Anne’s Project


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?

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Last week when I was hanging around the site reliving past glories, I was sort of shocked to realize how out of date my project description is – the prospectus I mention being about to hand in was approved way back in November of 2008. (I was also like, man, we’ve been blogging kind of a long time, albeit sporadically.)

So, what do things look like nearly three years, four chapters, two articles, and one pass at the job market later? I now call my project “That Willing Suspension”: Signification and the Ethics of Literary Form in 19th-century British Poetry – very dissertation-y, but doing the job for right now. Somewhere along the line I decided not to write on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and, more recently, have decided to write a chapter on Percy Shelley. Among other things, the change suggests that I’m really trying to think this as a credible “long 19th century” project, trying to do something other than write an influence study, say, and it also has the effect of at least loosening the grip of 1855. Many of my original ideas about suspension have proved to be pretty constant and borne out in these poems (I was able to mine the prospectus for parts of my dissertation abstract, for instance). Right now, there are two central threads in all of this: suspension marks the limits of our ability to know (as in the suspension of reference or suspended animation), but it also structures a response to that uncertainty (a movement that I argue is parallel to the way that the Kantian sublime is supposed to work—the inhibition followed by supersensible awareness). And I’ve spent a lot of time, particularly as of late, trying to recover experiences of failure and falling short and consider the different kinds of efforts that people make to work through those and remain receptive to experience. Where Matthew Arnold said that poetry was a criticism of life, I’d also say that it constitutes a practice of living. You know, if I wanted to make a slogan out of it.

In the chapter I’m revising right now on Christina Rossetti, I’ve found myself talking less about “images” or “language” of suspension, less about the de Manian referential aberration, and more about techniques or practices of suspension. I’ve started to call this a shift into “method,” though I perhaps have yet to fully work out what that means. In some ways, I’m trying to draw a distinction between the willing giving-over of one’s “disbelief” (as in Coleridge) to an even more actively undertaken mental posture of engaging with an impermanent world. Part of my argument about Rossetti is that suspension is part of her ongoing practice of faith – not a doctrine, but a method of maintaining a balance between engagement and non-attachment. I’ve also been trying to use Rossetti to think about other experiences that overlap with suspension, such as the state of being “held up,” which to me suggests both exemplarity (being held up as an example) and frustration (finding yourself thwarted, prevented from moving forward). This is proving to be more complicated than I bargained for, but it may provide a way for me to get past some of the binaries I’ve been rather comfortably deconstructing over the past few years.

Through all of this, I’ve probably moved closer to formalism than I anticipated. I’m still  not sure that what I’m doing is formalism per se, but it does certainly have an affinity to the practices of strategic formalism that Caroline Levine laid out in her 2006 Victorian Studies article. I talk a lot about how suspension enables my poets to make interventions in other fields – philosophy, religion, science, and so on – which is, I think, somewhat similar to what Levine is getting at when she posits a “destabilizing” relationship between literary and other institutional forms. It’s possible that suspension is (at least partially) what happens when certain kinds of forms overlap, a kind of force field produced most strongly by poetic form when it meets, say, religious doctrine. (I feel like there must be a way to talk about this in terms of musical suspension, the dissonance produced by unexpected simultaneity … but I never quite feel myself to be on solid ground here.)

Religion itself has also become a lot more present in the dissertation. In retrospect, it seems like a fairly obvious direction for a project that deals with, say, Browning’s “Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” or that comes within ten feet of anything Christina Rossetti ever wrote. It’s also, of course, present in Coleridge: the “willing suspension of disbelief” is what “constitutes poetic faith.” And yet. It’s only recently that I feel like I’ve begun to consider these questions on their own terms, possibly as the central terms of this project. (And the religion thing is really the subject of another post.) We’ll see, of course, how that shakes out when I start writing about Shelley next month.

I know it’s been awhile, Long Nineteenth Century Blog. It’s not that I didn’t want to come visit and tell you everything I was doing in the world of Romantic/Victorian geekery, it’s just, well, you know. Things got busy. Did you know I’ve written *two* dissertation chapters since we last talked? And I don’t really have internet access at my house, and then I was on the market and it was just…well, you know. Life got so complicated. I mean, you know how it is, right? It’s not you, Long 19th Century Blog, it’s me.

