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    Sobriquet 46.26

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008
    If there were any doubts that an advanced degree in the liberal arts appeals to employers, I suggest you read the following announcement sent to the English graduate student listserv at my university this afternoon under the title "Job Opening":
    JOB POSTING: [Company name removed for privacy] has an immediate opening for a full-time receptionist/administrative assistant. The successful applicant need not have knowledge of the window tinting industry, but must be willing and able to learn the company's trade. This position requires a personable and responsible employee with a professional attitude and outstanding phone etiquette. An understanding of scheduling, invoicing, and accounts payable is required for this busy, rewarding position.
    When headhunters looking for "a full-time receptionist/administrative assistant" begin targeting people with MAs and PhDs, one cannot help but reflect upon his or her decision to attend graduate school. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a receptionist position in the window tinting industry, but from a certain jaded perspective, one has to wonder what this says about the relative value of a decade of post-secondary education in an economy like ours . . . I mean, theoretically one need not attend college to qualify him- or herself for a career in the service industry or in retail, yet many people I know with fancy-sounding degrees end up working in fields they need not have spent so much time and money in school to enter. Obviously, the psychological, intellectual, and spiritual value of an education should be enough of an incentive for an individual to attend post-secondary schools, but the reality of the situation is that the vast majority of people in the United States who attend college and graduate school with the explicit goal of obtaining a particular type of job and lifestyle theoretically only possible with an expensive and time-consuming education. And, sadly, it seems, many of these dreams will go unfulfilled despite the best efforts to succeed. This, too, is another throbbing anxiety in the mind of many a graduate student: will all this work pay off and position me for a satisfying career in academia? The answer in all its painfully unsettling glory: maybe.

    And speaking of emails, I received this message yesterday:
    A request you have placed:

    Cape Argus
    10 August 1999
    Title: Coetzee thinks publicly about new SA
    Author: Michael Morris

    TN: 339109

    has been cancelled by the interlibrary loan staff for the following reason:

    We have exhausted all possible sources.

    There is no library who can supply this item.
    I have a hard time believing that no library has a copy of the Cape Argus from less than a decade ago, so if there's anyone who might have a copy of this brief newspaper article, I would be elated if you could contact me.

    As far as reading goes, I finished two articles since yesterday evening, both of which deal heavily with poststructural theory. Of the two, the essay I read this afternoon -- Zoe Wicomb's "Translations in the Yard of Africa" -- struck me as most relevant to my dissertation. In her discussion of the correlations between the act of cultural transformation and literal and figurative translation, Wicomb cuts to the heart of one of the central issues in postcolonial studies: the palimpsestic nature of cultural production. Indeed, the traces of apartheid-era society is never fully erased and, in Coetzee's book, they often foil attempts at translating experience. This, in Wicomb's estimation, can be shown to reveal "the failure of transition as a crossing over to democracy" (Wicomb). The essay I read last night, Lucy Graham's "'Yes, I am Giving Him Up': Sacrificial Responsibility and Likeness With Dogs in JM Coetzee's Recent Fiction," like so many others, deals with the connections between The Lives of Animals and Disgrace. Although Graham is one of the Coetzee scholars I most enjoy, I wasn't as impressed by this essay as I normally am. This is not to say that her essay is not very good -- it is -- but I feel that the weight of the theory she brings into the article detracts from her astute reading of the novel. Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, among others, each make an appearance in this brief (eleven pages!) essay. Although many academics are quite familiar with what amounts to a who's who of postmodern thought, Graham's tightly-packed essay demands a certain readerly vigilance not to get lost in the waves of complexly-wrought theoretical language running throughout the text. That said, Graham reads against the Mike Marais's Levinasian interpretation of Disgrace, arguing that Coetzee's texts "challenge the limitations of autrui and dissociation implicit in notions of transcendence," providing a slightly different (yet valuable) interpretation of the oft-cited "sympathetic imagination" at work in both Disgrace and The Lives of Animals / Elizabeth Costello (4). While I do not wholly agree with Graham's reading, I applaud her focus on the body as a site of suffering as well as the negative presence of silenced suffering in the two texts.

