Faculty Research Reassigned Time Project Abstracts
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"Living and Staging Kia Corthron's Come Down Burning" will be a brief talk that recaptures
the process of creating the community performance held at Southern on 12/4/2008.
My initial desire to stage Corthron's work was to illuminate the struggles of a small
community of black women living during the 1980s in the mountains of West Virginia
who fought to survive despite the severe onslaught of poverty and racism. While
this remained a major focal point during the project, it was during rehearsals, conversations
with colleagues, and the talk-back held after the performance that my most passionate
desires were unearthed. This talk will be a discussion of how my research and experiences
with this project can morph into something even more exciting and greater - the development
of a black women's theater collective here at Southern.
General Ojukwu: The Legend of Biafra
This book is a critical analysis of the unfortunate events of the preventable Nigerian civil war, one that offers a new perspective on the roles of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the general who led the Biafran side of the bloody conflict, with emphasis on the qualities that made him a legendary leader. It is important that Nigerians learn of his leadership model, which can guide them to become both good national leaders and patriotic citizens at this time when postwar Nigeria is in a state of flux.
"'The Ravages of the Critical Scalping Knife': John Davis and the American Review"
In the first issue of the American Review (January 1801), an anonymous reviewer evaluates The Farmer of New Jersey, a novel by the earnest writer, John Davis. "The story is very simple," the reviewer notes, and the scenes and dialogue "do not characterize a farmer of New-Jersey." Spanning less than a page, the review does not elaborate upon its claims, other than to suggest that its simplicity makes the work "insipid" and the author, although familiar with the Vicar of Wakefield, is definitely not comparable to Goldsmith. Davis took offense to these comments, but rather than confront his critics in the pages of the American Review, he instead pleads his case in the Commercial Advertiser, a daily newspaper in New York. Within the Advertiser's pages, Davis writes "The Reviewers Reviewed," a caustic and carping essay designed to repudiate and undermine the legitimacy of the American Review. "The American, or rather Mohock Reviewers," Davis writes, "form a Triumvirate scarcely less sanguinary than that of Augustus, Marc Antony, and Lepidus. . . . It is pitiable to behold the havoc committed by the scalping knives and tommahawks of these Mohock Reviewers; to behold each poor author laying his head upon the block, and the executioner performing his office."
Davis's response to the works of criticism in the American Review points to nothing less than a literary turf war with companions of Charles Brockden Brown and, occasionally, Brown himself. Although little known today, Davis led a literary life that closely parallels-and often entwines with-that of Brown. He writes several novels and works of non-fiction, befriends Hocquet Caritat, and has his works advertised alongside Brown's. However, Davis is rarely mentioned and even more rarely studied, despite this similarity to Brown's career.
In this paper, I seek to underscore Davis's position within Brown's literary world by exploring moments of confluence and tension. I particular, I focus on Davis's public debates and diatribes in the Commercial Advertiser during the first half of 1801, when he was most vocal about his desire for literary fame. In this newspaper, he attempts to position his own literary merits by undermining the authority of the reviewers within the American Review while courting and confronting members of the New York and Philadelphia literary elite, including the publisher Asbury Dickins, who ultimately refuses to publish The Wanderings of William despite his initial encouragement of Davis. By examining more carefully Davis and his struggles with these writers and reviewers, we can get a better sense of the literary context in which Brown wrote and published.
The Letter and the Law, or
How Caroline Norton (Re)Wrote Female Subjectivity
Nineteenth-century British writer Caroline Norton is most familiar to us today as the author of pamphlets arguing for mothers' right to custody of their children and against married women's legal non- existence. In her own day, she was known as a poet, editor of fashionable "Annuals," and-depending on whom you asked-the wronged or adulterous wife of George Norton. In this paper, I talk about some of her fiction, which was not widely read in her time and has not been widely studied since then. During the early years of her marriage, she published two novellas, The Wife and Woman's Reward (both 1835), and she went on to publish three novels: Stuart of Dunleath (1854), Lost and Saved (1863), and Old Sir Douglas (1867). Like her political pamphlets, Norton's fiction both suggests that women's legal position needs to be reformed and offers a powerful, though largely indirect, critique of the codes according to which women may be read. All of her protagonists are women wronged by their society and their husbands
Read alongside her political essays, Norton's fiction demonstrates an enduring desire to revise the conditions of women's legibility, to rewrite the conventions by which female subjectivity could be read. When Lost and Saved's narrator asserts that "the days of witchcraft are over, when the poor witch lost either way at the game of justification," the text effectively rejects the notion that women could be defined by the self-evidence of their bodies. The witch who floats and the innocent woman who drowns are equally lost, and women will continue to be condemned by the rules of this old "game," the narrator implies, as long as they do not question its central tenet: that women's bodies transparently speak truths about feminine identity.
