Friday, December 28, 2007

MLA 2007: some notes

It's the second day of MLA, and I'm sort of horrified that there's just as much more to come.

I've heard many good talks and some miserable ones, and some in between. Here are some highlights so far:

Session 21: The Challenge of a Million Books

The crappy panel title notwithstanding, I thought this session, run by the Association for Computers and the Humanities (program here), was very good. Each of the presenters discussed computational methods in literary research. Brad Pasanek and D. Sculley (the latter not present at the panel) used a classification algorithm to test how well patterns in metaphor predicted political affiliations; they have a database of metaphors at, which could come in handy sometime. Glenn Roe and Robert Voyer used text mining to try to understand the classification of knowledge in Diderot's Encyclopédie, and Sara Steger used similar techniques to try to make more precise the formulaic quality of sentimental writing. Good times. I would be especially interested in learning more about pedagogical applications for these techniques.

Session 85: Micro: Studies in the Very Small

Wai Chee Dimock gave the first paper, "Fractals: The Micro in a Global World," and much as I respect Dimock as a scholar, I must say that I found her use of "fractals" entirely specious. She began by suggesting a loosening of the idea of fractals in order to think of self-similarity in terms of scalablility and the structural self-similarity of epic as a genre. Perhaps I was missing part of what was going on, but Dimock's paper struck me as an old-school organic unity paper with the word "fractal" stuck on it. By loosening the definition of "fractal," the usefulness of which I was already dubious, I felt that she robbed it of its power as a concept. She also used the term "recursion" to mean, more or less, repetition, again diluting the meaningfulness of the concept of recursion. It is possible that the short format of the talk prevented Dimock from supplying some crucial justifications for these moves, but I simply came away from the talk with the sense that she has little understanding of complex dynamics, and that they bear no relation whatever to the epic as a genre.

I found Robert Rushing's paper, "Fractal Microscopy: Blowup, Greene, Calvino" more convincing and quite entertaining. Rushing discussed how three texts try to assimilate the traumatic sublime of quantum mechanics (its impossibly small scale, its discreteness, its counterintuitiveness) to everyday life through ideologically charged metaphors. This was my favorite talk in the panel, and came away with an urgent feeling that I need to see Antonioni's Blowup.

Anna Botta gave a paper on dust. I more or less liked it, but can't say much about it, since it was mainly an art history paper and discussed a lot of works that I wasn't familiar with.

James Ramey gave an interesting paper called "Micropoetics: Nabokov's Small-Scale Parasites," which refreshingly used science in a legitimate way. Ramey explored how Nabokov uses the metaphor of the parasite to characterize creativity, especially literary creativity--a sinister generativity. I wound up asking him a question at the end about the difference between being the gestating egg and the egg-laying parent bug, since Nabokov seemed to be enormously interested in the "sting" of the egg-laying. (Some dim person in the audience turned around and suggested that it would help to think of the parasite as species rather than as individual bugs, as if I were confused about it. Sigh.)

Session 93: The Press

This session was arranged by the Division on Nineteenth Century French Literature.

I really enjoyed Cary Hollinshead-Strick's paper, "Personifying the Press: Newspapers on Stage after 1830," which looked at how vaudeville and the press spoke to and about one another.

I also enjoyed Marie-Eve Thérenty's paper, "Vies drôles et scalps de puces: Des formes brèves dans les quotidiens à la Belle Epoque," which looked at a hitherto little-noted genre of short, humorous newspaper pieces. It was a very interesting talk, but as it was in French, I'm sure I only caught about a third of it.

Evelyn Gould's paper, "Among Dreyfus Affairs: The Emergence of Testimonial Chronicle," similarly engaged in a kind of genre study, this time of very long works somewhere in between journalism and autobiography. I'm not really sure I understood how she was theorizing "testimonial chronicle," but she discussed the texts in interesting ways.

I went to a mostly miserable panel late on Thursday evening. It will remain nameless.

I also went to a panel today solely because a friend was presenting a paper on it. In my completely unbiased view, hers was the best paper on the panel, which was on nineteenth century American women's religious poetry. Apart from my friend, one panelist seemed to be trying to recuperate this corpus, which has been widely charged with crappiness, but she seemed to want to do so by pointing out a few exceptional writers (i.e. yes, this genre is crappy, but here are a few diamonds in the rough), and by valorizing these writers in spite of form. I'm baffled. I do want to check out her book, however. The other panelist seemed to have, um, missed the last 30 years of feminist studies?

