Romantic Geologies and Post-Organic Forms

I’d like to begin by thanking the NGSC for welcoming me to this year’s blogging roster. It is a pleasure and privilege to write alongside these intriguing and diverse graduate scholars, and I’m looking forward to reading the material our collective will produce this year.
The blog posts we’ve seen already have been so compelling, both intellectually and personally, that I would like to continue the conversation by engaging with the fundamental questions previous posts have posed. “Fundamental” seems to be a key word for us, as we think about how the foundations of our scholarly temperaments act as cornerstones for our intellectual flights. As Nicole and Deven’s posts illustrate, we can describe this layered relation of the personal to the scholarly by drawing on material metaphors of sedimentation, accretion, and metamorphosis.
Deven and Nicole’s descriptions of their scholarly uses of archaeology and geology—as accretive fields that can inform their work with the material aspects of literary texts—come at a fortuitous time, for me at least. I have been thinking about how aspects of literary form can be captured through scientific metaphors, and their posts have sparked my interest in thinking about how geology and Romantic poetic form intersect.
Geology is a fascinating area within the Romantic sciences, partly due to the period’s uncertainty about whether “rocks and stones and trees” formed an organic continuum. This problem of unclear organicity dated back at least to Buffon’s 1749 proposal that mountains were formed when “all the shell-fish were raised from the bottom of the sea, and transported over the earth.” During the height of British Romanticism, the problem of distinguishing between organic and inorganic forms was compounded by the discoveries of giant fossils of extinct lizards between sedimented layers of rock. In 1809, the natural scientist Georges Cuvier, who had already examined the fossil of a giant sloth and coined the term mastodon, classified these reptilian fossils as the Mosasaurus and the Ptero-Dactyle, leading the charge for the study of dinosaurs, which was to reach a high point in the discovery of the iguanodon in the 1820s. As a geologist as well as an early paleontologist, Cuvier was faced with the challenge of defining sedimented organic forms as both crucial to, and distinguished from, non-living terrestrial matter.
This instability of Romantic geology shook the foundations of the period’s poetry. Though we might usually think of huge and ancient organic forms first emerging “to rise and on the surface die” in Tennyson’s 1830 poem “The Kraken” (l. 15), Romantic literature abounds with buried dinosaurs and geological eruptions. Keats’s Endymion witnesses skeletons “Of beast, behemoth, and leviathan [and] Of nameless monster” on the ocean floor (III, 134-36), while in Cain, Byron challenges the usual Biblical chronology by referring to the “Mighty Pre-Adamites who walk’d the earth / Of which ours is the wreck” (II.ii, 359-60). Likewise, in Prometheus Unbound, Shelley describes at length the “monstrous works and uncouth skeletons” and “anatomies of unknown winged things” that lie buried in the deep (IV. 299, 303). Moreover, geology could help describe the poetic process: we see this best in Byron’s celebrated metaphorical account of his own creative tendencies, with his passions building up internally and finally erupting volcanically into verse. (Meanwhile, in Don Juan, he jokingly writes, “I hate to hunt down a tired metaphor: / So let the often used volcano go. / Poor thing! How frequently, by me and others, / It hath been stirred up till its smoke quite smothers” [XIII.36]). At the same time, though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Romantic geology poses a problem for Coleridge’s definition of literary organic form, which considers the growth of the text from its inception to its adult shape—not its later stages of death, decay, and post-organic potential re-use.
