Dear NASSR Graduate Students and Advisers of Romantic Studies Graduate Students:
The NASSR Graduate Student Caucus (NGSC) invites applications for new bloggers for the 2014-2015 academic year. We ask that NGSC bloggers commit to contributing about 1 post per month (or about 8-10 total per year) and to serving through September 2015.
To apply, please submit a short statement of interest, along with a current academic CV, to the Managing Editor, Arden Hegele, aah2155 at columbia dot edu. Applications are due on 15 September 2014. Applicants will be notified by 1 October 2014.
As always, we welcome posts on a wide range of topics and issues of importance to our authors that represent their range of expertise, scholarly experiences, institutions, research interests, and issues relating to student life. This year, we are particularly interested in featuring a Poet in Residence and expanding our Dialogues series.
Please Note: Posts need not be works of honed, researched scholarship and sustained argument (though, admittedly, this can be a tough habit to break!). Posts can be as brief as a paragraph or as long as a few pages. Posts can also be a collage of images as well as thought experiments, original poetry, or a recently read poem or literary excerpt, or artistic piece or performance that you would like to share. Collections of links, reports on travel, or summaries of scholarly talks attended related broadly to the field of Romanticism are likewise warmly invited.
We hope this space is one where we can enjoy writing fun, lighthearted reflections or humorous quips as well as serious contemplations about our field. Fostering a supportive and meaningful community of graduate students is at the heart of this successful enterprise; we hope you will choose to take part!
If you have any questions about blogging for the NGSC, please send us an email and we’ll get right back to you.
NASSR Graduate Student Caucus Co-Chairs:
Laura Kremmel (Lehigh U)
Jacob Leveton (Northwestern U)
Teresa Pershing (West Virginia U)
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Art.Science.Gallery – a fresh and inventive place that is nestled in Austin’s Canopy Studios of artists, musicians, galleries and other creative spaces. Hayley Gillespie, Ph.D., the founder of the gallery, is an ecologist and artist with a specialization in endangered salamanders. Though the mission for the gallery is to exhibit art merged with science, Gillespie and her team incorporate events and lectures that help to promote science literacy and increase communication between other scientists, artists, and the public. It’s hard not to be smitten with a gallery that also has a Laboratory for classes – but not a typical art class listing. This summer at Art.Science.Gallery, you can register for Climate Science 101.
The show that I came to see was titled “GEO_______”, and featured four artists working in response to topics of general earth related sciences, but in quite unique ways from one another in content and in form. For the purposes of this review, I want to focus on Laura Moriarty’s work, as I have several immediate responses to her body of work and have been interested in seeing her sculptural pieces for a long time. This exhibit featured 6 of her small three-dimensional paintings that capture the immediate feeling of something being rent asunder, but in the most beautiful way.
Each one of Moriarty’s I Can See For Miles and Miles sculptures, which the artist calls three-dimensional paintings, appears as an obelisk that is evidence. Revealed to you in slices and dips, colors spill out and pulse from deep in the stack of layered, pigmented wax. To reveal how the earth’s violent and mysterious tectonics work, she reproduces its methods in small scale and in false-color. Viewed as a series or separately, these paintings hint at the geologic motion that shapes the surface we walk upon. Pockets of curiosity into the unknown are exposed, like a textbook diagram, only to be folded in again. Looking down from the top of each piece gives one a sense of temporary peace as observable pigments may peek out from beneath the layers below, hinting at the constant forces of earth’s creation and consumption. These are paintings that are not only about surface or image, but the complete construction of them wrapped into one object.
I Can See For Miles and Miles puts in mind Moriarty’s encaustic on panel works. These sculptures function less like an object and more like a lesson, reading as colorful and representative models – pages taken right out of the geology textbook – though certainly not a familiar text. Through the repeated application of heating and cooling, building and erosion, each panel takes on its own kind of rock-like form. Using encaustic medium, Moriarty collapses her built structures into new forms, mimicking the processes of the earth, and in doing so creates formations rich with the aesthetic of the geologic. Though her work isn’t a teaching tool, it certainly resonates with the voice of science.
One such intriguing example, Erosion Mountain, kindles the imagination by just looking closely at its interesting features. Some lovely dark and fluid pattern seems to run through the surface and into the layers below, possibly indicating a flow of water through this mountaintop. The red zone is mixed up inside, almost as if it is forming breccia near the banks of a river, eroding mountaintop into smaller bits. The strata are easy to correlate, but contain attractive interfingering of large, boulder-like bits of encaustic ephemera from other places. Perhaps the viewer need know nothing about geological workings to enjoy the view of Erosion Mountain, but it sure makes for a good story.
Complementing the three-dimensional paintings, Moriarty also presented a new set of work entitled Agates. Several large format paintings composed of layered and pigmented encaustic make up the series, with varying depth and transparency throughout the images. They are quite striking, at once realistic but without a point of tangible reference to some real rock, they conjure the impression of that familiar semi-precious stone. Formed from the tiers of siliceous coating that percolate out of water and line the fine walls of caves or small vesicles, banding in agates represent years of geological layering. The Agates delve into those reaches of deep time. The pieces are large (21.25 x 31 inches) and push all edges of the paper, giving a sense that they are not contained by this format. There are no small hand samples here, just large expanses of study of movement and color in the flow of banded encaustic.
Laura Moriarty’s work is at its most exciting when viewed in three dimensions, however these terrestrial studies hint at what the artist knows. Manipulation of the medium in order to mimic earth’s own fiery and sometimes inexplicable motions is the artist’s truest skill. Moriarty peels back the layers and hints at the complexities and profundity concerning deep time. She allows us to ponder what goes on beneath the surface, whether it is geologically inspired or more subtly induced.
PhDs in the humanities take a long time. Even optimistically we in English expect at least five years, and most statistics suggest our degrees take seven or eight–and that’s in addition to the time spent on an MA. A lot of life happens in those years, both to us and to the people we care about and care for: marriages, divorces, births, deaths, accidents, health complications, financial troubles, moving across the country…the list goes on. Every single graduate student I know has dealt with one or more of these major life changes in the course of our PhD years, and I can tell you (and you can probably concur) that sometimes it’s really hard to keep on keepin’ on. I’m sure we have all asked ourselves at least once whether it would be easier just to quit school and pursue a different career, especially when other folks in our lives might be asking us the same thing.
I have been extremely lucky so far in that all my life changes have been happy ones: I got married (not much disruption there), and after the approval of my prospectus I got pregnant, moved with my husband to a new state so he could start his PhD program, and had a baby. Even though these were all good, even wonderful things for my family, they brought about a sort of academic breakdown: for about year I (or at least my dissertation schedule) fell apart. I know for a fact that I’m not alone in experiencing this; indeed, I’m convinced that for many folks, falling off the wagon for a semester or two is a reality of pursuing the PhD. In this post, therefore, I’d like to start a conversation about getting back on the wagon. Three practical things have made a huge difference for me, and if you have similar experiences to share or any valuable advice to add, I hope you will post it in the comments.