So, it’s been about ten months since my last post. And, yes, I have written two chapters, gone on the market (unsuccessfully in the traditional sense, but I’m glad I did it, I still like MLA, and it didn’t crush me in the way it’s “supposed to”), rethought a lot of the project, started thinking a lot about religion, gave a long format talk on Browning at the CUNY Victorian seminar, strategized, theorized, historicized (well, not *too* much), and made some new friends. In a certain sense, I think I’ve started to get a better sense not just of the field but of myself in the field, feeling part of a community on a level I didn’t before. (Or you just hang around for seven years and eventually people start talking to you.) I guess I’d say that I’ve also started enjoying myself again.

So, for now at least, here I am. The future of the Poem of the Week remains uncertain, but I do plan to start posting here every now and then. (Yes, I know we’ve heard this before, etc.) And spring conferences are a good place to start, right?

Over the weekend, I was in Columbus at the very wonderful British Women Writers Conference, where I was talking about Christina Rossetti’s The Prince’s Progress — that is, the long narrative poem she wrote that isn’t Goblin Market. It was a truly lovely conference, and you can relive much of the magic via Twitter,* thoughts that include reflections on my first time as a legitimate member of the “backchannel” in any meaningful way. (Funny to think that a couple of years ago, we were all excited about liveblogging — who knew at the time that would end up seeming so 2009?) There are also several conferences I’m looking forward to in the coming weeks — NVSA is coming up on the 15th, there’s the Politics of Form grad conference at Columbia on the 22nd, and of course, the CUNY Victorian conference on May 6. Good times, and I’m hoping to tweet my way through at least some of these, depending on where I and my iPod can wrangle some free wi-fi access. (I tweet as @annecmccarthy, though not exclusively or even predominantly about matters of the Long 19th Century.)

It was my first time at the BWWC, and I applied mostly because of a special session on poetic form. In the end, I didn’t make it on that panel, but I did give the paper as part of a session on Christina Rossetti (where, oddly enough, I was the only women — my copanelists and the moderator were male, which is something of a feat given the overall demographics of the conference). What I didn’t realize until I got to Columbus was that the single-author panel was a relatively rare beast at this conference (or, in keeping with the theme of the weekend, a curiosity). Most of the other sessions had individual papers from all over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a surprising number of genres being represented as well. In some ways, that made it hard for me to choose which panels to attend (I’m sometimes a bit of a poetry snob), but I ended up appreciating the chance to leave my own period and genre comfort zones and actually, well, learn things. (Not that I don’t learn things in my normal conferencegoing experience, of course, but still…)

Along those same lines, I was really impressed by the generic range of the keynotes. The plenary panel on the first night with Caroline Levine, Sandra Macpherson, and Robyn Warhol was heavily pitched towards the novel (which, admittedly, I groused about at the time), but the second night had Sharon Marcus talking to us about Sarah Bernhard, and Helen Deutsch’s keynote on Saturday dealt rather dazzlingly with eighteenth-century poetry. All of which was quite wonderful. And I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with people both in and adjacent to “my” field, especially since I’m starting to reconceptualize my place in all of this, and to really try to worry this Romantic/Victorian divide as both an intellectual necessity and a professional strategy.** In fact, it was actually quite wonderful to be at a conference where it didn’t seem crazy to explain what I was doing, to talk about my plans for a fifth (!) chapter of the dissertation, and so on. I also had more than one conversation about religion, though that’s been one of the strangely predominant themes of the semester, and of the later work I’ve done for the diss. It’s a topic that, most likely, will deserve its own post or series thereof — there’s a lot I want to work out, and I haven’t yet decided what forum is going to work best for it.

Nevertheless, yay. Yay for the BWWC and for the upcoming conferences (where I don’t have to present anything).

And yay, of course, for at least a temporary return to blogging — still, apparently, in 1,000-word chunks.

*Yep, I was the person who met Tim Gunn at the airport.

**I don’t mean the second one in a cynical sense, by the way. Professional strategy is important and not necessarily soulless — this is one of the lessons I’ve had to internalize in these long unblogged months.

…or not. (If you’re really interested, go here.)

See, I went to the Crossing the Bar conference at Penn a few weeks ago. It pretty much rocked. I tweeted about it. But ever since I’ve been sort of impossibly tongue-tied. As Mia can attest, I’ve had this post in draft form for several weeks now, coming back to it at intervals when I thought the midsemester chatter (working at two schools with two different spring breaks adds up to no spring breaks, etc.) was dying down, but never really being able to get the words out. I haven’t been totally idle in the interim: I eked out an abstract on Christina Rossetti and sent it to NAVSA and I’ve managed to start to rethink the old albatross of the chapter on Browning without the abject misery that was afflicting me in January and February — and both of these projects have become possible in part because of the jump start that my thinking got in Philly.

