Appreciating Space: “Minecraft” and Empowerment

For the last two summers, I’ve worked as an instructor for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Kid College program, which is basically a mix between a summer camp and course series about technology for kids aged 9-14. Most of the classes I taught were about game design, and the most popular courses by far were the ones about Minecraft. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, it might be described as an infinitely large, semi-randomly-generated world made up of multiple types of blocks that players can use to build structures, craft items, and fight off monsters. I tended to describe it to parents or adults as “digital Legos with fighting and exploration mixed in.” (Avid players might say it is a bit more complicated than that, but let’s work with that for now.)

In the course of teaching, I have occasionally had parents voice the concern that their child has been “spending too much time on Minecraft” and ask me for some advice on how to change that. Now, those sort of parental decisions are above my paygrade at this point in my life, and how one ought to approach limitations on computer activity depends too much on parenting styles and a child’s personality for me to say anything useful in that regard. But the way they phrased the question points to a bit of a misunderstanding of what the game really is: kids are not on Minecraft, they are in Minecraft.


Like many contemporary games, Minecraft is as much of a space as it is a system of rules. Each time they make a new world, players are dropped into the middle of a sprawling landscape which is constantly generated based on a set of algorithms (an operation known as procedural generation, in game terms). Grasslands and deserts, mountains and jungles, cave systems and mushroom-filled islands, even villages and abandoned temples have a chance of appearing every time a player reaches the edge of the known map. And this process never ends: the world only gets bigger and bigger as the player explores. With no mini-map to aid them initially, players are forced to make meaning out of the environment – taking note of landmarks, following the curve of riverbeds, getting to higher ground – as they seek out shelter before nightfall.

Besides being infinitely vast, the worlds of Minecraft are also infinitely transformable. Players can harvest, collect, or mine just about every type of block in the game and use them for their own creations, whether that’s smelting iron to make a sword or placing wooden planks down for the walls of a house. In this way, players are constantly leaving their mark on the environment and making it their own. Every hastily-made shelter, every empty mine shaft, every scar in the mountain or crater in the earth becomes imbued with meaning as sites of the player’s failures and accomplishments. But these structures and stories do not remain confined to the game world: they are shared by players across every medium available to them, whether through screenshots, videos, or merely word of mouth. Every voxel has a ballad, and every player becomes a bard, expanding the space of the virtual world even further into the material one.

Minecraft 4.png

That may have gone a bit too far into the poetic, but there is a sort of magic to a game space that (for many people) doesn’t make the transition to the real world. This is especially true for kids in my hometown of Anchorage, a city which has long winters, not insignificant criminal and animal dangers, and long distances between destinations – not to mention the general lack of a safe “third place” for youth to gather and play of their own accord. Yet Minecraft is a place that is infinitely traversable, a place children can exercise their agency and reveal their intelligence, a place that they can make their own without the help of adults and where they can play with their friends on top of it all. Is it any wonder why this is the place kids decide to spend their days?

I understand the danger in gaming compulsion – it is very addicting to find such a place of empowerment. I also understand the necessity of getting outside – you can’t grow up in Alaska without getting at least some taste of that lesson! – but there is so much more to Minecraft and similar games than sitting in front of a TV or killing time with YouTube videos. The only way to truly understand that fact is to take the game for what it is: a place of empowerment as well as play.

Minecraft 5.pngMy reaction to the parents who are skeptical about the value of games or who think their child is playing too much is to first ask them much they know about Minecraft. Some have watched their children play the game or even have an account themselves, but more often than not they have only heard their child speak about it ad nauseum while having very little familiarity beyond the confusing jumble of jargon and technical language that is frankly hard to keep straight unless you have seen it in action.

And that is exactly my piece of advice to these parents: let your child show you their space. Treat the experience as if you were a tourist trying to get an understanding of a different country. Ask questions, try out the language, pick up the controls and let your guide coach you if need be, but give them a chance to show you what this virtual space means to them. Only after understanding what it means to exist in this space can you truly understand what it would mean for them to lose it. Perhaps you can show them what they love about the space can be found elsewhere as well.


The same advice can really be said of almost any game and almost any social relationship: if you want to know someone’s feelings, let them show you the places they like to go. In the spirit of that mindset, I want to show you a place I like to go when things are not particularly bright. But that is a task for next week.

John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.


Exploring Space: A Walk among the Gravestones


I suppose it speaks to my interest in the virtual that I wrote a whole post about spatiality last week without moving an inch. On the surface, that doesn’t seem quite in line with the so-called “spatial turn” I mentioned in my last post: the trend in humanities scholarship towards the importance of place and space to ideas and power. Then again, many of the concepts we associate with the spatial – the panoptic nature of surveillance, the power of the wanderer versus a top-down view of the world, the distinction between geographic space and humanized place, that sort of thing – were probably for the most part mulled over in armchairs, in the mindscape of the scholar. I wonder how much all things are born from the virtual…

I was probably thinking something along those lines as my phone announced it was beginning to die. Yanked out of my own head for the time being, I found myself back in Oakwood Cemetery, on the steps of a mausoleum, with a tattered American flag in my hands. It wasn’t often I strayed off the path during my runs – my feet followed a 5k race route whose markers faded long ago – but since I found myself in a wandering mood, I decided to do some exploring.


Founded in 1859, Oakwood Cemetery lies about a block away from Syracuse University in what used to be the outskirts of town. The graveyard is sprawling; at 160 acres, Oakwood plays host to over 60,000 individuals and counting. Between the oaks, monuments, and mausoleums plotted along the rolling hills wind approximately 10 kilometers worth of trails (some paved, others dirt) shared by visitors and mourners alike. It is very easy to get lost among the stones, as I soon found out.

