Category Archives: Events

Stephen Henderson: Examining the Power of Writing Recursively to Face 21st-Century Challenges

On March 18th, a group of writers considered the audience they write for and the varying purposes the essayist entertains when she sits down to write. The question was posed: Do we write for those who want to know, for those who want to care, for those who want to feel? The venue provoking this dialogue is the Essay in Public Conference funded by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and organized by professors (Martha Elena Rojas (URI), Wendy S. Walters (The New School), and Patricia Ybarra (Brown University).The conference is part of an ongoing discourse on and collaboration of folks who are examining the role of the essay in the ever-changing landscape of journalism and politics while considering its place in academia as well as in more visible platforms such as blogs for outlets like Slate, Quartz, Gawker, and Buzzfeed News.

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Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Stephen Henderson was this year’s afternoon keynote speaker. Henderson is currently the editor for the editorial page of the Detroit Free Press, worked for the Baltimore Sun, and hosts the radio program, “Detroit Today,” and the television show, “American Black Journal.” Henderson’s talk centered on the idea of recursivity. He postulated that recursivity may be a means to “confront the challenges of the 21st century.” Turning to Picasso’s Guernica, Hamilton’s Federalist Papers, and a personal example of how recursivity has, of late, emerged in Henderson’s own life and work in his hometown, Detroit, the audience was called to reflect on what occurs when we think and write recursively.

Recursivity might work in multiple ways. As we return to a theme at different points in our lives, our thinking about topic may evolve as the natural result of our own life experiences.  So too, coming back to a topic, idea or issue in a way that is public—by writing or engaging in some other form of creation—one is also allowing for her audience to interact in multiple and potentially more profound ways with the same topic. Henderson turned to Picasso’s work to demonstrate how this occurs. Henderson’s talk centered on the idea of recursivity.

By using Guernica as one example of an artist who returns to certain images and themes, Henderson makes a case for the role of the essay to not only report but to induce emotion. He invited us to look, as he does, at “Guernica as an essay, an editorial, a

guernica3commentary,  someone reacting to the news and rendering his opinion about it; trying to convey his emotion but also the emotion his country should feel about it and damning the people who perpetrate this.” Through his art, Picasso questioned the brutal and violent regime that held power. Henderson showed sketches from Picasso’s notebook and other works where, over the years, Picasso continued to draw similar images. The horse, nostrils aflare; the woman wailing over the death of her child; the nearly-cyclopean bull. Could it be that a returning to these images aided in Picasso’s ability to create something for the public that would speak out against a fascist regime? Could our repeated study of the painting influence our political actions, our own writing and art? Recursivity may impact both audience and artist.

Henderson next brought our attention to Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to the Federalist Papers. What’s particularly interesting about this example is the timeframe in which Hamilton was working through his ideas. Henderson notes, “Hamilton wrote 51 of Federalist essays in 6 months. Each essay is distinct in that it is trying to do something different and discreet, but even in this exercise there is recursivity.” Henderson highlighted two of Hamilton’s papers, 66 and 76, which were written within roughly three weeks of one another. Each essay is examining the different powers that the separate branches of government will hold—specifically these essays look at the relationship and balance between the executive and legislative branches.  We see that by returning to a theme, Hamilton worked out or thought through an idea over time.

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Recalling Henderson’s musing that recursivity may help us to face 21st century problems, we might ask how sticking with the same subject can prove more beneficial than placing our attention in myriad areas as one might be wont to do given the glut of easily accessible, ready-to-Google information. We too are not fixed. We come to the topics that hold sway on us as different people than we were years or months or weeks ago when we last encountered the same subject. We write about the federal government differently, we change the lines or the size of the horse’s shoulders to depict more strength and agility, or perhaps when we next conceive of the same image it appears vulnerable. Our childhood home is still well cared for; others are creating memories in the same space. Or it slowly falls into disrepair, stripped of pipes for scrap metal, lawn overgrown with weeds. The home represents something about our foundational years, but it also represents something about a place that is larger than we are. In his final example, Henderson demonstrated what it is to disallow a place to go untended.

