Tag Archives: literature

Review of #frankensteinapp for iOS

The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ Media Reviews site has published my review of Dave Morris’ Frankenstein, an interactive fiction app for iOS. It’s an arch adaptation of prior adaptations, and a teachable text. (I particularly like the subtle nod to Blade Runner, but identifying it here would be a bit of a spoiler.)

Bienvenue dans le domaine public, Monsieur Bataille

January 1st is Public Domain Day: each year, copyright terms expire and admit to the public domain the works of artists, authors, critics, scholars, and other cultural producers whose copyright protection has ended. In Canada, copyright protection ends fifty years after the creator’s death; in other jurisdictions, it can end as late as seventy years after the creator’s death.

Bataille_StoryOfTheEyeAmong the new entrants to the Canadian public domain this year is the French critic and scholar Georges Bataille (1897-1962), whose inter- and postwar criticism, philosophy, and pornography – and in particular his work on transgression – enjoyed a resurgence of interest amidst the Humanities’ turn to theory in the last quarter of the 20th century. (The first MA defence I attended was for a thesis on Bataille.)

In honour of Bataille’s entry to the public domain (pas en traduction, bien sûr – seulement en français, sa langue originelle), and in response to a Daily Post prompt to share a favourite quote, I’d like to post a scene from Bataille’s autobiographical appendix to his own novella, Story of the Eye (L’histoire de l’oeil, 1928), a scene that has stayed with me through the years.

One night, we were awakened, my mother and I, by vehement words that the syphilitic [Bataille’s father] was literally howling in his room: he had suddenly gone mad. I went for the doctor, who came immediately. My father kept endlessly and eloquently imagining the most outrageous and generally the happiest events. The doctor had withdrawn to the next room with my mother and I had remained with the blind lunatic, when he shrieked in a stentorian voice: “Doctor, let me know when you’re done fucking my wife!” For me, that utterance, which in a split second annihilated the demoralizing effects of a strict upbringing, left me with something like a steady obligation, unconscious and unwilled: the necessity of finding an equivalent to that sentence in any situation I happen to be in; and this largely explains Story of the Eye. (94-95)

To me, this scene represents a moment of dramatic intensity, transgressive absurdity, and critical illumination that continues to inform and inspire my own conviction that the research imagination must be impertinent – even audacious. Story of the Eye is perhaps the most frequently lent book I own – it should go without saying that if you’ve not yet read it, you owe it to yourself to do so at the earliest opportunity.

Work Cited
Bataille, Georges. Story of the Eye (1928). Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. San Francisco: City Lights, 1987.

A very short review of Zone One

@colsonwhitehead’s Zone One astonishes; it feasts on zombie apocalypse tradition with gusto. Even its epigraphs index its originality (ironically): they sample Benjamin, and Pound – and Public Enemy.

Zone One is to the zombie apocalypse genre a bit like what Battlestar Galactica is to space opera, in that I see myself recommending it to others with a pitch like “it’s not like regular zombie apocalypse novels – just read it.” It is as literary a take on the genre as you will find south of Pontypool, to which it merits some comparison on this basis. But these novels evince the literary – not to mention the critical and theoretical – in very different ways. Burgess’ Pontypool Changes Everything trafficks in surreal détournement; Whitehead’s Zone, in epic realism. They complement each other aptly (and, in the process, represent telling national-cultural contrasts).

Thirteen ways of looking at Surrealism

Not a manifesto, more like a mosaic of notes for praxis…a praxicento?

1. Form your eyes by closing them.
Give to the dreams you have forgotten the value of what you do not know.

2. Surrealism is the living negation of the commodity society and its culture. When dream and waking life are no longer at war, poetry and imagination become visible, and everyday life is lived under the sign of mad and reciprocal love, the generous beauty of play, and the always new adventure of chance, beyond linear time and administered space.

3. Dear dreams,
You are the only thing that matters. You are my hope and I live for you and in you. You are rawness and wildness, the colours, the scents, passion, events appearing. You are the things I live for. Please take me over.
Dreams cause the vision world to break loose our consciousness …
Once we have gotten a glimpse of the vision world, we must be careful not to think the vision world is us. We must go farther and become crazier.

4. To articulate a dream in conscious mode, describing it not just to others but to yourself, is a second-order remaking of the dream, a confabulation that distorts the dream by forcing it into a linear mode alien to its nature. It is as if a time-wind blows out of our eyes and into the dream, displacing the fragile relations of dream components as a gust of autumn wind disturbs the fallen leaves.

5. You didn’t sleep last night.
No, I couldn’t. I tried and tried, but I felt … I don’t know, locked out of it.
Yes, that was me.
What do you mean?
I slept your sleep last night.
You needn’t look so smug about it.
Don’t be so protective. I think you’ll like what I’ve done with it.

6. The surrealists were launched on a much more adventurous investigation than Freud; theirs was not an observation or interpretation of the subconscious world but a colonization.

