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Showing posts from October, 2013

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in another class, whilst I was thinking about the text as a moral one, nearly all the small groups zeroed in on the historical references, and we ended up continuing a long discussion about seventeenth-century politics which had begun with references to Cromwell in Johnson's Journey to the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…