May 23 2011

Tenative Queer Science Syllabus

by at 4:42 am

Instructor: Cheryl Spinner

Fall 2011

Tu,Th 11:40-12:55 PM

 Queer Science

Paper may combust and digital readers may explode, but what if we were to imagine the novelistic space—that space where words and ideas meet—as the site of an imaginative experiment? Could the novelistic space figuratively bubble and act as the very site where ideas could react with one another? What if novels were laboratories? If so, why do students of science generally avoid literature classes? Was there ever a time when language was valued in the sciences?

Eighteenth-century men of science understood how important language was to their discipline. The eighteenth-century chemical sciences are, thus, deeply invested in what we, in our contemporary moment, might associate with so-called literary concerns. The chemical sciences, which encompass the elemental, atmospheric, and electrical sciences, attempt to give words, and in turn, shape to that which cannot be seen; but,words, it turns out, are often elusive, particularly when trying to describe the invisible.The eighteenth-century chemical sciences are very much invested in the problem of the word.

And what does the word “queer” have to do with any of this? Everything, actually. This is a course that seeks to chart the terrain between and with—the areas of overlap—between science studies and queer studies. We will take queer theory’s broad definition of the term, one that encompasses all that is non-normative, strange, or slightly off and is not reducible only to queer sexualities. In this sense, we will be “queering” (or “estranging”) the traditional sciences by subjecting scientific texts to literary analysis and by reading them alongside the “pseudo-sciences” to begin to question the sharp demarcation we might make between “good” and “bad” science. As mentioned above, we will also be “queering” science by re-thinking the scientific space. As we will see, the experiment may take place in a parlor, around a séance table, in a traditional scientific laboratory, or the experiment may be an actual novel.

            But this course is also very much about queer sexualities and its love/hate (or hate/love) relationship to scientific discourse. We will think about the ways in which chemical laws of attraction and magnetism have been used to naturalize heterosexual love or attraction. Goethe’s Elective Affinities involves a heternormative romantic plot that revolves around electricity and notions of “chemistry.” Here we see the discoursive connections between notions of love and science. Attraction becomes chemical, but it’s a chemical attraction that is distinctively hetero. Male bodies will be attracted to their opposites–magnetic metaphor comes in here too.

But scientific discourse and its imaginative possibilities have been used in literature in queer ways too. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, women are magnetically attracted women, men attracted to men. We will think about the ways in which the novel might then queer scientific concepts that could be used to undermine same-sex attraction. To be clear: the scope of this course will be wide and long. We will look at 19th-century German and American novels (Goethe’s Elective Affinities and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance), a 21st century British novel (Sarah Waters’ Affinity), 18th and 19th century scientific writings, short stories, and numerous theoretical texts. We will define literature in the broadest sense possible, and will apply our analytics to all texts—even scientific ones—because like all texts, science is very much a discipline of language and nomenclature. We will also jump across continents and centuries to create linkages amongst these scientific knowledges, making sure to historicize each moment before we can create these networks of ideas.

In addition, for the purposes of this course, we will be dealing most explicitly with the atmospheric and chemical sciences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (although we will, of course, be muddying up these distinctions as well). We will explore the ways in which science and religion (namely, the spiritualist movement) have concomitantly dealt with imagining a world that cannot be seen. Our focus will then be on the invisible world and the conceptual limitations it produces. By “invisible,” we will be referring to:

  • the atomistic
  • the molecular,
  • the atmospheric,
  • the gaseous,
  • the ghostly,
  • the unseen or unspeakable (in terms of desire),

 just to name a few. During the course of this class we will be pressing hard against and with the term “invisible.” We will think about what it might mean for an invisible science to be developing alongside a science that was very much based in the empirical, what could be seen, or what also might be referred to as the racist science of the 19th-century. We will try to queer, or estrange, our notion of science as objective and empirical and try to come to terms with this scientific fixation on the knowable or that which can be seen.

 The invisible will also come up in our discussion on queer studies. In a course that seeks to chart the convergences between queer studies and science studies, we will of course be talking about the messy and overlapping history between queer identity formation and scientific discourse. Our primary novels have been chosen with this in mind. We will be looking at the scholarship on gay and lesbian fiction and history that equates the ghosting or invisibility of desire . We will think about the ways in which some of the works we read use the trope of the invisible as a way of making this desire visible, yet at the same time remain messy and intangible. We will also look at the ways in which the notion of the invisible queer desire might have been collapsed discursively with scientific notions of the invisible to reaffirm heteronormative desire.

Required Texts

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientation, Objects, Others. Durham and

London: Duke University Press, 2006. Print.

Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume I. 1978. Trans. Robert

Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Goethe. Elective Affinities. Trans. David Constantine. Oxford World Classics, 1999.


Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.


Latour, Bruno. Science in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987. Print.

Waters, Sarah. Affinity. New York: Riverhead Books, 2000. Print.

*NOTE: The rest of the texts will be available in PDF versions on Blackboard.

General Policies




Students are expected to attend all classes and demonstrate active engagement. Please not that engagement in the classroom does not need to be manifested in vocal participation. I fully understand that some of you may be quieter and not as comfortable with participating in class. This is absolutely fine. You will have plenty of opportunities to talk with me outside of class about your interests/project, so please do not feel obligated to participate in class if you do not feel comfortable. Ideally, by the end of the semester, a safe classroom environment will be generated where everyone will feel welcome to participate.

If you are unable to attend class for whatever reason, please contact me beforehand.

Mandatory Office Hour Meetings


I will require that you meet with me at least two times over the course of the semester: once at the beginning so we can start to talk about your interests/concerns, and a second time after you have received comments on your research proposal. You are welcome to schedule as many meetings over the course of the semester, but I make these two meetings mandatory so I can get to know you better. I will send out a sign-up sheet of times for each meeting.



  • Research Blog: Each student will be given their own research blog that will be collected in a larger blog for the course. Students will be expected to post every two weeks or so (at minimum). The earlier posts will, of course, be more free-form and sketchy. Feel free to blog on topics we discussed in class. Ideally, as the semester advances, you will begin using the blog to help prepare you for the final research paper. These blogs are intended to make your lives easier. There is no word count minimum for posts. Additionally, the posts can be as informal as you like. I would like you to get into the habit of regularly using your blog and using it as a way to document and visualize your thinking. So, remember, this is not intended to stress you out. In creating this research blog community, you will be able to comment on other students’ posts and see what your peers are working on. Research can be isolating and we often forget that there are others working on similar topics. The research blogs will make our research visible to one another so that we can begin creating a community of scholars in our very own class. I will be keeping my own research blog and be a participant in our class’s blog community. Feel free to comment (and tear apart) my posts!
  • Critical Response (2-3 pages): Due at any point in the semester, you will choose a reading from the syllabus and respond to it critically. You will need to summarize the main argument of the piece and engage with it critically (you might discuss the limitations of the argument, etc.) I recommend doing this assignment earlier in the semester, if possible, so you can get feedback from me. us will outline.
  • Research Proposal and Working Bibliography (1-2 pages): You will be required to draft a research proposal that will give a general idea of the topic you would like to pursue for you research paper. Make sure to include with the proposal a working bibliography.
  • Final Paper (15 pages): Your final paper will be on a topic of your choice, loosely and directly related to this course. I am pretty flexible and want you to write about topics you are invested in, so please feel free to be creative.


Aug 30 Introduction


I. Queering Science (Sep 1-8)


Sep 1 18th and 19th Century Primary Scientific Readings

  • Lavoisier, Antione. Preface of the Author to Elements of Chemistry. 1-7.
  • Mesmer, Franz Anton.


Sep 6 Space and the Experiment

  • Latour, Bruno. Chapter 2, “Laboratories,” 63-92


Sep 8 Space and Experiment

  • Weinstein, Shari. “Technologies of Vision: Science and Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century.” Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination. 124-140
  • Delbourgo, James. Introduction. From A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders. 1-14.


Sep 13 Speculative Science

  • Child, Lydia Maria. “Hilda Silfverling.”
  • Introduction. Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction.


II. Heternormative Science (Sep 13-Sep 15)


Sep 15

  • Murphy, Timothy F. Introduction and Chapter 1 of Gay Science: The Ethics of Sexual Orientation Research. Pps. 1-48.


Sep 20 Heteronormative Chemistries

  • Goethe’s Elective Affinities


III. Invisible, Closeted Desires, and Queer Chemistries (Sep 20-Oct 4)


Sep 27 The Life of Matter

  • Ahmed. Sara. Queer Phenomenology. Introduction. 1-24.
  • Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter. Preface. Pps. vii-xix.


Sep 29 Research Blog Set-Up Day: Meet in Library


Oct 4 Queer Friendship

  • Marcus, Sharon. Introduction: The Female Relations of Victorian England. 1-21
  • Marcus, Sharon Marcus. Chapter One, “Friendship and the Play of the System.” 25-66.
  • Vicinus, Martha. Chapter 3, “‘They Venture to Share the Same Bed’: Possible Impossibilites. In Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. 61-84


Oct 7   BREAK


Oct 11  BREAK


Oct 13 Invisible Sexualities

  • Castle, Terry. The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. Introduction. 1-20.
  • Jagose, Annamarie. Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence. Preface and Introduction. ix-36.

Oct 18

  • Rose Terry Cook, “My Visitation.”
  • Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life.” 14-31


IV. Queer Historiography (Oct 18-Oct 20)


Oct 20

  • Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality V. I
  • Sedgwick, Eve. Epistemology of the Closet.”


Oct 25  

  • Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. Introduction. 1-17.


V. The Blithedale Romance, Affinity, and Herculine Barbin (Oct 25-Dec 8)


Oct 27

  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. Chaps. I-xi. pps. 1-90


Nov 1

  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. Chaps. Xii-xxi. Pps. 91-166.


Nov 3

  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. Chaps xii-end. Pp. 167-224.


Nov 8 Blithedale Romance Criticism

  • Stein, Jordan Alexander. “The Blithedale Romance‘s Queer Style.”
  • White, Craig. “A Utopia of ‘Spheres and Sympathies’: Science and Society in The Blithedale Romance and at Brook Farm.”


Nov 10

  • Waters, Sarah. Affinity. Part I, 1-120


Nov 15

  • Waters, Sarah. Affinity. Part II, 125-195.


Nov 17

  • Waters, Sarah. Affinity. Part III, 200-281.


