What Does This Mean: Unanswered Questions about the Evolution of ‘Performance’

During the Performance Seminar at NASSR 2011 Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood gave presentations which resulted in fervent discussion about performance in the Romantic period and the development and growth of Romanticism(s). As the seminar continued those in the room engaged in a conversation about where performance studies is going (in and out of Romanticism); ultimately, the question was posed about just how valuable ‘performance’ is as a term, but I could hardly re-present those perspectives here. So, I’m left with my own reflection on the conversation.
I left the seminar wondering about particular facets of the conversation and spent some time since the seminar questioning ‘performance’ as a term; as I continued to work through my summer reading list I found performance to be central to many authors’ arguments. The discussion at NASSR (and my reading since then) left me asking, “Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Has the term lost its value and poignancy precisely because the field of study has expanded beyond those literal performances of the stage?”
I assure you, I do not have an answer. Instead, my hope here is to leave you asking as well, to share some of this blogger’s thinking following a NASSR seminar, and perhaps to continue the conversation that began in Park City (as there are numerous other ways to define and theorize performance beyond what I mention below).
When I arrived home from Park City I read Donald Hall’s Reading Sexualities: Hermeneutic theory and the future of queer studies; in his introduction, Hall summarizes Judith Butler’s “implication of individual agency in changing sexual and gender norms through disruptive performances” (10). He writes,

In [Gender Trouble], Butler argues famously that the specific critical and political task that her politically engaged readers should assume is to locate sites for subversion, ‘to affirm the local possibilities of intervention through participating in precisely those practices of repetition that constitute identity and, therefore, present the immanent possibility of contesting them’ (Butler 1999:188). She issued a call to arms, suggesting that gender parodies (such as drag) and other disruptive social performances might work to create a better world for queers. (Hall 11)

Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone @ the 2011 VMAs: Image from Getty Images at MTV.com

In other words, by removing the theater from ‘performance,’ Butler linked activism and the academy—she made an intellectual “call to action” which resounded beyond (and simultaneously within) the academic community, including within “social-action groups such as Queer Nation” (Hall 11). (Though, as Hall points out, Butler “backtracked quickly” just three years later in Bodies that Matter, disclaiming the political potency of parody and subversive performance [12].) No matter where Butler stands on the usefulness of her theorization, what is most valuable is Butler’s definition of ‘performance’ locatable in the every day—the unconscious and involuntary. I’ve found that thinking about and teaching social constructivism through performance—by discussing everyday life as a form of theater, by expanding the definition of ‘audience’ to those with whom we interact within our educational institutions, workplaces, and shopping malls—is quite useful for me and particularly accessible for my students. I do wonder if I could teach social constructivism without talking about performance in this way. Even if I could, would my students or I benefit from it? Why does this approach seem to resonate with students? To some degree, this notion of ‘performance’ is individually empowering.  Knowing that the way one acts out one’s life has an immediate effect on the ‘audience’ can lead to a shift in thinking about interpersonal communication—even if one accepts that these performances are involuntary and never has the idea or intention of purposefully manipulating self-performance.  This type of ‘performance’ helps some students understand that they can have agency over their performances and, to some degree, the ways that audiences receive those performances. For example, if they want to be perceived as a hard-worker they begin to act like a hard-worker, which is difficult to do without actually working hard. I think my students are willing to consider social constructivism this way because it helps them understand something more about themselves and the way they are seen in the world. (It also resonates with the materialist culture they are familiar with; after teaching  Susan Alexander’s “Stylish Hard Bodies: Branded Masculinity in Men’s Health Magazine  it became clear that the students in my Popular American culture course fully grasp this “You are what you buy” definition of ‘performance.’) However, in many ways this definition is limitless. It becomes possible to think of everything and anything as a performance. If everything is performance we (literary and cultural studies communities, those of us at the NASSR Performance Seminar) begin to question just how useful performance is, and for good reason, I think.
Even if we wanted to, could we go back to a pre-Butler definition of performance? I’m not sure that we could, though we can certainly limit the ways that we use the term to understand the histories and cultures which interest us. Kristina Straub employs a definition of performance which bridges the space between the performances of the theater and the every day. In Domestic Affairs: Intimacy, Eroticism, and Violence between Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Straub “draws from performance theory, as developed by critics such as Joseph Roach” (111); her analysis in the chapter “Performing the Manservant, 1730 to 1760” includes “performances of masculinity” that “occur on both the London stage—in the dramatic characters of footmen—and in the theater audience’s sometime violent contention between these servants and their ‘betters’” (112).  Straub’s theorization of ‘performance’ “stresses the social formation of masculine gender and sexuality through repeated, publicly visible behaviors in the theater, ones that resonate with changing power relations that were more broadly played out in society” (Straub 111). This definition articulates a critical link between the stage and Main Street (so to speak); it organically connects the performances of both locations and again emphasizes the stage as a way of reading and understanding part(s) of the culture at large. It doesn’t limit the stage to a re-presentation of what is going on within larger cultural systems but makes cultural phenomena more visible to the audience/reader.
Straub’s definition offers a way of seeing the connection between the beginnings of ‘performance’ and its evolution into a concept that shapes a large number of identity fields.  With this evolution in mind, I find it difficult to restrict ‘performance’ to the study of drama. The performances taking place on the stage at my local theater are certainly not the same as those taking place in my classroom; however, understanding one paradigm has helped me to understand the other. Through its expanded purview, performance theory leads to tangible shifts in the discourse(s) of identity politics and births intellectual work that expands the fields of literary and cultural studies in productive ways. Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Perhaps it has, but I speculate that this broadness is a reflection of theoretical usefulness. ‘Performance’ isn’t a term devoid of value and poignancy; on and off the stage it has reshaped the ways that we think about identities, bodies, languages, and rituals for (at least) the last twenty years.
*Thank you to presenters Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood, moderator Angela Esterhammer, and all of the audience members who contributed to such a thought-provoking conversation!

