In 1592, the Chinese philosopher Li Zhi wrote this preface:
I desire to burn this book. I say that I must burn and discard it. I cannot keep it… As for those who find my work grates upon their ears, they most certainly will succeed in killing me…
Li Zhi titled his manuscript, fittingly enough, A Book to Burn. The title can be read in many ways: as a challenge, a warning, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or even a bit of black humor. He followed it up with two sequels: Another Book to Burn and A Book to Hide. What drove him to publish a manuscript so controversial that he was certain it would bring about his death?
Li Zhi’s exasperation with the corruption, greed, and superficiality of the powerbrokers in his society fueled his writing. As he wrote, “if the ancient sages had not built up indignation they wouldn’t have written anything. To write something without indignation, that would be like shivering when you’re not cold, or groaning when you’re not sick. Even if they had done that, who would pay attention?”
Li Zhi never gave himself over fully to any one ideology. He called himself a Confucian, but was endlessly critical of Confucianism as he saw it practiced in the world around him. Even when he joined a Buddhist monastery and shaved his head like a monk, he let his beard grow long and refused to stop eating meat. You could call him a contrarian or a crank, or you could say that he was one of those people whose uncompromising principles make it impossible to live with the world as it is.
Nor did Li Zhi show much interest in creating an internally consistent philosophy. In fact, A Book to Burn is extravagantly and even joyfully self-contradictory. Perhaps, as some scholars have argued, that was his way of forcing readers to exercise their own judgement and form their own opinions. He didn’t want to become one of those dusty experts whose words people parroted without real understanding.
This was a radical position, because Li Zhi lived in a time when cultural status and success were deeply tied to “toeing the line” of acceptable beliefs. To receive a high-ranking position in the bureaucracy, young men were required to pass the famously difficult civil service exams. Success depended on regurgitating orthodox opinions. There was even a scandal in 1595, when it was revealed that students had passed the exams by copying example essays word-for-word from their study manuals. As a youth, Li Zhi passed the first level of the civil service examinations, but he refused to sit for the second, thus taking himself out of the running for any truly prestigious positions. This was perhaps the first sign of the rebellious streak that would come to define his life and work.
Despite his top-notch classical education, Li Zhi valued popular entertainment as well as the classics, and the vernacular tongue as well as the refined language of scholars. He followed the doctrine of Wang Yangming, believing that anyone had the potential to become a sage. He argued that women had equal intellectual powers to men, and were only deprived the opportunity to develop them. He even took on a female disciple, Mei Danran—an extremely shocking choice at the time.
Li Zhi challenged the orthodox belief, laid out in the classic text the Doctrine of the Mean, that the relationship between ruler and subject was the fundamental basis of social order. Instead, he argued for friendship as the most important social relationship. Indeed, Li Zhi’s friendships were central to the development of his philosophy. A Book to Burn started as a bundle of letters circulated among Li Zhi’s friends, and, in its preface, he justifies his choice to publish such a dangerous volume with the hope that “if one of my essays speaks to the heart of another, then perhaps I may find somebody who understands me!”
Yet the letters also record the strain that Li Zhi’s uncompromising principles put on his friends. He believed in harshly criticizing those friends who strayed from what he saw as right. As a result, many of his relationships suffered. As Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline Lee, and Haun Saussy write in the introduction to their translation of Li Zhi’s selected writings: “A Book to Burn reports the recurrent bewilderment and loneliness Li experienced as one by one his friends grew tired of his relentless faultfinding and abandoned him.”
On the other hand, those of his friends who refused to compromise their ideals often suffered for it. In 1579, one of Li Zhi’s role models, the philosopher He Xinyin, died in prison after being arrested for his radical ideas. Li Zhi must have known that the same fate was coming to him, sooner or later. In 1602, the Wanli emperor ordered Li Zhi arrested. He died in prison that same year, and all copies of A Book to Burn were ordered to be thrown on the bonfire, fulfilling the promise of the title.
Yet the official prohibitions only increased the text’s cachet. Zhu Guozhen wrote that almost every member of the literati kept a treasured copy of A Book to Burn hidden like a precious rarity. In fact, Li Zhi’s name became such a selling point that booksellers slapped his name on entirely fabricated manuscripts. Wang Benke wrote in a preface to one of his books, “Within the four seas there is no one who does not read this gentleman’s writings; there is no one who does not desire to read them all; they read them without stopping, and some even read pirated editions.” Not bad at all.
T.S. Eliot, born on September 26th, 1888, was considered one of the twentieth century’s major poets—and not just because he wrote the poems that would become the libretto for the musical Cats. He also wrote acclaimed essays, plays, and poems like The Wasteland and Four Quartets, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
His famous “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” can be read in its entirety here, thanks to Poetry Magazine:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Download the PDF to read the rest of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Most readers of Beowulf understand it as a white, male hero story—tellingly, it’s named for the hero, not the monster—who slays a monster and the monster’s mother. Grendel, the ghastly uninvited guest, kills King Hrothgar’s men at a feast in Heorot. Beowulf, a warrior, lands in Hrothgar’s kingdom and kills Grendel but then must contend with Grendel’s mother who comes to enact revenge for her son’s murder. Years later, Beowulf deals with a dragon who is devastating his kingdom and dies while he and his thane, Wiglaf, are slaying the dragon. Crucially, Grendel is never clearly described, but is named a “grim demon,” “god-cursed brute,” a “prowler through the dark,” a part of “Cain’s clan.”
Indeed, Beowulf is a story about monsters, race, and political violence. Yet critics have always read it through the white gaze and a preserve of white English heritage. The foundational article on Beowulf and monsters is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Yes, before and while writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was an Oxford medieval professor who interpreted Beowulf for a white English audience. He uses Grendel and the dragon to discuss an aesthetic, non-politicized, close reading of monsters, asking critics to read it as a poem, a work of linguistic art:
Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.
Beowulf—which is written in Old English—was produced over a millennium ago and is set in Denmark. Learning Old English is on par with learning a foreign language. Thus Tolkien’s view on which bodies, fluent in this “native” English tongue, can read Beowulf, also offers a window into the politics of who gets to and how to read and write about the medieval past.
Tolkien’s investment in whiteness does not just apply to his ideal readers of medieval literature. It also extends to the ideal medieval literature scholars. At the 2018 Belle da Costa Greene conference, Kathy Lavezzo highlighted Tolkien’s role in shutting the Jamaican-born, Black British academic Stuart Hall out of medieval studies. Hall’s autobiography, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, describes a white South African gatekeeper. Tolkien was the University of Oxford Merton professor of English Language and Literature when Hall was a Rhodes scholar in the 1950s. Hall explains how he almost became a medieval literature scholar: “I loved some of the poetry—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wanderer, The Seafarer—and at one point I planned to do graduate work on Langland’s Piers Plowman.” However, according to Lavezzo, it was Tolkien who intervened in these plans: “But when I tried to apply contemporary literary criticism to these texts, my ascetic South African language professor told me in a pained tone that this was not the point of the exercise.”
This clashes with Tolkien’s friendlier image that has permeated popular culture, thanks to The Lord of the Rings. Through Tolkien’s white critical gaze, Beowulf as an epic for white English people has formed the backbone of the poem’s scholarship. To this day, there has never been a black scholar of Anglo-Saxon studies who has published on Beowulf. Mary Rambaran-Olm has reported on the many instances of black and non-white scholars being shut out of medieval studies. She recently explained at the Race Before Race: Race and Periodization symposium what Tolkien did to Hall in light of her own decision to step down as second vice president of the field’s main academic society, citing incidents of white supremacy and gatekeeping. As a result of these incidents, studying Beowulf has long been a privilege reserved for white scholars.
Ironically, Tolkien’s advocacy for a Northern, “native,” and white ideal readership contrasts with his own personal and familial histories. He was born and raised in South Africa. Though Tolkien’s biographers have claimed that his African upbringing scarcely influenced him, scholarly critics have pointed out the structural racism in his creative work, particularly in The Lord of the Rings. Additionally, he wrote an entire philological series, “Sigelwara Land” and “Sigelwara Land (continued),” on the Old English word for “Ethiopia.” In this series, he explicates the connections between Sigelwara Land and monsters by flattening the categories of black Ethiopians, devils, and dragons. He writes:
The learned placed dragons and marvelous gems in Ethiopia, and credited the people with strange habits, and strange foods, not to mention contiguity with the Anthropophagi. As it has come down to us the word is used in translation (the accuracy of which cannot be determined) of Ethiopia, as a vaguely conceived geographical term, or else in passages descriptive of devils, the details of which may owe something to vulgar tradition, but are not necessarily in any case old. They are of a mediaeval kind, and paralleled elsewhere. Ethiopia was hot and its people black. That Hell was similar in both respect would occur to many.
Tolkien’s work of empirical philology is a form of racialized confirmation bias that strips Ethiopia of any kind of connection to the marvels of the East, gems, or even his own fixation on dragons. He highlights Sigelwara as a term related to black skin and its connections to devils and hell, framing Ethiopians within the same category as “monsters.” He has no qualms about consistently connecting the Ethiopians to the “sons of Ham,” and thus the biblical descendants of Cain, linking medieval Ethiopia with the justification for chattel black slavery. In fact, no part of the etymology (nor any part of medieval discussions of Ethiopia) discusses slavery. Tolkien would have read Beowulf’s Grendel, who is linked to Cain, as a black man:
Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and, unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind’s home; for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain.
Tolkien’s articles on Ethiopia and on Beowulf, all published in the 1930s, reveal that Tolkien likely interpreted Grendel as a black man connected to a biblical justification for transatlantic chattel slavery. Thus, Grendel was raced within the logics of Tolkien’s white racist gazer. However, his philological method is still seen as a non-politicized and non-personal form of “empirical” scholarship. His interest in solidifying white Englishness and English identity—as a chain of links from the premodern medieval past to contemporary racial identities—is a project that extended into multiple scholarly areas.
