Humanities

Special Edition: How I Misplaced my Faith

[5 minute read]

Last month, when teaching a Metathesis post I previously wrote about being a Catholic scholar, I felt like a bit of a fraud. My intention in using this post was to give my students a look at my research on a rare book they had examined for class. However, when one of my students immediately remarked that the book smelled “you know, like when you’re at Easter Mass, and the priest is using incense”, my response was one of disconnect, rather than recognition. Between submitting my syllabus for approval in April and teaching the content in September, I had misplaced my faith somewhere.

Somewhere, I say, but I know exactly where I misplaced it. I left it in the run-down Amtrak station in Schenectady, New York: a tiny room with a manual train schedule, a contaminated drinking fountain, and an air freshener that whined every quarter hour. I know I left it there because I spent my layover from Syracuse to Montréal in an airport-style seat bank, squished between my piles of luggage, reading Kaya Oakes’s The Nones Are Alright.

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My unglamorous road from Damascus

Oakes, a freelance writer and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who will be giving the annual Borgognoni lecture on Monday, compiled this collection of first-hand narratives to represent the faith processes of those who belong to (as the subtitle describes) “A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between.” The book finds its premise in the 2012 Pew report on American religion, which identified that over a third of Americans have no religious affiliation. Some are “nones” — spiritual but not religious, they might be seeking a religion where they feel at home, or they might not. Some are “dones” — spiritually burned by their previous religious affiliation, they seek no association with formal religion. Some have never had religious affiliation; some had it, but found themselves unable to believe anymore. Whatever their motivations, a large population of Americans do not identify with religion as an institution, or as we previously knew it.

Image2An updated version of the Pew Research Center’s findings from 2014.

With her book, Oakes looks beyond the numbers of the report to compile and showcase the stories of these “nones.” The pages are populated by lifelong nonbelievers, sudden converts to atheism, and exploratory practitioners of multiple faiths, as well as exiled divorcees, gay ex-Jesuits, and women scalded by institutional sexism. But as I sat in the chilly station, one story about a Jewish seminarian-turned-Jewish atheist almost seemed to be talking about me. This man had built his life and his career around institutional Judaism. But although he was able to negotiate a personal agreement whereby he would teach nontraditional classes in Hebrew school and observe Jewish holidays, after reflection, he discovered that he could not bring himself to worship a being in whose existence he could no longer believe.

TitleCoverKaya Oakes’s The Nones are Alright (Orbis Books, 2015)

Although I started my degree as a (technically) non-practicing Catholic and described myself to colleagues as more intellectually than spiritually interested in Catholicism, within a year I was fully embedded in my research on Early Modern Catholicism, both academically and personally. I felt like I’d finally embraced — with a few provisos and quid pro quos — the faith I’d grown up in for my own. I was a Catholic scholar writing about Catholicism with aspirations of tenure at a hippie Catholic college. Sometimes it all seemed a little excessive; the other Catholic scholars I interacted with (who weren’t Jesuits) led much more diverse lives. But I had a brand, a kind of a fandom, and the symmetry made so much sense.

Yet here I was, beneath the dingy fluorescent lights of the train station, where the phrase “agnostic Catholic” struck me with such a resonance that I felt as if the text had directly addressed me. I’d never been able to completely buy into large chunks of the catechism. In the meanwhile, I practiced. The rites and rituals, but also the leadership positions and committee work — I practiced and participated in these because they seemed meaningful, because I could, and because I should. I’d always just assumed, or hoped, that someday, someone would explain it all to me in a way that I could believe in. I realized now that I’d confused faith with trust: and the more I distrusted the systems of oppression embedded in the Church (or that the Church was in bed with), the less I could truly believe that it all was true. I didn’t know what I believed anymore. And so I found myself in a little city, in a tiny Amtrak station, in a kind of long-distance communion with these “nones” — these people with whom I’d sympathized, but never empathized with before – now, my new fellow travelers.

I say I’ve misplaced my faith, because I wonder if it’s still around here somewhere. Like the Winnie-the-Pooh headband I’d misplaced as a child, that I had known must have been in my childhood bedroom somewhere, and which I’m still half-convinced is in one of the boxes my family never unpacked after our big move nineteen years ago. Maybe someday I’ll find that headband; maybe one day I’ll stop feeling like an imposter when I go to mass, or write for religious magazines.

newstationLet me know if you see my faith in the lost-and-found.

Schenectady tore down its Amtrak station a few weeks after I passed through. An artist’s rendering of the future new station depicted an elegant, white, modern building, ostensibly with computerized schedules and clean drinking water. Maybe I’ll find my faith still there when I next pass through. Maybe I’ll be a believer again. Or maybe I won’t: maybe I’ll always be a seeker. Or, maybe, I’ll be somewhere in between.


Kaya Oakes will be leading a discussion for graduate students about her work on Monday, October 9, 10:30 AM – 12:30 PM in Hall of Languages 504, Syracuse University. RSVP to Ashley O’Mara (amomara@syr.edu) for readings.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

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“Remarkable Boy…I Think I’ll Eat Your Heart.”

[7-10 minute read]

The exploration of queer representation in Hannibal allows for a greater understanding of the conventions of gender and sexuality within the thriller genre. Highly-fictionalized thrillers such as Hannibal thrive on extreme relationships, but also rely heavily on non-traditional erotic relationships to further depict the extremes of personalities in its central characters. The cop-vs-serial killer subset of the thriller genre adds an element of intense, personal desire to what would otherwise be a genre categorized by rote sleuthing. So it is in Hannibal, where the main draw of the series (besides its stunning visuals) is the eroticly-charged cat-and-mouse game between FBI agent Will Graham and cunning killer Hannibal Lecter. Several characters of the series equate the furious obsession the two men share for each other to love. This suggestion troubles the relationship between the two men, indicating that their painful, self-destructive relationship is based simultaneously in love and hate. They are unable to pull away from each other, just as they are unable to completely become one. Instead, their relationship serves to complicate the viewer’s understanding of desire and the desire to kill.

