Reading the Material (culture of books, that is)

I am going to be publishing a version of my lecture notes for a theory course as blog posts, because, let’s face it, the writing style for blogs is more entertaining than academic writing and it’s vastly easier to include images and video in this space than in, for example, Word.

Print culture is a relatively new field that has a long history. Seems like a contradiction – right? How can something be new but have a long history? What I mean is that capital “P” Print and capital “C” Culture as a field in literary studies is fairly new – around the late 1970s, print culture studies caught on or gained ethos with the publication of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations of Early Modern Europe. The book radically changed how literary scholars thought about the advent of print and its influence.

The print history/culture/production of a book is just as important as its content, but this maxim has not penetrated the academic study as fully as it should. Without print culture, would we understand Christina Rossetti as a radical member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or would she still languish as just another frustrated nineteenth-century female poet? Her literary ambitions and profound influence on her brother, Dante Gabriel, were not made clear until Dr. Lorraine Janzen published extensively on the print culture of the Rossettis and their compatriots.

However, a good deal of undergraduate literary studies is still stuck in the mire of looking solely at content (the linguistic code) rather than the bibliographic code. The bibliographic code of a book includes the page layout, book design, and typeface (I strongly suggest taking a look at Jerome McGann’s The Textual Condition, after all, linguistic and bibliographic code are his neologisms). The bibliographic code also encompasses sociological concerns as well, including the ideal audience (or projected audience), price, print run, and, of course, the publisher. The publisher can make a massive difference in how a book is produced and even read.

Days of Augusta

The importance of analyzing the bibliographic code is made clear if we consider Jean Speare’s well-intentioned book Days of Augusta about the life and times of Schuswap Elder Augusta Tappage; unfortunately, it was produced in such a way that the book did much more harm than good. The black and white photographs, for example, positioned Augustaas part of the “past” rather than a vital part of her community. Through the visual rhetoric of the book, the reader comes to understand the book as a historical document. The publisher Douglas & McIntyre, clearly produced this book as a traditional ethnography that records a past about to be lost rather than share the wisdom of a Schuswap Elder. The bibliographic and visual code of this text stifles Augusta’s lively voice by using a western integration code. As you may know from reading Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen’s Reading Images, the integration code comprises the words, symbols and images that construct a culture’s epistemological systems. The integration code allows members of a culture to easily comprehend art, literature and other forms of social communication.

I have to wonder what the bibliographic code of the book would have been had it been published by an Indigenous press, like Theytus Books!

I think you can see how studying the print and visual culture of a book illuminates its meaning and its social and cultural function (or work).


Love this…


Confession: I think indie rock is awesome. The rockers are often unwashed, mayhap, but ridiculously cool nonetheless. I wasn’t really aware of the whole independent music scene until I spent a year living in Perth, Australia (explains why more than half my fav indie rockers are Aussies), and since then I’ve become one of those people who spend hours searching the internet for new music that I can proudly add to my oh-so-beloved iTunes collection (…yeah, I’m one of “those”). Since starting grad school, I’ve had to make a conscious effort to not allow my inner hipster to get in the way of, oh you know, actually doing the work required to succeed in my program; thus, Saturday mornings are when I indulge my need to find the new music that will help get me through the upcoming week. So before I spend the rest of the day slugging through

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The WLA and Digital Frontiers

The Western Literature Association conference was a blast this year, as always. I gave a paper on the ways in which the frontier myth operates in video games, specifically Red Dead Redemption, to support neo-liberal ideals and continue the discourse of American exceptionalism. After I gave my paper, I was invited to submit to a special issue of Western American Literature, the top journal in the field. I have to say that I was rather stunned, because I had thought I would be defending the idea of linking literary forms and cultural discourses to video games, but the audience was open to the idea. More than open, they were HUNGRY for such connections.

I’ve been toying with the idea of starting not only a print book on the subject, but also a digital archive of both my books-in-progress, since both deal with the way literature works outside of the confines of print. American Studies is taking a digital turn as of late (like everything else), and so are print books really the best form for disseminating research into digital forms or anything that uses visuals or material culture?  Probably not. I am not going to joint the “print-is-dead” band-wagon just yet, but the dominance of print is most certainly dead and that’s a good thing.

