Archive for intellectual discourse

Summer 14 course materials: Introduction to Literary Theory

Posted in Teaching, The Profession with tags , , , , , , , on 25 May 2014 by Ben

This summer, during the June  ‘A’ Term, I will be teaching (for the second time ever), ENGL 2112: Introduction to Literary Theory. You can find the description of my previous stab at it here along with some course documents. This time things will be a bit different, as I am eschewing the “know a few things well” approach that I tried to employ last time even if I am trying not to teach according either to the “canonical theory” or “theory cafeteria” models which seem to prevail in many such courses.

Download the schedule (ENGL_2112_Schedule_2), the syllabus(ENGL_2112_Syllabus), and the daily worksheet assignment (Daily_worksheet_assignment) if you like. Looking them over as you read will be helpful.

So, in what follows I want to explain and perhaps rationalize the schedule and shape of the course. Note that in the last version of the course we read books of theory, D+G’s Kafka book, for example. Here we are using the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Thoery and Criticism as our only text for two reasons. First, cost/efficiency. It’s a spendy book, yes, but it has resale value to students and could be less than five or six university press titles we won’t even be able to finish. Plus, everyone knows where the readings are and what to bring to class every day. The second reason is that by limiting myself to the Norton, just as with limiting myself to post-1980 theory, I am adding a helpful constraint. I don’t have to think about everything. I don’t think of this as being derelict in my duty as I would have to leave things out no matter what, whether I am drawing from ALL of theory or just from the selections in the anthology. I guess I could add another reason, namely that dealing with an anthology offers us a chance to think about the politics of anthologies, a major point of contention in the culture wars of the 1980s. In any case, I know there are drawbacks to the “antho-logical” approach (not the least of which is the appearance of “cafeteria”style theory), but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in this experiment in course design. (I think. I hope.)

More below the fold.

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on trigger warnings

Posted in Teaching, The Profession with tags , , on 20 May 2014 by Ben

A discussion on Twitter (although “discussion” is, of course, a rather problematic concept in that context, natch), prompts the following.

I painted myself into a corner by coming out against trigger warnings on syllabuses. I have no interest in rehashing the conversation in which this happened, and I am pretty sure I was making one or two (or eight) wrong assumptions about what other people were saying when I entered the conversation, which prompts me to think that joining any conversation only happens under a condition of misreading the conversation in its extant form, in the way that Bloom talks about misreading, except for social media rather than poetry (and I suppose that the lyric poem was social media before social media; “Watching the cows again. I am such an I.”)

In any case, I have no problems with professors who wish to include trigger warnings on a syllabus, or who wish to warn students in lecture about violent or other graphic content in a film, novel, artwork, etc. (I assume that sound I am hearing is everyone breathing a sigh of relief). I do exactly the latter when I teach Ballard’s Crash or Ellis’ American Psycho. No doubt I could do so with other texts as well. I offer these warnings because I think it’s good pedagogy for me to do so. As someone on Twitter mentioned, we need to prepare students to read difficult things. That’s part of the job, or maybe just “that’s the job”. At the same time, as other people mentioned (mainly me I think), we need to assume that students have some background that allows them to read difficult material. It seems to me that warnings need to find a balance between such things. As such, it will be (and should be I think) difficult to discern between texts that need warnings and those that don’t (or simply need them less).

Complicating this issue is the fact that students come to the class with very different backgrounds, and not only in terms of education. Such difference defeats our expectations as teachers to the point where having any expectation might come back to haunt us. (A common refrain department meetings, in my experience, has to do with how bad at writing English majors are. Faculty discover this every term, after the first written assignment for the most part and are dismayed, again every term, that they have to teach some writing, that their expectations were not in line with reality. I recall a David Foster Wallace essay on bad grammar and how he winds up turning every course into a writing course after he discovers, yet again, how bad students are at writing after collecting their first bit of written work.) To say as much is perhaps as banal as can be, so I won’t belabor the point beyond saying that it will be difficult if not impossible to accommodate everyone’s triggers a priori. As such, students need to participate in their own education to some degree and help the professor understand what their specific situations are, especially when it comes to texts in those greyer areas alluded to above. I am fully aware that even the students most motivated to such participation will have difficulty in this regard, but on the other side professors have the same difficulty. Of course, I also realize that it’s the professor’s job to deal with such issues, but I also believe that education must be active rather than passive. The blanket call for trigger warnings (which were not being made by my Twitter interlocutors, my misunderstanding to the contrary) seems to go hand in hand, in my mind, with not only a broad sanitizing of culture, but also with the production of passive readers. More on this below.

