Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for March 4, 2013

Insufferable People Problems

This isn’t a new thing but I have to say that the Admission Problems tumblr (http://admissionsproblems.tumblr.com/) makes me so incredibly sad. As someone who used to work in the profession I have to admit that I get the jokes and I completely understand blowing off steam–a lot is asked of you as a professional and it is, at times, hard to remember why you do what you do. That is, if you even love it in the first place. I sympathize with the frustration of being continually misunderstood and seeing the same perceived shortcomings appear over and over again in students and parents but the thing is, I think, that we need to remember that the stakes look so different from the other side of the college fair table.

Our profession already struggles with an image issue and the danger of the tumblr is that outsiders are going to read it and judge all of us for what a few of us do. Outsiders are not going to understand the way that we might grumble but do so because we have so much hope for students and, perhaps unfairly, want them all to be as great as we know they can be. What does the blog do for students and families who are already nervous about navigating the college-going process? How many students will get the idea that they just aren’t good enough or that we don’t really care about them because of the tumblr’s vibe?

I get that a lot of the admission counselors who are on the ground are young but I also think that we should challenge ourselves to be better. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have faults and that we are immune from the occasional grumble session. We should be honest with our students and our families about how we are, just like them, human and we have human emotions that include frustration. But we should also be honest with them and let them know that this is not our dominant state of being–we are (with luck) not jaded and cynical and completely distanced from what it was like to apply to college. We should be honest and admit that sometimes we DO forget that this is, in many ways, the first time that these students can fail at something big and that an entire educational system has coached them to present themselves in ways that we occasionally find tiring. We need to be honest and tell people that our outbursts this don’t mean that we love students or support their goals any less.

We talk about how “students these days” can be narcissistic, individualistic, and needy. We talk about how our students aren’t smart about social media use. And maybe those arguments can be made. But we should consider how something like this Admission Problems tumblr implicates us in the very things that we think we are above. The tumblr talks about growth and how people can “learn” from the examples provided but makes evident that it knows nothing about what it actually means to be an educator. Is the information helpful? Maybe. But people should definitely be offended because the goal of Admission Problems is not to teach nor is it to truly understand. Admission Problems exists solely to critique and to judge and the fallacy of thinking that this is productive is a severely misguided notion. There are many things about the culture of college admission that I want to work to change but I also, at times, get angry enough to shout at these anonymous people, “Get out if you don’t love what you do. This work is too important to be done by people who don’t care.”

In so many ways I want to revise the tumblr’s subtitle and tell students that they ARE special in so many ways and sometimes we just can’t see that. But to also remind them that special doesn’t mean better than. I want to remind students that they are the protagonists of their stories but, at the same time, they are bit players in the stories of others and that being able to reconcile those two ideas is going to take them far in life.


Some Call It Fiction: On the Politics of Domesticity

Some Call It Fiction:  On the Politics of Domesticity

Nancy Armstrong

 

 

Bibliography

Armstrong, N. (2004). Some Call It Fiction: On the Politics of Domesticity. In J. Rivkin, & M. Ryan (Eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (2nd ed., pp. 567-583). Malden, Ma: Blackwell Publishing.[1]

 

 

I regard fiction, in other words, both as a document and as an agency of cultural history. I believe it helped to formulate the ordered space we now recognize as the household, that it made that space totally functional and used it as the context for representing normal behavior.

—Nancy Armstrong, p. 580

Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as…recreation.

—Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë (1837)

 

Biography

Nancy Armstrong, the Gilbert, Louis, and Edward Lehrman Professor of English at Duke, has research interests in the novel, eighteenth and nineteenth-century literatures and cultures, and critical theory. Her first book, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel argued that domestic fiction written by, for, or about women first imagined the forms of the household that serve as the conceptual units of the modern liberal state. Much of Armstrong’s work is situated in investigating the relationship of the reader to the text, the impact of literature in culture, and how literature evidences the politics that surround gender and desire.

Summary

With work that sits at the intersection of history, literature, and feminist studies, Nancy Armstrong’s essay “Some Call It Fiction:  On the Politics of Domesticity” seeks to problematize traditional understandings of history by interrogating how such frameworks are built from models that exclude or ignore the potential influence of women in literature. Drawing upon work by Michel Foucault, Armstrong seeks to explore how power was constituted in Victorian England and structured around concepts of the political and the personal.

Armstrong begins her argument by examining the way in which, in the writing of history, culture and politics have been categorized as distinctly separate spheres, with culture being made subordinate to politics. Using the work of Antonio Gramsci and Karl Marx, Armstrong argues that this distinction is ultimately unproductive in the context of social relations as political revolutions are accompanied by a corresponding cultural revolution. Put another way, part of the way in which a ruling class maintains its power is through the way in which hegemony creates and sustains a cultural logic of self-legitimization.

Having argued that history has traditionally been limited in scope to the (male) recounting of activities involving the State, Armstrong then advocates for the inclusion of “minority” viewpoints in the reexamination of history (i.e., those that are considered to belong to cultural, the personal, the domestic, and women). In some ways this tact seems to represent an outgrowth of radical feminism’s mantra that “the personal is political” as Armstrong asks readers to consider influences on history that have traditionally been overlooked or discounted. For example, in a discussion of alternate power structures that challenged dominant perspectives, Armstrong writes, “By equating good reading with what was good for women readers, a new standard for reading laid down the semantic ground for common sense and established the narrative conventions structuring public opinion” (573).

Connecting her various ideas, Armstrong then illustrates the key contribution of writing to a cultural revolution that occurred in Victorian England on page 570:

[Foucault’s] Discipline and Punish mounts a detailed historical argument to show that the truth of the modern individual existed first as writing, before she or he was transformed successfully into speech, thought, and unconscious desire. Thus Foucault enables us to see the European Enlightenment as a revolution in words, which gave writing a new and awesome power over the world of objects as it shaped the individuals who established a relationship with that world through reading.

Armstrong’s essay, however, is not just about the role of women in literary culture but also how feminine identity intersected with and manifested disciplinary practices. Armstrong refers again to Gramsci as she explores how power was structured through the segmentation of society into gendered categories. Here Armstrong introduces discussion of mass educational systems in order to begin examining the linkages between literature, gender, and the socialization of individuals to support regulation/order. In the context of a culture that was shifting power away from the monarchy and relocating it in the province of the home/family, Armstrong notes that women became associated with the domain of the domestic/personal (as opposed to men’s association with the public/outside). Concurrent with this shift, Armstrong argues, was a rise in self-regulation and a self-identity that was increasing dependent on gender.

Through her examination of how this change was wrought by developments in education[2] Armstrong importantly identifies a moment when the history of politics became divorced from the history of sexuality. As a product of educational policy, the movement of women toward the domestic was seen as an apolitical move, or, as Armstrong writes, “It no longer constituted a form of resistance but enclosed a specialized domain of culture apart from political relations where apolitical truths could be told” (577).

Armstrong ends her essay with an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and, in so doing, illustrates the way in which women regulated and directed “correct” modes of reading. Articulated as a different kind of power, Armstrong writes that “This power—the power of representation over the thing represented—wrested authority from the old aristocracy on the grounds that a government was morally obliged to rehabilitate deviant individuals rather than subdue them by force” (579).


[1] The original version was published in Juliet Flower MacCannell’s The Other Perspectives in Gender and Culture (1990) but I was unable to track down a copy so I am using the version located in Literary Theory.

[2] Armstrong gives a brief section on the influence of Maria Edgeworth’s Practical Education (1801) in bringing about this gender schism.