On MOOCs, and telescopic philanthropy


Every reader of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House will remember the character Mrs. Jellyby, a woman whose “telescopic philanthropy” leaves her domestic life in disarray. Mrs. Jellyby is devoted to the cause of the people from a village in Africa, “Borrioboola-Gha.” With eyes that look as if they “could see nothing nearer than Africa,” Mrs. Jellyby is so preoccupied by this imaginary faraway place that she utterly neglects the world around her. 

Mrs. Jellyby has been on my mind lately in connection to a question about the measure of responsibility that institutions as well as individuals have to serve and support their local communities. The question of what institutions and individuals may owe to their surroundings resurfaced for me when the Community Development Department of Cambridge MA released its report on poverty in the city last month. The results, based on census data for the years 2009-11, are not encouraging. The report shows, among other things, high degrees of poverty among black and Latino/a residents of the city — slightly higher than the national average in both cases. Poverty in Cambridge is densely concentrated too, with a significant percentage of the city’s poor clustered in only six census tracts in the city. North Cambridge, where I live, contains almost a quarter of Cambridge’s poor (see figure). Another significant area of poverty is concentrated on the perimeters of the Kendall Square technology hub near MIT, in Area IV and East Cambridge. Cambridge is sometimes depicted as an enclave of political progressivism even within the left-leaning state of Massachusetts. But the data on poverty in the city effectively dismantles any such illusions about the “Peoples’ Republic of Cambridge,” showing the presence of deep economic and racial inequality within its borders. 

I live in a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city and am so not entirely surprised by the information revealed in the report. But the report is sobering and important for making the extent of the problem plainly visible. It seems to me impossible that residents of Cambridge could meet news of a crisis of this extent with complacency. The city council is taking the information seriously, and I hope that other communities in and around Cambridge do the same. The report points to a matter of urgent concern for the city, necessitating concerted action. 

What can Cambridge’s universities do to serve their city and local communities in the midst of a crisis of widespread poverty? What can and does the university in general do to address problems of poverty and vast income equality in its neighborhoods? In posing these questions I am reminded that universities in Massachusetts enjoy tax exemption on grounds that “citizen education [i]s an essential governmental function.” When addressing what universities specifically do to support the communities of which they are a part, university administrations often reply, as does the University of Massachusetts Treasurer’s Office on the website linked above, that institutions of higher learning serve their communities most effectively as hubs for citizen education.  

One form of educational outreach for which Harvard and MIT are now widely known, of course, is their development of online learning initiatives including MOOCs. As edX president Anant Agarwal recently affirmed, “Improving global access to high-quality education has been a key edX goal from day one.” Massively open online courses are often remarked on for their potential in facilitating global outreach (or more pessimistically, cultural colonialism) by elite institutions of higher education. A New York Times story this fall, “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator,” gave an in-depth anecdotal account of how a Mongolian child who participated in MITx’s electrical engineering MOOCs did so well that he subsequently obtained admission to MIT. The article presented MITx and related endeavors as poised to serve as a global farm system for unrecognized talent from poor communities worldwide. But HarvardX researcher Justin Reich observed in a blog post that the “boy genius” in question had in fact enjoyed the considerable advantages of a supportive network of adult mentors around him, which prepared the ground for his academic success and recognition by MIT. The inspiring story of a Mongolian village boy whose life was changed by MOOCs, plucked from obscurity by one of the world’s leading educational institutions in science and technology, was partly fictional. 

I have been saying for a while now that I would like to see MOOCs do more to include in their outreach efforts those populations nearest to them as well as those farthest away. In a blog post last year, I proposed that MOOCs might be involved in a broader effort to strengthen local and community ties:

[I]n addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?

In thinking about how the energies and educational resources of elite institutions might be brought more fully to bear to one of the most urgent issues facing the city today, I would not be understood to seek an exclusively technological solution to complex problems; nor do I mean to suggest that such a solution exists. It’s not impossible that blended learning environments created with the purpose to engage the local community would be ultimately ineffective in addressing the problem of poverty in the city. Indeed we could find to be truth what some have already suspected, that the MOOC is a fundamentally ineffective medium, the modern equivalent of Mrs. Jellyby’s ceaseless letters on behalf of Borriobhoola-Gha. But simple one-sided philanthropy of this order will clearly not be enough. A mission of outreach and engagement with the local community would obviously require a greater investment than the bequest of iPads to students in chronically underfunded school districts, or the introduction of One Laptop Per Child in impoverished regions of the globe. I remain interested in how the digital medium, so long conceived as enabling a flight from materiality, might play a role in creating learning communities and engaging residents on the streets where we live and work. Poverty is a matter of shared concern, for which collaborative and creative thinking of local communities is urgently needed — “by any medium necessary.”

Literary theory class this term

I’m excited to be teaching for the first time 21L.451 Literary Theory, on accounts of feeling and “the feelings” in aesthetics and affect theory (I put a very rudimentary course website here). I knew I wanted to cover a lot of ground, and to break somewhat from the theory survey format. The title of the class, “Feeling in Theory,” is brazenly ripped off from Rei Terada’s great book of that title (which I regret is not on the syllabus itself; I may try to correct that oversight in weeks ahead).

