CORPOREALITY IN THE CLASSROOM: A Review of L.O. Aranye Fradenburg’s “Staying Alive”; or, Put That in Your MOOC and Smoke It

This piece continues a conversation between the Glasgow Review of Books and Punctum Books about the possibilities and problems for scholarship in the current intellectual, cultural and economic climate in both the US and UK, and how new publishing practices might help or otherwise inform those possibilities and problems. In this sense, it follows the interview Tom White conducted with Punctum’s director, Eileen A. Joy, last year, which readers can find here. In the spirit of community invoked in the following piece, we invite discussion and conversation in the comments section below. – eds.

L.O. Aranye Fradenburg Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts Brooklyn (punctum books, 2013)

by A.W. Strouse

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail

William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.

Philosophy is work performed in and on behalf of particular cultures and ecologies. This requires a new ethos of the philosopher, for whom the question of belonging to an ordinary world has become, not something to bracket or transcend, but vital. … It is time to fight not just for this or that way of thinking, but for the experience of mind itself.

L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Staying Alive (122)

I didn’t read Staying Alive. At least, not initially. First, I read it in a kind of a way—by helping to prepare the index.

This task had me starring at my monitor, pressing CTRL+F for some forty hours. Like a digital-human(ist), scanning rather than reading, I came to know the text with an intimacy that’s only possible when you get in from behind—a bleary-eyed fever dream of seek and find, copy, paste, seek and find, copy, paste.

Then, awaking from my index-trance, I noticed my own name in the Acknowledgements as a proofreader, and I realized that I had better look the text straight in the eye, and read it for real.

Weary of my wondering, I slumbered into sleeping, and a marvelous vision appeared to me: I saw that scene from the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, when a reporter on the rock ‘n’ roll beat dictates (punctuation and all) his review of Dylan into a payphone:

(SENTENCE) He is not so much singing but sermonizing (COLON) his tragedy perhaps is that the audience is preoccupied with song (PARAGRAPH) So the bearded boys and the long-haired girls all eye-shadow and undertaker make-up applaud the songs and miss perhaps the sermon

A headline over the wire, Dylan’s ghostly signals aren’t received by the body, whose antenna-hairs pick up only the bandwidth of music.

I beheld another vision: this review was lifted from Henry James’s The Bostonians (1885). Like a Dylan fan, James’s Basil Ransom is enraptured by the orator Verena Tarrant:

The effect was not in what she said … but in the picture and figure of the half-bedizened damsel … [S]he opened her eyes, and their shining softness was half the effect of her discourse. It was full of school-girl phrases, of patches of remembered eloquence, of childish lapses of logic … but Ransom thought that if it had been much worse it would have been quite as good, for the argument … had absolutely nothing to do with it. [1]

Beauty, apparently, resides in the form, not in the content.

This (false) separation, of course, is rooted in a longstanding philosophical tradition [2], but since the nineteenth century the binary has haunted our intellectual life in a particularly American way. Ransom’s Bildung is the story of how an American brand of academic professionalism divorced itself from fuzzy things like charisma and body hair. As Bruce A. Kimball tells it, American academics first became ‘professionals’ following the Civil War, which, with its erosion of political idealism, dislocated lawyers (legal professionals) from their prized role as personifications of the professional ideal [3]. With the fall of a value system founded on law, and with the rise of science, the University gained ascendency as the model of professionalism. It is within this post bellum context that Ransom appears: he is a failed lawyer who moves North from Mississippi and who flirts with an academic career. He daydreams of the Harvard campus, writes half-baked sociologies of gender, and desperately tries to “publish or perish.” Ultimately, he does the latter.

Ransom’s academic career is cut short when his passions overrule him. Applauding the song but missing the sermon, Ransom runs off with Verena and abandons all pretensions toward knowledge and toward professionalism. Ransom’s desire for Verena apparently finds itself irreconcilable with the emerging norms of the new Academy. This has to do with two factors that shaped the American research university during its early years. First, as Laurence R. Veysey points out, American academic ideals were modeled after an imported and poorly understood set of German values, Lehrfreiheit and Wissenschaft. On the Continent, Lehrfreiheit or academic freedom meant freedom from utility (thinking could be freely pursued for its own sake); research or Wissenschaft likewise did not represent a commitment to positivism, but was inflected by a deep spirituality [4]. Second, as Christopher Newfield argues, American academic professionalism, starting in the late nineteenth century, has been shaped by Taylorist mechanisms of labor management, which replace personal relations with administrative authority [5]. Intellectually and managerially, academic professionalism banishes the kind of rock ‘n’ roll fandom that Ransom ends up embracing.

