Brad Evans on resistance and time. 

The Procrastination Salon

I saw a great talk by the wonderful Brad Evans yesterday, on “Resistance in the University of Crisis.” This presentation should be mandatory listening for all incoming students and all returning faculty and students, I think—he combined a succinct history of the neoliberal seizing of institutions of higher education (using the UK example), and an account of its aggressive assault in particular on the anti-capitalist political imagination, with a remarkably hopeful  (remarkable for being hopeful as well as clear-eyed) insistence that we might now “reimagine the university from the affirmative and creative position of resistance.” One thing I love about Brad’s work is how it sees problems like resistance, the mobilization of radical power, and social solidarity as affirmative problems, not desperate or reactive ones. He absolutely refuses the narrative of catastrophe, and in his talk yesterday offered a beautiful account of how neoliberal ideologies have adapted to the massive…

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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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