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I blog in various places inside the Geneseo wiki. Here's a selection...

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From Practicing Criticism

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From Digital Humanities

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From this space

Wow! Just learned about the Brontë Sisters Power Dolls. Where have I been?!??! Thank you, Alice Rutkowski!

Just in time for our reading of Rudyard Kipling's Kim in Engl 315, NPR has launched a blog to record the journey that some of its correspondents are taking along India's Grand Trunk Road:

This road is older than independent Pakistan or India, which gained their freedom in 1947. It's even older than the British Empire, which ruled the subcontinent for two centuries. It dates back to the Mughals — India's rich and powerful rulers to whom we pay tribute every time we refer to some wealthy person as a "mogul."

A new generation is growing up along that ancient road. India's median age is 25. Pakistan's median age is below 21 — meaning half the population has not yet reached adulthood. The population of both countries is exploding; and their importance is growing too.

That link above is to the blog's initial post on April 14. The most recent post is here.

As we begin to immerse ourselves in Virginia Woolf in English 170, you may find it useful to look at this 2008 blogppost on "the stream of consciousness".

In our class discussions about "genetically modified literature," culture, and copyright, our focus has been on intellectual property law (IP law) — in particular, copyright law — and works of the imagination such as poetry, novels, films, and music.

We've used genetic recombination as a metaphor for the way writers and other artists take the cultural material around them and splice and dice it to make new, creative works of imagination. Some critics argue, we've seen, that an intellectual property regime that is too tight — that too severely limits the free circulation of cultural material — that requires artists to seek permission constantly before using the genetic stuff or "code" of culture — is a threat to culture itself.

But did you know that 20% of humanity's real genes have been patented? That's right: private entities own patents on human genes themselves. Not just methods for isolating or working with genes: the genes themselves.

However, as the New York Times reports today, a federal district judge has issued a decision invalidating "seven patents related to the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, whose mutations have been associated with cancer."

The implications of the case, and of intellectual property law regarding nature (as opposed to culture), are huge. The case is certain to be appealed. Since the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, in 1980, that it is possible to patent a new living organism (for example, a genetically engineered bacterium), the defendants in the cancer-gene case have some degree of precedent on their side. On the other hand, there's arguably a difference between patenting manufactured living things and patenting the already existing natural world around and within us, such as our genes.

As the Times points out, "the [district court] decision, if upheld, could throw into doubt the patents covering thousands of human genes and reshape the law of intellectual property."

It will be one to watch.

Pocahontas and Avatar

Here's some GML worth thinking about...

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In class yesterday I referred to linguist William Labov's analysis of "natural narrative" into component parts that are also useful in analyzing literary narratives.

You can find a handy chart of these components (in pdf) here. As you'll see, the term I should have used yesterday for the brief summary that speakers usually provide at the beginning of their everyday stories is "abstract," not "exposition." Labov's analysis of narrative is an excellent starting point for thinking about the structure of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," which begins with a one-paragraph "abstract" and ends with a Latin "coda." It's particularly interesting to consider where the component that Labov calls "evaluation" is located in the story.

Wikipedia offers this biography of Labov, whose work in sociolinguistics has been enormously important in advancing our understanding of the nature of dialect. In particular, Labov's research established that African American Vernacular English (AAVE), earlier known as "Black English," far from being a "deficient" variant of Standard English, represents a coherent, consistent, logical lingusitic system.

In yesterday's discussion, I also took off on a brief digression about The Little Engine that Could as a narrative that realizes, in its own geography, the metaphor A NARRATIVE IS A JOURNEY.

I blogged about this aspect of The Little Engine back in fall, 2008. You can read that blogpost here.

Mad as a Hatter

Should have caught this other Alice-related Times article, too, from Friday.

Alice and Algebra

An op-ed in today's New York Times by a doctoral candidate at Oxford University reads Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as an allegory about nineteenth-century innovations in algebra.

More on this to come.

We are such stuff

As we discussed in class yesterday (Engl 315), Alice"s exchange with Tweedledee in chapter 4 of Through the Looking-Glass seems to evoke Descartes' famous proof of existence in his Discourse on Method (1637): I think, therefore I am.

"Well, it no use your talking about waking him," said Tweedledum, "when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real."

"I am real!" said Alice and began to cry.

"You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying," Tweedledee remarked: "there's nothing to cry about."

