Digital Humanities

“What more does the Traveler want of Me?”: Destiny 2, Ghaul, and the Sci-Fi Villain

[7-10 minute read]

As its title screen fades to black, Destiny 2 (2017) sets itself up to follow the familiar science fiction trope of moral disambiguation. After destroying the last vestiges of human society on the planet, the new villain of the series – the not so subtly named Ghaul – has just thrown your player avatar off a hovering space craft to plummet toward earth. His final words to you hang in the air, a sinister snarl: “I am Ghaul, and your light…is mine.”

This “light” references the power bestowed on your character by a roving god-like entity known as The Traveler. In the first game, guardians chosen by this entity have the power of light bestowed upon them, granting them exceptional abilities. These powers are granted to them in order to facilitate their fight against the enemy of The Traveler – again, the not subtly named, “The Darkness.” Destiny is not aiming for subtlety in the moral lines that it draws. This idea of clear cut sides, of a “right” side and a “wrong side,” serves to anchor Destiny not only within the genre of science fiction, but within the medium of video games.

Science fiction has a long history of “black and white” narratives. Both Star Wars and Star Trek, arguably the two most popular science fiction texts in 20th and 21st century American culture, utilize a rather simplistic moral framework. Star Wars relies on “The Force” with characters falling to either the “light” side or the “dark side.” While the occasional “grey” character may emerge,[1] on the whole, Star Wars falls back on characters that are motivated either by selfish interests (the dark side, the Sith) or general good will and honor (the light side, the Jedi). “Light” side characters in the franchise films (the most widely and frequently consumed Star Wars texts) often receive ample development time on screen, leading to what Murray Smith calls “alignment,” a form of audience identification with a character that results from our exposure to information about that character within the film.[2] The motivations of the texts’ central heroes are made fairly explicit; for example: Luke wants off his home planet, wants to help the mysterious and beautiful Leia from his droid’s recordings, and wants to escape the Empire who murdered his aunt and uncle. However, the major villains of the franchise receive little-to-no attention: Emperor Palpatine is evil because of “reasons,” or simply because he’s Sith.

Img1The Poster for the most recent installment makes the split between good and evil readily apparent. (Lucasfilm/Disney)

Star Trek carries this same tradition: The Borg are defined by their inhumanity, the Klingons and Romulans are aligned with their cultures of violence, imperialism, and war; all alien species that fight against the United Federation of Planets quickly become coded as vicious, violent, and evil. Even when the series investigates the motivations behind its antagonists, there is no question about who we view as villain and hero: Khan’s devotion to slaughter in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) is reprehensible and unforgivable, even if he is responding to manipulation on the part of the Federation. Struggle between a righteous, noble humanity and a violent alien “other” quintessentially characterizes much of the science fiction that populates our popular culture.

This convention rings even more true for video game narratives where the developers must establish not only the moral framework of the world, but do so in such a manner that motivates the player by interpolating them into this struggle. The Halo (2001-2017) series utilizes humanity vs. The Covenant, and the Mass Effect (2007-2017) series explores the fight between humanity and “the Reapers.” In both cases, the player knows immediately which side they should root for – that is, which side is the victim in need of a hero – because it is the side their avatar fights for within the world of the game. Even in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), which allows players to choose a side in Jedi vs. Sith battles, the Jedi are still coded explicitly as good, and the Sith as evil.

This overwhelming generic convention has followed gamers down the pipeline to their first encounter with the world of Destiny in 2014. The presence of this science fiction trope for moral disambiguation made it easy to buy into the clearly delineated light vs. darkness world of good vs. evil present in the first game. Immediately, within the game’s opening cinematic, players know they are in the right, aligned with the Traveler and his Light against the forces of The Darkness, and justified in the goals of the first-person shooter/ MMO-hybrid: shooting and killing everyone who shoots at you. Narrative turns act in concert with these game mechanics to structure your behavior and pit you against alien “others.” The initial player encounter with aliens in the game, creatures known as The Fallen, is introduced by your robot guide stating that he “needs to find you a gun before the Fallen find you.” From this point forward, information about the various aliens species encountered in the game comes filtered to the player through their robot guide and the various leaders of the human resistance on Earth. Cut scenes within the game focus on the player’s hero, or on members of the human resistance, but never on the aliens. Again, they are evil simply because they are pitted against the hero, and bent on the same goal as the player: to kill rather than be killed. Their motivations remain vague, clothed in the language of “domination” (The Imperial Cabal), “dark ritual” (The Hive), “resource theft” (the scavenging Fallen), and “technological superiority to non-robots” (The Vex). In all cases, the aliens act as violent aggressors, while the humans simply attempt to defend the remaining human population.

With this framework from the first game, our return to the Earth of Destiny feels familiar in the opening moments of Destiny 2. The surprise comes not from a new alien threat, but from the success of this threat to obliterate the majority of humanity’s last bastion on Earth, and to cripple the heretofore invincible character avatar, the guardian. Destiny 2 opens by insisting that the “good” guys might not win this time.

Img2Ghaul prepares to boot the player’s guardian off the Cabal command ship. (Bungie/Activision)

The narrative continues this insistence on mortality in the following scene, reducing the heroic guardian from the first game to a limping, weaponless shell that must navigate the ruins of the Earth outpost. Mechanics force the player to experience this powerlessness alongside their character: stripped of all the powers and abilities that made their guardians super-human, as well as the ability to jump or run, the player instead can only control the direction of their guardian as the figure limps through burning rubble at a crawling pace that stretches the moment out interminably.

Something else is different in this opening sequence as well, a change whose significance becomes clear as the game’s cut scenes begin to unfold. In the beginning cinematic, Ghaul, the player’s new alien enemy, is presented to us with a recognizable face. Up until this point in the series, members of the alien species of The Cabal enemies faced by the guardians have all been helmeted, with a single exception encountered if the player seeks out lore hidden throughout the worlds of the game.

