I first started thinking about this post after Wednesday’s Victorian Seminar with Catherine Robson on “one-hit-wonder” W. E. Henley’s one hit, “Invictus,” comparing its reception as a recitation poem within America to Rudyard Kipling’s “If–” and its imbrication within the English educational system. These two poems are, of course, ridiculously popular, part of which can be explained, as CR pointed out, because of the shiftiness of the “I” of “Invictus,” the “you” of “If–.”

One of the things that came up during the presentation and Q & A was the huge fissure between how we as literary critics typically think of these poems–as exemplars of Victorian imperialist manliness, liberal individualism, the stiff upper lip–and how those of the general public feel about them. Here I won’t go into the many nuanced insights that CR gave concerning the critical, institutional, national, and popular reception of these poems.What I was struck by and will fixate upon is just one particular “meaning”–their use as “inspiration.”

As I’ve mentioned before, a side effect of my dissertating has been a nasty running habit, something which caused me to spend three perfectly good hours yesterday out in the rain plodding through a long run. Among runners, and not just the plebeian masses, but up to the highest level of the so-called elites (and including my would-be sub-sub-elite self), the need for inspiration is taken seriously, whether in the form of Youtube videos, mantras, visual cues, or mock motivational posters. I’m sure that there are many runners who recite “Invictus” and/or “If” over and over again mentally (or not!) as they run.

I’m not one of those runners, nor do I wish to be–the literary critic in me forbids it. But it made me wonder just why inspiration as a feeling, or as a genre, or as a genre of feeling is so debased among us as academics. Partly it’s a brow thing–we are who we are because we eschew low-brow motivational posters and middle-brow poetry. Partly it’s because the most valued affects in the training of a literary critic are suspicion of the hermeneutical sort and disenchantment of pretty much any kind. There has of course been some pushback against the latter, but “inspiration” seems to fall outside the purview of reparative reading à la Sedgwick or critical attention to readerly attachments à la Felski.

But what if we think about readerly (or reciterly) affect in terms of genre? What genre criticism gives us is a reason why to talk about underexamined social and historical formations. Genres, especially popular ones, like sensation novels, romances, and Marvel comic books are all particularly worthy of attention from a cultural studies/genre theory point of view. We’ve grown used to thinking about and valuing popular culture–but what about popular feelings?

I’d offer “inspiration” as one such popular feeling–perhaps there are others you can think of (hint, hint, please comment, I get lonely…). Maybe there’s a whole literature on “inspiration” out there, but I have the feeling that there isn’t. Here’s one way to think about inspiration in a non-undertheorized way: I’ve been reading Lauren Berlant‘s Cruel Optimism lately, and she talks about the day-to-day crises of post-Fordian precarious life, and how what sustains us through the impasse (and/or leads to slow death) is being in the vicinity of a fantasy of a good life. Normative aspirations and aspirations to normativity. Maybe one day I’ll be somebody who could’ve been a contender. (Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t make much sense, but I thought it sounded clever.) Maybe what makes “inspiration” so powerful is its ability to hook into these fantasies: expressions not of neoliberal picked-up-by-one’s-own-bootstraps ideology but of sustaining fantasies of the future that allow us to function in the present as if we’ve got our shit together.

“The only war that matters is the war on the imagination”
–Diane di Prima

I’ve been serving on our department’s admissions committee, and have spent a lot of the last month reading, comparing, discussing, and debating applications to our Ph.D. program. I knew going into the process that this would be a somewhat nervewracking, somewhat narcissistic project. I thought a lot about those applicants I saw as coming from a similar place as me–exceptionally bright, diversely talented, somewhat idealistic, but woefully underspecialized and underprofessionalized, coming from a B.A. program. No doubt this is the type of student whose application raises red flags for readers with way more experience than me. I think I made my pet project a bit more transparent than I’d have liked–but I think my point that you don’t have to have it all figured out when you enter grad school was appreciated. (What I didn’t say was how much I object to the “Get thee to an M.A. program” argument. Especially given the economy, asking people who don’t come from a background that offers a lot of coaching for Ph.D. apps to spend tens of thousands of dollars so that they can go spend thousands of dollars again applying to Phd programs seems a surefire way to maintain the undiversity of the humanities.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about undergraduate education lately. I’ve also been reading Eve’s new book The Weather In Proust, which has been just delightful, especially as the terms that Eve used in speech a lot of the time when I knew her were not in Touching Feeling, but it’s all here. The reason behind this post is Eve’s description of holding environments:

