Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Things that resonate...

Things that resonate. Natural History Museum. The bugs remind me of A.S. Byatt. Also, such a proliferation of different shapes and colors, but in our perception, these little guys are all basically the same: six legs, enough antennae to make us nervous. See relevant photos under "Places that Resonate."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Renewing thoughts and in search of Place

Went to a talk tonight by Kate Rigby and thought a lot afterward about Place. Thus the newly added Photo Album, Places that Resonate, to which I will be adding and about which I will be commenting. Go here: Places That Resonate

Monday, September 10, 2007


Long absence as a result of a complete and total lack of interesting thoughts or work-related news. Now I'm reading a Beginning German Textbook as I get ready for bed. Never thought that would be bedtime reading for me. Hopefully my brain will return from its hiatus soon.

Don't give up on me yet!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Space, Place and the Child: More Tuan

Some more notes from Space and Place, specifically Chapter 3: Space, Place & the Child.
“The infant has no world. He cannot distinguish between self and an external environment. He feels, but his sensations are not localized in space.” p. 20
This suggestion smacks of Freud and/or Kristeva’s (check which) theory of the Oceanic stage/feeling. The Oceanic feeling is the earmark of a developmental stage in which the infant feels wholly at one with the mother. This feeling makes it impossible for the infant to see herself as a self within the world/environment, but I’m not at all sure that it means the infant is the world/environment, even from the infant's perspective. There is probably a vacuum of information, a complete unawareness of the world. I suppose it’s a question of how much emphasis you want to put on Freudian psychoanalysis (not much, is my general opinion). In any case, this suggestion of Tuan’s does interact with these particular thoughts of psychoanalysis in an intriguing way.
“The picture of a road leading to a distant cottage seems easy to interpret; yet the road makes full sense only to someone who has walked on it. An immobile infant can have no sense of distance as the expenditure of energy to overcome spatial barriers.” p. 22
Upon reading this, I go back to the notion (of which I am rather fond) of visual vs. spatial (or actual) vs. temporal distance. By temporal distance I mean that distance is mentally measured by the time required to move from A to B. ‘Actual’ distance would be measured by standard means, and visual distance would be ‘measured’ purely by the eye. It seems, taking Tuan’s suggestion into account, that all of these different perceptions of distance have the prerequisite of actually traversing a distance. But must one have traveled – i.e. walked – the very one we’re talking about or another, comparable distance? Is all distance perception comparative?
Thinking about my own (inconsistent) description of distance, I usually rely on temporal means. “It’s about a twenty minute walk.” I also almost always underestimate the actual time necessary. Or, I think comparatively in terms of the driving trips I know best. A trip isn’t far if it isn’t longer than the drive from my hometown to St. Louis. If it’s as long as the drive to Indianapolis, it’s less appealing, but if it’s as short as to Louisville or Nashville, it’s very short indeed. Conversely, if it's as far away as a seven hour plane ride, I'm much more inclined to make the trip.
Opposites are most important to children: empty and full, near and far, inside and outside, home and away.
“Of special interest in these observations is the child’s apparent concern with the remote and the proximate. He points to the horizon and plays with stones at his feet, but he shows little interest in the middle ground.” p. 24
“The geographical horizon of a child expands as he grows, but not necessarily step by step toward the larger scale.” p. 31
This is perhaps symptomatic of children (and people in general) trying to overreach their boundaries. It’s much more interesting to think about far off places than to think about the neighboring county or state. It’s much like my inclination to say “Yes! I’m going to write my dissertation on the 18th century!” without really knowing anything about it. It’s appealing to jump headlong into the unknown, until you get a taste for what it actually is.
Tuan describes the parent as the child’s environment. This description is fascinating on a number of levels. First, Tuan has a fluid understanding of what place is. Geographical locations clearly do not cover all facets of place (or space, for that matter) for Tuan. Place is at times an object, at times a person, at times nonexistent. And then, in looking at infants’ and children’s perception of space, he defines place as a “focus of value, of nurture and support,” which he equates with the function and child’s perception of the mother. This is not controversial, once you have accepted that a person can be a place.
However, it makes me wonder whether a perpetually absent parent or one that is unable to fulfill the needs of the child could negatively impact a child’s ability to attach to places. What about orphans? Their needs are not met by any single person and their homes are not (I imagine) the most comforting or positive spaces. Do they not develop attachments to them? And then there’s the question of whether place has to imply a positive connotation. Could not a negative or emotionally difficult experience turn a space into an emotionally potent place just as much as a positive experience can create place? I guess what I’m wondering is whether place can be negative or whether place itself is invested with solely positive associations.
“The child also learns to associate persons with specific places. He is bewildered when he meets his nursery-school teacher downtown, because she seems to him dislocated; she upsets his system of classification.” p. 30
I would suggest that this remains true for adults. Perhaps our “system of classification” is not thoroughly rattled by seeing someone out of context, but we are certainly bewildered by running into people in, say, an airport or a foreign city. Or, perhaps even moreso, when they show up at our homes to pay an unexpected visit.
Finally, Tuan suggests that children have a desire to be in places that “conform to their own size.” As a rather tall person, I can agree with that. I’d much rather be in a room with a tall ceiling than in a tent.
Other ideas I liked:
“Human beings live on the ground and see trees and houses from the side. The bird’s-eye view is not ours, unless we climb a tall mountain or fly in an airplane.”
p. 27
“We more readily assume a God-like position, looking at the earth from above, than from the perspective of another mortal living on the same level as ourselves.” p. 28
“These highly charged moments from the past are sometimes captured by poets. Like candid snapshots out of the family album their words recall for us a lost innocence and a lost dread, an immediacy of experience that had not yet suffered (or benefited) from the distancing of reflective thought.” p. 20

