Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Teaching: it's on! It seems like a good class so far. I'll likely have more to say about it soon; it's my first time teaching with Twitter and Zotero. I'm also, for the first time, allowing more leeway than usual with the blog (a total number of required posts rather than strictly biweekly posts). So it's consciously a fairly media-heavy course.

Various things are keeping me busy at the moment, in a happy way, but there's more to come, no doubt. This semester I'll be posting on my current research from time to time at the course blog. I try to reveal myself as a writer (and, for this class, as a researcher) whenever I'm teaching, as part of my campaign to demystify scholarship.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

This funny quasi-benshi video from Critical Commons has been making the rounds:

I don't entirely agree with the video's argument, but "the Wikipedia" is a brilliant touch.

(Via Cathy Davidson and @hastac.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Knowing stuff

Apropos of yesterday's post, here's Ezra Pound on the question of when you can make judgments (this will come as no surprise):
Even if the general statement of an ignorant man is 'true', it leaves his mouth or pen without any great validity. He doesn't KNOW what he is saying. That is, he doesn't know it or mean it in anything like the degree that a man of experience would or does. Thus a very young man can be quite 'right' without carrying conviction to an older man who is wrong and who may quite well be wrong and still know a good deal that the younger man doesn't know. (26)

Notice Pound's commitment to the value of education. Pound's model, which he explicitly believes to be scientific, contrasts with another scientific model, which prefers the perceptual capacities of the untrained worker because it is unbiased.

Ezra Pound. A B C of Reading. 1934. New York: New Directions, 1960. Print.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Evaluating Emerson

There's an article by William Major and Bryan Sinche in the Chronicle of Higher Ed right now arguing that, seriously, guys, Ralph Waldo Emerson sucks; we should stop teaching him.

Of the comments (so far there are four), one delights in this iconoclasm and three are shocked and grieved by the authors' failure to appreciate Emerson's genius.

It makes me wonder to what extent it's possible to evaluate a figure like Emerson with any sincerity.

In particular, reading much of the poetry of the nineteenth century requires that I suspend some preferences so as to achieve, or at least to simulate, some kind of immanence to the poetics of the period and genre. Teaching criticism is in part teaching people how to put their like-o-meters on hold to try to understand the text on its own terms.

But for several semesters I've been assigning an evaluative essay, an essay in which the student sets out her own criteria for poetic goodness and evaluates a poem on that basis. This, too, involves putting the like-o-meter on hold (I use examples from television: you may love to watch American Idol, but that's not the same thing as thinking it's good).* I want my students to have opinions about literature, and to be able to back them up. It's all part of the eternal quest to teach the difference between "subjective" and "arbitrary." Major and Sinche get to the heart of the matter: Many students find Emerson confusing and frustrating, or like him exactly insofar as he can be thought to propound orthodoxies with which they already agree ("I believe in self reliance because people should be responsible for themselves" etc.).

Whether or not they approve of Emerson, students' evaluative processes represent a terrifying challenge to the canon. Every teacher has read essays so confident in their ignorance that they have made her despair for humanity. Reading such essays, one thinks, "Ah, get a little more educated and you'll change your mind. Think harder and you'll see that William Carlos Williams knows exactly what he's doing."

At what moment do we say to students, "Yes, go ahead; you are qualified to judge this poet"? Usually it takes a Ph.D. or thereabouts; perhaps with the firmly canonized, such as Emerson, such a moment never comes. As the commenter guygibbs fumes at the Chronicle, "You should both be fired and sen[t] back to undergraduate school yourselves."

This is a real tension in evaluative criticism. We want to think we have no sacred cows, but of course we do have them. And it seems a shame to educate undergraduates primarily in order to inculcate in them a sense that they are not equal to understanding, much less evaluating, the literature that they read. It hardly seems conducive to professing literature; I want my students to become readers, not (necessarily) English Ph.D.s.

But on the other hand, if we believe in our profession at all, then we also believe that there is real knowledge and insight that must go into evaluative criticism. If, as Marianne Moore writes, "we cannot admire what we do not understand," it is necessary to do a little work to achieve understanding. The art of turning off one's like-o-meter is a matter of some study.