The human need for air is satiable because, like the needs to drink, eat, and excrete, but unlike the libido, it is aa biological drive in the strongest sense of the term: unlike sexual desire, for example, its satisfaction is necessary to sustain individual life. And unlike Oedipally structured sexuality, it is not intrinsically organized around rivalry or mediation. The need to breathe, to eat and rink, to have one’s weight supported are nonnegotiable, but being finite and satiable, they are not zero sum: except in extreme situations, one is rarelydeprived by the satisfaction of another’s need. Balint’s interest in existential or survival-implicating functions, which he links to the weather elements–auir, water, earth, and fire–is held in common by the pioneers of object-relations psychology. Like Ferenczi and Winnicott, Balint likes to attach friendly language to such “benign” or satiable object relations–what he also calls “the harmonious mix-up,” and Winnicott calls the “holding environment”–the one where, as Winnicott hauntingly points out, it becomes possible for the infant to think about something else, something beyond the mother’s care. (“The Weather in Proust” 11-12)

A few years ago, I taught a bit of Newman’s The Idea of a University, to give a different concept of liberal arts education, one really counterintuitive to my students who thought the liberal arts curriculum as primarily in terms of providing a broad base of knowledge in preparation for a diverse range of careers. Newman’s thinking–or rather, his rehearsal of what was held to be common sense–is quite different, and very similar to the “harmonious mix-up” or “holding environment” Sedgwick describes:

Cicero, in enumerating the various heads of mental excellence, lays down the pursuit of Knowledge for its own sake, as the first of them. “This pertains most of all to human nature,” he says, “for we are all of us drawn to the pursuit of Knowledge; in which to excel we consider excellent, whereas to mistake, to err, to be ignorant, to be deceived, is both an evil and a disgrace.” And he considers Knowledge the very first object to which we are attracted, after the supply of our physical wants. After the calls and duties of our animal existence, as they may be termed, as regards ourselves, our family, and our neighbours, follows, he tells us, “the search after truth. Accordingly, as soon as we escape from the pressure of necessary cares, forthwith we desire to see, to hear, and to learn; and consider the knowledge of what is hidden or is wonderful a condition of our happiness.”

This passage, though it is but one of many similar passages in a multitude of authors, I take for the very reason that it is so familiarly known to us; and I wish you to observe, Gentlemen, how distinctly it separates the pursuit of Knowledge from those ulterior objects to which certainly it can be made to conduce, and which are, I suppose, solely contemplated by the persons who would ask of me the use of a University or Liberal Education. So far from dreaming of the cultivation of Knowledge directly and mainly in order to our physical comfort and enjoyment, for the sake of life and person, of health, of the conjugal and family union, of the social tie and civil security, the great Orator implies, that it is only after our physical and political needs are supplied, and when we are “free from necessary duties and cares,” that we are in a condition for “desiring to see, to hear, and to learn.”

It is so familiarly known to us–perhaps Newman was exaggerating a bit here, but it certainly wasn’t familiar to me, and in all the defences of the humanities I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything similar expressed. To think that an education in the humanities is the sole purview of those not in the grip of Necessity would rightfully be denounced as stunningly elitest. But it’s striking that the idea of a holding environment should be so thoroughly eradicated from our notion of education, especially of a liberal arts education. Nobody–liberal, conservative, reactionary, radical–is apt to emphasize that one’s basic physical needs are satiable, and are in fact satiated. We’d much rather pay attention how they may in the future not be met, or how whatever satiety we have counts little compared to all those less satiated. What if instead we concentrated not on the somethings we can teach–be it useful knowledge, job training, critical thinking, cultural capital–but on the “something else“?

I’ve been meaning to write a post about form for awhile now — long before the Columbia conference, even. It’s been on my mind for several reasons this semester. I revisited Caroline Levine’s 2006 Victorian Studies article on “strategic formalism” back in March when I was briefly transforming my dissertation abstract into a “popular religion” project for the purposes of a fellowship application (final analysis: “religion” is totally plausible, “popular” perhaps less so) and found that I’d sort of caught up with it conceptually since the last time I tried to use it. I’ve been able to see Levine herself speak twice about the form issue at two different conferences, most recently at Columbia, and we had the chance to renew our own ongoing conversation about these issues, which — among other things — in turn is helping me think about my more general theoretical investments, whether it’s time for me to start calling myself a post-poststructuralist or post-deconstructionist or some other term that expresses the appropriate relation of allegiance, belatedness, and potential for surpassing the original.

During one of our Long 19th Century reading groups, Mia asked what the difference was between form and genre. The question threw me a bit, and I probably didn’t answer it all that well because we’ve been meeting on Tuesdays, which is a teaching day for me, and getting up at 6am ensures that I will be loopy by noon. But I think the question threw me more profoundly because I don’t really even think of those two things together. (In retrospect, I realize that I’m probably the weird one.) For me, form functions more capaciously — really as a way of organizing experience, which is more or less how Levine uses it in her work — whereas genre seems more narrowly focused on content, on a certain inflection given to what is contained by the form. In some ways, it seems too narrowly literary or aesthetic, where I understand form as a more general structuring principle. But it’s possible that this distinction is at its fuzziest precisely in literature and aesthetics (especially given how we teach “genres” in intro to lit classes, which probably should be “forms”).

