criticaltheory

New Netherland Colonial Beavers

[10 minute read]

The seventeenth century was a moment of exploration and imperial expansion for European powers; the Dutch were of no exception. In 1609, Henry Hudson landed in the New World after the East India Company’s failed attempt to find passage to India. Years later, the West India Company (WIC) would be founded in 1621, and played a crucial role in Dutch economic expansion during its Golden Age. As a chartered company primarily intended for economic extension and the accumulation of capital, the WIC set up outposts along the coasts of North and South America, as well as the Western African Coast. However, it was also politically motivated, with semi-sovereign colonial powers in these same locations. In North America, the WIC established a venture colony with Dutch merchants between the English colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts. Beaver pelts constituted their primary trade with the Algonquin Indians along the Hudson River Valley. The Dutch participated in a global trade of pelts, shipping furs to Muscovy and France to be processed into hats or liners for coats.

Adriaen van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland was first published in the Dutch Republic in 1655, and reprinted in 1656, with the hopes of attracting emigrants to New Netherland. A Description of New Netherland is presented to the reader-observer not as an account of the conquest of the New World, but rather as a mix between an ethnography of the indigenous populations, and a natural history of the new world. An earlier travel account by Johannes de Laet allowed Van der Donck to move beyond descriptions of the coastline and water passageways and instead develop a more in-depth survey of the land’s resources. This survey covers the different rivers, the vegetables and minerals, the animals, and even the elements as they are found within the New World. It then moves on to deliver an ethnographic-like account of the indigenous population; their food, dress, living quarters, medicine and religion, among other facets of their societies. This cartography of resources extends to encompass the beaver, that semi-aquatic animal so highly prized for its pelt. Curiously enough, Van der Donck spends more time describing the temperament of the beaver and its medical properties rather than where to find it, how to capture it, and the process of removing its fur for circulation.

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Van der Donck devotes one of the four chapters out of his travel narrative to the beavers of New Netherland. This chapter is entitled, “Of the Nature, Amazing Ways, and Properties of the Beavers.” It refences the global fur trade while examining the agency and complex rationality ascribed to the living beavers. However, the absence of the Dutch from van der Donck’s description of the beavers’ magnificently colored fur used in the hat trade is suggestive that the beaver meant more than a commodity to the New Netherland colonists. The text lingers over the beauty of “the very fine fur,” as it can exhibit the colors “ash gray” and “pale blue,” as well as exhibit “brownish” or “russet” tones, even fading into a “chestnut” or “reddish” warmth (118). The magnitude of colors that the narrator surveys is seductive for the reader-observer as they imagine what types of commodities that they can be fashioned into. The fur hat is the most desired, and the text claims that its popularity has extended across all of Europe stating, “The fur is made into the best hats that are worn, named beavers or castors for the material they are made of and by now well known throughout Europe” (118). Missing from this, however, is the explicit recognition of the involvement of the Dutch in the killing the beavers. The absence of the Dutch as a central node within the network of the capture of beavers, payment of the indigenous peoples, as well as the processing and transport of the pelts divests them of any responsibility in the violence inflicted on the beavers.

Throughout the rest of the chapter, the beavers are given human-like temperaments that eventually blur the human and non-human dichotomy. They are described as “timid” (117, 118, 119), “nonviolent” (120), and “gentle” (123), as well as being concerned about being “secure” and “safe” (118), “seeking refuge” (121) when danger is present. Beavers are, for example, likened to the most vulnerable members of the New Netherland community: “As soon as the young beavers come into the world, they cry like newborn children, so that a person coming to where there is a young beaver, and not being forewarned, may think that a small child is near” (123). Here, van der Donck relates misidentifications between beaver kits and newborn babies. In a similar fashion, beaver mothers are described like women, “the beaver has two teats as women have…the mother then raises herself like a human being sitting up and gives a teat to each of the kits, who lean against the mother’s body like children who stand and suck” (123). Beavers are ascribed the same physiology as women and their behaviors are only understood in relation to humans. This wording associates beavers with certain members of the New Netherland body politic such that the distinction between beavers, children, and women becomes unclear.

The beaver within van der Donck’s travel narrative is unique because it is the only animal given an anthropomorphic description. It has a certain type of excessive liveliness in its demeanor that prevents knowing the beaver as simply the fetishized fur commodity. Travel writing, such as van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland, suggest that new forms of relationality between humans and animals are possible at the edge of empire.

 

Spatial Representations

 

[5-7 minute read]

When going on vacation these days, we take our cameras (or phones) with us to commemorate the places we visited, and the adventures that we embarked on. Contemporary phones and photos offer a way to share our experiences with friends and loved ones in a manner that allows them to imagine they were on the trip with us. Whether it is curating a collection on Flickr or Facebook, or even circling around a TV set hooked up to a DSLR, sharing pictures of where we have been and what we have seen enables viewers to put themselves in our shoes, and imagine themselves in our company. In this sense, others vicariously embody the same spaces we once did. Of course, what must be remembered is that behind every photograph is the person taking the picture. In this way, the photograph is not necessarily an accurate representation of an unmediated space, but rather an intentionally selected perspective. Think of your Instagram account – each photograph has a specific angle, filter, and caption to guide your followers into seeing you how you wish to be seen.

My interest in photos and vacations is actually just a thinly veiled obsession with space and spatial formations.[1] The type of space that can send me into an existential crisis (or epiphany, if we’re feeling generous) is the space that bodies occupy. I’m intrigued by how our bodies occupy spaces, and how we come to understand the type of spaces certain bodies are either allowed to, or barred from, occupying. Think of your friends describing that one place where people get drinks in that one part of town as “the gay bar.” The bar’s designation as a “gay place” invites bodies with certain orientations (notably queer) and repulses others. In fact, in this example we discover something curious: spaces can make different bodies experience different emotions and feelings.

However, as an Early Modern scholar, my obsession with space uses a slightly different framework than these contemporary examples. Instead of local gay bars that certain straight male acquaintances would deny feeling uncomfortable attending, or a series of photos from that person you knew in undergrad who decided to vacation some different country for the fact that “it sounded cool and was different,” I work with texts.

Well no, they didn’t have SMS back in sixteenth and seventeenth century either; I work textual evidence such as travel writings and plays. And yes, I can see where this might be confusing, “Tyler, how do you study space when you just read books?” Well the thing is that even within texts we have representations of travel and different spaces. We can see who is traveling in narratives such as Adriaen Van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland (1656), as well as how other lands are imagined such as in Thomas Gainsford’s The Glory of England (1618). We can even see imagined responses to being shipwrecked in foreign lands in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1609).

Thankfully there are multiple social theorists who have spent an incredible amount of time conceptualizing what we mean when we say “space,” and even how space is produced. It is from theorists such as Lefebvre, Certeau, and Soja that we can begin to understand how it is possible to use the textual to study the spatial. Like a text, Lefebvre says that space can be read, decoded, and interpreted.[2] Certeau finds that the characteristics of any particular space are not stable, but in fact are produced through repeated performances.[3] As an extension of these assertions, Soja conceptualizes space being both real and imaginative.[4] So, when I read texts like A Description of New Netherland and The Glory of England, I consider what it means for readers to be reproducing, or re-performing, the spatial formations within the texts. I will ask, and attempt to explore the following questions: how do particular imaginations of certain spaces within these texts orient the readers towards certain bodies and spaces? What might the performance of courtly spaces within a text such as Twelfth Night inform us about the affects and feelings about certain courtly bodies?

Please join me this month as we explore the military exploits of an English soldier and his representation of the Ottomans, a colonist’s relationship to beavers in the New Netherlands, and the strange erotic nostalgia within courtly performances.


[1] While space as in space space – like outer space – is cool for its own reasons, that is not the type of space that I mean here.

[2] Lefebvere, Henry The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson Smith. Malden: Blackwell. 1991.

[3] Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life [Trans. Steven Randall. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984].

[4] Soja, Edward. Thirdspace. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999

Tyler Smart, an MA student in English at Syracuse University, is primarily interested how space produces certain subjectivities, locally and transculturally, in literary and cultural imagination. Other research interests include cross-cultural influences, queer theory and the history of sexuality, subjectivity, phenomenology, eco-criticism, and post-humanism.

