Not so Much a Teaching as an Intangling
Fish, S. (1967). Surprised by Sin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Fish is associated with the concept of “interpretive communities,” a concept that suggests that a reader’s response to a given text is shaped by subjective experience. Although Fish would argue that no single reading of a text exists, the concept of interpretive communities suggests that, based on experience, a particular reading of a text is likely to be more salient than others. In the case of Milton, Fish often points to the way in which a reader is influenced by Christianity.
Although trained as a medievalist, Fish had no formal training in Milton studies when he began teaching a course in the subject at the University of California, Berkeley. Fish’s book, Surprised by Sin, was important in the field of Milton studies as it attempted to reconcile the divide that had formed between schools of thought that venerated Milton (e.g., William Blake and Percy Shelley) and those that disparaged him (e.g., T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis) by suggesting that the difficulty that readers experienced when reading the poem was not evidence of a failing on the part of the author but rather a strategy by Milton to help the reader better grasp the subject matter.
In “Not So Much a Teaching as an Intangling,” an excerpt from his book Surprised by Sin, Fish utilizes a reader-centered approach in order to argue that Milton’s diction in Paradise Lost was designed to arouse a measure of self-examination on the part of the reader that could be traced back to dissonance between expectation and experience on the part of the reader. Here we begin to see a strategy that juxtaposes the successes/failures of the poem with those of its author—a contrast to Formalism and Structuralism which would not have directly engaged with such issues. In particular, Fish focuses on a rereading of the way in which Milton’s poem seems to qualify itself, arguing such an action is not a weakness of Milton but instead a deliberate effort on the part of the author to dislocate the reader and cause him or her to question an initial reading or interpretation.
As example, Fish introduces lines 292-294 of Book I in order to illustrate the way in which a reader’s initial understanding might be subsequently challenged:
His spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on Norwegian Hills to be the Mast
Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand.
Fish writes that a reader’s instinct here is to compare a spear and a pine in terms of their physical similarities as objects and, while this is one way in which to understand a notion of “equal,” it is not, ultimately what Milton intends. Presented with the rather unique problem of navigating between concreteness and grandeur, Fish writes that Milton structures his words this way so that “we are relieved of the necessity of believing the image true, but permitted to retain the solidity it offers our straining imaginations” (201).
One point of criticism here is that although Fish advocates for interpretative communities and a viewpoint grounded in readers’ responses to texts, Fish’s analysis gestures toward acceptance of a singular reaction that resolves the elements of Milton into a particular understanding of the text. Fish, then, is focused on readers but does not go so far as to allow for multiple readings/responses that would appear in postmodernism and suffers criticism by individuals like philosopher Martha Nussbaum who comments on the tendency of Fish to resist conflict in his analysis. Additionally, of particular note is the way in which the ideal reader evidences a Christian sensibility, which is only relevant if one is considering the likely audience for Milton’s poem when he initially wrote it.
Fish’s larger point with this example, however, is to suggest that Milton’s aim is to gesture toward a reality that is beyond the range of normal human experience and perception. Fish argues that traditional similes are tied to a time and a place and that the subject matter of Milton’s poem exists outside of these boundaries, which means that the reader’s sense of lack or inadequacy is crucial for Fish as it speaks to the emotions that Adam and Eve experienced as they sought something just outside of their grasp.
In his analysis Fish also attempts to develop a distinction between two types of argumentation in Paradise Lost: rhetorical and logical. Aligning the first with Satan and the latter with God, Fish seems to create an either/or binary that is particularly focused on displaying the inadequacies of the reader for reasons previously discussed. On page 209 Fish writes:
“The reader who fails repeatedly before the pressures of the poem soon realizes that his difficulty proves its major assertions—the fact of the Fall, and his own (that is Adam’s) responsibility for it, and the subsequent woes of the human situation…The reader who falls before the lures of Satanic rhetoric displays again the weakness of Adam, and his inability to avoid repeating that fall throughout indicates the extent to which Adam’s lapse has made the reassertion of right reason impossible.”
Although Fish argues for the productivity of the self-realization that results from a confrontation with one’s failings, the underlying assumption here is that rhetoric is present to mislead the reader. It is, however, unclear whether Milton himself would have supported a similar opposition between rhetoric and logic as his writings in Of Education seem to indicate that both were intended to be used in conjunction with one another.
 Milton’s poem has also been traditionally polarizing with battle lines being drawn around how one responded to the depiction of Satan.