The Stainforth: A Brief Introduction to a Book That I Hope to Spend More Time With

STAINFORTH, FRANCIS JOHN, d. 1866. Catalogue [in a later hand] of the library of female authors of the Rev. J. Fr. Stainforth. [S.l., s.n., n.d.: before 1866]. 4to, 373 leaves. Spine title: Catalogue of Stainforth’s Library. WPRP 290.
Two weeks ago, I “met” the Stainforth, and my life hasn’t been the same since. Debbie Hollis, my wonderful boss and Assoc. Professor/Faculty Director of Special Collections at Norlin Library, had this book all set up in a cradle for me when I arrived in the reading room to start my weekly work on the Women Poets of the Romantic Period (WPRP) collection. Apparently, I’m late to the table in knowing about “the Stainforth” (that’s how Hollis refers to it) — but now that we’ve met, I understand the importance of this work. And I will add that this book is currently, as in *right now*, being scanned so that digital images of the handwritten pages will be available, open-access, for anyone to use, study, write about, or peruse for pleasure. As soon as it’s available, I will post a link to the electronic work.
I should add that for this 2011-2012 academic year, I’m a researcher for the WPRP collection at CU and will be reading, curating an in-house exhibit for the BWWC 2012 conference (June 7-10), and also curating a digital exhibit with the collection. I look forward to my WPRP research hours every week and have already learned a great deal from Special Collections staff and from the collection itself.
The Stainforth is a hand-written catalog that Rev. Stainforth created and that represents his library as it grew until his death. Special Collections’ information sheet that is included with the volume provides some helpful background for this book:
“Stainforth, for his time, was a most unusual book collector: his interest lay in the works of British and American female poets and dramatists. By the time of his death in 1866, he had amassed more than 6,000 works. The books are listed alphabetically on the rectos, and with additions on the facing pages. Stainforth’s collection provides what must be the single most comprehensive bibliographical record of English-speaking female poets and dramatists up to 1866. He owned remarkably large representations of many writers, and many celebrated rarities. . . . Not content with simply acquiring as many different titles as he could obtain, Stainforth meticulously went about procuring every edition of every title; of Mrs. Hemans’ National lyrics, to take just one example, he owned 9 editions published in London, Dublin, Philadelphia and Paris. It seems likely that he lived part of his life in America, as it would have been impossible to have amassed so many American books without actually spending time there. The books were dispersed over six days in July 1867 by Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge, who described the collection as an ‘extraordinary library, unique of its kind… This celebrated and unrivalled series of the poetical compositions of British and American female writers, exhibiting in a complete form the growth and progress of the genius of woman in the department of poetry, has been selected, with great zeal, industry, and toil, with a view to rescue our fair poetesses from oblivion… The completest collection that could possibly be formed… an assemblage without precedent… unique, as no other of similar pretensions is known.’ The British Museum, acting through the bookseller Boone, was a major buyer; the British Library copy of the sale catalogue is fully marked with their purchases and the prices they paid.”
Why am I so excited about the Stainforth? Mostly because I have a lot of questions about it.
It’s a database of Romantic women writers and their works, but how complete of a database is this? It even looks like a database the way that it is so neatly formatted in columns on the page. And I’m a fool for textual data! If his catalog really does represent “the single most comprehensive bibliographical record of English-speaking female poets and dramatists up to 1866,” it would be amazing to process that data and learn more about authorship, publishing, distribution of works in various genres, and the circulation of works by women writers in particular. And even if the catalog turns out to be less comprehensive than advertised, it will be interesting to discover what categories of works Stainforth privileges by including them in his collection, and of course, what works didn’t make the cut. I also wonder who had access to his collection, and if his collection had any bearing upon readership of certain works or authors?
