American Comparative Literature Association, Providence – 2012
Piri Thomas’ 1967 Down These Mean Streets interacts with the discourses of poverty and
race that were in circulation during the civil rights era. In the late-fifties and early-sixties, a
variety of “non-fictional” texts, such as Oscar Lewis’ La Vida: a Puerto Rican Family in the
Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York (1966), purported to analyze and explain the causes
of low-income urban life, drawing on the tropes of street life and the cultures of criminality
associated with urban poverty. These texts sprang from different political programs, some
looking for “national action” in the form of policy, others looking for sympathy for the poor.
Whatever their agendas, these texts informed, or misinformed, the American public and
influential policy-makers about the lives of people like Piri Thomas. Down These Mean Streets
exists in a dynamic relationship with these political and anthropological texts that simultaneously
articulate and construct the dominant understanding of Puerto Rican lives in New York City in
the mid twentieth century. Between Thomas’ semi-fictional narrative and Lewis’ ostensibly
objective scholarship, a rhetoric emerges that defines who the Puerto Rican people are in New
York City. This paper argues that this text presents possibilities for radical social transformation
through undermining the hegemonic hold of heteronormativity. Reading Lewis’ anthropological
work, which is most commonly associated with enduring images of poverty and race, alongside
Thomas’ novel, which queers Lewis’ foundational theory “the Culture of Poverty,” highlights the
moralistic and sexually homogenizing thrust of Lewis’ discourse. At a time of massive
population growth in the New York Puerto Rican community, when public discourse about
Puerto Ricans reached a particularly dehumanizing level, Down These Mean Streets provides an
in-depth exploration of the mechanisms and costs of survival in this time and space.
American Studies Association, San Juan – 2012
(Chair of roundtable)
How do we locate Puerto Rican Studies with regard to American Studies? The (in)famous words from West Side Story: “Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America” crystallize a difficulty faced by many scholars of Puerto Rican studies: Are we doing American Studies? Latin American Studies? Latino/a Studies? Or a little bit from all three? The limitations of disciplines have concrete ramifications: it can affect our positioning within departments and even on the job market because it requires us to either include/exclude Puerto Rican literature in/from the canon of American literature. This also poses difficulties for Puerto Rican literature written in Spanish; should Puerto Rican literature written in English be the only Puerto Rican literature included in the American literature classroom? In this roundtable we wish to address how the discipline of American Studies copes with the fact that some Puerto Rican (and hence, American?) literature is written in Spanish and some in English. These conversations will not only expand our understanding of American Studies but also of Puerto Rican Studies from the intersection of language and culture.
Framingham State University Academic Diversity Lecture Series – 2011
In most classes in the humanities–and quite a few outside the humanities as well–the dual goals of a course are to teach a certain content area, and to teach the students to think more deeply and in new ways. These goals can occasionally feel hard to wed to each other, and often cohabit awkwardly. This talk will elaborate on the philosophy behind my design of my Approaches to Literature class, in which I’ve paired a well-known and canonical text with a less well-known or less canonical text. I have organized the course, subtitled “Literature of Rupture” thematically, including units on War, Conquest, Disease, and Slavery. Not only does this enable me to introduce some less frequently taught literature, it allows me to approach the canon in atypical ways–discussing The Tempest in terms of the age of conquest, or The Canterbury Tales in terms of the Black Death.
Roundtable, American Studies Association, Baltimore – 2011
Roundtable abstract: First, we ask how “digital humanities” has been defined; who benefits from that definition? How can digital humanities benefit from more diverse critical paradigms, including race/ethnic studies and gender/sexuality studies? And what can modes of digital scholarship and pedagogy offer to scholars and teachers in American Studies? Our panel will discuss various ways digital scholarly work can productively engage with these lenses of critical cultural studies and solicit new ones. What works of digital scholarship, art, activism and pedagogy enable new possibilities for activating transformations in contemporary US cultural politics?
Suffolk University, Women’s & Gender Studies Program – 2010
From “Fallen Women” to the “Welfare Queen,” women living in poverty have often been stereotyped as causing their own poverty. Popular media portray poor women as all living on welfare, having too many children, and cheating the system. Black Artemis’ novel Picture Me Rollin’ tells a story of an ex-convict and her sister trying to avoid these very things–and finding themselves cheated by the system at every turn. This talk will discuss Black Artemis’ novel in the context of several systems: criminal justice, public assistance, and public education.
Caribbean Without Borders, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras – 2008
This paper addresses the interpenetrability of three sets of disparate worlds in Edgardo Vega Yunqué’s The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle (2004). The first and most literal penetration is physical: characters in the Lower East Side of New York City go through doors or into an apartment and find themselves physically transported to El Yunque forest in Puerto Rico. In this novel, the Caribbean is truly without borders—it exists simultaneously in its customary geographic location, and also wherever it is invoked. Nuclear families are the second set of worlds to mix, meld, and reconstitute themselves. Omaha Bigelow explores how sexual desire both motivates group identification through family creation and also makes those groups interpenetrable. Through his desire for Maruquita, and hers for him, Omaha Bigelow is drawn into the Salsipuedes family, in spite of the onomastic warning inherent in their family name, but his attraction to other women in the text makes his status in the family constantly questionable. The last form of interpenetration is structural, in the diegetic levels of Vega’s narrative. Vega wreaks havoc with the intra/extradiegetic divide when author/ narrator/ character Ed Vega Yunqué enters, causing the other characters to “break character” and converse with him like actors to a director, questioning his decisions about their character development, and the unfolding of the plot. Vega’s postmodern aesthetic and invocation of indigenous Puerto Rican spiritual traditions, along with his simultaneous rejection of “ethnic literature” make him one of the most experimental and controversial anglophone Puerto Rican writers. This paper discusses how Vega’s disruption of boundaries and borders engages issues of colonialism, sexuality, and narrative structure to destabilize and reconsider how and why these borders function.
Modern Language Association, Washington D.C. – 2005
Dionne Brand titled her 2001 autobiographical work A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. By calling her book “a map” she foregrounds the importance of the process of mapping, and the importance of the artifact of the map, yet the figure she invokes most consistently is not the map itself but the destination: The Door of No Return. Of course, the book itself is a physical apparatus in which Brand’s narrative voice both examines and exemplifies the mind of a subject who seeks access to the Door of No Return. Though labeled an autobiography, this book also functions as a critical analysis of subject development within the Diaspora. Within this analysis, the Door’s functions multiply. First, the Door is a historical fiction—a recreation of a place from the past which gives it a living presence to readers. Second, the Door functions as an experience from the author’s life as she narrates her own relationship to it. Third, the Door operates as a conceptual model, or what Brand calls a “cognitive schema” used to describe a psychological phenomenon. In all three cases, this work, creative, autobiographical and theoretical centers around the textual representation of the Door. This paper focuses on the Door’s third function—that of a cognitive schema for African Diasporic subject development. Brand argues that, for Diasporic subjects, the door is the beginning of everything: identity, identification, and even existence itself. She writes, “In some desolate sense [the door] was the creation place of Blacks in the New World” (Brand 5). Map to the Door articulates a subject position both formed and informed by the forced rupture between subjects and their origins, a rupture which generates a particular process of identification, and the Door of No Return serves as a signifying tool for subjects within the Diaspora.
Narrative, Louisville, KY – April 2005
Literary criticism has had a difficult relationship with narrative voice throughout the twentieth century. From the distinction between author and narrator inaugurated by formalist critics in the early moments of the twentieth century, to Roland Barthes’ influential “The Death of the Author” in 1977, separation of author from text has become customary. Concurrently, historicist and feminist criticism criticism encourage critics to consider the circumstances of writing though which writers produce text. Operating between these competing discourses, the critic is caught between a framework that considers an author’s life to have absolute determinative power over text and a framework that refuses to consider the author as a category at all.