7. Sometimes on a stormy night while legions of winged squids (at a distance resembling crows) float above the clouds and scud stiffly towards the cities of the humans, their mission to warn men to change their ways – the gloomy-eyed pebble perceives amid flashes of lightning two beings pass by, one behind the other, and, wiping away a furtive tear of compassion that trickles from its frozen eye, cries: “Certainly he deserves it; it’s only justice.” Having spoken thus it reverts to its timid pose and trembling nervously, continues to watch the manhunt and the vast lips of the vagina of darkness whence flow incessantly, like a river, immense shadowy spermatozoa that take flight into the dismal æther, the vast spread of their bats wings obscuring the whole of nature and the lonely legions of squids – grown downcast viewing these ineffable and muffled fulgurations.

8. One hundred years after the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, transgressive murmurs still and always will cross the spheres into broad daylight. The surrealist horizon, in the eyes of the spawn of Maldoror, is there for the taking.

9. Punish the eyes looking at that which passes in the sky and cunningly accept that its name is cloud, its answer catalogued in the mind. Don’t believe that the telephone is going to give you the numbers you try to call, why should it? The only thing that will come is what you have already prepared and decided, the gloomy reflection of your expectations, that monkey, who scratches himself on the table and trembles with cold. Break that monkey’s head, take a run from the middle of the room to the wall and break through it. Oh, how they sing upstairs!

10. The idea of evil, in certain cases, exerts a strong attraction on me: above all, in the case of evil striking at the authors of evil – i.e., the architects of imperialist politics and their hirelings. In this case I nurture even sadistic dreams, but they remain dreams.

11. “Doctor, please let me know when you’re done fucking my wife!” For me, that utterance, which in a split second annihilated the demoralizing effects of a strict upbringing, left me with something like a steady obligation, unconscious and unwilled: the necessity of finding an equivalent to that sentence in any situation I happen to be in.

12. To win the energies of intoxication for the revolution – this is the project about which Surrealism circles in all its books and enterprises. … The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flâneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention the most terrible drug – ourselves – which we take in solitude.

13. … & crash
through painted arcadias,
fragments of bliss & roses
decorating your fists.

References
1. Breton, André and Paul Éluard. The Immaculate Conception (1930). Trans. Jon Graham. London: Atlas P, 1990.
2. Rosemont, Penelope. “Response to ‘Inquiry: Surrealist Subversion in Everyday Life’.” Surrealism in the USA. Spec. issue of Race Traitor 13-14 (2001): 211-12. 211.
3. Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School. New York: Grove P, 1989. 36-37.
4. Dewdney, Christopher. The Secular Grail: Paradigms of Perception. Toronto: Somerville House, 1993. 78.
5. Glennon, Paul. How Did You Sleep? Erin: Porcupine’s Quill, 2000. 25.
6. Balakian, Anna. Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 76.
7. Lautréamont, Comte de [Isidore Ducasse]. Maldoror. Trans. Alexis Lykiard. Cambridge: Exact Change, 1994. 101-2.
8. Romano. “Response to ‘Inquiry: Surrealist Subversion in Everyday Life’.” Surrealism in the USA. Spec. issue of Race Traitor 13-14 (2001): 208.
9. Cortázar, Julio. “The Instruction Manual.” Cronopios and Famas (1962). Trans. Paul Blackburn. New York: New Directions, 1999. 3-5.
10. Marcuse, Herbert. “Interview with the Surrealist Journal ‘L’Archibras’” (1966). Surrealism in the USA. Spec. issue of Race Traitor 13-14 (2001): 149-50. 150.
11. Bataille, Georges. Story of the Eye (1928). San Francisco: City Lights, 1987. 95.
12. Benjamin, Walter. “Surrealism: Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” (1929). One-Way Street and Other Writings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: NLB, 1979. 225-39. 236-37.
13. Thesen, Sharon. “Praxis.” Canadian Poetry Now. Ed. Ken Norris. Toronto: Anansi, 1984. 252.

All images: details from Bosch, Hieronymus. The Garden of Earthly Delights (circa 1500).

Call for papers on Literature & the Copyfight, for Congress 2012

Call for papers: Literature & the Copyfight, Congress 2012.

Critical scholarship is urgently needed to intervene on the question of copyright: once a staple stimulus for literary and cultural production that now tends more to stifle it. … This session invites papers on the relationship between literature, copyright, and the copyfight.

The deadline for submissions is 15 Nov. 2011 (see link for contact info). Thanks to ACCUTE and SDH for joint hosting.

[Instead of posting the complete call for papers here, I’m practicing not duplicating content.]

“Precious conceits and wild experiments”: _Orlando_’s critique of the patriarchal critical tradition

[An expanded revision of an undergrad essay I wrote, this has aged more gracefully than most of the other undergrad essays I wrote.]

