Archive for May, 2019

You are contagious

Throughout the semester, we’ve been discussing contagious disorders during the Black Death, influenza, and AIDS, but let’s stop for a moment to ponder over a contagion that surrounds us everyday.

In Vanessa Van Edwards’ Ted Talk You are contagious, she describes human emotions as contagious. Her demonstration of how the absence of one’s hands from our frontal view creates discomfort is intriguing because it challenged my pre-conceived notion that the first body part we look at when we see a person is their face. Who would’ve thought we attribute 12% more importance to one’s hand gestures than their words? She also depicts how smelling a sweat pad collected from first-time sky divers and giving it to individuals (without any awareness about the study), can evoke heightened responses in the brain regions associated with fear.

Vanessa Van Edwards’ conveyed that humans can be contagious both non-verbally and verbally. Humans are a collective force, we follow the crowd, and adapt emotions. If we see the expression of fear on someone’s face, we will acknowledge it, recognize it as fearful, and adapt in order to avoid the fearful event or object. In this way, the contagion effect of human emotions keeps us safe. In the same way, smiling is also contagious. The facial feedback theory advocates that while facial expressions can cause emotions, emotions can also cause facial expressions. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘laughing is contagious’, so does that mean this contagion effect gives humans the power to inject emotions like happiness?

To depict the spread of emotions through verbal means, Van Edwards portrays how normal, everyday conversation starters such as ‘how are you?’ and ‘where are you from?’ lack substance and pleasure. She encourages the utilization of conversation starters that verbally use dopamine and engage positive aspects of one’s life. She says that instead, conversation starters should be ‘is there anything exciting you’re working on now?’ or ‘when’s your next vacation going to be?’. Why don’t we extricate positive aspects of our lives and bring it to different conversations in different places? If we have the ability to ‘spread’ positivity, why don’t we?

On that note, keep smiling.

Progress and Dreams in Kushner’s Angels in America: Perestroika

Perestroika begins with a warning against change and progress by the oldest living Bolshevik. However, the rest of the play argues against this mindset. At the end of Millennium Approaches, an angel descended and presented Prior with “the Great Work” to stop humans from moving, changing, and migrating so that they will no longer cause destructions in heaven. Yet Prior gradually realizes that moving and progress are inevitable, and even necessary, for humans. Throughout the play, for instance, each character progresses emotionally. Prior and Harper gain strength from being abandoned and are able to reject or leave Louis and Joe. Joe finds the courage to come out as a homosexual to his mother and Roy. After betraying Prior and realizing he has been in a relationship with a man whose acts he abhors, Louis comes back to Prior for his forgiveness. Perhaps we should ask if individual progress represents humanity’s progress in general? The play also takes a stance against conservatism when characters who are more liberal end up finding new directions for their life: Harper leaves for real to San Francisco, and Prior finds hope in life, while Roy Cohn, a conservative, suffers a tragic death. It’s interesting that even in his last moments, the final word he uttered was “Hold.”

Change is the central theme in Perestroika, as each character, with his or her own manifestation of “illness” has individual character growth. The angel rejects the idea of change, insinuating that change and movement will cause the destruction of heaven, and therefore of humanity. However, it is interesting to compare this connection between destruction and change with a similar, yet different connection in Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History. Benjamin claims that “The storm is what we call progress.” Is the destruction and turbulent storm that is being wrought upon heaven in Kushner’s play a sign of the progress and forwardness of humanity? Is it necessary to have that storm because it is the only way our society will progress or move forward, creating a better life and finding a satisfying meaning in it while doing so?      

Reality in Part Two becomes even more distorted with shared dreams, hallucinations, alternate realities and even ascent to and descent from heaven. It appears that the characters share a bond on a mystical or spiritual level through which they are able to connect and know things about each other that are secret or otherwise unrevealed. For instance, there are several times when Harper and Prior come to share the same dream, to the extent the audience is unable to recognize whether these encounters are dream or reality. As the play progresses the distinction between what is real and what might be a dream or a hallucination becomes even more blurred. For example, in this scene Harper is able to interact with reality and Louis acknowledges her as if she was real.

“(Harper puts her hand under Louis’s head, and pushes up; Louis startles awake.)

Louis: Who are you…?

Joe: (To Louis) I – It’s nothing, just…

     (To Harper) Go.

(She vanishes)” (182)

Even though they have never met each other, characters begin to see visions of each other and even hear each other’s voices. As a result, this raises the question, what does it mean to have this shared connection? Are there political meanings behind this?

