Fall Semester greetings, and an image to ponder

Happy new academic year to my students, and to whoever else might happen upon this post.  If you are a student of mine, I especially want to affirm you: the URL for this site may appear on your syllabus, but you’re otherwise not required to visit here.  If you’re here, then, it’s because you have some inclination toward going above and beyond what is asked of you.  That trait–something in you that no assessment test will ever be able to measure–will nevertheless stand you in good stead as few other traits or abilities will, and for years after your days of formal education are past.

Why we should train workers

My source for this image was via someone in my Twitter feed (which I unfortunately didn’t make note of).  Here is the article itself, from Brookings.

I am a couple of weeks late in getting this post up; the semester got up and running (it’s been good, so far), but the work of doing that and some family illnesses at home have cut into spare time for writing here.  As it happens, though, the work in class that I’m most proud of so far seems to me to run counter to the implications of the assertion in the image you see here.  We’ve done precious little thus far that overtly prepares you for work, much less prepares you as we would prepare intelligent machines for the work they do, and I’m quite proud of this fact: this past week, we’ve looked at some paintings and talked about some poems in our Comp I classes, and in Comp II we’ve talked about rhetorical appeals.  The rest of the semester, once we begin working on writing and research projects, will indeed have some value to you in your future careers and lives away from work; but, again, I won’t be training you as though you are machine-learning algorithms.  There are two pretty simple, obvious reasons for that: you already possess such an algorithm (though we still don’t quite understand how it works); and, for that matter, you’re already a far superior information processor, that even the fastest computers can only begin to approach in ability.  There’s also a third, more existential reason: You are, or should be, more than the work you will be hired to do.

It’s for these reasons that the assertion that accompanies the image is both deeply weird and more than a little lacking in awareness of what a good education should do for students.

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Jose Carlos Mariategui: An Anthology (a review)

Jose Carlos MariateguiJosé Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, ed. and trans. by Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (Monthly Review Press, 2011).  Amazon.

I want to state from the outset that I’m glad this book is available.  As Vanden and Becker note, Mariátegui is still not well known in this country, and this collection aims to both remedy that and augment the other, best-known (in the United States) collection of his writings, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality I had first run into  Mariátegui’s thought in a book on Faulkner, Hosam Aboul-Ela’s  Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition, and discuss at length Mariátegui’s idea that history is comprised of “stages that are not entirely linear in their development” as it might apply to Go Down, Moses’ narrative structure in  this old post.  Thanks to this anthology, I now know considerably more about Mariátegui’s thought than I had before.

Apart from his idea about history’s non-linear development, though, Mariátegui is fascinating to me more generally as an example of a thinker from Latin America (in his case, the Peru of the turn of the 20th century) who is drawn to a philosophy from Europe (in his case, Marxism) who, instead of slapping it on his country and region to use as a kind of one-size-fits-all template for making sense of its history and culture, does something almost like the reverse: he looks closely at his region and its people, its history and culture, and borrows and modifies elements from Marxism to make it a more-fitting tool for change.  As just one example: in several writings included in this anthology, Mariátegui implicitly notes the common root in the words communism and community and argues that Inca society had been its essence a communist society because of its communities’ agricultural lands had been held in common by the members of those communities: “Inca communism, which cannot be denied or disparaged, developed under the autocratic rule of the Incas, is therefore designated as an agrarian communism” (in “The Land Problem,” p. 73 of the present edition).  A kind of communism, thus, not only pre-dates Marx but is actually autochthonous to this hemisphere.  Mariátegui goes on to note that indigenous and mixed-race communities in Peru still retain this communal impulse as they tend to organize and work together to complete large-scale projects, and he concludes that Peru’s peasant class, with training and organizing led by people from those communities, would be receptive to those parts of communism that would lead to workers’ seeking to control the means of production (in most Peruvians’ case, this would mean controlling the land).  It is thinking like this, along with Mariátegui’s full-throated argument for the necessity of myth in a culture (thus rebutting orthodox Marxism’s rejection of religion), that explains simultaneously (for me) both Mariátegui’s continuing influence in Latin America and that he remains relatively unknown in this country.  And, indeed, Vanden and Becker write that  “Mariátegui’s writings . . . . represent the dynamic, creative vein in Marxist thought that can, we believe, best nourish cogent analyses and potent praxis” (9).

