Exam Strategy

March 20, 2017

I tried to list them in the order of the safest first because we discussed most of them in class, moving down to the ones I like more, but still need some work. The ones with asterisks are the ones that I haven’t found specific sources for yet, but I’ll keep looking.


-“The Dream of the Rood” and Dreaming in the Middle Ages.

– “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and/or “Bartleby the Scrivener” with Shen’s, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Aesthetic Theory, the Insanity Debate, and the Ethically Oriented Dynamics of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’”

** Herbert’s “The Collar”. I need a historical source to focus on the political climate he wrote in (The Poetry Foundation biography is good). I’d probably compare the content that Herbert was able to publish openly in comparison to another metaphysical poet, so I’d need another source.

** The Importance of Being Earnest with a historical source that gives context to the literary movements or trends at the time. The article “Profiles and Principles: The Sense of the Absurd in The Importance of Being Earnest” touches on it a little with the focus on aestheticism. I’d like to also talk about Aestheticism’s relationship to the Decadence movement, since Algernon (name of the protagonist) is also the name a famous Decadence writer. I think this context, and Wilde’s dislike of this particular writer helps better explain the satire of the play and the point made in Spininger’s article (that the plays triviality is meant to show the importance of meaning despite the absurd).

** “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “A Modest Proposal,” either together or separately, depending on what historical sources I can find. I want to compare the economic climate of each and how each author is critiquing it (the growing loneliness of the worker in 19th century America, and the idea that people are the riches of the nation in 18th century Ireland).



** Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Buried Giant, with “Introduction: Theories and Debates” & Alan Lane, “The End of Roman Britain and the Coming of the Saxons: An Archaeological Context for Arthur?” to compare the Arthurian tradition to another genre (possibly Westerns like Chani suggested).

** “Bartleby” and “A Modest Proposal”, again comparing the economic critique, but this time focusing on how one uses the form of a short story and the other uses satire.

– The Dickinson poems “Funeral in The Brain” and “The Brain is Wider Than the Sky” as following the tradition of conceits in metaphysical poetry. I could add another poem by a metaphysical poet possibly, if the question needed it. These two poems specifically relate well to Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden”.



– Bhabha and “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian”

– “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Bak’s, “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucouldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” but I’m not sure what I would say beyond repeating the article’s claims.

– Use Foucault’s “Panopticism” directly with “The Tell-Tale Heart” and talking about the narrator’s obsession with the old man’s eye and his own power to terrify the man with his invisible presence in the dark.

– The God of Small Things with any one of the sources I found during the seminar paper. The best ones for a short essay are probably Foucault’s “Panopticon”, Chu’s theory on sci-fi, or a small section from Robert Nixon’s Slow Violence: Environmentalism of the Poor.


The Flexible (these could be in more than one category, but I’m not sure):

The Buried Giant with Chu’s theory of sci-fi to look at the role of memory in the book. It could obviously fit theory because I’m using Chu’s theory, but also it could fit genre if I make a case for how the genre could be considered sci-fi, or using sci-fi elements. I’d probably also use the interview with Ishiguro.


**The Importance of Being Earnest and the article “Profiles and Principles: The Sense of the Absurd in The Importance of Being Earnest”. By focusing on the absurd, I want to link this to Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall”. The article talks about trying to create meaning with the frivolousness of the play. I think It’s relatable to Woolf’s existentialist questions in her stream-of-consciousness, and how the abrupt ending could be interpreted as negating the importance of her own questions, unless you take the approach that Spininger does in the article. I’m not sure what category this would go in.

The sources will decide if this is a genre or theory question. If I use only the play, I can quote Nietzsche directly with the article, and make it a theory question. If I use only Woolf, I can try to make the genre claim that Woolf’s story can be classified as absurdist. The Spininger article might work here, but a different source will be more relevant, maybe an essay from Camus.

Draft Checklist

February 17, 2017

Things to Add:

– add a paragraph as a critical summary of the novel (focused more on the novel)
– add one more paragraph focused more on the critical sources I’ll cite specifically
– add a paragraph about all the genres relevant to the novel (and change the parts in the essay that are labeled as sci-fi but align more with magic realism)
– add a paragraph explaining what I think I’m adding that is new by using my main sources to read the book (I think I might have the start in the last cover letter, it might need two paragraphs)
– add a paragraph on Smith and nature
– incorporate the suggested source on empathy
– go throughout the essay and make clear what things are controversial definitions or moves, by Chu, for example

Things to Organize:

– make sure every every paragraph has a topic sentence
– organize these topics sentences within the new general framework, to see what order to put the paragraphs back in
– add an paragraphs that I might need to go from one idea to the next
– add more examples from the novel where they seem lacking
– see if my thesis needs to be revised for what I wrote, or if my introduction properly sets the conclusion I reach at the end


I’m actually going to start with the organizing list first, with topic sentences for the paragraphs I haven’t written yet. I think it’ll help save time editing those paragraphs to fit in after the fact.