Unlike Ransom, liberal arts scholars can’t afford to get “tangled up in blue.” Academic professionalism is grounded in the text, not in the figure (hence, the double-blind peer-review process) [6]. Indeed, thinking people often have had to pretend to agree to the illusion that truth is discarnate, at least since Plato hung up the sign on the door to his Clubhouse, NO BODIES ALLOWED. Today the mechanisms of Capital give the old Platonic Philosopher King new mechanisms for banishing the poets and dismissing the body. Creating an index, for example, no longer involves the “index finger” and a hundred shoeboxes, but (if I weren’t personally living below the poverty line on a graduate-student stipend) the process could be automated with an application (like PDF Index Geneator.exe, $59.95). Meanwhile, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) threaten to evacuate corporeality from the classroom. Intensified assessment and surveillance protocols demanded by state legislatures and university techno-bureaucrats abstract all pedagogy into data. In the name of efficiency and excellence, the needs and desires of individual talents are fed to the Moloch of the bottom line. The increasing “precaritization” of the academic labor force means that it’s harder and harder for we thinking people to actually take care of our physical bodies.

But we can’t (and we won’t!) continue to be administered by a ruthless regime of technocrats that wants to turn everyone and everything into bodiless data, into sermons sent over the wires. We’re creatures—weird in all of our multifarious, creaturely ways—and we have bodies and bodily needs. Like the old labor adage, “we want bread but we (also) want roses,” we are occupying the hallowed halls of academia, bringing along our beards, our make-up, our sexual lubricants, and our old Dylan records. The humanities are making a comeback, insisting that the sermon and the song are both absolutely crucial to making life livable. Following the lead of works like Fradenburg’s Staying Alive, we’re finding new ways to maintain our dignity as humanists and as humans.

Staying Alive is about turning the Superdome into a Pleasure-Dome. It’s not just a survival manual, but a guide to thriving. Part monograph, part anthology, Staying Alive assembles all kinds of creatures together in its life-raft, with chapters by Fradenburg and interwoven “fugues” by other scholars. This arrangement manifests formally a sense of camaraderie, of coming together, a theme central to the book’s message: that human existence is a messy tissue of fuzzy connections and oozy, unbounded inter-relationships, and that the humanities is precisely the key to exploring these relationships. Such a network is tough to make sense out of, and to do so I’ll use that ancient technology, the index finger:

→ In the book’s introductory essay, Eileen A. Joy makes clear the stakes of the volume, saying loudly, “Hands Off Our Jouissance.” Joy begins by uncovering a kind of a long-lost treasure, a rarely cited 1981 interview with Michel Foucault, “Friendship As a Way of Life,” in which the philosopher speaks of a need for a “homosexual ascesis”—the project of inventing new, improbable “modes of being,” of experiencing “friendship as a way of life.” Indeed, perhaps the greatest contribution of feminism and gay liberation has been to insist that we have bodies, and that there’s a relationship between the way we discipline the body and the ways in which we construct knowledge. The logical conclusion of this insight might be to cultivate the academy as a set of relationships of mutual care—to refuse the professional, academic self as an impersonal positivist, whose knowledge is as good as a MOOC, and reclaim the intellectual as a human body full of vulnerabilities and lacks and desires, and the Academy and para-Academy as a mess of bodies, a “heterotopia.”

→ In her first chapter, “Driving Education,” Fradenburg foregrounds human frailties as key to the University’s mission, as essential even to the survival of the human species. Of late, she points out, our society in general and our universities in particular have fed the heart on the fantasy that the knowledge-factory can be automated, the faculty labor-force deskilled, and public education defunded. The heart has grown brutal from the fare: Pinkerton Detectives (in the form of privatized security firms) now guard our universities. But with the heightened security, we’re no more secure (witness the infamous pepper-spraying of unarmed students at the University of California, Davis). And we’re all meanwhile forced to shop at the Company Store: getting a college degree, we’re told, is essential to survival in the capitalist marketplace. (Of course, the value of that degree continues to be degraded, even as its price, manipulated by vested interests, continues to rise.) In response, Fradenburg sounds the alarm: the Liberal Arts don’t need to justify our existence, because we are existence, or rather, ground floor for the cultivation of the arts of existence: if we want to continue to live humanely, and to thrive and flourish in this world, then the liberal arts are the first and best place to learn how to do so.