Img3The usual Cabal suspect. (destiny.wikia.com)

In contrast to this, Ghaul’s face is open to us, or at least his eyes and head:

Img4Dominus Ghaul (destiny.wikia.com)

The impact of seeing his face, and of the eye contact made with the camera (and therefore the gaze of the audience) startles the player. In no small part, this rises from the forces of abjection functioning in this moment of reveal.[3] Here, the face of the other, scarred, mangled, red-eyed, and trapped behind a breathing apparatus, nevertheless still looks human in shape. Ghaul still has eyes which gaze at the player the player gazes at him. The barrier of helmet that helped to define the Cabal as “other” more easily for players is torn away, causing an encounter with an abject other that may be closer to the self than the helmet allowed.

This almost “humanizing” moment in the opening of the game serves as prelude to the function of the rest of the narrative. Where the first Destiny centered cut-scenes almost exclusively on characterization for the player-guardian and their companions, Destiny 2 instead focuses half of its cut-scenes on Ghaul and his ongoing dialogue with The Speaker, a human who serves as a sort of voice for The Traveler. During these scenes we discover that Ghaul is motivated toward his conquest of The Traveler’s light not by some abstract evil, but by victimization he suffered as a child coupled with manipulation wrought by his mentor, The Consul, a disgraced Cabal scholar. Born a runt and albino in a culture that prizes physical domination and strength, Ghaul was abandoned to die. Though The Consul saved him, it was only so he could mold him into a tool to use for conquest and destruction. Ghaul’s childhood abandonment clearly still impacts him, regardless of his accumulated power and prestige as the leader of the Red Legion. His continuous plea to The Speaker and The Traveler rises from the insecurity of his childhood trauma, as he calls for them to “see” him: “Do you see, Traveler, all that I have done? Grace me with your light.”

As the game progresses, Ghaul’s desire to be worthy becomes more and more desperate. He begs the Speaker to “help [him] understand,” to reveal to him why the Traveler will not bestow its light on him. Even though he could simply tear the light out of the Traveler and claim it for himself, he insists that the Traveler must recognize him and what he has accomplished, and gift to him the light instead. When The Consul insists that taking the light by force is the only way, Ghaul retorts, “Not for me.” At the surface level, he is driven by selfish thirst for glory and power that we have come to expect from villains, but beneath that, he is an abandoned child seeking to repay his mentor for rescuing him by raining revenge on “an empire that failed him” – and the game makes sure that we, the players, know this. Unlike past Destiny villains, we know what drives Ghaul: not an abstract concept, but a relatable need for acceptance that feels all too human. His final demand of The Speaker reiterates his desire toward worthiness: “Tell me, Speaker. What more does the Traveler want of me?” It is only after this moment that The Consul leverages his power over Ghaul, and questions his loyalty and the value of his word. In the face of failing the man who raised him, the man who “chose” him, Ghaul consents to take the Traveler’s light.

While the end of the video game’s narrative resolves to place Ghaul squarely in the role of the evil villain in order to generate the medium’s essential boss battle and clean narrative closure, this expository work throughout the bulk of the game’s campaign serves a significant purpose. In our current political environment of creeping fascism and nationalism that relies so heavily on rhetoric of “us vs. them,” a genre that bends conventions to serve up a complicated and pitiable villain creates a bold political statement. Ghaul, ostensibly the enemy, reveals his motivations as hubris and a need for vengeance against those who hurt him. He asks us to question our notions of a black and white world. He presents a narrative of moral ambiguity that reflects back on our reality of human experience. He causes us to question our easy moral binaries, and the lines we draw between others and ourselves.


[1] Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker both exemplify these “grey-area” characters: Han due to his questionable motivations of wealth rather than honor, and Anakin due to his slaughter of the entire sand tribe rising out of a uncontrolled rage over the violence done to his mother

[2] For an easily accessible overview of Murray Smith’s theories on audience identification see Greg Smith’s chapter, “How do we identify with characters,” from his book What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss, Routledge, 2011.

[3] The term abjection and the theory surrounding it is pulled from Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia UP, 1982.

Hillarie Curtis is a second year Ph.D. student in English at Syracuse University where they study masculinity, monstrosity, censorship, and queer representations in Classic Hollywood films and Popular Culture texts.

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Full and Reverberating

My room has always been a mess. Today, when I say “mess,” I mean I have a couple piles of books and some empty spaces on a shelf—or, I have a shelf completely filled and an overflow collected on my bedroom floor. There are stacks of papers on my bookshelf, on my nightstand, on my desk, on the printer on my desk… I know what they all say (or at least I did at one point). At the end of the semester, all of these papers will go into folders. They will occupy a bottom shelf or a box somewhere. They will look like accomplishments, be useful, provide some frame of reference—but, most of all, I tell myself they won’t be familiar. I’ve stopped myself from doodling in the margins. When I run my fingers over the sheets, I’ll feel nothing but paper. I won’t feel the sensitivity that ripples over the too thin skin of a scar.

The word “mess” meant something different in 2009. Then, a mess looked like clothes piled higher than my desk because every morning was a test to see what I was able to wear. Shirts that looked like days I didn’t want to remember, sweaters that smelled like nights I shouldn’t have gone out, pants that almost whispered words I don’t think I ever heard. In 2009, the tops of my dresser and vanity were covered with papers and cards that my eyes refused to read. Drawers were stuffed with pictures and poems scrawled in adolescent writing. Stuffed animals, dried flowers, mixtapes (which really meant CDs, because, well, it was 2009) were all shoved under my bed. I knew these things were there, but only when I thought about it—or only when I touched them.

