Saturday, March 7, 2009
There are all of the usual things to say about my generation's version of protesting: the theatricality that becomes confused with the point, the bizarreness of protesting against a company that's already met your inchoate demands about eliminating trans fats and recycling its utensils, and the fact that you're doing your best to discourage a rental that ASUC really needs to keep afloat and continue representing, you know, your interests.
But I'd also like to say something about the fact that all of the protesters interviewed--and, one suspects, the vast majority of the 1300 people who have signed the petition against Panda--are humanities or social science majors. On Thursday, I attended a panel discussion at Stanford where Andrew DelBanco and Martha Nussbaum talked about the purpose of the humanities in a world where it seems like we can't afford them anymore. If the rejoinders were standard, they still bear repeating: the humanities, in the variety of experiences and ideas they offer, prepare us to understand other contexts and points of view, help us to be charitable when we consider conflicting arguments, and defamiliarize our own contexts so that our way of life doesn't become synonymous with the way of life. Nussbaum in particular emphasized the importance of debate and argument that treats the other side in the strongest possible light. I love the Internet, but there's a segment of the blogosphere devoted to ripping the other side a new one before bothering to extend it the philosophical principle of charity: making the strongest possible case for them, even if they don't make it for themselves, so that your task is the most challenging and the most convincing if you manage to complete it. Fortunately, the Internet's populousness tends to contain its own solution, as you can typically find someone making that case. But it's easy to refrain from following that link, if you've decided that The Corner or the Daily Kos is the font of all knowledge--but this is precisely the habit of mind that a rigorous course in the humanities discourages.
But the question I wanted to ask, and didn't, is to what extent the defense of the humanities that the panelists offered is not the strongest case they can make for the other side. I'll try to make it now. The humanities--especially English and literature departments, which people often consider a synecdoche for the humanities--have positively reveled in obscurantism and jargon for about 30 years now. They address themselves to subjects that often have little to do with literature (cf. every literature class that has turned into an excuse to watch movies), morph into bull sessions for upper middle class kids who imagine themselves oppressed because they have Irish ancestry or are women and spend their time protesting chain restaurants, and, worst of all, the people who should ostensibly be most interested in their defense come up with lame formulations like, "I enjoy books." Nothing wrong with enjoying books--enjoyment of life is one of the purposes of the humanities--but to stop there, to fail to investigate whether other human needs are met by a curriculum that has been in place for thousands of years, is irresponsible, as well as short-sighted. Stanley Fish has, from the first, wanted to be the guy who shuts off the lights, tells everyone to go home, and collects all of the door prizes on his way out, but fortunately, there are people like Nussbaum and DelBanco to push back. But I have a lot of sympathy for the critique of the humanities, precisely because of people like Fish (and Derrida, and Lacan, and every other literary critic who has written a line of truly incomprehensible or silly prose and expected that he should get a tenured sinecure for it). In short, I think that we do it to ourselves. We write and reason badly, and, worst of all, can't explain what we do or why we exist when we're asked. The humanities have become, in other words, unrigorous. We're drifting, and it should be no surprise that chancellors and deans and donors are starting to ask if even our slender shadow takes up too much room on the books.
But I have a little hope left in the vast reservoirs of despair, largely because articulate people like Nussbaum and DelBanco are at least addressing themselves to these questions. I don't find the answers comprehensive or completely satisfying, but I don't think I was meant to. There's a lot of work to be done, despite the impression--too easy to get in the academic world--that everything's been said, done, and studied. We still haven't answered the question about why literature exists. Unlike history, or philosophy, the answer isn't obvious.
Thursday, March 5, 2009Great Expectations, most of the Metamorphoses, three chapters of Auerbach, Bakhtin's "Discourse in the Novel," and five books of the Odyssey, because next week I have to read three 150-page books on time, physics, and wizardry in the Renaissance that some professor at Berkeley is hording until the last possible moment of his or her recall period).
