Friday, December 28, 2007

MLA 2007: some notes

It's the second day of MLA, and I'm sort of horrified that there's just as much more to come.

I've heard many good talks and some miserable ones, and some in between. Here are some highlights so far:

Session 21: The Challenge of a Million Books

The crappy panel title notwithstanding, I thought this session, run by the Association for Computers and the Humanities (program here), was very good. Each of the presenters discussed computational methods in literary research. Brad Pasanek and D. Sculley (the latter not present at the panel) used a classification algorithm to test how well patterns in metaphor predicted political affiliations; they have a database of metaphors at, which could come in handy sometime. Glenn Roe and Robert Voyer used text mining to try to understand the classification of knowledge in Diderot's Encyclopédie, and Sara Steger used similar techniques to try to make more precise the formulaic quality of sentimental writing. Good times. I would be especially interested in learning more about pedagogical applications for these techniques.

Session 85: Micro: Studies in the Very Small

Wai Chee Dimock gave the first paper, "Fractals: The Micro in a Global World," and much as I respect Dimock as a scholar, I must say that I found her use of "fractals" entirely specious. She began by suggesting a loosening of the idea of fractals in order to think of self-similarity in terms of scalablility and the structural self-similarity of epic as a genre. Perhaps I was missing part of what was going on, but Dimock's paper struck me as an old-school organic unity paper with the word "fractal" stuck on it. By loosening the definition of "fractal," the usefulness of which I was already dubious, I felt that she robbed it of its power as a concept. She also used the term "recursion" to mean, more or less, repetition, again diluting the meaningfulness of the concept of recursion. It is possible that the short format of the talk prevented Dimock from supplying some crucial justifications for these moves, but I simply came away from the talk with the sense that she has little understanding of complex dynamics, and that they bear no relation whatever to the epic as a genre.

I found Robert Rushing's paper, "Fractal Microscopy: Blowup, Greene, Calvino" more convincing and quite entertaining. Rushing discussed how three texts try to assimilate the traumatic sublime of quantum mechanics (its impossibly small scale, its discreteness, its counterintuitiveness) to everyday life through ideologically charged metaphors. This was my favorite talk in the panel, and came away with an urgent feeling that I need to see Antonioni's Blowup.

Anna Botta gave a paper on dust. I more or less liked it, but can't say much about it, since it was mainly an art history paper and discussed a lot of works that I wasn't familiar with.

James Ramey gave an interesting paper called "Micropoetics: Nabokov's Small-Scale Parasites," which refreshingly used science in a legitimate way. Ramey explored how Nabokov uses the metaphor of the parasite to characterize creativity, especially literary creativity--a sinister generativity. I wound up asking him a question at the end about the difference between being the gestating egg and the egg-laying parent bug, since Nabokov seemed to be enormously interested in the "sting" of the egg-laying. (Some dim person in the audience turned around and suggested that it would help to think of the parasite as species rather than as individual bugs, as if I were confused about it. Sigh.)

Session 93: The Press

This session was arranged by the Division on Nineteenth Century French Literature.

I really enjoyed Cary Hollinshead-Strick's paper, "Personifying the Press: Newspapers on Stage after 1830," which looked at how vaudeville and the press spoke to and about one another.

I also enjoyed Marie-Eve Thérenty's paper, "Vies drôles et scalps de puces: Des formes brèves dans les quotidiens à la Belle Epoque," which looked at a hitherto little-noted genre of short, humorous newspaper pieces. It was a very interesting talk, but as it was in French, I'm sure I only caught about a third of it.

Evelyn Gould's paper, "Among Dreyfus Affairs: The Emergence of Testimonial Chronicle," similarly engaged in a kind of genre study, this time of very long works somewhere in between journalism and autobiography. I'm not really sure I understood how she was theorizing "testimonial chronicle," but she discussed the texts in interesting ways.

I went to a mostly miserable panel late on Thursday evening. It will remain nameless.

I also went to a panel today solely because a friend was presenting a paper on it. In my completely unbiased view, hers was the best paper on the panel, which was on nineteenth century American women's religious poetry. Apart from my friend, one panelist seemed to be trying to recuperate this corpus, which has been widely charged with crappiness, but she seemed to want to do so by pointing out a few exceptional writers (i.e. yes, this genre is crappy, but here are a few diamonds in the rough), and by valorizing these writers in spite of form. I'm baffled. I do want to check out her book, however. The other panelist seemed to have, um, missed the last 30 years of feminist studies?

Session 324: Brave New Worlds: Digital Scholarship and the Future of Early American Studies

I mostly liked this panel; I didn't come away with anything portable, but I learned some stuff about Samson Occom, and am interested in the Charles Brockden Brown Electronic Archive, which draws on fourteen different physical archives, which must be a giant pain in the butt for the people on the project. Interestingly, one presenter was Michelle Harper, the director of project management for Readex. Apparently they're coming out with an interesting feature in which you can annotate digital editions from their archive. It looks cooler that I'm making it sound here, but my notes are sadly devoid of detail, and I'm too spaced out now to remember it.

I gave my paper this evening, but perhaps I'll post on that panel separately, or not post on it at all.

Today I ran into some friends, a former professor, and a woman from Stanford with whom I once took summer German, which was nice. Margery Kempe was right, though: MLA is a desperaat tryal and a terribil oon amonges devils and hir ministeres and necromanceres.

Monday, December 17, 2007

An Open Letter to Sherman Alexie

[I have decided to submit this piece to the Chronicle. I'll re-post it after they reject it.]

[The Chronicle is silent, so here is my letter to Sherman Alexie, once again.]