 Interestingly, Dictionary.com provides the following definition: An obsolete form of admiral. “The mast of some great ammiral” –Milton.
 See, for example, “And [Milton’s} readers who share this Christian view of history will be prepared to make the connection that exists potentially in the detail of the narrative” (208).
Seen but Not Heard:
Feminist Narratives of Girlhood
Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman, New York: Harper Perennial, 2011, 320 pp., $15.99 (paperback).
Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, New York: Harper, 2011, 256 pp., $25.99 (hardcover).
University of Southern California
The first thing one needs to know about Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (Harper Perennial, 2011) is that it is not an academic book, nor does it claim to be. Moran, a columnist for the London paper The Times, rightly asserts that the movement of feminism is too important to be discussed solely by academics and endeavors to use vignettes from her life to illustrate particular ways in which the question of feminism infiltrates meaningfully into the everyday lives of ordinary individuals. In and of itself, this effort represents a perfectly admirable attempt to reintroduce notions of feminism into mainstream culture but good intentions can only carry one so far.
Ultimately, when boiled down to its purest essence, Moran’s assertion that she has “stuff to say” (12) is really what this book is all about. Moran has assembled a collection of shorter pieces loosely linked by the fact that they all derive their thrust from a moment in which an experience has given her some insight into the condition of being a woman—and a pointedly white and heterosexual one at that—in the United Kingdom. Given Moran’s background as a columnist, one is not surprised that her book should take this form and, indeed, one might be inclined to deem the project successful if the book were conceived simply as a memoir of sorts. Instead, however, Moran positions her book in the tradition of the feminist practice of consciousness raising and readers must question what sorts of insights are gained from perusing this particular text.
“But wait!” Moran might argue, “I’m not a feminist academic!” (12) And she would be correct in that assertion. What the caveat does not excuse, however, is a demonstrated lack of rigor in thought or practice. As one example, Moran cites an “Amnesty International survey that found that 25 percent of people believe a woman is still to blame for being raped if she dresses ‘provocatively’” (203) which might very well be true but Moran does not provide any means to verify such a statement. It is precisely because feminism is such an important issue that Moran should do her due diligence and not allow her position to be undermined by an easy attack; Moran should force her detractors to confront her ideas and not her evidence, which is frustrating since Moran has some really good ideas.
For example, one of the themes that runs throughout Moran’s book is the way in which being a woman (i.e., female identity) is manifested through, and displayed on, the body and that women’s internalized sense of how to appropriately discipline their bodies plays a key part in becoming a woman in the United Kingdom and the United States. Pubic hair, in particular, occupies a bit of Moran’s attention as its initial appearance and subsequent removal remain closely linked to conceptualizations of womanhood and femininity. A notable section of Moran’s second chapter discusses how technical considerations of shooting pornography marketed to heterosexual men—again we must be wary that this constitutes conjecture for Moran provides no sources—have been imbued with a layer of cultural meaning that consequentially influences women’s grooming habits. Women, in short, are affected by a cultural product that likely does not have their best interests in mind and it is precisely this type of revelation that illustrates the continued relevance of feminism. And yet it is also interesting to note when and where Moran draws arbitrary lines: pubic hair, for example, should be trimmed but not waxed. But why, you might ask? Here Moran misses an opportunity to discuss the larger implications of the way in which women (and men) have been socialized to relate to women’s bodies and although Moran correctly notes that pubic hair is different from other forms of ancillary hair in that it is sexualized, she fails to touch on the broader issue of how hair management (of which trimming would surely be included) is related to perceptions and enactment of femininity.
And of course it would seem rather impossible to discuss female bodies and femininity without broaching the subject of the vagina. Moran muses on a conversation with her younger sister, “So now, in 1989, we have no word for ‘vagina’ at all—and with all the stuff that’s going on down there, we feel we need one.” (56) Although Moran goes on to talk about the various euphemisms that women have for their vagina, she does not touch upon the way in which this practice points to the way in which language plays a crucial role in configuring, maintaining, and enacting the relative subjugation of women. Moran notes, for example, that terms describing the vagina have the ability to cause discomfort but ultimately portrays this phenomenon as empowering—she notes that the most offensive male counterpart is “dick”—but not discuss the ways in which this difference is actually indicative of a problem. What does it mean, for example, that we are much more familiar with, and accepting of, dicks? Nothing particularly good for women, most likely. Compounding the problem, Moran makes a critique about how “pussy” evidences a disconnect between women and their vaginas but does not comment on the way in which a refusal to embrace “vagina” ultimately leads to the same conclusion. Here, instead of making a compelling argument about the way in which language can be used to excavate relationships, Moran merely produces a polemic about the vagina’s various names that ultimately boils down to a description of her personal taste without investigating how her taste—and here one might certainly nod toward Bourdieu—was cultivated in the first place.
And the vagina performs a key function for Moran as she provides a catchy, if unhelpful, survey on page 75 to determine if one is in fact a feminist: Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it? (Feminists, by the way, should answer “yes” to both.) Like Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, we see a way in which the vagina is made to stand in for the entirety of womanhood, essentially reducing the meaningful elements of a woman to her vagina. Surely, this is a provocative question but not incredibly feminist in the long run. Moreover, what about those who do not have a vagina (e.g., men)? How are they supposed to figure out if they are feminists or not? Compounding the problem, we must investigate what it means to be in charge of one’s vagina: in the abstract, one might state that being in charge means that one should be able to do whatever one likes with one’s vagina but we are left to question how such a practice manifests in the real world. Here, Moran’s ambiguity allows her to assume a position that is difficult to counter for who would argue that women should not have control over their own bodies in theory? Moran provides a good sound bite that is ultimately meaningless, however, for there are many ways in which the actions of men (and women) do not evidence a belief that total control of the vagina belongs to the women who bear them.
And yet perhaps the most problematic way in which Moran’s ambiguity affects her writing rests in the rather causal way she employs the term “the patriarchy.” On one hand the term is easy enough to define but where Moran fails is in her refusal to explain exactly what “the patriarchy” encompasses; patriarchy manifests in a variety of forms and through myriad agents as it operates on individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels. Here one senses another distinct limitation in her work: How to Be a Woman is written by Moran to other women like Moran. For Moran, “the patriarchy” does not need to be defined because its meaning is assumed. Ultimately Moran’s overly simplistic attempts to define feminism and patriarchy also do a larger disservice as Moran fails to address the notion that individuals may benefit from feminism without ever being feminist themselves. Moran’s assumptions about feminism occlude the nuanced ways in which individuals can work to support both feminism and patriarchal hegemony in a manner that does not produce internal conflict.
In contrast to Moran’s efforts, one feels compelled to laud a work like Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (HarperCollins, 2011) for its ability to use personal narrative as an entrée to discuss the way in which female gender roles are configured and interpreted on a variety of levels. Using her experiences with her daughter as a narrative backbone, Orenstein carefully develops a series of thoughts about the effect that princess culture has on contemporary children.
Primarily focused on the influence of markets, Orenstein shows how economic concerns have played a large part in shaping the world that girls experience today. From the concept of Disney Princesses as an effort to revitalize a flagging corporate consumer products division to the way in which American Girl dolls promote intergenerational female bonding through consumption to the mapping of a family’s aspirations for social mobility onto child beauty pageant contestants, Orenstein illustrates how disparate aspects of girlhood are connected to each other and to a larger system of meaning. It is precisely because of the influence of marketing, Orenstein argues, that the transgressive core of “girl power” has been eschewed for the faux empowerment of “girlz.” The insidious bargain that girls strike is to gain claims toward empowerment by using consumption to reaffirm traditional gender roles. Even as fewer opportunities become salient for young girls—here reference is made to a classroom exercise in which young girls chose to imagine themselves as a princess, a fairy, a butterfly, or a ballerina in contrast to boys who assumed a variety of roles—Orenstein explores how performance of gender has become increasingly divorced from notions of female pleasure. Particularly notable are the ways in which Orenstein uses new communications technologies like social media and picture messaging to showcase how young girls’ identities have become, in part, more externally focused with the cultivation of the self as a kind of real-time performance piece that lies parallel to one’s physical existence. Sexting, for example, is not a post-feminist celebration of the body but rather constitutes a functional practice where girls demonstrate their ability to use their bodies as means toward particular ends (e.g., keeping a boyfriend). Orenstein also suggests that young girls develop a form of internalized self-surveillance as they learn to see themselves and their bodies as others do. Connecting this to chapters on body image and princess gowns, Orenstein builds a case for how body, femininity, and self are intimately related for girls; for many girls, how one feels is related to how one perceives one’s body to look. Ultimately, Orenstein challenges readers to question exactly what kind of practical power is provided by an empowerment that continues to be grounded in perceptions of the female body.
In contrast to the ambiguity that Moran displays about being a woman at the end of her book, Orenstein develops a clear plan of action that asks individuals to consider how they participate in the maintenance of a culture that might be detrimental for girls. Although both authors ground their analysis in the trappings of everyday life, the key to Orenstein’s success is the way in which she calls for a type of engagement that extends beyond Moran’s askance that readers get up on a chair and proclaim “I am a feminist!” In the end, it is a shame, really, for frank discussion of feminism’s importance is sorely needed in today’s society and Caitlin Moran owes the awkward thirteen-year-olds of the world—including the one who forms the core of her story, herself—better.
For me, notions of trauma and Freud are inextricably bound with horror; or, perhaps more accurately, I choose to interpret these events in such a way. Of particular interest to me in the readings for this week was Caruth’s note that stories of trauma, at their core, touch upon a dual set of crises: the crisis of death and the crisis of life (7). What meaning does life continue to hold after one has become intimately familiar with the inevitability of one’s own death? I continue to think about how individuals who have experienced trauma are forced into a sort of liminal space between worlds wherein life (as we know it) is made strange in the face of death; although achingly familiar, life is forever made uncanny.
Although Freud speaks to the interwoven themes of life and death in his treatment of Thanatos/Eros, I (again because of my horror background) tend to think about these issues as they are inscribed on, and enacted through, the body. Horror, of course, has a long history of obscuring the boundaries between sex, violence, life, and death (let’s not even get started on the modern history of the vampire love triangle), with a number of academic works uncovering the implications of this in psychoanalytic terms. Reading Caruth’s mention of trauma as accident, however, caused me to contemplate one of the works that I find myself continually revisiting over the years: David Cronenberg’s Crash. (Note: If you are not familiar with the movie, you may want to check out the Wikipedia page before watching the trailer—my undergraduate training was as a Pre-Med Biology major and I study horror in my current work so I fully recognize that my threshold may be far off the norm.)
The film (and the book that it is based upon) speaks to a point made by Caruth in the final section of the introduction:
“It is possible, of course, to understand that other voice, the voice of Clorinda, within the parable of the example, to represent the other within the self that retains the memory of the “unwitting” traumatic events of one’s past. But we can also read the address of the voice here, not as the story of the individual in relation to the events of his own past, but as the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound. (8)”
I fully admit that Caruth means something slightly different in her passage but I think that there is something worth considering here with regard to trauma: what does it mean that we can be divorced from ourselves and our world by trauma yet connected to others through trauma? Is this form of connection possible only because we seek to redress a deficit of some sort?
But there is also something fascinating to me about this intense desire to relive the trauma (in this case a literal accident) over and over in a way that does not necessarily speak to any sort of desire to “get over it” as one might expect from treatment of PTSD or in aversion therapy. There is something powerful, I think, in attempting to understand the mentality of those who do not relive trauma in order to escape it but instead have come to feel that the moment just prior to their death is precisely the moment in which they feel most alive. To be traumatized, then, is not to be subject to an ongoing process of everyday nightmares but to suffer the indignity of life’s ceaseless banality. Continuing this thought, we have seen over the course of the semester that the despondence and disconnection that potentially results from close contact with death can take on many forms and that the issue continues to pervade our current culture, if Buffy Summers (taking a cue from Doc Hata) is any example:
The notion of the voice and speech is interesting to me here because, like in all good musicals, Buffy sings only what she cannot say. In the end, perhaps this insistent desire to relive trauma is not about any sort of masochistic drive—assuming that most of us do not like to suffer per se—but rather an attempt to glimpse the knowledge that lies beyond the shock and the numbness: to do it once more, with feeling.
Although I admittedly worked backward from The Matrix, slowly discovering Blade Runner and Snow Crash as I delved deeper into Science Fiction. In retrospect, I realize that the genre of Science Fiction is much broader than the theme of cyberpunk, but, as a child growing up in the 90s, the mainstream Science Fiction that I encountered seemed to belong to this subgenre. I suspect that I, like many others, was drawn in by the aesthetic more than the content per se (I was not heavily into technobabble much less willing to identify in any way as a computer geek), but I also wonder if the genre spoke to me on another level as well.
Going back over the works now, I find myself struck by the concept of embodiment present throughout much of the fiction. Incorporating the creation of computer technologies like the Internet and virtual reality into their work, many authors seemed to speculate on the eventual cultural impacts on the traditional mind/body duality as technological societies progressed into the future (e.g., Don Riggs’ “disembodied” and “trans-embodied”). Looking over the works of cyberpunk, there seem to be many interesting thought experiments regarding the nature of the body, what constituted it, and how our brain worked with/against our bodies. The question that I am left with is: What happened to all of that discussion?
Although I have not done an extensive study of modern Science Fiction, it seems like much of the issue appears to be settled. In recent memory, Surrogates comes to mind as an example of body swapping (albeit between live and mechanical bodies) but doesn’t seem to explore the impact of bodies’ interactions with the world around them and how this sensation also serves to constitute the construction of the body (i.e., the body is not merely bounded by skin). The logic of the movie seems to indicate that one can readily swap bodies (with a slight sense of disorientation as one moves from one body to the next) but never really addresses the issue that it is entirely possible that these bodies exist in two slightly different worlds because they react to their environments in different ways.
I struggle with this because I wonder if we have, in a way, given up on our bodies as things that are fallible and subject to decay. We feel betrayed by our bodies when auto-immune diseases manifest and are all too aware that our bodies will wither with age (if we don’t get cancer first). For me, the major impulse in Cyberpunk seemed to be a desire to figure out a way to upload one’s mind to a distributed network, becoming one with the machine in consciousness, if not in body. And yet, in recent years, the focus seems to have swung toward the other end of the continuum (if one can indeed place such things on a linear scale) as we seek to incorporate increasingly advanced biomechanical parts in our bodies. Despite the flourishing of artificial limbs and synthetic organs, we seem to have ceased discussion on what this means for how we conceptualize and define a body. Perhaps the quiet has resulted from our culture coming to a conclusion about how the body is constituted? I think, however, that we have, in a fashion, forgotten about our bodies and how they are not merely containers for our brains. Rather, they are part of a system, with our minds accruing knowledge by virtue of experiencing things through the filter of our body as our bodies, in turn, provide a way for our minds to interact with the physical world around us.
QR code for Hunger Games ARG…! Scan, please, if you have a chance!
When reading the fiction of Cordwainer Smith, I found myself making connections to Richard Matheson‘s I Am Legend. Although I would classify I Am Legend as more of a horror story than a work of Science Fiction—that being said, the genres have a tendency to overlap and a strict distinction, for this current article, is not necessary—both pieces were published in the 1950s, a time assuredly rife with psychological stress. Although we certainly witness an environment coming to terms with the potential impact of mass media and advertising (see discussion from last week’s class), I also associate the time period with the incredible mental reorganization that resulted for many due to the increased migration to the suburbs—a move that would cause many to grapple with issues of competition, conformity, routine, and paranoia. In a way, just as 1950s society feared, the threat did really come from within.
And “within,” in this case, did not just mean that one’s former neighbors could, one day, wake up and want to eat you (one of the underlying themes in zombie apocalypse films set in suburbia) but also that one’s mental state was subject to bouts of dissatisfaction, depression, and isolation. Neville (the last human in Matheson’s book, who must fight off waves of vampires) and each of the protagonists in Smith’s stories is othered in their own ways and although Smith overtly points to themes of empowerment/disenfranchisement, I could not help but wonder about the psychological stress that each character endured as a result of a sense of isolation. Martel (“Scanners Live in Vain“) fights to retain his humanity (and connection to it) through his wife and cranching, Elaine (“The Dead Lady of Clown Town“) falls in love with the Hunter and fuses with D’joan while Lord Jestocost (“The Ballad of Lost C’mell“) falls in love with an ideal, and finally Mercer (“A Planet Named Shayol“) unwittingly chooses community over isolation by refusing to give up his personality and eyesight.
Throughout the stories of Matheson and Smith, we see that the end result of warfare is a shift in (or acceptance of) a new form of ideology. (This makes sense particularly if we take Smith’s position from Psychological Warfare that “Freedom cannot be accorded to persons outside the ideological pale,” indicating that there will necessarily be winners and losers in the battle necessitated by differences in ideology.) In particular, however, I found “Scanners Live in Vain” and “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” most interesting in that their conclusions point to the mythologizing of characters (Parizianski and Elaine), which is the same sort of realization had by Matheson’s Neville as he comes to terms with the concept that although he was, in his own story, the protagonist, he will be remembered as a conquered antagonist of new humanity. Neville, like Parizianski and Elaine, has become legend.
Ultimately, I think that Smith’s stories weave together a number of interrelated questions: “What is the role of things that have become obsolete?” “What defines a human (or humanity)?” “How is psychological warfare something that is not just done to us by other, but by ourselves?” and, finally, “If psychological warfare is an act that is committed to replace and eradicate ‘faulty’ ideology, what is our role in crafting a new system of values and myths. What does it mean that we become legends?”