Saturday, December 31, 2016

My 2017 MLA paper

Jeanine Leane unfortunately will have to miss our teaching Australian Literature panel at the Philadelphia MLA but I am doing a short paper instead, the first two paragraphs of which are below.

Reading Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby in the Age of Trump

On November 5, 2008, I taught Aimé Césaire’s Miraculous Weapons as part of the New School's then-current literary foundations course. The poem was on the standard syllabus, but I deliberately assigned that day’s class to this African diaspora text as likely to mark the election of the first African American President the day before. And so, bleary eyed but quietly celebratory, we convened and, after I acknowledged the previous day’s events, had an attentive and involved discussion of the Martinican poet.
     Eight years later, I was teaching in New York University’s School of Professional Studies and was finally getting to give a course in one of my specialties, Australian literature. For November 9, 2016, I assigned Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby. This was not directly to honor the prospective first woman President, though I certainly wanted a female writer on that day. But I wanted to gesture towards a society where multiple racial, religious, sexual, and gender identities were celebrated, and dispossessed and under-recognized  groups such as Indigenous Australians were achieving acknowledgment and redress for the land that had been stolen from them by white settlers.
       My aspirations for this day were, alas, trumped.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

From 2015--my take on the "class struggle vs identity politics" meme

"Here, I would differ from Walter Benn Michaels’ analysis of recent American literature in The Shape of the Signifier, in that from my perspective cultural diversity is not, as Michaels argues, simply an illusion proffered by a protean and transmogrifying capitalism, but an ideal genuinely to be honored. Racial justice, if it had occurred, would justify any extreme of capitalism or inequality. But is there racial" Nicholas Birns, Contemporary Australian Literature, published December 2015. And still relevant to "what should the Democratic party do?" debates today, Nicholas Kristof's op-ed in todays TIMES made me think of this passage.

Monday, November 14, 2016

My marital status may change but not my politics

With all the discussion about various divisions among groups in the election, one has been little mentioned: single people voted more for the party advocating a more compassionate, inclusive and heterogeneous society, while married people voted more for the party advocating the opposite. Isabella and I are getting married this spring and it will be a happy and special and wonderful event. But, God willing, may I still vote the way the single people tend to do.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Forget Hillary

I have been polite so far about the election. Now I have had it because of what a now-ex-friend posted on my page. (It has been deleted).
First of all, forget Hillary. In much the same sense Jean Baudrillard once urged us to "forget Foucault." Bracket her. Leave her aside. Some like her, some don’t like her. I have worked hard for her both in 2008 and now, donating money I could not afford, making countless phone calls to total strangers. But even I will admit she has her strong points and weak points. I certainly do not claim her as a figure who should exert universal admiration.
But we are talking about Trump. And you should vote against Trump. Not for Hillary. And by this I don't mean for Stein and Johnson. I actually contributed $10 to Jill Stein when she was running for governor, I think, of Massachusetts. You can see that if you search online. But she is not presidential calibre. She is a vaccine sceptic and would not defend the country.
Gary Johnson is appealing to young white males who feel they will lose some of their privilege under a Hillary administration. Guys, one of the things straight white men have to deal with in this era is conceding our privilege. My generation had to deal with it. So does yours. Johnson is a radical free-marketer and guess what, millennials, you will be stuck with your student loans forever under a Gary Johnson administration, with your only consolation knowing what Aleppo is. And Gary Johnson would roll back the Obamacare that, among other things, paid for my colonoscopy last year. But that doesn’t matter, as he will never win. It is between Trump and the Democratic candidate.
But here is the thing: you should vote against Trump, not for Hillary, but for yourself. So many of you I know on here are idealistic, have your own dreams and aspirations; want this to be a better country and world. Your visions may be different from mine; my politics are very idiosyncratic and will be mirrored exactly by no one. But in all cases Trump will squelch and corrode your dreams. He will make them impossible. He is a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, atavistically ignorant moron who stands against everything that has always made this country truly great, even if sometimes more in promise than in fulfillment. So forget Hillary. Close your eyes and pull the Democratic lever and just forget who is on it. Vote against Trump. Vote for yourselves and your dreams.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Trump, Obama, Putin--and systemic racism

