Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Automatism is modern

In the q&a after Sianne Ngai's recent talk here on zaniness (which was fantastic), I pulled a classic if annoying move and asked about one of my own research interests. One of the articles I've currently got in the hopper is about affective and domestic labor and states of automatism in women in the early twentieth century. According to Ngai, the zany mode originates in the commedia dell'arte character of the zanni, a personal servant whose job it is to manage social ties. Since Ngai had remarked on the almost compulsive quality of the zany, I asked her to expand on the connection between zaniness and automatism.

Ngai's response was to distinguish between the zany and "animatedness" (from her first book), animatedness being mechanical and evidence of a loss of subjectivity, whereas the zany is an excess of subjectivity, of constantly performing affective labor of various sorts in a manner that models the labor structure of late capitalism.

The follow-up question, had I wished to pull another classic yet annoying move, would have been this:

Isn't automatism sometimes precisely an excess of subjectivity?--subjectivity bubbling up through the body whether you will it or no? I think of psychoanalysis, of automatic writing, etc.

Zaniness, as Ngai so convincingly characterizes it, is automatic in the sense that it is compulsive; it can't be stopped. But I'm also backhandedly persuaded that automatism isn't quite the right word to describe that loss of will, at least in the postmodern context that interests Ngai. It seems to me that the main problem with thinking about zaniness as, on one hand, the form of labor in late capitalism, and on the other hand, as automatic, is actually a historical problem. There's something modern, and not postmodern, about automatism. The machine is only an interestingly strong point of comparison for a human being without will when machines are understood as meaningfully different from people to begin with. That notion starts to break down somewhere midcentury. To insist that machines don't have subjectivity--or rather, to make subjectivity the question to begin with--is a modern gesture. T. S. Eliot may be horrified by the typist's "automatic hand," but, typists all, we're not disturbed in the slightest. Click. Click. A general agnosticism about subjectivity characterizes postmodernism.

The zany may have a long history, but if late capitalism is where it truly comes into its own, then the question of automatism is moot.

Friday, November 19, 2010

DeCal: Video Games as an Artistic Medium

I'm sponsoring a DeCal called "Video Games as an Artistic Medium" next semester. The students in charge of this DeCal have run the course for a few semester now; you can see their current course blog here.

Obviously I am only doing this to get cred with my teenaged brother.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

MSA 12: notes

There's still no time to post about MSA. Turns out that when you get back from a conference, there's stuff to do. But I have a suspicion I'll never actually have time to post notes before I forget, so here's a quick and dirty version.

1. Friday 11/12. Went to a really excellent panel on "Networks of the Nonhuman." T. Hugh Crawford, whose book on Williams and medicine is great, gave an interesting and pleasantly informal talk on object-oriented ontology, something on which Tim Morton has lately been posting incessantly (in a good way). I can't say I'm on board, but I'm interested.

Met my distant Twitter-friend Scott Selisker and found out that his research on automatism in geopolitical others (such as Communists) is directly relevant to my own. Am now a certified fan.

Lunched with Andrew Goldstone, whom I owed an ACLA proposal. (Yes, I did submit it on time. System: beaten.)

In the afternoon, attended the panel on "Modernism and the Machine" (it was machine day at MSA, I guess). Excellent papers by Amy Woodbury Tease, Michael North (on newness and Norbert Wiener...who, it turns out, had a lot in common with T.S. Eliot), and Mark Goble (with amazing film clips, per usual).

My own panel, with Margaret Ronda and Hillary Gravendyk and chaired by the wonderful Julia Bloch, was also that afternoon. Margaret's paper on Rukeyser and Hillary's paper on Niedecker spoke to one another particularly well. We got excellent questions in that panel and were generally very happy with it.

2. Saturday, 11/13 Attended a packed 8:30 session called "Beyond the Flâneuse: Women in the Modernist City." I particularly enjoyed Anne Fernald's paper on the taxicab as a heterotopia, but all three papers were great.

I attended a panel intriguingly titled "Modernist Failure" with Joshua Schuster, Benjamin Kahan, and Melanie Micir. I could tell there was a bit of a Penn conspiracy going on, but it was a very good panel. I was particularly interested in Benjy Kahan's paper, "The Walk-in Closet," on situational homosexuality.

Being an inveterate institutional gawker, I went to the MSA business lunch, where people were thanked. The book prize was awarded jointly to Enda Duffy and Eric Hayot for, respectively, The Speed Handbook and The Hypothetical Mandarin.

Next year's conference in Buffalo was discussed. The theme is "Structures of Innovation." "Innovation" is of course one of those terms that always sets off my "uncritical thinking!!" radar (DANGER WILL ROBINSON), so I'm contemplating organizing a panel titled "Against Innovation." Email me if interested. Or amused.

