Author: Bryan

Mr. Walsingham: Breaking Sad

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really…I was alive.” –Walter White, Breaking Bad

The play begins with everyone making a toast to their friend who has just died. Mr. Walsingham is the chairman at the table, enthused to celebrate in the middle of the pestilence. Later, we find out that he lost his mother and his wife. That begs the question: How can he celebrate? The whole scene feels like a classic drown your sorrows in alcohol narrative. The Priest certainly tries to be the voice of reason for him.

“Why have you come here to trouble me?
I cannot, I must not
Follow after you: I am bound here
By despair, by terrible remembrance,”

Was Walsingham entirely wrong in doing what he was though? How justified is what the priest did?

We have seen a recurring theme in the works discussed thus far of victims of plague needing to find ways to cope. Many flee from the plague in search of some normalcy and often the greatest source of normalcy is festivity. We see it in Boccaccio’s Decameron where the characters flee the city and insist on making merry in the countryside. We see it in Severance where some of the characters drink booze and get high every night and we see it here in the Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague. Yet this does not necessarily mean that their actions are justified.

This old conveners’ post brings up a similar question, and offers an explanation through Pushkin’s own life. Mr. Walsingham and the Priest serve as Pushkin’s two conflicting states of mind when he himself was dealing with the epidemic of cholera and seeing his friends either die of the pandemic or be politically persecuted.

What we see with Mr. Walsingham and his sadness, or suppression of it, is the struggle between mourning irreparable losses and pursuing happiness in life. This is something everyone at the table is going through, since they all lost their friend. Moreover, if one reads closely the lyrics of all their songs, while they may be celebrating, the songs speak of tragic events.

We ourselves refrain from answering this question but rather like to further ask: what is the best way to honor the dead? Does it have to be solemn and sincere or can it also be open-hearted and celebratory?

Amidst the celebration, a black wagon passes by filled with bodies. In an instance we are reminded that countless lives were lost to the pestilence. Lousia’s fit is a jolting return to reality, if only for a moment in the play.

“He called me to his wagon. Lying in it Were the dead – and they were muttering In some hideous, unknown language”

An illustration of Cholera in Palermo, Italy, 1835

Source:  Wellcome Collection

The Black Man could also have just been someone in black clothing and a plague mask, which were pretty grim reaper-ish.

Mr. Walsingham tells Louisa that the black wagon can go wherever it pleases.  This is compounded by the fact that the plague is referred to as a guest shows how the plague is being personified. This can be compared to Dafoe who uses the term ‘visitation’ . Again, we see a recurring theme throughout various Contagion texts where the Plague almost becomes its own persona – the antagonist.

This ties well to our final point of comparing a pandemic to war, something that Linh also brings up in her augmentor’s post for Defoe. In Mr. Walsingham’s poem, he uses the words of a war against plague. Today, we refer to essential workers as the Frontline ‘Warriors’.  Can the language of war and personifying the plague as the enemy help us better cope with the abstractness of it all? It’s either we pretend that disease is something tangible that can be combated, or we resign ourselves to our miserable fates and make merry where we can.

Finding Fortune in The Decameron

Image via the Public Domain Review, from a 1492 edition of the Decameron.

Allow me to point you to two older convener’s posts for The Decameron. I’m especially drawn to the following questions:

What does it mean that Boccaccio directly addresses a female reading public at the outset? How might this invocation — and the predominance of female characters — give us meaningful inroads to discuss gender and gendered bodies in the selections you’ve read so far.

What do you make of the contrast between the morbid plague and the peaceful garden? Is storytelling a form of escape or a form of talk therapy for the brigata, something with salutary effects?

Remember the review essay you read from Prof. Stearns? It gestured toward the question of theodicy, an issue in several of the contexts we’ve examined so far. How could a just God allow such things to be? What explanations might be required to preserve a sense of God’s omnipotence or benevolence? Stearns writes:

Since the plague was indiscriminate in its victims, the massive death it brought with it raised the question of theodicy, or of why God would have caused the death of so many potential innocents; some Christian scholars explained the death of children to the plague, for example, by referring to their failing to honor their parents, or, conversely, by their death being a punishment for the sins of their parents.

As we noted in class, Boccaccio steers away from such explanations for the most part (though he notes that some do see the plague as divine punishment for “our iniquitous way of life” (5). Instead, The Decameron asks us to consider another explanatory frame: Fortune.

