About six months after taking a staff job at my university, functionally leaving the tenure-track job market in American literary studies, I met up with a former mentor of mine while visiting the city where he teaches. I was happy to find that I could still catch up with a dissertation committee member outside of the graduate school context, even more so because Kevin had ties to more than just my dissertation: in a sense, he represents the entire arc of my doctoral career. Years after taking his Civil War literature course my sophomore year of college, I came across his first monograph in the library while working on a dissertation prospectus about religion and sentimentalism—precisely the topic of his book. How uncanny, I thought, that I wound up in the very same subfield as him. I reached out, we crossed paths at conferences, and eventually he joined my dissertation committee. And now, from dual sides of academia, we were something like peers. Over lunch, our conversation ranged topics from campus politics and the joys of new parenthood to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House”sketch (1850). I had just picked up The Scarlet Letter after months of finding no time for reading while acclimating to my new administrative position and was floored by the relevance of Hawthorne’s writing to my own experience. I explained to Kevin that it seemed like Hawthorne had hit the nail on the head in describing what it means to shift from literary pursuits to more bureaucratic work. I was heartened by Hawthorne’s spin on the merits of this kind of change in work, particularly in terms of embracing a different set of colleagues. And I had genuinely laughed out loud when Hawthorne pokes fun at his former set of eclectic literary acquaintances, issuing the sick burn, “Even the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott.” [i] Those of us departing work in English departments might similarly chuckle about the relief of leaving some colleagues behind—who, I joked, is my Bronson Alcott? [ii] Kevin laughed along with me before quipping, “You might be the only person who has ever enjoyed reading ‘The Custom-House.’”
What made reading “The Custom-House,” a text often deployed to varying degrees of success as a teaching tool, so pleasurable to me at this juncture in my life? Well, there was the reading, and then there was the talking about the reading. I enjoyed connecting to Nathaniel Hawthorne through our shared workplace experiences, and I enjoyed returning to conversations about literature with scholarly colleagues. My conversation with Kevin represents an ability to bridge a past life as a doctoral student and scholar with a future as an academic administrator. Much has been written about doctoral graduates having to give up on the tenure-track job market. Those of us who spent the better part of a decade in training for a job that no longer seems to exist have had to reconcile what we lost; our respective fields of study have also had to come to terms with what our departure means for scholarship. [iii] I had certainly harbored dreams of becoming a tenure-track faculty member and spending the rest of my working life researching nineteenth-century American domestic fiction, and I don’t exactly find in my new work a perfect realization of intellectual purpose. But in “The Custom-House,” Hawthornearticulates a certain sense of self that I found to be helpful for developing a new intellectual orientation toward the value of my work, past and present. Taking up Hawthorne’s reflection on his brief stint as surveyor of Salem’s Custom House, the goal of this essay is not to grieve the tenure-track path (or to celebrate higher ed administration, which is not without its faults), but rather to explore what it means to chart a new intellectual path. What does my PhD mean to me now?
A bit of backstory: about a year ago, I accepted a full-time staff position managing an honors program at the university where I completed my doctorate in nineteenth-century American literature. I felt happy about my transition to a staff job on campus because the tangible circumstances of my work improved, namely my salary and my routine. Transitioning to administration from research and teaching was also satisfying because it was a choice, a difference from feeling like one’s life is in someone else’s hands. After some years in limbo on the academic job market, writing the next article, proposing the next conference panel, working toward the next round of applications and interviews, to sign a contract was to end the cycle—a relief in itself.
Ironically, my new office was directly across the street from the English department building. I could see my dissertation advisor’s office window from my own. While it felt like I had made a significant career shift, I was also merely moved to the other side of a plaza where I had met students during outdoor office hours and vented to friends about fellowship season. This physical proximity to my former department represented how I wanted to feel about my job: that it would not be that different, that far away from my academic training. I would still be involved with a humanities-skewing curriculum, I would still interact with students, and I would remain a part of the academic community. Ultimately, for the most part, I was not wrong. And when it came to the things that would change (the extent to which every hour of my day would come to be organized by Google Calendar, for instance), I found in Hawthorne a solace.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) was already an established writer of tales when, in 1846, he was appointed surveyor of the Custom-House in Salem, Massachusetts. This transition was Hawthorne’s own figurative move across a plaza, from his literary home in Concord, where he wrote Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), to his government post in Salem. Hawthorne frames much of his time in the Custom-House through his colleagues, who differ from his prior, literary comrades in their businesslike demeanors. And at least for a while, Hawthorne finds the applied utility of his new position inspiring:
I took it in good part, at the hands of Providence, that I was thrown into a position so little akin to my past habits; and set myself seriously to gather from it whatever profit was to be had. After my fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm; after living for three years within the subtile influence of an intellect like Emerson’s; after those wild, free days on the Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations, beside our fire of fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing; after talking with Thoreau about pine-trees and Indian relics, in his hermitage at Walden; … it was time, at length, that I should exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish myself with food for which I had hitherto had little appetite. (21)
Not to romanticize graduate school as “wild, free days” (“fellowship of toil” is more like it), but Hawthorne’s assessment of this change in workplace scenery was akin to my own, thrown as I was into a 9 – 5 world of spreadsheets, spreadsheets, and more spreadsheets. At its best, the academic profession can feel like “indulging fantastic speculations, beside [a] fire of fallen boughs.” Working with a mentor can feel like “living … within the subtile influence of [a great] intellect.” (Explicit comparisons of anyone living to Ralph Waldo Emerson have been redacted to protect the egos of those involved.) At the same time, I was happy to step away, to “exercise other faculties” and engage with, as Hawthorne will later suggest, the real world. Hawthorne’s new colleagues are “men of altogether different qualities” from Emerson, Channing, and Thoreau, but Hawthorne embraces the fact that the other men of the Custom-House “care little for his pursuits,” presumably uninterested in literature or his literary past (20). They teach him about the new and different talents of businessmen. So too, even if my expertise in nineteenth-century women’s domestic fiction did not come up in conversations by the water cooler, I quickly learned how to write a faculty contract; how to scale a program budget (up following sizable campus investment, and then down following the consequences of a global pandemic); how to make sure someone’s parking permit gets activated on the right day. No small thing, really. Campus parking enforcement is aggressive.
But in addition to the benefits of learning new skills, Hawthorne also describes what all of this change means for his identity as a writer. He admits, “Literature, its exertions and objects, were now of little moment in my regard. I cared not, at this period, for books; they were apart from me.… A gift, a faculty, if it had not departed, was suspended and inanimate within me” (21). I felt this too. I had not necessarily lost the researcher or writer inside me; my staff office, decorated with a wall of bookshelves for which I had repeatedly asked, suggests that I was at least clinging to the vestiges of a researcher or writer outside of me. Even so, that version of myself did feel “suspended and inanimate.” For a time, I had read very little at all, either for pleasure or to attempt independent scholarship. Throughout my life as a student of literature, I had certainly taken breaks like this, and I had always thought of my brain as needing rest from the rigors of critical reading. “Suspended and inanimate” describes a pause, rather than a stop. So, in those months when I was first learning the ropes of my administrative position, books might have been “apart” from me, but they were no further away than at the times during graduate school I indulged in watching hours on end of The Bachelor franchise (truly a brain-suspending exercise). Perhaps the months before I picked up The Scarlet Letter and its prefatory essay were just an extra-long Monday night—a break from exertion.
Hawthorne likewise emphasizes that the departure of his literary faculty is temporary. He reassures the reader that all was not lost, and in fact, all was still readily accessible: “There would have been something sad, unutterably dreary, in all this, had I not been conscious that it lay at my own option to recall whatever was valuable in the past” (21). It is in this moment that Hawthorne provided a bit of self-help, prompting me to contextualize my new position in recollections of my prior experience. What stands out is Hawthorne’s emphasis on his “own option,” a choice within his control. By holding on to his past experiences and their value to him, Hawthorne can reconcile himself (he says, anyway) to the new reality of his place in the Custom-House. Here, Hawthorne inspired me to ruminate on what was “valuable” in my past as a scholar and student.
Anyone who has completed a PhD in the humanities can enumerate its challenges, which make the perceived lack of a return-on-investment that much more painful. In short, did the degree cost more than it was worth? The abysmally-low stipends, the imposter syndrome, the competition with equally-deserving peers for too-few fellowships (or, alternatively, the feeling that someone less-than-deserving has scored one), the power dynamics with (and among) faculty—all these are familiar. My father recently speculated about the kind of retirement savings I lost over the course of my doctoral career, presuming that I would have had a full-time job with benefits during my twenties if I hadn’t attended graduate school. In response to that trade-off, I sometimes feel a compulsive need to itemize the benefits of sustained literary study. Like an English department extolling the practical uses of their English major to concerned, skeptical undergraduates and their families, I can lay out here the many skills learned and honed in graduate school that I use at my staff job today: the ability to gather and consider different perspectives before forming my own argument, to self-direct a project or initiative and build a timeline for its completion, to revise something over and over (and over) with patience. And I can’t help but think that doctoral graduates are more equipped than anyone to spend months teleworking with no one but themselves to keep us on task. That skill has to be worth something, right?
Hawthorne consistently uses such language around worth, which is to say market value, to describe his own vexed feelings about his two occupations as surveyor and writer. As I mentioned, while working as surveyor, Hawthorne is consoled by the fact that he can draw on what was “valuable in his past,” and he similarly supposes that there might be “profit” in his present occupation (21). Ultimately, though, Hawthorne does escape the Custom-House and return to his fully-creative life. Thus, “The Custom-House,” written retrospectively, treats Hawthorne’s staff job (as I like to think of it) as useful only insofar as it is a temporary position. The Custom-House, Hawthorne writes, “might make me permanently other than I had been, without transforming me into any shape which it would be worth my while to take. But I had never considered it as other than a transitory life” (21). Hawthorne ponders what might have been had he remained a surveyor: he might have changed, permanently, and that change might not have been worthwhile. Notably, though the Custom-House job centers on monetary value, for Hawthorne, “worth” is connected to Romance.
Hawthorne maintains that the worthwhile shape of his self must retain an intellectual warmth conducive to writing. He shares that The Scarlet Letter could never have been written if he remained a surveyor:
The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of corpses, and stared at me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. “What have you to do with us?” that expression seemed to say. “The little power you might have once possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone! You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go, then, and earn your wages!” (27)
Hawthorne’s internal conflict between malleable warmth and cold rigidity resonates with some perceptions of leaving academia. After years of living on so little in order to pursue scholarship, it can feel like selling out to trade in your adjunct contract for the security of a salaried job. One of the first questions a mentor asked me when I told him about my new position was “What’s the salary?” This came from a kinder place than “Go, then, and earn your wages!” but even so, I wondered what I had “bartered” for my “pittance of the public gold.” [iv] Certainly not the next great American novel, but perhaps some kind of undefinable quality of “my intellectual forge.”
So, where does this leave me? Nostalgic about the early, thrilling days of learning? Vindicated to have left a profession that contributed nothing to my 401k? Somewhere in between, of course. On some days, the fact that I spend hours translating personnel categories into financial object codes does make my brain feel like a “tarnished mirror” that reflects only a “miserable dimness” of a creative life (27). Hawthorne admits toward the end of the sketch, “I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs” (29). Had I ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor criticism (ouch) only to become a tolerably good manager of an honors program? I think not, in part because I can continue taking my cue from Hawthorne, who imagines an alternative to the tarnished mirror.
For Hawthorne, merely remembering his literary past becomes untenable; he must return to his creative life in full. “It was a folly,” he writes, “with the materiality of this daily life pressing so intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into another age; or to insist on creating the semblance of a world out of airy matter, when, at every moment, the impalpable beauty of my soap-bubble was broken by the rude contact of some actual circumstance” (28). The Scarlet Letter and its preface, now known for representing Hawthorne’s theory of Romance as characterized by moonlight, could not have been produced while the writer was immersed in the sunlight of a staff job. Lucky for me, a person not trying to imagine a new world, but rather to find joy and creativity in my own, Hawthorne supposes a different intellectual orientation:
The wiser effort would have been, to diffuse thought and imagination through the opaque substance of to-day, and thus to make it a bright transparency; to spiritualize the burden that began to weigh so heavily; to seek, resolutely, the true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome incidents, and ordinary characters, with which I was now conversant. (28–29)
This feels doable. I remember interviewing for my staff position and insisting that my PhD would make me a good administrator, a more thoughtful, imaginative administrator who could bring a bit of the misty humanities to our expense spreadsheets and policy manuals. Indeed, I continually say things like “This budget has to tell a story!” (I am fun to have in meetings.) But even beyond the utility of my degree for my “alt-ac” job, the value of the PhD is bigger than work. I have long gotten past the idea that one’s PhD is only valuable insofar as it begets a tenure-track job. But here I find myself insisting that my PhD is valuable insofar as I use it at an administrative job. When I really consider Hawthorne’s advice to diffuse thought and imagination through the day and spiritualize the burdens in our lives, I am not just thinking about making the “petty and wearisome incidents” of higher ed administration more palatable. Rather, I recognize in this passage an entire mode of living, one Hawthorne would call Romantic, a mode I cultivated while truly immersed in nineteenth-century literature and arguments about womanhood, morality, domesticity, and the afterlife. To be sure, it is a privilege to have a full-time job with benefits and a retirement plan. But the value of my PhD is not about the job I did or did not get, it is about the person I became: a person who can see in moonlight and sunlight just the same.
[i]Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings, ed. Leland S. Person (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 21. Hereafter cited parenthetically. (Among the more mundane things I miss about graduate school, surprise Norton Critical Editions arriving in the campus mail is at the top of the list.)
[ii]Bronson Alcott (1799 – 1888), father of Louisa May Alcott, was a prominent Transcendentalist and part of the intellectual community Hawthorne departed when he moved to Salem prior to writing “The Custom-House” sketch. An abolitionist and education reformer, Alcott was also an eccentric whose impractical utopian community, Fruitlands, required that inhabitants forego warm bathwater.
[iii]I am thinking here of what may be the two most viral pieces of the genre known as “quit lit,” a genre that boomed during the years I was in graduate school (from 2012 – 2019). In “Thesis Hatement,” Rebecca Schuman sardonically asserts that graduate school will “ruin your life in a very real way” and compares the academic job market to small-cell lung cancer. On the other hand, Erin Bartram’s “The Sublimated Grief of Those Left Behind” both explains the author’s feelings upon departing from academia and considers “how much knowledge … that’s just going to be lost to those who remain.” Both pieces spurred a litany of responses as academe processed the reckoning of a truly bleak oversupply of doctoral graduates.
[iv]Given that my work at a state university is indeed funded by “public gold,” it is worth noting another dimension to the idea of selling out: the budgetary tensions between tenure-track faculty and higher ed administration. Some view decreasing tenure lines as directly related to “the incremental and imperceptible increase over time of higher education administrators” (Johnson). David Graeber more flippantly names this phenomenon the “bullshitization of academic life” and describes how an influx of strategic deans and “deanlets” has required an influx of superfluous support staff. His argument has been met with defenses of administrators, particularly lower-level professional staff like me, who directly serve students and faculty, as necessary for the university to function (Rosenberg). Some view adjunct faculty and professional staff as in the same contingent boat; Lee Skallerup Bessette calls on faculty and staff to “work to try and overcome those imaginary hierarchical structures to achieve positive change.” Where we would all agree, I hope, is that resources should be directed toward making the university a humane workplace for employees of all types.
Susanna Compton Underland is the program manager of University Honors at the University of Maryland, overseeing finance, personnel, and operations in support of UH students, faculty, and staff. She earned her PhD in nineteenth-century American literature in 2018 from the University of Maryland, where she taught in the English department for six years. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century American sentimental literature, with particular interest in the tensions between religion and secularity as mediated in and by domestic spaces. Underland has published articles and reviews in Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, ESQ, and Journal of American Studies.
:: “Let’s Make a Movie”: Visualizing Blackness Beyond Trauma Through the Lens of Film and Poetry ::
Black history is full of trauma. Moreover, when examined in relation to the contemporary moment, the timeline of that trauma-filled history defies a narrative of unabated progress. Indeed, one of the deep frustrations of engaging thoughtfully with the reality of the twenty-first century is the feeling that, regardless of how many transitions our world has undergone, Black pain remains consistent. In the effort to use artistic production to give voice to this frustration, Black artists face the challenge of recognizing and representing trauma, in both the past and present, without allowing it to become the defining feature of Blackness. Recognizing pain as a part of the story, which cannot be allowed to represent the totality of Black identity, is particularly important for those artists who seek to articulate an understanding of Blackness through visual means, for whom image and imagery are central to the creative effort.
Films and film-making play a pivotal role in creating images of Blackness, particularly with respect to trauma. In the current moment, when Black trauma is projected across screens of all sizes through viral videos, social media, and ceaseless cable news, there is a powerful sense of immediacy concerning the conditions facing Black bodies. However, it’s vital to recognize that film is but the latest iteration in the evolution of Black image-making. Jacqueline N. Stewart reminds us in her analysis of “the emergence of cinema” that “its early methods of representing Blackness both entered into and reflected a long, complex tradition of Black ‘image’ making in visual and nonvisual media, a tradition that had significant and often quite damaging personal and political ramifications for African American individuals and communities.” [i] This has certainly persisted as Black film has evolved over the course of the past century. Consequently, as Black artists turn to film, both as creatives and critics, to examine how it shapes understandings of Blackness in relation to hurt and pain, they engage not only the history of Black trauma, but also the history of Black image-making. Black artists, in their ongoing effort to produce images of Blackness with greater dimension, must be understood as entering into longstanding and ongoing critical discourses around Black visuality.
In this discussion, I consider the work of three such artists, placing their creative efforts in conversation with scholars who are similarly interested in the visualization of Blackness. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay critically reflects on popularized representations of Blackness and trauma while endeavoring to produce counter-narratives through gripping visual texts. Throughout her body of work, but specifically in her 2019 Netflix series, When They See Us, DuVernay is particularly interested in the consequential relationship between popularized images of Blackness and the lived experience of her films’ subjects. In dialogue with DuVernay, I examine the work of contemporary poets Gabriel Ramirez and Danez Smith, focusing on poems wherein the artists employ film as a metaphor for their commentary on prevalent Black images.
As poets whose filmed performances represent visual forms of artistic expression as well, Ramirez and Smith contribute to a critical understanding of how Blackness becomes visualized through images produced in multiple media, each of which operates in distinction from, and in dialogue with, one another. These artists collectively utilize film, both as metaphor and as medium, to pose powerful questions about the need for Black art to engage trauma with respect to Black history and historical context as well as to re-frame representations of Blackness for their viewers, thereby illuminating not just the trauma of Black life but the fullness of the lives that trauma interrupts.
When They See Us officialtrailer
When Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us was released on Netflix in May 2019, the response from the viewing public was swift and varied. Detailing the events that led to the wrongful arrest of five teenagers—Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana, Jr.—for rape in 1989 and following their lives from incarceration to exoneration, the series immediately catalyzed a robust discourse of reviews, responses, and critically-minded “think pieces.” Critics, scholars, and general viewers found themselves re-examining the case, exploring the biographies of the re-monikered “Exonerated Five,” discussing the performances of the young actors who took on these roles, and consistently drawing parallels to the contemporary moment. The conversation around the film series only grew as Netflix announced that it had been the most watched program on its platform each day in the weeks after its release and that it had been viewed by more than 23 million accounts worldwide within its first month. [ii] In the midst of that conversation, a central concern recurrently rose to the forefront: given the painfully traumatic nature of the series’ storyline and its emotional resonance with ongoing debates about the criminal justice system and the persistent criminalization of Black youth, much of the conversation centered on its “watchability.” Viewers reflected on the emotional work required of them to complete all four episodes, and potential viewers interrogated whether they were fully prepared to sit through the challenging scenes from the discomfort of their living rooms.
Many within this debate felt that the traumatic nature of the viewing experience was critical to the effectiveness of DuVernay’s film. Recognizing that DuVernay herself had arranged for crisis counselors to be on set for the cast and crew during filming, the difficulty of the material was fully acknowledged. [iii]Many insisted that the willingness to embrace that difficulty was necessary, as a show of support not only for the “Exonerated Five,” but also for the film itself and, by extension, for future efforts to tell the stories of the traumatized in order to facilitate healing and to prevent these circumstances from recurring. Ida Harris argues,
[DuVernay’s] work deserves our eyes, collective contemplation, and action … As black people, we must be aware of the aggressive criminalization of black and brown people—which lends a hand to mass incarceration. We must know these stories and be familiar with the entities who benefit from our demise. [iv]
Similarly, Zenobia Jeffries Warfield argues that the emotional heft of the film bears significant historical parallels underlying its necessity. After admitting that she “didn’t make it to the end of part one before [her] chest hurt so badly from anxiety and rage that only an overwhelming wail from deep within brought [her] relief,” she recognized that her pain was communal:
In some Black spaces it may be about affirming our humanity—our experiences, being seen, being heard, being believed, and making the world hear firsthand these stories of hellishness and heartbreak. I would equate the pain of watching the series to seeing the televised images of Black people—including children—being hosed, beaten, and jailed during the civil rights era. [v]
The parallels drawn here are significant, not only for the ways that these writers link historical and contemporary trauma, but also for how they center film—both its making and its viewing—as a critical form of resistance to that trauma and the acts that incite it. Given that one of DuVernay’s previous films, Selma, explored the international impact of televised scenes of violence in the civil rights era, namely the live broadcasting of “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it would be reasonable to consider how DuVernay engages in similar themes with When They See Us.
While recognizing DuVernay’s intent in producing such a powerful film series, others asserted that the episodes demanded too much of the audience and suggested that potential viewers should absolutely feel free to avoid the series for the sake of their own mental health and as a deliberate act of self-care. KC Ifeanyi, for example, recognized that “public displays of black trauma were an integral catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement” and acknowledged the importance of “televised accounts and portraits of black bodies being hosed and torn by dogs” as well as the “heartbreaking decision to have an open-casket funeral” for Emmett Till. [vi]Yet, Ifeanyi still argued for the need to “opt out” of the viewing and the demand to revisit these boys’ trauma through film. Essays like CNN contributor Doug Criss’s “I’m a Black man with a teenage son. I can’t bring myself to watch When They See Us” and Essence magazine senior entertainment editor Joi-Marie McKenzie’s “I was 7 Months Pregnant Creating a Black Boy While Watching When They See Us” brought into stark relief the emotional tax being drawn from Black parents in particular. These writers saw in their own children the potential fates of the young men whose confessions to a crime that they did not commit were so brutally and strategically coerced in a coordinated effort between police and prosecutors in the series’ first episode. Consistently, the objections raised to the viewing experience were not only about the pain of re-living these moments from 1989, but also about recognizing the very real possibility that such events could repeat today.