I will ask students (one per class session) to bring to class a cultural object in any medium suggested by the day’s assigned reading — something that can be usefully discussed in relation to the reading, in support of the argument or not. Cultural objects that have been brought into the class discussion are indicated below in brackets. Let’s see how it goes!

M 2/10 Plato, selected dialogues [Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965); Red Bull commercial]

W 2/12 Longinus, On the Sublime [a clip from Transformers 2, illustrating how the artist may be “carried away, as though by drunkenness, into outbursts of emotion which are not relevant to the matter at hand” (103)]

T 2/18 Edmund Burke on the sublime and beautiful [the aural sublime: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring]

W 2/19 Immanuel Kant, from Critique of Judgment [no cultural object today, as I wisely deemed the hour would be better spent staring at the text in a state of desperate stupefaction]

M 2/24 William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads [scenes of everyday life and labor in 19th-century paintings by Gustave Courbet, Winslow Homer and others]

W 2/26 Karl Marx, from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; Theses on Feuerbach [“Of the butchers and floorsmen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb” — excerpts from The Jungle by Upton Sinclair]

M 3/3 Sigmund Freud, from The Interpretation of Dreams [E.A. Poe, “A Dream within a Dream”; e.e. cummings, “You are tired”]

W 3/5 T.S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets”; W.K. Wimsatt, “The Affective Fallacy”

M 3/10 Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” [Chaplin as the Tramp in Modern Times; Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation]

W 3/12 Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”

M 3/17 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”

W 3/19 Roland Barthes, from The Pleasure of the Text; Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” [“What you see is what you see.” –Frank Stella]

M 3/31 Stanley Cavell, “Aesthetic Problems in Modern Philosophy”

W 4/2 Cavell, from The Senses of Walden

M 4/7 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” [Your gaze hits the side of my face]; Michel Foucault, from Discipline and Punish [in the U.S., ongoing debates about “the humane way” of putting individuals to death]

W 4/9 Foucault, from The Use of Pleasure (The History of Sexuality, vol. 2) [the sins of the flesh; the pleasures and temptations of the flesh]

M 4/14 Deleuze, “Percept, Affect, and Concept,” in What is Philosophy?

W 4/23 Jacques Rancière, “Aesthetics as Politics”

M 4/28 Leo Bersani “Is the Rectum a Grave?”

W 4/30 Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading”

M 5/5 Lauren Berlant, “Affect in the Present” “Cruel Optimism” [Robert D. Putnam, “Crumbling American Dreams,” The New York Times, 3 August 2013]

W 5/7 Berlant, “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event” [from Hermann Hesse’s Demian: “How strange that the stream of the world was not to bypass us any more…”]

M 5/12 Sianne Ngai, “Stuplimity”

W 5/14 Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” [cute politics; “Giga Pudding”]

A new humanities?


MIT has begun to promote something it calls the “New Humanities,” and to advertise the “Initiatives” associated with this field. To judge on the basis of the projects under this banner, research in the “new humanities” involves the production and use of digital tools, and/or has as its object of analysis some aspects of contemporary digital culture. The campaign is no doubt partly intended for students interested in pursuing careers in computing, of which there are of course many here, and no doubt for the parents of these students (and prospective students) as well. The specific initiatives are all of them valuable; I’m an active contributor to at least one, MIT’s Annotation Studio.

What constitutes “new humanities” work is somewhat scantly defined. There is for instance no compelling reason why the term should not refer to many exciting and innovative kinds of humanistic inquiry being carried out today, including but not limited to digital humanities and new media studies. If the “new humanities” is understood to include the humanities as it is carried out on a computer, moreover, how is this field to be distinguished from every conceivable project in the humanities today? Finally, who is the “new human” that will be served by the “new humanities”? It is true that the sensorium changes over the course of human history — Marx teaches us this; so does Walter Benjamin (both significant producers of knowledge in the humanities). Though they carry more smartphones and tablet computers today, however, students have not notably changed physical form in the years I’ve been teaching.

I go on at length about this rather trivial piece of nomenclature in order to underscore the point – so self-evident as to seem not worth mentioning, were the point not also sometimes contested – that new questions, topics and approaches arise in all sorts of humanities research, all the time. As Natalia Cecire recently pointed out in an excellent and widely-circulated blog post, the humanities are continually producing new objects and modes of knowledge. The humanities do this, Natalia observes, much to the disappointment of those who would like to see the humanities dismissed as a relic, an obsolete pursuit, a merely preservationist field. Myths of its moribundity are just that; they are myths propagated through ignorance or willful blindness to what the humanities actually do – to the work of the humanities inside and outside classroom and university walls. Through a sort of learned ignorance about the humanities, Natalia writes, some describe it as dedicated to producing “old, unchanging narratives about the usual suspects” – those usual suspects being the Great Books, the best that has been thought and said, the dead White men (with maybe a few women and persons of color thrown in). Natalia rightly notes that the truth is entirely different: “at the university level, the humanities, like every other field, is a field in the making. New knowledge is being created all the time.”