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Allow me to draw your attention to...

... this: Paul Shepheard.

When you click to enter, definitely click on the ? in the lower left.

Space and Place

I started reading Yi-Fu Tuan's book Space and Place (1977) today, which is something I've been meaning to do for four or five years now. It is proving to be just as satisfying as I had hoped and I really really want to retain what I've read, so I'm going to keep notes on it here.

"The approach is descriptive, aiming more often to suggest than to conclude."
(p. 7.)

I think I've written before about "muscular" scholars. It seems to me that Tuan is familiar with the phenomenon of scholars bashing you so hard over the head with their ideas that you can't properly argue with them (when they have merit), and that he's chosen to not go there. I think his ideas are strong enough that you could bludgeon someone with them, but he's chosen the higher road of writing more simply and subtly and just letting the reader conclude for herself that he's right.

"The ideas 'space' and 'place' require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa." (p.6)

I like this kind of codependence of ideas. It's as if space and place are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. He says at a different point that we long for the freedom of space because we are used to the narrowness of home (place), as if it's the proverbial forbidden fruit we're seeking all the time. On the topic of codependence, all my reading on space/place/landscape is tinted (tainted?) by Jay Appleton's theories. I've made a hobby of using his prospect-refuge theory in as many of my papers as possible and it seems likely that it will play some role in my dissertation. Anyway, I am not at all sure that I would have understood what Tuan meant by the "threat of space" without having read about prospect and refuge and habitat theory, i.e. the importance of being able to see your predators coming and being able to hide from them. It seems (to me, at least) that Appleton hit on something of major importance with that theory.

Tuan describes different kinds of spatial/platial (Larry Buell's word) experience:

  • a longtime resident of a city knows the city
  • a cab driver learns to find his way in the city
  • a geographer studies the city and knows it conceptually
I like the idea that different people have different relationships with cities. I like to imagine the intimate knowledge of a city vertically, like layers of phyllo dough accumulating, but that seems possibly too narrow. The geographer's knowledge of a city may be less intimate than the resident's knowledge of it, but it is perhaps deeper conceptually than even the most seasoned resident's. Perhaps a kind of Venn diagram would be more useful for conceptualizing the types of city-knowledges. (I think I may be [trying to become more] visual in my thought processes. See shoddily drawn Venn diagram to the right.)
You'll note that I added the tourist to my diagram. This is only because I'm slightly troubled by something that Tuan says later on: "Another place may lack the weight of reality because we know it only from the outside--through the eyes as tourists, and from reading about it in a guidebook." (p. 18) As an avid tourist myself, I squirm at this. Some of my travel memories seem more real to me than memories of my hometown, the place that I have lived longest in my life, and memories of college (a place where I was a bit more than a tourist) seem as if I dreamed them - they have no "weight of reality." I think that the tourist has access to a unique experience of a place - perhaps they don't have the depth or intimacy of knowledge that comes with living in a place, but they have access to it from a purely aesthetic perspective, which a longtime resident cannot have, as all the same places are likely tainted with experience. Furthermore, tourists often have a deeper understanding of history and cultural context, as they are slightly more likely than your average citizen to do research on the city in question. I also wonder whether the intensity of a person's experience (however short) could compensate to some degree for the duration of experience, with regard to the depth of knowledge? Doesn't one who is in a city for only a short time (say a month or two), try harder to get to know the city than some residents who know their corner of town extremely well, without bothering about other districts?

