English 301: Criticism (Fall 2017)

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Escaping Criticism, Pere Borrell de Caso (1874)

Pere Borrell de Caso, Escaping Criticism (1874)

This version of Criticism will be devoted to the problem of postmodernism. We struggle to find an appropriate definition for an historical period that may have begun, according to architectural theorist Charles Jencks, on July 15, 1972, when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis was demolished, and may have ended with the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. For some, postmodernity cannot be defined, or is so beset with a deep form of irony that no definitive statement about it could possibly apply. We can, however, address certain issues that arise in the debates on postmodernism. Jean-François Lyotard argues that postmodernism is accompanied by incredulity, a new skepticism toward the grand narratives of Western culture, or the Big Lies. Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson suggests that the style of postmodernism is nothing more than the hyperinflation of a consumer economy, or the Big Buys. Charles Jencks contends that all postmodern buildings—and by extension, the images we encounter in our environment—are “double coded,” with aspects of both popular and elite culture. And, of course, there is irony. As Umberto Eco says, in his Postscript to The Name of the Rose, it is no longer possible to say “I love you madly.” It only possible to say, because romance novelist Barbara Cartland has already said it, “As Barbara Cartland says, ‘I love you madly.’”

We will read several essays on postmodernity collected in Jencks, ed. The Post-Modern Reader, 2nd ed. (2011). But since our goal will be to “perform” criticism, we’ll also read three fictions that respond to the question of postmodernity directly or indirectly: Margaret Atwood’s dystopian (and newly relevant) feminist novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1986); Paul Auster’s reflexive detective novel, City of Glass (1985), and Don DeLillo’s satire of simulacral culture, White Noise (1985). In two midsemester writing assignments and a final critical essay, we will try to ascertain the degree to which the theory and practice of postmodernism are related.

The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be: 1990s Virtual Reality Enters the 21st Century

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UB HUMANITIES INSTITUTE SCIENCE STUDIES RESEARCH WORKSHOP

Friday, February 17th, 12:00-1:30

306 Clemens Hall

University at Buffalo

sega-vr-headset-1993The night of January 17, 1991, when laser-guided smart bombs and Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down on Baghdad at the start of the first Persian Gulf War, marked a transitionary moment from analogue to digital media. The legacy forms of broadcast TV, print fiction, and 2-D cinematic projection would be gradually replatformed by the new media of cable TV, ebooks, game boxes, and virtual reality.

Howard Rheingold’s influential Virtual Reality (1991) touted the “ten-year rule,” according to which computer enthusiasts by the millions—in 2001—would be interacting directly with virtual worlds through their desktop VR engines. But films of the 1990s, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), and novels such as Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991) and Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark (2000), uniformly present VR as the usher to a postmillennial apocalypse. Their dystopias are a means by which the legacy media of print fiction and the cinema “remediate” both the false promises and the disturbing threats of an artificial reality that would supplant them.

Some say that with the technological improvements introduced by Oculus Rift or Google Glass, VR’s moment in media history has finally arrived in the 21st century; some say that for VR and its funny goggles, its future has already passed.

Italian American Studies Association Conference

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italian_americans_mass_media_poster

I’ll present a paper, “The Ritornati: Migration and Remigration in Sciascia’s ‘The Long Crossing’ and Tucci’s Big Night,” at the Italian American Studies Association Annual Conference, California State University, Long Beach, CA. November 3-5, 2016.

Abstract:

The turmoil regarding migration, immigration and remigration has engulfed both Italy (and the European Union more broadly) as well as the United States. There are two sides to the coin of migration, and historically the two countries have coped with surges of immigration and remigration (the return to one’s homeland) with unfortunately proscriptive strategies. Of the 64,900 migrants, most from sub-Saharan Africa, who sought political asylum in Italy in 2014. 6,944 were forcibly deported and the remainder of these refugees were expected to continue their trek to northern European Union countries rather than remain as “guest workers” in the struggling Italian economy.

