Friday, October 24, 2014

779 Research Weeks 7 & 8

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Weeks 7 and 8: Hawthorne Malaise, Pirated Study Time, and The Wall

This is the part of the term where I start to inwardly rebel against the coursework. It isn't just that there's so much of it, or that I'm exhausted from the forced march of reading and writing (there is, and I am), but this is the point, about halfway, where I start to discover tangential things to research and learn about that seem suddenly very tempting to spend time on rather than the material with due dates and grades attached. This is an enormously challenging phase to get through because books like Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty First Century and Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand seem to come out of nowhere and beckon to me right at the point where my ability to read, integrate, and respond to texts has been honed by the semester to its keenest point.

This wouldn't be as big of a problem if I had a less airtight schedule for work completion that could tolerate 10 or 20 extra hours of work on something of my own choosing, or if it coincided with equally entrancing coursework like Frank Norris' McTeague or Herman Melville's Typee, but every once in a while I find myself trying to focus on more difficult texts like Frank Norris' The Pit or Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance and I cave.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as fascinating as it promises to be, is a doorstop of a book, so I decided to put that one off for now after reading just the introduction and part of the first chapter, and I allowed myself to read Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand and watch the 2012 film adaptation. Both of these, as my mentor Pete Sands pointed out, are absolutely worth your time if you haven't read/watched them.

The novel has a very simple premise: a woman goes to visit friends and stay the night in their cabin atop a mountain in Austria. She awakes to discover that the mountaintop has been surrounded by an unbreakable transparent wall. The wall doesn't seem to prevent air or water from passing through it, but all of the other physical things, including her and a mountain's worth of domesticated and wild animals, are trapped inside. Outside, the world has apparently ended. There is no apocalyptic destruction or wasteland, only a stark, crystalline stillness. People in nearby homes and villages (which she can see through binoculars) are frozen in whatever position they were in when the cataclysm occurred. Not only is the wall transparent, but it almost seems to make the narrator's vision of the outside world sharper. She can see far-distant buildings and birds which fell frozen from the sky lying on the ground in mid-wing-flap. The grass continues to grow, and weather continues to fluctuate, but there is no sign of any other living thing outside the wall. The narrator explores the rather large area enclosed by the wall and collects a series of animals, a dog, a cow, and a cat, and progresses to write a diary for several years while doing everything she can think of to stay alive and keep her animals alive.

Most of the book is concerned with slow meditations on what all of this means, and what sorts of emotional challenges the narrator faces during various phases of grief and acceptance of her new life. She becomes quite close to the animals and dependent on them to survive, and she battles constant emotional and physical exhaustion that threaten to overwhelm her. She begins to lose track of time and her memories of the world before the wall start to blend together, heightening the sense of estrangement she attains from the world, though she is ironically more intimately tied to the physical world for survival than ever in her life. Without ruining the ending, it's worth mentioning that the entire narrative builds, I thought quite brilliantly, to a single question that she poses the reader--a reader that she is not certain will ever encounter her diary. And here I am, four days later still mulling over that question and trying to piece together what it, and the rest of the book, means.

I finished the film last night as well. While a visual and auditory treat, and harrowing in its own way, was a more or less straightforward and faithful adaptation of the novel. Which is to say that it didn't, I felt, substantially improve on or remediate the narrative. The photography and sound design are both haunting and spectacular, and it plays with motion and texture like very few films I’ve seen from the last ten years. I could have done without the voiceover, and especially the constant intercuts back to the diary-writing present, but the Wall itself and the mountain, and the animals, and Martina Gedeck's performance, were all great. The novel is so meditative at times in the naturalist tradition that I think some part of my brain was looking for a film treatment similar to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or There Will Be Blood. Instead of one particular slow-motion scene with a violin overture, I was expecting something distressingly quieter, and aesthetically blunter and more profound somehow. I’m not sure the film captured how frail and fragile the narrator seems for most of the novel, being constantly hungry and sick and exhausted to the point of immobility, and it doesn’t quite capture how intimately dependent she is on the animals the way a film like, say Into the Wild does. But these are minor complaints, it’s still easily better than 95% of the 21st century speculative fiction films I’ve seen, and aside from the intercuts and that slo-mo scene it seems as unwilling to indulge itself in formal tropes as the novel, which I loved.

