The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: July, 2015

Impostor Syndrome

One hears a lot about impostor syndrome in academia these days. It’s endemic. Everyone’s an impostor. If you’re not, you’re not really an academic. It’s a paradox. Though I sometimes feel such feelings, I don’t want to go along with this mode of articulating one’s experience of being an academic. A recent articulation of the phenomenon really rubbed me up the wrong way, from the title down: “For Marginalized Scholars, Self-Promotion is Community Promotion“, by one Eric Grollman. How covenient! By the simple self-labelling as “marginalized” (and yes, he does so explicitly through the article, “my fellow marginalized scholars” and so on), Grollman has created an ideological ploy wherein any self-interested and self-promotional activity is always already validated. Which is nice. He ceases to be capable of acts of private self-interest and becomes an actual embodiment of unprivilege. Any victory for him is one for the downtrodden, etc. He begins:

Self-promotion is on my mind again.  A year ago or so, to my surprise today, I shared the following wisdom on Twitter:

Self-promotion is just as much promotion of my communities as promotion of myself.

Unfortunately, this gem along with other possible gems I’ve shared on Twitter were lost to subsequent self-doubt. I buckled under the nasty criticism of anonymous trolls who, at the time, seemed to read and critique my every tweet and blog post. I let cowardly colleagues bully me into silence, temporarily at least.  In the process of recovering my voice, I have had to face the reality that speaking out (or not) is just as much about me as it is the communities to which I belong.

Here, the very beginning of the article, is where I really lost patience with the author. He talks about self-doubt, but what strikes me is that he evinces no self-doubt at all, or even the slightest tolerance for self-reflection or self-criticism. Without giving details or making any arguments, he categorizes all his criticism as “nasty”, and the work of – of course – “trolls”. His colleagues are somehow “cowardly” and, what’s more, “bullied” him in an unspecified way. And that’s all without in any way making even a token attempt to address their points – we are simply to assume that, as the author was offended and hurt by them, they must have been “nasty” and insubstantial. Yet, one can think of several obvious criticisms that could be made about the tweet, criticisms that aren’t nasty at all, the fundamental one being that one can work in the name of a good cause and associate oneself therewith, as a simple mask for self-interest, ultimately benefiting disproportionately or only oneself, and that the notion of individual responsibility may be worth considering – you don’t just get a free pass because you’re poc, LGBT, or whatever.

At the end of the paragraph quoted, Grollman does say that speaking out is “just as much about me as it is the communities to which I belong”. He seems about to finally apply some self-awareness here, but it doesn’t happen; rather he returns to his stance of considering himself a proxy for the disadvantaged everywhere. He ends thusly:

Tasking individual marginalized scholars with self-promoting to help advance their own communities is burdensome, I realize.  If you’re already feeling self-doubt, and the twinge of guilt for turning requests down, and the stress of being overburdened with service demands, knowing that you are either advancing your communities or letting them down is simply more pressure.  But, thinking of the positive flip side — that the promotion of your scholarship and perspective helps to promote your communities — may help to alleviate the self-doubt.

The reality is, it often is so much more than you. When you are excluded, it is because most or all of the members of your communities are excluded. When scholars who dare to speak up are attacked, they are simply targets for a larger assault on liberalism, higher education, anti-racism, feminism, and other causes that promote equal rights and/or social justice. The self-doubt is, at least in part, an internalization of the bias against marginalized scholars in academia and society generally. We ease the work of defenders of the status quo in academia when we are complicit in our own silence, invisibility, and exclusion.

We owe it to ourselves and our communities to be heard, and seen, and cited, and promoted, and included, and engaged.

This ending moves his argument, or at least his rhetoric, on a bit by focusing on how hard and unpleasant self-promotion is. Self-promotion is now a duty one does for one’s community. No reference to the self-promotional part of self-promotion. In a transvaluation of the value, self-promotion has become a public duty. In a brazen cynic, such a move would perhaps demonstrate an admirable nerve – gall, even – but Grollman is not a cynic, rather he is convinced of the transcendent righteousness of his own self-promotion. He feels self-doubt, apparently, but he doesn’t analyse it, assuming instead that it is a function of instutionalized bias. This is an interesting paradox: to feel self-doubt, but to reflexively attribute it to an outside force – “it is this condemnable cultural situation that makes me feel this self-doubt”, one is saying. Is this, then, real self-doubt at all, if it never seems to reach the stage of self-questioning? Maybe Grollman does question himself, but he doesn’t give much evidence in this piece, and the way he dismisses his opponents tends to suggest otherwise. His self-doubt, then, his impostor syndrome, is rather a way of turning the discussion against those who disagree with him, and a way, ultimately, of masking self-interest, for even a spokesman for the marginalized can be self-interested, and his duty cannot be any less to face up to such interest than to promote himself in the name of a greater good.