One of the most humorous and telling threads in the narrative of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) is one that is alternately picked up and dropped over the course of Orlando’s unnaturally long lifespan. This thread is the story of literary criticism, and it makes two main appearances in the text, in tandem with Nick Greene, one of Orlando’s select ageless acquaintances. A survey of the genre and institution of literary criticism, as Woolf theorizes it, and a close reading of the scenes in Orlando wherein Green parodies this institution will argue that Woolf’s shrewd critique of literary criticism identifies it as an ideological apparatus to recuperate literature, to defuse its “powers and dangers” (Foucault 52) by securing it for the patriarchal epistemological monopolies on humanism and “common sense.”

In A Room of One’s Own (1928), Woolf describes the “stridently sex-conscious” (97) literary critical discourse that prevails in her day as

[…] that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone […] dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question thinks suitable. (75)

Citing from contemporary critical journals, Woolf portrays and indicts the literary critical establishment as a masculinist institution that propagates and reproduces prejudices against women in the process of delivering learned commentary on literary texts and problems. From the New Criterion, she quotes that “women rarely possess men’s healthy love of rhetoric”; from Life and Letters, “that female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex” (75). Having thus identified the guarded patriarchal order in an ostensibly disinterested critical establishment, Woolf goes on to critique criticism as a masculinist genre that is emotionally retarded (according to a familiar, essentialist grammar of gender traits):

It is the power of suggestion that one most misses, I thought, taking Mr B the critic in my hand and reading, very carefully and dutifully, his remarks upon the art of poetry. Very able they were, acute and full of learning; but the trouble was that his feelings no longer communicated […] a woman cannot find in [living writers] that fountain of perpetual life which the critics assure her is there. It is not only that they celebrate male virtues, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible. (100)

Woolf also muses on the way in which the critical establishment deals oppressively, even violently, with the raising of self-asserting female voices: “Perhaps some great lady would take advantage of her comparative freedom and comfort to publish something with her name to it and risk being thought a monster” (59). That potential monster, the woman writer (more recently articulated in the “cyborg manifesto” of Donna Haraway), becomes the bane of an establishment whose function, as Woolf argues, is as much to police the gender-coded order of literary discourse and production as it is to “know the best that is known and thought in the world,” in the famous words of Victorian arch-critic Matthew Arnold (597).

We find parodic echoes of Arnold in Orlando, and it becomes clear that here too, Woolf is interrogating “disinterested criticism” as a patriarchal discourse. In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864), Arnold writes, “the epochs of Aeschylus and Shakespeare make us feel their preeminence. In an epoch like those is, no doubt, the true life of literature” (603). Central to Arnold’s vision of criticism as a social mission is his sense of present degeneracy and crisis, a modern malaise (594). It is this particular sensibility that Orlando parodies in the character of the critic Nick Greene:

No, he concluded, the great age of literature is past; the great age of literature was the Greek; the Elizabethan age was inferior in every respect to the Greek. […] Now all young writers were in the pay of the booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell. Shakespeare was the chief offender in this way and Shakespeare was already paying the penalty. Their own age, he said, was marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–neither of which the Greeks would have tolerated for a moment. (69)

Taking place during Orlando’s first encounter with Greene in Elizabethan England, this passage mimics the sense of degeneracy, determined by the temporal ontology of modernity, that Arnold naturalizes as the condition that makes effective criticism possible: the sense of the present as a time in critical condition, as it were. As Walter Benjamin notes of this prevalent practice of temporal naturalization, “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule” (257). This “tradition of the oppressed” — a tradition perennially, perniciously appropriated on behalf of patriarchal oppressors (as seen, for example, in the 1990s furor over “political correctness,” or in the self-positioning of far-right journalism as the speaking of a supposedly marginalized truth to a chimerical progressive power) — is exposed in Orlando as a tradition of venerable standing and lasting purchase, as well as a practice of hegemony, in its compulsion to convince, to be insistently stated and re-stated. Greene’s articulation of this tradition in the age of England’s first celebrated queen is conspicuously repeated when Orlando meets Greene again, during the age of her second, Victoria:

“Ah! My dear lady, the great days of literature are over. Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson–those were the giants. […] all our young writers are in the pay of the booksellers. They turn out any trash that serves to pay their tailor’s bills. It is an age,” he said […] “marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–none of which the Elizabethans would have tolerated for an instant. (212)

Note the verbatim repetitions between Greene’s Elizabethan and Victorian pronouncements; note also the substitution of Elizabethans for Greeks as the apogee of ancient aesthetics; and note the corresponding promotion of Shakespeare from “chief offender” in the former pronouncement to a “giant” in the latter. This conversion from vilifying Shakespeare to valorizing him maps, in miniature, the historical rehabilitation and canonization of “the Bard,” his makeover as Britain’s “national poet” (see Dobson). As Orlando herself critically reflects on Greene’s words: “the names were different, of course, but the spirit was the same” (213).