I’m also feeling a little conflicted about the film because the more I ponder the novel, the more I think it has something to tell us about emotion in the years when generatively (motherhood, fatherhood, housekeeping, family-making, etc) starts to wane and reveal a less-satisfying second phase of life. The argument could be made that the narrator is variously a divorcee, a spinster, or especially an empty-nester, but I think these are all overly-simplistic readings. No one talks about this but a lot of people, even young people, go through acute phases where parenting and family-making become a deep, searing, un-shareable, and shame-inducing disappointment. They realize that they’re not as good parents as they thought they’d be, or that once their children are no longer helpless babies that they’re not as interested in them, or they may even secretly think at various times that their own children are despicable. I think there’s a special intense sort of estrangement that happens when the narrator admits that she has an affinity for birth and some varieties of care-taking, but that when things grow she starts to care less about them. She goes on at great lengths about the personalities of the random pets she accumulates over the course of the novel, but admits that she did not like or care for her own children and cannot remember much about them beyond the fact that they grew into difficult and unrewarding elements of a life she'd rather forget. I found this to be a highly complex and powerful psychological character study and the film doesn't touch on it at all, and that's a shame because I think if I had to say critically what the novel is "about," this estrangement is at the very heart of it.

She never says so, but I think it's clear that this disconnect causes the narrator unendurable pain, so much so that she transfers what passes for a stewardship instinct onto Bella (her cow) and especially Lynx (her dog). Is she making a bid for a second chance at motherhood? I don’t think that’s exactly it, and nor do I think she’s trying to anthropomorphize the dog, necessarily. The note at the end of the novel from the filmmaker mentioned the narrative keenly describes clinical depression, but I don’t think that’s precisely it, either. I think the crystalline “outside” is the key to it all somehow; that the novel is trying to emotionally dramatize the moment of realization that the first phases, the generative phases, of one’s life are over, and that a new, existentially distressing phase has begun, where boundaries permanently solidify in a way that seems unfair and abrupt, and during which many of the promises and hopes of the first phase are pushed beyond these boundaries where one cannot reach them but can only watch them persist and slowly decay in wrenching distance but tantalizing clarity.

And now, as you are very right to remind me, it's time to stop dallying around with The Wall and get back to Hawthorne and my other research.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

779 Research Week 6

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 6: Never Forget how Lucky You Are

A friend and former DePaul colleague asked me the other night to talk to him about pursuing a PhD. He had applied to a number of programs, including the program I’m in, and wanted to know more about what my experiences have been. I was honest and fair with both him and myself, and I tried to give him a balanced description of what the challenges and rewards of a PhD are. This was an interesting exercise in and of itself because as I was describing the process of beginning a PhD I realized just how many things had to break my way in order for me to find myself where I am right now. There was a complex 100+ page application to complete, scarce and uncertain funding to secure, an innocuous but secretly terrifying academic review to successfully pass, a new community of intimidatingly brilliant colleagues to join, a family to continue to be a part of, bills to attempt to pay, teaching to become familiar with, writing-career work of my own which pre-dated school to continue and, as we’ve seen here on this blog, mountains of research to complete and shape into original scholarship.

In the broadest sense these things are continually and sometimes oppressively daunting, but even on the scale of the completion of a week’s or day’s work, they depend more heavily on luck than I usually prefer think about. For example, Typee the novel we read this week for ENG779, happened to be available in a free and high-quality audiobook. This allowed me to read ahead by about ten days on the course calendar, off-setting Frank Norris’ The Pit and the second half of Siegfried Kracaur’s The Mass Ornament which I also had to read and for which there exist no audiobooks. Last week, we read Norris’ McTeague and Poe’s A Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, both of which were available on audiobook. By using the 30+ hours I spent in the car over those last few weeks, along with the time I spent washing dishes, driving to and from my teaching job in Chicago, folding laundry, and the two or three hours each night after my wife fell asleep, I was able to gain just enough ground on the relentless reading schedule of this term to carve out six or seven hours of time the week before last for research and again today to work on the first draft of my paper. These blocks of time were incredibly contingent; if even one minor thing had gone wrong, I could have easily lost my best (and maybe only) chance to spend a significant chunk of time accomplishing these critical and tricky tasks. If my son got sick, or if my phone died in the middle of a book, or if my computer crashed, or if we happened to hit a week in which none of the books were available as audiobooks, it could have had serious consequences to my workflow.

