JULIA REINHARD LUPTON: Well, I am very honored, I'm not even sure that's the right word, but we'll go with honored to introduce Michael Berube to you today. Michael's CV is 60 pages long. That's six-oh, 60 pages long-- a testament to his immensely productive scholarly life as well as his extensive service to universities where he has taught, especially the University of Illinois and Penn State, as well to many, many major journals and professional organizations.
I think it's safe to say that Michael is one of the most distinguished scholar-advocates writing about the destinies of literary studies, cultural studies, and the humanities in the United States today. He's written or edited six books, including one trade book, about the state of the profession, beginning with Public Access in 1994, and including, most recently, The Left at War in 2009.
The latter book is actually about much more than the profession, as it concerns the divisions among the left more generally in the years after 9/11. But it travels its difficult terrain precisely by reading cultural studies for its geopolitical rather than its countercultural resources. The book counterposes Chomsky's radicalism with Stuart Hall's social democracy in order to argue for a more balanced leftism in which both culture and consensus can and should continue to play a part in public life.
In Michael's words, quote, "This book is an attempt to bring the history of cultural studies to bear on questions of US foreign policy and international relations," close quote. That's a tall order. But if anyone can do it, it's Michael Berube. As you probably all know, Michael was elected president of the MLA for the 2012-2013 term, after many, many years of service to the MLA on many committees and in many leadership positions.
He's also been an active member of the American Association of University Professors, including their National Council, where he has done very serious subcommittee work on issues such as program closures. For many years, Michael ran a highly visible blog on matters concerning the profession. And he's been a consistently reasonable as well as passionate voice defending the expansion of our fields during the so-called culture wars-- a public debate that he formalized very gently and with great wit in his book, What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts, published by Norton in 2006 and reviewed widely in the academic and non-academic press.
His book, Rhetorical Occasions, which collects together the many rich debates and conversations that occurred during if not always under his watch as director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities deftly develops a series of interventions into matters such as the infamous Sokal affair. You might recall the physicist who submitted the parodic science studies essay to social texts, which was then accepted by the editors and created serious egg on face, not only for those editors, but really for all of us. We all suffered.
And so Michael does a great job sorting out the egg-- the white from the yolk-- the scallions, the garlic-- it's really very, very beautifully done. Working between academic argument and editorial appersu, Rhetorical Occasions is exactly that-- a range of reflections provoked by incidents within the profession that allow Michael to reflect on our lives as academics, writers, and teachers. When Michael writes, he really writes, delivering in each sentence a thoughtful, level-headed evaluation of where literary studies are now and what they tell us about the state of the nation and the world.
And when he edits, he really edits. His collection, Higher Education Under Fire, edited with [? Kerry ?] Nelson in 1995, includes really groundbreaking essays by John Scott, Henry Giroux, Gerald [? Graf, ?] Paul [? Louder, ?] Gregory Jay, and Michael Warner, among others.
In addition to Michael's major work on the state of the humanities, he has also become a leader in the field of disability studies-- the subject of the seminar here at the SCT and of his presentations for us this week. In this field too, his work moves with extraordinary fluency between academic analysis and public work. His stunning book, Life As We Know It-- A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child, published by Pantheon in 1996 and released as a paperback a couple of years later, is an extraordinary account of his experience as the father of a child with Down syndrome.
The New York Times gave the book a very strong review. And since it's the New York Times, I thought I would share some of that with you. Here's what they said. Life As We Know It is not a medical saga, not a confessional, and not even a memoir. It is not a book about bad things happening to good people.
Most amazingly, it is stringently non-sentimental, the intent of which is not to break your heart. It is instead a book about our obligations to each other, individually and socially, and about our capacity to imagine other people. It is an astonishingly good book, literate and ferociously articulated. Did I mention that was in the New York Times?
Although Michael has been increasingly contributing to the academic disabilities discourse, he also remains committed to public discussions of such issues as prenatal testing and end of life issues. And he publishes frequent editorials in various venues on these topics. In both his humanities debating and his disabilities musings, Michael's agile ability to translate theoretical argument into public discussion and vice versa is constantly on display.
His book Public Access is very much about the value of these skills. Although he defends the literary theoretical left from their detractors, he also urges his colleagues-- that is, us-- to acknowledge and cultivate public access as a value. Now, managing such access is a very rare skill and our world, and a much needed one. Michael's in command of the key ingredients-- a flair for argument, a commitment to investigative detail, a willingness to tell stories, an ability to entertain but not succumb to polemic, an awareness of his audiences, and perhaps most important of all, a sense of humor.
So a few words about humor, which is actually very important to Michael, as it is almost any of us who've tried our hand at public writing or just tried competing with iPhones in today's truly flipped-- as in flip phone-- classrooms. Michael's book Public Access begins with a story about Aunt Judy. I don't know if Aunt Judy really exists or not-- she does. But as he was beginning to revise his dissertation into a book, he visited this imposing lady and avuncular or avant-ular stand-in for the general public.
Judy asked him, what is your book like? Is it funny? She may have been just making conversation. But Michael tells us that her question changed the way he wrote. Although the subjects of his books are highly serious, he uses humor to illuminate as well as enliven. Now, he's warned me that tonight's talk will not be funny. Is that still true?
So I thought I'd take the liberty of ending my remarks with a few of your jokes. So you have to humor us by at least smiling, because they may not be as funny in this room as they were to me reading Michael's work over the last two weeks.
So the first is from a piece on prenatal testing. I know it's not a funny topic. Here's what Michael says. He says, bioethics is much too important to be left to bioethicists. This is from What's Liberal About Liberal Education, about the political spectrum of students in his classroom. "I believe a couple of students oppsed war on religious grounds.
A handful wanted to redraw the Middle East. Another handful call themselves libertarians. But their politics didn't go much beyond, keep your hands off my bong." On his own mix of political commitments-- "I've been told that a political party made up of people who agree with me about everything could safely conduct its business in a phone booth."
