Last month the Duke English Department and the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory hosted a symposium on “the biological turn in literary studies.” It was, from my perspective, an exciting and successful event, and will likely be of interest to many of us in the NGSC. It would be very difficult for me to do justice to the first-rate talks of the individual presenters in only a brief description; below I offer merely a round-up of the premises of the different talks, and I would encourage everyone to check out the linked videos for any (and all!) of those talks that catch your attention. My great thanks to Rob Mitchell and Nancy Armstrong for organizing the symposium, and to Davide Carozza and Stefan Waldschmidt for making the whole thing happen and for making the videos available to a wider public!
Reading is not one thing but many. Most of all, reading is not passive. “In reality,” writes Michel de Certeau in the opening of The Practice of Everyday Life, “the activity of reading has on the contrary all the characteristics of a silent production.” But what are we producing? And what does the scholarly practice of reading do to this production?
As graduate students we often expect ourselves somehow to swallow texts whole—to get them. We try mightily to read texts simultaneously in terms of their own coherence, elisions, and indeterminacies as textual systems, of their unconscious procedural expression of determinant historical conditions of possibility, of their own stated and unstated relations to their intellectual precursors, and in the light of their reception by scholars or later links in the canonical chain; we strive to keep in mind texts’ political ramifications, how their formal-generic elements engage with other morphologically-related texts, and their relative sympathy or antipathy to various major philosophical concerns or strands of ideological critique; we read texts to find out whether we can instrumentalize our readings for the purposes of conference papers, dissertation chapters, or course syllabi—and maybe to determine whether we like them. More often than not, while reading I am also planning on passing along certain passages to colleagues or photocopying them for friends outside of the academy; wondering whether I could get a pirated PDF instead of waiting the several days for Interlibrary Loan or maybe shelling out the cash for a nice sixties paperback copy of my own, speculating about the biography of the author or the business-end realities of the academic press in question, and so on. Continue reading Objective Reading
A few years ago I got a chance to see Marc Handelman’s Archive for a Mountain in person, and it got me thinking about the category of the sublime in a new way. The conceit of the work is straightforward–Handelman assembled into a single book every piece of data he could find about the Untersberg–but the product is impressive. Weighing in at a hefty 740 archival-quality pages of maps, images, brochures, essays, scanned microfilm, screenshots of Wikipedia entries, and more, the book has an excessive materiality of its own. But it also—in the way it inevitably provokes us to imagine even more material that might have been included—foregrounds the incredible constrictions that are necessarily imposed upon any subject in the process of representation, even in those renderings that we are tempted to label exhaustive or comprehensive. Its gesture towards a kind of vast and awe-inspiring archival noumenal that exists beyond the capacity of any single human or technological interface to represent it (as well as its mapping of this limit onto such a traditional representative of sublime Nature) seems distinct to me from other contemporary notions of the sublime, and actually seems to hearken back to the original problematic of the eighteenth-century sublime: how to represent a mountain?
I’m reading from a used copy of Wordsworth’s Complete Poetical Works; there’s no date in the front matter other than a note giving the textual provenance as an earlier edition from 1857, but the pages are densely-columned and Biblically thin, and an inscription reads “To Rose with love. 1909.” The thing is hard to read and unwieldy, and I realize that I tend to forget that during the vast majority of Wordsworth’s reception history, readers didn’t pick up Broadview Press’s Lyrical Ballads, complete with both 1798 and 1800 editions, prefaces, notes, contemporary reviews, and scholarly appendices. Systematicity may seem like a professional mandate, but it’s also a luxury of modern scholarship. Continue reading Peripatetic Scholarship, or, the Romance of Ideas