Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Theology and Geometry is out in paperback

Back in the spring of 2020, I announced that the book Theology and Geometry: Essays on John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was being published by Lexington Books. Leslie Marsh edited it, and I have a chapter in the book. This spring, I have learned that the book is coming out in paperback, at the low, low price of $39.99. I am surprised about the paperback. I didn't expect it to make the transition, because I didn't think the likely sales would warrent it. This is a sign of confidence on the part of Lexington. Thank you.

So if you were sitting on the sidelines because of the high price of the hardback ($90), now is your chance to own your own copy. What about you, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana? Berkeley has a copy. Princeton has a copy. What about someone in Spain? Researchers in Catalonia study Toole, I know you do. I can't offer any ginsu knives, though, or bamboo steamers.

The Amazon link: Theology and Geometry. The paperback ISBN is: 978-1498585491.

The Barnes and Noble link is: Theology and Geometry, if you do not want to help pay for Jeff Bezos's space program.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

ELC Saunders #7, Notes on American Classics (2018)

Although this blog is primarily about the novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, I have also started adding entries regarding the practice of Evolutionary Literary Criticism (ELC), which is more or less the application of evolutionary psychology to literature. Here are some observations on the monograph below, a recent publication in the field. This entry is observation number seven regarding this book.

Saunders, Judith P. American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives. Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2018.
This month's discussion: Chapter Eleven: "Paternal Confidence in Hurston's 'The Gilded Six-Bits'", pp. 226-245.

Any subjects that connect genetics and human behavior, such as behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology, can evoke opposition because of their potential use by defenders of racism or sexism.

Race may be a social construct, but it is a construct built out of ideas about biological inheritance. Natural selection is by definition the selection of inherited biological characteristics by natural processes. Because of the possible misuse of natural selection by racists, those vigilent against racism may be quick to accuse anyone discussing genetics and behavior of being a racist. One must therefore discuss human genetic and evolutionary issues with great care to avoid either actual racism or even the appearance of racism. Stephen Jay Gould was a popular writer about evolution in part because of the clarity of his reasoning about these issues.

Likewise, sexuality and gender are highly contested topics in our society. On the one hand, Texas has declared gender-affirming medical treatment on minors to be child abuse. On the other hand, some gender progressives advocate that persons with fully functional SRY genes (the gene on the Y chromosome that triggers the body to develop into a male) should be allowed to compete in women's sports. Some commentators have judged Frans de Waal to be brave for writing on this topic with his recent book: Different: Gender through the Eyes of a Primatologist. Considering that natural selection is about reproductive fitness, reproduction, and with it sexuality, are critical to subjects that deal with biological evolution.

Because evolutionary literary criticism is the application of evolutionary psychology to the study of literary texts, practitioners of ELC would do well to trend carefully when dealing with issues that relate to race and sexuality.

Judith Saunders, in earlier essays in this collection, has dealt with a number of aspects of what is sometimes called Sexual Stratgies Theory. For example, in her essay on Edith Wharton, Saunders shows that Wharton's female characters demonstrate mate-guarding tactics, tactics for keeping other women away from their men. In her essay on Walt Whitman, Saunders details the ways in which "Song of Myself" demonstrates a fantasy male sexual strategy, minus competition from other men and the attitudes of potential partners.

The book most cited by Saunders in this volume is David Buss's The Evolution of Desire, which discusses this theory of sexual strategies.

Until this essay, chapter eleven in the book, Saunders did not cover the topic of male fears about paternity, which one can associate with behavior that might be labelled patriarchal, nor did she deal with racial issues. I congratulate her that she has dealt with both topics skillfully in her discussion of Zora Neale Hurston's short story "The Gilded Six-Bits." She shows that the evolutionary analysis reveals important aspects of the story that have been missed by previous discussions.

The basic sexual situation relevant to this story is that, when a child is born, the female can be certain that the child is her genetic offspring, because it literally grew within and sprang out of her body. Conversely, any given male, prior to modern genetic testing, had less confidence that a given child was his genetic offspring. One could argue that much of the motivation behind cultural norms such as female virginity before marriage and female sexual fidelity were constructed in order to give the male partner more confidence in his genetic paternity.

The story "The Gilded Six-Bits" is a story about a young wife, Missie May, who was sexually unfaithful to her husband, Joe. He then behaves in a way that signals his lack of trust in her. She becomes pregnant. Throughout her pregnancy, she signals her feelings of repentance for having violated his trust.

Joe's cold treatment of her continues until the baby is born and his mother declares that the baby looks like him. Saunders points out that it is important that it is his mother who says this. His mother has every bit as much of an evolutionary interest in being certain that the child is his as he does. Once his mother judges that he will be investing in his own genetic offspring, he returns to being a loving and supportive husband.