Nov 22  BREAK


Nov 24  BREAK


Nov 29 Affinity Criticism

  • Parker, Sarah. “‘The Darkness Is the Closet in Which Your Lover Roosts Her Heart’: Lesbians, Desire and the Gothic Genre” (2008).
  • Llewellyn, Mark. “‘Queer? I Should Say It Is Criminal!’: Sarah Waters’ Affinity (1999).”

Dec 1

  • Watch Affinity (2008)


Dec 6 Herculine Barbin: Medicine, Religion, and Secret Desires

  • Foucault, Michel. Introduction to Herculine Barbin. Pps vii-xvii.
  • Herculine Barbin, My Memoirs, pps 3-75


Dec 8 

  • Herculine Barbin, Memoirs, pps. 76-115
  • Herculine Barbin, medical documents, pps. 119-151



































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Apr 06 2011

Queer Science Syllabus

by at 11:26 pm

Right now I’m working on a hypothetical syllabus that I’ll hopefully get the chance to teach in a year or two. It’s based on some of the recent things I’ve become intersted in. I’m thinking of calling the course “Queer Science” and I’d like to look at the way the chemical and atmospheric sciences have been “queered” in 19th-century literature. But I’m aware that a lot of science is heternormative, especially when it comes to the medical discourse on homosexuality and such (yes, Foucault shout out). In order to give students a representation of the different ways scientific discourse might be used in the literary imagination, I’ll have to include some more heternormative examples. I haven’t read Goethe’s Elective Affinities but from my understanding it’s a heternormative romantic plot that revolves around electricity and notions of “chemistry.” Here we see the discoursive connections between notions of love and science. Attraction becomes chemical, but it’s a chemical attraction that is distinctively hetero. Male bodies will be attracted to their opposites–magnetic metaphor comes in here too.

But scientific discourse and its imaginitve possibilties have been used in literature in queer ways too. I’d like students to get an idea about how this could be deployed in male and female writers of the 19th century. I’ve also got a 21st-century spiritualist novel (Affinity) that I’d like to put on there. One concern I have is that I know a lot more about women writers and their use of the electrical metaphors. Would it be okay for my only contemporary example to be an example of lesbian fiction? Is that fair to the students? Or should I just make the course less expansive. Should I *just* included female writers and their queer writing?

Also, a useful quote I have from Spectral America that could be useful in thinking about complicating our notion of the scientific laboratory and where experiments might take place:

Spiritualist practice had much in common with scientific investigations, but spiritualism looked to dining-room tables instead of operating tables, planchettes instead of microscopes, and the spirit-medium instead of the medical doctor as the force that can cause spectacular reactions and changes in human bodies and the environs, ‘much as a catalyst allows a chemical reaction to take place between two substances without actually entering into the reaction itself’ (Weinstein 126).

Another interesting quote from this essay, taken from an 1864 article entitled “Disembodied Spirits May Surround Us:”

I have often wondered that the advocated of Spiritualism [sic] have neve pointed out to those more positive skeptics who maintain that spirits cannot exist because they are not seen, the very obvious destruction of that fallacy by the merest glance at the wonders revealed by the microscope […]. I think it quite possible that in some future time, optical instruments may be invented sufficiently powerdul to enable men as clearly to see the present ‘viewless tenants’ of the atmosphere as they can now see myriads of microscopic organisms in a glass of water […] to see disembodied spirits peopling what we now consider the ’empty air’ (9).

This quote just makes me so happy–its preocupation with the invisible is what’s so striking to me. This may somehow relate to the work I’ve been doing on electric nations and adding yet another layer. Just as electrical particulars occupy the air, so do disembodied spirits. The interesting thing of course is how these spirits might be imagined. Are they gendered? Or are they simply electrical charges? This would relate to how a queer science of spirits and emobodiments could be imagined.

Well, I think I should definitely include Shari Weinstein’s “Technologies of Vision: Spiritualism and Science in Nineteenth-Century America.” On the syllabus. It could be useful for students to think about the ways in which spiritualism might “queer” science. As the quote above showed, spiritualist believers could claim that discrediting the existence of spirits because they are invisible is not scientifically sound because atoms and moleculues, of course exist. Spiritualist discourse then could draw links between its preoccupation with the invisible and scientific discourse’s own investment in that which cannot be seen by the naked eye.

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Dec 16 2010

We Meet Again, Mr. Melville

by at 5:14 pm

Now that my Yiddish communism paper is finished, I’m starting to work on my paper for Priscilla’s class. One of the nice things about Duke is that intellectual freedom is very much encouraged. Priscilla’s class is on human beings after genocide but our papers can be on whatever we’d like. We can choose to rework something we’ve already written, submit her a conference paper, really whatever we want feedback on. So I’ve decided to revise a chapter of my thesis with the intention of preparing for an article type piece. So chapter three of my Master’s thesis (“Electric Publics and Electric Nations: The Creation of a National Identity in Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, the Ambiguities“), hello again.

I’m really excited to be going back to my thesis, especially this chapter, being that it was my last one. Re-reading my thesis in preparation for this project, I realized that my first and second chapters were actually not bad at all. They seemed coherent and well formulated. The third chapter could use some work, but it’s my favorite chapter concetually. Because of deadlines, that last chapter is just not as polished. So now’s the time for some cleaning.

