Updates on Publishing

wbccover
First, Writing for College and Beyond is now out and desk and review copies are available. Check out the book site, and if you’re a first-year writing instructor and would like a review or desk copy, or would like to review it for your journal, email me.

 

 

 

 

 

CoverRDC
Next, Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History was published in April 2019. Consider ordering it for your library, for yourself, or for review in your journal. This edited anthology explores how crises in democracy during different historical periods influenced the development of different theories or methods of interpreting written works.

 

 

 

Rock and Romanticism: Blake and Wordsworth, Book Cover
Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (2018) 
is doing great. It’s been nominated for an ASCAP music writing award and has been reviewed by ChoiceReview 19, and Rock Music Studies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover Image, Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms
Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms
 (2018) is doing great too. It’s been reviewed by Review 19.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, I’m happy to report that David Bowie and Romanticism: The Chameleon Poet and the Changeling Self is now under contract, and Women in Rock/Women in Literature: The Emancipation of Female Will is under consideration with a publisher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading as Democracy in Crisis Now Available for Purchase

I’m pleased to announce that Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History is now available for order on Rowman & Littlefield’s website.
The chapters in this book demonstrate how the variety of reading strategies represented by the figures and movements discussed within its pages were motivated in part by different historical circumstances, many of which involved periods of crisis in democracy. These circumstances range from Plato’s Thirty Tyrants to the French Revolution to the two World Wars and the Holocaust, from the Civil Rights movement to LBGTQ rights to the Arab Spring in Egypt to social media. It covers figures and movements such as Plato and Derrida; Hegel; Marx; Wittgenstein; Warren; Rosenblatt; Adorno, Foucault, Derrida, and Frow; Butler; and Object-Oriented Ontology alongside Digital Humanities. Chapters include:

1 Democracy as Context for Theory: Plato and Derrida as Readers of Socrates, by James Rovira
2 Historian, Forgive Us: Study of the Past as Hegel’s Methodology of Faith, by Aglaia Maretta Venters
3 Karl Marx: The End of the Enlightenment, by Eric Hood
4 Ludwig Wittgenstein: Toward a Dialectical Pragmatism, by Steve Wexler
5 Robert Penn Warren: Poetry, Racism, and the Burden of History, by Cassandra Falke
6 Louise Rosenblatt: The Reader, Democracy, and the Ethics of Reading, by Meredith N. Sinclair
7 Aesthetic Theory: From Adorno to Cultural History, by Philip Goldstein
8 Judith Butler: A Livable Life, by Darcie Rives-East
9 Networking the Great Outdoors: Object-Oriented Ontology and the Digital Humanities, by Roger Whitson
The following 30% discount code is valid until April 30, 2020: LEX30AUTH19. It should work on the publisher’s website linked above.
This book presents straightforward explanations of each figure’s or movement’s central ideas alongside an original thesis about each figure or movement, so it can also be useful for introducing students to different theoretical approaches to texts.

Notes on Derrida

I’ve been reading Derrida for a forthcoming publication, so I’m just thinking out loud here. I invite other readers to join with me. Nothing I’m writing here attempts to engage the published scholarship on these topics.

Comments on Writing and Difference:

For being an atheist, he writes a lot about God.

His engagement with negative theology is needed and valid within the context of his argument in Writing and Difference. But it’s defective because he relies too much on Meister Eckhart (perhaps exclusively?), who was a thirteenth/fourteenth century Dominican monk. Eckhart was a German Catholic. His Catholic identity pressured him to pull back from the strongest expression of negative theology, which sounds heretical to Catholic ears. Derrida should have relied on Russian or Greek sources, but I don’t know what was available to him in French or German translation in the late 50s/early 60s. If he had, I think that would have led to a much more productive discussion of negative theology in Writing and Difference.

He’s a great close reader. He seems most interested in deconstructing the works that are most interesting and valuable to him. He doesn’t call it “deconstruction” in WD, though the word may appear there once. He uses the word deconstitution.

Since the chapters of WD are brought together from previously published articles, I’d like to list these chapters, along with his chapters in Of Grammatology and in Speech and Phenomena, all of which were published in 1967, in the order in which they were originally written, and then read them in that order, not in the book chapter order. I’d also like to list the pre-reading needed for each chapter. Order of publication in English doesn’t at all mirror order of publication in French.

Literary Studies and Professional Studies

[Note: this semester I’m teaching a Survey of World Literature class to Nursing students. I designed the class with a Medical Humanities focus. This blog post is a modified version of an announcement I posted to the class about the importance of this class to their degrees.]

Big picture: college degrees can very generally be divided into two types. First, degrees that prepare students for a vocation, and next, degrees that develop student capacities, skills, or knowledge in a broader sense. The latter kind of degree falls under the designation of a “liberal arts degree.” Liberal arts study was developed in the current university system when all university education was designed to train priests but was still seen as valuable to people who did not wish to be ordained. Liberal arts study — originally grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — was then pursued to give free (liberalis) men the training they needed to conduct business in the world. Liberal arts study, therefore, was the original business degree.

