Monday, 28 December 2009

I Read A Bad Book

Hello! The book is going very nicely, thank you, and I have lots of things to say about it, but not in this post, which is about another book, one I have just read, called I Did A Bad Thing by Linda Green. And yes, she did.

I began having dubious feelings about it on the acknowledgements page, because of the juxtaposition of acknowledgements to:

my husband Ian for... never losing faith and waiting eight years... for the widescreen television I promised to buy when I got a book deal

and to:

my creative writing students for providing such a welcome break from the rejections.

Which I guess put me in a suspicious and uncharitable frame of mind from the start: like, if you're going to teach creative writing despite never having produced any publishable fiction in eight years, I'm going to be looking for evidence that you at least have the kind of technical skills/craft that can potentially be passed on. But on that technical level, the book's kind of a mess: there are unintentional tautologies and awkward phrases like the mental image I had of Nick in my mind, or I am filled with an overwhelming sense that I will never see him again. Maybe it was the way he said goodbye with such an air of permanence. (What, like when he said 'Goodbye forever', or 'Goodbye, we won't meet again?' Gosh, maybe it was.)

Also, it's all written in very short sentences. Except that it isn't. Really the sentences are quite long. Grammatically they are. But the sub-clauses are all marked by full stops. And capital letters. Instead of commas. Irritatingly. (I felt the ache grip me again. Mixed with a fresh shot of guilt.; I sat there for a long time. Probably an hour. Seeing it all in my head, the images still vividly real).

The pitfalls of the very-short-sentence technique became particularly clear very early in the book, though, on p.6:

The door opened and he walked in. Resplendent in his Burberry trench coat. Hair the colour of Bourneville chocolate. Stubble caressing his chin. Shit. He looked even better than I remembered.


Which is a particularly impressive feat given that 'he' (Nick) appears to have shown up for a job interview covered in poo (really, it took me about three reads of this to figure out that 'Shit' was not grammatically parallel to 'Hair' and 'Stubble', but in fact belonged with the following sentence and marked a shift into the narrator's own commentary.)

Anyway, none of that is a giant deal, really. What made me decide I had to post about it was the way the plot actually revolves around the idea that vegetarians and people who do political work relating to people outside the First World are (at worst) just putting it on to make themselves feel smug or (at best) victims of psychological trauma. I was having a conversation with a friend recently who's training to be a counsellor, and she was telling me about how common it is in academic work in the field for vegetarianism to be seen as a symptom of some sort of mental disorder. (so, you know, you go to a counsellor about your post-traumatic stress disorder and he starts telling you to eat more bacon...) So I guess my brain was primed for this, a bit, but as the book went on, I was just more and more amazed and appalled at the way that vegetarianism and/or engagement with non-British politics were themselves constructed purely as the sign of a character's being inadequate, stupid, traumatized, infantilized, status-obsessed, and/or hypocritical.

So, okay, examples? Well, one of the prime ones is a comparison between two dinners out in the book. The first is a birthday dinner for Sarah, the narrator: she's there alone with her boyfriend, Jonathan, who takes her to a nice restaurant but before ordering his own food, checks whether the wine is vegetarian (not filtered through isinglass); whether the soup is made with vegetarian stock; and whether there's gelatine in the cheesecake (there is); and whether the coffee is fairtrade. He's polite and helpful (he has a list of vegetarian wines with him, in case the waiter doesn't know which of the restaurant's wines are okay), and at no point does he have a go at the restaurant for not labelling its menu properly, as I might have done (this novel is set in Birmingham in 2006 or 2007, by the way). But this, in the novel's terms, constitutes 'making a fuss', and Sarah is so incensed at his behaviour that she walks out of the restaurant, shouts at him in the street, and gets a cab home on her own:

I stood for a moment, gulping the damp night air, trying to stop my body from shaking. Jonathan emerged a few minutes later.

'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I didn't mean to upset you.'

'Well you have. It was supposed to be a quiet birthday meal, not a party political broadcast on behalf of Friends of the Earth.'

I lowered my arm, conscious that I was jabbing a finger at him. Jonathan stood staring at me... The cab pulled up outside. I opened the rear door and got in. Jonathan was a few steps behind.

'Sorry,' I said, turning round and slamming the door behind me, 'the cab driver filled up at Esso. I'm afraid you'll have to walk.'

I hated doing it. But it was the only way he'd learn.


By contrast, this is how Sarah behaves at her works Christmas dinner where she's ordered a vegetarian meal in advance:

Even the waitress looked embarrassed as she lowered the plate containing a round brownish object down before me. I looked up at her questioningly.

'Stuffed onion,' she said.

'What's it stuffed with?'

'Er, Stilton,' she replied. 'And it's dressed in a vegetable gravy.'

'And what about the other eighteen pounds I paid?'

'Sorry?' said the waitress.

'Well, that and the soup must have cost less than a couple of quid to throw together. I wondered what had happened to the rest of the money I paid for my meal.'


She decides to have the poached salmon instead:

The bemused waitress removed the offending onion and scuttled away... The salmon arrived. It tasted good. Better than I remembered. Some things were worth breaking the rules for.


[You get the foreshadowing, right? By ordering the salmon, she is signalling her intention to chuck nice Jonathan for Nick, the guy who came to a job interview with poo on his head. That, by the way, is the plot of the novel, which is 375 pages long: she used to go out with Nick, who was going out with someone else at the time and left her for the someone-else; she felt guilty about sleeping with a girlfriended man, so tried to exorcise her guilt by going out with Jonathan; she doesn't actually like Jonathan, though, so when Nick turns up again she chucks Jonathan and goes back to Nick, although not for an unaccountably long time, cf above about the 375 pages.] Anyway, though, Sarah's behaviour at this dinner, for some reason, is not 'making a fuss' or 'a party political broadcast on behalf of the Value For Money Party': it's a blow for freedom! For individuality! It's 'breaking the rules' in order to gain more pleasure and more joy in life! And if you have to be loudly and publicly rude and sarcastic to an innocent waitress to get that pleasure, then so be it! That's all just part of your charming, rule-breaking, happy-go-lucky, meat-eating transgressiveness! (Imagine - eating fish! How many people are brave and free-spirited enough to break our deep-rooted English cultural taboo against eating fish? NOT MANY.) No-one would ever be embarrassed by that behaviour, compared to a polite request about whether there's gelatine in a cheesecake!

Oh, but wait - Jonathan himself has admitted that his behaviour at Sarah's birthday meal was very poor:

I'm sorry I upset you,' he said, his face suitably apologetic. 'I guess I was a bit distracted with the stuff at work. And wanting you to enjoy it made me a bit anxious and when I get anxious I tend to babble and, well, you know what happened.' He threw his hands out wide as he said it. His way of begging forgiveness.


Begging forgiveness, may I remind you, for being left outside a restaurant in the rain by his girlfriend. Later, Jonathan says:

'Thank you... for putting up with me. I know I can be hard work sometimes. Especially when I'm feeling insecure. That's when I start coming out with all that stuff.'

'What, like in the restaurant?'

'Yeah. I get anxious in unfamiliar surroundings. So I revert to what I know best. What I feel safest with. It helps to disguise my lack of confidence... I must really piss you off sometimes.'


So there you have it. Asking about gelatine reflects a deep-seated psychological problem (to do, we learn, with wanting his mother's approval) - not, as one might have thought, reflecting, oh, say, a desire on the part of a vegetarian not to be fed dead pig. And it is something which would piss off any reasonable person, and something which has to be 'put up with'.

At this point, by the way, I keep being tempted to make cheap comparisons and say 'Would Sarah/Linda treat an observant Muslim who asked about pork products/alcohol like this, and insist that religious observations are also nothing more than showing-off and making a scene?' Luckily, however, I don't have to speculate, because Linda Green has helpfully provided a Muslim character, so that we can answer that question. With, as it happens, a resounding yes. For when what I will call, with about the same level of cultural sensitivity and research as the novel itself, 'Muslim cultural stuff' clashes with white middle-class liberal values, Muslims are indeed expected to ditch the Muslim cultural stuff immediately and decisively, as it is but an obstacle to white middle-class liberal values... sorry, I mean an obstacle to shagging white men. Sorry, I mean an obstacle to fulfilment and happiness, obviously.

Here's how it plays out. Sarah (our waitress-abusing, fish-eating, vegetarian-scorning narrator) has a friend called Najma, who in turn has a boyfriend called Paul. But, we find out, Najma also has a boyfriend called Surrinder, who sees her with her boyfriend called Paul and relays to her the message that if she stays with Paul, her parents - who are 'devout Muslims' - will disown her for good, for she has 'brought shame on the family'.

'Oh, God. You poor thing. Is there no way you can reason with them? Get them to meet Paul so they can find out for themselves what he's like?'

'No,' she said. 'It doesn't work like that. You have to stick to the rules.'


But this novel is nothing if not consistent. Whether choosing salmon at the works Christmas dinner or estranging oneself from one's family for life, 'sticking to the rules' is wrong, whereas breaking the rules is the way to happiness and fulfilment (or whatever it was, I forget). And so, following Sarah's advice, Najma tells Paul about her parents, and he responds by asking her to marry him.

'I know it's a bit quick, what with us only being together for a few months. But you know what it's like when something feels so right. When you know you're meant to be together no matter what obstacles are in the way.'

... 'I'm so pleased for you, Naj. So glad Paul's come through for you. You'll need his strength. I know it won't be easy for you.'

She looked down, her face clouding over for a moment. 'It'll be harder the longer it goes on, I think. Wondering how my family are, what they're doing. And around Eid, and times like that, when I know they'll all be together.'

