New graduate course: Forms of Thought.

One of the last things I did with my sabbatical year was write up a proposal for exactly the kind of graduate course I always fantasized about offering “post-tenure.” It was approved by my department last week!

Forms of Thought: (New) Critical Thinking and Writing

Description and objectives:

How diverse is the current ecosystem of intellectual activity? This question has recently been asked in a number of fields of literary and cultural studies scholarship, not for the first time, but with some new measures of diversity. In particular, proponents of a “new formalism” have launched a broad critique of the overwhelming dominance of historicist methodologies since the last decade of the twentieth century. In a 2000 special issue of Modern Language Quarterly calling for a “new formalism,” Susan J. Wolfson urged a new commitment to “reading for form,” meaning both a mode of reading the recognizes the work of form in literature and culture, and a mode of reading that claims political allegiance with the “conceptual agency of form.” Asking fifteen years later, “Are We Being Formalist Yet?” Sandra Macpherson answers, unequivocally, “No.” In fact, she argues, “much of the new formalism … ransoms form with history” by framing the political import of form as a matter of historical agency. What else might form do than the kinds of things we imagine ourselves doing as historical subjects?

Along similar lines, the V21 Collective recently published a “Manifesto” for 21st-century Victorian studies that asserts, “Victorian Studies has fallen prey to positivist historicism: a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past.” In resistance to this mode of inquiry, the Collective insists that both “theory” and “form” must be retrieved as imperatives of Victorian studies, to cultivate a self-aware “presentism” in traditionally historical/historicist fields. To this end, V21 deliberately turns to digital form: as an online platform, it offers to balance “the slow and careful inquiry that takes place in monographs and articles” with “the fast, dynamic, and dialogic forms of online publishing, co-authorship, and conference panel streams.” Other collectives have opted for very different forms of politicized intellectual work. For example, the multi-authored “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University” calls for a slowing down of the patterns of institutional intellectual labor, in order to resist acclimating scholarship to the intensified rhythms of corporate “productivity.” But are these skeptical stances against hegemonic forms of thought radical enough—or, in Macpherson’s formulation, formalist enough—to disrupt the form of historical agency? Does the form of the manifesto necessarily reproduce a model of historical intervention and progress, or do its affective and rhetorical provocations—captured, for example, in the title of Kieran Healy’s article on methods of sociology, “Fuck Nuance”—have the potential to unsettle us to the point of unanticipated transformation as thinkers?

This course responds to the call for sustained and radically committed attention to form and formalisms in two ways. First, it introduces students to the problems introduced by “new formalism” and even newer formalisms, primarily the tensions between (new) formalism, (new) historicism, and (new) materialism. This aspect of the course aims to cultivate literacy not only in formal qualities of literature and culture but also in what Caroline Levine calls “the affordances of form”—the work forms do in the world. Second, it provides an opportunity for students to reflect critically on existing and potential forms of scholarship, in order to cultivate ways of recognizing and practicing a diverse range of “forms of thought.” What forms might theory and criticism take beyond the monograph or research article—lyric essay, manifesto, experimental documentary, archive, fragment, poem? What kind of reading and response do such forms invite, and what kinds do they frustrate, stave off, or discourage? What forms other than “historic period” have we used and might we use to organize literary and cultural movements—the constellation, the network, the spiral, the wave, the cloud? What other contexts for literature, culture, and ourselves as subjects beyond the “historical” or even “theoretical” are compelled by different forms of analysis or engagement—for example, what Lisa Robertson calls “the weather,” or what Eric Hayot refers to as the literary “ecosystem”? How might different intellectual practices displace the agency of thought from individuated, institutionally or ideologically endorsed human subjects, and how might this displacement reorient literary and cultural studies’ approach to its objects? Who is the thinker when, as Hilary Gravendyk puts it, “The theoretical heavy lifting is done by the poem itself”?

By diversifying the range of forms in which we recognize the work of critical thought, the course aims not merely to multiply the number of scholarly genres that receive institutional validation, but rather to teach methods of self-examination premised on recognizing intellectual subjectivity itself as a form contingent on any number of other forms. As scholars, we measure our productivity in time spent reading, writing, teaching, and “serving” the institution. But what other forms does intellectual work find, whether we acknowledge them or not? What if, as Anne Boyer says, “Not writing is working”? “There are years, days, hours, minutes, weeks, moments, and other measures of time spent in the production of ‘not writing,’” she reminds us. Is there a distinction between the work of thought and the work of living, of existing? Must a phenomenon take the form of a measurable act to be counted as meaningful or political? We have become accustomed to asking about the historical conditions of subjective experience, but what of the formal conditions of experience? What are the consequences of these kinds of questions for our work, our social and political commitments, and our participation in practices of thinking? How might we rethink our approach as scholars to the relation between thinking and what Susan Stewart calls “making”?


