overton

“Introducing the New Materialisms”
Diana Coole and Samantha Frost

Summary
Coole and Frost illustrate how recent changes in the sciences and our understanding of matter have prompted a movement towards materialism as constructivism becomes ill-equipped to confront the changing landscape of our material environment. They explore how new forms of materialism are leading to increasingly posthuman approaches to the world in social, political, and economic spheres.

Key terms
Posthumanism | Complexity Theory | Constructivism | Ontology | Transformation

Posthumanism: The decentering of humanity as a focus and a goal. Posthumanism promotes an understanding of all bodies as agentic—animals and certain machines in addition to humans.

Complexity Theory: The study of dynamic, complex, and often unstable, systems. Complexity theory, coupled with materialism, argues that material processes cannot be isolated from the environment they inhabit.

Constructivism: The view that the processes at work in our lives are shaped and created by social, political, and economic forces. Constructivism promotes an understanding of humans as agentic actors in a non-agentic material world, and places humans at the center of inquiry.

Passage Paraphrase

Since, moreover, determination within dynamic systems is nonlinear, terminal effects cannot be construed as possibilities that were already latent in some initial moment. (14)

Materialism posits a complex system of agentic relationships among living and nonliving things, such that any outcome cannot be conceptualized as the logical end result of certain properties within the system, as these properties are constantly being transformed. (This moves us away from linear understandings of causality.)

Discussion Questions

  1. How is new materialism similar to new historicism in terms of its approach to literature?
  2. New materialism seems particularly efficacious for the investigation of large systems, such as global capitalism, but in what ways might it limit the study of smaller structures within a system, such as individual texts?
  3. How might new materialism inform Moretti’s quantitative approach to literary history, particularly regarding areas of fluctuation that cannot be accounted for by political or technological movements?

Links

New Materialisms Workshop by Phoebe V. Moore | https://phoebevmoore.wordpress.com/2016/03/14/new-materialisms-workshop/

Agency and Alterity in New Materialist Philosophy | http://newmaterialisms.blogspot.com/2015/01/agency-and-alterity-in-new-materialist.html

 

“Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”
Bruno Latour

Summary
Latour argues against the continued use of critique in both popular culture and in academia, as he feels that is has become a tool for destruction and the creation of prejudices rather than a means to discover or enhance facts. Latour proposes cultivation and assemblage as an alternative to critique, which he argues will create an open, dialogic space where generative understanding can occur.

Key terms
Instant Revisionism | Antifetishism/Fairy Position | Iconoclasm | Matters of Concern | Gathering

Instant Revisionism: The immediate and often improper critique of events before they are allowed to crystallize—critique without context. Latour argues that contemporary use of critique has led to a culture of instant revisionism and the proliferation of conspiracy theories.

Antifetishism/Fairy Position: The argument that our behaviours towards objects result from forces beyond our control, and that the powers we attribute to objects are in actuality projections of our own motives and feelings. Latour notes that this critical approach is appealing because it allows the critic to always be in the “right.” He also argues that one of the failings of contemporary critique is that it permits critics to apply this mode of thinking to those issues they disagree with, while simultaneously allowing them to maintain a positivist stance towards other issues.

Iconoclasm: The attack/rejection of established values. Latour argues that contemporary critique has become iconoclastic as it seeks to dismantle facts before they have a chance to solidify, or otherwise “lift the veil” on issues and events.

Passage Paraphrase

Matters of fact are only very partial and, I would argue, very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern and only a subset of what could also be called states of affairs. (232)

What we view as matters of fact are actually filtered versions of heavily contextualized issues. (Latour argues that this is, in part, the problem with critique, as it has been aiming at the wrong target all along.)

Discussion Questions

  1. Latour argues for an approach that promotes the care and cultivation of issues and the creation of dialogic spaces. Where does this leave the literature student? Do they simply become archivists? Is Latour arguing that the appropriate means of approaching a particular matter of concern will eventually arise from this dialogic space?
  2. How do we practically enact the “gathering” approach that Latour promotes—how would this be realised in the form of an academic article, etc?

Links

Bruno Latour’s Question: Are There Things We Shouldn’t Deconstruct? by Santi Tafarella | https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/bruno-latours-question-are-there-things-we-shouldnt-deconstruct/

Critical Theories and Conspiracy Theories by Joel D. Harrison | https://fluxofthought.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/critical-theories-and-conspiracy-theories/

 

“Abstract Models for Literary History”
from Graphs, Maps, and Trees
Franco Moretti

Summary
Moretti utilises quantitative data to investigate the collective system of literary works throughout history. He examines fluctuations in the “life” of the novel and explores how these relate to technological advances and political events. Moretti also illustrates how recurring cycles in literary history are linked to the birth and death of genres.

Key terms
Generalist and Specialist Readers | Cycles | Oscillation | Short Span | Longue Durée

Generalist and Specialist Readers: Moretti defines generalist readers as individuals who would read any type of book; they were the main market for novels prior to technological and economic changes that allowed for a greater number of books to be produced and consumed. The growth of the market led to a wider variety of novels, the creation of genres, and the rise of specialised readers who had an interest in specific genres. Moretti links specialised readers to the “rise and fall” of certain genres throughout literary history, as a genre cannot be sustained without the existence of these readers.

Cycles: Shorter, repeating patterns that occur within a long span of time (Longue Durée); for example, the rises and falls of the historical genre throughout the 19th century. Moretti argues that many of the significant events we celebrate and document in literary history (e.g. the rise of women writers in a given century) are, in actuality, simply one instance of a cyclical pattern recurring through time.

Oscillation: The repetition of cycles throughout history. Moretti is interested in the frequency at which literary trends, such as genres, oscillate and the factors that seem to drive this oscillation.

Passage Paraphrase

What graphs make us see, in other words, are the constraints and the inertia of the literary field—the limits of the imaginable. They, too, are part of history. (80, 82)

Graphs allow us to see not only how external forces, such as technology and politics, influence literature, but also how the field acts as an independent discipline. (Moretti speaks here of those patterns that cannot be explained by outside factors and seem to result from the field itself, and in turn might impact other disciplines.)

Discussion Questions

  1. Much of Moretti’s work focuses on the past. How (or can) we apply his approach to literary studies to contemporary works, and is there any productive predictive power to be had in the strategies he employs?
  2. Where might Oscar Wao fit in terms of the larger historical literary structure? What does this approach to the text lend to our overall understanding of Díaz’s work?

Links

Book Notes: Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees by Timothy Burke |
https://blogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/blog/2006/01/13/book-notes-franco-moretti-graphs-maps-trees/

An Attempt to Discover the Laws of Literature by Joshua Rothman | http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/an-attempt-to-discover-the-laws-of-literature

 

“Resonance and Wonder”
Stephen Greenblatt

Summary
Greenblatt defines new historicism in terms of how it approaches texts’ relationships to time, culture, history, and human agency. He discusses how new historicism situates works in relation to historical representational practices, and how this understanding of texts gives rise to resonance and wonder.

Key terms
Resonance | Wonder | Representational Practices | Looking | Ethnographic Thickness

Resonance: The ability of a work to call to mind the specific cultural and historical circumstances of its production. For Greenblatt, resonance also encompasses the implied relationships among works and manner in which these become evident to the viewer/reader.

Wonder: The power of a work to evoke awe and the singular attention of the viewer/reader. Wonder encourages an emphasis on the work’s individuality, uniqueness, and singularity that is at odds with the concept of resonance. Greenblatt argues for a renewed focus on wonder, as he believes that it is easier for a viewer to move from wonder to resonance than vice versa.

Representational Practices: Modes and methods of communication and signification that are culturally and temporally bound. New historicism examines how these practices influence texts at given moments in history, and how the relational web of texts gives rise to new practices over time.

Passage Paraphrase

The new-historicist critics are interested in such cultural expression as witchcraft accusations, medical manuals, or clothing, not as raw materials but as “cooked”—complex symbolic and material articulations of the imaginative and ideological structures of the society that produced them. (19)

New historicism views the cultural expressions that influence and comprise a text as complete artifacts of specific cultural, historical moments that lend meaning to the work from their own fullness. (The text is not composed piecemeal from bits and parts of these cultural expressions, but exists with them in a relational web.)

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Oscar Wao call attention to the cultural circumstances of its creation, and how does this affect readers?
  2. Greenblatt argues that it is better/easier to move from wonder to resonance than in the opposite direction. How does this (or should this) impact the way in which we teach literature?

Links

Who Is Stephen Greenblatt? Why Should You Care? by Santi Tafarella | https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/who-is-stephen-greenblatt-why-should-you-care/

Basic Principles of New Historicism in the Light of Stephen Greenblatt’s Resonance and Wonder and Invisible Bullets by Mehmet Akif Balkaya | https://www.academia.edu/8073537/Basic_Principles_of_New_Historicism_in_the_Light_of_Stephen_Greenblatts_Resonance_and_Wonder_and_Invisible_Bullets

 

“The Beast in the Closet”
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Summary
Sedgwick discusses how societal concepts of male homosexuality were used beginning in the 19th century to both enact persecution against gay men and to regulate homosocial bonds. She illustrates how this lead to “homosexual panic” among men, due to the compulsory nature of homosocial bonds coupled with the new threat of these bonds being revealed as homosexual in origin under a shifting, persecutory definition of homosexuality. Sedgwick relates this anxiety to renderings of the bachelor and Gothic hero, and also delves into an exploration of how homosexual panic detrimentally impacts both men and women through a queer reading of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle.”

Key terms
Homosexual Panic | Paranoid Gothic | Preterition | Character Taxonomy | Bachelor Hero

Homosexual Panic: The anxiety that arises in men due to the societal compulsory need for homosocial bonds coupled with the possibility that these bonds may at any time be labelled as homosexual in nature. Sedgwick relates this concept to society’s arbitrary, shifting definition of homosexuality, which led to men’s paranoia concerning their identity and the status of their homosocial bonds. According to Sedgwick, only men who could comfortably define themselves as being homosexual were free from this anxiety.

Paranoid Gothic: Novels of the romantic period in which two men exist in a close and often volatile relationship with one another. Sedgwick is interested in how the genre exhibits the anxieties of homosexual panic through its conflation of the public and the private, and the seeming “mental transparency” that exists between the two male characters, which often leads to paranoia.

Preterition: Emphasis through omission. Sedgwick uses this term to draw attention to how homosexuality was theorized and referred to as a concept that exists without a sign and yet is named by the existence of this void.

Passage Paraphrase

It appears that men enter into adult masculine entitlement only through acceding to the permanent threat that the small space they have cleared for themselves on this terrain may always, just as arbitrarily and with just as much justification, be foreclosed. (186)

In order to access male privilege men must cultivate homosocial bonds, but they do so under the unspoken threat of this privilege being stripped away should these bonds ever be found to be homosexual in nature (under shifting, arbitrary definition of homosexuality). This constant threat and the need to protect oneself and one’s privilege is what leads to homosexual panic.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does Oscar’s relationship with Yunior exhibit elements of homosexual panic?
  2. How does (or does) homosexual panic continue to impact the way in which women are portrayed in literature today, particularly in relation to homosocial bonds?

Links

Sedgwick Sense and Sensibility: An Interview with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick by Mark Kerr and Kristin O’Rourke | http://nideffer.net/proj/Tvc/interviews/20.Tvc.v9.intrvws.Sedg.html\

‘Queer Theory’ Is Entering The Literary Mainstream by By Dinitia Smith | http://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/17/books/queer-theory-is-entering-the-literary-mainstream.html?pagewanted=all

 

“Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographics”
Judith Halberstam

Summary
Halberstam discusses how queer individuals and culture relate to and reimage the heteronormative categories of space/time, such as birth, death, marriage, and reproduction. Halberstam argues that current, generalized understandings of queer space and time rely too heavily on the experiences of the white gay male community, and that these concepts need to be opened up to include the intersectional experiences of queer POC, lesbian, and trans individuals. Halberstam also calls for the greater inclusion of sexuality and space into Marxist interpretations and criticisms of global capitalism.

Key terms
Queer Time | Queer Space | Naturalization | Heteronormative time constructs | Postmodern Geography

Queer Time: A framework of time that places emphasis on the present and the “urgency of being” which arises from political, sociocultural, and at times biological threats against the lives of queer individuals that endanger the possibility of a “future” as defined by the hegemony. Queer time also encompasses a lack of familial ties and time obligations that are compulsory for heterosexual individuals.

Queer Space: The postmodern inhabitation of spaces by queer people. Halberstam suggests that this appears in the use and creation of spaces that are unrelated to heteronormative constructs, such as reproduction.

Naturalization: The way in which concepts like marriage and reproduction are reiterated and reinforced within a society over time, such that they eventually appear as being organic to the society as opposed to having been created by it.

Passage Paraphrase

This foundational exclusion, which assigned sexuality to body/local/personal and took class/global/political as its proper frame of reference, has made it difficult to introduce questions of sexuality and space into the more general conversations about globalization.

By creating an arguably false hierarchy between the local and the global, we have excluded sexuality and space from the conversation about international capitalism. As a result, it is difficult to have a full understanding of how queer people fit into this system as their identities and experiences are tied to these categories in meaningful ways.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways does Oscar occupy queer space in the novel?
  2. How do dimensions of race complicate current understandings of queer time/space?
  3. Halberstam creates a definition of queer time that exists in resistance to heteronormative time concepts like birth and reproduction. Is this not simply a definition based on “the underside of … domination”? And how do we move away from definitions like this?

Links

Queering Queer Time with Ecological Queries by Marian Bechtel | https://serendip.brynmawr.edu/oneworld/ecological-imaginings-2015/queering-queer-time-ecological-queries

Jack Halberstam on Queer Failure, Silly Archives and the Wild | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKDEil7m1j8

 

“Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire” from Gender Trouble
Judith Butler

Summary
Butler considers the relationship among gender, sex, and desire within a Western patriarchal structure, and explores how the attempts of contemporary feminist theories to situate women and femininity outside this discourse continue to perpetuate violence against certain bodies and gender expressions. Butler argues that this issues arises from feminists’ preoccupation with the creation of an idea of “woman” as a known and cohesive identity (in order to create a subject that may be advocated for politically). Butler questions whether the creation of a “universal woman” is necessary in order to move forward politically, and advocates for an understanding of gender, sex, and desire in specific contexts, and according to the particular needs of the political moment.

Key terms
Cultural Intelligibility | Compulsory Heterosexuality | Productive Function | Representational Politics | Construction

Cultural Intelligibility: The ability of a body, gender expression, or expression of sexuality to be understood within the dominant culture of a given society—only those bodies and expressions that utilize the dominant culture’s accepted signifiers in an “appropriate” manner are recognized. (This is similar to Spivak’s concept of speaking vs. silence with respect to the subaltern.)

Compulsory Heterosexuality: Adrienne Rich’s concept that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced by the dominant culture, particularly with regard to female bodies/feminine expression. Butler’s interest in this idea centers on how culturally accepted presentations of bodies and gender expressions are produced and reinforced by this structure, in cooperation with the heterosexual matrix.

Representational Politics: Butler focuses on this political framework due it its influence on feminist theories in terms of supporting the “need” for a universal idea of “woman.” The model suggest that one cannot act in the interest of a given group unless that group’s nature and needs are clearly and singularly defined.

Passage Paraphrase

The masculine/feminine binary constitutes not only the exclusive framework in which that specificity can be recognized, but in every other way the “specificity” of the feminine is once again decontextualized and separated off analytically and politically from the constitution of class, race, ethnicity, and other axes of power relations that both constitute “identity” and make the singular notion of identity a misnomer. (4)

In order to create a universal idea of “woman” for political purposes, we must ascribe to the existing political binary which we are attempting to escape through this action. Only this binary structure allows us to cordon gender off from race, class, and other human categories in the pursuit of an identity defined around a single experience. This, as Butler argues, leads to a replication of the existing binary system as we cannot create a cohesive definition of “woman” without necessarily excluding people.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do Orientalist concerns appear in Butler’s work?
  2. How do the characters in Oscar Wao perform their genders, and in what way can these performances be said to drive the action of the story?

 

“The World Republic of Letters”
Pascale Casanova

Summary
Casanova explores how we construct the notion of “literariness”/literary capital in relation to both national and global political and economic forces. She illustrates how the world literary space functions and how it sustains itself over time, and, in doing so, brings together internal and external forms of textual criticism to challenge the idea of literary works as discrete entities with no connection to each other or to a larger literary environment.

Key terms
Classics | Literary Capital | Universal | World Literary Space | Critics

Classics: These texts are the privilege of those nations with the oldest and greatest amount of literary capital. They are considered “foundational” texts, and have been elevated to this ahistorical status by virtue of the literary capital accrued by their authors and/or their nation over time. Due to their ahistorical and elevated status within the world literary space, classics serve as the reference against which all other texts vying for literary legitimacy will be judged.