By “spirit,” Orlando in fact refers to a kind of letter, that is, to a particular and readily recognizable discourse of authenticity, a discourse of “art versus commerce” (see Weinstein), that has long served to mystify cultural production in gender-coded terms. This discourse (which is now virtually endemic to popular forms of cultural criticism) posits an established masculine authority, legitimized by its “disinterested” spirit and devotion to artistic authenticity, as threatened, or even usurped, by an emerging feminine competitor, illegitimate in its venal materialism and abandonment or ignorance of taste. This patriarchal critical tradition–a discursive structure that privileges ancient (or at least pre-modern) aesthetic authenticity–reifies (and for Arnold, to an extent, deifies) its disciplinary regulation of literary value in that body of work we call “the canon.” As the recurring references to Arnold here suggest, this tradition also reifies a mode of speech–the commentary–by reproducing unto canonicity the male voices and positions that have grounded and entrenched the literary critical establishment’s authority. That is to say, the literary critical establishment has legitimized its cultural authority by speaking not truth to power, but power to itself, closing that power into a loop of self-validation (or self-pleasuring, if we figure this loop as an onanistic Ourobouros).

From neoclassical anxieties over professional authorship as prostitution, to rock criticism’s valorization of “blues legends” at the expense of “pop divas,” to Big Media’s increasingly draconian campaigns against the unruly and excessive circulations of digital media, the patriarchal critical tradition enables a heterogeneous array of critical articulations and materializations. Catherine Gallagher has historicized the image, derived from antiquity, of the writer as prostitute, an image “related to anxieties about the ‘unnatural’ proliferation of signs” that stands in stark, gender-coded contrast, as Mark Rose notes, to the equally common paternal image of the “author as begetter and the book as child” (38).

This tradition also enables a similarly broad spectrum of projects in critical revision and recuperation. Michel Foucault’s observations on the function of commentary are relevant here: “Commentary exorcises the chance element of discourse by giving it its due; it allows us to say something other than the text itself, but on condition that it is this text itself which is said […] The new thing here lies not in what is said but in the event or its return” (58)–which would be not only the return of the text, in how criticism reproduces it with a difference (a difference that nevertheless turns the critical reproduction more often into recuperation than into radicalization–more “exorcism” than possession), but also the return of criticism itself to its traditional field of power, to be recharged by each new reproductive iteration it issues.

Certain texts (and the social norms and cultural politics that accompany their authoritative installation) are thus reproduced, canonized, in two ways: in the commentaries that repeat and supplement them, reinforcing their centrality; and in their material reproduction, which escalates as the commentaries on them proliferate, promoting the texts to and ensconcing them in specific (and traditionally privileged) sites of reading and reception.

The complementary function of this “spirit” of modern cultural malaise is to dismiss and marginalize new, popular, or other contemporary texts and productions, in gender-coded terms. In devaluing contemporary texts as “precious conceits and wild experiments,” the patriarchal critical tradition maintains control, including censorial control, over cultural productions by mystifying its own aversions and anxieties to them in the guise of a defence of culture, or even of civilization. What is at stake here is the need to manage or neutralize cultural productions that interrogate the foundations and premises of critical discourse, interrogations that would expose its investments in gender and genre, and its protection of said investments by way of appeals to culture, authenticity, and temporality, as in the idealization of pre-modern productions over degenerate contemporary ones. Although the patriarchal critical tradition depends, even thrives on a certain possibility of dissent and debate, debate over the foundations, forms, and modes of criticism itself poses a threat that, as Woolf demonstrates (and as numerous scholars have since investigated), issues from female voices, historically disenfranchised as they have been from the critical tradition. The hypothetical woman writer in Woolf’s Room threatens the critical establishment not just by gaining access to the means of critical production, but by asking why and how those means have been assembled in this way and not another, hence disrupting their smooth operation.

Orlando’s puzzled response to Greene’s Victorian re-statement of the patriarchal critical tradition shows how alien this tradition can be to women readers and writers. That Orlando almost finishes Greene’s sentence for him, after a separation of some three hundred years, suggests her grasp of the ideological form of his utterance above and beyond its specific content. Orlando thus accentuates the absurd obviousness of an ideological formation apparent to those marginalized or excluded by it. A similar accentuation occurs when Orlando converses with “giants” like Alexander Pope, whose words are pointedly withheld from the text, since “the biographers” assume that “these sayings are too well-known to require repetition” (155). This ironic appeal to the presumed knowledge of canonical literature on behalf of the implied reader also represents a sly erasure of that literature. And it is followed by Orlando’s archly patronizing, subtly feminized descriptions of “the company of men of genius” as “fond of tea,” and fond, too, of “collect[ing] little bits of coloured glass” (159). Such descriptions enact an alienating and alienated woman’s perspective of the patriarchal critical establishment, a view from the outside that plays with and against literary norms and cultural standards. Woolf suggests that the alien alterity that women writers bring to critical practice is an excess, a “monstrosity” from which the patriarchal critical tradition recoils. As Sandra Gilbert writes:

Feminist connections between the personal and the political, the theoretical and the practical, renew those bonds of feeling and thought that T.S. Eliot, the paradigmatic patriarchal critic, regarded as irrevocably severed. In fact, the feminist classroom, as anybody who has entered on will tell you, is the home of undissociated sensibilities. (40)

In this way, Nick Greene’s repeated–and revised–representations of ancient excellence versus modern degeneracy parodies one of the ideological linchpins of the patriarchal critical tradition. And as parody, it both exemplifies Foucault’s idea of commentary and subverts its rarefying, restricting function. Woolf supplies precisely that commentary on commentary–a secondary, “critical” form ironically embedded in a primary, “creative” form–which strips literary criticism of its gender-coded ideological veil. Greene’s commentary, about which the critic character is (somewhat ambiguously) either insistent or oblivious, is not to be taken at face value as a corrective revision, signalling a critical or pedagogical progression or graduation from early modern ignorance of correct taste to its enlightened, high modern apprehension. In its mixture of verbatim repetition and substitution of names, it instantiates Foucault’s theory of commentary as both reproduction and explication; Greene’s second statement comments not only on its purported subject, modern literature, but also as meta-commentary on his first: as a comment, that is, on his own prior comment. Greene’s patronizing, patriarchal pronouncement on the perennially fallen state of literature (and by extension culture) echoes itself, occults itself, and necessarily forgets itself, demonstrating a kind of doubly meta-critical and non-critical manoeuvre: a gesture of deference to historical authenticity that camouflages the revisionism and oppression required to make such a gesture. It’s a manoeuvre still very much with us, all too prevalent in criticism today, as promiscuous in the strident, canon-defending campaigns of Harold Bloom, as in the back-in-the-day one-upmanship of fanboy pop-culture scenes (whose masculinist discourse of “subcultural capital” has been authoritatively analyzed in Sarah Thornton’s book Club Cultures).

The statements with which Woolf fills Greene’s mouth pose a subtle, shrewd critique of how the patriarchal critical tradition continues to patrol its territory and protect its members. (Pun intended.) But if this tradition has enjoyed a long career thanks to its complex forms of repetition, at least Woolf’s ironic and parodic kind of response to it has engendered repetitions of its own. In Tania Glyde’s 1998 short story, “Pavlovs Bitch and Yoga Cow Reach 2000,” the narrator (“Pavlovs Bitch”) argues with a male character in a scene that resonates with Orlando, a passage of meta-commentary, embedded in fiction, which plays fittingly feminist havoc with the patriarchal critical tradition, its revisionist manoeuvring, and the rather more ominous cultural politics that it indexes–a politics broached in the last line of the quotation below, to which I’ll leave the last word:

Luke barely acknowledges us before launching into a tirade.
     Oh my God you wouldn’t believe it! I went to this club last night and the DJs were awful I mean the people there were all so bloody young, they don’t know anything about what’s going on. Fuckin’ dingy tunes, it was all really manky, all kind of housey techno-ey trancey drum ‘n’ bassy–O mean they just weren’t there, were they? Oooh, halls of residence are gonna be swinging to that derivative crap. It’s not like the old days I can tell you. I can’t believe all these people are trying to enjoy themselves to that shit when they weren’t even there at the beginning.
     Beginning of what? I hiss. Tip when chatting about musical trends of the last twenty years to someone like Luike Roadkill: Think of what style you’re on about, take the year you think it “all started”, and then go back a couple more, just to be safe, e.g. “but Afrika Bambaataa was doing that in ’78, surely?” etc.
     Luke responds.
     Well, they weren’t there. When it all started.
     How could someone who’s seventeen years old in 1999 have “been there” in 1986, at the age of four? I mean, even if they were actually in Ibiza that year, they’d have been making sandcastles, wouldn’t they?
     Club fascists are a race all their own. (277)

 

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864). Rpt. in Critical Theory since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968.

Dobson, Michael. The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Authorship, 1660-1769. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Discourse” (1970). Rpt. in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. 48-78.

Gallagher, Catherine. “George Eliot and Daniel Deronda: The Prostitute and the Jewish Question.” Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Ed. Ruth Berbard Yeazell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Gilbert, Sandra. “What do feminist critics want? A postcard from the volcano.” Rpt. in The New Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 29-45.

Glyde, Tania. “Pavolvs Bitch and Yoga Cow Reach 2000.” Disco 2000. Ed. Sarah Champion. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1998. 273-89.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181. Rpt. in Program in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Stanford U, 2 Dec. 1997 http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html

Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1996.

Weinstein, Donna. “Art Versus Commerce: Deconstructing a (Useful) Romantic Illusion.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 57-69.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin, 1928.

—. Orlando. London: Hogarth P, 1928.

 

Cross-blogged from the AU Landing

The stakes of literary criticism

The stakes of literary criticism sometimes turn out to be higher than prevailing preconceptions about it would suggest (you know, the preconceptions involving elbow patches, overpaid obscurantism, and social irrelevance). For instance, earlier this year a New York law professor faced criminal libel charges in France for publishing a critical book review. Around the same time, a Kuwaiti blogger got sued for posting a bad restaurant review.