Other critics, such as Hildegard Hoeller, have dismissed the issue of paternity. As Saunders points out, "Storyline and plot development lose their meaning if readers interpret Joe's parental pride at the story's conclusion as altruism rather than as fitness-enhancing behavior" (Saunders, 239-240).

Evolutionary psychologists focus on behavioral patterns that are universal throughout the human species. Explicit racists typically argue that there are essential differences between people assigned to different racial groups, differences which justify differential treatment. As Saunders shows, at the end of the story, the white storekeeper judges Joe's behavior to be particular to blacks and inferior to his own behavior. That behavior, however, is motivated by a universal male concern over paternity. Hurston quietly underlines the protagonist's common humanity while highlighting the storekeeper's ignorant interpretation of that behavior. As Saunders says, "Adaptationist analysis of the story supports Hurston's point fully, as the characters' behavior is shown to be consistent with 'universal psychological mechanisms.'" (Saunders, 242).

Saunders ends her essay with this observation: "Zora Neale Hurston's narrative accepts genetic self-interest as an inevitable component of our common human nature, a sine qua non that, with luck and a modicum of good will, need not be incompatible with tender and lasting relationships" (Saunders, 245). Well done.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Dominant White Culture and Ignatius Reilly: The Occasional series of Ideas for Papers on John Kennedy Toole, Part 29

Since the rise of Black Lives Matter there has been an increase in discussions around race within American cultural discourse. I am no expert on these issues, but I have increased my own reading and thinking about racial issues. I recently spotted within one of the books I have been studying a chapter that triggered a mental connection to A Confederacy of Dunces.

In 2021, the city of Winona, MN, had as its "Community Read" Debby Irving's Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Cambridge, MA: Elephant Room Press, 2014). Although I did not participate in community discussions, I decided to study that book. In chapter thirty-six of the book, Irving discusses what she calls "The Dominant White Culture." She claims that, as she has herself studied race, she has heard in many workshops and meetings the same list of traits that are attributed to the Dominant White Culture. Let's call it the DWC.

Here are the traits listed in her book that are behaviors of the DWC: 1) avoiding conflict, 2) valuing formal education over life experience, 3) feeling a right to comfort and entitlement, 4) feeling a sense of urgency, 5) being competitive, 6) practicing emotional restraint, 7) being prone to judgment, 8) engaging in "either / or" thinking, 9) believing in one right way to do things, 10) acting defensively, 11) being status-oriented. According to Irving, researchers from the Harvard Business School found that these cultural traits made it difficult to recruit and retain non-white employees.

This sort of characterization easily becomes a stereotype. Irving, to her credit, admits that people who culturally identify as white may come from one of a variety of cultures, not just this one, and that many people who are not white have adopted this culture. However, I still find her characterization bends one's thinking toward stereotyping. To me, the qualities in this list are not necessarily white nor necessarily dominant. I am not endorsing this summary of the DWC as an accurate description of American culture. Still, whether or not this DWC has sociological veritas, it is a way to interpret our society.

When I read the above list, it struck me that it is similar to the sort of list that Ignatius Reilly decries in A Confederacy of Dunces. When I initally got to the end of the list, I mentally said, "Someone with these traits would tell Ingatius to GO TO WORK!" Ignatius also characterizes Black culture as being different from this DWC. Confederacy's culture critique is not as simple as this dichotomy: the novel satirizes the corruption of money, but Ignatius is himself satirized by the author, forming a reverse satire and dialectic.

Thesis: Compare Debby Irving's characterization of the Dominant White Culture in her writings with Ignatius Reilly's characterization of the same. Make sure to situate this comparison by showing how the novel criticizes Ignatius's own attitudes (and possibly Irving's as well).

Thursday, December 1, 2022

WorldCat Reviews Redux

As I mentioned in October, for fifteen years, I had posted book reviews on WorldCat through their interface. This past year, OCLC discontinued hosting reviews of items found in WorldCat.

I have started a new webpage on my university-associated website. I will be reposting my reviews, with links to the items within the WorldCat database. I will try to update the reviews as appropriate.

Here is the link: A Collection of Book Reviews Originally Written for WorldCat. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

An ELC Framework for Kenneth Burke, part 7: Literature and Real Life

This blog is supposed to be about John Kennedy Toole's novel A Confederacy of Dunces (COD). However, I have been working on a parallel track on the theory and practice of evolutionary literary criticism (ELC), as is evidenced in my book chapter on the comic mechanisms in COD. This post is another installment in a series of posts reframing the ideas of Kenneth Burke within the theory of Evolutionary Literary Criticism. This series has little relation to COD per se. Thank you again for your patience, my 2 followers.

