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Week Two (Tues, 1/25): Reading the "Romance" that is Darwin's Story

Our varied responses:
mindy huskins:  On the Origin of Species is one of the few books I have placed on my "can never actually finish" list ... the tediousness of the actual book. I think I will be ill if I ever have to read about pigeons ever again.
themword: Though I do not necessarily think I can read the book as a romance, I have been reading it as a novel, curling up with it and reading it with true interest .... I really began to see how Darwin's theory of evolution can so easily be tied into literature ....
senior11z: I grudgingly accepted the fact that I would indeed have to read a book about science before I graduated ... I found it quite compelling and surprised myself ... For the first time I can definitively point to, science sparked my creative imagination....

katlittrell: For me, the true romance was the story of the man behind this book ... a sharp intellect, a ravenous curiosity and love of facts, measurements and knowledge, but also a man with a strong sense of British superiority over the rest of the world - and there, showing in he foundation of the work, is the "crack" of cultural background which we discussed in class. It was ... disconcerting to me to read of my country and its animals as inferior, as the bad example, the naughty non-conformist, ill-formed child in the corner, to read another's view that Australian animals are not as not as far along the evolutionary chain as more advanced European animals ... I do not see how he can ... claim that the animals of one continent are less-well formed, or not as evolved, as those of another ....

those are teasers...

I. before we begin "romancing Darwin," some coursekeeping:

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no pressure, but I want more!!

as per (what will be!) usual: no new reading for Thursday
(if you haven't finished Darwin's "historical sketch,"
intro and first 4 chapters, please do so...)

on Thursday, we'll meet in two smaller groups,
where Paul and I will do less, you will do more talking...
come here first for your assignment, then I'll
lead 1/2 of you into Conference Room I

II. If you're finding Darwin "straight" hard to swallow,
there is considerable artistic assistance available
(w/ apologies to tangerines!):

"The How and the Why," through Feb. 13 @ the McCarter Theater in Princeton: by the writer/producer of the t.v. series In Treatment;
in this show, about the relationship between two women biologists
(per the Philadelphia Inquirer), "we will learn a great deal - painlessly -
about evolutionary biology."

11:30 on SUNDAY, January 30, @ The Community Education Center, 3500 Lancaster Avenue  in West Philly, a performance of Red Rovers (work in process by the Headlong Dance Theater) : "Mars. An abject landscape. Endless dust, extreme heat and cold. Occasional meteorites. Onto this landscape dropped two rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity....Red Rovers is new a dance theater-visual art collaboration ... exploring a lifeless landscape, the search for life on other planets, the impossibility of easy communication, the bonds between robots and with their makers, the eventual genetic modification and robotization of our human bodies, task-oriented movements, intricately detailed dance actions, strings of numbers and NASA lingo, propulsion, disability."

III. I know you're eager to get into our romance w/ Darwin,
but first ... a little more thinking about literature "evolutionarily." 
AnnaP: I was surprised when, in class last Thursday, I found myself thinking that both science and literature are equally resistant to real change. There are certain scientific “facts” that seem to be givens, and ... it seems as if some aspects of the scientific method (and its pretend neutrality) will never change. Yet one might say that literature suffers from a sort of stasis of its own in that ... the literary canon seems to remain as monolithic as ever .... any radical change in these fields could ultimately lead to a very radical change in how we think and what we consider possible.
ckosarek: I think ... literature and science evolve according to narrative theory in that neither is ever finished, neither will ever be finished, both are constantly disassembled, reassembled, and reconsidered to form a "new narrative" that seems to fit some current societal or personal demand.

I believe literature evolves in a fashion very similar to natural selection, in the sense that it is constantly changing depending on the readers ...

Let's try this out.
When we ran out of time on Thursday, we were
just beginning to describe our reactions to Daniel Dennet's song,
"Tell me why....": what we heard, what effect the singing had on us,
who was speaking, what difference our particular locations/
presumptions made, in interpreting the poem.

