Friday, December 31, 2010

One more something...

This is the last paper of 2009, and though it is not the best paper of 2009 (a rushed term paper with winter stomach flu flourishes), it is from a year ago. And so it reminds me again, to remember that a time of reading and writing will return to me.

Post-Postmodern Intertextuality: The Realm of the Text in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours

“It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century.” --The Hours, p. 9

When addressing texts that are actively intertextual, that is, they purposefully interact with specific earlier texts, we often find that we are reading “the other side of the story.” This is especially true of texts written during that blurry-ended period we call postmodernism. In a literary climate where challenges to cultural and aesthetic norms were the business of both the critic and the author, novels such as Grendel and Wide Sargasso Sea attempted to show us the folly of taking their partner-texts (Beowulf and Jane Eyre, respectively) at face value. Through stories that carefully reflect the events of the poem and novel, yet cast them in a new light, Grendel and Wide Sargasso Sea show us the dangers of buying into the cultural and social constructions exhibited by the earlier texts, and, in postmodern fashion, attempt to deconstruct the oppositions in the texts by collapsing age-old binaries such as man/beast, colonizer/colonized, and madness/sanity. While the work of John Gardner and Jean Rhys continues to be illuminating, by the end of the twentieth century creative yet still very theoretical approaches like these seemed to have served their purpose. Theory itself was on the wane in the academy, and certainly in the minds of authors who had in the last half-century of theory-dominance been robbed of their authorial intent and made to question their relationship with their work.

The work of authors like Michael Cunningham began to defy the literary and theoretical “decrees” that would have guided earlier attempts at writing or studying novels, intertextual novels in particular. Cunningham’s novel The Hours is undoubtedly a reply, a dialogic interaction of the postmodern variety, to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. However, it does entirely not fit the mold of a postmodern argumentative “address” to an earlier, usually outmoded sort of text, i.e. the epic poem or the Victorian novel. Cunningham’s novel is different in three main aspects. First, The Hours is not hostile toward the original author or text, hostility usually being one of the unfortunate yet prevalent components of a deconstruction. In fact, the novel is an homage to Mrs. Dalloway and to Woolf. Second, The Hours considers the biographical “other side of the story” rather than the fictional one that, in the spirit of Wide Sargasso Sea, would attempt to tear apart Mrs. Dalloway at the seams. Bringing in biography is huge. Finally, The Hours, while it attempts no careful reconstruction of a storyline to oppose Mrs. Dalloway, sets up two new stories that mirror each other, while both of the stories interact with the original text and with the life of Virginia Woolf as semi-fictionalized by Cunningham. The way these stories interact and talk back to one another, while never forgetting to keep the conversation going with Woolf’s novel, is highly complex and even more impressive than postmodern attempts at simply constructing a story that presents a somewhat predictable (given what we know about theory’s aims) opposing argument to a text. We will see that Cunningham mounts similar deconstructive arguments, yet manages to do so without being destructive.

The Hours opens with an account of Virginia Woolf’s suicide. Already, we are in the realms of biography and tribute. Cunningham immerses us in Woolf’s thoughts as “she us almost distracted by the sight of the downs, the church, a scattering of sheep…one of the farm workers (is his name John?)…she thinks of how successful he is, how fortunate, to be cleaning a ditch…” (5). This stream of consciousness is purposely reminiscent of Woolf’s style in Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham also includes Woolf’s actual suicide note (6), bringing in a physical connection to reality, to biography, and all this combined with his moving, almost mystical description of Woolf becoming part of the river, tell us we are reading an homage. (That is, if we didn’t already know from the title – "The Hours" was Woolf’s working title for Mrs. Dalloway, and the phrase is repeated in nearly every chapter of the book.) While it would be naïve to assume that, for instance, Jean Rhys does not admire Charlotte Bronte simply because she deconstructs her most famous novel, we find nothing of a direct nod to Bronte in Wide Sargasso Sea, nothing bordering Cunningham’s obvious and open adoration for the author his novel treats both as text and as human. The offensive on which theory places the mid-century author of the intertextual text practically prohibits any magnanimous interaction with the partner text, and explicitly prohibits the sort of interaction with the author that we find in The Hours. Julia Kristeva, coiner of the term intertextual in 1966, would have it (along with many other mid-century theorists) that “the author is dead.” Her theory of intertextuality divorces authors and their intent from the text, and in fact treats the author as a separate but related text, his personal history as yet another set of texts. I would argue that Kristeva’s thoughts on authorship are just a traditional look at authors and texts using theoretical terminology as a device to seemingly distance the critic from the literature and the person who wrote it, to create some kind of apparent impartiality so that the theory can be applied as some kind of science that gives objective answers. Her anti-intertextual detractor, William Irwin, would probably agree with me, and has it that Kristeva’s theories, couched in technical language as they are, are “notoriously subjective” (236). However, we cannot ignore the influence that she had as far as forcing critics and students to consider the text as an ungraspable entity, not a product of man’s mind, but a product of myriad forces of politics, culture, history, etc, that feed into the text from the spaces between texts, the intertext (Kristeva 36). It is this trend in the second half of twentieth century writing, theory, and critical work that moved us away from considering any relationship between an author and her work, and from considering the author as a person attempting to deliver a message (isn’t that the usual end of the written word?). Cunningham’s novel defies these newish conventions by considering Virginia the woman, considering Woolf’s life as a writer, and considering the actual penning of the partner-text Mrs. Dalloway as a mirror story to his new Mrs. Dalloway’s exploits.

Cunningham could have used the suicide prologue to establish his Woolf-fandom, to disclaim any attacks he might make on Mrs. Dalloway, but it instead sets the tone for an homage novel, and it does not have to serve as a disclaimer for anything. Cunningham sustains Woolf’s story throughout the novel, and it interacts with the stories of the two other women, Clarissa Vaughan (the surrogate Mrs. Dalloway) and Laura Brown (the historical and intertextual connection between the novels and the people in them). Laura and Clarissa’s stories do bring up questions about the life that Woolf led in the early twentieth century. Women were not properly treated for mental illnesses and depression, and even those women as talented as Woolf often had a dependence on their husbands’ approval and support that could not be overcome. And perhaps most importantly to Cunningham’s aims (for we know he has them), Woolf’s sexuality was as ambiguous as her characters’, in a time when such ambiguity was not socially acceptable.

Throughout the novel, Cunningham cycles through the three women’s stories, giving a chapter to each before jumping to the next... [analysis of how the stories work together, and how they work differently from pairs like Sargasso Sea and Eyre]

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours was a welcome novel in a time at “the end of the twentieth century” when a suspicion of authors and of great literature had taken over literary study, when theory had spent its momentum deconstructing every construction, whether literary or political or both, and when biography had been dismissed for years as mostly irrelevant to the study and appreciation of literary texts. Cunningham still tackles social constructs, but with a human and psychological insight that is not so explicit in a work like Wide Sargasso Sea, where the characters, from whom we glean so much in The Hours, for Rhys take a back seat to a mostly political theoretical agenda. And while Gardner has all the insight in the world in his treatment of Beowulf (even shares Cunningham’s knack for stream of consciousness), Grendel remains aloof as a text, “objectively” passing judgment on the values of epic poetry. Cunningham, perhaps because of his own genius, perhaps because he’d overheard the conversations about theory’s last gasps, chose to break out of the postmodern intertextual-writing protocol of having an agenda, of maintaining hostility toward the partner-text and all its values, and of turning a blind eye to the author who penned the work he thought important enough to use as the basis for his what would become one of his most important pieces of work. The Hours is a post-postmodern, post-theory novel, addressing a modern novel that was already dialogic, that already had its own doubts built in, that was asking to be spoken to on the same level. It did not need to be bullied into opening up and giving up some of its secrets, some of its contradictions. Cunningham lovingly opens up Mrs. Dalloway for the contemporary reader, and shows how texts can be addressed in an illuminating way that challenges social constructions without necessarily challenging everything an original text stands for. By contrast, it’s as if Gardner does a stand up routine ridiculing the life and times of Beowulf and the Beowulf poet. Rhys mounts a political uprising against everything Victorian, and does not stop pumping her fist in the air long enough to hear any echoes or insights from Jane Eyre or Bronte. Cunningham, at Theory’s wake, at the end of the twentieth century, sits down with Woolf. And they have a really good talk.

Works Cited
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Picador USA, 1998. Print.
Irwin, William. “Against Intertextuality.” Philosophy and Literature. 28.2 (2004): 227-241. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. “Word, Dialog, Novel.” The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 34-59. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953. Print.