Dear Sherman Alexie,

I recently read your young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I found it funny and moving. And, of course, disappointing, because I was hoping to find in it a book that was not actively harmful to girls. Such books are rare, so I should not have been surprised that this was not one of them. And yet, I had hoped for better from you.

The main character, Junior, objectifies women left and right. It is clear that, with the exception of his mother and his grandmother, he sees women primarily as decoration. Now, that may be an accurate representation of how this fourteen-year-old boy thinks of women, but it was disappointing that this viewpoint was never undercut. Even his sister, we are assured, is "beautiful." Obviously, you can’t talk about a woman under the age of thirty unless you know how decorative she is!

Looks, girls are so frequently told, are the only important thing about a woman. Although the causes of eating disorders are not fully understood, it is unlikely that hearing this message constantly does anything to discourage them. When we first meet Penelope in the novel, it is her beauty that is emphasized (beauty being defined by whiteness, of course; women of color need not apply).

We later find out that she is bulimic, and while Junior makes some obligatory anti-bulimia comments, Penelope’s mental state is never truly taken seriously, and we never hear a word about Penelope recovering from this serious illness. We do, however, hear a lot about how sexy she is – over and over, both before and after we learn of the bulimia. The overriding message is not that bulimia is serious and harmful, but that the most important thing about women is their sexiness, and that sexy women are bulimic – and, as far as we know, they stay that way.

As you must know, gender is the semi-permeable membrane of the children’s literature market. Because women’s experiences are seen as particular and men’s as universal (men are human, women are Other), books with female protagonists are usually marketed to girls only, while books with male protagonists are marketed to all children. You can therefore expect that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will be read by many girls.

Girls are used to identifying with a male point of view; they are asked and indeed required to do it constantly. So should they then identify with this male protagonist and learn to internalize the view that women exist primarily as decoration and/or masturbation fodder? Or the view that bulimia is bad, but that bulimia also correlates with sexiness, and that sexiness is the pinnacle of young female achievement?

Oh, yes, there is one relatively young female character with an element of humanity, Mary. But even she is a cipher; we never hear her speak, but only hear her spoken about (by male characters). And while Junior lauds her as a brilliant, creative woman, we find in her the same tired tropes about creative and intellectual women:

1. A creative woman is at the least maladjusted, but more likely mentally unstable.

2. A woman’s creative ambitions are merely a substitute for her real desire, namely a man.

3. A creative woman will come to an early and gruesome end.

This is why the woman writers who remain canonical and in the public imagination are famously mentally ill and preferably suicidal – Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson. This is why when Hollywood makes a “bio” pic about the singularly well-adjusted Jane Austen, the screenwriters must invent a narrative that puts a man at the center of Austen’s life and writing. Mary fits the mold exactly, behaving oddly, “following her dreams” by getting married (not by getting published), and dying young as a direct result of “following her dreams.”

After reading this book, I realized that I could not in good conscience give it to a young woman. I think the stereotypes about women that the novel perpetuates are also harmful to young men, but the novel specifically calls on young women to see themselves as either personalityless projections of male fantasy or doomed by their intelligence and creativity. They get to choose between going up in flames or dying slowly, beautifully, and bulimically. To a young man, this novel says, choose hope. To a young woman, it says, choose your flavor of mental illness and death.

To you I say, choose your words more carefully.

Yours truly,

Natalia Cecire

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thursday, December 6, 2007


"Not at all," said Ichabod. "The ship is still mostly the counting house, albeit long-transformed and changed. This room is of the counting house, so it will always be connected somehow. If the passageway falls off, some other way will open."

"Through the wardrobe maybe," said Arthur.

Ichabod looked at him sternly, his eyebrows contracting to almost meet above his nose.

"I doubt that, young mortal. That is where I keep the Captain's clothes. It is not a thoroughfare of any kind."

--Garth Nix, Drowned Wednesday (61)

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Vote for Taking Two Minutes to Stop Gazing at One's Own Navel

Harry Mount's NYT op-ed "A Vote for Latin" opines that learning Latin makes better statespersons. He deplores politicians' tendencies to have majored in -- oh, no! -- political science instead of classics. According to Mount, learning Latin makes you smarter. In his piece, Mount more or less sits there and extols the wonderful things he has learned from classics.

It's great that he had such a good experience with Latin, but it's ridiculous of him to suppose that other fields of study are not equally rich (in particular, the whipping boy, political science). To turn one's personal love for Latin into a prescription for all politicians reveals only ignorance and self-centeredness -- not to mention privilege, since it's often only élite high schools that even offer Latin, and even then only as an elective. Generally speaking, you don't enter college from a working-class background with no high-school exposure to Latin and say, "golly, I think I'll major in classics."

Meanwhile, Mount's claims that Latin is "the eternal language" or that it's "crucial . . . to learn Latin to become a civilized leader" (as opposed to, say, an uncivilized leader? like maybe those barbaric Turks, or some other, browner people?) simply disclose his reprehensible ethnocentrism.

I'm not opposed to people learning Latin, but to see it as the INDEX OF CIVILIZATION is not only absurd but contemptible. That they printed this op-ed is just one more reason to hate the New York Times.

Mount: "Because Latin is a dead language, not in a constant state of flux as living languages are, there’s no wriggle room in translating."

I wonder if Mount knows that, over the centuries of its use, Latin changed just like any other language? The proposal that a dead language is a static language, or worse still, that it leaves "no wriggle room in translating," only reveals what Harry Mount has not learned from his studies.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Endymion Spring

Matthew Skelton, Endymion Spring, 2006.

Endymion Spring weaves together the story of North American children visiting Oxford with their mother, a visiting scholar, with the first-person narrative of Endymion Spring, a fifteenth-century apprentice to Johann Gutenberg. I found Endymion Spring's narrative fascinating; with Gutenberg, Faust, and dragons, you basically cannot go wrong.

