Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Just one Sonnetto, give it to me…

Afternoon all. And what time do I call this?

In my defence, I've been teaching for several hours without a break. The first session was with the English literature second-years, on the Renaissance module. Which makes me the Renaissance Man. Ahem. It was a session on sonnets today: a strict form subgenre requiring technical mastery while also avoiding cliché and predictability. There are a lot of bad sonnets around.

What I did to avoid the dreaded silence and passivity which often manifests itself when teaching poetry and in particular closed form poetry was to introduce scissors to the occasion. I gave them sonnets by Wyatt, Drayton, Spenser and Wendy Cope, but with all the lines in random order. The students had to draw on their knowledge of metre, rhyme scheme, quatrains, octaves, sestets and 'voltas' (the surprising 'turn'), sonnet history and culture to work out the correct order. So they had to develop technical and cultural skills to get it right. They did really well, some perfectly.

After that, it was into my Ethics class, mostly concentrating on the origins, meaning and application of privacy. Rather economically, I thought, I discussed the Renaissance development of the individual just as I had in the sonnets class! Individuality is a culturally and historically-located concept, owing a lot to the Reformation's insistence on private contemplation and moral self-interrogation. Add capitalism's self-defeating but lucrative need for you to express this new 'you' by constantly changing your outward appearance (new codpiece then, new iPhone now) and voilà: the self-fashioned individual. And individuals need physical and mental space. Which corporations and governments need for economic reasons but resent for political purposes. So we went from John Locke to Facebook's privacy settings in a single bound. Hugely enjoyable, though I was rather shocked by many students' cheerful willingness to abandon privacy for the sake of convenience. Facebook's business model (sell your data to other corporations) seems perfectly reasonable, apparently.

The point was that just as in the Renaissance, we self-fashion, only we do so in multiple forums now. We have to perform in person, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Blogger and everywhere else. Paradoxically, we perform both to conform and to distinguish ourselves. My Twitter feed tries to be trenchant and witty, to attract followers. But I can't be too creative or transgressive, because I'll be socially excluded. Learning where the boundaries are is what Foucault called disciplinarily – and its bound up with notions of the self and of power. Being visible online is an exercise in agency, but it's also a form of submitting to authority and surveillance both by the state and corporations, but also to the population which has internalised hegemonic values. We are each other's, and our own, policemen.

All in all, a glorious, though exhausting day. And being in the classroom meant I was temporarily shielded from the vicious, ideologically-driven government financial statement.

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