Archive for September, 2020

In search of lost time

At the end of the prologue to Ling Ma’s Severance, our narrator, Candace Chen, refugee from a deadly fungal outbreak that has devastated New York City and much of the rest of the planet, gives us a hint that she’s less than stable — as a narrator, at least. The Prologue, that is, has consisted mostly of other people’s memories and stories, and yet she narrated them as if they were her own.

“The truth is,” she confesses, “I was not there at the Beginning.”

Rather, she had fled New York after all major systems had collapsed, the last to abandon her post at a publishing house, where she oversaw outsourced, overseas productions of niche-market Bibles: old content in new wrappers. Her exit from the city had been in an outdated model NYC taxi, which she describes as “nostalgia-yellow”:

It was a Ford Crown Victoria, an older fleet model that cab companies had almost phased out. It looked, Bob [the self-appointed leader of their group] later told me, as if I’d driven a broken time machine right out of the eighties. It was my in. (7)

[page numbers in this post refer to the print edition; I’ll include ch refs for those reading the e-text]

Where did she hope this taxi time machine would take her, on a highway stretching into the West? What does this memory — refracted through the lens of another character, her experience finding some confirmation in his perspective on it — tell us about the narrative that will follow?

Shen Fever, the disorder that haunts this novel, tackles the memory first. “You could lose yourself this way, watching the most banal activities cycle through on an endless loop.” (This is one description of zombie-like behavior that reminds me of Colson Whitehead’s satirical NYC zombie novel, Zone One.) Memories are contagious, or at least reproductive: they beget more memories. “Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories” (ch 15; 160). How do these descriptions resonate or contrast with her mother’s Alzheimer’s? (ch 4; 63). What does it mean to “lose [yourself] in memory,” the way her father could? (ch 16; 188). And why, according to Bob, do “you have to engage your memory” in order to stalk effectively? (ch 15; 162). Candace’s narrative — a survivor’s tale — is structured largely as memory, flashback sequences with varying degrees of reach, from memories of the recent past (her relationship, her job in New York, the beginnings of the outbreak) to memories of her childhood as the only daughter of recent immigrants from China to the US, to narration of the postapocalyptic present, as she and a band of survivors make their way toward a mythical Facility in the West, where they will, perhaps, start again. This trip seems to be a retracing of the past: of Candace’s trip West as a child, of Bob’s journey to his hometown, of US settler colonialism. What is the gravitational pull that guides these movements? “[W]hat is the difference,” Candace asks, “between the fevered and us?” (ch 15; 160).

As Candace’s prologue makes clear, memories are both individual and collective. They consist of stories others tell us about ourselves and stories we create from those stories, ways to comfort ourselves about who we are, or are becoming, or have become. The Internet, which is a Bible of sorts for these Millennial characters, is “collective memory,” Candace affirms at the outset. The idea returns in a later chapter: “the internet almost wholly consists of the past. It is the place we go to to commune with the past” (ch. 9; 114). How do memories relate to other, less specific emotional structures and associations, as in Candace’s description of “Fuzhou Nighttime Feeling”: “It is excitement tinged by despair. It is despair heightened by glee. It is partly sexual in nature, though it precedes sexual knowledge. If [FNF] were a sound, it would be early/mid-nineties R&B. If it were a flavor, it would be the ice-cold Pepsi we drink as we turn down tiny alley-ways where little kids defecate wildly” (ch 7; 98). On one hand this sounds intensely personal and subjective; on the other it sounds primordial, tapping into lower layers of the unconscious. Are such associations universal? What happens when Ashley returns to her childhood home and becomes fevered? Although Evan questions her proposition, Candace asks if “nostalgia has something to do with it” (ch 12; 143).

