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Stories about stories

After a long work week, I’m having a day reading fiction for pleasure before I go back to reading drafts of thesis chapters again. My justification for reading popular fiction is usually that it is in a second language, so I’m reading José Carlos Somoza‘s La caverna de las ideas (published in English as The Athenian Murders). It’s a crime story set in Classical Greece, intertwined with a meta-narrative of a literary critic’s translation and interpretation of the story, and it has me thinking about why we find stories about stories so compelling.

There are lots of examples of this narrative nesting across popular fiction, as well as in TV and film (like Inception or Synecdoche, New York). It tends to be literature that is most involved with stories of literary interpretation, though, just as Synecdoche, New York is involved with filmmaking. Novels like The Marlowe PapersThe Tragedy of Arthur, or the ergodic S invite us into the world of reading and interpreting texts. La Caverna is particularly interesting because it invents a rhetorical figure around which the meta-narrative of literary interpretation centres: eidesis (which has its own—French—Wikipedia article). 

At one point, the footnotes through which our translator communicates include a narrated rant to a colleague about the frustrations of diverging literary interpretations. What he sees as eidesis, others see as merely extended metaphor. It is the presentation of the contingency of meaning that I find so interesting in this novel. Many novels leave reader with frustrating ambiguities, but few stage such explicitly the problems at the heart of apparently successful interpretation by a critic who cannot persuade others of their reading.

I think what fascinates readers in stories about stories is the way in which our own actions are mimicked. ‘Relatable’ characters are one thing, but a shared reading experience is compelling precisely because it is so hard to come by. Unlike watching film or TV, reading is inherently solitary. Even book groups do not involve simultaneous, shared immersive experiences. Stories about reading and interpreting stories are the closest we get to sharing those experiences. Novels like La Caverna or S not only tempt us into feeling this connection, but also invite us to care more deeply about the narrative than we might otherwise by showing us the fascination of others. Somoza’s narrator becomes obsessed with the possibilities of the text, with extracting its meaning. In calling our attention to certain details with their footnotes, we are invited to engage critically, rather than passively, to challenge or agree with narratorial interpretations as well as enjoying the simple content of the narrative.

I haven’t finished the book yet, although I have a certain suspicion as to how it will end for Somoza’s narrator! I am finding the illustration of a too-absorbed, too-earnest, too-meaning-starved literary critic fascinating to read for its romanticised academicism!

Moments of quiet…

It has been rather a long time since I’ve had a chance to do any blogging, but it seems that this weekend, of all weekends, might be a good opportunity to start again.

I’ve decided to move the posts that were on Blogspot over to this—much older—Wordpress blog. It’s been amusing to read some of the posts from when I was an undergrad, and most (although I admit not all) have made it back into the public domain here. There is so much continuity—I still love Pushkin, I’m still not quite sure about my own future working on English literature—and yet so many things have changed in the interstices.

In the long pause between this WordPress blog concluding in 2009 and me beginning blogging again on Blogger in 2012, I finished law school—which I’d started instead of a funded PhD—and gotten a job in an entirely new sphere.

In the much briefer moment of quiet between my last blogpost on the finale of Hannibal on Blogger and my return here, I’ve made good progress on my part-time PhD, with my four author-specific chapters done but a lot of work to be done stitching together those chapters and my overarching theoretical framework. I’ve decided to leave London—and my job—for a little bit to live with my husband in the US and to dedicate myself to writing, and publishing, and other fun academic stuff.

Here’s to quiet reflection and my own sort of progress, meandering and circuitous, but progress nonetheless.

Accidental blogging: some thoughts on academia.edu’s sessions format

I’m a relatively infrequent user of academia.edu (aren’t we all?), but I noticed recently the ‘sessions’ feature. And by “noticed recently”, I mean that I logged on one day to find that academia.edu was telling me I had an “expired session”, and I had no idea what the hell they were talking about, so I went away to find out!

It turns out that a session is a piece of writing that is opened up for comment and discussion. To open a session, one uploads a draft paper. One can ask for feedback from specific people in your network, but the draft is automatically open to comment by certain groups of followers (e.g. supervisors or mutual followers). I now recall that when I uploaded the paper in question, I did upload it as a ‘draft’ because it was a record of what I had presented at a conference, which was still a work in progress. I didn’t realise that labelling it ‘draft’ would throw it open in the way it did. 

With this particular paper, I don’t mind too much that confusion during the upload process meant it was accidentally opened up, but: 

  1. I don’t particularly like the way that academia.edu is trying to redefine collaborative processes as inherently a public one; and 
  2. I think it will only lead to the site becoming a partial blog for people workshopping general ideas.

Rather than, say, uploading your paper to Dropbox, or iCloud, or Google Docs, or just plain ol’ emailing it around to people whose insights would be valuable, this proposed model of academic collaboration is open by default. There are some pluses, perhaps. Your paper might receive attention from those in your extended network, or beyond, who can offer valuable insights that you might otherwise have lacked. 

However, the process fails to take into account the fact that publication is a key metric for academics hoping to progress in their careers. There are relatively few disciplines or cases where the model that academia.edu is offering is a desirable one for academics. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it does mean that the incentives to share so publicly early drafts of exciting and publishable work is pretty low. 

In addition, particularly for those who are on the very lowest rungs of the academic ladder, for whom publishing might be a hurdle they are seeking to jump, academia.edu muddies the water. By taking steps to link one’s rate of “producing quality content” to the metrics of how much pieces have been viewed and commented upon, it constructs a competitive blogging environment. 

