Thursday, December 18, 2008

Poetry and Language

Another semester has gone by, and I'm moved to reflect again on teaching. I enjoyed teaching "Poetry and Language" a great deal, in part because of the subject matter, in part because of my great students. The rubric "poetry and language" is intentionally vague; I wanted to teach a variety of poems in modern English, focusing on style without necessarily having to create a thematic narrative. I think a certain amount of freedom from narratives, both within works and across them, was good for the class. On the simplest level, less plot means less plot summary!

My students were often frustrated, especially by the poetry from after 1900 (of which there was a lot, it being my area of specialty), but those who were game learned a lot, and those who were hostile perhaps learned even more, at least when they aired their hostility and were asked to defend it. Many of them wrote especially smart blog posts, and some of the best posts were written by students voicing frustrations. To complain of the absence of punctuation, for instance, is to recognize some of punctuation's functions in general. To complain of too few stanza breaks is to notice stanza structure and have an opinion about it. To complain that T.S. Eliot's allusions are pretentious is to join a great critical tradition!

I think what frustrated my students the most was the impossibility of mastery, the absence of pat Cliffs Notes digests that could take the place of the poems. It was not a way of thinking in which they had much training.

Around the time of Spring and All this semester there was a general demand for a lecture that would Explain Things. Ultimately I gave a short lecture, maybe fifteen minutes, that contextualized modernism and gave a few brief readings of poems, and I think that was the right decision. I had assigned difficult material, and the class needed some frameworks for thinking about it. But the very fact that the students had to demand a lecture and discuss it with me forced them to reflect on what it was that they hoped to get out of class, and how they hoped to get it.

Although some students remained firmly in the pro-lecture camp, others rightly pointed out that unlike lecture, discussion forced them to take positions and formulate responses, and that this was as important as absorbing content, if not more. It was that kind of class; usually when somebody said something ridiculous (and this happened a lot -- the class had a strange obsession with the possibility that various poets were on drugs), another student would pipe up to rebut it.

I think I'm so happy with this class because I really feel that a large percentage of the class got on board with the whole "learning" thing in a serious way. I don't just mean that they took my class seriously, but that they seemed to commit themselves to the idea of intellectual integrity, something that I hope they'll hang onto in other classes. Of course, I haven't read the evaluations yet! But I did read the exams, which showed heartwarming evidence of real studying. (I also have to commend two of my students for their well-turned sarcastic remarks, produced on the fly on the final. They have learned well!)

It wasn't all roses, but it was a good class.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I recently learned that the University of Chicago has bought the Chicago Theological Seminary's beautiful building at 58th and University. It looks like the building will be used for the new Milton Friedman Institute.

Naturally, I found this out at the Seminary Co-op web site, and my first question was what would happen to the Co-op.

There are no plans to evict the Co-op for now. I just wonder how they will feel about their home changing from a house of God into a TEMPLE OF MAMMON.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Communicable diseases

I once heard a most intriguing talk by Jim Mussell on "The 'Very Proteus of Disease': Media, Materiality, and the Flu in 1890s London." He tracked the way that influenza epidemics and newspaper accounts of the aforementioned epidemics were received, the one causing the other and (allegedly) vice-versa, as people eager to be the first to know the news developed psychosomatic runny noses.

Now I read in the NYT that
a few weeks ago, Google deployed an early-warning service for spotting flu trends, based on search queries for flu-related symptoms.
Doubtless this will be extremely useful for those of us who like to pre-emptively stock up on orange juice. The article is at least ostensibly about privacy, and a researcher adds,
“The new information tools symbolized [sic] by the Internet are radically changing the possibility of how we can organize large-scale human efforts,” said Thomas W. Malone, director of the M.I.T. Center for Collective Intelligence.

“For most of human history, people have lived in small tribes where everything they did was known by everyone they knew,” Dr. Malone said. “In some sense we’re becoming a global village. Privacy may turn out to have become an anomaly.”

We can use our brand-new media to track the flu, and are turning into what you might call a "global village." In other words, all your McLuhan are belong to us.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


There's an article in the NYT just now on the proposed Berkeley Art Museum. I quite like the new design, although I don't see what the author, Nicolai Ouroussoff, has against the current building (apart from the fact that it's falling down). He writes,
Standing on a rough commercial strip at the campus’s southern edge, the old building is still marred by the big steel columns that were installed after the quake to support its cantilevered floors. Its rough, angular concrete forms and oddly shaped galleries are awkward settings for art.
I beg to differ: its oddly shaped galleries are awesome. I'm also not sure what Ourossoff means by "a rough commercial strip." Surely he doesn't think Bancroft and Bowditch is a rough neighborhood. But then, he does come out with things like
On a local level, the museum could help break down the divide between the ivory tower at the top of the hill and the gritty neighborhood at the bottom.
Gritty, gritty Shattuck Ave.

One thing I do think Ouroussoff did get right is this, the very first line of the article:
I have no idea whether, in this dismal economic climate, the University of California will find the money to build its new art museum here.

Good question. Since, you know, we've fired the lecturers.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

In light of a recent email I received from a stranger, I feel compelled to post a link to the pinnacle of Jorge Cham's achievement: "Answer times two." It... it speaks to me so often.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Apocalyptic narratives about narrative

NYT: MIT's Media Lab Will Study Film Narrative in Center for Future Storytelling.

In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Kirkpatrick said he might take a cue from Al Gore, who used a documentary film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” to heighten concern about global warming. Mr. Kirkpatrick is now considering an alarm-bell documentary of his own, he said.

Its tentative title: “A World Without Story.”

As Arcadia put it when she emailed me the link, "NYT or Onion?"

Monday, November 17, 2008

Jeff Sypeck posts some of his google search strings. (Sypeck is the author of Becoming Charlemagne.)

New readers continue to find “Quid Plura?” through the thaumaturgy of the modern search engine. Below in bold are some of their stranger searches. I’ve endeavored to add helpful responses on the off chance they didn’t find the answers they were looking for.

beowulf fungus
One of my college roommates contracted the Beowulf fungus. Afterwards, people found it impossible to date him with any certainty.

how stupid is sir gawain?
Gawain is so stupid, it takes him two hours to watch “60 Minutes”!
Gawain is so stupid, he took an umbrella to see “Purple Rain”!
Gawain is so stupid, he thought Sherlock Holmes was a housing project!
Gawain is so stupid, he believed that every instance of the final inflectional -e in MS Cotton Nero A.x was unsounded because he had overlooked the possibility that specifically poetic archaisms may not have existed in prose and failed to consider that an unsounded final -e might corrupt the meter in at least a dozen places in the manuscript!

becoming charlemagne summary
Becoming Charlemagne is the story of the emperor who won renown as the inventor of gargling, which prior to that time had been practiced only furtively by a remote tribe of Saxons who passed the secret down from father to son as part of their oral tradition.

becoming charlemagne sparknotes
Set against the turbulent backdrop of 19th-century Russia, Becoming Charlemagne is the story of a young princess who gradually awakens to her own potential as a poet, a lover, and a queen. (Tell your teacher you found this summary on the author’s Web site. You will astonish her.) [Her? -- N.C.]

Read the whole post for the most hilarious of these search strings. (Via Ducks and Drakes.)

Curiously, ever since I wrote that post on Mary Hoffman and Diana Wynne Jones, I've gotten a large number of searches on cross-dressing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Austin Grossman has a very interesting review of Maze of Bones.
It’s a story about people born into the most privileged family in the world, who then set out to become the most important people in history. Whatever happened to just owning your own chocolate factory?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The NYT reports, "Tough Times Strain Colleges Rich and Poor."

Well, I could have told you that.

The article speaks directly of the UC system:

On Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California proposed a midyear budget cut of $65.5 million for the University of California system — on top of the $48 million reduction already in the budget.

“Budget cuts mean that campuses won’t be able to fill faculty vacancies, that the student-faculty ratio rises, that students have lecturers instead of tenured professors,” said Mark G. Yudof, president of the California system. “Higher education is very labor intensive. We may be getting to the point where there will have to be some basic change in the model.”