An Associate of Science in Nursing is a vocational degree — it trains students to do a job. Paralegal degrees, other medical science degrees, criminal justice degrees, and other similar AS degrees do the same thing. They provide narrow, focused courses of study that provide job training in a specific field. Bachelor degrees, on the other hand, seek to produce more broadly developed graduates: people who have developed certain skills and attained more advanced levels of knowledge both within and outside of their vocational training.

Vocational degrees are great. In the right fields, they lead to decently paying jobs with a minimal of student debt or time to degree. They are limited, though. Because they aren’t portable to other fields, what happens if you hate your job? Or what happens if the tech changes, or your job goes away? Suddenly, your education is useless because it’s been so narrow, and you need to go back for retraining.

In a very broad sense, college classes designed to produce more advanced students tend to do two things: impart knowledge and develop skills. Almost all classes do at least a little of both, but some classes are very heavily weighted toward skills development (like a Drawing or a Painting class, or some other fine art class), while other classes are very heavily weighted toward imparting knowledge, like a chemistry or anatomy class.

Classes that are weighted toward imparting knowledge teach students information that they expect students to believe. An anatomy class, for example, expects students to name many (many) different parts of the human body, and they’re expected to know these names as facts. Sunday School classes or sermons are similar — we’re taught things there because we’re expected to believe them, because they are presented as truth.

Classes that are weighted toward skills could be seen as developing different kinds of not just skills but literacy: drawing and painting classes increase your visual literacy, or in other words, not just your ability to see in more detail, but to critically interpret what you see. Classes that are reading intensive, such as history, English, and philosophy, develop a variety of cognitive skills, all of them involving the ability to process a lot of incoming and outgoing text quickly. History tends to focus on concrete objects of study, philosophy on abstract, while the study of literature tends to combine the two: it teaches us to analyze concrete, creative products using abstract conceptual structures.

Based on this understanding of what a literature class does, I’d like to encourage students, and everyone else, really, not to think of literature classes as classes that teach students information they ought to believe. Literature classes aren’t anatomy classes, and they aren’t Sunday School classes. Literature classes are somewhat off the map in terms of either kind of thinking as they are usually designed to combine these two purposes. Literary study imparts knowledge for the purpose of developing skills. The skills imparted by literary studies are partly cognitive, partly relational, and partly academic. For example, reading and writing skills are enhanced through literary study, and they are foundational cognitive skills that contribute to the development of more advanced ones. Literature classes regularly ask students to learn to think in very different ways by reading complex texts. Yes, that’s hard. Students who struggle and have to reread often aren’t at a disadvantage, though. Going through that process is a sign of student learning.

On the relational side, literature classes ask questions like, “How do other people think, what do other people think, why do they think that way, and why is it important, especially to them?” These “other people” may be fictional, real, or mythological, but the literature class doesn’t care: readers have to exercise their judgment, or interpretive skills, equally on all three without ever knowing what the right answer is.

That is one of the biggest benefits of a literature class: each work of literature is like a real life case study in that it presents characters whose words and actions must be interpreted without anyone ever being able to tell us that we got it right. The act of literary interpretation in this way mimics the kind of real life reasoning that we do on a daily basis as we try to understand other people. Literary interpretation just slows down the process and makes it more explicit and deliberate rather than on the spot.

In one narrow sense, literature classes do teach facts they expect students to believe, such as the approximate date of composition of a work, the geographic location in which it was composed, its authorship, etc. Even if we don’t know who the author of a literary work is, we might regard it as a fact that we don’t know who the author is. All of these facts fall under the category of “literary history” and make up the known facts about a literary work with the caveat that, as is the case with all historical artifacts, what we think we know now can change later with a new discovery, as in many of the sciences.

But most literature classes only pay minor attention to literary history. It’s background information. For the most part, literature classes do not teach anything they expect students to believe. They present interpretable material and ask students to interpret it, and to do so coherently, but they never claim that any one justified or coherent interpretation is the right one. Note my caveats, though: justified or coherent. In other words, any valid interpretation according to the range of possible meanings of the work is a right one, but there’s not just one. Meaning in complex literary works is of course not completely subjective, nor is it arbitrary: it is limited to the range of meanings made possible by the words on the page.

For example, the word “green” might refer to a color, to someone who is envious or ill, to someone who is new, or to someone who is pro-environment, which means that the word “green” can produce a number of different meanings in a single context, sometimes even more than one at the same time. This idea of a literary work, or even a single word, meaning multiple things at the same time is “polysemy.” It’s an idea found in Plato’s works and very strongly emphasized by the Medievals in Biblical interpretation from the time of Origen, continuing to the present in the current Catholic catechism. Despite the long-known polysemous quality of language, the word “green” can never be a direct lexical substitute for “tall,” so while literary interpretation isn’t fixed, simple, or singular, like the names of our different bones, it isn’t arbitrary. Learning to negotiate a field of information that is neither completely subjective, completely arbitrary, nor completely fixed is one of the several important cognitive skills developed by literary study.