Session 324: Brave New Worlds: Digital Scholarship and the Future of Early American Studies

I mostly liked this panel; I didn't come away with anything portable, but I learned some stuff about Samson Occom, and am interested in the Charles Brockden Brown Electronic Archive, which draws on fourteen different physical archives, which must be a giant pain in the butt for the people on the project. Interestingly, one presenter was Michelle Harper, the director of project management for Readex. Apparently they're coming out with an interesting feature in which you can annotate digital editions from their archive. It looks cooler that I'm making it sound here, but my notes are sadly devoid of detail, and I'm too spaced out now to remember it.

I gave my paper this evening, but perhaps I'll post on that panel separately, or not post on it at all.

Today I ran into some friends, a former professor, and a woman from Stanford with whom I once took summer German, which was nice. Margery Kempe was right, though: MLA is a desperaat tryal and a terribil oon amonges devils and hir ministeres and necromanceres.

Monday, December 17, 2007

An Open Letter to Sherman Alexie

[I have decided to submit this piece to the Chronicle. I'll re-post it after they reject it.]

[The Chronicle is silent, so here is my letter to Sherman Alexie, once again.]

Dear Sherman Alexie,

I recently read your young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I found it funny and moving. And, of course, disappointing, because I was hoping to find in it a book that was not actively harmful to girls. Such books are rare, so I should not have been surprised that this was not one of them. And yet, I had hoped for better from you.

The main character, Junior, objectifies women left and right. It is clear that, with the exception of his mother and his grandmother, he sees women primarily as decoration. Now, that may be an accurate representation of how this fourteen-year-old boy thinks of women, but it was disappointing that this viewpoint was never undercut. Even his sister, we are assured, is "beautiful." Obviously, you can’t talk about a woman under the age of thirty unless you know how decorative she is!

Looks, girls are so frequently told, are the only important thing about a woman. Although the causes of eating disorders are not fully understood, it is unlikely that hearing this message constantly does anything to discourage them. When we first meet Penelope in the novel, it is her beauty that is emphasized (beauty being defined by whiteness, of course; women of color need not apply).

We later find out that she is bulimic, and while Junior makes some obligatory anti-bulimia comments, Penelope’s mental state is never truly taken seriously, and we never hear a word about Penelope recovering from this serious illness. We do, however, hear a lot about how sexy she is – over and over, both before and after we learn of the bulimia. The overriding message is not that bulimia is serious and harmful, but that the most important thing about women is their sexiness, and that sexy women are bulimic – and, as far as we know, they stay that way.

As you must know, gender is the semi-permeable membrane of the children’s literature market. Because women’s experiences are seen as particular and men’s as universal (men are human, women are Other), books with female protagonists are usually marketed to girls only, while books with male protagonists are marketed to all children. You can therefore expect that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will be read by many girls.

Girls are used to identifying with a male point of view; they are asked and indeed required to do it constantly. So should they then identify with this male protagonist and learn to internalize the view that women exist primarily as decoration and/or masturbation fodder? Or the view that bulimia is bad, but that bulimia also correlates with sexiness, and that sexiness is the pinnacle of young female achievement?

Oh, yes, there is one relatively young female character with an element of humanity, Mary. But even she is a cipher; we never hear her speak, but only hear her spoken about (by male characters). And while Junior lauds her as a brilliant, creative woman, we find in her the same tired tropes about creative and intellectual women:

1. A creative woman is at the least maladjusted, but more likely mentally unstable.

2. A woman’s creative ambitions are merely a substitute for her real desire, namely a man.

3. A creative woman will come to an early and gruesome end.

This is why the woman writers who remain canonical and in the public imagination are famously mentally ill and preferably suicidal – Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson. This is why when Hollywood makes a “bio” pic about the singularly well-adjusted Jane Austen, the screenwriters must invent a narrative that puts a man at the center of Austen’s life and writing. Mary fits the mold exactly, behaving oddly, “following her dreams” by getting married (not by getting published), and dying young as a direct result of “following her dreams.”

After reading this book, I realized that I could not in good conscience give it to a young woman. I think the stereotypes about women that the novel perpetuates are also harmful to young men, but the novel specifically calls on young women to see themselves as either personalityless projections of male fantasy or doomed by their intelligence and creativity. They get to choose between going up in flames or dying slowly, beautifully, and bulimically. To a young man, this novel says, choose hope. To a young woman, it says, choose your flavor of mental illness and death.

To you I say, choose your words more carefully.

Yours truly,

Natalia Cecire

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thursday, December 6, 2007


"Not at all," said Ichabod. "The ship is still mostly the counting house, albeit long-transformed and changed. This room is of the counting house, so it will always be connected somehow. If the passageway falls off, some other way will open."

"Through the wardrobe maybe," said Arthur.

Ichabod looked at him sternly, his eyebrows contracting to almost meet above his nose.