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Hannibal stabs Will in the opening shots of the film Red Dragon (2002)

To fully understand the complexity of Hannibal and Will’s relationship, we must return to one of the first incarnations of this relationship in the 2002 thriller Red Dragon.[1] What is unique about the Silence of the Lambs trilogy is that no one film depicts Hannibal’s time before prison in great detail.[2] Hannibal’s crimes are defined largely through rumor and his own description; Hannibal is the arbiter of his own mythos. However, there is a significant gap in the viewer’s understanding of the relationship between Hannibal and Will. This is deftly remedied in the opening scene of Red Dragon. Over the opening credits, Will Graham, here played by Edward Norton, comes to the shuddering realization that the mysterious killer is eating his victims — and that the killer is none other than his close confidante. At the crescendo of Will’s understanding, signified by the drawing of his gun, Hannibal sinks his knife into Will’s stomach. Despite the violence of the action, there is unmistakable tenderness as well. The stabbing mirrors a lover’s embrace; Hannibal rests his chin on Will’s shoulder, hushing him gently. In this scene, Hannibal gains no visible pleasure from hurting Will. Instead, he is careful, tender. “Remarkable boy,” he says. “I think I’ll eat your heart.” The reverent, intimate delivery of the line, coupled with the way Hannibal holds the fallen Will around the waist like a dance partner suggests a fond tenderness that goes beyond the bounds of homosocial friendship. Their intimacy serves to hint at a homoerotic bond that is only briefly touched upon in Red Dragon.

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Hannibal embracing Will

This highly-charged bond is given far more screen time and consideration in Hannibal. The two men are far closer in age, diminishing the mentor/pupil relationship present in Red Dragon[3] and emphasizing a more equal footing. Furthermore, the first two seasons of Hannibal take place prior to the moment of understanding in Red Dragon that culminates in Will’s stabbing. The challenge of Hannibal then is to balance the painful anticipation of this “breakup” with the pleasure of watching the budding relationship between two fascinating, electric men. And a pleasure it is. Hannibal and Will have a powerful chemistry that obsesses the narrative. They share intense, longing looks, have little regard for each other’s personal space, and have many moments of strangely endearing domesticity. Hannibal is always cooking for Will, seeking to impress him with increasingly elaborate presentations. Food in Hannibal is always a matter of seduction and charm, a way for Hannibal to exert power over his guests (Will most frequently) while simultaneously providing them with nourishment and artistic pleasure.

Remark3Hannibal preparing a rare non-human delicacy for Will.

The homoeroticism of food and eating crescendos in Hannibal’s second season, when Hannibal and Will share a meal of songbirds eaten whole. In an interview with Logo, director Bryan Fuller comments on this feast below:

We really want to explore the intimacy of these two men in an unexpected way without sexualizing them, but including a perception of sexuality that the cinema is actually portraying to the audience more than the characters are. There’s a scene at dinner where we were tackling in the edit bay because it was so transparently homoerotic. They were doing something that was not sex or anywhere near sex, but it was shot so suggestively that they may as well have been…

This scene lingers lovingly over open mouths, swallowing throats, and blissful expressions. In mood, framing, and aesthetic, it is a sexual scene. And yet, everyone’s clothes remain on. The evident homoeroticism of the scene is tempered by its modesty. There is power and seduction, but the lack of sexual acts and romantic physical gestures such as kissing leaves it clear that the relationship is not a traditionally romantic one.

For LGBT audiences, representation in film and television is an obstacle course of flirtation with canon. This battle with on-screen depictions of queer couples is often waylaid by a phenomenon known as queerbaiting. Queerbaiting teases the viewer with hints to a homosexual relationship in order to entice LGBTQ viewers, but this potential relationship ultimately remains unfulfilled. (Shows such as Supernatural are notorious for queerbaiting its fans.) Despite accusations of queerbaiting when it became apparent that central characters Will and Hannibal’s relationship would never be a physical one, queer fans nonetheless rejoiced at Hannibal. While Will and Hannibal would not explore a homosexual relationship on-screen, which frustrated some fans, many others were content in the highly-aesthetic, subtext-heavy portrayal of Hannibal and Will’s relationship.

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“Hannigram” fan art by DeviantArt user Look-ling

Fans of this relationship, which is affectionately dubbed “Hannigram,” are quick to admit that the relationship between the two men is certainly an abusive one. For all of the intimacies between Will and Hannibal, their relationship is one built on manipulation, violence, and entrapment. However, for many, this is part of the attraction. The intensity and darkness is appealing, especially with two lead actors with significant fanbases. Many elements of “Hannigram” are aesthetic; there are large sects of fanworks dedicated to the sheer beauty of the show and its actors. However, the appeal of “Hannigram” is not wholly artistic. The cat-and-mouse element of their relationship, emphasized by a history of serial killer/cop films with similar relationships, is characterized by danger and seduction. In a show about the art of violence, “Hannigram” dances alongside the violence, rather than shying away from it. The honesty of the appeal of “Hannigram” in (largely female) fans allows for a deeper exploration of the intimacy of violence between Will and Hannibal.

This violence culminates in a stabbing, just as in Red Dragon. In Red Dragon, the stabbing is presented as a shock. In Hannibal, however, there is great anticipation for the moment. While this could be, in part, due to lingering audience familiarity with the source material, it is more likely a reading of the tone of the scene. Red Dragon amplified the shocking element, playing off of Will’s horrified revelation about Hannibal’s guilt. In Hannibal, however, we anticipate the betrayal. Will has spent the season desperately, obsessively working to prove Hannibal’s guilt. And yet, when the time comes to make the arrest, Will balks; he reveals the ploy to Hannibal. When he finds that Hannibal has not run but instead done grave violence to Jack and Alana, Will is heartbroken. “You were supposed to leave,” he says, his voice low and devastated. Hannibal responds by touching the side of Will’s, and stabs Will like an apology, like a betrayal.

Remark5Hannibal pulls Will close after stabbing him

The embrace that Will and Hannibal fall into speaks to the unsustainable nature of their relationship. They are so deeply caught up in each other’s obsession that they are desperately linked. They are fated to trap each other. While their romance departs from traditional depictions, Will and Hannibal are still star-crossed, their mutual erotic obsession only just beginning.


Next week: Seduction and Devastation After the Betrayal

[1] There is also an adaptation of Red Dragon even before Silence of the Lambs, a thriller titled Manhunter released in 1986. However, this did not enjoy the same popularity as the later Harris-based film trilogy.

[2] A later film, Hannibal Rising (2007) attempts to remedy this, but it is considered separate from the trilogy.

[3]This is not to say that mentor/pupil relationships lack homoerotism. Rather, this particular relationship is strengthened by a different power dynamic.