In terms of how the feature will be used in practice, perhaps it remains to be seen, but what I have seen of the feature so far doesn’t make it a great method for collaborative working. One session that I joined, out of curiosity both about the form and the subject matter, was on The Study of English Literature, based on a short paper by John Xiros Cooper of the University of British Columbia about the future of the discipline. I did not actively seek the paper out; nor did Cooper seek me out to solicit my feedback. His session simply appeared in a list of open sessions related to my research interests, floating on the right-hand side of my home page. I requested access and was granted it. (Many thanks, John!)

To me, the paper was the sort of thing one might expect to find on a high-calibre academic blog as an extended post, and the comments were similar to those one might expect on such a post. The feature doesn’t allow for in-line editing and commenting, such as might be seen on scribophile.com or even in OneDrive, that old corporate lag. In general, the way that papers are presented is a bit undesirable; they rely on scribd, and there is always a delay in viewing/downloading a paper. If the purpose of the ‘draft paper’ function is actual collaboration, then it lacks the features necessary for nuanced comment and discussion.

Personally, if I wanted to throw open ideas for comment by anyone with an interest, I would use a blog post with moderated comments and tweet the link… 

Disclaimer: I should also say that this is a very separate issue to open access to academic literature, which is one of academia.edu’s main aims, and a laudable one. As part of its general mission to open up more and more content to be available for free on its site, academia.edu encourages academics, particularly doctoral students and early-career researchers, to publish PDFs of their work. In 2013, when Elsevier issued a take-down notice for numerous papers, the site was clear and unequivocal in criticising the move, as were many academics (Michael Clarke’s analysis of the incident is particularly worth a read).

The Future of English?

No, not the language, I’m afraid, but the disciplinary area of English Literature.

My thesis being done, and as I wait upon one final graduate school’s response/some funding questions before making a final decision about my course of study next year, I’ve been doing some ’round-the-houses’ reading as ‘preparation’ for graduate study, particularly Terry Eagleton‘s anniversary-edition Literary Theory: An Introduction, with its nice new preface, and Michele Lamont‘s How Professors Think, a somewhat sociological approach to how funding panels work within academia and the production of a category of ‘excellence’ at the top of the academic hierarchy.

Both are interesting (in different ways), and both raise the question of how the discipline called ‘English Literature’ might or might not be in crisis through a self-multiplication (particularly due to the proliferation of literary theory) that raises doubt about any true way to define excellence in scholarship or literary works themselves.

To me, this is particularly interesting given my own crisis of disciplinary affiliation, transitioning from hard sciences to English Lit before pondering if Comparative Literature (with an additional focus on language skills and transnational viewpoints) or English Lit (with some ad-hoc, personal focus on language skills and transnational viewpoints) would be a better fit for graduate school. Oh, yes, and who could forget the historical, philosophical and political/social science interests thrown in there too, thanks to the Human Rights Scholars Seminar and my personal approach of texts in-situ with respect to historical, philosophical, sociological and artistic developments. Although I perform strong close-readings, I tend to feel on a personal level that they only find relevant meaning within a larger context (autobiographical through to national or even universal). I ultimately chose to define myself as an English Lit grad student because the locus of all my theoretical and contextual interests turns out to be, 9.9 times out of 10, English literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Lamont’s text, however, contains some very interesting—and somewhat troubling—quotes from unnamed professors who serve on American funding panels that consider English Lit proposals. Take, for example, this one:

When it comes to literature, there is no [a priori prestige] … [T]he sense in which projects [in English literature] are dismissed or rejected or questioned tend[s] to be more confident than the way other projects are evaluated … [O]ne of the real question marks is: Are these literary projects really calling upon information the way history does, or [on] a body of knowledge or a background that we can really trust to be scholarly in any even sort of commonsensical sense of that word?

The questioning of whether English Lit these days is even scholarly resonantes with Eagleton’s text precisely because he speaks of the discipline as stemming from a desire in the nineteenth century to establish a ‘poor man’s Classics’, accessible to those of the lower classes and to those of ostensibly lower intellects (i.e. women). Eagleton notes that this bias (particularly in the form of a preponderence of female undergraduates in English) still exists to a certain extent, and I wonder if that is part of what is visible in the negative attitudes from both English and non-English professors in Lamont’s book.

In a recent class discussion, this topic was raised viz “mobility studies”—whether or not such a discipline should be created, whether or not a “mobility studies” discipline would even be productive for those who affiliate themselves with the study of mobility as well as another discipline (the pertinent case-in-point was Professor Stephen Greenblatt, one of the biggest proponents of such studies in recent years). I personally see little value for “mobility studies” in becoming an independent discipline: it is precisely because it is an interdisciplinary field of study, because its members have their own sense of mobility, that it works.

Similarly, if the English discipline really is in the midst of a “legitimation crisis”, as Lamont argues, then there is no benefit in attempting to solve such a crisis via splintering into “women’s studies”, “literary theorists”, “Victorianists”, etc., precisely because the value of these pursuits is heightened by their interrelations, points of friction, and coalescences. “Women’s studies”, for example, may also be a segment of history, political science, sociology, psychology, even. Women’s studies within the English Literature discipline can easily borrow tools and approaches from these other disciplines, or even from literatures in other languages, but ultimately, the focus is literature written in English. This commonality with Victorianists, for example, creates readings and theories that are in dialogue with each other, rather than mutually unintelligible. Moreover, readings engage the techniques that are substantively belonging to the English Literature discipline: the skills of close-reading and intuitive response to and recognition of great writing. I don’t think there’s any other discipline I could situate myself in that would be so fluid, so flexible, and at the same time so wholly in tune with what is really striking and interesting to me. The future of English Literature is surely bright.