January 2011

I first read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” as an undergrad during a Woolf class in which we read To the Lighthouse. It was my first ever introduction to feminism, and the idea that Woolf is analyzing here, fascinated me back then and still does today.While this idea is confined here to a feminist perspective, I think the implications are the same ones that apply to the second half of readings as well as to a certain Marxist perspective of material culture.

It is the culture, after all, that denies Shakespeare’s sister a chance to express her artistic talents, simply for being a woman. It is scary to think how accurate Woolf is in claiming that,

“When […] one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen” (898).

The world has surely lost a number of talented artist for their gender or race or color or location or socio-economic situation. Hurston and Gilman are two examples of writers that were almost lost to society because they were not WASPY males.

Woolf’s second piece anticipates some of the arguments that De Beauvoir’s will make. Woolf asserts that women in literature have only been shown in relation to men and rarely does one see two women as good friends. Woolf goes on to say that relationships between woman in literature have been “too simple.” This is a point that De Beauvior takes up with her analysis of woman: “To pose Woman is to pose the absolute Other.” De Beauvior does an excellent job of pointing out the contradictions in how woman have been portrayed throughout, not just literature, but history. This analysis points out Sartre’s limitations. Sartre says that one can only know himself through the other, but then says that woman are mysterious.

DeBeauviour looks at this myth of woman as mysterious, as virgin, as demon, as idealized, and as always absolute other of man. Her claim, which I believe is more astute than Sartre’s, is that woman is no more mysterious than man is mysterious to woman, and that to make these outrageous claims is just lazy and to promote the patriarchy. Making claims such as this goes against the first tenet of existentialism, in which “existence precedes essence.” That is that woman (nor men) have any essence outside of their actions. These idealized and categorical claims men make on women puts women in an absolute, deny women the ability to make themselves and totalizing them. The point should be, rather, that the relations between men and women are reciprocal, a give and take of subjectivity. In the views of men, the Hegelian dialectic of relations between men and women, women are always the slaves to men.

It is this mystification that Woolf is looking at in literature in “Chloe likes Olivia.” Additionally, I feel that in “Androgyny,” Woolf is calling for this reciprocity that De Beoavior wants. For the dialectic not to be dominated by the male perspective, but rather, that there has to be a true dialectic. One in which a synthesis of “male” and “female” is balanced.

I think I will stop here before I go on too long. My problem is that I am reading a Zizek essay in which he looks at the idea of sexualization. He looks at the idea of “femininity” vs. “masculinity” to show how this are constructed categories– which leads back to the idea I started off with: how much of all we are, of all our identity, and of everything we think of as “us” is really just a social construct that we have been duped into believing?

sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think,
I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside
remembering all the times you’ve felt that way, and
you walk to the bathroom, do your toilet, see that face
in the mirror, oh my oh my oh my, but you comb your hair anyway,
get into your street clothes, feed the cats, fetch the
newspaper of horror, place it on the coffee table, kiss your
wife goodbye, and then you are backing the car out into life itself,
like millions of others you enter the arena once more.

you are on the freeway threading through traffic now,
moving both towards something and towards nothing at all as you punch
the radio on and get Mozart, which is something, and you will somehow
get through the slow days and the busy days and the dull
days and the hateful days and the rare days, all both so delightful
and so disappointing because
we are all so alike and so different.

you find the turn-off, drive through the most dangerous
part of town, feel momentarily wonderful as Mozart works
his way into your brain and slides down along your bones and
out through your shoes.

it’s been a tough fight worth fighting
as we all drive along
betting on another day.

Why did I laugh to-night? No voice will tell:
No God, no Demon of severe response,
Deigns to reply from heaven or from Hell.
Then to my human heart I turn at once.
Heart! Thou and I are here sad and alone;
I say, why did I laugh! O mortal pain!
O Darkness! Darkness! ever must I moan,
To question Heaven and Hell and Heart in vain.
Why did I laugh? I know this Being’s lease,
My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads;
Yet would I on this very midnight cease,
And the world’s gaudy ensigns see in shreds;
Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indead,
But Death intenser – Death is Life’s high meed.

Have always appeared to be a bit rigid in their rules for my taste. I think an amount of experimentation is always good. Of course, my writings as an undergrad were sloppy. I misused commas, had run-ons, fragments with glaringly missing subjects, and over all meandering of thoughts.

It wasn’t until college that I began to realize how important a well phrased sentence is. Even then, I understood that writing is a muscle that needs to be worked out constantly in order for it to get stronger and better, and a way to make writing stronger is through good teaching. It wasn’t until a creative writing teacher sat down with me and went over a short story, word for word, did I realize just how sloppy my prose was.