But to some extent, these inspirations have all been somewhat tangential to what the conference was actually about — I think one of the things that’s made it difficult for me to write any sort of reflection on the thing is that, at least right now, I happen to be doing something different from what most of the people at the conference were doing. It’s certainly not for the lack of notes I took. I guess the short postmortem would be something like: transatlantic Tractarianism, why “format” (in a quasi-bibliographic sense) matters to our interpretation of poetry, tensions between historical prosody and the intentional fallacy, whether it’s really “about” the poem (the speaker in question said no, I privately said yes and informal conversations occurred), Adah Isaacs Menken and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers paired in an incredibly interesting panel about late 19th century transatlantic performances, more broadsheet ballads, the thought that I really should go back and revisit my thinking about Clough one of these days (apologies for the self-referential linkage but it was one of my favorite POTW posts), Thelwall becoming sexy, and a shout-out to Arthur Quiller-Couch in a discussion of the poem “Invictus” that also included Ronald Reagan and Timothy McVeigh.

The important thing that happened for me that weekend is that I came away with a new sense of how to do scholarship on poetry. I mean, I’m not going to suddenly change my focus to historical prosody — I came to poetry late anyway and have a long way to go. And I’m probably also not going to get all super-historical or archive-y — I assume that y’all wouldn’t want me to do that anyway. What I’m getting at is something like a sense of how to get around a certain stalemate I’d been facing in the more classically deconstructionist / speech act readings of Victorian poetry — eventually it *doesn’t* seem that interesting to show that yet another poem, despite its claims to be about something else, is really about language. I mean, that was a really earthshattering revelation in the 80s and it was actually really earthshattering to me until about 2007. It still sometimes strikes me with the force of newness even now. But I was increasingly finding that it wasn’t enough to get me through the dissertation.

It’s harder to articulate the solution or new direction I’m envisioning now — I guess it’s just to say that the conference reminded me of all the different ways that poetry can matter (and all of the different things that mattering can mean) — historically and in the present. I have a feeling that this may have something to do with my increasing interest in Victorian religion and, for that matter, with why I keep being drawn back to Quiller-Couch.*

In short, it was almost enough to just sit in the very beautiful rooms provided by Penn on a very beautiful weekend provided by Spring and soak in the world as it was being made new in these sorts of dizzying and wonderful investigations. I know that probably sounds cheesy, but I’m being serious here — this kind of weekend is, on some level, why we do what we do, including put up with so much else that is far less immediately rewarding and also downright sucktastic, why we put up with crappy apartments and adjunct pay and cobbling together fellowships and writing this damn dissertation and (in my case) four hours on New Jersey transit (including an hour on the not-so-scenic platform in Rahway, due to a somewhat unforgivable quirk of scheduling) — we do all of that so we can have weekends like this one.

*Does this mean that I will be restarting the Poem of the Week? Yes, it’s still a dream of mine. Right now the week-ness of my weeks is sort of impossibly fragmented by factors  largely outside my control and I have a lot of displacement coming up in the near future — traveling in April and apartment hunting / hopefully moving in May. But the intention is there.

So I admit that I’ve sort of been coasting on the series of posts I wrote in January, and once again I find myself in blog arrears. As an apology, I offer a smattering of my recent reading and scattered nineteenth-century-related thoughts:

At the risk of forever branding myself as a closet hipster, I confess that I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the song “A Horse is Not a Home” on Miike Snow’s debut album (the two Is in Miike are intentional) is a rewriting of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” [Ed. note: the e on the end of Childe is intentional ;)] This has been the obsession of several commutes this past week. I don’t have any particular fantastic analysis for why these two texts have become connected in my mind, except for the similar images they evoke and (arguably) a shared mood. I think maybe it has something to do with the chorus, disenchanting the same things that Browning was: “With a hole in my heart I was supposed to ride / In morning traffic / With a golden hand by your fortress side / But without magic.” Okay, these guys aren’t Browning. And they’re, um, Swedish. But I can respect a good pop song. You can decide for yourself. The song is here. The lyrics are here. “Childe Roland” is coming to the Dark Tower here.