In 2009, my father asked me why I never cleaned my room. I started to cry and said I was afraid. If I shut my bedroom door, nobody shamed me until I cleaned it.

If nothing else, my young adult life epitomizes the way I’ve spent my time tactfully avoiding games of Minesweeper. It’s not that I hate everything. The problem is, even the good memories are bombs hiding too close to those taunting red 3s. The problem is that every object creates another image of someone who looks like me. It’s this feeling of some uncanny double—it’s someone I can’t control, but at one point she had my body.

I’ve struggled with this idea my entire life. This strange feeling of oddly “supernatural” attraction or attention to certain objects. For so long, I’ve tried to understand why I am unnerved by good memories and the way they make me feel unsettled (let’s assume I can at least begin to understand the bad). Recently, I’ve become increasingly interested in the idea of (what I’ve come to characterize and understand as) “resonance” made possible by media and forms. How can media create reverberations of people and moments that are no longer present?

Since coming to graduate school, and college more generally, I feel like I have encountered potential explanations for the feelings I’m attempting to describe here. Maybe this is some form of repression. Maybe it’s loss and grief for things, people, and time I recognize but cannot replace. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. I am deeply unsatisfied by almost all of these explanations.

The fear I described to my father as a young teenager feels closer to what I want to call “resonance” now, but it also references some form of dissonance. There’s some tangible struggle between a present moment trying to live alongside the past. While I want to support the idea that affective objects can produce similar feelings to what I am describing, this is still unsatisfying because it does not accurately describe “dissonance” as I am trying to understand it.

Dissonance is disembodiment. Recently, I’ve been reading about how discourses of spiritualism were used to talk about Victorian “new” media and technology. Using spiritualism to explain the unsettling feeling and presentness of disembodied energy can be read as a desire to explain the power and presence of something that is not there. It is some force driving or reproducing a moment that has no tangible existence. It is real only in that it references something invisible.

Dissonance is the somewhat supernatural feeling of uncanniness—the idea that someone has been “here” before “doing this,” and that someone might have been you. It is the way a photograph of a person confirms the absence of a body. It is the way marginalia proves another hand touched a page. Dissonance comes when I’m listening to a saved voicemail from father, when I hear the recording of his voice, now disembodied. In these moments, sound is the proof of absence, but it is also the proof of presence.

Today, I feel this less. I try to keep my apartment free of all things that are not related to graduate school. I call it minimalism to the point where I almost believe it. Last week my inability to use a computer resulted in my opening a conversation from months ago. I read the conversation like I could see the people talking. The author of the blue bubbles on the right hand side, I almost felt like I knew her.


Noelle Hedgcock is an MA student in English at Syracuse University. Her research and teaching interests focus on nineteenth-century British literature and culture.

Dear Diary…

Dear Diary,

Today I find myself in graduate school, I look around and still wonder how it is that I came to be here. In the fourth grade I cried while reading The Lord of the Rings because I believed that one of my favorite characters died. I would sneak out of the lunchroom to read The Wheel of Time in middle school, escaping to a future world in which the moon landing was known as the time people learned to fly in the stomach of firebirds. Chuck Palahnuik nursed me through high school anxieties, Bukowski through post-bachelor part-time coffee shop employment. Some time later I interned at a Fortune 500 company and Woolf taught me that a cubicle was not a room. Arthur had a vassal who disrupted the court after obtaining the love of a Fair Queen; I compared labor strategies of multinational national companies between liberal and coordinated market economies – every mythos has its own magic.

Mythos are comforting; they provide a sense of stability that belies chaos.
A narrative of elisions asserting its authority over origin that must be taken on belief.

What little evidence remains of a body’s passage through time and space would do little to comfort an empiricist, but I choose to dream. In time I will come to question their authenticity, were they ever my dreams or an overexposure to fantasy novels as a child? This is really an anxiety over whether or not I have an interiority – a crack in my phone renders the seamless continuity between body and technology an illusion. Were the avant-garde the last of the humanists?  

…legs wrapped around your stomach kissing the back of your neck…despondent and watching little flakes of gold twirling in the wind – 50 degrees on 9th of November…

I found myself in graduate school, lucid enough to know that I was not dreaming. A semester spent discussing the permeation of melancholy, mornings spent at the diner down the street reading over coffee and hash browns. A car full of strangers traveled six hours to make their voices heard, nihilism would not be revolutionary.  

I will feel like a pastiche of the materials I confront, and take comfort in that we are all hybrids. I will grow sick of melancholy, consider returning to it for my next paper, settle on the fact that affect is separate from materiality and so it becomes a question of mediation.

Then I laugh.

I spend time pulling from the stacks, and although at times have emitted a small growl, find excitement when discovering more texts than I had expected. I cross paths with graduates in the physics department, we discuss the stars. I find myself confronting new stories, reading for materials and energies that shape, and cannot shape, our bodies.

Today I am in graduate school, the humanist project has not ended.

Dear Diary,

Today I find myself in graduate school, unsure if it is the translation or the theory that doesn’t make sense. I’m sitting in a class surrounded by people I just met. I’m wondering at what point I’ll feel like a graduate student—if I can even define “graduate student?” Graduate students look like the people around me. Allegedly, I look a lot like them.

Someone once told me individuals who hesitate when talking in a room full of people are afraid because everyone else looks like a complete human being, like they are in control of their bodies. I realize first-person perspective is nerve-wracking because I do not see a composed body. I can only see hands, gestures, flailing limbs that, I hope, are somehow clarifying my point. I can only hear how weak words sound when they are mumbled into my lap.

One day, we will talk about identity politics, about identification, and debate whether or not words have power. I don’t know yet that this will become relevant all too quickly. One Wednesday in November, I will walk onto campus and feel the tired breathing of bodies, like mine, that were up until 4 a.m. the night before.

