Tag Archives: critical methodologies

The Scholar between (The Limits of) Life and Politics

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).

Fig. 1. Still from Our Daily Bread (2005), dir. Nikolaus Geyrhalter. http://www.ourdailybread.at/jart/projects/utb/images/img-db/1132770640350-498×280-top-left.jpeg

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?

 

Works cited

Pyle, Forest. 2013. Art’s Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism. New York: Fordham University Press.

 

Jane Austen and Romantic Mortification

Perhaps surprisingly for its canonical status as a tale of romantic love, Pride and Prejudice (1813) is governed by many distinctly unromantic states of negative affect. Distress, embarrassment, depression, shame, and disbelief are all integral to Austen’s portrayals of character. But one emotional state stands out as being distinctively Austenian: mortification. Elizabeth Bennet is “most cruelly mortified” by her father; Kitty experiences “mortification” at the Forsters’ preferment of Lydia; Darcy feels “incredulity and mortification” at Elizabeth’s initial rejection, and later, “trouble and mortification” as he searches for the renegade Bennet sister in London; and even Miss Bingley “was very deeply mortified by Darcy’s marriage.” Most famously, at the scene of the Netherfield ball, Elizabeth’s “mortification” accrues with each outrageous Bennet performance, and she even enters into “dances of mortification” with Mr. Collins. The Austen reader might well ask, what is this state of mortification, and why is it such a key term for describing Austen’s characters?

As a synonym for silent humiliation, “mortification” has a particularly Romantic shade. The term had been used in Shakespeare’s plays, and by Swift in his “Drapier’s Letters,” but it appears considerably more frequently in the prose fiction of the early nineteenth century. Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817) features its narrator, Frank Obaldistone, claiming that he is “Not mortified, certainly not mortified”; Amelia Opie’s short story “Mrs Arlington: Or All is Not Gold that Glitters” (1818) describes one character as “humbled, offended, mortified, and self-condemned”; and other works by Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Smith, and Clara Reeve all feature mortification as a key term for describing the emotional plights of society heroines.  But “mortification” seems to be an especially potent term for Austen. In Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together in 1817, the term appears at least 8 times, and Austen typically modifies it to increase its severity: Catherine Morland experiences “deep mortification” and “severe mortification” at a ball with Henry Tilney, while Anne Elliot, shocked by Captain Wentworth’s sudden appearance, “fully submitted, in silent, deep mortification” to his comment that her person is altered beyond recognition. As with Elizabeth and Darcy, both Anne and Catherine must experience mortification, and especially public mortification, as a key stage in their trajectory to marital bliss.

Where did Romantic-era mortification come from? Austen’s repeated uses of the term are fascinating, since “mortification” occurs much more often in non-literary Romantic fields.  Rather, the term could refer to a religious practice of personal deprivation in the interest of spiritual self-improvement: as Ezekiel Hopkins wrote in 1807, “THE GREAT DUTY OF MORTIFICATION” required personal penance, since “without mortification, no [after]life is to be expected.” And, as A Daily Exercise and Devotions, for the Young Ladies and Gentlemen (1816) suggested, “The constant exercise of mortification is another fruit of penance” and the young lady or gentleman in question might “draw” “vast fruit” from the spiritual exercises of personal deprivation, or even the “voluntary toleration of bodily pain or discomfort” (as the OED would have it).

More intriguing, though, was Romantic mortification’s medical sense, as the word for the necrosis of bodily tissue — that is, as gangrene. The vast majority of references to mortification during the early nineteenth century appeared indeed in this pathological sense. “Mortification” is a central heading in John Hunter’s seminal work on battlefield surgery, A Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gunshot Wounds (1794), and the term appears with great regularity in medical textbooks in the early 1800s. One particularly clear definition appears in Sir Robert Carswell’s Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease (1838):

The term mortification is generally employed in this country to express the state which has been induced in a part of the body by the complete and permanent extinction of its vital properties. On the Continent, however, the term gangrene is employed to signify the same state, whilst in England it is more commonly used to denote the incipient stage of mortification … The extinction of the powers of life, the complete cessation of the circulation, and an entire want of sensibility, characterize the second or last stage of mortification, which is called sphacelus

But what could the horrifying condition of gangrenous mortification have to do with Mr Darcy’s embarrassment? One place to look for an answer is in the medical notes of John Keats, literature’s best representative of Romantic medicine. In his Anatomical and Physiological Note Book (published 1934), Keats discusses the connections between aneurism and mortification, and — in a cautionary tale for graduate students — mentions how “Those who have been addicted to Study from Keeping up a continued determination of Blood to the Brain have often the Vessels of that part ossified,” making the scholarly brain “subject to mortification” even among “the Young.” As Keats noted elsewhere, mortification could also take place among those who “lead a life of Intemperance.” Thus, since one of the main ambitions of Pride and Prejudice is to temper the unrestrained outbursts of the romantic leads, it makes a strange sort of sense that their intemperance of character — their respective pride and prejudice — leads to mortifying social punishment.

Although he does not use the term “mortification” in his poetry (to my knowledge!), Keats, who himself experienced “occasional ridicule, & some mortification” as a result of his “Pride and conceit […] amongst mere Medical students” (in the words of his friend Henry Stephens), is perhaps the touchstone for Romantic embarrassment. As Christopher Ricks’s 1974 book, Keats and Embarrassment, discusses, “a particular strength of Keats is the implication that the youthful, the luxuriant, the immature, can be, not just excusable errors, but vantagepoints” (12). Austen, too, uses moments of mortification to give insight and perspective, and the embarrassment her characters feel is not the result of “excusable error,” but of betrayal by their biology (their desires, or, more often, their desires thwarted by their foolish relatives). Thus, it seems no coincidence that Mary Ann O’Farrell’s discussion of “Austen’s Blush” (1994), another important work on Romantic embarrassment, touches on the biological underpinnings of socially coded desire. The blush, which Austen associates explicitly with mortification (Catherine, for instance, displays a “blush of mortification”), is for O’Farrell a marker of the body’s involuntary expression beyond the socially regulated codes of signals: “Austen necessarily invokes that about the body which is most inimical to manners, what makes manners most vulnerable to disruption” (127).  Thus, in my view, the affect of shameful mortification in Austen’s novels arises from the tension between the socially appropriate suppression of desire (analogous with religious mortification), and desire’s rebellious expression in the outer tissue of the organism (similar to medical mortification).

Austen’s union of the two external mortifications in producing her characters’ affect of humiliation established a convention that extended later into the century, and an interesting point of comparison is Anne Brontë’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which uses mortification as a key plot-point. Helen Huntingdon mortifies her would-be suitor, Mr Hargrave: “I cut short his appeal, and repulsed him so determinately […] that he withdrew, astonished, mortified, and discomforted, and, a few days later, I heard he had departed for London.” Helen’s power to mortify figuratively seems also to result (indirectly) in the death of her abusive husband, Arthur Huntingdon, whose alcoholism has led to actual mortification. In his last days, Arthur experiences “freedom from pain” and “deadness to all sensation where the suffering was most acute”; Helen writes, “My worst fears are realized — mortification has commenced.” In contrast to the extremely painful affect of mortification experienced by Austen’s characters, Arthur Huntingdon’s mortification passes from the first stage, gangrene, into the painless, fatal stage of sphacelus. His death releases Helen from her personal mortification at his hands, and leaves her free to marry Gilbert Markham. As in Austen’s novels, mortification is a developmental stage through which characters must pass to reach their marital goals; but unlike Austen’s mortification, Brontë literalizes the experience into its medical form, offering a much grislier model of character shaping.