I’m still not confident in the amount of sources I have, but I’m going to go ahead and start editing with what I have and only add sources if something feels unexplained and lacking.

Research Proposal and Annotated Bibliography

December 3, 2016

I’m late with posting my research proposal so I kept the descriptions of my secondary sources in the annotated bibliography.

My primary text is the novel The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. The book shifts in time a lot so the political climate in India from about the 70’s until present day is a big part of the book, although somewhat implicitly. The main characters are twins who have an almost psychic bond and one experiences a traumatic sexual encounter as a child. There is also a controversial sexual scene between the twins once they are older.

I’m interested in researching the political implications of this incestuous moment, as in what was Roy’s purpose in included it. A related question is how are surveillance and policing used to suppress communication or connections like the ones the twins share? Nature is also a big part of the book, namely how it’s sourced and the negative effects of globalization, so another question I have is where is, and isn’t it possible in the book, to separate the violence against people from the “violence” against their natural resources?

My research questions might seem to cover unrelated topics, so I hope the sources help connect the ideas. So far, my secondary sources deal with each topic mostly separate from one another. Also, they’re all books and I haven’t read them all fully yet. I’m hoping at the library meeting I can find a few more sources (shorter articles) that are interdisciplinary and can better relate to the literary aspects of the novel.

Annotated Bibliography

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1975. Translated by Alan Sheridan, 1977. Vintage-Random House, 1995.

I’m focusing mostly on the chapter about the Panopticon, a design of an ideal prison that relies on constant surveillance, rather than violence, to deter illegal behavior. This relates to my question about policing and surveillance, as there’s a Communist movement trying to be put down in Roy’s book (with violence of varying visibility). Foucault offers that modern society will internalize this public visibility, or a culture of spectacle, until they police and subject themselves in every aspect of their private lives.

The strategy I plan to use with this source is leap-frogging. I think applying Foucault’s ideas to the novel makes a strong case for how generations’ worth of learning has them arrive at a modern carceral culture that pervades their private lives (enforced in part by the hierarchy of the caste system). However, the idea that the Panopticon is an ideal and violence-free design is problematic because it still relies heavily on the potential for violence to be effective (an invisible, but implied violence). I’d leap frog with examples in Roy’s novel showing how resistance to the policing can be fostered in the secrecy and imagination of some of the personal relationships.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.

Nixon’s term slow violence is a concept that small acts can build up over time into large acts of violence against people and the environment. This slow accretion makes the violence hard to identify and Nixon deals with issues of representation and visibility of the poor that are affected most by it. This invisibility, brought on by a limited scope of time, is further aggravated by the speed of the digital age skewing our sense of time. Nixon supports both political and literary forms of resistance to neoliberalism, which ties in well with Roy’s writings.

I intend to piggy back on Nixon’s idea that if slow violence is thought of simply as an extension of structural violence, then it risks addressing only highly visible issues that happen quickly (sudden catastrophes). Nixon’s concept of slow violence actively avoids doing this. Roy also gives special attention to things on a smaller scale and touches on how technological connectivity prompted what feels like sudden Westernization in India. I want to apply Nixon’s ideas to the novel, to show that while the environmental violence that is present in the background of the novel is an extension of the more explicit violence in the story, we can’t disregard other factors. The novel’s temporal shifts, further distorted by a traumatized child’s memory is one factor to consider. Also, the role of the caste system in furthering the invisibility of the poor. Although Nixon deals with environmentalism, this ties in well with Foucault’s work because his modern discipline relies on a kind of invisible violence.

Roy, Arundhati. Walking with the Comrades. Penguin Books, 2001.

This book is a collection of essays combining reports on current affairs and Roy’s actual time spent in the forests, with the people continuing to lead the Maoist movement against the Indian government. I haven’t narrowed down which essays to cite, but she covers several topics relative to the novel.

I plan to “ride the scholar’s coattails” mostly on this source. Roy offers reasons as to why the Maoists are left with little choice but to arm themselves to protect their livelihoods. At the same time, she does not suggest that the solution lies in either the neoliberal agenda of the state, or the militant Communism of the Maoists. I hope to extend this viewpoint in answering the main question of this research project. Even though Roy is the author of the primary text I’m using, I also want to try to use these essays for the strategy of “crossbreeding with something new”. I think her non-fiction essays make a chase for how her fictional work adds something to what the other sources talk about.

Smith, Neil. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. 1984. Afterword by Neil Smith, Foreword by David Harvey, 3rd edition, University of Georgia Press, 2008.