→ Julie Orlemanski inaugurates a literary genre in her fugue, “An Army of Lovers.” She thinks about the place of Fradenburg’s critique within a tradition of what she calls “academic-activist reflexivity.” Texts of this kind are not only “activist,” but they are committed to a community-building process. This process happens formally, Orlemanski says, through compiling and linking—they rhetorically create a sense of a shared project through allusion and citation, especially by bringing together a range of disparate disciplines and modes of writing. Orlemanski herself practices this “compilatory generosity” when she brings together Fradenburg and Thomas Pynchon, identifying them both as authors of reflexive activist texts. Orlemanski’s critical move here does an end-run around those (among them Latour) who have rebuked scholarly critique as futile. By focusing on the literariness of the activism polemic, and analyzing its formal dimensions (in as much as these are constituent of the very communities that the texts seek to build), she points out that academic-activist texts have the power to bring new ways of being into existence through their very rhetoric. An improbable dream, perhaps—but it’s one that we see realized in Staying Alive, as Orlemanski’s fugue responds to Fradenburg, playing within, critiquing, and nuzzling up against the book’s larger structure. In aligning the literary, the political, and the academic under a new literary genre, Orlemanski creates a way for us to think through and argue for the kinds of interventions made here by Orlemanski herself, along with Fradenburg and the other folks here in Staying Alive.

→  In chapter two, “Living the Liberal Arts,” Fradenburg makes (what I think is) her best case for the liberal arts. However much Capital wants to make itself invincible, the world still remains, Fradenburg says, a confusing and complicated place, in which we are vulnerable and in which our best means of survival is to learn to think in the kinds of fuzzy and unregimented ways that the humanities (but, increasingly, the biological sciences also) provide for. Here Fradenburg synthesizes an incredible range of knowledge, eloquently combining her own training as a medievalist and psychoanalyst with the latest insights from neuroscience and evolutionary biology, in order to argue for the necessity of the humanist project. As Fradenburg astutely points out, the sciences are now poststructuralist, and how can you argue with science? Mathematicians are inclined to accept “intuition,” and physicists are willing to suspend disbelief. The reality that the sciences teach is one full of fuzziness, and it is therefore necessary that humanities programs survive and thrive. If humanist thinking is (as critics often disparagingly say) too fuzzy, then this is precisely their virtue.

→ The book’s second fugue, “Human-Tongued Basilisks,” by Daniel C. Remein, was my favorite of the fugue essays in Staying Alive and some of the most sensitive literary criticism I have ever read. Owing to the “professional” prejudices already mentioned, formalist poetic analysis has almost never gotten the good rap it deserves [7]. And the few formalists around have rarely bothered to sit up from their divan of Persian saddle-bags and to participate meaningfully in the fight against the capitalist barbarians who are knocking at the university’s gates. Remein, however, undertakes a brilliant, close reading of Jack Spicer, the poet and sometime medievalist, seeing in his medievalism an argument for a committed intellectual embodiment. “Poetry is action like a bird,” Spicer writes, alluding to Bede’s famous account of human life as like a sparrow flying through a hall. As Remein deftly demonstrates, it is in the very birdness of Spicer’s verse—the sparrow-flight of his lines—that we experience what poetry does. Quickly darting through our consciousness, the poem viscerally reminds us of our mortality, while also showing off Spicer’s own learnedness. Thus the poem offers an opportunity for thinking about the possibility of an alliance between knowledge and corporeality, for a poetics of life.

→ Chapter three, “Breathing,” again by Fradenburg, breaks new ground by arguing that Jacques Lacan’s concept of the objet a can help us think about rhetorical activity as an embodied experience. Although Lacanians have sometimes been seen as a cult of abstractionists who reduce human experience into algebra, Fradenburg finds that Lacanian analysis can conceptualize one of our most creaturely experiences. Breathing, Fradenburg argues, helps to structure our vocabulary for thinking—respiration marks one of our first experiences with moving in and out, with exchanging between self and other, with active and passive. Our respiration enables categories of critique, and in establishing these binaries it also leaves something out (the remainder that Lacan called the objet a). Guiding us to focus our attention on the breath as objet, Fradenburg considers how this Lacanian conceptualization can tease out the truly psychosomatic nature of rhetorical activity.

→ What Fradenburg theorizes, Ruth Evans practices. In fugue number three, “The Object Breath,” Evans explores the implications of voice-as-objet. Following Fradenburg, Evans argues that breath is a “partial object” that “sets off love.” In Freudian terms, breath is a “love object.” (But, unlike the mouth or anus, it is not connected with developmental tasks but is semi-autonomous.) Opening up the possibility of the breath as a love object allows us to think in new ways about understudied orifices (the nostrils, Evans says); and, attending to the breath, Evans looks at respiratory stylizations in Chaucer, Margery Kempe, and Frank O’Hara. Inhaling the performance art of Stephanie Smith and Edward Stewart, she shows how the arts are as necessary to our survival as breathing.