Today, Romantic geology, with its imagery of defunct and sedimented layers of organicity, has profound implications for how we think about poetic form—particularly the forms of Romantic poetry. Geology is a key metaphor for many Romantic critics: David Simpson, for instance, writes that “a great deal of Wordsworth’s poetry is best approached as if it were a core sample of an especially contorted geological substrate. One works with a rough prediction of how the layers ought to relate one to another, but there are continual local deviations and surprises.” Moreover, in recent New Formalist arguments, the sedimentation of dead organic matter can be a crucial motif for thinking abstractly about the life-cycle of a literary form or genre. Recently, I read a very compelling essay, Group Phi’s “Doing Genre” (in New Formalisms and Literary Theory, eds. Theile and Tredennick, 2013), which takes geology, plasticity, and recycling as its governing metaphors. In this text, Group Phi proposes that “genre” is a “sedimented and metamorphic historical category that is received by readers,” and that “form” is the “the reader’s activity of adopting/adapting that category for further use”—more simply, that a genre is like a sedimentary rock, with accretions of its use built up over time, while form is like the wind, shaping the rock and depositing new layers of use upon it. Further developing this intriguing metaphor of geological sedimentation, Group Phi then discusses at length how genres can be “recycled” and “repurposed”—to my mind, invoking a layer of crude oil, the result of decayed organic matter, that is buried within the sedimented structure, drawn out, made plastic, “refocused, repurposed” and reshaped, and then recycled for future use. This is no doubt a metaphor of literary form characteristic of our own time, reflecting our concerns about the ethics of geotechnical excavation, and particularly the problem of violently appropriating formerly organic structures, now metamorphosed into inorganic matter (oil). Group Phi’s invocation of recycling, mid-way through the essay, is perhaps one way of “greening” their potentially problematic metaphor of the generic sedimentation of post-organic (literary) forms.
But the Romantics themselves may have something to say about these contemporary geological forms, and here I’m thinking of Shelley in particular. In Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, Shelley writes about the hero’s journey as he pursues “Nature’s most secret steps” to where the “bitumen lakes / On black bare pointed islets ever beat / With sluggish surge” (85-86). What Shelley means by “bitumen lakes” has long posed a problem for critics, who have variously identified them with the Dead Sea, with the lake of fire in Paradise Lost, or with molten lava-flows in general; the most obvious precedent for Shelley’s 1815 use of the term is Southey’s reference to the “bitumen-lake” in Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). To me, the image of bitumen lakes in Alastor points within Romanticism to the era’s own problem of uncertain organicity (compounding the animal imagery of decayed dinosaurs, “bitumen” introduces a layer of vegetable matter in its etymological relationship to “pitch”). Yet for today’s readers, Alastor‘s bitumen lakes gain much in the translation: “bitumen” is the correct scientific term to describe the heavy crude oil now being excavated—in part, through hydrofracking—from the vast tar/oil sands of Alberta. Anticipating one of the great environmental controversies of our time, Shelley’s prescient use of the geological term can perhaps cast light on the deep Romantic substrates of current forms of representation of the tar/oil sands project.
In short, building on Group Phi’s model, we might look more closely at how the geological realities that underlie our contemporary metaphors of form and representation are built upon a deeper layer of Romantic uses. The mixed organicism of geological sediment has rich potential for talking about poetic language. Recalling Shelley’s account of continually dying metaphors in A Defence of Poetry, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that “language is fossil poetry”; we too might look to the strata of literature’s organic forms in our own search for deeper meanings within Romanticism.

