About Jonathan Goodwin
Jonathan Goodwin is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Posts by Jonathan Goodwin
Saturday, March 11, 2006
Some Brief Notes and Queries on Teaching Borges
I’ve taught some of Borges’s fictions in two out of three of my last classes and am spending this week on “The Immortal,” “The House of Asterion,” “The Zahir,” and “The Aleph.” I’d be interested in hearing from any of you who’ve taught Borges, particularly in an introductory course. How did it go, and how specifically did you handle Borges’s awesome and conspicuous erudition? “Pierre Menard,” which I taught a few weeks ago, is among the commented-upon of all the stories; and I have yet* to read a satisfactory explanation of Menard’s recapitulative bibliography or of the role of the atypical narrator. In a review of Danto’s relevant book here, one philosopher noted that it seemed like an interesting topic--perhaps quixotic--but that he’d live it to the literary scholars to figure out. More important philosophic issues about aesthetics and authenticity were at play, you see.
I think it would be a remarkable thing indeed if Lem’s “Odysseus in Ithaca” from A Perfect Vacuum were written without knowledge of “The Immortal.” The first-order, forgotten geniuses and the immortals are identically outside history and comprehension. I used Escher, Piranesi, and Lovecraft (and Giger if I’d thought of it, though as a negative--perhaps also de Chirico?) as examples for their city, as Xul Solar didn’t seem to fit here. Contemplation as a form of atavism, the logical extension of the ego into the present, also suggests itself. The Cynics, yes, but where’s the “if only hunger could be relieved thus?” Sex is almost entirely absent from Borges’s fiction.** My favorite Heraclitean fragment, “Homer was an astronomer,” is probably relevant to the alien gods of these troglodytes (the etymology of which and its nomenclatural usages are both worth mentioning).
There will be a good explanation for why Asterion’s concept of infinity starts at fourteen, I predict, though it may take some prompting. Theseus as the foretold redeemer teems with interest, esp. in a vaguely Hegelian cast of the hero as unifier of the city-state, deliverer from theriomorphy. Good luck asking a local barkeep for a brandy and orange juice and expecting your check card receipt to be the zahir. It has to be an object with presence, and, besides, people don’t drink brandy and orange juice anymore (though they do blend coffee and orange juice, apparently). Also, none of you are old enough for this bar nonsense.
“Money is abstract [. . .] money is future time.” Pedagogical gold, so to speak. And “The Aleph” is probably the most sentimental of Borges’s fictions that I’ve taught. Argentino’s pathetic subcreation seems a Mundane Comedy. The reference in the afterword to Well’s “The Crystal Egg” is particularly wry.
*Not that I’ve read all of the literature, mind you, and I certainly appreciate any suggestions.
**Not teaching “Emma Zunz,” and I’ve yet to get an untainted answer to “The Cult of the Phoenix.” Am particularly curious for comparisons on this last point.
Monday, March 06, 2006
Judging a Book by Its Bibliography
Ever do this? I understand it’s kind of a joke about how you know you’ve arrived as a graduate student, etc., but it’s always seemed to me to be the logical way of reading a scholarly book. Generally speaking, you can reconstruct the argument of a book from its list of sources, however indifferently alphabetized they may be.
Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 1997) has a bibliography stretching from pp. 687-772. It’s divided into works before and after 1800. From the former you might learn that Arthur Dent wrote a volume called The plaine mans path-way to Heaven (London: 1601) and from the latter that “Sainte Anne est une sorcière” (J. Wirth, Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 40 : 449-80). That’s just the tip of it, really. A book with this bibliography has to be good. You don’t even have to read it.
Notes are also a metapleasure, and the only argument in favor of endnotes is that it’s easier to read them all at once. (Quiz: Who wrote this--and remember that boiling oil will be poured into your ears if you cheat: “Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia?") I invite comments which address substantively the issue of notable bibliographies and bibliographic notes.
Monday, January 16, 2006
Totality and the Genes of Literature
“Suppose at this juncture we were to state the blindingly obvious: that, whatever their other properties, literary texts do not possess genes” (59). So begins the “Perils of Analogy” section of Christopher Prendergast’s response* to Moretti. Notwithstanding the Paris Review interviews, it does seem difficult to maintain that literature has genes. Does it have memes, however? Ideologemes? Maybe. And I will discuss metaphors of cultural transmission and evolutionary analogies in Moretti’s argument.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Graphs, Maps, Trees Files
The first posts in the Graphs, Maps, Trees event will appear later today. We are pleased to be able to offer PDFs of the original NLR articles Thanks to Jacob Stevens at NLR, Verso, and Franco Moretti for allowing us to make these files available to our readers through the end of February. (The NLR retains exclusive copyright of these files, which are not Valve content.)