Natalia’s post is really great; she builds a better case for the timeliness and urgency of work in the humanities than I can hope to do here. In this post I will do little more than pose a question about the “new humanities,” both as an object of institutional advertising and as a condition for innovation in humanistic research: Is knowledge in the humanities progressive? Does research in the humanities develop incrementally in the way we understand the sciences to do? The question has preoccupied some humanists in the past (I’ll touch on a few of these in a moment), but seems for the most part to have fallen out of fashion. Yet an unexamined assumption that the humanities – branches of them, at least – are not progressive, that theoretical and scholarly movements lead nowhere, has nevertheless survived as an occasional topic of complaint.

Are the humanities progressive? More may still hang on this question, or on tacit answers to this question, than we have suspected.

When in 1814 William Hazlitt asked whether the arts are progressive, the answer was decisively no. The arts are absolutely different from the sciences on this ground, Hazlitt asserted, for the notion of progress “applies to science, not to art.” Hazlitt perceives plainly how the question is stacked against the arts. More than that, though, Hazlitt rejects the premise of the question as a comparison of apples to oranges. To pose the question is to misunderstand the specificity of the objects under consideration. The idea that the arts like the sciences could be progressive is “a common error, which has grown up…from transferring an analogy of one kind to something quite distinct, without thinking of the nature of the things.”

Hazlitt’s inquiry of course concerns the “fine arts” – painting, sculpture, music, poetry, etc. – and not the humanities as that field is typically understood to involve the interpretation of these objects (and more). Indeed we may be surprised to find that Hazlitt places the craft of interpretation in the progressive camp, including biblical criticism alongside chemistry, geometry, and astronomy among those fields of study that have shown progressive improvement over time. In general, though, Hazlitt imagines a impassable border between science (progressive) and the genius of the arts, and seems if anything to identify literary or art criticism with the latter. Hazlitt’s distinction seems too stark today, as does his assertion that “genius” is essentially and absolutely unquantifiable. The arts and humanities do of course regularly make use of “the advantages which time and circumstances have placed within our reach,” though Hazlitt regards these as at best incidental to the perfection of the arts.

Iris Murdoch takes up a discipline-specific version of the question of whether the humanities are progressive in the opening paragraph of her 1964 essay, “The Idea of Perfection.” Like Hazlitt, Murdoch begins by acknowledging the tone of irritation and complaint with which people frequently observe a lack of progress in philosophical work. And like Hazlitt, she concedes the point immediately.

It is sometimes said, either irritably or with a certain satisfaction, that philosophy makes no progress. It is certainly true, and I think this is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning: a thing which is not at all easy to do. There is a two-way movement in philosophy, a movement towards the building of elaborate theories, and a move back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts. McTaggart says that time is unreal, Moore replies that he has just had his breakfast. Both these aspects of philosophy are necessary to it.

Whereas Hazlitt insists on a stark contrast between the timeless arts and the timeliness of the sciences, Murdoch argues that the discipline of philosophy necessarily moves in two directions at once: its movement is both progressive, generating new concepts and pointing out new directions of thought, and regressive or recursive, continually returning to its source and to the encounter with “simple and obvious facts.” These operations – McTaggart’s skepticism, Moore’s common sense – are inseparable and equally essential to the constitution of knowledge in the discipline.

That the humanities, in addition to being characterized by ceaseless innovation, also involves the recovery or rediscovery of things long known may be one of the most difficult things to explain or “defend” about it. Another way of saying this is that the humanities seems so frequently to require defense because of the complicated and seemingly contradictory course that routes to research discovery can take. Murdoch and Hazlitt both identify in the question of whether the arts and humanities are progressive an undercurrent of resentment, hostility or complacency towards these pursuits. A distinctly negative attitude surrounds things of the past; we are a people who hold our breath as we pass graveyards and cemeteries. One reason for the distaste seems clear enough: the past is a principle of drag on the present, or more precisely on the present’s imagined futurity. I remember that in Wisconsin the roads designated “rustic roads” had signs plastered all over with the slogan “a positive step backward.” The seemingly unnecessary adjective “positive” struck me as an odd, funny-in-a-vaguely-sad-way acknowledgement. The emphasis is there to forestall anticipated objections that to “step backward” is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I find these thoughts about whether the humanities are progressive have led me to ask a very different set of questions about humanities research – not concerning its timelessness exactly, but about its recursivity, its attraction to the past, to the ordinary and obvious. Engaging inquisitively and productively with the world around it, work in the humanities reaches to the past (as does my colleague Peter Donaldson’s Global Shakespeares project or the innovative project Visualizing Cultures), often bringing back with it stuff that nobody thinks of, or hardly, but which everybody somehow already knows. The humanities moves culture – it directs ideas and shapes history, is a reliably progressive endeavor – partly because it moves us to repeated contemplation of (and confrontation with) these “simple and obvious facts.” In this kind of innovative research, the “new humanities” will not be found in contradiction with an “old.”

On Drake; or, private media


In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.            – D.W. Winnicott

Do people write appreciations of Drake anymore? A lot of the discourse about him is pretty negative these days. Just as Drake arrives as one of the undisputed leaders of contemporary hip-hop, his reputation seems to diminish considerably. Could Drake, of all people, require a defense?

