30 October 2009

Notes: Imagined Communities

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verson, 2006.

I’ve let a little too much time go by to write a really cohesive summary of Anderson’s text, so I’ll settle for a list of main points which I find particularly intriguing for my line of research.

According to Anderson, there are three basic paradoxes to the idea of the nation: 1. that nations are objectively new, but nationalists claim (subjectively, though they wouldn’t acknowledge that) antiquity; 2. that there is a universality to the idea of nationality in that everyone has a nationality, just as everyone has a gender; however, each nationality is itself sui generis; and 3. nationalism has great political power even though it has philosophical paucity.
o I’m particularly interested in the supposed antiquity of nation states and how that might translate to the origins of other kinds of communities and social classes.  Are all communities or social classes built on some sense of their own antiquity?  Particularly newly developed communities/classes?  I’m reminded of Mormonism and its claim to Biblical origins in order to authenticate itself.  

Andersons’ definition of nation: “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.  It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6).
o I’m curious how this idea of members of a community never meeting could be translated to members of a community never actually knowing other community members.  In other words, a member of a community could be acquainted with other community members, but not actually known by them.  To what extent must a community be premised on knowledge deeper than superficial acquaintance?  Anderson clearly argues that members of a community need not even have an acquaintance (he says that the difference between communities is not a matter of “falsity/genuineness” but rather the “style” in which they are imagined), but in some communities (think religious congregation, local members of a particular social class, etc.) there will be that acquaintance.  How does the presence of acquaintance but the absence of knowledge affect Anderson’s theory?

In explaining the community of Christendom, Anderson asserts that the “juxtaposition of cosmic-universal and the mundane-particular” meant that, no matter how far-spread the community was, it presented itself variously but also as a replication of the self.  In other words, even as various pockets of Christianity had their own particular character, they perceived of themselves as representative of their larger community—they conceived of other pockets of Christianity as being “replications of themselves” (23).
o I’m curious about this idea of a subsection of a community perceiving other subsections as replications of the self.  Does this apply at an individual level also?  Does one individual perceive other individual members of their community as reflections or replications of herself?  And if so, what happens when that replication/reflection is proven false?  (compare this idea to what Anderson has to say about Creoles originating the nationalist movements of America)

Anderson pays a lot of attention to the role print-capitalism and print-languages play in the rise of nationalism.  He argues that without print-languages, nationalism would not have developed as it did.  Specifically print-languages had three major effects: 1. they created a language of exchange that existed between Latin (the official language of church and state) and vernaculars; 2. it fixed language, which helped establish the perceived antiquity of that language (and antiquity was a vital element of nationalism); and 3. it privileged certain languages, creating new languages of power granting certain classes more authority than others.  Anderson also places a lot of emphasis on the fatality of language—in the assumed inevitability of a given language as a language of power.  And, more importantly, the fatality of “human language diversity”; because there is a necessary diversity of human languages (while certain languages may die or transform, it’s impossible for all of humanity to share one language), there is a coexisting necessary diversity of human communities.  If language becomes the organizing principle of human communities (and Anderson argues it does), and languages are necessarily diverse, then there must be a corresponding diversity of communities.  

Where previously states had been organized vertically based on a divine head (either God or divinely sanctioned ruler), nations were horizontally organized based on shared language, specifically print-language.  The upper classes, especially heads of state, had forged bonds through marriage; the new bourgeoisie (which Anderson argues was the first imagined community) forged bonds through shared print materials.  This new community formation through print-language radically altered the way national communities were understood, since there were now defined boundaries (under the old vertical organization, Anderson argues that boundaries were porous and relatively unimportant as marital alliances regularly shifted those boundaries).  As Anderson puts it, “one can sleep with anyone, but one can only read some people’s words” (77).

Anderson argues that it was Creole populations (Creole meaning people of European descent who shared cultural and linguistic characteristics with those in the metropole) that fomented successful national rebellions in the Americas, not native populations.  Where the Europeans were able to control native populations through disease, education, arms, government, religious novelty, etc., the Creoles had all of these things in common with the Europeans.  As such, they were situated to successfully challenge the Europeans.  
o I’m curious how this relates to the above idea about reflection/replication.  What moves someone who is arguably of the same community (shared language, education, religion, government, etc.) to make such a radical break?  In some way, it is the sameness within a community but between different factions of the community that threatens it, where utter difference could not.  

Anderson asserts that when a state adopts a vernacular as its official language, doing so suggests a connection of kinship between the ruler of the state and his subjects.  Accordingly, it becomes possible for the subjects of the state to perceive of their ruler as a representative of themselves and therefore as capable of becoming a traitor of his fellow citizens.