Continuing the Penn conspiracy theme, I attended Julia's panel on the "after-affects" of modernism in the afternoon. Julia's paper on Alice Notley and William Carlos Williams was absolutely great. Kaplan Harris's paper introduced me to "new narrative," with which I was relatively (and a little embarrassingly) unfamiliar.

Hillary and I may or may not have availed ourselves of the Fairmont Empress's extreme tea at the end of that panel. If we did, I highly recommend the house blend and the hotel's ability to accommodate food allergies.

All in all, it was a great conference. In addition to the unusual opportunity to hang out with old friends in a lovely city, I had a chance to meet wonderful folks and hear about their exciting research. It was particularly great to meet people whom I knew from their research or online, but had never met in person. Many thanks to Stephen Ross and all the other organizers for putting it together.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I have a big problem with using this graphic to model the acceptance of e-lit. Can you guess why?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Upcoming events: Larry Eigner, Indivisible anthology, Leslie Scalapino, Curious George

Just a quick post on some upcoming events. Reflections on MSA to follow shortly, I hope.

First of all, a number of events associated with the Holloway Series in Poetry:

1.Friday, November 19, 6:30-8pm in the Maude Fife Room (315 Wheeler):
HONORING THE LIFE AND WORK OF LARRY EIGNER (August 7, 1927 – February 3, 1996)
When Larry Eigner arrived in this world “palsied from a hard birth” the accepted view was that the severity of his injury made him uneducable. An inspired bar-mitzvah gift of a 1940 Royal portable typewriter opened a pathway to his becoming a poet.

This event celebrates the publication in four folio volumes of the Collected Poems of Larry Eigner.

Featured speakers include:

Robert Grenier, poet and co-editor of The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner
Lyn Hejinian, poet and professor, Department of English, UC Berkeley
Richard Eigner, brother of Larry Eigner
Rebecca Gaydos, grad student and scholar of the poetry of Larry Eigner
Kit Robinson, poet and longtime friend of Larry Eigner
Michael Davidson, poet and professor, UC San Diego
George Hart, scholar of the poetry of Larry Eigner
Albert Gelpi, professor of English, emeritus, Stanford University
Hillary Gravendyk, assistant professor, Pomona College
Jack and Adelle Foley, poets
Norma Cole, poet
Stephen Ratcliffe, poet and professor, Department of English, Mills College
Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, professor, UC Berkeley
This will definitely be worth attending.

2. Tuesday, November 30: Celebrating the first anthology of its kind:
Indivisible: Contemporary South Asian American Poetry

Indivisible: Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010) is the first anthology to bring together American poets with roots in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Since Ralph Waldo Emerson first drew inspiration from the Sanskrit epic poem Bhagvad Gita, the poetic traditions of South Asia and the United States have been intertwined from Eliot to the Beats. A seminal anthology, Indivisible brings us up to date, presenting the work of contemporary American poets who trace their roots back to Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and who are rewriting the cultural and literary landscape of America today.

POETS/EDITORS. Ravi Chandra, Summi Kaipa, Tanuja Mehrotra, Pireeni
Sundaralingam, and graduate student poet, Swati Rana.


LESLIE SCALAPINO (July 25, 1944 - May 28, 2010) was a ground-breaking, genre-stretching author of 40 books of poetry, poem-plays, essays and fiction. Her books include; Selected Poems 1974-2006; Floats Horse-Floats or Horse Flows; Dihedrons-Gazelle, Dihedrals-Zoom; Flow-Winged Crocodile, A Pair / Actions Are Erased / Appear; and the novel Defoe. A longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, she was also the founder and publisher of O Books.

POETS/SPEAKERS. Lyn Hejinian, Simone Fattal, Michael McClure, Norma Cole, Laura Moriarty, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Judith Goldman, Konrad Steiner, Tracy Grinnell, Joanne Kyger, Norman Fischer, Alicia Cohen, Rae Armantrout, Stephen Ratcliffe, Michael Cross, M. Mara Ann, and Bob Grenier.

And now for something completely different:

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF has a new exhibit on Margret and H.A. Rey, the authors/artists of Curious George. It looks amazing. From the website:
Curious George, the impish monkey protagonist of many adventures, may never have seen the light of day if it were not for the determination and courage of his creators, the illustrator H. A. Rey (1898–1977) and his wife, author and artist Margret Rey (1906–1996).

Born in Hamburg to Jewish families, they lived together in Paris from 1936 to 1940. Hours before the Nazis marched into Paris in June 1940, the Reys fled on bicycles, carrying drawings for their children’s stories including one about a mischievous monkey, then named Fifi. Not only were they able to save the characters, but the Reys themselves were saved by their illustrations when authorities found them in their belongings, which may explain why saving the day after a narrow escape became the premise of most Curious George stories.