Novelist Eisa Nefertari Ulen similarly addressed the pain exacted from parents, doing so with a consciously historical lens that extended even farther than the late 1980s. Ulen writes, “I think about my ancestors, about the trauma of parenting enslaved children. How can my fear compare to the realities my foremothers faced? Children dragged from their love and into pure white terror. Why do I feel so suddenly unable to cope, when they survived far worse?” [vii]Challenging her sense of guilt over an apparent inability to muster the fortitude of her ancestors, Ulen recognizes that her pain is compounded by the recognition that “things have not changed so much after all … this is history. This is now. This is intergenerational trauma.” [viii] Ulen writes, “I am suffering witness trauma. Every time I see a video of police violence, a surveillance tape, a dash cam recording, I am experiencing a kind of psychological torture.” [ix] In making this declaration, Ulen also argues,
The truth in this series shouldn’t be my trauma to bear … It is time for white women and white men and white children to have this experience, to know this story, to confront this reality. White law students, age-old prosecutors and police officers cannot claim to be professionals if they do not witness these truths. Five hundred years is long enough. Black mothers have screamed into the night long enough. It is time for white people to see them—the killers who live in their families—and confront the evil they have done. [x]
In this powerful declaration, Ulen echoes a sentiment that is shared by multiple writers, such as David Dennis, Jr., who wrote “Dear White People: Make Your White Friends Watch When They See Us” for News One. Dennis suggeststhat the triggering nature of the series was a vital element of the viewing process and that the question up for debate should not be whether the series is “watchable,” but who should be watching, in order for the visualization of Black trauma to be presented to greatest effect.
The question of audience and historical-contemporary continuity function as the two central themes in this debate about the “watchability” of Black trauma, as engendered by discussions of DuVernay’s work. While today’s critics take on these questions through social media and public scholarship, these are not new questions with respect to the production of Black art. They have been addressed repeatedly by scholars who examine the place of trauma in representations of Black life through Black art. Saidiya Hartman’s seminal work, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, explores precisely these questions while referencing the pain of enslaved people that similarly inspired Ulen’s response and thoughtful engagement with the trauma of her ancestors. Analyzing the representation of “scenes of subjection” through nineteenth-century literature, theater, and visual arts, Hartman explicitly addresses the question of audience. She writes,
What interests me are the ways we are called upon to participate in such scenes. Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does the exposure of the violated body yield? Proof of black sentience or the inhumanity of the ‘peculiar institution’? Or does the pain of the other merely provide us with the opportunity for self-reflection? At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator. [xi]
DuVernay, in her meticulous attention to the details of the lives of these young men and the ripple effect of these traumatic events on their families, impels her audience to interrogate similar questions of themselves. DuVernay challenges her viewers to consider their own role as spectator and witness in the twenty-first century and to clarify the obligations and indictments that come with the roles.
Building upon and acknowledging her debt to Hartman’s work, Jasmine Nichole Cobb moves beyond the trauma of enslavement to consider how Blacks worked to fashion their public image in the face of what she describes as the “peculiarly ‘ocular’ institution” of chattel slavery. Cobb convincingly argues that the institution “utilized an unstable visual logic of race to enslave persons of African descent and to protect Whites from the threat of the gaze,” and she argues for an understanding of “slavery’s visual culture as an impediment to recognizing freedom” and for a critical engagement with “Black visuality as shaped by and resistant to slavery’s visual culture.” [xii] Cobb analyzes how nineteenth-century media, in support of slavery, defined Blackness and enslavement interchangeably to create an immediate association in the minds of white viewers. The work of slaveholders, then, was to maintain the “logical” link between Blackness and enslavement in order to preserve slavery, whose “daily execution thrived in a racio-visual economy that determined ways of seeing and ways of being seen according to racial difference.” [xiii] Conversely, Black activists and anti-slavery advocates of the time worked to refashion public images of Blacks as something other than enslaved in order to reshape public understanding of freedom as a state of being attainable by Black bodies in the nineteenth century.
This essentializing representation of Blackness as synonymous with a particular state of being is precisely what DuVernay challenges in the twenty-first-century context, forcing her own audience to confront the ways that criminality is immediately associated with Blackness. This is evident in the very title of the series, When They See Us, which was notably changed from “The Central Park Five.” As DuVernay explained in the initial announcement, the title change “embraces the humanity of the men and not their politicized moniker.” [xiv] Actress Niecy Nash, who was nominated for an Emmy award for playing Deloris Wise, Korey’s mother, explains the significance of the name while once again echoing the historical import of the work being done by this film:
It is still a story that could have hit the newspapers yesterday. It is telling of America today and yesterday, hence the title When They See Us. I loved that we moved away from calling this the Central Park Five because that was the moniker the media gave these boys—they were called a wolf pack when they didn’t even know each other. What do they see when they see us? They see monsters, a villain. Someone of ill repute, someone nefarious who doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. [xv]
Duvernay explores the immediate association of young Black men with criminality through the interrogation scenes in episode one of the series, as the audience watches the violation of these boys’ innocence through a refusal to see it, all as a precursor to the complete loss of that innocence in the episodes that follow. Moreover, though the police station scenes of the first episode are jarring, it is in the subsequent episodes that DuVernay explores the process by which these young men are vilified in the media through the sensationalized coverage to which Nash refers. In highlighting this process, DuVernay intentionally uses her film to provide counter-images of these young men and to detail how those dominant images were created and reinforced in the first place.
In scenes where DuVernay explores the process of criminalizing these specific boys, she addresses a second aspect of Cobb’s analysis of how Blackness was so narrowly (and similarly) defined in the nineteenth century. Through an examination of “a diverse array of print ephemera, such as auction advertisements, runaway advertisements, and pickup notices,” Cobb argues that,
White viewership became essential to the institutionalization of slavery’s visual culture, as print media undergirded the slave economy. Slaving media, then, normalized Whiteness as a disembodied viewing position by excluding slavers, auctioneers, purchasers, owners, and catchers from the page. Instead, these items announced the arrival of new chattel for sale or called on the White viewing public to assist in the reclamation of enslaved property … A still-burgeoning U.S. media industry became central to the buying and selling of chattel persons with advertisements that invited free White viewers, specifically, to visit auction sites and view scantily clad Black bodies for display and for purchase. [xvi]
DuVernay revisits this in her film series, highlighting the news coverage and the images that bombarded media consumers in the midst of the 1989 “Central Park Jogger” case. DuVernay focuses on newspaper headlines describing the teenagers as “Wildin’” in the park and Donald Trump’s full-page advertisement calling for the return of the death penalty, among other media coverage. In one particularly powerful scene, Yusef Salaam’s mother, as played by Aunjanue Ellis, is seen viewing the coverage on her own television screen, to which she incredulously responds, “they wanna kill my son.” DuVernay highlights how these visual texts incited the viewing public toward universal condemnation while inviting them to participate in the campaign for punishing these young men for their supposed crimes. These scenes echo Cobb’s analysis of runaway advertisements that invited their viewing public to participate in the dispensation of “justice” to fugitive slaves.
While DuVernay depicts this process within the series, she also utilizes her artistic authority to challenge the “disembodied viewing position” of Whites that had characterized earlier depictions of Blackness. As Cobb argues, the nineteenth-century media that sustained slavery “functioned as perceptual documents, as materials that taught Whites how to see Blackness, but also encouraged Whites to believe that Blackness was a thing to see, and that White subjectivity functioned as a domain for looking,” successfully accomplishing this “by focusing attention on Black bodies and away from White bodies, especially away from Whites who were actively involved in the process of enslaving others.” [xviii]In When They See Us, DuVernay deliberately holds white figures accountable for the role that they played in the conviction and incarceration of these five young men. From the moments of the initial arrest through the courtroom scenes, DuVernay is unsparing in her presentation of the active choices and willful collusion that drove police and prosecutors, namely Felicity Huffman’s Linda Fairstein and Vera Farmiga’s Elizabeth Lederer, in their pursuit of conviction. In so doing, DuVernay actively avoids absenting Whites from the narrative of “The Exonerated Five,” whereas their removal from nineteenth-century media depictions of slavery had absolved them from responsibility for the preservation of that institution.
While DuVernay’s engagement with history and historical context is absolutely key to the successful project of this film series, the filmmaker’s purposeful consideration of the question of audience also drove the critical and popular response to her work. As a professional filmmaker utilizing the global platform of Netflix, DuVernay no doubt desired the widest possible audience. Yet, she intentionally de-centers and thereby disempowers the white gaze. Rather than allowing the white gaze to determine how the audience sees its main characters, DuVernay employs important moments where her characters’ humanity is explored within the lens of their own community, opening the series in the home-space, centering family interactions even in the midst of imprisonment through carefully crafted visitation scenes and phone calls, and exploring each man’s effort to reclaim his identity in the period between his release and his formal exoneration. While the lens through which white figures see these boys plays a tremendous role in the narrative, the film nevertheless positions whiteness as the “they” of the series’ title, whereas Black families, communities, churches, and even cellmates regularly constitute the “us” that is constructed and maintained through the episodes.
DuVernay understands, fully, that an audience’s ability to visualize—to create and receive—images of Blackness bears powerful consequences for the treatment of Black people within the world. The relationship between perception and consequential reality is highlighted throughout the trial and convictions of the five young men in When They See Us, and is thoughtfully illuminated in her exploration of the connection between popular images of Black criminality and incarceration rates in her 2016 Netflix documentary 13th. Moreover, she addresses this phenomenon, wherein the public supports a reality that confirms its visualized beliefs, and examines its relationship to film, in a published conversation with cinematographer Bradford Young. She explains,
The image is intimate to me. We use the term our mind’s eye for a reason. The images that we consume, and that we take in, can nourish us, and they can malnourish us. They become a part of our DNA in some way. They become a part of our mind, our memory.… This idea of the image is so much more dense than even using it in a film context. It’s an intimacy inside your own memory, inside your own mind. We see the world and each other in pictures. That’s why I think film is so emotional. It’s re-creating what’s already embedded in our internal process. It’s an artificial rendering of what’s already going on inside. [xix]
Though this conversation was published in 2016 following the release of Selma, on which she and Young collaborated prior to When They See Us, DuVernay’s commitment to the empowering prospect of the image clearly persists within her work on When They See Us, which continues to use the medium of film to challenge what her audiences think they know, and think they see, by charging them to open their “mind’s eye” and see the world anew.
DuVernay, as a filmmaker, is certainly not alone in a tradition of Black artists who seek to engage with the “mind’s eye” as the space in which images are constructed, doing so in a way that recognizes the power of film even while pursuing other mediums of artistic expression. Images of Black criminality continue to shape popular perceptions of Black men and women, which in turn contribute to the proliferation of incidents—often captured on camera—where Black citizens are subjected to life-threatening and life-claiming interactions with the police and their fellow citizens. Social media, in particular, has usefully captured a growing frustration with these incidents, alongside persistently inequitable incarceration rates and policy-backed conditions of hyper-surveillance made manifest in such practices as stop-and-frisk and such phenomena as the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Black artists, then, subsequently use social media and its myriad platforms as a means of articulating their response to the conditions that elicit their artistic examination. In the midst of these responses, contemporary poets, particularly those who embrace traditions of oral performance and thereby make their literary work both visible and visual, have gained particular prominence.
One such young poet is Gabriel Ramirez, who identifies as a “Queer Afro-Latinx poet, activist, and teaching artist.” [xx] Ramirez honed his skills as a poet and a performer in poetry slams as a young adult, being the 2012 Knicks Poetry Slam Champion, competing as a member of the 2012 Urban Word NYC slam team, ranking 2nd in the NYC Youth Slam, and winning the 2013 National Poetry Youth Slam Championship in Boston. Ramirez has performed in multiple venues in New York, including Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theatre, and is an in-demand guest at colleges and universities around the nation. [xxi] In addition to published work in several anthologies and online platforms, Ramirez has experienced a tremendous increase in popularity due to videos of his performances, often published in such venues as YouTube, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy. One poem, “Black Boy Auditions for His Own Funeral,” surpassed 100,000 views within three months of being uploaded in July 2019. This poem addresses some of the very same themes as DuVernay with respect to audience, historical continuity, and the visualization of Black trauma through film:
Gabriel Ramirez’s “Black Boy Auditions for His Own Funeral”
Framing his performance as an audition for a role that is more destined than desired, Ramirez immediately draws the audience in, driving them to question their participation in this performance in similar ways to Hartman’s insistence on interrogating the blurred lines between witness and spectator to history’s “scenes of subjection.” Following the poem’s opening 20 seconds of deliberate silence, wherein Ramirez’s closed eyes and crossed arms perform the pose of a dead body in its casket, he looks at the audience with wide-eyed enthusiasm, asking, “How was that?” Ramirez mimics the eagerness of a young child seeking approval for his performance, thereby conjuring a sense of boyhood innocence that is similarly accomplished by DuVernay’s choice to open When They See Us with scenes of the five young men talking with family and flirting with girls, presenting a youthful naivete of the fates that will soon befall them. Moreover, posing the question invites the audience to sanction his fitness “for his own funeral,” and thereby disallows the viewer any distance from the scene unfolding in front of them. Echoing both Hartman’s and Cobb’s analyses of a historical desire to distinguish viewers of Black trauma from participants in the incitement of that trauma, Ramirez enacts a performance wherein his audience must take on the role of casting directors. He reminds those watching that their approval—explicit or implicit through their lack of objection—is the necessary first step that allows him to embody the role for which he is auditioning.
The audience’s opportunities to challenge his fitness for the role continue throughout the poem, as Ramirez asks, “Do I look the part yet?” and seeks to convince them that “you can put as many holes in me as you want / I can dance despite the bullets.” Each time the audience neglects to dismiss him from this “casting call,” the level of complicity and participation in this process grows. By the poem’s conclusion, the audience is no longer simply casting the project but has taken on greater agency through Ramirez’s use of direct address and subtle direction. At points, the audience members become producers—as indicated by Ramirez’s question about the subject of the film’s sequel—and potentially directors. Ramirez’s repeated direction to “Roll the Credits,” followed by the closing lines, “Let my death / be your last take. / And in this final shot, / when you burying me, / make sure you get my good side,” ultimately grants final authority for the audience to yell “cut.” Ramirez, however, allows ample opportunity for the audience to step outside of these roles to which they’re being assigned. They have the opportunities to deny the casting, reject the sequel, refuse to applaud, and to actively “walk out the theater” before waiting for the credits to roll. Though the poem is gripping, it holds no one captive, and the challenge to the audience to act on their ability to effect change is powerfully posed, yet subtly drawn, throughout the performance.
In addition to Ramirez’s interaction with the audience throughout the poem, he also carefully outlines the role of the “they” who are necessary to complete this metaphorical film. Like DuVernay, Ramirez does not shy away from detailing how he has been prepared for this role by those in power, who see the casket as the inevitable conclusion to his Black boyhood. Ramirez begins the indictment by declaring, “Time of death: when white America opened my auction-block mouth / poured ‘nigger’ down my throat and it became the only language I knew. / Poison so thick you could call it an accent,” thereby invoking the historical context for his contemporary reality and further clarifying the continuity between the circumstances outlined by this poem and the analysis of Hartman and Cobb. Highlighting the “auction-block” and addressing how “a ruined Black boy … be what prisons fill their wallets with,” Ramirez then directly addresses the cop who “told me to get on the ground / Told me to say my lines / with his gun / in my mouth” and then violated the sacredness of his “sometimes church body” with a hail of bullets that ended his life. While the murder leaves Ramirez still trying to prove that he looks the part and is therefore deserving of the role, it is apparently with great ease that the cop (one of many) “made it to the big screen / with their hands too full / of fund-raised retirement money / to carry any kind of accountability.” Ramirez indicts not only the police officer, but also the greater public who funded the officer’s retirement and refused to hold them accountable for the crime of taking the Black boy’s life. The officer is elevated to celebrity status, occupying the privileged space of the “big screen” in full view of an audience that not only accepts the officer’s actions, but approves of them. Meanwhile, Ramirez notes “all the names of the taken from us too soon” scroll on the screen, “ascending into some rushed and forgotten heaven.”
In the midst of a narrative of police brutality—facilitated at turns by public approbation, antipathy, and apathy—Ramirez carefully constructs an emotionally resonant sense of family and community throughout the poem. From the opening lines, wherein he asks, “did my silence break the small mother in your chest?,” to the portraits drawn of his mother “at the hospital / trying to squeeze the rhythm back into my chest” and later “in the courtroom / wailing her way into a settlement of / ‘I was only doing my job’ / and a check to pacify her raging blood,” Ramirez evokes the very same theme of violated motherhood—and, indeed, parenthood—that we see in DuVernay’s film and in the response of parents who were so affected by its visualization of Black trauma. Ramirez moves beyond the description of the mothers’ grief to insist that the audience recognize the transformation of the officer’s bullets into “these seeds police planted to make me a field of blooming things / like activist and protest and hashtags” and that they refuse to allow a settlement check to be the only comfort for mothers in mourning. Rather, Ramirez directs the audience to “take what flowers grow from me. / Make a bouquet for my mother. / For all mothers / who lose children / and are left with shovels / to bury / what they thought would be / the rest of their lives.” This visual, completed by Ramirez’s performed act of shoveling dirt, creates a possibility for mothers to be comforted by more than payments resentfully distributed by the state. Rather, communally collected flowers, reaped from the blooming things created in the wake of their children’s deaths, suggest the possibility of symbols of new life in the aftermath of trauma. Ironically, however, the plucking of those things for the creation of bouquets suggest a renewed finality and a cycle of death that can only be ended if the audience refuses the casting and denies the film’s creation in the first place.
The never-ending cycle that Ramirez engages through his use of the film metaphor is similarly addressed by Danez Smith, a Black, genderqueer, HIV-positive poet, who regularly explores Black trauma in their work, but is deliberate in also exploring themes of joy, love, faith, sex, and humor, among many others. Smith is also a poet who has established themselves, to an even greater extent than Ramirez, through performance and poetry slams as well as multiple publications in various online and print venues, including debut poetry collection [insert] boy, which won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and was a finalist for the LAMBDA Literary Award for poetry, as well as their second collection, National Book Award finalist Don’t Call Us Dead. In addition to these full-length collections, Smith also produced a chapbook of poetry in 2015, titled Black Movie, which explicitly takes on film and film-making as its central motifs.
Smith’s Black Movie thoughtfully employs film as a backdrop to a poetic dialogue regarding Blackness in the twenty-first century, focusing on trauma and death while also exploring dimensions of family, community, and daily ritual that construct a cultural context for contemporary Blackness. As described by Mary Austin Speaker in one of the many reviews for the collection, “Danez Smith’s Black Movie is a cinematic tour-de-force that lets poetry vie with film for the honor of which medium can most effectively articulate the experience of Black America,” explaining that “the book takes an unflinching look at how Black Americans have been portrayed in film, and in doing so posits, initially, film as the ultimate myth-making tool of our era.” [xxii]While Speaker’s review is indicative of much of the positive critical response received by the collection, Smith’s own articulation of their motivations is particularly illuminating as well. In a 2018 interview published in The White Review, Smith described the collection as,
a catalogue of how I was feeling at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. I think of Black Lives Matter as being not only a direct result of police violence but of how black death became an obsession in American mass media. It wasn’t that we hadn’t been being killed or weren’t dying or that police violence had lessened in the years prior, but rather American media decided to turn its attention to police brutality once again in 2013 and 2014. So I really just wanted to capture that moment and what it was like to feel that black death was inescapable both on the TV, via social media, and all these ways in which we were being bombarded by images of black death, while also capturing the depressingness of how that was calling toward a kind of justice that we’d been waiting for for a long time. Because while cases like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown felt very harsh, in our mindset if you are Black American you knew that those stories were not new and that they had been happening since forever. [xxiii]
Smith evokes the sense of historical continuity that pulses through DuVernay and Ramirez’s work while also speaking to the importance of the persistent prominence of images captured on film that gave both the moment, and the collection, its sense of immediacy as well as historical rootedness.
Smith’s description of the inspiration for the collection’s film motif explicitly addresses the challenge inherent in Black artists’ effort to engage with narratives of trauma. Smith explains that, “for any author to be able to delve into depressing or hard topics you need something, and so this idea of films, these sort of mini-movies, this idea of image-making, was a tether that I used to help myself buoy into the work.” [xxiv]More than a “gimmick,” Smith’s use of film allows them an opportunity to explore themes of Black death and pain without making those the central organizing principle of the work. As they explain in another interview, published in The Fourth River in 2017, “we’re always dying or working against dying or in some state of chaos or mourning and violence. Or we’re hyper-sexualized, and dying. Or we’re hyper-athleticisized, and dying. Or hyper-whatever-you-want, and dying. Always dying. Black Movie is attempting to subvert that and engage that too.” [xxv]The effort to both subvert the emphasis on death and trauma, and engage with it, not only fuels the work of Black Movie, but the work of DuVernay, Ramirez, and a bevy of other Black artists as well.