I wonder what that change would be. A change to a model that's somehow less labor-intensive? What would be the point of higher education, in that case?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Children's Rhymes

When I was a chile we used to play,
"One -- two -- buckle my shoe!"
and things like that. But now, Lord,
listen at them little varmints!

     By what sends
     the white kids
     I ain't sent:
     I know I can't
     be President.

There is two thousand children
in this block, I do believe!

     What don't bug
     them white kids
     sure bugs me:
     We knows everybody
     ain't free!

Some of these young ones is cert'ly bad --
One batted a hard ball right through my window
and my gold fish et the glass.

     What's written down
     for white folks
     ain't for us a-tall:
     "Liberty And Justice --
     Huh -- For All."

     Skee! Daddle-de-do!

Salt' peanuts!


          -- Langston Hughes, 1951

Hyde Park

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A few more literature-in-the-media moments:

Paul Krugman writes in the NYT:
Economic data rarely inspire poetic thoughts. But as I was contemplating the latest set of numbers, I realized that I had William Butler Yeats running through my head: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

The widening gyre, in this case, would be the feedback loops (so much for poetry) causing the financial crisis to spin ever further out of control. The hapless falconer would, I guess, be Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary.
I cracked up when I read this -- perhaps because I'd just been grading. It's a good thing he's interpreting the economy and not Yeats.

* * *

More disturbingly, a New Republic article about David Axelrod, Barack Obama's consultant, pitches him as an expert in convincing white voters to accept black candidates. His recipe?
The self-described "keeper of the message" for Obama's presidential bid has taken the lessons he learned from his mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns and made them cohere into something that approaches a unified theory of how to elect a black candidate--emphasizing biography, using third-party authentication, attacking with an unconventional sideways approach, letting voters connect to the candidate by speaking to them directly in ads, and telling voters that supporting the black candidate puts them on the right side of history.
Ouch. I guess I have to give Axelrod credit -- it's tried and true. Really tried and true. For instance, in abolitionist slave narratives. (And as we keep hearing, Obama's memoirs are, as it were, "written by himself.") But it is painful to read that such a formula still seems necessary.

* * *

Stanley Fish, meanwhile, compares Barack Obama to Jesus in a way that only Fish can (or would), via Milton's Paradise Regained. I must admit to being amused.

* * *

And finally, according to a NYT article, some researchers in Massachusetts are using Thoreau's notes to study climate change.
Henry David Thoreau endorsed civil disobedience, opposed slavery and lived for two years in a hut in the woods here, an experience he described in “Walden.” Now he turns out to have another line in his résumé: climate researcher.
The profound weirdness of Walden, curiously, goes unmentioned in the article. The researchers also seem surprised that archives could, I don't know, matter.

Rock Hudson's Thoreau-quoting character in Douglas Sirk's 1955 All That Heaven Allows, sitting next to Jane Wyman

Friday, October 24, 2008

Avant-garde or nonsense?

Another way to phrase my students' dilemma is that they don't know whether to regard strange writing as ("deep") avant-garde literature or ("random") nonsense. It's a hard thing to figure out, especially if you're not much in the habit of reading poetry.

I was tickled to run into this video of the MSNBC pundit Rachel Maddow explaining dada:

Peter Bürger it's not; as Maddow admits, "art history class was a long time ago."

Maddow raises dada as a possible explanation for an incoherent John McCain ad: perhaps it's incoherent because he's trying to smash art as an institution. By identifying it as dada, we could file it in the "deep" category. Of course, Maddow is really trying to argue that it's not "deep" at all, but rather "random."

But Maddow's satire hinges on a (supposed) formal similarity. Both dada and this ad are identified as incoherent. That doesn't actually help my students tell them apart!

This is why we need better shorthands for avant-garde writing than "weird stuff."

In my dissertation I show that the mama of dada is really Nana.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I recently wrote a rather intemperate post chastising Rosemary Feal for suggesting that campus rape was caused by alcohol.

She has graciously responded:
I read your remarks on my column, and you are right, of course: alcohol does not cause rape. I see how my transition from one issue to the other could leave the impression I was saying so. What I was trying to say is that virtually all the instances of sexual assault that I heard about on the campuses where I taught had alcohol involved. Women arriving on campus need to hear that one of the prime dangers for them is sexual assault; and they are more vulnerable when intoxicated. I am sorry that I wasn't clearer, especially since it is a matter about which I care a great deal--and I find it is a topic that most professors don't discuss at all, which is also why I raised it. I don't think you and I differ here about what's important. Your point, and I share it, is that victimization and assault is something to which people are vulnerable, because there are victimizers-- in the case of rape, the men who commit the violence. Certain circumstances increase that vulnerability. This is not to blame victims, but rather to help women reduce their risk for being violated. It's crucial that all of us in the academic community continue to reflect on these issues.

I answered:

I continue to believe that linking sexual assault to alcohol unnecessarily obfuscates the real cause of rape, thus perhaps unintentionally opening the door to victim-blaming (i.e. the widely held position that women ought to maintain incredible ninja reflexes at all times in order to prevent their own rapes). But I believe that I understand your viewpoint, which is a practical one aimed at reducing assaults, and in that respect admirable.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Times are tough. Let the humanities help you.

A few weeks ago one of my friends was interviewed in a coffee shop about the crumbling economy. She was in that coffee shop working on her dissertation because she doesn’t have an office (neither does any grad student in my department). The reporter asked her how the stock crashes were affecting her. She responded that they didn’t affect her at all -- that she lived well below the poverty line, and did the reporter know what kind of money you have to have to get into the stock market?

Nonetheless, those who had anything to lose have lost it or are in the process of losing it. People want to point fingers.

The obvious people to blame are the people who somehow made money off of crazy meta-economic juggling and somehow made the rest of the economy depend on the aforementioned juggling.

But that’s boring. With our long-held Freudian taste for analysis, we’re moved to dig deeper, and by “dig deeper,” I mean “dig shallowly and pull up the first ready-made pat narrative you find.”

That narrative, of course, is the two cultures, for lo, it will not die.

Thus in yesterday’s New York Times, I find Maureen Dowd crowing that too much technocracy has gotten us into trouble and we must all go back to reading Latin so that we can learn from the Stoics that greed is bad. Capital is scarce: cultural capital is back!!

Then Op-Ed contributor Richard Dooling writes that “math and physics geeks” are raining destruction upon us, in the form of nuclear warfare and financial ruin.

And then there is Harold Bloom, who advocatesreading Emerson.

Let’s look for a moment at how Bloom quotes Emerson:
Pride, and Thrift, and Expediency, who jeered and chirped and were so well pleased with themselves, and made merry with the dream, as they termed it, of Philosophy and Love, — behold they are all flat, and here is the Soul erect and unconquered still.

“Pride,” “Thrift,” “Expediency”? That’s nineteenth-century talk for business school – which Dooling improbably aligns with physicists. In short, it’s all number-people collapsed together. “Philosophy and Love,” on the other hand -- the humanities.

So after hearing that the humanities are in crisis for basically the entire time I’ve been in the humanities, I’m starting to hear that this is our hour of glory.

The logic seems to go:

There are two cultures, numbers culture and humanities culture. Finance isn't part of the humanities, so it must be part of the numbers culture, which also includes, I don't know, botanists and the Maytag repair person. The soulless numbers culture, like the Republican party, squandered its period of dominance, and now the other party will rise to power. That would be the humanities. Here is the Soul erect and unconquered still!

That's where I'm balking. It takes some really confused categories (Dooling, I’m looking at you) to make nuclear physics, robot takeovers, and the world financial system into the same phenomenon. Physicists actually have nothing to do with the economic crisis. Correlation is not causation, and numbers per se do not create hubris.

It also takes some pretty confused categories to think of Latin, “philosophy and love,” or Emerson as the inverse of irresponsible economics. The economy is a mess, but Emerson is not going to come back into fashion. Latin is not going to come back either. The NYT editors will not suffer Dowd columns in Latin for long. People are not going to come flocking to the more decrepit buildings on campus beating their breasts and calling out, “Oh, literature professors! We were wrong! Sell us your academic monographs!”

