Thanks to this semester’s conveners for Dream of Ding Village, we discovered the site at University of Wisconsin-Madison dedicated to reading the novel as a Great World Text. (The program brought the novel into 26 high schools across the state.) A number of resources are compiled there, including a 30-minute overview of the text and its contexts and a 127-page (!) handbook on teaching the novel. Here’s its table of contents:
Anyone who missed one of our discussions should probably listen to the overview. Anyone intrigued enough by the novel to think about using it in your final paper/project may benefit from looking at the guide.
As promised, I am creating a post here for us to discuss the swimming scene. However, as I was preparing to post this I discovered that during the 2012 class, I must have fallen sick for the session in which we would have finished our discussion of this novel, and so I had created a wrap-up post at that point for the class to conclude its discussion. In the spirit of remembering bygone generations, let’s use that original post as the place for your own comments about the swimming scene (or any other aspect you wanted to comment on but didn’t have the chance). Feel free to respond to the original batch of comments left by that original group of Contagion students. I wish you’d had the chance to meet them, and vice versa.
While we were talking about Ibsen’s Ghosts today, I mentioned that the play resonated with the 1980s AIDS crisis. I poked around the New York Times archives after class and found a 1982 review that mentions how ubiquitous the play had recently become but doesn’t yet mention AIDS (though it describes Mrs. Alving’s truth-telling as a “coming out”), and one reviewing an Irish production in 1990 that explicitly updates the play and changes Oswald’s disease from syphilis to AIDS. The first of those reviews, from 1982, seems to reproduce the problem of remaining silent about the obvious. It refers to the play as “an intimidating classic that, for some most mysterious reason, has been too much with us of late.” Could the reason have been so mysterious? The fact that the paper couldn’t just name the advent of HIV/AIDS as the “mysterious reason” anticipates what would become a major activist critique (see the poster above) of the Reagan administration’s failures in confronting the crisis, which will return as an issue when we read Kushner’s Angels later this semester.
(For an interesting look at the effects of the New York Times’s early AIDS coverage, which began in 1981 with a now infamous article on a new “gay cancer,” see this take from the Covid era.)
While I was looking at these older reviews I also found this clip, which I hadn’t seen before, of Lesley Manville (who played Mrs. Alving in recent productions in London and New York) reading some lines out of costume: she’s staggeringly good, and really makes plain just how modern the play can still feel.
I’d seen another clip before, of her in costume on stage, performing the scene we’ve spent so much time discussing. She’s amazing. Enjoy.
Below you’ll find a few links that might be useful as you think toward our discussion of Severance. We’ll have a lot to do in a short amount of time. If you’d like to put some general questions in the queue — the kinds of questions you want to ask about this novel and how it works — please leave comments here or in the linked posts.
Here’s a convener’s post, centering on the question of memory and nostalgia. What do these topics, as they play out in the novel, have to do with zombies/contagion? You may find it useful to look at the kinds of questions my last batch of students put into the comments there.
Here’s a post that covers a previous cohort’s take on YouTube reviews of the book. How are these reviews different from the kind of analysis you might expect to do in this class?
In earlier iterations of this course we read Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One or viewed Yeon Sang-ho’s film Train to Busan. Thinking about the zombie figure in those texts, I wrote this brief post, which may raise useful questions for Severance, too.
In the fall of 2020 the online journal Post45 published a cluster of brief essays on Severance, approaching many of the novel’s key topics — gender, immigration, Asianness, global labor, publishing — in and beyond the context of Covid-19. The editors ask: “How did Ma predict the COVID-19 apocalypse? How did she document it before it happened?” The essays, which in many ways resemble the longer final essay you might write for this course, answer these questions in various ways. “Together,” the editors write, “our essays explore Severance as reflecting aesthetic, historical, and political economic conditions that long preceded and will outlast the height of the pandemic reordering of the world.”
Authors are not always the best readers of interpreters of their own work, but certainly their opinions about it are interesting. Here’s Ling Ma answering readers’ questions about the book, also from the perspective of the Covid-19 pandemic. Are these the same kinds of questions you have as readers? Again, feel free to help steer our discussion by putting your own questions in the comments section here. (Remember that your first question will go into moderation; I’ll approve it, and then you’ll be free to comment at will in the future.)
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.
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?
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. Are there ways to bring together the play’s take on what makes a good leader with Mark Harrison‘s historical consideration of the connection between epidemics and evolving notions of good government, which you read for last time?