Some odds and ends from the text so far:

Tuan suggests that emotional range corresponds directly to potential intellectual capacity:

"The emotional repertoire of a clam is very restricted compared with that of a puppy; and the affective life of the chimpanzee seems almost as varied and intense as that of a human being. A human infant is distinguished from other mammalian young both by his helplessness and by his fearsome tantrums. The infant's emotional range, from smile to tantrum, hints at his potential intellectual reach." (pp.9-10)

He mentions a theory of Susanne Langer's (to-do: Susanne Langer's Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling.), that odors of decay act as memento mori for adult human beings.

He describes place as a physical object, albeit one that can't be picked up and carried around (p. 12) and neighborhoods as geometric shapes, claiming that it takes time to learn a neighborhood, just as it takes time to learn a geometric shape (pp. 17-18), as in the case of Cheselden's newly-sighted man.

More to come later.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Open Archives

It looks as if Sebald's papers are open now (they probably have been for a while, but I'm unsure of how to inform myself about these things). I found a book the other day while poking around at Dussmann that was meant to be published for Sebald's (would have been) 60th birthday. It's a collection of primary sources, commentary on the primary stuff, and readings of his texts, some critical, some personal.

The editors claim that the book is committed to both the author (and his texts) and to critical treatment of the texts. This is, I suppose, the sort of work that I would ideally do. I'm always worried about critical readings sucking the enjoyment out of reading the texts I would deal with. This is especially worrisome in the case of Sebald, whose books I love so so much.

All I've read so far is Sebald's (short) correspondence with Adorno (1967-68) and the beginning of the commentary on it (I'm woefully slow at reading academic German). It's pretty remarkable, actually. He wrote to Adorno with a question about Carl Sternheim when he (Sebald) was working on his Masters thesis (at some ridiculously young age, for a German student). Adorno responded and Sebald eventually wrote him again asking for a recommendation. It should be noted that they never met.

Anyway, I'm in awe of the ballsy young Sebald asking Adorno for help getting into a Ph.D. program.

The commentary on the letters, though, is a little troubling. I know pitifully little about Sebald, actually (to-do: read a good biography and much much more secondary work on him), but I find the rather biographical approach of the editors a little disconcerting. They cross reference the (very little) biographical information included in Sebald's letters to Adorno with the (very little) biographical information included about the title character in "Max Aurach" (Die Ausgewanderten, 1992), as if trying to prove from those few details that Max Aurach is an autobiographical character. While I don't wholly believe that the author is dead, I don't think that it is always the most significant facet to focus on in interpreting a text. Furthermore, I definitely don't think that you can use the biographical details included in a fictional work to expand our knowledge of the author's biography, which may be a slightly radical description of what the editors were trying to do, but it is the unsettling impression I got.

Anyway, it is interesting to have a bit more insight into Sebald and these primary sources are quite thought-provoking.

Also to-do: I want to learn a bit about Carl Sternheim, as a means of understanding a bit more what they're talking about in these letters and commentary.

I'm feeling yet again the difficulty of having a fairly shallow/narrow grasp on German literature. Yes, I know all about the Holocaust in contemporary German lit, but I don't know about Carl Sternheim, so that part of Sebald is still off limits to me, even if I do have a little insight into Austerlitz.

Monday, June 11, 2007


  • Spengler: Untergang des Abendlandes
  • A good history of Romania
  • Dos Passos: Manhattan Transfer
  • Slavoj Žižek: Looking Awry
  • Goodfellas
  • Works by Kate Rigby
  • Familiarize myself with Gernot Böhme (landscape theorist)
  • Familiarize myself with Tadeusz Bobrowski
  • Peck: Being Jewish in the New Germany
  • Laszlo Krasznahorkai: Krieg und Krieg
  • Laszlo Krasznahorkai: Im Norden ein Berg, im Süden ein See, im Westen Wege, im Osten ein Fluss
  • works by Michel de Montaigne
  • Will Waters: Poetry's Touch
  • Elkins: The Object Stares Back

The Wider World

"More than fifty years have passed since I first consulted a Baedeker, and I still look upon almost any guidebook as a book of revelations; I feel a bond with every tourist I see reading the pages of fine print and condensed prose in an effort to interpret the surrounding world. There are obnoxious tourists just as there are obnoxious children, but there is a strong element of snobbery, it seems to me, in our criticism of tourist groups, the condescension of those who belong -- who are at home -- to those who are strangers without recognizable status. Yet we are all of us strangers, tourists at one time or another, and from our own experience we should recognize the individual impulse for self-improvement that is back of so much tourist travel. At the risk of exaggerating, I would say that the inspiration of tourism is a desire to know more abut the world in order to know more about ourselves. If we offend public taste, that is only incidental to our search; the Swiss cuckoo clock, the bumper-sticker from Carlsbad Caverns is a type of diploma -- proof that we have at least tried to improve." J.B. Jackson - The Necessity for Ruins, p. 3.

