All entries for March 2010

March 12, 2010

Franco Moretti's Graphs

In his recent study, Graphs, Maps, Trees Franco Moretti takes his analytical models ‘from three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction: graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary history’ (2007: 1-2). Moretti distances himself from academics that look to ‘French and German metaphysics’ and he commends instead the methodologies of ‘the natural and social sciences’ (2). I am going to discuss his findings in three blog entries:

• Graphs,
Maps ,
• and Trees.

Graphs

The first section of Franco Moretti’s study Graphs, Maps, Trees is of course on graphs and it poses some interesting ideas about how critics formulate literary history. What Moretti plots on his graphs is the rise and fall of the novel in various cultures from Britain to Nigeria. From these graphs, he discovers ‘[a]n antipathy between politics and the novel’ (12), and he quotes Michael Denning who tells us that in times of radicalism ‘writers have usually chosen shorter and more public forms [to express the zeitgeist], writing plays, poems, journalism and short stories’ (Denning qtd. Moretti 2007: 11).

Moretti

(Source: http://olivreiro.com.br/home/)

In mapping novelistic trends, Moretti wants to discover whether there are any patterns that emerge from approaching literature with such a broad, comparative scope. For example, he wonders whether the fall of novel reading in Japan has any relation to the decline of the novel in Britain or elsewhere. Is there some kind of historical pattern emerging? Between Braudel’s notion of longee durée and isolated events in literary history, Moretti poses ‘the – unstable – border country between them’: this is the cycle which is both repetitive and temporary (14).

Moretti likens cycles to genres, because both are ‘temporary structures’ and both have a limited ‘life-cycle’: ‘Instead of changing all the time and a little at a time, then, the system stands still for decades, and is “punctuated” by brief bursts of invention: forms change once, rapidly, across the board, and then repeat themselves for two-three decades’ (18). Thinking about why such cycles occur, Moretti suggests that, though evolution of genres is specific to the time (e.g. in eighteenth century Britian ‘amorous epistolary fiction being ill-equipped to capture the traumas of the revolutionary years’), it is ‘too much of a coincidence’ when a number of genres ‘disappear together from the literary field, and then another group and so on’ (20). Moretti believes the cause to be generational: ‘[W]hen an entire generic system vanishes at once, the likeliest explanation is that its readers vanished at once’ (20).

I find Moretti’s argument very interesting, but I do have some questions. For example, it is true that ‘amorous epistolary fiction’ declined during revolutionary years in eighteenth century Britain, but one might argue that it was reinvented in the novels of the nineteenth century in writers like Wilkie Collins (especially The Woman in White). So is it false to separate genres out in this way? Might not the Sensation novel be just another reinvention of the amorous epistolary novel? (This links to what Moretti writes about in the section on ‘Trees’ which I discuss later.)

I also have questions about Moretti’s discussion of cycles in relation to gender. Discussing the work of April Alliston, Moretti suggests that the ‘Great Gender Shift’ in the mid 1700s is merely part of an oscillating pattern: ‘[I]n all likelihood they are all observing the same comet that keeps crossing and recrossing the sky: the same literary cycle, where gender and genre are probably in synchrony with each other – a generation of military novels, nautical tales, and historical novels á la Scott attracting male writers, one of domestic, provincial and sensation novels attracting women writers, and so on’ (27). I find this statement to be rather worrying, because it seems to assume that women would be attracted to ‘domestic’ stories and it could be used as a very easy explanation for gender bias, when in fact many women writing subversive and powerful fiction did have problems when they tried to publish it. I don’t think that Moretti necessarily means to excuse the sidelining of women in literary history, but I think that this statement could use a qualification.

Overall though, I am sympathetic to Moretti’s ideas about ‘graphs’ and I like the idea of the cycle as the ‘hidden thread of history’ (26). The comparative approach is also very useful as Moretti demands ‘a theory, not so much of “the” novel, but of a whole family of novelistic forms’(30).

Further Reading

Benzon, William (2006) ‘Signposts for a Naturalistic Criticism’ Entelechy. Access online at HTTP: (accessed 12 March 2010).
Moretti, Franco (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. London and New York: Verso.


March 05, 2010

Alison Bechdel and Fun Home

Writing about web page http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/

Date: 4th March 2010
Venue: Paul Robeson Centre, Penn State University

Last night I went to see Alison Bechdel talking about her most recent book, Fun Home. In the eighties, Bechdel invented the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For , inspired by the political and gendered issues of the time, and she has done a great deal of work since, including the 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

Thinking about why she became a graphic novelist, Bechdel suggests that it might have been because her parents had so many diverse interests in the arts; in poetry, literature, acting and interior decorating. Bechdel felt a little squashed by her parents’ interests, and rather than becoming an artist or a writer as their ambitions for her dictated, she became a graphic novelist/writer.

