Saturday, May 17, 2008


First, let me apologize for the radio silence around here recently. Suffice it to say that the end of the semester absolutely ate my lunch, as it tends to do. Grading end-of-semester papers and exams for six classes can really wipe you out. I actually tried to write a post after turning in my grades last week concerning my feelings about not attending Kalamazoo. By the time I got around to finishing it, however, everybody had been back from K'zoo for several days and the post felt very much like yesterday's news. If I don't go again next year, maybe I'll recycle the post.

I've been busily avoiding work since finishing the semester. I have ambitious goals for the summer--at least one article, maybe two; start planning out a possible book project; lots of catch-up reading; etc.. Working at a CC means that scholarship is relegated largely to the summer months, so you have to use that time as fully as possible. To be fair, I know that many who work at four-year schools face much the same schedule. If anything, my situation is easier than most, since I don't have to produce any scholarship at all, if I don't want to. But I do want to, so I need to get to work.

Originally, I had planned to start my summer work by cranking out a quick conference proposal. I try to attend SEMA whenever possible, and this year's conference in St. Louis sounded like fun, so I thought I'd piece together something from my ongoing work (which focuses on a specific genre of Old English prose) to send in. I like writing conference papers, and I can usually throw together a proposal in a couple of hours. This one has been stumping me, though. A couple of reasons, really. First of all, the stuff I've been working with most recently is very textual, if you know what I mean. It's the kind of stuff that works fine in an article, where you can lay out passages in parallel for comparison, but it's not particularly well suited for a conference paper (at least not one that stands much chance of holding an audience's interest). It's interesting how some research works much better in either oral or written form. I've written a few conference papers that could never really be expanded into articles, just because of what I chose to discuss and how I chose to discuss it. Now, I'm working with the opposite kind of research.

The second reason this proposal has been difficult has to do with me. In an attempt to make the presentation less strictly textual, I've been trying to work up a specific angle for this paper which, while certainly not postmodern in the strictest sense, would definitely tread into an area usually traveled by "theory people." My use of quotation marks in the previous sentence undoubtedly makes the problem all too clear: I don't really get Theory.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a crusty New Critic railing against the nonsense of postmodern criticism. I admire those who work in Theory (well, some of them; scholarship informed by literary theory is like all scholarship--a mixed bag, in terms of quality). I just...well, I just don't really understand it. And it's not like I haven't tried. My undergrad curriculum was extremely traditional (more than one class I took used textbooks written by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren). So when I got to grad school, I knew that I needed work in theory. I signed up for a Cultural Studies course, taught by a brand-new Assistant Professor hired in from Yale, in my second semester. I bought all the books, did all the readings, and attended all the classes. Inevitably, though, by the time the class was fifteen minutes old, I was lost. I received an Honors grade in the course, but I'm fairly sure it was an act of mercy on the professor's part. He had to know, after reading my paper on Althusserian ideological apparatuses in Beowulf, that I had no idea what I was doing. Ironically, I parlayed that paper into my Master's Thesis, but the theory was gradually whittled away from each successive draft until all that remained was one mention of Althusser in a footnote. I tried to blame my thesis advisor (a very traditional scholar) for the change, but the truth is that he simply recognized that I was out my depth when discussing Marxism. He was right.

I still try to understand postmodern theory. I recently read through (well, most of the way through) The Postmodern Beowulf and enjoyed much of it. In fact, one of the articles in that collection inspired a conference paper I presented last fall on compositional techniques in an Old English homily. But when working on that paper, I studiously avoided drawing on theoretical concepts or, god help me, terminology. I just knew that some eager young grad student in the audience would ask me a question about the Levi-Strauss quotation I considered including, and I would be screwed, to put it lightly [NOTE: as it turned out, there were precisely two people in the audience, and one was a good friend of mine, so it didn't really matter]. I've resigned myself to the fact that my mind doesn't work the way it needs to in order to get theory, and certainly not the way it needs to in order to produce theory-based scholarship. I'm just a philologist, and not a particularly New one.

I'm glad I got that off my chest, but Confession was not the intended purpose of this post. I'm stuck with a quandary. Should I continue to work on this proposal, finding a way to ease it out of the borderlands of postmodern theory while still trying to have Something To Say, or should I cut my losses and just focus on one of my other pending projects? Remember: I have no tenure-track expectations to meet, so I can do whatever I want. Obviously, articles trump conference papers in the academic world, so reason says I should work on finishing one of the two articles I have in mind, but I was really looking forward to SEMA. Conferences are the best remedy for the isolation that I (like many others) experience as a result of working at a place where virtually nobody else is engaged in scholarship, so I try to go to at least one per year. I suppose I could just attend the conference without presenting a paper, but I don't much like doing that. Makes me feel a little like a stowaway, and since some people already look askance at the institutional affiliation on my conference namebadge, I don't need any further reminder of my outsider status.

So I put it to my friends and blogleagues: how should I spend my research time for the next couple of months?


Jeffrey J Cohen said...

But do you really think there is some position of Mastery in theory from which the enlightened scoff at would be practitioners? Maybe there is, but that would be a tedious kind of theory to learn.

Rather I would stress that Cleanth Brooks IS a theoritician ... there is no such thing as literature or history without methodology, and methodology is theory.

Anyway, theory should be an entryway to conversation, not a correctional device wielded by others. If I knew what I was doing I'd have given up long ago: theory is all about following your ignorance, not mastering some knowledge that lets you rest and scold.

I'm looking forward to meeting you at SEMA.

Prof. de Breeze said...

JJC: You're right, of course. Everybody has a theory, or at least an interpretive context. I know it's true because I've said it in class before. :)

But what I really mean, of course, is that I have a hard time with full-on postmodern criticism. And it's entirely my own fault, of course. I simply don't have the educational background or the intellectual stamina to follow a lot of that stuff. When I read your piece in The Postmodern Beowulf, for example, I make it through about half of the piece with little difficulty. But as soon as I get to the sentence (on pg. 355) in which you discuss Lacan's idea that identity formation is based on "a gestalt that confers a unity while radically estranging subjectivity from somaticity," I start to get lost. Again, this isn't a criticism of you or your writing, which I think is extraordinary. But because my exposure to Lacan consists of one article I read fifteen years ago, and because I've never used the term "somaticity" (and I don't think I generally use the term "subjectivity" much the way you mean it here), I have trouble with both the concept and the vocabulary. I think what you (or Lacan, I guess) mean here is that because we understand ourselves only by observing others, we always feel a separation between our consciousness and our own bodies. Or something like that. But I had to work for a good fifteen minutes to come up with even that inadequate paraphrase.

Still, I'd love to enter into the conversation you propose (and I diligently read ITM for just that purpose). And if I make it to St. Louis, perhaps I'll have the chance.