Memoirs and Confessions of a Second-Year Ph.D. Student

Here are the facts as I know them: 1. There are never enough hours in a day; 2. I have students who still think I don’t know that changing their font from Times to Courier adds at least a page to their essays; 3. The long 19th century is such a joy to study.
I didn’t always know these facts. When I was an undergraduate English major, using Courier in every paper I wrote about books that I only partially read, I was aimless. I took classes in order to get my degree, I earned A’s, and I didn’t minor in anything. You could say that I wasn’t the most pragmatic person on the planet. At the time, I wasn’t fully focused on school or my future; my older brother had left for Israel instead of attending law school as he had originally planned, and I struggled, trying to understand his decision. Later, as I pondered what I might do after my B.A., I was torn between graduate school and law school. A Romanticism seminar in the fall of my senior year tipped the scales.
One of the first books that we read was Frankenstein, the first assigned book of my undergraduate career that I read cover to cover. What sold me on Mary Shelley’s work wasn’t the fact that she wrote in response to a ghost story competition—instead, it was an anecdote shared by my professor. He told us how he had inscribed the creature’s words: “I will be with you on your wedding night” in a card at his friend’s wedding. How clever, I thought. I, too, wanted to be that witty, literary friend at weddings, but I realized that I should not and could not quote a book that I had not read. It was the first time that I fell in love with a canonical work.
We read a lot of other interesting works in class, and– in case you’re wondering–I did actually read them in their entirety. However, it was the last assigned work of the semester that changed my life. But Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice didn’t grab my attention right away. So, to make it more animated, I began reading it aloud to my cats with different voices. Soon, I was invested in the characters. And then I brought my interpretation of the novel to class: I said there was an erotic attachment between Darcy and Bingley. My classmates reacted with violent disagreement. They took it personally—that is, they were uncomfortable with any reading of a famously heteronormative text that involved queer desire. In all honesty, their disagreement delighted me. It motivated me. It led me to attend office hours and read literary theory for the first time. I read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Freud, Lauren Berlant, and Michael Warner. I wrote multiple drafts of my end-of-semester paper. And I realized that—just as my brother had done something unconventional that he loved—I loved writing about literature that I had actually read and thought about in unconventional ways; I needed to read for intellectual engagement, not just for pleasure or for finishing an assignment.
I didn’t know it then, but I had stumbled upon the subject I am most passionate about, the deconstruction of heterosexist interpretations of texts. You could say that Pride and Prejudice was my patient zero. As a MA student, I continued working with Austen; the next text that I plunged into was Persuasion, and then it was Emma. In my M.A. thesis, I argued that the heteronormative relationships depicted in Austen’s three novels are built and premised upon queer desire.
As a Ph.D. student who will enter into her final semester of coursework in January, I am actively compiling my exam lists and just as actively kicking myself for not actually reading for my first three years of college. The list of works that I’ve read, while growing, is woefully underdeveloped, and I see my exam lists as an opportunity to atone for my undergraduate sins.  Even though I’ve been exposed to theory and a variety of tropes and texts, I remain interested in looking at texts—especially famous heteronormative love stories—and analyzing the ways in which desire functions. My dissertation will be a transatlantic study of desire and will further the ideas that I’ve been so passionate about since that seminar on Romanticism in my senior year of college.
PS. In case you’re curious–I have read Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and therefore feel okay about using parts of Hogg’s title.

