Category Archives: General Literature

On “The text with words”

From The Journey to the West. The Buddhist Patriarch says:

However, those creatures in your Land of the East are so foolish and unenlightened that I have no choice but to impart to you now the text with words.

This is a significant section of the novel, which redefines a previous judgement, switching “dumb” for “foolish” and “blind” for “unenlightened” and “wordless texts” for “text with words.”

Shakespeare and Masks

Yesterdays Shakespeare Uncovered on Richard the II gave me new insight into how to approach Shakespeare in the future. I’m a fan of Derek Jacobi and of the history plays, not so much of plays like MacBeth or Hamlet. What got me, however, was a video cut of Thatcher about to enter her car after the Heseltine issue and the look on her face, an image that follows a theme of Richard II. It’s not necessarily about the loss of power but the appearance of oneself into a new space minus it–when the self is stripped of its props or of what gave it shape and proportion. Looking forward to next week.

Summer Projects

Monday is the Solstice. 8:30 or so and dusk can still be seen. Great.

This summer I have a few projects. Some are trivial. Prep for Fall teaching, bone up some programming. Other things not so much. In May I decided to learn how to play the guitar. And 100 Days is pulsing like the desert sun. I’m, therefore, writing at mediaplay, where the summer work is stored.

Today, boosted by this film by John Timmons and loads of images by other’s in the collaborative, I learned about an old man who lives in Osaka and whose father may or may not have died in the bomb blast at Nagasaki. He’s still with me. I see him holding his photograph. And I see the mother on the porch and hear the thinking of the fictional narrator, whose thought process is really my own.

This Osaka is perpetual. It is always present, like the El Paso I still remember from my last visit or the corridor of Park Street in Hartford. I wonder where the old man is now. I wonder what he’s eating. I wonder if his mother is alive.

The last couple of days have seen graduation to a new level of guitar playing. The funny part is that I go from beginner to a little more than beginner as I have thousands of hours left to go toward mastery of something I don’t really know much about. Luckily I have friends who do. I’ve learned a piece that weeks back I couldn’t even have attempted without a lot of pain and frustration. What’s amazing about all this is that I’ve re-connected with the thrill of just learning something new, something that I’ve always wanted to do but hadn’t had the time to consider seriously.

The brain is physically changing. And that’s thrilling. I often joke that I want to connect a program to my head that will teach me to do things. It’s a joke of course. The fun part would be missed. It’s totally thrilling to learn something new.

Multiplatform Publishing

This semester (as time for me is broken into semesters) I’ll be working on taking a few documents through a multiplatform publishing work flow. The first objective will be take all the Leon stories from the 100 Days project and make them available on mobile, e-reader, and standard screen.

The core technologies are HTML, XML, CSS3, and javascript, with some dipping into Objective C for experiments with applications. I have mixed feelings about building device-specific apps but working with Xcode is fairly straightforward and the time spent won’t be wasted.

I was a little surprised at the ease with which EPUB handled html documents. Tinderbox, therefore, will play a key role in producing hypertext content. The content will then be tailored for mobile, iPad, web, and other reading devices. The territory looks pretty interesting at the moment.

Submit to Otto: Poetry, Fiction, Non-fiction essay and more

Critical message from the Otto team:

OTTO, the Tunxis Art and Literary Journal, is seeking submissions from all members of the Tunxis community for the 2010 issue due out in April.

Submit your work by December 31 via email to otto dot tunxis at gmail dot com. Submit literature (creative or expository) as a Word or RTF attachment (please do not paste it into email). Submit art as TIFFs or JPGs (low res is ok for now). Please name your files with your last name and then a number or short title of your work: LastnameMystory.rtf or LastnameSelfportrait.jpg

eLit Camp

Come to eLit Camp. It’s going to be very cool.elitcamp.jpg

E-Lit Camp is an informal weekend gathering for writers, artists, and programmers currently involved or interested in electronic literature. Work on your projects, give a presentation, collaborate, and learn from others.

If you’re a writer, artist, journalist, coder, or some combination of the above, E-Lit camp is for you. Have a project? Bring it. Don’t have one? Bring your skills and creativity. Fiction is fab; documentary is cool. Bring your camera, laptop, projector, ideas, and anything else you need to be creative. Bring electronic works, Interactive Fictions, and videogames that you like, so we can try them out!

This is an Unconference, loosely based on BarCamp and RailsCamp. Think of it as a weekend-long writers colony for electronic literature. If you have something to share, bring it along; there’s no approval process.

One evening, some of us are hoping to see “Sleep No More”, a hyperdrama at the American Repertory Theatre.

Time: Friday afternoon, 11 December, to Sunday night, 13 December.

Location: Eastgate Systems, Watertown Mass.

Registration info

Chasing the English Department

Mark Bernstein writes, concerning William Chace’s article in The American Scholar and in reference to a relevant tweet on knowledge about books and, in addition, “whether there could be a single correct answer to any of the important questions that one might ask of an English professor:

Harvard and Tufts and BU and Brown and Brandeis are right down the street, and they all have English departments who, in principle, know a lot about the structure of books. Or maybe not.

