Closure, Irresolution, and Cynthia Hogue’s “At Delphi”

Critical Essay / Lesley Wheeler


:: Closure, Irresolution, and Cynthia Hogue’s “At Delphi” ::

Class­room con­ver­sa­tions about what nobody under­stands can be joy­ful. After you wan­der around in the light of poetry’s uncer­tain­ty, though, you have to exit the room and face your com­plic­i­ty in a dam­aged and dam­ag­ing land­scape. This struck me hard­est dur­ing my first stint as Depart­ment Head at a small col­lege, begin­ning in 2007, right after I fell in love with Cyn­thia Hogue’s book The Incog­ni­to Body. No one else would take the posi­tion. I felt unpre­pared but called to help because I was caught up in a sto­ry about the impor­tance of the work. Heads or chairs—choose your favorite metaphor—manage the qual­i­ty of hun­dreds of stu­dents’ edu­ca­tions and the pro­fes­sion­al well-being of many teach­ers. Some of the teach­ers, giv­en academia’s two-tier sys­tem, lack job secu­ri­ty or basic ben­e­fits. I accept­ed the role, although it was offered grudg­ing­ly by a hyper­crit­i­cal boss who dis­liked me from the beginning. 

Before I began, col­leagues con­tact­ed me with upset­ting tales about the new Dean. He was unpre­pared for meet­ings, then blamed sub­or­di­nates. He mis­used his height and size, trap­ping women in their chairs when he talked to them. I saw him throw an arm over the back of an untenured woman’s seat even as he leaned in to dis­par­age anoth­er woman’s appear­ance. In doc­u­mentable sit­u­a­tions he stayed on the safe side of the law, bare­ly, but his bul­ly­ing was poisonous. 

I could have used advice in those first months but learned that con­sult­ing this Dean was unsafe. When a tenured white man I super­vised took his protest over my head—I had told him he need­ed to attend most depart­ment meetings—the Dean rep­ri­mand­ed me pub­licly with­out ask­ing me what hap­pened. He would obsess over small prob­lems, mak­ing it dan­ger­ous for the depart­ment to acknowl­edge that a tal­ent­ed new tenure-track col­league could use some men­tor­ing, espe­cial­ly if the assis­tant pro­fes­sor was a woman or a per­son of col­or. I respond­ed by striv­ing to do my work per­fect­ly, but if I sub­mit­ted a report ear­ly, he would mis­lay it, then chas­tise me for miss­ing the deadline. 

Every inter­ac­tion seemed minor in iso­la­tion, but the bat­tery wore me down. One day I dis­sent­ed from the Dean dur­ing a meet­ing of the tenure and pro­mo­tion com­mit­tee. He start­ed pok­ing my arm under the con­fer­ence table as he rebutted me. I fell silent. Then I start­ed shak­ing. I wish I had yelled, Stop touch­ing me! I hate that I respond­ed, instead, with down­cast eyes and the painful burn of con­cealed intim­i­da­tion. But I did, and no one else noticed. 

When I gath­ered courage and expressed dis­tress to the Provost, she told me that although I had recent­ly tes­ti­fied to lawyers in anoth­er professor’s case against this Dean, there were no records of com­plaint against the man. “You wouldn’t want the poor guy to lose his job over this, would you?” the Provost asked. So I read, wrote, taught, and chaired as best I could, pick­ing an obscure way among the rocks. I could still help peo­ple but in small­er ways than I once imagined.

After three years, I went on sab­bat­i­cal, then returned as an ordi­nary pro­fes­sor, shel­tered from the Dean by anoth­er chair, anoth­er lay­er in the hier­ar­chy. Then, just after my father died, as I began to trav­el through feel­ings that would take years to name, I opened a broad­cast email announc­ing that the Dean was step­ping down. Across social media, dozens of col­leagues rejoiced. He was, how­ev­er, being demot­ed to a full pro­fes­sor­ship in my depart­ment. No one with­in the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion acknowl­edged the harm done as they closed that chap­ter of life in the col­lege. Now came the sequel, as cheer­less as a Thomas Hardy nov­el. What route forward?

