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Showing posts from 2013

Monograph Challenge #26: Romantic Identities

Strictly not a 21st century tome, but it's been lying on my desk for ages…

Title: Andrea K. Henderson, Romantic Identities: Varieties of Subjectivity 1774-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Methodology: A lot of theoretical gestures (from Derrida to de Certeau, Negri to Kristeva…) but fixed on to a materialist sense of history (esp. medical humanities). Feminist angle also apparent.
Critical Context: A few critics who appear multiple times - Charles Rzepka, Clifford Siskin, J.G.A. Pocock
Thesis: Although Romantic subjectivity has usually been conceived on the vertical 'depth' model (i.e. authenticity comes from inwardness), there were many other competing models.

In a nutshell: Particularly when working out from a poet like Wordsworth (to whom Henderson provocatively returns in an epilogue), it is easy to locate the truth of subjectivity in 'thoughts that lie too deep for tears': that is, in inwardness, depth and origin. Henderson's thesis is that su…

Monograph Challenge #25: Romanticism and the Gold Standard

Title: Alexander Dick, Romanticism and the Gold Standard: Money, Literature, and Economic Debate in Britain 1790-1830 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Methodology: 'New Economic' criticism, interdisciplinary (sociology, anthropology etc.)
Critical Context: J.G.A. Pocock, Mary Poovey, James Chandler
Thesis: The emergence of paper money and the fixing of the gold standard raised important questions of how value (across a range of spheres) was to be fixed and regulated in an increasingly commercial society: most notably, literature, morality or religion frequently intervene as the 'supplement' or displacement of gold in order to regulate the speculative culture of capitalism.

In a Nutshell: Dick begins by analysing and charting the debate around the gold standard from the 1790s through to the wake of the coinage act of 1816. He is especially interested in understanding the discursive event that is the bullion controversy, noting how speeches, pamphlets, periodicals (et…

Monograph Challenge #24: Romantic Things

In capitulation to the obvious fact I am going to fall short of my original target, I'm going to rename this the 'Monograph Challenge', and discreetly drop the '40'! A rather unusual monograph this week, perhaps the most heavily theorised I've read since Tilottama Rajan's Romantic Narrative.

Title: Mary Jacobus, Romantic Things: A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Methodology: Heavily theoretical
Critical Context: Derrida, Nancy, Merleau-Ponty; insofar as she stands against his textualism, Paul de Man
Thesis: The monograph as a whole explores the intersections between materiality and immateriality in lyric, exploring a strange, deconstructive phenomenology grouped arounds tropes of thing, weight, sense, absence and death. (Yes, I am sure this does not necessarily make things clearer!)

In a Nutshell: In a study mostly concentrated on Wordsworth, Jacobus is interested in the way that the experience of matter occurs and - equally fu…

Yearsley, Sensibility, Madness

Nearly finished another monograph (hoping a late burst might drag my total into the respectable 30s, even though the original aim was 40…!) but in the meantime, here's some brief thoughts about Ann Yearsley's 1787 poem, 'Addressed to Sensibility', which we studied this week.

One thing that really struck me is that the first, and indeed, only properly present figure in the poem is the Bedlamite, the 'ill-fated youth' (l.11). Yet, although conspicuously sentimental elements are in place - the tear, the sigh, the melancholy gaze, the clasp - this is a figure of insensibility:
Thy pow'rs are all unhing'd, and thou wouldst sit
Insensible to sympathy: farewell.
Lamented being! ever lost to hope
(ll.18-20) The caesura effected through the colon is brutally stark. The madmen hence represents a strong gesture: in a poem nominally about sensibility, the eighteenth-century cultural privilege of which is intimately connected to feeling with another, here is a momen…

40 Monograph Challenge #23: The Invention of the Countryside

Title: Donna Landry, The Invention of the Countryside: Hunting, Walking and Ecology in English Literature, 1671-1831 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001)

Methodology: New Historicist, Cultural Materialism, some nods to Eco-criticism
Critical Context: John Barrell, Anne Janowitz, Tim Fulford (on landscape), Harriet Ritvo (on animals)
Thesis: Interrelated functions/activities as diverse as agricultural improvement, hunting, walking and picturesque aesthetics (and writing reflecting on them) contributed to the 'invention of the countryside' in the post-Renaissance period.

In a Nutshell: Landry's study looks at the way 'the countryside' was constructed as a category - the 'imaginary Other' of the Agricultural Revolution - through various practices (especially hunting), the embedding of those practices in the social formations of rural England, and the way that those practices and the terrain they crossed were represented in literature. Despite this robustly '…

"It's the Structures, Stupid..?": Rebranding Feminism

Joss Whedon's recent comments on why 'feminism' is a word he wants to replace have sparked the predictable proliferation of comment (e.g. here, there, and everywhere). It's definitely true that  feminism seems to have an image problem, at least if the general response of intelligent young undergraduates, both male and female, is to be taken into account. (I've found this both in the UK and Ireland, across five or six years of teaching.) Whilst it's not as if I've heard a clamour for more wage gaps or street harassment, the leap between being against sexism but for feminism seems to be one that many find difficult. Hence, perhaps, the constant call to redefine, rename ('genderism', 'equalism') or rebrand.

I would certainly say, as far as it makes sense to do, I am a feminist, although my individual choice (as a straight, white, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated lecturer...) to broadly consent to the theoretical positions of feminist theory is (…

Ethics, History, Vanity

Last week's seminars were on a selection of Samuel Johnson texts, but perhaps the most interesting discussions for me were on 'The Vanity of Human Wishes'. Apart from a fairly thorough peruse of the Oxford UP edition last year (which produced this...), I've never much studied or worked on Johnson, so it was refreshing to engage this famous verse. Curiously, the discussion ended up taking opposite tacks in two of my seminars. In one, there was a real emphasis on the morality of money in the poem and a sort of mythic or fabular dimension (e.g. the Icarus myth), to which I responded with a historical lens. By contrast, in another class, whilst I was thinking about the text as a moral one, nearly all the small groups zeroed in on the historical references, and we ended up continuing a long discussion about seventeenth-century politics which had begun with references to Cromwell in Johnson's Journey to the Western Isles.

I find the tension between history and morality i…

Monograph Challenge #22: British Periodicals and Romantic Identity

Title: Mark Schoenfield, British Periodicals and Romantic Identity: The "Literary Lower Empire" (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

Methodology: historicist, biographical, 'print culture/history of the book' studies. Some Bakhtin.
Critical Context: On the practices of reading, writing and publishing, figures like Jon Klancher, Paul Keen and Andrew Franta; more specifically, Mark Parker's recent monograph on Romantic periodicals.
Thesis: Authorial identities are constructed and negotiated through networks of publication and reception; a negotiation intensified by the qualities of the periodical form and the review. Put neatly, the name 'William Hazlitt' is as much as a pseudonym for William Hazlitt as 'Elia' is for Charles Lamb.

In a Nutshell: Broadly, Schoenfield's point is that the increasing influence of periodicals as both organs and tribunals in literary culture means that they mediate authorial identity in fundamental ways. For instance, …


Despite the fact that Richardson's Pamela is a novel that undergraduates tend to love to hate, the three seminars this week played to form and were full of good discussion and analysis. I could have very easily written posts about the consolation of institutional surveillance, how breaking into an in media res beginning sidelines Pamela's history, and on some very astute commentary on space, privacy, being-seen and sexuality.

However, I want to concentrate on an issue which recurred across all three classes. It's obvious that narrating one's own life, and the agency or otherwise of this narration, is pretty central to Pamela. In a similar way to the journal entries of Robinson Crusoe, Pamela writes to inscribe her own identity: otherwise, why would she continue to write when she knows the letters cannot be sent? Yet, the very need to have identity materialised in a text - a text which can be intercepted, read, stolen, forged etc. - is problematic. We can clearly see th…

40 Monograph Challenge #21: Romanticism and the Object

Not strictly a monograph but an essay collection, yet still a book I've been curious about for a long time.

