Thursday, September 19, 2013

New Post @ 7 Worlds

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Revisiting Shakespeare, Macbeth, and Feminism...

So we're covering Shakespeare (specifically the major tragedies, Hamlet as a class and Macbeth, Lear, and Othello in small independent reading groups) in my College Prep English course right now, and I have the students posting blogs in response to their outside reading of the tragedies. I've been particularly troubled/intrigued/interested in the blogs that have dealt with Macbeth, as the students have inevitably spent sometime--some have spent a lot of time--on the fact that Lady Macbeth drives her husband to his crime.

All the students who discuss how easily Macbeth is swayed to murder--by the witches and their prophecy, by his own ambition and finally by Lady Macbeth when he wavers in I.vii--find primary fault not with Macbeth, nor with Lady Macbeth's argument, but with the lady's sex and her social position of wife. The thing that seemed most disturbing to them about the sequence wasn't the ruthless evil of her argument but the fact the she as a woman and as a wife persuaded Macbeth to act.

What disturbed me most was the assumption implicit in these posts that it is inherently "unmanly" for husband to allow his wife to influence his decisions, or by extension for man to be counseled or directed by a woman. And so I've been kicking around what they said, and kicking around my own thoughts on Shakespeare in general and Macbeth in particular, on Shakespeare's inevitably complex approach to his plays' major themes, and the extent to which he challenges or fails to challenge the gender constructions of his day.

Certainly there are moments when Shakespeare falls far short of treating his female characters the way a modern reader would want them to be treated. He is a product of his time and we of ours and he inevitably shows the influence of his environment. One need only think in passing of The Taming of the Shrew or King Lear (in which the tragic hero's hamartia seems to consist of not only abdicating the position in which God has placed him but giving power [gasp!] to women) to find ready examples. Still, there are strong female characters who must be accounted for--Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing, Portia of A Merchant of Venice, and, yes, Lady Macbeth.

In replying to the students and challenging some of the underlying misogyny implicit in their fear of Lady Macbeth having actually changed her husband's mind (O crime of crimes!) or given him direction, I found myself discussing the fact that Lady Macbeth is a character the audience is clearly meant to find repugnant. In doing so I thought about her, and about her attempts to motivate her husband by verbally assaulting his manhood, and decided that I find nothing repugnant in her attempting to direct or persuade her husband, and I don't that is the element intended to cause the audience's rejection of Lady Macbeth. And while her professed willingness to murder her own child is horrific that is as much from sheer lack of human feeling as it is tied to her sex or her role as wife and mother. No, I think the primary element of the scene that is offensive here, and that is intended to be offensive here, is a definition of strength and manhood that includes things like being willing to murder, to step over moral codes and boundaries.

By placing this description of violent and amoral "manliness" in the mouth of a character so obviously vile, I think Shakespeare is intentionally challenging this formulation of strength. We are meant to despise Lady Macbeth, and all that is inhuman about her, including her linking of strength and manhood to a willingness to give in to our basest desires in order to force the world to our will. I think Lady Macbeth's strength of will and character is something admirable in itself; it is the misplaced sense of what constitutes strength and manhood that transform that will and strength of spirit into something that is disturbing and haunting. Lady Macbeth's sex and her role as wife/mother is at most tangential to the moral wrong presented.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Superstars Writing Seminars

I had the wonderful privilege of attending the 2013 edition of the Superstars Writing Seminars. This seminar is a business of writing seminar (although craft inevitably slips in a bit when you have this many writers hanging out talking for three days) taught by Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, Brandon Sanderson, and David Farland (Wolverton). They add various guest instructors each year. Last year Dean Wesley Smith and James Artimus Owen attended as guest instructors, and this year’s guest instructors included bestselling romance writer Joan Johnston, Mark Leslie Lefebvre of Kobo, James A. Owen, Tracy Hickman, and Jim Minz of Baen Books. If you’re unfamiliar with any of these names, they are mostly giants (and if you don’t buy giants because it is subjective, than bestsellers is inarguable) of science-fiction and fantasy, although Farland has written outside the genre, and the guest instructors can vary widely. 
With panels discussing everything from balancing a writing life with a “real life” (whatever that means…) to the details of contracts, to inspirational presentations, to an entire day discussing ebooks and indie publishing there is an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge covered here in these three days. In addition the instructors are available for meals which often resemble one-on-one and/or small-group tutoring sessions (I had the privilege of dining/”lunching” with several of the instructors over the three days and am quite grateful for the friendship and knowledge extended each time).
The session is made up primarily of people in the early stages of a publishing  career. That is, this is not eager-beaver college students or still dreaming oldsters who only talk/think about writing. We had several published authors among the attendees, winners of the Writers of the Future Contest, and one of my new friends walked out of the conference and his first follow up post to the seminar’s facebook page was to announce that he is meeting with an Independent publisher who bought his pitch and wants to see his manuscript on Monday. So not that true beginners couldn’t benefit from the seminar, they absolutely could. I left feeling like I needed to keep my head straight so knowledge wouldn’t spill out my ears if I leaned my head too far to one side. And honestly, with only a non-SFFWA (Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) short-story publishing credit to my name, I am probably a little closer to wet-behind-the-ears newbie than most attendees, but this seminar is designed to help those on the cusp push over. 
If you are interested not just in writing, but in developing a career as a writer. Give yourself the opportunity of a leg up. Join us next year for Superstars Writing Seminars. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Blessings of Literary Theory in Teaching Composition

One of the debates that I had with myself in attempting college level instruction for the first time (I am teaching the "College Prep English" course, our unofficial AP Lit/Comp course), was the benefits that literary theory provides students in learning the art of college level analytical composition.

My wife told me early on in the process of formulating my curriculum for the year that I should be sure to include literary theory as a portion of the class, and that I should do it early. Being enrolled at the time in the introductory Grad school theory class and encountering anew the pleasures and challenges of our major theoretical thinkers, I was surprised at her adamant suggestion. However, after some thought I agreed to give it a try, figuring that Literary theory couldn't hurt and I could always adjust.

She was absolutely write. And I'm not certain why it hadn't registered with me before the benefits this could provide. What had become second nature to me through undergraduate and now graduate training, namely that there are multiple set perspectives from which academics traditionally approach literature most of which can be employed to provide a legitimate reading of any given text, was (of course) news to my students (prisoners of the "correct interpretation" myth) and helped immensely in what has proven to be the most demanding aspect of my course for them - knowing what to write about when the teacher refuses to tell you.

What I had forgotten, or failed to realize, was that a basic knowledge of theory provides instant topics for analysis. I keep a small tool chest of basic analytic options that I can whip out at anytime that something new and striking doesn't just jump out at me as I go through a given text. I know that there are always several old tropes I can fall back on that will provide academically sound analytical work. My students didn't have this tool chest, and what's more were terrified by the cutting of the given topic umbilical cord. When I refused to budge on that point (leading guided brainstorming sessions of possible topics rather than providing even examples or lists) they soon found that the theories I was exposing them to could provide the scaffolding they needed to come up with topics on their own. Why it is that this was not immediately and painfully obvious I'm not certain I can say, but it has proven an invaluable tool to me as a teacher, and far more importantly, to my students as writers.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Eagleton One More Time (Although I doubt anyone will read this...)

I apologize as it appears that I was bothered far more by Eagleton's comments on Mormonism than I realized, and it led to my hijacking the conversation somewhat this evening. That wasn't my intention, and I did not consciously take the snubs as a reason to hate Eagleton or After Theory. My primary argument with the text (as I said in my first blog and won't rehash in any detail here) was that Eagleton oversimplifies the argument in favor of a truth that will allow for the kind of moral judgments that he is calling for.

I actually applaud his position on a majority of the issues he presented. There was a moment in class where Dr. Eskew asked how it is that Eagleton divided truth, and we only partially addressed this question before moving on (which was quite possibly my fault, although I don't remember). I think that the truth Eagleton describes as the false "absolute truth," the straw man set up for knocking down by enemies of the idea of truth, is a moral truth that is completely free of any situational conditions. When he says truth is neither timeless nor non-historical it does not mean that there are not some things that are always true, it means rather that as he says later "Principles can be flexible and still be principles" (144). I think that Eagleton rightly recognizes that principles are always contingent. The Bible does say "Thou shalt not kill," but it also orders the wholesale destruction of communities: every man, woman, child, and all the animals besides. Is it inconsistent? Although I can understand the tendency to say it is (and many have said so, many far smarter than me), I don't think so. I think it is an example of the contingency of principles that Eagleton is pointing out separates truth from the supposed timeless, non-historical "truth" that he attacks as a false version of a concept that he sees as essential. I think that's the divide. All ethics/morality is situational. The application of principles is always contingent, the right thing to do inevitably depends on the situation. This is why our law allows an exception for violence, even lethal force, if it can be established that the action taken was in self-defense. The situation merits the consideration rather than a blind application of an "absolute" principle. I think that's the division of truth brought up in the text, and, for that matter in class.

In my haste to defend the Church while separating myself from elements of the culture that has grown up around it in Utah, I gave a wrong impression. First of all, I stereotyped those members of the Church that are from Utah. Unfortunately it's a bit of a habit in the Church to refer to Utah Mormons in much the fashion I did. I loved my time at BYU. It was the right place for me. I never felt dominated in thought or action by the professors there. However, there was a sufficient contingent of the student body, normally locals from within the state, that had been among like minded folks for so long that they had begun to stretch the beliefs of the Church to take in their own completely separate political positions. Because they saw their own political beliefs as God's will, there was a shut-up and get in line mentality among this minority of students at the institution. I should not have generalized about Utah in that fashion. It was childish, and motivated partly out of fear that I would be painted with that same brush because I was so vigorously "defending the faith." I certainly never intended to imply by speaking of the hard right "Ayn Rand" style position of this group that it was reflective of the Church itself, or of its policies or doctrines in any way. The members of the church and the organization itself certainly deserve the reputation they have been given for "taking care of their own" as it was put in class. I hope that nothing I said would lead anyone to conclude that I feel the Church has somehow abdicated the responsibility to care for the poor, or even that the minority whose views/mentality I did single out for criticism were necessarily averse to helping out personally or as a church. Such was not my intention as nothing could be further from the truth.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Agreeing and Disagreeing with Terry Eagleton