'You never know,' I said, 'maybe as time passes and they miss you, they might get in touch.'

'Maybe,' said Najma, 'but I won't be holding my breath. And I'm determined not to let it spoil things for me and Paul.'

'Good for you,' I said.


Yes, indeed, good for Najma. And once again we learn that what looks like taking into consideration viewpoints other than good old thrifty white liberal bourgeois individualism - in this case, the viewpoint of one's own family and the culture within which one was raised - is in fact 'sticking to the rules', and should be ditched immediately, because the only thing that matters is the success of one's heterosexual romance. We actually get this stated twice, once by Nick:

[Sarah:] 'It's about making sure other people don't suffer because of your actions.'

'Bollocks it is. It's about being pious and going to bed at night feeling smug because the guy who picked your coffee beans was paid a few pennies more for his efforst. It's not exactly going to change the world, is it?'

'You've got to start somewhere.'

'So start with yourself. Leave Jonathan and come and live with me. I can't guarantee you Fairtrade coffee... but at least I can give you a chance at happiness.'


Sarah restates the same premise at the end of the novel, when we learn that her relationship with Jonathan is more important, in the global scheme of things, than the Shell pipeline in Tibet. In this scene, Sarah has grudgingly agreed to show up at her boyfriend's talk on Tibet, where she promised to be to support him some months ago, but since then another friend has got a gallery opening: she feels it's much more important for her to be one of the hundreds of people at the private view rather than at her boyfriend's talk, because 'This could change Colin's life. What's your talk going to do? Force the Chinese out of Tibet by Christmas?'

Anyway, she goes, and what's more, she agrees to pick up some milk for the Amnesty refreshment stand on the way to the talk. But, as she casually tells Jonathan, she's bought it from the Shell garage on the corner:

'You bought milk for my Tibet talk from a company which has invested millions in an oil pipeline in China?' ...

'There are more important things in life to worry about, Jonathan, than where a bloody pint of milk came from.'

'What's more important than upholding our principles?'

I slapped my hand to my forehead in disbelief... 'Us, Jonathan. Me and you. At least it should be.'


Okay. Now, I do have a problem with the commodification of 'ethics' and 'politics', and the transformation of efforts for global political solidarity into a question of shopping. I agree that buying Fairtrade isn't going to change the world; I agree that buying ethical/organic/green products can be a way for middle-class people in the UK to buy status within their closed social circle (though I'm not quite sure what's wrong with that, to be honest: most cultures and subcultures have some means of buying status). But. One of the things I haven't told you is that while all this is going on, there are threatened redundancies in Sarah's workplace, and - as a union member - she is campaigning to save her friends' jobs, including balloting for strike action. She is also stricken with sadness and empathy for those of her friends who are going to be made redundant, and works hard to try and ameliorate their situation. At no point is it suggested that this form of political activism is 'sticking to the rules', a hypocritical bid for status (eg with Nick, who used to be a union rep), or the sign of a deep psychological trauma. So it really does seem that it's only if you want to do something to help people outside Britain (along with vegetarianism, the main targets of this novel's satire - such as it is - are Amnesty International and the boycotts of Esso and Shell) that you are automatically smug, damaged, and hypocritical.

And that's the point at which this book stops being amusingly bad and just becomes racist. It's the other side, I think, of the thing I was talking about in my post about the way people try to appropriate the word 'racist' as if it were a diagnostic tool to rank the right-onness of white people, rather than to describe a set of practices which erase, discriminate against, misrepresent, and/or otherwise oppress people of colour. This whole novel runs off the idea that there can never be solidarity with people outside one's own country; there is only ever the attempt on the part of white liberals to win status from other white liberals. Which is all just another way of erasing nonwhite people,* not having to consider their experience, their exploitation, and their oppressions as real, and as something that middle-class white liberals directly benefit from (those non-Fairtrade cookies really are tastier than the Fairtrade ones!)

So I'll close this post with one of the more blatantly racist moments in the book, when Sarah, having decided to reconcile with poor bloody Jonathan, goes to the video shop in preparation for a night in with a film and a takeaway curry. The girl on the counter asks her for her 'memorable name', for security purposes:

Jonathan had taken the membership out; he usually got the videos. I had no idea.

'Er, Sarah?' I suggested hopefully.

The girl shook her head, her ponytail exaggerating the refusal.

'Sorry,' she said. 'I do need it to let you take the film out.'

... I got out my mobile and called Jonathan. 'Hi,' I said. 'I'm at the video shop. What's the password name thing I have to give?'

'Oh, that,' said Jonathan. 'It's Aung San Suu Kyi.'

I paused for a moment, waiting for him to say it was a joke. He said nothing.

'Of course,' I said. 'I should have guessed.'

I hung up and repeated the name back to the girl, who clearly wasn't well versed on the political opposition in Burma.

'I'm not surprised you couldn't remember it,' she said. 'I've never heard of her. Who is she?'

I hesitated. 'A porn star,' I said. 'A Thai porn star. My boyfriend's seen all her films. Ask him about her next time he comes in.'

I took the video from her and walked out of the shop, heading for the Indian to pick up our chickpea curry. Our quiet night in no longer seemed so appealing.


Aung San Suu Kyi, ladies and gentlemen: a name which should only ever be heard as the punchline of a joke. (It's funny because it's foreign. Sheesh. Do you not have a sense of humour, or something?) A name which it's okay to use to trick the girl at the video shop into asking your boyfriend about his porn-watching habits, but which it is absolutely not okay to claim is 'memorable'. Because that would suggest that the names of Nobel-Peace-prize-winning democratic political heroes in Burma were worth remembering - and we all know they're not. And not just neutrally 'not worth remembering', but actively not to be remembered: when it turns out that your boyfriend thinks that the name Aung San Suu Kyi is memorable, that lessens his value considerably, and you look forward appreciably less to spending time with him, that Burmese-name-knowing bastard.

*Except, of course, for the token Muslim girl who's allowed into the novel because she's sensible enough to break off all contact with her family so she can marry a white man she's only known a few months. (Good for you, Najma.)

Friday, 6 November 2009

Productive Time vs Baggy Writing Time

I haven't been posting since term started, because I've been busy. Which is a very nothing word, particularly in the modern world of today - I've just been reading lots of books by Barbara Ehrenreich, including her lovely Bait and Switch and Bright-Sided, in one of which she talks about the way that academics have elevated the idea that 'busyness' is a virtue to almost religious levels. And I do try to resist that; I'm not sure why working enormous amounts of unpaid overtime and donating extra surplus labour to an institution should be seen as morally worthy.

So what I really mean by 'busy' is that -- well, okay, actually I do mean that I'm working quite a lot of unpaid overtime. But! More interestingly, I also mean that I'm occupying two quite different kinds of time/flow -- neither of which are very congenial to blogging. I'm trying to finish my book by the end of January, which is pretty tight, given that I'm teaching three units this TB and supervising three PhD students, and then there are various other demands on my time - grant applications, bits of organizing for the Desiring the Text conference, mentoring, personal tutoring, lots and lots of meetings (as well as being a member of two departments, a School and a Faculty, all of which are having lots of meetings at the moment to talk about The Situation, I'm also on one Committee, two Boards, and a Steering Group). What I'm trying to do at the moment is get all my non-writing work done on the three days a week when I have teaching scheduled - Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - in between my six hours' teaching, two 'consultation hours' (drop-in for students) and two hours at the weekly Classics departmental research seminar. Which is making for a really, really busy start to the week - to the extent that if I have a whole hour and a half continuous unscheduled time, I jump on it gratefully and (eg) write a 50-minute lecture on The Divine Comedy or bang out a 3000-word 'Case for Support' for my AHRC grant application. So it's tiring, and to some extent it has those rewards of high-productivity in (I get to cross lots of things off lots of lists very fast!), but the thing is that it really just isn't enough time, which means that I'm having to do a slightly faster, shoddier job on lots of things. Which is hard to take, sometimes, because like many women academics I'm a bit of a Hermione Granger, and I really hate not doing everything perfectly; I hate looking less than competent in front of colleagues and students, eg because my Powerpoint for a lecture is ugly and last-minute (or because I forgot to bring it altogether), or because I need to be chased up by everyone for everything because I'm working right down to the wire on all my deadlines (and, it has to be confessed, letting the less strict ones drift right past me). Which is a low-grade waste of everyone's time and energy, I know. But the thing that I'm realizing is that learning to get by is a skill in itself. I could call it 'prioritizing', I guess, and that's part of it, but that sounds like a fun thing to do, like you get a little thrill out of being ruthless and effective. I'm talking more about the other side of it - about learning to live with the consequences of what I have to deprioritize, learning not to beat myself up when I just don't have time to do a really good job.

But what all this does is buy me (on a good week, which is about four out of the ten weeks of term, when I don't have extra teaching or meetings scheduled on my 'free' days) three days for writing: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. (Usually I am adamant about having two days off a week, but I've gone down to one day a week till the book is done.) Which is the other kind of time/flow that I was talking about: Baggy Writing Time, time where you get up and down from your chair and wander into the kitchen looking for the perfect sentence to bridge into your next paragraph, and end up spending forty-five minutes on the washing-up. Or when you realize (like I did yesterday) at 11am that you can't do any more work on Chapter Two today because you've just torn it down and restructured it from the ground up, so you have to give your undermind time to get used to that before you get to the sentence-writing part of the writing process. But part of the discipline of keeping time free for writing, I'm figuring out, is that that didn't mean I could open the rest of that day onto Productive Time, because that would throw my brain off track for the writing. (As it happened, I discovered that I had to redo the maths on a grant application very fast that afternoon, which neatly solved both problems, because it meant I Got Stuff Done that wouldn't then eat into Baggy Writing Time next week, but didn't involve having to wrap my brain around any new kind of intellectual stuff and thus distract it from thinking about Julius Caesar.)

