Saturday, December 12, 2009

Graduation Domination


I don't know when I'll get tired of cheesy rhyming and alliterative titles. Given the uninspired, smug disgustingness of some current titles in academia, I hope never!

I haven't been on here a bloggin' in a long while. I graduate next week, and damn if that kinda thing doesn't take up a lot of time.

Speaking of titles, here's some things I'm working on, some of which I'll merrily post here when the craziness is finally over:

"The Resurrection of the Author: Writer, Reader, and Biography in The Hours"

Now that's an ambitious title! Hopefully I can do it a shred of justice. I'm still torn between fawning over and railing at Kristeva, hence the first title-chunk. The second title-chunk explains. Notice I didn't say "Michael Cunningham's The Hours," because "The Hours" encompasses both his work and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (it was her working title). Ha! The paper's about both, of course. I'm writing about how Cunningham is dancing pretty close to the edge (well, sometimes plunging right in) when it comes to authorial intent, reader's interpretations, and pulling biography into the "conversation." These things Kristeva would mostly poo-poo, even though pairs of works like these have a lot of generic (rather than brand-name Kristevan) intertextuality to talk about.

On a much siller note, here is a direct-to-blog release I've been working on intermittently:

"Gidget and the Gypsy Learn Voodoo" or something like that. It's a little postcolonial analysis of an episode of Gidget I caught on one of those classic TV channels while I was trying to write a paper. (Sometimes the background noise helps.) A gypsy steals her surfboard and all kinds of hoodoo about Voodoo (what's Voodoo got to do with gypsies?) comes up, along with "superstition" bashing, gypsy orientalizing, and Gidget's usual Malibu hijinks. I couldn't help myself. The funny part is the title of the episode is "Like Voodoo." I don't know if this means, in sixties language, "It's, like, Voodoo man!" or if the writers wrote it that way because they knew deep down that gypsies are not Vodouisants. There is so much more to say about this thing... I might finish it up tonight.

Next, heres a paper I haven't titled yet because I don't even know where to start with it:

My final paper for my final english class of my final semester (whew!) is a reflection paper. An extremely long reflection paper, but a reflection paper nonetheless. We are to state our theoretical position (!) -- or at least our theoretical leanings anyway -- and discuss what led us down our particular theory paths. Now I know when I get to grad school there may or may not be students who claim "I am a Marxist! or "I am a Narratologist!" or whatever have you, (I hope first that they wouldn't jump to such a conclusion so early in their studies, and second, that they wouldn't ever come to such a hard and fast conclusion!) So while this won't turn out to be a critical writing sample, it will definitely be a good way to work on a paper from which I can extract a good statement of academic purpose.

Finally, in philosophy land (since I'm also in the last class to complete my philosophy minor):

I'm glad to be working on a paper that combines literature and philosophy -- I'm writing on Kafka's The Trial and "the incomprehensible" in Existentialist literature. Quite a way to go on this one. It'll be a tough week. I'm hoping time become a little uncompressed in grad school, at least as far as paper-writing goes. Two-week papers don't seem like the thing to do there.

I just got home from an excellent little party at the cozy house of my senior seminar professor. It was kind of funny because he used it as a practice party for all of us, sort of an etiquette lesson for future professorial dinner parties. Some of the students who sometimes annoy me in a classroom setting ended up being great at a party, and some of the smarter students were actually very quiet. I dropped some good one-liners. It was nice to see everyone in a new context, and I hope next fall I can begin a new chapter where social interaction with like-minded English nerds who tell literary jokes is not just an end-of-year treat, but a regular ongoing sort of thing.

Now to the papers.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Heaths, Moors, and Pinafores


The November Anthropologie catalog arrived today, and the dreamy photos on its matte finish pages were more stirring than usual. In what I would guess are the West Midlands of England (they never let on) a realistically beautiful girl wanders over moors, trips over becks, and communes with low stone walls and knotty pines. Having just read Jane Eyre, I pictured her running on those same heaths and stumbling down those same winding roads. And of course, as Anthropologie would have it, I pictured myself there too.

While the clothes are always gorgeous, I have to admit it's the whole Anthropologie package that works on me. Though sometimes less than others. There was an issue in which a tragically hip man and woman lived in a burnt out house on an island, basking on their threadbare fainting couches and kicking their $400 boots off under a half-destroyed kitchen table in a kitchen that did not look heated. Those kinds of scenarios just make me laugh. Those people, as much as they might think it hip to live in a decrepit 19th century farmhouse, would probably never really do that.

I, however, would most definitely run across a moor! Maybe even in heels, as some of the pictures suggest. But more likely in sturdy shoes and lots of scarves. I would also lean gazing out the window of a Moroccan hotel and then go get lost in bazaars full of lamps. I would also sit on the porch of a trailer covered in license plates and let the old man who lives there tell me a story. All these things have been shown to me by Anthropologie, but I think they were already waiting in the back of my mind to be awakened by suggestive photographs.


Are these scenarios cliche? Only among art-school-girls. But those are cliche too I guess. I think most people would find these pictures strange. Why go to a cold wet moor when you could go to Hawaii? That's what the Victoria's Secret girls do. You won't catch them wandering the Midlands in tights and peacoats, just longing for a bumpy carriage ride. They might head to Morocco now and again, but certainly not to buy a live bird at the market. Only Anthropologie girls do those kinds of silly things.

But there must be a lot of girls to whom those off-beat activities appeal. Anthro counts on it. Perhaps half their customers (the ones who can afford the clothes) just like the look of the photos, the idea of visiting strange places, the aesthetic efforts that went into matching frocks with places. Or they're like the ex-Manhattan newlyweds living in the tear-down farmhouse, just imagining themselves slumming it. Or, they like to Orientalize* the photo locales and project their fantasies onto them. I can't know how these girl/place/beauty representations look in the eyes of the privileged, but I think some of the women and girls who look at these photos see them as real places they could go and things they could do.

*With some of these locations there is a Pandora's box of postcolonial as well as feminist issues that I could go into. But that's for another time.

Looking at the last few issues and drawing on my memory, it seems the first half of the catalogs are for the first type of Anthro girls I described. The fashion is the focus, and the locales, while sometimes whimsical, are sleek or opulent. Sometimes this division doesn't hold true, especially when they find a locale they love, but it's usually split in two. For the first halves, November's has a girl lounging by enormous baroque mantelpieces and mirrors. October's features a woman in a modern feng-shui sort of home. Years ago we find a first-half lady sipping lattes at a coffee shop and puttering about her loft. The first half ladies are all well off, all in high fashion or sleek understated looks, and they appear to be kept. They're mostly blonde.

A first-half woman, her house, her man.

In the refreshing second halves of these same respective issues we find: our brown-haired Jane Eyre on the heaths, a stern-looking tousle-haired woman exploring an ancient barn, and a red-headed funny-faced waif who appears to work (not shop) at the art gallery that serves as her backdrop. The back-of-the-catalog girls are the adventurous, self-sufficient, less-than-perfect ones. They aren't sitting around the house, they aren't out shopping for shoes in some European city, and they don't look like they're thinking about what their men are doing. They're the ones who I identify with, whether I like to admit it or not.

I know there are problems with all of this. Even if these women represent some positive things for me, they are still trying to sell me clothes. I almost never buy the clothes, so I guess I win on that point. I think I have three things, collected over the past ten years, and I got them all from the clearance closet. However, they are also trying to sell me beauty, even if it is not of the 100% symmetrical and flawless variety pictured in the first halves of the catalogs. They use the artist's, the writer's, the dancer's love for these beautiful places, plant a gorgeous but approachable looking girl there, someone you might like to talk to (especially since your lot tends to be lonely) and then they wait for the scenario to do its work on you. You might not buy the whole new line this season, but at least they can count on you to wander into the clearance closet once in a while, in search of that dress that makes you feel as if you're perpetually appearing in a stone doorway.

Whether they're just plain evil, or whether they're nice to send me some pretty pictures every month I'm not sure. But I am sure that I cannot now go to England without making a special point of finding a place like this one, and frolicking in it for a time.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stealing the I-word


After spending a few evenings with Julia Kristeva and her detractor William Irwin, and doing a little bit of research on the Sokal affair, I feel like I'm caught in the middle of a dirty fight.