On an even smaller scale, just a single day, luck has to be on my side for me to succeed. I’ve been struggling with headaches, eye strain, and back pain since about the third week of class from all the sitting, driving, and reading, and lately they’ve been particularly acute. I’ve had to change my contacts regularly, rest my eyes as much as possible, use hot and cold packs on my back, stretch on a yoga ball, and consume a never-ending stream of caffeine and anti-inflammatories to power through the avalanche of reading and writing and the endless commuting. Even with today’s six or seven hours on offer, if I’d had a nasty episode of back pain that drove me to my couch or away from my computer, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much as I did (which turned out to be quite a lot—an entire draft, in fact). If some emergency at my teaching job had pulled me away or some other pressing thing intruded—if anything happened to go wrong today—I’d be in trouble. But somehow, nothing did. Somehow I continue to live a just-charmed-enough life that I can continue to plow ahead with this program and make it happen.

This is the sort of thing you can’t explain to someone when they ask you what PhD research and coursework is like. It’s like becoming a parent, full of pride and wonder and self-growth bookended with grinding work and random outbreaks of panic, but it also involves a difficult-to-fathom quotient of luck that I try to remain continually thankful for and conscientious of in the moments when the workload threatens to overwhelm.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

779 Research Week 5

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 5: Contemplating the Limits of Sharing Research Via Social Media

So initially I was very encouraged by my social media networks' response to my Tweets and Facebook posts about research. So much so that I started working in posts here and there about my other class and the research I'm doing for it as well. I found that my networks, particularly a nucleus of about 20 colleagues or like-minded intellectual-types seemed very into it at first, and gave me plenty of opportunity to post and respond and involve them in my thought process, which I had to admit was qualitatively improved by their interaction and participation. In short, I was easily sold on the idea of public, social-media-enabled research.

But now a month or so into the process, I've noticed that I get almost no feedback, comments, reposts, or even "likes" on the posts anymore. My frequency and tone hasn't changed much, though I suppose I ask fewer questions and try to make more comment-type posts. I feel if anything I've gotten more adept at compressing thoughts and conversation-bait into 140 characters over the last month. But I've hit a definite "wall" in terms of interaction and I spent some time considering what this meant. Here are some tentative conclusions:

1) Like advertising, people will rapidly tune out anything formulaic and periodic. Which means it's not enough to just ask questions, or just make pithy comments, or link to larger explorations of a topic; all of these become very rapidly monotonous and transparent to your audience, and your audience is 21st-century-good at mentally filtering self-promotion out of their information streams. This means two things: (a) your posts and tweets about research had better be full of variation, charm, and carefully calibrated to maintain attention, and (b) you will probably have a much easier time of doing so if you attach your research to your online persona rather than the other way around. A social-media "friend" who posts only research-related material on their information stream is not a friend, he or she is much more akin to a single-topic news source at best, or an advertiser (or the more pernicious variety of creative self-promoting spammer) at worst, and should expect to be ignored as such.

2) Twitter is a lousy platform for research sharing. It just is. Not only does it have a well-documented tendency to devolve into anti-social mayhem, but as many users have noted, the 140 character limit almost demands pithy, snarky, superficial, and ineloquent dialogue. It's also unnecessarily restrictive to use for serious thought. Trying to condense a meaningful research question into 140 characters is akin to those infuriating exercises in condensing a four-month-long research project into a 500-word document just for the sake of "economy of prose." Look, I'm a college instructor and I am buried under reading material for most of the school year, but I've always thought the "economy of prose at all costs" obsession to be spurious anti-intellectual nonsense, and the Twitter version is the same thing only writ ad absurdum. I get that a major complaint about research (or maybe even "literature" in general) is its volume and verbosity, but saying you'd love to read research if only it was more succinct is like saying you'd listen to classical concertos if only they had a sweet electric guitar solo in the middle. 140 characters is perfect for sharing weather updates or recommending restaurants, but it's ill-suited to serious scholarship. Trying to shoehorn it into prose that economical both cheapens the value of the research and plays toward that toxic, pervasive 21st century attitude that nothing anyone has to say is worth more than ten words of someone else's time. Some things are worth it, and research is one of those things.