Henderson ended his presentation by sharing the subject that continues to call him to reflect, examine, act. In 2007, Henderson returned to Detroit despite the fact that his own mother questioned the rationale of one who would return to a city that was on the brink of bankruptcy and decay. Nevertheless, as Henderson reminded us, “emotion does carry our decision making in some very important ways.” Upon his return, he went back to his old neighborhood and was relieved to find his childhood home was still in decent shape. He expressed that it helped him feel anchored and that it even helped his writing to sit in his car outside of the house. Yet as the city bore the effects of the economic downturn, more houses became abandoned including his old house. His home served as a symbol for the city which, by 2012 had 70,000 abandoned houses.

At some point, thinking makes itself manifest in the material world. For Henderson, a reporter, it is logical that this thinking takes the form of writing. He wrote autobiographically about the house, the neighborhood, the sense of loss. Making his thoughts public through the medium of personal essay prompted others to engage in dialogue and also to take action. Old high school friends read his pieces, contacted him and are now working with him to buy houses on this block, spending time and money to rebuild. As Henderson wrote about his house, it prompted him to think about what his ideal vision for the space is. He settled on the idea of turning his old house in to a type of literary center with book readings and signings. It may function as a home for college professors who receive fellowships at the local universities. I suppose the city of Detroit could have, at some point, conceived of a valuable use for the block Henderson grew up on. But there is something to be said for the fixation he had on his house, the continued interest in it that serves as a catalyst for this revitalization.

What calls us to act? Emotion or reason? We can assume that at different times we are motivated by various different forces. By placing work in the context of its tendency towards recursivity, Henderson gave the conference participants cause to reflect on what it means to look at the same topic at different points in one’s life. Not only do we, the subject, change but it’s quite possible that the subject matter that’s the focus of one’s art and writing changes over time. This was certainly the case for Picasso who witnessed increasingly totalitarian policies under Franco. This was the case for Hamilton who was writing as the country was working to craft its government and identity. This is also the case for Henderson who has witnessed the changing landscape of the city where he grew up. The writer and artist are called to and charged with deepening or complicating our understanding of complex issues like war and political systems and the lives of cities. This they do by refusing to be satisfied with writing about issues once. No “one and done” for the essayist.


Grant Farred Lecture: “Negro” and The American Condition

A few weeks ago visiting professor Grant Farred provided a lively night of academic quandaries and theoretical debate during his lecture on the political, philosophical, and linguistic use of the word Negro and its connection to American race relations in the works of James Baldwin.  Dr. Farred is a professor of literature, Africana studies, and cultural studies at Cornell University.  He is also an active author and recent books include Midfielder’s Moment: Coloured Literature and Culture in Contemporary South Africa, What’s My Name?  Black Vernacular Intellectuals, Phantom Calls: Race and the Globalization of the NBA, and Long Distance Love: A Passion for Football.  Dr. Farred has also served as an editor on various essay collections focusing on the Caribbean intellectual, Post-Apartheid in South Africa, and C.L.R. James, marking him as a leading scholar in diverse literary and cultural studies.

Dr. Farred began his enthusiastic talk with a close reading of James Baldwin and his idea that the Negro is the only real American.  For Baldwin, the term Negro is the condition of America, because it joins the oppressor and the oppressed.  In America the Negro is thought of as the other.  But the other only exists in relation to the dominant party, or white Americans.  The other, or Negro, is then a neighbor, distant but near to Whites at the same time, and not actually an other at all.  If the Negro is the same as the White community, then the Negro is the narrative of America, the story of the oppressors and the oppressed.   The Negro and White America are also forever joined together as the condition of America, because the United States can never return to a time before America was founded on the atrocity of slavery.  The Negro is America, as well as its past and future.

Dr. Farred points out that Baldwin overlooks the experience of the Native American in his discussion of the Negro as the condition of America.  Although this is a problem, because the Native American is othered in White culture, in reality Native Americans are the indigenous people of America and are anything but an other.   Therefore, like the Negro, the Native American is the condition of America and is not distant but is near to White America.  In the lecture Dr. Farred explains how the Negro can be then used as a term for all groups of people that have been oppressed and othered in the United States, including African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and any other community.  The Negro is the Condition of America and all who have been oppressed, and all who have been oppressors.