Within Smith’s collection, the poet employs film to varying effect, considering the dimensions of Black life that range from the humorous to the macabre. The collection’s opening poem, “Sleeping Beauty in the Hood,” is one of several that revisit and reimagine fairy tales and children’s stories, yet this poem sets the tone for the collection by directly asking the reader: “You mad? This ain’t no kid flick. There is no magic here.” [xvi]This repeats through additional poems such as “Lion King in the Hood,” which opens with a casting list that recalls Ramirez’s audition exercise, announcing, “Simba played by the first boy you know who died too young,” [xvii]then details opening credits where the film is “brought to you on a tree branch heavy with a tree-colored man,” [xviii] and describes a “Montage: Timon & Pumbaa teach Simba a music other than the blues,” wherein the characters are seen in a series of clips: “clip 1: the boy getting older in spite of everything … clip 10: shot of the boys laughing anyway / clip 11: shot of the boys laughing in the sun / clip 12: shot of the boys laughing in the rain / clip 13: shot of them not being shot.” [xxix]The collection also includes the treatment for films such as “A History of Violence in the Hood,” which “could be a documentary or could be someone’s art school thesis.” [xxx] Smith includes work such as “Short Film,” which refuses to be mired in elegy for such fallen figures as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Renisha McBride, and “Notes for a Film on Black Joy,” which presents vignettes preserved in memory, reflecting on pivotal moments in the poet’s own sexual awakening alongside images of their family, with their mother dancing along when their “auntie ‘nem done finished the wine & put on that Ohio players or whatever album makes them feel blackest” and celebrates their grandmother’s freezer full of food by claiming, “glory be the woman with enough meat to let the world starve but not her family.” [xxxi] For the purposes of this discussion, however, I am most interested in the collection’s concluding poem, “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” which has been recorded in performance on multiple occasions, with film recordings totaling nearly 150,000 views on YouTube:
Danez Smith, “Dinosaurs in the Hood”
As a closing poem, following the various re-castings and re-imaginings of already existing films referenced in the collection, Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood” is distinguished as an ultimate creative act. Not only can this film be completed without another “original” script as its guide, but it is also fueled by the freedom of fantasy, rather than the historical record that serves as the source material for filmmakers like DuVernay. Moreover, from its opening call, “Let’s make a movie,” [xxxii]Smith invites their audience to join in a process whereby the poet and the audience share in complete creative control, unlike the film-already-in-progress for which Ramirez’s Black boy auditions. Here, Smith appeals to no higher authority for decisions about casting or direction, but presents the treatment for a film culled entirely from their own imagination, with only disparate action, comedy, and drama films as its potential inspiration.
Smith engages in a playful spirit throughout the “pitch” for this film, presenting scenarios that range from the hilarious to the profound but never veer into the mainstream or the stereotypical. Each of the standard tropes of action films is skewered and replaced with radical articulations of what a film of this magnitude could possibly be, as Smith describes “a scene where a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl,” scenes with “grandmas on the front porch taking out / raptors with guns they hid in walls & under mattresses,” and wanting “Viola Davis to save the city in the last scene with a black fist afro pick through the last dinosaur’s long, cold-blood neck.” [xxxiii]Smith is purposeful in not only the scenarios that they suggest, but also those that get refused, clarifying that this film is not to be manipulated to serve the purposes of the Wayans Brothers, Will Smith, or Sofia Vergara, but that it is, by design, a celebration of “a neighborhood of royal folks – / children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles saving their town from real ass Dinosaurs.” [xxxiv]Yet, it is in the poet’s declaration about trauma that the poem, and the filmed performance, speak most powerfully to this discussion and the concerns addressed by artists such as DuVernay and Ramirez. As Smith explains:
. . . But this can’t be a black movie. This can’t be a
black movie. This movie can’t be dismissed because of its cast
or its audience. This movie can’t be a metaphor for black people
& extinction. This movie can’t be about race. This movie can’t be
about black pain or cause black people pain. This movie
can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt. [xxxv]
Making a deliberate choice not to center Black trauma and pain, and the history of that pain, Smith does not neglect historical context. Rather, by invoking the presence of extinct dinosaurs within the modern-day neighborhood they describe, history and historical-contemporary continuity permeates the entire poem and is certainly a critical element of the proposed film. Yet, in Smith’s presentation of that history, they draw focus to the battle with a historical threat rather than the damage done by that threat, which reframes how the audience is prepared to view the Black subjects, whose all-encompassing battle drives the imagined film’s plot.
Smith draws this powerfully with an emphasis on a little boy, the focus of the film’s proposed opening scene. Smith describes “a scene where a little black boy is playing / with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window / & sees the T‑Rex.” [xvi]Rejecting the influence of a director like Quentin Tarantino, who has famously employed Black actors in films that problematically engage with race, Smith makes clear that the boy’s playtime is not to be corrupted by any white director’s effort to make some larger statement about the precarity of Black boys’ lives and their own accountability in it. Rather, Smith reinforces the image of the boy playing with “a plastic brontosaurus or triceratops” which functions as “his proof of magic or God or Santa.” [xxxvii]Returning to this scene in the poem’s closing, Smith reiterates its importance, declaring with full authority that there be “no bullets in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy, / & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy,” claiming that “the only reason I want to make this is for that first scene anyway.” [xviii]As poet Lauren Alleyne asserts, much of the power of this poem is held in the fact that “Danez is not asking for a world without the threat. The dinosaurs are still there, and they’re scary. But the threat is not specifically to the boy, and it’s not because he’s Black.” [xxxix]Indeed, though the dinosaurs of the poem are certainly larger-than-life, they are secondary to the narrative that Smith is most concerned with telling. The point of their inclusion is not to focus on the damage that they cause or the trauma left in their wake. Rather, Smith emphasizes the boy’s imagination-fueled playtime, the fullness of which is disrupted by a looming threat that ultimately represents a confirmation and expansion of what the boy had previously believed to be possible. Despite the audience’s impulse to fear for the boy, Smith reminds us that this is not “the foreshadow to his end” and instead encourages us to focus on “his eyes wide & endless / his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.” [xl] In this moment, Black boyhood innocence is not set up to be eventually shattered, but instead remains the central focus and therefore the most important scene in the film.
Smith, throughout “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” offers unfettered possibility for the creation of a film that might also suggest unrestrained possibilities for its subjects, namely the young boy whose wonderment serves as the film’s primary inspiration. Smith does not avoid the complicated questions surrounding audience, history, or the trauma captured in the process of Black image-making. Rather, they provide their audience with potential scenes of Blackness, captured on film, that incorporate all of these concerns while moving beyond them, presenting a community of Black people whose lives are impacted by their circumstances but not ultimately defined by them. Smith’s performance, particularly when viewed alongside the work of Ava DuVernay and Gabriel Ramirez, offers viewers an opportunity to consider how they might actively participate in Black image-making, simply by accepting the poem’s initial invitation to “make a movie” and join in the creative process.
While Smith’s invitation is explicit, DuVernay and Ramirez likewise extend invitations for their audiences to contend with pain and trauma and to recognize the liberating power of embracing visual texts that refuse to be mired in it. Collectively, these artists encourage audiences to consider the potentiality of active resistance through creative effort and to recognize the power of both producers and consumers, not simply to reject images of trauma but to confront the processes which incite that trauma in the first place. Fully recognizing the “long history of having a long history with hurt” requires neither artists nor audiences to make the work be about that long history. Rather, these works create possibilities for other narratives to emerge, wherein Blackness is articulated in greater and more nuanced dimension by Black artists who no longer seek to play roles crafted by a historical narrative that never envisioned they might write their own scripts and who refuse to subscribe to the limited images made available for when they were allowed to be seen.
[i]Jacqueline N. Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (U of California Press, 2005), 23. [ii]Anita Bennett, “‘When They See Us’ Watched by More Than 23 Million Netflix Accounts Worldwide,” Deadline (25 June 2019). [iii]Sasha Lekach, “Crisis Counselors Were on Set for ‘When They See Us’ Cast and Crew,” Mashable (1 June 2019). [iv]Ida Harris, “Watching ‘When They See Us’ Is an Act of Social Justice,” Black Enterprise (20 June 2019). [v]Zenobia Jeffries Warfield, “‘When They See Us’ Is Triggering. That’s Why You Should Watch It,” YES! Magazine (5 June 2019). [vi]KC Ifeanyi, “Opting Out of Black Trauma: Why I Couldn’t Finish When They See Us,” Fast Company (31 May 2019). [vii]Eisa Nefertari Ulen, “Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Watch ‘When They See Us,’” Truthout (12 June 2019). [viii]Ibid. [ix]Ibid. [x]Ibid. [xi]Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford UP, 1997), 3–4. [xii]Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in The Early 19th Century (NYU Press, 2015), 31. [xiii]Cobb, 34. [xiv]Jackie Strause, “Ava DuVernay’s ‘Central Park Five’ Netflix Limited Series Gets New Title, Premiere Date,” The Hollywood Reporter (1 March 2019). [xv]Nadja Sayej, “From ‘Claws’ to ‘When They See Us,’ Niecy Nash Won’t Stay in Her Lane,” Shondaland (31 May 2019). (emphasis added) [xvi]Cobb, 41. [xvii]When They See Us, Episode 2. [xviii]Cobb, 42. [xix]Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young, “Black Lives, SilverScreen: Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young in Conversation,” Aperture (Summer 2016), 37. [xx]Gabriel Ramirez, “About.” [xxi]“Poet Gabriel Ramirez,” Neon Entertainment. [xxii]Mary Austin Speaker, “Black Movie,” Rain Taxi (Summer 2016). [xxiii]Sandeep Parmar, “Interview with Danez Smith,” The White Review (June 2018). [xxiv]Ibid. [xxv]Cedric Rudolph, “Interview with Danez Smith,” The Fourth River (31 October 2017). [xxvi]Danez Smith, Black Movie (Button Poetry, 2015), 3. [xxvii]Smith, 10. [xxviii]Smith, 11. [xxix]Smith, 10–16. [xxx]Smith, 6. [xxxi]Smith, 36–37. [xxxii]Smith, 39. [xxxiii]Ibid. [xxxiv]Ibid. [xxxv]Ibid. [xxxvi]Ibid. [xxxvii]Ibid. [xviii]Smith, 40. [xxxix]Lauren Alleyne, Personal Interview (21 August 2019). [xl]Smith, 40.
Alleyne, Lauren. Personal Interview. 21 August 2019.
When They See Us. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Netflix, 2019.
McKinley E. Melton, Associate Professor of English at Gettysburg College, earned his doctorate from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. With the support of an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship, he is the 2019/20 Scholar-in-Residence at James Madison University’s Furious Flower Poetry Center, the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry, which is dedicated to the visibility, inclusion, and critical consideration of Black poets in American letters. Dr. Melton’s work focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century Africana literatures, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between literary, social, cultural, and political movements toward social justice. His current project, “Claiming All the World as Our Stage: Contemporary Black Poetry, Performance, and Resistance,” explores spoken word poetry within Black diasporan traditions of orality and performance.
In the spring of 2018, the fiction writer Danielle Evans visited the small, midwestern liberal arts college where I teach in the English department. Evans read her recently published short story, “Boys Go to Jupiter,” and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Clearly, I’m not the only one to have felt its power. Roxane Gay recently selected the story for the 2018 edition of the iconic Best American Short Stories series.
“Boys Go to Jupiter” tells the story of Claire, a white, first-year student at fictional Dennis College in New England, who finds herself at the center of escalating controversy after a photograph of her wearing a Confederate flag bikini goes viral. She’s goaded into wearing the swimsuit by a temporary boyfriend, and she goes along with it, hoping the “trashy” bikini will piss off her new stepmother. Claire barely registers the significance of her clothing choice, until the boyfriend posts the photo to Facebook. It doesn’t take long for the photo to become a subject of intense debate and controversy. Claire’s African-American hall mate promptly sees the photo and tweets her outrage. Claire’s photo is reposted and re-tweeted in various contexts. The locally trending topic #clairewilliamsvacationideas includes the suggestions “Auschwitz, My Lai,” and “Wounded Knee.” [i]An organization named the Heritage Defenders takes up what they imagine to be Claire’s cause (though Claire, a recent resident of the northern Virginia suburbs, can hardly claim southern identity). Claire’s email address is made public, and hundreds of angry, supportive, and pornographic messages find their way to her inbox. Within a few days, the Dennis College campus has erupted in tension. Claire herself doubles down in the midst of this controversy, printing a Confederate flag postcard for the hall mate and posting another to her dorm door. Claire’s adviser and the Vice Dean of Diversity ask Claire to apologize for her behavior. At the campus town hall held to help students process the anger and fear the bikini photo has inspired, Claire remains unrepentant. In this moment, surrounded by angry peers, Claire persists in telling herself “she can still be anybody she wants to.” [ii]
For those of us who work and live in the world of the small liberal arts college, the story’s events ring true. Over the past four years, our small school has witnessed assorted incidents: the tearing down of Black Lives Matter posters and the defacing of Muslim Student Association posters, the scrawling of the n‑word across the “Aspiration Fountain” where orientation leaders encourage first-year students to chalk their hopes and dreams. We’ve watched the university respond to each incident in its institutional manner, with forums held and forceful yet vague promises made to meet student demands for a better, more inclusive, campus climate. Students have organized and requested that faculty receive mandatory diversity training each year, and the faculty have assented. Evans’s story suggests that these kinds of institutional responses are inadequate; they barely scratch the surface of the modern problems such events manifest: the ways that social media determine the truths within which we must live, the ways that privilege has co-opted the language of resistance, the complexity of individual culpability in a systemically racist society. But for those of us who work in this world, something else resonates here as well. The story asserts that the idea of college—as a space of transformation and reinvention—is mere fiction. When Claire tells herself in the midst of this chaos that, “she can still be anybody she wants to,” we know she is wrong.
Like Claire, I believed that in college I would be able to become anybody I wanted to. This was the mid-1990s, and my pile of college brochures, each thick and glossy, full of beautifully casual people walking past lush, ancient trees in their sweatshirts, was a treasured stash. I studied these images, trying to determine the perfect place to go, the place where I would become myself, someone wholly new and still unthinkable. Shirley Marchalonis compares this ideal of college to the “green world” described by Shakespeare scholars. [iii]In this view, college is a space “away from the ‘real world’’’ that has “its own reality,” a space that is “beautiful, mysterious, and magical.” [iv]This college is a “place of transformation,” where “temporary inhabitants grow, change, seek identities and find solutions.” [v]This college was the one I assumed was waiting for me. The impression in my mind was vague but palpable. Much like the title character of Owen Johnson’s 1912 novel Stover at Yale, I anticipated the freedom that college seemed to promise. I, too, imagined that the freedom “to venture and to experience” would lead me to the knowledge of “that strange, guarded mystery—life.” [vi]
For the past few years, I have been studying the stories we tell about college. Perhaps because I keep hearing the refrain that higher education is in “crisis” (a cursory search for “crisis” on The Chronicle of Higher Education website will yield more than 230 articles published in the past year alone), or perhaps because my students’ experience of college life appears so different from my own, I’ve felt drawn to thinking about the ways that college has been understood and imagined. The stories we tell about college are changing. Are they changing because college itself has changed? A number of scholars have asserted that recent decades have witnessed the “financialization” of the university and that the university’s assimilation of corporate ideals has fundamentally altered education. [vii]The past two decades have also seen the advent and ascension of social media. Can college no longer make itself a “world apart” in this digital environment? Or, are the stories we tell about college changing to reflect a reality that has always existed? Was my fantasy of college transformation only ever fantasy, the product of some amount of privilege and blindness? I’ll admit there is nostalgia motivating me in this pursuit, some imprecise sense that things used to be better in some way. Like most nostalgia, the reality turns out to be more complex than the contours of my fuzzy, sepia-toned memories would lead me to believe.
In the United States, stories about college life began to be told in the 1830s, and they gained popularity as the nineteenth century wore on. Perhaps what is most surprising about the popularity of such stories is that it outpaced the actual popularity of college itself. By 1900, only about 4 percent of the school-age population attended college. [viii]At the same time, the subject of the college man or college girl appeared regularly in popular magazines, and books about campus life enjoyed healthy sales. Despite the paucity of actual college students in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the idea of college circulated widely and seems to have occupied an outsized role in the way readers imagined the maturation of the individual in democratic society.
The earliest of these published college stories suggest that transformation and growth were central to the story of college. The few scholars who analyze college fiction inevitably refer to stories and books about campus life as bildungsroman, stories of a young person’s development and emergence into society. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1828 novel Fanshawe traces the maturation of the fictional Harley College students Edward Walcott and Fanshawe as they compete with each other over the college president’s young ward Ellen Langton and later rescue her from kidnapping. Walcott and Fanshawe, one a rather superficial young man and the other a serious and sickly scholar, each change, becoming thoughtful men of action through their interactions with each other. [ix]Still, Fanshawe offers a rather slight portrait of its characters’ development.
By the end of the nineteenth century, we can read about more substantive college transformations. The handsome and carefree title character of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s 1893 novel Donald Marcy “finds everything has always come easily to him,” until a hazing incident gone terribly wrong causes introspection. [x]Before he even understands it, Marcy begins to see the “educated life” as connected to “the honor and the preciousness of all those intangible values which come to a man.” [xi]Marcy turns away from the capitalism and materialism of his Wall Street father and the hijinks of his early college friends, finding self-realization in studying and helping others. Marcy’s maturity is due in large part to the influence of his friendship with the Smith College student Fay, whose formidable intellect and accomplishments set a model for him to emulate.
College women too could expect to leave school with a new sense of self in addition to their ironically named bachelor’s degrees. In Helen Dawes Brown’s Two College Girls (1886), the effervescent, superficial Rosamund gains a seriousness of purpose through her college experience while her intellectual and prim roommate Edna emerges as a more compassionate and socially adept woman. What Edna treasures as the most “real” experience of her life, she states, is “the finding out of new ideas—the seeing of old things in a new light” that has transpired in college. [xii]Speaking at commencement, Edna’s roommate Rosamund fondly recounts the “colleging”—the pranks, holidays, friendships, and scholarly triumphs—that have led to her own and her fellow graduates’ considerable personal development. [xiii]For these young women, as for countless other undergraduates imagined in the college fiction of the era, college is a space in which individuals tend to discover themselves, developing their nascent talents and strengths and discarding their careless behaviors and poor manners.
In Two College Girls, Edna and Rosamund’s teachers explain that college inevitably leads to transformation, because it puts students “in the way of influencing each other.” [ivx]Genuine friendship, forged unexpectedly across the social borders of popularity, temperament, regional affiliation, and class, provides the catalyst for most of the collegiate transformation that takes place in college stories. Studying matters, but the knowledge gained from experience, and in particular the experience of others, matters more. In seeming to bring together diverse individuals in this way, college has often occupied a symbolic place in U.S. culture. It stands as a particularly democratic institution, a meritocracy in which individuals pursue achievement on a level playing field and gain valuable training as citizens. As the cultured Monsieur Darcy informs the young Armory Blaine in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 college novel This Side of Paradise, “democracy” is something he will “find plenty of … in college.” [xv]
However, the few scholarly studies of college fiction that have been published suggest that our ideals of college democracy and the transformation it engenders have only ever been myth. Examining representations of friendship in postbellum U.S. college fiction, Travis M. Foster concludes that the affectionate bonds depicted in these novels exist to consolidate white supremacy and to mend sectional tensions in the wake of national division. Reaching similar conclusions, Christopher Findeisen explores issues of class addressed in college fiction, showing how college has always been imagined as a space for the upper class to play and develop. What has changed over time, Findeisen asserts, is that colleges and universities have “evolved to become institutions that produced economic differences rather than institutions that merely reflected them” [xvi]Both scholars have illuminated the function of not only the university but also college fiction in producing and reproducing an American elite. As our stories about college emphasize individual transformation and achievement, they direct attention away from what yet remains visible, that “the university is largely a site for the upper class to compete with itself in games that have essentially no economic meaning because their outcomes are more or less assured.” [xvii]Transformation, or at least the illusion of transformation, is a mark of privilege.
As Foster notes, some voices questioned the story of college even as it was being written. In the short story “Of the Coming of John,” W. E. B. Du Bois writes of a young man from Altamaha, Georgia, who departs for college as the great pride of his rural black community. At the Wells Institute, John grows “in body and soul”; he gains “dignity” and “thoughtfulness.” [xviii]His professor remarks, “all the world toward which he strove was of his own building, and he builded slow and hard.” [ixx]Drawn away from home into a “world of thought,” John discovers himself and utterly transforms at college—in manner, perspective, skill, and understanding. [xx]However, when John returns home to southeastern Georgia, he finds his intellectual and personal growth have put him at odds with his family and community, and, worse, they have provoked the town’s anxious white community. Another John, the white son of the town’s judge, has also returned from college. When this white John attempts to assault John’s sister, John kills him and is lynched by a white mob. In Du Bois’s hands, we see the story of college masks the story of systemic racism and power. Neither John transforms. The white John does not want to nor does he need to; the world is designed for him. The black John is not permitted such transformation.
The story of college that Du Bois tells here has been told again and again in African American literature. A beautiful world of learning provides an oasis and a path to achievement and uplift. This place promises the improvement of the individual, promises that here the individual can be remade and in turn can remake the world. Yet, this promise proves illusory. From Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood (1903–4) to Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1947), college becomes visible as a space that exists not for individual transformation but for the reproduction of the status quo.
The story of college as transformation meets this critique of college in “Boys Go to Jupiter.” Claire’s fantasy of reinvention at Dennis College is manifestly symptomatic of the white privilege Du Bois exposes as tacitly underpinning assumptions about higher education’s transformative potential. Like “Of the Coming of John,” Evans’s story exposes the fantasy of transformation by juxtaposing the intertwined fates of its black and white characters. As the consequences of Claire’s unthinking mistake unfold, flashbacks inform the reader of a darker, more intimate story of race and racism, the story of Claire’s best friendship with Angela Hall. After Claire and Angela meet as six-year-old neighbors, the girls are inseparable, sharing a special affection as they taunt Angela’s brother Aaron with the nonsense rhyme, “girls go to college to get more knowledge, boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider” (643). The girls grow into adolescents together and even endure their mothers’ respective cancers together. Claire plans that they will someday “go to college together,” where “the world will unravel for them, fall at their feet.” [xxi]Only Claire’s mother’s death and Angela’s mother’s recovery severs the girls’ bond. And race, Angela’s blackness, is only ever incidental. That is, incidental to Claire.
If the girls’ shared experience of their mothers’ illnesses seems like evidence of the kind of universal experience and human connection that underlies some appeals to building a post-racial U.S. society, further tragedy underscores how unrealistic such a vision remains. One year after Claire’s mom’s death, Aaron drives a drunk, grieving Claire home from a party and is killed when a pack of white teenage boys run him off the road. The boys, who imagine they are rescuing Claire from this young black man she has known all her life, are found not responsible, and Aaron’s death is ruled an accident, though the Hall family understands the events through different terms. As Aaron’s fate makes clear, even in the twenty-first century and even among educated and privileged suburban neighbors, not everyone can expect the world to fall at her feet.
