Blogging the Quals: Oops

Oops! I guess I’m still blogging the quals, even though I forgot to blog them all for the past several weeks!  I became too obsessed with reading and getting stressed out due to my upcoming move.  But in good news, I finished reading last week!  Woo!

I kept all my notes in a Twine document.  Here’s what it looks like:


WOW. Okay.

Right now I’m busy drafting my exams questions, and am scheduled to go through the exam itself on September 24th.  Excellent.  I’ll leave you now with another picture, a long quote from a source, and a brief reflection.


In the introduction to Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass note that in vanitas paintings, as in most of the vanitas tradition, objects are collected, lumped, and represented precisely to underscore their transience in relation to the absent subject:

By their title (vanitas vanitatum, Eccles. I.2) and by the symbolic encoding of things represented (signs of transience and morality), they exhort subjects to renounce objects.  But can such a sequestering hold?  We have reproduced N.L. Peschier’s unusual vanitas painting [above] precisely because the subject finds its way back into the picture, at the top of the pile of objects, in the upper-right hand corner, head tilted like the skull beneath it.  Even in more typical versions, the omnipresent skull itself serves as a reminder of the common materiality of subjects and objects. (1)

All seems well and good here.  The authors  point out the ironic effect of paintings like these: that they themselves incite what they disavow, by becoming “collectibles” for  educated elites, or later on, museums, thus further suggesting an inextricability of subject and object in particular as an effect of the artistic process.  In fact, we might be tempted to say the subject is not even “absent” since, as any good Foucauldian reading tells us, the subject is constructed virtually by the painting, a medium for the gaze that gives the object its meaning.  Hold that thought, though.

I am curious about the claim that “the subject finds its way back into the picture.”  In the hard copy of the book I read the painting was reproduced in black and white, and hence harder to suss out, but the image I inserted above makes its abundantly clear that the “subject” that seems to appear in the upper-right corner is not a human subject at all, but a statue: another piece of artwork, bronze or perhaps terra cotta, whose pose mimics the stony human skull below it.  Directly horizontal to this statue, we discover another “human” reappearance, a sketch posted on the wall (perhaps a Peschier self-portait?).  Neither of these figures meet our gaze; they turn away, to  elsewhere, to spaces outside the frame: to places we cannot ever, will not ever see.

So I will go one step further than simply saying this painting becomes what it renounces: I want to say that it embraces it.  It embraces its own objecthood.  The things in the painting (subjects, in one sense of the word, a sense that cannily denies the necessity of the human) exist beyond us; the painting itself will exist beyond its painter, its collector, the school group that sees it in the museum.  The viewer virtually constructed by this painting is one who meets no sympathetic eye.  Rather than urging us to disavow art, Peschier’s painting suggests the ways in which art disavows us.


On Guy Fawkes in Hell

I missed last week’s blogging the quals, but I’ve managed to keep ahead of my schedule a bit.  So here’s what I’ve read in the past two weeks:


Protevi, John – Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic
Artaud, Antonin – The Theater & Its Double
Bataille, Georges – Visions of Excess
Foucault, Michel – The Order of Things
Copjec, Jean – Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists
Butler, Judith – Bodies That Matter
Agamben, Giorgio – Homo Sacer
Bennett, Jane – Vibrant Matter
Morton, Timothy – The Ecological Thought

Primary Texts: Drama

Milton, John – Samson Agonistes
Anonymous – Two Lamentable Tragedies
Preston, Thomas – Cambyses
Dekker, Thomas – If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil is In It

My little thought for the week comes from the Dekker play; it ends with a scene in Hell during which various characters from the play proper are submitted to torments, but also, because this was 1611, includes a guest appearance by the illustrious Guy Fawkes:


In this little snippet, Fawkes is named and discussed by the various demons who surround him in Hell.  The interesting thing about this is that Fawkes does not realize he is in Hell; every other mortal seems aware of their situation, but Fawkes seems a bit mad.

This is due to his punishment, which the demon Shacklesoul explains: Fawkes “Digd cellars to find where hel stood” and now for all eternity believes himself to be in the cellars beneath Parliament, perpetually on the verge of lighting the gunpowder kegs but never actually doing it.

It might be fruitful to speculate why Fawkes is the only person in Hell given such a special treatment — specifically, to never know he’s in Hell.  With Fawkes  traitor and hence doubly abject, Dekker perhaps seizes this opportunity to highlight his own support of James (since the play, overall, is quite critical of James and his court, and in bad need of a balm).