So that's where I am at the moment: either on a weirdly Fordist kind of production-line for academics, where my time isn't my own to command because every email or knock on the door is like the next thing going past on the conveyor belt, organizing my workflow at the pace of the university machine, or on baggy writing time, where I have to protect a space for my thinking and my writing to go at their own pace as far as possible, not to be disrupted by demands from outside. Either way, it means I'm not blogging much. Normal service will hopefully be resumed in February.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Happy Birthday, Ursula K Le Guin

I wanted to write a long post about Lavinia for today, but I haven't been able to. So this is just to say: happy 80th birthday, Ursula K Le Guin. Lavinia is one of the most rich, beautiful, intelligent and moving encounters with Vergil since he took Dante's hand and led him into the Inferno; 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas' has changed the way I and many of my students think about utopia, literature, and the social; 'The Author of the Acacia Seeds' has done the same for language, humanity, and the limits of communication; 'The Diary of the Rose', for dream and politics.

Not even to mention Earthsea, The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness.

Like so many other people in the world, I am profoundly and unrepayably in your debt. Thank you, and happy birthday!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Things You Should All Read: Preamble

Since I started at Bristol in 2005, I've always taught a unit to first-year undergraduates called 'Critical Issues', which is one of those hair-tearing-out 'Theory In Ten Weeks' courses, which goes, like, Week 1: Feminism. Week 2: Psychoanalysis. Week 3: Postcolonialism. It's a challenging course to teach for me, because I'm one of those people to whom theory speaks with a kind of hair-raising immediacy: I remember sitting in the Bodleian Library when I was doing my undergraduate degree, reading an essay on writing in Euripides' Hippolytus which drew on the work of Derrida - the first time I'd ever come across him - and just staring at it, going But this is my life! This is my LIFE! And then I went to Leeds to do an MA in Cultural Studies and stayed on for a PhD, to work with Barbara Engh, so not only do I have an immediate I-need-this, this-will-save-me click with theory, but I have spent the last ten years working on and with and in it, so that the ideas of Derrida and Barthes and Benjamin and Adorno and Butler are just absolutely intuitively given for me now.

Meanwhile, my students have never been exposed to any of this stuff really or rigorously: some of them are repelled by it as intuitively and strongly as I was attracted, though most of them aren't - but all of them are, like, what? Things that are (now) part of my basic orientation towards the world are absolutely new and strange and profoundly challenging and difficult to assimilate for almost all of them. (And they were for me, once, of course, but I somehow knew how much I was going to get from them, so the challenge and the difficulty were exciting, not threatening.) So there's an interesting gap between me and them, which I guess is the gap where pedagogy happens, but it's been an interesting time figuring out how to measure and use that space-between.

All of which is actually tangential to my point, which is that, for some of those reasons, the unit can be quite an intense experience: it involves a kind of learning which (I hope) connects up with bits of experience and headspace and thought and affect that other units don't reach. And I think it's for that reason that I was very happy and tickled when one of my students last year asked me for recommendations of more books to read: I felt like I was being asked for a particular kind of book, books with that kind of edge to them, books that connected to and articulated those inchoate, itchy experiences and insights that mainstream culture, the most readily available formulae for reading and thinking, doesn't give you the resources to think about, to formulate, to work with and on.

So anyway, since then I've been vaguely thinking, in the back of my mind, about the books and stories that I would like to recommend. And since I've had at least one email from a student about this blog, I thought I might as well stick the list up here for future reference, in case anyone else ever asks me for it. I'll put it in a separate post from this preamble, and link it from the sidebar.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Monday, 17 August 2009

I should totally read this giant zine about what causes fic at some point. (Tony, one for you too, I think, in relation to the idea of a geek aesthetic?)

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Towards an Erotics of Reception

So for a long time me and my esteemed colleague at the University of Toronto, Anna Wilson, have been putting together a call for papers for a conference next July, which is going to be about loving texts.

From my point of view, the conference comes partly out of my interest in the relationship between sex and language. They're intimately related, of course, in that language can be highly eroticized, and in that our language has some effect on (if it doesn't determine) the way we think about and experience our bodies and our sexualities. But at the same time sex and language can be understood to be completely different: language as cerebral, virtual, unreal, representative, sex as bodily, real, true, authentic, nonrepresentational: sex as an 'outside' to language and power, or sex as the site where we are most intimately engaged with language and power. That's something that's gone on intriguing me for more than a decade, and which partly explains my interest in writing about sex. (I'm also interested, as several years of my students have been mildly-to-profoundly shocked to discover, in sex as a metaphor for writing, as in Calvin Thomas's wonderful essay Must Desire Be Taken Literally? on Helene Cixous, writing, and anal sex.)

I'm also someone who loves books, writing, language, someone who writes fanfiction, someone who gets crushes on books and authors and characters, and someone who teaches literature: so I'm also interested in the way that whole messy range of responses to texts and writings gets cut up and organized institutionally. Me, I feel like writing within a fictional universe and writing an analytic essay about a book are both ways of loving texts, but I know lots of people think that analysis and love are opposed (cf this really beautiful poem by U A Fanthorpe), and that intrigues me too, not only for what it says about literature but for what it says about love.

So I'm really excited to be organizing this conference: not only will I get a chance to talk for a whole day to other people from around the world who are interested in love and desire as modes of making textual connections, but it's going to be the basis for an application for a Research Network grant, so hopefully there will be a whole series of research events on this theme. In the short term, though, I'm particularly delighted that Carolyn Dinshaw (whose book I blogged about here) has agreed to be our keynote speaker. I'm excited to meet her, and to start what I hope will be an ongoing conversation with her and with everyone else who participates!

Here's the Call for Papers. There'll be an official web page for the conference at the University of Bristol website soon, and I'll let you have that link as soon as I can, but in the meantime, please pass on the news to anyone who might be interested, and feel free to link to this post!


DESIRING THE TEXT, TOUCHING THE PAST: TOWARDS AN EROTICS OF RECEPTION

A one-day conference co-organized by

The Bristol Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition & the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto

University of Bristol, 10 July 2010

Keynote Speaker: Professor Carolyn Dinshaw, NYU

CALL FOR PAPERS

In reading Cicero's letters I felt charmed and offended in equal measure. Indeed, beside myself, in a fit of anger I wrote to him as if he were a friend and contemporary of mine, forgetting, as it were, the gap of time, with a familiarity appropriate to my intimate acquaintance with his thought; and I pointed out those things he had written that had offended me. (Petrarch, Rerum Familiarum Liber I.1.42)

Love, desire, fannish obsession and emotional identification as modes of engaging with texts, characters and authors are often framed as illegitimate and transgressive: excessive, subjective, lacking in scholarly rigour. Yet such modes of relating to texts and pasts persist, across widely different historical periods and cultural contexts. Many classical and medieval authors recount embodied and highly emotional encounters with religious, fictional or historical characters, while modern and postmodern practices of reception and reading - from high art to the subcultural practices of media fandom - are characterized by desire in all its ambivalent complexity. Theories of readership and reception, however, sometimes seem unable to move beyond an antagonistic model: cultural studies sees resistant audiences struggling to gain control of or to overwrite an ideologically loaded text, while literary models of reception have young poets fighting to assert their poetic autonomy vis-a-vis the paternal authority of their literary ancestors.

This conference aims, by contrast, to begin to elaborate a theory of the erotics of reception. It will bring together scholars working in and across various disciplines to share research into reading, writing and viewing practices characterized by love, identification, and desire: we hope that it will lead to the establishment of an international research network and the formulation of some long-term research projects. In order to facilitate discussion at the conference, we will ask participants to circulate full papers (around 5,000 words) in May 2010.

We now invite abstracts of 300 words, to be submitted by email by 30 November 2009. Abstracts will be assessed on the basis of their theoretical and interdisciplinary interest. We particularly welcome contributions from scholars working on literary, visual and performance texts in the fields of: history, reception studies, mediaeval studies, fan studies, cultural studies, theology, and literary/critical theory.

Some ideas which might be addressed include, but are not limited to:

* Writing oneself into the text: self-insertion and empathetic identification
* Historical desire: does the historian desire the past?
* Hermeneutics and erotics
* Pleasures of the text, pleasures of the body: (how) are embodied responses to the text gendered?
* Anachronistic reading: does desire disturb chronology?
* Erotics and/or eristics: love-hate relationships with texts

This conference is part of the 'Thinking Reciprocity' series and will follow directly from the conference 'Reception and the Gift of Beauty' (Bristol, 8-9 July 2010). Reduced fees will be offered to people attending both conferences.
If you have any queries, or to submit an abstract, please contact one of the conference organizers:

Dr Ika Willis (Ika.Willis@bristol.ac.uk)
Anna Wilson (anna.wilson@utoronto.ca)

Monday, 10 August 2009

No I Am Not On Facebook

Can someone who is on Facebook check this out? I have never joined Facebook, and I know full well there isn't anyone else called Ika Willis, but on the other hand I am clearly not important enough for anyone to join Facebook pretending to be me, so I am flummoxed. (And secretly hoping that I am important enough to have someone impersonating me, obviously.) But presumably Facebook has just harvested my name from, I don't know, staff web pages or Google blogs or something, and set this up without telling me? Or maybe they did tell me and I ignored them, because I ignore all Facebook-related email. Whatever, I am mildly irritated, because I want not only not to be on Facebook but actively to be a person without a Facebook page.)