So, then, why is this book so frustrating at times?

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Maira: The Cannibalization of Iracema

Maira

Originally published in Brazil in 1978, this translation (by E. A. Goodland and Thomas Colchie) was published in 1984.

In her important study, Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (1991), Doris Sommer discusses a range of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novels from throughout Latin America that, she argues, were intended to create in readers a sense of national identity in the wake of independence.  These novels, she writes, “are almost inevitably stories of star-crossed lovers who represent particular regions, races, parties, economic interests, and the like.  Their passion of conjugal and sexual union spills over to a sentimental readership that hopes to win partisan minds along with hearts” (5).  We have no exact equivalent to these novels in the U.S., though Sommer discusses Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans as inspiration for some South American novelists; but, if one squints in a Leslie Fiedler kind of way, one can see how Huckleberry Finn would be an exact fit for the description Sommer provides.  For Brazilians, one such novel would be Iracema (1865), by José de Alencar (1829-1877), who was an important political figure in mid-nineteenth-century Brazil.  It allegorizes the origins of Brazil by means of the tale of the Tupi Indian woman Iracema (an anagram of “America”) and Martim, a Portuguese colonist, who together conceive a son; his birth, however, even as it symbolizes the emergence of the Brazilian people, also leads to Iracema’s death.  (Notably missing from this novel is the presence of the third race that, combined with indigenous and European peoples, led to the emergence of the Brazilian people: people of African descent brought to Brazil as slaves.  But all of that belongs, for now, in a discussion for another time.)

I am sharing all this because, while reading Darcy Ribeiro’s novel Maíra (1978) and becoming a bit frustrated with it as I did so, I finally realized that it is writing both in response to and against the romantic myth of Brazil’s founding that Iracema helped establish.  Moreover, it does so by turning Iracema‘s elements inside-out in an attempt not to re-mythologize Brazil’s past but to cannibalize that nation’s literary past so as to render the truth of Brazil’s present, at least as Ribeiro had come to understand it.

More below the fold.

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Blueberries for Sal, as retold by Jack London

(Disclaimer/spoiler alert: My wife recently bought Robert McCloskey’s classic book for my son’s first birthday;  I had never read it before and, even as I delighted in the story and its illustrations, I couldn’t help but catch glimpses of a naturalism narrative here and there in the text.

No children (or bears) were harmed in the making of this parody.)

 

Blueberries

The chechaquo meets Mother Bear.  Via.

One day, not yet winter but with the the chilly promise of winter in the air, little Sal went with her mother to Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries.

Little Sal brought along her small tin pail and her mother brought her large tin pail to put berries in.  “We will take our berries home and can them, said her mother.  “Then we will not die of starvation this winter when the animals we usually kill and eat have denned up to hide from the cold.”

But little Sal did not heed her mother’s advice.  She picked three berries and dropped them in her little tin pail, kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk! but then kept eating the berries she picked–even the ones in her pail!  “My mother is a womanish old woman,” Sal thought to herself.  “I have been cold and even hungry before.  We will not starve!”

Her mother walked slowly through the bushes, picking blueberries and putting them in her pail as though her survival depended on each and every one of them.  Little Sal struggled along behind, picking blueberries and eating every single one.  She even ate blueberries out of the pail her mother carried!  “We might starve to death this winter, but I won’t starve today!” Sal thought.

Her mother stopped picking and said, “Now, Sal, you run along and pick your own berries.  You must bring food back to the house, or Mother must leave you behind.  Mother wants to take her berries home and can them for next winter, and we will both starve if you eat all of yours and mine, too.”

Sal became tired of walking and sat down in the middle of a large clump of bushes and ate blueberries as though winter would never come, let alone become snowy and cold.  Her mother, seeing that Sal was lazy and weak, went off to pick more blueberries, abandoning Sal.  She briefly thought about returning to build a little fire for her, with a small pile of sticks to feed the flame, but she decided against it.  “It is not snowy and cold, so she does not need a fire,” Mother said.  “Sal has blueberries to eat for as long as she is able.  She will not suffer for a long while, here alone on the hill by herself.  I will not starve, at least!”

