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.

2018: My Year of the Edited Anthology

Yes, blatant self-promotion here: I have a few publications coming out this year, and they’re edited anthologies, either my own or my contributions of chapters. I don’t feel too bad writing about it, as I love doing this work, so I love talking about it. But I also love hearing other people talk about the work that they’re doing, and I like promoting the work of others — I love it when people I’m connected to produce good things, and I like taking about that too.

There’s also a bit of an ethical imperative behind book promotion: if a publisher invests in your work by publishing it, you should feel obligated to promote it — to help the publisher recover that investment. On a side note, you can trust me when I say there is no real money in almost all academic publishing for the authors of these works, at least not in terms of direct compensation for the publication. I got one check a year for three years for my first book, Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury 2010). Each check was big enough to take my wife out to dinner to an Olive Garden / Red Lobster kind of restaurant, but it wouldn’t cover the sitter too. It sold about the average number of copies for an academic book, 300-350. It’s listed in over 1000 libraries around the world, but shared databases mean that libraries don’t have to own their own copy of a book to have access to it.

But best of all, because these are all edited anthologies, I’m not only promoting my work, but the work of colleagues around the world. So what I’m really saying here is, “check out this interesting work that we’ve all come together to do.” Publications appear in the order of their release.

Rock and Romanticism: Blake and Wordsworth, Book Cover
Taylor Fickes, cover photo. Fickes Photo.

Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, February 2018), edited by James Rovira. Check out the book page to see descriptions of each chapter, lists of musical works discussed, lists of literary works discussed, and links to iTunes playlists associated with each chapter. Most of the music covered in this volume falls in the category of classic rock or folk/roots/country rock (Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Rush, U2, Blackberry Smoke), but we have chapters engaging acts like Lil Wayne and the 1960s’ Italian pop singer Piero Ciampi. Why I love writing about music.

 

 

 

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Kierkegaard, Literature, and the Arts (Northwestern UP, February 2018), edited by Eric Ziolkowski. Great study of the subject under discussion edited by a leading Kierkegaard scholar — not to mention the contributor list, which is almost a who’s who of Kierkegaard scholarship. I was fortunate to contribute chapter 12, “The Moravian Origins of Kierkegaard’s and Blake’s Socratic Literature.”

 

 

 

 

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Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural and Geopolitical Domains (McFarland, March 2018), edited by Julian C. Chambliss, Bill L. Svitavsky, and Daniel Fandino. I was privileged to contribute “Silly Love Songs, Gender, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The table of contents isn’t available yet.

 

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Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2018), edited by James Rovira. Yes, it’s a second rock and Romanticism book released in the same year, but it’s completely different from the first with its focus on the Gothic. I’ve built a book page for this one too, which should go live either mid to late March. The book page will also have chapter descriptions, links to the music and literature under discussion, and links to iTunes and Spotify playlists. This anthology takes the thesis stated in the previous Rock and Romanticism book then narrows and focuses it upon the Gothic. After an initial discussion of Milton, Shelley, and the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” chapters focus on music from the New Romantics and the Pretenders onward, covering a variety of acts: post-punk, goth/emo, Eminem, and metal bands.

In development: Interpretation: Theory: History (under contract with Lexington Books). Really interesting project in which contributors examine a variety of reading practices from Plato to Object Oriented Ontology against their historical backgrounds to establish a dialectic between our reading practices and their social milieus. I hope to send a first full draft to the publisher by the end of March.

Active CFPs:

The next two projects are in very early stages of development and continue to narrow and focus my study of rock and Romanticism:

Rock and Romanticism: The David Bowie Edition (will probably be retitled David Bowie and Romanticism).

Women in Rock: Women in Romanticism

 

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.

Book Chat: The Life and Work of Diane Hoeveler

Book chat devoted to the life and work of Diane Hoeveler on December 9th at 10:00 a.m. ET.

On 9 December 2016 Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions sponsored a book chat devoted to the life and work of Dr. Diane Hoeveler hosted by James Rovira.

Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions is an online, open-access, peer-reviewed website devoted to Romantic-era studies. Diane Hoeveler worked out of Marquette University, and her work focused on the Brontës, feminism, and the gothic in eighteenth and nineteenth-century literature.

The chat was held from about 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. ET. Three of Diane’s previous collaborators joined the chat to discuss Diane as a friend, a person, and a scholar.

Participants and their topics included

  • Dr. James Rovira — Chair and Associate Prof. of English, Mississippi College: Host.
  • Dr. Deborah Morse — Vera W. Barkley Professor of English, College of William and Mary: her own Brontë projects with Diane. Dr. Morse was ill, so James Rovira read her paper.
  • Dr. Beth Lau — Prof. of English, Cal State Long Beach: Romantic Androgyny and the Brontë project
  • Dr. Angela H Wright — Professor of English, The University of Sheffield: The Gothic Ideology and other works.

We used the platform Zoom for the chat, which was recorded and then archived with YouTube at the link above.

NaPoWriMo: Day 9

"And did those feet..."
Guest poet: William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land
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