Over the last several years, Tolkien’s most circulated political stance has been his resistance to fascism as displayed in letters he wrote to a German publisher. He may have abhorred fascism and antisemitism, but he upheld the English empire’s white supremacy. He held racialized beliefs against Africans and other members of the English black diaspora.
Black scholars have been systematically shut out of Old English literature. If there is no critical mass of black intellectuals, writers, and poets who can talk back to the early English literary corpus and the large-looming white supremacist gatekeepers, then Toni Morrison’s Beowulf essay might well be the first piece to do so. Because she writes about Beowulf, race, and how to read beyond the white gaze, her essay speaks back not only to Beowulf but to the English literary scholarship that has left Anglo-Saxon Studies a space of continued white supremacist scholarship.
In Toni Morrison’s 2019 collection, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, we get the first revision of who should read Beowulf and how race matters. In her essay, “Grendel and His Mother,” she explains:
Delving into literature is neither escape nor surefire route to comfort. It has been a constant, sometimes violent, always provocative engagement with the contemporary world, the issues of the society we live in… As I tell it you may be reminded of the events and rhetoric and actions of many current militarized struggles and violent upheavals.
As a black feminist reader, Morrison examines Beowulf as political, current, for any reader. Indeed, she opens by explaining that literary criticism is always performed through the lens of its moment, urging her readers to “discover in the lines of association I am making with a medieval sensibility and a modern one a fertile ground on which we can appraise our contemporary world.” Morrison’s Beowulf interpretation highlights what other critics, following Tolkien’s lead, have deemed marginal. She decenters the white male hero, focusing instead on the racialized, politicized, and gendered figures of Grendel and his mother, who in Tolkien’s read would have been black. In his article “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” his white male gaze concentrates on what these two “monsters” can do for Beowulf’s development as the white male hero of Germanic epic. Morrison, on the other hand, is interested in Grendel and his mother as raced and marginal figures with interiority, psyche, context, and emotion.
In Morrison’s interviews with Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose, and The Paris Review, she explains her literary method when she unpacks nineteenth-century American literature—especially Faulkner, Twain, Hemingway, and Poe—and how white writers and critics hide blackness and race. Similarly, in Morrison’s discussion about Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, she exposes the power dynamics of whiteness in Cather’s novel. The novel describes the complicated relationship between a white and a black woman in which Cather’s white gaze forces not just unspeakable violence onto the black woman but also erases her name, context, and point of view. Similarly, Tolkien is not interested in Grendel or his mother’s racialized contexts, emotions, and reasons. He writes with the white gaze—Grendel and his mother are racialized props that help explain Beowulf’s conflicts, contexts, emotions, and reasons. Morrison’s sentiments about nineteenth-century American literature apply to white supremacist Anglo-Saxon Studies: “The insanity of racism… you are there hunting this [race] thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference.”
Morrison analyzes Beowulf through Grendel’s racialized gaze. She points out Grendel’s lack of back story:
But what seemed never to trouble or worry them was who was Grendel and why had he placed them on his menu? …The question does not surface for a simple reason: evil has no father. It is preternatural and exists without explanation. Grendel’s actions are dictated by his nature; the nature of an alien mind—an inhuman drift… But Grendel escapes these reasons: no one had attacked or offended him; no one had tried to invade his home or displace him from his territory; no one had stolen from him or visited any wrath upon him. Obviously he was neither defending himself nor seeking vengeance. In fact, no one knew who he was.
Morrison asks readers to dwell on Grendel beyond good versus evil binaries. She centers the marginal characters in Beowulf, who have not been given space and life in the poem itself. She forces us to rethink Grendel’s mother and Beowulf’s vengeance, writing:
Beowulf swims through demon-laden waters, is captured, and, entering the mother’s lair, weaponless, is forced to use his bare hands… With her own weapon he cuts off her head, and then the head of Grendel’s corpse. A curious thing happens then: the Victim’s blood melts the sword… The conventional reading is that the fiends’ blood is so foul it melts steel, but the image of Beowulf standing there with a mother’s head in one hand and a useless hilt in the other encourages more layered interpretations. One being that perhaps violence against violence—regardless of good and evil, right and wrong—is itself so foul the sword of vengeance collapses in exhaustion or shame.
Morrison’s discussion of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf is about violence and how it undoes all potential motivations, including vengeance. The final tableau of Beowulf holding both the blood-covered sword of vengeance and Grendel’s mother’s head is about the corrosiveness of violence. For Morrison, the corrosive violence that eats through the sword of vengeance is that of whiteness.
Morrison goes further to unpack Beowulf through the work of contemporary writers. She explains:
One challenge to the necessary but narrow expectations of this heroic narrative comes from a contemporary writer, the late John Gardner, in his novel, titled Grendel… The novel poses the question that the epic does not: Who is Grendel? The author asks us to enter his mind and test the assumption that evil is flagrantly unintelligible, wanton, and undecipherable.
Specifically, she discusses Gardner’s rethinking of Grendel’s interiority. She writes that Gardner tries to “penetrate the interior life—emotional, cognizant—of incarnate evil.” For Morrison, the poem’s most salient interpretation comes from reading it politically, cogently, and rigorously. She writes:
In this country… we are being asked to both recoil from violence and to embrace it; to waver between winning at all costs and caring for our neighbor; between the fear of the strange and the comfort of the familiar; between the blood feud of the Scandinavians and the monster’s yearning for nurture and community.
In Morrison’s analysis, Grendel has developed from being a murderous guest to Hrothgar’s Hall who kills for no reason, to becoming the central focus. This passage asks us to think about why Grendel would do what he did. Morrison understands him as dispossessed; his “dilemma is also ours.” She situates Grendel as kith and kin to her imagined critical reading audience—black women.
Morrison concludes with a meditation on complicity, inaction, and the politics of contemporary late fascism and democracy:
…language—informed, shaped, reasoned—will become the hand that stays crisis and gives creative, constructive conflict air to breathe, startling our lives and rippling our intellect. I know that democracy is worth fighting for. I know that fascism is not. To win the former intelligent struggle is needed. To win the latter nothing is required. You only have to cooperate, be silent, agree, and obey until the blood of Grendel’s mother annihilates her own weapon and the victor’s as well.
In other words, we can reread that scene as a statement about fascist violence and its self-destroying and gendered toxicity. Morrison has made reading Beowulf raced, gendered, political; she has envisioned its interpretation through the centrality of a black feminist reading audience where politics matter and “democracy is worth fighting for.”
As Tolkien’s intellectual grandchild (my advisor was his student), I do not think it is accidental that Morrison’s critical voice reframes Beowulf for the racialized, political now. Tolkien’s deliberate shut out of Stuart Hall means that we can only speculate about Hall as a critic of Beowulf, and we know that Anglo-Saxon scholarship continues to shut out black and minority scholars. With Morrison, finally, I believe we can put Tolkien’s “Monsters and Critics” to bed and read Beowulf anew.
For many people, Halloween means it’s time to throw on a classic teen slasher like Halloween or Friday the 13th. Today, we often look back on those movies as festivals of gore and cleavage designed to appeal to teen boys. But, as film historian Richard Nowell writes, the most coveted audience for these movies at the time was teenage girls.
Nowell writes that teen slashers emerged in the wake of 1970s horror films aimed at adults. Starting with the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, many moviemakers had centered scary supernatural plots on strong female characters. In contrast to the horror movies of earlier eras, these films generally avoided the trope of cowering, half-dressed women. For example, in 1973, the theatrical trailer for The Exorcist, and the film itself, focused on the working single mother of the possessed girl.
By the late ‘70s, adult horror audiences were on the decline. Overall, market research found, half of U.S. theatergoers were between 12 and 20, with a fairly even gender balance. Many went to the movies with dates, and industry professionals generally believed that teen girls usually chose which movie to see on a date with a boy.
To sell movies to a teen audience, writers and directors took special care with their depictions of teen girls. Debra Hill, cowriter of 1978’s Halloween, later said she wanted young women to be able to “see themselves” in the female leads, who spend significant time talking about schoolwork, dating, and babysitting.
While later commentary has often assumed that the sex in teen slashers was gratuitous and promiscuous, Nowell writes that films like Friday the 13th (1980) actually spent a lot of screen time showing couples’ sexual relationships as emotionally intense and romantic. Following on the heels of non-horror teen films like Grease, studio executives had discovered that young love and platonic teen relationships were strong assets for marketing a movie. Lobby cards for Friday the 13th featured few moments of horror or titillating shots of female leads. Instead, they showed romantic moments, platonic friendships, and even a female character showing a young man how to change a light bulb.
“Taken as a whole, Paramount’s lobby cards marketed Friday the 13th as female-youth-friendly entertainment,” Nowell writes.
The marketing apparently worked. Forty-five percent of the theater audience for Halloween and Friday the 13th was under 17, and, of those young viewers, 55 percent were girls.
Following in the footsteps of those hits, a flood of teen slasher movies showed up in theaters in 1981, including My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, and Friday the 13th Part II. These movies followed the newfound convention of mixing romance with horror, leading New York Times critic Vincent Canby to refer to the genre as “teen-age love-and-meat-cleaver films.” The heroines of these movies were traditionally feminine, tough, and sexually confident.
So, if you’re inclined to throw on something scary this Halloween while also celebrating empowered young women, it turns out there are a lot of options.
About 10 years ago, I began to get impatient with disability studies. The field was still relatively young, but it seemed devoted almost entirely to analyzing how disability was represented—in art, in culture, in politics, et cetera—especially in the case of physical disability. This, I thought, fell short of the field’s promise for literary studies. Where, I wondered, was the field’s equivalent...
In 1982, the American Library Association established Banned Books Week in response to the increase in challenges to books in libraries, classrooms, and school libraries.
Of course, censorship and challenging creative thought did not begin in the 1980s. The earliest form of censorship was book burning, carried out in order to solidify governmental power, erase history, and prevent the spread of ideas.
