Sunday, April 20, 2008

Torrential Downpour

Politics and Literature
Jacob Russell writes: "Not that I believe for a second that literature and the arts are not in themselves, consequential--even primary to politics. But they cannot be so as Mandarin pursuits apart from the messy realities of power and its relations to everyday life."

This reminds me of something that I've tried to argue in the past: it's not that literature becomes politicized, but that politics underlies so much of how we approach literature.

In grad school, I took a course on Asian-American literature, and we very much took for granted that literature is political. During this time, I was reading William Wordsworth's "Nutting," describing an excursion tramping through the woods looking for nuts. How on earth is this a political poem?, I thought. Then I considered some questions one could ask about this poem. What political realities granted the poet access to the woods, and the leisure time to walk about in the woods? More pressing: what political realities lead professors to determine this poem belongs in any canon (in other words, that students should read it)? Why this poem instead of another? Suddenly there are political ramifications underlying my approach to Wordsworth's poem: politics in why I was reading it in the first place.

I don't suggest that one must ask these questions to read that or any other poem (though Wordsworth did occasionally touch on politics in his poetry--"The Prelude" includes his musings on the French Revolution and its aftermath). In fact, I think one would have a more authentic, meaningful experience reading the poem without those political questions. But it is good if somebody asks these questions. Whether you would like to ask these questions or not is up to you as a reader. But politics underlies the canon, and it is a good thing that people are asking the serious political questions about what the canon includes and excludes, and why.

Grammar, Clarity, and They/Their
English teachers should not teach and enforce grammar rules to be conservative sticklers of traditional usage; rather, English teachers should teach and enforce grammar rules to facilitate clarity.

The top priority of most writing (and all academic writing) should be clarity: one wishes to convey one's meaning as clearly as possible. Grammar is a (very small) part of clear writing: poor grammar can distort or confuse one's meaning.

I'm ready to accept the use of "they" or "their as a singular genderless pronoun on philosophical grounds. I don't like it, and I won't use it myself, but I'll tolerate it. Language evolves, and it's silly to resist change on one little grammar rule. However, in some contexts, the use of they/their as a singular pronoun can confuse the point. If a sentence has two separate nouns, and then later in the sentence they/their is used as a pronoun, it can be unclear whether the pronoun refers to both nouns or to only one (or which one).

On the grounds of clarity, I think I ought to encourage my students to maintain subject-pronoun agreement. It is not about nit-picking a clearly evolving grammar usage; it is about encouraging students to be as clear in their meaning as they can be.

Mostly Vegan
I'm in the early stages of working out precisely how I'm living for the next year (or more). While most days I am a fairly strict vegan, I am now also a "special occasions cheese eater." Those special occasions are rare: I ate pizza for my birthday, and in the summer, I foresee three special occasions: an important wedding, a trip to Boston (first real vacation in three years--I want to eat some cheese), and the Hazelweird Fantasy Football Draft.

Links (a few which will show how unabashedly low-brow I can be)
I thought Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was an outstanding movie in its way; it was a silly comedy, but it was actually exploring something meaningful, too. I hope the next one is just as good: in The New York Times, Dennis Lim calls it a "stoner protest film."

Ona Bonfiglio in Common Dreams: "Peace activists are often accused of being na├»ve dreamers when it comes to dealing with conflict or dangerous enemies. So what is the alternative? Usually it’s to fight fire with fire (i.e., revenge and retaliation)."

An article in The Onion for fans of Back to the Future.

At New Scientist, read "24 myths and misconceptions" about Evolution.


  1. Jacob Russell10:34 AM

    I think questions of political context should begin first with ourselves, and only then with the poem, novel, work of art, things which are not political until we read them, which become political because we read them, are made political by our reading them--because there is no life that is free of politics--that has no part in the channels of power.

  2. I must admit I'm a little glad you'll be eating cheese on your trip out here this summer. Rob and I were doing a lot of brainstorming to come up with places to eat that wouldn't conflict with your veganism (I think the Indian place is a must! And also, veggie sushi, because have you guys even had veggie sushi??). But there is a bagel place nearby that has the most AMAZING bagels outside of New York (so I've heard--the bagel I had in New York was from a chain near Port Authority and, thus, was pretty boring). Anyway, it's yummy. And the cream cheese is yummy. And now I'm glad to hear you will try some.