The Dissertation

Discovering the “Limits of Critique”

There are some people that are upset with the characterization of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. The common thing I hear is that Luke just wouldn’t become so cynical; he wouldn’t lose hope; he wouldn’t become a skeptic; he just wouldn’t go that dark. With friends, I point out that I know of people (and they probably do, too) who have done a complete 180 and I’m like “how did they go from that to this?” Life happens. But also I like to think that Luke just gave into the popular mode of hermeneutics of the 20th century: suspicious reading.

I’ve been reading Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, and I couldn’t help but think of our old friend Luke. The book was recommended to me by my supervisor, amongst a couple of other readings, because of a comment from one of my dissertation committee members. The comment noted that my critique of online reading group blogs’ posts and comments weren’t critically interesting; that is, my interpretation did not dig into what was being said, didn’t go against the grain and search for other meanings. It took me some time and some discussion with my supervisor, but the comment was largely pointing out that my work was descriptive rather than prescriptive.

So with Heather Love’s essay, “Thin Description, Close Reading” and Felski’s book, I’ve been gathering resources to reassure my committee member (and myself) that descriptive scholarly work is critically interesting, it’s just not the same kind of criticism that appears elsewhere in my dissertation or what is traditionally accepted as proper criticism. As Felski points out, we tend to assume that there is only one kind of criticism:

“The task of the social critic is to reverse the falsifications of everyday thought, to “unconceal” what has been concealed, to bring into daylight what has languished in deep shadow. Meaning can be retrieved only after arduous effort; it must be wrested from the text, rather than gleaned from the text.” (31)

My problem that isn’t a problem is that I’m gleaning. But this kind of criticism does more than that – it’s also an ethical approach to studying peoples’ writings on the internet. The blog posts and comments I study aren’t written like modernist haikus; in many cases, they are written at face-value. To treat these texts with suspicion would put you in a weird power-imbalance; suspiciously reading these comments would turn me into an authority figure that imposes meaning on what is being said. It would cast my approach with distrust:

“In this sense, suspicion is driven by conflicting aims. On the one hand, we distrust someone or something—and are tempted to steer clear of a potential source of danger. On the other hand, we are also compelled to keep a close eye on what bothers us, so as to prepare for the eventuality of an attack. Know thine enemy!” (38)

Luke, as a teacher and leader of school, as someone who knows how to read the signs (he says something similar in the movie), seems to have adopted suspicious reading and fell victim to it. He went beyond reading and interpreting the Jedi texts; he started imposing meanings onto his students and their actions. He thought he knew his enemy. And in a way, his suspicious reading of Ben Solo made him that enemy, eventually. Luke was overcome by what Felski, riffing off Bruno Latour, may call a culture of suspicion:

“When it comes to dealing with urgent social and ecological problems, we are witnessing what looks like an excess of distrust rather than a surplus of belief.” (45)

It’s no wonder that the film ends with a disavowal of suspicion, embracing belief and hope and some canonical book burning instead.

It’s not that suspicious reading is bad, it’s just that it doesn’t always have to be the only proper method of critique. The Limits of Critique, so far, demonstrates there is more than suspicious reading. I’ve yet to finish the book, though I know she proposes an Actor-Network Theory (ANT) model of criticism that I’m interested in.

But until then, I’ll be keeping a good balance 😉 of suspicious reading and thin description.

(Late)Postmodernism, The Dissertation

Revisions, defining terms, and research discoveries during pleasure reading

It’s taken me two weeks, but I think I’ve gotten down the rhythm of this new semester. The semester began early (January 3rd), so prepping for classes was hard when trying to enjoy the one week of the holidays. But I’m caught up, the class has been off to a great start, and I’m addressing comments from a committee member, doing research to address those comments, and doing some additional research and reading.

