Thursday, April 30, 2009

Herme-who-tics?

This is a petty post about words. Watch the bold ones, and we'll talk about them after storytime.

"It's hubris on his part!" Dean Muffinbottom belted out after reading the first paragraph of Associate Professor Tootsyboots' long-awaited essay on the impossibility of a Heideggerian hermeneutic.

"I beg to differ, good sir!" protested Miss Flouncy, a promising young grad student with an eye for up and coming concrete poets. "Dr. Tootsyboots is the vanguard of progressive interpretation. He would only be hostile toward Heidegger if he had good reason to be! Read on, please?"

"Well, all right Miss Flouncy. But I hav
e a stack of papers that need grades. Why don't you get right on those, and I'll give this upstart Tootsyboots a second read here." He then turned his gaze toward the motley pile of midterm papers under the tiny stained-glass office window. Miss Flouncy obligingly bent over to pick up the stack and he did not look away.

"Right on it, sir." She stood up and straightened herself, on the way out spouting, "And thank you for giving that essay another look. Bootsykins -- I
mean -- Dr. Tootsyboots and I spent a semester on the research alone. I think you'll find his theory is quite robust, once you get past page fourteen..."

"Yes, yes. I'm sure. But if I have to see the word 'reification' one more time, this paper is going in the rubbish bin!" he called after her.

Miss Flouncy hefted the dogeared and smelly undergrad papers down the hallway to her favorite grading table, wincing at at least eleven paper cuts and fearing Dean Muffinbottom's next outburst, as he was sure to find
that word on at least eleven more pages. She plopped into the creaky hall chair, untucked her red pen from behind her ear, and began to squelch her worries with some excellentlly bad freshman prose.

Regardless of what you think of my ridiculous and romantic portrayal of academic life, I said pay attention to the bold words remember? Sorry for the indulgence in silly fiction. I have been prosing all semester.

With the exception of hostile, which I will explain later, all of the words in bold are words that I had no idea what they meant when I first heard them used out loud or first heard them in this kind of context. I had not read them anywhere except someone like Derrida (where I first saw hermeneutics), and had not yet bothered to find out what the heck they mean. Usually an encounter with a new word is exciting for me, and I scramble to decipher it. But for some reason, when I first encountered these words they just pissed me off!

Ok, this is going to sound totally backwards and hypocritical because I just made fun of the smelly undergraduate students (a class which I am still a member of, though I think I'm well past the smelly years...). I couldn't stand these words because I thought they sounded terribly high brow and pretentious. This was probably just my own sticking-out-of-tonguedness (This is a perfectly acceptable word! See "dislike-to-getting-up-in-the-morningness" in the OED. F'n' amazing.) at not understanding the words myself. But then I began to notice how often people used these words. Everyone has their favorites, and it seemed like they just latched onto them, either because they had just learned the words themselves (probably not the case with professors) or because they just liked the word for some reason.

The first instance of each word down there links to the Wiki defintion or Wiki page, because I'm not going to write all that out. I would so love to point you to the OED, but I'm chillin' public library style tonight. They are unapologetic about their lack of access to such databases. Here's how I found the words:

Vanguard and Robust: A professor of philosophy visited my school to talk about Hegel and Bergson and their writings on humor. He used the word vanguard about a thousand times. I could kind of get the meaning from the context, but it just seemed like such a weird word to use for dead philosophers. He also called every good theory a robust one. I had heard robust used to describe very "sturdy" scientific studies, but not for a philosophy. I've heard it a lot more (or at least noticed it more) all around lately, but vanguard is still a weird one to me. The professor was a great guy and had a lot of cool insights about Hegel, plus he was very animated and fun to watch lecture. I just got hung up on his repeated vocabulary. And I noticed that my professor was soon professing with the same vocabulary, for at least a week afterward. These things are infectious.

Hubris: I have heard this one bantered around for awhile now, mostly by philosophy professors and students. I started using it occasionally myself, but only when it truly applies. Actually that's a lie. I use it to be funny more often than I actually apply it to someone. I used it in an introduction to a paper, but I'm not sure if the prof got the joke. Anyhow, when I first started hearing it a lot, it just made me think of how the word means, in a way, that someone is too big for their britches, but the word is most often used by people who are already spilling right out of their britches, so to speak. It's a problematic word, because as soon as you call someone hubristic, you've become a little more hubristic yourself! It is best used ironically, but this is also quite dangerous.

Hostile: Everyone knows what hostile means, but I thought it was funny the first few times I heard it with regard to thinkers and writers and their feelings about one another. I though they were getting into fist-fights in the salons or something. Eventually I heard it applied to someone who was not alive at the time the "hostile" individual was writing about him, and I understood it to mean that the hostile person is making a point of dismissing the other person's arguments. A thinker can even be hostile toward someone who influences him! It's more about the way he treats the other dude's arguments than how he feels about him personally. It still makes me laugh though, because Marx actually has a line in his "Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of State" where he talks about philosophy in praxis, and says something about punching your opponent in the face with your theories. He is hilarious. I've read a thousand pages of him this semester and I still think he's hilarious. You know he was a stud when he was young -- he really should have thought twice about that beard...

Reification: I've directed this one to the Wiki page so you can enjoy the "disambiguation" of reification. What a mess! This word has completely unrelated meanings in different fields. Since I am in a political philosophy class and an aesthetics class this semester, I have seen the Marxist form of gettin' reified and the Heideggerian form of thingliness through gettin' reified. I'm trying to learn how to use this one because it's such a doosey, but when I hear or see it in too many places it really pisses me off. Over and over, we reify. There must be some other way to put it.

