asynchronous session on Ellison chs. 17-20

Here’s everything you need to play along today in our first asynchronous session. First the video (be sure to have your copy of the book in hand):

Ch 17-20 lecture (Vimeo)

In Dropbox (.mov format)

Here’s the text of the lecture, more or less, if you want it.

And here’s the prompt for the blog post that’s due by tomorrow at 5pm. Note that this post counts as Blog Post #3 on the syllabus! Definitely take in the lecture before writing; the writing assignment will be easier and make more sense after the lecture.

For your writing exercise, I want you to consider some ways the novel replicates this argument about history and historiography: what happens and how those happenings are organized into narrative form. I would argue that one way the novel performs, so to speak, this theoretical problem is through stuff, things, objects. One of the IMs hallmarks as a character is that he’s what Yiddish speakers call a Luftmensch, literally a “air person,” something like a “space cadet,” or, closer to the German, one with his “head in the clouds.” He’s always thinking about himself, about political and social theories, about his memories and dreams for the future. He always claims to have a plan, a pattern, a discipline to follow. But the novel confronts him with stubborn bits of stuff, objects that don’t fit into his airy theorizing and disrupt his dreams of uplift and American success. The passages we ended with suggest that these “remainders” might point to new narratives, and new ways of creating narratives—it seems significant that he slumps against a “refuse can” on 441 as he’s having these thoughts, a container for stuff that has been disavowed or dropped out of history. The critic Bill Brown has pioneered an approach to literary criticism based on the representation of such stubborn stuff in fictional narratives, an approach we call “thing theory.”
Brown wants us to reclaim things from two extremes: on the one hand, the idea that they’re beneath our attention, just inert and inanimate “stuff” that one can sweep aside in order to get to the real “ideas.” On the other hand, he wants us to avoid what Marx called the “fetishism” of commodities, the mystification of objects with occult power that we all engage in every time we feel a flush of desire for the new iPhone or the new Tesla or the new … you get the point. In between these extremes lies a productive zone wherein we explore the “ideas” inherent in things:

Taken literally, the belief that there are ideas in things amounts to granting them an interiority and, thus, something like the structure of subjectivity. … It amounts to asserting a kind of fetishism, but one that is part of the modernist’s effort to arrest commodity-fetishism-as-usual: that is, an effort to interrupt the habit of granting material objects a value and power of their own, divorced from, and failing to disclose, the human power and social interaction that brought those objects into being.

–Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature, 7-8.

So your assignment is to take of the following objects from the novel and unpack it, explaining how it emerges in the novel, how the IM initially “reads” it, and what other meanings we might generate from it based on the IMs new way of taking things “outside of the groove of history” and getting them in. You may choose from:
  1. The jumble of possessions from the “dispossessed” couple’s apartment in Chapter 13
  2. Mary Rambo’s figurine in Ch. 15
  3. Brother Tarp’s chain link in Ch. 18
  4. Tod Clifton’s dancing paper puppet in Ch. 19
Write at least 500 words and no more than 1000. Have an argument. Cite the text. Due by Friday at 5pm on the course blog. This exercise fulfills the “Blog Post #3 on the syllabus in addition to substituting for today’s (Thursday’s) class.

One thought on “asynchronous session on Ellison chs. 17-20

  1. Pingback: to synch or not to synch? | LitHub@Hunter

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