talk post mortem


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.

So, I found this year’s NVSA conference both incredibly entertaining and (somewhat surprisingly) moving.* This is also not to imply, of course, that NVSAs are not usually entertaining (or moving). But this one seemed to be even more so than usual. People really seemed to be going all out, particularly insofar as they created presentations that were truly multimedia in nature, and being — intimidatingly — good at it. By the end of the conference, one of my friends was like, “whoa, we really have to learn Power Point” — and he’s probably right.** But speaking for myself, at least, the challenge isn’t really learning the technical side of Power Point, but rather thinking in a more “digital” way — and I’m not sure Twitter counts.***

Beyond that, though, there were dinosaurs (and standard queer affect questions about dinosaurs) and moldy archives and cookbooks and streets — not to mention the White House-approved (no really) magic show at the banquet. These things make me of good cheer.**** Of course, these are also the parts of this conference — and any conference, really — that are the “you had to be there” moments, the ones that, well, don’t make it into the archive in the same way, the ones that maybe escape the system.

But of course these moments where we were or weren’t there are, arguably, all an archive ever really is — and our systems are always running to catch up with experience. And I think this is what I’m trying to get at when I say that the weekend was surprisingly moving, perhaps even poignant… this common thread, running through so many of these papers, so many of the efforts and projects that were represented here… this desire just to make things make sense. And all the lost possibilities that come with those efforts to arrange, understand, systematize, save, study, respond… remembering that all of those things that seem in retrospect to be so inevitable–how we organize archives, or even that we *have* archives, for instance–might not have been so at the time. (There are other stories, too–the divergence of anthropology and literary study, the time before we could conceive of dinosaurs, and so on…)

Bernard Lightman kicked off the Saturday keynote by stressing the commonalities between scientific and religious thinking–reminding  us, at least implicitly, that these two fields arose in some ways to deal with the same set of human needs: to explain and to want to be consistent, to reassure ourselves about the nature of reality, to be able to, well, make sense.  There’s something compelling (to me) about the struggle to organize experience (while also figure out how to read discontinuites, the gaps in the record–and also how to read among different mediums–the laptop and the printed page, the writing tablet of memory, even). There seems to be a real hopefulness in setting out to, say, rationalize the principles of political science according to that of geometry, to embark upon the project of distilling the best that has been thought and said.

Some of this, incidentally, is no doubt why I’ve been drawn back to strategic formalism lately, and even to some extent religion. I did have occasion to interrogate my relative lack of interest in Victorian science (save, of course, for the relatively narrow area of medical science’s debate over the signs of death). I was challenged especially by Vanessa Ryan’s talk on Herbert Spencer as a figure whose emphasis was on movement and function, not so much “what is this” but “what does this do”? I came away from that panel wondering if this sense of function is part of what still seems to be missing for me in accounts of new formalism–almost as if this is the thing that would make it really new–being able to apprehend movement as it moves, to respond to impermanence from impermanence.  And this turned out to be a version of the question I wanted to ask Veronica Alfano on Sunday before we ran out of time (and did ask her later on): if we put these short poems of Symons, these “moments” and “flashes” in motion on something like the zoopraxiscope, then what are we reading?

Perhaps another one of the questions of the weekend (in my mind) was communicability, how information is packaged and passed on, how it becomes “real ground.” From what some of the archival historians said, it almost seems like something becomes the “real ground” by not being intentionally archived… I was haunted by Paul Saint-Amour’s talk on archives and the fossil record, which raised this question of the accidental registry and problematized the very meaning of human agency (at the very least). This took on a more materialist (and Gothic) dimension in Christopher Keep’s talk on the Victorian “archive crisis” of the 1840s, the point at which it came to light that the records that secured the power of the British state were literally rotting away in basements or being sold off for 8 pounds per ton to fishmongers and jelly-makers (even though some of the paper was, as Keep put it, “too decayed even for the jelly-makers”). However, it’s clear that not every government is keeping up with its archival responsibilities, even today.

And then there’s the fragility of both system and archive: does it disintegrate if you touch it or bring it into the light? Is the magic gone if you can get your head around it? Can you laugh at the silliness but still admit later on, “I don’t know how he did that”? Marjorie Stone projected an image of Browning’s empty writing portfolio, complete with doodles and some transcribed lines from EBB. These aren’t usually the materials I work with, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make me feel something.

That brings up a question of method that I’m not going to take up here, because with the footnotes and everything I’m way over even my usual word count. (And I didn’t even get to talk about Asmodeus, the spirit of systems, or most of the papers that people gave.) But if it makes sense to end on omissions, then this might be a good ending. It was also a rather light year for literature papers–though I did feel like there was a bit more poetry than usual. But, then again, there’s always next year.

More immediately, there is tomorrow, when I head up to Columbia for the Politics of Form conference.

Wow do I love Spring on the East Coast Victorian studies circuit. 🙂

*Here I insert the usual caveats. I missed the first day. I didn’t sleep particularly well. I drank too much coffee. This is all way, way, way out of my field. Infelicities in my reporting should not reflect poorly on the speakers. I am being unsystematic and my archive is highly incomplete.

**I tweeted a link to “In Xanadu Did Kubla Khan a Stately Power Point Decree” in McSweeney’s a couple days before I left and now feel like that was a hopelessly outmoded move on my part.