I don’t remember exactly why I went to the NYU library last week, but I’ve ended up checking out a bunch of books, many of them pulled from the shelf in fits of semi-desperate inspiration. One of these was Andrew Miller’s The Burdens of Perfection. I realize that I’m late to the party on this one, but–wow. Good stuff. I hope that I can write a book like this someday. It was somewhat gratifying to see that Miller and I are coming from a similar view of 19th century history, a shared sense of the “epistemological disarray” of Victorian modernity and a need for thinking about receptivity to others. Miller also quotes Maurice and Newman, two figures who are virtually guaranteed to lead to an hour of fun on GoogleBooks and the entertainment of the idea of writing my second book on Victorian theology.

…which explains why I was probably the only person on the North Jersey Coast Local line yesterday kicking back with a copy of Newman’s “Christ Hidden From the World.” Here, Newman’s dwelling not on the works of Jesus as they are recorded in the gospels but on the obscurity in which Christ passed the first thirty years of his life, and it imagines Jesus in those years as being deemed unremarkable to those around him, particularly his close family and friends.  One of the recurring themes, in fact, is how difficult it is to tell the difference between someone who is merely outwardly good because of habit or calculation and someone who is truly holy, since many of the acts of holiness that exceed outward form are hidden from view. Holiness, Newman implies, must almost by definition be misunderstood by most people who are not holy — even though not everyone who is misunderstood is holy. Newman delivers a particularly strong smackdown to those who assume that they would have been numbered among the faithful in Jesus’ time:

We are very apt to wish we had been born in the days of Christ, and in this way we excuse our  misconduct, when conscience reproaches us. We say, that had we the advantage of being with Christ, we should have had stronger motives, stronger restraints against sin. I answer, that so far from our sinful habits being reformed by the presence of Christ, the chance is, that those same habits would have hindered us from recognizing Him. We should not have known He was present; and if He had told us who He was, we should not have believed him. Nay, had we seen His miracles (incredible as it may seem), even they would not have made any lasting impression on us. … I believe this literally would have been the case with most men.

Burn! There’s also a somewhat weirder passage where Newman goes into pretty specific detail about how the people physically closest to Christ would have been those who tortured and crucified him, though that’s less relevant to the above to what I’m still trying to do with “Karshish.” I’m sure, incidentally, that there’s a lot of Christian fiction out there that’s predicated on the idea that Newman presents here, of our  not being able to recognize Jesus if he was literally our next door neighbor — there was a skit that I used to perform in my evangelical youth group days that was based on this premise — but it certainly doesn’t seem like a major epistemological concern in these days when everyone has a Personal Jesus. (You had to know I was going to go there. I thought the Johnny Cash version would be particularly appropriate.)

Also did some detouring through Arnold this week, revisiting some of my old favorites: “The Buried Life” (which I sent to my lovely first-year writing students this weekend), “The Scholar-Gipsy,” and “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse.” I’m probably going to have to get Matt into my dissertation somehow. Maybe that will be the chapter I write when it’s a book. I’m very susceptible to some of Arnold’s complaints, even when I should know better. The following lines from “The Scholar-Gipsy” made their way into my notes for Wednesday:

For early didst thou leave the world, with powers

Fresh, undiverted to the world without;

Firm to their mark, not spent on other things;

Free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt,

Which much to have tried, in much been baffled, brings.

O life unlike ours!

Who fluctuate idly without term or scope,

Of whom each strives, nor knows for what he strives,

And each half lives a hundred different lives;

Who wait like thee, but not, like thee, in hope.

It’s at least a tempting lament when one is looking forward to days of meetings and various bureaucratic strife.

Speaking of “The Buried Life,” I haven’t yet caught the MTV show of the same name. I’m sure I will at some point — many of the cardio machines at the gym I recently joined are connected to TVs, and I’ve already seen several meta-iterations of Jersey Shore and an intensely disturbing feature called “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” So, yeah, “The Buried Life” can’t be far behind.

Finally, I’ve also been enjoying Pater this week. I’ll leave you with a quote from his 1865 essay, “Coleridge,” which was reprinted in Appreciations.

The relative spirit, by its constant dwelling on the more fugitive conditions or circumstances of things, breaking through a thousand rough and brutal classifications, and giving elasticity to inflexible principles, begets an intellectual finesse of which the ethical result is a delicate and tender justice in the criticism of human life.

In other news, I started my Christina Rossetti bibliography today in hopes of spurring myself to finish up with Browning. Am annoyed by journals that still have obnoxiously slim archives online. Essays In Criticism, I’m looking at you.

(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?

(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….

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