What I’ve got to do to fix this up:

1. Reorginzation: As per usual, I get to my argument towards the end. The end needs to sort of be sent to the beginning.

2. Background information from my introduction needs to be filled in in some places. If this is going to be an article type thing it needs to be able to stand on its own.

3. Finally I’m going to need to do some more reading. I didn’t do enough critical reading of exisiting Pierre and Melville scholarship. I also need to do a little more theoretical reading on publics and seances, etc.

So Georgetown first and second years: if you decided to write a thesis and want to remain in academia and write and stuff, the thesis is not at all a waste of time.

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Dec 07 2010

Queers and the Jews

by at 3:29 pm

In order to prep for my Yankev Gordin paper, I’ve been doing some research on Yiddish literature. This led to Leo Wiener’s seminal work on The History of Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth-Century (1899). Professor of Slavic Languages at Harvard, Wiener was troubled by a tendency in langauge studies to overlook Yiddish as a legitimate language worthy of study. I’ve been taking lots and lots of notes on this text (a blog post on this is forthcoming), but I couldn’t help myself from posting about some exciting tangents this text has led me to. In his chapter on Jewish folklore, Wiener mentions Abramawitsch’s The Jewish Don Quixote, whose protagonist enters on a quest to find the Sambation River so that he can find the Lost Tribes of Israel (Wiener 31). Given my orthodox upbrining, any mention of the Sambation River gets me sort of excited. So I naturally looked to see what this text is about and I came across an article by Leah Garrett who says the following:

 n 1878, the renowned Jewish writer Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh published a Yiddish version1 of Don Quixote entitled The Travels of Benjamin the Third.2 In the novella, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are reconstituted as two small-town Jewish fools, who are traveling through Poland on their way to Israel. The novella mimics the structure, plot, and characters of Don Quixote.
     However, The Travels of Benjamin the Third pushes themes from Don Quixote to satiric extremes. For example, in The Travels everyone is as mad as the Jewish Don Quixote, Benjamin, and the relationship between him and Sancho Panza (Sendrel) is an homosexual marriage.

Source: From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 17.2 (1997): 94-105.
Copyright © 1997, The Cervantes Society of America

So this text is even weirder than I thought.  Jewish Don Quixote marries Jewish Sancho Panza? How queer! So now I’m wondering about prevalence of queerness in Yiddish writings. Okay, that’s all for now, but notice the image above. I must read this book.  It looks fabulous (plus, Babs is on the cover and I love my Babs).

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Nov 29 2010

Yankev Gordin

by at 10:46 pm

So I’m writing my final paper for Jameson about Yiddish Communism, by way of Yankev (or Jacob) Gordin. Now I don’t really do the whole reading about people’s writing careers and biography, but in this case I think it’s kind of important. I know very little about Yiddish literature in general and even less about Yankev Gordin, so in order to have a way of understanding the context by which “Moyshe Rabbeinu, Yesuz Christas, and Karl Marx Go to New York” I really need to understand who this guy was and where this wacky text is coming from.

So to start, here is some information about the dude:

Gordin was born in Russia in 1853, in the town of Mirgorod, which is now part of Ukraine. His father was a Maskil (aka: a member of the Jewish Enlightenment). He was not sent to Heder, elementary school for Jewish boys. Instead, he was homeschooled where he studied Hebrew, Russian, and German. Gordin may have studied Yiddish as a child, but his family adopted Russian instead of Yiddish as their primary language.

Gordin’s Relationship to the Jewish Language

Gordin’s complicated relationship with the Yiddish language:

“When he came to America, he was reluctant to speak Yiddish, although he wrote it in a perfectly fluent, colloquial style. Bessie Thomashefsky claimed that he spoke like a goy [Gentile], pronouncing Yiddish words with a hard Russian “h” (Gay and Glazer, 108).

Gordin’s complicated relationship to Jewish culture and language is something that comes up throughout his career most notably with regards to Gordin’s relationship to his “Jewishness.” When I say Jewishness here I am referring to his relgious commitment to Judaism and its culture. He was accused of wanting to convert Jews to Christianity at different points in his life.

Gordin’s relationship to the Jewish Religion and Jewish Culture:

“A second group that attracted Gordin was founded in Elizavetgrad in January of 1880 by a non-Jew, a Dr. Michailovitch, and was called the Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood; it espoused rather vague principles of nonsectarian brotherhood that exactly suited Gordin’s way of thinking. Gordin joined it with great enthusiasm, eventually becoming its principal leader. The nature of this group remains mysterious since reports of people who actually attended the meetings on Saturday afternoons seem to indicate that it had strong religious leanings. After Gordin came to America, however he gave a lecture which was reported in the Yiddish newspaper Varhayt (Truth) denying the brotherhood’s religious purpose, saying that religion was merely a pretense, intended to hide from the tsarist police that it was actually a political group. However its strange religous ideas continued to haunt Gordin in America, where opponents denounced him as a “missionary” attempting to convert Jews to Christianity, citing his participation in the group. The nub of truth behind these recurring accusations was that a disciple of Gordin’s, Jacob Priluker, had gone off to Odessa, where he had founded a group called New Israel. And this group, together with Priluker, had indeed converted to Christianity” (110,111).