You never really understand just how odd a graveyard is until you try to walk among its stones. The place is full of conflicting messages. The architectural features of so many grave markers beckon visitors closer, whether than be because of interesting architectural features, places to sit, or just tiny print. Or all three, in the case of this massive monument:


This makes sense, of course – graveyards, like funerals, are for the living. We are encouraged to visit the resting places of our loved ones to mourn or to give gifts or simply to talk. In Western culture, at least, these acts help to create an aura of reverence around those who have passed on, sanctifying the ground under which their remains are buried. Much like the concept of nationhood, this layers a virtual space upon material reality, giving what were stones and dust the weight of the secret and the sacred.

This makes things incredibly hard to navigate when you have something like this blocking your path:



For the superstitious or the particularly pious, a graveyard is a nightmare to navigate. Perhaps the dead do not mind people stomping all over their resting places. There is, after all, six feet of earth and a coffin to insulate them from the tremors of the world above. But once I knew there was someone beloved under there, I created a virtual barrier of reverence in my mind. Such a thing is hard to unsee.


Another odd thing about graveyards is their aesthetic of incompleteness. All around Oakwood were stairs that led to nowhere, pillars holding nothing up, archways huddled over aborted paths, locked iron doors without working handles, and yards and yards of unused space. Even some of the gravestones themselves like stray slabs from unfinished foundations, especially those that have been overgrown or worn down with age. All of this lends cemeteries the same uncanny air a ruin might have, hinting at some former glory that now goes unremembered.


Oakwood in particular also has more mausoleums than I’ve ever seen in a graveyard, and these fascinate me most. They sit in the muddled middle between monument and place, having all the fixings of shelter but (for the most part) being eternally locked to anyone who would want to enter. Whereas headstones seem to jut into the physical space of the living, the barred doors of these larger structures create a clear barrier between the living and the dead. Gravestones can be touched, stroked, grasped as if they were virtual stand-ins for the one interred; the remains within mausoleums, it seems, can only be peered at through barred or broken windows.

How does one mourn at a mausoleum? Must it be opened to bridge the void between the living and deceased, or does the distance not matter? And what does it mean to sit on the steps while pondering these questions only to find you are standing on an actual welcome mat?


(Seriously, why is there a welcome mat?)

Graveyards are odd places, to be sure, but they are also very human (perhaps I repeat myself). The burial of the dead is one of those cultural touchstones that seem as ancient as they are ubiquitous, and are perhaps the oldest constructed spaces known to humankind. As easy as it is for some of us to put them out of mind in day-to-day life, it is important to remember that these “Cities of the Dead” (as one old flyer for Oakwood proclaims) are built for the living. This not only means that we are obliged to respect and protect them – burial grounds are frequently neglected, littered, or (all too frequently) bulldozed – but that we ought to find time to visit them in order to look into ourselves. We will all end up like those buried beneath, after all, and I find graveyards are one of the few urban places that are quiet and empty enough to allow for self-reflection.

So, what I’m saying is go visit a graveyard. Turn off your phone and take an hour to meander the grounds, read the epitaphs, pick up any litter that’s blown in. Take a look at what there is to see before it gets too cold. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find there is life among the stones.


John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.


Imagining Space: America the Virtual

I went on a run today—something I mean to do more often than I actually do, it seems—and my feet took me down a familiar route to Oakwood Cemetery. On my way down the looping paths, I saw a crumpled piece of red and white fabric on the side of the trail. It was a tiny, tattered American flag, the type mourners like to put by the gravestones of loved ones who have served.

I stopped and picked it up, turning the torn, cheap fabric in my hands over and over again. The object struck a strange chord with me, and I ended up sitting on the steps of a mausoleum and just staring at it until my phone battery drained down to 10%. The entire time, I didn’t notice a single person walk by.

A lot was going through my head then, and still more is going through it now. It got me thinking about space, place, and what it means to be home—“affective spatiality”, as one might translate the thought into an academic paper. The idea might loosely be defined as how spaces tell stories, convey emotion, and allow for meaningful interactions within them regardless of whether they are material or virtual. As such, these posts could conveniently be swept up in the dizzying amounts of ongoing “turns” within humanities discourse—the spatial turn, the affective turn, the turn towards digital technologies—all of which will be explained in good time. But right now, I’m not interested in the vertigo that can come from navigating the shifting sands of academic trends. Right now, I’m interested in a flag.

I am not the type who usually wears patriotism on my sleeve, but I’ve only ever identified as an American. Branches of my family have been here since at least the Civil War, sluffing off our Anglo-European identities somewhere during our trek across the Midwest. Myself, I grew up in the suburbs of Eagle River, Alaska, a conservative state with a relatively high proportion of national parks and military bases scattered across its landscape. Perhaps it was these facts that fueled my reaction to the flag on the ground. There is something tragic about it. Forget the fact that this particular flag was a one of a million identical facsimiles, the fact it was probably mechanically mass-produced overseas; forget the fact that the Stars and Stripes have been emblazoned on everything from party trays to boxer shorts—that flag stands for a place I have called my home, and it didn’t feel right to see it dusty and torn.


But what kind of place is America? In one sense it is very material, as tangible as the dirt caking the edges of that flag. Haven’t we taken pride in those “amber waves of grain”, those “purple mountain majesties” that adorn our anthems and postcards?  Don’t we take a similar pride in our great cities—Chicago, New York, Boston, LA—those behemoths that have been raised out of the earth by paid and unpaid labor in order to feed and clothe and house the human form? And yet, to see only the material was to see the object before me as cheap fabric and inexpensive dyes. From Florida to Alaska, from Puerto Rico to Guam, “America” is a name we give to acres and acres of material things which in and of themselves have no concept of ownership at all, despite our insistence to the contrary.

