Dickinson, De Man, and Disfiguring Coursera

Emily Dickinson

So, as I mentioned in a post ages ago,  I signed up for Coursera’s “Modern American Poetry” course to see how the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) environment tried to handle the humanities and, in particular, the challenge of converting an experience that usually involves discussion between a small group of students and the careful grading of papers written in response to a prompt (with no one right answer) into a “massive” experience.

Since then, I’ve had a chance to think much more about MOOC’s thank to Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOC of MOOCs and I, along with many of my colleagues, have grown increasingly concerned about the role of so-called “xMOOCs” in furthering a corporatization of Higher Ed. This concern has been fueled by the ouster (and, fortunately, reinstatement) of UVA’s president by the governing board in part because she refused to go the high-cost,questionable-benefit route of jumping onto the free online-ed wagon and, more recently, Emory’s elimination of several departments at the same time that it announced a contract with Coursera.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all this, the “Modern American Poetry” class offered by UPenn via Coursera has begun, and I must say that I am, at the moment, underwhelmed. To his credit, the professor seems cognizant of some of the major critiques of xMOOCs put forward by more connectivist-minded MOOCers:

He is also an active participant in the discussion boards and seems to be doing all he can with the environment to make it conducive to humanities learning. Yet, despite these efforts, the course itself follows Coursera’s standard formula: watch some videos, complete assessments, hang out on the discussion boards if you wish.

The videos represent short close-reading sessions that focus on a single poem. These are not bad. They typically involve students unpacking particular words or phrases that they have been assigned, and they are accessible to folks outside the field without being painfully reductive. However, it quickly became apparent (at least to me) how deathly dull it is to just watch these conversations without being a participant in them. Unlike a good lecture, a hearty class discussion offers little pleasure—and limited educational payoff—to an eavesdropper.

Learning Something New

I can’t speak too much to the peer-assessment process used to grade short class essays because I haven’t yet had the chance to experience it. However, I did just finish penning my first essay, and it occurs to me that that essay may in fact bring into focus some of the issues inherent in the peer-grading system. As I quickly discovered the last couple of times I’ve been asked to produce one-off close readings, my particular graduate education has left me woefully incapable of producing readings of poems not haunted through and through by dear ol’ de Man. This is all well and good when you’re writing for your professor or your fellow graduate students. But what happens when your audience is fellow partakers in a MOOC who may or may not have any formal training in the reading of literature, let alone the counterintuitive and often deeply technical moves typical of deconstruction?

As I was writing, I quickly realized that the potential divide was about more than just the peculiar nature of deconstruction, it went to the very basics of the language that we use to talk about poetic form: could I even assume a knowledge of the difference between “tenor” and “vehicle,” for instance? While I’m aware that I’m an outlier in terms of my pre-existent knowledge of the topic (though there do appear to be several curious academics enrolled in the course alongside me), there are also these more subtle differences between students who understand at least the basic poetic conventions we expect our undergrads to know and those who have zero knowledge on that score. Can we expect these divergent groups to communicate? To respond effectively and respectfully to one another’s work?

a close reading of the text

While I doubt many readers will care to read through my own lengthy (and, frankly, predictable) response to the prompt, I figure that posting it here might, in fact, dramatize the potentially disruptive effect that dropping certain reading practices into this environment might cause. Needless to say, it’s a very different form of disruption than we normally expect deconstruction to cause and it may well be one that works against the noble project that the humanities xMOOC claims to engage in: making a particular knowledge of the arts available to all. Is the true nature of much of what we do as humanists actually “readable” to non-specialists? And should it be? It’s certainly possible that my intervention exposes nothing more than the crippling insularity of a “specialized” and “jargonized” humanities professionalization that we might be wise to abandon precisely because of its “unreadability.” Or, I might be entirely wrong about what I presume to be the “unreadability” of my own work—perhaps it communicates more clearly and widely than I believe it to. I did attempt to forgo jargon as best I could, after all. And perhaps the real objection to counterintuitive ideas and reading practices is not, ultimately, to their “difficulty” but instead to their disruptive power. I’ll leave those questions up to you and to the peer reviewers that, unlike you, gentle reader, will actually have to slog through the whole thing.

