October 2009


…is about as annoying as I had feared. Still, there’s an interesting bit on China in Past and Present:

Or let us give a glance at China. Our new friend, the Emperor there, is Pontiff of three hundred million men; who do all live and work, these many centuries now; authentically patronised by Heaven so far; and therefore must have some ‘religion’ of a kind. T his Emperor-Pontiff has, in fact, a religious belief of certain Laws of Heaven; observes, with a religious rigour, his ‘three thousand punctualities,’ given out by men of insight, some sixty generations since, as a legible transcript of the same,– the Heavens do seem to say, not totally an incorrect one. He has not much of a ritual, this Pontiff-Emperor; believes, it is likest, with the old Monks, that ‘Labour is Worship.’ His most public Act of Worship, it appears, is the drawing solemnly at a certain day, on the green bosom of our Mother Earth, when the Heavens, after dead black winter, have again with their vernal radiances awakened her, a distinct red Furrow with the Plough,– signal that all the Ploughs of China are to begin ploughing and worshipping! It is notable enough. He, in sight of the Seen and Unseen Powers, draws his distinct red Furrow there; saying, and praying, in mute symbolism, so many most eloquent things!

If you ask this Pontiff, “Who made him? What is to become of him and us?” he maintains a dignified reserve; waves his hand and pontiff-eyes over the unfathomable deep of Heaven, the ‘Tsien,’ the azure kingdoms of Infinitude; as if asking, “is it doubtful that we are right well made? Can aught that is wrong become of us?”–He and his three hundred millions (it is their chief ‘punctuality’) visit yearly the Tombs of their Fathers; each man the Tomb of his Father and his Mother: alone there, in silence, with what of ‘worship’ or of other thought there may be, pauses solemnly each man; the divine Skies all silent over him; the divine Graves, and this divinest Grave, all silent under him; the pulsings of his own soul, if he have any soul, alone audible. Truly it may be a kind of worship! Truly, if a man cannot get some glimpse into the Eternities, looking through this portal,– through what other need he try it?

Our friend the Pontiff-Emperor permits cheerfully, though with contempt, all manner of Buddhists, Bonzes, Talapoins and such like, to build brick Temples, on the voluntary principle; to worship with what of chantings, paper-lanterns and tumultuous brayings, pleases them; and make night hideous, since they find some comfort in so doing. Cheerfully, though with contempt. He is a wiser Pontiff than many persons think! He is as yet the one Chief Potentate or Priest in this Earth who has made a distinct systematic attempt at what we call the ultimate result of all religion, ‘Practical Hero-worship:’ he does incessantly, with true anxiety, in such way as he can, search and sift (it would appear) his whole enormous population for the Wisest born among them; by which Wisest, as by born Kings, these three hundred million men are governed. The Heavens, to a certain extent, do appear to countenance him. These three hundred millions actually make porcelain, souchong tea, with innumerable other things; and fight, under Heaven’s flag, against Necessity;–and have fewer Seven-Years Wars, Thirty-Years Wars, French-Revolution Wars, and infernal fightings with each other, than certain millions elsewhere have!

Which passage follows his advice to factory operatives to wash themselves.

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Césaire, Memmi, Fanon vs. Said, Spivak, Bhabha

In my ever-shifting reframing of the po-co list, my latest title is ‘Post-colonialism, Globalization, and the Cultural Turn.’ The idea is to look at po-co theory from a kind of history of ideas perspective, thinking about postcolonial thought in terms of this decades-long ‘cultural turn’ which may, I wonder, be coming to an end? By ‘cultural turn,’ I mean work during the post-war and decolonization era that argued that politically engaged work should engage with culture at least as much as economics. And then, with the rise and declawing of cultural studies, the glossing over of class, labour, and economic issues.

I’ve only gotten through two of the three before the three, but I’ve already started to forget the first one, for which I failed to take any notes at all. Oops. I’ll only talk about C and M here.

