criticism

“Bring in The Crows to Peck the Eagles:” Rewriting the Politics of “Coriolanus”

Compared to a number of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Coriolanus does not frequently enter into the popular consciousness.  While T.S. Eliot may have called it Shakespeare’s “[m]ost assured artistic success,” the play has not historically been viewed as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.  Despite this, the play has long been the subject of critical scrutiny over its deeply political narrative and its treatment of war and peacetime governance.  Coriolanus is a play in which the victorious Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus has returned to Rome after winning a prolonged campaign against the Volscian army.  Rome is in a state of civil unrest and the citizens stand in revolt against Coriolanus and the rest of the Roman aristocracy.  After a pair of tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sinicius Velutus manipulate the citizens into supporting the banishment of Coriolanus, he turns traitor to Rome and eventually dies a tragic death following the brokerage of peace between Rome and its enemies.[1]  In the 1930s, the play was briefly banned in France over the perception that the narrative, one of a powerful war hero brought low whose attempts to govern are destroyed by a population that is given too great a voice, could be too easily understood as pro-fascist.[2]  Likewise, the play was heavily critiqued in post-war Germany for being too militaristic and doing too much to celebrate the image of the glorious warrior brought low by his own fellow citizens, demonstrating that during times of particular political anxiety, Coriolanus tends to return to the public eye.

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Fiennes’ Coriolanus

In 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a version of Coriolanus which brings to the forefront a number of key political questions raised by the text.  The production ostensibly takes place in a setting meant to be associated with Rome, as indicated by its title cards and maintenance of the play’s language and characters, but the aesthetic is decidedly contemporary, with modern dress and a presentation of warfare that is modeled after military conflicts from the last two and a half decades.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus centralizes the impact that his time at war had upon Coriolanus, bringing to the production an interpretation that focuses on a post-9/11 investment in the state in which soldiers return from war.  It transforms the play into a meditation on the impact that war has, both on the individual and the society that sends those individuals to fight. Fiennes also modernizes the political crisis occurring in Rome.  In his version, Brutus and Sicinius, for instance, are presented as wealthy political insiders whose appearance and actions invoke a modern discourse of class struggle and income inequality, framing them as clearly distinct from the much poorer citizens whom they manipulate into banishing Coriolanus. Critical of both the actions of Coriolanus and the state of perpetual warfare that has impacted both the tragic hero and the citizens of Rome, Fiennes’s vision of the play attempts to utilize Shakespeare’s tragedy as a site for contemplating then-contemporary issues of war and its impact upon citizens.

Earlier this month I quoted Thomas Marc Parrott’s criticism that we could not think of Shakespeare as having an opinion on democracy, and while he certainly wouldn’t be able to have an opinion on the kind of representative democracy that we are most familiar with, the text of Coriolanus does not shy away from examining the idea of the consent of the governed.  It is a play in which a civilian rabble becomes the tool of a small cabal of aristocrats who oust Coriolanus, and the early scenes of the play present the rabble as easily strung along by learned Roman rhetoricians, suggesting the dangers of placing too much authority within the hands of the population.  In addition, if we are to read Coriolanus as a tragic hero, even one brought low by his pride, we must at least entertain his suggestions that the populace of Rome is making a grand error in banishing him, as they are banishing one of their betters, a belief that Coriolanus returns to time and time again.  This is, perhaps, a moment in which it is worthwhile to remember that in Elizabethan England debates over the merits of the consent of the governed and democratic rule were often very pessimistic about the capacity of the citizens of a nation to govern themselves.

Fiennes seems to deny this somewhat pessimistic attitude towards the populace’s complicity in the tragedy of Coriolanus with his presentation of the assorted Roman citizens.  His version centralizes their plight and their desire to resist a Roman system that denies them access to food, with an opening scene framing Roman defense of its grain supply as a militarized police force led by a fatigue-wearing Coriolanus beating back hungry protesters.  While the argument that we are meant to side with the citizens in Shakespeare’s play is by no means unfounded, Fiennes’ invocation of contemporary political struggles against state sanctioned violence leverages a very modern understanding of political crises in order to frame Coriolanus as a tragically flawed individual.  We read Coriolanus’s speech concerning the instability, intemperance, and ignobility of the citizens as proud, unfounded, and misguided in large part because of the visual language of this scene, rather than extracting that interpretation wholesale from the original text that Fiennes recites.

