Random


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last summer, I complained about slogging through pages and pages of Charles Reade’s knowing generalizations about the fairer sex in order to find out whether I would end up writing about it. Well, it turns out that I’m planning on half of a diss chapter on it, and that’s what I’m working on right now. I’ve been making believe that the author is alive and reading some biographical stuff, and it so turns out that Reade kept tons of notebooks, many on the subject of “Woman” and “Foemina Vera.” Curiously enough, instead of the normal separate spheres stuff I was expecting, “more than half the entries in this Notebook are directly concerned with androgynism” (Wayne Burns, Charles Reade [1961]). Burns writes that Reade was particularly struck by the case of

Fred, a young married woman who, with her husband’s consent, posed as his son–and so successfully that, again with her husband’s consent, she courted and became engaged to a young girl, one Miss Smith. For undisclosed reasons Fred and her husband then took Miss Smith to Moulton, where the three of them posed as father, son, and daughter, until Miss Smith’s father arrived arrived on the scene and exposed Fred for the woman she was–much to his daughter’s surprise and dismay. (195-196)

Reade’s comments are almost charming (I especially like number 3):]

Queries suggested by the meagre account on this page.

1st Why did Miss Smith lend herself to the lie   a, and, if she did, why?

2. Was plunder intended or what by the husband?

3. Is it not possible that Miss Smith supplied a certain want to this childless woman’s heart. In short that she wanted something inferior to love and cherish, and look down on; to her husband she probably looked up as he is  a blackguard, and she a woman age of Fred 25 of Miss Smith 17    The ring   B    looks ugly

4. What are the sentiments of a woman who finds the man she is deep in love in is only a woman

c can the bare discovery cure in one moment a passion that has become a habit, or is the discovery like the death of a beloved object. (196)

I’m not sure what I make of it, but is the most interesting Victorian anecdote I’ve come across in a while.

During the Q & A of Alina Gharabegian’s talk  on Matthew Arnold at the last Victorian Seminar, the conversation inevitably turned to the quality of Arnold’s doubt and its relationship to the Victorian Age. I perhaps imprudently spoke of my own doubts a few months ago, mainly doubts concerning academia. In the mean time–whether by intention or accident, right before MLA–somebody posted an anonymous manifesto listing their reasons for leaving academia. It went viral, and you’ve probably read it. If you haven’t, be warned before clicking–despite my compulsive reading of the Chronicle, I still wasn’t inured enough to brush it off lightly.

It hasn’t just been academic doubts I’ve been thinking about–it’s more about doubt itself–and my doubts about doubt. I first came across those lines, “The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” out of context in Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version–I read it when it first came out, while I was in high school. Now, of course, it’s been  made into a movie with Americans in it, so you might know what I’m talking about. Anyway, when I read those lines the first time, I thought of them prescriptively, not descriptively, taking it as gnomic wisdom and not a bitter lament. The subsequent Bush years were not exactly effective at dispelling my misreading. For it to be best to lack all conviction, though–it seemed reasonable enough. After all, it was Socrates’ real method: to put into question what you think you know. I wonder whether this is why so many academics–pretty much all I can think of–describe themselves as slow writers, subjecting their thoughts and words to relentless doubt before putting pen to paper. It was why I was a particularly bad writer of high school and undergraduate essays–the whole idea of having a thesis which you had to think you knew seemed to me antithetical to true mental life.

But this isn’t a manifesto for doubt. What’s really been getting to me lately is my doubt of doubt. Maybe lacking all conviction isn’t such a good thing. It’s certainly not a recipe for happiness. It’s not exactly conducive to political change, as Yeats could tell you. It doesn’t make you a better teacher, or a better interviewee.

What I’ve been calling doubt or lacking conviction might more optimistically be called critical thinking. Here is where my doubts align more closely with Arnold’s–it’s our credo, isn’t it, to teach critical thinking, the way we justify our existence. These espousers of critical thinking, though–for me, lately they’re of both worlds between which famously wanders the “Chartreuse“‘s speaker. There’s a certain sheen to critical thinking not unlike the shiny white Truth of Arnold’s “rigorous teachers,” but there’s also a certain not-necessarily-unattractive morbidity to its professional practitioners:

For rigorous teachers seized my youth,
And purged its faith, and trimm’d its fire,
Show’d me the high, white star of Truth,
There bade me gae, and there aspire.
Even now their whispers pierce the gloom:
What dost thou in this living tomb?