As the talk concluded and Dr. Farred opened up the room to questions, he challenged assumptions regarding the current role of the other in America culture.  When asked about Rachel Dolezal, Dr. Farred stated that the other always begins with exclusion and the assumption that the other is not the same as the dominant party.  By claiming that Dolezal does not know the African American experience, it is othering her and making the experience a combative game.  For Dr. Farred this is the problem of over representation and the idea that a person can only speak for their own gender, race, or class.  This creates experience as a combative game because people must one up each other in order to be considered other or oppressed in America.  Over representation just then further segregates and others people’s experiences.  Dr. Farred ends his answer by saying America needs to find a new way to express self and the other, and perhaps that way is through Baldwin’s use of the term Negro.

Dr. Farred is currently finishing a forthcoming book called Bodies in Motion, Bodies at Rest and last fall posted on University of Minnesota Press’ Blog regarding his complex relationship with the works of Martin Heidegger.

Wendy Walters Lecture: A Quickly Approaching Horizon

Wwaltersendy Walters’ writing is a gift to multiple communities all at once: hopeful writers and students, literature fans, environmental activists, and anyone attentive to the state of human rights in our world.  By this measure, this is writing that should concern just about everyone on Earth.  She is widely published as a poet, but her selections at this lecture leaned towards prosody.  Her style remained unmistakably poetic, however.  This literary design allows her to blend scientific facts with metaphor and storytelling, which brings a beauty and relatable quality to what would normally be dry historic data.  She begins with an ear-catching specific, then moves towards more general truths.  By giving a melodic energy to factual evidence, she manages to convey vital messages without ever being dull.  This is not only admirable but essential in this age of short attention spans, self-interest, and instant gratification, where capturing the attention of the upcoming generations seems to be simultaneously more difficult and more crucially needed.

Her first reading came from her essay “When the Sea Comes for Us” and focused on the delicate balance of coastal communities and the surrounding ocean levels.  Specifically, it centered around her home in New York City not far from the famous New York Harbor.  She explored marine areas geographically, listing particular areas by name and then detailing their historical role in the human-ocean relationship.  This highlighted how dependent the human race has always been on the sea, and how we have always come for it, usually to use it to our advantage.  She spoke of our building upward as an “impulse to climb” that had a clear double-meaning, representing our physical topography of taller and taller buildings that was designed by an “economy of space,” but also of our apparently inextinguishable desire to accumulate wealth and prestige both individually and collectively (Walters).  She compared skyscrapers to masts, something I have personally never considered, and this could be argued to exemplify the enduring nature of humanity’s false idea that we can claim or tame anything by merely building upon it, raising ourselves above it.  A sentiment from this piece that effectively introduced her next reading was that “true sea change” will leave no territory unaffected (Walters).  It’s not just about New York, it’s not just about America; this is an issue that concerns the entire planet.  All of the major civilizations in our history have depended on the various benefits of the ocean.  We have come for the sea, unwilling to admit to ourselves that the sea could, in turn, come for us.

walters 3     The next piece she read from was “You Are Pip.”  This was a much longer essay, which she hesitated to call an essay as it seems to bridge the spaces between poem, essay, and monologue.  Several in the audience said that they felt it was a performance piece after the reading, and I believe this came from the repetition of several lines such as the ever-present reminder that “you are Pip” as well as the subtle urgency of the writing.  This piece still deals with the unbreakable yet dangerous bond human beings have with the sea, but it is more deeply focused on human-to-human interaction, specifically interaction modified by racism.  Pip is a seemingly minor character of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a young African-American boy who works under the notorious Captain Ahab.  However, Walters shows that he holds an importance far greater than it first appears.  His character’s initial purpose seems to be comic relief, but that is cut short by his untimely drowning later in the novel.  This indicates a purposeful earnestness expressed by Melville when penning his unexpected demise.  Pip can, and perhaps should, be totally removed from the context of his tale and represent a bigger issue in our society, past and present.  Walters seems to think this is necessary, that we are all Pip: nervous yet in awe, humorous yet serious, corporeal yet fleeting.  Regardless of skin color, the work demonstrates that the tumultuous range of human emotion and the unpredictability of human experience are universal factors in our lives.

