Reading Privilege and the Privilege of Reading

[7-10 minute read]

As a child, I was a voracious reader. Scholastic Book Fairs were the best part of the elementary school fall season; no questions asked. J.K. Rowling was still publishing book after book in the Harry Potter series, The Reading Rainbow featured heavily as parent-approved public broadcast television, and I distinctly remember the pride I felt after making my way through my dad’s airport paperback copy of John Grisham’s The Client. Did I understand the novel? Not entirely, but I did read every single word, which seemed like accomplishment enough.

Every time our elementary class visited the library, my teacher would remind me – not without a touch of frustration – that I was only allowed to check out a certain number of books, and to try reading at my own grade level. I may have been drastically reducing the quality of my eyesight, but at least I was tearing through the Encyclopedia Brown and Cam Jansen mystery series, reading all about Laura Ingalls in her family’s house on the prairie, and sneaking Goosebumps chapter books home under my mother’s disapproving eye.

Although my early years were filled with reading logs, literacy tests, and all the early standardized testing expected of a public magnet school, not once did I consider sitting down to count how many books I had read (and then probably reread) for the sake of enjoyment.


Truly, nothing will ever compare to the exhilaration.

In the summer of 2016, I took a moment to sit back and marvel over the amount of textual material I had encountered throughout my graduate school career. I was nearing the end of reading my way through my Qualifying Exam lists, having read an acceptable amount of Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, Barrett Browning, and Rossetti, to name just a few. As opposed to a number of other universities, Syracuse’s English department allows its graduate students to create their own exam lists, with the guidance of several advisors. The aim of this is to read widely in their field, and in order to demonstrate sufficient competence and mastery.

The departmental Graduate Student handbook called for two reading lists, with a maximum of one hundred twenty titles spread out across novels, selections of poetry and nonfiction essays, dramatic manuscripts, and critical monographs. With some creative rearranging and grouping together of texts with similar topics, each of my lists came in just under the limit, at fifty-seven and fifty-six distinct titles.

Many of these texts, I could access for free online, via Project Gutenberg or Google Books; others, I borrowed straight off the shelves in my advisor’s office. Having taken many a nineteenth-century British literature course during my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, I already owned a good number of the more canonical novels, and as a last resort, I could always turn to Amazon, or the University library system.


Bird Library doesn’t look like much from the outside, but judge not a book by its cover, and all.

One semester earlier, while trying to teach my students about the concept of privilege, I was prepared to challenge a lot of ideological assumptions about race, gender, and class. A quick perusal of Youtube resources led to the following video, which I showed at the beginning of class, hoping to prompt discussion:

The process is fairly self-explanatory: a group of people stand on a single horizontal line, side-by-side, while a speaker reads aloud a list of statements. Depending on whether the statement applies to an individual’s life experience, they were to take a step forward, or backwards. As an Asian-American woman, a second-generation immigrant, and the first person in my family to pursue graduate education, I anticipated several, if not many of the statements read aloud in the video. When I teach, I am highly aware of my identity, how I attempt to construct and maintain my teaching persona, and that my students – or their parents – have the means of paying one of the most expensive undergraduate tuitions in the nation.

However, one statement made me pause: “If there were more than fifty books in your house growing up, take a step forward.”

Growing up, Mandarin was the initial language of my household, but as my parents struggled to acclimate to life in the United States, the number of children’s and young adult literature in English began to overtake our bookshelves. Books were routinely gifted and received, and as of last Christmas, that family tradition still exists. It wasn’t as if I was completely unaware of our status as a “middle-class” family, but for the longest time, to me, books were just books. They weren’t Nintendo gaming systems or desktop computers; reading couldn’t really compare to seasonal passes to the closest amusement park, or annual trips to Disney World. Compared to other material goods, books seemed ubiquitous: the bread-and-butter of my daily life.

Accessibility to reading materials is still a topic of public concern, although by all means, it shouldn’t be. Lately, once-trendy e-readers have ostensibly “lost their shine,” but that doesn’t mean libraries are receiving better funding, or that bookstores are seeing better sales. In the fall of 2016, a public outcry against the closure of the last bookstore in the Bronx was enough to delay, but not halt its replacement by a luxury department store. At the present, several locals are hoping to rejuvenate the “book desert” that the borough has become, but capitalism proves to be only one of the major obstacles to ensuring free and open literacy for readers everywhere.


As of April 2018, Bronx native and book publicist Sareciea Fennell had successfully fulfilled her Kickstarter goal to fund the first Bronx Book Festival. The festival is set for May 19, located at Fordham Plaza.

Looking for Sylvia Heschel at the Archive

As I wrote in my previous post, I spent the last week perusing the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers at Duke University.

One of my major goals of the trip was to glean as much information as I could about Sylvia Heschel (nee Straus), Abraham Joshua Heschel’s wife. I knew very little about Sylvia Heschel before going to the archive – I knew she was a concert pianist, but not much more than that.

One of my favorite books on American Judaism is called The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950 by Jenna Joselit Weissman. One of the things she does throughout the book is look towards pieces of material culture often overlooked by more traditional scholarship. This hermeneutic of “uncovering” previously under- or un-studied material often looks towards “women’s things”: cookbooks, synagogue gift shops, matchmaking practices, etc.