Monday, 3 August 2009

Letter to WisCon

You know, one thing I feel kind of embarrassed about is that I don't actually know what WisCon is. 'Some kind of awesome fat-positive feminist trans-friendly queer anti-racist SF convention' is how I think of it in my head, although I'm also aware that it doesn't live up to that tag. Anyway.

But this letter! This letter is lovely.

Talking about issues of race and access makes everyone uncomfortable. There’s a particular expression of that discomfort in the sf community, where we have the hope that race is one of the differences between humans that will cease to matter in our brave new future, and that the best way to hasten that future is to act as though we don’t ‘see’ race [see note]. But, as Chip Delany has said, someone who can’t see something that threatens his life is not going to be his best ally...

This high level of discomfort squashes dialogue and leaves people feeling that race is still an issue, but it’s somehow shameful to even speak about it. As feminists we’ve had a parallel experience in trying to raise awareness and organize around issues of feminism. Feminism has developed a time-tested way of dealing with such silencing, which is to first take a little private time and discuss the issues amongst ourselves, without the need for constantly allaying the dominant group’s anxiety at every step.


Anyway. This is mostly for my own reference, so I can model my own teaching and talking practice on this kind of sweet, straightforward tone, wherever possible. (Not that I am going to give up ranting, don't worry--)

And yeah! I'm in Melbourne. I've been to two conferences in July, I haven't blogged about either of them, or about Australia, at all. I feel a bit hampered by the fact that I brought the wrong camera lead so I can't upload photos--

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

there were people of colour in the past, too!

Thinking about Benjamin and writing the introduction to Now & Rome, which currently closes with the quote from Carolyn Dinshaw about the past as a site of identification and cultural connection, with unpredictable but powerful effects on the future, has brought something into focus for me which is really interesting. (I mean, really interesting to me, not really interesting as a kind of cutting-edge expansion of thinking about race, or anything.) Anyway, this post has been brewing for a while, but I notice it's International Blog Against Racism Week this week, so it seemed like a good time to post it.

So over the last few years I've noticed some things about talking/thinking about race and racism in the UK, and particularly in relation to teaching post-colonial theory and literature. I should probably contextualize by saying that post-colonialism is not the focus of my teaching, but something that gets touched on in most of the units I teach: I specialize in reception/appropriation, and I work mainly with Latin and English literature, so the history of imperialism and resistance is a crucial part of the way I think about literature and our relationships to it as authors and readers. For example, in the Critical Issues unit I teach to first-year English students, we have a week or two on Jane Eyre, talking about how the politics and metaphorics of imperial racism actually underpin the plot and the emotional drive of the narrative, even though this is not ostensibly a novel 'about' race and indeed, arguably, has no non-white characters. Then I teach a unit on Contemporary Literature, in which we read Derek Walcott's Omeros and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, and I also teach Omeros in my unit on the Legacy of Classical Literature.

So one of the things I've noticed in both my teaching and my observation of the culture in the UK more widely is a tendency in white British people to behave as if accusations of racism were more serious than, well, racist behaviour. So it's okay for white people to say pretty much anything we like about race and/or people of other ethnicities: we might, like Martin Amis, be 'experimenting with the limits of permissible thought' when we say we think perhaps all British Muslims should be rounded up; or we might, like Sacha Baron-Cohen, be doing edgy comedy by perpetuating racism (in order to laugh at it); or we might be performing any number of intelligent, thoughtful, experimental, unserious, free speech acts. But when someone calls a white person (or their behaviour, or the things they say/write) racist, that's a terrible, and terribly serious, accusation, and we have to jump through an impossible series of hoops to prove that they really are racist before we say such a terrible thing.

And there's such a huge disconnect here - I don't want to call it a failure of empathy, because I don't really think that's what's going on, and because of the excellent work by people like, I think, Sara Ahmed* on empathy as disabling critical responses to racism by white students ('I cried when I read Beloved and that means I am totally able to understand the life experience of poor black women in the UK, and if they say I can't they're wrong!'). But it's a huge double standard, and its invisibility to my students (and to me, before I struggled to figure out what was going on) is extraordinary.

One of the ways I notice this is in a persistent motif in student essays on Jane Eyre, which is that we can't, mustn't, or shouldn't say that the book or the author 'is racist', because Bronte lived in 'the past', where 'they didn't know' that it was bad to be racist. So again, it's much more important to be fair to Charlotte Bronte than it is to engage with the ways in which her text constructs race and power, and vice versa (the ways in which race and power construct Jane Eyre, beyond or outside Bronte's ability to control the language she uses). Part of this is about the way the figure of 'the author' still persists in our thinking about texts (who cares whether Bronte was racist, as a person, or not? She's been dead like a hundred years!), and I think also that perhaps students are trained at school to think that 'critical judgement' is not about analysis but about evaluation (this is a Great Book, this is Populist Trash). But part of it is straightforward racism, of a kind that's so entrenched in (my) white consciousness that it's taken me a long time to see how simple it really is:

There were people of colour in the past too. To say that a book is 'not racist' because it was written in the past and 'they didn't know any better' is to do history from the point of view of the oppressor to a really startling degree. Because, you know, who didn't know any better? White people who dehumanized black people, and profited from the dehumanization. The African slaves working on the sugar plantation which provides the basis for Jane's financial independence and therefore her successful/model marriage? They knew better.

Getting people to think of racism solely as a diagnostic tool for ranking the goodness, rightness, and therefore authority/prestige, of white people, rather than as a system of violent oppression of people of colour: that must count as one of the biggest victories for the anti-civil-rights backlash.

Another thing that's interesting is the way my students have learned somewhere that racism is always in the past, so that one of them wrote of Derek Walcott's Omeros that at first the critical response was a straightforwardly racist one, that the poem was bad and didn't count as an epic, but later, when we had all made a bit more progress towards equality, everyone realized that it was a great poem and totally did count as an epic. Now this is just simply not true: Omeros came out in 1990, and Walcott won the Nobel in 1992; and US/UKian public/critical culture has not really become noticeably less racist since 1990. I think the student was referring to an essay in a special edition of South Atlantic Quarterly - in 1997, incidentally - about the politics of calling Omeros an 'epic', and whether 'epic' is essentially a European genre or whether that in itself is a racist appropriation of a genre shared by, say, Yoruba narrative/mythological poetry. But that essay was very clear that this debate is ongoing - two simultaneous positions - while this student had obviously been under very great cultural pressure - great enough to mean they had not been able to hear what I had said about Omeros, or read what David Farrell Krell had written - to translate this into a diachronic narrative: there was racism, and now there is colour-blind appreciation of great poetry.

And so much of my teaching - because it's about cultural change and appropriation and time and reading - seems to engage with students right at the intersection of these two cultural pressures: to translate and flatten currents of thinking and power and reading into a simple diachronic narrative of progress ('we used to be racist but we're all right now'), and to think of racism as a bad character trait. (I actually saw an anti-racist white friend on the internet describe racism in precisely those words recently.)

I think there's another move that needs to be made here, about quite what that intersection does to history: I think it whitens it, along the lines of Benjamin's vision of history as a long procession of the victors. So that the lines of transmission of history, of the past, are themselves white, and so that the transformative power of the past, and in particular the possibility for identification with people of colour across time, is denied. I need to think about this more, perhaps.

One thing I do have to say before I finish is that I was helped so much in my thinking here by a post I can't now find again, very annoyingly - if anyone knows what I'm referring to, could you link me? It was about how one of the key differences between privileged and unprivileged positions is that people in privileged positions aren't used to being told they're wrong. So people of colour live in cultures which tell them all the time, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that the way they understand the world is wrong, but white people (qua white people - obviously gender, ability/disability, sexuality, etc have huge impacts on the way we experience privilege/unprivilege) have a constant little flow of reassuring messages that whiteness is normal, attractive, empowering, and, crucially, not-to-be-remarked-on. So it feels, maybe, to a white person, and particularly to a white person who's used to being told they're intelligent, perceptive, and sensitive (like most of the students I teach), really bad to be called a racist, because we all 'know' that racists are the opposite: ignorant, wilfully blind to reality, and insensitive. So that's where some of that giant disconnect that I talked about above comes from, I think.

*Sarah Ahmed, 'The Politics of Bad Feeling', Australasian Journal of Critical Race and Whiteness Studies 1 (2005): 72-85.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

going away

Travelling, then holiday, then Violence conference. Normal service will be resumed around 27 July, from MELBOURNE!!!

Back in Bristol 29 August.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

violence 2

so now I am reading Agamben's State of Exception, and where he writes

Obviously, it is not a question here of a transitional phase that never achieves its end, nor of a process of infinite deconstruction that, in maintaining the law in a spectral life, can no longer get to the bottom of it. The decisive point here is that the law - no longer practiced, but studied - is not justice, but only the gate that leads to it. What opens a passage towards justice is not the erasure of law, but its deactivation and inactivity - that is, another use of the law


I have written in the margin YES YES - LUCAN.

Given that what I am doing is making notes for my paper on violence and law in Lucan, I really wish I had the slightest idea what I'd been thinking when I wrote that --

violence

I'm starting work on the paper I'm giving in Brisbane on 23 July (yes, yes, about time too) and am rereading Benjamin's 'Critique of Violence', the 1921 essay where he makes a distinction between 'lawmaking violence' and 'law-preserving violence'. (I think he is actually still friends with Schmitt at this point,* and there's a strong similarity between some of the ideas here and some of the ideas in The Nomos of the Earth.) Anyway, Benjamin is talking about how 'a totally nonviolent resolution of conflicts can never lead to a legal contract' (because any legal contract 'confers on both parties the right to take recourse to violence in some form against the other, should he break the contract'), and he goes on to say:

When the consciousness of the latent presence of violence in a legal institution disappears, the institution falls into decay. In our time, parliaments provide an example of this. They offer the familiar, woeful spectacle because they have not remained conscious of the revolutionary forces to which they owe their existence.


