Vaughn Anderson graduated in 2015 with a dissertation titled “Disappearing Acts: Octavio Paz, John Cage, Haroldo De Campos, and the Silent Turn in Contemporary Poetry.”
Since I lugged my last suitcase of books back to Alexander Library almost a year ago (my final act of closure), I’ve spent a lot of time writing and thinking about graphic musical notation. This so-called “eye music” was a brief fad in the 60s and early 70s. Composers, painters, and poets created scores where any act of musical interpretation first demands formal analysis of visual elements and close reading of text, often in several languages. Performance requires multiple competencies. And what I quickly discovered, when I sat down to piece together a critical bibliography about these works, is that almost nobody has written about them. Everyone seems to assume that this is someone else’s area of specialty.
This is what’s made my formation as a scholar unique: not that I’m more widely competent, but that I’m more comfortable venturing outside and between my areas of concentration. Throughout my time in Comp Lit, I was allowed and encouraged to change. I started as a scholar of urban studies, and then moved to science fiction. At various points my passions included eco-criticism, literary translation, graphic novels, intermedia, and avant-garde poetics. I took grad courses in Spanish, Portuguese, Art History, and any number of other cross-listed disciplines. Eventually I wrote a dissertation that focused on hemispheric American poetic networks during the Cold War, but it drew life and inspiration from all these other areas. I take pride in trying to wear my entire hat collection all at once, and I’m glad I surrounded myself with people who thought this was a good look for me.
[Cover image: a score from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise Handbook, 1967]
We asked Ben De Witte, who has recently defended his dissertation, to share his thoughts on his doctoral experience at Comp Lit. Here is his account of the laborious but rewarding path that has led him to the dissertation, with some great suggestions for current (and future) graduate students.
In October 2015, I defended my dissertation “Queer Visibility on the Transatlantic Modernist Stage,” which investigates the transatlantic circulation of themes and techniques used to stage queer plots and persons in a selection of Argentinean, Spanish and U.S. modernist plays. I did not start in the Program of Comparative Literature knowing that I would write on the history of Anglophone and Spanish-language theater and performance. I did know, however, that I wanted to work on multilingual, comparative queer modernism (I had written a master’s thesis on Djuna Barnes’s expatriate novel Nightwood) and on the intertwined histories of literature and sexuality. For these reasons I applied at Rutgers, which boasts an impressive faculty in these areas. Among the various faculty members who have helped me think about my research, I certainly want to mention my dissertation committee members: Elin Diamond, who introduced me to the pleasures of modern drama scholarship, Andy Parker, who stimulated me to think of literature in tandem with philosophy, and Ben. Sifuentes-Jáuregui, who encouraged me to think of comparative literature (and queer figuration) in terms of circulation.
Although it took me all the way into my third year – when I was preparing for my Ph.D. exams – to decide that modern drama would be my main field, I am grateful for everything that I read and studied (my coursework in Comparative Literature, English, Spanish, French and Women’s and Gender Studies, and also my ever expanding multi-genre reading list) leading up to that moment. I am fortunate that our program allowed me a certain amount of time and flexibility to figure out what I really wanted to say and do. And of course, I am equally blessed that my committee helped me apply for grants, allowing me to do archival research in Buenos Aires and Madrid, and for a Mellon Dissertation Fellowship. My main piece of advice to students in the program would be: remain politic about real constraints (such as time and funding) without losing sight of what you really want to investigate; you will need your enthusiasm, wits and a lot more to finally write the dissertation. And although you can (and probably will) read up for the rest of your academic career before you ever fully “get it,” I found that jumping into dissertation chapters much more effectively stimulated my thinking and my creativity. Don’t delay too much, and instead enjoy the practice of writing.
On December 14, Comp Lit alum Caroline Godart returned to Rutgers to discuss the publication of her new book The Dimension of Difference: Space, Time and Bodies in Women’s Cinema and Continental Philosophy. She provided a brief overview of her project, connecting the analysis of space, time, and bodies in cinema with the work of philosophers Luce Irigaray, Henri Bergson, and Gilles Deleuze, and explaining her approach to theory-based feminist film criticism. She described the chapters, each of which focuses on the relationship between a theoretical concept and a film. In particular, she discussed two films by Claire Denis, Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day, at length, explaining why she chose to write about Denis’ most popular and least popular films side by side. She also explained the process of revising her dissertation for publication. An engaged discussion followed the presentation. Participants talked about Bergson’s concept of intuition and the relationship between intuition and identification as modes of approaching Hollywood or art films.