Connected Pedagogy: Untangling Literary Allusions

Like some of my classmates, I wondered about which references younger college students might either get or miss in “The Reverse Peephole” — I think Maria’s recreation of the experience of connecting to AOL and Estefany’s link to the Seinfeld scene that gives the introduction its title will both be useful to students who might have been born after both.

I know that many educators at the K12 level have been rethinking the idea of a literary canon and changing their reading lists to correct the gaps, omissions, and biases in the traditional high school curriculum. It’s an exciting development; that said, I’ve wondered if first-year students of the new canon/non-canon might have trouble (at least at first) recognizing references that authors educated on the traditional canon would expect most readers to understand. In just this introduction, for example, Scott references a number of books, historical figures, and characters with little or no explanation:

  • Don Quixote (1605)
  • Rene Descartes (1596–1650)
  • La Princesse de Clèves (1678)
  • Robinson Crusoe (1719)
  • The Odyssey
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)
  • The Biblical story of Lazarus
  • Poe’s “The Telltale Heart”

This is in addition to the allusions he does explain. If you know what these works are generally understood to signify (e.g, what it means to “tilt at windmills”), references like these are almost invisible; if you don’t, they can be distracting or confusing, and leave readers with the choice of pausing repeatedly to look up minor details, guessing at what the comparison might mean, or just ignoring the parts they don’t understand (and hoping they’re not meaningful).

In truth, you don’t need to read the books Scott references to get his allusions; you just need to have heard them referenced enough, gotten a good summary, or (if you grew up in the 90s like I did) watched an educational TV show about a jack russell terrier reenacting the classics. I didn’t think providing Wishbone links for all Scott’s references would be appropriate or very helpful, so I chose to write a brief gloss for two of the references that seem to be doing some heavy lifting.

Here are my annotations:

Original TextWork ReferencedMy annotation
At the same time, the various and non-stop opportunities for communication are notable for highlighting our isolation, and it’s perhaps this intensity of digital communicability that brings mythic proportions to mind. When the Olympian postman Hermes goes in search· of Odysseus during the latter’s long confinement on Calypso’s island, he looks for him in a cave, but ‘Of Odysseus there was no sign, since he sat wretched as ever on the shore, troubling his heart with tears and sighs and grief. There he could gaze out over the rolling waves, with streaming eyes.’ I think of this weeping Odysseus sometimes, when I’m waiting with indecorous zeal for an email or a text, or when I catch myself peering into the rolling blue of Facebook, unable to remember for whom or what I’m looking. I see his yearning in miniature, in the five seconds it takes for someone to bring a phone from their pocket and put it back again.

These are ship-in-a-bottle feelings, which life can accommodate. The otherwise cheerful and productive of us have cheerful, productive lives amid digital longings and desolations: But it is certainly true that invoking the messenger god is one of the constitutive practices of our times. 
The OdysseyIn Homer’s “Odyssey,” various gods interfere with and aid the warrior Odysseus in his journey home from the Trojan War. The journey takes him ten years; for seven of those, he’s held captive by the nymph Calypso. In the passage Scott refers to, Hermes has actually come to persuade Calypso to free Odysseus, who is mourning and longing for his wife and son at home.

Scott compares Odysseus’ “tears and sighs and grief” for his home to a feeling of yearning for digital contact. He juxtaposes two situations with very different stakes: a father and husband longing to return home vs. a Facebook user waiting for a notification.

Is this comparison overly dramatic, and if so, why do you think Scott chose to make it? What effect does this comparison have on the tone of the essay, and on the arguments the author is making? For example, how does this passage change your overall understanding of this introduction if Scott is being self-deprecating and ironic? Or what if his comparison of these situations is serious and earnest?
 It has long been the word on the street that, if you dabble in other realities, then you shouldn’t expect to remain unchanged. Lazarus was never his old self again. The BibleLike the reference above to the Odyssey, this is another brief reference to a very old text. In the Bible, Lazarus has been dead for four days when Jesus brings him back to life.
Like the earlier comparison of Odysseus’ grief to the social media user’s FOMO, this comparison is dramatic: literally being brought back to life vs. “dabbl[ing] in the “other realities” of the internet and the digital world. Arguably, Scott is using Lazarus as a metaphor for just how transformative our experience in the digital world can be; even if we aren’t reborn as individuals, the changes to the experience of being human might qualify as a rebirth of sorts.

Besides for this reference and the one to the Odyssey, there are several other old literary references in this reading, including the one that gives “The Fourth Dimension” its title. Why might the author choose to build his argument about new ways of being using references to such old works? Does it have an effect on how accessible his argument is? If so, what?

In addition to clarifying the context of the allusions, I wanted to bring up two questions that these passages raised for me:

First, how does Scott want us to read his extravagant comparisons between extreme situations (Odysseus stranded for years on an island, far from those he loves) and the everyday experience of using the internet and existing in a digitally-mediated world? My first impulse was to think he’s being arch, maybe a little self-deprecating — of course waiting for a new email (probably spam!) is not the same as longing to sail home. But the more I reflected, the more I wondered if I was missing his argument based on my own biases. I’m curious about what other readers (especially younger ones who might have a different relationship to technology) might think.

Second, what’s the rhetorical effect of making so many allusions to such old works, anyway? Again, is this a bit of irony? An attempt to show the profundity of the digital world and our relationship to it? A response to an anticipated argument that new and old media can’t coexist in our understanding of what it means to be human? Or maybe it’s just Scott’s attempt to prop up his own intellectual bona fides? I’d like to read the entire book to get a clearer answer — but again, I’m curious about what the students will think.