history

“In Troy There Lies the Scene”: Teaching Students to Think about Shakespeare

While teaching Troilus and Cressida this semester, one of the assignments that my students were tasked with was to write an essay on the ways in which the play made visible or commented upon an issue that was facing 16th century England.  Students were given a brief lesson on the political and social troubles of early modern England, then they were told to construct an argument which would demonstrate a line of continuity between Shakespeare’s reading of the Trojan War and the contemporary troubles facing London audiences.  Underlying this assignment was an assumption that looking at this play would offer students greater access to the historical problems facing theater goers in the 16th century, but also that these were deliberate inclusions within the play that theater going audiences would have picked up on.  At the time, I didn’t think about it, but looking back on it, this assignment was constructed to teach students to look for ways in which art teaches us lessons about the contemporary historical moment, even when the subject matter that the text is drawing from frames itself as temporally distant.  While not a perfect parallel, we were teaching students to think of Shakespeare’s texts as “containing” veiled contemporary commentaries that could be unearthed with through and careful examination.

This is not to suggest that such an endeavor isn’t worth having students undertake.  Troilus and Cressida, itself being a reworking both of legend of the Trojan War as well as a somewhat explicit reimagining of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, does examine many of the political concerns that would be of interest to a contemporary British audience and it deliberately reworks a number of the issues that Chaucer raised in his 1380 poem.[1]  The play, for instance, features an early monologue during which Ulysses pontificates on the nature of social hierarchy and the dangers that would result if the political hierarchy (that places Ulysses at the top) were called into question.  Pleading for order and stability within the Grecian camp, he suggests that “[t]ake but degree away, untune the string,/ And hard what discord follows.  Each thing meets/ In mere oppugnancy”.[2] This speech, regardless of whether we read it as a critique of Ulysses’ support for a system that benefits him at the expense of others or we read it as an endorsement of Ulysses views on the importance of a stable social hierarchy, would be of particular relevance to an Early Modern audience with very real concerns about the stability of the English monarchy.[3]  Here, Shakespeare is mobilizing a shared cultural literary memory to begin to think through the very different political conditions of Early modern England, or at the very least, this is the move that we ask our students to identify Shakespeare making.

This is a mode of processing the past that Shakespeare would return to frequently.  Owing to strict censorship laws and tightening government control over the theater, any attempt to address the contemporary political climate in Tudor and Stuart England needed to be moved outside of the present moment.[4]  This created a practical explanation for Early Modern playwrights use of the past as a site to understand their own historical moment.   While we give students the tools to understand these historical contexts and the reasons that Shakespeare might use Ulysses as a voice to critique or affirm the status quo, there is still a sense in which we are teaching students to approach literature as a site in which truths about a contemporary world can be made visible to an audience regardless of setting or surface level content.  This isn’t meant to be understood as a value judgement against this approach to teaching literature, as I think there is a value in thinking about how this mode of teaching students allows us to think of Shakespeare as both an author who lived in a very specific historical moment and a writer who is still worth reading four hundred years after his death.

This is, however, not quite the same thing as turning to Shakespeare to understand our contemporary political moment.  I feel that the assignment I’ve described lays the ground work for logics that allow us to see our historical moment in Shakespeare, but to see our world in Shakespeare, we need to impose parts of our world upon Shakespeare (or any literary text).  Just as Shakespeare brought a 16th century world view to Troilus and Criseyde in order to make Chaucer’s Trojan epic more contemporarily relevant, we too bring a 21st century worldview to Shakespeare so that we can make visible the elements of the text that help us make sense of our contemporary political moment.  Sometimes, this is done rather explicitly, as with modern retellings of the play or adaptations which make significant thematic changes.  Other times, the move is subtler, simply directing readers to carefully examine a specific element of the plays so that our contemporary experiences can be more easily written onto them, as I see happening in Greenblatt’s op-ed piece on Richard III.  Next week, I plan to examine some examples of repurposing Shakespeare for political purposes in order to continue thinking about the various ways in which contemporary audiences turn to Shakespeare as a means of understanding the political world in which they live.

[1] Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is much more cynical than Troilus and Criseyde, and it is much more explicit it its rejection of a greater spiritual order that will render political conflicts on earth less meaningful.