As a child, Aaron points out the logical fallacy of the girls’ rhyme. It doesn’t make sense that boys would go to Jupiter to get “more stupider,” Aaron quite rationally explains, since, in order to reach Jupiter, one would have to be incredibly intelligent. Evans’s story seems to suggest that it is no more sensible to believe that “college” is the place to get “more knowledge.” This is the stuff of child’s games.
After I listened to Evans read this story before an audience of alternately eager, anxious, and bored undergraduates in the richly wood-paneled auditorium of our college library, I felt disheartened. This story is about the end of college, I thought. There is no reinvention, no transformation, only stasis and spin. The narrative that the campus is fixated on, whether one young woman’s stupid choice to wear a hateful symbol should be condemned as racist or celebrated for its self-expression of southern “heritage,” is not even the real story here. Neither of these interpretations of Claire is true, exactly. The deeper story of Claire’s relationship to Angela and Aaron causes us to ask complex questions—what culpability does Claire have for what happens to Aaron? Is she a different kind of victim, one of the racist and sexist ideology that imagines her as the white woman ever vulnerable to the predatory black male? Is ignorance as bad as racism? How can love and racism coexist?—that are only flattened in this campus environment. Dennis College is not a world apart in which the freedom of experience and the pursuit of knowledge lead to reinvention and personal growth. But for all the ways that Evans’s story signals the end of the story of college, it suggests that there might be another story to tell.
In an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in May 2018, Lisi Schoenbach cautions readers against engaging in too spirited a critique of the university, lest we undermine the credibility of an institution we need now more than ever. Schoenbach writes, “it can be true that the university is implicated in neoliberalism while also being true that universities are often the defenders of free speech, anti-instrumentality, and dissent.” [xxii]Maybe college is not and has never been truly a space of transformation, but it can be a space of reckoning, at least of a kind. College can be a space in which systemic injustice and the myths that ease its functioning are observed and named. It can be a space of dialogue, confrontation, and expression. In our current world, college may be the only space where this is possible.
The college town hall event that concludes Evans’s story is not an opportunity to pose difficult questions. Still, in this space, even as Claire’s story is misunderstood, we see an exchange of perspectives, and we see Claire begin to become aware of her privileged place in the world. One white student stands at the microphone and offers an apology for racism, another recites the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” though no one can tell whether this performance is an earnest endorsement or a critique of the song’s glorification of the U.S. South. Claire watches as various speakers—all white—file on to and off of the stage. Carmen, the hall mate who first tweeted her outrage at Claire’s bikini photo, sits in the audience, “surrounded by two full rows of black students, more black people than Claire has ever seen on campus before—maybe, it occurs to her, more black people than Claire has ever seen at once in her life.” The group sits silently. They wait. Eventually, after the stage has been empty for ten minutes, the black students stand and leave the room, intentionally, one at a time. No one has spoken, but it would be wrong to say that these students have not made themselves heard. At the end, Claire finds herself unable to resist the deafening quiet. She approaches the microphone, as Evans tells us, still telling herself that reinvention and transformation remain possible. We know this is the wrong story for Claire to tell herself, but we can also see that college has precipitated some self-awareness, however modest, for Claire. When it “occurs to her” that she has come face to face with “more black people than” she “has ever seen at once,” Claire has been brought to account in some small way. Evans also suggests here that Claire’s is not the only story of college that warrants telling. In their performance of purposeful silence, Carmen and her fellow black students not only call into question the stories that many of us have persisted in telling ourselves about college. They also intimate the existence of other college stories that still remain to be told.
[i]Danielle Evans, “Boys Go to Jupiter,” Sewanee Review (Fall 2017), 646. [ii]Evans, 661. [iii]Shirley Marchalonis, College Girls: A Century in Fiction (Rutgers University Press, 1995), 25. [iv] Ibid. [v] Ibid. [vi]Owen Johnson, Stover at Yale (Frederick A. Stokes, 1912), 5. [vii]Stefan Collini, Speaking of Universities (Verso, 2017). [viii]Colin B. Burke, American Collegiate Populations: A Test of the Traditional View (New York Univ. Press, 1982), 55. [ix]It is worth noting that Hawthorne was so embarrassed of this book, his first novel, that he later attempted to buy up all the existing copies and burn them. [x]Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Donald Marcy (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1983), 64. [xi] Ibid., 72. [xii]Helen Dawes Brown, Two College Girls (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886), 144. [xiii]Ibid., 314. [xiv]Ibid., 112. [xv]F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (Scribner, 1920), 32. [xvi]Christopher Findeisen, “‘The One Place Where Money Makes No Difference’: The Campus Novel from Stover at Yale through The Art of Fielding,” American Literature 88. 1 (March 2016), 77. [xvii]Ibid., 82. [xviii] W. E. B. Du Bois, “Of the Coming of John,” The Souls of Black Folk (1903; Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003), 166. [xix]Ibid., 163. [xx]Ibid., 163. [xxi]Evans, 648. [xxii]Lisi Schoenbach, “Enough with the Crisis Talk!: To Salvage the University, Explain Why It’s Worth Saving,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (16 May 2018).
Brown, Helen Dawes. Two College Girls. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886.
Burke, Colin B. American Collegiate Populations: A Test of the Traditional View. New York Univ. Press, 1982.
Collini, Stefan. Speaking of Universities. Verso, 2017.
Du Bois, W. E. B. “Of the Coming of John.” The Souls of Black Folk. 1903; Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003, 162–176.
Schoenbach, Lisi. “Enough with the Crisis Talk!: To Salvage the University, Explain Why It’s Worth Saving,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 May 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Enough-With-the-Crisis-Talk-/243423
Molly K. Robey is an assistant professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University. She has published articles in American Literature, Legacy, Studies in American Fiction, and Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Most recently, she has been researching the origins of the College Girl in U.S. culture.
Why are we talking math in a journal of poetry and prose? This question captures a tested and reliable division between the arts/humanities and quantitative fields both in academics and the wider culture. While there is certainly no consensus on whether mathematics is a science, it is frequently grouped with sciences and other fields that rely on it. Witness the STEM vs. STEAM debates in K‑12 education. Advocates for STEM (a curriculum integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) argue that study of the arts will dilute the STEM focus. Meanwhile, advocates for STEAM (a curriculum adding the Arts to STEM, an extravagant “A” wedged into this short acronym auguring sensible career choices) argue that the arts enhance the sciences. [i] Similar debates roil post-secondary education. And administrators and faculty aren’t the only ones weighing in on the value of liberal education vs. STEM or professional education. Case in point: the acrimonious Twitter feud between STEM majors and Humanities, Social Science, and Education majors last December. [ii]
The hedges go up more quickly outside the compass of curriculum and instruction. Chitchat over the years in every conceivable setting has yielded a pattern in which acquaintances, after learning what I do for a living, either confess to being bad at English but good at math or declare, in solidarity, that writing comes easily while numbers are stumpers. These divisions seem overblown. Most people write every day, composing texts, emails, Facebook posts, tweets, snaps. Most people also go to the store without hauling in an abacus.
This collection of examples points to the habitual partitioning of language and math, even though these two “adversaries” hold undeniable affinities. Poets and mathematicians alike have long recognized the reciprocity between the disciplines. Emily Dickinson, for one, lavished her poetry with math. Approximately 200 of her poems make reference to mathematical terms and concepts, demonstrating compatibility between mathematical principles and lyrical sensibility. As Seo-Young Jennie Chu writes, “Not only did [Dickinson] have a poetic understanding of mathematics, but she had a deeply mathematical understanding of her own poetic enterprise.” [iii] Albert Einstein used poetry as a metaphor to express the beauty of mathematical endeavor, characterizing “pure mathematics” as “the poetry of logical ideas.” [iv]
It is not uncommon for mathematicians to locate a kinship between mathematics and literature in their shared aesthetic properties. For some, “aesthetics” names classic aesthetic qualities of art such as beauty, elegance, symmetry, and balance. Masahiko Fujiwara observes:
It is impossible to put in words the intrinsic grace of a theorem… I can only describe it as being akin to a perfect piece of music in which each note is irreplaceable or to a haiku in which no syllable can be changed. The beauty I speak of is like the exquisite tension that holds together aspects of a work of art; a fragile serenity that cements its perfection. And so the magnetic force that draws art—and therefore literature—to mathematics is the dignified beauty of its pure logic. [v]
Like so many in his discipline, Fujiwara joins theorems and proofs with works of art such as literature because of the “grace” and “beauty” of their composition. Other mathematicians emphasize the aesthetic experience of solving a problem, the pleasure taken in arriving at meaning, of “coming-to-understanding,” in the words of David W. Henderson and Daina Taimina. [vi] Multiple meanings of “aesthetics” also circulate are also in circulation in art criticism and literary studies, where the common wisdom is to “encourage a variety of investigations under its aegis” rather than “to prescribe a single definition.” [vii] Mathematical aesthetics can therefore denote the beauty of the work, the sensuous experience of performing the work, and more. This latter sense, the feelings evoked by the doing, is especially compelling to me.
Of course mathematicians and artists don’t have a corner on the aesthetic experience of “coming-to-understanding.” The pleasure of solving a problem belongs to every reader of mysteries and every fan of cryptography adventure movies. If you’re having trouble placing this genre, think National Treasure. The 2004 film stars Nicolas Cage as Benjamin Franklin Gates, a historian-cryptanalyst who has devoted his life to the discovery of a rumored national treasure hidden by the U.S. Founding Fathers. Gates follows a trail of obscure clues: one etched inside the stem of a meerschaum pipe concealed in a gunpowder barrel in a sunken ship at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, another written on the back of the Declaration of Independence in invisible ink, and so on. Predictably, each puzzle and solution leads him closer to the treasure (buried all along in a secret grotto several stories beneath Boston’s Old North Church). Critics and movie-goers who panned the film cited its overblown and improbable plot. Because Hollywood films are usually subtle. [viii]
But I enjoyed the preposterousness of the treasure hunt. I enjoyed watching Gates and his team solve clues requiring dexterity with words and numbers. The code concealed on the back of the Declaration is an Ottendorf or book cipher, which uses a book or another written text to encode and decode a message recorded in numbers. To decode the message, Gates and crew have to match the Declaration’s “magic numbers,” as one character calls them, to corresponding words in a key, in this case The Silence Dogood Letters. The number clusters found on the Declaration (10–11‑8, 10–4‑7, 9–2‑2, 14–8‑2, etc.) refer to the page number of The Silence Dogood Letters, the line on the page, and the letter in the line, respectively. [ix] As a scholar of early America, I was thrilled to encounter these eighteenth-century texts on the big screen, along with landmarks and arcana from the founding era: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Paul Revere, freemasonry, George Washington’s election campaign buttons. Historical padding? Yes. But any annoyance at drive-through history was offset by the satisfaction of being in on the esoterism.
In a film relentless with its inclusion of American Independence references, it’s no surprise Benjamin Franklin gets folded in. But Franklin is more than a passing mention; his presence hangs over the entire film. Franklin is the protagonist’s namesake, he’s the author of The Silence Dogood Letters, he invents the bifocals they use to view the 3‑D treasure map on the Declaration. A Franklin impersonator makes an appearance at the Franklin Museum in Philadelphia, and in a deleted scene they must decipher Franklin’s “Join or Die” political cartoon to escape death. Perhaps the screenwriters were paying homage to Franklin’s ingenuity in a movie that revels in the cleverness and resourcefulness of its problem-solving hero. Or perhaps, more directly, they were alluding to Franklin’s real-life preoccupation with cryptography. He developed numerical codes for secret messages during the Revolutionary War and for American diplomatic correspondence afterward. [x] Re-watching the movie reminded me that the polymathic Franklin is a quintessential example of someone who not only delighted in puzzle-making and problem-solving but also joined numbers and letters in his pursuits.
Nevertheless, Franklin has a reputation for being bad at math. Much of this owes to Franklin’s own description of his “ignorance of figures.” [xi] Early in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin he recounts how at age nine his father sent him to George Brownell’s school, where he “acquired fair writing pretty soon but… failed in… arithmetic and made no progress in it.” [xii] Scholars from literary studies to computer science have generally taken him at his word, no doubt due to the enduring conceptual opposition between writing and math. Despite his notoriety as math-deficient, Franklin was actually gifted. He used population statistics in his “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Etc.” (1751) and employed geometry in his invention of the glass armonica (a musical instrument consisting of spinning glass discs). The list of Franklin’s mathematical investigations goes on—utility theory, accounting, applied mathematics, navigation, daylight saving time. [xiii]
To fully appreciate these developments, we have to look past his part in the national origin story. He wasn’t only a key player in the United States’ founding, but also a leading scientist in a transatlantic community of scholars. [xiv] From the late 1740s through the late 1760s, Franklin’s study of electricity developed within a network of communication with and support from a confrere of Atlantic scientists, culminating in Experiments and Observations on Electricity (a series of letters to English friend and patron Peter Collinson, originally published in 1751 and undergoing subsequent editions through 1769). In 1756, Franklin’s research on electricity and invention of the lightning rod earned him the distinction of fellow at the Royal Society of London, Britain’s foremost scientific organization. Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity was a towering achievement of Enlightenment-era science—but it was not, as we might expect of a scientific work in the Age of Reason, strictly committed to the advance of reason. [xv] For one, “magical” math puzzles crop up in the volume.
Occupying Franklin’s thinking for nearly half a century were numerical puzzles known as “magic squares” and “magic circles.” It may be tempting to trivialize such pursuits as many of his biographers have—Sudoku for the eighteenth century, Candy Crush for the insufferable meeting. We know, for instance, that Franklin doodled with these games to “amuse [himself]” during the speeches at the Pennsylvania Assembly. [xvi] He would have gained access to these puzzles through the transatlantic circulation of texts such as Jacques Ozanam’s Recreations Mathematical and Physical and John Tipper’s The Ladies’ Diary, or, the Woman’s Almanack. First published in France in the 1690s and then revised by a variety of editors over the next 150 years, Ozanam’s Recreations would remain the most important reference on recreational mathematics for over two centuries. Tipper’s The Ladies’ Diary was a popular British almanac that ran from 1704 through 1752 and combined conventional almanac subjects with riddles and mathematical puzzles. Franklin routinely solved these premade magical squares and circles and also invented his own. [xvii]
Magic squares and magic circles are like crosswords—except with numbers. You fill in the spaces with numbers instead of letters. The goal with a magic square is to make each line of numbers across, down, or diagonally total the same value. The solution for this puzzle is 15. [xviii] Puzzles like these had preoccupied thinkers for centuries before Franklin made his contributions. Historians trace them to philosophers and theologians in China as early as the fourth century BCE, then to Mesopotamia, and then across most of the known world by the end of the first millennium. These numerical arrangements were believed to possess supernatural properties and figured meaningfully in Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Western occultism. They were incorporated into incantations and spells, emblazoned on amulets, talismans, and plates, and administered in divination and cosmological representation.
Magic squares embody the aesthetic qualities of balance and symmetry, and beauty when one beholds their geometrical patterns and forms. Certainly Franklin was drawn to both the aesthetic qualities of magic squares and the aesthetic experience of solving them. But why are such puzzles tucked in among Franklin’s writings on electricity?
Before the famous encounter between lightning, kite, and key in 1752, Franklin began his electrical experiments more modestly with glass tubes in 1746, offering an initial theory classifying electricity as a fluid. The technical details of this experiment aren’t as important here as the concepts of “plus” and “minus.” According to this theory, the glass tube began in a “positive” state or a “plus” condition, and rubbing the glass removed part of the electricity from it, leaving it “minus” some of its electrical fluid or in a “negative” state. Franklin would eventually refine his theory of electricity, likening it to a fire rather than a fluid and adjusting some other essential points, but retaining the electrical vocabulary of plus/minus, positive/negative, and equilibrium that he invented—and is still used today. [xx]
Now we may be getting closer to an explanation of why a discussion of magical squares turns up in a volume on electricity. On some level, the numerology of the square—its demonstration of absolute equality and perfect balance—resonated with Franklin’s electrical conception of equilibrium and the even and odd numbers carrying symbolic connotations of positive and negative. While he may not have exactly had in mind yin and yang, he did hint at the mystery of cosmic balance in the physical world when speaking of magic squares and electrical phenomena, describing both as “miraculous.” [xxi] “Coming-to-understanding,” for Franklin and contemporaries who studied electricity, meant advancing a rational explanation of electricity’s behavior while maintaining an appreciation of electricity’s mystery—its “wonderful” and “amazing” power—and by extension the power of nature. [xxii]
Thus, in part, the pleasure Franklin took in electrical and mathematical problem-solving derived from contemplative wonder in the inexplicable workings of nature. In Experiments and Observations on Electricity, he describes his innovations with the 16x16 magical square as the “most magically magical of any magic square ever made by any magician.” [xxiii] Franklin’s marveling at the de trop “magically magical” character of his square reveals an important distinction between the eighteenth-century scientific world’s understanding of magic and that of the pre-Scientific Revolution. Rather than an attribution of supernatural properties to the square, Franklin’s remark is an assertion of admiration and delight, “magic” denoting “an inexplicable and remarkable influence producing surprising results” or “an enchanting or mystical quality” (OED). [xxiv] His wonder at nature’s mysteries isn’t reverential but playful, a fitting tone for pursuits regarded as entertainment.
In the correspondence between Franklin and other Royal Society members, researchers often modulate descriptions of their intellectual curiosity by characterizing their activities as a pastime or a diversion. Franklin’s letters to Collinson repeatedly offer his recital of electrical experiments and magical squares for the purpose of Collinson’s “amusement.” [xxv] This emphasis on learned entertainment among members of the Royal Society and other intellectual circles signals the emerging practice of academic sociability in the latter half of the eighteenth century. [xxvi] After all, Franklin conveys his findings on electricity in a letter exchange with a colleague and friend rather than in a formal dissertation. Far from dividing language and numbers, then, the scientific community developed literary conventions and genres for the delight in figures.
While educated laypersons did read science writing like Experiments and Observations, more often they gratified their mathematical curiosity with problems in almanacs and puzzle and game books. These brain-teasers belong to a larger category of eighteenth-century entertainment including riddles and games, which encouraged new patterns of thought and elicited surprise, wonder, and delight through problem-solving. [xxvii] It’s intriguing to think about an earlier generation that openly acknowledged the pleasure as well as the pragmatic value of math—that developed a relationship to math defined by recreation rather than compulsion, by creativity, ingenuity, and enjoyment rather than tedium and panic. I’m not sure we’ve gotten to the point where large numbers of people conceive of math as fun, but maybe we’re making our way there. Most national and local newspapers contain “Games and Puzzles” sections that increasingly feature much more than the crossword. The relaunch of the New York Times Magazine includes math puzzles and games like KenKen, Sudoku, and SET alongside its famed Sunday crossword. Hundreds of new apps make math enjoyable and readily accessible for children and adults looking to sharpen their skills or simply to pass the time. The land of games and puzzles may be the renewed meeting ground for words and numbers. What possibilities lie ahead with greater nimbleness in both language and math? What cross-pollinations might occur from this “bilingualism”? We must do the words, and do the math.
[i] As STEAM’s supplementary appeal for the arts implies, the goal isn’t to integrate the arts and sciences—to achieve mutual influence—but rather to serve the STEM fields. I’m not interested in taking sides in this debate here, rather in pointing out the fundamental separation and hierarchy between the arts and sciences even in efforts to join them. [ii] @jaboukie, “i WISH i could just read clifford the big red dog and make flower crowns,” Twitter (5 December 2018, 1:53 p.m.). [iii] Seo-Young Jennie Chu, “Dickinson and Mathematics,” The Emily Dickinson Journal 15.1 (2006), 36. [iv] Albert Einstein, “The Late Emmy Noether: Professor Einstein Writes in Appreciation of a Fellow-Mathematician,” The New York Times (4 May 1935), 12. Print. [v] Masahiko Fujiwara, “Literature and Mathematics,” Asymptote (January 2011). [vi] David W. Henderson and Daina Taimina, “Experiencing Meanings in Geometry,” Mathematics and the Aesthetic: New Approaches to an Ancient Infinity, Ed. Nathalie Sinclair et al. (Springer, 2007), 83. [vii] Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby, “Introduction,” American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions (Columbia Univ. Press, 2012), 4. [viii] See Roger Ebert, “National Treasure,” Roger Ebert.com (18 November 2004); Stephen Holden, “A Secret Treasure Map That Ends in Manhattan,” New York Times (19 November 2004); Carina Chocano, “Bankrupt National Treasure,” L.A. Times (19 November 2004); “National Treasure (2004),” Rotten Tomatoes (Accessed 19 May 2018). [ix] Simon Singh, The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography (Anchor, 2000). [x] Ralph E. Weber, United States Diplomatic Codes and Ciphers, 1775–1938 (Precdent Publishing Inc., 1979); David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing (Scribner, 1996), 185. [xi] Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. 1791 ed. (Walter J. Black, Inc., 1941), 24. [xii] Franklin, Autobiography, 13. [xiii] Paul C. Pasles, Benjamin Franklin’s Numbers: An Unsung Mathematical Odyssey (Princeton Univ. Press, 2008), 5–11. [xiv] Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin’s Science (Harvard Univ. Press, 1990); Park Benjamin, A History of Electricity: From Antiquity to the Days of Benjamin Franklin (John Wiley & Sons, 1898). [xv] James Delbourgo, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America (Harvard Univ. Press, 2006), 8. [xvi] Franklin, Autobiography, 189. [xvii] Pasles, 117–137. [xviii] The object of this “cross-number” puzzle is to fill in the boxes so that each of the rows across, up and down, and diagonally equal the same sum. The best way to begin is to figure out the total of all 9 boxes, which must be filled in with the numbers 1–9. 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9=45. Since we know each row must equal the same value, and since there are three equal rows, we can divide by 3 to determine the sum of each row: 15. From there, fill in the numbers on the grid until each row equals 15 in every direction. I’m indebted to Paul C. Pasles’s Benjamin Franklin’s Numbers for its lucid explanation of these puzzles. [xix] Pasles, 20–27; Schuyler Cammann, “The Magic Square of Three in Old Chinese Philosophy and Religion,” History of Religions 1.1 (1961), 37–80. [xx] Cohen, 14–39. [xxi] Benjamin Franklin, Experiments and Observations in Electricity, 4th ed. (David Henry, 1769), 14. [xxii] Franklin, Experiments, 3, 35, 375, 485; Delbourgo, 11. [xxiii] Franklin, Experiments, 353. [xxiv] “magic, n.” OED Online, (Oxford University Press, March 2018). [xxv] Franklin, Experiments, 177, 237, 354. [xxvi] Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the colonial British Atlantic World (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2006). [xxvii] See Jillian Heydt-Stevenson, “Games, Riddles, and Charades,” The Cambridge Companion to Emma, Ed. Peter Sabor (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015), 150–165; Mary Chadwick, “‘The Most Dangerous Talent’: Riddles as Feminine Pastime,” Women, Popular Culture, and the Eighteenth Century, Ed. Tiffany Potter (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2012), 185–201.