Fiction without Narrative

Probably the most exhaustive attempt to provide a structuralist account of narrative is Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse, trans. by Jane E. Lewin (Oxford: Basil Blackwood, 1980). As the name doesn’t suggest, the subject of this book is Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, but the intent of the book is to a large extent methodological. Genette is careful, though, to make in his preface the “liberal humanist” point that A la recherche has its own “specificity”, but adds “that specificity is not undecomposable, and each of its analyzable features lends itself to some connection, comparison, or putting into perspective” (22-23). Thus he’s much less militant than some of his structuralist predecessors. He is by no means at war with Liberal Humanism/ New Criticism, or even notions of canonicity, offering them a sort of rapprochement with theoretical approaches.

Given that Genette is developing his entire theory almost exclusively out of one book, the general applicability of it is not likely to be demonstrated with Narrative Discourse itself. But let’s look at his chapter on duration. As usual, he’s helpfully schematic here. Narrative has basically four options with regard to duration of related events: summary, descriptive pause, ellipsis, and scene. Unlike many of Genette’s technical terms, these four are more or less self-explanatory. Ellipsis is the most questionable, as by its nature it has no narrative duration at all, so, narratively, one could argue it doesn’t actually exist. This is certainly true of his third type of ellipsis: hypothetical ellipsis (the others are characterized ellipsis and implicit ellipsis). This type is “impossible to localize,even sometimes impossible to place in any spot at all, and revealed after the event” (109). What I think Genette is doing here is mapping empirical reality onto a fictional text. If in real life a certain period has elapsed, we know any given person was somewhere, doing something, in that time. If we don’t know what, we have an ellipsis in their history. But there is no reason for fiction to work like that. “Time” in a narrative doesn’t go by the gregorian or any other calender, nor does it go at all. But this mapping of reality onto narrative is common in Narrative Discourse, though Genette never acknowledges that that’s what he’s doing when he invents an abstract schema based on realistic time- and event-sequences from which the plot of the book emerges. The fact he doesn’t even seem to notice it is perhaps proof that it is impossible not to read a narrative as being in some sense representational, as having some relationship to empirical reality, even if a different one to a “true” story.

But Genette’s categories are also incomplete, at least when we try them against a narrative, even a short one. Maybe they worked for A la recherche, I don’t know it well enough to say. But a problem is perhaps signalled when Genetter refers without explanation to “extranarrative elements” (95), meaning that his list of narrative elements doesn’t cover all the elements of a narrative. And he’s right. It doesn’t. I’ll go again to my go-to: Sherlock Holmes. The opening of the first of the short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia“:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

Now, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is a narrative, a succession of fictitious events causally connected. But what is this paragraph? It’s not an ellipsis, obviously, because if it was it wouldn’t exist. It’s not a scene, either, because it isn’t given a setting or any action or dialogue; it’s not a descriptive pause for the same reason. It is a summary, in a sense, Genette’s fourth mode, but it’s not a summary in the Gennettian sense, because it cannot be temporally placed. For Genette, all narrative events have duration, so what does not have duration must be “extranarrative”. These elements, it would appear, are often of the nature of reflections, reflections on a time past, on a character, on a mood, on a setting. Here it is a reflection on a character. Temporally, this reflection is obviously taking place after the events that are about to be narrated. But when is this after, when is the moment of narration? This we don’t know. But even then, we can’t allow the moment of narration to be the moment when any given thing narrated takes place, or all the narrative would take place when it is narrated, but narratologists like Genette don’t accept that. But while the time of the events is necessarily past, the time of the reflection – the time of the narration – is not simply past, not coterminous with the narrative. Rather, it stands outside of diegetic time.

The narrator, Watson, in the example shown is basing his reflection on a lifetime’s acquaintance with Holmes, with special (but certainly not exclusive) reference to the time Holmes met and engaged in a battle of wills and intelligences with Miss Irene Adler. This reflection is as canonical, as important in readings of Holmes, as anything within the narration proper. It is inflected subsequent depictions of the character such that, even now, the idea of a Holmes  who permits the “softer passions” is near unthinkable. Just watch Sherlock (2010- ) and Elementary (2012- ), and the character’s aromantic, asexual and unemotional sides are constantly foregrounded. Narrative without post-facto reflection on the part of the narrator is rare, and the task of narrative theory should surely be to incorporate such reflection. How much of the pleasure of reading comes from this voice, recounting not events, but wisdom, the fruits of thought and engagement.