In my dissertation, I’ve been caught with throwing in “neoliberal” and not defining the term and how it might fit in with my chapter on Wallace and the techno-determinism/libertarianism of the 90’s cyberenthusiasts. It’s funny, when I think about it, how often people joke that academics just throw in neoliberal without defining it or advise against just dropping “neoliberal” in an essay, chapter, etc, but no one, throughout my entire education, has pointed me to resources defining the term, and the nuances of neoliberalism: how it affects race, class, and gender. Instead, I was left with a vague notion of the term and advice that discouraged me from using it (and thus from researching into it).

So I’ve picked up Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States, specifically their chapter on “Colorblindness, Neoliberalism, and Obama.” I’m also returning to N. Katherine Hayle’s How We Became Posthuman, in which she aligns the disembodiment rhetoric of many cyberenthusiasts with the liberal-individualist possessive individualism (which is rooted in neoliberalism, or so my other research across interviews and articles and good old wikipedia indicate). It’s a start, and it’s helping me articulate some arguments, make some connections, and clarify my understandings of the technoculture of America’s 1990s/2000s. So, it’s about time I finally started doing some digging into this concept and making an effort of concretizing my terms.

And over the break, I read a couple books for pleasure that piqued my interest in the ways that they kinda “line up” thematically. While different in its contents and subject matter, Martha Southgate’s Third Girl From the Left and Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me both share a critical examination of how celebrity culture, hollywood, and the image-based culture of late 20th century America shape conceptions of the self. While I am still reading Look at Me, the protagonist is a model, who gets into an accident and re-emerges from surgery as unrecognizable to other people. Throughout the novel, she identifies the “shadow self” of people, the kind of self that everybody hides from the public view; for the protagonist, everybody lies all of the time, and everybody hides behind an image that they fashion for others to see. So, while still early on, Egan explores the implications of an image-obsessed culture on notions of the self and its relation to others. How deep this will go is yet to be seen, but I’m enjoying the novel so far.

Southgate’s Third From the Left follows three narrative arcs, but the main two arcs are: 1) a black actress that played as an extra in many blaxploitation films and 2) her daughter, and her career path in film and TV industry as a film maker/camera person. I loved this novel, as it demonstrates the ways in which black actors and black filmmakers have to thrive in an industry dominated by white supremacy; how blaxploitation films were dominated by a “white gaze,” as they were filmed and produced by white people (and so the funds went mostly straight to those white people). And the second arc illuminates the systemic difficulties in which black women face in becoming a director. While the novel hints that black male directors are getting jobs, there’s a scene in particular where the woman’s career is harmed by the errors of a black male friend, who went on to become a successful director, whereas she became a cameraperson on Law & Order and had almost given up on filmmaking (the end of the novel is ambiguous). I couldn’t help but think of the recent discussion in regards to the Golden Globes Director category and Natalie Portman’s comment, as well as the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag from a couple years back.

I’m still trying to suss out details and connections, as both these novels are really sticking with me. But I love it when you read two books back to back, and without intending to, they end up sharing something in common, something that you can work with. These books may have started off as just for pleasure, but they may soon become part of my research on American contemporary lit.



A Semi-Vacation Week

Semi-annually in the summer and around the winter holiday break, I have to remind myself to take a break. But in some cases, I take a “semi-break” – aka, I work on the stuff I’ve been putting off because they are easier, things that are pretty much done but just need to be finalized, or I catch up on my reading. Yesterday, I took the entire day off because, well, there were 5 holiday socials/dinners I attended over three days. As an introvert, I needed some serious isolated recharging.

But I’m back in a semi-capacity in order to take on my syllabus for the next term, which starts on January 3rd, a really early start but ok. I’ll be teaching “The Superhero,” so I’m really looking forward to teaching an array of comics, a treasured pastime of mine.

I’m also researching and “leisurely reading” to address some comments on one of my diss chapters from a committee member. And by “leisurely reading,” I mean just reading for pleasure without any notes, without marking up the page, skimming. The texts could be related to the research, but I don’t fully go into “work mode” when reading these texts. I mean, yes, this is “research” but also I just really want to read these books?