I was surprised, in a way, to hear myself making such broad claims for form, if only because I wondered later whether I was moving away from being able to articulate a specific function for, say, literary/poetic form. I’ve heard people ask Levine this question — and I think I probably asked it myself at one point — and it does get a little bit tricky because at some level portability of structure begins to look like uniformity of function. Levine herself is pretty straightforward that, at least in a general theoretical sense, she isn’t giving literary form a privileged or special place (though she certainly doesn’t dismiss it either). With that being said, though, her examples are frequently from literature and in the VS article she says something about literary form existing in a “destabilizing” relation to other forms. This makes a lot of sense from the perspective of the kind of work that Warwick Slinn does on 19th-century poetry and theories of performative speech. Basically, his argument (largely in Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique but also in Victorian Poetry circa 2004) is that Victorian poetry’s specific relationship to language (especially in terms of suspending the difference between literal and figural meaning) allows it to expose the workings of other kinds of discourses, allows us to focus on what he calls “processes of signification,” how different kinds of institutions construct meaning, and so on. (Slinn doesn’t get cited as much as he should, but I do use his work as a starting point for my Maud article.)

If form is “destabilizing”–and for me a lot of Levine’s most interesting and helpful ideas have to do not so much with form itself, but with the way that *different* forms interact with each other, destabilizingly or not–I would also want to say that it is (or at least can be) enabling. This, at least, is where a lot of my work has been going as of late. I think I’ve always seen suspension this way, at least the suspension that’s been the subject of my dissertation. I realize that sounds paradoxical — it’s not exactly enabling to be mistaken for dead and buried alive — but in a more general, structural sense, suspension is enabling precisely because it allows for contradictory possibilities to interact with each other, creates a simultaneity that wouldn’t exist otherwise, and offers a kind of “container” for working through different possibilities. This is also how I’ve been thinking about religious forms — the ones I’m most interested in are the ones that enable particular kinds of engagement with faith and doubt or simply with the given conditions of one’s own life.

I don’t have a good intellectual defense for why that is right now. Among the many realizations I had at the Columbia conference, it occurred to me that I haven’t been thinking about form over the past year as much as I’ve been living it — particularly as a result of the turn that my practice of Zen meditation has taken. Zen is really into form, which is something that made me nervous for several years, but is now something that I find to be helpful, enabling, and often instructive. And it’s possible that one of the things I’ll be able to do this summer (one can dream) is start to make that more available to an intellectual articulation. For now, though, I’ll simply mention that in the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom sutra (PDF) — one of the texts that we chant on a regular basis at the place I meditate — we find these lines: “form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form.” This is something I think about a lot.

I’m stopping here mainly because I try to limit myself to 1,000-ish words (and because I’m self-conscious about being the only person blogging here) — I still want to work out some of my thoughts on method, function, the difficulty of talking about form in academic contexts, and why I thought it was great when Caroline Levine said during the Columbia Q&A that “it doesn’t all have to be rupture.” But you all know I can ramble. Would anyone want to have a discussion instead?

Tracy Riley and Maggie Galvan, co-chairs of “‘Spanking and Poetry’: A Conference on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick,” kindly invited me to do a guest post mortem. I’m cross-posting it here since nobody else lengthened the nineteenth century quite like Eve did.

On my way back home on Friday night, I wondered how one could not believe in magic who had shared the experience of that day and that night? I forget who it was at the “Honoring Eve” conference at Boston University who reminded that audience of this splendid quote from A Dialogue on Love:

I want to know, “Don’t you ever find yourself suspicious when I’m so sanguine about these intimate relationships–Hal, Michael, friends, students? Don’t you wonder, can that much good relating really happen? And where are all the conflicts?”

With some thought, he says, “For a long time I was aware of staying agnostic about it. Not suspicious, but close to that. But over time, I guess I’ve figured that if you’ve been systematically misperceiving all these relationships–well, it is systematic; it seems to work in a consistent way for you. [...] Are you asking this because you want to flash me a yellow light?”

“No, no, I don’t think so. But I sometimes wonder

whether you think I
overidealize my
friends. Kind of wholesale.”

“You think?”

“I think about it, sure. Last week Mary described me to myself as ‘scattering sequins over us all’–all the people I love. She’s right, she and they do seem so glamorous and numinous to me. I always see the light shaking out of their wings.” (107-108)


I’m in my third and last library of the day, having arrived at NYPL at 2:00, gone to Mina Rees at 5:00, and tothe Bobst basement from 8:00 to now–I’m starting this at 12:30, and I better be finishing this soon, given the above.