You might not remember phone booths. About David Horowitz, the anti-PC campus watchdog-- "When it comes to cooking data, Horowitz is the Iron Chef." And finally, his MLA presidential address began with an MLA anecdote. Don't we all have MLA anecdotes?
On his way to a panel, he recounts to a colleague, quote, "Waylaid me and said, 'Michael, you might be just the person I need to talk to. I'm collecting the three biggest lives told at the MLA, but I can only think of two. The first is, I loved your panel. And the second is, I'm so sorry I missed your panel. So help me find a third.'" So Michael waited a second and then he said, "I'll be brief."
And so in order not to risk overstaying your patience, let me welcome Michael to the stage and just tell you that he is a fabulous storyteller, journalist, ethicist, advocate, and also a mensch. Please join me in welcoming him.
MICHAEL BERUBE: Thank you, Julia, for that lovely introduction. One never knows what to expect when one's jokes are retold by someone else. But thank you for doing that. And thanks also to Amanda for inviting me here in the first place. It's been an extraordinary experience. I know, it's not over.
And since I'm going to be talking about narrative, that matters. But I have no reason to expect that the next two weeks will be any less intense than the first four. As for the weather, I blame Ian.
I also want to thank Alison, Mary, and Emily and all the staff for making this experience as smooth as could possibly be. When I'm not a guest-- I direct my own institute. I'm a host, and I know very well how difficult that can be. So I really appreciate it.
And finally, thanks to all my seminar participants, who are doing this distributed intelligence thing that has been really awesome. I'll be referring to them throughout this talk, because our conversations have helped produce this talk.
This talk-- this talk starts off saying some pretty obvious stuff. And then as it goes along, it gets, I hope, less and less obvious. And then at the end, it will all have seemed obvious from the start. So we will be like a story. Literary texts have any number of ways of marking their awareness of themselves as literary. Texts.
Some are cloying. Some are obvious. Some are merely cute. Some involve implicit or explicit meditations on the degree of readerly self-consciousness necessary for reading, as in Beckett's Molloy, Pynchon's The Crime of Lot 49, Conan Doyle's story "The Naval Treaty," in which Holmes explains the difficulty of the case stemmed from its surfeit of evidence.
There are tons of examples here. I'll just pick those three. But my opening example of this is a lot less exalted. It appears in a contemporary classic of young adult fiction, the first installment of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass. The passage is focalized through Pullman's heroine, 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua. I'll do this, and I'll do this shamelessly.
"With every second that went past, with every sentence she spoke, she felt a little strength flowing back. And now that she was doing something difficult and familiar and never quite predictable, namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again, the same sense of complexity in control that the alethiometer gave her. She had to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible. She had to be vague in some places and invent plausible details in others. She had to be an artist, in short."
I call attention to this passage partly because it provides a young adult version of Odysseus, a character whose talent for fabulation matches and in a way inspires the narrative she inhabits, and because also Pullman is so clearly messing with us here. Lyra has to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible. She needs to mix vagueness with plausibility. She has to be a realist narrator within her fictional frame of reference.
But those of you who know the His Dark Materials series will know that Pullman is drawing on the multiple universes hypothesis, in which an infinite series of possible universes inhabits the very fabric of space-time. In order to set his Lyra on an Earth very much like our own, where Lyra can gamble and frolic about the colleges of Oxford, except for the fact that in Lyra's Earth, the Reformation never happened.
The Republic of Texas is a sovereign nation. Zeppelins constitute the most technically advanced means of transport, and the landscape is populated by witches talking armored bears, and the animal demons who serve as the literal embodiments of each human being's soul. Lyra's universe even has a device called an alethiometer, a kind of Heideggerian compass that discloses the truth.
You could say Pullman has a lot of cheek, cautioning this heroine against saying anything obviously impossible in a world of speculative fiction. But then you could say that Pullman is being an artist. Lyra, like Odysseus, is a very clever character, as I mentioned. One gets the sense in her epic journey and in his that either of them could seize control the narrative on the grounds that they are the most inventive and capable storytellers around.
And much of Homer's and Pullman's task consists of conveying their brilliant, fanciful, yet plausible lies to us. So why don't we just cut out the middleman and listen to Odysseus and Lyra directly? It's a preposterous question. They are not real people. They never existed. Their cleverness is but an artifact of the cleverness of their creators. They're surrogates, right, just as detectives are in their genre.
But how they work? Well, by instructing and delighting, perhaps. Told you it would be obvious. Or, to take the more recent answer offered by Lisa Zunshine in Why We Read Fiction by engaging our ability to entertain the possibility that other people might have false beliefs and our ability to imagine that other people might be lying. I'll get back to Zunshine's work a bit later.
But for now, I just want to put forward the fairly uncontroversial proposition that it can indeed be delightful and instructive to watch a good liar at work, and that fictional texts have been making use of this since-- from The Odyssey to The Confidence Man to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and House of Games, although with Confidence Man and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, there's also a really interesting relation to disability. Please feel free to ask.
There's much to be gained cognitively from inhabiting or intuiting the minds of Odysseus and Lyra Belacque. And perhaps the delight is all the greater for the possibility of contemplating their relation to the fictional universes they inhabit, which are full of weird things you don't see every day, like one-eyed giants and enchantress and demons and talking armored bears.
But of course, those weird things are indices that we are in fact reading fiction. They serve as reminders that we are not reading history, even though the Trojan War really happen and the multiple universes hypothesis is totally plausible. In Zunshine's terms, they allow our meta-representational capacities to supply the narrative with a source tag, whereby we attribute the narrative to a source, Homer, Philip Pullman, rather than simply take it as fact.
That is, we do not source tag the claim that the sun comes up in the east, regardless of who first told us about this, because we quickly learn that we don't have to take that claim under advisement. Almost everything else, we do. But then what happens if you posit a person with a cognitive disability that prevents him or her from source tagging?