3) Then again Twitter isn't much worse than Facebook, Linked In, and any other social media outlet I can think of. None of them are all that great, and each is plagued by its own problematic features. Mostly, though, Twitter fails because at some point, in order to overcome the saturation malaise that will rapidly occur, you'll need to incorporate some features that Twitter doesn't handle very well, like audio, video, and especially images. When I studied digital publishing for my M.A., I spent a lot of time learning how people read online content, and the research seems pretty clear that text-only platforms are the very worst at getting and maintaining readership. Twitter has some image functionality, but something much more visually rich would have better impact for a wide audience. Which brings me to my next point...

4) We need to incorporate multimedia into our posts if we're to have any hope of maintaining our audience's attention. And ideally the multimedia we choose should have a combination of sensational and educational aspects. By this I mean, an Instagram feed that has photos of what high-level research, scholarship, and academia looks like (mountains of books, oceans of coffee), bolstered with an interactive info graphic on Prezi so your audience can follow the concepts you're referencing, and finished off with historical images (like an exploding steamboat) that will capture the imagination. But this also poses a big problem because, in addition to the tool learning curve involved and the extra work this entails...

5) In effect, the effort to share research with the wider world via social media can (and must, if you want it to maintain attention) rapidly become like managing your own full-time entertainment franchise, dedicated to providing "content," for free, to platforms that will, in the very best case, make money off of your hard work that you will not share in. And that's the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that you'll do all of that work and be met with deafening silence as your audience skims past your neato research to read about which celebrity's personal nude selfies have been hacked and disseminated.

In short, sharing research via social media is a great idea with a lot of potential, but there are upper limits to what it can accomplish. When it comes to sharing research with colleagues, it's replicating (perhaps usefully) the existing system of academic conferences and journals already in place, and for a broader audience its efficacy has more to do with personality and showmanship than the merit of the work, and the platforms that exist for disseminating it are inadequate and parasitical.

So where does that leave the 21st century researcher who wants to tap into digital tools for research sharing? Is this a gloom-and-doom evaluation, or am I missing something crucial here?

Thursday, October 02, 2014

779 Research: Week 4

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 3: Genre Saturation and Mizora

As I finished my reading of Mary E. Bradley Lane’s Mizora: a Prophecy this week I started to feel my first real sense of fatigue with the utopian genre. If you read enough of anything in a particular style or approach, this will inevitably happen; the conventions of utopian fiction start to feel formulaic and predictable, even though this is more a function of exhausting your own critical eye, not necessarily an inherent feature of the text. With this sense of fatigue, I yawned and fired up the audiobook The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym on my iPhone during my commute and noticed that I was almost immediately looking for the expected twists and turns. To Poe’s credit, I’m halfway through the book and he’s sticking doggedly to his own designs on the structure, pulling us through enough frame story that it isn’t really “frame” any more, it’s the actual story.

But Poe’s deviation from the usual pattern (minor frame => uncanny event => utopian immersion => utopian explanation => expulsion from utopia, closure of frame) notwithstanding, I started to wonder if the readers of this type of fiction during this era also became saturated (or just bored) with the genre. I forget the actual numbers, but there was an absolute explosion of utopian fiction in the last two decades of the 19th century, which saw the publication of hundreds of stories that were either frankly utopian or had utopian features. Wouldn’t this have been dreadfully stale among reading audiences by 1900? It reminds me of trends in speculative fiction like the flood of militaristic “space marine” stories in the post-Vietnam War period from about 1975-1990, or the nauseatingly-pervasive vampire fiction explosion from 2000-2010. By the end of these trends, the initial catalyst stories for the trends were rarely improved upon, and usually the opposite was true: they became caricatures of themselves.

Did this happen, I wonder, with this utopian fiction trend of the late 19th century? Did everyone roll their eyes and think to themselves Oh great, another one trying to rehash Bellamy’s Looking Backward… *yawn*. Get me another cordial of whiskey while I sleep through this… Or, more likely, as we saw in the 80’s, did everyone who at first took the space marine genre seriously with texts like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War recognize the derivative nature of the texts that followed and relegate them to the status of “junk literature”, or “enjoyment reading, not serious stuff?”

