Sunday, May 31, 2009

English Department Faculty Summer Plans, Now Updated

As the spring semester draws the academic year to a close and the students start dispersing for home and summer jobs, the English Department’s faculty members are busy with plans and projects of their own. Many students wonder what it is that professors do in the long summer break, and what follows is a brief account of the way in which five professors will be spending this summer.


In general, faculty use the long break from teaching to conduct research and work on large writing projects. Sometimes these projects take them to far-flung places like Constantinople and Cologne, while others require long hours in the Berkeley library or the isolation of their offices in Wheeler.

For instance, Professor James Turner spent last summer tracking down clandestine art and literature in the Renaissance, the topic of his current research project. Because much of the classical sculptures that would have been known to Renaissance artists are now scatteredacross museums "from Malibu to Munich," as he puts it, Professor Turner was led to Knidos, a beautiful site on the Aegean Sea, to investigate the site of the most famous statue of Aphrodite. This summer, he notes, will be less ambitious, however, since he is traveling only for the first half -- to Fort Worth, TX to see an exhibition, entitled Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, which he helped to plan, to London for a Baroque exhibition, and then to Oxford to help his niece recover from Finals. The second half of the summer will, he says, be decidedly calmer and less interesting: he reports that he needs to file papers, organize his office and use some of his research time to work on his book and some articles.

Indeed, Professor Eric Falci plans to spend his summer cooped up in his own office on the third floor of Wheeler finishing the book on Irish poetry on which he has been working. While this kind of solitary writing will take up most of the summer months, he does plan to take a research trip to Atlanta, GA to visit what he calls “the most important archive dealing with 20th century Irish poetry after Yeats” at Emory University. In addition to coming across what he knows will be some unexpected and serendipitous documents, Professor Falci hopes to take a look at an unpublished essay by Paul Muldoon as well as some composition notebooks by the Irish poet Medbh McGuckian. Because his book is less about the cultural milieu of these Irish poets than about their poetry itself, he won't be giving a full account of the archive, but he does hope to highlight materials and documents that could be useful for scholars working on 20th century Irish poetry.

Professor Scott Saul has similarly domestic plans this summer. He is currently working on a biography of the comedian Richard Pryor, a project, which, he says, will necessitate a trip to Los Angeles to interview some of the last living members of the LA comedic and political scenes that constituted “the epicenter of black psychedelia” in the 1960s and 1970s. This larger project overlaps somewhat with an essay he will also be finishing for a collection on black Los Angeles at the millennium to be published by UC Press. His piece will address how contemporary novelists’ understanding of the history of black LA relates to the understanding of “the ‘hood” as represented in hip-hop music. Finally, he hopes the time off from teaching over the summer will allow him to wrap up a project on the essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger, whose “creative and politically trenchant” work is best-known outside the US. UPDATE: Professor Saul has an article being published in the June 22, 2009 issue of The Nation, entitled "Off Camera: Civil Rights in the North," but which can be found online here.

Yet, this kind of focused writing does not necessarily need to be done within the geographic bounds of Berkeley. Professor Ann Banfield will be finishing her book on Samuel Beckett, whose work belongs both to Irish and to French literature, this summer, but will do so, she says, from the apartment which she and her late partner bought near the Picasso Museum in Paris. She says that the density of a city like Paris, which was where Beckett lived and wrote most of his life, makes it easier for her to live and to work since she doesn’t drive. Paris’ proximity to the University of Reading in the UK, which contains a large Beckett archive, will also be helpful to her in finishing the last chapter of her book. Professor Banfield’s relationship with French intellectual life has also been facilitated by the France-Berkeley Fund. She organized with Prof. Gilles Philippe a conference on language from a linguistic point of view (one of
Professor’s Banfield’s main areas of expertise) that brought two French professors and one graduate student to Berkeley last spring and two Berkeley graduate students as well as Professor Kristin Hanson to Paris last June to present their work to a receptive audience. She hopes to continue this relationship in the future.

Professor Kristin Hanson looks forward to this summer as an opportunity to work on her book applying ideas about the universal grammar of linguistic rhythm to understanding English meter, research she has been pursuing since she was a graduate student, and which she hopeswill ultimately empower literary scholars to explore meter with more confidence and to consider in new ways its role in English poets’ work. She will also be speaking at an international metrics conference in Vechta, Germany at the end of July, where she has been invited to give an address surveying the contribution generative linguistics has made to thestudy of meter; in honor of being in Germany but speaking in English she plans to compare some aspects of meter in music and in poetry through Handel’s work based on Milton's poems, "l'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," just performed with the beautiful dance composed to it by Mark Morris at CalPerformances. On her way home she will indulge in some applied metrics, joining her sister and mother in taking her two nieces to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.
As for the blog, it too will be taking a summer hiatus, so check back in mid-August when we resume our chronicle of the English Department.
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Monday, May 25, 2009

Commencement Address by Nuruddin Farah: "A Fork in the Fork of the Footpath"

Nuruddin Farah—among the foremost of contemporary African writers, author of numerous novels including the trilogies Variations on the Theme of An African Dictatorship and Blood in the Sun, and recipient of the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature—delivered this year's English Department commencement address at the Greek Theatre on May 16. You'll find the text below the fold.

A Fork in the Fork of the Footpath

I will approach the topic at hand from the perspective of a Somali, born in Somalia and into the oral tradition. To this end, I take the liberty to seek out the wisdom of a fabulist named Sheeko-Xaiir - in Somali, the teller of silken tales.

A Somali fable has it that while the wordsmith and magician is on a soul-searching journey, Sheeko-Xariir comes to a road with several trajectories. Uncertain as to which fork in the road to follow, he lights upon a most original idea after giving the matter serious thought: he rolls up the other forks of the road into a very giant one and wears it like a belt as an Indian conjurer might wear a snake around his neck. He ventures forth, spurred by the creative courage that is of a piece with his commitment to going beyond the world known to his peers. He is eager to meet the people residing in other lands that are foreign to him in his desire to explore the unexplored, get to know the unknowable - unafraid.

He walks and walks and walks, bent on getting to the end of the road stretching before him. Whenever he comes to the end of one of the forks of the road, he unfolds the next giant fork on which he walks on and on. Motivated, in part, by the huge need to come to terms with the many-sidedness of his ambition, he is surprised that he ends up on the very spot from where he set off: in the land of his creative imagination. He reasons that all journeys start before the traveller has become aware of it; they begin in the mind.

I find this fable fascinating in its potential, because I believe that young people are fabulists too. Like a golden silk spider boasting a larger than usual body length, they too produce an elegance of a universal-wearable similar to the spider’s, ceaselessly dreaming into the future. The young imagine what it feels like to travel the silk route linking the world of the Orient to the world of the Occident, the route on which goods and ideas were ferried back and forth between two great civilisations. That the young graduates have, in their journey, taken the right forks in the footpath is implicit in the fable. After all, you have made your choices, in each of which you could have pursued different trajectories or followed dissimilar routes, with every fork likely to lead them to a different destination.

You have done a lot to get to where you are today – as graduates. This is the first of many of your ports of call to make of your life what will, a life by which you’ve done well so far. Now you’ve come to another fork in the footpath, where, after all the celebrations, you will look at your future, stare into it eyeball to eyeball and interrogate it. Dare I ask what you wish to do with your life – from today on? Dare I inquire how you think you have fared so far in your life? In what direction will you move? Where do you wish your journey to take you? I doubt I need to tell you that anyone who journeys will maintain the bright ardour burning in the eyes pursuing a vision in conformity with one’s ideals.

