Author: Bryan

Welcome to Contagion fall ’14

I’m looking forward to meeting a new round of students for this class on Sunday. I hope you’re all enjoying the opening sequence of King Oidipous, which you should be reading for our first meeting. Think about how the plague is invoked there — what purpose it serves Sophocles’ drama and how it may offer us a set of ideas to consider about the relationship between disease, language, and narrative, or the use of disease as a metaphor for personal or social disorder.

The other morning I led a discussion of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which you’ve all also read and discussed. Someone in that discussion actually raised Ebola as an example of a kind of natural disaster that might defy Solnit’s description of people coming together altruistically in order to rebuild new societies. It was a useful connection to the material from this class, much of which represents strangers fearing one another or fleeing the sick rather than offering assistance. “Communication” becomes a loaded metaphor in an epidemic situation because people fear — and sometimes it is, in fact the case — that conversation can be deadly, if the disease is communicated person-to-person. I acknowledged that Ebola would, indeed, pose quite a challenge to Solnit’s theory of utopian responses to disaster. Shortly after the discussion, though, a colleague showed me this video, which I thought might serve as a useful touchstone for our discussions this semester. I have a feeling Ebola might very well be the disease that haunts any number of our discussions this semester. I’ll be eager to hear what you think about this when we meet. See the link to the related article for more on these “burial boys.”

Where they belong

Colson Whitehead, in the clip above, namechecks a useful list of zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic scenarios set in New York that hover in the margins of his novel Zone One. But his zombies have more mundane counterparts in the contemporary city. “It’s not hard for New Yorkers to picture zombies,” Whitehead is quoted in the Time post that accompanies the video. “You take the subway, you go to Whole Foods, and you’ve got a series of stock characters to draw from.”

The novel opens with a 21-page sequence that toggles between Mark Spitz’s memories of just such a pre-apocalypse Manhattan, flashbacks to “Last Night” and the early days of “the ruin,” and a present-day scenario in which Spitz and his crew battle four zombies inhabiting the Human Resources department of what had been a law firm in lower Manhattan. The action sequence at this stage is a little hum-drum for a zombie novel and only crops up intermittently between Spitz’s lyrical longing for a bygone era that, somewhat paradoxically, he seems to have loathed. (Maybe this is why the novel begins with an even earlier memory of an innocent childhood longing to live in Manhattan; in any case, Spitz’s thoughts seem to drift regularly. “The man gets distracted,” his co-worker Gary comments [26].) We learn early in this opening sequence that post-apocalyptic “reconstruction,” with a government centered in Buffalo, has already “progressed so far that clock-watching ha[s] returned,” and Spitz, who works as a zombie “sweeper” reclaiming city blocks one by one, finds the work a little boring. The pun on zombies working in Human Resources is only half the joke; Spitz — now a janitor of the undead — was destined to be a lawyer, and here he is, practically punching the clock.

Whitehead’s zombies are a special sort. Sure, there are some fierce ones — the skels — who’ll gladly pin you down and suck your brains out. But the more common kind, the “stragglers,” are the ones who resemble the folks in the Whole Foods lines, or maybe their country cousins at Walmart. These are the ones who just keep going to work, stuck in daily rituals of workplace productivity: “The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late, and unpacking the reasons for this would consume a large portion of a session that would never occur” (49).

As Gary also points out, the line between those “killed in the disaster” and “those who had been turned into vehicles of the plague” is thin at best. Either way the went, “they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one” (25). They were already zombies, in other words.

I’m reminded whenever I think about Zone One of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different, but related, kind of zombie economy. Some highlights:

Most people think of [zombies] as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years (at least in Europe and the US) and offers this explanation:

Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Whitehead’s novel that corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine.

How does Zone One‘s social satire of our own post-Fordist economy stack up against earlier plague narratives we’ve read? In certainly seems related to Camus’ indictment of bureaucracy. You might also be interested in this essay on Defoe and zombie films.

