Relativity

What is Postmodern Literature?

Defining the parameters of postmodern literature is a daunting task, due not only to disagreements about what texts can or can’t be approached as postmodern, but also to the paradoxical and elusive nature of the postmodern movement. Paradoxical seems to be an effective word to invoke when approaching postmodern literature–as Barry Lewis points out in his distillation of Linda Hutcheon’s views in his essay entitled “Postmodernism and Fiction,” postmodern works simultaneously create and destabilize meaning and conventions in their ironic or critical use of works from the past (171). Given that the postmodern movement embraces instability and skepticism as its main traits, how do we even begin to grasp what literature can or can’t be approached as postmodern? In this post, I will briefly trace out the major components of postmodernity and postmodern literature using the 2011 edition of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (RCP)–and when appropriate, I will bring in original examples to illuminate some of the points made in the text.

Before addressing the issue of postmodern literature, it’s important to quickly overview elements, trends, and perspectives that can be approached as postmodern. In the introduction to the RCP, Stuart Sims points out that postmodernity is characterized by skepticism and rejection, particularly the rejection of cultural progress, and even more so, the implementation of universalizing theories or grand narratives (sometimes called metanarratives). I am reminded of a universalizing theory when recalling a conversation I once had with one of my literature professors, in which she claimed that all narratives are either about “sex or war.”  A postmodern stance against my professor’s claim would argue for the inability of sex and war to constitute the totality of a particular narrative. The issue with grand narratives is that in their effort to generalize, they fail to account for experiences and beliefs that do not fit within their parameters or confines. To claim, for instance, that literature is the study of the ideas of “dead white men” would imply a failure to recognize other literatures produced by non-male and non-white authors.

In the TED-ED video entitled "What Makes a Hero," Matthew Winkler discusses the elements and conventions that most stories on heroism embrace. Winkler identifies a blueprint that most epic tales share--thus developing a universalizing theory of the elements that shape heroism in fiction. While postmodernists do not deny the existence of universalizing theories, they are skeptical about them. Wherein lies the "danger" of approaching all epic tales through this metanarrative? Another question we can ask is: how do postmodern tales on heroism challenge or refute the hero's grand narrative?

Postmodernists not only reject grand narratives, but they also embody an “anti-authoritarian” position when approaching and analyzing the world and its cultural productions. In other words, postmodernists distrust any entity or agency that tries to control or regulate what people can or cannot do, and they also distrust any agent or element that tries to fixate the meaning that something possesses (or can ultimately possess). As Sims states in his introduction to postmodernism, “To move from the modern to the postmodern is to embrace scepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for” (vii). It might become clear at this point that the aims or stances of postmodernity and poststructuralist theories go hand-in-hand. As Sims puts it,

Poststructuralism has been an influential part of the cultural scene since the 1960s, but nowadays it can be seen to be part of a more general reaction to authoritarian ideologies and political systems that we define as postmodernism. (x)

Thus, it is unsurprising to observe that after the advent of postmodernity, ideas such as Barthe’s death of the author began to emerge in the study of literature and the arts; even theoretical fields such as queer theory arose after the advent of the postmodern movement. Both the death of the author and queer theory are anti-authoritarian in their outlook: the death of the author discredits the ability of an author to dictate what his/her work can or can’t mean to an interpreter, whereas queer theory is designed to assume a position against normativity to challenge binaristic thinking and the regulation of identities. Much more than being a genre or a typology, postmodernism can be approached as an attitude that is reactionary, especially towards the ideas and ideals perpetuated in the modernist movement (e.g. the divide between low and high culture, the view of humanity as an entity that is perpetually improving and progressing, among others). As Lloyd Spencer puts it in his discussion on “Postmodernism, Modernity and the Tradition of the Dissent,” postmodernity’s anti-authoritarian alignment is the element that continues to give this attitude strength and relevance, even in the face of its critics:

One way of drawing the line between postmodernism and its critics is to focus on postmodernism’s refusal of the utopian, dream-like elements which have accompanied the constant change of modernity. Modernisms, including Marxism, dreamt of a better world. Legislating for this world on the basis of this dream of a better one is seen as the cardinal sin of that modernism which postmodernism seeks to go beyond. (220)

Returning to Barry Lewis’ essay on “Postmodernism and Fiction,” he claims that postmodernism underwent an “epistemic break” during the 1990s, creating a distinction between what he calls first-wave postmodernism and second-wave postmodernism. During the first wave, postmodernism referred to “an overlapping set of characteristics that applied to a particular set of novelists, bound together by their simultaneous acceptance/rejection of earlier traditions of fiction” (169). First-wave postmodern texts not only challenged the divide between high-literature and low-literature that was fostered by modernists such as Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, but they were also known for being “self-reflexive, playful and exceedingly aware of the medium of language in an attempt to revivify the novel form” (169). A good example of how this self-reflexive and playful nature manifests in a literary text can be seen in John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” In Barth’s short story, what at first seems to be a conventional coming-of-age story quickly metamorphoses into a critique on literary conventionality and ordinary structure. The text not only exposes how conventional plots work, but it actively highlights and questions its own structure, plot, and content.

