identity and academic identity

–some timely self-flagellation. By “some,” I mean quite a lot and at some length and with some wind, of the long-winded sort (to which there’s been some additions and rewriting subsequently–ed., 2011-10-07 @17:42).

I admit, I’ve been cheating on this blog by writing more on the other; on the other hand, the other one is about (mostly) different stuff, and it’s freer of self-imposed limits on topic. It doesn’t have to be medieval, medievalist, medievalising, etc.; though it does end up being meta and sometimes even a wee bit MMM. Also, as it’s mainly about stuff that’s completely irrelevant to work (and might be sniffed at by the work side of life), it’s written under a different name. There’s another few IDs running around the place, though they’re for narrower areas. The separation isn’t entirely seamless: these other personae do share characteristics, writing style (often), material (sometimes). Less split-/multiple-personality disorder, certainly not wearing and changing hats. More a network.

I’d also been rereading (and in some cases newly freshly reading) Deleuze and Latour. Nous n’avons jamais été modernes is in The Bag right now, doing the proper second reading with pencil in hand. This stuff fitting together with:

  1. the online persona being a network: with all the entailed interesting inter-relationships and suchlike; and a potential to increase in number, to decrease, for the links to move around and change, expand, contract, multiply,…; in short: dynamism
  2. rather than divisions within a finite whole: the more the parts, the smaller at least some of them will be (parts not necessarily all being the same size; new parts could be, say, a split from 1/128th or from 1/2)
  3. the old HTML vs. XML issues
  4. the exciting things that happen when connections multiply: OK, the poor old human having some limitations, there’s going to some practical limit to the maximum useful number of nodes/personae.

But: there’s a point–like the point in close-reading, after multiple readings and rereadings, upside down and inside out, for single features, the usual philological shenanigans–there’s a point when gelling happens. I used to think of this as threads knitting up into textile/tissue or text, very structuralist-ly old-fashioned but still a useful metaphor for Medieval (and much other) literature. Or that other old turkey, architecture; inc. design and construction. Back to Henry Adams (and my continuing posthumous thanks to Karl Uitti for introducing me, and all his students, to the Education and Mont-Saint-Michel); Vinaver, Zumthor, etc.; the recent Cowling.

To the architectural image, add–fitting with more recent literary theory–extension, destruction, rebuilding reconstruction; preservation, conservation, renovation; archaeology; and context: an anthropology. I’m still keen on that “new humanism” idea.

Anthropology? I’d expand to ecology and ecosystem; and integrate with the non-animate (post-animate, while we wait to see what passes the Turing test and becomes a “who”), with networks. Not just my virtual personae, though–not just a blinking typical French literary theory load of self-absorbed musings, whines, piffle, and other meta-literary masturbation.

Time to rethink the literary metaphors: it’s the 21st century now. We’re in virtuality. Through shared perceptible imaginary worlds, we’re closer than ever before to the medieval. Worlds touching through imagination across time. Back again to our networks. Which can include 2D textile, except now it’s got texture in 3D. It’s got Deleuzian Baroque folds as well as rhizomes, it’s gone Web 4.0 ecosystem, post-human in the strong sense: trans- or meta-human dynamic network.

Primary reason, especially for work-purposes, for the “why” of this: rethinking and rewriting two items.

Item the first: Rigolot paper from the RSA homage last March [old text coming up shortly]. Dealing with his work on poetic persona and with networks.

  • This will be turning into some sort of commentary on commentary, history of a history, and it might have a meta or two in the title. I’d still rather go for something shorter and snappier.

Item the second: Project Flamenca, a.k.a. Courting Excess.