This is a book with a very wide range because it deals with social theory. The overarching concept of “uneven development” tries to explain why third world countries (which were expected to be fully integrated into the global market in a postcolonial economy) were only partially integrated as cheap resources for the rest of the market. Smith suggests that this uneven development is caused by the capitalist economy’s perpetual need to “produce” space (Smith was a geographer). I will focus of the parts about how nature is produced. Also, I plan to piggyback and show how producing space where space already exists, creates contradictions which have effects such as seen in Roy’s novel.

My motive for writing this paper is to keep continuing a scholarly conversation on postcolonial literature that deals with neocolonialism more than issues of identity. From the sources I have found so far, it seems as though scholars in other disciplines writing about these topics don’t believe that fictional literature has much to contribute to their social and historical theories. To a degree, I feel that that literary scholars do not either, when literary theory gets more and more abstracted on issues about identity.

I obviously haven’t finished my research for the paper yet, but I have general direction that I hope to reach in the conclusion. Regarding the production of space, I want to look into how this forces the erasure of old relationships to the land and people’s livelihood. Even in modern India, one’s livelihood is often inherited just as one’s blood is (under a caste system that still exists in some ways). I want to show how that suggests a consanguinity with “Mother earth”, which in turn make brothers of your neighbors. Within a postcolonial history, it’s impossible to ignore the complicated issues of inheritance, and it problematizes how neocolonialism deals with people unwilling to give up their yet “unproduced” land. The caste system helps to enforce the surveillance necessary to put down movements against the state, but at the same time it allows for this implied consanguinity with the land to continue. I want to show that in order to benefit from one aspect of caste, without condoning the other, the Indian state has criminalized the poor trying to keep their land. Roy’s literary choices show how a false narrative can turn the movement to stay linked to your land (through solidarity and love for your “brother”) into something as abhorrent as incest.

Woods’ “Nature and the Inner Man”

November 15, 2016

I chose Woods’ article because I was interested in the stark contrasts between nature and the courtly settings in the poem. I felt a lot of the points he made were apparent when I read the poem, but I had assumed the struggle for Gawain was between a lowly, natural state of man and a higher, rational state closer to god. The religious elements of the story stood out to me more as Gawain’s duty to a Lord and “the Lord” were often conflated. I assumed Gawain’s guilt served to show every man needs to show humility considering he’s apt to fall back on animal like instincts to survive. Woods gave lot of insight into this idea with Avicenna’s inner or lower thoughts, and the rational soul unique to humans. These ideas gave me more historical context for how I had already chose to read the poem, that is following the usual themes in romance narratives.

By the end of the article though, Woods gave more historical context that made me look at the poem in an entirely different context. He suggests that while looking at Gawain as a rational man that’s dealing with the natural world is a necessary part of the reading, a more intriguing view is “Gawain as a prototype of late-medieval individuality, or as an early symptom of bourgeois sensibility” (226). I thought this was fascinating because I read it with the assumption that historically prevalent view was of man being rational because of God-given reason. Woods’ suggestion though makes me rethink the order or events that made this a popular theme in romance narrative. Rather than think that Gawain’s courtly mannerisms upheld popularly held beliefs, I now feel like narratives such as this are why they became popular in the first place, especially because of the associations to piety. He makes interesting points throughout about Gawain’s interaction with different surfaces and the overt richness of most of them seems to imply to me that this struggle for moral perfection is a somewhat aimless journey afforded to few. The fact that Woods calls it an “early symptom of bourgeois sensibility” also makes me curious as to how the problem transforms in following works.

Were they offended by what they read or what they felt?

November 1, 2016

All of the critics seem to touch on the topic of Haddon’s responsibility as an author depending on the intended audience. Both Bartmess and Olear are assuming the majority of the readership will be neurotypical readers and worry how someone unfamiliar with Asperger’s will react to the book.

Bartmess doesn’t think that a neurotypical audience can read Haddon’s protagonist the same as they read a neurotypical one (though Miller suggests Chris reads like an “imperfect narrator”, like any neurotypical one). According to Bartmess, Chris is alarmingly without empathy, and an elitist that would rather that people unlike him would just die (while Miller thinks Chris shows immense sympathy and is only guilty of thinking his views are the best, like everyone tends to do). Bartmess takes issue with Haddon’s book having become an introductory text that informs neurotypical people about Asperger’s. This means that Chris’s problematic qualities, of both inflicting violence on others and being oblivious to abuse directed at him, is normalized among a neurotypical audience from the start.

I think Olear implicitly had a similar problem with the book as Bartmess, specifically with Chris’ unlikable character. I don’t think either Bartmess or Olear is comfortable with the idea that Chris’ personality is so trying on the neurotypical people in his life, to the point that the abuse towards him becomes ordinary. In the case of Olear, I think the unaddressed abuse upsets him as his son’s neurotypical caretaker. Haddon’s book shows the after effects of a marriage that fell apart from the stress of raising their son with Asperger’s. As Bartmess pointed out, the book seems to expect Chris’ violent outbursts, and excuse the abuse towards him (almost as if he deserves it) whenever it fails to openly condemning it.

