Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Notes Towards (the first 1/2 of) Day 25: What We Have Learned....

On The Evolution of Stories;
What we've learned,
and where we might go next....

Looking, first, backwards:

This is the fourth instantiation of this course.
In earlier versions,
Moby-Dick gave rise to Ahab's Wife;
Herculine Barbin to Middlesex;
Howard's End to On Beauty.

In each case, we relied heavily on
the contemporary authors
(Sena Naslund, Jeffrey Eugenides, Zadie Smith)
saying, explicitly, that they were
re-writing an earlier text.

In an author's note at the end of
On Beauty,
Zadie Smith writes: "My largest structural debt
should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan;
suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame,
which I covered with new material as best I could."

That way of selection now seems to me,
retrospectively (how I have evolved!)
very timid, not very imaginative, and
(actually) not very evolutionary.

It didn't allow for complexity,
or for unpredictability,
or for random generation,
or for the "blooming, buzzing confusion"
out of which new texts arise.
It was too conscious, too deliberative...
too safe.

This year's selections were not
(Hustvedt, for starters, never named
Whitman as her literary grandfather...)

This was a much riskier experiment,
with many more variables.

Jackie: did we complicate things by switching to a female author after having our class evolve around the evolution of works by male authors?

Lilie: Stevens [poem "The Snow Man"] could easily be one of the missing links between Whitman and Hustvedt.

A number of you had doubts about
whether our experiment "worked":

Lisa: I do not understand why Hustvedt’s narrative should be taken seriously in an academic discussion.

Sarah: what is definitely unclear to me is how this novel is more significant than any other recent novel

Elizabeth: “why this book?, isn’t there a better example out there?”
Dan: I almost wish we had read something that is a more important part of the literary cannon. After Whitman and Darwin this book just feels a bit amateur by comparison.

One of the queries we are
raising in this course is
what our standards are--
seriousness, significance,
goodness, importance....
Where do they come from?
Are those the most useful standards,
for our learning?

Julia: so many concepts in The Leaves of Grass were made clear and explicit for me when reading The Sorrows of an American. Whitman’s presentation contained many observations that were challenging to incorporate into a coherent story. The combination of conscious storytelling and revision helped clarify the role of the unconscious for me. Perhaps it is neither Whitman nor Hustvedt that was particularly appropriate to read, but rather the importance of the relationship between the two.

Rica: there is no one best, final text for the course...we can be given almost any book and we will be able to interpret it as evolutionary fiction.

Franco Moretti: "Theories concretely change the way we work...they allow us to enlarge the literary field, and re-design it in a better way, replacing the old, useless, distinctions (high and low; canon and archive; this or that national literature...) with a new temporal, spatial and morphological distinctions."

In other words, there might be other ways,
than the conventional ones,
to think about the relations among texts.

One of the things we have
used Hustvedt to model for us
(& any one of 100 other contemporary
stories might have done this
is the ability of the conscious mind to
reflect on its unconscious processes.

The guiding idea here was that
Whitman used a new poetic form
to represent the unconscious,
largely unmediated (?).

The "turn" Hustvedt represented,
in the evolution of stories we are tracing,
was the ability of consciousness not only to
represent the unconscious @ work,
but to use its awareness to
change how we work.

We've had some good conversation about
how much change actually takes place in the novel,
whether the "stuckness" of the characters suggests
it's not the best example of "evolutionary fiction."

Katie: In The Sorrows of an American there is no epiphany or large change at the end....On one hand...part of the point of evolution is that it creates something new. On the other hand, the development of a novel which has no resolution is fairly recent in the history of literature--that is one of the ways in which the form of the novel is a change from previous previous forms. This lack of a resolution, a definite ending, could also be related to biological evolution in that it is a process without a definite endpoint. Like this novel, it just keeps going in a collection of small changes.

IOW, it's evolutionary precisely
because there's no sharp change (?).

But there
is change.
We can learn to use our brains differently.

It is not only culture that both
"diverges" and "converges."

So do our brains, which
think both "linearly" and "associatively,"
"convergently" and "divergently":

Lucy Jo Palladino, The Edison Trait: Saving the Spirit of Your Free-Thinking Child in a Conforming World (1997)

- "The convergent thinker is exact, literal and orderly.
- Facts alone matter.
- Measurements are quantitative.
- Thinking is analytic.
- "The convergent thinker perceives discreet units of thought....
she lives in a universe composed of atoms."

Enter "ADD"-->

- "The divergent thinker lives in a natural state of "brainstorm."
She sees life through a kaleidoscope that is set in perpetual motion.
- Patterns change frequently.
- Experience is described, not measured.
- Thoughts are multicolored, multishaped,
and hard to hold in one place.
- "The divergent thinker whirls with ideas and images.
She lives in a universe made up of stories."

Anisha: it is harder to conceptualize the evolution of the course when such divergences come into light.

Hustvedt's novel is an account of
this complexly-thinking mind,

diverging, converging, diverging again,
in on-going conversation with itself--
and with the history of (most of
the genres of!) fiction-writing.

Marina: The last couple of pages of The Sorrows of An American gave the feel of a film montage....she uses nearly every literary genre in putting together this story...I might have liked to see the use of puppets somewhere in the novel...maybe...material for a final presentation…?

Where I want to go from here is
to invite you to think of the future,
where you might go,
beyond where we have taken you.

"the crack in the ice where the otters breathe....
The teacher's failings in which the students ripen...
(Lewis Hyde, "This Error is the Sign of Love")

Here are some gestures in that direction:

The recent production, in this room
(see the red drapes?) of

re-made, multipl-y, and dream-like,
from Miranda's perspective:

"In titling his play "The Tempest," Shakespeare opened its theme to a multitude of metaphors....Ours is all of these..complicated by the most perplexing tempest of all--the tempest of growing up. In focusing our production on Miranda's experience...Miranda inhabits all voices, taking on and exploring the opportunities granted to her in playing the role of the other characters....each of these subplots allows Miranda a chance to gain a better understanding of the world in which she lives, which in turn gives her the tools necessary to undertake the storminess of real life....working through a directorial and dramaturgical "brain trust," Miranda's journey has been influenced by more than one mind...[with all cast members] bringing to the table their own experiences of growing up...

The production seemed both the dream
out of which Shakespeare's play first arose, and
an evocation of the dreams to which it might give rise....

Thinking about biological/cultural/
individual evolution might mean looking @ the
unconscious underlying/arising from classic texts
(Lord's production of The Tempest).
It might mean
turning scientific texts into poetic ones
(Darwin's great-great-granddaughter):

“Nature is prodigal with time. She scrutinizes every muscle,
vessel, nerve. Every habit, instinct, shade
of constitution. There will be no caprice, no favouring...."

He does believe in a Divine Creator still
but not hers, not wise and kind. A ruthless shadowy thing
eternally going in for cruelty, elimination, waste.

Thinking about biological/cultural/
individual evolution might mean looking @ the
unconscious underlying/arising from classic texts,
turning scientific texts into poetic ones,
or turning them into dance.

Four research papers transformed into modern dance-->
The Science Dance Match-Up Challenge
(can you turn 'em back into science?
why might it be important to do so?)

Teaching and learning about
biological/cultural/individual evolution

might mean, in other words,
refusing the conventional
"species" of course-construction:

mixing not just consciousness and the unconscious,
not just biology and poetry,
or biology and dance,

but crossing other modes:
juxtaposing different languages, different forms,
different art and....body-art?

Van Gogh with Bandaged Ear

Hello, Van Gogh, Can You Hear Me Now?

Stelarc's "PostNatural History": "the body is obsolete and needs to
map its "post-evolutionary strategies....

The ear visualizes that idea that we can now engineer additional organs, Internet-enabled, to better function in the technological terrain that we now inhabit....

The doctors...were overheard discussing...that perhaps they were really the artists and my body was just the canvas!"

Freeman Dyson, "The Darwinian Interlude," in "The Future of Evolution" (Metanexus Institute, The Global Spiral), on the need for a new synthetic biology based on communities and eco-systems rather than on genes and molecules...

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago when a single species, Homo Sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change....Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, in the last thirty years, Homo Sapiens has revived the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, and the evolution of life will again be communal. If you like, you can call that the evolution of a noosphere.

Noosphere: the "sphere of human thought," third in a succession of phases of development of the Earth, after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life).

In such a world, what might happen to conventional plots,
as technology erases the boundaries between us?

If Only Literature Could Be a Cellphone-Free Zone
“We want a world where there’s distance between people;
that’s where great storytelling comes from."

"if Joseph has an iPhone, there’s no Judaism”

M. J. Rose intends to set her next book in 1948 in part so she can let missed connections and miscommunications simmer....

Hustvedt would probably insist that
there will always be boundaries,
not just between us, but within:
we do not (yet? nor will ever?)
fully know ourselves.

And it is that boundedness which
provokes both the attempt to know, and
the storytelling about the attempt.

What do you think?