The organization of the book is fascinating. Stainforth organized his catalog alphabetically by genre, NOT by shelf-mark (these are included in the left-most column on each page). So, I can just see him (or his assistant) running around his library floors to gather titles and put his books in a new order just for this book. (Which leads me to wonder: how were his books organized on the shelf?) And as I flipped all the way through the book admiring his elegant penmanship and browsing his listings, I had an Indiana Jones moment:
About 3/4 of the way through the volume, his holdings entries stop, followed by some blank pages. After the blank pages, the writing appears upside-down. If you flip the book over to its back cover, you find that Stainforth starts a second kind of notebook here: it’s his acquisitions wish list, and it’s also organized by genre. His wish list consist of approx 870 entries for books he was looking for, and he crossed out about half of them as he acquired them for his collection.
How long did his cataloging project take? And wasn’t it a bit risky to keep the wish list for such a vast archive in the same book as the holdings list — what if he needed more pages for the holdings than the book contained? Did he regularly lend out any of these books, as in a circulating library? Is his collection partial to certain years, publishers, authors, or genres? If he did have a collection of male authors (and I would imagine that he did), why create a separate catalog of women authors–why not list them all in a master bibliography?
I don’t have many answers, just questions at this point. Right now, I’m using the Stainforth as a point of departure for a collaborative project that interrogates the intersection of materiality and metadata in 18th- and 19th-century digital texts. My only conclusion is that I am grateful for the suggestion of the Special Collections staff to look at this work, and for their initiative in scanning it. And for a Christmas present, can we please have it keyed? 🙂

Imagining a British Literature Unconference

Two years ago, NGSCers met to discuss possible topics for our in-utero blog. The idea of “reimagining the conference” from a graduate student’s point of view was raised by both Jill Heydt-Stevenson, our intrepid faculty advisor, and Scott Hagele, former co-chair. At that time, I had not yet heard of THATcamp (The Humanities and Technology camp), which does precisely this for the digital humanities. My goal in this post is to introduce THATcamp and juggle the idea of a BritLitCamp: a British Literature unconference.
First a major disclaimer: I’ve never been to a THATcamp in person. However, the backchannel (i.e., Twitter stream found by searching for #thatcamp) for the most recent unconference held at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason Univ., June 3-5, was as lively as a Boulder hippie drum circle at dusk. Participants tweeted non-stop about topics under discussion, photos, questions, and links to blog posts and collaborative note-taking in googledocs. I had no trouble following along from my desk and tweeting with participants, which just made me want to be there. Visit Mark Sample’s archive of #thatcamp tweets that he created using TwapperKeeper to read the tweets for yourself! (Make coffee first.)
So, what I know about THATcamp is comprised entirely of what I’ve read online and heard in brief descriptions from Johanna Drucker, Lori Emerson, Laura Mandell, and other DHers. My understanding is that THATcamp is meant to complement traditional academic conference formats and outcomes. It is a small, collaborative gathering of cross-disciplinary and cross-professional attendees (scholars, librarians, students, and non-academics of all stripes including programmers, business professionals, etc.). The agenda for the gathering is established by all the participants not a year in advance, but at the meeting: at CHNM this was done by writing session ideas on blank pages, taping them all to a wall, and voting for sessions by placing colored stickers on them. The sessions with the most stickers go on a schedule made then and there. Also, all attendees are active participants in each session — far more so than the format of paper delivery to an audience of listeners or even a roundtable. Thatcamp.org has a very helpful About page for more information, as well as a definition of an “unconference.”

