October 2008


I’ll be handing in my dissertation prospectus sometime early next week, so it’s time for me to finally get around to that “project” post that I’ve been promising Mia for the last two months.

My working title is “Left Hanging: Suspension and Epistemology in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry.” While the theoretical and conceptual framework comes out of my reading of Coleridge and Kant (and, to a lesser extent, Hegel), the main chapters will focus on a familiar cast of Victorian poetry characters–Tennyson, Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti. In fact, one of the ironies of the project as it stands right now, at least to anyone who knows me in real life, is that, for all of my celebration of the Long Nineteenth Century in all its glory, the central poems of my project were all published between 1855 and 1866. And while this isn’t something I set out to do with some great deliberation, it does make a certain kind of sense in terms of my topic and methodology. I’m less interested in tracing a historical development than a literary-critical one, and this may be my belatedly self-conscious attempt to stop the historicist clock and allow Victorian poetry (or at least these exemplary texts) to speak to a more theoretically-oriented project. But that’s a position that I assume will evolve over the next year or so.

Suspension emerged as the central term in my thinking near the end of my orals reading, though I’d already been thinking about it in terms of Coleridge for about a year. The idea first suggested itself to me as I tried to work out the connection between the “willing suspension of disbelief” and the sublime as “the suspension of our comparing powers”–both of these being Coleridge’s formulations. It’s probably easier (for me, at least), if I just quote from the prospectus itself to explain my definition of the concept:

Taking it as both a trope and a poetic technique, I examine suspension’s function as a constitutive absence, an action that is defined by the absence or withholding of action and that is capable of producing what it seems to interrupt. In its most basic meaning, suspension denotes a temporary pause, a hesitation, deferral or delay. However, as more than just a pause among other pauses, suspension consists not only in withholding but also in a deliberate giving-over, that surrenders to the unexpected. The “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment”—a phrase first used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in chapter 14 of the Biographia Literaria (1817)—captures this duality. Suspension both holds something back (here, the tendencies we might have to dismiss fantastic literature) and gives something over (in its affective willingness to accept what Coleridge calls “a human interest and semblance of truth”). As the Coleridgean formulation suggests, suspension holds in abeyance what seems to be natural or inevitable: the rush to judgment, the machinations of law, the teleological progression of plot, or the march of evolutionary progress. More than that, however, suspension modulates the experience of temporality in general, structuring our experience of the present through interrupting and interval—what manifests itself in poetry as meter and rhythm. In its temporal operations, suspension engenders sometimes unexpected relations of simultaneity among contradictory but compelling registers of meaning. In music, suspension refers to a chord prolonged into the next so as to produce dissonance. The dissonance of musical suspension or syncopation has a linguistic analogue in the suspension of reference among different orders of meaning that makes it impossible, in that moment, to determine an utterance as literal or figurative, constative or performative.

So that’s suspension in a nutshell. The epistemological questions that this raises for me have to do with what it means to “know” an absence or an intermittence and, relatedly, what kinds of knowledge claims can we make about a text (or an interiority) that is constitued through suspension and interruption. I’ve begun to work out some potential answers, at least where Tennyson is concerned, in my forthcoming Victorian Poetry article on Maud. (Not to be all self-promotional or anything….)  There, I propose that the most important question that the speaker asks is the rhetorical “Who knows if he be dead?” rather than the more widely-considered, “What is it, that has been done?”–and this, in turn, is my way of agreeing with Warwick Slinn (one of the heroes of my prospectus), who has for a number of years been arguing for a method of reading Victorian poems as performative texts with a focus on their “signifying practices.”