Later, Dr. Darawula sat down with me and went over all my commas for a paper I turned in for a graduate school application. Once in grad school, I was in constant fear of Dr. Schwartz’s telling me to reevaluate my topic sentences and Dr. Milbauer telling me to proof read and be more careful with my writing. It was during this time that I started to realize how much more powerful a sentence could be the more concise it is. This revelation did, however, curtail my creativity.

These are the issues that a new article in slate.com address about Stanely Fish’s new book on writing. This article gives a nice history of the sentence and its evolution; hopefully when I have some time, I will be bale to read through Strunk and White and compare it to Fish’s book.

Sometimes I do feel I am killing student’s creativity by telling them that their language is too flowery or too wordy. I, too, try to teach students to avoid redundant phrases and to be concise. But it seems right to do so. You have to know the rules, how to do it “properly” before you get to bend and break the rules. But I should really be grading my students’ writings now, not blogging about writing…

I have recently been completely fascinated by Roland Barthes. I was reading his biography during winter break before I had my gallbladder removed and spent the next few weeks in pain and trying to figure out what to eat. Though I think a hospital is a nice introduction to Barthes and Mythologies. Why do we trust a doctor in scrubs and a white lab coat? Barthes and Saussure have the answer. It is this relevancy, as well as Barthes being one of the first thinkers to make the leap from structuralism to poststructuralism (as is better illustrated, I believe in “Death of the Author” which we will read later), that fascinates me so much.

In this selection, Barthes takes political photography for his analysis. He outlines the manner in which photography captures a signification; it is through photographs that a candidate can, not show his audience his plans for office, but show the audience who he is,

“What is transmitted through the photograph of the candidate are not his plans, but his deep motives[…] all this style of life of which he is at once the product, the example and the bait” (1320).

Barthes is explaining how photography manipulates the sign system that Saussure outlines. Saussure points out how signifiers (the sound image, specifically, let’s say– the letters) are arbitrarily assigned to signifieds (the actual concept out in the world). The way that we know what a signifier means is only through society. There is no inherent value, there is nothing concrete that says the letters c.a.t. have any actual relation to the furry little domesticated animal out in the world, other than society’s agreement that it does; hence, “The relation between the signifier and the signified is “arbitrary,” not “motivated” (by natural resemblance)” then later, “the sign is a convention that has to be learned and is not subject to individual will.”

What is wonderful about Barthes is the way he explores these concepts and takes them further. Barthes, more than being a semiologist that makes the move to postmodernism, is an acute analyzer of society. In Barthes there is the beginning of the move from hermeneutics (what does something mean) to semiology (how does something mean).

The way things mean has to do with the cultural context, and photography has the ability to capture cultures attitudes (this still goes on in political campaigns today; all we have to do is remember how much press Obama got for not wearing his flag pin). Photography offers not just the cultural context that the candidate is trying to capture, photography offers this context in a “pure” way, “a photograph is a mirror, what we are asked to read is the familiar, the known; it offers to the voter his own likeness, but clarified, exalted, superbly elevated into a type” (1320). The photograph offers up a mirror of ourselves as we wish to be, and shows us the candidate to us as ourselves–how many times do we hear during an election, “He is the sort of person you can sit and have a beer with” ?

Furthermore, there is an underlying Marxist critique going on in this analysis. The audience exposed to these pictures (we can extend this today to FoxNews) relate to them in some way: “Photography constitutes here a veritable blackmail by means of moral values,” so society votes for posters that promise change, but don’t really know what the change is, and hence Marx’s definition of ideology, “They do not know, but they are doing it.” Photography also becomes a fetish object in that it holds a power that we assign it “magically.” This is why Barthes is so great; because we should all be aware of the ideology around us everyday, and the best way to be aware of it is to realize how it means by way of Barthes’s analysis. By realizing that all these things we take as natural are really just mythologies.

Rather than go into the long list of excuses (most of them revolving around me being lazy, but not the only reason), I will get into something new.

There is this interesting article over at the Huffingtonpost.com which looks at neural research being done on love. The thesis here is that “…love mostly can be understood through brain images, hormones and genetics.” I had to stop there. Can love be “understood” in this way? I mean, sure, ok… looking at the definition of understand, then one can, maybe say that love can be something that we can “be familiar with, to assign a meaning to.” In a way, and that is interesting in its own way, but for me that still does not explain love.

This is an interesting artcle, and it does a nice job of explaining how the chemicals in the brain react to love:
The VTA is part of a key reward system in the brain.

“These are cells that make dopamine and send it to different brain regions,” said Helen Fisher, a researcher and professor at Rutgers University. “This part of the system becomes activated because you’re trying to win life’s greatest prize _ a mating partner.”

