Monday, March 28, 2011


So, the man from whom I have been attempting to get some sort of sign that he doesn't think I am a complete idiot (because I hope/fear he will be on my exam and dissertation committees--more fear, at this point) nearly let slip a compliment today when I spoke with him. In response to a question about whether he wanted me to use many secondary sources in the paper I am writing for him, he said “No, you don't need to. If you weren't good at working with theory, it would be tempting to use them [secondary sources] to sort of prop up your argument. For you and your paper, you don't need to bring them in except to support what you're already saying about the texts.” It's not overt or explicit by any means, but I think that means he a) thinks I'm good at working with theory, and b) thinks that my ideas are (somewhat) valid. He even smiled at me and invited me to come in and sit down when I knocked on his door (not his usual response to me knocking on his door). Of course, he could have been speaking in generalities and he could still think I'm an idiot. I prefer the first reading of the conversation, though (for obvious reasons).

Now, no one said being an academic was going to be pretty, but is this really what I'm getting excited about? I don't think I was this pathetic even in high school when the girl I had a crush who sat behind me in chemistry would occasionally condescend to speak to me while we waited for the bus (ah, to be fifteen again, when that meant BEST. DAY. EVER!*). Truly, grad school will do terrible things to a man. The definition a former professor offered to his young son when, upon encountering me sitting at a table outside a cafe doing work (for that professor's class, I might add), the toddler asked “what's a grad student?”--“Someone who really likes punishment"--seems more apt every day.

*I hated being fifteen. I don't ever want to be anything like being fifteen again. Or sixteen. Or really, most ages up to about what I am now.


Back when it was a going concern, Stylus used to run a column called "Seconds," in which various writers would reflect on "perfect moments in pop" by writing short essays or reflections on particularly striking songs. I always enjoyed that column, and though I'm far too disorganized to do anything like a regular feature on my blog, I thought it might be worth reviving here as an irregular feature (especially given that my original intent when starting this blog was to write about music).

Bark Psychosis - "The Black Meat"

To kick off, I thought I'd use one of my all-time favourites: Bark Psychosis' "The Black Meat," from their 2004 album ://Codename: Dustsucker. There are many reasons I love this song, not least of which is its distinctive three-part structure. The abrupt stop followed by the eruption of the horns that heralds the second half of the song is just glorious, and the sudden dissolve into fog and moaning trumpets for the final minute and forty seconds is gorgeous. It's jazz in the way that Talk Talk's later albums are jazz (that is, not very, but it uses jazz's vocabulary in interesting ways) and it sounds amazing: there haven't been many albums better produced than Dustsucker and Bark Psychosis' earlier album, Hex (1994).

There is more to this song than arranging and production tricks, though. I love the way Graham Sutton's lyrics combine concrete detail ("I stand on the shore of a strange land / With my back to the wind on the black sand") and dreamlike suggestiveness ("Trees are ahead / One for you, one for me"). What's more, I love the feel of the song. It's sunny yet sombre at the same time, Sutton's voice full of melancholy that the horns, making playful knots and loops of the melody, counter but don't dispel. There's something tropical (particularly the downright humid first notes from the electric piano), but the end of the song feels like mist creeping over a beach in winter. The song has a deeply lonesome core, though it's one of the least nocturnal things Sutton's ever written.

Ultimately, it's this sense of ambiguity that I love about "The Black Meat." I've listened to it hundreds of times, but I'm still drawn forward every time it comes on. I want to get somewhere with it, to penetrate its melancholy, but it always evaporates before my ears and leaves me with nothing to hold on to. It's strikingly singular, and I can only hope that if Sutton ever feels like releasing any more music (perhaps in 2014, in time to celebrate over 25 years of making music with a third album), he'll write another song like this.

Friday, March 25, 2011


I will preface this post, like last time, by saying that I've done no research on this topic, so what follows might very well be cliched and passé (or just flat out wrong). I will further preface this post by saying that if you don't like boring questions about theory, feel free to skip on over this.