The counter-discourse about literary criticism as a matter of life or death has roots in the pamphlet and periodical hostilities that marked (and marred) print culture in the Romantic period. The most famous example is the poet Keats, famously sensitive to critical reviews. “Who killed John Keats?” asked Byron in 1821, promptly answering on behalf of one particularly persecuting periodical: “‘I,’ says the Quarterly…”

But Keats’ case is still figurative, not literal, after all: it wasn’t bad reviews that actually killed Keats — it was tuberculosis, whose close reading skills apply only to deconstructing the ambiguities and aporias of the body’s immune system. Rather, the real life-or-death stakes of literary criticism surface in the fact that most negative reviews themselves were published anonymously — as were numerous now-famous novels, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Walter Scott’s Waverley series, to Austen’s oeuvre. As William St Clair argues in his endlessly absorbing study The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, “anonymity protected publishers and printers from the law of libel” (174).

Perhaps that’s a protection that some of the aforementioned present-day critics wish they had, just as, perhaps, it’s a protection that explains the death of netiquette and the ubiquity of commentating trolls. But anonymity warded against more than just libel in the romantic period:

Anonymity also reduced the risk of being called out to fight in a duel, a form of literary criticism which killed more than one writer of the romantic period. (175)

Such wryly observed literary history puts in perspective “the death of the author,” reminding us of a time when an act of reading represented a kind of re-writing that was radically and literally tantamount to murder (not even murder most foul, but murder socially sanctioned, at that). Let’s hope that, amidst increasingly extremist, neoliberal forms of deregulation, IP law enforcement, and extreme sports (like ultimate fighting or chessboxing), the current spate of libel actions against critics doesn’t augur a return to the good old bad old days when running an unfavourable critique could risk catching a bullet.


Cross-blogged from the AU Landing

Science fiction means business

The US-based Creative Science Foundation is hosting its second annual workshop in the UK this summer. According to the call for papers:

This workshop will explore the use of science fiction as a means to motivate and direct research into new technologies and consumer products. It does this by creating science fiction stories grounded in current science and engineering research that are written for the explicit purpose of acting as prototypes for people to explore a wide variety of futures. […] In this way fictional prototypes provide a powerful interdisciplinary tool to enhance the traditional practices of research, design and market research.

The relationship between fiction and fact here is familiar enough to science fiction. In popular and fan discourses, this relationship tends to be mystified in terms of “uncanny prediction”: recent popular magazine articles detail “6 eerily specific inventions predicted by science fiction” and “11 astounding sci-fi predictions that came true.” In criticism and research, we find demystifications that investigate the material conditions linking science fiction to fact, extrapolation to production. Mark Fisher has helpfully coined the term “SF capital” to describe how science fiction works as a literary laboratory for real-world R&D, a resource for what Henry Jenkins calls “the military-entertainment complex” (75). A generation before Fisher, Marshall McLuhan — who was ambivalent about science fiction, and sometimes criticized for writing it -– had a firm, proleptic grasp on the idea of SF capital, which he well understood in his dual capacities as maverick scholar and corporate consultant:

Big Business has learned to tap the s-f writer. (124)

What’s striking in the CSF is perhaps the boldness of business’ courtship of SF: how frankly SF capital is being recognized and instituted, in a peculiarly Utilitarian program to enlist SF production specifically for “consumer products” and “market research.” The CSF is, in a way, simply spelling out the terms of a long-standing if somewhat asymmetrical partnership. SF’s command of both a popular market and a certain counter-cultural cachet has positioned it, since its inception (in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), as more commodity than culture, hence its exile to the peripheries of legitimate “Literature,” according to a cultural-economic history provocatively explained by Samuel R. Delany (195). But is its future to be increasingly channeled into and defined by the speculations and futures we associate more with high finance and global capital than with cultural commentary and social progress?

Putting the question this way, of course, oversimplifies the numerous trajectories, formations, allegiances, and even definitions of science fiction; this is perhaps more an issue of science fiction studies, of the genre’s role in and relation to research: will a program like that of the CSF represent a route for delivering SF out of its encampment on the fringes of literary studies, towards more interdisciplinary and more broad-based social engagements, or will it merely transport it from one camp to another?

Works Cited
Creative Science Foundation. Intel Labs, Hillsboro, 2011.
Delany, Samuel R. and Carl Freedman. “A Conversation with Samuel R. Delany about Sex, Gender, Race, Writing — and Science Fiction.” Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. 191-235.
Fisher, Mark. “SF Capital.” Transmat: Resources in Transcendent Materialism (2001).
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006.
Kessler, Sarah. “11 Astounding Sci-Fi Predictions That Came True.” Mashable 25 Sept. 2011.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam, 1967.
Murdock, Colin. “6 eerily specific inventions predicted by science fiction.” Cracked 19 Nov. 2010.