But even marriage could not keep the advances of mortification entirely at bay. Elizabeth’s vigilance in “shield[ing]” Darcy from her humiliating relatives culminates in her permitting him to speak only to “those of her family with whom he might converse without mortification.” Et in Austen ego — even at the satisfying end of an Austen novel, then, is the encroachment of gangrenous necrosis.

 

NGSC E-Roundtable: Romanticism & Geology

Introduction: This piece comprises the first of a series of interdisciplinary dialogues that will appear quarterly on the NGSC Blog. The initial iteration finds NGSC contributing writers Arden Hegele, Jacob Leveton, and artist in residence Nicole Geary engaging with geology as a factor in the production both of Romantic poetry and contemporary sculpture. Towards this end, they collectively looked at a range of geologically oriented literary texts (Felicia Hemans’s “The Rock of Cader Idris,” Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head,” and Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”), works by the visual artists Robert Smithson and Blane de St. Croix, and literary, art-historical, and ecological criticism. Arden, Jacob, and Nicole then posed a series of questions for, and responded to, one another in a discussion that pivots upon a set of shared aesthetic problems and conceptual issues linking current critical and contemporary creative practices.

Roundtable:

Arden: On the subject of the nonhuman voice in Nature, in “Mont Blanc,” Shelley writes that the mountain’s “voice” is “not understood / By all, but which the wise, and great, and good / Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). How do you see Shelley’s mountain’s form in relation to poetic form, or, how might you relate the challenge of geological interpretation to the interpretation of Romantic literature?

Jacob: This is a great question with which to lead off, and I think provides an effective frame to derive some important points regarding the relation between Shelley’s poetry and politics. Of course, the lines to which you’ve directed my attention drive toward some of the liberatory aspects of Shelley’s poetic project at the time. The poet addresses Mont Blanc and posits that,“Thou hast a voice, great mountain, to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood by all, but which the wise, and great, and good / interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). The lines advance the point that Mont Blanc as a nonhuman geological form retains a voice to speak. That voice is comprehended by the “wise, and great, and good” who experience the mountain’s affective force at a high level of intensity (to “deeply feel”). Such a knowing-subject, indeed the Shelleyan poet, interprets the mountain’s geological form and communicates it in a way that effectively manifests itself as a field of social-critical potentiality. What I mean by this is that the poetic engagement with Mont Blanc, that itself generates the poem’s form, is geared to be mobilized in challenging and overturning social inequities. The poetic form that Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” makes available is one that takes geological interpretation as a point of departure for the purpose of social critique, and so relates to broader issues regarding interpretations of Romantic literature informed by historical-materialist theoretical investments, and the field of poetry and politics, more generally.

Nicole: Jacob, “Mont Blanc” seems to be written with a lonely and inhuman aura, one that puts nature out of the grasp of humankind. Do you agree that, as Heringman writes, it helped “mobilize the analogy between geological and political revolution” (13-14)?

Jacob: Your question is a wonderful one, as well–and, actually, while I’d agree that “Mont Blanc” is written with a profoundly inhuman aura I’m convinced it’s one that encodes a form of revelry in the nonhuman other. Ever since my first time working with that particular text, I’ve found it to offer a particularly energetic intellectual jouissance in its impellation that the reader recognize a significant interconnectivity with the natural environment. In this regard, the natural environment can be seen as deeply other and simultaneously co-constitutive of a self that is connected with all other sentient and non-sentient beings. This is why I found Heringman’s remarks so persuasive, with respect to how the “Romantic recognition of the earth’s unpredictability and difference from human interests” ultimately “permits progressive analogies to human agency” (13). One valuable concept the movement to posthumanism gives us (though one which the field of late eighteenth-century cultural production makes possible, by way of writers like Rousseau, Joseph Ritson, Erasmus Darwin, and others) is that the world in which we find ourselves is comprised of a rich myriad of human and nonhuman life and that to understand what it is to be human it is at once necessary to understand what it is to be human in relation to nonhuman life, the natural environment, and non-sentient matter. Geologically, it is the non-sentience of the mountainscape that Shelley’s poem engages with the utmost force, and its that difference between the human poet and nonhuman natural/geological phenomena that drives the poem. This is what I believe that poet is getting at when crafting the image of “The everlasting universe of things” which “Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves” (1-2). The poetic metaphor is taken from the Arve as the river that cuts through the ravine where the poet is positioned, with geological processes here comprising the primary factor of Shelley’s poetic production. Nonhuman geological and human subjectivities are differentiated, yet come together within the poem’s form as a zone of human/nonhuman environmental contact. They’re connected as Shelley’s poem draws out a vector of signification that links the Arve as an example of a formative geological agent that continually carves the mountainscape, the poet’s consciousness in writing, and the reader’s subjectivity in reading. These notions advance Heringman’s argument quite well. If geological formations like Mont Blanc make visible the way in which the earth is in a continual state of transformation–and it’s a given that species do best when they are adaptable to change and humans constitute one species position within a broader web of nonhuman life–then it follows that a commitment to progressive thought and engagement proves integral to the absorption of geology in Shelley’s poem.

Nicole: What I really fell for in “Beachy Head” was the long stretch of meandering we did through what felt like a mix of memory and storytelling. It’s as though we are briefly on the ground at this place, then suddenly no longer conforming to space and time. I find that it’s deceptive at first. Can you talk about how you find the form of this poem lends itself to the underlying story?

Arden: “Beachy Head” is such a rich poem, generically as well as geologically. Although it’s clearly working in the Romantic tradition in its description of sublime natural landscapes, it also looks back to an older genre — the loco-descriptive poem — which characterized eighteenth-century works like James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-1730). In the loco-descriptive poem, the speaker’s point of view moves fluidly between spaces through the act of looking, and the poem describes the different landscapes in view; importantly (and in contrast with most Romantic poetry), the energy carrying the poem isn’t so much the developing emotional charge, but rather the speaker’s changing observational position within a landscape. This active eye prompting topographical transitions is much of what we get in Smith’s 1807 poem, especially in lines like these: “let us turn / To where a more attractive study courts / The wanderer of the hills” (447-49). Here, Smith signals how her speaker’s eye carries “us” between geographical sites and their relation to her memories.