Gordin’s involvement in the Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood is really important I think. It seems to be very much in dialogue with Marx’s “On the Jewish Question,” which has been interpretted as an antisemitic text but Gordin’s beliefs and actions seem similar. Marx claims that Jews should not be asking for a Jewish emancipation because that excludes them from the rest of humanity. They should be seeking for an emancipation of all and the only way this can be done is if religious distinctions are dissolved. Gordin’s Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood seems to be a kind of compromise–a space where the distinctions between Jews and Christians could be minimized. So it would not call for the end of either, or the dissolution of Jews into Christians (at least from the way I’m understanding it now), but would create a kind of brotherhood between gentiles and jews, even while maintaining these basic categorical distinctions. How then does “Moyshe Rabbeinu” text come into all of this?” Hmmm, got ideas but still thinking them through.

More quotes in which Jacob Gordin is sounding a lot like Marx:

112, 113

“But Jacob Gordin remained firmly attached to his ideas about the brotherhood of man, despite the evidence of the pogroms, despite the flood of anti-Semitic articles in the Russian press, and he took surprising action. First, he supported and contributed to a fund for the benefit of the families who had taken part in the pogroms and had been arrested by the police for their violence. In additon he took the occasion to write an impassioned article in the Russian newspaper Yuzhni Krai (Southern Frontier) a few months after the pogrom. It was titled An Appeal to the Jewish People and opens with the words “Brother Jews.” He starts with the image of the Jewish people as the tooth, root and all. In the same way, writers Gordin, the Jews should tear out by the roots their deeply engrained bad habits. He then goes on to discuss these habits, beginning with a question:

Why do all elements of Russian society hate you? Is it simply a religious hatred? Or is it our love of money, unquenchable, our stinginess, chasing after ways of earning money, our impudence [chutzpah], our fawning style, our slavish and foolish imitation of the puffed up and corrupt Russian aristocracy our usury, our tavern keeping, our impulse to reade and all our other failings–all these provoke the Russian people against us. Of course there are also honorable people among us. But they are lost in the mass of traders who day and night think only of how to make a ruble and who never in their lives have had the slightest interest or need for anything else.

Then, refering to the pogroms, he continues:

It is just these events that give me the right to remind you, Brothers, that right now is the time to tear out the rotten teeth with which you have bitten others, and from which you yourselves have suffered from time to time unbearable pain and suffering. Brothers awake! Start a new life. [Meaning–a new life according to the principles of his Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood]” (Gay and Glazer, 112, 113)

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Oct 14 2010

So I like studying Jewish Lit. There. I said it.

by at 3:50 pm

So I’m a Jewish woman from Queens, N.Y. and I enjoy studying all things Jewish. Don’t get me wrong, I love science and tech studies and the early American period, but I also find myself gravitating towards Jewish Studies. I swore I wouldn’t be that Jewish woman who studies Jewish literature. Well, look at me now. I’m really interested in 19th-century and early-20th century Yiddish culture–both secular and traditional. In Jameson’s first class, he mentioned in passing pragmatic communist texts written in Yiddish. Being the type of scholar that I am, I couldn’t help but fixate on this small sidepoint. Wait, Jews were writing communist treatises in Yiddish? Okay, this is sort of obvious but so obvious that I had never really thought about it until now.

Yiddish Communism, from what I’ve gathered, is oddly nationalistic despite its communist leanings. Being that I really know very little about all of this, I’m trying to read up as much as I can about this movement and the general Yiddish literary movement. “Yiddish in Amerike” explicates a strange Yiddish play written by Gordin that centers around Moses, Jesus, and Marx. Here are some of the important passages:

In “Moyshe Rabeynu, Yezus Kristus un Karl Marx tsu gast in Nyu York,” Jacob Gordin makes fun of Jesus, but he does so in Yiddish. He probably would never have done it in English, and certainly not in Russian while he was living there under the Tsar’s regime. This short satire, probably written between 1897-1902, is quite unlike the austere tragedy of Jacob Gordin’s full-length dramas.10 Although it is overtly socially conscious, it uses exaggerated typage and acerbic laughter rather than Gordin’s familiar Ibse- nesque realism to highlight society’s evils. The theme and the narrative structure place this satire in the tradition of purimshpil couplets, which often begin with a sacred Hebrew expression, only to profane it immediately afterwards. […] When Moses comes down from heaven and finds corruption on earth, he repeats his commandments in Biblical Hebrew, only to get threatened and spat on by New York Jews, then beaten up by a policeman. Jesus and(Wishnia 207, 208)  
 “Moyshe Rabeynu” also begins in heaven, with Moses, Jesus, and Karl Marx challeng- ing each other as to which of their competing religions has the most adherents on earth […]  “Moyshe Rabeynu” ends with a triumph that never occurred: the triumph of socialism in the US.” (Wishnia 208).
Politics of Yiddish as a language in the 19th-century: 
The son of a maskil (an educated follower of the haskala, or enlightenment movement), Gordin was most comfortable writingGORDIN in Russian and had to learn, or at least significantly improve, his Yiddish in order to reach the Jewish masses in the US and to achieve his goal of educating them (Shatzky 128; Epstein 138, 142; Sandrow 132). He wanted to bring “men of widely different social ranks to one intellectual level” (Shatzky 135). When he arrived in the US in 1891, many radical thinkers viewed Yiddish only as a means of reaching the workers, not as a literary end in itself. Many conservative thinkers still derided Yiddish as “the corrupt language of Babylon for maids and coachmen” (Noble 86), which is precisely why the radical thinkers wanted to use it” (Wishnia 208, 209). GORDIN in Russian and had to learn, or at least significantly improve, his Yiddish in order to reach the Jewish masses in the US and to achieve his goal of educating them (Shatzky 128; Epstein 138, 142; Sandrow 132). He wanted to bring “men of widely different social ranks to one intellectual level” (Shatzky 135). When he arrived in the US in 1891, many radical thinkers viewed Yiddish only as a means of reaching the workers, not as a literary end in itself. Many conservative thinkers still derided Yiddish as “the corrupt language of Babylon for maids and coachmen” (Noble 86), which is precisely why the radical thinkers wanted to use it” (Wishnia 208, 209).  
Um, woah,a socialist parody of the “Ani Maamin” or “I believe” prayers or the “Prayer of Faith”  from the Talmudic era that I used to say in prayer services at Yeshivah. I want to write on this!
Morris Winchevsky produced many parodies in Hebrew such as his socialist “Prayer of Faith,” published in England in 1903, which begins, I believe with perfect faith, that whoever profits by the labor of his fellow man without doing anything for him in return, is a willful plunderer…. I believe with perfect faith, that women will remain the slaves of men, or their playthings, as long as they will depend upon the will of others instead of enjoying the fruit of their own labor. I believe with perfect faith, that labor and handicraft will be de- spised by all as long as the working men will labor to satisfy the appetites of the idlers. (quoted in Davidson 81) (Wishnia) 209.

 Plot of “Moyshe Rabeinu:”

 The plot of “Moyshe Rabeynu” is relatively simple and straight- forward. There is equality in heaven. Moses is a respected figure who lives in harmony with the founders of two other world relig- ions, Buddha and Jesus (although Jesus is depicted as something of a naif); even Karl Marx is capable of civil exchange with his “adversaries (Wishnia 209). 

OH. MY. GOD. This is Jewish humor at its best:

Both Gordin and [Lenny] Bruce have jokes about Christ and Moses taking contemporary modes of transport: in the Gordin piece, they take an elevator “from the seventh heaven straight to the roof of the Hebrew Institute” (Gordin, Ale shriftn 195); Lenny Bruce has them taking “Transcontinental [airlines], $88 to Chicago.” Both authors get in a dig at the immigration authorities: in “Moyshe Rabeynu,” Buddha protests that he should be allowed to visit New York as well, and Marx answers, “they won’t let you in,” thanks to the new Commissioner of Immigration (Gordin, Ale shriftn 194); Lenny Bruce has reporters from News-week asking if Christ and Moses have “State Department clear- ance (Wishnia 210-211). Note: the “Lenny” in italics I added.

 Problems of Translation:
  The Yiddish of this satire reproduces the polyglot speech of the community that inspired it. Zalmen Zylbercweig lists “Yezus Kristus” along with a few other sketches in which Gordin “uses simple folk-jests and ‘builds’ stories around them”(Zylbercweig 398). This strongly suggests a cultural precedent: there must have been Jewish jokes about what would really happen if Moses (or Jesus) came down to visit “our” world, and how they would be treated. In this sense, this satire is a far cry from Gordin’s better- known “Realist and Modernist renderings” for the stage (Warke 247). In “Moyshe Rabeynu,” we have the textualization of a popular joke motif, one man’s version of an oral folk-tale aimed at urban Jews speaking Yiddish mixed with American English, written by a man whose first literary language was Russian, employing a great deal of Biblical Hebrew, dozens of daytshmer- isms (Germanisms) that Uriel Weinreich’s Modern Eng- lish/Yiddish, Yiddish/English Dictionary informs us are “inadmis- sible in the standard language” (Weinreich xl), in addition to a few words that are only to be found in Russian, Polish, and German dictionaries (Wishnia 212).
 Yiddish incorporation of English words and sayings are fascinating: 
 If some high and lofty Hebrew adds an air of the divine to the humble Yiddish text, the borrowings from English do precisely the opposite: many of them represent American life at its most crass and materialistic. Some of the Englishisms in “Moyshe Rabeynu” include: trost (trust, monopoly), grinhorn, biznes, “Get aut of hier, ” “Gad dem yu doirty sheenee,” tenement, boss, fektori, polisman, and feyker. Such multilingual borrowing is a common immigrant phenomenon, and it seems reasonable to transliterate some of these terms back into English, retaining their Yiddish spellings to mark them as “foreign,” particularly when they occur in dialogue or passages discussing life in the US (Wishnia 215, 216)  





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Oct 06 2010

Vibrant Matter, Jane Mitchell

by at 3:40 pm

Right now I’m working on expanding a chapter of my thesis (“Electric Publics and Electric Nations: The Creation of a National Identity in Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities). After I had finished my thesis, Dana recommended that I check out Jane Mitchell’s Vibrant Matter , largely a philosophical and political work that challenges our notion of thingliness by looking at how supposedly inert matter is very much alive. Dana thought this could be revelant to my project. She was right of course. My thesis was all about looking at how the atmosphere or air–that seemingly inert, open, and dead space that surrounds us–is actually very lively and filled with moving matter–matter that often is emitted from so-called live bodies. Lookng back, my project was very much about dissolving the distinction between the body and the atmosphere.