The Erotics of Evil

Among the harmful tropes of Hollywood, the figure of the Sissy Villain is one tainting LGBT representation in film and television. Despite the improvements of LGBT rights outside of film, the image of men in women’s clothing is one that pervades the genre of horror in particular. Such figures at Buffalo Bill, Cillian Murphy’s John/Emma of Peacock, or James McAvoy’s multiple-identity’d character of the controversial Split perpetuate this notion of dangerous men being made all the more terrifying by their eschewing of gender norms by dressing in women’s clothing. The argument made by these films is clear — men in dresses are dangerous, perhaps even more dangerous than brilliant psychologist-cannibals.

hannibal-wallpaper70664Promotional image for NBC’s Hannibal

Because of this, a second, more subtle argument is made by Hannibal’s narrative about the “right” way to be a killer. The pop-culture juggernaut of Silence of the Lambs isn’t the terrifying Buffalo Bill, or even the feminist darling Clarice Starling, but rather the slick and seductive Hannibal Lecter, whose presence in psychological thrillers spans three books, four films, a television series, and endless fanworks. The audience — casual viewers and “Fannibals” alike — is charmed by Lecter, largely due to the way he departs from other popular fictional killers. Lecter is not a brute: he does not resemble the slasher-killers of the gory teen film franchises; he is no Freddy Kruegar or Michael Meyers. Nor is he the pure psychological villain such as those made popular by the Saw franchise. Instead, Hannibal performs a meeting of the two, all of their strengths and seemingly none of their weaknesses.

Though he is never seen working out, Hannibal is physically fit, shown to be extremely strong and agile; he is able to easily overpower police officers and threatening patients, and, like any proper serial killer, he shakes off injuries that would cripple anyone else. Despite this strength, Hannibal is lean; his bone structure is that of a dancer. His physical presence is catlike and easily predatory. This effortless strength is the kind of appealing danger that typically befits the slender femme fatale, but Hannibal subverts this by having its hero-villain emulate these traits. His graceful-killer performance is further emphasized by the raw, calculating intelligence he displays. When his cannibalistic secret is revealed to Jack, Lecter attempts to fight his way out.  When FBI agent Jack Crawford puts him in a stranglehold, Hannibal goes limp, playing dead. In Jack’s moment of ensuing confusion and hesitation, Hannibal takes up a piece of broken glass, stabbing Jack in the side of the throat. As Crawford bleeds out in Hannibal’s pantry, Lecter is able to make his escape.

hannibal-clip-1Hannibal uses an improvised weapon in his fight with Jack Crawford

Logically, Hannibal should not be able to overpower a highly trained federal agent, but his combination of strength and wit allow him to move beyond the killer roles his gender suggests. He deliberately avoids the highly-phallic, hypermasculine killer forms, seen in Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, Pyramid Head, and many others, as does he avoid the physical frailty of the feminized mastermind. Although Hannibal embodies the sissy killer, his success[1] in the television series speaks to his performance of this trope. He navigates between men and women’s worlds with ease, and confidence. This confidence is what is most critical. Hannibal is never shown to struggle. His acts are effortless. Those that struggle to express themselves, fashionably, romantically, sexually, or otherwise, are portrayed as desperate, fawning, trying too hard. Hannibal paints a clear image of its wannabe villains — either you’ve got it, or you don’t. And Hannibal has “it” in spades.

This charm is instinct, intuition. Hannibal is a natural leader, drawing moths to his flame. It is predatory power. He is described by a childhood acquaintance as “charming, like a cub is charming before it’s learned to be one of the big cats.” His therapist describes him as wearing “a well-tailored person-suit.” His danger is magnetic, sensuous. Even in his most threatening moments, the men and women surrounding Hannibal are drawn to him. He works a cobra-dance, expertly weaving aesthetic, philosophy, and manipulation together to entangle his victims. And yet, they are glad to be wound in his web. The violence (and resulting cannibalism) is filmed like sex: lush, lingering shots of stolen breath and trembling bodies.

hannibal-182Hannibal experiencing a completely innocuous projector malfunction

Though Hannibal’s victims are male and female in similar ratios, his only (onscreen) sexual relationship is with a woman, whom he later attempts to murder. However, he engages in his erotic, sensual seduction with men and women alike. In an interview  with Entertainment Weekly, director Brian Fuller opened up on his view of Hannibal’s sexual preferences. “I think Hannibal is a very broadly spectrumed human being/fallen angel, who probably is capable and interested in everything humanity has to offer.” This interpretation of Hannibal positions him in a unique position of the sissy villain. Being presented as a figure with attractions all over the gender spectrum both embroils Hannibal in gender and distances him from it. He never indicates a preference for men or women in particular, but in this lack of preference, Hannibal is presented as a man who samples from any and all areas of the spectrums of gender and sexuality.

When not trying to kill and eat his paramours, Hannibal performs the role of an attentive lover, acting with sensitivity and romance. He remembers food and drink preferences, washes his lover’s hair, teaches them to play instruments. He draws beautiful European landscapes, plays the harpsichord, and, of course, cooks. Although it is often used as a way of disposing of his victims, Hannibal’s love of cooking also expresses a departure from gender norms. He delights in feeding his friends (and, on more than one occasion, feeding his friends to his friends). He uses food for care-taking, for seduction, for friendship, and for art. Such expertise furthers his aura of effortless skill, and the appeal of his power to those around him. He works with precision and tenderness — many shots see him lingering lovingly over smells and tastes, clearly impressed by his own work. (And with Hannibal, we know that’s the only opinion he truly values.) This delicate care is a humanizing moment of tenderness, one that allows him to embrace his gentler side.

tumblr_n384sbtQkJ1tx4u06o3_1280Hannibal enjoying the fruits of his labors

Hannibal is the true Renaissance man, an exquisite dandy in bespoke suits. Alongside the cannibalism and culinary skill, Hannibal is known for his stunning fashion sense. His suits are finely tailored, the colors and patterns unique, precise, and often mirroring the color scheme of the episode. Dedicated fans have compiled a list of images for a complete look at Hannibal’s wardrobe over the television series. Hannibal’s suits tend to depart from traditional male attire, often featuring colors and patterns most would not attempt. Hannibal wears them with confidence, embracing a look that is not traditionally masculine. He also wears ascots and unironic bowties, many articles of clothing that are reminiscent of queer menswear. And yet, his unique style is celebrated among straight and cisgender male fans. Men’s fashion websites even offer instruction on “How to Dress Like Hannibal Lecter”.[2] Through fashion, Hannibal is shown to thread a delicate dance through gender expression that is very often lauded by those who would never describe themselves as queer.

hannibal_3Promotional image featuring Hannibal Lecter for the NBC television series

In Hannibal’s nuanced performance of gender, he embodies the danger of the Sissy Villain while also working to appeal to an audience across the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality. However, rather than a Buffalo Bill-esque performance that disturbs both audience and characters, Hannibal is deeply appealing to both. This suggests that there is a correct amount of sissiness to be played to still remain attractive and desirable, even when the subject in question is a serial killer and cannibal. For Hannibal, his effortless performance allows him to glide through gender in the “fallen angel” manner his creator intended.