I have no idea whether I agree with that or not.

(All quotes from Benjamin, 'Critique of Violence' [1921], in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz [New York: Schocken, 1978], pp.277-300).

(I should actually be blogging about this conference, which I went to last weekend and which was marvellous, but in the countdown to setting off to Oz next Wednesday - by which time I have to have written the Introduction to Now and Rome, checked all the Latin in the manuscript, sent it off to beta-readers, and written the Brisbane paper, not to mention dyeing my hair and going to the spa with my best friend H - things are getting rather squeezed.)

*I looked this up on Google and found this extract from an essay by Horst Bredekamp in Critical Inquiry 25:2 (1999), which has some of the details about Benjamin's relationship with Schmitt, including the letter Benjamin sent Schmitt together with a copy of the Trauerspiel (The Origin of the German Mourning Play). Wikipedia (yes, I know, shush) says that, according to Agamben (States of Exception, pp.52-55),

Schmitt's conceptualization of the "state of exception" as belonging to the core-concept of sovereignty was a response to Walter Benjamin's concept of a "pure" or "revolutionary" violence [in 'Critique of Violence'], which didn't enter into any relationship whatsoever with right.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

on my holidays

Hey! I just got back from a weekend in Antwerp, staying with my and J's friend Inez, who - awesomely - is a nomadic writer going from place to place, residency to residency, across Europe and the States and India. And she just sent us this link to a YouTube video of an interview she did for Antwerp TV, which shows the very flat that we stayed in with her, as well bits and pieces of the city, which is beautiful.

(It was a great weekend, thanks. We had the obligatory long discussion about Kids Today And Their Essays, which was highly enjoyable, and also some fantastic rambling talk about science and religion and Communism over tapas, and J and Inez are both writing memoirs so I got to eavesdrop on a lot of writers' talk, which I enjoy. And we drank Belgian beer and looked at statues and parks with baby bunnies, and stunning Art Nouveau architecture, and I bought some new jeans, so that was a successful trip.)

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

bit of cyberactivism

Also, I'd ask everyone living in the UK to consider writing to their MPs and/or the Home Secretary about Marina Silva and Rosa de Perez, two women working as cleaners at SOAS (part of the University of London) who are facing deportation: several of their colleagues have already been deported, in some cases breaking up family relationships here in the UK. The deportations were carried out in an unnecessarily aggressive and possibly illegal way, and timed to coincide with a planned rally by the cleaners in support of their recently sacked Union rep. In a newspaper article here, the Labour MP John McDowell says:

As living wage campaigns are building in strength, we are increasingly seeing the use of immigration statuses to attack workers fighting against poverty wages and break trade union organising.

The message is that they are happy to employ migrant labour on poverty wages, but if you complain they will send you back home. It is absolutely shameful.


There is lots of information about the case here, with details about how to contact your MP and the UK Border Agency. The academic solidarity statement is kind of heartening.

deglobalization

This is interesting. More a note to myself to read it properly when my brane hasn't just been clubbed to bits by a three-hour exams board meeting (though actually it was infinitely smooth, efficient and pleasant, but still three hours long. Also I was up at 6am because I stayed in London last night and had to get back to Bristol for a 9:30 meeting).

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

oh yeah and superkids

Is a full-on thriller (full of people tightening their grip on their browning semi-automatic pistol and becoming enthralled by the quality of the workmanship on the golden bracelet known as the Seneghor Serpent while all around them security alarms go off), with a pretty wince-inducing construction of race. I've only read a few pages so far but I see from leafing ahead that a girl called Bonnie is about to appear, and the sight of her name produces a bit of a warm glow in my heart, so we'll see.

Monday, 15 June 2009

catch-up/update

Still here, still writing. Actually I printed out a complete (so far: missing four 'interludes', which are going to be brief readings of particular passages of Latin which serve as transitions between the five chapters, and an introduction) draft of N&R the other day and read through it, which was nerve-wracking, but you know, I think it's okay. Well, it's like there's a narrow, perilous bridge of thinking-it's-okay over a cavernous abyss of doom in which I think I should be more scholarly, more relevant, more poetic/difficult, more lucid, more disciplined, more wild... But sometimes a narrow perilous bridge is all you need.

Other stuff that's going on: I have two conference papers to write (both for July, one on queer family in Diana Wynne Jones and one on sovereign violence in Lucan) and a fifty-minute paper (probably a version of the Doctor Who: Fires of Pompeii Latin-as-time-travel paper) for the Classical Association of Victoria. I'm behind on my postgrad supervisions because it's the end of the undergraduate marking season (sorry postgrads), and looking forward to getting to those: this year I'm supervising a PhD on ideology and phenomenology in Tacitus' Agricola and one on Penguin Classics, and MA dissertations on: (1) social control/propaganda in contemporary advertising techniques and Vergil's Aeneid; (2) memory, secrecy and revelation in Augustine's Confessions; (3) the construction of Hollywood cinema in the novels of Carl Van Vecht; and (4) appropriations of Plato and contestations over the meaning of 'Greek love' in the work of John Adyngton Simonds Addington Symonds, whose name I should learn to spell. I'm also working on a new third-year undergraduate unit I'll be teaching next year, 'Literature's Children', on childhood/children in literature (including children as implied readers), which is fun but involves a huge amount of reading. Oh, though, I am reading Carolyn Steedman's Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1760-1930 and it is really, really interesting and thought-provoking: I hope we can get her to come to Bristol and talk about reception.

The other main thing that's going on is this: I'm starting to realize that despite the fact that it's after we get back from Australia, September is still, unfairly, going to happen. I'm supposed to spend the month holed up doing final revisions on N&R, but I notice that in my insouciant disbelief in the existence of the bloody month, (1) I've agreed to chair a panel at a very excellent postgrad conference in Bristol, (2) the research group I head up (Word Unbecoming Flesh: Beyond Text, Across Media [link is to a pdf document, scroll down to p.2]) is doing two or three biggish events, (3) I really want to give a paper at a conference in memory of Don Fowler (an amazing, amazing Latin literature/literary theory person), and (4) I've just agreed (subject to funding) to be keynote speaker at a postgrad conference in, er, Melbourne. That's right! Four weeks after I get back from six weeks in Melbourne, I will be flying out there again for, like, five days! But the theme of the conference is 'cultural capital' which is a subject dear to my heart, and plus, invitation to keynote, what could be more flattering than that?

And then in November, another conference, this time in the States and part of the 'imperialisms ancient and modern' series, where I am not keynoting because Homi Bhabha is keynoting. Which, squee.

Friday, 5 June 2009

blimey

I've just realized, I've been working on this book for a quarter of my life.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Superkids

So when I was little, there was this book I really loved, called Superkids by Michael Maguire. (You can tell I really loved it because I haven't read it since I was about ten and I still remember the author's name.) I can't remember that much about it, except that it was about a bunch of gifted children - were they super-clever or super-physically-gifted or something? It was published in 1978, Google tells me, and I seem to remember that it was very much that sort of 70s/80s children's superhero team grouping - a white able-bodied guy in the lead, with a mix of sidekicks involving femaleness, blackness, and disability somewhere. (Often a black female, freeing up more people to be white and male. In this case I'm pretty sure there was a black able-bodied boy and someone in a wheelchair.) Anyway, they... solved a mystery and saved the world in some way. And I think at some point in the course of events someone rode a motorbike onto a yacht. (But I just saw that happen yesterday in Tombraider 1, which I am currently playing on my ancient Playstation, so maybe I am confabulating that.) There was definitely some kind of motorcycle stunt, anyway.

Anyway, every now and then I think ooh, I'd like to read that again, but today was the first time I had that thought while being near a computer, so I had a google for it: Abebooks don't have any copies, Alibris don't have any copies, eBay don't have any copies, Amazon.com has one used copy for a hundred and eight dollars wtf (I mean, I don't think - with all apologies to Michael Maguire - that it was actually all that good. In terms of being a long-lasting children's classic or anything.) But the eBay search page (here) tells me that 'people who like Superkids by Michael Maguire' - and remember that we are here dealing with a children's thriller from 1978 - 'also like Go Fish [DVD] and Magical Moments from Great Musicals'.

So everyone else who liked it grew up to enjoy either/both lesbian independent film or musicals. That... probably explains a lot.

[ETA: An awesome person with more google-fu than me (thank you, G!) has directed me to a copy for sale for £6, so I have one on the way now! I will let you know what it's like.]

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Carl Schmitt

You know, I shouldn't be surprised when a Nazi political theorist turns out to be genocidally racist, should I? But I'm working with Carl Schmitt's The Nomos of the Earth at the moment, for Chapter Three, and it's making me feel a bit sick.*

In 16th and 17th century international law... great areas of freedom were designated as conflict zones in the struggle over the distribution of a new world. As a practical justification, one could argue that the designation of a conflict zone at once freed the area on this side of the line – a sphere of peace and order ruled by European public law – from the immediate threat of those events ‘beyond the line’... The designation of a conflict zone outside Europe contributed also to the bracketing of European wars, which is its meaning and its justification in international law (pp.97-98).


A couple of pages later (p.100):

A rationalization, humanization, and legalization – a bracketing – of war was achieved against this background of global lines. At least with respect to continental land war in European international law, this was achieved by limiting war to a military relation between states.