But, as you suggest, Nicole, Smith’s work is compelling because the landscapes in question prompt temporary flights away from the locations that she describes — including Beachy Head itself — as the speaker contemplates their relation to her emotional state. These jumps away from the landscape into recollected emotion is what feels most Romantic about the poem. For example, Smith’s denunciation of happiness is one of the work’s most poignant moments: “Ah! who is happy? Happiness! a word / That like false fire, from marsh effluvia born” (258-59). To me, this is an intriguing moment for the poem’s physical environment, since the simile associates happiness with a paranormal feature (a will-o’-the-wisp), in contrast to the many concrete landscapes of the poem — Beachy Head itself, the stone quarry, the cottages, the cave in the rock, and so on. But the ignis fatuus also helps to reveal the poem’s ongoing mechanism for the speaker’s nostalgic leaps: here and elsewhere, the ground gives direct rise to the emotions that the speaker experiences. (As a side note, “false fire, from marsh effluvia born” also invokes the miasmatic theory of disease popular during the period, which maintained that toxic gases would arise from the ground and spread contagion – a rather chilling way of describing “happiness”).

The historical and biographical contexts of “Beachy Head” are also quite interesting with respect to the poem’s treatment of time and space, especially in a scientific context. While writing was a source of necessary income for Smith (she was the only earner for her ten children), she took pleasure and relief in scientific practices like botany, and it seems to me that her somewhat loco-descriptive survey of the landscape of Beachy Head alludes to her personal practices of dispassionate scientific observation. An early reviewer of the posthumous poem remarked that

“It appears also as if the wounded feelings of Charlotte Smith had found relief and consolation […] in the accurate observation not only of the beautiful effect produced by the endless diversity of natural objects[,] but also in a careful study of their scientific arrangement, and their more minute variations.” (Monthly Review, 1807)

In keeping with what this reviewer notices, one of the poem’s main projects seems to be to classify different types of rock — the “chalk […] sepulchre” of the cliffs (723), the “stupendous summit” of Beachy Head itself (1), the “castellated mansion” (514), the “stone quarries” (471), and even the sedimented sea-shells, fossils, and “enormous bones” beneath the sea (422). But the poem also moves beyond classification by relating natural forms to poetic lyricism: for example, Smith describes “one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots / Form’d a rude couch,” where “love-songs and scatter’d rhymes” were “sometimes found” (581-84). At the poem’s conclusion, the rock of Beachy Head itself inspires verse, as “these mournful lines, memorials of his sufferings” are “Chisel’d within” (738-39); indeed, Smith’s own lines appear to have emerged from the physical rock. Moreover, supporting its thematic transitions between spaces and even outside of time, “Beachy Head” isn’t confined to a single verse form — the two sets of inset songs (in variable quintains and sestets) break up the sedimented quality we get with the long passages of blank verse. So the meandering quality that you notice between the poem’s specific geographies and abstract memories also applies to the fluctuating relationship between the verse forms, between the various locations and historical moments the poem describes, and, perhaps most importantly, between the relationship of scientific and poetic practices, which Smith ultimately tries to reconcile.

Jacob: Arden, I was particularly struck by the wonderful resonance between your suggestion that we read Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” and Nicole’s decision that we look at Blane de St. Croix’s Broken Landscape III (Fig. 1), since both works utilize geology as a means to think through the concept of national boundaries. In what ways might the ideas you find in Broken Landscape III  intersect Smith’s poem? Just as well, how might de St. Croix’s strategies as a visual artist diverge from those of Smith as a poet?

Blane de St. Croix, Broken Landscape III, 2012. Wood, plywood, foam, plastic, paint, branches, dirt, and other natural materials, 80.00 x 2.50 x 7.00 ft. (24.38 x 0.76 x 2.13 m.), as viewed at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. Photograph by Nicole Geary
Fig. 1. Blane de St. Croix, Broken Landscape III, 2013. Wood, plywood, foam, plastic, paint, branches, dirt, and other natural materials, 80.00 x 2.50 x 7.00 ft. (24.38 x 0.76 x 2.13 m.), as viewed at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. Photograph by Nicole Geary

Arden: I’m so glad that you drew my attention to the political similarities between Charlotte Smith and Blane de St. Croix’s works. Both artworks are connected in their different ways to the question of politically-charged national borders. Smith’s perspective can certainly cast new light on de St. Croix’s contemporary art, and I see at least two ways in which the pieces can work together in productive dialogue. First, their portrayals of their respective borders share certain formal similarities, in spite of the very different natures of the artworks. Second, the works diverge in the mechanisms by which they represent the borders as liminal spaces: while de St. Croix is invested in showing how the deep strata of the Mexico-US border’s geological formation acts as a barrier between the nations, Smith finds that the France-England border’s geology reveals similarity underlying the nations’ apparently radical differences.

Both artists engage with the idea of sedimentation as a formal tool for political commentary. In “Beachy Head,” Smith regularly draws the reader’s attention to Beachy Head’s distinctive white cliffs, the tallest in Britain, whose layers of chalk point to a long-standing geological history of increasing division from the opposite coast by means of marine erosion over millennia. For Smith, the continual geological breakdown between the two nations, through this process of erosion, is a provocative metaphor for their political relationship. In its allusions to the Norman Conquest, the battle of Beachy Head of 1690 (which the English lost), and the tensions between the nations during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the “scroll voluminous” of “Beachy Head” offers a versified representation of this erosion (122). Presented in chronological order, each incident of conflict with France gives way to the next until the reader reaches sea-level and England’s triumph: “But let not modern Gallia form from hence / Presumptuous hopes” against England, the “Imperial mistress of the obedient sea” (146-47, 154). In the political ramifications of its eroding structure, “Beachy Head” has much in common with Broken Landscape III, which is also interested in the sedimentation of a politically-charged international border. For de St. Croix, however, the formalism of sediment is not figured through erosion, but rather through accretion. Discourses about the border have, over time, accumulated in layers, just as layers of rock have accreted in the border’s geological history. De St. Croix’s representation of the border as a human-scale sedimented wall explores how its underlying discourses have built up to create an insurmountable barrier in the present (unlike the real border, de St. Croix’s installation actually prevents the viewer’s ability to walk across it).

At the same time, though, the two works differ considerably in the function of their sedimentation. As Lily Gurton-Wachter argues, Smith resists the idea that France and England were “natural enemies” (a term used pejoratively to describe their strained relationship at the turn of the nineteenth century), and instead finds a common ground for them in their shared geological past. The poet contemplates whether the bottom of the sea, cast up in cliff form at Beachy Head, serves as the area of continuity between the nations: “Does Nature then / Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes / Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling / To the dark sea-rock of the wat’ry world?” (383-86). While at one point Smith calls Romantic geology “but conjecture” (398), the general implication of the poem is that geology can help to locate a literal, deep-seated common ground between the opposed nations. De St. Croix, on the other hand, finds only political difference in the geology underlying the border. The human imposition of international boundaries on the surface of the earth is so metaphysically weighty that it actually carries downwards physically into its subterranean strata, in spite of the fact that each nation’s side is effectively the same in material and appearance.

Arden: Nicole, I’m interested in your thoughts on the materiality of landscape as a source for art. In Robert Smithson’s film about “Spiral Jetty,” the artist says that “the earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.” How do you see geologically-inspired works of art — especially an “entropic” project like Smithson’s, or Blane de St Croix’s meticulous topography — engaging with the materiality of literary texts? And, how does your study of Romanticism help you to understand this material relationship?