I've been thinking about Fredric Jameson (I'm not going to lie, I think about him a lot. His ideas fascinate me and I envy him his writing style, even as writing or talking about him terrifies me) and his concept of the “ideologeme” (introduced in his
The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act) in relation to Lacan's idea of the “point de capiton” (quilting point). I should say at the outset that I'm no expert on Lacan (I'm not even a novice on Lacan) and I'm drawing what I know about the quilting point from Žižek. If I've read my Žižek correctly, he seems to suggest that the quilting point (or maybe here “anchoring point,” the other translation of Lacan's term, is more appropriate) fixes the subject in a symbolic field against which the subject can be delimited, given shape, known (at least in some way). His example, at least in Violence, is anti-Semitic discourse and the image of the “Jew.” For anti-Semites, the “Jew” is a symbol, an image projected onto the “real” Jew. This symbol contains all the irrational fears, hatreds, and associations that make up the anti-Semite's conception of “Jew” as a subject. In order to create, maintain, and justify the anti-Semitism (or perhaps the anti-Semite's worldview, or the anti-Semite's conception of the “Jew” as subject or “Jew” as Other), the Jew must be affixed to this symbolic field (that matrix of hatred, fear, and associations) via the quilting point of the “Jew.”

Now, it seems to me that we can read this quilting point (the symbolic “Jew” is Žižek's example) as a kind of narrative. A small narrative, but one that fulfils a particular (and extremely important) function ideologically: it is by way of this quilting point, this narrative of the “Jew,” that the anti-Semite reconciles the fact that the flesh-and-blood Jew he or she experiences is in fact not the “Jew” that he or she hates and fears, by affixing the Other in the symbolic field that creates and sustains the hatred by dictating how he or she experiences the Jew. Or, as Žižek puts it in Violence:

What the perpetrators of pogroms find intolerable and rage-provoking, what they react to, is not the immediate reality of Jews, but the image/figure of the “Jew” which circulates and has been constructed in their tradition. The catch, of course, is that one single individual cannot distinguish in any simple way between real Jews and their anti-Semitic image: this image overdetermines the way I experience real Jews themselves, and furthermore it affects the way Jews experience themselves. What makes a real Jew that an anti-Semite encounters on the street “intolerable,” what the anti-Semite tries to destroy when he attacks the Jew, the true target of his fury, is this fantasmatic dimension. (66-67)
This narrative function (if I'm correct that we can see the quilting point—via the example above—as a kind of narrative) is remarkably similar to the function Jameson assigns to an ideologeme. For Jameson, an ideologeme:

is an amphibious formation, whose essential structural characteristic may be described as its possibility to manifest itself as either a pseudoidea—a conceptual or belief system, an abstract value, an opinion or prejudice—or as a protonarrative, a kind of ultimate class fantasy about the 'collective characters' which are the class in opposition. (87)
He goes on to say that the ideologeme serves to explain or narrate away social and historical (which he terms objective) contradictions that emerge from ideological conceptions; the ideologeme is a “symbolic resolution” and an “imaginary resolution” to these contradictions (much as the “Jew” is for the anti-Semite the resolution to the conflict raised by the flesh-and-blood Jew). The ideologeme provides ideological closure that would otherwise be denied by the objective contradictions raised; it fills in a gap that the contradictions have exposed. The similarity to the quilting points function in relation to a symbolic field appears obvious (of course, this similarity rests on my having correctly understood the concept of a quilting point. I might not would not wager money on this being correct).