I have been using a book published in 1996 by C. Allen Carter for much of what I know about Burke's ideas. I hope his assessment fairly characterizes Burke's thought. After studying Carter, I discovered that his book has not been reviewed by any text indexed in the JSTOR database, which suggests that it made very little impact on the scholarly community. Either Burke does not interest scholars, or Carter's work does not. One fact that suggests that Carter might not have a complete perspective on Burke is that Barbara Foley described Burke as having two kinds of scapegoat, which Carter does not mention. Carter mentions at the beginning of his book that he has mixed with Burke's ideas the ideas of William Rueckert, Rene Girard, and others. Carter also admits that some of the categories he ascribes to Burke (the religious dimension, for example) are not ones that Burke himself explicitly named. So this book is more Carter's synthesis than pure Burke. I will below refer to this synthetic body of thought as being from "Carter and Burke."

According to Carter, Burke argues that criticism sometimes can and should include facts about the author's life and how the text relates to political and social issues. Literature worthy of discussion are those texts that speak to all of us, can be related to by all humanity. As Carter writes, "While discussing the poem qua poem, he reserves the right to make observations 'concerning its relation to nonpoetic elements such as author or background' (Counter-Statement, 41)." (Carter, 91).

Burke's statements before 1940 come out of a Communist philosophical framework, but they can sound like they come from evolutionary literary criticism. As Carter writes, ''[Burke] views the poetic dimension as one that arises 'out of the relationship between the organism and its environment' (Counter-Statement, 150)" (Carter, 91). To see how this relates to dialectical materialism, Carter quotes a letter from Burke to Cowley in the 1920s, "Art ... is the building up of a superstructure to encompass and provide for contemporary material facts" (Carter, 92). "Burke adds a caveat: 'the encompassing superstructure is erected according to principles inherent to humanity as a whole'" (Carter, 93). Similarly, evolutionary psychology puts a premium on behaviors that are universal to the human species as a whole.

I have discovered that many evolutionary psychologists do not take the issue of group selection pressure seriously. I advocate for an evolutionary psychology which includes Multilevel Selection Theory, a type of group selection theory that has been supported for years by David Sloan Wilson. In the context of Multilevel Selection Theory, I view one of the fundamental conflicts facing a human individual to be between the values of individual fitness, what benefit the individual directly, and the values of group fitness, which benefit the group directly and the individual indirectly.

Carter, interpreting Burke, says, "Life's problems shape an artist's concerns, and these concerns shape the art." He quotes Burke's Philosophy of Literary Form, "The poet 'will naturally tend to write about that which most deeply engrosses him--and nothing more deeply engrosses a man than his burdens' (17)" (Carter, 94). A fundamental burden that engrosses the human is the tension betwee between loyalty to the group's values and the needs of the individual. Again, Burke, or Carter/Burke, can be reframed within evolutionary literary criticism which includes multilevel selection theory.

Carter, C. Allen. Kenneth Burke and the Scapegoat Process. U. of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

WorldCat Has Eliminated Book Reviews

For over fifteen years, I have been posting book reviews on WorldCat through their interface. I had over 250 reviews on the site.

For the last several years, OCLC has been redesigning their WorldCat system, especially the free web interface, Even though I am a librarian, I did not offer them feedback in the process, because, for my library, we primarily use the FirstSearch interface to WorldCat. Had I realized that they were going to discontinue the book review function, I would have participated. They could fault me for not participating; I could fault them for not contacting people who were actively posting reviews to ask us for our input. (It may be the case that there were very few of us. The service was not well-advertised and in fact worked poorly.)

From the beginning of, OCLC has ported in reviews from the company Goodreads. That importing of reviews from Goodreads is continuing. When I contacted OCLC to file my complaint, they recommended that I write my reviews on Goodreads. I have noticed that there is now a link in Goodreads to OCLC may have cut a deal with Goodreads in order to get the WorldCat link in the Goodreads system, which may facilitate Goodreads users finding the books in their local library rather than being pressured to buy the book. Whether or not that was the price for dropping reviews in WorldCat, the new arrangement may prove to be a benefit to both readers and local libraries.

For me, there are two strong reasons why I posted most of my reviews on WorldCat. First, Goodreads is owned by Amazon. Amazon is already a gigantic corporation which has an outsized influence on the realm of books. WorldCat was an independent, non-commercial space in which individuals could express their opinions and ideas about books. While I occasionally post an Amazon review, I prefer not to supply free intellectual labor to the Bezos empire. I do not consider him a charity to which I should donate my intellectual property.

The second, more important reason is that Goodreads only has books that are available on Amazon. I had written reviews for many items in Worldcat that are not currently in print and are not on Goodreads. I would venture to guess that a majority of the items cataloged in WorldCat are not available on Goodreads. Many of the master's theses and doctoral dissertations that are in Worldcat have no Goodreads records. There are many archival items cataloged in WorldCat that have never been for sale commercially.

