Arkheion/Archon: (“Who” or “What”)?

July 17, 2007 § Leave a comment

At the center of every empire is an archive; either in progress or in ruins .

Matilda/Frankenstein: Psychosexual collecting, conserving, collating

Mary Shelley is best known for Frankenstein, but her short story, Matilda, is in many ways a companion piece to her well-known novel. Both stories are stories of the archive.

Where Frankenstein begins in medias res of the “dead” archive – a series of letters that must be animated in order to animate the voice that will in turn animate the story – Matilda begins with a voice directly from the other side of the archive:

“It is four o’clock; but it is winter and the sun has already set: there are no clouds in the clear frosty sky to reflect its slant beams….I live in a lone cottage on a
solitary wide heath….I am in a strange state of mind. I am alone – quite alone –
in the world – the blight of misfortune has passed over me and withered me; I
know that I am about to die and I feel happy – joyous.”

[“Actually, Archive Fever comes on at night, long after the archive has shut for the day. Typically, the fever—more accurately, the precursor fever, the feverlet—starts in the early hours of the morning, in the bed of a cheap hotel, where the historian cannot get to sleep. You cannot get to sleep because you lie so narrowly, in an attempt to avoid contact with anything that isn’t shielded by sheets and pillowcase. The first sign, then, is an excessive attention to the bed, an irresistible anxiety about the hundreds who have slept there before you, leaving their dust and debris in the fibers of the blankets, greasing the surface of the heavy, slippery coverlet. The dust of others, and of other times, fills the room, settles on the carpet, marks out the sticky passage from bed to bathroom.” – Dust, Carolyn Steedman]

We know the story of Frankenstein (Don’t we?). Matilda literally is about incest. The action is set in motion by a beautiful mother who dies when her child is young. The selfish and distraught father/husband withdraws from society in deep mourning (or…actually, he goes to the East and soaks in the “burning rays” and primitive passions of the archive-less).

He returns when Matilda is sixteen to assist her with her education, which as the story would have it, includes “unnatural passion.” The father poisons himself, and Matilda herself goes into seclusion, surrounded only by “books and nature.” However, since she is a sixteen year old girl who has escaped from the leaves of a romance, she has little more to do than wait for the next philosopher-poet (Woodville crossing the heath on horseback; Shelley returning from Scotland; Caliban waiting on Prospero, and so on).

We run into a problem here in the space between the historical and psychosexual archive: Godwin the “radical philosopher of the 1790s” turns into enraged father when presented with a story of father-daughter incest from Mary. He refuses to publish it and denies Mary’s requests that he return the manuscript. A second copy of the story was not published until 1955. Where did he keep the document? Was it slipped between the covers of a rough draft of Caleb Williams? Or, perhaps, filed away with old correspondence on an “An Enquiry on Political Justice”? Perhaps he burned it in violence.

Where Frankenstein can be thought of as the ‘topside’ – the historical/technological skin – of the archive, Matilda is the marginal, repressed and buried arche of archival consciousness (these voices always at the lip of some phallic tomb: Antigone; Ophelia; Woolf and her pockets full of heavy testes, and so on). Victor Frankenstein lurks about the charnel house looking for a head and a hand to suture together; Matilda is always already an archive. After the father’s death, Matilda’s only utterances are recitations of her father’s ecstatic moment: the counting and re-counting of the moment when the father was on the verge of becoming a lover. Nothing is ever consummated. She sits in her cottage dropping hints to Woodville about the father’s transgressions, like a steward dropping old books from the library windows during the Blitz.

The two stories echo one another in illicit and oblique terms. That is, with the exception of the sturdy oak:

Matilda: “A strange idea seized me; a person must have felt all the agonies of doubt concerning life and death of one who is the whole world to them before they can enter into my feelings – for in that state, the mind working unrestrained by the will makes strange and fanciful combinations with outward circumstances and weaves the chances and changes of nature into an immediate connexion with the event they dread. It was with this feeling that I turned to the old Steward who stood pale and trembling beside me; ‘Mark, Gaspar, if the next flash of lightening rend not that oak my father will be alive.”