Bartmess received a lot of backlash for her criticism from other people also with Asperger’s. They claim she made the mistake of assuming, not Haddon, because some readers with Asperger’s actually do relate to Chris. It’s obviously impossible to say all “aspies” have exactly the same symptoms. Being a pervasive disorder that effects personality, it’s also impossible to assume they would all share exactly the same personality. It’s Chris’ personality that Bartmess takes so much issue with. It seems strange that Bartmess can’t acknowledge experiences of Asperger’s that differ from her own (a few people suggested comorbidity to explain some symptoms). Similarly, Olear insists that if Chris does have Asperger’s, it must be some extreme form because most aspies are on the high-functioning end of the spectrum.

Both Bartmess and Olear have an aversion to Chris’ portrayal and claim it’s because they worry how neurotypical people will respond to it. I think it’s possible though that their criticism is a way to justify their personal dislike of Chris’ personality. By placing the fault in how Haddon wrote him, they don’t have to acknowledge how they’re basically rejecting a neurodivergence unfamiliar to them.

Murray Asks Where Are the Autistic Adults?

October 25, 2016

Murray, particularly in chapter four, seems to be using the dropping out strategy from Gaipa’s list. He spends half of the chapter outlining how fiction writers are reinforcing the fears about an “epidemic of autism”. These fears stem from the general public framing autistic children as victims that need a cure, one that will only be found with increased awareness. He points out that these awareness raising charities often function under sentimentality. Murray even goes as far back in time as to refer to the pediatrician Asperger, and argues that the same hopelessness has existed for over fifty years. By referencing “experts” in literature, activism, and science, Murray is showing that the fear of lost children is what causes autistic celebrity (like Mukhopadhyay’s) to thrive. Murray is challenging this current narrative of an exceptional autistic child overcoming obstacles that mark his transition into being accepted as nuerotypical and even as an adult.

A big flaw that Murray points out with the prevalent obsession with autistic children in particular, is that it doesn’t consider what becomes of autistic adults. If the narrative is of a voiceless child, the child is no longer a victim once he gets his voice back, and that empowerment makes him an adult to a degree. Again, sentimentality is the cause of a false narrative, such as implying there is an end to autism and that it can be likened to moving from childhood into adulthood.

I would say the method used here is dropping out, and not taking on the establishment, only because Murray doesn’t disagree with the need for hope that such a narrative can give. He disagrees with the the fact that fear of the alternative, if these children are not saved, is what creates this problematic narrative. Instead, Murray reframes the entire conversation by focusing on Mukhopadhyay’s own words, for their content and subjectivity (not just as proof of his special ability) and letting Mukhopadhyay speak for himself. Murray believes that the writing proves that he is self-aware of his condition and that he can define himself, and make progress without claiming to have been cured.

The Elephant is a Chimp

October 18, 2016

I took Charlie to represent everything that went unanswered about race, for Charlotte in particular, so he became the elephant in the room throughout the novel. It could partly explain why most of the class felt the book was anticlimactic or unfinished. Charlotte’s rage was mostly over discovering a huge secret past and then realizing that it wasn’t really a hidden secret, just ignored. Being that her parents already knew, her discovery was anti-climactic and her resistance trickled into acceptance of the obvious, that there’s a lot still unaddressed about racism in our country.

If we look at Charlie as the placeholder for unspoken or unaddressed racism, the experiment takes on the enormous task to start a dialogue that will somehow erase past wrongs (Julia Toneybee admit as much in her self-indulgent apology letter). The question that bothered me and wasn’t answered explicitly in the book, was why the family was so obsessed with loving Charlie or receiving his love in return (personally, not just because of the experiment). They take him into their family and give him their name (which is curious because it looks like all the character names tell something about what they believe). This acceptance as one’s own is why I related the book most to the Hustvedt’s Shaking Woman. She goes on a journey to accept that her healthy self and the shaking woman are one and the same. There’s something self-empowering to owning all parts of you, even those you can’t understand. In that sense, the book relates more to the Eleanor Longdon’s TED Talk we watched in class, and how she came to listen to the voices she heard as meaningful input, rather than a debilitating mental illness.

Another strange similarity I found with the talk and the book was how the voices became antagonizing and told her to harm herself in order to prove her worth. I’m not claiming the Freeman family heard literal voices, but they all seemed to have something to prove to themselves regarding Charlie. Callie’s internal dialogue was the clearest example because both her overeating and magic was harmful to herself (and Charlie at the end) but she genuinely thought Charlie’s love would fix everything in her family. Her final attempt was interesting because she stopped a few times to note what felt wrong or right, like sharing spaghetti with Charlie out of bag felt strangely like love, or how drugging Charlie and hiding outside in the cold didn’t feel quite right. Callie is the youngest and she has some instincts about right and wrong, but she’s the most vulnerable to believing the voices that tell her she needs to prove her worth.