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

There is, in this vision of Coriolanus, a certain desire to collapse the current and the historical, both to demonstrate a series of momentarily important political ideas but also to point towards their seeming timelessness nature.  An implicit idea present in Fiennes’ Coriolanus is that the lessons of the text of Coriolanus have a specific relevance that transcends the historical moment of its original production.  This, however, requires Fiennes to traffic in a language of visual and political iconography that makes these lessons legible to a modern audience far removed from the world of the Roman aristocracy.  I bring this up not to denigrate Fiennes’ Coriolanus, but to suggest that the act of attempting to find specific modern lessons in these plays necessarily requires us to reconstruct Shakespeare’s texts to suit our current political climate and we must remain aware of this practice of reconstructing Shakespeare when we attempt to garner political lessons from his plays.

The function of this examination of Coriolanus isn’t to produce a unified reading of the play’s political message, but rather to demonstrate how malleable that message becomes when we attempt to understand it with contemporary eyes.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus is not a more or less valid representation of Shakespeare’s text, but it is transparently bringing a highly modern perspective to the text in order to make its political commentary clear.  This does not invalidate the things that Fiennes’ production can teach us about the political questions that inform Coriolanus, but it demonstrates the ways in which any attempt to parse out the lessons of a text necessarily brings to bear our own political investments upon that text.  This is true for the audiences in the first half of the 20th century who saw the play uncomfortably courting with fascism, and it is true in the case of Fiennes’ Coriolanus, which attempts to use that same text to understand a set of more contemporary questions about war, social dissidence, and the consent of the governed.

[1] This is, admittedly, a highly abridged account of Coriolanus.  A full treatment of the play’s richly complex handling of issues such as the construction of masculine identity, the role of motherhood in the lives of individuals and the state or its examinations of the costs of war alone would consume an entire blogpost.

[2] Coriolanus is far from the only play that has garnered attention for how it might help us understand fascism.  For a particularly unsubtle example, see Ian McKellen’s Richard III.

“Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes:” Using Shakespeare to Understand Contemporary Politics

“Living when he did, Shakespeare could no more be democratic or anti-democratic then he could be a motorist.”

                  ­-Thomas Marc Parrott, Twenty-Three Plays and Sonnets

On October 8th, Stephen Greenblatt wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times which sought to argue that through a detailed close reading of Shakespeare’s Richard III, we could better understand the state of the 2016 US Election.  He argues that Richard III represents a play in which Shakespeare dramatizes the rise of a tyrant into power through the consent of the governed, despite how apparent his evil was to everyone around him.  In this argument, Richard III becomes a cautionary tale, one that teaches its audience a lesson about the dangers of political complacency and the abdication of one’s responsibility as a political subject, whether that political subject is a low ranking early modern aristocrat or a swing-state voter in 2016.  The politics of this particular editorial are fairly transparent, but what interests me is the mobilization of Shakespeare’s Richard III as an exemplum of a political reality that remains relevant to readers over four centuries after Shakespeare’s death.  Here, a play about the rise of a usurping king and a political rebellion against an absolute monarch becomes a lesson about the importance of active and informed participation within a system of democracy that would be incomprehensible to even the few republics of Early Modern Europe, let alone the subjects of the English Monarchy.

Here, I don’t intend to criticize Greenblatt’s reading of the play, but I am more invested in the underlying impulse, specifically the implication that Shakespeare, if approached properly, can reveal grand truths about the state of our current lives.   Greenblatt goes so far as to conclude his editorial by claiming, “Shakespeare’s words have an uncanny ability to reach out beyond their original time and place and to speak directly to us.  We have long looked to him, in times of perplexity and risk, for the most fundamental human truths.”  Variants of this appeal seem to represent a justification for the continued study of Shakespeare.  In this model, Shakespeare becomes a unique literary site for understanding the world around us, and if we can simply read a play like Richard III well enough, we can understand the issues in our current historical moment that would appear inexplicable.