The current economic situation is not about the two cultures. The two cultures are not real. The two cultures, as being invoked here, are an intellectually lazy binary that lets us point fingers without actually having to think about economics.

But I am pretty sure the current situation is actually about economics.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Quick notes on three recently-read children's books

Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, some Soup, and a Spool of Thread, 2003.

     In case you were wondering whether a fat working-class girl with a hearing impairment could be a princess, the answer is no.

Shannon Hale, Princess Academy, 2005.

     The Book of Esther meets Heidi. Yes, including Peter and the goats.

Blue Balliett, The Wright 3, 2006.

    Charming, as must be any book in which a major plot point revolves around the box of free books outside Powells. Interesting sensitive touch on the awkwardness of mixed-sex friendships in sixth grade. Alas for the "Bach symphony" moment, however. 

Why, Rosemary Feal?

I’m not an avid reader of the MLA Newsletter, but for some reason I skimmed the most recent one. Rosemary Feal’s back-to-school column covered some familiar topics: student financial aid, state university funding, full-time versus adjunct faculty, the reasons students take language and literature courses.

And then there was this:
I know that if I were returning to campus this year, I would be thinking about something else, too, and it has been on my mind since my first year at college, when I witnessed the spectacles of keg parties, frat welcome events, and the like: the effect of alcohol consumption by young people who are often living away from their families for the first time. [Paging Margaret Soltan’s red pen. --N] How many of you, I wonder, have heard the same stories I used to hear, year after year, about the (sometimes devastating) ill effects of a “few too many” on young lives? On several occasions distressed young women confided in me: they went to a party, they drank too much, they don’t remember much after that ... well, you know the rest, as I did before they concluded. I informed them of the resources available on campus and tried to assure them that they’d get through it.

Yes, I know the rest, and I’ll name it, since Feal so decorously declines to do so: rape.

Memo to Rosemary Feal: alcohol does not cause rape. Rapists cause rape. You can drink yourself unconscious, and if no rapist is in the vicinity, there will be no rape. Yes, drinking can impair a woman’s ability to fend off rapists. It also impairs people’s ability to operate heavy machinery, avoid being mugged, or avoid being hit by a truck. In fact, if you’re too drunk to remember things, you’re not in much of a position to avoid anything. Nobody acts as if drinking causes being hit by trucks -- rightly. But apparently the established procedure is to tell our college women that they’ll get through it, and sorry, but being raped is the price that uppity Ovary-Americans pay for thinking they can act like college students. Just a little reminder, by way of physical assault, that even if they earn more than 50% of degrees, they're still fundamentally outsiders in the university.

Yes, college-age drinking is a serious problem. But don’t you go writing in the MLA Newsletter that rape is an “effect of alcohol consumption.”

Note how that nominalization, "consumption," carefully elides agents.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

How is it that I had never before heard of Doctor Syntax?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

All I wanted were some books

Walking up College Avenue on my way to the library this morning, I was bewildered by all the blue and gold. I have been living in Berkeley for five years now, so I have learned to recognize the telltale signs of an athletic event going on. Lots of people wearing blue and gold means an athletic event. But this seemed different; it was earlier in the day and there seemed to be more people and more activity. I even spotted a woman in a blue sweater with the golden faces of bears knitted into it. Yes, bears, all over. I nearly collided with somebody toting a euphonium.

It was not until I arrived in the area near the library and saw all the balloons and whatnot that I remembered that this is technically called "homecoming weekend" -- not, as I had fixed it in my mind, "Mark Twain exhibit at the Bancroft weekend."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Mark Twain exhibit at the Bancroft tomorrow

Mark Twain at Play
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Friday, 3 October
free admission

from the web site:
How did Mark Twain spend his time when the “bread-and-butter element” was put aside and he was free to relax? His leisure pursuits, from amateur theatricals to yachting—and how his “play” influenced his “work”—are the subject of “Mark Twain at Play,” an exhibition at the Bancroft Library that brings together notebooks, photographs, and other rare artifacts from the Mark Twain Papers archive. The exhibition, the first in the new Bancroft Gallery, was curated by the editors of the Mark Twain Project and has been generously supported by a gift from Colleen and Robert Haas.

UC Press Book Sale


The University of California Press is having an online sale right now, lasting until October 31.

(Princeton University Press is also having a sale, by the way. The titles on sale seem less exciting, however.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


AP: "Nobel literature head: US too insular to compete"

Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.

Counters the head of the U.S. National Book Foundation: "Put him in touch with me, and I'll send him a reading list."

Funny: The claim that American literature can't measure up to European writing.

Funnier: The indignation with which Americans quoted in the article greeted the announcement.

Funniest: Calling the aforementioned Americans (David Remnick of the New Yorker, Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Award) "literary officials." What, now we have literary officials? Are they by any chance part of this country's vast aesthetic-industrial complex?

I wonder if The Onion knows that Adorno and Horkheimer got there first.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Well, that was unexpected.

In their most recent writing assignment, a plurality of students chose to write on William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis." I think it's kind of awesome.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Greatest ever

Guardian: JK Rowling gives Labour £1m donation.
Brown said: "I am delighted that JK Rowling, who is one of the world's greatest ever authors, has made such a generous donation. I thank her for supporting the Labour party and our values of social justice and opportunity for all."

Oh, yes. Definitely on par with, like, George Eliot.

(Via Silliman)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The necessary spinster

I recently read Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire, which I very much enjoyed. It's a novel about love, and sincerity, and partly about the strangeness of communication. It's also about the isolated spinsters and widows who hold the world together, point by point, with their renunciations, so that beautiful young mermaid-women can have war heroes and sincerity. Their loves are necessary but not sufficient.

The necessary spinster is a trope that one finds frequently in fiction for girls. I am thinking in particular of Anne of Green Gables and I Capture the Castle, but of course it lurks in the background of nearly every novel with a literary young woman. Louisa May Alcott thought Jo March ought to turn out a "literary spinster" -- like herself, of course. And the spinster Jane Eyre might have become is Lucy Snowe.

The misogynistic suspicion arises, always, that a woman cannot be both intellectual and sexual; this is one theme in Le Doeuff's The Sex of Knowing, and one of the great problems addressed women's fiction. (One possible conclusion is that women are a priori sexual, are the sexual, and that therefore women cannot be intellectual, full stop. This is a favorite theme of men's fiction.)

In women's fiction, the woman is usually forced, painfully, to choose--and really, it is no choice at all. The usual way out is for the heroine to marry an intellectual man, one who respects her enough that he intends to let her keep on thinking. Mr. Rochester is one such; Professor Bhaer is another. Gilbert Blythe, we are to assume, another.

But Jo puts away her writing after marriage; so does Anne. Anne instead mentors a bright young boy who goes on to be a writer himself. Jo and Anne recede into the roles of teacher and mother: support staff. The happy ending is a compromise, as Alcott saw.

The necessary spinster is in the background as a warning of what might happen. Marilla in Anne of Green Gables is a classic example. Secretly brilliant and warm-hearted, she develops a no-nonsense approach to the life that she devotes to maintaining her kind, dreamy, utterly socially impaired brother. In her youth, Marilla has a brief affair with Gilbert Blythe's father, which ends when both are too proud to make the first gesture toward ending a fight. This is, we are to understand, Marilla's fault and Marilla's tragedy; she is, after all, the one who remains single.

Anne learns of this, and must get over her pride (some might call it self-respect) and marry Gilbert in order to set it to rights. Anne saves Marilla partly by giving her another shot at motherhood, but partly by redeeming Marilla's spinsterhood in the next generation, House of Seven Gables-style.

It's, to put it lightly, problematic, from a feminist perspective.

I find I Capture the Castle more thoughtful on this subject, but of course it's a different kind of book. Marriage is a matter of love in this novel, but also of rescue. All the women in the family are extremely practical on this score, and so is Miss Marcy, the necessary spinster of the novel. Miss Marcy is the local school teacher, who has given up on expecting things for herself and has moved on to sustaining others.

The Mortmain family's desperate financial situation stems, we are told, from a misunderstanding that destroyed the father's ability to write -- he was once a celebrated novelist. But it is equally a consequence of the sexual division of labor in the household. The women are excellent housekeepers, good at spending wisely and frugally what the men gain. This is nearly meaningless, however, in the absence of gain.