What is the difference between fresh innocence and hasty ignorance? This is a question of method.

As for Emerson, Mr. Transparent Eyeball himself, I can do no better than to leave it to James Russell Lowell:
There comes Emerson first, whose rich words, every one
Are like gold nails in temples to hang trophies on,
Whose prose is grand verse, while his verse, the Lord knows,
Is some of it pr-- No, 't is not even prose... (42)

*Of course, I'm cheating when I use reality television as an example, since its popularity is predicated on its badness, or at least its "lowness."

Lowell, James Russell. A Fable for Critics. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1848. Google Books. Web. 18 January 2010.

Major, William, and Bryan Sinche. "Giving Emerson the Boot." Chronicle of Higher Education (17 January 2010). Web. 18 January 2010.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I don't really do new year's resolutions, but there are a few things I think I'd like to do with this blog. This blog has always been a little meandering, sometimes about teaching, often about idle thoughts in my areas of non-expertise (which are numerous). I feel that teaching warrants a lot of public musing, in no small part because I know I have readers who will give me valuable feedback and, when I'm lucky, actual gorgeous writing handouts of their own devising. I've also been teaching using blogs for a few years now, and the process of blogging is to me intimately connected with my work as a teacher; both are forms of publication in a very democratic way.*

But there's something very safe about talking about teaching and topics on which I do not claim to be an expert (or on topics that are a "secondary" specialty, like children's lit). It is a greater challenge to talk about one's specialty to nonspecialists, in part because you have to get outside your own thinking habits and remember others' habits, but also because one's own research is dear, and tender, and (one believes) wants sheltering, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick has pointed out. But I believe that the future of the profession lies in letting ideas circulate as much as possible, and in supporting a spirit of inquiry in the public sphere. Let me then publish where I may.

So these are the intentions:

1. To blog more frequently about my own tender babies, my research in progress;

2. To review more books. I'm an enormous fan of NBOL-19, the goal of which is to review books within a year of their publication. Imagine! I think it's an admirable goal, and would in general like to see the profession move toward timely feedback on scholarly work. Last year I believe I only reviewed one book, Kathleen Woodward's Statistical Panic, and while part of me has visions of reviewing, say, a book a month, I am in fact acquainted with reality. I will be happy, then, if I review two books this year, though I hope I will do more. And perhaps, too, I will write mini-reviews, even one-line reviews. Which brings me to another notion:

3. To review articles from time to time, however briefly. I do have the Zotero feed, of course, but I read more articles than full monographs, and some of them are just awesome. Why not say why?

These are not resolutions but ideas. I have a habit that I believe to be healthy, namely ignoring the blog when things get hectic. So that's that. But ask me, sometime, about lol-articles...

*I say that blogging and teaching are "democratic" in the full knowledge that not everyone has access to the internet and even fewer people have access to the University of California. But then, not everybody is able to vote, either. Democracy is always partial; we can but move in a democratic direction. What I mean, in this case, is that scholarship occurs by way of both specialized and nonspecialized conversations (alternatively, specialized and nonspecialized forms of public-ation). Teaching and blogging are both part of the nonspecialized conversation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

L'esprit de l'ascenseur

I've been thinking about a question I was asked at MLA this year. Someone asked me about the moment at the end of Marianne Moore's "To a Snail," which ends by alluding to "the curious phenomenon of your [the snail's] occipital horn." In an eventually-to-be-published article, I pointed out that, first of all, "occipital horn" sounds terribly technical, and that, second, when it comes to snails, it isn't technical at all. Snails don't have a part called the "occipital horn"; in the poem it's, in my belief, a metaphor for the whorl of the shell.

The question was, simply, what's up with that? Is Marianne Moore punking us? Are we meant, now, to lose faith in reference, in scientific language, in reality, in all that is good and dear?

The superficial answer (which I think I gave) is that she isn't punking us exactly, but she isn't making a mistake either. She's recuperating the aesthetic (here, metaphoric) properties of scientific language, much in the way that she recuperates the aesthetic properties of quotations from various pop-cultural and/or bureaucratic materials elsewhere in her work.

