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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 Last Night
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the Diaries of Franz Kafka
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William Gibson

About Rohan Maitzen

Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her main teaching and research interests are the Victorian novel, gender and historiography, and ethical criticism. Her academic career is mostly an excuse to keep rereading Middlemarch.

Email Address: rmaitzen@gmail.com
Website: http://openlettersmonthly.com/novelreadings


Posts by Rohan Maitzen

Friday, March 26, 2010

Rereading Atonement

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 03/26/10 at 01:12 PM

In my latest post about This Week in My Classes, I spent so much time on Gwendolen and Daniel Deronda that I never got around to Briony and Atonement. I mentioned there, though, that I was struck by at least one parallel between these two protagonists, which is their will to power or mastery. As it happens, they are both, also, severely chastened for their presumption, though in different ways: Gwendolen gets beaten down--not literally, at least, but figuratively--by her husband, who proves indifferent to her will and strong enough to master it--and also by the novel, which chronicles her halting progress towards a higher consciousness, one in which she is “dislodged from her supremacy in her own world” and must subordinate her own desires to “the larger destinies of mankind.” Briony, in turn, is forced to acknowledge the devastating and inalterable consequences of her own manipulation of reality into a story of her own telling, a story shaped by her own toxic combination of ignorance and precocity, of misunderstanding (of life, of other people, of love) and knowledge (of words and the power that they give you). “There was nothing she could not describe,” she reflects, even as she kneels beside her raped cousin and proffers a description of what happened, “her story, the one that was writing itself around her.” That slippage into the passive voice is revelatory of Briony’s evasion of agency, as if her words are not, themselves, decisions, as if her conviction that “the truth was in the symmetry” is about life, not art. That we can judge her error, her “crime,” as the narrator bluntly calls it, is of course due to Briony herself, our storyteller, “crime” her own word, later, when it’s too late. She knows, and says, that “she would never undo the damage,” not by any action, not by any redescription.

But it’s not Briony’s mastery of the facts, her tyranny over the truth, that I am most struck by at this point in my rereading: it’s McEwan’s over his story, his words, and thus my experience as I reread Atonement.

Continue reading "Rereading Atonement"

Monday, March 22, 2010

Just Another “Brainy Group Blog”

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 03/22/10 at 01:13 PM

John Holbo and others on academic blogging, in the California Alumni Association magazine:

When John Holbo, Ph.D. ’99, joined [the ranks of academic bloggers], he was virtually unknown in academia, having recently received his philosophy doctorate from Berkeley and taken a post as assistant professor at the National University of Singapore. But his distinctive voice at the Crooked Timber blog and then The Valve quickly propelled him to fame among his peers. For Holbo, blogging was a way to open a conversation beyond the ivory tower about his esoteric interests. “Academic blogging is not very pure academics,” he says. “Half the commentators on my blogs are not academics. It feels very healthy that way. Almost everyone who does it seriously does it without mixed motives” . . .

. . . Founded in 2003, Crooked Timber was ranked in Technorati’s top 100 blogs between 2003 and 2005, making it one of the most widely read blogs in the world despite the fact that it’s written almost entirely by academics. The Valve, another brainy group blog that Holbo launched in 2005, also draws an astonishing number of readers for a site that calls itself “a literary organ.” Holbo has been known to post 6,000-word ponderings on obscure philosophers—“and people actually read them and comment,” he says, laughing.

Do we? Get “an astonishing number of readers”? Mind you, 5 may count as astonishing for “a site that calls itself ‘a literary organ.’”

via (you guessed it) Crooked Timber

Sunday, March 21, 2010

“Digging” for Meaning

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 03/21/10 at 09:49 AM

One of my recent posts about “this week in my classes” discussed a certain flagging of enthusiasm for one of my classes. Soon after, though, I was happy to have a teaching experience that revived my energy (though not for the same class). It was a tutorial session on Seamus Heaney, part of the Brit Lit survey I’m currently teaching. I had no great expectations going in, though I had really enjoyed going over the assigned poems in preparation for the meeting. But it turned out to be one of our best tutorials all term. For the first time, a significant number of students were genuinely enthusiastic about a poem: that is, often students will contribute, thoughtfully, to discussion, but this week even the body language was different, with people leaning forward into the discussion and smiling and nodding at each other as they talked. The poem that got this reaction was Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awakens in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

I opened by asking about the pen as a gun: why make that particular comparison? What is the risk or the threat of his pen? Pretty quickly we were talking about the difficulty of the poet son, who has broken from the tradition of his father and grandfather, writing about them and their work without condescending to them or, at the other extreme, sentimentalizing them. It turned out (and I think that this is why the discussion became so animated) that many of them understood the anxiety, or perhaps just self-consciousness, of that kind of break from tradition because they have been through it themselves, coming from mining or farming or military backgrounds, sometimes themselves among the first in their families to go to university, or to study something like English, or to want to be writers. One student also pointed to the “sloppily” corked milk bottle, a sign, he suggested (and many agreed) that it speaks to an anxiety also about the manliness or practical value of choosing poetry: there’s an ideal of the “man of the house,” good with his hands, tough, physical, that the speaker can’t reach ("I’ve no spade to follow men like them"). Though he looks down on his father from his window, he isn’t looking down on him otherwise, we thought, but rather seeing him clearly, seeing the dignity of his skill and hard work. He puts his pen to work, in turn, digging up memories (which “awaken in [his] head") and making something himself that (as another student suggested) his father would understand--it’s not difficult poetry, there are no unusual words in it, it’s hardly “poetic” at all, but direct, colloquial, even (sorry) earthy. And yet for all its seeming simplicity, as we dug into it, we found more and more of interest, even before we moved into the more abstract idea of poetry and/as archeology (another of our poems was “The Grauballe Man").

Though we all hate the reduction of literary value to what is “ relatable” (a coinage many students seem unable to resist), and though I’m a big believer in stretching ourselves and our students into what is unfamiliar, there was a great energy today that came from this poem having meaning for them--meaning of its own, that they could appreciate, but also meaning for their own lives.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Steam Cleaning: The Valve Blogroll

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 03/15/10 at 09:35 AM

Aaron’s recent post linked to the Arcade site at Stanford, which (my bad, no doubt) I hadn’t known about before, but which immediately struck me as something we ought to have in our blogroll here. That thought led me to take a closer look at the blogroll, and I promptly found a large number of sites that have moved or retired. We should update it! So, in the spirit of spring cleaning, I thought we could round up suggestions for other new(ish) academic / literary-critical / otherwise-Valve-appropriate sites. (Just what is “Valve-appropriate”? That’s a good question. Feel free to discuss that too. What do you come here for? What would you like to read more of? What do or should we do to keep up our own niche, whatever it is?)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 03/11/10 at 09:04 PM

The Marketplace of Ideas is not as interesting as I thought it would be. One reason may be that it is part of a series intended, as series editor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains, to “invite the reader to reexamine hand-me-down assumptions and to grapple with powerful trends"--that is, the books are not rigorous analyses aimed at specialists but accessible and deliberately provocative commentaries meant to bring a wider public quickly up to speed on debates about (Gates again) “ideas that matter in the new millenium.” At just over 150 small-scale, large-type pages, The Marketplace of Ideas is not anything like a comprehensive examination of the many issues it addresses, whether the rise of the modern university, the vexed history of the “liberal arts” curriculum, the changing aspect of humanities research, or the causes and consequences of the current appalling academic job market. Rather, it offers a briskly coherent account of some historical contexts of particular relevance to certain elite universities (he shows this narrowness of focus throughout, which, as other reviewers have pointed out, eventually undermines a number of his more general claims and complaints). Then he transitions quite abruptly to consider political homogeneity as a feature of the academy, and then, with another awkward transition, to offer some interesting but often idiosyncratic or, worse, facile suggestions about what ails graduate education in the humanities today and how to fix it.

Of the contextual section of Menand’s book, Anthony Grafton at The New Republic writes, fairly, I think,

Menand’s account is consistently even-tempered, and he resists all temptations to succumb to nostalgia or to launch jeremiads, even when both might be appropriate. He does not portray the university in the age of New Criticism as a paradise of Serious Reading, or denounce the new forms of scholarship that have grown up more recently as one great betrayal of truth and high standards. Instead he sings a song of sclerosis. Through all these changes, he writes, the basic system of disciplines and departments remained intact--a hard and confining carapace that proved impossible to break, however humanists squirmed and pushed.

I appreciated his discussion of the mixed blessing that is professionalism, something addressed from a more discipline-specific angle in Brian McRae’s Addison and Steele are Dead (a book I discussed here at some length). I also found his comments on the unsatisfactory realities of “interdisciplinarity” very interesting: “interdisciplinarity” is a buzzword often invoked as if it represents a panacea to whatever ails our individual, disciplinary, or institutional limitations, but Menand suggests, persuasively, that our obsession with it is a symptom of anxiety about “the formalism and methodological fetishism of the disciplines and about the danger of sliding into an aimless subjectivism or eclecticism.”

Overall, though, this “structural explanation,” as Grafton calls it, wasn’t really what I went to the book for; rather, I was hoping for an elaboration on the provocative excerpt published last fall in the Harvard Magazine, focusing on “the PhD problem.” There, he talked about the dramatic rise in the number of doctoral students even as the number of available tenure track positions (relative to the number of candidates) fell off drastically, the long time to degree for doctoral students in the humanities, and some ideas for unclogging the system by, for instance, making an article the standard for the Ph.D. rather than the book-length thesis.  It turns out he gave most of the milk away for free here, and my thoughts on reading that material over in the book version were the same as what I said at the time (if he can make his writing do double-duty, I figure I can do the same with mine):

Continue reading "Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas"

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Academic Publishing Again (or, Still)

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 03/03/10 at 10:37 AM

At Perplexed by Narrow Passages, Christopher Vilmar raises some interesting questions about scholarly monographs by way of Cathy Davidson. He quotes from a post of Davidson that points to our own lack of engagement with other academics’ books:

If we believe in what we do (and I happen to be a believer), we should be writing for readers, first of all, and, second, we should be reading one another’s work and, third, we should be teaching it.  Right now, a sale of 300 or 400 copies of a monograph is a lot.  That’s appalling.  The result, materially, is that we do not pay our own way and certainly not that of junior members of our profession.  Intellectually, our students never learn the value the genre of the monograph because we teach excerpts in our courses, even our graduate courses.  We do not teach the kind of extended, nuanced thinking that goes into the genre that our very graduate students will have to produce for tenure.  We say the scholarly monograph represents the epitome of our profession and a hurdle to “lifetime employment” at a research university.  So we do not practice what we preach, adding to the crisis in scholarly publishing and the crisis in the profession of English in particular.

Reading both posts and trying to think my own thoughts about these issues (which turn on the problem of which readers we should be writing for and whether it really is “appalling” that highly specialized but often perversely bloated works of micro-scholarship sell “only” 300 or 400 copies), I found myself turning back to John Holbo’s initiating post for The Valve, “Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine", which addresses a similar set of interlocking problems, including quoting from Stephen Greenblatt’s 2002 MLA Presidential Address:

the problem, according to university presses, is that we are not reading one another as much as we once did - or at least that we are not buying one another’s books and assigning them to our classes. There are, I know, economic factors here: we are reluctant to buy, let alone compel students to buy, expensive books. But judging from the fate of even modestly priced academic books in our field, the problem is not exclusively economic. Somewhere over the past decade, our interest in one another’s work - or, again, at least in owning one another’s work - seems to have declined.

People reflecting on the decline of humanities publishing sometimes say that scholars should write for a larger public. We should, the argument goes, not address other scholars alone but try to reach the mass of nonprofessional readers as well. These readers would buy our books and journals were they written more accessibly and thereby solve the economic problem faced by university presses. Though the task seems to me much more difficult than it is often imagined, I am not averse to trying to reach a larger readership. But I doubt that our specialized scholarly work can be successfully couched in a marketable form for the general reader - assuming such a reader still exists - and I doubt that in most cases we should try to do so. In our profession, as in every profession, there are many things that we should simply address to one another.

Our great failure in recent years is not that we no longer write for a general public - as if every significant literary scholar in the past had been a Lionel Trilling or an Edmund Wilson - but rather that we no longer write for one another, not well enough in any case to inspire one another to buy and assign our books.

Remember these bold declarations of a brave new bloggy future?

A simple normative principle. Every scholarly book published in the humanities should be widely read, discussed and reviewed - should have it’s own lively blog comment box, not to put too fine a point on it. Because any scholarly book incapable of rousing a modest measure of sustained, considerate, intelligent chat from a few dozen souls who specialize in that area shouldn’t have been published as a book - i.e. after several years labor and an average production cost of $25,000. Turning the point around: any book worth that time and expense, that fails to be widely read, discussed and reviewed - that is not given it’s own blog comment box - has been dramatically failed by the academic culture in which it was so unfortunate as to be born. . . .

Why is this really quite low normative standard of healthy discussion not presently met? The technological barriers are non-existent, the financial barriers negligible. It’s cultural dysfunction. Sheer institutional sclerosis.

The Real Circulation Problem - of which low book sales are a symptom - concerns ideas, not paper. The academic humanities have simply never grown hyper-efficient networks for post-publication peer review that are remotely adequate to the excessive volume of peer-reviewed scholarship generated, especially in just the last few decades. This is the real scholarly argument for moving aggressively online, although it is bolstered by many economic arguments. As I have written before, the beast has poor circulation. The only way to get the blood of ideas moving is to rub its sorry limbs vigorously with ... conversations. Intelligent, bloggy bookchat by scholars, to label this crucial ingredient as the essentially unpretentious thing it is. That isn’t scholarship; but - in a world with too much scholarship - it may be an indispensable complement to scholarship.

I guess I’m wondering: 2002, 2010—the conversation sounds about the same, except that, perhaps, the energy that went into Holbo’s visionary post has flagged (or has it?) even as blogging has become (somewhat) more mainstream. I don’t hear one administrator (or colleague) at my own university talking at all about changing the way we evaluate research productivity. If anything, the pressure is going up to generate “book projects” of the kind that can get external grants in order to raise our “research profile.” Nothing “counts” for anything unless it’s peer-reviewed (pre-publication, of course, not post-publication, and certainly not post-self-publication). Perhaps more to the point, I can count on one hand the number of people in my faculty who blog (the number who read blogs might require two hands, but not much more, I’m reasonably certain). O brave new world indeed. I’m wondering if not only do we not read each other, but really, we don’t listen to each other, or, for that matter, to the president of the MLA (it will be interesting to see what kind of leadership Michael Berube provides on this issue, given his long blogging history). But for what it’s worth, here’s another, more recent, comment once again pointing to the need for some kind of paradigm shift, this time from the winner of the 3 Quarks Daily Prize in Philosophy Blogging, Terry Tomkow:

I think competitions like this are going to become increasingly important in future years. After all, the only known defense for the absurd anachronism of hard copy academic journals is that the competition for space on their expensive printed pages is essential to maintaining academic standards. Maybe so. But hardcopy journals are soon going to disappear and, if standards are not to disappear with them, academics had better quickly figure out other ways to sort out what is worth reading.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Finishing ‘A Suitable Boy’

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 02/15/10 at 07:55 AM

"I hate long books,” says Amit Chatterji, Lata’s poet-suitor, near the end of A Suitable Boy:

“the better the worse. If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for a few days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch."

It’s impossible not to realize this is Seth’s sly joke, not at the expense of, but on behalf of the reader who has read this far (page 1371, to be precise) in A Suitable Boy. It closes the self-referential frame begun with the epigraph, a little ditty called “A Word of Thanks,” which concludes,

Buy me before good sense insists
You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.

As Seth clearly anticipated, the novel’s length is a major feature of any conversation about it. For many, it is a disincentive to even starting it; for some, including me the first time I tried it, it becomes an obstacle to finishing it. Now, having read to the end of its 1474 pages, I feel obliged to address the question whether it needed to be so long: is its bulk a necessity, or even a strength?

Continue reading "Finishing ‘A Suitable Boy’"

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dear Alan Rickman: Will You Be My Valentine Voice?

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 02/13/10 at 06:26 PM

Love it or hate it, you can’t avoid it: tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and I thought we here at The Valve could do a little to make sure its literary quality is as high as possible. In aid of that, here is a great idea from the Times: sign up here to have your beloved sent a great poem read by a great voice. Offerings include Dame Judi Dench reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” Helen Mirren reading Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband” and (even better) Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights,” Ian McKellen reading “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” and Alan Rickman reading Robert Herrick’s “Delight in Disorder"--all more seductive and delicious than chocolate.

Meanwhile in the Globe and Mail, a parade of contemporary writers identify their own favourite love story. Wuthering Heights makes its inevitable appearance: novelist Elizabeth Abbot calls it “the gold standard for literary romance.” Surely not! Some of the other choices are more surprising and many are wholly unfamiliar to me: Jane Urqhuart, for instance, recommends William Trevor’s Reading Turgenev, which she describes as “short, dark, evocative and very moving,” and T. F. Rigelhof speaks up for C. S. Richardson’s The End of the Alphabet, the story of a couple who “discover more to love at the end than anticipated at the beginning.”

Do you have a favourite romantic poem or story? I would vote for e.e. cummings’s “it may not always be so; and i say,” along with “i carry your heart,” as two of my own favourites, as well as the ecstatic conclusion to EBB’s Aurora Leigh:

But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,–
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason’s self
Enlarges rapture,–as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!
While we two sate together, leaned that night
So close, my very garments crept and thrilled
With strange electric life; and both my cheeks
Grew red, then pale, with touches from my hair
In which his breath was...

And in prose, though in other ways my preferences lean away from Jane Austen, it’s hard for me to fault the ending of either Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion for sheer romantic gratification.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The End(s) of The Mill on the Floss

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 02/01/10 at 06:22 PM

I’ve been re-reading George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss for a graduate seminar I’m offering this term (what luxury, to be reading five George Eliot novels in a row!) and I’m in love with it all over again, especially the end. Well, OK, not the very end, which is (as critics have been pointing out since 1860) jarring, confounding, and depressing. But the last several chapters thrill me--and as I read them this time, I’ve been trying to figure out why. They aren’t as beautifully written or evocative as the earlier parts of the book treating Tom and Maggie’s childhoods. There are some false notes of melodrama that betray, I think, some lingering uncertainty about authorial tone that would be resolved by the time Eliot wrote Middlemarch ("[she] glared at him like a wounded war-goddess” may be the worst of these). The machinery of the plot creaks a bit. Still, once we are launched into the turbulent seas of Maggie’s terrible dilemma, I feel that we are engaged, with her, in a struggle of genuine moral significance, a conflict over what the narrator aptly describes as “the shifting relation between passion and duty,” which, as she says, “is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it"--that is, once you recognize the complexity of the problem, its solution becomes more, rather than less, obscure. When Maggie drifts away with Stephen, she temporarily abandons “the labour of choice” that has made her life so burdensome to her so often before. What a relief, to stop deciding! “All yielding is attended with a less vivid consciousness than resistance,” the narrator observes; “it is the partial sleep of thought; it is the submergence of our own personality by another.” That soothing condition is illusory, however: “the morrow must bring back the old life of struggle.”

Continue reading "The End(s) of The Mill on the Floss"

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Should We Be Talking about Louis Menand’s New Book?

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 01/27/10 at 08:39 PM

Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas has come out and is generating a fair amount of discussion online. I found the excerpt from it published in Harvard Magazine interesting, particularly his emphasis on some of the indirect costs of professionalization. But the suggestions he made there about reforming PhD programs seemed at once wildly impractical and strangely dismissive of the content of humanities research--strange, that is, from someone who seems to have a fairly strong profile as a researcher himself. I’m interested enough, I think, to read the book and see what he’s really arguing for (or against, or about). The Valve seems like a place where a lot of people hang out who might have ideas about things like ‘reform and resistance’ in the academy. Should we have an informal book event of some kind? Perhaps just setting a date by which anyone interested will read it (in a month or so, say) and then we’ll have an opening post and everyone can jump in in the comments?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Adam Bede Again

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 01/15/10 at 07:48 AM

Remember the good old days, when we all read Adam Bede together and fretted about realism, Hetty’s eyelashes, and whether it was immoral or inevitable to want to crush kittens? Happily, I have an excuse to work through the novel again this year in a graduate seminar I’m teaching. In last week’s discussion we spent quite a bit of time on this passage:

At this moment a smart rap, as if with a willow wand, was given at the house door, and Gyp, instead of barking, as might have been expected, gave a loud howl. Adam, very much startled, went at once to the door and opened it. Nothing was there: all was still, as when he opened it an hour before: the leaves were motionless, and the light of the stars showed the placid fields on both sides of the brook quite empty of visible life. Adam walked round the house, and still saw nothing except a rat which darted into the woodshed as he passed. He went in again, wondering; the sound was so peculiar, that, the moment he heard it, it called up the image of the willow wand striking the door. He could not help a little shudder, as he remembered how often his mother had told him of just such a sound coming as a sign when some one was dying. Adam was not a man to be gratuitously superstitious; but he had the blood of the peasant in him as well as of the artisan, and a peasant can no more help believing in a traditional superstition than a horse can help trembling when he sees a camel. Besides, he had that mental combination which is at once humble in the region of mystery and keen in the region of knowledge: it was the depth of his reverence quite as much as his hard common-sense, which gave him his disinclination to doctrinal religion, and he often checked Seth’s argumentative spiritualism by saying, ‘Eh, it’s a big mystery; thee know’st but little about it.’ And so it happened that Adam was at once penetrating and credulous. If a new building had fallen down and he had been told that this was a divine judgment, he would have said, ‘Maybe; but the bearing o’ the roof and walls wasn’t right, else it wouldn’t ha’ come down;’ yet he believed in dreams and prognostics, and you see he shuddered at the idea of the stroke with the willow wand. (from Chapter 4)

What interested us is the stress placed on this moment by the different priorities and perspectives it attempts to do justice to simultaneously. Some felt that the narrator’s commentary spoiled the affect of the scene, its mystery and suspense, by distancing us from Adam’s emotional response, blaming it, somewhat condescendingly, on his peasant blood: it’s a kind of anachronism in his mental constitution for which we are not to blame him. Yet we are not to go along with it, either: we aren’t allowed to experience what he experiences, the shudder and trembling of belief in the supernatural. “Nature has her syntax,” as we are told in another place, but we don’t understand it, not yet. The weight of the book overall, though, as of this moment, is against reading it as supernatural or revelatory. Adam’s capacity for belief in the supernatural is a relic, a tradition: he’s a man of his time. Is it George Eliot the historian, then, as much as George Eliot the philosopher, who feels the need to make sure we don’t go along with Adam too far here? If we did, the genre of the novel (its commitment to realism, as well as to a kind of scientific naturalism) would come under threat: it’s a gothic moment that’s contained, or at least inhibited, by the narrator’s cool analysis. What do we do, then, when we discover that in fact the rapping at the door does presage Thias Bede’s death? If you’re going to ruin the atmospheric spell by discrediting the magical thinking it requires, why retroactively render Adam’s fear anything but “gratuitous”?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Vanity Fair Then and Now, and Really Now

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 12/30/09 at 11:55 AM

The TLS reminds us that the first part of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair was published on New Year’s Day, 1847; they’ve rerun the column published in their pages on its centenary. It’s an odd sort of column; its author finds the novel much softer than I do:

We can touch hands with that Regency world and breathe in it as easily as in our own. He has shut some of its cupboards, but he leaves us chinks enough. In this he was at one with the convention of his age on which Victorianism was settling down with voluminous skirts. He had flogged hypocrisy and stupidity in his greener day. Now he had a melancholy awareness of what was due to the Amelia Sedleys; and, even in the flow of his creative fullness, of what a modern dramatist meant by “Aren’t we all?” Novels had become family reading, to be read aloud by Mamma on her sofa, with a candle throwing its discreet light on the page and her daughter doing needlework in the outer dusk. Thackeray was a gentleman – the word is not used disparagingly – and he would not have them blush in the dimness.

He has no far-reaching thought – no ideology, shall we say. Yet Charlotte Brontë saw him as “the first social regenerator of his day.”

If anyone at the TLS is reading this, I’d happily write you up something a little more current (it’s not as if nobody has read or written about Vanity Fair since 1947, after all). But any attention to such a splendid novel is good attention.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Academic Blogging Panel

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 12/01/09 at 08:24 AM

Some interesting remarks here:

Participants were Tedra Osell (BitchPhD), Claire Potter (Tenured Radical), Eva Amsen (Easternblot.Net), and Jenny Davidson (Light Reading).


Monday, November 23, 2009

The Impact of the Humanities

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 11/23/09 at 06:08 PM

At the TLS, Stefan Collini has a trenchant critique of the British government’s “Research Excellence Framework” for research funding in the universities. A key factor will the assessment of “impact”:

approximately 25 per cent of the rating (the exact proportion is yet to be confirmed) will be allocated for “impact”. The premiss is that research must “achieve demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society”. The guidelines make clear that “impact” does not include “intellectual influence” on the work of other scholars and does not include influence on the “content” of teaching. It has to be impact which is “outside” academia, on other “research users” (and assessment panels will now include, alongside senior academics, “a wider range of users”). Moreover, this impact must be the outcome of a university department’s own “efforts to exploit or apply the research findings”: it cannot claim credit for the ways other people may happen to have made use of those “findings”.

Collini’s main interest is in the “potentially disastrous impact of the ‘impact’ requirement on the humanities”:

the guidelines explicitly exclude the kinds of impact generally considered of most immediate relevance to work in the humanities – namely, influence on the work of other scholars and influence on the content of teaching

Collini points out a number of profound “conceptual flaws” in the proposed process, among them the assumption that all disciplines across the university can and should be assessed in the same way, and the pressure on researchers to devote their time not to the “impact"-free zones of writing and teaching in their areas of specialization (because influence on work in your field, for instance, does not count as “impact") but on marketing. His concluding peroration:

Instead of letting this drivel become the only vocabulary for public discussion of these matters, it is worth insisting that what we call “the humanities” are a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity. To attempt to deepen our understanding of this or that aspect of that activity is a purposeful expression of human curiosity and is – insofar as the expression makes any sense in this context – an end in itself. Unless these guidelines are modified, scholars in British universities will devote less time and energy to this attempt, and more to becoming door-to-door salesmen for vulgarized versions of their increasingly market-oriented “products”. It may not be too late to try to prevent this outcome.

Though I agree it is essential to make the argument about the intrinsic value of “the humanities,” it seems at least as important to challenge (as he does) the mechanisms for measuring impact, because the “end in itself” argument risks perpetuating popular misconceptions about the insularity of humanities research, when in fact it is quite possible to argue that our impact on the wider world (particularly, but not by any means exclusively, the cultural world) is already substantial, but probably too diffuse to be measured even by the “thirty-seven bullet points” comprising the “menu” of “impact indicators.” Two academic articles I read recently provide some supporting evidence for this claim.