Of course, one suspects that this kind of attention suits a figure like Drake just fine. It is not necessary for us, after all, to like Drake, so long as we keep hearing and listening to his songs. The Drake Product needs only to remain in the awareness of others; the specific content of our feelings is mostly irrelevant. In a review for the New York Times, Jon Caramanica calls Nothing Was The Same, Drake’s third and latest studio album, the definitive announcement of the “Tough Drake era.” Spin, presumably less taken with this new voice, calls the album “cold and isolated.” The braggadocio of the album’s first single, the anthemic “Started from the Bottom,” raised doubts of Rick Ross proportions about the authenticity of its narrative. With another of the album’s hit songs, “All Me,” Drake reaffirmed this stance of independent self-actualization: “Came up, that’s all me; stayed true, that’s all me; no help, that’s all me; that’s all me, for real.”

One of my recent blog posts was about Wordsworth; this post about Drake, which I guess could be considered a sort of companion piece, ventures a very few thoughts about another famous egotist. In a rather instrumental way I will make some thoughts about Drake lead to consideration of a broad and somewhat amorphous domain I’m calling “private media.” Social media has commanded attention now for so long that it feels at once inevitable and strange to attend to the nominally opposite “private sphere,” and to mediated practices of asociality or anti-sociality, esotericism or self-withholding. I think of private (“antisocial,” “nonparticipatory”) media as referring to a wide array of practices, products & platforms that make anonymity, singularity, or hermeticism central to the user experience or to the medium concept as such. In attaching this concept to Drake I obviously don’t mean to suggest that he or his music is any less “public.” I mean simply to mark Drake’s insistence on the irreducibility of private experience; and from this fact I make a (dramatically abbreviated) case for the relevance of this private sphere to understanding some aspects of hip-hop and other popular media.

“Private Media” was the subject of a panel I convened for the 8th Media in Transition conference at MIT last spring, with brilliant presentations by Natalia Cecire, Yohei Igarashi, and Stefan Helmreich (Tressie McMillan Cottom was scheduled to present but missed the conference due to illness). The conference title was “Public Media, Private Media,” and the panel was initially motivated by the question of what a “private medium” could actually be, given that most existing definitions of the medium emphasize its status as a channel for communication, and thus social in its structure. The medium concept typically presumes the existence of a public, without which there would be no need for the medium to exist. Nancy Baym and danah boyd speak to this widespread assumption when they write that the terms “Media and ‘public’ have always been intertwined.” Working somewhat against the grain of these associations, the panel was an early attempt to define some characteristics of private media practice, tracing its expression in objects as diverse as experimental poetry (Cecire), legal cases of search and seizure (Igarashi), and seashells (Helmreich), whose involuted forms offer a visual figure for the “private medium” as such. 

I want to claim now that Drake, spectacularly popular as he is, inhabits an interesting position in the much broader arena of what I’m calling private mediation. Characteristic of Drake’s work is the detailed reporting of private experience. The toughness and aggressive me-centeredness of Drake’s recent work is in one sense only surprising in the context of his extraordinary career. Drake is widely thought of as having opened hip-hop to a greater range of emotional depth, mainly through crooning love songs and stark confessions of emotional vulnerability. Mark Fisher calls Drake’s signature move “the transition from rap to singing, the slipping down from ego-assertion into a sensual purring.” The shift from rapping to singing may correspond to a shift in emotional register, as Fisher notes. Even in his raps, though, Drake moves with disarming rapidity between boasting and confession:

In person I am everything and more,I’m everywhere these other niggas never been before
But inside I’m treading waters steady trying to swim ashore (“Successful”)

As a singer too, Drake makes similarly rapid transitions between invocations of rap cliché and the confrontation with stark emotional truths:

I be yelling out money over everything, money on my mind
Then she wanna ask when it got so empty (“Headlines”)

These confessions and indications of emotional conflict have led Drake to be characterized as a guy who’d rather read you his diary than his bank statement.” The diaristic content of Drake’s work is more often offered in his songs through the medium of the telephone. The song “Marvin’s Room,” from the second studio album Take Care, is sung as if it were an extended late-night plaint over the phone to a former lover (“I’m just saying you could do better”). “Look What You’ve Done,” from the same album, ends with the recording of a voicemail message from his late grandmother. 

At the same time that Drake has made the reporting of inner experience a staple of his work, however, he highlights as well its difficulty (if not impossibility). The phone calls dramatized in “Marvin’s Room” and recorded in “Look What You’ve Done” represent, after all, missed connections rather than moments of successful communication. We think of music, to paraphrase Madonna (someone whose decades of pop success make her an authority on this subject), as art that invites us into a collective experience. Contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar and Lorde invoke the provisional coming-together of collectives made up of the disaffected and/or disenfranchised. Instead, Drake fashions an intimate public predicated on the irreducibility and inaccessibility of private experience. 

With these gestures, Drake dramatizes the two competing impulses that Winnicott, in the epigraph above, attributes to the artist in general: the urge to communicate and the urge not to be found. Drake’s genius sometimes turns on the reversibility of these two positions, at a point where the disclosure of inner experience meets the assertion of its inaccessibility. In the album of the same title, the phrase “take care” evokes intimacy and solidarity (“I’ll take care of you,” Rihanna sings in the refrain to “Take Care”) at the same time that it reminds us, with menace, of our own vulnerability (as in the closing lines of the song “The Ride”).  