Nicole: It’s especially remarkable when you come upon stacked strata in the field and see rocks lined up like books on a shelf. This metaphor instantaneously becomes ingrained within you as you run your finger down the stack, looking for the book (rock) you want to pull out. In the history of the earth, pages, sometimes whole volumes go missing. We suffer those convulsions and catastrophes, and the earth rebuilds itself from the pieces. Spiral Jetty is made from rocks, water, mud, evaporites, and time (Fig. 2).

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water, 1,500.00 x 15.00 ft. (457.20 x 4.57 m.), Great Salt Lake, UT
Fig. 2. Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water, 1,500.00 x 15.00 ft. (457.20 x 4.57 m.), Great Salt Lake, UT

But not just that, it is a place. Spiral Jetty is difficult to reach, sometimes not able to be seen due to changes in the level of the Great Salt Lake. In reading romantic-period texts, I’m reminded of the overwhelming sense of the sublime that artists felt for certain places. Certain topographies, either remote or only able to be accessed by memory (as so wonderfully illustrated in “Beachy Head”) hold a history that engages and sometimes mystifies. So, too, does the Broken Landscape series by de St. Croix as it not only shows the surface, or present tense, but it digs into the depths of what came before our tense border anxieties. Broken Landscape III looks directly at ontological constructs upon the landscape that never existed before human-made activity, but doesn’t negate the rock record.

What I find fascinating is that this rock record is always around us, ever complex yet at our disposal to read. There is some comfort in the idea that we can make sense of the word, quite literally, by translating it like an ancient tome. I think that through Romanticism, I’m actually able to understand more about the emotional weight I give to rocks themselves. By reading through the Scottish Enlightenment and the geological revolution, I understood that what I was going through artistically was my own new science: a way of naming and identifying my emotions without feeling them – calling them the Other.

Jacob: This year, I’ve become increasingly influenced by Rebecca Beddell’s The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1865 in terms of the way in which, as Beddell explains, the division of labor between artists and scientists is essentially a discursive construction. Namely, here, I’m interested in how reading Bedell’s art-historical analysis might relate to, or gave you a space to imagine, your own work, perhaps in a different way than you had prior. In this regard, I’m drawn especially to the preface to her book, where Bedell suggests that in the nineteenth-century: “American landscape painters and geologists then stood on common ground. We now tend to consign art and science to different epistemologies, regarding them as distinctive pursuits, with completely different methodologies, directed towards completely different ends” while in the nineteenth-century art and science proved an interconnected spectrum of pursuits “in both popular perception and practice” (xi). What I’m wondering is how you consider about your own work within this trajectory. I’m thinking mainly of your 2011 Secondary Sediment series of prints that I think so powerfully evokes the relation between personal memory and geological space, and especially the play of text and image in “IX” (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Nicole Geary, "IX" from the Secondary Sediments series, 2011. Drypoint, type, and chine collé, 8.00 x 10.00 in. (20.32 x 25.40 cm.), Courtesy of the Artist
Fig. 3. Nicole Geary, “IX” from the Secondary Sediments series, 2011. Drypoint, type, and chine collé, 8.00 x 10.00 in. (20.32 x 25.40 cm.), Courtesy of the Artist

Nicole: Jacob, this is such a great question, because I specifically thought about this, too, when I was reading Beddell’s introduction. It seems a social construct based on educational or vocational pursuits has rendered art and science separate pursuits in our recent history, but the idea of a more common acquisition of knowledge and shared respect for these fields was in vogue during the age of Manifest Destiny. A different resurgence in this kind of thinking is afoot, with places like Science Gallery (https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/), the resurrection of LACMA Art + Technology Lab (http://lacma.org/Lab), and the CERN Artist’s Residency (http://arts.web.cern.ch/collide), to name only a few art and science collaborations.

To answer your question, my work does straddle both realms. It’s a mix of personal memoir related to the land it was experienced in. I find that the economic aspects of landscape cannot be separated from their role as passive backdrop to this “American dream” sedative. To deal with one part of the land or the space I live in requires me to seriously investigate all parts – it’s an element of knowing the land that I think a poem like “Beachy Head” deals with in a wonderful way.

The idea that we should mine the earth for its riches, or fight wars for those resources, the same principles that as a youth I could feel patriotic about, are now the ideas that I question in my work. What is worth exploiting (property, resources, and lives) and at what cost for the betterment of humankind? Who can really own land? In “A Place on the Glacial Till,” Thomas Fairchild Sherman writes a personal, historical, and geological history. A story of the animals and plants of his native Oberlin, Ohio, he writes of a place that is clearly familiar and dear to him when he says that: “Our homes are but tents on the landscape of time, and we but visitors to a world whose age exceeds our own 100 million times. We own only what the spirit creates.”

At what cost does the land stop becoming land?  I think Solnit shares a fine example of this in her essay (see “Elements of a New Landscape,” 57). The work “El Cerrito Solo” by Lewis deSoto was initiated by a friend’s remark that it was “too bad the mountain wasn’t there anymore.” Essentially, a small hill had been sourced for it’s material until it was no longer there – a story that’s full of what I think of as the ripping out of a page from one of the volumes in the rock record of the earth. Almost painfully, the artist says, “you could be in the landscape while driving on the freeway.” This reminds me of living in South Dakota and driving on pink-hued roads, colored this way because of the quarrying of local Sioux quartzite, the words of this story echoing in my thoughts. How many “little mountains” disappeared from the landscape to make these roads? At the intersection of art and geology, I read of a similar story that took place in Belize of the unfortunate destruction of a 2,000+ year-old Mayan temple, locally named Noh Mul, or Big Hill. A local contractor was quarrying the site for its limestone to create roadfill, but now embedded archaeological artifacts are totally lost and broken cultural relics have become part of the landscape.  Ultimately, the “otherness” of Nature is no longer a separate entity conceptually at bay but is a real, interactive part of our lives. I believe art can help us transform the way we think about landscape and its effect on us.

(Link: http://hyperallergic.com/71065/ancient-mayan-temple-destroyed-in-belize/)

(Link: http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/85391)

I think the time is right to invest in people. One of the biggest problems that I see with contemporary Western culture (as this is what I can speak to), is a lack of focus on local histories and real science, and an art world that seems fixated on the cult of celebrity, or too quickly moves on from one fad to another. I think the reason I became a printmaker was that somewhere at the core of my being, I enjoy the slow work and old-fashioned ethos of making something from an antiquated technology. It’s possible that I set myself up to be interested in history specifically because of that, but a lot of the work I drift toward or care about is art about the sciences and questioning the role of the author, or the authoritative voice. By this I mean searching for authentic stories of people so that they not be forgotten by history due to their gender, race, or sexuality. I look for things to have meaning and depth beyond their surface. Rocks and big outcrops, with their stony gazes, seem to have a lifetime of stories to tell, even if their faces are unyielding. I have to agree with Shelley on this point, where he ascribes a voice to Mont Blanc–in the lines to which Arden first drew our attention. What I read in this passage is the work of the artist and the geologist. To make the voice of the mountain known, through study and familiarity, through knowledge and wisdom, and to transmit that feeling through the power of metaphor, and of unity with the landscape. Who can say which job belongs to whom?