Richard III is an interesting case study for complicating this desire to find timeless political truths within the canon of Shakespeare.  Richard III, despite being a play about an English king, is not really a history in the sense that we might understand the word today.  The play itself draws heavily upon carefully crafted bits of Tudor propaganda which sought to validate the current ruling regime in England.  The play, which documents the fall of the tyrant Richard III, implicitly celebrates the rebellion of King Henry VII, first monarch of the Tudor dynasty and grandfather of the sitting Queen Elizabeth I.  The play’s framing of King Richard as a child-murdering, usurper is itself a theatrical decision grounded in a series of incredibly specific contemporary historical circumstances.[1]   This is not to say that we can’t learn anything of value for a play like Richard III, but it should serve as a constant reminder that the political world that Shakespeare occupied and the political world in which we live are so radically different as to be nearly unrecognizable.

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Anthony Sher’s 1984 Richard III, in line with Shakespeare’s text, frames King Richard as a monstrous caricature of political evil.

As a graduate student working on the political discourses that were in circulation during Shakespeare’s life, this intellectual movement is one that I find fascinating because it simultaneously highlights and collapses the gulf that exists between our world and the world of Shakespeare.  In my own work, I examine the political anxieties which gripped Shakespeare’s England in an attempt to better understand the ways in which the institution of the theater helped negotiate those problems.  Here, four hundred years later, it is more than a little mystifying to see a major publication print an op-ed piece in which a renowned scholar makes a near identical move, utilizing the institution of the early modern theater to address a political anxiety gripping the country in 2016.

My posts this month will seek to delve deeper into this mode of reading Shakespeare as a window through which we better understand our contemporary world.  While I don’t intend to provide a definitive answer to the question of just how much we can learn about politics merely by reading plays about politics, I do hope to offer insight into why Shakespeare’s political plays are thought to remain relevant exemplum for teaching political lessons.  However, before turning towards the strengths and deficiencies of this model, I feel it will be worthwhile to look at the longer history of turning towards the past to learn about the political present.  This belief that by turning to the fictions and lessons of a long forgotten age that we strive to see as a mirror of ourselves is not a unique quality of modernity.  Next week, we will look at the ways in which thinkers in the Early modern world looked towards their own imagined past as a way of understanding their specific historical moment.

[1] This narrative surrounding Richard III’s history has been remarkably hard for historians to dispel, as these very specific examples of Tudor propaganda remain ingrained in cultural memories surrounding the real Richard III.


Evan Hixon is a second 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.

Sharing Space: “Proteus” and the Personal

It seems like academia (or any professional forum, for that matter) encourages us to keep our feelings out of things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve crossed out passages of student essays this month for being “off topic” or “too praisy,” for bringing in “irrelevant” value judgments on the film they’re writing about. And that’s fine: we’re trying to teach them the conventions of textual analysis, not ranting movie reviews. But every time my red pen scratches out the words “I think” or “I feel” or “the best part,” a little part of me dies. It sometimes feels like I’m getting rid of the human element somehow – an often unsophisticated and inexperienced expression of the human element that doesn’t logically support an argument, but the human element nonetheless. It’s numbing to cut that out.

This censoring isn’t just for undergrads, either. I have found very few opportunities in academic writing where you are free to wear your love on your sleeve. I understand the usefulness of the genre, but it’s refreshing to have a forum where we can get more emotionally expressive. This renewed interest in personal within academia (one way to think of the so-called “affective turn”) is part of the impetus behind the virtual space that is this blog, after all: it gives us a chance to feel as well as think, and reach our communities as well as our peers.

All this is a roundabout way of introducing the fact that I haven’t been okay recently. There have been days where I have found myself in negative mental spaces without a clear path out, and there are nights where my dreams have taken me back to places haunted by bad memories. I could point out a number of reasons why this might be – the grad student workload, lack of good sleep, anxieties about the future, homesickness – but a diagnosis only goes so far when most of those things are unavoidable at this point in my life. Other contributors to this blog have taken on mental health before, so I think I’ll leave the specifics aside for now. Instead, I would like to spend this post doing one of the things I like best – taking a walk with someone I care about. I want to show you a place that I go when I’m feeling down: a little virtual island called Proteus.