Title: Romanticism and the Object, ed. Larry H. Peer (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

Methodology: As in all essay collections, no unified methodology but largely either New Historicist or so-called 'thing theory'.
Critical Context: Again, various, although Judith Pascoe is mentioned as key influence for her book The Hummingbird Cabinet.
Thesis: The editor, Peer, suggests that the essays within share the view that 'Romanticism's use of the object is neither ideologically nor rhetorically mystifying, and that the relationship between the radical individuality of Romantic discourse and the sign system of natural objects is not incommensurable' (p. 7)

Certain questions recur in many essays: of materiality and the relation between subject and object recur, of the way that objects of exchange and circulation are imbued with, and help determine, reciprocal m…

Notes on Defoe

When I teach seminars, I try as best I can to ensure that general discussion flows from the students. Of course, it is inevitable (and desirable, I guess) that certain key interpretative approaches and cruxes get covered, and I very rarely have to prompt this. Intelligent undergraduates will tend to come up with roughly parallel answers. Nevertheless, seminars always have their own unique pathways and one of the best experiences for me is when a student articulates a way of looking at a text which genuinely gets me thinking - an angle that I haven't quite looked at before. Here are three (certainly not the only three) from this week's triptych of classes on Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and how they got me pondering the text afresh.

 1. At the beginning of Robinson Crusoe, the narrator emphasises that he is a restless figure. His father counsels him to stay and pursue a life of solid bourgeois virtue:
He asked me what reasons, more than a mere wandering inclination, I had …

Pope and the Future of Literature

Last week was spent teaching 7.5 hours-worth of seminar time on Alexander Pope's poems The Dunciad and the 'Essay on Criticism' with three different groups. I didn't really plan what to talk about, but I found myself trying to emphasise that whilst vituperative personal attacks on now long-forgotten print culture rivals and assiduous fidelity to neo-classical canons of taste (respectively) might not seem particularly interesting in a modern context, we perhaps get a better sense of the wider stakes around Pope if we think about the concept of the "future of literature". Pope worked at a time when the writing, reading and cultural circulation of texts was changing, and what he was doing was trying to understand and secure, precisely, the future of literature. It was important because 'good writing', even writing itself, was for him in mortal danger.

I think that this makes him a whole lot more 'modern' than he might at first appear, particularly…

Meet Your Professor / A Day in the Life

At the Penryn Campus of Exeter, we have a freshers' activity called Meet Your Professor. I presume it's an American import, since of course only two of our department are Professors (in US academia, the titles are used very differently), but whatever its provenance, it's quite good fun. We all get to stand up and talk about our research and our academic journey more generally, and then we get allocated a group of students who read a little of our work and interview us. Anyway, in advance of this, I thought it might be interesting for whichever group is researching me to find out exactly what we do all day. Monday was a fairly average day for me, and it went something like this:

Get up, make myself an egg and bacon bagel (it's Monday, I deserve to be unhealthy at least once a week), and drove to campus. My first task to sit in an eighteenth-century lecture on a second-year module in my role as convenor, and listen to my new colleague Dr Chloe Preedy talk about Alexander…

40 Monograph Challenge #20: Fracture and Fragmentation in British Romanticism

Title: Alexander Regier, Fracture and Fragmentation in British Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Methodology: Theoretical, deeply informed by Walter Benjamin
Critical Context: Work on fragments (e.g. Marjorie Levinson, Nancy/Lacoue-Labarthe), critics whom Regier claims understand a self-reflexive and broadly self-deconstructing Romanticism (e.g. William Keach, James Chandler), the influence of Paul de Man and High Deconstruction is also apparent
Thesis: The origin is always broken: fracture and fragmentation lie at the heart of Romanticism, and Romanticism is self-aware of this fact.

In a Nutshell: As befits a study which insists on fracture as a central principle, a series of leitmotifs rather than a continuous or progressive argument organise the seven chapters here. These include the breach between human and nature, as well as a parallel breach which separates the human subject from his/her own language (rendering language interestingly inhuman). Language itself…

40 Monograph Challenge #19: British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility

Title: Brycchan Carey, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment and Slavery 1760-1807 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

Methodology: In a sense, formalist, but deeply historicist in its selection of largely non-canonical texts across a range of literary and non-literary genres.
Critical Context: The large existing body of work on sensibility (Markman Ellis, Janet Todd, G.J. Benfield-Barker etc.); work on abolitionist poetry, especially Marcus Wood.
Thesis: In the late eighteenth-century, there was an unusually specific connection between a literary mode (sentimentalism) and a political movement (abolition). This connection worked through a particular and definable use of rhetoric.