The course will require that students keep handwritten journals in which they record, in various forms, the work they do during the course—including but not limited to reading, writing, and “not writing.” This notebook—a “notebook on making,” as Susan Stewart calls her book The Poet’s Freedom—will be modeled, in part, on the assignments detailed in Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, and will be graded by how vigilantly it is kept rather than on the particular formal qualities of its contents. In addition, students will propose and develop a final project on some problem raised by the course. This project may take any number of forms, but must include some element of critical reflection on the work of its own form. Students will also be responsible for leading some portion of class discussion.

Potential texts:

“Reading for Form,” ed. Susan J. Wolfson and Marshall Brown, special issue of MLQ 61.1 (2000)

“The Lure of the Detail: Close Reading Today,” ed. Ellen Rooney and Elizabeth Weed, special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14.3 (2003)

Marjorie Levinson, “What Is New Formalism?”

Sandra Macpherson, “A Little Formalism”

Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network

The Manifesto of the V21 Collective and related forums

Renu Basu et al, “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University”

Kieran Healy, “Fuck Nuance”

Roland Barthes, “The World as Object”

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, selections from On Growth and Form

Timothy Morton, “An Object-Oriented Defense of Poetry”

Eric Hayot, “New Theories of the Novel”

Sianne Ngai, selections from Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting

Eugenie Brinkema, selections from The Forms of the Affects

Jane Bennet, selections from The Enchantment of Modern Life and Vibrant Matter

John Durham Peters, selections from The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media

Arturo Escobar, “Culture Sits in Places: Reflections on Globalism and Subaltern Strategies of Localization”

Lisa Robertson, The Weather

Ronald Johnson, Radi Os

Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Anne Boyer, Garments Against Women

M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong!

“On the poet-scholar,” special forum on Jacket2 (2013)

Susan Stewart, selections from The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making

Lynda Barry, Syllabus

“Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind” (dir. John Gianvito)

“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm” (dir. William Greaves)

Calendar description:

This course examines the arguments, methods, and political stakes of “new formalisms” in literary and cultural studies. In addition to learning to “read for form,” students will be introduced to a range of formalist practices and will be asked to reflect on the affordances of different forms of intellectual work for their own scholarship and active citizenship.

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William Chambers, Chinese design guru

Treasure Hunt

Plate 4 from Sir William Chambers's book Designs of Chinese Buildings (1757). ©British Library Plate 4 from Sir William Chambers’s book Designs of Chinese Buildings (1757). ©British Library

This evening I will be giving a talk on the Chinese designs of the architect William Chambers, as part of the seminar series on the history of gardens and designed landscapes organised by the Institute of Historical Reseach.

Plate 2 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library Plate 2 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

I cannot give a full preview of the talk here, but essentially it will be about the pervasive influence of Chambers’s 1757 book Designs of Chinese Buildings on the appearance of chinoiserie garden pavilions across Europe.

Plate 5 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library Plate 5 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Chambers claimed to have written the book to correct European misconceptions about Chinese architecture which were being perpetuated by the authors of fanciful and frivolous ‘Chinese’ pattern books.

Plate 10 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library Plate 10 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Ironically, the popularity of Chambers’s ‘correct’…

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Exhibition | China at Versailles: Art and Diplomacy in the 18th Century


From the Château de Versailles:

China at Versailles: Art and Diplomacy in the 18th Century
Château de Versailles, 27 May — 26 October 2014

Audience granted to the King of Siam’s ambassadors, 1 September 1686, at the Palace of Versailles Etching on copper in black and burin At Pie. Landry rue St. Jacques at St. François de Sales Almanac for the year 1687 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France) Audience granted to the King of Siam’s ambassadors, 1 September 1686, at the Palace of Versailles, Etching on copper in black and burin At Pie. Landry rue St. Jacques at St. François de Sales, Almanac for the year 1687 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The Palace of Versailles presents China at Versailles: Art and Diplomacy in the 18th Century, organised for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and China. The exhibition follows the history of political and artistic exchanges between China and France during the 18th century. The paintings, furniture, lacquerware, porcelains and tapestries exhibited bear testimony to the extreme luxury of their time and are very rare today. The approximately 150 works gathered together for the exhibition illustrate…

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New Book | Chinoiserie in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Stacey Sloboda’s book is out!


From Manchester University Press:

Stacey Sloboda, Chinoiserie: Commerce and Critical Ornament in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 272 pages, ISBN: 978-0719089459, £70 / $105.

