All entries for May 2006

May 25, 2006

Seminar with David Wood: Negotiating Alterity

Writing about web page

David Wood's talk today was fascinating. Here is my summary of it as I understood it, although anyone who was there is welcome to chip in if there is something that I misread in typing up my notes.

At the beginning of the seminar, Wood describes his aims. He wants to think about interior and exterior relations and he used the metaphor of the moebius strip . According to Wood, the moebius strip is made up locally of difference – one side and an other and yet it is all one surface. He compares this with the idea of having two concepts in the mind that somehow become continuous. The thesis of his next book will be to examine patterns of thought suggested by different philosophers which do not have to reconcile oppositions. He desires to systematise these patterns of thought that represent post–dialectical forms of relation.

Part of Wood's project is thinking about violence and otherness. Why violence? He gives two snippets of news to explain. The first is a report that he read from Bombay – the story told how a Hindu poured gas over a local Muslim baker, a man incidentally that the Hindu had known for years, and set him alight. When asked why he had done such a thing, the Hindu explained that he had been told that there was a war between Islam and the Hindu religion. The fact that the man was someone familiar to him – his neighbour –was irrelevant.

The other news story is that of an Iraqi war veteran who killed his wife in the night when he mistakenly thought that the enemy was attacking. The husband unleashed his aggression on the wrong object, but then again isn't this the wrong response to have to anyone?

Wood believes that philosophy can help us to think about violence, yet he questions whether philosophy also has the potential to be complicit with violence. One example he gives is the idea of 'overcoming' in philosophy.

Another element that Wood considers is the distinction between the Other as a particular being and a quality of otherness. (Should otherness be capitalised too?)

Wood describes death as one of the shapes of the Other and he notes how failure to come to terms with one's own mortality could cause aggression towards others. He talks about this again later.

Wood also discusses the antipathy in philosophy considering dialectical thought in Kierkegaard and Marx. Apparently, the existentialist, Kierkegaard attacked the system, the rationalisation of God and the singular. (I'm no expert on Kierkegaard.) Marx attacked Hegel's notion of the spirit and the displacement of the history of the struggle. He describes a number of other philosophers – Nietzsche as being more resistant to dialectical thought, Heidegger similarly as being a believer in destiny etc.

Out of all of the philosophers, Wood notes the numerous reactions to Hegel. Levinas for example who uses Hegel as a straw man to oppose his own ethics: 'our great task is to free ourselves from Hegel’. Derrida, on the other hand, is apparently interested in the legacy of Hegel. Wood describes three problems with the legacy of Hegel:

1. Totality – 'the idea that truth lies in the whole system' according to Wood; a system that relegates subjectivity, singularity, the fragment.
2. Teleology and the notion of progress.
3. Dialogic – the oppositional matrix.

Wood sees in these elements the seeds of violence for the following reasons:

1. The privileging of the whole means the sacrifice of the part.
2. A teleology suggests a higher purpose that could justify violence.
3. Opposition and conflict are primary violent phenomenon.

Wood then asks the question, could philosophy be the underpinning for such phenomenon? Why does violence exist? He notes the example of Mayor Giuliani of NYC who stated: 'Terrorists have lost the right to be understood.' Wood asks, in the political sphere, where is the line between understanding and justification?

Wood states that it doesn't matter whether in considering these problems, we are being fair to Hegel or not. Here, Hegel is the code word for a figure that needs to be repudiated. Hegel is an 'other–assimilator', a 'cannibalistic thinker', 'who incorporates difference and reduces its capacity'.

Wood wonders how do 'grand future goals' and violence connect? Wood thinks of the First World War, 'the Great War', and considers Arendt's juxtaposition of lying and violence. (I'm not quite sure how this connected up, perhaps I missed something – I have in my notes: "Anticipating what will come. Destiny? Victory? Freedom?".) Wood ponders whether Hegel 'legitimated progressivism' and considers how in 'ignoring the interests of the individual', he endorsed the 'greater whole'.

Wood then turned to early Sartre and his thought about the relation with others and Wood describes Sartre's vision as one of 'failure and frustration'. He pointed us to the following quotation from Being and Nothingness :

Up to this point our description would fall into line with Hegel's famous description of the Master and Slave relation. What the Hegelian Master is for the Slave, the lover wants to be for the beloved. But the analogy stops here, for with Hegel the master demands the slave's freedom only laterally and, so to speak, implicitly, while the lover wants the beloved's freedom first and foremost . In this sense if I am to be loved by the Other, this means that I am to be freely chosen as beloved. [...] Actually what the lover demands is that the beloved's being-in-the-world must be a being-as-loving. The upsurge of the beloved must be the beloved's free choice of lover. And since the Other is the foundation of my being-as-object, I demand of him that the free upsurge of his being should have his choice of me as his unique and absolute end; that is, that he should choose to be for eth sake of founding my object-state and my facticity. [...] Thus my facticity is saved. It is no longer this unthinkable and insurmountable given which I am fleeing; it is that for which the Other freely makes himself exist.

Wood talks of how Sartre translates the bad ethical parts of Hegel. Yet his formulation still demands a solution, not from God but from love. Wood describes Sartre's desire as ' a hopeless passion that cannot succeed' because 'the Other cannot provide an absolute guarantee' and the Other 'cannot do the job that God is supposed to be doing'.
Sartre is on a 'doomed quest'. Just as there is no God, there is 'no absolute justification in the Other'. For the Other always retains a freedom and instability. Wood sees love leading to sadism and then to masochism.

Spectrality is important in Wood's theorising. He refers to Derrida's The Spectre of Marx in which Derrida discusses the 'spectre of communism'. Wood explains that to Derrida, 'Marx cannot simply be buried with the fall of the Berlin Wall'. His legacy is spectral and not reducible to matter. Wood describes Derrida as calling 'on a less reductive reading of Marx'. The language of ghosts teaches us not to think in terms of putting aside the past.