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Proteus is a short game created by independent designers Ed Key and David Kanaga in 2011. To call it a “game” is a bit of a misnomer. There are no rules, there are no enemies, there are no apparent goals. The only controls are the arrow keys to move, the mouse to look around, and the space bar (which makes your avatar appear to sit down). The game is pure spatiality: all the player is encouraged to do is explore and experience.

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You emerge from the main menu and find yourself floating above a tranquil sea, with only the soft sound of the waves below you. As you look across the shimmering water, you might be able to see the faint outline of land beckoning you closer. Recognizable shapes begin to emerge from the fog as you approach: a blocky beach, a few twisted pixelated trees crowned in pink or green, maybe even the swell of a mountain to vary the landscape. As soon as you make landfall, the island erupts into the simulated sounds of spring: the warbles, tweets, and crooning of synthetic birdsong; the rustling static and base-toned murmuring of unseen electronic creatures; and through it all soft strings and the tinkling of a chiptune keyboard invoking the sound of a pleasant breeze and gently falling cherry blossoms. Despite being technologically generated, the sounds that engulf you are the sounds of life, and they ebb and flow as you wander around the island.

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What you’ll actually see as you meander among the trees is unclear. Like Minecraft, Proteus is procedurally generated; the island’s topography, flora, and fauna are completely dependent upon algorithms over which you have no control. But though you will never see the same island twice, certain landmarks remain constant through multiple playthroughs. There is always a cabin nestled in the trees, there is always a circle of mysterious totems, there is always a lonely headstone at the top of the highest peak. What this creates for the player is a familiarity which retains the mystic wonder of discovery. I can feel intimately close to this virtual space, but I can never own it; I can know what to expect, but it will always surprise me. Few places, virtual or otherwise, are truly like that in the way Proteus is.

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When night falls, something magical starts to happen. The stars – the only rounded figures in the pixelated world – start to float down to earth, swirling around a particular spot on the island. The curious explorer who approaches the circle of stardust is wrapped up in a flurry of motion and sound as time accelerates. The sun rises and sets, rainclouds race across the sky, wind whips through the leaves on the trees. Standing in the center of the circle brings all this chaos to a crescendo, and after your vision fades to white you find yourself no longer in spring, but in summer.

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Every season brings a change in the island’s landscape and soundscape – summer brings its blooming flowers and buzzing flies, autumn its orange leaves and somber tones, winter its stark silent white – changing the tone of your exploration from joyful wonder to thoughtful reflection as you come to know the lay of the land. As the days get quieter and more familiar, the nights become increasingly fantastic with fireflies, shooting stars, and even the aurora borealis – a sight that even in its polygonal form fills me with the joy of home.

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Though you can spend all your time exploring these little wonders (I never went past summer the first time I played), the game does have an ending. I won’t say what happens on that final winter’s night, but it never ceases to move me. For all its joy and wonder, Proteus teaches you that all things that change, even a sense of place, must come to an end. When you close your eyes on that first island, you will never see it again. All that will remain are the echoes of your emotional experience. That impermanence, for me, is beautiful.

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The description I’ve given here hardly does it justice – Proteus really needs to be experienced to be understood. But I also find it’s best when experienced together. If you’re around where I happen to be, go ahead and ask. I’d love to play it with you, if only to see the look on your face when you first set foot on land. If you happen to get it and I’m not around, well…go up to the totem circle on the first night of autumn and just wait for the moon to rise. Maybe it’ll make you think of me. In any case, I think it’s a place worth sharing.


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.

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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:

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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:

 

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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.

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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.

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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?

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Behind the doors of psychiatric treatment centers (20 Nov. 2015)

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 Exterior of McLean Hospital, the institution referenced in Girl, Interrupted (photo by John Phelan)

 “Is it going to be like ‘Girl, Interrupted’?” I cautiously asked my husband before being taken to the psychiatric wing of our local hospital. He assured me it wouldn’t and, in unfortunate ways, he was right.

I spent less than four hours under the hospital’s care, but what I saw I did not like. I was wheeled on to the locked floor by two security guards, past patients that didn’t look like me; they seemed overwhelmingly middle aged and male. I passed people in hospital gowns and people who were not high functioning. I was terrified.

I was condescended to as I tried to explain why I thought this was a higher level of care than I needed. I had signed away my autonomy at check in and was now in the unenviable position of trying to convince the psychiatric nursing staff that I was sane. Though I knew how it would look, I couldn’t help myself from sobbing out the words, “I’m not crazy.” In the end, they let me go that night. As scared as I felt in the hospital, the truth was I did need that level of care and had for months.

I should note that this, the first and briefest, hospitalization was to be followed by two additional trips, each substantially better than the last. The subsequent hospitalizations were both critical for my safety. Moreover, I count my stay at the last hospital among the most important experiences of my life.

There is so much misunderstanding and stigmatization surrounding mental health, and this is pushed to the extreme with hospitalization. Because people feel ashamed to share their experiences, and understandably so, the only picture the general public often has of a psychiatric hospital is from popular culture. Psychiatric hospitals are the light-on-patient’s-rights, long-term care units of Girl, Interrupted. They are places where unruly men are lobotomized in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They are insane asylums filled with deranged patients of American Horror Story’s or Modern Family’s gross misrepresentation of modern inpatient care. As a gleaming exception to the rule, It’s Kind of a Funny Story provides a modern account of psychiatric hospitalization that felt close to my experiences. It’s because of the paucity of the later example, and a profusion of the former, that I choose to share my experiences.

“Whenever you’re planning suicide,” my fellow patient answered. I had asked her when she knew it was time to seek hospitalization. During the year surrounding my hospitalizations, I frequently wondered when it was time to go in. Her answer draws a bright (and appropriate) line separating inpatient from outpatient services. In practice, I can tell you it’s much muddier. If every day is progressively a little worse than the last, it’s hard to identify the tipping point. In my second two hospitalizations someone else had to make me see that we had already moved well beyond the line that indicated it was time to turn to enhanced care.

hospital hallwayModern psychiatric wings may look like a standard hospital hallway

When I was hospitalized the second time at the local hospital it was Valentine’s Day and I wasn’t supposed to be there. Let me clarify, I very much wanted to be at a hospital, but because of my lingering fear of the local options, I had been scheduled to be admitted to a private institution in Connecticut. That morning we heard that I would need to wait through another weekend until a bed would be free for me. I couldn’t handle the small extension and it was back to the local, public hospital we went. I had strongly diametric feelings about going to a private versus a public hospital. I didn’t want steak and risotto for dinner, I just wanted to feel safe with other patients that wanted to heal. New York’s public hospitals include people who are there voluntarily and involuntarily and they take all patients. They both need to and should accept all patients because every person deserves care, irrespective of level of function or financial status. It does, however, mean that the care they provide needs to meet a wide level of needs. Necessarily, safety is prioritized above deep healing.

In some ways the local hospital was like you might imagine. Yes, the doors are locked, they take away your belts and shoelaces, and depending on the nurse, the staff might make you open your mouth after taking a pill to confirm that you actually swallowed your medications. We had the option of meeting daily for group psychotherapy and occupational therapy, which could be helpful or just a way to pass the weighty hours between other activities depending on the day.

On the whole, by keeping me safe from myself, I was able to stabilize at the hospital, but not for lack of a few major missteps. I focused on processing feelings on my own and in frequent meetings with an intern psychologist. I learned new coping skills from the occupational therapist. My meds were rapidly changed as we settled on a new cocktail to which I better responded. I was often treated with respect by the nursing staff, though that was not absolute. Interactions with rotating students and some of the other patients were less helpful. After hearing about my good marriage and successful research pursuits a med student told me he didn’t understand why I was depressed, and went on to ask me what I thought I would get out of suicide. I experienced friction from a few religious patients who strongly suggested that I talk to a priest, or vocally expressed their displeasure at my atheism. A psychotic male patient, and I mean that in the clinical sense of the word, physically threatened some female patients with sexual assault and made me fear for my safety until he was transferred to a different unit. Despite these complications, my first true hospitalization was both needed and successful in my stabilization.