In a chapter of this book about home decorations and furnishings called Home Sweet Haym, Joselit Weissman writes:

“Most extant American Judaica [at the time, pre-WWI] possessed little aesthetic appeal; fashioned out of cheap materials like tin and inexpensive fabrics like “sleazy” white satin, American Judaica simply didn’t lend itself to being proudly displayed. […One rabbi] witheringly compared the willingness of Christian Americans to spend lavishly on Christmas tree decorations while ‘the average Jew… contends himself with the fifteen-cent tin Menorah.’ Not everyone, however, was contend with the apparent triumph of this neutral idiom of home décor. […] Seeking to make as much room for King David as for Louis Quatorse, Jewish public figures like Mathilde Schechter, a founder of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, and writers like Trude Weiss Rosmarin championed a new cultural understanding of style…”[1]

When I read Mathilde Schechter’s name in that paragraph above a little chill of excitement ran through me. Mathilde Schechter, beyond being one of the founders of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, was married to Solomon Schechter. Solomon Schechter was a significant thinker of American Conservative Judaism, one-time president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and founder of the United Synagogue of America. (More about him can be found at the Jewish Virtual Library.)

What stunned me so much about the above quote from Joselit Weissman, then, is not only its focus on material Judaica, but how she talks about Mathilde Schechter. Mathilde isn’t immediately described as being the wife of Solomon Schechter! Instead, she and her work are written about as important in their own right to American Judaism. This, I thought to myself at the time, is important. The way we write about wives is important.

And so I had the idea to try and write something about Sylvia Heschel. So, while at the archive I pulled a lot of folders with her writings, notes, and personal effects.

It was thrilling. I felt like a detective. I started to feel close to Sylvia Heschel. I started to recognize the way she doodled in the margins of her notes. I recognized her handwriting. I looked at holiday cards she had saved, letters from her family, letters of congratulations when she married Abraham. I scanned in cards, letters, and her notes that I thought might be useful to me and my research later.

It wasn’t until I was at back at my hotel after a long day of scanning, reading and feeling that I realized what I had done.


“How was your day?” My husband asked me on the phone. (I, like Mathilde Schechter and Sylvia Heschel, am a wife.)

“Oh, fine. I’m a little concerned about all the things I didn’t scan in about Sylvia though. I think I sort of re-created a patriarchal approach to looking at Sylvia.”


“Well, she had all these notes about music – she was a pianist, and took advanced classes at the Manhattan School of Music – but I couldn’t make heads or tails of the notes, they were handwritten and I don’t know music theory so I sort of concentrated my research and my scanning in things which were about her role as a wife and mother and I might have been discounting her scholarly work as unimportant. But maybe it is!”

“What kind of music theory was it?” My husband asked me, interested. “I know some of that, you know. And my dad does, too…”

“Well, I’ve already told them to take the box back to storage,” I said, resigned. “I think I’ll need to plow ahead and finish the original plan for my next day here…. Next time I’m back here maybe I’ll look at those notes again. She did have an essay about religious music I copied, but it was missing a page…”


The next day I was continuing to sift through more cards and letters to Sylvia. Many of the envelopes had little notes or doodles on them – she was a big doodler. I got into the habit of checking the envelopes to see if there were any significant doodles or notes on them when looking over the letters. I flipped over an envelope of one of them and saw a list. “Eggs, milk, bread,” the note read. A grocery list. Part of her life as a wife and mother, relegated to the in-between and transitory place of an opened envelope: scrap paper. I sighed, and wondered to myself how much of Sylvia Heschel was a wife and mother, how much of her was a pianist, how much of her was a student. All impossible questions.

And what would she think of me, a graduate student doing archival research for the first time in my life, worrying over one of her grocery lists?

[1] Joselit Weissman, Jenna. The Wonders of America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 194.

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.


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.


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).


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.


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.

“They may pass for excellent men:” Audience and Interpretative Labor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[5-7 minute read]

Last week, I discussed Hamlet’s metatheatrical play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago, in an attempt to discuss what Hamlet’s attitudes towards acting could tell us about the relationship between theater and audience. This week, I would like to shift gears and discuss a different moment of metatheatricality in Shakespeare: the performance of The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with my previous examples, Midsummer has an investment in the relationship between actor and audience, particularly as it pertains to moments of interpretation relative to an imagined, unchanging ‘text.’ Here though, that interrogation would seem to lack the political stakes that characters like Hamlet and individuals like Elizabeth I associated with the theater. Rather, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are presented with the possibility that an audience’s ability to interpret a text against an implied authorial voice does not represent a threat to the theater as an institution. Instead, this moment represents an instance of productive labor that allows audience and playwright to work in unison.

