some words about worms

I have been writing a book about vermin, pests, and parasites, and the surprising virtues of vile creatures. As part of my research for this project, I’ve been devouring essays and stories and poems about pigeons, rats, worms, even cockroaches. I keep making my friends listen to quotes from the philosopher Michel Serres, who says, “[H]istory hides the fact that man is the universal parasite, that everything and everyone around him is a hospitable space.” And Donna Haraway, who says, “I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such.” We’re all parasites, man, I tell myself with satisfaction. And: what even is a body but an ecosystem? It’s entanglements all the way down!

And then I get a call from the veterinarian. My dog Ellie Mae has tested positive for heartworms. My sweet dog, with dappled fur and gentle eyes and a burrito-shaped body, has been carrying a silent infection. My good girl, who loves chasing squirrels and swimming in the ocean, will have to go through a months-long treatment protocol that prohibits exercise.

Who’s to blame? Maybe it’s me—maybe I forgot to give Ellie Mae her pill one month, leaving her vulnerable. Or maybe it’s her previous owners, since I’ve had her for only a year. It’s certainly some mosquito that bit her. Mosquitoes transmit heartworms, and areas with a lot of mosquitoes, like our city in Florida, are heartworm hotbeds. I’m trying to convince myself she had already been bitten when I adopted her, because I can’t stand the little voice that says I’ve failed this creature I am bound to care for.

So now we have a mission: kill the heartworms without killing the dog. It’s even more complicated than that, though, because heartworms live in symbiosis with a bacterium called Wolbachia pipienti. So first Ellie Mae has to undergo an antibiotic treatment, which will kill the Wolbachia, along with probably a host of other good bacteria. This will weaken the heartworms, making them easier to eliminate with the next round of drugs.

Ellie Mae’s infection and treatment are caught up in larger ecological stories. One is the story of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Each time we use antibiotics, we are staging a natural selection scenario. Any microbe with a drug resistance mutation can survive and propagate itself in the empty space left by its weaker relatives. Each year, 23,000 people die of an antibiotic-resistant infection in the US alone. How much longer will doxycycline work against Wolbachia? Is each course of antibiotics we use a debt drawn on the future?

And then there’s the story of mosquitoes, who love hot, wet weather. As climate change accelerates and we get more warm days, mosquitoes get more active too. And that means more transmission of heartworms in dogs, as well as viruses like Zika, dengue fever, and West Nile in humans. With every ton of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere, we make the planet more hospitable for mosquitoes, and less hospitable for people and pets.

Climate change implicates me and Ellie Mae too. I haven’t eaten red meat or poultry in many years, but she’s an omnivore. I buy her kibble with meat in it because I’ve chosen her, over all the other thousands of animals, to care for. And meat, in particular the beef industry, is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. So even my innocent dog is not innocent.

Mosquitoes are like vampires, sucking and sullying our blood in unholy ways. And vampire stories are really stories about contagion. Ecology is a horror movie. I write essays and books about multispecies communities and symbiotic relationships, and then the dark unconscious of nature erupts like a jump scare to remind me of what I’ve repressed.

Ecological philosopher Timothy Morton put it best: “Everything is connected. And it sucks.”

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“No Ideas But in Things”: Objects and Material Culture

Here’s the abridged syllabus for my fall 2018 Writing and Research course. I’m really excited about this one, especially since we will be paying a visit to the Tampa Book Arts Studio, which is a treasure.

Course Description

so much depends

upon

 

a red wheel

barrow

 

glazed with rain

water

 

beside the white

chickens.

William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”

We live our lives with things—toothbrushes, iPhones, jeans, books, cars, plastic straws, water bottles, yoga mats, uncomfortable desks, soccer balls, ID cards, guns, pennies, treadmills, Post-Its, video games, chai tea lattes, trash bins, fidget spinners, wadded-up receipts—but we rarely ever think about them. Where did they come from? How were they produced? What do they signal to other people about us, and why? What happens when we break them, lose them, or throw them away? What would we learn about ourselves or the world if we gave them the same close attention that the poet William Carlos Williams gives to a red wheelbarrow?

These are the questions that drive the study of material culture, and these are the questions that will drive our research and writing this semester. Have you ever wondered why women’s clothes rarely have pockets? Or why people care so much about Confederate monuments? Or what the deal is with modern “art” that’s just a soup can, a bicycle wheel, or a red square? Or whether those plastic-eating bacteria really work? Or how lab-grown meat gets made? If so, this course will give you the context and research skills to find out!

Assignments and Grade Breakdown

  • Object Analysis/Proposal: 50
  • Annotated Bibliography: 100
  • Literature Review: 150
  • Final Paper: 250
  • Presentation: 100
  • Reading Guides (7/9): 70
  • Quizzes: 30
  • Discussion: 100
  • Peer Review: 40
  • Final Exam: 100
  • Course Climate Survey: 10
  • Total: 1000 points

Course Calendar

8/28

Introductions

Diagnostic Essays

8/30

Ian Woodward, chapter 1 from Understanding Material Culture

Reading Guide

9/4

Woodward continued

They Say, I Say, preface and ch. 1; ch. 14

9/6

Objectified and Eames: The Architect and the Painter excerpts (in class)

Syllabus Quiz

They Say, I Say, ch. 12

9/11

Commodity Week

Thorstein Veblen, chapter 6 from Theory of the Leisure Class

Reading Guide

9/13

Jia Tolentino, “The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul”

Plagiarism Quiz

9/18

Meetings with Dr. H. (no full class meeting)

9/20

Object Analysis/Proposal Due

They Say, I Say, ch. 2-3

Intro to Library Research

Discuss Annotated Bibliography Assignment

9/25

Waste Week

Gay Hawkins, chapter 2 from The Ethics of Waste

Reading Guide

9/27

Syed Faraz Ahmed, “The Global Cost of Electronic Waste”

Library Quiz

10/2

List of Sources Due

Toy Week

Walter Benjamin, “The Cultural History of Toys”

Reading Guide

10/4

Rebecca Onion, “Ode to Green Slime”

William Morris, excerpt from “The Lesser Arts”

Sources Quiz

Reading Guide

10/9

Annotated Bibliographies Due

Visit Book Arts Studio

Discuss Literature Review assignment

10/11

Dr. H. at conference – No class

10/16

Art? Week

Gordon C.F. Bearn, “Kitsch”

Reading Guide

10/18

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (watch before class)

Reading Guide

Quotations Quiz

10/23

Literature Reviews Due

Science Week

Radiolab, “Colors” (listen before class)

Reading Guide

They Say, I Say, ch. 4

10/25

Radiolab, “Famous Tumors” (listen before class)

Reading Guide

They Say, I Say, ch. 5-6

10/30

History Week

Ezekiel Kweku, “Black Flag” (content warning: frank discussion of lynching)

Reading Guide

11/1

Samuel Sinyangwe, “I’m a Black Southerner. I Had to Go Abroad to See a Statue Celebrating Black Liberation”

Thesis Statement Quiz

They Say, I Say, ch. 7

11/6

Draft Introductions and Thesis Statements

Writing & Peer Review Workshop

11/8

Dr. H at conference – No class

11/13

Meetings with Dr. H. (no full class meeting)

11/15

Final Paper Rough Drafts Due in class

Peer Review & Revision workshop in class

11/20

Final Papers Due

Presentation prep and final exam prep in class

11/22

Thanksgiving – No class

11/27

Presentations

11/29

Presentations

12/4

Presentations

12/6

Presentations

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in which I defend the honor of dogs

I’m in Slate this week, writing about dogs and authorship and why Karl Ove Knausgaard could learn a thing or two from Virginia Woolf, J. R. Ackerley, and W. H. Auden. Check it out yo!

