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Statement of Purpose

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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Posts by Guest Authors

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Toward a Theory of Disgust

Posted by Smurov, Guest Author, on 06/27/07 at 05:40 PM

Reading the science blogs this morning—in my native Russia, I was a scientist of no small repute—I came across this item about the dangers of extreme depilation.  As I read, I recoiled in horror as I read about the depilation procedure, but when I read of its unintended consequences, my horror turned to disgust.  Not of the woman, nor of her depilated parts—I am no misogynist—but by the “gross” distension, the “copious” discharge, and the “oblitaration of space by edema.” As one of those unfortuates unblessed with much visual imagination, I wonder as to the source of my disgust.  It cannot be the mental act of picturing these distensions, discharges, or obliteration, as I do nothing of the sort.  I searched the usual databases for an answer, and found a chart in this article:

Continue reading "Toward a Theory of Disgust"

Friday, June 22, 2007

Novels, Novellas, Novelettes?

Posted by Smurov, Guest Author, on 06/22/07 at 12:40 PM

(One day John Holbo took a nap and had a bad dream.  He awoke to the realization that one can’t have valves with Smurovs.  Now his Valve has one.)

Responding to Chad Orzel’s puzzlement concerning the difference between novellas and novelettes, one of his commenters writes:

Definitions in Literature are not as crisp as definitions in Physics.

Too true, too true; but not necessarily a bad thing.  For example, here’s how the society devoted to the most scientific of literatures defines the difference:

3.3.1: Best Novel. A science fiction or fantasy story of forty thousand (40,000) words or more.

3.3.2: Best Novella. A science fiction or fantasy story of between seventeen thousand five hundred (17,500) and forty thousand (40,000) words.

3.3.3: Best Novelette. A science fiction or fantasy story of between seven thousand five hundred (7,500) and seventeen thousand five hundred (17,500) words.

3.3.4: Best Short Story. A science fiction or fantasy story of less than seven thousand five hundred (7,500) words.

Those are crisp definitions, but only because science fiction lacks anyone with an Oulipo-streak.  Imagine a collection of short stories each 7,499 words.  By definition, they would not be novelettes; but what if they were paced like novelettes? What if two of them were interconnected—same characters, different times—would they now be a 14,998-word novelette?  Would three be a 22,497-word novella? Six a 44,994-word novel?  The OED offers little aid:

novelette, a story of moderate length having the characteristics of a novel.

novella, a short novel, a long short story.

How would you characterize the difference between a novella and novelette, or a short story and novella, or either (or both) from a novel?  What are the generic differences between them?  The number of characters?  The duration of the events narrated? 

UPDATE: For the record, Smurov is not John Holbo - although we admit it was a plausible inference. Smurov is some other guy.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Novel of Purpose: Guest Post by Amanda Claybaugh

Posted by Amanda Claybaugh, Guest Author, on 04/23/07 at 10:58 AM

Amanda Claybaugh teaches in the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. She is now at work on a book entitled The Literary History of Reconstruction, 1865-1910.

As we come to the end of this book event, I’d like to return to two topics that have been raised by several of the posts. The first is the relation between literary studies and social change. Taking up my argument that nineteenth-century novelists wrote in the shadow of the novel of purpose, Caroline Levine has suggested that we present-day critics write in the shadow of purposeful criticism. Like them, we know that our writings are expected to act upon the world—and, like them, we write with that expectation in mind.

In making this claim, Levine is most obviously skewering those critical works whose political gestures are no more sincere than the temperance fictions that Hawthorne and Whitman wrote when they were young and struggling. But she is also, I think, throwing into relief the continuities that exist between forms of scholarship and teaching that we think of as political and forms of scholarship and teaching that we think of in other ways. Such continuities structured the nineteenth-century literary world: contemporary critics used the term “novel of purpose” to refer not only to the small set of novels that were explicitly reformist in their intentions, but also to a whole host of other novels that sought to act in some sort of way on their readers and on the world. By putting *Middlemarch* in the same category as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mary Barton, these critics acknowledged that novelists had learned their conception of purposefulness from the writings of social reform.