When Lewis refers to the literary characteristics that postmodern authors embrace and reject, he is referring mostly to well-known literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme. These conventions are challenged and shattered both in first-wave and second-wave postmodernism through features such as:

    1. Temporal Disorder – This refers not only to the disruption of the past, but also the disruption of the present. Anachronism in historical postmodern fiction is an effective example of temporal disorder because it flaunts “glaring inconsistencies of detail or setting” (173). For an example, take Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which depicts and alters the biographical facts of the 16th president of the U.S. Other postmodern novels alter the present by deviating from ordinary time (chronos) and focusing on various instances of significant time (kairos), as exemplified by novels such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow–which is known for its overwhelming plethora of events and characters.
    2. Pastiche – Alluding to the act of piecing things together, as in the case of a collage, pastiche is a postmodern aesthetic that “actively encourages creative artists to raid the past in order to set up a sense of dialogue between it and the present” (231). Pastiche came to prominence when artists realized that the contemporary moment presents little room for originality because everything has been said and done before–leading postmodern artists to “pluck existing styles higgledy-piggledy from the resevoir of literary history” (173). A good example of pastiche would be Art Spiegelman’s Mausa graphic memoir that depicts a son who tries to create a work based on his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust.
    3. Fragmentation – Perhaps one of the most prominent elements of postmodern texts, fragmentation refers to the breakdown of plot, character, theme, and setting. Plot, for instance, is not presented in a realistic or chronological fashion, bur rather, as “slabs of event and circumstance” (173). Take for instance Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street (1984), which is told through a series of memories or vignettes rather than through the traditional narrative structure expected from a coming-of-age novel.
    4. Looseness of Association – The incorporation of chance into the reading of a narrative text (e.g. pages in a random and disorganized order, or a program that scrambles the order of the pages in a text).
    5. Paranoia – Paranoia refers to the distrust in a system or even a distrust in the self. Postmodern texts often reflect paranoia by depicting an antagonism towards immobility and stasis. A notable example of a literary text that invokes postmodern paranoia would be Tony Kushner’s 1993 play Angels in America
    6. Vicious Circles – These circles manifest when the boundaries between the real world and the world of the text are collapsed, either through the incorporation of the author into the narrative, or through the incorporation of a historical figure in a a fictional text.

If first-wave and second-wave postmodernism share these traits, what differentiates the two? According to Lewis, the differing element would be experimentation. Whereas the features mentioned above were employed in first-wave postmodernism as a way of challenging the authority and dominance of literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme, they are employed in second-wave postmodernism simply because they have become integrated with the dominant literary culture. Thus, fiction produced during second-wave postmodernism is crafted during a time in which “postmodernist fiction itself became perceptible as a kind of ‘style’ and its characteristic techniques and themes came to be adopted without the same sense of breaking new ground” (170). Notable examples of second-wave are novels such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I hope that this post gives you a better idea of the notions that constitute postmodernism and postmodern literature. I highly recommend The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism if you want to learn more about this “attitude” and “genre” with more nuance, and if you want to better understand how postmodernism manifests in other areas besides the literary, such as genre, sexuality, music, and popular culture, among others.

You can purchase a copy of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism by clicking here.

All essays cited in this discussion can be found in:

Sims, Stuart (ed.). The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Melville's Clarel

The Perils of Religious Stagnancy: Herman Melville’s “Clarel”

In today’s post, I will briefly discuss my interpretation of the character of Nehemiah in Melville’s epic poem Clarel, and I will contrast him with David Fenimore Cooper’s “parallel” character, David Gamut, in The Last of the Mohicans. At first glance, Nehemiah seems to be a typical stock character that serves as a foil to the character of Clarel. While the poem’s eponymous character dons the role of the believer undergoing a crisis in faith—Nehemiah plays the role of the obnoxious blind believer who follows religious doctrine and religious scripts in an uncritical and naïve fashion. When Clarel first encounter’s Nehemiah, the self-proclaimed “sinner” makes his reliance on the Bible and religion overt. As he is holding a the holy scriptures near his chest, Nehemiah states the following:

“Consult it, heart; wayfarer you,

And this a friendly guide, the best;

No ground there is that faith would view

But here ’tis rendered with the rest;

The way to fields of Beulah dear

And New Jerusalem is here.” (Melville 29, emphasis mine)

Note that to some extent, there is a slight ambiguity in these verses. As Nehemiah holds the scriptures near his chest, he states that “this a friendly guide, the best.” On one hand, we are aware that Nehemiah does become Clarel’s guide through the lands of Jerusalem, and thus, he can be referring to his own capabilities of sauntering knowledgeably through the premises of the holy lands. On the other hand, the word guide carries heavy pedagogical, and to some extent, religious connotations. Keeping in mind that Nehemiah has the scriptures in hand, it is possible to read this verse as an offering to be not only a guide through the physical premises of Jerusalem, but also “the best” spiritual guide. It is no secret that Nehemiah is a religious fundamentalist, and his religious views serve as a stark contrast not only to Clarel’s views, but also to the views of Rolfe, another religious skeptic who questions religion through debate and through historicizing. Throughout the remainder of the narrative, Nehemiah’s positioning of the Bible as the best guide is certainly put to the test.

I think it is at first easy to compare Nehemiah with David Gamut due to their reliance on holy scriptures, their desire to shove their beliefs down other characters’ throats, their use of music to spread the holy word, and their supposed presence as stock characters within their respective narratives. However, there are important differences between the two. In The Last of the Mohicans, Gamut’s religious views are always mocked by other characters, particularly by Hawkeye, for they are deemed impractical within the premises of the wilderness. Nehemiah, on the other hand, in spite of his overly zealous views, does manage to convey some degree of respect with his religious views; after all, bear in mind that there are in Jerusalem, a physical space in which spirituality certainly has some degree of practical agency. This is particularly seen in the instance in which a Turk views Nehemiah as someone worthy of admiration because he is free of sin—and a man free of sin is worthy of praise no matter what religious doctrine they adhere to:

The Turk went further: let him wend;

Him Allah cares for, holy one:

A Santon held him; and was none

Bigot enough scorn’s shaft to send.

For, say what cynic will or can,

Man sinless is revered by man

Thro’ all the forms which creeds may lend. (Melville 29)

The biggest difference between Nehemiah and Gamut is their purpose and their willingness to change in the narratives. Nehemiah is without a doubt a static character. He lives and dies as a man who truly believes in the ideas transmitted by the scriptures, and his faith always guides his actions and his views. Gamut, on the other hand, goes through a series of dramatic changes in Mohicans. Although at first he is a religious idealist, he slowly but surely leaves aside religious doctrine in order to delve into the pragmatism needed to survive in the wilderness. I think that there is also much to be said with the fact that Nehemiah dies and Gamut survives. When approaching this notion from a Darwinian perspective, Gamut was willing to adapt in order to assure his subsistence; Nehemiah’s unbending religious will, on the other hand, ultimately leads him to his downfall:

The visions changed and counterchanged–

Blended and parted–distant ranged,

And beckoned, beckoned him away.