Bechdel gave us a great deal of insight into how she began to write and draw as a child. For her influences, she talks about the cartoonist Charles Addams and the clever slippage in his work between words and the images.

Charles Addams

Bechdel recognized this kind of slippage in her own family. It was a family that she would later question when she discovered that her father had been suppressing his homosexuality because he longed to be respectable. Like the Gothic houses of Charles Addams’ sketches, Bechdel’s family house was a lovingly restored Victorian mansion that her father took pains to perfect.

Bechdel kept a diary as a child but was always aware of the power and complexity of language. This awareness first manifested itself by Bechdel contradicting herself. As a child, she would write down events from the day, but would often include a tiny doodle of the words “I think” as if to admit that she might be incorrect or fallible. Later this uncertainty manifested itself in crossing out the names of people written about in the diary which worked as a kind of ritual to protect them. Even later, Bechdel was crossing out entire pages and obliterating entire entries.

In addition to this slippage of words, first recognized in Charles Addams, another influence on Bechdel as a child was the map in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows:

It is not the map itself that intrigues Bechdel, so much as the detail and the animation of the characters, e.g. Toad driving his car badly through the landscape. It is this kind of animation that Bechdel wants to achieve through her use of pictures. This ambition also explains why Bechdel, when she is creating a graphic novel, creates photographs of the poses and obsessively looks up images related to the subject that she is drawing on. She calls herself a ‘method cartoonist’.

After explaining her intentions as a writer/artist, Bechdel read the first chapter from Fun Home alongside a projection of images. She read to us about growing up with her father’s perfectionism, his frustration and his sudden bursts of affection.

Fun Home

Though there is a great deal of humour in the descriptions of Bechdel’s family life, the conclusion of the chapter is hugely moving when she describes her troubled relationship with her father and her loss of him to suicide in her early twenties. I would really recommend Fun Home to anyone interested in stories about the family.


March 02, 2010

Stopping Rape: A Challenge for Men

Rus Ervin Funk’s Stopping Rape: A Challenge for Men has an intriguing title, and I would be interested to hear how other people react to it. I feel quite ambivalent and have not made up my mind yet, although I am very pleased to find a man writing about sexual violence is a way that is sympathetic to its survivors.

As an account of Western violence and masculinity, the book is very honest in its admittance that sexual violence does happen and men are the perpetrators.

The reality is ugly; it’s painful and it’s hard to look at. The reality is that men are violent against women. Any man can, and many men do, choose to be violent with near impunity. For most men, violence and sex has become intertwined. And almost all of us who do not choose to be violent are conspiratorially silent about the violence that our brothers are perpetrating. (1993: 19).

Funk suggests that men feel very defensive about violence against women and they find it hard to admit that such acts are taking place even if they have not been violent themselves. Rapists are not rare oddities though according to Funk, who suggests that rapists are probably our friends and neighbours:

the men who are raping the women in our lives are the men in our lives. We need to stop looking at ‘those’ men, ‘those sickos’, ‘those wierdos’ [sic] as the rapists and to take responsibility for rape … Acknowledging that it is our friends and maybe ourselves who sexually victimize women can be more scary and painful than acknowledging the incidence of rape for men and women (23).

To highlight the endemic nature of rape, Funk points out that in a survey of US college campuses, young men were asked whether they would rape if they could get away with it; 27% replied that they would. When the wording was changed, however, so that the question asked whether the students would ‘force a woman to have sex against her will’, 60% replied that they would.

So why is sexual violence so acceptable? Analyzing masculinity, Funk suggests that men are disconnected from the world around them, that they have a ‘militaristic mindset’ (21). He explains that ‘In order to turn a blind eye to rape, battery, incest, the ain, the oppression, and the violence, you must detach yourself from the humanity of the people being victimized’ (21). Funk also seems to think that this disconnectedness is bound up with masculinity and its demand that ‘in order to “be men” we’re supposed to be “independent”’ (21). Being a man, according to Funk, is about ‘taking control, taking charge, deciding what we want and going for it at all costs, being non-communicative, and keeping a score’ (23). Being a man then really means ‘living up to the John Wayne or Rambo image of, to quote bel hooks, “phallocentric masculinity”’ (27). This kind of masculinity entertains violence as a way of life:

Men are supposed to be willing, prepared and able to be brutally violent – to the point of killing up to thousands of people. We are taught that part of ‘being a man’ is being willing and able to ‘protect’ or ‘defend’ ‘by any means necessary’ whatever we may control: property, rights, justice, our country and ‘our’ women. At the same time, we’re being taught to not hit, to be patient and calm, and most recently to be ‘sensitive New Age guys’. The mixed message inherent in this dual training establishes what can only be described as a mild form of societal schizophrenia. (40)

What Funk seems to be saying is that we live in a violent society. For example, Funk notes, ‘we [men] aren’t supposed to be violent, but defending yourself, protecting your honor, and punishing a child really isn’t violence’ (41). Similarly, he explains that when young men are growing up, they ‘are taught to settle conflicts through use of force in a wide variety of way, including verbal pressure, physical intimidation and emotional blackmail’ (45).

Funk suggests then that violence has become so normalized that it is easy for men to become rapists, but I am glad to see that he does not excuse men of their responsibility. Instead he calls for a rethinking of how rape cases are prosecuted and of masculinity itself:

Men rarely identify what they did as force and therefore certainly not as rape. When you are taught from the earliest moments of life to use force to get your own way – hit back, shoot to kill, be a little warrior, kill to defend your honor – then using emotional force to get sex doesn’t compute as force. This should not be taken to mean that the man is any less responsible, or any less accountable, for his choices or behaviour. It does, however, reinforce the need to listen to survivors when they say that they experienced force – or rape. It also reinforces the need to redefine force based on definitions of people who have experienced being forced as well as the need for men to deconstruct our understanding of force and the ways we express force. (45-46).

Reference

Funk, Rus Ervin (1993) Stopping Rape: A Challenge for Men. Philadelphia PA & Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.


Rape Prosecution and the Bolton Case

Wendy Larcombe’s paper, ‘The “Ideal” Victim V Successful Rape Complainants: Not What You Might Expect’, opens by pointing out that in Australia attrition rates for rape convictions are as high as 90% (essay published in 2002) and, referencing Susan Estrich, Larcombe highlights that debate as to what is “real rape” is legitimized by the criminal justice process. Sue Lees seems to support this idea in her book Carnal Knowledge, when she considers changes in what is perceived as rape.

One explanation for the drop in conviction rate seems to lie in the fact that a steadily increasing proportion of reported rapes do not conform to the stereotypical rape scenario of the psychopathological stranger rapist, seizing women in dark streets. A far higher proportion of the women reporting nowadays are, by contrast, raped by men they know, others in their own homes, and these are precisely the cases where it is more difficult to secure a conviction. (Lees 2002: xii)

We are much aware today of forms of rape closer to home, such as date rape, marital rape, drug-assisted rape and acquaintance rape (where the rapist is a friend or co-worker); and Lees points out that the rapists in these cases sometimes have a ‘distorted belief system’ as they still believe that the women wanted the rape even as they are going to prison (2002: xii). It is these types of rape that are usually difficult to prosecute, as can be seen in the British case of the Black Cab Rapist, John Worboys who managed to assault up to 100 women before he was caught. At this link on the Guardian website , you can see the testimony of one of his victims who was laughed at by police when she reported that he had raped her; the officers dropped their investigation when the taxi driver told them the woman had been drunk. Worboys wasn’t actually caught until roughly a year later when he committed more crimes, and he was eventually convicted.

The Worboys case was unusual though, because rape cases are much more likely to be prosecuted where the rapist is a stranger to the rape survivor. [1] There are other factors that improve chances of a rape being prosecuted such as cases where a weapon is used and where there is strong evidence of overt resistance e.g. the rape survivor being injured. Such criteria play on stereotypes of vulnerable females, while prosecuting lawyers construct the rape survivor as a feminine ideal: chaste, sensible, responsible, cautious and dependent. This ideal is not a woman who takes risks, but perhaps simply a woman who is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Defence teams have a number of strategies that they use to dislodge this feminine ideal. Sometimes this means reframing the rape as a site of pleasure, what Larcombe calls a ‘pornographic scenario’; the rape survivor is portrayed as a willing participant who helps to bring the sexual act about, not a victim. Defence lawyers also create doubt as to whether the rape survivor is really a woman living in the boundaries of ‘normal’ society. If the rape survivor has a history of drug or alcohol abuse, criminality, mental illness, incest or even mere sexual adventurousness, the lawyers will drag it into court to discredit her (or him) and suggest that there is another more sinister identity behind the “mask” of the rape survivor.