Let's try this process again, on a slightly more complicated text:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry--
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll--
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul!

Same questions as before:
What's your reaction
to this poem?
What did you think/feel/experience/reflect on as I sang it to you?
What did it put you "in mind" of?

What do you hear?
What observations can you make about the poem?
What summaries can we make of those observations?

What effect did the reading have on you?
What does the poem do?
What does it mean?
How does it achieve that meaning?

Who is speaking?
To whom are they speaking?
What are they speaking about?
Where are you in relation to speaker/audience/object?

What is the most useful context ("crack")
for understanding this poem?

What might you research,
to understand the poem more thoroughly?

How do you feel, as these questions are
being asked of you??

Fear of
...all that space?
...all that you don't know/need to know/
need to know how to look for, in order to respond?
...all you don't know about relevant context?

"Meaning is context-bound .... context is boundless;
there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant"

(Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory).

[One context for --my reason for choosing-- this poem: it was written by Emily Dickinson, then quoted in an novel by Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2, in which a computer is trained to take a graduate-level exam in English; the poem is introduced toward the end of the novel, when the project is becoming poignant...]

I could have chosen any poem to demonstrate Reader Response Theory:

        • meaning is not pre-determined
        • it comes into existence when a text is
          read & responded to
        • focus on the transaction readers make with texts,
          ways they actualize them in their own experience
        • meaning persistently revised as readers compare,
          collate their readings
        • searching for common patterns, recognizing
          when the patterns break down
        • how it works: see Louise Rosenblatt's 1938 Literature as Exploration and Jane Tompkins's 1980 anthology, Reader-Response Criticism
        • why it works--as in Paul's story of science--
          depends on the encounter between the "crack,"
          the heterogeneous personalities of readers
          and the indeterminacy/ambiguity of language
          (=the space for making meaning).
        • I offer it to you as an "evolutionary" way of reading:
          provocative of new meanings, rather than a search
          for the old.
        • In Anna's terms, it could lead to a very radical change in how we think and what we consider possible.

      I hope it will begin to invite you into an understanding of reading literature--and eventually literature itself--as an evolutionary process.

      Although, @ this point, you have a variety of different ideas about what evolution "is":

      evolution is essential change, whether positive or negative, manipulated or natural.

      I have been taught to believe that evolution is exclusively applied to organisms ... "survival of the fittest", "natural selection" ... guided by a set of rules and probability. After this first week of class, I found myself thinking too close-minded about this topic. ... the term can generally encompass anything that changes over time such as language and culture .... my thoughts have been biased. I feel that this class may challenge many foundations I have about science and literature and I welcome it.

      ewashburn: I don't think you've been entirely close-minded ... language and culture are created and changed by organisms. I think that the phrase "evolution" applies ... only to things that are alive .... To claim that evolution applies to anything that changes ... is to trivialize the importance of an organism's agency to change itself and to change the things around it ....

      One of the primary things that "reader response theory" does is emphasize OUR AGENCY as readers:

      ".... a novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal .... Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe ... that fiction is the thing you relate to ... seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced ... we have to ask of each other a little bit more"
      (Zadie Smith, "Fail Better").

      What differs/what's similar, when you conduct a scientific experiment, read a science text, interpret a poem??

      As you begin reading Darwin, for today, "as if"
      he'd written a novel--"as a two-way street"?

      In light of our discussion, last week, of the importance of the "crack" -- Paul's claim that "scientific statements are ... provisional stories, reflecting human perspectives" -- I was struck by the way Darwin began his introduction. It's so personal. It begins with in his own experience:

"When on board H.M.S. 'Beagle,' as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts .... These facts seems to me to throw some light on the origin of species .... On my return home, it occurred to me ... that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts .... After five years' work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject .... I have not been hasty in coming to a decision .... This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect(p. 95).

I think I have a pretty good sense of the guy's (thoughtful, and cautious!) personality (please note -- as katlittrell did -- the use of the "crack" that is the "I"!).

Paul, what are your observations?