I also posted a link to this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly earlier in the semester that should be newly meaningful to you this week; it argues that Zone One‘s version of zombie apocalypse owes as much to Defoe as it does to Dawn of the Dead:

What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn, crowding the novel with “walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious and sweat poison.” These abject and degenerating bodies, disfigured by the “tokens” of disease that look like “small Knobs…of callous or Horn,” can turn on others, even running through the streets actively seeking to infect people impressed “with a kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind,” as if the sickness itself were filled with an “evil Will” determined “to communicate it self.” Thus babies kill their mothers, and men tackle women in the street hoping to infect them with a deadly kiss. Others manage to dodge the disease, only to be disfigured by the weight of madness or grief.

Granted, there is none of the urgent panic attendant on hacking one’s way through a shambling horde only to turn around and see the second wave. This lends the novel a kind of studious detachment as H.F. traverses the city in an effort to comprehend the scope of the visitation through a process of quantification and statistical computation—tallying the bills of mortality, measuring the size of the municipal grave pits, and delineating the necrotic geography of ravaged neighborhoods. …

Ultimately, as with all these narratives, the real plague is modern life. Physicians trace the disease to a package of silks imported from Holland that originated in the Levant, spreading the infection through the ports, mills, marketplaces and manufactories that form the early-modern economy. Quarantines and barricades prove useless against the commodity’s voyage; but while the products themselves may be infectious, it’s the appetite to possess them that truly kills. In this, A Journal of the Plague Year presages the lurching mallrats of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, who continue the puppetry of consumption into the undead afterlife, a theme that is similarly taken up in … Zone One, where the post-apocalyptic reconstruction of New York provides opportunities for branding and product placement, and where the “Ambassadors of nil” evoke nothing so hellish as Times Square tourists, boring girlfriends, and the hollow communications of sitcoms and social media.

What’s left out of this analysis? You might be interested in this longish review of Zone One, which places the novel indirectly in the kind of context Wilentz invokes by addressing what the novel does — and doesn’t — say about the history of race in America. But we shouldn’t overlook the novel’s commentary on nostalgia as a driver of capitalist consumption. Spitz had “always wanted to live in New York” because of romantic attachments borne of movies and other media, and when one character asks him his post-plague plans are, he answers: “Move to the city.” How different is he from the hordes he’s hired to clean up?

In the news

I’m thinking that next time around I may add a course role or assign one person a week to do a little news roundup on contagion topics. I keep seeing things I mean to post here. This, for example, from the Times on the WHO recent designation of Polio as a global health crisis.

Or this, also from the Times this weekend, on the relationship between HIV/AIDS rates in Africa and another disease nicknamed snail fever.

I also kept seeing references this weekend to dengue fever risks at the World Cup in Brazil.

And, closer to home.

All this makes me wonder if our semester’s reading has made us better consumers of news reports like these. What patterns or narratives or tropes are we now more apt to notice than we might have been a few months ago?

Reagan’s America

We’ll watch about 10 minutes from these in class today, but I wanted to embed them here in case anyone wanted to see the whole thing. It’s the PBS American Experience documentary on Ronald Reagan, and yes, this is what I was showing in lecture one year when the vice president of the college’s Young Republicans stormed out of class. I think I was able to reassure her later that I wasn’t necessarily trying to malign Reagan — nor was the film. Rather, I was hoping to explain why Kushner’s play takes such an ominous view of the 40th American president.

 

Kushner resources

Hi, all. Welcome back from spring break. I’m repeating a post from Contagion 2012 about resources for thinking about Kushner. You can also look at the conveners’ post from 2012. First let me give you a clip I plan to discuss during our first session on Angels.

 

In the several years Cyrus Patell and I taught our Writing New York course on the Square, we amassed a pretty substantial number of blog posts about Kushner and Angels. They may prove useful as you continue to wrap your heads around the play in a short amount of time this week. Here are a few of the highlights:

I typically deliver two lectures on the play, one situating it in a discussion of time/history/imagination (and thoughts on the play as a period piece set in the Reagan era), very similar to the one we had in class today, and one that highlights some of the cultural building blocks Kushner recycles in the play (Mormonism, Judaism, Marxism) by way of a discussion of the play’s several angels and angelic precedents. We’ll get into some of that as we go. On the WNY course site, I’ve offered my thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience, and earlier I’d written about the ways in which the play recycles a number of stories and symbols, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain among them. (Because that post has some links that are now dead, I had to post again on the prior use of Bethesda in Godspell.) Several years ago, a highlight of our course was a guided tour of Central Park at sunset (or a tour of the sunset with Central Park as a backdrop) with our favorite ex-NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. I provided a more detailed account of that afternoon elsewhere. It’s only indirectly related to Kushner’s play, but still important if you want to think about the ways in which Central Park has long been contested public space, something Kushner’s certainly aware of when he selects Bethesda as the setting for his final scene. Here are a few links re: his use of Roy Cohn as a character. And here are some thoughts on the play’s place in the history of Broadway theater.