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The rise of Amazon and the loss(?) of place

To those of you reading this, Happy New Year, first and foremost.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a moment to write anything of real substance here.  The big (academic) deal, which I will write about in another post, is how teaching PrairyErth went this past fall.  However, this post is about that book, sort of–or, rather, mostly about the moment in time that that book was researched and written.  It is also about a book PrairyErth quotes from in several places, John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s classic work of landscape studies, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984).  All during the fall semester, the fact that PrairyErth is 27 years old kept rearing its head, in a good way: While much in Chase County has not really changed much from William Least Heat-Moon’s time to ours, our various engagements with that space and the issues raised in PrairyErth have changed as much because of the Internet as because of the simple passage of time.  When I began reading Jackson’s book last week, though, I had assumed its arguments, because of their historical and theoretical nature, would not require much if any modification, even more than 30 years later.  Jackson, in his defining of landscape as “a composition of man-made spaces on the land” (7, author’s italics) and distinguishing between political and inhabited landscapes (the latter being very similar to what people mean by “place”), is considerably more sanguine about the fate of rural life in this country than Heat-Moon or Wendell Berry is: so long as people maintain some sort of connection to physical space, Jackson argues, our various landscapes will evolve as on-the-whole positive responses to evolving human social needs.  Heat-Moon senses in the Chase countians he meets that most of them know better than a bunch of outsiders what’s best for their county; Berry’s argument that farm mechanization in the name of efficiency has killed the vitality of rural life and is itself not sustainable in the long term is the very embodiment of a de facto detachment from the land.

For whatever it may be worth, I don’t share Jackson’s optimism about the fate of rural life, either; but I’d assumed that I was responding in that way because of my reading of the aforementioned Heat-Moon and Berry.  But then recently I read something that reminded me, again, that the Web has reshaped our understanding of how humans are linked to topography: it has so reshaped it that it feels as though culturally we’re all but unmoored from topography, all but completing (Western) culture’s separation from Nature that began a little over a century ago with the advent of Modernism.

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Mid-July work

I have just now finished my first read-through of PrairyErth and will shortly begin to work my way through it again, this time looking at notes I’ve made in the book by passages that might serve well as jumping-off points for writing assignments for my class this fall.  So, this seems like a good time to take stock of academic-related work I’ve accomplished so far this summer.

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Living within Nature’s means: Some further thoughts on the Anthropocene novel

moby_dick_by_mumblingidiot-d36w1qz

One of the more striking images for Moby-Dick that I’ve come across; it seems to be as much about the novel’s ideas about the interaction between humans and Nature as about its central action. Source

As I worked toward a conclusion in my previous post, it occurred to me that some things yet remain to be said about the implications of using Naturalism’s presuppositions about the world and our place in it as a foundation on which to build the Anthropocene novel.  To point the reader toward Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and say “Here is something like a template for what those presuppositions would look like” is to say, in effect, that such novels would be dark indeed.

Well, many of them, yes.  But perhaps not all, or at least all the time.  But because Nature, in these novels, will Matter, such novels’ respective zeitgeists will be situated in such a way that human concerns and hopes and fears cannot but be depicted as direct responses to Nature–whether in accord with or defiance of Nature, no matter, but never independent of it, never with Nature as a passive backdrop or submissive setting, but always with it having an unmistakable bearing on the resolution of the narrative, usually “winning” or at least bending people to its will (whatever those might look like given Nature’s fearsome indifference), and yet itself remaining inscrutable.  In other words: if we’re looking at American literature for examples of what we might call proto-Anthropocene novels, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, canny as they occasionally are, through Natty Bumppo, about what we would now call sustainability, would not be models for Anthropocene novels; they are ultimately about human choices in dialogue with other human choices, but not in dialogue with Nature–at least, that latter dialogue seems not to rise to the level of narrative.  On the other hand, I’d nominate Melville’s Moby-Dick as a fine candidate for an Anthropocene novel (no “proto-” about it, come to think of it): the central activity of the novel, whaling, is an activity which God, speaking out of the whirlwind to Job, taunts Job (and the reader/listener) as something humans are supposed to be incapable of doing (recall that one of the novel’s Extracts is from Job); Ahab sees Nature, as embodied by the whale, as a malevolence he must try to overcome so as to understand his place in the cosmos; in contrast to Ahab, Ishmael’s post-Pequod musings on whale-ness end in the whale’s nature (and Nature itself) remaining inscrutable, as unreadable as those scars on some whales’ outer skin that resembles writing; Nature “wins.”  (And as I write this, I begin to realize there is much, much more to say about Moby-Dick within this context than I can here.)