This uncertainty has a deeper consequence for students: if any answer might be defensible, if the whole question is how adeptly you defend your position, then grading is arbitrary and capricious.

Stacy Mason has also weighs in on the article and subject with a narrative response. She writes:

And, indeed, there is a prejudice against “soft” degrees. My parents were furious when I decided to abandon a stable future as a programmer to pursue English. Luckily, that programming background has served me well in the pursuit of electronic literature, and these days I’m proud that I ended up with an English degree.

At the College, we’ve been working on establishing content areas we think are shared by most of the literature courses we teach (in our English Department, we do literature and composition). These subjects fall into broad categories: history, analysis (critical processes), aesthetics, and genre. We struggled with the notion of critical theory but felt that critical approaches, rather than setting them off as a subject category, fit better under the analysis region or rubric. We want to provide some measure of a floor plan in literary studies for students wishing to pursue this later in their educations. Of course, from a practical and biased point of view, I urge students to consider double majoring.

Furthermore, we’re asking lots of questions: how significant is form; how much should we lean on figures of speech; how significant is innovation in genre and style; what are the significant texts? Does anything go? I don’t think so. In graduate school, I made the decision to avoid seeking a Ph.D. Instead I took my MFA, computer science, history, literature, and science background into the work and teaching world in Connecticut. I wasn’t a great fan of critical methods in my literature courses as I wanted to pursue literary sources not philosophy or theory. I didn’t want to study critical theory (neither did many of the faculty, which they would admit to me personally in their offices). When DeMarinis chastised us for writing like literary critics, I understood exactly what he was talking about and had to shake my head (at myself).

My primary educational influences were not in the English Department, though, but rather in Creative Writing (which should be in Art Departments) and the Western Cultural Heritage program at the University of Texas at El Paso, under the tutelage of Lawrence Johnson and Robert Wren, where we worked early on with computer forums in instruction. WCH was a comprehensive program of study in ancient to present day influential texts, from the Enuma Elish to A Short History of Time, and emphasized critical reading and study in a range of disciplines and their relations and significance in shaping human institutions and culture. How influential was Augustine? What about Aristotle and Lucretius? Thus I’m not the best to ask on the state of the English Department as Chace views it even though I teach in one. Nor do I think Chace evolves problems beyond those already examined by Edward Said in his interesting Humanism and Democratic Criticism, which, in my mind, is required reading. I really don’t see the logical connection Chace suggests between championing books and students’ perception of economic goods in the job market context. Chace writes:

. . . at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.

How would such a solution affect the economic situation for the Major directly if, hypothetically, championing books increased the graduation rate? As a whole, Chace really doesn’t really address this issue as internal changes to the framing of the English Department would do little to affect the job market, even the market inside the College or University. I’m not disagreeing with the merits of reading Shakespeare. I disagree that English Department curriculum can adjust real opportunities in the market place.

To be fair, later in the essay, Chace explains this championing:

No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform.

Chace is correct, I think, to address the question of philology and expresses fairly his experience in school. He concludes the first part of his assessment with a taut summary of external causes of ED decline, then leads into part two

These, then, are some of the external causes of the decline of English: the rise of public education; the relative youth and instability (despite its apparent mature solidity) of English as a discipline; the impact of money; and the pressures upon departments within the modern university to attract financial resources rather than simply use them up. On all these scores, English has suffered. But the deeper explanation resides not in something that has happened to it, but in what it has done to itself.

What has the Department done to itself. Chace writes,

Amid a chaos of curricular change, requirements dropped and added, new areas of study in competition with older ones, and a variety of critical approaches jostling against each other, many faculty members, instead of reconciling their differences and finding solid ground on which to stand together, have gone their separate ways. As they have departed, they have left behind disorder in their academic discipline.

Chace continues with a more imagistic lament:

. . . it turns out that everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture; the “clean slates” are endlessly forthcoming. Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and déclassé. The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind.

What would a return to presumed coherence do, as I suggested above, to the nature of the University or College as a whole and its mission? What might expansion of the Canon do for the Department, as Chace I think confines scope to American and English literature? What about Lucretius? Note the very name English Department is just bizarre. These are interesting questions, as I feel that still English Departments are struggling to define their scope beyond the practice of “theory,” a term I’ve never understood in relation to the Humanities and critical studies.

As a final observation, I disagree with Mark about the notion of uncertainty. I think he would agree that the kind of analysis one might bring to proving via proof 2+2 is different than addition as a matter of a pure solution and that applied mathematics is loaded with interpretive approaches. I agree: some things need to work, but a poem works for often unfathomable reasons, and often upon abilities that are impossible to learn in a classroom. Despite that, we know that poetry comes with lots of fun and interesting objective and concrete elements, such as lines, form, and image, which, to me, are just as important as interpretation.

