Book Project Notes: “Where did Spring Break go?” edition

It’s been a “little victories” kind of week on the ol’ scholarship/writing front this week.  Here’s a list of what got done:

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Book Project Notes: Chapter II, Alternative Narratives, and Presuming to Speak


Caroline Barr (1840-1940), the Faulkner family maid, to whom William Faulkner dedicated Go Down, Moses.

I have begun transcribing some of my dissertation’s second chapter into Domestic Issue‘s Chapter I.  This will consist of a comparative reading of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Jorge Amado’s Tent of Miracles, out of which will emerge both some further elaborations of ideas developed in the prologue for this project (the idea of the New World as a space whose difficulty in being read has its starting point in the land and/but manifests itself most overtly in human beings via racial intermixing, as articulated chiefly by Glissant and Santiago, with an assist from Foucault’s notion of heterotopia). I’ll also be rereading both these novels to account for any changes in my thinking and try to integrate, as needed, the ideas from the prologue.

Also making their appearance here will be two new ideas to throw into the mix.  The first, which I call Astonishment, is the narrative moment in which either the narrator or a character in the narrative (and maybe even on occasion, I will suggest, the writer himself/herself) is unable to articulate what s/he is experiencing.  In the texts I’ll be examining from here on out, Astonishment occurs when the narrator or character suddenly becomes aware that s/he is in the presence of someone of mixed race, but I will make the claim that it is also a trope for the initial Encounter between Europeans and the landmasses of the Western Hemisphere.  (By the way, Astonishment as I will be describing it in this chapter is not something that occurs in the so-called tragic mulatto narratives that were popular in this country in the 19th century; in those, the woman’s (with very few if any exceptions, the “tragic mulatto” character is a woman) origins are often so obviously telegraphed to the reader that when the revelation occurs, the only person surprised is the woman herself, and perhaps her would-be husband.)  Into that void of unarticulateable wonder rushes the rhetoric of Apocalypse, meant here in its twin senses of “destruction” and “revelation”: the wrecking of old orderings of and assumptions about the world, and the glimpse of the beginnings of a re-ordering that is not yet identifiable (here revisiting as well from the prologue the idea of the New World as an indeterminate space), which, certainly in the primary texts in this chapter but also in the ones to follow in this project, miscegenation certainly causes.

The other idea, which I will develop in the chapter that follows this one, is what I am calling “a language.”  I’ve italicized the “a” because Foucault argues that heterotopias have their own language; we cannot merely import languages from spaces outside them and expect them to be adequate to the task of describing who or what occupies those spaces.  The italicized “a,” therefore, is meant to indicate that that language cannot be just any already-existing language but one generated from within that space by its members; we, listening in on the language of this space, can identify it as a language but can comprehend it imperfectly at best.

So, then, that is the outline for the chapter.  Below the fold, I want to talk through a couple of (very) big-picture matters that have to do with my position relative to the materials I am working with, not to mention the arguments I’m making about those materials.

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Book-project Progress

It is the last day of July; next week, I will turn away from daily work on Domestic Issue in favor of getting things ready for the new semester, which begins in three weeks.  So, mostly just for me (but also, obviously, for anyone who happens to come upon this post), I thought I’d post a little “How I Spent My Summer, Scholarship-Wise” post.

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So, why am I writing this book again??

To be clear, I’ve known why; however, someone looking at my vita and seeing where I teach now and where I’ve taught before, and how long it’s been since I obtained my doctorate, might wonder.  Why now, after all this time?  So, I’d like to point that person to this essay by David Perry (thanks to my FB friend Kendra Leonard for linking to it), and in particular to this paragraph:

For me, the key was realizing that I was writing this book solely for myself. I believed I knew some things about history that were important and would contribute to a field of study to which I have dedicated much of my life. I believed that the best way to communicate my findings was via a long-form monograph, rather than chopped into discrete articles. I did not, and do not, expect this book to transform my career. A new study shows that perceptions of prestige matter at least as much as quality of work in terms of hiring at top jobs, so no matter what I write, those perceptions are static.
In addition to Perry’s discussion of the academic and professional aspects of things, I would add two things.  One, it’s been immensely gratifying to do some reading of recent work on culture in Latin America and find that, on the whole, my arguments that I’d made way back when in the diss.  seem germane to these recent discussions (when, I confess, I had my doubts as I was writing the thing).  This is important to me because, given the nature of the classes I teach at Butler, I get little space in the classroom to explore these ideas, and I really need that intellectual outlet.  The other thing I would add that has been true for me is I tell my students: they will be more engaged, if not happier writers if, whenever possible, they can think of their academic writing as a creative act, as a form of self-expression.  To put things delicately, because I’m not up against a deadline, it’s been easy to, um, become distracted from the task; when I am working diligently, though, I’m learning things I hadn’t known I believed about New World writing, and I’m having a pretty good time in the process (even when, as now, I’m in the middle of unsnarling a rather tangled section of the Columbus chapter).  I’d also add as a corollary that if we’re regularly engaged in writing and researching, we can speak from those experiences as we teach, counsel, and advise our students regarding their own writing.
So.  I’m doing this because, as Perry says of his own book,  I think I have something to contribute to discussions about the literatures and cultures of the Americas, and–just as importantly–I want to have some intellectual fun.  I would hope that others of you who find yourselves in similar circumstances can see your way clear to say the same thing about your work.