Hermeneutics: Ha! Here's the real doosey. I might need a couple paragraphs. (Knuckle crack.) I know several...well...two non-professor people with a strong command of this word, but I know twice as many who have no idea what it means, yet they proceed to sprinkle it in the most unlikely conversations. "Ah yes, the hermeneutics of this beer bottle collection..." "Well, you make a good case for buying that pair of shoes, but I think an appeal to hermeneutics is in order here." Actually no one I know uses it that freely. In fact, if I was surrounded by that I'd probably be pretty happy! But still, in the real conversations about philosophy etc, where hermeneutics rears its confusing head, it is often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Anyhow, it's a pretty broad word, so you could properly use it in a lot of places without knowing what the heck it means, if that's the kind of person you'd like to be. But that would be violating a pretty important Gricean Maxim of felicitous communication -- "avoid unnecessary prolixity" (which is a funny joke in itself). Personally, I don't use it (yet!) because I don't want to use it wrong. But again, I don't mind when people who know how to handle a hermeneutic whip theirs out.

Finally, this is, like reification, one of the few words I know but haven't mastered (see, my hubris is showing), so that is probably my source of sometime disgust with it.

For all you who read this and know and use these words, carry on! For those of you who use them all the time but haven't quite learned what they mean, please don't take this personally. I'm trying to get a handle on them myself. Ambivalence seems to be my mode of the week.



"Oh la la la la! Zees Hermeneutic, she is all wrong! I must reify her, maintenant!"

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pigeonholed Critics

I'm warming up for a paper that's a comparative analysis of two essays of criticism. We were supposed to pick two essays that deploy one of the critical methods we read examples of in class, and the essays were supposed to be on something besides the texts we read for the class. To make things more complicated for myself, I have chosen two essays that employ the methods of, but don't fit the exact definition of "feminist criticism" and "psychoanalytic criticism."

I decided to go this route in part because I've been wanting to get Virginia Woolf's criticism into a paper (besides the big one I've been working on for a year). But my other motivating factor for choosing these essays is that I want to talk about how most of what you read on any text does not actually fit into a strict definition of one type of criticism or another. Critics have their theoretical leanings, and they approach the text informed by some framework, but they do not necessarily write shining examples that can be labeled "How to be a Marxist" or something.

The essays I'm using for this paper both come from Norton Critical Editions. I looked back through forty years of different NCEs, and found that this inclusion of essays on everything from biography, to textual analysis (looking at the physical text and how it has appeared in different forms to make cases for its meaning), to our familiar friends and foes like feminism and cultural criticism, is typical of Norton. They also include reviews and letters from the author's contemporaries and essays on the greatness of the author's whole catalog. Finally, they include essays from many different time periods. You can find, as I said, the author's contemporaries, plus folks writing at the beginning of anything like modern criticism in the late nineteenth century (for older works), folks reflecting some impact of formalism of the early twentieth century, folks caught up in the tensions and emerging theories of the fifties and sixties, and of course folks espousing every brand of post-structuralist fun you can think of. Only none of them identify themselves with a signpost or a secret handshake or anything like that.

For this class (a survey course in literary criticism) we used Bedford/St Marten's editions of Hamlet, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and The House of Mirth. As we only read these three longer works plus Cleanth Brooks' The Well Wrought Urn, you can tell we actually spent a good deal of time on the criticism of each work, for an undergraduate course anyway. These books seem to be specifically designed for the not-so-advanced student, because they all include essays on "What is Decon" "What is Feminist Criticism" etc. followed by an essay about the text written by a card carrying, easily identifiable Deconstructionist or Feminist or whatever have you. While some of these essays overlap -- several of the Mirth essays deal in economy because the novel lends itself to it -- they would still be identifiable without the essay labeling system because of their adherence to one central methodology and even their mention of other critics by the label ("other feminist critics have said...").

This was all very convenient and helpful for learning more about these types of criticism. Personally, I didn't need to learn what they are (and I admittedly did not read all the essays that introduced each method), but I benefited by seeing how the different deployments yielded different results. For me, finding the parts of the texts from which you can cast out a theory seems like it would be the hardest part. In fact, one of the options for this paper was to do our own reading in one of these traditions, but I didn't think I could meet the page requirement and I didn't know where to begin. Where do they get some of these zany ideas? They bring a way of looking at texts with them, of course, But it must take many months or years of looking at texts in just that way to be able to extract this stuff from something as vast as a novel. You need to learn what kind of net to cast before you go fishing for the Marx eels or Decon dolphins.

Besides, my comparative analysis mode is already in full swing this semester and I'd like to hone it. My Hamlet paper (discussed below er...above?) received an "A minus." I thought I had produced a gem! It is precisely the interwoven conceptual pairs that multiply into foursomes that keep dodging my ability to see all sides of the concepts I'm trying to explain. So I present these great ideas and I don't follow through or elaborate enough (even though I've already filled the 8 to 10 pp without cheating). I think they expect me to write 20 page papers because that's the "level" and length of paper that the ideas I have about this stuff would require. That's very flattering and all, even with the disappointment dripping from the comments, but I've got a workload like the rest of the kiddies, and I'm too old for those three-hour-sleep-nights of yore.

Ok, enough about me -- back to the books.

I am concerned that these typecast critics will give students the impression that these methods can only be applied rigidly and that anything outside of a rigid application is just some kind of inexplicable, dangerously (or sloppily) original criticism. I have these worries about the way I think about critics, but I am falling victim to it anyway. I had a lot of trouble selecting the essays I'm using for this paper.