 

Works Consulted:

Poetry

Felicia Hemans, “The Rock of Cader Idris” (1822)

Percy Shelley, “Mont Blanc” (1817)

Charlotte Smith, “Beachy Head” (1807)

Art

Blane de St Croix, “Broken Landscape III” (2013)

Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970)

Criticism

Bedell, Rebecca. The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Gurton-Wachter, Lily. “’An Enemy, I suppose, that Nature has made’: Charlotte Smith and the natural enemy.” European Romantic Review 20, 2 (2009): 197-205.

Heringman, Noah. Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Solnit, Rebecca. “Elements of a New Landscape.” As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

 

Scholarly Collaboration in the Humanities

Technology Makes It Simple

I think this post dovetails quite nicely off the previous one and its discussion of the Digital Humanities. We are all pursuing graduate study during a time of great transition and change. Technological advances have allowed scholars to broaden their scope. The term “distant reading” is gaining more and more traction as databases and new research tools allow us to map continuity and change more precisely over greater periods of time.

One of the opportunities that technology facilitates, however, has received slightly less attention: collaboration. I am currently working on a collaborative article with colleague of mine and thought it may be useful to share my experience with the NASSR community.

Last week I spent a considerable amount of time editing a draft version of the article. We have been having Google Docs parties on a regular basis for several weeks now. We are able to see the changes each of us makes as well as have a quick little chat alongside the document in a handy dandy side bar. As a bit of a technological dunce, this all amazes me.

In the past, scholars in the humanities have collaborated in order to examine longer periods of time. This is indeed true for myself. My colleague specializes in the long eighteenth – century and I am, of course, a card – carrying Romanticist. We have both made use of the databases and research tools available to us. Therefore, technology has broadened both of our individual scopes and in turn lead to a project that is very ambitious.

Spend Time With Someone Who Thinks Differently Than You

Over the course of my career, I have been accused of burrowing into texts; I love me some close – reading. Naturally, beginning to think of ways of entering scholarly discourse and writing a dissertation that A) is relevant B) engages numerous texts required some significant adjustments. I am still learning the best ways to combine my intense interest in individual texts with larger trends / questions / queries.

My esteemed colleague, coincidentally, thinks in broad and ambitious ways. He asks questions not in terms of texts or authors but tropes / genres / representation. Having regular conversations with such a thinker and being asked to use specific texts in order to talk about these larger categories has been immensely productive for me. Likewise, engaging with a fiercely intense close – reader has made my colleague more aware of certain nuances in literary works. Also, I am pleased to say, my dissertation has benefited greatly from my collaborative endeavors.

Collaboration Saves Time

With the demands that coursework, dissertation writing / research, teaching, reading groups, outside jobs, and crime – fighting make on our time, we Romanticists are left with little to spare. Oftentimes we turn to coursework essays or our dissertations for potential publications. This only makes sense: those documents say much about our interests and methodology. However, writing an article with someone else broadens those interests while also requiring a reasonable amount of time. Writing an article on the side may seem impossible to an individual. Writing an article with a colleague allows you to divide and conquer. Whether you find, like me, that those pesky and often contested period boundaries provide a convenient way to find a partner in arms or you grab someone inside your period with a different set of interests, collaboration allows you to enter the scholarly fray for half the anxiety.

Good For The Old C V

How many times have you claimed that you enjoy working with others? If you are like me, the answer is 27. A collaborative piece of writing allows potential employers to see that you not only like working with others, you actually have! What we do is by nature incredibly isolating. The group of authors we have chosen to focus on make that isolation seem oh so sexy and cool. However, Wordsworth and Coleridge worked together, Shelley “dosed” Byron with some Wordsworth, Blake “spoke to” Milton,  and even Keats had Joseph Severn. I am just saying, that without collaboration, Wordsworth would not be able to put Lyrical Ballads on his poetic C V.

The Speculative Turn and Studies in Romanticism

It might be fair to say where philosophy goes literary criticism follows, but the current destination is a little unclear.  Today’s graduate students of romanticism work with professors who rose up in academia when philosophical camps presented themselves in plain sight; one was either “influenced” by Derrida’s phenomenology, Foucault’s genealogies, Lacan’s brand of psychoanalysis, or some other wing of continental philosophy.  At this year’s MLA conference in Seattle I listened for hints of literary criticism’s current trajectory.  Mostly, I heard Fredric Jameson’s name but not so much in regards to a future direction.  However, peeking over the disciplinary line reveals a philosophical shift that has gained momentum in the last five years, commonly referred to as the “speculative turn.”

The speculative turn is a turn in the sense that the conversation has moved away from the linguistic one.  Speculative philosophy is generally metaphysical, systematic, and works outside the domain of the hard sciences.  The most recent emergence of speculative philosophy is interesting because of its investment in materialism and realism, and its engagement with the hard sciences.  Steering away from idealism (commonly associated with Kant and his successors), suggests that reality exists independent of human agency.  For many literature students, to declare one’s work materialist in 2012 will sound redundant, because materialist accounts of history in English departments have been prevalent for decades.  But that work was materialism without metaphysics, a discussion absent of the Absolute or the thing-in-itself, for better or worse.

What distinguishes the speculative turn is its posited problem, what Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism” (5).[i]  In short, correlationism is the insistence of the relationship between the concept of a thing and the thing itself, and it is this relationship that prohibits access to either.  Romanticists studying Kant and company know this story well; this “relationship” is what Kant refers to as the “transcendental schema,” a mediator between the object and the mind’s concept of that object (B 177, 181).[ii]  But, in Ray Brassier’s “Concepts and Objects,” included in the who’s who of continental materialism and realism, The Speculative Turn (2011), he says it is taken for granted that the “difference” or relationship between the thing and its concept is anything but conceptual (64).[iii]  To assume the difference is conceptual delimits the relationship to a strictly human imposition.

From the example of how one might interrogate a correlationist situation (Brassier uses George Berkeley to illustrate his point), it is clear that continental materialism and realism pursue further ways of engaging with the world without positioning the human as somehow detached or above the world engaged with.  Such an anti-anthropocentric line has been re-charged in late by Deleuze, especially in his critique of representation.  But if correlationism reinforces the linguistic turn’s abandonment, and hence the abandonment of representation, that does not necessarily mean “language is dead.”  The death of language holds especial concern for romanticists because English departments carry the burden of such a potential death.  Rather, the turn suggests that if an inquiry is to access anything immediately, to begin and end the investigation with language is to never even start.