Yet what is also interesting to me here is the rather proleptic (and of course coincidental) way that the scene predicts the appropriation of Guy Fawkes as a revolutionary for “Anonymous” and his deployment in other aspects of modern consumer culture: an emblem of political upheaval locked into a moment of fruitless action and paranoia, always on the verge of lighting the fires of revolution, but never actually doing it.

Some very dignified , centuries old poetry in this post

This week I read a rather broad selection of poetry and then moved into the theoretical texts that will provide background and springboards for my overall project.  Since poetry is not my main focus I read “selections,” which basically means “everything for these authors in the Norton Anthology of Literature,” with the exception of Cavendish and Hutchinson, who got short shrift, so I tracked down additional materials for them elsewhere.


Shakespeare, William
Donne, John
Jonson, Ben
Marlowe, Christopher
Marvell, Andrew
Milton, John
Crashaw, Richard
Herbert, George
Herrick, Robert
Cavendish, Margaret
Hutchinson, Lucy


Van Oenen, Gijs – “Interpassive Agency: Engaging Actor-Network Theory’s View on the Agency of Objects” Theory & Event 14.2
Wolfe, Cary – “Introduction: What Is Posthumanism?” in What is
Lacan, Jacques – Ecrits (selections)
Kristeva, Julia – Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection
Ngai, Sianne – Ugly Feelings

I don’t have a big philosophical point for you this week; Ngai’s work (though rather shaky, in my opinion, when discussing the affect of early modernity and of Shakespeare in particular) produces the idea of the “stuplime,” a specifically contemporary affect combining elements of sublimity and tedium, or “shock and boredom,” which seems to be to have a lot to say about the way games criticism is done — the way we talk about games, especially when we don’t like them, is very stuplime.  There’s a sketched plan for a blog post on that, coming as a full thing sometime in the future.

Meanwhile, here’s a Herrick poem:

Upon Jack and Jill. Epigram.

When Jill complains to Jack for want of meat,
Jack kisses Jill and bids her freely eat:
Jill says, Of what? says Jack, On that sweet kiss,
Which full of nectar and ambrosia is,
The food of poets. So I thought, says Jill,
That makes them look so lank, so ghost-like still.
Let poets feed on air, or what they will;
Let me feed full, till that I fart, says Jill.

Blogging the quals, Week 2

This week’s readings:

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum
Erasmus, Education of a Christian Prince
Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (selections, primarily Book I)
Machiavelli, The Prince
Sir Philip Sidney, A Defense of Poesie
Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors
John Milton, Areopagitica
Ambroise Pare, Of Monsters and Marvels
Michel Montaigne, “On the Power of the Imagination”
–, “On a Monstrous Child”

This week’s quotation I’ll take from the last of the Montaigne essays:

Those which we call monsters are not so with God, who in the immensitie of his work seeth the infinite of formes therein contained. And it may be thought that any figure doth amaze us, hath relation unto some other figure of the same kinde, although unknown unto man. From out his all-seeing wisdome proceedeth nothing but good, common, regular, and orderly; but we neither see the sorting, nor conceive the relation. Quod crebro videt, non miratur, etiam si, cur fiat, nescit. Quod an te non vidit, id, si evenerit, ostentum esse censet (CIC. Div. 1. II.). ‘That which he often seeth he doth not wonder at, though he know not why it is done; but if that happen which he never saw before, he thinkes it some portentous wonder.’ We call that against nature which commeth against custome. There is nothing, whatsoever it be, that is not according to hir. Let therefore this universall and naturall reason chase from us the error, and expell the astonishment which noveltie breedeth and strangenes causeth in us.

Obviously one interesting thing here is the way that Montaigne exhibits a transition from the older mode of thinking about monsters — to briefly recap from well-worn ground, monster from the Latin monere, meaning to warn or advise, and so the monster becomes that which warns or advises.  Monstrous births were commonly taken to be signs of God’s displeasure, or an omen of strife to come; their bodies were exceptions granted by God in order to communicate these messages.  The monster’s body, hence, existed only to be read: it was a medium of some greater message from the higher realms of creation.

With the transition to a “scientific worldview” we begin to get outlooks similar to those of Montaigne above (also exhibited by Ambroise Pare in this week’s reading).  Monsters are “naturalized” in that they are not suspensions of the rules of generation as such, but rather necessary side-effects of some grand mechanism of creation that appears confusing or nonsensical from a human perspective.

For Montaigne, God becomes the vehicle by which this is rationalized: an all-knowing force to whom nothing is strange, who does not break rules to warn us; rather, a proto-Deist Watchmaker who creates every gear to interlock with another, for reasons often beyond the ken of all the other gears.  As writers like Lorraine Datson have argued, this morphed into the prevailing view of the nascent biological sciences: “monsters” became opportunities to deduce the laws of generation by using dissection and anatomy to note precisely where and how the monstrous body deviates from a presupposed norm.

