In a lecture leading up to our class discussion, I've asked my students to think about what might constitute sublimity in a postmodern world. I introduce them to some very basic structural linguistics (Saussure) and then ask them to think about how the idea of the sublime would change if we think of language as a closed system of signs that never points to a referent in the "real" material world (or the eternal, spiritual world for that matter!).
The Crying of Lot 49 is self-consciously a book about signs: Oedipa's central quest can be understood as an attempt to understand the signs around her—books, words, letters, couriers, stamps, names. All of these are self-evident signifiers. But what do they signify? Is there any referent to which they point, either something in the material world or another signifier, another sign? How could either of these options be explained or described in terms of the story or the plot? What would it mean for our understanding of The Crying of Lot 49 to say that the signs point to a referent in the world or that they resonate playfully among other signifiers?
Now, all of that is, I guess, pretty complicated literary theory. I certainly didn't read Derrida in high school or even early college. So how to get students to engage with these ideas? What are some practical applications for the classroom?
I asked one of my colleagues at the OHS--Kristina Zarlengo--for her recommendations, and she had a wonderful idea. Kristina is returning to (alt?)-academia after a career in law; she's a phenomenal teacher, and she has boss style too. [True story, she mixes Jackie-O and punk aesthetics, and I love it.]
Following Kristina's advice, I ask my students to sign up to be responsible for tracing one of the following symbols, signs, or motifs. This is great because it puts them into the role of being a literary detective, much like Oedipa herself.
Here are the motifs:
- The muted horn
- Stamps, letters, mail, mail couriers, etc.
- Bones in a lake or corpses in the water
- Books and textual variants
- Names of people, places, and organizations
- Visual arts, such as the painting by Remedios Varo
- Printed circuit cards, maps, hieroglyphs, highway systems
- Any instance of the following words: revelation, belief, redemption, truth
- Any instance of the following words: paranoid, sensitization, plot
- Actors of various kinds: movie stars, lawyers, singers who have stage personas, etc.
- Signs, placards, posters, advertisements, notes
- Attempted seductions of Oedipa
- Science and pseudoscience: esp. entropy and Maxwell’s demon
- The incident with the can of hairspray
- Drugs and alcohol
- Shadowy assassins in black
- Metaphors and “embodied” language: discussions of giving spirit or life to the “dead” flesh of the letter or the word
Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knew how many parts; more than two, anyway. With coincidences blossoming these days wherever she looked, she had nothing but a sound, a word, Trystero, to hold them together (87).
Wikipedia is actually a super useful site for teaching this text, because there's a similar sense of the information being unreliable: perhaps the research my students will do will feel "real" to them, and perhaps they'll think I am pulling off an elaborate hoax (which is something that Oedipa worries about herself). As long as they walk away thinking about that indeterminacy then I will be happy.