All posts by Deven Parker

A Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures, I: The Planning Process

This post is part of the “Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures” series, a collaborative endeavor by NGSC bloggers Deven Parker, Grace Rexroth, and Conny Fasshauer, all Romanticist graduate students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Drawing on our collective experiences organizing guest lectures at our university, our aim for this series to offer advice and tips for NGSC readers hosting visitors at their institutions or attending one of these events. See Grace’s post on transportation as a networking opportunity, and Conny’s post on making the most of the guest’s visit. 

Hosting visiting scholars for talks or seminars at your institution can be a wonderful thing. As many NGSC bloggers have recently discussed – like Jacob Leveton in his post about the importance of community building – forming scholarly networks beyond your university not only leads to new friendships but also to opportunities to receive support and guidance in your scholarly endeavors beyond your usual advisors. If you’re a regular reader or contributor to the NGSC blog, I’m sure I don’t need to further extol the benefits of extra-institutional support networks and friendships. That being said, as my contribution to this collaborative series, I’ll discuss the concrete logistics of hosting guests for talks and workshops. Continue reading A Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures, I: The Planning Process

Report from the Front: Professor Jeffrey N. Cox on the Waterloo Bicentennial

June 18, 2015 marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, that decisive event that signaled the end of the Napoleonic Wars and, more broadly, constant military conflict on the European continent since 1756. Notable not only for Napoleon’s defeat by the combined forces of England, Prussia, and the Netherlands under the command of the Duke of Wellington and the Prince of Orange, Waterloo remains one of the bloodiest military conflicts in history with nearly 48,000 causalities in only ten hours. Yet, even more than a political turning point, Waterloo left an inedible mark on the period’s cultural productions; as graduate students studying Romanticism, we remember the battle in terms of the massive literary and artistic output it inspired. From Wordsworth’s “Thanksgiving Ode” to a theatrical production at Sadler’s Wells that included the song ‘The Bellerophon, or Nappy napped,'” Waterloo became a permanent fixture in Europe’s cultural memory. Continue reading Report from the Front: Professor Jeffrey N. Cox on the Waterloo Bicentennial

Rethinking Romantic Media: Print Alternatives

While my research has thus far focused on Romantic print media, my recent foray into the world of media archeology has led me to search for alternative media that print obscures. In Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter, Friedrich Kittler confronts “the historian’s writing monopoly” (6) by arguing that print cannot adequately take into account oral and visual culture. Writing merely stores the “facts of its authorization” (7), while “whatever else was going on dropped through the filter of letters and ideograms” (6). Kittler points to photography and film as storage media that put an end to the monopoly of print by recording the images and noise that print filters out. And yet, for scholars like ourselves interested in the period that preceded these inventions, how do we uncover the alternative media that print obscures? In order to answer this question, I turn to two examples of performance-based media that much recent work has attempted to reconstruct: lecture and drama.

Reconstructing the Romantic lecture

On February 28, 2014, the University of Colorado at Boulder hosted “Orating Romanticism,” a series of speakers that included Dr. Sarah Zimmerman of Fordham University, Dr. Sean Franzel of the University of Missouri, and CU Boulder’s own Kurtis Hessel. While each speaker focused on a particular lecturer or series of lectures, all spoke about the challenges they face when attempting to reconstruct a medium that is inherently performative and ephemeral. Dr. Zimmerman explained that Romantic lectures were critical oral arguments shaped by participating auditors as much as speakers themselves. For example, when giving a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s characters at the Royal Institution, Coleridge frequently deviated from his notes and occasionally strayed so far from the advertised topic that auditors complained in their reviews. Other lecturers changed their topics according to the audience’s immediate responses, collapsing the time between composition and reception that characterizes print. Working with such a medium proves challenging, explained Zimmerman, because the lecture’s “authoritative text,” if such a thing exists, “lies at the midpoint that marks the exchange between performer and audience.” As an inherently performative media dependent on time, place, and audience, the Romantic lecture cannot be adequately expressed in print.

