Listening to voyeurs

January 2, 2009

Seen Reading is a blog with podcasts of the written entries. The blog is by Julie Wilson, who describes the purpose of Seen Reading on the ‘About’ page:

What is Seen Reading?
1. I see you reading.
2. I guesstimate where you are in the book.
3. I trip on over to the bookstore and make a note of the text.
4. I let my imagination rip.
5. Readers become celebrities.
6. People get giddy and buy more books.

The Seen Reading blog is not only a very intriguing concept, but what is of particular interest is how it makes use of the podcast to transform what is solely a visual/textual dynamic (a person reading book watched by Wilson who in turn writes a blog entry recreating the experience) into a spoken/aural one.

But why do this for a site that is about the visual/textual — ‘seen reading’? The answer may lie in Wilson’s recommendation to listen to the podcast while riding the subway or bus, two of the numerous sites where she indulges in her ‘literary voyeurism.’ The ideal setting for listening to the Seen Reading podcasts, that is, are those very scenes of reading being described in the podcasts. The effect could be quite stimulating: listening to Wilson describing her acts of voyeurism while at the same time engaging in these same acts oneself, perhaps while one of the other people watching readers is Wilson herself, or perhaps wondering if Wilson is watching you listening to her talking about watching someone reading while watching someone reading.

Does Wilson ever imagine herself being seen reading, and imagine what story the watcher may be constructing around what she is reading?

(Thanks to Carolyn Black for bringing Seen Reading to my attention, and who can be heard reading from Lydia Davis’ Break it Down in an installment of the ‘Readers Reading’ feature on Wilson’s blog.)


Apologies for the hiatus

December 11, 2008

For those who have been wondering about the lack of new posts on this blog: it has been a busy time, and I have been blogging ‘behind the scenes.’ Since I use this blog as a repository for my research data, I’ve been drafting a number of posts as I do my research that I haven’t yet published. I hope over the holidays to have ready at least my post on a series of essays by Donald M. Scott on American lecturing in the 19th century.

I was encouraged in my rationale for using this blog as a repository for my research data on performative speaking by an interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Wired Campus news digest. The interview (“Bringing Tenure into the Digital Age,” December 10, 2008)  is with Christine L. Borgman, Professor of  Information Studies at the University of California Los Angeles, and author of Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet (2007). Here’s the book’s url.

Here’s the most relevant exchange:

Q. In your recent book, “Scholarship in the Digital Age,” you contend that the tenure system needs to reward people for contributions to collaborative digital projects instead of recognizing only those who publish books and articles. Why?

A. Data is becoming a first-class object. In the days of completely paper publication, the article or book was the end of the line. And once the book was in libraries, the data were often thrown away or allowed to deteriorate.

Now we’re in a massive shift. Data become resources. They are no longer just a byproduct of research. And that changes the nature of publishing, how we think about what we do, and how we educate our graduate students. The accumulation of that data should be considered a scholarly act as well as the publication that comes out of it.


Styling a voice, voicing a style

August 9, 2008

The Wall Street Journal has an article by Terry Teachout about the British Library Sound Archives’ “Spoken Word” series of CD releases, “Hearing is Believing: The Vanished Glories of Spoken-Word Recordings” (2 August 2008: W14). Teachout argues that to talk about an author’s ‘voice’ is not the same as talking about an author’s ‘style,’ although the two are often confused. The implicit point he is making is that readers, in their heads, often imagine an authorial voice, an aural voice, that seems appropriate for the writing style, but that there is no necessary connection between this imagined authorial voice and the actual voice of the author.

Teachout uses the example of hard-boiled detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler, whose voice sounds nothing like what one might imagine his character Sam Spade would sound like: less like Humphrey Bogart and more like Elmer Fudd (although here, Teachout conflates a character’s style of speaking with the narrative voice, which aren’t the same).