Miss Marcy, though certainly not wealthy, is financially independent; she has a job, and she helps the Mortmains. She has stability and a meaningful life, but nobody loves her, and this, Cassandra decides, is unacceptable. Miss Marcy is necessary; Cassandra benefits from her presence and learns from her. But Miss Marcy is also a warning: this is what could happen.

What I find so interesting about the spinsters in The Great Fire is that the spinsters are not warnings so much as emulable models.

Not for Helen, of course, who, because female, is subject to the same strictures as the spinsters. Already at seventeen she is used to being exploited by her parents as a nurse for her brilliant brother Benedict, who is ill. (Fortunately for the two of them, Helen is competent and Benedict is good company.) It is possible for the poetic, intellectual Helen to be buried first in interminable nursing and then, later, to "knuckle under" in the isolation of New Zealand, where the women ultimately marry and renounce intellect or pleasure. Such a fate is strenuously to be avoided, and near the end we feel the danger for Helen.

But unlike so many novels in which the literary girl is trailed by the warning specter of the literary spinster, The Great Fire does not hold anyone up as the tragic example. Instead, it dots the globe with necessary spinsters, interesting women who have tamped themselves down in order to survive. Each acting in isolation, the spinsters ameliorate the cruelties of geography and of loneliness and provide needed funds of love. They are geniuses of repair, quiet human connective nodes that master distance. The final chapter is a neural mass of correspondences: telegrams, long distance calls, and finally, necessarily, travel. Their jobs done, the spinsters recede into the background.

And as the spinsters carefully reach out and make themselves useful, Aldred also learns to do so, moving swiftly to repair a connection between Helen and Benedict and engaging himself in the complex network of human communications of which the spinsters, it turns out, are the anchors. If such actions are dangerous for Helen (there is no question of bucking the sex/gender system), they are required for Aldred. It is by entering this network of letters and telegrams and telephone calls that Aldred finally understands what to do, how to manage his father's estate and how to reach Helen. It is also by entrusting the care of Peter Exley to such women that Aldred is able to turn his attentions where they are most needed. The necessary spinster here is not merely a faintly pitiable fairy godmother. Rather, she is model of active, adult human compassion. Thus the solution for Helen is not only to marry an intellectual man who will allow her to think, although Aldred is also that. Helen must marry a man who is, in a sense, a spinster, the kind of person who makes sincere love possible for others. Above all, he must make it possible for her -- really possible, without concomitant renunciations.

Update: Sadie Stein on spinsters.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Spring and Fall Semesters

with apologies to Gerard Manley Hopkins

Margaret, are you frighting
O’er the essay you are writing?
Leaves of the reader turning,
The hours are you burning?
Ah! with procrastination
Grows grievous consternation,
By and by, on caffeine high,
Though panic start to make you cry,
And C to receive, you would know why.
Now no matter: just a draft:
Fret not too much over craft;
Prove, move the blinking cursor on,
Though night-time’s veil be nearly gone:
It is what texts are made of,
It is writing you’re afraid of.

* * * * *

I have to say, I quite adore reading my students' blog posts. Contra the parody above, they aren't actually afraid of writing, just certain kinds of writing. As soon as it's some doodly internet thing, the articulacy seems to skyrocket.

I remember Michael Drout writing at one point that he finds that his students' grammar and ability to make sense drops when they try to engage more complicated ideas.

That's true of course -- true for me too -- but I also think that students, at Cal, at least, tend to be invested in an image of themselves as high academic achievers, so as soon as they sit down to write an essay, the pressure is on. It's especially anxiety-inducing for first-years who are still adjusting to college demands. And that feeling can lead to paralysis, procrastination, and lower-quality writing.

It's not my job to fix my students' feelings, but it is my job to help them stretch from comfortable, low-pressure forms of writing to more demanding ones.

Which means, I suppose, that I had better finish my grading.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Counting to four

Recently Hillary showed me this video of Feist singing “1, 2, 3, 4” for Sesame Street.

I found the video very funny, and particularly enjoyed the way Feist’s dancing mimics the movement of the muppets – head upturned, mouth wide open, body being flung from side to side. The clusters of muppets seem to drag her around the set, as if she’s a muppet herself. As Hillary pointed out, this version is more appealing than the original.

The lyrics aren’t especially clever; it’s obvious that it was a pre-existing song being adapted to fit an educational theme. It’s charming nonetheless, especially the earnestness with which the merits of the number four are announced: it’s “one less than five, and one more than three.” I mean, who can argue with that?

The song blithely suggests that there’s something natural about counting up to your favorite number (in homage?). In fact, what’s amusing about the song is the absurd specificity of the activity being lauded, not just counting (as high as you can), but counting to four.

I suppose it could be argued that all the counting represents a set-theoretic construction of the number four (i.e. as a set of four elements). The singer then points to a three-dimensional Arabic numeral 4, singing “I see four here,” and correlates it to the four penguins she’s just counted (one, two, three, four) by pointing to them and singing “I see four there.”

Of course, any pedagogical achievement in that line is undermined by the next two: “My favorite number/ Nothing can compare.” Contra the lyrics, usually natural numbers don’t inspire affect (“my favorite,” and the gesture of laying the hand over the heart). Instead they are the abstractions by which certain kinds of comparisons become possible (to wit: four monsters, four penguins, four chickens, "one less than five and one more than three").

But in general, counting over and over again is usually read as a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. Émile Zola suffered from this particular obsession, and experienced deep shame that, while publicly committed to a scientific program, he privately performed over and over these rituals of order that were essentially superstitious.

Part of what’s appealing about the Feist video is the unironic joy in counting to four. But I wonder if that appeal doesn't have more to do with its absurdity -- an absurdity specifically associated with children's (perceived) cognitive limitations -- than with any actual desire to get toddlers pumped about counting to four. And perhaps a bit of the pleasure comes from the juxtaposition of those perceived childish limitations (counting, not as high as one can, but to four, and not because it's useful but because four is your favorite) with our own adult sophistication -- our recognition of the tune from a different context, etc.

Of course, I still like the video. And is anyone else detecting a subtle shout-out to Lyn Hejinian here? Like plump birds along the shore? Yes?

* * * * *

In other news, I sincerely hope that Poe studies have not really come to this.

(Of course they haven't; it's just that the NYT would rather report on this than on anything actually literary.)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Two kinds of cross-dressing in young adult fiction

As I've mentioned before, teaching A Room of One's Own forced me to face up to the overwhelming prevalence of the girl-in-drag-has-adventures meme. It is everywhere, from Shakespearean comedies to Mulan.

Several YA books that I've mentioned on this blog wholeheartedly embrace the idea that a girl should embrace her Inner Dude by making it her Outer Duds. In Boston Jane you're practically clubbed over the head with it. In Philadelphia, Jane wears corsets and is exaggeratedly feminine; out west, she loses the corset and Finds Herself (TM). In The Shakespeare Stealer, a girl is shown, without a trace of irony, making it in the Globe Theater by cross-dressing (in order to cross-dress yet again on the stage). And don't even get me into Alanna.

I find this device deeply irritating when it's used in order to mock women for being oppressed. This is the case in Boston Jane, and to some extent in Mulan as well (although Mulan actually does some interesting things with the performance of gender). Such narratives are merely another spin of the patriarchy wheel: "girls are stupid and useless, and if you want to avoid being stupid and useless you have to become an exception to your gender."

So I was interested to read Mary Hoffman's City of Stars, about a fifteen-year-old girl named Georgia O'Grady, who travels in her sleep to Talia, the Renaissance Italy of a parallel dimension. She's a loner at school and is bullied in particular by her older stepbrother Russell. Russell's taunts are truly vile, and insistently sexual. This fifteen-year-old girl loves horses, practically the quintessential little-girl obsession, but Russell spins it as a cheap Freudian substitute for frustrated sexuality, constantly accusing Georgia of both out-of-control desire and sexual failure (he actually calls a fifteen-year-old a "spinster"), simultaneously female and insufficiently feminine. Especially given that he's her older step-brother, the fixation on Georgia's body and on her sexuality is extraordinarily creepy.