Although I mostly loved the fifteenth-century sections of the book, the main adventure occurs in the 21st century, a narrative that I found far less satisfying.

The 21st-century narrative is most notable for its "OMG OMG I <3 Oxford!!1!" aesthetic. The novel opens with, "What sort of book is this?", staging an encounter with an inscrutable text that rings a lot of Oxford School bells. Endymion Spring reveals the qualified nature of these encounters; the chosen child is a special kind of reader, but for Blake, the protagonist of Endymion Spring, the ability to read the text depends on being the chosen child. (This is also true of Will in The Dark is rising).

And in fact, in this case, Blake's being the chosen child depends, not on any personal merit, but on his maleness.

Blake is "just an ordinary boy who [i]sn't particularly good at reading," while his younger sister Duck is an excellent reader and an assiduous worker. But Blake's being the chosen child is repeatedly staged as a triumph over his sister:

"I can't find any riddles," she said. "I've been through it hundreds of times. I've held it up to the light; I've considered using lemon juice to reveal any secret messages; I've even tried spilling ink on it; but nothing works. Ink doesn't stick to the paper. The words are invisible. How do you read it?

She looked up at him and, for the first time in his life, he realized that she actually needed to learn something from him.

At last, it is Blake who is the good reader -- but through no merit of his own.

In fact, it seems to be a direct result of sexism! Blake is chosen by Endymion Spring's book because "Endymion Spring was a boy just like you," as Professor Jolyon Fall explains to Blake.

"...Printers' devils were often young apprentices -- boys, even --who worked in the earliest print rooms in Europe in the fifteenth century. They were trainees, learning the art of printing books when it was still considered a Black Art."

"What about girls?" Duck challenged him quickly.

"I'm afraid I don't know of any, said Jolyon good-naturedly.

"You mean Endymion Spring was a boy like me?" piped in Blake with renewed enthusiasm, feeling an instant kinship to that mysterious figure all those hundreds of years ago.

The word "boy" keeps cropping up in this passage, even to be contrasted with "girl," such that, even though Blake muses that he and Endymion are "bonded by age," it is clearly their shared boyhood that makes them kin. If anyone is really like Endymion, it is Duck, whose yellow raincoat resembles Endymion's yellow habit, whose frequent inscrutable silence mirrors Endymion's voicelessness, and whose facility with letters mirrors Endymion's.

In the end, Duck can be smart and resourceful and hard-working, but she is just a girl, and girls can't be the chosen ones, because that's just how it is. Girl apprentices? "I'm afraid I don't know of any."

If writers like Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman have worked to deform and revise the Oxford School paradigm, Skelton is firmly committed to bringing back Tolkien-era values, or maybe even more reactionary ones.

For Skelton, this means fetishizing the book to the point of actually suggesting that the digitization of library collections is a destructive act meant to eradicate libraries. Apparently Skelton believes that access to library collections should be limited to those who have the resources to travel, and either that having all and sundry paw over original manuscripts and first editions would somehow benefit libraries, or that only a select few should be doing research in the first place. He even takes a quiet moment to denigrate email.

It also means putting women in their place; they think they can be scholars, but they can't. Blake's mother, Juliet, is repeatedly vilified for not
spending her working days with her children, even though she is in Oxford to access the Bodleian collections for a limited time. The novel never gives a convincing explanation of why the children are in Oxford with their mother in the first place, instead of at home in Canada with their father, who is unemployed.

Apparently, no matter what a woman's job is, even if she's the sole earner in the family, her failure to engage in childcare all day, every day makes her a bad mother and a bad person. Juliet is also criticized for having too much career ambition, while their dreamy (I repeat: unemployed) father is, as Jolyon explains, the truer and better scholar. Bright, ambitious Duck is similarly put in her place by her lack of penis.

In Skelton's calculus, there's an ineffable something you need in order to be a good scholar, something that doesn't have to do with hard work or intelligence. You have to be the Chosen One, and ain't it funny, the Chosen One is always male.

Endymion Spring thereby reproduces the sexist paradigm of assessing female intellectuals that Gilbert and Gubar identify in The Madwoman in the Attic: real, original intellectual achievement is figured as masculine, "not only inappropriate but actually alien to women" (8). As nineteenth-century critic Rufus Griswold put it,

[t]he most exquisite susceptibility of the spirit, and the capacity to mirror in dazzling variety the effects which circumstances or surrounding minds work upon it, may be accompanied by no power to originate, nor even, in any proper sense, to reproduce. (9)

Female achievement is constructed as constitutively unoriginal.

This is essentially Jolyon's assessment of Juliet:

She was a capable, clever and highly motivated student. [...] I am not sure that she loved books, but she analyzed what was in them very well. Still, without that passion, she was never, I fear, my best student. [...] No, that distinction ... goes to your father. [...] Oh yes, your father had a most remarkable imagination. Not always accurate, mind, but blessed with an insight I have rarely seen.

Juliet's a good worker, but she doesn't have "imagination," Griswold's "power to originate"; only Christopher has it, and that's because he's "blessed."

Unsurprisingly, both Juliet and Duck are believers in the usefulness of email, while only Blake has the testosterone/insight to realize that if, with the help of email, his mother actually gets work done more efficiently, the Apocalypse will ensue.

Also, Skelton offers a tip to husbands: if your wife is in the same town as an ex-boyfriend, she is not to be trusted. You should show up unannounced, claim her as your property, and put an end to the affair that they are doubtlessly having.

After all, as we ultimately learn, if Blake's parents were to divorce, it would be a cosmic catastrophe, since the codex tells Blake that "Should Winter (Blake's father, Christopher Winters) from Summer (Juliet Somers) irrevocably part/ The Whole of the Book will fall quickly apart."