In court, these strategies manifest themselves in a technique called “whacking”, which involves persistent bullying in questioning the witness. The ultimate aim of course is to make her (or him) drop the charge. What makes this ordeal particularly horrifying is the fact that what is being debated is the right of the rape survivor to have justice, with the defence teams often suggesting that the crime that took place is the fault of the survivor herself (or himself), because she has supposedly failed to protect herself.

It is though possible, according to Larcombe, for cases to succeed even where the rape survivor does not fit the prosecution’s preferred ideal of womanhood, but the key is the rape survivor’s testimony. After studying a number of real cases where unconventional women won their rape cases, Larcombe has found that the success is based mainly on the ability of the rape survivor to make her story convincing. In the cases studied, the defence teams did try to construct the women as sexualized, contradictory or unreliable, but the women’s refusal to consent to this version of themselves made the juries believe that they had not consented to the sexual act being debated either.

Of course, the problem with this news is that it puts the onus on women to have to fight, to have to force the jury to believe their testimony, and some women after this kind of ordeal are simply not psychologically strong enough. In The Female Fear, Margaret T. Gordon and Stephanie Riger point out that fear of rape ‘is worse than fear of other crimes because women know they are held responsible for avoiding rape, and should they be victimized, they know they are likely to be blamed’ (Gordon and Riger 1989: 2).

It is interesting to consider Larcombe’s analysis of legal discourse in rape trials in relation to a recent case in the UK. In Bolton in the north of England, the prosecution of a case of gang rape was thrown out by the judge, because the rape survivor in this case had fantasized about group sex online. Peter Tachell explains the ridiculous and bizarre implications of this act on The Guardian Online :

Watch out. If you have ever had fantasies about group sex and shared them with another person, you have forfeited your right to say no to sex and can be lawfully raped.

The rape survivor’s discussion of group sex online immediately removed her from the category of the pure, chaste, sensible woman, and instead put her in the category of the oversexed and the prostitute, women who in the current status quo can be used and abused to any extent. [2] What is particularly awful about this prejudice though, is that the woman’s testimony which might have been fundamental to the trying of the crime was never able to be considered by the jury, because the judge threw out the entire case. Cases like this one conform the conclusions of Joan McGregor in her study Is it Rape?:

The impotence of the legal response to the epidemic of rape reinforces societal acceptance of the message. The rapist aims, whether consciously or not, to establish his mastery of men over women and the law unwittingly may be supporting him. (McGrgeor 2005: 231)

Notes

[1] On the other hand, taxi drivers are thought of in London as being the friendly, average “bloke”, and the findings on an internal police investigation suggest that the police officers involved were in a mindset where they simply could not believe that a taxi driver could be guilty.

[2] This is not unique to Western legal discourse. In Sexual Violence and the Law in Japan, Catherine Burns discusses how in more ambiguous cases ‘the demonstration of utmost force-resistance becomes central to the judicial interpretation of rape’; hence the defence lawyers use ‘a construction of rape as extreme sex, motivated by the same natural uncontrollable urges that drive sukebei sexuality’ and rape survivors are reframed as ‘prostitute “Others”’ (Burns 2005: 160). But what if the rape survivor is a prostitute? At the beginning of her book, Burns begins with the 1980s Ikebukuro murder trial which involved the rape of a prostitute: ‘For one hour and twenty minutes he [the client] filmed and photographed while he ripped and cut off her clothing, harassed and humiliated her, and coerced her into what the court described as ‘abnormal’ sexual acts’ (2005: 25). Yet when the case came to trial, much of the debate focussed on the fact that the woman, in trying to escape, stabbed and killed her client.

Reading

Burns, Catherine (2005) Sexual Violence and the Law in Japan. New York/London: Routledge.

Gordon, Margaret T. and Stephanie Riger (1989) The Female Fear. New York and London: The Free Press/Macmillan.

Larcombe, Wendy (2002) ‘The “Ideal” Victim V Successful Rape Complainants: Not What You Might Expect’. Feminist Legal Studies 10.2: 131-.

Laville, Sandra (2009) ‘Taxi rapist may have attacked more than 100’. The Guardian. Available online (accessed 2nd March 2009).

Laville, Sandra and Vikram Dodd (2009) ‘Police errors left rapist John Worboys free to strike – but no officers sacked’. The Guardian. Available online (accessed 2nd March 2009).

Lees, Sue (2002) Carnal Knowledge: Rape on Trial. London: The Women’s Press.

McGregor, Joan (2005) Is it Rape? On acquaintance rape and taking women’s consent seriously. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate.

Tachell, Peter (2010) ‘Throwback to a moralistic age’. The Guardian. Available online (accessed 2nd March 2010).


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