So: she puts on drag.

Not drag in the sense of "drag queen," but drag in the sense of a sexual masquerade: she effaces the social markers of her femininity. With her short hair and baggy clothes that hide the shape of her body, Georgia announces that she withdraws from the femininity game. She knows she cannot win it and she doesn't intend to play.

But unlike in the spunky-girl narrative, merely wearing trousers does not solve Georgia's problems. She doesn't suddenly come into dudely awesomeness, complete with spitballs and weaponry. Instead, she travels to to another world, where she becomes embroiled in a complicated political situation marked by magic. There she dresses as a boy, since the demands of femininity are even stronger in this world, and there is no hope of avowing femininity with such short hair. Nonetheless, all of the friends that Georgia makes there know her to be a girl in boys' clothing (and haircut), not a boy or even an honorary boy.

Georgia eventually saves the day in a public event under the name "Giorgio Gredi," and the ability to pose as a boy certainly helps her in the "city of stars." But the real difference in this alternate world is not that she acts boyish -- she acts the same as she does at home -- but that she has a chance to interact with people who are not vile sexists. Putting on drag at home is a defense; putting on drag in Talia is mostly fallout from the situation at home. Georgia has her adventures in boys' clothing, but those adventures allow her to re-embrace femininity from a place of safety rather than anoint her an honorary XY.

I'm partly struck by the way the masquerade in City of Stars echoes the masquerade in Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. Like Georgia, the protagonist of Howl's Moving Castle, Sophie, starts out under a sexual threat, though it's much more euphemized here than in City of Stars. Sophie, the eldest of three daughters in a fairy-tale universe is constrained by what's expected of women and of eldest daughters.
"What made me think I wanted life to be interesting?" she asked as she ran. I'd be far too scared. It comes of being the eldest of three."

When she reached Market Square, it was worse, if possible. Most of the inns were in the Square. Crowds of young men swaggered beerily to and fro, trailing cloaks and long sleeves and stamping buckled boots they would never have dreamed of waring on a working day, calling loud remarks and accosting girls. The girls strolled in fine pairs, ready to be accosted. It was perfectly normal for May Day, but Sophie was scared of that too.
Ho-hum, it's just another day in patriarchy-land, with the usual catcalls from drunken men.

Sophie is suddenly freed from the sexual threats of her world by being magically disguised not as a man but as an elderly woman. In her pseudo-old age, she is no longer expected to be a sexual victim; instead she is free to be catankerous, eccentric, and bossy, something her apparent old age lets her get away with. As an elderly woman, Sophie's even mistaken for a witch, a category seen as repulsive yet powerful.

It's an interesting twist on girl-in-drag-has-adventures; although elderly women are not free from the threat of sexual violence, that threat is more socially acknowledged as inappropriate, unlike the harassment of young women, which is "perfectly normal." Sophie escapes into a marginalized category, and its similarity to Georgia's escape into androgyny is revealing.

In books like Boston Jane, a particular model of masculinity itself is powerful, desirable, and laudable, and is therefore the thing to be emulated. The way to kick ass is to approximate masculinity.

The sexual masquerades of City of Stars and Howl's Moving Castle, in contrast, are not attempts to emulate masculinity but to seek the kind of exemption from the threat of sexual violence that masculinity (anxiously) entails. These sexual masquerades are recognized as unsustainable but crucial stopgaps that allow the young female protagonists the respite from sexual threat that is necessary to develop selfhood. Undercover as a boy or as an elderly woman, these protagonists get a chance to build up reserves of experience and strength.

Of course I have mixed feelings about how femininity manifests at the end of the novels as heterosexuality and empowerfully normative beauty; surely there is more to achieving a secure home environment than a boyfriend and a halter top. After all, in City of Stars, the crucial resolution at home is similar to that in Talia: thanks in part (but not entirely) to Georgia's opportunity to spend some time around people who aren't vile sexists, Georgia's parents wake up and stop her being surrounded by vile sexists. In Howl's Moving Castle, something surprisingly similar occurs: Howl regains his heart and stops his predatory womanizing. So it's a bit disappointing that, in the end, both protagonists get makeovers.

But partly I think these endings recognize the difficulty of these radical positions. The woman who is rejected as beyond the pale of unfemininity is not resisting femininity by choice. She may embrace her position as a position of resistance, but because others have constructed her very body as unassimilable to society, she is abjected (the "radically excluded," as Kristeva famously puts it).

Georgia's drag is a sign of her abjection, of absenting herself from the game of gender by trying to become androgynous (which here means boyish, on which more could be said). Sophie's drag is also imposed, by the Witch of the Waste, and similarly represents Sophie's desire to exempt herself from the sexual economy. It is a radical position, yes, but also a painful one and a dangerous one. This drag is not the stuff of Butlerian parody but rather of self defense, and existing as a marginal figure (of ambiguous gender, of old age) carries with it its own problems.

The two protagonists therefore undertake the dangerous performance of femininity by drawing on a period of differently but equally dangerous resistance through sexual masquerade. Masquerade supplies not only a period of subject-formation in which the protagonists are allowed a sense of personal integrity (to wit: the notion that they own their bodies) but also the means of removing vile sexists from the vicinity.

Though I'm ambivalent about these endings -- I find them too easy -- I can see a certain logic to them. These protagonists have made femininity safe for themselves. That it takes magic and/or trips to an alternate universe in order to accomplish it registers the precariousness of that safety.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I went to Emeryville.

Some frightful things were happening with my ancient but trusty laptop, so I schlepped down to Emeryville today to get it checked out.

Not to worry: it was just a problem with the battery. I am posting using the ancient but trusty laptop itself, at this very moment.

Far more terrifying were the myriad ads and signage around the Bay Street shopping center, where the Apple store is located. One ad that I saw made me turn around in horror, walk in the opposite direction, and promptly repress the memory. I truly do not remember what it was, merely that it was horrible.

I saw a large ad in a Victoria's Secret window advertising some article of clothing or other that was supposed to make you an "irresistible object of desire." My brain almost exploded at that crystalline instantiation of how sexualized femininity is marketed. Irresistible, yet an object. Indeed, irresistible because an object: "Ladies, the best way for you to be powerful is to be powerless. Just keep still and nobody will be able to resist the demands that you are not making." It's like they're parodying themselves.

Additionally, most days the "Inappropriate Co-optation of a Virginia Woolf Quotation" award goes to a mediocre book shop down the street from me, whose proprietors seem to be going about under the impression that Mrs. Dalloway is about flowers instead of being about trying not to kill yourself.

But today we have a different winner. Who posted "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well" on the wall, out of context?

Why, the Pottery Barn, of course.

I mean, doesn't the Pottery Barn totally remind you of women's unequal access to education in the 1920s?

I should never leave my house without my camera.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Inappropriate literary reference of the day

Maureen Dowd:

Hillary’s orchestrating a play within the play in Denver. Just as Hamlet used the device to show that his stepfather murdered his father, Hillary will try to show the Democrats they chose the wrong savior.

Um, what?

Is that kind of like "To Roll Or Not To Roll" sugar cookies?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Michèle Le Doeuff, The Sex of Knowing

I recently read Michèle Le Doeuff's The Sex of Knowing (in translation). At its heart is a critique of difference feminism based on a historical observation: that women have been excluded from structures of knowledge, not because women have a different and undervalued way of knowing, but because they are women. The special kinds of knowing that have been attributed to women are not stable across history. The pattern that we see across them, Le Doeuff argues, is that these modes of knowing are devalued. Then they are attributed to women. She writes:
We are the little sisters who get the broken toys, the worn-out ideas, and the signs that are being discarded. However, the gift is snatched back when what appeared to be an ordinary stone is revealed as a diamond in the rough or something that could pass for one. The practice of attributing these negative values to women is constant in form, even if the precise content varies ad libitum. Women can be taxed with anything at all, in a way that is both arbitrary and not accidental, provided that at some point in history it has had a negative value. This phenomenon did not escape the attention of Gabrielle Suchon, who notes in 1693: “When desires are seen as marks of need and poverty, they will be attributed by the score to women and girls, since people are always ready to turn unpleasant things over to them.” She has discerned a kind of law, to which we may add a corollary underscoring the historic fluctuation of these gifts. In the seventeenth century, desire was in disrepute, and so women were said to have it in excess; today, it has been revalued by psychoanalysis, which even sees it as a sign of mental health. Since then, it has become a male characteristic, even in the writings of female psychoanalysts. (17)

The answer to women's systematic exclusion from institutions, Le Doeuff argues, is not to try to revalue failed intellectual modes. The answer is to insist once and for all that women can and do know things -- not intuit, not feel, but know, reason, and understand. (I may have more to say on this soon.)