1) Find your support group, and stay in contact. This support group includes non-academics too, but school friends and advisers have been especially important to my academic motivation. These are the people I can bounce ideas off of, ask for feedback on my work, and even go to for hugs or laughs or tears. They are the ones who remind me that my work is smart and interesting (rather than looking at me with slightly glazed-over eyes while I describe it), who provide useful leads and suggestions, and who cheer me on. Watching them progress in their work helps motivate me to progress in mine.
I’ve been fotunate to find a number of these folks in my own cohort at my own university, and mostly in my own program of study (one who I know as my “dissertation buddy,” though, studies something totally different from Romanticism). This might not be how it works for you, but there are other ways of finding your peeps, as I’ve learned since moving to a new state. The NGSC is one, obviously—it’s the whole reason why we exist! Facebook has also been a useful way for me to feel connected to my PhD friends as well as to old friends I made in my MA program who are now doing their PhDs or MLSs or MFAs in other places. I don’t often converse with these FB-friends, but it still energizes me to see them post things like “I wrote three pages today!” Another idea is to join or form a reading/writing group: I meet every few months with a group of 18th-century scholars in central Ohio; they provide an important link to the academic world around me, especially since I’m not regularly wandering a college campus. Online writing groups work too; for awhile my friends and I circulated short pieces of our writing to each other every other month or so…and though we trailed off, it was important to me while it lasted. Some universities offer dissertation support groups, where people in all disciplines can come together for discussion and motivation. In short, there are a ton of potential ways to stay connected to motivating people…I hope you’ll share some ideas of your own. The most important thing (at least in my opinion) is to fight isolation. We are part of a group, a conversation. We are in this together.
2) Apply for things. (Conferences, fellowships, articles, whatever). Applications can feel like time-suckers, especially when you get those rejection letters weeks later. And it’s true, you have to be careful not to let applications become excuses not to write your actual dissertation, but you also have to be careful not to let your dissertation be the reason you don’t apply for things! Applications are useful for lots of reasons: first, they have firm deadlines, meaning they will motivate you to actually produce something for others to read. That something often turns out to be really useful in terms of moving your thinking forward and clarifying your articulation of it. Plus, people DO read it–and even if you don’t “win,” your application has put your work on the radar screen of important folks you will most likely continue to interact with (say, librarians at key archives who have a remarkable memory for such things). There is almost nothing I’ve regretted applying for, even the things I’ve not been granted. Plus, it’s so thrilling and validating when you ARE awarded those things, and usually they open doors to more opportunities that moves your work along even further. So just do it. Apply.
3) Attend (and present at) conferences. This relates to #2 since you have to apply and then you have a deadline and a public audience (all huge motivators to producing actual sentences). But it’s also immensely important to #1, the fight against isolation. If you are working in absentia as I am, or if you just don’t have a lot of friends in your program or in your specific area of study, conferences remind you that you are not alone. You come together to geek out with similar-minded people, and it can totally refresh your interests—even your interest in your own project! Conferences get even better as you make friends with people you don’t get to see in person anywhere else. I cannot adequately express how much I loved NASSR 2013, for all of the reasons above. It really helped pull me out of the academic funk I’d been in for months, and I fed on the energy it gave me for months afterward.
Conferences are expensive, so it makes sense to choose carefully. If you can only attend one a year, make sure it’s one that will maximize the benefits. Usually, ones that are discipline-specific, well-established, and that you know some of your idols/mentors/friends will be attending are good choices. For Romanticism NASSR is great, but ICR is awesome too…and a host of other conferences can be really useful for your more specific or wider-ranging work. If you’re unsure of a given conference’s “worth,” just ask around.
So there you have it: these are the processes that currently keep me keepin’ on. They are useful even when life’s running smoothly, but if you’re out there struggling to keep a grip on your academic goals—perhaps even afraid you’re falling (or have fallen) to pieces—take heart. Baby-steps are still steps, and as long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll get through it. Most of all, remember you are not alone! Life is going to happen to all of us, and that’s normal. You may even decide to take a different path altogether. But if you do decide the PhD is for you, you can most definitely do it!! I’m out here, cheering you on.
While technically it will not be summer until June 21st, most colleges and universities have ended their quarters and semesters by now (or are in the process of ending their quarters). Which means that we are all on summer break! As popular media would have it, that means that we are all going to lock up our offices, classrooms, and homes and then head off to the nearest cool body of water to sip beverages in the sun while reading. That would be nice, but of course is not our reality.
Graduate Students are in a tricky situation. We are still students, not faculty, yet have many responsibilities beyond merely being a student. I am sure that many of you upon reaching summer break have been asked by friends or relatives about your summer plans. “Camping, beach going, adventures to exotic locales, road trips?” they might ask, a mischievous shimmer in their eye. And many of us sigh, smile wanly, and reply “work.”
But among other graduate student friends there is always a certain giddiness that comes with summer too because our time becomes our own. There are no classes to teach, no classes to take, no tests to prepare for, no seminar papers, just free time to work on articles and dissertation chapters and readings. And for some it is very easy to reorient and start in on that work. They are the lucky ones. Others, I would even be willing to guess the majority, enter the warm embrace of summer and find themselves slowing down. We are productive, but maybe not as productive as we would like to be.
What I hope to do here is offer a few suggestions that the ASU 19th Century Colloquium uses for continued productivity over the summer.
Scheduling – Absolute freedom can itself be somewhat constraining because time can be spent in infinite numbers of ways. One could be doing research or cleaning or writing or planning a get-together. Checking Twitter or news websites does not matter because there is always more time. Time loses some of its meaning because there are no pressures, whereas during the semester you have to finish the paper before a deadline otherwise there will be consequences. So creating a summer schedule is one way of getting past this hurdle. Work from 8:00 am until 12:00 pm, and only at 12:01 pm allow yourself to be distracted by other items. Even if one does not adhere completely to the not being distracted, putting yourself in the frame of mind that you are working is still helpful. Furthermore scheduling non-work items, also known as fun, too can make those more enjoyable.
Environment – Being at home can be nice, especially after the last week of classes end. But being at home all summer … well, that starts to feel like a Charlotte Perkins Gilman short story. Many in the 19th Century Colloquium attempt to change their environments as much as possible. Some have extra space where they live that can be turned into an office (where only work occurs). Others like the more active atmosphere of the coffee shop. Some even keep going to campus to work there. Whatever the case maybe, having different space for work that is away from home can be quite helpful.
Meet Up with other Students – Part of the other problem with summer is that our communities disappear over night, with people leaving to go back to the home states or just isolating themselves in their homes. One of the ways that we have tried to ward off that loneliness is by having summer meetings. The colloquium picks a date and location and we all meet-up to talk about what we have been working on and what we plan on working on. Even if the group itself is not designed to try and make sure that we are working, merely meeting with colleagues to report can be incentive enough.
Writing Group – The writing group is a bit more of intense option, but still an effective one. Instead of meeting up every so often, the writing group is more of a tight-knit collective. With a small group of people, four to five, the writing group outlines a set of goals for itself, like finishing a complete article draft or chapter draft by a certain date. Then, on that date you have to submit what you have written to the other members of the group. Likewise they give you what they have written, and you all then review each other’s work. The writing group is not an especially lighthearted approach to summer, but you will get work done.