Forgive me, masters of the mind!
At whose behest I long ago
So much unleant, so much resign’d–
I come not here to be your foe!
I seek these anchorites, not in ruth,
To curse and to deny your truth;

Not as their friend, or child, I speak!
But as, on some far northern strand,
Thinking of his own Gods, a Greek
In pity and mournful awe might stand
Before some fallen Runic stone–
For both were faiths, and both are gone.

I began this post intending to talk about our own age’s allergy to doubt. Is it even possible to have religious doubt any more? It’s not like Dawkins et al speak for all the atheists and agnostics of the world, but they’re the only ones, it seems, who would devote as much thought about religious belief as Arnold did. It seems telling that our most prominent skeptics–anthropogenic global warming “skeptics”–should be so passionate and intense in their disbelief of science. Sure, we’ve got our ugly feelings, but paranoia and anxiety seem to have taken the place of melancholy and doubt.

This isn’t a call to revive Victorian doubt. If it’s anything, this manifesto suggests that Victorian doubt for us is as alien, quaint, and unsettling as the Chartreuse’s monks were for Arnold–but then again, Arnold too probably felt his own age to be less friendly to doubt than we’re led to believe.

… I was rarely sure what the men whom I met while staying with Mr Thims really meant; for there was no getting anything out of them if they scented even a suspicion that they might be what they call ‘giving themselves away.’ As there is hardly any subject on which this suspicion cannot arise, I found it difficult to get definite opinions from any of them, except on such subjects as the weather, eating and drinking, holiday excursions, or games of skill.

If they cannot wriggle out of expressing an opinion of some sort, they will commonly retail those of some one who has already written upon the subject, and conclude by saying that though they quite admit that there is an element of truth in what the writer has said, there are many point on which they are unable to agree with him. Which these points were, I invariably found myself unable to determine; indeed, it seemed to be counted the perfection of scholarship and good breeding among them not to have–much less to express–an opinion on any subject on which it might prove later that they had been mistaken. The art of sitting gracefully on a fence has never, I should think, been brought to greater perfection than at the Erewhonian Colleges of Unreason.

However this may be, the fear-of-giving-oneself-away disease was fatal to the intelligence of those infected by it, and almost every one at the Colleges of Unreason hadh caught it to a greater or less degree. After a few years atrophy of the opinions invariably supervened, and the sufferer became stone dead to everything except the more superficial aspects of those material objects with which he came most in contact. The expression on the faces of these people was repellent; they did not, however, seem particularly unhappy, for they none of them had the faintest idea that they were in reality more dead than alive. No cure for this disgusting fear-of-giving-themselves-away disease has yet been discovered.

I’ve got a soft spot for Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. I first read it early in my graduate career, and it’s one of the books that convinced me that the Victorian period was full of kick-ass-ness. This particular passage I’ve kept close to me, and one of the reasons I’ve done this blog using my full, googlable name has been to take preventive measures against this disease.

Lately, though, I believe I’ve become infected, to a greater degree. Partly this is due to the doom-and-gloom that’s come to settle on humanities departments world wide (although maybe not Singapore, from what I heard there at the AVSA conference this June), which has had me walking around with a constant feeling of the possibility I won’t have enough funding to finish my degree. It reached a head last night and today when I was serving on a faculty membership committee making decisions for appointments to the Graduate Center from the CUNY colleges. The degree of scrutiny to which candidates were subjected to was terrifying. Of course, the scrutiny’s entirely justified, but throughout the meeting I couldn’t help thinking about all the shortcomings a team of academics would be able to find in my scholarship, my teaching evaluations, my responses to Q & A, my team spiritedness, this blog (and hey, maybe even my fucking tweets [before I go on the market, I’d better scrub my online personae of all f-bombs, but for now, hey, I’m in NYC, it’s how we talk]). It’s one thing to think, in theory, how I don’t want to be an academic paralyzed from fear of making the tiniest of mistakes, but it’s another thing entirely to hear the tiniest of mistakes dissected and debated at length. With the knowledge that these decisions and dissections are being made in reference to tenured faculty, whereas here I am, a mere adjunct with little job security, now ineligible for tuition remission. It could be worse–I know I’ll be teaching next semester, whereas there are people in my program who may have to not take classes in the spring since all of CUNY’s slashing adjunct classes. And, even though I’m not making a living wage (and I mean living wage, not middle-class-lifestyle wage), I am making a wage.