Here is the first poem in Hogue’s 2006 col­lec­tion, The Incog­ni­to Body

          At Delphi 
          The myth was all we had. That story, 
          but what was it? A path up a mountain, 
          and at the top, a rock, a tunnel 
          or entrance to an underground cave. 
          I could feel this . . . how to describe 
          a feeling that started like a vibration 
          or opening in the chest cavity, 
          then in the head and feet 
          even as I walked from the bottom 
          of the path and up, a winding 
          through thin pines lining the way? 
          The sun hailed us like song, 
          an old riming of light.  
          This was a road pilgrims 
          had traveled. We were walking it, 
          and my feet knew I walked here 
          before. They knew this way.  
          The feeling didn’t fade 
          but grew stronger as we came 
          into a great cleft in the cliffs. 
          A guide said, This was the sibyl’s rock, 
          and beside that precarious jut of boulder 
          was an opening into the ground.  
          I was vibrating like a divining rod. 
          There was nowhere to go 
          but through the ruins. My sister heard 
          a tone or tones,  A chord, she said, 
          warning of peril or sorrow. A future 
          we could see but not change.  
          The story is the path or way. 
          We happen upon it once or twice, 
          arrive in the lucid noon 
          to a place where we once came 
          to know what we do not know.  
          My body knew. Still. It felt 
          like a feeling. I called it a feeling. 


The sto­ry is the path or way,” Hogue writes, empha­siz­ing how lit­er­a­ture can cre­ate space for self-explo­ration. The speak­er and her sis­ter are quest­ing, although “At Del­phi” nev­er spec­i­fies their mis­sion. Oth­er poems in the book refer to debil­i­tat­ing pain, hint­ing that ill­ness is the source of the cri­sis. I start­ed cor­re­spond­ing with Hogue about poet­ry, schol­ar­ship, and chair­ing, and meet­ing her for tea or din­ner at con­fer­ences. She told me she had Adri­enne Rich’s dis­ease. I looked it up: rheuma­toid arthritis. 

Despite the mys­ter­ies at the heart of “At Del­phi,” it is less gram­mat­i­cal­ly exper­i­men­tal than oth­er poems in the book. Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern in The Incog­ni­to Body is the rela­tion­ship between lan­guage and pain: how the lat­ter dis­rupts the for­mer, iso­lat­ing a per­son, shut­ting down resources she dire­ly needs to heal into coher­ence again. “One is con­tained by the phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion of pain, which is inde­scrib­able, unsharable,” Hogue said to inter­view­er Sari Broner about the book’s title poem. 

The shared pil­grim­age described in “At Del­phi” is both lin­ear and recur­rent. The poem pro­ceeds in chrono­log­i­cal order, fol­low­ing women up a moun­tain­side as their sense of a pres­ence or an imma­nent mean­ing inten­si­fies. Rep­e­ti­tion and rhyme are irreg­u­lar, but cer­tain words and sounds loop: sto­ry, way, path, rock, know, feel­ing. Fur­ther, “At Del­phi” cir­cles back to re-envi­sion a more famous free verse poem of ver­ti­cal explo­ration, Rich’s “Div­ing into the Wreck.” “First hav­ing read the book of myths,” Rich’s poem begins, before plumb­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions about gen­der and his­to­ry via a deep-sea div­ing metaphor. Hogue’s rocky climb inverts Rich’s sub­ma­rine excur­sion but res­onates with its aims. 

With yet anoth­er ref­er­ence to rep­e­ti­tion, the speak­er express­es a pow­er­ful sense of déjà vu. “My feet knew I walked here // before,” Hogue says. “They knew this way.” One impli­ca­tion, that she remem­bers being a sup­pli­cant to Del­phi in a pre­vi­ous incar­na­tion, turns inside out the idea that while our phys­i­cal selves die, our souls con­tin­ue. After all, Hogue isn’t argu­ing that she, old spir­it in a new body, remem­bers the way to the ora­cle. She says her feet do. The body has its own knowl­edge, maybe its own immor­tal­i­ty, while con­scious­ness is evanes­cent and unre­li­able. This empha­sis on the pow­er of phys­i­cal­i­ty res­onates through­out the col­lec­tion. The body is incog­ni­to, “unknown,” but its mys­ter­ies are worth plumbing. 