I will spend this day and the coming weeks waiting for, hoping for, dreading the moment someone wants to talk. This anxiety will be more than just a product of introversion. I will interrogate the expectations attached to this side of the desk. There’s a frail aura of authority that comes with being the one already seated when someone enters a room.

Eventually, I will need to learn how to handle the guilt of looking away to get things done, to decompress, to not lose hope. I will fight back the feeling of sickness, the stomach acid associated with the privilege of being able to think about decompressing.

I will learn that so much of graduate school feels like learning how I’m probably being irresponsible. Why new historicism? Look what happens if you combine feminist criticism with that. Didn’t you have interest in class at one point? If you’re just looking at the feminist individual, are you inadvertently “reproducing the axioms of imperialism” in nineteenth-century British literature? I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of syphoning off problematic portions of texts to read other points I have personal investments in. How close is this to paranoia?

But then, I breathe.

One day, I will relish the feeling of breaking ground, of fingers flying over keys, the paradox of excited exhaustion. I will remember the way strangers’ smiles became familiar fixtures, and how I learned to read and laugh again.

Today, I find myself in graduate school. I say it is okay to feel fulfilled while still fulfilling.

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.

 

A Match Made in the Archive: Reading and Poaching Through Ngrams and Rare Books (22 January 2016)

On a hunch, I went home after the DH events last September and typed “Jesuit” into the English corpus of Google Books’ Ngram Viewer. The tool is more powerful than what I used it for, but my search revealed how popular the word was in the English-language books that Google has digitized and made searchable. One result from 1524 (before the Society was founded) is the result of a wrong date (actually 1920). But things get really interesting in 1609, four years after the Gunpowder Plot to restore a Catholic monarchy failed and English Jesuit missionaries took a good chunk of the blame. Things more or less taper off as the corpus of extant books expands in later years, but with curious spikes in popularity, one of which occurs between 1840 and 1860.

A line graph tracing the popularity of “Jesuit” from 1550 to 1900.

Jesuits making seismic waves in English literature … or at least tremors.

This spike follows the 1844 Philadelphia Nativist Riots, which is in the news lately as journalists draw apt comparisons between the anti-Muslim paranoia of Donald Trump & Co. and the ultra-nationalist anti-Catholicism of nineteenth-century America. Sometimes called the Bible Riots, Philadelphia nativists violently destroyed Catholic property after outrage over Catholic parents’ wanting their children to be allowed to personally use a Catholic translation of the Bible in their public-school Bible studies: Protestants feared a foreign takeover from these people who often heralded from Ireland or Italy and followed a religious leader in Rome. The Google Books corpus shows that anti-Catholic sentiment persisted on both sides of the Atlantic, however, and includes such salacious titles as Jesuit Interference with Domestic Affairs: A True Statement of Facts Concerning the Conduct of the Jesuit Priests of Texas (unknown, 1848); The Friendship of a Jesuit (with an epigram from Hamlet: “meet it is, I set it down / That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”; Edinburgh and London, 1848); The Perverter in High Life: a True Narrative of Jesuit Duplicity (London, 1851); The Female Jesuit; or, The Spy in the Family (New York, 1851 — and its 1853 sequel); and Madelon Hawley, or, The Jesuit and His Victim: A Revelation of Romanism (New York, 1857; 1859).

The title page and an engraving from Madelon Hawley: the latter features an old man in a black cassock and biretta seated next to a young man in a suit; in the background are a leaded window and at least three crucifixes, one quite large.

Sometimes stereotypes ring true, though, and a Catholic affection for many and ornate crucifixes is definitely one of them.

 

This last title, written by William Earle Binder, has a hard copy housed in the Special Collections Resource Center (SCRC) at Syracuse University’s Bird Library. The book is fairly small for a hardbound book by today’s standards, a little smaller than a trade paperback — a book for casual reading. Though the interior is in good shape, it has a worn-out cover and spotted edges. Framed as a story that the author heard from a dying man, Joseph Secor, who left a corrupt Society of Jesus, the text traffics in the hallmarks of anti-Catholic prejudice handed down from the English Reformation. During his time in the Society, the Fr. Joseph clashes with a tyrannical and cunning senior member, Fr. Eustace, who tormented to death the married Mrs. Hawley, a woman who refused his sexual advances; later, he pursues her virginal daughter Madelon even after excommunicating her (spoiler alert: he and Madelon both die). The pages are filled with priests in disguise, gross caricatures of the Irish, kidnapped women held prisoner in cloisters, allusions to the Inquisition, and vivid (historically and doctrinally inaccurate) ritual. Flipping through the book, I wondered what kind of person would have held it before I put my hands on it — what they would have thought of a dorky Catholic studying Jesuit literature for a living. Indeed, I found written large inside the back cover:

Mrs Clara T Crane

91 3/4 Clark Street

Auburn NY

 A hand holds open the back cover of a book, with Mrs Clara T Crane's name and address written in large, curly script.

Don’t feel bad if you read that as 9 3/4, too.

Auburn hits rather closer to home than Philadelphia. A little Googling revealed Mrs. Crane to be the wife of a W.W. Crane, an English immigrant and manufacturer; in 1900, he died and was buried with Episcopalian and Masonic services.[1] Perhaps she was an anti-Catholic crusader: her husband came to America in 1852, when many of the anti-Jesuit texts were published in England and the US. Maybe she just liked sensational conspiracy novels. Or maybe the book belonged to someone else who merely took note of her address on the back flap of a text they didn’t care about.

A torso in a blue sweater reaches out, holding open the book: one page full of text, the other an illustration of the dying Madelon and Fr. Eustace.

Caution: Dorky Catholic at Work.

In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau (himself a Jesuit) suggests that there is no text without a reader: the reader “invents in texts something different from what [the author] ‘intended’” (169), “like nomads poaching their way across field they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves” (174).[2] Consequently, there are as many readings of a text as there are readers; each reader interacts with the text differently, and that interaction subtly shapes their interpretation of the book. My experience, as a dorky Catholic studying Jesuit literature, with a specific copy of a text that may have belonged to someone who enjoyed anti-Catholic sensation novels will necessarily shape my interpretation of that particular book. Similarly, your experience, as someone with your background, with this digitized version of a different copy of the text will necessarily shape your interpretation differently, especially since you’ve read this post and are probably thinking your own thoughts in the process. Especially, you can’t touch the handwriting at the back of the SCRC’s book; if this book were reproduced by a nineteenth-century equivalent of EEBO instead, you wouldn’t even know there’s a name and address copied there, since EEBO doesn’t usually include covers in their scans.

A sepia-toned portrait photograph of a middle-aged white man in a turtleneck, corduroy blazer, and tinted glasses.

Michel de Certeau, in the craftiest of Jesuit disguises: nerdy scholar

Books have real, material, human consequences. Sometimes, digital humanities can efface the small consequences: somewhere in Auburn, probably, someone bought an anti-Jesuit sensation novel in the wake of the Nativist Riots, buying into anti-Catholic sentiment at least economically. But other times, DH brings to light the bigger consequences: Madelon Hawley fits into a long literary tradition of demonizing the Catholic other. The humanities are at their best when they combine the two to reveal something about how humans read the books we can still access today, no matter the format.

Next week: The human in the humanities.

[1] See Auburn Weekly Bulletin, February 27, 1900 and Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Vol. 6.

[2] Michel de Certeau, “Reading as Poaching,” The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 165-76.

Many thanks to the Special Collections Resource Center at Bird Library, and especially to Nicolette Dombrowski and Nicole Dittrich, for their assistance with researching this post and for permission to post photographs of the book.


Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

Common Knowledge?: EEBO, #FrEEBO, and Public Domain Information (15 Jan. 2016)

If you work in the humanities and you’ve used a database, a dictionary, or Google Docs in the past ten years, congratulations! — you’re already doing digital humanities. This was a point emphasized by Syracuse University professor Chris Hanson in a panel discussion on the digital humanities that I attended after the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon workshop last fall. Grad students, faculty, and a librarian from a range of disciplines underscored that, according to this definition, anyone can do digital humanities — in fact, many already do — as long as they have access to digital information and the tools to manipulate it.

Not everyone has that kind of access, however, and this became painfully obvious for Renaissance-studies scholars a few weeks later when ProQuest discontinued access to the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database for Renaissance Society of America (RSA) members. Previously, those who didn’t have EEBO access through a university’s library subscription — such as independent scholars or those at smaller schools with smaller budgets — could gain access by joining the RSA, a professional organization rather than a library. After a Twitter uproar, ProQuest quickly restored access without much of an explanation, but not before Renaissance scholars could write about the implications of a private business’s controlling access to what is ultimately public domain information.

EEBO’s origins lie in World War II, when the London Blitz threatened to destroy English libraries and the thousands of medieval and Early Modern books they contained — a potential massive loss of information. University Microfilms International (UMI) stepped in to scan the texts for future generations … and for profit. UMI began to offer microfilmed titles in the English Short Title Catalogue (SCT) to university libraries through print-on-demand services.[1] For decades, Renaissance scholars outside the UK relied upon libraries’ microfilm reprints to do their research. Seventy years later, UMI is now ProQuest and the microfilmed SCT is now EEBO, a digitized and expanded collection of scanned texts. Just under half of the (rapidly expanding) current collection was released into the public domain last year. But anyone without library access will have to wait until 2020 for ProQuest’s exclusive rights to expire in order to access the complete collection.[2]

A library with the ceiling caved in. Beams, rubble, curtains, and ladders are heaped in the center. Three men in hats and wool coats inspect the books that remain on the shelves.

The private library at the seventeenth-century Holland House was bombed in the London Blitz. Books in national libraries were quaking in their dust jackets.

I’m one of the lucky ones: Syracuse University participates in the EEBO Text-Creation Partnership, so I have access even to texts that haven’t been made fully searchable. Without my university library access, I couldn’t possibly be an Early Modernist studying Jesuit literature. Syracuse is a long way from the Huntington and the Folger libraries, let alone Cambridge or Oxford. Not only do I not have a research budget as a PhD student, but some of the most prestigious libraries limit access to students already working on a dissertation.. If I hadn’t spent time browsing EEBO’s collections, I wouldn’t even know that I wanted to write about Jesuit literature. I may eventually have read that Richard Crashaw, a seventeenth-century poet and Catholic sympathizer-turned-convert, was raised by a virulently anti-Catholic father who wrote a tract called “The Bespotted Jesuite.” But without EEBO, I would never have had the opportunity to actually read the elder Crashaw’s text for its obsession with the maternal role of the Virgin Mary in Catholic notions of salvation, and then compare its horrified images of breastfeeding with the glorifying images that appear in the younger Crashaw’s baroque — even mystical — poetry. Without EEBO, I couldn’t read about the Maryland colony’s connection to the English Jesuit mission; I couldn’t perform full-text proximity searches comparing discourse on Eucharistic flesh and New-World cannibals; and I couldn’t crosscheck textual references to English Jesuits to add to Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.

 

A poorly copied black-and-white page of text titled “To OUR LADY OF Hall, and to the Child JESUS”; the rest of the text is half-obscured because text from the opposite side bleeds through.

A page from William Crashaw’s “The Bespotted Jesuite,” aka the “Jesuites Gospell” (1642). Read might be a generous verb.