→ “Ekphrasis” is probably not a term that most book-reviewers associate with their task. But, writing this, I’m anxiously aware that I’m involved in a genre that includes the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—big shoes to fill! Fradenburg’s fourth and final chapter, “Life’s Reach,” discusses ekphrasis. She begins with a witty look at real estate advertisements, then moves to Virgil and Chaucer. For Fradenburg, ekphrasis is a mode that’s part of a primal “grooming process” that helps us to survive in the world. Like gossiping—a speech act Fradenburg wholly endorses—it lends extra texture to reality, informally preparing us for the big wide world, and, in its cross-modality—its way of getting us “tangled up in blue”—it makes clear that thinking takes place in relation to physicality. “Language,” Fradenburg tells us, “is not an obstacle to paraverbal experience.” Rather, it is one of the most powerful ways that we can access experience. Through the stylizations of ekphrasis, we build up more vital lives: rendering experience as images and then portraying images with words, we ennoble experience with forms that enable us to experience life in its real and ideal relations.

→ These are insights that Donna Beth Ellard takes along with her as she examines Beowulf in fugue four, “Defying Death and Staying Alive in the Academy.” Ellard focuses on the ekphrasis of the runic sword hilt that Beowulf finds in the watery caves of the Grendelkin, and the wealth of scholarship that discusses this object. In so doing, she helps us to acknowledge something that humanist thinkers rarely if ever acknowledge: our work is a process of collaborative and cross-temporal (if also dissensual) ekphrasis, of writing poems on old pot shards and articles on dead poets. Doing so unites us with others, even across time and culture, so that scholarship is always about creating or recreating community, and even when that community is fractious, it is still a home, a place to not just work, but to live, together.

→ Michael D. Snediker in his Coda, “Fuzzy Thinking,” corrects what has been until now a glaring lack in humanities scholarship, a dearth of photos of cute, fluffy animals. Snediker cozies up against the “fuzz” of Emily Dickinson’s “Buccaneers of Buzz,” and, riffing off of Fradenburg’s personal love of cuteness, argues that we take the adorable seriously. Arguing that “Dickinson forces her bees into bee outfits with the same slightly-off self-indulgence with which people sadistically dress up little dogs in bee outfits,” Snediker considers how “cuteness” helps us to develop the capacity for enjoying the world which is necessary for ethical engagement. Like Dickinson’s bees, who “subsist on Fuzz,” the liberal arts provide some of the softness that takes the sting out of life.

→ If I had to find one fault with this book, it would be that there aren’t enough cute pictures.

To complete the ritual of the book review, it’s my job to point out the things that I didn’t like about Staying Alive. But after reading this gorgeous Fradenburg I feel newly inspired to insist: I don’t get paid enough to treat my academic duties like a job (wherein I fulfill all the “proper” and agonistic professional duties in order to collect my underwhelming paycheck). This gig really is a “vocation,” as many people say, and that means letting instinct have its share of claim, rather than subordinating all to professional obligation. My instincts tell me: Staying Alive is, for our times, the kind of invitation that William Faulkner offered in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: stop living in fear, and start living. We will not just endure, but we will prevail, and the liberal arts are the way to do it.

[1] Henry James, The Bostonians (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) 84-5.

[2] Saint Augustine in De dialectica suggests that the sounds of poems are entirely separate from the question of meaning.

[3] See Bruce A Kimball, The “True Professional Ideal” in America: A History (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992).

[4] See Laurence R Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1965), 125 ff.

[5] The academic profession, as Christopher Newfield explains in Ivy and Industry (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), is a mash-up of craft-labor ideals and corporate modes of management. Influenced by corporate models of administration during the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century, the university “yoked personal relations to explicit, impersonal procedures, procedures which treated individual exceptions as anomalous. Official authority arose from the office rather than from the person. This person, in theory, functioned through his or her specialized expertise. He or she held personal power to the degree to which expertise fit with the larger structure” (78). Thus “academics are neither artists nor bureaucrats but both at the same time,” and are vexed by an oppressive double-consciousness, trying to produce humanist work but measuring that work according to anti-humanist standards (215).

[6] I hear in Don’t Look Back an echo of C. Stephen Jaeger’s The Envy of Angels: Cathedral Schools and Social Ideals in Medieval Europe, 950-1200 (2000), which shows how the medieval university is born out of a conflict between the body and the document.

[7] Marjorie Perloff points out that the Platonic prejudice against poetry, and against pleasure, has been an historic problem. For Perloff, this divide reduces the possibilities for readers and writers—academics and poets alike—to engage with literature on its own terms. See “In Defense of Poetry: Put the Literature Back into Literary Studies,” Boston Review 24 (Dec. 1999–Jan. 2000): 22–26.