The irony of such a massive migration into Italy and the European Union would not be lost on Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, whose story, “The Long Crossing,” concerns Sicilian villagers who are conned by that day’s version of human traffickers into believing they will be deposited (as illegal immigrants) on the shores of New Jersey. Between thirty-five and fifty percent of the mostly single males who ventured to L’America returned to Italy; the ritornati were indeed remigrants. In Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s film, Big Night (1996), chef Primo considers whether to return to work in his uncle’s restaurant in Rome, against his brother Secondo’s conviction that only America provides the opportunity for advancement. Migrants into both the United States and Italy have faced isolationist, xenophobic and anti-immigration political parties such as the Northern League and the Tea Party.

E-Book Publication of Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry

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I’m very pleased to announce the e-book republication of Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry by Cornell University Press in February 2016.

Drawing on the work of contemporary American poets from Ashbery to Zukofsky, Joseph M. Conte elaborates an innovative typology of postmodern poetic forms. In Conte’s view, looking at recent poetry in terms of the complementary methods of seriality and proceduralism offers a rewarding alternative to the familiar analytic dichotomy of “open” and “closed” forms.

978-1-5017-0322-5-frontcover

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction

Defining a Postmodern Poetics
Seriality and Proceduralism: A Typology of Postmodern Poetry

SERIAL FORM

The Infinite Serial Form

The Unbound and the Uneven: Robert Duncan’s Passages
Against the Calendar: Paul Blackburn’s Journals
One Thing Finding Its Place with Another: Robert Creeley’s Pieces

The Finite Serial Form

The Dark House: Jack Spicer’s Book of Language
The Subway’s Iron Circuit: George Oppen’s Discrete Series
Sounding and Resounding Anew: Louis Zukotsky and Lorine Niedecker

PROCEDURAL FORM

A Predetermined Form

Renovated Form: The Sestinas of John Ashbery and Louis Zukofsky
Canonic Form in Weldon Kees, Robert Creeley, and Louis Zukofsky

A Generative Device

Constant and Variant: Semantic Recurrence in Harry Mathews, William Bronk, and Robert Creeley
Arbitrary Constraints and Aleatory Operations: Harry Mathews and John Cage

A Polemical Conclusion: The Language Poetries and the New Formalism

Notes

Index

 

Unending Design is available across major e-book platforms:

Amazon Kindle

Apple iBooks

Barnes & Noble Nook

Kobo

 

English 357: Cyberpunk Literature and Virtuality

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Neurotransmitter

Neurotransmitter

Winter 2016, University at Buffalo
Online Course, January 4-22, 2016

During the 1980s and into the 1990s an almost imperceptible and underground transformation in our cultural imagination took place, as our dependence on the analogue media of print, broadcast television and celluloid film slowly gave way to a digital information culture that William Gibson termed “cyberspace” in his novel, Neuromancer (1984). While the public waited for Tim Berners-Lee to fashion a hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and Marc Andreesen to code the first widely used Web browser, enabling a boringly commercial hypermedia known as the World Wide Web, the legacy media of science fiction and cinema took it upon themselves to imagine a dynamic, immersive, resistant and culturally diverse virtual reality. It’s not exactly what we got by the millennium; or, as Lawrence “Yogi” Berra is reputed to have said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” But that is the world of Cyberpunk, populated by techno-adept hackers and socially marginalized types, combining the grunge aesthetic of Punk music, the gritty realism of Film Noir, and the postmodern theory of a Simulacral society. In this condensed, three-week Winter session, we will read three classics of the cyberpunk genre: the aforementioned Neuromancer, whose antihero Case “jacks into” the Matrix of cybernetic war and trolls the dystopian Sprawl; Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991), in which the map of the mind becomes the territory of real space; and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1993), featuring Hiro Protagonist, whose digital avatar pursues a virus capable of infecting the cerebral cortex. We will complement these three works of fiction with three popular films in which virtual space overwhelms our Euclidean world: the millennial apocalypse of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995); an alternate world in which reality is a deceptive digital representation in the Wachowskis’s The Matrix (1999); and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), in which computer gaming becomes all too real. This course will be conducted online through UB Learns, with digital streaming of the films. Students will be required to participate in weekly graded discussion boards and writing assignments on both novels and films.

