I want to, like, recall this book.
CIRCULATION: Okay. Do you have the call number?
DG: You mean the title?
C: (sigh) No, the numbers that you use to find it?
DG: Oh, no, I don't have those.
C: (sigh) We'll look them up.

--scramble, scramble. DG extracts library card from big yellow purse--
C: Okay, great. You'll get an email when it's ready for pick up.
DG: (visibly harumphs) What do you mean? I need it, like, now.
C: Um...it can take up to a week if you recall something.
DG: I don't understand.
C: Uh...
DG: Can't you request it, like electronically?
C: Um, well, I did that, but we give the person up to a week to return the book.
DG: I don't understand. I need it this afternoon. Why can't you get it again?
C: (understanding blooming slowly on her face, like one of those sped up moments in a nature film) Well, you see, this is how the library system works: people check out books, but other people can recall them. But since they might live far away from campus, we give them up to a week to get back to campus and return the book...
DG: I want to, like, talk to the manager.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 7:41 PM :: (1) comments

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

aemulatio, or something

Let me preface this by saying that I hate Foucault. I've rarely if ever found anything in the man's work but ideas in various states of half-bakedness, topped by a thin crunchy layer of borrowed erudition: sugary nuggets to catch the fancy of the impressionable as they trip lightly past his pastry shop of human ideas.

With that out of the way, I'll admit a fondness for the Renaissance chapter of The Order of Things. In attempting to explain a paradox I've always felt--why smart people like Erasmus, et al. could revere Aristotelian reason and simultaneously believe that a beauty mark resembling a certain constellation meant that the bearer possessed the properties of Casseiopeia--Foucault defines the epistemology of the Renaissance, identifying the principles by which Aristotle and alchemy could exist in the same individual. Foucault defines one of these principles, aemulatio, like this: "The relation of emulation enables things to imitate one another from one end of the universe to the other without connection or proximity: by duplicating itself in a mirror the world abolishes the distance proper to it in this way it overcomes the place allotted to each thing." Foucault's point in the book is to define the break between the modern and the Early Modern, Enlightenment and Renaissance. I've decided to read the rest of the book, so I'll discover soon enough whether he thinks the postmodern era is more like the former or the latter, but I'm inclined to think the former, based on recent experiences. My fellow English literature people tend to display exactly this kind of logic: "X is like Y; therefore, let us attribute to them the same properties and conclude that, despite all evidence to the contrary, X behaves exactly like Y and thus this poem is all about sea turtles, after all." It makes you want to stand on the nearest available surface, and, like some lunatic at Speakers' Corner, deliver a sermon on causality, excluded middles, and the fact that punning--in addition to being the lowest form of humor--doesn't actually constitute an argument, even if you do it in a foreign language. And if one more person attempts to clobber me over the head with some punning etymology, it may just come to that. These etymologies start to bleed into one of Foucault's other epistemological arguments for the Renaissance--the convenientia, by which things that are in close contact become like one another. Sharing the same root as another word is not, or usually not in our nominally Enlightened era, enough to suggest that place and similitude are the same; or, as Foucault rather nicely puts it, not enough to cause moss to grow out of seashells. Am I exaggerating when I claim that a good 60 percent of arguments in PhD seminars in English literature proceed from these interesting premises? Certainly, but on a bad day, it sure feels like it.

On a brighter note, I've requested the Northern Regional Library Facility's copy of Thackeray's The Book of Snobs, a taxonomy of the species that I plan to update for the modern era. I use modern advisedly, after discovering that I don't really care for postmodern epistemologies.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 3:00 PM :: (0) comments

Monday, February 2, 2009


I submit that there's nothing quite like coming home after an afternoon devoted to flogging your brain with a combination of Genesis, Homer, and Auerbach and discovering that, contrary to all reasonable expectations, your paper on Vanity Fair and the nineteenth-century definition of satire did not in fact write itself while you were gone.

In other news, I disagree with Stanley Fish. This probably suffices as a general rule, but to wit, today: his assessment of Big Love, a show I adore passionately but not passionately enough to pay $50 more a month to get HBO. (Cable already seems like a waste to me. Despite getting some 100 channels, I can tell you definitively and from much past experience that there's nothing on at the moment. Unfortunately, the Internet's markedly more expensive without it and that whole digital switcheroo thingy dingy renders a cable box necessary unless I want to acquire one of those special converters made for old people clinging like the shipwrecked to their rabbit ears. I imagine these boxes having a single large red button.) "Sentimentality" isn't the right word for the aesthetic effect of Big Love. The aesthetic appeal of Big Love is a very old one, and has to do with Aristotle's question of what philosophy is and does. Philosophy is supposed to help you find and lead that ever so elusive good life, and what appeals about Big Love is that the characters appear to genuinely care about that question. Granted, their moral ideas are for those of us in mainstream America something like living in a fun house that's been turned upside down and exiled to Wonderland, but still, no viewer leaves it without the sense that the crazy polygamists are trying, however imperfectly, to find and do the right thing. And it's impossible not to get sucked into this pursuit and to start asking the same questions they ask themselves about the right course of action when, say, your husband is thinking about taking a Croatian waitress as a fourth wife and your son starts dating twins. Afterwards, you ask yourself what it is about this lifestyle that's so wrong, and you have trouble coming up with answers that address themselves to principle and not the specifics of the situation you've just encountered. You've been relativized, in other words, and it's hard to smother this decided weirdness in the same blanket statements that you did before you realized that even polygamists may be in pursuit of something recognizably moral in trying circumstances (i.e. your neighbors keep sending the mainstream Mormons after you).

Now, to bed. The Victorian novel seminar is so crowded that arriving the standard Berkeley 10 late will ensure that you occupy the standing room only section.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 10:57 PM :: (0) comments