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January 21, 2008

Syllabus

Here is a link to the syllabus, reading schedule and course assignments

Revised Syllabus

Rutgers Reading Guide

This guide was given to me by a professor during my freshman year at Rutgers University. It has consistently proven itself to be an invaluable resource for thinking and writing about literature. Those of you who want to do well in this class should reread this document several times over the course of the semester. If you have have any questions about some of the ideas it covers, please feel free to bring them up during class or with me during office hours.

Download file

January 22, 2008

Jacques Derrida and The Declaration of Independence

Here is PDF file of the readings for our class on 1/24/08. Just Click on Jaques' head to open it. We will discuss the poem, the Declaration of Independence and the essay on Thursday.

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January 23, 2008

Some Thoughts For 1/24/08

On a recent flight from New York to Minneapolis, a slight altercation between me and another passenger started me thinking about the many ways in which we attempt to lay claim to and write ourselves into the spaces around us. After our captain kindly informed us that it was now safe to walk about the cabin, I decided to make my mid-flight trip to the lavatory. While I was seated a mere fifteen rows away from the facilities at the front of the plane, air-traffic safety regulations (and, I would offer, a profound anxiety amongst the moneyed passengers in first-class about rubbing shoulders with the common folk) necessitated I travel to the back of the aircraft. As I attempted to navigate the narrow walkway, a slight shift in our orientation put me slightly off balance and, unbeknownst to me, caused by headphone wire to loop around a female passenger’s armrest. I did not realize this until my head was suddenly jerked backwards from the wire catching. As a direct result of this, the aforementioned woman’s hand was struck, resulting in her spilling her glass of water on the sleeve of her sweater and my pant leg. I turned to her, a profound look of chagrin on my face, but before I could begin to apologize profusely, she countered my clumsiness by screaming, “Watch it you f---ing idiot.? Needless to say I was nonplussed by her willingness to insult a complete stranger in such a callous fashion. On my return trip, I apologized profusely and offered to get her some napkins and/or another drink. However, she successfully parried my attempts to make things right between us, telling me instead “Just don’t worry about it.?

In retrospect, my fellow traveler’s outburst engenders some very real questions about how we as individuals lay claim to public space. While it is true that the “f---ing idiot? comment was meant for me and me alone, the volume at which it was uttered and the proximity of our fellow passengers meant that this private utterance could not help but be a public act. Airplanes by their very structure seem to mesh the private and the public in a unique way. Some people sleep, some work, others read or listen to mp3 players, all somewhat private acts, and yet there is little that is not public on an airplane: laptop screens are clearly visible to no less than three people at any given time, drink orders are said within earshot of at least five to ten people, and a trip to the back of the plane almost certainly means that a passenger is about to engage in some form of bodily cleansing. Yet my experience is singular in that it represented a divergence from the unwritten rules of comportment that govern the ways in which passengers interact with one another. In calling me a “f---ing idiot? in a voice that was loud enough to carry all the way into the first class cabin, my attacker established two things: first, that she was pissed off about having a wet sleeve, and second, that she felt it was her duty to inform me as to the extent of my sin. In essence, she laid claim to not only the immediate space she occupied but also to the area surrounding her, both in word (“f---ing idiot?) and in action (her facial expressions and gesticulations). I still think I remember hearing the teeth of the middle-aged woman sitting beside her chattering with fear for the remainder of the flight. Moreover, in engaging me, she unwittingly forced me to take a position on the public stage, which is to say, I could have responded with anger, with embarrassment, or with any other combinations of emotions. The point being, whatever my reaction, it too would act as a signal to the other passengers about how this collective space would henceforth be used. I remarked upon her apparent violation of the rules that govern air-travel because we as public individuals are constantly pressured by our fellow citizens to abide by unwritten norms of behavior. There is no book of etiquette that governs our behavior in public restrooms, or in movie theaters, or on city sidewalks, and yet we are aware when individuals break them. Similarly, the words we use to define both ourselves and those around us—“black,? “white,? “gay,? “straight,? “poor,? “well-off,? “working class,? “middle class?—undoubtedly carry with them their own cultural baggage. We use these words because we have inherited them from some collective consciousness. Yet such words are fluid in their meaning, thus we should question ourselves when we speak them as though they are without nuance. Thus the purpose of this course is to begin to unpack some of these ideas, both in literature and in our own lives, with the goal of gaining a better understanding of how we can begin to see ourselves as citizens of a university, a nation, the world, etc.

Admittedly, the example above is slightly absurd. After all, it is unlikely that many airline passengers would react to an incident such as the one I described with the same degree of venom I was lucky enough to experience. However, we all struggle, whether consciously or not, to define the spaces (private and public) around us. To a degree, this is one of the topics which I hope to engage with over the course of the semester. Specifically, how do we as public citizens attempt to represent the world and our place within it? Over the next few months, we will encounter a variety of texts (books and films) in which characters will attempt to determine their role within the public sphere. In the first instance, our task will be to examine the different techniques they employ to this end and to explore how their successes and failures comment on our current society. At the same time, we must recognize that the authors of these texts are also engaged in public acts, and, as many of the works we will be discussing stray somewhat from traditional literary conventions, we should ask why this might be the case.

As you read for tomorrow’s class, I want you think about how you would define both yourself and the country you live in. In other words, what is it that makes you American? (assuming you are) Do you consider your ideas to be inline with the majority of American citizens? How do your ideas jive with those of W. H Auden or the “good people? of the Declaration of Independence?

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"Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street"

Here is a PDF file of an online version of the story for week two. Click on the image to open the file.

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