Now why does any of this matter? (Short answer: it doesn't). I think I might be a structuralist at heart more than I'm anything else (theoretically, at least). Hayden White makes a lot of sense to me, and his concept of metahistory (and I do love all things meta. Is it because I was born in a period that would not allow me to be anything other than a child of postmodernism?) seems particularly useful and valuable when considering the critical history of literary texts. Ditto with Jameson and his dictum to “Always historicize!,” or his ideas that:

we apprehend [texts] through sedimented layers of previous interpretations, or—if the text is brand-new—through the sedimented reading habits and categories developed by those inherited interpretive traditions. (9)*
and that:

our object of study is less the text itself than the interpretations through which we attempt to confront and to appropriate it. Interpretation is here construed as an essentially allegorical act, which consists in rewriting a given text in terms of a particular interpretive master code. (9-10)**
Without this kind of metahistory or metacommentary (Jameson's term for the method of literary analysis outlined above), it seems to me like critical histories can become factories of ideologemes, producers of quilting points, forever fixing texts as narratives that shore up gaps in ideological conceptions or visible entryways into symbolic fields. That is, my critical reading of a text makes it perform a particular ideological role or function because I know that that ideology already exists and the text must therefore (through a kind of Althusserian interpellation, it seems like) always-already be a part of that ideology.

For example, if I'm a post-structuralist critic, I must read a text as embodying elements of post-structuralism (not only because I'm likely to choose texts that embody those elements given that those are texts I would enjoy reading) because post-structuralism is how I understand the world, and the text, as part of that world, must therefore enact post-structuralism. The text must become a narrative that smooths over/explains away/fills in any contradictions/gaps that emerge from the interaction between the content of the text and my worldview. The text must be the quilting point that serves as the visible aspect of the symbolic field. In short, the text itself is overdetermined (always-already read, as Jameson says). In such an environment, moving the critical discussion further and introducing new ideas seems difficult (at the risk of understatement). Jameson's method of ideological analysis and critique—the process that starts with the identifying and naming of ideologemes—in order to uncover the political unconscious of a text seems especially relevant in this context. By performing this critique on the critical histories of texts, the criticism of the text can move beyond ideology (even if it is only to a different ideology). At the very least, perhaps new, fresh ideas in a critical discussion can thereby emerge.

* Hello, Stanley Fish and “interpretive communities!”
** Again, hello Mr. Fish, I didn't see you come in.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I will preface this by saying that I've never done any research on this topic, so I might be repeating the most mundane conclusions in the world. They're new to me, though, so I thought I'd share.

After a conversation with a colleague about close reading and how to teach it to first-year university students, I tried to remember how I learned to close read. At this point, the practice is so ingrained in me that it is largely unconscious. Obviously I picked it up somewhere, but I couldn't nail it down to a particular assignment, a particular class, or even a particular level of school (I can remember, however, discovering New Historicism--or my very basic imitation of it--as a result of a high school essay. I didn't know it was called that then, nor was I encouraged to engage in its practices, but that's a story for another day). I'm fairly certain I learned the term "close reading" in university, but I could already perform a basic close reading when I entered university.

I remembered two books this evening that seem to me to offer a starting point (or at least a pretty significant nudge along the path) for my life as a practitioner of close reading. I can't remember the title of either book, but I do know that they were both mystery novels. One was a kind of traditional whodunit and the other was a graphic novel (I recall my mother hated it for that fact alone) and involved a "haunted" house (the resolution of the mystery proved it to be a perfectly normal house with the hauntings contrived by a conman to deprive a family of its millions; the gothic's anxieties about property and its rightful transmission surface again!). Both explicitly modeled the practice of close reading a text in order to uncover information that would otherwise be hidden, with the graphic novel going so far as to have an "answer key" in the back that contained examples of the kind of information hidden in its words and pictures the alert reader would spot and use to solve the mystery before the book presented the solution. The more traditional novel relied on wordplay to disguise clues to the murderer's identity in otherwise innocuous-seeming sentences (a character helpfully explained all the wordplay in the denouement). For whatever reason, I found this strategy infinitely less irritating than Dan Brown's use of basically this same device in The Da Vinci Code.

Anyway, those mystery stories seemed particularly suited to demonstrating the practice of close reading to a novice reader. Obviously what they were doing was simplistic and didn't necessarily offer a way to immediately translate the skills they flaunted to other texts, but they made me aware that techniques like the ones on display existed. Without that kind of exposure I don't know that I could have taken to literary analysis. I wonder: is there something inherent to mystery stories that relates to close reading that makes them so effective at demonstrating this skill? I guess that would explain the interest (obsession might be a better word) that literary theorists have with Poe--his mystery stories somehow model practices that they want to encourage readers to make part of their repertoires, so they highlight what Poe is doing and how's he doing it.