Welcome to Contagion 2021, the ninth iteration of this course and the second actually to be taught during a pandemic. Starting our class remotely today was a bit of a reminder that our lives have been affected in any number of ways we may not yet be collectively aware of — and maybe that’s part of the work we need to do this semester. What was mostly hypothetical in 2012 when I started teaching this class is now world-defining for us, determining whether, where, and how 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. I would probably start with the question on the syllabus: “Are we too connected?” But I also want to think about a bunch of assumptions embedded in that question and the way it begs certain kinds of answers or evokes specific kinds of emotions.
If anything has happened to my thinking over the last eighteen 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.
For a few years, prior to the pandemic, I chose to begin the class with a very dense reading from Tony Sampson‘s book Virality. It was so dense, though, and so foreign to people who weren’t steeped in some specific jargon and conceptual frames, that I’ve decided just to give you the big takeaways and let the reading be optional. Sampson’s 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. (Imagine all those early European sociologists, trying to make sense of overcrowded cities! The poor dears.)
Sampson’s project departs from some questions that I find quite useful in laying out a roadmap or orientation guide for the rest of our reading this semester. He’s the first one who prompted me to ask what it means to believe (or not) that we are “too connected”? Who is the “we” in that question? How do “we” quantify or measure “too”? What are the implications of a question like that? If the answer is yes, what then? Sampson lays out the stakes this way:
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 sees the question “Are we too connected?” as rooted in a fear of human connectivity that accompanies the realities of globalization. He works hard to resist what he sees as a 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 said today that part of our work this semester will be to reflect on our own experiences of the pandemic — as varied and uneven as they may be. What connects “us”? When do we think of ourselves as belonging to collectives — the first-person plural — and when do we think of ourselves as individuals? Many of the connections you identified in your icebreaker introductions come back to the major questions this class centers on or circles back to again and again. Like Sampson, we will ask what it means to feel connected, what it means to worry about being too connected or not connected enough, to be unevenly networked, but also how the connections you talked about help us determine who we are. Like Sampson 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. Is individualism even possible? Is it possible not to be connected? Are all connections equal? How are we affected by the ways in which networks unevenly distribute social power and economic privilege?
With questions like these in mind, let’s embark. Here’s a slightly creepy but kind of cool and totally apt theme song for the semester from the artist Holly Herndon. Feel free to leave your thoughts about it, or anything else above, in the comments:
New York seems, to me, to differ from other major world cities in the recyclability (is that even a word?) of its symbols — especially its architecture and public art. To get what I mean, consider the Louvre by contrast. You experience it as an art museum, and yet if you’ve given your tour book even a glance you’ll realize that it was once a royal palace. That history is somehow preserved, Revolution be damned: the new uses attached to the building don’t really aim to erase old meanings.
New York, though, is notoriously forgetful, willfully ahistorical. Its oldest remaining building, St. Paul’s chapel on lower Broadway, barely predates the American Revolution. New York’s history is one of creative destruction — pull down the old to make way for the new — and even the bits that somehow manage to escape the wrecking ball more often than not find old meanings detached and new ones assigned. The somewhat tacky lighthouse that greets tourists flocking to the South Street Seaport was paid for by the citizens of New York, by subscription, to memorialize the Titanic’s dead.
For several years, as we’ve concluded our Writing New York course with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, I’ve used Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain as an example of public symbols whose meanings transform over time. Preparing to discuss Kushner’s use of the fountain in the play’s epilogue, I show a clip from Ric Burns’s New York: A Documentary Film which discusses the fountain in the context of the Civil War’s aftermath. According to Burns — and to Kushner himself, who appears as a talking head in the sequence and discusses the fountain and its sculpture in moving terms — the Angel of the Waters originally commemorated the Union’s naval dead. Though Kushner doesn’t make the explicit connection to his play, anyone who’s seen Angels realizes why Burns would turn to Kushner for a sound bite at this point. The fountain, these viewers would know, serves as the setting for the play’s final scene, in which Prior, who has now lived with AIDS for five years, turns to the audience and blesses it, invoking the oldest ritual uses of theater — healing and the organization of community — to grant the audience “more life” and new meanings for it. The HBO adaptation captures the scene well (but the clip seems to have gone missing from YouTube).
What Kushner does with the fountain here both draws on its prior meanings and transforms them. Prior, Louis, Hannah, and Belize each tell part of the story, in the process associating this angel (and themselves) with a Biblical story. In the Gospel of St. John, the pool of Bethesda is cited as a place where invalids gathered, waiting for a miracle: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” This note prefaces Jesus’ miraculous healing there of a man who’d been crippled for 38 years. Kushner’s characters believe the story in varying ways and to varying degrees. What matters more is that they organize themselves around the idea of a hope for healing, period. And that they reassure one another that they will seek that healing together.