The first essay I chose is Virginia Woolf on Thomas Hardy, specifically the parts about Tess of the d'Urbervilles since I have to focus on one text for each critic. Virginia Woolf is arguably an early feminist, but she predated the post-structural, political (or even linguistic) definition of feminist criticism. She brings up practical problems about the portrayal of women in literature and about how women write or are made to write.

The second essay I chose is by Stephen Orgel (from one of the Universities of California) and it's titled "Prospero's Wife." He takes an inventory of previous psychoanalytic readings of The Tempest and weaves them in with his own ideas about the what he finds to be the conspicuous absense of Prospero's wife in the tale. So this is a psychoanalytic essay in a way, but it has a healthy "meta" function to it. Usually I can't stand this type of criticism because it is so ridiculously into Freud and Lacan. I think the critics have their own repressed or poorly directed obsession with these psychology figures and make hot conceptual love to the old guys by reifying their outdated (though partially useful) theories.

Sorry if I used "reification" wrong (and in a sentence with love-making metaphors). I have never had the chance to slip it in anywhere. If I start trying maybe I'll get the hang of it. There's so many definitions of "reification" depending on what system you're operating within, that I could just blame any misuse of it on that "Oh, you mean that kind of reification. Well, I mean the other kind." Faux pas skirted!

Anyhow, Orgel takes a friendly but objective look at these past attempts at psychoanalytic work on The Tempest, and he adds his own informed but non-crazy interpretations.

Both Woolf and Orgel show how a critic can bring a framework to a text, extract and present meaning from it using their framework, but without having to give over to a strict method that may occlude many interesting and important features of the text.

I think I've mentioned this before, but I like to call this kind of criticism organic. It grows up inside the reader/critic and though it is effected by its environment (being exposed to feminists, deconstructors, etc.) it retains a kind of core which does not have its locus in the method, but in the critic and his or her real, deep appreciation of literature. Another way to describe it would be "holistic" criticism. Not that it addresses every angle, but that it applies its main method and remains informed by the spirit of the critic, of the age, of language, of the author, etc.

A straight feminist (haha) or a straight psycho critic (haHA!) gives the text the radiation treatments and doesn't take any personal responsibilty for it. It ignores the text's medical history, it's parental information, it's spirituality as it zaps the hell out of it with its tools and technology (new theories). One of the best and most holistic decon essays I've read (Norris on Mirth) created the effect that the critic had merely untied a bow on top of the text and let the meaning cascade out of it, with a few massages and adjustments here and there. So often reading a decon essay is reminiscent of watching a surgeon remove tidbits of meaning from the most unlikely hollows, using the most frightening tools! It was nice to avoid the horror show with Norris' very feminine administration of the holistic version of Derrida's decon pharmacia.

Now for my date with Woolf and Orgel. I think we're having lots of coffee and maybe some pie if we get any work done.

UPDATE: Cinco de Mayo, took the lit crit exam, picked up my paper (described here). I got an A with no minus next to it! A snippet of of praise, plus the note that always says something like "...but, you know, you only scratched the surface." Of course that's all that happens in ten pages. But I think this one might be a candidate for revision and expansion.

Anxiety of Canon


I stole my title from Harold Bloom's term/title "anxiety of influence." This is the last thing I should be doing right now as I've only finished one out of five papers due in the next week. That sounds like a lot, but only one of them is serious business (a 20 pager). Anyhow, if I don't take some time out to write about someone besides Heidegger (you've seen him all over me lately), Habermas (yay! everyone we read this year problematizes capitalism!), Milton (all I can say is "I'm tired"), or Wharton (oh Lawrence!), I just might go mad. I expect the gratuitous parentheses and exclamation marks to continue.

Last Saturday night I hung out at the Barnes and Noble so I could read things I don't own for free. Typically, I skulk into the store, usually with my own tea and not a glance toward the Starbucks or much of anything on the shelf. I head straight to the back corner where there are two tiny shelves on a four foot section that are labeled "Literary Criticism and Theory." Most of what you find there are anthologies and overviews and maybe a "For Dummies" book. They do keep in stock one copy each of Frye's Anatomy of Criticism and Barthes' Mythologies, but the rest are not worth looking at. I don't expect much from big bookstores. But what I always hope to find there are the returns! Special order books or internet purchases returned by reluctant literature students -- their second-thoughts are my Saturday evening entertainment.

To further complicate my already complicated relationship with Harold Bloom (which sounds terrible considering he had some actual complicated relationships with his students -- but that's a story for another time...), I grabbed a copy of The Western Canon and settled into a miniature chair in the kids' section where the music is actually less annoying than in the rest of the store.

Harry and I go way back. I have always enjoyed reading him because he manages to be very clear without reducing anything he has to say for "dummy" consumption. So I started reading his books even before I realized I wanted to be a bespectacled university type. I met him through our shared friend Shakespeare (who knows just about everyone), and from the beginning we had our differences. But for some reason, I never got angry with Harold. I just agreed to disagree with him, and felt like I got something cognitive and world-expanding out of my imaginary arguments with him and his words. He can be a curmudgeon and he can be a snob. But he is my shield from the cultural studies people.

This is where we get into the canon anxiety. As a liberal who would likely be called a commie and be promptly deported if I announced all my leanings in some poilitical forum, I value cultures from all over the globe. I love that people do things differently, that there are different types of rationality depending on your hemisphere, that languages are so varied yet so connected...etc. All the things I would need to say to tell you that I care about non-Anglo, non-white, non-Christian, non-western culture, and that some of those cultures are even near and dear to me -- insert them here.

However, (oh here comes the guilt), I also love my western canon. I love studying literature that people have studied for centuries. I love being able to identify with the way the English speak, the way the French think, the way the Germans philosophize, and the way the Americans react. And I think it is important to my understanding and connection with this literature that I can find all these things familiar in it.