What if we imagined a reader, or more interestingly, a character, with no capacity for meta-representation, who cannot distinguish fiction through fact? We might get the Thermions, from the film Galaxy Quest-- brilliant, brilliant movie, who call upon the cast of a long since canceled TV science fiction show to save them from genocide, because they believe the show's episodes to be, in their terms, the historical documents.
Or we might get Don Quixote. And if we get Don Quixote, then of course we get the novel Don Quixote, and that has some interesting implications, not only for our meta-representational capacities or lack thereof, but also for the way a disabled meta-representational capacity can produce metafiction. I'm tempted to say, and therefore I will say, that there seems to be a nontrivial relation between the kind of self-consciousness necessary for meta-representation and the kind of textual self-consciousness, if we can call it that, necessary for metafiction.
In other words, the text is reflecting on its own operations in a kind of mimicry of our own self-consciousness. Zunshine cites neuropsychiatrist Christopher Frith to the effect that self-awareness cannot occur without meta-representation. That is, the cognitive mechanism that enables us to be aware of our goals, intentions, and intentions of other people.
But Zunshine does not pursue what this might mean for the textual representation of characters who lacked the capacity for meta-representation, even though she mentions Don Quixote at one point. Cervantes' representation of Don Quixote, after all, is not simply the spectacle of a man so addled by his reading of chivalric romance that he is willing to tilt at windmills-- this, of course, the most common representation of the character.
Rather, what makes Don Quixote interesting in this respect is Cervantes' gambit of making Book 2 an extended meta-commentary on Book 1 by introducing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to a world in which untold thousands of people all across Europe have read a book titled, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.
You will recall the ridiculous conversation, for so it is titled in the head note to Chapter 3 of Book 2 that takes place between Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and Sanson Carrasco after Sancho meets Carrasco and learns that Carrasco has somehow read all about him. It's just before Carrasco's arrival Don Quixote wonders how such a book could have been produced, since it is less than a month since he returned home at the close of Book 1.
And he worries to himself about how he has been portrayed in this book. But he consoles himself with the thought that if, however, it were true that such history were in existence, seeing that it was about a knight errant, it must of necessity be grandiloquent, lofty, distinguished, and true. I want briefly to call attention to the recursivity here. If it is true that such a book exists, then given its subject matter, the narrative must be true.
We were already in a hall of mirrors, because of course, Book 1 started out with Don Quixote narrating to himself the manner in which his adventures will be narrated. Peter Brooks has a line about how all narrative anticipates its own narration, and here it's actually made literal. And after the narrative trails off in mid-episode in Chapter 8, Cervantes continues the novel by discovering the manuscript, History of Don Quixote of La Mancha written by [INAUDIBLE] Arabian historian.
So within the fictional universe of Book 2 of Don Quixote, it is in fact true that there is a book about Don Quixote, which we know as Book 1. And that book contains evidence of another true book about Don Quixote, although Cervantes very cleverly and very wisely cautions us that Arabs are much inclined to lying.
And of course, within that my fictional frame of reference, everything in the first book of Don Quixote is true as well. It cannot be otherwise. The book we hear about in Book 2 is in fact the book we've just read. We know it exists. When Carrasco arrives, he, Sancho, and Don Quixote proceed to discuss the properties of this book, as well as its popular and critical reception. I'll do that briefly.
When Carrasco mentions that some readers have objected to the inclusion of a small inset novel in Book 1, "The Tale of the Ill-Advised Curiosity," taking up chapters 33 to 35, Don Quixote objects strenuously. "Now, I'm sure that the author of my story is no sage, but some ignorant [INAUDIBLE] who set himself blamelessly and aimlessly to write it down and let it turn up anyhow."
Carrasco assures him, there's no cause for concern, for this story, in fact, is the most delightful and least harmful entertainment ever seen to this day, whereupon Quixote replies, "To write in any other way would be to not write truths but lies, and historians who resort to lying ought to be burned like [INAUDIBLE] of false money. But I do not know what induced the author to make use of novels and irrelevant tales when he had so much to write of in mine."
The remainder of Book 2, you'll recall, proceeds from the premise that all the characters in Book 2 have read Book 1 and are willing to humor Don Quixote accordingly. And matters take a still stranger turn when in 1614, Cervantes gets winds of Alonso Fernandez [INAUDIBLE] spurious Book 2 and decides to work that text into his own as well. So in chapter 59, headed, "In Which is Recorded the Extraordinary Event That Might Pass for an Adventure of Don Quixote," Sancho and Quixote stop at an inn in which they hear someone say, I beseech you till supper is brought in.
Let us read another chapter of the second part of Don Quixote de la Mancha. Our heroes burst in on their fellow travelers. Quixote flips through the book and pronounces it wholly stupid. And his interlocutors note that the scene of Don Quixote's appearance at the tournament in Zaragoza is a measly account, defective and contrivance, mean in style, wretchedly poor in devices, and rich only in absurdities.
This aspect of Don Quixote, as you know, was made possible chiefly by the fact that the two books were published 10 years apart. But it makes sense when one's protagonist is unable to distinguish fiction from nonfiction, that the fiction he inhabits should explore the parameters and presuppositions of fiction. This aspect of Don Quixote has been commented on from the moment the real, that is, not the fictional, Book 2 of Don Quixote appeared.
And the idea that Don Quixote is a novel about the running of Don Quixote has resonated for centuries, all the way to Borges' Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, in which Menard's fragmentary Quixote, which is, of course, an exact word for word reproduction of the original, is judged to be more subtle than Cervantes. But it is striking that no one in all this time has framed this as a question of disability.
The character Don Quixote is intellectually disabled. He has become synonymous with a kind of madness, the madness of one takes fiction for reality. Again, no metarepresentational capacity. And yet his disability, which is inevitably a textual disability, winds up producing a text, Book 2, in which his delusions effectively become real.
This is also the premise of Pirandello's Henry IV, although there, the Italian actor whose family is going to great lengths to honor his apparent delusion that he is Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor of the 11th century, a delusion that began the day he played Henry IV in a historical pageant has in fact recovered from that delusion years before the action of the play begins, though we do not know this when the play begins.
