Monday, August 23, 2010

ITOL- Lecture 3

(I keep swearing to myself that I will start making regular posts WITH PICTURES, but somehow it never happens.)

This lecture had either a more followable narrative than the other two, or I just understood the subject matter better-- it was more focused on one subject than the introductory ones. There is always something satisfying when the quotes used are ones you remember and the lecture reinforces the lines of thought you created by reading the text, instead of just correcting them.

Hermeneutics! I mentioned earlier that this particularly interests me in a very vague way and I have wanted to know more about it. The history that Prof. Fry gave at the beginning of this lecture about eighteenth century writers who "took meaning for granted" and were instead interested in evaluation and moral questioning and then the progression to hermeneutics during the Romantic era and into the twentieth century, seems to me rather parallel to the way literary education progresses through a person's life in the US (though I can really only testify to my experience). Grade school, for me, was never concerned with Literature in any sense and was appropriately called "Communications". If we read, it was in an effort to learn by emulation. The word "Literature" didn't appear in the titles of courses until 11th or 12th grade, and, I think, were courses that only college-bound students were expected to take (the others kept on with "Communications"). I don't know exactly what was taught in these courses, because I never finished ninth grade, but judging from the general ignorance of my siblings about anything concerning literary theory, I think it was a whole lot of horrible reading journals and close-reading for the sake of close-reading. Most people, I heard, never wanted to do the reading and I know my sister leaned heavily on online summaries and interpretations like Cliffnotes. I don't think it was that the concept of plagiarism was necessary misunderstood, but the fact that the teachers were probably getting their materials from similar sources and the concept of interpretation and ways to go about it were never properly explained, so that the students were left with the idea that Cliffnotes was the only place where they could find the one right answer. As if there was one correct answer.

Some of these students end up in English classes in college and find that original interpretation is expected and probably don't really know how to go about it. Some of them, like me, perhaps stumble into ways of interpreting that are sponged up from reading articles that use various traditions, and interpret without any consciousness about what they're doing. New Historicism seems to be a very popular tool in this respect. Before taking a course on theory this problem of interpretation was completely maddening to me and, though I found I was pretty good at writing papers, I felt like my classes were all a joke for accepting my drivel and that there was some big secret that nobody was letting me in on.

The point of this is that (if I am to try to bridge my historical horizon with the one mentioned above) moving on from simple clarity in communication, as taught in grade school, to interpreting literature in college requires a consciousness of hermeneutics and the existence of theories that are often inherently at work in a student's literary essays. I don't profess to have any adequate knowledge of hermeneutics (yet!) but after being exposed to literary theory I started to feel the legitimacy (even if it does feel a bit contrived sometimes) of English as a subject. Maybe I wasn't listening properly in "Introduction to Literature" but I don't think hermeneutics was mentioned, though now I feel that it should have been-- in simple terms.

So, this was one of those (commercially exploited) "ah-HA!" moments that I love about English, and that I experience as I explore and understand more about the structure of the subject. If you had told me four years ago that there were constructs in place about how to comprehend understanding and interpretation in literature, I would have very relieved. YES I had the internet, but "hermeneutics" isn't a word that is very descriptive to the outsider and, truthfully, I was very insecure about what I could do and what there was out there to know. I didn't want to ask stupid questions. I was just getting by.

Well, thankfully this reflection is NOT being written for grading purposes.

The hermeneutic circle, as I understand it:

If you are to start reading a book, assigned for class (for example) and you are expecting to write a paper on it later, you are probably already aware of the context in which it was written. You signed up for "Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century" or "Colonial American Narratives" or something. These courses are already structured around certain themes that have been lectured at you, at least, if you don't already have academic knowledge of historical events, stylistic themes, similar works-- even (and especially) cultural knowledge that makes certain words, phrases, inclusion and absences seem significant in some way. Even before beginning the book, you approach it with the beginnings of understanding. Gadamer in the reading for this lecture ("The Elevation of the Historicality of Understanding to the Status of Hermeneutic Principle") calls this a fore-having or a fore-project.

You read the first sentence or paragraph and it impresses itself on you in some way. The knowledge that constitutes your fore-having, also referred to by Gadamer as your prejudice, begins to take on this impression and changes to accommodate it as you work your way through the book; always understanding as much as you have read in terms of your original fore-project as the fore-project is constantly mutating to fit with your increased understanding of the part you have read.

