Saturday, March 31, 2007

I went to an awful talk a few weeks ago. I hesitate to publicize this, because in the grand scheme of things, who cares? How much harm can a lecture for graduate students and faculty do? On the other hand, life is short, and I wasted two hours. And I worry about what kind of teacher someone who thinks along these lines might be.
So, the paper was prefaced by this observation: "My scholarship is inspired by Derrida's insight that we don't know what it is to read, and we don't know what it is to write." You may as well say, we don't know what it means to eat a ham and cheese sandwich, we don't know what it means to look into a human face. "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of the roar that lies on the other side of silence." But never mind. This bit of pretentious nonsense was laid down and never mentioned again. (Thankfully.)
There followed an extremely detailed discussion of "flowers," known to font fans as "ornaments" or "fleurons." (Most word processing programs come with one such font.) They became extremely popularly in the sixteenth century. Typesetters sometimes made mistakes in assembling the patterns. Did they take apart flower forms after having printed an edition, or did they preserve the forms for use in another book? The speaker had gone through countless volumes, trying (by keeping track of "mistakes" in patterns) to see if the forms were used in different books. Results inconclusive. Then: what did these decorations mean? Were they associated with a particular author? A genre? No, no. After twenty minutes of fruitless speculation (and many, many overhead transparencies), a half-conclusion: at most one might say that the books of members of the same coterie on occasion might have shared the same pattern of decoration. (An acquaintance remarked, "It sounds like cinema of the absurd.")
Last point: editions of sonnets often had a strip of flowers at the top and bottom of the page. It was put forth that sonneteers wrote with this frame "in mind." Ergo —? With what consequences? None were suggested. (Not one poem was mentioned in the whole talk.) Why adduce a cause for an imperceptible — a nonexistent — effect? (Marcel Duchamp: "If no solution, then maybe no problem.") In the Q&A a grumpy old professor asked if the speaker "had any evidence" for this assertion. (Uncomfortable laughter from the audience. But I felt relieved.) Of course not. "But when I write a 1000-word review, I'm acutely conscious of the word limit." Surely a sonneteer is acutely conscious of the fourteen-line limit, and the restrictive rhyme pattern. Once one has signed on with poetry's most demanding form, what difference could a strip of flowers in the header and footer possibly make?
Kaveri tells me about the harsh comments people make in MFA critiques. (Sometimes too harsh: "Your art is nothing.") And I can't help thinking, "Why aren't people a little tougher in humanities seminars?" I don't want anyone to run to the bathroom in tears, but this is ridiculous. Then I realized: maybe people aren't just being polite: I'd half-assumed that the laudatory (fulsome) comments and questions were less than sincere, but one listener assured me (on another day) his admiration was sincere. One man's medicine, another man's poison. I guess.


kaveri said...

this is a sidenote, and i cant speak for other mfa programs...but harsh critique is pretty rare in my MFA program (probably too rare) and the "this is nothing" criticism (if it deserves the name of criticism) was actually recounted to me by a visiting artist as an example of the type of excessively harsh and also non-productive remark she regretted having made. (i feel like if i ever end up in her position, i too will be prone to saying things i regret...i wish i hadn't said "this reminds me of a hallmark card" in an undergrad's critique last week) also a critique is more like, say, a thesis defense situation than it is like the kind of talk you went to. so i don't know that its a humanities-art divide so much as the type of situation. but perhaps it is.

a reader said...

I was under the impression that there was plenty of harsh criticism in your MFA, probably because you tell me about every instance of such criticism. You're right — the context makes a difference, and there is no context (in the humanities) analogous to a critique (which seems to offer a lively middle ground between a viva or dissertation defense and a talk or seminar).
Another thing is that literature departments are full of people who don't speak the same language (so to speak) and whose interests overlap at no point. At a talk/seminar half or more than half the audience is probably thinking, "I don't understand a word of this," or "How can anyone be interested in this stuff?" So they play it safe, and ask milquetoast questions.
One doesn't want every seminar to be a debate over first principles (Why are we here? What are we doing?) but once in a while it would be good.

Kaveri said...

well, maybe i just want it to be harsh all the time. i am a glutton for punishment.