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Starting from "what happened here before"....

Anne Dalke's picture

Gary Snyder begins a poem called “What Happened Here Before”:

— 300,000,000—
First a sea: soft sands, muds, and marls
— loading, compressing, heating, crumpling,
crushing, recrystallizing, infiltrating,
several times lifted and submerged,
intruding molten granite magma
deep-cooled and speckling,
gold quartz fills the cracks…

(and continues, quite a few stanzas later…)

And human people came with basket hats and nets
winter-houses and underground
yew bows painted green,
feasts and dances for the boys and girls
songs and stories in the smoky dark….

That poem gestures nicely toward my own trajectory: I am a scholar of American literature who, for the past five years, has (among other things) been co-teaching a course on the "evolution of stories" that locates the study of literature in the "deep time" of evolution, situating the human creation of culture as the most recent expression of an ongoing process of exploration that has its origins in geological—even astronomical—time.

I bring along with me to this group a range of literary scholars -- Wai-Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time (2007); Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2007); Ed Folsom, "Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives" and N. Katherine Hayles, "Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts" (PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association 122, 5: October 2007) -- who also study the evolution of literature on these sort of expansive (temporal and geographic) scales, and who are helping me think, in particular, about the difference that the internet is making in the evolution of forms, both literary and critical.

I am also a Quaker, interested in thinking together with others about the overlap between literary cultures and world religions, so often kept compartmentalized in the academy, and in experiencing/ thinking about/being willing to articulate to one another, and to others, some of the spiritual dimensions of the academic work we do.

I am interested in exploring w/ this group not only these more genial forms of academic conversation (what Bharah elsewhere calls intellectual ahimsa) -- but also what forms our digital archiving of these discussions—and their spin-offs—might take: could we create together products that are less constrained by print conventions than academic essays have been in the past? Arthur Dove's "Me and the Moon," 

evokes, for instance, the sort of extra-planetary qualities of literature that I hope to explore w/ this group; might we try together for some similar artistic (spatial?) representations of what have been largely linguistic (and therefore temporal) orderings?

In our first meeting, I was struck by the shared sense of our searching for conversations where the outcome is not “predictable” (as it so often is in departmental or disciplinary conversations), where we might be surprised; where we might share both our lived experiences and our theoretical musings about them; where we might model the sort of work done in research institutes—imagined as “harmonious communities of free-ranging intellects”—but going even beyond the divisional structures that set apart the scientists @ the Institute for Advanced Study @ Princeton, from the social scientists @ the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences @ Stanford, from the humanists @ the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, NC. Here we can be scientists, social scientists, humanists, scholars, intellectuals, artists, humans, bringing mind, body and spirit to the table, as we explore—and so re-shape--the world together. Yeah! Let’s get going…


Anne Dalke's picture


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