Sometimes I write other things, better things

 Is this a weird thing to do? Yes. Am I going to do it anyway? Yes.

I had this realization the other day that 90 percent of what I write online epitomizes horrible bullshit. Honestly, that is a fairly accurate representation of my brain but that’s something I would rather remain partially hidden, a thinly veiled truth that we all know but just ignore. Considering I am paying for a graduate education, I feel as though the ten percent of un-bullshit things occupying my brain space should make an appearance on here occasionally. Mostly it is some kind of validation that I am not a complete moron.

Only ninety-percent of one.

I’ll take what I can get.

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Anyway, this blog was created as part creative outlet and part portfolio for future writing opportunities. I personally would not hire the somewhat articulate author of the things I write about on a regular basis without some proof of actual literacy. So for the sake of saving face, maybe being employed some day, and succumbing to the pressure of the general opinion that we all pretend to not care about but obviously do moreso than really anything else…I shall post links to some papers I have been working on.

LET ME JUST STATE FOR THE RECORD

These are not papers that I received the best marks for, not masterpieces of any sort, and definitely not even close to what I would HOPE is my best work but it is some of the scholarly work I have been doing the last few months and  it’s all I have at the moment. Well, I mean there is more but I will spare you.

Cool. That’s all.

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Ontological Reconfiguration of Subject and Object Unity in Literalist Art; The Experience of Pure Aestheticism

The objective of the literalist art movement is to redirect aesthetic attention, rejecting the necessity for referentiality as primary function of an artistic work and instead placing value in the external and immediate. This movement toward pure aesthetics cultivates a way of approaching an artistic work that prioritizes literal presence over interpretational possibilities of meaning within the art object itself. The work of art is exhibited as literally what it appears to be: an object in the world. Literalist, or minimalist art establishes an ontological structure in which the artwork exists as an object for a subject to encounter. The distance between subject and object is necessary to the project of minimalism, as the aesthetic experience of an artwork by a viewing subject mimics the holistic unity captured by literalist art. The interaction between the object and subject in the immediate present becomes the source of meaning, instead of the art-object. The subject and object are reinforced as such by the other in the aesthetic situation. The emphasis shifts from the meaning generated by the piece of art to the subjective, immediate encounter a subject experiences. Michael Fried argues in his essay “Art and Objecthood” that the theatricality of the literalist pure aesthetic experience is antithetical to the project of authentic artistic endeavors. Similarly, Steven Connor in “Doing Without Art” questions the notion of art, literal or otherwise, due to its attribution of meaning to arbitrary material. Charles Altieri attempts to reconcile these claims in “Where Can Aesthetics Go?” by positing the project of aesthetics as contingent upon direction of a viewer’s attention. Literalist art is involved in redirecting the aesthetic gaze from the art object’s meaning, to the meaning generated by pure experience of the object. The literalist prioritization of experience over meaning does not disallow the idea of meaning in general when understanding of the artistic expression is refocused. Self-expression and interpretation of potential meaning in a given artwork is no longer the locus of artistic intent, but is replaced with a responsibility to initiate an experience of unity between subject and object in the aesthetic situation. The lack of meaning in pure experience cultivates a way of seeing and approaching the world that brings attention to the coexistence between subject and objects in the phenomenal world. Minimalist artistic expression challenges the notion of meaning being primary means of artistic valuation, and marks a return to pure aesthetics that serves to distance viewing subject and art object as equal and unified entities.