Tweeted by @dancohen “How sessions are scheduled at #THATCamp. Done morning of, not a year ahead of time. Optimized for engagement. http://yfrog.com/gyt0sbaj

In his post on ProfHacker, Brian Croxall says that one of the things he loves most about THATcamp is its call for “more hack and less yak”:

“You’re encouraged to come out of sessions having done or made something concrete. In some cases, what you make might be a list of ways to improve a backchannel or a collaboratively written set of notes about project management. In other cases, you might finish a session having built a WordPress theme from scratch. Whether you believe that digital humanities depends on building things or not, it can be tremendously exciting to feel as though you’ve completed a project (or several) in one day…especially compared to how slow progress can often feel when you are writing.”

What Would a British Literature Unconference Look Like?
Revved up by the exciting tweets, notes, and ideas being shared on the twitter thatcamp backchannel, I began tweeting about the idea of a Romantic unconference (RomantiCamp?) with Roger Whitson, a Romanticist who works at Georgia Tech and studies Blake. Several THATcamp tweeps, ranging from 18th c. to Victorians, and from literature to history scholars, joined the conversation on twitter and together we created a collaborative googledoc of what a British Literature camp (BritLitCamp? BritCamp?) might look like. [Feel free to add to the document — your suggestions are most welcome!]
The googledoc expresses a lot of ways that a THATcamp-like event might create a new kind of forum for discussions of British literature and scholarship in our field: one that is more participatory, informal, and bent on learning skill sets and producing. It also expresses the concern that the academic literary conference model and literary scholarship really do go hand-in-hand. In other words, one of the things that THATcamp does so well (it seems, through my Twitter lens) is hold workshops that enable participants to learn and practice new skills right there–whether they are programming skills, communication skills, like Mark Sample’s session on Building a Better Backchannel, or project management skills. In literature, the “making” is usually research and writing, and as we all know, they are long and slow processes. The slow and often solo process of researching and writing essays leads to the solo presentation of a work-in-progress 20 minute paper to an audience of listeners. If it’s ingrained in our literary academic discipline to write and present this way, will a new kind of gathering that focuses on collaboration and “doing” work for our field? A number of THATcampers thought so.
To Chew On
Here are some of the suggestions from the collaborative googledoc that seem as though they might work for a BritLitCamp. They are quoted verbatim from the collaborative doc, so there are a number of authors voicing ideas and questions here:
“include more than 1 or 2 literary or historical periods at one conference to encourage maximum ability to move between periods and learn about a wider range of topics.”
“Hack British History and Literature. What does that mean? Less discussion, more doing.
– maybe a collaborative zotero site with great teaching resources
– or a centralized repository of 18c student projects/videos/etc–as a student-centered way of avoiding/complementing the research paper”
“Research discussions should be in the form of “dork shorts” (limited to 2 minute introduction of topic). These are read during lunch on the second day.”
“Question the privilege of the thesis statement or argument. Privilege the question.
– these are all great ideas–I like the dork shorts/lightning talk idea, which would naturally privilege something other than thesis–the question, the data. Putting ideas on the web, too, would be a great way to seek out collaborators. Use http://www.eighteenthcentury.org/ to house them?”
“create a collaborative document of the session, make public–true collaborative authorship. venue for this, after the fact?”
“collaborative sessions would be possible if there were readings in common that participants had a chance to do ahead of time. This would require session preliminary planning before attendees arrived — at least selection of works, but perhaps focus could be decided by attendees at the event.”
“Lit conferences rarely teach practical skills for how to do stuff. This seems to be one of the things that THATcamp does well. What then does a Lit-camp session do?

