Faulkner and Vonnegut are discussed at forum

College of Liberal Arts and Education host second faculty forum series event of the semester. Gordon and Waugh present different themes in literature from their areas of study.

The Liberal Arts and Education Faculty Forum Series on Nov. 2 featured two presentations relating to influential American authors. The first talk was given by assistant professor of English Phillip Gordon. His talk focused on the metaphors William Faulkner used in his novels through references of geography. In his presentation, Gordon used the places that Faulkner wrote about in his books, as a way to show the metaphor.

In his writing, Falkner created fictional places inspired by real-life settings he grew up in. For example, Faulkner debuted Yoknapatawpha map in his 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom! Yoknapatawpha is a fictional town but was heavily inspired by Oxford, Mississippi, and Lafayette county.

“So, what makes him relevant?” asked Gordon. “I think if I’m lucky tonight, I will try to get you to understand why this place he writes about does still bear relevance and is something bigger that is still worth talking about despite his faults.”

Gordon describes Faulkner as a known racist and misogynist, something some seem to look past because he is still known as one of the greatest American authors of all time and a man who won the Nobel prize for literature. Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi who author James Cobb calls “the most southern place on earth.”

“He was a white man writing in a time where he seemed like he was way ahead of this time,” Gordon said. “In 2017, we most certainly would declare that he was not.”

Gordon spoke about how it would be different if he would have been giving his talk in Mississippi. Faulkner was from the South and his works are read more because he is from there. He would feel fairly confident that almost everyone in the room had heard of Faulkner, but in southwest Wisconsin, Gordon cannot make that same assumption.

“How many of you have read William Faulkner?” Gordon asked the audience. “I’m trying to see if there’s any hands that aren’t professors.” Besides the professors who had read Faulkner, one student in attendance had read As I Lay Dying and another had read Absalom, Absalom! for a class.

“He is something accredited to being the greatest American author in the 20th century,” Gordon said. “His themes supposedly speak to broad American ideas. His fiction supposedly relates to universal truths, not just white, male and southern ones.” Faulkner has been praised for elevating “American literature” to the ranks of world literature at large.

“I could spend an entire faculty forum talking about his influences on world literature,” Gordon said.

Professor of geography Richard Waugh’s was Gordon’s respondent but he decided to take a bit of a different approach. Instead of responding to Gordon’s research about Faulkner, Waugh discussed the concepts of postmodernism, placelessness and the book, Breakfast of Champions written by Kurt Vonnegut.

Waugh discussed the definitions of both place and placelessness, postmodernism and making the case that Vonnegut was a postmodern author who made postmodern fiction. A major theme in Breakfast of Champions focuses on the loss of humanity through commercialization, as well as the loss of capacity to think.

To give a visual to define “place,” Waugh showed different pictures and asked the audience where they thought the subject was located. The first photograph was a place in southwest Wisconsin, then he showed a house which was located in Boston and lastly a house that was located in the South.

“Space becomes place when it has meaning. You can tell where these places were as places,” Waugh said. “They invoke meaning and they invoke thought, ideas and uniqueness.”

Waugh then discussed the idea of placelessness. Placelessness is a concept of places without uniqueness, with no meaning or with confused meaning. He then showed a picture of a road with many different fast food restaurants surrounding it. He asked, “Where is this?” This was met with many confused looks.

“Good luck,” Waugh said. “Is there any way you could possibly know? United States, maybe?”

Waugh showed another picture, similar to the first. The point he was trying to make was that the meaning was very obscure.

There was then a short discussion on what is postmodernism. Relativism is about the concept of is used by very strong postmodernists who believe there is no real truth at all. Postmodernism began in the late 20th century with an influx of knowledge in philosophy, art, architecture and literature. Waugh also discussed how postmodernism can be chaotic, which is represented well in the world Vonnegut creates in Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut will randomly put his own drawings in his books and it makes no sense.

Slaughterhouse Five, the sequel to Breakfast of Champions, is set in Midland City, Indiana, a fictional place created in order to represent the average city in the United States.

The idea behind this text is that in our society, we are treating people like machines. Vonnegut uses this idea to talk about the horrors of racism throughout his book with the idea being that others are treating their peers like “black machines.” There is still discrimination and racism even when the society is completely made up of robots.

Only one character in the book questions others about why the society or world is the way it is. He asks why objects are given names and why the answer to this question about their names is always because “someone just liked sound of it.” An example of this concept can be seen when this character asks why a fire extinguisher was given the name excelsior and he receives the typical answer of “someone just liked the sound of it.”

“In summary, Vonnegut is arguing commercialization leads to a loss in humanity and individual expression,” Waugh said. “Increasingly an inability to think and loss of thought as a provider of identity.”

With that, even though Waugh didn’t necessarily respond to Gordon’s presentation, he connected to the concept of geography and place, which was a key component to Gordon’s overall argument.