Norton's work (re)presents female subjectivity in two ways, one practical, the other theoretical. It argues that the law should recognize married women as legal subjects, individuals whose identities are legally distinct from their husbands'. At the same time, both the fiction and the essays suggest that such recognition depends on women's ability to enter a discursive realm. Only then can female subjects be seen to be constituted not only by their bodies but also by words: both the words they speak and write, and the words that are spoken and written about them. Norton's texts insist, more or less explicitly, that in order to win the protection and privileges of legal subjects and the possibility of defining themselves (rather than submitting to others people's insulting and injurious definitions) women needed to refute the notion that their bodies could define them and stake their claims to the word.
W.D. Howells' 1891 novel of interracial marriage, An Imperative Duty, has received renewed critical attention over the last decade because of its fascinatingly anxious engagement with contemporary theories of race--which we have since come to label, rightly, as scientific racism but which was accepted as scientific truth in its own day. The novel recounts the story of Rhoda Aldgate, the secret of whose one-sixteenth-part African heredity has been kept from her by the Aunt who has raised her from infancy. On the verge of Rhoda's reception of a marriage proposal, Aunt Meredith reveals "the truth" about Rhoda, first to her young physician, Dr. Olney, and then to Rhoda herself. The novel is concerned with the moral, psychological, and emotional travails of all three characters as they grapple with the scientific, social, and ethical implications of Rhoda's genetic heritage.
My work seeks, first, to ground the novel's engagement with race more explicitly in prevailing beliefs and assumptions about race, rooted in contemporary scientific racism. Second, I reinterpret the novel's approach to race and its personal and social ethical implications via the hitherto neglected avenue of philosophical Pragmatism, particularly in its William Jamesian manifestation. I argue that Howells' novel, while steeped in the pseudoscience of race, ultimately supplants the quest for scientific certainty about race with an essentially Pragmatist ethical critique of the human consequences of beliefs about race.
Empathy and Identity in Vernon Lee's Hauntings
In 1913, novelist, literary critic and aesthetic theorist Vernon Lee coined the term "empathy"; twenty-three years earlier, in 1890, she had published a collection of four short stories entitled Hauntings that anticipates her notion of empathy. While the OED defines empathy as "the power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation," Lee's stories explore a different kind of engagement: the process by which one merges with another's personality and so fully comprehends that other object. These tales suggest that the effects of such comprehension are characteristically devastating, often resulting in death-as if the consequence of fully understanding another were the destruction of the self.
Each of the four stories in Hauntings is narrated by a male writer or artist, and each narrator produces his story (that is, the story we are reading) at the same time as he is trying and failing to complete another work-a history of Italy, a study of the pagan Gods, a portrait, and an opera. Both scholarly work and artistic endeavors, in these tales, position their practitioners as spectators of, rather than full participants in, the worlds they describe or observe. The collection as a whole repeatedly stages a confrontation between lived experience and the ways in which scholars and artists attempt to understand that experience. Each tale follows a similar trajectory, figuring its narrator as an observer of life and then tracing the process by which his aesthetic or critical distance is dismantled as he becomes caught up in events from which he initially stands apart. Indeed, the narrators' ability to complete their stories, coupled with their inability to complete their other projects, signals their shift-more or less willingly and more or less wittingly, depending on the tale-from observer to actor in the dramas they relate.
As the narrators exchange the position of detached observer for that of engaged actor, they reflect on their own influence on the tales they tell. "Am I turning novelist instead of historian?" one wonders ("Amour Dure" 22). This shift from chronicling the past to inventing it is one way that Lee's stories show their protagonists moving away from the distanced, objective approach that they initially take to their subjects. Together, the stories suggest that one must be both a novelist and an historian to touch the past, and that the price of the empathetic identification that allows one to understand history is a loss of self that leads to death or compromised autonomy; understanding another means losing oneself.
In an essay published in 1923 titled "On Literary Construction," Lee would return to the question of how one's subjectivity may be reorganized by an encounter with another. Writing about what it means to create fiction, she speaks of "the extraordinary phenomenon of a creature being apparently invaded from within by the personality of another creature, of another creature to all intents and purposes imaginary" (22). The qualification-that such a creature is " to all intents and purposes imaginary"-suggests that even when the invasive personality belongs to someone who does (or did) exist, as in Hauntings , the facts of that existence are less important than the way in which another's personality is understood or recreated by the person subjected to the invasion. The implication is that this invasion is a kind of self-inflicted violence; if the creation is imaginary, then it springs from the imagination of the person whom it invades. If the narrators are haunted, they are haunted by internal ghosts.
"Cooking the Books: The Construction of Woman as Object of Contract Through the Presumed Prohibition against Male Homosexuality in Leviticus."
This research presentation is part of a much longer work in progress on Hebrew Bible narrative and law that concerns the intertwined development of both alphabetic writing and double-digit accounting systems, particularly in the use of so-called "counters," whereby variable quantities and qualities of things and persons could be designated by a letter that also represented a number and a thing (as in the case where the Hebrew letter aleph means bull and also the number one). Adumbrated within narrative forms, narrative becomes at once a form of cognitive scaffolding and an elaborate means not only of tracing cause and effect but also of describing the complicated and variable values of various persons and things according to the "value" of the characters' actions as determined by contexts that often offer little more than choices amongst various unsatisfactory or "bad" deals. The conventionalization of certain forms of "bad deals" becomes the scapegoat mechanism, whereas constructions of disposable persons becomes subject to continuous and creative forms of exposure aimed at more exact articulations of equity-based account keeping through the framework of the operation of historical retribution and reward. In this case, while destruction awaits men who rape males to consign them to social death, servitude, and nameless objects, recourse to legally endorsed contracts that reduce women to substitute sacrifices who thus ransom men becomes subjected to continuous scrutiny, consistently in the narratives and in the prophetic writings, and even in the single passage in Leviticus 18:22, which does not prohibit same sex relations between men, but only inscriptions of male subjects as objects of contractual agreements regarding women.
This presentation will focus specifically on Leviticus 18:22, a passage that despite its presumed transparency as a prohibition against "male homosexuality," in fact operates to grant fathers sweeping powers to engage in contractual exchanges with other fathers over women/daughters. These contracts are legal as such, regardless of whether or not the women who are the objects of them are consigned to rape, social death, or ransom to protect the contract-making authority of men, who can engage in same-sex sexual relations as long as the same fall outside the rules governing contractual exchanges of women amongst men. Protected on the one hand from incestuous relations while on the other subjected to the most egregious forms of exogamous unions, including rape and prostitution, Hebrew biblical narrative reveals the enormous if unintended yet unsurprisingly destructive consequences of this particular means of "cooking the books." Noah, a besotted alcoholic and trauma survivor who consigns his youngest son Ham to a fate of servitude and blee-shem (lack of name), himself becomes sunk in oblivion and namelessness after the Tower of Babel "babbles" his tongue and witnesses in the emergence of Abraham as a substitute founder who argues vehemently if unsuccessfully against the design to permit extensive "collateral damage" rather than to target only the actual wrongdoers in Sodom. Lot's daughters, offered as substitute sacrifices to protect their father and his male guests from rape, turn the tables when they get their father drunk and give incestuous birth to the deadly enemies of the Israelites, the Ammonites and the Moabites, at whose house of study Moses has his otherwise undesignated burial site. Later, the Benjaminites attempt to rape the Levite priest, who offers his concubine as a substitute sacrifice whose raping to death ignites a gruesome civil war that results in the whole scale stealing and raping of the virgins of Shiloh. If the Hebrew Bible constructs "woman" as the social object of such contractual exchanges, then the tradition of interpreting Leviticus 18:22 as a prohibition against male homosexuality represents an effort to naturalize grotesquely unequal systems of exchange and contract, for whereas the title of father or husband implies an obligation to protect, the contract itself protects transference onto women of aggressions of rape, social death, and loss of contractual value and name, while also prohibiting women from participating in decision making around provision of protection and safety from aggressive men. If the purpose remains the normalization of sexual vulnerability, objectification and traffic in women through denouncing as "abomination" (a Latin neologism invented for this purpose) same-sex male relations as the sublime of perversion, then it does not surprise that current mainstream interpretations of the Hebrew Bible focus on this one passage, and ignore all the other numerous references in the Hebrew Bible that characterize the sin of Sodom as arrogance, pride, and degradation of the poor, the widowed, the orphan, and the stranger. While even Leviticus 18:22 exposes the real stakes by prohibiting men not from sexual relations with other men, but rather from making themselves female objects of contracts between men that define hospitality as protection of men from the aggression of other men, the remainder of the Hebrew Bible exposes the actual dramatic mechanisms of this contractual swindle, while not holding its breath that the interested parties will agree anytime soon to an independent and logic-bound audit of the books, as evidenced by one recent instance of paper shredding that presented itself as an honest "plain sense" rendition of this passage as "God hates fags."