After their fateful escape from Paris and a four-month journey across France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, the couple reached New York in the fall of 1940. In all, the Reys authored and illustrated over 30 books, most of them for children, seven starring Curious George.

The exhibition features nearly 80 original drawings of the beloved monkey and other characters, preparatory dummy books, vintage photographs, and documentation related to the Reys’ escape from Nazi Europe, as well as a specially designed reading room for visitors of all ages.
I am now very strongly considering taking next semester's class on a field trip. The exhibit runs through March 13, 2011.

Friday, November 12, 2010

MSA 12

There are many ways to get to Victoria, British Columbia, of which I took the least interesting and the most efficient, a direct United flight from SFO to YYJ. I'm pretty sure at least 80 percent of the people on that flight were headed to MSA--two were from my department alone.

It's been lovely seeing friends and colleagues here, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow's panels. Notes to follow, probably.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I mentioned the other day that Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale was making me realize the connection between my research on Berssenbrugge and my research on Moore. I'm now realizing that comment probably made no sense to anybody but me, so here's a bit of an explanation.

My Berssenbrugge essay is about a book titled Nest (2003), which pushes hard on the idea of domestic spaces as nests and the analogy between human and animal dwellings. My essay recurs, quite naturally, to Gaston Bachelard's chapter on the nest in The Poetics of Space, which rather self-consciously conjures up sentimental images of cozy avian nuclear families (self-conscious because Bachelard has already admitted that anthropomorphizing birds is embarrassing and absurd).

My recent trawl through early twentieth-century books on girlhood, including Forbes-Robertson Hale, is making me realize how pervasive the image of the nest is in late discourses of domesticity circa 1900. Forbes-Robertson Hale's novel The Nest-Builder is a good example of that.

But it's not just that birds are used to describe the home; the home is also used to describe birds. What I hadn't realized earlier was the tightness of the connection. Ornithology circa 1900 (and this is where my Moore research comes in) was divided between an all-male profession located in universities and natural history museums and a thriving amateur bird-watching culture that was largely female. While there were many male amateur bird enthusiasts, the division between professional and popular ornithology was distinctly gendered in discourse as in membership.

It should not be supposed that the hobbyists were not serious, nor that their observations were inconsequential for the professional ornithologists. For one thing, the Audubon Society ladies were in many ways the public face of ornithology, since it was their writing and illustrations that dominated popular handbooks, texts for children, journalism, and the like, so the professional ornithologists had to reckon with them one way or another. One of the most amusing parts of researching my Marianne Moore chapter (and there were many amusing parts) was reading the spluttering reviews of popular bird books in The Auk, the organ of the American Ornithologists' Union, circa 1900. For another thing, the hobbyists were quite as serious as the professionals, and often observed specimens and behaviors in the wild before their professional counterparts did. Since the first observed specimen carried (and still carries) a good deal of importance in nomenclature, this meant that professional ornithologists, to their chagrin, sometimes had to cite the amateurs' findings in publications with hilarious titles--and by hilarious, I mean domestic.

Here are a few titles by the popular writer Olive Thorne Miller (pen name of Harriet Mann Miller): Little Brothers of the Air (1892); Four-Handed Folk (1896, on mammals rather than birds); The Bird Our Brother (1908); and of course, In Nesting Time (1888). Birds and other animals are consistently described in generally anthropomorphic and specifically familial terms. The book flap text for In Nesting Time is revealing:
These fifteen papers have such tempting titles as "Baby Birds," "A Tricksy Spirit," "A Stormy Wooing," "Friendship in Feathers," etc.; and give such wonderful revelations of bird ways and bird character as no one but a close observer would ever even imagine that our feathered friends could develop, or hardly even possess. That Mrs. Miller has given much attention to these subjects is well known; and all readers of her articles in current magazines must likewise be aware of her pleasant mode of arriving at the information which she gives so charmingly, with such sympathy, and a vivacity suited to the nature of her little companions. It has long been her wont to domesticate wild birds for a time, that she might study their dispositions and idiosyncrasies--if a bird may be said to have such; and the things that happened, the deeds that were done, the petty spites, jealousies, loves, manoeuvrings, exhibitions of craft and almost of forethought on the part of goldfinch, mocking-bird, bluebird, thrush, and others, as set forth in these pages, are as entertaining as a book of adventures. It is a most loving record, and we are assured that the sketches are "scrupulously true in every particular."
Birds here are not merely anthropomorphized; they are domesticated, made into home-dwelling creatures with "petty spites, jealousies, loves, manoeuvrings...." Moreover, this is a textual record, we are told, of literal processes of domestication, as Miller takes wild birds into her home for observation. The book flap text oscillates between enthusiasm for the domesticated quality of Miller's textual birds and Miller's "sympathy" with them, on the one hand, and skepticism that Miller's domestic language has anything to do with the reality of birds, on the other, so that the blurb ends on a strange deflection: a claim that the contents of the book are "true," distanced by quotation.

