Category: Popular culture

Oedipus round-up: The crossroads

Pardon me while I recycle a little content.

There are so many roads to Oedipus and so many ways we could take out of it to what comes next. Here are a few older posts, or multiple versions of posts, that can take us in a few of those directions.

On summarizing the play: what matters? Why? (With a hat tip to Freud & Deleuze and Guattari.)

On genre: Is how we tell the story part of the story?

On scapegoating.

On the civic life of Greek theater.

How it started: the OG convener’s post.

Feel free to continue our discussions by commenting on any of the above. Or take us where you will.

Podcast – Isolation, Connection and everything in between

Hi everyone! We are making our last post of the semester to present our final podcast. We loved the idea of having a final project that involved us having conversations about the texts we read during the semester. We narrowed down on a theme, and tried to explore it (and a little bit extra) as much as we could.

Hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we did making it. Let us know what you think!

Give it a listen!

Linh, Yaman and Ayan

Misreading Freud’s misreading

In some recent iterations of this class, we encounter Oedipus not just through Sophocles’ play but even earlier, via Tony Sampson’s strong endorsement of some prominent critiques of Freud’s definition of the unconscious. (At stake in his book Virality is how we understand crowd behavior — how imitative behavior from fashion to fascism operates.) Sampson illustrates how Freud’s thinking makes him an easy symbol for everything some later thinkers want to resist. The French psychoanalyst/philosopher duo Deleuze and Guattari even named their original collaboration Anti-Oedipus (1972). If we want to understand why, we’ll have to think about both what Oedipus meant to Freud and why that would come to stand for the things the rest of our folks seem to be resisting.

Freud, famously, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), writes:

There must be something which makes a voice within us ready to recognize the compelling force of destiny in the Oedipus[.] … His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so. (301)

For Freud the subject is an individual, and its formation is a family romance. For Deleuze and Guattari, however, the unconscious is not an individual, but part of a crowd, like wolves in a pack. “Who is ignorant of the fact that wolves travel in pack?” they ask in A Thousand Plateaus(1980). “Only Freud. Every child knows it. Not Freud” (28). In their Anti-Oedipus, desire is framed as fundamentally social, not familial:

[T]he family is never a microcosm in the sense of an autonomous figure [but is] by nature eccentric, decentered. We are told of fusional, divisive, tubular, and foreclosing families. … There is always an uncle from America; a brother who went bad; an aunt who took off with a military man; a cousin out of work, bankrupt, or a victim of the Crash; an anarchist grandfather; a grandmother in the hospital, crazy or senile. The family does not engender its own ruptures. Families are filled with gaps and transected by breaks that are not familial: the Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, religion and atheism, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism, Stalinism, the Vietnam War, May ’68 — all these things form complexes of the unconscious, more effective than everlasting Oedipus. (97)

This heady stew, I take it, is what they mean in their later book when they refer to the unconscious as multiple, as “the buzz and shove of the crowd,” not to be mistaken for “daddy’s voice” (30). The big picture here is how we understand the very definition or nature of the individual. For Freud, the individual is always going to be Oedipal. For Deleuze and Guattari (and by extension Sampson) the alternative is, as their contemporary Michel Foucault put it in the preface to their work, to “‘de-individualize’ by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations” (xlv). Referring to Anti-Oedipus as an “Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life,” Foucault summarizes one of its key imperatives this way: “Do not demand of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. … The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization. Do not become enamored of power” (xlv).

For all their resistance to Frued’s reading of the story, could it be possible that Sophocles’ Oedipus the King had been making a similar point all along? And why would this matter in a time of plague?

How (not) to write about contagion

(With intended nod to this piece, which came up in class yesterday.)

Heather Schell, a Stanford University graduate student in the late 1990s who now teaches writing at George Washington University in DC, wrote what I think is my favorite critique of Preston’s Hot Zone only a few years after it was published. Her piece pre-dates both the full flowering of Internet culture (and its viral information metaphors) and 9/11 — both of which would wind up playing a huge role in how contagion metaphors work, especially for US-based writers, in this century. So in many ways her essay seems prescient. I think it helpfully highlights the task before us, not simply to evaluate the scientific accuracy (or entertainment value) of non-fiction writing like Preston’s, but to ask more specifically how it works and to what ends.