Something to Remember

As 2010 closes (it's no longer drawing to a close -- it's 11:54pm), I want to remember not this past year, but the one before it -- the one where I was in school! Of course I had personal experiences worth remembering in these last twelve months, but as far as academics, writing, reading, and even thinking go, I am looking forward to a new beginning. After a spring semester that wasn't a semester but just a collection of months (I had finished a B.A. in December '09, and was in an awkward interim between programs), followed by my first wretched attempt at grad school that left me...

Happy New Year!

...more than a little pissed off and rightly disillusioned with terminal masters degree programs, I have little to show for 2010 as "A Student of English." That said, I must remember that a new beginning is here, not just because Pope Gregory said so, but because as arbitrary as a "New Year's Day" may seem, semesters always begin in January. I must also remember that writing is what I do, and that by most accounts I am pretty okay at my chosen vocation. I present to you the only paper I wrote for my "prose styles" class that received an 'A' grade. Yes I'm still pissed about the Bs and Cs, but just the same here is my one brief achievement (no paper over two pages was allowed), an assignment to write on Woolf's persona as gleaned from her prose style in the Death of the Moth book of essays:

In Virginia Woolf’s prose essays there is a precarious balance between an informal, stream-of-consciousness voice (a journal-keeper) and an almost pretentiously formal voice (a professional writer). Sometimes these voices inhabit different paragraphs of the essay, but often they are present together, sometimes within the same sentence. The inspired used of unlikely metaphors and the fast-flowing sentence structures of the journal-keeper are evidence of Woolf’s genius. The more formal constructions in her professional writer’s prose (i.e. the use of “one” instead of “I” and other characteristics of high diction), however, seem to be hiding something of her character, especially in her more reflective essays (“Death of the Moth,” “A Street Haunting”). Woolf’s persona comes off as one of a sort of sad brilliance, the professional writer in Woolf couching her depression in her confident “highbrow” formal diction, while the journal-keeper lets an occasional glimmer of inspiration shine through. In these reflective essays, Woolf makes observations of herself (which she sometimes claims are observations on humanity in general) that allude to her internal conflicts. But only in her humorous prose (“Professions for Women,” “Middlebrow”) does Woolf’s conflicted persona seem to resolve itself. She perhaps realizes the duality of her voices, and seeks to reconcile them ironically.

Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness constructions and poignant metaphors characterize her genius writing, those times when the journal-keeper bares herself and manages to share a bit of unbridled brilliance with her readers. The sentences in these sections (or the sections of these sentences) that fit the journal-keeper persona often exhibit asyndeton, ellipses, and other syntactical and rhetorical devices that require a filling-in of the gaps, as one would have to do when speaking to a familiar person. Some sentence fragments that exhibit Woolf’s typical stream-of-consciousness are: “beauty and beauty and beauty…” (13), “floating, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks” (24), “tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space…” (25), “Lady So-and-So with the curls and the emeralds…” (29). The same journal-keeper seems to be the persona who astounds us or invites us in with metaphors such as: “…one could only offer a thimble to a torrent that could fill baths, lakes” (14), “We are warmly wrapped in a rug” (15), “A nail fixed the whole being to one hard board” (211). Though these metaphors seem to grow out of the same raw Woolf who writes in spurts and commas, they begin to take on some of the diction of her more traditional and formal prose voice. It is as if a self-consciousness creeps into her just as she sees things most clearly, just as she wishes to reveal herself most completely.

Most of Woolf’s prose essays are in this more self-conscious voice, and those that are not humorous seem to belie her sadness especially when she takes her professional writer tone. The very language some part of her hopes will hide her fears betrays them. To speak of the death of a creature so tenderly, yet so detachedly at the same time (“…when there was nobody there to care or know, this gigantic effort on the part an insignificant little moth, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely” (11)) is odd. She has been writing on this “insignificant” moth for three pages, and yet she is only “moved strangely”? The understatement and detachment of her professional writer’s voice, its refusal to commit to a strong emotion or a wild metaphor, or to let itself run on at length until it expires all its meaning (as the journal-keeper does) is indicative of the protection from herself she hopes it will give her.

While Woolf’s wit does help her manage her various writing selves in her humorous essays, it is in her most reflective writing that we really find a window into her persona, “streaked, variegated, all of a mixture” (30). Her writer’s formality is her anchor in a river of troubled consciousness, and she holds onto it as long as she can, to keep from drowning.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

What's wrong with Literal?

I disagree (with qualifications), Diagram.

Writers, directors, and artists of all kinds shy away from the literal. Literal is predictable, it's been done, and it doesn't often give a new perspective to a treatment of, say, a Shakespeare play or a Bob Dylan song. I once told a music man how I envisioned a video for a certain song, and I was immediately reproached: "That's so literal." Well, what's wrong with a little literal once in a while?

By 'literal' I mean the obvious meaning of words or lyrics, the expected (and even hoped for) staging of a play or movie, or an image that might come to mind for a good portion of 'readers' when they first see or hear something. None of these things have the postmodern factor, or even the cool factor -- but that doesn't mean literal interpretations, presentations, and re-presentations can't be effective.

I think artists and writers across many media and genres (and pardon me but my examples today will be from the realm of advertising) have forgotten how to do literal. They have forgotten how a straightforward voice can communicate clearly and quickly, how a solid and expected image can be grounding for the reader, and they have completely forgotten that to be literal does not mean to give up metaphor and all its possibilities. You can be literal and make meanings multiply. You can be literal and be nuanced.

Unfortunately these forgettings have led to the forgetting of how to say anything that means anything -- how to say anything that's even readable. In the following examples, from a sunglass catalog that attempts to create a 'lifestyle' backstory for its products, language becomes more and more abstract, forgets what the product is, and then altogether forgets what was being said in the first place. This is even more unfortunate, or just plain lame I should say, because the products have interesting, mostly concrete names. These could have been used as jumping off points to keep the copy somehow tied to the product. Some of them start out that way, then trail off into oblivion. You'll see. I'll comment on some of this awfulness afterward, and venture a theory that sticking to the literal helps the writer as much as it can help the reader.

Note: The names before the dashes are the product names. The trails of ellipses are really in the copy. Any misused punctuation or apostrophes are there as well.

Clutch -- When you gotta get a grip come through in the clutch! Don't hang on to the past when the future is in your hands..... and on your face. Make it happen while the rest of the world is nappin' and seize the day -- some how, some way.

Kickstand -- Hey you, get on your bike and ride! Better yet, throw down the kickstand and get down to business.... so you can get back to the business of getting down. Ya heard?

Burnout -- Kill the headlights and put it in neutral, pop off the t-top and crank it to 26! The party's just begun... Smokey's on the way and everybody's looking for the burnout.

Modcon -- In this new age of modern convenience, a jet-setting operator can afford only the finest contraptions and contrivances for... their countenance. Make yourself useful in the modcon. The gizmo of choice when it is time to get your gadgets under control.

Checko -- Microphone checko, one, two. What is this? A yes. So fresh. Four lens jam. Sweeter thana frech's in the place to be. so what do you do so naturally? Be down by law. The center of attention and take yourself to the 4th dimension. Wurd!

Telly -- Who loves ya baby? ....For the bold and the beautiful and everyone in between ... No need to channel surf when your [your!?] rockin' this big screen.....So flip on your telly and enjoy your show....

Skitch -- On any sunday you can smell it in the air. Tatse it in the atmosphere and see it in the clear....The skitch is not a beer goggle, but the next best thing to one. We've go the facts to prove it....

Giggles -- Isn't life a blast? It's just like living in the past. So let's go downtown. do some shopping.... get all silly and giggle our way to the land of happily ever after. Ha! Ho ho ho, hee hee hee, ha ha ha ha!....

All right, now that that's over can I just take a breath and say WTF? Can you tell what any of that means? In an attempt to speak some kind of hipster language that only vaguely refers to reality, all meaning (and interest, for me) is lost. I experienced a similar vapidity when I worked in West Hollywood years ago, making internet cartoons. It was like that episode of The Simpsons where the writers (I'm so glad they make fun of cartoon writers) throw out all these ideas from pop culture and say "No but it will be different because it will have this other idea from pop culture tacked onto it!" Okay, these descriptions are not exactly like that but they keep reminding me of West Hollywood cool types and their "ideas."