Anyway.  Below the fold are some fairly knee-jerk, broad-stroke speculations regarding what Anthropocene novels might look like, along with some uninformed musing, combined with heavy reliance on John Berger and a shout-out to Dan Barber, about what an Anthropocene aesthetics arising from Nature might look like.

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“The trouble with him was that he was without imagination”: On a return to American naturalism for the Anthropocene-era novel

ToBuildAFire-1

An illustration of a scene from Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Via.

“Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea level rise,” he said. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.” –James Eskridge, mayor of Tangier Island, Virginia, an island that is now one-third the size it was in 1850. (Source)

If readers follow the link for the quote above, they will find that Mayor Eskridge says what he says above even as he was talking with President Trump about expediting the funding of a proposed jetty that, he hopes, will help mitigate the now-frequent inundation of his island by the sea.  Even occupying the space that he and his city do, responding as they are to the effects of climate change, the thing itself remains a term, an abstraction.  As Mayor Eskridge says, it is hard to see, which makes it even harder to imagine.  To which I would add that, encouraged at every turn by our culture to live in the Now and give as little thought to the past or future as possible, Mayor Eskridge easily could be–is–all of us in the collective.

Via my Facebook feed yesterday comes this fascinating short essay by Siddhartha Deb, “Stranger Than Fiction,” in The Baffler.  Here’s its core argument:

If [literary] fiction has been unable to come to terms with our steadfast rapaciousness, it is because to truly represent the ravages of the carbon economy involves understanding capitalism, and even nationalism, as failures, and this is not something contemporary fiction is capable of doing. This is why in the context of India, which Ghosh focuses on, there is almost no fiction that depicts the industrial disaster in Bhopal in 1984, or, in more recent years, the displacement of people by dams in central India or the ravaging of tribal communities by mining companies, including the uranium mining carried out in Jadugoda and that the Indian government is attempting to expand, against protests from local people, into the north-eastern state of Meghalaya where I am writing this.

In the United States too, even well meaning liberal fiction, often falling under the rubric of cli-fi, reveals itself as incapable in grappling with this. This is perhaps because to think of modern life as a failure, and to question the idea of progress, requires an extremism of vision or a terrifying kind of independence. An indie bestseller like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, set in an eco-apocalypse, features rhapsodies on the internet and electricity. Marcel Theroux in Far North includes a paean to modern flight as one of the finest inventions of “our race,” even though the effect of air travel on carbon emissions is quite horrific.

Fiction, in other words, suffers from its own kind of anthropocenization, one that owes as much to post-war prosperity in the West and to globalization, which succeeded in universalizing the obsession with individuals, character, and interiority that dominates writing programs and its reviewing culture. Even nature, resource extraction, and climate change, viewed through the filter of character, become a kind of exoticizing backdrop.

As I read this, I could not help but think back to both my understanding of Bakhtin’s argument about the novel-as-genre’s essential contemporaneity (no matter its setting) in his essay “Epic and Novel,” and to Fredric Jameson’s discussions of modernism and postmodernism in the opening pages of his Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  Each in its way indirectly explains, for me at least, the perceived failure of the novelistic imagination that Deb describes here, and they both got me to thinking what form the novel might take in order to grapple with the climatic (and climactic) consequences of the Anthropocene.