No, the America I am more interested in (both as a bumbling pop-culture/new media scholar and bumbling human being) is the immaterial “placeness” of America, the virtual America. In one sense, “virtual” means constructed and mediated. The South, the Midwest, the Northeast, the West Coast, Red States and Blue States, even the concept of States all together—America is a patchwork of these virtual places, each of which carries meanings and connotations that go beyond the geographic and into the human. Our identities are formed by these arbitrary distinctions, whether they are made by us or for us, and through us they are given actual, material form. That is why it bothers me to see a discarded flag; interwoven with those cheap threads are the virtual expressions of nationhood, and a tear in one seems to suggest a tear in the other.

John Map.jpg

But there is also an older sense of the virtual in which I am interested. As new media theorist Marie-Laure Ryan describes the concept in her book Narrative as Virtual Reality 2, “the virtual is not that which is deprived of existence but that which possesses the potential, or force, of developing into actual existence” (18). The virtual is the oak that lies dormant within the acorn; in other words, the virtual is about what could be rather than what is, the openness of multiple futures rather than the closed conception of one truth.

When I look around at Black Lives Matter Protesters and police officers, First Peoples and ambitious industrialists, ideologues from both sides of the aisle and the spaces in between, I see people who have put their faith into their own virtual America, an America not yet (nor ever) complete, but one moving ever closer to new potentialities. That is, to me, the core of American optimism.

Does that make us unique? No, or at least I’m not qualified to say. But I think that does make us American.

To be clear, I do not agree with all of these visions or the ones who try to weave them into our flag—my virtual America is one that will fight to keep particularly hateful virtualities from ever becoming actual—but I know that all of these people are my People. I cannot see them as otherwise. Regardless of how they constructed their virtual America—whether on an idealized version of a forgotten past or new understandings of the principles on which this nation was founded—they are all still fighting for a vision of the same material land on which we stand. As for me, my virtual United States depends upon a state of unity, at least on a human level of civility. That is the place and people that come to mind whenever I see a flag, no matter how superficial or gale-torn it may be.

John Collage.jpg

John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.


“Isn’t That All in the Past?”: History and the Privilege of Cultural Amnesia

As I’ve been stressing throughout this month’s series of posts, privilege works in a number of pernicious and insidious ways in our everyday lives. Much as we might collectively like to believe that it doesn’t exist, it is only by dragging it kicking and screaming into the piercing light of day and scholarly/critical inquiry that we can begin to undo the pernicious ways in which it renders itself invisible. Indeed, it is precisely through rendering it visible that we can both deconstruct privilege and the systematic inequalities that it renders possible.

This week, I want to talk about the ways in which history can also be a locus of different types of privilege. Though this might appear counterintuitive to some (how can history be a site of privilege?), I would argue that history is always saturated with various types of privilege and raises significant questions about the function that history serves and in whose interests it is often purveyed. For example, who has the privilege of having a history in the first place? On the flip side, who has the privilege of forgetting (or at least selectively choosing) moments of historical importance?

This has become a particularly pressing question in light of the recent attention being paid to the long history of police violence and brutality against people of color, as well as the deeper, far more insidious racist histories of which said violence is but the most recent manifestation. The protests of Colin Kaepernick and others expose these histories, forcing all Americans to take a piercing look at the ways in which racism and the exploitation of bodies of color has structured and undergirded the entire expanse of American history.

Those who strenuously condemn Kaepernick continue to insist that those who are protesting lack an awareness or a proper appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who have served. Embedded within this criticism is an assumption that somehow those who kneel for the National Anthem are either ignorant or dismissive of a history that should make them proud and willing to uncritically accept American society as it is, rather than dare to raise the specter of criticism.

Naturally, those who make those claims conveniently overlook and ignore the deep roots that make systemic racism and exploitation possible  Just as importantly, these also critiques also overlook the fact that, as Jason Johnson has observed, the song in question (unsurprisingly) contains racist lyrics (that are, it has to be said, frequently not sung during performances). History, in this instance, troubles the very stability that it purportedly supports.

All of which leads me to ask again:  who has the privilege of ignoring history? Who has the ability to pretend that somehow the unpleasant realities of the past several hundred years have not taken place? Who benefits from the ability to pretend that the past is safely buried and has no bearing on the present and the structures that currently impact the daily lives of people everywhere? Who gets to pretend, who is able to pretend, that we somehow live in a perpetual present?

The easy answer, of course, is those who benefit the most from forgetting about the past so that they can go on about their everyday lives as if they do not and have never participated in the racist legacies that remain baked into the collective social, cultural, legal, and political DNA of the United States of America. For them, this colossal act of forgetting is in some sense necessary in order for them to continue going on about their daily lives. Confronting these realities in any meaningful way would, in most cases, simply be too painful, too complex (or so the argument goes) to be adequately addressed.

It is much harder for those who continue to live with the legacies of slavery and genocide that have so profoundly influenced America’s sense of itself to ignore those histories or to pretend that they don’t exist. America’s institutions, its structures, its ways of being are so reliant upon and indebted to a racist and colonialist past that it is hard to imagine an America without them. It is this vast, almost incomprehensible scope and depth that, I suspect, lead to inability of many to even begin to acknowledge, let alone accept, their complicity and their benefit from these histories.

Thus, when I ask my friends and family back home in Appalachia (West Virginia, in particular), about how they think about race and the fact that so many people of color remain systematically cut out of the benefits that American life seemingly offers all of its citizens, they really struggle to understand how the actions and structures of the past continue to exert a smothering pressure on the present. For them, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to think outside of the twinned epistemologies of presentism and individualism that structure their way of understanding and being in the world. For them, they cannot understand how it is that their present position near the bottom of the economic latter constitutes a privilege, nor can they see beyond the fact that their ancestors did not own slaves.