Should i be voicing my anxieties? Am I breaking taboo by talking about how deeply my financial precariousness has impacted my intellectual confidence?

I believe I had a point when I started writing this post. Oh yeah, that disease thing, it’s one of the reasons why it’s been so long since posting here. And why it might be a while before I post again. And why I’m considering disappearing the site.

Adolphe was, by profession, an artist in hair — ingeniously forming weeping willows out of auburn tresses, and baskets of flowers out of chesnut, or, indeed, any other kind of locks. His hairy nosegays, he boasted, were the admiration of all who had seen them; and his flaxen roses and raven lilies he prided himself upon being the perfection of imitative art. Still, the hairy art was merely an imitative one, and the talented Sheek had a soul for nobler things. He had occasionally soared as high as a fancy composition in hair, and had executed an elaborate hairy marine piece, displaying a hairy sea and a hairy ship in the distance, with a hairy cottage, thatched with hair, in the foreground, and a small hairy pond in front of it, with two hairy ducks swimming among a thicket of hairy weeds.
Henry Mayhew, 1851, or the Adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Sandboys

I’m starting this post at the San Jose airport, having woken up before 6:30 to catch the bus to the bus to the cab. It’s quite a trek to get to UCSC College VIII from the right coast, but it seems appropriate to have these 12+ hours in transit to mark the passage to our much unlovelier of universes. This year’s book was Oliver Twist, which I’m glad to have discovered that I’m not alone in violently disliking. I’m not going to attempt any description of the presentations, nor the campus’s pristine panoramas, nor yet the punctual post-priandial potations. For the uninitiates, the Universe is unique in joining academics and members of the general public, mixing Victorianist professionals and Dickens amateurs, certainly not mutually exclusive categories. It was somewhat odd for me, though, as a member of the former, the latter, not so much. I haven’t read all of Dickens once, let alone several times, I don’t have hundreds of Dickens anecdotes at my fingertips, and I don’t exactly aspire to have those anecdotes, or to reread all that I’ve read so far.

I can't believe this is a campus.

I had a wonderful time, nevertheless, and if I’ve not come out of the week infatuated with Dickens more than ever, it has gotten me thinking more about the Dickens’ literary context, particularly the neglected decade of the 1830s. I wondered, for example, how OT compares with the period’s Newgate novels, especially with referencce to Fagin’s prison cell passion. Many readers, amateur and professional alike, commented on Dickens’ unique insight into Fagin’s psychological state–I wonder, though, whether the scene isn’t already generic. Likewise, I’m curious about the “Novels with Purpose” of the early Victorian period. The main reason I hated reading OT is that for much of it, I had an urge to throttle the little bastard (haha). What’s made it more interesting to me is its generic incoherence. Is it a novel, a picaresque, a children’s book, a fairy tale, a psychomachia, an allegory, a melodrama, or something else? During an impromptu Friday afternoon seminar put on by “Question Guy” (who shall remain nameless and storyless for now), we focused on Monks, after noting that in all of the week’s numerous discussions, whether in plenary session or in breakout groups, Monks was more or less ignored. The reading I came up with thanks to the seminar goes something like this: Monks is more or less a throwaway character, a stock character who, instead of fulfilling a vital role to the plot, can be expended with, as numerous adaptations show. I read Monks as the embodiment of the Gothic melodrama, incongruously grafted onto a novel with a putative purpose. So Monks isn’t just unsuccessfully fighting for Oliver’s soul, he’s successfully fighting for the depoliticization of the novel.

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