I find it interesting and important that the examples of narratives that Deb notes do engage in this grappling are written by Indians or Indian ex-pats, as if to suggest that one direction for the novel might be by way of pursuing to their eco-critically logical conclusions the tropes of the post-colonial novel.  That is a perfectly logical progression: colonialism, above all else, is a clear expression of capitalism, and the consensus seems to be that, all things considered, capitalism as manifested in colonies historically has not benefited the peoples in those colonies.  It may be a bit inaccurate to say that capitalism “failed” those peoples, since the colonial system was never intended to be of benefit to them.  Still, it is but a short leap, in this globalized world of ours, to argue that late capitalism has colonized all of us in some way, even the well-off among us: every time we turn on our smartphones or engage with social media or forget to disable cookies, we constantly supply, for free, the raw ore of data to be mined and processed by algorithms into information used to create or point us in the direction of real and virtual objects designed to shape our decisions and purchases.

As I read this essay, however, I kept returning in my mind to Deb’s phrase elsewhere in the essay, “imaginative fatigue,” and found myself remembering a sentence describing the anonymous subject of Jack London’s well-known short story, “To Build a Fire” (1908): “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.”  It seems to me that part of why writers for the moment have difficulty imagining the Great Climate Change Novel is that awareness of Nature qua Nature has pretty much been bred out of mainstream literary fiction’s DNA for well over a century now.  In view of this, such a novel would have to re-establish and fully embrace, make a priori, Nature’s presence as a character in it–not, however, in a Transcendentalist-like, rather benign way, but, rather, the reminder that ignorance of and indifference toward Nature will not help but lead to our collective impoverishment, if not literal demise, as a species.

Enter Jack London and the Naturalists as a possible model for an American version of this kind of novel.  But before they enter, I need to say a few things about Bakhtin and Jameson.

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Summer reading and writing

plaza de las tres culturas2

The memorial at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, commemorating the final defeat of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1521.  The last three lines of text read: “It was neither triumph nor defeat; it was the painful birth of the mestizo people that is today’s Mexico.”

Last week was my college’s Finals Week, so now the summer has arrived.  This academically-oriented to-do list for this summer that follows is, as the list progresses down the page, admittedly more aspirational in nature than anything else, seeing as well off even the margins of this particular list lie new-baby-oriented and puttering-around-the-house to-do lists.  But list-make we must.

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“Some old compass in the blood”: a rationale for Flint Hills Studies

CottonwoodFalls

The Chase County courthouse, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, the oldest state building in continuous use in Kansas.

This is the version that the curriculum committee and/or the Board of Trustees won’t see, but it will be the truer version:

It has been so long ago now, I no longer remember whether it was my first or second commencement as a member of Butler Community College (then still known as Butler County Community College–something I will return to later).  It was long ago enough, though, that I still felt myself to be a recent arrival here.  Nor was it the moment when I had an epiphany about the value of offering a course or courses on various aspects of this distinct region of the nation; that would come much, much later.  Still, it has stuck with me all this time, and in thinking about it now, it clearly is, indirectly, one of the reasons I think such a program of study would be valuable to offer to our students.

Whoever the commencement speaker was, he began by noting something I’d known since at least junior high school: that we were only a couple of hours to the southwest of the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states.  I instantly began writing the rest of his address in my head–the version I wanted him to give, at least: I’d been at Butler long enough to know that many of my students thought of themselves as living in the middle of nowhere, and so I became hopeful that, by using his geographical nugget as a kind of metaphor, he’d turn their nihilism on its head: “You’re not in the middle of nowhere–you’re at the center of everything!”

Of course, that address, whatever its eventual theme was, wasn’t the one I’d hoped for.  As I think back on that day, however, I am more and more persuaded, for various reasons, that our students need to hear something like the address I had imagined, and for this reason: We equip our students pretty well for the task of making their chosen way in world; however, though it’s true most of our graduates stick around here, I’m not sure that what we do actually gives them a reason (apart from family or work) to stay.  (Much) more existentially, many of my students also lack a sense of place, by which I mean “a sense of at least being from somewhere, if not a sense of connectedness to where they happen to be living now.”  I think that coursework whose subject is the Flint Hills would give them a context and intellectual tools that would help them find what William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth describes as “some old compass in the blood”–and if not for the Flint Hills, then for whatever place in which they happen to find themselves.

I think that such courses would also provide my college with a version of that compass.

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