Blog from October, 2012

Walter Benjamin and Film as Lit

In his famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Walter Benjamin argues that the mass reproduction of art as a result of technological advancements diminishes its authenticity for no longer uniquely existing in one space. He claims that  by changing the context of a piece of art, something is taken away from the original, he calls this its "aura". He goes on to illuminate the way in which he sees the rising fascists and futurists of the time rendering aesthetic the realm of politics and calls instead for a "politicizing of art".

It really is a great essay and I recommend giving it a read if you have a few minutes to spare, but I decided to post it not for its politics, but because it addresses some of the issues we discussed in 170 Monday morning on whether or not film should be considered literature.

When it comes to drama, Benjamin seems to think that the highly mediated and reproduced nature of film takes away from the "aura" or essence of the stage actor, therefore the performance as a whole and he addresses the points prof. Schacht and Eric made about the role of the camera in film: “The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.” I don't think that this excludes film from literary criticism, however. It seems to me to be merely a shift of perspective, which is not a decrease in its amount of artistic merit or authenticity. He also contends in the favor of film being able to be criticized as literature when he points out that, "In comparison with the stage scene, the filmed behavior item lends itself more readily to analysis because it can be isolated more easily."

Benjamin goes on about the essence of art and how if something is mass produced it loses its essence, but I don't buy it. Excluding big Hollywood movies clearly made for mass distribution and profit, I think that a movie can contain an essence of its own through mediums other than which traditional art is used to.

Any thoughts?


In my previous two posts (here and here), I suggested that the diversity of interpretations that literary works provoke from critics does not, for the most part, reflect differences of subjective response. Without question, different critics react differently to what they read, and some of this difference certainly does stem from idiosyncrasy. The emotional resonance of a word will differ for readers depending on personal experience. So will the resonance of characters, situations, and images. But these differences play a minor role in producing interpretive variety compared to those that stem from what I referred to previously as "publicly shareable knowledge."

What I mean by that somewhat awkward phrase is the whole domain of ideas and information with explanatory power — historical facts and theories of history; theories of character (including but not limited to those articulated by psychologists); the categories and definitions of philosophy; explanatory models from linguistics, anthropology, biology, politics, economics, and gender studies; moral and ethical codes, religious or not; and so on.

This way of understanding literary works — through the lens of publicly articulated, publicly available ideas and information — isn't practiced only by academic and other professional critics. What sets the professional critic apart from the ordinary reader is merely the professional's penchant for relying on academic theories and the accompanying (perfectly reasonable, from an academic perspective) obsession with citation. For everyone else, folk psychology and rough ideas about truth, good, and evil are generally enough.

To borrow a phrase from Alva Noë (remember him?), bringing different explanatory ideas and information to bear on a literary work — whatever their source, and with whatever degree of rigor — will cause the work to "show up" for you in different ways. If you were to walk into an art gallery without some background ideas and information of this sort, Noë maintains, the paintings hanging there would be nothing more than meaningless flat panels on a wall. The paintings only begin to have a "presence" for you by virtue of the knowledge, ideas, and — he adds — skills that you bring to them.

When different critics bring conflicting explanatory models to bear on a poem or a novel, or when they disagree about the right way to relate a character or event to the same model, they end up with conflicting interpretations. Some interpretive diversity takes this form.

But much interpretive diversity is non-conflicting or minimally conflicting. It takes the form of what Graff and Birkenstein would call "agreeing with a difference." It springs from the simple fact that the work will "show up" differently against the background of different ideas and information.

Conveniently, our wiki contains a very concrete example of what I mean. The four of us who taught Engl 170 in Fall 2010 tried an experiment with Yeats' poem "Easter, 1916." Have a look (and a listen) here. Four readers. Four readings. Agreement with a difference: not because Yeats' words mean four drastically different things to four differently constituted private minds, but because the different explanatory tools and information we bring to the poem make it show up in four distinctly different ways.

Carroll's Glory - Part Two

In my last post, I suggested that Alice's conversation with Humpty Dumpty calls into question the view of mind and meaning that sees meaning as a subjective experience.