The conceptualization of the artwork as literal object demarcates minimalist art from more traditional notions in that the object’s materiality is the primary attribute and means of valuation, instead of ability to convey meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines aesthetics as, “A set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty.” Attention to the artwork’s physicality is the primary goal of literalist art’s pure aestheticism. Explicit decontextualization of the familiar is technique often employed by the literalist artists. Alteriti characterizes defamiliarization as a shift in perception to see familiar things in a new light, “One might learn to see [Vermeer’s] Delft so as not to take its existence for granted, but to elaborate the relations among detail, tonal patterns, and formal cohesion, all graspable as coherent within a certain kind of seeing,” (84 Altieri). The simplicity of literalist work shifts perceptional attitude, which he views as primary to aesthetics and not the properties of objects themselves. Minimalism redirects the viewer’s perspective of the artwork’s physical appearance by eliminating expressive content in effort to recalibrate aesthetic attention, “We can take the aesthetic attitude as allowing the work to elaborate various ways of engaging things and valuing situations, especially in a work where everyday life is already encrusted by habit or suffused by rhetorical practices that limit what we can see,” (84 Altieri). The art object is not posited as a self-expressive manifestation of the artist, nor as a latently meaningful signifier for interpretation. The appreciation and value of the object results from an attunement to the materiality of the work. It necessitates the cultivation of a particular disposition, an abandonment of the traditional attempt to integrate the object into a subjective sphere of meaning, “Even the claim to make things special is at core a claim about modifying perception, not about altering things in themselves,” (Altieri 84). The simplicity of minimalist works leaves no possibility for interpretation within the artwork alone. Traditionally, the ability to metaphorically convey meaning has been seen as the source of aesthetic value. In literalist art, the aesthetic experience itself is the meaning, and so the artistic expression is attempting to refocus the viewer to the physical beauty of the objects that are often overlooked. Literalist art attempts to establish the artworks as “presences”; simple objects to be experienced as objects, taken literally as they are, physically existing in the world by a viewing subject. The distinction between objective object and subjective subject is of critical importance.

Minimalism presents an ontological structure that differentiates subject and object. It is important to denote that though there is distance between art object and the viewing subject, they are bound within the larger situational context as equal partners in the artistic encounter. Experience is always necessarily experience of something, by someone. Fried states, “For something to be perceived at all is for it to be perceived within of a particular situation,” (Fried 4). By situation, Fried is referring to the circumstances in which object and subject-hood, and the relation between the two is established. The beholder situates and subsequently understands himself as subject insofar as he stands in, “Indeterminate, open-ended—and unexacting—relation as a subject to the impassive object on the wall or floor,” (Fried 4). Literalist work sets up this ontological self-understanding by presenting artwork as an object to be encountered. This object is simplistic and lacking in fictive content so that the viewer’s status as subject is overtly apparent, “It is precisely this distancing that makes the beholder a subject and the piece in question…an object,” (Fried 6). Fried considers the “theatricality” of this interaction to be a negative aspect of literalist art, but arguably can be seen as the function of the work in establishing the roles of art and viewer.

Minimalism strives for experience of an object over interpretation of the object’s latent meaning, but this is not to say there is no derived meaning from the aesthetic experience only that the artwork is not inherently meaningful. The unity of minimalist work mimics the unity of subject and object in the situation of engagement between the two. The meaning of the work shifts from being contained in the art object to being a result of pure aesthetic experience between the art and viewer. The phenomenological world is composed of both objects and subjects that simultaneously exist in the same temporal and spacial areas. An artist’s self-expression in the art object is not the source of meaning, nor is the interpretation of the viewing subject but the experience is primary to understanding.

The aesthetic experience of art as pure object reinforces the viewer’s sense of subjectivity relational to the object. It does not seem coincidental that the gestalt of literalist art emphasizes the notion of parts bound together in unity in an analogous way to a viewing subject’s aesthetic experience of an object. This extended metaphorical representation of unity mimics the interconnectedness of subject and object and the necessity of both to the other. Literalist artwork promotes the idea that presence precedes experience, and experience precedes meaning. For an object to be perceived, there must be a subject to perceive it. Similarly, for a subject to perceive, there myst be an object of perception. This binary division between subject and object is problematic and oppositional to traditional notions of art.