This brings me back to one of the chief difficulties I’ve had with this entire topic this term. The 19th century utopia is a fascinating period of the genre to study, but I feel like I’m missing a huge chunk of its significance because I have little conception of how these stories acted as artifacts. How were they published? Who published them? What were the general public opinions of both the writers and publishers of these sorts of stories? How would they be marketed? How would someone hear about a new utopian story or novel? Were newspapers, reviewers, etc, involved? If so, aren’t these secondary pieces of primary data equally important to situate the novel historically? Sometimes I get the feeling I’m spending time studying a piece of vaunted literature, and other times, as with Mizora I get the feeling I’m looking with a very academic, scholarly, critical eye at the 19th century version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m not certain, though, and that bothers me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

779 Research, Week 3

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 3: What do Steamboat Explosions, the Mummy Craze of the 1830's, and the Hicksite-Orthodox Quaker Schism have in common?

This sort of a continuation of my thoughts on Mary Griffith's Three Hundred Years Hence. I'm not even sure really what to call the story. We would call it a "novella" today because it's 67 pages long and covers a little too much to be just a short story. Then again, it was published short-story-like in a collection called Camperdown: or News from Our Neighborhood. Then AGAIN, some of my sources call it a novel, which it clearly isn't, nor is it by itself a "book". A "story" I guess, then?

Anyway, I've already gone on at length about how it constitutes one of the earliest feminist utopias we have, and it IS the first American feminist utopia written by a woman. I've gone into great detail about how many of the female-penned utopias that follow tread the same ground, and do so with an ever-expanding body of science, sociology, and utopian literature to draw on for influences. What makes Three Hundred Years Hence so interesting is that it didn't have a whole lot of any of these things to draw on. Instead of a proto-argument about eugenics, which we'll definitely see again later this term, we get a much daintier and more tentative set of proposed social changes that are, as Vernon Parrington points out, served buffet-style.

What's striking about the story, though, is that it touches on so many cultural flash points that you'll miss if you aren't paying attention. The mummies, the steamboat explosions, the fear of dogs and "hydrophobia" (rabies), but also women's property rights and, weirdly, the state of the Quaker religion.

What's this last one about? I know almost nothing about the Quakers and a sortie to Wikipedia has left me with more questions than answers. This is one of those research moments where I feel like I've dived down a rabbit hole only to discover an equally-large and deep tributary rabbit hole. The basic sense I got, though, from what I read, was that the Hicksite-Orthodox split involved a third group (the Gurnyites) who wanted to formalize the Church and take it in a more Protestant direction. This naturally would alienate women, particularly as the shift away from a home-grown worship centered on individuality tended to situate power in the family and hearth rather than the pulpit. To say that the Hicksite (the more agrarian, rural, home-focused portion of the debate)-Orthodox split was directly detrimental to women's place in the Church is probably oversimplifying things, but Griffith dwells enough on the topic to make it stand out, and its importance shouldn't be lost on us as researchers. It's the very essence of fiction-writing that real-life debates and controversies play out among contemporary fictional characters, but I'm hesitant to let this stand only for a "pulled-from-the-headlines" narrative strategy. 

Why? Because, later on my timeline of feminist utopian fiction, which is wrapped up intimately with the birth of theories of evolution, eugenics, sociology, and the emerging movements for temperance, suffrage, and Women's rights, I discovered that the Seneca Falls Convention (maybe the single event that most significantly kicked-off these last three movements) was organized partially by Quakers. This isn't perhaps as oddly coincidental as it seems. Keep in mind that "Quaker" was originally a pejorative jeer, not the actual name of the organization, which is something closer to "Society of Friends." At worst, they were persecuted as heretical apostates, at best, they were considered an odd crackpot offshoot of Christianity, but of interest is the fact that among its founders, the "Valiant Sixty" was a woman named Margaret Fell, who not only was an actual missionary and preacher of the faith, but whose ideas helped form the core ideology of the Quakers. All of this happened in the late 1600's. There goes my "ripped-from-the-headlines" theory.

