Category Archives: Profession

Preface to Graduate School: Reading Hegel or learning how to read again

After an arduous year one of grad school I have come out alive. In anxious preparation for year two a few good friends and myself set quite the task this summer to read Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit that haunted us all year. Given the complexity and reputation of the great man himself I find our “Adventures in Hegel” will entertain readers on how we successfully managed reading his “Preface” to the book. What follows is the affective and intellectual journey myself and friends Katy and Liz have embarked upon.

In lieu of actually trying to explain Hegelian thought or even relay my precise thoughts on the preface I provide some useful tactics we employed to “mastering”, well, getting through difficult texts such as Hegel. Now at the end of year one of graduate studies I can attest the most common nerve-racking question from new grad students to be “How do I read X?” Whether long novels, poetry, images, and of course theory/philosophy everyone has that one form they consider impenetrable to decipher. My fellow book club interlocutors agreed our reading of Hegel to be extremely enlightening and cleared up many conceptual gaps. It does help we’re all good friends but we actually had a great afternoon discussing Hegel? It was fun, and not soul-crushingly dark and intimidating? But how?! Our satisfaction shows such texts are indeed very approachable with just the right attitude.

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Paper Consciousness: Professor Deidre Lynch Performs a “Bookish Ontology” on the Nineteenth-Century Album

Recently the English department at UW-Madison hosted Professor Deidre Lynch of Harvard to present new work that appears to evolve from her last publication Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015, Chicago UP). You should recognize the guest lecturer as one of the most influence contributors to 19th c. and Romantic studies. Earlier works remain frequently cited in contemporary scholarship, most notably her work on Austen and The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Cultural and the Business of Inner Meaning (1998). In consideration of blog readers interests in book history, archival methods, material culture, and all things 19th c. I’ve provide a brief summary of the talk title “Paper Slips: The Nineteenth-Century Album and Other Misadventures in Book-keeping” and offer comments on how the work Prof. Lynch presented could inspire scholarship to come, or at least re-think what we write in our diaries.

Continue reading Paper Consciousness: Professor Deidre Lynch Performs a “Bookish Ontology” on the Nineteenth-Century Album

The Inescapable Wordsworth

My dissertation began as an attempt to distill a current of Romantic writing that has no use for the elegiac or the morbid—a Romanticism indifferent to death. I wanted to dilate moments that seemed to stray from the program of what Frances Ferguson called Wordsworth’s epitaphic mode—a mode of remembrance that Paul de Man recast as the figural anticipation of death. My suspicion was that the coherence of Romanticism as the object of literary history relied, at least in part, on the fetishization of death. (I place this argument in a broader historical context here).

There is of course plenty of morbidity in Romantic-period writing (and eighteenth-century writing, and Restoration writing, to say nothing of Victorian writing…), but I hoped to show that death was by no means as essential or decisive for the period as literary history sometimes suggests. At core, I was imagining a Romanticism without Wordsworth—at least without the Wordsworth who was christened by Matthew Arnold the “English Orpheus.” Though the reception of Wordsworth’s engagement with death would shift from the Excursive Wordsworth of the Victorians to the Preludial Wordsworth of the twentieth century, the centrality of elegy and epitaph persisted. (Remarks on Wordsworth and elegy, and also James Bond, here.) So I was going to try to read Wordsworth out of Romantic-period writing. In the space I would clear by evicting Wordsworth, I wanted to sketch an alternative history in miniature that, I hoped, would be truer to the multifariousness of the period in its thinking—and not thinking—about death.

Midway through my dissertation’s journey, it occurs to me that it is a strange thing to build a project around an anti-topic. Such a project may find itself with no topic at all, or, even more ominously, it may find itself defined by the very topos it set out to undo. The result is so predictable that I am certain I must have desired it from the outset: Wordsworth and his epitaphic mode, in its most canonical instances, have steadily colonized my dissertation.

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From Perish to Publish: Writing with Papers and Scrivener

I recently started writing my dissertation. Although it’s an exciting stage of my program, when I think of the daunting task ahead of me, I often think of Cowper’s “The Castaway.” We scholars are castaways ourselves, “wretches” writing and struggling alone, drowning in piles of papers and stacks of books.