If, as I have repeatedly asserted throughout this month, we are truly invested in making the world a better, more just place for all of its citizens, we must continue to press against and challenge this kind of inherently privileged thinking. We have to recognize and come to terms with the conflicted and painful histories of which we are a part. Continuing to turn a blind eye to the injustices of history and pretending that it hasn’t happened is itself a form of violence, a violence all the more pernicious in that it masks itself as innocence rather than complicity.

As Vann R. Newkirk II remarks in The Atlantic, the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC offers a rare opportunity for America as a whole to meaningfully contend with the painful legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the other aspects of American history that have proven so intractable in our attempts to make sense of contemporary race relations. While I agree that there is something deeply and powerfully symbolic about erecting a museum devoted to African American history in a city founded upon and built by slave labor, I also think that it will take a great deal more on the part of each and every American citizen to make progress.

It will require frank and uncomfortable conversations within and among our various communities, both in person and in digital spaces. It will require frank and unambiguous acknowledgment and acceptance of the darker parts of history. Going to a museum devoted to the experiences of people of color is definitely an important first step, but it must be followed by an actual change in the way(s) that we collectively think about our past. It will require actual changes in our everyday lived experience and ways of being in the world, actual changes in what we think and how we do it.

I see these posts as one part of the larger cultural conversation. Hopefully, they will resonate with those who, like myself, desire to make the world a better, more just, more peaceful place for everyone.


“Of Course You Know…”: Deconstructing the Privilege of Knowledge

Some time ago, a colleague of mine was leading discussion in class, and he offhandedly remarked that, of course, we all knew that Aristotle had spoken of the same issue we were discussing in his Nichomachean Ethics. The way in which he made the utterance made it clear that, if we did not, in fact, know this reference, we were somehow lacking, that we had clearly missed out on some key part of being a truly educated person and that, equally clearly, graduate students in an English department should certainly be conversant with these sorts of (seemingly offhand) references.

Now, as a Classics major in undergrad, I was passingly familiar with Aristotle’s works (though I will admit that I had not read Nichomachean Ethics in approximately 10 years, so obviously my recollection of it would have been rusty to say the least). However, even I felt that this was somehow a thinly-veiled attack on those in the classroom who, for whatever combination of socio-economic and educational reasons, might not have had access to that same store of shared knowledge that my colleague was referencing. Whether or not the attack was malicious is impossible to say, but there was no question that there were many in the classroom who felt alienated by this comment–and, just as importantly, by its delivery–and that a valuable moment of shared learning was therefore compromised.

What distressed me the most, however, was how built into that moment of not-so-subtle shaming was a profound sort of privilege of which my colleague seemed to be utterly unaware. It no doubt never occurred to him that some of us may have come from high schools or undergraduate institutions that did not place such an emphasis on the Western canon, or that emphasized other important works of western philosophy that were not dominated by dead white men. So embedded was my colleague in both his class and knowledge privilege that any alternative to his ways of knowing seemed to exist beyond the pale of acceptability.

Nor is this sort of privileged posturing and knowledge shaming limited to graduate students (who, it must be said, often face their own challenge. The pressure to perform one’s expertise is particularly acute in the graduate classroom). I have, on numerous occasions, heard faculty from departments from various universities and departments dismiss the level of “basic knowledge” that today’s undergraduate students possess, implying that they have somehow fallen down on the job in terms of preparing themselves for their college education. This is not to say that the faculty actually think this, mind you, only that it is often heavily implied in the way in which these critiques of students are delivered.

This is not to say that there aren’t real deficiencies in the preparation that many high school students undergo as they prepare for their academic futures in college. What troubles me is the implication that somehow the students are to blame and, relatedly, that our privilege as learners and knowers is somehow natural and that this renders us somehow superior to the students we teach. Rather than attempting to understand the unique perspectives that students bring to the classroom–including and especially their socioeconomic status–these assumptions presume that there is a standard to which everyone should be held, regardless of their background.Periodically, I will catch myself making assumptions about the body of knowledge that my students bring into the classroom. I have become so entrenched in the world of academia–in particular, I have become accustomed to being around my graduate school colleagues in a private, well-funded institution–that it sometimes doesn’t occur to me that not everyone has had the same privilege that I do. When I lose track of that privilege, when I assume that my students have a knowledge and then shame then when they don’t, I lose a valuable sharing opportunity.

As a result, I have begun making a conscious effort to meet my students where they are and to help them access and share the same love of knowledge and learning that I have always possessed. I encourage them to ask me if they do not understand something or if I make a reference (or even a word) that they do not grasp, because only by doing so can I ensure that we are all learning and engaging with knowledge together. Rather than ensconcing myself in my privilege, I actively work to deconstruct it.

This more nuanced understanding of socio-economic and knowledge privilege allows me, I believe, to be a more compassionate and effective educator. I can use my knowledge, accrued and developed through years of undergraduate and graduate training, to meet students on their own terms and show them new ways of thinking and engaging, even as they also educate me. Rather than viewing their lack of knowledge as a problem to be corrected, I see it instead as an opportunity.

And that, I think, benefits both myself and my students.



“Thank You, Officer:” The Everyday Privilege of Whiteness

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me when I first became aware of my white privilege. Caught somewhat off-balance by the question, I answered that I would need to give it some thought in order to respond to this inquiry with the complexity and deliberation that it deserved. However, try as I might, I could not for the life of me think of a single, particular moment in which I became aware of my white privilege.

What I found most disconcerting about this exchange was the fact that I could not actually think of a singular incident that produced an enhanced awareness.  For an academic who remains committed to political and social justice, this was a startling realization, and I spent many an hour scouring my memory for that elusive moment that I could point to where this consciousness first became viscerally present to me.