From Brown University’s awesome Decameron site:

Fortuna is a classic literary motif that along with wit and love represents one of the main themes of the Decameron. Medieval society was greatly interested in the workings of Lady Fortune. Most of the stories told by the Brigata members entail instances of Fortune because adventures by defintion are usually the product of fateful encounters. Fortune is usually kind in the Novellas, except for Day 4, bringing characters in contact with the right people at the right time, or more often, at the right place at the right time. In some of the stories, the protagonists are able to change the course of fate by using wit, deception or undergoing a clever action to escape harm, punishment or loss of love. In other stories, fate has total control over the characters and dictates the course of the Novella. In the end, Fortune usually brings lovers together either for life, or a few precious nights.

What kind of explanation is this? Just a way to ease survivors’ guilt?

Any time I think about the concept of Fortune, I’m reminded of this piece by the cultural historian Jackson Lears about the concept’s history (especially in Western thought). A few relevant excerpts:

In ancient Rome, Fortuna began as a fertility goddess but soon came to embody prosperity in general, as well as a basic principle of potentiality. She merged with the older Greek divinity Tyche, whose devotee Palamedes, the mortal grandson of Poseidon, supposedly invented dice and dedicated the first pair, made from the ankle bones of hoofed animals, to her. The iconography of Fortuna linked her with emblems of abundance but also with uncertainty and ceaseless change: she carried a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables yet stood on a ball or turned a wheel that rotated her beneficiaries. “Changeable Fortune wanders abroad with aimless steps, abiding firm in no place; now she beams with joy, now she puts on a harsh mien, steadfast in her own fickleness,” Ovid wrote in his Tristia, after he had been forced into exile. “I, too, had my day, but that day was fleeting; my fire was but a straw, and short-lived.”

But Fortune did not fit well with Christian ideas of Providence. To early Christians, the divine plan unfolded as mysteriously as the fluctuations of luck, but however remote the planner or apparently perverse his decrees, his purpose was ultimately benign. Boethius, unjustly imprisoned in the sixth century after a distinguished public service career, endorsed this idea in the Consolation of Philosophy. “Well, here am I, stripped of my possessions and honors, my reputation ruined, punished because I tried to do good.… Why should uncertain Fortune control our lives?” Lady Philosophy appeared in Boethius’s story to explain that behind the apparent caprices of Fortune, divine Providence governs all things with “the rudder of goodness.” Chance was “an empty word,” Lady Philosophy said. After all, “what room can there be for random events since God keeps all things in order?”

This was the traditional Christian argument that would be repeated for centuries.

We can see the language of Fortune at work in the frame story as Pampinea begins to lay the foundations for the new society she will establish: “See how Fortune favours us right from the beginning, in setting before us three young men of courage of intelligence, who will readily act as our guides and servants if we are not too proud to accept them for such duties” (18). Can you see some sort of political theory in the society she establishes that speaks to questions of fate, chance, or Providence? You’ll also want to watch out for how such concepts factor into Defoe’s narrative, coming up next for us. (Image via.)

Since we won’t necessarily come back directly to this text in class, I’m hopeful that you’ll let the conversation from today continue in the comments.

Severance: the quick pitches

Book vlogs aren’t far from the kinds of analysis you’ll end up doing in this class. When I asked you to make a pitch for your favorite video review of Severance, part of what I hoped you would do, as you watched and wrote, was pay attention to how these critics assembled and presented not just their summaries and evaluations of this novel but their sense of what it means, what kind of work it’s trying to do. So let’s see what you came up with.

Over half of you chose to write about the review from David Yoon, aka ThePoptimist. What did he get right? Most of you liked how much he covered in a mere 5 minutes: “consumerism, mindless repetition, and human group behavior packaged in a post-apocalyptic plot,” as Gabi put it, along with commentary on immigrant experience and nostalgia and a quick political analysis, borrowed from this web article, of vampire versus zombie motifs in contemporary US films. (That political analysis seems a little reductive to me: if Republicans see vampires as decadent, and so vampire films shoot up in popularity under Democratic presidents, that can’t really explain the overwhelming popular appeal of vampire sexuality, can it? Wouldn’t those representations be a little more negative?) Maitha notes that this review would have benefitted from more attention not just to capitalism but to the “exploitative monopoly” the US hold over global trade; Leanne thinks the unwittingly carries a kind of timeliness in the Trump Era. Mingu wonders if these political interpretations might be a little forced and whether the equation of capitalism and contagion might be sufficient. Personally, I would love to see something that can account a little better than this reviewer does for global trends: is the 2016 Korean zombie film Train to Busan about Korean politics, global economy, or class politics brought on by the confluence of Korean politics & a global economy?)