It seems to be a good exercise for me to shed my usual snobbery, as Jackson calls it, and become a tourist from time to time. I often scoff at the tourists wandering through my Yard, taking pictures and walking slowly down the paths that I generally rush down. So, it may be healthy to feel as if I have all the time in the world and perhaps get in a few locals' way for a while. And this summer, in Berlin, I'm feeling more deeply foreign than I have for a while. Recently I've traveled mostly to other places whose language is, at least, my own. While German is familiar to me, it is still removed a bit from my daily life. And the last time I returned to Germany after a protracted absence, it was to a familiar city, one I feel is as much my home as the city I live in usually. But this time, both language and city are relatively foreign. And so I am more foreign than I have felt in a long time.

The neighborhood I am living in is filled with immigrants and expats and there is at least one other English speaker living in my building (unless this particular Thompson is German). Only a few days back in this country and I'm feeling the familiar contradictory urges to both meet the "natives" and to find other wanderers with whom to speak English and to talk about familiar things. It's almost as if, when I come to this country, I can more easily appreciate my home - as if it's easier to enjoy it in an almost nostalgic light.

I'm trying to work my way into a new city this summer and trying to rejuvenate some small part of myself, intellectual and personal, that seems to have shrivelled a bit in the last two years. I've tacked a map up on the wall, to trace my wanderings, and have begun a new journal and various creative efforts and intend to dig deep for the next few weeks, at least.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Crossed Wires

Whenever I try to write Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I write Marcel Merleau-Ponty. Why is that?

Friday, May 18, 2007

The side-effects of education

If I hadn't gone to my particular small liberal arts college of choice, I wouldn't have met these fabulous women.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Anyone who knows me knows that I find Freud deeply distasteful. I don't like what he says and I don't really like him. This has the effect of compounding my frustration when doing any kind of character analysis. I think I'm pretty good at character analyses, but I realize (and am frustrated by) the fact that everything I do as far as analyzing is based in Freud-style psychoanalysis.

Maybe this is why I've become obsessed with spatial stuff? (Not that that's entirely free of psychoanalysis either...)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Lacan in the morning

“For example, a certain society might decide to make a certain activity, quality or distinguishing mark a characteristic of man or of woman, that is, a difference according to which men and women should be recognized. There will always be one woman, not incidentally lacking in supporters, to show that this difference is no difference: for instance, a woman learned in Greek, in a society which restricts the study of this language to young boys, as was indeed the case during the Renaissance. But the point of this effective demonstration is always missed, for instead of admitting that being a woman is no handicap for learning Greek – which after all has no need of demonstration – it is concluded that because she is learned in Greek, she must be a man.”

(From Lacan: "Feminine Sexuality in Psychoanalytic Doctrine," 1975, p. 125)

Saturday, May 5, 2007

On the creativity of Yiddish

From Max Weinreich's book, History of the Yiddish Language (translated from the Yiddish by Schlomo Noble, University of Chicago Press, 1973):
“Any Jewish community could partake of honey on the eve of the New Year to portend a sweet year. A similar custom could be found also among non-Jews. But the consumption on Rosh Hashanah of carrots (mern) in allusion to the verb zikh mern (to increase) and its combination with a prayer to the effect that “may our merits increase”—this could only be an invention of Ashkenazic Jews. Kol mevaser (a voice proclaiming) is recited by Jews on Hoshana Rabbah everywhere, but only speakers of western Yiddish have the custom of eating cabbage soup on that day in allusion to the German Kohl mit Wasser (cabbage and water). In a township near Rovna, Volhynia, water carriers used to celebrate on the Sabbath of the weekly lection of Emor (speak) in allusion to the emer (bucket, in Yiddish).” (p.5)
This makes me wonder if the creative and clever traditions that arise out of homophones (or near-homophones) are more effective or appealing when they have to do with food. Also, I think it's wonderful that Yiddish pronunciation is just far enough from the German that mehren and Möhren become the same, and that mevaser is just close enough that someone probably chuckled and said, "wouldn't it be funny if..." and then it became a tradition.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Nervous Conditions

Any energy that I had been saving up for extracurricular academizing has now been reassigned to the task of doing my end-of-semester work/keeping me from failing out of school. Random thoughts on those projects may be posted here occasionally, but are unlikely to be fleshy and/or interesting.