I wanted to write down some of my thoughts for what I think will be my opening statements. I told Talia that I wanted to say something about modernity, something about Ben Anderson, something about how that connected all three lists. She probably stifled a yawn. I reread “Can the Subaltern Speak” for the poco list, and based on GCS’s smackdown of Foucault & Deleuze, and mixed with some Arendt I’ve never read, I’m playing with this rhetorical trope, “the banality of theory.” Or–”Theory always repeats itself, first as audacity, then as banality.” So I plan to begin by rehearsing all the banalities of the modern condition, specifically the modernity post-1800, that we all know.

The modern condition was based on the idea of progress, social and individual, technological and economic. The nineteenth century was the era of secularization, of professionalization, of the silent bourgeois revolution. The Crystal Palace consecrated modernity, especially in its consecration of commerce and capitalism as war continued by other means. Communities were imagined. The novel created modern subjectivity, discipline, and imaginary solutions to real contradictions. The country moved to the city, as a result of expropriation and “primitive accumulation,” and the city nostalgically longed for the country. Victorians turned their eyes outward, seeing themselves at the apex of civilization, charged with leading the rest of the world into modernity.

How, then, can we de-banalize modernity? One starting point is an additional chapter added to the second edition of Imagined Communities. The construction of nationalism through the newspapers and novels is a modern thing, and a banality. I had originally planned by starting here, making slight elaborations. First, Bennie’s understanding of the periodical press, not surprisingly, doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the nineteenth-century periodical press. Daily newspapers were limited to a relatively small elite. Weekly newspapers and especially journals had a much, much, much wider circulation, and the debates in the public spheres took place in these periodicals which were general and miscellaneous and not requiring newspaper stamps instead of news-based, and requiring newspaper stamps. As for novels, he is onto something where he compares the development of novels providing biographical and psychological histories to the development of nationalist histories. If we consider the “Condition of England” novels as instantiating Victorian fiction, which I do, there’s more nationalism. For my poco list, I was thinking about how this nationalism relates to the colonialism/postcolonialism model, and how a world-systems/globalization model might be somewhat incommensurable with it.

This is all in the first chapter. In the appended chapter, he notes how he underread a quotation from Renan that goes something like all true French citizens must learn to forget the Albigensian Crusade and the massacre of the Huguenots. What’s curious is that true French citizens would know what Renan was talking about–so that this diagnosis of historical amnesia is in fact another construction, another imagination of a national history that’s really only possible with modernity. I like this. Historical things that are supposedly traumatic are really just banal. Condemning the “enslavement” of white kids during the Industrial Revolution, calling attention to supposedly ignored issues in need of reform constituted nationhood in its own way. We get something like this with Wide Sargasso Sea and with Clear Light of Day. Antoinette Cosway points to the forgotten Bertha Mason–but isn’t diagnosing this amnesia adding further justification of Jane Eyre as an eminently English text? Doesn’t the whole idea of post-coloniality work all to well in favour of nationalism within the neocolonialist Global North? Isn’t the reason why a novel of the Partition of South Asia, Clear Light of Day, made palatable to a Western audience because the imagined trauma of partition provides a convenient origin myth? As for the periodicals list, I’m not seeing much forgetting as remembering (the labour involved in making things was certainly not forgotten), but what I’m finding interesting is the number of times people refer to it from the perspective of the future. Even in its anticipation, it has been constituted as a world-historical event. And world-historical in this case means not just Really Important but capable of being projected into the future. One article, I remember which periodical it was from, said something like it was unfortunate that the Crystal Palace would have to be removed from Hyde Park, but in a way it was fitting to give it more the air of fixed, historically locatable event.