Schell focuses a large part of her analysis on the role played by “Africa” in texts like Preston’s, which she contextualizes most thickly in relation to US AIDS-discourse of the ’80s and early ’90s:

The repeatedly imagined introduction of killer viruses from Africa to the United States appears to spring from an analogy with AIDS (although many scientists and cultural critics have shown that assigning an African origin to AIDS is problematic). However, the explanation is more complex than simple mimicry. And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’s journalistic account of the AIDS epidemic, opens in Zaire during the 1976 Ebola epidemic, describing the illness of an early AIDS victim, before returning to the United States to follow the development of the AIDS epidemic. 31 His book was published in [End Page 101] 1988, and the film version, with a much stronger emphasis on Ebola as the originary African virus, appeared in 1993. So who inspired whom? Reports of earlier Ebola and Lassa fever epidemics offer no explanation for the repeated trajectory of the opening sequences. The origin does not really matter so much as the paucity of imagination revealed by these consistently structured introductions, which display the reification of African origins for killer epidemics. Richard Preston so wholeheartedly internalizes this assumption that he travels to Africa to look for the origin of the Reston outbreak, despite the fact that he knows that the infected monkeys were shipped from the Philippines, where the disease is endemic.

As she notes, the ultimate concern in texts like Preston’s, even if never states outright, is US national security, and these texts end up contributing to an “imagined community” of US readers (to borrow Benedict Anderson’s term, which we’ve used before in this class) grounded both in border maintenance and in a sense of vulnerability that nevertheless confirms a sense of public health, even if tenuous:

Even authors who do not focus on Africa frequently retain the assumption that viruses are foreign entities, possibly even anti-American. This foreign genesis is structurally emphasized in Peter Jaret’s [End Page 102] National Geographic article on viruses. 35 Jaret reports visiting eight places—four in the United States—in the course of preparing his article. With the exception of a group of students volunteering to contract colds, all the ill people he mentions are encountered abroad. Americans with AIDS enter only as one slide of an infected lymph node and one solitary statistic about U.S. HIV infection rates (placed in perspective alongside the still more ghastly rate of international infection). Even Jaret’s summary of the disease’s discovery makes no mention that AIDS was first reported in the United States.

Schell develops a concept of “viral geography” to account for this sense of fear of invasion/infection among US readers and writers. Preston and other similar writers, she notes, often provide maps of African or Latin American countries, even when they are not the primary focus of their narratives:

Maps provide a good example of the persistently African geography of these viral narratives. Preston’s single illustration is a map of central Africa, though one might easily have expected a map of the Reston, Virginia, vicinity, given that area’s primacy in his story. Still, one instance alone could be disregarded as coincidence. Radetsky’s book has many illustrations, including graphs and sketches of viruses; nonetheless, despite all his lengthy discussions of viruses lurking in the United States, China, South America, and Japan, he too includes only one map—of Africa. Garrett at first seems to break the pattern, with five maps accompanying The Coming Plague: one of the United States, one of Amazonia, and three of Africa. On the academic side, Emerging Viruses, edited by virologist Stephen Morse, includes twenty-eight articles, numerous charts, graphs, and tables—and a map of Africa, with the Kinshasa Highway as the only identified landmark. 36 In addition to affirming a particular origin story for viruses, the maps suggest that Africa is particularly unknown and unknowable and therefore requires special visual aids. 