I keep finding it really hard to believe that he actually means that the territorial dispossession and genocide of indigenous peoples in America, Asia and Australia was a good thing because it 'humanized' war in Europe. But he really, really does mean that. I mean, he really does. And his translator is all like 'hey, this book is awesome' rather than 'there's some good theory in here, but remember you have to completely invert the ethical thrust of the argument'. I just.

(All quotes from Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, trans. G L Ulmen [New York: Telos Press, 2006 (2003)], originally written in Berlin 1942-45 and first published, as far as I can make out, in 1950).

*Una, we talked about this last time I was in Cambridge and we talked about whether humankind should TAKE TO THE STARS in the manner of Sylvia Engdahl - you'll be pleased to hear that Schmitt doesn't think that'll work, which is making me think that maybe it will:

The traditional Eurocentric order of international law is foundering now, as is the old nomos of the earth. This order arose from a legendary and unforeseen discovery of a new world, from an unrepeateable historical event. Only in fantastic parallels can one imagine a modern recurrence, such as men on their way to the moon discovering a new and hitherto unknown planet that could be exploited freely and utilized effectively to relieve their struggles on earth. The question of a new nomos of the earth will not be answered with such fantasies... Human thinking again must be directed to the elemental orders of its terrestrial being here and now. We seek to understand the normative order of the earth.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Oh, stuff. Hello

You know, I really love my job. At the moment it's marking season - and of course I have to have a draft of Now and Rome ready to send to my army of beta-readers (I should actually warn them about this plan, shouldn't I?) in six weeks' time. So I have a strange sort of existence, being in three different workflow/timeflow modes at once, but I like all of them, and I'm enjoying the alternation:

(1) Writing time!
I can't always write all day - often I have to stop after about four hours, and then I spend the afternoon doing other stuff - but if I am going to write on a given day, I must begin the day with writing. I have to turn the internet off before and throughout writing time, and I've quit smoking, and I can't find a free download of Minesweeper or Hearts for the Mac (for the love of God, if you know of one, DO NOT TELL ME ABOUT IT), which were things I did as distraction/procrastination, yes, but also things I used to do meditatively, while letting the next paragraph/idea/transition slot into place. I have new and better ones now: knitting and the Rubik's cube! Also making cups of tea and occasionally eating bread and Branston pickle (lunch is anathema to writing, you have to just eat something without noticing when you go into the kitchen.)

The main point about this, though, is that writing time is protected, don't-talk-to-me, focussed, single-tasking time, unlike

(2) Marking time!
The thing about marking time is that it's erratic - I'm pretty good with first-marking now, but I often just can't tell how long second-marking will take. And of course you never know when you're going to need to meet with a second-marker to agree marks, or when your second-marking will show up, and there's all this fiddly stuff that I always forget to account for: calculating unit marks on the basis of four differently-weighted assessment tasks, filling in mark sheets, all of that. So it's a sort of rapid-response thing: we're (academics) always behind where the office wants us to be, so I'll be like, okay, I finished marking my second-year exams, great, I'm done for the year, and then suddenly a unit of second-marking will appear without warning out of nowhere with a request to get it back to the office yesterday. It's kind of fun* and collegial and urgent and stressy, and we all commiserate with each other like mad while doing our two-photocopies-of-the-cover-sheet, staple, paper-clip, thing in the photocopy room.

(3) Scholarship time!
'Scholarship' is a new category that appeared on our Time Allocation Survey forms this year or last year or something. It's for, like, reading journals and generally hanging out in an academic kind of way, the 'significant soil' of academic life which may or may not nourish the eventual yew tree of research, if you like, and why should you. What my friend A calls 'baggy time'. At the moment, this basically involves me and a sofa and a cup of tea and a giant tower of books about the social construction of childhood and children's literature, which I am playing around in happily while beginning to put together the reading lists and ideas for the third year undergraduate unit I'll be teaching next year, 'Literature's Children'. It's lovely, non-focussed, non-directed, playful kind of work and I'm really enjoying it.

*At least it is for me, this year, because I have barely any marking for some reason: all the units I've taught have been really small numbers and mainly assessed by coursework, so I don't have any of the big 70-student options with end-of-year exams to mark. Huzzah!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

upcoming attractions/note to self

I want to post about:

Torey Hayden
interdisciplinarity and theory
Saposcat

Monday, 4 May 2009

that quote from eric

When one looked at him that day with his straw hat on and its neat light-blue ribbon, and the cricket dress (a pink jersey and leather belt, with a silver clasp in front), showing off his well-built and graceful figure, one little thought what an agony was gnawing like a serpent at his heart... It was long since he had stood before the wicket, but now he was there, looking like a beautiful picture as the sunlight streamed over him and made his fair hair shine like gold.


It's not really what you think of when people say Victorian masculine values, is it? (There's also an awful lot of crying, hand-holding, hair-stroking, breaking-down-and-getting-brain-fever-from-the-least-little-thing, and picking flowers for other boys.) Very unfamiliar gender system.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

books i have(n't) read

I am reading A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in French, by which I mean that I took about a year to read Du cote du chez Swann a year or two ago and have just got A l'ombre des jeune filles en fleur out of the library. My French is very bad, and I read at the rate of one or two pages a night, without using a dictionary or a grammar book, so (a) I keep having experiences like when people refer to 'the scene with the hawthorn bush' and I go OH IS THAT WHAT AUBEPINE MEANS, and (b) I expect it will take me at least ten years to finish it. But I'm actually really enjoying it, in a strange, impressionistic kind of way (and I absolutely bloody hated Madame Bovary, which I also read in French without knowing what lots of the words meant, so some kind of encounter is going on between me and the text.) It makes me think about Pierre Bayard's How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read, and how the idea of having 'read' a book covers so many different kinds of encounters with and knowledges about a text - there are books I haven't read that I 'know' quite well (Joyce's Ulysses, of which I read the first 42 pages in about 1990), and books I have read that I have entirely forgotten, and all points in-between. Which is something which pulls together all the kinds of teaching that I do: I teach a course on 'contemporary writing' which is focussed through rewriting and appropriation, and I'm getting more and more interested in the rewriting of books one hasn't read (Walcott, in his epic poem Omeros, has his narrator claim that he 'never read' the works of Homer 'all the way through', and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home is very closely related to Joyce's Ulysses, which - according to the story she tells about it - she too has never read.) But also, I'm teaching a Latin course (Level B, for post-beginners) and thinking about the ways I ask the students to 'read' Vergil and Lucan, that very normative, close, philological/critical kind of reading, attending to the grammar and the syntax and the literary qualities all at the same time. The kind of back-and-forth between part and whole which has to go on, paying attention to detail and texture and individual words, but knowing that their meaning is conditioned by their total context (which itself, of course, is constructed and contingent, never finally determinable). And how does that idealized model of reading actually map onto the experience of reading in a language at which one isn't very proficient, like me and French? It's something to think about, the way I demand my students should be able to account for every case, mood, and tense of every word in the texts they read, versus the impressionistic way I read Proust, missing lots of words and lots of sentences and lots of paragraphs but somehow loving it nonetheless, having lots of it remain with me in nonverbal ways.

And I've also been meaning to write about how much I love Eric, or Little by Little, and how much it reminds me of my own fiction, and how I feel like I should only love it in some sort of kitsch or ironic way, but actually I just really love it for the same reasons I love books that I know are actually much better, as books (as crafted artefacts and as pieces of what Benjamin calls 'counsel', 'wisdom woven into the fabric of everyday life', in his essay 'The Storyteller'). Everyone has so many feelings about everything, and there are so many wonderful words, descriptions, moral asides, narratorial interjections... So overwrought and highly-coloured and excessive. Actually, it reminds me of a quote from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick which I used last week in a brief 'position paper' for a debate about interdisciplinarity (and which I used in my essay on fanfiction, I can't let it go):

I think that for many of us in childhood the ability to attach intently to a few cultural objects, objects of high or popular culture or both, objects whose meaning seemed mysterious, excessive, or oblique in relation to the codes most readily available to us, became a prime resource for survival. We needed there to be sites where the meanings didn’t line up tidily with each other… The need I brought to books and poems was hardly to be circumscribed, and I felt I knew I would have to struggle to wrest from them sustaining news of the world, ideas, myself and (in various senses) my kind. The reading practices founded on such basic demands and intuitions had necessarily to run against the grain of the most patent available formulae for young people’s reading and life… Becoming a perverse reader was never a matter of my condescension to texts, rather of the surplus charge of my trust in them to remain powerful, refractory, and exemplary.


So let this be my 'in memoriam' post for Sedgwick, who died a few weeks ago and who saved my life and many others. Not good enough as a memorial for her, not nearly good enough, but at least perhaps she would like the context: genderfucked Victorian boys' fiction (remind me to post the quote about Eric in his pink dress with the silver clasp that shows off his figure*) and Proust, high culture and popular culture, mysterious, oblique and excessive.

*in which he is playing cricket, naturally

Monday, 27 April 2009

postscript and coming attractions

Also in Getting Medieval (p.196) I found this citation from Foucault, which basically sums up everything I believe in like twenty words. Well done there Michel.

'One "fictions" history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one "fictions" a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth'.

('The History of Sexuality', interview with Lucette Finas, trans. Leo Marshall, in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-2977, ed Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), pp.183-93, p.193.)

Or, for those of you who think that science fiction writers do theory better than theorists:

I fell in love with realism because it deflates the myths, the unexamined ideas of fantasy. It confronts them with forgotten facts. It uses past truth - history.

I love fantasy because it reminds us how far short our lives fall from their full potential. Fantasy reminds us how wonderful the world is. In fantasy, we can imagine a better life, a better future. In fantasy, we can free ourselves from history and outworn realism.