Wood speaks eloquently about the charges and criticisms made of Derrida during the Cambridge Affair and in the New York Times Obituary and he compared those charges to ones made about Hegel – that he was a charlatan, that he was only pretending to be a great thinker, that he was unintelligible. These criticisms indicate that for some these philosophers were 'fearful and frightening', that they became 'bogeymen'. Particularly in the case of Hegel, Wood wonders if he is misread concerning the relation, violence and the Other.

Part of Wood's project is considering the relation to the Other and the relation to a more general otherness. He introduces Heidegger's account here, What is Called Thinking? .

To acknowledge and respect consists in letting every thinker's thought come to us as something in each case unique, never to be repeated, inexhaustible - and being shaken to the depths by what is unthought in his thought, [which is] not a lack inherent in his thought. What is un- thought is there in each case as the un-thought . The more original the thinking, the richer will be what is unthought in it. The unthought is the greatest gift that thinking can bestow.

One thing is necessary, though, for a face-to-face encounter with the thinkers: clarity about the manner in which we encounter them. Basically there are only two possibilities: either to go to their encounter, or to counter them [ einmal das Entgegengehen und dahn das Dagegenangehen ] . If we wish to go to the encounter of a thinker's thought, we must magnify still further what is great in him. Then we will enter into what is unthought in his thought.

Wood sees Heidegger's view here as being that one is 'engaging with the other as someone already engaged with something of deep importance' and that this gives the relation 'greater complexity'. When approaching another thinker, one has to 'bring with [one] an illuminating idea'. One will have 'some question in mind'. In fact one is 'not going to be able to encounter this other person unless you being an illuminating thought'.

Wood admits that there are problems with this approach. There is the question of prejudice which can be 'a recipe for imposing our narrative on this other person'. However, In Heidegger, the focus is apparently different. What he is saying is that if you do not bring with you a concern of the same order as the person that you are reading, you cannot read that person. You have to 'come to the table with the same level of seriousness'. You have to be willing 'to be wrong' or you 'cannot ever be right'. Wood states: 'Risk and seriousness are intimately connected'.

Heidegger tries to present a much more complex picture of the relation:

–talks with himself, his predecessors
–talks in relation to a fundamental set of questions

–talks with himself, his predecessors while reading
–reads the thinker in relation to a fundamental set of questions

Heidegger is consequently animating internal relations. Wood gives the example of the photograph; the conventional way to set up a photo is with each person in the photograph having a direct relation to the camera smiling face on. Yet Wood remembers an exhibition that showed in its photographs the relations that subjects were having with each other as well as with the camera. Wood finds it illuminating to examine such a 'multiplicity of relations'. Heidegger's work then means the multiplication of relational complexity.

Wood then went on to discuss encounters and counter movements in philosophy. As negative, reductive or counter readings, he identified:

*Levinas on Heidegger,

*Kierkegaard on Hegel,

*and Rose on Derrida.

As productive readings or encounters, Wood identified:

*Levinas on Descartes,

*Sartre on Kierkegaard,

*and Irigaray on Descartes.


First Wood discusses Levinas on Heidegger in Totality and Infinity . He talks of how Levinas (?) sees the death of the other as the primary ethical phenomenon not one's reconciliation with one's own mortality. Wood suggests that Levinas' ethical reversal does not help. He asks: 'Why should I care about your life if I am mortal?' Wood sees the two things as connected. The depth of one's response to the other directly correlates with one's capacity to understand one's own death. Levinas might see this process as narcissistic, but Wood argues against this. The consideration of death can extend to anything or anyone. Wood thinks that Levinas closes down the relational complex.

Next Wood deals with Kierkegaard on Hegel, noting Kierkegaard's comment that Hegel built his castle but lived in the hut next door. Kierkegaard presents an existential critique of Hegel, but in doing so he writes himself out of his own thinking via the bloodless category of the individual. Kierkegaard has to have a transaction with universality. Wood sees Kierkegaard as making a reductive reading of Hegel, because Hegel is open to the question of how a singular, 'unhappy' consciousness can be overcome. Kierkegaard does not escape from the absolute individual.

Wood challenges Rose for her 'misrecognition' of Derrida. Wood believes that Derrida and Rose make structurally parallel claims in different discourses. He suggests that the two perspectives need to be made into oppositions in order to avoid translations that would involve an enormous work of negotiation, mapping and translation.


Wood describes Derrida's reading of Rousseau as an encounter, when Derrida compares writing and speech to masturbation and ordinary sex. Both comparisons work with the idea of the supplement, which is both something added on or extra to the completed whole and the thing that completes the whole. For Rousseau, writing is the supplement that make speech complete. Wood describes Rousseau as thinking: 'If I didn't write no one will know how great I am'. Rousseau becomes the person he would like to be through writing. This involves drawing out structures imminent in the text. Derrida has a supplementary relation to Rousseau's own writing. Derrida is needed to complete the whole. Thus Derrida is engaging in Rousseau's relation to a fundamental question.

Next Wood discusses Levinas and Descartes.

The thematization of God in religious experience has already avoided or missed the inordinate plot that breaks up the unity of the 'I think'. In his meditation on the idea of God, Descartes, with an unequalled rigour, has sketched out the extraordinary course of a thought that proceeds on the breakup of I think [...] The idea of God breaks up the thought which is an investment, a synopsis and a synthesis, and can only enclose in a presence, p-present, reduce to a presence or let be [...] The idea of an Infinite, Infinity in me, can only be a passivity of consciousness. Is it still consciousness? [...] as though the idea of the Infinite, the Infinite in us, awakened a consciousness which is not awakened enough [...] a demand, and a signification.

Levinas treats Descartes’ reference to God as a break from Cartesian consciousness. Descartes deals with the spectral and there is a dualism. Merleau Ponty and Levinas attempt to say that Descartes cannot be reduced to his opponents' need to supersede his philosophy. There is an unresolved problem.

Wood also discusses Sartre on Kierkegaard in 'The Single Universe, referring to the idea of becoming–an–atheist. The thought of becoming is dealt with in relation to the question of atheism. Kierkegaard keeps the question of what faith and God might be like in suspension. For Kierkegaard, faith equals irresolution. My notes trail off a little here (they state "Kierkegaard vivant > Sartre – kept alive by Sartre – giving life, not exactly – keeping as powerful conversation").

Finally, Wood talks about Irigaray's reading of Descartes. He talks about the wonder that Irigaray finds in Descartes and how she applies this to sexual difference.

To arrive at [...] an ethics of sexual difference, we must at least return tow hat is for Descartes the first passion, wonder. This passion is not opposed to, or in conflict with, anything else, and exists always as though for the first time [...] Whatever identifications are possible, one will never exactly fill the place of the other - the one is irreducible to the other [...] Who or what the other is, I never know. This feeling of wonder, surprise and astonishment in the face of the unknowable ought to be returned to its proper place: sexual difference.

May 24, 2006

Harold Bloom on Canonicity

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages . London: Macmillan, 1995.

‘An Elegy for the Canon’.

Bloom opens his essay by stating how, ‘[o]riginally the Canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions’ and by suggesting that the pertinent question relating to canonicity is: ‘What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?’ (15) Bloom expresses anxiety about the multiplicity of literature and hopes for the reconstitution of a certain order of literature.

Bloom consider the idealization of literature quoting W.H. Auden who apparently stated that reading ‘bad books’ was ‘bad for the character’. (16) In contrast, Bloom suggests that now the opposite is thought to be the case – good books have ill effects on readers:

Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that bad poetry is sincere. (16)

Bloom uses the example of President Clinton’s inaugural poem by Maya Angelou describing it in terms of its sincerity (and consequently implying that it is bad poetry). Bloom resentfully describes that poem as ‘instantly canonical’ and laments the fact that he cannot protest for fear that, ‘our own universities would feel compelled to indict us as racists and sexists’. (16) Bloom blames this on the lack of fanatical readers who have been brought up reading books. The readers that do exist are apparently exhausted by anxiety about who the new readers will be or if they will exist at all. Bloom phrases this rather melodramatically: ‘The shadows lengthen in our evening land, and we approach the second millennium expecting further shadowing.’ (16)

Dismissing the question of who is to blame for the problems outlined above, Bloom turns to the notion of literary criticism praising Aristophanes as its progenitor. Bloom states: ‘Cultural criticism is another dismal social science, but literary criticism, as an art, always was and always will be an elitist phenomenon.’ (17)

Bloom rejects the notion of a canon in the Biblical sense. Rather he thinks of the canon as means to present ‘what has been preserved out of what has been written’ which he labels ‘the Art of Memory’. (17) Bloom sees this ‘Memory’ as one and the same as ‘Hope’, yet he laments the fact that there will no longer be the capacity ‘to institutionalize [sic] hope’. (17) Bloom then lapses into a somewhat elitist diatribe about those who do not recognize the value of literature:

We need to teach more selectively, searching for the few who have the capacity to become highly individual readers and writers. […] Pragmatically, aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those who are incapable of grasping its sensations and perceptions. To quarrel on its behalf is always a blunder. (17)

This seems somewhat convenient. However, Bloom qualifies his statement registering his interest in ‘the flight from the aesthetic’ and he notes that for Freud flight was a metaphor for repression, displacement, forgetting. Bloom describes the academic ‘flight from the aesthetic’ as a way to ‘assuage displaced guilt’ and he describes academics plunging like lemmings from a cliff-face as they ‘chant the litany that literature is best explained as a mystification promoted by bourgeois institutions’. (18) (Are these academics Marxists?) Bloom explains: ‘A poem cannot be read as a poem, because it is primarily a social document or, rarely yet possibly, an attempt to overcome philosophy.’ (18) According to Bloom, this treatment of poetry either ‘exiles it for being destructive of social well-being’ or employs it for ‘social catharsis under the banners of the new multiculturalism.’ (18) Bloom maintains the rather abstract cause of keeping ‘poetry as fully and as purely as possible’. (18)

At this point, Bloom moves on to talk on the topic of anxiety employing Freud’s definition Angst vor etwas or ‘anxious expectations’.

A literary work also arouses expectations that it needs to fulfil or it will cease to be read. The deepest anxieties of literature are literary; indeed, in my view, they define the literary and become all but identical with it. A poem, a novel, or play acquires all of humanity’s disorders, including the fear of mortality, which in the art of literature is transmuted into the quest to be canonical, to join communal or societal memory. (19)

Bloom suggests that the best works of literature revolve around obsession and desire. The question that follows from this asks why human beings decided that some works of literature would be protected. Bloom rejects Hebraic traditions or Christian mythology as an origin. He wonders about Dante, Petrarch and Shakespeare and notes that there are references in their work to immortal texts. He refers to Curtius who traced the idea of poetic fame back to the Illiad and Horace’s Odes . The idea of a secular canon did not emerge until the eighteenth century. Currently, the religious origins of the canon have been eroded and now the word means a choice among a number of struggling texts.

Why texts are included in a canon is debated in this essay. While Bloom believes that canons are created by ‘late-coming authors who feel themselves chosen by particular ancestral figures’ (a strange interpretation), he also notes that canons are thought to be created by:
• dominant social groups,
• institutions of education,
• traditions of criticism,
• successful advertising,
• and propaganda campaigns. (20)
Bloom has little time for sceptics of canon-making: ‘Originality becomes a literary equivalent of such terms as individual enterprise, self-reliance, and competition, which do not gladden the hearts of Feminists, Afrocentrists, Marxists, Foucault-inspired New Historicists or Deconstructors – of all those whom I have described as members as of the School of Resentment.’ (20) This is frankly laughable!

Like Harris, Bloom refers to Fowler and notes how changes in taste can effect canon-making. Bloom gives examples such as the American prose romance and the journalistic novel. He laments the devaluation of the historical novel.

Returning to Fowler, Bloom explores the idea of the ‘temporary canon’ and the deletions and inclusions that are made with each new age. Bloom agrees with Fowler that aesthetic choice has guided canon-making, but laments the politicised attack on canonicity. He sees the desire to destroy the canon as detrimental: ‘Nothing is so essential to the Western Canon as its principles of selectivity, which are only elitist to the extent that they are founded upon severely artistic criteria.’ (22)

Bloom criticises the idea that the act of canon-making is ideological and using Gramsci as a straw man suggest that thoughts about the intellectual’s domination by a hegemonic social order. Without much self-consciousness, Bloom presents a purely personal view of his role as a critic seeing himself as detached and superior. Rather he sees the anti-canonisers as being in the employment of ideology accusing them of ‘falling into the trap of becoming what they beheld’. (23) Bloom lambastes what he calls the School of Resentment for seeing aesthetic standards as emanating from class struggle: ‘I myself insist that the individual self is the only method and whole standard for apprehending aesthetic value.’ (23) Bloom admits that class conflict or any other conflict can effect one’s perception, yet he does not admit that this can colour aesthetics. For Bloom, aesthetics must be immutable, thus he turns to Shakespeare and asks, if canons are created through struggle (class or otherwise) why was Shakespeare selected and not Ben Johnson? Couldn’t it just be because his work was aesthetically good? Bloom states: ‘Originality is the great scandal that resentment cannot accommodate, and Shakespeare remains the most original writer we will ever know.’ (25) Naively, Bloom believes: ‘All strong literary originality becomes canonical.’ (25)

Using the examples of Milton and Dante, Bloom tries to argue for a universal set of aesthetic standards. He states: ‘The issue is containment, and great literature will insist upon its self-sufficiency in the face of worthier causes: feminism, African-American culturism, and all the other politically correct enterprises of our moment.’ (28) Interesting that Bloom sees these movements as fleeting and of the moment, which is obviously not the case.

Bloom writes how, ‘[o]ne breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.’ (29) Bloom continues trying to remove any links between literature and politics stating that if we read canons in the frame of the social, political or even the personal, ‘ we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation’. (29) To me it seems that Bloom damns himself by his own mouth.

May 23, 2006

Notes on Canonicity

Harris, Wendell V. ‘Canonicity’. PMLA. Vol. 106, No 1 (January 1991), 110 –121.

Harris opens his paper controversially:

The canonical facts about the canons of English and American literature, are, first, that there are no canons and never have been; second, that there have necessarily always been canons; and third, that canons are made up of readings not of disembodied texts. What is contradictory in that statement results from play on different connotations of the word canon – a critical strategy that is constantly, though often more subtly, in use. As with many another critical term, the fisrt step in understanding canon is to unpack its meanings. (110)

Harris reminds us that ‘canon’ comes from the Greek kanon meaning rule or measure. Harris notes that the idea of measuring, of providing norms has clung to the word canon as a term that refers to selection, but he is adamant that ‘the criteria for selecting literary texts are not derived from authority but from chosen functions’. (110) The use of the word canon is traced from the Bible to ‘classical’ texts and Romanticism. Harris seems to be arguing that it is not the term ‘canon’ that is at fault but our use of it, as he explains that ‘catalogs [sic] identifying especially valuable works not only varied considerably, they did not fence others out’. (111)

Harris objects to the colouring of literary theory by Biblical canonical authority. He quotes Frank Kermode and criticises his belief that universities hold absolute control over canons.

Under the heading ‘A Multiplicity of Canons and Pressures on Them’, Harris cites Fowler who suggested six kind of literary canons:
•the potential canon (all of literature);
•the accessible canon (that part of the potential canon that is available);
•selective canons (anthologies, syllabi etc.);
•official canons (blending of the lists above);
•personal canons (the choices of individual readers);
•and critical canons (for those texts repeatedly treated in articles or books).

Harris demands further distinctions and he sees problems with the canons outlined above:
•the potential canon relies on one’s ‘political allegiances’;
•the accessible canon is inclusive ‘only fro one location’ and ‘varies with the sophistication of each reader’;
•personal canons are made up of ‘indeterminate interaction’;
•and official and critical canons are ‘precipitated out of the mass of selective canons’. (112)

Harris thinks that, ‘the only canons produced by systematic choice are the innumerable and heterogeneous selective ones’. (112) He also notes that the Biblical authoritative canon does not fit in these categories. In addition he argues that there should be a pedagogical canon, a diachronic canon and a nonce canon. (He leaves the question of popular canons open.) In relation to the diachronic canon, Harris notes that although it is partly a ‘canonical haven’ for others it is simply ‘canonical limbo’. (113)

Looking at a historical perspective, Harris notes that canons were hardly used until the eighteenth century, although Renaissance humanists like Erasmus demanded a kind of universal knowledge. Later formulations of canons were a necessary part of university teaching. Thinking about modern anthologies, Harris is adamant that editorship always problematises the quest for a Fowlerian potential canon.

Focusing on selective canons and the problem of criteria, Harris criticises New Criticism and the ‘claim that poetry has no propositional meaning’. (115) For Harris, this point fences itself into a corner, because ‘the ultimate implication of that position is the futility of critical discussion’. (115) Like R.S. Crane who is called on by Harris, the criticism is of ‘the automatic ascription of universal oppositions’ to any text. (115) Like Aiken, Harris draws on Arnold’s line about aspiring to a higher ideal of utterance and thinking, but Harris criticises Arnold suggesting that his intentions were bound up with class and that he makes an assumption that a hierarchy is necessary for society to function.