The geographic imagination produced by such textual features emphasizes the fear of traveling viruses, which links paranoia about outbreaks to a sense of insecurity produced by globalization. (Preston’s text gets at this early on: “A hot virus from the rain forest lives within a twenty-four-hour plane flight from every city on earth” [16].) Schell elaborates:

Viral geography enters virology in the increasing concern about the “importation” of exotic, foreign viruses, with air traffic and highways as particular threats. Krause emphasizes their responsibility in his abstract: some epidemics recur due to “changing life-styles (including increased international travel).” 39 Although epidemics can be caused by “changes in the patterns of human behavior, social organization, urbanization, and agriculture . . ., the most important factor is the spread of microbial organisms from points of origin as a result of the migration and travel of their human hosts.” 40 This fixation on travel represents a consensus among virologists concerned with emerging diseases, to the extent that even viral transmission is understood as transportation. Morse coined the term viral traffic for “movements of viruses to new species or new individuals.” 41

But this metaphor is problematic, as she argues by turning again to Preston:

The metaphor of viral traffic is in some ways oddly incongruous, because viruses, unlike many other microorganisms, have no means of locomotion. Rather, the image originates in the causal explanation of epidemics: “Inevitably, viral traffic is enhanced by human traffic. Highways and the subsequent human migration to cities, especially in tropical areas, can introduce once-remote viruses to a larger population. On a global scale, similar opportunities are offered by rapid air travel.” 46 One suspects that, for Morse, human traffic not only enhances viral traffic but is in fact synonymous with it. Martin Kaplan, a former secretary-general of the World Health Organization, commended Morse’s new phrase “viral traffic” as “apt.” 47

This association between epidemics and modern travel reappears in The Hot Zone and other popular science narratives. Preston cautions that urbanization has released a flood of viruses from the African rain forest—a message that initially seems concerned with the fragile ecosphere and human destruction. However, he ultimately narrows the origin of emerging viral epidemics to one Ur-cause: the paving of the Kinshasa Highway, which “turned out to be one of the most important events of the twentieth century. It has already cost at least ten million lives, with the likelihood that the ultimate number of human casualties will vastly exceed the deaths in the Second World War.” 48 The Kinshasa Highway is defined in Preston’s glossary as “AIDS highway.” 49Readers are left to infer that the [End Page 105] boundaries between the “silent heart of darkness” (Preston’s term) and the civilized world should have been maintained, given that contact might actually mean the destruction of the world. Facilitated transportation between the alien world of inner Africa and the rest of the world is blamed. Peter Jaret also assumes that HIV “has changed the world,” and he similarly traces a passage out of Africa (after a brief fling with the promiscuity narrative) as his narrative of disease transmission: “Truckers infected by prostitutes carried the disease from city to town to village throughout the heart of Africa. Infected air travelers spread it to other continents.” 50 Notice that increasing urbanization per se is not a threat, but increasing movement from Africa to the rest of the world is. A recurring image of Africa’s getting out pervades the texts. This is a very new, postcolonial fear—until recently, Europeans and Euro-Americans imagined that they had to travel to Africa themselves if they wanted to be in danger.

There’s a lot more to Schell’s essay, including discussions of sexuality and the boundaries we imagine between humans and other animals. Her conclusion is an apt way, perhaps, to wrap up this course:

Our current fascination with viruses springs from our worries about the future. Ultimately, the metaphor of the virus represents our possible fates—the disintegration of self or of nation; Armageddon; the triumph of multiculturalism and the global community; the ecosystem’s anger at and vengeance for our meddling; the loss of [End Page 131] the unknown; or the escape of the unknown into our society, where everything familiar will be destroyed in its path. We might indeed be coming to see the world as an integrated system, but such integration jeopardizes boundaries many had believed to be real. Viral discourse raises the possibility of a type of global busing, bringing the foreign into our neighborhoods through infection. At the same time, fear of such change (especially change conceptualized as disease) could successfully stall it. Boundary thinking might seem stale to theorists, but it is not static. People who crave boundaries can make boundaries real. Therefore, we must not rely on the current cultural vulnerability to questions of identity as the onset of some automatic process that will ultimately dismantle traditional inequities.