Can anybody deny that when Trump says Putin is 'far more' of a leader than Obama, he is appealing to race and race only? In other words, I don't see Trump saying that Xi Jinping or Narendra Modi or Shinzo Abe is more of a leader than Obama, just Putin--the white guy. I think there is systemic racism in American life and I am not wary of attributing nearly any aberration in American culture to this systemic racism. This certainly includes "Mr. Trump" and his bizarre hostility to our President, whose American birth he has denied.  And, furthermore, I believe that, to my horror and disgust, this systemic racism 'trumps’ the Republican Party's historic hostility to Russia (seen as recently as Mitt Romney’s comments in 2012), and their historic championship of the small countries menaced and, yes, dominated a 1976 campaign reference), by the USSR and now Russia. I think Estonia, Poland, etc. are finding hat their former Republican friends have swerved away now that a chance to champion a more powerful white man, Putin, has presented itself

Friday, August 12, 2016

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Dates and order of reading of my NYU Australian course

September 28 Gail Jones, Five Bells
October 5 Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang;
October 12 Charlotte Wopd, The Natural Way of Things
October 19 Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus
October 26 Tim Winton, Breath 
November 2 Melissa Lucashenko, Mullumbimby; 
November 9  Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
November 16 Thomas Keneally, The Daughters of Mars;

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

More on my NYU Australian course

Charlotte Wood's book just came out; it is an incredibly engaging  and also quite riveting thriller. Liane Moriarty just raved about it in the Times, and it got a long feature in the Economist.

Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap got huge publicity worldwide and was made into a very good Australian TV miniseries and a far less good American one. It is a highly contemporary, often divisive, but quite attention-holding book.

Peter Carey and Tim Winton really need to introduction to American readers; of course they are writers of widespread fame, among the finest in the world, and both Nobel contenders. Both Carey and Shirley Hazzard have lived and worked in New York City for many years and have been vital players on the American literary scene, demonstrating the continuing global stakes of Australian literature.  Thomas Keneally won the Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler's List and has made war and its legacies his particular subject. 

Gail Jones and Melissa Lucashenko are up-and-coming writers who address Australia's neglected histories and the possibilities for changing them in this new century.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Fulgentius as Literary Critic

Fulgentius (North African Roman: fl. Late 5th-early 6th century) 

