Tag Archives: literature

Poetry in ENG 132

Prior to reading Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” we’re looking at some examples of poetry that may be unexpected. Like we turned literature on it’s head, so to speak, by reading a graphic novel, we’re going to cover poetry through a performative lens. I am not concerned here with celebrating the mystery of language or the special skill “required” to understand poetry, but rather the very practical, personally applicable function(s) of poetry in our everyday lives. Poetry is everywhere, in song lyrics, in advertising, in novels, in our minds, but poetry is also met with extreme resistance. We’ll discuss some of the reasons why. I hope to break down these barriers by turning our attention toward slam poetry; while these poems cover material that may be difficult to talk about, by bearing witness to these performances we can perhaps know more than we might otherwise have if we had read these stories in a traditional, paragraph-oriented text to be read in a quiet room, alone.

Prof. Lonsdale’s ENG 132 Poetry Playlist I’ve enabled the option that allows people to add videos to this playlist; if there are poems you want to see included that I can show students in future semesters, please contribute!

“Allowables” by Nikki Giovanni

“The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches” by Audre Lorde (more Audre Lorde here)

“St. Roach” by Muriel Rukeyser (listen to recordings of her work here)

“Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes

“not an elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith

“humanity I love you” by ee cummings, read by Amanda Palmer

I’ll leave you with these words, from the podcast On Being, an essay by Audre Lorde on the necessity of poetry for women:

For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power. They lie in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. They are made realizable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare.

If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury, then we have given up the core-the fountain-of our power, our womanness; we have give up the future of our worlds.

For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean (feel like) on Sunday morning at 7 AM, after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth; while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while tasting our new possibilities and strengths.

from “Sister Outsider: essays and speeches” page 36. Published by Crossing Press, 1985.


Immigrant Reading List

Given the hot mess that our country is in right now, a friend of mine thought to crowdsource via Facebook a list of books by and about immigrants. Her post reads, “Here’s your immigrant reading list (pick 2).”

On this list and in the comments on her post and mine are the following titles:


American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (and all her other books too)

Interpreter of Maladies and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (and all her other books too)

Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

In the Country by Mia Alvar

Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

All Our Names by Denaw Mengastu

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

A Step From Heaven – An Na

The Sun is Also a Star – Nicola Yoon

Anya’s Ghost*- Vera Brosgol

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros


This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color edited by Cherríe L. Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Persepolis* by Marjane Satrapi

Maus * by Art Spiegelman

Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness by Cherríe L. Moraga

Borderlands / La Frontera by Gloria E. Anzaldúa

What is the What by Dave Eggers

Almost A Woman by Esmeralda Santiago

En La Lucha = In The Struggle: A Hispanic Women’s Liberation Theology by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (and all of her other books)

*Indicates comic/graphic novel

And picture books, for the littles (or for the grown-ups and almost grown-ups who just like some good children’s lit):

The Circuit by Francisco Jiménez

Here I Am by Patti Kim and Sonia Sanchez

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough and Debby Atwell

Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote by Duncan Tonatiuh

Four Feet Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams, Khadra Mohammed and Doug Chayka

What titles would you like to see added? I can edit this post to infinity!

EDIT: Here’s Book Riot’s “Book Recommendations From Countries Targeted by Trump’s Travel Ban”

Reading Protests

How do we “read” protests? Museums are collecting signs from the Women’s March on Washington as well as those from sister events all over the world, Facebook’s live video feature brings the chanting to your own device allowing you to watch from anywhere, news stations report on these events with headlines like this one from the Detroit Free Press: “Thousands gather at DTW, around Michigan to protest Voldemort’s* ban.” Our textbook, Everyone’s An Author, includes photos from a student-led protest against low wages paid to campus workers (7) and of a Black Lives Matter protest with a caption that reads “Protestors use posters, raised fists, and more to communicate their positions” (6). Here are my own photos from yesterday’s protest at DTW and two from the Women’s March on Lansing:

Protesters standing outside in the snow at DTW holding signs offering support to immigrants and refugees.Protesters standing outside in the snow at DTW holding signs offering support to immigrants and refugees.My daughter at the protest at DTW catching snowflakes on her tongue.One protest sign reads Protesters standing outside in the snow at DTW holding signs offering support to immigrants and refugees. One sign reads
My friend Laura and I holding our signs at the protest. Mine says
A woman dressed up as a vagina at the Women's March. Her costume is pink and made of a feather boa, gemstones, and fabric. She is wearing a black Afro on her head and is holding a sign that reads Signs from the Women's March on Lansing. One reads
Yesterday, this image was circulating on Facebook:


I shared it. Because I do not yet have tenure, which means that I lack the protection that some of my colleagues who have fulfilled their duties to earn tenure can fall back on, I have to be especially judicious in what I choose to share in the classroom and how. Unfortunately, I can’t come in and say “fuck Trump.”*** Fortunately, I teach writing, and part of writing is reading, which means we can talk about how to read these events – the artifacts, the rhetoric, the process of organizing, the role that communication and new media plays in mobilizing individuals and communities, the grounds on which they form and what they respond to, and that allows us a platform to explore and critique the messages we are fed, and the opportunities we have to participate.**

In ENG 131, I’m working on revising our song analysis assignment to include a greater variety of media and to emphasize the people responsible for creating that media; in other words, who was that person, what did they do, and why was it effective? I want to bring protests into our work because they are rich for rhetorical analysis: how do people decide what to put on signs? Which signs are most effective (which signs make it into photographs? Which signs are most memorable? Do signs have an impact on elected officials? Who are the signs for?)? What makes a well-organized protest, rally, or other similar event? How do people choose to make their values and beliefs visible? Who has access to these events? Who participates? How are these events written about in the news? Does it differ depending on the news source and their bias or relationship to the event itself and/or its sponsors? 

In ENG 132, we’re going to read Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” which was originally meant to be performed as a radio documentary. This unit is framed in two ways: one, as an example of the second use of literature we’re talking about (knowledge), and two, as a means of reading critically, making connections, and establishing context. For the workers in BOTD, silicosis literally took their voices away. Because they were black in 1930’s America, they had little authority in court, and their representatives were all white men. Students will have an assignment in two parts: an annotated section of the poem that branches outward to illustrate context, and a transmediation that pairs the poem with another text, song, work of art, or film and puts them in conversation. We’ll talk about witness, a term used here to refer to our obligation as individuals and as communities to respond (Rukeyser would say that poetry demands a “total response”) when we encounter predjudice or discrimination, acts of violence or hate crimes, and/or systemic issues that oppress a group of people – something that we encounter in real time now thanks to new media and how quickly footage circulates. What kind of response is owed? What does it look like? Is clicking “like” or “share” sufficient? What action is appropriate? What is sufficient? What do you do when you feel powerless? How do you learn more?

Texts are not the only media we read. We read video, we read action, we read advertisements, we read music. Reading, as we’ve discussed pretty extensively in ENG 131, is a rhetorical act. It is purposeful, it varies depending on genre and use, and it is an active process that now more than ever requires you to dig in and around and beyond the initial document. I’m looking forward to working on these assignments this semester; I’ve done them before (or variations of them), but I think the current social and political climate in our country will make for an interesting next few months. That feels like a gross understatement, actually, but I’m being smart here and also trying to keep my head above water. 

*I installed the Chrome extension called Trump To Voldemort because I can’t bring myself to use his name. My daughter calls him Turd, I’ve heard people use “45,” and “President Electoral,” but I just…I’m not there. Voldemort gives me some hope, because I know from the Harry Potter series that good triumphs over evil, and that there is power even among divided houses (Gryffindor couldn’t have won the Battle of Hogwarts without Slytherin!).

**In the middle of writing this, my next-door office neighbor met with his Honors student; they are working on a project that provides a historical overview of protest music, and I’ve jumped on board. So excited to see what comes out of it! All the playlists! I loaned her my copy of Of Poetry and Protest, it’s a book I picked up last semester that I have yet to sit down and read all the way through. 

***I also want to reiterate here that I am not in the business of pushing anybody toward any political platform. All views get space so long as those views a) do not oppress or attack anyone, and b) can be backed up with evidence. This is a big part of what we do in composition courses. We talk about argument. We analyze texts. We evaluate evidence and learn to be media literate. We also LISTEN to one another (we covered this on Day 2 of ENG 131) before making judgments. We do not treat argument as war. We make sure to practice inclusive, intentional position-taking, including positions of resistance. Language can be violent. I am not in the business of violence. I am, however, in the business of teaching young people to step up when needed, step back when it’s someone else’s turn, and most importantly, to challenge and critique the systems that we participate in. On that note, I probably shouldn’t say “fuck Trump,” but we’re talking about the meme, here. Also, Pioneers Press makes good stuff. 

Do the Humanities Need Saving?

In ENG 132, our framing question deals with the role of the humanities in our academic, professional, and personal lives. While it is easy for teachers like me to defend the humanities as an essential part of a college education (and courses in the humanities are included as general education requirements), many have questioned the purpose of such courses for students who are pursuing careers outside of the field. Students sometimes come to this course with reservations; after studying literature since grade school, they are certain that more literary analysis is not what they need to be a successful surgical technician or engineer. When funding is tight, classes or extracurricular activities in the arts and the humanities are the first to meet the chopping block. Why is this? What role, if any, might courses in the humanities play in our lives? Should courses in the humanities be required for all students? Why or why not? What can these courses teach us? What might be lost if these courses were let go?

Your first in-class essay asks you to respond to this prompt. While no research or source work is required to write a successful essay, you may find it useful to review some of these links:

On Studying the Humanities: What Does it Mean to Be Human?

HFC’s Associates in Liberal Arts Program and Degree Requirements

Saving the Liberal Arts on Inside Higher Ed

Meet the parents who won’t let their children study literature

You can find further reading by conducting a simple Google search, but again, no research is needed to complete the essay, your opinion supported with examples or even personal experience is sufficient!

Over the course of our semester, we’ll be exploring two uses of literature as one way into this conversation. We’ll look at why storytelling can be so powerful, and why certain media (in this case, comics and poetry) are so effective. We’ll inquire as to why we document events and experiences, and how social media has changed the landscape of documentary work. We’ll ask what counts as literature. And, if literature is one frame for the human experience, how can we, as writers, ask good questions in order to conduct and present ethical research about various identities and interests?

You’ll revisit this prompt again at the end of the semester as a final assignment. Hopefully, through engagement with our course materials and your own research, your ideas will develop further.

Uses of Literature: Knowledge

The second of the four uses of literature that Felski outlines in her book is Knowledge. The chapter begins by illustrating two schools of thought regarding what kind of knowledge, if any, can be obtained from literature:

  1. Literature is seen as a semblance, shadow, illusion, or even counterfeit/imitation, in relationship to the world. It is secondary: a representation of reality, but not reality itself. An untruth.
  2. Literature is a reflection: a mirror of reality.

The question of literature’s relationship to knowledge remains open; much will depend, of course, on how we define the act of knowing. In my first chapter, I focused on literature’s potential merits as a guide to self-interpretation and self-understanding. I now turn to what literature discloses about the world beyond the self, to what it reveals about people and things, mores and manners, symbolic meanings and social stratification. Not all texts, of course, lend themselves equally well to such an analytical rubric; my concluding chapter centers on works that actively defy or disrupt our frameworks of social reference. But one motive for reading is the hope of gaining a deeper sense of every day experiences and the shape of social life. Literature’s relationship to worldly knowledge is not only negative or adversarial; it can also expand, enlarge, or reorder out sense of how things are (Felski 83).

In other words, we’re moving from what we can learn about ourselves through literature, to what we can learn about the world. Felski seems to find both ideas above equally plausible, and offers an alternative way of seeing: “Once we relinquish the false picture of a reality ‘out there’ waiting to be found, we can think of literary conventions as devices for articulating truth rather than as obstacles to its discovery” (84). Here, she calls reality a false picture, but seems to favor truth – lower-case-t-truth (multiple truths?) versus capital-T-truth (one truth).

Felski uses the term mimesis, which is defined as imitation: you probably recognize the term “meme.” Memes are repeated images: sometimes the text changes, but because the core image is the same we recognize it and come to understand what it means, regardless of whether or not the text is present. Consider Success Kid. She invites her readers to imagine mimesis as a redescription, which makes sense. Every time a new meme is created with the Success Kid image, it is redescribed. It is not merely a copy, but an interpretive process. I like what she says about truth, quoting Ricoeur:

The world against which we measure the truth claims of the literary text is a world that is already mediated via stories, images, myths, jokes, commonsense assumptions, scraps of scientific knowledge, religious beliefs, popular aphorisms, and the like (84-85).

Put simply, my truth is not your truth, because we each experience the world differently, so we cannot argue for some universal truth or a single reality, as it doesn’t exist. Therefore, literature is by default both truth and untruth, both representation and reflection, both illusion and reality. No matter where it falls on the spectrum here, it can teach us.

Felski introduces metaphor (figurative language – a representation and a reinterpretation, yes?) to the argument next, pointing out that even our use of language is “tangled up with our embeddedness in the world” (86). Basically, language use depends on context, and it both creates and is used to create reality. In the same way, worlds create selves (we are defined by the constraints of the world we live in) and selves perceive and react to worlds (we change and adapt to the world we live in). Language creates us, just as we create it. Felski says next that “what metaphor and mimesis share is the capacity to generate new perspectives, to make possible other ways of seeing, to intensify meaning by dynamically recreating a world already mediated by language” (86).

One gift of literature is intersubjectivity: the ability to share experience across more than one conscious mind. Through literature, particularly through well-written characters, we can come to know specific societies or communities from the inside, as if we were truly a part of that group. We share their inner monologues, their actions, their conversations. At the same time, this can backfire, particularly when characters are not accurately portrayed, leading to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. This is why it is important that people tell their own stories, otherwise someone may speak for you, and they may not do you justice.

Felski uses one of my favorite poets as an example next, Pablo Neruda. She references his “Ode to Things” (one of my favorite poems is “Ode to My Socks”), reminding us that it isn’t just people, or places, or events that one can know as a result of literature; perhaps we should also know the inanimate objects we hold on to in our lives. Poetry, Felski argues, can do that.

Of course, literature can mislead us; it can even offend us. But as Felski says, “literature, by dint of it’s generic status as imaginative or fictional writing, cannot be automatically precluded from taking part in practices of knowing” (103). Though literature, and especially poetry, might be placed in the box or domain of creative writing, it is not without value: literature, according to Felski, is a “form of social knowledge…[texts] fictional and aesthetic dimensions, far from testifying to a failure of knowing, should be hailed as the source of their cognitive strength” (104).

Think about this as we read Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead.” Felski is talking about literature, but I would argue that much of her argument in this section of her book could apply to poetry. What can poetry do, for us? What good is poetry? What might it accomplish?

A Little Bit of Comics History

I didn’t come to comics by way of superheroes or films. I didn’t read them as a child. I had never even held a comic book in my hands until 2014, when I heard about Ms. Marvel and Lumberjanes through a friend on social media. I picked up my first issue of LJ (a variant cover!) at Motor City Comic Con in 2014, and started reading Ms. Marvel not long after that. Somewhere along the way I had understood comics to be a boy’s world, and so it was exciting to discover there were comics that had women front and center. Since then, I’ve become a regular reader of Saga and Bitch Planet in addition to LJ (though I’ve stopped following Ms. Marvel as closely), and my bookshelves include a number of graphic novels as well (mostly nonfiction).

I had read graphic novels and manga before I started reading comics, but honestly, comics were a harder genre for me to navigate as a new reader – my graphic novel and manga experience prepared me to read the panels, but the entire comic book world was unfamiliar territory. Marvel Universe was a phenomenon I couldn’t find a point of entry to. Same with DC Comics. On top of that, women in comics have historically been portrayed as sex objects, which is a huge issue for me. I had no interest in picking up something displaying a scantily-clad woman with large breasts on its cover (no matter how much I might appreciate the female body). I wanted to read about strong, smart women who didn’t exist solely for the purposes of male pleasure – and those series do exist, if you’re willing to do some digging (and fortunately, there is less digging to be done now that female-friendly comics have become more established in the culture). I do still feel a bit overwhelmed sometimes when I peruse the shelves at Green Brain Comics here in Dearborn, because there are so many titles. Comic book aficionados know the creators, the big names in the industry, the canon and its criticism, and that can be (okay, it is) very intimidating.

In April 2016, Dan Merritt from Green Brain gave a talk at the Dearborn Public Library on the history of comics. It was a small but fascinating discussion that helped me understand how comics became what they are now. As someone who still has major reservations when it comes to superhero comics, I do feel like an outsider, and maybe I always will. I’m okay with that. I value the history of comics, though, in that it helps me understand the larger context that the literature I do read is a part of.

Comics, traditionally, were seen as young people’s territory. This is partly because we associate pictorial representations with children (Dr. Seuss, anyone?), and because we’ve created a system in which literacy (in this case, the ability to read and write) is a marker of intelligence and status, therefore pictures are for those who are less smart (this is explained in further detail by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics). Comics were, for a long time, regulated by the Comics Code Authority, which limited depictions of violence and graphic imagery believed to be harmful to children. Keep in mind that this was the 1950’s, and what was considered “appropriate” for children was also racially charged (ie: people of color were rarely seen, and could never be portrayed as heroes).

The underground comics (comix) scene developed in response to such regulations. Comics that defied the CCA were published and circulated in underground networks. Mainstream comics were still very much present, though the Code was revised to include lessons of morality; in other words, comics were seen as potential teaching tool, still for an audience of adolescents. Marvel and DC generally followed the CCA; in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a three-part Spiderman story was released in partnership with the U.S. Dept of Health that explicitly portrayed drug use as dangerous. The CCA remained through the 1980’s, though its influence waned as it relaxed, and comics aimed at adult readers became more popular. Marvel and DC currently use their own ratings system to designate appropriate age groups for what they publish.

The Comic Books Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) now owns the CCA seal, which serves as a reminder of the restrictions placed on comic book creators. The seal was acquired during Banned Books Week:

CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein says, “As we reflect upon the challenges facing intellectual freedom during Banned Books Week, the Comics Code Seal is a reminder that it’s possible for an entire creative field to have those rights curtailed because of government, public, and market pressures. Fortunately, today comics are no longer constrained as they were in the days of the Code, but that’s not something we can take for granted. Banned Books Week reminds us that challenges to free speech still occur, and we must always be vigilant in fighting them.”

If you were to walk into your local comic book store today, you may find a designated children’s section, but that section would be just a fraction of what is available for an adult audience. Traditionally, comics have focused on horror, sci-fi/fantasy, and the supernatural, and this is generally still true today though some stories have become darker and others have become more playful. High artistic standards have elevated comics as a recognized form of literature by readers and scholars alike, and film adaptations have brought comics to new audiences. Creators have also regained creative control, and independent publishers like Image (a spin-off of Marvel) formed to honor creator-owned work. There has also been a strong push for more diversity in comics, though one major issue there is with the readership: people who have historically been excluded from comics storylines aren’t likely to know that anything has changed unless they are explicitly, humbly, and kindly invited back to the table.

So where do graphic novels fit in? Graphic novels are essentially book-length comics with more sophisticated and varied content, according to the ALA. While I don’t love the ALA’s language (graphic novels are more “grown up?”), the sentiment may be true: graphic novels are more literary and “cultured:” they deal with subject matter that moves more slowly (compared to the action of comics) and is more intellectually complex. That doesn’t mean it’s “better” or that people who read comics are dumb, graphic novels just do something different; the genre features serve a purpose. The memoir is a common theme in contemporary graphic novels. Blankets is a good example of this, as are both of Alison Bechdel’s books.

I hope I’ve done comics justice here; again, as an outsider working her way in, I don’t always feel confident sharing backstory, because I may not fully understand it. However, the internet makes a lot of information freely available (much love, Wikipedia!), and people care enough to make sure that information is accurate and detailed (thanks to those who wrote, revised, and provided footnotes!). I’ve also picked up some new books to read, including Watchmen by Alan Moore, considered to be one of the key works that brought comics to mainstream readers. I have Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, and Enter the Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature on my to-read list this semester as well.

Below are some links to check out:

Much of this post was adapted from the Comics Code Authority Wikipedia page.

We Need Diverse Comics on Facebook

Women Don’t Read Comics (this one has a video *and* the article is a transcript of the video, hooray for accessibility!)

American Splendor is a book and film about Cleveland-based Harvey Pekar, one of the big names in underground comix.

ComiqueCon, a celebration of women in comics, is an event held annually in Dearborn at the Arab American National Museum!

Uses of Literature: Recognition

Rita Felski is the author of Uses of Literature, a book that outlines several distinct purposes that literature may serve. Some of these will likely appeal to you more than others, depending on why you read (or don’t). ENG 132 students will explore two of Felski’s chapters throughout the semester (recognition and knowledge) as they relate to the material we are studying. One of our fundamental questions for the semester is the value of studying literature: why read? Why discuss it? What can literature do? What can it accomplish?

