Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Cross-Genre Writing and In-Class Performance/Presentation

I have journals due in one of my current MA classes, but the instructor is only going to glance at them. I have done all of this work for very little return. I know, a journal is often written only for oneself, but I also wrote it as a conversation with the instructor which now will not happen. So as to make this a more fruitful endeavor, I am going to post some of the journals here. Enjoy and feel free to respond so as to make these truly a conversation.

Women Writing Culture was a book used in my feminist ethnography class at NYU. That was a very important book because it showed examples of women writing ethnography as stories, plays, and poems. It talked about the fact that often male anthropologists were off talking to the men of a community who gave the “official” story of their tribe, village, or group while their wives were talking to the women, getting information on their day-to-day lives and writing it up as short stories. At NYU, we were actively encouraged to play around with genres and in fact, my department chair gave a reading of sonnets that she had written in response to Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. It always disappointments me when I am in a program that discourages such experimentation and that is why I wanted to take that freedom when it was offered in this class.

I was using the poetic technique, which I have often seen in prose as well, of numbering items to make it cohere, turning back on itself, without having to have formal transition. Because I had a limited amount of time, and because I was working with disparate theories and incidents that would all come back around to the main point, I decided on that format. It was a very conscious decision once I wrote my initial text.

My reading of the text was a performance in itself, meant to be like a lecture. When I directed a play at Scott Community College, a version of Antigone that I had put together myself from Sophocles, Georges Bataille, and Kurt Schwitters, I had the academic chorus instead of a Greek chorus, reciting lines from Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim¸ asking how psychoanalysis would be different today if Freud had started with Antigone rather than Oedipus. Drawing from that experience and the “performance of academia,” that is why I decided to stand up and read the text. Also, as I write this, I think about how much academic work was not necessarily published as a text initially, but as a speech, a class, conference proceedings, etc., including Saussure’s Course In General Linguistics, much, if not all of Lacan’s various Seminars, Derrida’s “Law of Genre,” etc.

I really took umbrage at the comment, made later, that my presentation was personal expression, but by then we had moved on and I didn’t feel like bringing the conversation back to my “lecture.” I do, however, want to defend it. I dislike most poetry that is solipsistic, that deals purely with the feelings of the author and nothing else, and I also dislike teaching theories that focus only on interiority and self-expression. As Kirsten and I were saying, we have a student who comes into the writing center who was obviously taught using those kinds of theories in the 1970s and thinks that writing is only about his impressions and ideas, and we are having a hard time getting him to see that yes, it is that, but it is also much more than that, especially at the graduate level. So that kind of “self-expression” talk tends to really push my buttons.

While my presentation had much of me in it, and much creativity, I also had a lot of research and a lot of other people’s ideas. I cited Barthes, Foucault, Cixous, and Derrida as well as some lesser-known theories. I also cited primary research I have been doing for several years into different ways that we can help students by not only giving them alternative assignments, but alternative ways to complete those assignments, like my spontaneous research. Surrealism is very interested in consciousness and in unconscious processes. That is why the Surrealists were so interested in Freud and so disappointed when he did not reciprocate their feelings. I believe such concerns are very neglected in educated students and I look to my own levels of interest/disinterest, my own areas where I have divided attention and trouble getting my own work done to think about ways to help my students. Many people in graduate school are “model students.” That’s how we got this far. Most of us are teaching students who are not “model” student or who live in less-than-perfect situations that do not allow them to get their work done. So I ask myself how I can use my own barriers, my own divided attention, combined with my interest in creative writing and in surrealism, to help my students to get their work finished?
I also disagree with the comments that genre is important because it helps us to know how to read a text. After I had thought about that for a while, I came to the conclusion that it is not genre that tells us how to read something, but it is the content itself. If the content is all focused on dog obedience, for example, you can use poems, stories, and research to explain dog obedience to a reader. And in this post-modern world, authors do that all the time! It seems to me that it is only in academic writing, not popular writing, that genre is insisted upon. Corporations use actors to help with their corporate training. They do use poetry and short stories to promote diversity. And three articles that I use in my English and speech classes talk about the value of storytelling to help people learn. Outside of academia, people push the boundaries all the time, using humor, poetry, and storytelling to train and get their points across.