Levine prompts us to recognize that similar continuities exist in our own critical world. They are particularly clear in Scott Eric Kaufman’s most recent post and in the discussion that followed it. In his post, Kaufman confesses to the admittedly naive expectation that the study of literature—or the teaching of literature—should have done something for Cho Seung-hui. But what, he asks, can the teaching of literature do? The answers offered in the comment thread oscillate from the explicitly political (teaching students to recognize that the work of racial justice remains undone) to the vaguely improving (teaching as a way of making a difference in students’ lives). What I think Levine’s proposed “criticism of purpose” helps us to see is that these positions are continuous with one another, rather than opposed, and that they both rely on the same purposeful conception of what our writing and teaching is expected to do.

The other topic that has come up in these posts is trans-Atlanticism. In the past ten years or so, trans-Atlanticism has been institutionalized as a recognized subfield in literary studies. (This is due, in no small part, to the work of Paul Giles). What is remarkable about this institutionalization, I would argue, is that it took place without any apparent opposition. This is in stark contrast to the subfields of feminist, African-Americanist, and ethnic studies, which have had to defend their attention to noncanonical works; and it is in contrast to those subfields, such as literary theory and visual culture, which have had to defend the value of their interdisciplinary approaches. Trans-Atlanticism, by contrast, has so far faced only pragmatic objections—and even these tend to be expressed in tones of regret. “That would be really interesting,” people say to the aspiring young trans-Atlanticist, “but how will you get a job? and who will publish your work?” These pragmatic objections have been losing their force, however, as more and more job postings list trans-Atlanticism as a desired subfield and new journals and series are established to publish trans-Atlantic work. And so trans-Atlanticism has been institutionalized without any real debate at all.

I’d like to believe that there was no debate because the value of trans-Atlanticism is simply inarguable, but I suspect that something more complicated is going on. I suspect that trans-Atlanticism is making a more radical claim than English departments are willing to acknowledge, and that the departments are ignoring this radical claim by pre-emptively embracing trans-Atlanticism as one subfield among many.

Subfields, after all, seek to expand literary study as it is currently practiced, either by adding new works to the existing canon or by combining literary approaches with approaches taken from other disciplines. Such expansions can seem threatening when they are first proposed, but in practice they tend to follow a happy process of addition that does not disturb the fundamental structures of the department: some new works are added to the existing syllabus, and some new courses are added to the curriculum. To be sure, these additions can sometimes entail subtractions (courses that are no longer offered, works that are no longer taught), but the old ways of doing things are still largely preserved.

So far, the English departments I know have treated trans-Atlanticism as a subfield like all the rest. They offer a handful of trans-Atlantic courses alongside the regular course offerings, which continue to be almost exclusively national in scope, particularly at the introductory level. In doing so, these departments refuse to acknowledge that trans-Atlanticism calls the national into question by asking why the national should always be the default. This, then, is the more radical claim that trans-Atlanticism makes: that the old syllabuses and old curricula do not need to be expanded, but rather re-configured.

Once we recognize that the actual reading and writing of literary works is only sometimes confined within national boundaries, then we must reverse subfield and field. British literature, US literature—these would be properly understood as rich and rewarding subfields of a field that we might call “literature in English.” As scholars, we could still choose to focus on the literature of one nation, as we might now choose to focus on African-American literature or queer literature or the literature of the US South. But as teachers, we would no longer be justified in taking for granted the priority of the nation.

All this is meant to be polemical: I’m committed to trans-Atlanticism, but I happily teach one lecture course on the nineteenth-century British novel and another on US Literature, 1865-1945. I’m being polemical because I think it’s long past time for us to begin debating the value of trans-Atlanticism—and, in particular, to begin debating how far we are willing to alter our ordinary ways of doing things in light of its radical claims. Because I think that the resistance to these claims has taken the silent form of refusing to reconceive such things as survey courses and graduate exams, I think this debate is most usefully prompted by the simple question: how should we organize the curriculum? I’m eager to hear what all of you think.