One of the most daunting challenges so far has been figuring out the logistics of how to organize–and actually write–a research project of this scale. Since I imagine many of us are facing similar challenges organizing research and writing tasks, I’m outlining some strategies that I’ve found helpful so far.

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Hacking Non-Romanticism Teaching Assignments

It’s almost March. The time of year (at least in my department) that we get our teaching assignments for the fall semester. Many of us greatly look forward to this, especially if it’s our first time teaching our own courses: there’s something intoxicating about finally getting to design your own class. The possibilities are endless.

Until you read the course description of the class you’ve been assigned.

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Affect Theory Reading Log

This winter, I’ve been working to familiarize myself with the affective turn in Romantic studies. But the reading experience has been generally defamiliarizing; ideas about affects, emotions, feelings and passions are consistent, it seems, only in their inconsistency. In their introduction to Romanticism and the Emotions, Faflak and Sha usefully suggest that the difficulties that Romantic scholars encounter trying to theorize affect stem from the nature of the project, which is “to categorize what by definition at once sustains and eludes both thought and language.” The common ground that unites those that I’ve read on the topic is not so much a shared theory as a a shared belief that we can learn something about our contemporary interest in affect as a scientific object (neuroscience) and as a subject for the humanities by looking back to emotion’s (uneven and multilayered) emergence as a category of experience in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods.

In the place of a single book review, I’ll provide here a brief and by no means comprehensive survey of a few books on the topic that I’ve been spending some time with lately. The readings here ask unresolvable, but pressing, questions about the relation between feeling and knowing, bodies and texts, affect and agency, aesthetics and socio-political forces. The list is completely idiosyncratic: Thomas Pfau’s Romantic Moods is influential, but I haven’t read it and Romanticism and the Emotions from Cambridge UP is fresh and excellent but, as a collection of essays, is too daunting to summarize. I’d love to know what other people are reading on the topic—please feel free to add your recs in the comments section!

  1. Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Pinch

Strange Fits of Passion asks what writings by Hume, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen can teach us about the relationship between knowing and feeling. Recurring questions include: Where do emotions come from and how do they travel? Can we judge whether feelings are fit to their occasions? Are feelings our own (personal) or are they transpersonal (conventional)? The last question is the most central to the study; Pinch everywhere challenges the notion that emotions come from some irreducible core of the self. She does this by emphasizing the “vagrancy,” (10) or trans-individual status of emotions in Romantic literature. What interests me most about Pinch’s book is her idea that that language, and especially imaginative language and utterance, plays a key role in bridging the gap between affect (materiality, physiology) and emotion (psychology). In poems by Wordsworth and Smith, poetic figures are simultaneously produced by passion and productive of emotions that circulate as conventions.

Reading Hume, who did not theorize language, Pinch seeks to recover the role that representation plays in shaping sympathy. In Hume, “force” designates the mysterious motion of the mind that translates ideas into impressions (and vise-versa) and is thus crucial to “sympathy.” “Force” is an unsatisfying concept in Hume if only because it fails to explain how and why some ideas impress us more forcibly than others. Contrasting Hume’s representation of imaginary men of misfortune with his famous representation of his own despair at the end of Book I of the Treatise, Pinch suggests that sympathy may be most forceful where we attribute imaginary feelings onto indifferent objects. Readers have long found it difficult to sympathize with Hume’s melancholic outpourings and this may be because he represents them as his own, rather than as ours to imagine.

In attending to the conventional and virtual aspects of feeling, Pinch sidelines the common charge against the Romantics (especially central to eco-critical conversations) of egoism and anthropocentrism. Pinch’s open displacement of this issue sets her apart from the other books listed here, which are more explicitly concerned with the ethical and political stakes of formulations of ‘sympathy’ that emerged in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods. Strange Fits of Passion positively stands out, however, in its analysis of the ways that gender differences get entangled in writers’ rendering of emotion. I especially enjoyed reading Pinch’s on Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill.” For Pinch, the poem identifies the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” with an old woman’s passionate utterance. More surprisingly, it likens Harry’s violence towards Goody to the male poet’s desire to empathize with an experience of feminine suffering that will authenticate his verse. There’s a great anecdote here in which Joseph Cottle reads the Lyrical Ballads aloud to Hannah Moore. On the second reading of “Goody Blake,” Hannah Moore lifts up her hands, “in smiling horror” on hearing the curse “O, may he never more be warm!” Pinch writes, “Moore perhaps recognizes through her own playacting the power of a woman’s curse to engender poetic pleasure” (97).