The results of Hogue’s poem-pil­grim­age are ambigu­ous. The speaker’s sis­ter hears “a tone or tones, A chord.” Per­haps this is lit­er­al. Some peo­ple claim to detect the earth’s back­ground hum, the voice of long ocean waves rolling across the sea floor, describ­ing the sound as a drone or chord (see Kathryn Miles). The sis­ter hes­i­tates among options: Does she detect one note or mul­ti­ple? While both women even­tu­al­ly arrive at “lucid noon,” a bright­ly lit space of clar­i­ty, Del­phi is a ruin, and the replies it pro­vid­ed to ancient peti­tion­ers weren’t so clear even when Del­phi was the most pow­er­ful ora­cle in Greece, the ompha­los, navel of Gaia. “My body knew. Still,” the poem fin­ish­es. “It felt / like a feel­ing. I called it a feel­ing.” Her vibrat­ing body under­stands the mes­sage, but the speak­er her­self can’t trans­late. Instead she repeats her­self, using a term of phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion or intu­ition. To name the inde­scrib­able, we only have words of strate­gic vagueness. 

Feel­ings are sup­posed to be women’s way of know­ing, yin to the intellect’s yang. The tem­ple at Del­phi is ded­i­cat­ed to Apol­lo, male god of music and heal­ing, but accord­ing to leg­end, it replaced an ear­li­er site of god­dess-wor­ship. And the Pythia, the priest­ess who leaned over a tri­pod and addressed the god, was always a woman over fifty. Per­haps she inhaled eth­yl­ene, a flow­ery-scent­ed petro­chem­i­cal ris­ing from a fault beneath cleft rocks. She chewed ole­an­der leaves to induce hal­lu­ci­na­tion or recep­tiv­i­ty, how­ev­er you pre­fer to think about those mes­sages. In any case, she trudged through her years of poten­tial child­bear­ing then kept on walk­ing, grown wis­er, empow­ered by feeling. 


When I returned to cam­pus after my father’s funer­al, my for­mer boss was in the process of hand­ing over files and explain­ing sys­tems to his suc­ces­sor. My office is on the third floor; the ex-Dean was mov­ing into a first-floor office in the same build­ing. Long before, I had start­ed skip­ping non-manda­to­ry uni­ver­si­ty events I thought he might attend because encoun­ter­ing him trig­gered waves of anger. After a chance meet­ing, I wouldn’t be able to sleep, rehears­ing argu­ments against dis­crim­i­na­to­ry remarks I’d heard him make or to peo­ple at the uni­ver­si­ty who shrugged off his pres­ence as an immutable fact of uni­ver­si­ty life. I won­dered how I would man­age, bump­ing into him sev­er­al times a day in the for­mer­ly safe space of my department.

The ora­cle said: Equip your­self with a minifridge and hun­ker down. I made one more expe­di­tion to the new Provost, plead­ing for a dif­fer­ent arrange­ment. He and oth­ers had told me so many times that my sac­ri­fices for the depart­ment and the col­lege were val­ued. This time, the high priests shrugged. My alien­ation was an accept­able price to pay for remov­ing a bad admin­is­tra­tor from his post with­out an expen­sive legal battle. 

I could see their log­ic, but it changed mine. For the first two years after the sum­mer of 2012, I avoid­ed the first floor in fear, shame at my fear, and fury at my shame. By the third year, repeat­ed expo­sure mut­ed these feel­ings. I was serv­ing an inter­im term as Depart­ment Head again. Chair­ing remained an intense assign­ment but was no longer demor­al­iz­ing. My com­pe­tent new Dean had a sense of humor and a habit of prais­ing peo­ple for work well done. 

Yet once upon a time, I was devot­ed to the suc­cess of my depart­ment, work­ing effec­tive­ly with its most eccen­tric mem­bers. Hir­ing and men­tor­ing a host of new peo­ple, drag­ging our­selves through var­i­ous over­hauls of the major and the insti­tu­tion of a Cre­ative Writ­ing minor—these com­mu­nal efforts deep­ened my invest­ment. My myths col­lapsed when the price of the job became dai­ly con­tact with some­one who had bul­lied me for years with­out con­se­quences. My col­leagues expect­ed me to resolve my anger pri­vate­ly, or pre­tend I had, as if that were pos­si­ble, as if rela­tion­ships hadn’t crum­bled into ruin. I fore­saw the dis­junc­tion vibrat­ing through my dai­ly life for decades unless I found a job else­where. Even though my chil­dren were final­ly on the verge of cash­ing in on a large tuition ben­e­fit, I was prepar­ing to go on the mar­ket. Maybe my hard-won admin­is­tra­tive skills would help me start again. 

Then the depart­ment hired my adjunct-pro­fes­sor spouse onto the tenure track. My accom­plished hus­band deserved it and was deliri­ous­ly hap­py. I was hap­py for him, but I was also stuck. 