   Fabius Planciades Fulgentius was most likely from North Africa during the last part of the era of Vandal rule there, but, despite persistent attempts to link the two, was probably not related to the Christian saint of that name who lived roughly in the same period. Fulgentius wrote several interesting works on history and mythography. But his importance to literary criticism consists of his writing on Vergil. Fulgentius, along with Servius (fourth century), was one of the first critics to devote a major piece of criticism to a single work, in both cases Vergil’s Aeneid. (Macrobius, who flourished in the early fifth century, also allegorized a major work, the Dream of Scipio section of Cicero’s De re publica). This contrasted with many of the ancient critical texts that have reached us, largely treatises on general rules of literature or rhetoric. Fulgentius set a precedent both in terms of detailed attention and moral/allegorical orientation that vitally influenced other medieval commentaries. 
      “The Exposition of Vergil According to Moral Philosophy” was at once a faithful attempt to try to, within the critic's given framework, attend to the literal meaning of the text, and a rewriting so audacious as to almost give us a fundamentally new work. Fulgentius, for instance, paid no attention to the poem’s major manifest theme of conquest and the proto-establishment of the Roman state, which for him, living under Vandal occupation and as a Christian, would not have been relevant anyway. But it was relevant to Vergil, a circumstance that Fulgentius nonetheless sidestepped. This was in contrast to Fulgentius’s “rival,” Servius, who treated Vergil’s epic as a historical treasure-trove and was much more attentive to literal fact. It was closer to Macrobius, whose transcendentalizing inclination went beyond that of Fulgentius, but who was closer in this respect to Fulgentius than Fulgentius was to Servius. Analyzing the poem’s first line, arma virumque cano, “Arms and the man I sing,” Fulgentius translated  “arms” as the virtue of Vergil, the syntactic placement if the word indicates the particular merit of the character. Fulgentius saw language as connotative, symbolic. Though he did not read in a wholly allegorical manner, he did not just see words as representing what they literally meant. Fulgentius, near the beginning of his exposition, invoked the muses, much as an epic poet would, indicating his sense that criticism, like creative writing, required inspiration and was itself a kind of work of art. 
  Fulgentius forswore discussions of Vergil’s lyric poems, the Eclogues and the Georgics, on the grounds of their at once being too difficult and too dedicated to specific practices. But this decision is also in line with the general ancient emphasis on epic over lyric poetry. Fulgentius explicitly communes with the spirit of Vergil, which he has the Muses summon, feeling inspired not only by the Muse in general but with the soul of the author he is writing about. Fulgentius also eschewed a philosophical reading, disclaiming any intent to read Vergil in a Platonic or Pythagorean mode. He positioned himself as a more practical critic who will tell his reader what the text means, rather than trying to explicate—or posit--its higher mysteries. 
      Fulgentius proceeded by a combination of etymology, morality, and symbolism. He defined, or speculated on, the meaning of proper names, then suggested what those names symbolize and what their moral import was. For instance, he interpreted the name Palinurus from Latin words that make up its elements a “wandering vision,” and this explained for him why Palinurus falls into the sea--as Palinurus's vision was wandering, which it should not have been, it should have been steadfast. Fulgentius was halfway between ascribing a moral intent to Vergil and saying that this moral mode of reading was the reader’s way of making sense of the Aeneid and rendering the text ethically constructive.
   Much of the “Exposition” dealt with interpreting names, linking names to characters. For instance, “Misenus” was seen as meaning “vain praise,” thus that character must die in Book Six in order for this false virtue to be overcome by the hero. But Fulgentius’s reading, though moral, does not reach full Christian allegory. Fulgentius, in a mock-dialogue with Vergil, proposed a Christian understanding, which Vergil does not disagree with, but of which he says that he can only say what he thinks. Fulgentius at once paraded his own Christian viewpoint and also indicated an understanding that the original text is not Christian in intent. This provided an important precedent for later critics—such as the twelfth-century scholar Bernardus Silvestris who wrote a more ambitious, though unfinished, commentary on Vergil-- who at once read texts in light of their own ideologies but also respected the spirit of the past. Fulgentius also provided ground for Dante’s treatment of Vergil in Dante’s great poem, the Comedy, and for the role played by Vergil as the connector between classicism, medieval times, and modernity, as sketched by scholars such as the polymathic comparatist Domenico Comparetti (1835-1927) and the eloquent cultural critic Theodor Haecker (1879-1945).
Merrills, Andrew H. Vandals, Romans and Berbers: New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. 
Bernardo, Aldo S. and Saul Levin, The Classics in the Middle Ages. Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1990. 
Comparetti, Domenico, Vergil in the Middle Ages, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.  Originally published 1895. 
 The website written and maintained by David S. Wilson-Okamura is also a vitally important resource for Fulgentius, Servius, Macrobius, and all commentary on Vergil.  

Merrills, Andrew H. Vandals, Romans and Berbers: New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
Bernardo, Aldo S. and Saul Levin, The Classics in the Middle Ages. Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1990.
Comparetti, Domenico, Vergil in the Middle Ages, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.  Originally published 1895.

 The website written and maintained by David S. Wilson-Okamura is also a vitally important resource for Fulgentius, Servius, Macrobius, and all commentary on Vergil. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Geoffrey Hartman as Literary Critic