But from another perspective, what we see here is simply two different ways of making deviant bodies signify: whether it’s the displeasure of God and a coming catastrophe or the obscured laws of nature, monsters exist to tell us (‘us’ taken for granted to be ‘normative’ or ‘non-monstrous’ humans) something.  The monster always exists in the state of exception; it is Agamben’s homo sacer.  Montaigne, I think, shows us something in between these views, a world in which monsters exist, but do not need to be studied; they simply are.  Still, the anthropocentric notion of a knowing God necessarily pulls these things into our (normative, human) orbit, but discounting that, how else might we exploit this apparent gap in the regimes of bodily signification: when or where might the so-called “monstrous” creature not mean but simply be?

Blogging the quals, Week 1

This week for my quals I read:

Augustine, Confessions
–, City of God (selections)
Martin Luther, On the Liberty of a Christian
Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Pliny’s Natural History (selections, but focusing most on Book 7, on the creation and nature of humans)

My selection for “most interesting thing I read this week” probably goes to the following bit from the Metamorphoses in Book II, when boy Phaeton has nagged his father Apollo into let him drive the chariot of the sun.  Things go off the rails, of course, and Phaeton initiates a vast apocalypse that cannot help but bring to mind the current issue of climate change:

His Chariot also vnder him began to waxe red hot. 
He could no lenger dure th[e] sparkes and cinder flyeng out, 
Againe the culme and smouldring smoke did wrap him round about. 
The pitchie darkenesse of the which so wholy had him he[n]
As that he wist not where he was nor yet which way he went. 
The winged horses forcibly did draw him where they wolde. 
The Aethiopians at that time (as men for truth vpholde) 
(The bloud by force of that same heate drawne to the outer part 
And there adust from that time forth) became so blacke and swart. 
The moysture was so dried vp in Lybie land that time 
That altogither drie and scorcht continueth yet that Clyme. 
The Nymphes wt haire about their eares bewayld their springs & lakes 
Beötia for hir Dy[r]ces losse great lamentation makes. 
For Amimone Argos wept, and Corinth for the spring 
Pyrene, at whose sacred streame the Muses vsde to sing. 
The Riuers further from the place were not in better case. 
For Tanais in his déepest streame did boyle and steme apace. 
Old Penevv and Cay[c]us of the countrie Teuthranie, 
And swift Ismenos in their bankes by like misfortune frie. 
Then burnde the Psophian Erymanth: and (which should burne ageine) 
The Troian Xanthus and Lycormas with his yellow veine. 
Meander playing in his bankes aye winding to and fro. 
Migdonian Melas with his waues as blacke as any slo. 
Eurotas running by the foote of Tenare boyled tho. 
Then sod Euphrates cutting through the middes of Babilon 
Then sod Orontes, and the Scithian swift Thermodoon. 
Then Ganges, Colchian Phasis, and the noble Istre 
Alpheus and Sperchins bankes with flaming fire did glistre. 
The golde that Tagus streame did beare did in the chanell melt. 
Amid Cayster of this fire the raging heat was felt. 
Among the quieres of singing Swannes that with their pleasant lay 
Along the bankes of Lidian brakes from place to place did stray. 
And Nyle for feare did run away into the furthest Clyme 
Of all the world, and hid his heade, which to this present tyme 
Is yet vnfound: his mouthes all seuen cleane voyde of water béene. 
Like seuen great valleys where (saue dust) could nothing else be séene. 
By like misfortune Hebrus dride and Strymon both of Thrace. 

This goes on for a while, until Gaia herself beseeches God (or Jove, since the two are sometimes conflated in Golding’s translation and sometimes not) to do something:

The Sea did shrinke and where as waues did late before remaine, 
Became a Champion field of dust and euen a sandy plaine. 
The hilles erst hid farre vnder waues like Ilelandes did appeare 
So that the scattred Cyclades for the time augmented were. 
The fishes drew them to the déepes: the Dolphines durst not play 
Aboue the water as before, the Seales and Porkpis lay 
With bellies vpward on the waues starke dead· and fame doth go 
That Nereus with his wife and daughters all were faine as tho 
To dine within the scalding waues. Thrise Neptune did aduaunce 
His armes aboue the scalding Sea with sturdy countenaunce: 
And thrise for hotenesse of the Ayre, was faine himselfe to hide. 
But yet the Earth the Nurce of things enclosde on euery side 
(Betwéene the waters of the Sea and Springs that now had hidden 
Themselues within their Mothers wombe) for all the paine abidden, 
Up to the necke put forth hir head and casting vp hir hand, 
Betwéene hir forehead and the sunne as panting she did stand 
With dreadfull quaking all that was, she fearfully did shake, 
And shrinking somewhat lower downe with sacred voyce thus spake. 
O King of Gods and if this be thy will and my desart, 
Why doste thou stay with deadly dint thy thunder downe to dart? 
And if that néedes I perish must through force of firie flame, 
Let thy celestiall fire O God I pray thée doe the same. 
A comfort shall it be to haue thée Author of my death. 
I scarce haue powre to speak these words (the smoke had stopt hir breath) 
Behold my singed haire: behold my dim and bleared eye, 
Sée how about my scorched face the scalding embers flie. 
Is this the guerdon wherewithall ye quite my fruitfulnesse? 
Is this the honor that ye gaue me for my plenteousnesse 
And dutie done with true intent? for suffring of the plough 
To draw déepe woundes vpon my backe and rakes to rend me through? 
For that I ouer all the yeare continually am wrought? 
For giuing foder to the beasts and cattell all for nought?
For yéelding corne and other foode wherewith to kéepe mankinde? 
And that to honor you withall swéete frankinsence I finde? 
But put the case that my desert destruction duely craue, 
What hath thy brother: what the Seas deserued for to haue? 
Why doe the Seas his lotted part thus ebbe and fall so low, 
Withdrawing from thy Skie to which it ought most neare to grow? 
But if thou neyther doste regarde thy brother, neyther mée, 
At least haue mercy on thy heauen, looke round about and sée 
How both the Poles begin to smoke which if the fire appall 
To vtter ruine (be thou sure) thy pallace néedes must fall. 
Behold how Atlas ginnes to faint[s] his shoulders though [f]ull strong, 
Unneth are able to vphold the sparkling Extrée long. 
If Sea and Land doe go to wrecke, and heauen it selfe doe burne 
To olde confused Chaos then of force we must returne. 
Put to thy helping hand therfore to saue the little left 
If ought remaine before that all be quite and cleane bereft. 
When ended was this piteous plaint, the Earth did hold hir peace 
She could no lenger dure the heate but was comp[e]lde to cease. 
Into hir bosome by and by she shrunke hir cinged heade 
More nearer to the Stygnan caues, and ghostes of persones deade. 
The Sire of Heauen protesting all the Gods and him also 
That lent the Chariot to his child, that all of for[c]e must go 
To hauocke if he helped not, went to the highest part 
And top of all the Heauen from whence his custome was to dart, 
His thunder and his lightning downe. But neyther did remaine 
A Cloude wherewith to shade the Earth, nor yet a showre of raine. 
Then with a dreadfull thunderclap vp to his eare he bent 
His fist, and at the Wagoner a flash of lightning sent, 
Which strake his bodie from the life and threw it ouer whéele 
And so with fire he quenched fire. 

Phaeton’s corpse tumbles to the earth, where it is buried by nymphs and then sought out by his mother, the nymph Clymen, and his seven sisters, who spend the next four months standing by the grave and wailing.  Then something weird happens:

But Clymen hauing spoke, as much as mothers vsually, 
Are wonted in such wretched case, discomfortablely, 
And halfe beside hir selfe for wo, with torne and scratched brest, 
Sercht through the vniuersall world, from East to furthest West, 
First séeking for hir sonnes dead coarse, and after for his bones. 
She found them by a forren streame, entumbled vnder stones. 
There fell she groueling on his graue, and reading there his name, 
Shed teares thereon, and layd hir breast all bare vpon the same. 
The daughters also of the Sunne no lesse than did their mother, 
Bewaild in vaine with flouds of teares, the fortune of their brother: 
And beating piteously their breasts, incessantly did call 
The buried Phaeton day and night, who heard them not at all, 
About whose tumbe they prostrate lay. Foure times the Moone had filde 
The Circle of hir ioyned hornes, and yet the sisters hilde 
Their custome of lamenting still: (for now continuall vse 
had made it custome.) Of the which the eldest Phaetuse 
About to knéele vpon the ground, complaynde hir féete were nom. 
To whome as fayre Lampetie was rising for to com, 
Hir féete were held with sodaine rootes. The third about to teare 
Hir ruffled lockes, filde both hir handes with leaues in steade of heare. 
One wept to sée hir legges made wood: another did repine 
To sée hir armes become long boughes. And shortly to define, 
While thus they wondred at themselues, a tender barke began 
To grow about their thighes and loynes, which shortly ouerran 
Their bellies, brestes, and shoulders eke, and hands successiuely, 
That nothing (saue their mouthes) remainde, aye calling pit[e]ously 
Upon the wofull mothers helpe. What could the mother doe? 
But runne now here now there, as force of nature drue hir to? 
And deale hir kisses while she might? she was not so content: 
But tare their tender braunches downe: and from the sliuers went 
Red drops of bloud as from a wound. The daughter that was rent 
Cride spare vs mother spare I pray, for in the shape of tree 
The bodies and the flesh of vs your daughters wounded bée. 
And now farewell. That word once said, the barke grew ouer all. 
Now from these trées flow gummy teares that Amber men doe call. 
Which hardened with the heate of sunne as from the boughs they fal. 
The trickling Riuer doth receyue, and sendes as things of price 
To decke the daintie Dames of Rome and make them fine and nice. 