As the reading began to wind down, it became clear that another interpretation could be drawn: Pip could also be the sea.  Some lines that triggered this association were “you have died, not we have killed you”, “fears born from uncertainty”, and “may you never sacrifice yourself to progress (Walters).”  These thoughts can all be easily related to our relationship with the ocean.  Many people refuse to admit their part in the destruction of the marine ecosystem, certainly much of the population has fears of the ocean based on a lack of knowledge or uncertainty, and those who care about the sea of course wish that it walters 2would not become sacrificed to progress.  Now, if we are Pip, and Pip is the ocean, WE are the ocean.  Our tie to water is scientific, unavoidable, and unique.  The ocean sustains us, heals us, transports us, and amuses us.  Therefore, why should we not protect it as one of our own?  We are not just saving a remarkable, ancient world, but ourselves as well.  As Walters so eloquently put, the world will end just as it always was going to; what changes and what matters is the speed of that demise.

 

Looking at Faulkner Through Doorways with Amy Foley

Last week, as a part of the URI Department of English Graduate Student Colloquium Series, Amy Foley, a Ph.D. candidate in English, gave a fascinating talk entitled “’That Strange Threshold’: Faulkner’s Doorways to Being.” Her talk focused on the research she has done as part of her fulfillment of the fellowship she received by the Center for the Humanities.

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Amy’s admiring undergraduate and fellow graduate students, proud faculty, and loving family listened in anticipation as Professor Barber, in his usual compassionate manner, introduced his esteemed advisee Amy.

The first time I met Amy she was presenting at the 2014 URI Graduate Student Conference. I thought I could listen to her for days. Seeing her share her insights about Faulkner’s philosophy of built environments at the colloquium, I was again struck by the same welcoming tone, confidence, and melodious voice that makes her presentations enjoyably unique. When it was time to take questions from the audience, even the most mundane questions became compelling with her careful engagement and appreciation

amy 2Her equally accommodating work synthesizes eclectic philosophers, such as Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Gaston Bachelard, into a unifying theme of ontological existence and their relation to the doorways and thresholds within Faulkner’s writings. She questions the fine line between the door as the sanctuary, as well as the ostensibly sharp oppositions between the interior and exterior, culture and nature through the architectural structures.

Overall, Amy’s presentation and her fine work reveals her wisdom: she has the unique ability to listen to others—philosophers, writers, peers, and professors—taking their work and insights and expanding the conversation, applying her own critical view to create something truly captivating. We wish her the best as she continues to work on the rest of her dissertation and look forward to hearing more from her exciting project.

Spring 2016 Welcome Back!

Welcome back! We hope everyone is excited for a new year and a new semester! As always, URI’s English Department has some amazing events, both official and through our amazing student-led groups, that are happening in the next few months. From professionalization meetings to get you ready for your next grant proposal or job interview, to bowling and beer tasting, to the amazing speakers that present their work, here’s just a glimpse of some of the things happening in the first half of 2016. Now let’s just all hope that the weather is a bit more cooperative than last year.

From the Professionalization Committee:

We will be collaborating with Jean Walton’s 511 course on a Job Market Event where a mix of successful alumni, recent hires, and faculty with hiring committee experience will all speak to the various facets of the job market. There will also be a discussion of Job Materials and search strategies. This will be Monday April 11th at 7pm in the Hoffmann Room. In mid-March we will also be holding an interdisciplinary panel on getting funding as a grad student, with a focus on outside funding sources and why that is important. It will be open to all grad-students at URI, though will be humanities-centered. Several experienced grant writers and fellowship winners will be speaking at this workshop.

From the Social Committee:

The social committee has a lot of great events coming up this semester. Our first event will be at Lang’s Bowlarama on February 19th at 5pm for an evening of bowling, craft beers, and catching up after winter break. The rest of the semester you will see a craft brewery tour, a happy hour, and an end of semester nature hike. Details of each event will be finalized approximately two weeks before each event occurs. Keep a look out for informational flyers around Swan Hall and posts on the English Party People Facebook. Our goal is to provide English department graduate students with one event per month this Spring to encourage camaraderie, relaxation, and fun!