  • Strand 1: puns, jokes, how jokes are structured, and large-scale jokes. A work built as a joke, meant to be read as such–insofar as there is any such intent, and insofar as any such intentionality can be discerned. By, ahem, the modest, sincere, honest critic. Jokes always needing at least one other person present–even if that’s an audience in one’s own head. Attached to which are two older strands. I was going to say “from which”, but I don’t mean this is going to be set up as a serious logical step, not to worry… Then again, it’s these connections that are what I’ve been working on the most, and which then in turn reveal other turns and fractal flowerings…
    Anyway. I digress. C/o Auerbach’s “Figura,” Huizinga, assorted actual recent comedians, and Obrienaternal deep reflection: Jokes = essentially human, core communicative acts, the most basic creative act.
    How so: Back full circle to a 1st-year undergrad hunch: satire and other comical versions are always at least as old as a main/mainstream form. Forward to this year: comments become part of a work; in some cases–Roman de la Rose–an integral part of it or a motive factor, criticism rejoining comical comment. Back a few years (and thank you again Uitti, who figured this out in around 1970, before “translation studies” came into being, having started out in his own scholarly life as a Berkeley comparative literature person): translation and literature, literature as translation.
    What needs working out here: translation and language and cognition, a.k.a. what–for the flat-footed materialist–actually happens in one’s head. This might involve Interesting Times re. Chomsky and post-Chomskian linguistics vs. Frenchy linguisticsy stuff. Saussure will provide some neutral ground.
  • “From which” strand 2 (via Bakhtin, I guess?): dialogue.
    Dialogue and silence–pauses poetic and not, what turns common speech to special speech (and back again), what makes poetry poetry. Here’s a talk from a year or so ago, woven into that section. [there will be an insert here]
    The big issue: How and why dialogue structures this work. Box ticked, figured that one out–already had an answer in the dissertation version, I have I think a better and nicer answer now. Partly thanks to one of the other online personae. Cue animated emoticons.
  • Strand 3: how this work works, as a whole thing. How it is a complete thing. Networks and organic dynamic living breathing systems will be coming in here. Inc. readers; meaning; and what makes a text a text. Whilst trying to avoid the obvious and long well-known pitfalls of extreme author-killing.
    Related (but distinct): whole books–even, the literary genre/form confusingly called the “book”–of later in that century. (Oh yes: changed mind on Flamenca composition dates, from later 13th c. to earlier. More on this in the book. Maybe before, as that’s an article-sized piece.) What makes a work a work.
    Yes, it would be lovely if I could also prove that Aquinas read Flamenca and it was a huge influence. Or that it’s an early experimental metaphorical version of a condensed Aristotle commentary. In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with showing The Name of the Rose to some of my students next term… There’s a need for a new translation of good old F., and–as is the case for a heck of a lot of Medieval French and Occitan–in good cheap paperback editions. This stuff has way more fun, content, ideas, style, and good old funk than a lot of the English stuff in Penguin & Oxford World’s Classics.
  • Strand 4:  literariness and fiction. What they are. How one might tell. In at least this one case-study.
    Substrand a: tweaking and reshaping supposedly Grand theory (or: that American *cough* fiction, “French Theory”), of the sort that is blissfully ignorant of Medieval literature. And other minorities and margins. See: Harold Bloom vs. AC Spearing. Be those minorities ignored because they’re marginal, or be they made marginal through ignorance. Both, likely, in practical reality:  if unfortunates were deprived of the Medieval when they were students, as too busy with the Modernist Canon–or, what counted as important and cutting-edge works in the late 19th c., when the field of literary studies was founded–or wanting to enjoy what they were doing rather than go for options that meant more work. Because as we all know studying literature is an arty an occupation / existence as making literature.
    Substrand b: contextual, holistic literary study. New Philology/~ies, with transatlantic connections. Bloch, Busby, Cerquiglini, Nichols, Zink. Add in further connections and connectivity: digital philology, digital medievalism. Wihtout reducing to use-value for historical knowledge.
    Substrand c: rehabilitating what can be rehabilitated (vs. some of Compagnon); whilst trying to avoid cherry-picking, seeing what good(s) can be retained (in the case of de Man, for instance) and put to good use. Good use = anti-“art for for fart’s sake”, pro-ethics, politics, and Having A Point. Without reducing to a simplistic sort of utility. I think this is where jokes and fun come into play.