In sleep he rose; and none did wist

When vanished this somnambulist. (Melville 256).

True, Gamut was indeed annoyingly adherent to his religious beliefs during the first half of Mohicans, but this adherence ultimately proved to be an aid rather than a hindrance. Whenever Gamut relied on the scriptures or song to defend him against peril, they always aided him in a humoristic fashion. For instance, his penchant for singing in the face of danger was perceived by native Americans to be exceedingly bizarre, or even brave. After all, it does take bravado to sing in the face of death.

However, as can be seen in the verses above, Nehemiah’s belief pushes him to the verge of insanity, to the extent in which the magical realm of belief fuses with the world of the real. Nehemiah’s faith goes on to embrace a hallucinatory edge that ultimately pushes him to his death, for in his nightly “visions” he sees a New Jerusalem rising from the sea, and he promptly sleepwalks to his demise. In due course, this creates a rather harsh message on behalf of Melville. While Cooper, to some extent, was parodying zealous religious belief with the character of Gamut, this character always embraced a sense of light-heartedness and flightiness that made this critique gentler in comparison to Melville’s. Melville’s depiction of a zealous believer ultimately reinforces the perils of stagnancy when it comes to the battle between knowledge and belief. And at least when focusing on the character of Nehemiah, knowledge certainly wins out.

– – –

Reference:

Herman Melville’s Clarel (Northwestern University Press)

Earth

I Want to Believe: The Perpetual Circularity of Truth and Power

We are told that everything has a beginning and an end. This, of course, is due to the fact that the human mind is constructed to perceive the world through temporality and linearity. However, as Emerson posits, perhaps the reason why the human mind is unable to pinpoint the beginning and the end of the cosmos, or nature, is precisely because these entities refuse to fit within the conceptual framework of human time: “This knot of nature is so well tied, that nobody was ever cunning enough to find the two ends. Nature is intricate, overlapped, interweaved, and endless” (“Fate” 273). Within the concept of nature, everything and nothing is knotted into this “object.”

Everything is connected. Everything is infinite. What a beautifully tantalizing thought. Humans are nothing but a twisted node amassed within the universal rhizome (a la Deleuze and Guattari), which has no beginning and no end. The notion of the cosmos having no end may seem extremely questionable, especially since it is surprisingly easy for humans to envision the end of our contemporary world. Hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, doomsday predictions for December 2012—needless to say, we are obsessed with identifying the conclusion to anything that is introduced. But even if a doomsday were to arrive, and most of or all living creatures were wiped out from the face of the earth, “time” would continue to move on, and the factory of the world will continue its production: “Our Copernican globe is a great factory or shop of power, with its rotating constellations, times, and tides, bringing now the day of planting, then of reaping, then of curing and storing; bringing now water-force, then wind, then caloric, and such magazine of chemicals in its laboratory” (Emerson, “Perpetual Forces” 289).

Earth is a flawless machine and generator, capable of efficiently and effectively maintaining order, balance, and regeneration in the cosmos. And humans, although nothing but a node within this rhizome, have the power and the will to shift and readjust the roots within this metaphorical entanglement. Think about it. Every day, there is something threatening us. The world, although self-sufficient, is definitely not our friend—the elements of nature our constantly against us, and as seen with recent events such as hurricane Sandy, even the greatest of human powers, such as the social nexus of New York city, are impotent against the will of the world. But as Emerson posits, the will of humanity can be considered even stronger than the cold-hearted power of nature:

Now it is curious to see how a creature so feeble and vulnerable as a man, who unarmed, is no match for the wild beasts, crocodile or tiger—none for the frost, none for the sea, none for the fire, none for a fog, or a damp air, or the feeble fork of a poor worm […]—and yet this delicate frame is able to subdue to his will these terrific forces, and more than these. (“Perpetual Forces” 293)

Despite adversity, despite heartache, despite disaster, humanity continues to find a way to thrive in a universe that is designed to clash against us. The will of humanity is as infinite as the perpetual forces that shape and provide balance to this world.

These were the ideas that resonated within my mind when delving into Emerson’s essay titled “Fate” (from The Conduct of Life), his 1862 lecture “Perpetual Forces,” and a brief snippet of Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s discussion of “The Sympathy of Religions.” And to be honest, these discussions not only resonated within my own belief system, but they ultimately shifted my original views towards Emerson; better said, they absolutely saved Emerson. Within these two Emerson readings, we are able to appreciate the transformation of a man who believed in God and traditional religion as the center of the moral universe, into a being capable of practicing his own “true” religion based on the triumvirate of a self-sufficient cosmos (i.e. nature), the transformative power of human beings (i.e. will), and perpetual forces (i.e. God, or a supreme overseeing force). But even more so, we see the emergence of a man who bases his beliefs and morality on the virtues of optimism, righteousness, evidence, and circularity.

Emerson’s view of power as a circulatory force is what made his own transformation so impressionable. No longer is humanity portrayed as a powerless and indefensible entity that is completely subdued to higher forces, but rather, the collective human will is viewed as a perpetual force of its own, equal, if not superior, to the forces of nature itself: “No power, no persuasion, no bribe shall make him give up his point. A man ought to compare advantageously with a river, an oak, or a mountain. He shall have not less the flow, the expansion, and the resistance of these” (Emerson, “Fate” 269). However, we must keep in mind that Emerson is not naïve when approaching the power of will, for although it possesses the ability to perpetuate the survival of mankind, it also has the power to ultimately destroy us if contained. As he points out with his discussion of the human genius, true intellect “must not only receive all, but it must render all. And the health of man is an equality of inlet and outlet, gathering and giving. Any hoarding is tumor and disease” (“Perpetual Forces” 295).

