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On Franco Moretti

Thanks to Franco Moretti's surprisingly readable prose, my project to refresh my 'literary theory' in 2015 is still on track!** It's fair to say, of course, that Moretti is not a theorist in quite the same way as Henri Lefebvre or Lauren Berlant, but his work (of which this is a collection of essays across time) certainly asks some big questions.

1. Perhaps the first thing to state is that Moretti is interested - perhaps a little unfashionably - in the large-scale. At a time when every generalisation (let alone meta-narrative) is likely to be shredded in a critical landscape which tends to value the particular context and the 'overlooked' specific variable, it is interesting to see Distant Reading still working with ideas like 'European literature' or 'the rise of the novel'.

As he himself states, perhaps the two models of the 'large scale' that dominate his work are the tree and the wave. And, as the essay 'Evolution, World-Systems,

Quests Without Objects

One of the strange, unpredictable things about teaching is the odd and sometimes serendipitous juxtapositions. Last week, I worked with third year undergraduates in the context of a research-led nineteenth-century module, discussing Mary Shelley's apocalyptic novel The Last Man. The day before, my first year seminar tackled Middle English staple Gawain and the Green Knight. It's fair to say that I wasn't expecting the two experiences to imply much of a dialogue. Gawain is a medieval chivalric fantasy; The Last Man is a Romantic plague narrative at turns gothic and sentimental. Yet, in both seminars, some very interesting discussions emerged around quest narratives and their subversion.

In terms of Gawain, this sprung out of a question common in critical debate on the text: realism vs. romance. Many of the student responses, as well as the ensuing discussions, implicated the pattern of the quest. To give three examples:

a) The quest that Gawain sets off on is double: in fac…

Incest, Privacy and the Inhuman in "The Cenci"

I've never taught The Cenci before, but I'm very happy to have finally found a place for it on an undergraduate syllabus. Although somewhat overshadowed by illness (mine, their, the whole university's...), it was a great seminar.

I want to start my reflection by thinking about that relation so fundamental to so many tragedies: the articulation between the domestic/familial and public/political realms.

What is particularly intense about Percy Bysshe Shelley's revenge drama is its central traumatic fact of incest. As the politics of Romantic incest demand, the perversion and violation of the father/daughter bond by Count Cenci is itself a critique of larger structures based around patriarchal authority (aristocratic, ecclesiastical, metaphysical), and the centre of the play's action.

The scandal of incest, moreover, has a structurally radical effect. It turns things inside out. It is, ironically, perhaps the most private event in the play: sexual and domestic; displa…

On Lauren Berlant

I used to work with literary theory a lot more than I do now: my own trajectory and the disciplinary boundaries of Romantic Studies have led me away from it. However, if my Facebook feed is anything to go by, the most exciting stuff happening in theory in recent years has tended to come from the sites of 'queer theory': e.g. late Butler, Halberstam and, above all, Lauren Berlant. So it was good to get down to Cruel Optimism. As with all these theory blogs, I'm coming at this from a decent level of expertise in deconstruction, phenomenology and bits of post-Marxism, but not necessarily for other schools: so all errors and misconstruals will hopefully be excused!

1. Temporality. Above all, Berlant is investigating a particular kind of contemporary present. Her scene is set, largely in the West, in a late capitalist epoch: post-globalisation, post 9/11, post-financial crash. The citizens of this moment are a precariat, subject to a 'neoliberal feedback loop, with its effi…

Caleb William and 'Cruel Identities'

It's been two weeks since my new third-year option module kicked off, and after beginning with de Quincey and Descartes, this week's text was William Godwin's paranoid political-gothic novel Caleb Williams. There's something pleasingly concentrated and intense about third year teaching (I guess the looming prospect of degree classification must focus the mind!) and I was really impressed with the discussion.

We began by thinking about Caleb as both narrating and narrated. Caleb is quite a self-conscious (and potentially suspicious) narrator, something made clear quite early on - 'I shall interweave with Mr. Collins's story various information which I afterwards received from other quarters...to avoid confusion in my narrative, I shall drop the person of Collins, and assume to be myself the historian of our patron' - right up until the point where he essentially revokes the vindicatory aim of his 'half-told and mangled tale'.

Yet he is also narrated. P…

On Rosi Braidotti

Still hubristically on course for ten new theory texts in 2015! This is one of these rare volumes which both sums up diverse threads of thinking (and Braidotti is an aggressive and self-conscious thinker of pluralist bricolage) and somehow also marks new openings.

