Friday, May 2, 2008

Reading of strangers

Earlier I was looking through an archive of Postsecret, and there was a secret on it that referred to a significant characteristic of literature. Postsecret, by the way, is a project created by Frank Warren where anyone can anonymously mail him handmade postcards that display a secret of theirs, and he posts them on the Postsecret blog and publishes them in books. Here was someone's secret:
I liked this postcard--and the idea of Postsecret in general--because it plays on one of the important elements of literature; it provides us easy access to the insights and stories of strangers. In the book The Message in the Bottle, Walker Percy discusses the way that when an alienated man reads a book about an alienated man, this provides him with the means to move out of his alienation. Literature offers a connection between people who will probably never know each other, but just the knowledge that others are experiencing similar life circumstances provides a certain comfort in them.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In the beginning was the Word

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other:then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

-e. e. cummings

I've been reading the book The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man is, How Queer Language is, and What One Has to do with the Other by Walker Percy, and it has me thinking a lot about the way that we understand the phenomenon of language. Percy discusses the fact that although we see everything through our use of language, it is so much a part of us that we have no real understanding of language itself. We don't understand what we actually do when we refer to an object with a word and someone else understands it. To try to understand how an understanding of language develops within a person, Percy looks at the case of Helen Keller and the instance when she first learned the symbol for water. Most people learn to use language when they're too young to remember it happening, but Keller has the unique experience of being able to recount her first experience with understanding language. Keller describes, "Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill returning to me. I knew then that 'w-a-t-e-r' meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set if free!" (35). Percy attempts to examine what happened at the instant when a new relationship developed between Helen, the word water, and the liquid she felt. He argues that the new relationship developed between the three things in that "ah ha!" moment changes the nature of all three of them. He also claims that this must have been the type of experience that occurred at people's first use of language: "Helen's breakthrough must bear some relation to the breakthrough of the species itself" (38).

I've thought a lot about this view of language in my philosophy class, and something I read in Augustine's The Trinity seemed to provide me with an element that was missing from Percy's view of language. Augustine creates a beautiful analogy between the way that our word functions and the way that Christ functions:
"Hence, the word which sounds without is a sign of the word that shines within, to which the name of word more properly belongs. For that which is produced by the mouth of the flesh is the sound of the word, and is itself also called the word, because that inner word assumed it in order that it might appear outwardly. For just as our word in some way becomes a bodily sound by assuming that in which it may be manifested to the senses of men, so the Word of God was made flesh by assuming that in which He might also be manifested to the senses of men. And just as our word becomes a sound that is not changed into a sound, so the Word of God indeed becomes flesh, but far be it that it should be changed into flesh. For by assuming it, not by being consumed in it, this word of ours becomes a sound, and that Word becomes flesh." (19)
While Augustine's analogy doesn't fulfill Percy's task of understanding the phenomenon of language, it seems impossible to actually understand language in the way that Percy wants to and aspires for. Percy's ideas are extremely interesting to think about, but Augustine's analogy is good enough for me.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

To live sin fronteras

To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.
I recently read Gloria Anzaldúa's book Borderlands / La Frontera and found that it addresses a lot of the issues that seem prevalent in discussions of authorial identity. The book is an autobiography of sorts. Anzaldúa grew up in Southern Texas along the U.S. and Mexican border, and she distinguishes herself as Chicana, Mexican-American. Due to the physical location of her home, she discusses the idea of a border that separates a first-world country from a third-world country, which leads her to examine her personal cultural placement and the various kinds of borders that form binary oppositions.

In her chapter "La conciencia de la mestiza / Towards a New Consciousness," Anzaldúa discusses that reaction is both "limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against" (100). As a Mexican-American and lesbian woman, she feels that she has had to resist aspects of white patriarchal society for much of her life, but she creates the image that she cannot place herself on the riverbank opposite from these cultures. Instead, "on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once" (100). The important approach to resolving such divisive dualities is to act, not react in ways that only reinforce the opposition. Anzaldúa develops the idea of the mestiza consciousness, a way of thought that makes the borderlands its home instead of allowing itself to be categorized on one or the other side of the borderline. She distinguishes that her experience of living on the border of nationality, gender, and sexuality, give her a unique perspective about the way that dualities created by these concepts can be overcome:
As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman's sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races). I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet. Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings." (102-3)
This position sheds new light on the way I think about people and texts because in class we've talked about ethnicity, economic status, gender, and religion, all in their own respective categories. But
Anzaldúa combines all the various aspects of her identity in order to show that the interplay between the differences provide a person's identity and the hope for "kneading" and uniting.

unique aspect of the book is that Anzaldúa's writing style echoes her ideas about inhabiting the borderlands. The language switches back and forth between Spanish and English, enabling her to use the words from both languages to more fully express herself. Her writing also transfers between poetry and prose, which prevents her text from fitting neatly within one genre. Also, she weaves her personal history together with the history of her people to demonstrate restrictive mentalities and offer hope for change. Her writing style and her lifestyle seem to exemplify the new mestiza consciousness that she describes.
Because I, a mestiza,
continually walk out of one culture
and into another,
because I am in all cultures at the same time,
alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro,
me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio.
Estoy norteada por todas las voces que me hablan