So clearly Mitchell’s book could be really useful in helping me work on this chapter for publication. So here are my extensive notes on the book.

Mitchell’s project:

The philosophical project is to think slowly an idea that runs fast through modern heads: the idea of matter as passive stuff, as raw, brute, or inert. This habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings) is a “partition of the sensible,” to use Jacques Ranciere’s phrase (vii).

Mitchell here is talking about the problems of concieving matter in a purely dialectical construction–one that posits what she calls dull matter versus vibrant life . Mitchell’s title title vibrant matter is part of an attempt to argue that all matter, whether it be humans or electrical charge, are inherently life-like.

As Mitchell says: “I will turn the figures of “life” and “matter” around and around, worrying them until they start to seem strange, in something like the way a common word when repeated can become a foreign, nonsense sound. In the space created by this estrangement, a vital materiality can start to take shape” (vii).

History of philosophical treatment of vibrant matter:

“The idea of vibrant matter also has a long (and if not latent, at least not dominant) philosophical history in the West. I will reinvoke this history too, drawing in particular on the concpets and claims of Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Theodor Adorno, Gilles Deleuze, and the early twentieth-century vitalisms of Bergon and Hans Driesch” (viii).

Also note how Mitchell’s study are predominantly philosophical texts. Becuase Mitchell’s analysis is more of a philosophical one it will be helpful for me to follow this paper trail of hers as a way of enriching my chapter.

Vitality of non-human matter (non-human matter as actants):

“The political project of the book is, to put it most ambitiously, to encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things. A guiding question: How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (non human bodies)? By “vitality” I mean the capacity of things–edibles, commodities, storms, metals–not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due. How, for example, would pattern of consumption change if we faced not litter, rubbish, trash, or “the recycling,” but an accumulating pile of lively and potentially dangerous matter? […] What difference would it make to the course of energy policy were electricity to be figured not simply as a resource, commodity, or instrumentality but also and more radically as an “actant?” (viii).

Definition of actants:

“The term is Bruno Latour’s: an actant is a source of action that can either be human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events” (viii).

“Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies. These material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness, or even “respect” (provided that the term be stretched beyond its Kantian sense) (ix).

So I should probably read Deleuze and Guattari:

“In the “Treatise on Nomadology,” Deleuze and Felix Guattari experiment with the idea of “material vitalism,” according to which vitality is immanent in matter-energy. That project has helped inspire mine. Like Deleuze and Guattari, I draw selectively from Epicurian, Spinozist, Nietzchean, and vitalist traditions, as well as from an assortment of contemporary writers in science and literature” (x).

“In what follows, then, I try to bear witness to the vital materialities that flow through and around us. Though the movements and effectivity of stem cells, electricity, food, trash, and metals are crucial to political life (and human life per se), almost as soon as they appear in public (often at first by disrupting human projects or expectations), these activities and powers are represented as human mood, action, meaning, agenda, or ideology. This quick substitution sustains the fantasy that “we” really are in charge of all those “its”–its that, according to the tradition of (nonmechanistic, nonteleological) materialism I draw on, reveal themselves to be potentially forceful agents” (x).

I should also probably read Spinoza:

“Spinoza stands as a touchstone for me in this book, even though he himself was not quite a materialist. I invoke his idea of conative bodies that strive to enhance their power of activity by forming alliances with other bodies, and I share his faith that everything is made of the same substance. Spinoza rejected the idea that man “disturbs rather than follows Nature’s order,” and promises instread to “consider human actions and appetites just as if it were an investigation into lines, planes, or bodies” (x).

Universiality of substance in philosophy:

“Lucretius, too, expressed a kind of monism in his De Rerum Natura: everything, he says, is made of the same quality stuff, the same building blocks, if you will. Lucretius calls them primordia: today we might call them atoms, quarks, particle streams, or matter-energy. This same-stuff claim, this insinuation that deep down everything is connected and irreducible to a simple substrate, resonates with an ecological sensibility, and that too is important to me” (xi).

Also, what about a political (in terms of citizen and representation before the law) sensibility?

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Sep 03 2010

The Algebra of Revolution

by at 9:09 pm

Hello all. My first week at Duke is over and I have lots of things to think about. I’m finding myself thinking about theory right now more than literary texts, which is definitely strange for me. I hadn’t really thought about theory seriously for a while. I’m going to be doing a lot of Marx this semester and bio-political theory. This is a huge change from my heavily archival time at Georgetown. I’m also finding the pace of research in a doctoral program way different from a Master’s program. There isn’t this rush to figure out what you need to be studying. I’m not quite sure what to do with this. Of course, my reaction to this new and different space is to blog, and blog I will.