So how does the speculative turn impact literary studies and studies in romanticism, in particular?  To be clear, philosophy and literary criticism are not the same.  There were many books of literary criticism from the 1980s and 90s “influenced” by deconstruction, but these books merely use a method in order to approach literary texts, which, initially, was not the method’s aim.  In some sense then, the new philosophical turn is quite remote from literary studies.  On the other hand, when the philosophy giant moves, its gravity impacts the academic milieu in general.  The fact that the speculative turn reasserts materialist and realist philosophy undoubtedly encourages a similar embrace in literary fields.  Especially for romantics, this re-emphasis is historically significant because Rousseau (our man!) largely marks the turn away from his hard-lined materialist predecessors.  But Rousseau is a signpost, not a gravestone.

The theories Rousseau sought to overturn did not die so much as criticism has preferred to focus on less thingly topics.  Materialist readings of romanticism have been lost for years, traded in for borderline idealist, dialectical ones. For instance, almost no critical reading of Wordsworth appears without citing the excellent and comprehensive Wordsworth’s Poetry by Geoffrey Hartman (1964), whose bibliography just so happens to dismiss W.H. Piper’s pantheistic materialist account of the romantic imagination, The Active Universe(1962).[iv] Current studies will not merely return to Piper’s history of ideas though.  Taking an object-oriented approach, coined by Graham Harman in his Tool-Being (2002), romantic studies might zero in on the object itself, independent of any relationship at all.[v]

In some sense, this “new” move is as much a return to the old as any new move is.  At the same time, it’s a return with a difference.  Derrida is back on the scene, but Martin Hägglund’s atheist Derrida.  Schelling has a starring role, but thanks to an increase in translations and Iain Hamilton Grant’s focus, the emphasis lands on Naturphilosophie.  In romantic studies, I suspect, given the recent emphasis on the more scientifically inclined Erasmus Darwin (e.g. Dahlia Porter’s work), a renewed interest in Newton and Locke will follow—hopefully, along with some “minor” figures that have gone overlooked.  In other words, if the speculative turn signals anything to us, it’s that we can do more.


[i] Meillassoux, Quentin.  After Finitude.  Trans. Ray Brassier.  London: Continuum, 2008. Print.

[ii] Kant, Immanuel.  Critique of Pure Reason.  Trans. Norman Kemp Smith.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.  Print.

[iii] Brassier, Ray.  “Concepts and Objects.”  The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism.  Eds.  Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman.  Melbourne: re.press, 2011. Print.

[iv] I was pleased to see an endorsement—not a ringing one—of Piper in Paul Fry’s excellent, Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are (2009).

[v] Harman, Graham.  Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of the Object.  Chicago: Open Court, 2002. Print.

Romanticism: A State of the Union

Inspired by the President’s recent State of the Union address, I have decided to offer you, my Romantic brethren, a review of the state of Romantic studies. Despite our brooding Byronic ways, our Union is getting stronger. The house of cards may indeed have fallen, but our field is not languishing on the marble steps. Moneta will come!

::obligatory applause break::

The 2010 NASSR Conference in Vancouver, British Colombia took the idea of “Romantic Mediations” as its theme. Participants were encouraged to submit proposals that explored communication technologies and print culture. As the call for papers makes clear, “The era that saw the invention of semaphore, telegraphy, the continuous-feed press, and the difference engine, the Romantic in all its senses might be characterized as a period of significant experimentation in media and ideas of mediations” (NASSR). While many papers engaged with new inventions and their effects on Romantic era works – I heard an excellent paper regarding the influence semaphore had on theatrical gesturing practices – others utilized the concepts and language of media and mediation in order to offer new and perhaps more precise ways of engaging with and understanding key Romantic writers and texts.

The issues and concerns of last year’s NASSR conference are also being addressed by McGill University’s ongoing collaborative endeavor “Interacting with Print: Cultural Practices of Intermediality 1700-1900.” Founded in 2005, the interdisciplinary and interinstitutional research group headed by Susan Dalton, Andrew Piper, Tom Mole and others sets out to investigate “how people interacted with printed matter, how they used print media to interact with other people and how printed texts and images interacted within complex media ecologies.” The group focuses on the relations and interactions between various media. In order to more accurately, in its terms, “situate” print, the collaborative group sets out to debunk three prevalent scholarly “myths”: that print displaced other media, that print equals letterpress or engraving, and that print culture is national culture. In the online manifesto for “Interacting with Print,” the group claims that their “research activities will provide a more specific understanding of print’s place in the production, dissemination and reception of culture in a period that saw the development of mass media.” Print, as this quotation makes clear, was only one of many mediums for producing and disseminating culture and oftentimes incorporated other forms of media such as printed images.

Together, the conference and working research group speak to a set of issues being addressed by current critics of the Romantic period. Many scholars, including myself, have asked why this interest in media and mediation is emerging at the present moment. I believe that the answer, at least in part, lies in the new descriptions and definitions of the Romantic period and Romanticism offered by thinkers like Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler. In his 1982 work Orality and Literacy, Ong claims that the Romantic desire for “autonomous utterance” is facilitated by print and speaks to the “alliance of the Romantic movement with technology” (158). That is, print mediates the Romantic desire for interiority and individuality. According to Ong, there is a clear correlation between the mediums of Romantic art, in this instance print, and the prevalent artistic ideology of the period. Relying on and citing Ong’s work with notable frequency, John David Black’s recent book The Politics of Enchantment: Romanticism, Media, and Cultural Studies labels Romanticism as one of the effects of print: “Coming some three centuries after the invention of the mechanical press, romanticism was the mature cultural expression of the cumulative effects of Gutenberg’s breakthrough” (134). This quotation makes Romanticism the result of the proliferation of print that started with Gutenberg’s press.

Similarly to Ong, Kittler’s landmark work Discourse Networks 1800/1900, published in 1985 in the original German and translated into English in 1990, draws attention to the relationship between media and Romanticism. Especially important to Kittler’s text is Foucault’s essay “Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside.” In this early work, Foucault develops what David Wellbery calls “a lexicon of exteriority” (xii). The French thinker sets out to distinguish between language itself and “the apparatuses of power, storage, transmission, training, reproduction, and so forth that make up the conditions of factual discursive occurrences” (Wellbery xii). Like Foucault before him, Kittler’s work situates what is said or written in a secondary position and instead focuses on these “apparatuses.” His decision to title his 1987 follow up work Gramophone, Film, and Typewriter further underscores the important role communication and storage apparatuses play in his thinking. For Kittler, scholars are always dealing with media, with the technological possibilities of any given epoch because it is through the media of a given moment that “something like “poetry” or “literature” can take shape” (Wellbery xiii). As Thomas Streeter points out, Kittler “suggests that one should understand romanticism, not as a collection of texts or a historical period, but as a way of organizing discourse through practices of writing, reading, and relating” (777). Streeter and other critics, however, also feel that Kittler’s work often places too much emphasis on technologies and, at times, veers towards techno-determinism. Yet, these criticisms aside, the German thinker’s influence over contemporary literary studies in general as well as Romantic criticism is undeniable.