But I don’t think this helps with any understanding of our conception of love. The study goes on to say that love is like a drug, working with the same chemicals, but I could have told you that without spending any money on research– and, none of this still actually explains love. It is interesting to note that love produces the same effect in the brain as craving cociane, but that still doesn’t “understand” love.

The article explains how this research could lead to drugs that could help autism and other such neurological disease where people have problems, yadda yadda…

These scientist also studied heartbroken individuals, but they didn’t really go into it. Just more blather about how these things can be measured through chemicals in the brain. And while the article did mention that research is being done on why we are attracted to whom we are attracted to, this is still lacking for me. This, I would argue, is a way to explain love, not understand it, which is why the word understand bothered me at the beginning of the article. None of this still explains any of it really. Sure, love makes our bodies release chemicals, but what is that “something” that triggers it. Why do some girls, some relationships, some situations cause the release and others don’t. Also, it makes this all so un-romantic.

I did like the way the article ended because it is what I am more interested in. I mean, besides looking at how artist have dealt with love and heartbreak– how love/heartbreak has manifest itself in the arts– that is what really interest me.

Here is the end of the article:

Young said that romantic love theoretically can be simulated with chemicals, but “if you really want, you know, to get the relationship spark back, then engage in the behavior that stimulates the release of these molecules and allow them to stimulate the emotions,” he said. That would be hugging, kissing, intimate contact.

“My wife tells me that flowers work as well. I don’t know for sure,” Young said. “As a scientist it’s hard to see how it stimulates the circuits, but I do know they seem to have an effect. And the absence of them seems to have an effect as well.”

I find this article fascinating while I am starting to find Derrida a little easier to understand and also a little annoying at the same time.

In typical Derridian fashion, Derrida looks at a word (concept, idea, whatever), and then he explores the common definitions and connotations of the thing, just to show the complications of those common ideas we have about the thing.

In this essay, I like this idea of deconstructing the idea of genre because this is a problem I am having in grad school now. I have always been something of a dilettante (and not a particularly bright or ambitious one). My interest range from Continental philosophy to Romantic literature to Modernist literature to Postmodern literature. I am equally happy reading Oscar Wilde as I am reading Chuck Palahniuk, only to put those books down and read Keats’s or Yeats’s poetry. But academia has divided all these up into little categories of which I have to chose one to “specialize” in. I am doing my best to become a “generalist” so that I can dabble in all my interest. I have never understood my colleagues assertions of “I’m an 18th-cneturist, I don’t like reading contemporary novels”– or vice versa– the “Modernist scholar” who doesn’t read Oscar Wilde. I do this because I like reading and philosophy, and I get to read both (somewhat).

Derrida here begins with the premise: “Genres are not to be mixed” (55). Derrida then goes on to interpret this. First, he says that this utterance could mean the he will not mix genres; then he goes on to say that another way of looking at the sentence is as a law. A “do” or “do not” of the utterance. And since I have much more reading to get to, I will keep this note on this essay short.

His point is that the idea of genre is one of “law.” Once we attach genre to writing, then we have set limits; Derrida says “As soon as the word ‘genre’ is sounded, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn. And when a limit is established, norms and interdictions are not far behind: ‘Do,’ ‘Don not’ says ‘genre.’ (56). This “law” that genre sets up brings with it the implication that there is something pure about genre that must be respected. That one can speak of “mixing genres” is implying that there must be something pure about genre categories: “…then this should confirm, since, after all, we are speaking of “mixing,” the essential purity of their [genres] identity” (57). If genre were not considered pure, then we would not bother with talking about mixing them. However, since mixing genres (frequently) happens, or rather, because we say it happens, then we are attaching some idea of purity to the word: genre.

Derrida goes on to analyze Maurice Blanchot’s story “La Folie du jour” [The Madness of the Day]. Derrida shows how this work defies any easy classification into any one genre and how the mixing of genre is always already working within the very word genre. There is no genre of genre, after all. Genre is always difficult to legitimize, even with history, genre defies historical classification. This is what genre tries to do– it classifies and organizes text into categories. That is to say, genre tries to naturalize text by classifying text even though there is nothing natural about genre. A genre means that we should be able to look at a text and identify and classify it through its common traits: “There should be a trait upon which one could rely in order to decide that a given textual event, a given “work,” corresponds to a given class” (63). Therefore, when a text is put into a genre, it closes itself off, but is still open. A text cannot be without a genre, but that does not mean that a text belongs to a genre. The participation of a text in a genre does not mean that it belongs to that genre.

By putting art into these genre categories, society implies that these categories are natural, with their distinct traits and codes which are followed to be put into the correct categories, but as everyone well knows, this is not the case; art transcends genres, mixes genres, and participates (though never really belongs to) genre. Genre implies a presence that is absent.

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