Oz is, after all, only a place with flowers and birds and rivers and hills. Everything is alive there, as it is here if we care to see it. Tomorrow, we could all decide to live in a place not much different from Oz. We don't. We continue to make the world an ugly, even murderous place, for reasons we do not understand.

Those reasons lie in both fantasy and history. Where we are gripped by history - our own personal history, our country's history. Where we are deluded by fantasy - our own fantasy, our country's fantasy. It is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy wherever possible.

And then use them against each other.


Geoff Ryman, Was (London: Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, 2005 [1992]), pp.453-54.

getting medieval

Okay, I just read Carolyn Dinshaw's excellent, excellent book on queer medieval history, Getting Medieval, and now I have to return it to the library because my enthusiastic recommendations to everyone I have talked to recently have resulted in a rain of requests for it. (That'll teach me to be intellectually generous.) But before I do, I just wanted to blog about it quickly.

Towards the end of the book, in a chapter called 'Margery Kempe Answers Back' (which also deals with The Book of Margery Kempe, an account of the life of a fourteenth-century female visionary from Norfolk in the UK, and with the recent novel Margery Kempe by Robert Gluck which reuses Margery's story to talk about queer male experience in the twentieth century), Dinshaw does some intelligent and really exciting close-readings of the ways in which American Republican politicians referred to mediaeval studies in order to discredit arts and humanities research, and ultimately to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities, in political debates in the late 1990s. One of the projects which was repeatedly referred to as an example of the kind of self-evidently irrelevant research which wastes of public money was a conference on Sex and Gender in the Middle Ages - Dinshaw cites Representative Hostettler in the Senate, saying:

Mr Chairman, how, when faced with a $5 trillion national debt that continues to grow, can we continue to spend money on projects like these: Sex and gender in the middle ages, 1150-1450. This course received $135,000. Let me give a free lesson here and save the money - there were men - and there were women. The fact that we are here today lets us assume some of them had conjugal relations.


Dinshaw concludes her close reading of this and other moments in the debate by saying:

Motivating this list [of absurd or wasteful research projects] is a thorough resistance... to the very concept of engagement and relation across time as well as across other divides (of gender, sexuality, religion, race, class, nationality). Because the very basic idea that history lives, that even distant and relatively unexplored times and places are relevant to twentieth-century American lives, suggests sites of cultural relation that are unpredictable, uncontrollable. In the mention here of at least half these funded projects, the possibility that we can forge dynamic relations to the past, even the distant or unfamiliar past, even if at present we cannot know where such relations will lead, is closed off.


Which is some of the most cogent reasoning I've heard for taking Walter Benjamin very seriously when (as I posted about recently) he argues in the 'Theses on the Philosophy of History') that political resistance, revolutionary energy, come from engagement with the past in 'uncontrollable' ways, rather than fantasies about the future.

And isn't that quote from Hostettler revealing, too - that 'sex and gender' must refer only to men, women, and reproductive heterosex, and our relationship to the past must be framed solely in those terms, as biological inheritance via heterosex (this is what I call 'the order of generations', following Derrida in The Post Card, the ordering force of a reproductive, heterosexual understanding of time and history). And here it is in the House of Representatives, in a debate about government funding, as the explicit principle for allowing/denying funding, for legitimating academic enquiry!

It's nice to be reminded sometimes that what I do is important, that it's not just the contemporary and the 'now' that has urgency and political weight.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Amazon update

Amazon have blamed the removal of LGBTQ books on a 'glitch', and denied that LGBTQ books (and, it seems, books on disabled sexuality) were targeted. Here are two very good blog posts explaining why that doesn't make the problem go away: Mary Hodder on Techcrunch.com, and Keith Kamisugi's response and elaboration on EqualJusticeSociety.org. (Thanks to Oyceter for the link.)

In the meantime, now that you're all into the signing of petitions, please, please, please go here and sign the petition written by Christopher Bollas and Darian Leader on behalf of the Coalition against the Over-Regulation of Psychotherapy. The link will explain the background, but here's a brief quote from their home page:

The new proposals have shown a serious and bizarre misunderstanding of the nature of talking therapy. They see it as a definable technique to be applied with predictable outcomes. Yet the key to talking therapies is the nature of the relationship between the parties rather than the performance of any particular procedure. Analytic work involves an open-ended relationship, where results may emerge that were never predicted or even thought of beforehand. The proposed regulation leaves no room for the unknown, as if the solution to each person's problems were known in advance: therapist and patient will be expected to adhere to a clear predetermined agenda. Government intervention thus threatens the very foundation of analytic work, compromising both its creativity and authenticity.

The new regulations proposed for the talking therapies - which include 451 rules for the analytic session - would effectively make it impossible to practice psychoanalysis and many other forms of therapy in the way they have been practiced for the last hundred years.


I can't even begin to tell you how important I think it is that talking therapies be available to people, and that CBT not become the only government-funded (or legally practicable) form of therapy. This article by Darian Leader goes some way to explaining why.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Homophobic Amazon

You've probably all already heard about Amazon.com's decision to remove hundreds of books with gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and/or trans content from its sales ranking and search engines on the basis that they have adult content.

Books targeted include YA fiction, non-explicit LGBT classics like The Well of Loneliness and Giovanni's Room, and Kate Bornstein's Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws. Conspicuously not included are books containing explicit heterosexual sex or naked women (including Playboy: The Complete Centrefolds) and the two books which now come top of the search results when you put 'homosexuality' into Amazon's search engine: Can Homosexuality be Healed? and A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality.

Yes, that's right: Amazon is promoting the 'prevention of homosexuality' and removing the link to 'alternatives to suicide'.

Please write to Amazon, boycott the site, sign the petition here, and do whatever else you like to make your displeasure known.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

also

I am reading Eric, or Little by Little, which is brilliant, and making plans to write something on the terms 'boyish' and 'manly' in Farrar's school stories - it seems to be the case that good manliness is the same as boyishness, while manliness which is opposed to or differentiated from boyishness is bad, and the cause of downfall.

preview of coming attractions

I just read Carolyn Dimshaw's Getting Medieval, which is excellent, and I'm starting to think Benjamin is actually right about the past being more important than the future for political resistance. So I expect that will be my next substantial theorypost.

Monday, 6 April 2009

brief books update

This Jane Green novel (Jemima J) is the most fatphobic book I have ever read in my life, to the extent that the fatphobia is preventing the plot and the characterization from making any sense.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Books update

So I have now also read, from the Tower O Books:

Lesley Arfin, Dear Diary
which I didn't enjoy as much as I thought I would. The premise was that it was edited highlights from her diary, aged like 12-25, with annotations and 'updates' from her currently-28-year-old self (including conversations with people from the diary, etc), so I was kind of thinking of it like Michelle Tea's Rose of No Man's Land and Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but it wasn't, really. It was like a weird mix of self-condemnation and self-normalization, like half the time it was going God, I was so stupid, teenage girls are so stupid and rubbish and half the time it was going This happens to everyone it is the HUMAN CONDITION. Both of which strike me as the two most boring ways to deal with experience, especially in combination. Like, there's nothing unique or likeable about me! Buy my book!

It also did that thing of going on about how once the cool girls had rejected her she couldn't possibly have been friends with Chloe So-and-so because that would have been failure, social death, etc, which just baffles me, because I spent my school years being friends with people that I liked and really, if there were cool kids at my school I wouldn't have noticed or understood why their judgements on me were supposed to carry more weight than mine on them. (J says she thinks this might be an American thing, because coolness/social capital seems to be institutionalized in American high schools through things like football teams, cheerleaders, prom king and queen etc. We have done extensive research ie watched Buffy and Carrie and read the Class of '89 series.)

Perry Moore, Hero
which was excellent: a YA novel about the teenage son of a disgraced costume hero, trying to figure out how to tell his dad (a) that he's gay and (b) that he has superpowers, like the bad heroes who disgraced and abandoned his dad. The end was very fast-and-furious and I wasn't sure that the action-adventure plot quite dovetailed with the emotional journey of the characters in the way it was promising to do, but along the way it was tons of fun: like Watchmen meets What They Did To Princess Paragon. Lots of great political/world-building detail.

P E Ryan, Saints of Augustine
which was also good, but not hugely world-shattering for me: the two main characters are likeable, and they do stuff, and the plot is satisfying and the writing is good, but it hasn't left me with a great deal of new ideas and I don't think Sam and Charlie are going to take up residence in my head. It's the one about the two ex-best friends, one gay, one straight, who learn and grow in the course of a summer. I guess the thing that makes it a post-90s gay teen novel is that the gay/straight thing isn't really the core of the book (though it does tell the gay protagonist's coming-out story): both of them have other/bigger things going on in their lives (bereavement, drug debt, divorcing parents).

I'm sick at the moment (this cold I brought back from London is doing me in), which means I'm reading a lot, but nothing very taxing. Probably I will go back to the chicklit next - I have a Jane Green novel I got in the three-books-for-two-pounds box at Cancer Research on Whiteladies Road the other week...

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

fan fiction conference

Back from London, where I caught a cold: catching up on email and found a link to this conference on fan fiction and sexualities, in Sweden, February 2010. The emphasis on close reading/textual analysis rather than ethnography sounds promising.

Friday, 27 March 2009

going to london brb

Going to a conference on Eros with my little Powerpoint and my knitting! Back on Wednesday.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Wittlinger

(You can tell it's the spring vacation, can't you? HELLO THAR INTERNETS.)