But not everyone is so fortunate: in the few days when some RSA members believed they would lose their only means of accessing the full EEBO, proposals to make a #FrEEBO circulated on the internet. The conversations reminded me of when I graduated from undergrad and realized, to my horror, that I no longer had access to the Oxford English Dictionary. I found myself keeping younger classmates “on retainer,” pestering them to please, please look up the seventeenth-century definitions of this word so I can revise my writing sample to apply to grad school. Imagine being a scholar trying to publish a journal article for tenure and having to do the same thing — but with every single primary text you’re analyzing. Unlike the OED, the texts in EEBO are public domain, after all, even if ProQuest’s digitizations aren’t; there’s no reason scholars couldn’t create a parallel database that’s wholly public domain from inception.[3]

Digital texts have their shortcomings, of course, including other forms of inaccessibility as well. Untranscribed texts are wholly inaccessible to those with visual impairments. Databases like EEBO offer OCR transcriptions of some scanned texts, and while the good ones can be helpful, quality is inconsistent and frequently bad, especially for Early Modern typefaces and spellings. (If anyone has had a good experience using a screen reader with EEBO, let me know in the comments.) Digital texts also necessarily misrepresent the material object it’s based on by transcribing it into a different medium: a scan of a book obscures its size, its texture, its color, its smell, and even, in EEBO’s case, its cover. (More about that next week!)

A black-and-white scan of two pages of text fills the top two-thirds of the image; a transcription fills the bottom third. The transcription is filled with punctuation marks to signal line breaks and diacritical marks. Each transcription has a yellow post-it note icon in the middle of sentences. The text that fills the margins of the scan is not included in the transcription.

A side-by-side comparison between the scan and the transcription of two pages from “True relations of sundry conferences had between certaine Protestant doctours and a Iesuite called M. Fisher” (1626) in EEBO. To read marginal commentary, you have to click the yellow post-it note icons — a very different experience than the Early Moderns had.

 

But shortcomings shouldn’t stop us from finding new ways to increase access to these texts. One aspect of Jesuit philosophy that’s always resonated with me is that education is inseparable from social justice. Extensive higher education is required during Jesuits’ training in part because they are meant to share that knowledge in service to others. Education itself is a common good, and as an aid to education the cultural heritage contained in databases like EEBO shouldn’t be limited to scholars attached to the wealthiest schools — or even to scholars alone. If public scholars are truly committed to democratizing knowledge, our work shouldn’t end at merely presenting our research to the public, which only reinforces the ivory tower’s hierarchical relationship to the public. Our service to the public should extend to enable universal access to the primary sources we work with, so that anyone who wants to — no matter their situation — can discover not only our knowledge but also how we arrived at it, and how they could make some new knowledge themselves.

[1] http://folgerpedia.folger.edu/History_of_Early_English_Books_Online

[2] http://www.textcreationpartnership.org/tcp-eebo/

[3] https://medium.com/@john_overholt/together-we-can-freebo-b33d39618f8#.wpxzn95s1


Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

The Human in the Digital Humanities (8 January 2016)

The digital humanities (or as the cool kids call it, DH) have been in my peripheral vision since my first year in grad school: something that looks useful and fun; but for someone who dreads calculating grades, working with data is intimidating. Last September, a series of DH events in a symposium on the future of the humanities inspired me to reconsider how the digital humanities fit into the humanities generally. This month, I’ll be looking at the human in the digital humanities in order to think about where the human is located in the humanities. To do this, I’m going to introduce to you some of my research on the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, a missionary order of Catholic priests founded in Spain by Ignatius Loyola at the time of the Reformation. This focus is partly self-serving: I’m a dork and I love studying Jesuit literature even beyond my Early Modern period. But the connection between the Jesuits and the issues I’ll tackle is a lot closer than just my research. Ignatian philosophy on education, public service, and the relationship of the material to the ideal has greatly informed my appreciation of the digital and public humanities.

A cartoon of Ignatius Loyola, wearing sunglasses and holding a to-go cup of coffee.

Time to get Iggy with it.

The first event I was able to attend in the DH series this past September was a workshop with Daniel Shore and Chris Warren on the new DH project they’ve launched, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon (or SDFB).* If you’re familiar with cinema’s (Kevin) Bacon Number, the principle is similar: the database maps degrees of separation between major and minor figures in Early Modern England based on the different kinds of relationships they had with each other. Francis Bacon’s network of relationships greets visitors on the home page: he is one degree of separation from Anne Bacon (“parent of” Francis), Elizabeth Hatton (“attracted to” Francis), and William Fulbecke (“collaborated with” Francis); and he’s two degrees of separation from the Archbishop William Laud (via Thomas Coventry) and Sir Edwin Sandys (via Sir Thomas Coke). Francis Bacon also belongs to the groups “Virginia Company” and “Company of Mineral and Battery Works,” and you can search just for members of a single group or for members of two groups (turns out Bacon is the only one in the database who belonged to both those companies). While the foundational information for SDFB was imported from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, new information is crowd-sourced: anyone can add a new person, add a person to a group, add a new relationship, or assign a new relationship type (for admin approval, of course).

A very busy map of Francis Bacon’s first- and second-degree relationships.

Two degrees of Francis Bacon. I can only hope to be so socially well-connected.

Before I started playing with SDFB the night before the workshop, I hadn’t really understood how any DH methodologies, outside of simple word frequency analyses, would be useful to my research. But as I clicked around the website, looking up individual English Jesuits whose writings I’d read, I began to appreciate the power of visual representation of the connections between these priests and the social circles they moved in during their work in England.