A word of congratulation is in order, because you’ve earned it. Measure it how you will, but you have done a great deal to get where you are today. Yours has been a long tedious journey, starting with nursery, through a school system, which many of you may not have found it inspiring enough, then through university – and we know what it is like: assignments to be submitted on their due dates; a calendar of academic commitments to meet; exams to sit. You are here today to harvests what you’ve sown, reap the benefits of the hard work you’ve put in. Every step you’ve taken from as far back as the first day when your finger was in the secure clasp of an adult taking you to your playschool, have been as important as learning to walk. Because every activity in which the young participate has something or other to do with learning: learning about the environment in which one is brought up; learning about one’s own potential and honing it, now with the help of one’s parents, now with that of one’s teachers, now with that of one’s peers, neighbours, and the larger community. Life has been made easier for you by dint of someone else’s hard labour, someone who has made sure there are no comforts lacking so you may perfect your inborn talent, supplementing it with the acquired book-based knowledge, which in and of itself is insufficient until one throws in the experience, that is to say, the act, the processes, which lead one ultimately to one knowing oneself a little more after one has studied oneself - the study of the world is the study of the person living in it, with the life of the person taken as the perimeter of our achievements and our failures, young and adult.

You dwelled in an in-between time as you gained your education and worked your way through life’s experience until you became an adult in years and in ‘knowledge’ too. It was to this end that you apprenticed yourselves to those hired for the purpose of guiding you, your teachers, your tutors, your instructors, and your professors – many of whom have also admittedly learnt many things from you. The teachers helped you learn about the world in a more organized way, different to a large degree from the way you were taught things at home. In a manner of speaking, the purpose of learning is to master your way out of crises and into solutions – via texts, literary or linguistic appreciations, through the act of training your rhetorical powers, through writing, reading and researching.

As graduates, and because you’ve now attained your degrees, this is the first of many stations at which you will call, each visit bound to expose you to demands unlike the ones with which you have been familiar, each demand defining you and your place in society, on occasion assessing how well you’ve coped with the challenges you face each step of the way – from choosing your profession and succeeding in it, putting into a practice the things you’ve learnt at school and university to charting your own route to professional success - in short, meeting the new challenges that you will perforce face. There are a series of stations at which you will bivouac, even if briefly beginning with one in which you will play a subordinate roll to some someone who is possibly senior to you in age and rank, and therefore experience. How you deal with the status of being subordinate to someone not equal in terms of education; someone of a different colour, someone of a different gender, someone, whom you think, is less intelligent than yourself: these will act as markers of your character, and whether you can make claim of belonging to UC Berkeley, a noble institution, which prides itself in being the lighthouse meant to penetrate the impenetrable entanglements of every villainous act known to humankind. You will come to a series of forks in the footpath. In fact, it is from the vantage point of being at the first fork of a crossroad that will prove one of the great challenges of your life.

But wait a minute. I keep talking about your life, making assumptions and I asking you questions about your life, as though your life is yours to do with it what you please. In all seriousness, however, let me wonder aloud and put this question to you: how much of a young person’s life is his or hers - to do with it what they please and let the rest be damned? Has it ever occurred to you that your life is as much yours as the bank in which you deposit your pay checks, your savings and pension will have made that bank yours, just because you entrust your earnings and all your savings to its vaults? Have you ever considered that you are a mere custodian of your life and that it belongs to many other persons, in fact, it belongs, in part, to those who have invested in it: your parents, your guardians, your relations, your peers, those of whom you’re enamoured and to whom you’ve committed yourself; it belongs to anyone who has invested in your well-being from the instant you opened your lungs at the moment of birth, broke into the groans of a mother moaning out pain, to the moment when as a grownup, you are self-sufficient.

What of the matrix of our neuroses born out of our uncertainties, considering the labyrinths at hand, for the journey continues, and you continue walking until you reach another cul-de-sac, with no more road to negotiate. You may think wrongly that you’ve done everything required of you now that you’ve graduated. Happily but also sadly, you are nowhere near that status. All you have done is migrate between different stations of your life, with the reality of a classroom situation replaced by another life-station at which you either join the work force in some capacity or pursue a life-long ambition – to register for another course at this or another institution.

You are at crossroads, ready to brave the unpredictable nature of the unknown, the untried. There is no need for you to fear, however, no need to close one of your eyes to enjoy a depth perception. You know there is a wrong and a right way of looking into a binocular - in one, you hardly see what you want to see; in the other, which is the correct way, you view things in their proper perspective from the proper distance which you select. A correct binocular vision points one to a life in an imagined land, a land marked out with a continuous filament within the cocoon. The fabled silk route then beckons yet again and one journeys forth. There is something exciting about embarking, unafraid and unperturbed, on your new journey past many life’s crossroads, along an unexamined road leading to an unknown destination, with you not knowing what is in store for you or where you may end up or what you may find.

You are lucky to be where you are, young, with a degree, your life of possibilities ahead of you, and so many crossroads waiting for you.

In conclusion, I’ll quote a poem by the great Greek poet in full, because I feel as though Cavafy wrote it with journeyers like you in mind. Here it is:

As you set out for Ithaka
Hope your road is a long one,
Full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
Angry Poseidon – Do not be afraid of them:
You will never find things like that on your way
As long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
As long as a rare excitement
Stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
Wild Poseidon – you will not encounter them
Unless you bring them along inside your soul,
Unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when
With what pleasure, what joy.
You enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time

May you stop at Phoenician trading stations
To buy fine things
Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony
Sensual perfume of every kind
As many sensual perfumes as you can
And may you visit many Egyptian cities
To learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind
Arriving there is what you’re destined for
But don’t hurry the journey at all
Better if it lasts for years
So you are old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way
Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey
Without her you wouldn’t set out
She has nothing left to give you now.

If you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Literary Links

Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a memoir of his earlier life in Paris, was actually pieced together after his suicide by his then-wife Mary, and as Christopher Hitchens points out in a review of the newly published “restored” version, what was eventually redacted or included presumably had a lot to do with what his final wife thought about what he had written about his earlier spouses (which was quite a lot). So there’s something attractive in the prospect of a new version with all the stuff that was cut out put back in, even if it isn’t clear how different the book is; Hitchens seems to imply that it’s basically the same book, except perhaps even more so.

Despite all the ironies that seem to collect around the life of Samuel Johnson, Peter Martin’s new biography still gives us -- ironically -- an enigma, a man who “we know barely enough to know what we don’t know.”

As Christopher Ricks describes it, Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography manages to do justice to both of its titular adjectives: while “the journey deathward” has to take center stage in the life of a poet who was already living posthumously even before his untimely death at 25, Plumly also has a “scrupulously pertinacious determination to set the record straight,” careful not to lose sight of the person behind the myth.

In a reprint from 1891, The Atlantic gives us a pre-presidential Woodrow Wilson reflecting on the vagaries of literary reputation and immortality: “Be a book never so scholarly, it may die; be it never so witty, or never so full of good feeling or of an honest statement of truth, it may not live.”

As new biographies are written for previously un-surveyed members of the James family, Colm Tóibín writes, we are getting not just a wider and broader context for the families most illustrious members, but also “the history of many human types as they circle each other, nourish each other, and damage each other is being written.” Tóibín reviews Alice in Jamesland: The Story of Alice Howe Gibbens James by Susan E. Gunter and House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family by Paul Fisher

Alice Munroe wins the Man-Booker Prize. As Lisa Allardise puts it, the Canadian master of the short story can use the spotlight: “while critics and fellow authors have fallen over themselves to crown her "the greatest living short story writer", they have also formed a chorus lamenting her obscurity and lack of recognition. She is the secret everyone likes to shout about – and yet she somehow retains her secret status.”
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Professor Lyn Hejinian's “Positions of the Sun: Latitudes and Lucy Church Amiably”

Professor Lyn Hejinian recently delivered this year’s Gayley Lecture, an annual English Department event which showcases the current research of a distinguished faculty member. The text of Professor Hejinian's lecture, which we’re delighted to reproduce below, continues her extensive body of celebrated poetic and scholarly work. Its particular style, linking poetic diction with critical analysis, might ring some bells with students who have taken one of Hejinian's twentieth-century literature courses and encountered those writers she has most extensively studied, virtuosos in poetry and prose alike: William Carlos Williams, for one, or the subject of this lecture, Gertrude Stein.