Her point is well argued, although I don't think she gives difference feminism its due. Le Doeuff is at pains to distinguish between the modes of knowledge that have been called "masculine," which she argues are no such thing, and the ideologies that have kept the sciences largely populated by and entirely attributed to men.

One of her key arguments revolves around a critique of Evelyn Fox Keller's classic essay "Gender and Science," which reads Bacon's Advancement of Learning as envisioning a masculine subject pursuing violent knowledge of a feminine object. Le Doeuff happens to be a Bacon scholar, and she observes that Keller fails to read the original Latin. It is the translations on which Keller relies, Le Doeuff argues, that superimpose a masculinist ideology on Baconian science, which is itself neutral (149-50).

It's an effective take-down of the particulars of Keller's argument, but not a response to the broader point of "Gender and Science," which takes Bacon's wording as a metonym for a pervasive assumption in the sciences that by no means depends on Bacon.

Le Doeuff wants to say that science doesn't really fashion itself as masculinist per se; it just gets read that way all too often (and she readily points to other instances of Bacon being a raging sexist). But this ignores a problem of cultural dissemination. If science is couched in a masculinist ideology heartily espoused by its central theorists, even if it need not be masculinist, it effectively is.

In any case, Le Doeuff also elides the fact that, in the main, she and Keller almost entirely agree. As deserving of critique as some of the worst essentialist excesses of difference feminism are, Keller isn't guilty of them. Keller isn't out to prove that women by definition can't do science. Keller is a scientist herself. She's arguing that science has been theorized more or less formally as a masculinist pursuit. Thus:
A circular process of mutual reinforcement is established in which what is called scientific receives extra validation from the cultural preference for what is called masculine, and, conversely, what is called feminine -- be it a branch of knowledge, a way of thinking, or woman herself -- becomes further devalued by its exclusion from the special social and intellectual value placed on science and the model science provides for all intellectual endeavors. (Keller 202)
In fact, in this essay, Keller's a bit more willing to separate "real" science from the ideologies that surround it than I'm comfortable with (a problem she revisits in "Gender and Science: An Update").

There's another, non-essentialist, pragmatic argument for the idea that female knowledge could improve science, perhaps best articulated by example. Martha McClintock's 1971 paper establishing that when women live together, their menstrual cycles synchronize. This was groundbreaking in that it demonstrated a connection between a biological function and social interaction. But also? This is something that I and every other girl who went to summer camp knew long before we'd ever heard of Martha McClintock. (Of course, historical contingencies were involved in my own experience.) It's a phenomenon that men in science hadn't thought to investigate, because everyone knows that if you even whisper the word "tampon!" near a man, he may shrivel up and die, or at the very least lose his manhood. Le Doeuff does an excellent job of pointing out the ways in which the "object" of science may in fact know something about herself, despite claims to the contrary, in her extensive second chapter.

I found Le Doeuff overly dismissive of difference feminism, and of literary studies, but one of the real pleasures of the book is her sarcasm. There's a strong way in which The Sex of Knowing retreads the ground of A Room of One's Own, examining more systematically the phenomenon Virginia Woolf wryly points out in 1928/9:
Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe? [...] Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was more surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex -- woman, that is to say -- also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women.(27)
Le Doeuff wants to find out why women and knowledge have been defined as mutually exclusive; Woolf seeks the answer to the same question about women and writing. Like Woolf, she skewers bald instances of male vanity, like Joseph de Maistre's pronouncement (1808) that
Women have never created a masterpiece in any field. They did not create the Iliad, or the Aeneid, or Phaedra, or Athaliah, or the Pantheon, or the Venus of Medici [etc., etc.]. They invented neither algebra, nor the telescope, nor the heat pump, [etc.]..."(qtd. in Le Doeuff 170)
"De Maistre," Le Doeuff points out,
did not invent the telescope himself, nor did he write the Iliad; but, when he affirms that the 'masterpiece' is always a masculine product, he can imagine for an instant that algebra is almost his own creation. Generally, the exclusion of female creators from the mythic representation of inventiveness allows any man to take himself for an Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci, without having to manipulate an equation or handle a paintbrush, and even without the slightest interest in painting or physics. (173)
Like Woolf, Le Doeuff is brilliantly sarcastic. Stories of Le Doeuff's own career occasionally pop up, like the time she was nearly laughed out of the room for suggesting that Mary Wollstonecraft be included in an encyclopedia of eighteenth century English philosophers (because the rights of women, don't you know, aren't important like the rights of "man"). Nobody is spared the snark, and especially not sexist philosophers. For instance, she mentions Jacques Lacan merely in passing as someone "whose fine remark 'woman is not' or 'there is no such entity as woman' is sometimes used to dismiss you when you want to create a program in women's studies" (33).

Although I have significant reservations, I found this an enlightening and interesting book. The problematic of gender and knowledge casts light on unexpected questions, as, for example, the controversy a few years ago over head scarves in the French schools. Le Doeuff points out that the controversy over whether to throw girls out of school over a slip of fabric reveals the fragility of those girls' right to be educated -- the ease with which their right may be denied. Examples like these bring home the urgency of reasserting women's capacity for and right to knowledge qua knowledge. Martha McClintock recalls,
[At] Harvard, [...] because I was a woman, I was barred from the stacks at the Widener Library. I remember a moment when the chairman of the psychology department took his first-year students to lunch at the faculty club. I had to sit at a card table in the vestibule because I wasn't allowed into the dining room.
Le Doeuff's book reminds us that even though, as McClintock says, "[t]hings have changed," there are still beadles all too ready to chase our female students off the grass.

* * * * *

Keller, Evelyn Fox. "Gender and Science." In Sandra Harding and Merill B. Hintikka, eds. Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. Boston: Kluwer-D. Reidel, 1983. First published in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 1:3 (1978).

---. "Gender and Science: An Update." In Keller, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender, and Science. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Le Doeuff, Michèle. The Sex of Knowing, trans. Kathryn Hamer and Lorraine Code. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Annotated and Introd. Susan Gubar. 1929; New York: Harcourt, 2005.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Calling all vultures

Cody's (R.I.P.) is selling off its stock starting August 14.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Do not be fooled by the gadgets

I can't help noticing how much buzz is about regarding the recent Batman film. But I'm puzzled that no one yet seems to have pointed out the obvious. Allow me to quote the Rolling Stone review:
The trouble is that Batman, a.k.a. playboy Bruce Wayne, has had it up to here with being the white knight.
So he becomes, I suppose, the dark knight. In short, Batman: The Dark Knight is an almost comically timely instance of what Bruce Holsinger described in the recent CI as "the 9/11 pre-modern."

Just saying.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

This so-called "iced cream"

In the recent Chronicle article "Literary Geospaces," Jennifer Howard leads with the following:
In one of the most recent public eulogies for literary studies, a Nation essay that ran online in March decried the "trendism" on display in the Modern Language Association's job listings.

"The major trend now is trendiness itself, trendism, the desperate search for anything sexy," wrote William Deresiewicz, an associate professor of English at Yale University who has since left the profession. "Contemporary lit, global lit, ethnic American lit; creative writing, film, ecocriticism — whatever. There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children's literature, even in something called 'digital humanities.'"

Hmm. These crazy trends, these sexy digital humanities.

* * * * *

Burns: I feel like such a free spirit, and I'm really enjoying this so-called...iced cream.

The sands of Google

Also found in my Google search of the other day, and just now investigated:

I once wrote a blog post including the words "World of Warcraft," so this blog is hilariously associated with this computer game in the inscrutable mind of Google, via something pertaining to the game called a "quest" (evidently a mini-narrative within the game), which contains my first name.