As I vainly attempted to glean something of the essence of this brand and its products by reading the above nonsense, I came across a very few descriptions that had a ring to them. Not a crystal clear, resonant ring, but a ring that is definitely more sonorous than the other junk on the catalog pages. How did that copywriter get his act together (so sexist of me to think it's a him right?) and write such tight copy after all that rambling? He stuck to the name of the glasses, what they actually look like, and got down and dirty in literal-land. Here are a couple of those readable descriptions:

Nessie -- The search for the legendary Loch Ness monster is over. It turns out the highly sought after creature is a sexy beast after all! ...The elusive Nessie has surfaced from the depths as a dark and mysterious Italian sunglass ready to be worn and adorned....

Debutante -- When it's time to make a not so formal introduction, beautify yourself with the Debutante and be the belle of the ball.... Next to the gown and the white gloves, this eyewear masterpiece will most certainly make a mark (if not a scar) on society....

Panzer -- The VZ army wants you! As a recruit in the Von Zipper war against the sun's evil rays. Your protection is our first concern... Standard operating protocol calls for you to armor up with the Panzer and blitzkrieg your way though enemy lines....

Other sunglasses with readable and almost successful descriptions were Absinthe, Southpaw, Comsat, Bionacle, Gamma, Tastemaker. They all took these names and the associated style of the sunglasses, and used those words and impressions to create a product, rather than some nebulous vignette into a too-cool-for-you-to-understand lifestyle. (Because that's what I think bad writers who happen to be cool are doing -- trying to make us think we don't understand their writing because we're not hip enough to fill in the gaps and get all the references, rather than because they just actually haven't written anything that constitutes a sentence or even a Beat poem.)

There are 40 sunglasses.

30 out of 40 descriptions are mostly unreadable and therefore uncommunicative as evidenced by the examples above, and 4 out of 10 readable descriptions are poorly executed. Only one of the readable descriptions is non-literal. A few of the unreradable descriptions may have been literal -- it's hard to tell when you have no idea what the writer is saying! Based on this sunglass catalog, I think there is something to be said for thinking literally when you approach a topic or subject. At the very least, fledgling writers should try to think literally before they go out on tangled and indecipherable limbs at the tippy-top of the meaning tree. Stay near the ground until your wings have matured!

Although I don't think that I personally need to stay on the ground, I used literal meanings of the names of these sunglasses combined with real knowledge of the art movements and styles they emulate to create what I would call very literal descriptions. I used humor and storytelling too, but didn't stray too far from the inspiration the names and styles had to offer. Maybe that's uncool, but I was writing over a hundred sunglass descriptions. If I hadn't gone literal, they would have all started to sound the same. And if I hadn't gone literal, I wouldn't have learned so much about the things I was writing on. German tanks, Jackie O, rap rhythms...I even researched how clutches work! A literal kind of writing forces you to be knowledgeable about your topic. If you just start spouting hipnesses and things you heard in a movie somewhere, along with vague descriptive words you may or may not be using correctly, you will have no idea what you're talking about and neither will anyone else.

So the literal not only grounds our writing, ensuring it imparts some kind of easily understood message, but it (counter-intuitively, perhaps) gives us infinite possibilities. Just think how many people, places, and things are in the world! Good God, y'all! If you decide to base your descriptive writing on things, you will never run out of examples, hip references, and even great metaphors -- that work even better because they too need to be based on things.

Apart from how easy being literal makes getting a good hold on writing, I'm sure literal has something to offer for film, art, even music videos (do those still exist?). There is nothing wrong with occasionally saying or portraying something without some kind of postmodern ulterior motive, or some cooler-than-thou, "I don't have to commit to any one meaning" language of youthful bad writing. Think of how much satisfaction we get from convention. Without it, all art would be chaos. Just write (act/direct/paint) something as it is, for what it is, and if you have a voice that really adds to the "text" of whatever it is you're writing on, it will come through.

NOTE: I didn't include any of my rewrites of the product descriptions here because I don't want you to Google them and find out who I was working for when I was knocking Von Zipper (which I've done twice now). Suffice it to say that my rewrites are very literal, and I laughed a lot while I was writing them. What I can do here is refer you to a website I don't do work for that has good, mostly literal descriptions of all these same products, a website I turned to for help when I couldn't figure out what the hell the VZ catalog was saying. sells all the VZ sunglasses, and they have some funny and meaningful takes on the shades. They completely ignored the catalog descriptions and I don't blame them.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What really knocks me out is sexist sunglasses

I recently looked through several catalogs of high end, sporty sunglasses, all marketed toward the same "lifestyle" segment, in an effort to find some mental fodder upon which to build product descriptions for a retailer. Most of the catalogs were great looking, polished, and gave equal time to men and women's glasses, as well as both male and female models wearing those glasses. Lifestyle brands like these sponsor surfers, motocross riders and the like to get their names out there. Lady surfers, boarders, and riders were prominent on the pages of Spy Sunglasses' catalog (see Meghann O'Brien at right, fully clothed). But when I looked through Von Zipper's booklet, all I found were captioned photos of marginally famous surfer men -- and marginally famous men who are famous for no reason (read: Wee Man) -- alongside photos of unnamed women models. Von Zipper sponsors lady surfers, just like Spy, but they failed to include any of them in their catalog. Male surfer models like Taj Burrow and Andy Irons (rest his soul) were used for multiple shots and styles. The women's glasses, and some of the unisex pairs, were modeled only by those unnamed women. And only a few of those styles were even modeled, while all the men's were given face-time.

I don't know why this bothered me so much except that the whole combination of idiotic elements that made up this particular catalog just got to me, after staring at it for hours while writing about these presumably high quality products. (I am about to do another post on the asinine copywriting in this catalog, and on terrible non-communicative writing in general. The bad writing certainly added to the foul taste VZ left me with.)

This would have made some sense if Von Zipper had no connections with women who could model the glasses. But they sponsor women! Why didn't those women model the glasses? Could the industry's belief be that women who surf or ride motocross aren't conventionally good looking enough to photograph well? Spy proves that theory wrong -- while they do feature one very attractive surfer girl three times as often as the more tomboyish surfer they asked to model, they give the girls the same attention they gave the boys. This isn't high fashion, it's lifestyle wear for people who do these sports (or at least pretend to do them). The company's ideal customer is one who wants to see the real surfer chicks let it all hang out, not look at made-up models in static poses wearing men's sunglasses.

Von Zipper features all these wacky dudes living it up on the beach or straddling some graffiti sprayed concrete, with their names plastered on every page. So they not only get the fun of being seen, they get publicity and awareness of their participation in the sport. The women of Von Zipper are easy to find if you look them up on the website, but they never had their day in print. They are not the face of the company as the men are. The women of Spy, however, are back to back with men, all their names emblazoned on the page in a two inch-high typeface.

Some of this may have to do with how marketers think men and women "read" advertisements. Men may need the lifestyle photo more than women. They're visual. Women may do better with just a big honking picture of a product. They're material. (Most of Von Zipper's women's frames aren't modeled they're just huge on the page with names like "Cookie" and "Giggles.")

To name one final difference between these companies, Von Zipper calls their women's section "Girls" and Spy calls it "Womens."

If I ever have the unlikely urge for $180 sunglasses, I'll buy them from Spy. Von Zipper just turns me off. I know there is bound to be sexism of some kind in any catalog that peddles fashion, but Spy does a better job of being classy about it, and a good job of evening the playing field for men and women athletes seeking sponsorships.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Now Face North

I don't think many people who wear The North Face fleece jackets have ascended the north face of anything. What's more, The North Face wearer announces his superiority of dress, his authority on yuppie sportswear, without ever actually showing his face. I am starting to hate The North Face, because of its lack of a face. All I see is its cold shoulder.

Until this strange positioning of embroidery coupled with the always already "away" positioning of the North Facers faces when in close proximity to non-North Facers faces really started to get to me (which it did, after a cool season of riding the 'L'), I did not even know if there was a logo on the front of The North Face jackets. So often did they turn the other shoulder that I had to visit The North Face dot com to look at a fleece jacket for myself, to determine if it was to blame for its wearers' paradoxical simultaneity of coldness and warmth. The jacket, as it turns out, does have a front logo. So maybe it is not wholly to blame for its apparent one-sidedness? But yet -- could it be that the front logo is intended for the admiration of the sporty affluent fuck's sporty affluent fucking friends, while the back logo is there for the rest of us to covet? The fleece aficionado can keep his power structure of branding in place, without having to gaze upon the pitiable face and shabby woolen garments of the less warmly outfitted citizen of winter.