The Eco-Zombie: Using Biology to Imagine Zombies Beyond the Human

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts on Metathesis, I have discussed the metaphorical uses of contagious disease and examined the figure of the zombie in some popular late twentieth and twenty-first-century texts. In my final post of the month, I would like to turn to a unique sub-genre of the zombie narrative that unsettles the survivor-centered perspective of zombie outbreaks: the eco- zombie.

Zombies present an interesting study in the metaphor of contagion because they embody contradictions and create questions that disturb our sense of self and communal identity. The most obvious of these contradictions, of course, is that zombies are the “living dead”: two oft-mutually exclusive terms in the human experience. One is generally alive or dead, but not both simultaneously. The biological science of how zombies actually work is often left somewhat fuzzy in zombie science-fiction, which tends to give more emphasis to the latter portion of the hyphenated genre, rather than the former. These complex biological questions are typically subsumed by the drama and urgency of the survival story. One stunning example of this is in the 2105 film World War Z, when the viewer is introduced to a brilliant young epidemiologist who only minutes later slips unceremoniously in the rain and accidentally blows his own head off.

In terms of popular story-telling, this emphasis makes sense: the redemption narrative of survivors makes for a more emotionally engaging and compelling drama with which readers, viewers, and players can identify. Part of the power of the survivor’s narrative is that we can imagine ourselves in their shoes. This perspective aligns with the zombie’s function to horrify and disgust the reader, viewer, or player in an act of dis-identification with the dead. In short, the horror of the zombie is centered upon the fact that nobody wants to become one! In fact, it is impossible to even imagine what it is like to be a zombie, given the way zombies embody a complete lack of supposedly distinct human capacities – including a sense of individuality, empathy, personality, and sociality. This narrative dynamic makes thinking outside of the standard human vs zombie conflict relationship difficult.

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However, two recent zombie narratives have given us a new spin on the zombie narrative by taking inspiration from biology, and imagining the dead living in symbiosis with the natural world. In both The Last of Us (2013), a highly-cinematic survivor horror videogame from developer Naughty Dog, and The Girl With All the Gifts (2016), a novel and feature-length film developed from M.R. Carey’s short story “Iphigenia In Aulis,” a rampant fungal infection of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis infests the human population. Known colloquially as the “Zombie Fungus,” Cordyceps is a true-to-life fungus that consumes and takes control over the bodies of ants and wasps. It manipulates genetically determined behavioral patterns of the ants it infects, compelling them to climb high above the forest floor, where they then clamp their jaws on a leaf, and remain as the fungus grotesquely protrudes from their body.

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A “zombie ant” infested with Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis

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Joel battles an “infected” human from The Last of Us

The Cordyceps-infected humans in these stories aren’t specifically identified as “zombies” in either text – they are referred to as the “infected” in The Last of Us and as “hungries” in Carey’s story and its film adaptation – but they can be easily identified as such by their appearance and behavior, especially their cannibalistic rage. Because the “zombie ants” that host the Cordyceps fungus in real life are, if anything, less violent than their healthy counterparts, the violence of the human Cordyceps victims in these texts can be interpreted as making reference to “genetically determined behavioral patterns” recognizable in the aggressive human species.

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Melanie and a group of “hungries” in The Girl With all the Gifts

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A very zombie-like “Infected” human from The Last of Us

In both texts, the symbiotic relationship between the infected humans and the Cordyceps fungus allows the infected to maintain a scientifically stable relationship to the natural world. This relationship is also markedly distinct from the fuzzy biological uncertainty of most zombie films. Cordyceps really exists, and it only takes a small logical leap to envision humans under the organism’s control. Rather than being presented as monstrous doubles of humanity, these versions of Cordyceps zombies represent an ecological and biological world which is rebounding against human civilization and industrialization. In both The Last of Us and the film adaptation of Carey’s story, visuals which depict the overgrowth of nature into formerly urban spaces play an important role in signifying how the viewer and player should interpret their monsters.

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Overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts

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Overgrown Salt Lake City in The Last of Us

The encroaching vegetation in these scenes infests the urban landscape and reclaims the landscape for nature, turning the city into a space both uncanny and sublime. The vegetation subsuming the metropolis transforms it into a dilapidated, ivy-embossed maze filled with ghostly relics. Similarly, the Cordyceps infection presents itself on the human body through grotesque, bubbly growths, signifying a biological excess overtaking both the human body and society. The overgrowth of nature on the infrastructure of the city and the Cordyceps fungus on the human body call attention to the material excesses of human cities and urban life. By reclaiming the city and the human body for the natural world, these infestation suggest that humanity has also overgrown, and as a result disrupted biological homeostasis and ecological balance.

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Melanie and survivors navigate overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

Interestingly, in both The Last of Us and The Girl With All the Gifts, the Cordyceps infestation creates a scenario in which a young woman with a unique resistance to the infection presents an opportunity for a “cure.” However, in order to process the cure, she must be sacrificed. In both texts, characters must weigh the life of the innocent individual against eradication of the human species. In the dramatic conclusion of the narrative arc in The Last of Us, the player must decide if they will save Ellie, the young girl that they have spent hours of gameplay guiding and protecting through a maze of zombies, with the knowledge that her survival means the end of the world. In The Girl With All the Gifts, Melanie makes this choice herself, choosing to transform the whole world with Cordyceps and found a new zombie society based on the teachings of Miss Justinaeu, the only person who treated her sympathetically.

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A doctor attempts to convince Joel (the player) to sacrifice Ellie for the greater good of mankind in The Last of Us

By using biological science to reimagine the biological impact of the fungus among us, these texts break the mold of the standard zombie narrative. The Last of Us and The Girl with All the Gifts imagine zombies through a perspective of biological symbiosis and ecological balance, rather than racialized contagion or scientific terrorism. In doing so, these texts reshape how the metaphor of the zombie can be interpreted in an age when an excess of humanity and human impact threatens to push the ecosystem out of balance.

Zombies are harbingers of an inverted natural order and the embodiment of the redistribution of power. While this disruption of the order of life and death is violently disturbing for survivors, there are signs in many zombie narratives that the collapse of human society might actually be to the benefit of nature and the organic world that zombies inhabit. If we begin to reimagine zombies not as a gross corruption of humanity, but as organisms that are a balancing force of an interconnected biological world moving towards homeostasis, we begin to get a different picture of zombies and their relation to the metaphor of contagion. Eventually, they come to represent not a teleological progression from life to death, but a seasonal, circular, progression reflecting a desire for environmental balance, and a commitment to imagining the world through the changes and returns of life and death on a larger and longer scale.

‘Build That Wall!’: Studies in the 21st-Century Plague Zombie

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts for Metathesis, I have been looking at how the metaphorical deployment of epidemic disease operates, and how we might understand the metaphorical function of plague zombies in contemporary texts. Why is it that the figure of the plague zombie features so prominently in the twenty-first-century imagination? If the plague zombie is a vehicle for addressing social issues, how have plague zombie narratives confronted the zombie threat? Of course, the traditional method for dealing with zombies is simply to kill them. While this method might work when zombies are a minority, when the zombies outnumber survivors, they can be dangerous and difficult to deal with. Often, the best solution for survivors is to find or build structures to separate themselves from the living dead. These structures are reinforced with the belief that those within are safe, and those outside are threats. This week’s post focuses on the construction and failure of such barriers, and their centrality to the plague zombie narrative.

This use of the zombie as a simple “vehicle” for larger social critique is central to many of the texts that comprise the explosion of “plague zombie” narratives in the new millennium. Some of the most acclaimed texts of this period include Robert Kirkman’s 2003 comic book series The Walking Dead and its AMC television series adaptation that began in 2010; Max Brooks’ book The Zombie Survival Guide, also published in 2003, along with its follow up novel World War Z (2006), which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Brad Pitt in 2013.[1] In each of these “plague zombie” universes, how survivors choose to socially respond to the zombie epidemic occupies the central narrative concerns of the text. In such stories, zombies themselves appear as deadly environmental hazards to be mitigated; they operate as a collective metaphor for existential threats to society and humanistic values in modern society, as well as threats to the lives of individual survivors.