An embarrassing admission: I hadn’t heard about Albert Memmi before noticing his name on a lot of poco lists. Rather than blaming myself though ūüėČ , ¬†I’ll blame it on an Anglo-American structural bias (i.e. limited syllabus space, disciplinary boundaries) against French work that’s not Theory with a big T. Still, though it makes a difference to think about Fanon as part of a movement, and to think of C as one of the founders of postcolonial theory instead of the negritude dude (okay, I know, I really should have known that).

Alrighty, so the cultural turn and Césaire and Memmi. Discourse on Colonialism is all about decadence. It begins,

A civilization that proves  incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.

Civilization is pretty much synonymous with culture here, and there’s nothing necessarily economic about those ‘problems.’ Nevertheless, it’s clearly Marxist in orientation, with constant reference to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat:

It is a fact: the nation is a bourgeois phenomenon. (57)

There’s the by now familiar idea that colonization works by dehumanization or “thingification” (21). What’s most indicative of the cultural turn is this fantastic (and very Victorian) passage:

Therefore, comrade, you will hold as enemies–loftily, lucidly, consistently–not only sadistic governors and greedy bankers, not only prefects who torture and colonists who flog, not only corrupt, check-licking politicians and subservient judges, but likewise and for the same reason, venomous journalists, goitrous academicians, wreathed in dollars and stupidity, ethnographers who go in for metaphysics, presumptuous Belgian theologians, chattering intellectuals born stinking out of the thigh of Nietzsche, the paternalists, the embracers, the corrupters, the back-slappers, the lovers of exoticism, the dividers, the hot-air artists, the humbugs, and in general, all those who, performing their functions in the sordid division of labor for the defense of Western bourgeois society, try in divers ways and by infamous diversions to split up the forces of Progress–even if it means denying the very possibility of Progress–all of them tools of capitalism, all of them, openly or secretly, supporters of plundering colonialism, all of them responsible, all hateful, all slave-traders, all henceforth answerable for the violence of revolutionary action. (33-34)

(Of course, one of the reasons this stuck out to me is my role as an academician, while not wreathed in dollars to the extent as somebody who blows up the world economy, still gets paid in first-world currency, who is certainly quasi-functioning in the “sordid division of labor.”)

Memmi. He’s a lot more careful about the hierarchy within the colonized (in part to his own Jewish identity, as he explains). In terms of thinking about the difference between the colonial model and the globalization model, the idea of “linguistic dualism” is important:

The colonized is saved from illiteracy only to fall into linguistic dualism. This happens only if he is lucky, since most of the colonized will never have the good fortune to suffer the tortures of colonial bilingualism. They will never have anything but their native tongue; that is, a tongue which is neither written nor read, permitting only uncertain and poor oral development.

Granted, small groups of academicians persist in developing the language of their people, perpetuating it through scholarly pursuits into the splendors of the past. But its subtle forms bear no relationship to everyday life and have become obscure to the man on the street. The colonized considers those venerable scholars relics and thinks of them as sleepwalkers who are living in an old dream.

Possession of two languages is not merely a matter of having two tools, but actually means participation in two psychical and cultural realms. Here, the two worlds symbolized and conveyed by the two tongues are in conflict; they are those of the colonizer and the colonized. (106-107)

I don’t feel like typing up yet another huge block quote, and it’s getting late, but the part a few pages before about the “refuge value” of family and religion is really important.

(Yes, I know. I don’t blog for like 2 1/2 months and now I won’t shut up. But bear with me.)

To read Browning he must exert himself, but he will exert himself to some purpose. If he finds the meaning difficult of access, it is always worth his effort — if he has to dive deep, “he rises with his pearl.”

This comment comes from George Eliot’s review of Men and Women that was published in the Westminster Review. (Thanks, Norton editors!) The observation that Browning’s work is difficult but rewards thought is hardly exclusive to Eliot. In fact, it’s more or less a commonplace about Browning and, I think we could see with fairly little effort how this kind of attitude produces on the one hand the Browning Societies of the 1880s and — in a much more nuanced, scholarly context, something like Donald Hair’s discussion of emblems in Robert Browning’s Language (1999) — the idea is basically that you have to work your way through the poem to find a¬† meaning that could not have been directly stated otherwise, engaging in an act of interpretation that is also, Hair argues, the process of saving one’s soul as far as Browning is concerned.