Department Events:

February

17th 5:00pm Hoffman Room – Graduate Student Colloquium: Amy Foley

18th 2:00pm Hoffman Room – Rumowicz Lecture Series: “You are Pip” by Wendy S. Walters

24th 5:00pm Hoffman Room –  Guest Speaker: Grant Farred

March

8th 5:00pm Hoffman Room – Read/Write: Talvikki Ansel

18th – Essay in Public Conference, CCE

April

7th 5:00pm Hoffman Room – Graduate Student Colloquium: Brittany Hirth

11th 5:00pm Hoffman Room – Guest Speaker: Marta Werner

20th 5:00pm Hoffman Room – Read/Write: Lynn Emanuel

28th 2:00pm Gender and Sexuality Center – Annual Rumowicz Awards Ceremony

More info about all these events can be found here: http://events.uri.edu/search/events?search=english+department+of

If You Write, You’re a Writer: An Evening of Poetry

In a small library near the Bay Campus, the poets of the URI graduate program shared their work of the last semester on Wednesday, Dec. 9. As I settled in to my child-sized chair, I was just glad that I had gotten a seat, because other attendees were left to find seating between book shelves and mill around counters. The Willet Free library was packed with both books and people and the cozy atmosphere was just right for this reading organized by Alyssa Taft and Laura Marciano, featuring the nine students of Peter Covino’s seminar this fall.

After Peter thanked all the attendees for coming, the reading got started with Alyssa Taft, who gave a short presentation. Rather than sharing poetry, Alyssa, who worked on a seminar paper for the course, introduced us to how poetry and children intersect, and in particular the benefits of poetry in education. Poetry, besides increasing reading fluency and encouraging reluctant readers, creates mindfulness in children. It gives readers silence and space in which to interpret and allows them to read into others and the world, promoting a “wide awake-ness.”

Though Alyssa was talking about the benefits for children, the eight poets who shared their work after her certainly encouraged this feeling of being awake to the world for the audience. The array of poetry was vast, even within one poet’s reading. Julie Hassett started with “Forest,” which was connected to local food banks, and ended with a poem that attempted to capture the feeling of numbness after being told her sister had died, and in between were poems written in response to art, such as “Procrastination Has Already Been Sold.” Elizabeth Folke wanted to focus on the intersection of humanity and technology, how science and invention has changed our lives. Her poems, which sometimes included a bit of a science fiction flair, asked us to probe our own lives. Others, like “Creature” which considered the situation of the burn victim who was recently the first recipient of a full-face transplant, asked us to inhabit others’. We were also asked just to listen. Francesca Borrione read two of her poems in the Italian they were originally written in, sharing the translations of more. In the Italian, I could catch a word here or there, but beautiful in both languages was her line, “I inhabited the cartography of my imagination.”

After a short break, Andrew Merecicky declared that his chapbook was entitled “Pornography of Light and Flood,” and that was “all the explanation I’m doing.” With a forceful reading voice, Andrew let the poetry linger, keeping true to his opening declaration. Susan Munson offered more context, happily as her first poem was about Bob Leuci, who once asked her “Are you a writer?” Susan used her reading style to emphasize the content of another poem “Hypervent” which was about OCD and social anxiety. Alex Trubia’s poetry included sly humor in lines such as “I’ll keep it for the sequel, something holy part II,” along with more haunting lines such as “when the winters at their frigid worst draw moisture from the timber.” Laura Marciano followed with poems that had a bitingly smart feminist viewpoint, asking the important questions like “If I sleep with myself, will I be famous?” The reading ended with Luisa Murillo, who addressed domestic violence in Bolivia in her opening poem “She Never Took Back the Night.” Luisa also included more personal poems, such as about moving to Queens from Bolivia, and poems which mixed myth with reality, putting a finishing touch on the night.