Harris now considers ‘the functions a particular selection was apparently intended to perform’. (115) He cites Barbara Hernstein Smith and her view that selctions are symptomatic of the selector’s needs and desires at that time. Arnold is seen as one such critic and Harris relates Arnold’s warnings against personal or historical estimates of texts and calls for a ‘real’ estimate. Yet in doing so, Harris recognises that Arnold is ‘looking for hallmarks rather than functions; perhaps he intuitively knew that if he looked for functions he would find all too many for his purposes.’ (115) Harris maintains that there are other functions of canons and proceeds to provide examples:

Providing Models, Ideas and Inspiration
Harris provides examples, such as:
•the Alexandrians who chose texts to display proper grammatical usage;
•Ciceronian and Quintillian canons promoted ‘social virtues’;
•and Golding’s interpretation of Griswold’s Poets and Poetry, the selection of which is based on moral purity.
Harris states: ‘Marxist and feminist arguments are no less appeals to assumed moral values than are Pope’s, Wordsworth’s, or Holme’s’. (115)

Transmitting the Heritage of Thought
This kind of canon provides the means for poets to interpret modern texts with respect to traditional ones. The goal here is for ‘cultural literacy’. (116) Harris quotes Harry Levin who describes knowledge as a dialogue between present–day writers and their ancestors. Harris notes that ‘efforts to overthrow the present canon are often endeavours to expand it, to enlarge our patrimony, and to enrich the “collective memory,” [sic] that is, communal knowledge and awareness’. (116)

Creating Common Frames of Reference
If a body of critics have a similar strategy for interpreting a text, it may be useful to have a canon that can be a reference point. This creates community.

This is where a writer manages to enter a nonce or modern canon ‘by their active espousal of texts or criteria congenial to their own aims’. (116) Harris gives examples such as:
•Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads ;
•Arnold, when he criticises his own ‘Empedocles on Etna’;
•the turn of the Victorian poets to an earlier age of poetry in order to displace Romantic classics (according to Strange);
•and the self–made canon of modernist poets.

Legitimating Theory
Harris uses examples to explain this.
•New Criticism preferred texts that could be used ‘to exhibit meaning as fully as possible’. (116)
•Deconstructionists select ‘texts with almost invisible seams that can be pried open to suggest gaping contradictions’.(116)
•Neo Marxists (Harris includes new historicists) use texts that reveal ‘unsuspected workings of political power’. (!16)
Harris summarises by stating that, ‘the texts each group is most likely to select are those for which it can provide the fullest, most dramatic, and most convincing readings.’ (116)

The issue of historical influences is the factor here. Harris ponders Chaucer and the representation of the pilgrim in fourteenth century England. Rather than thinking about how the world was at the time a certain text was written, critics now interrogate unspoken or unconscious assumptions in texts of a certain historical period.

Harris notes that in the 1890s and at the turn of the century, women and other minorities were better represented. However this slowly declined up to the 1950s according to Harris. He cites Lauter (‘Race and Gender in the Shaping of the American Literary Canon’).

Moving on to think about the reading of canons, Harris notes that canons are texts being read. Harris uses the example of the Christian Church when it read Greek and Roman philosophers in such a way to accommodate its belief system and he uses the example of Catcher in the Rye which can be subject to a number of interpretations. Citing Annette Kolodny, Harris argues that unfamiliarity is the key, since by reading unfamiliar texts and criticism, one ‘defamiliarize[s] texts in the current critical and pedagogical canon’. (117)

Here Harris comes to the point of his essay; that one should not be attacking the idea of a canon. Rather the canon exists as a site of contest. Harris suggests that ‘there will always be competing canons’. (118) This is desirable and necessary.

If the Canon no longer lives, the reason is that it never did; there have been and are only selections with purposes. If anything has been clarified by the last twenty years of critical alarms and excursions, it is the multiplicity of possible purposes. (119)

Canons of Welsh Poetry: Reacting to Aiken's Essay

Questions Concerning Canons
In reponse to: Aiken, Susan Hardy. ‘Women and the Question of Canonicity’. College English. Vol. 48 No. 3 (March 1986), 288 – 301.

WoolfEnglish canons have often been seen to exclude women. See Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own where she describes her experience at Oxbridge of a ‘deprecating, kindly, silvery gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved by back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College and furnished with a letter of introduction’, and she comments finally that the library sleeps ‘with all its treasures safe locked within its breast’. (7-8) Susan Aiken writes: ‘Like the library, the canon might well be read as a kind of metatext, a synecdoche of the Western academic literary tradition’. (289) How does this relate to Welsh literature (Cymraeg and Cymreig) and specifically to literature Cymraeg? For one thing literature Cymraeg is on the one hand like the English one, a literature of paper, tomes and libraries, and yet with the influence of the Eisteddfod it is also an oral literature. Does this mean that it creates more space for women or not? What could be a synecdoche for Welsh academic literary tradition?

And do we want an English style canon? In ‘Women and the Question of Canonicity’, Aiken warns that, ‘self regarding (en)closures are ultimately deadly: through their encrypted solipsism, their resistance to woman’s vital otherness, their rigid reiterations of the Law of the Same’. (289) However, later Aiken states that it is not so much the canon which is inherently flawed, but our view of it and what it does, because ‘any totalizing conceptions of the canon as a static, universal, inviolable collection of sacred texts – what Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said” – has always been a misprision.’ (290) Aiken argues that canons are made and remade by the exigencies of a particular moment and a particular era.

In her essay on canonicity, Aiken writes some damning criticism of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, because it does not present any women poets before the eighteenth century. Women who are included are introduced as ‘the sister of’, ‘the wife of’ etc. This is a pertinent question regarding Welsh anthologies; where women are not represented, was it simply that there were no women writing, was their work of a poor quality/designed to be read aloud or are the editors missing something? Aiken criticises canons in relation to the representation of women for a number of reasons:
•because they use a language of economics: ‘value’, property, ownership;
•because in figuring an Bloomian Oedipal struggle, a fantasy of inheritance in which women becomes a disturbing element seen in terms of barbarism (interesting in relation to poems like Parry William’s ‘Hon’;
•because the masculinist critic figure himself as a kind of priest whose rituals are disturbed by once silenced, emergent voices.