But before I close, permit me a final paragraph to say how very much I’ve enjoyed this book event. I’m grateful to the posters who read my book with such care and discussed it with such imagination and generosity; to the commenters who brought their own expertise to the conversation and made it much more rich; and to the powers that be at The Valve, particularly Scott Eric Kaufman and Miriam Burstein, for making these kinds of exchanges possible at all. Many, many thanks to all.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Origins of the novel of reform?

Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Guest Author, on 04/17/07 at 05:45 PM

Reading Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose has made me think deeply about my own period of study, the eighteenth-century novel, in the light of her arguments about the novel’s sense of “purpose” and where that impulse begins in the earliest years of the English novel. As she argues in the case of Dickens, the reformist narrative of conversion often appears as an interpolated tale, as in The Pickwick Papers, framed within a narrative that renders the purpose of that conversion story ironic, or at least ineffective in its putative aims. The teller of the tale is disreputable, the audience of the tale is unmoved, and the tale itself, though frightening or moving in itself, is, by its context, rendered unmoving.

Immediately, I thought of the interpolated tales in Joseph Andrews andTom Jones, during which the characters listen to mens’ tales of dissipated living, resulting in eventual personal change in the former, and misanthropic dissatisfaction with society in the latter. The framing moral structures supplied in the prefaces to Moll Flanders and Pamela, and even in the last pages of Fanny Hill seem to do the same, from the inside out. The messages of personal reform that appear in the beginnings and endings of eighteenth-century novels about the life of sin and attempts to avoid it are rendered ironic (intentionally or unintentionally) by the inflaming pleasure offered by the sinful behavior depicted therein. Moll’s descriptions of her frankly pleasurable exploits in sex and thievery, the “warm scenes” between Pamela and Mr. B, the pornographic exploits of Fanny--they all stick with a certain kind of reader in a way that no amount of moralist justification can. Perhaps Claybaugh doesn’t address the frameworks of reform in novels before the early nineteenth century because the possible “reformist” content of eighteenth-century novels seems so universally dubious. 

Continue reading "Origins of the novel of reform?"

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Criticism of Purpose: Guest Post by Caroline Levine

Posted by Caroline Levine, Guest Author, on 04/16/07 at 06:56 PM

Caroline Levine is Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts (forthcoming from Blackwell this July) and The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt (2003), which won the Perkins Prize for the best book in narrative studies. She recently published an article called “Strategic Formalism: Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies” (Victorian Studies), and she is now co-editing a collection of essays with Mario Ortiz-Robles called Narrative Middles.

So many elegantly intertwined strands make up Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose that it’s not surprising to see Valve contributors move in different directions, as they take up the substantial implications of Claybaugh’s productive and thought-provoking book: the problem of transatlantic studies, the political and ethical efficacy of literary representation, the novel’s relation to other disciplines and genres, the relationship between formalist and historicist research, and of course her own two crucial and complex central questions—reform and realism.

Continue reading "The Criticism of Purpose: Guest Post by Caroline Levine"

The Novel of Purpose: Guest Post by Gregory Garvey

Posted by Gregory Garvey, Guest Author, on 04/16/07 at 11:46 AM

Gregory Garvey is Associate Professor of English at SUNY-Brockport.  He is author of Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum America and editor of The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform.  He has served as director of the Director of the SUNY Center on Russia and the USA, at Moscow State University and as Fulbright Senior Scholar at St. Petersburg State University.

The two dialogues at the center of this book—British/American and reform/novel—must have been hugely difficult to orchestrate.  It might just be because my own interests, but I felt the tension between reform culture and the developing conventions of the novel answered and raised the most questions.  This dimension of Amanda Claybaugh’s book has made me think of a distinction between two ways of pursuing cosmopolitan discourses.  On the one hand there is work like Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters which makes a structuralist argument regarding the economies and politics through which literature flows amongst borders and identities.  Casanova tries to map out flows, the motives of flows, places where literary culture accumulates, etc.  On the other hand there are projects like John Rawls’s The Law of Peoples in which he takes his theory of “justice as fairness” and goes global, trying to imagine the ways people with fundamentally different value systems can construct what he refers to as “decent” societies.  A recent example of this line is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.  This line is focused less on mapping the structure and internal tension of reform and more on analyzing the obstacles that prevent or slow change.

Amanda Claybaugh’s book is, I think, more like Casanova’s in that it tries to create a complicated and subtle map of simultaneous change in several spheres of cultural production.  It is amazing the rigor with which Claybaugh stays on topic—almost never swerving away from the study of literary representation into the rough-and-tumble of struggles amongst social reform activists.  This book contains the tensions of reform within a discussion of literary production and reception more thoroughly and productively than anything else I have read.  It also manages to do it in a period of very significant change in the conventions of the novel and during a kind of golden age of reform culture.  The pressure that Claybaugh puts on her authors to explain how tropes, conventions, and goals of reform animate their narratives and define their characters has revealed processes of thought and evolution and are important to understanding the relationship between politics and aesthetics in this period.

Continue reading "The Novel of Purpose: Guest Post by Gregory Garvey"

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Novel of Purpose: Guest Post by Paul Giles

Posted by Paul Giles, Guest Author, on 04/14/07 at 01:35 PM

This is a guest post by Paul Giles, author of two of the most important studies of transatlantic culture, Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730-1860 and Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary.  Giles is Professor of American Literature and Director of the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford.  His most recent book is Atlantic Republic: The American Tradition in English Literature.

I think the great virtue of Claybaugh’s book is the way that it complicates our received understanding of the 19th century Anglo-American novel.  In Claybaugh’s eyes, the 19th century novel is not simply a more difficult field—something Miriam Burstein suggests in her post above to be characteristic of transatlantic studies in general—but also one whose formal properties are hybrid and overlapping.  The 19th century novel oscillated not only between Britain and America but also between art and journalism, between comedy and moral reform.  The theories of professional specialization which evolved in the period after the Second World War had the deleterious effect, as Scott Eric Kaufman notes in his introduction to this thread, of immobilizing the genre of the novel, of setting it apart as though it were some kind of rarefied aesthetic object.  When “Middlemarch,” for example, was canonized by literary critics in the middle of the 20th century, they generally failed to observe how, in an era before professional areas such as sociology and political science had become established, George Eliot naturally saw it as her task to address a much more diffuse range of material than would subsequently come to be categorized under the narrow rubric of “literature.” The transatlantic circulation of texts adds another dimension to this model, so that, as Claybaugh notes, Martineau, Dickens and others become major players in reform movements on both sides of the Atlantic.  “The Novel of Purpose,” then, is fundamentally a historicizing project, which seeks to reconstitute the modes of production and reception within which these writers were operating.  In the wake of Meredith McGill’s work on reading cultures, there’s some very useful information here on booksellers and libraries—W.H. Smiths, Mudies, and so on—and the ways in these shaped the consumption of the novel in the 19th century.

Claybaugh also addresses here the ways in which reform as a general model for the novel raised difficult questions about the nature of representation.  George Eliot’s own redefinition of “purposefulness as an attribute of realism itself” (121), for example, might be seen to be is at odds with the character of Will Ladislaw in “Middlemarch,” for whom “realist representations are at odds with reform” (126).  Eliot thus raises doubts about the legibility of reform, the ways in which any idea of a future state might properly be described in art.  This skepticism brings to mind Leo Bersani’s more radical proposition, in his book “A Future for Astyanax,” that literary realism itself is always an inherently conservative medium, since it closes down options rather than allowing for the possibility of progressive or transgressive spaces within the text.  Indeed, one of the interesting questions Claybaugh’s book raises is to what extent we as readers need to take the agendas of these reformist novels on their own literal terms, or at face value.  Most bien-pensant readers today would presumably not be unsympathetic to the causes addressed in these narratives—antislavery, temperance, women’s rights, a liberalization of the divorce laws—but in general these are quintessentially 19th century concerns which would tend to raise quizzical curiosity rather than activist passion in our own era.