Among the many subplots moving through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a great deal of time is spent with the “Rude Mechanicals,” a band of Athenian lower-class craftsmen preparing a play for the upcoming wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens. The performance is framed as comically inept. From its treatment of the staging to the acting, the text of Midsummer’s invites mockery of the Rude Mechanicals’ stage play. The performance, which dominates the fifth act of the play,[1] becomes a spectacle of failure as the onstage audience of the performance mocks and jeers at the actors in what amounts to a four-century old version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. While the Rude Mechanicals are not Hamlet’s boisterous clowns, they seem aligned with his idea of the overly zealous actor who would threaten to “out-Herods/ Herod,” and thus cause the audience to fail in understanding the gravity of the play’s printed text.[2] The original Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragedy drawn from the pages of Ovid, and invokes the same vaunted high artistic sources in which Hamlet finds his text. Unlike The Murder of Gonzago within Hamlet, Pyramus fails to produce its desired effect and the narrative is transformed into farce.

Rude MechanicalsShakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals

To this end, it is important to consider not only the metatheatrical performance undertaken in A Midsummer’s, but also its metatheatrical audience. Theseus and his cohort are very aware of their role as audience members, and the beginning of Act V serves as a justification for why the Duke allows this performance to go on in the first place. Central to this is Duke’s assertion that he and his fellow audience members are serving as a magnanimous corrective to the failure of the mechanicals; they act as individuals who know the play will be awful but will watch it nonetheless, because their presence will solve the problem of the mechanical’s ineptitude, and thus ‘fix’ the play. The Duke, being informed of how awful the play will likely be, remarks “[t]he kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing. / Our sport shall be to take what they mistake.”[3] Taking what they – the performers – mistake implicitly frames Theseus’s goal as one of interpretative labor, in which he and his fellow audience members will correct the problems arising from the inability of the mechanicals to ‘properly’ perform tragedy.

This is however, made significantly more complex by how the performance of A Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe does not fail in a metatheatrical sense. In other words, although the Rude Mechanicals fail to properly perform tragedy within the logic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the live audience is compelled to join in with Theseus and his royal audience. We laugh with them and the comedy of Midsummer becomes successful, even if it is at the expense of lower-class actors failing to produce real affective tragedy. We take it upon ourselves to participate in Theseus’s reinterpretation of the play and in doing so, we too find pleasure the kind of corrective interpretation that Theseus promises when he claims to “take what they mistake.” The audience is not a passive figure tasked with correctly taking in the meaning of the tragedy, as that is not the real stakes in the final moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead, the on-stage audience are active participants in the construction of the play and in doing so, provide a bulk of the pleasurable comedy. We, as the audience in the theater, are brought to laugh with the on-stage audience and in doing so, we aren’t failing to properly interpret Pyramus and Thisbe; we are correctly interpreting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is the central metatheatrical tension in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s, and it is this tension between text and performance that creates the comedy of the final act.

Now, the political stakes in the reinterpretation of tragedy into comedy are much lower than the stakes of an early modern audience member reinterpreting a play like Richard II as pro-usurpation. However, the function of this examination, and the function of all my discussions this month has been to interrogate the ways in which early modern drama addresses and complicates the role of the audience as an active and passive portion of the space of the theater. I began this month in the present day, examining the suggestion that audiences failing to properly interpret the ‘meaning of a play’ might in turn serve as a threat to the institution of the public theater. From there, I spoke to two similar discourses present in early modernity, each suggesting how various audiences’ differing interpretation of a play might have dire political consequences. I close then, on a more ‘productive’ moment of misinterpretation, wherein the audiences’ ability to reject the ‘meaning of a text’ is not imagined as an undesirable response. At the conclusion of this series of blogposts, I hope to have made visible the complex relationship early modern theater had with its own interpretative communities, and the ways in which many of those vexed relationships remain present in our own relationship with the artistic productions of the past.

[1] The rest of the key plot points have been wrapped up by the beginning of the fifth act.

[2] Hamlet III.ii.x14-x15. Of note here, Bottom does pride himself in his ability to play a tyrant, an attitude he attempts to comically transfer off the stage during rehearsal.

[3] A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.95-96.

“Dumbshows and Noise:” Hamlet and The Problem of Audience

[5-7 minute read]

During Act 3 of Hamlet, while preparing the travelling players for the evening’s performance, Hamlet provides the actor’s company with a lengthy speech concerning the proper methods of acting he would like them to employ. During the speech, he makes a note on clowns, saying “and let those that play/ your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;/for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to/ set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh/too.[1] Here, Hamlet urges caution to the players: their clown should speak only those words written upon the page, lest his frantic ad-libbing set the audience to laughter, and risk missing “some necessary/question of the play be then to be considered.”[2] This moment reminds the audience of how seriously Hamlet takes the theater and how he believes the supremacy of the page should define the worth of theatrical performance. Hamlet’s worry is that that clowns and fools pose a threat to the political power of drama. Given the political implications of Hamlet’s play, the worry here is that a particularly boisterous fool may risk causing the entire theatrical endeavor to come crashing down. Moving too far from the text, or otherwise reducing its importance as a single-authored object of reverence, threatens to rob it of its political weight, and reduce it to airy nothingness.

