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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.


I like how you, Becky, have laid out a few of the stakes of your work on Albers: to expand Modernism, bridge the high/low cultural divide, and not only critique but also revise historicism. I like Maddy's suggestion that what we SHOULD include in our analysis is full development (a fleshing out) of what we WANT to include. I think I hear very clearly what you, Becky, want to do with Albers: to introduce her ideas from a perspective that is not clouded by dominant theory, which, then, should only be incorporated into your essay if and when it helps to clarify Albers's work. Reading your posting, I was reminded of JS Wright's advise on one possible criterion for making decisions about when and how to use secondary sources: did your subject encounter (e.g., read) that source? This is not to deny an "ether" that can influence authors/artists in ways of which they may not be aware, or to deny the significance of later readers' reception of their work: clearly the issues of authorial intention and reader reception loom large in this discussion. However, I think it's important to recognize that our subjects had (and that we, as their critics, have) particular access to and relationships with said "ether" and/or that various ethers are out there. Perhaps we should make a decision about what matters and be upfront with our readers about it-- make our contexts an explicit part of our arguments. It seems to me that the critics of "Heart of Darkness" to which you refer, Maddy, do NOT do this fully. They assume that, and don't explain why, "time" has a different relevance to racial stereotyping than to critiquing empire. One question I would ask is, "What role does racial stereotyping play in critiquing empire?"

The question about time/context is definitely an interesting one, and continues to be relevant in any project. As I read more and more criticism of *Heart of Darkness* it appears to me that both "sides of the fence" re: Conrad's alleged racism are actually battling with this question of time/place. His severest critics such as Chinua Achebe try to argue not just about HoD in terms of it being a novel "of its time," but about what it means that it maintains its literary currency in academia given the incredible amount of racist lannguage there exists there. And, of course, many of those who come to the defense of Conrad point out that it's absurd to imagine that Conrad could use anything but the language that was available to him, and that within that language, he launced some incredible anti-imperialists critiques. Of course, what is interesting to me about some of the ways in which these defenses are articulated is that they take the form of "He could not possibly have-but he SO did anyway" arguments. As in, "he could not possibly not resort to stereotypes, since that was the only conceptual framework available to him, but he SO criticized empire in a way that was utterly before it's time." I haven't figured it completely out yet, but I think there's some sort of contradiction there.

This question of context, I feel, is also what underlies the necessity of theory. You're right Becky, I think, in wanting to be able to overshadow her work, and I think that Lauren's idea of footnotes, which you've decided you do want to do, is a good one. If I may be crudely practical for a moment, the biggest question I had about your chapter as I saw it was not "why aren't you theorizing this more in terms of the theoryheads we already know," which is to say I don't think I'd recommend "adding" perhaps irrelevant theory to play the scholar game. What I meant to suggest that the people/isms you DO invoke-- Adorno, modernism, romanticism-- that therefore MUST have something to do with the way you see Albers need to be fleshed out more. You say already that Albers was different from some modernists, and at at least one other moment you suggest that she fit in well with her modernist colleagues. This seems to be an important tension for your essay, and without giving it more page space than is necessary, I feel that you would need to address more fully what exactly you mean. May that not allow you, don't you think, to address better than you're already doing this question of "reflecting our times" which, if you feel we are always going to do, might hold true for Albers as well? If, in fact, it does not hold true for Albers, that would be a fascinating argument to hear as well.

To offer brief responses to these very useful points and questions (thank you!) . . .

On asking about methodology: In this case, because several of us (and plenty of others outside this group) are making this trans-temporal move, it seems worth stepping back and taking stock of. Is it part of an attempt to make history relevant and present in the time periods we’re working in? To make ‘modernism’ into ‘modernisms’? Or is there something else going on? My interest in blurring the distinction between factory workers and the avant-garde is certainly part of ongoing contemporary efforts to break down the ‘high’/’low’ distinction in modernism. I don’t think we can ever not reflect our time (or our PhD programs), but some amount of self-consciousness and questioning seems necessary to keep our work fresh and changing.

In terms of Albers and theory: yes, my concern is that Albers will no longer have first billing in the essay if I spend too much time on other thinkers. I’m also concerned that ‘validating’ her theories with male theorists will further trivialize her work (if we were to only speak about H.D. in relation to Ezra Pound we would never see her as a writer in her own right). Albers does not have any voice in literary studies and so I’m interested in establishing and articulating her ideas. On one hand I agree that including her in a conversation with others would help bring her into critical scholarly discussion as an equal. On the other hand there is not much awareness about Albers, so there seems to be a need for some sort of ‘introduction’ to her ideas. I am not completely certain at this time who my audience is, so I am not sure how much I need to explain about the circles and colleagues Albers was associating with. I think doing more of the work to contextualize Albers in the footnotes is really helpful advice. I plan to write another essay on Albers in which I do more comparative work, thinking about Albers alongside Stein as well as others who have written about the interrelation of art and text.

In response to Becky's question on the use of theory:

I think it makes sense to use canonized male theorists to bolster your argument that Albers was also a theorist. Making more explicit the ways and extent to which Albers' theory and practice challenge her male colleagues' seems compatible with-- even crucial to-- your intention. But maybe "footnoting" these others' theory would help to avoid crowding Albers out of the chapter, which is how I read your concern. What do you think?

Adding to the question "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??!?!?!?":
I'm grateful to Becky for recognizing another specific feature that our dissertations share, one which, I think, relates to "futures." Registering and responding to the state of English studies means grappling with interdisciplinarity, globalization, canon reformation, poststructuralism, deconstruction, and attacks on the usefulness of humanities research and of a liberal arts curriculum. To what extent is any of these pressures/phenomena/bodies of thought really 'new'? When we react to them, do we illuminate overlooked aspects of the texts we're writing on and/or reflect our own moment? How self-conscious of this must/can we be? Why is it important that we ask 'why'?