The majority of the books I am reading are from the contemporary period, and could be possibly lumped in the post-postmodernism, new sincerity, meta-modernism, neo realism, etc. category – the “whatever comes after postmodernism” category. But in the second half of my dissertation, I prefer to call this period “Late Postmodernism.” The “late” sorta functions as it does in the Romantics period, in which the transition from Early to Late emphasizes social, cultural, and technological shifts/changes but the aesthetics and/or poetics of that generation are still similar. Many books that say that postmodernism is over only do so by noting a shift but not a fundamental departure or change. So I have taken that grey area to say, yeah, Postmodernism is still alive and well today, there’s just different technological, cultural, and social contexts. Sure, it’s not the same as early postmodernism, but there are similarities. And now it’s become an alt-right thing to wage personal crusades against postmodernism, but a conception of postmodernism that is rather suspect and misconstrued and just wrong. So there’s that, too. Sigh.

Postmodernism as an emerging culture may be over, but I’d like to think it’s now a dominant culture, to take a page out of Raymond Williams’ book. Moreover, the books that address this “post-postmodernism” period frustratingly only contain white male authors. One book contained a conclusion that mentioned three women, but they were white women, and two of which started writing in the 60s – Atwood being one of them. Listening to some podcasts that discuss this period, too, only mention white male authors. And it’s frustrating. Occasionally, Colson Whitehead or Zadie Smith will get mentioned, but, again, only as a footnote, a “by the way” kind of comment, as if to say “it’s not my problem to discuss these authors.” But, like, if you’re writing about a new literary movement, shouldn’t you be including a study of more than white male authors? I’d like to think so. It’s like a new movement was declared once white male authors’ work were described as being “sincere.” A shift happened, but that shift wasn’t just white male authors being sincere, sorrynotsorry.

So I’m reading more inclusively to articulate this period better. And I really hope that others who study Wallace and this period are doing the same – I’m tired of just hearing “Franzen, Foer, Eugenides, and Eggers.” I also want to hear Louise Eldrich, Sherman Alexie, Martha Southgate, Walter Mosley, Colson Whitehead, Lydia Davis, Jennifer Egan and much much more.  The comments on my diss didn’t ask me to do this, but in the way they did when the committee member wanted a better articulation of this period. Perhaps Foer, Eugenides, and Eggers may be mentioned, but they’ll be the footnotes, the afterthoughts.

Next week is the holidays, so I’ll be taking a break from this blog – yet, I’ll be returning the first week of the new year. Let’s hope that 2018 is better.


Games, Life Writing

End of Term’s ‘Beginner’s Guide’

Recently, I’ve been interested in games that are “autobiographical.” They’ve only just come across my radar, but they’re also a relatively recent phenomena. Games like Cibele or Dys4ia or That Dragon, Cancer, which are explicitly autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical). There are others, I’m just in the very early stages of research. I prefer the term “automedia,” which Julie Rak outlines in her wonderful essay “Life Vs. Automedia” because games are more than just writing: it’s a combination of video, writing, coding, pictures, drawings, etc. But Rak’s essay explicitly addresses the autobiographical acts and practices of players on Sims 3 and not necessarily a game that is made to be an automedia like Cibele or like That Dragon, Cancer. So I plan on working out these ideas – how to discuss autobiographical games – in a paper and during the upcoming conference season.

But I also tested out these ideas in my “Digital Lives” class earlier this term. I find classes to be a productive way of testing out ideas and approaches when I’ve thought them through enough. The lecture was on Cibele, and a few of my students were interested in pursuing either the game or the topic “autobiographical games” for their research paper. One of my students decided on The Beginner’s Guide, a game that I have heard before but have not played. When the student described the game to me, it was on the basis that it was a biographical or autobiographical game because the game was about a game developer “Coda” but it was also about “Davey,” the author of the game, and his relationship to Coda (and this is why in Life Writing, the / in auto/biography, is quite useful). The student described  the game as simply: You walk through Coda’s games as the narrator describes the story behind Coda and his relationship to Coda. The student then said that the climax of the game is Davey’s realization that he had wronged Coda and admits fault for why their friendship fell apart. (This introduction of the game was important to me because it framed how I was approaching the game. This sounds odd, but if I had heard nothing about the game itself and played it, I would’ve maybe been more skeptical about whether or not it’s auto/biograpical).