“Nostalgia” was once a name for home-sickness, originally regarded as a mental disorder. In the context of a novel narrated by a second-generation immigrant, what insight can this offer? Does nostalgia spread, like a contagious disorder? Do parents give it to their children? Does it make us who we are? And are we nostalgic for the things and places we once knew — or the things and places others have told us about, like the country our parents came from, or the mall whose shops and hang-out spots gave them comfort during a difficult childhood? Does nostalgia leave us out (it’s over; we missed it) or give us room to feel to collective longings, belongings, or other behaviors? That “nostalgia-yellow” taxi cab was both Candace’s escape from New York and her entry to the group, precisely because it reminded them of the world they had left behind: “It was my in.”

For me that taxi cab is a telling detail. It opens up broader patterns that ripple through and structure the novel. What are the telling details/patterns you’ve noticed?

*post title is a nod to Contagion alum Tom Abi Samra’s paean to Proust and other long reads as an antidote to pandemic time.

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?

A complex complex

I’d like to throw out two general areas for our consideration as we begin our discussion of Oedipus: First, the question of plague as material fact and as metaphor. To what degree can we think about the representation of plague in these separate ways — i.e., literal and figurative? To what degree are they conflated here? (This will be a question for us to continue asking as we go through the course.) The second general area has to do with social organization: What models of government or leadership are on display here? Kingship? Kinship? Social authority? Information networks? What does a plague setting offer to the play’s attempt to address such issues?

In a convener’s post for Oedipus the King I wrote for Contagion 2012, way back during the first iteration of this course, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously:

After all, the assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ve read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”

My assumption, in that post, was that we’d approach the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either intended to recall medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, to represent something morally “sick” about the community — or its leader. As I noted in that original post, we read this play at the start of this course not just to recognize how long the plague-as-metaphor idea has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them. From your reading of the play, do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? What would it mean to decide that “this epidemic was an actual event”? Does the plague become more or less powerful in the play’s world? And how might this set of questions force us to continue thinking even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and the language we use to describe it (and anything else)?

As may be apparent by the juxtaposition on the syllabus of Sophocles’ play against Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens — coming soon! — we’ll be talking over the next little while about the significance of genre here. Sophocles is writing a play; Thucydides is writing a history. How does the plague figure into each? How does each author represent it? What can narrative structure teach us about either work’s ideals related to self, social, or medical knowledge? And how might each work help us consider the question of whether it’s possible to write about disease in language that doesn’t trade in metaphor of some sort?

I will be curious to see how you think this first general area of concern relates to the second I mentioned: the play’s consideration of social organization or government, starting with a king who declares himself (warning! dramatic irony!) to be the sickest one of all, even as he attempts to get at the plague’s source.

If you read the introductory material to Oedipus or poked around a little on the web, you’ve probably started to get a sense of how Athenian theater anticipated audience members who were citizens, involved in direct deliberation of public policy. (What role does deliberation play in this tragedy?) Greek theater developed at the same moment as political democracy, philosophical thought, classical architecture. There’s an emphasis in the play — and in the very dramatic form — on civic life: theater is central to political culture. A Greek theater could seat 14-15K spectators. (The ruins of the Theater of Dionysus are shown above.) Playwrights wrote for contests that coincided with religious festivals. The chorus was a theatrical innovation that incorporated older forms of song and dance into the theater. One of Sophocles’ chief innovations as a playwright was to move beyond two actors, making the relationship among characters the thing that drives the play, and making the chorus recede into role of commentators who to some degree perform as surrogates of the audience-as-jury. With this in mind, note how the chorus seems to go back and forth in this play as more and more evidence is presented. Where do they ultimately fall on the question of Oedipus’s guilt? What does the play seem to want its audience to take away on the question of good government? And how is that theme related to the issue the play has remained most famous for: the question of self-knowledge?

The big questions

Image via

Welcome to Contagion 2020, the eighth iteration of this course but the first actually to be taught in a pandemic. After class today, one of you asked how our current situation — with courses being taught remotely and our lives affected in any number of ways we may not yet be collectively aware of — has shaped the way I’m approaching things this semester. The short answer is: the stakes are higher than ever! What was mostly hypothetical in 2012 is now world-defining for us, determining whether we can travel, congregate, communicate effectively, or share experiences or feelings safely. “How do we respond to news that some among us are ill, and that the illness is, perhaps, contagious?” may not be how I would start the course description today.