Dr. Whitney Strub tackles the latter in “Black and White and Banned All Over: Race, Censorship, and Obscenity in Postwar Memphis.” According to Strub, the Board of Censors and the Memphis city government worked to censor films and media that they considered inappropriate. Ultimately, the films that they censored included scenes featuring a mixing of Black and White characters. There was a particular focus on regulating images of real or imagined intimate relations between Black men and White women, a trope that is a legacy of Reconstruction. The censors felt that the message of these films was one of “social equality” that challenged normative values. The intent was that by censoring these images, the Black community in Memphis would not get the wrong idea about their “place” in society.
Books, film, and art are commonly banned or challenged in American society because they are sexually explicit. However, as Strub notes, historically people use sex as a code for race. It is easier or more politically correct to claim that you oppose a work of art because it is sexually explicit, than to object to how it portrays race. A prime example of this comes from the challenges of Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou in schools and libraries across the country. All three of these works deal with issues relating to racism and have a sexual component. Nevertheless, they make a larger argument about the role and treatment of girls and women in American society.
Attempts to remove texts like these limit students’ ability to engage with subject matter that will help them survive in society and understand what is happening in their own lives and the lives of others. Tonya Perry explores the impact in “Taking Time to Reflect on Censorship: Warriors, Wanderers, and Magicians.” She notes that there are three roles an educator can play: warrior (who teaches just the facts), wanderer (who encourages questioning and interpreting experiences), and magician (where learning meets action and transformation). The magician educator will have material that addresses subject matter such as sexual harassment, sexuality, racism, and sexism, and demonstrates to students how they can put this knowledge into action. Thus, students become producers as opposed to being consumers of knowledge.
According to Perry, those who censor in an attempt to “protect” students are actually doing them a disservice by not providing them the language and tools to communicate. Furthermore, it disproportionately impacts the students who come from underrepresented communities. Censorship signifies that their stories and histories are not valuable or important enough to be studied. As Strub notes, the act of censoring puts attention on the action of the challenge rather than addressing the societal issues that are facing American communities. In other words: censorship is a dangerous distraction.
Why is a call for conversation or dialogue met so often with indifference or hostility?
That I am thinking about this question might feel peculiar to Swarthmore, but I could just as readily be addressing Johns Hopkins (the scene of protest against the creation of a private police force on campus this past spring), Wesleyan when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, really higher education all the way back to the mid-1960s. It may seem that I’m talking about a challenge that is peculiar to academia, but in fact I think this is an issue for most contemporary civic and corporate institutions.
So what am I thinking about? Roughly speaking, the kind of impasse in the life of an institution where some group of people within the institution or reliant upon it are demanding concrete, specific changes in how the institution operates and the people with authority over the institution respond to that demand by calling for dialogue and conversation. This usually in turn infuriates or provokes the constituencies demanding changes and leads them to escalate or amplify their demands, which then in turn antagonizes, alienates or worries other groups who might have supported the initial demands but not the intensified or more militant requests, which leads to more people calling for some form of dialogue or deliberation, which then intensifies the us-or-them divide within the institution about the way forward.
I think this general dynamic has been described very well by Moises Naim in his book The End of Power. Naim starts by asking why people who are at the top of the hierarchy in many organizations and institutions–CEOs, college and university presidents, heads of executive agencies in government, leaders of non-profit community groups, and so on, frequently report that they feel powerless to act within their organizations beyond vague, broad or gestural kinds of leadership. The former president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, described this view well in the midst of a controversial attempt by her board to displace her when she said that she and her peers invariably had to lead towards change slowly, through “incremental buy-in”. Even that is more active than many leaders of institutions, academic and otherwise, might put it–more typical perhaps is a description of leadership as custodial, as stewardship, on behalf of collectively-determined values or a mission that derives from the inchoate massing of all ‘stakeholders’ in the institution.
Naim observes that in private, leaders and their closest advisors are often not so sanguine. Instead, they express intense frustration about what they feel they can’t do. They can’t admonish or discipline people who are technically subordinate to them but too far away in the hierarchy for that admonishment to feel proportionate or fair. They can’t instruct a division or office within their organization to straightforwardly execute a policy that the leadership wants but the division opposes. They cannot quickly dispense with rules, regulations or even “traditions” that the leader and their close associates deem to be impediments to their vision of progress. They cannot undertake new initiatives unilaterally, no matter how sound they believe their own judgment to be. They can’t reveal the truth as they understand it from facts that are private or confidential.
Naim argues that the contemporary world is being compressed between two simultaneous developments. The first is that power has gotten “big”: that it is increasingly attached to large-scale, centralized and increasingly hierarchical institutions. The second is that power is “decaying”: that it is harder and harder to wield at scale, through a centralized apparatus, and from the top of hierarchies downward as a command exercise. It is harder in part because organizations now have internal structures as well as external constraints that cause this decay. What Naim observes is that people within institutions or dependent upon their actions are simultaneously being consulted or included or brought into dialogue and deliberation at the same time that they feel it is increasingly impossible for their suggestions, advice or observations to actually inform what their institutions do with power.
People know that these institutions are “big”: that the institutions do in fact routinely wield power. A college like Swarthmore year in and year out determines the academic outcomes of 1600 students; it hires, disciplines, tenures (or not) employees; it undertakes expensive construction projects with substantial economic implications; it participates in numerous collective or shared decisions across academia; it buys services and commodities; it invests and accumulates. But if you ask, it’s very hard to find anyone within the institution who ascribes the power to do any of those things directly and unilaterally to themselves or to their offices. The “big” capacity of an institution’s power comes from everywhere and nowhere. As a result, Naim suggests, there is only one form of actual influence over institutional action that most stakeholders, community members or citizens have left, what he calls “the veto”–that people can block or impede or frustrate institutional action. Not necessarily because they actually object that intensely to what is being proposed, but because it is the only action they can actually take in which their own agency is visible, important and has actual impact. In every other deliberative or active moment that people are supposedly included in and consulted about, there is no accountable tracing of whether or how their advocacy and their evidence has weighed on institutional power, and there are repeated encounters with decision-making processes that are either occluded or exclusive, and with accounts of decisions that are in no one’s hands, that are made but made from nowhere in particular. Even when you’ve been in “the room where it happens”, present at the scene where a decision was concretely made by people who have the power to decide, you often leave uncertain of what exactly happened and whether it’s going to be done as it was decided. You will also often not be allowed to speak at all about what was said, what was decided, or by whom. When people rise to block or impede decisions–to exercise the veto out of frustration–that further decays power while doing nothing to change its concentrated ‘bigness’.
I think the descriptive usefulness of Naim’s analysis is all around us now. The 2019 American discourse about the “deep state” and desires for various forms of authoritarian or direct-rule escape from its supposed clutches seems entirely consistent with the picture that Naim laid out in 2013. The prevalence of what is now being called “cancel culture” across social media is another manifestation of Naim’s veto, arising from people who feels that in some fashion they are being told that they are included in processes that select or identify cultural and political prominence and authority, if only through access to algorithms that rank and rate, but feeling as if the only real power they have is to reject a selection that has been made without real, transparent and accountable structures of representation and consultation.
I suspect that every working professional across several generations both feels this sense of exclusion and is aware of how they have excluded other people within their own institutional worlds. After twenty-five years of working at my present institution, I can cite innumerable examples of processes in which I have been formally included, cases where my opinion has been solicited, and cases where I’ve taken advantage of what are supposed to be always-open channels for communication to offer feedback in which the difference between my participation and my absence is impossible to discern. Sometimes I’ve seen a point I raised emerge almost entirely verbatim from one of the people involved in the earlier consultation two, five or ten years later with no perceptible connection to that earlier process. Mostly, my participation–sometimes about issues or decisions that I think are highly consequential or urgent–disappears without a trace (often simultaneously with confirmation that what I believed to be urgent was in fact urgent). Committees spent a year (or more) working on a policy that disappears into trackless invisibility afterwards–where it’s not clear even whether administrative leadership thought the policy impossible or risible, whether they earnestly meant to implement it but then the person who would have had responsibility left, or whether it was simply forgotten.
This isn’t distinctive to me. We all feel this way. Women feel this way even more. People of color feel this way even more. We all have had the experience of sounding an alarm that no one hears. Of providing advice that rests on decades of experience that seems to be ignored. Of trying to push towards an outcome that would satisfy many only to watch dismayed as an outcome that satisfies almost no one is chosen instead.
If we have power or responsibility within an institution, many of us have been on the other end. We’ve been the void that doesn’t answer, the soothing managerial assurance that all opinions are helpful, the person who absorbs and later appropriates a solution or idea that someone else advocated. And thus most of us know well why participation in a process doesn’t scale smoothly into an impact on a process. Think of job searches where you have been on the inside of the final decision but where many people provided feedback on a candidate. Some of that feedback you ignore because the person providing it didn’t see all the candidates or is missing some critical piece of information (that probably wasn’t available). Some of that you consider very carefully and respectfully but end up simply disagreeing with. Some of that you dismiss out of hand because the person consulted is someone who had to be consulted but who is widely regarded as wrong or irresponsible. Some of it you ignore because it’s expressed in a cryptic or confusing way. Some of it you ignore because you’re just really busy and the decision is already robustly confirmed by other information, so why keep discussing it?
None of which you can tell someone about. The people who made the decision can’t say:
a. You didn’t work hard enough for us to value your input equally.
b. We really did consider what you said, but here’s why we disagreed with you, specifically.
c. We asked your feedback because you’d be insulted if we didn’t but we don’t respect your views at all.
d. We had no idea what you meant and we didn’t have time to sort it out.
e. Our cup overfloweth: thank you for the advice but we turned to have as much as we needed before we even got to you.
You can’t even say the one thing that would be comforting (we considered your advice, and disagreed) because then you have to provide an external, visible transcript of a conversation that it is unethical (or illegal, even) to transcribe and circulate.