[1] Here, success is defined as Hannibal’s ability to escape danger and pursue his sadistic goals.

[2] The how-to guide is prefaced not by a disclaimer that emulating serial killers is wrong, but that Hannibal was canceled due to the fact that “most people would rather the quality of McDonald’s over the quality of a 5-star restaurant.” Hannibal would approve of such haughtiness

 

 

The Queer Response to Trauma in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal

The representation of queer figures in cinema is politically fraught, with the anxieties of difference manifesting in portrayals of queer figures. These anxieties are particularly keen in the horror genre where the other is demonized. This other represents the danger of the unknown: race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender presentation. Within horror, these characteristics of the other are representative of perceived cultural threats, dangers to our ideologies. Following the trends of villainy in horror films can create a fascinating map of American anxieties throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. For this week, I shall be focusing exclusively on the representations of queer figures in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 thriller Silence of the Lambs and Bryan Fuller’s 2013 television series Hannibal, both adapted from Thomas Harris’ popular novels. I believe that the vital differences in the queer audience’s reception of these two works illustrates the key difference between the queer-coded figures in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.

Due to the genre-typical violence involved in Harris’ works, extremes are to be expected, particularly in the others who fill the roles of antagonists. For Harris, it is not enough to have Buffalo Bill be a serial killer, not when he’ll be forced to act as a foil to the legendary killer-cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Therefore, Buffalo Bill embodies all extremes. Not only is he exceptionally violent, he is also sexually deviant; viewers are shaken by the shock of his perversity. When recalling images of the film, it is not the cannibalism that shocks viewers, but the memory of Buffalo Bill’s dance. Draped in gauzy fabric, wearing the scalp of one of his victims, Bill makes love to his reflection, admiring his nipple rings. “I’d fuck me,” he concludes, posing nude with his penis tucked between his legs. With the camera in the position of the mirror, the scene is deeply uncomfortable, voyeuristic.

Amid the extreme gore and violence of the films, this scene stands out as somewhat more explicit, more difficult to watch. While Bill is clearly wearing the scalp of one of his victims, it is his atypical nudity that disturbs the viewer (such that I didn’t notice the tucking in the scene until rewatching the film several years after the first time I saw it – I always looked away in embarrassment). The othering here is that of alternate gender presentation, displaying it as deviant. The scene is clearly understood – men who dress in women’s clothing are to be feared as figures of sexual deviance. Buffalo Bill takes this a horrifying step further by dressing literally in the body of a woman, her scalp and ultimately her skin.

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Buffalo Bill’s (in)famous dance.

There is some minimal effort made within Silence of the Lambs to suggest that Bill is not trans.[1] While profiling the killer, Hannibal states “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” Indelicate language aside, Hannibal suggests here that “Buffalo Bill” believes he trans as a result of trauma – that his own self-hatred is enough to alter his gender. However, Hannibal states that this trauma alone is not enough for Bill to be authentically trans, that Bill does not perform trans-ness correctly. Even Clarice Starling agrees that Bill does not fit her understanding, citing that “transsexuals are very passive.” Buffalo Bill does not, evidently, perform “trans-ness” correctly. The film suggests, rather, that it is Bill’s own psychosis that leads to his desire to play dress-up with women’s clothing, hair, and skin. His goals are grotesque, skinning women to make a flesh-suit from their bodies, but Bill’s gender presentation and homosexual relationships are treated as a symptom of his monstrosity, rather than a facet of his identity.

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Buffalo Bill as the queer-coded villain.

In emphatic objection to this characterization, LGBT activists protested the 1992 Academy Awards. While there are a few transgender women who have adopted Buffalo Bill as a trans icon (some even mirroring the character’s tattoos), most regard the film as a harmful continuation of the queer killer trope. Without adequate representation in the media, characters like the effeminate, queer-coded Buffalo Bill are reluctant sources of queer media.

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Margot is introduced through her implied sexual assault.

Within the novels that Hannibal is loosely based off, the character of Margot Verger is another queer icon of questionable origin. The Margot Verger of Harris’ text is exceptionally masculine in her gender presentation. Margot is heavily muscled, and Starling even wonders to herself if Margot “tapes down her clitoris.” Again, this fixation on altered genitalia shows how both the straight-coded characters and the viewers are troubled by nonbinary gender presentation (or, in the case of Margot Verger, even the thought of nonbinary presentation). To further her masculine appearance, Margot also heavily abuses steroids and hormones, pumping up her muscles to the point that she has rendered herself infertile. Margot’s chemical use is difficult to read. Some read the character as trans in the same disbelieved vein as Buffalo Bill. Others view her as a lesbian, as her canonical romantic and sexual relationship is with another woman. The exact nature of her identity is left deliberately ambiguous. What is more clearly suggested is that this queerness is the result of sexual trauma sustained at a young age, from her brother. Rather than being “aggressively” queer, Margot is defensively queer, eliminating the parts of herself that were most subject to abuse. This refusal to accept bodily vulnerability is relatable for many queer viewers, and yet it also posits an extremely harmful view of queerness, suggesting that Margot is queer due to her trauma, rather than her queerness existing as another facet of her identity.

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A much more femme Margot.

In Hannibal, Fuller worked to change Margot’s presentation to make it clear to the viewer that her queerness was inherent, not a product of trauma. In lieu of her masculine book appearance, Margot is a china-doll femme fatale in riding pants and lush lipstick. Despite the tortures of her brother, Margot remains a collected, intelligent, dry-humored force in the narrative. Her power is in her rationality, her ability to manipulate her brother through her knowledge of his sadism. This change was Fuller’s attempt to restore a queer voice in the narrative. In a 2014 interview with Collider, Fuller states:

In the book, Margot is a lesbian character, but it’s not clear if she is transgendered, or if she is just so pumped full of steroids and hormones that she’s become more masculine in her appearance. So, what I didn’t want to do is say that being transgendered or being gay is a direct result of horrific sexual trauma, because it’s not. I think being transgendered and being homosexual are natural things that occur in the creation of biological beings.