Benjamin, Park. A History of Electricity: From Antiquity to the Days of Benjamin Franklin. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1898.
Cammann, Schuyler. “The Magic Square of Three in Old Chinese Philosophy and Religion,” History of Religions 1.1 (1961).
Chadwick, Mary. “‘The Most Dangerous Talent’: Riddles as Feminine Pastime,” Women, Popular Culture, and the Eighteenth Century, Ed. Tiffany Potter. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2012.
Henderson, David W. and Daina Taimina. “Experiencing Meanings in Geometry,” Mathematics and the Aesthetic: New Approaches to an Ancient Infinity, Ed. Nathalie Sinclair et al. New York: Springer, 2007.
Heydt-Stevenson, Jillian. “Games, Riddles, and Charades,” The Cambridge Companion to Emma, Ed. Peter Sabor. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015, 150–165.
Kahn, David. The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing. New York: Scribner, 1996.
Parrish, Susan Scott. American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the colonial British Atlantic World. Chapel Hill, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Pasles, Paul C. Benjamin Franklin’s Numbers: An Unsung Mathematical Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2008.
Singh, Simon. The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography. New York: Anchor, 2000.
Weber, Ralph E. United States Diplomatic Codes and Ciphers, 1775–1938. Fisher, IN: Precedent Publishing Inc., 1979.
Weinstein, Cindy and Christopher Looby, “Introduction,” American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2012.
Michelle Sizemoreis Associate Professor of English at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of American Enchantment: Rituals of the People in the Post-Revolutionary World (Oxford, 2017) and has published articles and reviews in Legacy, Studies in American Fiction, American Literary History, Early American Literature, and other venues.
:: Mindy and Me: On Diversity and Other Middlebrow Desires ::
In 2012, I made a New Year’s Resolution to balance dating with my doctoral studies: I would go on twelve dates in 2012—a leap ahead of my one date from all of the previous year. I planned on having a tenure-track job and a husband by my hooding ceremony. (A life defined by benchmarks begets more benchmarks.) That summer, the man I nicknamed “Dreamboat” ghosted me after our third date: my first adult romantic disappointment. This made me cry involuntarily whenever I heard Adele’s “Someone Like You”—which, thanks to radio, was often. One August night, drunk on sadness and tequila, I watched the pilot episode of The Mindy Project, the single-camera sitcom by and starring Mindy Kaling as Dr. Mindy Lahiri, an OB-GYN Manhattanite on the hunt for love, when it was released online ahead of its broadcast premiere on FOX. A surprise cut in the pilot’s teaser reveals that our protagonist is narrating her opening voiceover from in an interrogation room. She explains to a police officer that she, drunk, rode a bicycle into a pool after ranting on stage at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding reception. She was exactly what I needed. It wasn’t just that she was minoritized—a term I use to name how “minorities” are not born but made through unequal power relations. She was also fast-talking, frantic, selfish, stylish, and loved to eat.
I watched the series finale at the end of Season 6 in the fall of 2017. By then, I had been on many more dates, but I had not found that husband. Illustrative of the conditions of the new academic normal, I had received a surprise visiting faculty contract at my alma mater, then became a postdoctoral fellow in Colorado, then visiting faculty again in Chicago, no tenure-track position but now a longer-term temporary lecturer for students I adore. Like Mindy Kaling, I had been perpetually on the bubble: continuing Kaling’s rise as a postfeminist icon, The Mindy Project moved from FOX after its Season 3 cancellation to Hulu, to inaugurate the streaming service’s ventures into original content. Like Dr. Mindy Lahiri, I had experienced starts and stops of career success: she had opened own fertility clinic, Later Baby, that swung between bankruptcy and prosperity. By the time the central love story between her then-former co-worker, eventual co-parent, and once-male lead Dr. Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina, in his own career rise) had fallen apart in Season 4, I too had felt something like love. I nicknamed him “Logistics”: logistically, circumstance cut the fantasy of us short as I left town to follow my latest contingent faculty contract. Like Mindy, I told myself this is the life I love.
This story of Mindy and me was something I had to theorize. In the final moments of the finale, after she has run away from the ensemble’s wrap at two of her nurses’ wedding reception, Mindy and Danny meet in the recurring set of the hospital break room. She utters, “I don’t think I ever stopped loving you, and I don’t think I ever will.” They reconcile as the camera pans out. Something in my heart broke and was mended and was made messy even though she is coming back to a politically conservative low-key racist/high-key sexist to whom she has had to prove herself time and time again. (Academia.) Love, that most sacred discourse of emotional intensity and material belonging, facilitates complex contradictions of race, gender, class, and sexuality in The Mindy Project, as it does in my own experiences of precarity and privilege. Thus the show, which uses that love to navigate the public and private dimensions of everyday life, invites an analysis of some of the core logics of “diversity” today.
Mallika Rao’s November article in Vulture, “The Legacy of Both Mindys on The Mindy Project,” draws a parallel between the arc of the narrative and the creator’s uneven but gradually improving record of progressive representation; as she puts it: “[o]ur heroine stands at a wedding, thinking about a dude, same as six years ago. Only nothing’s the same.” [i]Against the backdrop of South Asian American tokenization, Rao tends with generosity to Kaling’s negotiations of being Other to the white masculinity that defines the comedy world. To further validate Kaling’s intervention, Rao quotes Desi women, who comment that they find joy in how The Mindy Project approximates their lived realities. This is part of the dictum that representation matters: to see your face and experiences reflected to a larger audience normalizes and affirms. However, Rao’s method reiterates what media scholar L. S. Kim identifies as one of the false consensuses between media industries and viewers: that viewer identification depends on racial similarity. [ii]Within this grid of “like” liking “like,” critics such as Rao can only make a moral appeal to an industry against profit creation; the argument is already overdetermined. Thus, I am not interested in The Mindy Project for its ethnographic realism—which, as a male-identified East Asian American writer, I recognize can be a problem.
So why do I like The Mindy Project? It is slapstick, but it is smart. The pilot episode opens on a retroactive shot of Mindy as a child in her suburban Boston home watching romantic comedies, which frames both her relationship to love and the show’s self-conscious play with that canon. The show quickly positions itself as highly self-aware and does not explain or justify that literacy to its audience. Thus, I understand The Mindy Project as a rather middlebrow cultural production. The phrenological language of the middlebrow refers to cultural texts, norms, and identities that inhabit the hierarchical space between so-called highbrow culture, characterized by its aesthetic “greatness” and inaccessibility, and lowbrow culture, known for its mass appeal and presumed lack of value. The academic study of middlebrow culture stems from two significant periods: its 1920s genesis, when the industrial growth of U.S. empire made goods associated with class privilege more available, and its post-World War II resurgence, which coincided with the violent backlash against desegregation and other Cold War reforms. [iii]Though the middlebrow is no longer named as such, contemporary middlebrow cultural dynamics speak to our own era’s class politics as new texts aspire to literacy and artfulness on one hand and consumer pleasure and widespread accessibility on the other. Given our bipartisan political culture obsessed with the righteousness of the middle, I need to say: the middlebrow does not deconstruct class hierarchy, but resolidifies it. The middlebrow does not produce a radical dissensus but a consensus between producer, text, and consumer.
Given its middlebrow self-referentiality, The Mindy Project would seem to take aim at the romantic comedy’s genre politics. However, in a January 2015 Al Jazeera America critique of The Mindy Project’s racial and class biases, cultural commentator E. Alex Jung bemoaned that “Lahiri’s project of finding Mr. Right, in other words, holds the ultimate promise of assimilation.” [iv]This aligns with other criticisms, such as Dodai Stewart’s May 14, 2013, article in Jezebel, “Mindy Kaling Only Makes Out With White Guys on The Mindy Project.” [v]But in a November 11, 2017, story in Vulture, Mindy Kaling foreshadows the series finale:
“The writers all pride ourselves on being feminist, and we roll our eyes at the character in a fun way,” Kaling said. “We love her because she feels she needs a man to be complete, and I think that reflects a lot of what women think. Certainly a lot of my friends—and even when I when I was younger—felt that way. But we don’t believe that, and we don’t want to give her what she wants, so we put her through that experience and showed her it’s not enough so hopefully she can be a little more woke in the process.” [vi]
One way of understanding Kaling’s comment is that, from 2013 to 2015 to 2017, Kaling and her team have grown politically and creatively. Instead, I understand The Mindy Project as part of a diversity discourse conveyed through middlebrow cultural dynamics—a joining of a liberal (as opposed to radical) diversity and a professional, sophisticate identity. I take up sociologist Jane Ward’s distinction between diversity as “a material fact of difference” and diversity as an ideological project that manages that difference through selective incorporation—we keep the diversity that we like. [vii]I use the term in the latter sense. Theater scholar David Savran critiques Rent (1994) for its middlebrow pretenses of inclusivity through its AIDS and LGBT storylines, its backdrop of anticapitalist bohemianism, its metropolitan topicality. [viii] His reading shows how middlebrow texts nominally represent social differences not to transform exclusivity but to assure producers and consumers of their own cultural cache: they already know better. Through such a consensus, diversity has come to have value: not as a social justice project of difference but as a set of digestible knowledges that translate to symbolic capital.
Let me state it differently, from the consumer side. In a very Mindy way, I find myself on OKCupid again, skimming profile after profile. For the uninitiated, OKCupid encourages you to fill out multiple prompts. One is “Favorite books, movies, shows, music, and food.” (Sigh.) The question is a test. My litany must demonstrate that I enjoy the pop pleasures, but not too much; that I am cerebral, but not pretentious. I love harder post-grunge, but it gives the impression of unhealthy masculinity. So, I soften Rise Against with Fleetwood Mac—a group with the history to prove my inner sophistication. Maybe Lorde, with enough Pitchfork edginess to show that I am on-trend yet accessible. My catalogue of “Peak TV” shows is also key. Mindy is a driven but flawed but loveable heroine in the vein of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon from 30 Rock (2006 – 2013) and Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation (2009 – 2015). These pop feminist icons are of the wave of NBC single-camera comedies for young, educated, urban sophisticates, like the show for which Kaling previously wrote and acted, the U.S. adaptation of The Office (2005 – 2013). While staking out important ground in the misogynist worlds of television and comedy, these shows all represent a white liberal feminism at which I can roll my eyes and prove my symbolic capital by knowing better. The Mindy Project is perfect to list.
As Kaling’s explanation to Vulture suggests, part of the show’s middlebrow quality is how its writers understand themselves to be feminists. Yet, this language of political consciousness seems to contradict how they reiterate normative femininities, often through Mindy’s relationship to love. This central role of love draws me to think through theorist Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008). [ix]Berlant frames the texts she studies through a side argument as middlebrow, in that they seek “the management of ambivalence, and not the destruction of pleasures or power” (5). Love for Berlant is “the gift that keeps on taking” since “the search for mirroring (desire) demands constant improvisation (anxiety) and taking of accounts (disappointment)” (15). Middlebrow love tries to be ironic about the norms it portrays, but also maintains a sincere investment in them, and performs intellection through its condescending reflexivity. As Berlant puts it, “she can have her sex and hate it too” (224).
I am less interested in criticizing The Mindy Project as a “bad” attempt at diversity than I am in how its participation in middlebrow love sustains our collective fantasy of diversity. The calls to diversity made by critics including Rao, Jung, and Stewart can be broken down into an affirmative diversity and reactive diversity: affirmative, in that we celebrate that it is there, and reactive, in which we respond to its lack. Reactive diversity is a complaint: things could be better if only we were heard, and thus we express our politics through our complaints while not upsetting our attachments to what causes us grief. [x](Like television.) Both kinds of diversity can be described in Berlant’s language as juxtapositional (x): affirmative and reactive diversity function in proximity to realm of politics but do not engage power as such outside of calls for confirmation and emotional response. Affirmative and reactive diversity cause responses like the eyerolls that Kaling describes. Eyerolls, sighs, and cringes: Latinx feminist theorist Juana Rodríguez writes of such gestures as kinetic forms of communication with a future temporality. [xi] While Rodríguez mines the resistive potential of gestures for making a new future for queers of color, the middlebrow future is already present. As middlebrow sophisticates, our gestures move between each other to solidify our consensus that we just simply know better: we can have our diversity and hate it too.
The Mindy Project moved to Hulu as part of a wave of diversity programming and thus adds to our fantasies of online streaming services as being free from the institutional constraints of networks. Like Mallika Rao’s article on The Mindy Project, we can easily narrate the handful of episodes in which Mindy Lahiri directly addresses her race through the language of affirmative diversity: as social progress via creative freedom. In the Season 5 episode “Concord,” Mindy, frustrated by her ex-partner Danny’s wedding, hops in her car and ends up at her parents’ house. She is greeted with a frying pan to the head by her mother, Sonu (portrayed by Sakina Jaffrey). Mindy and her slacker brother Rishi (played by recurring guest star of Pitch Perfect fame Utkarsh Ambudkar) stumble upon what they think is their mother’s affair, but she confesses that she has been flirting with a director to try to get ahead in the local theater scene despite the gendered, ageist, and racist biases of acting. In the episode’s final moments, Mindy encourages Sonu to write her own story, a metacritical comment on reactive diversity’s demand not just for more actors but more creative voices. The tag ends as the camera drifts out of the front room, where Mindy and Rishi curl up on the couch to listen to Sonu read from an entry in her journal, one detailing her first encounter with snow during her first days in the U.S., in which she asks: “Will this cold, unforgiving place ever be my home? But as time went on, India became a distant memory and all of it changed for me. My adoptive home became, simply, my home.” (I cringe.) It is a telling of her ethnic story as the ethnic story: disorientation, alienation, adaptation. Only her ethnic story is kind of … bad. While the scene seems to mock the sacred status of writing from the ethnic self, the scene offers it with such sincerity, as an invitation into the family and her intimate life. This encapsulates the middlebrow relation of love: an eyeroll that tries to hide a heartfelt sentiment and a heartfelt moment that evinces an eyeroll.
In this way, we can understand the diegetic inclusion of brownness in the Season 5 episode, “Bernardo & Anita,” through affirmative diversity and the middlebrow impasse of love. Named after the lovers of West Side Story (1957) to signal its Brown, ethnic drama, the episode opens with Mindy on a dinner date with Neel, in which she says, “You’re the first Indian guy I’ve ever gone on a date with.” Neel shares that he identifies “culturally as Indian,” and Mindy banters with cluelessness about the content of her Indian American identity. After dinner, Neel walks her home; she closes her eyes and leans in—only to fall forward into nothing. Neel has not reciprocated her gesture and says, “I just don’t really see this going anywhere.” Why? “Being Indian is a really important part of my life,” and he refers to her as a coconut: “because you’re brown on the outside and white on the inside.” Her mouth drops open as we cut to the intro credits. As a fourth-generation Japanese American who has been called the homologous “banana,” and whose similar performance of American identity has been shaped by his family’s World War II incarceration, I freak out. Sure, Neel is freaking hot and has remedied the white uniformity of Mindy’s lovers. But those are fighting words.
The episode proceeds with a formulaic theorizing of ethnic identity. She asks her younger brother Rishi for his thoughts: “you think you’re white, and I think I’m Black.” There is something about the correlation of Mindy’s class and femininity to whiteness that hits somewhere between unfair conflation and systemic truth. He goes on to say: “We represent a new kind of Indian American: ones with literally zero roots to our past.” (I roll my eyes even as I feel so seen.) Further into Act I, Mindy calls Neel again and asks to hang out. He reluctantly agrees, and they meet at (corporate sponsor) Bed Bath & Beyond. After commenting on how a white employee assumes they are married, they lay out the terms of Indian American identity: Neel says, “It’s not really your fault your parents assimilated so completely they completed abandoned their heritage”; Mindy retorts: “Hey, pal, immigrants are supposed to assimilate.” The terms of debate are narrowed to clean and simple binaries: heritage integrity or willful assimilation. As middlebrow, there is no complexity or contradiction: there is merely labeling and anxiety management. But we affirm that diversity is now present. Cultural critic Helen Heran Jun argues that there is a methodological tendency to conflate the media representation of a subject position with an ideological disposition. [xii]In other words, we ask for affirmative diversity over a deconstruction that tracks what that diversity actually does and for whom.
Since much of the show’s criticism focuses on Mindy’s majority-white pool of lovers as envisioned by a majority-white writers’ room, what ideological disposition do we expect from a change in subject position? [xiii]As I think through my frustrations with The Mindy Project and the fantasies it represents, I refuse to use the expected terms: two-dimensional, fake, stereotype. (Am I complaining?) These terms come from an important activist history: the activist writings of the Asian American Movement (1968 – 1977), which became the intellectual basis of the academic field, analyzed how stereotyped representations of Asians and Asian Americans expressed anti-Asian bias and discrimination as shaped by U.S. politics with Asian nations. Clearly, this still deserves repeating over and over again. However, the mainstreaming of stereotype critique has turned the language of the stereotype into a stereotype itself: a figure without a history, a heuristic to (over)simplify the political world, an easily repeatable meaning. Thus, any deviation from the most racist caricature seems like the remedy: three-dimensional, real, complex. This moralistic framework leaves no space for cringes and eyerolls, as we must affirm it for its political goodness or react to it for not being good enough. This keeps us locked in essentialisms and “burdens of representation” arguments that stymie group creativity.
Apprehending agency beyond models of individual choice can help us understand Mindy’s creative responses to reactive diversity. After their Bed Bath & Beyond hangout, Neel invites Mindy to dinner with his Indian friends. She brings her coworker, the white doctor Jody Kimball-Kinney, with her, as she wears a kortha. She enters a space filled with Brown people but is surprised: “oh, you’re dressed regular.” At dinner, they reference Soulcycle, butter coffee, hipster tastes, and their parents’ surprise over unmarried couples living together at age 32. Their normalcy, performed through a class-specific cultural citizenship that suggests whiteness, creates a sense of community—one that is itself middlebrow. Everyone pulls out their phone and reads texts from their parents in accents: the in-group humor of affirmative diversity. Jody tries to join in with his own Indian accent, but Mindy educates him as her foil—she quickly tells him, “it’s not the same.” We laugh because we know; The Mindy Project has affirmed us as the “diverse” viewers we are, for we recognize the stereotype Mindy has confronted.
Yet, “Bernardo & Anita” shows that affirmative diversity’s focus on stereotype critique is not enough as these interactions lead to the dramatic climax of the episode. Mindy quickly puts together a mundan—a Hindu ceremony for a baby’s first haircut. In front of an audience of Mindy’s new community, her parents, her coworkers, and a “priest she found on Yelp,” her son Leo has a meltdown. Leo’s cries escalate against the steady chants of the priest, but Mindy tries to push through in a diegetic inclusion that lasts over a minute. The camera cuts to shots of Jody, who reacts with increasing trepidation, and her other two white male coworkers, who plead for the ceremony to stop. (I cringe.) Meanwhile, Mindy’s parents look on adoringly as part of the backdrop of Brown people, with her mother Sonu becoming visibly excited. The source of our affirmative diversity has become unwieldy.
The mismatch between the responses is not only racialized: it becomes one about citizenship. The unperturbed Brown people do not respond to the American child’s complaint and the panicking white men must intervene. (I cringe.) Having many dear friends and cousins with babies prone to meltdowns, I respond to Leo’s cries. The camera’s pedagogy turns against us, encouraging us not to identify with Mindy and her seemingly trivial pursuit of heritage transmission; we identify with the out-of-place white men, the sensible ones who respect the diversity that ethnicity represents but do not encourage what in the moment feels like abuse. (I cringe.) Mindy calls the ceremony off and, in the next scene that kicks off Act III, Mindy, Leo, and her parents sit on her bed as Mindy frets, “I tried to do this Indian thing that I didn’t understand and everyone knew.” Her parents reassure her that they love the U.S. and thus did not encourage their U.S.-born children to maintain ethnic ties. Her mother insists: “You make us so proud every day. If that isn’t Indian I don’t know what is!” Validating the Act I understanding of assimilation as an individual choice but dismissing its consequences through the power of love, their permission resolves Mindy’s conflict. (I roll my eyes.)
This identity conflict is love, the gift that keeps taking. Berlant reminds that middlebrow love is not just about a desire for wholeness but the anxiety that attends that search, as well as its resulting disappointments. As I have argued, The Mindy Project and its criticisms occasion a consideration of how diversity contributes to the quotidian ways in which difference becomes so unbearable. Sure, I have criticized how the portrayal of race, ethnicity, and representation in “Concord” and “Bernardo & Anita” aren’t good enough. But I have done so to dwell in this ironic mode of middlebrow diversity, in which the gestures of eyerolls and cringes alone seem analysis enough. When I ask them about their responsibility to bridge the world of texts and the world of politics, my students generally agree, “It is important to have the conversation.” Some days, I snap: “Then what?” The general response is a shrug, a giggle at my impatience, a look down deep into their notebooks, sometimes a truism about needing more people of color behind the camera. Our tools for doing otherwise feel so few because paranoid reading, once a critical praxis, has taken on the role of diversity value creation: all we need is a good complaint and a good eyeroll to no one in particular to show how smart we are.
As I sit in meetings about campus diversity, which seem insistent on erasing power, equalizing differences, and promoting “civility” as our spaces of inquiry are besieged by hate groups and surveillance using the language of “freedom of speech,” it feels like we are so backed into a corner that diversity feels like love—one that we have and hate that we do. Despite my theorizing and advocacy, I am not fully sure what is beyond diversity. But what if we took that not-knowing not as an obstacle but as an opportunity to confront the oppressions we know until we do? Being educated, “diverse” sophisticates, we have a relationship to power, and beyond complaining to each other, we can use that power. Instead of rolling your eyes, have you called your representatives? Instead of cringing, have you donated to Black Lives Matter and other social justice struggles? It’s time for action beyond our disappointments. We must break the political fantasy that underpins diversity: that things would be fine if only we were heard.