Have North Facers even seen the commercials for these products? I think the fleeces are so much a part of their cultural code they need not be sold to. The North Face gear, at any rate, is advertised to real outdoor adventure types. Those real outdoor adventure types do amazing things in those advertisements. They don't just stand around on the 'L' ignoring humanity and iPodding their brains to shit. You can do that in a Kmart jacket.

Now I want to punch one in the shoulder blade.

I am not averse to outdoor wear for city use. I am wearing REI pants and a Columbia sweater as I write this on the commuter train. (But those are store-brand and low-end outdoor garments, respectively.) I am also not totally averse to wearing The North Face gear (don't you love how they've built "The" into the name so you can't even write about it properly?). I have an awesome pair of ("The") North Face pants that I got on clearance. They have a logo embroidered on the back pocket. But dammit, if you want to see the front of them, I will gladly turn around. And if you want to say "Hey, nice pants!" I will gladly turn around and say "Thank you!" with my face.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Splendid Word

I ended my last post with a line from Woolf, that for many of us is "nuff said" when it comes to why we love our language: "Words, English words..." I thought since I posted two months ago on words that I hate for absolutely no sane reason, I should give equal time to words I love with the same intensity and absurdity. First, here is most of that paragraph from Woolf, with clues to why some words might grate and some might delight:
"Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations -- naturally. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today -- they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. The splendid word 'incarnadine', for example -- who can use it without remembering also 'multitudinous seas'? [...] Words belong to each other, although, of course, only a great writer knows that the word 'incarnadine' belongs to 'multitudinous seas'."

--from "Craftsmanship," delivered as a BBC broadcast on April 20, 1937, part of a series entitled Words Fail Me
Woolf's points about words and their meaning-baggage are valid, but another approach to thinking about why we love words comes from the "cellar door" camp. Some words may appeal to us because they are sonorous, and for no other reason. Here is an excerpt from what may be the first mention of the "cellar door" theory in print:
“He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”

--from Gee-Boy, by Cyrus Lauron Hooper, 1903 (and pulled from this NYT article)

For me I think a combination of these things is at work when a word moves me or sticks with me. (For my most-hated hit list, however, I maintain that it is only the sound quality of the words that I find abhorrent, as I have no issue with the meanings. I could make a list of words I hate for the meanings, but wouldn't that just be a list of things I hate?)

So here are some of my favorites, including proper nouns from around these United States:

boat ride
Cucamonga (anglicized Shoshone, so it counts as English)
Clarksville (any simple name with a "ville" after it gets me...'cept maybe Hooterville and Margaritaville)

*Appalachian. (A "haint" is a ghost.)

There are more. Maybe I'll add them as I come across them in my reading. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments, especially those where the meaning is obviously not why you love the word.

Once it has snown...

In the winter I start turning all verbs ending in "-ow" into irregular Old Englishy sort of past participles. I think it's because of the snow. It makes me want to say, "Look! It has snown."

I don't think it's too wrong to think of these verbs with the "-own" or "-ewn" ending. Many of the "-ow" verbs still retain what I'm assuming really is an OE ending. Here are some of the ones that really end that way in Modern English:

mow mown
blow blown
sew sewn
show shown
know known

Some of these have two possible endings, like "mown" is most often just "mowed." In fact, proper Modern English lovers probably would not let you get away with "mown" even though it is perfectly proper. It just sounds archaic. But I like that. So here's how we should say the following verbs as past participles when the mood strikes us, and again, grammarians be damned!

snow snown
slow slown
furrow furrown
crow crown

As in...

"It has snown for fourteen days."

"Yes, the snow has not slown down one bit."

"I might have known -- that is why your brow has been furrown."

"Indeed. It is so dark and cold the cock has not crown."

So there. What else do we have to amuse ourselves with when it has snown a fortnight and the cock has not crown?

"Words, English words." -- Virginia Woolf, Craftsmanship

Monday, November 8, 2010

Grammarians, Skedaddle

I have a serious problem with grammarians. I mean, they always bugged me a little in school, but now that I'm doing a master's it seems like the grammarians should have shuffled off by now to torture high school students or edit online magazines or whatever they're good at. See that's the thing. I think grammarians are the way they are because they're not great at having ideas or writing elegantly or anything interesting. So they correct the rest of us. And yes, their grammar-bolstered confidence is so great, they even correct the authors.

Don't get me wrong, I observe most grammar rules (and I do think most high school English teachers are better than just plain grammarians). But I think that some grammatical conventions are too rigid to allow for creative use of this gorgeous language we're lucky enough to have. It's English for God's sake! It can do the awesomest things if you only let it breathe. In one of my classes I sit through weekly humiliation (oops, I misidentified an expletive...) and discomfort (is that an absolute construction? ...I don't think I'll raise my hand). I'm not targeted or anything, and I don't try to take people on, but it is a generally hostile environment for me. I will provide some examples lest you think my complaints are vague or simply based on some kind of grammar envy.

The Sloppy Proofreader
We looked at an overhead of a letter written by a woman author. She typed a quotation mark before the period when she mentioned the title of a short story. The professor thought this a good time to remind us that quotation marks go after the period, and to show his disdain for this highly respected author's cavalier punctuation. The grammarians grumbled along with him. "That's why she has editors." The letter was typed on a type-writer, so whether the writer made an honest typo or had an orthographic brain fart, she was probably not going to go back and fix it. Yes, that's why she has editors. But it's also not most people's main concern to police their quotation marks when writing freely. We proofread things that lots of people will read, like papers for classes. We might even proof our emails. But most of us don't think of ourselves or our friends as failed writers because of a typo. The rogue quotation mark might have warranted a preventative aside in a freshman writing class, but not two whole minutes of grad student tsk-tsk-ing. (That's not a word! Take that!)

The Permissive Editor
When we got down to the analysis of some prose by the same author, we looked at some sentences containing extremely long and winding interrupters. I like interrupted sentences -- dashes, parentheses, whatever have you -- but some of these had double, triple, confusing interruptions. They sure were great though. But what did the grammarians have to say? "I can't believe her editor let her get away with that!" When told that some of this prose had been printed in magazines, they asked why it wasn't "fixed," why no one "stopped her." Maybe because the editor recognized great writing, even where the occasional verb was separated from its direct object by a parenthetical. (Who cares?! It's all so fucking arbitrary.)

The Sentence You Would Never Write
The first directive in this class is to look for "the sentence you would never write." This is supposed to help us find unique stylistic features. While it may sometimes be an efficient way to do just that, it is presumptuous to assume you have a class full of writers who never successfully deviate from grammatical norms. "Look for the sentence with bad grammar" is the message behind this. And since we all love our grammar, we should be able to identify the sentence straight away. What does it say for our precious stupid grammar if every writer we are studying uses egregiously "flawed" sentence structures? Even if we allow for the flaws because the writers show some sort of genius, a method to their grammatical madness, why assume we would never want to write a sentence like theirs? Should we resign ourselves to mediocrity in prose because that's all that proper grammar allows for? Instead, I think we should be looking for "the sentence you would love to write." Or in the case of the grammarians, "the sentence you would love to write, but can't, so you complain about it."

In Conclusion
I hope there are less grammarians at my next stop on the road to an advanced degree in English. If the GRE subject test in literature is any indicator, we should be more worried about learning our Greek mythology and modern poetry than correcting people's inspired use of English. I don't recall a grammar quiz on that particular test. While I recognize that teaching writing is something we will all do (and do constantly), grammar is just one small part of that. To think of teaching writing as teaching grammar or to think of studying style as studying grammar are incredibly reductive approaches. More on style reduction to come, once the semester has ended.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Vulgar Marxist

In Marxism and Literary Criticism, Terry Eagleton describes vulgar Marxism as a reduction of the complexities of Marxist analysis to that oversimplified notion that material condition either makes the man, or makes the resistant man. Eagleton calls for a more sophisticated Marxism that looks at how art (literature) is expressed in many aspects of the superstructure, and is not solely shaped by "means if production," or by an author's poverty or wealth, but by a host of economic influences coming from several contexts (author, the whole of literature, the real world, the implied reader...). In other words, Marxist readings should not merely attempt to show how a work supports its historical conditions, or assume that the work directly challenges those conditions. It's never that simple.

In the first chapter Eagleton clearly puts forth how art is a part of the superstructure that can either reinforce or undermine it, possibly effecting some change at the base. I won't go into it all here, but this was really helpful for me. I'd known all along that Marx, influenced as he was by an aesthetically vocal G. W. F. Hegel, and a cultured (if impoverished) chap himself, would have liked to pull art into his mix, but hadn't the time considering those thousand or so pages of capital-criticism he had to get out. I just couldn't put my finger on how art was such an important part of superstructure, having fallen into the vulgar Marxist mentality sometimes myself.