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links!

The ebook of Animal Subjects is now available! Hardbacks coming soon, so stay tuned.

I also wrote a couple of things in recent months: a blog post on the etymology of compost for my pals at Suncoast Compost, and an essay on birds and borders for The Rambling.

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A critique of affect theory

Ruth Leys, The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

In this book Ruth Leys looks back at the history of the emotion sciences, including the debates between, on the one hand, Silvan S. Tomkins and Paul Ekman, and on the other, Richard Lazarus and other “cognitivists,” about whether affects are intentional and cognitive, or subcognitive and unconscious. Tomkins, Ekman, and the many affect theorists who followed them (including, notably, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Brian Massumi) insisted that affects are “a set of innate, automatically triggered brain-body behaviors and expressions operating outside the domain of consciousness and intentional action” (335); the cognitivists see emotions in more everyday terms, as conscious, intentional, and directed toward objects. (Notably, Leys says that the cognitivists have trouble explaining the presence of emotions in nonhuman animals who lack language and thus can’t think propositionally, but I’m not sure this is an insurmountable obstacle.)

The argument Leys makes is that affect theorists in the humanities misunderstand or misuse affective science, appealing to its authority to support their own preexisting assumptions without taking into account the many scientific critiques that have been made of the ideas they present as fact. She sees this as problematic for scientific reasons, but also for political ones: ultimately, she sees affect theory as apolitical in its refusal to engage with ideology or persuasion. I’ve heard this critique of posthumanism before, in the edited collection Human, All too (Post)human. By constantly emphasizing the distributed agency of material things, there is a very serious risk that we underemphasize the workings of economic and political power as undertaken by human agents. Leys echoes this in her expression of bemusement with Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which claims to be a “political ecology” yet seems to erase actual, human political actors (corporations, politicians, decision-makers) from its description of the world. (I love Vibrant Matter, but I get what Leys means.) We need a little less new materialism, some would say, and a little more old, Marxist-style materialism.

The point-by-point refutation of affect theorists’ use of neuroscience in The Ascent of Affect seems reasonably persuasive to me, although I am not well-versed enough in the technical details to be sure who’s right. On the humanities side of things, I have mixed feelings about Leys’ critique. On the one hand, I share her discomfort with the emphasis in affect theory upon distinguishing affect from emotions, declaring that affect is distributed and pre-cognitive and inhuman, and choosing the dense abstractions of theory over everyday language and ideas (okay, that last one might just be my own discomfort). On the other hand, I am not so sure that affect studies is really so anti-ideological in practice. The work of Sianne Ngai, Sara Ahmed, and Lauren Berlant seems to me to be quite politically engaged, though I’ll admit it is more a description of politics (really of life under advanced capitalism) than an intervention in it. Still, I think descriptive work is important.

Ultimately, I think I may be more compelled by the material history of objects, and the political history of emotions, than in either object-oriented ontology or affect theory in the abstract. I have more time for Marx than Deleuze, I guess. What I’m still unsure about is where Freud fits into all this. Patrick Colm Hogan aligned affect studies in the humanities with a Freudian vision of forces and drives; but, as Leys frames it in her Critical Inquiry article “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Tomkins-and-Ekman-style affect is opposed to the outlook of “Freud and ‘appraisal theorists,’ for whom emotions are embodied, intentional states governed by our beliefs, cognitions, and desires” (437). My inclination is to say that Freud still has a lot to teach us about the affective workings of ideology and politics.

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Affect Studies, part 3

Of the remaining twelve chapters in The Affect Theory Reader, there are six that stand out to me. Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism” is one of the most cited pieces in affect studies, and the basis of her 2011 book of the same title. Berlant defines cruel optimism as a state in which we are attached to a possible something “whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic” (94). In other words, it’s what happens when the thing we want is not good for us, and yet the loss of that thing is not good for us either. Berlant is writing out of twenty-first-century American neoliberalism, a context in which people’s desire for “the good life” produces “a bad life that wears out [its] subjects” (97).

Like Sianne Ngai and Melissa Gregg elsewhere, she’s writing about the affective life of late capitalism, and what it feels like to inhabit it. Cruel optimism is one affect endemic to this state of affairs; another is “political depression,” an experience of detachment and numbness in the face of “the world’s intractability” (97). The most accessible example of cruel optimism is the lie, or false promise, of the American dream, which Berlant reads in a John Ashbery poem and the Charles Johnson story “Exchange Value.” I’m not the first to suspect that the dream of becoming a tenure-track professor might be another example of cruel optimism; Marie-Alix Thouaille makes this very point. Despite the rumors that we academics know nothing of the “real world,” in fact we are embedded in the same economy of scarcity, precarity, and public disinvestment as many other industries.

Ben Highmore’s “Bitter After Taste: Affect, Food, and Social Aesthetics” examines “taste” as a sensory, affective phenomenon that is also social and cultural. “The very mobilization of the word ‘taste’ to describe refined and discerning choice (and the social status that might go with it),” writes Highmore, “should alert us to the way that bodily sensorial life is implied in such judgments from the start” (124). Taste and distaste are embodied experiences, not abstract, ethereal things. Highmore reads George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier as a foray into class-based disgust and bitterness that reflects Orwell’s attempt to get “out of the stranglehold of his own ethos” (131). The takeaway: “politics is a form of experiential pedagogy, of constantly submitting your sensorium to new sensual worlds that sit uncomfortably with your ethos” (135). There’s a hope here, then, born out of disgust and other experiences with bad taste, that opening ourselves up to these experiences could attune us differently with the world and with others.