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Works Cited

    Graham, Lucy. "'Yes, I am Giving Him Up': Sacrificial Responsibility and Likeness With Dogs in JM Coetzee's Recent Fiction." scrutiny2 7.1 (2002): 4-15.

    Wicomb, Zoe. "Translations in the Yard of Africa." Journal of Literary Studies 18.3-4 (2000): 209-33.

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    Monday, June 9, 2008
    I'm still really irritated with myself, largely because I am working at a snail's pace. There are really two main reasons for this:

    Uno: I have been sleeping in so late that, by the time I finally get started, it feels as if I have already been procrastinating all day. Somehow, this tendency translates into a sense of having already struggled to get through whatever it is I am about to begin. Needless to say, this isn't a good feeling to have when setting out do something.

    Dos: Having spent so much time reading fiction -- which is much easier for me to get through than the critical writing I am reading now -- I have grown accustomed to reading more in a shorter time span than is possible when reading the dense scholastic prose I have been working with the past few days.

    At any rate, I read Kimberly Wedeven Segall's "Pursuing Ghosts: The Traumatic Sublime in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace" yesterday and I just finished Gareth Cornwell's "Realism, Rape, and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace" a few moments ago. I'd actually read Segall's essay before, but re-read it to refresh my memory as I shift my focus from The Master of Petersburg to Disgrace. Although I generally dislike psychoanalytic criticism, I find that the rationale behind Segall's essay is not unreasonable. While the essay did occasionally strike me as a bit too Freudian and there are a few blatant misreadings sprinkled throughout the article (Segall identifies David Lurie as the narrator and claims that Melanie Isaacs attempts suicide), the bulk of the paper deals with the the ways in which David Lurie sublimates the traumatic experiences of his time in Grahamstown, creating "ghostly" presences with which he may interact (via dreams) and address the anxiety he feels.

    Segall distinguishes the "traumatic sublime" from the classical sublime of Longius (in which art can bring about ekstasis), Edmund Burke's Gothic sublime (in which great art sparks such a strong sense of terror in one's mind that an awareness of self is utterly impossible), and the Romantic sublime of William Wordsworth (where art so enraptures an individual that one's sense of self expands):
    In what I am calling the traumatic sublime, in contrast [to the earlier conceptions of literary sublimity], experiences of violence are changed into images of oppressed subjects and ghosts. These images of ghostly figures serve as troubling memory sites. Because these disturbing memories are not easily ignored nor assimilated into a narrative of identity, these mnemonic images resist a complete erasure of the past, especially in a postcolonial setting where there is a historical legacy of violation. With their uneasy sublimation of the past, these identity-fracturing traumatic images pose a potential crisis for the protagonist. These ghostly images represent the friction between traumatic images and identity. The traumatic sublime, as a troubling sensation that occurs when a painful event of the past is changed into a disturbing image, shifts the gaze from the self to an-other. Unlike the gothic loss of self or the romantic expansion of self, the traumatic sublime alters the focus from the protagonist to another character...As in the uncanny, the traumatic sublime uses symbols and disturbing images to reformulate a character's past... (42)
    Essentially, unresolved traumas (those the individual cannot confront directly) manifest themselves as new ghostly images that produce similar anxieties as the original traumatic experiences, but projected outward. In other words, when the individual cannot directly confront a trauma he or she has experienced, the traumatic sublime allows him or her to envision the pain in another, detached form and address it from a "safe" distance. In Disgrace, Segall argues, "[t]he sublimated ghostly bodies all lead to the central signified of Lucy's raped body," preventing Lurie from blocking the memory of her rape and forcing him to confront it. In doing so, the traumatic sublime brings violation and subjugation to the front of Lurie's consciousness, highlighting those instance in which he himself has played a part. Haunted by these ghosts, Lurie begins the moral transformation so many critics view as central to the novel.

    Gareth Cornwell, I have to admit, amuses me to no end. Eschewing the "logical and historical emptiness" of "post-Saussurean, Derridean" readings of Disgrace, Cornwell opts to make "a couple of common-sense observations" (311). He also criticizes "the metaphysical dread to which Derridean differance can lead if we are prepared to take its anti-realism too seriously":
    [M]eaning endlessly deferred as words drop their eyes and shake their heads in embarassment, gesturing towards their equally feckless fellows, abdicating their own authority to signify, and performing an empty act of delegation. (311)
    Seriously, that has to be one of the absolute greatest assessments of Derridean excess ever published in a major literary journal.