Kristeva's "Word, Dialog, Novel" is the 1966 article wherein she coins the term "intertextuality" and sets it apart from other types of intertextual happenings we may have wanted to accredit to it. The first on her list of "not intertextualities" is allusion. Irwin is quick to hit the ball right back at her in his "Against Intertextuality," and the first action of hers he tackles is her dismissal of allusion. This beef about allusions is not the main point of his article, but since they are the first thing that Kristeva makes clear are not part of the intertextual play, Irwin uses allusions (and even makes allusions to other texts in the opening paragraph!) to make a point about the consequences of Kristeva's approach to literature and meaning. "As some would tell the story," Irwin writes, "allusion died along with the author. It is now naive and reactionary (emphasis mine) to speak of allusion, and it has been displaced by intertextuality."

I understand why allusion is excluded from Kristeva's theory. It's just not part of what she's getting at. Her intertextuality comes from linguistics, semiotics, and even metaphysics. It's about fluidity and ambivalence of meaning being unavoidable, because every text is caught up in the flow of language, history, the literary corpus, and anything else we could call a text (even the reader and the author are texts, not interpreters or creators). No use in me trying to explain it. Suffice it to say that it's highly theoretical, can be put to work for the political, but does not appear to have any necessary teleology. As far as I can tell, it is a descriptive ontological theory of literature and of all texts.

But Irwin even asks the big question, whether it's "an ontological description or a mode of interpretation?" The short answer is both, that the description "gives birth," as Irwin says, to the mode of interpretation. That makes sense -- first you figure out what something is, then you figure out what to make out of it. But then things start to get blurry. All these descriptions are so fluid themselves, and as Irwin jokes, the I-word "has come to have almost as many meanings as users."

So tracking down allusions and considering what new meanings they bring to the text, or what new lights they shed on the text alluded to, may not offer any insight into a Kristevan look at a text. I'm still not even sure what a Kristevan interpretation looks like. But I don't think we can really dismiss the "naive," elementary sort of take on the term intertextuality, that is, the things it sounds like it means. It sounds like it means you have to look at what happens between literary texts, especially when one text is aware of others. I'm not talking about Lisa Simpson playing Ophelia, but I am talking about things like frequent and specific Biblical references in a text, master narratives shared by myriad texts, recurring figures i.e. Christ or Faust, and yes, I'm talking about what happens when one text has the balls, the unmitigated audacity, to directly address another!

This last category leaves me baffled as to what to do about the dead author and his stifled intentions. Is there nothing to be gained by reading an old text in the light of a new text, knowing full well that new text was meant to shed some kind of light? We are discussing some important pairs from this category in my senior seminar on intertextuality: Beowulf/Grendel*, and Mrs. Dalloway/The Hours. (Watch out for those slash marks - something might fly apart.) These pairs are intertextual in the non-Kristevan sense. First of all, we're mostly looking at them in pairs, not so much as floaters on the intertextual sea. But I don't think that makes our work on them "literary study for dummies," nor does it mean my professor didn't get Kristeva. I think he thinks that Kristeva is brilliant, but certainly not the keeper of every incarnation of things that could be said to be intertextual. And I think I agree.

*I think interpreting some three (or more) texts "Beowulf/Beowulf/Beowulf, etc" (as in "traditionally translated poem/Heany-wulf/the Beowulf oral tradition, etc.) in light of each other would be closer to Kristevan intertextuality, but even that's not exactly Kristeva's vision of what to do with this thing.

I also think there's probably no reason to get worked up about intertextuality because Kristeva would just call what we are doing in our humble classroom something completely different, and not a threat to her ontology of texts. But I do think there is a sort of snobbery that surrounds Kristeva and her followers that makes the rest of us wonder -- When we get to grad school, what words are we still allowed to use (did she service mark them?) without being corrected? And what sort of interpretations are we allowed to engage in that won't get us kicked out of the Rainbow Room? See there I go being reactionary!

By the by, I just learned about the Sokal affair: A hoax article with a hilarious, senseless title was published in a postmodern journal in 1996. The physicist (Sokal) who wrote it thought this proved postmodern theory was in the toilet. I don't know if it's as simple as that, but I do think that there is some riding around on high horses going on, and that a fundamental problem with postmodernism is its hypocrisy. It claims to be a leveler, to embrace the popular, to be anti-elite. But it makes a new elite, the kind where people look at the kitschy sculpture and pretend to know what's ironic about it, and get away with it by saying something about hermeneutics (since no one else at the party knows what that is). I know this sort of scenario could never come true (or could it!?) in academia, but being only explicable within the highest echelons of academics only adds to postmodernism's internal problem of being esoteric and therefore hypocritical. I have to laugh with it, be boggled by it, and stick my tongue out at it at the same time. At least in that sense, I think it's doing its job?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Explaining the Joke


I. PREFATORY DISCLAIMER

You're about to witness me trying to pull together examples from a postmodern novel, some popular fiction and even (dare I!?) a few cartoon series, in order to show what I mean by "explaining the joke." This is liable to be ugly, but it might be fun!

II. GROENING, et al.

Let's start with the cartoons, because the explanations (and jokes) happen most obviously there, and when I say they "explain the joke" I mean it quite literally. It is impossible to watch an episode of The Simpsons, for example, without having at least one joke (or situation) explained for you.

I think the goal of the writers (who get paid way too much money) here is twofold. First, they want to make sure the highest number of gags work for the highest number of audience members. Second, they want to make a second joke by explaining the first joke.

The first type of explanation is used when a reference is made, and the writers are afraid it might be lost on younger (or stupider) viewers.

The second type of explanation is used whenever a writer feels like it (maybe when a scene is moving too slow) and wants to explain the obvious, especially the obviously ironic -- and that's the joke. This happens most often on Family Guy, but The Simpsons cannot be absolved of guilt either.

Homer is having a bad day, then he walks away from the
coffee table and it's stuck to his pants.
He tells us the coffee table is stuck to his pants
and adding to his bad day.

A mix of these two, a third type of explanation, happens when some kind of rhetorical or plot device is used that might be lost on some viewers. It is explained for their benefit. But this explanation functions as an "explaining the obvious" joke for the savvy cartoon viewer (as if there is such a thing!). I picture Stewie Griffin saying something like:

"You see what I did there? I equated you with a transvestite.
You're a transvestite. You wear women's clothing."

I have always poo pooed these kind of jokes as an insult to my intelligence, as a damper on the actually funny jokes, and as a comedy crutch. I especially can't stand the explanations that make reference-based jokes funny for everyone. I have always thought of a reference as a sort of inside joke for those who know the reference -- right? In one Simpsons episode, there is a rapid succession of references ending with Homer riding a bomb to his death. I got them, and they were not explained. I felt like they were much more successful "jokes" because of what was left unsaid.

But you know, until the scene was over I didn't put it past those writers to have Homer say something like, "I'm riding the bomb! Just like the cowboy guy in Dr. Strangelove when he falls out of the plane! Weeee!" and then have Bart walk up and say "Enough with the sixties movie references, Homer." You know it could happen just like that, reader. Does it not make you even a little annoyed?

(Sorry if I seem hostile -- I've been hanging out late nights with Charlotte Bronte. Plus I'm listening to Kansas who are insisting that I'm dust in the wind.)

III. YATES

My next example of explaining the joke is more like "explaining the literary device." But it functions like the joke explanations in that the author seems to want to ensure that no subtle (or obvious) device is lost on the reader, and in that the effect on the savvy reader is an insult to the intelligence, and a lack of satisfaction with the allusion, foreshadowing, etc. compared with the satisfaction they would have gotten with discovering the device on their own.

I recently gave a five-star review on Goodreads.com to Richard Yate's novel Revolutionary Road. I loved the unapologetically manly style, the intensity of the characters, the treatment of some horrid situations, and the insights about '50s culture (it was published in '62, so these critiques were not yet trite a la Pleasantville). After a few days, I went back and knocked the review down to four stars. Throughout the book I'd been prodded here and there by parenthetical references to earlier character dialog and inner dialog, and I couldn't forgive that.

Here's how it went: Whenever a particular character description resurfaced, like April recalling a negative description of herself by Frank, the earlier negative statement would show up in parentheses and italics. As if we'd forgotten Frank said that. Then, say, whenever April is thinking about what to do, she would reflect on a conversation with Frank and how she regretted it and snippets of the conversation would be inserted for us. They have said these hateful things to each other throughout. Dear author, it might have been more fun if you let us remember or go back and look for the exact phrase you are referring to. We get it without the explanation!

This also happened with foreshadowing in the novel. Once the foreshadowed event or statment was realized, the author would provide us with a parenthesized and italicized recap of the actual foreshadowing line from back in chapter five or whatever. Thanks, man. That's a big help.