But back to the point, I've been getting bored lately. Bored with arguments about ghosts and amputated body parts, about martyrdom and altarpieces. It doesn't have anything to do with the skill or persuasive power of these particular arguments, but more with the fact that it all seems like a dodge, as, indeed, does much of 20th and 21st century literary criticism. Not to sound like the latest chancellor's report about the dire state of the endowment, but in a time when people can't pay for their houses and 60-year-olds wake up every morning with a stock portfolio worth approximately half of what they were at this time last year, who's really interested in whether Wuthering Heights is structured like a language, complete (or, rather, incomplete) with absent signified at its center? I freely admit that my mind starts wandering to my shopping list and my taxes, and I get paid to care about this stuff. The humanities don't justify themselves in any obvious, cancer-curing way, and when literary criticism addresses itself almost exclusively to concerns that appear at first blush inconsequential, or, worse, incomprehensible, we humanists can't respond by flailing around at the question anymore. The question, to wit: what, exactly, are we doing? What does the study of literature offer the world? Finally--and here's the $44 billion question (adjusting for inflation)--why does literature exist?
This question isn't as much the poor stepchild of English departments as it first appears. Martha Nussbaum is posing some neo-Aristotelian answers, and Judith Butler (bless her heart, as my southern friends would say), although I can't really understand a word she's saying, appears to be attempting the same. A field called new ethics claims that the novel developed as a response to a changing moral climate requiring one to engage with the inner lives of others, and the mere fact that others had inner lives at all. Even Bakhtin, back in the 1930s, gestured towards some purpose for literature when he tried to define what made the novel different than everything that came before it.
I think these theories are interesting, but are not sufficient. Nussbaum's answer--that literature fulfills the same Aristotelian niche as ethics, i.e. how to live the good life, except concretized so that the senses interpret and process the evidence without the ineffectual moral philosopher standing by to natter about the right interpretation--seems to miss what's literary about literature. It doesn't provide an answer to why case studies (advice columns, nowadays) aren't just as effective at demonstrating the plethora of fixes that humans get themselves into and the solutions they invent to extricate themselves. The New Ethicists have this problem, too. Presumably it's even easier to demonstrate that people are different from you with a genres like the autobiography or memoir, and these don't even require some cognitive leap over the fact that the supposed other you're meant to recognize doesn't actually exist. Fictionality seems to be the missing term in all of this. Catherine Gallagher, the professor for my novel class, wrote an article about this for Moretti's novel anthology, in which she put forward the claim that one of the functions of fictionality is to shore up our own sense of self by offering characters who are real, but limited. We'll never know more about Anna Karenina the character than we already know, she says, and this serves to remind us that we continue to live and create stories, and that our depths are essentially unplumbable. We're real, in other words, and they're just made up. I like this formulation in theory, but find it completely contradicts my reading experience in practice. I feel very little satisfaction that I'll never know more about Anna, and I don't feel like any more of a person for it. I feel instead great sympathy for one of Thackeray's correspondents, who wanted to know if things turned out all right for Becky after Vanity Fair. There's a way in which (good) fiction becomes more real than reality.
In fact and to the contrary, this sense of limitedness is what I think we find in biography. While fiction allows Thackeray to skip around Waterloo and ahead 20 years, we'd reckon any biography that skipped, say, every other year of Winston Churchill's life, or which omitted World War II, completely useless. Selection (in which one's choices aren't limited, but endless) is a principle of fiction, not of history or biography, and while it doesn't even begin to answer why we need fiction, it at least begins to define what differentiates fiction from non-fiction--which seems like an important starting point. Most of literary criticism has worked on the difference between genres (Bakhtin on the novel and the epic, for instance), but I'm not sure that this more fundamental distinction has really received much treatment since the Poetics. Certainly it's been frought enough lately, with fake memoirs and invented authors, to merit further investigation.
In fact, studying it at the point where it breaks down--why do fake memoirs annoy us, anyway?--is the right methodology. Why does it matter that the genres (by which I mean the real and the not real) get mixed up sometimes? We must be getting two different needs supplied, in the same manner that our bodies require both vitamin A and vitamin C. And this, in a nice neat little nutshell, brings me to the direction in which I think those of us studying literature in this generation need to realign ourselves. Instead of running out to find examples to demonstrate how literature is structured like a language, we need to take about 2000 steps back and figure out why such a question is worth asking in the first place. This will necessarily reorient us towards the humanities proper, the study of the human: literature, story, narrative fiction, whatever you want to call it, does something for humans, and it's up to us to discover what that is.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009Jane 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.
Monday, February 23, 2009
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.
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.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
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.
Monday, February 2, 2009Vanity 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.
Friday, January 30, 2009
Every society has its verbal tics, secret passwords, and words of belonging. With the beginning of the new semester in graduate school, it's time to prove once again that you know the incantation, the words to Sugar Magnolia, etc. Inevitably this will involve uttering one of two phrases in just about every class, club, or group that renews itself mid-year:
1. "I'm interested in...[the literature of the high Prussian court in 1876, transgressing international borders, beets]."
2. "I work on...[the sherry trade in the mid-Atlantic, genre formation and its significance to pea plants, joining the clean plate club]."
Like many habits of graduate students, I find this one more and more irksome the more I experience it. (It probably belongs on some sort of "Stuff Graduate Students Like" list.) But I've developed a strategy now, and I have high hopes that it will put a nice layer of fiberglass insulation between me and my madness.
I think of the cat. See above.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009sharp little analysis of what made yesterday's inaugural poem so dull. The short answer is the lack of an organizing metaphor. There's really no excuse for its absence in such a short piece. Nor is there any excuse for "brick by brick."
I'm taking an interesting course called Doctor Faustus' Books to fulfill my Renaissance requirement. (I'm not sure why I have this requirement, given that I was an Early Modernist as an undergraduate and took so many Shakespeare classes that I can almost tell you what anyone is going to say about Twelfth Night after I hear the first word of their first sentence. Not that I mind, though: it's a chance to revisit some old favorites and remember why I hate some old enemies. Hi, Spenser.)
The idea is that we're to read everything mentioned or alluded to in the Marlowe play, and thus gain some sort of MLA cocktail party comprehensiveness about the Tudor period, or enough to ask at least one misguided but not too far off-base question of a proper Renaissance scholar on a panel. Nobody's admitted this, of course. You might think from this description that I think the whole thing a sham, but actually I approve of greater comprehensiveness (and comprehensibility) among those fortunate enough to call themselves literature professors. There's a vague and not very well chewed on belief among people who take, for instance, the GRE in English Literature that superficial knowledge of a number of different periods and broad topics in the field is keeping them from something more important, like tallying up the number of times the word "she-goat" appears in the Domesday Book, but I'd argue that it's exactly that sort of micro-specialization that makes professors such good characters in novels and such mockable ones in non-fiction. Superficiality isn't always a bad thing, particularly if it directs you towards theories and ideas that better unify the answer to the question that few of us ever bother to ask ("what's the point of literature, anyway?") and instances that, upon further exploration, prove useful for whatever it is you were so obsessively occupied with in the first place. Maybe there are she-goats in other places, too. Maybe, just maybe, she-goats are the underlying cause of Victorian novels. Or the corpus of Don DeLillo. (The latter is more plausible.) And no one should be so quick to trivialize cocktail parties. Maybe if more people went in with the attitude that, you know, the actual stuff of life happens there, and that it's not such a dreadful thing to know enough about your drinking companion's work to ask a semi-reasonable question about it and get a semi-reasonable reply, the quality of cocktail parties and ergo life would be much enhanced.
Incidentally, I learned something new already. I googled she-goat to make sure it was really a word and not just a funny construct that existed solely inside my head, and I discovered that it was good luck for a Roman man for a she-goat to walk across his path on his way out of the house, because he would think on Caranus, the first king of the Macedons.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
But with our new president's call for responsibility firmly in mind, I've resolved to take my original task--providing random Googlers a place to acquire an honest and unvarnished take on graduate school from application to, you know, actually attending classes and stuff--much more seriously.
So: first day, new semester. What's to like? Plenty. One of my cohort mentioned that she'd decided to go to Berkeley for the express purpose of enrolling in Catherine Gallagher's Victorian Novel class. This sort of dedication makes me recall with no small degree of shame the fact that I didn't have a clear idea of what made Berkeley rule uber alles other English PhD programs until I was accepted and actually started researching the question. (This was my attitude towards a number of grad schools, really. I figured there was no point in getting attached to some institution that stood a 90 percent chance of rejecting my application. Don't make my mistakes, kids. Better to have loved and lost, etc.)
A five minutes' conversation with any female in my department would reveal the startling fact that she wants to be Catherine Gallagher. In a seriously stalkerish, identity theft kind of way. When Professor Gallagher left the room to make some more copies for the gaggle (on which more later) and asked us to prepare a short speech on why we were taking the class, the woman sitting across from me said, "Uh, because I've always wanted to take a class with a professor that actually has a Wikipedia entry?" I didn't really get this until I used Gallagher's work on the function of novelistic verisimilitude in conjunction with Bakhtin's for my Novel in Theory paper last semester. It was written simply, clearly, without unnecessary jargon, and produced far more nodding than head tilts. (Gallagher's essay on fictionality, I mean. I'll find out about the paper tomorrow when I go to collect it.) I thought to myself, "Ah ha! So it IS possible to write on theory and not sound like something out of Postmodern Pooh!"
And the first class didn't shoot me in my tender, aspiring little heart. The most interesting part was when--talking about the length and pace of Victorian novels--Gallagher asked about the chronotope of Obama's inaugural address. Alas, I a) hadn't seen it yet, having left for said class before it began; and b) had no idea what a Bakhtinian chronotope is. My glance at "Формы времени и хронотопа в романе" didn't reveal much, apart from its connection to space and time and how these imprint on the narrative. Perhaps Gallagher will elaborate next time.
What I liked less (and this applies to the Novel in Theory class I took last semester, too) is Berkeley's apparent non-enforcement of enrollment limits in seminar classes. So when my enrollment time came up on the registration system last October, I was in Arizona, in a hotel without free wireless. I paid my six dollars and got it so that I could make sure that I was in the classes I wanted. I try not to fall too readily into Wal-Mart-on-Black-Friday trample mode about classes, but what in the world is preventing everyone else from registering on time (they practically broadcast your enrollment appointment to your home television set), and Berkeley from saying "Hey, part of the value of seminars is shooting the shit, so let's make sure everyone who took the time to enroll can do that"? Part of the blame falls on professors, who are understandably reluctant to tell someone who moved across the country just to take one class that it's all full up. But a good half of it is on students who can't be bothered to register until the last minute. Grad students in the humanities are infamous for not getting their shit together, and I don't care until it means that I have to sit in some hot little room too close to someone who has elected not to deodorize and simultaneously try not to breathe while fitting something perspicacious in between the mental meanderings of a Comparative Literature student and the whiny incoherence of an undergraduate.
Speaking of which, if you're going to insist that all people in your department have the chance to enroll, why not start by kicking out the comparativists and the undergraduates? Actually, I'd like to propose a hierarchy of evacuations for over-enrolled graduate classes, based on past experience:
-visiting grad students in comparative literature who don't participate
-visiting grad students in comparative literature who participate, but monopolize every conversation just to bring up their bizarre notion that Don DeLillo is the quintessential American writer. Just like all Americans are cowboys.
-graduate students past their second year in comparative literature--you're supposed to be done with your classes by now
-grad students in comparative literature in general. Jesus, don't these people have their own department? Why are there at least six of them in every class I take?
-too earnest undergraduates who find it absolutely impossible to say less than 500 words on any subject, including cheese and water balloons
-all other undergrads--the rest of us had to be drummed out of classes. Now it's your turn.
Admit it. You agree.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008Margaret Soltan's all over Harvard's scandalous endowment. I'm not normally one to participate in the (admittedly enjoyable) ressentiment-related activities of despising some entity's wealth, but in this case, I have to agree and second. Dear Alma Mater of blessed memory operates with tax exempt status while charging one hell of a tuition bill that it could clearly afford to foot for everyone for, like, five hundred years, and I still spent the better part of last night sorting through old papers in preparation for tomorrow's move, a not-insignificant number of which were those familiar cream laid solicitations for my hard-earned, taxable cash. So in addition to begging for my money in order to re-invest it, spending nothing on the activity that earns them tax exemption (like some wino on the corner with a sign around his neck asking for bus fare when, by common consensus, he's going to buy a fifth the second you're out of sight), they're also cluttering up my personal space. Given my feelings about clutter, I'm not really sure which is worse.
Fortunately, some of my cleverer classmates have come up with a way to bite their thumbs (sir) at this gross violation of the spirit of the tax code. From now on, whenever I receive one of those beautiful, tree-killing solicitations, I'll donate a small sum to Harvard Alumni for Social Action, which funds African graduate students and African educational institutions. I encourage all of my fellow alums to do the same.