In Hannibal, Margot is presented as a deeply traumatized individual. After the death of her tycoon father, Margot is trapped living with her sadistic brother – the sole recipient of her father’s enormous fortune. Per their father’s will, the Verger fortune will go only to a male heir, or else the entire estate will be transferred to the show’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Westboro Baptist Church. This puts Margot in a difficult position. As she states, she “has the wrong parts, and the wrong proclivities for parts” to ever hope for escape from her brother. (When she attempts to overcome her “proclivities” long enough to allow Will Graham to impregnate her, her brother immediately drugs her and performs a violent hysterectomy.)

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Despite Margot’s extensive traumatic history, there is never any indication given that her queerness is due to her trauma; rather, her queerness flourishes despite it. Together with Hannibal’s defenestrated lover, Alana, a passionate and fulfilling romance blooms between the two women, seemingly in defiance of the trauma they experienced. While many female romances on-screen are either fetishistic or overtly chaste, Margot and Alana’s sex scene is both beautiful and bizarre. Their nude bodies kaleidoscope into each other, the shot a twisting tangle of ecstatic limbs. And, due to the necessary censorship in television, all genitals, binary or otherwise, are obscured. This allows the viewer to embrace the emotional component to the scene rather than wholly on the physical.

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Margot and Alana’s relationship is introduced with this hypnotic scene

Together, Alana and Margot manipulate and overcome their captors, escaping from the mansion with a baby of their own. (In a violent off-screen moment, Margot harvests her brother’s sperm by sodomizing him with a cattle prod, and uses that sperm to impregnate Alana, effectively finding a loophole in her father’s will.) With queer female character deaths at an all-time high, Alana and Margot’s escape marked a welcome shift, and queer fans rejoiced. The happy ending to a queer couple on a deeply unhappy show was a victory, and yet there is still enormous ground to tread. In a perfect world, Margot will be allowed to present in any gender she chooses, rather than being feminized for an easier narrative. Buffalo Bill’s gender dysphoria would be treated as a serious facet of his character, and the trauma implied to create queerness will be understood as queerness alongside trauma.

Next week: Exploring the Erotics of Evil: The Seduction of Hannibal Lecter

[1] “Trans” here refers to the broad spectrum of nonbinary gender identities.


Molly is an MA student pursuing her degree in English Literature with a focus on Game Studies and New Media. She uses these fields to explore her additional interests of race, gender, sexuality, and LGBT representation. She has also studied Victorian literature, the Gothic, and 19th century American literature. Her teaching interests include film, graphic novels, and popular 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.

Clark’s

I’m at a local beer place. They have three dozen beers on draft and a menu that consists of roast beef, roast turkey, pickled eggs, and maybe sometimes beef stew. I am tired, I am breaking my alcohol fast, and I am trying to revise a shitty document into something less shitty so that when I meet with my adviser tomorrow I can look him in the eye without this defensive lump in my throat.

There’s a guy I can hear out by the bar. He sounds like he knows everyone here, but I’ve never seen him.

I haven’t written anything new in a couple hours. I’ve watched some car reviews instead. I ate my sandwich. I’ve had two beers which, because of my fast, feel like four. Maybe I’ve overshot it.

The loud guy sees my local sports team apparel. He initiates local sports team chant at point blank. There is no one around to help me, it’s just me alone, and this man needs a response. I want to oblige. I repeat local sports team chant but am quiet about it. He tries again. I am again quiet about it. Another time; I laugh mumble something about being worn out. He punches my arm and says “I didn’t know they made introverts in Buffalo” before taking a seat with some people who said they would be leaving in four, not five minutes.

The guy making my beef and cheddar says, “You hiding upstairs?”

“Yeah.”

“WiFi?”

“Mostly Word.”

“Work?”

“Yeah.”

“Cheers.”

I have watched four different car reviews: Honda S2000. Ford Focus ST. 1991 Honda CRX Si. Corvette C7. There’s a whole YouTube channel of these things that takes each of these cars as a case study in American masculinity. I cannot tell if any of this ironic. I am pretty sure it is, but I think if it isn’t, I probably still like these videos. I wonder what the loud guy drives.

My Word document reads:

“My project will argue

The Questions my project will answer are”

~ ~ ~ ~

In a year’s time the local beer place will have closed already, suddenly. I’ll be there on its final night sitting with colleagues and friends, new puppy getting passed around the table like a peace pipe. We’ll be sitting outside on some crappy metal chairs that will soon be sold off at a discount to pay the bar’s debts. The weather will still be warm and nobody will have that overworked look yet.

There are conflicting reports about the reason for the bar’s closure. The owner is getting too old for the restaurant game, the renovation of our downtown theater hasn’t driven as much traffic as expected, the space is too big, downtown parking is a pain in the ass, constant construction put a dent in their summer clientele, etc. I get the feeling, drinking a beer there outside, that this place just got tired. Thought it had gotten in shape after a long hiatus, went for the comeback, and found that our city had moved on. The mixed signals are unfortunate – it seemed like everyone was excited for the grand opening, buzz was solid, and the pickled eggs were good. I go in to order another drink; there are only a few taps left alive. A little ways down the bar from me a couple middle aged guys talk over their wives about how this all makes sense even though it’s a shame. They confess to the bartender that they didn’t get down here often enough. He shrugs, starts talking about a six-pack of craft beer from Vermont he recently got a hold of and talks about moving somewhere else. A different guy hands me my beer, puts it on my tab and I head back outside.

There have been a string of new restaurant openings here in the past year. Leihs downtown, a place called the Evergreen, Aster, The York; each one starts up with the energy of a gauntlet thrown, daring our city to let another establishment die off. Their menus are complicated and sporadically local. Utica greens and chicken riggies. None of them have wi-fi and a quiet corner to watch a YouTube man crack dirty jokes about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Lee Iacocca, which makes sense. That seems like it was a bad business model all along.

I’m nursing a stout that I don’t like very much because it’s all they have left. There aren’t any more beef and cheddars, no stew, no pickled eggs. Some people show up with take out Chinese, stay for a few minutes and move on back home after petting the pup.

