Tuesday, September 09, 2014

779 Research, Week 1

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 1:

Some questions I asked, and some partial answers:

1) Utopia = "no place" and dystopia = "broken place". If they're not opposites, does this mean they're two sides of the same concept?

A) I think they utopias and dystopias are both forms of criticism, often satirical, of the present-day world. A utopia points out the ways in which our current social world could be better, and a dystopia points out the ways in which trends in our current social world could lead us toward a future that is worse. At their heart, both story types are talking about the future, and both are criticizing the present.

2) How extensively do dystopias draw on apocalyptic mythology or (post-Darwin) acceptance of the universal struggle for existence?

A) Not sure about this one yet, but I did re-read a chunk of The Origin of the Species and found a passage I didn't remember from the first time I read it in undergrad. Darwin mentions that in this field where he tried to grow a number of plants he had several different plots. One was untilled, and the seeds had to struggle with this primarily. The next was tilled but unweeded, and the seedlings struggled primarily with the weeds. The next was tilled and weeded and the seedlings struggled with insects and slugs that tried to destroy them. The final field was tilled, weeded, and cleared of slugs and the plants struggled with each other, the stronger plants against the weaker. I found this fascinating; the idea that the struggle for existence is something that cannot ever be eliminated by perfections of environment.

3) How did literary naturalism alter the criticism inherent in utopias and dystopias from earlier periods? Did it obscure meaning?

A) This is a pretty complex question, but the short answer is yes I think it did obscure meaning. Consider very early utopias and dystopias like biblical, classic, or Renaissance texts. The meaning of the Book of Revelations is abundantly clear, as is that of Plato's Republic, as is (to a more satirical extent) Dante's Inferno. But once you see the seeds of naturalism take hold, you get texts that are lavishly detailed and they assume that the reader will meet the author halfway when it comes to making sense of the metaphor and meaning beneath the imagery. One criticism of the Naturalists is that they were mere specialists, like an artist who can create a picture of a banana that's so realistic it appears to be a photograph. The "art" of the picture is that it's indistinguishable from a photograph, but in order to appreciate this hypothetical piece, it requires that its audience understands what a photograph is, how a photograph is different from a painting, and has some sense of how difficult this accomplishment is. Literature is similar with regard to description. Your audience must understand why certain details matter before they read the book in order to understand the meaning beneath the details. The same isn't true, or at least isn't AS true, of earlier forms of utopias and dystopias.

My mental state: Poleaxed. I've read over 1000 pages of primary and secondary texts this week and I've got at least a couple hundred more to finish by the end of the night, about half of which consists of mind-bendingly abstract and dense critical texts. I had hoped I'd have at least a week or two before this level of commitment to coursework kicked in, but evidently that's not the case. I got a slight head-start on my work for ENG781 by reading Sister Carrie and McTeague before the class started, but if this week is any indication, I'm in for a grueling term. I had a headache last night that would have incapacitated a grizzly bear and it's only a matter of time before all of the sitting, driving, and scraping my eyeballs across Georg Lukacs's impenetrable prose starts to wear on me. Think Rocky was a tough-ass? If you really want an inspirational montage with 80's rock music, watch someone survive four months of PhD coursework. My initial thoughts about the social media component of this research: I love the idea of sharing PhD-level research with the world. I do not love the additional work that it represents.

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