Those are the brief suggestions that we have towards summer. There are certainly more tactics for productivity though, so if you have a tactic that we missed, feel free to leave a comment. Otherwise, good luck everyone with the start of summer; we hope that it is both relaxing and productive!
My introduction to the geopolitics of British Romanticism came about in a highly unusual way. In the summer of 2007, I had a job as a historical reenactor: six days a week, I became a foot soldier and musician in a Drum Corps of the British Army during the War of 1812. My one-time service for the honour of the Prince Regent took place at Fort York, a National Historic Site located in downtown Toronto, Canada, and in this post I will share my lived observations of what the daily experiences of colonial military service would have been like for a British soldier at the height of the Romantic period.
First, a little history of the British Army at Fort York, Upper Canada. Now surrounded by condominiums, a brewery, an airport, and former abattoirs, Fort York is one of Toronto’s oldest landmarks, with a complex history. Built in 1793 in anticipation of an American invasion, the Fort housed the British regiments outposted to Upper Canada, including grenadier corps like the 8th Regiment of Foot, the Canadian Fencible Infantry, and the Royal Artillery detachment. As Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe had anticipated, Fort York would indeed see action, and it was a key site of conflict on the Canadian side of the border during the War of 1812. In April 1813, the City of York (now Toronto) was overcome by an American force of 2700 men who crossed Lake Ontario in a fleet of fourteen ships, armed with 85 cannon. (By contrast, the defending force consisted of only 750 Britons, Canadians, and First Nations peoples, with a meagre 12 cannon.) Notable events during the battle included the British commander’s order to blow up the gunpowder magazine, and the death of the American commander, Brigadier-General Zebulon Pike. Though the American force occupied Fort York for six days, and burned the surrounding town, by 1814, the British forces had strengthened Fort York sufficiently to repel another water invasion from Lake Ontario, and the war ended with York still under British control (Canada, of course, would not become a separate nation from Britain until 1867). Today, Fort York operates as a historic site that portrays the regimental activities of British forces in the early nineteenth century, preserving details from the reenactors’ uniforms, to musket drills, to sumptuous (if somewhat bland) Georgian mess dinners for both officers and the distinguished citizens of Toronto — all in full Romantic-era dress.
I fell into the job almost by chance, and began my service at Fort York as a musician. Fresh from my first year at University, I was a pretty good flautist and piccolo player, so the job of fifer in the Drum Corps seemed a natural fit. When it came to mastering the shrill instrument itself, I was a quick study; the far greater challenge was memorizing up to 40 short pieces to be played on command. All of our music (ranging from duty calls to marches) was historically accurate, and our repertoire included the usual suspects (like “God Save the King” and “The British Grenadiers”), but also some rarer melodies from eighteenth-century collections of folk tunes. Later, I learned that many of our fife and drum pieces predated the Romantic period, with several of them, like Lillibulero, appearing in The Beggar’s Opera (1728), or even dating to the English Civil War. On the battlefield, the role of the Drum Corps was to deliver orders to the different squadrons through musical calls, and, as I was to learn during reenacted battles, military convention forbade shooting at the musicians, who were armed only with swords. In preparation for battle exercises, we practiced several calls to summon the troops. Our particular affiliated troop was the Fort York Squad, a regiment that drilled with muskets and bayonets and performed on parade.
But the musical training was only a small part of the Drum Corps’ duties. What I wasn’t anticipating were the rest of the Corps’ military responsibilities. Each day, we would arrive at the Fort to spend up to an hour in the blockhouse cleaning the brass buttons and insignia on our uniforms and shakos (top hats), and polishing our boots to a perfect shine; each day, we had to show them to a commanding officer for approval before venturing outdoors. Our uniforms consisted of white linen trousers that buttoned at the front, a simple linen shirt, a wool jacket with the design of the Regiment of Fencibles (yellow for the Drum Corps; red for the Squad), black leather boots, and a black shako with a brass plate and an enormous felted plume (it looked rather like a pipe cleaner). In the middle of summer, the heat of the uniform was almost unbearable, and we would march hastily after drills into the blockhouse to strip off our wool jackets. We were also allowed to walk outdoors, while not on parade, in just our under-layers and boots, but were required to wear a small felt hat at all times. (The historical effet de réel of our garments was heightened by the rumour that one of Fort York’s directors had been a consultant on the uniforms for the British Navy in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.)
At the Fort, our daily routines included numerous drills, raising and lowering the flag (a historically accurate version of the Union Jack, which was missing a few key white bars), musical demonstrations, and — most excitingly — artillery. Directed by our Drum Major, the Corps practiced for battle by marching in two rows, while playing in time — an activity that required hours of drilling on the parade grounds of Fort York. (Thanks to the extensive drills, I will never forget how to do a “right-about… FACE!”) We were also instructed in the minutiae of dressage within the rank and file, which we practiced faithfully before performing our drills before the visiting public. In addition, we were well-versed in military decorum, never failing to salute our Lieutenant, Corporal, Sergeant, and Drum Major while passing them on the parade ground. Meanwhile, the Squad practiced their musketry, bayonet-charges, battle-cries, and marching. There was one particularly terrifying Squad member who would lead the troops in screaming “Kill — Kill — KILL!” during bayonet exercises (the Corps would often quietly retreat to the barracks during those sessions). Intriguingly, the drills revealed that the musket, the Romantic-era individual weapon of choice, was surprisingly inefficient: since the musket often took a minute or more to reload after a single shot, the Squad could not afford to waste a second, and our Squad’s hard work in mastering their drills that summer was rewarded with a first place in the Drill Competition at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Fort George.
My favourite daily practice was the artillery demonstration. Instead of our usual yellow regimentals, we wore the blue coats of the Royal Artillery Detachment for this exercise, and manned a six-pound field gun in three- to six-person teams. Each person took a specific position on the gun, which included commanding the drill, sponging out the barrel, loading the powder charge, carrying and igniting the wick, and hooking out the debris after the cannon had fired. Thanks to my enthusiasm for the latter responsibility, I won (for the first — and hopefully the last — time), the ‘Happy Hooker’ award at the end of the summer. Since we were firing directly at a major expressway, we didn’t use ammunition, but the demonstration was still impressive enough with gunpowder alone.
As members of a broader ceremonial British Army still apparently extant throughout Canada, we also took part in occasional mock-battles at other forts around the region, including a water invasion at Fort Niagara in New York State, and several battles and marches at Fort George just across the Ontario border. The Fort Niagara battles were particularly fierce, since we — the British cohorts — had been instructed to lose command of the Fort to a huge invading American force of reenactors. During the battle, since the reenacting squads were permitted to use their weaponry, there were sounds of shots and wreaths of smoke surrounding our Drum Corps as we played the duty calls to our troops, and, in a moment of horror for all concerned, one of our soldiers actually fell to the ground bleeding (it turned out he had had a voluminous nosebleed due to the stress of the experience). As night fell, we resumed our open-air sleeping quarters inside Fort Niagara’s walls, while the American reenactors pitched white tents outside the Fort, and their families and children, in full period dress, prepared historic cuisine on small campfires.