Cyrus has also offered thoughts on the play, which he teaches at NYUAD in his Cosmopolitan Imagination course. One year he supplemented my lectures with a few additional thoughts on Kushner’s use of New York City as a setting. But he’s written most extensively on the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism (see this one, too, and this one).

If you’re really interested, here’s the archive of a live-tweet one of our TAs ran as I lectured in 2011, the last time we taught this course together.

Part 1:

  • Getting ready for today’s #wny11 part I of Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA. Thinking abt community, identity, history, legacies of immigration. #
  • A guide to some of the Kushner-related material from our blog: http://bit.ly/atyPKY #wny11 #
  • @_waterman lecturing on Angels in America today #wny11 #
  • @lwarr because @cpatell is in Abu Dhabi today; @pwhny in good hands. #wny11 #
  • Transitioning from 70s to the 80s via Patti Smith–>Grace Jones for our lecture prelude #wny11 #
  • Prior: Not a conventional woman. Belize: Grace Jones? #angels #wny11 #
  • This a pretty good history of gays in New York for anyone who’s interested http://t.co/c4QlqMI #wny11 #
  • Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On is also a pretty good history of AIDS in New York and SF #wny11 #
  • Theatricality of everyday life: How do we understand performance? #wny11 #
  • Performance is also interesting when you think about tension between out and closeted gay characters. What is Roy Cohn performing? #wny11 #
  • AIDS epidemic is perfect dystopian moment for Kushner’s play. Confluence of personal and political choices and consequences #wny11 #
  • Play is also conscious of the rise political correctness and its relationship to identity #wny11 #
  • Ginsberg as a prophet figure for “Angels.” He needs to be the crazy poet yet wants to participate #wny11 #
  • What is the role of theater in mediating themes like history, identity, and community? #wny11 #
  • Watching HBO ‘Angels’ “Drag is a drag” dream sequence #wny11 #
  • Pay attention to the way Prior is always “performing:” drag, prophet, lines from movies. #wny11 #
  • “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it?” Can it? #wny11 #
  • Think about how “contamination” works in ‘Angels’ as something toxic, inexorable, and revelatory #wny11 #
  • @ultramaricon True #wny11 #
  • Feather floating represents possibility in writing for creation of new stories #wny11 #
  • New York pre-dates San Francisco as a “gay city.” See previous tweet about “Gay Metropolis” #wny11 #
  • Appiah on Contamination: “conversations that occur across cultural boundaries” #wny11 #
  • ‘Angels’ as an Early 90s period piece that reflects a post-Reagan-Bush I anxiety #wny11 #
  • Reagan’s silence on AIDS lead to people referring to the epidemic as “Reagan’s Disease” in some circles #wny11 #
  • What would Olmsted have thought of Central Park as a site for anti-nuclear bomb activism? #wny11 #
  • Reagan’s “Star Wars” looks like the cheesiest video game ever #wny11 #
  • It’s easy to laugh at Reagan’s conflation of fantasy and reality, but Kushner does some interesting things by blurring that line #wny11 #
  • Reagan as performing masculinity in ‘Angels’ in the eyes of Joe and Roy Cohn #wny11 #
  • Relationship between gay activism and gay theater in the 1960s-1970s #wny11 #
  • Think about ‘Angels’ and the history of political theater (O’Neill) and meta-theatricality (Tyler and Doctorow) #wny11 #
  • RT @lwarr: @pwhny Mondale won my kindergarten class’s mock election in 1984. I cried when Reagan won the real election #wny11 #babynerd #
  • From the Reagan doc I used in #wny11 today: NYC as a set of symbols to be mobilized by all sides: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5wLsUl3vfk #
  • @ultramaricon Which is one reason I found the @NYTOpinionator piece on “Am Fam” to be puzzling. http://nyti.ms/hC9nS2 cc @epicharmus #wny11 #
  • RT @lwarr: @pwhny Part 1 of this Frontline series on AIDS documents the 80s and Reagan’s role in the disease http://to.pbs.org/gReEKS #wny11 #
  • @FlyingHubcap We certainly still live with its effects. #
  • @ThirteenNY @PBS Weds 10 pm RT @cityroom Documentary Celebrates Olmsted, a Creator of Central Park http://nyti.ms/gDdGTG #wny11 #
  • #wny07 #wny11 RT @CitySnapshots ANGELS IN AMERICA. SEE IT. http://tonicruthirds.com/2011/04/20/angels-in-america-must-see/ #
  • Just a NY conversation rattling round my head. RT @cire_e New York Style http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/americanvarieties/newyorkcity/ #
  • The full American Experience doc on Reagan: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/presidents/video/reagan_01_wm.html#v129 #wny11 #