Guess the gender of the villain.

For Skelton, preserving what's interesting and venerable about Oxford means insisting on the primacy of book media to the exclusion of all else (manuscripts rather than print, in fact, since the Gutenberg narrative is really just an excuse for weaving a tale about a unique and powerful codex) and on the inferiority of women. In fact, the intrusion of women into the world of Oxford seems curiously interwoven with the intrusion of electronic media, which is giving me all kinds of Donna Harawayesque thoughts.

My final comment on Endymion Spring is that, stylistically, it is none of the wittiest. The novel is filled with lurid metaphors: "Stacks of oversized hardbacks grew like primitive rock formations." "Little lamps with brass stands and red shades, like toadstools, sprung up at intervals, emitting weak coronas of light." "He held it up to the light, where it immediately absorbed the glow of the fire and turned red like a sunset -- a blood-soaked battlefield." The obligatory cryptic verses scan poorly and the obligatory fake Middle English is unconvincing.

Endymion Spring does some fascinating myth-making around the Faust figure, but Skelton spends so much time tripping over himself to make this the most Oxfordy of Oxford fantasies that he derails his own vision.

I hope to post soon on Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord (2000).


I've used boldface instead of block quotations due to an irritating bug in Blogger. Yes, using boldface for block quotations is hideously ugly. I am starting to turn fond thoughts to Wordpress.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A lengthy email to my students

Subject: A recap of today's class, and a reminder
Date: Tue, November 20, 2007 5:36 pm
To: "[ENGLISH R1A-012 F 07]"

Hello everyone,

Today in class we talked about reading. We noted that some reading is more difficult than others. We noted that reading the words “POTATO CHIPS” on a bag and then finding potato chips inside is not the same kind of activity as reading a novel. We noted that there are different levels of literacy, and that some reading is quite difficult.

We observed that when we run into difficult reading, we resort to different tactics, among them:

-Discussing the reading with friends and classmates

-Attending office hours (it was noted that, in fact, no one in the class has yet come to office hours unless panicking about a paper)

-Doing easier reading online, in the form of summaries, “study guides,” Wikipedia articles, JSTOR articles, etc.

It was, in fact, the last of these that had precipitated my grim mood.

A show of hands revealed that the majority of the class uses online "study guides" to help them understand the reading.

I argued that this was like looking up the answers to your calculus homework in the back of the book instead of doing the problems yourself -- it misses the point of doing the reading, namely that they are supposed to be getting good at parsing what's on a page and making sense of it themselves. In other words, it DEFEATS THE PURPOSE OF TAKING THE CLASS.

What's even worse is that at least the answers to the calculus problems in the back of the book are probably right. With internet sources we have no such guarantee: for one thing, they could be written by some sketchy guy on Telegraph. But even more importantly, reading is not *about* having The Right Answer (TM).

So we talked about some better ways for you to get your questions addressed without resorting to the dubious oracle of St. Google.

Here’s what you came up with:

-Visit my office hours

-Send me emails with questions before class so we can discuss them during class (to have questions or topics discussed in class, email them to me before noon on the day of class)

-Post to a BSpace forum (I have set one up; you should be able to post new topics)

-Meet informally outside of class with friends to discuss readings

-Have me post reading guides beforehand (I will do this)

-Discuss your questions in small groups at the beginning of class (I will ponder this)

-A slower reading schedule was suggested, although it is too late in the semester for us to do this. I will bear it in mind for the next class I teach.

Note that most of these suggestions involve strategies *for you.*

Please take reading seriously. I don’t mean this in a kindergarteny, "reading is fun!" "knowledge is power!" kind of way.

I mean it in this way: our world is largely controlled by text and language, in the form of literary fiction, but also in film, television, news media, advertising, business memoranda, and blogs. Popular entertainment often shapes attitudes and perceptions. Reading well is crucial in an environment dominated by language.

You are in this class to learn how language works and how meaning is constructed. You are being asked to learn something extremely difficult. I assure you that you will not be finished learning it once you complete your R&C requirement. I am here to facilitate that learning.

If you have questions, don’t know what questions to ask, or need help understanding things in the course, CONTACT ME. If you need some kind of instruction that you feel you are not getting, TELL ME. If you desire anonymity, email me from a fake gmail account. I cannot respond to needs that I do not know about.

Thus ends my diatribe.

My regularly scheduled office hours this Wednesday are canceled. You are still welcome to make an appointment with me. Send me an email suggesting a time.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Some notes on recently read children's books

1. Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Sherwood Ring

I read Pope's The Perilous Gard when I was a child. It was a Newbery Honor book, and I liked it a lot, although I don't know how it would hold up to adult re-reading. The Sherwood Ring is entertaining, but not as good, and most of the time Peggy's actions are just an excuse for ghosts to narrate more of their own stories. The sexism in the novel is... very 1958. Appallingly so. At least Pope got the humanities scholar=poverty thing right. She was a humanities scholar herself, and probably knew from experience.

2. Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series

I've read two of the books in this series, and right away I was annoyed by the days-of-the-week conceit. Okay, seven days of the week, seven wacky adventures. This is, of course, no worse than the Harry Potter seven years in school, seven wacky adventures. Still. Seven keys to the kingdom is like six Signs of the Light, and like Will in The Dark Is Rising, Arthur keeps being directed by magic beyond his understanding, which, I am sorry, is irritating.

Nix's cosmology is interesting, filled with pastiche but in a self-aware way. Grim Tuesday reflects slightly (not deeply) on the meaning of pastiche and originality in art. The cosmic and the comic intertwine playfully in this series, which is much different from Sabriel's high seriousness.