Also, I’d been thinking about how these other online personae fitted in with this work-related one. The public and the private; freedoms/responsibilities; conversations with The Beloved about rights and responsibilities–errrm, not just my domestic failings, it’s OK! I’m still the champion sock-matcher and -folder of this household. No: about rights, and rights theory, and community, society, obligations, inter-relations, revolution. Banks, wanking, and other blood-sucking leeches. Economics as fiction; and therefore deserving a rightful place in an “Arts” faculty–to quote another witty ex-superviser of mine, who shall remain otherwise anonymous. Good systems and bad systems: with, as must happen in many scholarly ménages, complaints and criticism and rants about The Administration. Kafkaesque Byzantine red-tapey bureaucracy. The blindingly obvious problem with universities: who runs them, how, why (and using what NewSpeak anti-semantic language). As evidenced by the silly nonsense we have to do that has nothing to do with TEACHING, RESEARCH, LEARNING, the conservation, and propagation and dissemination, and creation, recreation, renewal, extension–of KNOWLEDGE. Some of which may be imposed by non-scholars “managing” scholars (that’s both scare-quotes and sarcasm-quotes, guys). Much of which is imposed on us, sometimes via university admin, some c/o government grant agencies; but note, not directly from ministries, let alone from The People c/o Their Representatives. Nope: it’s a headachey thundercloud image, a giant ramifying tangle sitting on top of us rather than nice clear lines of command, clean lines of relationship, linking to responsible individuals. People. Bring humans back into this.

My main complaint: Endless grant applications: irrelevant in the humanities. There’s loads been written around the place–blogs, newspaper editorials, journal articles, the Chronicle blogs, real live books if that’s the big thing that counts–about science-envy and sciencization of the humanities, to harmonise and unify the academy. All I’ll add is that it looks to me like a parallel to the round peg/square hole cookie-cutter misuse of theory that we see in “my” field(s). It’s a small step from misuse to abuse. From attempting to fit some perceived mould, kow-tow to authority, and look good; to deliberately knowingly deploying jargon as a rhetorical tool to veil the truth, distract attention, confuse. Obfuscation covers deceit. Diversionary tactics: break people down by ensuring they’re occupied with energy-sapping pointless inanities. A tool becomes a weapon: to disarm and control. Bring in the language-factor, and you add in the language/knowledge/power nexus: in this case, to disenfranchise and disempower.

By “the humanities,” by the way, I mean the actual humanities. I offer you a new definition of the humanities: those fields, areas, and disciplines in the university who don’t need grant money. What do we need? Peace and time. This does usually translate, these days, into money: buy-outs from teaching and other responsibilities, books, travel. Many of these could be acquired by swap or barter, or by chain of debt-obligation (passed down like Norwegian student loans, from one generation to the next). It’s cheap. It’s a very pure kind of knowledge. It could be free of/from finance. Come the Revolution, I would see three kinds of academic activity surviving: the immediately practical for life (agronomy, forestry, ecology; medicine; engineering and IT); cultural survival through preservation (libraries, teaching and teacher-training); and–whether part of an academy or not–free diversion, discussion and debate and healthy sceptical enquiry, all that relaxes and re-energizes (the arts and humanities: the Cuban and Bulgarian “house of culture” model).

By “the Revolution,” I mean something along anarcha-feminist lines. Here’s where I also come clean and admit that my summer reading has included a fair amount of utopian, dystopian, future-set, and otherwise speculative fictions. Bacigalupi, Corey Doctorow, Miéville, Okorafor-Mbachu, Rajaniemi. The now-canonical cyberpunk, steampunk, post-cyberpunk, and slipstream anthologies. But also their non-fictional complements–a mix of new, old, old revisited frequently, old that’s been out of sight and out of mind for a while longer: Angela Carter, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, Gwyneth Jones, Bruno Latour, Ursula K. Le Guin, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling.