Sentimental Capitalism

I watched a talk by Salvoj Zizek the other day on the RSA network (have you seen the RSA talks? They are a wonderful blend of illustration and discourse). Zizek claims that we have moved from late capitalism into cultural capitalism. This argument is an old one, and Zizek does not claim  this idea as his own; he actually credits Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” with pinpointing the fundamental problem we encounter when trying to “solve” world hunger, homelessness and so forth.  We cannot use the system that caused these problems to solve these problems.  Cultural capitalism uses capitalist systems to solve the very social ills that capitalism caused in the first place.

We feel badly about such and such problem and so we throw money at it. We join websites that collect points based on what we buy or what advertisements we click on. For example, these points can be used to buy clean water for someone. What can be wrong with that? Like Zizek and Wilde state, such a system is better than the alternative, which is to do nothing at all. The point is that the reason another community does not have clean water or enough food (and so forth) is due to a pathological economic system, in which the lowest common denominator is not human relationships but profit.

I think the impulse to “feel badly” about someone or something is a huge part of the problem. I am not talking about actual empathy here, but sentimentality as a structure of feeling that is closely associated with how  North Americans, in particular, structure a moral universe. North Americans shed tears over a particular event and then proceed to invest in mass-market commodities to solve the problem. I fully believe that our investment in objects (“things”) as a means to know ourselves and our place in the world plays a large part in the movement to cultural capitalism. We do not value things; things value us. We take this odd logic into the wider world and feel very badly when others lose their “things.” We want to replace what others have lost rather than deal with the human element and complex contextual problems that caused such loss.

Think about Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which has just entered into its seventh season.The shows rating are currently in decline, but it still ranks 39th overall in terms of popularity. As well, the show is in syndication, the First Lady is involved in a project or two, and it has received a “seal of approval” from the Parent’s Television Council as being beneficial to child development (say what?). The show centers around a destitute and struggling family who are usually at a loss financially and emotionally. In fact, the financial and the emotional are linked in the show. The deserving family will feel better if the show builds them a new home and stocks it with lots of lovely things. The stuff in the house and the family’s emotional health are inextricably linked together. Who cares if they can’t afford to heat and maintain the luxury homes the show builds? Who cares if the problems that plagued the family are not mitigated by expensive furniture, video games, and kitchenware?  A contractor who gets free advertising builds the house; the community donates a bit of time and feels good (with little in the way of emotional involvement); the family gets new stuff; the network makes a fortune in advertising spots…where is the wrong? The problem is clear: we create relationships with inanimate objects that elides the real world difficulties that are best solved through time, communication, and community engagement.
One of my favourite criticisms of such approaches to righting social ills is a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks entitled, “The Lovers of the Poor.” (Click the link to hear her read the poem)

What do teachers make?

My friend Asia sent me this video, perhaps knowing that March can be the cruelest month.  The importance of teaching is downplayed by (some, but certainly not all) academics.  You can hear any number of commonplaces on the subject from “it interferes with my research” to “students don’t actually care…so why should I?”  But these excuses are part of group-think.  These are cliches that do very little except provide excuses for those who have missed the point of teaching altogether.  You see, teaching is not about you…not at all. Teaching is a about the entire context of what is going on in the classroom.  The interactions that happen before, during and after a class can be life-changing for all concerned: teaching is all-encompassing and I love it.

Interview with Bill Brown on Big Think

I use Bill Brown’s work a great deal.  while he could easily be pompous, he is not – nice to find.  Why do I use his work?  Because I am very interested in his take on material culture. How does material culture transform the us and our world?  I am very interested in this issue in terms of neocolonialism.

Here is Bill Brown’s bio from Big Think – click on his picture to listen to his interview.  It’s fantastic.