Aiken sums up:

These links between priestly authority, the implications of official “textuality”, and the exclusionary and hegemonic motives within canon-formation have obvious significance fro the question of women and canonicity. […] Woman, in both cases becomes a profanation, a heretical voice from the wilderness that threatens the patrius sermo – the orthodox, public, canonical Word – with the full force of another tongue – a mother tongue – the lingua maternal that for those still within the confines of the old order must remain the unspeakable. (297)

Aiken rejects old canonical forms and recommends polylogue, which she describes as ‘a kind of creative “barbarism” that would disrupt the monological, colonizing, centristic “drives” of civilisation – the closed library, the closed canon.’ (298) Are Welsh anthologies using this strategy or not?

May 15, 2006

Parallels Between Frida Kahlo and Pascale Petit: the Problem of Confession

Writing about web page

Frida Kahlo

Next Monday (22nd May) I am going to be part of a panel at the Arts Faculty seminar talking about women and life-writing. I will be talking specifically on the Welsh-French poet, Pascale Petit, and her poems on the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, in The Wounded Deer: Fourteen Poems After Frida Kahlo . I am going to talk about the problem of confession and how Petit turns to writing ‘biographical’ poems about another woman.

I think that Deryn Rees-Jones’ comment in Consorting with Angels may have some relevance here:

The woman who confesses is frequently read as testifying only to her anguish and her own “weakness”; she is simply revealing the awfulness of femininity which was known to be there all along, and which, in the most simplistic terms has led to her oppression in the first place. And it is here that we see the exact nature of the problem: for if the woman poet does remain silent, if the awfulness of her confessional truth is such that it will only oppress her further, she is left where she started and cannot speak at all. Alternatively, she can speak a version of self which also confirms a certain kind of femininity – that of beauty passivity, orderliness and self-control – but which nevertheless fails to “tell it like it is”. (Deryn Rees-Jones, 25)

Petit suffers this problem and interestingly so does Kahlo. Some have and do say that to craete a mythical version of oneself in one’s writing will inevitably lead to an audience seeing that version as one and the same as the ‘authentic’ self and that artists that follow this route should be prepared to face the consequences.

At the recent Frida Kahlo exhibition (Tate Modern 9th June – 9th October 2005), the curator’s commetary began with the question ‘Who was Frida Kahlo?’, a question that revealed more about the cult of personality that has grown up around Kahlo than her art. (1) This biographical slant remained an integral part of the commentary:

  • ‘Certainly the biographical details of her remarkable life inflect many aspects of her work’. (1)
  • Commenting on The Bus : ‘The modern young woman at the end of the bench could be taken for Frida herself.’ (5)
  • Commenting on Khalo’s watercolours: ‘An unassuming sketch in thsi room records the accident that was to change Kahlo’s life so dramatically.’ (7)
  • Commenting on Kahlo’s ex-voto paintings: ‘rather than being tokens of gratitude, Kahlo’s ‘ex-votos’ are unflinching images of traumatic events drawn from her own experience, in which life and death coalesce.’ (7)
  • Commenting on Henry Ford Hospital : ‘The link to sterility probably relates to Kahlo’s sense of her own infertility.’ (10)
  • Commenting on Two Nudes in a Forest : ’’The painting also touches on Kahlo’s bisexuality – the pair are watched by a spider monkey, a symbol of lust – and could equally be interpreted as Kahlo herself and a woman she loved.’ (20)
  • Commenting on Kahlo’s death: ‘Doctors reported a pulmonary embolism, relating to a bout of pnuemonia, though it has also been suggested that she committed suicide.’ (29-30)
  • Commenting on Surrealism: ‘This dream-like imagery may owe something to Surrealism, of which, despite her statements to the contrary, Kahlo was very likely aware.’ (15)

I list the curator’s comments here to show how much room is made for speculation and how often confessional, self-driven art gives the viewer (or reader) such a sense of knowing the artist that statements like the lats one on Surrealism appear. The interpreter knows more about the intentions behind the art than the artist.

Abstract for a Paper for an Anthology entitled The Politics of British Literary Collections

Creating a Canon of Welsh-Language Poetry: Problems of Translation, Gender and Welsh Dissent

Welsh Map

This paper focuses on The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry , edited by Menna Elfyn and John Rowlands. The anthology features twentieth century Welsh–language poetry in translation and I focus on the decisions made by the editors to create a poetic canon for Wales. The paper questions whether Wales’ literary and cultural identity is anchored by this anthology or if it is divisive in its creation of a ghetto for ‘Welsh–language’ literature. I explore the case of Twm Morys who refused inclusion stating that if non–Welsh speaking readers wish to ‘join in, well they can bloody well learn the language’. In comparison to Morys’ view, I study the editors’ focus on communicating with an international audience.

Translation is a key issue in this anthology and I discuss the editors’ inclusion of contemporary Welsh–language and Anglo–Welsh poets as translators. I question whether a cohesive community of writers is being represented in this editorial decision. The methods of translation are analysed with reference to key poems such as T.H. Parry William’s ‘Hon’ and Gwenallt’s ‘Rhydcymerau’ and I discuss the significance of the editors’ decision not to incorporate the Welsh originals alongside the translations.

Finally, I focus on the editors’ choice of poets in relation to gender. I study specific poems that subvert the Welsh patriarchal tradition; Elin Llwyd–Morgan’s ‘Jezebel’ is discussed in relation to Welsh male poets’ anxiety about the female. I assess the anthology’s representation of male and female poets and I argue that the high proportion of male poets over their female counterparts is yet another divisive factor to exacerbate the tensions in Welsh literature. The oppositions of Welsh versus English, Anglo–Welsh versus Welsh–language and male versus female all inhabit this anthology in pervading forms.

