Director of Consortium for Literature, Theory, and Culture and Associate Professor of English, UC Santa Barbara
Research Sample: “Basic English, Chinglish, and Translocal Dialect,” in English and Ethnicity, ed. Janina Brutt-Griffler and Catherine Davies (Palgrave, forthcoming):
[Author’s Note: My current research in online reading focuses mainly on two aspects: online reading that requires the use of machine translation and the interface of hypertext and poetic text. The following excerpt from my forthcoming essay describes literary and poetic practices that, as a result of their canonical status in our literary education, will push (online) reading in a direction I see as highly problematic, culturally conservative, and effectively self-defeating.]
your heart would have responded Gaily, when invited, beating obedient To controlling hands . . . These fragments I have shored against my ruins . . . Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. —T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
In these lines, which end Eliot’s famous poetic response to post-WWI cultural fragmentation, two words stand out: “controlling” and Damyata, Sanskrit for “control” (the Sanskrit triad translated, “Give, sympathize, control”). Eliot, who earlier objected to I. A. Richards’s efforts in translating Chinese texts and promoting Basic English in China, has now come to share with Richards a desire for the control of meaning. Although Eliot uses many foreign phrases and sentences in the poem, including the very Sanskrit word for “control,” the appearance of openness, fragmentation, or multilingualism is immediately undercut not only by the thematic coherence of the poem, but also by the use of endnotes by the poet, who apparently wants to aid and ensure proper understanding of the poem. The endnotes thus work as a control mechanism, although the choice of poetic vocabulary veers in the opposite direction from Basic.It is actually no surprise that despite his objection to Basic, Eliot is Richards’s kindred spirit in literary ideology. New Criticism, of which both of them were key founders, is to a large extent predicated on the reader’s ability to control textual meaning. New Criticism’s notorious distaste for biographical information and historical background, focusing instead on the text itself, had an early rehearsal in Richards’s Practical Criticism, which was published in 1929, the same year when Basic English was invented. The book was primarily based on the results of experiments he had conducted with his students at Cambridge. He issued printed sheets of poems to his students who were asked to comment freely on them; the authorship of the poems was not revealed and with rare exceptions was not recognized. The students’ comments, therefore, would focus only on the texts themselves–a trademark of New Criticism. Such distaste for contextuality finds its parallel in the kind of decontextualization in Basic.
The other feature of New Criticism, “close reading,” is an attempt not only to decontextualize, but also to contain the multiplicity and ambiguity of meaning. In this sense, close reading is a Panoptic technique. But the New Critical Panopticism is manifested even more clearly in Richards’s account of poetry, an account according to which poetry is Basic English and vice versa. A student of Romanticism, Richards sees poetry as, to quote Coleridge’s dictum, “the best words in the best order,” that is, the “best language.” This “best language,” otherwise called “poetic diction” in Romanticism, is a prototype for Basic as “a language within language”; and Richards’s accounts of poetry and of Basic are often interchangeable. The technique of poetry, writes Richards, lies in “managing the variable connections between words and what they mean: what they might mean, can’t mean, and should mean–that–not as a theoretical study only or chiefly, but as a matter of actual control.” Likewise, Basic is “a pioneer prototype for many of the inquiries into symbolic similarities and differences,” or a “vertical translation from unrestricted into restricted language.” Hence, when Richards maintains that “This capacity of a small segment of the language to exercise such a wide and deep supervision over the rest is the ground for believing that an effective heightening in men’s ability to understand one another can–given an adequate attempt–be brought about,” we can be quite certain that the “small segment of the language” refers to both poetry and Basic English.