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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

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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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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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On the form of Jenny Davidson’s Breeding

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/26/09 at 01:50 PM

Odd as it may seem, I want to kick off this book event not by discussing the book’s argument—I’ll address that on Friday—but by focusing on its form.  Consider page 44:

image

The print’s too small to read there, but you don’t need to be able to read it to understand what’s so unusual about Davidson’s argument: the trailing paragraph from 43 consists entirely of a quotation and is followed by a block quotation.  In fact, 301 of the 409 words on that page belong to Locke, which means that the “[s]tory-telling of the kind [Jenny does] in this book” (41) is largely done by other people.  In allowing the subjects of her analysis to define their terms at such length, she cedes the voice of the book to her interlocutors, which makes for an odd, yet somehow familiar, reading experience. 

Rarely do you finish a secondary work feeling like you read the primary sources, but that’s precisely the impression created by Breeding.  It took me a long while to realize why Jenny’s long citations were both familiar and compelling, but I finally did: Breeding is less like a scholarly monography and more like John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World.  I confess that finding in an academic book qualities similar to those of one of your favorite books sounds suspiciously like discovering the germ of your dissertation in a Disney cartoon, in that you tend to see what you’re looking for when you look for it.  But I really believe the analogy holds.  McPhee drove back and forth across the country alongside the brightest geological minds in order to tell the story of how America came to look like America, and he let the monologues of his companions dominate his book; similarly, Jenny and her interlocutors guide us through the 18th Century, and she allows voices of her companions to dominate her book.  In short, both provide sharp analysis under the guise of judicious narration.

Given the premium placed on demonstrations of original thought—be it at conferences or in articles and books—her decision to use her book as a vehicle to tell other people’s story seems like an unnecessary risk, but as Breeding demonstrates, it’s one more of us should consider taking.


Comments

Well, I do not want to pre-empt third-person comment by premature authorial intervention - but you did not say what I thought you were about to, which is that my style in the book clearly is related to blog format!  I cannot tell you what the cause and effect might be - I am partly drawn to blogging because of the way it lets one excerpt and then just offer brief commentary - but I am sure that the voice and style of quotation and commentary I developed as I started posting at Light Reading fed into the way I worked on the book…

By Jenny Davidson on 05/26/09 at 05:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jenny, that thought did cross my mind, but I thought that analogy did, in fact, break down.  On Light Reading, you’re posting short items with long quotations, but they don’t bear any necessary relation to one another except through you.  So we’ll get a 17th Century discussion of finches, followed by a New Yorker article on swimming, &c.  What impressed me about Breeding—why I thought it fundamentally different from your blogging—was that you incorporated those long quotations into a narrative instead of a narrative of self (as on the blog). 

The other analogy I thought about but didn’t draw was between your evident comfort in letting other voices speak for themselves and your fiction.  One of the reasons I’m a failed novelist is that I’ve never been able to make my characters sound like anyone other than me.  (Basically, I turn into Chuck Palahniuk.) So I turned to academia, where I could discuss other characters who didn’t sound like me because they aren’t me, but was told that if I let other speak too much, people would think less of me as a scholar—so I stomp over other people’s prose in the name of analysis, instead of doing what you’ve done here.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/26/09 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll have my own post up tomorrow, but in the meantime I’ll note that Scott’s observation seems correct: this is a work of criticism that seems very self-aware about its affiliations to literature, through quotation, allusion, metaphor, stylistic flourish, and so forth. 

I have to say that, unlike Scott, I don’t find the effect particularly novelistic, simply because the voices are in some way equalized by the book’s historical narrative.  We move from one voice to another pretty quickly.

By dave mazella on 05/26/09 at 06:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was going to mention the blogging . . . but instead I’ll say that Jenny’s style in this book displays two qualities she seems to have in abundance: confidence and a love of her material and the richly individual voices it offers. If a point is better made in the voice of one of the writers she’s studying, she’s confident enough to let him or her make it, rather than worrying about demonstrating her own familiarity with the material. That confidence also allows her to display her thinking self on the page when appropriate--we never imagine that this book is anything but the product of a particular mind burrowing into topics of abiding personal interest. It’s a refreshing approach.

By Levi Stahl on 05/26/09 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have to say that, unlike Scott, I don’t find the effect particularly novelistic, simply because the voices are in some way equalized by the book’s historical narrative.  We move from one voice to another pretty quickly.

Authentic heteroglossia, baby!  (Can you tell I’m a recovering modernist?)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/27/09 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There have been a lot of discussions of blogging that have used the metaphor of the common-place book, and that would work pretty well to describe how it works here.  The interesting question for me, though, is what effect those long block quotes are intended to have.  Are they there to familiarize, or defamiliarize, the material they are discussing?  My feeling is that they are relatively well-known literary passages whose job is to anchor the discussion of things less familiar to a lit-crit audience. So it’s early modern, not modernist, as far as I’m concerned (in spite of the Sebald tribute in the Intro).

By dave mazella on 05/27/09 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The idea that Davidson (or McPhee) “allows voices of her companions to dominate her book” is an interesting one, and my skepticism of it as a real possibility isn’t meant to take away from the possible pay off of “using her book as a vehicle to tell other people’s story” in their own voices. I admit I’m too embroiled in debates on this kind of question in anthropology to be able to keep my pomo skepticism in check (James Clifford’s stuff, for example, at least since “On Ethnographic Authority"); there’s something really valuable about using this kind of heteroglossia as a way of structuring the text by reference to its dialectical conversation with itself, but it’s also important (I think) to never let ourself get too caught up in the idea that we’re actually hearing the original voices of the speakers without real game changing forms of mediation.

That said, the analogy between this and blogging nicely illustrates something different about the way they each manage their heteroglossia:while a piece of block text in a book simply sits there, inert and interpellated however the author has pleased, a hyperlink allows two way access, not only opening a pathway to the other writer, but in many cases actively inviting a return conversation. Its sort of like the difference between old school anthropology, when there was never any real fear that the natives would read books about them (though they often did), and the brave world we now inhabit, where it’s possible for Jared Diamond to get busted for slandering his human subjects.

By on 05/27/09 at 08:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My favorite history books really are the ones that use detail and extensive primary sources to recreate a world. You don’t even realize that there’s an argument at work, sometimes, until long afterwards. I’ve often told my students that the most honest and realistic historians give you enough evidence that you could disagree with them, that you could read the evidence presented and formulate different theses. But the really good ones, of course, convince you that their reading of the evidence is the best one.

If I had to compare it to something, I think it would be a work of oral history: those are the historical works most likely to be similarly generous with primary sources. You could almost rearrange this like an oral history: framing, interview, analysis; repeat as necessary.

By Jonathan Dresner on 05/28/09 at 01:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think a lot of this depends on the kind of history being written, and how many times those primary sources have been mined to assemble those narratives.  A parliamentary history of the English Civil War will necessitate a different attitude towards its primary sources than a social history of a little fishing village in Louisiana. 

Frank Ankersmit has talked about the danger of historians conflating their research with the writing process, as if writing history involved nothing more than transcription.  Davidson justifiably highlights the issue of selection, and a large part of the rhetorical work of such quotation lies in finding just the right passage that would further your argument.

By dave mazella on 05/28/09 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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