Also, if you haven’t yet done so, read Elif Batuman’s “Adventures of a Man of Science", which n+1 has graciously agreed to put online.
Monday, January 02, 2006
Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: A Valve Book Event
On January 11, we will begin posting a series of short essays and comments on Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, an event similar to those past on Theory’s Empire and The Literary Wittgenstein. Several Valve regulars will contribute, and we also hope to have pieces from Cosma Shalizi and Scott McLemee. Anyone who has read or would like to read Moretti’s book and/or the essays in the NLR from which it is drawn and who has an idea for a guest-post for the event is welcome to contact me with a proposal. Before too long, we hope to be able to make PDFs of Moretti’s NLR articles available to interested readers for a limited time.
Franco Moretti is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford and also the author of Signs Taken for Wonders, The Way of the World, Modern Epic, and Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900. Graphs, Maps, Trees is an ambitious work, seeking to “delineate a transformation in the study of literature” through “a shift from close reading of individual texts to the construction of abstract models.” These models come from quantitative history, geography, and evolutionary theory, areas which Moretti suggests have had little interaction with literary criticism, “but which have many things to teach us, and may change the way that we work.”
Explanation before interpretation, a materialist conception of form, and “a total indiffierence to the philosophizing that goes by the name of ‘Theory’ in literature departments,” which should be “forgotten, and replaced with the extraordinary array of conceptual constructions--theories, plural, and with a lower case ‘t’--developed by the natural and by the social sciences” are what Moretti proposes for a “more rational literary history.” We’ll review Moretti’s evidence and arguments and speculate about what they mean for literary studies as a whole (and their likely degree of acceptance). Previous discussions of Moretti’s work include Bill Benzon’s “Signposts for a Naturalist Criticism" and Timothy Burke’s “Franco Moretti: A Quantitative Turn for Cultural History?"
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Nick Gillespie Goes to MLA
I’ve always enjoyed the increasingly addled articles about the MLA guaranteed to appear around this time every year. And here’s a piece by Nick Gillespie at Tech Central Station, which has the trustworthy imprimatur of James Glassman, author of Dow 10,000!, so you know to expect good things. Not “bitch-slaps,” or, if so, charming ones.
So, here we go: “endless job interviews in which those nervous grad students throw off more flop sweat than Thomas Jefferson contemplating a just god.” Flop sweat. Thomas Jefferson contemplating a just god. Gimlet-eyed. Damn.
We have some of the usual attribution of agency to the MLA, a professional organization some thirty thousand strong. But Gillespie does recognize how rote his chosen genre’s become. He criticizes the Times for not reading any of the essays it had mocked, implying, perhaps, that readers can expect better here. Political correctness is taking Marx seriously, like they only do now in Pyongyang and Havana. Race, gender, and class are the Holy Trinity of MLA pc. Did you ever think of it that way before? Even the most skeptical theorist will have to admit that’s a damning comparison. It’s like those three categories are articles of faith! Not something that you analyze via Reason. Get it?
(Imagine explaining TCS to the author of The Eighteenth Brumaire.)
Gillespie promises to do better than the usual. Here’s hoping that he stretches out a bit.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Book and Volume
Nick Montfort, who wrote the (or at least “a") book on interactive fiction, has recently released Book and Volume, which is set in nTopia, has allusions ranging from Pynchon to Gygax, and feels very PKD--I mean that neutrally. My discussion is going to include some mild spoilers.Continue reading "Book and Volume"
Monday, December 12, 2005
Eighties and Nineties Political Censoriousness: Where?
From a long review of John Worthen’s D. H. Lawrence: Life of an Outsider:
Now that the eighties and nineties fashion of censoriously political reading has come to seem a narrow cut, and nearly as dated as those postwar clichés about the sickness of civilized humanity, Lawrence can be rescued from both the moralists and the Lawrentians. No doubt his vitalism was a sick man’s dream of health, and the sickness sometimes corrupts the dream with misanthropy, misogyny, and self-despair. But it would take a robust human animal indeed not to suspect, reading Lawrence, the unused possibility of a quicker, deeper life just beneath the one we live, and not to feel, reading about the man, that he sometimes knew whereof he spoke.
