On Borges, “Shakespeare’s Memory”

The following was originally written as part of a brainstorming session for an article I coauthored with Matthew Harrison for an edited collection on Shakespearean “users” — of academic and nonacademic varieties.  Our final product drifted from the texts below in its final analysis, but the claims and insights with which we began were nevertheless informative.  I’ve reproduced this opening salvo because I like it and want to keep it around.

Jorge Luis Borges’s 1983 short story “Shakespeare’s Memory” – Borges’s final short story, as it happens – is the narrative of a German literature professor named Hermann Sörgel who, during a conference in London, comes into possession of the memory of William Shakespeare.  It is passed along to him by another academic, who received it from a dying man while he worked as a physician in a field hospital during World War I.

Borges’s narrator asks for clarification, and the man, a South African named Daniel Thorpe, responds: “What I possess … are still two memories—my own personal memory and the memory of that Shakespeare that I partially am. Or rather, two memories possess me.  There is a place where they merge, somehow” (Collected Fictions, Kindle edition).  Of course, the boon is accepted.

Despite his unusual situation, Thorpe is not a particularly distinguished scholar – in fact, he admits his gift has produced work that garnered only mediocre reception – and Sörgel finds “that his opinions were as academic and conventional as my own.”  Yet sure enough, as time passes, Sörgel discovers himself muttering bits of unknown Chaucer, pronouncing familiar words in an unfamiliar cadence, and dreaming of the faces of men he half-remembers as Chapman, Jonson, and a nameless neighbor, “a person who does not figure in the biographies but whom Shakespeare often saw.”

Sörgel’s situation is in some sense a literary critic’s dream.  He has achieved ultimate access to the “real” Shakespeare, a kind of “first-person” Shakespeare that creeps on slowly but is nevertheless felt as immediate, effacing the normal reconstructive and mediating practices of reading, archival research, and scholarly speculation (cf Bolter and Grusin). Eventually, he tells the reader, “the dead man’s memory had come to animate me fully,” and he describes his pleasure at the various small details of Shakespeare’s work he came to understand.

Of course, things soon enough take a turn for the unpleasant.  Sörgel contemplates writing a biography of Shakespeare with his knowledge, but realizes that having Shakespeare’s memory does not make him any better of an (auto)biographer, and he is ill-suited for the task.  He also, it seems, becomes desensitized to the banality afforded by the memory, and eventually decides that a biography would be pointless: “Chance, or fate, dealt Shakespeare those trivial terrible things that all men know; it was his gift to be able to transmute them into fables, into characters that were much more alive than the gray man who dreamed them, into verses which will never be abandoned, into verbal music.”

It might be our first instinct to read this admission as an expression of Borges’s own formalism or aestheticism, to allow our memories of Borges’s views on art to explain their peculiar turn of the narrative to us: biographical context falls short of the pure power of poesy’s “verbal music.”  Shakespeare, a “gray man,” knew the universals of human experience and was able to write them into fables more interesting than life itself.  And surely such a reading is warranted, but there may be something else at work if we consider the other point at which Sörgel’s gift proves a curse.

In time, Sörgel begins to forget who and where and when he is: “I noted with some nervousness that I was gradually forgetting the language of my parents. Since personal identity is based on memory, I feared for my sanity.”  Indeed, his memory is not separate from Shakespeare’s, but the two intermingle, leading to increasing moments of confusion and panic: “One morning I became lost in a welter of great shapes forged in iron, wood, and glass. Shrieks and deafening noises assailed and confused me. It took me some time (it seemed an infinity) to recognize the engines and cars of the Bremen railway station.”

Shakespeare becomes corrosive, eating away at Sörgel’s sense of self, and in the process not only is Sörgel almost lost, but so is his appreciation of Shakespeare.  The curse is only lifted when Sörgel, dialing random numbers on the telephone, passes the memory on to a stranger who accepts the boon, as he had done before. But Sörgel discovers that he is not wholly cured.  He leaves the study of Shakespeare for first Blake and then the study of Bach, but in a short postscript dated 1924, he adds that “at dawn I sometimes know that the person dreaming is that other man. Every so often in the evening I am unsettled by small, fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic.