This was the first time I'd seen the "vulgar Marxist" called out this way. I've seen the term before and I think it's useful, but Eagleton was the first place I'd seen it described so well how when it comes to criticism of art, vulgar Marxism misses the point. But while Eagleton privileges his sophisticated Marxist critic, he does not call for an eradication or a re-education of vulgar Marxists. The word "vulgar" is key here, and I don't think it's pejorative. Vulgar is of the people. Vulgar is what the people understand. If a vulgar Marxism is as far as any proletariat group could be expected to get in their understanding of how economy shapes their consciousness (or, more simply, their "lot in life"), this is far enough to effect some kind of reaction. What good is Marxism if its first application, its praxis as Marx would call it, isn't to help the people see the way to doing something? Eagleton's sophisticated Marxism is the critic's window into the power structures of society as illuminated by art, a window he looks through so that he can critique those structures. Vulgar Marxism might serve the vulgar man just as well. Only he may choose to break the window, and bust some heads.

Workers of the world unite,
Critics of the world . . . untie.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Fortuitous Reading

I haven't had time to type lately, and sometimes even lack the means (the y is now missing off my personal laptop), so I'll quickly share a piece of Derrida that made me strangely happy. At the end of "Structure Sign and Play" he's talking about how the implications of deconstruction can be interpreted as either positive or negative, as something to be struggled against, or as something affirming, in the Nietzschean sense. This bugger is made up of only two sentences, the second one the more exciting:

"For my part, although these two interpretations acknowledge and accentuate their difference and define their irreducibility, I do not believe that today there is any question in choosing -- in the first place because here we are in a region (let's say, provisionally, a region of historicity) where the category of choice seems particularly trivial; and in the second, because we must first try to conceive of this common ground, and the différance of this irreducible difference. Here there is sort of a question, call it historical, of which we are only glimpsing today the conception, the formation, the gestation, the labor. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the business of childbearing -- but also with a glance toward those who, in a company from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity."

Yyyyikes! We read this last part in class and a cluster of us chanted in a weirdly satisfying whisper:

...what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I wouldn't have made that particular connection to Yeats if I hadn't just started reading Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Sure, "The Second Coming" is an oft quoted poem, but to pull it out of Derrida was fun. At some point a reader starts to find she's read so much that all the connections begin to make sense. I used to know when an allusion was being made, or some language borrowed from somewhere, and was even able to track down the source sometimes. But that does not give the same satisfaction as being able to hold multiple texts in one's head at once and get positively giddy about all the possibilities of interaction between them.

Besides my first in-class experience of the literature student groupthink phenomenon (we are after all, an "interpretive community"), and what struck me as the beginnings of my finally having read some significant (but still minuscule) portion of all the things I want to read, I know the first time I'd ever read the paragraph, alone, I was smiling like an idiot and not knowing why. Whatever connections I didn't make on my first solo read, I was at least moved in some way, which seems like a funny thing to be when you're reading about structuralism.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Does Sap Sell?

Buy some shit or I'll make you cry.

It is probably a fact that sex and rock n' roll sell. As much as feminists and other ad police complain, we can't deny our basic urges for sex and ecstatic rocking (or jazzing, or grooving, or hip hopping or whatever it is you do to lose yourself). But who came up with the idea of salesy sap? Lately everything from phones to cars to pills has a commercial with sappy, sort of hopeless music. What are they trying to do to us? Make us more depressed than we already are?

Remember when they'd sell us stuff by rockin' us out? By "they" I mean the current advertising hegemony. A couple years ago I wrote about the abuse of classic rock lyrics in advertising. They always take the lyrics so far out of context that the ad becomes absurd. Well that still pisses me off, but at least the music is good! It's catchy, upbeat, and I can see it making someone want to buy something. Motorola used AC/DC's "Back in Black" a few years back, and it successfully made me buy a bitchin' black Razr phone. It died and I miss it.

In addition to sucking, sappy music doesn't help the consumer remember the product. I can think of half a dozen sappy car commercials, but I have no idea what the hell those cars those were. A vague impression of a Chrysler logo comes to mind for one of them. Snappy, not sappy, helps memory when it comes to products.

If sap does sell for some people, it might be because of a current trend in listening to sappy music, like Jack Johnson. Even if you like that sort of thing, you can't call it catchy or advertising appropriate in any way. The makers of the sappy commercials, knowing their music won't appeal to anyone who doesn't listen to "adult alternative," usually throw in a sappy storyline to help us remember the commercial. That car commercial where the just married couple drive out to a tent in a field (dude, you could have at least gotten a real tent that doesn't melt in the rain), and the girl is kind of funny looking in a cute way with her weird haircut and flowers in her hair... yeah that one. So sweet right, with the sappy music and all? Well, I couldn't tell you if they were driving a Subaru or a Volvo or a Volkswagen. I'll guess that it wasn't a Volkwagen because VW usually has an excellent sense of humor.

Here's that commercial, in case you don't watch TV (you probably shouldn't). The singer sounds like he's dying. I like that it even ends with "We could have gone a more traditional route, but it wouldn't have been nearly as memorable." Wait, what are you selling again? Life insurance?

The worst part about some of the sap songs, like the one in the AT&T commercial that rips off Jeanne-Claude and Christo, is you can't even understand the lyrics. So you walk away from the TV with some vague impression of a vague product (some phone or another...) and some vague lyrics to go along with it, that just sort of vaguely depress you and you don't even know why! I saw some shit or somethin'... and it was beautiful... (The only reason I know that's an AT&T commercial is because I looked up "Jeanne Claude and Christo ripoff.")

I don't like being sold to any more than the next educated person, but I at least like the sales pitch to have ring to it. I don't like to be depressed by advertising. It is depressing enough that advertising even exists, that it is a huge cash cow, and culture shaper. It shouldn't also make us want to jump in the ocean. Advertisers: if everyone kills themselves, no one can buy your shit.

I can think of two commercials that actually make great use of contemporary music. The music is a little saccharin, but it's happy! The Target commercial with the triplets (In a land where the river runs free...Where you and me are free to be you and me!) and the Holiday Inn Express commercial that's made Kyle Andrews famous (You always make me smile...Don't know why I love you...). While you won't catch me riding down the highway or even doing laundry to music like that, I'll at least acknowledge that the marketers of these products understand that making you cry isn't going to get you to buy backpacks or go on vacation. Giving you a little smile and a catchy tune to stick with you just might.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Growing Pains

Hello blog. Nice to see you. It's been a long time.

Those are nearly the opening lyrics of a Conway Twitty song I grew up with. It always reminds me of another Conway Twitty song, "Happy Birthday Darlin," a song which inexplicably made me cry my eyes out on my fourth birthday as I sat on the dining room floor looking at a catalog of home decor, including owls made of brown and yellow yarn and wooden beads. Because of these admissions, you can probably tell I will be 30 years old tomorrow. I plan on listening to some Conway Twitty.

My growing pains associated with turning 30 are only slight. I need to do something small for myself, like get an actual haircut. That should fix me right up. The more intense growing pains I'm experiencing have to do with grad school.

I'm in a masters program that is in no way designed for the aspiring PhD student. As I take more and more away from the course materials, it has become evident that I am in the wrong place, a place where there is no room for a student like myself to grow. This has nothing to do with other students (one of them started out super pretentious, then backed off completely). I know there are snobs and egos everywhere. It's just everything else about the program.

I blame myself for not aiming higher. I decided I had to stay local for grown-up practical reasons. Also, not one person I talked to really knew what it was like at this school. After two years of looking forward to this idea I had of "graduate study," within three weeks I became tortured by it.

But there is something new to look forward to! I'll have a new start in the Spring, in what I have verified through brilliant, trusted former professors is a super-traditional MA to PhD program in literature, with a teaching assistantship, a program in which one professor assured me I will "kick so much butt." (Last Friday I went out for drinks with all my old profs and felt so at home. Even if a school occasionally sucks, you should at least feel at home.)