This essay has traveled through discussions of class, the sheer fact of race, and the problems of our language of diversity and media accountability. In calling us to organized, political action, I have insisted on breaking the lovely fantasies that insulate us from the precarities all around us. But since I started us out with my relationship to Mindy: what about love? Returning to her Vulture quotation, Kaling has said about the final season: “I think she gets what she needs, but not what she wants, which to me is a happy ending because what she wants is insufferable.” Kaling poses Mindy’s insufferability against the possibility of her being “a little more woke.” Mindy Kaling goes on to describe how her character’s Real Housewives aspirations and brief marriage to Ben, the suburban Jersey nurse of Season 5’s romantic arc, enable her to locate her desires beyond matrimony. As someone who has fantasized having a big, gay wedding reception (I cringe at the thought of “fabulous”), I pause. I mean, Mindy ends up with Danny—which hardly feels like a happy ending, even as I have the tools to critique that very notion. Is the construction of love, and all we attach to it, itself insufferable? As I yet again thumb through the Tinder haze of indistinguishable beards and vacation photos and gym selfies, I wonder: Is unloving love learning our vexed relationship to that which we cannot not want—is there is no outside to ideology, no way to be “woke” with love? This is not to deny the manifold forms of love that exist beyond the romance narrative, as I find consolation after every shitty date from all those who can laugh and roll their eyes at how men are the worst. I guess that’s Mindy and me: we can have our love and hate it too.
The author would like to thank the audience of the Northwestern University Asian American Studies Program’s February 2018 Brown Bag for their generous comments on this essay, especially Michelle Nancy Huang, Jonathan Gen Magat, J. Ryan Marks, Nitasha Tamar Sharma, and the aforementioned adored students; my timezone-crossing Mindy simul-watch party, Amanda Dykema and Susanna Compton Underland; Lynda Mazzalai Nguyen and Betsy Yuen, who survived the insufferable autobiographical narrative; and the undefeatable Sarah J. Sillin, for soliciting this essay and the shared adventure that underwrote it.
[i]Mallika Rao, “The Legacy of Both Mindys on The Mindy Project,” Vulture: Devouring Culture (19 November 2017).
[ii]L. S. Kim, “Asian America on Demand: Asian Americans, Media Networks, and a Matrix Stage,” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, eds. Lori Kido Lopez and Vincent Pham (Routledge, 2017), 170–1.
[iii]These two periods were when the middlebrow was named as such and when critics like Dwight Macdonald lambasted the cultural field as a “bastardized” cooptation of high culture. See Macdonald, “Masscult and Midcult” (1960), republished in Against the American Grain (Da Capo Press, 1983).
[iv]E. Alex Jung, “Mindy Kaling is Not Your Pioneer,” Al Jazeera America (11 January 2015).
[v]Dodai Stewart, “Mindy Kaling Only Makes Out With White Guys on The Mindy Project,” Jezebel (14 May 2013).
[vi]Maria Elena Fernandez, “The Mindy Project Cast on the Series Finale: ‘Mindy Gets What She Needs, But Not What She Wants,” Vulture: Devouring Culture (13 November 2017).
[vii]Jane Ward, Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), 48.
[viii]David Savran, A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater (University of Michigan Press, 2003).
[ix]Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Duke University Press, 2008).
[x]I want to be careful here: L. S. Kim criticizes how the figuration of media advocacy as complaint frames racial misrepresentation as an issue of political correctness and not creative possibility, and, if you do not inhabit a minoritized identity, you perhaps should not comment on this issue further.
[xi]Juana María Rodríguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings (New York University Press, 2014), 2–7.
[xii]Helen Heran Jun, Race for Citizenship: Black Orientalism and Asian Uplift from Pre-Emancipation to Neoliberal America (New York University Press, 2011), 246–7.
[xiii]The question brings to mind Black feminist Hortense Spillers’s theorizing of the American grammar of racialization within white supremacy in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987). Spillers highlights the ongoing legacies of the Middle Passage to critique the “dubiousness” of the language of sexuality—freedom, desire, reproduction, kinship—and its presumptions of human freedom for those who have been systematically denied their humanity on the basis of their race. The Mindy Project’s affirmative diversity participates in the American Grammar of Asian American sexuality, in which Asian Americans are seen as particularly amenable not to disturbing pre-existing racial arrangements. Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 64–81.
Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press, 2010.
Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Duke University Press, 2008.
Chow, Rey. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Columbia University Press, 2002.
Davé, Shilpa, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha Oren, eds. Global Asian American Popular Cultures. New York University Press, 2016.
Kim, L. S. “Asian America on Demand: Asian Americans, Media Networks, and a Matrix Stage.” The Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, edited by Lori Kido Lopez and Vincent Pham. Routledge, 2017, pp. 170–180.
Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Duke University Press, 1997.
Melamed, Jodi. Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Radway, Janice. A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Tachiki, Amy, Eddie Wong, Franklin Odo, and Buck Wong, eds. Roots: An Asian American Reader. University of California Los Angeles Asian American Studies Center Press, 1971.
Wanzo, Rebecca. The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling. State University of New York Press, 2009.
Ward, Jane. Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations. Vanderbilt University Press, 2008.
Douglas S. Ishii is a visiting assistant professor of the Asian American Humanities at Northwestern University. He holds faculty affiliations with the Gender & Sexuality Studies Program and the American Studies Program. His academic work has appeared in Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies; Global Asian American Popular Cultures (NYU Press, 2016), edited by Shilpa Davé, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha Oren; and Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (Rutgers University Press, 2015), edited by Betsy Huang, David Roh, and Greta Niu. Douglas also has work forthcoming in American Quarterly and The Oxford Online Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature and Culture.
:: Narrative in the Shadow of the Refugee Regime ::
Once, while my parents shopped in a drugstore and I wandered the aisles alone, a white woman approached me and said, “I want you to know I do not blame you for the war.” The woman mistook my silence for incomprehension, so she said more slowly and loudly, “I DONOTBLAMEYOUFORTHEWAR.”
I must have been about seven. Even then, I knew which war: Vietnam.
Exoneration, when unasked for, sounds more like accusation. I answered, “I know. I wasn’t born yet.” The woman studied me, then moved away.
Children are perceptive, economical creatures. They understand that some days you choose between justice and self-preservation. Years later, I wanted to return to that moment and say sarcastically to the woman, “I don’t blame you, either.” But such a response would have been unkind. Life is a series of imperfect responses, based in a kind of social arithmetic that rarely comes out right. I did not know what or whom she might have lost to war. I did not even know what I had lost.
* * *
Viet Thanh Nguyen, a scholar of race and ethnicity long before he became a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, wrote in the New York Times last year, “[I]t is precisely because I do not look like a refugee that I have to proclaim being one, even when those of us who were refugees would rather forget that there was a time when the world thought us to be less than human.” [i]Vietnamese refugees have been extensively measured, photographed, interviewed, psychoanalyzed, and documented; but before the relatively new field of critical refugee studies emerged, it seemed one could be a Vietnamese refugee or one could know about Vietnamese refugees, rarely both. Thus I open with personal narrative in keeping with a practice of self-identification—consciously placing oneself in relation to one’s work—that is common in critical refugee studies, as it is in ethnic studies more broadly. This practice speaks to work by Yến Lê Espiritu, who urges scholars to recognize “refugees as ‘intentionalized beings’ who possess and enact their own politics,” rather than as intellectual or practical problems for others to solve. [ii] Reflecting on the field for which she laid much of the intellectual groundwork, Espiritu writes, “Over the years, I have looked for ways to tell the story of the refugee—not as an object of study but as a source of knowledge.” [iii] Espiritu’s and Nguyen’s locutions assign fresh cultural and academic currency to “the refugee’s” capacity to illuminate the world—as a generative new paradigm or as a knowledge producer—while also validating the primacy of narrative in such production. Critical refugee studies decenter empirical, outsider ways of knowing that previously rendered the refugee invisible as soon as she lay claim to them.
A not-insignificant part of my project is this: decades after a harrowing passage, and from the relative security of a university office, I undertake to resignify my decades-gone, brown, child self who was once so visibly a remnant of the Vietnam War. That raced and gendered body, a “less than human” refugee body, was a screen on which (non-Vietnamese) Americans could project their otherwise formless grief, anger, blame, and forgiveness. [iv]As far back as I recall, I have been periodically hailed into some stranger’s narrative of a disastrous war, in which I played a role I recognized but did not choose. The woman in the drugstore, who believed her exoneration of me would have a particular meaning (“I want you to know,” she said), unintentionally taught me about the intertwining of knowledge and power (“I want you to know”) and the ways they are refracted through narrative (“I do not blame you for the war”). She is one of hundreds of Americans I have encountered who seek me out to complete their own, unresolved stories about “the war”—that is, about race, empire, militarism, innocence, or whatever else holds up the architecture of their Americanness. This awkward, exhausting, and weirdly soul-baring psychosocial dynamic is a condition of every Southeast Asian refugee’s “new beginning” in the United States.
Indeed, it is the refugee’s function in American society—and her job, for it keeps food on the table—to be hailed into others’ narratives. Since the 1970s, when the United States began formalizing its refugee admission procedures in response to post-Vietnam War refugee flows, this function has been laid out and reinforced by what some scholars refer to as the refugee regime: the complex of international and domestic laws, institutions, policies, and social practices that to a large extent set the parameters of survival for those who are fleeing persecution, violence, or catastrophe. [v]The refugee regime, while it ostensibly attends to the humanitarian needs of the world’s most vulnerable (and it does give some of them precious reprieve from danger), in the larger scheme arguably functions more as an elaborate gatekeeping and cost mitigation system for the wealthier nations of the world. [vi] Without the bureaucratic buffer provided by the refugee regime, such nations might have to reckon with an expensive moral imperative to protect millions of refugees. As Patricia Tuitt puts it, “the overriding aim of refugee law was at its inception and continues to be the reduction of the external costs of refugee-producing phenomena.… [I]f the concerns of the law are humanitarian this is only marginally and incidentally so.” [vii]Arguing for a more comprehensive, humane, ethical approach to refugees, Serena Parekh observes that the current international political consensus seems to be that “states have no legal obligation to resettle refugees or other forcibly displaced, they recognize no moral obligation to resettle refugees, and Western states are, for various political reasons, unlikely to resettle large numbers of refugees.” [viii] When refugee crises strike, as they regularly do, “most states feel entitled to exclude refugees, and this motivates many of their policies.” [ix]
Exclusion, the default posture of states toward refugees, is facilitated by the structure of international refugee law. This component of international human rights law is based on the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). International refugee law works in part by narrowing the legal definition of refugee so that most of the world’s 65.6 million de facto refugees—those who live in indefinite, forced displacement—would not qualify for protection under the Convention. [x]For the 22.5 million who do qualify, the law’s aim of a “durable solution,” a permanent path to safety and relative freedom, is elusive. [xi] Nearly all refugees remain “more or less outside the bounds of the nation-state system,” either warehoused indefinitely in refugee camps or living in other precarious conditions in a country of temporary asylum. [xii] Moreover, because most refugees who cross an international border do not make it farther than neighboring states, the burden of housing and providing for refugees in transit falls disproportionately on Global South states, which are commonly the countries of first asylum.
The deliverance of refugees to safety under international law, when it happens, tends to be understood by observers, policymakers, human rights and NGO workers, and even refugees themselves as an extension of charity—what one gives altruistically when one does not need to. In the United States, where the work of welcoming and integrating newly arrived refugees is done mainly by nonprofit resettlement agencies and private “co-sponsors,” such as churches and individuals, this tendency is amplified through narratives of private hospitality and “altruistic choice.” [xiii]Popular refugee narratives often fit the mold of “sentimental rescue-and-gratitude tales,” in which citizens of predominantly white bystander nations generously rescue racial and national Others from faraway calamities, and those refugee Others profess thanks for the favor, affirming the rescuers’ essential goodness and implicitly absolving them of past wrongs. [xiv] Decontextualized and dehistoricized, such narratives are ideological diversions: the centering of refugee rescue means that any role the host nation may have played in refugee production—for instance, by fueling or engaging in foreign conflicts or through economic policies that destabilize other nations—fades to obscurity. As Mimi Thi Nguyen argues, the grateful refugee is a crucial figure for advancing contemporary American imperialism, for her thanksgiving validates liberal warfare’s promise: that violence and loss in the present are necessary to garner “the gift of freedom” in the future, a questionable gift proffered by the United States under auspices of global security, nation-building, and political and economic liberation. [xv] Critical refugee studies, as Espiritu elaborates, glean from the figure of the refugee an alternate account, not of war as such, but of widespread, ongoing “militarized violence,” which includes less visible forms of state violence that sometimes masquerade as humanitarian aid. Such a formulation reveals more fully “the raw, brutal, and destructive forces that Western imperial powers unleash on the lands and bodies of racialized peoples across time and space.” [xvi]
So it is that in the United States, a nation whose global militarism and economic and strategic policies have contributed to refugee crises in far-flung regions, including Southeast Asia, many confidently claim pride in the nation’s robust tradition of welcoming refugees. Americans commonly point out that the United States accepts more of the world’s refugees who resettle under the UNHCR’s auspices than any other nation, though in 2016 this was only 85,000 people. [xvii]The current U.S. president, who rode to power on a promise to exclude Syrian refugees, acted quickly after his inauguration to halt the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, whose future is now uncertain. [xviii] Trump’s presidency brings to the fore the seeming paradox of American headlines like this one from the New York Times in January 2017: “Warm Welcome for Syrians in a Country About to Ban Them,” announcing a story about some of the last refugees to arrive in the United States prior to the “Muslim ban.” [xix] Such a headline makes sense if we recognize that the refugee regime does not operate through law alone, or through force alone, but, like other vectors of capitalism and imperialism, calls upon narrative, myth, and affect to oil its gears and camouflage its workings. The refugee regime’s neoliberal underpinnings are shielded from view by stories that emphasize, on a good day, refugee rescue, hospitality, and friendship, and on a bad day, a parade of threats that emanate from an inassimilable racial and national Other. These seemingly disparate cultural narratives coexist and, especially in times of insecurity, can assert themselves simultaneously or flip with speed and ferocity.
* * *
The law of refugees is as follows:
(1) A refugee is a person who has fled their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. [xx] (2) Other countries may not return a refugee to their country of origin. This is the rule of non-refoulement, a central principle of refugee law. [xxi] (3) The United Nations determines which refugees are eligible for permanent resettlement in another country. The United States accepts more refugees for permanent resettlement than any other host country. In 2016, this was only 85,000 people. (4) Once a refugee arrives in the United States, a private, nonprofit agency takes over the work of integrating the refugee, having received a sum of money from the government. Private “co-sponsors” contribute time and resources to aid with integration. [xxii] (5) After a period of time, a refugee may become a U.S. citizen.
The law of refugees is as follows:
(1) You do not speak. You may gesture for help in a way that makes for a good photograph. Pictures speak a thousand words. They will speak for you. (2) When you are given the gift of a new beginning, you cannot refuse. You cannot say, “This is not the beginning.” Corollary: you may be haunted. And if so, the ghost is your responsibility, yours alone. (3) Your labor will include gratitude. (4) Your labor will include patriotism. (5) You must not be ironic.
* * *
Resettled refugees learn all of this, the official and unofficial “laws” governing their presence in America, principally through survival. This perilous epistemology develops out of double consciousness, hypervigilance, and strategic performativity. Refugee lives are punctuated with social interactions that reflect how precarious and contingent is their “resettlement,” that optimistically named process through which they are putatively absorbed into a new community. Critical refugee studies have challenged the predominant, teleological understanding of resettlement that views a refugee’s displacement as a temporary disruption to be remedied by their integration into the host country and (re)socialization as a self-sufficient economic actor. Eric Tang, in a study of Cambodian refugees living in a Bronx “hyperghetto,” frames resettlement instead as a continuation of the colonial violence wrought by America in Southeast Asia, converged with the legacy of slavery that keeps impoverished African Americans in the hyperghetto. [xxiii]The subject of Tang’s most extensive interviews, a woman named Ra, experienced forced marriage, captivity, and near-starvation under the American-backed Khmer Rouge; once in America, she “engaged in forms of survival that disavowed the state’s insistence that she had been simultaneously saved and redeemed by its refugee resettlement program.” [xxiv] Steering her narrative of continued displacement in America, in part by setting the terms of her interviews, Ra materializes a theory of her own, which Tang terms “refugee temporality.” Rather than treating the time of atrocity as discrete and over, Ra’s narrative enables Tang to “name the refugee’s knowledge that, with each crossing, resettlement, and displacement, an old and familiar form of power is being reinscribed.” [xxv]While policymakers speak a technocratic language of annual caps, vetting, and sponsorship of refugees, refugees must meet their basic needs by working within the available narratives and discourses, generally ones that presume the gift of a new beginning. But many, like Ra, also claim social space and generate new language for their own understanding of their experience. This is a fraught, unsettling process that continues long after the legal condition of refugeeness is extinguished (for instance, through the bestowal of American citizenship). From this daily, indefinite negotiation between stark necessity and the refugee’s desire for (though sometimes skepticism of) a fuller existence, refugee-authored literary texts arise.
lê thi diem thúy’s impressionistic, semi-autobiographical novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003) illustrates the painstaking and painful forging of refugee “forms of survival” out of the morass of cultural expectations and ideological narratives projected onto refugees in America. The novel’s five chapters are each divided into short scenes a few sentences to a few paragraphs long. Fragmentary and image-laden, the scenes read like prose poems, each capturing a moment from the young female narrator’s memory or imagination as if to form an album of verbal snapshots. One of the earliest scenes, which sets the novel in motion, describes an allegorical refugee sponsorship centering on a retired, white Navy veteran, Mr. Russell, who embodies a cultural phenomenon Cathy J. Schlund-Vials describes as “the alchemical recuperation of the American subject from military aggressor to militant humanitarian.” [xxvi] The elderly Mr. Russell, living in San Diego, watches television images of the Vietnamese Boat People, “nameless, faceless bodies lying in small boats, floating on the open water.” [xxvii] For Mr. Russell, these undifferentiated Asiatic bodies “merged with his memories of the Okinawans and the Samoans and even the Hawaiians” whom he saw in another war, decades earlier. [xxviii] One night, Mr. Russell dreams the refugee boats are seabirds flying “toward the point where in the dream he understood himself to be waiting, somewhere beyond the frame,” and with that revelatory image, he decides to sponsor a refugee family. [xxix] Through this collusion of sympathy and spectatorship, given form by the law, lê’s unnamed protagonist is plucked from a refugee camp to begin her rocky resettlement in America.
Mr. Russell exemplifies a distinctive convergence of sentimentalism, paternalism, racism, and military violence that characterizes America’s posture toward Southeast Asia and its refugees. lê quickly displaces that perspective as the dominant one: she embeds the man’s decision to sponsor inside her own narrative frame, a move that enables the reader to see, ironically, Mr. Russell regarding himself as an off-screen spectator, not the spectacle, as he watches the Boat People on television. Figuratively reversing the camera lens of American and European photojournalism, which iconized the Boat People’s suffering for a mostly white audience, lê’s novel critically highlights the white American veteran’s self-construction as observer-rescuer, including how “he understood himself” as “waiting, somewhere beyond the frame.” In his conflation of endangered, racialized bodies (the Vietnamese with the Okinawans, Samoans, and Hawaiians), Mr. Russell does not necessarily misrecognize the Boat People. Rather, he recognizes all too well historical continuities between the United States’ World War II Pacific victory (cinched by the atomic bombings and subsequent military occupation of Japan), annexation of Pacific islands, near-genocidal military exploits in Southeast Asia, and finally, the crisis experienced by the Boat People. But whatever redemptive potential exists in refugee sponsorship—and his epiphanic dream suggests there is some—Mr. Russell does not live to realize it; he is dead by page five, leaving the sponsorship of a young girl and five men as a final wish for his wife and son to carry out.
Thus, the sentimental rescue-and-gratitude narrative is derailed almost before it begins. The late Mr. Russell’s relatives are barely willing, much less warmly welcoming; the refugees are more frightened than grateful and keenly feel their dearth of options. Nevertheless, the narrator and her family must live and work with the prevailing expectations of gratitude, cognizant that to do otherwise would be to disrupt the mythologies underlying refugee admission, not to mention jeopardize their shelter and provisions in a sponsorship-based economy. Overhearing a tense discussion between the Russells, the refugees contemplate their dependence:
We each thought of those long nights floating on the ocean, rocking back and forth in the middle of nowhere with nothing in sight. We remembered the ships that kept their distance. We remembered the people leaning over the decks of ships to study us through their binoculars and not liking what they saw, turning away from the boat. If it was true that this man Mel could keep us from floating back there—to all those salt-filled nights—what could we do but thank him. And then thank him again. [xxx]
Anchored to the refugees’ anaphoric “we” is the recurring memory, and implicit threat, of being no more than a spectacle of bare life for others to “study,” then decide to aid or forsake. This memory directs the refugees’ responses to their sponsor: “what could we do but thank him”—a question without a question mark—and “thank him again,” rehearsing the role of the grateful refugee. Long Bui brings performance studies to bear in analyzing refugee life and identifies a “refugee repertoire” of familiar performances through which refugees negotiate complex social demands. Bui delineates “the refugee condition as a highly embodied staged process, anchored in the motion and movement of the diasporic subject’s navigation across different landscapes of belonging or exclusion.” [xxxi]The sponsorship economy is, among other things, an affective economy in which refugees perform certain states of mind (such as gratitude) in order to secure basic necessities. Thanking Mel is an act of survival, a staving off of “salt-filled nights” “in the middle of nowhere with nothing in sight,” for refugees who “float” precariously through their resettlement rather than actually settling.