And now he has chosen to live as if he is suffering from the delusion that he is Henry IV. The premise of Book 1 of Don Quixote that a dotty old country gentleman gets into his head that the chivalric romances written centuries earlier are in fact historical accounts of the world needs to be revived today turns in Book 2 into a world where everyone behaves as if the chivalric romances written three centuries earlier are in fact historical accounts of a world that needs to be revived today. The disability, Don Quixote's lack of a metarepresentational capacity, warps the text, turning it back on itself in a dizzying series of metafictional reflections on the nature of fiction.
Something similar, though on a much smaller scale, happens in Galaxy Quest. I'm not letting people go without Galaxy Quest. it also opens in a metafictional mode with an old episode of the show being screened at a Galaxy Quest convention. It is from the start a film about Star Trek and Star Trek fandom. It's very literate about that.
It's also literate about the cliches of popular science fiction-- the reptilian aliens, the mysterious omega 13 device, the escape through the depths of a ship. Why is it always ducts, asks Sigourney Weaver, nodding at one of the tropes of the film Aliens? The unnamed crew member who dies before the first commercial break, the self-destruct mechanism aborted at the last instant, and of course the magical gold substance that makes interstellar travel possible.
In Galaxy Quest, it's the beryllium sphere. You'll know in Star Trek it's the dilithium crystals. And one of the few really enjoyable moments of the film Avatar, unobtainium-- that's a geek joke going back to the '50s. It's another word for McGuffin. At first, I didn't know that when I saw the film. I thought, you're not going to try to sneak unobtainium by us, right?
But it just means a device that you reach for which is unobtainable and which is the magical device that is the premise of your fiction. So kudos to the scriptwriters for throwing that in by its real name. But once the narrative centers on characters who lack the metarepresentational capacity to distinguish fact from fiction, a funny thing happens in the film. It's not as rich or as elaborate as the labyrinths of the Quixote. Nothing is.
But it does involve a hyperawareness of the fictional nature of the fiction we are watching, even though the idea that the events within the fiction are real to the characters is never abandoned, inasmuch as the film's denouement turns on every single one of the plot cliches the film has been satirizing.
Now back to Lisa Zunshine for a moment. And we'll do this on our way to Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction opens with the argument that "One reason the theory of mind has received a sustained attention of cognitive psychologists over the last 20 years is that they have come across people whose ability to see bodies as animated by minds is drastically impaired-- people with autism."
Zunshine, like other cognitive literary critics, drew on Simon Baron-Cohen's theory of autism as mind-blindness, a theory she now rightly repudiates in a bracingly self-critical paper in which she argues that the understanding of autism as mind-blindness is itself an example of neurotypical mind blindness.
The paper is titled, "Real Mind Blindness, Or I Was Wrong." She sent me a copy some time ago, couple months ago. And I noted, since I know something about the MLA, that this was the first time in the 129-year history of the MLA that anyone had delivered a paper whose subtitle was, "I Was Wrong." So kudos-- [INAUDIBLE] to her.
Now, in the Kindle version of your book, Zunshine has simply struck all references to autism from the text, adding a footnote. It's a little Quixote-like. I have a better example. "The original edition of this book contained a discussion of the implications for research on autism and theory of mind for the study of literature. I've eliminated this discussion from the present edition, because given what I'm learning about autism, I am now reluctant to make any generalizations about autism and fiction," close quote.
Now, the reason-- I still have the print version. And I was teaching this in a seminar last spring and dwelling on the inadequacy of this account. And one of my students just said, "I'm sorry. I don't have any of this. What are you reading?" She had the Kindle.
I had a phantom chapter. And I thought, it would be so much cooler if she'd done a Tristram Shandy thing, like black pages or taking out the numbers. But-- missing chapters-- Chapter 3 no longer exists.
Now, in one way, that's a wise move. Because as we say in the disability community, when you've met one person with autism, you've met exactly one person with autism. For that matter, autism itself is not a single thing, but a name for a cluster of behaviors, a spectrum disorder such that Joseph Strauss has recently suggested that autism might eventually follow the path of neurasthenia and hysteria into quaintness and irrelevance and that this process may be hastened by the increasing incoherence of the category.
Furthermore, as Zunshine points out in her paper, "My argument was not affected in the least by the excision of the discussion of autism in Why We Read Fiction. At this point, she insists, references to autism and cognitive literary criticism are gratuitous. We lose nothing by leaving them behind.
So far, so good. But one of the things that drops out of Zunshine's book as a result of this rethinking is a brief discussion of Curious Incident. There's another thing that drops out also. I used it for the description for my course is that there's something curious about using the exceptional case as the thing that constructs the norm. We did this in deconstruction.
And so the idea of the theory of mind is important because we've discovered people who don't have it. Everything about that sentence is problematic, but there was no real reflection on that either. There was no sustained attention to the exceptionality and its codependence with the idea and the historical category of the norm.
So what I'd like to suggest-- the other thing that drops out, like I said, is brief discussion of Curious Incident. And that's a loss as well. Because what I'm going to suggest is something parallel to Zunshine's rethinking of autism. Just as it is possible to discuss theory of mind and the strengths and weaknesses of theory of mind as a metaphor-- I'll explain that in a minute-- without relying on the idea that autism entails mind blindness, it's also possible to discuss Haddon's novel without relying on the idea that its protagonist has autism.
So briefly, about those weaknesses-- this is going to be really familiar by now to my participants, so I apologize to all of you who are here. Theory of mind is not itself a theory. It merely means a capacity that most, but not all, humans have-- a capacity for attributing mental states to others-- other humans and indeed, other things generally. It can also be at work in animism, obviously.
So the theory here is really a theory of theory of mind or theory of lack of theory of mind. Some people simply call it theory theory. One overwhelming problem with the term is that is used as if attribution of mind blindness is simply an on-off switch. You either attribute minds to other entities or you don't. There is no continuum.