Problems to tackle here
1. Issues concerning linguistic purity.
2. The choice of translators as constructing a group or network of writers that are committed to maintaining the Welsh language.
3. The problem of gender and the role of the 'Welshman'.
4. Outward looking or introspective practices?

May 14, 2006

University Spending of Top Up Fees?

Writing about web page

I have been reading on insite today about the spending of university top–up fees. For 2006/07 Warwick will receive 4.9million pounds. Of this, 1.5 million pounds will be spent on student financial support. This is good. 1.4 million pounds will be ploughed into merit pay and such things for staff. This is good too. The question is what about the other 2 million pounds?

Insite descibes a number of 'initiatives designed to improve the student learning experience'. Insite describes also how 'in preparation for the advent of top–up fees the University has already invested a considerable sum in the creation of the two Learning Grids, the co–location of the Student Support and Development Centre, improved sporting facilities (including a £1m contribution to a planned new indoor tennis centre at Westwood) and new academic staff posts'. The tennis court particularly suprised me – is this the kind of initiative that top–up fees are going to spent on? Who actually cares if there are new tennis courts at Warwick or not?

Insite lists 'developments that have already been approved':'further investment in IT infrastructure including e–learning development, improved student support and new software to improve services' and 'investment in the Library'. This seems fair enough, but shouldn't the university be funding these projects anyway out its own pocket rather than dipping into top–up fees. Other projects under consideration are fair: 'Additional support for the Students’ Union – including the refurbishment of Union South', 'Increased support for e–learning development', 'investment in improved student administration', 'extended support hours for IT Services'.
But who needs '24–hour Library opening hours'? Students need to learn to organise their time well and to have 24 hour library opening hours is frankly sending a bad message. 'Pulling an all nighter' should not be encouraged by the university.

May 11, 2006

Research Seminar with Luce Irigaray

Place: H503, Humanities Building, Univerity of Warwick.
Date: 10th May 2006 Time: 5pm
Chairperson: Sherah Welles

Interestingly, at this seminar, I was able to ask Irigaray about her relation to poetry. She said in reply a number of interesting things.

*That 'poetry is closer to truth than abstract logic'.

*That poetry represents 'the whole being'.

*That poetry is 'not repressive'.

*That poetry represents 'the present moment'.

*That she was also interested in poiesis i.e. doing, making, creation.

She specified that it is poetic language rather than poetry itself which could create a dialogue between one and an other. She said also that as in Eastern philosophies, she sees poetry, philosophy, religion as being the same

Going on from the topic of poetry, we began to think about feminine language and the fact that Irigaray asserts that men cannot speak in a feminine language. To illustrate what she meant, she gave some examples of working with very young children and the senetnce structures that they used in exercises. Irigaray suggested that boys always coupled "I" with an object or with plural others. The relation "in two" was not used by the boys. Irigaray thought that the boys were preoccupied with a relation to sameness.

When Irigaray asked children to put together sentences with "I" and "you", girls created sentences such as 'You and I share the same taste', where as boys created sentences such as 'I hate you'. For Irigaray, male language must always be preoccupied with objects. Girls created sentences like 'I will always go with you to the cinema' and boys would write 'I went to the meeting with my bicycle'. Irigaray suggested that boys need to become more intersubjective in relation to difference and that the girl needs to construct mediation.

Irigaray disagrees with Chomsky about the idea of a universal syntax. For Irigaray, this universal syntax is a masculine syntax of subject–object relation.

When asked about stillness, Irigaray explained that it is 'a way of gathering with one's own touch and letting the touch of another be'. It is 'going outside Western culture which is a culture of talking'. She describes one and an other as 'being both relational and constrained to be in solitude'.

May 10, 2006

The Path Towards the Other – Luce Irigaray

Luce Irogaray

Date: Tuesday 9 May 2006
Time: 18:00–19:30
Venue: Warwick Arts Centre Conference Room
Speaker: Luce Irigaray, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Irigaray's talk last night was characteristic of her later writings about the other and sexual difference e.g. The Way of Love . In the talk she described a need for a number of things:

  • 'a space of waiting for things or people';
  • 'a need for survival';
  • and 'a meeting with the infinite'.

At the heart of her theorising is the idea of the threshold: 'A threshold is lacking which marks the world of each one'. She continues: 'The threshold must exist for each one but also between the one and the other'. Only then can it 'constitute a proper world'.

It is important to open oneself to the other. If one only looks for the same, 'I only meet myself'. One and an other become 'the two polarities of the same unity'. When this occurs, 'he or she has become myself or a part of my environment'. The other 'becomes invisible' and it seems as if two have 'a single body, a single soul' yet the two are 'bored, a little sleepy and quiet with each other'. The two become 'neutral or indifferent'. This kind of welcome 'does not really let them be free'. The question is how to respond to the call of the other.

The answer may lie in 'the permanence of duality'. There must be an opening to the other 'in one's own country, in one's own city or home'. Irigaray names this as 'not only an individual becoming [...] rather a human becoming'. The other could be 'a companion, a child, a friend, a foreigner'.

Most important is allowing space for the other: ' a space apparently open in a closed world'. Yet this space is 'partly closed and partly cluttered with the emptiness of self'. This allows ' a possibility of dwelling'. To explain the space Irigaray talks of the bridging in Waiting for Godot and Waiting for the Barbarians .

We must 'open our ears to other meanings' to find the other. We must use 'other gestures, behaviours'. In ' a place that is completely foreign and strange', we must create 'a model of welcoming'. Yet first we must 'leave our home, our culture, our home'. We 'also have to remain here ourselves'.

To find the other, it is 'necessary to wonder about oneself and how one dwells'. Proximity to the other is only reached 'when engendering a common world together'. We need a 'no man's land'. Consequently, 'difference is a way of overcoming nihilism in a positive manner'. Space 'allows us to go out of our own borders', yet one must first 'let this nothing which separates us be'.