  • Close Reading
  • exchange project ideas
  • Distant Reading/Cultural Analytics
  • Data Visualization
  • Archival Research
  • Digital Apps for Literary/Historical Study
    • see earlier question about porting results info to chartable formats (from 17c-18c newspapers online, etc; if content itself is behind a paywall, what about just the numbers of hits? a browser plugin? @howet)
  • great visual, audio, video texts for use with X (see earlier notes re: themed/selected readings–integrate?)
  • Introduce text encoding
  • Forms of social tagging w/sources.
  • pair works across literary periods
  • pair unexpected works for classroom exploration of general topics”

Where to Now?
Do you have more ideas for imagining a British Literature unconference? What further concerns or issues can we raise? Contribute to the discussion with comments or just add anonymously to the googledoc.

My First Acquaintance with Visual Artists & Ballerinas in Eugene

Fig. 1. Faye Mullen, still from: "to never forever-à jamais," 2011. Salt, Three story building, Artist's body. Three-channel video installation, 6min24secs. © Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Looking back, each term of my first year of grad school has offered its own distinct set of lessons. This quarter, after some really good experiences, I’ve realized just how crucial it can be to connect not only with like-minded passionate scholars in the field, but with contemporary practicing artists as well. As a result, I’ve arrived at a greater appreciation of the importance of getting outside my own work, concerned as it is with art and literature of the historical past, to interact and network with creative minds working today, particularly those with similar interests in critical theory. Early on in the term I had the opportunity to to see the Eugene Ballet Company’s final performance of the season that featured a visually stunning experimental performance called Tyranny of the Senses. Later, for this year’s University of Oregon Art History Symposium, we hosted an artist’s talk given by a really fabulous performative video installation artist and sculptress Faye Mullen (MFA Student, University of Toronto) who spoke on one of her latest video pieces, to never forever-à jamais. I’ve included examples of both here in hopes that some of you might take a moment to look at the works and respond as well, being that it is after all (and at last) summer break.
Also, on your end, I’m interested in seeing you all comment on a couple of other things:
(1) The type of interchange that occurs in your respective departments between creative writers and literary historians. If there isn’t any, would this be something you’d find desirable?
(2) Whether or not you feel that you’ve benefited from exchanges across the divide between creative writers/artists and scholars.
In Lawrence Hall–at the UofO–us cultural historians are definitely very much the minority. We’re surrounded by architects and artists working in a variety of media, running the gamut from printmaking, metalwork/jewelery, new media, to painting. Oftentimes, even in Art History seminars, we’re outnumbered by architects and artists. I feel as though I’ve really benefited from a dialogue between those who study art and those who create it. So, I’d definitely love to hear whether or not there are similar dynamics that go on in English graduate programs.
That said, to share a couple specific works with you all, I have to say that I’m totally captivated by choreographer Gillmer Duran and composer Brian McWhorter’s Tyranny of the Senses. The ballet left an indelible impression on me for the way it collides contemporary dance, projected images, and a soundtrack that pans intensely across the stereo-field (think U2-Joshua Tree).

One of the things I’ve found most exciting, in chatting with a couple ballerinas from the company that have subsequently become a part of my core group of grad school friends, is the recognition that shared concerns on both sides of the scholarly/artistic divide can really line up. Since my interests in critical theory are primarily geared towards understanding the process by which works generate their meanings through continuing processes of (reader/viewer)ly interaction, I was most struck by a conversation I recently had with one of the ballerinas who talked about the way Duran’s work created a space in which she and the other dancers are actively encouraged to re-interpret each individual performance through their own acts of improvisation against the ballet’s multimedia elements. For me, it was really cool to see that the post-structural concepts we’re exposed to as scholars actually do resonate with the ways in which contemporary practicing artists working in a variety of media think about their own work.
Lastly, and along these same lines, I thought it a good idea to share with you all Faye Mullen’s work (given that it engendered such a good discussion at this year’s grad symposium up here) (fig. 1; For a 9 minute excerpt of the 52 minute piece, please click here.) In my view, Mullen’s art really engages some crucially important issues related to the contemporary domestic-sphere that, because of its embodied exploration of identity, for me recalls Mary Wolstonecraft’s ideas concerning the detrimental way dependence of mind and body are integrally related. I found it interesting in talking with her after the talk that theory still drives work on both sides of the artist/scholar divide. At least in Canada, artists are strongly encouraged to deploy theory in explaining their art when applying for public grant funding. What really impressed me was that, while some artists react negatively to such a demand playing being placed on their work, others view it as a challenge that can spark the absorption of additional layers of creativity into their artistic practice, something that I imagine resonates with the way many of us might view the role and continued relevancy of critical theory within the humanities.
Increasingly, I’m realizing that the divide between scholarly and creative work runs even thinner that I’ve initially believed. Hope you enjoy taking a look at these works, as I have, and I strongly encourage comments, since I’d love nothing more than to continue the conversation.