A bleak feel­ing about the future was exac­er­bat­ed by oth­er trans­for­ma­tions. After my par­ents’ abrupt divorce and my father’s death, my moth­er was cop­ing on dras­ti­cal­ly reduced means. My spouse was dri­ving six hours roundtrip once a month to vis­it his moth­er, whose Alzheimer’s was wors­en­ing. Our daugh­ter start­ed col­lege nine hours away. My iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a moth­er was approach­ing obso­les­cence. Per­i­menopause hit and I hot-flashed all night. It was hard to keep quest­ing or even remem­ber why I set out in the first place. 


Becom­ing absorbed in a poem changes a per­son in small ways and occa­sion­al­ly in big ones: you cre­ate a mem­o­ry of read­ing; your heartrate and res­pi­ra­tion alter as you expe­ri­ence immer­sion; and, once in a while, a line sticks in your head and affects how you see the world. Cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists and nar­ra­tive the­o­rists includ­ing Richard J. Ger­rig, Melanie C. Green, Dan R. John­son, Suzanne Keen, Vic­tor Nell, and many oth­ers have report­ed on the phys­i­o­log­i­cal con­se­quences of “lit­er­ary trans­porta­tion,” how it can affect prej­u­dice, and the ways it does or does not pro­mote social rev­o­lu­tions. Yet change isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly poetry’s goal, and read­ers don’t approach the page expect­ing con­ver­sion. The nature and results of any poet­ic encounter are more uncer­tain. Per­haps more than any oth­er art made out of words and set down in print, poet­ry has a fugi­tive qual­i­ty. Even when meter is smooth and rhymes chime pre­dictably, there’s inde­ter­mi­na­cy or per­haps per­sis­tence. Pat­terns assem­ble and mean­ings pro­lif­er­ate, but there’s no clo­sure. Just an end­ing, one day. 

Against this uncer­tain­ty, or through it, there is trust or per­haps opti­mism. You head out into a lit­er­ary land­scape with at least a lit­tle hope, or you wouldn’t read. That doesn’t mean you enter­tain no skep­ti­cism, or even prej­u­dice, about the book in your hands. But many oth­er pil­grims have trudged up this moun­tain­side to con­sult the ora­cle, so, twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry tourist, you try. You know even leg­endary archae­o­log­i­cal sites can be crowd­ed and dis­ap­point­ing. Maybe the sun is too hot or your shoes pinch, but you fol­low the path. Sup­pli­cants were pre­pared by priests before they put their ques­tions to the Pythia; you cul­ti­vate your own recep­tiv­i­ty to a work’s pos­si­ble world. Deep breaths. Look around. It is pos­si­ble to have a mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ence at the tem­ple, although the priest­ess speaks cryp­ti­cal­ly. You couldn’t call her words an answer, exact­ly.  


A cou­ple of steps past “At Del­phi” in The Incog­ni­to Body is a poem called “Rad­i­cal Opti­mism.” Hogue’s notes define this Bud­dhist term as “the capac­i­ty to live with inde­ter­mi­na­cy.” “Rad­i­cal Opti­mism” includes cryp­tic notes “dashed” at a party: 

          Can you be with not knowing, 
          living the separation, cult. 
          of grief (culture or cultivation)? 
          A broken heart is a whole 


The poem pre­serves a flash of insight while acknowl­edg­ing the frac­tured qual­i­ty of the light. Of course the world breaks our hearts. We can pon­der hints inside words end­less­ly with­out solv­ing the puz­zle of how to live. For instance, the words cult, cul­ture, and cul­ti­va­tion link human work in an aura of sacred­ness, while the antonyms whole and hole para­dox­i­cal­ly join forces through iden­ti­cal sounds. Those echoes are won­der­ful, but they don’t help me arrive at a coher­ent phi­los­o­phy. When I do expe­ri­ence whole­ness, the pieces of my life click­ing into sense, I can’t car­ry away that mean­ing in words. 

Hogue’s poem earns its final ambi­gu­i­ty, suf­fus­ing lan­guage with joy. Beyond tran­scen­dent moments, how­ev­er, irres­o­lu­tion is not com­fort­able. The pos­i­tive uncer­tain­ty of poet­ry is hard to rec­on­cile with the neg­a­tive uncer­tain­ty of liv­ing. Writ­ing a hybrid kind of criticism—blending mem­oir and cog­ni­tive stud­ies, the­o­ry and close-reading—is an effort at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and self-inte­gra­tion, a quest and the quest’s ful­fill­ment. The exe­ge­sis of poems and my own state of mind, pars­ing pat­terns and try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate what orders I per­ceive, brings con­so­la­tion. Yet order is tem­po­rary. I find poet­ry more appeal­ing than oth­er kinds of puz­zles because when all the let­ters and spaces join in a charmed way, they exceed my abil­i­ty to expli­cate them. 