As if all this weren't bad enough -- Yates is great at intense scenes, gets us all wound up, yet he has these parenthetical things show up right in the middle of fighting or sex! Sometimes it makes sense, but other times -- what a bummer!

I'm sorry I didn't put actual examples here but I described them pretty true to the book. Believe me, you can just flip through RR and find these things. The parentheses even make it easy to go back and find'em for your high school book report!

III. a. SIDETRACK THAT MAY OR MAY NOT BE TRANSITIONAL.

Now I still like The Simpsons (maybe excluding some of the newer writers) and I still like Revolutionary Road but their overexplaining has certainly put a damper on my enjoyment of them. At least The Simpsons are an ongoing text, always offering to redeem itself. I'm not sure though. I was reading while watching the new "Treehouse of Horror" this month, and had to look up and sigh when:

Marge: Ok Maggie, we'll see you in three hours.
Homer: Or later, if something happens.

I know this is supposed to be ironic (or what people call ironic nowadays), but it does get old after awhile. The fact that entire cartoons (Family Guy and its offspring) are based on things purposely not being that funny, jokes purposely dragging out too long, or a whole joke being that someone's purposely being way too obvious about plot devices and self-sconscious of everything that happens on the show, indicates that it's time for a humor overhaul. When eveything's ironic, nothing's ironic. (And doesn't dramatic irony depend on what the little people in the TV box don't know?)

IV. GARDNER

The last thing on my list is last because I really don't have a problem with its explaining. I just read John Gardner's novel Grendel for my Senior Seminar in Literary Theory (which is really a last minute "Oh SHIT! We totally forgot to tell you about this literary...uh...theory thing!" crash course), and I thought it was great. It was the perfect, easy book for a last minute "Oh SHIT!" course, but an enjoyable read (or game) for those readers who can instantly tell what's going on it too.

The novel is purposely designed for beginning theory students to be able to find a million and one things to take apart, to help them begin a very easy jog down the intertextuality path (follow Beowulf directly to Beowulf...), and to put on display every element of postmodernism that points to "Hey guys! I think this is postmodernism!"~"Wow, get over here and look! Tommy found some postmodernism!"

To be more specific for those of you who aren't the same kind of nerd as me (you're all nerds if you're reading this, just different flavors), Grendel is postmodern because it is self-conscious, funny, purposefully intertextual (it "talks" back to Beowulf), pushes the limits of genre, and most of all because it knows it's going to be subjected to criticism and picked at by theorists. If you think of earlier novels, like 19th century ones, I'll bet you can't think of many that behave this way. That's the postmodern, in a smoothed over nutshell.

Now for the theory games planted in it: they give this text a meta-text aspect that's pretty unique, even to postmodern novels. But the games are almost all very obvious, and some are superfluous, not really offering any new insight into the text. This could be interpreted as yet another task of self-reflection and postmodern playfulness (look at this funny thing I'm doing by hiding all this theory stuff in me!), but it's also interesting to me because of the obvious authorial intent. That is, Gardner didn't do all that stuff by accident or because of some sea of texts flowing through him. Theorists, especially Kristeva, grandmother of intertextuality, like to deny the importance of any authorial intent. I like to think of Grendel as a game played with Gardner present. But I suppose he doesn't really have to be there. His (the) puzzle box works autonomously.

I don't have a conclusion about all this yet, but I think it's fun to think about it from both sides of the author is dead/alive argument when you have a book that appears to have a tutorial purpose like this one. (I busted up my class when I asked if Kristeva often tells her husband he doesn't exist -- he's a writer. Petty and missing the point on my part, but it went over well! "Ecris! Ecris! Tu n'existes pas! Tu es MORT!")

Anyhow, some of the treats in Grendel are hard to find but others are so painfully obvious that they are not really fun to "discover" unless you are a total theory virgin. Which is why I said it's great for this class. The treat I laughed most at was "mor(t)al," which is just a call to whip out your handy step-by-step deconstruction manual . But the zodiac in twelve chapters? C'mon. Some kids got waaaay too excited about that. The zodiac supposedly acts as a key to the twelve philosophies developed in the chapters (the philosophy is fun to read -- Nietzsche and other existentialists lurk and lurk), but I'm not sure how. Besides, that's just what Gardner said the zodiac was there for when he was pressed to explain it. And what does he know?

V. SHOULD I STOP NOW?

So you've endured three very different, very half-assed analyses, but I hope you get the point. In most cases, explaining what you're doing in humor or in art is obnoxious and does not serve the art, but subtracts from it. Unless you're a brilliant novelist -- then it just makes you "postmodern" (cough) and I can forgive you.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Dynamic Meme


A few weeks ago, after playing a game called "Rick Roller," (which baffled me completely) I decided to find out what the heck a Rick Roller is. The Google search returned four types of things: the Rick Roller game, videos and articles on how to Rick Roll, a Wikipedia article on "Rickrolling," and several YouTube URLs of some character named Rick Astley.

Having never been Rick Rolled, I was astounded at how pervasive rickrolling (it's already lost its upper case in some articles) has become. It started as an internet meme, a term or speech (typing?) habit that becomes a catchphrase because of its embodiment of internet weirdnesses (other examples include "Lolcats," quoting random lines from the movie 300 when they make the least sense, purposely making typos like "teh," etc.).

Internet memes carry more signification than it seems. They often self-consciously point to the problems of communicating through a keyboard (PWNED), the problems of communicating at high speed(LOL!!111), and to the reciprocal flow of intertextuality between the internet and other popular media. They are also aware that the internet's system of communication depends on frameworks that do not exist in face-to-face communication, such as routing (and it is this knowledge which makes the rickroll meme, a simple unexpected re-route, so successful as a communication interruption). At an even higher level of self-consciousness, internet memes are aware that they are memes and they are aware of their uncanny ability to spread virally. And curiously, I am not aware of any internet meme that is not funny, or at least meant to be funny. When you consider the dialogic nature of these memes, their embracing of popular culture no matter how tasteless, and the self-consciousness in communication that makes them possible, internet memes seem to be the ultimate postmodern texts.

Some of these memes have moved from the internet into the dimension of speaking people socializing and working in "meatspace" (that should be a technical term by now). Some of them, to be sure, entered the internet from other media and came back out somewhat changed, and certainly better known, e.g. "All your base are belong to us." Rickrolling, however, began as an internet meme that used bad popular culture (music) as the icing on the cake of its genius disruption of internet navigation.

Navigation and routing on the internet, as mentioned above, is part of the internet's system of communication. We depend upon it to function properly, because we seek some meaning based on what a link is called or on what someone says it points to. Not only is the signifier that we get when we click through to Rick unintelligible, but it interrupts the task of information getting. It is a discontinuity in the way the internet is supposed to behave. According to computer scientist Garry Marshall, part of the routing system's goal is "to ensure that the users of the virtual world provided by the data space are unaware of the underlying network." Rickrolling makes us aware of it, as it calls our attention to our dependence on links to "say" what they "mean." What appears to be a communication breakdown is disorienting, but also funny, because of the kitschy content chosen to accompany the confusion.

I must now interrupt myself to mount a defense: Rickrolling, which may be one of the most bizarre and original internet pranks, is definitely heads above the ubiquitous LOLCATS and internet gaming language in its conceptuality. In an article for the U of Alberta magazine The Gateway, a student who shares my awe of the rickroll tears into internet memes that are "teh suck" and defends Rick as a truly positive communication phenomenon.

Rickrolling has, like its fellow internet memes, made its way out into meatspace in several incarnations. It was supposedly used at a college basketball game to interrupt at half-time, but the first instance of this game-interrupting was found to be staged and edited to look like an actual interruption. Even though that instance never really took place, its hoax video has inspired actual rickrolls at sporting events. Unfortunately no one at the Mets game got the joke. Students and young workers have used the song to interrupt their own video and Power Point presentations or broadcast the song through a store's PA system, but again without the desired effect. One of few successful TV attempts at rickrolling happened on a news show when an anchorwoman twice asked for a link on the screen to be clicked, and there was Rick, and Rick again.