Legitimacy and the Graduate Student

We’ve all heard it:  “I don’t feel like I belong here”—the clarion call of English graduate students and the hyper-obsession of meta-conversations within Literature departments at the highest level.  What is this obsession, and who really does belong in graduate programs or the academy, if not those who are there already?  This problem has been my preoccupation for some time now, so much so that it has crept into my dissertation, in an attempt to unravel the problems of legitimacy, sovereignty, authorship, etc. embedded in Romanticism and Romantic studies.
Trying to tackle these problems as a total framework, or as a problem even at the level of pedagogy, has been met with lots of resistance.  My upcoming Fall course on “Banned Books and Novel Ideas” will look at illegitimate textual problems in Ossian’s Tales of Fingal, Byron’s issues with piracy, the thorny controversies in Shakespeare and Defoe, as well as the whole regime of intellectual property surrounding Scott and Coleridge.  To inaugurate this course, I began my description with the famous quote from Foucault’s famous essay which he “borrowed” from Beckett: “What matters who’s speaking?”  Quite a moment of reflexivity, where Foucault not only questions the regime of authorship, but also uses a phrase that is syntactically tangled and, apparently, illegitimate.  I say this because my proposal, after explanation and several revisions, was greeted with disapproval from the legitimizing force of the English department heads; Beckett and Foucault have non-standard English and tangled syntax, it was said—students will be confused and find the course doesn’t have authority!  Hmmm….  I have my own responses to this line of argument, but I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the subject.  That is, how does one negotiate teaching texts that are non-standard, taboo, illegitimate etc. while still telling them that plagiarism is naughty-naughty and they must write in standard, syntactically clear English?  One easy explanation is making the distinction between discursive and non-discursive texts but, in keeping with truth-telling, even that distinction breaks down with enough interrogation.
Within this same matrix of problems, I have often asked the question of how one can really integrate radical politics into a classroom space?  How can one develop a quasi-democratic, anarchic pedagogy when all available models have some basis in logics of sovereignty and authority, delegitimizing certain ways of learning and production of scholarship?  Your thoughts are very much appreciated, particularly in relation to your experiences of teaching problematic Romantic texts.

Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes

The Critic as Genius?

In a recent edition of English Studies in Canada, Margery Fee writes that “we often talk about the importance of good writing without explaining what it is or how we know what it is… our knowledge of what makes good writing is tacit.”
I’ve found this rings true for me on both sides of the classroom. As an undergraduate, I mucked my way though my university’s English department, aping the conventions of scholarly writing well enough to get into grad school; as a grad student, I’ve TA’d classes in which the professor’s advice to me—after I asked what my students needed to do to achieve a good mark on a final essay exam—was a shrug and the words, “Be smart.” I was annoyed, but only because it rang uncomfortably true. All the rubrics in the world can’t do justice to “smartness,” that je ne sais quoi. It’s the ineffable quality in writing, both our students’ and our own, that can tip good into excellent or nudge mediocre to good—and whose only recognizable hallmark is that we’ll know it when we see it.
I study Romantic theories of genius, and the critical consensus seems to be that while genius was a key concept for an age obsessed with artistic originality, we academics no longer “really” believe in it. I’m not so certain. Continue reading “The Critic as Genius?”