It’s with historicity and temporality that I’m finding out something new (to me) about modernity. Anne asked me a two weeks why I chose these four texts–Foucault’s Order of Things, Fabian’s Time and the Other, Schivelbusch’s Railway Journey, and Milo’s Trahir le Temps–as my “Temporality Theory” books. I said at the time that it was a pretty arbitrary decision, which it was, but weeks later, a better answer would start with the fact that these are all books that are particularly relevant to nineteenth-century temporality–to temporality, historically, and not ontologically understood. Rereading the “Life, Labour, Language” chapter of Foucault was loads of fun, and I was thinking why it was that Victorianists were all up in the discipline and the history of sexuality and power and knowledge, but not so much into these 3 Ls. The one thing about the Order of Things is the episteme. I guess most people give up after the first chapter. Today I found out that Catherine Gallagher does make use of this chapter–particularly its emphasis on capital L “Life.” My reading of Gallagher was pretty superficial, but I got the sense that Foucault’s historical nuance was missing. Daniel Milo has an amazing chapter on Foucault’s metaphors in D and P, (ritual, ceremony, rites, spectacle for punishment; machine, technology for discipline) and that his “anachronistic” use of metaphors is a way of introducing discontinuity into history, which is what history is all about–at least history within the modern era. So, Foucault’s use of “Life” too points at a discontinuity–at the ultimate failure of representation and taxonomization that ended the Classical Era. The intricate ballet of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, of gazes, light sources, visibilities, invisibilities, surfaces is no longer possible in the Modern Eras search for the dark, hidden depths of truth. (C. Herbert points out in Culture and Anomie, I think, that the whole privileging of depth as metaphor was a nineteenth-century innovation.) On the poco list, I’ve learned that lots of people talk about the moment in Capital when Marx tells the reader when it’s time to leave the noisy sphere of exchange and go to “the hidden abodes of production,” where capital is made. Foucault says Marx fits in the nineteenth century like a fish in water. Take the fish out, it drowns. This call for unearthing “the hidden abodes of production,” in fact, is not by any stretch of the imagination a Marxian innovation, as the practice of factory tourism and periodical articles on factory production and the Great Exhibition itself can attest. Okay, so time-in-C19-modernity involves the search for some fundamentally unrepresentable origin or force that is the condition of possibility for the historical.

Is this not just some Aristotelian return of efficient and final cause? Where it differs, on the one hand, is that in Aristotelian teleology origin and telos are representable, knowable. Not so in the nineteenth century, maybe. But there’s more. With Fabian, we’ve got another kind of discontinuity, another kind of contradiction going on. Fabian’s main idea is about the “denial of coevalness,” where with such practices as the ethnographic present, anthropologists place their subjects outside history, outside contemporaneity, when in the fact they must have been involved in intersubjective time at some time if they were participant observers. The nineteenth century, of course, is when ethnography started to take its modern discursive shape. But I think the contradiction of allochronicity could be applied on a more microcosmic scale–to issues of gender and class, for example. It would be really interesting to do a rhetorical analysis of the novels based on this–I’m thinking in particular of those chapters in David Copperfield which are written in the present tense, the marriage with Dora, for example.

I’m going to collapse Schivelbusch and Milo together because this is getting really long and it’s getting really late. I’ve talked about Milo on this blog at some point before. I’ll quote myself quoting Milo:

His argument is that the century was a relatively recent, and literally revolutionary invention, a tool created in the wake of the French Revolution. He summarizes his findings as follows:

-the century certainly exists within historical writing;

-it is of recent invention (c. 1560);

-its diffusion was more recent (Le Goff speaks of the 18th century, I will date its true launch in 1800);

-it acts as a form of classification;

-it is a form of periodization with two characteristic principals: it has a unity, and this unity is in opposition with the unities of the centuries which surround it;

-it is a very particular periodization, which rests on an arithmetic prinicipal, hence artificial, hence outside of reality: the division of history into centuries is an a priori periodization;

-nevertheless, it was an important conquest in chronology (Le Goff);

-but that it is now necessary to destroy it in order to advance knowledge of the true historical era (la véritable durée historique). (Milo 28)

The century may be an arbitrary unit, but it’s condition of possibility is modernity. And if it involves some flattening out to create a single context out of a time quite longer than most people live, that kind of corresponds with the “panoramic” mode of vision Schivelbusch says the railroad forces. Don’t look at the quickly moving, close whirr of stuff, look at the seemingly motionless distance.

Bottom line: the modern condition involves a historical temporality, but it’s a history that’s more complicated than the banalities of progress.

Okay. Time to go eat and go home.

(Part 1, Part 2)

Now, when Spivak talks about the “uncoercive rearrangement of desires” in the boundary 2 piece, she’s opposing it most specifically to what she calls the “extreme violation of this responsibility…seen in groups such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which coercively rearrange desires until coercion seems identical with the will of the coerced” (93). But in between those two poles, there are plenty of other forms of coercion that don’t end in suicide bombing—and coercion is much easier to find than its opposite.

A less violent form of coercion might result in something like this:

…a sort of beggarly daydreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole materiel and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects, and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of an hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose.

This is Coleridge, in a footnote to chapter 3 of the Biographia Literaria, and he’s talking about what he calls “the devotees of the circulating libraries”—refusing to dignify their consumption of popular literature with the name of reading. Harsh? Well, yes. Compared to these “afflicted brains,” Madame Bovary looks like D. A. Miller.

Nearly two hundred years after the Biographia, the images have changed—though not as much as we might have expected. And this is, I think, part of why we need that uncoercive rearrangement of desires, even before we worry about not being suspicious enough. The affliction that Coleridge attributes to the “mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office” is, in a sense, involved in a soft—but still coercive—rearrangement of desires among those who don’t so much read as passively consume.