Like the haunted videotape in the horror film The Ring, Shakespeare’s memory is viral: infective, parasitical, and only relieving the sufferer when they pass it along to another host.  Of course, the terror of Borges’s story is more subdued than that of a horror film, more philosophically and existentially oriented, but I think it might do us well to consider what the story illuminates apart from the obvious reading of Borges’s own avowed aesthetic theories.

Bruno Latour, in his critique of what he calls “the Modern Constitution,” remarks that the “moderns have a peculiar propensity for understanding time that passes as if it really were abolishing the past behind it” – he calls this “calendar time,” which “situate[s] events with respect to a regulated series of dates” (We Have Never Been Modern 68).  Latour’s moderns think “they have definitively broken with their past,” but this experience of temporality ignores the way “the past remains, and even returns” (Latour 69).   This is what Linda Charnes has called “the non-linear ‘events’ of affective time,” which are “events which seek, and sometimes find, their representational truth only in the non-narrativity of bodies” (“We Were Never Early Modern,” in Hamlet’s Heirs, Kindle edition).  Charnes argues that the corpus of Shakespeare – textual primarily, but also the imagined body of the Bard himself – provides one arena that Western culture makes into such a site of “significant intensity,” letting us “attempt to locate ourselves as historical subjects” inhabiting a world marked by the passage of “meaningful time.”

For Latour, the return of the past is viewed by the moderns as an incomprehensible terror of “archaism,” a backsliding that, though it reverses time’s arrow, works to maintain the idea that temporality is purely linear (69).  This terror is precisely what the postmodernist Borges’s story figures: by effacing the differences between past and present, Sörgel’s assumption of Shakespeare’s memory threatens both his and Shakespeare’s historically embedded subjectivities, abolishing totally the passage of “meaningful time” in favor of a “significant intensity” of pure existential panic.

Such a line of thought abuts Jameson’s critique of postmodernism’s tendency toward pastiche, or the historicist point of view that we can only really make sense of the past when we remember it is the past and hold it at arm’s length.  But again, the problem for Borges’s narrator is not so much that he fails to historicize, but that the historicist impulse fails him: tapping into the unmediated past destroys the structures of meaning and feeling that allow the others around him, without such access, to produce meaningful experiences out of the past and out of literature.

What Borges’s story helps reveal, then, is that all literary scholarship is in some way founded upon what my friend Matthew Harrison has called affective anachronism, an impulse to “feel backward” (to adapt Heather Love’s term from another context).  Borges does not simply say that an immediate knowledge or experience of historical context robs literature of its power, but rather that it produces a distinctly different – and, as Thorpe’s and Sörgel’s situations as perpetually mediocre scholars show, not necessarily academically fecund – pleasure in the text.  It is in fact the process of feeling backward itself that constitutes viable scholarship.

The academy, it turns out, is less interested in the immediate knowledge that Shakespeare more often thought of the “moon” as “Diana” than one might at first think; in other words, the uses Shakespeare affords scholars are in fact quite distinct from what actually accessing the “real” Shakespeare might mean.  Immediately “knowing” the past robs it of its generative power as a site of both narrative and affective production.

Borges’s story suggests that finding oneself in Shakespeare (or Shakespeare in oneself) is profoundly numbing, but does this mean that an academic approach to Shakespeare is a sort of narcissism, one where we’d rather not find Shakespeare, but only our own ideas?  Or turning (forgive me) to Lacan, if our work as scholars is inherently narcissistic, is it defensible to say that academic Shakespeare is a kind of méconnaissance that simultaneously constitutes an image of him and yet fails to capture what we feel must be the “real thing,” a trompe-l’œil where something escapes, and that something is what makes Shax meaningful?  There’s an ambivalence here, in which we want Shakespeare to bolster our ego (provide us with our examples, illustrations, proof) while also resisting us (because such resistance affords the sense that our work emerges from a set of differential matrices that gave it singularity and significance).