I could mention that the original post was in reference to the "x of y" construction of metaphor (e.g. "the sands of time," "the ghosts of memory"). I'm still hoping my friend Karen, a linguist, will one day give me the definitive analysis of this construction, but I tend to associate it with inappropriate metaphors and bad undergraduate writing (good undergraduate writing avoids irresponsible metaphors!). A famous South Park episode lampoons the way that gamers (allegedly) think of the world of Warcraft (a game) as being as important as the actual world.

In any case, according to Google, the game World of Warcraft has a quest called "Dearest Natalia":
My dear Natalia has gone missing.

Truth be told, she had been acting strangely for weeks leading up to her disappearance. I had caught her talking to herself when no one was around on more than one occasion. She was adamant that everything was ok and that she must be allowed to continue her research.

I had no idea World of Warcraft was about grad students.

I imagine the object of the quest is to get Natalia a fellowship so she can continue her research. I could really get behind that idea, actually.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Émile Zola and Gertrude Stein walk into a bar...

Recently I checked my sitemeter to see what miserable search strings had directed people to my blog. As I've ranted before, it's usually people who honestly feel that they need Cliffs Notes in order to understand children's literature. (Ouch.) So I was surprised to see a large number of search strings that were simply my name.

In short, I was forced to Google myself.

Turns out this is what I get for actually following links. A while ago Hillary sent me a link to a funny/appalling newspaper article, which precipitated a calm evening's snark.

Google reveals that the aforementioned snarking was recently (very slightly mis-)quoted in a Chronicle of Higher Ed article, Britt Peterson's "Darwin to the Rescue." Evidently there was a widespread desire for -- well, I'm not sure what, exactly. In the article, the quotation is kind of awkwardly framed so that it isn't actually clear what I'm saying, so I suspect most of the googling of my name was in the spirit of trying to figure out wtf was being said.

Dang. I wish the Chronicle would ask me about my research instead. Zola and Stein? Anybody?

Akademiks and academics

Sociological Images comes through again with a post on Akademics clothing. Gwen writes:
Contrary to what you might think, it’s not part of a campaign to promote literacy or libraries. It’s an ad for Akademiks clothing (a clothing label aimed at the hip-hop community).
As the earlier t-shirt featuring Einstein suggested, apparently even academic study has become an icon of itself.

* * * * *

Quasi-relatedly, I recently saw a sign outside a clothing store on Telegraph:

"Affliction sold here!"

I thought, "No thanks; I get that free with my dissertation."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Historical fiction again

Regarding historical fiction again -- Anne Scott MacLeod, whom I have long known to be awesome, notes in general how children's historical fiction tends toward presentism.
They evade the common realities of the societies they write about. In the case of novels about girls or women, authors want to give their heroines freer choices than their cultures would in fact have offered. To do that, they set aside the social mores of the past as though they were minor afflictions, small obstacles, easy — and painless — for an independent mind to overcome.
The smug presentist science I noted is but one facet of this general tendency, and I think MacLeod gets it right when she brings up the "independent mind." It's this idea that if you're just spunky enough you can Set Yourself Free from your historical context. The desire for a protagonist who is Set Free in this way, as revealed by the way such protagonists appear over and over, is effectively a desire for the opposite of historical fiction. As MacLeod puts it,
Most people are, by definition, not exceptional. Historical fiction writers who want their protagonists to reflect twentieth-century ideologies, however, end by making them exceptions to their cultures, so that in many a historical novel the reader learns nearly nothing — or at least nothing sympathetic — of how the people of a past society saw their world. Characters are divided into right — those who believe as we do — and wrong; that is, those who believe something that we now disavow. Such stories suggest that people of another time either did understand or should have understood the world as we do now, an outlook that quickly devolves into the belief that people are the same everywhere and in every time, draining human history of its nuance and variety.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Professors and composition

Everybody knows that Ron Silliman has the best linkspam around. Recently he's linked to an Inside Higher Ed article by William Major titled "Teaching Composition: A Reconsideration."

In it, Major argues that it might be valuable for the whole university system if actual tenured professors taught composition sometimes.
At the very least, full professors of English belong in the composition classroom because they might learn a thing or two about writing themselves. Moreover, the benefits to those students who will not see a professor their first year could be intangible. They would understand that we in the university take writing seriously enough that someone with gravitas and experience is teaching it. They would benefit from close contact with instructors who are not looking to move up or into the more ethereal realm of literature, those who believe that strong, clear writing is as essential as oxygen.

In point of fact, where I did my undergrad, "composition" was absorbed into the core humanities sequence. There were grad students employed as "writing tutors" who would meet with the students in separate groups and grade the papers, but they were for all intents and purposes TAs. The courses themselves were taught by a mix of grad students, postdocs, and tenured or tenure-track professors. The College definitely tried to give the impression that we were doing Very Serious Things in those classrooms, even though secretly they were teaching us comp. (I remember with fondness my Soc teacher, a postdoc who must have had a hard time suppressing her nausea at my terrible writing.)

It does seem a little rough on undergrads -- and nonmajors at that -- to stick them with the least tried teachers in the department. William Major sort of faux-wonders why grad students are so eager to get to teach literature classes instead of comp. He answers his own question: teaching composition is the ghetto of academic life.

Of course, there's a reason for this relating to the prestige of the English department in the university. Everybody agrees that we need English departments, but it's seen as a place of preservation and passing on of The Tradition -- a teaching department, existing for historical reasons. Science departments, on the other hand, are seen as valuable for The New -- research. So English professors are understandably miffed when, after completing a head-hurtingly difficult Ph.D., they're expected by the world to spend their time obsessed with split infinitives (as they're often caricatured by Language Log).

In fact, Major opens his article with the observation that
When I tell new acquaintances that I am an English professor, they generally react two ways. First, they express dismay that they now have to watch what they say (as if I were grading their performance).
And the mild irritation with which the article begins registers the problem in his very reasonable suggestion that professors take on composition once in a while. Nobody with money actually cares about humanities research, and university administrations are increasingly loath to support it. And teaching can take over your life, to the serious detriment of your research. Nobody wants to go back to the misery of having your research stunted the perpetual grading of stacks of very bad papers on Walt Whitman, once they've escaped that life. So for an English department to turn around and embrace the role of a teaching department might seem like a move to cede crucial ideological ground. Major envisions a utopian future produced by the de-ghettoization of composition -- of which he writes:
Might we see smaller Ph.D. programs because there is less need for composition instructors and because the professors are more fully engaged with undergraduate education? Might we have fewer doctorates awarded? A meaningful loosening of the job market? Imagine a world where positions teaching literature and composition are actually available for the professionals we graduate from our programs.
That surely would be lovely. But the fear that prevents us from getting there is the very realistic fear of a dystopia: that the English department itself will become the composition ghetto; that research will never be supported again, even in the limited amounts that we have now; that we will all be stuck as eternal adjuncts, even if we're as brainy as Stanley Fish. (Stanley Fish, perhaps, can afford to teach composition because he's become a public intellectual and probably never has to worry about having his research supported again.) The fear is that the Language Log caricature of the English professor will become true, because we'll never get to work on our research again (an all-too-familiar feeling when one is confronted with yet another stack of grading).

I think William Major knows that this is a danger: he sounds the note before he even begins his argument, after all. And he's writing from the perspective of someone who knows that teaching composition can be rewarding, but that it's also a ton of work that actively siphons away research time. For this kind of de-ghettoization of composition to work, we'd have to have a climate in which writing and complex thought in the humanities were solidly valued, whereas in the current climate both are on the margins, if in different ways.

* * * * *

I'm puzzled by Major's allegation that English professors "don’t have to undermine their status or misuse their expertise with something as mundane as composition. Life is good when you can spend it with Gilbert and Gubar rather than Elbow and Belanoff." WTF? I am totally assigning my composition students Gilbert and Gubar. And they are going to love it! Seriously.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Smug presentist science and historical fiction

I recently read a trio of children's novels set in the Elizabethan period, concerning a boy (orphan, naturally!) who joins Shakespeare's acting company.