Well, as it happened, a few nights later I was pulled over due to turning right on red (when there was a sign forbidding it) and making an illegal U-Turn. I fully expected that the combination of two traffic violations, in addition to the fact that it was 1:30 in the morning, would almost certainly lead to me getting a rather expensive ticket. To my great surprise, however, the cop waved me through without even giving me so much as a written warning. I went on my way, none the worse for the experience.

Now, of course there wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary about this traffic violation. What was extraordinary, at least to me in hindsight, was how much privilege explained the dynamics of this situation and my feelings during it. I could not help thinking:  what if instead of a fairly nondescript white guy I had been a young man of color? Would I have been given such a cursory pass? Would I have even made it out of this encounter alive? I was and am haunted by these questions, precisely because recent events have shown us in no uncertain terms the way(s) in which the legal and justice system implicated in systems of oppression.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, you cannot avoid the fact that people of color are exponentially more likely to be murdered by police in the course of routine traffic stops than their white counterparts. Their names are a litany of our collective national shame, and a call to arms for all of those who would like to see this world made safer and more justice for everyone, regardless of skin color:  Sandra Bland was pulled over for failure to signal while changing lanes, was arrested, thrown in jail and ended up dead under mysterious circumstances; Philando Castile was shot in his car while reaching for his identifying information; the list goes on and on.

Even now, weeks later, I am disturbed by the fact that the awareness of my inherent privilege in this incident never even occurred to me until a day later and even then it only happened because my friend had inquired when I became conscious of it. So pervasive was my experience and feeling of privilege that my first response to not getting a ticket was:  “thank goodness I didn’t get an expensive ticket!” rather than “thank goodness I didn’t get shot.” I was not was raised to believe that my life was subject to the whims of a police state intended to continually monitor and discipline bodies that looked like mine. As a young white man, I was never given “the talk” by my parents warning me never to speak back to the police or those in power, to protect myself through silence and docility.

Realizing this was something like a punch in the stomach, one of those deeply unsettling moments when you realize just how much you are embedded in the very systems of oppression and injustice that you have committed your life to ending. (H0w) can one fight against the system from which one stands so much to consciously (and unconsciously) materially benefit?

I can hear some of you asking:  what do we do now with this knowledge that you inhabit a body that has encoded on it certain forms of legal and social privilege? How do we take this kind of self-reflexion and turn it into something politically effective?

Well, for one thing, we should all be more self-aware of the various types of privilege that we occupy and how this affects the way that we live in the world and engage with other bodies in space. By becoming more aware of your own position(s) of privilege, it becomes more possible to view the ways in which other bodies are not granted that kind of power merely by the way that they appear in the world.

For another, we should all be supporting Black Lives Matter. This is one of the most crucial and needed political movements of our era, and when some attempt to mitigate its effectiveness by shouting “All Lives Matter” in response, we need to explain to them why such a gesture effaces the real-life disparities in power, in violence, and in lived experience that black and brown bodies face on a daily basis. We cannot afford to let vital political movements and gestures be drowned out by the power that seeks to silence them.

It’s all too easy to pay lip service to an increased awareness of privilege and how it works in the world. It’s substantially harder, though, to really take a hard look in the mirror and recognize, despite how difficult your life may seem, the systems of privilege that allow you to take certain aspects of life for granted. And it’s even harder to actually begin to change our everyday lived realities in order to effect larger political and social change. However, if we want to make this world a better place, if we truly believe in a future that is better than the present, then recognizing and deconstructing our own privilege is an important, nay a vital, first step.


“Are You Gay?”: Public Space, the Closet, and the Exercise of Privilege

For my month of posts for this blog, I want to talk about privilege and the way in which it operates in everyday interactions and spaces. We all hear people talk about privilege–and in particular about how it operates as part of and within systems of oppression–but rarely do we actually think about how it affects and manifests in our everyday lives. I intend these four posts to jumpstart a continuing dialogue about both identifying privilege and using that knowledge to help undo it.

During a recent outing to a local restaurant, a couple of friends and I were seated at our table finishing our drinks before heading home for the night. While we were sitting there, chatting amiably amongst ourselves, a highly intoxicated young woman sprawled across our table to procure the menu, then asked us to read said menu since she was too drunk to do so.

Now, there wasn’t anything particularly unusual about this incident at first blush. People frequently intrude into other people’s space when they have had a bit too much to drink. It wasn’t even than unusual for her to note that I had an unmistakable look of disgust on my face.

What happened next, however was, as we academics like to say, problematic.

This young woman, whom I had never met, abruptly inquired, “Can I ask you a personal question” (always cringe-inducing), and having procured my assent proceeded to ask, “Are you gay?”

Yes. You read that right. She asked me if I am gay.

To be clear, I have no problem telling people in public spaces that I’m gay. I have no investment in “straightness,” and I certainly do not have a (conscious) investment in traditional hegemonic masculinity nor in a performance of it. In fact, I actually take a lot of pleasure in performing my queerness and will, in most cases, tell people I’m gay within a few minutes of meeting them. For me, proclaiming my sexuality on my own terms can be a profoundly liberating and empowering act. However, that is a choice that make. It is not one that is forced upon me by someone else.

While I was not upset on my own behalf, I couldn’t help thinking about all of the other people who might have been in my position. What if I was someone who wasn’t even close to coming out, or someone who was struggling with their sexuality or, heaven forbid, what if I were just a man who doesn’t perform masculinity in the way expected of straight men? Had I been one of those people, this moment would have been even worse.

If ever there was a time when Eve Sedgwick’s epistemology of the closet–the idea that the closet remains a structure with which all queer people must contend, either implicitly or explicitly, in their daily lives–was made material, this was it. As Sedgwick explains: “every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not.” In other words, every encounter with a new person demands that the queer person decide:  will I tell this person who I truly am? And what will the consequences be? Do I keep this part of my identity secret, or do I live openly?