And the evidentiary basis for theory of mind is embarrassingly thin. I can say more about this in the Q&A if you like, though like I say, I know my own participants are thoroughly familiar with all this by now. They've contributed to the demolition of this theory. And I think that Joe Valenti's talk next week will pretty much demolished what's left of it.
Reading Curious Incident without thinking about autism is admittedly tricky, because it seems, to many readers, as if Mark Haddon has simply given Christopher Booner every character attribute and behavior ever associated with Asperger's, on the end of the autism spectrum, from an inability to read facial expression to a phenomenal facility with math to, more problematically, a sort of fantasy about being alone on Earth with people like himself and all the neurotypicals dying.
And it seems in some quarters, Curious Incident has become the go-to book for young adult fiction dealing with autism, which is weird. Haddon didn't write it as that kind of book. It got reclassified somehow in the last 10 years, just as Daniel Keys' book Flowers for Algernon wound up selling over five million copies by becoming a widely assigned middle and high school text dealing with a matter of what was then known as mental retardation.
But what matters for my purposes is not Christopher Boone's diagnosis. What matters is Curious Incident's self-reflexive awareness of itself as a text. Now, I get crabby in the paper I circulated for Thursday as well about people diagnosing characters. I'm going to get crabby about it again here, not only because it goes on in disability studies, but also because I'm very crabby about the objection that such and such a character is just a series of attributes and devices. That's right. They're a literary character. They're a set of attributes and devices. That's all they ever were.
[SIGHS] OK. I got that out. So, from start to finish, Curious Incident is about texts. The title itself remarks an absence-- the absence of sounds from the dog does who not bark in the night. That's from the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze." And Christopher's explicit about his love for Sherlock Holmes and his distaste for proper novels.
And yet there's a sly literary history joke going on with the proper novel cites when he claims that, "In proper novels, people say things like 'I am veined iron, with silver, and with streaks of common mud. I cannot contract into the firm fist which those clench who do not depend on stimulus.' What does this mean? I do not know. Nor does father, nor does [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE]. I have asked them."
Well, I don't know what it means either, but I do know comes from Woolf's The Waves, hardly a proper novel. On the contrary, it is one of those bizarre, modernist things that Steven Pinker has accused of "flying in the face of human nature."
"All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside. In literature, omniscient narration, structured plots, the orderly introduction of characters, and general readability were replaced by a stream of consciousness, events presented out of order, baffling characters and causal sequences, subjective and disjointed narration, and difficult prose." It's apparently been all downhill ever since, and eventually led to some kind of crisis in the humanities.
It must be said that Zunshine's treatment of Pinker in Why We Read Fiction is far too kind. It's precisely about this. She even goes so far as to suggest that we have not be any good faith effort to meet Pinker halfway. I think the more appropriate response to this culturally illiterate synopsis of modernism was that of Louis Menand. In his New Yorker review of Pinker's book Blank Slate in which this passage appeared, Menand writes, "Jesus wept."
And Pinker's synopsis starts from the claim that Virginia Woolf had written in or about December 1910, human nature changed. No wonder he gets a cold reception from people who believe that words and phonemes matter. Menand goes on to argue-- again, for Pinker, this is all is blank slate stuff. Virginia Woolf's a blank slatist as well, even though she said human character, not human nature, details, details.
And she was being tongue and cheek as well, slightly. Menand goes on to argue that modernist narrative is an attempt to lay bare the devices of the human mind at work, as opposed to the realist that Woolf was critiquing in character and fiction who treated character as a mechanical matter of [INAUDIBLE], was doing precisely what cognitive scientists advocate. Quote, "Woolf, in short, was a Pinkerite."
Now, I wouldn't go that distance myself, but I would say with David Herman that modernist narratives can both be illuminated by and help illuminate post-cognitivist accounts of the mind as inextricably embedded in contexts for action and interaction. Pinker's aversion to modernism nicely if rather embarrassingly displays one of the stranger aspects of contemporary evo criticism-- their evident sense that the human brain evolved over the course of the Pleistocene in ways of led inexorably to the 19th century domestic realist novel.
For some evo critics, this attitude has a counterpart in an intense antipathy the literary theory that sometimes sounds like a longing for a sudden newsflash-- this just in, sign not arbitrary after all. Though Pinker himself does not subscribe to the notion that art is an evolution, an evolutionary adaptation-- he thinks it's more like strawberry cheesecake. He really does say strawberry cheesecake-- so there's this dessert.
This aversion to modernism and to critical theory is also shared by Dennis Dutton and Brian Boyd, who have put all their chips on the proposition that art is an adaptation. It has a demonstrable survival value, though that actually can't be demonstrated. It's just an article of faith. So tellingly, the adaptationists tend to focus on Pride and Prejudice and mate selection. Cognitivists like David Herman tend to prefer Mrs. Dalloway, which for them becomes the quintessential realist text.
I want to thank Brandon Jones among my participants for getting me up to speed on the inactivist account of mind, which has all kinds of interesting points of contact with phenomenology. Now, Zunshine is a welcome exception to that rule insofar as she predicates her work on readings of some relatively improper 20th century novels like Mrs. Dalloway and Lolita.
But one of those things at stake in this project is the question of what constitutes a proper novel. What constitutes an intelligible narrative? Had that question been at stake for Zunshine's project as well, she might have pursued Haddon's joke a bit further. Because it's not just a question of whether The Waves itself constitutes a proper novel. The point, surely is that the neurotypical characters in Curious Incident aren't any better at reading that passage then Christopher is.
It is as if, in the face of The Waves, no one in Curious Incident is any more or less intellectually disabled than anyone else. And that in turn opens onto the novel's implicit but profound suggestion that no one in Christopher's world, with the possible exception of Siobhan, his paraprofessional aid, is any less socially maladroit than he is, either.
