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!)