So, without further ado, here’s the Dickinson poem I was asked to close read (note: it’s fabulous and you should read it):

I taste a liquor never brewed —

From Tankards scooped in Pearl —

Not all the Vats upon the Rhine

Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air — am I —

And Debauchee of Dew —

Reeling — thro endless summer days —

From inns of Molten Blue —

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee

Out of the Foxglove’s door —

When Butterflies — renounce their “drams” —

I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats —

And Saints — to windows run —

To see the little Tippler

Leaning against the — Sun —

And here’s my (hasty) response, called “Never Brewed”: Tasting Nature’s Absence in “I taste a liquor never brewed” (note: it’s not so fabulous, feel free to abandon ship now or whenever you’ve had enough):

In “I taste a liquor never brewed,” the speaker compares her ecstatic, poetic delight in the world to a more literal intoxication from alcohol. However, the speaker’s joy in the natural world ironically leads her away from nature and towards an imaginative experience and perspective that is purely linguistic. Appropriately enough, our entrance into the speaker’s poetic vision occurs through a metaphor: “I taste a liquor never brewed—/ From Tankards scooped in Pearl;” While we don’t yet know the nature of this “liquor,” it is clearly not standard alcohol since it is something that can never be “brewed.” Just as this is no ordinary alcohol, it is also no ordinary act of drinking: rather than drinking from a standard mug, the speaker taste her liquor from tankards “scooped in pearl.” The comparison offered in the final two lines of the stanza furthers the sense that this liqour and its consumption is particularly precious, for the single “tankard” contains something greater than could be found in “all the Vats upon the Rhine.” The speaker’s relationship to this liquor is also worth noting. Despite all of the concern with the manufacture of alcohol—the reference to brewing and to vats—this liquor is not manufactured, it is only consumed. The speaker’s sole role in this stanza is to “taste” that liquor.

The next stanza reveals the makeup of this strange brew, which we have been assured is free from all artifice. By describing herself as an “Inebriate of Air” and a “Debauchee of Dew,” the speaker signals that it is nature itself which has so affected her and which the “liquor” represents. The “of” formulas—”inebriate of air” and “debauchee of dew”—figure the speaker once again as a consumer and carry a secondary connotation of her being possesed by the air and the dew. Ending the first line of the stanza with “am I,” instead of beginning it with the more common forumation “I am” serves to underscore this essentially passive position. However, a subtle shift begins to occur in the second half of the stanza. Nature—and its “liquor”—is no longer marked as the primary actor; rather, it is the speaker’s own action as she goes “Reeling—thro endless summer days—/ From inns of Molten Blue” that take center stage. Nature is more subordinate in these phrases, positioned as a space for the speaker to move “thro” and “from.” The dominant metaphor of the poem also begins to shift: nature was once a liquor to be consumed, now it is figured as “inns of molten blue,” which contain and distribute liquor but are not, themselves, the intoxicant. The breakdown is not complete here, since we might frame the sky as the “inns of molten blue” and the “dew” and “air” as the intoxicants. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to contain the content of the poem within the metaphor(s) proffered. This instability is most clearly reflected in the word “from,” which can equally suggest that the speaker is reeling from the sight of the “inns of Molten Blue” themselves or that she is reeling out from the site of them. The first possibility keeps us in the metaphor introduced in the first stanza, but it makes little semantic sense. The second possibility, however, contains the troubling notion—to be further developed in the third staza—that it is, in fact, nature which the poet must leave in her state of intoxication. The sense that something is shifting in this final line is furthered by the appearance of the first end rhyme in the poem: “blue” with “dew.” Rhyme—a poetic device, an artifice—has appeared within a supposedly “natural” scene. The rhyme scheme established here will continue throughout the remainder of the poem.