What I’d suggest, then, is that these discourses of social reform operate as shadow narratives within these novels, just as Augustan humanism implicitly structures Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” or the ideals of courtly love inform Chaucer’s “Troilus and Crisyede.” And just as we don’t need to be devotees of courtly love in order to appreciate Chaucer’s poem, so we don’t need fully to engage with these reform agendas in order to read Twain or Hardy.  In fact, it’s perhaps the contradictions in Hardy’s narratives that, on an aesthetic level, constitute some of their most interesting elements. Although “Jude the Obscure” might have been written with one eye on New Woman Fiction (194), for instance, part of Sue Bridehead’s dilemma is precisely that she’s caught psychologically between the competing claims of emancipation and social convention.  In this sense, “Jude the Obscure” and “Huckleberry Finn” seem not so much novels of purpose as novels of meta-purpose, as it were, which brood reflexively upon the possibilities of reform and seek to test the more abstract theories of social betterment against the experiential conditions of 19th century life.  Claybaugh’s book is alert to the multiple ambiguities and ontological limitations associated with the idea of reform in this era, and some of her most interesting observations in this book relate to those points in Victorian novels where reform agendas fail, where the realist logic of representation comes into conflict with something that can’t be encompassed within its benevolent orbit. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media Into the Twenty-first Century

Posted by Jenny Davidson, Guest Author, on 04/10/07 at 08:08 PM

This is a guest post by Jenny Davidson. You may know her from her blog, Light Reading. She is the author of several books, including a forthcoming children’s book that sounds rather interesting to the Management. The Management likes how a short summary of her new novel interdigitates with certain other data; and there the two hands sit - with a certain satisfaction, not to say an air of finality - in the lap of the sidebar; the fingers of each lightly drumming on the other, I should imagine. "Sigmund Freud is a radio talk-show crank, cars run on hydrogen and the most prominent scientists experiment with new ways of contacting the dead. I teach in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University." And if you believe that, let me tell you: prof. Davidson has very kindly provided us with a review of what sounds to the Management like an interesting book, by Marina Warner.
- the Management

Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media Into the Twenty-first Century by Marina Warner (Oxford University Press), 469pp., £18.99

At one point in Marina Warner’s stimulating new book on the history of spirit and its embodiments in modern Europe, the author asks to see a sample of ectoplasm captured from a medium in a 1939 séance and catalogued in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research. “Are you sure?” responds the librarian. “It’s very nasty.” The box, when it arrives, contains four yards of dressmakers’ silk, washed and ironed but still creased and blood-stained; using a post room scale, Warner learns its weight—236 grams—and places herself thereby in the tradition of the rationalist investigators of the spirit whose work she at once applauds and deplores (299). Her dismay at the ways privileged (and mostly male) psychic researchers incited abject displays by trance mediums who were mostly female and socially subordinate does not, fortunately, render her so scrupulous as to hold back the gruesome details (one scientist speculated a particular medium’s “emanations” were made of “an animal’s lung tissue cut to resemble a human hand”) (303). Though the subject of ectoplasm “now tends to provoke involuntary laughter, shivers, and, on closer look, real horror,” Warner observes, it represents an important chapter in her story about the imagination’s summoning of spirits in European modernity (299-300): “Unlike any of the preceding vehicles of spirit, ectoplasm’s affinities verge on the category of bodily wastes, palpable and tangible, emphatically not sublimed matter: it leaked and bubbled and flowed from the medium’s innards” (295).

Continue reading "Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media Into the Twenty-first Century"

Saturday, February 17, 2007

How can we talk about race in English literature?

Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Guest Author, on 02/17/07 at 10:23 AM

[Cross-posted to the Long 18th]

Last night I attended a particularly fruitful talk by Kim Hall (Director of Africana Studies at Barnard) on sugar production in the seventeenth-century West Indies and the use of “sweetness” in English writings about domestic economy and husbandry. Her talk, “Foreign Encounters with Domestic Economies,” covered a great deal of ground, moving from historical descriptions of the African slave labor that produced sugar from cane (making it, for the first time, readily available to English people outside the very wealthiest class) to the kinds of advertisement writing that appeared in the seventeenth century describing the West Indies to the English, and therefore to prospective investors. Not surprisingly, these latter texts largely skip over the facts of slave labor, instead describing the land as itself somehow yielding up not only ready-to-use sugar, but also candies, cakes, and marmalades. Later, she went on to discuss the use of “sweetness” in C17 English poetry, the valuation of “sugar” metaphors over “honey” ones, and especially how the use of “sweetness” relates to English conceptions of English husbandry, as employed at home and in the colonies.

The range and depth promise good things for her forthcoming book, The Sweet Taste of Empire, which promises to cover all this material in greater depth and detail.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Blog Triumphalism, Redux.

Posted by Tedra Osell, Guest Author, on 02/06/07 at 11:54 AM

Hi y’all.  Holbo and Kaufman and Singh, bloggy friends all, asked me at the MLA why I wasn’t posting at the Valve?  “No one’s asked me to,” I said.  “We didn’t think you’d be interested,” they replied.  Since I’m all about writing as much as possible that isn’t “real” academic writing, I berated them for their (lack of?) presumption, told them they were all sexist, and made them sign me up for a stint as a guest poster. 

It’s possible some of you reading this may know me under a different name, but for the sake of intellectual coherence--an author-function is not the same thing as a writer, as we all know--I, Tedra Osell, am not that other person, and we shan’t talk about her.  Until and unless I decide to address the author-function issue, which will probably happen sooner rather than later, since poking at murky water to see what comes up is a favorite occupation of mine.

We’ll see if anyone wants me to stick around after an introduction like that.  To start with, though, a tame, but interesting, news item.

Continue reading "Blog Triumphalism, Redux."

Apocalypse in my class

Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Guest Author, on 02/06/07 at 11:29 AM

(Cross-posted at The Long 18th)

While teaching last semester’s Brit Lit Survey, I kept realizing that there were assumptions my students were making that did not seem conducive to a clear discussion of the works. There is a temptation when studying so much literature across so much history at a time to collapse all the historical and religious differences and see endless similarities between everything, especially in their papers. I was trying to find a model for getting them to think about conceptual differences this semester, so I came up with something that may sound a little crazy.

I said, “Imagine everything that you experience through your five senses that can be verified by someone else. If you see an elephant, you can ask a friend if she sees the elephant. If your milk tastes sour, you could ask someone else to taste it. Put all of those things in a circle and call it ‘empirical experience.’” I drew a circle on the board.

Then I asked them to think of all the things that don’t fit in that circle and I wrote them up around the circle. Experiences with God, creative thought, dreams, ghosts, sexual ecstasy, madness, and the world that is too large or too small for human perception went outside the circle. They are all things that an individual might “feel” or “know” as an individual, but never be able to directly get verification of from someone else. For example, if I claim to have had a prophetic vision of God, you’re going to have to call me insane or trust me on it. I can’t ask you if you agree with my description of the vision because you can’t share it with me.

One of the ways I’m trying to get them to think about the history of English literature is as a series of shifting relations between the inside and the outside of that circle, and the methods by which writers attempt to transcend, destroy, or maintain that boundary. Does a writer use the verifiable as a source of metaphors for achieving the unverifiable, as in Donne? Does a writer try to show that the boundary is merely a construct, and that the outer lives within the inner, as in Blake? Does a writer assert the existence of the outer, but redirects the focus toward the empirical, as in Pope? Does a writer seem to deny the existence of the outer, by suggesting that no boundary exists around the empirical, as in Pater? (These are gross simplifications, but maybe useful for illustrating the variety of possible relationships to the model.)

We’re reading a number of poems about apocalypse this semester, and my students are always rather curious about why so many English poets are obsessed with it. A great number of my students were raised in the Christian church, but only one of my 50 this semester claims to have read Revelations, so they’re suprised to see its imagery so frequently employed in poetry when it doesn’t play a large role in their religious training. My guess is that apocalypse is what many poets see as the ideal end of poetry.