So here’s some of my observations on Georg Luckacs’s History and Class Consciousness. As an extension of my Master’s thesis, I’m really interested in how science and/or religon attempts to understand the invisible world. Dialectical Marxism has an interesting way of imagining history in terms of an invisible world occupied by the invisible forces. As Luckas puts it: “In the class struggle we witness the emergence of all the hidden forces that usually lie concealed behind the facade of economic life, at which the capitalists and their apologists gaze as though transfixed” (65). But what does it mean to expose a hidden force? How can a force be seen? Is this similar to the science of physics, which matematically reveals what forces are eventhough they cannot be detected by the human eye? Is Marx merely the mathematician of social forces? Luckas seems to think so: ”

The revolutionary nature of Hegelian dialectics had often been recognised as such before Marx, notwithstanding Hegel’s own conservative application of the method. But no had converted this knowledge into a science of revolution. It was Marx who transformed the Hegelian method into what Herzen described as the ‘algebra of revolition.” (27).

I had never thought of Marx as a kind of social scientists, in the most literal sense, but I’m starting to believe he was. His attention to these invisible forces are so obviously infused with the hard sciences that I’m surprised I hadn’t really noticed this until now.

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Jun 10 2010

Hello again

by at 5:50 pm

Hello, blog. I know I have been careless and forgotten about you during my thesis-writing days. I’ve come to make amends. It’s the summer, I’m sitting in Tryst Cafe after having met with Dana about the introduction to my thesis, and I come groveling back to you.

I’m sorry. Really, I am. I promised I would keep up with you, but I didn’t. Now that those apologies are out of the way, let’s get down to business:

My meeting with Dana was super helpful and I’d like to include some of the key points from our conversation because it’s pretty critical to the way my thesis is shaping up. Dana has a magical way of being, “So this is what your thesis is about,” as I nod my head and scribble frantically to get it all down. Yes. Now that you mention it, that is what it’s about.

So here are the important points from my Thursday, 6-10-2010 meeting:

1. My thesis is really just an expanded meditation on the notin of epxerimentation–specifically on scientific experimentation (ie: scientific method, etc.) versus literary experimentation, and then quite larger how this all connects to the volatile experimentation of the United States a political experimentation. This is where the atmosphere and electricity and such come into play. Yes. So that’s what it’s about. For now. At least.

2. In my chapter on Charles Brockden Brown, I’m not going to say which Brown critic is right or wrong or whatever. That’s not what I’m trying to do. Instead, my point is to look at the politics of experimentation and show that that is why we’ve been so confused about Brown’s politics. He experimental form and process is what has perplexed Brown scholars and what creates competing readings of him.

3. In my introduction I talk about the “Third Culture,” but it’s not a question of the “Third Culture” but really Culutre. So Snow’s binary of Two Cultures and then there being a Third Culture is actually inaccurate. It’s all just Culture.

4. Critics in for CBB chapter: Paul Witherington looks at Brown’s stylistic experimentation in Edgar Huntly. These are aesthetics stakes and not political as such, but the act of being experimental has inherent political implications. Bernard Rosenthal and Peter Swirski: bring these two theorists in, in conjunction with Witherington, to join the literary with the scientific. They talk about literary experimentation, but join together to show how CBB is both scientifically AND literarily experimental. Jared Gardner and race too.

4. Temporality of the Literary Experiment:  Writing itself is the experiment, as opposed to the experiment in which you perform it and then write it up. So there’s this dea of the novel as an unfinished experiment that we’re cowriting with CBB as we read his novel in the 21st century.

5. The footnote: Think about postmodern footnotes in Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Complete and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. In Dias, we have mock ethnographic footnotes. Footnotes in books are shocking to 20th century readers but not to 21st century readers, however, Brown is doing different things with the footnote in Wieland than what postmodern footnotes are doing. Brown’s footnotes are scientific with a really straight face, but in the postmoden novel it’s tounge-in-cheek. It’s the footnote in parody. For Diaz, it’s the performance of the containment of information. So I’ll need to include a presentist paragraph or two on postmodern contemporary fiction.

No responses yet | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,Constantin Volney,Thesis

Feb 23 2010

Spirit Rapping and Unknown Tongues

by at 12:28 pm

I am currently enrolled in Dana Luciano’s Sex and Time in 19th Century America and it’s fabulous–definitely getting my academic juices flowing.  Right now, I’m really beginning to think about my final project–a digital archival research project in which I will be creating a historical scholarly introduction to Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. Very innovative pedogagy and am excited to be a part of this. We’re also keeping a research blog for this project, but because my research has sparked some ideas about Wieland I decided to blog about it here as well.

At the very opening of Blithedale, the reader (and narrator) encounters this very strange figure: the Veiled Lady who is acquanted in the mesmeric arts. She is essentially a spirit-rapper–one of those 19th century “seers,” those “table movers.” Naturally, I’m incredibley intrigued by this figure and want to find more information about the spiritualist movement, and in my search I came across this really interesting article:

Spirit Rapping and Unknown Tongues

In this example, the spirit rapper, an American, is able to speak in Swedish without knowing the language. After reading this, I wonder if Carwin could be read as a kind of spirit-rapper, or rather, a charlatan who manipulates his voice to dupe to his audience. This would tie in well with the idea that this novel is an early American scientific novel that explores 19th century science. The question of spiritualism and whether or not it could be a real science is expressed out-right in the following article:

Spirit Rapping and Science

Could Brown be including Carwin as just another example of what the possibilites of science could be? And is the revelation of Carwin’s “talents” a way of putting down this kind of psuedoscience or does Wieland allow for a more expansive view of science and the unsolved world. Should we even buy Carwin’s explanation?

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