9780719089459_p0_v1_s600In a critical reassessment of chinoiserie, a style both praised and derided for its triviality, prettiness and ornamental excesses, Stacey Sloboda argues that chinoiserie was no mute participant in eighteenth-century global consumer culture, but was instead a critical commentator on that culture. Analysing ceramics, wallpaper, furniture, garden architecture and other significant examples of British and Chinese design, this book takes an object-focused approach to studying the cultural phenomenon of the ‘Chinese taste’ in eighteenth-century Britain. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the critical history of design and the decorative arts in the period, and students and scholars of art history, material culture, eighteenth-century studies and British history will find a novel approach to studying the decorative arts and a forceful argument…

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A Taste for China

Some nice coverage of my book! At the National Trust’s fantastic blog!


Treasure Hunt


There has recently been a spate of books examining the west’s historical fascination with east Asia through the lens of literature and the history of ideas. I have previously featured Chi-Ming Yang’s Performing China and Yu Liu’s Seeds of a Different Eden.

Pieter van Roestraten (1629–1700), Teapot, Ginger Jar and Slave Candlestick, c. 1695. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London Pieter van Roestraten (1629–1700), Teapot, Ginger Jar and Slave Candlestick, c. 1695. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A new book by Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins, entitled A Taste for China: English Subjectivity and the Prehistory of Orientalism, once again approaches the subject by way of literary history. But at the same time it also sheds new light on a question that has long puzzled me: why were China and Chinese things so highly regarded in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century Europe?

Chinese porcelain teapot, Zhangzhou ware, c. 1650-1670 with European silver-gilt mounts, c. 1660-1680, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139006). ©NTPL/Bill Batten Chinese porcelain teapot, Zhangzhou ware, c. 1650-1670 with European silver-gilt mounts, c. 1660-1680, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139006). ©NTPL/Bill Batten

One of Zuroski Jenkins’s answers…

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Taking Time in Art and Life

I’m delighted to see my Secret Life of Things seminar mentioned in the McMaster Museum of Art’s blog!

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Thoughts on The Rape of the Lock at 300

[These were my remarks on a roundtable on “The Rape of the Lock at 300,” MLA 2014, Chicago, IL, which met this past weekend. The panel was organized by Catherine Elizabeth Ingrassia (Virginia Commonwealth) and included Nicole Horejsi (Columbia), Matthew Reilly (UT Austin), and John Richetti (UPenn). I wish I could share the entire conversation, which was terrific, but this is all I have in readily sharable form.]

My sense is that many of us who write about and teach The Rape of the Lock these days focus on how “modern” the poem seems, even as the figure of Pope remains defiantly archaic. Teaching the poem in an undergraduate survey at the University of Arkansas some years ago, I was astonished to find that my students initially did not find it funny, or even interesting. In an attempt to win them over, I threw myself with athletic enthusiasm into drawing parallels between Belinda’s toilette and the culture of Sephora; between the poem’s mock-heroic treatment of sexual scandal and the manufactured drama of reality tv; and finally—my coup de grâce—between the heroic couplet and the Tweet as units of wit designed for public circulation and “quotable” posterity. The lecture was so successful that it led to an energetic debate over whether Belinda is presented as an object of contempt or affectionate ridicule (a debate that might actually have been about some character on MTV’s The Hills, but I was going to take what I could get), and by the end of the week the students had begun a Twitter account devoted to Pope’s couplets (which lasted an entertaining few weeks before fizzling out at the end of the term).

My day’s work might have had poor Pope rolling in his grave, but I came by it honestly. Never having studied The Rape of the Lock as an undergraduate myself, I read it independently as a graduate student with Laura Brown’s Alexander Pope and Ends of Empire as my primary guides. For me, it was a poem utterly about “the meaning of things,” particularly things as things, as opposed to symbols or allegories—things as the apparently insignificant detritus of modern commerce and self-fashioning, whose meanings are therefore in progress, and arguably under the direction of writers who deign to take them under their purview. Following Brown’s lead, Cynthia Wall has observed The Rape of the Lock’s affiliation with the genre of the list, a “verbal collection” that “gather[s] things together to create a visual heap, a heap capable, moreover, of structural meaning” (93, 88). The addition of poetic structure to the spectacle of material accumulation enhances what Brown calls an emergent “rhetoric of acquisition” (12): even if its aim is to mock, the poem effectively advances a compelling semiotics of stuff, and even goes so far as to introduce a particular kind of female figure, at once consuming subject and animated object of display, who organizes the heap of things into a distinctly modern form of glamour, endowing the warehouse with an elite aesthetic appeal. One might hold Pope responsible for the proliferation, 300 years later, of Target stores across North America—that is, for our own tendency to experience the desire for order and design as a craving for new things.