I think the only instance of rickrolling that has made a significant mark on meatspace was the 2008 protest in front of The Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, California. Masked protesters (concerned that the Scientologists would attempt to identify them and then work their Scientology voo doo on them) held boomboxes aloft and performed a live rickroll of the church. The message of the rickroll, when used as a protest, is a powerful one. "We have interrupted what you are trying to communicate. We have interrupted what you are doing. We are not listening to you. Your messages are rendered powerless because we are speaking over them with one seemingly unintelligible but unified secret-code-message. Your messages have no more meaning than a Rick Astley video." Just as the rickroll discloses the pitfalls of internet communication, it attempts to disclose the Church of Scientology. Or at least, it makes people ask questions about it. In this instance, the internet meme of the rickroll becomes a cultural meme, carrying with it a kind of irreverence, solidarity, humor, and a more serious demand for disclosure.

Although many of the onlookers at the protest, and the Scientologists themselves, probably had no idea what was going on, the event was of course videoed, put up on YouTube, and linked automatically by YouTube to all the other rickroll-related videos. Rickrollers and rickrollees now know about the protest, and will surely try to use the song in a similar way. As silly as it may be as an internet meme, I think the cultural meme of rickrolling could be a useful, non-violent means of protest and demonstration. Protests often have interruption and confusion as their methods of attention-getting, and the introduction of chaos broadcasts a well-understood message of challenging the status-quo while pointing to the chaos that is a natural function of human life, and in this case, communication.

Rick Astley has been awfully good natured about this whole thing, and has lately done interviews and talk shows all over the world. But linguists or cultural theorists who might write on rickrolling would not really consider his opinion of it. Astley is not really part of the meaning, even if he is part of the chaos of it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Literature Subject Test: Problems, Advice

I took the Literature in English GRE Subject Test today. And of course I can't stop thinking about it.

This test is, I've heard from several sources, the hardest standardized test or at least the hardest of the GREs. It used to be one of the be-all end-alls of the graduate application, but over the past ten or fifteen years its weight as an indicator of a student's literature-learning/analyzing potential has been reduced significantly. Is there something wrong with the test? Is there something wrong with English major undergraduates?

I think the answer is a little bit of both. The books, the former test takers, the successful applicants who squeezed out the best score they could and then put all their eggs in the writing sample basket, all seem to agree it's tough as hell. It's also impossible to really "study" for. There is no way of knowing what you'll be tested on, save a few of the GRE folks favorite authors. And this test isn't only about literature. It's about English monarchs. It's about Greek mythology. It's about interpreting passages from the Bible.

I'm sure in biology, math, or engineering there are certain questions you know you'll see, or at least certain specific topics you know are necessary to know inside and out. I imagine the undergraduate work in these fields probably offers a good foundation for the exams. I saw some of the students' guidebooks with neat vocab lists and diagrams in them. Each of those terms or pictures would require the student to know the deifnition, and know how the thing in the picture works. I don't think they would have to know the entire history of the thing, interpret the thing, or place the thing in some other context. Do they identify scientists and mathematicians by looking at fragments of their formulas? I wonder.

I'm not saying the other kids have it easy, I think they just have a better chance of doing well on their tests. I have seen, on the general graduate admissions sites at different schools, the required scores for engineering applicants, psychology applicants, etc. They are expected to score very highly. This indicates it not only must be possible, but that the very good students do score highly! Their tests are perhaps good indicators of their abilities or at least their knowledge in their field.

Now back to the Lit test. Many schools no longer require it, which shows it's fading as an indicator of student potential. Only half of my schools require it, and I have it already on the way to those who do. I am waiting for the scores to decide if I will send it to those who don't! Perhaps many low scores are coming in. Perhaps schools took some chances by ignoring a few of those scores, and were pleasantly surprised by their picks. Whatever their reasoning, the people who evaluate candidates, the most important judges in this application process, seem to have trumped ETS. A faceless testing entity (who sends out half-trained hired guns as proctors) is no longer in control of our fate, so that seems like a good thing.

Part of the fault for the decline of the Lit test may lie with undergrad English programs. At my school, and at many others, there is not much specific required work for earning that English degree. We take all the same Gen Eds of course, but we are not required to toil over novels and poetry anthologies the way a biology student toils over anatomy coloring books and forty pound texts. This is in a couple ways a good thing -- for our self-development (which humanities students are likely to consider) we get exposed to many other disciplines and get a liberal arts background, and for our development as English scholars, we have the chance to soak up all the contexts we will have to consider when we do eventually sit down with our own forty pounds of sundry books. But the downside to all this "elective" freedom is a lack of focus, and certainly a lack of reading! We don't read nearly as much as we should. And they don't try to make us. They don't even really suggest it.

Lucky for me, I'm a philosophy minor (reading! reading! reading!), I am older so I've read more over the years, and I am in a very small program where I get a lot of personal attention. I may not have done the copious reading of an undergrad at some prestigious liberal artsy school, but between Nietzche, Marx and pals, the ten years since high school, and the suggested outside readings I get from professors in both departments (ENG and PHL) I think I was in a little better shape than some. But not the best shape.

So in short, I think there must needs be (I like that idiom) more required period work, author-specific courses, and theory at the undergraduate level for any student to EVER be even half prepared for this test. I say half prepared because you should be expected to do a significant amount of work and reading on your own. But it's really very hard to do most of it on your own, without your college experience functioning as a good guide for what to study and how.

For the record, the only person I know who scored very high on this test was a Yale M. Phil. holder at the time, and he'd already been teaching college for 20 years when he went back to take the test for re-admittance to the Ph.D. program. If that's the only kind of (amazing) dude who can get a high score, I don't think the rest of us have anything to be ashamed of.

Whatever be the reason,
if it's all on ETS, or a discipline-wide malaise,
the test is something to be taken
a little more lightly these days.
I know I was not making this face during the test.


So here's the advice portion. I think it can be said that this is a test on anything that can be "read," save technical scientific work. The scope of it is daunting, to say the least, and even the depth of it can get intense when the GRE crafters really sink their teeth into a period or author.

So you can count on something from every "period" in the last 2000 years, and some Greeks as far back as 2500 years. And not just the literature, but the essays, the history, the politics.

Hwaet! You can count on more than just literature "in English." That includes translations from French, Spanish, Italian, Old English, and they don't even translate the Middle English for you! Know your funny OE/ME characters.

They got hung up on two periods on my test (I won't say which in case ETS comes after me. Let's wait till I get the scores.). One of these periods had a lot of similar almost indistinguishable writers (for someone who doesn't focus on them), and none of the works were something a student was likely to have read in class. The other period was, I will admit, one that bores me to death. But I was lucky enough to have taken a class on it in the spring. Point being, if you have already focused in on a period and it dominates your reading, don't bet on it being on the test. Make sure to read some stuff you hate a few months before.

There will be myths on there, but there's no way to know which. Exciting! Dammit.

The final words: THEORY and MODERN POETRY. I'm not giving away specific information about my test here. These are things that are on every Lit test in significant amounts. I know a lot about theory because I like it, but you may hate it. Read it anyway, or at least get some handy guide to it. The modern poetry had me scared shitless, but I studied up on it in a couple of nights. I know I missed a couple of them, but for the most part it was easy after just reading a bunch of the poems. The stuff is so weird, it all looks the same at first, but learning poets by simple little idiosyncracies is probably good enough, if you also know some history.

(I think I will grow to like these poets so I'm glad I threw myself into it. Even so, for today Robert Frost was "Frosty Trees and Apples," Carl Sandburg was "Mr. Chicago politico," and Wallace Stevens was "All colors and birds." Silly mnemonics, but they worked.)

Driving home I realized I totally fucked up by giving a postmodern poem to Countee Cullen, which meant another one or two answers was wrong. At least I realized it, and at least I thought about it. No matter what, I know I did really well on the first huge chunk of it and any guess I made was an educated one (that is, until they called, "Twenty minutes!"). I did get a little gift at the end, when I was frantically racing to finish and turned to a page with ALL the questions about one favorite author's passage. Score!

Now we shall see. (And so will Boulder, Cornell, Princeton, and a few others.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

We Speak Car


A year ago I ranted about a Chevy commercial. Tonight it's Ford who's won my disdain.

I have long been tired of commercials which use quotation marks around images. It was a novel idea a few years ago. Now everybody does it. Needless to say, "everybody does it" is no reason to quit doing something in advertising. A survey of billboards on any highway will show you that. They still haven't gotten tired of Writing. With. Periods.

Anyhow, Ford spins or drives or zooms in on a Focus or some godawful pretend-low-gas-milage (WOW! We can get you 2 more MPG! THAT'S PROGRESS! Technology SAVES THE DAY!) car, and along with it float the quotation marks as the announcer tells us, "We speak Car."