"If I wasn't real," Alice said — half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous — "I shouldn't be able to cry."

That the question of Alice's reality should be framed as a question about the difficulty of distinguishing reality from dream points us, as well, toward the first of Descartes' Meditations (1641), where he explains his intention to throw out all his current beliefs because they are built on the misleading foundations of sensation. Isn't it the case, he imagines his reader objecting, that some sensations are beyond the range of doubt?

4. But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close observation, there are yet many other of their informations (presentations), of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper, with other intimations of the same nature. But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that they are monarchs when they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed [in gold] and purple when destitute of any covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are gourds? I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according to examples so extravagant.

5. Though this be true, I must nevertheless here consider that I am a man, and that, consequently, I am in the habit of sleeping, and representing to myself in dreams those same things, or even sometimes others less probable, which the insane think are presented to them in their waking moments. How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.

Of course, Tweedleedee's taunt is not that Alice herself is dreaming, but that she is "only a sort of thing" in the Red King's dream.

Descartes goes on to suggest that perhaps the truths of "Arithmetic" and "Geometry," which don't really on sensation, are beyond doubt, "for whether I am awake or dreaming, it remains true that two and three make five, and that a square has but four sides; nor does it seem possible that truths so apparent can ever fall under a suspicion of falsity."

And yet,

Nevertheless, the belief that there is a God who is all powerful, and who created me, such as I am, has, for a long time, obtained steady possession of my mind. How, then, do I know that he has not arranged that there should be neither earth, nor sky, nor any extended thing, nor figure, nor magnitude, nor place, providing at the same time, however, for [the rise in me of the perceptions of all these objects, and] the persuasion that these do not exist otherwise than as I perceive them? And further, as I sometimes think that others are in error respecting matters of which they believe themselves to possess a perfect knowledge, how do I know that I am not also deceived each time I add together two and three, or number the sides of a square, or form some judgment still more simple, if more simple indeed can be imagined?

This possibility — that my perceptions, which I had assumed to be of real objects, are simply placed in my mind by God — sounds rather like the idea that the world itself (including me) is nothing other than a projection of the mind of God: that I (along with everything else), am "only a sort of thing" in God's dream.

That there is no material world at all — that the cause of our perceptions is not mind-independent objects but God — would be precisely the position taken by the Anglo-Irish philosopher and Anglican bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753).

"Life, what is it but a dream?" is the question raised at the end of Carroll's two Alice books. What looks real to me might be a dream — my own or someone else's. If I mistake my dream of a life for reality, I begin to look like those "persons in a state of insanity" to whom Descartes refers. ("We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad," the Cheshire Cat tells Alice in Wonderland, chapter 6. See update below.) If I'm only a sort of thing in God's dream, should I worry that He might wake up? Should I be troubled by what seems like a consequent loss of free will?

Of course, it's important not to overemphasize the frightening possibilities of Carroll's question. Insofar as it perhaps points toward the ideal or spiritual as the only true reality, it seems to echo Romantic protests against the materialism of the Enlightenment and modern science. Good to remember Carlyle here, whose Teufelsdoeckh, in Sartor Resartus (in a passage unfortunately dropped from the 8th edition of the Norton Anthology, though still available in pdf on Norton's website), announced (with a nod toward Shakespeare's Tempest),

So has it been from the beginning, so will it be to the end. Generation after generation takes to itself the Form of a Body; and forth-issuing from Cimmerian Night, on Heaven's mission APPEARS. What Force and Fire is in each he expends: one grinding in the mill of Industry; one hunter-like climbing the giddy Alpine heights of Science; one madly dashed in pieces on the rocks of Strife, in war with his fellow: — and then the Heaven-sent is recalled; his earthly Vesture falls away, and soon even to Sense becomes a vanished Shadow. Thus, like some wild-flaming, wild-thundering train of Heaven's Artillery, does this mysterious MANKIND thunder and flame, in long-drawn, quick-succeeding grandeur, through the unknown Deep. Thus, like a God-created, fire-breathing Spirit-host, we emerge from the Inane; haste stormfully across the astonished Earth; then plunge again into the Inane. Earth's mountains are levelled, and her seas filled up, in our passage: can the Earth, which is but dead and a vision, resist Spirits which have reality and are alive? On the hardest adamant some footprint of us is stamped-in; the last Rear of the host will read traces of the earliest Van. But whence? — O Heaven, whither? Sense knows not; Faith knows not; only that it is through Mystery to Mystery, from God and to God.

