After Orals

Now that my orals are successfully over, and summer shenanigans are on my local horizon, I can begin properly to post stuff on this site.

So first a word on my orals. They went, somehow, far better than I had anticipated they would go. This wasn’t because I thought I would screw up or anything, but because I didn’t realize how high-level most of the questions would be. Most of the questions that I got were of the form “Talk about Idea X in relation to Book Y.” Questions like that I can handle with both arms tied behind my back and my legs frozen in concrete. My mind is nothing if not a hotbed of crazy, associative logic. This may be some correlary to the fact that I don’t have much of a dreamlife to speak of; I do all my craziest thinking while wide awake. My talk was on representations and literary reformulations of what I called “the countercultural idea,” obviously an off-shoot in some serious ways from the Heath and Potter reading that I was doing. I read William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Nova Express; Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow; Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo; and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash as all engaging with a form of this idea, and as finding ways to explore its logical implications. The most interesting, and in some ways the hardest, question I got from one of my examiners had to do with whether I thought my talk constituted an interpretation of these works.

I guess it depends on what we mean when we say “interpretation,” but my answer was no, my talk was not an interpretation. I think of interpretation as reading into some manfest text a latent content not there on the surface. So the model for books this way becomes “Book A says A* but actually A* is a coded transformation of content B* from Domain of Knowledge B.” This may sound complicated, but this definition of interpretation makes sense when you think about it in terms of things like Freudian dream-reading and the like. A cigar is not always a cigar, but something else. A cigar (manfest content) expresses some repressed sexual dimension of the Id (latent content). The Doman of Knowledge changes to any particular thing we’re interested in–psychoanalysis, economics, history, whatever–but ultimately this kind of interpretation has the pernicious (and lazy) effect of always “discovering” confirmations that the theory we happen to be fans of is everwhere.

This is, I think, a mistaken way to go about studying literature. Obviously, I don’t want to think that this is what I was doing in may talk. After mulling it over for a few days, I think I was right to say that I wasn’t interpreting these books. There is a perfectly reasonable alternative to interpretation which involves looking at particular ideas, people, events and how these are written about, transformed, and expressed in literary works. So saying that a model of the countercultural idea gets described, and metaphorically extended, in a literary work makes no claims about the “meaning” of that particular work. In fact, I don’t see that deep study is ever required to come to understand the meaning of a work. It seems like a waste to even try. Instead, all that’s really needed is a committment to do some difficult thinking, and work hard to put forward some very basic ideas, even if the procedure is nothing magical or inpenetrable, but very ordinary, and involves doing a lot of research, thinking, and careful writing. If this sounds all very simple and obvious, it’s not. The professional study of literature has become an often obscure and uncomfortably solipsistic discipline. Avoiding these traps while recognizing the complexity of literary study is a challenge I’m going to have to face now that the actual process of dissertation-writing is beginning; the safetynet’s down. I want to avoid sloppy thinking if I can, although, given my associative tendencies, it’s more easily said than done.