Finally, Anna Gibbs’ “After Affect: Sympathy, Synchrony, and Mimetic Communication” offers a take on affect studies that veers close to animal studies. Gibbs begins with the point that “Contagion is everywhere in the contemporary world,” and, we can surmise, within affect studies too (186). Contagion leads Gibbs to articulate the concept of “mimetic communication,” or “corporeally based forms of imitation,” including “the visceral level of affect contagion,” or the tendency to match each others’ expressions, moods, tones, and gestures (186). Mimetic communication happens all throughout the animal world, including within human culture. As Gibbs points out, “There is now a renewed interest in the biological foundations of human life, and a new curiosity about the permeability of boundaries between human and animal life as the possibility of organ transplants from animals to humans (for examples) becomes part of our daily awareness” (190). The study of mimetic communication, then, brings together the humanities and sciences, and shares the foundational assumption of animal studies about the continuity between humans and other animals.

Facial expressions are one important transmission point for affects (191). But even signs and things—“the Nike swoosh,” “the brief arrangements of notes with which our computers and mobile phones greet us”—can transmit affects too (192). And mimicry—which may be sympathetic or hostile, identificatory or deceptive—is a kind of communication or affective transmission between others (193).

Touring infant behavioral studies, evolutionary ecology, and philosophy, Gibbs makes a case for mimetic communication as the very foundation of human culture, though it is not unique to humans. She writes,

Mimesis operates at every level of experience, from the most immediately corporeal to the most abstract. Understanding the corporeal, nonverbal dimensions of mimetic communication is crucial to explaining its pervasiveness in human social relations and its centrality to cultural forms such as cinema and performance, which aim to bind spectators into complex forms of sociality, including story, cinematic spectatorship, and audience membership… Mimesis can then be understood as the primary mode of apprehension utilized by the body, by social technologies such as cinema, television, and even the Internet, and by the cultural processes involving crowd behavior, fads, celebrity, and pandemics of anorexia or depression, as well as the processes by which rapid shifts of social and political attitudes may occur. (202)

I’m reminded of the way that, when I’m with a new group of people, I begin to talk like they do, to adopt the same patterns of language, tone, and gesture as they do in conversation with them. This isn’t entirely voluntary or entirely involuntary. It’s just the kind of mimesis that creates a social glue to hold together our everyday efforts to communicate.

Gibbs traces her history of affective contagion back to Silvan Tomkins and to Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and I wonder if mimetic communication can offer a way out of some of the impasses of animal studies (188). That is, animal studies is preoccupied by the threat of anthropomorphic projection: the worry that we can’t know animal minds at all, and that what we think we know about animal experience is mere projection. But if affect studies is right, maybe we can trust our responses to animals’ expressions because, well, that’s what we’re evolved to do—because we share an affective capacity with them.

I’ll write about the remaining three essays from this volume that impacted me later this week!

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Affect Studies Part 2

I’ve finished The Affect Theory Reader and am feeling slightly less confused than last time I posted. I remain nonplussed by affect theory qua theory, but excited about affect studies as it pertains to specific affects. I could not explain to you what these people mean by “bloom-space,” what the difference is between the virtual and the actual, or what the Deleuzian refrain is. What I do get, and what I’m excited about, is what affect studies can do.

Sara Ahmed, for instance, uses it to reveal the political work of “Happy Objects” like the traditional family or the multicultural nation, via their friction with “affect aliens” like the feminist killjoy, the queer child, and the melancholic migrant, who disrupt happiness. Brian Massumi uses it, in “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact,” to critique the George W. Bush-era climate of “threat,” in which the perception of a future possible threat became a felt “fact” that justified pre-emptive action in the present (“Bush did what he did because Saddam could have done what he didn’t do”). And Elspeth Probyn uses affect studies, in “Writing Shame,” to explore the relationship between writing and shame. The dimensions of this relationship include shame about one’s writing, which Probyn describes as “the specter of not interesting readers and the constant worry about adequately conveying the interest of our chosen topics”; the embodied nature of writing and reading, which creates effects on the bodies of both the writer (in Charles Darwin’s case, a serious illness) and the reader; and the ethics of writing about shame, on the personal and the collective level.

These are the first three essays in the volume, grouped together as “Part One: Impingements.” Ahmed’s “Happy Objects” speaks to me not just for its insightful reading of happiness and its disruptors in the film Bend it Like Beckham, but also because its famous concept of the “feminist killjoy” is so generative and portable. I often feel myself a killjoy, feminist or otherwise, in the classroom. Students point out that the texts I assign are almost universally depressing—this semester, it was Parable of the Sower, Never Let Me Go, and Snowpiercer: The Escape. Granted, they are not the most uplifting of stories, though Parable tries to end on a hopeful note; but I find myself attracted to depressing stories, which to me are generative of difficult but important insights on environmental, racial, and class politics. These politics seem fairly bleak and unhappy right now, but I like what Ahmed has to say in the conclusion of the essay:

I am not saying that feminist, anti-racist, and queer politics do not have anything to say about happiness other than to point to its unhappy effects. I think it is the very exposure of these unhappy effects that is affirmative, that gives us an alternative set of imaginings of what might count as a good or better life. If injustice does have unhappy effects, then the story does not end there.

To bring into the open unhappy political feelings is, then, a move of hope, an insistence that things can get better than they are now.

What I like about Massumi’s analysis of threat as an “affective fact” is that it’s useful not just as a diagnosis of the fearful aggression of the Bush era, but also to describe the affective logic of police shootings of black men over the past decade—the officer did what he did because the victim could have done what he didn’t do. It’s also worth noting that we are still, in some ways, in the Bush era. We are still threatened by the “politics of preemption”—especially in light of the recent appointment of John Bolton, the Iraq War proponent who has also spoken in favor of strikes against North Korea and Iran, as a national security advisor. If the president listens to Bolton, we may once again respond to the affective fact of threat by preemptively bombing North Korea to prevent Kim Jong Un from doing what we believe he would do if he could, at the cost of millions of lives. Well, no one said all affects are good.

Probyn’s “Writing Shame,” meanwhile, captivated me with its opening, which meditates on the illness and bodily pains of the blocked academic writer. “To care intensely about what you are writing,” Probyn says, “places the body within the ambit of the shameful: sheer disappointment in the self amplifies to a painful level.” For me, this is especially true of the writing academics do when on the job market: cover letters, teaching philosophies, research prospectuses, sample syllabi. Even sometimes when I am writing conference papers and essay drafts, every now and then I feel a pulse of the shame of the contingent academic: shame that I never did get a tenure-track job, that I never made it into the cool kids’ club, that my colleagues might look down on me.

Objectively, though, I think this feeling of shame, unlike the writing shame that Probyn describes, is wholly unnecessary. It’s academia that’s bad, not me. I also think, though, that we need, alongside Probyn’s chapter, an essay about writing joy. I love writing, and others who love writing will recognize that what I mean by this is not that I always or even most of the time feel positive things about the act of writing, but rather that when I am working on a writing project, every now and then a tiny, intense charge of joy flickers through me, sometimes because I have written something good and other times for no identifiable reason at all.