I am obviously on board with the idea that careful reading of poetry (or any literary text — or not-necessarily-literary text — for that matter) should be rewarding. But that’s different, I think, than saying that careful reading should be rewarded. A hair-splitting difference? Perhaps. But it helps me express something that bothers me about Eliot’s image of the reading of poetry as diving for a pearl — and, more than that, the implication that if you apply the correct, careful reading practices, you cannot help but come back with the pearl of meaning at the center of the poem. And as with Hair’s discussion of emblems and riddles, this seems to imply that there are right answers when it comes to these kinds of poems, even if we are meant to value the dive as much as or more than the pearl or the process of working out the riddle as much as or more highly than the answer to that riddle.

And I find myself wanting more, wanting something more uncertain, more contingent. This is the approach I’ve been trying to take in my reading of “An Epistle” for the last six months, but the poem does seem kind of impervious, at a certain level, to any kind of “new” reading — whether one applies New Criticism, historicism, deconstruction, Bakhtin, the best anyone seems to be able to do is come up with a slightly different version of the same story about faith and skepticism struggling with each other. Different approaches make it possible to notice different aspects of that struggle or read it in a slightly different way, but no amount of critical theory is going to be able to make the poem not be about Jesus, for instance. And this may be why, the last time I checked the MLA database, the last time anyone published an article on “An Epistle” was 1993.

It’s not that I think “An Epistle” is somehow not about the things that it is very obviously about. But I feel like there’s more to be done, that the working out of the riddle or the canonical Victorian religious doubt narrative may not actually be the most important thing to do. I hope, of course, that I can make this case from the poem — and I’m pretty sure that I can and will by December. But I’m beginning to see that a lot of this has to do with my resistance to the pearl-diving model of reading poetry, where we work hard and are sure to find a meaning. Perhaps what really needs to be interrogated here is something about the language of reading poetry — of what it means, for example, to “get something out of” a poem. It’s a discourse that we take for granted — one that I certainly do, particularly when trying to make the case for close reading to undergraduates — but it may be more difficult to do this if we’re going to take seriously the performative aspect of Victorian poetry, the whole “poetry as constitutive cultural event” school of thought. And I don’t think it’s a matter of shifting our attention from the pearl to the dive, but rather rethinking the metaphor entirely and changing the way we think about reading poetry. Part of the reason why I keep going back to Coleridge’s “poetic faith” is that it seems to imply a certain kind of contingency — the possibility and the threat not just of something overwhelming happening, but the equally and perhaps more terrifying (if we believe Lyotard) possibility of nothing happening. (Those of you who remember my ESA paper from March may recall that Peter only starts to sink *after* his faith has carried him to Jesus….)

I don’t know where I’m going with this at the moment, except towards another ginormous blog post. But at least now you have a sense of what I’m dealing with. And I’d be interested to know if anything of the foregoing seems like it might be valuable….

Once upon a time there was a Victorianist with a dream and that dream was to selectively blog her way through The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, rescuing the obscure and occasionally poking fun at the canonical on a more or less weekly basis.

So, um…hi, blog. Sorry that I’ve been so quiet. The sad fact of the matter is that I’ve been busy, but busy mostly with being things other than a Victorianist (dream-inspired or otherwise). But I mean, it’s not like I have an MLA paper on Robert Browning to give in two months or anything….

Oh, wait. Yeah. Browning. Sigh.

I circumlocute. Among the things I’ve had the opportunity to learn about myself so far this semester is the rather dismal fact that my attention span is about 12 minutes. On a good day.

What you’re going to get from me in this post is something between an accounting of what it is I’ve been doing lately and a kind cri de coeur from the land of ABD (hence the News from a non-utopian Nowhere). All joking aside, I’m in a punishingly hard semester in terms of teaching and other work obligations — 8 a.m. classes and 12-hour days, with weeks punctuated by meetings that take me an hour to get to. Though I’m not really complaining — a lot of what I’m doing is at least intermittently satisfying, I’ve managed to take the advice my adviser gave me (in slightly stronger language) a couple of department parties ago with regards to not messing up my personal life, and I think I’ve actually managed to change some of my working and general life habits to match the reality of my work and life rather than hoping that reality will somehow bend to accommodate me. In a weird (and probably quasi-Victorian) way, I’m almost happy. And all of this is, I think, going to make me much better off in the long run, both in material terms (if nothing else, this is the first year I’ll make more¬† money than I did seven years ago as the office manager of a small nonprofit that shall remain nameless in Chicago) and in the lasting changes to my work habits, mindfulness, and focus.