Kitty Horrorshow’s Pontefract and Shakespeare as author-medium

Pontefract is a 2012 Twine Gothic horror game by Kitty Horrorshow.  In this blog post I will talk about the game generally, but specifically my aim is to tentatively theorize how Horrorshow’s game makes use of Shakespearean allusion, what affordances its buys her as a creator, with the overall goal of opening up questions of what this might mean for us (me and my cohort) as Shakespearean  and early modern scholars.

In Pontefract, the player takes on the role of an unnamed character, perhaps a knight, in a Gothic fantasyscape.  You work your way through several rooms of a semi-abandoned castle, populated only by apparently undead humans.  Primarily how the games works is this: you enter a room.  The room is described, sometimes with occasional observable details (for instance, when entering the kitchen, instead of directly confronting the cook you can check out what she’s boiling in her cauldrons).  If there is an NPC in this room, they will ignore you, instead carrying out routines (praying, cooking, being eaten by a floating horse’s head) that bespeak either their undead qualities (ie, they are zombies, not fully human, and only carry out certain deeply wired routines) or their artificiality (they are, in the most literal sense, videogame NPCs, written only to carry out certain limited, repetitive behaviors).

You can choose to interact with these characters, at which point you are presented with two options.  The first is always “friendly” — you either attempt to get the NPC’s attention, or help them if they seem to be in trouble.  The second is always hostile, and involves drawing your sword to kill the NPC.  For three NPCs you meet — a priest, a stablehand, and a cook — choosing the friendly option will result in your character’s death.

Progression in the game involves killing these NPCs.  After being slain they leave you with keys which will unlock the door to the castle dungeon.  You know you want to do this — apart from the fact that a locked door in a videogame always implies the goal is to open it — due to an encounter with the fourth NPC in this section of the game, the so-called “Pale King,” who sits eyeless and presumably also undead in the castle’s throne room.

This is the only NPC with whom you have no options for interaction.  Instead, when meeting him he speaks “into your thoughts [with] a hundred clamorous voices”:


Somehow, you understand that the ‘terror’ of which the pale king speaks is locked away within the castle dungeon.

You take knee before the king and vow to rid him of that which grieves him so, before standing and turning to descend the stairs back to the great hall.

The line spoken by the Pale King is from Shakespeare’s Richard II, very close to the end of the play, and is curious enough in and of itself.  Henry Bolingbroke has recently deposed and imprisoned the rightful king, Richard II, and named himself Henry IV; in Act V, scene 3, Henry uncovers a plot against him by some nobles loyal to Richard and has most of the conspirators put to death.  In the next scene (V.4), a nobleman named Exton enters with his servant.  The scene is brief, so I will reproduce it here in full for you to see just how odd it is:

Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake,
‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’
Was it not so?
These were his very words.
‘Have I no friend?’ quoth he: he spake it twice,
And urged it twice together, did he not?
He did.
And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me,
And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man’
That would divorce this terror from my heart;’
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let’s go:
I am the king’s friend, and will rid his foe.

So Horrorshow’s Pale King quotes Henry IV, but only as he himself is quoted by Exton.  The scene to which Exton refers, in which the king speaks these lines, is not one we ourselves are allowed to see: the previous scene where Henry uncovers the plot against him contains nothing close to the statements that Exton attributes to him.  In fact, going thoroughly from the text, Exton hasn’t even shown up prior to this point in the play.

This scene seems to pointedly highlight the lengths to which the ambitious Exton is willfully misinterpreting the situation, if not in what Henry is referring to, at least in the fact that Henry is personally addressing the order to him: “And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me, / And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man'[.]”  (Compare Horrorshow’s: “Somehow, you understand that the ‘terror’ of which the pale king speaks is locked away within the castle dungeon.”)

Indeed, the play ends with Exton presenting Henry with Richard’s corpse and Henry, horrified at what has been carried out in his name, disavows himself of Exton and the act committed for his benefit (though, of course, he does benefit).

In Horrorshow’s game the command is given directly and unambiguously, placing us in the shoes of a character who is and is not Exton.  It should come as no surprise to a player familiar with Shakespeare that when you venture down into the dungeon what you find is a weakened, miserable figure “you” immediately recognize as the “rightful king.”

Again you are presented with a choice: to peacefully beg forgiveness from the rightful king, or to kill him.  As before, the peaceful option proves ineffectual,  but this time, not because it kills you.  Rather:

You attempt to kneel before the rightful king, ready to apologize for your wrongful deeds and vow yourself to his cause, but your body resists you. The castle shudders and the walls begin to wail, and your head is filled with the lurching, ragged language of the stones.


At this point you again have the same choice, and the only way to move forward is to kill the king.  The game ends immediately after: you die as the castle collapses around you, but almost immediately you find yourself once again in the woods outside the castle gates, preparing to enter.  The implication, perhaps, is that you are no different than the creatures that trace their endless, undying routines within the castle walls: as a player, you are finally robbed of the agency the game has dangled in front of you at every turn with its false choices, and you are at last subsumed into the machinery of the Gothic landscape.

Appropriately enough, Horrorshow’s hypertext game seems to adapt and extend Gérard Genette’s pre-Internet idea of hypertextuality as “any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary” (Palimpsest: Literature in the Second Degree 5).  Rather than a simple allusiveness, or even a dense and methodical rewriting (eg, as between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses), Horrorshow’s references to Shakespeare are more like the hypertextual apparatus of Twine itself: links that send us outside the text, or into another text, or a different part of the same text, but which do not do so to make a claim about Shakespeare or Richard II.  Rather, both texts become hypertexts, existing in tandem or parallel, creating a space for thematic echos and reader (re)orientation.

Exton makes a choice; we do not.  Exton must interpret what he will do; we must interpret what we have done, if we have done anything. It is Exton who allows the play its end, and despite his abjection, the consequences of his actions haunt the rest of Henry IV’s reign.  Our actions have, perhaps, no lasting effect in the larger context of the game’s endlessly looping plot, as we are simultaneously trapped within and enabled by the haunted house that is the game’s architecture.  Apart from Shakespeare, then, I would say Horrorshow’s game is commenting on the heroic power fantasy of videogames and the exhausted narratives of aggressive but ultimately impotent of bloodshed they often foster.

As a matter of fact, Horrorshow’s original post about the game makes no mention of Shakespeare at all, and so it’s possible many who played through it did not note the allusions if they had no foreknowledge.  The game is deeply allusive, but the allusions only “activate” for a player quite attuned to Shakespeare’s play — and nevertheless, the allusiveness is not present in any way that would seem to lessen the enjoyment of a player who didn’t know Shakespeare but who was very familiar with the Diablo game franchise, text adventures, or someone who wanted to poke around a haunted castle.

Overall, the game draws deeply from Shakespeare while also meticulously managing the impact of its Shakespearean connections through a variety of tactics, including letting its allusiveness go unspoken, choosing its allusions obscurely, or interweaving its allusions with formal misdirection.  Indeed, the “living fear” Exton says Henry decries is interpreted as the deposed king imprisoned at Pomfret — Shakespeare’s name for Pontefract, the actual castle where the historical Richard II was held captive until his execution.  Thus the games title is itself an allusion that displaces Shakespeare as a central, authoritative voice of historical record, underscoring the gap in terminology between our understanding of history and his.

Furthermore, Richard II is not a play that looms large in the popular consciousness, or at least, not large enough for Shakespearean capital to immediately pay off in a gaming environment as it does, say, when the text at hand is Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet.  Indeed, the lines from Richard II in Pontefract are not the most memorable of Shakespeare’s lines; they’re not even the most famous lines from Richard II.  Nevertheless, Horrorshow puts her obscure citations to work.

After beheading the rightful king, the castle appears to collapse and you hear the severed head whisper to you the game’s second direct lift from Shakespeare: “Grief boundeth where it falls.”  This is not, as it happens, anything spoken by Richard, but rather a comment made by the Duchess of  Gloucester near the very beginning of the play (I.2) when she is urging John of Gaunt to stand up for her husband (whose death she believes Richard sponsored), and implicitly foretelling the whiplash of political instability that will come to shadow the reign of Henry IV.