Later, viewing a photograph of the fishing boat on which she escaped Vietnam, shot from the deck of the American naval ship that rescued them, the narrator imagines the Americans laughing at the Boat People:
Maybe that’s why it took them so long to lower the ladder. Maybe they laughed so hard at the sight of us so small, they started to roll around the deck like spilled marbles and they had to help one another to their feet and recall their own names—Emmett, Mike, Ron—and where they were from—Oakland, California; Youngstown, Ohio; Shinston, West Virginia—before they could let us climb up and say our names—Lan, Cuong, Hoang—and where we were from—Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan. [xxxii]
The narrator’s only visual document of the meeting at sea is a photograph taken literally from a white savior’s perspective, but her reading of the image rejects the salvation narrative that assumes sympathy or altruism. Instead, the girl imagines cartoonishly heartless sailors who “laughed so hard” that they fell about the deck, then “help[ed] one another” stand first before allowing the stranded Boat People to board. The two roll calls of names and cities of origin make clear the unequal footing on which the two groups, American sailors and Vietnamese refugees, encounter each other, with one list syntactically and symbolically subordinated to the other. In “recall[ing] their own names,” the Americans construct their self-identity in relation to the refugees, who must be “let” to “climb up and say our names.” At the same time, the “maybes” that begin each sentence, along with the sailors’ exaggerated antipathy, signal an act of counter-imagination: the girl’s construction of a narrative unlike any that might be harbored by, say, Mr. Russell, the sympathetic former Navy man who is also reading images of the Boat People.
Like Ra’s refugee temporality, the novel rejects resettlement’s promise of a new beginning; instead, it demonstrates how unsettledness endures into adulthood for the child narrator, a chronic runaway who ends up living on the opposite coast from her parents. The narrator, her father, and her “uncles” (her mother arrives later) are not so much resettled in California as they are forcibly transferred to California to continue an indefinite series of displacements. These include being asked to leave the home of Mr. Russell’s son Mel after the narrator accidentally destroys his collection of glass animal figurines, and later, eviction from a gentrifying neighborhood they can no longer afford. It seems at times they have not come that far: “We live in the country of California, the province of San Diego, the village of Linda Vista,” in 1940s Navy housing that since the 1980s has been taken over by Southeast Asian refugees, the narrator recounts, mapping California with a geopolitical vocabulary more suited to Vietnam. [xxxiii]Their ex-military housing reflects the fact that, as Espiritu explains, modern refuge is fundamentally an extension of militarized violence, a phenomenon she names “militarized refuge(es).” Refugee rescue, Espiritu points out, relies on the circum-Pacific U.S. military apparatus that grew dramatically from the 1940s to 1980s—the same bases, technology, weaponry, logistics, and pathways that were used in war to displace the refugees to begin with. [xxxiv] The refugees’ physical presence in the “village of Linda Vista” mirrors, and is the result of, the United States’ imperial expansion into Southeast Asia. The American war brings home its human remainders.
lê’s novel details many such ironies of resettlement, large and small. The refugees are not a good fit in Linda Vista. Their transplantation is marked by disjuncture, ambivalence, and distrust: about the Navy housing, the narrator wryly recalls, “When we moved in, we had to sign a form promising not to put fish bones in the garbage disposal.” [xxxv]After the narrator’s mother arrives from Vietnam, her husband buys her a used Cadillac as a “Welcome to America” gift, but she does not know how to drive and soon backs the lumbering vehicle into the wrought iron gate of the apartment complex. The landlord arrives to fix the gate and “silently cursed his tenants. He suspected each and every one of those living in the building’s sixteen units… They were people who broke things.” [xxxvi] With ironic humor, the scene literalizes the prevalent negative perception of refugees as “gatecrashers”—that is, as unwelcome guests in the neighborhood and the nation, and as people largely responsible for their own crises, “people who broke things.” Eventually, unable to pay the rising rent, the family is evicted and arrives home to find the building padlocked, all their possessions inside. They go “quietly” but not complacently: “At night we come back with three uncles. Ba cuts a hole in the fence and we step through. Quiet, we break into our own house through the back window. Quiet, we steal back everything that is ours… We tumble out the window like people tumbling across continents.” [xxxvii] The passage stakes out a collective claim (again, through a chorus of “we”) not only on the refugees’ property, but also on the narrative itself. “Quiet” the refugees may be, but their actions speak: burglarizing their home and stealing back their property, they confront a society that is not meant for them but in which they must nevertheless, like Ra, improvise “forms of survival.” Even in America lê’s refugees are still “tumbling across continents”; unsettled, they adopt (and adapt) strategic performances and reversals of meaning and narrative that carry them through a lifetime of displacement.
Acknowledgments The Bucknell Institute of Public Policy supported this project with a summer research grant, and Bucknell University’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender organized a faculty colloquium in which I developed some of these ideas. I am grateful to my colleagues Nikki Young, Margaret Cronin, Christopher Walker, Layla Vincent-Brown, and Monica Sok for helpful conversations and feedback, and to Steven Belskie for research assistance.
[i]Viet Thanh Nguyen, “The Hidden Scars All Refugees Carry,” New York Times (September 2, 2016). [ii] Yến Lê Espiritu, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (University of California Press, 2014) 11, quoting Nicholas Mirzoeff. [iii] Espiritu, Body Counts 171. [iv]I am indebted to Marita Sturken’s development of Freud’s idea of screen memory and to Cathy J. Schlund-Vials’s extension of Sturken’s work. See Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (University of California Press, 1997) 44; Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, War, Genocide, Justice: Cambodian-American Memory Work (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) 77. [v]International governance of states’ treatment of refugees is sometimes referred to as the “refugee regime” by scholars of international law and policy and international relations. See, e.g., Laura Barnett, “Global Governance and the Evolution of the International Refugee Regime,” International Journal of Refugee Law 14.2/3 (2002); Alexander Betts, “The Refugee Regime Complex,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 29.1 (2010); Guilia Scalettaris, “Refugee Studies and the International Refugee Regime: A Reflection on a Desirable Separation,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 26.3 (2007). My use of the term is broader and refers to not only legal and political formations, but also social practices and cultural productions that, I argue, influence the treatment of refugees in both daily life and policymaking. [vi] Patricia Tuitt, False Images: The Law’s Construction of the Refugee (Pluto Press, 1996) 7. [vii] Tuitt, False Images 7. [viii] Serena Parekh, Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement (Routledge, 2017) 4. [ix] Parekh, Refugees 4. [x] Parekh, Refugees 3, 6; Tuitt, False Images 7, 67; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Figures at a Glance” (June 19, 2017). [xi]UNHCR, “Figures”; Parekh, Refugees 4. [xii] Parekh, Refugees 4. [xiii] J. Eby et al., “The Faith Community’s Role in Refugee Resettlement in the United States,” Journal of Refugee Studies 24.3 (2011) 593; Helen Fein, Congregational Sponsors of Indochinese Refugees in the United States, 1979–1981: Helping beyond Borders (Cranbury: Associated UP, 1987) 17. The role of private sponsors in U.S. refugee resettlement was more prominent in the 1970s and 1980s than it is today. See Fein, 49. [xiv]Building upon work by Mimi Thi Nguyen, Yến Lê Espiritu, and others, I have previously discussed the sentimental rescue-and-gratitude tale. See Mai-Linh K. Hong, “Reframing the Archive: Vietnamese Refugee Narratives in the Post‑9/11 Period,” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 41.3 (2016). [xv] Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Duke University Press, 2012). [xvi] Espiritu, Body Counts 26. [xvii]Refugee Processing Center, “Refugee Admissions by Region: Fiscal Year 1975 through 31-Aug-2017,” U.S. Department of State. [xviii] The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear merit arguments on challenges to Trump’s travel bans on October 10, 2017, but as of mid-September 2017, it is rumored that the President may soon issue a new order with a different set of restrictions. In the meantime, Trump’s order has been permitted to take effect with some limitations. See “Trump’s Travel Ban to Be Replaced by Restrictions Tailored to Certain Countries,” New York Times (September 22, 2017). [xix] Jodi Kantor, “Warm Welcome for Syrians in a Country About to Ban Them,” New York Times (January 28, 2017). [xx] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (2010) 14. [xxi]UNHCR, Convention 30. [xxii] Eby, “Faith” 591–593. [xxiii] Eric Tang, Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto (Temple University Press, 2015) 14–15. [xxiv] Tang, Unsettled 21. [xxv] Tang, Unsettled 21. [xxvi] Schlund-Vials, War 77. [xxvii] lê thi diem thúy, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (Knopf, 2003) 4. [xxviii]lê, Gangster 4. [xxix] lê, Gangster 5. [xxx] lê, Gangster 7–8. [xxxi] Long Bui, “The Refugee Repertoire: Performing and Staging the Postmemories of Violence,” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 41.3 (2016) 113, 115. [xxxii] lê, Gangster 29. [xxxiii] lê, Gangster 88. [xxxiv] Espiritu, Body Counts 30–32. [xxxv] lê, Gangster 88. [xxxvi] lê, Gangster 41. [xxxvii] lê, Gangster 97.
Barnett, Laura. “Global Governance and the Evolution of the International Refugee Regime.” International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 14, no. 2/3, 2002, pp. 238–262.
Betts, Alexander. “The Refugee Regime Complex.” Refugee Survey Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2010, pp. 12–37.
Bui, Long. “The Refugee Repertoire: Performing and Staging the Postmemories of Violence.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 112–132.
Eby, J. et al. “The Faith Community’s Role in Refugee Resettlement in the United States.” Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 24, no. 3, 2011, pp. 586–605.
Espiritu, Yến Lê. Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es). University of California Press, 2014.
Fein, Helen. Congregational Sponsors of Indochinese Refugees in the United States, 1979–1981: Helping beyond Borders. Associated University Presses, 1987.
Hong, Mai-Linh K. “Reframing the Archive: Vietnamese Refugee Narratives in the Post‑9/11 Period.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 18–41.
Mai-Linh K. Hongis assistant professor of English at Bucknell University. She specializes in American studies, Asian American literature and culture, critical race and ethnic studies, and law and humanities. Her book project is titled Citizenship’s Shadow: Asian American Literature and the Contours of Statelessness, and her scholarly writing has appeared in several academic journals. A former attorney, she received her JD and PhD from the University of Virginia. She tweets from @FleursduMai.
Sarah Sillin, Guest Criticism Editor, received her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and is currently a visiting assistant professor of American literature at Gettysburg College. Her book project, entitled Global Sympathy: Representing Nineteenth-Century Americans’ Foreign Relations, explores how writers envisioned early Americans’ ties to the larger world through their depictions of friendship and kinship. Sillin’s essays have appeared in Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States and Literature of the Early American Republic.
History in the future tense sounds like an oxymoron. Everyone knows that history lives in the past tense. The colloquial or journalistic use of the present tense to narrate past events is known as the historical present. To be recognizable as such, history writing must occupy one of these two grammatical modalities.
It was not always so. In the British Isles from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, readers often consumed “history written in the future tense.” [i]In the wildly popular genre of political prophecy, recent and distant historical events became estranged from the past and appeared as imagined futures. Prophecy expressed historical experience as apprehension, refracted through political partisanship and historiographical tradition. The unmodern affective textures of British political prophecy account for its post-Enlightenment occlusion, in scholarship no less than literary culture. The genre is now rarely read and scarcely remembered. In the eighteenth century, history in the future tense devolved from a vital mode of processing and intervening in political events to a self-congratulatory punchline about the superstitions of an ignorant age. Prophecy was subsumed in a hermeneutics of suspicion, [ii] which diagnosed the (often transparent) ulterior motives of prophetic writing, but in doing so displaced the actual experiences of its earlier readers. Returning to the archive of political prophecy throws into relief this digression in intellectual history, revealing what “everyone knows” about history to be a symptom of the division of the past, since the Enlightenment, into medieval and modern segments. Confronting history in the future tense in 2017 means acknowledging the ideological work that futures still perform in political discourse. Political prophecy is alive and well today. Our politicians and public figures foretell a brighter future, but their comments are rarely recognized to be historical in nature.
Political prophecy, and the mode of historical consciousness it implies, can be traced back to a particular scene of cultural production. In the 1120s or 1130s, a Welsh cleric named Geoffrey published a Latin prose chronicle called History of the Kings of Britain. This text narrates major episodes in British political history, from the arrival of the legendary Brutus of Troy to the reign of the seventh-century Welsh king Cadwallader. At the center of the History is the Prophecies of Merlin, in which Merlin, at the request of King Vortigern, tells the future of the Saxon and British peoples. Though probably composed separately from the History, the Prophecies appears within it, as book 7 of 11. Prophecies bookend the History as well. Book 1 opens with predictions of Brutus’s birth. At the end of book 11, an angel commands Cadwallader to leave Britain to the Saxon invaders until the prophesied return of King Arthur and the vindication of British (i.e., Celtic) hegemony on the island.
Geoffrey’s insertion of prophecy into historical narrative bespeaks an attitude toward history from which post-Enlightenment secularist subjects have become estranged. In medieval and early modern British culture, prophecy expressed the same truth as history. The two genres of writing described the same object of inquiry from different vantage points. They stood in roughly the same relation as biblical prophecy and biblical history. Crucially, in the case of both biblical and political prophecy, the cycle of anticipation and fulfillment was just the process whereby the real world came into being. One should not mistake prophecy for metaphorical commentary on a world that precedes it. Rather, early authors and readers posited prophetic discourse as a ground for politics as such. (Premodern ontologies resonate with Michel Foucault and other postmodern philosophers who describe the world, and the political world above all, as the product of discourses.) [iii]Merlin’s prophecies begin not with an act of imagination but with two real dragons, whom Vortigern observes fighting. Merlin opens his discourse by identifying the dragons with the Saxons and the Britons, respectively:
As Vortigern, King of the Britons, sat on the bank of the drained pool, the two dragons emerged, one white, one red. As they neared each other, they fought a terrible battle, breathing fire.… As the dragons fought in this way, the king commanded Ambrosius Merlin to tell him the meaning of their battle. He burst into tears and was inspired to prophesy thus:
‘Alas for the red dragon, its end is near. Its caves will be taken by the white dragon, which symbolizes the Saxons whom you have summoned. The red represents the people of Britain, whom the white will oppress …’ [iv]
In book 6, Vortigern had invited Hengest and the Saxons to Britain, an overture that proved disastrous. Here, the symbolic world of political prophecy, in which nations are dragons and “lightning bolts … flash from Scorpio’s tail,” occupies the plane of reality. [v]Indeed, like the Old Testament without the New in medieval Christian typology, reality remains underspecified without prophecy.
This full-page illustration from a fourteenth-century manuscript offers an instructive response to Geoffrey’s vision of prophetic history. The manuscript is shelfmark Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (CCCC), 476, one of many standalone copies of the Prophecies of Merlin. Carefully drawn and liberally gilded, the illustration is divided into four quadrants. Vortigern sits enthroned in the upper left quadrant, and Merlin as a boy stands in the upper right quadrant, while the white dragon and the red dragon occupy the squat lower quadrants. Merlin holds a long empty scroll, looks across at Vortigern, and points down toward the dragons. The four figures are labeled in Latin, respectively, “king Vortigern,” “the prophet Merlin,” “the Saxon people are symbolized [figuratur] here,” and “it signifies [significat] the British people.” On one hand, the illustration reduces Geoffrey’s prophetic history into allegory. The dragons are metaphors, separated from the real world by the schematism of the four quadrants and the interpretive verbs are symbolized and signifies, which correspond to the verbs symbolizes and represents in the opening of the Prophecies. On the other hand, the illustration captures the courtly drama of the scene. Merlin interprets the world for a national king. The empty scroll echoes the shape of the arched labels. It waits, like the British political future, to be inscribed with the history that lurks behind draconic facades.
The prologue to a later fourteenth-century English chronicle expresses comparable reciprocity between prophecy and history. Thomas Gray’s Scalacronica (1362), written in Anglo-Norman French, is a world history that merges into a chronicle of England and Scotland. In the prologue, Gray visualizes historiography as a ladder with five rungs, resting on the Bible and the history of the destruction of Troy. The greatest hits of medieval English chronicle writing, including “the Brut,” i.e., Geoffrey’s History, comprise the first four rungs, but the fifth (and unattainable) rung belongs to the prophets. Guiding the avatar of Gray through his visionary prologue is Sibyl, a famous ascribed author of medieval prophecies. “You cannot climb up the fifth rung,” she informs him, “for it signifies [signify] future events that are envisaged [ymagine] by certain people in ancient tales.” The French verb ymaginer “imagine, envisage, conceive” suggests a technical function of the imagination in medieval psychology, but one to which the narrator and reader of Scalacronica have no access. Sibyl then gives illustrative quotations from Latin and English political prophecies, named as “the life of St. Edward,” “the English Brut,” and “the tales of Merlin.” [vi]For Gray, as for Geoffrey and the CCCC 476 artist, political prophecy crowns and superintends all of history. The situation in the prologue, like the title “Scalacronica” itself, partakes in the punning symbolism of political prophecy, for the ladder (Latin scala) was the heraldic emblem of the Gray family (cp. Old French gré, grey “rung”).
The peculiar historical consciousness of political prophecy finds its literary complement in plotlessness. Take, for example, the Ireland Prophecy, a prophecy in English alliterative verse (the meter of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) composed in the early 1450s, on the eve of the Wars of the Roses between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. [vii]The poem survives in eight manuscript copies, an unusually large number. It stages the Wars of the Roses as a showdown between Britons and Saxons, in which the Saxons, apparently to be identified with the Lancastrians, get the worst of it. The poet represents the Saxons as lions, after the lions in the English coat of arms. Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, a key player in the Wars who switched allegiances twice, appears as a bear and a ragged staff, two elements of his heraldic badge. The poem ends with an acrostic that looks to Ireland for the victorious British king. The reference to Ireland is likely an allusion to Richard, duke of York, Lieutenant of Ireland from 1449 and a Yorkist leader. Richard appears earlier in the poem as a falcon, after his badge.
Like other political prophecies, the Ireland Prophecy frustrates modern literary expectations by avoiding both narrative and lyricism. Things do not happen in the poem. Predictions of catastrophe for the lions/Saxons (ll. 1–14) give way to description of the emotional and political fallout of the final conflict (ll. 15–18), a hunt for a lone surviving lion (ll. 19–24), a doomed marriage to patch things up (ll. 25–30), a war of retribution led by a British hero (ll. 31–8), destruction for the Saxons (ll. 39–44), and so on. The connections between the poem’s vignettes depend not on the logic of narrative but on the requirements of poetic syntax, the conventions of prophecy, and the vagaries of political history. Modern readers are accustomed to vertical reading, whereby the reading experience leads from a psychological or social problem to its resolution. But the Ireland Prophecy demands horizontal reading, whereby the same political proposition takes multiple forms in disconnected passages. The catastrophe of lines 1–14 is the destruction of lines 39–44. The emotional fallout of lines 15–18 is the “roaring and calamity” of line 55. The bear is the earl of Warwick, and the ragged staff is the same earl of Warwick. A falcon flies north one time but in two passages (ll. 45, 61), and the falcon is Richard, and Richard is the hero of the battle at the end of the poem, which is the war of retribution described in lines 31–8. The closing sequence presents a heroic British king on the move, from Ireland (“Of I R and L | will that noble one arise / A N and D,” 83–4) to England (to defeat “the Saxon hound,” 70) to Rome (“Over all Christians | he will bear the crown,” 85). (In these quotations, “|” marks the caesura or internal boundary of the alliterative line.) The map of the military campaign of a redeemer-king is the map of a reimagined Christendom, palliative to the resentment of an English elite in the aftermath of territorial losses in the Hundred Years’ War with France. The poem begins in England, with the redeemer figure from Ireland already on the ground and in action, a state of affairs first predicted in the closing lines of the poem. All these descriptions, of course, are in the future tense. The experience of reading the poem mimics a future-oriented experience of history, in which various potentialities loom in no particular order.
All the more noteworthy, then, that several of the situations depicted in the Ireland Prophecy correspond to documented political events of the late 1440s and early 1450s. Like other political prophecies, the poem offers readers the opportunity to encounter the political present through the medium of anticipation or, conversely, to relive the fulfillment of ancient prophecies through partisanship or political action. To understand the extent to which prophetic discourse structured everyday political praxis in medieval England, consider the behavior of magnates. The thirteenth-century historian Gerald of Wales risked alienating his patron, Henry II, by declining to write a commentary on the Prophecies of Merlin. [viii]Edward II evidently dispatched an envoy to the pope in order to procure the Holy Oil of St. Thomas of Canterbury, a relic which was, or would soon become, the subject of a popular political prophecy. [ix] A manuscript of prophecies caused Anne Boleyn to think twice about marrying Henry VIII. [x] The list goes on. Prophecy simulated the experience of politics, and politics, in turn, reflected the tradition of prophecy.
The projection of the political past into the political future was a mainstay of prophetic discourse. For later readers, it was a target of disdain. Within a hermeneutics of suspicion, history in the future tense can only be a partisan ruse. In its time, as we have seen, prophecy facilitated a certain attitude toward the political world. Whether early readers experienced prophetic texts as “truly” prophetic, while a valid historical/psychological question and a natural one for modern secularists, is to the side of the issue. Prophetic texts were not static, propagandistic edicts but moved through space and time. Early commentaries on the Prophecies of Merlin, for example, arrive by different means at different interpretations. The Ireland Prophecy occurs in one Yorkist manuscript collection of the 1450s, but it also occurs in six other manuscripts, some of them much later, whose political affiliations are opaque or mixed.
After the end of their active production, political prophecies could provoke strong negative reactions. Already in 1588, the astrologer John Harvey had wondered aloud in his printed book A Discursive Problem concerning Prophecies:
Nay, is any device easier, or any practice readier, than to forge a blind prophecy, or to coin a counterfeit tale, or to foist in a new-found old-said saw, or to set countenance upon some stale poetical fragment, or other antique record, or to play upon the advantage of some old memorandum, without rhyme or reason; or to gloze, and juggle with knacks of the maker, where they may pass, and repass for current payment; or finally, to revive some forlorn Merlin, or Pierce Plowman, or Nostradame, or the like supposed prophet? Alas, is this wise world so simple, to believe so foolish toys, devised to mock apes, and delude children? [xi]
In a paradox typical of early print discourse, Harvey engages prophecies while arguing against doing so. He positions prophecy as a sociointellectual “problem” inherited from a simpleminded past—though some of his examples are in fact drawn from sixteenth-century compositions. By 1833, when the Bannatyne Club brought out Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, in Alliterative Verse, a reprint of a 1603 print edition, history in the future tense no longer made sense. The social stigmatization of prophecy, perceptible from its first appearances in writing, was now complete. The untitled preface to Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies begins:
It seems difficult for anyone, at the present day, to be fully aware of that degree of fond credulity with which, at a period even within the last century, certain political prophecies were regarded and cherished by the partisans of opposite factions in this country [i.e., Scotland], which the least instructed peasants of a later age would probably treat with contempt and derision. [xii]
Difficult, indeed. Here the emergence of a modern present from the medieval past is transacted by class and literary genre. Modernity puts “the least instructed peasants” above even the noblest benighted “partisans” in the hierarchy of literary good sense.