Frankenstein: “As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house ; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribands of wood. I never beheld any thing so utterly destroyed.”

For Frankenstein, this scene conjures forth the papers and “shades of Cornelius Agrippa.” For Matilda — well, she just goes on dreaming of the death of the Father.

My first trip to the Folger, 2000: You head out in the morning, arriving at the archive just before 9. Sipping coffee, you wait for the doors to the tomb to crack open. A stone likeness of Puck mocks your bookish seriousness from behind a manicured shrub. You deposit your jacket, your bags, your pens at the closet. You enter holding forth one number 2 pencil with teeth marks. When the librarian greets you, she informs you that PT 1202/1793 has come up from below. You get to work with heavy beeds and light touch….

“You think: I could get to hate these people; and, I can never do these people justice” (Carolyn Steedman)

“Archive Fever” (requires subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education)

Layers of Intentionality and Mirror-ed Stages

July 6, 2007 § 1 Comment

At work this summer on a new media project, “The Hollins Community Project,” made possible initially through an outreach grant from some wonderful researchers at Virginia Tech’s Center for Human Computer Interaction.

The project plays with the boundaries of history, narrative, and place using “marginal” spaces surrounding the Hollins University campus. Just at the edge of campus exist these fascinating physical aggregators of institutional history and its discards and palimpsests — objects, inscriptions, and mappings that sit at the threshold of future/present/past; legitimate/abject; visible/invisible.

The project strives to employ technology in such a way so as not to superimpose gadgetry, but to build a very simple interface and phantom mnemonic that draws attention to the temporal, spatial, and narrative “instituting” of history. To this end, I am involved with some incredibly stimulating conversations with collaborators about structures of technology; absent and present intentions in design; the layering of temporal, spatial, and textual responses; interactions between participants in relation to one another and in relation to the technology…

After a walkthrough at one of the sites today, I went away with Lisa Zunshine on my mind. In “Theory of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness,” Zunshine talks about the contributions of the new cognitive science to thinking about fictional representation and intentionality in narrative. A focus throughout the introduction is the cognitive “gap” that opens around being able to keep track of more than four levels of intentionality in reading a novel. That is, Zunshine explores how keeping track of the complexity to levels of characters’ intentionality within a novel reaches a crucial threshold at four. Active “mind-reading” of characters (or generating a Theory of Mind in cognitive speak) that reaches beyond four levels becomes a challenge for most contemporary Western readers, according to cognitive research. As Zunshine goes on to explain, this is one explanation for why a writer like Virginia Woolf, and her experimentations with the novel form, make some readers so “uncomfortable:” “Woolf not only ‘demands’ that we process a string of fifth- and sixth-level intentionalities, but she also introduces [complex] embedded intentionalities….”

Zunshine’s research is especially insightful in pointing out how contact between the mind sciences and the humanities is not some throwback to structuralist desires to empiricize the complexity of human creativity and response, but indeed promises to richen the textures of and possibilities to both humanistic and scientific inquiry (her bit on how interdisciplinary interaction between literary studies and cognitive theory could potentially re-figure the very question and concept of “history” is particularly provocative and rich; somewhere between ‘seeing thinking think’ and ‘not seeing the thought of thinking’).

What to leave in, what to leave out, and what to leave open. Some of what will emerge in the process of this piece will come down to the dynamic “intentionality” of the system.

Spinoza, from the third book on Ethics: “No one as yet has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities: that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do….”

And never will (body; nobody; no one; experience?)

and Walter Benjamin, the most mundane moment of storytelling, when we are bored to sleep by the “safety” of the formal structure and mediating rhythm of the “story” itself; a cognitive caesura: a “dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”

Beowulf as Bildungsroman

June 17, 2007 § Leave a comment

The NY Times has a fairly new section on book reviews for the “young adult” set. I have only of late begun to take more of an interest in books for youth and the marketing campaigns and critical conversations that accompany their release.