The readers also shared their experiences in the class and preparing for the reading, some at the reading and others with me afterwards. Julie Hassett gave an anecdote during her reading about wanting a heart from Alyssa on her paper during critique, apparently these hearts were a hot commodity. Alyssa saw her presentation as a “mini-conference paper” and later told me that she was glad that the audience connected to her research and understood her ideas. Susan shared that poetry has made her who she is, and that the semester was more about taking herself seriously as a poet. For her, preparing included getting ready for her “Lady Gaga moment,” as Peter calls it, by singing along to the radio on her way to the reading. Elizabeth thought about reading as a different skill than writing, and tried to consider the rhythm and inflection she would use. She shared that the class had given her space to access her creativity. Andrew, of course after the reading, told me that Peter emphasized performative reading this semester and that practice had helped him, as well as a glass of wine and some deep breaths. I think the others would agree with Andrew on this as well, “the fact that a few dozen or so people showed up to listen to poetry is always a special experience,” which this reading definitely was.

Spivak at RISD

Being part of the URI community means having access to all of the amazing speakers hosted by not only our department but by all of the various foundations and schools throughout the university. In addition to this, our unique location also positions us to take advantage of a community of other universities in the Northeast who host their own speaker events. Thanks to the diligence of the English department, we are kept up to date on these various events that might hold particular interest for those of us in the humanities. It was through one of these emails that I learned that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would be speaking at RISD, a short drive from URI’s campus.

I had never been to the Rhode Island School of Design (otherwise kno20151119_010302982_iOSwn as RISD), but found it easily enough (after missing the first exit I was supposed to take – Providence roads still confound me). The talk was held in their auditorium and it quickly filled. Initially, I found it curious that Spivak, a postcolonial literary theorist perhaps best known for her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and her introduction and translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, would be speaking at a school of art and design. However, my confusion only demonstrated my own limited view of the humanities and perhaps a too rigid view of departmental borders. Spivak’s talk was part of the Global Forum Series at RISD which seeks to address the global, interconnected world in which RISD graduates’ contributions will  “shape the cultural, social and environmental innovations of future generations” (http://gpp.risd.edu/descriptiongoals/). Spivak’s own academic work in postcolonialism as well as her “philanthropic” work speaks directly to these concerns.

Spivak’s talk focused on epistemological concerns posing an intellectual challenge: is it possible to learn from epistemological machines that have been damaged? From there she raised the distinction between play in the world vs. play of the world utilizing two competing or at least divergent definitions of design—to plan or sketch something artistically and to scheme or contrive—embodied by Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent book The Pleasure in Drawing and a recent post from the Harvard Business School, respectively. Both, she claims, ignore the play of the world. From here she spoke briefly of Derrida’s reading of Rousseau’s critique of supplement that color, as supplement, somehow corrupts design. Rousseau, Spivak highlights, never makes explicit the lack that necessitates supplementation in the first place.

Constrained by time, Spivak was forced to skip over a more detailed discussion of her previous points and ended with a call to the humanities, saying that what we have to ask ourselves is how to people know themselves. She reiterated that often the plan of what one (or a government) seeks to achieve is marked by the absence of questions of what is truly needed and so, while you may accomplish something, it is rarely what you initially intended. For this reason, we must expand the circle of people who can learn from literature.

The faculty question and answer session that accompanied Spivak’s talk was, for me, the most enjoyable part of the forum. Spivak touched on a range of issues, from the concept of teaching from below (accompanied by an extremely entertaining anecdote about an elephant that was terrorizing an African village where she had gone to guest teach an English class to young children) and how to engage with and work with various groups of people, to the advent of artificial intelligence. What resonated most with me was her discussion of her work in rural India. In discussing her work with various charities, she criticizes calling this philanthropy, instead viewing it as a repayment of the historical denial of intellectual resources that, while she herself is not actively engaging in, has occurred for millennia and from which she has benefited.

Attending this event was a wonderful experience. Because of our department’s tireless efforts to make sure we are kept up to date on all of the various resources that exist, not only at URI, I was able to see speak in person a woman whose work I have always found inspiring.

Paranoid Reading: Barber’s Exploration of Psyche and Politics in Woolf and Sedgwick

There wasn’t an inch of space left as Associate Professor Stephen Barber walked into the Hoffmann room in Swan Hall Thursday, November 5, 2015. Sharing salutations with old friends, faculty, and students, Barber received spectators with open arms. As part of the English Department’s Faculty Speaker Series, spectators eagerly awaited the talk “Psyche and Politics: Virginia Woolf’s Final Writings.”