Removal of the art object’s capacity to convey meaning changes the nature of artistic intent, which could be considered a drawback to the approach. Art is generally conceived as something that portrays a greater good, acting as explanation of the unexplainable. Connor states that art represents a possibility of an impossible thing that is good in itself, a “Great Good Thing” that we want to believe in. He maintains a “policy of zero tolerance for talk of the aesthetic,” because of the conflictual dichotomy between the emptiness of aesthetic objects and the meaning forcefully attributed to it (Connor 54). While it fails to attempt to act as a “Great Good Thing”, literalist art would seem to escape this critique because of the emphasis on showing things as they are, “Art creates specialness, in the form of an exception from or suspension of normal meaning…Something is art when we remove it from its normal contexts of understanding, or subtract from it its normal ways of being understood,” (Connor 64). Minimalism’s focus on accurate portrayal of objects as-is corresponds to his criteria for a notion of authentic art, but somehow seems to still have the same objective as other artistic endeavors. Interacting with an artwork in a purely aesthetic manner requires a specific attention to the object that Connor would deem unnatural. He argues projection of meaning results from the suspension of normal attention, and replacing it with an aesthetic one, “Art is work that aims or demands to be treated as ‘art,’ that is to say, as no longer just what it is,” (Connor 65). Literalist art does attempt to defamiliarize objects enough to prompt a specifically aesthetic reaction from a viewer, and on this note Connor is correct. Alteri points out that this is not an inherently negative experience as a limitation of perceptual scope because it allows for creation of perceptual experience. The aesthetic experience of an art object is arguably not positive nor negative, but neutral. The experience precedes meaning, and the presence of the object allows for an experience to occur. In minimalism, a work of art should not refer to anything other than itself, a subject should not derive subjective meaning from the artwork but instead each should fulfill their individual functions. The interaction between viewer and artwork in the literalist aesthetic attitude analogously relates to the unity of minimal art works in form. The unity in minimalist art reflects the completeness of the phenomenal world, and the essential but differing roles of subjects and objects. This is accomplished by the prioritization of phenomenological experience in both the works of art and the encounter between art and viewer; experience is primary to meaning.

 

Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; Dismantling Realism’s Perpetuation of Social Paradigms Through Intersectionality

Literary realism is concerned with accurate depiction of reality, and involved in capturing a genuine representation of human experience. Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre is one such realist novel, and yet fails to depict the intricacies inherent in the reality it attempts to encapsulate. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea functions as a corollary to Bronte’s work, and by application of intersectionalilty achieves a more complete picture through the fragmentation of realism’s presumed totality. Jane Eyre’s storyline uncritically accepts and perpetuates the socially constructed gender and class norms Wide Sargasso Sea explicitly challenges. Rhys presents an alternate conception of the classic story and through the character Antoinette exposes the artificiality of social categories, and the danger in subscribing to them. An intersectional literary approach, or one that examines how exactly, diverse aspects of identity converge to create the social positions, perceptions, limitations, and opportunities of individuals and groups,” questions the supposed totality of both reality and literary depictions of it (Lanser 3.4 15). Both Bronte’s Jane and Rhys’ Antoinette fall into the gender category of “woman” but have markedly distinct life experiences; their gender similarity fails to account for their individual conceptions of reality and their place within it. Antoinette’s rejection from the predominantly existing social categories prohibits her from forming a stable identity, precipitating her eventual descent into madness. Intersectionality challenges the possibility for totality in realism and through Antoinette is expanded to additionally challenge the possibility for a totality of identity.

