Thursday theme – When You Dream

Today’s theme song in ENGL 203-04 is “When You Dream,” from the album Stunt by Barenaked Ladies, released in 1998. Lyrics here.

The speaker, watching their new son sleeping, asks, “When you dream, what do you dream about?”

Reading the Alice books has made us ask a lot of questions about dreaming. Can I know when I’m awake and not dreaming? How do I know that I’m not part of someone else’s dream? Can the person in whose dream I appear be someone who’s also part of my dream? (Alice proposes just that possibility in the final chapter of Through the Looking-Glass.) Do children have a special relationship to dreams and to the fount of dream-creativity, imagination?

But in Tuesday’s class, we also asked some questions about the word about. What does it mean to say that the Alice books are “about changes?” Or “about the special relationship between children and imagination?” Or “about the inevitably fluid and unstable nature of conceptual categories”? Or just “about a little girl named Alice who has adventures in an imaginary Wonderland and on the other side of the looking-glass”? Continue reading “Thursday theme – When You Dream”

More meta moves that matter

Last week in “Fluid Readers, Fluid Texts,” we looked at Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. If’s worth noting that in their effort to offer practical guidance on good academic writing, Graff and Birkenstein quickly and naturally make the shift we’ve described in previous discussions as moving “up one level of abstraction.” There’s simply no way they can argue for the value of their practical advice without getting theoretical, without getting “meta.” They don’t call attention to this move, but it’s there all the same. In the first paragraph of their introduction, they describe writing as a particular kind of activity – an activity, like playing the piano, shooting a basketball, or driving a car – that is learned and that can be broken down into a sequence of “moves.” Not all human activities are of this type.

Behind that first paragraph, then, lies the theoretical question “What is academic writing?” – a question to which the answer is no more obvious than the answer to the question, “What is a text?”

Graff and Birkenstein go further: the move-based activity that writing most closely resembles – perhaps is simply a form of – is conversation. To categorize writing this way is to imply answers to some related theoretical questions: What’s the purpose of academic writing? How, exactly, does it work? By what standards can we distinguish effective from ineffective writing?

We can think of Graff and Birkenstein the theorists as looking for a way to represent the activity of writing, as trying to build a model of it. These are useful words in general for thinking about what the activity of theorizing is. (And to choose them is, of course, to theorize about theory. There’s no end to how meta we can get!)

We spent the last part of class looking at the Lindsay Ellis video on film studies that Taylor posted. We saw that Lindsay Ellis’s argument seems to make many of the “moves” Graff and Birkenstein describe – that her argument fits their model of argumentation quite well. We also saw that to make her argument, she, too had to move up one level of abstraction; she, too, had to theorize. Her main theoretical question – What makes a bit of culture (whether a poem or an action movie) worth examining closely? – is one of the most important ones we can ask as practitioners of criticism.

Nanette and theory

Discussing Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette in “Fluid Readers, Fluid Texts” on Thursday, we noted a few points in the monologue where Gadsby shifts naturally and more or less seamlessly from talking about her experience or her performance to theorizing about such matters as identity and comedy. We described this shift as “moving up one level of abstraction.” We also called it moving to a “meta” level or “reflecting” in general terms on human experience or the art of comedy. I suggested that what’s important for us to note about this move, as practitioners and theorists of criticism, is how it simply seems required by Gadsby’s effort to make sense of and articulate both what she’s lived through and what she’s trying to do in her show. She can’t explain why she feels she has to leave comedy without offering a view of what comedy is. She can’t tell her story without explaining what a story is, and how it differs from a joke. At the core of what she wants to tell us about her experience is the difference between humility and humiliation. To spell out that difference is to theorize about experience; to spell out how it relates to her performance is to theorize about comedy.

Throughout this semester, we’ll want to want to be on the lookout for those moments when, in reading texts, we make the same kind of “meta” move. There will be lots of them. When we move up one level of abstraction from a text to some theoretical concept, we’ll find ourselves in a kind of conversation that can be frustrating because thinking abstractly – even about seemingly simple things – just is hard. Simple concepts examined closely often turn out to be much more complicated than we thought. Take the concept of story.

As I mentioned in class, when Gadsby talks about stories having “a beginning, a middle, and an end,” she’s channeling a bit of Aristotle. Her definition does important work in her monologue, but without questioning that work we can note that story is not only one of the oldest but also one of the most scrutinized and contested concepts in literary theory. There is simply no one universally accepted definition or best way to talk about story as a concept. There’s an entire area of literary theory called narratology that’s devoted exclusively to this one elusive idea.

And yet it’s an idea we can’t do without in talking about literature – or, as Gadsby’s monologue demonstrates, in talking about life itself. Some of our readings for Tuesday will reinforce this point.