Geoffrey Hartman as Literary Critic

By Nicholas Birns
     Hartman (1929-2016) was born in Germany and came to America before the Second World War; he served as a private in the US Army in the late 1940s, by which time he was already pursuing an advanced degree at Yale, where he spent the entirety of his academic career. After Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787-1814 (1964) Hartman became not only the late twentieth century‘s leading expositor of the poetry of Wordsworth, but the critic who put Wordsworth back on the map, rescuing him from decade of New Critical obloquy and restoring him to the place in literary culture he had possessed in the time of Matthew Arnold. Hartman, though, had a very different view of Wordsworth from Arnold, at once de-emphasizing his sense of social responsibility and seeing him as, despite his imaginative flights, bound to existence in a way that generated, paradoxically, the euphoria of failed transcendence. Hartman liked Wordsworth’s poetry, but neither idealized it nor used it to idealize experience or perception. Hartman used the metaphor of akedah (the Hebrew word for the binding of Isaac before his near-sacrifice to God by Abraham) to express this sense of perilous yet concrete epiphany. Hartman’s early work was seen by his teacher René Wellek as reflecting the influence of heidegger and sartre, but nonetheless going in its own distinct direction.
      In the 1970s, Hartman also became known as one of the principal expositors of Derrida and as part of “the Yale School.” Saving the Text (1981) was originally published as essays in The Georgia Review in the mid-1970s, when that journal was under the editorship of John T. Irwin, and were expositions of one of Derrida’s most difficult texts, Glas (1974). Unlike most guides, Hartman did not aspire to be simpler than what he was explicating. He took full advantage of Derrida’s wordplay and allusiveness. In a sense this spirit of commentary was reminiscent of medieval commentators on anterior texts such as Fulgentius.  Indeed, Hartman spent much of the later portion of his career working on a cognate tradition, the mode of Biblical exposition practiced by scholars of the Hebrew Bible called midrash.
       Hartman’s growing concern with Jewish issues was manifested in his increasing interest in issues of trauma, particularly regarding the Holocaust. The Third Pillar: Essays in Judaic Studies (2011) followed earlier books such as The Longest Shadow: In The Aftermath of the Holocaust (2002), in indicating Hartman’s dedication to this subject and to, among other aspects, the oral testimony of the atrocity’s victims---far from the nihilism and relativism often imputed to deconstruction by its opponents. It was not only Hartman’s Jewish background but also his depth of his involvement in Holocaust studies that made his strong defense of his late friend Paul de Man, written after de Man‘s pro-Nazi wartime journalism had been unearthed, so compelling. Hartman argued that de Man’s emphasis on skepticism, critique, and unreliability could be read as atoning for the ideological mistakes of his youth. In this respect, deconstruction was not a nihilistic relativism but an ethically alert practice whose honesty lay in its recognition of linguistic fissure and rupture, which made impossible the crude doctrinal affirmations of de Man’s wartime writings. Hartman’s own position on language, though, was as close to that of his lifelong friend and colleague Harold Bloom as it was to deconstruction, seeing a strong if fractured agency behind linguistic play. Not only Hartman’s critical acuteness but also his rigor of judgment, his unwillingness to bend towards ideologies he saw as less than perfect, made him an independent critical voice, which survived the historical fate of deconstruction as such.

Atkins, G. Douglas, Geoffrey Hartman: Criticism as Answerable Style. London: Routledge, 1990.
Vermeulen, Pieter, ed. Geoffrey Hartman: Romanticism After The Holocaust. New York:  Continuum, 2010.
Whitehead, Anne,  “Geoffrey Hartman: A Deviant Homage.”
The Wordsworth Circle, 37, no. 1, (Winter 2006): 30-42.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

New Paltz, April 13 Eastertide Celebration

On Wednesday, April 13, at 6 pm, an Interim Shared Eucharist celebrated by the Episcopal Church with the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church on 90 Route 32 South in New Paltz, New York. Bishop Andrew Dietsche of the Episcopal Diocese of New York will celebrate the Eucharist, and the preacher will be the Rev. Timothy Riss, superintendent of the Catskill Hudson District for the New York annual conference of the United Methodist Church. The pastors and congregations of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and the New Paltz United Methodist Church will be involved in the readings and musical offerings, along with the chaplaincies at SUNY-New Paltz and Vassar College.

Both wine and grape juice, in separate chalices, will be available at the Eucharist; there will also be gluten-free bread.

This is an opportunity for our churches to come together in Eastertide and rejoice in our growing dialogue and concord. Not only will three different denominations be represented, but also there will be diversity in musical offerings (including performances of settings by the host pastor, Tobias Anderson of Redeemer) and in the language of the readings. Yet the liturgy will be traditional, emphasizing elements common to all three churches and giving a sense of their rich and frequently shared heritage. Ecumenism offers an opportunity not just to develop links between individual churches but also to participate in a common and inclusive fellowship and witness to the glory of God.