Long after glimpses of bet­ter mean­ings, I keep think­ing about how many peo­ple around me car­ry bur­dens more intense and com­plex than my expe­ri­ences of assault and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Pain is most­ly invis­i­ble to those who haven’t expe­ri­enced it, unless it erupts through word and ges­ture. I learned that my small self-protections—shirking depart­ment par­ties, mak­ing a point of sit­ting out of pok­ing range, and most of all speak­ing up—read to oth­ers as me being dif­fi­cult, behav­ing in a way anoth­er Dean called “unbe­com­ing.” I would not for­give and for­get. I cul­ti­vat­ed mem­o­ry. Mean­while, “[t]here was nowhere to go / but through the ruins.” Ahead, a “warn­ing of per­il or sor­row. A future // we could see but not change.” 

Can hon­or­ing the truth of the past coex­ist with opti­mism and access to joy? I hope so. I don’t know. Yet poetry’s frag­men­tary myths and unre­solved sto­ries show me the only way that seems worth tak­ing, a trail toward an open­ing, a fault. Archae­ol­o­gists can’t agree on exact­ly what hap­pened there, although some pil­grims, at least, received what seemed like help. With luck, there will be more chords ahead, moments when dif­fer­ent tones sound at once and some­how harmonize. 

At Del­phi” by Cyn­thia Hogue appears in The Incog­ni­to Body, pub­lished by Red Hen Press in 2006. It is reprint­ed here with per­mis­sion of the publisher. 



 Ger­rig, Richard J. Expe­ri­enc­ing Nar­ra­tive Worlds: On the Psy­cho­log­i­cal Activ­i­ties of Read­ing. New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1993. 

Green, Melanie C., Christo­pher Chatham, and Marc A. Ses­tir. “Emo­tion and Trans­porta­tion into Fact and Fic­tion.” Sci­en­tif­ic Study of Lit­er­a­ture 2, no. 1 (2012), 37–59. 

Hogue, Cyn­thia. “A con­ver­sa­tion between Cyn­thia Hogue and Sari Broner on “The Incog­ni­to Body.” How2 1, num­ber 5 (2001), 

—. The Incog­ni­to Body. Pasade­na: Red Hen Press, 2006. 

John­son, Dan R. “Trans­porta­tion into lit­er­ary fic­tion reduces prej­u­dice against and increas­es empa­thy for Arab-Mus­lims.” Sci­en­tif­ic Study of Lit­er­a­ture 3:1 (2013), 77–92. 

Keen, Suzanne. Empa­thy and the Nov­el. New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007. 

Miles, Kathryn. “Map­ping the Bot­tom of the World.” Eco­tone 20 (2015), 93–103.  

Nell, Vic­tor. Lost in a Book: The Psy­chol­o­gy of Read­ing for Plea­sure. New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1988. 

Wheel­er, Les­ley. Voic­ing Amer­i­can Poet­ry: Sound and Per­for­mance from the 1920s to the Present. Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008. 


Les­ley Wheel­er’s lat­est books are The State She’s In (Tin­der­box Edi­tions, 2020), her fifth poet­ry col­lec­tion, and Unbe­com­ing (Aque­duct Press, 2020), her first nov­el. Her essay col­lec­tion Poetry’s Pos­si­ble Worlds will appear this win­ter from Tin­der­box Edi­tions. Her poems and essays appear in Keny­on Review, Eco­tone, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, and else­where. She is Poet­ry Edi­tor of Shenan­doah.

The Value of a PhD?

Criticism / Susanna Compton Underland


:: The Value of a PhD? ::

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,” Hawthorne artic­u­lates 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.

Works Cit­ed

Bar­tram, Erin. “The Sub­li­mat­ed Grief of the Left Behind.” Erin Bar­tram: Doomed to Dis­trac­tion, 11 Feb. 2018,  

Bes­sette, Lee Skallerup. “Adjuncts, Staff, and Sol­i­dar­i­ty.” Pro­fes­sion, Fall 2018,  

Grae­ber, David. “Are You in a BS Job? In Acad­eme, You’re Hard­ly Alone.” The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, 6 May 2018,  

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scar­let Let­ter and Oth­er Writ­ings. Ed. Leland S. Per­son. W. W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny, 2017. 