For example, many of the texts that discuss the novel A Confederacy of Dunces are graduate school theses which are not in Goodreads. Carolyn Gardner's Comedy of Redemption (OCLC #:31977194), Helga Beste's What's That Crazy? (OCLC #: 54375485), and Jessica Gatewood's Decoding the Body (OCLC #: 173660454) are three examples. I had reviews on WorldCat for all of them.

Worldcat provides discovery to a billion texts (and other items such as DVDs that are available or licensed through libraries), but it just eliminated the ability of users to communicate with each other about those texts on its own platform. Instead, OCLC is now relying on one of the world's largest and most aggressive corporations to provide reviews for the subset of items in WorldCat which are commercially available. Sad. Fortunately, I saved copies of all my reviews on my own computer, so I have not lost the work I did. It is just no longer public.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

ELC Saunders #6, Notes on American Classics (2018)

Although this blog is primarily about the novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, I have also started adding entries regarding the practice of Evolutionary Literary Criticism (ELC), which is more or less the application of evolutionary psychology to literature. Here are some observations on the monograph below, a recent publication in the field. This entry is observation number five.

Saunders, Judith P. American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives. Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2018.
This month's discussion is on the chapter: "Bateman's Principle in 'Song of Myself': Whitman Celebrates Male Ardency," pp. 61-77.

Saunders shows that Walt Whitman's main theme in "Song of Myself" is an "ebullient celebration of key male sexual strategies," which he then expands into philosophical, political, and even spiritual dimensions. According to Saunders, the speaker in the poem "inhabits a wish-fulfilling environment that favors the expression of reproductive strategies evolutionarily advantageous to men" (61).

For evolutionary sexual strategies, Saunders draws from David Buss's The Evolution of Desire. The basic observation (made years earlier by Trivers) is that male mammals have an evolutionary advantage in producing as many offspring by as many females as possible. Females on the other hand, because they have at the very least to gestate the fetus, realize an evolutionary advantage if they chose the male with whom they reproduce carefully, whether to mate with physically superior males or to partner with males that are more likely to help them and their children. Saunders refers to this as the Bateman's Principle, with ardent males and choosy females.

If you are wondering how Whitman was able to publish his poem dripping with sexual references in socially conservative 19th century America, he merged his sexuality with spirituality. Saunders quotes James Miller: "Like many writers before him, notably St. Theresa and John Donne, Whitman repeatedly borrows the language of physical passion to communicate the non-corporeal ecstasy of transcendent experience" (Saunders, 61). Saunders points out that Whitman "exploits the Transcendentalists' often reiterated metaphor of seeing or piercing through material phenomena in order to appreciate their spiritual essence" (Saunders, 65); however, Whitman uses that metaphor to give the poem's speaker license to see nude bodies beneath clothes, becoming, as Saunders says, "a Transcendentalist Peeping Tom."

Whitman unites his sexuality with both democratic political ideals and aesthetics. Saunders quotes Jimmie Killingsworth, "Determined to join with even the lowiest, he infuses the notion of egalitarian belonging with erotic fervor; he becomes the spokesman for a 'democratic sexual politics'" (Saunders, 61). Further, Whitman links artistic creativity with the erotic spreading of the male seed.

Saunders emphasizes that the sexual strategy of the poem is one of wish-fulfillment, unmoored from actual practical reproduction. "No demand for long-term investment is anticipated, no curtailment of sexual liberty." Far from being faced with demands for child-support, he has multitudes of clamoring suitors. "Even elemental forces desire the poem's speaker. The 'crooked inviting fingers' of the incoming tide 'refuse to go back without feeling' him (lines 449,450)" (Saunders, 68). The speaker also has no male competition for these eager mates. He even displaces a bridegroom on the wedding night without a struggle (Saunders, 69). Likewise, impotence and rejection are absent.

Saunders points out that the poem is primarily focused on male bodies and desires, with little reference to women. "The absence of any prurient interest in women's bodies may contribute, in fact, to readers' willingness to interpret the poet-speaker's ardor in spiritual and / political terms" (Saunders, 70-71). Some critics argue that his focus on men signals that his erotic spirituality is specifically homosexual. Saunders disagrees with that exclusivity in her essay's conclusion, "'Song of Myself' reassures men of any sexual orientation that their desires are wholesome and even admirable. Their erotic make-up is fully in tune with natural process and cosmic design: within the framework of Whitman's poem, male ardency enjoys political, aesthetic, and transcendent validation" (77).

I have nothing to add to Saunders' observations. In this case (and unlike the case of her work on Sherwood Anderson) the evolutionary interpretation by Saunders adds a valuable perspective to the understanding of Whitman's poem.