The number of decisions that power considers impossible to transcribe or even describe has grown along with power itself. Here I think we arrive at the heart of the problem with “conversation” as an alternative to “demands”.
Take my previous example of a job search in academia. Most of the people solicited for opinions understand why there is no account of whether or how their opinion mattered, except perhaps students. Why there will be no “conversation” about the decision after it is made, and why the parties to the conversation will be limited and sequestered. But even in this fairly clear case, academic departments could probably do a better job with students. In one hiring process in the last six years, we chose a candidate who was not consistently the number #1 preference of the students that we asked to participate. So I met as department chair with them afterwards to talk about how a decision like this gets made, and to give them a carefully limited version of our reasoning. I knew there was a risk involved that one or more students would indiscreetly repeat what I’d said so that it would get back to the candidate, so I didn’t share anything too private. The important thing for me was to talk frankly about how and why hiring decisions unfold as they do, including pointing out that these are decisions where typically ten to twenty candidates are very nearly evaluatively equal–if nothing else because the students who may be considering academia need to understand that about the labor market at the other end.
I also explained the legal constraints on anything connected to personnel decisions and then why most of us also find it unprofessional to talk about a colleague directly with students, most of the time. And we talked a bit more beyond that about why student impressions of faculty are sometimes perceptive and useful and sometimes simply wrong. I pointed out that I once proudly asserted decades ago that a graduate professor I knew was reticent because of the lingering effects of McCarthyism on older academics, which turned out to be the kind of thing that was ever so vaguely right as a generic guess and ever so completely wrong about the actual person, as I learned on longer acquaintance.
This is what I think a “conversation” as an alternative to a “demand” might look like. It may be many people have conversations of the kind I just described, as ad hoc, one-off, personal and effectively private conversations that do not become a public fact about power and authority within the institution. The public or shared or visible spaces within an institution are not routinely alive with this sort of conversation. It isn’t shared.
You could suggest that my approach in this case was managerial: that I chose to talk with the students in order to manage the possibility of their unhappiness in response to a perceived exclusion from decision-making. I think you’d be right that this is how offers of dialogue or conversation are often perceived by stakeholders who want to change the policies or culture of their institutions.
What is missing from these offers, what makes them not-really-conversations that only fuel the movement towards what Naim calls the veto, are three major attributes:
a) Too much of the subject of the conversation is veiled or off-limits.
b) The powerful do not fully disclose or describe both the constraints on their actions AND their own strong philosophical or ethical commitments.
c) When disclosed, the constraints are not up for debate; there is nothing contingent in the conversation.
In effect, what is missing is what defines a democratic public sphere. Which is an absence that nullifies the offer of a conversation or a dialogue as a part of decision-making or life in community. You can’t have a conversation that’s meaningful, trustworthy and part of a process of deliberation and decision-making in the weird kind of fractured “public” that academic institutions, civic institutions and businesses maintain, where information flows in trickles or pools in hidden grottos, in which most of the participants can’t discuss even a small proportion of what they know or disclose the tangible reality behind most decisions that have been made or are being contemplated.
Title IX/sexual assault conversations in higher education are a major example of this issue, not just at Swarthmore but almost everywhere. In the case of Title IX, I am for the most part neither a petitioner nor the powerful, so I can see to some extent both why so many institutions trend towards Naim’s veto and why it is hard to have the conversations that might approach power differently.
Let’s start with what is off-limits. The specifics of the last decade of actual cases can’t be discussed in any kind of public or even private conversation within institutions. That would usually be illegal (several kinds of illegal), it would usually be an invitation to a lawsuit (several kinds of lawsuit), and it would broadly be considered to be unethical by almost everyone with an interest in the issue. And yet the generalities of those specifics are precisely what is at stake. What can the forms of centralized, hierarchical, ‘big’ power within academic institutions plausibly do about what’s in those specifics? How can anybody talk about that question without granular, particular attention to how it would work in specific cases, at the moment of the incident and its aftermaths?
That’s not all that is off-limits. Mostly the people with power over the disposition of cases or the setting of policy cannot fully disclose or discuss what they’re being told within one set of meetings: what the lawyers say about what can or cannot be said. Within another set of meetings: what trustees say about what they think should or should not be done. Within another set of meetings: what the specific managers of specific cases believe or think about those cases at various stages of investigation or judgment or therapy. Again, mostly because they can’t. In most of these cases, the legal constraints are real and specific. But all of those off-limits deliberations and conversations erupt into the public space, sometimes even as quotations that can’t be attributed or even acknowledged as quotations. So legal advice, even if it might be questionable or flawed, can’t be examined or questioned directly–it often can’t even be labeled as such. Practicioner beliefs about best practices in counselling or therapy can only be described in the vaguest ways, shorn of all the specifics that would make them valid or invalid, helpful or questionable.
The fracturing of this not-public runs all the way down to the bottom of this hoped-for conversation. No one–including student advocates–gets to a point of disclosure about the deeper fundamentals of their views on any of the issues at stake–about sexuality, about justice, about gender, about equity, about safety and freedom, about the rights and responsibilities of institutions and of those who work for and study within institutions. There is no incentive or reward to disclose if there is no real possibility of tracing how a dialogue will or will not inform decisions and policies. Nobody wants to start a conversation in which they will lay their deepest convictions out on the table if they have no sense at all of what will be done with or to those exposed beliefs and narratives after everyone leaves the table. Conversation is an intimate word, but the familiarity that even small colleges allow between students, faculty and administration is not intimate familiarity between equals who have consented to mutual exposure. What adminstrator would ever want to say clearly what they think and know to students who might turn around and demand the termination of that employee? What student would ever want to have a genuinely informing, richly descriptive and philosophically open conversation about sexuality, violence and justice with an administrator if the student is the only person obliged to participate in the conversation in that spirit?
The only hope for those kinds of dialogues is the classroom, precisely because the instrumental character of any given discussion is not directly fed back into institutional governance and because classrooms are semi-private and leave little visible trace to anyone who was not a direct participant. When we otherwise offer dialogue as an alternative to demands, we dramatically underimagine what it would take for dialogue to be a meaningful substitute, which is nothing short of redesigning the visibility of decisions and the flow of information in a way that no one is really ready for and perhaps that no one really wants.
This is the bookstore I want to live in. Mundo Azul (Choriner Straße 49, Berlin) is an international celebration of beautiful children’s picture books — some of which I knew, many of which I did not, and all of which are well worth reading. While browsing, I had the sense that the proprietor, Mariela Nagle, had selected each one intentionally. She displays them not because they are popular — though there are some well-known titles, along with many that were (to me) discoveries. She displays them because they’re art that she wants to spend more time with, and that her patrons should get to know.
And then there’s the space itself.
Two rooms of books, carefully displayed on wooden shelves, many book-covers facing outward — catching the eye, drawing you in for a closer look.
There are places for sitting and reading.
(Or for taking silly selfies with your friends.)
And what is that tiny sign in the middle of that bookshelf over there?
Yes! That one! On the little easel.
“Silent books”? Does that mean what I think it means…? Yes. Perusing the books confirms that they are all wordless. An entire shelf devoted to wordless picture books! When Mariela Nagle noticed my interest, she strolled over with a new one she had just gotten in — from Portugal, which (she says) has more independent children’s book publishers than anywhere.
I think I got that right. Mariela, if I am mistaken, please correct me! I visited the shop with no intention of writing about it — so, I took no notes. I only decided to write about it afterwards, as I walked away thinking of all the people who would love this shop! Instead of writing only to them, I decided to shout it from the rooftops! Or, at least, from the laptops — via this blog.
If ever you are in or near Berlin, you must visit Mundo Azul. Plan to spend the afternoon. Yes, all of the afternoon. And it is OK if you do not speak German. Mariela speaks German, English, and Spanish (and possibly other languages — I neglected to ask).*
If you cannot get to Berlin, I highly recommend browsing…
After you’ve done that, you’ll of course start saving up for a trip to Berlin….
Vielen Dank an Mariela und Ada! Es war wunderbar!
* Update, 11 July 2019: I met up with Mariela this evening at “Drawings from East & West: Sino-German Picture Book Exchange Salon,” and I asked. She also speaks Italian and French.
AI has always only partially been about the actual future of probable developments and base-rate outcomes; it has also been singularly productive of philosophical speculation, fantasy, and arguments about ourselves and the future ...
One of the most frequently taught novels about the Philippines is Jessica Hagedorn’s 1990 Dogeaters. The novel takes place in the Philippines, a former colony of the United States, in the 1950s. Income inequality is extreme. Political turmoil churns as leftists rise up to challenge the ruling dictator. And in Hagedorn’s fictionalized iteration, the lives of three families of various classes become entangled in revealing ways.
Specifically, Hagedorn focuses on the women living in midcentury Manila, breaking down the ways in which neocolonialism can impact gender. In “Masquerade, Hysteria, and Neocolonial Femininity in Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters,” Asian American literature scholar Juliana Chang finds that there are two forms of ambivalent femininity in the novel: masquerade and hysteria. While psychoanalytic theory has described these forms of femininity as operating under American and Western bourgeois family and closed patriarchal systems, Chang posits that the forms are also relevant in a former colony like the Philippines.
By this theory, masquerade is “a performance of femininity that masks feminine claims to power and covers over other contradictions of patriarchy.” This is exemplified by both the commodified and privileged female characters throughout the novel. The character of Zenaida, a mother whose labor is taken for granted, becomes a symbol of exploitation. Zenaida feels that she is only a surplus laborer; fittingly, she drowns at the end of the novel.
The novel takes place in a time of political turmoil. Hagedorn prominently features the First Lady, rather than the male head of state, as the political face of the country. Chang notes that this privileged figure is another example of “masquerade femininity” and spectacle. Hagedorn’s descriptions of how the First Lady must behave emphasize the pressures of women to be feminine in ways that are acceptable to the patriarchy, down to the grace with which she must wipe her tears.