John­son Jr., Michael. “Death by a Thou­sand Cuts.” Inside High­er Ed, 1 Nov. 2019,  

Rosen­berg, Bri­an. “Are You in a ‘BS’ Job? Thank You for Your Work. No, Real­ly.” The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, 29 May 2018,  

Schu­man, Rebec­ca. “The­sis Hate­ment.” Slate, 5 Apr. 2013,  

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

Criticism / McKinley E. Melton

:: “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 offi­cial trail­er

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 sug­gests that 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, Sil­ver Screen: 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.

Works Cit­ed

Alleyne, Lau­ren. Per­son­al Inter­view. 21 August 2019.

Ben­nett, Ani­ta. “‘When They See Us’ Watched By More Than 23 Mil­lion Net­flix Accounts World­wide.” Dead­line, 25 June 2019,

Cobb, Jas­mine N. Pic­ture Free­dom: Remak­ing Black Visu­al­i­ty in the Ear­ly Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry. NYU Press, 2015.

DuVer­nay, Ava, and Brad­ford Young. “Black Lives, Sil­ver Screen: Ava DuVer­nay and Brad­ford Young in Con­ver­sa­tion.” Aper­ture, No. 223, Sum­mer 2016, 34–41.

Har­ris, Ida. “Watch­ing When They See Us Is an Act of Social Jus­tice.” Black Enter­prise, 20 June 2019,

Hart­man, Saidiya. Scenes of Sub­jec­tion: Ter­ror, Slav­ery, and Self-Mak­ing in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Oxford UP, 1997.

Ifeanyi, KC. “Opt­ing Out of Black Trau­ma: Why I Couldn’t Fin­ish When They See Us.” Fast Com­pa­ny, 31 May 2019,

Lekach, Sasha. “Cri­sis Coun­selors Were on Set for ‘When They See Us’ Cast and Crew.” Mash­able, 1 June 2019,

Net­flix. “When They See Us | Offi­cial Trail­er [HD] | Net­flix.” YouTube, 19 April 2019,

Par­mar, Sandeep. “Inter­view with Danez Smith.” The White Review, No. 22, June 2018,

Poet Gabriel Ramirez.” Neon Enter­tain­ment Book­ing Agency Cor­po­rate Col­lege Enter­tain­ment,

Ramirez, Gabriel. “About.” Gabriel Ramirez,

—. “Black Boy Audi­tions For His Own Funer­al.’” YouTube, uploaded by But­ton Poet­ry, 3 July 2019,

Rudolf, Cedric. “Inter­view with Danez Smith.” The Fourth Riv­er, 31 Oct. 2017,

Sayej, Nad­ja. “From ‘Claws’ to ‘When They See Us,’ Niecy Nash Won’t Stay in Her Lane.” Shon­da­land, 31 May 2019,  

Smith, Danez. Black Movie. But­ton Poet­ry, 2015.

—. “Dinosaurs in the Hood.’” YouTube, uploaded by But­ton Poet­ry, 4 August. 2015,

Speak­er, Mary Austin. “Black Movie.” Rain Taxi, 14 Sept. 2016,

Stew­art, Jacque­line N. Migrat­ing to the Movies: Cin­e­ma and Black Urban Moder­ni­ty. U of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2005.

Strause, Jack­ie. “Ava DuVernay’s ‘Cen­tral Park Five’ Net­flix Lim­it­ed Series Gets New Title, Pre­miere Date.” The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, 1 March 2019,

Ulen, Eisa Nefer­tari. “Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Watch ‘When They See Us.’” Truthout, 12 June 2019,

Warfield, Zeno­bia Jef­fries. “‘When They See Us’ Is Trig­ger­ing. That’s Why You Should Watch It.” YES! Mag­a­zine, 5 June 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.

The End of College?

Criticism / Molly K. Robey

:: The End of College? ::

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).


Works Cit­ed

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.

Elli­son, Ralph. Invis­i­ble Man. Vin­tage Inter­na­tion­al, 1980.

Evans, Danielle. “Boys Go to Jupiter,” Sewa­nee Review, Fall 2017, 639–661,

Find­eisen, Christo­pher. “‘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, 67–91.

Fitzger­ald, F. Scott. This Side of Par­adise. Scrib­n­er, 1920.