The alternative view offered by Carroll is a game-changer for the practice of criticism. Literally.

Humpty maintains that he can "make a word mean just what I choose it to mean" — and he's right. All I need do to make "glory" mean "a nice knock-down argument" is to say or write, "In all that follows, let 'glory' mean 'a nice knock-down argument.'" As you listen or read, you'll make the substitution. It's this sort of move that makes encoding possible, from secret messages to software.

The move is itself made possible by the arbitrary relationship between words and what they signify. Anything can mean anything, as long as we both follow the same rules. And unlike the rules for trials (see the King's "Rule Number Forty-two" in Alice's Wonderland trial), rules about meaning can be invented on the fly. It doesn't matter if I "made it up just now." The substitution rule is itself a "regular rule" — that is, it's already there in the general rules for language. "To make a new word, give the new word and define it." Done.

But the substitution rule doesn't represent permission to live in a world of private meaning. "Let 'glory' mean 'a nice knock-down argument'" is a public declaration. Once I make the declaration, and you agree to follow it, the word's new meaning is not an artifact of my subjectivity or yours; it exists out there in the social space between us.

In this respect, a word is very different from a blue square on the wall. What the square lacks is just this irremediably social quality possessed by the word. When we both hear or read a word like "glory," we may have different cognitive and emotional responses keyed to our different experiences, our different subjectivities, just as we may see the square's color differently. But these responses are not all, or even most, of what we're normally talking about when we talk about a word's meaning.

Alice implicitly understands this, which is why for her, "The question is … whether you can make words mean so many different things." Yes, you can (as we just saw), but in another, equally important sense, you can't. Privately willing a word to have a certain meaning doesn't give it that meaning, since meaning, even when established by the substitution rule, is social. Moreover, most speech and writing don't include special declarations about word-meanings. In most speech and writing, we're relying on the meanings already out there in social space.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously likened language to a game. To know how to speak or write in a given language, he observed, is to know how to play the game. "Wittgenstein, man," writes Eric in response to Sarah. Precisely, man.

It's not only in the Humpty Dumpty chapter that Carroll the gamer perceives this game-like quality of language. As I noted in this post about "Jabberwocky" as an illustration of "pure form," Carroll clearly sees that making intelligible sentences consists of following rules about syntax and word endings. You can follow these rules with invented words as easily as you can with the ones in the dictionary. The result — whether it's Carroll's wonderful poem or Noam Chomsky's Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is "nonsense" — words with no meaning that take the form of meaningful speech.

If meaning itself exists "out there" in social space, rather than "inside" my head or yours, what does this mean for the practice of criticism?

It means that the question of how my subjective experience bears on the meaning of a poem or novel is a red herring. It means that if we look at the arguments that practicing critics actually have about works of literature, we shouldn't expect their differences to spring from "what the words mean to them." Instead, we should expect those differences to spring from disagreements about how to relate the words of the poem to a host of shared understandings — beginning with the meanings of the words themselves — that reside in social, not subjective, space.

The practice of criticism isn't, for the most part, a conversation about competing private visions. If it were, there would indeed be little if any point to the conversation. Criticism is a conversation about objects created in an inherently public medium — language — in which one rule (perhaps, as Alice would say, Rule One) is this: Offer the explanation of the object that does the best job of drawing on publicly shareable knowledge to make publicly shareable sense.

But why, when they follow this rule, do critics end up saying such very different things about works?

I'll offer an answer in my next post.

Carroll's Glory - Part One

One topic I'd hoped to get to in Engl 170-01 yesterday is this exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'" Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant 'there"s a nice knock-down argument for you!'"

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."

Maybe it's just as well that we didn't get to this in class. The issues I wanted to discuss through Alice and Humpty Dumpty would have taken a lot of time to address. Maybe blogging is the better way to go. In fact, this is going to take more than one post. Watch for the sequel.

The question raised by the Alice-Humpty exchange — What's the relationship between mind and meaning? — looms large in the theoretical conversation that runs continuously behind the practice of criticism.