What is Benjamin Kunkel thinking of, exactly? The “postwar clichés about the sickness of civilized humanity,” are, I think, easily distinguishable from recent norms of academic discourse; and several Kunkel-candidates come to mind, sure. But this is more of an asking you what you think post. An invitation to discussion.
Saturday, December 10, 2005
It Starts with the Loss of a Semicolon
The most famous paragraph in “bad writing discussions”:
Theodor Haecker was rightfully alarmed by the fact that the semicolon is dying out; this told him that no one can write a period, a sentence containing several balanced clauses, any more. Part of this incapacity is the fear of page-long paragraphs, a fear created by the marketplace--by the consumer who does not want to tax himself and to whom first editors and then writers accommodated for the sake of their incomes, until finally they invented ideologies for their own accommodation, like lucidity, objectivity, and concise precision. Language and subject matter cannot be kept separate in this process. The sacrifice of the period leaves the idea short of breath. Prose is reduced to the “protocol sentence,” the darling of the logical positivists, to a mere recording of facts, and when syntax and punctuation relinquish the right to articulate and shape the facts, to critique them, language is getting ready to capitulate to what merely exists, even before thought has time to perform this capitulation eagerly on its own for the second time. It starts with the loss of a semicolon; it ends with the ratification of imbecility by a reasonableness purged of all admixtures. (Adorno, “Punctuation Marks.” Notes to Literature. Vol. 2. [Columbia UP, 1991], 95.)
Since you are probably too familiar with the debate this paragraph recalls, I’ll instead consider what aspects of Adorno’s argument might be relevant to academic blogging. People don’t like to read long things on-line. (Sorry, John). I’ve heard many claim that five-hundred words is about their limit for reading blog posts. Comments on posts don’t work very well as a means of fostering careful discussion. Most blogging software, including this site’s, simply publishes a flat list of comments in chronological order. Even the well-known sites that use comment-threading technologies dating from the Holocene have their own problems to contend with, which generally are related to the quantity of their commenters. The various moderation schemes which rely on community involvement rather than the diligent attention of a small number of people are unsuccessful.
Is the link, then, a loss or addition? Is the link a punctuation mark? (Trackbacks too, trackbacks are dead.) How about if links didn’t always go to the same location but either a) went to the original intended location, b) went to a random location, or c) asked the follower to provide a new location? Would this continue to ratify imbecility? Should the posts themselves be reader-editable? The Wiki-ization of blogs, using the technology to filter levels of sediment, commentary, or disputation is one potential solution. But having the content of each post be dynamically changed with each read is better. The much-lamented Adequacy.org used, or claimed to use, as I remember, an automated link-generator. The intent of this was to poke gentle fun at the superfluous linking cultures of Slashdot and Kuro5hin, I think, but it has considerable potential. The author of the posts flags several phrases that would then be searched in a variety of databases using the Google and Amazon APIs, scholarly indexes, del.ic.ious, etc. The blogging software would randomly generate links from one of the sources and, using cookies, regenerate them from deeper tiers within the search results for each revisit. If I flagged the phrase “evolutionary theism,” for example, the first visitor might see this article about Frank Norris’s The Octopus the first time and this piece concerning the “dialectical affinities between East and West” the next [Both JSTOR links]. Another user would go find this book about Alfred Russel Wallace on the first visit.
Part of the articulation and shape of the blog is determined by its format. Bradley Dilger has some thoughts on the ubiquity of the grid in web design, and a palimpsest or overlay on a grid is still a grid.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Reading List Suggestions for Entering College Students
Jane Kotulka is preparing a college prep reading list for students at Bassett High School in Bassett, VA. Her query was forwarded to our faculty list:
I am working on a college prep reading list for our students. We want to prepare them for their college career. Do you have a freshman reading list for incoming students or for freshman English classes? If so, could you send me a copy? Thank you for your time and interest in helping our students.
What would you recommend? Why? Does your present institution have such a reading list? What’s on it, if so?