“Art,” Stanley Cavell wrote in a famous essay on music, “is often praised because it brings men together. But it also separates them.” The outcomes may be indifferent for Drake, divided as the music is between the impulses of communication and self-concealment. One finds a small but telling example of this self-division in the spoken words that open “The Ride,” the final track of Take Care:  

I hate when – I hate when people say they feel me, man. I hate that shit. It’ll be a long time before y’all feel me – if ever.

If I feel you, I understand you, I sympathize with your situation. But Drake rejects the possibility of our identification; we can’t know or even imagine what it’s like to be him. The superstar musician is literally untouchable: “Walking through airport security with your hat down / Instead of getting a patdown, they just keep on saying that they feel you.” The trope of untouchability in “The Ride” at once cites (“Can’t Touch This”) and brings up to date the rapper’s conventional boast that he is so ahead of the game that competitors stand no chance. In literal and figurative senses, Drake declares his exemption from the necessity of being “felt.” Characteristically, though, Drake modifies the trope to make the expression of irritation stand at the borders of a claim to the incommunicability of experience (“I hate when…I hate that shit”). The testimony of inner experience asserts the impossibility of what the reporting of inner experience is conventionally expected to produce (the sympathetic union of the speaker with the audience). We are invited to share Drake’s feelings only to be reminded that Drake’s feelings can have no reality for us whatsoever.

This paradoxical stance of something shared and unshared, both public and private, is I think crucial to what we can (with equal alertness to paradox) call Drake’s private media presence. I am not the most qualified to answer how far these developments in the language of rap reflect or overlap with developments in the music industry today. It is at least striking to note how as the reach and influence of hip-hop has expanded dramatically, so too has the iconic object associated with its playback decisively shifted, from the boom box 


to the headphones.


Drake’s equivocal assertions of privacy raise questions barely addressed here too about race, power, and privilege. How many black men today are able to experience undisturbed privacy in an age of stop & frisk, “random” traffic stops and security checks, and mass incarceration? What factors influence whether and how a young black male will seek to go undetected in contemporary life? and how successful in this will he be? What vectors of class and prejudice determine whether a black man will experience the self’s inaccessibility instead as a condition of involuntary isolation, of being an invisible man in public circumstances? These questions too are bound up in Drake’s music and in hip-hop’s language of private experience.

For Wordsworth, what is private in the artist’s work can arise from a failure to communicate inner experience or to be understood, whether from “the inadequateness of our own powers, or the deficiencies of language.” But the artist’s asociality may just as plausibly derive from the rejection of a straightforwardly communicative role for language. One thinks of Dickinson’s famous eschewals of a public for her art, or Wordsworth’s account of the poet’s “peculiar language, when expressing his feelings for his own gratification, or that of men like himself.” In both cases, involuntary or voluntary, the notion of private media may be more broadly applicable to what Winnicott calls the “incommunicado element” of human subjects and human language. How this incommunicado element is translated into contemporary artistic and cultural practice — how popular media forms may support non-communicative ends alongside more obviously communicative ones — is a subject worth closer attention.


Romanticism panels at the MLA

I am not going to the MLA convention in Chicago this year. Can’t say that I’m very broken up about the fact, either.

For those who are going to be at MLA, however, and particularly for those with an interest in British and European Romantic studies, I am forwarding (from the NASSR-L) the following note from the distinguished Romanticist Tilottama Rajan, along with a list produced by Mark Canuel of all the Romanticism panels at the convention.  “Vulnerable times” indeed:

Mark Canuel has put together a list of all the Romantics panels at the MLA, including the NASSR panels on “Romantic Systems” and “Wasting Romanticism.” Please try to attend as many panels as you can. The MLA is monitoring attendance at sessions, with a view to eliminating or merging divisions in historical areas, and generally reducing the numbers of panels in these areas. WE have already seen the beginnings of this process in the proposal to merge “Late 18thc British” with “Restoration and Early 18thc”: a proposal on which there has been a great deal of pushback. The idea of merging the Romantics and Victorians was also floated, and the Victorianists were not unhappy about it, though the Romantics Division wrote strongly against it. But we could be next on the chopping block …


A little thing

UCR Fund Recipient

So much has been written already about the recent online beef between Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka), the adjunct faculty member, higher ed blogger and journalist, and the historian Claire Potter, aka “Tenured Radical” (@tenuredradical); I am not eager to add one thing more. The occasion of the Schuman-Potter dispute was the revelation on Rebecca’s blog that the English department of the University of California at Riverside would not contact those it intended to interview for its tenure-track position (in American literature before 1900) until January 3, less than a week before the MLA convention in Chicago. Schuman wrote the blog post about this news that went viral; in response, Potter wrote the blog post attempting, somewhat peremptorily, to shut down the controversy as an isolated and irrational instance of academic “rage.”