A Romeo & Juliet mix. Happy Love Day!

In a grad class on Shakespearean adaptations, I presented a DJ mix as my seminar on Lorca’s El Publico: a Surrealist adaptation of a seminar seemed appropriate for Lorca’s Surrealist adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. (The seminar was a success: everybody danced.) In time for Happy Love Day* I’ve posted the set online, in two “acts.” (Seminar details and annotated playlist are housed at the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

PA System: A Romeo & Juliet mix (Act 1) cloudcast by sonicfiction.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

PA System: A Romeo & Juliet mix (Act 2) cloudcast by sonicfiction.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

* “Happy Love Day” is a spoof of “Valentine’s Day” in an episode of The Simpsons (“Trash of the Titans” [S9E22]. Fox, 26 Apr. 1998):

“Come on, Mom, The stores just invented this holiday to make money.”

Trash the slash

Note: this is a post about writing style only. I have nothing but love for slash fiction, I could take or leave slasher films, and I’m enough of a Nash the Slash fan to own some vintage vinyl.

A while ago, a colleague and I were discussing an invitation she’d received to write an article for the Popular Culture and Philosophy book series, whose titles tend to crowd the likes of Gramsci off the shelves of your local book monopoly’s “Cultural Studies” shelf. We discussed their submission guidelines, some of which left me wondering who exactly the market for these books is. The guidelines show a barely veiled hostility to academicalism throughout: they advise a contributor to “explain philosophical ideas” but avoid “jargon” — unless it’s “‘in-group’ phrases” that will be “familiar to fans of the [pop culture] topic”; they advise you not to spend pages discussing philosophy, but to mention the topic “regularly and frequently.” Okay. So these books are for fans, not philosophers.

Anyway. One imperative in the guidelines for Good Writing and Presentation caught my attention, under a header called “Avoid the monstrously ugly!”:

Avoid all use of slashes to indicate alternatives (“in a modern/progressive vein”; “theocratic/patriarchal”); this habit betrays slovenly thinking as well as a tin ear for verbal expression. (If a polarity is intended, employ a hyphen: “left brain-right brain,” “freewill-determinism.”)

And this is where the guidelines started to make sense. I share these editors’ loathing of the punctuational slash — / — in academic writing, specifically in the literary criticism and Humanities research that tend to dominate my reading, and that definitely tend to overuse the slash. I read the slash as a symptom of the stylistic malaise of scholarly writing, which has prompted not only the admonitions of editors but also the lamentations of scholars. In literary criticism, this malaise was the subject of a recent Readers’ Forum of English Studies in Canada (ESC), edited by Stephen Slemon, called “Why do I have to write like that?” Dr. Slemon calls literary criticism a “baleful genre,” but holds out hope that professional reflection on it signals “a genuine capacity for [said profession’s] self-rescue and that the diacritic of that capacity might be another way of writing” (2).

My modest contribution to building this capacity here is to make a case for scholarly writing, especially literary criticism, to trash the pernicious slash. I realize it’s not my place to dictate on points of style, but I can at least explain why I never use it.1 The slash is to me a bit like what Comic Sans is to designers: amateurish, inappropriate, and inexplicably overused.

First, in which cases is using the slash authorized?

  • To mark the ends of quoted poetic lines
  • In citing URLs
  • In writing dates, e.g. “9/11”

(An increasingly common construction in everyday writing, “and/or” would be a provisional, supplementary entry on this list. There are clearer constructions to indicate alternates, and this “verbal monstrosity” has its own controversy, but I’m hunting bigger punctuation game here.) So having summarized approved slash uses, let’s look at its misuses.

The slash disguises imprecision and indecision as ambiguity and indeterminacy. Now don’t get me wrong: as a writer of literary criticism, I depend and thrive on textual ambiguity and indeterminacy. But in scholarly writing, using slash punctuation to signal a point of ambiguity or disjunction tends rather to suggest that a statement needs both further critical reflection and closer editing. Take this example:

a prominent endeavour among colonised writers/artists has been to rework the European ‘classics’ in order to invest them with more local relevance and to divest them of their assumed authority/authenticity. (Gilbert and Tomkins 16)

Here the slash simply seems to replace “and,” which would read more smoothly and retain the sense of pairs that are intimately articulated. In another passage, though (in this text which uses the slash rather compulsively in this way), the slash interferes with clarity of meaning: “Since its history/practice is extremely complex, it is impossible to do justice to Indian drama in a broadly comparative study” (7). Here, history and practice are two very different terms, presumptuously identified and singularized as a noun that still clashes grammatically with the singular verb “is” which follows. Here, then, is a case for reflecting further on which term better fits the statement, or whether “and” could more clearly conjoin both terms.

Decide! I am provoked to think, on reading sentences like these. You’re writing an argument, not a Choose Your own Adventure.