Partially, I take blame myself for people not “getting” what I was talking about. I feel that if you are going to do something that is unusual, you need to prepare people for it somewhat. When I do an avant garde performance at an open mic, for example, I will give the audience an instruction not to “overthink” the poetry and try to figure it out, but just to roll with the images. So in retrospect, I might have done this with my class presentation – given them a line or two of instructions. I guess I thought they would “get” what I was trying to do rather than being adversarial. That might also mean that I was attacking some very closely held beliefs that they have about genre.


Here is my class presentation:

One Day in the Life of French Theory
Featuring non-French actors

Michel Foucault is collecting objects and placing them – on the wall, on the table, etc., asking himself where these go in the oeuvre. Maybe picks things out of the trashbin of literary history.

Voila! Stephen King’s Parking Tickets
Voila! Nietzsche’s Laundry List
Voila! Hemingway’s hunting license

Takes a large stack of paper out of the trash and holds it up for the audience to see.

Voila! Shakespeare’s supposed (typed) manuscript of his complete works

He sits down at that point and starts going through it.

Barthes enters the room.

Barthes: L’auter est mort! Vive le lecteur!
He looks through a book and then declaims/asks: Who is speaking?

Foucault: What does it matter who is speaking!?

Enter Cixous:

Of course it matters, you patriarchal windbags. The author isn’t dead, She’s right here!” Mutters to herself: “Why is that men on the left cannot see their own blind spots? You go on all day about the oppressors and post-colonial this and post-structural that but then you deny us our voices when it suits you, when you don’t feel the need for an author.

“Who makes me write, moan, sing, dance? Who gives me the body that is never afraid of fear? Who writes me? . . . When I have finished writing, when we have returned to the air of the song that we are, the body of texts that we will have made for ourselves will become one of its names among so many others. In the beginning, there can be only dying, the abyss, the first laugh”

Foucault and Barthes either look up and listen, then all continue with what they are doing what in the background. Cixous begins reading her book (Coming to Read) semi-silently to herself while Barthes is flipping through his book (Image, Music, Text) occasionally muttering something out of it. All three fade off as Laura begins.


I. The Law of Genre, or Genre’s Genre

Since the beginning of time, a student paper might read, since the invention of the alphabet, since humans began to carve sentences into stone, put ink to papyrus, they have questioned the nature of writing and of those who write – the author.

I am always trying to subvert academic writing whenever I get the chance, to cross boundaries. To risk annihilation, to risk death. To risk, as Hamlet puts it, those thousand natural deaths that flesh is heir to.” As an author, one who lays her ego on the line to be examined, challenged, refuted, ‘tis a consummation I do NOT devoutly desire, but to which I subject myself, nonetheless.
Derrida says I shouldn’t mix creative work with academic work. His “Law of Genre” states, “I will not mix genres. Genres are not to be mixed.” But Derrida is a postmodernist. Of course genres are to be mixed. Unless he is being ironic. Unless he is pulling our legs. Moreover, it is impossible to mix genres because ultimately the original genre becomes very pregnant, giving birth to a new genre. This is what happened when we mixed drama and poetry, poetry and storytelling, o or most recently, fiction and nonfiction. They resulted in the separate genres of poetry and drama, of poetry and fiction, of creative nonfiction. Perhaps that is the consequence that Derrida is talking about. It is not dangerous to mix genres at all, but very thrilling. But then Derrida goes on to talk about the genre of genre and all of my imaginative imaginings go out the window as I becoming once again confused and numb. So let us move on before we all succumb to that fate.

II. The Death of the Author

In thinking about the “Death of the Author,” I now see that death everywhere. I see it in all writings and I think about it in my own writing. What does it mean? I don’t take it as a literal death nor a hedge against death, although many have talked before about how at least as an author you have a chance to be remembered, to live on. But then I think about my own writing, and when I am done writing a piece, I can admire it, love it, cite it, quote it. Not, I think, out of a sense of narcissism, although that is always possible. But because I, as a writer, die when the piece is completed and I, as a reader, am born.