William KempeWilliam Kempe: Shakespeare’s first fool and likely the reason that this speech exists

Particularly key here is the sense that ‘some quantity of barren spectators’ will become wrapped up in the clown’s performance. Clowns were understood to be figures of the theater beloved by the commons; they were the wild antic-makers who, along with the jigs and songs that would accompany a public theatrical performance, successfully brought London’s poorer audiences into the theaters. This moment of directly – and assertively – attacking the figure of the fool is explicitly transformed into a jab at the kinds of audiences who would enjoy the labor of the clown and in turn, would rob the text of its dignity. Here, the assault on the fool is an instrument for critiquing the baser kinds of audiences who enjoyed the fools’ antics above the artistic merit of the tragic monologue. While Hamlet extends this beyond the antics of the clown (also critiquing players whose voices remind him of the town-crier), the thrust of the speech remains in the suggestion that the theater is a site of high art that must not be threatened by actors who would “split the ears of the groundlings, who/ for the most part are capable of nothing but/ inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”[3] A key component of this critique is misdirection; in other words, this critique emphasizes a playwright’s worry that his audience will fail to understand the gravity of the text, and will instead allow themselves to be enamored by disposable and unimportant moments that are not worthy of artistic labor. Within this speech, the antipathy towards the unwashed masses and their inability to properly relate to the artistic production of the theater is palpable, and framed through rhetoric reminiscent of critiques leveled against mass public audiences in virtually any contemporary moment.

This sense of the importance of the play is complicated by the performance Hamlet is discussing. While in the last few weeks we looked at texts that were assumed to have represented political leaders on stage, Hamlet’s intent is explicit, as he notes “the play’s the thing,/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”[4] Hamlet is certain of the play’s ability to foreground the reality of Denmark’s corruption, despite the incongruity separating The Murder of Gonzago from the text of Hamlet. Hamlet’s audience, both on the stage and in the theatre, is meant to understand that the goal of the play is to “hold a mirror up to nature[5] — and this in turn will reflect the rank villainy that has seeped into the Danish court. While Hamlet is not hoping that his play will stir a popular revolt,[6] he is assuming the play itself will have the power make the invisible sins lingering within the state visible, and furthermore, force a moment of confession and revelation to justify his act of regicide. His speech to the player kings also suggests a belief that if the play is not treated with the necessary reverence for the art form, it will be prone to fail. The stakes of this performance as so much greater than the enjoyment and applause of Hamlet’s hypothetical barren spectators, and so must be presented with the proper audience in mind.

While there is reason to be hesitant in ventriloquizing the voice of Shakespeare through Hamlet, it is worth considering the ways that this discourse was present during the period, and the ways in which Hamlet’s advice has become part and parcel with the discourse surrounding the theater in our contemporary world. As the theater has become a stable and lauded artistic institution, clowns and dumbshows in Shakespearean tragedies nevertheless remind us of their popular origins. As I noted in my first post this month, there was a sense among defenders of Julius Caesar (2017) that it was a case of audiences simply missing the “question of the play.” Those who then missed the question became like the lowly personages Hamlet critiques here, incapable or unwilling to grapple with the complexity of the dramatic representations put before them, and wasting energy in focusing on the wrong part of the text or performance. Though these complaints are not framed in the same language Hamlet proposes, the premise that underscores them remains worth considering. In our contemporary affirmation of the theater as weighty and serious art capable of enacting the kind of political labor early modern audiences feared, there is a danger that we have also affirmed Hamlet’s suggestion. Perhaps, this assertion also bolsters the belief that groundings, past and present, and their inability to fully understand the weight of artistic representation, act as a threat to the value of the theater as an institution. This becomes a highly contentious notion regarding who can enjoy the theater and what it means to ‘watch a play properly,’ lest we become the clown-loving audiences Hamlet chides. At its heart, these debates all return to the relationship between the theater and the general public, and this is the subject that I will explore in my final post this month.

[1] Hamlet III.ii.39-43.

[2] Ibid, 43-44.

[3] Ibid, 11-13.

[4] Hamlet, II.ii, 633-634.

[5] Hamlet, III.ii. 23.

[6] By contrast, Laertes does lead a popular revolt.

“I am Richard II, Know Ye Not That”: Drama and Political Anxiety in Shakespeare’s London

[5 minute read]

In last week’s post, I talked about the public reaction to a 2017 performance of a 1599 play featuring the execution of a Roman Consul who had been made-over to look like a contemporary politician. This week, I will be looking at the performance of a 1597 play that took place in 1601, similarly featuring the execution of a monarch perceived to look like a contemporary politician. During the late Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, a time now remembered as one of the heights of English dramatic production, there was a common belief that the theater was dangerous because it was a kind of art that could easily reach a broad, popular audience. The theater ripe for criticism: it was seen as a den of vice and disease,[1] and as a threat to public decency, particularly as it involved the interpretative labor of a population that might be spurred to sin or rebellion by the content performed upon the stage. This led to a wide range of so-called ‘anti-theatricalist’ literature, which sought to condemn the worst excess of the theater and its audiences. Writers denounced the theater as tempting audiences in the same way “[t]he deceitful physician gives sweet syrups to make his poison go down the smoother: the juggler casts a mist to work the closer: the siren’s song is the sailor’s wreck.”[2] The central worry was that audiences were being lured in by representations of sin, heresy and disobedience.

frontimage“The schoole of abuse contayning a pleasaunt inuectiue against poets, pipers, players, iesters, and such like caterpillers of a common wealth”

As a result of this fear – and combined with a general culture of political repression – the public theater was heavily scrutinized by the Elizabethan regime. Political authorities engaged in a number of censorship practices designed to limit writing that could be considered seditious, particularly restricting and suppressing any play dealing with “either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the common weal.”[3] Playwrights were arrested on suspicion of treason, and several, including Thomas Kyd, were tortured. Most of these convictions dealt with religious heresy during Elizabeth I’s crackdown on Catholicism. However, locating these efforts within the space of the theater suggested that individuals within positions of power shared a skepticism concerning the theater.[4] The underlying assumption that a play might incite audiences to open treason carries with it a powerful statement about the relationship between dramatic representation, interpretation and political anxieties. As a part of the public bureaucracy, this also constrained playwrights to working around censorship laws to avoid losing their license to perform.

EssexRobert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex

While these fears surrounding the theater certainly seem exaggerated, the persistent belief that the theater might be a site of political subversion did have significant real-world ramifications. The most famous case of the theater intersecting with open political rebellion during Shakespeare’s contemporary moment was likely the Essex Rebellion in 1601. One-time court favorite Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, attempted a coup in London with the intent of shifting power in the English courts towards his own party. A small part of this coup involved paying a substantial amount of money to the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II (a play written several years earlier) on the days leading up to the rebellion, seemingly hopeful that a play about the deposition and overthrow of a weak monarch by a powerful usurper would win support for the imminent coup. While it seems odd to think that a performance of a play might have had any impact on public opinion, Elizabeth I shared a similar fear, once remarking “I am Richard II, know ye not that,”[5] tying herself to the deposed monarch and commenting on the frequency of the play’s production. Here, the stakes of interpretation and the willingness of a population to read Richard II as a seditious text is not merely a historical curiosity; rather, it was part of the logic justifying state control over the theater, and greatly impacted the way playwrights navigated the politically vexed world of the Elizabethan stage.

None of this is to suggest that the controversy I discussed last week carries the same stakes as it did in the Elizabethan era. What I hoped to demonstrate in this blog post is that discourses surrounding how politics are represented on the stage (and the associated issues of audience reaction and interpretation) are baked into the very DNA of early modern drama, particularly as writers attempted to navigate an outwardly hostile social landscape. Given the place that certain theatrical works, such as those of Shakespeare, occupy in the contemporary cultural landscape, it is worthwhile to think about the context in which these texts were first produced, and how it shaped their content – especially as we continue to repurpose these texts to service our own anxieties in the contemporary political moment.

[1] This was true both metaphorically, as opponents of the theater saw them as examples of public sickness and distress, but also literally, as fears of epidemics and plagues saw the closure of theaters to prevent viral outbreaks among London’s poorer population.

[2] Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579.

[3] Queen Elizabeth I, proclamation “Prohibiting Unlicensed Interludes and Plays, Especially on Religion or Policy” qtd.

[4] It is also worth remembering that to work against the teachings of the Church of England during the late 16th century was viewed as a state crime, as religion was a matter of state identity.

[5] There is debate over whether this anecdote is apocryphal, though the general distress at the political power of the theater was not invented, even if this quote was.

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him:” Shakespeare and the Politics of Interpretation

[5-7 minute read]

During my last month writing for Metathesis, I talked about the contemporary desire to find political meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. Then in June, Shakespeare in the Park staged a performance of Julius Caesar in which the actor playing Caesar consciously invoked the image of President Trump, mimicking his vocal affectation and his mannerisms. This performance was met with public backlash, as voices responded with anger at the idea of a publicly funded art institution staging the assassination of the sitting President. As someone who studies early modern drama, it was a surreal moment to see the nation spend a few days in the middle of Summer having a conversation focused on how to properly interpret Act 3 of Julius Caesar. For a moment in June 2017, the text of a play from 1599 about the death of a Roman Consul in 44 BC was at the heart of a public debate over the relationship between art and politics.

Image 1Per the performance, this was a Caesar who could stab a man on fifth avenue and not lose a supporter.

Most surprising to me was the outpouring of reactions to the controversy that framed it as one over interpretations of the play. These responses attempted to announce, as clearly as possible, that Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence – and they were built upon textual arguments and close-readings.[1] These responses, from sources like The Guardian and The New York Times to The AV Club and The Atlantic, centered on the idea that a sufficiently skillful reading of the text of Julius Caesar would clear up any confusion over whether or not the production supported the actions of the Roman conspirators. By extension, this assumption meant a skillful reading would also appropriately address – and perhaps deflate – any anger of what the play was perceived to say about President Trump. For these responses, the portion of the public angry about the performance was simply missing the point of the play, or as Atlantic frames it, it was a case of “[m]isplaced [o]utrage.” The Guardian piece brings in Stephen Greenblatt to explain how dissenters are missing “the point of the play.” Even the statement by the theater itself is built partially on this premise, stating “Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.” Invoking the authorial voice of Shakespeare alongside their own production decisions, the statement reads as not only a defense of artistic integrity, but also a pointed claim: at the heart of the controversy is a misreading of Julius Caesar.

Now, these responses also seem intent on producing a singular interpretative lens through which to view the play. These readings gloss over the idea that while one can read Julius Caesar as a play that is deeply skeptical about the conspiratorial action of figures like Cassius and Brutus, it can also be read as a play in which a demagogue exploits a mob of Roman citizens and preys upon their anger and resentment to compel them to destructive violence. This notably includes a scene in which the mob tears a poet to shreds because they dislike his verses, an equally prescient interpretation. However, for me, the fascinating aspect of these responses lies less in the specific interpretations that they provide for Julius Caesar, and more in the underlying assumption that the entire ordeal stemmed from a debate over the textual meaning of Act 3 of Julius Caesar, with the accompanying suggestion that this would be cleared up through the authoritative voices of individuals who were simply better readers. This move signals an important divide in how the various voices in the conversation conceptualize the place of the stage (and other arts) in public discourse. Shakespeare, these responses seem to imply, is more in danger of being misread than anything else. The political undercurrents of the play are not dangerous; rather, the possibility that they will be misunderstood is dangerous and that must be warded against.

Central to this conversation is the implication that the theater is a site of political tension and that the interpretation of this tension can be, and often is, a deeply political act. This is certainly not a new debate. For another examination of the relationship between theater and the present administration, see Ashley O’Mara’s Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion. Tensions surrounding the theater and the role of drama in the Anglophonic world date back to the foundation of the first public theaters and in my next post, I’m going to explore how debates over the place of the theater in public political life have evolved since Shakespeare’s work were first performed on the London stage.

[1] Putting my own personal interpretative cards on the table: Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence. Also, it should be noted that the original story that generated anger around the performance neglected to mention that the play in question was Julius Caesar.

Evan Hixon is a third-year Ph.D. student in the English Department. His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations. His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Feeling the Affects

To some degree, all of our posts this month have flirted with affect. Whether it’s waking up dazed in confused in graduate school or exploring the significance of melancholia, memory, and reverberating energies, all of these topics point to a larger picture of attempting to understand and read feeling in texts and our daily lives. This week, we’d like to revisit how we’ve engaged with discourses of emotion and feeling in the past. In the following post, Noelle will give a brief overview about [SOMETHING ABOUT VICTORIANS BEING ANXIOUS ABOUT FEELING], and Tyler will focus on [SOMETHING ABOUT HUMANS AND MATERIALS]. Together, these posts reveal how two graduate students attempt to navigate trying to understand what we feel, how/if texts feel, and what we can attempt to say about it.

Mechanics of Victorian “Nervousness”

As a Victorianist, I spend a lot of time talking about nineteenth-century, and specifically Victorian, anxieties. So much of my time is devoted to this in fact that recently, when I was telling someone about research I’m currently doing for a seminar paper, they replied by saying, “So, is your research interest Victorian anxiety because you relate, or…?” As it turns out, my research interests do not center around Victorian anxiety disorders. However, I am very interested in the ways the phrase “nervous energy” is explicitly or implicitly invoked across discourses in the Victorian era.

To make the statement that Victorians were anxious because they were forced to witness and experience THE transition into modernity seems like a fallacy because a “fear of modernity” is noticeable throughout history. There is always something new, changing, incomprehensible and, therefore, ominous on the horizon. So, a general fear of modernity itself may not be the best way to explain the “nervousness” of the Victorians.

Because most of my research up until this point has focused on nineteenth-century anxieties surrounding affectation and performance, much of my time has been spent trying to understand the apparently problematic nature of inauthenticity and fake or forced feeling. My “obsession” with Victorian anxieties began with an interest in Victorian sensation fiction. Specifically, how period critiques of the genre called the incitement of fake feeling—the genre’s need and ability to “make the public’s flesh creep”—one of sensation fiction’s worst offenses.

More recently, a conference paper I presented on performance in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park focused on the problem of theatricality and acting (i.e., faking feeling) and mediation—more specifically, the ways in which mediation affects the performance and interpretation of feeling. While this paper focused on how the body and printed text can be used to mediate and remediate affect, a recent line of inquiry (as stated in a previous post) has gotten me thinking about Victorian “new” media’s relationship to affect and feeling. Although I’ve encountered arguments describing the “nervousness” of the Victorian era when looking at various elements of Victorian popular culture (such as sensation fiction and theatre), I came across the phrase “nervous energy” multiple times while reading about Victorian new media. This phrase might help elucidate the Victorians’ relationship to and anxieties surrounding modernity.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan has used the phrase “the affect of the electric age” to describe twentieth-century changes in aesthetic and social interaction. Though he is writing roughly a century later, this phrase can be used to reference the problem of energy (gas, steam, electricity) beginning to permeate Victorian life in much the same way fears of affectation appear to. If criticisms surrounding nineteenth-century sensation fiction and theatre often described feeling as a contagion that could infect bodies and attack nerves, electricity might necessarily be a hypermediated, physical manifestation of this anxiety.

This thought leaves me with many thoughts and questions, but I’ll wrap up this section with just a few: If nervous energy and feeling can infect bodies and attack nerves, is it possible to understand electricity functioning in a similar way if media are interpreted as mechanical bodies? How might the concept of affective economies be applied to media, if at all? What might a comparison of Victorian new media/technology, sensation fiction’s (female) readers, and the figure of the (female) occultist medium reveal if we think of energy as something that is able to possess and control fleshy or mechanical bodies?

In the next week, I’ll be attempting to tackle some of these questions in a seminar paper. I’m not quite sure how I feel, but I’m hoping it’s affective.

Objects and Bodies

I’m a person that spends most of their time thinking about objects, space, and bodies. Even though there are similarities between objects and bodies, I still choose to separate the two. For instance: both move through cultural spaces, both can seem ‘out of place’, and both are manipulated for labor. I admit that the separation itself at first feels as if I am privileging the human over the inhuman. Except separating the two also allows for us to partially divest that which has been considered human from the body; creating lacunas that must necessarily be filled by that which is nonhuman.

While writing this I am listening to Porter Robinson’s, “Worlds: The Movie” and am having a memory of their performance at Electric Forest. People often refer to the festival and its [s]p(l)ace as ‘Forest’. Of course it has a different meaning for everyone, but I’ve come to understand this experience as a celebration of the (in)organic. There you will find a horse made of CDs in a small clearing, and more towards the center you might find a technicolor cloud installation among the branches of trees.

As a scholar, I seek to understand the relations between humans, materials, and art. This has led me to consider questions of media, remediation, and affect. To be clearer, I am interested in which ways the individual, susceptible to its environment, is affected by objects. I’m now entangled not only in considering the techne of affectation, but also in questioning how affect circulates between materials and bodies. Readers can find similar concerns being worked through in the modernist novel, Nightwood.

My obsession with Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood during the first semester made my cohort convinced that my dossier was going to be on melancholy. The extent to which Nightwood had affected me also affected my cohort – to put it in another way, we sensed something. How might a text not only contain affect, but also infect readers with affect? Strange discusses the melancholic affect within Nightwood as it relates to the incapacity of figural language that over represents, and occludes, sensation to mediate the truth (134). Parsons suggests that it is not just the text, but the narrative form that’s also structured in such a way that melancholia permeates (169). I consider Nightwood an affective object. However, what makes Nightwood an object of fascination for me is that the objects within Nightwood are affective as well (as mentioned last week). But, as a return to how we sensed something while in the presence of Nightwood: should we not call this, as Noelle has suggested, resonance? Further, what does thinking about the mediation of affect as ‘resonance’ afford in contrast to thinking of affect as an epidemiological phenomenon of ‘infection’?

I took breaks while writing this to watch the video of Worlds on YouTube. I’ve been thinking about which ways I resonate with this particular virtual object. Porter has commented that he created this album as a way to channel his feelings of nostalgia. This is interesting when you consider the fact that the video is compiled of videos from various performances, uploaded by disparate users and edited into a narrative that is just over an hour long. We can draw connections between the reasons for why the video was created, to fix the memory of an enjoyed performance from the past, and the emotion of nostalgia itself. I question whether the nostalgia I’m feeling is in fact my own feeling, or if it’s a resonate affect of this virtual object.

Parsons, Deborah. “Djuna Barnes and Affective Modernism.” The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel. Ed. Morag Schiach. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 165-177.

Strange, Martina. “’Melancholia, melancholia’; Changing Black Bile into Black Ink in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.” in Hayford Hall: Hangovers, Erotics, and Modernist Aesthetics. Edited by Podnieks and Chait. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 133-49, 2005.

Noelle Hedgcock is an MA student in English at Syracuse University. Her research and teaching interests focus on nineteenth-century British literature and culture.

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.

Slow and Steady Wins The Race (Unless You Prefer to “Spritz”): Debunking the Myth of Faster = Better (So You Can Feel Better About Yourself) (16 Oct. 2015)

In my first year of graduate school I discovered I was not as strong of a reader as I had fancied myself to be. I discovered the amount of pages to read every week was massive in comparison to undergrad, which wouldn’t be so bad if this were still high school English and I was reading Huckleberry Finn or watching the Leonardo DiCaprio adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.  But instead, I found myself hunkering down with texts like Derrida’s Of Grammatology. I’m not surprised that within the first few weeks of my first semester of graduate school I found myself pleading for help on Facebook.  I treated my peers like they were Google and stated simply and interrogatively: “It has taken me 4 hours to read 100 pages.  Is this normal? Help!”

Among the advice bestowed upon me was a solitary link to a website for Spritz – a new app designed to help the fledgling reader reach his/her peak reading performance levels using technology that surpasses traditional reading methods, which, though proven to work for thousands of years, are burdensome and as a result are becoming quickly outdated.  Spritz is designed to liberate the human eye by increasing the focalization of the “Optimal Recognition Point,” the magical spot in each word the brain encounters, registers, and then quickly obtains meaning before moving on to the next. As the Spritz website claims, it is the “saccade” – the movement of the eye that occurs as it moves from one word to the next – that slows down the reading process.  The algorithm is thus as follows: Reduce the “saccade” effect; increase your reading speed.


The Original Spritz. (Also a proven reading aid and arguably the more pleasurable.)

The app accomplishes this in an almost painfully obvious way.  Each word flashes on the screen sequentially, in keeping with a steady WPM that users set for themselves.  According to the website, “Removing eye movement associated with traditional reading methods not only reduces the number of times your eyes move, but also decreases the number of times your eyes pass over words for your brain to understand them. This makes Spritzing extremely efficient, precise, convenient and comfortable.”  I can see the meme now:  A photo of a disgruntled but glowing youth, hands clutching the side of her head and crumpling her hair in despair, the caption ruthlessly blaring: MOVING MY EYES IS SO UNCOMFORTABLE. I CAN FEEL THEM SPASMING, OR AM I JUST BLINKING? – #firstworldproblems. Now our eyeballs, relieved of the burden of moving from left to right, can do the work of reading without actually working, much in the same way we can now do the work of sit-ups with our “Belly Burner Weight Loss Belts” without ever having to move a muscle.

It’s a comparison worth making for more than a laugh: Spritz is advertised as “the best way to engage with content in the digital age” and the results it boasts are claims that warrant scrutinizing.  What is different about our “digital age” other than the fact that we prefer pixels to the paper page? We have our Nooks and iReaders, true enough, but does the digital version of Pride and Prejudice create the need to read faster simply because it’s digitized?

The creators of the app concede that there are other ways of improving one’s reading skills that have also been proven to work, but they require a lot of time, effort, and patience, unlike the magic of Spritz, which only requires less time, no effort, and seems to cater to the chronically impatient.  Increasing one’s deep knowledge within a field, for example, helps to increase reading speed.  But increasing deep knowledge is time-consuming because it requires reading, often books, and at the same measly WPM rate you can barely manage already, and therefore slowly, slower than the time it takes you to read a text message or scroll through Facebook status updates or invent a clever hashtag to your latest Sunday Selfie.


Just saying.

Scanning the reviews in Apple’s app store, I’ve found users who praise Spritz endlessly for the way it has allowed them to “keep up”––students in summer classes boast how efficiently they can speed through their reading rather than slog through it and what I suspect are businessmen are elated they’re able to “keep up with current company.” For these users at least, reading has been stripped of its former inherent pleasure and has instead become a taxing task endured for rewards extraneous to the act itself.  To me it smacks of Marx’s notion of the “objectification of labor,” which argues that “the worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates” (71). In other words, the more “stuff” produced creates value in the thing being produced––the commodity (the iPhone, the latte, the Netflix)––and its reciprocal effect is the “devaluation of the world of men,” or the people who do the producing, to the status of commodity too (The Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 71).  As a result, “labour’s product confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer” (71).

Although it’s important to keep in mind that Marx is speaking of industrialized labor in particular, this insight can also be applied to the phenomenon of Spritz: Instead of dealing with the deplorable conditions of factory labor directly, we are witnessing an era that is suffused in a highly increased value of the world of things and perhaps at the expense of what makes us human.  We too become commodities or “objects,” are asked to maximize our performance in order to prove ourselves valuable to our economy.  The fact that so many users cite their jobs in their reviews as the motivating factor behind their use of Spritz is a strong indicator of this. It isn’t for pleasure that they’re reading.  For many avid users, reading itself appears to either have been, continues to be, or become “something alien.”


The obvious retort to this post is “So what? What’s wrong with getting ahead? Aren’t you English grad students always griping about how no one ever really reads anymore?” The answer is equally as obvious: Reading faster will not make you wiser.  And as to the question of who should care, the answer should be everyone, given that the literacy rate in the United States hasn’t changed in the past ten years; 21% of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level while 19% of newly minted high school graduates can’t read period.  That statistic only accounts for illiteracy that admittedly are not Spritz’s demographic, which is precisely what makes its existence so vexing.  Apps like Spritz offer the promise of improvement for a) people who don’t really need it, who are at a level where they can improve on the relative literacy they’ve already achieved and b) partially distract from the real impediment––a lack of investment in the humanities, English especially, specifically at the primary and secondary level and in low-income neighborhoods perpetually given the educational short shrift, while at the same time c) promoting a mode of reading that encourages a lack of critical thinking by emphasizing reading more instead of reading better, not to mention d) the fact that this reflects an overall obsession in our culture with “more, more, more” instead of “better” in a crucial time and place in which the collective desire for better is exactly what we need.

On a personal level, I came to a realization that soothed my performance-obsessed conscience. It was not that I was incapable of reading faster and therefore was somehow deficient; it was that I believed in the joy of reading slowly so as to understand completely, and to the extent I resisted the app and what it stood for, and to the extent I came to be aware of what reading had now become––a product of my own labor––I began to understand my own alienation.

I’m told often that I have a tendency to over-read situations as a symptom of my overdeveloped critical thinking skills, and while this may be true in certain (usually romantic) situations, I have found it to usually be beneficial.  Like, for example, the time I found Spritz’s own study that supposedly proves the merits of the app, stating that reading comprehension using the app is “comparable” to that of traditional reading – roughly 82% of the text comprehended using traditional methods vs. 77% using Spritz.  77% could be construed as comparable to 82%, but only if you’re stretching it (or reading it on your Spritz app at 550 wpm).  That’s a 5% difference but, you know, only if you care to take the time to notice.

Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.