I objected then, as I do now, to the personal and somewhat condescending terms of Potter’s assessment. I understand anger at a broken system to be more than “merely” personal. In response to this flare-up, Chuck Rybak, Timothy Burke and others have issued sensible calls for solidarity between adjuncts and those on the tenure-track. As these bloggers observe, both populations of university employees are subject to the same forces at the hands of university presidents; both populations too make a small part of a much larger trend toward the casualization of employment in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The dispute between Schuman and Potter has quieted down in the meantime, though a general climate of dis-ease remains in the run-up to the MLA convention. How could it not? The deep inequities of a broken system show more dramatically these days. What faith can we bestow in a “profession” that (as quite a few perceive it) has disappeared in all but name? Why do we ask job-seekers and adjunct faculty to defend institutions that have shown them no favors? What loyalty to the preservation and maintenance of tenure can we expect from those who have been systemically excluded from participation in it?

When I created an Indiegogo campaign to help send to MLA those chosen by UCR for an interview, I wanted a way to contribute to a heated conversation then passing without participating directly in it. I created the campaign to show my support for Rebecca, a writer I greatly respect and admire even where I disagree with some of her opinions. Admittedly, I created the campaign from a sense of anger too, much less at UCR than at Potter’s attempt to rationalize and shut down criticism of its practice. (It took virtually no time to establish an account with Indiegogo and create the campaign — certainly less time than it took Tenured Radical to write a seemingly disinterested follow-up post on the importance of preserving social media etiquette.) Above all, I created the campaign in a gesture of solidarity with graduate students and adjuncts on the academic job market.

To date, 27 people have contributed more than $800 to this hastily-produced campaign. (I chose the fundraising goal more or less arbitrarily; that the campaign is not likely to reach the established goal is I think no indication of its having been a failure.) Contributions came from friends, colleagues, and strangers; from the tenured, junior faculty on the tenure track, adjunct faculty, and graduate students (some of them on the market themselves). Contributions came from academics from fields outside English, and from non-academics as well.

Some may think the gesture misplaced, or mean-spiritedly directed at UCR on account of a technical error. To the latter objection: I am not personally acquainted with anyone in the UCR English department. At the end of the day, moreover, I am glad and grateful that UCR has a tenure line open at all, and that they choose to interview for a specialist in “old” material (being a person who works on such material myself). I wish them the best of luck in their search.

That a fundraising campaign targeted to assist those interviewing at one school does not solve larger problems with the academic job market seems obvious, and somewhat beside the point. I am delighted that the contributions received will help one candidate who has stepped forward at least. But the campaign does not pretend to solve anything so much as its gesture intends, in a small way, to make visible the extent of the problem.

Many thanks are due to the contributors to this campaign — you know who you are — and to those many of you who helped me get the word out about it. I want particularly to acknowledge the assistance of Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya), Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), and the inimitable Rebecca Schuman.

Wordsworth on the senses

I recently delivered to Cambridge University Press the final version of a short (ca. 3500 word) essay for the book Wordsworth in Context, edited by Andrew Bennett.  I include roughly the first half of that essay here.  Parenthetical references refer to the Cornell Wordsworth editions and to the Prose Works from Oxford, the standard scholarly editions.  BL refers to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria from the Princeton Collected Works of Coleridge.  The image below, dated 1800, is a dig at Frenchified sensuality by Wordsworth’s contemporary Thomas Rowlandson.Gratification-of-the-senses-a-la-mode-francois-Rowlandson-LWL-729x1024

   Few poets before or since Wordsworth have made sensation and the bodily senses more central to their poetic theory and practice.  Wordsworth’s famous ‘experiment’ in literary language, as articulated at the outset of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, is conceived as a venture to impart pleasure ‘by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’ (LB, 741). From the beginning of this programmatic document, Wordsworth makes the representation and/or evocation of sense experience central to his poetic project in at least three related ways. Wordsworth asserts, first, that the poetry concerns itself with particularly elevated expressions of passion or feeling (‘vivid sensation’), either on the part of the lyric speaker or of the characters depicted, or both.  Second, this experiment in poetic representation is principally designed to produce pleasure; as Lionel Trilling observed years ago, Wordsworth’s commitment to what he calls the ‘grand elementary principle of pleasure’ (LB, 752) and to the centrality of pleasure to poetry is virtually unprecedented in literary history.[1] Finally, Wordsworth designates poetic meter as a privileged medium for the communication of vivid sensation, either raising passion or lowering it as required for the poet’s specific purposes.

            With such statements, Wordsworth establishes the dependence of poetry, as much as the poet, on the senses, and on the ‘elementary feelings’ that follow from them (LB, 743).  In some of the most characteristically Wordsworthian lyrics – ‘The Solitary Reaper’ or ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud,’ for instance – the physical and cognitive activity of sensing takes center stage, to become the focus of representation as much almost as the perceived object itself.  Seemingly simple impressions of seeing or hearing reverberate in the speaker’s mind long after its passing: ‘The music in my heart I bore, / Long after it was heard no more’ (PTV, 185). The senses are thus directly connected to poetic inspiration, and serve as vehicles of self-expression: in Wordsworth’s famous formula, ‘Poetry…takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (LB, 756), which in representing also re-creates the ‘powerful feelings’ that lay at its source. But Wordsworth makes clear too that both poet and poetry are dependent on a generalized ‘atmosphere’ of feeling, and on sensations that may be singular in nature but are attached to no determinate subject position.[2] Of the poet, Wordsworth writes: ‘though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings’ (LB, 753). This ‘atmosphere’ belongs to no single person, or belongs to all: ‘…this whole Vale, / Home of untutored Shepherds as it is, / Swarms with Sensation’ (HG, 664-6). The poet endowed, as Wordsworth asserts in the Preface, with a greater than usual proportion of ‘organic sensibility’ (LB, 745) is the one who detects this atmosphere most keenly and is most responsive to changes within it.