The first chapter in Felski’s book is “Recognition.” Felski begins with her own question: “What does it mean to recognize oneself in a book?” We’ll be looking at this particular use of literature in the context of Craig Thompson’s Blankets, a graphic memoir about the author’s experience growing up in a small midwestern town with religion as the backbone of his adolescence.

Here are a few quotes from Felski’s chapter that I think are worth discussing:

What does it mean to recognize oneself in a book? The experience seems at once utterly mundane yet singularly mysterious. While turning a page I am arrested by a compelling description, a constellation of events, a conversation between characters, an interior monologue. Suddenly and without warning, a flash of connection leaps across the gap between text and reader; an affinity or an attunement is brought to light. I may be looking for such a moment, or I may stumble up on it haphazardly, startled by the prescience of a certain combination of words. In either case, I feel myself addressed, summoned, called to account: I cannot help seeing traces of myself in the pages I am reading. Indisputably, something has changed; my perspective has shifted; I see something that I did not see before (23).

  • Think about an experience you’ve had as a reader, or even as a viewer of art or a film, or an audience member at a performance. Were you looking for connection or did you find it unexpectedly? What effect did that encounter have?
    • The most recent time this happened to me was when I was reading Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. It is a series of short stories that all take place in the midwest, and the stories were pretty bleak…dark, depressing, with broken characters. I was reading the last few stories at the park by my house while my daughter played on the merry-go-round, and I found myself narrating what was happening in my head in Campbell’s style.

Felski writes about how we perceive and process the world around us: “we make sense of what is unfamiliar by fitting it into an existing scheme, linking it to what we already know” (25).

  • How did you, as a reader, respond to and engage with Thompson’s story? Was it familiar? In what ways? If it was unfamiliar, how did you bridge the gap between your experiences and his?

Felski quotes Proust, who explains that when we read literature, we also read ourselves:

Cultural history, as well as casual conversation, suggest that recognition is a common event while reading and a powerful motive for reading. Proust famously observes that

every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity (26).

  • Do you think this is true? Think about how we come to understand the world in which we live. Some of what we know comes from our parents or our environment, some comes from direct experience (this can reinforce or challenge what we believe), and we are also influenced by the media, be it television entertainment, news, social networks, advertising…does the desire to better understand yourself (or perhaps a desire for validation or acknowledgement, particularly if you are part of a marginalized group) motivate you to read?
    • Consider how we often define things by what they are not. Felski argues that the “other” is how we come to understand ourselves: “We are fundamentally social creatures whose survival and well-being depend on our interactions with particular, embodied others. The other is not a limit but a condition for selfhood” (31).
    • Felski also suggests that language is what allows mutual experiences to be understood. We take language and bend it to meet our needs, language is how we develop self-knowledge and assert our identities (think about labels, but also how we choose to describe our experiences, or how we adapt to the language used around us in order to participate in conversation and community).

Felski outlines two different experiences of recognition: perception of direct similarity or likeness (38), in which we connect intimately with a character or an event by way of shared identity, voice, or experience; and self-extension (39), where we find hints or aspects of oneself in something unfamiliar, or strange. Both of these are categorized as “affinity,” or likeness, either direct or through more generalized experiences. There is also “allegiance,” which you find yourself in alliance with, or rooting for, a particular character. Of course, sometimes we find no likeness whatsoever, and our differences are reinforced. We experience the character as “other,” which is not a bad thing – this can help us to understand different perspectives and backgrounds, and can also help us understand ourselves better.

One of my favorite statements from Felski in this chapter is this:

We do not glimpse aspects of ourselves in literary works because these works are repositories for unchanging truths about the human condition, as conservative critics like to suggest. Rather, any flash of recognition arises from an interplay between texts and the fluctuating beliefs, hopes, and fears of readers, such that the insights gleaned from literary works will vary dramatically across space and time (46).

In other words, context matters. To Kill a Mockingbird was relevant 50 years ago, and is still relevant today, but we’ll read it differently in 2016 based on recent events.

  • Does this make literature timeless? Can literature play a role in preserving the history of a people, even if it is fiction? How should we handle the teaching of classics versus contemporary and lesser-known literature?

Felski, Rita. “Recognition.” Uses of Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008, pp. 23-50. Print.