Sabriel seemed to be Nix's Oxford School shout-out, deeply tied to land, kingdom, lineage, and law. The Keys to the Kingdom is also in love with the law, but the rightful heir is (thankfully) no longer part of a particular blood line. Arthur is chosen as the rightful heir nearly randomly: asthmatic, he is chosen because he is on the point of dying (or so the chooser thinks). Unlike Sabriel, whose Ancelstierre is clearly a fantastic England, Arthur apparently lives in Australia, slightly in the future (Monday features email; Tuesday has "luminescent e-paper").

I'm always fascinated by Nix's representations of text. In Sabriel, text is lex, an emanation of both reality and law (the two are nearly interchangeable in that series). In The Keys to the Kingdom on the other hand, text is either completely banal, i.e. telegrams, receipts, memoranda, and endless records which are filed and can never be found, or the embodiment of will. Which is to say, there is a legal will, which is a volition in and of itself, and is moreover an actual character in the series.

It's hard to tell the two kinds of text apart; there's a critical moment in Monday in which Arthur and Suzy have to work alone, because a pit of "bibliophages," adders that will annihilate any text-bearing thing, separates him, the Will, and Suzy from Mister Monday's lair. The Will cannot cross because it is, ultimately, just text, "entirely composed of type" (interestingly enough), and in that sense indistinguishable from the label in Arthur's shorts. It also has no real medium and no materiality; in Monday it inhabits the body of a frog, and in Tuesday it takes the form of a woman and a bear. These media are incidental to the actual Will, which can flit about as disembodied type if necessary.

There is, of course, a unique codex, the Compleat Atlas of the House and its Immediate Environs, but in spite of its foreign, hand-written text it resembles nothing so much as Wikipedia, for Arthur always opens it seeking specific answers, and gets them (although, as with Wikipedia, some entries are more helpful than others). The textual world of The Keys to the Kindgom is that of the information age, ephemeral, abundant, both banal and all-controlling.

I need to think more about this approach to text in comparison to that of the Sabriel trilogy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Victorian Domesticity and the Queen of America

In Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), there's a remarkable passage in which an enslaved woman, seemingly out of ignorance, articulates a political vision in which a "Queen of America" subjugates the President of the United States and emancipates the slaves:
Even the most ignorant have some confused notions about it. They knew that I could read; and I was often asked if I had seen any thing in the newspapers about white folks over in the big north, who were trying to get their freedom for them. Some believe that the abolitionists have already made them free, and that it is established by law. One woman begged me to get a newspaper and read it over. She said her husband told her that the black people had sent word to the queen of 'Merica that they were all slaves; that she didn't believe it, and went to Washington city to see the president about it. They quarrelled; she drew her sword upon him, and swore that he should help her to make them all free.
That poor, ignorant woman thought that America was governed by a Queen, to whom the President was subordinate. I wish the President was subordinate to Queen Justice.(44-5)

What does it all mean?

Incidents famously marshals the discourse of domestic fiction (my class played "name that text" this week with quotations from Incidents and Pamela, and it was not easy). But it's also explicitly political, engaging both what Nancy Armstrong calls the "sexual contract" and the social contract. The Queen of America passage is a moment where the two models collide.

Domesticity -- the model of the home as unit, wherein man and woman play complementary roles -- is purportedly the great good in Jacobs's narrative. Jacobs repeatedly denounces slavery for the way in which it destroys both black and white domesticity, writing that
...the husband of a slave has no power to protect her. Moreover, my mistress, like many others, seemed to think that slaves had no right to any family ties of their own; they were created merely to wait upon the family of the mistress. (38)
Slavery disallows black domesticity by tearing apart black families. The black woman is not allowed to be a domestic woman: she can't take care of her own children, keep her own house, or maintain her chastity, while the black man is similarly denied access to domestic masculinity, since he cannot provide for his wife and children, act as their agent in the political and economic world, or protect them from harm. But similarly, slavery destroys the white family, since the master is free to rape his slaves, have children by them, and sell his children, destroying the nuclear husband-wife dyad. Slavery, according to Jacobs, is the enemy of domesticity, and for this reason must be opposed.

But where slavery destroys one kind of family, it constructs itself as another kind of family, a perverted domestic family, what Jacobs sarcastically calls "a beautiful 'patriarchal institution'" (74). Slaveholders repeatedly present the kinship model of slavery as a justification for its continuation, most disturbingly when Dr. Flint, who has spent several chapters seeking to rape Linda (Jacobs's narrator), seeks her acquiescence on the basis that he, filling a paternal role, knows better than she, a mere child. "You know I exact obedience from my own children, and I consider you as yet a child," he tells her (83).

But Jacobs does not introduce the perverse family of slavery merely to contrast it with the virtuous domestic family. For whereas one family, the domestic family, is constructed as "good" and the other, the "patriarchal institution" of slavery, as "bad," both models reproduce the social contract, in which the subjugated members gain protection from the governor to whom they have ceded power.

And in both models, the contract is revealed as a sham, imposed by tradition and force and beneficial to one party at the expense of the other. Just as the well-being of the women and children of the domestic household is guaranteed only by the good will of the father who is their economic and political agent, the well-being of the slave is only guaranteed by the good will of the slave-holder. Should that good will fail, woman, child, and slave are left without recourse; as Jacobs puts it, when her children's biological father repeatedly fails to emancipate them, "I was powerless. There was no protecting arm of the law for me to invoke."

Thus, time and again, attempts to work within the domestic model fail, not only because of slavery (as Jacobs herself sometimes suggests), but also because of the inherent flaw in the social contract.

Linda's grandmother, the ideal domestic woman, finally gains her own home and freedom after being repeatedly cheated by white people. But she never gains the freedom of her children, and, in spite of her moral authority in her community, she never has any legal redress. Even the ideal domestic woman has no ultimate standing.

