« September 2007 | Main | November 2007 »

October 24, 2007

Moving Daguerreotypes, Myths of Reproduction, and Edgar Allan Poe

Lauren's Chapter


First off, let me just say that I think this is excellent. I know I heard you present most of this, but your paper really comes together, and you present a clear narrative and intellectual interrogation of so much. You write and transition from one idea to another very well and I feel like I’m in capable hands. One of the many things that I admire about this essay is the magnitude of scholarship that has gone into it. You present here a tremendous amount of data that you’ve brought together and then reflected on with a great deal of care, and it shows. The notes in of themselves are incredibly informative, and are convincing displays of hard work. The story of the daguerreotypes is of course fascinating, but I also love the way that you read these objects and their reception. For instance, your point about the “actuality? of the time Poe would have to be sitting for his daguerreotype vs. the way it was talked off (p2) is smart and insightful. Similarly, you find effective gaps in the way Poe’s dress is talked about and explain clearly and succinctly what these gaps tell us about the construction of Poe’s image (pun!).
I have, of course, line edits, and comments on specific parts of the paper, but I wanted to bring your attention to a couple of particular things:

a) I hate to say this, but one of the most significant areas that I think needs work might stem from all the work that you’ve done. What I mean is this: I feel that a lot of your essay centers around the way that others have talked about Poe, about aura, about sculpture, about press photographs etc. Some of this is obviously unavoidable, since I understand that you’re doing some important (sorry for this next word) metacommentary. However, I feel that there are a lot of names in here that aren’t really individualized to any extent. The strongest examples of this are Barthes and Benjamin who’re really invoked in a timely way, but not that effectively. You tend to use inline quotes a lot, which is fine, but which also detracts from cohesive, rounded, and “complete? understanding of ideas. For example, on page 8, Barthes is brought up quickly, quoted minimally, and explained almost not at all. I think that, in general, you need to spend some more time with these thinkers. Elaborate for us, if you will, what these thinkers are trying to say about important concepts, how they see these concepts, and how you see them. It will allow, I think, for a stronger presentation of your own voice and ideas that feels like is being absented here. I want to stress, I don’t think that you’re actually letting other people do the talking—this essay feels, to borrow one of your concepts, original. However, by not setting up quotes and analyzing them/their authors effectively, you, inadvertently I feel, give off the impression of doing less “thinking? than you actually have done.

b) In general, you’re composing a very complicated essay here and depend on a matrix of complex notions. To make this even more effective than it already is, I feel that you need to explain your concepts a little bit more. In my line edits, I question your fleeting assertion on the “cinematic? nature of the reception of Poe’s daguerreotypes. I understand that this is part of the paper that you have not yet written out completely, but it still warrants a beat or so more—just a line or so to explain what it means to receive something cinematically. Similarly, I’m not exactly sure why Dimmock’s letter to the editor is “odd? or, for that matter, how you understand Barthes’s concepts of connotation and denotation to work (and to what end) in Poe. I feel that point a) might address this, but I do think that your work seems hurried somehow, and that a careful and insightful explanation of what you mean will address this impression of haste. The good news, I feel, is that it would result in more pages!

c) Your writing, as I’ve mentioned, is top-notch, and you effectively deploy v. complicated ideas. However, in a couple of places, you use long, complicated sentences that seem to be a little inverted in their syntax. I feel like there’s an argument to be made for doing this—your ideas are complex, and therefore your sentences must reflect this complexity. However, I think that simpler and more direct sentences, though not always prettier, are always clearer, and though concealing your subject is an interesting approach, it can very easily lead to confusion. I also feel that there are (a very few) moments in which you resort to “gradspeak? whereby we tell our audience what we think we’re going to argue, instead of presenting them with the confidence that our analyses will do the work. Like I said re: Becky’s chapter, I think we need to work on moving away from those moments altogether.

All in all, I thought this was really wonderful, and I am truly impressed. This bodes so well for your dissertation at large, which I am (now more so than ever) excited to read. Well done!

October 15, 2007

Thanks + a few things

Thanks so much everyone for your incredibly valuable comments and suggestions! I got some much-needed perspective on my essay. I really appreciate it.