Surrey Institution, London, 1810. Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin. (Wikipedia)
Surrey Institution, London, 1810. Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin. (Wikipedia)

Facing this challenge in his work on Coleridge’s, Hazlitt’s, and Humphry Davy’s respective lectures, Kurtis Hessel explained that in order to reconstruct these events we’re forced to cobble together “texts” from various sources, including the speaker’s notes, advertisements, reviews, and writings of those who attended. And yet, cautioned Hessel, these sources are often unreliable indicators of what actually took place. Just because a lecture was advertised, for example, does not mean it was actually held. If ticket sales failed to reach certain quotas, the event was canceled. In addition, while some lecturers like Hazlitt published write-ups of their lectures following the event, the printed version does not necessarily provide an accurate account of the lecture itself. Although it’s tempting to treat lectures in the same way we treat texts, Hessel struggles against this inclination in his work. Rather than relying on an available text, he explained, we’re forced to construct one. While print continues to dominate our understanding of Romantic-era oral media, we should seek out as many diverse sources as possible in order to reconstruct these moments. The lecture itself exists somewhere in between.

Reconstructing drama and pantomime

Drama is a similarly performative medium that presents methodological challenges when reconstructing it in print. With the exception of closet dramas and other plays that were not intended for the stage, the majority of popular stage productions were written with performance in mind. Although we have scripts, stage directions, and other textual remnants of these works, it’s difficult to imagine what occurred at individual performances. In Coleridge’s highly successful drama Remorse (1813), for example, we know that audiences were enthralled by a spectacular incantation scene in which an altar goes up in flames to reveal a painting of the protagonist’s assassination. Yet no surviving versions of the text give any indication of how this effect was achieved. Instead, our best guess comes from a write-up in The Examiner that describes “the altar flaming in the distance, the solemn invocation, the pealing music of the mystic song,” that together produced “a combination so awful, as nearly to over-power reality, and make one half believe the enchantment which delighted our senses.” Though lacking in specifics, this description depicts the scene better than the play’s stage directions, which simply read “The incense on the altar takes fire suddenly, and an illuminated picture of Alvar’s assassination is discovered.” In cases where stage spectacle played an important role in a production, paratextual materials are often better approximations of performance than the text itself.

These materials become even more important in the reconstruction of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pantomime, a form characterized by on-stage action rather than dialogue. When trying to reconstruct the text of Harlequin and Humpo (1812) for The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama, Jeffrey Cox and Michael Gamer used manuscripts with short descriptions of scenes alongside audience programs and other detailed information, but it’s impossible to arrive at an “ideal text” when a performance has no words. In places where the manuscript had little detail, they looked for descriptions in newspaper reviews. One review reveals that an Indian boy performed impressive contortions and acrobatics for a good portion of Scene V, a sequence that isn’t mentioned in the manuscript and seems have been a last minute addition to the show. It’s the piecing together of these sources that gives us the closest possible approximation of the work.

Joseph Grimaldi as "Clown," an archetypal pantomime character. c.1810. Wikipedia.

Joseph Grimaldi as “Clown,” an archetypal character in pantomime, c. 1810. (Wikipedia)

Destabilizing print

Despite my desire to uncover alternatives to print media, to deconstruct Kittler’s “writing monopoly,” it’s obvious that print is all that remains of Romantic performance culture. And yet, in our efforts to cobble together “texts” of these lectures and plays, it becomes harder to uphold traditional notions of textual stability. Especially in instances where there are multiple versions with significant differences, books are characterized by variation, difference, and inconsistency rather than grand solidity and authority. While publishers tend to smooth over these ruptures in “definitive editions” of canonical texts, reconstructions of forms like lecture and drama refuse to lull the reader into a fall sense of continuity. The search for Romantic print alternatives, though perhaps futile, may lead us to a more nuanced understanding of the different forces at play within printed texts.

 

Rethinking Romantic Textualities with Media Archeology

In my first post for this blog, I wrote about how my background in archeology influences my perception of texts as physical objects, and how I’d like to move towards an “archeological hermeneutics” that takes into account a text’s material conditions as contributing to its contents and their significance. Moving forward, I’d like to complicate our understanding of text-as-object by introducing what I’ve so far learned in my “Media Archeology” seminar taught by Lori Emerson. It came as a surprise to my family and friends that I enrolled in this course, because I tend to take classes that focus on the study of 18th and 19th century literatures. Although I won’t be reading any texts “in my period” for this class, I’ve found it has in fact supplied me with a variety of alternative methodologies for my Romantic-era research.