But fast-forward 200 years and the Society of Friends somehow finds itself with a hand in maybe the most important single event to mark the beginning of a series of movements that would span a century or more (and, you might argue, are still underway). So now my theory goes a little something like this: Mary Griffith, a bright, talented writer, was pulling from all sorts of source material for her utopia. She brought up contemporary issues of technology, popular imagination, and social concern, wove it together with a historicized understanding of family and feminist equality inspired by Quakerism (the most readily-available conceptual model, perhaps), and propelled it 300 years into the future, all at a time when the idea we now think of academically as metropolis was just on the horizon, and its heralds were the steam engines that promised to collapse the enormity of North America into an interconnected series of travel hubs separated by days instead of months of travel.

My Mental State:
I found researching Three Hundred Years Hence much more difficult than I expected. It wasn't just because of the general lack of information about Griffith, or the fact that I really don't know all that much about the 1830's. I'm discovering in the program as I branch out into several different vectors of inquiry spread out over several different periods of time that I see so many connections between them and Three Hundred Years Hence that it becomes very difficult to know where to start with an analysis. Even with a story that's such an obscure footnote in the history of utopias, I could have easily written 200 pages of analysis about it based on what I know of feminist utopias. That's before I ever touched on the topics I don't know about: the historical situation of the 1830's, the gigantic and storied history of the Quakers, the effects of steam technology on agriculture, travel, and commerce... This unassuming little 67 page utopia has been defying my efforts to encapsulate it. Which is especially frustrating considering my research turned up only half a dozen meaningful scholarly articles about it, most of which relegate it back to footnote status without touching on ANY of these endless connections to technology, sociology, and literature. 

So what can I even do with this story? It would take me months of research and potentially years of writing to give Three Hundred Years Hence the same scholarly treatment that texts like "Sultana's Dream" and Herland enjoy, and I had a week. A busy week, where this was only one of about fifty pressing tasks I was given. You can see my frustration: I'd love to give this story the examination it deserves, but its historical situation, and my broadening understanding of the world in the 19th century, is working against me. My initial reaction was to go after it the same way that Joe Nydahl and others have done: explain that Griffith's story is the first in a series of stories that rode on the century-long currents of social change regarding women. That these trends aren't tied as tightly to the story as I'd like for simplicity's sake, but that trying to understand the story without first understanding the bigger history and where this story stood in relation to that history is a bad approach. What I end up with, though, is an examination that doesn't (and maybe can't, barring the months and years of work I mentioned above) feel complete or very authoritative. I find myself dumped again and again back  at square one, trying to study this story and write something meaningful about it without doing the exact same thing I'm criticizing Pfaelzer, Nydahl, and others for.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

779 Research Week 2

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 2: swarm-sourced research questions

I had a very productive conversation on Facebook this week following a series of Tweets about non-fiction and utopias. I've consolidated the whole thing and reposted it here (with names removed for privacy, but the responders are all current or former colleagues of mine):

Mark: Sorry for all the separate posts: I'm trying to put a complete thought together on Twitter, which is not, as it turns out, a place for complete thoughts. Here's what I was asking for my working research question on utopias:
Lyman Tower Sargent describes a "utopia" as "a non-existent society, described in considerable detail, and normally located in time and space." This definition isn't without its problems--it describes nearly any fictional setting, for one--but it is helpful because it starts to tell us what utopias AREN'T.

By his logic, the Declaration of Independence qualifies as a type of non-fictional utopia about an America that didn't yet exist, even if the writers and their intent were very real.
So my research question is this: if non-fictional texts can be utopias (and presumably dystopias) in the future tense, then do books about the PAST like George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia or John Hersey's Hiroshima qualify for Sargent's definition? They're certainly dystopian (and at moments of Catalonia, utopian), but they did exist, and the detail they can be described in is limited by subjectivity and scale. Are these texts "merely" history, or are they full-fledged utopias/dystopias?

Friend 1: This is fascinating, and I'm glad you posted it.

Friend 2: This is a tough question Mark, because at its root is the wild card of perception. One man's utopia is very likely not utopia for the next man. As in Shrodingers Cat theory, there is the possibility of more than one utopia, depending on the viewer.

Friend 3: This is hard to answer, but a good question! I'm tempted to take issue with Sargent's definition; IMHO, it's much too broad and nondescript. He might as well call a utopia simply "a place." My answer to your question: no. As you said, those places did exist. I think you could only really use the terms to label an incorrect telling of the past. Good question! Hope that helped.