I'm pissed, tortured, disappointed by this fall, but so hopeful for next semester. I think about it constantly. I feel like I'm running away or not finishing what I started, but at the same time I have to be an adult about this. So I asked yet another faculty member for advice before making a decision -- "No reason to be more unhappy than usual," she said. The consensus seems to be that there is no ideal place to be for this yucky thing called graduate school. It will probably always be "teh suck" in one way or another. But preventable, protracted misery is not a state in which anyone should spend five years or even two years of their lives. I will be at least 35 before I can be a "professor." And I don't want to look it. Here's to a fresh start at 30.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Art Problems, Partially Resolved

I found this on the Chicago Art Blog, when I was searching to see if anyone in the art world has complained about the Jeanne-Claude and Christo ripoff by AT&T:

"After all, the avant-garde contains in it the possibility of kitsch and kitsch the possibility of the avant-garde; they are separated by degrees not by kind, it's how they participate in constructing culture that makes the difference."

The blogger was not saying AT&T in particular was producing kitsch. No, that was just a plain old ripoff (I agree). But he discusses some other sort of kitschy recent ads, and their allusions to pop art may be semi-excusable. Maybe. Anyhow this little sentence neatly organizes an idea I've been trying to articulate for months! That same idea was there in a few critics I've read, but never put so clearly. I'm terrible at writing on things like "constructing culture," and I need cultural stuff to be wrangled into some more philosophical order before I can talk about it.

Maybe I can finally finish my Ranciere post now. Maybe.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

From Brooks to Fish (and back)

So I got an 'A' on my very first paper as a graduate student, and in that paper I applied Fish by picking apart Brooks. For me this was blasphemy, but I had to be Fish for this assignment. What better way to explain a critic I don't know much about than by pitting him against a critic I know well? And isn't there knowledge to be gained by challenging one's own critical stance? (Brooks's = mine, usually.)

Two weeks ago I compared Brooks with Bateson, and Brooks came out on top because of what I saw as his heightening of the paradoxes in the text, a Wordsworth poem. Next week, in comes Fish, and he says some of the same things about Brooks (well, about formalists anyway) that I had said about Bateson! In the first section of "Interpreting the Variorum," Fish takes on formalist interpretations of Milton, on whom he is an expert, and shows how the formalists fall flat. They flatten out the paradoxes in the text (I had accused Bateson of that, while attesting to the formalist's paradoxical prowess!) and remove the delight of the indeterminate meanings. Most importantly for Fish, and perhaps this is what I was getting at all along when I was looking for "the critical climax" (and probably projected that onto Brooks as I read him, Fish would argue) , the formalists completely miss that (part of) the meaning of the text is in our moment of hesitation, in the experience of textual confusions, in the experience of the overwhelmingness of the possibilities of meaning! I think I've been reading Brooks affectively, and not very analytically.

Brooks does point out textual cruxes and formal features that I find exciting, but it is perhaps my actual reading of Brooks, as it unfolds in time (flitting back to the text, back to Brooks, back to the text...) that is most exciting for me. You can see how Fish has planted the reader-response seed in my brain (I'm not sure if it's sprouting or festering now), and how I am flinging myself out onto that temporal axis of criticism, where I had once sworn allegiance only to the textual, the spatial. When I presented my paper my excitement about meaning-in-reading was catching -- students thought me a Fish fanatic! But, Fish aside, I can't deny that I have begun to read criticism like it is literature (isn't it?), and interpret and respond to it as such. In a way, I've never been looking for the most rigorous theory or the most provocative argument, but for who can tell the best story.

The way I chose to do this exercise paid off in spades. I come away with a new appreciation for a certain brand (species?) of Fish, and with a refreshed and revised view of what Brooks does to those texts with which the formalists claim a peculiar intimate relationship. I still cleave to formalism pretty tenaciously, but Fish's early reader-response work (forget "interpretive communities" for now -- I'm only talking individual reader's response) helped me to see outside the box (for in our textbook's diagram, the formalists really do live in a box) and look more critically at what Brooks actually does, and at how I read him and the rest.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In the Style of Lyly

Below is a page-length of Euphuistic prose I'm writing for a Prose Styles class assignment. I'm not quite there with the antithesis and endless lists that say the same thing a hundred ways, but I'll keep editing this until it's Lyly all the way. This version was after reading Euphues on my own, but after class discussion and reading Shakespeare's parodies of this stuff (which are really exactly copied from this stuff -- you don't need to exaggerate it to see how ridiculous it is), I think I understand the style a little better. I don't understand, however, why such a style became a fad -- Shakespeare made fun of it because it had become the 16th century equivalent of Valley Girl talk.

(And after looking at this book cover, I have decided I am going to call myself not "M.A." upon confirmation of this next degree, but forever and always, "Mafter of Arte.")

Anatomy of Appetite

There came bumbling along the avenue a boy of not more than ten, a boy of more heft than health and yet of more health than holiness, thinking the town his grazing grounds and his watering hole, so that he spent these daily walks sniffing the air for familiar wafts – charbroiled burgers, fried chips, fragrant rotisserie chickens; and, if it were Friday, the sweet olfactory evidence of a pig roast. It was whispered that the boy’s mother, whose cooking was worse than her looks, and yet whose looks were better than her maternal judgment, and who had not been seen with a husband in ten years (was not the boy nearly ten?), would send him out of house to procure whatever dishes and dainties his tremendous appetite required, two twenty dollar bills his ticket to more than mere sustenance; a suburban avenue, with all its light-up signs and fast service foods and barbeque joints, his means to a greasy, dripping end.
Preferring meat before sweet (yet still fond of sweet meats) the boy had only to select this evening’s protein; after supper he would loiter in the 7-11, ogling shelves of chocolate things, chocolate-filled things, chocolate-covered things. Finding the pig roast as the fly finds honey or a dirty diaper, and landing upon a plate of flesh without so much grace as the fly, and yet creating a scene just as revolting, the boy devoured hock, nibbled feet, chewed upon pulled pork sandwich. He paid with his wadded bills and took his leave and his change for the shelves of candies, his only care now to select the most winning combination of chocolates and nougats, chiclets and nutbars, that could be afforded for nine dollars and twenty-seven cents. He loved a candy coating; for as the Reese’s cup has its chocolate shell, the M&M its colorful sugary jacket, the gum drop its sweet crystalline glaze -- he himself had none.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Critical Climax

The commercial with the fried egg should have said, "This is your brain... This is your brain on Deleuze." And so from my fried egg I give you this rhizome or plateau or something, concerning something completely different:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

No movement has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

I just read some E. D. Hirsch on historical criticism, from Validity in Interpretation. Hirsch (I keep wanting to call him "Ed") compares two critiques of Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal." One is by Cleanth Brooks, a Formalist whom I like most dearly. The other is by F.W. Bateson, who I don't know much about except that he doesn't like historicists. So Hirsch is comparing two critics that are not from his camp, and he makes it a contest. Hirsch believes in determinate meaning, so one of these guys (or neither) has to be "right."

Hirsch chooses Bateson as the winner, not because of his optimistic interpretation, but because of the word "pantheistic." Hirsch sees that word as proof that Bateson is taking into consideration the life and times of Wordsworth, a Romantic poet who would have some pantheistic beliefs or motifs. Hirsch goes on to point out how the two critiques are irreconcilable and therefore one of them must be invalid. Pantheism seems like a silly way to determine a winner, but it would be silly for me to complain about his choice since I don't believe in determinate meaning anyway. The contest is the problem. If I ran a contest with these two, I would try to determine who was the better critic, not who gave the right interpretation. Here they are, first Bateson, then Brooks:

The final impression the poem leaves is not of two contrasting moods, but of a single mood mounting to a climax in the pantheistic magnificence of the last two lines . . . The vague living-Lucy of this poem is opposed to the grander dead-Lucy who has become involved in the sublime process of nature. We put the poem down satisfied, because its last two lines succeed in effecting a reconciliation between two philosophies or social attitudes. Lucy is actually more alive now than she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature, and not just a human "thing."

[The poet] attempts to suggest something of the lover's agonized shock at the loved one's present lack of motion -- of his response to her utter and horrible inertness. . . Part of the effect, of course, resides in the fact that a dead lifelessness is suggested more sharply by an object's being whirled about by something else than by an image of the object in repose. But there are other matters which are at work here: the sense of the girl's falling back into the clutter of things, companioned by things chained like a tree to one particular spot, or by things completely inanimate like rocks and stones . . . [She] is caught up helplessly into the empty whirl of the earth which measures and makes time. She is touched and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image.