First, note that the active engagement on the part of students, and their capacity to tell instructors about what might cause them trauma (or offense) opens up a further complication, namely that the classroom experience can begin to cater to increasingly the specific whims of individuals. Lest there be any confusion: Survivors of rape and other violence do not have “whims” about their pasts or their traumas. Their concerns are legitimate and must be addressed. Full stop. Knowing that there are such legititmate concerns in a given classroom will be difficult for instructors, but difficulty here is no excuse to not think or work hard to make the classroom a space of learning rather than one of shock (I believe the latter inhibits the former). As such, it is wise and necessary to prepare students for the material, but again in the name and vocabulary of pedagogy and scholarly inquiry rather than that of “triggers” and the potentially offensive.

However, there are what to my mind non-controversial facts (or what ought to be non-controversial facts) that have become so highly politicized that they can cause offense to people on the other side of the “debate” (you can guess at these if you like). When “affluenza” is a thing, one upon which the outcome of court cases can hinge, how can the individual professor know what is and is not a legitimate condition? (Affluenza is merely an example here from broader culture, not an example of something that will come up in this narrower context.) How can a professor know in every case, or even a preponderance of cases, what texts might need a warning, what representations are so graphic that they need comment? To be clear again: there are many instances of trauma that cannot and should be questioned here. Anyone who questions a rape survivor or someone with PTSD of one origin or another, or who cannot recognize why American Psycho is a problematic text (or numerous others) is beneath contempt. Full stop. But what about the greyer areas? And what about political objections? What about a student who reacts badly to material but who has no previous history or trauma? I realize that I have fallen into “just asking questions” mode, and that is not my intent. I would very much like to know, and am very receptive to thoughts from others, on how to make distinctions between texts that need warnings and those which do not, as well as on how to distinguish students’ legitimate conditions from personal whim or mere belief, however sincerely held (this last point an important one given that several experts expect Hobby Lobby to be successful in their suit demanding their right to deny contraception coverage under the ACA because of their “sincerely held belief” that such a thing is wrong).

To return to an earlier point, and with all awareness that claims about “slippery slopes” should not be mistaken for truths, the increased focus on the trigger warning seems to me part of a larger process by which, on the one hand, culture becomes sanitized and, on the other, readers become increasingly passive. The two issue are directly related to one another. I tend to offer warnings to students when we read texts that have forced me to think hard and in ways that make me uncomfortable. Is Mark Twain racist? Is Ellis a misogynist, or satirizing misogyny? Does Ballard create the very inhumanity he seems to be critiquing? Should we allow ourselves to be educated by difficult texts into new modes of knowing or being, or should we judge them according to older modes? What older modes? How do we know that the time has come for a new one? What power does the new one serve? If I find myself asking these questions, I find myself thinking that students might need a warning and I also find myself knowing that students need to read these texts, with the caveat that some students might need to be excused for legitimate reasons. They need to read these texts because these texts produce active readings, even if that reading begins only with “I hate it.” Asking why one hates something is a productive question and getting beyond “just because” or “it’s stupid” requires and leads to very good conversation (for the most part–someone will always say “That novel was stupid” on the FCQs, even for relatively non-problematic texts such as The Great Gatsby or The Return of the King). When we focus on “trigger warnings” and notions of offensiveness, we move the conversation outside the parameters of education and debate and into the realm of the radical individual whose tastes determine all. Education does not take place outside the context of a we, and a we cannot obtain when individuals do not discuss. I am not referring here to “snowflake millennials” but rather to American culture broadly, in which having it “your way” has become the norm for any segment of society privileged enough to have or afford a way of its own (a segment of society from which a  fair number of college students come) and the incommensurability of the points of view espoused by talking heads on cable news is taken for granted, with the answer always being “in the middle” or a “third way” that is idealized as a view from nowhere but actually never found or produced. Since privileged segments of society–the very ones that claim this view from nowhere–drive the agenda and have become commonplace in my experience as a watcher of news and as a teacher (cf numerous students who have told me in one context or another how they pay my salary), we run a risk of allowing the privileged to not ever confront what they  find offensive to their privilege.

Finally, the idea of the trigger warning seems to me to grant far too much power to representation and, when it is called a “trigger warning,” implies that texts in fact have a certain amount of control over us. I see myself as someone who helps people overcome representation, someone who helps people understand how representations work against implicit and explicit (video games make us serial killers and what not) cultural claims that representations are dangerous and must be regulated in some manner. I am not worried about being censored as a teacher here, and do not think that this issue is one of censorship in this respect. Rather, I think it has to do with the issue of representation itself, how much power we grant it, and the critical tools we need to understand it. This issue seems pressing to me in a time when representations such as “fair and balanced” are asserted and made to be or taken true without regard to any sort of actual truth.