Kushner’s characters don’t invoke the Civil War association outright, even though the play contains several other references to the conflict, including an entire section named for John Brown’s body. America’s legacy of race problems haunts a play that’s more overtly about the AIDS crisis, and certainly the culture wars that gained momentum during the Reagan Era seem at times to function like a second civil war. But perhaps it’s best that Kushner didn’t write the Civil War referent into the play — considering that he and Burns appear to be the primary culprits for propagating a history for the fountain that may not be accurate. The linked article suggests that the Kushner/Burns story perpetuates a mistake; I haven’t been able to find anything that would support their account about the fountain commemorating the Union dead.
The more verifiable story also lends itself to Kushner’s appropriation of the fountain as a key symbolic presence in his play. This version holds that the sculptor, Emma Stebbins (the first woman to receive a major art commission in New York City and the only Central Park sculptor whose work was actually paid for), who also happened to be a lesbian, chose the Bethesda story for her subject because the fountain was to commemorate the completion of the Croton Aqueduct system, which brought potable water into the Central Park reservoirs from upstate and helped eventually to stem the devastating effects of recurring cholera epidemics on the city. Lives lost during Civil War, the end of an epidemic era: whether or not Kushner gets the details of the statue’s origins correct, in effect he has cemented an association between the fountain and his play that, especially in the wake of the HBO production, will likely last a long while. The fountain now stands for a communal sense of hope and transformation, especially for those afflicted with AIDS under the benighted “leadership” of Ronald Reagan. More broadly it stands for the possibility of gay citizenship in America. It’s hard to imagine Kushner’s version of the angel losing its hold on public imagination any time soon.
In making the statue his own, in giving it a new story in his play, Kushner liberated it from a previous Broadway/Hollywood association — with the 1973 movie musical Godspell, which you probably either love (for its kitsch value as a hippie Jesus story) or hate (for feeling the need to tell a hippie Jesus story in the first place). Here’s the Bethesda fountain as it appeared there, as a site, early in the film, for the ministrations of the movie’s version of John the Baptist:
A progressive reappropriation? I think so. It’s clear that Kushner wanted to keep the religious connotations in place, though as ecumenically as possible, perhaps even letting the theater’s magic replace religion’s. But he also plays on the ways in which Central Park is itself a renewed and magical, even a sacred public space, in terms of America’s civil religion. Between Godspell and Angels, the Park spent almost two decades with a rather rough reputation; its decline was nowhere more apparent than at the Bethesda Terrace, which became one of the major sites of the Park’s renewal beginning in the mid 1980s. The restoration of the fountain — itself a symbol of the restoration of public health — stands for the possibility, at the end of the city’s fiscal crisis of the ’70s and early ’80s, of a renewed civic body as a whole.
We debate, at the end of Writing New York, whether the community that Kushner brings together at Bethesda is as cosmopolitan as it seems on first glance. After all, no one knows — or at least mentions — what’s happened to Hannah’s son Joe, who’s last seen in the play not doing so well after leaving his marriage. But in real life there’s no denying something magical and indeed cosmopolitan happens at a place like Bethesda, realizing over and again the Park planners’ dreams for what this space should be and do and mean. How else can you explain hordes of middle-American tourists falling under the spell of my favorite NYC street performer, Thoth?
A perfect example of how New York can still shelter extremes in human expression, Thoth calls his audiences to meditate on the relationship of the physical body to creative sound and movement, making full use of the gloriously restored arcades at the terrace. (Restoration work on the ceiling tiles, which began in the mid-’80s, was completed just last year.) If you want to see the distance between the sacred space that fosters Kushner’s Utopian dreams and the profane and shallow shell where the rest of American culture is content to curl up and waste away, just try to imagine Thoth — the modern angel of the waters — on an American reality TV show hosted by David Hasselhoff. The footage exists; if you feel the need to watch it, go back and watch the previous link to purify yourself. Some landmarks, apparently, are better off left in their original contexts.
I don’t think I have contact with any of my students from Harvard in 1999-2000, which was the first time I taught Angels in America, but these were two of my students in an honors seminar I taught during my first semester at NYU in the fall of 2001. It was amazing to run into them a couple years ago when we had all turned up to see the same showing of Kushner’s plays back-to-back on Broadway.
I ran a few searches on Twitter to find the best tweets from my history of teaching the play. I started Twitter in 2009-10, so they don’t run earlier than that, although there are links to blog content for older courses that take you back at least to the mid-2000s. Some of those old blog formats have become quite run down. I will try to recover one of the more important posts from that run, with relevance to our final discussion of the play, and repost it here in full. Meanwhile, here’s this thread if you’re interested in memory lane.