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Affect Studies, part 1

One of the annoying things about having a Ph.D. is that you’re supposed to now be capable of teaching yourself. I am trying to teach myself affect theory for a new project, and I would much rather take a class and have someone tell me what to read and how to understand it! Alas, that’s not an option, so I will just have to muddle through making and taking my own affect studies crash course.

Affect, by the way, is a fancy word for feelings and feeling-like things—moods, attitudes, dispositions, etc. In literary criticism, affect can be a way of talking about the feelings of characters, writers, readers, or what Sianne Ngai calls the “tone” of literary texts—a feeling that can’t necessarily be located in a particular “person” but that pervades the work itself.

One of the problems with affect studies, as Patrick Colm Hogan points out in “Affect Studies and Literary Criticism,” is that there’s affective science, the study of emotions by cognitive scientists and psychologists, and then there’s affect theory, the study of emotions by humanists and social scientists. And the two don’t exactly get along. The former is more interested in creating a logical, empirical, and explanatory account of how affect works, a project that often involves categorizing the dimensions or functions of various emotions. The latter, Hogan argues, is influenced by psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytic understanding of the self—unconscious drives, a conflict between id and superego, the psyche mapped in terms of forces that can flow or be blocked—and its goal is political critique.

My takeaway is that affective science is more concrete and definitive but more boring; affect theory is more exciting but also loosey-goosey, and half of it is pretty much incomprehensible. Also, it has entirely too much Deleuze and Guattari for my taste. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to assign myself A Thousand Plateaus, and I am not feeling it. I have an emotional blockage that I can’t fully explain when it comes to D&G.

Inspired by my friend Steve, who blogs reviews of nearly every book he reads over at Science’s Less Accurate Grandmother, I’m going to try to blog my way through my affect studies readings as a way of keeping myself accountable. “Review” might be too definite a word; let’s go with “impressionistic annotated bibliography” instead.

A good place to start seemed to be the 2010 Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Duke University Press). This is the collection that contains two famous and influential essays, Sara Ahmed’s “Happy Objects” and Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism.” I had encountered Ahmed’s and Berlant’s work before, but I think I got more from these essays by reading them in the context of the larger collection.

This is a long book, and so I’m going to annotate it in parts. I am under the impression that the collection is an important one for affect studies, and I was pretty daunted by the introduction, titled “An Inventory of Shimmers” (the title comes from a Roland Barthes quote). The editors tell us, on page 1, that

Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves.

I find myself really confused by writing like this. I’m not sure this definition would mean much to anyone who didn’t already know a fair amount about what affect is. So what are these authors after?

I think what’s going on here is this: the authors see affect, or feelings-plus, not as something that an already-well-defined human subject has, but as a free-range emotion out in the world that sometimes sits with, or sticks to, us as individuals, before going off on its merry way. Also, affect is not something that happens in a vacuum but is about relationships of objects—we feel emotions toward certain things or because of them or in sympathy with them. Feelings are contagious, and can pass between individuals (“bodies”). They’re always in flux and, over time, vary in intensity or even in whether they’re there or not.

But the writers, I’m guessing, don’t want to privilege human subjects over other kinds of bodies (animals, plants, things, etc.), and, as part of theory’s “nonhuman turn,” they don’t really even want to perpetuate the idea that we can clearly distinguish between subjects and objects. Thus people become “bodies,” and nonhuman things can also be described as “bodies,” all made of the same matter. I think this is why so much of the writing in affect studies is so confusing. Language is not made for this kind of thinking. Language is clearest to us when human actors are the grammatical subjects, and objects or abstractions the grammatical objects. “People have feelings about things” is clear, but for most current theorists, it’s philosophically objectionable. So we get “affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body” instead.

Why, then, am I bothering with affect studies if I find myself so stymied by its idiom, with all its neologisms and abstractions and nominalizations and everything that Joseph Williams told me not to do in Style? Well, partly because I think that the study of feelings really is politically important. We aren’t rational beings. We don’t weigh goals and consequences and choose actions that are mostly likely to be in our self-interest. We follow our feelings, and our feelings can be so easily swayed by so many things. The 2016 election wasn’t a contest of reason or a choice between different policy outlooks. It was never about facts; it was about gut feelings and mob mentality and who made you feel good by including you and excluding others.

And partly it’s because I want to study feelings about animals in my next project. I don’t think our relationships with animals are rational either. Whether it’s the love we have for our pets, the indifference we feel toward meat animals, or the disgust we feel about vermin, we might try to rationalize our feelings or lack thereof toward animals but it’s always a post hoc rationalization. We feel what we feel and we work backward from there. Given how resistant people usually are toward any challenge to their rationalizations about animals, the cases where these affective relationships change—where, for instance, the disgust or irritation toward vermin is transformed into a positive attachment—are even more interesting.

I’ll be back later this week with notes on some of the chapters from The Affect Theory Reader!

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Other Worlds syllabus

AWR201 Writing and Research

Other Worlds

 Course Description:

Unlike realistic fiction, which tells stories set in a world indistinguishable from our own, speculative fiction creates story worlds that are different from ours. Science fiction, fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction, fairy tales, superhero movies: all have some element of magic or futuristic technology which sets their world apart from our own. Game of Thrones, Star Trek, The Avengers, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest are speculative fictions; The Office, Law and Order, and the novels of Dickens, Tolstoy, and John Green are not.

So if speculative fictions are stories that belong to other worlds, what do they have to say about our own world? What can they teach us about science, politics, social relations, or individual psychology? That’s the question which drives this course. We’ll study a variety of speculative fictions, loosely organized into two categories: science fiction, which comments most directly on science, politics, and social life, and fairy tales, which comment most directly on individual psychology. You’ll choose a social, political, scientific, psychological, or literary issue to research, and write about how a particular work of speculative fiction speaks to this issue. The goal of the course is to improve your skills in critical reading, academic research, and argumentative and analytical writing.

Course Information:

[…]

Assignments & Grade Breakdown:

  • Research Proposal & Annotated Bibliography Part 1: 60
  • Annotated Bibliography Part 2: 40
  • Annotated Bibliography Part 3: 50
  • Literature Review: 150
  • Primary Source Analysis: 50
  • Final Paper: 250
  • Presentation: 100
  • Final Exam: 100
  • Discussion: 100
  • Peer Review: 50
  • Homework, quizzes, in-class activities: 40
  • Course Climate Survey completion: 10

Total: 1000 points

Course Texts:

  • Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, 3rd edition
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
  • Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer, Volume I: The Escape
  • Course pack (available at UT bookstore)
  • Occasional other texts, to be made available as handouts in class or on Blackboard

A note on the course texts: This is a reading-intensive class, so be prepared for that! Especially in the first half of the semester, we’ll often have about an hour’s worth of assigned readings for each class period; plus, you’ll be reading on your own for your independent research project. After spring break, the reading load will lessen but the writing assignments will pick up. I’ve designed the course this way deliberately because academic research involves reading a lot at the start of a new project, so that you can familiarize yourself with a given field and develop an expertise in your research topic. Once you’ve put in the time reading, you’re qualified to make your own contribution to that field, and that’s where the writing comes in.

Grading Scale:

  • A         Outstanding  (940-1000)
  • AB       Excellent        (880-939)
  • B         Very Good     (840-879)
  • BC       Good               (780-839)
  • C         Average          (740-779)
  • CD      Below Avg.     (680-739)
  • D         Passing           (600-679)
  • F          Failure           (0-599)
  • NF       No Show        Failure to attend

I reserve the right to adjust the grading scale downward by up to 1% at the end of the semester, depending on factors such as class-wide grade distribution and individuals’ attendance, participation in class discussions, participation in optional essay revisions, and professionalism. Don’t worry—under no circumstances will I adjust the grading scale upward! Also, I will make the final call on whether to making adjustments or not—asking for a grade bump won’t help, but conscientious hard work might.

Course Goals and Outcomes:

AWR 201 should teach students

  • to approach research as a process
  • to understand the formatting and conventions of academic research writing
  • to find and annotate research sources
  • to organize and annotate a research bibliography
  • to effectively utilize source research in their writing
  • to present a research project orally

Upon completion of AWR 201 a student should

  • recognize and appropriately define a research topic
  • identify, locate, and evaluate appropriate academic sources
  • document sources in appropriate bibliographic style
  • formulate and synthesize an extended research project.
  • communicate research in multiple modes (written, oral, and multimedia).

AWR201 Essay Contest:

In each section of AWR 201 the top research essay will be submitted for an annual competition, which will be judged by an editorial committee from the Academic Writing program. In August, nominees for the UT Undergraduate Research Essay Competition from the previous academic year will be notified of the contest results and recognized by the College of Arts and Letters; in addition, their essays will be eligible for publication in the annual issue of Royal Road: a Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tampa. Section nominees may be determined either by the course instructor or by the students within a section, but only section nominees will be eligible for the awards or for publication. In rare instances where more than one truly exceptional research essay is written within a single section, an instructor may nominate a second essay for submission.

Saunders Writing Center:

The Saunders Writing Center provides free tutoring to all students interested in improving their writing abilities. The Center Tutors will assist with all aspects of writing. For example, they help students to identify paper topics and generate ideas, plan and organize drafts, rewrite, and edit. The Center’s purpose is not to correct or proofread final drafts, but to aid in learning strategies that good writers use during the process. The Center, in Plant Hall 323, is available for assistance with any writing project for any class. Hours are posted. Students may make an appointment or simply drop by (ext. 6244).

Course Calendar:

Please note that all reading should be completed before class on the day they are listed. Make sure to bring all readings to class with you!

The course calendar is subject to change, but if I need to make adjustments, I will make every effort to let you know both in class and via email or Blackboard.

  1/17

Introductions

Research Pre-Test

Start reading Parable of the Sower

1/19

Diagnostic Essay (in class)

Keep reading Parable of the Sower

They Say, I Say preface and introduction

science fiction: climate change, biotechnology, politics

1/22

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower pp. 1-85

They Say, I Say ch. 12

1/24

Butler, Parable of the Sower pp. 86-136

1/26

Butler, Parable of the Sower pp. 137-178

They Say, I Say ch. 15

1/29

Butler, Parable of the Sower pp. 179-244

1/31

Butler, Parable of the Sower pp. 245-278

2/2

Butler, Parable of the Sower pp. 279-329

2/5

Library visit

Start reading Amitav Ghosh piece for Wednesday!

2/7

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement pp. 3-27 (course pack)

They Say, I Say ch. 14

2/9

Kyle D. Stedman, “Annoying Ways People Use Sources” (course pack)

They Say, I Say ch. 1-3

2/12

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go pp. 1-60

2/14

Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go pp. 61-89

2/16

RESEARCH PROPOSAL/ ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY PART 1 DUE

Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go pp. 90-111

2/19

Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go pp. 112-183

2/21

Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go pp. 184-217

2/23

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY PART 2 DUE

Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go pp. 218-245

2/26

Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go pp. 246-288

2/28

Benjamin Kunkel, “Dystopia and the End of Politics” (first half; course pack)

3/2

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY PART 3 DUE

Kunkel, “Dystopia and the End of Politics” (second half)

3/5

SPRING BREAK

3/7

SPRING BREAK

3/9

SPRING BREAK

fairy tales: allegory, horror, the unconscious

3/12

Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer: The Escape

3/14

Snowpiercer continued

They Say, I Say ch. 4-5

3/16

Karen Russell, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” (course pack)

3/19

LITERATURE REVIEW DUE

David Mitchell, Slade House pp. 3-21 (course pack)

3/21

Mitchell, Slade House pp. 21-38

3/23

Freud, The Uncanny part 1 (course pack)

3/26

Freud, The Uncanny part 2

3/28

Freud, The Uncanny part 3

3/30

INTRODUCTION AND THESIS STATEMENT DRAFT DUE

Peer review workshop (in class)

They Say, I Say ch. 6-7

4/2

IN CLASS ESSAY: PRIMARY SOURCE ANALYSIS

Bring your laptop and your primary source so that you can draft this section of your final essay in class and submit it

4/4

Pan’s Labyrinth (watch in class)

4/6

Pan’s Labyrinth continued

semester wrap-up

4/9

FINAL PAPER FIRST DRAFT DUE

Peer review workshop (in class)

4/11

NO CLASS (individual conferences)

4/13

NO CLASS (individual conferences)

4/16

NO CLASS (individual conferences)

FINAL PAPER, FINAL DRAFT DUE (11:59pm)

4/18

Presentation prep

Final exam prep

4/20

PRESENTATIONS

4/23

PRESENTATIONS

4/25

PRESENTATIONS

4/27

PRESENTATIONS

4/30

PRESENTATIONS

LAST DAY OF CLASS

   

FINAL EXAM: Section G6: Wednesday, 5/2, 1:30-3:30pm, in our regular classroom

Section I4: Thursday, 5/3, 3:45-5:45pm, in our regular classroom

You must plan to attend the final exam time designated for your class section! There are no make-ups or alternative time slots for final exams.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ):

Questions About Writing Assignments

Q: How do I turn in my writing assignments?

A: Writing assignments should be saved as Word documents (.doc or .docx) and submitted via Blackboard. Assignments are due at 11:59pm on the day listed unless otherwise noted (e.g. on peer review workshop days, I’ll ask you to bring a printed copy of your rough draft to class).

If Blackboard is down when you want to submit your essay, Plan B is to email your essay to me as an attachment, and then upload it again to Blackboard when it’s running again.

If you don’t have Microsoft Word, you have free access to it as a UT student. Contact the IT Help Desk for guidance. You can also use Google Docs and save your completed assignment as a .doc file, but I won’t be able to help you with formatting on Google Docs since I use Word exclusively.

Q: When will my assignment be graded?

A: Typically, I grade all assignments within 7 days of their submission, except the final papers, which usually take two full weeks to grade. I comment on your essays in Blackboard, so once your grade is available, go back through the TurnItIn portal to view your comments! You should be able to see a general comment, marginal comments on the pages themselves, and a completed rubric to let you know how you did in each category. If you have trouble viewing your comments, please let me know.

Q: What is TurnItIn and what’s that number it produces each time I submit an essay?

A: TurnItIn is a software that scans your essays for plagiarism. You can view your own TurnItIn originality report, a report that examines what percentage of your essay is similar to or identical with other texts in the database, if you submit your essay early enough. These can be helpful to look at as you work on your paraphrasing skills. Don’t expect to get a 0% similarity index on the report—quotations and citations are usually flagged. If you have long sentences or phrases that are highlighted and linked up to your source, that’s a good indication that you haven’t done a good enough job paraphrasing them, and you should consider rewriting those sentences and/or using a direct quote instead.

Q: What is plagiarism, and how do I make sure I’m not doing it?

A: Here’s what one of the old UT catalogues has to say about plagiarism; it’s one of the most helpful and detailed explanations I’ve seen:

Plagiarism occurs when a person represents someone else’s words, ideas, phrases, sentences or data as one’s own work. When submitting work that includes someone else’s words, ideas, syntax, data or organizational patterns, the source of that information must be acknowledged through complete, accurate and specific references. All verbatim statements must be appropriately acknowledged. To avoid a charge of plagiarism, a person should be sure to include an acknowledgment of indebtedness and reference to these sources directly in the text clearly associated with the material being cited and in a bibliography or “works cited” page (this does not apply to a “works consulted” list where the source might not have been incorporated into the student’s text). Plagiarism can be said to have occurred without any affirmative showing that a student’s use of another’s work was intentional.

Examples of plagiarism include but are not limited to:

  1. Acquiring a term paper or other assignment and submitting it as your own work.
  2. Submitting a computer program, computer graphic, database, etc., as original work that duplicates, in whole or in part, without citation, the work of another.
  3. Quoting, paraphrasing or even borrowing the syntax of another’s words without acknowledging the source.
  4. Incorporating facts, statistics or other illustrative material taken from a source, without acknowledging the source, unless the information is common knowledge.
  5. Using another’s ideas, opinions or theories even if they have been completely paraphrased in one’s own words without acknowledging the source.
  6. Listing a source in a bibliography or “works cited” page without specifically citing the material within the text that was extracted from the source.

Chances are, avoiding plagiarism has been fairly easy for you in past writing classes, but it does get harder when you are juggling 10+ sources in a single paper and you have to keep them all straight. So don’t be hesitant to ask for help if you need it!

Q: How do I cite my sources properly, and what citation format should I use?

A: In this class, we use MLA formatting for all writing assignments. If you have the Prentice Hall Reference Guide, you have an MLA handbook; if not, use the Purdue OWL: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/ .

For in-text citations, either name the author in your sentence (“Jane Smith argues that…”) or include their last name in a parenthetical citation (Smith). If the source has page numbers, you must also include a page number in your parenthetical citation, like this:

Jane Smith argues that science fiction did not really exist until the twentieth century (23).

Some critics believe that “science fiction” as a literary category did not exist until the 1900s (Smith 23).

For Works Cited entries, you need to figure what kind of source you have—a book? A scholarly journal article? A chapter in an edited collection? A magazine article? A film? A website?—and follow the Purdue OWL guidelines for formatting a citation for that type of source.

PLEASE DO NOT RELY ON CITATION ENGINES LIKE EASYBIB FOR THIS CLASS. You are the one being graded on whether your citation formatting is correct or not, so you need to check your citation formatting yourself to make sure it’s correct.

Q: Oh no, I’ve done poorly on one of the writing assignments and now I’m worried about my grade! What should I do?

A: I allow students to revise graded assignments under the following conditions:

  1. You submit your rewritten assignment within 1 week of receiving the original grade
  2. You include a brief cover letter explaining the revisions you’ve made
  3. You must do more than simply edit for grammatical errors; you must do substantial revisions
  4. I will average the original grade and the grade on the rewrite to arrive at your final grade for the assignment.

Q: I really want to become a better writer this semester! What advice would you give me?

A: Great question! Take advantage of the resources available to you here at UT. Visit the Saunders Writing Center; ask the librarians for help with research; attend my office hours to talk about essay ideas. When you read assigned texts for this class and other classes, pay attention to their styles and structures. Read like a writer. Ask your other professors if they have tips for writing, and remember that writing is a little bit different in every discipline.

Questions About Course Policies

Q: What happens if I turn in a writing assignment late?

A: I accept late work up to one week (7 days) past the due date. After that, assignments will no longer be accepted. Late work will be penalized at a 10% deduction per day until the day it is turned in. So, for example, an essay that is two days late can earn a maximum of 80% of the point value of the assignment.

Since emergencies sometimes happen, I allow each student one late pass per semester. The late pass is a one-time-only deal, and it gives you up to four (4) extra days on any one writing assignment final draft. It can’t be used on first drafts or on the presentation, only on a final draft. To use your late pass, simply email me and tell me you wish to use it.

Note that sometimes students who turn in a minor assignment late opt to take the penalty and save their late pass for an assignment that is worth more points, like the final paper. It’s up to you, but choose carefully!

Q: What happens if I am absent?

A: I allow each student to miss up to three classes for any reason without penalty; after that, they will start to impact your grade. Each time that you are absent (after the first three), you will receive a zero for your discussion grade on that day. You’ll also miss important announcements, reminders, discussions, and in-class work, so if you are absent, make sure to check with a classmate to find out what you missed.

Save your absences for when you really need them! Otherwise, you may find yourself in a situation where you’ve already used your three freebie absences before spring break, and then you get sick in April and have to miss a week of class, to the detriment of your grade.

Occasionally, students will have chronic illnesses which require them to miss more than 3 classes over the course of a semester, and on those rare occasions I’m happy to work individually with those students on make-up assignments if they stay in contact with me, maintain good standing in the class, and provide documentation from their doctor for each of their absences. In some cases, if the absences are too extensive, a medical withdrawal is advisable.

Q: Do we have a final exam?

A: Yes, and you must attend the exam during the time slot set for us by the university (see the bottom of the course calendar to find out what day and time our exam is). DON’T BOOK YOUR PLANE TICKET UNTIL YOU CHECK YOUR FINAL EXAM SCHEDULE! Unfortunately, there are no make-ups or alternative time slots for final exams except in the most extreme circumstances.

Q: What’s the best way to contact you if I have concerns about my work in this class?

A: If we need to have a conversation, dropping by office hours is best (see my office hours schedule on p. 2 of the syllabus). If it’s just a quick question or you need to set up a meeting outside of office hours with me, email me at chovanec@ut.edu. I typically respond to emails within 24 hours, and often earlier. Please check the syllabus before you email me a question, though!

Questions about Class Etiquette and Discussion Participation

Q: Can I use my laptop, tablet, or phone in class?

A: Sometimes electronic devices are useful in class, e.g. if we are practicing using the library databases to find sources, or if I have asked you to do a short in-class writing exercise and you want to type it. So it’s fine to bring your laptop, tablet, or phone to class (provided it’s on silent mode). However, when we are having a class discussion, you should put your electronic devices away so that you can be fully present and engaged with your classmates. If the rest of us are having a discussion about the assigned reading, and you are ignoring us in favor of your laptop or phone, I may ask you to put it away or give you a zero for discussion that day.

Q: What are the expectations for our conduct in this class?

A: The classroom should be a welcoming environment for us to learn, write, and test out new ideas. To keep it that way, please make sure to listen and speak courteously to me and your peers; to refrain from any racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise abusive language; and to avoid disruptive behaviors such as answering phone calls, speaking when others are speaking, or using laptops and phones for non-class-related purposes. Please feel free to speak to me privately if you have any concerns about the classroom environment or ideas to make it better.

Q: How is our discussion participation graded?

A: If you show up to class on time, stay until the end of the period, avoid disruptive or rude behaviors, and don’t speak up at all during the conversation, you get a C (75%) for discussion that day. If you’re late, you leave early, you’re disruptive, or you get distracted by your phone or laptop, that grade will go down; if you’re actively listening to me and your classmates and raising your hand to ask questions and make meaningful contributions to the discussion, that grade will go up. I post discussion grades every three weeks on Blackboard, so you can check in and see how you’re doing and make adjustments to your participation as necessary.

If you want to improve your discussion participation but you aren’t sure what to say, or you feel anxious about speaking in class, come speak with me privately and we can come up with some strategies to help you get more comfortable speaking up!

University Notices and Policies:

[…]

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Disaster Time

(This is the text of a talk I gave last fall at the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities’ Timescales conference. It feels depressingly relevant this year in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which, as my paper argues, are rightly understood not as discrete events but as ongoing disasters which are not over yet and will not be over any time soon. I want to update this material at some point to reflect what’s going on today in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Houston, and Florida, which are all likely to be hit by the disaster capitalists in varying degrees; I also want to think more about how Trethewey’s use of photography resonates with Siegfried Kracauer’s view of the historical archive in his 1927 “Photography” essay . But in the meantime, I’ll post this here as a placeholder.)

In this talk I aim to develop a theory of disaster time, using Natasha Trethewey’s 2010 memoir Beyond Katrina, a reflection on the Mississippi Gulf Coast before and after Hurricane Katrina, as exhibit. My plan is, first, to outline a critical understanding of disasters not as sudden events that punctuate history but as the ongoing state of our current era of climate change and global capitalism. Second, I’ll propose that Trethewey represents photography as the mode of witnessing proper to the age of disaster. This is not because the snapshot documents the disaster itself, but because it preserves fragments of the cultures lost to disaster. Her writing remediates photography in its demand that we look, that we bear witness to the ongoing history of which the hurricane is part.[1] Trethewey writes as a form of long exposure, and her text elicits a slow and sustained gaze that lingers at the site of crisis after the news trucks leave and the next news cycle begins.

That we live in an age of disaster, and that we can expect natural disasters to become more frequent and more fiery in the coming years, is now an axiom of environmental discourse. Earlier this year, UN representative for disaster risk reduction Robert Glasser warned that between global warming, drought, food and water insecurity, population growth, and new viruses, we should predict “cascading crises” of natural hazards and humanitarian emergencies—to put it plainly, more Syrias (Jones). Meanwhile, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert explained that warmer temperatures and drier climate are extending the wildfire season in North America, making blazes like the one that burned in Alberta, Canada this spring more likely. And meteorologists are finding that their climate models project an increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones over the rest of this century (Emanuel). Though many questions are still unresolved, the idea that human actions—burning fossil fuels, clearing forests, draining coastal wetlands—are contributing to an increase in natural disasters is now generally accepted by the scientific community.

But how might one narrate or speak or visually represent the age of disasters? A theory of disaster time might begin with Walter Benjamin’s image, in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” of the angel of history. Benjamin saw modernity as, to borrow a phrase from modernist scholar Pericles Lewis, a “rapid succession of world-changing historical events” (32). History, for Benjamin, is not a linear process in which one thing gradually succeeds another; it is instead an ever-growing heap of ruins. Benjamin writes of the Angel of History, as painted by Paul Klee, “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.… This storm is what we call progress” (257-258). The image resonates with Trethewey’s vantage point in Beyond Katrina, in which a series of upheavals—Hurricane Camille in 1969, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, segregation, desegregation, a post-disaster reconstruction process which benefited the gambling and tourism industries more than the long-term residents, the deaths of her grandmother and mother, her brother’s imprisonment and release—accumulate before our eyes, the later events added onto rather than replacing the earlier ones.

To Benjamin’s vision of history itself as a violent storm which adds new material without subtracting the old, a theorist of disaster time might turn to Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” to understand how our current age of disasters operates. Nixon defines slow violence as “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2). Phenomena like climate change, ocean acidification, and deforestation, Nixon points out, pose challenges to narrative and visual representation because they are indirect and “accretive,” unevenly spanning years and generations, unlike the “eye-catching” spectacles of tsunamis and bombings (2-3). Many photogenic, singularly dramatic cataclysms, however, can no longer be understood as isolated events either. They are better understood as eruptions in the longer history of environmental slow violence. A theory of disaster time has to account not just for the newsworthy event—a hurricane, a flood, an earthquake—but also for the decades of deforestation, wetlands loss, debt, and economic inequality that made these natural disasters have such staggering human costs.

Trethewey understands this slow, under-the-radar unfolding of disaster time. She points out in Beyond Katrina that the economic growth of Gulfport and Biloxi during the twentieth century corresponded to human-driven ecological decline. Describing marsh loss along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, she writes that these wetlands are “[a]mong the most valuable ecosystems on earth… [and] greatly responsible for cleansing polluted water, recharging groundwater, and absorbing storm wave energy” (43). But “dredge-and-fill commercial, industrial, and residential development has been extensive” (43). The casino and tourism industries provided new job opportunities to residents like Trethewey’s brother Joe, but they also hastened the erosion of the shoreline, making the coast more vulnerable to a storm like Katrina.