Is Car a language? It could be considered a system of signs I suppose. "Bitchin' Camaro" carries a very different meaning from "Lincoln Sedan," or even "Jeep Wrangler rollin' 35s." Certainly, cars carry with them a host of meanings, suggestions, and attractions. But can you really speak them?

Cars are (and I hate to say this) probably the best way to use a "We speak X" sort of ad campaign. But they are part of a larger phenomenon of using images in place of language. Again, some of these categories of images can be better forced or wrangled into a system of signs than others, but what of toilet paper? What of dish detergent? (Barthes did take on the semiotics of soap powder, back in the '70s.)

A Target commercial shoves these things and more in between a neat pair of double quotes. Baby wipes, lipstick, lampshades. They're all things we apparently no longer need words for because we can just look at their images on a screen.

And at the end of the Ford commercial, the Focus pulls back into center screen, shattering the quotes. They are no longer needed, because the car is no longer a metaphor for some other kind of pretend language. Ford is pretty sure they've pointed to a real one.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Effective Feminine Voice

I just read a blog by an anonymous Ph. D student where the words "a wee bit" were used. Since there was no name given, I thought, "This must be a girl." Like the bubble handwriting that every popular girl has in high school (which turns into an interior designer sort of block handwriting in college), there are writing quirks that give away a girl just as easily on the screen or in print.

"Wee bit" and other cutisms (cutesy words) can be found on the facebook pages and chat windows of young men as well, though somehow I doubt a man would allow a cutism to slip into his more serious writing (if he has such a thing at all). And my real beef isn't with the cutisms anyway.

What I've really been thinking about are the other tell-tale feminine writing habits and voices that make reading women hard for me sometimes. Some I can ignore when the writing flows. Others cause a passing cringe that I can shake off when the story is good. But there are still others that turn me away completely -- and by extension I end up believing that these feminine literary trespasses are a shared malaise among all the soft-focus-photo-covered, moody looking novels on the shelves at the store, all the journalists' articles by women on women, and all the girl band albums at the record store.

The modern woman writer's biggest problem is the moodiness. I don't mean PMS either. I mean the constant need to communicate something emotive and deep and poignant. It's quite depressing actually. It all starts with a plot that unavoidably leads this direction, but the writing style is the curdled icing on the burnt fiction cake.

Here's an excerpt from Jodi Picoult, who doesn't use as much flowery stuff but manages to get in some straightforward, purposeful heart-jabbing. I highlighted the most annoying parts and I don't think I need to do a "close reading" to explain why they're annoying:

"Swallowing, I pull the locket out of the pocket of my jeans. The heart falls on the glass counter in a pool of its own chain. "It's fourteen-karat gold," I pitch. "Hardly ever worn." This is a lie; until this morning, I haven't taken it off in seven years. My father gave it to me when I was six after the bone marrow harvest, because he said anyone who was giving her sister such a major present deserved one of her own. Seeing it there, on the counter, my neck feels shivery and naked."

This is written in the voice of a 13 year old girl, so the style is a little different from Picoult's own narrative voice, but not much (her writing sometimes reminds me of stuff my friends and I wrote as teens). We're on the first page of the book and we're already being made to feel sad, about the present and the past, and meeting a sad girl who pawns jewelry given to her by her father. This might be a hook for bored housewives. It's a real bummer for me (that is if I ever got past the cover of two girls leaning against each other's backs in near-silhouette).

The author had just switched from some expository rambling to the present tense, which is also very annoying. I don't think men use the present tense as often. I'll have to look into that -- I'm speaking mostly from "writers' group" experience throughout this post. But perhaps men feel as if their masculine presence makes their past tense writing "present" enough, and women feel as if the present tense helps them to be more intense.

Unfortunately I don't have a ton of girly passages to post as examples because I don't buy the stuff or wish to be seen checking these books out from the library (which may lead to a check-out desk conversation wherein I must pretend to like the sap-infused books or risk offending the librarian, the book expert, who loves them). That said, I do have some wonderful counter examples!

But first I'll go the middle road. Here is a passage from a new novel by Kim Echlin that I really enjoyed, but I did not get through it without the occasional eye twitch.

"I went to the university and studied languages. I was seduced by the shapes of words in my mouth and when I wrote them on the page they were raw and muscled and shining like a man who performs on stage. I needed memory and hope and since I could find them nowhere else, I looked for them in the declensions of verbs. Words swallowed me like a deep river. I dreamed false etymologies. I dreamed I discovered the beginning of the world in the sound of the adjective vraiment: vrai for truth and ment-ir for lie."

Jeez, I better not do this or I might not like the book as much! But here goes. The first sentence is too full of sexy, masculine stuff. "Memory and hope" are just lame and vague attempts to strike a nerve. "Swallowed me like a river" is like some over-emotional kid's high school poetry. The last couple of sentences I just love, though. Over the top, but successful, because any word lover can relate. I wouldn't say that my relationship with words is any less passionate than the one described here, I just think the writing could have been less intense while still carrying an intense message. The novel works well enough, despite the lapses into girl-anguish. Plus, this is the exact excerpt sent to me by a friend that got me to read the book!

For examples of twitch-free, smoothly-delivered writing, I will of course fall back on my favorites -- George Eliot and Virginia Woolf probably have some of the most ungirly yet uniquely feminine prose. Jane Austen is never hard to read either , even though she has a touch of girlishness in her lines. It might be a naive girlishness that pops up here and there for Austen and for the Charlotte Bronte, but I heartily welcome naivete in writing over clueless writing that tries far too hard to achieve some desired effect. Naivete, at least, believes it is being sincere. (Ok, let's drop all discussions on "sincerity" for now.)

What I notice most as I'm trying to go through these novels to show you some examples, is that it's hard to find just one short example. Here's the thing: What makes these women great writers is that they write not in one voice but in many voices! You can hear them shaping the words of their characters, for sure, but they do such a good job of bantering back and forth between Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh, or between Mr. Brooke and Mrs. Cadwallader, between Dorothea and Casaubon, and even between the layered narrative voices of Ellen and Lockwood.

In between the dialog and inner thoughts written in these characters voices, the good writer often comes through speaking on her own. But she doesn't consciously do it to put her own opinion or mood into the text, the way Picoult and Echlin seem to do. All of their words are their own, and serve their own purposes it seems. And it gets tiresome to hear the same person talking for hundreds of pages.

Here is Mrs. Dalloway having strange and poetic thoughts while sewing:

"... collected the green folds together ... So on a summer's day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying 'that is all' more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. . . [and so on]"

Then into "greeting a visitor" mode, when she hears the doorbell and snaps into girlishness:

"'How heavenly is it to see you!" she exclaimed. He had his knife out. That's so like him, she thought."

Then Peter's inner response:

"Here she is mending her dress; mending her dress as usual, he though; here she's been sitting all the time I've been in India; mending her dress; playing about; going to parties . . . he thought, growing more and more irritated, more and more agitated, for there's nothing in the world so bad for some women as marriage . . ."

In this short section Woolf gets a little intense and emotive on us with the sewing, but reels it in for the dialog scene, and writes a nice, frantic, boyish reaction from Peter, who despite his agitation describes the sound of his name on Clarissa's lips as "delicious." There is also a varied tempo on these pages, which keeps Mrs. Dalloway's sometime inner-monologue style from totally settling in for us yet. Woolf's use of the semi-colon is frustrating at first, but it really helps her to be a champ at writing her characters' "stream of consciousness" at just the right beat. And as I've mentioned before, she's the only writer whose elipses I can stand.

I should really dig out more examples but I'm reading many things, and I have been putting of publishing this for weeks. So here it is. If you don't believe me, try to plow through some Picoult, then go pick up Wuthering Heights or Middlemarch to cure the literary malaise what will certainly ail ye.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Video Dating and Radio Timelessness


No, I don't mean some web-cam assisted dating service.

Today I was thinking about the way songs get ruined by their awful, dated music videos. Some even get ruined by good music videos. And songs pre-music video can sometimes get ruined by their album cover art. So why is the visual so dating and the aural so timeless?

Music styles change dramatically over time, just like what color schemes are popular (avocado and harvest gold...), what kind of jean wash is coolest (acid or stone?), or what kind of mythology we currently happen to favor in our popular culture (vampires?). Every music lover can tell new sounds from the old, and those of us who wear out the grooves in the vinyl can tell you what year a technique came into use, what kinds of influences were coming back to the fore, and a few musical anecdotes from that year.