Fos­ter, Travis M. “Cam­pus Nov­els and the Nation of Peers,” Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary His­to­ry, 26.3, Fall 2014, 462–483.

Gay, Rox­ane, ed. The Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries 2018. Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 2018.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Fan­shawe. Wild­side Press, 2003.

Hop­kins, Pauline. Of One Blood; Or, the Hid­den Self. Wash­ing­ton Square Press, 2004.

John­son, Owen. Stover at Yale. Fred­er­ick A. Stokes, 1912.

Larsen, Nel­la. Quick­sand. Mar­ti­no Pub­lish­ing, 2011.

Mar­chalo­nis, Shirley. Col­lege Girls: A Cen­tu­ry in Fic­tion. Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995.

Phelps, Eliz­a­beth Stu­art. Don­ald Mar­cy. Houghton, Mif­flin and Com­pa­ny, 1983, 64.

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,


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.

Do the Math and Delight

Criticism / Michelle Sizemore

:: Do the Math and Delight ::

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 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. [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.

In ancient Chi­na, for instance, these 3x3 squares, called the 9–5‑1, 4–9‑2, and so on. Peo­ple regard­ed these matri­ces as super­nat­ur­al because they rep­re­sent­ed the uni­verse in micro­cosm: nine squares con­veyed the Nine Divi­sions of Heav­en, the Nine Con­ti­nents, the Nine Ter­ri­to­ries, the Nine Divi­sions of the Mid­dle King­dom. The Lo Shu, more­over, was a pro­found expres­sion of equi­lib­ri­um The eight even and odd num­bers rep­re­sent­ing yin and yang are held in bal­ance around the axi­al cen­ter (the num­ber 5). Thus the Lo Shu square could effec­tive­ly sym­bol­ize the world in bal­anced har­mo­ny around a pow­er­ful cen­tral axis. [xix]

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 , 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 (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.

Cohen, Bernard. Ben­jamin Franklin’s Sci­ence. Cam­bridge: Har­vard Univ. Press, 1990.

Chu, Seo-Young Jen­nie. “Dick­in­son and Math­e­mat­ics,” The Emi­ly Dick­in­son Jour­nal 15.1 (2006), 35–55.

Del­bour­go, James. A Most Amaz­ing Scene of Won­ders: Elec­tric­i­ty and Enlight­en­ment in Ear­ly Amer­i­ca. Cam­bridge: Har­vard Univ. Press, 2006.

Ein­stein, Albert. “The Late Emmy Noe­ther: Pro­fes­sor Ein­stein Writes in Appre­ci­a­tion of a Fel­low-Math­e­mati­cian,” The New York Times (4 May 1935), 12. Print.

Franklin, Ben­jamin. Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Ben­jamin Franklin. 1791 ed. New York: Wal­ter J. Black, Inc., 1941.

Franklin, Ben­jamin. Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions in Elec­tric­i­ty, 4th ed. Lon­don: David Hen­ry, 1769. Google Books. Accessed May 20, 2018.

Fuji­wara, Masahiko. “Lit­er­a­ture and Math­e­mat­ics,” Asymp­tote (Jan­u­ary 2011). Accessed May 20, 2018.

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 Size­more is 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

Criticism / Douglas S. Ishii

:: 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.


Works Cit­ed

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.

Doty, Alexan­der. “Mod­ern Fam­i­ly, Glee, and the Lim­its of Tele­vi­sion Lib­er­al­ism.” Flow, 24 Sep­tem­ber 2010,

Fer­nan­dez, Maria Ele­na. “The Mindy Project Cast on the Series Finale: ‘Mindy Gets What She Needs, But Not What She Wants.” Vul­ture: Devour­ing Cul­ture, 13 Novem­ber 2017,

Jun, Helen Her­an. Race for Cit­i­zen­ship: Black Ori­en­tal­ism and Asian Uplift from Pre-Eman­ci­pa­tion to Neolib­er­al Amer­i­ca. New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011.

Jung, E. Alex. “Mindy Kaling Is Not Your Pio­neer.” Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca, 11 Jan­u­ary 2015,

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.

Rao, Malli­ka. “The Lega­cy of Both Mindys on The Mindy Project.” Vul­ture: Devour­ing Cul­ture, 19 Novem­ber 2017,

Rodríguez, Jua­na María. Sex­u­al Futures, Queer Ges­tures, and Oth­er Lati­na Long­ings. New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014.