Most of my students are used to thinking of “apocalypse” as “the end of the world” or “nuclear crisis” or something. I’m trying to get them to think of it as what its Greek origin (apokalyptein, to uncover) suggests, that it is a removal of a boundary between the empirical world and the divine, allowing us to verifiably experience (directly, together) something beyond what our five senses allow. For different poets in different eras, poetry can have the power to suggest what that uncovering would reveal, or that there is nothing to uncover, or that humans can’t imagine beyond that covering, or that poetry itself can perform that uncovering.

In some sense, a communal experience of the sublime in a poem is a moment of potential apocalypse, as it’s tantalizingly almost verifiable.

I am hoping that this model will provide us with a way of talking about religion, sexuality, and creativity without merely reverting to our own personal experiences with them. I am not someone who bans discussion of personal experience in any way, but I do find that a student can get hung up on thinking of a piece of writing as reflecting his own experience, and then arguing that it is therefore “true.” As one of my advisors, Blanford Parker, once told me when I complained to him about this, students need that moment of self-recognition before then being able to make finer distinctions, but getting them to move from pleasure to analysis is the most difficult step.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Reputation, Gender, and Academic Performance

Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Guest Author, on 01/29/07 at 07:41 PM

Now that I’ve outlined a project, introduced my work, and started a fight, the time has come to talk about gender. I am fully aware of how conversations about gender* tend to go here. Men are thugs, women are hypersensitive, men more hypersensitive, women are cruel, men are decadently privileged, women are humorless opportunists, men are not as smart as they think they are, women don’t play by the rules, etc. (Or is that the complete set?) You will not be surprised to know that I am pretty sure all of these things are true, and are pretty regularly true in comments here. At least we all seem to agree that there has been a masculinist drift here, and that it’s not a good thing, even if we disagree about the cause for that drift.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Kotsko throws down

Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Guest Author, on 01/28/07 at 06:35 PM

As most of you have probably already seen, Adam Kotsko has soundly mocked my maiden voyage, apparently to prove wrong my assertion that bad-faith interactions are not intellectually fruitful. By taking a (bad) sentence of mine out of context and extrapolating from that one point in every possible direction, he’s written a very funny satire on the most vulnerable part of my position by aligning me with those who theorize what they have demonstrated no empirical knowledge of. At first, this seemed absurd to me, but I’m starting to understand why he did it. (If watching me unpack a good joke is too boring, don’t read below the fold.)

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Dave Maier tells you interesting stuff about Rorty

Posted by Dave Maier, Guest Author, on 01/25/07 at 11:14 AM

I think literary studies folks should know more about Davidson, and learning a bit about him through a discussion of Rorty, who is also interesting, seems like a good idea, so I’ve made Dave do all the hard work. His blog is here. - the Management

John has invited me to say a bit more about the (R. Brandom, ed.) Rorty and his Critics collection we both like, for those interested (the rest of you can go back to arguing about whether Nabokov was a perv, or a robot, or whatever).  I was going to say “dragooned,” but I must admit I’m always up for talking about Rorty and his critics (seeing as the latter group includes me, me, me).  And I see that I have written a bit more than “a bit.” Oh well.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Belated introduction

Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Guest Author, on 01/23/07 at 05:17 PM

All yesterday, I was trying to think of how to introduce myself here. I said I would do it, but every time I tried to write it, I realized I didn’t know how. To introduce oneself is to assume the reader cares who one is. So I decided to post this thing first and tell you who I am after.

I’m a fourth-year English Ph.D. student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, working on a dissertation on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conceptions of “common sense,” as they appear in epistemological, aesthetic, ethical, and political arguments ranging from Locke to Paine. I’ll talk about this more, if you like, but I tend to keep most of my eighteenth-century thoughts at home. I teach two sections of a British Literature survey course at Queens College, and you’re welcome to peruse the syllabus and most of the readings here, if you are curious.

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