Part 2:

  • Wrapping up ANGELS IN AMERICA in #wny11 today. #
  • @_waterman on Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA: PERESTROIKA today. #wny11 #
  • Opening music: Talking Heads, 1978-79 “Thank you for Sending Me an Angel,” “Cities,” and “Heaven.” #wny11 #
  • @_waterman starting off with Linda Hutcheon’s idea of “historiographic metafiction.” #wny11 #
  • Kushner’s play asking: “Do we make history or are we made by it”? How are we conditioned by the stories we tell about the past? #wny11 #
  • Hutcheon’s book: A POETICS OF POSTMODERNISM http://amzn.to/gcgiYe #wny11 #
  • Showing clip from Mike Nichols’s adaptation: Roy, Joe, and Ethel. MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, Act 3, Scene 5. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman on pre- (building Zion) and post-millennialism (apocalypse). Play’s Harper is caught between the two. #wny11 #
  • Interesting account of post-millennialism by Stephanie Hendricks: http://amzn.to/hAs34y #wny11 #
  • @waterman on 4 differrent angels invoked by play. 1st: Angel of History from Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” #wny11 #
  • See W. Benjamin, ILLUMINATIONS. http://amzn.to/e5nfqC Kushner has acknowledged his indebtedness to Benjamin. #wny11 #
  • 2nd Angel: Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angelus_Novus #wny11 #
  • Benjamin on Klee: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned …. ” #wny11 #
  • “… while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Benjamin’s idea of “messianic time.” #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Stonewall and AIDS in light of Benjamin: catastrophic moments, one liberating, the other …? #wny11 #
  • Kushner’s play struggles with Marxist teleology, because it wants (like its character Belize) liberal progress. #wny11 #
  • Actually Benjamin and Klee’s angels are counting as 1. Second is angel who wrestles with Jacob, who then receives new name. #wny11 #
  • Jacob’s wrestling: renaming, rebirth. For Joe, also a sign of painful progress, plus he finds it erotic. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing this version of the picture: http://bit.ly/if4WrH #wny11 #
  • Motif of shedding skin throughout ANGELS. #wny11 #
  • Question of Joe’s fate. Why is he excluded from cosmopolitan redemption at end? Has he committed some kind of “sin”? #wny11 #
  • NY Mag interview with Kushner from 2008: http://bit.ly/f3Ca91 #wny11 #
  • Play’s Third Angel: Kushner stitching together bits and pieces form America’s past – Angel Moroni from Mormonism. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman show this image of Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith : http://bit.ly/g7DUdc #wny11 #
  • Mormon story as a rewriting of Christianity and also Judaism: a new Exodus. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing clip from HBO Angels of Harper in Mormon Center with diorama coming alive. Harper: “The magic of theater.” #wny11 #
  • Kushner and fallibilism: in what ways is ANGELS trying to learn from American traditions with which it disagrees? #wny11 #
  • 4th Angel: Bethesda Fountain. http://bit.ly/fUNynh #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing the final scene from the HBO version. Lucky, the film exists, because now he doesn’t have to read the scene … #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Because the last time he read it in class, he broke into tears, remembering his reaction to seeing the scene on stage. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Exit Music: Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, “Cheek to Cheek.” Over and out. #wny11 #

ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE: Act III Duet and Camus, The Plague, part IV

Early in Part IV of Camus’s The Plague, Cottard and Tarrou head to the Municipal Opera House to see a performance of Gluck’s Orpheus. Here’s the duet mentioned in that scene, which we’ll read and discuss in class today. Here’s a little more about Gluck’s opera — a variation on “the underground rescue-mission [plot] in which the hero must control, or conceal, his emotions” — as well as some additional info about the story it tells. What can this set piece — and the additional stories it invokes — tell us about Camus’ larger narrative?

Checking in: plague and social contract

I had hoped to share a quote this morning from a book I read when I first began plotting the syllabus for this course: Barbara Fass Leavy’s To Blight with Plague. Here she contrasts Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year on the subject of social contract. I think this discussion is useful also as we turn the corner to our consideration of Camus. Leavy writes:

In theory, the [social] contract is an antithesis to chaos and a reference point for civic duty, which is itself a possible antidote to a person’s alienating fear of others in the world. In times of plague … the tensions in the social contract emerge to disclose the separateness of human beings, fear of contagion … literalizing an essential antipathy toward others, or, at best, a drive toward self-preservation that under stress alienates even well-meaning individuals. But whereas works such as Defoe’s Journal affirm the viability of the social contract, Pale Horse, Pale Rider looks at it from the opposite point of view. The collective itself becomes a macroparasite against which the individual needs protection.

How and where can we see these issues playing out in Porter’s novella? And what do you make of the macroparasite analogy?

Ibsen round-up

You might find it interesting to know that Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter, was a big Ibsen fan. Ibsen was 30-odd years older than Munch and they only met a few times. But Much was pretty taken with him. Here’s a brief essay on the relationship between their work, including comments on Munch’s 1906 set designs for Ghosts (see above, Oswald sitting in the chair in the final scene, the sun rising outside as visible through the big picture window). I like this observation in particular:

To see was the most important thing for both Ibsen and Munch – but certainly not in an external, photographically recording sense. The artist’s ability and task is to see inwards – so that external motifs and inner, mental agitation are “lived through” (to use one of Ibsen’s favourite expressions) and melted together into valid expression. I do not paint what I see, but what I have seen, Munch once said – and Ibsen could have said the same about his “poetic visions”.

And here are a couple links to last year’s posts: the conveners’ post; one on humor (how much of this should we read as comedy?); and one on fatherhood — especially bad fathers — as one of Ibsen’s particular obsessions.

Categorizing A Journal of the Plague Year

Here are some thoughts from Sebastián following our last discussion:

Today in class we discussed how does the fact that A Journal of the Plague Year is a fiction affects our responses to the text. We also made an effort to categorize the piece; is it a proto-ethnography or historical novel?

I would like us to consider Defoe’s intentions when writing and publishing the novel. In this sense, it would be useful to consider that the book was published as a new plague outbreak takes place in France and that H.F. is keen on making remarks about public health policy.

With all this in mind, let us think about the following: is it a fictional account based on a historical event or a historical account in which fictional elements are introduced to enhance the writer’s argument?

An example: García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth

In 1989, Colombian novel laureate Gabriel García Márquez published a novel tracing the last days of general Simón Bolívar in Colombia, before death frustrated his attempts to travel to Europe in exile. The narration focuses on the general’s anxieties about the country’s future, offering a more human portrait of an often-mythicized figure. The novel faced huge criticism regarding its portrayal of Bolívar, to the extent that some critics deemed the account “profane”.

Is Defoe proposing a new version of the history of the Plague?

Defoe as novelist, novels as something new

During our last discussion of Defoe I mentioned, briefly, Defoe’s place in the history of the novel. (It’s hard to overestimate, for instance, the influence and longevity of his best-known novel, Robinson Crusoe, but he was the author many other popular works, including the one we’re reading.) Here’s a post I wrote on this topic in 2012. It includes Benjamin Franklin’s comments on what felt new about novels.

Image of Defoe’s collected works via.