Notes from the Undertow: Transatlantic Studies Reading Group Inaugural Meeting

According to the OED, undertow can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. Sporting Magazine (1817) refers to “A current,… at times counteracted by means of a strong opposing ‘undertow,’ as it is called.” If this first phrase touches upon the register of physical operations, the next lies close to that of myth and (ominous?) portent: “The recoil of the sea, and what is called by sailors the undertow, carried him back again.” The first example identifies a general dynamic of fluid directionality, describes strong flows and pulls, and suggests inconsistent, unstable forces. The second describes a geographic, biotic entity (the sea) grown quasi-monstrous, recoiling, carrying sailors “back again,” but how far? To where?
Formulating a transatlantic studies reading group at the University of Colorado at Boulder shared much with my childhood bouts with the Pacific, especially those times when the water won. Calling oneself a romanticist stakes out a somewhat reasonable or at least recognizable critical terrain. But epistemologically stepping into the oceans and seas to orient one’s work around aqueous and landed flows immediately leads one to the potentially hazardous and/or freeing problematics of how far to go and most importantly, to where—to what critical end?
When the undertow takes down even the strongest of swimmers, it’s just as disorienting and humbling as the above sentences from the OED suggest. Being sucked beneath the surface aptly parallels the problems I faced (and cannot conquer) in establishing a forum for exploring the current state of transatlantic, circumatlantic and hemispheric studies. How far back or forward in time should the readings go? What if the group’s reading selections only come from what qualifies as either British sources or literature attributed to the United States, and so the group navigates itself to the much-maligned realm of trans-national literary studies? To be completely honest, the most muddled and pressing point for me personally, is why, and if, I should be engaging in such methodological pursuits as a student committed first and foremost to the study of romantic literatures.
Our First Meeting:
Now having brought the group together for its inaugural meeting last Wednesday, we’ve proved that at least fifteen graduate students at Boulder are deeply or trepidatiously committed to throwing themselves into the fray. We are ready to see what considerations of the Atlantic and other bodies of water as well as other flows of bodies, organisms, ideas and objects will do to us, and perhaps even for us, given some amount of steadfastness and willingness to thrash about methodologically for the year. We read Melville’s Benito Cereno as our initial primary text and an article by Amanda Claybaugh on Dickens’ American book tours, which analyzes intersections between social reform and transatlantic reprinting/plagiarizing prior to the 1891 transatlantic copyright law that forbade such intellectual borrowing and trading.
For two hours we discussed things colonial, national, material, theoretical, and narratological—and speaking as just one of those who agreed to getting more than her feet wet, it was just as difficult and rewarding as getting lost in pull of the undertow while still being able, finally, to come back up for air, and for more. Next month, we’ll be making one of our great moves back in time, shifting away from the space of the slave ship and the triangular trade to discuss Locke’s Two Treatises on Government and an article by the well-known scholar of transatlantic and Native American scholarship, Kate Flint. We will close out the semester with a turn to the spaces of the Caribbean, reading the anonymously published The Woman of Colour, and will consider Elisa Tamarkin’s critical work on “Black Anglophilia.” Perhaps at its best, it would appear that these more geographically-sensitive modes of analyses might help us to engage “currents,… at times counteracted,” but that might otherwise be easy to ignore, and thus most simply reminds us to perform due diligence. Onward, to the next recoil.

The Technology of Sticky Flags

My name is Kirstyn, I’m the NGSC webmaster and a digital humanities (newbie) scholar and a sticky-flag addict. This post and confession was inspired by a ProfHacker article I read this morning.

Every scholar has his or her own particular way of marking the parts of a text that interest them most and responding to those passages with ideas, connections, hypotheses, comments, and the occasional cranky quip in the margin. For me, the e-reader development craze is not just about saving paper and being “green,”  e-ink reading comfort, battery life, page “turning” time, and feel of the device, but perhaps more important:
(1) the ability to access the 18th- and 19th-century texts I’m working with, and
(2) how to mark that text with “flags” (digital equivalent of the Post-it flag) and comments.
I want to spend my introductory blog thinking about the way in which we scholars typically mark physical books (not e-books … that’s my next post!). The book has a technology of its own, and casual readers and scholars manipulate and mine that technology in different ways. For example, I’m studying for my comprehensive exams right now and am note-taking in too many ways, if you ask me: in/on the actual texts, in notebooks, and on my computer. It’s a distillation of the transformative (and sometimes confusing) technological moment we’re reading, writing, and teaching in. Continue reading “The Technology of Sticky Flags”