Wordsworth’s conception of poetry as an art of sensation brings that art into conversation with the contemporary sciences of the senses, the science of physiology principal among them. Though Wordsworth is remembered for having famously decried the scientific rationalist as one who ‘murder[s] to dissect’ (‘The Tables Turned,’ LB, 109), he was in fact deeply invested in the scientific topics and debates of the day. The Wordsworths were acquaintance with several leading scientific figures, including Humphry Davy and Thomas Beddoes. David Hartley’s neuro-physiological account of mind has long been recognized as a durable influence in Wordsworth’s work. More recently, literary historians have perceived links between Wordsworth’s poetic theory and practice and a number of contemporary physiologists and medical theorists, including Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, and figurehead of the Midlands enlightenment; William Cullen, one of the leading figures of the prestigious Edinburgh medical school; and the Scottish physician John Brown, the controversial and influential opponent of Scottish medical orthodoxy.[3] In 1798 Wordsworth wrote to the publisher Joseph Cottle to request a copy of Darwin’s ‘Zoönomia by the first carrier,’ citing ‘very particular reasons for doing’ (28 Feb or 7 Mar 1798, EY, 199). The poem ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill,’ which Wordsworth describes in the 1798 ‘Advertisement’ to Lyrical Ballads as based on ‘well-authenticated fact’ (LB, 739), was almost certainly drawn from a medical anecdote included in Darwin’s influential book.

Wordsworth’s poetic theory and practice is closely informed by these contemporary medical contexts, and more generally by a deep vein of empiricist thought that had flourished in Great Britain from the late seventeenth century onward. Of Romantic poets, perhaps only Keats insists more strongly on the power of the bodily senses to do the work otherwise charged to forms of abstract ratiocination. In ‘Expostulation and Reply,’ for instance, the poet addresses an interlocutor ‘who was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books of moral philosophy’ (LB, 355-6):

The eye it cannot chuse but see,

We cannot bid the ear be still;

Our bodies feel, where’er they be,

Against, or with our will.

In the jocular debate that the poet conducts with his friend, the ceaselessness of bodily feeling is taken as an argument against the necessity of book learning. Wordsworth’s preference for truths immediately and vividly disclosed by the body and its senses informs his critique of abstract systems of moral philosophy (see the ‘Essay on Morals’, Prose, I, 103-4) and of poetic personification in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

As committed as Wordsworth obviously is to the primacy of the senses, the poet’s powerful apprehension of the limitations of ‘mere’ bodily experience is equally notable. Wordsworth and Coleridge both write of the ‘despotic’ character of the eye (1805 Prelude, 11.174; BL, II, 107); the suspicion that Wordsworth bears towards the conventionally most privileged of the senses applies, albeit to a lesser degree, to all of them, at least so far as they are capable of achieving ‘dominion’ over the mind (1805 Prelude, 11.174; BL, II, 107). The poet is similarly critical of literary genres, notably that of gothic fiction, which in relying for their considerable popularity on the production of violent readerly effects seem to pander to what Wordsworth unsparingly refers to a ‘degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation’ (LB, 747).[4] Wordsworth’s great poetic narratives of intellectual and imaginative development, The Prelude and ‘Tintern Abbey’ especially, associate maturation with an access of visionary power accompanied by the suspension or momentary dimming of the physical senses. As William Empson demonstrated, ‘sense’ is an extraordinarily polyvalent term in Wordsworth’s poetry, signifying either a primitive excitement of the physical senses or the highest intellectual exercise, or often both at the same time.[5] Wordsworth’s poetry frequently expresses considerable ambivalence as to whether vivid sense experiences are valuable in themselves or only valuable insofar as they serve as a prompt or foundation to thoughts of a higher order.

These equivocations may not ultimately be hedges against unbridled materialism (and the associated taint of immorality or irreligion) so much as reflections of the indeterminate status of aesthetic experience as at once physical and cognitive in its origin. In contrast to ‘sense,’ ‘sensation’ in Wordsworth generally refers to experiences that combine the intellectual and bodily affection. Proceeding from the ‘feeling intellect’ (1805 Prelude, 13.205), they count among that class of experiences that a later generation than Wordsworth’s will call ‘aesthetic.’ Aesthetics, the branch of philosophical inquiry concerned with the nature of the beautiful and of art, took its name in eighteenth-century German philosophy from the Greek term for sense-perception; from its inception this field was concerned with forms of physical and psychological response. In the first of his influential Spectator essays on the subject, Joseph Addison situated ‘the pleasures of the imagination’ in an intermediary zone between sensations and ideas.As the bodily senses are a necessary but not sufficient condition of aesthetic perception, aesthetic perceptions belong to the class of experience that the poet calls ‘[t]hose hallowed and pure motions of the sense / Which seem in their simplicity to own / An intellectual charm’ (1799, 1.383-5). ‘Poetry, ‘the history or science of feelings’ as Wordsworth defines it in his 1800 note to ‘The Thorn,’ (LB, 351), is the paradigmatic aesthetic form of Romanticism in furnishing at once an effusion of powerful feeling and a form of sophisticated reflection on it.

