I hesitate to call Professor Jeff Nunokawa a campus fixture, a Princeton big shot of sorts, as it might flatten over the reason I like him in the first place—his commitment to the students as people themselves (not as an abstract entity), and accordingly, the initiative he takes to know them personally. Nunokawa is a popular professor among popular professors, and I attribute his reputation to a basic, though by no means ordinary, penchant for reaching out and communicating beyond most normal boundaries. I witnessed this firsthand in his freshman seminar three years ago, and I now I see it whenever I glimpse at my news feed.
His foray into cyberspace, now old news for anyone with a Facebook and some link to Rockefeller College or the English department, has afforded him a versatility in honing and developing his personal relations with students, one that few professors have grabbed hold of so fully. During a Monday night talk courtesy of Ex Libris (the English department’s Undergraduate Literary Society), Professor Nunokawa reflected for us on these Facebook notes—what they are and what he expects them to do. In the process, even I, a longtime spectator of the man and the notes alike, began to realize how little I had previously known, or thought, about them, and how much of the author himself is to be found in these part-critical, part-personal, digressions.
From Elizabeth Bishop to Katie Couric, few stones have been left unturned in the notes (though some get turned decidedly more than others). Knowledge (and friendship) of all sorts is there produced—he indeed makes generous use of the “tagging” function, to the excitement of many a loyal student. These Facebook notes, which require from Professor Nunokawa between twenty minutes and several hours to write, address the questions floating through his mind on each given day. Be they about literature, film, art, architecture, culture, or current events, the notes bring Nunokawa’s inner life out into public view, providing us with brief, contemplative interludes amidst Facebook’s less cerebral fodder. Though often broad in scope, each note remains relatively easy to swallow (long enough to get us thinking, short enough to realistically accommodate the Facebook patron’s low attention span).
But what I have still left unanswered is why. Why would a gregarious English professor with great devotion to his students and craft set out to convert a social networking page into a literary blog — half scholarly, half diaristic — and do so with an endearingly epistolary quality? This is what the lecture itself sorted out.
With these fabled notes at the foreground, Nunokawa’s talk was called “Second Person Plural: Mourning Social Life; Morning Social Life—Brief Essays (in words and pictures) for You.” I will say upfront that the title may only be fully elaborated via the lecture itself. He indeed admits of his fancy prose style, “I’m forcing you to recognize it as writing.” Suffice it to say, then, that the topic at hand was, curiously, mourning. This surprised me and it didn’t. Recalling the first meeting of FRS 165: A Brief History of Individuality, and the hour spent on Bishop’s “One Art,” I knew this was a topic of both personal and scholarly relevance to him. I had not realized, however, that it underlies the casual and pondering notes to which I’d grown so happily accustomed.
But why so grammatical? This attention to “you” did surprise me, and as any undergraduate literature major should, I held on to my skepticism until the professor could firmly dispel it. This “you,” the aforementioned second person plural, is meant to signify a lost object, to stand in place of the absent recipient. Like an elegy, the person addressed is no longer there to hear him—it is instead this word, this “you,” that must fill in the place of a lost hearer, to remain in the absence of intimacy itself. Having known so many individuals who are no longer present, Nunokawa invokes this “collective form” both to restore them and to bid them goodbye. Jeff says of this “you,” “it is the ghost of a sociability which is no longer mine on a daily basis.”
This spin on the notes was not quite what I was expecting. Upon hearing Nunokawa’s explanation I was struck by how little I understood them until that point, but also with how much more sense the enterprise made. The quality of the notes to read like letters, to be, as poetry is, “overheard, rather than heard,” was otherwise hard to pin down. The talk provided a new way to read these notes, which are situated at the complex juncture of their content and the author himself. This biographical context threw them into an entirely new, and entirely more nuanced, light.
But will it change how I read them? Perhaps, but it is also by means of this second personal plural, this collective elegiac “you,” that Nunokawa has unwittingly reminded his readers of their own singularity in a place where it is easily forgotten. To insert my own interpretation into this mix, I believe that at the heart of these Facebook notes is something still more hopeful, more generous, than Professor Nunokawa has let on. “You” may indeed refer to a collective absence, but it may just as soon refer (for the readers, at the very least) to a collective presence. It is this presence, of which I am happily a member, that continues to read these notes and to grow from them. This “experiment,” originally a mere attempt at “horsing around” and eventually something more, has aided many of us, both as students and as people, to think and to feel differently. Regardless of his dedication to the second person plural, Professor Nunokawa has struck upon a fit medium for highlighting the singularity of others. As one “you” among countless, I believe Jeff might give himself more credit; in following Elizabeth Bishop’s simple, parenthetical advice (“Write it!”), he has revolutionized the art of losing, creating from it many arts indeed.