So we can hear all the changes in our music, but they don't bother us. We don't think (unless we're 16 years old maybe) "Ugh! This sounds so seventies!" or anything like that. If someone tried to imitate the old sounds, and did it successfully, we'd probably like it.

I think before I go further I have to set the earlier seventies aside, because they're far enough removed that they're cool, in style and color and dress and everything. The later seventies are when some embarrassing things start to happen, like terrible clothes, the debut of spandex being a particularly troubling example. Album covers started to get shiny and sport space-ships and other futuristic stuff. By the eighties, they were spray-painted with graffiti, showed off red lips and roller skates, or worse. Looking at some of these albums you wonder how what's inside the package came from the same culture as what's on the outside.

The '80s also had a few new waves of music that we can place very easily in their '80s time slot. Some of it can be annoying, and like any decade there was plenty of bad to go with the good. But the good stuff, however over-synthesized or over-guitar-soloed it may be, could never make us cringe the way squiggly lines and triangles moving to the beat can.

So yeah, along came the music video, which makes this problem especially bad for the eighties. Some songs that will never live their videos down are Devo's "Whip It," Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," and The Police's "Don't Stand so Close to Me."

"Sledgehammer" defined and influenced the '80s special-effects video look and won a million awards. But the video is too goddamn literal! I think Peter Gabriel is great at times, and I really try to listen to this song when it comes on the radio. I can't hear it though, because I just see claymation clouds floating across his face and claymation hammers smashing other clay junk. I can't separate the video from the song, and the music is less enjoyable because of that. This is a unique example of the problem since "Sledgehammer" is the most played music video of all time, but there's no denying how terribly '80s and dated it looks, and that this has an effect on how we hear the song.

"Whip It" doesn't really work at all without the visual, but it's an example of music catering to the video industry rather than the other way round.

"Don't Stand so Close to Me," despite all the juicy shots of Sting, is also way too literal for a video, and naturally those images get plugged right in as I hear the lyrics, making the song harder to enjoy. Of course this song is mostly meant to be taken literally, but some things are better left to the imagination. The teacher we're supposed to be hot for (confusing, since we should be angry with him right?), is very '80s conventional good-looking and all the high schoolers' hairdos are out of this world '80s yearbook photoesque. I try to just think of Sting. 1980 Sting.

Another example of dating problems I have had (haha) with '80s tunes was my initial fear of Talking Heads. I didn't want to like them, because they just seemed so "then." What fixed me? I watched a live DVD of them that was basically unplaceable in time. In "Stop Making Sense," no one wears any clothing that is dateable. There are no funky video effects. It's just the band playing and doing what they do. So then I started liking Talking Heads.

So why are these visual indicators of time so distasteful to us, while the musical indicators of time are not only tolerated but often welcome and exhilarating? When we look back at the '80s and decide we like something -- a color scheme or a hairdo -- we like it for the kitsch. But if we like an '80s song it's because we truly like it!

The same is true even with the '70s. I genuinely love the '70s, but some people just like them because it's funny to like them. They even had their own show. But the one thing they didn't make fun of on that show was the music.

I don't think video killed the radio star, but it sure made it a lot more complicated to appreciate the radio star without thinking about what he/she was wearing or what kinds of squigglies and special effects his or her video directors were into.

I just watched the video for Bowie's "Modern Love," because I'd never seen it. Big mistake.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

From Critics, to Theorists, to ?


In Peter Barry's Beginning Theory the first chapter lays out the ten tenets of liberal humanism (a lump term for criticism before theory) and contrasts these with a few basic qualities of literary theory. This simple compare and contrast exercise put a million questions and uncertainties to rest for me, but it also raised a few new, possibly bigger ones.

Barry, like the professor leading this seminar and like many in English studies, has a bias. He favors theory over liberal humanism. For theorists, theory is the resolution of many of the contradictory positions and methods held and used by liberal humanists (who it's important to note never called themselves that -- it's a term coined for them by the theorists). Obviously, for Barry, theory is an advancement from earlier types of criticism, and it builds upon them while fixing their problems and beefing up their inadequacies. In some cases it completely discounts earlier methods and approaches, labeling them naive or not practically useful.

Some of the less desirable ideas held by the early critics (less desirable as I see it that is -- I think Barry finds them all undesirable) are that literature's purpose is "the enhancement of life and propagation of human values," that "continuity in literature is more important than innovation," and that "human nature is essentially unchanging," and, perhaps most egregiously because it is itself a theoretical sort of claim, that "a theoretical account of the nature of reading. . . isn't useful in criticism."

These cause a lot of nose-wrinkling for me, the first three claims because they seem to suggest that literature is a tool for upholding the status quo, whatever that may be, yet at the same time professing that literature cannot be didactic. And the last claim is awful because it anticipates a branch of theory yet negates it before even finding out what it might have led to. Some of the early critics are notorious for not explaining how they arrive at their conclusions or apply their methods.

Some of the other tenets of "liberal humanism" (which is sort of roughly interchangeable with New Criticism) don't really rub me the wrong way as much as they appear to for Barry and Dr. Dunn. There are useful things in that list. Here are some of my favorite "outdated" liberal humanist, pre-theory ideas and why I've "favorited" them --

-- The organic nature of literature (something I always try to require!), specifically requiring content and form to be interrelated and build upon one another. I write vaguely about the organic in literature (and criticism) all the time, but this helped me put a finger on some things.

-- Literary sincerity (which I'd love to write a huge hulking paper on, preferably one that leads to more questions), specifically holding that the locus of sincerity is in the language of the text and its truth to itself, not in the authors intent or in whether he is writing like himself. I so often read things I find unsincere, and it (almost) all has to do with the text, not with what I think of Jodi Picoult or whoever. I'm simplifying this in my head right now, but it could get insanely complicated and rich when brought into the light of theory. (Yes, I still think it's a light...)

-- Separating the text from its context in order to better understand it. Some theorists do this for part of their method, and even if they eventually re-insert the text into its timeline or continent, they do benefit by extracting it for a bit. This method is championed by the pre-theory critic Cleanth Brooks, and while it cannot be used to exhaust the possibilities of studying a poem or other work, it offers a fun and challenging plunge into extremely close reading, which, as even Barry will admit, is the foundation or at least an important building block of many methods of theoretical practice. That, and I just really like Brooks, and I loved writing two papers using his "ancient" method (though it was required) last semester.

-- Showing not telling in literature. Every writers' group veteran knows this one. It's simple. But I wonder how much of it is stylistic and how much of it has to do with the core of what literature is or should be (and of course the l.h. crowd was occupied with getting at this essential pith). I haven't read Leavis' take on it ("The Enactment Fallacy"), but I will.

Now what does theory have to offer that the New Critics didn't? Barry doesn't devote as much space to spelling it out, as the rest of the book focuses on different theories in detail. He gives five main points:

1- Politics is pervasive
2- Language is constitutive
3- Truth is provisional
4- Meaning is contingent
5- Human nature is a myth

I think I buy a few of these in their distilled form. #2, 3, and 4 come in part from theorists that I have read and for the most part "believe" if you could call it that. I have a problem with #1, and I take #5 with a grain of salt. I don't think anyone, pre- or post-theory has figured out human nature, nor can they hope to do so through literature alone.

My problem with #1 comes from my heavy leaning toward the close reading and from my own reading habits. First, I do like to separate the text sometimes. Separate it from a socio-political sphere,and the politics can't get in quite as easily. Second, I have read enough that I watch myself read, and even as a student who is aware of politics' pervasiveness I don't require it to make good sense of what I read or to write what I think is good criticism. Third, I often read for and write about style and less concrete qualities of literature, like imagery and emotive qualities.***

*** (I said essentially the same thing aloud in class after writing this, and my professor tells me I am speaking like a true New Critic. Well, so be it, for now anyway.)

Politics, next to more intuitively all-encompassing words like language, truth, and meaning, seems like such a specific lens to put over every book, like it is so limiting, and even has nothing to do with some aspects of a text. I could even say that meaning has nothing to do with some aspects of a text. So why should politics always have a say?

So my new questions and problems arise from my love (possibly naive love) for some of the outdated critical ideas, and my urge to get all polemical on the blanket detractors of these ideas. I also run into confusion because I recognize that theory has corrected many problems and solved some contradictions associated with pre-theory methods and ideas, I love reading it, yet I refuse to give over to theory completely. Theory itself is not free from contradiction nor can it tackle every literary "problem" (although the fact that I can think of a work of literature as possibly having a "problem" in it must come from theory).