~ ~ ~ ~

For now though, this place is open. My Word document currently says things like:

“Methodologically, I intend to approach this dissertation with feet firmly planted in that most traditional of literary practices, close reading.”

and

“I wonder, briefly, if Lara has misgivings about her short shorts.”

and

“Video games are the textual lingua franca of a networked society.”

I am throwing half cooked spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks. Loud local sports guy has left, it’s almost midnight. Some dudebros downstairs are arguing about how they would rank the Star Wars films in terms of quality. I suggest that The Force Awakens was way less fan servicey than the most recent Star Trek films and for that should be commended. They don’t agree and I go get a third drink before packing in my computer for the night.

The best thing about this local beer place is its ring toss game. In the dining room there are two brass hooks mounted to two different posts. A heavy metal ring hangs from a bit of string above the hooks. The goal here is to swing the ring in such a way that it settles into place on the hook instead of glancing off with a clang. It’s the perfect drunk game. There’s a sweet spot you have to feel out as the night goes on where you’re just tipsy enough to really feel the weight of that ring in your hand, but not so drunk that you can’t line up your shot. After the third beer I check to see where I am. First shot, miss, second shot miss, move to the other post, hole-in-one.

I feel good. Think, the fact of this place proves this city isn’t all bad. Think, as long as this place stay open there’s a chance I’ll finish this degree. It’s cold outside, it’s January. The temperature gives me hiccups as soon as I step outside. The tables have been put away because who wants to sit outside on a night like this?


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University where he writes about video games and other things.

Empathy and the Danger(s) Disengagement

 

 

 

For the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping a list.

Admittedly, it’s not an original concept, being a mental exercise adapted from one of many optimistic Pinterest boards encouraging meditative mindfulness and gratitude in the upcoming New Year. Instead of coming up with a soon-to-be neglected resolution, this effort at self-improvement requires little more than keeping a record of positive memories, noteworthy events, or otherwise “good things.”

In addition to brown paper packages tied up with strings, my list of “Good Things to Remember from 2016” ranged from personal achievements, to exciting sport victories, cultural and artistic high points, and celebrated milestones: in February, the Carolina Panthers – my home state’s football team – made it to Super Bowl L, where a spectacular halftime performance by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter called attention to the Black Lives Matter activist movement on the biggest stage in televised sports. In April, Knowles-Carter released her powerful visual album, Lemonade, an unflinching tribute to black women, honoring their voices, and acknowledging the struggle of living while black in the United States. My sister was married in May, my brother graduated from high school in June, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s transformative musical, Hamilton, was nominated for sixteen Tony awards, and won eleven. After nearly eight months of intensive study, at the end of September I successfully passed my department’s Ph.D. Oral Qualifying Exam, and I subsequently took an impromptu celebratory trip to visit an old friend in Halifax.

Looking back, however, it’s easy to see the gaps in the record. Sometime around early June, the number of items in the list began to dwindle, and around mid-November, the documentation completely stops.

2016

Unsurprisingly, as pieces of cultural commentary, Internet memes are more productive and illuminating than many realize.

To say that the year 2016 has been fraught with tension is a tremendous understatement.[1] As Thomas Paine wrote, these are the times that try men’s [and women’s] souls, and in these past twelve months, it seems like we’ve run the gauntlet, a hundred times over. This is the year that Taiwan may be the first East Asian nation to achieve marriage equality, and the year that the deadliest shooting in American history was carried out against LGBTQ+ people at the Pulse Club in Orlando. This was the year of the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, of the spread of far-right populist fervor across Europe, and the rise of white supremacist ideologies in the highest political offices and pulpits in the United States. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw, for the first time, a Refugee Olympic Team competing as independent participants, and this is the year that the Syrian Refugee Crisis reached its most desperate peak.

Political forces and governmental stratagems seemingly out of control dominated the domestic and international landscape, plaguing media outlets with misinformation and fake news. We watched tragedies unfold in real time,[2] counted the deaths of too many beloved and inspiring figures, and anxiously waited for the other shoe to drop, and keep on dropping.

In the face of all this, we have prepared to resist, and continue to call others and ourselves to higher standards of vigilance and accountability. We must continue to read, to think, to create, to teach and engage. This month’s series on empathy and education has attempted to provide a space for admitting our fears, confronting difficult questions regarding possible failures, and supply encouragement for the task now, and ahead.

Every winter, my family stages a viewing of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the scene captured above, from The Two Towers, has always proven to be enormously compelling. Coming at the end of one of the film’s two climactic battle scenes, Frodo’s haggard vulnerability and Sam’s motivational speech resonates with pathos, and displays the power of oral tradition, the written word, and the driving force of narrative in general.

While stories may drive us, oftentimes, “most fantasy provides an excursion from the normal order of things, in the same way that carnival and Saturnalia were an inversion of the normal order, a letting-off of steam in order to facilitate a return to business-as-usual.”[3] Following the Electoral College’s dispiriting conformity to historical tradition, and several weeks after the initial shock, we find ourselves now couched in the festive spirit of holiday celebrations, and all-too-ready to turn over a new leaf. It may be tempting to “get on with our lives,” as the president-elect lately urges, and to pull back from the front lines, and not necessarily forget, but forgive and quietly disengage.

In times like these, although stories remain important, I think more often of the impassioned plea Merry issues to the Ents on their decision to abstain from action, to “weather such things as we have always done.”

“You are young and brave,” the hobbit is told, by much elder and wiser folk, then cautioned, “But your part in this tale is over. Go back to your home.” His friend Pippin tries to reason with him and says, “It’s too big for us. What can we do in the end?”

Fiction can no longer serve only as an escape from reality; academics can no longer afford to distance themselves from that which appears too startling, too surreal,[4] too beyond our capabilities to successfully engage. My list of “Good Things to Remember from 2017” may be a bit more difficult to attend to, but one of the first things at the top of that list will be the opportunity to keep on teaching, and to lead students through learning about race and literary texts, to seek out difficult yet productive discussions, and to foster communication and understanding.

There is good to look after, and our part in this tale is never too big to fight for.

