Tag Archives: de Man

Committing Deconstruction/Betraying Deconstruction

From Flickr user Satryicom

At the recent annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), I presented a paper called “‘Committing Deconstruction: Credo and Critique.” It was a paper that arose from my own grappling with two persistent quandaries that have dogged me during my short career:

(1) Deconstruction has always been important to my critical practice, but I don’t consider myself a “deconstructionist” (a term rarely actually deployed by folks who “do” deconstruction). Is it even possible to be a “deconstructionist”—is deconstruction something that you could dedicate yourself to like Marxism or Feminism? Or does it resist that type of critical identification?

(2) I confess to having several personally meaningful philosophic and academic “commitments.” Would it even be possible for someone like myself to do deconstruction or does its very practice preclude the possibility of commitment?

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Irony, Sincerity, and Critique

Rainy wedding

Not actually ironic, no matter what Alanis told you . . .

A recent New York Times “Opinionator” blog post by Christy Walpole, “How to Live Without Irony”, made the social media rounds on Facebook for me last Sunday—first with earnest posters (myself included) and then with a wave of wry criticism once we’d all calmed down a bit.

It was, for me, the return of a frustration that had previously come to a head several years back. As my classmates and I were sitting in a graduate seminar classroom waiting for the professor to arrive, someone made a joking remark about us all going out and getting stoned afterwards. An equally facetious conversation ensued about when and where and how much. Then one student broke in with this meta observation: “Or we could just talk about it and then never do it. After all, we’re grad students, that’s what we do.”

I suddenly realized that my classmate had vocalized something that had been half-consciously nagging at me for awhile: Talking was all we did. There was no doing, there was no follow through, there was no risk and no commitment. And it wasn’t only true for our faux weed smoking plans—it was hard to take any claim, no matter how weighty, too seriously. Because it was just talk, just play, just a self-aware and detached performance of our own knowingness. Real arguments during seminar discussions were few and far between—and even in the extremely rare cases that they did break out they tended to blow away quickly with no hurt feelings. After all, there’d barely been stakes to begin with.

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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.

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Our Own Unnatural Selves: What Our Cyber Identities Tell Us About Our Lived Experience

[ D ] Edgar Degas - Madame Jeantaud in the mirror (1875)

The Naturalness of Our “Unnatural” Selves

I’ve been thinking a lot about the negotiation of personal and professional online presence(s) since an impromptu 2am Google Doc chat conversation on the topic during #moocmooc. After several days of mulling it over, I realized that the topic perfectly fit the (more in theory than in practice) aim of this blog: to draw together conversations about Romanticism with conversations about the digital humanities.

My WordPress and Twitter handles (myownunnaturalself and @myunnaturalself, respectively) are drawn from one of the odder lines at the beginning of William Wordsworth’s long poem The Prelude:

. . . I breathe again—

Trances of thought and mountings of the mind

Come fast upon me. It is shaken off,

As by miraculous gift ’tis shaken off,

That burthen of my own unnatural self,

The heavy weight of many a weary day

Not mine, and such as were not made for me. [1805 ver., ll. 19-25]

“My own unnatural self”—a phrase that simultaneously connotes both ownership and alienation—seemed the perfect descriptor for what’s going on with our various online avatars. If we read Wordsworth against the grain here, we could argue that this “unnatural self” is, perhaps, the most proper self precisely because it is “unnatural.” In “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Paul de Man aligns Romantic allegory with an awareness of the self’s unnatural, temporal, contingent state:

Whether it occurs in the form of an ethical conflict . . . or as an allegorization of the geographical site, as in Wordsworth, the prevalence of allegory always corresponds to the unveiling of an authentically temporal destiny. This unveiling takes place in a subject that has sought refuge against the impact of time in a natural world to which, in truth, it bears no resemblance. (206)

An “authentically temporal destiny” is not, however, a route to an “authentic self,” as de Man’s later comments on irony underscore:

ironic language splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity. This does not, however, make it into an authentic language, for to know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic. (214)

Which, to bring us back to the question at hand, suggests that our online “unnatural selves” might show up the general “unnaturalness” of our “empirical selves.” It also begs the question of whether the unique temporalities of the internet might increase the already disruptive influences of our linguistic selves.

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