In other words, I'll be back full-force in a few weeks.

Until then, I leave you with a to-do list:

  1. For The Five Senses in the 18th Century: Annotated Bibliography on Sensory Perception of Space and Landscape. (hopefully by 5/18)
  2. For The History of the German Language: A paper on Yiddish. (by 5/18.) And an exam. (ugh.)
  3. For German Poetry: A paper on something having to do with Nature. And an exam (ugh.)
  4. For Gender Theory and Narrative Fiction (from last semester): A paper on Jelinek's Die Klavierspielerin. (ASAP)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Trying out...

... Library Thing, after a long discussion in class yesterday about the merits of social networking sites and the potential uses of Library Thing in doing this annotated bibliographpy project. In any case, my user name is eejones. Link on the lower left.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The beginning of something beautiful...

This week I've begun work on one of my final projects for the semester: an annotated bibliography. At first, I was unsure what the use of this project would be, but then I realized that I do know at least a part of what my dissertation will eventually be about. I don't know which direction I'll take it in, but I do know that my interest in spatial and landscape theory will certainly be involved somehow.

Sooo, I've taken the assignment and run with it, treating it as a preliminary bibliography for the theoretical framework I hope to work in. All in all, it's very exciting. My professor suggested that we have between 40 and 50 works involved and while I sat down to come up with some initial ideas, I made a list of 40 works. Now, they won't all be interesting or useful, but it is encouraging that I was able to compile such a list, however preliminary.

In other news, I've been clicking around on ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online), at first looking for particular essays by Francis Bacon, then just to see what I could see. I came across a number of fun things.
  • A Francis Bacon essay on travel (not what I was looking for, but fun nonetheless), in which he wrote, "Travel in the younger sort is a part of education; in the elder a part of experience. He that travelleth into a country, before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel."
  • The Artist's Repository and Drawing Magazine exhibiting the Principles of the Polite Arts in their various Branches, which has essays on perspective and the use of various elements in painting (or drawing) and includes a bunch of example drawings. Most charmingly, at the end of the book is a sheet of instructions "To the Binder" describing where the illustrations are to be inserted into the text.
  • The Philosophical History and Memoirs of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris, which has a number of fascinating articles, including: "Of a bottle of water kept for a great many years," "Of a storm of hail of an extraordinary size," "Of the effect of vinegar on some stones," "Of a puppy, which had only one eye in the middle of his face," "A description of the heart of a sea-tortoise."

In reading these accounts, it's easy to feel superior and condescending to their interest in seemingly insignificant things, but then I realize this was in 1742, relatively early in the age of science and these (in many cases) amateur scientists were laying the groundwork for everything we know now, starting more or less from scratch. Then I feel a bit humble. For all their quaintness, these essays were right at the beginning.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Weekly To-Read

Trojanow: Der Weltensammler
Kehlmann: Die Vermessung der Welt
Guthke: Die Erfindung der Welt
Alexander von Humboldt: Amerikanische Reise
Brydone: A Tour Through Sicily and Malta
Oken: Grundriss der Naturphilosophie

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Where do we draw the line between literary/poetic texts and philosophical/scientific texts?
Is the difference between fiction and philosophy that one "beckons" us to read it as fiction and one "beckons" us to read it as philosophy? But where does fictional autobiography or fictional journaling passed off as reality fit into that definition? For instance, is James Frey's book a novel just because it turns out that some of the passages didn't actually come from his experience? Or is it nonfiction because that's how it wants to be read?

My professor (of the aforementioned literary studies discussion) said yesterday that willful misunderstanding is our business. I don't really know what that means, except that it seems a coy little definition of what we do. (According to the Russian Formalists, incidentally, "The literariness or artfulness of a work of literature, that which makes it an aesthetic object, resides entirely in its devices, which should also form the sole object of literary studies." Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism: "Russian Formalism.")

In my classes here, there has been a lot of talk about estrangement without a very clear definition of that concept or an etymology of its development.

According to Wikipedia, it comes from Russian Formalism -- Eichenbaum, Jakobsen, Schklovsky and co. Shklovsky apparently came up with the idea of ostraneniye - defamiliarization or, more literally, estrangement, meaning "one of the crucial ways in which literary language distinguishes itself from ordinary, communicative language, and is a feature of how art in general works, namely by presenting the world in a strange and new way that allows us to see things differently." (my emphasis)

Using the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism as my guide, I compiled the following thoughts: The Russian Formalists suggested that familiar things that we may take for granted be modified with the goal of making them novel and unfamiliar again. This is the goal of all literary devices. Additionally, this should have the effect of slowing the reader and drawing her attention to the form of the work and its devices.

(I did have much richer material collected from the JHU guide, but became paranoid about copyright law.)

Phenomenology of Reading is another phrase that's been tossed around a lot lately and about which I've been too embarassed to ask.

After careful consultation with the OED and Wikipedia, what I've gathered about phenomenology is that it has several sources:
  1. Hegel: phenomenology is an approach to philosophy that begins with an exploration of phenomena (what presents itself to us in conscious experience) as a means to finally grasp the absolute, logical, ontological and metaphysical Spirit that is behind phenomena.
  2. Husserl: phenomenology is an approach to philosophy that takes the intuitive experience of phenomena (what presents itself to us in phenomenological reflexion) as its starting point and tries to extract from it the essential features of experiences and the essence of what we experience.
  3. Heidegger: the phenomenological vision of a world of beings must be bypassed toward the apprehension of the Being behind all beings, that is, as an introduction to ontology, albeit an ontology that remains critical of metaphysics.
Unrelatedly, in reference to the essay on Goethe's "Willkommen und Abschied" by David Wellbery we read for one of my classes, the words "muscular" and "powerful" were used to describe his reading of the poem, meaning that his argument seems implausible on some levels, but that it's so convincingly and confidently crafted that you can almost not argue with it. There seems to be implicit in this a glorification of "Burly Scholars." I guess another instance of a "muscular" reading would be Freud's reading of "Der Sandmann." He was cocky enough about his reading and formulated it so convincingly that no one has been able to read "Der Sandmann" since Freud without thinking about the Uncanny. I can't decide if this kind of forceful criticism is a good thing or not. We say there are thousands of plausible readings for any work, so should we want these excessively burly readers to make it difficult for us to find our own readings? They are usually pretty good, though. There's no denying it.


Collected titles from the last ten days or so:

Zahavi & Zahavi: The Handicap Principle
Montesquieu: Persian Letters
Oliver Sacks: "To See and Not to See"
H.G. Wells: "In the Land of the Blind"
Johnson: The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason
Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology of Perception
Oken: Grundriss der Naturphilosophie
Dorrit Cohn: Transparent Minds

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What we do.

In a recent workshop on "The Discipline of Literary Studies," a professor of mine discussed with a group of us just exactly what it is that we do, why we do it, and how it ought to (not) be justified.

This (unfortunately only visiting-) professor had a number of insights about the state of and nature of our field. A few of the more compelling ones are:

He told us that a recent trend he's noticed in young literary scholars fresh out of graduate school (applying for jobs) is their attempt at distancing themselves from moral questions and, perhaps correspondingly, a renewed interest in earlier periods (the 18th century and earlier), whereas in previous years there had been a heavy emphasis on the 20th century. I believe this holds somewhat true in my department... there is a pretty heavy concentration of interest in the 18th and 19th centuries, but probably equally many people are studying the 20th, even late 20th century.

The most important things to come out of Germanistik in the last century are:

  1. The Frankfurt School
  2. System Theory (to a lesser degree)
  3. Holocaust/Memory Studies

He also believes that it is of singular importance that the different disciplines preserve the integrity of their theoretical framework and not venture too far into interdisciplinarity.

Instead of handwringing about the fate of our discipline, he suggests that discussion can produce "productive friction." Projecting our troubles onto other agencies undermines our autonomy as a social unit.

A groundbreaking field that will greatly impact literary studies in the future: neurobiology and neuropsychology. He likens cognitive science and neurobiology to the new psychoanalysis.

Without trying to summarize or synthesize the entire conversation, which went on for almost two hours and had no real conclusion, I'd like to make the following observations.
  1. I haven't discussed the nature and fate of our discipline in such detail with anyone. Ever.
  2. I haven't heard professors (or fellow students, often) discuss our field in such big-picture, sweeping terms.

I worry a great deal about the motivation of studying literature and whether or not I'm actually going to be making any kind of positive difference in the world with my work. I believe very strongly in the capability of ordinary people to make changes in the world and I worry fairly often that by climbing the Ivory Tower to read for a living I've taken myself out of any kind of useful position. Is this not something that other people think about? Am I the only scholar of my generation worrying about this? Surely not, but it's certainly not something we discuss very often.

This talk clearly touched a couple of people's nerves, in clearly different ways. One bristled visibly at our discussion of moralizing scholarship dealing with the Holocaust (a.k.a. "the period between 1939 and 1945") and one seemed to see the moral tack as one possible way of justifying our field. I don't know where I stand on the moral question. I want to immediately say that yes, I do believe that scholarship ought to distance itself from a moral standpoint and that yes, I do write critical works without bringing morals into it, but then again, I think I may be drawn to study the things I study specifically because of their moral weight and thrust.

And why don't our professors and advisors talk about this? Presumably because they've settled their own worries (if they ever had them). The professor leading this workshop said that we don't have to have a world-saving, life-saving motivation to justify our discipline. We can study for the sake of study. And, furthermore, we can study something just because we find it interesting. "And if it doesn't interest you, I can't do anything for you." So much for my critique of the word interesting, I suppose.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tracks and Bones

From Sebald's Austerlitz:

"Geradeso wie die Lebendigen ziehen die Toten, wenn es ihnen zu eng wird, nach draußen in eine weniger dicht besiedelte Gegend, wo sie in gehörigem Abstand voneinander ihre Ruhe finden können. Aber es kommen ja immer neue nach, in unendlicher Folge, zu deren Unterbringung zuletzt, wenn alles belegt ist, Gräber durch Gräber gegraben werden, bis auf dem ganzen Acker die Gebeine kreuz und quer durcheinander lieben. Dort, wo einmal die Bestattungs- und Bleichfelder waren, auf dem Areal der 1865 erbauten Broadstreet Station, kamen 1984 bei den im Zuge der Abbrucharbeiten vorgenommenen Ausgrabungen unter einem Taxistand über vierhundert Skelette zutage. Ich bin damals des öfteren dort gewesen, sagte Austerlitz, teilweise wegen meiner baugeschichtlichen Interessen, teilweise auch aus anderen, mir unverständlichen Gründen, und habe photographische Aufnahmen gemacht von den Überresten der Toten, und ich entsinne mich, wie einer der Archäologen, mit dem ich ins Gespräch gekommen bin, mir gesagt hat, daß in jedem Kubikmeter Abraum, den man aus dieser Grube entfernte, die Gerippe von durchschnittlich acht Menschen gefunden worden sind." (Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz. Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 2003. p. 192)

From City Secrets: London

"The area behind St. Pancras Station is rich in atmosphere and history, if in little else. It used to be called Battle Bridte, this being where the recalcitrant Queen Boudicca led the Iceni to their doom against Caesar's legions. Legend has her buried beneath Platform Seven of St. Pancras."

"Wander up Pancras Road, past the car-washes and bakeries that occupy the vast arches beneath the track and you'll find St. Pancras Old Church, allegedly one of London's most ancient holy sites, and named after a fourth-century martyr. The mediaeval church was restored beyond salvation by Victorian do-gooders, but its churchyard, its garden freshly planted, is a treasure. Forging the Midland line required levelling the old, tightly packed burial ground, and a scandal arose when early passenges espied bones and skulls poking from the trackside. The young Thomas Hardy helped relocate the remains and gravestones, many of which are swirled and stacked around the churchyards London planes, and later wrote about it:

We late lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am.'

Somewhere below, along with the uncharted dead, lies the buried Fleet River, whose passage from Hampstead to the Thames is now contained entirely in an iron pipe. Of the "spa and wells" of old St. Pancras, there is no sign."
(Adams, Tim, ed. City Secrets: London. New York: The Little Bookroom, 2001. pp. 100-101.)

Cities are, by their very nature, layered places. Is it a particular characteristic of train stations, though, to be especially brutal in churning up and paving over the layers of the past? Is it coincidence that train stations were both brought into the context of the displaced dead in both of these very different works? Of course, what to do with the dead is a persistent problem of modernizing and expanding cities. (Only tangentially related: The New York Times recently ran a story about Colma, CA, "a Town of 2.2 Square Miles, Most of It 6 Feet Deep," which was founded as a necropolis for neighboring cities, whose graveyards were all full up.)

What interests me, though, is the deliberate allusion in Sebald to the skeletons under Broadstreet Station. Though train stations and their surroundings are frequently employed as highly symbolic liminal spaces throughout the novel, this one instance is particularly poignant. The novel deals largely with exile, but no other passage about displacement speaks so directly to the hopelessness of the exile's wish of finding a place.

Another strange consonance between my snooty travel guide and Sebald's novel:

"At least Norman Foster's 1989 plan to flatten the graceful curve of the Great Northern Hotel remains scuppered." (City Secrets: London, p. 100)

"[Austerlitz] habe den Nachmittag, sagte er, damit verbracht, sich in dem Great Eastern [Hotel], das nächstens von Grund auf renoviert werden solle, ein wenig umzusehen, hauptsächlich in dem Freimaurertempel, der um die Jahrhundertwende von den Direktoren der Eisenbahngesellschaft in das damals gerade erst fertiggestellte und auf das luxuriöseste ausgestattete Hotel hineingebaut worden ist." (Austerlitz: p. 65)

He proceeds to describe (over several pages) the Masonic Temple itself and the (many layers of) labyrinthine cellars of the Great Eastern Hotel (which stands near Liverpool Street Station) where food is stored and prepared (ein kleines Totenreich für sich - p. 67).

It's not a new revelation that Sebald is interested in layers (his narrative itself is structured in layers and layers of heresay, which call the reliability of the entire narrative into question), train stations (Austerlitz is named after one, for heaven's sake), and architecture (the novel contains more than a little architectural history, clearly), but it seems that there is a good paper (book) to be written about these themes. And how interesting that other people (like the dear writer in my snooty guide, and good old Thomas Hardy) are also interested in graveyards being buried under train tracks.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Daily to-read, to-research list

Looking today at Hölderlin's "Hälfte des Lebens" and especially at the manuscript from which it presumably (organically?) emerged and thinking about the grand struggle between nature and the "Man-Made," especially in "Heidelberg," a hopeful paper topic began to take root:

Could I not look at Goethe's "Im Herbst 1775," Hölderlin's "Hälfte des Lebens," and Rilke's "Herbsttag" together? Goethe's text is an apostrophe, urging the grapes to ripen and plump before frost falls, Hölderlin's shows fat pears dipping from their trees and the world settling rather suddenly into winter, and Rilke's conjures up the specter of winter's solitude descending on the poet. They all show the world at it's tipping point and both feature elements of nature at their center (Rilke somewhat more tangentially: he, too, has grapes that need ripening and their cultivation is only accompanied by the trees' fallen leaves blowing through the streets. Natural imagery is much more prominent in both of the other poems, but is that indicative of the time in which the poets were working? Is there a trajectory away from nature and toward a more anthropocentric understanding of the world?)

Another tack: Look at Hölderlin, Rilke, and Klopstock (Klopstock!) with regards to syntax. I know for a fact that Hölderlin and Rilke both use convoluted syntax to create an uneasy, breathless tone (that's the Hölderlinton, no?) and I believe that Klopstock does as well ("Frühlingsfeier?"). How does the syntax function in the poems? How innovative were each of them with their syntax at the time?

Non sequitur: an old gripe inherited from an even older advisor. The word "interesting" doesn't mean anything. Stop using it.

Daily to-read/research list:

  • look up Mallarmé and the French symbolists
  • learn Greek

On sight and the division of the senses: From Cheselden's account of the boy whose vision was restored and from Berkeley's new theory of vision

" I will relate; Having often forgot which was the Cat, and which the Dog, he was asham'd to ask; but catching the Cat (which he knew by feeling) he was observ'd to look at her stedfastly, and then setting her down, said So Puss ! I shall know you another Time. " (William Cheselden)

"It is thought a great absurdity to imagine that one and the same thing should have any more than one extension, and one figure. But the extension and figure of a body, being let into the mind two ways, and that indifferently either by sight or touch, it seems to follow that we see the same extension and the same figure which we feel." (George Berkeley)

It seems to me to be obvious that the senses work hand-in-hand, that they interact and that they depend on one another. But now I learn that from Aristotle through the 1940s or so, it was most usual to ponder the senses as independent of one another and to theorize them as separate entities. It is as strange to me to think of the synthesis of the senses as an "absurdity" as it is to think about the senses' ability to compensate for one another... for example, hearing or touch for sight.


I used to always start my journal entries with the same line, "This page is my vessel," followed by some sentiment of honesty and completeness. I don't plan this space to be used as such a confessional catch-all, but rather as a musing space and a venue to track my thoughts as they progress toward some sort of culmination, some original thought that merits being put to paper. Many, if not most of my thoughts, will be related to my academic work, but some may bleed into more creative and personal areas. Be warned, nothing that will follow will necessarily be polished, well-formed, or edited to any degree.

Finally, credit where credit is due: I have unashamedly stolen the idea to create this blog from, whom I do not know, and who does not know me, but whose blog I've been reading for a year or so now. (Though our fields are not the same, I think the results of such a format may be fruitful. Thanks for the idea!)