In a Nutshell: The introduction of Carey's book does a good job in setting out the triangulated co-ordinates implied by the title: abolition, sentiment/sensibility and rhetoric. The argument is that a 'sentimental rhetoric' emerged as part of the wave of 'new…

Notes on Godot

Went to see the Exeter production of Waiting for Godot last night, staged by the Miracle Theatre Company. Although I naturally came across a slew of Samuel Beckett when I lived in Dublin (along with O'Casey and Friel, he's a staple), I'd never actually seen Godot live before, so it was interesting for me.  Aware that Beckett is incredibly hard to write about well, and being no twentieth-scholar myself, I just offer a handful of random observations.

1. Beckett and Buridan. Early in the play I was struck by an exchange where Vladimir and Estragon discuss, with characteristically dark humour, hanging themselves. The question is, with a fragile bough, who should hang themselves first and prove it is possible for both men:
ESTRAGON:(with effort). Gogo light—bough not break—Gogo dead. Didi heavy—bough break—Didi alone. Whereas-VLADIMIR:I hadn't thought of that.ESTRAGON:If it hangs you it'll hang anything.VLADIMIR:But am I heavier than you?ESTRAGON:So you tell me. I don'…

40 Monograph Challenge #18: Bluestockings

Title: Elizabeth Eger, Bluestockings: Women of Reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Methodology: feminist, historicist, cultural materialist
Critical Context: feminist canon revision (e.g. Mellor, Curran, Armstrong, Guest); on the bluestockings specifically, Slyvia Myers
Thesis: identifies a late eighteenth-century cultural 'moment' when female intellectuals played an active, and to a certain extent feminist, role in forging a national literary canon and a broader sense of national cultural identity

In a nutshell: As well as introducing the reader to the key historical figures of the Bluestocking movement,* Eger marshall the evidence that both female and male writers recognised the immense cultural contribution being made by women in the late eighteenth century, and the cultural and critical authority they were increasingly appropriating. Chapter one looks at how symbolic figures (muses, Sappho etc.) could actually be invested and identi…

Top Boy/The Wire

Top Boy, a Channel 4 series set on a drug-strewn East London estate, is often described as a British Wire. Having spent a pleasurable six months in Ireland watching the boxed sets of the latter with my girlfriend of the time, I'm interested in the comparison. I really like Top Boy, but it seems a very different kind of series in form to The Wire, even though its content (drugs, deprivation, organised crime, black subculture, violence, youth) is similar.

I think that one of the differences can be summed up in a haunting, yet repeatedly deployed, trope in Top Boy - the stylised evocation of London at night, a place of glimmering orange streetlights and the distant burn of Canary Wharf. Indeed, the spectral presence of those skyscrapers is so fundamental that the programme chooses it as its defining image, capping a beautifully shot title sequence as follows:

It is a lyricism that is largely absent from the Baltimore of The Wire. I don't think that this means Top Boy is a more ro…

40 Monograph Challenge #17: The Truth About Romanticism

Realistically, I should retitle this the 30 monograph challenge, since that's probably as far as I'll get by December, but I suppose it just goes to show how difficult it is to take 45 minutes out of your day to keep up with the academic field! Summer has been good: recently been at the British Library researching Byron criticism (and reading a monograph per day - but I'm promised not to cheat on this!); now in the midst of a spell of pre-term writing.

Title: Tim Milnes, The Truth About Romanticism: Pragmatism and Idealism in Keats, Shelley and Coleridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Methodology: takes its philosophical cues from pragmatist (frequently analytic) philosophers like Quine, Strawson and Rorty
Critical Context: in a sense, ambitiously, all of new historicism and deconstruction; more specifically, in dialogue with Kathleen Wheeler, Jerome Christensen, Paul Hamilton, as well as work on Romantic empiricism and Romantic audiences
Thesis: Despite idealis…