Though we came together in solidarity for mock battles, there was also tremendous rivalry between local British Army forts: our great competitor, Fort Henry (in Kingston, Ontario) even took out a huge billboard mockingly advertising its reenactment programs over the expressway above Fort York, and, when I dined at Fort Henry with family that Thanksgiving, I felt almost treasonous to my own Fort’s good name. This historically accurate rivalry, intriguingly, became a key motif in Canadian literature. As I learned later in my English classes, Margaret Atwood and Northrop Frye have written extensively about how the “Garrison Mentality” of early British colonial forts, like Fort York and Fort Henry, contributed to a kind of willful isolationism in the settings of the literature of the next two hundred years. As a microcosm of a distant civilization in the face of an encroaching wilderness, the garrison demanded total obeisance to internal hierarchies, and an attitude of competition towards other such outposts; what is striking, to me, is how this garrison mentality from the Romantic era persists in quite literal fashion among the post-colonial historic sites today.
What did I learn by serving in the Regency military? The life of the colonially-posted British soldier was exceptionally formalist, with a great deal of emphasis on appearance, protocol, drill, and duty, and often with very little active service. But when service suddenly became real in battle, our well-practiced forms were all we could fall back on. I was also surprised at the central role of art in providing formal structure to the British soldier’s life: the fife and drum calls governed the structure of the day, the soldier’s physical movements, and even his (or her!) survival. Finally, and perhaps in contrast to other immersive experiences that are available in the modern era (e.g. Dickens Universe; the Jane Austen Society of North America’s conferences), becoming a Regency soldier for several months meant entering in a more serious way into the daily pace of Regency military life. The most memorable thing, to me, was the shift in pace between bucolic in-Fort domesticity and the sudden, shocking nature of battle, which Austen captures so well (with reference to the Navy) at the end of Persuasion: we, like the Wentworths, had suddenly to “pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.”
All photos come from the Friends of Fort York website – www.fortyork.ca — unless otherwise noted.
Hello and happy summer! Since I last blogged, I passed my Ph.D. comprehensive exams and spent two weeks in England. I presented at the Keats and his Circle conference along with my fellow blogger, Arden Hegele, and of course the conference was everything a Keatsian (or Romanticist) could wish it to be. Our weekend at Wentworth Place came complete with three days of really smart and innovative Keats studies, phenomenal featured lectures, and a “Keats walk” through Hampstead. But what I will talk about today is what I learned in the week after the conference.
In order to make the most out of this trip (and reward myself for surviving comps), I stayed abroad a few extra days to travel around England and research at a few archives. And even though I spent a good amount of time touring fun locations like Highclere Castle (aka. Downton Abbey) and Chatsworth Manor (aka. Pemberley from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film), my days in the libraries were my favorite parts of the trip.
I will resist the temptation to turn this post into a report of my research (I have already written that for my dissertation director, after all). But I thought I would tell you some fun things I learned about Keats and his circle in my time at the British Library, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the Brotherton Collections at the University of Leeds.
I spent my first days of research at the British Library, since I was staying in London for the conference. In addition to some of Keats’s letters, I was privileged to work with an autograph book compiled by George and Georgiana Keats. This little family memento contained copies of poems in Keats’s hand that the poet had sent in letters to his brother and sister-in-law, as well as copies of poems made by George and Georgiana. Much to my delight, I learned this collection includes the only surviving full manuscript copy of Isabella (titled here “The Pot of Basil”). As Isabella was the spark that initiated and shaped my Master’s thesis, the poem is very special to me, and the fangirl inside me nearly fainted to read the following heartrending passage in the poet’s hand:
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.
While perusing this autograph book, I was always happy to see Georgiana’s copies of poems. Her handwriting was much more legible than the poet’s. In fact, I often had to reference internet transcriptions of Keats’s letters and poems to make certain of the pieces written in his hand. But even more than the clarity of Georgiana’s copies, I appreciated George and Georgiana’s evident care and engagement with Keats’s life work. For instance, the couple added many poems in honor of Keats to the back of the collection. But my favorite part about this compilation was “To Autumn,” copied by Georgiana. At the bottom of the poem, she included a newspaper clipping of the opening quatrain of Keats’s “Lines Written in the Highlands”:
There is a charm in footing slow across a silent plain,
Where patriot battle has been fought, where glory had the gain;
There is a pleasure on the heath where Druids old have been,
Where mantles grey have rustled by and swept the nettles green;
Maybe these added lines reveal the couple’s nostalgia for home. “To Autumn” itself is a keen reminder of the abundant beauty of the English countryside, a keen reminder that England, family, and John are so far away from these pioneers now well settled in Louisville, Kentucky. However, I prefer to read into this newspaper clipping how George and Georgiana interpreted the 1820 poem and the poet. It seems to me that George and Georgiana thought of the poem in connection with earlier, more obviously historically-informed works. Perhaps they treasured the idea of the political Keats and, probably better than most anyone else in his circle, they understood that the poet was always the political and historical Keats, a bard evoking a glorious past to illuminate a troubled present.
At Oxford, I turned my attention to the P.B. Shelley manuscripts available at the Bodleian. Disappointingly, the letters were all copies (either photo copies or copies in unknown hands), unless they were written to Shelley by a minor Romantic like Thomas Peacock. I did look at several letters between Shelley and Leigh Hunt and one letter from Keats to Shelley. The letter between Keats and Shelley featured in a paper given by Madeleine Callaghan of Sheffield University at the Keats conference. Callaghan discussed the correspondence between Keats and Shelley, giving a very enlightening reading of their exchange of writing tips. Very interestingly, Keats’s handwriting was much more regular and legible in his letter to Shelley than in his letters and poems to George and Georgiana. I didn’t need internet references at all to transcribe his hand here. This all seems very reasonable, given the very different relationships Keats had with Shelley (often a rival and certainly not a favorite for the young poet) and his family. Keats didn’t theorize literary practice or philosophize off the cuff in this letter to Shelley. While to George and Georgiana Keats would ramble, journal, and test his ideas, his advice to Shelley proves very succinct, measured and bold, though a bit self-deprecating:
“You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and ‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore. The thought of such discipline must fall like cold chains upon you, who perhaps never sat with your wings furl’d for six Months together.And is not this extraordina[r]y talk for the writer of Endymion? whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards – I am pick’d up and sorted to a pip.” (August 16, 1820)
One last detail from the Shelley letters that cannot escape comment: Shelley was the worst at peeling the wax seal from his letters! He left large holes in almost every letter he received. I had to fight the very real temptation to peel the wax from the torn bits in order to piece together the final paragraphs of many letters. What this says about Shelley, I will leave for you to speculate upon in the comments below. I just thought this was a really funny little quirk, and I did not see the same consistency in carelessness in the other letters I viewed.
My most productive research was at Leeds, where I spent several hours pouring over Charles Cowden Clarke’s commonplace book. What a spectacular item! In addition to sage advice from his father, passages from histories and political essays, CCC quotes at length from Barbauld’s prose and poetry. He also copied passages from Byron (bits of The Giaour and lines on the Prince Regent), some from Wordsworth and Ollier. Also, the commonplace book houses several of CCC’s own sonnets, including one titled “The Nightingale,” on which John Barnard has written.