Four Winds

The grounds of Four Winds Hospital, the site of my last hospitalization

My experience at Four Winds Hospital eight months later was so very different. From the intake procedures, which included a visual inspection of your body for any signs of physical harm, it was clear the doctors and staff were there to care for your whole being. Unlike my first experience, Four Winds provided programming throughout the entire day to build coping skills. This programming was offered in addition to regular meetings with a therapist and psychiatrist. Breaks to let the mind rest from the emotionally intense work of healing included walks around the autumnal, tree-lined campus, or art therapy with more media than I could get into in my 10-day stay.

At Four Winds I worked on deep emotional issues with a fabulous therapist, a bulldog of a psychiatrist, a convention-busting art therapist, and a whole host of supportive and encouraging nurses. I was introduced to the powerful system of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I wrote prose and poetry. I poured out the pain of my core into paintings and sculptures. I laughed with fellow patients at the absurdity of what mental illness had put us through. I worked hard. And I healed.

The two hospitals could not have been more different in many ways, but at their hearts, they were both needed to keep me safe and alive. Despite a multifarious system of caregivers we assembled who ensured I was never alone “on the outside,” both times I was admitted I needed more care than my unofficial team could provide. Both hospitals were instrumental in my ultimate healing. Unfortunately, the more depressive episodes someone has, the more likely they are to have another major episode. Because of this I can’t say that I am “cured” and will never need to be hospitalized again, but knowing that facilities like Four Winds exist heartens me that, should I again need inpatient care, there are good facilities that provide true healing.

My greatest hope for this brief post is that it grants insight to the locked facilities that are psychiatric hospitals. They are not the places portrayed in mainstream media. They vary in quality and clientele. They are chronically underfunded and overstretched. And they are crucial to the healing and survival of so many.


 

As a Biology Ph.D. candidate, Liz Droge-Young studies the incredibly promiscuous red flour beetle. When not watching beetles mate, she covers the latest science news on campus for Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department. She is also a mental health advocate, a voracious consumer of movies, and a lover of cheese.

 

Changing The World From Within to Without: My Take on the Importance of Critical Theory (9 Oct. 2015)

The fact that there is a so-called “crisis in the humanities” is old, though persistent, news, with many theories behind its impending demise.  The main culprits are understood to be funding cuts at the state and national level as well as an overall cultural shift toward valuing professional degree paths in the private sector, spurred by conservative thinkers’ critique of the humanities as a degree that leads to “nothing but unemployment.”[1] It’s an ironic position, given the fact that coexisting with this concern regarding practical employment is another dilemma the business community has recently brought to the public’s attention: a general lack of sophistication in critical thinking skills among recent college graduates, as reported recently by Doug Belkin of The Wall Street Journal.

“General lack” is probably not the best way to put it given Belkin’s mention that, according to a survey of business owners by American Association of Colleges and Universities, “nine out of 10 employers judge recent college graduates as poorly prepared for the work force in such areas as critical thinking, communication and problem solving”––a rather staggering statistic. While critical thinking skills are not only found in English or History classrooms, no one would dispute the fact that the crown jewel of an education in the humanities is the extensive training in critical thinking, whether fostered through in-depth textual analysis or in developing the argumentative prowess of a PoliSci major.  The powers-that-be would do well to reflect on this.

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“They’ve redesigned the logo in the wake of funding cuts.”

Yet in terms of the humanities, even amongst those sympathetic to its aims, the popular perception of the “real” reason the humanities exists comes down not to critical thinking, but to passion––the fact that some of us have come, through the process of time, to be enamored with the great ideas of the past (and in fact, the term “humanities” emerged out of the intellectual turn from “scholasticism” to humanism in the 15th century).   As Adam Gopnik has succinctly put it, “The best way we’ve found to make sure that everyone who loves to talk about books have a place to do it is to have English departments around.”  History majors love history, philosophy majors love philosophy, and so on and so forth.  In defense of the existence of English departments, Gopkin stresses that love of literature is the raison d’etre of studying English and if there is a reason to continue supporting and not axing English departments it’s because

No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Because we are human and because we need to feel pleasure – this is why we should continue to teach English (and philosophy and history too), not because, as Gopnik puts it, “they will produce shrewder entrepeneurs or kinder C.E.O.s.”

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And also this reason.

But why not have our cake and eat it too?  Is it possible that the humanities can offer all of the above? Practical skills, attention to moral and ethical concerns, as well as plain old fun?  In fact, for centuries literary endeavors were to follow the Horatian Ode and do just that“to delight and to instruct.” In an era in which deep-reading is also as much in crisis as deep critical thinking skills, it’s important to engage with both literature and critical theory, two areas that are in fact at the core of the humanities.  Although opposites in their intentions and aims, they also complement one another.  While art and literature seek to unabashedly put forth entrancing new ideas that hope to transform its viewers/readers and their world, critical theory seeks to analyze it to pieces and, in some cases, debunk it.  As the adage goes, “Opposites attract.”

Critical theory is not the only way to teach critical thinking, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most important, given its attention to analyzing and critiquing the assumptions a society makes.  As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy more specifically puts it, “Some of [critical theory’s] core issues involve the critique of modernities and of capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation and the perceived pathologies of society,” critiques that inhere in traditional Marxist philosophy interested particularly in Hegelian dialectics.”  (Don’t worry if you don’t know what the hell I mean by “Marxist philosophy”––we’ll get to that later…)

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What she said.

For the month of October though, I’m not going to go into the history of critical theory or solely summarize the concepts of some of its most influential thinkers (You’re welcome.)  Instead what I want to talk about and to demonstrate is the importance of critical theory, not for academics or undergraduate students, but for people, plain and simple––that is to say, critical theory on a personal, rather than purely “academic,” level.  Why? Because I believe the most exhilarating power of critical theory is its ability to allow us to discern the structural forces that act upon us as individuals, its ability to reveal the inner workings of life and destruct the monolithic force of our everyday understanding that things are “just the way they are.” It has the incredible ability to cultivate the power of discernment––to look at the world and see through its most tantalizing lies and insufferable cajolements.  And it has the same capacity to help one see through oneself, to understand the assumptions our perspectives come packaged with.

Real people, as people, not just professionals or academics, need these skills.  Not because it will help you get a job or make you more erudite, and not even because it’s “fun,” but because, in the end, it is empowering; it can change and liberate your perspective.  As Marx famously put it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” And to be or not to be the change we want to see in the world––that is the question.

[1] Many critics and scholars have noted that there are other factors to consider when it comes to the “crisis in the humanities” too. Heidi Tworek argues in a December 2013 issue of The Atlantic that the humanities technically lost favor in the 1980s and simply haven’t gained back its relative influence is primarily due to the increasing opportunities for women to major in subjects outside of the humanities, an attractive option for those with an eye toward gaining employment in more lucrative careers they were formerly unwelcome in.


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

Cortana: Gender Devolved (25 Sept. 2015)

For many, the summer’s release of Windows 10 marked a return to form for the venerable series of PC operating systems. It minimized the presence of the much reviled “Metro” styling, restored the Start menu to its former prominence, and made the OS free to anyone who already had either Windows 7 or 8 installed. One software feature, however, cited a return of another kind – Cortana, previously the sarcastic AI companion to the Master Chief in the Halo series of video games, arrived to Windows 10 as its “virtual assistant.” Cortana, like its voice-activated counterpart over at Apple, Siri, is essentially a glorified search engine crossed with a task manager that was then given a computerized (and feminized) voice. In Windows 10 you can just as easily use your search bar to find a file as to find out what kind of music Cortana likes. Which, if you’re wondering, is apparently “emo-hard-core-diva-dubstep.”

While Cortana was making her way back onto screens and into the speakers of Windows 10 early adopters, I was making my own return to the game in which she first made her appearance, Halo: Combat Evolved. I could go on for pages and pages about how much that game meant to me as a 14-year-old kid with his first video game console. Some of my most treasured video game memories come from my original playthroughs of Halo: CE. Often cited as the definitive proof that first person shooters could survive on the console instead of primarily being a PC phenomenon, Halo excelled at creating thrilling set pieces within a rich universe that alternated from beautiful to terrifying to hilarious. These moments, upon my nostalgic return to the game, were as vibrant and dynamic as I remembered them. What I did not account for, however, was the steadying presence that the mostly body-less Cortana provided amidst the bright colors and chaos.