    That said, Cornwell makes many solid observations about Disgrace. His essay deals primarily with the text's use of the realist mode to present David and Lucy Lurie's stories. Ultimately, Cornwell concludes that Coetzee fashions a plot out of the seemingly contradictory antirealist allegorical and the realist mimetic modes of representation, thereby reflecting "Coetzee's abiding ambivalence towards realism and his suspicion of the reflexivity of antirealism or 'antiillusionism' as the alternative."

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Works Cited

    Cornwell, Gareth. "Realism, Rape, and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Critique 43.4 (2002): 307-322.

    Segall, Kimberly Wedeven. "Pursuing Ghosts: The Traumatic Sublime in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Research in African Literatures 36.4 (2005): 40-54.

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    Sunday, February 10, 2008
    Amazingly, I managed to finish today's rather hefty load of grading by early evening and finished a fascinating--seriously--essay on sexuality among older individuals (it mentions several of Coetzee's texts), all before ten pm.

    Of the three essays I've read this weekend, Thomas Walz's "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons" is, by far, the best. It says quite a bit about the state of contemporary literary criticism that the most interesting, most readable journal article I have read since I began working my way through the critical writing for my dissertation in December was written not by a literary scholar but by a gerontologist from the University of Iowa's School of Social Work. Although Walz's essay only marginally addresses Coetzee's novels, I found myself happily reading through the entire article, taking notes and reflecting upon the many acute observations the author makes regarding sex and sexuality among the aging.

    On Friday, before a night of bowling with my friends, I somehow found the energy to resist napping all afternoon and read one of the essays I was dreading the most. Now, I should emphasize that it was the subject matter (Derrida's philosophy) and not the author of the essay (Derek Attridge) that had contributed to the dread. In fact, had the essay been written by anyone other than Attridge, with whom my correspondence has been extremely cordial and whose previous articles on Coetzee have struck me as extremely solid examples of criticism, there is an exceedingly good chance that I would have skipped over the essay entirely.

    Jacques Derrida, for the uninitiated, is one of the biggest names in the pantheon of poststructuralist theorists whose collective impact on literary (and other cultural) studies effectively redefined the field between the sixties and nineties. Known as much for his radically new, post-Nietzschean, post-Heiddegerian deconstruction as for the abstruse language with which he delivered his ideas, Derrida gained legions of followers and detractors. While I can acknowledge the presence of interesting ideas and clever wordplay in Derrida's writing, I count myself among the large number of Derrida's detractors. I find his writing needlessly abstract, the bulk of his ideas mundane, and the misappropriation of his work irreversibly damaging to my field of study. Like that of Gayatri Spivak, Derrida's writing defeats itself by effectively rendering the ideas it expresses almost impossible to decipher for the vast majority of hominids. Over time, as I read through literary scholars eager to cite Writing and Difference or Margins of Philosophy, I developed an aversion to any and all criticism drawing upon Derrida's theory. So, when "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing" appeared among my search results, I shuddered.

    Fortunately, Attridge is one of the few scholars out there capable of taking Derrida's philosophy, distilling it into more coherent language, and applying it to literature in a way that illuminates the fiction. I find Attridge's application of Derrida's concept of arrivant (from Aporias) to Coetzee's novel actually provides a good deal of insight into the dark sense of waiting pervading The Master of Petersburg. Furthermore, unlike some of the poststructuralist literary critics one encounters every so often, Attridge writes in clear, precise language, a trait of his for which I am particularly grateful.

    I also read over Sue Kossew's "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993), which, while not wholly original in scope, does provide a reasonable reading of Coetzee's novel, focusing on the creative process and the role of writing in an author's life.

    For tomorrow: Transcription.

    Works Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing." Applying--to Derrida, eds. John Brannigan, Ruth Robbins, and Julian Wolfreyes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. 21-40.

    Kossew, Sue. "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993)." English in Africa 23.1 (1996): 67-88.

    Walz, Thomas. "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons." Journal of Aging and Identity 7.2 (2002): 99-112.

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