Although those who work in the field tend to resist a concrete definition, Jussi Parikka calls media archeology “a way to investigate the new media cultures through insights from past new media, often with an emphasis on the forgotten, the quirky, the non-obvious apparatuses, practices and inventions” (Parikka loc 189). We’re encouraged to take apart machines in order to understand how they operate, and in turn expose the conditions and limits of our technologically mediated world. Relying on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, among other texts, media archeologists expose structures of power embedded within the hardware of modern technology, revealing the ways in which media exert control over communication and provide the limits of what can be said and thought.

I find this way of thinking about the structures and limitations imposed by media particularly useful for the study of 18th and 19th century texts. Instead of thinking about how printing and publication practices give rise to individual texts, as I have in the past, I’ve started to consider texts from the inside out: what do books tell us about the cultural conditions and constraints imposed by the media in which they were (and are) written, manufactured, and consumed? Like the ASU Colloquium’s post, I wonder what three volume novels, for example, might tell us about communal reading practices and circulation of texts and, importantly, our modern reading practices in comparison. I’d hypothesize that circulating texts and libraries would contribute to communities of readers in which reading was, perhaps, a shared experience. In contrast, modern reading tends to be solitary experience which involves owning texts (especially when the library has only one copy of the book you need).

I’ve also found media archeology’s rethinking of linear time and notions of progress particularly useful and interesting. Collapsing “human time” allows us to bring together seemingly unrelated technologies for comparison and analysis. I’m thinking here of the Amazon Kindle and 18th century circulating libraries, which both create spaces for communal reading. In contrast to the private reading practices I described above, I think the Kindle – and specifically the “popular highlight” feature – presents an opportunity for readers to become aware of their participation in collective readerships. When you click on a pre-underlined sentence, it shows how many other people have also highlighted it. While at first I found this feature annoying – perhaps evidence of the private relationship I tend to have with books – I’ve begun to enjoy the way it makes me aware that I’m one of many readers who’s enjoying this particular text. Furthermore, I wonder if my newfound sense of collective readership would also give me a better understanding of Romantic-era reading practices that were likewise characterized by shared texts and mutual engagement. The ASU Colloquium posed an important question about whether we should attempt to read texts as their original readers would have; since many of us no longer have access to the original 3 volume novels and their circulating libraries, maybe we can gain insight into these texts and reading practices from the vantage point of our own collaborative technologies.

To close this post, I want to introduce one more concept from my media archeology reading that I’ve also found particularly applicable to the study of Romanticism: glitch aesthetics. Typically understood as accidents and hick ups within games, videos, and other digital media, glitch artists exploit them in order to “draw out some of [that technology’s] essential properties; properties which either weren’t reckoned with by its makers or were purposefully hidden” (McCormack 15). Again, media archeologists are concerned with exposing the power structures embedded in technologies, this time by giving us a peek of what lies beneath. While looking at glitch art, I couldn’t help but think of an experience I’d had in the British Library reading Keats’s manuscripts. I remember finding an additional verse to “Isabella: Or, the Pot of Basil” in George Keats’s notebook in what I think was Keats’s hand etched nearly invisible on the opposite page. Of course, this mysterious stanza threw a wrench in the carefully constructed argument I’d planned, and I had no idea what to make of it. Now that I look back on it, I’d like to think of that stanza as a textual glitch – it’s possible that Keats never intended for it to be read. Perhaps it had even been erased from the page. For me, this “glitch” reveals the textual instability of the poem and disrupts the sense of solidity and permanence with which I’ve come to regard Keats’s oeuvre.

I still have much to learn about media archeology and its methodologies (which I’ve certainly oversimplified), but I think this field could lead our work in Romanticism in new and exciting directions.

 

“I have a new leaf to turn over:” A Romanticist’s Resolutions for 2014

I think we can all agree that Keats’s Endymion (1818) was a critical and commercial failure. As Renee discusses in her post, Tory reviewers lambasted the poem because of Keats’s affiliation with outspoken radical Leigh Hunt. Although the poem’s most notorious critic, John Gibson Lockhart, notes its metrical deviations from the traditional heroic couplet form, he spends more time attacking Keats personally: “He is only a boy of pretty abilities, which he has done every thing in his power to spoil.” It’s no wonder, then, that Keats’s letters written in the months that followed show a recurring preoccupation with self-improvement, or “turning over a new leaf.” In a short letter to Richard Woodhouse (friend and editor) dated December 18, 1818, he writes “Look here, Woodhouse – I have a new leaf to turn over: I must work; I must read; I must write.” He’d repeat the phrase again that April in a letter to his sister, complaining that he had “written nothing and almost read nothing – but I must turn over a new leaf.”