This brings up the question of whether you can actually come to the point of knowing the whole, in the elusive "right" way, if your understanding is always based on prejudices that are removed from the text. This question is concerned with the relationship between the reader and the text (and is complicated by the author issues in the last lecture) and whether there is really something definite that it is trying to communicate. Gadamer, like the Foucault and Barthes in the last lecture, believes that "the meaning of the text [always] goes beyond its author". As far as I can see then, because your understanding of the book that you are reading will always depend on your fore-having it will never be exactly that of another interpreter. I can't find the passage, but I think the article mentions that the possibilities of interpretation are infinite?

At any rate, as explained in the lecture with the use of the word "plastic," there are definitely some interpretations that are wrong, that are blinded by a fore-having that is not sensitive to the newness of the book. The main thing Gadamer emphasizes to combat these bad interpretations is an awareness of one's own prejudices and a "conscious assimilation" (723)* of them. (Also, an attack on Historicism based on the idea that these prejudices can never actually be removed to facilitate objectivism, so one shouldn't try because it removes the possibility of combining horizons and finding some intelligible "truth for ourselves".)

I am not sure that I entirely got the digression about classicism, but I think I've grasped enough to begin researching on my own.

I really do think that his (apparently indebted to Heidegger) description of the process of understanding is quite remarkable. Sometimes, when I feel that my creativity is completely tapped, I have to remember that this is why I like studying English. It combines, or steals, so many different concepts from so many fields and attempts to explain life. Other subjects purport to do the same thing, but my affinity will always be with the written word and fiction. Maybe I am just impressionable, but I sometimes come across theory, like this, and am incredibly taken by the writer's awareness and ability to describe such an innate process. And maybe this makes me a bit pathetic, but it makes me feel a little less alone in the world.

*I'm trying to put at least one page number in every post so that, in the inevitable case that I lose the syllabus (ie. am too lazy to find syllabus and look up the lecture number), I can later find the article in the anthology.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

ITOL- Lecture 2

(from here)

Prof. Fry didn't quite connect with his audience in the way he had hoped when he began the twist at the end of Lecture 2 with "I am a Lesbian Latina," but it was nevertheless a useful lecture. I admit that I was hanging on to the sections that he started with "in other words" that promised to explain certain points. They didn't always really explain but I don't know whether this is actually an unwillingness to make bare bones of a concept or whether the concept-- so immersed in the discussion and distinctions of language-- is inexplicable. Probably the latter, but I think there is also something about being a dinosaur (in the best way) of Theory that makes one unable to describe Theory to outsiders from the inside.

So, I read the assigned passages from Barthes and Foucault. Foucault always makes me think of Discipline and Punish and the Panopticon-- which has an interesting relatedness to the suspicions talked about in this lecture in regards to the delimiting powers of the author, the emergence of the "author-function". The idea of the "death" of the author seemed to me, at first, to be part of the same notion as Wimsatt and Beardsley's Intentional Fallacy where the importance of authorial intention is removed. However--and I think that Prof. Fry's "Lesbian Latina" ending would have been more understandable had he addressed this-- Barthes begins with an significant statement that provides boundaries (can I say that?) to his argument in The Death of the Author:

As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.

Perhaps I am interpreting this incorrectly, but doesn't this "vexing issue" mentioned at the end of the lecture-- posed by the individual speaker who wants to circumvent Foucault's and Barthe's arguments because they have always been oppressed-- become less of an issue when we consider that the "Lesbian Latina" is actually acting on reality? I don't know how literal one should take the mention of "reality" (she certainly isn't writing a sign that says "STOP") but she seems to have a definite goal in "articulating an identity for the purpose of achieving freedom". Does this mean that the idea of the author can be used positively (without delimitation etc. if this is even always a bad thing)?

Coming back to what I was saying before in relation to W&B, the idea of the death of the author seems to have limitations. The above quote whittles down the undefinable Literature to those texts which have no direct object in reality. In these works, the author/writer is suppressed in that he is no longer the "I" and nobody can really tell who that "I" is. The text is not a product of an individual genius, but the composite of "innumerable" outside influences. But when one removes the author in this way Barthes says that the "claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile"-- one can disentangle but there is "nothing beneath" (oh, deconstruction!).