What else made this review compelling to so many of you? Jihun liked that it put an original spin on the material and did so while balancing just enough plot detail with the need to be succinct. Lubnah noted the high production quality ThePoptimist brings to his work, giving his reading added credibility. And if this video left some of you wanting more, it tended to be more commentary on generational, consumer, and cultural politics. What do “cozy apocalypse” and millennials have to do with each other? (As Linh notes, he puts the word “millennial” in the video title but never really explains why it matters to the novel.) Are the “zombies” supposed to be figures of workers or mindless consumers? Or is the point of what Maryam calls the “already lifeless repetitive cycles people have adapted to” supposed to be that capitalism asks us to work harder mostly so we can consume more, stuck in a loop?

Work culture (and generational ethos) received greater emphasis in other vlog reviews, such as this:

Cindy Pham, aka readwithcindy, only gives Ma’s novel 3 of 5 stars because she thinks the central insight — we are already zombies/monsters — is nothing new. She does, though, think that millennial readers in particular will identify with Candace’s work ethic overdrive. Siya, reviewing this review, thinks that the criticism may be “apt to some extent in a pre-pandemic world, the power of Severance is amplified significantly by our current context.” To Siya, Ma’s novel “illustrates with an almost terrifying accuracy how especially during global crises, we become even more entrenched in our identities as capitalistic pawns that grind away monotonously to no end.”

Though Pham spends some time wondering if there could have been more in Ma’s novel on the immigrant experience. (As Ayan notes, she identifies more with the generational emphasis than with Candace’s experience as the child of Chinese immigrants.) Other reviewers seem to have identified more than Pham did with the second-generation immigrant theme, and specifically with the connections drawn between Asian American experience and the burdens of cultural identity and work ethic:

Alex Simms, aka whatpageareyouon, referred to the “internal apocalypses” of Asian American identity. Centering this aspect of the novel accords with Smrithi’s sense that the novel’s “immigrant story” is “one of the most important reasons why one should read this book.” (Odmaa and Ryoji agreed. For Ryoji, Candace’s father’s story epitomizes the ways in which “working and its repetitive routines” are pathways to assimilation and “the only ways to suppress their alienation and loneliness.) Harper points to another reviewer, ClaireReadsBooks, who coins the term “cultural severance” to talk about the impact of assimilation on a second-generation immigrant like Candace.

As Harper notes, Claire prefers the flashback sequences because “they depicted anxieties of the modern world so well.” I wasn’t sure how conscious Claire was that she describes her summer as “fevered” or that she pined for a return to routines and rituals with the fall. Hmm…

Finally, noting the similarity between book vlogging and the kinds of assignments I’ve given you so far, Yaman noticed that the review by Wuthering Reader Reviews blends summary with original analysis, centering on the book’s coming-of-age story.

(The idea of adolescence — or young adulthood — as a contagious disorder is a these explored in a book no longer included on the syllabus: the graphic novel Black Hole, which I highly recommend.) The most relatable aspect of this review of Severance, however, at least to Yaman? That would be the reviewer’s “really relatable” confusion at times. Perhaps this suggests that even the best reviewer of a zombie novel is only, er, human, in the end.

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:

Angels wrap-up

Bethesda angel sculpture in Central Park, New York.

For a decade before we both moved to Abu Dhabi, Cyrus Patell and I taught a course on the Square called Writing New York, for which we generated a pretty substantial amount of online content about Kushner and Angels. I’ve written a little about it elsewhere too. There are a lot of things I wish we’d had time to discuss more fully. Here are a few of the highlights.

On the WNY course site, which is inactive now that Cyrus and I no longer teaching our course, I’ve offered my thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience. 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. Here’s another post on the fountain’s sculptor, Emma Stebbins.) 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 has taught 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, too, and this). As a sidenote: in 2011 Cyrus first invited me to NYUAD to help him teach Angels; by the end of that week I had requested a teaching assignment here for the following year. We’ve never gone back.

Remember that you can always search “Angels in America” on this site and see what past Contagion students have come up with: there’s a lot of great material from conveners and augmenters. And If you really want to get hardcore, an older version of this post includes a live-tweet from the last time I lectured on this play at NYUNY in spring 2011.

More reading! Which is to say, more life!