Friend 4: I need a drink, now.

Mark: (Friend 2 and 3): Well, Sargent's definition is just the beginning of his taxonomy of utopia, and it goes a little something like...

Utopia: A non-existent society, described in considerable detail, normally located in space and time.

Eutopia: (note the different spelling to offset the commonly-used "utopia" which was a pun by Thomas More meaning "no-place" versus "good-place." The correct spelling is restored in this definition of what we commonly refer to as utopia) A non-existent society, described in considerable detail, normally located in space and time that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably better than the society in which the reader lived.

Dystopia: A non-existent society, described in considerable detail, normally located in space and time that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably WORSE than the society in which the reader lived.

I tend to agree with you Amanda, that Sargent's definitions are broad to the point of silliness, even when you don't take into account epistemological questions of how we can even know if a place "exists" or "existed" or how hopelessly subjective such a term must be when it comes to a reiterated account of that place.

Nevertheless, it DOES give us a place to start, and by these definitions we can start to rule things out. A utopia (either a eutopia-which hilariously my spell check autocorrects-or dystopia) that doesn't proceed in detail is not a utopia. For example, "Elsewhere" in Lois Lowry's The Giver is never described in substantial detail, which rules it out, whereas the town the story takes place in IS described in detail, which means that place could be a dystopia. The America described by the Declaration of Independence (and even the Bill of Rights) didn't at the time, and still at times doesn't really exist; it's an ideal that's as flawed as the human beings who try to bring it into existence. 
So my question is that if utopias (eutopias, dystopias) can exist in the future, and they can be told about the past if they didn't actually provably exist (the legends of Atlantis, El Dorado/Manoa, the Scholomance, etc.) AND non-fictional places based on utopian texts exist (the United States, but also think smaller like experimental communes and "intentional communities" from the 19th and 20th centuries), then can we look at texts like Homage to Catalonia, Hiroshima, and Journal of the Plague Year as falling somewhere on this same taxonomy of "societies in great detail in space and time that are better/worse than our contemporaneous reading"?

Mark (continued: Journal of the Plague Year is a particularly interesting example because it's a fictionalized account of an actual event, but it's EXHAUSTIVELY detailed, down to precise body counts and population numbers and demographics, organized painstakingly by district of London. The characterization is kept minimal, which also screams utopia. In most glaringly utopian fiction, characters are secondary to the society described and what choices it represents. But there's a wonderful moment in JotPY where the narrator is observing London from afar, a 17th century city reeling from a "visitation" of the Black Plague that wiped out huge numbers of people with frightening swiftness, and the narrator thoughtfully observes that it's only a few months later, after the visitation is ended, when he stands on the same place and watches the entire city burn, engulfed in the flames in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

It's an extraordinarily haunting moment of the book, and very apocalyptic. Is it a comment on the ways in which the people of London exacerbate the Black Plague by being awful to each other while enduring it? Hard to say. Does the description of London overwhelmed with the dead and dying and the authorities' inability to handle it constitute a dystopia? I sure feel like it does. It's critical, it's highly detailed, and it's much more about the social mechanism of London than specific Londoners. There's only a handful of characters in the book that even have names.

Friend 2: In light of what you have written here, I'd love to see big data projects pulling specific detail from the fictional lives of some of those huge online games where you have millions of people building their own version of utopia. I'd love to compare the trends to the findings of your research into fictional and non fictional books on the subject. Human nature is fascinating and finding usable patterns in the evolution of human perspective on "no place" and "good place" would be make my head spin.

Friend 5: This is really fascinating. I've been reading all your posts wishing I could take your class! I wonder if it would be useful to think about the purpose of utopian/eutopian/dystopian stories (without getting too mired in authorial intent issues). Why do writers tell stories about imagined future societies? What do these stories tell us about the fears, issues, etc., of the time they were written? Can you apply those same characteristics to stories about past imagined places? Because I would think that would be a defining trait of utopian literature--ie if someone writes a book describing Atlantis because they think it might have been real and are just trying to figure out how it worked, that's not necessarily a utopia. But if their Atlantis story is a thoughful exploration of or metaphor for societal fears and hopes and issues...then maybe it is?