Language is important: 'It is no longer a matter of discussing with the other, no longer to simply show things to each other'. Rather there is an ' acceptance of being silence'. A silence that is 'not strictly a display'. [Did she say something here about the colours white and black?] Ultimately, we must 'save space and time in order to allow who or what is coming to arrive'.

The relation to the other is an ' opening to an unknown [...] and in a way we always remain unfamiliar'. Silence is ' the word of the threshold, of the world'. It is 'welcoming' and not just 'transmitting information'. It is 'the sign for nothing which ought to separate us'. It means being 'able to open a threshold on the borders of ourselves'. It is both 'an active undertaking and a passive letting be'.

The one and the other could be:

  • man –woman
  • parent–children
  • teacher–student
  • rich–poor
  • ourself–stranger
  • same–other

It means to 'welcome in oneself what might happen in the meeting'. To do so, 'taking shelter is essential' so that one can communicate with 'the other, the foreigner, the stranger'. We must 'listen to the attraction that has encouraged us to go out of our home'. However 'the path to the other is not clear'. We can 'misinterpret the call'. We need 'double–listening' which hears 'speech that the other addresses to us'. So 'the speech must reach for each one'.

This intimacy is 'neither to be seen nor to be seized'. Touching is 'an initimacy that cannot be approached by the hand. This is not just a meeting with another body.

May 08, 2006

Notes on the Warao and their Music

Warao Violin

From_ Olsen, Dale A. Music of the Warao of Venezuela : Song People of the Rain Forest . Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

One poem that I am interested in analysing of Pacale Petit's in 'Self–Portrait as a Warao Violin'. Perhaps these notes will shed light on this poem.

Ideas About the Warao Violin

Dakotu – a dance song, sometimes played on the violin. (35)
Sekeseke – a kind of violin that uses a viola de gamba bow (convex curve), played somewhat like a lute.

For Amerindians it is 'the song–text that is believed to carry the weight of evoking the spirits’. (17)

‘Stringed instruments or chordophones have been documented for the Warao since the nineteenth century. […] [Descriptions presented by Hillhouse, Bernau, Roth of stringed instruments.] […]Regardless of the particular provenance of this ancient Warao chordophone, the concept of a string instrument has been so embedded in Warao culture that today they consider their European derived violin, called sekeseke, to be one of their traditional instruments. This phenomenon also prevails among the Mexican Huichol, who claim that their violin is as ancient as their culture […]. As explained by the huichol and as I interpret its presence among the Warao, a musical bow was the forerunner of the violin in both cultures. With the arrival of the Spanish the violin replaced the musical bow as a sound maker, while the musical bow’s ancient function as a shaman’s instrument remained among the Huichol and disappeared among the Warao.’ (104)

Olsen quotes Wilbert in discussing the uses of the musical bow, who writes that ‘the Warao hunter uses his bow and arrow as a lure to attract his prey. […] With the animal in shooting range, the hunter quickly converts the musical bow into a deadly weapon and lets fly.’ (qtd in Olsen, 105)

The Origins of the Warao Violin

Olsen goes on to tell a folk tale that explains how the first violin came to the Warao tribe. (106 –110 )The story tells that a creature – half–man, half–monkey – named Nakurao brought the violin from a foreign country. Nakurao learned how to make the sekseke in a dream; he found a cedar growing nearby, carved the sekseke’s shape and made notches for the strings to fit. When he woke, he knew that he had to make his dream sekeseke and he decided to make a boat, so that he would astonish the people of the country where he was living.

So Nakurao began to carry out the actions of his dreams. He found the cedar and though the ‘real’ wood was not as good as that in his dreams, he began to carve a violin shape using his machete. He put holes where holes should be and he attached a bridge. Eventually he strung it with four strings and its name came from that four – seke–seke. Then he made a bow and when he drew it across the strings, it made a pleasant sound.

Meanwhile, the jaguar had decided that Nakurao was lazy and useless. He had not heard of Nakurao’s endeavours and decided that he was going to eat the monkey. At dawn, the jaguar sent a message: ‘My friend, monkey, I am going to eat you today.’

Nakurao asked, ‘Who would attack me today?’ The answer came: ‘The jaguar.’

Nakurao replied: ‘Well, at least I have made my sekeseke. If he comes to eat me, no matter. I can still make beautiful music for me. He can eat me later.’

The jaguar decided at last that the time had come. ‘Now I will go and eat that monkey’, he said. So the jaguar arrived, but the monkey had his music prepared. ‘This is the last day of your life, friend monkey’, the jaguar said. ‘It’s true’, replied Nakurao, ‘but just give me a little time. Before you eat me I am going to play you some music. Then you can eat me.’ So Nakurao began to play and all agreed that it was the best music that they had ever heard. Many animals began to dance: all kinds of birds, the jaguar, the deer and the howler monkey. They danced until they could not take another step.

‘Oh stop’, cried the jaguar. ‘We’re tired, but such beautiful music. My friend monkey, I thought that you were lazy and useless. I did not realise that you were a musician.’

‘It’s true my friend’, replied Nakurao. ‘I have been a musician since childhood. I made the sekeseke, the bow, the music, the song. So you must not eat me.’

‘Certainly not’, replied the jaguar ‘as you are a musician.’

Olsen analyses the story and states that ‘Music (in this case instrumental music) has the power to pacify the animals and alter Brutish behaviour.’ (418)

Further Reading

Bernau, Rev. JH. Missionary Labours in British Guiana . London: J Farquhar Shaw, 1847.

Hillhouse, William. ‘Memoir of the Warrow Land of British Guiana.’ Journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London . 1934. 4.321–333.

Roth, Walter E. ‘An Enquiry into the Animism and Follore of the Guiana Indians.’ Thirteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute . Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1915. 103 386.

Wilbert, Johannes. ‘The House of the Swallow Tailed Kite’. Animal Myths and Metaphors . Ed. Gary Urton. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985. 145–182.


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