Unfortunately, CCC’s annotating practices were basic at best. I was really excited to look at his copy of Story of Rimini, but his annotations were little more that check marks and some lines in the margins. I examined the poem against his published defense of Rimini (a response to the Edinburgh Review’s attack of the poem) to see if there was any significant overlap with his annotations, but I didn’t find anything very fruitful. CCC’s annotations in most of his personal copies (including Keats’s 1820 volume) relate primarily to his appreciation of physical description or elegant phrasing. They do not critique content so much as style.
As controlled and deliberate as CCC appears in other places, his guard seems to fall upon reading his friend’s biography. The annotations in Richard Monckton Milnes Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats can be called copious in comparison to the rest of his library. Most significantly, CCC created a sort of index in the inside cover of each volume, where he lists topics of interest and page numbers related to the topics. These include: Shakespeare, puns, moral courage, England, etc. Also, I found a funny annotation: in a Keats letter copied in the volume, CCC placed an X next to “Byron’s perverted education makes him assume to feel, and try to impart to others, those depraved sensations which the want of any education excited in many”—and in a footnote below, CCC writes “He has given you compound interest for your insolent scorn, my Lord Byron” (lord has a scribble underline). And what was most touching in his annotations: on the page where Milnes copies Severn’s letters to England upon Keats’s death, CCC double-underlined Keats’s last words, and at the bottom of the page he wrote, “Oh God! Too—too awful.” I felt myself tearing up in the middle of the library reading room, and I had to work not to cry into the manuscript! I think this might have been my favorite insight into Keats and his circle of support.
Fortunately much of the material I worked with at the British Library and the Bodleian is digitized. In fact, in the last couple of weeks, the British Library has made nineteenth century manuscripts, letters, and books available through their Discovering Literature educational website. I’m really pleased with these little findings. I think they will be very helpful in guiding my dissertation preparation. In the meantime, I am incorporating some of my research into my NASSR paper. See you in July, Romanticists!
We are all aware of the hand-wringing that accompanies humanities scholarship in the early 21st century. Soon enough there will be another article announcing the death or worthlessness of the humanities degree. Subsequently there will be a rebuttal which points out how crucial the humanities are. And the cycle will continue. I am not trying to disparage that particular discussion, but I want to point it out as a symptom of the larger problem of how the humanities interface with the public. According to the public, there does not seem to be anything concrete that the humanities produce; of course that is not true, but it is hard to overcome that perception. One of the ways of overcoming that perception might be to offer alternative perspectives on our data. To that end, I want to further consider the graph, as a way of helping further humanities research. I will say that the goal here is to continue the discussion about whether or not the graph as a research tool can be useful for Romanticism; I am not sure the graph will be useful, but to understand the advantages and pitfalls of a new methodology we will need to have the discussion first.
One last item, before we go too much further: I would be remiss not to note Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary Historyby Franco Morretti. That book and its various responses really started this particular conversation. I hope to focus the conversation on particular tool though, which is the Google Ngram Viewer. As you all are aware, the Ngram Viewer uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to search through Google’s database of digitized books. The Ngram Viewer is not perfect, to say the least. For example, it frequently confused the long ‘s’ as an ‘f’ up until recently. That being said, the Ngram Viewer does have some powerful tools available, not only allowing you to search for various words, but also parts of speech, most popular following words, and so on.
Here is a graph that charts the ‘Big Six’ from 1789 until 1912:
If you would like to see the original graph it his here: Blake,Wordsworth,Coleridge,Byron,Shelley,Keats Original. Among other items, this graph can tell us a few items: That Blake started off as the most popular, but that Lord Byron was the most popular of all of the six throughout the long nineteenth century, although there were a few moments where Shelley, Wordsworth, and even Coleridge over took him. And that Keats … was not quite as popular.
Or, at least it would be nice if the graph told us that. Due to the way that the OCR works, though, any mention of the words are gathered. So that a search for ‘Shelley’ will collect not only Percy, but also Mary, and their children, and extended family, or just anyone else named Shelley. Names that are a bit more unique, like Wordsworth and Byron, probably are closer to representing the writers I was looking for. But those searches will still gather information from other Lord Byrons and other Wordsworths, like Dorothy. For the purpose of searching for proper-nouns, the more unique the better. For example, here is a graph of more unique book titles:
The Ngram Viewer can also do a wildcard search, which I did with the word ‘French’ below:
Again, here is the original: French * Graph. At least for the time limit, the most frequent word to follow the word ‘French’ is ‘and’. That result is not particularly surprising, though, as and is a fairly common word. What did surprise me was that between 1812 and 1818 ‘army’ followed ‘French’ more frequently than ‘and’. Of course, Napoleon was attempting to conquer the rest of Europe during that phase of time (minus Elba). But I think that the concern or interest in the French army was so great that it surpassed an everyday usage is interesting. If someone were writing how, in a particular text, one can see the anxiety over the French army, this graph might help them reinforce their point.
I would also like to point out the “Search in Google Books” section. If you were to click on any of those date ranges, Google would take you to the books where it found the word in question. Also, that search section can show what kind of results the search is generating, whether Blake refers to William, or other Blakes.
Although this is a brief meditation, I think that there are a few items that I would like focus on. First off, I think it it plain that these graphs are no substitute for the closer readings that people in the humanities often perform. And there are problems with the graphs, they cast a net that is a bit too wide. There is though a few interesting advantages, like these graphs can help show very large historical shifts. The viewer can also help with a very formalist study, because of its ability to parse words (which I did not touch on here). But for the moment, I think that the very broad perspective of the Ngram Viewer might be useful to humanities research, in that it would help us illuminate historical trends just a little bit better. Graphs, and the Ngram Viewer tool, are certainly not perfect nor can they replace our normal methodologies, but they do have some potential for humanities research.
Emily, Laura, and Arden are three graduate students who share interests in Romantic medical science and anatomy. We illustrate our contrasting methods in responding to this article (“Corpses and Copyrights”), which discusses the history of dissection in England through pictures of a medical textbook, William Cowper’s Myotomia reformata, or A New Administration of the Muscles (London, 1724) and legal issues with respect to both bodies and texts as shared properties. The article celebrates the connections between literary and medical fields through its focus on Laurence Sterne’s body-snatched corpse, and the rediscovery of his anatomized skull in the 1960s. In this collaborative post, we each respond to the question: how can our distinctive approach cast new light on such a text? Within the specific field of dissection, we focus on different approaches and questions with respect to the imaginative work of illustration and fiction to depict the body, the power of the body (and its parts) as an object and artifact, and the gendered nature of dissection and the spectacle it created.
Laura Kremmel is a PhD candidate at Lehigh University, specializing in Gothic literature, particularly in the Romantic period, but with teaching interests across all manifestations of the Gothic. Her dissertation considers Gothic literature in the context of medical theory and the Gothic’s imaginative ability to experiment with the limits of those theories and offer literary alternatives. She has also published on zombies and is currently developing an online class on ghosts and technology.