Clifford Siskin and William Warner’s collection of essays, This Is Enlightenment, elaborates upon the ideas present in Discourse Networks as well as Gramophone, Film, and Typewriter. The two critics argue that every history constructed by literary scholars has its benefits but a history of what they term “mediation” has the potential to “clarify both the singularity of each local event and what those events have in common” (11). They “use “mediation” here in its broadest sense as shorthand for the work done by tools, by what we now call “media” of every kind – everything that intervenes, enables, supplements, or is simply in between” (4). In this passage we can begin to see the similarities to Ong, Foucault, and Kittler’s focus on the technologies and “apparatuses” of given historical moments. Siskin and Warner, who were the keynote speakers at the NASSR conference referred to at the start of this post, show that “mediation was always necessary but the forms of mediation differ over time” and therefore there exists “a history of mediation” (9). Under this new framework, the Enlightenment becomes “an event in the history of mediation” (1). The Enlightenment was facilitated by a historically specific set of forms of mediation such as print, reading, writing, and other associational and relational practices.

Naturally, redefining the Enlightenment in such a manner leaves critics of the Romantic and Victorian eras asking what place in the new history their own periods hold. Siskin and Warner address this question in their 2011 article in The European Romantic Review, “If this is Enlightenment, Then What Is Romanticism?” According to the article, “Enlightenment is an event, Romanticism is an eventuality, and Victorianism is a variation” (290). The forms of mediation do not change or proliferate in equal measure. That is, some moments, in this instance the Enlightenment, have both a greater variety and number of forms of mediation than others. The claim that Romanticism can be seen as an “eventuality” also reflects John David Black’s claim that Romanticism is the “mature cultural” result of the Gutenberg press.

If the “apparatuses” of storage, transmission, communication, etc. are worthwhile objects of inquiry and if the Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation, then how is the current scholar of the Romantic period to engage with and comment upon a work or a collection of works? Or, as John Richetti asks in his review of the This Is Enlightenment collection, “How would foregrounding mediation change the kinds and areas of inquiry in our own epoch?”

Yours in Romanticism,

Randall Sessler, NYU

What Does This Mean: Unanswered Questions about the Evolution of ‘Performance’

During the Performance Seminar at NASSR 2011 Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood gave presentations which resulted in fervent discussion about performance in the Romantic period and the development and growth of Romanticism(s). As the seminar continued those in the room engaged in a conversation about where performance studies is going (in and out of Romanticism); ultimately, the question was posed about just how valuable ‘performance’ is as a term, but I could hardly re-present those perspectives here. So, I’m left with my own reflection on the conversation.

I left the seminar wondering about particular facets of the conversation and spent some time since the seminar questioning ‘performance’ as a term; as I continued to work through my summer reading list I found performance to be central to many authors’ arguments. The discussion at NASSR (and my reading since then) left me asking, “Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Has the term lost its value and poignancy precisely because the field of study has expanded beyond those literal performances of the stage?”

I assure you, I do not have an answer. Instead, my hope here is to leave you asking as well, to share some of this blogger’s thinking following a NASSR seminar, and perhaps to continue the conversation that began in Park City (as there are numerous other ways to define and theorize performance beyond what I mention below).

When I arrived home from Park City I read Donald Hall’s Reading Sexualities: Hermeneutic theory and the future of queer studies; in his introduction, Hall summarizes Judith Butler’s “implication of individual agency in changing sexual and gender norms through disruptive performances” (10). He writes,

In [Gender Trouble], Butler argues famously that the specific critical and political task that her politically engaged readers should assume is to locate sites for subversion, ‘to affirm the local possibilities of intervention through participating in precisely those practices of repetition that constitute identity and, therefore, present the immanent possibility of contesting them’ (Butler 1999:188). She issued a call to arms, suggesting that gender parodies (such as drag) and other disruptive social performances might work to create a better world for queers. (Hall 11)

Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone @ the 2011 VMAs: Image from Getty Images at MTV.com

In other words, by removing the theater from ‘performance,’ Butler linked activism and the academy—she made an intellectual “call to action” which resounded beyond (and simultaneously within) the academic community, including within “social-action groups such as Queer Nation” (Hall 11). (Though, as Hall points out, Butler “backtracked quickly” just three years later in Bodies that Matter, disclaiming the political potency of parody and subversive performance [12].) No matter where Butler stands on the usefulness of her theorization, what is most valuable is Butler’s definition of ‘performance’ locatable in the every day—the unconscious and involuntary. I’ve found that thinking about and teaching social constructivism through performance—by discussing everyday life as a form of theater, by expanding the definition of ‘audience’ to those with whom we interact within our educational institutions, workplaces, and shopping malls—is quite useful for me and particularly accessible for my students. I do wonder if I could teach social constructivism without talking about performance in this way. Even if I could, would my students or I benefit from it? Why does this approach seem to resonate with students? To some degree, this notion of ‘performance’ is individually empowering.  Knowing that the way one acts out one’s life has an immediate effect on the ‘audience’ can lead to a shift in thinking about interpersonal communication—even if one accepts that these performances are involuntary and never has the idea or intention of purposefully manipulating self-performance.  This type of ‘performance’ helps some students understand that they can have agency over their performances and, to some degree, the ways that audiences receive those performances. For example, if they want to be perceived as a hard-worker they begin to act like a hard-worker, which is difficult to do without actually working hard. I think my students are willing to consider social constructivism this way because it helps them understand something more about themselves and the way they are seen in the world. (It also resonates with the materialist culture they are familiar with; after teaching  Susan Alexander’s “Stylish Hard Bodies: Branded Masculinity in Men’s Health Magazine  it became clear that the students in my Popular American culture course fully grasp this “You are what you buy” definition of ‘performance.’) However, in many ways this definition is limitless. It becomes possible to think of everything and anything as a performance. If everything is performance we (literary and cultural studies communities, those of us at the NASSR Performance Seminar) begin to question just how useful performance is, and for good reason, I think.

Even if we wanted to, could we go back to a pre-Butler definition of performance? I’m not sure that we could, though we can certainly limit the ways that we use the term to understand the histories and cultures which interest us. Kristina Straub employs a definition of performance which bridges the space between the performances of the theater and the every day. In Domestic Affairs: Intimacy, Eroticism, and Violence between Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Straub “draws from performance theory, as developed by critics such as Joseph Roach” (111); her analysis in the chapter “Performing the Manservant, 1730 to 1760” includes “performances of masculinity” that “occur on both the London stage—in the dramatic characters of footmen—and in the theater audience’s sometime violent contention between these servants and their ‘betters’” (112).  Straub’s theorization of ‘performance’ “stresses the social formation of masculine gender and sexuality through repeated, publicly visible behaviors in the theater, ones that resonate with changing power relations that were more broadly played out in society” (Straub 111). This definition articulates a critical link between the stage and Main Street (so to speak); it organically connects the performances of both locations and again emphasizes the stage as a way of reading and understanding part(s) of the culture at large. It doesn’t limit the stage to a re-presentation of what is going on within larger cultural systems but makes cultural phenomena more visible to the audience/reader.