Cheryl Walker says that Barthes’ “Death of the Author” seems more extreme than Foucault’s “The Author Function,” but I do not see it that way, because Barthes, as our textbook tells us, was caught in the shift from modernism, with its ideas of liberalism, to post-modernism. Thus, with the “Death of the Author” comes the birth of the reader, and that is certainly a way of democratizing reading, of taking it out of the hands of English departments and critics and those “in the know.”

III. Dividing Attention

There are also several points I want to make with this presentation. One thing that as a performer I am interested in is divided attention. What do we pay attention to and what falls out? What do we tune in and out of and what do we sacrifice by our choices? In today’s society, we are faced with this all the time, even as we read. I also want participation, which is akin to Barthes’ “Death of the Author.” The reader (audience) participates in making meaning (performing). It is not just a passive activity. It is never just a passive activity, a past-time, a pass-time. To read is to participate. To read out loud is to perform.

IV. The Oeuvre

Then there are the questions of what goes into the oeuvre, as Foucault asks, and for this occasion, I have written a poem, called Foucault’s Laundry List: (Clear throat)

Nietzsche’s Laundry List

How am I to exist now that I am
Alone in this world
A character without an author
Without a function I am adrift afloat
No god to tell me what to do how
Am I to distinguish from
What is good and what is merely
The Detritus of history?
O, Pirandello, o Barthes and Foucault. Who
Will lead me down the proper path, show me
The way, teach me to distinguish between
Hemingway’s hunting license or
Stephen King’s parking tickets or
Nietzche’s laundry list:
Suit coat
Dress pants
Socks and garter
Bear skin
Tiger paws (with claws)
Straight jacket
Flattened bowler hat
Paper pulled from pockets full of notes and numbers
The stardust from infinite far away planets
Oh, who will tell me what it all means
And if it is collectible part of
The canon.

With the internet, we no longer have to make choices about what goes into an oeuvre. We can very well include Nietzsche’s laundry list to his oeuvre, his collected works. There are writers who have included only margin notes, without the original text. There are authors who create their work by blacking out part or most of the text. Andy Warhol used to buy things, towels and underwear and clothes, and send them straight to a storage unit to become a permanent part of his “collection.” The internet affords us the “space” to collect everything that might some day become useful to us.

V. Ecriture Feminine

I am also interested in feminine writing, which Cixous, as a “second-wave” surrealist (and there are 3rd wave surrealists too practicing right now), contends can be nonlinear and embodied. I want to show all of this even as I comment upon it. I want to make my academic work poetic, a performance, to make my teaching work surrealistic, to make my poetry and art academic. What does it mean for Cixous to talk about an embodied writing? There are people who practice what is called somatic writing, writing from the body. But I don’t really know what that is. But I have, with my illustration, the performance before my piece, to show, not tell, to have an embodiment of what Barthes, Foucault and Cixous are talking about when they talk about authors and functions and writing.

VI. Surrealism and Teaching

I have developed a series of writing assignments for my students that are inspired by surrealism. I have them do “chance operations” in organizing their work, randomly rearranging their paragraphs, which they are reluctant to do at first, many believing the way they have written their paper is the most logical way. This allows them to see other ways that they might have arranged their writing. I have often done this with my own academic writing and found it to work better myself. (I NEVER ask my students to do anything I haven’t done first. ) I have them do “spontaneous research” in which they dive right in to the middle of an article, randomly pick a paragraph, and write in response to that paragraph. I have them write with their eyes closed as a warm up, which they are also resistant to at first. However, as with Cixous’ feminine writing, ecriture feminine, I have noticed a gender gap, with female students being more open to this than my male students.
As a teacher, I am reborn a reader once more.

VII. Dare to Suck

As one of my poetry colleagues used to say at the open mics in Minneapolis, you have to “dare to suck.” I am taking that challenge to heart. I know that all writing is rewriting, may be rewritten one day for a future audience, and so I have faith my oeuvre may contain my ecriture feminine, with all of its glorious mistakes and successes.

I have embraced failure. This is either going to go magnificently or fall on its face. I am ok with either. I will lose a little sleep if it falls on its face, I will toss and turn for a night or two, feel foolish, and get on with my life.

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