An epidemic future might mean that we have to pay attention to peoples, cultures, economies, and ecologies outside our own national borders. Unfortunately, an insistence on perceiving international relationships in terms of infiltrating viral infections limits the effectiveness of our response. D. A. Henderson of Johns Hopkins has recommended the development of a “network of international centers to detect the emergence of dangerous diseases and, if possible, to contain them.” 144 Morse further suggests that “development agencies should be educated to include emerging-virus considerations when evaluating major changes in land use or when making decisions that will alter ecological equilibria or population densities. It may even be possible to develop regular ‘viral impact assessments.’” 145 While this proposal has some value, it targets only one factor of our experience of disease. According to the World Health Organization, “it becomes more and more clear that morbidity and mortality due to these infectious diseases are as much a function of the state of human development than they are of the virulence of the microorganisms which are their biological cause”; populations living in poverty suffer from a disproportionate share of epidemic diseases. 146 Insisting on some [End Page 132] inherently foreign viral geography might serve to prod us out of our myopic nationalism, but it can also be too easily marshaled as spurious proof to bolster preexisting prejudices. Disease surveillance thus offers only a partial, problematic solution to a quandary that will remain unresolved until we are ready to perceive our complex engagement with the world through a different metaphor.

How have these tendencies in writing about contagious disease (perhaps especially in the US) evolved in the last 20 years? We’ll discuss the rhetoric of homeland security and wars on terror in relation to Preston’s more recent treatment of Ebola.


Love for Life

From Yan Li, who took this course in the spring of 2015:

As promised, here is the link to the full movie based on Dream of Ding Village. This movie is directed by Gu Changwei, one of the most famous “fifth generation directors” in China, and performed by many famous Chinese actors, such as Zhang Ziyi. You may be familiar with her early film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.Love for Life was released on 10 May 2011 in China. Though this movie is a little different from the novel and focuses more on Lingling and Ding Liang’s love story, it faithfully illustrates the rural background and the tragic flavor of the storyline. Hope that you will further understand the setting of the novel by watching this film.

Here’s an interview with director Gu Changwei from TimeOut Shanghai.

A companion documentary, Together, offers a “a behind-the-scenes look at the Chinese cast and crew’s reaction to AIDS patients who participated in the filming of Gu Changwei’s feature film.” (See this interview with director Zhao Liang. And this one.) The documentary is in several parts on YouTube. Here’s the first:


I’ve posted this in the past, but the version I used has been taken down. Here’s another version, though the subtitles are in Spanish instead of English. Perhaps you can piece it together if you’re not one of our resident hispanohablantes. 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?

Everyday is like Sunday

[Originally posted in Feb. 2015]

I stumbled across this “pocket history” of the plague in London, 1348-1665, produced by the Museum of London, and the line “One eyewitness said that London became so quiet that every day was like a Sunday” made me think of Morrissey’s apocalyptic anthem from the start of my Cold War college years. Enjoy.

For Defoe-related material from previous years’ courses, see this convener’s post as well as one about the novel’s medical content — especially concerning competing beliefs about the plague’s origins. Also see this one about how to situate Defoe’s work in the history of the novel as a genre. If you browse back and forth around these posts you’ll find other useful content. Here’s a round-upwith links to some of the best additional posts on Defoe assembled over the last couple years.

What is a Black Hole?

A Black Hole

At the beginning of our last class, we tried to summarise what a black hole is and how it is formed. Much to the astronomers’ and physicists’ frustration, we could not fully comprehend the phenomenon of the black hole. It is necessary to understand how a black hole works and therefore, it is only right that I share what I have discovered about black holes.

A Black hole is a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape. On Nasa’s Website, they go into further detail about how a black hole is formed and whether or not the Earth will be destroyed by a black hole. They write:

Stellar black holes are made when the center of a very big star falls in upon itself, or collapses. When this happens, it causes a supernova. A supernova is an exploding star that blasts part of the star into space.

The video below also lends us a visual on the formation of a black hole is formed. (here is the link because for some reason it will not let me add the video)

Now that we understand what a black is, what do you think the black hole is in the story? Do black holes kill us or transports us to another universe? 

So when you think you can escape the gravitational pull of adolescence, just remember, nothing or no one can escape the black hole.

