Letters Archive

Fall 2007, Vol. 15, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

What We Are Reading

LETTERS asks colleagues in the Arts and Sciences to share what books they’ve recently been reading or revisiting.

Monica J. Casper, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies: Two of my current favorites are Ethics of the Body: Postconventional Challenges, edited by Margrit Shildrick and Roxanne Mykitiuk (MIT Press, 2005), and The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Mariner Books, 1999). Ethics of the Body is a collection of essays that use postmodern, feminist, and critical race theories to challenge conventional bioethics. Ranging across a variety of substantive topics—HIV/AIDS, genetics, addiction, intersex and reproductive technologies—the authors collectively assert that standard bioethics has failed to adequately grapple with, and thus to comprehend, the messy complexities of embodiment.

I’m reading Anne Sexton’s poems for an entirely different set of reasons—mainly because I’m intimately attracted to troubled women’s writings about self, body, trauma, psychic distress, domesticity, reproduction, death, and the travails of being female. When Sexton writes, in “Consorting with Angels,” ‘I am tired of being a woman’ and complains about ‘the gender of things,’ I feel a frisson of recognition and pleasure in my belly. Her beautifully frank language, which so offended her male critics, offers a thrilling template for scholars like me who relish writing in a scholarly voice but who also want to tear down the walls of academic convention.

Lynn Ramey, Associate Professor of French: Sylvia Huot’s Postcolonial Fictions in the Roman de Perceforest (Brewer, 2007) looks at a particularly difficult, poorly edited, multivolume medieval text, “Perceforest,” and reads it in light of postcolonial theory. Her critical analysis of the text is a fascinating reflection of current trends in medieval studies. Huot insists on continuity rather than rupture at the time of the Renaissance, finding medieval models for present-day concepts such as colonialism. In addition, this book is typical of a trend that seeks to find relevance in the medieval past as we struggle to understand our own problems of racism and nationalism. Definitely aimed at a specialist reader, Postcolonial Fictions pushes boundaries and forces medievalists to ponder on the direction and aims of their discipline.

Edward Wright Rios, Assistant Professor of History: I have been trying to get a handle on a pair of twentieth-century apparition movements in Mexico. In one case, an indigenous woman talks to Christ, and, in the other, an eight-year-old Indian girls visits with the Virgin Mary and an angel. In both cases, popular movements emerge around the seer, and the documentation is very spotty. Recently I read anthropologist Paolo Apolito’s Apparitions of the Madonna at Oliveto Citra (Pennsylvania State U. P., 1998). Apolito was on hand as recent Italian Marian visions were taking place, and he produced a sensitive exploration of how complicated these kinds of events can be. Among the most interesting aspects he details is how a group around the seers creates a single coherent narrative and interpretation of the originally chaotic visions over time. Closer to home, I have been reading a Mexican version of the late post-revolutionary social-reform novel, Agustin Yañez’s Las tierras flacas (1961). Heavy-handed and trying desperately to be hip, Las tierras paints a rural Mexico stubbornly resistant to the advance of modernity. If it were up to Yañez, Mexico would scrap the magic that the next generation of Latin American authors would find so attractive. The author’s portrayal of rural women as the keepers of a brutally primitive, miracle-obsessed, saint-cluttered, doom-and-gloom religiosity/medicine provides an excellent entrée into mid-twentieth-century Mexican debates.

John Sloop, Professor of Communications Studies and Associate Dean of Arts and Science: Longaker, Mark Garrett. Rhetoric and the Republic: Politics, Civic Discourse, and Education in Early America (U. of Alabama Press, 2007). Longaker provides a fascinating account of the role that education served in the early United States Republic, especially in terms of the “rhetorical education.” After providing a thorough-going analysis of theories of pedagogy, as implied by and in “founding documents,” Longaker provides a materialist analysis of the preferences such theories implied. In the latter chapters, Longaker uses student lecture notes, classroom acitivies, lesson plans, reading lists, disputation exercises, and literary society journals to provide case studies of the early rhetorical education at Yale, Columbia, Pennsylvania, and William and Mary. Ultimately, Longaker not only provides a fascintating history, but he offers a materialist challenge to any idea of early education as united in its approach to republic civic discourse.

Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter (Riverhead Books, 2005). A popular trade book I will always wish that I had authored. By combining neuroscience, media theory, and economic analyses, Johnson makes a convincing argument not only that popular mediated texts have been increasingly complicated over the last 50 years, but also that their increasing complication encourages participants to think in more complicated ways. Countering Neil Postman’s notion that mass mediated texts amuse and therefore simplify dominant modes of understanding, Johnson illustrates that the increasingly complicated plotlines of television shows, videogames, and internet discourses have all worked to subtly complicate the ways people think, ultimately raising overall IQ levels. While I cannot claim that you won’t continue to disagree with Johnson, you will feel convinced that the issue is far more complicated than you ever imagined.

Letters Archive Index

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