Experimental Assignments; or, Adventures in Character-Space

This is a guest post from Bok Blog contributor Stephen Tardif

The start of a new semester is the perfect time for pedagogical experiments. Some teachers, offering new courses, will have the thrill of applying untested instructional methods to fresh material, while others will tweak their traditional courses with novel approaches, new modules, and innovative, creative assignments. When employed with clear learning goals that are tailored to their distinctive features, such assignments can cultivate a range of new critical skills. However, in addition to experimental assignments of this kind, a teacher might, instead, try another form of non-traditional exercises: ones that use the standard tools of academic analysis to examine objects beyond their normal disciplinary boundaries.

Rather than attempting to re-imagine the format of undergraduate assessment from the ground up, this type of assignment would be an experiment on the level of content rather than form—and would realize a cherished ideal of the university as well. Spanning the distance between the public square and the campus quadrangle has always been a particularly pressing challenge for teachers in the humanities. This desire to have the rigorous intellectual training cultivated in the ivory tower brought to bear on broader questions for larger audiences can seen in the proliferations of programs in public history, crossover pieces by aspiring public intellectuals, journals like Public Books, and even in the theme of the recent MLA convention, “Literature and its publics.” But this pervasive aspiration to place students and scholarship inside the main currents of public discourse is beset by a nettlesome question: how? And if teachers find this task difficult, how can they prepare their students to achieve this very feat?

A promising recent example of precisely this kind of application can be found in literary studies. Carolyn Levine’s widely admired new work, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, uses formalist tools to read a range of unorthodox items: from contemporary scholarship, to college classrooms, to quality television. Indeed, a key motivation for Levine’s attention to the friction between forms—to the ways that rival hierarchies clash and overlapping systems short-circuit—is to move from reading literature to reading culture with the same seriousness and intensity. On this score, Forms is an undoubted success. Levine’s book is a winning example of the best tradition of cultural criticism: it trains the lens of an established disciplinary method on unconventional objects in a way that recalls Roland Barthes’s famous essays on the cultural artifacts of post-war France. Barthes’ treatment of a series of eclectic topics—from red wine to wrestling—blended the sensitivity of an acute literary critic, the intellectual seriousness of a structuralist, and the deadpan tone of an ethnographer to produce a unique critical voice: his mock-serious mixing of high theory’s tone and low culture’s material created a kind of analogue to magical realism in the realm of non-fiction. And, like the essays Barthes later collected as Mythologies, Levine’s book is about more than forms: it reveals how potent can be the combination of the tools of the academy and the world which remains beyond it.

Thus, the real strength of Levine’s scholarship is, as David Alworth puts it, that of an “operating system”: its contribution is the creation of a platform which enables further applications of the kind which it also models itself. So what new work does a book like Forms enable? Levine’s study concludes with a virtuosic reading of The Wire, which is a natural place to apply for the traditional tools of formal analysis. However, the rapid ascension of David Simon’s series from cable serialization to college syllabi proves an otherwise rigid rule about cultural objects and their academic study: only a handful of such artifacts ever achieve this status, making the meetings points between academic discourse and wider cultural currents far too rare. The great irony of this infrequency is that the classroom is precisely where the savviest consumers of culture and the most sophisticated means of analysis come together—only to pass each other by without the least interaction.

Experimental assignments are an ideal way to facilitate this exciting potential dialogue. Every teacher who has found a way to make a muddy concept clear with a pop culture reference knows the potential pedagogical power of familiar examples, and how easily they can be applied. Why not, then, let students supply their own examples when, for instance, theoretical concepts are being taught—especially since the putative virtue of such concepts is the range of their utility? By drawing on what Franco Moretti calls the “social canon”—the popular artifacts being consumed at any given time—, teachers can prove their points on the pulses of their students.

 Though some teachers might be apprehensive about where such assignments might lead, the serious (if unconventional) application of theoretical concepts will only sharpen a student’s sense of both the ideas themselves as well as the examples that they involve. Of course, some disciplines (like philosophy) and some specialized skills (like reading poetry) depend on the close study of a fixed set of canonical texts that establish their rule-based intellectual and aesthetic traditions. However, when the study of certain subjects and concepts can be enriched by the use of contemporary examples that students themselves volunteer, teachers should let them do so. But what would such assignments actually entail?