A couple important questions I thought might transition nicely into discussion of Lauren’s upcoming paper were in Jessie’s response to my paper—I think a few of us are grappling with these issues and, although I don’t know how to answer them yet, I’m keeping them in mind. I’m copying Jessie’s questions here:

On my linking of textile laborers with avant-garde artists: “Firstly, why is this link important for you to make? What’s at stake in terms of our understanding of Albers as an artist and/or the currents you’re tracing in modernist thought?? I’d add, what does it mean to link figures across temporal (and national, other kinds of) boundaries? Lauren’s project connects the Gothic to the modern, Jessie’s connects early 20th c. thought to the contemporary classroom . . . Why are we doing this??!?!?!?

On Albers’s conservatism: “What does it mean to ‘reclaim’ a writer/artist who has been cast as conservative in the name of a more progressive politics? What is gained and risked/obscured in such a move??

In addition to these questions there are a couple things I’m curious about in terms of academic writing. One has to do with the use of theory, and the other with the use of “I.?

Because I felt the main thrust of my Albers paper was to show the importance of taking her seriously as a theorist, I was reluctant to devote much space to other theorists. Although I love Adorno and Benjamin and feel they inform my entire project, I didn’t want to write an essay that claimed Albers was “serious? because they—famous, respected male theorists—shared some of her ideas. I think Albers’s thinking intersects with Adorno, Benjamin, Freud, Marx, and others, and she also shares their conflicted relationships with their own Jewishness. But I don’t know how useful it would be to just compare her with them. Has anyone else dealt with this? Do you have any thoughts on this issue?

Another question is about using “I.? Maddy and I corresponded a bit on this, I’m pasting our email exchange below. Basically I see that removing “I? does lend authority to writing, but at the same time I also like hearing the author’s personal voice. Because my project is very personal, taking out “I? gives it a sense of distance which feels sort of weird to me (as if I’m writing about myself in the 3rd person). I’d like to find a balance between authority and the personal, which I think may mean taking out some “I? statements but not all of them. I’d be interested to hear what others think about this. It seems relevant to teaching as well (I always have students who are reluctant to use “I? and sometimes others who seem to overuse it).

from Becky to Maddy:
one question, about the use of 'i' in academic writing . . . i just read something recently recommending that grad students not use 'i' in describing their projects, because writing sounds more authoritative without it. i was curious if that was why you prefered eliminating the 'i,' or if there was another reason. i think i agree (my writing certainly sounds much better with your edits), although i go back and forth on the issue. sometimes i like to hear the author's voice more directly. i'd love to hear your thoughts, when you have a chance . . .

from Maddy to Becky:

Anyway, to answer your question (if it's still applicable), yes, the reason that I would discourage the "I" in academic writing has to do with making it sound stronger. In general, sentences that begin with or contain "I feel" or "I present" tend to, I think, make the argument sound inconclusive when, in fact, having done the analytical work, you should feel completely confident in your findings. I hate to quote Tim, but he's always talking about not leading with your chin, and I find that I agree. He'd also said something in reference to my abstract about how to establish your findings than to present them as queries-- that is, instead of saying something like "an analysis of xya examines the implications for abc" one should actually go ahead and present what the findings are. I'm still trying to figure out how to do that one.

That said, I do agree that the author's voice is an important aspect of the dissertation. Do you think that "I" statements are really an effective way of establishing that voice? It seems to me that really, the way that you read a text, and then read it inter-textually, could reveal that individuality.

October 11, 2007


We missed you at our meeting, Becky (and btw, my comments on your wonderful paper are forthcoming). As I mentioned to the DaWGs present, I'm hoping to get some feedback on my prospectus. The version I'll post here is in process--I don't yet think it does a good enough job positioning my project in a big-picture sense, and I'm still struggling to make the chapter descriptions coherent while keeping them brief (I have a longer version, but I want to try to nail a short version). Anyway, any general feedback is welcome. Also, I'm planning on starting with the "mock autobiographies" chapter. I've been thinking lately about Samuel Ornitz' *Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl*, Johnson's *Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man*, and Edith Eaton's *Me* (which I wrote about in my exam). But I'm trying to collect as many titles as I can that fit into this category--books published in the early 20thc AS autobiographies that in fact aren't, and that use the genre to think about/trouble/undermine ideas about race/ethnicity/class. Oddly, there seem to be a lot of them. If you know of any, please let me know! Also, I still want to tweak my title, as it doesn't really reflect the whole project (i.e. the connections I make to contemp. pedagogy). Suggestions welcome. Okay, sorry for the long post:

Circulating Selves: Identity, Autobiography, and Popular Reading in the Early Twentieth Century
This dissertation examines a wide range of autobiographical texts from early twentieth-century America to consider the ways in which autobiographical writing—intimately tied to socially-defined concepts of personhood such as race, ethnicity, and class—impacted a burgeoning middle-class readership in a period when ideas about identity were in great flux. Popular writers who narrated their lives from cultural locations outside of their middle-class readership faced a unique set of circumstances linked to changing concepts of cultural difference and developments in the technology of mass culture; their narrated lives resonated with readers in new ways that had significant implications for how those readers conceived of themselves in relation to others. Furthermore, this history of autobiography illuminates the unrecognized significance of the autobiographical in contemporary debates surrounding multiculturalism and literary studies. This study thus contributes to ongoing conversations that have attempted to enlarge our understanding of the full range of literary production and consumption of the modernist era through an examination of popular or “middlebrow? texts, while also drawing new connections between the history of publication and contemporary literary pedagogy.
The subfield of autobiography studies has exploded in recent decades. However, it has been saturated by a methodological focus on narrative analysis—that is, an examination of the structure and interaction of various elements within a narrative work as a means to consider how a person or life is textually constructed through autobiography. My project draws on theoretical developments linking autobiography to psychic subjectivity and political citizenship, but it goes further to broaden the study of autobiography from an exclusive focus on primary texts to include the material history surrounding those texts (publication history, author interviews, reviews, correspondence, etc.), thereby situating authors and works in the context of their contemporary readerships. This historical context is particularly significant because it allows for a consideration of how the function of genre, as an unstable system of classification, changes over time and across different cultural milieus: I ask, how has autobiography, as produced and circulated through a wide range of cultural mediums, facilitated the production of the middle-class citizen-subject at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? By bringing into conversation autobiography theory and a historical analysis of popular writing, I highlight the often-ignored significance of authorship as a public role embedded in institutions and reading as a social practice linked to the circulation and reception of texts; thus, this study also contributes to the emerging field of the history of the book.
Chapters one, two, and three examine autobiographical texts as they appeared in a wide range of venues in the early twentieth century. Chapter one focuses on autobiographical sketches and serialized autobiographies from mass magazines such as Munsey’s, The Independent, and Harper’s Monthly, which engaged (and in fact, helped shape) readers from an emerging middle class who were attempting to fix their bearings in the fluid social space of the fin de siécle. I argue that the ideological work performed by the magazines’ frequent inclusion of memoirs, reminiscences—not only by well-known politicians or literary figures, but also by immigrants, workers, and others whose lives were foreign to the magazines’ middle-class readership—informed and was informed by larger concepts of citizenship, selfhood, and an emerging ideology of consumerism. Chapter two examines popular novels that simultaneously destabilized conceptions of both genre and identity through variations of what I call “autobiographical passing?—the use of the generic conventions of traditional autobiography to explore newly malleable concepts of identity. I examine the reception and circulation of work by writers like Samuel Ornitz, James Weldon Johnson, and Edith Eaton, whose mock autobiographies reveal and challenge expectations for how both genre and identity function. Chapter three examines texts published for audiences more specialized than that of mass magazines and popular books. Autobiographical narratives were often collected and circulated by unions, ethnic newspapers, and other organizations operating outside of mainstream publishing apparatus. These texts provide an interesting counterpoint to those published for mass consumption, and the narrative comparisons they invite illuminate the imbrication of autobiographical practices and questions of audience and circulation.
Having examined a range of autobiographical texts and their circulation in the early twentieth century, chapter four links these findings to the contemporary debates surrounding multiculturalism and literary pedagogy. If, as many argue, over the course of the twentieth century the University came to claim the cultural authority that once belonged to publishers and literary critics, then we might see the contemporary literature classroom and its curriculum as a locus for the creation of middle-class reading practices. In that sense, literary education plays a primary role in setting up expectations of how texts should function within a social field. I argue that in the age of multiculturalism, the autobiographical has taken on a significance both more central and more unrecognized than ever before, as authors increasingly (and problematically) come to stand in as representatives of marginalized social groups.

