ROMANTIC CIRCLES MOO CONFERENCE:
17 JUNE 2000
“Cultural Patchwork in the Classroom: Shelley Jackson, Tom Stoppard, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling Rewrite the Romantics”
“At first I couldn’t think what to make her of. I collected bones from charnel houses, paragraphs from Heart of Darkness, and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame, but finally in searching through a chest in a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, I came across an old patchwork quilt, a fabric of relations, which my grandmother once made when she was young.”
—Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl
(Key to Sources)
- This patchwork of quotations appears in the “Crazy Quilt” section of Shelley Jackson’s innovative hypertext fiction, Patchwork Girl (1995). The section, consisting entirely of short passages of this sort, is an intertextual scrapbook of readings that have contributed to Jackson’s text—in this instance, fragments from a children’s book by L. Frank Baum, Mary Shelley’s first novel, an instruction manual on composing hypertext, and a work of postmodern theory by Jean-François Lyotard. The epigraph may stand as a symbol of the kind of instructional patchwork often called for by teachers who want to respond to the diverse cultural influences on today’s Romantics classroom. It is the kind of hybrid pedagogy that results when academic professionals nurtured on literary theory, cultural studies, gender issues, and multiculturalism meet students who are immersed in popular culture, savvy about the new media, and adept at using electronic technology to download their music, send Instant Messages to their friends, and research their term papers.
- Since 1996 I have taught a number of courses with a “patchwork” design, courses that focus simultaneously on nineteenth century English literature and on the strange, misshapen afterlife of that literature in the contemporary world. These classes range from undergraduate surveys for English majors on “The Nineteenth-Century English Novel” to graduate seminars on particular aspects of the same subject. In courses oriented toward contemporary issues, such as a Freshman seminar titled “Hypertext: Reading and Writing Online,” I include Romantic-era material, and in graduate seminars on topics such as cultural studies, postmodernism, and literary theory, I also make room for investigations of nineteenth-century literature.1 All of these courses are available on the web, and I will have more to say about the role of computers in this kind of Humanities pedagogy. These courses stem in part from the conjunction of my research interests in the two areas, and in part from students’ aptitudes and interests. There are more intellectually significant reasons, however, for bringing the time periods together.
- The first involves the unusual historical and theoretical insights made possible by juxtaposing Romanticism and contemporary culture. There are odd, unsettling continuities—as well as gaping disjunctions—between Romantic and postmodern attitudes toward a host of topics: subjectivity, the sublime, formal fragmentation, science, technology, the environment, and more. Lately, critics have begun to talk about these affinities in theoretical and philosophical terms.2 In the classroom, however, it is often more effective to dramatize such parallels through multimedia presentations or with examples drawn from material culture—consumer products, architecture, and the practices of everyday life. Such contemporary media and practices highlight the altered cultural contexts in which today’s Romantic survivals must make their way. Putting Frankenstein’s monster side by side with Donna Haraway’s cyborg, the replicants in Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner, and Jackson’s Patchwork Girl reveals as much about its discontinuities with the contemporary world as about its uncanny afterlife. In a historically based class one must be sensitive not just to the analogous but also to the anomalous. Perhaps the most important lesson such a hybrid course teaches is that similar, even identical phenomena can have very different meanings at different times. One of the chief purposes of comparing works from widely separated times is to measure the distance traveled, the forces that made the journey possible, and the consequences of arriving at a new place and a new hour.
- A second reason for undertaking this kind of class is the extraordinary burgeoning of contemporary texts that engage with the culture of Romanticism. Blade Runner and Patchwork Girl are just the tip of the iceberg of the recent fascination with rewriting the Romantic era. Looking around at the contemporary scene, the teacher confronts a bewildering array of allusions to Romanticism, a hodgepodge of trivia and clichés, as well as more illuminating images in novels, films, and digital media. From Hollywood remakes of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley to websites marketing Regency fashion; from novels set in the Romantic age such as Richard Sennett’s Palais-Royal (1986), Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover (1992), Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (1995), and Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever (1996) to Tom Stoppard’s witty play Arcadia (1993); from Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk science fiction The Diamond Age (1995), which frequently invokes Romantic poetry and philosophy, to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s alternative history of the nineteenth-century, The Difference Engine (1991)—nostalgic trips back to the earlier period are a major growth industry today.3
- Classes using such material often require modifying one’s usual teaching approach. Generally, one will not want to include more than one or two contemporary texts, unless one is willing to give up the focus on the prior century and pursue a topic that crosses entirely between eras. For teachers who are thinking of adding contemporary material to their Romantics course, I have three recommendations to offer. I will key each point to a brief discussion of a contemporary text that I have found to work well when teaching the nineteenth century.
Consider picking a contemporary text that is very different from the Romantic works covered in the class, not a version of one of the assigned texts. Discussion: Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.
Consider using the contemporary text to explore theoretical questions of history, genre, periodization, reception, or intertextuality rather than to trace thematic parallels. Discussion: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine.
Try assigning student projects that combine literary research with hands-on work in the new media. Discussion: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
1 For institutional reasons, chiefly involving the presence of three extraordinary Romanticists—Jerome Christensen, Paul Elledge, and Mark Schoenfield—in a relatively small English department, these courses do not center on the Romanticism per se, but they invariably contain discussions of Romantic texts and themes. (Return to text)
2 For examples of such discussions, see Joel Black, Jay Clayton, Jerome Christensen, William Galperin, Alan Liu, John McGowan, and Orrin Wang. (Return to text)
3 The Romantic Circles website maintains a partially annotated bibliography listing many of the contemporary novels and films devoted to the Romantic era at http://www.rc.umd.edu/reference/ficrep/nassr-sf.html
(Return to text)
Black, Joel. The Aesthetics of Murder: A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.
Clayton, Jay. “Concealed Circuits: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Medusa, and the Cyborg.” Raritan 15:4 (1996): 53-69.
Christensen, Jerome. “Using: Romantic Ethics and Digital Media in the Ruins of the University.” In Romanticism at the End of History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000, 177-206.
Galperin, William H. The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.
Gibson, William and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1995.
Liu, Alan. “Local Transcendence: Cultural Criticism, Postmodernism, and the Romanticism of Detail.” Representations 32 (1990): 75-113.
McGowan, John. Postmodernism and Its Critics. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.
Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
Wang, Orrin N. C. Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996
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