Never Have I Ever Read

Photo courtesy of:
The Eve of St. Agnes Millais (1863)

At the beginning of summer, my husband, our two basset hounds, the cat and I moved into a little white rental house with a backyard. And once we had unpacked all our books, installed a makeshift closet in the back room (in the whole house, we have one tiny little 2×3 feet closet in the bedroom), and felt sufficiently settled to have company, we threw a housewarming party.
Naturally, ninety-percent of our guests were English grad students, and, as we were sitting around the fire-pit in our new backyard, someone suggested we play a literary version of the party classic “Never Have I Ever.” In the original game, the players take turns admitting to something they have never done (never have I ever been skiing–a sad truth!), and each person who has done the event loses a point until only one person is left with points, or something of the sort. In our version, we shamefully admitted works we had never read, and the other players were to put down a finger of the full ten with which they started. Of course, we awarded a slight handicap of negative five points to the only three non-bookish types (my husband the mathematician, a former history major, and a physicist) to make the game somewhat fair.
We were never quite clear on the goal of the game, since in our circle there seemed more pride in “losing” the game than surviving to the end with fingers still raised. In fact, one of our friends “lost” twice by the time we called the game. And we were all envious. But we went round and round, enjoying ourselves immensely.

“Never have I ever read Moby Dick.”
“Never have I ever read Huck Finn.”
“Never have I ever read Beloved.”