Friendship as a Way of Life

As this is the second time I’ve read Angels of America I am less fascinated by Cohn’s character and more engaged with Louis’s relationship with Joe. Particularly because I recently read Foucault’s Interview “Friendship as a Way of Life” and plan to soon read the book by Tom Roach which is based on the interview. You can read the interview here. In the interview, Foucault suggests that at a certain point, friendship became the main way of facilitating homosexuality (which might seem obvious), but when there is no institutional support for homosexual relationships, queer people would “have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship: that is to say, the sum of everything through which they can give each other pleasure.” We see this very clearly happen with Louise and Joe, as their relationship grew through friendship, and through the intimacy and the homo-social spaces that were created through their relationship. All of which is a little sad to consider the amount of innovation and labor expected of such marginalized groups, but to also study the nuances of the relationships created out of them. And who’s better to have theorized some of it than Foucault?

I have not yet read Roach’s book, but here’s a quick review of it.

An Immuno-virological Approach to Angels in America

In class, we discussed how inseparable Angels of America is with history and politics. Set in the 1980s, the play not only reveals the destructive effects of Reagan government’s passive attitude towards AIDS, but also draws parallel between the marginalization experienced by the gay community then and the disempowerment of communists under McCarthyism during the post-Cold War era. This reckless prosecution of minorities, justified under national security and social morals, ultimately led to more harm than benefits to the country (government chaos and public health disasters respectively) as suggested in the video.

Additionally, I found an interesting article, Cold War Science and the Body Politic: An Immuno/Virological Approach to Angels in America, in which Daryl Ogden discusses Reaganism and McCarthyism embedded in the play using the immuno-virological discourse we read in Metaphors of Contagion and the Autoimmune Body early in the semester. Here is a paragraph in which Ogden draws the connections with a series of questions: “Angels in America uses the physical phenomenon of HIV, a virus that attacks the immune system, as a trope to investigate the degree to which homosexuals qualify as the Self or the Other in the United States. That is, Kushner asks a medical question that may just as usefully be paraphrased in the register of politics: do homosexuals strengthen or weaken the body politic? To recast the question more directly in terms of U.S. history: are homosexuals of the 1980s, particularly HIV-positive homosexuals, analogous to the communist sympathizers (and homosexual federal employees) of the 1950s, as Roy Cohn and his protégé, Joe Pitt (closeted homosexuals both), suggest they are? Are homosexuals themselves effete cells in an otherwise vigorous body politic, expendable for the health of the nation or are they, quite differently, a powerful national antibody capable of regenerating and making whole the body politic? More generally, is Kushner seeking to depathologize homosexuality to such a degree that gay identity is seen as inextricably linked to a healthy national identity?”

Why Ghosts?

Apologies for the late Augmenter’s post.

“Catholics believe in Forgiveness. Jews believe in Guilt” – Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz   (AIA, 25)

What do most of the contagion narratives have in common? If you’ve guessed ghosts, you’re probably right.

     In Angels in America, when Louis attempts to confide in the Rabbi, he is blatantly told that he cannot be forgiven for abandoning Prior because Jews do not believe in forgiveness, they believe in guilt. In the majority of the contagion narratives we have read for this class, such as Ibsen’s Ghosts, Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village and even Welcome to Our Hillbrow, this guilt is manifested as ghosts.

     In Ghosts, it is the “sins of the father” that come back to haunt the Alvings, rendering it impossible for them to not commit the same crimes as the father because it is hereditary. The guilt of hiding the truth from Regina and Oswald is what drives Mrs. Alving and Oswald to their demise.

     In Dream of Ding Village, the guilt of the city’s moral corruption and degradation is embodied within the 12-year-old deceased narrator. Looming over the entire narrative, the voice of the dead child is a constant reminder of the result of the disintegration of the city and the narrator’s innocent death.

     In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, the second person omniscient narration, as if directed towards the deceased protagonist, Refilwe, highlights the lost potential of the city. The “our” only exaggerates this guilt by including the reader complicit in these deaths.

     In Angels in America, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg comes to haunt Roy Cohn. Whether Roy feels any guilt is arguable, but the fact remains that the past comes back to haunt the present. Why?

     In each of these narratives, guilt becomes a primary theme that is explored through ghosts. The question then to ask is, why ghosts? What is it about their relation to the past, the present and the future that makes them such a compelling device to explore guilt? Change?