So I read Love and Lies: Marisol's Story, which is a companion volume to Hard Love, which is one of my favourite YA novels of all time, and Parrotfish, which is about a FtM protagonist, and they were fine, but neither of them had that thing that made Hard Love so awesome. I think it was because Hard Love had lots of different voices, lots of different formats and styles and points of view, and you had the sense that more was going on with everyone than you ever found out: its point of view was slightly skewed from the main narrative line, and there was something pleasingly complicated about the star-crossed lovers plot. Whereas both Love and Lies and Parrotfish, I felt, worked a little bit too hard at presenting the 'right' way to see things through a first-person narrator, and that made everything a bit flat and unnuanced. They were good examples of the problem-novel genre, which I happen to really like, but they didn't do an awful lot with it, I thought. But, you know, isn't it great that there's lots of perfectly-good-but-not-world-scorchingly-brilliant queer YA fiction out there? When J wrote her first queer YA novel, her editor told her it had to be three times as good as the next book because it was queer. And that's just not true any more, which is great.

Okay, now I have to go revise my article for Cultural Critique - the anonymous reader (who was very helpful, thank you anonymous reader) pointed out that I hadn't written the last paragraph of it. Which I never do; that's like my besetting sin as an academic writer. I hate the bit where you go 'And so in conclusion the last five thousand words were basically about this'. So, gah, I hate having to do it, but double-gah, I know it will make the piece like a hundred percent better, so I can't even grumble about the unreasonable demands of editors.

Incidentally, yesterday I practiced my Eros paper on J and she says she can't tell whether I'm getting cleverer or stupider either.

Monday, 23 March 2009

This Charming Man

The only book I have so far read from the Tower O Books is Marian Keyes, This Charming Man, which I liked a lot on the way through and which I think did some subtly quite interesting stuff with gender and race/racism, but I was kind of disappointed in the ending. It wasn't as bad as Alexandra Potter's Who's That Girl?, but it did remind me of it, in that both books deal with men who serially abuse women (the charming man of MK's title beats and rapes his girlfriends, and Who's That Girl has a character who sexually abuses his patients), neither book shows the man being punished for it, and both of them frame their endings as happy. Me, I'm of the opinion that the good should end happily and the bad unhappily (that is what fiction means), and it doesn't seem too much to ask that, you know, rapists in popular, escapist-ish fiction should get their come-uppance.

Probably I will read something by Ellen Wittlinger next.

and what i really want to know is this

I listened to Laurie Anderson's album, Bright Red, constantly while I was discovering Benjamin and Derrida in my MA year, and (perhaps consequently) it seems to me to be one of the savviest theoretical works on history in existence. It has a song 'Same Time Tomorrow' which contains the lines:

and what I really want to know is this:
Are things getting better, or are they getting worse?
Can we start all over again?
Stop. Pause. We're in record.


Which is such a deft and intelligent and dense and complex set of reflections on what it is to do history (we can't interpret historical data, particularly data from our own historical moment, without a narrative of progress or of decline; we can't start all over again, because the burden of history weighs on our brains like a nightmare from which we are trying to awake; and our experience in the present is conditioned or determined by technologically specific archival structures.) The fact that the previous stanza is all about letters and their burning (the conceptual/metaphorical centre of Derrida's The Post Card) just makes me love this song even harder.

The Benjamin connection is 4REAL, by the way - one of the ways we were taught Benjamin on my MA was through a documentary by/about Laurie Anderson, in which she clones herself and her clone (who looks nothing like her) only speaks in Walter Benjamin quotes. Also, her song 'The Dream Before' is a version of Benjamin's Angel of History, from his 1940 essay 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' (recently retranslated as 'On the Concept of History').

Anyway, I'm currently trying to write my paper for the Eros conference this weekend and wishing I knew whether I was getting cleverer or whether I was getting stupider (is the reason it's flowing relatively easily but I can tell where the conceptual holes are just because I am better at writing and more self-reflective than I used to be, or because I have become glib and superficial in a career-driven bid to publish/give more papers?) Which is what that title was originally about, but of course it will also serve to segue into my promised post on Benjamin and Edelman.

I've bitched talked a fair bit about what I think is wrong with Lee Edelman's book No Future in the chapter I wrote for Miriam Leonard's volume Derrida and Antiquity. I had really high hopes for the book, which is about the political motivation of appeals to 'the children' (won't somebody please think of the children?) and the way that such appeals implicate us in a particular way of thinking about the future as the reproduction of the present, which involves a particular kind of naturalization of heterosexuality and the nuclear family as well as a problematic conservatism, a closedness to the future as radically unknown and unknowable. Which is a great thing for a book to be about, yes? Yes! But the book itself has four main flaws, for me:

(1) It takes for granted that reproductive heterosex can be distinguished from queer, non-reproductive sex, and it doesn't seem to believe that the future can be thought of in any way other than the reproduction of the Same (this is the point I take aim at in the Derrida chapter).

(2) Its argument, riskily, is that queers should proceed by repeating and fulfilling the homophobic insistence that queerness is dangerous or deadly to children, and that queerness has no future. I don't think this risk pays off: Leo Bersani writes on the back cover of the book Edelman’s extraordinary text is so powerful that we could perhaps reproach him only for not spelling out the mode in which we might survive our necessary assent to his argument. Which means that his book requires that queers assent to our non-survival, our eradication: I can't think of anything more anti-queer than that (not just that queers should be eradicated, but that we should participate in our own eradication), and it never quite becomes clear to me what is pro-queer about the book's argument.

(3) Edelman repeatedly says 'queers' and 'we' when he means 'gay men' (We all know the pain of homophobes insisting that we are effeminate interior designers! No, not if 'we' are butch lesbians). Universalizing specifically male experience is irritating, lazy and sexist anyway, but when it's in a book about the production of children, it's even more so.

(4) It doesn't engage with the fact that some people are children - and that the use of children-as-metaphors is damaging and harmful to them, too.

So, anyway. I teach an MA unit called 'Reception: History, Time and the Archive' which is about the reception of (texts and artefacts from) the past, and the models of history and time that we use to think about the material or textual survival of the past into the present. It's a really fun unit, and this year I have a particularly excellent group of students, who pretty much on a weekly basis help me to push my ideas further (they're already in the acknowledgements page of Now and Rome for helping me, in our session on Jauss, to sharpen up the relationship between textual and political reception that the book is all about). And when we read 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' a couple of weeks ago, I realized for the first time that Benjamin's whole argument there can be seen as being about the revolutionary potential of the past as opposed to the future.

In Theses 2-6, Benjamin talks about the claim that the past has on us, and how the task of the materialist historian is to 'rescue' the past, which is in danger. For example, in thesis 6, he writes (emphasis original):

Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.


And the angel, of course, in Thesis 9, 'would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed': 'his face is turned towards the past', but he is blown helplessly into the future by the storm of progress. But the clearest bit, I think, is in Thesis 12, which is otherwise quite opaque to me because I don't know the historical context well enough (emphasis mine):

Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the repository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction... has always been objectionable to Social Democrats... Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished more by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.


Benjamin's target throughout the 'Theses', as-I-argue-in-my-book, is a set of linked concepts: 'tradition', 'progress', 'the continuum of history', and (crucially) 'homogeneous, empty time'. He's arguing, I think, for a way of doing history that doesn't allow the ruling classes or the 'victors' to determine causality and continuity, or to determine what makes it into the historical record and what doesn't. That is, he is arguing against the enslavement of the future to the past via a dominant set of cultural and political norms, against becoming trapped on the trajectory of 'progress', as opposed to being able to take a 'tiger's leap into the past' in 'the open air of history' (which, he says, 'is how Marx understood the revolution').

So the important and revolutionary thing, for Benjamin as for Edelman, is the refusal of dominant forms of continuity and 'progress' into a future which is modelled on the past. Like Edelman, too, Benjamin argues against thinking the future through the figure of the child: he says that the image of 'liberated grandchildren' is what destroys and dissipates the energy (the hatred and spirit of sacrifice, isn't that a great phrase?) of the revolutionary class. But he doesn't therefore say, like Edelman, that there will be 'no future', or that we must 'pronounc[e] at last the words for which we're condemned should we speak them or not:... that the Child as futurity's emblem must die: that the future is mere repetition and just as lethal as the past' (No Future, p.31). Very tellingly, this is the only reference to the past that I remember in No Future (I don't have my copy of it to hand, I lent it to a friend), and I don't remember Edelman explaining why 'the past' should be lethal when it can, of course, be life-giving (for example, many queer people have found it urgent to research and tell queer histories in order to find alternative ways to be queer in the present).

Anyway, Benjamin's critique of futurity runs, perhaps, along similar lines to Edelman's, but he doesn't draw the same conclusions as Edelman. Instead Benjamin says that, in doing history in a new way, in thinking of ourselves as the redeemers or rescuers of the past rather than of 'future generations', we are inaugurating a whole new model of time, escaping the 'homogeneous, empty' time of progress and historical continuity. He ends, in Thesis 18B, by saying:

We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.


So doing history in the Benjaminian way - turning our faces towards the past; thinking of ourselves as the redeemers not of future generations of liberated grandchildren but of enslaved ancestors; refusing to investigate the future - opens up the future to the absolute unknowability and otherness of the Messianic moment. It turns the future into a future-to-come (in Derrida's pun on the French word 'avenir', which means both 'future' and, differently punctuated, 'to come'). Just as Edelman sets out to do, the 'Theses' demolish a future predicated on the Child as the emblem of 'heteroreproductive futurity', the endless repetition of the same, but Edelman leaves us in an unsurvivable moment which valorizes death (the subtitle of No Future is Queer Theory and the Death Drive), while Benjamin, fanning the spark of hope in the past and valorizing redemption and rescue, shifts us into an entirely different mode of futurity.

I know which revolution I'd rather dance at.