Today we are supposedly post-theory. I understand why, based on my own current problems with it. But we're enough post-theory (in the nineties it was "too soon!") that we can think back on it and that it gets studied as important literary history and as something we should all learn how to use. I am just a little taken aback that the early critics are getting such a bad rap because we've gone beyond them, yet the theorists, who have supposedly been similarly outmoded, are still sitting high on their pedestals and handing puzzle boxes down to us while we are told by voices in the crowd to look up at them in awe.

At least Dr. Dunn makes fun of them when he can.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Introductory Exercise

This Beginning Theory book has exercises in it, and that I was very excited about. Barry wants us to do some theory for ourselves, because it's not "some kind of spectator sport only played by superstars," so to continue his analogy, hopefully kicking the ball around a little will make the action less daunting, even if we can't play a full-on game just yet.

The first of the exercises is disappointingly general, but perhaps that makes it more challenging. It is supposed to make us "feel the need" for theory.

1. What first made you decide to study English, what did you hope to gain from doing so, and was that hope realized?

I always liked to write, and I've always found solace in books. I first made English my college major after a few years of art school and getting Cs on art projects. Once I got a C on a paper I wrote about an Eric Fischl painting. I was convinced that the prof was a jerk, because I didn't feel like I should ever get a C on my writing! Why didn't I feel that way about my paintings? It was then that I realized I can do a whole lot more with words than with oil paints, and that maybe I could understand them better too.

I hoped to do what I am good at, so that it comes easily and can be enjoyable when translated into some kind of career. I had trouble figuring out how this would happen at first, since English majors always get told to go into business, or to go to law school, or to teach children. Those things are not enjoyable. I finally figured out that I should just stay in school forever (which is fun and easy-ish and thought-provoking) by getting a PhD and then teaching the stuff to semi-adults. So yeah, my hope is on the way to being realized.

2. Which books and authors were chosen and what things did they have in common?

White folks were chosen; white American dudes for most of my secondary education. Twain, Hawthorne, Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Hemingway, etc. I did get some Wharton and even Ayn Rand when I briefly went to private school, and they're kind of outsiders. But for some reason, the English folk who wrote in English were not the main attraction. I think I read one thing each by Dickens and Shakespeare in 10th grade, and some short stories of a British persuasion, but that was it.

By college (some years later...) there was weirder stuff, by Arab women, by Mexican women, by Native American women. The high school books and the college books may have had different agendas, but most of them were spoon fed to us. It seems they used to teach us about some unchanging grain of humanity, and now they teach us about an almost violent diversity of humanity.

3. Which books and authors now seem conspicuously absent?

Most of the old faces are still around. I've reread many of those Americans in film courses (oooh, intertextuality?) and English courses. Curiously, I've still remained unexposed to many Brits except by my own diligent application to their works. I've taken a class or two in them, but those were dedicated Brit Lit courses, and not required. They refused to pop up in my genre classes, film as literature, or even intro to lit.

4. What, in general terms, has your previous study taught you?

It has taught me that there is some grain of humanity that can be accessed through literature across the ages, that literature is not a standalone product of an isolated mind (well, we can treat it that way for a little while, but then we have to backpedal), that doing what you love is so much better than doing what makes money, and that literature can indeed both "instruct and delight."

Luckily my professor is a funny guy who isn't expecting something more formal, 'cause this is it. I want to hear what others have to say tomorrow, and then I'll come back and add to this.

Idea-Induced Nausea


I needed a break from my reading. I'm poring over the first chapters of Beginning Theory by Peter Barry, to make sure I don't miss a thing (as suggested by the book itself). But then I come to the parts about Matthew Arnold and the Touchstones. No, it's not a doo-wop band. It's a nineteenth century literary figure and his coined term.

I can't stand this idea. Notwithstanding the fact that I don't really understand it, it still makes my stomach churn. The guy's motives are sickening enough (he's one of those that supposes literature can help us uphold our morals and keep us from trying to buck tradition), but the Touchstone (is is capitalized) is the clincher.

I might come back to this and explain the Touchstones some more when I have a better grip on them (perchance you may be equally nauseated!), but that's not the point of this little ramble.

The point is that I haven't been so turned off by something I'm reading in a long time. Especially something about literature. Fiction and poems can occasionally be disappointing, but usually criticism and theories just keep me reading, even if I disagree with what's being said. So it was really weird to just want to throw a book. It's not even the book's fault. Barry is just telling us what's happened in theory, not defending Arnold. So my squirmy chair repositioning and my eyes darting away on their own felt strange indeed.

Barry tells us that as beginners we should be patient with theory, and warns us against thinking that it is impossibly difficult because of:

A) our own intellectual shortcomings
B) shortcomings in our education prior to this course/book
C) the language of theory being rather difficult to read.

I do let "A" freak me out once in a while, but I am not concerned about "B" (I've been inundating myself in this stuff for a little while). "C" has never been an issue as I'm a fan of tough reading, and as many words as are needed to get something across precisely are OK with me.

After ticking off this list, Barry does tell us, however, not to be endlessly patient with the theorists. We should require theory "to be clear, and expect it, in the longer term, to deliver something solid." I can sort of go along with that, though I don't know if I always expect absolute clarity and solidity in theories. But I do expect to not be strung along, and to not be nauseated. A temporary challenge, discomfort, or apparent brain "impass" is welcome and stimulating. But a challenge for the sake of a challenge is not comfortable, and not productive.

Maybe I will get comfortable with Arnold, or maybe I will be able to figure out what is wrong with him and relieve the nausea by explaining it away. Why does his name come up so many times in the chapter?! For me, someone who always likes ideas, and even the chance to find the flaws in bad ideas, this period of extreme discomfort is not normal.

I have to finish the chapter now, and I will try to come back to those sections and reread them in a day or so. Maybe I'll bring Arnold up in class tomorrow (with less intense language of course, and I might not mention the puke factor or my urge to commit violence against printed materials). As for the other sections, I have soaked up a whole bunch of new names (not totally new, but unread by me so far), like I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, and a few other people who like to go by their first two initials.

-- R. N. Byrd

Sunday, August 30, 2009

In Virginia's Room: Organic, Writerly Criticism for the Ladies


Holy shit! I wrote this last summer and took it down, as I was still uncomfortable with "public writing" -- I didn't know I never put it back up. So here's why I love Woolf, and here's the first thing I ever wrote about her:

I’ve had a week of Virginia Woolf. She is called a critic, though she wrote several novels herself. I’ve been reading the criticism only. But after reading or attempting to read volumes of modern criticism penned by human beings of a single X chromosome, this woman’s elegant criticism hardly seem “critical” or “analytical.” And it is so refreshing!

Her criticism cannot be lumped together with that which we call “cultural” – race, gender, class-affected theory. She is a woman-critic in the early twentieth century, which puts her in a position where she might need to defend herself, but most of the time she does not resort to that. Her book-length essay A Room Of One’s Own takes care of all her disclaimers and grievances about her womanhood without setting her up as “an ardent feminist.”

She didn't need to write A Room Of One's Own for herself. She had a room of her own and her writing stood on its own without explanation or disclaimer. But I am so glad she wrote the essay that some call her "feminist manifesto" (hardly!), even if it was an act of mere charity on her part.

Yet the first thing I noticed, trying not to think of her gender, was how her style differed from these men I've been tackling all summer. Woolf gets impressions from authors, thinks about them as human beings, as artists (who must sort of detach themselves from that humanity to express their genius “whole and entire”), as historical figures in context or as emulations thereof in a new context. And yes, as men and as women.

Though she asserts that a woman needs "500 a year" (a social status) to write, and laments how women are hindered by their gender’s occupations and typically lower social status, she does not argue her case with brash feminist claims like her critics would have one believe. She does it by showing the history of women’s writing, by looking at their sentence “shapes,” indeed at the “shapes” of their novels.

She does not even show a preference for work by women, and as she would tell you, there is not enough of it to go round – she busies herself with Shakespeare, Lamb, Thackeray. She reads what the men read, only she does it differently.

If I had to choose a word to describe Woolf’s criticism, in this essay and in all her essays, it would be “organic.” Although, it is a comparison to the criticism of her male contemporaries and successors that gives me this image of organic thought. Her work comes to life in a way because of its differance, to use one of their terms.