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In both The Walking Dead and Max Brooks’ World War Z, as with many other zombie narratives, physical infrastructure is important for managing survivors and zombies alike. Zombies, for all their persistence, tend to have problems with doors and walls. In the AMC adaptation of The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes and his rag-tag band of survivors ramble about the Georgia landscape in search of architectural as well as social stability. In most cases, the former is prized over the latter. The Southern U.S. setting plays a prominent role in The Walking Dead, and the racial and economic tensions of the South are reproduced in the movement of Grimes’s migrant group. Whereas the urban center of Atlanta has been completely overrun by the dead, the plantation-esque farm is enveloped in a surreal calm.

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An overhead shot of the zombie-infested Atlanta streets in The Walking Dead Season 1

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The main residence of Hershel Greene’s Farm in The Walking Dead Season 2

This survivalist reimagining of the urban-rural racial and economic divide values isolationism and segregation. In season 3 of the series, Grimes and his group find sanctuary in a prison, whose labyrinthine walls provide layers upon layers of security from the zombies who stalk its fortified perimeter. However, after developing a feud with a nearby town of survivors, the prison becomes a constant reminder of the limits and dangers, as well as the constant state of isolation, that survivors face because of the outbreak.

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Survivors contemplating the prison in The Walking Dead comic series

This narrative inversion turns the prison from a place of punishment and entrapment into a place of refuge and freedom. However, when a flu outbreak within the prison coincides with siege from without by a competing group of survivors, the prison and must be abandoned.

The centrality of security to The Walking Dead’s exploration of the urban-rural/town-prison divisions underscores a key theme of zombie narratives: population control. The threat of the zombie isn’t just in its mindless cannibalism or its role as a vehicle for a deadly contagion – the zombies’ power, and their threat, is in their overwhelming numbers. The disease they carry, whatever its fictional genesis, harbors a nearly universal ability to transform individuals—people with their own individual lives and narratives—into singular, homogenous, monsters. The epidemic empties the infected person of their identity and replaces their individuality with the terrifying singular hunger of the zombie. Through this process, zombies become a figure of contagious otherness; they are the once-minority that has become the now-majority threatening the stability of society and the existence of survivors. The plague zombie becomes a way to play out the fearful tensions of a society terrified of being overrun by those beyond our borders.

This is especially true when ethnic and racial tensions are made an overt aspect of the zombie narrative. In Brooks’ World War Z, Israel’s controversial partition wall is reframed as a barrier against the zombie outbreak, and the Palestinian people are invited into the protected space of the settler colonial nation that once denied their political existence. In the novel, the significance of the partition wall is inverted. That which once stood as a symbol of division and colonial expansion quickly converts into a nation-encasing quarantine barrier, and becomes a symbol for unity and reconciliation.

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Survivors entering Jerusalem in World War Z (2013)

This is a condescending and problematic rendering of the Israel-Palestine conflict in that it places Israeli military-nationalism in a role to act as the benevolent saviors of the unprepared Palestinians. This unbalanced rendering is made more apparent and troubling in the 2013 film adaptation. During one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, the sound of singing Palestinian refugees incites the zombies outside of the wall to pile over and subsume both the wall and those it protects. The zombies construct their own structure, a sort of zombie-ladder, which allows them to quickly overrun the now-trapped citizens of the city. The organic, shifting, and adaptive structure of the zombie-pile is markedly distinct from the solid and immovable infrastructure of the partition wall, and attributes a certain vivacious, almost instinctual creativity to the zombie menace. The failure of the partition wall to stop the organic flow of bodies from one space to another is rendered as catastrophic, and the zombies themselves seem to move not as individuals, but as a massive singular organism.

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Enraged zombies form their own type of structure to climb the reimagined partition wall in World War Z (2013)

By imagining the racial and ethnic “other” as a zombie or potential zombie, these narratives illustrate the stakes of the social issues lying just below the surface of plague zombie narratives. If we understand plague zombies as vehicles for larger social issues, narratives like The Walking Dead and World War Z show us the problems that attend the safety of isolation and exclusion. The walls within these texts represent the faith our society places in structural safety –be that the division of nations and ideologies as in the partition wall of World War Z, or in the medical capitalism of the Umbrella Corporation in Resident Evil (see last week’s post for more about Resident Evil). When societies build walls to keep imaginary threats at bay, it comes at the cost of innocent lives. Taking another look at the plague zombie narrative asks us to consider the extremes to which society will go for an ultimately false sense of security. These stories also ask us to imagine how we might treat each other under the worst of circumstances, and how we might reimagine society differently in the wake of its collapse. Of course, these narratives also show us how visions of utopia inevitably turn into twisted realities of isolationism, segregation, and violence.

These texts show us how systems and structures designed to isolate us from the problems of the world may comfort us in times of existential crisis. But ultimately, the metaphorical and material walls appearing to protect us become the cages that keep us from moving beyond the boundaries of our own fears and comforts.


[1] I would also add that Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later played an important role in the revival of the zombie, but I won’t be discussing that film here.

Know Your Zombie: Understanding the Living Dead

[7 minute read]

Last week I discussed the use of contagion and metaphor, and mentioned how zombies can serve as “vehicles” for the metaphor of contagious disease. This week I continue my discussion of zombies, but before diving in, I want to draw a distinction between the two major representations of zombies in popular culture: what I somewhat reductively will refer to as the “Voodoo Zombie” and the “Plague Zombie.”

Although zombies have become somewhat synonymous with the spiritual practice of Voodoo in popular culture, the spiritual practices many of us refer to indiscriminately as “voodoo” have a rich and complex historical, spiritual, and cultural background far exceeding their limited representation in much of U.S. culture. In many instances, Voodoo involves casting spells of protection rather than curses, although it would be equally inaccurate to say that curses and other violent intent do not play some part of voodoo. Voodoo has also played an important role in historical movements of political resistance and cultural revolution, which has led to its vilification by many colonizing populations. The zombie figure is intertwined with both of these components—magical and cultural—and, like other aspects of this complex spirituality, has been largely distorted by popular culture’s appropriation of it.

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The cover of Wade Davis’s book.

The Voodoo zombie is, in many ways, the “original” zombie. This incarnation of the zombie emerges out of the traditions and spiritual practices of Haitian voodoo. It represents a person who has died, or was near death, and has been resurrected by a “bokor” or sorcerer. One of the most famous (or infamous) modern Voodoo practitioners was the late Max Beauvoir, known as the “Voodoo Pope,” who claimed to know Voodoo priests who had resurrected the dead. Before his death in 2015, Beauvoir introduced anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and Harvard professor Wade Davis to a man who claimed to have been dead in 1962, but was resurrected to work as a slave on a sugar plantation. Davis’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) chronicles his search to understand the botanical recipe of the “zombie powder” used to intoxicate and control alleged victims of zombification. In 1988, this book was adapted into a Wes Craven horror film of the same name.

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The poster for its 1988 film adaptation by famed horror director Wes Craven.

The Voodoo zombie is tied to specific cultural practices and geographies (for example, Haitian Voodoo), and so the contextual “meaning” of the zombie is specific and discrete. Unlike their contagious cousins, which began to appear in popular culture late into the twentieth century, Voodoo zombies are not aimless, shambling corpses; they are people transformed into purposeful creatures. Voodoo practitioners like those described by Beauvoir and Davis resurrect the dead for specific reasons, including but not limited to slave labor, control, or revenge. Voodoo zombies are personal, medicinal, and spiritual; they do not appear in hordes, their state is not contagious, and their place between life in death is mediated and maintained by the sorcerer who controls them. They can even recover from their state of zombification, and may return to their justifiably surprised and horrified friends and family.

Anthropological works such as Davis’s and popular films such as George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead are in part responsible for introducing the zombie figure to popular culture. However, the zombie as we know it now has undergone radical mutation from its origins in the Voodoo zombie figure, becoming what I’ll refer to as the “plague zombie.”