But there's something else going on here that the occipital horn marks in "To a Snail." The words "occipital horn" are a note of finality; they are the last words in the poem, but also the last and incredibly fitting words in a lengthy, syntactically balanced, chiasmic sentence, a real rhetorical gem. When we get to "occipital horn," we have settled. We have landed, and landed with finality, on something solid, an apparently technical term for a part of the snail. This is why the tricky reversal -- the technical term turning out not to be technical but rather metaphorical -- might seem a little rude.

But not only are we not being punked, I would argue; we are being offered a sense of the real. Turns like the one I've just described characterize the experimental mode all the time. Things are not what they seem -- that's why we need complex experimental processes and regulation of the senses to access reality. The experimental mode takes this as a given; to push on the capacities of technical language doesn't therefore make us lose faith in technical language in general, but rather ground us in the exigencies of particularity that make "occipital horn," in this moment, metaphorical rather than strictly referential. (There is, in fact, such a thing as an occipital horn. Two such things. But not on a snail.) The turn, the revelation that things are not as they seem, helps to impart the sense of the real. But equally, there's no infinite regress or infinite play of meaning here: the words "occipital horn" finally fill a rôle that's aesthetic, and the syntactic balance of the sentence that these words help to complete support the metaphor and lend it formal solidity in lieu of referential solidity.

This is why the language of the joke or of mischief seems wrong to me in the case of "To a Snail." While the experimental mode can be playful, it is not irresponsible. Experimental play works in the service of negotiating an intractable reality -- like the model of play discussed by D.W. Winnicott in Playing and Reality, for instance. Winnicott isn't central to what I'm saying here, but reality is, because the experimental is above all interested in a place for the genuine, in mobilizing whatever mad powers of language there are to create a sense of the real, to land, ultimately, on something solid. It's a responsible mode -- as some put it, "sincere" -- with all the moral overtones that the word entails. This is not intrinsically good or bad, although I think it produced quite a lot of good art.

But to clarify a little further what I mean, think of the 'pataphysical tradition, which runs through surrealism on one side and the Oulipo on the other. The entire 'pataphysical tradition (as the name suggests) is deeply invested in the trappings of science, but largely in the name of travesty, puerility, and irresponsibility. In the 'pataphysical tradition, an infinite regress of meaning is not only possible but desirable; any obligation to reality may be abdicated; 'pataphysical art treads the fine line between meditation and gimmick, and is not sorry when it strays well into gimmick territory. This is art that actually does want us to lose faith in all that is good and dear -- and to laugh about it. (Flarf is without a doubt indebted to the 'pataphysical tradition.) This, too, has produced good art. But it is qualitatively different from the experimental mode, despite some of its practitioners' insistence on the word "experimental."

The distinction between experimental and 'pataphysical is not the same, by the way, as the distinction between modernist and avant-garde, although perhaps the lines often fall out that way. The distinction between modernist and avant-garde is typically thought of in the terms of a relation to the social body, whereas the distinction between experimental and 'pataphysical is given by an attitude toward knowledge.

CFP: The Literary Organ

The Literary Organ, MLA 2011 (January 6-9, 2011; Los Angeles)
A Special Session (subject to MLA approval)

“I have given no small attention to that not unvexed subject, the skin of the whale. I have had controversies about it with experienced whalemen afloat, and learned naturalists ashore. My original opinion remains unchanged; but it is only an opinion. The question is, what and where is the skin of the whale?”

     --Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

An organ is, among other things, a part of a human or animal body; a site of sensation; a functioning unit within a larger system; a medium or engine of circulation, as in a magazine or journal; an instrument, device, or tool; a contraption of pipes that produces music. The concept of the organ unites mechanicity with organicity, function with form, embodiment with perception. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest that it is by detaching from the physical intractability of organs and their functions that we may repurpose the physical and produce an unstable, flowing “body without organs.” We invite papers that seek to mine the valences of perception, embodiment, medium, and literary form prompted by the term “organ,” especially in relation to literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Please send 300-word abstracts and short bio to Natalia Cecire (cecire at berkeley dot edu) and Hillary Gravendyk (hillary dot gravendyk at pomona dot edu) by 1 March 2010.

(Our cfp is now also live at upenn.)