Mark: (Friend 2): I agree, especially games like Minecraft, where you can control everything from the weather to the number and abilities of the other players you allow to play with you. You really can (within the limits of the game's engine) create or modify the "world" any way you see fit if you own the "world" that you're playing on. Most other MMO's make you adhere to a set of standard world rules and they don't give you the option to play solo or dial up and down the interaction you have with other players. I'd think that would be one of the first things you'd need in order to create a "game" utopia. Though, by Sargent's definition you would have to play with at least a few other poeple, because a utopia is a "society" not just an individual existence.

Mark: (Friend 5): we've actually had some discussion about authorial intent, and came to the tentative conclusion that it is at least sometimes knowable. Your question about why people write utopias gets to one of the earlier points I was exploring while I was wrestling with the problem of definition. I personally think the definition of utopias (eutopias, dystopias) MUST contain some element of criticism of the present time/space. It's almost impossible to separate criticism from utopianism (the dreaming aspect, the urge to create a utopia), and I might even go so far as to say it's impossible to separate satire from utopias, though the argument can be made that this is all just semantics and a utopia is satirical if it's "mostly" satirical in intent, etc.

Your point about that same mode with regards to past imagined (or even real-but-subjectively-rendered) places is exactly what I'm getting at here. Certain historical fiction, creative nonfiction, or even journalistic nonfiction veers noticeably into the realm of examining an ordered society in great detail in order to be critical of it, and with the evident intent of making us compare these past societies to what we have now. Even the most faithfully rendered past society can only at best be authorially subjective, so they didn't really ever "exist" in the strictest sense. We're only getting an impression. With that in mind, they satisfy almost all of the same qualifications as a garden-variety, future, fictional utopia.

My Mental State: Definitely improved from last week. Getting a start on the mountain of texts I need to absorb this term helped. Once you get into the groove of reading 19th century fiction and nonfiction it comes more easily. It helped that I really enjoyed Frank Norris's McTeague and Capt. John Cleves Symmes' Symzonia. Both were a pleasure to read, so it's not all slog-and-drag, at least. Freud and Marx are as impenetrable and loopy as ever, though a reread of a portion of Darwin's The Origin of the Species was a pleasant surprise. I didn't remember his writing being as lucid and down-to-earth as it is. One thing that fascinates me is how books from the 19th and very early 20th century were marketed. They were a form of entertainment, at least to some extent, and part of a world in which radio and television didn't yet exist in widespread form. There were early arcades and nickelodeons and theater and carnival-type entertainment spectacles, but one of the only types of entertainment you could take home with you were books. If that's the case, I'm interested to know more about how texts from the 19th century in particular were meant to be experienced by their audiences. Many were published serially like seasons of a TV show, so we know they were meant to be enjoyed in small doses, rather than jammed through in a day or two (I'm looking at YOU Sister Carrie), but others were published as standalone texts, like Symzonia, and their pacing is noticeably different. I read Symzonia in two sittings and never felt like the author was trying to dole out the action to me in any deliberate way. Whereas Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, broken into discrete sections not just by chapter but by his habit of beginning each chapter with abstract philosophical claims, seems almost impossible to smoothly read through over a weekend. A note for more exploration later: have we lost the ability to do this with fiction? In the age of the summer beach novel and the Netflix series season released all at once and ready to binge-watch, do we even have patience for serially-produced narratives anymore? The recent spate of Hollywood films that take the final book of a trilogy or series and split it into two separate films suggests that this pattern of slowly doling out a narrative is something we associate with capitalizing on a story to the embarrassing utmost, rather than it being a deliberate narrative strategy.

I'm also starting to really enjoy this process of sharing the research process with the world. At first I was worried the unwelcome extra layer of work and engagement was going to be robotic and forced, but it seems to be engaging my online spheres rather spiritedly, and if nothing else it does help maintain some sort of social media presence while I'm in school; something I had a very hard time doing last term. It makes me feel a little less isolated, and hey, I even got a decent research question out of it this week. I'm reminded of undergrad when my friends and I would sit in the dining hall long after we'd finished eating and talk over what we'd learned in our respective fields and try to find the places where our knowledge-bases connected. Of course we'd also argue over which Star Wars movie was the best, but at least we did it together, and that seemed to add something.