In a general sense (because there’s no reason why I particularly need to inflict all 5,000 words of my prospectus on you, gentle readers), this project began about six years ago when I decided to reinvent myself as a Victorianist for the purpose of grad school applications, yet wanted to retain the best parts of my undergraduate experience with theory, largely of the deconstructionist (as much as I hate the term) variety. Thinking these two things together hasn’t always been the easiest path for any number of reasons, but I do think there’s a real opportunity to do this work in the field of Victorian poetry. One of the recurring themes in VP scholarship of the last 15 or 20 years has been this perception that theoretical approaches to Victorian poetry end up having a certain “inevitability” to them, where prexisting models and methodologies are applied to something called “Victorian poetry” without really saying anything new. (See, for example, Gerhard Joseph’s 1995 Victorian Studies review essay, “Why Are They Saying Such Bad Things About Victorian Poetry?” and the two-issue “Whither Victorian Poetry?” series published in 2003-4 in Victorian Poetry.) So one of my underlying ambitions for this project in the long term is to offer one more attempt to try to create a truly innovative and influential theoretical reading of Victorian poetry, one that can complement the work that is already being done–I’m thinking here not only of Slinn but also of people like Caroline Levine and her work on strategic formalism.

Then again, I do also want to graduate someday (preferably some day in the spring of 2010), so we’ll see what happens along the way.

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Resistance is futile.

The Future of Google Books

Our edge on modernists might be decreasing. Out-of-print, still-in-copyright books will default to Preview rather than Snippet View. But that should give us a few more books too. And for secondary sources, should CUNY decide to support the Borg, it should let us even spend less time looking for real books. Yay!

We are Google.

xkcd!!!

One of the hot topics right now in Victorian studies is the fate of “symptomatic reading.” Part of this has been initiated by Sharon Marcus’s Between Women, where she suggests a model of “just reading” in place of “symptomatic reading.” (Another point of departure is Eve Sedgwick’s suggestion in Touching Feeling to look for alternative methods of interpretation that do not rely upon a “hermeneutics of suspicion” [Ricouer’s phrase].)

At a panel earlier this year on “The Way We Read Now,: Symptomatic Reading and its Aftermath,” several of the panelists went back to the theorist who started all of this “symptomatic reading,” Louis Althusser.

What no one mentioned, at least none of the speakers on the day that I attended, was Althusser’s relationship with his wife, Hélène Legotien. You don’t have to be too hermeneutically suspicious to wonder how what he did to his wife might have impacted his work. Dude strangled his wife, and got off on insanity.

When I first found out about this, I was shocked that I hadn’t heard about it earlier. I mean, I’m by no means an expert on Althusser, but I had read the “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay, and had heard his work cited a lot. I just did a search on Althusser and Legotien/Rytman on JSTOR and Project MUSE, and got all of 2 non-review hits. One’s an article by Hortense Spillers, who mentions the episode in a footnote, and the other’s an article by a psychoanalyst in American Imago. Surely this silence is symptomatic of something. I mean, why does everyone know that another criminal who was mentally ill at the time of their crime tried to kill Andy Warhol? (That’s actually how I got started thinking about this. I mentioned the SCUM Manifesto to my fellow office inmates, and my love for the work, and the only response I got was “But she shot Andy!” And what about the whole De Man thing–why is that so much more publically scandalous?)

How can one discuss this episode in Althusser’s life without dismissing his work completely, as Tony Judt does here? Judt’s article has these juicy bits that suggest one way to approach the philospher’s biography. Althusser’s only major work after the murder was a memoir, The Future Lasts Forever. Judt describes the memoir as follows:

Althusser would have us read [his memoirs] as Rousseau- like confessions, but that is hard to do, and the comparison is embarrassingly unflattering to their author. They are clearly an attempt on Althusser’s part to make sense of his madness, and to that extent they are indeed revealing; by his own account he wrote them “to free myself from the murder and above all from the dubious effects of having been declared unfit to plead” (it is ironic that their posthumous impact on any unprejudiced reader will surely be to confirm the original forensic diagnosis).

But here’s the fun part:

The young Althusser had an utterly uneventful early career. Academically promising, he was sent to the lycee in Lyons to prepare for the entrance exam to the Ecole Normale. He passed the exam, but had to postpone his higher education when he was drafted into the army in 1939. Like many French soldiers, he had a futile war; his company was rounded up by the Germans in 1940, and he spent the next five years in a prisoner of war camp. About the only interesting thing that seems to have happened to him there was that he learned, somewhat belatedly, the pleasures of masturbation. (He was not to make love for the first time until he was 29.)