Due to my unfortunate tendency to self-identify with whomever I’m reading (“OMG, Keats, I know EXACTLY what it’s like to have your work rejected and then mooch off your friends because you have no money. WE ARE THE SAME PERSON.”), Keats’s desire to “turn over a new leaf” resonates as I prepare for a new semester of graduate school in the new year. While our situations are slightly different – constructive criticism of a seminar paper not quite as devastating as the complete and utter failure of a published book  – his mantra for self-improvement sounds eerily like that of a graduate student: “I must work; I must read; I must write.” In the spirit of turning over a new leaf, and hopefully transforming that Endymion-esque seminar paper into a Lamia, I present to you my academic resolutions for 2014. I should note that many of these will be obvious to the more seasoned scholars among you, but for all of you newer grads out there, I hope you’ll find my mistakes instructive.

Resolution #1: I will develop arguments from texts instead of making texts conform to my arguments. 

This one seems easy in theory, but it’s something I’ve been struggling with throughout the semester. I’ll read one text – Endymion, let’s say – and then a bunch of criticism, and its reviews, letters, etc. Then, I’ll develop an idea about how Keats’s later poems revisit the same genre and politics as Endymion, but ultimately rewrite them. Except, I’ll form this connection even before I’ve read the later poems, just because it sounds so smart and will make such a good paper. Then, I’ll set about writing the paper and finally get around to reading Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other poems (1820), and only then will I realize that the texts interact in completely different ways than I had originally thought. Of course, there’s not enough time to completely rewrite my paper, so I stick with the argument, praying that the reader doesn’t realize I made this crucial error.

So, simply put, I resolve to stop doing this faulty method of research. I’m going to let myself be confused by texts, and stop trying to develop beautiful, complex arguments before I’ve had time to fully read and think about them. If a brilliant idea pops into my head before I’ve done this, I’ll write it down, set it aside, and consider it later. As a wise professor once told me, “Always start with close reading. If you leave it till the end, it will always most certainly change your argument.”

Resolution #2: I will accept that I am, first and foremost, a student.

A wise man (Michael Gamer) once told a group of English majors, “graduate students are full of themselves.” I hate to say it, but I’m living proof of this. I started graduate school last August under the impression that I was a Romanticist. In my undergrad days I was merely an “aspiring Romanticist,” but starting a Ph.D. program gave me the right to crown myself with the full title. Once I was accepted, I thought that I had made the transition from student to scholar, and deceived myself into believing that I knew more about my field than I actually do. Thankfully, the enormous ego that Michael prophesied was soon deflated when I realized a few weeks into class that, in fact, I know very, very little about the period in which I claim to specialize. Of course, this realization was accompanied was a decreased sense of self-worth, doubt about whether I was in the right line of work, and a frantic conversation with my advisor in which I dramatically exclaimed, “I KNOW NOTHING!” “That’s ok,” he assured me, “you’re a student, and you’re not supposed to. Frankly, you’d be surprised how many people in the field don’t know much either.” So, for 2014, I resolve to remind myself that I’m not a scholar yet; I’m a student. I will accept the limits of my knowledge while doing my best to expand them.

Resolution #3: I will overcome writing anxiety.

This problem plagues many of us, and it’s one of my biggest areas for improvement in the new year. Sometimes, the sheer size of what I need to write, the nearness of the deadline, and difficulty of the subject matter create a Kafka-esque paralysis in which no writing is accomplished. I can tell I’m experiencing this when I go to extra lengths to avoid starting a paper, whether it’s extra research, extensive outlining, or a meticulously organized Spotify playlist entitled “Writing.” As many of us know, talking about writing and thinking about writing is not actually writing. The only way to overcome this problem is simply to write more. At the advice of many of my peers, I plan to write everyday, especially while I conduct research. There were simply too many times this year when I was tempted to end my seminar papers in the way that Milton ended “The Passion” (1620): “This Subject the Author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.” I’m pretty sure only Milton could pull off that one.