[1]  Lionel Trilling, “The Fate of Pleasure,” in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays, ed. Leon Wieseltier (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000), 427-449. 

[2]  Contemporary affect theory has emphasized the trans-subjective character of affect and feeling.  See for instance Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004). In Romantic studies see especially Kevis Goodman, British Romanticism and Georgic Modernity: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), and Mary A. Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[3]  On Wordsworth’s indebtedness to Darwin, see Richard Matlak, ‘Wordsworth’s Reading of Zoonomia in Early Spring,’ The Wordsworth Circle 21 (1990), 76-81; and Alan Richardson, British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). On Wordsworth and Cullen, see my Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), esp. 75-80, 84-8. Paul Youngquist discusses Wordsworth’s aesthetics in relation to John Brown’s medical theory in ‘Lyrical Bodies: Wordsworth’s Physiological Aesthetics,’ European Romantic Review, 10:2 (1999), 152-62.

[4]  On Wordsworth’s ambivalence with respect to the gothic’s production of vivid sensory effects, see especially Karen Swann, ‘Suffering and Sensation in “The Ruined Cottage,”’ PMLA 106, no. 1 (January 1991): 83-95.

[5] William Empson, ‘Sense in the Prelude,’ in The Structure of Complex Words (New York: New Directions, 1951), 289-305.


Of the unnecessary


     To engage or spend any time with the unnecessary demands explanation, if not apology. One’s concern with unnecessary objects and activities seems unfailingly to invite the skeptical question: Don’t you have anything better to do with your time? Perhaps the best thing that can be said about time spent with the unnecessary is that, being time spent inconsequentially, it has at least not caused harm. Even then, however, hours spent with the unnecessary might have been more profitably and productively spent pursuing other, more necessary tasks.  

     It is in this sense that deviations from the necessary demand explanation and justification, an accounting for one’s time and interest. Things considered unnecessary, because they are not required or compulsory, are also typically regarded as less deserving of attention. (Our synonyms for the unnecessary suggest its diminished status: superfluous, gratuitous, redundant, pointless, supplemental, extraneous, trivial, wasteful, indulgent.) The most frequent counsel is to eschew the unnecessary wherever possible. Common sense urges a reduction to that which is strictly necessary — whether in language, in business, in consumption of food or retail goods. There is something unseemly about excessive attachment to the unnecessary. In small doses, perhaps, it is permissible; but taken to excess its superfluity becomes evident, maybe even to the point of intolerability. Dwelling on or with the unnecessary is somewhat perverse.       

     For the category of the unnecessary to exist, there must of course have been a designation of the necessary, to which the unnecessary stands in a negative relation. The category of the necessary is most likely to be defined in relation to need or inevitability. The necessary is that which is deemed essential to survival or to the functions of life; these things must exist, or we die. Objects and activities basic to the propagation of life are called “bread and butter” concerns because they are staples and essential to survival. Things and activities considered unnecessary, by contrast, are generally those that do not provide for biological and/or economic survival. Such things are not likely to be called on in case of emergency, and they do not serve the purposes of capital accumulation either. Not bearing directly on either health or material livelihood, the unnecessary occupies a subordinate place with respect to objects and activities that do cater directly to these needs. As with goods conceived as luxuries, or more broadly with what Rousseau called besoins factices, artificial needs, the unnecessary didn’t have to exist, or could have existed in another form altogether, without perhaps making a great difference one way or the other. 

     The category of unnecessariness applies to individuals as well as to inanimate things — in the elimination of corporate or other workplace “redundancies,” for instance. During the U.S. government shutdown this autumn, only “essential” federal employees were instructed to report for work; “nonessential” employees stayed home. How are these designations made between essential and nonessential employment — between individuals conceived as necessary in their occupations and those considered unnecessary? Of course, every seemingly unnecessary person or thing might be necessary to someone in reality; indeed from a certain perspective we may be justified to ask whether any thing or person or activity can be conceived as unnecessary at all. But the designation of unnecessariness is generally a matter of social norms that operate in excess of individual choice or liking. With respect to the social category of the necessary, in other words, individuals are structurally and not just incidentally unnecessary.   

     The unnecessary occupies a different place in time than the necessary, if only because attention to the unnecessary is typically designated as a leisure- or surplus-time activity. The necessary has its place — it is never out of place; that is the source and substance of its necessariness. But time spent with the unnecessary is “stolen” in some essential respect, fetched from between busier and more productive hours. Does the unnecessary have a history? Was there ever a historical epoch that had no notion of unnecessariness? Is there a time when unnecessary things become necessary, or vice versa? To inquire into the temporal status of the unnecessary is as good an example as any of an unnecessary intellectual pursuit, of course. Further inquiries in this direction would risk descent into self-parody, the charge of esotericism or of idle speculation; in any event we would need to proceed cautiously.