Of course, the ways these skills were being modeled for me were not without their ideological, social, and political purposes, I'm sure (just like early teen slasher films usually served--covertly--as a warning about premarital sex). That, once again, is a topic for another day, though. For now, I'm going to try and remember the name of that graphic novel. I really liked it, and I never did manage to figure everything out without the "answer key." Could I do it now?

Saturday, March 19, 2011


A tip of my hat (an old, battered Montreal Canadiens hat) to Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking my Library" for the title and concept.

I spent today doing some cleaning around my apartment. It was badly needed (somehow there's still a sinkload full of dishes to do) and as I've heard any number of people mention this as a favoured form of procrastination, I thought I'd give it a try.

I reserved extra time for rearranging my bookshelves. I should come right out and say that I love books. If you give me money, I will spend it on books before basically anything else. Part of it is the conspicuous consumption and cultural capital angle (yes, I'm not too proud to admit that I like the fact that there are a lot of heavy hitters peering down from my shelves), but given that I've had a grand total of two visitors to my apartment in the time that I've been living here (my parents), I'm not exactly taking full advantage of my books for that. As embarrassing as this is to admit, I've never had bookshelves before. When I moved in, before I had anything unpacked, I assembled a bookshelf I purchased from Target. It was hotter than it ever gets back home, and by the end of it there was a minor flood in my kitchen/living room area because of all the sweat, but I had a bookshelf. I spent the rest of the day ordering my books on the shelves. I ran out of room. I bought another bookshelf. I filled that one. Then I unpacked my clothes.

I did some pretty major reorganizing today. I have a long, short bookcase dedicated to fiction and creative nonfiction, arranged alphabetically by author's last name. For multiple books by the same author, they are arranged chronologically according to publishing date. My fairly small collection of poetry and drama used to be housed on this bookshelf as well, but I moved them over to unit #2, a tall, slim set of shelves. Unit #2 now starts at the top with literary theory/philosophy, and moves down to pedagogy, poetry/drama, history, and, on the bottom shelf, anthologies (mainly by Norton). I'm thinking of switching poetry/drama and history, though. As with the fiction/creative nonfiction bookshelf, books on unit #2 are arranged alphabetically by author's last name, and multiple books by the same author are arranged chronologically by publishing date.

The attention I pay to the order of books on my bookshelves might suggest that I'm a very organized person. This is not the case. I am messy and disorganized (I will pause for a moment to let the people who know me stop laughing at this understatement) [this is one of many reasons why I can't have nice things, like a girlfriend]. Nevertheless, I am quite organized when it comes to my bookshelves. I'm proud of them and hope to be prouder still some day. When I come home and I've had a particularly trying day, I'll often spend a few minutes just browsing over my shelves. I'll pull out a book that catches my eye and read a few pages before putting it back to rest with the others and moving on to a new book.

Rearranging the shelves was an incredibly relaxing activity this afternoon. It took me about two hours to do what should have taken ten minutes. I couldn't help myself, though. Every book seemed to ask for me to pick it up and look at it, even if it was just to look at its cover and flip through the pages. Some books I haven't read yet (projects for this summer) and it took everything in my power not to immediately retire to my bedroom and get started on them right away. While I'd love to do just that, I have dates with Toni Morrison, Stanley Fish, and Shirley Jackson for classes I'm taking or teaching. Other books on my shelf are begging to be reread in light of new experiences, new knowledge, and newly read books. Hopefully I'll get to them soon, too.