I have been studying for comprehensive exams for the past five months, and while I have read a significant number of the works on my lists in past graduate seminars, I feel like the whole process is a long game of “Never have I ever read…”
At the University of Kansas, where I am in my third year of doctoral studies, you compose three lists with your committee–two of which are time period lists (your area and an adjacent time period) and the third is a list of your own choosing (often an author, literary theory, a genre, etc). As a Romanticist with a fairly extensive background in Victorianism, I have chosen my period lists to form the full nineteenth century in British literature, and my final list is geared toward the Leigh Hunt Circle as I prepare for a dissertation focusing on Keats, the Cockney School, and how this context shaped his conception of “work.”
After reading criticism and biographies for the last two months as I try to whittle away at the dissertation list, I have switched to fiction for a much needed breather. I find it heartening to zip through a couple of novels in a week, when I have been slogging through nonfiction for what seems like a lifetime (and I will say I have read several “lifetimes” in that list, and highest praise must go to Nicholas Roe’s 2012 Keats biography. I have added it to the ever-growing list of books I wish I had written). In anticipation of the Halloween season, I scheduled myself several gothic novels in a row. And last week, I read Wuthering Heights for the first time.
Perhaps I just permanently altered your opinion of my clout as a nineteenth-century scholar. Well, so be it. I certainly admit the sad fact with a touch of shame. But now I have checked it off my list of never-have-I-ever-reads, and I have moved on to the next novel that somehow fell through the gaps in my long tenure as a literature student.
I feel this game “Never Have I Ever Read” haunts literature scholars. It certainly helps us flesh out syllabi–how else will we force ourselves to finally pick up Dombey and Son if we do not assign our students (and ourselves!) to read it?–and the game even fuels our research, it seems.
Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Portland and presenting on a Romanticism panel at the Rocky Mountain MLA. This conference has become a tradition for a couple colleagues and me, who would likely never travel and present together otherwise since our areas are so diverse. I presented on the connection between architectural structures and female bodies in Keats’s romances. I looked at the way in which the lived experience of female bodies, specifically in rape narratives, becomes abstracted into a symbol (the first step of which is the equation of the female body to the house or palace that protects her–i.e. Madeline is endangered because her house is penetrated in “The Eve of St. Agnes”). This cultural phenomenon is allegorical in so far as the female body comes to represent social bodies (structures) in various forms through literature and even political propaganda. The specific and material become crystallized into a generic trope that can be circulated, translated, and exchanged, depending upon the terms of its use, its ability to anger, inspire, manipulate.
In the Q&A portion of the panel, another presenter asked if I had read Cymbeline. I shook my head and shyly admitted I had not. Despite taking two courses in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, never had I ever read, seen, or even heard a plot summary of the play. Nor is the classic John Middleton Murry volume Keats and Shakespeare listed among my secondary texts for comprehensive exams.
Nevertheless, I did my research that evening in my hotel room, and discovered much speculation on the play’s influence in Keats’s portrayal of Madeline’s boudoir. Indeed, Charles Cowden Clarke wrote, “I saw [Keats’s] eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered,” as the poet read aloud from the play in summer 1816 (qtd. on page 56 of Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats). In addition to speculation on the scenery, importantly, Imogen has been reading the story of Tereus and Philomela before falling asleep. According to Greek mythology, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the assault. Jove later transforms Philomela into a nightingale, and her song becomes an echo of sexual violence throughout literature, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” in The Wasteland (a piece I have read many times since first crossing it off my never-have-I-ever list in high school).
Scholars speculate on what the literary greats have read (or not read) as an everyday practice. My fellow-scholar who asked if I had read Cymbeline was presenting truly stellar archival research that sought to uncover whether Keats had read various seventeenth-century ballads on nightingales. She lamented that we do not know to what volumes he had access while staying with Benjamin Bailey at Oxford in the summer of 1817. And as she had not yet read Roe’s recent Keats biography, she did not know the conflict between Bailey and Keats’s London friends, and why Charles Brown and other early biographers would not have contacted him to inquire about Keats’s reading that summer. Even in their lifetimes, Keats and Leigh Hunt gained the label “Cockney” as a class slur partially due to the fact that they never had ever read mythology in the original Greek, and instead got their knowledge of the classics through translations.
Next up on my reading schedule is Northanger Abbey, and I will be reading it for the first time. This will be my last novel for a while, and, as I want to preserve my reputation with you at least beyond my first blog post, I will not admit the Romantic poetry I will be reading next week–for the first time.