I think this ties back to Langdon’s approach to distinguish between the literal and metaphorical things her voices were pointing to, like realizing there wasn’t a real intruder getting in her house, but that she felt a very real fear due to past trauma. She stopped treating the voices as the enemy and looked deeper into her past for what was causing them. Langdon supports a holistic approach that uses this kind of self-therapy and I couldn’t help but look at Charlie the same way. It’s as if Charlie is a literal manifestation of a racist past and everyone is trying to come to terms with this traumatic history through him (or ignoring the trauma by focusing only on him).

Laurel seems to be of the mind that aggressive self-therapy, by engaging the “voices” or speaking with Charlie, will fix everything. Its interesting she’s excited to use sign language to do this considering that sign language is what she used to insulate herself from racism growing up. She doesn’t tell her children about this racism she dealt with, she bans her children from listening to any “booty music”, and she’s completely against Adia’s influence over Charlotte. It’s as if Laurel wants her family to be on board with an experiment that will treat their “symptoms”, but at the same time she won’t admit to her daughters that there’s a traumatic past that induced them.

Charlotte and Adia’s more direct approach sounds like when Langdon was over medicated and then discarded as hopelessly incurable by the medical community. Laurel fears that her daughter attacking racism head on, like the exclusively physiological approach in medicine, will only make things worse. Adia’s mother made a really interesting point when Adia was rallying to spread flyers about Toneybee’s history. Her mother told the girls there was no point because they’re trying to fight something metaphorical, and flyers won’t do anything if there’s no literal enemy. This defeated attitude (which Charlotte was angry to notice was more like her own mother’s) is similar to Langdon’s despair under traditional diagnostics and medication. Again, there’s this issue of what is metaphorical or literal, or whether to treat the symptoms or address the trauma.

I think Callie, because of her young age and being sheltered from all the secrets, is ignorant to the fact that they’ve inherited a tramautic history, and that her issues come partly from her family ignoring it. On the other hand, Charlotte gains self-awareness through the novel, but it seems she’s not completely in agreement with her mother even at the end. As an adult, she’s disappointed Adia gave up her radical ways and Charlotte admits to herself that own pettiness surprised her. Part of her wanted to see Charlie struggle with the gift box and revel in his inadequacy. I think part of her still resents her mother believing that new dialogue can somehow erase the past.

Going back to this post’s title, its sort of like Charlotte thinks it’s an absurd idea that if we can only just talk to the elephant in the room, we can pretend he’s part of the family. Charlotte would probably agree with Langdon’s holistic approach where the goal isn’t necessarily to cure, because one isn’t mentally ill simply because they hear voices. People can be mentally different and still be full individuals in society. Similarly, as an adult, I don’t think Charlotte wanted to get rid of Charlie (or that it’s possible to undo the past) because she still visits him. She only wished her mother would acknowledge that he was a chimp living with them, not a human brother, and that they could speak to and learn from him without having to adopt him.

I can’t imagine Langdon saying “I love hearing voices”, but she did mention jokingly at the end that it’s not all bad. She had to learn to talk to her voices respectfully before she could put her life back together. Similarly, I don’t think Charlotte believes in the book’s title completely, but learning to move on means respecting all parts of herself and her history.

Society as a Body in Ellison’s The Invisible Man

September 27, 2016
I had discovered unrecognized compulsions of my being—even though I could not answer “yes” to their promptings. I haven’t smoked a reefer since, however; not because they’re illegal, but because to see around corners is enough (that is not unusual if you are invisible). But to hear around them is too much; it inhibits action. And despite Brother Jack and all that sad, lost period of the Brotherhood, I believe in nothing if not in action. Please a definition: A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action. Besides, the drug destroys one’s sense of time completely. If that happened, I might forget to dodge some bright morning and some cluck would run me down with an orange and yellow street car, or a bilious bus! Or I might forget to leave my hole when the moment for action presents itself. (13)

I chose this first passage because I thought his reason for only smoking once was interesting. He explained that it could either get him killed one day from inattention, or insulate him to the point inaction. Both possibilities appear to be two extremes of the same spectrum (a distorted sense of time), much like all the dichotomies Ellison uses repeatedly throughout the book (sun/moon, heat/cold, light/darkness, emotional anger/calculated thought, Bledsoe/Brother Jack, etc.) are on opposite ends of one scale, and bring attention to the separations between black and white. The question that Ellison is posing then is why we swing to the extremes of any situation? I couldn’t help but find similarities with Damasio’s theory of consciousness (that challenges the idea that the mind-body dichotomy is problematic) because he thinks our mind’s ability to acknowledge this division is a direct cause for consciousness emerging at all. Following this, the distinction between black and white does not need to be ignored or eliminated, but the relation needs to be better understood.