I jumped into this text knowing a couple of things about Eagleton: (1) he is a marxist, (2) the last piece we read by him was just this side of unintelligible. That said, I was pleasantly surprised to find the blurbs on the book to be accurate: Eagleton is both articulate (something the other article was surely not. Intelligent: absolutely; Articulate: absolutely not) and witty.

(I suppose writing must be like abstract art, demonstrate that you are able to communicate in the medium so that Joe average can understand you for a long enough time and you then get blanket permission to be incredibly obtuse and impenetrable in any further attempts at communication with the public. Ah well. But I digress...)

I have posted several times this semester on the fate of knowledge in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century. I maintain my argument developed in a previous post that the accepting of any givens in this intellectual climate is an act of faith, as there are no longer universal givens to which we can appeal even at a cultural level. Renee, in replying to my previous post suggested that it can be a form of intellectual laziness to reject truth as it allows one to sit back and refuse to do any heavy lifting intellectually or morally ("if not everyone's take on reality carried equal validity--well, just how many apple carts would that upset? At very least, many individuals would need to make some substantial changes--this would involve getting up off their butts [figurative and literal]"). Relativism, in this view would be the equivalent of ditching one's homework, or refusing to take responsibility for one's actions/life by abdicating all decision making on the grounds that all choices are absolutely equal and it is impossible to determine between them. How much rage can be generated over a crimes or injustices of any kind and how hypocritical is any form of law or restriction if we truly believe that there is no truth, that there are no absolutes?

I agree with Eagleton's arguments in favor of truth, and with Renee's about the intellectual laziness underlying relativism. When Eagleton said that "Principles can be flexible and still be principles" (144) I wanted to stand up and cheer. (Incidentally, I think if you injected that thought into the brains of those "serving" in Washington, most of their heads would explode.)

Unfortunately for Eagleton, comparing arguments about the truth of physical statements (There is a tiger in the room, for example) with arguments about truth and other abstract ideals is comparing apples and oranges. Given our limited knowledge of Reality and the mind's shaping power in creating the world we perceive, one has to make certain assumptions that Eagleton takes for granted before one is even able to have the discussion he wants. Eagleton is able to make these arguments and they appeal - indeed, they seem ultimately logical - to those who agree that there is some center around which the world functions.

It isn't necessary to agree on that center, or even to have an entirely clear idea of what that center is, only the agreement that there is one is necessary. If it is there, than there is truth (at least of a kind) and we can then move to discussing its nature. In comparing Marxism to postmodernism and post-structuralism (or at least in comparing Eagleton's marxism to these theories) one discovers that Marxism has far more in common with traditional, idealistic thought than it does with these modern "theories." Marxism assumes a center - history, i.e. class struggle - and attributes everything at (varying removes) to the effects of this conflict. This is far closer to putting the Gospel at the center of one's world view than it is to accepting a centerless, relative world. In fact, the de-centered reality posited by post-structuralism and postmodernism is anathema to Marxism, because if history isn't the center (or if it is one of many centers, or if there is no center, or the center is unknowable) than not only their argument but their world collapses.

The point? At the risk of beating a dead horse the systematic destruction of all of the pillars of epistemology on which our culture was built by the extreme ends of rationalism and postmodern/post-structuralist thought makes the choosing of any center arbitrary. Without a center there are no givens, everything is truly in freeplay. As Eagleton's argument assumes a number of unvoiced givens, it requires a center to make sense.

Nothing has yet replaced these traditional ideals and values as unifying elements in this brave new world. Instead as Eagleton notes, we are left with freedom alone to guide us, and we find that threatening, because in our experience on this planet anything goes generally means a whole lot of bad stuff happens. So we cast about in search of something to cling to, something that will make this existence tolerable. Or alternately, we ignore the implications of the thought shaping the world around us.

Before we can accept Eagleton's arguments as common sense and move toward any of the reforms he implicitly calls for we must discover givens that we can share (Eagleton posits several here: truth, virtue, species-nature, love [agape], not to mention good old history/class struggle) at least enough to create a common world where we're able to talk to each other and begin the process of developing that "consensual morality" that President Obama talked about on the very first day of class. Only once we have discovered the value in greater unity as a goal, and stopped fetishizing change and difference for their own sake, will we even be able to get large numbers of people sufficiently together to begin the conversation that Eagleton demands in this text. We must literally restore a common reality (at least to a greater extent than we now have one) before we can move forward in any significant way.