Developing the history of Barber’s pedagogy and interpersonal relationships with students and individuals in general, Ph.D candidate Amy Foley informed the crowd that “no one knows Virginia Woolf like Stephen.” Influenced by the work of Woolf,  Gayatri Spivak, Eve Sedgwick, and Michel Foucault among others, Barber has inspired scholars for over twenty years, writing on these authors with a particular interest in their later works.

Barber revealed that he lived under the same roof as Sedgwick as she composed some of her critical works.  Her essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” he reveals, was dedicated to colleagues of Sedgwick, including himself. In the tradition of genuine scholarship, Barber noted the challenge of reading Sedwick’s late works, in comparison to Woolf’s own struggle reading Freud. Woolf, according to Barber, did not claim to start reading Freud until 1939. Although she “never becomes a Freudian” for Barber, Woolf began to “forge a radical psychology, and gives herself fully to thinking about political agency.”

Political agency was an issue of concern for both Woolf and Sedgwick according to his work; however, Sedgwick’s interest in political agency revolved around paranoia. For Sedgwick, according to Barber, paranoia involves bad news that is always already known. Sedgwick’s notion of paranoia also included the mantra, “anything that you can do to me, I can do worse.”

The paranoid reading became more intense in the late 60s as particular American events such as the Watergate scandal prompted the agenda of conspiracy theories. Barber suggests that when Sedwick encountered D.A. Miller’s “The Novel and The Police” (1989) she had trouble finding connections with the novel through the paranoid mode of reading. The barrier that arose in the encounter with Miller’s work inspired Sedgwick to revisit the hermeneutics of suspicion— the mode of theory that had been dominant prior to her propositions for paranoid and reparative readings.

Cheered by the presence of students, cherished colleagues, and visitors, Barber concludes with the notion that criticism for Sedgwick is still an invasive form of social interpretation. Opening the conversation to a friendly question and answer session, Barber reveals, “Nothing about the book (he is currently completing) is autobiographical.” His interest in Sedgwick, Foucault, and Spivak contributes to his reading of the final work of Woolf, Between the Acts (1941) a text which he believes Woolf uses as a medium to theorize her own reading of Freud. Woolf would not necessarily follow Freud, especially in the boiling down of individual’s affective states (love and hate according to Freud) but this tour de force work established the last prodigious testimony of the author’s philosophical and psychological explorations.

Sexual Agent or Victim: URI PhD candidate Michele Meek Discusses Conflicting Narratives Centered around Amy Fisher

 

As the latest installment of the URI Department of English’s Graduate Student Colloquium Series, on Thursday, October 1st, 2015, URI PhD candidate Michele Meek presented a riveting talk to an attentive audience titled “A Dangerous Girl or a Girl in Danger?: Shifting Sexual Agency in Narratives about the ‘Long Island Lolita.'”

Additional chairs were ushered in minutes before the talk to accommodate the eager crowd, and Professor Naomi Mandel’s introduction served to prepare the audience with descriptors of Meek’s work as “edgy” as it focuses on topics such as rape, pornography, and sexuality. Drawing on her keen interest in film and images, Meek opened her presentation with a series of images from the television movie, The Amy Fisher Story (1993), starring Drew Barrymore. After walking the disquieted audience through the narrative of events between Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, Meek proceeded to present a counter narrative as seen in an alternate television movie, Amy Fisher: My Story (1992). Rounding out the possibilities of their affair, Meek then presented a third possible narrative as she showed her audience images from Casualties of Love: The “Long Island Lolita” Story (1993).

Meek then revealed her main point of interest surrounding the Amy Fisher narrative, as it relates to her dissertation, in which she examines specific narrative moments that depict “consent puzzles,” or ethically and aesthetically ambiguous depictions of sexual situations, where as readers or watchers, we may feel a sense of discomfort, and as scholars, we find no simple answers.