One potential model for the uncoercive rearrangement of desires might come as well from the Biographia—from that book’s more famous “willing suspension of disbelief.” As I’ve argued both in a conference paper (and examine at much greater length in an article that should be coming out this summer), it’s a mistake to see that “willing suspension of disbelief” as the same kind of uncritical consumption that Coleridge describes in that footnote—even though that’s what most people do with it. This is true of both popular and scholarly discourse. I came across several commentaries on Christabel, for instance, that use the “willing suspension of disbelief” as a figure for what needs to be overcome through the hermeneutics of suspicion. And I’m not sure that you can ever totally eliminate the risk that one will suspend one’s disbelief only to have one’s desires coercively rearranged. (Then again, reading like a dupe might actually be a start in the right direction.)

But a more full quotation of the passage where Coleridge introduces this phrase (and the OED gives him credit for inventing the usage, by the way) gives a more complicated picture. Coleridge’s poems of the supernatural were, in his words, an attempt “to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of the imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” This isn’t critical reading as we understand it, but it’s also not fully uncritical, as suggested by Coleridge’s evocation of “human interest and a semblance of truth.” There’s a suggestion of a double movement here of receptivity and critical engagement and, I think, the implicit expectation that something will or may change as a result, that our minds will be enlarged in a way that they wouldn’t have been otherwise, that our desires have been rearranged in a way that makes us less open to coercion. In short, we end up wanting something more than a kill-time.

It’s of course an open question whether the rearrangement of desire can ever be uncoercive – even or especially within the context of humanities teaching. Ultimately, though, I don’t think our justifiable ethical concerns about the potential for coercion should mean that we simply allow our students to pass through our classes with their desires unreflected upon, as it were. We’re allowed to be right sometimes, to claim a kind of authority because of our years spent learning the craft of critical reading, of writing, of thinking, of contemplation – and, yes, because we decided to do this instead of something else. We don’t have to make a big deal about it – I do think Jean Howard was right to talk about the modest role of literature, etc. – but we’re allowed, indeed required, to value what we do

And that, ultimately, is why I’ve found this particular panel worth thinking about long after the MLA ended. It was so nice to spend an hour so in the company of people who believe that literature is important, that reading is important, that thinking is both pleasurable and powerful, that what we do is something other than “ruin” texts—and that all of this is crucially important even though we won’t agree about the details. And it makes me wonder whether we might be in a new Arnoldian moment—though it would be an Arnoldianism largely without the polarizing figure of Arnold himself. It’s not so much about going back to “the best that has been thought and said”—though I think that those who assume that “the best that has been thought and said” can only refer to a body of literature by dead, mostly male, mostly white, mostly upper-class set of authors (a kind of Harold Bloom-style western canon) betray a telling lack of imagination, the kind of complacency that Felski criticizes in her article.

I’m thinking more of the Arnold of “Literature and Science,” arguing to a group of American university students in the 1880s that they should continue to study Greek with as much urgency as science and engineering. There’s something quaint about that, of course, and, well, we kind of dropped the ball on the whole Greek thing. But it might still be worth thinking about what it might mean in 2010 to return to Arnold’s concluding words in this essay—and to interpret them as expansively, as open-endedly, as inclusively as possible:

We shall be brought back to [humane letters] by our wants and aspirations. And a poor humanist  may possess his soul in patience, neither strive nor cry, admit the energy and brilliancy of the partisans of physical science, and their present favour with the public, to be far greater than his own, and still have a happy faith that the nature of things works silently on behalf of the studies which he loves, and that, while we shall all have to acquaint ourselves with the great results reached by modern science, and to give to ourselves as much training in its disciplines as we can conveniently carry, yet the majority of men will always require humane letters; and so much the more, as they have the more and the greater results of science to relate to the need in man for conduct, and the need in him for beauty.

What would it look like to take this attitude into our work as we begin the spring semester?

[You have no idea how long I've been waiting to be able to write that title. I fear this post, though, won't be as fun as I had hoped. Feel free to skip to Anne's posts; she's returned in style!]


(Part 1 here.)

Having some kind of term like the “uncoercive rearrangement of desires” seems to me to be a necessary antidote to the kinds of binaries that kept arising during the “WTLA?” panel. This is especially true as it relates to the panel’s discussion of Rita Felski’s 2009 Profession article, “After Suspicion.” Jonathan Culler and Jean Howard both invoked this article as an example of a kind of insufficiently critical reading, an encouragement of enchantment in the place of suspicion. Suffice it to say that Felski herself was in the audience and got the Q&A kicked off by saying, something to the effect of, “I teach literary theory. I don’t teach enchantment.” I took a look at “After Suspicion” a few days after the panel, and was surprised by how uncontroversial I found it—if anything, it seemed like a really important step in blending critical reading with what I guess we could call affective responses—while also interrogating those affective attachments to texts. I’m not yet sure I’m on board with everything she says—I admit, for instance, to feeling a certain inchoate resistance when I read about “a desire to build better bridges between theory and common sense” (31), but I think there’s something very valuable in stressing “the irreducible complexity of everyday structures of experience” (31) and I think this is what a lot of people not in literary fields would include under the rubric of “critical reading”—even though it’s not exactly what we  mean when we talk about critical reading.