Emily Zarka is a PhD student in Romanticism at Arizona State University focusing on gender and sexuality studies and representations of the undead in the period. She is interested in tracing the literary history of horror monsters from the modern period, and exploring the different ways in which men and women write about and reflect on the undead. Emily has given public talks on why zombies matter, and has an upcoming publication exploring the undead in Wordsworth, Coleridge and Dacre.
Arden Hegele is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, with a dissertation focusing on Romantic medicine and literary method. Her most recent work explores Wordsworth and Keats’s hermeneutic engagement with post-Revolutionary techniques of human dissection, and she will soon be teaching a self-designed course about Frankenstein.
I love the ideas brought up in this article that conflate the actual bodies on the dissection table and the bodies depicted in the illustrations, and I’m most interested in the aspects of this comparison that get left out in able to make that conflation possible. What immediately strikes me about medical images of the eighteenth century is the sterility of the body and the cleanliness of it, which would not be an accurate depiction of the body on the dissection table: we’re missing all the fluids and the deformity of decay that would have made the body an object of repulsion and abjection. These “ugly” aspects worried Dr. Robert Knox (of Burke and Hare fame), who was disgusted by the interior of the body and thought that seeing it would actually ruin an artist’s sense of beauty (Helen MacDonald writes about this in her book, Human Remains (2006)). In his Great Artists and Great Anatomists (1825), Knox pleads with the artist to always draw a dead arm next to a living arm in order to preserve a division between the dead body as an object of disgust and the beauty of the living. Earlier, in the introduction to his Atlas of Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus,” William Hunter explains that there are two ways to illustrate the cadaver: to draw it exactly as it is shown, thus accurately reproducing one single body, OR to draw it taking into consideration all of the other bodies you have seen, thus producing an informed idealization of the body. Hunter himself claims that he much prefers this second, more imaginative method of depicting anatomy.
Thus, the illustrations take on the ability to fictionalize the body to some extent, prioritizing a style that would serve a pedagogical purpose, if not a realist one. It emphasizes the act of seeing the body, but only seeing the right kind of body. The same is true for preparations made of the body, and John Hunter is famous for making thousands of these: isolated and “prepared” parts of the bodies that would become preserved for the purpose of teaching anatomy (and, indeed, to carry on the idea of the body as property and commodity, unique preparations and parts of the body were a common gift to and from physicians). This is also the way in which fiction plays with ideas of the body, uninhibited by the limits of current medical knowledge. Physicians understood the essential role of the dissected body for understanding anatomy, but physiognomy remained somewhat in the shadows: without opening a living body, it was difficult to grasp how it worked. Thus, they were frustrated by exactly the distinction to which Knox refers. The Gothic is particularly interested in the interior of the body–a large part of which produces fear and shock–and it has an ability to stretch the limits of the body, both living and dead, in ways medicine could not. Writers like Matthew Lewis took the opposite approach to most medical illustrations, embracing the abject body and all its dripping, oozing effects, exploring new ways for the body to function in the process, expanding ideas of vitalism, circulation, and digestion.
Many writers of the Gothic were physicians themselves or close to medical thought, such as Mary Shelley and Lord Byron (close to John Polidori), and dramatist Joanna Baillie (niece of John and William Hunter and brother of Matthew Baillie, who spearheaded an interested in autopsy). The underlying principles of dissection are inherent in many of these works, especially the emphasis on empirical observation of the body in order to understand it. Much critical work has been written about Baillie’s play De Monfort (1798), which ends by displaying two bodies side-by-side (a murderer and his victim) in a type of moral autopsy. The murderer, De Monfort, had been so affected by seeing the corpse of the man he killed that it drove him mad and caused his death. In cases like this, the emphasis on seeing the body, whether on the dissection table, the illustration, or the stage, enters into other areas, such as commercial gain (as the article explains), as well as justice.
What I find compelling in this article is the emphasis on body-snatching as a way of experiencing a privileged intimacy with a literary legend: here, the act of dissection becomes a physical method for the exegesis of both a literary body and a body of work. As “Corpses and Copyrights” describes, Sterne’s body was taken from his grave and recognized as being the author’s by students in the autopsy theatre. This particular grave-robbery of a literary lion was, apparently, a chance one, prompted by the medical school’s need for demonstrational corpses. As Keats’s hospital training confirms, most corpses for autopsy in the Romantic period were indeed procured by body-snatchers, who were paid off by Sir Astley Cooper and other major surgical instructors. And, since some European medical schools guaranteed their students 500 bodies annually, odds were good that students would eventually identify their “Man in the Pan.”
But, with the disinterred shade of Shakespeare’s Yorick hanging over Sterne’s corpus (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well, Horatio”), we do have to wonder about Sterne’s actual disinterment as serving a more deliberate purpose. As Colin Dickey’s book Cranioklepty (2010) discusses, the purposeful body-snatching of artists was surprisingly prevalent during the Romantic Century. Other artists suffered similar fates to Sterne’s: Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart’s skulls were reportedly stolen from their graves by admirers (in Mozart’s case, since he was buried in a pauper’s grave, the future thief placed a wire around his neck before burial to help identify him later); in 1817, a malformed skull reported to be Swedenborg’s was offered up for sale in England; Schiller’s skull was mounted by a noble friend in a glass case in a library in 1826; and Sir Thomas Browne’s skull entered the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital Museum in 1848. More familiarly, the physical tokens of the Romantic poets continued to circulate after their deaths: Shelley’s heart was snatched from the funeral pyre and preserved in wine, while (in spite of his request to “let not my body be hacked”), Byron’s autopsy was published, his internal organs were scattered throughout Europe, and his corpse was disinterred in 1938 and lewdly examined in the family crypt. Even now, the Keats-Shelley house at Rome boasts various physical relics of the poets, including locks of their hair.
Why were (and are) Romantic artists’ dissected bodies so fascinating? For me, the anatomizing of Sterne’s skull, which bears marks of abrasions from medical implements, reflects on an important moment in the advances of surgical dissection and autopsy at the end of the eighteenth century, as the parts of the dissected literary body became relics for reanimative reading. Though Sterne’s dissection might be coming out of the anatomy in a satirical tradition (like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy ), as Helen Deutsch describes in Loving Dr Johnson (2005), at the end of the eighteenth century, the autopsy of a literary giant could bring the reader into an intimate encounter with the truths of his or her body, and even offer a kind of memorializing reanimation. In the case of Johnson, the Preface to the 1784 published account of his postmortem (“Dr Johnson in the Flesh”) described the corpse as “a work of art” that was still “of importance to his friends and acquaintances,” and the postmortem text is positioned as a way for the bereaved Johnsonian to reanimate the body through a deep encounter with its fragmented parts. Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) picks up the same language of reanimation through dissection: the directly reported records of Johnson’s speech allow the reader to “see him live,” in contrast to other biographies “in which there is literally no Life.” For Deutsch, this is part of a broader eighteenth-century trend of sentimental dissection: the body of the eponymous heroine in Clarissa (1748), for instance, is “opened and embalmed,” and Lovelace promises to keep her heart, which is stored in spirits, “never out of my sight.” (The real-life corollary of this is perhaps the circuitous journey of Percy Shelley’s heart, the “Cor Cordium” acting as postmortem metonym for the poet’s self). For the Romantics, insight into a fragmented body part seems to have had a reanimating quality for the whole body, and, as I think about it in my dissertation, I find links between medical dissection of human bodies, and practices of excisional close reading of organic literary forms, during the Romantic period.