Resolution #3.5: I will write my blog posts on time. 

This probably should’ve been number one. Thank you, Jake and fellow NASSR grads, for your patience.

Happy 2014!

 

 

Towards a Tangible Romanticism; or, One Student’s Search for the “Real”

I have a confession to make: I’m not getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature. An avid reader since childhood, books were something I enjoyed, but not necessarily found interesting enough to study. Sure, Pride and Prejudice was a great read, but I’d never thought it more than that. My early thinking went like this: “Fiction is entertaining, but it’s not real. What’s the value in studying something that isn’t real? If it isn’t real, what’s there to study?” This line of thought must abhor many of you, but I confess that I struggled (and still struggle) to convince myself that studying literature was a worthwhile, productive endeavor. It didn’t help that I went to a college where most students viewed education as a means to a well-paying job—a degree worthwhile for the job at Goldman it could score you. I was certainly influenced by this environment, and haven’t entirely discarded its thinking. I was, for better or worse, interested in the real, the tangible.

My quest to study something “real” (quite literally) led me to declare a major in Archeology, a field where I got to touch things and feel their realness. Literature was about ideas, archeology was about objects. A poem didn’t have the same tangible meaning for me that, say, a clay pot did. The pot was created for a purpose: to hold liquid, cook food, decorate a home. I liked that I could touch the artifacts I studied; they had real meanings behind them, not the “imaginary” meanings that people superimposed over novels and poems. You could find an object’s meaning within its material form—it had been shaped a certain way for a reason.

Yet a few months later, I found myself missing literature. I started to crave the “humanness” of books from which artifacts, although made by humans, felt detached. I started taking more English classes, mainly for fun, when an idea struck me: what if books could be read, not as abstractions upon which readers inserted meaning, but as objects? This watershed moment transformed the way I thought about literature, and led me to switch my major. I stumbled across a new kind of reading that I want to call an “archeological hermeneutics.”

How this works: I read a book as a material object, not only significant because it’s the product of a distinct cultural moment, but because it has a relationship to all other objects of the same type. In archeology, we think about a decorated Tlingit mask as it exists alongside hundreds of undecorated masks. The mask is both an independent object with a unique history, and a type working within a tradition of objects. Likewise, books are interesting, as opposed to entertaining, when I can read even the smallest moment in a text as related to the book’s position in its unique cultural moment, and as a product within a history of moments. So, when Keats writes Hyperion in unrhymed heroic verse, it’s significant on a local level—revising the verse form after the critical failure of Endymion—but also engages within a tradition of verse that hearkens to Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope, and others. Books are both local and transhistorical artifacts.

In archeology, material constraints dictate what kind of objects people create. The indigenous peoples of the Great Basin make baskets out of yucca, a material which obviously constrains their shapes and colors. Applying this to my studies in Romanticism, the material conditions of a book’s creation, publication, and dissemination are important to my understanding of its content. As I’ve learned in my current course on Romantic Drama with Jeffrey Cox, the material conditions of Regency theatre culture—there were only 2 theatres in London allowed to perform spoken drama—led to the development of musical forms like melodrama, pantomime, and other forms of Jane Moody’s “illegitimate theatre.” And then there are the constraints of publication: Why does Equiano choose to publish by subscription, and why does he include a list of subscribers on the first page of his Narrative? Does it affect our reading of the narrative that follows? These are the questions, inspired by Romanticism’s material conditions, that I find worth discussing. To me, they are real, almost tangible.

Yes, there are benefits to reading books as closed systems. It’s useful to understand how a text functions within itself, how it teaches the reader to read. But often with this approach, the meaning I find within texts is one I’ve placed there myself. Nietzsche (and Paul Youngquist, from whom I first heard it paraphrased) explained it thus: “If someone hides something behind a bush, looks for it in the same place and then finds it there, his seeking and finding is nothing much to boast about.” In my burgeoning career as a Romantic scholar, I want to discover truths that emanate from texts without having to place them there myself.

Perhaps I ought to rephrase my opening statement: I’m not getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature; I’m getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature’s interaction with the material world and the truth that emerges from it.