Stein is a writer whose status as cultural icon—symbol of Parisian cosmopolitanism and open homosexuality, standard-bearer for difficult modernist writing, target of relentless parody—tends to overshadow her actual work. Hejinian admits that she doesn’t expect anyone in her audience to have read Lucy Church Amiably, the 1927 text which is the lecture’s centerpiece. In Stein’s own lifetime the situation was little different; she feared, Hejinian tells us, that her “identity,” the fixed public self that accompanied her celebrity, might overwhelm her “human mind,” the fluid, less definable self of everyday life. Yet Hejinian contends that Stein is important precisely because she is not alone in this predicament, and that Stein’s study of the relations between time and identity, labor and freedom, has much bearing on our own age. Her lecture recovers for us a bit of Stein’s human mind and offers a fine example of what literary scholarship can be.

Positions of the Sun: Latitudes and Lucy Church Amiably

Russian Formalist theory of the early 20th century made an important (and now familiar) distinction between plot and story. The story of anything is its strictly chronological unfolding, what happened in precisely the order in which it happened. The plot is the order in which those happenings are arranged artistically—the order in which they are offered for experience—liberated from their chronology, retimed, and given over to a different logic or logics. But there’s more to the plot than that.

The story is sequential. Therefore, in apposition, the plot should be consequential—and it is, but not within the same parameters as those of the story. The story transits and retransits the plot, crisscrosses it, often paying it little attention as it pursues its own set of possible consequences or transgresses against them, as was the case, for example, in the writings of the Marquis de Sade.

The plot includes not just the arrangement of the story elements but also all the artistic devices that are brought into play—digressions, puns, an inconsequential bird’s flight across an otherwise undisturbed sky.

Gertrude Stein describes such birds “in the sky of the landscape in Bilignin,” which is the inspiration for Lucy Church Amiably. “Magpies are in the landscape that is they are in the sky of a landscape, they are black and white and they are in the sky of the landscape in Bilignin. […] When they are in the sky they do something that I have never seen any other bird do they hold themselves up and down and look flat against the sky. […] They look exactly like the birds in the Annunciation pictures the bird which is the Holy Ghost […].”

With its structural and lexical motifs and their particular syntactic organization—and, in the little passage I just quoted, a small allegorical element—, the plot lays out the landscape of the work.

It is in the casting of its plot that a work of art generates recurrence and establishes patterns, analogous perhaps to the micro-systems current in a landscape, whether urban or rural, domestic or social. The plot draws things out into the serious imaginative game of art.

The notion of an artistic plot, with an explicit analogy to a plot of ground and hence to a landscape, puts the concept into a spatial frame. This belies one of this talk’s principal concerns, which is with temporal quality in high modernism and late modernity. It is also concerned with temporal quantity, but that is in most ways itself a qualitative problem, suffusing whatever sense one might have of a good life.

But framing matters in terms of landscape is inevitable in what follows, since, in the context of its temporal concerns, what I intend to talk about is based on a textual landscape, drawn from an actual one in which the author was living. The text from which I’ve drawn the ideas I’ll attempt to lay out is Gertrude Stein’s Lucy Church Amiably, a work that Stein described in the “Advertisement” at the front of the book as “a return to romantic nature that is it makes a landscape” and “a novel of romantic beauty and nature.” The landscape from which it draws is that of a region of France through which the Rhone flows just to the west of the French Alps. Lucy Church Amiably is a modernist text, written in 1927 and first published in 1930 as the initial offering of Plain Editions, the press that Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein created for the sake of publishing Stein’s work. Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press, Lucy Church Amiably is currently in print, but it is one of the less frequently read works of Gertrude Stein, whose works are not frequently read in any case. I don’t expect anyone in the audience to be familiar with the book.

In talking about this work—as a landscape of some temporal turmoil—I want to lay out a nexus of interests, one of which is an interest in the nexus per se—in nexicity, if you will—as a reality principle that structures what I will call, after Theodor Adorno and Edward Saïd but with my own twists on it, late work, as well as the conditions on which lateness reflects: everyday life.

The artistic imagination has gravitational pull—it attracts the world around it.

The distinction between foreground and background evaporates; as a relative concept “background” loses reality, and it disappears as an organizing principle of context. Everything enters the foreground, everything is pulled near. The imagination increases its magnetic charge by doodling or muttering, scribbling or humming while things flicker in increasing proximity.

The strength of the temporal charge of these things in return is a measure of their vitality.

For Gertrude Stein in 1927, spending the summer in the French countryside near the Rhone, the asparagus in the garden, the cascading of a nearby waterfall, the church in the town of Lucey some 6 miles to the east, and the rising bulk of Mont Blanc 55 miles beyond, all came to the imagination with equal force.

In her writings of the period—her landscape period, from approximately 1925 to 1934—Stein was exploring an area of explicit concern—narration—and particularly narration configured somewhat along painterly lines, with the significant proviso that it must be temporally charged.

For Stein, the problem for narration was that of creating “a whole thing, being what was assembled from its parts was a whole thing […]. [B]eside this there is the important thing and the very American thing that everybody knows who is an American just how many seconds minutes or hours it is going to take to do a whole thing. It is singularly a sense for combination without a conception of the existence of a given space of time that makes the American thing the American thing, and the sense of this space of time must be within the whole thing […].”

Time is a problem, American or not, given to narration, since it is in the nature of narration to give an account of change, even if, as in Stein’s novel Lucy Church Amiably, the changing occurs along courses of circulation or within microsystems of distribution. Lucy Church Amiably has the narrative (and also the theological) structure of a tableau vivant.

Vitality is the good temporality of life, just as life is the good inherent to time. That is Stein’s theological proposition. And it is offered not only out of a euphoric joie de vivre but also out of a dysphoric experience of temporal anxiety that had (and has) become an inherent feature of everyday life in its condition of lateness.

Hypotheses regarding the nature of time, or even verification of its reality, as distinct from its reality effects, are presumably matters for physicists to take up. To consider the reality effects of time, on the other hand—how people feel its plenitude or dearth, its capaciousness or confining insistences, the pleasures or pressures it brings, the size and pace of its increments, our ability or inability to fit into it, etc.—the consideration of such experiencings of time is a problem less for physics than for various branches of metaphysics and for history and art; it is also a topic for philosophy in its classical phase, or as it occasionally bears on art, as deliberative examination of the character of the good life.

Time has also been a matter that economists and socio-economic engineers have addressed, though, apart perhaps from Marxist or Marxian economists, economists often seem more interested in theorizing the means for getting the maximal profit rather than the maximal good out of time.

The good of the good life is of several, sometimes incompatible sorts: on the one hand, the good of happiness—consciousness of pleasure, a sense of well-being, consciousness of love—and, on the other hand, the good of fulfilled obligations: work, dutifulness, accomplishment, productivity, good citizenship. The latter are predicates of the good person; the former those of the good life. They co-exist but are generally incompatible.

I would speculate that, over the past two or more centuries, with the spread of what one might somewhat glibly call capitalocracy, despite propaganda from the commodity world to the contrary, emphasis has shifted from admiration and idealization of the good life to pressures on the individual to conform to a model of the good person, with goodness here appropriated to norms of dutifulness and productivity rather than to the eccentricities of delight, with consumption, though we are told that it contributes to individuation and delight, contributing to the networks that bind us to dutifulness.

In the first paragraph of the opening, dedicatory passage of Minima Moralia Adorno says, “What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.” I would agree, except that the principal things referred to in this sentence—“the sphere of private existence,” “consumption,” “material production”—no longer exist as they did in 1945, when Adorno wrote that paragraph. Consumption, productivity, and private life are, in our contemporary techno-culture, virtual as well as real, and as abstract as the time they take up in absorbing one another.

The temporal anxieties that afflict modernity and then postmodernity reflect somewhat different experiences of time. For Gertrude Stein, it is modernity, not postmodernity, that is the relevant temporality, but there are features in her work that, in being elements proper to lateness, foreshadow postmodernism—which contains lateness—perhaps even as its defining trait—in both its catastrophic and its resistant forms.