The slash reduces theoretical insight to crude shorthand. One of the contributors to Slemon’s ESC forum makes a case for “adjusting what we understand as good critical writing,” arguing that it should not need “to conform to academic formulas” (12). On this I quite agree: what’s blogging, after all, if not critical writing that doesn’t conform to academic formulas? However, among the standards outlined and reflected on in this article, that concerning spelling and punctuation makes a symptomatic, parenthetical exemption: “Nothing is misspelled (unless self-consciously so, in which case the misspelled word is coded as linguistic intervention through the assiduous placement of dashes, hyphens, quotation marks, and/or parentheses)” (10). The exemption usefully outlines a standard theoretical rationale for the kind of creative punctuation epitomized by the slash: it represents a “linguistic intervention.” It also makes such an intervention by using “and/or.” But too often this kind of linguistic intervention occurs cursorily, without the extensive elaboration that would articulate and account for the specific intervention purported to be made. (Commitment to such articulation is arguably a significant part of what makes Derrida’s writings so lengthy; he doesn’t make linguistic interventions lightly, or without explicating in detail their implications.)

And we read an instance of the more naturalized than problematized “linguistic intervention” later in this same ESC article, amidst reflections on the author’s grading process and its politics, as a process “designed to discipline/convert students to the conventions of good academic critical writing” (11).

In the context of an argument for rethinking the criteria of good writing, the slash here may well represent an ironic linguistic intervention against “writing that is ideologically coded as upper middle class and white” (11) — a point well taken, in its own right. But the further irony is how this intervention also interferes with basic grammatical clarity. In the context of the sentence, both “discipline” and “convert” are transitive verbs, but “discipline” doesn’t use the same transitive construction: one may discipline students in the conventions, but not to them. Alternately, it would be grammatically correct to discipline students to do something — that is, to follow the slashed verb with another verb. However, discipline can also be read intransitively, which would grammatically end the sentence much sooner, right after discipline. In short, the grammatical and semiotic interference posed by the slash as used in this sentence outweigh its coded theoretical insight (which presumably alludes to the Foucauldian theory of discipline and its academic exploitation).

It’s symptomatic that this article is written by the ESC forum’s most junior contributor, a doctoral candidate. I don’t say this to belittle or unfairly criticize the contributor at all — I quite agree with the article’s argument — but its conspicuous slash use contrasts to the absence of the slash (with one exception [4]) among the forum’s seven other contributions, all by more senior scholars. The slash in this article, then, is a symptom of a particular moment in literary critical pedagogy, a moment shaped and informed by the linguistic, theoretical, and cultural turns of the Humanities in the last decades of the twentieth century.

I realize that reading the slash as a product of that moment, and that moment as a product of those paradigm-shifting turns, could be misconstrued as an attack on theory; so let me be clear that nothing could be further from my intent. (I intensively study, extensively use, and tentatively develop theory in my own writing.) As I said at the outset, my concern here is strictly stylistic, and just as style has its politics, so does resistance to stylistic excess, in the name not of simplicity or “common sense,” but of clarity and confidence of voice in critical composition, as a surer means to persuade a larger readership of the soundness of one’s argument — and, of course, of its validity too. As another of Slemon’s contributors affirms, “we must teach the tools of the well-wrought sentence even as we teach the tools for dismantling it […] as a daring return to the idea that the best prose and the best writers flow across genres” (27). Or to put it another way, by paraphrasing Flaubert: be regular and orderly in your punctuation, that you may be wild and original in your ideas.

To my reading eye (and I know I’m not alone on this), the slash does to the flow of reading a scholarly text what a skipping needle does to the flow of listening to a record. What is presumably intended as semiotic richness reads like punctuational noise. In my research writing and in how I teach writing, I will continue to work towards that happy day when the academical slash may be regarded as a quaint oddity, the way we now regard the presumptuous use of the masculine pronoun to speak on anyone’s behalf.

I’m not so set in my ways that I wouldn’t like to hear the counter-argument, and there may well be more than one theoretically informed and incisive problematization of the critical deployed slash. But I haven’t yet seen such a problematization, only its further, naturalizing proliferation. As in the latest ESC arrived in the mail. This issue’s Readers’ Forum? “Pro/Con/fessionals: (Re)defining Ourselves and the Profession.” And the needle slips clean off the record.


Note

1. I’ve been publishing research since 2002, and the only slashes in any of it (excepting the above authorized uses) appear in two phrases — quoted from other scholars. (An article I co-wrote uses some slashes — but not the part I wrote.) I’m well aware my writing has lots of its own stylistic excesses and deficiencies, but slash misuse is something I’ve always studiously avoided.

Works Cited
Dobson, Kit and Jason Haslam. “Readers’ Forum Introduction: Pro/Con/fessionals: (Re)defining Ourselves and the Profession.” English Studies in Canada 35.4 (2009). 1-2.
Gilbert, Helen and Joanne Tomkins. Post-Colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics. London: Routledge: 1996.
Slemon, Stephen, ed. “Reader’s Forum: Why do I have to write like that?” English Studies in Canada 32.2-3 (2006): 1-37.