Friday, April 25, 2008

The need to read

We've talked so much in class about the questions what is literature? and what is reading? While I was reading Professor Power's essay "Reading Ethnic Literature Now," I realized that the existence of a reading crisis where fewer and fewer people actually take the time to read indicates more than just a problem for ethnic literature. If no one reads, then the power of literature cannot stem nearly as far as we theoretically perceive it can. All the great things it offers will never come into fruition in most lives. Powers writes, "We have arrived at a period in which we justifiably celebrate canonical triumphs even as fewer and fewer people care that canons exist at all." While it seems worthwhile for readers and writers to consider the success of increasingly canonical ethnic and women writers, are the ideas and successes limited to the sub-culture of readers? Can they affect society as a whole?

I read an article by Andrew Solomon called "The Closing of the American Book" to investigate the reading issue further (I found that many essays and articles have been written about the growth of a reading crisis in America, and I couldn't help but think of the irony that only readers will access them). Solomon focuses on the inconsistency that this creates between our academic system and our actual lives: "We have one of the most literate societies in history. What is the point of having a population that can read, but doesn't? We need to teach people not only how, but also why to read." I began to think of the things that I had to learn in school, and I realized that we learn a lot of things that don't carry over into practical life application. I have knowledge and abilities in subjects like calculus, but I don't spend my spare time working on calculus equations just because I am capable of doing so. Thus, why should anyone separate out reading as the skill that they continue to use in life when so many other skills taught in school are readily discarded? Admittedly, reading is quite different from any type of mathematical or scientific skill. It connects more with daily life than something as theoretical and objective as calculus, and this seems to make it more universally accessible to people. But in such a fast-moving culture where electronic entertainment is used to increasing extents, how can we salvage the value of reading? Solomon provides a quote from Walter Pater that expresses the value of reading, or other artistic appreciations which may take more time and effort, over other forms of quick entertainment: "The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit is to rouse, to startle it to a life of sharp and eager observation. . . . The poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass.''

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Abolishing the English Department

When I spent a semester abroad at Uganda Christian University (UCU), most of the Ugandan students who I met were at University studying law, journalism, or social work. Whenever anyone asked me what I studied, I felt a bit odd telling them that I studied "English." They had certainly studied English growing up, and when I said I studied English as my major, it sounded too much to me like I was saying that I went to college to study my own language. So, I began to respond to inquiries by informing Ugandan students that I studied literature (saying li-tra-ture to make myself more understandable through my thick American accent). But even when I said something like that, it made me question the value of what I was studying. It seemed like most of the Ugandan students I talked with were studying something that had a more apparent practical application than literature, and even with those studies it's not the easiest task to obtain a job in Uganda even with a degree. And people still seemed a little confused when I told them I studied literature. I eventually resorted to telling people that I studied journalism.

After reading Ngugi's essay "On the Abolition of the English Department," I was interested in exploring more of the courses at Uganda Christian University to see if they actually have something like an "English" department. Ngugi proposes, "
A. That the English Department be abolished;
B. That a Department of African Literature and Languages be set up its place.
I went to UCU's website to discover that they do have a Department of Language and Literature. The mission states that the department wants students to develop appreciation for "all languages, particularly English and the languages of Uganda, as well as French and other regional languages." I wonder how an educatin can encourage students to appreciate all languages. The primary language used in the educational environment in Uganda is English--and it's considered the official national language of the country--which is something that has stemmed out of colonialism, but it is nevertheless an important part of the culture. Besides that, there are 45 languages spoken in Uganda, and some of the students at Uganda Christian University are acutually from other African countries like Kenya or Tanzania. However, the department offers, "We have access to experts in many of the Ugandan languages, and can organise individual instruction or design courses for groups." This type of approach allows for students to guide their approach to language based on what they desire to learn more fully.

Within the long mission list of the department, which hits on several poignant points, one of the mission statements that I find most relevant to the discussion of Ngugi is UCU's goal to "promote language and literary study, so as to increase understanding across ethnic and linguistic barriers, and across historical periods." This makes the department something of a cultural studies department. It also includes the goal rooted in the Christian purposes of the college to "provide Christian believers, lay, ordained, missionary and local, with the linguistic means to spread the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and to communicate effectively in English and other languages." This aligns it with a Christian culture as well as an African and English cultural studies department. This follows Ngug's recommendation that "The primary duty of any literature department is to illuminate the spirit animating a people, to show how it meets new challenges, and to investigate possible areas of development and involvement" (2094).