Now, as for the text's relation to its own textuality-- I mention this starting from the title-- but also Christopher Boone knows at every point that he writing a novel, a murder mystery novel about who killed Wellington, the dog. And because he claims not to understand proper novels, he explains to us from the outside why his book is written the way it is. "Siobhan said that the book should begin with something to grab people's attention. That is why I started with the dog. I also started with a dog, because it happened to me. And I find it hard to imagine things which did not happen to me."
Siobhan also tells him that readers care more about people than dogs, so if a person was killed in a book, readers would want to carry on reading. A narrative must earn our attention and must give us access to other human minds. That is really Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction and Brian Boyd's Argument in the Origin of Stories in a nutshell. Again, my participants have already heard this.
Boyd's book, the first half, goes through the neuroscience. The second half does this reading of The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who. He's very fond of the formulation from Zeus to Seuss. And his argument there-- and he gets very pissy about this, because literary critics are not paying enough attention to this-- his argument there is that authors found strategies to hold our attention.
And in my review of the book, I said do really think, literally, we thought that went without saying. So doesn't really count as a contribution to criticism any more than William Dershowitz' line about Joseph Carol's work on Pride and Prejudice, "The discovery that Pride and Prejudice is about mate selection does not count as a contribution to criticism."
But in one way, this opening strategy is no surprise. What is the point of the narrative exercise of Curious Incident if not to give us access to the neuroatypical mental universe of Christopher Boone? Just as Faulkner's achievement in the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury was to compose a narrative written, or at least conveyed-- I'll get back to that-- by a character who appears not to experience linear time as we do, so does Haddon offer our voracious other mind-reading brains the opportunity to perceive the world as Christopher does, as a maelstrom of sensory stimuli and unreadable social cues. And of course, that's part of the appeal of narratives such as Haddon's or Faulkner's.
They seem, laudably enough, to give us a perspective on intellectual disability from the inside out. I'll say more about this on Thursday. Certainly, much of the discussion or the production of the narrative in Curious Incident is a simple plot device, devised to explain to us how Christopher became, with help, non-disabled enough to be able to write a novel.
In Flowers for Algernon, similarly, the device was the idea that Charlie Gordon was required to write reports as part of the experiment so that we and his supervisors could track his cognitive development and eventual degeneration in the very texture of this prose. But then, about a third of the way through Curious Incident, there's a curious incident. Christopher's father Ed discovers the book Christopher is writing and realizes that Christopher's trying to find out who killed Wellington, even though his father has forbidden him to do so.
When Christopher replies to the effect that he has faithfully followed the letter of his father's instructions, if not their spirit, his father replies, "Don't give me that bollocks, you little shit. You knew exactly what you were bloody doing. I've read the book, remember?" Again, why this affinity for textual self-reflexivity in a narrative whose protagonist has a cognitively atypical relation to narrative?
Now, as I argued in the paper I circulated for Thursday's colloquiun-- I'll just mention this briefly here-- there's no necessary correspondence between the two. You can have one without the other. It's perfectly possible to write Of Mice and Men without weaving the texture of the text around Lenny's disability, just as it is possible to write a perfectly entertaining animated Disney film that includes a fish with short-term memory loss without turning Finding Nemo into Christopher Nolan's memento.
And at least I thought that. And I went back. [INAUDIBLE] points out that in Finding Nemo actually does have a metatextual relation to itself that centers on intellectual disability. This is Quayson's argument. It's quite good. Insofar as Marlin's quest to find his son Nemo becomes legendary within the text of the narrative itself, other characters tell the tale and are drawn to it. That's how they find Nemo.
Except that legend, the legend itself, does not include Dory, the fish with the short-term memory loss, who is Marlin's companion throughout. In other words, Quayson writes, "The myth-making is a memory that itself suffers from some form of amnesia." There's also an element here of what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder call narrative prosthesis, by which Dory helps Marlin overcome his PTSD. He has PTSD because he saw his wife being eaten in the first minute of the film.
And thus, our vendors Marlin, non-disabled, and capable of finding his son, while she herself is effaced from the intratextual narrative. And likewise, with Of Mice and Men, it might be possible to say that Steinbeck heightens the pathos of Lenny's disability in the final chapter when, from out of Lenny's head, there came a gigantic rabbit to tell him that he will never realize his dream of tending rabbits.
But when character with an intellectual disability becomes the occasion or the impetus or the vehicle for an exploration of the functions of narrative, then we get a fascinating meditation on what the cognitive literary critics are trying to get at, namely, how minds work in narrative, and what that means for why and how we read fiction. For what are the possible relations between fictional narrative and intellectual disability, and what do those relations tell us, in turn, about the human propensity for narrative?
The characters in Book 2 of the Quixote have read the first book that you've just read. Likewise, Christopher's father has read the book you have read up to the point at which Christopher narrates to us his father's discovery of the book. For one thing, this tells us that the human propensity for narrative is more inventive and more interesting than Steven Pinker imagines. But since that's a pretty low bar to clear, let's set it a bit higher. I'm going to move now to the "bluegum chillun" passage in Benjy's section.
It appears just after the scene in which Benjy intuits that Caddy has lost her virginity. "Verse said your name Benjamin now. You know how come your name Benjamin now. They making a bluegum out of you. [INAUDIBLE] in old time your grandpa changed nigger's name, he turned preacher and when they we look at him, he bluegum too.
Didn't use to be bluegum neither. And when family woman looking him in the eye in the full of the moon, child born bluegum. And one evening, when there's about a dozen of them bluegum chillun running around the place, he never come home. Possum hunters found him in the woods, et clean. And you know what et him. Them bluegum chillun did."
This is one of the weirder and more obscure passages in Benjy's section. It is not clear why it follows the moment in 1909 in which Caddy runs into the house crying. Most of Benjy's transitions are much more straightforward, involving key words, place associations, or memories of getting snagged on a nail. That is why Benjy is usually considered a passive recorder of scenes in sense impressions.
His narrative does not seem to be motivated consciously. And of course, Faulkner makes no attempt, like that of Haddon or Keys, to explain how Benjy's words got on the page in the first place. They're apparently direct transcriptions of mental events, just like The Waves, in stream of consciousness mode. But Richard Godden argues that Benjy does indeed have a plan here, and that after his fashion he is plotting.
The complexity of the analogy raises a childishly simplistic purpose, realizes a childishly simplistic purpose. Benjy wants his small sister for himself, and to that end has engaged in plotting, inventing a temporal comparison that allows him to move from an unpleasant event in 1909 to an earlier but less troubling loss. The shift works for him because as a bluegum, Benjy can control his sister's sexuality.
My attribution of an act of consciousness to Benjy, a character most typically described as passive and uncomprehending or totally devoid of consciousness at a pattern-making level, stems from a conviction that even those with severe learning disabilities are liable to whatever subterranean stories characterize the culture within which they pass their long childhoods. Yes, well, what's at stake here is precisely the degree of self-reflection one attributes to Benjy. Is he capable of plotting?
Although Godden actually says pre-plotting, drawing from Ricoeur, in the sense of consciously ordering the sequence of events in his narrative. Now obviously, Sound and the Fury is not self-reflexive in the manner of Don Quixote or Curious Incident. There's no metafictional moment in which Quentin says, just wait till you get to my brother Jason's narrative and you'll begin to put my own sexual obsessions with Caddy in some perspective.
And we also can't go so far as to say that Benjy has a metarepresentational capacity himself such as he can think, I wish I weren't so sad that Caddy has been banned from the house, or even, I wish my mother and Jason had not banned Caddy from the house. His position is precisely one of narrative irony against one of the subjects of colloquium for Thursday. And the question is whether he is capable of understanding anything about the narrative he's in.
And yet, perhaps Benjy, like Quixote and Christopher Boone, is capable of warping the text around himself in this bluegum kind of way. There's also a side issue at stake here as well. And it has to do with the central obsession of the book, Caddy's sexuality. Because it's one thing if Quentin and Jason tie themselves into knots about Compson, honor, and the ideology of southern white womanhood.
But if Benjy objects to Caddy wearing perfume and kissing boys, one is tempted to think there really is something wrong with it after all, that Caddy's sexuality is a problem simply because it is Caddy's sexuality. One is tempted to naturalize the pathologization of her sexuality in precisely the way the muddy drawers scene invites us to do or in the way Caddy herself seems to do when she says, "There was something terrible in me. Sometimes at night I could see it grinning at me. I could see it through them grinning at me through their faces."
But if Benjy's narrative is motivated in some way, then he not only joins Quixote, Christopher Boone, Odysseus, and Lyra Belacqua as characters who are capable of commentary on their own narratives. He also becomes a conscious observer, whom we can source tag the way we do with his brothers and say, well, that's just Benjy's take on things. It's not like he gives us any direct access to things themselves.
I'll turn in closing to Philip K. Dick's 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip. I'll be talking more about this on Thursday. In fact, I'll be talking about this all the time. It's all I do [INAUDIBLE]. But I want to introduce it here because it manages to combine an experimental self-reflexivity and a Mrs. Dalloway-esque distributed cognition by way of a character with autism.
In Martian Time-Slip, the device in Chapters 10 and 11, which utterly deranges the sequence and the substance of the narrative, that device is not this nonverbal autistic character Manfred Steiner. He doesn't perceive time and narrative they way you do. Rather, it's something a little more complicated. It's more, when this nonverbal autistic character Manfred enters the book, we readers will no longer be able to experience time and narrative the way we thought we were going to.
The artificiality of the device is much more obvious in Martian Time-Slip than in The Sound and the Fury or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime because the depiction of Manfred's autism is so preposterous. So It's not a spectrum-- I don't think anyone perceives the world the way Benjy does either. No one perceives as sort of perpetual present.
But Manfred's another kind of creature altogether. He's diagnosed as a childhood schizophrenic, which actually would have been all too common in 1964, the year of the novel's publication. Autism was considered a form of childhood schizophrenia. And the novel contains explicit discussions of theories about the behavior of schizophrenics and childhood schizophrenics. In one way, it's a novel very much about schizophrenia.
But although autism was elided with schizophrenia at the time and attributed to the defective parenting of refrigerator mothers-- as Adam Phillips has remarked, it is curious that there were never any refrigerator fathers-- no one really believed in 1964 that people with autism could see hundreds of years into the future as Manfred could do, to his dismay, or that they could warp the fabric of space-time for those around them.
In other words, the very fictionality of the device, the very preposterousness of it that I find useful, because there's no pretense here that it has any correspondence. This comes up again in the reading on Thursday, where Mark [INAUDIBLE] is reading Curious Incident and complains at one point, is it too much to ask for simple accuracy? And Aristotle would have thrown him out of the class. Really? Simple accuracy?
Again, it's a device. But that would never even come up in this novel, precisely because it's a work of speculative fiction. So it's therefore all the clearer that in Martian Time-Step, intellectual disability is, as it is in the work of Cervantes, Faulkner, and Haddon, a device that not only involves a novel theory of mind, so to speak, but also produces textual effects that constitute meditations on textual effects in a form of textual metarepresentation.
What's especially remarkable about Dick's use of this device is that he does not locate those textual effects in the subjectivity of any one character. Although three neurotypical characters are affected in various ways by Manfred's ability to work narrative and the character most affected is himself a recovered schizophrenic, the result is not a Rashomon or Sound and the Fury-like perspectivalism.
The technique is free indirect discourse, but the time slips somehow occur both within and without the minds of the novel's characters. It's extremely difficult-- I think it is impossible-- to say that the passages of free indirect discourse correspond to or track the mental events or internal monologues of characters.
Additionally, as we'll see on Thursday-- I mention this partly for those of you who will not be there on Thursday-- the text is repeatedly glitched in minor but troubling ways, re-narrating itself with just one or two words out of place, very much like the closing chapters of Coetzee's Foe, which I would argue is glitched for the same reason, the presence of the nonverbal Friday, who presents what Quayson would call disability as hermeneutical impasse for the entire narrative. And here, I have to thank Andrew Ferguson and Sandra [INAUDIBLE] for introducing me to the term "glitching," which I did not know was a verb. Thanks.