Sarah Rusnak's September 10 post on The Power of a Word gave rise to some extremely thoughtful comments on this question from Eric, Meghan, and Brendan. Let's consider, for a moment, Eric's suggestion that words

. . . really mean different things to each person respectively. The word plum may mean a lot more to an ardent fan of plums versus someone, like me, who has never once bitten into one. I think the same goes for words like 'love', 'happiness', 'garbage'; they all mean something drastically different and unique for each person.

Eric here is in territory similar to that which Sarah more recently explores in a comment on Michael's post, The Importance of Perception. Sarah writes,

According to recent scientific studies, we all have our own ways of seeing the same thing. Take, for instance, looking at different colors. Though we all recognize something deemed "blue" by society as "blue", are we actually seeing the same shade of hue when we look a so-called "blue" object? Scientists in the UK (link below), claim that our sensory perceptions are controlled by neurons that are not predetermined. In other words, we all have a distinct, individual shade of color in mind when we hear the word "blue".

She then goes on to wonder, "if the same principle applies to literature. An author, artist, etc. has a specific idea in mind when creating their work. Yet even though this idea may be articulated to us through comments in the margins, research into the creator's life, or even by the creator himself, do we perceive something just a bit differently when we look at the same work?"

Let me try my hand at summarizing the problem as Eric and Sarah have posed it.

Basically, we have a mind on either side of an object. The object is a physical entity that reflects light from the part of the spectrum roughly designated as "blue," or a word, or a work of literature. There's a mind on either side of it. In the latter two cases, one mind speaks the word or writes the work, the other mind hears the word or reads the work.


So, the problem: Are the latter two cases parallel to the first one? Are two readers of a poem like two people looking at a "blue" square on a wall, undergoing slightly or perhaps even "drastically" (Eric's word) subjective experiences as a result of their different neuronal wiring or past experiences (for example, of eating plums)?

If we suppose that the cases are parallel, then there would seem to be two options for criticism:

  1. Make every effort, as a critic, to line up your subjective experience with that of the writer. Try to figure out what the words meant to him or her.
  2. Decide that (1) is impossible, and simply describe what the words mean to you.

Critics who follow the first path will find themselves on a quest towards the "right" interpretation of a poem. Critics who follow the second are likely to say — as many non-critical readers say — "Since we all experience the meaning of words differently, there can't be a 'right' interpretation." It's easy to see how the second option might lead you to doubt the value of practicing criticism at all. If there's only my meaning of the poem, your meaning of the poem, and her meaning of the poem, if we're not talking about the same thing, why bother talking at all?

But what if the cases aren't parallel? How does that change the options for criticism?

The Alice-Humpty exchange shows why the cases are, in fact, different, and why critical options 1 and 2 therefore present a false choice. As I'll explain in the next post.

Criminal Minds: A Cultural Remix "Through the Looking Glass"

Talk about serendipity! Today I went online to watch last week's episode of one of my favorite shows, Criminal Minds, and observed that the title was "Through the Looking Glass"! For those who aren't squeamish, I would recommend watching it here: because it really was a thriller.

The episode's basic premise, while all twisted up with crime fighting and psychological mind games, is about being grateful for what you have - especially in regards to family. The show always puts a quote by a famous individual at the end of the episode, and this week's was (as expected) by Lewis Carroll - "“One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others".

This got me thinking about why the producers chose to use Lewis Carroll and his story for this week's episode - what is the connection to Through the Looking Glass that they are trying to make? Perhaps they were tying in to Carroll's own innate innocence and goodness - telling stories to Alice Liddel and making young girls smile for their own pleasure, not his own. I also hypothesized that they might be trying to indicate that we should be grateful for imagination, something Carroll has in spades and something the production team also needs to make this show. Maybe they're trying to indicate we should be grateful for the world we have because the imagined world can be so much darker? I'm not sure so I turn to you, fellow scholars, for help!