Similarly, slaves are constantly cheated by their owners, who are supposedly filling a "parental" role, because promises to them never have the force of law behind them.

Even white women are powerless if attached to a father or a husband. Among southern white women, only an orphaned woman (50), a widow (99), and an elderly spinster (11) succeed in giving real aid to slaves by acting as their own economic agents.

In the end, the moral authority and power of the domestic woman has its limits, and at that limit, force and legal redress must replace the dubious promises of a paternalistic system.

But how can an American woman acquire political power? It is sixty years before women can even vote, much less run for political office. In America, there is no figure of female political power; the President of the United States is by definition male.

In the same period, however, there was an important figure of female power: Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.

The parable of the Queen of America, spoken by the most oppressed subaltern, an illiterate female slave, envisions female power legitimized by a crown and enforced by a sword. Running counter to the discourse that glorifies domesticity and its sexual contract, Jacobs suggests that the emancipation of slaves is possible only by a rupture in the sexual contract, in the form of a female seizure of political power.

In that sense, British monarchy ironically becomes a figure of liberation.* Of course, Jacobs was naive to hope that white women would always look out for black women's interests, just as white feminists of the period were naive to hope that their alliance with male abolitionists would be repaid in support for women's suffrage. But as the narrative closes, Jacobs remarks, "my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage" (201) Despite her frequent invocation of the domestic home, the ultimate aim of the marriage plot, Jacobs finally posits freedom as domesticity's alternative.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Enlarged Edition, Ed. and Introd. Jean Fagan Yellin. 1861; Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

*Elisa Tamarkin's article on "black Anglophilia" has more and better things to say to this figure, which is not unique to Jacobs.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Thursday, November 1, 2007

La beauté et la bête

One of my students wants to write about love in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast. It occurred to me that “love” is perhaps the central concept of the film, since the film’s premise is that a prince is under a curse that can only be broken by love.

Ah. But what is “love”?

In the introductory sequence, narrated in voice-over against a visual sequence of pseudo-medieval stained-glass windows, we learn that the prince has turned an old woman seeking shelter away from his door, into the storm. The old woman warns the prince that things are not always what they seem, but he refuses her entry. The old woman then transforms into “a beautiful enchantress,” declares that there is no love in the prince’s heart, and puts the curse on him, turning him into a beast. He must learn to love another, and have "her" love him in return, within ten years, or he will remain Shrek a beast forever.

Thus the question of love -- What is love? How does one acquire it? Or, as the voice-over narrator puts it, “Who could ever learn to love ... A BEAST?” -- is positioned as the central problem of the film.

The old woman is a kind of wise Loathly Lady, but with a difference. She is not the cursed but the curser, and clearly powerful. Her appearance as an elderly woman (coded, of course, as sexually repulsive) is really a subterfuge on her part, and completely under her control. She is never really a poor old woman, and she never really needs shelter from the storm. She shows up, seemingly without motivation, to test the prince, and then to punish him for failing the test.

Why he must take the test in the first place is never questioned by the film. The film seems to suggest that there is a moral lesson embedded in the test; it doesn’t hold up, however. After all, the injunction to see beyond appearances to “the beauty within” only suggests that it’s acceptable to turn elderly mendicants into the cold, so long as you’re sure they aren’t covertly “beautiful enchantresses.” It is beauty, hidden or revealed, that is the condition for receiving humane treatment, not humanity.

The moment of the enchantress’s revelation is at once a revelation that this is a movie about beauty. For the key transformation here seems not to be from powerless to powerful, but from ugly to beautiful – or rather, the transformations are effected simultaneously, but it is only the latter that is effected in reverse on the prince, suggesting that the transformation from ugly to beautiful is a transformation from (sexually) powerless to powerful.

What, in the film, is love? It’s whatever breaks the curse. Magic vets the quality of love.

It is indeed another beautiful woman who will break the spell, who “could learn to love a beast,” reversing the effects of the prince’s failure by passing the test herself.

But we must understand that this is a different test, a sexual test. To prove that he has “love in his heart,” the prince is asked to let an elderly woman in from a storm. Although we are told that the prince turns her away because of her appearance, it is somewhat difficult to see how her appearance really enters into it; we know that the prince has a large castle and a large staff; he need never look at her. The prince’s failure is a failure of charity.

Belle, on the other hand, is asked to make a life-altering (and potentially cross-species) sexual decision. “Love” here is no longer agape (or better, caritas), but eros; the price for male inhumanity must be exacted in female sexual freedom.

The danger with Belle is not that she will fail in charity; this is never even a possibility, since from the beginning we see Belle (madonnalike, clad in virginal blue and white, she ultimately reclaims the rose) positioned as a maternal figure toward her father, towering over him and giving him pep talks about his inventions like a mom praising her kid’s science fair project. Charity is what she does. The danger is that she will make the wrong erotic choice: that she will let beauty determine her object of desire.

(Although we get a long song sequence at the beginning of the movie that establishes Belle’s enormous desire for “much more than this provincial life,” there’s no suggestion that she might, say, move to Paris and take up a career. Her much-trumpeted desires are quickly narrowed to a quasi-moral sexual choice between two competing avatars of masculinity.)

Belle, with the clarity of a Mary facing an annunciation, “chooses” rightly and the Beast is saved. The breaking of the curse tells us that Belle has also found true love, and this is a Good Thing, surely the very thing she longed for when she stood up on that hill and sang about adventure. But the real resolution is that the Beast regains his beauty, the real Beauty of the film’s title.

In an ironic turn, Belle must then stare into his face until she can decide, “It is you!”