I was so moved by Brooks and kind of grossed out by Bateson. For instance, the line "We put the poem down satisfied" really rubs me the wrong way. If we subscribe to Horace's miscuit utile dulci, maybe putting a poem down satisfied is what we should hope for? But satisfaction is not exactly the same as delight. Delight doesn't require any thinking. Bateson's satisfaction is not instant or aesthetic, but apparently based on his own interpretation which smooths out any conflict in the poem. On a "reconciliation between two philosophies or social attitudes." That's pretty vague, and it hardly sounds satisfying. Certainly not delightful. It's as if he's saying the poem has satisfied its requirement to come to a resolution (as if that is a requirement of good poetry).

Bateson's pantheism angle turns Lucy's resting place into an Elysium instead of a dead stone revolving in space, but besides creating some nicer imagery than Brooks' darker interpretation provides, I don't think the critique is very effective (or affective). The whole aim of it seems to be, like I said before, to smooth out conflicts, to reconcile differences, and to cancel out oppositions without a hitch. He talks of "two contrasting moods" that are actually "a single mood," without making anything out of how these moods were sublated or elevated. He talks of the dead-Lucy "opposed to" the living-Lucy but doesn't explain the opposition, ending on a bittersweet line, the equivalent of "she's in a better place now." It's almost mawkish.

Two moods becoming one, two people (who are really one) who oppose one another, two philosophies reconciled -- these things all seem pretty interesting, and like they might occur at some climactic hinging point in the text, but Bateson doesn't bring it out of the poem. He just explains it conceptually and we are supposed to accept it. The funny thing is he does mention something that sounds exciting, and even uses the word "climax" in the line at the front of the paragraph, where he claims that "a single mood mount[s] to a climax in the pantheistic magnificence of the last two lines." Sounds so exciting, and then he doesn't deliver on it.

My impression of Bateson's critique is sort of just that -- an impression. And he even calls his own critique an impression of the poem. But even if his prose style moves someone more than it moves me, even if his vague impressions of the poem are enough for someone else to sink their teeth into, there would still be that undeniable attempt to "solve" the poem there, to smooth it over, to get relief from its tensions. What that does is just turn the poem into its interpretation. We have the end result so there's no use in re-reading the text. I may not like Bateson's delivery of his critique, but more importantly I don't like his aim. It's anti-climactic.

Brook's critique may be slightly amiss in its pessimism (even if we're not going to be historical, let's be reasonable -- I would take into consideration that Wordsworth is not a poet of sad, dark poems, so me might avoid going down the "agonized" path), but its strength is that the conflict in the poem is not canceled out. It makes for a better critique when conflicts and tension are pointed out explicitly. And if a claim is made that a text has a climax, something climactic should be brought into focus by the critic. In fact, the critique itself should have a climax.

The first line of Brooks's paragraph has us picturing a cold dead body through this whole thing, a lover looking on in "agonized shock." The "shock" may be a little over the top, but it certainly gives us an image to hold onto while Brooks elaborates on what the text does with the dead girl, and the beautifully understated "present lack of motion" makes the lifeless body even more vivid. Brooks then uses the concrete language of the poem (rocks, trees, rolling...) and shows how the differences between alive and dead, still and moving, are depicted "sharply" by Wordsworth's chosen images. He also substitutes some of his own sharp, concrete words like "whirled about" contrasted with "object in repose."

Brooks drives his images home, perhaps a little more than a Wordsworth poem seems to require. The death in the poem sort of washes over us and leaves us drenched in the weight of Lucy's helplessness. It's not nearly as "horrible" a thing as Brooks makes it out to be. But even if Brooks gets carried away, the tension he points to, and even the sadness he alludes to, is real. Perhaps this contrast between Brooks's pointed prose (which can be quite poetic) and Wordsworth's fluid poetry makes that even more apparent. The poem is not merely translated into an interpretation and left for dead, but complemented and brought to life by a good critique.

In the second half of Brooks's paragraph, things are still "at work" in the poem, not reconciled. Brooks finds similar tensions to what Bateson found (although Brooks focuses on still vs. moving where Bateson focuses on life vs. death), and he magnifies them and explicates them with a close reading on rocks and trees and such. In the last two lines of the paragraph, Brooks combines the poem's concrete images with some abstract and more emotional language to create a critical climax: "She is touched and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image." Wow. That is not a resolution, but a gorgeous predicament. And that makes the reader want to go back and pore over this poem for himself. Or, he can always go back to just drinking in the poem for what it is, the "impression" of it made a little more delightful by the critic's illuminations. Since the poem is never resolved, and it is always at work, it is always worth reading.

Brooks wins!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Against the Titular Colon


One of my professors swears by colons in titles. He tells an anecdote: "I submitted a paper and it was rejected, with no notes. I added a colon to the title, changed nothing else, and it was accepted immediately." He has a sense of humor about this of course. But he still expects colons. The way I see it, the colon is making our titles ugly, and it's making our scholars lazy.

What the Colon Does
Since my papers were long enough and intense enough to warrant colons in their titles,
I've raged against the colon machine. Or at least poked fun at it, sometimes with a colon. Consider this: colons give the reader pause; colons begin lists (and our friend the semi-colon helps us with the listing); colons suggest that thing two explains thing one.

The second function of the colon listed here is not important to titles, because we can see at a glance we're not reading a list. The first function of the colon, however, is hard to ignore. When a title has a colon in it (usually closer to the front of the title than to the end of it), it makes the reader pause a little. We haven't even begun to read the first paragraph of the paper or article, and we've already been made to pause. I think the writer who requires a pause from the reader before he's even said anything meaningful must think a lot of himself. Writers' egomania aside, a pause in a short phrase like a title is not very elegant. If I look at the bibliography from my literary criticism class, there is not a single title with a colon in it. Defence of Poetry, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Poetics, Biographia Literaria, name only a few. One might argue that these titles are antiquated, that the colon is a modern title expectation or even requirement with a modern purpose. But does it make for a good title? No. These old titles are elegant, they flow, and they don't ask for pause in the middle of a first thought. They build expectations, they give hints, and they keep the reader reading. (I'm in reader-response mode this week, so naturally I'm thinking of the responses...)

"Defense! of poetry! Is literature at war!?"
"Oooh, lyrical ballads that can't be read until we read the illuminating preface..."
"Poetics, huh. Well, that must cover just about everything. I'd better get started."
"Biographia whaaa? I gotta find out!"

The "pause" funtion of the colon may create unstylish titles with bad flow, but the "thing two explains thing one" function of the colon is the real, supposedly useful reason these dots make themselves at home in today's titles. Like the professor's story shows, a reviewer may not be able to tell what your paper is about without that explanatory phrase after the colon. He doesn't want to guess or be given exciting expectations -- he wants to get through the pile quickly. So papers as commodities (both economic and academic) sell better when they have colons in the titles. Why not use these titles fow reviewing purposes only, and use a shorter version for print? I can't think of any other way around the over-explained titles. Certainly if something made it into a paperback for sale it would need a better title. No paying customer is going to stand for colons everywhere. It starts to seem like those old works with the short titles can wield those titles because they live up to the expectations they give us. Perhaps no one today can write anything that lives up to the "epicness" suggested by a beautiful or brief title? Or do the titles just have to get longer and longer, like phone numbers, because we've used them all up?

One big difference between the works in the bibliography and the colon-titled papers is the length and breadth -- most of those older works cover a lot of ground, but academic contributions today are doled out bite-sized. Scholars are writing shorter papers (for better dissemination) and being specific about what's in them is more important. I get all that. But that doesn't make the colon any prettier.

I have read some later pieces that do well with the short title. "On..." or "Against..." usually makes for a good start. So does "In defense of..." as we can see in many of the ancient titles. Irwin's "Against Intertextuality" comes to mind. And Fish's "Interpreting the Variorum," which I have to read this week for a presentation. Both of those titles intrigue me to no end.

What We Do with the Colon
We looked at why the colon might affect the reader, but we also have to consider what the sneaky scholars intended for it. There are several ways that the colon makes for titles that come off as knowing what they're talking about, or as some modern manifestation of style (if you can call it that -- bad style is an oxymoron, so there is disagreement on whether it can exist). The colon is often used in combination with a quotation from the work of literature being discussed, or from an earlier critic's work. Using a quotation is a clever way to make use of the explanatory function of the colon. Most often the quotation is placed before the colon, and after is a description of what the paper is really about. Here's two real examples:

"Telepathic shock and meaning excitement": Kerouac's Poetics and Intimacy

"Go": Milton's Antinomianism and the Separation Scene in Paradise Lost

The first title, as these titles so often do, borrows from Kerouac's style to create a style of its own. The scholar doesn't write like that, Kerouac does. And now she has a ready-made sexy title because she put his words into it. Thanks to the colon. And I don't even think she needed it! "Kerouac's Poetics and Intimacy" is a beautiful title by itself. Now, the second title is just ridiculous. Using a single word from the separation scene that doesn't mean much of anything in a title, the scholar got the "necessary" colon into it. The rest of the title is just clumsy. She might have closed her eyes and pointed to a line of the poem to save her shoddy title. "If I put something in front of the colon it will all be okay!" Neither of these papers are bad. I used both of them in papers I wrote my senior year. I take issue only with the titles.