But if anything has happened to my thinking over the last six or seven months, it’s the clarification of this course’s central questions. I had seen them shape up over several years of teaching the texts we’ll read together — and several that are no longer part of the course.

I mentioned today that after leading the course for a while now with a very dense reading from Tony Sampson‘s book Virality, I’ve decided just to give you the big takeaways and let the reading be optional. His book sits at the nexus of poststructuralist literary criticism, continental philosophy, and media theory, drawing additional influence from late-19th-century sociology of crowd behavior.

Sampson’s project circles around some questions that I find quite useful in laying out a roadmap or orientation guide for the rest of our reading this semester. What does it mean to believe (or not) that we are “too connected”? What are the dangers implied in being too closely connected?

The proliferation of global transport networks makes this model of society susceptible to the spreading of biological diseases. Digital networks become volatile under the destructive potential of computer viruses and worms. Enhanced by the rapidity and extensity of technological networks, the spread of social conformity, political rumor, fads, fashions, gossip, and hype threatens to destabilize established political order. Likewise, financial contagions cascade through the capitalist economy, inspiring speculative bubbles, crashes, and aperiodic recessions. (Virality, 1)

Sampson resists this fear-based notion of “too much connectivity,” choosing to focus instead on the political operations of the fear that travels alongside the meme that connection places us in peril.

Political systems and marketers alike can play on such fears, but the fact of our connections very well may be moot: Is it possible at this point not to understand ourselves as already connected? Maybe, Sampson thinks, we’re better off asking exactly HOW we’re connected by networks–especially media/communication networks, but also by networks of interpersonal relations–and what these connections imply for how we understand individual and crowd behavior, especially in relation to “viral” media.

For Sampson, being “connected” in these ways is more than a metaphor. To make his point he asks another important question: What actually spreads when communication goes viral? The answer, for him, is affect, feeling, emotion: viral communications circulate not just fear, but also desire, love, a sense of belonging, a sense of being left out (#FOMO, anyone?). These affective transmissions result in what he calls “microimitations”: subtle adjustments in tone and behavior as we begin to conform to or imitate — or desire to conform to or imitate — mass behavior.

Sampson also asks whether the language of fear is overblown. He resists the too-much-connectivity thesis and biological metaphors for communication alike and worries that fear can be easily exploited. He has problems with the field of “memetics,” which seeks to treat the meme/gene analogy seriously. Nowhere is the problematic status of these ideas “more evident than in the … viral discourses surrounding network security, in which the recourse to immunological analogies and metaphors of disease shape the network space by way of igniting public anxieties concerning an epidemic ‘enemy’ that is ‘undetected, and therefore potentially everywhere’” (4). This is what he means by connection being more than metaphorical. The figurative language, that is, actually shapes the “forces of relational encounter” at play in social and political fields. The simplest way to put this: language matters, because feelings drive political and social forces and structure or reinforce power relations.

It’s easy for us to think about contagion in the register of social behavior, pandemic situation or not, when we think about memes or fashion or political sensibilities, especially as transmitted by social media. Something something something about TikTok and tweens saving turtles — “yeah, back in September 2019, maybe,” my own tween son observes. But what happens when we put these ideas into conversation with pandemics and the texts they have generated over time? That’s where we find ourselves starting this semester.

I asked you today to offer key lessons you’ve learned in the last six months, and much of what you came up with reinforces what I think are the major questions this class centers on or circles back to again and again. Like Sampson, we will ask what it means to worry about being too connected, but also how these connections determine who we already are. Like him we will ask how communication matters in a time of epidemic disorder — and examine a range of authors who have thought about the relationship between communication about disease and the communication of disease. We will ask what the networks we belong to have to do with how we understand ourselves. Are we individuals? Nodes in a series of networks? Members of collective bodies with their own conscious or unconscious identities? If so, how are we affected by the ways in which these networks unevenly distribute social power and economic privilege?

With those questions in mind, let’s embark. Here’s a theme song for the semester from the artist Holly Herndon: