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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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About Amardeep Singh

Amardeep Singh is Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University. His book, Literary Secularism: Religion and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Fiction, was published in 2006 by Cambridge Scholars Press. He has also published essays in journals like Wasafiri, Semeia, and Himal Southasian.

Email Address: amardeep@gmail.com
Website: http://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/blog.html


Posts by Amardeep Singh

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Sea, The Sea: “Ulysses” vs. “To the Lighthouse”

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 03/13/07 at 03:27 PM

Recently, in my Modernism class, I gave students two brief passages relating to the sea to discuss, one from Joyce’s Ulysses, and the other from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The similarities in the theme of the two passages helps provide an anchor for comparison; I’m curious to know what readers of The Valve think.

Here’s a passage from the end of Section I of Joyce’s Ulysses ("Telemachus"):

Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings, merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly, shadowing the bay in deeper green. It lay beneath him, a bowl of bitter waters. Fergus’ song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. Silent with awe and pity I went to her bedside. She was crying in her wretched bed. For those words, Stephen: love’s bitter mystery.

Where now?

And here’s Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea. A steamer far out at sea had drawn in the air a great scroll of smoke which stayed there curving and circling decoratively, as if the air were a fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh, only gently swaying them this way and that. And as happens sometimes when the weather is very fine, the cliffs looked as if they were conscious of the cliffs, as if they signaled to each other some message of their own. For sometimes quite close to the shore, the Lighthouse looked this morning in the haze an enormous distance away.

‘Where are they now?’ Lily thought, looking out to sea. Where was he, that very old man who had gone past her silently, holding a brown paper parcel under his arm? The boat was in the middle of the bay.

Continue reading "The Sea, The Sea: “Ulysses” vs. “To the Lighthouse”"

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Peter Nicholson on Auden, and against the “Poetic”

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 02/13/07 at 10:38 PM

The Auden centenary is coming up, and Peter Nicholson has posted his poem, “Asking Auden,” from 1984 at 3 Quarks Daily (seems we’re in a linking-to-3QD mood over here). He’s also posted a short essay with some reflections on the function of criticism, specifically poetry criticism. The highlight for me is the following:

There is a problem specific to poetry: mistaken thinking about poetry by the general public. Misuse of the word ‘poetic’ is so common as to be beyond repair. Proper poetry dives into the world, takes in its multifariousness, its roughnesses and tragedies, its joy at beauty, even as the poet grabs on to the broken glass shards of the Muse’s patchy visitations. ‘Poetic’ is not another word for nice, kind, sedate, palatable. Between top-heavy pronouncements from various spots around the publishing globe and the general public’s indifference to the real poetic, falls the shadow, Cynara, of the individual writer’s efforts to get him or herself understood on a proper footing.

It’s true, as Robert Hughes said in Australia recently—a critic has to have a harsh side, otherwise all you get is blandout.That apart, critics will come in many guises. One will behave like Stalin, casting the unchosen to outer darkness. Another will gather in a sheaf of sensibilities with an almost creative zeal. A few imply they have read everything and therefore their commentaries come with an air of supernal wisdom. Nothing of the kind, of course. . . . Personally, I can’t think of any critics with whom I am in general agreement about literature or art. When reading all these people you can get an interesting perspective, learn new things about art and artists, enjoy the erudition, if worn lightly.  However, in art, it is essential not to let others do the thinking for you. Perhaps that’s even more important with artists you admire and who write on art too. I often disagree with some of my favourite artists. Wagner seems misguided on all manner of subjects. ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ and ‘All art is quite useless’ are two statements from Auden and Wilde that irritate me.(link)

(I had to look up “falls the shadow, Cynara". Did you?)

I like Nicholson’s general point here. While good criticism can be helpful and insightful, it’s almost never really “authoritative,” partly because even benchmark critics have their own spots of extreme idiosyncrasy, and partly because every reader brings an essentially unique combination of taste, experience, and intelligence to the text at hand. 

Friday, January 26, 2007

Virginia Woolf, in Winter

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 01/26/07 at 06:01 PM

When a person is inside her room, surrounded by everyday objects, the sense of home anchors the self, and to some extent limits the free flow of imagination. But as one steps outside, in London, on a cold winter’s day, everything changes. Anything might make a good excuse; for Woolf, it’s a simple errand to go out and buy a pencil:

But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell–like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye. How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks. (Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting")

What follows is a good long wander, in which the very flaneur-ish superficiality of urban looking is celebrated. There are also some strange little bits, including a slightly unpleasant and offensive (but perhaps still insightful?) bit about a dwarf in a shoe store. Then follows a brief interlude in a used bookstore, and finally, the pencil is purchased in a little shop with bickering shopkeepers. Along the way, Woolf deconstructs the idea of the unified Self:

Yet it is nature’s folly, not ours. When she set about her chief masterpiece, the making of man, she should have thought of one thing only. Instead, turning her head, looking over her shoulder, into each one of us she let creep instincts and desires which are utterly at variance with his main being, so that we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience sake a man must be a whole. (Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting")

“For convenience sake a man must be a whole” is, of course, a way of saying there is no wholeness to speak of.

It really isn’t the same when you get into your car and turn on NPR. Revelations related to ontology and the pleasures of the dissolution of the self into urban anonymity tend not to occur with the same frequency. And cold days in January are, all too often, defined by the discourse of a number (i.e., 21 degrees) and the containing patter of the weather forecast; you have to jog yourself to try and remember to experience the thing itself, somehow. 

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Psychoanalyst in Turmoil

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 01/22/07 at 06:14 PM

Amy Bloom has a review of a new book about an Indian psychoanalyst named Masud Khan in this weekend’s New York Times. Khan was born in Lahore in 1922, and moved to England to study at Oxford around 1944. He ended up having a successful career as a psychoanalyst, publishing several well-regarded books, and training extensively with the famous British psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott. But Khan also seems to have been seriously mentally unbalanced—among other things, he was an alcoholic, slept with several of his patients, and seems also to have become rather anti-Semitic in his old age (which is especially strange, considering his choice of profession). Bloom wants Linda Hopkins’s new biography of Khan to directly criticize him for these failings:

Hopkins, in her non-judgmental way, writes of this analysand only that it is “easy to assume she must be in denial about the harm done to her by Khan, but it is perhaps more honest to grope with the possibility that there may be some validity to her subjective experience.” It seems to me that it is not only his patients but his admirers, including his biographer, who may be struggling with some denial about the harm done by an alcoholic married analyst who initiated sex with female patients, encouraged affairs between patients, threatened patients who terminated treatment and abandoned those who did not meet his own emotional needs. (link)

Bloom certainly has a point when she insists that a person who was so abusive ought to be held to account—but I gather that Hopkins’s approach is to consider Khan himself as a patient, and as such, she wants to consider all the different aspects of his life symptomatically (and not morally). Since it’s impossible to decide where to stand simply from reading the review (and I haven’t had a chance to read the book itself yet), I poked around and found some interesting articles relating to Masud Khan online. Masud Khan may well be the worst psychoanalyst ever, but perhaps that is itself interesting. For those who are critical of psychoanalysis as a technique (i.e., as “pseudo-science"), there’s ample material here; even Winnicott comes off badly. But ironically, Khan is equally intriguing for those who like psychoanalysis—as he constitutes a particularly rich case study.

Continue reading "A Psychoanalyst in Turmoil"

Friday, January 19, 2007

“Sacred Games”: Two Reviewers Who Haven’t Finished the Book

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 01/19/07 at 05:54 PM

There seems to be something about Vikram Chandra’s heavily-hyped, 900 page Bombay gangster novel, Sacred Games, that has led reviewers to publish evaluations before they’ve finished reading the book. 

I can forgive Sven Birkerts for his essay in the Boston Globe. He writes about the publishing industry’s hype machine, and how a million dollar advance and a $300,000 publicity campaign are actually pretty discouraging for a serious reader. The essay is well-written, and the paragraph Birkerts devotes to the novel itself redeems the thing:

I’ve been reading every day, not quite finished, so the one-man jury on ultimate greatness is still out, but I can say that “Sacred Games” is moving right along. It’s working. Page after page it plucks me from the here and now, from the world governed by marketing mentalities, ruled by tasks and anxieties. I really am for long stretches in some phantasmagoric, confusing, reeking, corrupt, overheated, overpopulated elsewhere, a Mumbai of the mind, with characters who surprise me with their look and sound, their twists of behavior. How strange. It’s as if I’ve needed to go through this peculiar re-immersion to get to my turnaround, to remember—again—why I got into this game in the first place. It was out of love. (link)

Continue reading "“Sacred Games”: Two Reviewers Who Haven’t Finished the Book"

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Richard Posner on Plagiarism; the Case of Yambo Ouloguem

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 01/09/07 at 12:16 PM

Via the Literary Saloon, I learn that Richard Posner has a new book on plagiarism out, called The Little Book of Plagiarism. There are already some reviews, including the Louisville Courier-Journal (which includes an interesting tidbit: the University of Oregon has been accused of plagiarizing its plagiarism policy from Stanford University). The Times review, by Charles McGrath, is more thorough, partly because McGrath is also reviewing a scholarly book by Tilar Mazzeo, called Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period.

When McGrath gets into Mazzeo’s understanding of plagiarism at the end of the 18th century, things start to get interesting:

In style and methodology, Ms. Mazzeo’s new book is an academic wheezer, a retooled dissertation perhaps, but it’s also smart and insightful, and points out that 18th-century writers took a certain amount of borrowing for granted. What mattered was whether you were sneaky about it and, even more important, whether you improved upon what you took, by weaving it seamlessly into your own text and adding some new context or insight.

Interestingly, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally recently defended Mr. McEwan in just this way, writing, “Fiction depends on a certain value-added quality created on top of the raw material, and that McEwan has added value beyond the original will, I believe, be richly demonstrated.” In the case of “Atonement,” the principle seems inarguable, but it’s also a slippery slope. You could argue that Kaavya Viswanathan improved upon the raw material of the Megan McCafferty novel she relied on so liberally, and yet no one is rushing to her defense. (link)

In short, in the early 19th century a certain amount of borrowing was taken for granted and even allowed, as long as it was well-concealed and accompanied by fresh insights and work—“value-added.” And today, while both the law concerning plagiarism and the ethos of originality are quite different (today plagiarism is generally seen as shameful), some of the same thinking is still used, especially when there are gray areas (as in the McEwan case).

* * *
Speaking of gray areas, there are a number of them in the case of a famous plagiarist from the 1960s that I only recently learned about, the Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem. 

Continue reading "Richard Posner on Plagiarism; the Case of Yambo Ouloguem"

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Putting the “Literary” in “Secularism” (and a little on James Wood)

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 01/07/07 at 04:36 PM

So – my book is for sale in cloth in the UK. I’ve created an informational mini-blog about it here, and also posted the text of Chapter One, on which I would be happy to answer questions if any readers have the time or inclination. 

* * *
Getting my dissertation to book form was a tortuously difficult process. I had been given some suggestions from my committee at the time of my defense, but in various ways it seemed impossible to follow their advice for one reason or another. It didn’t help that my topic was secularism in modern fiction, an unconventional subject where there aren’t really many preexisting critical templates.

There has been a great deal of interesting social theory on the topic of secularism in particular published in recent years – Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, William Connelly, Charles Taylor, Bruce Robbins, Edward Said, and Gauri Viswanathan have all had interesting things to say about secularism and secularization in their work.  But even people who teach literature (Said, Viswanathan, Robbins), when they address secularism, are addressing a broader concept of secularity – one that is oriented more to the idea of the intellectual in society than it is to literary form. Said’s famous idea of “secular criticism,” for instance, is an ethic of critical detachment, not in itself a critique of religious orthodoxies or institutions per se (that critique is left as presumed—too obvious to bother with, perhaps).

My dissertation consisted series of thematic readings and historical contexts I had worked hard on, but the conceptual rubric that tied those readings together had always seemed weak. I had never been able to satisfactorily answer a basic, and therefore glaring, question: why secularism in literature? What is it about the idea of literature (and the novel in particular) that makes it a unique space in which to chart the transition from an experience of the world shaped by religious belief to one in which human-derived concepts are central? The question of the role of literary form was the most urgent one I had to address as I reworked the dissertation, and for several years I was effectively stalled.

Then, sometime in the summer of 2004, I came across James Wood’s book The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, and while the various essays in the book weren’t historically grounded enough to offer a comprehensive answer (most of the essays were initially published as book reviews), Wood gave me the conceptual jump-start I needed to reframe the project and identify a course that would lead to a more finished text. 

Continue reading "Putting the “Literary” in “Secularism” (and a little on James Wood)"

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Side Effects of the MLA’s Move to January

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 01/02/07 at 12:19 PM

According to Inside Higher Ed, the Delegate Assembly has voted to change the date of the MLA, from the last week of December to the first week of January. The change in schedule will not take effect until around 2010.

Obviously this will mean some general logistical changes. Plane fare might be a little cheaper, for instance. And affiliate groups, many of which hold parallel conferences alongside MLA, will have to think creatively to work out scheduling. Inside Higher Ed doesn’t give specifics, but as I understand it the dates are not going to be as fixed as they currently are; instead, the conference will be tethered to the first Thursday after January 1.

But we can expect some more ‘attitudinal’ changes too. Allow me to speculate:

1. Take California. First of all, schools on the quarter system often start on January 2 or 3, and people from those schools are quite possibly not going to be able to come to MLA for the full four days—or at all. Many quarter system schools are located on the west coast, though there are alsp schools elsewhere in the country that also use it (the University of Chicago, for instance). Since folks especially on the west coast (though not those from the semesterly Berkeley) may skip the MLA as a result of the change, the cultural tone of the conference might become even more east coast/upper midwest than it already is. Then again, since so many people who teach at those places are from the east coast originally, it may not really make much of a difference in terms of ‘culture’ if MLA were to lose them. In fact, I suspect the real change might be that the regional MLA for the Pacific schools (PAMLA) might become more important, especially for job interviews.

Alternatively, we might see a pattern of California, Oregon, and Washington people coming in just for a day—to give a talk, or do some interviews—and then heading back.

2. Mood change. Second, the general mood of the conference is likely to change. The end of December means the fall term is still very much in one’s mind: grading, various performance questions ("did I get enough writing done this year?")—not to mention the often emotionally-disorienting holiday season. Though by December those of us teaching 14 week semesters are somewhat exhausted, the currently looming MLA forces you to turn it around and be brilliant (or at least, “brilliant") and energetically professional for a couple of days, even if you would strongly prefer to be on a beach somewhere warm, or at the very least locked up at home with Season 2 of some mindless TV show. Instead of the end-of-the-year, apocalyptic, resentful, but still somehow festive feel of the current MLA, a January MLA is likely to be more calmly proleptic—stoic lit crit  “resolutions” for a new year, rather than excessive theoretical manifestoes of frustration directed at what has already passed.

3. Quality. Since people interviewing and giving talks at MLA currently tend to prepare for them in a rush in the last two weeks of December, it’s marginally possible that the quality of both job interviews and the papers presented at the conference will improve with an extra week.

4. Happy comparatists. Since the scholars who work on literature from other parts of the world—from Italy to India—are going to find it easier to travel to those places now (most people will have two full weeks off in December), participants in panels related to those literatures are likely to have a recent physical memory of visiting those places when they come to the conference. Comparatists will have that happy, “I was just speaking French with people in Paris, yesterday!” look on their faces. On the other hand, people traveling just before MLA might end up spending their entire time abroad worrying about job interviews and paper(s) needing to be written. All in all, however, I think the change will be a beneficial one.

5. No More “Kooky MLA” pieces in the Times. I think the change to January is also probably going to be the death-knell of the much-lamented “Wacky, Sex-Obsessed English Professors Are In Town This Week, and Their Papers Have Scandalous Titles That Will Amuse You" article that local newspapers often carry. While the end of December is a dead news week, the first week of January tends to be more lively. Most people—except for academics—are already back at the office, and editors will have bigger stories to assign. The MLA might come to seem more like other academic conventions. Which is to say, not particularly newsworthy.

Then again, the tradition of such articles might already be ending. This year, the only Philadelphia Inquirer coverage I could find was a rather non-sensationalist piece called “Poetry, Creative Writing are Hot," which focused on the modest uptick in the number of jobs listed this year. Susan Snyder did, however, sneak a little jab about paper titles into the piece: “Organizers have identified poetry as a major theme this year, but the convention, as usual, also offers talks on offbeat topics such as ‘Evil’ and ‘Sexual Norms in Trastamaran Spain.’” Hardly a pinprick.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Nabokov: Butterflies, Darwin, Mimesis

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 12/01/06 at 01:58 PM

From Nabokov’s Speak, Memory:

“The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things. Consider the imitation of oozing poison by bubblelike macules on a wing (complete with pseudo-refraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis ("Don’t eat me--I have already been squashed, sampled and rejected"). Consider the tricks of an acrobatic caterpillar (of the Lobster Moth) which in infancy looks like bird’s dung, but after molting develops scrabbly hymenopteroid appendages and baroque characteristics, allowing the extraordinary fellow to play two parts at once (like the actor in Oriental shows who becomes a pair of intertwisted wrestlers): that of a writhing larva and that of a big ant seemingly harrowing it. When a certain moth resembles a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walks and moves its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner. When a butterfly has to look like a leaf, not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in. “Natural Selection,” in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of “the struggle for life” when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”

My students, I was happy to see, were a little shocked that someone with Nabokov’s way of seeing things would say something that might even remotely be construed as Intelligent Design-ish. And indeed, Darwinian natural selection, as I understand it, does have a fine explanation for the “miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior”: any mutant variety that doesn’t exhibit perfect imitation is going to get eaten.

I tried to deflect the conversation onto Nabokov’s real point here, which begins with the principle that art requires a kind of heroic, almost obsessive attention to mimesis. You put way more effort into representing the world in your art than your predator (or reader) is likely to ever notice. Secondly, the quality that makes your labor “art” comes from the excess, which is, like the butterfly that looks like a leaf with “grub-bored holes,” also always in some sense deceptive ("an intricate enchantment and deception"). If art is both mimetic and deceptive, perhaps Nabokov is trying to say that mimesis itself is always primarily deceptive, not duplicative. You make a butterfly that looks amazingly like a leaf, but you don’t attempt to clone the genetic structure of the leaf itself. Indeed, in some sense you don’t care about the leaf per se (i.e., the fabric of reality) at all. 

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Illusionist vs. The Prestige

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 10/30/06 at 11:36 AM

Note: I don’t think there are any plot spoilers in the following, though there are “meta-spoilers”—concepts that become apparent after watching each film. If you don’t want your thought-space crowded and intend to see one or both of these films, you might want to skip.

Both movies are actually pretty entertaining. “The Illusionist” has a fairy tale quality and the merits of simplicity; its dominant metaphor is the illusionary quality of cinema. “The Prestige” is more complex and discursive; it’s ruled by the metaphor of electricity—which is to say, invisible power. Christopher Nolan’s film gives a critic much more to chew on, both in terms of its myriad plot twists and concealments, and in terms of the self-reflexivity of its dialogue. “The Prestige” is the kind of film Slavoj Zizek would enjoy, while “The Illusionist” is the kind of film Sigmund Freud would enjoy.

In magic, the illusionist is like a therapist. The audience comes to him to be told that there is in fact still mystery in the world, or at least technical skill so good it passes for mystery. (Even if everyone in the audience knows it’s a trick, a sense of mystery attaches itself to the magician, the performer, who makes the sleight-of-hand seem believable.) This is therapeutic because “we” want to believe in the existence of mysteries, or at least we did at one point in the recent past (modernity). The magician is like a priest, who trades not so much on his audience’s faith but on his audience’s desire—even unconscious desire—that the trick be “real.”

Continue reading "The Illusionist vs. The Prestige"

Thursday, September 28, 2006

“A certain deceptive variation in these fancy chapter titles”: Wimsatt & Beardsley… and Indie Rock

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 09/28/06 at 02:30 PM

I wanted to thank commenters on my “Syllabus Sharing" post for the many suggestions for things to read and/or assign in my course on “Secrecy and Authorship.” Among other things, I followed up on “The Intentional Fallacy,” and found it helpful; I assigned it in conjunction with Oscar Wilde, to good results.

Just now, I found what appears to be the entire text of the essay online here. Though it makes a good teaching tool, it might be less helpful in terms of considering or reconsidering the status of Authors and Authorship in light of poststructuralism, partly because the positivist biographical criticism Wimsatt and Beardsley are refuting is no longer being written, and partly because the metaphysical claims of poststructuralism seem to supercede the specifically literary argument one finds in “The Intentional Fallacy,” as well as elsewhere in The New Criticism. The Author may still not really be dead, but any refutation of “The Author-Function” probably has to come from a fresh approach.

We could talk about this. (I would encourage a reading or a re-reading of the Wimsatt and Beardsley essay; they may well be right about Eliot and The Waste Land—I’m on the fence.) Or we could talk about a rather incidental line in the middle of the essay that got me thinking about Indie rock bands:

In certain flourishes (such as the sentence we have quoted) and in chapter headings like “The Shaping Spirit,” ‘Me Magical Synthesis,” “Imagination Creatrix,” it may be that Professor Lowes pretends to say more about the actual poems than he does. There is a certain deceptive variation in these fancy chapter titles; one expects to pass on to a new stage in the argument, and one finds-more and more sources, more about “the streamy nature of association.” (link)

He’s talking about a book on Coleridge he doesn’t like, because it fails to actually perform the close readings it promises. But as I read the passage the following phrases flashed into mind. They may be familiar to many readers in a certain age bracket: “And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead"; “Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep your Ear to the Ground"; Westing, by Musket and Sextant; I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love; “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage." Admittedly, the last two aren’t really so much precious as trying to be precious. They’re also not quite the age bracket we’re talking about, but I think it’s important to note that preciosity is a matter of continuing public concern.

Are there other deceptively various titlers you might wish to name--either in condemnation or in praise--from your music library? (Or indeed, your library proper; Dave Eggers comes to mind.)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Genre of This Book Is Legally Binding

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 09/14/06 at 03:48 PM

James Frey is giving people their money back.

James Frey, the author who admitted making up portions of his best-selling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” and his publisher, Random House, have agreed in principle on a settlement with readers who filed lawsuits claiming they had been defrauded.

Neither Mr. Frey nor Random House are admitting any wrongdoing, but consumers who bought the book on or before Jan. 26 — when both the publisher and author released statements acknowledging that Mr. Frey had altered certain facts — will be eligible for a full refund, said a person familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the settlement still has to be approved by a judge.

Readers in several states, including New York, California and Illinois, filed lawsuits saying that Mr. Frey and the publisher had defrauded them by selling the book as a memoir rather than as a work of fiction.

In June the cases were consolidated to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Under the terms of the agreement, which has been accepted by 10 of the 12 plaintiffs who are part of the consolidated case, both Mr. Frey and Random House will pay out no more than a total of $2.35 million, which includes the cost of refunding customers, lawyers’ fees for both sides and a yet-to-be-specified donation to charity. (link)

It would have been interesting to see this go to court. Frey could actually make a good poststructuralist defense:  “your honor, since as Paul de Man has pointed out, no autobiography is ever truly authentic, no memoir can ever be required to be verifiably, absolutely ‘true.’ The truth claimed by the generic category ‘memoir’ is simply a dubious extension of the Foucauldian ‘author-function,’ in which the book stands in metonymically for its ‘author.’”

It’s also intriguing that Random House has devised an elaborate system of authentification to make sure that only “truly deceived” patrons can file for reimbursement for the fake book: from the hardcover, send back only page 162 and your receipt from the bookstore, verifying that you bought it before January 26, 2006. I’m thinking of forging my own page 162 of Frey’s book and sending it in, with a letter indicating that it is in fact a forgery of a lie, but I still want my money back. I will also point out that I always knew James Frey was a fake, and that Bruce Willis was actually a ghost.

p.s. Please forgive me for my title.

Susan Sontag’s Diaries: on the Need for Egotism

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 09/14/06 at 03:33 PM

Excerpts from Susan Sontag’s journal were in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. The highlight for me was the following section from early in the portion of the journal (1958) included in the NYTM:

Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say. Yet why not that too? With a little ego-building — such as the fait accompli this journal provides — I shall win through to the confidence that I (I) have something to say, that should be said.

My “I” is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane men, critics, correct them — but their sanity is parasitic on the creative fatuity of genius. (link)

The “creative fatuity of genius”; I think she might be thinking of Norman Mailer. Here one can’t help but think Sontag is criticizing the discourse of “genius” even as she’s aspiring to join the club. I also find it intriguing that Sontag writes about discovering and reading the diary of her friend (and lover, I believe), Harriet Sohmers—where she’s found a very unflattering post entry on herself:

Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today (when I went up to 122 Bd. St-G to check for her mail) in H’s journal about me — that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant and humiliated. We rarely do know what people think of us (or, rather, think they think of us).. . .Do I feel guilty about reading what was not intended for my eyes? No. One of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people, the people (like parents + lovers) about whom one has been cruelly honest only in the journal. Will H. ever read this? (link)

In short, no “confession” is ever sincere. And diaries are always meant for other eyes: either to be discovered by the subjects under discussion, or (since the diarist presumes she will be famous, and in this case she will be) the general public. Anonymous blogging is somewhat similar, I think: one unconsciously wants to be found out.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Syllabus Sharing?

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 08/29/06 at 10:06 PM

Anyone want to share syllabi? If not full syllabi, how about a selection of books, poems, short stories or films you’re teaching? Anything you’re particularly excited about? If you’re a student, what are you looking forward to reading this fall? (Note: You don’t need to be in literature in either case.)

* * *
I’m excited about a new, introductory-level course I’m teaching, called “Secrecy and Authorship”:

What do we make of authors who are not who they say they are? There have been a number of recent front-page controversies about authors who misrepresented themselves, fooling publishers and readers alike. But such controversies are not new; they have, in fact, been going on for as long as we have had the modern concept of authorship. The concern over the role of the author provokes discussions of anonymous and pseudonymous authors, racial and sexual “passing,” as well as plagiarism. This course will explore controversies of authorship in literary works, contemporary and historical, fictional and nonfictional, analyzing what it is that makes an author an Author. Why do some authors conceal their identities? Where does originality come from? What kinds of borrowings (or influences) are considered legitimate? How might authorship be changing in the digital age?

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
Michael Cunningham, The Hours
Colm Toibin, The Master
Vladimir Nabokov, Despair
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

Thomas Mann, “Felix Krull” (short story)
Henry James, “The Aspern Papers”
Nella Larsen, “Passing”
A little dose of Thomas Chatterton, and biographical materials
Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”
Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”
Denis Dutton, “On Plagiarism and Forgery"

If people have favorite essays either building on or refuting Barthes and Foucault on authorship, I would be grateful. 

Friday, August 18, 2006

A Pre-reading of “Snakes on a Plane”

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 08/18/06 at 02:31 PM

Note: the following is a parody.

Though I myself haven’t seen the film, it is almost impossible not to think that Lacan had watched Snakes on a Plane, because his conception of alterity is so closely aligned with the film’s revolutionary mise en scene. Indeed, my reading below is deeply invested in resisting the tired old “grand narrative” of “actually watching the film,” which essentializes “experience,” and delegitimates the kinds of liberatory theoretical praxis I have memorably justified elsewhere. 

The eponymous “snakes” here are clearly the wild slithering irruption of the Real, while the “plane” is the Phallus that operates in the angular, metallic register of the Symbolic. The film thematizes the rebellion of the Real (the resisting third world subaltern, who also represents the death-drive) over the tyrannical, inscribed authority of the Industrial-Aviational Master. Note that the deadliest of the snakes on this particular cinematic plane is the “Monocled Cobra," mainly found in India, which despite its Cyclopean insignia strongly suggests the film be read as a subaltern allegory of “Multitudes,” arrayed in a heterogeneous composite Coalition of the Venomous against the complacent bourgeois “passengers” (nearly all of whom are fated to die), who have sanctioned the postmodernist military adventurism of President George W. Bush. The Snakes therefore represent the unthinkable limit in the neo-colonial discourse of the War on Terror, the exotic, “illegal” cargo that will, inevitably, bring down the brittle American frame that is the body politic in this era of the cybernetic gaze. Samuel L. Jackson is portrayed as the heroic African American man (the phallogocentric “actor,” whose agency is always-already scripted), who ostensibly represents the forces of the Airplane against the Snakes, but it’s clear that his true sympathies are in fact with the Snakes. Note that he insisted on leaving the word “snakes” in the title of the film, and opposed Pacific Air Flight 121, the vanilla title preferred by the studio, suggestive of nothing other than the institutionalized discourse of Air Traffic Control

Moreover, Agamdeep Darshi, as “Ipod Girl," lies between the Phallic Plane and Counter-Phallic Snakes, and deconstructs the binary between them; her holy feminine/maternal/musical energies pacify the wild terror of the Snakes that are colonized by the white hetero-patriarchial gaze, which ethno-objectifies her in the production of the discourse of cinematic pleasure. The snakes will reveal themselves to be not a counter-Phallus, but rather an expression of the rage of the Medusa, the radical queer postcolonial feminine. What is at stake here is not a battle between “snakes” and the “plane,” but rather the contest between transgressive Oedipalized subjectivity (memorably described by Jackson’s line, “there’s motherf---- snakes on the motherf---- plane") and the anti-Oedipal, serpentine, body-machine complex. The plane, in short, is a snake that will eat itself.

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