The period of time following a disaster, meanwhile, is the subject of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, which traces what happens when a reeling civil society finds itself in the power of investors who see every catastrophe as an opportunity to privatize public goods and turn a profit. Klein cites New Orleans, in the period following Katrina, as a prime example of the disaster-capitalist fantasy of a “clean slate,” an opportunity to shut down public housing and public schools in favor of condos for the wealthy and for-profit charter schools (4-7). The “shock doctrine” is the theory undergirding this opportunism. As Klein explains, the idea is that “the original disaster… puts the entire population into a state of collective shock…. [S]hocked societies often give up things they would otherwise fiercely protect” (20). Disasters are good, according to the purveyors of disaster capitalism, because they create a clean slate for business ventures, a new terra nullius where people used to live. For the investors, it’s a bright new beginning; for the displaced, it’s a catastrophe stretched out over time. In Beyond Katrina, Trethewey describes feeling disturbed by a waiter who tells her that the hurricane was a “cleansing” and that it “needed to happen” (27). She suspects that perhaps he meant the coast needed to be cleared of its poor, predominantly African-American residents in order to be “cleansed.” Klein, too, is disturbed by this sort of rhetoric, suggesting that it represents a “desire for unattainable purity, for a clean slate on which to build a reengineered model society” (25).

Beyond Katrina captures disaster time as a series of historical accumulations and recursions. Trethewey’s poem “Theories of Time and Space,” printed at the beginning of the book, reflects this recursiveness in both subject matter and composition history. It is a poem with two births. Composed before Katrina for Native Guard (a poetry collection which was published in 2006), the poem was a metaphorical reflection on time and individual change, registering the disconnect between geographic and temporal returns. “You can get there from here, though / there’s no going home,” Trethewey writes of a drive down a Mississippi highway toward her one-time hometown (5, ll. 1-2). After the hurricane, though, as Trethewey explains, “the poem had become quite literal: so much of what I’d known of my home was either gone or forever changed.… For me the poem no longer meant what it had before—even as the words remained the same” (2). Once signifying the personal transformations that make an old hometown feel uncanny, the poem came to refer to the actual erasure of old Gulfport. In Beyond Katrina, the poem is reprinted at the beginning of a section labeled 2007, marking a historical revision of its composition date. As Thadious M. Davis points out, this is revision not as re-writing, but as re-seeing (38). This revisionism is typical of the book, which overlays natural, social, and personal disasters from the past century, like a stack of transparencies or the layers of sediment in rock formations. Trethewey’s grandmother, who confuses Camille and Katrina in her memory, implicitly offers a method for the book itself, which eschews chronological order in favor of a temporal fluidity, a back-and-forth structure that signifies the ongoingness of disaster (9).

The poem’s final lines link text and photography as processes of re-vision. Trethewey compares memory to a book—a “tome” with “random blank pages” of things forgotten or deliberately left out, and yet something that “you must carry” (5, ll. 15-16). The line prefigures the notion of a “preferred narrative,” a thread which runs throughout Beyond Katrina as Trethewey meditates on the way friends and strangers choose to dwell on some memories and ignore others in order to make sense of the storm. Photography, like memory, represents an effort to re-see what is already in the process of being lost: “The photograph—who you were— / will be waiting when you return” (5, ll. 19-20).

Beyond Katrina uses photographs not to index the damage of the storm itself, but to preserve the history of a family who lived and worked in Gulfport for many generations but is now gone: the old family home demolished, the grandmother dead, the siblings moved to Atlanta. Trethewey frequently refers to storm recordings in her text, as in “Providence,” a poem about Hurricane Camille which begins with the line, “What’s left is footage.” But she does not reproduce any still frames from this footage in the book itself. Instead, she recreates a family photo album, complete with pictures of her grandmother as a young woman on the beach, her uncle Son Dixon, who helped build North Gulfport during the 1950s, and herself and her brother Joe as smiling children. It is an intensely and deliberately personal selection of photographs, reflecting what Davis calls Trethewey’s “enfoldment” of the autobiographical and the historical in her poetry (41). It refuses the familiar iconography of Hurricane Katrina—dramatic aerial footage of flooded streets, people stranded on rooftops or paddling in makeshift rafts, dead bodies floating, ruined homes, heavily armored police, the faces of suffering people—in favor of something more domestic, even sentimental. Trethewey’s photos do not appeal to voyeuristic viewing the way some news coverage does; they are not disaster porn. Instead, she asks us to re-see them as quiet memorials to a family and a community that might otherwise be forgotten.

Trethewey’s understanding of history is close to Benjamin’s, and she describes it by quoting Hegel: “When we turn to survey the past, the first thing we see is nothing but ruins” (qtd. on 51). She goes on to explain that now, “As I contemplate the development of the coast, looking at old photographs of once new buildings—the pride of a growing city—I see beneath them, as if a palimpsest, the destruction wrought by Katrina” (51). A photograph, like a poem, is a document of the moment it was produced, but it’s also a living artifact, layering new meanings on top of the old ones as if it were a multiple exposure. In Beyond Katrina, text remediates photography, and at the same time photographs remediate text via the simile of the palimpsest, a page on which one manuscript is written over another. It’s this ghostly, layering effect that makes photography, for Trethewey, the paradigmatic medium for representing disaster time. What looks like a clean slate is, if you look harder, a culture under erasure; what looks like a singular event is, once your eyes adjust, part of a deep-rooted, ongoing pattern. Beyond Katrina calls on us to look, and not only to gawk at the disaster itself, but to look back at the past, and to keep watching long after others have looked away.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Schocken, 2007.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 1999.

Davis, Thadious M. “Enfoldments: Natasha Trethewey’s Racial-Spatial Phototexting.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 4, 2013, pp. 37-54.

Emanuel, Kerry A. “Downscaling CMIP5 Climate Models Shows Increased Tropical Cyclone Activity Over the 21st Century.” PNAS vol. 110, no. 30, 2013, pp. 12219-12224. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1301293110.

Jones, Sam. “World Heading for Catastrophe Over Natural Disasters, Risk Expert Warns.” The Guardian 24 April 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/apr/24/world-heading-for-catastrophe-over-natural-disasters-risk-expert-warns. Accessed 2 October 2016.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador, 2007.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Fort McMurray and the Fires of Climate Change.” The New Yorker 5 May 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/fort-mcmurray-and-the-fires-of-climate-change. Accessed 2 October 2016.

Lewis, Pericles. The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.

Trethewey, Natasha. Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Tenth Anniversary Edition. University of Georgia Press, 2015.

 

[1] I use “remediate” in the sense described by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in Remediation: Understanding New Media, as the borrowing or importation of one media form into another. They write, “[W]e call the representation of one medium in another remediation, and we will argue that remediation is a definining characteristic of the new digital media” (45). However, they also point out that remediation is not itself a new phenomenon, and that ekphrastic poetry and the inclusion of “maps, globes, inscriptions, letters, and mirrors” in Dutch painting are also examples of remediation (45).

 

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