Rubin, Joan Shel­ley. The Mak­ing of Mid­dle­brow Cul­ture. Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 1992.

Savran, David. A Queer Sort of Mate­ri­al­ism: Recon­tex­tu­al­iz­ing Amer­i­can The­ater. Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Press, 2003.

Stew­art, Dodai. “Mindy Kaling Only Makes Out With White Guys on The Mindy Project.” Jezebel, 14 May 2013,

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 Stud­iesGlob­al 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

Criticism / Mai-Linh K. Hong

:: 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 DO NOT BLAME YOU FOR THE WAR.”

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.

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.


Works Cit­ed

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.

Kan­tor, Jodi. “Warm Wel­come for Syr­i­ans in a Coun­try About to Ban Them.” New York Times, 28 Jan­u­ary 2017.

lê thi diem thúy. The Gang­ster We Are All Look­ing For. Knopf, 2003.

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. The Gift of Free­dom: War, Debt, and Oth­er Refugee Pas­sages. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “The Hid­den Scars All Refugees Car­ry.” New York Times, 2 Sep­tem­ber 2016.

Parekh, Ser­e­na. Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Dis­place­ment. Rout­ledge, 2017.

Unit­ed States, Depart­ment of State. “Refugee Admis­sions by Region: Fis­cal Year 1975 through 31-Aug-2017.” Refugee Pro­cess­ing Cen­ter, 2017.

Scalet­taris, Guil­ia. “Refugee Stud­ies and the Inter­na­tion­al Refugee Regime: A Reflec­tion on a Desir­able Sep­a­ra­tion.” Refugee Sur­vey Quar­ter­ly, vol. 26, no. 3, 2007, pp. 36–50.

Schlund-Vials, Cathy J. War, Geno­cide, Jus­tice: Cam­bo­di­an-Amer­i­can Mem­o­ry Work. Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2012.

Shear, Michael D. and Ron Nixon. “Trump’s Trav­el Ban to Be Replaced by Restric­tions Tai­lored to Cer­tain Coun­tries.” New York Times, 22 Sep­tem­ber 2017.

Sturken, Mari­ta. Tan­gled Mem­o­ries: The Viet­nam War, The AIDS Epi­dem­ic, and the Pol­i­tics of Remem­ber­ing. Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1997.

Tang, Eric. Unset­tled: Cam­bo­di­an Refugees in the NYC Hyper­ghet­to. Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015.

Tuitt, Patri­cia. False Images: The Law’s Con­struc­tion of the Refugee. Plu­to Press, 1996.

Fig­ures at a Glance.” Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, 19 June 2017.

Con­ven­tion and Pro­to­col Relat­ing to the Sta­tus of Refugees. Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, 2010, pp. 14.



Mai-Linh K. Hong is 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

Criticism / Eric Weiskott

:: History in the Future Tense ::

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.

[v] Geof­frey of Mon­mouth, ed. Reeve, §117.

[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.

[xiii] Stephen Green­blatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Mod­ern (W. W. Nor­ton, 2011). See fur­ther Lau­ra Saetveit Miles, “Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve Racked Up Prizes – and Com­plete­ly Mis­led You about the Mid­dle Ages,” Vox 20 July 2016.

[xiv] See “A New Addi­tion to Mar­tin Luther King’s Lega­cy,” NPR 15 Jan­u­ary 2007.

[xv] See “I’ve Been to the Moun­tain­top,” The King Cen­ter.‑0#.

[xvi] “The Inau­gur­al Address,” 20 Jan­u­ary 2017.



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.

Steven­son, Joseph, ed. Scalacron­i­ca. Mait­land Club, 1836.

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.

Against Feeling Dumb

Criticism / Jen Hedler Phillis

:: Against Feeling Dumb ::

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 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?


[i] Calvin Bedi­ent, “Against Con­cep­tu­al­ism: Defend­ing the Poet­ry of Affect,” Boston Review, July 24, 2013,

[ii] Ken­neth Gold­smith, “Being Dumb,” The Awl, July 23, 2013,

[iii] “Against Conceptualism.”

[iv] Bedi­ent traces the divi­sion between con­cep­tu­al­ism and the poet­ry of affect to the end of the 1960s, when those “uncre­ative heads effec­tive­ly shook off the body.”

[v] “Being Dumb.”

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Leslie Katz, “Artist wants to print out entire Inter­net to hon­or Aaron Swartz,” C‑Net, June 6, 2013,–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.