23 July 2013

A Decade of Archives 2: 2011

This is the second in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

Looking back through the posts for 2011, I felt great fondness for the year, if not for my blogging (I think overall it was one of the weaker years for The Mumpsimus. That tends to happen when life itself is busy and fulfilling, so I'm not complaining!) It was a year when I taught two of my favorite classes, Gender & Science Fiction and Global Literature; when we started blogging the Caine Prize; when Eric Schaller and I launched The Revelator, our very occasional online magazine; when I wrote, directed, and co-edited a short film without knowing much of anything about what I was doing; when I started making video essays; when I got to see one of my favorite Fassbinder movies, World on a Wire; and when I had a whole class pose for a picture whilst reading G.I. Joe comics. And much more!

When looking through the past posts, the one I ended up stopping on and wanting to think about more fully was one that grew out of my teaching of the Global Literature class: "Canonical Nationalism" from December, because though the post doesn't offer anything remotely original, I think it hits on important ideas about how we think about reading and writing, and how the categories we impose affect that thinking.

At the end of August, I will begin a very big new life experiment: starting a PhD in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, and something that struck me in a lot of the preliminary work of applying to programs, of meeting fellow prospective students, of talking with faculty is the need for a soundbite about your research interests. I expect to continue work I began with my master's degree on Samuel Delany, but am not sure what sort of direction it will take, or what else may be important to it. And yet because the one thing I know is that Delany will almost certainly be some part of what I research and think about, no matter what I say in my soundbite summary, people inevitably seem to think, "Oh, so you're a late-20th century Americanist, then." It happened to me again yesterday when I went and picked up my student ID — the nice, very helpful man at the ID office asked what I was studying, I mentioned a few things, and he said, "So, American literature, then?" No no no! my inner self objected, but also: Well, yes? (I then went to the library and looked at shelves of Kafka.)

I've recently been making my way through Eric Hayot's fascinating book On Literary Worlds, which shares some concerns with the ones I expressed in "Canonical Nationalism". (For an overview, see Siobhan Phillips's review in the LARB, or listen to a podcast interview with Hayot.) The short chapter "Against Periodization" especially struck a chord with me (here's video of Hayot giving a talk on periodization), its questions about how we divide literary history into eras fitting well with my own about how we nationalize it:
This failure of self-consciousness, the lack of debate over the value of the period as concept (especially now, after the acceptance of so many postulates of literary theory), is what makes periodization ideological. Our response to the ideologization of periods ought to be to develop and seek to institutionalize a variety of competing concepts, including trans-periodizing ones, for the study of literary history. This would ensure that the concepts themselves could become explicit (and contestable) subjects of scholarly work. The contests among them would then generate to a higher "level" trans-conceptual approaches, which would in turn prevent new concepts from easily producing new ideological calcifications.
In Chapter 11, he offers some concrete ideas to address this at an instutional level, and I find the four projects he outlines an exciting starting point for thinking through new, energetic, valuable approaches to curricula.

How Hayot puts his ideas into practice himself can be seen perhaps most vividly (at least for those of us who don't know him and haven't studied with him) in the syllabi he's posted online, particularly World Literature: Comparative Cosmologies, Prose Fiction, and Global Science Fictions. These are classes that I would commit petty crime to be able to sit in on! I also love, in his writing and in the presentations and interviews online, Hayot's advocacy for pedagogical experimentation — if we want our courses to be not just the communication of information to students, but models of scholarly inquiry, then we should take risks, as Hayot did when he taught a graduate class (a version of the Prose Fiction one above, I assume; he discusses it at 29 minutes in on the Against Periodization video) and assigned gigantic novels with the full expectation that the students would finish few, if any, of them; and to make the experience of reading and comparing far too much text for a single semester into part of what the course sought to explore.

I'll likely only be teaching Composition for at least the next year, so these thoughts are not immediately relevant to me, but unless I give up on academia and follow my lifelong dream of learning one useful skill before I die, I'll probably teach some lit classes at some point. But what I've held onto from when I wrote "Canonical Nationalism", and why I'm focusing on this post out of all the ones I wrote in 2011, is that the ideas aren't limited to academia. Academics certainly obsess over them more than normal people do, and the effects of such nationalistic thinking reach very deeply into the basic structures (hiring, curriculum design) of academic institutions, but they also affect publishing, bookselling, and book journalism — think about all those lists of "Best American [specifically: U.S.] novels", etc., that solidify national borders and national identities. These can be useful ways of categorizing, but are we aware of how and why we categorize, or do we just do it out of habit, or because it's the easiest way?

Those sorts of questions, and ones Hayot raises, have been central here at The Mumpsimus from just about the beginning, because I started off thinking I would write about science fiction, and quickly discovered that I'm not much interested in policing science fiction as a category. Indeed, from even the early days, my inclinations have been to challenge borders and taxonomies — not to obliterate them (that's impossible, I expect), but to make them as porous and contingent as possible, to render them visible and penetrable, to make them into multiplicities rich with possibility rather than dank pigeonholes of essential exclusion.

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