This exchange also revealed much about the way in which sexuality and gender remain wedded together in the vernacular imagination, since I’m speculating that it was my failure to adequately perform masculinity that prompted her to ask her question. What was it about me, I wonder(ed) that allowed her to read me as gay? Was it my ever-so-slightly “effeminate” affect and behavior? Was it my voice? My mannerisms? Some combination of the above? Some other affect that cannot be quantified but only felt by those that I come into contact with, something that triggers the proverbial “gaydar” in my fellow human beings? I don’t know the answer, and that in itself troubles me.

What’s more, this incident revealed to me, in a shockingly visceral sort of way, how privilege works in everyday life. This person asked me an incredibly invasive question, and without any sort of self-awareness that what she was doing was in any way intrusive. To her, it seemed perfectly natural and acceptable to ask this sort of question, and it probably never even occurred to her, in this Modern Family, post-Obergefell v. Hodges world, that such a question is itself a form of violence. She just assumed that I would be perfectly comfortable answering her question, and that it wasn’t a form of violation to ask me this in a public space (keep in mind that we had never met each other before this evening). To her, it no doubt seems that all gay men (and probably all queer people) feel comfortable confessing their orientations to complete strangers, regardless of the social setting.

Furthermore, it also forced me to consider:  why did I even feel compelled to answer this question? What was it about the power relations that she established with that question that put me in the position where I felt compelled to answer? After all, I could have just told her, in a matter-of-fact way, that it wasn’t any of her business (which it wasn’t). Part of it, of course, stems from my own avowed investment in owning and displaying my queerness, but part of it also stems from the fact that I was expected to be willing to answer that question without feeling put upon or violated. For that matter, so were my friends, who were also asked the same perplexing question, in a similarly nonchalant manner. Her privilege, unassuming as it was, enabled her to ask this question without a trace of chagrin or discomfort.

Some time ago, my brilliant colleague Melissa posted a brilliant piece on this blog about the power of gay male privilege, and what strikes me about my own encounter is how it is the inverse of her experience. Rather than being the recipient of said privilege, I was now being subjected to someone else’s. It was one of those increasingly common moments when I recognized that privilege works in all sorts of ways, not all of them immediately obvious. If we are truly invested in making this world a more just and equitable one for all citizens, we need to start by calling out these moments of privilege for what they are. If I could go back and redo that night, I would have informed her that it was none of her business, reclaiming my agency from her privileged grasp.

But I didn’t, precisely because it never occurred to me to do so.

And that truly disturbs me.

T.J. West III is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English. His dissertation, tentatively titled History’s Perilous Pleasures:  Experiencing Antiquity in Post-War Hollywood Film, explores the historico-biblical epic and the ways in which it attempts to mitigate the terrifying nature of modern history through an appeal to the ancient world. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.


Machiavelli’s “Small Volume”: The Legacy of the Stage Machiavel (29 April 2016)

“Bearing in mind all the matters previously discussed, I ask myself whether the present time is appropriate for welcoming a new ruler in Italy, and whether there is matter that provides an opportunity for a few-seeing and able man to mold it into a form that will bring honour to him and its inhabitants.”


As we’ve been considering the seemingly timeless quality of the figure of the stage Machiavel, it is worth remembering that the archetype is drawn from a series of highly specific moments in history.   The quote at the top of the page reminds us that Machiavelli is writing during a period of intense civil unrest in Italy, following a major foreign invasion and the dissolution of a number of seemingly stable governments and it was written as a gift for a single man—Lorenzo de’ Medici.[1]  Even so, while English audiences found themselves largely disinterested with Machiavelli’s specific appeals to Italian cultural history or his interest in the maintenance of armies and auxiliaries, there was something about the Florentine that caught fire in the cultural imagination of England.  Through stage representations, his political ideas were spread to a population that would have otherwise had little access to them,[2] and the staging tropes that helped to disseminate a basic overview of Machiavellian thought have remained with us ever since.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at popular representations of Machiavellian politics with an eye turned towards the ways in which contemporary audiences share the same fascination with Machiavelli that defined early modern representations.  For the last 400 years, Anglophonic audiences have been fascinated by attempts to understand Machiavelli’s political beliefs, and I have only touched upon a small sample of the most popular contemporary representations.  The goal here has been less to say anything about Machiavelli’s actual politics than to examine the process by which cultural understandings of those politics end up in our popular fiction.  The stage Machiavel offers an interesting case study for examining the ways in which popular representations of political philosophy can make those theories more accessible and the ways in which those same representations can participate in shaping public discourse concerning those theories.   While printers would eventually receive license to legally print The Prince in England, decades of being represented as a ruthless stage villain certainly colored the reading practices of English audiences.

This in turned has dramatically impacted our cultural perception of virtually everything connected to Machiavelli.  Period fiction set during the early 16th century frequently turns to him as a ready-made villain in the same way that Christopher Marlowe utilized Machiavelli to introduce The Jew of Malta.[3]  He has appeared as a character in texts ranging from Showtime’s The Borgias to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II.

Machaivelli%2c The Borgias

Machiavelli in The Borgias

Just as his name became shorthand for a duplicitous schemer, his person has entered into the stable of stock historical villains.  Just as stage representations of Machiavellianism would brand any act that was remotely morally questionable as Machiavellian, modern pop culture representations label any act of political scheming as inherently connected to Machiavellian thought.  Even though the characters that I examined in the last few weeks of posts frequently display a number of profoundly non-Machiavellian beliefs,[4] the image of the stage Machiavel still informs the way in which we understand those characters.

