January 2010


Once upon a time, the story goes, there was a mysterious tribe called the New Critics who believed that there was something outside the text. Not only was there something outside the text, almost everything that was was outside the text, their particular object of devotion. One cannot serve two masters; from the text emanated all truth, but from outside the text illusion, with its distractions and deceptions, constantly threatened the text’s divine incarnation, the Work.

And then one day, a boy named Jackie was born.

Okay, enough. There is nothing outside the text, we get it. But what does that mean? For most of us in our tribe , the critique of positivist inquiry merely manifests itself in a common-sense credo that a text must be studied alongside its context, and this context can be understood in a bunch of different ways. It’s something I believe in, strongly, and it’s why I chose to read twenty-two different British periodicals that were published in 1851. This was the year of the Great Exhibition, and I would learn about its context. And yet, daunting as this task has been given the time my procrastination had left me with, it’s only a tiny, tiny tranche of the Mid-Victorian periodical press which, to my mind, offered the best access point to the Context of those Mid-Victorian Texts I so love to hate to love.

I’ve undoubtedly learned a lot of contextual stuff, like the fight to stop the duties excised on paper, advertising, newspapers, and windows; like the overwhelming optimism of the period; like the fascination with how things were put together and with the less tangible workings of mesmerism/electro-biology/animal magnetism/the od force; like the pervasiveness of poetic utterance; like the murmurs from America of Bloomerism and Female Emancipation; like the recent publication of a newly revised edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey with a preface by Currer Bell, authoress of Jane Eyre, relating the deaths of her sisters “Ellis” and “Acton”; like the tendency of writers to pepper their prose with pedantic displays of parallel structure.

What’s been most interesting, though, is how it’s problematized my idea of what a context is. If I started out seeking to find out more about the content of this grand context, I’ve ended up wondering more about the context of this context. Everything that I just listed is content: it’s text. There is nothing outside the text. If the context is not outside the text, it would make sense that the context too would be text. What if, though, we thought about context as something not necessarily outside the text, but not text at all? By this, I don’t mean social dispositions, or structures of feeling, or things in the air, but something quite concrete, like the price of a periodical, or its circulation, or its mode of circulation (at railway stalls, at coffeehouses, at libraries, at reading clubs), or its profit margin, or the paratexts left out at the binding stage (usually containing advertisements which are incredibly helpful in thinking about target demographics).

I mean, given a bunch of text, I might be able to infer a target readership based on certain cues, but if I knew it sold for three half-pennies once a week, or cost two shillings once a month, that context could very well give me more information than the actual content. And then, what difference does it make if each number (issue) has the price listed on the front page, or if the price is nowhere to be found. I’m particularly frustrated/intrigued by The People’s and Howitt’s Journal, a short-lived weekly periodical targeting pro-peace, anti-slavery, working-class or working-class-positive readers. In the microfilm of the bound volume, the price is not listed. In fact, it’s not even clear where one number starts and the other begins. Was this how it was sold? Is the provenance of the bound volume different from the individual numbers? I know that periodicals often came in wrappers that were discarded in the binding process.

Peter D. MacDonald in the Jan 2006 PMLA pointed out that GCS’s endlessly repeated translation of “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” is “clumsy,” since it misses the literal meaning of hors-texte, the non-paginated plates with illustrations on them which are inserted into books. The hors-texte is part of the book–a very marketable part of the book no matter what century you’re in–but, quite literally, it doesn’t count. And it’s an expensive part of the book. At MLA, I ordered Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Glassworlds, which won the big prize–big up for Victorianists!–it was OUP-pricy, but hey, I thought to myself, lots of illustrations! I wonder if it’s worth thinking about bringing back the hors-texte, in particular the context that is material and/or economic, as something that’s not part of the text or content as we usually define it, but that isn’t part of the context which we usually think of in discursive or semantic terms.

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(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!]

(more…)

(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.

After therapy, I head over to Bluestockings, New York’s independent activist, feminist, queer, trans friendly bookstore for some coffee, vegan snackies, and orals list reading. There’s not much room for seating–4 tables–so most of the time you have to share your table with other like-minded people. This week, I sat down across from some Bright Sexy Asian Girl. While getting settled, I gave her book the old once-over. She was reading Chantal Mouffe. Then it struck me that the orals book I was reading was maybe the most embarrassing book imaginable in that context: Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I couldn’t help snickering as I read about about the starving Chinese peasants.
I was going to write something about how TGE is More Complicated Than You Might Think, but I’m tired.

I really struggle and flail around a lot when I try to explain the rationale between my poco list, which encompasses globalization and the “cultural turn.” What’s this cultural turn I speak of? I guess the easy way to put it is the death of Vulgar Marxism! (Or, presumably, the nascence of Marxism as a potential vulgarity among Marxians…) VM, as I understand it, considers the economic factor as the prime determinant “in the final analysis,” as the “base” upon which the “superstructure” of all the other epiphenomena like gender relations, behaviour, religion, etc. rest. The cultural turn brought culture and language to the fore–and I guess where my weird obsession with this thing is, is that I think that in practice (as in, what do undergrads learn?) if not in theory, culture has supplanted economics as the base, and economics relegated to the superstructure, if it’s discussed at all. How does this intersect with postcolonialism? I wonder if the three Posts–postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism–are part and parcel of this perplexing passage. With postmodernism, you get cultural studies–pop culture as an object of artistic and academic exploration. With poststructuralism, you get a linguistic turn that’s more or less coextensive with the cultural turn–it’s Language constructing Culture and vice versa, rather than language as an expression of Structure. With postcolonialism, you get the powerful notion of cultural imperialism and cultural hegemony, and, at the end of the century, cultural hybridity.
Where my own interest enters the picture, is that while a vulgar culturalism (respecting other cultures, the importance of one’s roots) seems to have taken hold, nobody (i.e. students) wants to talk about economic exploitation, and we’re really lacking the really subtle class analyses of folks like C. L. R. James and Raymond Williams. To say nothing of a fairly widespread unawareness of issues of neoliberalism and financialization among humanists, and liberals in general.
So this is what’s going on in the twentieth century. What’s up with the nineteenth? That’s what Culture and Anomie and Primitive Culture and fucking Hegel are doing on my list.

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