The best tips I can give about preparing for comps

This is going to be a short and relatively easy post, which are the two things studying for the comprehensive exam is not. It’s been a grueling couple of months, and I admit studying for the comprehensive exam is stressing me out. Really stressing me out. Perhaps that’s not a surprise. Grad school is stressful. There’s teaching, conferences, essays, professionalization, publishing, networking, and constant reading. There’s very little money. But, the reading year has been particularly stressful. It’s the impending pressure of having to sit in a room with five people who will quiz me about one hundred and twenty books. Five people will evaluate me at once. It’s also a discussion that will either allow me to advance in the program, or will result in a stalled few months.
The logical part of my brain knows the exam is a wonderful opportunity to discuss great texts and float ideas. Other people have written wonderful posts about how to prepare for the exam. They encourage having an organized note-taking system and talking about books to everyone. I’m going to focus on how to relax enough in order to accomplish any of that. Here are some tips that I wish someone had drilled into my head during my first few weeks:
Get off of Facebook. There are tons of studies coming out that suggest anyone on Facebook judges themselves based on what other people’s lives appear to be like. We, as English people, can understand that. People edit their lives on social media, and the story can seem more real than the editing. I’ve found Facebook stress becomes more amplified when you spend eight to ten hours a day in a chair and your arms hurt from holding large texts close to your face. Looking at pictures of someone else just being outside, where there is sun, trees, animals, and plants, is suddenly hurtful. You’re inside, you can’t go outside because you should be reading, but you’re not reading; you’re on Facebook, where it seems everyone else is outside or having fun or having fun outside.
Go outside. Go anywhere, really. One of my peers told me about a study that suggested changing physical location helps your brain see things in a new light and increases memory. Sit outside, when you can. Allow yourself to go to coffee shops or the library when the weather won’t let you be outside.
Exercise regularly. When I first started the PhD programs, one of my professors told me to exercise. I remember laughing and asking “When am I going to have time to do that?” He said I should do it anyway. He was right. Of course everyone knows exercise reduces stress. That knowledge didn’t make me do anything. But, scientific explanations about how much exercise reduces stress are motivating. According to studies published in Cell Stem Cell and Molecular Psychiatry, exercises help brain cells grow and that growth increases serotonin. Though these studies focus largely on depression, their conclusion, that Prozac and exercise have similar results on serotonin creation, is a strong endorsement to exercise. ( Even short amounts of exercise have been shown to increase cognitive functions. ( So, exercising two or three times a week increases serotonin, stimulates brain cells, strengthens memory, and makes your brain function better. The results validate setting aside a bit of time to move around.
Sleep. I’ve saved the most important for last. Sleeping around eight hours allows you to function. It’s that simple. Even taking short naps will heighten your ability to concentrate. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center, 8.4 minutes will heighten cognitive function. Sleep is what allows your brain to transfer short-term to long-term memory, and just one night of poor sleep can result in lower cognitive function. Have a ritual before bed; do the same things at the same time and your brain will shut itself down.
I’ve found doing all of these things makes me work efficiently. Beyond all the wonderful texts I’ve encountered and concerns I’ve crafted, I’ve come to know taking care of myself is not different than preparing for the exam.
To everyone out there preparing for their exam, best of luck! Remember, at some point it’s over.

Some Light Relief, or: Richardson’s Pamela is an Au Pair in 2012

It’s May! And that means that a lot of us academics are taking a deep, post-end-of-term-marking breath, and treating ourselves to the smallest of little vacations… a mini-vaycay, a staycation, an excursion, or what I have recently learned Germans call an Ausflug. In keeping with the theme of respite, here is a little light relief in the form of a pleasant comic fiction. Enjoy!

Richardson’s Pamela is an Au Pair in 2012;

or, Virtue Confounded.

In a Series of Letters
from a Hip Young Beauty, To her Parents.
Now first Published
In order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Moral Uncertainty
In the Youth of Both Sexes


Dear Mom and Dad,
Seriously bad news: the old lady who owns this joint just bit the dust. I’m getting transferred, and I don’t know if there’ll be a wifi connection at the new house, so hang tight. I can Facebook you from my Blackberry at Starbucks.
Your Dutiful Daughter,
Pamela Andrews

"A Moment" by Vancouver artist Drew Young

Dear Mom and Dad,
As I was closing my laptop, the son of the old lady walks into my room unannounced and scares the %^&* out of me. He’s a total creeper. Must be pushing 40. He just stood there looking at me and smiling. What a weirdo.
Peace Out,
Dear Mom (just between us),
The creepy son, Mr. B, offered to keep me on for DOUBLE the wages. AND he gave me a gift card for Victoria’s Secret. What should I do?
P.S. Can you top up my Vi$a? I miss spending quality time with you, and like, shopping. You are the greatest Mom ever : )
Dear Mom and Dad,
Mom, your letter made me feel way better about staying. You are right, money doesn’t grow on trees.
Mr. B treats me really well. He gave me some of the old lady’s clothes. VINTAGE cha-CHING! I got 3 pairs of high-waisted dress pants, 4 silk tops with totally retro gold buttons, 1 excellent Valentino dress that I might sell on eBay, 2 cashmere scarves, and Chanel sunglasses. The old lady was RICH. Now I guess it all belongs to Mr. B. …LUCKY!
Your Dutiful Daughter,
Pam xoxox
Dear Mom (don’t tell Dad, okay??)
Mr. B was totally hitting on me just like, two seconds ago, when I was walking down the hallway to find a dustpan. He told me I was the most beauteous creature to ever walk the earth, and my eyes were the pillars against which men might build their lives, which I don’t really get but whatevs. Creeper!
Oh em gee.
More from Drew Young