Some historical context about the sixteenth-century English Jesuit mission is helpful here. With the replacement of all Roman Catholic bishops with conforming Church of England bishops, and with the institution of the 1584 “act against Jesuits, seminary priests, and such other like disobedient persons,” English Catholics could no longer ordain their own priests to serve their communities. Politically, England was reduced to the same status as an Aztec, Chinese, or any other historically non-Catholic kingdom: it became a mission field served by foreign-trained priests, mainly from the expat community in Douai, France. Indeed, it could even be more hostile than other foreign mission fields: the 1584 act made it high treason to be a Catholic priest, and a felony to aid one; even suspicion of either crime could subject a person to any number of gruesome tortures.

Protestant-era England did have two advantages over other mission fields, however. First, most of the Jesuit missionaries serving in England were born there or descended from English families. And second, Catholicism was still fairly widespread in its underground status, with some families even managing to retain considerable wealth. English Jesuits had something of a home turf advantage, and these connections were crucial to carrying out their work in often hostile territory.

Printed engravings of Edmund Campion (with a dagger in his heart, a noose around his neck, and gallows and stretchers in the background); Robert Southwell (with a dagger in his heart, a tiny noose around his neck, and a cherub waving a crown of laurels over his head); and Alexander Briant (with a dagger in his heart, a noose around his neck, and holding a handful of reeds while a cherub waves a laurel crown over his head)

Some of the English Jesuit martyrs: Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, and Alexander Briant (whose good looks were legendary).

 

When I came to the SDFB workshop the next morning, my goal was to help map the English Jesuits’ human networks of supporters, and I was thrilled to find that this was something in which I had the expertise to contribute and that it was something that was useful to my research. Because of SDFB, I could begin to really see just how tightly connected many of the Jesuit missionaries and their English supporters were, something I hadn’t recognized in the disparate texts I had read before. And I was very pleased to convince Drs. Shore and Warren to add “Jesuits” as a standalone group in addition to “Jesuit missionaries to England,” in order to account for expats who never returned to England.

The database is in beta testing, so there are still some quirks and bugs and inefficiencies. There is a terrible shortage of women in the database, as a consequence of how only 6% of the entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, from which the vast majority of SDFB is drawn, are for women.1 This is particularly problematic for my research, as recusant Catholic women were better able to fly under the English government’s radar (so to speak), especially if their husbands conformed, and thus were essential to Jesuit ministry: hiding priests, offering financial support, and granting access to printing presses. (If you want to help boost the number of women in SDFB, check out the Networking Early Modern Women event on January 23 at the Carnegie Mellon and Folger libraries and live online.)

Some features of the current design can also be shortcomings. A sometimes-limiting selection of terms used to categorize and group relationships can flatten their contours and conceal the dynamics. In some ways, broad strokes are necessary to even begin to sort relationships. For instance, “collaborated with” or “attracted to” mean different things to different people, but a general sense of what they could mean enables the first step of investigation. On the other hand, it was rather chilling to see Robert Southwell’s visualized relationships to Robert Persons (a Jesuit) and Anne Howard (a recusant and priest-harborer) given equal weight as his relationship to Richard Topcliffe — his torturer.

aofig4

Robert Southwell’s first-degree relationships.

 

But these are the problems that are resolved by the humanities side of digital humanities. As I often remind my students, data does not an argument make. It doesn’t tell us anything — it must be interpreted. Thanks to SDFB, we can see the names, or the dates, or the likelihood of the relationships between people and the extent of their networks. But we need to read their texts and contexts not only to understand the difference between an ally and an enemy, but also to fully appreciate the contributions these figures made to literary history.

*Full disclosure: To my surprise and delight, I was made a curator for SDFB between writing this post and its publication. Opinions are very much my own.

Next week: EEBO and public-access literature

  1. networkingwomen.sixdegreesoffrancisbacon.com

Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

The Dust-Heap of the Database and the Specters of the Spectator

In 2014, networks launched some 1,715 new television series, a staggering number that prompted many articles to declare variations on the theme “there are too many shows to watch.” Same story, different medium, I say. Franco Moretti, a contemporary literary scholar, writes that while twenty-first century Victorianists may (may) read around two-hundred Victorian titles, that barely counts as a drop in the bucket of the 40,000 titles published in the nineteenth century. And the other 39,800 novels? The short version: gone. The longer version: maybe not.

The plethora of “lost” Victorian novels challenges any sweeping claims about Victorian society based on the fourteen or so (depends on how you count) full-length novels of Charles Dickens. But it becomes even more daunting if one’s studies include explorations of Victorian popular magazines and journals. The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals 1800-1900 lists 50,000 titles. If each of those titles published a single, twenty-page issue—and certainly they published more—that alone would amount to 1,000,000 pages to read.

The imbalance between what we read, what we could read, and what we can’t read makes Victorian studies (and, I suspect, other historical studies) a strange beast. Any decent Victorianist monograph will address the familiar tunes (Dickens, the Brontës, Eliot, etc.), but it will probably do so through ephemera and periodicals that maybe only the author has read thanks to hours of archival digging. The internet makes the strange Victorian studies beast even stranger. The internet not only changes how I do history because I can do most of my archival work from the back corner of Mello Velo (the local coffee shop, to which I owe my doctorate, whenever I finally defend). Historical research online changes academic reading practices, the kinds of arguments we can make, and finally, how we teach historical reading in the classroom. Internet archives make available texts virtually nobody has read. Electronic archives offer the chance to reinvigorate the dust-heap of forgotten novels—although with the change in what we can read, there comes an inevitable and sometimes ineffable change in how we read. It also makes it possible to discover a text nobody has read, without leaving the comfort of your favorite coffee shop table.