The following passage from Felski gets at something important about this project:

To be sure, such approaches carry a modicum of risk. Some students will need reminding that their devotion to Jane Austen or their passion for Jonathan Frantzen [sic] is a puzzle for investigation, not a cause for self-congratulation. Phenomenology seeks to make the familiar newly surprising through the scrupulousness of its attention, exposing the strangeness of the self-evident. It calls not for complacency or confession but for strenuous reflection on how aesthetic devices speak to and help shape selves. (32)

…so, explain to me again how this isn’t critical reading, writ large? The non-complacency thing seems to be especially important here, an acknowledgement—at least an implicit one—that things change, that desires get rearranged in ways that are both coerced and uncoerced.

More broadly, though I’m not sure that we (at least those of us who don’t teach at Ivy League schools) can assume that all of our students are coming into literature classes with literary attachments in the first place—more and more I get the sense that people don’t know how to read even uncritically (or they have already chosen not to). At least in my experience, the real debate isn’t between a narrowly-defined critical reading and its others but between reading and consumption. Consumption here would designate something far less engaged than reading for the plot or reading because you identify with the main character—it’s something much more cursory, sometimes more purely utilitarian….

So it turns out that – shockingly – sunshine and 85-degree temperatures are not entirely conductive to extensive nineteenth century blogging. (The fact that the only reliable internet access I had in Rincón was at bars probably didn’t help either.) And, I have to admit, that I rather enjoyed indulging in a kind of blissful nullity – at least for a few days – and letting my brain relax after the crush of the semester and the MLA whirlwind. Now, though, it’s back to work. I start teaching again on the 26th and have a big, important fellowship application due on February 1, which I’m taking as the occasion and impetus to pretty extensively revise my original dissertation prospectus, which, though much beloved by the readers within my department, was not exactly a funding magnet last spring. On a less mercenary level, I do also think it’s time to reassess the work that I’ve been doing and to rearticulate some initial assumptions and ideas. As it turns out, some of the things that I thought were going to be super-important when I first wrote the thing in Fall ’08 turned out to be the things that were holding me back by the summer of 2009, and some of my instincts seemed to be borne out in the kinds of conversations I was having at MLA. And all of this, in my mind, is justifying the revision. But that’s actually another post (though it’s not unrelated to this one).

All of this started as an attempt to make good on my promise for a blog post-mortem on the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel, a way to get down whatever thoughts I had that survived my vacation. It got a bit longer, verging on conference-paper length, even in comparison to my usually lengthy posts. But it’s not at all as coherent as a conference paper would be – a point that I want to stress before I go any further in putting all these words out into the world. I should also say that the relationship between my post and the actual panel fluctuates quite a bit here, and I may have latched onto some minor points and taken things in contexts other than the ones in which they were intended.

In the end, I decided to break this up into three not-entirely-arbitrary sections. I guess you could call this first one the overview of the issues that seemed most resonant to me. In the second, I think about the panel’s relationship to Rita Felski’s “After Suspicion” piece in Profession, and in the third section, I finally get around to talking about two of my favorite topics from the Long 19th Century. But, this should suffice for tonight.

One of the things I reread in the brief but heady interlude between MLA and my vacation was Gayatri Spivak’s “Terror: A Speech After 9-11” (boundary 2 31.2 [2004]). At the very beginning of that piece, Spivak defines the mission of the humanities as “a persistent attempt at an uncoercive rearrangement of desires, through teaching reading” (81). That statement has a lot of affinities with what people on the “Why Teach Literature” panel—especially Jean Howard—were saying, although I wouldn’t exactly claim they were saying the same thing. I think we all agree on the importance of critical reading, particularly at a time when there are so many incentives for uncritical reading, when the public sphere, as Howard mentioned in her talk,  has been actively manipulated to create “the conditions under which stupidity arises.” While the idea of “slow reading” as a craft comparable to the discourse of “slow food” is not entirely unproblematic, I do think it has a lot of merit, and in my short career as a teacher (not of literature per se, of course, though I’d argue that I am teaching a kind of literary relation to texts more generally), I’ve always considered it to be my responsibility to encourage my students to slow down and ask questions about how the texts they read (again, literary or not) are working to produce a certain effect – and this attitude has arisen both from a sense of present political responsibility and from the work I do in Victorian literature. So, okay, reading – critical reading, the reading we learn in the humanities, etc. – we probably have to work out the details, but we can at least agree in principle that this is a laudable goal.