Sunday, December 04, 2005
Fuller’s Dover Testimony
Michael Bérubé’s been wondering about how Steve Fuller, a leading figure in the sociology of science, could testify on behalf of ID proponents in Dover and also be blurbed on the back of a volume by Meera Nanda, criticizing the reactionary tendencies of post-modernism.Continue reading "Fuller’s Dover Testimony"
The NYU Strike
Word on the street is that Alan Sokal and Andrew Ross both support the striking graduate students, whereas it seems that Paul Boghossian, who has a piece in the Theory’s Empire volume you may remember from a while back, supports the administration. David Velleman, also of NYU’s “ranked the undisputed number one [philosophy] department in the world" suggests in a comment to Jason Stanley’s guest-post over at Brian Leiter’s blog that he supported the graduate student unions at public university Michigan, but does not at private NYU.
I was involved in my graduate student union at public Florida, including soliciting signatures for a recertification drive, and support the striking students at private NYU. Whatever your opinion about this may be, I think that the public/private divide raised by Velleman and Boghossian is worth discussing, particularly as it pertains to graduate education. I don’t know if any other department at NYU has the same success at placing its graduate students as the philosophy department seems to. That might be relevant to the very different perceptions of graduate student welfare seen in the Democracy Now! interview I linked to above.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
PSA/A New Review of A New Kind of Science
Many of you may remember Prof. Synecdoche. He seems to have deleted his blog. Unfortunately, it’s been replaced by a porn-spam blog. So, I’d advise everyone to de-link.
Polymath Cosma Shalizi has an entertaining review of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. I have a paper in various stages of revision on the rhetoric of Wolfram’s book, and Shalizi’s discussion of Wolfram and the taxonomy of crankishness is very apt there. In fact, I invoked his guano comparison in the version I read at a conference.
I have to register disagreement in a few places, however. I suspect that there have to be correlations between any useful version of “complexity” and what is visually interesting to the cortex of an East African plains ape. Wolfram is indeed vague on that point, and I appreciate quantitative measures of complexity as an abstract principle, but I’m not convinced that it is as arbitrary as Shalizi thinks it is. I’ve read Investigations and am intrigued to learn of the apparent existence of a cult devoted to it (shape spacers?), though I very much appreciate that Shalizi has also been annoyed by Lakoff’s definition of cognitive science (the worst display of which I’ve encountered is in Philosophy in the Flesh).
Of Grammatology‘s inclusion in the list of crank works at the end is unfortunate, however. Putting aside the question of whether you think it is a major philosophical work or one filled with elementary misreadings (as Chomsky has said), it presents a trial for its readers. The other works listed there (and Wolfram’s) all seek to explain complex matters very simply.
Thursday, October 13, 2005
Remembering Wayne Booth
Anthropologist Alex Golub has posted a remembrance of Wayne Booth.
I never met Booth, though The Rhetoric of Fiction, A Rhetoric of Irony, and The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction were all influential books I read as an undergraduate. The latter volume, in particular, seemed very alien to me when I first read it, but it’s one that I find myself increasingly thinking about when teaching. (Booth claims in it, as I remember, that Bataille wrote The Story of O.) Booth’s co-written The Craft of Research is also the best book of its type, in my opinion, and probably should be issued to all college freshmen.
Booth’s work had wide-ranging influence, and perhaps we can use the comments to discuss it.
Saturday, October 08, 2005
Here are some selections from an ALSC Forum, presented, with the occasional comment, for your reading pleasure.
Wilbur’s stockboy reading Playboy on his lunch break shows (even though his choice of reading matter hardly counts as literary reading) a kindred absorption.
It is as if the stimulus (to the eye) of instant targeting and the enchantment (to the touch) of the perfect dexterity in achieving mock explosions had conjured up an instinct from our hunter-gatherer days.
Once you have gone from Dr. Seuss to Lewis Carroll, why stop there? From Carroll to Dickens is as natural a step.
(Except that about six sigmas separate Carroll from Dickens, if I may use a g-cultist metaphor)
Electronic diversions close the door to what Robert Pinsky calls the “theater of the imagination.”
(Like Pinksy’s interactive fiction Mindwheel?)
For one it is more important to a typical community college administrator that a new English department faculty hire be of the correct ethnic category to satisfy diversity hiring quotas than that the faculty be well- and widely-read in serious literature.
Also, many English faculty do not want to teach serious literature. They would rather teach students about movies, comic books with social content, science fiction and left wing causes dear to their hearts.
One is that in too many cases faculty are not able to read serious literature--they don’t have the intellectual skills or the intellectual hunger, ambition, or, above all, curiosity--and so feel naturally threatened by those who do.
(These last three have special charm.)
Our John Holbo has a piece in here which I think is more in touch with the reality on the ground, as they say.