Fiction always has a narrative in there, but it is something more as well, and can dispense with narrative temporarily to engage readers in another way, as Doyle does. He offers both a warm, relatable voice (Watson’s) and a compelling subject (Holmes). This hooks us before the narrative even enters. And the compelling nature of Holmes brings us to another element curiously absent in Genette and many structuralist/ narratologist theorists: character. Genette makes no allowance for character except as voice, and this only covers the narrator. So how would he analyze the Holmes stories? He would find it difficult to bring in Holmes, as a non-narrating character, using his methodology. But it is clear from the historical and current reception of the Holmes stories that it is precisely the character who fascinates. The character and the dynamic with John Watson: admiring and perplexed by his genius friend. This admiration and perplexity is not diegetically temporal. It is right through the stories, weaving in and out, and creating a timeless (in two senses) effect.

Close Reading

Writing on literature in an academic capacity, one of my favourite activities is close reading. This approach is typically associated with so-called New Criticism – as this was prominent in the 1940s and 50s, the name has become something of a misnomer, but it has stuck. It fell somewhat out of favour among academics as theory came to prominence. Close reading and theory are at opposite poles of the critical spectrum: the latter is about bringing a preconceived framework to bear on the text, while the former is about a preconceptionless attention to the text. Of course, in an ideal sense, “preconceptionless attention” is not possible; but, equally, applying a theory to a text is also impossible, for extra-theoretical preconceptions begin to intrude here too. Given this choice between impossibilities, I tend towards close reading because it is the singularities of a text that interest me: in one single text there is an infinity of possibilities for reflection and intellectual exploration. The paths branch off in a myriad of directions, with no end in sight, as opposed to theory, when the end is largely pre-ordained, and all bifurcating paths must be hurried past with hardly a curious glance. All of which is perhaps excessively metaphorical, but suffice to say that close reading allows for attention to details in all their idiosyncratic uniqueness. The paradigm of the close reader is perhaps Sherlock Holmes:

“From a drop of water,” said the writer, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it. Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems. Let him, on meeting a fellow-mortal, learn at a glance to distinguish the history of the man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs. Puerile as such an exercise may seem, it sharpens the faculties of observation, and teaches one where to look and what to look for. By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs—by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.” – A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 2.

Now, though Holmes’ approach is in theory totalizing and idealistic, finding all life in any manifestation thereof, in practice no mortal can attain such knowledge, so is obliged to cobble together what can be gleaned from specific details. The observation is always with Holmes for a specified practical purpose, not to build a theory of analysis, but a resolve a certain situation – to solve a crime, most typically. The particular object of Holmes’ observation and attention is his fellow-mortals, who are to him as an open book, one which he reads with exemplary closeness.

It is the character’s profession of consulting detective which allows him such scope to read and investigate his fellow-mortals. Alternatively, he could have read their written works to understand the workings of the individual consciousness, and its interaction with nature, society, etc. Fundamentally, the critic is working towards the Holmesian end of observing and understanding his fellow mortals, and, hopefully, doing it with some of the style, wit, and professional integrity of the great detective.

The continuing validity of method of close reading in these postmodern times has been recently argued by Rey Chow:

Deconstruction has provided one kind of answer: the text may be regarded as a material phenomenon that keeps doubling on itself, referring to itself, in a potentially endless series of reflexive moves that reveal language’s alterity (or perpetual self-alienation) to be its own purpose. In pursuing the text in this, what some term “regressive,” manner, deconstruction brings into the open a question that is implicitly foreclosed in New Criticism: what is meant by “close” in close reading? Is close reading simply a matter of reading repeatedly (as Richards’s phrase “several readings” suggests), or is it a matter of reading symptomatically, approximately, or seamlessly (without gaps)? Is close reading a quest for some ultimate oneness? Importantly, unlike for the New Critics, close textual reading for de Man, Derrida, and their followers is not a means of inferring a transcendent unity somewhere. Rather, it is an intimate engagement with the text that is, nonetheless, forever unmet by a definitively reciprocating or holding ground. However precise and penetrating, this close textual reading is now readily sliding off—and horizontally displaced onto other words in play, in the literal sense of allegory—“other speak”—ad infinitum.

– Rey Chow, “Close Reading and the Global University”, ACLA 2014-15 State of the Discipline Report

Chow considers close reading to be classically a search for “some ultimate oneness”. Perhaps it was, but there is no necessity for a details-based approach to include any such element. Chow makes a fairly conventional move, by rehabilitating close reading via deconstruction. In one sense this makes sense, for Derrida insisted that deconstruction was neither a method nor a school nor a doctrine of philosophy “or indeed anything outside of reading the text itself“. However, the constant deferral of meaning that deconstructionists identify and focus on is not the most important element of a close reading, for while in a larger sense meaning is always deferred to some extent or other, the purpose of close reading is not to identify the presence of this generalized slippage/ sliding off, which can be taken as given without having to be constantly re-emphasized, but to engage with the specificities of the individual text, for every text is somewhat original, and cannot help being so. Even Menard’s Quijote was original. Engaging with such individuality/ specificity/ originality, such value, may be ultimately necessary if the study of literature is itself to be of value. We thus engage by reading closely and, so far as is possible, without preconceptions.


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