In closing up my month of blog posts, I hope to have demonstrated the ways in which the tropes of the early modern stage have remained with us throughout the past five centuries.  In the wake of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it becomes worth considering the ways in which it isn’t simply the texts of the early modern theatre that have stuck in our imaginations.  While we certainly imagine Machiavellianism differently than audiences did in the 16th century, many of the same questions and concerns still exist in the fiction that we create.  We may not be interested in the complex history of English kingship that exists in The History of Henry IV part 1, but we do still have an investment in the questions that the play asks about how a ruler should act.  While representations of Machiavellianism are not the only entry point into understanding the continuities that exist between early modern and contemporary practices of representation, the stage Machiavel does provide a fairly clear example of an early modern stage trope that continues to capture our imagination well into the 21st century.

[1] The Prince was not published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death.

[2] The Prince could not be legally published in England during the 16th century and literacy rates were fairly low.

[3] This habit of making Machiavelli a central character in narratives about 16th century Florence dates back to the mid-19th century at the latest, as George Eliot’s Romola features extended cameos by a pre-Prince Machiavelli.

[4] I noted last week that Machiavelli would likely have hated Frank Underwood for being a self-invested conspirator.  Beyond this, Cersei Lannister would likely be chided for her absolute disregard for the opinions of the populace and the fact that so few people actual trust Peytr Baelish suggests that he lacks the fox-like qualities that Machiavelli lauds in his schemers.

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

Privileged Positions: House of Cards and Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian Monologues (22 April 2016)

“Since a ruler, then, must know how to act like a beast, he should imitate both the fox and the lion, for the lion is liable to be trapped, whereas the fox cannot ward off wolves…[b]ut foxiness should be well concealed: one must be a great feigner and dissembler.  And men are so naïve…that a skillful deceiver always finds plenty of people who will let themselves be deceived.”


At the conclusion of Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet, after convincing Hamlet to sail to England, the stage is cleared for Claudius to address the audience.  Though not marked as an aside, Claudius uses these 11 lines to announce that he has sealed letters “conjuring to that effect/The present death of Hamlet” (4.3.62-63).  By this point in the play, audiences have little reason to trust the words of Claudius, but at this moment, he utilizes the empty stage as an opportunity to pull back the curtain of his deception to reveal to the audience the machinations of his plot.  This was a common theatrical device on the early modern stage, in which the soliloquy or the aside would offer characters a chance to directly address the audience.  In this particular example, Claudius drops the façade of the Machiavellian liar to reveal his true intentions.  In doing so, he reveals truths about himself to the audience that he had kept hidden from the rest of the characters within the play, confirming what they already knew—that Claudius could not be trusted.

Turning to modern representations of Machiavellian villains, this is a device employed with frequency by Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards, a political thriller that owes a great deal to the tradition of the stage Machiavel.

House of Cards

Machiavellianism, American style

Frank Underwood, the Democratic House Majority whip, is introduced to audiences as a ruthless pragmatist, directly addressing his audience to explain the principles that guide his philosophy. In this moment of revelation, it is not only important that audiences witness Underwood’s actions, but also that he shows himself capable of pulling back the veil that is assumed to exist between his character and his viewing audience.

Here, he, like Claudius, is revealing truths about himself to which only his audience will have access.  Through the later use of these asides, Underwood is presented as a consummate liar, a man capable of sabotaging the administration in which works from within and he is often heralded as a prime example of a modern Machiavel.[1]  He represents what modern writers understand to be an idealized form of Machiavelli’s Fox-Lion politician, capable of crushing those he feels have wronged him while deceiving the world into believing that he remains loyal to their cause.

Frank Underwood, like Claudius, participates in affirming for audiences what they already believe to be true.  In Hamlet, the moments in which Claudius reveals himself to be a treacherous usurper affirm that which audiences could only speculate upon prior to his confession.  In a similar vein, Underwood’s casual asides become revelatory for audiences, but what they reveal is political rather than personal. These tiny acts of revelation say a great deal about how House of Cards conceptualizes the modern political landscape.  Underwood is able to speak truths to the audience as if he were a kind of omniscient chorus, well versed in the inner workings of Washington politics and able to speak with an authority which other characters lack.  As the Machiavellian fox, capable of lying to and manipulating those around him, Underwood’s monologues seem to remove the veil of calculated dissimulation and therefore come as unfiltered truths about the political system, and in a sense they simply affirm what audiences already believe about the operation of power.  Even though we may know that they are presented through the voice of a liar, by framing them as asides directly to the audience, they are granted a significant measure of authority.  In these brief asides, the figure of the liar takes off his mask, but instead of revealing guilt, he reveals how easily he is able take the reins of the political system to his own advantage.

Similarly, this device places audiences in a privileged position of knowing what other characters do not.  In Hamlet, the titular character is never given the clarity of truth concerning his uncle that audiences receive thanks to the decision to stage Claudius’s confessions as spoken upon an empty stage.  Likewise, none of Underwood’s victims are given the privileged knowledge that we as spectators enjoy thanks to our frequent glimpses into Underwood’s rationale for his actions.   In essence, by revealing his status as a Machiavellian dissimulator, Underwood affirms the value of Machiavellian dissimulation.  By announcing himself as Machiavelli’s fox and granting audiences a privileged glimpse into the rationale of the fox, we affirm the maxim that a man must be like a fox if he is to succeed in the world of politics.  House of Cards, like Game of Thrones, utilizes Machiavellian thought to demonstrate the ruthlessness and dissimulation that these programs believe underscore successful politicking.  While certainly not an affirmation of the political beliefs of its characters, our introduction to Frank Underwood in House of Cards breaks the 4th wall to convince audiences of what they already believed to be true:  Washington politics is a game of deception and ambition where ruthlessness trumps idealism.

[1] It is worth noting that Machiavelli would likely despise men like Frank Underwood.  Much of The Prince is presented as a guidebook for ways in which a ruling prince can avoid being undermined by duplicitous schemers like Underwood.

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

“You win or You Die”: Game of Thrones and Machiavellian Amorality (15 April 2016)

“However, how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it.”