Again, and for the final time, I am not arguing in any way against legitimate trauma as a reason for excusing a student from an assignment or against thinking hard about what texts need warnings. Moreover, I worry very much about my own capacities to make such judgements and about the ways my own very real privileges might blind me to the situations of other people who have lived through such trauma. In the end I too (following someone on Twitter) am arguing for a “thinking harder” about this issue. What I am trying to add to the conversation (I did not see it earlier today on Twitter, although I expect most will agree with me here), is the idea that part of this “thinking harder” includes a contextual shift that focuses on pedagogy and the situation of the “trigger warning” in broader cultural issues having to do with the manner in which culture is made safe and how this safety produces passive readers rather than active ones.

some thoughts on fantasy after ICFA 35

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, The Profession, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 23 March 2014 by Ben

So ICFA 35 was the first conference I have ever attended at which there was a strong and ongoing discussion of fantasy literature. I have only recently returned to reading fantasy at great length and only even more recently started teaching it and writing about it. I had taught sf for years, and had written a bit about it, but SFRA last year was my first conference on that subject. Point being: I am rather new to being amongst people talking about the issue of genre and these specific genres. Since I am writing about sf, fantasy, and horror in Here at the end of all things, perhaps this moment is long overdue. Better late than never.

In any case, several rather unfinished thoughts from the conference.

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Old syllabus: Posthuman Media

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 February 2014 by Ben

Following a discussion with Marc Weidenbaum via Twitter, here is the syllabus for an old course: Posthuman Media.

ENGL_3116_Daily_Schedule_-_Revised_3

Excerpt from my review of Stiegler’s Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 March 2013 by Ben

A paragraph from my forthcoming review of the second volume in Stiegler’s Disbelief and Discredit, recently translated for Polity by Daniel Ross.

For Stiegler, there are three forms or conditions of “being”: subsistence, existence, and consistence. That which subsists (and therefore does not exist), such as animal life, merely is and leads a life without reason. That which consists (and therefore does not exist), leads a “life” in which being and reason are one, even if the relation between the two remains incalculable (and therefore beyond the scope of political economy). That which exists seeks to avoid mere being by pursuing the incalculable consistency of its being and its reason, at which it will never arrive. Such human being becomes, or individuates in a term Stiegler borrows from Gilbert Simondon, towards a consistence that only manifests on another plane (and Stiegler here draws from Deleuze and Guattari who write of planes of consistency on which assemblages manifest by finding a proper level of abstraction). In order for the existent to pursue its consistence—and avoid the disindividuation, desublimation, and/or disaffection that lead to subsistence—it must have a reason, something in which to believe: a symbol, something that possesses consistence, something whose meaning is at one with its being. In this manner, as well as in a more conventional sense, Stiegler claims that such symbols do not exist.

Summer 2012 Course: ENGL 4038: Foucault & Deleuze: From Knowledge and Discipline to Control and Networks

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 7 January 2013 by Ben

Here are the course materials for a class I taught in Summer 2012 on Foucault, Deleuze, networks, and power. The class was a senior capstone seminar and the students did really outstanding work on a very difficult subject.

The focus here was on Deleuze’s reading of Foucault, especially the latter’s transition from considerations of discourse to non-discursive formations during the period between Archaeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish (something that Deleuze makes much of in the first two or three chapters of Foucault).

Enjoy:

ENGL 4038: Foucault & Deleuze Syllabus

ENGL 4038: Foucault & Deleuze Daily Schedule

Paper for Marxism and New Media

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on 21 January 2012 by Ben

Here is my paper for the Marxism and New Media conference at Duke this weekend. It largely overlaps with my recent MLA paper, but it is rather different in many respects as well so I will just put the whole thing up despite the repetition. In any case, I am trying to beat it into shape for a more formal publication venue.

The Political Economy of Digital Media and Education

Benjamin J Robertson

First, let me shill for ebr and ask anyone who is interested in submitting their paper to us for publication to speak to me at lunch or later today. You can also find me online, on Twitter, etc.

Second, let me say that this is perhaps the worst paper title I have ever come up with.