I also looked at the course listing for the MA in Literature degree at UCU. It includes courses in Ugandan, African, and oral literature, as well as American literature. It seems to include a diverse number of approaches to literature in several cultural and historical contexts, and I wonder if Ngugi had influence on such a course offering. It certainly isn't an "English department." I would suspect that the UCU literature department is not one of the most popular in the university, but it has very specific goals that seem to centralize both African culture and literary tradition with other literary contexts and Christian service.

Monday, April 21, 2008

What literature is within us?

I recently read the essay "No Name Woman" by the Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston. It was not a traditional essay by any means, and I found it a little difficult to follow, but there was one section in it that addressed some issues I've wondered about quite a bit recently, having read several different kinds of criticism that all seem to focus on rooting texts in writers' identities. As Kingston tells stories of her childhood experiences, she questions, "Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?" In our class, we've moved from Marxist to Feminist to Ethnic criticism, and it seems like all of them are so similar in some ways although they deal with different qualities that define groups of people.

In Langston Hughes' essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," he talks of the way that an African American's poetry must be rooted in their African American identity. When Hughes encounters a young poet who wants "to be a poet--not a Negro poet" (1313), Hughes takes this to mean that the poet is trying to put aside his own identity so that he can better assimilate into the white culture. Hughes despises this attitude, responding, "But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering 'I want to be white,' hidden in the aspirations of his people, to 'Why thould I want to be white? I am a Negro--and beautiful!" (1316). This is such a different idea than what we read earlier from Emerson about the way that a poet should transcend him/herself in some way in order to tap into a truth that applies to all people. Instead, Hughes seems to think that a removal of the racial identity from African American poetry is a removal of truth from the poetry. According to him, African Americans "have an honest American Negro literature already within us," and it is their duty to expose that literature that exists within (1316). This works well for the type of poetry that Hughes wants to right. In poems such as "I, Too," he embodies his racial identity with lines like "I, too, sing America. // I am the darker brother." But it seems almost like a restriction in some ways on the African American writer to say that they must write in a way that is perceived as embodying their own seperate culture from the white culture.

Helene Cixous, in "The Laugh of the Medusa," seems to share some of Hughes' ideas about writing according to one's identity, but her focus centers on gender rather than race. She writes, “I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man” (2041). Reading Cixous' ideas gives me a different perspective than I can have with Hughes because--while I've never experienced the life of an African American--I am a woman. However, it wasn't until I came to college and began reading feminist writers that I even thought about gender differences in writing. I had to be educated as to what these feminist writers mean by instructing all women to “write woman." Cixous even has a difficult time articulating what feminine writing is in any concrete manner even though all of her ideas revolve around it. In the same essay where she prescribes that women should “write woman,” she claims, It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, encoded—which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist” (2043). So basically, she's saying that something about women's writing makes it the same in some way even though it doesn't seem apparent that it all shares some womanly writer quality. Although I feel that it's not necessarily right or helpful to determine a type of feminine writing that is completely separate from that of males, perhaps in saying this, I'm over-generalizing to ignore a difference that is there.

I tend to wonder if classifying literature into groups like "African American literature" or "women's literature" tends to lead to the creation of more stereotypes. When Langston Hughes was writing, he was addressing a particular problem in society: the African American writer didn't seem to have a voice apart from the adopted style of white American culture. And a woman writer such as Virginia Woolf also addressed the societal issues that affected her during her life as a woman writer; women were literally not allowed to be writers. But is it still worth discussing literature within these labels today as society becomes more diverse and moves toward greater equality? While these ideas about race and literature do make points about the way things have been--and the way that some things stilll are--focusing on these issues almost perpetuates them in some way because it forces people to view literature in categories based on the author's identity.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Encountering resistance

During my first Womens' Literature class of this semester, I walked in to see three words written on the board:

Resistance, Revision, Re-imagine

I was already skeptical after receiving the booklist for the class because I had never heard of any of the authors before, but this all-too-neatly alliterated list seemed like too much for me. I wasn't sure how well I would get along with the study of all women writers. Over the course of the semester, I've realized that this course is run in quite different ways from other classes I've taken. Today I figured out why. Professor Corey was talking to us about the essay and/or final project that we have to complete for the class, and she explained that she wants to establish as few restrictions as possible for the assignment because she wants to provide us with every possible opportunity to resist the academic system of organized and strict essays. She talked about the way that an essay can be difficult form for bringing several voices into conversation and condensing ideas into such a formulaic structure. Instead, she encouraged us with examples of a past student who had choreographed a dance as her final project. She also foreshadowed the enjoyable final that we will have that will also resist and revise the traditional academic structure in some way.

Having recently read the works of feminist critics, the idea of resistance started making sense to me. My womens lit class has been rather unorthodox in the way that we read, discuss, and complete assignments, and I realize that it is created in such a way that allows us the freedom to enjoy texts in ways that we cannot in other classes. And it assigns texts to read that no other classes would. If I'm receiving such a good chance to study and engage with womens' literature, does it perpetuate the separate nature of womens' writing by placing it in its own distinct class that functions through different academic teaching styles than other more traditional classes?