I do like the way Barthes upholds the reader-- as the majority should-- in that "a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination". Too bad this sentence is followed directly by a depersonalization of the reader, as if we were already not feeling like clogs in a machine.

Foucault's What is an Author? is more expansive and though I KNOW I SHOULD I don't really want to go back over the pages to map out the argument he makes. (If I am lazy this early on...) I think Barthes more clearly explains the death of the author idea (as per his title of course) but Foucault defines the author's relationship with his text and why it is problematic, the loadedness of being an "author" and the precepts of the "author-function". I am not sure I understand entirely the concept of the author-function: "characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses in society" (908) as referenced in the previous pages. Is it simply that some works have the author-function and some do not, some have the name attached to them that we can take and use skeptically as the author function? So, is it this author-function that disappears, as in Barthes DOTA? Or is the author function the result of the death of the author? The last lines seem to say the latter when Foucault says that "the author function will disappear" and will be replaced by some other limiting factor in the future.

I should probably read more carefully.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Since typing the last post has given me carpal tunnel, I will make this short as there were no readings and Yale didn't include the handout mentioned in the video.

I am feeling rather guilty about not taking notes on Paul Fry's lecture, but the transcript seems to preclude the necessity, as I am not writing any papers and am reflecting here. Like the theory course I took in Spring 2009 (at the same time as this course was recorded, funnily enough) Fry begins with the idea of Literature as undefinable, though he is significantly broader in his introduction than my less experienced professor. Names, ideas and quotes from the lecture are familiar but I was also gratified that he began mentioning hermeneutics, which I have not studied but I have become increasingly in.

When I changed my major to English, I was always uncertain about what I should know and what I didn't know about Literature. I was painfully concerned with what was "out there" and what had been said already. I didn't know whether my analysis was acceptable or legitimate, and I became uneasy as I began to be successful in English courses still not knowing. The theory course I took was very insightful and I started to recognize the way my professors were teaching Literature and the reasons why the sum of my education made me produce the sort of papers that I did.

The more I understand theories, though I feel rather hopeless when I encounter a person with as in-depth an understanding as Fry, the more I question why some are more legitimate than others and I wonder at how they both enhance and remove the reader from the text-- and whether this is true at all. Hermeneutics seems to address my poorly expressed concerns. To quote directly from the transcript of Lecture One: "how do we form the conclusion that we are interpreting something adequately, that we have a basis for the kind of reading that we're doing?". This is what I would like to explore.

On a less focused note, my poor state-schooled self is just a little awed by the oratory abilities of Paul Fry. Not that I have never had a good professor (I have had two or three) but I have had a professor with a lilting radio-esque voice that pronounces "rather" ever so slightly "rawther", or one that had his lecture down pat enough to coordinate excellently polished gestures. Or, really, one with white hair who was not slobbering at the mouth (I will not name names). My professors have been young, mostly, and just learning the best way to present a course. Fry says in this lecture that he has been teaching the course since the late seventies. I guess this is what you get from an Ivy institution. Oh, and Harold Bloom.

I enjoy that Prof. Fry defends the idea of a survey because theory seems to me to be one of those holes that you can never reach the bottom of and can never understand until you do. A course like the one he describes on de Man assumes a knowledge of other theories, though it wouldn't like you to have a survey to teach them to you. Where is one supposed to get this knowledge? From my need for a teacher, I have evidently failed at naturally building a foundation for myself.

When I think about writing a statement of purpose for applications, I have formed ideas of what I don't want-- there are theories that I am not very interested in exploring (psychoanalytical ones, for example)-- but what exactly I want is always just out of reach. I need to be able to communicate exactly how I read Literature, how it poses significant questions to me and how I can answer them.

because I am a follower, deep down

I've been feeling a great loss since May and graduation. Perhaps it is a testament to a person's inability to know truly what they need (or just my inability) rather than what they want--Rolling Stones, natch-- that what I've been waiting for and crazily working after (graduation) leads precisely to a disorder that I am finding difficult to live with. It took a long time for me to get used to being a student, but my overactive (with anxiety) mind was really quite calmed, in the end, by the fact that I had a syllabus and that all I needed to do was written on it. At the end of the day I could fall asleep and feel that I had done what I should, having finished my work for the day. I had a whiteboarded schedule, a planner, and distinct stacks of books that I could pick up, read, and check off. I felt like a good person. Far away from my beginnings as an autodidact, I began to feel the same comfort about attending classes. It was an almost smug sense of purpose.

