“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Rice Graduate Symposium

That was easily the best one, and I'm not just saying that because the grad student team running it chose me for their mentor, and I told them all my pet peeves about what works and what doesn't at conferences.

It was the best one because the students simply chose the best people to present papers. The quality has improved very consistently in the last four years. Mostly they are all beginning Ph.D. students presenting the raw basics of their vision, some faculty and some scholars who aren't academics, if you see what I mean.

I was very lucky because Nick Guetti, who has been really, really consistently helpful and kind on this blog, since it began, showed up, with a really interesting paper about permaculture and ecology.

And I was also lucky because Marjorie Levinson, who I consider to be a genius, was the keynote, and as I had expected, she didn't disappoint. She is developing a really powerful systems-theoretical theory of lyric.

Marjorie was part of the very first wave of new historicists, a truly exciting time in English lit (the late 80s). I was just recalling that time, as that was when and how I was trained. It was an intense time. Really volatile. People had been fired in the earlier 80s over “theory” and yet literary theory types were beginning to get a bit more recognized and even (in certain places) in charge of things. At that moment, Marjorie Levinson blew up Wordsworth scholarship with just one essay--I mean she totally blew it up. People were outraged. They just wouldn't stop talking about it. It was fantastic.

“History” and “theory” at that moment were the same thing. 

You have to understand that historicism doesn't just mean “providing a historical background to help understand a poem.” It had originally a Foucauldian and psychoanalytic and Frankfurt school edge that made it explosive and truly dangerous.

In particular, the sense that there is an irreducibly withdrawn (aka unconscious) aspect of history is, when you think it through, immensely powerful and deliciously scary.

At that moment, writing about vegetarianism and poetry was really, really counter-intuitive and actually dangerous to my career. People kept assuming I was simply promoting vegetarianism. The two domains were just so, so far apart in people's minds, it just didn't compute. That was the point.

Nowadays historicism has been diluted to a simple algorithm:

1 .Chose some literature.
2 .Chose some roughly contemporary non-literary phenomenon, such as stamp collecting.
3. Talk about both of them.
4. Publish a book called [Literature] and [Non-literary Phenomenon].
Example: Proust and Stamp Collecting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was absolutely the best of times. Like taking a break from being chased by Orcs and getting to hang out with the Elves in Rivendell. I had to think Tim had been exaggerating about Rice & Houston, but it's all true, & in spades.

Everyone was so utterly brilliant and generous. Annie, Laura & Mallory were amazing at organizing this thing. They sort of reminded me of Norse myth in reverse, as if the Norns (the 3 Fates) had decided for a change to throw a really nice party and make sure everyone was happy. Every presentation was jaw-droppingly fascinating, and then we'd hang out in some courtyard steps in the balmy (for me, anyway; I LOVE that kind of climate) subtropical autumn gloaming late into the night, talking, with cicadas singing & flying squirrels gliding through the live oaks overhead.

OK, y'all win: I'll keep writing. I have to keep things like this happening to me.