This is par for the course with Ovid — a sort of rambling series of cause-and-effect set-pieces that never quite seem to operate according to narrative logic and payoff in the modern sense.  To be precisely clear, what is fascinating to me here is the way in which the world was very nearly destroyed, it was in so much peril that the king of the gods had to murder someone to stop it — and the overall effect is that some nymphs turned into trees and made the jewel we now call amber, “[t]o decke the danintie Dames of Rome and make them fine and nice.”

There’s an unusual telescoping effect in which Ovid spins outward and shows us the Heavens themselves lit afire, only to end back in familiar (human) Roman society — and yet nevertheless, and perhaps largely unintentionally, suggests the implication of human luxuries in immense and almost incomprehensible environmental exploitation and destruction.

Blogging the quals


You may remember that some point I mentioned I am in grad school.  Well, I am now in a position where I am preparing to take my PhD qualification exams which, in case you’re not already an English grad student or PhD yourself, means I’m going to spend this summer reading something like 150 books.

These will be diverse, though of course largely oriented around my period (Shakespeare and early modern drama) and my theoretical concerns (performance, Renaissance humanism, intellectual history, and contemporary “posthumanism” as it might be broadly construed).  I don’t have any particular interest in saying I’m one type of scholar or another, but I am highly inclined toward what medievalist Eileen A. Joy has called “weird reading.”  Let’s take a look:

Any given moment in a literary work (all the way down to specific words and even parts of words, and all the way up to the work as a whole), like any object or thing, is “fatally torn” between its deeper reality and its “accidents, relations, and qualities: a set of tensions that makes everything in the universe possible, including space and time,” and literary criticism might re-purpose itself as the mapping of these (often in- and non-human) tensions and rifts, as well as of the excess of meanings that might pour out of these crevasses, or wormholes. We’ll call this reading for the weird, which is fitting when you consider that the word ‘weird’ (traditionally linked to ‘wyrd,’ or ‘fate’) is related to the Old English weorðan [‘to become’], rooted in Indo-European *wer– [‘to turn, bend’]. This will entail being open to incoherence as well, as one possible route toward a non-routinized un-disciplinarity that privileges unknowing over mastery of knowledge. The idea here would be to unground texts from their conventional, human-centered contexts, just as we would unground ourselves, getting lost in order to flee what is (at times) the deadening status quo of literary-historical studies at present, aiming for the carnivalesque over the accounting office.

I agree with the general sentiment here.  Joy says in a footnote that she does not mean to jettison historicist criticism entirely, and indeed, I find my current work an attempt to revive some of the stranger, less disciplined qualities of history-making that the Foucauldian turn of New Historicism deanimated.

In order to pass the time by doing something other than simply reading and worrying about my exams this fall, I am going to do my best to post weekly or bi-weekly updates here listing what I’ve read since my last post and, perhaps, some scattered thoughts, impressions, or quotes.  (In this sense I’m taking my cues from when I was in a similar situation as a senior undergrad.)

So let this be the inaugural post in my “Blogging the quals” series.  I’ll list below the eclectic mix of what I’ve read so far this semester, to give you an idea of what’s to come in full force later on.

Lyric poetry (selections)

Lanyer, Aemilia (Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum)
Sidney, Philip (Astrophil and Stella)
Spenser, Edmund (Shepheards Calendar, Amoretti, Epithalamium)
Wroth, Mary (Pamphilia to Amphilanthus)
Wyatt, Thomas (Sonnets)


Ford, John – ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Shakespeare, William – Antony and Cleopatra
— Love’s Labours Lost
Webster, John – The Duchess of Malfi

Period/Field Criticism

Charnes, Linda – Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare
MacKay, Ellen – Persecution, Plague, and Fire: Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England


Bogost, Ian – Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
Latour, Bruno – We Have Never Been Modern
Zizek, Slavoj – The Sublime Object of Ideology