“Or, l’essence d’une nation est que tous les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun et aussi que tous aient oublie bien des choses. . . . Tout citoyen francais doit avoir oublie  la Saint-Barthelemy, les massacres du Midi au XIIIe si├Ęcle” (199, quoting Renan).  
o my translation: “the essence of a nation is that all the individuals have many things in common and also that all have forgotten many things. . . . All French citizens must have forgotten St. Barthelemy, the massacures of midnight in the 13th century.”
o What is it that members of a community must forget?  According to Anderson’s interpretation of Renan, they must forget the difference that exists in their past in order to embrace past atrocities as reassuringly “fratricidal”—as family disputes, rather than as wars waged between radically different people.  There has to be a patina of sameness—of a priori nationality and nation-ness—in order for a nation to continue to exist.  Accordingly, members of a nation must forget that at the heart of their allegedly shared existence (because they must remember the past atrocities; they must simply forget the difference inherent in them) there is impurity.

29 October 2009

Notes: Between Women

Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2007.

I’ve just finished reading Sharon Marcus’s book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England.  It’s a fascinating analysis of the relationships between women in Victorian England.  Marcus begins by examining female friendships in their various forms, whether simple friendship, religious friendship, or unrequited love.  She argues that these friendships, rather than being opposed to heterosexual relationships, facilitate relationships between men and women (at least according to the Victorians) by training women to love sympathetically and compassionately.  She also points out that women were expected to demonstrate a certain capacity for passionate feeling (at least in novels) and friendship gave them a proper outlet for such feeling that did not threaten their standing as women.  According to Marcus, friendships between women allowed for gender play in that women could, in the realm of female friendship, act with the openness and aggressiveness usually reserved for men when it came to expressing affection.  She argues that Victorian gender constructs were elastic (not plastic; plastic implies a permanency to the changes worked in a system, whereas elasticity implies the potential for play and shifting without that play permanently altering the structure of the system).  Essentially, Marcus asserts that female friendship is part of normative femininity, contributing to women’s roles as wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters.  Friendship further demonstrated a woman’s class status by illustrating that she had the leisure time to maintain relationships with people who did not directly affect her material interests.

Marcus moves from discussing female friendship in general to developing her theory of “the plot of female amity.”  In essence she claims that in the Victorian novel female friendships (or at the very least moments of female friendship) facilitate the marriage plot.  While female friendships are not themselves dynamic, according to this theory they generate a great deal of energy which helps propel the courtship plot.  In some instances, the female friend of the heroine actually grants permission for the marriage to occur or gives a suitor to the heroine.  I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this theory as many of the Victorian novels I know well don’t actually focus on female friendships, but Marcus advances interesting readings of several novels in order to support her theory.

After discussing female friendship in depth, Marcus moves on to discuss the homoeroticism of Victorian femininity by discussing fashion, corporal punishment, pornography, and dolls.  According to Marcus, female homoeroticism was neither policed nor discouraged by Victorians because they had no concrete concept of lesbianism.  She asserts that because the Victorians saw lesbian sex nowhere, they allowed homoeroticism, female friendship, and female marriage to flourish.  In fact, Marcus insists that homoeroticism was not condemned as antithetical to normative femininity precisely because it was one of the conventions of normative Victorian femininity.  According to Marcus, pornography is not the “underbelly” of culture; instead culture and pornography “share an erotic repertoire.”  By erotic, Marcus does not mean something explicitly sexual; instead she uses the word to refer to a certain affect or emotional response to a person, thing or text—a response related to domination, submission, humiliation, etc—a response distinct from the typically neutral responses to other people and things.  (In defining the erotic, she references Barthes’ text Sade/Fourier/Loyola in which he associates the erotic with classifying, ritualization, and image-making.  I’m interested in this idea, and should probably track down Barthes’ text and at least check into what he has to say about the relationship between classification and the erotic.)  

Marcus’s discussion of female homoeroticism details the way that fashion, women’s domestic magazines, and dolls parallel pornography in their tactics.  She demonstrates that while women certainly were intended to identify with the images/dolls they encountered (which is how theory has typically explained women viewers of such images), they were also fully intended to desire those images as well.  She calls attention to the distinction between identity and identification, insisting that the simple fact that women identified with the images did not mean that they assumed those images as their identity.  Instead identification requires a distance between the viewer and the desired object.  Ultimately Marcus argues that the Victorians did not see female homoeroticism as opposed to heterosexual norms, but rather as part of typical femininity.  