So I’d like us all to avoid approaching literary works assigned in a class with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to believe something. I’d like us to approach these literary works with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to understand how other people think — people in different cultures or people who lived in past versions of our own culture. The medical humanities-focused world literature class I developed uses world literature to seek to understand how people thought about their bodies, about health and sickness, and about caregiving in past cultures around the world. This study does involve a seeking after fact, but these facts are at least in part the product of interpretation. They aren’t just presented in a simple and straightforward way on the page just waiting to be consumed and regurgitated.

As a result, yours or my own or anyone else’s agreement or disagreement with any of the ideas presented in any literary text are completely irrelevant to the purposes of most literature courses, because these courses are not really designed to get students to believe something in particular — aside from facts related to basic literary history described above. It’s asking students to interpret something that’s different from our usual way of thinking to help us better understand people who think in ways that are different from us, and to help us in a general sense be more advanced thinkers — which is a skill that students can take with them into any profession.

Authorial Intent and Ham Sandwiches

I regularly teach both literature and literary theory courses, so I’m regularly confronted with the problem of interpreting literature. What defines meaning in a literary work? The default position is “the author’s intent,” and people generally think that if you were to somehow distance linguistic meaning from authorial intent that words might come to mean anything and everything anyone wants them to mean.

I’d like to start by saying that the fear is unfounded: words are our most important shared cultural resource, which means that no one — neither readers nor writers — have the ability to make any given word or group of words mean anything at all arbitrarily. At the same time, many given arrangements of words, especially the more creative kind, are still susceptible to multiple interpretations. So we want to start by thinking that most arrangements of words are capable of being interpreted in a limited number of ways. Only under certain circumstances will an arrangement of words mean only one thing (think highly technical language in limited contexts), and under no circumstances can any arrangement of words mean anything at all arbitrarily.

So what’s the problem with authorial intent as the basis of literary meaning? The problem is inherent in what I’ve already said: authors don’t own language any more than readers do because language is a shared cultural resource. Now of course authors get to say what they meant when they wrote the work: no one gets to ascribe motives to an author on their behalf (which is what defining a work in terms of authorial intent usually does, in fact). But that doesn’t mean that the arrangement of words exclusively means, or even actually means, what the author intended.

I’d like to illustrate this point with a Lou Reed song called “Perfect Day”:

“Perfect Day”

Just a perfect day
Drink sangria in the park
And then later, when it gets dark
We go home

Just a perfect day
Feed animals in the zoo
Then later a movie, too
And then home

Oh, it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spent it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on

Just a perfect day
Problems all left alone
Weekenders on our own
It’s such fun

Just a perfect day
You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
Someone good

Oh, it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spent it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on

You’re going to reap just what you sow
You’re going to reap just what you sow
You’re going to reap just what you sow
You’re going to reap just what you sow

Here’s the song:

Now here’s what Lou Reed said the song was “about”:

My song “Perfect Day” was originally inspired by a ham sandwich I had eaten. It was so amazing that it had turned my day into a perfect day. It was delicious, so delicious that I decided to dedicate a song to it. I really liked where I was going with the song so I changed some of the lyrics around and now it just sounds like any ordinary song. Most people wouldn’t have guessed that it was about a ham sandwich.

Lou Reed on “Perfect Day”

What the heck? That was a song about a ham sandwich? I’m thinking about this line from 27 Dresses now: “I feel like I just found out my favorite love song was written about a sandwich.” I’m beginning to think this line really was inspired by this song.

Seriously, Lou: how the heck do you get from point A, a ham sandwich, to point B, a sweet song about a day spent with someone you love? And what the heck is all that “reap what you sow” stuff about at the end? Sow a sow, reap a sandwich?

Still have any doubts about what I’m saying about authorial intent? No intent-based reading strategies could ever arrive at the right answer and, in fact, the meaning of the song really has nothing to do with ham sandwiches, regardless of what Reed had on his mind. Yes, it really is just a sweet song about spending the day with someone that you love, and the “reap what you sow” lines turn a rather threatening idea into a promise and a wish: “let’s have more days like these so we can have more days like these.”

Now I’m not saying there is never some intention behind any literary work, or even that the intent is never worthy of consideration. It’s just that we often cannot ever really know what the author’s intent was. and sometimes even the author doesn’t, and that reading strategies designed to reveal or uncover authorial intent never really read the author’s mind. What they do instead is place the work within a sociolinguistic and biographical context to limit possible meanings. But, that process never eliminates all other possible meanings. It just focuses upon one type of meaning.

If you’d like to consider other ways of reading, you might find this video interesting:

 

 

 

 

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