[2] Troilus and Cressida I.iii.113-115

[3] Dating Shakespeare’s plays is difficult, but Troilus and Cressida was likely written either near the very end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign or near the beginning of James I’s.

[4] Shakespeare frequently addressed this problem by setting his plays in the Pre-Tudor past or on the European continent.


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

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

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

                  ­-Thomas Marc Parrott, Twenty-Three Plays and Sonnets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“While the dearest of friends lays in the cold ground”: Epidemic Disease, Incarceration and Patriarchal Control; The Continuing Story of Josiah Spaulding

After Josiah Spaulding, Jr. was chained to the floor in his room in about 1812 by his minister father, he would never again live a life unfettered by his father’s religious and patriarchal control—a control which extended over the Spaulding family long after the Reverend’s death in 1823.

Oral history of Buckland tells the tale of Josiah’s early escape attempt: he rubbed his chains against the wooden floor in his bedroom for about a year, finally breaking them. This story is recorded in Neil Perry’s 1966 article for the Springfield Morning Union. While there is much sensationalism in any newspaper article written about Josiah, my trip to the Spaulding house in Buckland in 2012 led me to believe this had actually happened.

After some research, I managed to locate the owner of the former parsonage, built in the late 1700s, the home of Reverend Spaulding, Mary Williams and their children. There has been very little restoration or modernization done to the former Spaulding home. I was invited there by its owner at the time, Edward Purinton, whose family goes back two hundred years in the Buckland area. Ed grew up in Josiah’s room and his mother had been a local Spaulding researcher. She collected funds from the community to install a gravestone for Josiah in the churchyard cemetery alongside his family, for Josiah, who died at the Deerfield Poor Farm, was buried in an unmarked grave.

Ed told me that the room was very cold in the winter, and in the letters, Josiah’s sisters often expressed concern that he stayed warm enough. Josiah’s bedroom still had the original wide-plank floors, the type of which is no longer seen in the United States. Ed moved the bed out of the way, and there underneath were the chain grooves made by young Josiah, who had been chained in front of the fireplace.

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The grooves in the floor where Josiah scraped his chains.

According to legend, Josiah managed to break his chains after he rubbed them into the wooden floor. He escaped from his bedroom out the back staircase, which was situated very close to his bedroom and would have been easily reached. The original hardware was still on the doors of the house, and Josiah’s bedroom only had a latch—typical hardware of the late 1700s in this region. The back staircase did indeed open to the kitchen, where the back door was about a foot away. The barn was also very close to the house; here, Josiah attempted to take the family horse and ride to freedom. According to oral history, a neighbor commandeered Josiah and brought him back to the Reverend. Next door to the Spaulding house is an early nineteenth century house that would have been there in 1812. Josiah’s sister Lydia is said to have alerted her father of his escape, and in the commotion, the neighbor came out to tackle Josiah.

The villagers of Buckland were all aware of what had happened to Josiah; they knew that he was “insane,” and that the Reverend was keeping him chained up. It may be hard to believe that the villagers did not think of it as abusive, but at this time, they did not view it that way. Instead, church records and biographies of Reverend Spaulding refer to his “affliction,” his punishment from God: his son, Josiah Jr. Just like epidemic disease in this era was not understood to be biological in nature, mental illness was believed also to be something that God put upon a family. These afflictions were not anyone’s business to interfere with, especially not if it was the family of the highly revered local minister. Reverend Spaulding spoke from the pulpit about what had happened with his son and his version of events is what everyone believed, although it is unclear exactly what he may have said. Whatever he said, it did not elicit sympathy for Josiah. The sympathy was for the Reverend.

After Josiah’s foiled escape-attempt, Reverend Spaulding knew he had to contain him in something much stronger and harder to escape, so he had an iron cage built by the local blacksmith. In this very small, rural village, the blacksmith and the villagers all would have known exactly for whom they built the cage. It was delivered to the Spaulding home, probably carried there, and strong men assisted the Reverend as they forced his son into it. Once Josiah was put into the cage, his relationship with his sisters and his friends effectively either ended completely or was greatly changed. Letters from Josiah’s friend Ezra Fisk were no longer sent to the Spaulding house and Josiah’s correspondence with his favorite sister, Mary, also ended. The horror and desperation Mary must have felt upon learning that her brother had been put into an iron cage one can only imagine. It most likely only compounded her own feelings of being trapped, isolated, incarcerated in the patriarchal world of the early 1800s in which she could not attend college, work, or be independent of men. There was absolutely nothing Mary could have done about her brother’s situation—and she knew it.