Dear Mom,
He kissed me! It just happened!
[This message has been sent via Facebook Mobile]
Your truly shocked daughter,
Dear Mom,
So I was like, OVER the whole thing, because I screamed, and then he kinda yelled, and then I cried, and he gave me permission to never speak to him again, plus he gave me $500 cash, and some new earrings, but THEN. OMG. Then, I was in my room getting ready for bed and I can hear some weird-ass noises coming from the closet. So I open the door and it’s HIM. He’s in MY CLOSET. So I scream some more, and he’s like, “don’t worry, it’s no problem, it’s no problem.” So I was like %^&* you and told him I QUIT.
So there.
Me, Pamela.
Dear Mom,
I can never forgive him for being SO WEIRD, but he has increased my salary and promised I can give notice after the holidays are over. So…
Virtue safe!
Dear Mom,
OMFG I think Mr. B wants to sleep with me. WTF.
Dear Mom,
If you don’t know what those abbreviations stand for, I can’t tell you.
Dear Mom,
Today Mr. B came into my room while I was listening to Grizzly Bear and reading Nylon, pinned me to the bed and started kissing me all over my face and neck and I was like, “Back off you Pedophile!” And he was like, “You cannot hold on to your virtue forever! One day, you MUST give yourself up, and because I find you extremely attractive and I have more money than you, it should be to me!” And then he started to unbutton my shirt, and it was kind of hot, but I knew better, because of what happened to the blonde chick on Gossip Girl, so I screamed, “My virtue is all that I have!” And with superhuman strength I threw him off me, ran downstairs, and phoned child protective services.
I’m gonna sue the bastard for all he’s got!
Marriage is for L-O-S-E-R-S,

The Sublimity of "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)

The Sublimity of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a sublime film.  Tracing the evolution of humanity from prehistoric hominids to space age explorers immersed in Cold War politics, the film considers the telos or final aim of the human: a sentient computer. In terms of plot and thematically the film is sublime indeed, but especially when it’s big.  Kubrick’s movie comes back to the theater this week as part of Seattle’s first Science Fiction Film Festival, using a 70mm print, which basically means the resolution is higher than a standard 35mm print.  But 70mm film was/is used to shoot very few films, and the Cinerama, where 2001 will be screened, is one of only three theaters in the world with the capacity to project one.  For everyone else, the DVD will have to suffice (at least you get the extras!).  While I always thought aesthetic theories of the sublime had much to contribute to a conversation about Kubrick’s futuristic journey, is a big screen really a prerequisite for such a discourse?
It doesn’t hurt.
Kubrick’s film opens with “The Dawn of Man.”  A group of apes scavenge for sustenance, fighting with other clans of apes for a nearby waterhole.  By today’s standards, the apes resemble homo erectus, bipeds prior to the use of tools.  The stage in their development is important because one morning, Moon-Watcher (as he’s called in the script), awakes to find a large, black, symmetrical object: the monolith.  Geometrical form, par excellence.  Following from the encounter, Moon-Watcher creates what amounts to the first tool, thus inaugurating the next step in human evolution.  Moon-Watcher sees a bone and anticipates its use as a weapon.  The film presents viewers with a radical notion, that an external object determines brain capacity.  In other words, the encounter with the monolith animates Moon-Watcher’s imagination, but as the German Enlightenment philosopher Kant would say, the monolith itself does nothing.
For Kant, writing on aesthetics in his Critique of Judgment (Berlin, 1790)—a foundational text for studies on the sublime—sublime experience occurs only in the mind.[i]  A sublime experience follows from the “might” exhibited in nature causing a feeling of “respect” in the viewer. A truly sublime effect turns its subject into a “brave” and “noble” character with a newfound sense of moral purpose (§§28-9.99-106).  However, Kant disavows any purpose within the sublime object itself.  If it’s an ocean it’s only an ocean; if it’s a volcano it’s only a volcano (§29.110).[ii]  So according to Kant, the monolith could be anything because, for the human, it is the mind that determines the object.
From the inauguration of the first tool, time is compressed.  Kubrick now jumps almost two million years into the future as the camera follows Moon-Watcher’s hurled weapon through the air.  In a vicissitudinous cut Kubrick links two tools at the limits of technology: From Early Pleistocene bone to a twenty first-century military vessel orbiting earth. The gesture forces us to ask, what’s the difference?  As Adrian Mackenzie might say, the bone is local while the spaceship is global.[iii]  But how local are bones?  Like the monolith, these objects seem to traverse time and geographic location.  Furthermore, despite the apparent innocuousness of the film, the accompanying evil (or banality) of the monolith reveals itself in that imagination’s inauguration ushers in weapons of war—first and foremost.
For film’s third section, Kubrick introduces a different kind of sublimity.  If the military spaceship doubles as Moon-Watcher’s bone, the monolith’s double is the HAL 9000 computer.  Faceless and seemingly indifferent, HAL is “the most reliable computer ever made.” On their mission to Jupiter, the crew is comprised of HAL, scientists in hibernation, as well as two conscious scientists, Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman.  Next to his human counterparts, HAL appears fragmented without an actual body, restricted by the cameras determining his sight.  On the other hand, HAL acts as the ship’s nervous system; that is to say, he is totally mobile, ubiquitous, and dubiously inescapable.  If the sublime requires safe distance, as it did for Edmund Burke in 1757, HAL creates the illusion of distance, while in fact he is closer than anything else.[iv] Kubrick zeroes in on a sublime object that cannot be measured in terms of physical distance.  The object is remote in appearance but near in personality, distant in body but near in omnipresence.  In this sense Burke is wrong while Kant and Kubrick are right: measuring, identifying, and containing the sublime says nothing about sublimity.
Maybe a good reviewer would explain the film’s end, but in the spirit of the sublime I will not enact that violence.  To be fair, the end should be experienced on the big screen, which is why, should the opportunity arise, any fan of the sublime or science fiction ought to see the film in the theater.  But what does one gain from bigness?  If in the end we admit that size alters experience, have we not undone the whole point of this article?  To admit that proportion is part of the sublime experience is only to admit exactly what these various thinkers ultimately gesture toward: the sublime cannot be contained within a single criterion or tedious criteria.
The Seattle Science Fiction Film Festival runs from 4/19 to 5/2.  Among others, films include Metropolis, Dune, Barbarella (of course), but sadly not Bladerunner.