Focusing on The Rape of the Lock as a poem about “things” seems to have generated a certain critical consensus that it is a poem of and about modernity. While I took the tack in the classroom of affiliating it with trashy television and social media, others have made the case by drawing connections with the “rising” novel. “Pope’s creation was truly novel,” writes Blanford Parker of Belinda. “Like the madmen of Foucault’s enlightened empiricism, she is trapped in the company of objects, which being seen as the whole of reality, must define her” (110). Parker’s reading ascribes to Pope’s poem both the thematic interest in private sexual drama that is “the material of the novel” and the technique of objective description that Wall reads in the novels of Richardson and Burney, and in which Barthes locates the “reality effect” of nineteenth-century realism. More recently, Jason Solinger has argued that the poem “anticipate[s] the logic of the novel” in its portrait of villainous masculinity, which combines modern fashion with a retrograde understanding of honor as aristocratic male sexual prerogative, and which frames “the attractions of a new kind of femininity” that takes cultural responsibility for maintaining honor and virtue (60–63). Placing The Rape of the Lock’s preoccupation with things in a very different genealogy, Jonathan Lamb emphasizes the poem’s attention to the iconoclastic “possibility of value-free visual pleasure” (104) by linking it to seventeenth-century Dutch still-life. Although it interprets Belinda as distinctly un-novelistic—“a human figure that is treated from various angles as a thing too … conceived also as an incarnate divinity whose visible tokens are present … in the colors glancing from her clothes, skin, and eyes … she is for a while personified and enjoys the triumph of self-coincidence, the hallmark alike of personified things and idols” (99)—“The Rape of the Lock as Still Life” yet sees the poem as moving us into a conspicuously modern order of things, with Pope probing visual systems of meaning in a manner akin to Paul Klee.

Without disputing any of these interpretations of the poem, I wonder whether considering The Rape of the Lock at 300 is an opportunity to revisit the ways in which the poem resists our claims to it for modernity. I wonder whether to do so is pedagogically as well as hermeneutically expedient. It is undeniable that persuading a room full of undergraduates that The Rape of the Lock is funny, sexy, and cool felt like a pedagogical victory, but if this is our primary way to establish a relationship between an eighteenth-century poem and its young readers in the 21st century—to translate it into more familiar genres and cultural terms—what are we teaching them about the reading of poetry, about their own relationship to the past? Teaching this poem more recently, I have been devising different approaches, ones that have not always felt like they are immediately “working” in the classroom, but are, I think, worth pursuing nonetheless. I have been thinking about the pedagogical value of persuading students that a poem is interesting not because it reflects their world, but because it doesn’t. How might we resist the urge to “novelize” the text, or Twitterize it, in order to subject ourselves to the culturally foreign forces of formal verse? What might students learn by being asked to attend to those aspects of the poem that seem alien rather than familiar: the formal elevation of language, the texture of archaic typography, the no-longer-current historical context? At a CSECS meeting this past fall in London, Ontario, Paul Hunter gave a paper entitled “The Rape of the Lock at 300” that concluded with some observations on the significant shift in the poem’s historical resonance not over 300 years, but between the 1712 and 1714 editions—how the impending death of Queen Anne infused new meaning into the narrative of a missing “heir.” You could feel the room holding its breath as the pun descended—a room full of professional 18th-centuryists, moved by a pun! But such a reading encourages us to consider that the poem isn’t speaking to us, that its vision of the future is wholly unconcerned with the possibility of our existing in it, and that we have to suspend our selves and learn to listen differently in order to hear what is being said. (I mean this literally as well as figuratively: one must be willing to entertain archaic pronunciations of certain words in order to allow a rhyme to work, and, in this example, to perceive the pun in “hair”/“heir.”)

When I was in eleventh grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Hodgman, made us memorize the first stanza of Caedmon’s Hymn—we began every class for something like a month by reciting it along with a dusty recording on a portable record player, and were eventually graded on our ability to recite it independently, in front of the class. It is one of the elements of my high school education that has been preserved in me, intact (it is one of the very few poems I can recite from memory), though I have no idea how it contributes to “who I am.” We were never tested on our “understanding” of the Old English, only our ability to express it. I suppose I am in the process of thinking about how we might approach a 300-year-old poem similarly—especially one that seems to lend itself, in some ways, to our culture—and teach ourselves to confront, even subject ourselves to, the epistemic mystery of verse from the past.

Works cited:

Barthes, Roland. “The Reality Effect.” In The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 141–48. Print.

Brown, Laura. Alexander Pope. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985. Print.

————. Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century English Literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. Print.

Hunter, J. Paul. “The Rape of the Lock at 300.” Presented at Enlightenment Constellations: Meeting of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, London, Ontario, October 16–19, 2013.

Lamb, Jonathan. The Things Things Say. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print.

Parker, Blanford. The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Literary Culture from Butler to Johnson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; reprinted 2006. Print.

Solinger, Jason. Becoming the Gentleman: British Literature and the Invention of Modern Masculinity, 1660–1815. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

Wall, Cynthia. The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.

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