Deadline Calendar

DaWG Calendar.jpg

October 9, 2007

The Work of Spontaneity--Becky's Chapter


I think your chapter is amazing! Its ideas and connections are so well thought out, complex, and clearly expressed. I enjoyed reading it. You're helping me think through some ideas in my own work-- not only because the Gothic and ghosts make appearances in your chapter, but also because, in it, you touch on some issues I'm considering in relation to Proto-filmic Poe and Jewish emigres' 1930s film adaptations of Poe's stories. Thank you for your insights.

I think the turn to Niedecker's poem works well to conclude the chapter. What's missing for me in the final paragraph is a fuller comparison of N's and Albers' ways of, and reasons for, "lament[ing] 'today's' lack of useful objects," that links all of the issues that the chapter has so brilliantly pieced together. I also suggest adding transitions between sections in the body of the chapter to make the development of your argument on Albers' theory of modernism more explicit. Finally, I think beefing up support for your claim that Albers "was not entirely alone" in her perspective on "the connection between art and life, as well as labor, craft, and politics" would serve the chapter well. In addition to Adorno, Benjamin comes to my mind as a theorist to compare to Albers. In particular, B's expressed purpose of writing theses on art to contribute to the worker's struggle, and his argument that mass production can be used toward revolutionary ends, in the "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility," and his ideas on having instantaneous flashes of insight (spontaneity?) while reading, and on comparing 'moderns' to "the ancients," in "The Doctrine of the Similar," seem to resonate with your claims about Albers' theory, not to mention that Benjamin is another German-Jewish exile. (Though perhaps simply because these essays are on my mind!)

Some questions on Albers' theory that occurred to me while reading your chapter and that perhaps would help you address the above:

1. Is the artist's struggle with material a kind of "negative objectification" in that, rather than do violence to the object, the artist gives (or takes?) voice/expression to (from?) the object? Perhaps say more about how Albers redefines objectification, as well as subjectification.

2. Do the terms unconscious, thought, subjectivity, subjectiveness, and individuality mean the same thing? Can you clarify how Albers redefines "thought," and why, if she's bringing the body and work into her idea of thought, does she see "convulsion" as anti-thought? Is Albers' theory anti-Freudian? (I think Benjamin has been interpreted as challenging Freudian theory.) Does Albers differ from Adorno in her refutation of a Freudian psychoanalytic paradigm? Does this relate to Albers "advocat[ing] working *with* mass production" (which, needless to say, Adorno found problematic, particularly in Benjamin's writing)? Is her comparison of the human and non-human (particularly, the machine) anti-Freudian?

3. What is the relationship between marginalization, minorities, minor art, the past, the folk, the feminine, and the response to WWI (as manifestation of the wrongs of and possible end to Western civilization)? Is Albers' theory primitivist because, in an effort to change the 'today' of the West, she equates the present of other cultures with the past (of the West), and argues the West must revive Others' pasts to create a future for the West? When Albers refers to "our way of doing things," does she collapse "Modernist" and "Western"? Is her theory implicated in a kind of cultural amnesia toward the pre-Enlightenment West?

4. Is Albers' theory anti-primitivist because she redefines assimilation?

5. On Naming: is Albers' stance toward anonymity more "conflicted" or "dialectical"? Can you say more about how advocating anonymity helps to revive the past and/or give voice to Others (in comparing Albers' theory to Niedecker's poem)?

6. Why is Albers' theory seen as conservative, exactly? Because she is against experimental art? Are conservativeness and conservationism the same?

That's all I have, for now. I hope these thoughts/questions are helpful. Feel free to email me or post any comments/questions on them. I'm sorry I didn't include page numbers in citing parts of your chapter, above. I printed out a copy with smaller font, less pages. But, if you can't tell what parts of your chapter I'm referring to in questions above, I'm happy to point to them.

Again, thank you for sharing your chapter, and well done!