There were various reasons for the sci-fi spec-fi reading; one, I know, was burrowing into old comfy safe-haven territory after the events of this spring. The classic point of literature: the consolation of reading.

But these same events–or rather, the event of my father dying–had triggered something else: memory, remembrance, commemoration. Things that matter; things that mattered about my father; and that mattered to him. Some things we disagreed on, as would be the case with any two beings who are not, say, clones. But shared common ground, and not just things like some common tastes in music or cheese or the colour blue. Important things. Decency, liberty, human rights, being civil and civilized.

And so, back to the Obrienaternal personae. They certainly include the ridiculous, and a range, though the sublime might be pushing things a bit. This one is public and attached to my IRL identity: and so it should be. Some of it involves criticism of the status quo: as part of the larger environment and ecosystem, not as biting the hand that feeds me. It’s meant to be questioning and discursive, even though, yes, being human there’ll be rantings and ravings too.

After all, my own work is on and in criticism. Or, what I like to think of a “literary studies,” as contrasted with “literature”; akin to the distinction and relationship between “science” and “science studies,” and that linking “the human” to “anthropology” (albeit part of ecology, but hey). We’re an -ology. In my cheekier moments, I like to dream that literature is the overarching Master Discipline (ooh err) that reads all the humanities, with as subject-matter all that distinctly human stuff, what distinguishes the human from other things: so, roughly speaking, the preservation and dissemination of all forms of self-expression and other production by humans (for humans? is that still true?). Add to that all the stuf written about said human production (so: history, historiography, historical study, etc.). If forms of writing, inscription, communication are the essential factors–in which I’d include material objects of all sorts–then what we’re all doing is reading them, with an aim of interpretation and finding meaning. “Science” in the proper sense. Yes, very annales-style sciences humaines. But with reading, and so literary studies, at the top of the pecking-order. (The philosophers go above, but in a different dimension/sphere/Order of Things, because they occupy a pan-trans-meta- level in relation to all knowledge; not just the human.)

It’s a curious field to be in: often viewed by its practitioners as a total disjunct between teaching and research, perceived as rivals conflicting for time and energy, with the one as a chore and the other as one’s main point in existence. Research to be sacrosanct, pure, untouchable: freedom of speech being seen as identical with intellectual freedom. Not to be subject to tamperings and meddlings from administrators, outsiders; nor subject to their round-peg imposition of quantitative and qualitative models borrowed from the sciences; nor the insult of being forced to be part of the world, a world that’s governed by market forces, capitalist consumption, and all-round crassness.

Problems here:
1. intellectual freedom is not identical with freedom of speech. It’s bigger.
2.  we end up with the art-for-fart’s-sake self-defence. Which has never been known to win: unless you count dramatic self-destruction.
3. if a system is genuinely a system, i.e. systematic, it can be subverted. If I’ve learned anything from poetry and poetics, that’s it. The more strict and formal the form, the more pliable it turns out to be, and the more fun you can have playing with it. In this case: takw advantage of the system’s value-loading: publish many items AND publish things that are read a lot. Not necessarily both for any same given item.
4. I’ve always thought that the opposite is true in this field: research and teaching are complementary, and involve a lot of learning by doing, and doing by learning.

Doing one helps what you’re doing in the other. The material in one influences thinking, reading, angles of approach in the other. This is all very positive, virtuous circle. Better still, the two can be brought together: publishing about teaching about writing; teaching about writing about teaching.