Further investigating the media frenzy surrounding the trial of Amy Fisher, Meek examined how the tabloid media shaped not only the general public’s opinion of the affair, but the extent to which the prosecuting and defense attorneys involved in the case were influenced by and responding to sharply drawn victim/perpetrator portrayals with Buttafuoco and Fisher exchanging roles at various points in order to further either the prosecution’s or defense’s agenda.

Drawing on her research conducted at the Library of Congress media archives, Meek analyzed the role of multiple Hard Copy and A Current Affair exposés, as well as the three made-for-television movies mentioned above and the true crime novels written from various perspectives.

Meek focused on specifics such as how the emergence of Fisher’s work as an escort, her sexual abuse as a child, her rape as a twelve-year-old by a workman at the house were used as effective rhetorical strategies for either Fisher’s defense or prosecution.

Drawing on the work of gender theorist, Judith Butler, Meek problematized the victim/perpetrator dichotomy rife throughout the media spectacle surrounding Fisher’s trial, in order to suggest that to access a girl’s sexual agency, we might need to allow for some more ambiguity by allowing the ‘consent puzzle’ to exist.

Meek then fielded a wide range of questions from the diverse audience. Within this dialogue, Meek and the audience addressed the Anita Hill case, revictimization within the field of psychology, and concerns about Long Island ethnic identity further expanding and demonstrating the importance of Meek’s work.

Constructing Femininity: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Material Culture, and the OED

clip_art_library_books89143630_stdHave you ever looked up a word in the OED, and come across a first-use quotation from your favorite author? Well, if your favorite author happens to be Victorian writer Mary Elizabeth Braddon, you would experience this feeling of surprise quite frequently.

In her March 25, 2015 talk entitled “Constructing Femininity: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Material Culture, and the OED,” PhD candidate Anna Brecke spoke about Braddon’s lasting mark on the English language. Although most widely known as the author of Lady Audley’s Secret, Braddon was a prolific writer of sensation in the 1860s, penning more than 150 novels and short stories, nine plays, and countless poems and other scholarly writings over the span of her forty-year career, becoming the sixth most cited female author in the OED at present. Brecke’s talk drew examples from three of Braddon’s lesser-known novels, Asphodel, Mount Royal, and Vixen, where words abound that Braddon herself either coined or utilized in a new way. These words run the gamut from abstruse anachronisms to commonplace contemporary terms. Words currently in disuse like “horsiness” and “dogginess” were used by Braddon in describing the habits of female characters as liking the outdoors or enjoying hunting. Braddon in fact refers to the “horsiness” of her own activities in her diaries, which, Brecke interestingly points out, focus more on horses and riding than they do on people. Braddon’s novels utilize these and similar terms as a way to distinguish her “natural heroines” from the commodified girl culture that was often pressed in social circles and popular culture. It is here in her connection to material culture that Braddon’s mark on the English language can best be seen.

Drawing on her work in the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Archive held at the International Center for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW) in Canterbury Christ Church University, England, Brecke spoke to the apparent preoccupation with issues of appearance and social expectations of dress voiced in Braddon’s works. Brecke recognized a theme of materiality in Braddon’s terms, pointing to the abundance of words that relate to material culture, specifically fashion, fabric, or clothing, that make up the over 1,400 OED entries in which Braddon is cited. The novel Vixen is cited for the first use of the word “fashion magazine” in print, while the term “chic” cites Mount Royal as an instance of first use for its meaning. The third text Brecke discussed, Asphodel, boasts “aglitter,” “fad,” and among its contributions to the English language. The female characters of Braddon’s texts use this specialized fashion vocabulary as a way to consume girl culture being broadcasted in the very magazines Braddon names. Brecke’s talk included pictures of Victorian fashion plates, or drawings of the most popular clothing styles of the time, similar to those that characters in a Braddon may have themselves looked upon.

Although Braddon’s project may not have been to propagate and encourage girl culture, her contributions to the world of material culture—particularly fashion—are astonishing. As Brecke pointed out in her question and answer session, there is certainly a doubleness to Braddon’s use of the terms, where successful heroines find moderation between consumer culture and anti-consumerism tendencies. Brecke’s talk served to highlight this lesser-known author whose contributions to the English language are impressive and astonishing, and whose influence stretches beyond the literary page.