The professors weave their tapestries – wait, one cannot describe a man’s work in terms of a feminine craft – they . . . engineer the outcomes of their arguments, carefully constructing theoretical edifices with innumerable architectural details – the sinewy rococo of purposely dense prose, the flashy filigree of a made-up word – that enhance the thrusting lines of their towers of conclusion. And lo! They have built a gothic cathedral of Idea.

Mrs. Woolf (Mrs!), in a conversational tone, as if we are sharing with her biscuits and cheese and water and prunes in a bed-sitter room, lets her ideas grow out of one another. She plants the seed, then watches and describes, poetically, what shoots up. Trunk to bough, bough to twig, twig to leaf, until each argument condenses to a drop of dew at the tip of each leaf. She can stop to let us drink one in, with her rapid transitions or a well-placed set of ellipses (she is the only person whose ellipses I can stand). Or she can let all the drops descend to the very tips, and stand back to let the whole glistening tree be illuminated by the sunrise, which the reader has barely noticed, though Woolf has been brightening the scene in imperceptible increments since the essay or chapter began.

Thinly veiled sexual metaphors my descriptions may be, but how can I help it? There is something hot, hard and blunt about the writing of many men. And something open, soft and flowing about the writing of many women.

So a man built a Gothic cathedral (Woolf would appreciate comparing writing to a building – she asks us to). It is a monument to his ingenuity, his power, his arguments. It is decorated with so many stained glass windows we should never be able to take them all in, and so tall are the soaring spires that we can only guess at their height – they appear distorted from down here. He toiled and sweated to make all this, and some of us might ask “Why?” No one but its architect can ever fully appreciate such a cathedral. Or perhaps another man who has the means and the time and the education to explore it.

Woolf draws our eye to her tree and stands back. A tree and a cathedral take about the same amount of time to get very big, and they have a similar life span. But a tree is much less work, and just as beautiful. We may never see all the veins in each leaf, or inspect the bark with a microscope, but we will understand it just the same. We need no tour guide to explain the allegorical picture windows or to thrill us by reciting the inflated measurements of a stratospheric ceiling vault. Everyone “gets” a tree.

Woolf is funny too, and she made me think about how men and women make us laugh. When a man chooses to be funny to get through to the reader rather than pound one over the head, one laughs as at prop gags or a streaker – a man's humor is as funny as his body. But when one laughs with a woman one shares in little flashes of her anger through sarcasm or one titters under one's breath at something, some subtle action of a character or observation of the author, without knowing quite why. A woman’s humor is not only softer and subtler than a man’s, it is more mysterious – like her genitals.

Woolf would not want me to carry her theories too far in this direction, and I, being no “ardent feminist” myself, will not continue in that vein. Woolf also argued that in order to write well, to express one’s genius “whole and entire” we must have a union of the sexes without and within. That is, men and women on the one hand, and our internal sexes -- the male mind and the female mind in all of us-- on the other. She does not say that writing should be sexless or suppress its author’s sex, but that it should overcome it – the best writing, she says, is by a man-womanly or a woman-manly (made-up words? She doesn’t hope to find them in a glossary of literary terms), and she quotes again and again from Coleridge on the genius of the androgynous, not the female, mind.

I think Virginia Woolf achieved in criticism what she hoped for women to achieve in their novels, biographies, and research papers. She asserted that women need to write A) after having overcome their anger about being displaced all these millenia, and B) with a shape that fits them, so not in imitation of a man, but also not in a style that could be pinpointed as "feminine."

Mrs. Woolf is as elegant and eloquent with her words as the most decorated, stole-covered professor. She is sarcastic at times, but not angry -- she merely observes the inequalities of her kind and laughs, as she wishes all women could. And she throws in some hilarious descriptions of the "superior" sex, like that of a male student who "breathes hard, wears a ready made tie, and has not shaved this fortnight." She works at bringing men down a notch without hitting below the belt, so to speak.

Her arguments, though I call them "organic," are never arguments of emotional passion unchecked. They are, however, intuitive and sometimes sentimental. There is nothing you could call proofs in them, and Woolf would agree that there can be no real proofs written on literature.

She has subdued her resentments and writes in a womanly shape that does not cry out "I am woman!" Success, Virginia!

A Room Of One's Own has given me a new way to write and her other essays, such as "The Novels of Thomas Hardy" and "How Should One Read A Book?" have given me new ways to read.

I can't express how glad I am to have run into this little red book, curiously the only Woolf on the shelf at the public library.

This is mostly unrevised and stands as I wrote it in my last year's mindset. I would write differently now, with more examples and references to other reading, but I am very happy with my "prosing" from that period. The words just flowed last summer, before I started thinking too hard! I was excited to find this time capsule just hanging out at the bottom of the documents folder.

Trendy Tweets and Unconscious Volcanoes (and some Hegel)

Two things on my mind this evening.

#1 I just logged onto Twitter and found Wuthering Heights under the trending topics. This piqued my interest, but once I clicked on it I learned two new things I didn't like so much. It's trending first because there's a new movie adaptation, and second (this is terrible) because it is apparently referenced over and over in the Twilight series.

I guess there is no law that prevents horrible self-loathing writer-women from referencing other women's literary masterpieces to boost their pulp novels, but it sure makes things uncomfortable for those of us who take Bronte seriously. I mean, I don't take anything all that seriously... but still. I care. And Emily doesn't deserve that crap.

So I was about to finish a long entry I've been working on about women's writing. I have Wuthering Heights sitting out on the coffee table as I was going to post some Bronte examples of "the good stuff." I don't dare put any Twilight excerpts in it to make it relevant or anything like that. It's useless to compare the two. The whole Twitter incident just makes me not want to look at Heights right now.

#2 So my Heights avoidance takes the form of this brain dump, and the second part of it doesn't really have to do with unconscious volcanoes. That's my segue. You see, I'm practicing for the GRE and you know how they say pick the "best" answer? Sometimes, the best answer really is just the best out of five different bad answers. So it's not necessarily exactly right.

So, the antonym of "dormancy" is "consciousness." I mean, that does make sense. It's not really a bad answer. It's just not what you'd think of. We don't use the word dormant to describe someone who has a consciousness who's gone unconscious. So, I guess the volcanoes that have come out of dormancy have regained consciousness.

The segue was supposed to take me to unconsciousness. Talking about unconsciousness that is. A dream.

I don't normally write about dreams, but sometimes brains are just so clever and impose what seems like a really good order on them, immediately after you wake up. I was disappointed when I found out that's how it works. That dreams don't have a timeline and our minds just shift everything into place within an instant of waking, to make us think things happend in some order and had some cause and effect. That's pretty amazing, but I thought it was more fun when I was really dreaming stories.

Anyhow, I was in Germany working at a high school. I don't know what I did. Maybe I taught English to German kids. There was a big political uprising going on and things were getting bombed. For some silly reason, the writings of Hegel had been found to be against the state philosophy, and me and a bunch of other young people were running in and out of a big library saving all these giant books, putting them on trucks to be carted away to safety. It was the Hegel library. It even had his head on little pillars on either side of the doorway.

That's all I remember from that part of the dream (it got weirder and scarier, but there were no more Hegel references), except that on my last run to the trucks with what I guess were two huge philosophical dictionaries (they had the little thumb-cuts with letters printed on them), I thought (in slow motion) about how much I always make fun of Hegel, I dont like to read him, and I never agree with anything he says. But then I thought of Marx, and did it for him. It's what he would have wanted.

That thought was funny to have in a dream, and of course I know that's how I feel about it in waking life -- in my state of "undormancy." I do make fun of Hegel, and I like to get into arguments with people about him. I like to make exagerrations about him, and to imagine what he would have said about this or that current issue. Usually my Hegel impression ends with something like, "There you go! It's all figured out! No need to think about that ever again!"

But I also think he's an incomparable genius. Even if he has no sense of humor, even if he upholds the status quo, even if he doesn't write in any entertaining fashion whatsoever. I see him in Marx, of course (who is funny and who I love), but there's no denying I see him everywhere. It's axiomatic (GRE word) that all thinkers after Hegel must be influenced by Hegel -- he friggin' systematized the dialectic. And who can work without a dialectic?

So I argue with the die hard Hegel lovers for fun. If I ever encounter a die hard Hegel detractor, that argument will be more serious, and I'll have to temporarily join the ranks of Hegel defenders to protect his good name. If I can carry Hegel dictionaries out of burning buildings while I'm dormant, I think I can stand up for him while I'm conscious.

Some dreamy Hegel fan art