Shortly after Josiah was caged, Mary’s husband Isaac died at age thirty-three from what I suspect may have been cholera or dysentery, when Mary was pregnant with her second child. Their three-year-old daughter also died of disease around the same time. At this time, Mary wrote one of the most heartbreaking letters of the collection to her parents, in which she implored them to help. Mary was entirely alone in Southampton with her second child. Her handwriting was wild, and her tone was of arrant, devastated and hopeless emotion, the kind that occurs only after a remarkable tragedy like what she had experienced: she lost almost everyone important to her in a matter of a few years. Mary had little choice but to return home to Buckland to stay with her parents. Upon her return the family home, she was met with the reality that her brother was now in an iron cage, and that was where he was going to stay for the rest of his life. I do not think that Mary ever recovered from any of these events, and she died at age thirty-nine. None of the Spaulding women survived past the age of fifty.

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The Spaulding Family graves

I often wonder if Mary talked to her brother after he was caged, or if he implored her to let him out. The Spaulding daughters and their mother, Mary Williams, were in charge of keeping Josiah clothed, fed and warm. They did his laundry, stoked the fireplace, and cared for him. Josiah was not at all a “raving maniac”; he was not a “lunatic”; and there is no evidence that he was ever “deranged”—whatever those words mean. He was guilty, as his father would have said, of great sin: for being different. He was guilty of running off to Southampton to have fun, of not sharing his father’s Calvinist beliefs, of what may have been possible homosexuality based on the letters that were sent to him by a seemingly infatuated Ezra Fisk. The possible outcome of all of this, as Reverend Spaulding knew, was a challenge to the indomitable religious, patriarchal hold the Reverend maintained over his family and the village. It was such an incredible hold, made stronger by its ultimate physical manifestation in the form of Josiah’s cage, that it continued to socially incarcerate the Spaulding family for decades after the Reverend died. Reverend Spaulding’s death in 1823 around the same time as his wife’s death, did not mean a release or reprieve for Josiah, who by then was in his forties. The next generation cared for him, in his cage, as Josiah was transported up the hill to his sister Lydia’s house after the death of his parents. He was taken from the cage, his limbs long atrophied, carried up the hill by villagers, some of whom also carried his cage, in a grim procession to his destination at the home of Lydia. They lived right across the street from the First Congregational Church of Buckland, where the Reverend had preached for twenty-eight years. In its shadow, Josiah would live out the second half of his adult life.

Disability history is imperative to the field of Disability Studies, especially when there is primary source material like Josiah’s letters. In this case, a researcher can analyze his life in a more direct fashion, and also can learn from the letters of his family. If we were to read only newspaper articles and biographies of Reverend Spaulding and Josiah, we might come to the conclusion that Josiah really was violent and deranged, and that his poor father had no other choice but to cage him. Understanding that people with psychiatric and other disabilities are often very intelligent, observant, caring and nonviolent people is imperative to creating and fostering a world where disabled people like Josiah are given the resources they need to achieve contribute to what Disability Studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson would call a biodiverse world. Diversity amongst humans and perspectives of those who think differently or experience the world differently are an important part of fostering intellectual development for all humans. Presuming the competence of those with disabilities, as former Syracuse University Dean of the School of Education, Douglas Bicklen, would say, is a great way to start the process of biodiverse societal inclusion. Josiah’s letters clearly disprove presumptions of derangement, being “lower than a brute” and “insensate.” However, portrayals of psychiatric disability from the nineteenth century and before have continued to create stigma and bias today. Understanding the history of these perceptions and biases and where they began is necessary to unravel them, and see—really see, without presumption —the lives and experiences of disabled people now and in the past.


The cover photo is the room where Josiah was kept.