Modernity, of course, is the offshoot of industrial capitalism and of the commodity culture that it provides. The translation or transmutation of labor and time into product (as commodity)—as the site of what Marx famously termed time-congealed labor (obfuscated, mystified, fetishized—and in some sense allegorized, as a value-bearing fragment of an exhausted life in its indecipherable past)—this process went on at a relentlessly steady pace, and for a significant segment of the laboring population—although not for a member of the established middleclass like Gertrude Stein—everyday life was a matter of endurance, even suffering. It was not, however, generally fraught with panic or frenzy. The capitalist owner-manager might hound the workers, but the worker was not, so to speak, self-hounding. The figure of the exemplarily self-motivated worker—the so-called self-starter, the self-administering, self-martialing, adrenalin-fueled, competitive worker—the over-achieving contributor—belongs, rather, to postmodernity, in which what had been a middleclass work ethic spread into all strata of the general work force. In the transition, the senses of urgency that had formerly been imposed on the worker, are now composed by him or her. That sense of urgency, as long as it was imposed, remained unprocessed, in the current vernacular sense, where “to process” means “to internalize.” But with a shift in the nature of work from production to service, and from mechanical to technological modes, and with a shift in class-identification that seems to be commensurate with postmodernity’s technological and service-orientation, it is precisely process rather than product that is the focus of work. Or, rather, process is product. Such, in any case, is one account—cursory and over-simplified, but not altogether wrong. Under a regimen of maximal processing, maximal internalizing, we become our own owner—the other who drives us is ourself. The self with no time.

A determining feature peculiar to modernism’s particular temporality coalesced within modernity at a very specific moment—namely 12 noon on Sunday, November 18, 1883, when the standardization of time, brought about largely by relentless pressure from railroad and manufacturing interests, went into effect.

There was resistance.

Local populations in the U.S., for a variety of reasons, felt affronted that their time was to be superseded by someone else’s (and that the hour was to be based on that of the Greenwich [British] meridian tended to add to the effrontery). Boston, for example, was horrified to think that it would share noon with cities in the Deep South. Reform-minded people were concerned, too, at the corporate take-over of time. William B. White, a Congregationalist Church pastor in Boston, for example, “rose up and denounced standard time as an immoral fraud, a lie and a ‘piece of monopolistic work adverse to the workingman’s interest.’”

Western Union, too, was slow to come around, as a significant part of its business involved the selling of time. Beginning in 1877, Western Union had dropped a time ball every day at noon, local New York time (as determined by astronomical observation). In addition to allowing immediate observers to regulate their watches and clocks, the dropping of the ball also telegraphed a signal to paying subscribers, including the principal watchmakers of the city.

The commercial interests won the day, and at twelve o’clock noon on Sunday, November 18, 1883—“the day of two noons”—the standard went into effect. People in cities “gathered at jewelry stores and near public clocks” to see what would happen. According to the account given in Michael O’Malley’s Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, “Crowds of several hundred began forming in front of New York’s Western Union building as early as 11:30 a.m., to await the time ball’s drop. In Boston a similar crowd of about two hundred waited with ‘a sort of scared look on their upturned faces’ [St. Louis Globe Democrat].

The standardization of time, along with the invention of the telephone and the spread of electric lighting, produced “in the decades after 1880, a generally heightened sense of punctuality and urgency about time and clocks, a new and widespread formality in the experience of time in everyday work and life.” Among other things, an ability (or lack thereof) to cope with time became a class marker; “highbrow” theatrical and musical performances started punctually, “lowbrow” entertainments kept a more casual relation to clock time. “’Unpunctuality,’ a Boston newspaper claimed in … 1884 …, ‘shows a relaxed morality in the musical community.’ Indifference to time stigmatized the late-comer as a moral leper and a social inferior.”

The temporality in which modernism found itself was that of standardized, administered, and, with the advent of World War I, ultimately militarized time.

Postmodern temporality, on the other hand, (the time we have—the time, let’s say, of late and global capital), on the other hand, is experienced not as administered but as atomized—as unadministratable, uncontrollable, indeed out of control, a temporality that is everywhere and nowhere. With the advent of time-free, free-time, but also time-consuming technological instruments, we have all-time at our fingertips and no time for anything.

Email, cell-phones, list servs, wikis—these are all also place-less, and in them one finds oneself and others rendered simultaneously unplaced and replaced: unplaced because it doesn’t matter where you are as long as you have your technological device at hand, and replaced because this technology moves you, re-places you, virtually. Technology shares this power with ideology. We are shadowed ominously by the possibility that we can be replaced in another sense, too—that our presence in the system is arbitrary, impersonal—that we are signs rather than signifieds—signs rather than significant.

The high drama of Gertrude Stein’s struggle against insignificance and administered identity was only in its incipient stages in 1927, when she wrote Lucy Church Amiably, much of it in a state of pleasure—albeit an increasingly cloudy pleasure—over the beauties of the countryside in southwestern of France, where she and Alice B. Toklas, after considerable machinations, had secured the “summer house of our dreams.” When they first spotted it, it was occupied by a French naval lieutenant, who was stationed in the area with his family. The lieutenant had no intention of giving up the house, but, either serendipitously or as a result of months of behind-the-scenes machinations by Stein, Toklas, and some of their influential friends, the lieutenant was precipitously transferred to Africa. Stein’s success in acquiring the house surfaces in the novel:

Lucy Church rented a valuable house for what it was worth. She was prepared to indulge herself in this pleasure and did so. She was not able to take possession at once as it was at the time occupied by a lieutenant in the french navy […] there inevitably was and would be delay in the enjoyment of the very pleasant situation which occupying the house so well adapted to the pleasures of agreeableness and delicacy would undoubtedly continue. And so it was.
In this passage, Stein casts herself as Lucy Church, driven not so much by the pressure of the autobiographical truth but because Stein’s purchasing power provides her with a landscape, and in this sense it has the compositional force that Lucy Church in the novel, and, more importantly, her original, the eponymous church in the small town of Lucey, likewise commands. Both are able to command the field. Both establish a prospect of stability (a gravitational field) by incarnating the virtue of mobility (the moveable center that allows us to imagine time and experience a present moment in it).

Composition is a critical phenomenological possibility for Stein. It harbors the pragmatic truth of space and time in their application to human experience and to the work of art insofar as it attests to that experience.

She addresses the topic in “Composition as Explanation,” her enormously successful first public lecture, which she delivered in England, once at Oxford and once at Cambridge, the summer before she began Lucy Church Amiably.

The lecture builds on a realization she had come to after prolonged visual engagement with modernist realism. As she said in a 1946 interview, “Everything I have done has been influenced by Flaubert and Cezanne, and this gave me a new feeling about composition. Up to that time composition had consisted of a central idea, to which everything else was an accompaniment and separate but was not an end in itself, and Cezanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole, and that impressed me enormously….”

This insight, meanwhile, had emerged from another, which Stein had come to in the process of writing her 1000-page novelistic study, The Making of Americans. The gist of this discovery is that it is through one’s everyday habits that one makes oneself—which is also to say that the business of life—the process of living—and the being of individuality—the “bottom nature” of the individual—are inextricable.

In “Composition as Explanation,” Stein attempts to summarize this pair of insights—that each thing in a composition is of equal importance and that particulars make themselves what they are over time, which is to say by being what they are again and again.

Beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time is a natural thing […]

Composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are that composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. […] The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition and of that perhaps every one can be certain. (Library of America Stein, I, 522-23)
Stein wrote “Composition as Explanation” in 1926. During the following year, unnerved by her brief moment in the limelight of celebrity in England, she continued to explore, first in Four Saints in Three Acts and then in Lucy Church Amiably, the certainties that the pronouncements of “Composition as Explanation” claimed to establish. And she found herself returning to it a near decade later, in 1935, in the aftermath of her visit to America as a public figure, a famous personage. In becoming suddenly well-known, she had acquired an audience, and this had imposed on her what she termed “identity”—and the effects were devastating. She felt she had lost her mind—or, to be precise, her human mind. “Tears come into my eyes when I say the human mind,” she writes in The Geographical History of America. “To understand a thing means to be in contact with that thing and the human mind can be in contact with anything. […] Any minute then is anything if there is a human mind.” In the aftermath of her visit to America—her venture into the media-saturated climate that has created post-modernity—Stein felt she had acquired (or been afflicted with) identity and lost her compositional power. “Think of how very often there is not, there is not a human mind and so any minute is not anything.” The Geographical History of America is at many points a heart-broken work, in which the general happiness—the temporal success—of Lucy Church Amiably, only occasionally disturbed by ripples of anxiety, had been overthrown. She had been administered an identity, itself a product of administered time—what, in The Geographical History she calls history. “Now identity remembers and so it has an audience and as it has an audience it it is history and as it is history it has nothing to do with the human mind. […] identity is history and history is not true because history is dependent upon an audience.”