The hysteric’s role, on the other hand, is “both to arouse and irritate paternal desire.” According to Chang, a character exemplifying hysteria is Baby Alcaran, the daughter of the powerful businessman, Severo Alcaran, and his wife, Isabel. Hagedorn makes a clear distinction between the mother and daughter. The mother is a symbol of upper class femininity. Baby, on the other hand, is often described as having physical traits and characteristics “like a man.” Baby sweats, chews her nails, has “flat breasts” and wide hips. These descriptions refuse the patriarchal normative standard and “insist on its contradictions.”
According to Hagedorn, the neocolonialist Philippines held a heteronormative standard that ignored the possibilities of queer and female subjects. The structure of global capital, and the commodification with which human lives and labor are treated in the Americanized colony, only enforce these dominant systems. By representing diverse characters in Dogeaters, Hagedorn offers examples of the contradictory nature of neocolonialism—these characters are people who are not welcomed by the dominant systems, and yet they exist, living and loving in the world of the novel.
Hagedorn’s novel does not rely on tropes, but rather questions how those tropes came to exist. In the end, with its multiplicity of female and queer characters, Dogeaters presents an alternate narrative for the Filipino woman.
The post The Filipino Novel That Reimagined Neocolonial Gender appeared first on JSTOR Daily.
The tech got away from us
And we weren’t ready
I don’t think we’re wired to handle this
Those lines come from Octet, a new a cappella musical about digital addiction from Tony-winning composer Dave Malloy. Octet offers a theatrical riposte to our increasingly saturated digital lives: Over the course of ninety minutes, the show takes us inside an imagined 12-step support group for eight digital addicts, each of whom speaks to a different online pathology. I was lucky to see a recent performance, and was awed by its insightful (not to mention amusing) take on digital temptations like online dating, conspiracy sites, and Candy Crush.
But perhaps the most striking thing about Octet is its very existence. As a thoughtful and entertaining consideration of the various perils of life online, Octet is an early harbinger of an inevitable wave of cultural production: Art and entertainment designed to help us navigate the emotional and psychological perils of the digital world.
These distresses are the necessary by-product of technological innovation itself. As Paul Virilio famously wrote in “An Architect’s Crime,” the advent of any new technology “necessarily entails the creation of a new kind of specific accident; for the invention of the ship ushered in the shipwreck; the invention of the railway, the derailment; of the plane, the plane crash; of the computer, the bug or virus.”
But the disasters inherent in new technology can be psychological as well as material. Some scholars have already framed the challenges of information technology in the language of addiction: In “Digital Disturbances, Disorders, and Pathologies,” Noela A. Haughton et al. summarize a 1998 definition of internet addiction as “an impulse-control disorder” in which “individuals derive satisfaction and gratification as they compulsively check their e-mails, browse Internet sites, or pursue other technology-centered activities, such as gaming and gambling, and are often unable to control the desire to be online.”
I’m not convinced that the addiction framing is a particularly accurate or helpful way of understanding the perils of life online. As Amnon Jacob Suissa writes in “Medicalization and Addictions,” “the more we label people as having or suffering from pathologies, the more we multiply their number.”
But the addiction framing is useful in embracing the potential of art to help us understand and address the challenges of our new lives online. Whether or not you consider them “addictions” per se, there are certainly many mental health and relationship issues that are unique to the online world—issues that often involve compulsive or even pathological behaviors like excessive online shopping, relentless social media browsing, or constant online gaming.
In engaging directly with these compulsions, Octet joins a rich tradition of artistic works that map emergent temptations and help us navigate their risks. Throughout history, every time we have encountered a new mind-altering substance, an outpouring of art and entertainment has helped us to figure out its potential risks and benefits.
While we are now grappling with a technology rather than something we eat, smoke, or swallow, the challenges closely parallel previous encounters with drugs and alcohol. Understanding how art has helped us navigate those previous encounters can help us anticipate the way it may now help us come to terms with our digital compulsions.
There are three key ways art helps us make sense of mind-altering substances (or technologies): Through causal stories, through cautionary tales, and through invocations of mind-expanding potential.
The tradition of using mind-altering substances as plot devices goes at least as far back as Shakespeare. “In various plays the drunkenness of some character is an essential feature of the plot,” scholar Albert H. Tolman writes in “Drunkenness in Shakespeare,” “and in most of these cases one feels a distinct note of disapproval.” As evidence, Tolman cites the Borachio’s drunken words in Much Ado About Nothing, which, when overhead, thwart a villainous plot; Othello’s dismissal of a drunken Cassio, as engineered by the evil Iago; and Hamlet’s condemnation of his uncle’s drinking.
Where once we blamed alcohol, now we use technology as the plot device that leads people astray. To take another example from musical theatre, the musical Dear Evan Hansen portrays an online video as the crucial catalyst for an escalating series of misrepresentations and misunderstandings.
These kinds of causal stories are dramatically useful—it’s easier to sympathize with a character who can blame his bad behavior on the devil alcohol or the demon YouTube—but they also help readers, audiences, and listeners recognize the potential impact of substance use and abuse. If excessive drinking, smoking, or web-surfing can lead a hero astray, we are implicitly warned, then we need to recognize the potential for these temptations to derail our own lives. By tapping into that tradition, art that uses digital compulsion as plot device serves as a useful reminder to continually scrutinize how technology shapes our own life choices.
But art and literature about mind-altering substances needn’t be limited to implicit warnings about their potential life-altering dangers: There is also plenty of art that explicitly warns us of the risks of addiction and substance abuse. As George W. Ewing writes in “The Well-Tempered Lyre: Songs of the Temperance Movement,”
Few people today realize the extent of the publication of temperance verse or its all-pervasive influence in the lives of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of nineteenth-century America. The other section of the choir is more often heard, for some drinking songs, such as “The Little Brown Jug,” are part of the repertory of virtually every English-speaking vocalist… In spite of this early recognition that poetry might play a part in keeping a people sober, centuries passed before the output of anti-drinking verse approached that of drinking songs.
The temperance movement—and its music—eventually found expression in the call for Prohibition, which went into force just as the film industry emerged. As Michael C. Gerald writes in the exhaustive “Drugs and Alcohol Go To Hollywood,” “[t]he use of alcohol in excess is a familiar film theme, which is not surprising since it mirrors American society’s involvement with booze.” As Gerald chronicles, these films typically followed one of a few, familiar trajectories:
The drinker may engage in regular heavy drinking leading to humorous situations. The drinker may be a celebrity or an “ordinary” individual whose career or life has followed a progressive downhill trajectory. Disastrous consequences result for the drinker, which often reverberate to the family or other close relationships. Still other films continue by retracing the alcoholic’s path back to recovery and even redemption.
If the alcoholic or drug addict has become a stock character through these cautionary tales, we can anticipate that the tech addict will soon become just as familiar. Already, in the movie Her, the novel The Circle, and the TV show Black Mirror, we have met characters who serve as object lessons in technology over-use.
As much as these portrayals sometimes rankle—please don’t make me think twice about how much I love my iPhone–there’s a reason we have a long cultural tradition of depicting addicts in art and entertainment. By explicitly preaching the dangers of substance or technology over-use, art can inspire us to keep our own compulsions in check.
While mind-altering substances have often been portrayed as dangerous or harmful, there’s also a creative tradition that celebrates their potential. In “William Burroughs and the Literature of Addiction,” Frank D. McConnell notes that substance abuse literature sits well within America’s frontier tradition. Citing critic Leslie Fiedler, McConnell writes that drugs are “simply another permutation of the American myth of westering, out of which he has gotten so much mileage: a retreat into the last undiscovered territory, the inner space of the mind.” Arguing that Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is a fine representation of this tradition, McConnell writes that:
It is only appropriate that the literature of addiction, European and Romantic in genesis, should find its fullest articulation in an American novel, just as it is inevitable that America should become the most addicted country in the West, and that only within the last half-century.
Even as Burroughs was exploring drug use on paper, the motion picture industry was birthing a new wave of films that not only tolerated substance use, but celebrated it. Gerald writes:
The 1960s witnessed a sharp escalation in societal interest in and use and general acceptance of such mind-altering substances as LSD and marijuana. This was coupled with the demise of the Motion Picture Production Code’s restrictions on subject matter deemed unsuitable for movies. With these changes came a number of movies positively depicting the use of such drugs to escape the boredom of traditional living and to relieve workplace pressures and the tension between the establishment and the counterculture.
If tech addiction literature follows this path, we may see productions like Octet countered by voices that celebrate our collective disappearance into the digital ether. The book and subsequent movie of Ready Player One suggest one potential framing: As the physical world grows gradually more polluted and less tolerable, the digital world may represent a relatively more appealing retreat.
But at this moment, with this set of technologies, our need for assistance in navigating the perils of online living vastly outweighs our need for more cheerleading. That’s why it’s so exciting to see a work of art like Octet join in the rich tradition of art that helps us come to terms with the negative impacts of mind-altering substances and technologies: By offering us causal and cautionary tales, art can help us recognize the risks of abuse and over-use alongside the benefits of mind-altering potential.
The more those problems seep into our day-to-day lives, the more we’re going to need stories like these—not the least because so many of those problems are larger than the internet itself. To quote one final lyric from Octet:
When we say “in real life”
This is a lie to protect us
It is all real
It is all real life
Today, almost 70 years after Alan Turing famously asked, “Can machines think?,” what we call “artificial intelligence,” or AI, has seemingly come to penetrate our everyday life. It is in our phones, our homes, our workplaces, our modes of transportation, our schools, our welfare system. And while it remains unclear what AI really is, or can be, it is undeniably capturing the imagination of...
Is art only for elites with the money to buy the most brilliant works and the education to enjoy them? Or is art a public good with the capacity to bring communities and nations together? Historian Rachel N. Klein explains how in the 1840s, a New York City organization called the American Art-Union embraced that last interpretation.