Rousseau’s Confessions and “the pleasures of masturbation”? Would anyone like to comment? Anyone? Anyone? Ms. McCarthy?

So, on wikipedia’s entry on bookbinding, there’s a link to a page on anthropodermic bibliopegy. It gives a whole new meaning to judging a book by its cover. And, of course, I just had to find a nineteenth-century example of an anthropodermically bound book. For all you fans of history-of-the-book studies, should you ever be in Bury St. Edmonds in West Suffolk, you may want to check out the exhibit at Moyse’s Hall. (Scroll down a bit to check out a less sentimental side of nineteenth-century death culture.)

Mustaches of the Nineteenth Century, guys! Mostly American mustaches. It’s a photo-blog! Look:

I would like to venture a provocative thesis: the century makes possible–or at least it facilitates–modern history, “structural” history [as in the Annales school of Febvre, Braudel et al]. The paradox is obvious. How, that is, can one reconcile the two functions that we just attributed to the century: how does thinking about discontinuity [and combatting it] make possible the longue durée, the very long duration?

The signposts of the strategic alliance between century and longue durée show up again in the 1800s. Before History was divided into centuries, the most prevalent unit of periodisation was the reign. Voltaire thus distinguished four grand ‘centuries’: of Pericles, of Alexander, of the Medicis, and of Louis XIV. The history of France was a succession of royal races; English history, a succession of dynasties; ecclesastical history, a series of sovereign pontiffs and concils. After 1789, and a fortiori after 1793, it became difficult to continue in this tradition. As I’ve already said, this decade was seen as the end of a longer period, which remained to be delimitted and named. By effect of contagion, as it were, and for verisimilitude as well, this period could not be marked by one Louis or another–even anti-revolutionary historians, more or less nostalgic for the Bourbons, such as Bonald or Maistre, hardly dreamt of speaking of the ‘Century of Louis XV’ or the ‘Century of the two Louis.’ The eighteenth century, arrived at by arithmetic, and thus not marked by reality, offered the ideal choice.

[O]ne of the major characteristics of the century [is] its neutrality. The constitutive aberration of the century, meaning its a-referentiality, then becomes its principal strength. Of all the systems of periodization, the secular system [le système séculaire (the ‘centuried’ system] is the least marked–by reality, by historiography. By this, it has become the most open to what one had studied little or not at all within history: economics, demographics, mentalities. There are innumerable reevaluations of it made by “structual” historians like Febvre, Braudel, Labrousse, Chaunu, Wallerstein… (Milo 59-61)

Those of us who are Victorianists, of course, might wonder what Milo would have to say about our period. Is the Victorian Age a return to a reign-based periodization? Is the Victorian Age an aberration, not in history, but in historiography? Or is the Victorian Age a neutral period arbitrarily marked by 1837 and 1901, a neutral timespan amenable to experiments in history? And if we define ourselves as nineteenth-centuryists, is it similar to how those at the beginning of the nineteenth century saw the eighteenth century or the century that they were embarking upon?

What drew me to Milo was that you don’t have to be that far out of Victorianist kindergarten to have heard numerous apologies for the arbitrary boundaries on historical periods, justifications for their existence, and calls for their reevaluation. But if we think of this arbitrariness as the very condition-of-possibility of History, of secular history, does that change the way we do our work? Can it encourage us toward further experiments, further betrayals of time?

 

Cardinal Newman is becoming a saint. As part of the process, the Vatican had his mortal remains disinterred and moved, though he specified three times that he wanted to be buried exactly where he was. Why? Because, as Newman insisted, he was buried in the same grave as his dear friend and lifelong companion, Fr Ambrose St John, another man. The two lay together for more than a century under the epitaph “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem,” or “Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth.”

Joke’s on Ratzinger, though, as Andrew Sullivan points out:

But there’s a punchline: the tomb was empty! Newman had been buried in a wooden coffin and not a trace of him remained. […] The remains of Newman and St John will be physically commingled for ever – and not even a bigot like Benedict can do anything about it.

Read about it here. Queer outrage. The Vatican responds. A Miracle?

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