Here’s Cora Kaplan, for instance, in a recent essay in The Journal of Victorian Culture:

Sarah Waters has a PhD in literature . . . ; she has said that her research on lesbian historical fiction suggested to her the potential of an underdeveloped genre. In its citation and imitation of their work, Fingersmith paid generous tribute to Victorian novelists; it also has a considerable indebtedness to feminist, gay, lesbian and queer critics and social and cultural historians of Victorian Britain. It would not be too frivolous to see Fingersmith - together with other examples of fictional Victoriana - in their synthesis of the detail and insights of several decades of new research on the Victorian world and its culture as one measure of the ways in which Victorian Studies has developed over the last half century. (JVC 13:1, 42)

Continue reading "The Impact of the Humanities"

Friday, November 20, 2009

Virginia Woolf on the Victorians: “I’m a good deal impressed.”

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 11/20/09 at 02:34 PM

From Virginia Woolf’s letters:

Whatever one may say about the Victorians, there’s no doubt they had twice our - not exactly brains - perhaps hearts. I don’t know quite what it is; but I’m a good deal impressed.

She had just been reading “the entire works of Mr. James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, so as to compare them with the entire works of Dickens & Mrs Gaskell; besides that George Eliot; & finally Hardy.” About the experience of reading “G.E.” she writes to another friend, “I was so much struck by her goodness that I hope it wasn’t my article that you thought hard. She is as easy to read as Tit Bits: and it was a surprise to me; magnificent in many ways.” The “article” to which she refers is her piece on George Eliot for the Times Literary Supplement, originally published exactly 90 years ago today. It is a wonderful essay, at once stringent and sympathetic:

[T]hough we cannot read the story [of GE’s early life] without a strong desire that the stages of her pilgrimage might have been made, if not more easy, at least more beautiful, there is a dogged determination in her advance upon the citadel of culture which raises it above our pity. Her development was very slow and very awkward, but it had the irresistible impetus behind it of a deep-seated and noble ambition. Every obstacle at length was thrust from her path. She knew everyone. She read everything. Her astonishing intellectual vitality had triumphed. Youth was over, but youth had been full of suffering. Then, at the age of thirty-five, at the height of her powers, and in the fulness of her freedom, she made the decision which was of such profound moment to her and still matters even to us, and went to Weimar, alone with George Henry Lewes. . . . By becoming thus marked, first by circumstances and later, inevitably, by her fame, she lost the power to move on equal terms unnoted among her kind; and the loss for a novelist was serious. Still, basking in the light and sunshine of Scenes of Clerical Life, feeling the large mature mind spreading itself with a luxurious sense of freedom in the world of her ‘remotest past’, to speak of loss seems inappropriate. Everything to such a mind was gain. All experience filtered down through layer after layer of perception and reflection, enriching and nourishing.

The books are astonishingly readable and have no trace of pomposity or pretence. But to the reader who holds a large stretch of her early work in view it will become obvious that the mist of recollection gradually withdraws. It is not that her power diminishes, for, to our thinking, it is at its highest in the mature Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. But the world of fields and farms no longer contents her. In real life she had sought her fortunes elsewhere; and though to look back into the past was calming and consoling, there are, even in the early works, traces of that troubled spirit, that exacting and questioning and baffled presence who was George Eliot herself. . . .

[Her heroines] do not find what they seek, and we cannot wonder. The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something - they scarcely know what - for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. George Eliot had far too strong an intelligence to tamper with those facts, and too broad a humour to mitigate the truth because it was a stern one. Save for the supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more melancholy. But their story is the incomplete version of the story that is George Eliot herself. For her, too, the burden and the complexity of womanhood were not enough; she must reach beyond the sanctuary and pluck for herself the strange bright fruits of art and knowledge. Clasping them as few women have ever clasped them, she would not renounce her own inheritance - the difference of view, the difference of standard - nor accept an inappropriate reward. Thus we behold her, a memorable figure, inordinately praised and shrinking from her fame, despondent, reserved, shuddering back into the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might be, justification, at the same time reaching out with ‘a fastidious yet hungry ambition’ for all that life could offer the free and inquiring mind and confronting her feminine aspirations with the real world of men. Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her - sex and health and convention - she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.

(You can read the whole essay here.)
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