I also thought this passage related well to Damasio’s suggestion that maintaining homeostasis is one purpose of consciousness, as we can’t survive in extremes lying outside of a small range. It would seem that Ellison is describing drug use that allows for usually unconscious things to be brought to the front of the conscious mind (like his heightened sensory experience of music allowing him to go beyond sound alone, and finding deeper meanings in the music “few really listen to”). However, he refuses to do it since then because he says for the invisible (the unconscious part of society, if we look at society as a body in entirety) increased sight is enough, whereas increased hearing can be too much. Again, similar to Damasio, Ellison acknowledges that there are limitations to what our bodies or minds can consciously handle.


I picked a second passage because I thought it helped support this idea that the novel describes how certain things that can either strengthen or abuse the mind-body relationship, either by bringing things forward to consciousness or conversely, unhealthily repressing them deeper into our unconscious.

For the boys speak a jived-up transitional language full of country glamour, think transitional thoughts, though perhaps they dream the same old ancient dreams. They were men out of time—unless they found the Brotherhood…The stewards of something uncomfortable, burdensome, which they hated because, living outside the realm of history, there was no one to applaud their value and they themselves failed to understand it. What if Brother Jack were wrong? What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his agents, his big surprise! His own revenge? For they were outside, in the dark…with my fallen brother, Tod Clifton (Tod Tod) running and dodging the forces of history instead of making a dominating stand. (441)

This passage is from when the narrator is watching some young men on the subway ride he takes right after witnessing Brother Clifton being shot and killed. I think the passage helps show how trauma and violence can be as mind-altering as drug use. For the first half of the novel, under the influence of Bledsoe and the school, the narrator is constantly in the habit of repressing things that would heighten his awareness (which helps explain his naïveté, which others have mentioned, bordered on the absurd). He maintains a disconnect between the mind and body because of shame. For example, being haunted in dreams by guilt over his grandfather’s “curse”, or suppressing his anger and avoiding physical confrontation unless he thinks there’s a logical benefit (like the battle royal), or even in how he’s careful not to drink in access in front of white folk in case he embarrasses his whole race. Laughter is an important recurrence in the book because it’s always used in the beginning, to hide embarrassment or shame. The narrator is amazed by the end of the book, that his people should be so ashamed of their heritage that they deny something as simple as liking yams or chitterlings. The embarrassed laugh is replaced with a more hysterical laugh in the scene where one of the white Brotherhood members keeps asking the narrator to sing a spiritual for them. The narrator seems to be over the need for shame, however, when the other members joined in the laughing they did it out of embarrassment and guilt for the other man’s behavior.

The link between shame or pride in distinctly “black” things is sometimes highlighted by Ellison with the tom tom drum beating. It seems to reference Langston Hughes article “The Negro Artist & the Racial Mountain” which also uses the tom tom drum to represent black art. Hughes concluded that the “tom tom laughs and the tom cries” but that neither needs to please black or white people and that black people should be proud of their own art as distinct and not inferior to whitewashed aesthetics. I also think the mountain imagery is interesting when talking about the Founder’s vision (to reach the top of the mountain) but how Bledsoe thought it best to bring people back down to the valley. The conflicting visions for the university references Booker T. Washington’s politics a few times, (which it think is best seen in his “Atlanta Compromise Speech”). I think his politics are also very relevant to the idea of repressing anger, but the post is getting too long.

When the narrator shifts his ideology towards the Brotherhood, he’s overtaken by this idea of unity and that the forceful merging of black and white will solve all the issues of disconnect or “dispossession”. This is where the idea of abusing extremes in the mind-body relation comes up. The same way drugs can distort personal sense of time, the narrator is hired to be an agitator that invokes violence and change when it’s convenient for the Brotherhood. He isn’t disillusioned until this passage where he’s coming to recognize that his political actions negate the individual and that their “transitional thoughts” (vital to the change) are invisible in history in the sense that they’re not recorded. Tying this back to the first passage about falling out of beat with time, the narrator is realizing that he was used by the Brotherhood and that most people are still being left at the margins of society.


Following the bigger analogy of society as a whole body, than the black people (particularly in the South) would be aligned with the body (and being emotionally reactive) that is historically kept apart or under control of the white people, which is aligned with the brain (and deliberate conscious action and thought). This is where Ellison’s constant references to a veil (most likely DuBois’ idea of double consciousness) is useful to compare to Damasio’s description of a veil, or the mind’s ability to unconsciously keep some parts of the mind hidden from other parts. It points to the same blindness and invisibility that Ellison talks about. The narrator is first disillusioned into seeing the veil at all, but maintains his hopefulness that with the Brotherhood, he can help lift the veil for everyone. He feels purpose in moving North and fortunate to be privy to the important discussions of the committee (like transitioning from no self-awareness as a limb, to a conscious position in the brain).