Perhaps time is nothing more than a term for a feeling about the quality and quantity of one’s life and of the period in which one is living it. Or rather, it is the medium for feeling—as light is the medium for seeing. It is mere ambiance—with the ubiquity and yet perturbability of the everyday and its small, crucial increments of difference.

Everyday life is comprised of the subhistorical details of numerous strata of experienced and unexperienced life. But it is everywhere a product of history-shaping forces (class dynamics, technologies, received and inherited ideas, established practices, derived expectations, established roles, etc.); the forms of everyday life and the practices that are undertaken as an expression of those forms, even when the practices deform them, are suffused with history.

It is perseveringly quotidian, banal, filled with insignificance; it is the microcosm of biological maintenance. And that, of course, is utterly binding on us. The microcosmic business of staying alive constitutes the macrocosmic realm of the habitual that allows for viable habitation—sheer survival.

Ever the same, repetitive, rippling with recurrence, the everyday is nonetheless the realm most susceptible to chance, contingency, the random, the unforeseen.

It is the realm of the absurd but necessary—the meaningless and arbitrary, the given—to which one commits oneself (or is bound) in full knowledge of its meaninglessness, its absurdity, its triviality, and in fundamental need of what it provides.

It is the sphere of commonality, of shared necessities, shared conditions, to which we attend dutifully, obedient to its exigencies.

And yet it is the realm in which we individually exercise idiosyncrasy; establish our distinctiveness. It is the realm in which we carry out a rich and autonomous private life—a secret realm, the province of free time and the personal. It is the world of our individuality.

Everyday life is a realm of decisions, choices (and thus, in some sense, it is an ethical sphere); it is the realm of living with one’s choices—or of enduring conditions and circumstances over which one has minimal or no control.

It is the realm of the inescapable, and yet forgettable. And yet again, it is a realm binding us to memory, where the particulars of our way of being who we are are situated.

It is the realm of accumulation and proliferation—to quote Stein: “This leading to that as conferring plentifully what each one did” (Lucy Church Amiably, 31). But everyday life is also the realm of decomposition and degeneration—the province of (everything’s) aging—a realization that brings to mind a comment that Edward Saïd, makes about modernism: “Modernism has come to seem paradoxically not so much a movement of the new as a movement of aging and ending.”

Any set of predicates, then, or list of qualities or characteristics attributable to, or descriptive of, everyday life will turn up binarisms and contradictions. It is a terrain of incommensurabilities. Of seemingly assimilated unassimilables or invisibilized visibles. It is the realm of multiple discourses and of what, borrowing Jean-Francois Lyotard’s term, we might call their differends. But they generate, too, what I will term allegorical features of the nexus of everyday life, features, albeit not the only ones, that mark modernist works of everyday life as late—or as the precursors of postmodernism, which is the lateness of modernism.

T.J. Clark offers an explicitly Situationist description of modernism in The Painting of Modern Life, where he characterizes it as a response to the “shift within production towards the provision of consumer goods and services, and the accompanying ‘colonization of everyday life’”; this shift, and the colonized condition of everyday life that it produces, is what I am attributing to postmodernism, as the temporal effects of this shift take hold and people become aware that their everyday life is fully occupied, as well as preoccupied.

It is important to keep in mind the negative, as well as the positive, features of a nexus; the threads and the web they produce are crucial, but so too are the holes—as well as the contextual peripheries. The nexus produces what Tolstoy insistently termed a “labyrinth of linkages,” and, as is the case in all labyrinths, it includes dead ends, “false halts.” And there are, between the labyrinthine lines linking things, gaps—holes, open spaces. It is these that help mitigate against the totalizing force within the everyday of naturalized ideology, of history (“history,” as Saïd put it, “as a grand system to which everyone and every smaller narrative is subject”), and particularly subject to forgetting).

Within what Adorno and then Saïd term late style we can locate something of art’s response to the forces bearing on temporal experience and notions of the good life.

Late style is a term that Saïd, in his posthumously published On Late Style, takes from Adorno’s provocative and concise essay of 1937 titled “Late Style in Beethoven.”

The lateness to which Adorno refers is concomitant with biographical or biological lateness in the life of a given artist, discernable in works produced toward the end of his or her life. This style might reflect the artist’s ultimate vision of greater harmonies than the turbulence of youth and history reveal, “a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity” as Saïd puts it; Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale or The Tempest are obvious examples and these are ones that Saïd cites.

“But,” Saïd goes on to ask, “what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction?”

This is “late style” as Adorno describes it. As he puts it in the opening of the essay, “The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation. They lack all the harmony that the classicist aesthetic is in the habit of demanding from works of art, and they show more traces of history than of growth.”

And he concludes the essay with the famous comment, “In the history of art late works are the catastrophes.”

For Saïd, “late style” is not only the style of significant artists near the end of their life but of significant art in the context of lateness generally—whether we call it late capitalism, or the late days of earth—lateness as it is now and has been for a century or more. As Saïd has said, “Literary modernism itself can be seen as a late-style phenomenon.”

Saïd explores an array of late style works in his book, but, like Adorno, he generally refuses to list the elements that might be said to be peculiar to it. What they effect, however, is fairly clear: resistance in the form of discord—a refusal or failure to effect internal harmony; resistance in the form of untimeliness—anachronicity; resistance in the form of incongruity—being out of place, a refusal or failure to fit into or achieve harmony with external conditions.

In writing The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein had been interested in typologies of human character. By 1927, a quarter of a century later, she was thinking about periodicity—about centuries. It was a topic she continued to explore. Thus, in Picasso, which she wrote near the end of the “landscape” period, she characterizes the twentieth century in terms that are much like those that Adorno attributes to lateness. “The twentieth century has much less reasonableness in its existence than the nineteenth century but reasonableness does not make for splendor. The seventeenth century had less reason in its existence than the sixteenth century and in consequence it has more splendor. So the twentieth century is that, it is a time when everything cracks, where everything is destroyed, everything isolates itself, it is a more splendid thing than a period where everything follows itself.”

The splendor of which Stein speaks is instantiated in modernism’s great works of art. For Stein, I think, they exist as a counter to the forces of “identity,” whose damaging effects Stein had had a glimpse of during her visit to England in 1926 and would be devastated by in the wake of her visit to America. In Picasso, she gives an account of a crisis that the great painter was undergoing at the time she was writing Lucy Church Amiably—an account that I suspect is as much autobiographical, her own, as biographical. “For the first time in his life six months passed without his working,” she says. “It was the very first time in his life.” “He having a sensitiveness and a tenderness and a weakness that makes him wish to share the things seen by everybody, he always in his life is tempted, as a saint can be tempted, to see things as he does not see them. […] During these six months the only thing he did was a picture made of a rag cut by a string, during the great moment of cubism he made such things, at that time it gave him great joy to do it but now it was a tragedy.”

The struggle against identity (against seeing things falsely), and the tragic sense that accompanies it, is fundamental to lateness. In Lucy Church Amiably, Stein stages it phenomenologically, as an intrinsic element in the plotting of the everyday landscape that the novel is and is about.

The elements of lateness that I can point out begin syntactically, in a proliferation of verbal infinitives and lexical repetitions.