[i] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment.  Trans. J.H. Bernard.  New York: Hafner Press, 1951.  Print.
[ii] On this point see Paul de Man’s “Kant’s Materialism” in Aesthetic Ideology.  Ed. Andrzej Warminski.  Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.  Print.
[iii] For an interesting commentary on the limits of technology, comparing Paleolithic hand-axes to thermal nuclear devices (57-86), see Adrian Mackenzie’s Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed.  London: Continuum, 2002.  Print.
[iv] Burke, Edmund.  A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.  Ed. James T. Boulton.  Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1958.

On Creature Comforts

my fav ex-gymnast's kitty kat

James Harriet calls cats the “connoisseurs of comfort,” which is perhaps why so many academics are cat-lovers. Like having Of Grammatology on your nightstand, having a cat close at hand reminds you what it would be like to move through the world expressing yourself utterly as you see fit.
There is an inverse relationship between the size and comfort of one’s desk and the size of one’s research topic. When learning about, say, the entire political spectrum of Western Europe, you sit in a lecture hall in a tiny, left-handed desk at the end of the row, with schoolbag and jacket mashed underfoot, drinking scalding Starbucks from a paper cup clutched between your knees, which is surely leaving red marks on the insides of your thighs. The desk space is more suitable as an elbow rest. The chair seems to have been designed for torture. Even the professor looks uncomfortable, hiding up there behind the lectern. So, as the history of radical political change sweeps by you on power point slides, and the impossibility of note-taking becomes more and more apparent, you are likely to sigh and hope the information will be made available online. This is the plight of the undergrad. To be cramped, to be physically uncomfortable, to be held in check by what Althusser would recognize as the regulatory organization of classroom chairs which all face forward so that we must rub up against our peers but never look at them.
On the other hand, grad students—individuals whose educational spectrum has narrowed over the course of many years to a pinpoint (pinnacle?) of specific research interests—do not fit in tiny desks. We think tiny desks are bullshit. Grad students tackle the necessity of study-surfaces in one of two ways: either we dispense with desks altogether, bringing our MacBooks to coffee shops, where, for the price of a caramel macchiato we spend the afternoon balancing our research on our thighs; or, we take over large surfaces like kitchen tables and those long study-benches in the library, of which we require at least two-people’s-worth of length. In order to craft our tiny, complex arguments about the relationship of enthusiasm to the impotence of language in Hölderlin’s Hyperion (oh, wait, that’s just me), we require at least six books of literary criticism to be spread about us. We need our binders of photocopied articles close at hand. It is absolutely necessary that the fridge/our book bags be filled with snacks, and that the coffee maker be either warming up, actively brewing coffee, or keeping fresh coffee warm and at the ready. We require, in other words, all our creature comforts to be on hand.
Yet comfort is a fickle, tricksy feline. As soon as you think you’ve got her figured out, that little, Puritanical voice inside your head (the one that is terrified that you will never finish your dissertation, never get a job, never really be a success as an academic) notices how cozy you are and admonishes you, reminds you not to get too comfortable.
“Don’t get too comfortable!” With a self-indulgent little chortle, those exact words slid through my consciousness this morning. But what does that even mean, I asked myself. Is that some kind of a threat? Is my comfort impinging on anyone else’s comfort? Is there a limited amount of comfort in the world? Is there not enough to go around? DOES COMFORT NEED A BAIL OUT? Probably. Unlike money, however, I don’t believe comfort can be created out of thin air. Mein Gott! A small tangent, forgive me. What I was meaning to say is that even though I do everything in my power to create a life of ease and aesthetically pleasing coziness, I have this deep-rooted suspicion of comfort. Perhaps it’s too petite bourgeois, a bit too middle class. An aristocrat takes comfort for granted and seeks instead passion, adventure, intensity; he goes hunting for lions and some such, while the rest of us seek apartments with good central heating and a bowl of gourmet mac and cheese (gouda). Mostly, however, my suspicion of comfort arises from the fact that I make a direct correlation between comfort and productivity, which is to say that I fear that if I get too comfortable I will cease to produce scholarly work. This is why I need TAships and a (couple of) part-time job(s): just to keep me running around enough to make true comfort impossible.
Cats are comfortable because they refuse to be otherwise. But then again, they are also cats, and as Christopher Hitchens so aptly notes,
“Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”
Finally, from this I take comfort. Comfort in the fact that I am neither a hopelessly naïve pup nor a sociopathic kitten, and will undeniably and reliably always return to the research at hand.

Now Playing: Byron's Manfred

Lord Byron’s first drama Manfred was published in 1817. While the play proved a commercial success, it never made it to the stage. In 1820, however, Marino Faliero was published and began being performed at Drury Lane later that year. As Thomas L. Ashton points out, Byron’s play is severely edited. Therefore, like Coleridge’s Remorse, the scholarly critic has multiple objects of inquiry: the original version of the play, the staged production, and the text of that production.
But perhaps what is most interesting about the staging of Marino Faliero is Byron’s response. In 1821, Byron published a collection of dramas containing Sardanapalus, Cain, and The Two Foscari separately from his regular verse. Contemporary reviewer William Gifford and Victorian commentator Matthew Arnold see the collection as the poet’s attempt to distance his weak dramatic experimentations from the rest of his work. Yet the features of this volume demand more attention. The collection lacks the usual Byronic trappings; most notably there is no frontispiece of the poet himself. Also, in his 1821 review of Sardanapalus, John Gibson Lockhart asks why Byron and his publisher John Murray decided to release the new collection during the same week that John Constable released Pirate, the new Walter Scott novel. Byron fought Murray to have his three dramas published at the end of theater season, despite the fact that such a release date would make the collection a commercial rival with Britain’s other top selling writer.
What if one of the plays in Byron’s 1821 collection made it to the stage in the poet’s lifetime? What are the implications of staging a play that the author contends was not written for the playhouse? In other words, what happens when the play is remediated? Furthermore, what happens to our scholarly narratives if we foreground the medium of the playhouse? Does Byron’s position in the canon change (he has proven disruptive and does not appear in certain foundational works including Natural Supernaturalism)?
Wordsworth and Coleridge’s early dramatic efforts have received attention but what of other prominent writers who forayed, or attempted to, into the playhouse? What are we to make of the fact that William Godwin continued writing plays, only one of which was staged and only once, when he had found success as a political philosopher and novelist? How are we to read the fact the only work of Shelley’s that needed a second edition in his lifetime was The Cenci?