This paper is a continuation of one that I gave at MLA two weeks ago, with a much better, if less informative title: “Digital Anamnesis.” My aim for that paper, and for this, is to think through my hesitation with regard to the new, history, form, and meaning. Briefly put, and not saying anything new as yet I think, I value new forms and processes of discourse, ones that seek to overcome limitations inherited from the past in order to make meaning in new ways. These forms and processes would have to, perhaps, ignore history and the methods of meaning making it affords us. However, I also value history, however problematic, insofar as it allows us to contextualize, understand, and make judgments about the new. In my MLA paper, and with further elaboration here, I consider received forms and processes of scholarship, especially as such scholarship (which is being challenged by digital media) operates within a political economy of academic employment and instruction and intellectual discourse. My concern, specifically, has to do with the manner in which the discourse surrounding what we still call the job market has been inflected by the advent and valorization of the so-called digital humanities. Dh has, it seems to me, implicitly promised young scholars jobs if they are able to write code, create databases, or otherwise interact with networked computers in an expert manner, often by prioritizing alternative academic, or alt-ac, careers. My purpose is not to argue against the value of DH broadly, but to question how DH or new media interacts with and informs the political economy of academic instruction, production, and employment in the humanties.

My MLA paper was part of a panel organized by David Golumbia: “Digital Literary Studies: When Will it End?” which has the distinction of being name-checked by Stanley Fish in a New York Times op-ed. Given where we are, and the appositeness of Fish’s comments on the MLA convention generally in the context of this paper, I will start with him as a way into my argument. Fish tells us that he cannot attend MLA, but that he has read the program and can therefore weigh in on its shortcomings, which, it turns out, are legion. He writes, “I was pleased to see that the program confirmed an observation I made years ago: while disciplines like physics or psychology or statistics discard projects and methodologies no longer regarded as cutting edge, if you like the way literary studies were done in 1950 or even 1930, there will be a department or a journal that allows you to proceed as if nothing had happened in the last 50 or 75 years.” Ignoring that session titles are rarely useful for understanding what sessions are actually about or the directions they might take, we can see here Fish, apparently at any rate, critiquing his (former?) profession for failing to advance. In some respect, he is no doubt correct. I recall Michael Berube writing somewhere that most undergraduate courses are methodologically organized by practices of close reading and simple historicism. These practices, in fact, still dominate if silently, I think, even more advanced humanistic discourse. As I hope to make clear, I am rather perplexed by the question of what to do about this “failure” to move forward with new practices of reading, writing, and thinking.

In any case, Fish then goes on to reminisce about how everyone used to talk about postmodernism (which seems to be a proxy for “theory” broadly), but no one does anymore. So, it seems we do move on, but not in the manner that Fish wants or expects. He writes: “What happened then, and inevitably, was that after an exciting period of turmoil and instability, the alien invader was domesticated and absorbed into the mainstream, forming part of a new orthodoxy that would subsequently be made to tremble by a new insurgency.” It’s not at all clear what Fish’s point is here, whether he wants a continued instability or is happy to see it pass.

And, finally, we get to what is for my purposes the point, Fish’s criticism of digital humanities, or new media studies, or whatever you want to call it—the new insurgency before which the now staid and neutered postmodernism-informed profession trembles. DH is the “rough beast” that has replaced postmodernism as the destabilizing force that threatens “what we do.” As an aside: it seems to me the height of ignorance to equate postmodernism (which has been variously understood as a theoretical position, a style, and a historical period) with digital humanities (which seems to be becoming a methodological position, but has been understood more as a practical, pedagogical, and sometimes theoretical engagement with the hardware and software that increasingly dictate the manner and scope of our practices). Nevertheless, DH is Fish’s target, and he writes:

Once again, as in the early theory days, a new language is confidently and prophetically spoken by those in the know, while those who are not are made to feel ignorant, passed by, left behind, old. If you see a session on “Digital Humanities versus New Media” and you’re not quite sure what either term means you might think you have wandered into the wrong convention. When the notes explaining the purpose of a session on “Digital Material” include the question “Is there gravity in digital worlds?”, you might be excused for wondering whether you have become a character in a science fiction movie. And when a session’s title is “Digital Literary Studies: When Will it End?”, you might find yourself muttering, “Not soon enough.”

And here is the question: does this “not soon enough” reveal a longing to return to the proper practices of humanistic discourse or a longing for the incorporation of DH into those practices in such a way that it becomes part of the new orthodoxy? It seems uncontroversial to state that theory or postmodernism has transformed the profession, whether positively or negatively. Maybe no one “does” theory the way they use to, but we need look no further than the title of the recent collection Theory after “Theory” to recognize that its legacy remains. Is this “theory” a domesticated one, one that has lost its power to subvert as a result of our acceptance of it? I certainly cannot answer that question. Rather, in the remainder of this paper, I will address what I see as Fish’s hesitation in the face of digital media as a transformative force in the humanities in order to open up a discussion of the political economy of our profession.

To that end, I begin with Bernard Stiegler and his work on anamnesis.

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