When I taught A Room of One's Own a few years ago, I had my class discuss the "Shakespeare's sister" section. The almost universal cry was, "well she knows girls aren't allowed on the stage; why doesn't she just dress up as a boy?"

That masquerading as male is the natural solution to all a woman's woes is of course suggested by a good number of Shakespeare's plays (including Hamlet!). But it completely fails on a political level; it presupposes that the problems posed by women's social circumscription are always exceptional and individual. Cross-dressing isn't a political solution; women as a class cannot masquerade as male in order to gain basic rights. (Though, now that I think about it, it could be argued that the 1980s shoulder-padded, pretend-you-are-okay-with-not-getting-parental-leave model of feminism was an attempt to effect exactly that solution.)

Nonetheless, in his one (in my opinion, failed) attempt to present a three-dimensional female character, Gary Blackwood has said female character... dress up like a boy.* Sigh.

But that is not what I am writing to complain about today. No, my peeve of the moment is: Why is it that in historical novels for children, the main characters always magically transcend the scientific paradigms of their times and intuit the tenets of today's science?

Off the top of my head I can think of not only Widge in The Shakespeare Stealer (etc.) but also Jane from Boston Jane and Ayla in The Clan of the Cave Bear (this last not children's fiction, but something I read as a child -- bizarrely, on an adult's recommendation). I'm pretty sure that if I were to think on it I'd come up with a few more.

It always goes something like this: everybody says disease is caused by foul air, but Spunky Protagonist feels, just feels in her or his heart, that it is transmitted by "tiny seeds" that get passed along by rats and insects. It's just a feeling!

I suppose we are meant to see that pre-twenty-first-century science is so obviously crazy that we couldn't possibly respect a character that believes in such mumbo-jumbo.

This smug presentist attitude presumes that anyone with an ounce of sense could see that, for instance, blood-letting isn't an effective medical practice. But medicine is a notoriously difficult science to control; in any given case there are about a zillion possible confounding factors.

That's why it's irritating when characters intuit the tenets of modern science, but even more irritating when they figure those tenets out from faux-experimental methods. Like the character just happens to notice that, every time a person has blood let, that person's illness gets worse.

Man, if science really worked that way, we'd be in Physics City, as my father would say. Total determinism! No confounding variables! Completely clear-cut data every time! No significant sample size necessary! ...Anyone with an ounce of sense can see it!

The truth is that science is much more complicated than that, which is why centuries of genuinely smart people in the West did not come up with the germ theory of disease. It's not that they lack even the smallest modicum of purchase on reality. It's that science is not straightforward and self-evident. That is why our society employs professional scientists to do research.

It's my impression that this irritating phenomenon in children's historical fiction derives from the fact that most contemporary readers hardly know anything about science, but cling to the few things they do know (by the authority of textbooks or, sketchily, science journalism, and not by experiment) as if it makes them the intellectual superior of the entire population of the world prior to the present era.

This is actually not a new sentiment, but an outgrowth of aggressive Western progress narratives that were particularly prevalent in the nineteenth century. As Thorstein Veblen put it in his 1906 essay "The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation,"
Other ages and other peoples excel in other things [than science] and are known by other virtues. [He gives several examples of achievements in art, metaphysics, and mythology.] ...but in the eyes of modern civilised men all these things seem futile in comparison with the achievements of science.
Science is perceived as the marker of modernity as well as the thing that makes modernity superior to whatever came before it.

Mark Twain even wrote a whole book about a guy (a Yankee, significantly) who goes back in time and (violently) kicks the crap out of a whole lot of medieval people, and a medieval myth in particular (King Arthur) by means of his modern understanding of science and technology. (He also just happens to have a lot of random stuff on him, such as batteries and lead pipes. Hey, no problem! I keep such things in my purse as well.)

The violence with which the protagonist uses science and technology to attack myth and the people invested in it is striking.

But as Veblen suggests, a feeling of temporal superiority is also frequently translated into cultural superiority. A contemporary review of Connecticut Yankee by Sylvester Baxter reveals how nineteenth century narratives about historically prior people slipped easily into narratives about "primitive" people -- "pre"-scientific people who were supposed to need colonization or, as the case might be, violence. The medieval population of the novel becomes a figure for the colonized peoples of the nineteenth century -- needing to be dragged in to modernity, by force if necessary.

By resorting to the principle that "distribution in time" is paralleled by "distribution in space," we may solve many a problem. So there is a certain aspect of sober truth in this most fanciful tale, and, just as the Connecticut Yankee went back into the days of King Arthur's court, so might he go out into the world today, into Central Asia or Africa, or even into certain spots in this United States of ours, find himself amidst social conditions very similar to those of 1300 years ago, and even work his astonishing 19th century miracles with like result.

Nineteenth century science is (ironically) miraculous, and therefore unproblematically equal to progress. Connecticut Yankee is indeed a book about progress -- an anxious one, in which progress depends on mass bloodshed. But Baxter blithely ignores the ideological component of this narrative, even adding some progress-talk about the book's production:

The advance in the art of popular bookmaking in the past two decades is illustrated by the contrast between Innocents Abroad and this volume. In illustration, the progress is particularly notable. Even a child of today would turn in contempt from the crude woodcuts of the former to the beautiful pen-and-ink drawings by Dan Beard that adorn the new work.

Even a child. In the contest of least-infantilized-subject, the modern Western child turns out to be the winner.

As the inheritor of the new science, the newest people -- Western children -- get to assume intellectual authority over both colonized subjects and medieval people (Innocents and its "crude woodcuts") in a way that mimics the intellectual authority that adults hold over them (in school, for instance, where they learn this science and are disabused of fantasies in the first place). It is no wonder that the child is expected to turn away in contempt: it is the contempt of self-recognition.

Gary Blackwood, The Shakespeare Stealer (1998); Shakespeare's Scribe (2000); Shakespeare's Spy (2003).

*The character in question, in my opinion, is usually absent and therefore never a presence; or rather, she is present insofar as she presents as male. Otherwise she is a mystery, an absence, a... lack. H'm, wonder where I've seen that before.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

All the cultural capital money can buy

Here's another instance of the commodification of the idea of science, here embodied in the "genius" figure of Albert Einstein:

The t-shirt reads "GENIUS OF LOVE." Um. Okay.

Here's another funny item for sale, spotted at one of the many yuppie stores that have invaded Elmwood in recent years (I suppose I should say super-yuppie, since Elmwood wasn't exactly gritty when I moved here).

Seen in the photo below: posh white-painted, fake wooden books to, er, leave lying around on your floor?

Whatever, fools. I have the real deal.

Science in a bottle

Let's face it, between dissertating and teaching, I don't get out much. The total span of my world on an average day can be walked in twenty minutes. This is why, when I do bother to venture out of my academic cocoon, I am always amazed by what I find.

For instance.

Yes, this here is a "skin care" establishment in Rockridge. Who knew you needed to go in to a special facility to have your skin cared for? Mine seems to be sticking to my flesh all right so far, but in the event of a zombie attack, I know I will feel reassured by the presence of a skin care facility just down the road.

Even better, check out what this place has for sale!

Yes, that says science in a bottle. And here I wasted all that time in college taking science classes.

The copy reads:
Science in a Bottle

Remarkable Breakthrough Tightens and Defines the Eye Area

C-ESTA Eye Repair Concentrate (TM) containing DAE Complex IV is a medically based breakthrough for rejuvenating the thinner wrinkle prone eye area, as well as minimizing further signs of aging. This intensive formula contains higher concentrations of lipid soluble Vitamin C along with other remarkable topical agents that dramatically reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Research by Nicholas Perricone, M.D. demonstrates that DAE Complex encourages collagen production, protects against and repairs free radical damage, tightens and defines the eye area and generally promotes skin that is noticeably younger and smoother.

This exceptional eye therapy creates visible improvement from the first application, and cumulative use results in a measurably tighter, firmer and more resilient eye area.

See Results Today!

Wow. That is a remarkable breakthrough. Apparently the more science you apply to your eye area, the "tighter, firmer and more resilient" it becomes. Did my college physics class do that? No.

Clearly, science has advanced since I was in college.