Human will and virtue may be considered perpetual forces as long as they engage with the circuitous flow that nature itself follows. If knowledge and will is self-contained within the individual, then this knowledge will fade from the face of the earth with death. Indeed, water is “infinite,” but that’s because it aims at self-purification and it follows a cyclical process. If water refused to evaporate or precipitate, the world would in no way be as perpetual as we deem it to be. Circularity is necessary for survival and existence. An avoidance of circularity is simply an imposition of the linear ideologies that haunt the human mind.

When it comes down to it, the notion of earth, the cosmos, and humanity being endless is indeed ideological, and it may be a completely misconstrued set of ideas. Our ideas are based on what we feel and experience. David Hume once posited that just because the sun rises every day, it does not imply that it will rise tomorrow. However, based on Emerson’s musings, I would like to posit the following: is there any harm in believing that the sun will always rise? Is there any harm in believing in the infinite power of human will or the perpetual forces of the cosmos, even if one day they may fail?

As idealistic as it may sound, we need these beliefs. We need something to rely on, even if it may not be true. I need to believe in the circularity of human knowledge, and the naïve notion that human power has no end. I need to believe that there will be a tomorrow, even when I am not around, and even if there is no life left on earth. I need to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. Yes, these notions are quite idealistic and almost Utopian, which gives reason enough to doubt them and ultimately discredit them. Despite their idealistic appeal, however, there is something completely comforting about the idea of a self-sustaining cosmos with meaning and purpose that can be transformed and metamorphosed with the enduring will of humanity.

True, this alludes to the false illusion that humans are in complete control of their destiny or their fate, while in turn eliminating the possibility for total predetermination. And although I can’t fully substantiate the reasons why these seemingly unsettling ideas provide comfort, and although I can’t offer evidence to back up these claims, I feel it to be true. Is this faith? Yes. It is belief without concrete evidence. Is this religion? Arguably so… it is a set of abstract principles based on my intuition of powers beyond my control. Perhaps, I am finding religion… a true religion, as Higginson would posit, unhinged from tradition or fact.

I want to believe. I need to believe.

– – –

Sources:

Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson – Volume 2

The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings

Image courtesy of xedos4 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The material and crafted nature of both the scriptures and the pistol are forgotten during the discussion between David and Hawkeye

On “Forgetting” Rifles and Sacred Texts

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius

Dover Thrift Edition of the Novel

In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, I was particularly interested in a debate that occurs between David Gamut and Hawkeye concerning religious belief versus pragmatic/empirical knowledge. David, extremely thankful that Hawkeye has just saved his life, praises the scout, claiming that his skills and his bravery prove that Hawkeye is indeed worthy of “Christian praise” (105). David then goes on to posit that divine providence played a role in the situation, and that in due course, some men are destined to be saved while others are destined to be damned. This assertion greatly discomforts Hawkeye, and he does nothing to conceal his disapproval of David’s claims.

Hawkeye asserts that the only reason he could credit himself with the murder of an enemy native was because he experienced the event firsthand, not because it was predestined to occur. What we are observing here is a clash between two different ideological views of the world: whereas David relies on faith, destiny, and the abstract to explain what happens in his surroundings, Hawkeye relies on evidence, experience, and empirical observation to deduce his claims (I killed the Huron native, therefore, I am responsible for what occurred).

Hawkeye assumes responsibility for his actions rather than attributing them to an unseen and unknowable force. Hawkeye’s reliance on personal experience triggers an interesting debate on the differences between textual evidence and experiential evidence: as soon as Hawkeye denies the plausibility of providence, David demands to know whether or not the scout’s claims can be supported by textual Biblical facts: “Name chapter and verse; in which of the holy books do you find language to support you?” (106).

Now, this is where the conversation gets extremely interesting. Hawkeye proceeds to denounce the value of books, stating that rather than relying on a set of words inscribed within a page, he has “forty long and hard-working years” (106) to back up his belief system and his pragmatic approach towards the world. He then mocks David’s views by asking whether his instruments and tools (his rifle, his bull horn, and his leather pouch) are being approached as if they were the passive instruments of a writer/scholar (the feather of a goose’s wing, a bottle of ink, a crossbarred handkercher)—implying that David is not viewing the scout as a rugged man of the wilderness. In a striking move, Hawkeye presents his disdain towards “men who read books to convince themselves there is a God” (106). I couldn’t help but recall Bruno Latour’s views of facts, fetishes, and “factishes” at this point, due to the importance of objects in this conversation, and their role in the construction of knowledge and belief.

Now, what may be noticeable in this conversation is that David definitely fetishizes (in a Latourian perspective) sacred texts and books, for although they are produced and crafted by a human being, the middle-man is forgotten and the object is approached as holy or divine. Belief and divine power are imbued within these textual objects, and their crafted nature is forgotten or simply ignored. Now, Hawkeye seems to be aware of this fetishization of the sacred texts (although he certainly wouldn’t use this term to describe his views), and thus, he deems David’s distorted view as silly or misconstrued. He doesn’t seem to project his belief on a certain object, but rather, his beliefs are projected from the self: something is only true if you are able to feel and experience it.

However, what Hawkeye is failing to see is the fact that his own experiences relied on a set of tools or instruments: without his rifle, Hawkeye wouldn’t have been able to undergo the particular experience of killing a Huron native (at least not in the way that it actually occurred). Without that object, it is questionable whether or not Hawkeye would’ve encountered the degree of success that he did in that moment. Thus, it can be argued that both David and Hawkeye are guilty of the same ‘sin’: David forgets the hand-crafted nature of the divine object, and Hawkeye forgets the role of the object in the definition of his experiences and perceptions.

