You impress me much

K-T boundary
The Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (K-Pg, used to be K-T when I was scarred by the study of geology), which marks the mass extinction event that took care of our flightless dinosaur problem. Image credit goes to USGS by way of Wikimedia Commons, which archived the image that can no longer be found at its original source -- another scar?

You Impress Me Much

Archaeological Writing, or Writing in* Our Scars

One of my goals for my narrative theory course on Fantastic Literature (Spring 2013) was for students to gain a better understanding of the structure and work of narrative, not as a monolithic, stable, self-sufficient object, but rather a fractured, dynamic, and interactive form.

I chose the genre of the fantastic because it is characterized by the way it highlights this instability of narrative and the vulnerability of the reader to that instability.

The fantastic, like horror, is marked by affect (highlighting the reader's susceptibility to the text, the impression of the text upon - and in - the reader and so the erosion of the material boundaries of subject and object). But the fantastic is also unlike horror: the pleasure of abjection is frequently a conservative rejection of destabilizing forces in which the feeling horror functions as both a sign of their transgression but also a reinstatement of classificatory boundaries like inside/outside. Horror is, at its heart, comforting if it achieves its ends, if it horrifies its subject. Instead, the disruption embraced by the fantastic, the hesitation that Todorv identifies as its mode, draws into view (rather than pushing away) other possibilities of being.

The best examples of fantastic literature draw out the experience of instability, draw our attention equally to possibilities of resolution and to the act of questioning and the impossibilities of adequate response.

I wanted students to understand how narrative is always coming-into-being in conjunction with the work (and here I mean work - a productive labor) of reading, so I chose unstable artifacts so they can better see and study that work of affectability.

One of the many challenges in designing a course is thinking through the assignments you require in order to track or encourage student learning, hopefully in meeting outcomes you've identified for the course (you can never be fully aware of all possible learning outcomes and I absolutely love it when student projects show me areas or concerns I had not previously considered part of our experience). A lot of times, in literary studies, we default to the essay - more specifically to the thesis-driven written argument, the kind that haunts the popular lament of "kids just can't write these days" (a perpetually "emergent" complaint in op-eds old and new). But as I've said elsewhere, defaulting to the essay assumes the singular validity of such form without subjecting it to the same scrutiny we require students to practice with their scholarly artifacts. As Ian Bogost asks, "Why do you write instead of doing something else?"

Erasing and Erasure: Being In Relation to the Text

The course did require more traditional writing assignments, but one of the projects strayed in a way I found really productive in terms of our goal of interrogating

Tracing a title:

There's a lot to think about in that name, and here are some of the more potent associations that help me think through the work of the project:

DeQuincey Confessions of an English Opium Eater "The inventive powers of man are divine," DeQuincey writes, "And also his stupidity is divine." Here DeQuincey offers us the image of the mind as palimpsest, discharging older material to make way for new, but in consequence maintaining the trace, the imprint, the impression of the other
Pandora Pandora's Box The figure of Pandora encourages us to think about excess, containment, and our fraught relation to the object
Archimedes Palimpsest Discovery and Rediscovery The palimpsest is neither Archimedes' original text nor the text written over it. It is something that is both and neither, created in collaboration of those that read through the text

the work of hesitation and the vulnerability of the reader to the work of narration. I called the assignment "The Pandora Palimpsest," named after our primary text (Pandora in the Congo) and the medium (or is it a method?) we were going to mimic: the palimpsest, a manuscript that has been scrubbed clean of its contents and the material reused for a new composition.

The assignment asked students to identify how the assigned reading established a horizon of expectations for the reader, structuring a certain relation to the reader and how, in the fluctuations characteristic of the fantastic, that relation is produced, destroyed, remade, or resurrected.

They were to do this by composing their weekly assignments in Google Drive, a platform that retains a record of even the smallest changes in a text, preserving across the weeks of reading the memory of those ruptures and revolutions in the narrative and in themselves.

(You can read the prompt for the weekly writing assignment by clicking on the image below.)

At the conclusion of our reading, students produced medium-length classificatory essays that attempted define the narrative structure of the fantastic using only the palimpsest they created as evidence. The goal here was to have them toggle between the openness and changeability of palimpsestual writing and the more rigid framework of a definitional argument. By limiting their evidence set to the text they themselves had produced in the previous weeks, they had to address the interactive quality of the narrative; by sifting through the layers of writing they could attune themselves to the ways in which the text calls upon them as co-conspirators of sorts, enlists them into its program and that feelings of rupture, surprise, dismay, and even frustration were signs of an affective vulnerability cultivated by the text and made possible by their own exposed position. How can we account for this openness in generic studies of narrative? Is there a means of identifying qualities of narrative that is more sensitive to the work of hesitation and uncertainty encouraged by their fantastic texts?

In what remains one of my favorite responses to the assignment (a response the student has generously agreed to let me share), Jennifer Beth wrote:

"I see the experience of the fantastic narrative as a scar. Although outwardly the tissue is sutured up, connected with a visible line where the cut used to be, perhaps fading as time passes, underneath there is evidence of the cut, the event, the trauma of injury that never fades away – the scar tissue remains, just as our palimpsestual space of the fantastic narrative remains (which we uncover through our revision history in Google Drive)."

Beth here identifies a new way to think about time, space, and event, the building blocks of narrative in general, a way that resists the concretizing interpretive devices of syuzhet and fabula or the organizational distinction between analepsis, prolepsis, and metalepsis. What Beth describes here is a more liminal quality of narrative, in which the event endures -- perdures -- in the mark, the trace, the scar it leaves behind. The narrative is always called to address, respond, compensate, or re-mark on that cut and so the division between material and organization, the distinction between narrative times is also infinitely complicated.

The Scar of Visibility by Petra Küppers

In addressing the scar, Vitanza cites Küppers at length, the trace of which I retain here:

"A scar: meeting place between inside and outside, a locus of memory, of bodily change. Like skin, a scar mediates between the outside and the inside, but it also materially produces, changes, and overwrites its site. If skin renews itself constantly, producing hte same in repetition, the scar is the place of the changed script: mountains are thrown up, the copy isn't quite right, crooked lines sneak over smooth surfaces. You can feel your scars itching, or pulsing, or, after a time, you can experience the sensation of touching yourself but feeling the touch as strange -- nerves might not knit into "appropriate" lines. In these moments of strangeness, the core of phenomenological experience comes into the foreground of perception: that you are oriented toward the world, pressing and surging toward it from a place, a body, an origin. When this place becomes unfamiliar, sense, perception, and meaning making become experiential as spatial and temporal phenomena. There is a location to knowledge and sensation, and the scar can make this insight"

In reading Beth's comment, I recalled Victor Vitanza's meditation on the scar, something I heard way back in 2007, when Vitanza delivered a lecture in the Digital Writing and Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin (you can see video of the talk here).In his talk, drawing on the ongoing project Design as Dasein, Vitanza thinks through the thrownness of the subject as the position of living not with our scars, but rather in them. We bear on us, in us, the mark of others, the impression of others -- how might we account for this constitutive wounding, not just as "part of me," but rather as me.

I am trying to situate myself through a series of interruptions, corruptions, eruptions, between over there and here...Ec-static...situated between. -- Victor Vitanza

Vitanza offers us eschara, which he traces etymologically to both the hearth and the burn, the scab and he locates eschara in the experience of the text -- both as reader (through Odysseus's scar) and writer (the lecture in which he asserts and undermines his own definitional work -- "the more words that I use the more I am taken back, projected back, to death itself").

genus Eschara

In thinking about the eschara, I discovered that it is also a genus of bryozoan, a colonial organism thats individual members are not considered fully independent animals. They exist, instead, in elaborate networks, a being-together that I think nicely illustrates this ongoing concern with the vulnerability of the "self." The oldest fossils date back to the Cambrian period, far below the scar line I started with above.

And in this discussion of the scar I do indeed see the work of my students in both attending to the narrative interruption of excursis in their reading but also struggling to produce scholarly work of resolute irresoluteness, an account that bears in it the trace of other accounts, other voices, even their own voices, which they "touch as strange," as Petra Küppers describes it. I see potential in this kind of layered or haunted writing to contribute to a study of positions or texts that resist easy description or analysis, or perhaps to demonstrate the impossibility of easy description or analysis.

In terms of the study of narrative, I think this kind of multi-dimensional writing might help us and our students understand how narrative is more than an inert descriptive tool, but rather constative in its own right, opening up the possibility of understanding narrative as "the address as such, the opening toward the Other."

And, finally, in terms of production I am hopeful about the possibilities of openness and hesitation that such modes might offer to scholarly writing, writing that might find new ways of addressing, as Diane Davis has called it, alterity, of addressing instead of ignoring the surplus or excess that surrounds our critical gestures.