[1] For those in need of hopeful optimism, it is equally important to recall that a lot of positive changes have been put into effect this year. To begin, here is another list, this one detailing “99 Reasons 2016 was a Good Year” (https://medium.com/future-crunch/99-reasons-why-2016-has-been-a-great-year-for-humanity-8420debc2823#.6zrnibfvu)

[2] In an insightful piece on the consciousness of language use and suicide, Chinese author Yiyun Li complicates the concept of a tragedy in terms of private pain and public acknowledgement: “That something is called a tragedy, however, means that it is no longer personal. One weeps out of private pain, but only when the audience swarms in and claims understanding and empathy do people call it a tragedy. One’s grief belongs to oneself; one’s tragedy, to others” (“To Speak is to Blunder.” The New Yorker: Personal History. 2 January 2017 Issue).

[3] This fascinating article analyzes the differences of empathetic and intellectual effort necessary when engaging in the genres of science-fiction versus fantasy, and analyzes the models of resistance offered up by key texts from each genre: https://godsandradicals.org/2016/12/03/models-for-resistance/

[4] Ultimately, instead of “fascism,” Merriam-Webster selected “surreal” as the 2016 word of the year.

 

Empathy and Education: Fight or Flight

“A good teacher will lead the horse to water; an excellent teacher will make the horse thirsty first.” – Mario Cortes

Inside the academic classroom, we instructors face a number of pedagogical challenges, ranging from constant apprehension regarding proper time management, to confusion over how to best incorporate new media technologies in diverse lesson plans. If the multitudes of our profession may be encompassed by so simplistic a maxim, a good amount of the efforts toward leading our students toward the proverbial well of knowledge involves acknowledging the limits of our ability to engage, and the students’ ability to stay engaged.

Try as we might to liven up lectures on nineteenth-century textual portrayals of class and gender struggles, or lead animated discussion on symbolic content and elements of stylistic form, just to name a couple of personal examples, the passion of an instructor may not always yield a similar investment from those they teach. Here, the learning curve inherent in pedagogy applies to us as well. We acknowledge that students may have chosen to take our course for the purpose of filling out credit hours, anticipate the potential difficulties of teaching the disinterested, and yet do our best to construct inclusive syllabi, encourage open discussion, and foster an environment defined by dialectical learning.

Even in the face of such apathy, within the classroom setting, an instructor retains the authority to insist on certain standards of behavior. Students are expected to pay attention to the material, despite their personal level of enthusiasm for the subject, or lack thereof, and often must display their acquired knowledge through active participation.

Outside of the classroom, however, the authority to instruct has always been a tenuous thing at best, undercut by the style of one’s delivery, the power of one’s rhetoric, and the ongoing struggle to make one’s voice heard at all. There are no quantitative grades to earn in what so many have termed the “real world” outside of academic institutions; no controlled learning environment in which anyone is obligated to respect the notion of a “safe space,” and certainly no imperative to engage in critical discussion or any measure of empathetic self-reflection.

Moreover, in the wake of the U.S. Presidential election, the anti-intellectual impulse now seems to be morphing into a frightening American norm. Never mind leading horses to water – in a “post truth” world, if words aren’t enough, what is left?

fine

Artist: K.C. Green, 2013 Source: Gunshowcomic.com

Empathy, many say. Following a seemingly never-ending election season distinguished early on by threatening speech, stunningly vitriolic ideological premises, and outlandish promises now turned very real dangers, those grieving for the loss of a democratic ideal were told to empathize with those we had grown to view with fear, anger, and even disgust. Among increasingly convoluted dissections of what the concept of empathy means,[1] voices from all over the political spectrum, mainstream news outlets, and media platforms urged those on the “losing” side to swallow the bitter pill – at least for the next four years – and unite. Accept. Get over it.

In other words: don’t fight.

But for many of us, there is no other choice. At the end of the day, we are thinkers. Letting things go unquestioned, unexamined, and unanalyzed is something we cannot do. Easy acceptance and complacency go hand-in hand, joined together in a desperate flight from grappling with our own mistakes, and pushing to change what we cannot tolerate, much less endure.

Instructors, researchers, public thinkers and scholars affiliated with the academy have all been students at one point or another. As such, we consider the intellectual process as one requiring constant and self-conscious revision – not only must we often admit our own shortcomings, but we must also anticipate learning from those we may initially oppose.

Crafting a common vocabulary is perhaps the first step toward building a rapport with bored or uninterested students, but deconstructing the complexities of hegemonic ideology and the semantic battle over what has been fashionably debated and dismissed as “identity politics” takes the concentrated work of months, if not years. Effective communication becomes much more difficult with the assumption that empathy and cooperative understanding rests upon mutual mute compliance, instead of examination and accountability. Engaging in productive discussions with political opponents is far from impossible. Historically, however, conversations require equal measures of willingness to listen and learn from all those involved.

How do we reach those who see no reward in critical reflection, and harbor no desire for intellectual engagement? To what extent are we meant to empathize and “break bread” [2] with those who would much rather imagine the well of knowledge empty, than deign to be led anywhere?

In an Op-Ed piece from The New York Times, R. Derek Black shares another personal narrative tracing the unlearning of hatred-driven ideology through experiences at a liberal college:

“Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there – people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me – I began to realize the damage I had done. Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it…

People have approached me looking for a way to change the minds of Trump voters, but I can’t offer any magic technique. That kind of persuasion happens in person-to-person interactions and it requires a lot of honest listening on both sides. For me, the conversations that led me to change my views started because I couldn’t understand why anyone would fear me…

I never would have begun my own conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those I interacted with. Now is the time for me to pass on that outrage by clearly and unremittingly denouncing the people who used a wave of white anger to take the White House.”[3]

On one hand, there are no easy answers. But on the other, admittedly, easy answers aren’t our forte. We press for deeper truths than that.

Buck up, Academics. We have our work cut out for us.


[1] In this short interview promoting his new monograph, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom attempts to distinguish between what he terms “cognitive empathy” and “emotional empathy.” The former, he argues, is a mental exercise based upon rational thought; the latter is based solely in affective feeling, and actually “distorts goodness” in “direct[ing] our moral decision-making [and] reflects our biases.” Bloom’s argument, as presented in this interview, contradicts itself when he disparages empathetic feeling, yet then doubles back and claims “We need love, compassion and kindness.”

[2] In what has since been criticized as a short-sighted commentary reflecting a lack of knowledge on the lived experiences of Black (and fellow minority) Americans, Trevor Noah’s Op-Ed piece boldly states, “We should give no quarter to intolerance and injustice in this world, but we can be steadfast on the subject of Mr. Trump’s unfitness for office while still reaching out to reason with his supporters. We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve opposed us.” (“Trevor Noah: Let’s Not Be Divided. Divided People Are Easier to Rule.” The New York Times. 5 December 2016.)

