Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about... (more)

Practicing Criticism is a collaboration space for sections of English 170, The Practice of Criticism.

We've moved!

English 170, The Practice of Criticism, is now English 203, Reader and Text. The new course is part of the completely revised English major at SUNY Geneseo.

The collaboration space for Reader and Text is a website in the network. Find it here.

Making more sense

In my previous post, The English major makes sense, I was silent about one of the points I tried to bring out this semester, for fear of seeming to contradict myself. But I've changed my mind and resolved to make the point as best I can, because that post, if left to stand by itself, is really misleading. In addition, to overlook this point is to overlook an important reason that the English major is valuable — indeed, invaluable.

This point is that much of our vocabulary for examining "literature" and other aspects of "culture" is also, and inevitably, necessary for understanding everything about our lives that isn't strictly a matter of biological necessity. If, as we saw Barbara Hardy and Alasdair MacIntyre maintain, we actually experience our lives as narratives; if symbol and metaphor pervade our ordinary speech and structure our cognition; if, as Alva Noë argues, to be alive and aware is to have a world "show up" for you that is meaningful only because of stories, symbols, metaphors, and other kinds of "background" knowledge you've been acquiring since you first became conscious; then no bright line can be drawn between the "works" or "texts" on a syllabus like ours, and "life" itself.

But, I hear you ask (sensing, as I predicted, a contradiction between this point and a theme of the list in the previous post, of some of my comments on your essay draft, and of many of the things I said in class), "Didn't you insist that English majors don't study 'life' or 'human experience'? Haven't you just gotten through explaining that English majors study 'made' things — artifacts — representations — in short, a particular, restricted domain of human activity that only mirrors or models 'life'"?

Well, yes, that's indeed what I've been saying, but when saying these things, I've meant something very particular by "life" and "experience." If I explain that particular meaning, the contradiction that you sense will, I hope, drop away.

My point in drawing a contrast between "life" and "culture" was to push back against the widely held (you might even say, "common sense") notion that there is anything we might call "just life" or "just experience." According to this "common sense" notion, life is full of experiences that we call by names such as "love," "ambition," "jealousy," "hate," "disappointment," "happiness," etc. Literature (more common sense) is a body of writing about these experiences: experience put into words. Reading literature (yet more common sense) is a way to engage with these experiences, to "live" them vicariously and to learn about them directly. I read Shakespeare's sonnets, common sense tells me, to learn about something called "love" that has an existence prior to and outside of narrative, metaphor, and symbol: something "universal," "enduring," and "real." There is love, there is what Shakespeare writes about love, there is what I learn about love by reading Shakespeare. If common sense is right in this regard, the English major, in reading Shakespeare, studies love.

But common sense is wrong. When it comes to love, ambition, jealousy, hate, disappointment, happiness, and everything else in life that we experience as meaningful (which is just about everything other than raw sensations: itches and hunger pangs), the experience itself (if Hardy is right) is in most cases already narrative; and from our earliest years, that experience is shaped by the particular plots, symbols, metaphors, images, and so on that pervade the stories told to us, read to us, and watched by us at home, in school, in theaters, and elsewhere.

One reason I put Carroll's Alice books and Dickens' A Christmas Carol on the syllabus is that they've played such an outsized role in contributing to the stock of characters, plots, symbols, metaphors, and images through which people in English-speaking — and other — societies experience "life."

Another reason is that they represent, themselves, a determined effort to expose as artifice that which their readers took to be simple, naked "reality." What Scrooge (following Thomas Malthus) regarded as an ordinary numerical fact — "surplus population" — Dickens shows to be an artifact of a particular story about the relationship between individuals and society, a story in which "Want" and "Ignorance" are merely "natural" and unavoidable byproducts of letting individuals pursue, undisturbed, their "natural" propensity to seek their own interest. But Want and Ignorance are not at all natural, the Ghost of Christmas Present instructs Scrooge. "They are Man's." They are made.

And so with many of the other works on the syllabus. Marge Piercy's "Barbie Doll" is such a powerful poem because it dramatizes, through one invented character's brief life-story, the tragic (note the word) consequences of having your "experience" of "life," as a woman, mediated by the narratives, images, metaphors, etc. that circulate through our commercial culture (drawing, in part, from that "other culture" which includes Shakespeare) to constitute a still prevalent notion of what it means to be a "woman."

Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" tells the story of a man who discovers, too late, that the narrative he's been living as a minor bureaucrat isn't the one he should have been living, that he has authored himself as the shallowest kind of character imaginable. He's been reading a script that someone else wrote, unthinkingly playing the part defined by an ideal called "decorum."

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest invites us to consider the ways in which experience is always already not only narrative but dramatic. There is no scene in "life" in which you don't perform a role, inhabit a character, constitute yourself for yourself, and for others, through speech. Alert to what a modern-day literary critic might call the "performative" nature of selfhood, no doubt in large measure because "gay man" was not a role he could openly play in 19th-century England, Wilde queers our sense of what it is to have an identity. It was important (within the confines of his play) to be Ernest, but perhaps not so important, perhaps not possible, to be earnest, if what the latter means is to "just be yourself." You can no more "just be yourself" than you can learn, through literature, about those non-existent entities "just life" and "just experience."

So as it turns out, the English major does study "life" and "human experience" in some sense — just not the common sense. Again, according to common sense, life just "is," whereas culture is "made." But if life itself is "made" — if experience itself is inseparable from models and representations, stories and symbols — then the English major, in making sense of culture, makes sense of life.

Dear Students of Engl 170-01, Fall 2012:

I'm extremely pleased with the your essay on the English major as the final product of this semester's bold experiment in collaborative writing. I'm even more pleased with the quality of conversation that the process of writing engendered, both online and in person.

From the initial brainstorming and collection of relevant references and quotations, through the drafting, revising, and polishing, to the final, heated debates over quotations from "The Yellow Wallpaper," the process was one in which your collective self-definition as English majors became, on the whole, increasingly focused, concrete, detailed, and meaningful.

It wasn't all progress, all the time. The essay had some features in earlier versions — such as a clear emphasis on the idea of criticism as a "practice"  that English majors are learning to join, and an effort to move logically from a working definition of literature to the nature of critical practice — that eventually lost prominence. In addition, a number of excellent suggestions offered in comments — for example, to say something significant about the English major's engagement with "culture" — remained in the margins, never making it into the argument's main flow.

But when, at the end of a typical term, I read a pile of individual essays, one thing I never get to see is the ideas that don't make it into this or that person's finished version. And one thing the individual writers don't get to see is the way their fellow writers would have answered the exam questions. Your collaborative essay showed me much more than I usually get to see about what the class, as a group, gained from the course. I hope, too, that by seeing what some of your classmates got out of it, many of you were able to continue learning right up to the end.

Seeing what you learned as a group also gave me insight, of course, into which ideas, among those I tried to emphasize this semester, didn't "stick." I'm sure that some if not all of these ideas did register with individuals here and there, but if my goal is to make at least the majority of the class walk away thinking of these ideas as central to the major, I clearly still have work to do.

Here, very briefly, are some of those ideas. Some of them, especially the last few, I realize that I never articulated clearly this semester until our conversation in the closing minutes of the final exam. By pushing me to do so, you've helped the next group of students that takes this class from me:

  • That what makes criticism a "practice" isn't simply the fact that many critics use the same analytical toolkit, but also the fact that they engage continuously in a lively, often contentious conversation about what they do, why it matters, and how to do it best.
  • That in this conversation, the definition of even the most basic terms — including "literature" and "criticism" themselves — is always up for grabs, and the value of any particular critical activity — "interpretation," for example — is always open to question.
  • That as critics, English majors study stuff that human beings make — mainly stuff that they make from words, but also stuff that they make from images, sounds, numbers, bytes, etc.
  • That in studying made things, English majors study a domain of human life and activity that might be called (though all such definitions are always up for grabs!) "culture."
  • That insofar as English majors study something we might call "life" or "experience," or particular aspects of reality such as "politics" or "society," they do so through the things that human beings make — that is, through culture, which consists in large part, but not entirely, of models or representations of life or experience or reality.
  • That at least one reason to value the study of culture — the whole of it or any single piece of it, such as a poem or a film — is that it's through culture that human beings engage in an ongoing conversation among themselves aimed at making sense of politics, society, love, beauty, death, and all other aspects of life and reality. (But of course any answer to the "value" question can always be contested!)
  • That to say that English majors study culture is to say that they follow a variety of methods — all of them always up for debate! — for making sense of individual bits of culture — a novel, a play — making sense of how those bits fit together, and making sense of how — in bits and as a whole — culture continuously remakes itself.
  • That because this is what English majors do, and because, if culture has value, studying culture must have value, we might well summarize all of the above by declaring, The English major makes sense.
A Wordle for our Paper

A Christmas Carol Trailer

For anyone who wanted to re-watch the trailer, here is the youtube link!