  1. Yousef, Nancy. Romantic Intimacy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.

YousefRomantic Intimacy asks how the epistemic problem of other minds informs accounts of intimacy in writings that range from eighteenth century moral philosophy to contemporary recommendations for psychoanalytic practice. Yousef moves lucidly between moral philosophy, poetry, novels and contemporary theory as she carefully draws out the ethical implications of relational experience in Romantic texts. A central thesis is that writers like Wordsworth, Austen and Coleridge are skeptical of sentimental philosophy’s confident appeals to the authority of shared feelings yet untethered to notions of (re)cognition (in Kant and Levinas) that emphasize equality and reciprocity between persons. Yousef’s book encourages us to see in Romantic literature diverse accounts of relational experience that expand beyond the paradigms of Humean sympathy and Kantian respect.

Yousef shares with Adela Pinch an unprepossessing interest in the formal and aesthetic qualities of the texts she explores. But where Pinch tends to reify a dichotomy between private and shared emotion, Yousef is drawn to poems like “Frost at Midnight” that challenge that divide. In Coleridge’s poem, little Hartley’s breath—his passive and unimposing presence—provides the relational background that sustains Coleridge’s intimate lyrical outpouring of memories, fantasies and hopes. Yousef provides startling analogies between the “generative silence” Coleridge’s infant son provides in “Frost at Midnight” and contemporary experiments with silence in psychoanalytic practice and performance art.

An interest in affective asymmetries coheres the excellent chapters in Romantic Intimacy on Wordsworth, Austen and Coleridge. If “Frost at Midnight” configures a relational situation where one person is completely silent so that another can speak, Pride and Prejudice represents the erotic possibilities of a relation where one person is endowed with gift giving power so that another can learn to receive. Yousef points out that Elizabeth Bennet’s engagement with Darcy is read at turns as a capitulation to power and as an aspirational (Kantian) assertion of equality between rational beings. Attention to the role of gratitude in Elizabeth’s bilding offers a way out of this impasse. For Yousef, Elizabeth’s entanglement with Darcy demonstrates the transformative force of a self-abasing moral feeling that constitutes the subject “as an implication of appreciation for an other” (112). Pride and Prejudice thus represents the subject as the effect of gratitude, rather than the other way around.

3. Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Khalip

Anonymity and Dispossession theorizes Romantic subjectivity in the wake of the Enlightenment call for transparency and self-revelation. Jacques Khalip argues that second-generation romantics (Keats, Hazlitt, Shelley, Austen) saw Enlightenment models of personhood as deeply inauthentic and sought to re-conceive  of the self as anonymous. To think about subjectivity as anonymous is to value experiences of trauma and privation over experiences of self-possession and confessional  plentitude. As critical praxis, understanding subjectivity as dispossessed, or as being-without, involves attending to the virtuality of figuration (de Man and Derrida are important theoretical influences in the book) and to literary representations of anachronisms that evoke “an existence whose untapped power” is “always temporally unfinished and suspended, not knowing what it is, and what it will be” (7). Khalip wants us to see that Romantics thought of identity as “always an unmade and undone “thing”” (14) and, in so doing, shattered the relational channels of sympathetic exchange and mutual recognition. (see Yousef!)

Anonymity and Dispossession intersects with the concerns addressed in Pinch’s and Yousef’s book and Romantic affect theory more broadly in its treatment of “sympathy.” Khalip carefully draws out sympathy’s political dimensions, or its entanglement with the logic of financial speculation and accumulation. Khalip points out that the category of property underwrites formulations of sympathetic selfhood in Hume, Burke and Smith. All three of these philosophers acknowledge the virtual and potentially destabilizing aspects of sympathy (see Pinch!) only to keep the self as imaginary possession intact. Shelley then amplifies the destabilizing features of sympathy  present in Hume, Burke and Smith in order to re-conceive of sympathy as a “dissimulating” process that tears apart the “apparently fluid causality of consciousness” (117) and thus allows for a challenging ethical experience: “Sympathy…is an obligation to otherness that cannot be properly defined, but to which the subject remains critically open” (132). This is sympathy in the wake of any illusions about the linkage between affect and cognition, impressions and ideas, meanings and texts. It is a sympathy that refuses to understand the relationship between the self and the other in terms of mimesis.