"I doubt that, young mortal. That is where I keep the Captain's clothes. It is not a thoroughfare of any kind."

--Garth Nix, Drowned Wednesday (61)

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Vote for Taking Two Minutes to Stop Gazing at One's Own Navel

Harry Mount's NYT op-ed "A Vote for Latin" opines that learning Latin makes better statespersons. He deplores politicians' tendencies to have majored in -- oh, no! -- political science instead of classics. According to Mount, learning Latin makes you smarter. In his piece, Mount more or less sits there and extols the wonderful things he has learned from classics.

It's great that he had such a good experience with Latin, but it's ridiculous of him to suppose that other fields of study are not equally rich (in particular, the whipping boy, political science). To turn one's personal love for Latin into a prescription for all politicians reveals only ignorance and self-centeredness -- not to mention privilege, since it's often only élite high schools that even offer Latin, and even then only as an elective. Generally speaking, you don't enter college from a working-class background with no high-school exposure to Latin and say, "golly, I think I'll major in classics."

Meanwhile, Mount's claims that Latin is "the eternal language" or that it's "crucial . . . to learn Latin to become a civilized leader" (as opposed to, say, an uncivilized leader? like maybe those barbaric Turks, or some other, browner people?) simply disclose his reprehensible ethnocentrism.

I'm not opposed to people learning Latin, but to see it as the INDEX OF CIVILIZATION is not only absurd but contemptible. That they printed this op-ed is just one more reason to hate the New York Times.

Mount: "Because Latin is a dead language, not in a constant state of flux as living languages are, there’s no wriggle room in translating."

I wonder if Mount knows that, over the centuries of its use, Latin changed just like any other language? The proposal that a dead language is a static language, or worse still, that it leaves "no wriggle room in translating," only reveals what Harry Mount has not learned from his studies.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Endymion Spring

Matthew Skelton, Endymion Spring, 2006.

Endymion Spring weaves together the story of North American children visiting Oxford with their mother, a visiting scholar, with the first-person narrative of Endymion Spring, a fifteenth-century apprentice to Johann Gutenberg. I found Endymion Spring's narrative fascinating; with Gutenberg, Faust, and dragons, you basically cannot go wrong.

Although I mostly loved the fifteenth-century sections of the book, the main adventure occurs in the 21st century, a narrative that I found far less satisfying.

The 21st-century narrative is most notable for its "OMG OMG I <3 Oxford!!1!" aesthetic. The novel opens with, "What sort of book is this?", staging an encounter with an inscrutable text that rings a lot of Oxford School bells. Endymion Spring reveals the qualified nature of these encounters; the chosen child is a special kind of reader, but for Blake, the protagonist of Endymion Spring, the ability to read the text depends on being the chosen child. (This is also true of Will in The Dark is rising).

And in fact, in this case, Blake's being the chosen child depends, not on any personal merit, but on his maleness.

Blake is "just an ordinary boy who [i]sn't particularly good at reading," while his younger sister Duck is an excellent reader and an assiduous worker. But Blake's being the chosen child is repeatedly staged as a triumph over his sister:

"I can't find any riddles," she said. "I've been through it hundreds of times. I've held it up to the light; I've considered using lemon juice to reveal any secret messages; I've even tried spilling ink on it; but nothing works. Ink doesn't stick to the paper. The words are invisible. How do you read it?

She looked up at him and, for the first time in his life, he realized that she actually needed to learn something from him.

At last, it is Blake who is the good reader -- but through no merit of his own.

In fact, it seems to be a direct result of sexism! Blake is chosen by Endymion Spring's book because "Endymion Spring was a boy just like you," as Professor Jolyon Fall explains to Blake.

"...Printers' devils were often young apprentices -- boys, even --who worked in the earliest print rooms in Europe in the fifteenth century. They were trainees, learning the art of printing books when it was still considered a Black Art."

"What about girls?" Duck challenged him quickly.

"I'm afraid I don't know of any, said Jolyon good-naturedly.

"You mean Endymion Spring was a boy like me?" piped in Blake with renewed enthusiasm, feeling an instant kinship to that mysterious figure all those hundreds of years ago.

The word "boy" keeps cropping up in this passage, even to be contrasted with "girl," such that, even though Blake muses that he and Endymion are "bonded by age," it is clearly their shared boyhood that makes them kin. If anyone is really like Endymion, it is Duck, whose yellow raincoat resembles Endymion's yellow habit, whose frequent inscrutable silence mirrors Endymion's voicelessness, and whose facility with letters mirrors Endymion's.

In the end, Duck can be smart and resourceful and hard-working, but she is just a girl, and girls can't be the chosen ones, because that's just how it is. Girl apprentices? "I'm afraid I don't know of any."