Lastly, and quite apart from the technique of the time slips, Dick's Manfred shares with Faulkner's Benjy an atypical and highly disorienting relation to time, which produces wrenching effects for the relation of [INAUDIBLE]. It is diagnostic of one form of modernist experimentalism, one might say, that intellectual disability be marked textually as a relation to time such that we can speak of an intellectually disabled chronotope.
That's not true of Quixote. He lacks the capacity of metarepresentation, but does know what time it is. Manfred's visions of the future are not only visions of the future. It's a motif in Dick's work whereby pre-cogs are invariably people with disabilities, as in Minority Report, where they see multiple possible futures. They're also visions of the future that render the plot of the novel meaningless.
I could have made this point also with Curious Incident, for those of you who are familiar with it. For those of you who are not, spoiler alert. Who killed Wellington? That's answered on page 124. It's the whole second half of the novel. Once that happens, the whole-- the reason you're reading the novel, what the plot of the novel turns out to be, is not what you thought it was. It's reconfigured by that convergence of disability and textuality. I'll say a little bit more about that with Martian Time-Slip in just a second.
That plot, I won't go into. The plot of Dick's novel involves real estate speculation on Mars. But Manfred's chronotope, like that of the aboriginal Martian Bleekmen opens onto long range temporal vistas from which plots about plots of land are irrelevant. They don't really go quite to geologic scales of time.
I'm thinking of Ian's talk, of course. But it's not quite a human scale either. Now, about that, Peter Brooks writes, in reading for the plot, that two of the five modes elaborated in [INAUDIBLE] are critical to the temporal structure of plot, the two irreversible codes-- this is Brooks-- plot then might best be thought of as an overcoating of the [INAUDIBLE] by the hermeneutic-- that is, the mode of action by the mode of enigma.
Back to Brooks, "the latter structuring the discrete elements of the former into larger interpretive holes, working out their play of meaning and significance." In Martian Time-Slip, Manfred's function is to disrupt that function. Again, I'd say same thing about Christopher in Curious Incident. You're reading along the [INAUDIBLE] code. There's a bunch of accidents going on.
The hermeneutic code produces enigmas that structure and so forth. And suddenly, there's a wrenching thing and all of a sudden, what the novel's about has changed. And the terms of its aboutness have changed as well. So Manfred's function is to disrupt that function, to throw awry and to rewrite the frame by which the actions of the narrative are to be understood.
Paul Ricoeur says something similar about the eerie meeting of minds, so to speak, between Septimus Warren Smith and Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway, suggesting that the narrative rupture in that text is a vehicle for opening out from what he calls mortal time to following [INAUDIBLE] monumental time. "In his madness, Septimus is the bearer of a revolution that grasps in time the obstacle to a vision of cosmic unity and in death the way of reaching the salvific meaning." The passage centered on the beggar woman in Mrs. Dalloway goes still further, I think, giving us access to planetary time.
"Through all ages, when the pavement was grass, when it was swamped through the age of tusk and mammoth, through the age of silent sunrise, this battered old woman would still be there in 10 million years." Though because her song consists of [NON-ENGLISH], it is not clear that perception of time on that scale is even remotely intelligible to us.
In narratives like Don Quixote or Curious Incident, the disabling of a character's capacity for metarepresentation allows for sustained interrogation of the purposes of fiction and a metafictional enactment of the functions of self-reflexivity. In narratives like Martian Time-Slip and Mrs. Dalloway, the disabling of dominant protocols of representation seems to offer us secular versions of the ancient functions of the seer, the character who has or affords others access to time and narrative on a superhuman scale.
Benjy Compson, by contrast, would seem to be a throwback to a much earlier association of intellectual disability with access to a divine order of meeting, not only in the sense that he inhabits that eternal present, but also in the sense that he, together with the Reverend [? Chagog, ?] somehow enables Dilsey to see the first and the last, to see the beginning and the ending. So once again, with feeling, it is not a question.
It should not be a question of whether we can correctly diagnose the characters as so many readers have done with Christopher Boone and as [INAUDIBLE] really regrettably does with Coetzee's Michael K, when he assumes that Michael K simply has autism and oddly proceeds to equate autism with silence. Rather, it is a question of whether we adequately understand these characters' implications for the understanding of narrative.
Quayson has coined the term "aesthetic nervousness" to denote the process by which "the dominant protocols of representation within the literary texts are short-circuited in relation to disability." That process happens for Quayson within the text itself, between characters, for example, usually between disabled and non-disabled characters, and also between the text and the reader, whose perspective is also affected by the short-circuiting of the dominant protocols governing the text, a short circuit triggered by the representation of disability.
But as some of our participants pointed out-- I want to thank Leon Hilton especially, thanks, Leon-- Quayson never really explains adequately what he means by short-circuited. My sense is that he meant something akin to skew or mess with. In class that day, I remarked after some discussion, I was glad to see our seminar doing more with Quayson's metaphor than Quayson did. But when electrical current, as we pointed out, is diverted through an area of lower resistance-- that's your short circuit-- some functions that the current were supposed to serve may very well be disabled in a sense one uses when one disables a smoke alarm.
To put this another way and to conclude, the self-reflexive textual deployment of intellectual disability becomes an occasion for and invites readers to participate in the exploration of modes of time and narrative that extend internally into meditations on the operations of consciousness and externally on to vistas beyond any human comprehension one can imagine, except by means of the textual representation of exceptionality. Thanks.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
Michael Bérubé, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State, asks what happens when characters with intellectual disabilities appear in fictions that experiment with the parameters of fiction.
Don Quixote to Philip K. Dick's 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip, Bérubé suggests that intellectual disability takes many textual forms, opening onto the question of how we understand the difference between fact and fiction, and onto the experience of radically disorienting modes of time and narrative.
The July 15, 2013 lecture was sponsored by the School of Criticism & Theory.