Literary Capital: Prestige and recognition awarded to authors or works. The dispensation of literary capital depends on a variety of factors, such as the age of text, the relation of a text to national literary traditions (and the position of those national traditions within the world literary space), and the literary climate of the nation and of the language in which the work is published.

Universal: Casanova uses this to refer to works that have been consecrated and circulated by those at the center of world literary space such that they have become untethered from their national literatures and are considered non-national/ahistorical. Universality is a key component of literary capital.

Passage Paraphrase

Literatures are therefore not a pure emanation of national identity; they are constructed through literary rivalries, which are always denied, and struggles, which are always international. (36)

When situating a text in its historical context, we must examine how the author’s national literary climate interacts with other national climates within the world literary space. No national literature exists in isolation from others or the world literary space; additionally, all works may be understood as being interconnected through this web of interactions.

Discussion Questions

  1. What aspects of Oscar Wao suggest that Díaz is actively engaging with the center of world literary space?
  2. How might we go about altering the manner in which the literary world functions in order to make the distribution of literary capital more equitable? Is this even possible given literature’s relationship to economics and politics in this regard?

Links

Justice through Mistranslation: On Erín Moure’s Foreignizing Methods by Nicole Sweeney Allen | https://thescatteredpelican.com/2015/09/14/article-9/

Thoughts on Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters by Jesse Tangen-Mills | https://colombofile.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/thoughts-on-pascal-casanovas-the-world-republic-of-letters/

 

“Can the Subaltern Speak”
Gayatri Spivak

Summary
Spivak discusses the nature of the subaltern and how its history and actions are silenced by the dominant society. She argues that in seeking to give voice to subaltern texts, we as scholars may actually contribute to the epistemic violence being committed against these individuals and cultures. Spivak notes that we may simply have to allow for spaces of openness in terms of our understanding of the subaltern, in lieu of purposefully or unconsciously forcing their texts to conform to dominant expressions and meanings.

Key terms
Epistemic Violence | Subaltern | Silencing | Imperialist Project | Transformation

Epistemic Violence: The violent upheaval of one knowledge system to be replaced with that of another culture or group. This process involves repeated invalidations of the original knowledge system over time, in order to establish the new epistemology as being intellectually or morally superior. Spivak is interested in how this process contributes to the creation of the subaltern through the devaluation and destruction of a group’s means of understanding and communicating.

Subaltern: According to Spivak, the subaltern is the Other that has been silenced and rendered heterogeneous through colonization. The subaltern cannot communicate within the dominant discourse due to the effects of epistemic violence.

Silencing: The interpretation of subaltern texts through the dominant discourse, which distorts and destroys their meaning. Spivak suggests that silencing also occurs in the form of societal pressures that encourage the subaltern to assimilate into the dominant group.

Passage Paraphrase

This gesture of transformation marks the fact that knowledge of the other subject is theoretically impossible…. It is, in other words, at once a gesture of control and an acknowledgement of limits. (2204)

When we interpret a text we typically remove ourselves from the equation, treating what is done in the first person as a matter of third person objective knowledge/fact. Yet, in committing this transformation, we admit that objective knowledge of the Other or the subaltern can never be acquired, only our view of it from a dominant lens. Additionally, in erasing our role as interpreters of this knowledge, we act as arbiters of the Other and the subaltern.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do the places where magical realism come into play in Oscar Wao constitute areas of subalternity in relation to American culture? And if so, are we approaching those places in the text appropriately/are we be viewing them through a dominant lens?
  2. Spivak seems to argue that those who leave the subaltern culture/group and acquire the dominant discourse lose their ties to subalternity. They are no better than scholars who have been entrenched in the dominant discourse from birth. Where do these scholars then fit in terms of the subaltern and the Other, and is it fair to say that any association with the dominant discourse nullifies one’s capacity to communicate with/within the subaltern?

Links

Can the Privileged Listen: An Alternative to Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” by Ariel Pozorski | http://www.bhsu.edu/Portals/0/academics/JURY/Essays/Can%20the%20Privileged%20Listen.pdf

Can the Subaltern Speak?: Gayatri Spivak and Post-Colonialism | https://mashrabiyya.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/can-the-subaltern-speak-gayatri-spivak-and-post-colonialism/

 

“Playing in the Dark”
Toni Morrison

Summary
Morrison examines the relationship between whiteness and blackness in American literature, particularly the way in which whiteness utilizes blackness to express itself while simultaneously silencing the autonomous expression of blackness (the Africanist presence). She also argues for a critical approach to literature that accounts for race not only in terms of blackness but also in terms of how slavery and colonialism impacts the literary expression of white individuals.

Key terms
American Africanism | Racially Inflected Language | Literary Whiteness | Literary Blackness | Eurocentrism

American Africanism: Morrison defines this as the manner in which African presence is/was constructed and manifested in American society, particularly in the arts. It encompasses the ways in which blackness is utilised and conceptualised by both white and non-white writers.

Racially Inflected Language: The encoding of race into language and literary expressions. Morrison is interested in how the Africanist presence is visible in texts as a result of such language, despite literary and popular culture’s insistence on denying the existence of a racialized society.

Literary Whiteness: The construction of white characters and white-centered narratives with presumed white audiences. Morrison is interested in probing the purpose of literary whiteness in relation to literary blackness and the Africanist presence, as well as exploring the impact literary whiteness has on white individuals in society.

Passage Paraphrase

The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. (17)

Non-black writers create and utilise the Africanist presence to form their own identity and make sense of their relationship to blackness and black individual’s place in society.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does literary whiteness manifest itself in Oscar Wao?
  2. How has our treatment of the Africanist presence in literature changed since Morrison wrote Playing in the Dark?