So, I thought it was another interesting auto/biographical game – a game composed by an author of another individual’s games, which tell – or you are led to believe that they tell – a narrative of this person’s life and their relationship to the narrator. Without even playing it, the game, as described by the student, reminded me of Anna Poletti’s “Autobiography and Play,” in which she outlines the concept of  “archive of play”: the play of the author with the data of their archive to assemble it into the narrative that readers or viewers read/see. Except for The Beginner’s Guide, the play of the author is not with their own data but another’s (and the author manipulates Coda’s games throughout the game so the player can access inaccessible areas or speed up the process). And more, games also introduce an additional “archive of play” – the player’s play. Though, the player’s play with the data in The Beginner’s Guide is highly limited to what Davey chooses.

But then I played the game. And then I read all of the hoopla over the game when it first came out in 2015. ***Spoiler Alert***





So one major discussion was: if these are Coda’s games, did Davey have his permission to use these games? (the narrative of the game suggests “no,” and Davey has those games because they had been sent to him in confidence). But the follow-up question is: who is Coda? And is he actually real? Or is Coda Davey himself?

These sets of questions are interesting to me from a Life Writing Studies perspective.  Because Wrenden, the author, does not confirm or deny whether or not Coda is real, the game poses some serious ethical questions if he had simply used these games to create his own narrative (Davey says that the act is meant to reach out to Coda and to apologize). And, as many people pointed out when the game was released, this puts some ethical responsibility on the player, who plays the game, and the distributer of the game.

And even if Coda is “fictional” or about Wrenden, the game still questions the ethics of the player, the complicit willingness to go through someone’s private games.

I do not want think of The Beginner’s Guide as being purely fictional, though, as some suggested. If Coda is fictional and represents Wrenden himself, and that this “Davey” and “Coda” relationship represents different stages in Wrenden’s life, this is still approachable from a Life Writing angle. Or maybe Coda is someone else kept anonymous, but the games are Wrenden’s own (another suggestion), it’s still auto/biographical. All auto/biography has its artifice.

So I appreciate this student bringing this game to my attention. The game is interesting because how you choose to analyze it depends on what you choose to believe. The student did. But I also think that in order to discuss the ethics of the game, some kind of confirmation that Coda is a real person is needed.

So, I’ve got that game on my mind. But I’m also currently working through dissertation chapter revisions and marking. And it’s almost the holidays. So yeah, I’m looking forward to conference season to work out these ideas.


New site, New Blog

It has been awhile since I’ve taken to the blog. I’ve fallen in and out of habit – it was a good tool for comps, practicing written answers and sharing those answers with my peers. And it was a good tool for thinking through my dissertation. And I also facilitated an online reading group blog for my dissertation and integrated an online reading group blog for one of my classes (to much fanfare). The blog medium has never really left me, but it hasn’t always been consistently part of my weekly or monthly practices. Once I really got into writing the dissertation, the thought of writing more about it (in addition to my notebooks), was a bit too much. And hence the silence.

But whenever I’ve fallen out of keeping up with the blog, I’ve always missed it – carving out time for it, thinking of what to write about, and exploring the ideas I was struggling with that week or that month.

So, as the dissertation gradually comes to an end (hurrah!) and as I prepare to go on the job market (or rather, as I am already on the job market), I’ve thought to take up a blog once more with a new site and keep at it, no matter what! And I plan to post weekly, whether it be about the latest game I’m playing and the book I’m reading, or conference proceedings and the latest research questions I’m tackling, or my teaching and the contents of my course and its lessons, etc. Basically, anything that comes across my mind that I want to think through and explore. Monday mornings is the plan.

Stay tuned,