The material and crafted nature of both the scriptures and the pistol are forgotten during the discussion between David and Hawkeye

What occurs in this situation is a failure to recognize that both figures see fault in the other’s beliefs, when objectively speaking, both systems beliefs are reliant on similar practices of fetishization and forgetting. This failure of recognition leads to a blocking of the communicative passage, and thus, both individuals decide to drop the conversation. What is interesting at this point is that after the debate ceases, both David and Hawkeye engage in the channeling of their belief systems through their fetishes/factishes, even though they are not explicitly aware of the implication of this practice: David places a pitch pipe on his lips and begins to belt out biblical verses in song (interpreting divinity in a material format), and Hawkeye adjusts the flint of his rifle and reloads it with ammo (preparing the instrument so it can help him experience another successful event).

I can’t help but wonder what role do factishes and fetishes play in the development of belief systems in the remainder of The Last of the Mohicans. Objects that certainly come into mind are the clothes that the characters don (compare, for instance, the attire worn by Hawkeye in comparison to the war paint worn by Chingachgook). I also am beginning to wonder whether more discreet “objects,” such as skin or hair color, go on to instill beliefs in a similar fashion to Hawkeye’s rifle or David’s knowledge of sacred texts. After all, hair and skin color can ostensibly be approached as a creation (via the mixing of two distinct human genetic codes), yet these creations instill attitudes and beliefs that transcend their physical properties (dark skin and light skin are fabricated though the same processes, yet the act of creation is forgotten, and perhaps overshadowed, by moral particularities correlated with skin pigmentation). Perhaps this is taking the implications of the fetish and the factish a step too far, but the possibilities are indeed seductive.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

chart (4)

Decoding the American Scholar: Towards a Distant Computational Reading of Emerson’s Prose

The following entry discusses some ideas that I plan to explore in a research paper that I will write for a course titled “Knowledge, Belief, and Science in Melville’s America,” which is being offered by Dr. Laura Dassow Walls at the University of Notre Dame during the fall semester of 2012.

During my last semester of school work, I became fascinated with the concept of hybridity. Something that became extremely apparent during my readings was the fact that the humanities and sciences are not as opposing as we may initially deem. Also, I became aware of the tantalizing possibilities of approaching humanistic studies in a scientific/quantitative fashion (and the extent of these possibilities is increasing tenfold with a course I am taking in Digital Humanities/Humanities Computing). This research project will be my first attempt to approach a collection of literary texts from a scientific and quantitative perspective using the tools that I’ve encountered in the area of humanities computing. My hope is that this approach will help me to understand the ever-elusive Ralph Waldo Emerson  and the overall patterns and systems that are implemented in his prose.

As readers of my website are well aware by now, Emerson has been an extremely difficult scholar to understand (at least in my opinion). I tend to develop a strange sense of fascination and utter confusion when I read his prose. I also find it tedious to delve into close readings of his essays mainly because he seems to posit ideas that are at times contradictory and difficult to conciliate (check out my past posts that discuss Emerson in order to understand this point). Of course, this is arguably because Emerson wrote in an extremely subjective point of view, but even more so, it is due to the fact that he was trying his best to grapple with notions that are both abstract and elusive: god, nature, humanity, science, religion, and methods. It can also be argued that Emerson had difficulties in terms of separating the objectivity of his idea(l)s from the subjectivity of his personal experiences. This notion is evidenced in essays such as “Experience,” in which he argues that grief is pointless and futile in the vast scope of the universe, yet it is blatantly obvious that the death of his child created an existential chasm within his life (check out his collection of letters that he sent after the death of his child if you don’t believe me).

How do we even begin to understand such a complex and obviously tormented individual? In order to hypothesize answers to these questions, I am going to suggest a rather Thoreauvian move: rather than trying to integrate myself with the text, and rather than trying to figure out Emerson through close readings, I am going to suggest that we should take a step back and try to piece together the mystery of Emerson through a distant reading.

What is distant reading? Franco Moretti greatly pushed forward this practice when he posited that the issue of close reading is that scholars only able to study a very select amount of texts, while virtually ignoring the influence of other texts within a collection or canon. Thus, textual readings are ignored, and instead, the scholar focuses on determining systems, patterns, themes, and tropes that exist within a collection of texts in order to understand a system in its entirety. Now, Moretti is quite aware that when conducting a distant reading, there are definitely particularities and ideas that are lost. This is an extremely pressing issue, especially when dealing with authors such as Emerson, whose prose and poetry were injected with countless political, religious, and social ideologies that are ostensibly lost when approaching the text from a distance. However, Moretti argues that this is perhaps the only way to make the unmanageable and invisible forces behind literature visible:

Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more. (Conjectures…)

How will this notion of distant reading take place within my research? Simple. I created a database of Emerson’s major prose works in digitalized format (using an archive of Emerson’s texts in HTML format), including a selection of his early addresses and lectures, his first series of essays, and his second series of essays. This database of works, adapted from the prose readings available in the Norton Critical edition of Emerson’s prose and poetry, was organized in chronological order and saved within the same archive.

I then used a series of online textual analysis applications known as “Voyant Tools” (which I discuss in length in this post), which use a series of algorithms that will allow me to approach Emerson’s works from a distant quantitative fashion: the program indicates the frequency and distribution of all of the words used within the inputted database, and it is even able to graphically illustrate the trend of each word within the entire scope of texts that I uploaded. Since the database contains the texts in chronological order, this will allow me to observe patterns of word usage from Emerson’s earlier works to his later ones.