In the meantime, though, I’ve also come to feel a definite narrowing in my intellectual life. It feels too much like my writing is being pushed to the margins, that I’m working twelve hour days on teaching and other stuff so that I can maybe sit down with my computer for two or three hours. Which is sort of a manifestation or symptom of what might be a kind of identity crisis for me — part of why I’ve been struggling lately is that I always seem to be losing my grip on my “scholarly” identity and finding myself scrambling to reassemble it. My scholarship and my teaching don’t overlap very much right now — though I am teaching a mini-unit on De Profundis, it’s still a composition course and even the way I teach Wilde is a bit of a relic from an earlier version of my scholarly self (circa 2007-08 or so) — and the same goes for my other job, which is a gig in Writing Across the Curriculum where I’m partnering with people far out of my field.

On any given day, then, my Victorianist / Long Nineteenth Century / Poetics and Theory persona isn’t the one that’s first in my mind — and if it is, I’m likely also nervous and stressed out about the tangle I’ve gotten myself into with Browning’s “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” the subject of my upcoming MLA paper and my third dissertation chapter, but OMG can I really write an entire dissertation chapter on one single relatively short Browning poem that most normal people read once to appreciate the faith / skepticism tension and nod because we know that Jesus is the answer and then move onto something really important like The Ring and the Book and does this just make me look like I’m too dumb to work on actual Browning? &c. — the italicized portions being somewhat like the last time I talked to my aforementioned adviser who, after listening to me spend 20 minutes trying to articulate the thesis of my chapter commented that my problem was that my mind was too subtle. I’m pretty sure that was a compliment and, to be fair, I did leave that meeting feeling slightly more confident that this will all, eventually, come together and also with a better sense of where I was wasting my energy.

And it’s really since that meeting that I’ve begun to be able to explore the sources of my dissatisfaction with whatever progress I am or am not making. And I’m coming to realize that when I say (as I have been since late July), “I feel like I’ve been writing and rewriting the same twelve pages on ‘An Epistle’ since June,” the part that stresses me out the most is the part where I’ve been writing about one freaking poem. I mean, again, “An Epistle” ain’t The Ring and the Book and it doesn’t take a Browning Society to see that Jesus is the answer. I do think that ultimately it is a poem worth the effort I’ve put into it, but I’ve also begun to see that there’s a danger in this being the only poem I’m ever reading ever — and it’s beginning to feel that way. I realized with a start last weekend that I simply miss reading — I spent some lovely hours with Jean-Francois Lyotard this week that felt like 2005 all over again.

And it’s these kinds of sentiments (well, and Mia’s gentle prodding) that have brought me back, humbly, to the blog. I need to find the thread again. I need to be sharing my ideas with people who aren’t college freshmen, as delightful as they are. I need to talk about my dissertation in a way that’s a bit deeper than “oh, so what are you writing about?” — I need to find my way through the field again. I hope I haven’t painted too bleak a picture in the foregoing paragraphs — I’m not unhappy about anything so much as I want to make things better, to make room in my life for the thing that brought me here in the first place, with the ideas that got me into MLA and Victorian Poetry.

So let’s see how this goes. I would like to think of my return to blogging here from ABDland as something that could be complementary to Mia’s work on her orals lists, a way of both trying out ideas and inspirations and of reflecting on the process and the life as a whole. If I’m feeling frisky I might just get crazy and pull out the OBVV again.

In the meantime, this is officially the longest post ever, so I will thank you all for indulging a post more personal than scholarly. I also think I might go reread Derrida’s “Psyche: Inventions of the Other”…or maybe some Browning that is not about Lazarus or the Bible or resurrection as troping as referential uncertainty. Just another Saturday in Paradise, yo.