Now I'm going to move away from that defense completely, and take up Bloom's tack (we'll use Harry's last name now, since we're discussing his work). Regardless of the culture from which a literature emerges, there is a somewhat unrelated standard by which the literature needs to be judged -- the standard of the aesthetic.

(Before I move on: I say "unrelated" because the aesthetic study of literature and the cultural study of literature can be and have been split into different methods, college classes and even departments. I say "somewhat," because the prevailing aesthetic is obviously influenced by our very western ideas of what makes pretty and worthwhile language and art. I don't know yet if I am prescribing this, but I am describing what I see.)

For me, ideally, the aesthetic should be permeated by some culture, and allow new ideas (and tastes, although that word is a can of worms) to factor in to its judgment of what is literary. It should not, however, be abandoned and give over the study of literature to a system that will likely end up being reductionist in its attempt to include X number of Asian-American works, Y number of Mexican folktales, etc. On a very simple level, this is how the system works now. Many undergrads are required one "non-Anglo" or "non-western" course for the English major. This course is a separate course studying only multicultural literature or a sample* of literature from a specific culture, and it factors in as a percentage of total English credits. The core "white" education is not really affected by the multi-ethnic mini-education, and the canon is not transformed.

I think perhaps if all literature of the world was surveyed with an eye for the aesthetic rather than for "relevance" or for its testament to our wondrous plurality, we would begin to include those works that work, that are literary, into a broadened canon, simply because of their merit. Culture can get into the Literature Club through the "back door," I suppose, but not by being introduced as "Culture" up front. The aesthetic bouncers will turn "Culture" away unless he has an invite, but they will handle him with kid gloves of course -- we don't want any riots with the well-publicized Culture Club down the street. (Excuse my attempt at a conceit here.)

* Sample: This is where one of the problems begins. We do not have an established aesthetic by which we can judge these unfamiliar literatures. And the aesthetic that each emerges from may be totally different. Personally, I have read some very bad novels and poems simply because they were written by someone of the "required ethnicity" for the class. Westerners cannot claim the privilege of being the only kind of culture that produces bad writers!

I just checked out a hardcover of The Western Canon from the library. Now I don't have to give Barnes and Noble my $17, nor do I have to pay an ex-Bloomite on Amazon.com to mail me their copy full of notes (although you can read here how that can be extremely entertaining). On the first page of "An Elegy for the Canon" he mentions "canonical anxieties," so I guess I didn't coin that term either. Men almost always set the terms.

So while the weight of my little copy of Legitimation Crisis holds big Bloom open, I'll find some quotes. Since Bloom and I are not exactly eye to eye, these don't say what I am saying, but something close that could support my ideas about the canon.

"Every teaching institution will have its department of cultural studies...and an aesthetic underground will flourish, restoring something of the romance of reading."

Being the underground is cool. I just hope, like Bloom, that there will continue to be jobs teaching from the canon and teaching the canon as literature, not as some kind of artifact. (And lo! I have reduced this to having a job!) The "romance of reading" is important here, because he will go onto talk about how literature cannot be defined in philosophical or social terms. It's existential, it's spiritual, and yeah it's pretty goddamn romantic.

"Literary criticism is an ancient art...Cultural criticism is another dismal social science, but literary criticism, as an art, always was and always will be an elitist phenomenon."

No one can make you feel good about being an elitist the way Bloom can! Maybe that's why I like reading him. He gives me hope and validation in a world of skeptics and relativists. Anyhow, the key here is art/science. (A "dismal" social science! You know how I feel about the sociologists.) A purely cultural study of literature can only be descriptive and cannot help us with any kind of canon. It must examine how all the systems that make up culture interact (i.e. history, society, religion, race) and consider them all at work together shaping or responding to the world out there. An aesthetic is for the reader or the lover of literature and his soul, not for society.

"Beneath the surfaces of academic Marxism, Feminism, and New Historicism, the ancient polemic of Platonism and the equally archaic Aristotelian social medicine continue to course on. I suppose that the conflicts between these strains and the always beleagured supporters of the aesthetic can never end."

Here's where I'll start to disagree because I find much in Marxism and Feminism (and in good New Historicism that is informed by these methods) that broadens my understanding of a work. These methods do not typically appeal to cultural studies outside of their having risen up out of political and gender differences. The Marxists and Feminists mostly stick to texts and what happens in them, and the literary New Historicists seek to contextualize a text, but not to stamp it as a historical or sociological document, as Bloom laments has happened to so much emotive poetry. These methods of looking at a text are, of course, at odds with a pure aesthetic as Bloom said. But there is no need for the polemos to rage on among lovers of literature! Different viewpoints can give us a benficially multi-faceted look at great works. A purely cultural viewpoint, however, does not seem to be reconcilable with anything that we would like to admit into the "art school" of literary criticism. So let's make war on "them" and not one another.

"The purpose is clear enough in my profession's flight [from the aesthetic]: to assuage displaced guilt."

And there it is. My favorite: guilt. I have guilt for being "elitist." I have guilt for liking my canon the way it is, as white and old and masculine as it may be. As a young person in an increasingly global culture, I am aware of the disadvantages of rigidity in the canon, and I do not in any way believe that it needs to stay exactly the way it is. Even hoary Bloom notes some positive changes that came about in the canon just in the past century. But discarding any aesthetic approach to literature in order to ensure that what we read is culturally "relevant" rather than literary, or worse, to discard literature and literariness as altogether irrelevant, and replace the whole art of literary study and criticism with cultural studies is a denial of what is most basic to any art -- that it is autonomous, spiritual, and romantic, just as Bloom (and Heidegger, Schiller, Holderlin, etc and NOT Plato and Aristotle) would have it.