Bill BrownBill Brown is Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor of English and the visual arts at the University of Chicago. His past research has focused on popular literary genres, recreational forms, and the ways that mass-cultural phenomena impress themselves on the literary imagination. He currently studies the intersection of literary, visual, and material cultures. His major theoretical work is in “thing theory,” which borrows from Heidegger’s object/thing distinction to look the role of objects that have become manifest in a way that sets them apart from the world in which they exist. He edited a special issue of Critical Inquiry on this subject, which won awards for best special issue of an academic journal in 2001. His books include “A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature” (2003).

Tight publishing schedule and American Exceptionalisms

The anthology in which my essay “Oprah’s Vigilante Sentimentalism” appears.

Before I get into an angsty, yet positive overview of my nutso schedule, I want to say a big “ALRIGHT!” because my Oprah essay is coming out in an anthology entitled American Exceptionalisms (click on the book cover image above).

I have three projects on the go at once:

1. A paper on Kenneth Burke and material culture for an edited collection that will likely be due by the summer. If you have read Burke, then you know what a joyful, yet momentous, task this will be to argue that Burke offers an excellent framework through which to study the material culture of literature.

2. A revise and resubmit for Studies in American Indian Literature. They are very interested in the essay but they want some fairly major rewrites that will take a couple of weeks of intensive work.

3. A revise/resubmit of my book proposal to the University of Nebraska Press plus I want to write the intro for my book. The title has changed for a third time, by the way, to its final form as Durable Frontiers: The Material Culture of White Indigeneity.

My research schedule this term is Tuesdays and Fridays and so far, January has been filled with meetings.

On top of this, I am working with a colleague to plan and implement a day that showcases the research and teaching of the English department at Trent. It’s a fun project, but trying to find balance is difficult. I am still the vice president of the faculty association at Trent and that too demands a fair chunk of time.

With all that said and done, I am going to enjoy every second because there will likely be no job for me next year at Trent. Or at least, as a contract employee, I do not count on a job from year to year. C’est la vie.


I am in the process of applying for a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) postdoc funding – if you have applied for one of these, then you know how difficult the application is to navigate.  I am in one of the more stressful parts, which is to find a postdoc supervisor.  I sent my proposal out yesterday….and the waiting is simply brutal.  However, even if the application doesn’t work out this year, the process of sorting out my book in a four page, single spaced program of work was incredibly valuable.

If you have read my previous posts, then you know that I have been struggling with the organization of my chapters.  I have a handle on the Duston chapter, which is almost finished; the theory chapter, which will sort through my methodology; and, of course, The Last of the Mohicans, in which I link the film and television series to the material culture of the narrative.  I was not at all happy with the final chapters on The Virginian.  If my argument is about how durable narratives circulate neocolonial ideals via material culture, then how do I justify The Virginian?  I think there are definitely neocolonial values expressed within  the print narrative (particularly in the chapter sequence “The Game and The Nation”), but what about the material culture?  Except for the material legacy of the aristocratic cowboy figure of the Virginian, there just isn’t much out there.

I admit to feeling a little stuck, but then I remembered the excellent advice that Elizabeth Maddock Dillon gave me at the Futures of American Studies Institute.  She suggested that I look into the literary tie-ins to John Smith’s encounter with Pocahontas.  Needless to say, I am very grateful, because now I see intersections with Duston’s representation.  All three narratives fictionalize Indigenous and settler-colonist relationships, but with Duston and Pocahontas, the ways in which the female body has been produced as a national “thing” to be fetishized and consumed are stunning (and disturbing).

The Last of the Mohicans has mainly been reproduced in material culture through two main characters, Chingachgook and Hawkeye.  I am looking forward to seeing how the male body comes to be reproduced as objects of desire that can be handled (sounds kinky) as mass market products.  Actually, both Hawkeye and Chingachgook are available in role playing games.  These representations will be my focus.  I am curious to see if the films and the television series are shot or cinematically narrated in such a way that the viewer can role play as either character or, perhaps, race?

The most exciting part of all of this is to finally have a strong grip on what my book will look like and what it wants to achieve.  Now comes the grunt work of getting it done.

research, teaching, and a little angst