Okay, so it comes as a surprise to nobody that amateur ornithology circa 1900 anthropomorphizes animals. I mean, we still anthropomorphize animals all the time. And it's also totally unsurprising that descriptions of animals are used to naturalize human social structures; that, too, still happens all the time. What's striking is the specificity with which birds and nests are used to figure human domestic life in particular, and vice-versa, through a branch of the sciences that was distinctly feminized. Birds are also, by the way, the first specimens that museums used for "life groups," the lifelike dioramas of specimens posed in simulacra of their habitats ("homes"?) that are now the norm. (This is owing to the ease of stuffing them in a lifelike way in the later nineteenth century; I found out way too much about taxidermy researching Marianne Moore.)
Cuthbert Rookery diorama, American Museum of Natural History
The language of nests, when applied to humans, is always about regulating family and femininity, naturalizing a configuration of affective, social, and spatial bonds. But it can never not be about animals at the same time. What Marianne Moore in one way and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in another way do is reinsert the animal as such into that discourse. For Moore, the animal introduces the alien into human life; for Berssenbrugge, that the animal is all too familiar--a pet, or even a "furry child," as Donna Haraway puts it--lays bare our embarrassing willingness to conscript animals for our emotional satisfaction. They place the animal at the scene of gender-making, but they also point toward the way that the animal, too, is made by (human) gender--that we do not know a nest that does not remind us of capital-H Home, that we are never not "dressing up our pets."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale shuts down Susan Faludi's whole matricide thing avant la lettre:
Girls of America, your ways are not our ways. We do not always approve them, as our mothers did not always approve ours. We do not like your careless manners, your minor sexual freedoms, your powder and rouge, your indifference toward the old, your neglect of pleasing. But we like your courage, your self-confidence, your honesty and your intelligence. We think perhaps your faults lie more on the surface than ours did, but that it may be ours were none the better for being hidden.

     --Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale, What's Wrong with Our Girls?, 1923 (157-8)

The nest returns

One [school of thought] sees it [the women's movement] at an end, feels that its object was attained when women won their share of democracy, and that nothing now remains for them but to use their opportunities as men do, to further whatever aims they as individuals may happen to have at heart. This school says: "Women are as various as men; they are now free to express, to compete, as men do.[...]"

     --Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale, What's Wrong with Our Girls? The Environment, Training and Future of American Girls, 1923 (ix-x).
Two observations.

1. People were floating this "feminism is over!" stuff as early as 1923. Wow.

2. Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale wrote a novel, and it's called -- wait for it -- The Nest-Builder (1916). Suddenly my Berssenbrugge essay is indissolubly tied to my Marianne Moore research.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Prison in African American Literature, live webcast 9am PDT tomorrow

I received this notification today from the good folks at Duke:
‘Office Hours’ Conversation on Prison in African-American Literature, Nov. 5
It’s a live, interactive webcast on prison in African-American literature, with Professor Maurice Wallace and graduate student Patrick Alexander. Anyone can watch tomorrow (Friday) at 9 a.m. Pacific time here -- http://www.ustream.tv/dukeuniversity. And, anyone can send in a question at any time by email (live@duke.edu) or Twitter (#dukelive). Questions from viewers are what animates the conversation!
Check it out if this is up your research alley!

Monday, November 1, 2010

No time for blogging lately, but here's a roundup of recent humanities-defendin' links.

Here's a bit from the first link, an Inside Higher Ed piece about Cornell president David Skorton's recent call for national support of the humanities:
For a start, he said that it was time for university leaders to push for a halt to the erosion of the budgets of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, and to articulate a vision for the importance of the humanities.

With regard to the budgets for the cultural agencies, Skorton noted that they survived attempts in 1994-5 to eliminate them, but had their budgets cut severely. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the endowments are today one-third below where they were in 1994, while the budget for National Institutes of Health has almost doubled and that of the National Science Foundation has more than doubled. The budget for the last fiscal year for the NEH was $167.5 million, and President Obama proposed a small cut, to $161.3 million for this year. (The total NEH budget would be a rounding error in the NIH budget, which exceeds $30 billion.)


Noting the current budget picture, Skorton said he would start with "modest" goals: first halting any cuts in absolute dollars for federal cultural agencies, then seeking money to cover losses to inflation, and then seeking meaningful gains. But he said it was important to start making a case on why the humanities need more support -- and to make that case based on national needs, not just the extent to which such investment would help higher education.

More support. That's refreshing!