In Lucy Church Amiably, Stein no longer uses the participial constructions that were such a marked and substantive feature of her earlier writings—as, for example, in “Orta or One Dancing”: “She was dancing. She was asking any one who had been one expressing that meaning is existing to be one assisting dancing to be existing. She was dancing. Any one was then assisting that dancing be existing.” And so on. In Lucy Church Amiably, the participial tense, the continuous present, and indeed continuousness itself are no longer accurate to experience. Instead we have infinitives, and the strangely dark nuances that they cast:

To understand they undertake to overthrow their undertaking. This stand and to understand to undertake to undertake to overthrow to overthrow their undertaking.
Lucy Church Amiably is a book of grassy, fine distinctions—of Jamesian distinctions (the James in question being, in this case, Henry, not William). Thus “in the corner there is an addition to destruction and so strangers will not be pleased and he and she have said that they will not do what they have not said that they will do,” and “he the son who is taller will not be especially anxious to be invited but as he was he was not to go. He did not mean to mean to be left lately.”

Repetition is a prominent occurrence in all of Stein’s work—it is not peculiar to Lucy Church Amiably. Indeed, for those, more frequent in her day than in ours, who bother to parody Stein, it is a readily available source of fun, disdainful though the fun may be. But repetition is not repetition in Stein. As she famously said, more than once, there is no repetition. Each thing that happens more than once happens at a different time and differently. This reiterative differing is constitutive of the thing, and of its visibility. Presence is temporal; it takes place not in isolation but in reiteration, by beginning again and again.

For Stein, what I am here terming “presence” is of utmost importance. A major function of a work of art is to sustain the vitality of the present—to sustain life in and as presence. The alternative is effective morbidity. But it is in the character of that presence—in its figurative peculiarity—that lateness, as a resistant negativity not unlike the one we find in Adorno’s dialectic, makes a stand.

Adorno sees this resistance figured in terms not of identity but as “non-identity,” resistant to being subsumed and administered in either an epistemological economy or a system of fungibility. Non-identity emerges from what Barbara Maria Stafford calls “the old opposition between Parmenides’s assertion that Being was identity and Heraclitus’s declaration that Being was difference.”

Non-identity is the means—the mediating presence, though it makes itself present by finding or making a gap—through which an individual in society or the aesthetic presence in a work of art or, let me dare to suggest, the good in life—evades domination. Non-identity is the shifty logic that undoes totalization, and screws up coherence. It has no place other than utopia (which is no place at all) or lateness—of the sort that I believe Stein, foreseeing the disaster of identity, plotted out in Lucy Church Amiably and populated with the kinds of grammatical and lexical reiterations I’ve referred to and with figures—characters, if you will—that are similarly reiterative.

One such is Lucy Church—or the Lucy Churches, whose various iterations include the church in the town of Lucey, with a cupola-topped steeple which provides Lucy Church with the occasional pseudonym of Lucy Pagoda. The incoherence of these iterations—their failure to consolidate into a single identity—spreads across the text. Even gender resists coherence; the names that move through the text include a frequently sighted Simon Therese, a Sarah Frederick, and various Marys (James Mary, and John Mary, and a Mary who marries a Mary and becomes Mary Mary, and William Mary).

William Mary was […] to come and he came and he was to come and he came and he had been and he had been William Mary he had been. He had been and he was then a pleasure to something something equivalent to right left and everything William Mary and individually coffee and individually wedding and individually acting and individually adding and individually left and left with him left and left with him additionally left and with him William Mary and his pleasure in this and this and this and this and one and a million of individual addition.
Probably the most famous instance of Stein’s use of repetition, against redundancy, and for the sake of particularization, occurs in one of her best known sentences, “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

During her travels in American in 1935, asked to explain the line, Stein said, “We all know that it’s hard to write poetry in a late age; and we know that you have to put some strangeness, something unexpected, into the structure of the sentence in order to bring back vitality to the noun. […] Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying ‘is a…is…is…’ Yes, I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”

The effect of Stein’s non-identical, non-identifying “beginning again and again” is not just that it makes lateness manifest in the nexus of modernity but that it proffers lateness as that nexus—as its internal condition, a salutary incoherence.

To begin again and again is to stand repeatedly clear of the force of administered history. “There must be no remembering,” as Stein put it, “remembering is repetition, remembering is also confusion […] anything one is remembering is a repetition, but existing as a human being […] is never repetition. It is not repetition if it is that which you are actually doing because naturally each time the emphasis is different just as the cinema” [from one frame to the next] “has each time a slightly different thing to make it all be moving. And each one of us has to do that, otherwise there is no existing.”

The topos of “beginning again and again” bears affinities with features that Walter Benjamin ascribes to allegory.

To allegorize is to speak of one thing in terms of another. That’s what the term means etymologically, in the original Greek, and that’s generally what it means in practice. But, in the allegorical figures that are of interest to Benjamin, the other of which the allegory speak is what the figures have lost from themselves. The figures exist as emblems of what capital History obliterates, which is little h history—the experience of being in time, with the possibility of the knowledge, the sheer memorability, of what has been. As Benjamin says (in The Origin of German Tragic Drama), “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.” They embody lateness, as the loss of time.

But the allegorical also has constellating—or, in Stein’s terms, compositional—force. For Benjamin, it is the structuring principle of history, the gathering of historical particulars. For Stein, “beginning again and again” mobilizes particularity, rescuing things from the totalizing power of generality and time from the obliterating force of history. Beginning again and again makes time.

Temporal experience was something that Gertrude Stein had given much thought to ever since she liberated literary realism from its narrative condition and embarked on the radical experiment of mind and matter that became her early masterpiece Tender Buttons. The allegorical element that inhabits Lucy Chutch Amiably is not a tragic one, though it does harbor something of the pathos that is inherent to the temporal dispersal that is characteristic of lateness. But, there is a gravitational force that Stein’s allegorical figuration exerts as it undertakes its imaginative work. The landscape that Stein, as she put it, “tried to write […] down” in Lucy Church Amiably was “a landscape that made itself its own landscape.” As such, it exists in a rich and resonant temporal present, a site for a lively life (which is to say, for Stein, a good life—even a saintly one). This present temporality is not the specious eternal present of omnitemporality—expressed grammatically in sentences like “cows eat grass”—a timeless truism that has no true temporal reference point at all. It is, rather, a constellated present, replete with temporal reference points. It is the role of artistic composition—imagination—to make present, as the present, the experience of “two noons.” The bells of the Lucey church toll the hours: “2.30, 3.30, 4.30, 5.30, 6.30, 7.30, 8.30.”

“It is the pleasure of the very different difference every afternoon after noon.”

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Professor Scott Saul Wins American Cultures Teaching Award

The English Department is delighted to announce that Professor Scott Saul is this year’s recipient of The American Cultures Innovation in Teaching Award. This campus-wide award, given by the American Cultures Center, “recognizes the use of pedagogical developments to enhance the students’ learning experience in the American Cultures classroom.” Professor Saul was awarded this distinction for the ENGL 166AC course he taught this past Fall, “Race and Performance in the 20th c. U.S.”

This award is particularly impressive, since it rewards pedagogical innovation for a requirement that every undergraduate at Berkeley must fulfill. Professor Saul noted that students sometimes bring mixed feelings to any course they’re required to take, and so he wanted to create a course that would be surprising and pleasurable as well as intellectually challenging. To that end, Professor Saul designed a course that took head-on the quicksilver qualities of race in American life. As he put it, “I wanted students to grapple with the reality and unreality of race in America — which is to say, I wanted them to understand how race has structured American history through institutions like slavery and I wanted them to see race as a fiction or performance.”

Though he gave his course a generally chronological organization, Professor Saul included a number of different media – literature, music, drama and film – to show the diversity of cultural conversations which race has galvanized in America. He swung from the 19th c. melodramatic narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the music of Duke Ellington, from the short stories of Sherman Alexie and Donald Barthelme to the films of John Cassavetes. If students were learning about, say, the rise of “soul” culture in the late-‘60s, they might do so by analyzing a YouTube clip of Aretha Franklin schooling Sammy Davis, Jr. on the art of soulfulness. He even took the class on a “field trip” to see Anna Deavere Smith (whose Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 the class read) perform at the Berkeley Art Museum. Students were confronted, that is, with the immediacy of race so that they might think freely about the play of race and ethnicity in our culture. Indeed, Jeffrey Romm, the environmental scientist who presented Professor Saul with his award, testified that the prize committee was especially impressed by the course’s attention to the ephemeral aspects of performance – the energy of a gesture, the ambivalence of an intonation — that are so crucial to making a performance “work,” yet that few courses register.

To get students to see the big picture in the small detail: this was, Professor Saul said, the challenge he took up. He wanted his students “to slow down, to rein in their multi-tasking impulses, and to learn how to concentrate on concrete particulars — the choice of one word rather than another, the choice of a particular melody and a particular way of singing it, the choice of one camera angle at a particular moment in a film.” To help facilitate that act of concentration – and to assuage the academic anxiety that non-humanities majors might feel with such demands — Professor Saul also handed out detailed outlines of his lectures. This strategy ensured that his students would receive all the “major points” and, rather than scribble furiously in class, would be able to meditate on their own reactions to the course materials and the argument he was making about them.

Professor Saul shared one powerful student testimonial to the class’s success. At the end of the term, he was visited in his office hours by one of the class’s less traditional students, a man in his mid-fifties. This student hadn’t gone to college after graduating from high school; he had begun working in the budding computer industry of the ’70s and quickly hit his stride in the tech sector, rising to become the systems architect for a major corporation.

When his parents died in quick succession a few years ago, he told Professor Saul, he started reassessing the meaning of his success, and decided that he wanted “more life out of life”. He had gone to Berkeley to pursue a music major, and had signed up for the class simply to satisfy the AC requirement. What the course taught him, though, was that there was a hidden richness to every cultural text, waiting to be delved into. What began for him as a game — finding the ‘telling detail’ — became a pleasurable obsession. And what he realized, in the end, was that looking closely at details was a fantastic way to answer the doubts that had been tailing him ever since his parents’s deaths: it was, precisely, a way to get “more life out of life”.

Please join us in congratulating Professor Saul on his teaching award.

(You can hear Professor Saul speaking on the topic of worship on the syndicated radio program Philosophy Talk. He is discussing the way John Coltrane modeled a sort of preaching, and a sortof sainthood, in the way he played his saxophone.)
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Sunday, May 10, 2009

New Professors Look Back At Their First Year

As the end of the semester approaches, the English Department blog is looking back at the past year. Since one of our first posts announced the new faculty who had arrived at Berkeley this year, we checked back in with Professor Emily Thornbury and Professor Namwali Serpell to see what their first years had been like. In what follows, Professors Thornbury and Serpell give two brief accounts of their experience settling in at Berkeley. Oddly enough, as you will see, spiders are the linking theme.


Professor Namwali Serpell: “Students and Spiders”

As of yesterday, one academic year has passed since I made my way across the continent to begin my time as an assistant professor in the Berkeley English Department. My office, which seemed at the start incredibly—undeservedly—large has now acquired masses of unfiled paper, three small neglected plants, and just enough décor to suggest that it is Namwali, lover of bright colors, who works here. I did all of my course preparation in my office and of course, I held office hours there. It is within its tall and still mostly bare walls that I learned a great deal this year about teaching at Berkeley.

I learned, for example, that students will come to you to talk about nothing, about everything, and wonderfully, on occasion, about one singular spectacular thing, an idea that will light up our eyes and lighten my workload. Indeed, I learned so much—so, so much—from the wonderful, gifted graduate and undergraduates students I’ve taught and advised. I am still startled that in this jaded day and age, they can still be so wildly curious. I am growing used to their acuteness—as Sam Otter once said to me, “They see inside you!” A tad gothic, but I think he’s right. I also learned how lovely it is to encounter my colleagues in the labyrinthine hallways of Wheeler, to have a 5 minute chat that will make me laugh or make me think or make me change my syllabus. Thanks, Scott Saul, for that passing reference to Taxi Driver. Thanks, Elizabeth Abel, for letting me know about the Toni Morrison reading in San Francisco, the occasion for my first “field trip” (I managed to get free tickets for my students) and my first “teaching meltdown” (I managed to get stuck on the Bay Bridge driving there; bless cell phones and savvy students for saving that near disaster). Thanks, Charlie Altieri, for saying the word “tone.”

I wrote 40 or so lectures in Wheeler 464 last semester; its corners are thoroughly familiar; if gazing cast stains, my window would be dark as night. The most surprising thing about writing lectures is how weirdly the writing translates to speech. In graduate school, I pretty much just read my guest lectures out loud with a measure of panache. After a week of trying to replicate this at Berkeley, my lecture process become far more amorphous: sometimes I’d read, sometimes I’d chat, sometimes I’d ask the students questions, sometimes I’d pause for what seemed like forever, searching for a word that probably wasn’t that important. Often—and this was a revelation to me—I walked. Who knew? Namwali is a walker-talker! I found myself strolling up there, just meandering back and forth in front of (most of my) 66 students. They didn’t seem to mind. I would speak off the cuff on what I found interesting about this or that, occasionally pausing in my peripateia to glance at notes on the wooden lectern, which I barely touched because one time a spider emerged from a crack in it, floating over my page like an afterthought, then scurrying away to its presumably better business. A first, indeed.

Yes, spiders are a first for me in Berkeley. They are legion in my apartment and each time I encounter one, I suffer the same moral quandary: do I release it into the outside world where, for all I know, it will perish or do I ignore it altogether? This is possibly true for firsts as well, many of which I have ignored, but some of which I have aired to friends and colleagues as sources of grief, delight, angst, surprise—thereby diminishing their newness. But as with the spiders, these firsts at Berkeley—and my varied responses to them—have taught me less about them and more about me. One thing I now know about Assistant Professor Namwali Serpell is that I don’t know as much about her as I thought. This knowledge is more pleasant than you might imagine. I am, for instance, not actually afraid of spiders.

Professor Emily Thornbury: “Unpacking my Library (with apologies to W.B.)”

Between June 2007 and December 2008 I moved five times, so liberating my books from their boxes is something of an act of faith. Most of mine were introduced to their new home in Wheeler on a Saturday in mid-October: it took about six hours and had to be done with some caution, because book boxes are a known vector for Tegenaria domestica, a spider that in my experience ranges from 1’-2’ in diameter and can render rooms uninhabitable for days.

Fortunately, the books were uninfested, and are now distributed about the shelves according to my relation to their subject. The ones I need and use often are close to hand (The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records); the ones I can imagine myself using in the near future a little further off (The Riverside Chaucer); those I’d be tempted to amuse myself with out of line of sight on the bottom shelves (archy & mehitabel); and those I bought for reasons I can’t recall clearly visible across the room, in case I ever remember (Teach Yourself Visual Basic). Most of my older and rare books are directly across from my desk for purposes of admiration, although a few are just behind me, in the ‘working collection’. I have calculated that if there is a major earthquake I shall most likely be killed by Napier’s 1883 edition of Wulfstan’s homilies. It is an excellent edition and quite a rare book now; it would be an honor to be crushed by it.

The other and most quickly growing part of my library is invisible: this spring I taught a course on nineteenth-century medievalist literature, which for the first time really let me use the wonders of Google Books. However one feels about their plans to digitize everything, it is splendid to be able to assign part of the Moxon Tennyson, or the attractively-printed first edition of Edgar Fawcett’s odd W.S. Gilbert-esque The New King Arthur, without requiring students to spend thousands.

At the same time, I hope those same students don’t altogether lose the chance to spend too much money on books. I still have the first book I bought when I decided I was serious about being an Anglo-Saxonist; I find from the sticker that it was only $20, but it seemed a lot of money then. Buying a book can be a kind of pledge to one’s future self; and the cost—to me, at least—can give the thing a kind of moral seriousness that even the largest PDF doesn’t seem to attain. Walter Benjamin would not have mentioned the visit to the pawnshop that paid for Balzac’s Peau de chagrin if he were not really proud of it. And unpacking books, after all, is not a burden, but a pleasure.
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Sunday, May 3, 2009

The EUA Production of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida

The full cast of the EUA's production of Troilus and Cressida

In what follows, Professor Kevis Goodman -- usually a silent partner in the composition of blog postings -- recounts the English Undergraduate Association's recent staging of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.