An example: an integrated network of blogs, including blogs that are intended for a different audience–non-Medievalists, indeed non-academics, but united through a shared interest such as collecting baseball cards, or nail-varnish, or cycling. My own blog-network is not fully integrated, in that while there isn’t a private/public distinction, persona are separate. In the case of one blog, that might be changing. I’m not entirely sure what to do about senses of prudery, shame, embarrassment–it’s nothing mortifyingly embarrassing or criminal, but some might consider my metaphorical nail-varnished baseball-card bicycles as frivolous. And a waste of my time. That should be spent on getting the numbers out: my quantities and quality. And my brain should be being used for work purposes.

It’s tempting to leap to defend one’s freedom of thought: rejecting that whole alien approach as an irrelevance. Or to answer back, arguing on Their terms, with the viewing numbers. A stronger argument: the fact that the other site constitutes outreach, way beyond UBC or Vancouver. That site has posts not very dissimilar to posts on here: the subject-matter is usually different, but it’s dealing with ideas and reading; bringing what I do, and the way I do it, to outsiders. Here, we have an argument that falls within the language and ideas and worlds of both sides: here, we have an intersection where exchange is possible. Less strong, but important: this is how I work, this is how I produce new and interesting readings, and this is how, in nicely Medieval terms, I feed the data-bank of imaginatio and keep other rhetorical muscles in trim: association, allusion, imagery,… bref: imagination in the common sense. In network terms, I’m adding nodes, connections, cross-connection and inter-connections, building the next order up in the system, the way the connections are organized. And so on. Readings and interpretation become more complex, sophisticated, and eloquent. Well, that last one is going to be down to writing and the last steps of rhetoric: but there’ll be an increase in the probability of there being a point, of its being transmitted successfully, and of its being demonstrably a “good” point if it triggers further good points, my own or others’.

A second example: students have a commentary to write. It is submitted in two drafts. The first draft must not be finished–marks will be docked if it looks too finished. It must be in notes, draft, rough. It gets no mark, just comments. (A second version receives a mark.) Then each student comes in for a 1:1 session. We go through their work and my comments, and discuss along the way: emphasizing that I’m reading and explaining my comments, and the student’s text, in a manner similar to what they’d done with that poem in the first place. It’s layers and layers of commentary. To show them another side to how this works, I show them some of my own notes on the poem and a commentary-article I’m writing (slowly and painfully, I should add) on something else, all the materials involved: the base text, my notes on paper and in notebooks and on post-its (now all stuck onto large bits of paper), typed up notes, the current version, and so on. We laugh at it, but I also think about the very varied ways of reading, thinking, interpreting that I’ve just seen; and how we’ve sorted out intended meaning and how to communicate it (often a case of shuffling things round, treating paragraphs as stanzas). Both side have approached their own work at a critical distance, and–by showing them one of my own bits of work in progress–this is genuinely two-way. Everyone gets to have a laugh, and it’s laughing with a person and only at their work. A important distinction. After I’ve seen all the students, I feel much perkier about the commentary and do some work on it. Learning/doing cycle for all concerned, and going both ways.

Criticism is in–it is–my teaching: for example, FREN 220 now and MDVL 302 next term. It’s even in FREN 101: reading and interpreting the world, comparing and translating, commenting on cultural similarity, difference, networks of relations. Criticism is a crucial part of teaching literature: textual analysis and discussion, making sense, understanding–if we have to be flat-footed about what we’re doing in a FHIS department in a university, the most useful pragmatic thing is preparing people for being good sceptical civilized free citizens who won’t fall for BS and NewSpeak manipulation–by government, by their employers, by advertising, by the real powers that be in the commercial , consumer, and financial world. The same goes for all departments of “reading and writing and thinking”: literature; the critical parts of music, fine art, and architecture; anthropology and some parts of geography; much of archaeology; some parts of religious studies (especially hard-core exegesis); political theory; and–above all, as above all the scientiae–philosophy. I can see how some might see this as a dire danger, and a good reason to annihilate departments like mine, as part of destroying “the humanities.” It’s not that we’re useless and a waste of money: quite the opposite: it’s that we’re cheap to free and we’re useful. Very useful. Too useful.

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