I know I have confused the terms literary and aesthetic here, but I am equating them at times because I don't think anyone that believes in the literary can separate themselves from the aesthetic. It is the rage against (or flight from) the aesthetic that characterizes those who wish to abolish literariness. Even the most committed Marxist studies literature because it is beautiful. If not, the Marxist should go to work with the sociologists across campus. The less of us there are, the less fighting we'll have to do over the copy card to make sure we don't go over the English department copy budget.

Of course the triumphant feeling I have now will fade to guilt soon after publishing this. I am not anywhere near having worked this out.

"We are losing now, and doubtless we will go on losing, and there is a sorrow in that because many of the best students will abandon us for other disciplines and professions, an abandonment already well under way. They are justified in doing so, because we could not protect them against our profession's loss of intellectual and aesthetic standards of accomplishment and value."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

In Defense of Rockin': Part 1


I'm listening to Pandora radio and trying to train her to my tastes. She's trying real hard, but she doesn't quite get me yet. She's got The Clash on now so I'll get started. It's in this mood that I'd like to draft a proposal or brain dump for a paper I've wanted to write for some time -- a defense of rock n' roll.

Let me preface the dump by saying I really have been mulling this over for about a semester now. I'm taking a philosophy of aesthetics class and I have managed to bring up rock music and successfully include it in serious discussions of mostly august (some crazy) philosophers and their various art theories. My professor, who is sort of my go-to guy for testing theories, has let me get away with my arguments for complex music such as Jethro Tull being held up as examples of what an artwork should aspire to, or of what art can do to/for us.

While Freebird has also come up several times, the prof. is not as accommodating to my exaltation of less orchestral and less overtly classically influenced bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin (who I think are very classically influenced), and Credence Clearwater Revival. I have not even considered bringing up that even lower category of bands which give me quick and easy pleasure like Boston, REO Speedwagon, Journey, or Styx. Those would get shut down immediately.

This professor likes rock music, to be sure (as Pandora puts on the Zep, "Rock and Roll"), but even though he genuinely enjoys it, I think he keeps it separated from his high culture musical tastes. We all do this to some extent. But there is something about rock music, for me, that lets it transcend being marginalized or pushed out of the way by high art merely because it is popular. The first weak argument that came to mind for me was that we like so much popular music, all of us do, and everyone with an artist's soul takes some of this music seriously -- even people with Ph.Ds and opera subscriptions. Other art forms are not like this. Popular movies are only taken seriously by fame-obsessed folk, and there is really no such thing today as popular plastic arts (i.e. painting, sculpture, etc) except for things that are made only for buying and selling (IKEA) -- hence the exploded "design" industry.

Pandora dug some Velvet Underground out of her box for me. (Ha! There's a sentence for the psychoanalysis bunch.)

Anyhow, the above weak argument was answered with "Well, everyone likes fast food too, but it's not good is it?" I don't think that's a sufficient rebuttal, even though I know my thinking is full of holes. I think what I need to make clear is that rock music -- the CANON of rock music, because I really think there is one -- transcends being degraded by its associations with the popular, or by its tendency to be commodified by soulless record execs. There is bad popular music. If we're talking about today's music, most of it is nauseating to me, to be honest. But the musical rut we're in (I think it's the malaise of post-modernism and music just took longer to get there than the rest of the arts) is a totally different topic.

Pandora is playing me way too much Beatles. That's another topic too.

I don't intend to defend rock as something totally literary. I'm looking at this from a philosophical perspective, but yeah, I'm obviously going to be influenced by my literature leanings. I think music needs its own categories. Rock would be like the beat poetry of music, of course. Not everyone would dig it. But the rock canon's locus is definitely in the "real "music canon. There needs to be a term for what makes music the stuff of studies and contemplations in the first place, like "literary" says what is worth studying and contemplating when it comes to words.

Speaking of literary, Pandora just turned on "Moby Dick." Instrumentals are more conducive to thinking.

So we all know what rock music does for us and to us -- it carries us away, it makes us move, it transfixes us, and paralyzes us (wonderfully!). When a popular film or nicely designed doohickey does this, it only works once or twice, and only for a moment or two. Good rock can do this again and again, no matter how well we know it, no matter if we've learned all its tricks, no matter if we know it's meant to be ironic or trying to tell us something we don't want to hear.

I have so much more to say (especially about Nietzsche and music!) but I want to wrap up the thoughts for today. So I'll make this "Part 1." And I'm going to keep bothering my professor about this as long as he allows it. Since he likes the rock, he can empathize with me. But he's also coming from a slightly "higher-art" place than I am. (He's got scores of classical CDs and probably has an opera subscription...I have one JS Bach CD in my car, and last night, after some deliberation, I chose Mr. Bungle instead and put Bach back.) So it's nice to have a place to go where I know I'll get some of these arguments immediately wasted; which will save me some time when this is someday presented to the real snobs out there.

One last note: I have noticed even lowly television series condemning any attempt at "scholarizing" rock music. I think it was Law & Order that had an episode where the "perp" was a guy doing a (floundering) dissertation on Bob Dylan. He was in his tenth year and everyone made fun of him. Coming from a TV writer (ACK! GAG!) that hurts, man. That really hurts. I'm gonna fix this.

Now to let Ian Anderson tell me about "The Secret Language of Birds." I think Pandora is finally getting to know me. Good girl.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Aspiring to the Archaic

I like to dig out old words, turns of phrase and writing styles and put them to new uses -- er, let's be Heideggerian -- I like to make myself aware of these words, phrases and stylings so that they can do their work through me.