RIP Dave Brubeck

Jazz great Dave Brubeck has died at 91. New York Times obit here.

In addition to recording the legendary "Take Five" (above), written by his saxophonist Paul Desmond, Brubeck covered the theme to Disney's animated film version of Alice in Wonderland (1951):

Alice's Audible Adventures in Wonderland

For the optional project I chose to write music for the silent Alice in Wonderland movie we watched earlier in the year.  The piece begins and ends with what I call the "Dream Theme." This theme is airy and structured around major chords with classical voicings.  The second theme presented is the rabbit's theme. It combines the classical chord voicings with jazz-style rhythm and melody.  The contrast between jazz and classical style vamps is supposed to juxtapose reality with Wonderland.  Reality, for Alice, being full of strict structure, and Wonderland being more formless and hectic.  The third theme is the "Rabbit Hole" theme.  It can be heard when Alice follows the White Rabbit down the hole and shortly before she enters the garden.  The next theme is the Garden theme.  It begins as slow relaxing serenade, but picks up tempo when Alice enters the kitchen.  In the kitchen the chords are pushed up-tempo and a dixie-style bass line is introduced.  The garden/kitchen themes end with a farcical blues turnaround as the baby Alice attempts to rescue from the hectic kitchen becomes a pig.  The next theme is the Cheshire Cat's theme.  It consists of whole tone scales, which Claude Debussy often used to depict mysterious and fanciful scenes.  The next theme is the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.  It is very upbeat and absurd sounding.  It also has a melody within itself that is meant to follow the Mad Hatter's refrain of "CHANGE PLACES." Whenever Alice gets up to switch seats this theme can be heard.  The last theme, "The Royal March," is the longest. It begins with a "drum" (toothbrushes on a textbook) cadence.  Bass and guitar join the cadence eventually adding tension to the march.  When Alice is approached by the kings and queens of Wonderland the last part of the theme starts.  It uses the same cadence established by the drums but uses different stresses to create a feeling of imbalance.  This is meant to represent Alice's refusal to let herself be decapitated and general disregard for the absurd laws of Wonderland.  The theme ends quickly and seamlessly blends back into the Dream Theme which fades to silence as Alice wakes up from her nap. 

In our discussion of A Christmas Carol in Engl 170-01, I mentioned Ruth Richardson's Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, which tells the story of the 1832 Anatomy Act, under which the dissecting table could become the destination of those who died in the workhouse.

Richardson has a new online exhibition on the website of King's College, London titled Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian Poor. The site provides useful context for understanding Dickens' view of poverty, individuals, and the state in early Victorian England, including information about the Anatomy Act and the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Studying Alice

Ben Brantley's New York Times review of "Then She Fell" — an interesting immersive re-mix of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, currently "on stage" at Brooklyn's Greenpoint Hospital — comes just in time to be useful to you Engl 170-01 students brainstorming and drafting the fall 2012 final exam.

Brantley writes that he has "returned often to Carroll’s masterpieces; I even studied them in college."

His review of "The She Fell" shows that he understands some of the most important ideas to which the Alice books give, as he puts it, "fantastical shape": ideas, for example, about "the thoughts, fears, confusions and uncanny knowingness of children."

But there is a big difference between studying child psychology and studying how children's thoughts, fears, confusion, and knowingness are given "shape" in a work of literature.

Studying the first doesn't require a special vocabulary for discussing how human nature and experience get expressed in some kind of representational form: oral tale, book, play, film, video game, etc. Studying the second does.

Here's another way to think about the difference. Ask yourself why a work like Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms would not be particularly useful to someone studying psychology but might be indispensable to someone studying English.




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