Modern liberal subjects inhabit the intellectual consensus for which David Laing, the (unnamed) editor of Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, presumes to speak. One consequence of this situation is that political prophecy now appears remote. If the past is a foreign country, so too are the past’s futures. Another, more pressing consequence is that some forms of future-oriented historical thought are difficult to perceive now. A strict division between medieval and modern has become the price of entry to subjectivity and the unspoken precondition of a secularist-imperialist present. To realize this, one has only to note modernity’s geographical exclusions, how it is secured for the developed world precisely at the expense of the developing world. The medieval/modern periodization, in turn, depends on a conceptual distinction between past, present, and future, now identifiable with historical consciousness as such. Following the Enlightenment, medieval subjects could be named as those who squandered their (classical) past, endured their dreary present, and harbored delusions about their future. This is the schematic historicism guiding, for example, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, in which the dogmatic ignorance of medieval monks becomes prelude to the Renaissance rediscovery of liberal humanism. [xiii]In the context of this hard right turn in intellectual history, it can be “difficult for anyone” to imagine futures that escape the logic of containment underwriting the idea of the Middle Ages.
In closing, I point to two examples of postmedieval political prophecy, both from the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s oft-quoted line about “the arc of the moral universe” posits a future of political vindication. In a sermon delivered at Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1965 and rediscovered in 2007, King pairs the “moral universe” line with biblical prophecy (Isaiah 40:4). [xiv]Like his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, King’s references to “the arc of the moral universe” have been captured by reactionary neoconservatism. These fragments of prophetic discourse entered the political mainstream as assurances that the present redeems the past, or, in other words, that the prophecy of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s has been fulfilled. For neoliberals, meanwhile, King’s words authorize policies that brandish multiculturalism and racial equity as shields for corporatization. Restored to the context of King’s liberation theology and democratic socialism, “the arc of the moral universe” performs a different ideological function: it orients grassroots political action toward a future imagined but not yet realized.
In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (1968), King reversed this procedure, following the arc of the moral universe back through salvation history and political history. [xv]He imagines “standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now.” The speech ends with the prediction that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” King’s commitment to prophecy lay in the conviction, not that the present redeems the past, but that the future redeems the present.
A more contemporary (and darker) example is President Trump’s inaugural address, in which he alleged a dystopia of “American carnage” and promised redemption for “the forgotten men and women of our country.” [xvi]Trump’s campaign platform had named real problems in America—income inequality, the entrenchment of a political class, the centralization of cultural power, terrorism—but proposed to solve them with the fantasy of a nation that becomes an island unto itself. His inaugural address took the form of a prophecy. “But that is the past,” he said. “And now we are looking only to the future.” Trumpism could very well be summarized by the phrase history in the future tense, insofar as it projects a fantasized version of 1950s white middle-class prosperity as the destination of a new hypernationalism. King’s and Trump’s political prophecies both evoke institutions: respectively, the church and the nation. Yet Trump’s prophecies may prove more resistant to ideological recapture due to their blatant racial and socioeconomic particularity.
The ideological work of these postmedieval political prophecies cannot be appreciated fully within the historicisms of secularist modernity since modernity is that which both King and Trump seek, in drastically different ways, to escape. Both situate their political futures in the mind’s eye, King in the famous anaphora of “I have a dream …” and Trump in his reference to “a new vision” and his promise that “we will bring back our dreams.” Visionary poetics refers in both cases, of course, to the American dream, the U.S. equivalent of the Prophecies of Merlin. As an intellectual consensus and a material reality, modernity overshadows the power of imagined futures. In 2017, we ignore that power at our peril.
[i] Rupert Taylor, The Political Prophecy in England (Columbia Univ. Press, 1911), p. 3.
[ii] The phrase hermeneutics of suspicion was coined by Paul Ricoeur, with reference to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and is reinvigorated for literary criticism by Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, 2015).
[iii] This is no accident, for medieval literature and culture provide a little-acknowledged ground for (post)modern theory. See Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (Chicago, 2005); The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory, ed. Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith (Duke Univ. Press, 2010); and Cole, “The Call of Things: A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontologies,” minnesota review 80 (2013): 106–18.
[iv]Geoffrey of Monmouth:“The History of the Kings of Britain”:An Edition and Translation of “De gestis Britonum,” ed. Michael D. Reeve and tr. Neil Wright (Boydell & Brewer, 2007), §§111–12. I quote from Wright’s facing English translation, with the British spelling symbolises Americanized.
[vi] All quotations in this paragraph refer to Scalacronica, ed. Joseph Stevenson (Maitland Club, 1836), p. 3. Translation mine.
[vii] See Eric Weiskott, “The Ireland Prophecy: Text and Metrical Context,” Studies in Philology 114 (2017): 245–77. I cite the text from this edition. Translation mine.
[viii] Julia Crick, “Geoffrey and the Prophetic Tradition,” The Arthur of Medieval Latin Literature: The Development and Dissemination of the Arthurian Legend in Medieval Latin, ed. Siân Echard (Univ. of Wales Press, 2011), pp. 67–82, at p. 73.
[ix] J. R. S. Phillips, “Edward II and the Prophets,” England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. W. M. Ormrod (Boydell & Brewer, 1986), pp. 189–201, at pp. 196–201.
[x] Tim Thornton, Prophecy, Politics, and the People in Early Modern England (Boydell & Brewer, 2006), pp. 20–21.
[xi] John Harvey, A Discursive Problem concerning Prophecies (Short Title Catalogue no. 12908), p. 2. I have modernized the spelling and word division of the text and title.
[xii]Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, in Alliterative Verse: Reprinted from Waldegrave’s Edition, M.DC.III., ed. David Laing (Ballantyne, 1883), p. v. I have modernized the phrase any one.
Crick, Julia. “Geoffrey and the Prophetic Tradition.” The Arthur of Medieval Latin Literature: The Development and Dissemination of the Arthurian Legend in Medieval Latin, ed. Siân Echard, Univ. of Wales Press, 2011, pp. 67–82.
Phillips, J. R. S. “Edward II and the Prophets.” England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. W. M. Ormrod, Boydell & Brewer, 1986, pp. 189–201.
Reeve, Michael D., ed., and Neil Wright, tr. Geoffrey of Monmouth:“The History of the Kings of Britain”:An Edition and Translation of “De gestis Britonum.” Boydell & Brewer, 2007.
Taylor, Rupert. The Political Prophecy in England. Columbia Univ. Press, 1911.
Thornton, Tim. Prophecy, Politics, and the People in Early Modern England. Boydell & Brewer, 2006.
Weiskott, Eric. “The Ireland Prophecy: Text and Metrical Context.” Studies in Philology 114 (2017): 245–77.
Eric Weiskott is Assistant Professor of English at Boston College. He is the author of English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History (Cambridge University Press, 2016), on medieval English alliterative poetry. His writing appears in The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as many academic journals. He is at work on a second book, about English political prophecy, meter, and the division of history into medieval and modern periods.
Peter Buchanan, Guest Criticism Editor, received his PhD in medieval studies from the University of Toronto and is currently an Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University. His book-in-progress, Detours Through the Sensible: Metaphor and Meaning in Anglo-Saxon Literature, argues that metaphors of embodiment shape the reception and adaptation of poetic work. He and his wife collect hedgehog bric-a-brac, though they do not currently own actual hedgehogs.
“If they don’t need poetry, bully for them. I like the movies, too.”
— Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto”
The world of poetry seems hopelessly divided into two camps: the lyricists and the experimentalists, the Blooms and the Perloffs, the Lowells and the Oppens, the Heaneys and the Hejinians. Add to that list Calvin Bedient, who advocates for a return to a “poetry of affect,”[i] and Kenneth Goldsmith, who advocates for a culture-wide embrace of “being dumb.”[ii] Although both men pose as defenders of their respective embattled aesthetic orientations, close attention to their arguments reveals that they occupy identical positions regarding a poem’s place in the world—a position, it turns out, that doesn’t believe poetry, in itself, is something all that valuable.
Bedient’s argument in “Against Conceptualism” is that conceptual poetry is a mechanism for the repression of both emotion (in the form of melancholy) and political engagement (in the form of militancy). He writes, “[m]elancholy and militancy, those contrary but subtly related elements of the poetry of affect, cannot be excised from literature, in favor of methodology, without both emotional and political consequences: misery in the first instance, cultural conformity in the second.” Before we can accept that the consequences of such unfeeling poems and poets are as dire as Bedient claims, we need to split his argument in two to see if it holds water. The first claim is that melancholy is central to the poetic project; the second, that poetry’s melancholy is a mechanism for militancy.
What is not immediately obvious in Bedient’s writing is whether he longs for a more melancholic and militant poet or a more melancholic and militant audience. The argument seems to be a rallying cry for poets; he chastises “[t]he uncreative heads” of experimental poetry who “shook off the body, everything that was alive enough to die.” If what he does intend is for us to gauge the poet’s melancholic level, then, it turns out we’re not judging the poem at all. Take the two great melancholic poems of the nineteenth century: Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” While Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle” is typically understood to be autobiographical, as is most of his work, we don’t have any hard evidence that attests that young Walt, once, on Paumanok, heard the lonely mocking-bird call out for his mate. We do, however, know that Poe never loved and lost Lenore, never flung the shutter, never saw the flirt and flutter of that stately raven. Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” explains that the poem was devised following a basic set of steps through which he determined the length, tone, rhythm, and refrain well before deciding that the poem would mourn Lenore. Now, if we were to find Whitman’s own “Philosophy of Composition,” wherein he describes that he, in fact, didn’t much like being out-of-doors, found bird-song irritating, and wrote poetry because he (wrongly) imagined it would make him money, would “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” lose its status as a great poem? Of course it wouldn’t, and I’m quite sure Bedient would agree. Therefore, why ascribe the biographical poet with a melancholic affect? It can’t be the case that Bedient thinks only those of us with a particularly strong sense of melancholy should write poetry.
Perhaps, then, Bedient wants to locate melancholy in the reader. But, as it turns out, this isn’t a good way to go about things either, because just as when we measured Poe’s and Whitman’s respective melancholic levels and ended up not talking about poetry, if we’re worried about the audience’s melancholic levels, we’re talking about them, not the poem. Moreover, such a conversation is destined to lead nowhere. A poem that makes me feel melancholic (“Out of the Cradle,” certainly; Celan’s “Sprich auch du,” for sure; but also Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency”) might not make you feel melancholic. Despite this, we can still have a conversation about the poem. I can say, “‘Out of the Cradle’ dramatizes the hopelessness of the elegiac project while still insisting on its necessity,” and you, I hope, would say, “Yes, that’s what the poem is about.” Because when you and I are talking about poetry, we’re not talking about our emotions: we’re talking about what we think the poet meant for us to understand as a result of reading the poem. If you say, in response to my analysis of “Out of the Cradle,” “That poem makes me laugh,” then we’re not going to have much of a conversation: that’s a fact about you, not about the poem.
A generous reading of Bedient would set aside his seeming desire to analyze the levels of melancholy and militancy in artist and audience and instead posit that he believes good poetry is the kind that is intended to evoke a particular kind of emotional response in its audience (melancholy in “Out of the Cradle” or “Sprich auch du”; anger in Juliana Spahr’s “HR4811 is a joke”). If that’s the case, then the conversation we, as critical readers of poetry, would have wouldn’t stop at “that poem made me sad,” but would extend to questions about how the poet designed her poem to evoke such an emotion, whether or not it was effective, and so on. But, at that point, we still aren’t talking about how we feel, we’re talking about how the work of art is constructed and why we think the poet would do it that way.
So, melancholy—located either in poet or reader—isn’t much of a criteria for judging poetry itself. What about militancy? Certainly, poets have often claimed the political import of their work—we’ll see shortly how Kenneth Goldsmith, described by Bedient as conceptualism’s “able exponent,” understands the politics of his project; but we can also think of the anti-capitalist claims made by the Language Poets in the 1970s or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s nineteenth-century claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Bedient’s version of the claim rests on the assumption that one only gets political once one gets emotional. He writes:
Veined and vexed by the sensations organized around melancholy and militancy, the imagination is essential to politics: your positions make me miserable, make me mad. It is the imagination that has to conceive opposition. It has to feel it. Otherwise, it is merely being contrary, which is the conceptualists’ post-political position.[iii]
Bedient misunderstands what it means to “be contrary.” Here, he describes it as espousing a belief that one has no strong emotional investment in. But, that’s not quite right. “Being contrary” is the same as playing devil’s advocate: you take up a position not because you believe it, but just to momentarily occupy it. The difference between being contrary and advocating a deeply held belief isn’t emotional, it’s intellectual: to be contrary, you can’t believe; to hold a position, you must believe. But, just as he did with melancholy, Bedient occupies a position about which no debate can be had. I can say, “I don’t feel my politics, I believe in them,” and he might respond, “Well, I feel mine.” There is no criteria for judging whether Bedient is “right” in his position because when it comes to feeling, the categories of “right” and “wrong” simply don’t apply. I cannot call his emotional response “wrong” (I might call it “inappropriate,” perhaps, if he laughed at a funeral) for exactly the same reason I can’t say that it’s “wrong” that someone has a headache or the flu: humans have no conscious control over their physical or emotional responses to stimulus. (Bedient seems to get this, at least initially, as he contrasts conceptualism’s attention to thought to his poetry of affect’s attention to feelings.[iv]) In contrast, I do have conscious control over my beliefs. I believe in a particular political program because I have analyzed evidence, considered options, and come to a particular set of solutions to what I understand as the world’s problems. Admittedly, some days I am miserable and mad, but other days I’m rather complacent, even happy. On those happy, complacent days, the state of affairs that my politics hopes to address has not changed, nor have my politics changed. Because my beliefs, just like the meaning of poems, have nothing to do with how I feel.
All of this is to say that Bedient, throughout “Against Conceptualism,” mistakes feeling for meaning. So, we might think that conceptualism, associated as it is with thought rather than emotion, would offer a better account of how a poem comes to have meaning. If we turn to Kenneth Goldsmith, however, we’ll see that he misses the point as well, albeit in a slightly more interesting way.
“Being Dumb,” published in July in The Awl, reads like Arcade Fire doing stand-up, but instead of the jokes being “men walk like this” and “women walk like that,” Goldsmith distinguishes between “smart-smart” people (poet Christian Bök—who also appears in Bedient’s piece—NPR News, the New Yorker), “dumb-dumb” people (“racists and rednecks”), and “smart-dumb” people (Goldsmith—self-described as “perhaps one of the dumbest that’s ever lived”—as well as Andy Warhol, “Gertrude Stein, Vito Acconci, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Seth Price, Tao Lin, Martin Margiela, Mike Kelley, and Sofia Coppola”).[v] The difference between smart-smart and smart-dumb that Goldsmith most cares about (he doesn’t really care about dumb-dumb) is that smart-smart “brims with value” while smart-dumb “owes nothing to anyone.” He writes that smart-smart, “[h]aving sweated for what it’s accomplished, […] pays a handsome dividend to those invested.” It is hard, in 2013, to read “dividend” and “invested” as references to the kind of personal satisfaction one presumably gets from, for example, having read a “smart” book. Instead, we must read them as references to the very tools that, just a few years ago, brought the global economy to a standstill and then re-rigged it in favor of the wealthy. Goldsmith valorizes this interpretation at the end of the article, when he writes that “[t]he world runs on smart. It’s clearly not working.” In contrast to the now ethically suspect “smart-smart,” “smart-dumb” “[t]rad[es] on the mundane and common, […] plays a low-stakes game […] and in that way it is free.” What differentiates smart-smart from smart-dumb, then, is not the superficial difference between preferring Christian Bök to Kenneth Goldsmith, NPR to Sofia Coppola, or the New Yorker to Tao Lin, but the way value either inheres or fails to inhere in their respective projects.
Initially, then, it seems that what Goldsmith is describing when he says that his art (as opposed to Bök’s) “owes nothing to anyone” is a very traditional aesthetic theory that posits the artwork as autonomous from the world. That is, Goldsmith seems to suggest that a particular kind of valuelessness (Kant would have called it purposelessness) is what marks the difference between his book Traffic (a transcription of traffic reports over a holiday weekend in New York City) and the traffic reports it transcribes. The difference between the two comes down to the object’s relationship to the world. While a traffic report’s success is judged on its accurate relationship to the world, Traffic is judged by a different set of criteria: the book isn’t considered a failure if a reader finds herself stuck in unexpected traffic; a traffic report on the radio would be. To put it differently, traffic reports would not exist were it not for the world. Traffic does not depend on any relationship with the world to exist.
Unfortunately, Goldsmith undoes his initial paean to valuelessness at the end of the piece, where he writes:
I want to live in a world where the smartest thing you can do is the dumbest. I want to live in a world where a fluorescent tube leaned up against a wall is worth a million dollars. Or where a plumbing fixture on a pedestal is considered the most important artwork of the century. Or where building an eternally locked Prada store in a vast expanse of empty Texas desert is considered a stroke of genius. Or where all of the numbers from one to a thousand can simply be classified by alphabetical order and published as a poem.[vi]
So, it turns out, that the one thing that sets smart-dumb apart from smart-smart—its valuelessness—is the thing about smart-dumb Goldsmith would most like to change. Of course, there’s a joke here, and one that Goldsmith is in on: the world he describes is the world we already live in. Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light sculptures have sold for around a million dollars at auction; Duchamp is, if not the most important, one of the most important artists of the 20th century; Prada Marfa received a lot of press when it was initially installed in 2005 (and, a reproduction of its sign appeared in the van der Woodsen apartment on Gossip Girl, a show that uniquely captured our contemporary moment); and Nick Monfort has produced a computer program that alphabetizes Roman numerals from I to M. What this reveals, then, is that while “Being Dumb” might describe aesthetic preference, it doesn’t describe how aesthetic preference works.
When we turn to Goldsmith’s explicit statements about aesthetics, we find that he isn’t so different from Bedient. His most recent project, Printing out the Internet, was a primarily crowd-sourced project: people from all over the world printed out any number of pages of the internet and sent them to the LABOR gallery in Mexico City; at the same time, the gallery held marathon “readings” of the internet, using the crowd-sourced pages as the script. Goldsmith described the project initially as a tribute to hacker-activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while awaiting trial for having downloaded millions of articles from JSTOR. As the project developed, however, it was met with massive environmental protests, culminating in a change.org petition to stop the project. In an interview with C‑Net, Goldsmith responded to the protests generally, saying, “[i]n the tradition of conceptual art, […] the discourse surrounding the show is, in fact, the real show.”[vii] If the point of conceptual art or poetry is not the artwork, but what people say about it, then the artwork is, as it were, incidental, as decorative as the Prada Marfa sign hung on the set of a television show about the foibles of billionaire teenagers. If Goldsmith believes the point of art is the discourse it generates, then he cannot simultaneously believe that the work of art has any meaning on its own. Its meaning must be formed in collaboration with the audience. Such a belief undoes the theory of art implicit in “Being Dumb”: art isn’t autonomous; instead, it waits for an audience to fill in its meaning.
So, despite Bedient’s desire to make the “poetry of affect” different from conceptual poetry, and despite Goldsmith’s desire to set his own aesthetic practice apart from other poets and artists, both men have the same fundamental belief about art. Art, for Bedient and Goldsmith, only has meaning or value once it becomes part of the world. For art to count as art, they believe, the audience must respond to it. That is, they believe that the poem—whether a conceptual poem or a poem of affect—is ultimately defined by the audience, not the poet. While Goldsmith is less proscriptive—he would likely say “more democratic”—about what that response will be, even a cursory examination of both their positions reveals that neither cares much about the art of poetry at all; they care about what it might do to an audience. In other words, both Bedient and Goldsmith define meaning as if it were a property of the body or of a community of consumers. As such, they cannot simultaneously believe that the art of poetry is an autonomous aesthetic activity. If that’s the case, we can go ahead and do without poems altogether, can’t we?
[vii] Leslie Katz, “Artist wants to print out entire Internet to honor Aaron Swartz,” C‑Net, June 6, 2013, http://news.cnet.com/8301–17938_105-57588137–1/artist-wants-to-print-out-entire-internet-to-honor-aaron-swartz/. And that show has indeed been entertaining. Goldsmith has responded in a few ways, none of which are particularly smart-smart (or, smart-dumb, really). In the same interview with C‑Net, he pointed out the essential wastefulness of all art, citing the Venice Biennale and Jeff Koons’s use of “strip-mined aluminum,” a classic version of the “But, Mom, everyone at school already has an iPhone 5” argument. On the Tumblr dedicated to the project, he provides two additional responses: first, “[y]our environmental concerns are displaced anxiety about democracy; Secretly, what you hate most about Printing out the Internet is its democracy, that anybody can be an artist with a simple cmd/ctrl+p”; second, “[t]hink of how many invoices could’ve been written on all this paper had we not printed the internet on it. What a waste. Shame on us.” (I want to note that it is perhaps inaccurate to attribute these responses to Goldsmith; they appear on the Tumblr anonymously. They were, however, also tweeted by the UbuWeb account, which Goldsmith maintains.) It would be easy—fish-in-a-barrel easy—to describe why these responses are dumb-dumb, indicating, first, a fundamental misunderstanding of what is at stake when we talk about democracy (it has nothing to do with whether or not people are allowed to be “artists”) and, second, a fundamental misunderstanding of how capitalism works (it is not wholly reliant on the world’s paper supply).
Jen Hedler Phillis is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her dissertation, Lyric Histories, traces the appearance and disappearance of history in twentieth-century American poetry, arguing that the development of the historical in modernist and contemporary poetry mirrors economic developments both in the United States and Europe. She has presented work from her dissertation at the Marxist Literary Group Summer Institute and the New School for Social Research. For the record, she quite likes Arcade Fire.