I usually find a very clear connection between the title of the episode and it's meaning, yet the meaning of this title eludes me (perhaps because it goes no deeper than the one-way glass in the abduction room). Any thoughts?

Edit (10/26): Today we were talking about where the 'dark and scary' comes from in Carroll's books - the impulses that come from inside us and our subconscious dark desires - and why it's there. This, I felt, addressed my confusion about how Carroll's books related to this dark, twisted death-filled episode. Perhaps that's what this episode is urging us to see - that Carroll's books address the darker side of humanity, subtly, the scary side of humanity that lies under the beautiful innocence that we first see in imagination. Just as the families seem innocent and perfect in the beginning, as the story progresses and the unsub reveals their dark secrets, so too does Carroll reveal the dark side of imagination.

Does this seem to be asking too much from the producers of the show? Am I finding meaning in something that may not have much meaning?

The Unicorn

We mentioned in class today that Alice's conversation with the unicorn epitomizes our entrance in the dreamlike world Carroll tries to create. So I started wondering how this fictional, fantastic character became such a universal symbol of imagination. Apparently, it's origin stems back to ancient times, and references to a unicorn or a unicorn-like being are found both in Western and Eastern traditions. Here's an article that talks about the beloved creature!

Welcome to the Desert of the Real

It seems we have another case of Alice in Wonderland popping up in modern culture.  Who's seen the Matrix?  If you have, you just got it. 

In the movie The Matrix, we follow a stoic, monotonous Neo through his journey of bullet-dodging and ass-kicking.  And where does it all start but with a reference to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson himself.  In the very beginning of the movie, when we first meet Neo, he is prompted by his computer screen to


And when he gets a knock on the door he half-reluctantly does as he's told.

Then a bunch of stuff happens, and eventually he's confronted with a choice: take the blue pill, or take the red pill.  One will put him back exactly where he was with no recollection of any of the preceding events, and the other will allow him to become enlightened to the evil plan of the Machines and fight to demolish The Matrix (see, Wonderland) and take back the earth for humans. In a big intellectual metaphor, one makes him bigger, and one makes him smaller.

I love The Matrix and this honestly didn't dawn on me until class today.  Now I can never watch it the same way again-- we'll have to see whether that's good or bad.  But for now, can anyone else draw any connections between characters and events in the film The Matrix and its much tamer predecessor Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?  Who would Trinity be?  Morpheus?  Smith?  Perhaps, instead of looking at A Christmas Carol, we should discuss The Matrix... all three of them.  Who knows?  Maybe The Matrix: Reloaded is really just Through the Looking Glass with guns and kung-fu.

For a three-minute familiarization, look here: 

Re-imagining the imaginary

The movie whose name I couldn't recall in 170-01 today is Last Action Hero. It's longer than it should be but still a lot of fun, I think. By far the best minute-and-a-half or so is this clip, in which the protagonist, a young boy named Danny whose hero is the action-movie star Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is watching the Laurence Olivier film version of Hamlet. Impatient with Hamlet's indecisiveness, he fantasizes how a particular moment in the play might have unfolded with Slater in the lead role.

We're seeing here the power of the imagination to overcome the restrictions of a reality that is itself a product of imagination. I suspect Carroll would like that.

A particularly nice touch: Danny's fantasy is realized not in an ad hoc way but through the conventions of a particular cinematic genre: the trailer.


Teenage Alice's Take

I find it interesting that through all of this discussion on Alice in Wonderland remakes and perspectives, we haven't talked about the recent movie Alice in Wonderland starring Johnny Depp. I think this newer movie brings up a lot of questions abourt Alice's perspective because they put Alice back in Wonderland when she is around the same age we are now (probably around ten years older than the original Alice). This being the third time she goes, she does not remember the the first two times whatsoever. I think this would be an excellent example on perspective because now that she has fully matured, it seems that society has drilled in her head that this kind of imagination is wrong. Much like as we grow older, at a certain point Gary the imaginary friend becomes creepy and our parents start to tell us he was never there in the first place. Even in the Trailer , you can see certain aspects of Alice's time in Wonderland when she was 7, like the tea party and shrinking in size. Does maturity, or even society, force us as individuals to change our perspective in order to make our world make sense?