I have already tested the program using a tentative collection of Emerson’s most famous prose works, and the results have indeed been interesting. I programmed Voyant Tools to remove stopwords from the database, meaning that all grammatical and non-content words were removed from the data that was provided. The application then produced a frequency list of the words available in the entire corpus. The most frequent words found within all of the words inputted into the database were as follows (keep in mind that this list was generated using Emerson’s early addresses and lectures, his first and second series of essays, and his essay on Nature):

WORD/UNIT

Frequency

MAN

966

NATURE

710

MEN

537

WORLD

402

LIFE

390

NEW

338

SOUL

316

THOUGHT

312

THINGS

306

GOOD

300

GREAT

297

MIND

275

LOVE

262

POWER

237

TIME

230

KNOW

224

TRUTH

217

GOD

198

BEAUTY

194

I think it is unsurprising to see that ‘man’ and ‘nature’ are the most common words found within Emerson’s prose, but something that did provoke a vast sense of curiosity was the abstract and conceptual nature of the words on this list. Not only does this provide evidence that Emerson was indeed an abstract writer, but it also highlights an important issue: most, if not all of these words, have various shades of meaning can alter immensely according to the context the word is being used in, and are extremely linked to subjective ideological views of the word. Also, note that most of the words in this list are concepts that tend to be associated with positive feelings and optimistic attitudes (god, truth, love, mind, great, good, new, life, world, nature, men, etc.). I think this says an awful lot about the rhetorical nature of Emerson’s prose, and how it is expected that the overabundance of these positive terms will serve as effective emotional rapport for an audience.

What was even more fascinating was the trend graphs that I was able to generate, which indicate the usage of words across Emerson’s texts in a chronological fashion. Here are a slideshow of the graphs that I generated:

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I think that the graphs tend to demonstrate some very insightful trends. For instance, Emerson’s use of the word ‘soul’ is particularly frequent during his earlier addresses and lectures (with the usually appearing on an average of over 50 times), whereas the use of the term begins to drop noticeably after the publication of his “Over-Soul” essay. Usage of the term ‘god’ starts off particularly strong in his earlier prose works, it drops continuously as he continues to publish essays, and suddenly, towards the publication of his essay on “Nature,” the use of the term sky-rockets. What promoted this sudden interest in god? What led to this dramatic spike in the data?

I thought the graph that illustrated the trend of the words ‘new’ and ‘old’ was very intriguing, for not only is the term ‘new’ being used much more frequently than the term ‘old,’ but both concepts tend to follow the same rises and falls throughout Emerson’s work, indicating that the concepts are frequently contrasted and are perhaps presented in a binary fashion. Notice how these words are consistently used throughout the entirety of the prose works inputted in the collection of Emerson’s prose. I never realized how consistent “newness” and “oldness” were in Emerson’s prose!

The graph that compares the use of ‘man’ versus ‘men’ is also intriguing to me, for not only do both terms tend to demonstrate the same degree of fluctuation throughout Emerson’s works, but there is a noticeable divergence between the lines when they approximate Emerson’s latter works: whereas the plural ‘men’ is being used around 40 times when approaching his essay on nature, the singular ‘man’ is used nearly 150 times (it surpasses the use of ‘men’ by a margin of nearly 300%). Perhaps this is in some way reflective of his increasing belief in the self-reliance of human beings, and his increasing concern with the perils of subjectivity.

I think there is something worthwhile to be studied here. The graphs have definitely opened up questions, but now the issue is to come up with some concrete answers and interpretations. I wonder how these graphs will change when I input more of Emerson’s prose work into the database. I am also concerned with whether or not I’ll be able to develop a full-fledged research project based on this quantitative data. My guess is that I will ultimately resort to close readings in order to better understand the trends and word frequencies produced by the program, but that in and of itself is an issue: I simply do not have the time to conduct close readings of every single one of the essays available in the database (especially considering that I am currently teaching, taking graduate courses, and working on annotations for a book series).

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for this project? Does it seem somewhat feasible and worthwhile? Any and all feedback will be greatly appreciated!

Tomato

On Wisdom, Experience, and Self-Reliance

“Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad.”

– Miles Kington

Knowledge, as can be deduced from the morphological composition of the word, entails knowing: an awareness that is developed empirically. Wisdom, on the other hand, is concerned with the judgment, assessment, and use of knowledge as applied to pragmatic situations, and it is developed through experience. But, what roles do knowledge and wisdom play in notions as intangible such as belief? My assessment of Emerson’s sermons, poems, and essays have led me to this question, particularly his essay on “Experience.” But before I delve into the discussion of his text, let me resort to invoking an experience of my own.

The notion of belief has always been one that has troubled me. It can’t be measured, there is no concrete indication of its source, and it has an immensely tight grip on our way of thinking. Now, when the discussion of belief enters the realm of the religious, the strength of this grip increases tenfold. Now, although I was raised Catholic, I started deviating from the church’s practices because they were inconsistent with my own affinities and actions. I say practices, because although I do not attend mass or pray, I still hold many of the values that the church fosters near and dear to my heart: I believe in charity, compassion, I believe in making the world a better place through words and actions, and I believe in a sense of greater good in all humans (yes, this is extremely idealistic… but it’s who I am). Thus, although I do not accept nor entirely reject the existence of a god created in our image, I am more than willing to embrace the moral implications behind the belief in a benevolent god. I am aware, yet I am informed enough to make a choice rather than to accept ideas that are spoon-fed to me… is this wisdom?

The reason I chose to abandon Catholicism had a lot to do with my increasing immersion into academia, but it is mostly attributed towards the church’s stances towards homosexuality. Despite my abandonment, the relationship and tension between religious belief and sexuality has always fascinated me, and it is a topic that I have explored in writing and in literature. The problem however is that although I am very aware of the tensions that exist between religious belief and sexuality, until this day, I do not understand it. This lack of understanding led me to attend a sensitivity “training seminar” on the discussion of gay and lesbian issues at Notre Dame, which in reality was mostly a discussion of the conciliation between sexual orientation and Catholic faith.

The message that they gave was mostly clear: you can be gay, but you can’t put your homosexuality into practice. But, isn’t the notion of “being” inseparable from practice? Don’t actions, rather than words and belief, tell us and the world who we are? The session then delved into a justification for this dogmatic system, arguing that in the Catholic Church, sex should only occur between married couples for purposes of reproduction. During the question and answer session, I openly expressed my doubts and concerns: if sex and marriage are “blessings” bestowed upon a man and woman who are able to reproduce, what occurs in the case of infertile couples? How about in the case of people who marry at an old age (an age in which they ostensibly cannot reproduce)? They are still able to marry, and yes, have sex as well.  When I posed these concerns, the presenters looked slightly stunned and awkward. After a few seconds of silence, they spoke about how a woman and a man have the potential to reproduce, whereas this is impossible for two men or two women. They also pointed out that my concerns are actually a matter of hot debate and disagreement within the church.