Another way the colon is used by scholars is for a straight explanation of the short-version title. I already said why I think this has become somewhat necessary in today's market, but it means that scholars no longer have to have any elegance or authority in their titles because the pauses and complications of the colon-assisted title are expected. You can look through any catalog of university press books to find some hideous examples of these. You can just picture the writers of these books and articles smirking as they select the perfect quote to steal from the authors, type their obligatory colons, and sit back knowing they'll be published (or at least read) for playing the colon game so cleverly. I also picture cultural criticism and media studies fans getting giddy reading through these things. The longer the title, the more esoteric words in it, the more excited they get. Here's a clumsy one that's sure to fire up a lumpy subset of readers:
Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games

For some fictional examples of how egregious these titles can get, try this English paper title generator. The results are not far from the real thing.

One more disclaimer -- Subtitles are used in a similar way in the titling of books. There's something different about book titles though. They often have an elegant short title even if it's followed by a subtitle (which would be after the colon in a paper title). Maybe because the thing is actually getting printed in a book the scholar took the time to make a title that doesn't sound like all the others.

So I may or may not use a colon when I write my first paper as a graduate student. It's not going to get thrown out or rejected, since the professor actually has to read and grade the thing. Should I be bold and forgo the double dots? Maybe next week. This week I'll do as the assignment guidelines ask (yes, it's actually on the guidelines).

P.S. I know what "titular" means and the play on words doesn't quite work, but I left it there because I liked the sound of all those body parts in the title.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Philosophy Minor

Two weeks of two English classes at the graduate level, and I haven't come across another philosophy minor. English students are naturally curious, and most undergrad programs didn't offer enough English to round out our schedules. So we played the field. I chose to flirt with philosophy (after flirting with history, who turned out to be a bore) and then fell head over heels for knowledge. I may have a curiously intense love of "the love of knowledge," but if you are an English student who doesn't have delusions of being a full-time poet, I can't recommend philosophy enough as your second-study.

I can think of quite a few reasons to study philosophy, but I'll distill that down to three big reasons philosophy will help your English. Philosophy trains your brain for discourse; philosophy helps you write like a scholar; philosophy prepares you for theory and criticism. For me this all boils down to being good at what I like to do. If that's not enough incentive in this economy, these three things also boil down to being employable and publishable.

Some of you might not like the third reason for studying philosophy, so I'll start there. You might hate theory, but you can't get out of being a critic. In my current lit crit class, a first for some of the students in there, the professor reminds us, "You're all critics, whether you like it or not." And when you turn your critical eye toward literature, art, or culture, you need to understand the theoretical background of the type of criticism you are applying. For an understanding of what certain theoretical positions do or don't take into consideration, whether they look at a text up close or from a distance or from someone else's point of view, whether they have anything to do with the real world or are content to stay in the abstract, can keep your thinking clear, keep your arguments unmuddled, and make your job of critiquing much easier. A background in philosophy helps keep you focused in this way, to think things through and write on them with cogency, and most of all to have the intellectual confidence to approach theory in the first place.

If you still don't think theory is important consider philosophy alone -- the first critics were philosophers! On day one of your first lit crit class you'll have to recall Plato's forms and Aristotle's unities. Now, criticism fell to the writers themselves for centuries, though they still drew on early philosophical ideas about art. But then, in the twentieth century, we came full circle with the philosophers snatching up the literature once again (only reading them you might not know they're talking about literature at all) and analyzing the heck out of it, and so came and went "High Theory." Theory might be mostly passe, but like Plato it hasn't been forgotten. If you ignore theory, you'll be writing the criticism of a hundred years ago. Now personally I'd think that was pretty neat, but you'd have to be a damn good critic and writer to pull it off! So if you can't pull it off you'll be writing the criticism of your freshman year: bullshit. Even if you know that theory is not for you (and you may change your mind!), you can't escape theory's importance to criticism, and like I already said (and your professors will reiterate) you can't escape being a critic.

When we introduced ourselves in class, one girl said she would not be a critic, but simply read books forever. I confessed that I probably don't read enough books because I spend too much time writing about them (and everything else). The professor assured me that I would make more money than the book readers. I didn't mean for my confession to come off as a brag, but the professor's comment shows what kind of work you need to be willing to do if you're going to bother with advanced degrees in English. I credit philosophy with giving me the mental patience to ruminate on things in this way -- and to be analytical, not simply interpretive.

I also credit philosophy with giving me the patience and diligence to write more clearly, more cogently, and with more authority than a bachelor's degree in English demands. Sure we had to write a lot, but we weren't graded very stringently or very consistently. A few decent poems and a few insightful sentences per paper can get you a bachelor's degree in English. Since most programs don't require that many classes in the discipline, it's up to you to determine how the rest of your mind gets trained. Languages are helpful, but a minor in Spanish does not give you an entire framework on which to hang your knowledge the way philosophy can. History helps give the literature one kind of context, but for many of us that particular context turns out to be somewhat unimportant. Only in philosophy was I consistently required to produce top notch work and do top notch thinking, only in philosophy was I expected to provide an excellent argument for any claim I made, and only in philosophy did the red marks on my papers provide real assistance in becoming a better writer. There is no bullshitting in philosophy, not past your introductory course anyway. It is a good idea to purge that stuff -- muddy writing, unfinished arguments, irrelevant notions that work their way into your thought-stream, &c. We are English majors. Shouldn't we be the best writers? Philosophy majors score higher than us on the writing and verbal sections of the GRE. English majors/philosophy minors, let's teach them a lesson!

The first reason I listed for studying philosophy is that it trains your brain for discourse. Discussion is a spirited part of upper level philosophy courses (try to take seminars or special topics!) and we know, not just because Socrates told us, that dialogue is how we come by knowledge. Philosophical debate is excellent training for the kind of debate you'll encounter as a graduate student in English, or even in your upper level English courses as an undergrad. You will not only fare better at discussions, and weather disagreements better, but you will have seen how you can learn about something by talking about it with your peers (uh, I think I'm supposed to call them colleagues now). Too often in the English classroom we set our opinions in stone before we let anyone else's ideas do any work upon us. Discussions don't go anywhere. But why get behind an opinion, or even an interpretation if you don't have an argument? Philosophy gives you a mind that generates an argument, adapts the argument when you receive new information or ideas, and builds upon the argument dialectically even when it seems to have been canceled out. Read your Hegel!

Besides the discourse you'll encounter in class, you'll also be entering into some of the discourses that are going on in English. "Join the conversation," they tell you in undergrad, when you first learn to incorporate the criticism of the scholars into your silly papers. Philosophy is indispensible in joining the conversation, for the reasons mentioned above. And this comes back to the criticism --if you want to work, you have to be a critic, and if you want to be a critic, you have to join the conversation. Or start a really good one, with a really well reasoned argument behind it.

You can take my word for all these things, or you can ask a professor who teaches lit crit and theory or who uses criticism along with the texts in his or her courses. There are those who don't do either, and there are those who will tell you they hate theory. They may be creative writers, or they may be dedicated teachers. But the ones who teach theory and criticism, and even some of those who claim to hate theory, will remind you of the importance of both for your chances at grad school, and for your chances at a career in English. In today's competitive academy, shouldn't we try to be good at all the things English-people are supposed to be good at, including criticism, teaching, and writing?

If you think you'll read books forever, lying in the sand, or if you think you'll publish all your collected poems, or if you plan to be a master Shakespearean, maybe all of this will fall on deaf ears (blind eyes?). But if you have any interest in doing the work of the literary critic, which is what all of us are if we've declared that major in English, I highly recommend checking out some philosophy classes or talking to your adviser about how a philosophy minor fits in with your studies. The first step of course is getting some theory into your undergrad plans, so that all that criticism you read (and do) has some kind of meat to it -- and philosophy classes make those theory classes so much easier to deal with! The learning curve will be steep if your first encounter with both happens on your first day as a graduate student.

The only reason not to study philosophy? As far as I know, no one thinks it's cool.