***Except if it does — which was part of the point that Devin Griffiths was making in his reconsideration of  Matthew Arnold’s project of distilling “the best that has been thought and said” as a project of “Tweeting the Bible.” (I will admit, by the way, to enjoying the part where the talk was interrupted by a tweet from @Mat_Arnold. And if that makes me a geek, so be it.)  

****I liked the magic show, okay? But I will try to cut down on the footnoting.

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.

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.

…so you vill never understand Heidegger. Or Darwin!? The reason I became a fucking Victorianist was so I wouldn’t have to read that fucking asshat with the regrettable politics!

(Oh, unintentional conference humour…)

I heart NVSA conferences – I always come away feeling very happy to be a Victorianist and feeling super-inspired about my own work, even when I’m not giving a paper. As may have been clear from my last post-mortem, I’m kind of a fan of going to conferences just to hang out. And, as I discovered this past weekend, I’m even  more a fan of hanging out at conferences when they don’t involve three hours on the train punctuated by an hour on the platform at Rahway. (I borrowed my partner’s car to get from his house to Princeton, marking perhaps the first time in my life where I’ve driven to an academic event.)

The train ride came later, of course, and much of the following notes had their origin on my Monday midday commute back to New York. As usual, it’s highly selective and very stream-of-consciousness for the most part, characterized as well by the fact that I wasn’t at the first day, missed a bit of the keynote panel on Saturday morning, and was clobbered by a sugar crash during the after-lunch panel. I probably should have skipped the Official Princeton University Chocolate Chip Cookie. But anyway. It being NVSA, all of the papers were generally awesome and interesting – and they don’t need me talking about them to make them so. And onward:

So, Fighting Victorians. More accurately, it was an examination of both fighting and the ways of not fighting, of the boundaries of fighting – when, for instance, it becomes violence. Discussions of the displacement of aggression onto the worlds of commerce and economics, but also – at least implicitly – into areas of the social and the religious. How we avoid wars, but then also avoid talking about wars once we’re in them. Jonathan Farina’s paper on “thrash talking” was largely about the ways that the Victorian novel talks about fighting (a kind of periperformative, in Eve Sedgwick’s sense?) without actually coming to blows. (It’s a fun exercise to think about all of the duel scenes and duel scenes manqués that you can recall from Victorian literature.) Also, fighting as a mode of knowing, a physicalized epistemology that comes to be replaced by an increasing valuation of knowledge at a distance. We saw Newman in two poses: the fighter, drawing inspiration from the image of Deborah in the book of Judges or Jesus driving the moneylenders out from the temple, criticizing the lukewarmness of his age (a common theme in many of other papers) and suggesting that faith needed both hope and fear to be what it is (Lawrence Poston). But we also had Newman as a poet of conciliation, using poetic form to soften what had previously been devastatingly controversial (his ideas on purgatory from Tract 90) – and becoming a bestseller in the process with the Dream of Gerontius (Rebecca Rainof). Not specifically about fighting but more relevant for my interests was the idea of Newman’s purgatory as suspension with progression – a suspension without suspense. You know you’re saved, as someone in the audience (I think it was probably Herbert Tucker) said, there’s no doubt that you’re saved. As I realized looking at the passage from the handout later, there’s also no suspense about whether you’re dead – it’s possible that one of the very consolatory things about this poem is that it uses the language of uncertainty about the signs of death to set up and emphasize the fact that the speaker is unquestionably dead – a way of bringing suspension back under control, as it were. Religion also came up specifically around the Mormon question, which raised for Britain the question of what actually constitutes a religion, specifically one formed within the horizon of common memory and seemingly founded on the literal reproduction of older religious models (Sebastian Lecourt). Later, there were vampires used to personify the effects of capital on the working class (Jessica Kuskey), severed hands as both incontrovertible signs of colonial violence and a disturbing reminder of how even the most unequivocal marker of identity could be detached from its context (Aviva Briefel).

I think there’s still more to be done on the difference between fighting and violence. While violence certainly came up in a number of papers, I think a “violent Victorians” conference would have been quite different, darker. There’s something more comfortable about fighting, in a way, since it suggests that something’s fighting back – perhaps more of a sense of containment than is allowed by the word “violence.” Not unrelated, I think, was the relative absence of women as textual producers, historical actors, or even literary characters. Apparently, women don’t fight – even though the cover of the conference program was a Gibson drawing of a married couple experiencing “their first quarrel.” This absence was remarked on at Sunday’s wrap-up. With the exception of a “bloodthirsty” passage from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Casa Guidi Windows (Richard Bonfiglio) and an anecdote about resistance among teenage girls to regimes of institutional violence in an Irish workhouse (Anna Clark, a discussion I came to late on Saturday morning), there really wasn’t a lot of talk about women – even women who get fought over. I’m sure some of this is luck of the draw with what the program committee got, but I was somewhat surprised not to see, say, a discussion of Tennyson’s Princess Ida or some of the more startling passages in Christina Rossetti, not to mention marital strife, domestic violence, abusive mothers, and so on. Makes me wonder if there’s something else going on. Also makes me wish I’d been in a place in the fall where I had enough time to come up with an abstract. Which is always the way, of course.

That’s all for now. I’m going to do a separate post later on about Alex Woloch’s paper on the keynote panel. It’s sort of an outlier here, but it does continue some of the discussions that were talking place at the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel at MLA.

…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.

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