The Art-Union grew out of the Apollo Gallery, established by portrait painter James Herring in 1838 as a way for artists to exhibit work for sale. Over the next few years, it began buying up a range of paintings by artists around the country. Subscribers paid a $5 annual fee for the chance to win a piece of art, using the proceeds to pay artists and to keep a free gallery open to the public. By the late 1840s, the organization was the primary market for American paintings other than portraits. Klein writes that over its thirteen-year lifespan, the organization purchased 2,481 works by more than 300 artists. Many of these were landscape paintings, images of everyday life, and pictures that told exciting or funny stories.
The Art-Union was part of a movement on both sides of the Atlantic that saw art as a means of moral improvement for the general population. It opposed the patronage model of painting for elites, and reimagined art as profit-driven popular entertainment. Philip Hone, a former New York mayor who helped establish the union, railed against the “licentiousness” of the penny press and hoped to educate the “taste of the people” for the good of the republic.
And yet, Klein writes, the Art-Union’s economic model took full advantage of a growing popular interest in the expanding consumer and investment economy. Following P.T. Barnum’s lead, it lured people of all social classes to its gallery with a display of paintings and lavish furnishings that extended into the street. Additionally, it offered the chance to win not just its paintings but also limited-edition etchings and medals depicting famous artists. Subscribers were motivated by the hope of a valuable prize: In 1848, when it offered a series of Thomas Cole paintings worth $6,000, its subscriptions jumped from 9,666 to 16,475.
The Art-Union ultimately collapsed under pressure from several directions. Within the world of high art, certain critics objected to the organization’s purchase of what they considered to be mediocre paintings for the sake of providing prizes affordably. Meanwhile, some artists complained they had been overlooked by the union and attempted to create rival institutions.
But Klein writes that the biggest blow came from the penny press—specifically, the New York Herald. The paper railed against the Art-Union as an elitist institution that used its lottery system to take advantage of subscribers. The Herald rallied public opinion to its side, eventually prompting legal action by the New York District Attorney. In 1852, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the organization was an illegal lottery, bringing its work to an end.
What’s brown and sticky?
Maybe you’ve already heard this hoary old chestnut, not even a joke so much as a bunch of words, weighed down with the cares of the world, that once had a joke vaguely waved over it. Resolving the riddle requires not just a sneaky act of linguistics, but also the subversion of an entire genre of similar worn-out jokes, making it not just a terrible joke, but also terribly clever (well, let’s not go too far). For that reason it’s still a favorite of small children, linguistics undergrads… and of course, dads everywhere.
Here’s another told to me recently. A man comes up to the widow at the funeral of his old friend and says “Mind if I say a word?” She nods. The man clears his throat and says gently “Plethora.” The wife smiles sadly and replies “Thanks—that means a lot.” Cue the groans.
Ah yes, dad jokes. We all know the kind, where a dad joke walks into a bar… and doubles up in pain due to the obvious and enthusiastic wordplay. But it’s everyone else who groans. Take the worst joke known to humanity and surely somehow, somewhere out there in the world, some dad will be telling it as if it’s the funniest thing in the world to a long-suffering audience.
Bad jokes have come to be strongly associated with middle-aged men with children. Though it’s mostly since 2014 that the mildly pejorative term “dad jokes” really caught the attention of the general public enough to enter dictionaries, the idea of an uncool father regaling his kids with corny jokes seems to be widely relatable to lots of people. And when they’re so bad they’re good, these otherwise ridiculous jokes have sometimes become perversely popular and shared by more than just the dads of the world.
The popularity of cringeworthy dad jokes brings up so many questions. There are more ways to convey humor than you can shake a stick at, many of them clever, witty, original, and undeniably funny. So why is it the most canned, corny, formulaic, brown and sticky jokes that have become so popular? Why do people associate bad jokes with dads—and is this even fair?
While all cultures make jokes and share humor in some way, it’s unclear whether or not the dad joke is really universal. There are certainly counterparts in other languages. In Japanese, oyaji (old man) gyagu (gag) are essentially dad jokes that are met with a blank stare from younger folk.
Choi Jinsook examines the increasingly popular ajae (middle aged man) jokes in Korean, such as in television comedy shows in which sorely distressed interns are forced to laugh at the bad jokes of their bosses in order to keep their jobs. A typical ajae riddle: 비가 1시간 동안 내리면? 추적 60분 (Translation: “What do you call it when it rains for an hour?” “In-depth 60 Minutes,” is the homophonic punchline that uses the title of a popular Korean TV program, which could also mean “60 minutes of drizzle.” I guess you had to be there.) Obviously, as Choi points out, you’d need an understanding of Korean pop culture and language to really get the joke. But like dad jokes in English, they don’t “require skillful delivery style and can be repeated endlessly” by anyone, thanks to their simplicity, unlike other kinds of verbal arts, puns, and wordplay.
The ways dad jokes differ from other jokes and indeed other forms of humor can be telling. (Humor researchers caution us most earnestly that if we dare to dissect why a joke is even funny, it’ll take all the humor out of it. But since dad jokes are mostly not very funny anyway, I think we can take a chance).
On the face of it we may think of jokes as fun and games, a way to make others laugh from delight and surprise. Humor has been shown to bring people closer socially and relieve the stress of negative situations. Jokes have an undeniable power to reveal truths and create a rapport.
Then again, Freud famously argued that jokes were a socially acceptable form of hostility and aggression. Successful joke telling can form a bond between the teller and the audience, but sometimes they are banded together against the butt of the joke. It turns out the social forces that drive our use of jokes, while they may improve our moods, aren’t always a laughing matter.
Topics that are usually too inappropriate to discuss in certain polite circles can be comedy gold to others: people falling and hurting themselves; people’s personal traits such as weight, height, hair color, or ethnicities; even taboo or sexual subjects. Jokes can reinforce conservative, conventional views of what’s considered normal.”The racist can safely broach a taboo subject by making a nasty remark cloaked in humor—that is, to use humor as a testing device,” notes Peter Farb. The listener can show whether they find it acceptable by laughing, or not.
At the same time jokes and black humor can be a way people can cope with horrific events, enjoyed precisely because they’re so bad and offensive. In the aftermath of the Challenger explosion in 1986, Elliott Oring describes how a tasteless joke cycle spread quickly across the country:
Why didn’t they put showers aboard the Challenger? Because they knew everyone would wash up on shore.
It’s both disconcerting and revealing, what we as an audience can find funny.
What makes a thing funny? At its core, humor seems to be all about incongruity. Comic situations set up a context where something is marked or out of place. This oddness, far different to what we were led to expect or what we blithely assume is normal, is what makes things funny. The joke par excellence has to be cleverly original, yet not too clever that no one can get it. Telling a good joke needs a delicate balance.
Successful jokes, especially when new to the listener, can increase the social status of the teller in the hierarchy of a group, allowing them control over the social interaction. If you’re a good comedian, people are going to give you more opportunities to tell jokes. The performance of joke telling actually usurps the normal turn-taking customs of conversation by reserving the right to speak and forcing listeners to play along with the format of the joke (for example in a knock-knock joke or riddle). For the time of the joke, it’s an exercise in defining a reality that is “fiercely conservative,” according to some researchers, maintaining our conventional views of the world by laughing at what’s different.
So the stakes can be high in joke-telling, especially if the teller fails to deliver. People regularly signal not only when they’re about to tell a joke, in case it’s been heard before, but offer up excuses for why the joke might fail to dissociate themselves from the joke. Failure to land a joke successfully, or failure to “get” the joke (and be accused of the dire crime of not having a sense of humor), even getting the joke too easily when the subject might be inappropriate or taboo, means you can be in danger of losing face. Who would have thought that telling a joke could be so fraught with social pitfalls?
Humor researchers don’t always agree, but one thing seems clear. So-called “dad jokes” take what we know about joking and turn it upside down—and not just because they’re horrendously bad. Dad jokes are a kind of anti-joke, different from other ways of joking in their performance, even formulaic jokes. Like self-deprecatingly joking about a personal flaw before your bullies do, dad jokes seem to court failure, presenting themselves as deliberately bad, deliberately uncool, deliberately anti-humor. No special kind of comedic performance or timing is needed—so anyone can tell a dad joke. The jokes aren’t new, they’re the easiest jokes to understand, and no one can possibly fail at getting them. A listener is meant to groan at what is obviously a bad joke… yet if they do laugh, all the better.
Dad jokes play with incongruity largely through linguistics and wordplay, rather than subject matter. The much-maligned pun is a mainstay of the dad joke. Puns, bad or good, have long fascinated researchers for their playful ability to tell a micro mystery, with its red herring clues in plain sight. A piece of string is kicked out of a bar, disguises itself and walks back in. “Hey, weren’t you that piece of string who was in here before?” says the barman. “No, I’m a frayed knot!” Through a trick of linguistics, words cleverly disguised like other words because of the way they sound or their different semantic senses can lead us in the wrong direction of meaning resolution, before we “get it.” While puns can be clever, the language play found in dad jokes is often excruciatingly bad, obvious, and trite. And yet, in their exuberance, they work in some way.
Dad jokes may often build on the templates and expectations of other well-worn jokes in a kind of meta-humor, and then deliberately undercut them as an anti-joke for comedy value. I still remember my grade six teacher’s often repeated (by himself) masterpiece, a limerick that went:
There once was a snake called Jake
Who wanted to be as thin as a rake.
He was so fat
And because of that
He exercised and got quite thin.
As Choi shows when discussing ajae jokes, the popular culture around uncool Korean dad jokes allows for different views of masculinity, moving from a strictly authoritarian figure to someone who would playfully make jokes (even bad ones). There’s perhaps a parallel in English. No longer distant, traditional patriarchal father figures, dads can use jokes to bond and interact with their children, using simple humor that is most often appreciated by children earlier on in their development. Children begin to absorb the system of language by playing with language, through the enjoyment of jokes, puns, tongue twisters, schoolyard rhymes and the like.