In her treatment of homoeroticism, Marcus makes an extended reading of several fashion plates.  Her discussion of fashion and fashion images introduces some interesting connections between fashion and community control.  She points to the way fashion was an interface between members of a large community and the fact that it depended on a rapidly transmissible press which could spread a current fashion and announce its demise.  She also argues that fashion was for women an exercise in liberal democracy, since it both required conformity to a set of group established rules and the exercise of individual autonomy within those standards.  All of this seems a potentially fruitful avenue for my research.

Marcus concludes her book with a survey of female marriage.  She demonstrates that female marriage, far from being a subculture that existed apart from mainstream society, was a socially acceptable alternative to heterosexual marriage which was frequently discussed by respectable members of society.  She presents several examples of female marriage and shows that these women were part of widespread networks.  Not only did these women participate openly as couples in these social networks, they helped shape the reform of marriage that occurred throughout the century.  Rather than being an unspoken social taboo, female marriages instead exemplified the kind of marriages that feminists and marriage reformers worked for: dissoluble contracts in which each partner was an equal and retained ownership of their own property.  

The chapter on female marriage introduces several potentially interesting ideas, including the idea that Darwin’s work in The Origin of Species led to a way of thinking about change over time in which “commonality and difference were intertwined” and that our “classifications would become genealogies.”  She also cites Maine and Simcox who posit that the family is an artificial kinship construct, rather than a natural one.  Maine especially insists on this by asserting that adoption is the key civilization—in other words, that civilization cannot exist without some mechanism for incorporating difference into a community.

Questions for further thought:
Marcus's theory of Victorian femininity posits a certain elasticity in Victorian gender norms.  To what extent does that elasticity translate to other kinds of classes (social? economic? national?)?  In other words, does a willingness to allow for play in terms of gender norms also indicate a willingness to allow for play in other social categories?

While Marcus clearly illustrates the ways in which female friendship allow for elasticity of gender norms, ultimately she argues that this elasticity serves heterosexual normativity.  Women express assertive affection in female friendships because they cannot do so in heterosexual relationships.  They experience homoerotic responses to fashion plates because they are expected to present themselves beautifully to men and so they must develop an appreciation for female beauty.  To what extent, then, is the elasticity she alleges a form of subversion and containment?  Or does that not actually matter?  Does the mere existence of such gender play, even if it serves heterosexual normativity, create a space for difference?

perhaps more later.

Victorians of interest in the book:
Frances Power Cobbe
Charlotte Cushman
George Eliot
Sarah Ellis
Mary Lloyd
Henry Maine
John Stuart Mill
Edith Simcox

Novels read in the book:
Aurora Leigh
Can You Forgive Her
David Copperfield
Far from the Madding Crowd
Great Expectations
Mill on the Floss
Vanity Fair
Wuthering Heights

26 October 2009

Goals for this Week

To Read:

Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England  by Sharon Marcus.  As of right now I'm only about 50 pages from finishing, so I hope to finish it before bed tonight.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.  I'm about 250 pages into it and having a bit of a hard time pressing forward.  I need to just push myself and get it done.  I also need to be better about summarizing and taking notes.

The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common  by Alphonso Lingis.  A book I should have read years ago for a seminar but which I didn't.  Looking forward to it.

The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I love.

To Write:

Notes on Between Women.

Headnotes for at least two of my lists.

Finalize my theory list.

Emails to my committee members.

02 October 2009

The Novel.

So my project has taken a bit of a change of direction.  Instead of focusing on transatlantic 19th century lit, I'll be looking at the Victorian period, the novel as genre, and theories of community and classification.  The change is a move away from American lit to focusing on the novel.  There are a few reasons for this shift.  One is simple preference.  I love novels and have always been fascinated by their history.  Another reason has to do with Victorian litereature, which is novel-heavy (literally and figuratively, with all those triple-deckers).  I think a solid background in the origin of novels and how they evolved after the Victorian period would help me better understand and teach Victorian literature.  And finally I think there's something about the novel that captures the shifting nature of community and class systems during the 19th century.  So the novel it is.

I've compiled a list, which I need to run past my committee members (of which there are finally four-yay!), but I'd love suggestions.  I'm specifically looking for suggestions regarding precursors or origins of the novel.  I've been pointed in the direction of Lucian, a second-century Assyrian rhetorician and satirist.  And of course I am reading Don Quixote (it's what I'm reading now, in fact).  Are there other suggestions?  I'm also looking for suggestions regarding theory and criticism that focuses on the novel.  I know the usual suspects, but I'd like suggestions of more recent work than that of McKeon and Watt, et al.  So do share if you have any ideas.