When he’s disillusioned at the end again, it’s because he realizes that the hired members of the Brotherhood, like himself, are abused almost like a mind-altering drug, to induce certain mind-body reactions only under the orders of the committee. Rather than create unified consciousness, where mind and body that transparently communicates (arguably not possible because the unconscious/invisible can’t always be accounted for and controlled) the narrator realizes that the Brotherhood is more interested in the mind maintaining full control of the body in a top down direction, and completely discounts the role of the unconscious or invisible. The Brotherhood incorporates all methods and races for use in “scientifically” controlled experiments, but that doesn’t mean it allows for their individual expression or for a bottom up flow of information where the unconscious informs the conscious.

Damasio And Dehaene towards Descartes and Artificial Intelligence

September 21, 2016

I thought the differences in the scope covered by Damasio and Dehaene to answer the same question of consciousness was very telling. Both claim to disagree with the reductive ideas that come out of Cartesian dualism, namely the implied homunculus, but they have very different attitudes about how much they need to distance themselves from Descartes.

Dehaene is wary of complex questions and says himself he won’t touch convoluted topics like self-consciousness, but instead wants to focus on solvable questions like how the brain creates conscious access. He praises Descartes in the majority of this chapter and hints that Descartes’ immaterial soul was a sort of deus ex machina to resolve how “his mechanical model failed to provide a materialist solution for the higher-level abilities of the human mind” (Dehaene 6). It seems that Dehaene thinks Descartes’ mechanical model was only limited by the science of his time, and that the global neural workspace offers a a more complete materialist model which explains the higher-level abilities that we associate with consciousness. Whether Dehaene actually explains the emergence of consciousness, or if that’s even a relevant question, remains unclear to me. To say that consciousness arises because the raison d’être of the neuronal network is the “massive sharing of pertinent information throughout the brain”, is equally unsatisfying as Descartes saying there must be an immaterial soul responsible for everything he couldn’t explain mechanically (Dehaene 13).

Dehaene avoids any terms that might imply dualism or a phenomenal consciousness apart from the brain, but Damasio seems to welcome them. He doesn’t find it problematic to specify a body apart from the brain because their relationship, or more specifically, the “body and brain bond“, is what creates the mind or allows the emergence of consciousness (Self 21).


Another difference that stood out to me was their writing style. Damasio likes to be what he might think is lyrical, and doesn’t mind if his wording isn’t scientifically correct, whereas Dehaene keeps his writing style easily comprehensible (as I assume he thinks his neurological model is). Following the simplified idea of the mind as a machine, Dehaene is optimistic about creating AI once science and theoretical math can fully support this neurological model. I think the fact that his global neuronal workspace (which is essentially an information sharing network between specialized brain systems) is reminiscent of the Internet shows how Dehaene sees the brain as a complex computer. Dehaene is comfortable with saying “I believe that consciousness reduces to what the workspace does” (Dehaene 168). Following that logic, it makes sense that he thinks it’s only a matter of time that we can build a computer capable of information sharing like a human brain and therefore, will have conscious access, or true consciousness according to him. Interestingly, I think that IBM’s AI technology called Watson is already very close to conscious access, but it’s still very far from what most of us consider consciousness.

Recently Watson “created” a movie trailer (for Morgan, a horror-thriller movie about AI) after hours of collecting data on what images and sounds invoke specific emotions in humans (the quotes because it still needed humans to turn the collected scenes into a narrative). I included a link for anyone who’s interested in the details. The video below has a short explanation about the process and the actual trailer.



I find it funny that Dehaene doesn’t mind reductiveness for the sake of moving forward with AI because he thinks more technology will simplify the question. In contrast, Damasio embraces the complexity, but wonders if people in simpler times had a clearer perspective than us. In the part about how the mind can both uncover and hide things from our consciousness, Damasio says our mind can act as a screen or veil that prevents parts of the mind from sensing what happens elsewhere. Then he takes an almost pastoral attitude and wonders if his cognitive theory (that our expanded consciousness has a symbiotic relationship with the foundational and biological protoself it evolved from) was more apparent “in earlier times when there was no veil…long before electronic media and jet travel…before the empire, and ahead of the city-state. It must have been easier to sense the life within…lucky humans would have perceived in an instant that all of their amusing antics were about life and that underneath every image of the outside world, there stood the ongoing image of their living bodies” (Feeling 29).

Conversation between Hustvedt and Gilman

September 13, 2016

I chose the conversation, but I changed it slightly to a conversation between Hustvedt and Gilman, rather than Gilman’s narrator (though they do discuss Gilman’s story). The scenario is that Hustvedt has a dream one night about interviewing Gilman, during the time that she’s writing her book The Shaking Woman. Like a lot of dreams, it’s possibly a recurrent one, and there are oddities that go unnoticed by Hustvedt, like how the interview is taking place through a mirror.