In Pontefract the player is primed for this line differently, as you descend to the dungeon and the game tells you,

The castle whispers to you.

Dost thou at ev’ry hail draw out thy sword?

From whither comes this eagerness to slay?

Thy lust for blood and anguish sees thee curs’t

These three lines of blank verse generically meld with the Shakespearean quotations, though they are not themselves Shakespeare (as far as I can tell, they are original).  Thus, any player not explicitly looking for Shakespearean allusions might be inclined to read the actual quotations from Shakespeare — if they seemed somehow stylistically distinct from the game’s narrative voice — as of a piece with this verse.  The final word in the quote above is a hyperlink, which takes us to a closing line:

ttO suffERRr EverR thISSs accuRRSSedd dDAyy

The styling of the text here — breaking with typographical convention to suggest the words are being spoken/thought in a hiss, or by an inhuman voice — recurs not only in her original post about the game (“P0ntteEFFraccctTTt”) but in the game’s code, where Horrorshow has named several passages after direct quotes from Shakespeare’s play in the same style:

Click through for a larger image. Highlighted areas show where passages in Twine have been named with Shakespearean quotes.  This is only a section of these instances.

It was not until the game was re-collated in a directory page that the author’s note made the Shakespeare connection clear, “inspired by” Richard II, which provides the reader with an introductory signpost for the allusions.  I don’t meant to imply that Horrorshow is somehow “coming clean” about her allusions, but rather, the broad and subtle nature of the game’s allusiveness indicates a way of approaching Shakespeare that makes productive use of his corpus while insisting it is not the only corpus that matters.

Horrorshow’s Shakespeare is not an impeachable paragon of literature and humanity; he is the writer of Richard II as well as Hamlet, and also the author of dozens of less than memorable lines, dozens of less than memorable images.  Neither is Horrorshow’s Shakespeare an academic Shakespeare, a layered site where the machinations of cultural poetics are put on display if we perform an anatomy with right critical tool.

However, there is indeed something here of the Foucauldian author-function.  As Marjorie Garber has argued regarding the great dearth of personal and biographical information we have on Shakespeare, it is possibly exactly this dearth that makes Shakespeare such a literary powerhouse: “Freed from the trammels of a knowable ‘authorial intention,’ the author paradoxically gains power rather than losing it, assuming a different kind of kind of authority that renders him in effect his own ghost” (Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers 15).

Garber argues it is precisely Shakespeare’s ghostly nature that allows him to “possess” writers as distinct as Marx, Freud, and Derrida, whose use of his texts as examples for their theories means those theories forever thereafter exhibit the marks of a Shakespearean ghost-writing process.  But I do not think we can say the same about Horrorshow’s game: her allusiveness is never to Shakespeare-as-such, not like, for instance, the way Freud “uses” Hamlet to explain his thesis of repression.

I would like to suggest, then, that Horrorshow and Shakespeare work collaboratively.  What I mean is Shakespeare becomes not so much an author-function but an author-medium.  By “medium” here I mean something akin to what Marshall McLuhan means when she says “All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience in new forms” (Understanding Media 85).  This is similar to the way in which Garber argues Shakespeare ghost-writes Freud, Marx, and Derrida — there are things these writers wish to articulate, and Shakespeare provides the vocabulary for doing so.

But it is always Shakespeare’s vocabulary.  The authors work to preserve a whole and bounded idea of “Shakespeare” outside their own texts.  Horrorshow’s Shakespeare, however, becomes an active but epehemeral metaphor for the experience of authorship and creation.  Is Shakespeare ghost-writing Pontefract, or is Horrorshow ghost-writing Shakespeare?

Her textual use of Shakespeare blurs the boundaries between her in 2012 and him in 1595.  His blank verse appears alongside hers; shreds and patches of his words appear in the very underlying structure of of the game, rewritten in Horrorshow’s own typographical idiolect, meaning nothing in situ, hidden from the player, but serving as the connective tissue between the blocks of the story.

In the end, the game is not “based on” Richard II or an adaptation, but “inspired by.”  Horrorshow makes use of Shakespeare as one part of an available arsenal as a creator and — perhaps, disclosing now that my interpretation of Pontefract is as precarious as any one might offer — to express her interests and concerns regarding games and the stories of power and responsibility they can dramatize for us.