In an effort to not succumb to the ennui that I've been feeling since graduating-- though because I have always been so scrappy in my academic life I feel now that I've been ejected from college, or something much less positive than graduated-- I've decided to try to keep being a student in a deliberate way. So, I am trying to do this course, "Introduction to Theory of Literature," which is opencourseware from Yale.

I won't pretend that I wasn't very happy to find this course because it is actually exactly what I wanted and is impeccably produced. I have taken and paid for online and distance courses from the University of Minnesota that don't touch the quality of the courses on Yale's Open site. I've taken classes with absolutely horrible lecture video quality, streaming from a horribly slow server, read by a man with an impossible accent. One came with a package of CD lectures that sounded like someone had put a pillow over my speakers (and the UMN merely said that they were taken from old tapes and offered to refund my money). Two others were "taught" by nonexistent professors who were not in touch with the courses they had created and graded accordingly.

So, yes, a person aught to be very happy with the high quality videos, the perfect transcripts, the thorough syllabus and PDFed extra readings that come with the courses on Yale's site. For free.

I did buy the text that is listed on the syllabus for about $65. (I have not gotten a copy of Tony the Tow Truck"-- I am not sure whether it will really be necessary.) If you were taking the course as a passing fad, you might get the main text from the library, but I am hoping that I can use the course's readings to give a new dimension to the writing sample that I am working on should start working on soon for graduate school applications.

I am still haven't put my heart completely into the idea of attending graduate school for English, mostly because I don't have any confidence about being accepted to any programs. But I think that refreshing my knowledge of theory is a step in the right direction and couldn't hurt. I do say "refreshing" but I only took one Critical Theories course in college, and this was a while ago, so that I have a vague idea about the big names and movements in theory, but I would be extremely hard pressed to converse about them. I began the summer trying to check books out of the library to begin learning about points that I wanted to investigate, but it was hard to know where to begin when I couldn't remember what I was supposed to. At any rate, I have become so used to being a student that I felt no satisfaction reading (theory) on my own-- picking up a new book was like moving a rock from one place to another, not knowing where it should go or how many rocks I should move-- so I found this alternative. Maybe this is a coffin nail in my eligibility as an English grad student, but I always felt like an impostor during college, so it feels good to be following a legitimate path. Also, I am unemployed.

Since I will not be doing the papers (here is something I do not entirely miss) I intend to write reflections on each lecture and the lecture's reading, though I won't hold myself to a very high standard. Long or short, it doesn't matter. I know the value of remembering enough to write in digesting material.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Nothing much of interest to blog about lately.

Life continues on rather more stubbornly than ever since I've joined the ranks of the unemployed and rather useless. Life doesn't seem to want to let me continue on to be a fully-fledged productive adult in society and so I find myself living in my parents house, waiting for the lease to be up on my apartment. While I wait, I vary between moments of complete denial-- planning christmas-themed projects and watching Martha Stewart online-- and waves of panic about how time keeps going by and I feel as though absolutely NOTHING (good) will ever happen to me. The vague idea that I will study for the GRE, study critical theory to write my WS and SOP and then apply to graduate programs has somehow less potential for realization than other vague ideas that I absolutely knew must come about, even though they seemed impossible at the time (like graduating from college in the first place).

Of course, December application deadlines seem sort of like a far ways away. Though, if I am supposed to compose the best essay I've ever written, geared towards the faculty of ten different institutions that I have yet to research, it really isn't far away at all.

What seems more pressing, and distressing, whenever I think about it is having to move out of my apartment. Not only does it make me more removed from just about every path of advancement that I want to follow (contacting professors, studying Russian, a job that has to do with anything I've studied etc.) but I have a hell of a lot of stuff. How did I get so much stuff? How am I going to get it down three flights of stairs?