– Rhoshenda Ellis

The Summer they Executed the Rosenbergs

As a person who is relatively unfamiliar with American history, many of the references inAngels in America did not ring a bell and had to be looked up – except one particularly notorious reference that often shows up in literature:

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs…The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me at every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.”

The above quote is taken from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel chronicling the protagonist Esther’s descent into suicidal depression. Esther was fascinated by the Rosenberg case because of her fascination with death in general, but she was not the only one whose interest was captured by the highly controversial case. Indeed, the Rosenberg case generated heated political and ethical debates that found their way into art and literature – such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

Kushner uses the Rosenberg case, particularly the characters of Ethel Rosenberg and the prosecuting attorney Roy Cohn, to raise up various ethical and political issues. He takes a firm stance against Roy Cohn, who was said to have taken pride in the part he played in the Rosenberg verdict. Cohn was the one to interrogate Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, whose testimony charged the Rosenbergs with espionage for the Soviet Union. He was also the one who personally recommended the death penalty to the judge, a sentence that was overly harsh especially in light of more recent revelations that Ethel Rosenberg was innocent.

Indeed, the prosecution headed by Roy Cohn appears to have been guilty of misdemeanor in handling the case, particularly regarding Ethel Rosenberg. The charges against her were rather dubious, and it is thought the prosecution was using her in order to push her husband Julius to confess. David Greenglass eventually admitted that his testimony against his sister was false and she had been innocent of espionage even if her husband wasn’t. To make things worse, while it is reported Julius died quickly after receiving the first or second shock, Ethel’s heart was still beating after the third shock, and she was given more electricity until smoke rose out of her head.

In class we wondered why Kushner chose to include Ethel and not her husband. Perhaps it is because in her treatment we see the worst, most ruthless side of Roy Cohn, who sentenced her to die when she did not deserve to do so and considered it a great achievement. For whether or not she was guilty, death by electric chair is a gruesomely awful sentence that the Rosenbergs were the only spies to receive. And whether or not we can accurately rely on Kushner’s depiction of Cohn, the historical information pertaining to the Rosenberg case does rather establish him as a Very Bad Man.

RIP Ethel,





Nothing unknown is knowable

Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’ is laden with examples of intertextuality, with references to either ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ in “People come and go so quickly here…” (Act 1 Scene 6).

Kushner also references Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, and the almost verbatim allusion in the following lines (Act 2 scene 5) struck me acutely:

Prior: Stella.
Belize: Stella for star.
Belize: Not to despair, Belle Reeve.

It is only fitting that Belle Reeve is a French mistranslation for “beautiful dream”, because Prior is constantly plagued by visions, illusions and dreams of angels, and of his ancestors. However, the connection between Kushner and Williams has deeper roots. Williams accepted his homosexuality in the 1930s, and his sentiments on his own sexuality resonate with Kushner’s portrayal of homosexuality in his ‘gay fantasia on national themes.’ In a time of rampant homophobia, the implicit undertones of homosexuality in Williams’ play shows a hesitation to explicitly state his sexual beliefs, much like the characters, not just in ‘Angels in America’ but also in Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ too, who fear naming what they fear. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was of stylistic importance as well. It paved the way for the emphasis on dramatic realism in plays later in the 20th century, including ‘Angels in America’. Additionally, many of Williams’ female characters, including Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and Laura in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ are based on his mentally fragile sister, and their hallucinations are clear signs of depression and mental instability. There is an eerie similarity between these characters and that of Harper, whose conversations with Mr. Lies and hallucinations involving Prior possibly illustrate a constant struggle to get over a husband who never loved her. 

One of the themes in Act 1 scene 6 of the play is the limit of imagination, or whether it is possible to know the unknown, and to be able to imagine what has not been sensed. This is possibly a representation of Mormon religious beliefs, as Mormons do not believe in creation ex nihilo, or the creation of the world out of nothing. Mormons believe that matter is eternal and God simply reorganized it. Kushner’s acceptance of borrowed elements makes his play an embodiment of Harper’s philosophy “nothing unknown is knowable”.

Keep reading!