This type of zombie emerged from, but radically alters the trajectory of the original zombie myth, and became an increasingly powerful feature of contemporary horror texts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. While the Voodoo zombie’s cultural specificity and its conjuror’s intentions for it make for a rather rigid metaphorical reading, the metaphorical and interpretative pliability of the plague zombie has made it an adaptive and increasingly popular trope of the new millennium. Recalling last week’s discussion of I.A. Richard’s “tenor-vehicle” model as a way of understanding metaphor, a zombie operates as a “vehicle” allowing us to form connections between what the living dead are (the reanimated corpses of strangers, friends, and neighbors) and what they represent (hunger, contagion, mindless consumption, loss of control, and a disruption of the natural process of life and death).

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The cover of Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996)

The popularity of the plague zombie began to rise in the 1980s and ‘90s in the wake of the devastating HIV pandemic, and the emergence of deadly new viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, SARS, and MERS; it reached a fever pitch in the late ‘90s and first decade of the 2000s. One of the most popular and enduring depictions of the “plague zombie” was the third-person horror videogame Resident Evil (1996), a franchise that has spawned twenty-nine video games across multiple platforms, six feature films, four animated films, seven novels, and a comic book series. In the Resident Evil franchise, the central narrative conflict is the Umbrella Corporation’s creation and not-so-accidental release of the “T-Virus.” Players, viewers, and readers must unpack the bureaucratic and capitalistic functions of Umbrella Corp to understand why they released the virus, who helped them, and how to cure or mitigate the impending viral apocalypse. As with many plague zombie narratives, the central conflict of Resident Evil isn’t that the dead are rising from their graves to stalk the living, but that there are arcane political, medical, and economic forces that would permit (or encourage) the advent of a zombie epidemic.

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An in-game promotional advertisement for the fictional Umbrella Corporation. The tag line “Quality Medical Care You Can Trust Since 1968” is not only a sarcastic jab at the advertising style of pharmaceutical corporations, but also an allusion to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was released in 1968.

The threat to social stability that zombies nearly always embody is the “tenor” of their metaphor. The contagion or plague zombies carry and transmit connects the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor together, connecting the abject horror of living dead to issues of social cohesion, security, and medical ethics among the living. In plague zombie narratives, how the ever-present survivors of the zombie epidemic respond to their situation is always as important, if not more so, than the existence of the zombies themselves. Next week I will be discussing one particular trope of the plague zombie narrative: the wall. Walls separate survivors of zombie epidemics from the living dead that stalk them, but they also separate survivors from each other and create material and metaphorical divisions in post-apocalyptic society. Tune in next week for a discussion of how the walls we build to protect us can become the cages that entrap us.

Messages of Power: Epidemic Disease and Metaphor

[10 minute read]

Culture has been infected. From the largest spheres of government and media to the mundane exchanges of everyday living, a small but resilient particle of an idea has perforated the social fabric of our lives and buried deep in our collective imagination. This noxious notion exists unnoticed in many parts of society, a festering lump of our most disturbed and paranoid fears metastasizing just beneath the surface of culture, emerging now and again in full force when the right environment and atmosphere for an outbreak presents itself. This idea is the metaphor of contagious disease and epidemic. In my posts this month, I will ask why the tendency to assign meaning to disease is such a powerful and sustained facet of culture and examine how this viral tendency has mutated and evolved in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Disease is a common human experience vivifying nearly universal fears of that which we cannot see, and thus cannot fully understand. For much of human history, the microbes that cause the majority of contagious diseases remained invisible to us. Only in the last two centuries or so have we developed a scientific understanding of microbes. So, to make sense and meaning out of the epidemics that ravaged our civilizations, we invented stories.

For the religious, an outbreak appears as a punishment for transgressing against God. For the xenophobic, a sudden appearance of disease in a previously healthy community can confirm fears that racial and ethnic outsiders are contaminating and degenerating society. For the rich and privileged, disease becomes associated with the poor. For the poor, disease becomes symptomatic of their social alienation and economic exploitation by the rich. For the healthy, disease in others can become a confirmation of one’s own righteous living and a reason to invest in the factors of division between one’s self and the other. Tragically, victims of disease can internalize these negative associations and may place the blame for their illness on some perceived moral or ethical failing of their own, or on society at large.

NowVenerealDiseasesWorld War I poster created by H. Dewitt Welsh meant to create awareness and prevent venereal diseases in soldiers abroad, note the explicit racialized and sexualized depictions of “Yellow Fever” and “Venereal Disease”. 

Although we now have a growing scientific understanding of microbes at the genetic level, we still tell stories that imbue epidemic diseases with meaning. The habit of assigning religious, racial, economic, and cultural meaning to outbreaks and their victims—developed over hundreds and thousands of years of human experience—has proven hard to quit, and many of these confused and misshapen ideas about disease and epidemic persist. As adaptable and resilient as the common cold, the metaphor of epidemic disease has become a mainstay of human discourse.

But why?

The experience of disease and contagion, the fear of infection, the abjection of the ill, the triumph of recovery, and the tragedy of death are nearly universal human experiences. Epidemic disease is therefore an accessible metaphor; a comparison with disease is widely understood as negative. The commonality of disease makes its metaphorical import apparent, and the mortality of epidemic make its metaphors gripping and affective.

But metaphors of disease and the stories that contain them continue to have a wide influence on our culture because they also tell us who we are, suggest who we ought not to be, and allow us to imagine who we might become. Often metaphors of disease tell us more about ourselves—our fears, guilt, and prejudices implicit and explicit—than they do about the biological, environmental, and social reality of epidemics. Examining how and why epidemic disease is used as a metaphor for social issues can allow us to understand the power of, and problems with epidemic metaphors, and provides a method to trace the dynamics and divisions of societal power and privilege.

Epidemic diseases are powerful messages, but they are also messages of power. How we depict and understand epidemics can tell us much about the cultural atmosphere from which the epidemic emerges.

In these posts, I will be considering metaphors of disease. But I also explore how, ironically, disease can work metaphorically to help us understand metaphors.

Etymologically, the modern English term “metaphor” comes from the Latin “metaphora” and from the Greek combination of “μεταϕορά”: μετα- (“meta”) denoting change or transformation and ϕορά, the present participle of “ϕέρειν,” meaning to bear or carry. If we preserve the grammatical tense of the Greek, then, a metaphor can be understood as that way of speaking which is bearing change, or as that speech which transforms as it is carrying. The Oxford English Dictionary defines our modern concept of metaphor as a “figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable” (OED, Third Edition, 2001).

In practice, we tend to follow the OED’s understanding, looking for similarities between unlike things. For example, in the famous Robert Burns metaphor “your love is a red, red rose,” love is not literally a flower, but it shares with the rose a certain intangible quality which makes the comparison apt. Perhaps, figuratively speaking, this love is soft, or sweet, or pleasant to smell, or covered with painful thorns, or a combination of these. In any case, the reader is meant to make the connection organically.

To break down how metaphors work in more detail, communications scholar I.A. Richards devised what he called the “Tenor-Vehicle” model (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936). In it, the “tenor” is the idea being communicated and the “vehicle” is how the idea is transmitted. That intangible quality of “different from, but analogous to” is the synthesis created by the metaphor’s juxtaposition of the two unlike things. In the Burns example from above the tenor of the metaphor is “your love” and the vehicle “a red, red rose.” By carrying the former into the later, the metaphor creates emotional meaning. That is, although tenor and vehicle make up the two parts of the metaphor, neither alone compose the emotional heft of the comparison—it is i the interpretive act of comparing that we construct meaning. Richards believed that all thinking and language are based in this type of comparison and contrast, and therefore he believed that all thought and language were essentially and fundamentally metaphorical. Although one need not go to the extent that Richards does to grasp the pervasive function of metaphor in society, the tenor-vehicle model is helpful for understanding why disease and metaphor are so closely intertwined.

Richards’ model shows that metaphors function much in the same way as microbes. At the very least, microbes offer us a material example of how a system of transmission like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor operates in the physical world. Take, for example, a virus. Like Richards’ tenor-vehicle model, a virus is composed of two parts: the RnA or DnA which constitutes the genetic information of the virus and a protein shell which encases and protects the virus during transmission.

disease2Diagram of a basic virus

Like metaphors, diseases also transform us as we carry them, turning our healthy bodies into symbols and carriers of illness. Also like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor, it is the process of transmission and the reaction (biological and social) to the virus that creates meaning for us in our everyday lives, not its discrete biological components. Often it is not the virus itself, but the symptoms of its reproduction and our body’s immune response that we recognize. In truly explosive epidemics, such as the continuing HIV/AIDS epidemic, the social response to an outbreak, or lack thereof, can be as devastating as the illness itself.