Links

Toni Morrison & Bill Moyers on Writing about Whiteness | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4vIGvKpT1c

Western Literature’s Underside by Diane Middlebrook | http://articles.latimes.com/1992-05-24/books/bk-427_1_toni-morrison

 

“Work, Immigration, Gender:
New Subjects of Cultural Politics”
Lisa Lowe

Summary
Lowe illustrates how capitalism has emerged and evolved in conjunction with forms of class-, race-, and gender-based discrimination by examining the unique societal position of Asian working class women within the transnational economic sphere. She also explores how these women are able to create novel, transgressive cultural forms and spaces through the use of intersectional narratives.

Key terms
Social Formation | Totalization | Cultural Forms | Dialectic of Difference | Racialized Feminization of Labour

Social Formation: A structure arising from the intersection of various forms of production occurring at multiple levels of society. Lowe is interested in how the international/transnational social formation relates to American capitalism, and how it contributes to the racialization and gendering of labour.

Totalization: The assumption that race, gender, and class categories do not meaningfully intersect under capitalism to produce axes of subordination. Lowe terms this the idea of the “single-subject.”

Cultural Forms: For Lowe, these are modes of expression that convey the subjectivity and individual differences of a group within the intersections of race, class, and gender in relation to political, economic, and cultural spheres. She classifies the testimony and narratives of Asian working women’s lives as cultural forms which serve to create new transgressive spaces that combat oppression and totalization.

Passage Paraphrase

The aim is not to “aestheticise” the testimonial text, but rather to displace the categorising drive of disciplinary formations that would delimit the transgressive force of articulations within regulative epistemological or evaluative boundaries. (33)

The testimonial, and other cultural forms, should not be interpreted from merely a political or an artistic viewpoint, as to do either is to diminish its transgressive potential. Rather, our understanding of it should come from an intermingling of the political and the artistic, much as the texts themselves arise from intersectional experiences.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Oscar Wao highlight the intersection of the political, economic, and social in the lives of its characters? How does it create new opportunities for readers’ understanding of the lives of Dominican peoples in relation to American capitalism (In what way is it a cultural form in the sense Lowe speaks of)?
  2. Lowe emphasises the need for international collaboration among Asian working class women. How might this be realised in the literary sphere?

Links

We’re All the Same Except that We’re Not: A Primer on Multiculturalism by Ryan Reft | https://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/were-all-the-same-except-that-were-not-a-primer-on-multiculturalism/

Annotation: Lisa Lowe’s “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, and Multiplicity” (1996) | https://emergentia.wordpress.com/2010/04/24/annotation-lisa-lowes-heterogeneity-hybridity-and-multiplicity/

 

“Myth and Reality” from The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir

Summary
In Myth and Reality, de Beauvoir discusses the “myth” of woman that undergirds patriarchal society and dictates women’s behaviour for the benefit of men in terms of their identity formation and the security of their position as the dominant sex.

Key terms
Myth of Woman | Eternal Feminine | Feminine “Mystery” | Immanence | Other

Myth of Woman: Simplistic summaries of woman as a being, all which claim to be the immutable truth regarding how/why women act. According to de Beauvoir, myths may change depending on the given structure of a society, and often exist in multiple forms that are in opposition to one another (the Madonna and the whore, etc.).

Eternal Feminine: The “essential,” immutable qualities that women and femininity possess; like myths, these may be multiple and exist in opposition to each other (nurturance and pettiness etc.) De Beauvoir appears to conflate this concept with the myth of Woman, as both espouse an essentialist view of women.

Feminine “Mystery”: Men’s view of women as being incomprehensible. According to de Beauvoir, this notion allows men to relegate women to the realm of the animal while simultaneously elevating themselves; they remain singular in their humanity while woman is Other.

Passage Paraphrase

Furthermore, like all the oppressed, woman deliberately disassembles her objective actuality; the slave, the servant, the indigent, all who depend upon the caprices of a master, have learned to turn toward him a changeless smile or an enigmatic impassivity; their real sentiments, their actual behaviour, are carefully hidden. (1411)

Under pressure from men and the myths he has created to define and constrain her, woman is forced to make herself an object and conform to essentialist roles, in a sense masking her humanity. Such is the case with all groups who are Other under a dominant group.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does Oscar Wao further the notion of the feminine “mystery” through its treatment of female characters (e.g. Oscar’s moods are given a tangible source—he is depressed due to his failure to find love—while Lola seems to be driven by a fantastical, incomprehensible force—the bruja) and if so, what, if anything, is Díaz’s purpose in doing this?
  2. How has the myth of woman changed in terms of how we portray female characters in popular contemporary literature? Are there simply more/different variations on the myth, or has it begun to fade (and does this mirror contemporary societal attitudes towards women)?

Links

The Story Behind Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex,’ the Most Influential Work of Existentialism by Sarah Bakewell | http://flavorwire.com/565141/the-story-behind-simone-de-beauvoirs-the-second-sex-the-most-influential-work-of-existentialism

What is Woman? (de Beauvoir + Metroid): 8-Bit Philosophy | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9kCJvfo28w

 

“Criticism and Ideology”
Terry Eagleton

Summary
Eagleton defines the elements of a Marxist theory of literature and illustrates how these components interact with larger social, cultural, economic, and political structures/forces.

Key terms
Literary Mode of Production | General Mode of Production | General Ideology | Social Relations | Authorial Ideology

Literary Mode of Production: The LMP encompasses the manner in which a text is produced, disseminated, and consumed. Eagleton focuses on the often reciprocal relationship between the GMP and the dominant LMP, as well as the historical and technological forces that shape the nature of any given LMP.

General Mode of Production: The forces of production that shape society. Eagleton is interested in the relationship between the GMP and the dominant LMP, specifically how the LMP can replicate or expand the GMP, and how the existence of any given LMP depends on there being space for it within the technological, social, economic, and political constraints of the GMP.

General Ideology: The dominant ideology of a society that influences production such that what is produced internalises and replicates this ideology. A given LMP may reproduce or diverge from the GI.

Passage Paraphrase

The ideology of the text is not an ‘expression’ of authorial ideology: it is the product of an aesthetic working of ‘general’ ideology as that ideology is itself worked and ‘produced’ by an overdetermination of authorial-biographical factors. (59)

The nature of the text is not determined solely by the author, but arises out of a complex interaction between the GI and the AuI; it is the GI as understood and related by the author from their particular social position within the GMP.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is Oscar Wao’s LMP, and how does it influence our understanding and consumption of the text?
  2. According to Eagleton and Williams, does the manner in which a text is distributed, as well as our own position as individual readers within the GMP, limit the ways in which we are able to approach a work? How might we try to see outside these limits?

Links

Terry Eagleton: “The Death of Criticism?” | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-20dZxUAfu0

Marxist Literary Criticism by Mariano Marcos | http://www.slideshare.net/JesperSilva78/marxist-literary-criticism-54586805

 

“Marxism and Literature”
Raymond Williams

Summary
In the chapter Williams argues against traditional understandings of Marxism that espouse a hierarchical view of the relationship between base and superstructure, as well as rigid, limited definitions of the scope and application of determination and production.

Key terms
Superstructure | Production | Determination | Base | Materialism

Superstructure: In traditional understandings of Marxism, the superstructure is the expression/realization of the base in terms of sociocultural, political, and economic relations. Williams argues that there is little difference between the base and the superstructure, and that both contribute to the determination of human actions through a reciprocal relationship.

Production: In relation to capitalism, production encompasses labour that transforms raw materials into commodities. Williams calls for an expanded view of production that encompasses, among other things, artistic production.

Determination: Traditionally, determination has been defined as those objective and unalterable political, social, and economic conditions that delimit human action. Williams seeks to expand our understanding of determination to better account for the reality of human agency by defining it as those limits and pressures within which and to which humans must act and react.

Passage Paraphrase

At this level, in an analysis of capitalism, there is no great difficulty until we see that a necessary result is the projection (alienation) of a whole body of activities which have to be isolated as the ‘realm of art and ideas’, as ‘aesthetics’, as ‘ideology’, or, less flatteringly, as ‘the superstructure’. (94)

Within a capitalist understanding of production, art is seen as being outside production, and so can only either be the representation of an ideology, or a reflection/distortion of the material world. There is no understanding or value of the act of producing artistic work (which Williams later defines as mediation).

Discussion Questions

  1. How do we incorporate the material realities of a text’s production into our understanding of the work, and what does doing this offer us?
  2. How can Oscar Wao be understood as mediating rather than reflecting reality, and how might this shift in thinking impact how we view the narrative?

Links

Strong Reading: Raymond Williams “Marxism and Literature” by Daniel | http://strongreading.blogspot.com/2011/08/raymond-williams-marxism-and-literature.html?m=1

Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature: Tracing the Historicity of Literature by Rukhaya M.K. | http://rukhaya.com/raymond-williamss-marxism-and-literature-tracing-the-historicity-of-literature/

 

“Structure, Sign, and Play”
Jacques Derrida

Summary
Derrida outlines the purpose of deconstruction, which is not to tear down existing structures/systems and create new ones in their place, but to expose the failures and limitations of present structures and demonstrate how we might work within these fragmentary constructs. He argues that all structures are in constant flux, that there can be no such thing as a stable center, a governing principle around which the rest of the structure is permitted to move. Structuralism, therefore, falls short of a more complete/complex understanding of structures as it presumes some level of stability.

Key terms
Structure | Freeplay/Play | Presence | Signifier/Signified | Interpretation

Structure: Derrida is concerned with how we create and understand the concept of structure. We may either interpret structures as being systems with a fixed center, a central principle that governs the system and cannot be changed or substituted for any other element, or we may view them as fluid frameworks, in which the center is also in flux and can at any time be transformed or exchanged. Derrida argues for this second mode of interpretation/understanding as it allows for the system to be restructured around previous knowledge; it allows for deconstruction.

Freeplay/Play: The opposing force of presence or stability. Play allows for elements in the system to be supplemented and/or changed. Derrida uses the term to describe how elements behave within a structure in flux. He also suggests that this is the natural state of elements within a system, how they behave before the system is conceptualized in terms of absence or presence.

Presence: Stability of meaning, or the lack of flux/play. In a structure, presence characterizes that which cannot change or be substituted. It allows for the creation of binary oppositions within a system, but renders the system finite in doing so. Part of Derrida’s argument on metaphysics concerns its preoccupation with imbuing all things with presence.

Passage Paraphrase

In order to avoid the possible sterilizing effect of the first way, the other choice … consists in conserving in the field of empirical discovery all these old concepts, while at the same time exposing here and there their limits, treating them as tools which can still be of use. No longer is any truth-value attributed to them; there is a readiness to abandon them if necessary if other instruments should appear more useful. In the meantime, their relative efficacy is exploited, and they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces.

To deconstruct a structure does not mean that we must or should discard the system afterwards. We can seek to understand and delineate the limits and failures of the system, to realize that it and its elements are transient and replaceable (there is a suggestion here of growth and its being synonymous with deconstruction), while continuing to make use of the now fragmented construct and employing its elements to further complicate or advance past the existing structure.

Discussion Questions

  1. How is the fukú in Oscar Wao conceptualized as a stable system (particularly in the beginning of the novel), and how do Oscar, Lola, and Yunior disrupt its structure and introduce change/flux?
  2. Do we tend to construct our understanding of texts around a stable center, such as the author (Foucault’s “What is an Author?”), and how might this affect our interpretations of said texts?

 

“The Animal That Therefore I Am”
Jacques Derrida

Summary
Derrida explores how humans define themselves in relation to “the animal.” He is particularly concerned with the moral implications/complications that arise from the false dichotomy we have created between human and nonhuman creatures. By referring to all animals collectively as “the animal,” we place ourselves in a position of violent power over them. Derrida seeks to complicate this relationship primarily through language (l’animot), and encourages us to consider how it impacts the way we act in and interpret the world.

Key terms
Animal | Nudity/Shame | Modesty | Following | To see\To be seen

Animal: We categorize as “animal” all those creatures that do not possess the features and technics that we have decided constitute humanity/humanness, such as language. Derrida argues that to speak of all animals as “the animal” in the singular is to unfairly reduce them to a homogenous whole, and that this reduction allows for, if not encourages, us to exercise violence upon them.

Nudity/Shame: The sense of vulnerability that arises from the consciousness of one’s own naked state, or a bareness of spirit. Derrida uses the concept literally and figuratively to explore the strangeness and terror of facing an animal who appears to elicit a response from us, and yet, within our present definition of what is “animal,” cannot communicate with us.

To see/To be seen: To view something is to exercise a certain power over it. Derrida illustrates the unidirectional gaze that humans have maintained in their theoretical relationship to “the animal.” He argues for a change in how we construct the category of “animals” in order to allow for mutual gaze. Derrida is concerned with how the gaze of the animal (being seen) affects how we define ourselves.

Passage Paraphrase

What is proper to man, his superiority over and subjugation of the animal, his very becoming-subject, his historicity, his emergence out of nature, his sociality, his access to knowledge and technics, all that, everything … that is proper to man would derive from this originary fault. (413)

By categorizing animals in this way, i.e. by condensing a large, heterogeneous group into a conceptually small homogenous category, humanity creates and solidifies their authority over “the animal.” This view of “the animal” then allow us to position ourselves as subjects in terms of how we relate to the world. It engenders the belief that our humanity makes us superior to all other creatures in the world.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Derrida’s concept of “othering” seen here, of domination through language, appear in Oscar Wao?
  2. How might our ideas of what constitutes a valid or “human” response influence how we interpret texts, particularly postcolonial, feminist, and/or queer texts?

 

“What is an Author?”
Michel Foucault

Summary
In “What is an Author?” Foucault seeks to describe how we construct the concept of the author, through which we then interpret their work, whether it be literary, scientific, mathematical, etc.

Key terms
Author | Work | Discursive Practices | Name (of the author) | Individual

Author: Foucault defines the author as being not merely the human originator of any writing or theory, but a larger concept attached to a notable body of work, as well as the lens through which we then examine that work. We construct the author as an ideal entity: standardized, coherent, and historically situated, rarely in flux. Additionally, while the author serves as a primary means for understanding a body of work/lending it meaning, the concept of the author is also influenced by what we discover within the work itself.

Work: Critically speaking, we have no useful definition of what should or does comprise an author’s work. As Foucault notes, we have the tendency to think of “work” as being a cohesive whole, but how we define and judge uniformity in this area is unclear. This idea of work must be explored if we are to better understand how we conceptualize the creative/generative process as a whole.

Name (of the author): Foucault argues that the name of an author becomes more than a proper noun to designate a specific person. Through its relationship to idea of the author themselves, it is transformed into a signifier for the whole of what we consider to be that author’s work. (It is also referentially connected to our idealized image of the author.) If one of these referents change, the meaning of the name shifts as well.

Passage Paraphrase

It would be as false to seek the narrator in relation to the actual writer as to the fictional narrator; the “author-function” arises out of their scission—in the division and distance of the two. (129)

Our understanding of the author arises from the interaction among the personalities presented to us in a work, as well as our idealized interpretation of the individual. What we understand as a cohesive self is, in reality, the evolving communication of many different “egos.”

Discussion Questions

  1. How does our knowledge of Díaz as an author impact our interpretation of Oscar Wao, particularly with regard to the sections of the novel that are written or possibly dictated by Lola?
  2. Foucault argues that our concept of the author is a combination of multiple egos, some which we may construct for the author and some which they create themselves. How might this idea of the author impact how we teach creative writing?

Links

The Function of the Author | https://wp.nyu.edu/gallatin-communcollab2015/2015/09/08/auto-draft-29/

Criticisms from the Linguistic Turn: A Review Essay on Readings in Historical Theory by Devin Leigh | https://thezamanireader.com/2015/11/13/criticisms-from-the-linguistic-turn-a-review-essay-on-readings-in-historiography/

 

“Panopticism”
Michel Foucault

Summary
In “Panopticism,” Foucault describes the modern implementation/existence of discipline as a means of discretely and efficiently exercising widespread control over the masses. He uses the concept of the panopticon (the notion of constant surveillance whether real or simply implied) to illustrate how this type of discipline functions as mode of power.

Key terms
Discipline | Panopticism | Power | Multitude/Multiplicity | Individual

Panopticism: Foucault uses Bentham’s panopticon to represent the exercise of modern discipline. By creating the idea of constant surveillance, the panopticon allows for a widespread, and largely unseen, distribution of power. In modern disciplinary frameworks this may emerge as sociopolitical norms which people enforce on themselves and one another.

Discipline: Foucault emphasizes the shift of modern discipline away from the neutralization or control of dangerous situations towards a concern with increasing “the possible utility of individuals.” Modern disciplinary systems mainly serve to uphold the status quo by integrating the masses into inscribed systems of power.

Multitude/Multiplicity: Part of the goal with modern disciplinary systems is to exert the most possible control over the largest number of people. Within these systems, people are molded according to societal demands for productivity, and also minimized as potential political threats to the current power structure.