Contagion and Cosmopolitanism

As I mentioned in an earlier post about Welcome to Our Hillbrow, one way to think about contagion is to view it as a potential interpersonal connection. In many ways you can think of it as materializing our interpersonal connections. Tony Sampson, in our earliest readings of the semester, pointed to a “too much connectivity” thesis in contemporary discourse about contagion, network society, and globalization:

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 affect (fear) that travels alongside the meme that connection places us in peril. His effort reminds me of Anthony Appiah’s work Cosmopolitanism, which tends to make the rounds at NYUAD, but it especially brings to mind a more concise version of his argument from the New York Times Magazine in 2006. Appiah offers his version of cosmopolitanism as akin to “contamination,” but without the negative meanings we typically assign that word. When it comes to culture, Appiah writes, the real problem is the reflex to “preserve” or police something like “cultural purity.” Culture just doesn’t work like that, he says:

Living cultures do not, in any case, evolve from purity into contamination; change is more a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture, a process that usually takes place at some distance from rules and rulers, in the conversations that occur across cultural boundaries. Such conversations are not so much about arguments and values as about the exchange of perspectives. I don’t say that we can’t change minds, but the reasons we offer in our conversation will seldom do much to persuade others who do not share our fundamental evaluative judgments already. When we make judgments, after all, it’s rarely because we have applied well-thought-out principles to a set of facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to justify what we have done — or what we plan to do — are typically made up after the event, rationalizations of what we have decided intuitively to do. And a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to. That does not mean, however, that we cannot become accustomed to doing things differently.

He brings the term up again in conclusion:

The ideal of contamination has few exponents more eloquent than Salman Rushdie, who has insisted that the novel that occasioned his fatwa “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” No doubt there can be an easy and spurious utopianism of “mixture,” as there is of “purity” or “authenticity.” And yet the larger human truth is on the side of contamination — that endless process of imitation and revision.

A tenable global ethics has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices. That’s why cosmopolitans don’t insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don’t have all the answers. They’re humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can’t learn from them. Few remember what Chremes says after his “I am human” line, but it is equally suggestive: “If you’re right, I’ll do what you do. If you’re wrong, I’ll set you straight.”

Note how closely the quotation from Rushdie resembles Belize’s imagined heaven in Angels:

Belize: Hell or heaven?

[Roy indicates “Heaven” through a glance]

Belize: Like San Francisco.

Roy Cohn: A city. Good. I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.

Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, fierce gusts of gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.

Roy Cohn: Isaiah.

Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths.

Roy Cohn: And a dragon atop a golden horde.

Belize: And everyone in Balencia gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.

Roy Cohn: And Heaven?

Belize: That was Heaven, Roy.

Does it make sense to think of Belize’s description as another example of the kind of cosmopolitanism Appiah describes? Does Belize’s emphasis on impurity, confusion, and mixing relate in some way to other elements of the play we’ve talked about — the decision to cast actors in multiple roles, for instance? My colleague Cyrus Patell thinks so. In a post he wrote for a course we used to teach together in New York, he offered this take on Kushner’s resonance with Appiah’s thought:

What stymies cosmopolitanism? Fundamentalism of any kind, because the fundamentalist believes that he or she has all the answers and isn’t interested in conversation. The cosmopolitan believes in the necessity of talking and being willing to have your mind changed: what is the cosmopolitan to do then when faced with someone who won’t talk and whose mind is completely made up?

But cosmopolitans need to come clean: they tend to despise the provincials as much as the provincials despite them.

The test of the true cosmopolitan is the willingness to learn from everyone: even from the fundamentalist and even from the provincial.

For me that’s the significance of Kushner’s use of Mormonism in Angels in America: they’re both fundamentalists and provincial. Kushner’s Roy Cohn insults his erstwhile protege Joe Pitt by calling him “Dumb Utah Mormon Hick Shit,” but as anti-liberal is Cohn is, I’m sure it’s a sentiment that many good liberals share despite themselves.

Joe remains a provincial at the end of the play, but his mother, Hannah, who enters the play as the archetypal out-of-towner, dragging two suitcases and lost in an outer borough — she changes. She becomes a New Yorker, a process that the film version dramatizes effectively. (Check out Meryl Streep’s fashionable hairdo above.)

But the longtime New Yorkers learn something from her as well: it’s Hannah who tells Prior about the significance of the angel of Bethesda, and Prior invokes this knowledge in the closing moments of the play — in yet another affirmation of the play’s commitment to cosmopolitanism.

Speaking of Roy Cohn, there’s a new movie out about him. And speaking of heaven, I always think of this song when I read this play: