Reception Studies

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

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

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Fiennes’ Coriolanus

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

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

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

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

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

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

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

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

Part II: Female Identity, Subjectivity, and Knowing the Self (8 March 2016)

“There’s been an Awakening in the Force” – but what kind?

Warning: This post includes potentially triggering discussions of nonconsensual physical and mental assault.  

Last week’s post opened an exploration into the narrative obfuscation of Rey’s identity, and considered the advantages of such inscrutability, both to the character’s further development in Episodes VIII and IX, and to fans eager to argue for a myriad of markers in the signifying process. If, as previously discussed, The Force Awakens presents the mystery of Rey’s origin and selfhood without providing a clear narrative resolution, such representation also obscures access to knowing what this character wants and desires.

In discussing the formation of the modern individual alongside and through the cultural rise of the novel, literary critic Nancy Armstrong describes the subjectivity of a person as:

  1. Culturally constructed and historically-informed
  2. Defined by desire and operating within a contract between the sexes
  3. First and foremost, a woman

Through the ideological influence of literature, eighteenth-century writers and thinkers began to delineate what a man ought to desire in a woman – and, consequently, what a woman ought to be. This process of domestication and feminization, as effectively realized through fiction, eventually came to reorient male desire away from the erotic, physical, and all too material body of the woman, and toward a self-regulated interior depth characterized by emotions and constructed through words. “I am convinced,” Armstrong asserts, “that the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with the unconscious arose in response to the question of what women want.”[1]

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(Credit: Imdb)

The grand mystery of the universe, answered by artists as diverse as Christina Aguilera and Virginia Woolf.

So what, if anything, does Rey want?

For the most part, a character’s identity relies on the public or private formulation, realization, and eventual acknowledgment of their aims, hopes, and desires – that is, what motivates a character through the ongoing narrative, fleshed out through backstory, and that which functions as integral to invoking a reader or viewer’s sympathy. Moments of subterfuge may allow temporary disguising of one’s “true” identity, but well-rounded storytelling rarely admits a sudden revelation or engineers a redemptive arc without first sowing the seeds for this later evolution. Within the Manichean universe of the Star Wars galaxy, where the split between good and evil has so effectively been named as, respectively, the Light side versus the Dark side, viewers may easily determine a character’s allegiance – and thus, moral stance – through obvious hints: the Imperial march, the proclivity for wearing all black, or rather unsubtle allusions to Nazi imagery amidst grand declarations of superior rule.

Often, the reluctant or unaware hero/ine’s narrative represents a journey toward realizing the burden of fate, or finally accepting the path destiny has laid out for them. But if Jedi only wish to restore balance to the Force, and the Sith are those who have succumbed to the seductive power of negative energies, what becomes of the wayward heroine who only desires to survive while awaiting the return of those who left her?

“Know Thyself,” the Oracle says. Completely different science-fiction universes, though the mystique of subjectivity remains the same.

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” Luke Skywalker declares at the end of Return of the Jedi, after some soul-searching under Yoda’s tutelage and advice from Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi. While on Dagobah, his Force-induced vision in the Dark Side Cave imparts a warning against his potential failings – whereas the flashes of memories constructing Rey’s vision receive no such elucidation. Instead, viewers must rely on Maz’s counsel, which suggests a course of action, but fails to deliver satisfactory interpretive meaning:

“Dear child, I see it in your eyes…you already know the truth. The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead…Whoever you were waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.”

Compare, then, this scene of revelation-via-Force to the forced exposure of Rey’s memories at the hands of the film’s conflicted villain, Kylo Ren. In the interrogation chamber, a scene set with uncomfortable signs of bondage and reminiscent of Poe Dameron’s earlier torture, the unmasked Ben Solo looms over a fully restrained Rey and grimly informs her of his ability to just “take what [he] wants.” At Rey’s continued resistance, Ren/Solo uses the Force to enter her mind, exposing her innermost thoughts by speaking them aloud: her loneliness, fantasies of a faraway ocean, and burgeoning admiration for Han Solo as a paternal figure.

The last of these is that which Ren/Solo sneers at the most, providing the scene with traces of Oedipal tension, a prime element for any psychoanalytic reading. Here, a supposed expert – with the Force – delves past repression and resistance into the mind of a couch-bound patient, in order to arrive at and expose the truth at the most foundational level of the self. Whereas Freud would propose such truth to be founded upon genital sexuality, Ren/Solo initially only seeks information Rey has acquired through visual perception. Yet, as he casually flaunts his power of mental penetration, the struggle between intrusion and resistance takes on a darker tone: it is the scene of a male character assuming the right to speak Rey’s thoughts, to determine her desires, and to authorize her identity – all without her consent.

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(Credit: Yahoo Entertainment)          (Credit: Star Wars Wikia)

The film’s early interrogation of Poe Dameron brings to mind Darth Vader’s similarly situated, though purely physical torture of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

Although the methods of, and intentions behind the interrogation are the same, a significant factor distinguishing Poe’s cross-examination from Rey’s interaction with Ren/Solo comes in the form of the dangerous erotic charge inherent in an unbalanced gender dynamic.[2] Seeing the villain’s surprisingly youthful features may have ruined the aura of evil for many a viewer, but this act of unmasking stands as Ren/Solo’s response against Rey’s accusation of “being hunted by a stranger in a mask.” Uncovering his face allows him the authority to directly contradict and negate Rey’s words, and to demand that she, in turn, uncover herself per his demand.

“I’m not telling you anything,” Rey flatly states, to which Ren/Solo scoffs, “We’ll see” – then, in one of the most powerful struggles in a film titled The Force Awakens, instead of bowing under the mental assault, Rey does tell him something: about himself.

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(Credit: Sweatpantsandcoffee.com)

“You, you’re afraid…that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader!”

Surely, this must have come as a pleasant surprise to viewers well acquainted with former Princess – now General – Leia’s sudden silence after her capture in the lair of Jabba the Hut, and subsequent degradation in the infamous “slave bikini.” In this pivotal moment of struggle for subjectivity, Rey reveals to the audience more about Ren/Solo’s inner conflict than anything about herself.

This mystery and show of power embarrasses Ren/Solo as much as it intrigues him, and he takes it upon himself to reassert some kind of superiority in “offering” his services as her teacher – a telling demand, especially since he hasn’t even gone through the trouble to learn Rey’s name.

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(Credit: emegustart.tumblr.com)

Caption: Someone needs to write a The Force Awakens and Legally Blonde crossover now.

The effacement, silencing, or flattening out of female characters in the grand narrative of the Star Wars canon has unfortunately been all too prevalent in a family that takes its name from Shmi Skywalker, the apparent Virgin Mother of the Chosen One. However, as that title passes onto Rey, unknown as her identity may be at this point in time, one can hope and expect the embodiment of great things to come. May the Force be with you, Rey.

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(Credit: Superhero Hype Forums)

[1] Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford UP, 1987): pg. 8, 224.

[2] There are of course fans who note the potential for an equally dangerous, similarly nonconsensual erotic imbalance during the scenes of Poe Dameron’s interrogation, and have begun to create works theorizing on the former friendship between a young Poe and Ben Solo, which can be found at: http://archiveofourown.org/tags/Poe%20Dameron*s*Kylo%20Ren/works


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

A life is made of critical appreciation

The curious thing about the arts is how they flow across geographical limitations like no other stream of study or career. Art has an organic capability to mold itself in the vision of its audience no matter what its origins were. The story of a French boy who finds an extremely spherical balloon that has a mind of its own (Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon) can create vivid emotions for a college student living in a busy metropolis in India. The painting of a couple embraced in a passionate kiss amidst stark hues of yellow and green, created by an Austrian painter (Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss) could mean very different things for an American artist and a Turkish student. A Sufi song could be interpreted as a prayer to God or an ode to eternal love.

Just like any form of art, good television content flows across borders as well. When I started watching The Good Wife while still in India, I was mesmerized. The last time I was that mesmerized was when I discovered gratuitous nudity and sex on the US version of Queer as Folk. What made The Good Wife good, besides the brilliant cast and their on-point acting skills, were the stories it spoke of—the flawlessness in every episode’s script, every season’s arc and in the series’ overall progression. But I also realized that good television was not just about what the show creators put on our screens. It was also about our critical appreciation of them.

As a teenager, Friends used to be my favorite show. I loved each and every thing about it. I can still repeat most of the dialogues without the slightest hesitation. But as I have grown, something changed. I still love the show and its many situations, but it’s not my favorite anymore. Throughout the series, one joke was constant: being ‘gay’ in any way was laughable and mock-worthy. Chandler had a bad childhood because of his parents and yet, somehow, it is always easier for him to forgive his cisgender straight mother than his father who came out as a transgender woman while he was still a kid, even though he is embarrassed more than once about his mother’s “promiscuous and unruly” persona. Ross has always been less than thrilled about Carol leaving him for a woman and has never hidden his discontent with her “lesbian status”; even after giving her away at her wedding, Ross consistently treats Carol’s wife, Susan, as something less than human.

And yet, Friends is also a champion of myriad social issues of the time. The show broadcast one of television’s very first lesbian weddings that transpired from a long-standing and successful relationship. It wittily showcased the awkwardness of the heteronormative concept of “coming out” when they turned the tables and made Phoebe’s presumed gay, green card husband come out as straight. Phoebe went against all sorts of societal pressures and decided to turn the stigma of surrogate motherhood of the 90s on its head by carrying her brother’s triplets in her womb. Rachel showed the world that it is not easy being a single mother, but it is definitely not impossible; she raised her daughter as a single woman and went on to have a successful career in the fashion industry. Chandler’s father showed the world that there is absolutely nothing wrong or embarrassing in being a transgender woman. You have just got to know how to own it with the right sequins and a hat to match. To tease out this tension is to appreciate, but appreciate critically—to enjoy, but to think.

After accepting her GLAAD Vanguard Award at the GLAAD Media Awards this year, Kerry Washington said, “There is so much power in storytelling, and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling, in inclusive representation.” Compound that with the skill of critical appreciation and a whole new world of perspectives comes alive. For me, graduate school and the different individuals I met on my journey here made all the difference. I mean, for God’s sake, I don’t watch Queer As Folk for the sex anymore.


Image from tv.com

Aishik Barua is a 2nd-year MBA student concentrating on media marketing. He is particularly in love with TV shows (from The Sopranos to The Flash), books (from The Little Prince to the Harry Clifton series) and a myriad number of modern era conspiracy theories. When he is not screwing his eyes at some website’s Google Analytics page, he could be found doodling with his sketch pencils, cooking a new dish or simply engaging in general goofiness.

The Fertility of Miró

I have never quite gotten surrealist, post-modern art. (Left to my own devices I happily spend my museum visits floating around the impressionist era.) I look at abstract symbolic paintings and feel that I miss the intended emotion or meaning—as if the painters and their devotees speak a language I cannot understand.

That changed when I stumbled upon an ephemeral relationship between the art of Miró and fertilization research from the early 1980s to mid 1990s. This connection provided me with a whole new way to view, understand, and appreciate Miró. His art was no longer a remote, confusing abstraction, but rather an artistic reflection of the same questions about life, reproduction, and behavior I think about as a scientist.

It all started with a magazine article written by two incredible scientists, Gerald and Heidi Schatten in 1983.[i] (Fun fact, Gerald Schatten and I both attended Stuyvesant High School in NYC, albeit about 50 years apart). The Schattens illustrate the history of research in fertilization starting from Hippocraties, and the paucity of information about the female gamete that persisted until the late 1800s. As scientists probed the mysteries of the egg they found it was active in the fertilization process and discovered intricate mechanisms through which the egg cooperates to bring the sperm through its layers, fuse the maternal and paternal nuclei, and initiate development. New microscopic technologies revealed the complex internal structure of the egg that facilitates many of these key fertilization events.

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In addition to describing research for a public audience, the article also included three paintings by Joan Miró, as well as works by Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. Nothing in the text describes the art. They are just there: full page, color reproductions, with no explanation. However, when I looked at the paintings included in the article alongside the Schattens’ scientific images of the earliest moments of sea urchin fertilization, I understood. The spherical shapes evoke the female gamete. In the painting Amour, the letters spelling the title spill out from a point on the large purple/blue shape that could be the site of fertilization. The flurry of lines, dots and shapes within the red circle of The Broken Circle captures the energetic egg paradigm the Schattens describe.

I was curious why Miró’s paintings, in particular, had been included in the article. I turned to Google, searching for something that might explain the connection between his work and reproductive biology. Although nothing on the Internet provided me with a conclusive answer, I did uncover additional incidents where Miró and fertilization research intersected.

I found an article from the Chicago Tribune in 1990 about the scientist Yury Verlinsky’s discovery of a new in vitro technology for genetic testing.[ii] If a couple is worried about having a baby because of a genetic disorder that could be inherited, Dr. Verlinsky’s technique would allow scientists to test the egg for the disease before it is even fertilized.  The test is performed on DNA of the polar body, part of the egg that is extruded in the cellular divisions during maturation, and determines whether or not a baby made from that egg would inherit the genetic disorder. The article described that Dr. Verlinsky came up with the idea looking at a Miró painting:

“Relaxing after a day spent pondering the earliest stages of fetal development, Verlinsky visited a Jerusalem art gallery. He contemplated an untitled 1935 painting by the great Spanish abstractionist, Joan Miró. In Miró’s typically droll style, the painting consisted of two disks floating in space, one red, the other yellow. Just underneath the red disk was another round object, black and very tiny. Verlinksy stood and stared for a long time. The more he examined Miró’s colored disks, the more they looked to him like human eggs. Maybe the red disk became the yellow disk after it kicked out the black dot, he mused. “

I became obsessed; I needed to see the painting that had inspired the flash of genius to test polar bodies. The paltry clues included in the article were of little help. I acquired the entire catalogue of Miró’s paintings[iii] and scoured through 1935, staring at anything with even a close resemblance to the description, but nothing matched. As I resigned myself to work through Miró’s entire collection, I worried that I would accidentally skip over or not recognize the painting. My fears were unfounded. I knew immediately when I came to the The Magic of Color, 1930 that I had found it. To me, it was definitely not droll. It was glorious.

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However, I was still not satisfied. I delved deeper into the pages of my Google search results until I came across a sentence in An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists and the Body by Rosemary Betterson[iv] that told of an exhibition in 1992, organized by the Joan Miró Foundation[v] on In Vitro fertilization. I scoured the recesses of the Internet to find any reference of this exhibit and came up empty handed. I was ultimately able to get my hands on both the exhibit catalogue[vi] and record of the accompanying symposium.[vii] The exhibition In vitro. From the mythology of fertility to the boundaries of science, initiated by KRTU a cultural branch of the Catalan government, was not explicitly about Miró; rather, it explored the boundary between science, history, and art in our relationship with fertility.

“We have arranged the exhibition in such a way as to show, through various nuclei, the traces and faces (archaeological, linguistic, gastronomic, artistic, ethnographic, scientific, etc.) of fertility myths, the current situation in the fight against infertility, and the prospects current research is now opening up.” – Vicenc Altaio and Anna Viega, Curators of In Vitro. 8

Pages away from each other are the Venus statues of early humans and ancient Greeks, Miró’s bronze figures of women that emphasize female secondary sexual characteristics, and tools used by midwives and obstetricians. The speculums and dilators are so structurally intricate they are at home alongside the famous sculptures. Powerpoint slides on IVF technologies that could have been pulled directly from a course in reproductive biology for conservation I took while studying abroad are nearly touching reproductions of the Virgin Mother and Child.

As a post baccalaureate fellow in the lab of Dr. Carmen Williams at the NIEHS [viii] I learned how to do in vitro fertilization of mice. I manipulated micropipettes with a joystick to hold and inject eggs in order to change their gene expression. I spent so many hours mouth-pipetting ooctytes to remove the cells that surround them when they are collected from the ovary that I would get home, close my eyes, and see them imprinted on my eyelids. In the In vitro exhibit the same images I saw, starting down a microscope, were suddenly art. Were discussed in the same breath as the biological drawings of Erns Haeckel and the renowned paintings of Picasso, Dali, and Miró.

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“The beauty of the scientific images and the beauty of the artistic images – even if we are unable to read them when we are unfamiliar with their code – would suffice by themselves to justify the exhibition…”
– Vicenc Altaio and Anna Viega, Curators of In Vitro.8

My winding exploration of Miró provided me with an entirely new perspective of not only surrealist art, but also the aesthetics of my own research. More than that, Miró’s paintings reminded me of the humanity of my research. Although we are using different techniques, terminology, and mediums, fundamentally I ask the same questions about how life begins. If I am receptive to it, I can find the themes of my research in reproduction reflected throughout culture. For these reasons, and so many more, it delights me that the acronym for artificial reproductive technologies is ART.

P.S. If anyone reading this is computer programming inclined, I desperately require an app that will allow me to use Miró symbols as emoji’s. I’ll call them: Miróji’s.

 


Figure 1: Miro, 1967. The Gold of the Azure. http://www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org/coleccio_obra.php?idioma=2&obra=709

Figure 2: Bottom left – G. Schatten, scanning electron micrograph (SEM) image of sea urchin fertilization http://worms.zoology.wisc.edu/dd2/echino/fert/pronuclear/pronuclear.html Top are from 1. Left – Miro, 1964. The Broken Circle. Center – Miro, 1925. The Birth of the World. Right – Miro, 1926. Amour.

Figure 3: Miro, 1930. The Magic of Color. http://catalogue.successiomiro.com/catalogues/paintings-i/painting-the-magic-of-color.html

Figure 4: McDonough, C.E. and Bernhardt, M. MII egg GFP experiments.

 

[i] Schatten, G. and Schatten, H. 1983. The Energetic Egg. The Sciences.

[ii] Gorner, P. and Kotulak, R. 1990. Gene Screening: A Chance to Map Our Body’s Future. Chicago Tribune. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1990-04-15/news/9001310515_1_genetic-yury-verlinsky-gene-screening

[iii] Dupin, J and Lelong-Mainaud, A. 2003. Catalogue raisonné. Paintings. Vol. I – VI. Successió Miró A.D.A.G.P., Paris.

[iv] Betterton, R. 1996. An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists and the Body. Routledge.

[v] http://www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org/fundaciojoanmiro.php?idioma=2

[vi] Altaio, V. and Viega, A. curators 1992. In Vitrode les mitologies de la fertilitat als limits de la cencia. Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona.

[vii] Altaio, V. and Viega, A. curators 1992. In vitro a Debat Simposi. Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona.

[viii]http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/rdbl/pi/reproductive/index.cfm

 


Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.

Perils of Click-Bait Science Communication, or There’s Many a Slip ‘twixt the Cup and the Lip

Science communication plays an integral role in bridging the gap between academia and the public. Science writers have the tricky job of distilling complex ideas into digestible pieces, and explaining highly-specialized experiments in a way the public might find interesting. Research highlighted in the media can become part of a larger cultural conversation and have a more direct impact on people’s lives. However, in this process, a research article undergoes multiple reinterpretations, and can become detached from the original material. As a result of this process, science for public consumption tends to overemphasize human relevance, lose qualifiers or context, and frequently employs ‘click-bait’ methods of choosing catchy titles that distort the results and implications of the research.

A particularly painful example of the pitfalls of a catchy title happened in the highlight of an article on primate sexual behavior. In December 2014, a group of researchers published a study on reproductive conflict and male aggression in chimpanzees. [1] They found a correlation between high-ranking male aggression toward females during the females’ non-fertile period, and the amount of offspring that male fathered. The scientists hypothesized that sustained male aggression played a role in sexual coercion. The title of their article was relatively innocuous: “Sexually Coercive Male Chimpanzees Sire More Offspring. However, in a companion piece meant to attract attention and describe the research for a more general audience, the title lost some nuance: “Sexual Conflict: Nice Guys Finish Last.”[2]

Nice guys finish last is a trope that has been increasingly adopted by the MRA (Men’s Rights Advocacy) movement to disparage the sexual choices of women. Although the use of this phrase was likely to add levity and attract attention with no ill intention, I was startled to see Nice guys finish last used so flippantly in a scientific journal without any consideration of the broader cultural implications. Especially last year, when misogynistic ideologies perpetuated violence against women that could not be ignored,[3] it was disturbing to see this phrase used in a way that normalized as natural biological behavior male violence towards women.

Popular science writing about fruit fly sexual behavior can also be extremely anthropomorphic and distasteful. I have come across a couple of examples in my own research area that set my teeth on edge.

About a dozen years ago scientists identified a gene that when mutated resulted in male fruit flies courting and trying to mate with other males. Their article “Conditional Disruption of Synaptic Transmission Induces Male-Male Courtship Behavior in Drosophila” discussed this gene in terms of regulation of fruit fly reproductive behavior and the flies’ ability to distinguish between females and males.[4] Misguidedly, a news post on the Science journal website decided to make this research stand out by suggesting it had direct relationship with human sexuality. In an outrageous cognitive jump, the piece was called “How to Make a Fly Bi” and included a figure caption and other language that insinuated bisexuality was the equivalent to lowered inhibitions and increased promiscuity.[5] Bisexual advocates struggle to combat the misconceptions that bisexuality is equivalent to a lack of discernment or confusion. But here, popular writing associated with  a respected science journal perpetuated in these misconceptions and problematic assumptions about bisexuality.

Flies

Research on changes in female fruit fly behavior after mating suffered a similar fate in popular media. A study titled “Drosophila male sex peptide inhibits siesta sleep and promotes locomotor activity in the post-mated female” found that a specific component of the male ejaculate decreased the amount a female sleeps after mating and also increases foraging activity. [6] In a blurb on the research by the University’s publicity office the title became “Female fruit flies do chores after sex”.[7] An article by a clinical psychologist on the HuffPost Healthy Living Blog took it even further: “Housework After Sex, Not Sleep.” [8] These accessible articles drew a direct relationship between fruit fly behavior and women’s “domestic-type duties or housework” that were not implied in the original research. Although I do think changes in postmating behavior in fruit flies have some fascinating implications for changes in human behavior during gestation and birth, a direct comparison cannot be made. I am concerned about the way the popular media twisted the scientific research to reaffirm underlying assumptions of a woman’s domestic role and primary childcare provider.

Popular science writing wants to attract public interest. As a result, the cautious conclusions that scientists make with clearly stated caveats and limitations can be distorted and aggrandized in the process. Scarily, it can then be used to further a political or philosophical agenda. There is a clear responsibility for science journalists to be more rigorous in reporting the intricacies of science research, as well as be more cognizant of the ways their reporting uses research to reaffirm cultural stereotypes. As a scientist, I also wonder what is our responsibility after we publish a paper? Are we completely out of control of the dissemination of information to the public? If research is taken out of context, or absurd associations to humans are drawn, if the scientist is appalled with the implications derived from their work, what should we do? Scientists need to become more involved in the science communication process, and to be trained how to explain and our research in ways that the public can understand, but that still situate it appropriately in broader contexts. The challenge is finding the time and a platform for a scientist to make sure the totality of their research message makes it safely, with only minimal slips, to the public.

 


[1] Feldblum, J.T., Wroblewske, E.E., Rudicell, R.S., Hahn, B.H., Paiva, T., Cetinkaya-Rundel, M., Pusey, A.E., Gilby, I.C. 2014. Sexually Coercive Male Chimpanzees Sire More Offspring. Current Biology. 24: 2855 – 2860.

[2] Thompson, M.E. 2014. Sexual Conflict: Nice Guys Finish Last. Dispatch, Current Biology. 24: R1125 – R1127.

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/24/elliot-rodgers-california-shooting-mental-health-misogyny

[4] Kitamoto, T. 2002. Conditional Disruption of Synaptic Transmission Induces Male-Male Courtship Behavior in Drosophila. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sciences.

[5] Beckman, M. 2002. How to Make a Fly Bi. Science News Biology http://news.sciencemag.org/2002/09/how-make-fly-bi

[6] Isaac, R. E., Li, C., Leedale, A.D. 2009. Drosophila male sex peptide inhibits siesta sleep and promotes locomotor activity in the post-mated female. Proc. Royal. Soc. B.

[7] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090929203941.htm

[8] Breus, M.J. 2010. Housework After Sex, Not Sleep. Huffpost Healthy Living Blog. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-michael-j-breus/housework-after-sex-not-s_b_345568.html

 


Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.

The Greatest Show on Earth!: The Historico-Biblical Epic, Excess, and the Sublime Historical Experience

A few weeks ago, when I published my post on Game of Thrones and its theory of history, one of my colleagues asked me about the nature of excess–of violence, of sex, of things (clothes, sets, technologies)–that typically stand as one of the hallmarks of the epic genre. At what point, she asked, does excess simply overwhelm the viewer, force them into a state of suspension, of sensory/sensual overload that causes them to disengage? I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the function of excess in terms of historical representation. I’ve come to believe that the genre of the epic, perhaps more than any other type of historical film or television series, allows for an experience of the strangeness and otherness of the world of antiquity. Following in the footsteps of such scholars as Vivian Sobchack, I suggest that the historical epic provides contemporary spectators with an experience of the past that exceeds questions of accuracy, and allows them to know (or to attempt to know) the past in a way that exceeds language and disrupts the discipline imposed by traditional historical discourse.

In the post-war period, and increasingly in our own, the epic has sought out religious subjects in its articulation of what the antiquity looked like and how it worked. In the historical world produced in the epic film, religion is  intricately tied to the body and sexual desire. Conversion is a key site for this intersection between bodies, sex, and religion. The act of conversion takes many forms: moving from pagan to Christian; or, in the case of pre-Christian figures such as Samson, from sexual desire to union with God; from the world of the flesh to that of the transcendent spirit. These transcendent conversions are paradoxically predicated on leaving behind one form of sexual desire while inhabiting another: for example, as men are led to abandon the licentious women of Rome for the allegedly chaster women of Christianity. Such a transition, however, carries with it its own danger:  the process of conversion involves a measure of jouissance, a perilous pleasure that reminds us of the body even as it seeks to transcend it. Indeed, the very essence of religious conversion often manifests in these films as a form of excess, often of emotion, as in the case of Richard Burton’s almost hysterical performance as a converted centurion in The Robe, or as in the excesses of fleshly, sublime agony of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  Religion intersects with history here to allow us to encounter the terrifying too-muchness of the past, to confront a world terrifying in its overwhelming scale.

In the epic, spectacle always bears with it a double valence. On the one hand, epic spectacle inundates us with the pleasures of the visual:  Nero’s Technicolor robe in Quo Vadis, the digitized Colosseum of Gladiator, the truly breathtaking long shots of Exodus. On the other hand, epic spectacle challenges us by asking to suspend our attention to narrative and to fixate ourselves on the pleasures of the visual.  These objects call to us, ask us to encounter a world that provides a means by which we can escape the poverty and the banality of our everyday lived experience through the history’s epic visuality and sensuousness. What is more, they also ask us to abandon our current subjectivity, to inhabit that previous, precious moment–if only for the time that we watch the text. Again, these are elements of the past that cannot be contained within words or within narrative, either in the films themselves or in the academic study of history. That extra-linguistic, extra-narrative element of the epic is the source of the power they have and the experience they provide of a past-ness (even if, again, the politics associated with that past-ness are not to our liking).

For all that narrative attempts to control the excess it utilizes to bring the world of antiquity to life, it also creates for modern spectators a sense of the past as a place just beyond the realm of linguistic representation. Epic film proposes a different way of engaging with the world of antiquity, one that does not rely upon words or closure to bring us an experience of that world. As Robert Rosenstone so memorably puts it, historical film “forces us to live in a most uncomfortable sort of world—a world in which we cannot control or contain our past with words; cannot tame its full meanings within the discipline of a discourse because the meanings themselves—encoded as images as well as words—ultimately elude words.” What he refers to as the unruly meanings of the past trouble us even as they excite and pleasure us.

At the same time, this world of plenitude and excess, this past that holds so much visual/visceral appeal to the contemporary modern spectator, must also eventually be disavowed for us to enable to function as modern subjects. This simultaneous attraction and rejection produces what historian Frank Ankersmit has termed a sublime historical experience. In order to know that world, in order to make sense of the impossibly distant and fragmented world of antiquity, we must return it to the realm of language, to our historical understandings that underpin so much of our relationship to the past. And yet, paradoxically, some measure of that excess always remains, haunting our collective imagination, a perpetual reminder of what has been given up in order for us to become who we are today.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

History’s Fiction Problem: “Selma” and the Value of Fictionalized History

In a recent piece for SalonAndrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg take aim at both Selma, the newly released film about the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through Selma, they critique Hollywood more broadly for its lack of anything truly meaningful to say about history.  In the process, they also dismiss seemingly all (or at least most) historical fiction. They suggest that there is a measure of historical truth that historical fiction can obtain—but only if it remains firmly ensconced in the responsible, well-trained hands of those housed in the discipline of history.  Fiction’s tendencies to romanticize and to provide narrative closure, they seem to suggest, works against a nuanced appreciation of history.

Skepticism from trained historians is nothing new; historical fiction has increasingly earned the ire of many historians.  Such critiques almost invariably revolve around questions of “accuracy,” as historians ruthlessly pick apart the novels, films, and television series for every incident that is not “how it really was.”  Burstein and Isenberg voice a common desire among many of those who study history, for they suggest that in films “romantic truthiness supplants history.”

Such a critique overlooks so much of the richness and complexity that fiction, in film, in television, in novels, in poetry can offer to readers trained to be able to see it.  True, there are many flaws in these expressions of history, but isn’t it time to stop pretending that they don’t have any historical value, or that they don’t have a particular vision of the truth to offer?  Isn’t it more productive to study the ways in which these texts work, to look at conventions of narrative and other aesthetic considerations, to situate them in their political moments—not just to find out what they say about their present moment, but about how that moment understands history?  Work like Burstein’s and Isenberg’s poses the danger of foreclosing on any possibility of appreciating and studying these texts in all of their complexity, and shores up the already incredibly tenuous distinction between fiction and truth as if one does not have something to say about the other.

I currently teach a course entitled “Race and Literary Texts.”  Part of my intentions while designing my syllabus was to include fiction that helped to make clear to my students the ways in which history, the accumulated sediments of past actions and processes, continue to intrude on the present.  Utilizing texts ranging from Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy to Richard Wright’s Native Son, my pedagogy emphasizes reading literary texts as theoretical texts. We take them seriously as theories of history, and draw out the ways in which they articulate historical visions. This is an incredibly rewarding experience, as we negotiate the ways in which writers, poets, directors, and studios grapple with the how to engage with the intractable problems posed by the past.

For our first close reading activity, we read the vexing poem “The Change,” by Tony Hoagland.  I love and hate this poem, for it represents so much of what I will attempt to convey to my students this semester.  In this poem, the speaker observes a tennis match between a white European and a young black woman from Alabama, secretly hoping that the former will win. Through the match, he wrestles with the intractable nature of history, of momentous (and, to the speaker at least, cataclysmic) social change.  While I condemn the poem’s obvious racism and white paranoia, I can’t help but acknowledge the ways in which it seeks to articulate a theory of history, to wrench a measure of intelligibility out of the chaos and terror of historical change (to riff slightly on Philip Toynbee’s famous statement about good writers grappling against the intractableness of modern English).  When the speaker says:

There are moments when history

passes you so close

you can smell its breath,

you can reach your hand out

and touch it on its flank

one can almost feel him grappling with the idea of history as experience, of the individual come face to face with the terrifying nearness of forces over which he has no control.  The line breaks struggle formally to come to terms with the effects of history, with the sense that a moment is simultaneously passing and has already passed.  Indeed, by the end of the poem he seems to have done so: the last phrase “we were changed” echoes like the closing of some door. The mantra forms a powerful reminder not only of the contradictions of history–as both ongoing process and recollection of the past–but also of the exclusionary power of “we.”  This is in many ways an elegy for white hegemony, and while I find it personally repugnant, I acknowledge that it does offer truth about history—even if it’s one with which we vehemently disagree.

Fiction, whether in the form of the printed word or the moving image, can offer us meaningful and powerful insights into the workings of history.  As Brittney Cooper puts it so forcefully in her own Salon take on the question of historical storytelling in Selma:  “being more accurate does not mean one has told more truth.  Read any Toni Morrison novel and you’ll learn that novels often tell far more truth than autobiography. DuVernay tells us many truths in this film about the affective and emotive dimensions of black politics, about the intimacy of black struggle, about the spirit of people intimately acquainted with daily assaults on their humanity.”  To continue to overlook these texts’ engagements with the past is to do both the texts and us a grave disservice. This shouldn’t stop us from critiquing those theories of history that continue to marginalize and disenfranchise those who have long been excluded from power, of course.  But it’s time that, instead of constantly critiquing and wringing our hands, we move into doing something more interesting and more fruitful: to engage in a more thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the relationship between fiction and history.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

Who’s That Lady?: Women’s Historical Fiction and the Writing of Female Subjectivity

If you type the search term “women’s historical fiction” into Amazon, you will (as of this writing) receive over 25,000 results, with authors writing women-centered fictions set in almost every conceivable historical period. I use the term “women’s historical fiction” deliberately, as this specific sub-genre pays particular attention to the experiences of women in various historical eras.  Although the “Great Man” theory of history continues to exert quite a powerful hold on the public historical imagination, popular authors–authors such as Philippa Gregory, Stephanie Thornton, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Michelle Moran– have inspired large and devoted readerships, and their works seek to evoke in contemporary readers an understanding of the struggles, and the triumphs, that women experienced in the past.  In doing so, they also articulate a theory of women’s history centered on the tension between female agency and subjection.  These works of history offer frames of intelligibility through which contemporary readers can experience the workings of history and the lives of the past.

While this genre is as diverse as might be expected, their covers typically fall into broadly two types.  The one (increasingly common) features a woman, with her back turned to the viewer, sometimes, but not always, overlooking a cityscape.

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The other, almost as common, typically features a woman gazing out at the viewer. Typically these women are not (as a rule) portrayed by famous or recognizable faces, but instead by unnamed models.

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The anonymity of these women stands in marked contrast to films and TV series, in which the historical personage is, in many cases, overshadowed by the star text of the actress portraying her.  Here, the lack of a specific star persona opens up the figure for appropriation and identification on behalf of the viewer. Through this anonymity, these covers invite the viewer to identify with the woman on the cover, to view her as their narrative surrogate, to either join with her as she gazes in ownership (longing?) at the city below her, or to see the historical gaze returned, an exchange between past and present.

The narratives of these novels also focus on historical female subjectivity, typically drawing out the experiences of a female figure frequently eclipsed by her male counterpart, such as a husband, king, etc.  Anne Boleyn (as well as other women of the Tudor court) is a perennial favorite, as are other women of the Early Modern period, but women from the ancient world have also become the focus of several notable sequences, such as the “Empress of Rome” books by Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray’s trilogy on Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of the (in)famous Cleopatra VII, and Stephanie Thornton’s narratives about Theodora and Hatshepsut.  The women of these novels frequently experience the hardships of their patriarchal worlds, subjected to the cruel, and often sexual, whims of the powerful men in their lives.  While the narratives remain focused on individual subjects, they do at least gesture toward the systems of oppression that have historically disenfranchised women, in the process showing the ways in which these women, despite the social, cultural, and personal forces arrayed against them, nevertheless manage to persevere and rise to the top of the social and political hierarchy.

At the same time, however, these novels frequently resolve the plights of these women by introducing the marriage plot.  Thornton’s novel The Secret History, centers at least in part on Theodora’s marriage to Justinian.  However, even within this traditional resolution scheme, these novels articulate a particular vision of the subjectivities of historical women.  They strike a balance between providing contemporary readers a suitably satisfactory conclusion to their narratives via both the romance plot and the agency these women possess, and drawing attention to the world of the past in all of its squalor and suffering, peeling away layers of respectability to reveal the messiness of the past.

Furthermore, these novels emphasize the importance of abjection and suffering for women of all classes, and this suffering is key to the historical visions these novels evoke.  Whether they are aristocrats or peasants, empresses or nuns, the women of these novels must constantly contend with a world that does not value their lives or their experiences.  As a result, they must frequently battle and claw their way into the upper echelons of power.  The Theodora of The Secret History, for example–easily one of the most (in)famous ruling women of history–begins life at the bottom of the social and political hierarchy and must endure numerous setbacks in her ascension.  Within the first 100 pages of the novel she experiences the death of her father and her youngest sister, the necessity of becoming an actress and a prostitute, an unwanted pregnancy, and grindingly abject poverty.  Like the other heroines of women’s historical fiction, however, this suffering grants meaning to their eventual triumph and, ultimately, the sense of historical being these narratives create.  Modern readers gain a sense of the fundamental unfairness of this suffering, and it is this evocation of melodrama that grants these novels their emotional–and, I would argue, intellectual–force.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

Queering LGBT History: The Case of Sherlock Holmes Fanfic

This summer, I fell for BBC’s “Sherlock” hard1 — hard enough to drive me back to fanfic. Fanfic has grown up in the past decade: it now has activists, “aca-fans” (academic fans), and copyright lawyers, and a nonprofit defending artists’ rights to disseminate transformative works, including fiction. My casual intention to fill the wait till next season with fanfic rapidly developed into academic fascination, especially because I discovered that its writers are challenging traditional notions of sexuality and narrative in ways that mass media and even academia aren’t.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that some of the problems about LGBT historiography I discussed last week could be mitigated by our adopting a transformative fiction philosophy. Allow me to map the landscape of queer fanfic, using Sherlock as an example, before I argue that point.

Sherlock fans have been writing fanfic ever since Arthur Conan Doyle (or ACD, as fanfic writers call him) was still writing. Anne Jamison, an English and fan-culture scholar, has described the output of the Sherlock fandom over the past century as essentially transformative works. This includes not just unpublished fanfic but also myriad films, novels, and TV programs, because they all transform the canonical ACD stories, in form and content, with a fan’s devotion to “writing that continues, interrupts, reimagines, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written about.”2

The genealogy of fanfic for BBC’s Sherlock is particularly rich for my interest in transformative fiction, because it’s a nesting doll of referentiality. BBC Sherlock fic riffs on Moffat and Gatiss’s twenty-first century reincarnation of Sherlock, which itself riffs on ACD’s Victorian Sherlock and the many twentieth-century reincarnations which the program’s creators have declared canonized.3 Fic writer A.J. Hall, as Jamison points out, can make reference to BBC’s Sherlock, ACD’s Sherlock, and a 1950’s “fan-authored pastiche” Sherlock all in one fic4 — yet no one would mistake that fic for any of its source texts.

This is the difference between “canon” and what fans call “headcanon.” Canon is the Ur-text, a status to which fan writers make no claim of aspiring. There is a certain playful value attached to incorporating elements from canon (Sherlock’s affinity for bees shows up in many fics, as well as the TV program), but these nods exist within “headcanon” — a fan’s personal parallel world(s). “Headcanon” exists alongside “canon,” depending upon the source for basic inspiration (usually its characters) but freely recreating the source in a conscious departure from it.

Fans use these parallel worlds to explore what could have been or might be, especially as regards sexualities that have not found mainstream representation. There is no conclusive literary evidence that ACD conceived of his Sherlock and John as “homosexual”; their relationship presents as a romantic friendship, although those were going out of fashion when he was writing. Likewise, despite queerbaiting, Moffat insists that his Sherlock is not gay, let alone ace. In fanfic, however, literally any interpretation goes.

Myriad fanfic categorizing tags allow readers to find what version of Sherlock’s sexuality appeals to them: gay “Johnlock” and asexual!Sherlock/bisexual!John cover some of the more popular ones, in addition to “OT3s” (One True Threesomes) and a plethora of kinks (the usual varieties, along with furries, fauns, and male pregnancy). While these labels can flatten the contours of the actual uniquely queer praxis within individual works (in the same way that LGBT labels can elide sexual and gender complexities), word-of-mouth reviews of the ways in which a writer imagines two characters negotiating an unprecedented relationship reminds me to keep an open mind about my expectations when see a fic’s tags.

Although authors and readers both have pet theories about what Sherlock’s sexuality “really” is, the fan writer’s explicit self-distancing from “canon” means that a plurality of “headcanons” co-exist on the periphery of the source text. My friend can ship gay Johnlock, I can ship bisexual!John/straight!Mary/asexual!Sherlock, and fanfic satisfies both our preferences without (much) argument between us.

In this way, we might think of historical LGBT icons as personal role models without needing or intending to make claims about their “canonical” sexuality. In my parallel narrative, Joan of Arc is patron of trans* rights and John Henry Newman is patron of asexuality. Neither of these is true in historical reality, and I would never write an essay to “prove” it, but that’s my “headcanon,” and (if I may abuse a neologism) — I’m shipping it!

Next week: a coda in honor of Asexuality Awareness Week


Notes

  1. Apologies for the Reichenfeels.
  2. Anne Jamison, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (Dallas: BenBella, 2013), 17.
  3. Ibid. 11.
  4. Ibid. 9.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

Teaching Irony and The Office: A Reception Studies Approach

Last academic year, serving as a 2013-2014 HASTAC scholar, I began work on The Pedagogy Project (forthcoming). The HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) community asked fellow scholars to submit sample lesson plans or pedagogical strategies. I submitted a lesson that I use when I teach Twin Peaks, and I helped compile and organize the collection of over 80 submissions. It was very rewarding to participate in this project because it reminded me of the benefits of intellectually engaging with our peers about teaching and pedagogy. There is always room to grow, learn from others, and adapt our teaching personas and strategies. With that in mind, I wanted to encourage pedagogical collaboration on Metathesis and share this lesson that I use each semester in one form or another. No matter how it manifests, it proves incredibly successful, and I urge you to adapt it for your purposes and use it yourself.

In the first few weeks of class, I often subtly nudge my students into taking the discussion where I want it to go. Sometimes this succeeds and sometimes it fails, but I like to use what I tend to refer to as the “breadcrumb strategy” to guarantee that we will end our conversation in the general vicinity of where I want it to go. I try to plant intellectual breadcrumbs in order to lead them to the revelation that I want them to come to on their own. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to show them their own responses, and get them to think closely and critically about how they have reacted to a text.

For example, a couple of weeks ago in my Reading Popular Culture course, I taught a few episodes of The Office (S1E2: “Diversity Day,” S2E12: “The Injury,” S3E1: “Gay Witch Hunt,” S3E23: “Beach Games,” S5E13: “Prince Family Paper”) in order to get them to think about how popular culture constructs its spectators and encourages certain responses. We screened the episodes together at our evening screening and, unbeknownst to them, I took careful note of all of the times that they collectively laughed at the episodes.

In class two days later, I had them talk about why they thought the show was funny. Some of the students gave vague responses, some relied on previous conceptions of the show, and some had been too swayed by the essay we had read that day for class and had forgotten exactly how they originally felt. In order to get to more specific reactions, and in order for us to think critically about ironic humor, I put my collective laughter list on the overhead. Here’s a few examples of some of the times that they laughed during “Diversity Day”:

  • Michael: “Say a race you are attracted to sexually”
  • Mr. Brown when Michael doesn’t believe that’s his name: “That’s my name, not a test.”
  • Michael: “Abraham Lincoln once said if you’re a racist, I’ll attack you with the North”
  • Michael to Kelly: “If you leave, we will only have two left… Namaste”
  • Oscar: “Mexican isn’t offensive”
  • When it is revealed that Stanley must wear the card that says “black”

theoffice

This worked incredibly well because it jogged their memories. But, more importantly, I made them confront their own reactions to the text and asked them to give justifications for this reaction. This helped us probe the implicit racism in some of the ironic humor and also helped us to think about the ways that the show encourages us to read the humor ironically (aided in part by Eric Detweiler’s essay on irony and The Office). It’s often hard to rein in a conversation about a beloved TV show and return it back to specifics and it’s especially difficult to elicit specific examples and encourage close active reading. This activity, though, asks them to close read their own responses in a sort of self-enacted reception studies approach. Placing this activity so early in the semester primes them for further close reading exercises and also makes them hyper aware of their reactions.

While it’s easier to do this sort of activity when you have a collective group screening, this activity can be adapted to other contexts as well if you have students keep journals of his or her responses to certain texts. Ask them to take note of the points that they laughed, cried, gasped, etc. The only downside to this is that they are aware of the process when it’s happening which will slightly skew the results. But, in general, especially early on in the semester, any activity that makes them aware of their reading and watching practices is well worth it.

I encourage you to try this exercise or one similar and also share some of your ideas here–what types of things have worked extremely well in your classroom?

 


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.