The Episcopal Diocese of New York, the UMC New York annual conference, and the New York Episcopal Diocese Interfaith and Ecumenical Commission sponsor the event. It is the third in a series of interim shared Eucharists celebrated by Episcopalians and Methodists in the New York area since 2012; previous celebrations were at St. Paul’s Chapel and the John Street Church, both in downtown Manhattan. The Rev. Robert Walker, Assistant to the Bishop of the UMC New York Annual Conference, and Dr. Nicholas Birns, parishioner at Grace Church Broadway and member of the Interfaith Ecumenical Commission, are the co-chairs of the Episcopal-Methodist dialogue in the greater New York area,

After the Eucharist, pizza, salad and soft drinks will be served at Redeemer Lutheran; all are invited.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Jean François Vernay's Brief Take on the Australian Novel

Just heard from one of the leading global Australianists that his new book is now out: 

From Jean-François Vernay, A Brief Take on the Australian Novel offers a sweeping view of Australian writing since colonialism. Written from an outsider's perspective, this single-authored overview will appeal to readers through its playful, jargon-free and potentially contentious account of the Australian novel. Vernay offers a unique and insightful perspective on Australian literature.

Like a film narrator, he speaks directly to the reader, offering close-ups on particular works alongside panoramic views of the literary landscape. One can imagine the reader as part of an audience in a darkened cinema, absorbed in exciting action on the silver screen.

Born of an Australian mother and a French father, Jean-François Vernay grew up in New Caledonia's multicultural community which shares some of Australia's characteristics, including a convict heritage and a complex history of settlement. Using Peter Carey and Christopher Koch as a starting point, he has been researching Australian fiction for 20 years and has published widely in the field, both in French and in English. Dr Vernay is an energetic critic, editor, creative writer and cultural commentator. His fiction and nonfiction books have appeared in France, Australia and in the United States.

'Vernay's approach to the Australian novel has the intellectual playfulness associated with some of the best French critical writing ... Panorama du roman australien [A Brief Take on the Australian Novel] is bold in its conception and promises to be influential in shaping the wider world's appreciation and understanding of Australian literature.' - Simon Caterson, Age

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Break up the banks?

Whenever I participate in any sort of community activity or go to a party in NYC, most of the people I meet either work for banks or hedge funds, or have partners or spouses who do. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am hugely unhappy about both the big banks and the hedge funds, and a stringent critic of the “financialization” of US and world society. “The Big Short” had no bigger fan than me, and neoliberalism no more fervent scourge, as my academic writing attests, since as early as 2010, and some readers of my book think I am far too critical of, and angry about, neoliberalism for their tastes. I am, and have been for many years, outraged at how unequal our society has become. As  Elena Ferrante puts it so brilliantly in The Story of the Lost Child, the last of her Neapolitan novels, "the exploitation of man by man and the logic of maximum profit, which before had been considered an abomination, had returned to become the linchpins of freedom and democracy everywhere." 
       But when a bohemian, left-wing, passionately egalitarian intellectual like me, in all areas of their life continually meets  people working in the financial-services industry, “break up the banks!” sounds a bit tinny. New York with respect to the financial-services industry is now what Detroit was to the automobile industry in the 1950s: a company town. I do not extol this; but I do recognize it. I was, for instance against the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era bill which put a wall between banking and financial services, which was to the huge disadvantage of the everyday consumer, but you can’t just bring Glass-Steagall back and expect the financial world to revert to the way it was before. Neoliberalism has changed our society and our world—mostly to the worse. But we just can’t go back to the way things were before: we have to reform carefully in ways that acknowledge the situation on the ground, Mayor de Blasio, for all his stalwart progressivism and criticism of rising income inequality, has recognized this and has recognized change has to come incrementally and through a revaluation of social goals and not just trying to put the genie of financialization back in the bottle. Mayor de Blasio has also, unlike Senator Sanders, included racial and gender inequality, not just economic inequality, as part of his explicit agenda. 
    This is why I am supporting Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Not only do I believe she is the most qualified candidate, the one with the most competence as a leader, the greatest grasp of policy, and the most empathetic understanding of the condition of the poor, the underprivileged, and the passed-over in America today, I believe she understands that, as President you have to lead the nation that is actually there, not the one you wish was there. 
    I would like it if New York CIty had a more diversified economy, one less dependent on the financial sector. I would like it if the people I met were not all working for Wall Street in one way or another, or were not connected to those who did. But we have to reform the economy we have. Hillary Clinton understands this.