This idea of “the uncoercive rearrangement of desires” seems to bear a more complicated relationship to what went on in the “WTLA?” panel. (I should be clear, by the way, that unless I completely zoned out when it happened, no one on this panel invoked Spivak’s piece – I was inspired to reread it because of a paper at a panel on ethics and aesthetics in British Romanticism.) Many different answers were proposed to the “WTLA?” question – as Mia’s description below shows, some of these answers were rather blunt. But the answers that are most resonant for me have to do with literature’s role in providing the “genetic conditions” (a term that Wai-Chee Dimock used in her talk) for broad, thoughtful critical engagement with the world even in non-literary contexts and with the idea that this kind of reading, this mental engagement, this complexity is enjoyable. All of which probably means that at some point my desires got rearranged, so that I became a subject that shared a certain set of values. In my case, then, the teaching of literature could be said to have “worked” on some level.

Or something. It’s not that easy, of course, and no one on the panel came out exactly to say that we teach literature in order to attempt to effect the uncoercive rearrangement of desire in our students or in others. There’s something disturbingly intimate, fraught, risky, about putting it in those terms—not the least because Spivak does use that word “attempt”—marking the possibility that coercion may still occur even when we’re trying not to do it. And, of course, plenty of people have made arguments over the last thirty or forty years that what we consider to be literary texts are themselves engaged in coercive or ideological projects (intentionally or otherwise)—and this is why we need something like the “hermeneutics of suspicion” to help us stay on our guard, even if it means that we have to go into the disenchantment or demolition business every now and then. (Which is no doubt why I’ve often been accused by dates of “ruining” literature simply by being in graduate school for English literature and thinking that maybe that Jacky Derrida guy wasn’t a complete charlatan.)

But I do think that idea of rearrangement is interesting – in part, because it’s been helping me think through what feels in many ways like a false assumption—the idea that “critical” and reparative or reflective reading are naturally opposed. I guess this just has almost never been my experience of reading literature.

I’ve been lucky, of course, since some of this was  undoubtedly the result of having had incredibly conscientious teachers myself. And I’m sure that to some extent I don’t feel the same tension among different kinds of reading because back in the heyday of the hermeneutics of suspicion, when we were learning about all the different ways that we had to be on guard around literature, lest it interpellate or infect us with ideology, I was roller-skating around a suburban subdivision while reading Baby-Sitters’ Club books. But maybe that’s a good image for what I’m getting at here: it’s possible to do more than one thing at once when you read. (And I still have the scars from scraped knees to prove it!)

With all that being said, one of the reasons I do what I do and have always done what I’ve done is that I really do believe that critical reading can make texts more enjoyable, sometimes even more absorbing and interesting. My time as a student of literature (or, more accurately, my time as a student of the humanities and of theory) has certainly changed the way I read texts and occasionally, I suppose, has interrupted a previously uninterrogated experience, has made a fully uncritical absorption more difficult and probably impossible at times. But that may not just be a result of critical reading—it’s also what we used to call growing up. To the extent that this has been a textual experience, I would say that the texts that matter most to me (personally, professionally, aesthetically) have stood up to whatever slings and arrows that my academic life has thrown at them. That’s not to say that they’ve remained impervious, only that the practice of critical reading has opened up the text rather than shut it down.

This, from “Transformations of the Image,” a talk presented in Venezuela in 1995:

[I]n this new stage the very sphere of culture itself has expanded, becoming coterminous with market society in such a way that the cultural is no longer limited to its earlier, traditional or experimental forms, but is consumed throughout daily life itself, in shopping, in professional activities, in the various often televisual forms of leaisure, in production for the market and in the consumption of those market products, indeed in the most secret folds and corners of the quotidian. Social space is now completely saturated with the culture of the image; the utopian space of the Sartrean reversal, the Foucauldian heterotopias of the unclassed and unclassifiable, all have been triumphantly penetrated and colonized, the authentic and the unsaid, in-vu, non-dit, inexpressible, alike, fully translated into the visible and the culturally familiar. (111)

Holy magisterial prose, batman! Making such a claim in our post red-state/blue-state, Anglo-America vs. the rest of the world, Asian tiger world seems far too simplistic, but what’s interesting to me is that “culture,” understood in an aesthetic sense, becomes equated to “culture” in the anthropological sense. And–if it is “the culture of the image” which has colonized “social space” to saturation point, can the theorist’s peeking into “the most secret folds and corners of the quotidian” do anything but replicate that act of colonization? But really, I’ve a lot of sympathy with this quote.

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