Not only do dad jokes overlap with the kinds of jokes and language games children learn to enjoy, they actively encourage and develop a linguistic curiosity and understanding in children who are becoming gradually more aware of the world around them. But as much as small children undeniably enjoy their fathers’ jokes, they’re no more delighted than the tellers of the jokes themselves. The enjoyment perhaps is more in the telling of it, even when accompanied by a chorus of unappreciative (and inevitable) groans. For a time, the parental jokester has the floor and the kids are listening.
So is it really only dads that tell dad jokes? Studies claim that men seem to prefer formulaic joking as a way to differentiate themselves while women tend to share funny stories cooperatively with each other, a form of humor that is based on intimacy and solidarity. Formulaic jokes draw on social knowledge that a wider audience can appreciate while humor based on intimate knowledge is understood only by those that have a relationship with each other.
The accusation often levied in the past, notably from linguist Robin Lakoff, that women “have no sense of humor” and can’t tell jokes or get them, often ignores the fact that humor studies may be biased towards overtly male forms of humor, such as aggressive jokes that are often hostile or sexual in content, while a more cooperative kind of humor or gentler wordplay is not always considered valid. What Dawn T. Robinson and Lynn Smith-Lovin found in their study of humor and group dynamics was that men did joke a lot more in general, because successful joking (and interruption) increases social status and differentiation. Women actually joked much more, in general, when no men were present to interrupt them.
So it seems jokes are really for anyone with an interest in linguistic silliness. If you think otherwise, well, perhaps your mom can interest you in a punchline.
In the 1950s, after creating some of the most visionary architecture of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright went where he had never gone before: commercial homewares. Every building he’d designed, from houses to hotels, was tailor-made to its environment, from the structure to the materials. But these new lines of wallpapers, textiles, and other wares would be a major shift in a practice that had long avoided mass production.
“Of course, the most obvious and immediate question was how Wright, whose contempt for commercialism was legendary, became involved in such an undertaking,” writes Christa C. Mayer Thurman, curator of textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies.
The project coincided with the desire of a number of Wright’s supporters, among them Elizabeth Gordon, editor of the leading interior-decorating magazine House Beautiful, to revive the octogenarian architect’s reputation. Toward this end, she determined to dedicate an entire issue of the magazine to an overview of his work in the fall of 1955.
The creation of what would be known as the Taliesin Line was not a smooth process. As Thurman explores in her research, Gordon reached out to René Carrillo, then director of merchandising at the textile firm F. Schumacher and Co. The first meeting between Carrillo and Wright was caustic, starting with Wright proclaiming his dislike of interior decorators, calling them “inferior desecrators.”
Thurman describes how when Carrillo reminded Wright that he had already designed furniture for a number of his houses, “the architect admitted that he ‘was a terrible furniture designer and that he had never designed a comfortable chair and that he had become black and blue from sitting in his own furniture.’” Still, Carrillo convinced Wright, in the end, to sign on to the Taliesin Line (named for Wright’s home, studio, and school in Wisconsin) with Schumacher in 1954. The folio for the line ultimately included 137 printed and woven samples and twenty-six wallpaper samples, each accompanied with context on what inspired it. “Design 104” was based on floor plans of the spherical homes Wright designed for his sons Robert Llewellyn and David, while “Design 103” had rectangular patterns derived from the windows on Wright’s Carlson House in Phoenix.
The work debuted in the fall of 1955, but not before another Wright outburst. As Thurman writes:
Upon seeing the display rooms with textiles, wallpapers, furniture, and paints bearing his name, Wright exploded: “My God! An inferior desecrator! I won’t permit my name to be used by a decorator. I will have no part of this. You must take off my name. I will tell the world I have been misused.”
But the House Beautiful issue was already on newsstands, and the designs were soon available for purchase. Wright got over his initial fury and made a few more patterns for the Taliesin Line, with one added in 1960 just after his death.
The distribution of “Schumacher’s Taliesin Line of Decorative Fabrics and Wallpaper” was limited, as was the furniture line Wright worked on for Heritage-Henredon to complement these works. “These uniquely modern furnishings were priced to be accessible to the average consumer,” writes Amelia Peck, curator of American decorative arts, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. “However, most ‘average consumers’ were not familiar with Wright’s design vocabulary and did not respond favorably to patterns that seemed radical for the time. Neither the furniture nor the fabric and wallpaper were commercial successes.”
The folio and the fabrics are now rare, although the Met started collecting them in the 1970s. The Antonio Ratti Textile Center at the Met Fifth Avenue in New York is exhibiting these pieces in Frank Lloyd Wright Textiles: The Taliesin Line, 1955–60. The compact exhibition features nine examples of the textiles, as well as the sample book for the Taliesin Line, which is now fully digitized online. Schumacher also released an updated version of Taliesin Line in 2017.
There’s no shortage of mass-produced homewares and accessories inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright in museum gift shops around the country. Wright quite possibly would have been piqued by such commercialization of his visions. Yet as Thurman observes, “this widespread enthusiasm for Wrightian design indicates how pervasive the architect’s ideas have become and the degree to which his work remains vital today.”
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Along the Caribbean coast of Suriname, all of the brutalities of eighteenth century empire existed in cruel abundance. From the genocide of the natives to the millions of enslaved Africans who labored in sugar-fields for first the English and then the Dutch, Suriname provides a sobering understanding of colonialism’s twin legacies of tobacco and terror, sugar and slavery. No contemporary text better illustrates slavery’s cruelty than the Scottish-Dutch soldier John Gabriel Stedman’s 1796 The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname.
Selling Stedman’s book alongside pamphlets by Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, its printer Joseph Johnson knew that the narrative’s power lay in images as well as words. One illustration depicts a young man naked but for a loin-cloth, still alive with unblinking eyes, hung from a hook which is roped around a bloody exposed rib. A scattering of bones and skulls litters the base of the gallows, as if at Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. Johnson understood that conflating this lynching with the crucifixion was necessary, and enlisted the aid of an illustrator and poet named William Blake.
Blake was a radical who, in his 1809 poem “Milton,” would emphatically declare: “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!” The rare figure who is equally influential in literature and art, Blake is the ecstatic of Romanticism who extoled freedom, with Morris Eaves enthusing in the Huntington Library Quarterly that the poet “continues even now to be the sign of something new about to happen.” First known primarily for his art, Blake’s verse was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, and he has remained a counter-cultural icon.
An advocate of both the American and French revolutions, Blake was the prophet of rebellion who could sing:
In every cry of ever Man,
In ever infant’s cry of fear,
In ever voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
His abolitionism was a given, but his understanding of emancipation extended in even more radical directions than other Enlightenment thinkers whose rationality Blake found oppressive, intoning that “Prisons are built with stones of law.” Where the Enlightenment promoted rationality, Blake embraced mysticism; if the philosophes celebrated science, then Blake advocated visionary ecstasy.
Such was a view that Blake presented of himself, naming names when he wrote:
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau…
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
Modernity, Blake believed, was defined by a wicked trinity of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke – incidentally the same trio that Thomas Jefferson valorized as intellectual heroes. Such a confrontational position would seem to configure Blake as a revanchist. Nancy Morrow writes in Early American Literature that the Enlightenment is often seen as a “philosophical movement that unequivocally advocated universal human liberty and political self-determination,” and yet the Enlightenment mainstream often advocated for inhumanity, such as when Locke wrote in the 1669 Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina that “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.”
By contrast, Blake was influenced by non-conformist religious sects from the well-known Quakers and the Baptists, to the exotic Muggletonians and Swedenborgians, which compelled him to reject slavery as an abject horror. Morrow emphasizes that “major sources of arguments against slavery during the Enlightenment” such as the Quakers “cannot be considered a true expression of the spirit of Enlightenment philosophy.” As the Age of Reason once again becomes a cultural flashpoint, it behooves us to examine what the Enlightenment was, and how its discontents offer an alternate vision.
Morrow writes that the literature of the eighteenth century demonstrates that the “dictates of reason, logic, balance, order and compromise were ineffectual tools for writers who may have wanted to forge an abolitionist ideology.” This was certainly the case for Stedman, who advocated for gradual reform rather than abolition, barely grappling with his own role in the institution of slavery. Despite this, Mario Klarer writes in New Literary History that Stedman’s narrative “ranks among the most important and influential humanitarian texts of the late eighteenth… century,” becoming a touchstone for the abolitionists, and a crucial source for Blake.
The historians Gert Oostindie and Inge Klinkers explain in Decolonizing the Caribbean: Dutch Policies in a Comparative Perspective that by the late eighteenth century in Suriname “the native people had almost completely died out” and that “slaves constituted more than ninety percent of the population.” These are staggering numbers that dwarf similar populations in the United States. Stedman had joined a Dutch army deployed to combat rebelling enslaved Africans, but his book made clear the nature of his service.
Stedman recounts stories such as that of a woman drowning her child to prevent his enslavement, for which she was punished with 200 lashes, or the suicide of a young man who preferred death to flogging. Gruesome scenes which Blake depicts, such as an executioner mutilating an enslaved man: “having not with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy crow or bar, with which blow after blow he broke to shivers every bone in his body, till the splinters, blood and marrow flew about the field. But the prisoner never uttered a groan.”
If Stedman had ambiguous positions on such evil, the illustrator of his book did not, attacking slavery as both economic and spiritual exploitation. Blake was able to connect his beliefs to the tangible nightmares of bondage. Suriname functioned as a body of evidence for the poet’s positions. As David Erdman argued in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, both Blake’s verse and artwork illustrated “modes of cruelty and prejudice which he wished to make known to the hearts of his contemporaries.”
Between 1792 and 1794 Blake produced sixteen images for Johnson, all done with “more than his usual care,” as Erdman reports, recycling several as illustrations for his Visions of the Daughters of Albion, with Erdman describing that poem as a counterpart to the “parliamentary and editorial debates of 1789-93 on the bill to abolish the British slave trade.”