Teachout theorizes that Sam Spade was a form of wish-fulfillment for the Fuddesque Chandler, but there is a simpler explanation: Chandler was writing within a genre that had a certain style, and the fact that he is one of the defining masters of the hard-boiled detective genre shows Chandler’s greatness as a writer, in that he was able to imaginatively project himself into a milieu that was far removed from his everyday experience.

Regarding performative speaking, Chandler’s writing career contrasts interestingly with two other writers mentioned by Teachout: George Bernard Shaw and Max Beerbohm. Teachout finds that their actual voices do meet expectations of what they should sound like, based on their writing.

Read the rest of this entry »

NAVSA 2008 Panel – Vox Populi: Recitation and Reciters in Victorian Britain

July 25, 2008

Presenters: Susan Schuyler, Stanford University
Joanne Nystrom Janssen, University of Iowa
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, Harvard University

Chair: Jason Boyd, University of Toronto

Panel Summary: These three papers explore the practice of recitation and its influence on personal and social identity. More particularly, they explore how Victorian recitation operates both as an instrument of social control and conformity and as a medium of self-expression, self-knowledge and empowerment for women, children, and the ‘common man.’

Reforming the Stage: Genre, Gender, and Parlor Recitation (Susan Schuyler)

During those decades when the public theatre was considered a dangerous space, rather than banish theatricality altogether, the middle-classes indulged in alternative types of performance which were considered appropriate for the production and consumption of “respectable” Victorians-particularly bourgeois women. The parlor recitation, a form of parlor drama, was a generic compromise; in this form of entertainment, poetry, prose, and drama, reading and spectatorship intersected. At the same time, parlor recitation effected an ideological compromise by using the bourgeois female, the embodiment of middle-class domesticity, to challenge the allurements of the “public” actress of the large, commercial theatres.

The growing industry of parlor drama manuals and collections made domestic recitation a central part of the theatrical experience of the middle-class. For example, volumes such as Charles Tennyson Turner’s Small Tableaux are intended to be read only; Turner’s volume of poems does not include any performance instruction. At the same time, however, we cannot conclude that dramatic performance was always subordinated to reading, or that performance and spectatorship were merely supplements to reading practices. Since the texts of these guidebooks were dramatic in nature, they implicitly authorized dramatic performance.

Parlor recitation is a particularly interesting form of parlor drama because it most obviously merges genres and the practices with which they are associated. The divorce of poetry and drama-the replacement of poetic verse drama with melodramatic prose-was one of the most common themes of the ubiquitous nineteenth-century assertions of the death of the British Drama. Although it claimed to be non-theatrical, recitation is, of course, a performative act, and some parlor recitation handbooks, including manuals written by elocutionist Alexander Melville Bell, used rhetorical theories influenced by Francois Delsarte to reinvent performance as recitation. Dramatic recitations and parlor poetic dramas therefore restored the traditional union of poetry, drama and performance, lending recitation an increased level of respectability.

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G. K. Chesterton on British Lecturers in America

June 6, 2008

As a follow-up to the post on Philip Collins’ article on British lecturers in America, G. K. Chesterton has a satirical passage on the undiscriminating enthusiasm of Americans for attending lectures in a Father Brown story, “The Curse of the Golden Cross,” in The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926). Father Brown, sailing home to Britain from America, is seated at a table with five others, including two

English lecturers returning from an American tour. One of them was described as Leonard Smyth, apparently a minor poet, but something of a major journalist; long-headed, long-haired, perfectly dressed, and perfectly capable of looking after himself. The other was a rather comic contrast, being short and broad, with a black, walrus moustache, and as taciturn as the other was talkative. But as he had been both charged with robbing and praised for rescuing a Roumanian Princess threatened by a jaguar in his travelling menagerie, and had thus figured in a fashionable case, it was naturally felt that his views on God, progress, his own early life, and the future of Anglo-American relations would be of great interest and value to the inhabitants of Minneapolis and Omaha.

Spoken Word and Victorian Recitation

May 29, 2008

Poet Paul Vermeersch has sparked off a verbose donnybrook with a post on his blog: “Why I Hate ‘Spoken Word’ Poetry.”

What is interesting about the ensuing dialogue is the degree to which it replicates the terms of the debate about Victorian recitation. Here, Spoken Word’s content and style of delivery is Victorian recitation: for its critics, the delivery is artificial, unnatural and formulaic; the content clichéd and banal.

The critics of Spoken Word poetry (like some turn-of-the-century elocutionists) argue that the inherent excellence of a poem will enable the speaker to deliver it naturally and powerfully; the style of delivery of Spoken Word poetry, therefore, is proof of its inherent lack of quality. However, this logic is belied by the fact that many poets massacre their own poems in delivery with a failure to enunciate and project, by reading in monotone, misplacing emphases and pauses, and being generally uncharismatic in front of an audience, a style of delivery that has become as entrenched, artificial and clichéd as Spoken Word poetry delivery supposedly is. (Reciting does require some skills, after all.) Does this therefore mean their poetry is bad?

No, some say, because they are ‘page poets’ not ‘performance poets,’ writers not bards. (Then why do poetry readings if you’re doing a disservice to your poems by badly reciting them, instead of exhorting people to silently commune over your chapbook in their private sanctums?) This is a problematic distinction, because there are ‘page poets’ who are also great ‘performance poets’ (usually those who are interested in sound poetry): a rawlings, author and performer of her collection Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists (2006), is keenly concerned about how her poetry looks and reads on the page, and about its performative dimension, which she herself tackles compellingly.

Frankly, I would like to attend a poetry reading where poets had to read not their own poems, but the poems of the other poets at the reading. I would be intrigued to see what insights might be gained when poet-reciters had to do justice to the poems of a poet who was a member of the audience, instead of labouring under the delusion that only they can be the conduit of the spirit of their poems in performance.

(Thanks to Carolyn for bringing my attention to Vermeersch’s blog entry)

“In Defense of Memorization”

May 24, 2008

Mark Bauerlein, in his article on Poetry Out Loud, has a link to an article by Michael Knox Beran, “In Defense of Memorization,” City Journal (Summer 2004), a conservative quarterly.

In the process of giving the reader a broad overview of the antiquity of memorization and its importance for historical figures like Augustine and Shakespeare, Beran makes some grandiose claims about the benefits of memorizing great literary and historical texts, and defends memorization against attacks by “progressive” educators, whose position he sums up in this wise:

Kids, in other words, should be free to do as they please; the teacher, in the role of “guide on the side” rather than “sage on the stage,” should cater to their whims; anything else is galley slavery. For progressive educators, to require students to recite “Daffodils” or memorize the Gettysburg Address is a relic of a “drill and kill” culture that inhibits the development of the self and is the educational equivalent of a chain gang.

In response to these educators, Beran argues that memorization, rather than being enslaving, is, on the contrary, liberating:

But the progressives’ educational philosophy is only superficially a philosophy of liberty. The progressive exercises in “guided fantasy” and “sensitivity training” that have replaced memorization and recitation do little to free kids’ selves. The older techniques, by contrast, are genuinely liberating. They build up in the child a more powerful mental instrument, one that will allow him, in later life, to make good use of his freedom. They cultivate those critical powers that enable an educated adult to question authority intelligently. The older techniques also unlock doors in the interior world of the soul. Classic poetry and rhetoric give kids a language, at once subtle and copious, in which to articulate their own thoughts, perceptions, and inchoate feelings. They help awaken what was previously dormant, actualize what was before only potential, and so enable the young person to fulfill the injunction of Pindar: “Become what you are.”

I think Beran’s view of the merits of memorization is as dogmatic as his depiction of views on memorization held by “progressive” educators. Memorization as a good in and of itself is as simplistic a belief as the belief that memorization per se is pernicious. Memorization combined with recitation is a way of both absorbing the content and interpreting the meaning of a text, by having to determine how it is to be read in order to render its meanings, an act with is both analytical and creative. Memorization alone will not develop critical faculties, just as creative faculties cannot develop in a void, apart from the texts that comprise our cultures and our pasts.