Reality portrayed by realist novels is mediated by social constructs and the categorizations responsible for informing collective and individual identity. The aforementioned categories are arbitrarily formed, and fail from the outset in comprehensively explaining an individual’s personhood. The inability to account for an individual identity purely based on adherence to social classification derives from the occupation of multiple categories simultaneously and the ease of mobility between classifications at a given time. Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea ruptures Jane Eyre‘s holistic realism with its attention to the social construct of “woman” that Jane operates within. In Bronte’s novel, Jane’s womanliness is juxtaposed by the animalistic tendencies of the elusive Bertha. Rhys’ explication of Bertha, Antoinette’s, perspective functions as the introduction of intersectionality to the text. The women are co-habitants of the same gender, but have vastly different life experiences that contribute to the development of their separate identities; merely being a woman cannot adequately account for life experience or self-understanding. While Susan Lanser’s feminist narratology voiced the need for alternate points of view in narratological analysis, it operates within the assumption of “women” as a universal group. The limitations of gender as comprehensively explanatory means of categorization are shown by Jane and Bertha, as they operate within very different ideologies despite sharing a gender classification. Commitment to binary thinking is inadequate for understanding the complexity of identity, and how self-conception arises and informs reality. Mieke Bal discusses in Introduction to the Theory of Narrative how authorial choices manipulates the reader’s comprehension of the fabula, or basic storyline, of a literary work with the, “prime means of manipulation is point of view… from which elements of the fabula are being presented is often of decisive importance for the meaning the reader will assign to the fabula,” (Bal 77). Rhys precisely adopts this method of manipulation by giving Antoinette a point of view, and then contrasting her perspective with her husband’s, her caretaker’s, and most importantly her later-self’s to draw attention to Antoinette’s deterioration of self and the complex causes that lead to it.

Jane Eyre fails in its attempt to be a realist novel precisely because it adheres to the oversimplification of reducing oneself to a member of a social category, and aligning subsequent self-conception accordingly. Intersectionality analyzes how adherence to arbitrarily constructed social categories impacts the development of identity, and applies this critical perspective to understanding the role such categories play in the continued disenfranchisement of those operating within this system of oppression. RhysAntoinette embodies the predominant inequalities dictated by class, gender, and race as a creole woman at the mercy of wealthy patriarchal figures and not quite fitting into society in either the Caribbean or England based on her mixed-ethnicity. Her thought and actions are mediated by her inability to autonomously create a fixed identity outside of the limitations dictated to her by ideological, cultural, and economic status. These social classifications have no inherent basis in reality, but are instead fabricated by language and perpetuated through literature. Jane Eyre is an example of a novel that accepts and works within an oppressive system unquestioningly, implicitly reinforcing the dominant ideologies generally subscribed to. Wide Sargasso Sea challenges systematic disenfranchisement based on artificially constructed and reinforced identities by presenting two women who are the same gender but are very different based on a variety of other factors. The multiplicity of factors involved in identification can only be adequately understood from an intersectional approach.

Rhys explicates the fluidity of personal identity when contingent upon volatile cultural categorization. The malleable nature of identity is evidenced by Antoinette’s name change, “Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name,” (Rhys 88). Antoinette’s self-conception is at the mercy of those around her, “Rochester” remains nameless but retains the power to determine her name. Her inability to fully ascribe to a social category would renders her identity dependent on others for determination. Antoinette’s birth places her in an ambiguous space between black and white, rich and poor, “white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all,” (Rhys 61). Confusion results from her exclusion from any specific racial classification. Another point of contention between Antoinette’s personality and the enforced adherence to social expectations occurs within her marriage and her identity as wife. “Rochester” is only happy when Antoinette is compliant with the culturally expected gender responsibilities she was effectively indoctrinated to uphold in the convent. He agreed upon the marriage while the convent’s teachings were still primary in Antoinette’s mind. “Rochester’s” affection for her fluctuates with her compliance to female gender norms; her ability and willingness to embody the expected female role determines his love and tolerance for her. The inability to use a social classification to inform her sense of self results in an isolation from self, “There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now…The girl I saw was myself not quite myself…What am I doing in this place and who am I?,” (Rhys 107). Eventually this lack of self-identification leads to then-Bertha’s madness, she cannot even recognize herself in the mirror and leads two seemingly incongruent lives on different levels of consciousness.

Bertha cannot escape the cyclical system of oppression she is a victim of, an impossible situation reminiscent of the Sargasso Sea’s stagnancy after which Rhys aptly titles her work. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss in Madwoman in the Attic how Bertha’s perceived madness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When one’s mental health is treated as a primary identification quality, it is only natural for a self-perception in that vein to follow, and Antoinette’s actions only serve the purpose of solidifying a preconceived definition of her personhood. Only an intersectional approach to literary analysis and composition can adequately encapsulate the multifaceted, and manufactured nature of identity and reality, “There is always the other side, always” (Rhys 106). Realism’s supposed totality operates as a simplistic, rather then a faithful portrayal of reality. Neither reality, or the identities that compose and occupy it can be reduced and understood in terms of stasis.

Works Cited

Bal, Mieke. Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, chapter 2 “Story:Aspects”.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. From The Madwoman in the Attic. (Norton 921-951)

Lanser, Susan S. “Gender and Narrative” in The Liviing Handbook of Narratology. Online Resource: http://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/article/gender-and-narrative

Rhys, Jean, and Charlotte Brontë. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.

 

 

A Postcolonial Reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; Addressing Limitations of Commitment to Constructed Binary Demarcations

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart functions as a distinctly postcolonial novel in several ways including its topical relevance to colonization, the challenging of Western epistemic norms, and by providing an alternate perspective to a particular historical period. Most notably, Achebe’s novel depicts the consequences of rejecting immanent inclusion and cultural hybridity resulting from decolonization, and whose after effects are the primary concern of postcolonialism. Postcolonialism as a field of inquiry has been criticized for its theoretical ambiguity, but this ambiguity can be understood as fitting for a discipline whose inclusiveness reflects the complexity of its project. For the purposes of this paper, use of “postcolonial” will be understood as Stuart Hall’s definition of the term, “not merely descriptive of ‘this’ society rather than ‘that’ or of ‘then’ rather than ‘now’,” but instead as a process of re-reading, “colonisation as part of an essentially transnational and transcultural ‘global’ process [that] produces a decentered, diasporic, or ‘global’ rewriting of earlier, nation-centered imperial grand narratives,” (Hall 247). Recognition, depiction, and analytical explication of transculturation processes resulting from decolonization is the primary activity for postcolonial narratives. Achebe’s treatment of the strict adherence to ideological binary division is depicted by Okonkwo’s fate in Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s writing of the novel in English is itself a product of England’s prior colonization of Nigeria. Colonization, while not morally justifiable, is a historical factual occurrence that all effected parties must adjust to. Okonkwo’s unwavering commitment to embodying Igbo traditional masculine ideals eventually leads to his demise and ostracized position from both the perceived others and his own community. Similarly, refusal to assimilate culturally in the postcolonial environment by attempting to maintain the dichotomy between “us” and “them” is an impossible task as the fluidity of historical development and cultural identification is evidenced by the transculturation, or the ‘double-inscription’ that occurs when two cultures interact in any capacity.

The depiction of the divide between masculinity and femininity in Umuofian culture mimics the binary division typical of colonization discussed by Hall between “other” and “self”, “they” and “we”, “colonized” and “colonizers”. Okonkwo’s commitment to violent masculinity is analogous for inevitable failure accompanying staunch enforcement of binary divisions in a postcolonial society. His obsession with maintaining certain traditional ideals is then expanded to his interaction with the colonizers, and his refusal to participate in new systems eventually compels him to commit suicide. Achebe, through Okonkwo, illustrates how such explicit dichotomies are inadequate attempts to account for the complexity of both decolonization and social relations in general. Okonkwo shuns anything remotely feminine, beats his wife during the sacred ‘Peace Week’ dedicated to the female goddess Ani, and goes so far as to actively partake in the slaughter of his adopted son Ikemefuna because his simplistic conception of the male role is equated with violence. While Igbo culture did have such an equation, there was no need to so strictly correspond every action in life to fulfilling it to be considered adequately masculine. Okonkwo’s perspective is not representative of the collective conduct, as Achebe carefully outlines the feminine importance and role in the community and other men’s reaction to Okonkwo’s overt displays of manliness. The turning point in the novel for Okonkwo is when he assists in sacrificing Ikemefuna as it is implied that Okonkwo’s accidental shooting of Ezeudu’s son directly results from his participation in Ikemefuna’s death. His “chi” is compromised by his violent actions, actions that Okonkwo forced upon himself in effort to establish his sense of masculine power. Ogbuefi explicitly instructs Okonkwo to take no part in the sacrifice of Ikemefuna, “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death,” (Achebe 632). It is not expected of Okonkwo to particpate at all and it is not considered by the other men as a reflection of his masculine identity but when the time came, “Okonkwo drew his machete and cut [Ikemefuna] down. He was afraid of being thought weak,” (Achebe 673). The series of events leading to Okokwo’s suicide derive from this irrational need for masculine expression superseding even societal expectation; the division between masculine and feminine breaks down in the other men’s compassion for a man who could be excepted from the rule of violence.

The feminine counterpart of Umuofian society is made abundantly clear by Achebe. The narrative voice creates a space between Okonkwo’s interpretation of his own culture, and the essential role women play in the community. There are numerous female figureheads that are respected and fulfill critical responsibilities in society. People travelled from far and wide to consult the female Oracle, Agbala, and they pay homage to the goddess of the earth, Ani, prior to planting their most important crop, yams. The first and longest section of the novel explicates the female role in society through description of the women’s storytelling relational to the importance of the oral tradition, which is reflected in the storytelling of the section itself. The prolific, detailed language of the first section is told in the style reminiscent of the stories told by the women in the community. Okonkwo is critical of his son Nwoye’s interest in these stories because he views it as a failure to adhere to Igbo’s code of masculinity, while his affection for his daughter Ezinma is mediated by the fact that she is not a boy as he expresses his wish for her to be. The binary code of gender expectation that Okonmkwo adheres to so adamantly is inaccurate of the culture as a whole, and such thinking acts as the primary cause of his death. Achebe uses Okonkwo to illustrate the detrimental effects of absolute binary thinking to differentiate any two facets of society; seemingly oppositional facets are interconnected and have a profound upon influence one another.

Okonkwo’s binary conception of the masculine and feminine, as well as the colonized and colonizing represents a refusal to partake in cultural blending in a decolonized situation. Colonization is by no means justified within this structure, but as a historical occurrence it becomes a matter of identity recuperation by the previously marginalized people using, “rhetoric of cultural self-determination,” (Boehmer 100). Literary postcolonialism is the analytical exposition of the postcolonial phenomenon of this new poly-culturism, and how to proceed within the newly created, complex atmosphere. Boehmer describes this phenomenon as situating people, “between diametrically different cultural worlds… able to borrow from several traditions, yet belong[ing] to no one,” (Boehmer 111). A decentralization occurs between the involved cultures, a double-inscription in which both are fundamentally altered through interaction with the other. Boehmer discusses this in terms of the literary tradition, “literary conventions and discourses inherited from the colonizer were appropriated, translated, decentered, and hybridized in ways which we now name postcolonial,” (Boehmer 96). This is evidenced by Achebe’s composition of Things Fall Apart as he represents this hybridized individual resulting from the colonization and decolonization of Nigeria; he is a product of both cultures, making his novels not only topically postcolonial by intricately showcasing the Nigerian perspective of the colonial period but also structurally by him undertaking the novel at all. The double-inscription between cultures embodied by Achebe is directly translated to the novel, as the Igbo people become simultaneously “they” and “we” causing the seemingly strict divide between “other” and “self” to break down for the reader of the text as well.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua, and Abiola Irele. Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Stuart. “When Was the Post-Colonial? Thinking at the Limit” in Iain Chambers and Lidia curti (ed.), The Post-Colonial Question (1996) –e-book.

Quayson, Ato et al. “Editorial: New Topographies” in The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 1.1 (2014): (1-10)

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