Upon examining these illustrations and the accompanying article, I was immediately struck by the gendered implications, namely the differences between male and female dissection and how those acts were illustrated. The article claims that “Usually, the bodies used were those of criminals or heretics – predominantly males in other words. The occasional dissection of a woman, it being a public event, attracted large numbers of spectators by the prospect of the exposure of female organ.” Given the ideas of the time that the female body was somehow more sacred or special because of the presumed virtue of the female sex, it does not seem unsurprising that the male body would be more readily violated after death in such a way. However, the connotations of penetration from the scalpels, forceps, and other tools of dissection seem relevant here especially because they all were wielded by a masculine hand. These sharp blades and other disruptive instruments separated, cut and otherwise maimed flesh in an extremely intimate way. When this was occurring with male corpses, there are of course homoerotic undertones, but what really seems relevant is how this violation of phallic metallic apparatuses was deemed taboo except in rare cases. This might in part explain the public audience that attended female dissections as suggested above. Not only was flesh usually hidden promised to be revealed, but the feminine body was in death capable of being poked and prodded in ways living human males could only dream of. The intimacy of such an act becomes fetish as the public gathers to watch the male scientist push the scalpel further and further into the most intimate areas of a woman’s body.
The framing images displayed in “Corpses and Copyrights” appear to validate the theory that even dead bodies were gendered and sexualized in traditional ways. The first image of the series is the front view of a beautiful, naked woman accompanied by props and scenery reminiscent of Neoclassical art and the Grecian and Roman sources that movement drew its inspiration from (see the Roman copy of Praxiteles’ Venus). The only two places marked on this woman’s body are the breasts (A) and vagina (B), highlighting the parts of her body directly associated with sex and reproduction. We can assume that those areas were meant to be detailed one another page in their segmented, dissected form; when the sex separates from the body and becomes an object of its own. Detaching the female form from the person it belongs to would hardly be considered shocking given the culture of the time. The final image in the illustrative series is another woman (possibly the same one, but with a different artistic arrangement), only this time is is her backside that is drawn and marked. Here the letters adorning her body are more numerous, with areas such as the spine, calves and shoulders given special attention in addition to her bottom. I am fascinated by the artists decision to show only a complete female form, although I am not surprised. To me it suggests not only that the female body, at least in its intact form, is considered more beautiful, but that again the connections between sex and death dominate.
Additionally, the “corpse as commodity” idea challenges the idea of death as escape for men and women alike. For in a culture where women were considered property of men both theoretically and legally, death might be a release from such patriarchal control, albeit in an extremely morbid way. As “Corpses and Copyrights” asserts, “the body was not regarded as property” once dead, and therefore the female could finally be free from her masters, at least in theory. The value given to corpses and prevalence of grave robbing for medical and scientific purposes perverts this supposed freedom by once again giving monetary value to the body, and as the popularity of public female dissections suggests, yet again makes the female form a more rare and valuable object to possess. All of which proves that during the period, nothing could be separated from the politics of patriarchy and gender.
This year, I went vegan. This past week, the ethical and environmental consequences of my veganism became profoundly challenged. In what follows, I use my experience as a scholar invested in animal studies and animal rights to begin exploring the meaning and tensions involved in the cultivation of an orientation where scholarship and the politics of everyday life become intertwined. I do so neither to laud myself, nor to assert the necessary salience of my concerns per se. The ground I’m on is unstable, supported by monocrop farms, and made possible by the production of GMO plant foods. My interest here is in locating a nexus of potentiality and tension. I look to ask and get feedback on how to grapple with a set of social circumstances that constitute a horizon that delimits the desired results of the changes one wishes to contribute.
Increased work in areas of intersection between the history of art and methods of animal studies led me to a new ethical orientation. Artwork to which I’m drawn, by artists from Hogarth to Blake in the eighteenth century, to Matthew Barney in the twenty first, frequently thematize the position nonhuman species occupy as within a realm of moral rights. I realized that if I accepted such a thematic interplay as valid, I was therefore impelled to oppose the commodity status of other animals as machinic apparatuses of culture transmute them into objects of exchange-value (e.g. meat production) and use-value (e.g. dairy milk production). I had been a vegetarian for more than a decade. But the repetition of intellectual engagement with a view towards these issues crystallized my commitments to animal rights at a higher level of intensity. My life trajectory prior to the academic world drove this component of my research commitments; my research commitments came to deepen and transform the political aspects of my life commitments. A circuit was formed, whereby life, scholarship, and politics might form a mutually illuminating constellation of shared concerns and pursuits. I ultimately came to a conclusion. I could not continue to pursue scholarship that seeks to place human beings in an equitable relation to other animals, while at the same time continuing to occupy a privileged position in consuming animal products.
Yet, this space quickly appeared to me to be much more complex than I had anticipated, the way forward more convoluted. This was brought to an apex point for me during a recent meeting of the Chicago Animal Studies Workshop. There, Alice Kuzniar of the University of Waterloo led a wonderful meeting on writing she is doing on the Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s 2005 film Our Daily Bread (Fig. 1).
The work completely cut across the very sense of self-accomplishment I experienced upon going vegan. What is deeply devastating about Geyrhalter’s film is that it so profoundly juxtaposes the means of techno-agriculture production relative to animal and plant life alike. Geyrhalter’s film alternates between settings that show animal and plant life being turned into commodities by like means of production. One scene shows dairy cows being forced onto a carousel that automatically moves them into position to be mechanically milked. The sounds of automation disturbingly define the sonic space. In another, the camera reveals a greenhouse where a nondescript crop is being grown under artificial light, with a machine moving under the lighting mechanism to water the plants. They won’t see actual sunlight until they depart to be sold. Similar sounds of robotics comprise the aural background of both scenes of the film. One is stunned into the realization that advanced industrial agriculture forms a horizon within which one is situated, irrespective of whether one consumes animal products like milk, or not.
And in this regard, I was astonished by the extent to which the filmmaker’s work stages what the romanticist Forest Pyle has recently identified as a radical aestheticism operative across romantic and post-romantic art. In this mode, the very ethical valences of the artwork become undone by its operations. Introducing the idea in Art’s Undoing, Pyle first observes that in “the broadest sense an aestheticism can be attributed to a text when the performance of its aesthetic reflection (which is necessarily a self-reflection) effectively severs the relationships (whether analogous, homologus, preparatory, supplementary, or complimentary) between art and knowledge by subsuming the latter into the former.” He goes on to assert that a text might “be understood as succumbing to a radical aestheticism the moment it finds itself and its representations of the aesthetic at its vacating radical.” The corresponding implication is that a “radical aestheticism offers no positive claims for art (either those based on ethical or political grounds or on aesthetic grounds)” and becomes “a kind of black hole from which no illumination is possible” (4). The logic of aesthetics Pyle describes, indeed, deconstructs the very possibilities of ethical movement or imperatives to be derived from a work of art, like that of Geyrhalter. The work of art’s aesthetic performance of itself radically collapses conditions for positive formulations of knowledge.