Like any effective metaphor, the metaphor of disease transmits an emotive idea—the idea that disease is a vehicle for deeper meaning. Take, for example, a popular depiction of epidemic disease with a number of readily available metaphorical interpretations: that of the zombie outbreak. (For recent interpretations of this trope see AMC’s The Walking Dead series, Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, and many others.) In this context, zombies are humans who have been infected by a contagious disease, the primary symptom of which is rising from the dead with a hunger for human flesh or brains. Each zombie victim becomes a zombie, who then creates more zombies in a pyramid-scheme of death. The disease is obviously part of the horror of zombies, but they also serve as a clear metaphor for social issues within and outside their respective sci-fi universes. For example, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), survivors of a zombie outbreak take refuge in a shopping mall, a setting which places the zombies’ need for excessive consumption of human flesh in juxtaposition with the excesses of late capitalism.

disease3The living dead ravage the Monroeville Mall in George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Here the metaphorical tenor is the system of consumerism typified by the U.S. shopping mall and the vehicle is the glowering zombie horde entrapping the survivors. The metaphorical interpretation I propose here asks us to consider how zombies relate to capitalism, and in doing so arranges several possible connections: are consumers like zombies in their mindless need for excessive goods? Does the capitalist model reward a type of economic cannibalism that, like the zombies, lacks emotional connection or sympathy? In the act of configuring the zombies in relation to their capitalist setting, different possible meanings are constructed in our minds. The metaphor of the zombie epidemic can also be understood in other registers, so tune in next week for a longer look at zombies!

The metaphor of epidemic transforms any person or group designated by society as outsiders into threatening vessels of contagion and constructs an internal logic that reinforces prejudicial and superstitious thinking. But contagion and disease have also been used as templates for resistance and reframed as opportunities to reimagine a more compassionate, empathetic, and healthy society. I hope you will join me in the coming weeks as I take a close look at how epidemic diseases and their metaphors have shaped our culture and our shared imagination.


Maxwell Cassity is a PhD candidate studying 20th- and 21st-century American and world literatures with a specific focus on novels, short fiction, and the influence of minority writers on critical conceptions of modernism and postmodernism. Although Mr. Cassity’s scholarship primarily concerns the American novel, his other scholarly interests include fiction, poetry, film, and narrative games. His proposed dissertation will examine how works of fiction have approached epidemic disease and cultural understandings of illness, contagion, and virality. Finding its foundation in the concepts of biopolitics and biopower, this project seeks to investigate how race and class difference have been incorporated into the discourse of disease and how structures of power mobilize the ideology of racialized disease to reinforce social hierarchies, isolate minority populations, and justify power over life and death in 20th-century U.S. society.

Normalizing Difference: Redefining Asexuality

[5 minute read]

The problem with asexuality, as I’ve discussed before, is that it is hard to talk about on its own terms — even in a grammatical sense.

For example: If you’re homosexual, you can say, “I’m sexually attracted to people of my same gender.” If you’re pansexual, you can say, “I’m sexually attracted to all genders.”

These are positive constructions: I do experience attraction to x. But if you’re asexual, the sentence structure use is a negative construction: “I don’t experience sexual attraction.” Etymologically, it’s a negative identity: it literally means not-sexual. I’m not-something. This is Parmenides’ dilemma: the Greek philosopher’s famous poem describes how the goddess told him not to contemplate “not-being,” for it is categorically impossible to fathom that which is not. No wonder then, that asexuality is always rendered in terms of allosexuality. As we saw in journalism and in fanfic, an asexual person is always compared to an allosexual norm in order to describe the ace’s asexuality.

blogasexual1Parmenides suffering the effects of contemplating “not-being.”

But what if that weren’t the case? Asexuality obviously exists independently of allosexuality, so how might we describe it in its own terms? One scholar who has boldly gone where no Greek philosopher has gone before is Benjamin Kahan, the author of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Although contemporary discourse about asexuality is careful to distinguish celibacy (the abstention from sexual behavior) from asexuality (a state of being which exists independently of sexual behavior that a person may or may not practice), Kahan uses celibacy to describe what we might otherwise call asexuality. At first, this seemed an unnecessarily confusing choice, especially since Kahan dedicates his last chapter to aromantic asexuality. But I came to realize: casting celibacy as only a religious or political choice assumes that that person would otherwise behave “normatively” sexually. Such a rhetorical move erases the very real potential that celibates do not, in fact, repress any sexual desires, but instead desire their own celibacy — perhaps in the same way that aces might desire their own asexuality.

blogasex2Desiring celibacy? Say what?

Popular images of celibates — priests and nuns, spinsters and forty-year-old virgins — represent celibacy as anti-sexual frigidity, a cover for sexual “perversity,” or the pitiful pining of total losers, but never something desirable in itself. However, Kahan argues that we’ve been approaching celibacy all wrong when we imagine it as the opposite of sexuality. Asexuality, when its existence is recognized, has at least managed to be classified as one of many sexualities like bisexuality and heterosexuality, even if that classification is complicated by its etymology: not-sexuality. But celibacy, Kahan argues, is not not-sex; it is another mode of doing sex. I would argue the same is true of asexuality. By re-sexualizing nongenital attractions, we get closer to understanding asexuality as a positive construction. We might be able to answer what it is that aces want — what pleasures they’re attracted to in a nongenital sense, if not sex with other beings or objects.

blogasex3Come, let us enter together the door to new a/sexual possibilities.

This is the driving force of Kahan’s argument. His book underscores the importance of “understanding celibacy not as an absence or as a stigmatized identity but in positive terms as an attractive identity with its own desires and pleasures.”[1] If we apply the same principle to asexuality, it becomes imperative to reorient hegemonic ideas about asexuality. We must look beyond the language of lack and assumptions of asexuality’s opposition to erotonormativity, and instead locate what it is in and of itself. What does asexuality look like when it isn’t compared to another sexual orientation? What do aces want?

To answer this, I suggest looking at how Kahan grapples with answering a similar, though distinct, question: what do celibates want? When he says that celibacy is a form of sex, Kahan is careful to distinguish celibacy from kinks; although celibates (like aces) can have kinks, celibacy and asexuality are not coterminous with kinks. For Kahan, bringing nongenital attractions back into the realm of sexuality seems to mean recognizing other, asexual attractions on equal footing with what we’ve historically known to be sexual attractions — not as a substitute for or deferral from sexual attraction, but a sexual attraction because it offers the same kind of fulfillment that normative sexual attractions do. Essentially, Kahan wants us to expand the definition of what qualifies as attractive desire to include the attractions of the celibate. Specifically, Kahan writes, “rather than desiring something lacking and trying to obtain it” — for instance, desiring a sexual relationship and going for it — “the celibate desire is the reiteration of celibacy itself.”[2]

What does the celibate want? To be celibate. To maintain their celibacy, to revel in their identity. What does the ace want? I would tentatively suggest the same. Perhaps aces want to be ace.

Kahan’s argument about celibacy might not fully answer what it means to be asexual. Reiterative desire is only one kind of nongenital attraction, and there’s a possibility that pulling asexuality back into the realm of normative sexuality erodes some of its characteristic queerness. But by insisting that we consider what celibacy is on its own terms — positive terms — Kahan’s argument show us the possibility of self-definition, and positive asexuality.


[1] Benjamin A. Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 3.

[2] Ibid., 69.

How We Talk about Trauma: Gaslight and the Importance of Maintaining a Bi-focal Critical View

[7-10 minute read]

Recently, my coursework on Hollywood Melodrama engaged me with reading portions of Helen Hanson’s book, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film.[1] This text represents an amazing work of scholarship, connecting well-researched critical feminist histories, studies in the formation of literary and filmic genres, and close-readings of the narrative representations of heroines in Classic Hollywood films.

Hanson’s history of gothic fiction, which makes up the majority of her second chapter, related several functions of the gothic mode:

  • “In its ability to express, evoke and produce fear and anxiety, the gothic mode figures the underside to the rational, the stable, and the moral” (34).
  • “In Gothic fiction certain stock features provide the principle embodiments and evocations of cultural anxieties” (34).
  • “The narratives of gothic literary fictions and films commonly deploy suspicions and suspense about past events. . . In its moves across the present and the past, and its tension between progress and atavism, the gothic forces witness [of] the present as conditioned and adapted by events, knowledge or values pressing on it from the past. . . It is within this retrogressive narration that the gothic embodies cultural anxiety, and it is this that mobilizes its potential as social critique.” (35).

In all of these forms, the gothic mode[2] traverses between the past and present, highlighting tensions between society’s desire for progress, and an ever-present fear of change. In this way, it serves as a mirror for cultural anxieties; a mirror which frequently attracts the attention of new and veteran scholars alike.

Dracula is one famous example frequently discussed in college classrooms; the text thrives on the anxieties of the British public in the late Victorian period. It addresses fears of foreigners through the figure of Dracula, an aristocrat from Eastern Europe. It reflects the fear of new modes of emerging femininity in the form of the New Woman as embodied in fragmented forms by Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra. Even concerns about tensions between religion and rationality find voice in the pages of the novel.

anxiety1Bela Lugosi as the foreign and inscrutable Dracula (1931, Universal)

However, these “cultural anxieties” of the past represent fears that the novel both critiques and re-inscribes in equal measure. Dracula is a foreign danger, but he is foiled in part by the American foreigner Quincey Morris. Mina’s technical literacy as a New Woman becomes essential for the defeat of Dracula. More importantly, we can now look back on these “cultural anxieties” and acknowledge the foolishness of their sources: sexism regarding women’s positioning outside the domestic sphere, and a xenophobia of foreigners moving into Britain from all corners of its crumbling empire. These anxieties feel “backward” now: an ideology from another time.

While these instances from criticism of a single specific text do not constitute a full definition of “cultural anxieties,” they do help to situate the term within its common usage. “Cultural anxieties” usually indicate societal fears that a contemporary reader can acknowledge as dependent on historical context. These fears may no longer function in the same way in the current cultural environment – one which the terminology implies has ostensibly progressed from the past.

The tendency of historiographic critique to locate anxieties in a moment from the past continued to haunt me as I moved forward through Hanson’s argument. This notion of “past-ness” lent to topics by the use of the term “cultural anxieties” felt particularly troublesome as I engaged Hanson’s reading of the 1944 film Gaslight.[3] This film revolves around Paula (Ingrid Bergman) and her relationship with the abusive Gregory (Charles Boyer), who uses deception, contradiction, and misdirection to convince Paula that she is losing her mind, and that her grip on reality has faltered.

anxiety2Gaslight poster, 1944 (MGM)

As Hanson approaches her discussion of female gothic films, Gaslight among them, she quotes feminist film critics Tania Modleski and Diane Waldman, who suggest that the female gothic cycle in Hollywood “expresses anxieties of shifting gender roles, and the social upheaval of World War II, from a female perspective.” She goes on to quote them directly: “The fact that after the war years these films gradually faded from the screen probably reveals more about the changing composition of movie audiences than about the waning of women’s anxieties concerning domesticity” (47-8). Not only are the anxieties displayed in Gaslight rooted in the specific moment of Post-WWII America, they also revolve specifically around an “anxiety concerning domesticity.”

This exemplifies the trouble that I came to while thinking about our role as critics: Just as Paula is discredited for her emotional responses in Gaslight, so too is the film discredited from its ability to comment on an ongoing and ever-present feature of patriarchal society by its relation to the term “cultural anxiety.” By tying these films to notions of anxiety, and a “retrogressive narration” that focuses on the past, contemporary critics and modern scholars alike miss something vitally important. Paula’s experience is not some rumination on past treatments of women alone. It is not tied solely to the shifting gender norms in Post-WWII America. It is a visceral consideration of the everyday violence suffered by women under patriarchy.[4]

anxiety3Gregory corners Paula in an early scene of accusation. (MGM)

How many women have been told they are over-reacting, being too emotional, or not thinking clearly? How many women have had their experience of reality challenged by men and other women in misogynistic terms? How many women do not even trust their own minds because of this behavior? (There seems an easy tie-in here with the ways that domestic violence victims blame themselves for the behavior of their abusers, internalize the abuse, and even succumb to Stockholm syndrome). This is a constant and consistent experience for women living in a patriarchal society that values rationality over feeling. By tying these films to anxiety and the past, these texts are stripped of their commentary on this insidious — and constantly active — aspect of the patriarchy.

Instead of allowing for the recognition and critique of current violence against women, the historiographic location of Gaslight as a film about Post-WWII “cultural anxiety” may instead serve to elide the accusatory and critical nature of its content, and its application to our present moment. While our habit to historicize serves as a vital and useful aspect of the discipline, it may be equally important as feminist scholars to acknowledge the ways that these cultural anxieties go unresolved across time.

In the end, this reflection becomes less about the use of any one term (although the build-up of rhetorical weight and precedence placed upon, and into critical terms certainly merits further consideration). Instead, what it has prompted me to consider is the very nature of historicizing patriarchal violence. By historicizing a text so thoroughly within its time, we reap the rewards of insights that only a text’s context may grant us. However, we also run the risk of limiting the text’s ability to witness to a larger, historically mobile female experience of marginalizing violence. Hanson argues for this form of critique as well. She soundly rejects the psychoanalytic readings of early feminist engagement with female gothic melodrama (which often produced a deterministic reading) in favor of suggesting a critical vision that offers “a narrative trajectory as a female journey to subjectivity. This journey has a change in relation to socio-cultural shifts in gender relations coincident in the period” (xvi). Here, her attention calls for a scholarships that locates without functioning deterministically; one which approaches a text both in the local context of its era, and the trans-historical mode of its critique.

If current readers and critics keep this bi-focal view, looking at texts in both their local and trans-historical forms, we gain the ability to ask why a film so tied to the gender politics of 1940s America can still speak so directly to women’s experiences in 2017.


[1] Hanson, Helen. Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film. No City: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

[2] The “female gothic” rises out of this gothic mode. First discussed by Ellen Moers in her book Literary Women (1963) the term female gothic refers specifically to texts written by and for women.

[3] Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light originated the term now used in common parlance to describe the manipulative psychological abuse which functions by instilling in the victim a doubt of their own experiences of reality. This play serves as the source material for the 1944 film, directed by George Cukor.

[4] My argument here is meant in no way as a disavowal of the arguments presented by Hanson, Modleski, or Waldman, but rather a reflection on the rhetorical weight of the terminology that our discipline utilizes and the methodological practices we employ.

Scholarship and Affect: Merging Critical and Fan Identities

[7-10 minute read]

Take an adventure with me through my affective and critical experiences with a few texts I encountered during my first year and a half of my Ph.D. program:

*****

I am sitting in the theatre in the last showing of the night for Star Wars: Rogue One. I have just come from my house where I have been drinking a bit of wine with friends. I am happily relaxed after a rather arduous first semester of Ph.D. study. It’s December, Christmas is coming on quickly, and as an early present, I get another Star Wars film.

Thirty minutes into the film, the protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), navigates through city streets on a desert planet, searching for her childhood mentor. Her companion, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), becomes increasingly agitated, and when Jyn questions him, he says the city “is about to blow.” Moments later, a tank full of Stormtroopers rumbles down the street with Imperial propaganda chiming out of loud speakers affixed to the machine: The Empire is a beacon for “truth and justice,” saviors to a city being terrorized by a radical revolutionary.

I nearly choke on a mouthful of popcorn.

Seconds later, when these “radical revolutionaries,” complete with headscarves, suicide-bomb the Stormtroopers, I have lost my place in the fantasy. I’m not a fan watching another Star Wars film. Terms like “Islamophobia” and “Extremists” swirl through my brain alongside Rhetoric and Ideology.

I lean over to Adam: “Well that’s not very subtle.”

He is getting used to my inability to “simply watch” films anymore.

*****

Rewind. It’s November of 2016. I am sitting in a darkened theatre, wearing yellow and grey and black. I feel a squeal rise up in my throat as the familiar theme plays.

I’m back at Hogwarts.

I’m back to being 11, 12, 13, waiting for an owl with a letter that I know won’t come but I still love to make-believe anyway.

The film ends and I’m crying, sniffling, smiling.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is the man I want to be. He is gentle, empathetic, fiercely loyal and protective, kind. He feels. He cries.

Critique1Look at his beautiful smile at that tiny walking stick critter! (Warner Bros.)

Two days later, and every thinkpiece on my Facebook feed is about his tender, non-normative masculinity.

Part of me wishes I could have written them; part of me is ever so glad that I just reveled in my yellow and grey shirt and smiled with happy tears streaking my face.

*****

Mid-December 2016 again. My husband and I are watching episode one of The Magicians on Netflix.

The main character, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), starts the episode in a psychiatric ward.

The main character starts the series in a psych ward.

The main character openly struggles with depression.

The main character struggles with depression to the point of committing himself to a psychiatric ward, and he will be our hero.

I’m out of the fantasy.

Minutes later, when Quentin’s best friend, Julia (Stella Maeve), comforts him at a party and pecks him on the cheek as her boyfriend walks into the room, I’m further gobsmacked.

Instead of ire, James (Michael Cassidy) responds with a joke and leaps onto the small twin bed where his girlfriend and Quentin are lying beside each other.

I think of Neurotypicality, Compulsory Jealousy, Toxic Masculinity.

*****

December, 2016. Blizzard releases the Overwatch comic titled “Reflections.” Tracer is officially gay. The Internet loses its mind. Tumblr is an inarticulate mass of squeals.

Critique2The panel that launched a thousand flame wars. (Blizzard)

I’m excited about this. It’s about time we have more LGBTQIA+ characters in our popular culture texts. I hold off on darting away to join the bustle of posts about our favorite lesbian time-traveler. Two pages later and I am literally squealing myself:

Hanzo has an undercut! And piercings! And a cowl neck sweater! One of my favorite characters looks not far from my own aesthetic.

Critique3Earrings, a upper bridge piercing, and an undercut hairstyle. Merry Christmas! (Blizzard)

I have nothing articulate to say. I feel a flare of imposter syndrome rear up in my chest. Am I really a scholar if I have nothing to say? I should compose something intelligent, praise the company for creating space for non-normative representations, but all I can do is smile and text my other queer friends to ask if they’ve seen it. I remind myself it’s Christmas break, and it’s okay to just love this.

*****

March, 2017. KONG: Skull Island. The military man, Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard, is full of rage. His masculinity is driven by violence, misplaced aggression, and a need to dominate. He tries to kill Kong; I try to feel something other than detached speculation about the root of his rage and what history the film does not reveal to us.

Toxicity

Valor Narratives

PTSD

*****

March, 2017. Beauty and the Beast.

I am so ready for the first representation of a gay man in a feature film.

I am so ready for a peck on the lips between two men, on screen, in a feature film!

I am thrilled with LeFou’s (Josh Gad) fawning over Gaston (Luke Evans).

Gaston has war trauma and unprocessed grief.

Gaston acts out of a place of rage that is only calmed by LeFou’s careful and caring interventions.

LeFou gets 2 seconds of dancing with a random man in the final ballroom scene.

Critique4Yes, that is someone’s shoulder nearly blocking our revolutionary “gay moment.” (Disney)

I am annoyed.

I write a blog post about toxic masculinity, trauma, and grief in the film for Metathesis.

I am still annoyed.

*****

March, 2017. Power Rangers.

The yellow ranger is officially a lesbian. Her admission is explicit. It is not seen in a glance on a dance floor packed with people. She openly discusses her orientation with the other rangers. They accept it and no one makes a single fuss about it. I cry during that scene.

The blue ranger is on the autism spectrum. The other rangers value his ability to see the world differently. No one makes a fuss. No one makes a big deal. He is just as much a hero as any of the others.

I’m torn between posting about how amazing the representation in the film was, and how nostalgic and happy it made me. I need to justify my affective experience. I gush about the representation and the animal-shaped mega-bots.

*****

It is June, 2017. The film I’m about to see has been talked about ad nauseum for almost two weeks already.

“The skirts are too short.”

“The heels are not historically accurate.”

“Themyscira can’t be historically accurate.”

“There’s no need for a romance narrative.”

“The romance narrative flies in the face of cultural norms.”

“Gal Gadot is a woman of color.”

“Gal Gadot is most definitely not a woman of color.”

“We need to nuance our terminology when discussing women of color.”

I watch Diana (Gal Gadot) stride into No Man’s Land and my body shoots with gooseflesh. Before she takes more than two steps, I have tears running down my face. This is a woman, striding into No Man’s Land, where no man can stand, and she is marching into it, claiming ground, claiming space. I am weeping before she ducks behind her shield under a hail of bullets.

I do not post about the film. I relish the experience of seeing a woman, clad in armor, marching into No Man’s Land. I imagine how I might have felt to see that film as a child of 12. I weep too for that little child that I was, who never saw Diana make that march.

*****

October, 2017

It’s the Halloween event for Overwatch and that means Halloween skins for the characters.[1] The Halloween and Christmas events are my favorite because the skins tend to be holiday themed and generally fun to look at. I appreciate them with the same part of myself that cried during Fantastic Beasts and Wonder Woman.

Symmetra’s Halloween event skin is a Dragon:

Critique5Symmetra’s skin in all its scaled glory. (Blizzard)

But Symmetra is not my first encounter with this skin. I encounter it first as a fan-made modification to the skin, created for one of my favorite characters, a gunslinging cowboy named McCree.[2] The skin is the creation of Twitter user, Loudwindow.

Critique6McCree, with a modified dragon skin. (Blizzard Entertainment/Loudwindow)

I immediately retweet this post on Twitter. “I need this Queer McCree skin in my Overwatch life immediately,” I proclaim.

Then I pause for a moment in a bit of horror. Twitter represents my platform for the majority of my academic contacts, where I comment on posts by scholars and critics who I respect (and honestly probably fan over a bit too). My cohort follows me and I follow them. A few of my professors follow me. Here I am reposting a skin from a videogame not because I have something profound or critical to say about it, but because I find it aesthetically pleasing; because a slightly feminized masculine character who I frequently read about in fan fiction looks incredible with a dragon skin and a crown of horns.

I scramble to think of something intelligent to say about it, latching on to the name the creator gave the skin:

“I’m fascinated by how this skin feminizes the character while announcing him as the object of female desire through the Incubus myth.”

I’ve turned my own aesthetic fascination with the object into a sort of critical inquiry, not so much into the skin itself, but my own affective relationship to it. I follow up my pseudo-astute tweet with another: “Less critically, I find this skin incredibly aesthetically pleasing as a queer, androgynous take on my favorite character.” Hopefully I have succeeded in covering over my moment of excessive affect for this skin with some sort of critical commentary.

For days I am troubled by my response. Why did I feel the need to justify my love of this popular text? Is it because it rises out of my own desire and I’ve therefore villainized it, made it dirty with my ever-clinging Evangelical guilt?

While I’m sure this is part of my motivation, one of the many pressures acting on me as I produce the performance of myself as queer scholar and fan and spouse and student and teacher, reflection has made me consider another reason for this response.

In The Limits of Critique,[3] Rita Felski states the following about our scholarly habits of critique:

Critique is a remarkably contagious and charismatic idea, drawing everything into its field of force, patrolling the boundaries of what counts as serious thought. It is virtually synonymous with intellectual rigor, theoretical sophistication, and intransigent opposition to the status quo . . . For many scholars in the humanities, it is not one good thing but the only imaginable thing . . . To refuse critique . . . is to sink into the mire of complacency, credulity, and conservativism. Who would want to be associated with the bad smell of the uncritical? (8)

This description of critique speaks directly to how I experience the compulsion to justify my own affective attachments to texts. How did I come to internalize this need to critique everything? What can I do now that I recognize it? Is this just a symptom of my profession – not unlike the experience of those versed in music who cannot listen to a concert in the same way as someone less knowledgeable in musical theory?

These questions have no answers for or from me at the moment, and I suspect they might be a specter that haunts many in my profession. I have to believe there exists a happy medium between a devotion to the value of critique and an ability to appreciate a text without critiquing it. It remains for me to discover how to straddle the spaces, how to be comfortable with both critical and affective experiences, with texts that leave me speechless, leave me reveling in an excess of experience. As Walt Whitman (another author of the texts I approach more as fan than critic) has said, “I contradict myself, I contain multitudes.”


[1] Skins refer to different sets of aesthetic based costumes which you can unlock for your characters via gameplay. They make up the bulk of rewards for continuous play on Overwatch, a fantasy First Person Shooter game from Blizzard Entertainment.

[2] Fan-made content does not exist within the actual game and usually involves gender-bending or character-bending skins that the game has officially released. Character-bending would involve taking a skin made for one character and modifying it to fit another character, while gender-bending refers to taking a skin made for a male-bodied character and modifying it to fit a female-bodied character or visa-versa.

[3] Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

The Erotics of Evil

Among the harmful tropes of Hollywood, the figure of the Sissy Villain is one tainting LGBT representation in film and television. Despite the improvements of LGBT rights outside of film, the image of men in women’s clothing is one that pervades the genre of horror in particular. Such figures at Buffalo Bill, Cillian Murphy’s John/Emma of Peacock, or James McAvoy’s multiple-identity’d character of the controversial Split perpetuate this notion of dangerous men being made all the more terrifying by their eschewing of gender norms by dressing in women’s clothing. The argument made by these films is clear — men in dresses are dangerous, perhaps even more dangerous than brilliant psychologist-cannibals.

hannibal-wallpaper70664Promotional image for NBC’s Hannibal

Because of this, a second, more subtle argument is made by Hannibal’s narrative about the “right” way to be a killer. The pop-culture juggernaut of Silence of the Lambs isn’t the terrifying Buffalo Bill, or even the feminist darling Clarice Starling, but rather the slick and seductive Hannibal Lecter, whose presence in psychological thrillers spans three books, four films, a television series, and endless fanworks. The audience — casual viewers and “Fannibals” alike — is charmed by Lecter, largely due to the way he departs from other popular fictional killers. Lecter is not a brute: he does not resemble the slasher-killers of the gory teen film franchises; he is no Freddy Kruegar or Michael Meyers. Nor is he the pure psychological villain such as those made popular by the Saw franchise. Instead, Hannibal performs a meeting of the two, all of their strengths and seemingly none of their weaknesses.

Though he is never seen working out, Hannibal is physically fit, shown to be extremely strong and agile; he is able to easily overpower police officers and threatening patients, and, like any proper serial killer, he shakes off injuries that would cripple anyone else. Despite this strength, Hannibal is lean; his bone structure is that of a dancer. His physical presence is catlike and easily predatory. This effortless strength is the kind of appealing danger that typically befits the slender femme fatale, but Hannibal subverts this by having its hero-villain emulate these traits. His graceful-killer performance is further emphasized by the raw, calculating intelligence he displays. When his cannibalistic secret is revealed to Jack, Lecter attempts to fight his way out.  When FBI agent Jack Crawford puts him in a stranglehold, Hannibal goes limp, playing dead. In Jack’s moment of ensuing confusion and hesitation, Hannibal takes up a piece of broken glass, stabbing Jack in the side of the throat. As Crawford bleeds out in Hannibal’s pantry, Lecter is able to make his escape.

hannibal-clip-1Hannibal uses an improvised weapon in his fight with Jack Crawford

Logically, Hannibal should not be able to overpower a highly trained federal agent, but his combination of strength and wit allow him to move beyond the killer roles his gender suggests. He deliberately avoids the highly-phallic, hypermasculine killer forms, seen in Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, Pyramid Head, and many others, as does he avoid the physical frailty of the feminized mastermind. Although Hannibal embodies the sissy killer, his success[1] in the television series speaks to his performance of this trope. He navigates between men and women’s worlds with ease, and confidence. This confidence is what is most critical. Hannibal is never shown to struggle. His acts are effortless. Those that struggle to express themselves, fashionably, romantically, sexually, or otherwise, are portrayed as desperate, fawning, trying too hard. Hannibal paints a clear image of its wannabe villains — either you’ve got it, or you don’t. And Hannibal has “it” in spades.

This charm is instinct, intuition. Hannibal is a natural leader, drawing moths to his flame. It is predatory power. He is described by a childhood acquaintance as “charming, like a cub is charming before it’s learned to be one of the big cats.” His therapist describes him as wearing “a well-tailored person-suit.” His danger is magnetic, sensuous. Even in his most threatening moments, the men and women surrounding Hannibal are drawn to him. He works a cobra-dance, expertly weaving aesthetic, philosophy, and manipulation together to entangle his victims. And yet, they are glad to be wound in his web. The violence (and resulting cannibalism) is filmed like sex: lush, lingering shots of stolen breath and trembling bodies.

hannibal-182Hannibal experiencing a completely innocuous projector malfunction

Though Hannibal’s victims are male and female in similar ratios, his only (onscreen) sexual relationship is with a woman, whom he later attempts to murder. However, he engages in his erotic, sensual seduction with men and women alike. In an interview  with Entertainment Weekly, director Brian Fuller opened up on his view of Hannibal’s sexual preferences. “I think Hannibal is a very broadly spectrumed human being/fallen angel, who probably is capable and interested in everything humanity has to offer.” This interpretation of Hannibal positions him in a unique position of the sissy villain. Being presented as a figure with attractions all over the gender spectrum both embroils Hannibal in gender and distances him from it. He never indicates a preference for men or women in particular, but in this lack of preference, Hannibal is presented as a man who samples from any and all areas of the spectrums of gender and sexuality.

When not trying to kill and eat his paramours, Hannibal performs the role of an attentive lover, acting with sensitivity and romance. He remembers food and drink preferences, washes his lover’s hair, teaches them to play instruments. He draws beautiful European landscapes, plays the harpsichord, and, of course, cooks. Although it is often used as a way of disposing of his victims, Hannibal’s love of cooking also expresses a departure from gender norms. He delights in feeding his friends (and, on more than one occasion, feeding his friends to his friends). He uses food for care-taking, for seduction, for friendship, and for art. Such expertise furthers his aura of effortless skill, and the appeal of his power to those around him. He works with precision and tenderness — many shots see him lingering lovingly over smells and tastes, clearly impressed by his own work. (And with Hannibal, we know that’s the only opinion he truly values.) This delicate care is a humanizing moment of tenderness, one that allows him to embrace his gentler side.

tumblr_n384sbtQkJ1tx4u06o3_1280Hannibal enjoying the fruits of his labors

Hannibal is the true Renaissance man, an exquisite dandy in bespoke suits. Alongside the cannibalism and culinary skill, Hannibal is known for his stunning fashion sense. His suits are finely tailored, the colors and patterns unique, precise, and often mirroring the color scheme of the episode. Dedicated fans have compiled a list of images for a complete look at Hannibal’s wardrobe over the television series. Hannibal’s suits tend to depart from traditional male attire, often featuring colors and patterns most would not attempt. Hannibal wears them with confidence, embracing a look that is not traditionally masculine. He also wears ascots and unironic bowties, many articles of clothing that are reminiscent of queer menswear. And yet, his unique style is celebrated among straight and cisgender male fans. Men’s fashion websites even offer instruction on “How to Dress Like Hannibal Lecter”.[2] Through fashion, Hannibal is shown to thread a delicate dance through gender expression that is very often lauded by those who would never describe themselves as queer.

hannibal_3Promotional image featuring Hannibal Lecter for the NBC television series

In Hannibal’s nuanced performance of gender, he embodies the danger of the Sissy Villain while also working to appeal to an audience across the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality. However, rather than a Buffalo Bill-esque performance that disturbs both audience and characters, Hannibal is deeply appealing to both. This suggests that there is a correct amount of sissiness to be played to still remain attractive and desirable, even when the subject in question is a serial killer and cannibal. For Hannibal, his effortless performance allows him to glide through gender in the “fallen angel” manner his creator intended.


[1] Here, success is defined as Hannibal’s ability to escape danger and pursue his sadistic goals.

[2] The how-to guide is prefaced not by a disclaimer that emulating serial killers is wrong, but that Hannibal was canceled due to the fact that “most people would rather the quality of McDonald’s over the quality of a 5-star restaurant.” Hannibal would approve of such haughtiness