I continued to ask questions until the session was over. Afterwards, one of the women in charge of the event, while looking at me straight in the eyes, asked the audience to please refrain from asking questions that were out of the scope of the presentation. And here I thought we were here to be more sensitive… to prepare ourselves to answer questions that gay and lesbian students would have in terms of conciliating faith and sexuality. Luckily, towards the end of the session, one of the presenters (not the one who indirectly scolded me) said the following: “we were here to share a pastoral approach towards the issue of sexual orientation and the Catholic Church. The people you encounter will have diverging degrees of belief and practice. All we ask of you is that you walk next to them, put yourself in their shoes, and find a balance between the Church teachings and the particular situation of the person you are trying to guide.” It was with these words that ray of light shone into the dark room. She offered the facts, but she presented these facts as debatable and circumstantial. She gave us knowledge about the church’s teachings, but she also paved the way towards choice and self-reliance… something that I personally had not encountered in real life (although I have seen it in books).

I began with this personal experience in order to provide a threshold into my own understanding and struggles with Emerson’s ideas of belief, knowledge, and experience. I previously mentioned my hesitation towards Emerson’s belief and knowledge system, especially when concerning his earlier views as a Christian. However, with the development of a more cosmopolitan perspective towards religion, and with his approximation towards nature as a way of approaching god, Emerson has become a man that I deem fractured and damaged, but at the same time, complex, insightful, and approachable.

Indeed, in his essay “Experience,” he continues (in my opinion) to add tomatoes into fruit salads, but he also seems to be developing a sense that we all possess different types and kinds of tomatoes, and we are free to use them as we see fit. You want to put your tomatoes in a fruit salad? You want to prepare a marinara sauce with them? You want to throw said tomatoes on your enemies? Go ahead! You are self-reliant. Trust in yourself: “It is a main lesson of wisdom to know your own from another’s” (Emerson 211). And to some extent, I believe this is partially Emerson’s aim in his essay. He exposes an array of illuminating, and at times contradictory, ideas that in turn illustrate the difficulties of contemplating life while living it. When it comes down to it, we must rely on the self, on our own set of experiences, to obtain any valid knowledge in the world and process it into wisdom: “We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won the dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born” (Emerson 199). It is through life, and through action, that wisdom begins to define its edges.

I am not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, but I found it extremely interesting that Emerson approaches nature as Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Zizek would approach “the real.” Nature becomes that unattainable and incalculable force that can only be interpreted through an ideological prism or lens. In order to explain myself, let me use the example of the sun: it’s there, it’s natural, but we are unable to see it with our bare eyes. It is hot and blinding, and one glance is enough to welcome the sun’s barbs and stings. We then use shades or sunglasses to look at the sun… and although we are now able to look directly at it, it still isn’t a real and authentic view of the sun, but rather, a distorted or shadowed view of it. The darkened view is simply an interpretation of reality, and Emerson argues that belief and knowledge truly function through this sense of distortion: “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” (Emerson 200). We have no other choice but to see the world through these beads.

But, is Nature, or the real… or better said, truth, something that can ever be seen for what it is? If not, what is the point of literature, philosophy, religion, and science? Is it merely a way of fooling ourselves into believing that the world can indeed be understood and explained? And if the concepts we use to understand and interpret the world are merely an illusion, what are we left with? Are we humans, as Emerson would posit, truly doomed? Are we unhappy because we discovered that we exist? (Emerson 209). Is the world truly this fatalistic and intangible? Perhaps self-reliance is the only thing that is certain in this world. I feel it, I detect it, and therefore it exists. It becomes valid. But, going back to one of the initial points I made, what happens when we can’t feel or concretize it in any way?  Do we simply except this as a manifestation of je ne sais quoi? Are we content with attributing belief and truth to a cause “which refuses to be named”? (Emerson 208). This does not have a concrete answer; Emerson himself couldn’t come up with one, as evidenced by his assertion of god and truth as a force that resists definition… how can one even place truth on something that can’t be defined? In this case, faith is the operative word. Call it faith or spirituality, Emerson asserts that it resists and hates calculation and measurement. But isn’t this, in due course, futile? Indeed, our greatest tragedy is that we are aware of our existence, and intertwined with that tragedy is a deep desire to know and understand everything else. We resort to myth and science to provide us with answers, but when it comes down to it, we are stuck in an ideological aporia. The question is: how do we escape it?

Perhaps there is no escape, but Emerson does provide us with a way of easing the tension of this inevitable cage: “I have learned that I cannot dispose of other people’s facts; but I possess such a key to my own, as persuades me against all their denials, that they also have a key to theirs” (Emerson 211). Our beliefs, or our facts, give us our own methods of approaching and understanding the world. Even if our methods are untrue or unreliable, we at least have something to lean and rely on. If these methods are unable to sustain us, there are plenty more that we can embrace. But the important thing is to have something… anything, to work from. The only other option would be to rely on nothing, and I am not ready or willing to take such a nihilistic leap. Something that I believe many people disregard when approaching “Experience” is Emerson’s confidence in the value of “multi-disciplinary” thought and the rejection of specialization, and how in due course, a problem may have more than one solution. Our problem is that most of us refuse to see life this way: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks form this one, and for another moment from that one” (Emerson 203).

It’s interesting how Emerson speaks of his views and his facts as a key. A key is a tool that is presumably used to unlock something, and in many cases, only one type of key can unlock a specific contraption. How is it then possible for different types of keys to unlock the same device? Perhaps what Emerson disregarded is that you don’t necessarily need keys to unlock a device: doors can be smashed down, door locks can be picked, locked computers can be hacked into, and even the narrowest of minds can be infiltrated. The key provides the illusion of absolute security. There are other solutions to a problem, and the solution towards ideological aporia is not a matter of being self-reliant, or even a matter of viewing life through a colored glass bead… it is a matter of doing something that hasn’t been done with the titular “tomato” of this discussion. Perhaps truth can only be achieved once we’ve tried to put tomato into the fruit salad… the taste might yield surprising results, as evidenced by Emerson’s words.