I've started a series of silly posts through my Facebook status that have turned into a short story (about the weather, of all boring things), serialized in two or three sentence chunks. I'm writing in a seventeenth century sort of voice, including some archaic words. I'm also ending up with some made-up words, as the modern words filter through the language of the enlightenment and adjust themselves accordingly, and as I need to coin new epithets and epigrams for contemporary objects and situations.

At first this practice was a little embarrassing because the voice sounded like that of historic romance novels or fantasy series. Such genre writers attempt to use archaic sounding language when they are describing a sinewy warrior's kilt fluttering in the wind, or a green-eyed faerie-queen alighting on the back of a silvery steed. I do not wish to conjure up such imagery. (Barf.) I even commented on my second post, "I hope none of you think I actually write like this." Even with the disclaimers, I've already seen some positive feeback on my wordsmithing. One friend was particularly fond of the kenning, "hypothermic indwellers," referring to the people of earth in the wintertime.

Apart from the ridiculous Facebook serial, I would seriously like to see what happens as older styles of modern English are applied to modern genres such as blogging, creative non-fiction, and memoir writing. This is not like writing in a different language. Old English and Middle English are different langauges from Modern English. This is just an experiment in reviving writing styles that have fallen off, even if it is just to fetishize them or get some other kind of kick out of them. Ideally, I would like to recover the different types of expressiveness that I think are peculiar to the different periods and that have been lost in contemporary usage -- I'm not just in it for the intellectual kitsch.

Some of the things a particularly miss in English are words that begin with "a" (afloat, adrift, aloft) which I think may have been used more often when poetry required them for a nice cadence, the shortening or lengthening of "-ed" words by using an accent aigu or a substituting a "t" (rais├ęd, dropt), reversed word orders (where you really have to think to figure out what modifys what) a la Shakespeare and Pope, and a whole mess of vocabulary that has been put out to pasture. (See my post "Talk Victorian to Me" below.)

The spoken-word linguists (which is most of them) would want to choke me for this. They love that langauge just keeps on truckin' with no memory of the past. "Those archaic word usages died for a reason, and gosh darnit they need to stay dead!" But I am always at odds with those linguists. I don't appreciate watching language get hacked to death. I'd like to preserve some of it from a gruesome fate, and even ressurect a few bits of it from the grave.

I am wondering if there is a place for me with the written-word linguists (or if, at least, I wouldn't start brawls with them like I might with the other linguists) -- those who study the trendy sounding, newish discipline of literary stylistics. They like to look at how people do things with words (not strictly in the J. L. Austin sense). I don't know these fellers too well yet but I think they might like looking at and thinking about what to do with old words too. NIU has a stylistics MA program, but unless I come out on the bottom of all the other application heaps, I don't really want to go there. I'd like to leave Illinois as soon as the wheel in the sky allows.

For now I'll keep fooling around with these styles on my own, and see if allowing them to work through my twenty-first century being creates anything worth writing a paper about (and maybe the paper will be in a seventeenth century scientist's writing style).

A side note: I overheard a professor telling a tale of plagiarism that had me stifling laughs down the hall. (I work for another professor on the 4th floor where all the "Englishmen" hang out.) He received a paper that began with what was obviously nineteenth century prose, interspersed with paragraphs of freshman level writing. It occured to me that perhaps the freshman couldn't tell that the writing he was copying and pasting sounded completely different from the writing of any living person. Or even if he couldn't tell the difference, he might have known that a sixty-year-old professor could tell something was up. The prof. must have noticed my muffled snickering because he bothered to duck in and stop me in the middle of licking an envelope to swear that I never heard anything. I never know when this guy is being serious. This is the same professor who wrote on my paper about paradox in John Donne (which got an A) "I'm surprised you didn't mention paradox more."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Robyn Byrd is Itchy Typewriter Finger

I think my current itchy typewriter finger is the result of too much social networking. I use Facebook and Twitter, the former for many uses (personal, school, extracurricular activities), and the latter just for work. I get a lot of good use out of Facebook, and I don't think it's a bad way to stay in touch with people, especially when you're busy. However, the "status" is becoming its own beast, and it may pose a threat to the brains of thinking people everywhere.

The Status seems to have freed itself from the constraints of the SN websites, and is now lurking in all typed messages. It has even burrowed into our brains and begun to effect the way we think -- even when there is no type pad in front of us. The Status may soon be the basis for all communication, both with others and with ourselves. The Status is becoming our only tool of self-consciousness and self-reflection.

Self-consciousness, in many philosophies, is what sets humanity apart from beasts. Also, fully realizing this self-consciousness is the goal of many philosophers, whether that realization happens through thinking rationally, looking at works of art, or by simply allowing one's self to "be." What is the self-consciousness achieved through Status making? Is it valid? Is it healthy?

I call it Status "making" because we turn the initial thoughts and words about our current situation into a status format. While the minds of many young people have begun to think in this format, I think any person who is older at life and newer to social networking may be able to shake or thwart this unholy brain shift that causes our minds to seek to "Statusize" everything we do.

Language, I believe, is something that runs through us, not something we invent and apply for our own purposes. In the tradition of thinkers like Novalis and Heidegger, I also believe that we can mistake the nature and ends of language, and we often do. We try to harness it, and it makes a mockery of us. Instead we should be listening to what it is trying to speak (or in this case, type). Also, hand in hand with this "language speaks" sort of theory is the theory that language shapes our realilty (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for you linguists out there, developed around the time Novalis was writing). The...

HOLD ON. I just closed my Facebook window. I couldn't think.

...The thing I'm wondering now is how the structures that shape language get into our heads. Or does the language we learn put them there? Humans are hard wired for language, and linguists have proven we all share very similar trends toward certain types of grammar and syntax. There is a structure there to begin with, and perhaps filling it in with words and rules makes it lock in place. It's not totally cemented -- we can learn languages that break the rules of our own language. But I don't think we can ever lose the characteristics of our original, foundation language. This is getting too scientific so I'm going to veer back into the cosmos for some more philosophical treatment.

So my theory is (I suppose) that the Status has introduced a new kind of grammar or a new way of thinking about "using" language (remember, we're not supposed to use it). If this becomes a part of our language habit -- just like our tendency to label the world for its uses is our current habit -- and if it consistently acts upon the language that is trying to play through us, the the Status has created a new paradigm for language use that is arguably not a good one. And if we let this kind of language work upon our reality, the Status will most definitely effect the way we "be" in the world. Our enitre conception of being, in other words, will be altered.

I know I have treated language as a bit of a two way street here. And I think most linguists and many philosophers would treat it that way. No linguist totally buys the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis ("language creates reality") and none of the philosophers I look to for answers would suppose that we are "in charge" of language, either. The way I've described it, and the way Heidegger thinks of it, supposes an interplay between man and his own experience of language, but that does not suppose that misuse of language alters the essence of Language (let's say with a capital L) itself. It can alter our cultures, habits, and our abililty to be in the world in a healthy way. Heidegger condemns technical use of language for its preventing us from "dwelling" in the world. I condemn the Status for preventing us from having a fully self-conscious and self-reflective existence that is unmitigated by outside forces (Facebook, Blogger, Twitter users poised and ready to comment or give a "thumbs up," the SN "force" itself) that would do violence to our conceptions of self and to our attempts to "dwell" as human beings.

The only way I see to salvage the Status, or to repurpose it as a benign sort of activity, would be to view the Status as poetry. This would also please Heidegger. When the Status was first installed on Facebook, the prompt included not only the user's name but the word "is." The "is" could be deleted if the user wanted to write something that didn't include "is," however, most users often chose to keep the "is." This was true even when the "is" did not make grammatical sense in the Status they were writing! See below examples:

How the "is" was originally intended to be used:

Robyn is doing laundry.
Robyn is wondering why it gets dark so early.
Robyn is done with school.

The "is" eventually became a new kind of "is."

Robyn is a sunny day.
Robyn is attitude.
Robyn is finally I got some iced tea!

None of these examples are particularly poetic, but the "is" factor made many users think about how to use their words. It made them try to be poetic even if they had no knack for poetry. Facebook has since gotten rid of the default "is," but many users have retained it for an occasional poetic Status, or they have at least retained their feeling about the status as being somehow outside normal prose conventions, and above the baseness of slang or texting expectations.

The "is" was important to the development of the Status not only because it forced some language acrobatics (or rather, forced users language channels to stay open) by always being in the way of typing out the normal prose sentence one's brain had already completed, but because it is the word that means "to be." In its final form, before it was dismissed as the official Status prompt of Facebook, it had come to mean what someone "is" when they type in a Status. For many users the Status was no longer the answer to Facebook's query, "What are you doing?" or "What's on your mind?" but the answer to "What are you?", "How do you be in the world?", "What does being mean to you?" For these users, perhaps the Status as a new language construct is a happy accident.

Now I know I've gone and said something against what I said earlier, that the Status is a bad way to let Language get bullied (if we or anything else could ever bully Language). Hopefully I've shown that there are two different movements at work. The Being-as-Status movement, that could be causing us to think of ourselves within a Status-oriented framework, and the Status-as-Being movement, wherein we only go to the Status to let ourselves speak (type) the language that wants to be heard. I am against the first movement, on grounds earlier discussed, and I don't know if the benefits of the second movement outweigh the costs of the first. There are many other ways to think poetically, but if the Status is what it takes to get a generation to speak, and the linguists don't want us to stop the forward (?) march of modern language usages, perhaps it's something that has already left an indelible mark on all of us who inhabit cultures with enough "technicity" to allow us to post-up, blog, Twitter, comment, and Status-change all day long.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Power of Pretend

One of my most learned (and mosted aged) professors consistently spends half the class period lecturing on how to avoid writing like a student. He is the quintessential English professor of yore, complete with oversized glasses, tweed jackets, elbow patches, corduroy pants, and an occasional golf hat. You can tell he's been teaching since the 60s, which makes him an amazing resource for our little English department. Much of what he says is lost on the class, who are mostly comfortable in their roles as students.

At a school where disciplines like health and social work are the top majors, the attitude of the typical student is most likely that of "I can't do anything by myself yet. I'm a student." This is legally true for future social workers, nurses, or child psychologists. They can't counsel anyone, poke needles in anyone, or diagnose anyone's hyperactive child until they are properly certified, degreed, hired, and given whatever other "OK" they may need. But we majors in the humanities have an advantage! Since we do not work with live people, our studies and our future careers will always take place inside our heads or in the pages of a book. No one's body or psyche is going to suffer for our sophomoric conjectures and naive missteps. So we should try to have our own ideas and speak them as often as possible.

I see this not happening every day in English classes. Most questions and comments, even from those with voluntarily raised hands, begin with something like, "I may be totally wrong but..." "This may be in left field but..." "I kinda pictured it as..." No one will step right up and offer their ideas without qualifications. They don't even credit themselves with having ideas. Everything is an opinion to them, including their own thoughts.

But we've gone over this many times too, in the aforementioned prof's class. Not all interpretations are equal. Not all interpretations even make sense or can be accepted. Sure, there is a variety of ways to interpret a text, but if something is truly "left field" it is probably not a sensible interpretation. There is subjectivity in the study of literature to be sure, but it is not relativistic at a scholarly level. Students need to move beyond the "every opinion counts" ideology to "every well-argued theory counts" or something of that sort. Not only would that protect them from any zany ideas that may fly around the classroom, but it will enable them to think of their own ideas as worth being argued without hemming and hawing all over the place.

The lecture of Thursday last was on writing like a scholar, specifically. We discussed the baneful "intro paragraph" that needs to be thrown out, along with that freshman fear of using "I" in an essay. I had long since become conversational (heck I've always been conversational) in my essays, but this new license to overflow the one paragraph intro was liberating! Everything we had been reading in this course (and in any upper level English course) started with a long, multi-paragraphed, somewhat wandering, but mostly helpful and interesting introductions. And two semesters ago I had already begun to notice the disparity between actual published works and the formulaic 8-10 page paper of the college classroom. I had already begun to plot out my honors thesis in a non-traditional format, and I think I can now safely ignore the school-paper-formula for the rest of my undergraduate career.

This discussion of writing led into a discussion of teaching. Our professor did not finish his PhD on the first go, and back then you didn't need to in order to teach college. And fortunatley for him and his giant brain he went to Yale! They let you take the degree without a dissertation, and call it an M. Phil. Anyhow, he told us this story of the disappearing dissertation because he wanted to emphasize how he had not been comfortable moving from student mode to scholar mode. He went and started working instead of "dissertating," and he began by "pretending" like he knew what he was doing in front of a classroom. Soon enough, he was a pro at it. Only then did he go back to finish the PhD, and he did it easily because he was at home being a scholar.

The moral of this story (and of the "don't write like a student" stories leading up to it), was that we all need to just think like scholars, read like scholars, write like scholars, as best we can, and most importantly, believe that we are going to be degreed, pinned, sashed, tasseled, and hired scholars in the very near future! This isn't just a set of maxims for "thinking positive." This way of thinking about school is a major factor for an English student's success.

So I smirked and secretly thought about how I have been doing almost everything right. I have been playing the scholar. I have been flouting undergraduate writing conventions in order to say what I need to say. I have been speaking my ideas in class as if they are worth being argued. I had even made this connection of pretending for myself in some cases, and already become reflective about it -- I often refer to my grad school application process by saying, "Yeah, this summer I'm drafting my statements of purpose. I have to pretend I'll know what I'm doing with all their money, and pretend I'll focus on something specific to study."

So as much as I am DONE with undergrad, TIRED of being surrounded by kids, SICK of hearing them whine and make no sense (man, I'm a jerk today), I am feeling good about professorly prospects, especially now that I know I've got the right attitude about it. (The confidence part, not so much the getting annoyed with other English majors part.)

Now I have two papers to work on: One that compares criticisms of Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and one discussing the different art forms valorized by the aesthetic theories of various German Romantic Philosophers. My introductions will flow onto the second page, my voice will be in the first person, and I will make no apologies for my arguments.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Snakes and Naked Ladies


No this is not an entry about a biker bar/strip club or anything like that. I have Milton on the brain.

For my British Literature class, the last lit survey class I will take in undergrad, I would like to write about Paradise Lost for my term paper. It's a major work, the kind that has entire semester-long courses dedicated to it (which I never took), and a significant number of scholars are strangely devoted to studying just this poem, above all the other works they might enjoy. So it would be good if I had a nice handle on such a volume.

Like many young women who read PL, I'm interested in Eve's role in the fall. But I'm not concerned with it in the context of religious views and how they've marginalized women, the history of androcentrism, etc. There was much discussion of this in class, and while I enjoyed that discussion, I have the tendency to take it in the direction of a theological argument. Any chance my brain gets to start mulling over the free will paradox, it reduces the argument to that and runs with it. And this is not a philosophy of religion course. (Similarly my brain reduces any social question to "goddamn capitalism!" and runs just as quickly into the arms of Marx.)

For this paper I am concerned with Milton, and his particular views on women, and how those views work their way into the text. I read in several sources, most notably Virginia Woolf, that Milton was something of a misogynist. Woolf repeatedly refers to his "fear" of women, which is an interesting angle on misogyny. So what's his deal? That's what I want to know.

I may also end up being concerned with the sixteenth century literary device of woman-blame, and this may eclipse my more biographical treatment. Eve's role in the fall points to the laying of a very large and stinking package of blame in the laps of woman-kind. Men of the cloth as well as "men of the pen" have this mythology as their background for living high on their horses. They lament that women were not created as strong as men, yet they blame the women for the moral shortcomings associated with their supposedly inherent frailty. This is almost a convention of Renaissance literature, a "trope" if you will. It is even present in our much more forward-thinking buddy Shakespeare.

So what is particular and especially slimy about Milton's brand of woman-blame? That's what I want to know first, then I'll decide if there's enough for a paper there. So I may have to look for a couple other texts to tease out a non-biblical, less formulaic treatment to back up any claims I might want to make.

I plan to check out some feminist criticism (of course) and perhaps some of the related critical applications i.e. New Historicism, Marxism. I'd also like to see if any of Milton's contemporaries left comments on his work. If I go the woman-blame-as-trope route, I may just spend a lot of time with the Early Modern Literature journals, with which I am friendly and familiar.

Now to copy and paste this conversational brainstorm into Word, and turn it in as a "proposal." I'm glad I'm a creative writer on top of being an academic. My brain-dumps often make perfectly acceptable assignments because of their entertainment value. Having awesome professors who like to be entertained helps too.