The film asks, "What is love?" It answers: That which restores (male) beauty.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dumbledore "is" gay, part the second

In his NYT piece, "Is Dumbledore Gay? Depends on Definitions of 'Is' and 'Gay'," Edward Rothstein opines that even if Dumbledore "is" gay, the books make him asexual, like all proper old wizard dudes.
This is why Dumbledore’s supposed gayness is ultimately as unimportant as Ron’s shabby clothes. These wounded outsiders recognize the nature of evil, and finally that is what matters.
But what does "asexual" mean, when the default is heterosexual? Isn't the wise mentor figure above "sex" because he is above women, who are simply defined as the sexual?

When Merlin "falls," for example, isn't it to female pollution, as opposed to the pure Socratic bond with Arthur? It seems disingenuous to suppose that there is no economy of gender at work in the genre, even surrounding the "asexual" mentor figure (isn't it convenient that they're all men, however "asexual"? and that their mentees are similarly male?). Suppositions of sexuality, or lack thereof, are finally not extricable from the gender values that surround them.

I think that if Rowling is arguing for tolerance, as she claims, then it seems odd that she would create a "homosexual" character with, in fact, no discernible sexuality in the books.

It also seems odd that the sole homosexual encounter of the series (if we take it as such) is tragic (not to mention undertaken with a Hitler figure).

Rothstein takes this to mean that we can ignore Rowling's pronouncement. He seems to breathe a sigh of relief, as gayness is brushed to the side as irrelevant.

I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wallace Stevens. T.S. Eliot. Dana Gioia. I think I see a lineage!

From the NYT, of course (via Silliman, source of the best linkspam around):

I’ve always thought of myself as having two careers, one as a poet and the other as making a living. I figured that since Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot managed to combine business careers and literature, I could do the same.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The child as ideal automaton

Apparently I can only post about children's lit lately, but I swear this comes from a non-children's lit source.

I attended Scott Bukatman's keynote address at the ParaSite New Media Symposium today. The talk, titled "Disobedient Machines: Autonomy and Animation," discussed the tradition of created beings (e.g. the Pygmalion myth). Bukatman, reading Disney’s Pinocchio, noted that interesting automata in film —- the good kind, the kind that really come alive —- always rebel. Their disobedience is a sign of their autonomy, a sign that creation was successful (insert long passage from Paradise Lost here).

Bukatman discussed this in terms of cinema’s creations, specifically the uncanny (but cute) disobedient creatures of animation (which are subsequently schooled, like Pinocchio or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and the sublime disobedient creations of live-action film.

But what struck me was his revelation that many of the 18th century automata (the clockwork mechanical bodies some folks were apparently fond of constructing) were automated children. Bukatman’s talk raised the idea of the child as a kind of disobedient (and therefore successful) creation. As Anne Scott MacLeod and Myra Jehlen have observed, American childhood (boyhood, in their formulations) is seen as constitutively disobedient, and this disobedience and unsophistication (construction as children’s literature) only makes it seem more quintessentially American (the American is the infantile, the unmediated), such that Huckleberry Finn can be pronounced the American novel. The resemblance between Twain’s project of vernacular realism and Disney’s project of simulated photography in films like Pinocchio -— both projects that seek to render the created boy “real” -— is striking, especially given how that realism is figured as specifically American (at least for Twain; I don’t know that much about Disney). I’ll have to think more about this.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Ruby in the Smoke

I read Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke recently.

From the Gosh, I Sure Am Surprised department comes the initial description of Sally Lockhart, the protagonist,
alone, and uncommonly pretty. She was slender and pale, and dressed in mourning, with a black bonnet under which she tucked back a straying twist of blond hair that the wind had teased loose.
. Beautiful? Check. Pale? Check. Slender? Check. Bonus points for blond hair? Indeed! Fortunately, Pullman didn't go all Tamora Pierce on us and actually give Sally purple eyes, but our Waifish Victorian Heroine has a lot more going for her.

As if emerging triumphantly from a secret notebook of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Sally has Connections With The East. The beloved father isn't a dashing Anglo-Indian Army officer, but rather a former dashing Anglo-Indian Army officer turned shipping agent, and he croaks on schedule before the novel begins. Mother is of course also dead (double-plus dead, as it eventually turns out). Sally is left alone in the world with just her wits and her education.

Oh, and her education? Sally's education is explicitly masculine, capitalist, and imperialist.
Mr. Lockhart taught his daughter himself in the evenings and let her do as she pleased during the day. As a result, her knowledge of English literature, French, history, art, and music was nonexistent, but she had a thorough grounding in the principles of military tactics and bookkeeping, a close acquaintance with the affairs of the stock market, and a working knowledge of Hindustani.
I was fascinated by this choice because this is not the average YA protagonist skill set. In the books I've been thinking about recently, including His Dark Materials, protagonists have to acquire specialized humanities training, usually in the form of special reading skills (for instance, Lyra learns to read the alethiometer). In The Ruby in the Smoke, it turns out that the humanities (English literature, French, history, art, and music) are worthless. When reading skills are needed, the best training comes, not from The Golden Bough and the Blue Fairy Book, but from penny dreadfuls -- and it isn't Sally who reads them.
"It was Jim," Rosa explained. "He -- you know these stories he's always reading -- I suppose he thinks like a sensational novelist. He worked it out some time ago."
Of course, as I mentioned above, The Ruby in the Smoke is not fantasy, and I suspect the demand for humanistic knowledge is particular to fantasy as a genre. Sally, for her part, finds happiness in accounting.

The story rests on some charming period standbys like a Chinese woman full of cryptic wisdom; a victim of sexual violence who's turned into a mad, greedy hag; and a double-crossing Eurasian.

Oh, Philip Pullman. Always so partial with the surprises.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

I'd like to learn woman-French, please.