References:

Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

41iPM18eUeL._SS500_

On Knowledge and Belief in Emerson’s XXXIX Sermon

Charles Taylor, in his discussion of Disenchantment and Reenchantment in his book titled Dilemmas and Connections, posits that in the premodern world, meaning can be found not only within the mind of the individual, but it can also be found in objects present within the external world (290). Ostensibly, what is being argued here is that even in a hypothetical world with no sentient beings present, objects in a premodern world would still possess an inherent quality, or spirit, that would provide it with a meaning or a purpose. However, when we view this notion with a modern lens, it becomes apparent that we humans believe that the mind infuses meaning into the exterior world. On the other hand, we can simply don the non-modern lens and argue that neither the mind nor the exterior are more influential, and that both work in conjunction to create meaning, which is in and of itself a mental construct.

Thus, the division between the inside (the mind) and the outside (nature; the world) becomes increasingly complex because although objects and ideas that are not human-affiliated are considered to be outside of the mind, they still possess the ability to influence how the mind interprets an environment. In other words, the so-called inherent meaning infused within exterior objects has the ability to amalgamate with our interior mind, to the point that it can affect the way we view and approach the world (291). Therefore, the magical wall that creates this divide becomes disenchanted, leaving us with a whole. Nonetheless, there is a certain allure that exists within the maintenance of the interior and exterior division, for it is one that we have used to construct our understanding of the world up to this point. As Taylor would put it, the mentality survives, even if it’s in the background.

As I was reading Emerson’s XXXIX sermon, this struggle definitely became apparent and obvious. Although I view the relationship between the human mind and nature as an interdependent system, I couldn’t help but see a certain allure in Emerson’s rhetoric, especially when dealing with the roles that nature plays in our world. But even more so, what seemed to deeply trouble me in this sermon was the tension that exists in his argument: on one hand, he seems to posit that nature is an exterior force that obeys the rule of God and that follows a specific uninterrupted pattern; on the other hand, he explicitly mentions that the proper flourishing of plant and natural life depends on cultivation. What we are seeing here is a tension between nature as an independent system with its own sense of meaning, and the notion of nature as a system completely reliant on the human mind. I think this tension is further enhanced by Emerson’s view of nature and plant life as a mechanistic rather than organic entity, as exemplified by his discussion of the apple seed: “The little seed of the apple does not contain the large tree that shall spring from it; it is merely an assimilating engine which has the power to take from the ground whatever particles of water or manure it needs, and turn them to its own substance and give them its own arrangement” (Emerson 12). Note that the apple seed is depicted as an object that is designed to comply with a very specific function: to assimilate surrounding elements in order to promote growth and to provide nourishment for human beings. Note that Emerson goes as far as to denote Nature using spiritual allusions:

Do they not come from Heaven and go like Angels round the globe scattering hope and pleasant toil and recompense and rest? Each righting the seeming disorders, supplying the defects which the former left; converting its refuse into commodity and drawing out of the ancient earth new treasures to swell the capital of human comfort (Emerson 10).

Nature, and specifically the seed, from Emerson’s point of view, is an object with a meaning and a spirit of its own that serves as a commodity to human beings. It is viewed as an external object that follows a specific purpose, and that renders fruit that helps sustain generation after generation.

But, doesn’t our very need for nature’s commodities turn us into Angels as well? Has Emerson failed to see that we humans also scatter hope and recompense, and that it is our labor and willingness to cultivate that the apple seed has survived in the first place? Our very breath provides life to plants; we plant, water, fertilize, and care for plant life. Some plant species even exist solely because of human interest and endeavor—think of the avocado, a plant that has seeds that are too big to be propagated via natural animal consumption and defecation. But realistically speaking, it’s not that Emerson was unwilling to see this side of the coin, but rather, he was binded by the spell of a premodern world, in which science was still viewed as a force incapable of explaining the hows and whys of the natural world. We now take this for granted because we live in a disenchanted world, a world in which the idea of a self-sufficient, mechanistic, and teleological seed makes no sense. But why is it then that Emerson’s notions of humanity and nature seem so alluring and tantalizing? The answer is quite simple: although we may have a deep understanding of how the world works, we have no concrete idea of how and why it all started, and how and why it all exists. Sure, as a believer of science and empirical knowledge, I could simply state that due to a series of events, particles heated up and expanded, creating all matter and space as we know it; but due to the fact that this is all based on theoretical assumptions that are difficult to prove or disprove, I am haunted by an everlasting and ever-increasing doubt: what if this is wrong? What if we currently do not have the knowledge or the capacity to even begin to understand the universe? What if I am wrong, and there actually is an entity or creative agent that can be labeled as God? What if nature IS an external agent with an inherent “spirit” designed to comply with a law created by this entity?

Personally speaking, I was disenchanted with religion years ago. But here I am in Notre Dame, and doubts are beginning to surface once again. I wish I can take Emersonian route, be entirely self-reliant on my thoughts and beliefs while paying no attention to outside influences, but is this even remotely possible? I know that disenchantment never really eliminates the influence of the mystical and the magical… despite my lack of religious belief, I must admit that it religion was an important part of my upbringing, and it most likely encoded many of my current values and ideologies. Could it be possible that the remnants of Emerson’s notions are slowly but surely growing in the background? Is it possible that his God-driven, mechanistic, and binary view of the world is but a seed hidden from our view, assimilating elements from our social and cultural environment and growing into a completely different tree? And even if this metaphorical tree will once again rot and wither away, will it not become the soil and the organic matter that is nourishing our current tree of knowledge?

Sources:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0674055322

http://www.amazon.com/Emersons-Poetry-Norton-Critical-Editions/dp/0393967921/