     "We are such stuff
As Dreams are made of, and our little Life
Is rounded with a sleep!"'

Update (March 5)

In connection with the Cheshire Cat's provocative suggestion, Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice (New York: Bramhall House, 1960), points us to a February 9, 1857 entry in Carroll's diary:

Query: when we are dreaming and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of the fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which, in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which the sleeping life? We often dream without the least suspicion of unreality: "Sleep hath its own world," and it is often as lifelike as the other.

How did I miss this?

As reported by the LA Times, yesterday was John Tenniel's 189th birthday. Tenniel died in 1914 at age 93, eleven years after the first film version of Alice — which, according to the Times article, he actually saw.

Wrapping up metaphor

As we wrap up our discussion of metaphor in English 170 this semester, I'd like to call your attention to an effort I made to "take stock" of a similar discussion in a previous semester.

In this blogpost from fall, 2008, I sum up some of the "metaphors we live by" that appear in poems on the 170 syllabus and in poets' and critics' discussions of poetry itself.

Hey, Victorianists. Here are some resources that you might find useful in conjunction with Lewis Carroll's Alice books. Some of the links below point to earlier blogposts. (The Alice books are usually on my syllabus for English 170 as well as English 315.)

Boingboing founder Cory Doctorow has posted a podcast of a new steampunk story titled "Clockwork Fagin".

Robert L. Patten, a distinguished Dickens scholar and expert on the history of authorship and publishing in the nineteenth century, offers a concise yet comprehensive online "seminar" on the question, "When Is a Book Not a Book?" centered on Oliver Twist.

The seminar is in five parts on the website of Fathom, Columbia University's online archive of learning resources.

The seminar takes up many of the themes we've explored in our discussion of Oliver Twist in English 315: the special relationship to audience created by serial publication; the multiple voices or discourses that speak simultaneously in Dickens's narrative; the relationship of Oliver Twist to traditions of moral story-telling and melodrama; the novel's various dimensions of comedy, thriller, and political tract; and the complexity of Dickens's characterization.

But the special value of Patten's seminar lies in his demonstration that a full understanding of these matters requires us to see the continuity between Oliver Twist and the other content appearing alongside it in Bentley's Miscellany, where it first appeared. Thinking of Oliver Twist as a "book" is misleading, because our concept of the book imposes borders on Dickens's content that simply didn't exist for his readers.

For precisely this reason, Patten's analysis is of equal importance for our discussion, in English 170, of the New Criticism. New Criticism theorizes the work of literary art as a free-standing, self-sufficient verbal object; under Patten's inspection, Dickens's Oliver Twist looks very different from that description.

It's not long at all, and it's highly illuminating. Have a look.

Here are some sites that can help enrich your reading of Dickens's Oliver Twist:

  • Judaism in Nineteenth-Century England: A Chronology — a brief but useful chronology from the excellent Victorian Web
  • Newgate novel — Wikipedia entry on a genre of novel popular at the time Dickens published Oliver Twist, a genre with which Dickens's novel has some interesting similarities but also important differences.
  • Plan of the gradual abolition of the Poor Laws proposed — excerpt from the 1823 edition of Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (first published in 1798). Malthus's view of the poor laws was a crucial influence on the creation of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, to which Dickens was responding with Oliver Twist.
  • The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (29-37), indirectly invoked by Dickens in his description of a button on Mr. Bumble's coat in chapter 4 (37-38).

Also, here's a connection between the stark opening of David Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist and Dickens's novel. As Oliver leaves the baby farm to return, with Bumble, to the parish workhouse, the narrator remarks, "Wretched as were the little companions in misery he was leaving behind, they were the only friends he had ever known; and a sense of his loneliness in the great wide world, sank in to the child's heart for the first time" (24). It's the "loneliness" of Oliver's mother "in the great wide world" that Lean chooses to depict in his opening sequence — an interesting choice — and Lean drives the point home not only through the image of a tiny figure dwarfed by the natural landscape (about 1:50 in), but also through the earlier image (just after 1:25 in) of that single leaf dropping from the barren branch. Give it another look:


From Academic Assessment

Assesstivus 2013

Ephraim Schechter gave the keynote address at the 2013 Assesstivus. You can download the PowerPoint slides from the address, titled, "Assesstivus: So who (and what) is it for?"


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