By the time we reach the third stanza, the status of nature within the poem is deeply troubled. Reiterating her intent to “drink the more” even as all others cease, the speaker paints several increasingly unnatural vignettes. First: “When ‘Landlords’ turn the drunken Bee/ Out of the Foxglove’s door—”. The only “landlord” that would make sense in this context is the one represented by the “inn” in the preceding stanza. Thus, it is somehow nature itself which will turn away the “drunken bee.” This strange image is rendered even more explicit “When Butterflies—renounce their ‘drams’—”. Thus, we could succinctly summarize the claim of these first two lines of the stanza by saying: when nature ceases to be (or to behave naturally) I will continue on. In this assertion, we can also locate a shift in the speaker’s agency. No longer subject to nature (or even to her own intoxication) she now asserts herself and her choice boldly by declaring “I shall”! And, indeed, for the remainder of the poem nature does effectively cease to be and the speaker does, indeed, carry on to greater heights—though the agency she has just asserted is quickly lost.

In the final stanza, we are thrust out of the natural world and into the supernatural and celestial, where “seraphs” and “saints” appear to be the primary actors. We are now purely in the realm of the imagination: no longer in the present, we find ourselves in an imagined future; no longer on the earth, we are in an imagined heaven. The poem is now dictated not by a natural logic, but by a linguistic and figurative one. While the “saints” and “seraphs” appear to be the main agents in this stanza, the true triumph belongs to the poetic imagination itself. The celestial figures are merely the vehicle through which we, as readers, can experience the doubly impossible statement: “To see the little Tippler/ Leaning against the—Sun—!” I say “doubly impossible” because the speaker is no longer speaking as herself but is, instead, seeing herself and, further, she is seeing herself “leaning against the sun.” The poem’s imagined, unnautral scene allows the speaker to become an object for her own language. Furthermore, “Leaning against the—Sun—” must be a figure, for it’s certainly not a factual description, but it possesses no possible referent. Unlike the “liquor” that stands in for nature in the opening metaphor, the figure of the “sun” does not seem to stand for anything; however, it also cannot be meant as a representation of itself if we consider the impossibility of the scene described. The punctuation underscores the strangeness of the line: gone are the quotation marks that clearly signaled the metaphorical function of “landlords” and “drams” in the previous stanza; instead, “sun” is isolated by a dash on both sides that underscores the word’s lack of participation in the economy of metaphor. This final line, then, dramatizes the triumph of language not only over the speaker but also over nature itself, which no longer has any independent existence in the poem outside of this (non-)figure which effectively negates it.

Ironically, this final erasure of the natural world is anticipated in the very stanza that introduces that world to us: stanza two. The first stanza is free of trope; its content only functions as metaphor becuase of the second stanza. While we are told in stanza one that the liquor is one that is “never brewed,” the conversion of this liquor to metaphor is only performed in the second stanza when it asserts that this liquor is, in fact, not a liquor at all but a representation of the natural world. The second stanza appears to privilege nature—making it the “tenor” of the metaphor and reducing the figure of liquor to a mere “vehicle”—however, the incursion of metaphor into the poem sets up the possibilities of a purely linguistic (dis)figuration that ultimately unmoors the poem from the nature which seemed to beget it. Ultimately, it is not the “air” or the “dew” which sends the speaker and us, as readers, “reeling,” but language itself. Indeed, we could go so far as to assert that the liquor which introduces the poem was “never brewed” not because it was “natural,” but rather because the very connection between the natural world and poetic language that this metaphor promises is, in fact, never made, “never brewed.” What we “taste” is not the brew itself, but its absence.

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2 thoughts on “Dickinson, De Man, and Disfiguring Coursera

  1. […] “Modern American Poetry” class fall by the wayside. As I indicated in my previous post, however, I did hang around long enough to complete the first unit, submit an essay, and give and […]

  2. […] “Modern American Poetry” class fall by the wayside. As I indicated in my previous post, however, I did hang around long enough to complete the first unit, submit an essay, and give and […]

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