And yet, when I say a text nobody has read, this isn’t quite true. These texts do not simply appear on one’s screen. These historical documents already bear the marks of their nineteenth-century readers, but they now bear the marks of my search terms, the database algorithms and tags, scanners, computer processing, and somewhere in a basement, other people who plugged this material into the database. These extra, mostly ineffable hands mark the text like the fingerprint of electronic ghosts—and these spectral hands can sometimes offer us bizarre, fortuitous accidents.

I’m sorry, Peter. I’m afraid I you can’t read that.

Here’s an example. My dissertation is in part about Charles Dickens, because of course it is. I’m also heavily invested in Victorian literary criticism; that is, as opposed to Victorianist literary criticism of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, I gravitate toward the theories and ideas the Victorians themselves used to analyze their own work.  I’m specifically interested in Dickens’s serial publications (stories told in installments, like a modern television show), and I wanted to see what the Victorians thought about serialization.

So, off I go to sundry databases and metadatabases, where I search terms like “serial,” “part,” “periodical,” “novel,” and “publication.” As part of my search, I examined the Spectator Archives (1.5 million pages, by the way), where I found this priceless artefact: “Doe’s Oliver Twist.”

Wait, didn’t Dickens write Oliver Twist? you ask. Who on earth is “Doe”?

Welcome, Dear Reader, to the dust-heap of the archival database. Archives like the Spectator Archive use something called Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which is the process by which a computer converts scanned images of pages from something like an 1838 edition of a magazine into searchable text. It’s built in part by programs like reCAPTCHA, the obnoxious text you have to enter before buying or registering at some websites to prove that you’re a human, because only humans scream obscenities at their computers after the thirtieth failed entry.  It’s pretty incredible, when you think about it.

And it’s also terrible, as proven by the title: the Spectator Archive’s OCR rendered “Boz” as “Doe.” Wait, didn’t Dickens—

Yes, Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. But before that, he published Sketches by Boz, a series of wonderfully liberal musings on life in London. And so, when Dickens began to serialize Oliver in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837, the author’s name was “Boz.” But the Spectator Archive doesn’t know that. In fact, it doesn’t know anything. It’s a scanner, and a computer that runs OCR software, tags its garbled production, and then throws it into the ether for some random grad student to stumble across. And behind that, someone—probably a random grad student or intern—in the basement of the Spectator building on Old Queen Street—could have read this article. Because someone had to put the page on the scanner and press “go.” Behind the Spectator is a series of spectral readers: the Victorians who may have read the article in 1838, the person who scanned the article, the scanner, the computer, the series of algorithms and programs that brought me from Google to the Archive and to that article.

“Doe’s Oliver Twist” is a gold-mine for Victorian theories of reading, serial publication, and distinctions between common readers and academic readers. But in order to find it, one has to enter the right search terms, and—here’s the real punchline—those search terms may abound in a document and not show up in the algorithm because the OCR is wrong. But there’s one final twist, and it isn’t Oliver.

deadpeople

No, it’s not that, either.

In fact, “Doe’s” showed up in my search results because something was OCR’d incorrectly. While it thought it recognized one of my terms, in fact, that term does not appear in the document.

Internet archives allow scholars to dive into the dust-heap of history. In their clunky, unintuitive ways, they cough up garbage and leave us to sort the mess. And as I will argue in future posts, they fundamentally alter the ways we perform these readings. Welcome to twenty-first century history: a tangled heap of trashed treasures and treasured trash.


 

Cover image: Stone, Marcus and Dalziel. The Bibliomania of the Golden Dustman. Scanned by Phillip V. Allingham. Victorian Web.

Peter Katz is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Victorian Literature and Culture. His dissertation focuses on sensation fiction, the history of science, and the history of the novel.

Wait, what do we do?

Wait, what do we do? – Staci Stutsman (29 August 2014)

I’ve spent a lot of the summer traveling around and visiting friends and family from back home. We eat, we drink, we catch up. Inevitably, these catching-up conversations wind their way back around to one of my loved ones asking, “So, wait, what do you do?”  As an English Ph.D. student just finishing up coursework, I spend a good deal of the academic year sequestered off from the real world; I am absorbed in the latest reading assignment, pushing through a seminar paper, or rushing through that week’s to-do list.  It’s quite easy to forget that there’s a real world out there, a real world filled with actual people who live actual lives that are not dictated by the academic clock.

While there are many competing ideas about how to define the Public Humanities, I believe it means that one should connect in significant ways with the public outside of academia. It means having engaged and sustained conversations about the world, the texts we consume, and our ideas. Kristen Case notes that “the most substantial contribution of the humanities to public life does not come through empowering elite students and faculty members to reach out to their communities.” Instead, it comes from “extending the most fundamental element of a real humanities education—the power to doubt and then to reimagine.”

With this in mind, the Syracuse University English graduate students wish to launch this blog.  This blog is not meant as a benevolent vehicle through which we most graciously bestow our ideas onto the public. Rather, it will be meant as a forum through which to start conversations.  We want to demonstrate exactly “what we do” by doing it with the public.  We want to let the public in on our process as we collectively doubt and then reimagine. We want to use the skills we have gained through our humanities education—the power to think critically about the world, close read, and engage with theory—to have conversations with the public outside of our small cohort, our discipline, and the university. We are interested in hearing how other graduate students are engaging in public humanities pursuits so that we can learn from each other.  We want this conversation to be made widely available, not locked behind a pay wall. And we want to hear others’ voices.

With that said, we welcome you all to this conversation.  A monthly blogger will post weekly and these posts will reflect the diversity of English studies in general and our department specifically. We hope that you read, join in if you wish, and share with others.


Staci Stutsman is a fourth year PhD student and teaching associate in the English department.  She will be taking her qualifying exam on film and television melodrama this fall.  She teaches introductory level film and popular culture courses and spends her free time binge watching TV, board gaming, and working out.