—Hello Mrs. Gilman, so glad we could speak today. I thought we could begin the discussion with how your story was partially autobiographical. The woman of your story dealt with a misdiagnosis of what we’d likely recognize today as postpartum psychosis. It’d be difficult to say whether it would fall under an organic or non-organic cause, but what’s your opinion of it?

—My opinion on the cause? That doesn’t very much matter. I only know that the prescribed cure exacerbated it. In my opinion, this preoccupation of yours with “correct” diagnosis is pointless. Doctors would have advised the rest cure to my illness regardless of what they named it. I didn’t write the story to diagnose women like me, but to save them from experiencing complete breakdown under prescribed rest like I did. I may not understand the disease fully, but I know the cure.

—Interesting. And how interesting that the cure, for you, was writing. Or exercising one’s mental capacities through fiction.

—Naturally, for me, yes. Because I’m a writer. For others though, I’d say that the cure is whichever work stimulates and offers them purpose.

—Fascinating. But back to this idea of fiction. Wouldn’t you agree that we can look at your story as establishing a tripartite of sorts, not unlike Freud’s? Much like how the ego acts as mediator between the id and superego, it would seem your fictional story acts as the mediator between the illnesses of your narrator and your own. Could this shed some light on why writing provided you with relief?

—Oh yeah, fascinating. Look, before we take a trip down the fascinating road of mediation and projection. Again. Why don’t we talk about you projecting a better dress next time? Our hideous rooms are identical down to the furniture and this ghastly wallpaper, why stop at the clothes? I’m indulging the psychobabble of your century, aren’t I? Why do I have to keep this corset and you get to sit there in whatever you fell asleep in? The irony would be comical, if I weren’t so offended. Have I contributed nothing to society? Meet me halfway here, Siri.

—So I’m glad you bring up projection, let’s get to that next. Again, I think Freud—

—Would have called me hysterical?

—Well yes, that is probably true at one point in his career, but new research in neuroscience offers much that can support some of Freud’s ideas, like the complicated relation between literature and consciousness. I think if we could get Freud’s input he would have some insight into why you had to create a fictional psychosis patient, outside of yourself, in order to approach and deal with your illness.

—Externalizing. Really? (tapping on the mirror’s glass) Could you be more heavy-handed? I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s an empty house. Dear daddy Freud isn’t in the audience tonight. It’s just us. Talk to me, as forward as you can be.

—All right…Charlotte. Speaking of heavy-handedness, would you care to explain the symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper?

—Hostile honesty, I see. That’s perfectly all right. All honesty is welcomed here. That’s a great question, Siri. The dramatics were for literary effectiveness. In order to help women who could not recognize their own dilemma, I employed eccentricities. I find that the stronger the emotions, the more likely that they can break though the fictional constructs we use to rationalize away valid but inconvenient emotions. How’s that for psychobabble? But really, don’t you agree? It seems so. I mean your wallpaper’s not as dizzying as mine, but it still is a rather sickly shade of yellow, isn’t it? I suppose my story did what I wanted, no?

—You mean has it saved woman from the rest cure? Undoubtedly, yes. I recall an article from 1913, written by you actually, about how you received letters—

—No dear, I meant…Let’s try this again. Why did you remember your car accident as a surreal experience to be recounted later? Curious, isn’t it? Not being able to turn off the writerly part of your mind. Oh don’t look so flustered, it’s perfectly natural. It’s our work as writers, dear. We should embrace our flair for the dramatic.

—You’re mistaken. I wasn’t being an opportunist and I wasn’t trying to fictionalize my accident for reader appeal. The accident was real and an opportunity to better understand my shaking. That’s the real purpose of the book after all, to help others understand themselves better. And it’s a non-fiction, you’re forgetting.

—Don’t be silly. When did I say those things had to be separate? What’s so wrong with a fictional bent? And can we quit pathologizing the pathos for a moment? I don’t hide behind my metaphors. Sure there is no real wallpaper, but I still am the woman trapped in the wall. Just like you’re a writer and “the shaking woman”.

—No, see don’t air-quote at me. You’re missing the point here. I am a writer and a researcher, but I am not the shaking woman. I’m a woman who sometimes, for reasons not entirely—

—I’m sorry, a woman who sometimes does what?


—So, the shaking woman, yes? Yes…we’ve finally arrived! Repeat it after me now. We are Siri Hustvedt…

—I am Siri Hustvedt?

—Don’t sound so unsure now. And we are writers…

—I am a writer.

—Good. And we are…?

—And I am…the shaking woman?

—Yes! Exactly. Oh my, aren’t you a fast learner? But what a great start to that entirely non-fictional book of yours though. (Starting to write quickly in her notebook). What are you staring at me for now? Get to your computer, we have work to do.

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