Friday, 23 November 2007

Because I'm Hormonal, More "Classic" Acephalous: Who's Important Enough to Write in Your Books ... (I've written or revised fifteen posts the past two days but lack the nerve to post them. No doubt I'm developing a complex which will end in utter silence. But what else can I do? Adam ain't posted either lately [no doubt for better reason]. I could be introspective about this sudden involuntary reticence, but who knows what I'd find in the heart of fear. [Certainly nothing worth blogging.] I'm sure I'll recover soon enough from whatever this is ... unless this is THE END. You know, THE MOMENT when you can no longer speak for sake of meaning. But I don't think I'm on the point of silencing myself. [Yet.] This probably has more to do with my being hormonal because I've been without levothyroxine for two weeks now [THANKS THIEVING LIBRARY!] and that's three times TMI and I'm going to shut it now. Enjoy the rewind and pray for rain.) My copy of Hardt and Negri's Empire has an interesting history. It begins in 2000, the year of its initial publication, when Jim Ziegler (since tenure-tracked somewhere) and I were discussing it in the "TA lounge," a.k.a. the round table in front of the graduate student mailboxes ... which the faculty use as a short-cut between the main English department office and the primary graduate seminar room. (And why shouldn't they? It's their department.) So Jim and I are idly chatting about Empire when Julia Lupton walks up, pauses, greets us, says something to Jim (I'm deaf, remember?) and then hurries off. (Julia's an important person around UCI—a model academic whose standards I fail daily to live up to—she's always hurrying somewhere, and with good reason.) Point being: Julia and Jim exchange words both assumed I could hear. I couldn't, but as I often do in such situations, I nodded my head and pretended to hear all. So when Jim's email arrived later that afternoon asking me what times worked best for me, I had no clue what he was talking about. I related my schedule. "Perfect," he responded. "I'll get right on it." "Get right on it?" I thought to myself. "Get right on what?" Turns out everyone rightly pegged Jim as (but mistook me for) the resident Hardt & Negri expert, and that I was now the co-coordinator of the faculty-dominated Empire reading group. You heard me correctly: a first year, in his second quarter, was assumed expert enough in the Hardt & Negri corpus to lead a faculty-dominated reading group. (In retrospect I realize the faith Julia placed in Jim was well-founded, and her willingness to defer to a graduate student on the topic a sign that she practiced the egalitarianism she preached. But I digress.) So I participated in this reading group with Jim, Julia and a host of imposing faculty members like Mark Poster and Andrzej Warminski. One of the highlights of my first year, I tell you. Time passes. The year is 2005. It is Spring Quarter. I haven't thought about Empire...
Perceived Lack vs. Meaningful Absence; or, Springsteen in the Classroom The question vexes me: "What does something not in a text mean to a text?" Because most of my experience teaching literature focused on teaching race in courses with a historical mandate—think from Sophocles to Faulkner—I've come to consider the act of teaching literature as a prolonged negotiation with unsatisfactory answers to that question. For example: The perceived lack of African-Americans in Greek drama is an artifact of my course design; ergo the absence of African-Americans in Greek drama is not meaningful. (I can discuss the process of "othering" or equally vague abstractions, but the racial dynamic at the heart of American literature differs fundamentally from the abstractions intended to explain it.) The students balk at my distinction: "But there are no black people in Sophocles, so there's an absence there." "There are also no Martians in Sophocles, so there's an absence there too," I respond. At this point it almost sinks in: textual absences differ from perceived lacks inasmuch as they're structural elements of the text themselves. The perceived lack of African-Americans in Sophocles is the product of the structure of my course, not the text itself. The absence isn't meaningful. (Unless you care to indict me for poor course design.) Students try to wrap their head around this distinction, but they invariably fail. The sloppy pedagogy of my peers is partly to blame for this failure: demonstrating the importance of the silenced voices of women, minorities, and homosexuals to sheltered undergraduates often demands the subtlety of a brickbat: "But no one here is gay!" "Then why do these guys go to such great lengths to establish their heterosexual masculinity?" "But they're not gay!" The burden of instilling nuance often falls on my shoulders and, more often than not, debilitates me. Long and hard have I sought to find an example of a text which screams its throat raw for the thing not in it. I may have found my answer. It will date me, this I know. The children, they will laugh ... but they'll get it. They'll be able to tell a meaningful absence from a perceived lack. How? First, they'll listen to Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" (.mp3), from Born to Run, released on August 25, 1975. (Which, for the record, was a year before I was born. I'm old, but not that old.) Then I'll have them listen to "Wings for Wheels" (.mp3), from a February 5, 1975 performance. The pedagogical usefulness of the comparison can't be underestimated. The most obvious (some would say iconic) image from the album version is noticeably absent from the earlier performance. The song demands the unifying image the album version provides: cars, streets, freedom, escape, loneliness, loudness, bravado, &c. All the themes are present in the live performance, and they all point toward ... something not there until the album version. If they can forgive me the music, I think they'll grab the distinction intuitively. Or am I merely a wrongheaded fanboy?

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