Kyle Binkowski (Class of 2009) is drawn to plays that have never or have rarely been performed. This attraction started during the Spring term of 2008, when Kyle and a number of his classmates, who had just completed a semester of the English Department’s upper-division lecture course on John Milton, decided to produce the dramatic poem Samson Agonistes—a work that Milton insisted “never was intended” for the stage. It culminated last weekend (April 24-26) with a splendid production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, perhaps the least frequently staged of Shakespeare’s plays. Professor David Landreth, who teaches Shakespeare regularly at the undergraduate and graduate levels, explains some of the reasons why. With its thirty different roles, Landreth commented, “not only are there so many characters for the audience to keep track of, but this bewildering variety of roles serves to articulate an even more bewildering variety of divergent and incompatible perspectives on the same events.” For these reasons and others, Kyle had initial trouble persuading the English Undergraduate Association to sponsor the production, but the EUA and other sponsors (the ASUC, the English Department) came through in the end and provided the necessary support, both moral and financial.

Several days after the performances, I interviewed Kyle, classmate Marc Juberg, who played a melancholy Troilus, and Kevin Ligutom, who acted the part of Diomedes. Marc and Kevin had previously collaborated with Kyle on Samson Agonistes—Marc playing Samson. A rarely

Marc Juberg and Ellie Garber as Troilus and Cressida respectively

performed play “is easier to make your own,” Kyle explained, because “the audience comes with no preconceptions about how it should be staged.” Moreover, Marc added, Troilus and Cressida is a drama that “speaks to a postmodern audience” in particular, because it “multiplies inconclusive endings,” resists closure, and “leaves its audience with unanswered questions.” “The exigencies of the present take precedent over happy endings and other formulations of fiction,” he continued, and “there is something very beautiful about that.” (Marc, in case you are wondering, is writing his senior Honors thesis on the play.) Kevin Ligutom agreed, pointing out that Shakespeare’s version of the plot flouts the expectations that most viewers bring to the enactment of the story of the Trojan War. Shakespeare’s Achilles (played by Zach Ritter, formerly the blustering giant Harapha in Samson Agonistes) is neither particularly heroic nor especially good in battle—in fact, he needs an entire brigade of Myrmidons to ambush Hector (David Andres Mejia) before he can kill him.

The logistical challenges were formidable for the entire cast. They had to locate rooms for rehearsals and acquire performance spaces large enough for the epic scale of the story and the size of the assembled cast. The usual division of labor between actors, on the one hand, and stage crew, costume designers, and set engineers, on the other, became irrelevant, as the cast came together to draw on their own resources. Aeneas (Lauren Mueller) and Andromache (Aileen Ritchie) designed the set, which was built and engineered with the additional help of Diomedes, Troilus, Achilles, Priam (Randy Eisenberg), Calchas (Jenny Elizabeth Oberholtzer), Thersites (Elizabeth Osborne), even Helen of Troy herself (Jerrine Tan), and others. Pandarus (Rachel

An example of the handiwork of Aileen Ritchie

Levinson-Emley) and Ulysses (Vivian Wauters) helped with the costumes, while Andromache crafted the beautiful masks that helped single actors play multiple parts. “I cannot stress the community aspect enough,” Kyle insisted, noting numerous unsung heroes, who labored long nights and hauled sets between the several spaces that the cast had wrested from several campus departments, which control them during the day. The blog, too, regrets that it cannot sing—or name—them all in this space.

The strong bonds forged were all the more remarkable because most in the group had never met each other; they came together from a wide variety of majors and with very different degrees of experience. Kyle’s open call to the campus netted both trained actors, well versed in Shakespeare performance, and first timers, discovering both the play and acting for the first time. Ellie Garber, who was radiant and playful as the unfaithful Cressida, has performed in many Shakespeare festivals, for example, while Agamemnon (Andrea Johnson), a Physics major, was encountering his work for the first time. Others fell in between, like the poignant and prophetic Cassandra (Hayley Housman), who reported that she “came into the play having taken English 117S [the department’s Shakespeare lecture],” and now, after “three months of living and breathing Shakespeare, [is] beginning to get a glimpse of the endless tragic, twisted, hilarious beauty that exists in his work.”

The performances draw enthusiastic reviews from the audience, which included veteran faculty instructors of English 117, including Professor Landreth and Professor Stephen Booth, the production’s Executive Producer. Professor Landreth wrote the blog that, in spite of his original reservations about the choice of this difficult play, he “was impressed by how continuously lucid the EUA production was, not to mention how frequently delightful.” He added that he found

Elizabeth Osborne as Thersites

Pandarus (Rachel Levinson-Emley) “skilled and interestingly elusive, often making surprising plays for sympathy rather than going over the top with the character’s creepiness.” For one GSI who came to the performance, “the star of the show was certainly Thersites” (played by the enviably limber Elizabeth Osborne), because “her tenacious interpretation of the character of the fool as equal parts devilish and humorous, wanting to bring others down but only as a way of surviving, brought the tenor of the tragedy into a more complex relationship with that genre.” This professor, who is so far gone as to confess her peculiar preference for Milton in general, felt that three hours went by without a moment’s notice.

Kyle, Marc, and other members of the cast are graduating this month, as are many of this year’s board of the English Undergraduate Association. But the EUA goes on and hopes to mount a Shakespeare play next year. We admire their energy and intelligence, and we hope they do, too.
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Friday, May 1, 2009

Literary Links

In the Guardian, Martin Amis remembers J.G. Ballard, musing on how so orderly a life could produce work so unpredictable, savage, and sinister. In the New Statesman, John Gray writes that these two sides of the author were not unrelated, that “after experiencing the sudden disappearance of conventional existence he was never able to take the pretensions of civilised humanity terribly seriously,” but that his work's exultant lyricism and macabre comedy represented “the transmutation of senseless dross into visions of beauty.” Ballard passed away April 19th, best known for his fictional autobiographies, Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women.

A new anthology of Graham Greene's letters has been published, including a trove of family correspondance that had hitherto not been available, but, as the editor put it, "The sum of all these discoveries is to make Graham Greene a stranger to us again." He's always been that, though; in Michael Orange's words, from his review in The Nation, Greene was a “devout Catholic, lifelong adulterer, pulpy hack, canonical novelist; self-destructive, meticulously disciplined, deliriously romantic, bitterly cynical; moral relativist, strict theologian, salon communist, closet monarchist; civilized to a stuffy fault and louche to drugged-out distraction, anti-imperialist crusader and postcolonial parasite, self-excoriating and self-aggrandizing.”

If you've read just one Portuguese novelist, it's probably Nobel winner José Saramago. But in Portugal, Saramago has a rival in António Lobo Antunes, as Peter Conrad writes in the New Yorker (ostensibly reviewing a new volume of essays and short stories called The Fat Man and Infinity); “the two writers, like rival political parties or sports teams, have noisy partisans, and those who cheer for Lobo Antunes claim that the wrong man won the Nobel. Lobo Antunes himself apparently agrees: when the Times called for a comment on Saramago’s victory he grumbled that the phone was out of order and abruptly hung up.” In any case, we're lucky to have both; as hep puts it, “Saramago is a benign magus whose fictions smilingly suspend reality; Lobo Antunes is more like an exorcist, frantically battling to cast out evil and to heal the body politic.”

There's something fascinating about the idea of Franz Kafka working a desk job (specifically, the Prague Institute for Workmen’s Accident Insurance). Even if the new-ish translation of The Office Writings doesn't make for riveting reading, as Michael Wood writes in a LRB review, “we can certainly agree that anything we learn about his job will strengthen ‘our sense of the conditions under which Kafka accomplished'...the writing he did, that is, when he got home from the office.” But in an interesting piece in The New Republic, Louis Begley argues that Kafka's office job was hardly any more a source of inspiration for the writer than anything else: “It is simplistic, to put it mildly, to reduce his literary astonishments to his work as an insurance lawyer.”
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