[3] “Why I Left White Nationalism.” Black, R. Derek. The New York Times. 26 November 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

Empathy and Education: The Double Burden (Part II)

In the numerous fields comprising that artistic and cultural field we call “the humanities,” we who self-identify as scholars must constantly be on the defense regarding our own choice of profession. An increasingly corporatized world sees banks encouraging ballerinas and actors to become engineers and botanists instead, and federal agencies such as the CBO actively suggesting reducing federal funding for the Arts and Humanities, since “such programs may not provide social benefits that equal or exceed their costs.”

This cacophony joins with countless other voices in our own lives: those cautioning us about the shrinking opportunities of the academic job market, who gently chastise us for dabbling in a passion instead of pursuing a career that will prove economically viable, and otherwise reminding us that the humanities are not where the dollars – or pounds or euros, among other forms of financial credit – lie. There is no Wall Street of literature, no actual stock market of philosophical ideas, and little funding to be found in dusty bookshelves and puzzling over words, ideas, and their meanings.

Why even bother?

As the old adage goes, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” A bastardized proverb, perhaps, with uncertain origins, and appropriated right and left – often by the political and ideological Left and Right – for various ends. The myth of linear progress haunts us with these lessons of the not-so-distant past. Especially in the awareness of unavoidable pitfalls, regressions, and obstructions in the hard-fought effort forward and upwards, we take into consideration the wisdom of looking over our shoulders and consulting voices that tell tales of suffering and horror never to happen again.

For those of us working in the fields of analyzing literature and encouraging critical thought, our reasons for choosing to engage with such materials on a day-to-day basis have long found ethical expression in empathy. We aim to broaden awareness of self and others, and to celebrate multicultural differences by considering multiple avenues of theoretical exploration. This is why we construct syllabi with an eye toward incorporating more writers outside the realms of canonical literature, the majority of these names belonging to women writers, and writers of color. For many of us teaching at the collegiate level, or in higher education in general, critiquing the norms of institutions, modeling thoughtful self-reflexivity, and teaching students how to close-read all goes hand-in-hand.

On some level, either personally or with boisterous confidence, we all wish to believe in our role to “Make America Smart Again.” Our faith in education fueled our optimism in a future defined by intelligence and inclusivity, and many a liberal-leaning Op-Ed piece declared the one advantage of Britain’s recent referendum to leave the European Union as both instruction and a tale of warning:

“One of the few good things about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is the rich curriculum of lessons it offers leaders and electorates in other democracies…

Across Europe and in the United States, politicians can either respond to these cries of protest or face something worse than Brexit.”[1]

Was such belief a stroke of overconfidence?

Following November 8th, with electoral results and statistics rushing in from all sides, bleak disappointment followed closely by crushing realization began to settle in. These gut-reactions mingled with irritation at the instantaneous, yet contradictory impulse to assign blame:

“Why Did College-Educated White Women Vote for Trump?” (The New York Times)

“Blame Trump’s Victory on College-Educated Whites, Not the Working-Class” (New Republic)

“Trump Won Because College-Educated Americans are Out of Touch” (The Washington Post)

Such was, and still is enough to shake one’s faith in purposeful education. In the face of all this, what is the point of what we teach? These are the questions to haunt us now: does the work of our lives actually take any root? Should intellectuals shoulder the blame of having morphed into snobbish cultural elites?

Does investment in efforts toward empathy really yield any ideological change?

merriamwebster

 

In the days and weeks that have followed the 2016 Presidential Election, attempting to navigate and teach in this new reality has proven unsettling. All of a sudden, we have swerved from the academic postmodern into a maelstrom of media-influenced misinformation, Twitter rants, and unprecedented threats against freedom of speech, critique,[2] and intellectual or creative expression.

Welcome to the new American age, where everything about knowledge is made up, and apparently, points of truth and facts no longer matter. While Merriam-Webster considers its top result of 2016, The Oxford Dictionary has chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year. As NPR reports, “The word has been around for a few decades or so, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, there has been a spike in frequency of usage since Brexit and an even bigger jump since the period before the American presidential election…feelings, identifications, anxieties and fantasies, that’s what actuated the electorate. Not arguments. Not facts.

Perhaps this struggle we now face started long before Election Day; now, it seems more urgent than ever. From a fake news epidemic of so virulent a strain that that Pope Frances felt compelled to condemn the “sin” of perpetuating misleading information, to a linguistics battle over how to address the Ku Klux Klan-backed “Alt-Right” White Supremacy movement, words, ideas, and the ideological weight they hold have become weapons and flashpoints.

Caption: “Hey! A Message to Media Normalizing the Alt-Right”

Source: Late Night with Seth Myers, 7 December 2016

Speaking truth to power has never been an easy task, and the struggle against the normalization of silencing dissent is, and will remain difficult. While we elegize and self-reflect, we also turn to writers such as Zadie Smith to remind us that “history is not erased by change…progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive.”[3] Likewise, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of the dangers of complacency and neutrality – and goes a step further to remind us of the boundaries of empathy:

“Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of ‘healing’ and ‘not becoming the hate we hate’ sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.”[4]

Words can obfuscate, enlighten, and entrap – and these complexities are elements we anticipate and enjoy when working with literary texts and critical theories. Although the questions surrounding a liberal or humanities-affiliated education may still haunt us, nowhere else can one find a space more prepared for the deconstruction of flashy rhetoric and the unpacking of ideology. Beyond the humanities, critical engagement with disparate voices, texts, and the ideas they represent pertain to disciplines all across the board, and intellectual endeavors of all stripes. We have many more lessons to teach, and much left to learn. This is our task, and may we rise to meet it.

[1] “Learning from Britain’s Unnecessary Crisis.” E.J. Dionne Jr. The Washington Post. 26 June 2016.

[2] Most recently, the union president representing workers at the Indianapolis branch of Carrier Corp. criticized the business deal the President-elect enacted late last month. Chuck Jones, the leader of United Steelworkers Local 1999, challenged Trump to authenticate his claims, and soon afterwards began receiving anonymous death threats.

[3] “On Optimism and Despair.” Zadie Smith. The New York Review of Books. 22 December 2016 Issue.

[4] “Now is the Time to Talk About what we are Actually Talking About.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The New Yorker. 2 December 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

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.