Straub’s definition offers a way of seeing the connection between the beginnings of ‘performance’ and its evolution into a concept that shapes a large number of identity fields.  With this evolution in mind, I find it difficult to restrict ‘performance’ to the study of drama. The performances taking place on the stage at my local theater are certainly not the same as those taking place in my classroom; however, understanding one paradigm has helped me to understand the other. Through its expanded purview, performance theory leads to tangible shifts in the discourse(s) of identity politics and births intellectual work that expands the fields of literary and cultural studies in productive ways. Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Perhaps it has, but I speculate that this broadness is a reflection of theoretical usefulness. ‘Performance’ isn’t a term devoid of value and poignancy; on and off the stage it has reshaped the ways that we think about identities, bodies, languages, and rituals for (at least) the last twenty years.

*Thank you to presenters Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood, moderator Angela Esterhammer, and all of the audience members who contributed to such a thought-provoking conversation!

Legitimacy and the Graduate Student

We’ve all heard it:  “I don’t feel like I belong here”—the clarion call of English graduate students and the hyper-obsession of meta-conversations within Literature departments at the highest level.  What is this obsession, and who really does belong in graduate programs or the academy, if not those who are there already?  This problem has been my preoccupation for some time now, so much so that it has crept into my dissertation, in an attempt to unravel the problems of legitimacy, sovereignty, authorship, etc. embedded in Romanticism and Romantic studies.

Trying to tackle these problems as a total framework, or as a problem even at the level of pedagogy, has been met with lots of resistance.  My upcoming Fall course on “Banned Books and Novel Ideas” will look at illegitimate textual problems in Ossian’s Tales of Fingal, Byron’s issues with piracy, the thorny controversies in Shakespeare and Defoe, as well as the whole regime of intellectual property surrounding Scott and Coleridge.  To inaugurate this course, I began my description with the famous quote from Foucault’s famous essay which he “borrowed” from Beckett: “What matters who’s speaking?”  Quite a moment of reflexivity, where Foucault not only questions the regime of authorship, but also uses a phrase that is syntactically tangled and, apparently, illegitimate.  I say this because my proposal, after explanation and several revisions, was greeted with disapproval from the legitimizing force of the English department heads; Beckett and Foucault have non-standard English and tangled syntax, it was said—students will be confused and find the course doesn’t have authority!  Hmmm….  I have my own responses to this line of argument, but I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the subject.  That is, how does one negotiate teaching texts that are non-standard, taboo, illegitimate etc. while still telling them that plagiarism is naughty-naughty and they must write in standard, syntactically clear English?  One easy explanation is making the distinction between discursive and non-discursive texts but, in keeping with truth-telling, even that distinction breaks down with enough interrogation.

Within this same matrix of problems, I have often asked the question of how one can really integrate radical politics into a classroom space?  How can one develop a quasi-democratic, anarchic pedagogy when all available models have some basis in logics of sovereignty and authority, delegitimizing certain ways of learning and production of scholarship?  Your thoughts are very much appreciated, particularly in relation to your experiences of teaching problematic Romantic texts.

Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes

The Critic as Genius?

In a recent edition of English Studies in Canada, Margery Fee writes that “we often talk about the importance of good writing without explaining what it is or how we know what it is… our knowledge of what makes good writing is tacit.”

I’ve found this rings true for me on both sides of the classroom. As an undergraduate, I mucked my way though my university’s English department, aping the conventions of scholarly writing well enough to get into grad school; as a grad student, I’ve TA’d classes in which the professor’s advice to me—after I asked what my students needed to do to achieve a good mark on a final essay exam—was a shrug and the words, “Be smart.” I was annoyed, but only because it rang uncomfortably true. All the rubrics in the world can’t do justice to “smartness,” that je ne sais quoi. It’s the ineffable quality in writing, both our students’ and our own, that can tip good into excellent or nudge mediocre to good—and whose only recognizable hallmark is that we’ll know it when we see it.

I study Romantic theories of genius, and the critical consensus seems to be that while genius was a key concept for an age obsessed with artistic originality, we academics no longer “really” believe in it. I’m not so certain. Continue reading The Critic as Genius?

Notes from the Undertow: Transatlantic Studies Reading Group Inaugural Meeting

According to the OED, undertow can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. Sporting Magazine (1817) refers to “A current,… at times counteracted by means of a strong opposing ‘undertow,’ as it is called.” If this first phrase touches upon the register of physical operations, the next lies close to that of myth and (ominous?) portent: “The recoil of the sea, and what is called by sailors the undertow, carried him back again.” The first example identifies a general dynamic of fluid directionality, describes strong flows and pulls, and suggests inconsistent, unstable forces. The second describes a geographic, biotic entity (the sea) grown quasi-monstrous, recoiling, carrying sailors “back again,” but how far? To where?

Formulating a transatlantic studies reading group at the University of Colorado at Boulder shared much with my childhood bouts with the Pacific, especially those times when the water won. Calling oneself a romanticist stakes out a somewhat reasonable or at least recognizable critical terrain. But epistemologically stepping into the oceans and seas to orient one’s work around aqueous and landed flows immediately leads one to the potentially hazardous and/or freeing problematics of how far to go and most importantly, to where—to what critical end?

When the undertow takes down even the strongest of swimmers, it’s just as disorienting and humbling as the above sentences from the OED suggest. Being sucked beneath the surface aptly parallels the problems I faced (and cannot conquer) in establishing a forum for exploring the current state of transatlantic, circumatlantic and hemispheric studies. How far back or forward in time should the readings go? What if the group’s reading selections only come from what qualifies as either British sources or literature attributed to the United States, and so the group navigates itself to the much-maligned realm of trans-national literary studies? To be completely honest, the most muddled and pressing point for me personally, is why, and if, I should be engaging in such methodological pursuits as a student committed first and foremost to the study of romantic literatures.

Our First Meeting:
Now having brought the group together for its inaugural meeting last Wednesday, we’ve proved that at least fifteen graduate students at Boulder are deeply or trepidatiously committed to throwing themselves into the fray. We are ready to see what considerations of the Atlantic and other bodies of water as well as other flows of bodies, organisms, ideas and objects will do to us, and perhaps even for us, given some amount of steadfastness and willingness to thrash about methodologically for the year. We read Melville’s Benito Cereno as our initial primary text and an article by Amanda Claybaugh on Dickens’ American book tours, which analyzes intersections between social reform and transatlantic reprinting/plagiarizing prior to the 1891 transatlantic copyright law that forbade such intellectual borrowing and trading.

For two hours we discussed things colonial, national, material, theoretical, and narratological—and speaking as just one of those who agreed to getting more than her feet wet, it was just as difficult and rewarding as getting lost in pull of the undertow while still being able, finally, to come back up for air, and for more. Next month, we’ll be making one of our great moves back in time, shifting away from the space of the slave ship and the triangular trade to discuss Locke’s Two Treatises on Government and an article by the well-known scholar of transatlantic and Native American scholarship, Kate Flint. We will close out the semester with a turn to the spaces of the Caribbean, reading the anonymously published The Woman of Colour, and will consider Elisa Tamarkin’s critical work on “Black Anglophilia.” Perhaps at its best, it would appear that these more geographically-sensitive modes of analyses might help us to engage “currents,… at times counteracted,” but that might otherwise be easy to ignore, and thus most simply reminds us to perform due diligence. Onward, to the next recoil.