Note:  Spoilers for the first four seasons of Game of Thrones and for Richard III

One of the major reasons that early modern audiences reacted so negatively to Machiavelli’s political philosophy stemmed from the idea that he advocated for amorality in both politics and in life.  Treating politics as a science, Machiavelli urged rulers to focus their attention on preserving themselves and their state, even if this meant doing things that were traditionally understood to be immoral.  This was not an altogether unfair reading, as Machiavelli did suggest that rulers should be more concerned with appearing noble and moral than with actually being noble and moral.[1] However, this translated into the popular consciousness as Machiavelli advocating for a total discarding of traditional morality in the name of personal gain.  As a result, stage Machiavels—a term used to describe theatrical characters meant to be associated with Machiavellian politics—were not only framed as amoral, but they tended to treat this amorality as something that offered them greater insight into how the world actually functioned.

This language of embracing the material reality of the world against an idealized vision of how we would like the world to operate became a key topos of many of the well-remembered early modern Machiavels.  Richard III argued that morality and social decorum were merely niceties that could be overlooked if one were powerful or ambitious enough.  In arguing for his right to use whatever means necessary to seize power, he famously suggested that “[c]onscience is a but a word that cowards use, /Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe:/ Our strong arms be our conscience,” (V.iii.309-311).  Here, Richard expresses the belief that structures of idealism and morality, things like conscience, honor or love exist only to discourage the strong from seeking power.  In essence, the early modern Machiavel articulates a belief that social conventions are arbitrary constructions designed to keep men in line.

As I mentioned last week, a good case study for examining modern interest in Machiavellian politics can be glimpsed in HBO’s Game of Thrones.[2]  Much of the early series focuses on the political aftermath of the death of king Robert Baratheon and the ensuing series of civil wars and back-room politicking that occurs as a result.   Central to this conflict is the complicated political maneuvering undertaken by courtly figures such as Petyr Baelish and Cersei Lannister who, among others, frequently articulate the idea that the only way that power can be maintained is by acknowledging that one must be willing to engage in wrongdoing in order to secure oneself in an a disorganized and chaotic political environment.

Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish discussing what truly makes one ‘powerful’.

If Game of Thrones has a central thesis, it is a conscious rejection of idealism and a desire to ground high fantasy in a ‘veneer of reality’ that often slides into cynicism. Characters like Cersei and Petyr are drawn in direct contrast against figures such as Eddard Stark and his son Robb, who stand in as representatives of a kind of idealized heroism aligned with more traditional fantasy heroics.  Following the Machiavellian injunction to focus on “how things are generally done” rather than how “they ought to be done,” Game of Thrones constructs for itself a universe in which conventional ideas of morality and heroism fail.


Eddard Stark’s Execution.  Such is the fate of idealistic men in Game of Thrones.

In this environment, good men die, because in the world of G.R.R. Martin’s Westeros, good men are frequently being undermined by individuals who better understand how the world works.[3]  The series embraces a decidedly Machiavellian logic concerning what makes a successful politician and through five seasons, the series shows little sign of subversion.

Petyr Baelish may as well be echoing Richard III when he comments that, “Chaos isn’t a pit.  Chaos is a ladder.  Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again.  The fall breaks them.  And some, are given a chance to climb.   They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love.  Illusions.  Only the ladder is real.  The climb is all there is.”[4]  For pop culture Machiavels like Baelish, nothing matters except the acquisition of power.  Everything else is immaterial.  Thus, as one of the most successful Machiavels in Westeros, Baelish’s words seem to ring true throughout the series, as ideals like love, family and trust constantly fall short when those who embrace them are forced to confront the ‘realists’ of the series, who tend towards dissimulation, deceit and violence.[5]  Game of Thrones may not consciously be invoking the rhetoric of Machiavelli, but the series seems to affirm the Machiavellian idea that those who understand how power operates (in this case amorally) succeed where others fail.

The major difference to draw out between how early moderns thought about this aspect of Machiavellianism and how modern audiences think about it stems mostly from how much credit we are willing to give the Machiavellian position regarding the nature of men.  Game of Thrones is often praised for its more ‘realistic’ depiction of fantasy topos and for its rejection of an idealistic image of medieval fantasy.  While Baelish and Richard III are both the villains of their respective series, Richard III ends with the Machiavellian usurper defeated in righteous combat by the divinely ordained King Henry VII.  In the world of the early modern, the just order is preserved and the good, righteous ruler replaces the amoral Machiavel.[6]  In contemporary fiction such as Game of Thrones, even when it seems clear that the villainous Machiavel is a character we are meant to revile, the show seems to still affirm that they do simply have a better understanding of how the world works than the characters they manage to out maneuver.  While figures like Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish may not be the heroes of our fiction, in a series such as Game of Thrones, they certainly seem to have a better understanding of the amoral, calculating political environments in which they traffic.  In moments such as these, modern audiences seem much more willing to accept Machiavelli’s argument that how the world works and how we would like it to work rarely align.

[1] “[A ruler] must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him…not deviate from the right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary.”

[2] Game of Thrones remains incredibly popular through its 5th season, drawing in over 8 million viewers for its season finale:  http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/game-of-thrones-finale-ratings-jon-snow-cersei-1201519719/

[3] Petyr Baelish betrays Eddard Stark:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdmnL1lY-UM

[4] For a more detailed examination of what Baelish’s politics can teach us about history, see:  https://metathesisblog.com/2015/01/13/game-of-thrones-theory-of-history-nasty-brutish-but-definitely-not-short/

[5] In some cases, as with Eddard and Robb Stark, the ideals of loyalty and love prove to be actively detrimental, as a belief in the importance of those concepts result in the deaths of those characters.

[6] Also, Henry VII was the grandfather of Elizabeth I, so this ending worked to affirm the authority of the Tudor monarchy.

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