Geyrhalter’s film instantiates precisely these conditions of collapse. In Our Daily Bread, the dispersion of productive modes across animal and plant food cultivation leaves the viewer with questions regarding the very efficacy of a dissenting position that would oppose the contemporary food industry. If one’s consumption of plant foods, to the exclusion of animal ones, leads to the increased utilization of artificial environments for the growing of genetically modified crops, is the situation for plants any less perverse and cruel than that of animals raised for slaughter, milk, and clothing? What is the way forward, when one can begin to become clear on some aspects of the system, but is interpellated in such a way that the path forward is seemingly obscured by a horizon of production that appears to have always already enfolded potential directions of opposition and critique?
Pyle, Forest. 2013. Art’s Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism. New York: Fordham University Press.
“A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be. Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface. ”
My notions about the desert seem a distant and beguiling set of imaginary scenes: as a woman-child of swamp and humid coast, enclosed by longleaf pines and surrounded by ocean on (almost) all sides, the desert seems a fairytale topography created by the mythos of the American West – a gunslinger’s paradise, a no-man’s land, a red-rocked canyon of impenetrable access. Perhaps the desert came before me, but only just slightly. The landscape of familiarity to me was one of green, moist terrain that barely spoke a word of its past except to whisper every now and again in small, chalky rocks of its ancient seas. On occasional walls in bright, sun-drenched rooms hung pictures of faraway places, cacti and high rock walls that I had never imagined. These places surely must be the archaic leftovers of my grandparents’ time – ephemera of nation-building and ranching that only exists in stories. A desert, to my own senses, was a place residing only in the collective past of textbooks and black-and-white television shows. What follows is my report as an investigator of this mythic place.
My current home is in the city of San Antonio. A place nestled geographically and geologically at the center of Texas, riding just under the hill country and atop the Balcones Escarpment, it seems a perfect place to begin an adventure. About one hour in any direction and the topography changes enough to be dramatic. My husband and best friend are my compatriots in this journey, heading west on highway 90. Out in D’Hanis, all the buildings are made of brick and, rightly so. The exterior walls of my apartment and the gallery I used to work in in San Antonio are built with D’Hanis stamped rich red bricks – a testament to the history of kilns originally built in the town I am now driving through. Like vast swaths of sedimentation across a landscape, a source can eventually be located for the small outcrops of clues that bear this interesting feature.
In another few hours we cross the Pecos River, where it has cut so deep down into the lower Cretaceous limestone here that the canyons are concave and bellowing with resilient whites and creams. In some places, the dreary shale gray has stained the limestone over ages, a palimpsest of story upon story. The Pecos itself seems still and chillingly cerulean. To stand and ponder how it could have ever worked at the task of carving stone seems one I can understand logically but still never grasp on a human scale. This canyon took time – time that I can’t fathom in my excitement. It’s not even a very big canyon in the scheme of things geological.
West of the Pecos, the roadcuts get a bit more interesting, as every few miles a new rise has been blasted to make way for the road we travel, and within those slices of high hillside, strata that make up the earth are revealed. Some strata are nice and even, with beautiful separations, and some show great interfingering and mixing up of their constituent parts. It’s a mystery book teasing me from the shelf as I drive past. I want to, in every sense of the word, read it – to find out what happened and in doing so, gain a greater understanding of the land I’m traversing. But we keep pressing on to our destination.
What can the desert offer me? I have a desire to go – to see. The author Rebecca Solnit frequently writes about place and its importance to us spiritually, asthetically, and even within a greater social construct. “The very word desert refers to desertedness, to lack, and the desert is defined by what it is missing,” (Solnit, 65). I think about the times that I have been defined by what I am quite literally “missing,” or what terrible inadequacies I seem to present based solely on patriarchal structures in my life. I can see that the desert is being unfairly compared to ecosystems that it is not and never will be. Much like a desert, a woman has to hold her own in a world defined by male domination, expansion, and desire. In this case, the desert is a place without sufficient water supply to support large human populations, their agriculture, and livestock. The roads and towns are increasingly less populated, with fewer familiar comforts and more trucks. You wouldn’t need a Starbucks to live out here but you would definitely need four-wheel drive. I ponder these ideas as I become acquainted with a place that’s been obscured from me. In the metaphorical tales that I spin while watching wild birds fly up from the roadside brush, I think the desert must be a woman.
Camping in Big Bend Ranch State Park is very remote. We spend about an hour and a half just getting off the main road and driving to the ranger station. There are no paved roads, and our campsite can be located with GPS coordinates. Wind blows around and through you, and you can hear it coming. It rustles the dry brush and sweeps through the openness, warning you of its presence. All you can do out there is knuckle down.
Is it possible to overuse the term majestic? It seems that every view is deserved of the word, the crest of every hill a new splendor. Something about the setting sun and the large expanse of open space sets the stage for the feeling of true sublimity. Counting posts in the road (one of the only signs of humanness out here) and adding them up to see how far we’ve come, my friend and I decide that, should the Jeep break down, we don’t want to trek 9 miles in the desert sun back to safety. These aren’t city miles near other people, or the possibility of finding gas or shade; these are wide open, scorching miles.
“To be deserted is not to be alone but to be alone with the thought that it could be otherwise,” (Broglio, 34). Reading this essay by Broglio sets the feeling of being alone like a puzzle piece into a greater picture. In the desert I feel small, detached, and even somewhat awestruck, but by being so far away from lots of people, I am open to the possibility that there are other voices to be heard, including my own. “Voice is the attempt to communicate, the desire to be other than abandoned,” (Broglio, 37). Imagine the braying of a wild donkey as it runs past your tent in the middle of the night, its own agenda afoot, with little regard for your temporary dwelling amidst its home. Your heart beats wildly as you wake up, identifying the voice you just heard, listening for danger and finding none. You coo yourself back to sleep with the sound of your own small voice.
I listened to myself in the desert.
There is more color here than I every imagined. My previous sketches of “what the desert looks like” might have included raw sienna and burnt umber. Of course I’d imagined the crisp, green cacti, but never did I grasp the varying greens of the scrub in the arroyos, including cottonwoods. Rich purple cacti grow up near small, red and yellow flowering bushes. Rocks of all colors seem to tumble out of the ground, as if their volcanic past is waiting to be told in mafic blacks and greys, punctured by ochre to red iron-stained gravels. Fold in the blue sky upon this picture and the whites of the sunbaked gravels and this is what I saw for two days outside my tent – a place where every color was an inspiration.
A fine layer of dust still covers my Jeep after returning from Big Bend a few days later. In the cracks and corners of doors and seams, it collects like silt. Though I washed my hands after breaking camp, every time I touched my jeans or jacket, my fingertips were loaded with the smell of dust again, as though I were still there, my teeth still gritty with sand and my eyes still watering with the irritation of working at survival.
I was hours away from the campsite now, driving east toward home, a clean stretch of lonesome highway in front of me, and my hands were coated anew in rich desert dust. My senses are alive with the smell of something so new and yet so ancient.