Kate Corbett Pollack is a graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University.  Her scholarship has grown from Josiah’s story, and has led to an interest in prisons, mental illness, social reform, education and disability. She wrote a monthly blog for almost three years, which can be viewed at americanpomeroys.blogspot.com, the blog for the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association. She has also written for and done work with the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica on the history and families who lived in a few of the beautiful old mansions in that area. Prior to coming to the university, she lived in Brooklyn, and before that Eugene, Oregon where she was born, and Utica, New York. Her family in Syracuse goes back one hundred years, and she has lived here over the years on occasion.

 

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.

Nasty, Brutish, but Definitely Not Short: Game of Thrones and the History of Power

It might seem counter-intuitive to talk about a fantasy television series as having anything meaningful to say about history. But Game of Thrones‘ self-conscious evocation of the medieval world, as well as the fact that so many of its storylines are drawn from historical events in our own world, suggests that it does indeed have something it wants to tell about history—about the ways in which individuals engage with the social and cultural forces that seem to move times, societies, and cultures forward. In the clip shown here, Petyr Baelish, the corrupt and ruthless Master of Coin, explains to Varys his vision of the world and the rules that govern the way it works.

In essence, chaos provides cunning and ruthless people the ability to rise to the top; not for him the illusions and grand visions of a just society. Power, and the ability to seize it, are the things that matter most to Petyr, and indeed to many of the characters of the series. Baelish’s words could also just as easily describe the vision of history that the whole series articulates (and to an even greater extent A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy novel series upon which it is based). In this framework, the sense and order that we attempt to impose on the past are necessary fictions designed to paper over the bloody, visceral, and terrifying truths that remind us as viewers and readers of our fleshly mortality.

The St. Sesbastian-like body of the prostitute Ros, pierced by the arrows wielded by the supremely sadistic Joffrey, in many ways stands as the ultimate expression of Game of Thrones’ theory of history. The actions of the great and powerful, the Lannisters, the Tyrells, the Targaryens, the Starks, become the ones recorded in the great books of learning. The lives of those affected, their bodies left broken and bloody, even the very narratives of their deaths utilized for those who seek their own aggrandizement, are a potent reminder of the price of history. They are the grisly detritus of the actions of these lords and ladies and kings who wield the power. The spectacle of Ros’s death is an unpleasant and viscerally shocking reminder of just how violent and unsettling history can be. For women and the poor, who have little agency or voice of their own, their bodies become the only way they can communicate their historical presence.

The series constantly begs the question: who is to blame for this horrific and chaotic state of affairs? Eddard Stark, for not doing the pragmatic thing and joining his force with Renly’s, thereby possibly averting the civil war, his death, and the ruin of his family? Robert Baratheon, for so many things: his bitterness at being forced to wed a woman he didn’t love, all for political expedience, his mistreatment of her (which leads to her successful plot to kill him and plunges the kingdom into chaos?), his unwillingness to take an actual hand in governing? Varys the Spider, the eunuch who has secretly plotted to bring back the exiled Targaryens, all the while claiming that he only wants what is best for the kingdom? All of the above? None of the above?

In this world, everyone is guilty and yet all are, paradoxically, somewhat innocent. At least, their actions can in part be explained by the forces, social, cultural, personal, that undergird and seethe beneath the surface of Westeros, that always threaten to burst free and plunge everything into chaos. The actions of the past are not contained there, discrete and easily deciphered, but instead continue to mold the present. Characters frequently find their actions circumscribed by the legacies left them by their parents, or by ancestors who have been long dead. The political chaos that erupts from the second season onward is just as much a result of the wars of centuries past as it is of the actions taken by the characters in the present.

Game of Thrones attempts to do away with the neatly defined explanations for what causes significant political and social change. The many competing plot-lines that nearly constantly intertwine and intersect with one another create an incredibly complicated skein of cause-and-effect that make it nearly impossible to impose some sort of large, explanatory meta-narrative on the events that unfold. All that can be said with any certainty is that the world that emerges from the convulsions of the end of the previous era is one characterized by even more political and social violence than the admittedly bloody ones that preceded it.

The historian Robert Rosenstone has compellingly suggested that the filming of history is “about loss of control; loss of sense; loss” (236). Game of Thrones, whatever its flaws and however troubling its representational politics, nevertheless challenges its viewers to come to grips with this powerful, almost sublime, sense of history. In a world that seems to live in a perpetual present (to riff off of Jameson’s claim), Game of Thrones stands as a potent reminder of the unsettling nature of history and that, I can’t help but think, is a good thing.