The Guardian has published some excerpts from linguist Deborah Cameron's new book The Myth of Mars and Venus.
The idea that men and women "speak different languages" has itself become a dogma, treated not as a hypothesis to be investigated or as a claim to be adjudicated, but as an unquestioned article of faith. Our faith in it is misplaced.
Cameron cites Mark Liberman's heroic denunciation of the false claims made in Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain. (You can hear Charlotte Perkins Gilman snorting in the background. "The brain is not an organ of sex. As well speak of a female liver.")

Liberman closes the loop by posting on the Guardian's coverage of Cameron's work.

One of the most interesting things that Cameron mentions is that she's noticed a trend in contemporary analysis: all social and political problems are attributed to problems in communication, as if, if we could just talk, everything would be solved. I'm not sure what to make of this yet, but it's an observation that strikes me as plausible. A quality of the information age, I suppose.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ph.D. comics

Piled Higher and Deeper appears to be the grad-student-centric web comic of choice. Unfortunately, PHD is all about engineers. The recent addition of a humanities grad student (Gerard, the medieval Scandinavian philosophy student) only drives home that the author of the comic knows almost nothing about the humanities, and considers disciplines legitimate only insofar as they are quantitative.

On the other hand, there is Dinosaur Comics, which is pure brilliance.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

We Have to Save the World (of Warcraft)

In the New York Times today:

Limbaugh Latest Victim in War of Condemnation

Victims of real war: soldiers and civilians injured or killed in Iraq; displaced and impoverished populations; children permanently traumatized by war.

Victims of metaphorical war: Rush Limbaugh, criticized by Democrats.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Teaching issues: Back Then ™

One problem I keep running into in the classroom is my students' vague sense of history.

In a way, they're not at fault. There is no history prerequisite for my class, and high school history tends to focus on wars and various dudes seizing power rather than the way people lived, worked, ate, or amused themselves.

On the other hand, when my students this semester wrote a paper on "Cinderella," which specifically marks its historical vagueness with "once upon a time" (or in the translation they used, "once"), over half of them wanted to refer to a "back then" with no there there. Back Then™, women had to get married. Back Then™, beauty was really important (unlike, apparently, Today™). Back Then™, the prince had lots of power.

A fairy tale makes itself historically indeterminate: "il était une fois." But because of my students' lack of historical background, the performed indeterminacy of the story was not distinguishable from their own fuzzy grasp of history.

I'm working on ways to counter this. Of course I gave a spiel about the "Since the dawn of time" introductory paragraph and its Badness. Also, my students often use "back then" and "at the time" as markers of historical distance. I am trying to replace these terms with more specific markers, like "among servants in mid-eighteenth-century Britain." Finally, I try to give historical context to the things we read in class.

But it's an uphill battle, when they've been trained in presentism for years. I wonder if there's any pedagogical literature out there on bringing a historical mindset to the classroom.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Hardy and Ramanujan

Gilbert and Gubar open The Madwoman in the Attic provocatively with the question, "Is the pen a metaphorical penis?" Their aim is to show how literary creativity has historically been figured as specifically masculine. It's a nice opening, because it makes you think, "oh, those crazy 70's feminists!" And then they go on to quote male author after male author who makes it clear that he thinks the pen is a metaphorical penis.

I recently ran across an article [.pdf] by Moon Duchin that touches on the same subject, only with respect to the idea of mathematical genius. Moon's language is, of course, much more measured than Gilbert and Gubar's, but it's a fascinating read even sans provocative introductions.

A more substantial difference is the way that Moon addresses mathematical genius in particular. Mathematical genius and any other kind of genius were once pretty much the same (masculine) idea, but mathematical genius has since branched off and become a special creature on its own, due in part, I suspect, to the redistribution of cultural capital that attended industrialization. The article gestures toward some reasons why mathematics as a field has become the location of genius par excellence, which is in itself an interesting question.

One of Moon's examples of the mythologizing of mathematical genius is the biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan (the Wikipedia entry, as of this writing, reproduces many of the features Moon identifies--and his "genius" is brought up in the very first sentence). I didn't know much about Ramanujan before reading Moon's article; I'd always thought of him as "guy whose name is attached to theorems I don't understand."

This week the New York Times has a review of David Leavitt's novel The Indian Clerk, a fictionalized account of the relationship between G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan. I'm almost tempted to read it to see what it does to the genius paradigm. Predictably, the review contains some howlers, to wit:
Class, like mathematics, consists of complex equations that may shift with the substitution of different values for X and Y, but the equations themselves remain rigid and fixed.
I'd be interested to see what, exactly, Leavitt does with class (surely he doesn't evaluate some equations).

I've long been contemplating a "poetry for physicists" syllabus, but I'd never considered using a novel (it would ruin the poetry gimmick, don't you know). I guess The Indian Clerk goes somewhere at the bottom of my reading list.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Lit notes

1. Mark Twain is being produced on Broadway:
Twain returns to Broadway after, ahem, almost a century of death with a “new” play called, oddly enough, “Is He Dead?” A mixture of farce and satire, the comedy centers on a group of artists who plot to drive up the price of a friend’s paintings by faking his demise.
If I'm not mistaken, Shelley Fisher Fishkin unearthed this play from the archive at Cal and had it adapted.

2. Madeleine L'Engle died a few days ago, of natural causes, aged 88.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

New blog, fewer rants about my obnoxious neighbor

The time has come to delete my old blog, which was getting woefully Googleable, and create a new one, a fresh one, a more professional one. You will not find out here what kind of Springer-Verlag Graduate Text in Mathematics I am. You will not hear about my downstairs neighbor's lamentable and unneighborly habits. You will not see pictures of my relatives. On the other hand, I may write some more substantive things about research and pedagogy.

More to come.