Passage Paraphrase

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. (202)

In a panoptical system of discipline, no outside force is necessary to maintain power over the individual. The knowledge that they are possibly being surveilled at any given moment prompts them to monitor themselves; the real or imagined possibility of exposure leads to self-regulation. They are then transformed into both the object of observation and the observer, a self-controlling unit within the power system.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does the panopticon function in Oscar Wao? How do the characters surveil themselves and how is the trajectory of the narrative affected by these actions?
  2. Are today’s disciplinary systems becoming more entrenched in Foucault’s panoptical framework, or are they evolving in a different direction (as discipline has historically moved from the body to the mind)?

 

“Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances”
Roman Jakobson

Summary
Jakobson investigates two striking types of aphasic disturbances (contiguity disorder and similarity disorder), in order to illustrate the difference between two high-level facets of language production and interpretation. He shows that in order to create and understand utterances, one must possess and be able to utilize two types of knowledge: that of how words relate to one another within the context of what is spoken, signed, or written (contiguous or “seen” relationships), and that of how words relate to one another within the language as a whole (similarity-based/associative or “unseen” relationships).

Key terms
Metaphor | Metonymy | Aphasia | Contiguity | Similarity

Metaphor: Jakobson associates the concept of similarity and the unseen connections among words (i.e. not apparent in context) with metaphor, and uses this more easily understood figure of speech to explain similarity to the reader. In keeping with this, he notes how aphasic patients with contiguity disorders are more prone to speaking in metaphors, having lost the ability to create and understand contextual connections among signs and objects (metonymy).

Aphasia: As often seen in psychology, Jakobson uses cases of people with language impairments to reveal how language use functions in “normal” persons. By illustrating the differences between the aphasias, and between the typical utterances of persons with contiguity disorder and those with similarity disorder, Jakobson is able to make clear two types of high-level language knowledge that we must command in order to be effective communicators, but which we are often unaware of when these processes are functioning properly.

Contiguity: Contiguity is one of the two facets of language that Jakobson explores in the chapter, similarity being the other. It is an understanding of how words and phrases within a particular utterance in a given context relate to one another, and it is also one of the key knowledge areas we must command in order to effectively communicate within a language.

Passage Paraphrase

That is to say, selection (and, correspondingly, substitution) deals with entities conjoined in the code but not in the given message, whereas, in the case of combination, the entities are conjoined in both or only in the actual message. The addressee perceives that the given utterance (message) is a combination of constituent parts (sentences, words, phonemes), selected from the repository of all possible constituent parts (the code). (119)

In crafting and interpreting utterances we deal with all possible choices and combinations of words given our knowledge of the language (more precisely, our mental lexicon and grammar), and with how the words we have chosen, or are interpreting, fit together as part of an utterance. Effective communication, then, is only possible when both the addresser and addressee share this lexical knowledge and understand the contextual relationships among the words that are being exchanged.

Discussion Questions

  1. Towards the end of the chapter Jakobson notes that contiguity/metonymy has been largely overlooked in both linguistic and literary studies in favor of similarity/metaphor. Does this suggest that all languages or all humans are inclined to be more metaphoric? Why does this favoring of metaphor persist?
  2. What might one’s tendency towards either metonymy or metaphor in speaking, signing, or writing reveal about how one relates to the world?

 

“Telling and Showing”
Wayne Booth

Summary
In the chapter Booth ultimately argues that a text cannot every fully be rid of the author’s influence, and that, in fact, “telling” (in the sense that it involves the author directing the reader towards a specific emotional response or conclusion) encompasses a much broader range of literary moves than most people realize, and so should not be condemned out of hand as poor practice. Booth also argues that even the most explicit forms of telling (e.g. the author speaking directly to the reader about a character or situation) can serve a rhetorically appropriate purpose within certain narrative contexts.

Key Terms
Telling | Showing | Author | Explicit | Objectivity

Telling: When dealing with modern literature, many believe that the author should not tell the reader what to think, feel, or believe about characters or situations. Readers should instead be presented information in an “objective” manner and be allowed to form opinions on their own. However, Booth argues that even within this model telling still appears in the form of “reliable” characters, any evaluative language (metaphors, allusions, etc), or shifts in point of view from character to character. Booth argues that telling is synonymous with the presence of the author and thus cannot be completely removed from the work.

Showing: The “objective” presentation of characters, situations, and facts that allows readers to form their own judgements about events in the narrative without being influenced by the author. Showing tends to be associated with “artistry;” we value the skill involved in making the author as unobtrusive as possible. Booth suggests that in privileging showing over telling we run the risk of having narratives become unfocused, as the visible influence of the author often allows for stories to be directed along a clear, concise path.

Author: Booth’s central concern in the chapter is how the author conveys their work to their readers and how they may or may not make themselves visible in the text through certain rhetorical moves. Ultimately Booth argues that the author cannot be uncoupled from their work, cannot “disappear,” and that, furthermore, in certain narrative situations it may be necessary for the author to become more visible.

Passage Paraphrase

Everything he shows will serve to tell; the line between showing and telling is always to some degree an arbitrary one. (20)

The distinctions we make between showing and telling are largely based on individuals’ subjective tastes and the current literary climate. Additionally, deeper examination of the two techniques reveal that they exist along a spectrum, as opposed to being in binary opposition.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is the movement towards an “objective” narrative/one without authorial interference related to trends in literature studies (“suspicious reading” etc.) and/or the rise in skeptical attitudes within American society as a whole?
  2. How do Díaz (and Yunior, as the narrator) use telling to establish Oscar as a sympathetic character? Would readers be less inclined to empathize with Oscar without this technique?

Links

Wayne Booth: The Rhetoric of Fiction | http://www.icosilune.com/2009/03/wayne-booth-the-rhetoric-of-fiction/

Notes on The Rhetoric of Fiction by Richard Clarke | http://www.rlwclarke.net/courses/lits2306/2010-2011/12BBooth,TheRhetoricofFiction.pdf