English 357: Contemporary Literature: The Social Novel

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University at Buffalo Department of English
Summer 2015, Second Session, July 6-August 14
Online Course

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

This installment of Contemporary Literature will examine the revival of the social novel prompted by Jonathan Franzen and exemplified by his recent book, Freedom (2010), which depicts a middle-American dysfunctional family. His brand of social realism is characterized by the objective representation of recognizable types (ourselves, only slightly embellished), in a prose style that mimics the contemporary vernacular (our voices, barely, if at all, embellished), and encompassing conflicts (the discontents of family and married life; substance abuse and psychological debilities; loneliness in a time of social media) that are ordinary, if only slightly more desperate than our own.

In point of contrast, we’ll then read Zadie Smith’s prize-winning debut novel, White Teeth (2000), which stirs together a postmodern fabulist style with a multinational and multiethnic cast of characters in London, England. More self-conscious in its bearing and more attuned to global culture and its transnational conflicts, Smith’s novel will in both style and content allow us to evaluate two prominent strains in contemporary fiction beyond the often insular American market.

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

As both of these novels are substantial in length, we’ll spend approximately half of the brief summer session with each, supplementing our reading of the texts with required nonfiction essays on the social novel and multicultural literature. Because this course will be conducted online through UB Learns, students will be required to participate in weekly graded discussion boards on the novels. In addition to these short responses, there will be two essays that will be likewise submitted through UB Learns.

English 645: Postmodern Fiction and Information Culture

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University at Buffalo

Fall 2015

New Media

New Media

The paradigm shift from analogue to digital culture should be acknowledged as a defining aspect of postmodernism. A complex dynamics of incommensurability arises in periods of technological overlap. In the Kuhnian model the new paradigm supplants the practices and forms of the old and renders them obsolete. But a model of remediation suggests that all new media refashion and sublimate old media. The incommensurability of print and digital media incites creativity in—and thus disturbs, but does not eradicate—the older, established forms of literature. Modulations in the form of the novel—the concept of what a “novel” might consist of, how its structure as a bound codex might be manipulated—are provoked by the introduction of digital media. While photography did not supplant painting in the nineteenth century, its capacity for documentary detail compelled the artist to reexamine the conventions of mimesis, challenge the genteel rules of subject matter and foreground the painterly medium of color and light. In the twentieth century broadcast television arises as literary fiction’s dominant technological other. And yet TV’s one-to-many delivery of infotainment to a passive audience instigated an interactive, plural and multimodal print fiction. The disturbing presence of broadcast and digital media has not made the novel disappear; rather, new media has made the most compelling fictions those that generate associative logic instead of the causal sequence of plot, parallel processing instead of serial in discourse, and multimodal design instead of the block print page. The reader’s apprehension of the textual condition displaces the conduit metaphor of communication; reflexivity in the narrative dispels absorption in the text-world.

Memories of My Father Watching TV

Memories of My Father Watching TV

During the seminar, we’ll alternate between readings of postmodern novelists who provocatively engage with the terms and conditions of information culture and theorists who invoke the surfeit of information and the hyperconnectivity that characterizes broadcast and digital media. We’ll begin with writers who question the antagonistic relationship between literary fiction and television as the dominant mass media in the postwar period, including David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (1993) and “My Appearance” (1989); and Curtis White’s Memories of My Father Watching TV (1998). Next we’ll survey the advent of virtual reality (VR) in a selection of cyberpunk fiction including: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which features a Hiro Protagonist whose digital avatar pursues a virus capable of infecting the cerebral cortex; Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991), in which the map of the mind becomes the territory of real space; and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), which delves into the post-Cold War world of multinational corporate communications. Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark (2000) switches between narratives that correlate the sensory deprivation of a hostage in an empty room in Beirut and the efforts of a Seattle-based group to project a virtual reality on the blank walls of “the Cavern.” We’ll finish with the Avant-Pop movement that splices the corruscations and convergences of the avant-garde and popular media culture in work by Larry McCaffery, Mark Leyner, Kathy Acker and Samuel R. Delany.

Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition

Our fiction readings will be informed by excerpts from a variety of critical and theoretical texts on information culture, virtual reality and digital media, including: Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspective on Ergodic Literature; Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies; Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media; David Ciccoricco, Reading Network Fiction; Joseph Conte, Design & Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction; Jane Yellowlees Douglas, The End of Books; Peter Freese and Charles B. Harris, ed. The Holodeck in the Garden: Science and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction; Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”; N. Katherine Hayles, My Mother was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts; Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter; Michael Joyce, Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics; George Landow, Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology; Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace; William Paulson, The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information; Mark Poster, What’s the Matter with the Internet?; Joseph Tabbi, Cognitive Fictions; and Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb.

English 447: The Literature and Film of Immigration

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University at Buffalo

Fall 2015

Online Course

Mulberry Street, New York City (c. 1900)

Mulberry Street, New York City (c. 1900)

The path of immigration into the United States extends from the halls of Ellis Island to the globalized migration of the twenty-first century. First-generation immigrants are often driven to these shores by the blight of poverty or the sting of religious or political persecution; hope to make for themselves a fabled but often factitious “better life”; and are riven between the desire to retain old-world customs and language and the appeal of new-world comforts and technological advances. Second-generation immigrants face the duality of a national identity—striving to become recognized as “real Americans”—and an ethnic heritage that they wish to honor and sustain but which marks them as always an “other.” Here we encounter the hyphenated status of the preponderance of “natural born” American citizens. The third-generation descendent will have only indirect or acquired familiarity with his or her ethnic heritage; the loss of bilingualism or at best a second language acquired in school; and frequently a multiethnic identity resulting from the complex scrabble of American life in a mobile, suburban, and professionalized surrounding.

We will view films and read a selection of both fiction and memoir that reflect the immigrant experience in this country. Jacob Riis documents the penury and hardship of tenement life among the newly arrived underclass in How the Other Half Lives (1890). Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers (1925) treats the conflict between a devout, old-world Jewish father and a daughter who wishes to be a modern independent woman. We’ll want to compare Yezierska’s immigrant experience of 1900 with the Soviet-era migration of Russian Jews to New York in Gary Shteyngart’s comic autobiography Little Failure (2014). Mount Allegro (1989), Jerre Mangione’s memoir of growing up in the Sicilian enclave of Rochester, NY, portrays ethnicity that is insular, protective of its “imported from Italy” values, and yet desperate to find recognition as an authentic version of “Americanness.” The film Big Night (1996), directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, serves up Italian food with abbondanza, “rich abundance,” but not a single Mafioso. In his long career as an English teacher and barroom raconteur, Frank McCourt preserved the harrowing story of his youth in Limerick, Ireland and New York for Angela’s Ashes (1997) and ‘Tis (1999); like so many immigrant families, the McCourts re-emigrated between transatlantic failures. We’ll screen the film adaptation of Angela’s Ashes, directed by Alan Parker, and read the second volume of his autobiography. Junot Díaz, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), follows the “Ghetto Nerd,” his voluptuous sister and hot-tempered mother between urban-industrial Paterson, New Jersey and their Dominican homeland. Finally, we’ll view the docufiction film, Who Is Dayani Cristal? starring Gael García Bernal and directed by Marc Silver, which retraces the journey made by a migrant laborer whose desiccated body was found in Arizona’s forbidding Sonora Desert.

Who Is Dayani Cristal?

Who Is Dayani Cristal?

As this is an exclusively online course, our discussion of these books and films will take place in the UB Learns environment. Writing assignments on ethnicity, identity and migration will be shared and critiqued among class members in the UB Learns discussion boards throughout the semester.