The Times offers an overview of recent adaptations of Beowulf in the Sunday Review, and both the range of new versions of the text and the commentary on them are telling. Two extremes prevail. The frighteningly historic-sounding Beowulf is tempered immediately by McGrath’s reassurances that this 3000-line epic poem is really just a damn good blood and guts yarn. Right off, there are the more predictable allusions to the hybridity of “Christian” and “pagan” themes (a hit with ultra-suburbanites negotiating their way around secular malaise and consumerism) ; the “first significant text written in [what will become] English; and so forth. Slightly more interesting (and seemingly un-self-reflexively so) are the boundaries set forth demarcating the jouissance of youth and the epic “elemental” tale. The first group reviewed fits neatly into the new parenting cult of “visceral” transparency. McGrath moves comfortably from images of underwater sword fights, the slowed-down-by-gutters violence of comic strip superhero battles, comparisons to the “dripping” monster in Alien, and, finally, to how all this surfaces as a spectrum of experience intimately related to the beginnings of language: “visceral as the Old English, which was consciously onomatopoeic.” On the other hand, we have Janice Rumford’s edition, which according to McGrath, is decidedly more quiet and “realistic” – in this case, more conspicuously old school bourgeois (“…attention to domestic details of the Danish court – pets, houses, the fire pit the king sits at.”).

Somewhere in all this is a connection to an earlier article in the LA Times charting the decline of audiences willing to pay for the Hollywood horror formula. The article speculates that waning interest in the film horror genre is just a typical slump explained by audience saturation. There is some caution in a lament over the possibility that we have a reached a kind of limit to spectral violence: Over and over again, people are breaking the boundaries of the body, hurting people, chopping people up, ravaging people…. For things to be truly scary, we’re going to have to find new boundaries to tread on.”

Beowulf for the young is a promising trend, but McGrath’s subject matter seems stymied by a rhetorical scene of medieval visceral, “elemental” ooze, and the saturated subject of suburban greed gone wild. What Beowulf can bring to all this is that tremendously complex look at boundaries and bodies re-constituting themselves at every turn. Does it take tearing the bourgeois subject every which way asunder before we make room for something other than the premodern elemental ooze as a counterpoint to the right of violence? Can Beowulf for the younger set stimulate interest in the violence “in” rather than the violence “of”….SHMUMPF! (Beowulf finds himself in the gutter between State and Non-State, Grendel happy for some company).

My favorite line in McGrath’s piece comes from Janice Rumford’s forthcoming rendition, “a deep wound now opened up on Grendel’s shoulder and widened. The sinews were bursting, the arm bones loosening. There was only one way out. The ogre tore himself free and ran one-armed into the night!”

Some exit strategy; Disney’s Shrek married to the allegory, War in Iraq.


April 21, 2007 § Leave a comment

As the narratives proliferate over authority, responsibility, and blame in the aftermath of the tragedy at Tech, professionals and laypersons alike struggle with a “story” that will bring causal sense to the event. In keeping with our predilection for construing violence as about or by individuals, more and more attempts to “know” the shooter and his motives appear in blogs, newspapers, and special reports. There is always a profound anxiety surrounding such attempts, especially in light of the troubling imbrications of the concept of the individual with violence (many gun control arguments assume a kind of prophetic relationship to the potential of violence and personal freedom).

Even within professional circles there is a troubling focus on preventive measures and blame coming to the fore. At the Chronicle of Higher Education’s site, faculty and staff debate the level of preparedness available on campus, as well as the level and degree of intervention into a troubled student’s life. Interventions, incarcerations, response plans aside, what is really “preventable” about this crisis?

Our mental health system in the U.S. is as broken as health care. No question. Yet, how do we know when someone will cross a line and do violence to themselves or others? Any attempt to bar anyone with mental health issues from participating in education would make the mission of higher education an impossibility – not least because some of the most talented, sensitive, and promising students and faculty themselves have struggled with depression, mania, even schizophrenia. Such afflictions by themselves are not indicators of future violence. And there is the further problem of knowing when personal affliction foments under the influence of a cultural addiction to violence.

The group of English professors at Tech who, as one describes it, put together a “task force” to try to help Cho, did as much as they could under very difficult circumstances. Moreover, who is to say that Cho might not have found another possible future in his pursuit of proper treatment, the cathartic act of writing, and encounters with the power of language? For every Cho, there is the writer, thinker, maker who finds a way to re-mix the alchemy of troubled soul, dysfunctional world, and individual responsibility. We just never know. It is often the caring patience of a professor or mentor – a person with the insight to face unnerving behavior with understanding and a willingness to let one “work through it” that means the difference between the creative life and the life of isolation or worse, of giving back instead of falling away.

Edgar Allen Poe, one of our better-known troubled minds found, for a time at least, productive power in his madness. But he inflected his “symptom” through his ability to de-individualize his affliction; to let it groan for all of us in a way that made us think more expansively about repression, torment, and dis-ease. Poe himself was confused over whether he was suffering in the face of a world gone mad or a dysfunctional mind. His best work shows how the two are hard to parse. I have thought often over the last few days about Poe’s art of the doppelganger: the “ghostly counterpart” of the self. Some ghosts speak back to individual madness to transform it: Hamlet’s father asks for remembrance more so than revenge, for his son to imagine him “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” But Hamlet hears less the cry for collective remembrance than he does the beckoning of a “fair and war-like figure” and he turns on himself and those around him. Some ghosts we want to conjure to speak and others we want silenced: We have hungered for stories about who Cho was and what his “motives” were; but we recoiled to see the ghostly images in his own video of an angry, insane young man mimicking militia-style poses and ranting against greed and loneliness. Such apparitions swell the narrative. Liviu Librescu, professor of engineering killed in the shooting and survivor of the Holocaust, carries so many ghosts with him out of this world. Too many war-like apparitions anymore to make out solitary selves; singularities; causes.

April 20, 2007 § Leave a comment

Peace to colleagues, family, and friends at Virginia Tech.


Comp Lit

April 16, 2007 § Leave a comment

The NY Times has slipped some figures on translated literature into this week’s book review supplement. Jascha Hoffman’s Comparative Literature cites the following (excerpted):

Out of the approximately 1.5 million new books published last year….

30% were published in English (approx.) – approximately 6 % of the world’s population speaks English as a first language.

In 2004, 29% of the books published in the Czech Republic were translations, while in the U.S., a meager 2.62% of published books were translations. Spain and Italy come in at 25% and 22%, respectively.

A combined total of 92 Persian, Turkish, and Arabic titles were published in the U.S. last year (my own note here: though there is no indication of as much in the figures themselves, and though modern Persian is still spoken in Iran, parts of Afghanistan, etc, it is possible that “Persian” refers here to translations of older texts as well).

By contrast, of the 35,854 books published in Iran in 2002, 23% were translations.

Some secondary observations and oddities: Under the category of “International Fiction Best Sellers of 2006,” Dan Brown (author of the Da Vinci Code) comes in at #1, just behind Daniel Kehlmann of Germany. Yet, it’s not the Da Vinci Code but Digital Fortress in that slot – a tale about an NSA supercomputer called TRANSLTR, an invincible code buster that guards against electronic terrorism, under new threat from a former NSA employee who has written an unbreakable code.

A not unrelated ‘coded’ statistic to my mind: Croatian poet, Dubravka Oraic-Tolic’s Palindrome, “Palindromska Apokalipsa” was translated into English last year by an academic, apprentice press. “What is America”: “what is born from our dreams without our knowing.” The statistics in this NY Times document point to many forces at work in our “giving birth” across the globe (“democracy”; globalization; and so on), but with damn few codes beyond our own encryptions (English). Even in translation.

25 years: Pembroke Center Research Newsletter

April 13, 2007 § Leave a comment

Pembroke Center’s research newsletter for 2007 and research retrospective:

Read Pembroke’s research newsletter