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.

Coda: Asexual Awareness Week and the Future of Queer Theory

Last week, I completed the Safer People, Safer Spaces training my university offers to learn better ways to be an ally, whether you’re a member or a supporter of the queer community. One of the activities we did involved matching vocabulary words (like lesbian, heteronormativity, drag, M2F) to their definitions and then discussing what we learned and what confused us. One of the words was asexuality, and to my surprise, no one had any questions about it!

In most settings, this is definitely not the norm. Even though, as one blogger pointed out, the US is home to more asexuals (or, as some prefer to be called, aces) than it is to Muslims, breast-cancer survivors, and Yale graduates, asexuality is not on most people’s radars. Even those within the LGBT community are sometimes unaware of asexuality as an orientation — indeed, the “A” in LGBTQIA+ more often stands for “ally” than “ace.” Thus, Asexual Awareness Week (this year, October 26–November 1) occurs at the end of LGBT History Month. Today, I’m going to sketch out the ways the conversations I see happening inside the asexual community might shape the queer theory of the future.

Only a handful of scholars in the humanities are doing research on asexuality studies.1 Nevertheless, the language of asexuality as it exists in the everyday praxis of aces has been invaluable to helping me reconsider the ways we think about desire and relationships in texts. Because asexuality — that is, the absence of sexual attraction — does not preclude the formation of other attractions, aces have developed a vocabulary set to describe those experiences. They distinguish between sexual, romantic, affective (“friendly”), and aesthetic attraction, and the different conditions under which these occur and the objects that these take. For instance, “homoromantic” describes someone who falls in love with those of their same sex or gender; a “demiromantic” is someone who falls in love only after a long friendship; an “aromantic” doesn’t fall in love, but might desire intense friendship.2

These desires are not new, and certainly aren’t limited to aces: John Henry Newman’s romantic friendships look very much like the intimate relationships of a homoromantic ace, but the chaste “seraphick love” that John Evelyn and Mary Godolphin shared in the seventeenth century could be conceived of as a queerplatonic relationship of two otherwise sexual people. What is new is the way these words examine phenomena whose existence and uniformity have been taken for granted.

Sometimes, the impulse to name certain desires can overwhelm the desires themselves, but what I think these concepts highlight is the plurality of ways in which people form attractions and desires, and that their objects need not be so neatly aligned. For instance, considering the ways in which Doyle’s John Watson might be simultaneously heterosexual (marrying and having a child by Mary Morstan) and homoromantic (in romantic love with Sherlock Holmes) helps us to grasp how a person can desire two objects in different, non-competing ways. In a way, asexuality has done for romance and sexuality what Judith Butler has done for gender and sex, by uncoupling one from the other (pun intended).

But the asexual community, of course, is not without its controversies. Some people don’t think that asexuality should be lumped into the LGBTQ+ “alphabet soup” because it’s technically not a sexual orientation but rather a not-sexual orientation. This, I think, ignores the great potential for intersectional solidarity, as homoromantic and trans* aces face oppressions that are very similar to those faced by their allosexual counterparts, and heteronormativity limits the experiences of sexual nonconformists indiscriminately.

Some have also criticized how white the movement is, with writers of color like Alok Vaid-Menon describing how to claim asexuality as an identity feels like a betrayal of their race. Some identity communities have long been de-sexualized as a means of discipline and disenfranchisement. Thus, self-describing as asexual plays into these enduring stereotypes, which certainly need dismantling. The asexuality leadership has been surprisingly self-reflexive about how race and gender authorizes (or fails to authorize) the perceived legitimacy of certain sexual orientations. At the same time, however, it’s no less important for us to question those structures that make sexuality compulsory, while we remain sex-positive.

I think the definition that we had to match at training put it best: “Each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently.” Just delete “asexual” and you’ll have described everyone. As queer studies develops, we’re thinking more plurally to account for the many and colorful ways that our experiences and identities intersect, shaping our selfhoods and our positions in our communities.


Notes

  1. NWSA’s Asexuality Studies Interest Group and the conference panels it has coordinated has been my primary source for asexuality studies in the humanities.
  2. The Huffington Post put together a handy simplified infographic to depict this.

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.”

 

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.”