Particularly in the case of autobiography, we must respect the distinction Paul de Man notes between “experience and the representation of this experience.” This respect does not evade or marginalize the potential importance of biographical analysis, but it does acknowledge that biography does not offer access to a truth that would be exempt from formal literary analysis. As Hortense Spillers writes, “the narrative which the writer offers for consideration operates according to the logic of the literary form,” and the narrative should be attended to as such prior to additional considerations. This paper reads Dionne Brand’s 2001 Map to the Door of No Return both within the logic of autobiography as experiential testimony and within the logic of autobiography as literary form. This reading aims, as Barbara Johnson has written, “to seek in [biography] not answers, causes, explanations, or origins, but new questions and new ways in which the literary and nonliterary texts alike can be made to read and rework each other.
Pop Culture Association/ American Culture Association, San Diego, CA – 2005
Film is a medium of montage, of juxtaposition of interconnected or disparate elements. The very basis of film—still frames that follow each other with enough speed that the eye perceives objects within them as moving—is itself a montage, prior to any editorial influence. Further, directors use montage deliberately; David Lynch in his 1997 Lost Highway creates, through the framing of individual shots and the use of filmic cuts, settings and situations that undermine and destabilize the reliability of the visual as representation. To create this destabilizing effect, Lynch works both within and against traditional theories of what makes “good” montage, as articulated by Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock. In addition to the filmic cut, his use of light, especially of the strobe effect, often creates an aesthetic similar to the cut, as the strobe light momentarily darkens the screen below the viewers’ ability to perceive shapes. Lynch’s visual effects even annihilate: at different points in the movie, in a series of cuts, a face is effaced and replaced by another face, a video of a murder becomes an actual murder, one character transforms into another, one character’s head is split in two by a coffee table, and a character disappears from a photograph. Lost Highway works to assure the viewer that what is seen will not make sense in ways that will lead to a comforting, neat, or even comprehensible narrative stream.
By reading the framing of shots, the montage of the shots, and also the cuts themselves this paper demonstrates that, for Lynch, the story and the technique are allied and how he uses technique to strike out his characters in unexpected ways, calling into question the stability, or even the possibility, of character. The experience of guessing at the meanings of our perceptions, which Lynch both represents his characters doing and forces us to do, is the experience of the struggle to understand the self as coherent in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Lynch makes evident both the struggle for a survival which would be predicated on this sense of coherence and the evidence to the contrary. Leading the viewer down a “lost” highway to narrative incoherence, Lynch demonstrates that incoherence inheres in all representation, and only our willingness to ignore incoherence allows narrative to emerge at all.
Central CT State – Dept. of Modern Languages – Invited Lecture – 2004
In 2004 I was invited to give a lecture to MA candidates in Secondary Education focusing on foreign language instruction by the chair of Modern Languages at Central Connecticut State University. While many high school teachers of foreign languages do teach literature courses, many of them have no formal training in literary criticism or theory, and my lecture was part of an effort to expose these future teachers to the world of criticism and theory.
L.M. Montgomery Institute, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada – June 2004
In the opening scene of The Blue Castle, “Valancy could not find the key of her Blue Castle” (Montgomery 5), the fantasy home in Spain that has been her escape since she was very young. Before this day, Valancy was content with her fantasy life taking her away from her actual life into a world of desire. However, as Slavoj Žižek suggests, “what the fantasy stages is not a scene in which our desire is fulfilled, fully satisfied, but on the contrary, a scene that realizes, stages, the desire as such” (Žižek 6). The blue castle of Valancy’s fantasy stages her desire, teaches her how to desire, but her reliance on that fantasy to fulfill her desire prevents her from engaging with her life outside that particular fantasy. This paper centers on the ways her exile from her fantasy world, combined with the knowledge that she has little time to live, changes Valancy’s landscape forever—drives her out of her castle in Spain and into her own life in Deerwood and Muskoka.
In Chapter 8, “Valancy reviewed her whole life between midnight and the early spring dawn” (Montgomery 39). The anecdotes that comprise this review resemble the narratives of an analysand—Valancy places herself on her own couch, trying to understand her misery. In the course of this self-analysis, she touches upon the three “ideals” that Jacques Lacan names in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis as central to the work of psychoanalysis: “human love,” “authenticity,” and “non-dependence.” She first notes that she has, “never been able to have [her] own dust-pile” (Montgomery 41), which indicates her failure to achieve the ideal of non-dependence: she wants something of her own, no matter how small. She also expresses regret that she prevented the one boy, “who had ever tried to kiss her” from succeeding (Montgomery 42). Valancy understands the importance of human love as she realizes the lack of it in her life: “not even her mother loved her” (Montgomery 39), and, at the age of 29, she is “unsought by any man” (Montgomery 1). At the climax of her review, she resolves to change her life through the ideal of authenticity: “I shall never pretend anything again” (Montgomery 46).
This paper will focus on Valancy’s fantasy as an imaginary framework through which she prepares herself to understand her relationship to her surroundings as she makes the transition from fantasizing an escape to effecting a material escape from the miseries of her life. Taking Žižek’s point that: “It is only through fantasy that the subject is constituted as desiring” (Žižek 6), I will demonstrate that first by constructing the fantasy and second by giving it up, Valancy Stirling comes into subjecthood and a new relationship with her desires.
Tufts English Graduate Organization Conference – October 2003
Jane Gallop argues, “when the possibility of intellectual communion arises in contacts with real flesh-and-blood people, the excitement and the connection can turn explicitly sexual” (Gallop 1997 83). The locations in which the intellect and the body intersect include the academic conference (the location Gallop describes), the classroom, and the faculty office. I examine the effects of these contacts both in terms of productivity and in terms of anxiety. “All desire arises from a lack,” writes Dylan Evans in his definition of anxiety, “and anxiety arises when this lack is itself lacking” (Evans 12). The student approaches the pedagogical situation motivated by a perception that the professor has what the student lacks: knowledge; to the extent that the irruption of the sexual into the scene of learning produces learning, the anxiety produced by this irruption might be figured as the “lack of the lack” (of knowledge) (Evans 12). Pedagogy that pushes, plays with, and crosses the boundary of what Litvak has called “the proscenium arch that invisibly but no less stringently organizes the pedagogical space” (Litvak 24), creates anxiety and makes possible not only a transfer of knowledge, but also alters knowledge, alters people, and changes lives. In taking this approach to pedagogy, I am using the approach articulated by Gallop, who writes, “call me a deconstructionist if you like, but personally I don’t take rhetorical gestures as frosting spread on top of thought; I take rhetoric to be the very place where thought happens” (Gallop 2002 138). If the importance of rhetoric might be re-figured as the following: how something is said is at least as important as what is said, then I suggest by analogy that pedagogy argues that how something is taught is at least as important as what is taught.
American Literature Association, Palm Beach, CA – 2002
Leslie Marmon Silko in Almanac of the Dead (1991) is quite purposeful in the choices her characters make about the particular drugs that they use and the ways in which they use them. Focusing on cocaine and opiates, I argue that the races of the characters using and utilizing drugs, the historical and pharmaceutical origins of those drugs, and their transcontinental movement form a web of exchange that both reenacts and begins to subvert the colonial project.
In Ann Fallwell Stanford’s exploration of the trade in body parts in Almanac she includes discussions of the role of medicine in Silko’s vision, without directly addressing the many roles that drugs play. Expanding on her definition of medicine to include these roles, I argue that in Almanac users and non-users wield drugs as a weapon in the war over the land with varying degrees of success. Silko suggests that colonizers–believing that drug addicts cannot be agitators–distill coca into cocaine and reintroduce it to the western hemisphere to undermine revolutionary tendencies in the people. The revolutionaries, however, smuggle drugs over colonial borders and direct the financial proceeds from drug sales to finance their war for the land. Drug use also performs a number of perception altering functions when used by both revolutionaries and colonizers. Using psychopharmacological resource texts, I explore the extent to which these portrayals of drug experiences reflect a medical reality. As characters make choices about which drugs to use and when to use them, psychotropic effects, long-term ramifications, availability, social pressure, and the politics surrounding the drug all motivate their choices. In many of these cases, using drugs as a means to an end has unintended consequences. I argue, finally, that these diverse motivations of drug use and crisscrossing movements of the drug trade combine in Silko’s vision in Almanac to create the final wave of revolution.