Chapter four asks what the book’s broad themes of a skeptical and uncertain selfhood look like in the hands of women writers. The unifying mood is not of sympathy but of melancholy. Khalip argues that for Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Austen, melancholy entails a withdrawal from the public sphere that is sometimes strategic, sometimes compulsory. One surprising suggestion is that by refusing the demands of self-presentation, female writers display a “powerfully anonymous mobility in the world.” Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and Austen’s Persuasion are well chosen and illustrative of the point. If the delicate being taught only to please of the Vindication is cognitively and emotionally stunted by a discourse of femininity that “spuriously regulate[s] the visibility of the female self,” then the Wollstonecraft fashioned in the letters is more like Austen’s melancholy heroine who cultivates a skepticism that “disarticulates personal fulfillment from self-presentation and self-assertion” (135). Khalip’s book leaves us with challenging questions about agency—if we can’t define ourselves, then how do we know how to act in the world? Romanticism and Dispossession encourages us stop thinking of ourselves as willful actors and to take up an obligation to perpetually reorient ourselves in relation to a fundamentally unknowable world.

New Initiative: Romantic Bicentennials!

I’m pleased to announce a new initiative sponsored by the Keats-Shelley Association of America and the Byron Society of America: ROMANTIC BICENTENNIALS! This project offers scholars, readers, and the general public the opportunity to get involved and to receive updates about annual symposia, related conferences,  networked events, and other media celebrating 200 years of Romanticism.

The project’s main website (still under construction) is located here: http://dev-romantic-bicentenials.pantheon.io/. On the website, read about each day’s events 200 years ago, and stay informed about current scholarly events celebrating bicentennial anniversaries throughout 2016 to 2024 (Geneva to Missolonghi). There will be one major sponsored conference each year: this year, it’ll be on May 21st, at the New York Public Library, celebrating the Genevan Summer of 1816.

Reach out if you would like to get involved — we’re looking for people to live-tweet events with our hashtag #‎Romantics200‬! We are also looking for scholars to participate in the annual symposia, as well as to attend the networked events throughout the year. To stay in touch, connect with us through our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/romanticbicentennials/. (A twitter handle is coming soon). And write to me if you have questions!

Planning for MLA!

With winter break almost now in full swing, we have to come to a frightening realization: MLA 2016 in Austin is just 3 weeks away!

In preparation for this event, the largest of our academic yearly conferences, some of us might be sweating profusely over the idea of interviewing for those dearly coveted jobs, while others may be frantically polishing papers for our MLA debuts.

To help minimize the fury of pre-conference preparations, here below you’ll find a list of panels and events that may be of particular interest to young Romantic scholars and graduate students. Bookmark it now!

The entire searchable program is available online here. And the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession has gathered a catalogue of important networking and social events at the conference, along with workshops and panels of interest to graduate students, which can be found listed here.

See you in Austin!!

MLA_Austin2016

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First Year Graduate School Guide: Surviving Semester One

Please allow my brief detour from the Romantic optic of the blog to offer some tips and reflections have grown out of the last few months of semester one of graduate life. I share them in hope others in a graduate program for literary studies or other related fields will learn or perhaps remember how to keep afloat in semester one.

Confession: I have yet to turn in any seminar papers and there’s still 11 days left before I can truthfully call myself a victor, but I’ve made it this far—perhaps there’s something to my method besides madness.

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How Far Feminism?

It is rare that I ever have the pleasure of walking into my classroom to find students enthusiastically discussing our subject matter. Since for the most part I teach courses on poetry or nineteenth-century novels, my eighteen-year-old, twenty-first-century students tend not to get too riled up about the nuances of iambic tetrameter or “ye olden days” characters found in historic fiction (and can I blame them, really?).

Recently, however, I witnessed what other courses with more obviously controversial material might be experiencing on a more regular basis: my students were animated—and not just animated, but even aggravated!!—by the readings for their latest assigned task. They were asked to compare Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and her fictional Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman with a few contemporary articles. These latter essays suggest that women who choose today to “opt out” of the work force for the sake of raising children are still, at heart, somehow in line with the feminist agenda.

When I stepped into the room, the students were arguing about just how far—or not—feminism has come.   Continue reading How Far Feminism?