More Thoughts on Canons

George Landow concludes this about canons:

Doing away with the canon leaves one not with freedom but with hundreds of thousands of undiscriminated and hence unnoticeable works, with works we cannot see or notice or read. We must therefore learn to live with them, appreciate them, benefit from them, but, above all, remain suspicious of them.

The canon in academic settings has always been a problem and a subject for hot debate. Some of you remember the various ruckuses. But it’s a good problem and a practical question.

More specifically, and practically, what works of new media should our students experience in the two, three, four years we will have with them? If we were to generate a list of readings/experiences (on top of those in a foundational literary and other discipline core), what works should we suggest? This, again, is a practical question which is, I believe, Dr. Landow’s point. Even though we may argue with a current canon, we can’t really get buy without shared texts, common references from which to generate ideas. On the NMC website, we’ll probably have a suggested reading list and expect our students to show evidence that they’ve covered a certain number of the works since we can’t cover them all in schola. The body will be a “canon,” regardless of our opinion of canons in general. But the lists are long and several core ideas of enormous aid have already been generated.

We will be offering an interdisciplinary, foundations program. Students will be expected to transfer to university and pursue bachelor and graduate degrees when they complete their time at the college. This an additional issue. So, for these students what will be the new media canon?

On the one hand, the “competencies” are easier to define than the material. Introductory, and not too complex, Actionscripting provides solid programming framework, as does Inform 7 and other languages we teach, such as Java and C++. Even students who aren’t inclined to developing deeper skills with programming will have enough scripting frameworks for programming contexts. It works the other way too. The computer programming or engineering minded students will have opportunity to go fairly deeply into science and literature an to gain a certain amount of perspective in other disciplines. Critically, problem solving and coherence of expression are significant pieces of the puzzle.

So, it’s a simple question: what would be your list of essential new media reading for students working through a foundations program in college?

Notable submits:


Elephant (van sant)

On Teaching Literature

Dennis Jerz has interesting remarks on teaching literature in higher education:

I am working on an opening lecture that introduces literary criticism not as a series of facts to memorize and names to drop, but as a way of studying the thinking process that forms our own world view. Since I teach alongside colleagues who write, study, and teach about horror, suspense, romance, science-fiction, I think it’s pretty safe to say our program doesn’t support a particularly stodgy or rarified approach to the canon. Nevertheless, I teach lit crit to advanced students who have already taken “Intro to Literary Study” and “Writing about Literature,” and most likely several other reading-heavy courses too. Those are the courses where I feel it’s most appropriate to equip students to move beyond simply “relating to” literature, and push them towards the study of the conflicts, challenges, and power struggles that led to the formation of the canon.

The impulse comes from remarks by Bruce Fleming at the Chronicle, who writes

The good news is that we’ve created a discipline: literary studies. The bad news is that we’ve made ourselves rulers of a realm that has separated itself almost completely from the rest of the world. In the process, we’ve lost many of the students — I’d say, many of them men — and even some of the professors. And yet still we teach literature as if to future versions of ourselves — not that there will be many jobs for them. The vast majority of students don’t even want to be professors: They’d like to get something from a book they can use in their lives outside the classroom. What right have we to forget them?

Students get something out of a book by reading it. Love of reading was, after all, what got most of us into this business to begin with. We are killing that experience with the discipline of literary studies, with its network of relations in which an individual work almost becomes incidental. But it’s the individual work that changes lives.

Both Bruce and Dennis are concerned about literary studies and the contexts for instruction and the forces that shape points of view, critical approaches, and the role of literature in people’s lives.

I told my world lit students the story about how I got into “literature.” I picked a copy of Dante off the shelf at an early age and read it and was hooked on “mystery” ever since. After this came Tolkien, Homer, and lots of hours staring at the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I like to teach, and tracked into my current position because I like to sit and talk to people about interesting ideas (or at least ideas I find interesting). In my position, I have opportunity to learn more and watch students learn and change. All of this keeps me in contact with the craft and the people. In all honesty, I’d rather be writing poetry and fiction from dawn to dusk. But I also love to teach. I love to eat too.

I remember in grad school having a conversation with a faculty member about literary studies. She said, I used to love but now I hate literature. But when we moved on to Arnaud Daniel, we had a splendid time, and that’s when “literature” made sense. Then again, I had professors who loved he deep debates between the new critics and the postmodernists. I myself was never drawn into that angle of the profession. Sometime Derrida makes perfect sense. As I departed medieval studies, the old guard was on its way out (Robertson), parallactic approaches (re-constructionism) were moving in. By then I had other concerns. As I follow medieval studies weblogs, I sense that the love of thinking about real objects is still alive, and what was driving my professor was a sense that the forces were out of her control, the ground shifting under her feet.

In literary studies, I’d hazard to say, too few people can take part in meaningful interchange on subjects of concern to the “profession.” But I wonder if literary studies should move toward opening, expanding, and re-imagining the canon rather than pursuing “literary studies.”