Cortana keeps you oriented in an alien world

As I re-played Halo: CE, it struck me as simultaneously bizarre and fitting that Cortana should re-surface not as a character but as a software feature in the Windows ecosystem. My freshest memories of Cortana were from the latter Halo games, games where the AI character had begun to resemble more conventional narrative tropes of damsels in distress. Correspondingly, those more recent games – Halo 4 in particular – feature a version of Cortana whose holographic body appeared more solid, more curvy, and more physically present than previous iterations.

Cortana4 Cortana1

Cortana’s body in Halo: CE and Halo 4

Contrast this to Cortana of Halo: CE, who for the vast majority of the game lives in the circuits of Master Chief’s cybernetic armor. Cortana makes her presence known primarily as a voice, speaking directly to Master Chief (and players) by way of their cybernetic link, only taking on a holographic form of her own when she needs to be plugged into a computer terminal of some kind. In many ways, Cortana feels unique among women characters in video games precisely because of her shifting embodiment. She is an AI, of course, but compared to the stolid, green armored figure of Master Chief, her running commentary on players’ adventures feels incredibly human. When she does appear in holographic form, Cortana’s visual design seems only to remind players of her un-corporeality: she is translucent at best, streams of data move up and down her “skin,” and often she is miniature. Her mode of embodiment for the majority of the game is to literally share the skin of Master Chief, and when she takes on other forms it is in ways that visually mark her as unavailable to the most common vectors for the male gaze. In other words, Cortana is a character whose primary mode of relation to players is via conversation, not as a sidekick, a woman to be rescued, or an object of desire, but as a military asset, equal in value to the player-controlled Master Chief and perhaps even exceeding in many ways his own humanity. Master Chief and Cortana then are two cyborgs, paired on behalf of humankind to stand against the alien threat.

It’s this feeling of human relationship and partnership in a shared task that I think made Cortana so endearing to me when I first played Halo: CE and when I picked it up again almost 15 years later. It’s also why later iterations of Cortana as a sort of sexy cyborg who, due to the nature of her AI mind, is deteriorating rapidly and dangerously into madness, never connected with me.

Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep.

Some called the newer versions of Cortana more “humanizing,” I can see why they might feel that way. Her newer forms do have a heavier sense of corporeality and the introduction of a kind of AI mental illness and mortality certainly give Cortana some challenges to face that feel very human in nature. However, as Cortana’s mode of embodiment became more solid it also became more chained to regressive modes of visual representation that require women to be sexually desirable to the male eye. It seems hardly accidental to me that these changes in visual design accompany a narrative drift away from pairing Master Chief and Cortana as co-warriors in the fight against the Covenant and toward a rather hetero-erotic repetition of male rescue narratives and female hysteria. As you might expect with these developments, by the end of Halo 4, Cortana’s self-sacrifice for Master Chief is the only path to narrative resolution.

masterchiefsad

Master Chief’s sad face as Cortana sacrifices herself. 

This is why it was so pleasantly surprising to find Cortana once again greeting me as an unseen voice from a screen via Windows 10. Perhaps inadvertently, Microsoft had found a way to restore a more human and companionable iteration of the character that broke off the slide she had experienced in the games toward token eye candy. What I found instead was nothing more than the bare skeleton of the character I once loved spending time with, a disembodied voice whose wit and snark had disappeared into haze of sycophantic supplication. The Cortana of Windows 10 is no AI. Much like Cortana’s favorite music, the humanity to be found here is just a mish mash of focus tested jokes and aphorisms.

On the one hand, my disappointment here is probably a little silly. Of course the Cortana of Windows 10 was always going to be a shallow competitor to Siri, not a return to form of one of my favorite video game characters. Instead of restoring the character to a position of equality, the Windows 10 iteration removes her humanity entirely, forcing her to occupy a position of absolute servitude. On the other hand, in Windows 10 and Halo 4 we have the exemplary poles of possibility for female representation in video games. She must either be the subservient, disembodied afterthought or the erotic, fully female and fully psychotic damsel in distress. To think on the strange, iterative life of Cortana across platforms and narratives is to encounter the narrow silos into which women are often shuffled according to patriarchal modes of appropriate embodiment.

Curiously, the Windows 10 Cortana has not yet made it to the Xbox One platform, though I’m sure eventually it will. I wonder what the Halo: CE Cortana will think of her arrival.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.