 One example comes from Alex Woloch’s path-breaking 2003 study of the problem of characterization in literature. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel argues that, in any narrative, flat and round fictional characters compete in a zero-sum game for a finite amount of detail and attention. The intersection between the limitless potential depth of a human personality and the limited narrative in which this personality inevitably appears is what Woloch terms “character-space,” and the interdependent ecosystem of the character-spaces within a given narrative, its “character-system.” Elegant, erudite, and conceptually daring, Woloch’s book is a classic of certain critical genre: although its references range from Homer to Henry James, it builds its case using just three 19th-century novels by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Honore de Balzac. Highly suggestive and unapologetically canonical, The One vs. the Many makes a host of new questions—and new conceptual tools—available to students. As one reviewer put it: “there is, after Woloch, fresh work to do.”

What can Woloch’s concepts do beyond the canon—and beyond even the confines of literary works? As readers of the Bok Blog may (or may not) know, the English-Irish male vocal group, One Direction, has been in the news lately. Rumors that their temporary hiatus will prove to be a permanent split have anxious fans in distress and the fifth estate of celebrity gossip outlets holding their proverbial front pages for the latest update. (Following one member’s unexpected departure last year, the possibility of the group’s dissolution is, evidently, all the more likely.) While an instructor might rightly note that the vagaries of boy band’s fortunes seem like an unpromising object for the attention of literary theoretical analysis, a student encouraged to give serious thought to the topic might produce unexpected insights.

 To begin with, the conventions surrounding the cultural template of the “boy band” are just the sort of social form on which a critic like Levine would fix her focus. Moreover, the special feature of this particular form is precisely its ability to balance the individual character-spaces of its members within a coherent character-system of the group. In one sense, “One Direction” is simply a heuristic: a short-hand, two-word title to attach to a few melodic three-minute songs. But, in another sense, the idea of the band enables five unknown performers to survive in an ever-crowded music market by organizing and simplifying the identities of the group. The stable set of types that every boy band assembles makes any of its members immediately legible in the arena of popular music—while simultaneously distinct to the fans who, given sufficient time and interest, thrive on parsing the smallest shades of difference within the band’s character-system. Where an outsider will see only similarity, the initiate will perceives a world of subtle distinctions.

In other words, the concept of the “boy band” does the same work for One Direction that the “little band” does in Marcel Proust’s second novel: the group of girls in Within a Budding Grove have a collective charm for Proust’s narrator that none of its individual members possess. When the narrator’s love-interest is finally separated from them, his direct perception of her—unmediated by the presence of the group—changes dramatically. But the absence of this protective character-system is also what enables her character-space to expand. And the ability of a character-space to recalibrate and grow outside of the character-system in which it was previously enclosed seems to explain why Beyoncé Knowles and Justin Timberlake are household names long after the disbanding of Destiny’s Child and NSYNC.

 When carried beyond the canon of European literature, Woloch’s pair of concepts from The One vs. the Many not only come into clearer relief, but their meaning and significance are illustrated through the surprising range of their application. Students tasked to find examples which could be illuminated by Woloch’s work (but who would not necessarily be thrilled by the one provided above) could also use the notion of character-space to parse other cultural objects. To stay within the realm of music, one example would be the oeuvre of the Wu-Tang Clan. Endeavoring students might try to explain how the dynamic between the identities of the group’s members enabled a relatively long song with nine verses and no chorus to reach a commanding height on the music charts. (It would also be interesting to contrast the general decline of the number and prominence of rap groups with the rise of those artists like Talib Kweli and Kendrick Lamar who perform under their own names.) Other students might use character-systems as a way to describe the changes that sitcom characters exhibit when they grow out beyond minor roles to become the main characters in spin-off shows. Still other students could examine similar tensions and dynamics among groups of characters in graphic novels. The possible examples arising from an assignment on applied literary theory will be as various as the students who attempt them.

Nor would these experiments in cultural criticism bring students far afield from important conversations in culture or in the academy. Current debates surrounding the notion that there is a limited carrying capacity of scripted shows on network and cable channels cry out for sophisticated theoretical analysis of why such a limit might exist and how it would operate. Indeed, the saturated imaginative environment that network executives are now encountering is precisely what has spurred literary studies to embrace digital methods of research. The task of the scholar wishing to produce new knowledge about thousands of non-canonical novels is at least as daunting as that of the producer backing a successful show in the era of “Peak TV.” But the limits that they both seek to overcome are attenuated when students are encouraged to make their serious thinking as wide as their cultural consumption, and their cultural consumption as wide as possible.