If writers like Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman have worked to deform and revise the Oxford School paradigm, Skelton is firmly committed to bringing back Tolkien-era values, or maybe even more reactionary ones.

For Skelton, this means fetishizing the book to the point of actually suggesting that the digitization of library collections is a destructive act meant to eradicate libraries. Apparently Skelton believes that access to library collections should be limited to those who have the resources to travel, and either that having all and sundry paw over original manuscripts and first editions would somehow benefit libraries, or that only a select few should be doing research in the first place. He even takes a quiet moment to denigrate email.

It also means putting women in their place; they think they can be scholars, but they can't. Blake's mother, Juliet, is repeatedly vilified for not
spending her working days with her children, even though she is in Oxford to access the Bodleian collections for a limited time. The novel never gives a convincing explanation of why the children are in Oxford with their mother in the first place, instead of at home in Canada with their father, who is unemployed.

Apparently, no matter what a woman's job is, even if she's the sole earner in the family, her failure to engage in childcare all day, every day makes her a bad mother and a bad person. Juliet is also criticized for having too much career ambition, while their dreamy (I repeat: unemployed) father is, as Jolyon explains, the truer and better scholar. Bright, ambitious Duck is similarly put in her place by her lack of penis.

In Skelton's calculus, there's an ineffable something you need in order to be a good scholar, something that doesn't have to do with hard work or intelligence. You have to be the Chosen One, and ain't it funny, the Chosen One is always male.

Endymion Spring thereby reproduces the sexist paradigm of assessing female intellectuals that Gilbert and Gubar identify in The Madwoman in the Attic: real, original intellectual achievement is figured as masculine, "not only inappropriate but actually alien to women" (8). As nineteenth-century critic Rufus Griswold put it,

[t]he most exquisite susceptibility of the spirit, and the capacity to mirror in dazzling variety the effects which circumstances or surrounding minds work upon it, may be accompanied by no power to originate, nor even, in any proper sense, to reproduce. (9)

Female achievement is constructed as constitutively unoriginal.

This is essentially Jolyon's assessment of Juliet:

She was a capable, clever and highly motivated student. [...] I am not sure that she loved books, but she analyzed what was in them very well. Still, without that passion, she was never, I fear, my best student. [...] No, that distinction ... goes to your father. [...] Oh yes, your father had a most remarkable imagination. Not always accurate, mind, but blessed with an insight I have rarely seen.

Juliet's a good worker, but she doesn't have "imagination," Griswold's "power to originate"; only Christopher has it, and that's because he's "blessed."

Unsurprisingly, both Juliet and Duck are believers in the usefulness of email, while only Blake has the testosterone/insight to realize that if, with the help of email, his mother actually gets work done more efficiently, the Apocalypse will ensue.

Also, Skelton offers a tip to husbands: if your wife is in the same town as an ex-boyfriend, she is not to be trusted. You should show up unannounced, claim her as your property, and put an end to the affair that they are doubtlessly having.

After all, as we ultimately learn, if Blake's parents were to divorce, it would be a cosmic catastrophe, since the codex tells Blake that "Should Winter (Blake's father, Christopher Winters) from Summer (Juliet Somers) irrevocably part/ The Whole of the Book will fall quickly apart."

Guess the gender of the villain.

For Skelton, preserving what's interesting and venerable about Oxford means insisting on the primacy of book media to the exclusion of all else (manuscripts rather than print, in fact, since the Gutenberg narrative is really just an excuse for weaving a tale about a unique and powerful codex) and on the inferiority of women. In fact, the intrusion of women into the world of Oxford seems curiously interwoven with the intrusion of electronic media, which is giving me all kinds of Donna Harawayesque thoughts.

My final comment on Endymion Spring is that, stylistically, it is none of the wittiest. The novel is filled with lurid metaphors: "Stacks of oversized hardbacks grew like primitive rock formations." "Little lamps with brass stands and red shades, like toadstools, sprung up at intervals, emitting weak coronas of light." "He held it up to the light, where it immediately absorbed the glow of the fire and turned red like a sunset -- a blood-soaked battlefield." The obligatory cryptic verses scan poorly and the obligatory fake Middle English is unconvincing.

Endymion Spring does some fascinating myth-making around the Faust figure, but Skelton spends so much time tripping over himself to make this the most Oxfordy of Oxford fantasies that he derails his own vision.

I hope to post soon on Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord (2000).


I've used boldface instead of block quotations due to an irritating bug in Blogger. Yes, using boldface for block quotations is hideously ugly. I am starting to turn fond thoughts to Wordpress.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.