1. 'The crisis that spells the death of the logocentric subject opens the condition of possibility for the expression of female subjectivity'*

This is the starting point, I think, for everything Braidotti is trying to do: or, perhaps better articulated, this is the intellectual condition of the epoch. Such a 'deconstruction' of the classical self (unified, rational, centered) comes from at least three places. Firstly, a well-established, largely male philosophical tradition running from figures like Nietzsche and Freud right up to key French thinkers such as Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault, who dissolves the 'I' into the flux of language, material intensities or networks of power/knowledge. Secondly, an …

On Lynne Segal

June's reading. A fascinating, perhaps controversial, book which is going straight (no pun intended) on to the Critical Theory module I'm designing/convening next year.

1. The Problematic. Sex and feminism. Of course, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick points out, sexuality and gender classifications are not necessarily bound together - but in our society and culture they are. Which, for feminism, raises a particular problem around heterosexuality: put reductively, 'sleeping with the enemy'. In a more complex vein, how can we negotiate the experience of desire between men and women in a context where cultures, histories and representations of sexuality tend to be inflected by patriarchy and a series of dynamics which are tilted against women? These range from the gendering of pornography to slut-shaming, from the entwining of women's sexuality with reproduction, maternity and family to the notion that male sexuality is 'naturally' or 'essentially' active and…

Thoughts on Painting: Sistine Chapel, Constable, Colour

One of the enviable things about having the chance to attend conferences in cities like New York and Rome is, of course, the cities themselves. I managed to visit the Vatican museums, the Capitoline museums, the Neue Galerie, and revisited the Frick and the Met. (In retrospect that list looks more indulgent than it felt at the time!) Here are some thoughts.

1.  Seeing the Sistine Chapel is one of those impossible aesthetic experiences. Like Monet, the imagery is so culturally over-exposed - although, unlike Monet, the actual architectural or three-dimensional effect of the Sistine Chapel is impossible to represent in advance.

Maybe because I was heading to give a paper about mother/infant relations in my next conference, the images that really caught me were the familial scenes captured in the triangular 'spandrels' and the half-moon 'lunettes'. I've included two examples: the Ozias spandrel and the Achim lunette.



What is fascinating is the intimacy of these images…

Three Notes on Henri Lefebvre

Six months down, four texts in. Although, in my defence, Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space is a 400+ page opus, and everything always gets wiped by the end of term! Engaging with such a long text is always hard, especially when (as often) it is the sidenotes and digressions which are often most fascinating: an analysis of Venice (pp.73-7), a phenomenology of doors and windows which immediately follows a spatial reading of sleep (pp.208-9), a philosophy of red light districts (pp.319-30) or beaches (p.353, 384)... Yet I think I can break Lefebvre's programme down into three interlinked positions.

1. A Philosophy of Space. Like a number of thinkers in philosophy, geography and critical theory, Lefebvre's central contention is that space is not just a neutral container in which things, acts and events occur, but something made by human beings and societies. Whether it is marks, posts, traces, borders, centres, locales, itineraries, passages, tracks, flows, segments, co…

Research Diary 2/7: After the Conferences

Well, the two conferences are over! They were both brilliant in their own ways, and both held in stunning locations.

1. The Rome Wordsworth paper went well - despite an over-ambitious impromptu preamble which meant I had to rush a little at the end. As for the questions, they weren't too difficult to respond to adequately: helped, I guess, by the facts that the only other Romanticist was sat next to me on the panel, and that I was taking a broadly historicist tack which wasn't entirely in tune with the ongoing dialogue of the conference (which was a shame). Nevertheless, I got interesting points about how we might relate Wordsworth's sense of individual prophetic vocation to generalisable religious experience for others, as well as questions about the long-term history of the 'pray without ceasing' motif.

I think preparing the paper and engaging with the conference discussions in general made me fix, even more than before, a slightly perverse sense that Wordsworth …

Rome Note: The Ordinary

Something juxtaposed to everything appears as nothing. But then something juxtaposed to nothing can appear as everything.

This is loosely how one of the speakers at the philosophy, theology and literature conference I recently attended in Rome described a knot of problems around finitude that recurred in many of the panels. The first formulation is the problem of nihilism: of a shattered absolute and a relinquished transcendence. If the infinite withdraws itself, then the finite world can seem unmeaning and abandoned. It seems worthless, as nothing at all. If we remember our lost absolutes, our finitude seems as nothing.

The second reinscribes a transcendence through Heidegger 'es gibt': the fact - the apparently miraculous or stunning fact - that there is a world rather than there not being one. Things - ordinary things like leaves and cats and typewriters and walls - are, and through them we sense a bundle of qualities (the greenness of the leaves, the shape of the cat, the …