The Dangers of Interpreting Nonsense

This video clip is an excerpt from Kevin Smith's film Dogma. The scene depicts Loki, a fallen angel, interpreting "The Walrus and the Carpenter" to a nun in an airport.  In the notes on page 183 of Annotated Alice, Gardner mentions how Carroll had no real intention for the meaning of the poem and that the carpenter could just have easily been made a butterfly or baronet by the discretion of illustrator John Tenniel.  This factoid well derails the sinister Loki's diatribe, but at the same time shows how nonsense can be a powerful tool in the hands of the creative! 

Other Forms of "Alice"

I mentioned to Professor Schacht leaving class the other day a couple of other interpretations of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" with which I was familiar.  Because it is such a well-known story, it pops up frequently in television and other forms of art.  Here are a few examples:


The first was an episode on the SyFy show "Face Off," which is a special-effects movie make-up competition.  One of the challenges a few weeks ago was to imagine that a zombie virus had invaded Wonderland.  Each artist had to re-imagine a character from Lewis Carroll's story as a zombie.  Here are a couple of examples of what the artists came up with. 

The Cheshire Cat:


The Mad Hatter (in the background you can also see one version of The Queen of Hearts):

Another example also comes from SyFy channel (it's another interesting question to ask why the "Alice" stories so easily lend themselves to science-fiction interpretations).  This example was a miniseries called "Alice" that premiered in 2009, in which Alice returns to Wonderland as an adult.  This version is a complete reimagining of Wonderland, adding modern elements while still containing classic Romantic elements.  For example, the oysters are humans whose emotions are harvested and condensed into potent drugs by the Queen of Hearts.  The White Rabbit is the head of the organization that kidnaps oysters, and the Mad Hatter is a member of the organization that opposes the queen.  The March Hare is the queen's assassin, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum are her head interrogators/torturers.  I found a decent fan-made trailer on YouTube, and there's also a link to the Amazon page for it.


 "Alice" Amazon Page


Finally, there's the recent YA book series called "The Looking Glass Wars" by Frank Beddor.  I haven't read these myself yet, though they've been on my list for quite some time.  The series includes three books:  "The Looking Glass Wars," "Seeing Redd," and "ArchEnemy."  In this interpretation, Alyss is the princess of Wonderland whose parents were murdered by her evil Aunt Redd.  With the help of her bodyguard Hatter Madigan, she escapes to 19th-century London through the Pool of Tears.  Here, she encounters Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), becomes his friend, and tells him her story.  In his resulting stories, he vastly misconstrues the truth, even misspelling Alyss's name.  In the meantime, Hatter Madigan is trying desperately to find the princess and restore her to the throne of Wonderland.

The Looking Glass Wars

Seeing Redd



Sorry that this post is so long, but there was a lot to contribute!  I think it's really interesting that "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" are such popular stories for retelling.  Why do you this that is?

Remix of the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland

I found this video a couple of years back and I found it very interesting because it is nearly as mesmerizing as the stories themselves.  While it has only the video and sound clips out of the movie, I think you can still understand some of the ideas that are represented by the story.  I think it relates to class because it is a deformation of the Disney movie of Alice in Wonderland.  It also relates with the idea of remixing a part of popular culture to create something completely different.  I found the fact that you still get to see all of the characters as they were animated, but to the beat of the song is very interesting , it creates this parallel universe where the characters are dancing around in this orchestrated dance.  It feels very reminiscent of the Fantasia movie, which has a series of animations to a number of scores written for orchestras.  While this song is not performed by actual people, it still has the same feel as Fantasia's orchestra pieces.  The video is a series of clips from the Disney version of Alice that have been put together to form a song.  

There are also many other remixes like this on youtube with other Disney movies such as Snow White and Up, the user also makes remixes out of movies such as The Terminator, Pulp Fiction, Monsters Inc., Scooby Doo, and many more.  Those can be found here:

Is this song still part of the culture revolving around the Alice stories, or does it delve into the culture of remixing?  Also, does this user have the right to take the works of other people and remix them into songs of his own?


Blogpost full of words

Even if you don't follow politics, you're probably familiar by now with the Internet meme "binders full of women," which took off earlier this week after Mitt Romney used the phrase in his second presidential debate with Barack Obama.

The rapid circulation of variations on that meme, exemplified by the Tumblr blog of the same name, is a superb illustration of how the Internet has unleashed new forms of rip-mix-burn creativity.

I still think the best entry in the lolcats genre of binder-humor is this one, which superimposes the words "Trap Her Keep Her" over a Trapper Keeper notebook. Lewis Carroll might not have approved the ironic message here, but he might well have admired the wordplay.

Speaking of words, the phrase "binders full of women" turns out to be a beautiful illustration of something else we've discussed: the dependence of meaning on context. This dependence, in fact, is part of what made Romney's use of the phrase so vulnerable to humor. The phrase has no meaning apart from the particular context in which it's used. It doesn't by itself mean, for example, either "binders containing information about potential female job candidates" or "binders containing female bodies." Take the phrase out the context in which Romney used it to mean the former, and a variety of meanings become possible, including the latter, which, once visualized in lolcats form, in turn takes on a symbolic meaning of its own — a symbolic meaning that is itself activated by the context of the way many women today feel about their status in our particular cultural moment.

As it happens, the dependence of meaning on context was the topic of a recent blog post by the literary critic Stanley Fish, who used this fact as an argument against literalist interpretations of the U.S. Constitution.

As Meghan recently observed in a post on her own blog, words really do matter.

Update: Egads! It's The Yellow Wallpaper!

Acts of Remixing

In Engl 170-01 yesterday, we looked at Thomas Jefferson's letter to Isaac McPherson regarding the "peculiar character" of ideas. Unlike physical property, an idea can be transferred from one person to another, claims Jefferson, without being lost by its originator: "no one possesses [it] the less, because every other possesses the whole of it." This — an economist would say — "nonrival" character of ideas is fortunate, Jefferson suggests, because it permits ideas to "freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition."

Lawrence Lessig and other advocates of "free culture" similarly see the free (as in speech, not as in beer) circulation of culture as essential to humanity's forward progress. They emphasize how the stuff of culture is continually remixed to make new culture. As we move ahead in our class to Lewis Carroll's Alice books, we're beginning to ask how these books remix bits and pieces of the culture Carroll knew.

Before we leave Jefferson behind, though, we should note a bit of subtle remixing that he introduces directly into his explanation of why ideas must circulate freely. In the quotation below, note the words I've flagged in boldface:

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Compare these words from the King James version of the Bible, Acts 17.28:

For in him we live, and move, and have our being.

Jefferson hasn't exactly quoted, hasn't exactly alluded to, but has certainly made very intentional use of this characterization of the deity.

What do you think he hopes to accomplish by doing so?

The Importance of Perception

In class on Monday we briefly touched upon the unique ways Lewis Carroll varies point of view throughout The Adventures of Alice. Carroll engages his audience through changes in point of view and in some instances directly addresses the reader. Carroll's ability to insert his audience directly into the story affects the perception of the reader as they are able to take in the full experience of "Wonderland" and imagine themselves immersed in an alien world. Mary made a great observation in class that her perception of The Adventures of Alice changed from when she was read the story as a kid to now as her analytical capacity and ability to comprehend reality has grown. Alice's world taken at face value wouldn't seem as strange to a 6 year old, as it would to 18 year old college english students in a 170 class. Obviously we can better understand the subtleties and witticisms of Carroll's masterpiece than a 6 year old but that carefree innocence and amazement is lost. The bottom line is that the perception of the reader matters when analyzing texts, which brings me to this article I first read in my high school world lit class. It analyzes the cultural practices of the North American Nacirema tribe which ties into our earlier cultural discussions. How does perception affect the studies and writing of Professor Horace Miner in this article? The link to the pdf is below. Cheers