Not Blake’s first foray into the controversy around emancipation, as his 1787 lyric “The Little Black Boy” coincided with the “early phase of… [an abolition] campaign in which several artists and writers were enlisted,” as Erdman writes. While Erdman argues that Visions of the Daughters of Albion has slavery as its central theme, the hermetic enthusiasms typical of Blake can make that message difficult to interpret. By contrast, “The Little Black Boy,” from his collection Songs of Innocence and Experience seems deceptively simple. Containing the only unambiguously African characters in Blake’s corpus, the poem presents a black boy narrating his mother’s message about the fundamental equality of all people to his white compatriot.
The narrator prophecies a coming moment, both revolutionary and millennial, when “out from the grove my love & care, / And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.” For contemporary readers of the poem, however, there is something embarrassing about Blake’s language:
I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light
It centers Western chauvinism as much as the equality of humanity. Such language repeats, where “black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove” and where, with the coming millennium the black boy shall shade the white boy from the “heat till he can bear… And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, / And be like him and he will then love me.”
As problematic as this is, Erdman argued that Blake was anti-racist, writing that his “engravings, with a force of expression absent from the others, emphasize the dignity” of his African characters. Writing several decades later, David Bindman claimed in Huntington Library Quarterly that Blake, exemplary though he may have been, couldn’t help but be constrained by his era, that he was “unable to free himself—no more than anyone else at the time—from the complex and often contradictory web of ancient and modern beliefs that had settled around Africa.” To focus on the literal language is a red herring. Blake engaged a radical empathy, expressing something about colonialism’s violence that is as psychic as it is physical.
Blake’s narrator is a child, processing trauma while being forced to use the language of his oppressors. The narrator’s promise to the white boy shouldn’t be read as literal, as the possibilities of radical equality are hard to imagine, not least of all because the system under which he lives makes it hard to imagine. It’s a fallacy to assume that what Blake is speaking of is assimilationist, that we’re to believe that the black boy will be transformed into a white boy, just as it would be an error to confuse the archetypal significance of those colors with physical reality. Rather, the kernel of the poem is the narrator’s mother saying: “And we are put on earth a little space, /That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
Reading “The Black Boy” as simply the racist projection of a guilty white liberal doesn’t do justice to its subtle message. This is a lyric about what the constraints of racism does to both oppressed and oppressor, the ways in which ingrained prejudice alters perceptions, and how it limits the anarchic potential of divinity. In both the unearned sense of superiority of the white boy and the undeserved sense of inferiority from the black boy, we approach a subtle understanding of that utopian yearning for when we might “round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.”
Bindman notes that the “white boy adopts a position of supplication that would have evoked unmistakably… the famous emblem entitled ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’” Crafted by Josiah Wedgewood in 1786, this famous image depicted an African in chains pleading that question. The enslaved man, meek and deferential, is begging for a freedom that is naturally his right. Bindman claims that “The Black Boy” actually subverts the chauvinism of Wedgewood. When the black boy speaks of his partner by saying “I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear, / To lean in joy upon our fathers knee,” it’s whiteness that must bow its head in supplication, begging not for freedom, but for forgiveness.
Eaves writes that for Blake the “codes are simply too complex and cryptic—or too ambiguous and contradictory—to be cracked by straightforward references to big public categories.” Blake was not anti-Enlightenment so much as he offered an “alternate Enlightenment,” one that owed more to the religious dissenters than to Locke. While thinkers like Locke dwelled in the fallacies of pseudo-scientific bigotry, Blake was able to construct a vigorous denunciation of both slavery and racism. Marrow writes that the failure “to resolve the problem of slavery is perhaps a failure of this ‘Moderate Enlightenment,’” where an idolatry of what we assume rationality to be lends itself to inhumane conclusions. Blake’s reasoning was different, drawing not from pragmatism, but poetry; not from rationality, but prophecy—and that makes all the difference.
Such an alternate Enlightenment, which sees rights as being an issue of acknowledging the transcendent fixed within our hearts is a message of some use today. Blake offers a radical vision, where we are not slaves, nor consumers, nor products, where we are more than even just citizens—we are human. We are sisters and brothers.
It seems like every few months, a new movie remake populates movie theaters. These reinventions often adjust stories to fit today’s trends and values. But what happens when an entire genre is “remade”?
In her piece “Shall We Dance?: Feminist Cinema Remakes the Musical,” film scholar Lucy Fischer explores some of the ways in which female filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman flip the narrative of the traditional Hollywood musical, a form traditionally dominated by male and heteronormative direction.
The movie musical is a genre in which audiences suspend belief in order to enter into a world where singing drives a story. A song often emerges from a quotidian moment, in an effort to display a character’s feelings or motivations. Gender is frequently at play. Fischer quotes film critic Rick Altman, who says that within musicals we
alternate between the male focus and the female focus, working our way through a prepackaged love story whose dynamic principle remains the difference between male and female.
Akerman’s The Eighties takes place entirely in a shopping center and follows its protagonist Jeanne as she finds herself caught up in multiple romantic entanglements. In a way, it’s a standard set-up for a musical, with a love triangle at its center. The first act of the movie features snippets of a play in rehearsal which eventually culminate into that play’s performance in the second act.
Ackerman creatively inserts herself through several stand-ins such as the rehearsal director and conductor. Fischer writes, “As though to underscore the traditional power of male discourse (both on screen and off), when the first male actor speaks he does so assertively and no directorial voice comments on his delivery.”
Fischer also explains how the setting of the shopping center parodies the dominant culture of consumerism. She notes that traditionally, women in Hollywood musicals are seen as decoration. The Eighties, however, puts women in the center, with songs and a score that reveal the characters’ emotions.
Akerman dissects the melodrama that is traditionally part of a musical, using repetition to the point of absurdity. For example, the first scene of the film features a line about grief, “At your age, grief wears off,” that is reiterated multiple times throughout. According to Fischer, “The radical use of repetition underscores the redundancy of certain cliches in the melodramatic repertoire and foregrounds their endless replay in real women’s lives.” This theme of repetition is extended into the use of multiple actors for a single role which makes it more challenging for audiences to identity a particular character.
The second act of the film finally places the previous rehearsal scenes into context for the audience as the play is performed in full. Once in context, it is clear that the play is a parody of the musical romance. As a woman sings her romantic, explicitly sexual song, it becomes literal as she begins to make love with her partner as background singers poke their heads into frame. Fischer notes the ridiculousness of these over-the-top musical sequences.
The film doubles as homage and parody to the traditional musical romances, but Akerman revises the genre with her feminist sensibilities. According to Fischer:
Through her “re-make,” Akerman also engages what literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin describes as the rhetoric of parody, wherein “the dominant discourse is reflected as something more or less bounded, typical and characteristic of a particular era, aging, dying, ripe for change and renewal.”
Walt Whitman is known as “America’s poet” and the “father of free verse,” but few know that in addition to poetry and politics, he was obsessed with phrenology. According to the nineteenth-century “science of mind” known as phrenology, the mind/brain was divided into different faculties which controlled different aspects of personality. These different faculties and thus one’s personality were thought to be revealed by the shape of the head. A bump on the skull showed a well-developed phrenological attribute. A well-rounded head, therefore, meant a well-rounded personality.
“Bumpology” was a common nickname for this popular and influential pseudoscience, which would be parodied by Poe, Twain, Melville, and others…but not Walt Whitman. He was so pro-phrenology that in 1848, he had a chart of his head made at the famed Phrenological Cabinet on Nassau Street in Manhattan. Whitman kept this chart for the rest of his life, upgrading some of his scores as he saw fit. He even included it in three editions of Leaves of Grass because he thought it gave him creditability as a poet: “It was, according to phrenological opinion on the subject, a poet’s chart,” writes poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey.
The positive feeling was mutual. Fowler and Wells, owners of the Cabinet and recognized leaders in the field, published the second edition of Leaves of Grass. Their American Phrenological Journal also published Whitman’s anonymous review… of his own Leaves of Grass.
As Mackey makes clear, phrenology was central to Whitman’s conception of “a reformation of poetry and for poetry as a means of reformation.” The notion of body as text, and the text as body, repeated throughout Leaves of Grass, was Phrenology 101. Phrenological categories included Amativeness, the propensity for sexual love; Philoprogenitiveness, a love of offspring; Adhesiveness, for friendship and camaraderie; Alimentiveness, which controlled the appetite, and so on. “Adhesiveness became Whitman’s favorite phrenological term.”
A significantly commercial undertaking, practical phrenology marketed the idea that a person could change his or her character; bumps, like muscles, could be made bigger or smaller through more or less exercise. A belief in the changeability or, even, perfectibility of personality was crucial to phrenology’s program of improvement and social reform.
That’s not how phrenology worked in the beginning, however. It was initially called cranioscopy by its inventor, German physician Franz Gall. Gall held a dark view of human nature, going so far as to label one section of the brain “Murder.” In America, phrenology—the term was coined by Gall’s assistant Johan Spurzheim—was transformed from a gloomy Germanic destiny into a self-help scheme. “Self-esteem” was one of the phrenological categories; perhaps unsurprisingly, Whitman scored high on this one.
But phrenology wasn’t just a self-help hustle. It had a darker side, paving the way to the “scientific” racism of the late nineteenth. Skull-measuring and IQ-testing were phrenology’s children. A phrenological diagram Mackey reproduces posits cranial development and forehead slope for seven types of humans (Human Idiot, Bushman, and so on to the “Highest Type,” the “Caucasian”). “Phrenology presented a version of manifest destiny at the individual level, mapping the head and making it readable,” writes Mackey, alluding to the political manifest destiny of westward expansion. It’s worth remembering that Whitman himself was all for the U.S. taking Mexican and Oregon territories, and although he opposed the spread of slavery, Whitman’s racial views were not at all as radical as his poetry.