I love my books (even the ones I hated reading). I love flipping through their pages and catching an annotation in my hand or my telltale underlining (seriously, I know when I've underlined something and when someone else has. It's very obvious). I've given something to my books; I can't identify it, but I can feel it. I would suffer an irreparable loss were they to disappear. I know this for a fact: I lost some books in a break up and it pains me to think of them not sitting on my shelves with the others (Notable exception: Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent. If you would like my copy, let me know. I'd practically pay you to take it). Most of my books are cheap paperbacks (I'm not into the whole rare book thing), but to me they are valuable beyond measure.

We talked about Wolfgang Iser in class the other day, and his idea of the ways that books allow for limited conversation between work and reader frequently came to mind as I rearranged my shelves. My copy of The Professor's House, for example, has so many annotations by me that there is barely any white space left in the margins of the book. If I lost that book, it would mean more than losing the story and those notes, though. It would mean losing my memories of reading that book (conjured as they are as soon as I catch sight of the book). Part of myself would go missing. I can tell a lot about who I am (and remember a lot about who I've been) by rereading The Professor's House and reliving all my previous encounters with it through my notes in the margins and the passages I've underlined. That book is no longer just Willa Cather's narrative of Godfrey St. Peter and Tom Outland. It's as much (if not more) a narrative about me reading Willa Cather and what that means to me.

I suppose that might be why I spend so much time fussing over my bookshelves. In many ways, my voice is there, contained inside those books I know and love (or at least read once when forced to for class, cf. Crescent). New books mean new ideas and conversations, so I need to reflect the changes in my voice through the organization of my books. I guess that's why I like to keep my bookshelves tidy, even as my laundry and the dishes pile up.

Friday, March 18, 2011


A friend of mine was in town yesterday and we met up for drinks. He's currently in the process of deciding what school to attend for his PhD, so we spent some time talking about the visits he's made so far. This quickly became a topic about our respective projects and what we hope to do with our degrees. We're both very interested in the future of English Studies as a discipline and how to move our work outside of the academy. We're both also very excited about collaboration and about doing collaborative work in the future. Increasingly, I find the idea of working by myself on a project very depressing. I like talking with other people. I like sharing ideas and using conversation to make my ideas stronger. Why not take advantage of those facts to make stronger work with other people? It was all very exciting and refreshing to spend a few hours being unabashedly idealistic about what we (the people working towards PhDs and entering the field right now) can do.

One thing we both found very interesting is that despite self-identifying as students of English, many of the topics we were excited to talk about had only tangential relationships to literature. This is obviously not a new phenonmenon, but it is interesting to think about in the context of public perception of English Studies as a discipline both inside and outside of the academy (my own research interest; my friend explores similar questions in his work). What cultural products were these two English majors excited to talk about? Girl Talk (particularly his pairing of Aphex Twin and Soulja Boy), Kanye West, Arcade Fire, and Radiohead. Theory after 9/11 and the Freshman Writing classroom. Social media as a curatorial space for cultural artifacts. The term "American" and its many (contradictory) definitions. Restaurant menus and the legacy of Deconstruction.

Again, nothing there is really groundbreaking or revolutionary. That's sort of the point, though. That our conversation topics are standard (some might even suggest passe) to those within the discipline seems to work against the perception of those outside the discipline as to what English Studies does. When my sister asked me what I do, she was disappointed to find out it had little to do with grammar. For her, being an English major could only mean learning about the technical aspects of the language. At a New Year's Eve party, a friend in chemistry asked me what I do, but he couldn't reconcile my work with the English classes he took in high school and the one literature he took in university. Maybe we need to start demonstrating to people what it is that English Studies does today (and explaining why we do it), rather than letting people talk about our discipline by restricting its activities to what we used to do.

Anyway, those are just some idle musings. For now, I'm just glad I had the opportunity to talk with my friend and get fired up about being a PhD student. Coupled with the warm weather and sunshine of the past few days and a few stimulating class sessions recently, I feel refreshed and energized after our talk.

On a more prosaic note: I tried Five Guys for the first time ever last night. They make good burgers. Why didn't anyone ever mention this to me before?

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I clicked onto my blog tonight to write a post that I'm now too tired to write. Google warned me that this page is in French and asked me if I wanted to translate it. My blog: able to fool Google. Mission accomplished.


I found out last night that the MLA panel I was helping to organize with a few other people got shot down. Unfortunately, I found this out after the deadlines for other MLA panels' CFPs had passed. Such is life, I guess. We're shifting our focus to ACLA and hoping the panel will run there.

On the brighter side, my prof liked the paper I wrote for him over spring break. It's nice to get some positive feedback after the feedback I received on the last piece of writing I turned in (for a different prof). I much prefer reading "The main stylistic item is the use of 'I/me.' While it isn't a mortal problem, it does weaken the authority of your voice" to "Ugly sentence," to take examples from the feedback I received on the two.

I've read back over the paper twice (I will obsessively read over anything when I get it back), and I'm a little happier with it now than I was when I turned it in (ah, the power of getting a good grade). What struck me as I read, though, was how different my writing is now than it was when I started grad school and before. I would love to be able to take a time machine back to three or four years ago and allow my younger self to read this paper. What would my response have been? I can only speculate, but I imagine it would involve some of the following:
  • Confusion: I had a (how to put this?) limited grasp of literary theory at that point. My knowledge of postcolonial theory was nonexistent. Poststructuralism was similarly outside of anything I knew. I have the feeling that my younger self might have been a little bit lost during the first half of my paper (and not because the writing makes the ideas obscure. I literally didn't know anything about the stuff I'm talking about in this paper). My grasp is still limited, but I've come a long way since those dark days.
  • Anger: My younger self would have had no patience reading through any of the theoretical stuff at the start of the paper. At that point, I considered the only worthwhile thing in any writing on a text to be a close reading of that text (yes, there are universities that are still pushing the New Critics as the vanguard of literary studies in the 2000s. I was at one of them). This is connected with the feelings above and below, but my younger self would have wondered what the point is of the parts of my paper that address what the (extratextual, larger, and more important) point actually is.
  • Fear: My younger self was a pathological abuser of using critics to prop up what he said so that he never really had to advance an argument (I imagine this is why I'm trying so hard to prevent my students from forming this habit). Everything my younger self said came with citations to prove someone had already been there and to suggest that if you had an issue with an idea, take it up with the cited critic. To be making bold claims in a paper that are the product of my own thinking? I can hear my younger self whimpering.
  • Pride (I hope): This last one is dicey. This paper really is so different from what I knew about literary studies and what I was writing three, four, or five years ago (hell, even last year, really) that it's debatable whether or not my younger self would have recognized any value in this paper. I like to think, though, that my younger self would admit that it's better written than anything I was then capable of. I would also tell him it's better argued and infinitely more interesting, but I doubt he'd concede that point. He's a stubborn bastard, my younger self is. 
Sometimes it's little victories that matter. I can definitely measure and see my own growth as a writer and thinker reading through this paper, especially when I think back to papers I wrote in undergrad (and even when I first got to grad school). This might not amount to much (it might only show how bad my writing was back then and still is now), but it is a tangible sense of progress, something that can be all too rare in this environment. I've decided to take this paper as an opportunity to celebrate small successes (something I constantly coached the members of the dissertation writing groups I ran to do but rarely have practiced in my own life). I'm not done with this paper by any stretch of the imagination. Now comes the painful and mystifying part: turning it into an article. Before that, though, comes a brief moment of celebration.


My good friend wondered recently how to be happy in grad school. I don't know if I'm happy, but thinking about how far I've come and how hard I've worked to get here, I feel accomplished. I feel pride. It's a rare and kind of new thing for me. I know my friend has stuff just like this to feel proud and accomplished over (even if she would laugh this off or tell me I'm crazy). This is uberlame, but I hope that she takes a moment to feel proud and accomplished for all the times she's kicked butt. I'm glad I told all my dissertation group members to celebrate the little things because it turns out they do matter, and it feels kind of nice to do that sometimes.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I'm here now


I am here now.

For those who are curious, the name is a portmanteau of the words "bourgeois" and "oiseaux." Hence, "middle class birds."