Digital Humanities and the Digital Classroom

The following is the text of a brief talk I was invited to deliver as part of the opening graduate student roundtable at the Indiana University Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference on March 26, 2015.  The conference theme was Breaking Futures: Imaginative (Re)visions of Time, while the roundtable theme was “Digital Humanities in Practice.”  I was joined by Lydia Wilkes, Mary Borgo, Whitney Sperrazza, and Erika Jenns, whose talks provided grounding for a rich dialogue for the many overlapping “digital” futures of the humanities, both in the classroom and in research.  It was a wonderful experience, if you want to see more from the conference, trawl the hasthtag #IUIC15 on twitter to see the archive of live-tweets.


“Are you available for in-person office hours?” is a question I receive, in various forms, at least once a week.

For the past ten months or so I’ve been working with Lydia Wilkes and Justin Hodgson to build and implement an online version of English W-131, the intro to composition course most of the graduate students in here in the English department teach or will teach at some point.  This semester has seen the three of us piloting the course, personalizing it based on the framework we built collaboratively.  It’s my first time teaching online and, as such, has given me a reason to stop and reflect on what it means to practice digital humanities in the classroom; here, for me, the issue of the digital humanities necessarily emerges in the space of the online humanities classroom, since it raises questions about the technologies we use to facilitate education not only in face-to-face interactions, but how those technologies necessarily do or can reconfigure facilitation across greater spatial and temporal boundaries.

I’m not sure if before this semester I would have called myself a “digital humanist.”  Frankly, I’m still not sure that’s a label that I’d embrace.  Part of this is because – to put in it in the pithy and cynical way I developed when I was an undergrad – what will happen with the digital humanities is exactly what happened to the cellular phone: just as the latter became simply a phone, so too, I think, technological and computational creep will eventually become par for the course for doing any sort of work in the humanities.

Despite my suspicion that something about this still holds true, I now recognize that my too-cool-for-this-English-major-senior-capstone bon mot enacts a form of what Mark Sample last year called “facile thinking” about the digital humanities.  Though he uses this phrase to refer to the strawmen arguments of many DH alarmists and skeptics, I think it could also characterize the tacit way in which I rendered myself and the field unto the DH geist.

“[F]acile thinking strives to eliminate complexity,” Sample writes in his blog post on the subject, “both the complexity of different points of view and the complexity of inconvenient facts.”  By contrast, he says, the digital humanities and writing on them needs to evince more “difficult thinking,” a mixture of “evidentiary-based reasoning” and acknowledgment of divergent perspectives that adds up to what he calls a “rational empathy.”  In other words, by consigning to an inevitable digital ascent and assimilation, I primed myself to overlook the oddities and complications encountered in this transition.  For my students especially, the emotional and material stakes of education are far weightier than smartphones.


So, then, back to my opening, which by this point you may have forgotten: “Are you available for in-person office hours?”

I commute into Bloomington irregularly.  In this way, teaching online has been something of a relief for me, so my office hours are usually also online.  However, because occasionally I do have to be in Bloomington, and because the students in these pilot courses are all on campus, sometimes my office hours are in-person.  What I discovered, however, is that my students want to meet me in person far more frequently than, first of all, they actually can, and second of all, than I have ever experienced in my time teaching in a face-to-face classroom.

I assumed students who were okay with taking an online course that met once a week via videoconference would be okay with having office hours in a similar format.  One has to imagine, at least, that they feel comfortable enough with technology to take the plunge on the online course, anyway.  What I discovered, however, is that digital office hours are the most unpopular type of office hours I have ever had.  In fact, the only times students have met me in digital office hours are when I have explained to them that I wasn’t going to be on campus any time soon.

Indeed, another thing I have discovered is that the students in my online course are far more anxious about technology in general.  If an assignment or module posts with a typo or misdirected link, within an hour I’ll receive at least three emails – usually sounding mildly panicked – asking me for clarification and guidance.  When students take online quizzes and browser issues or an accidental page reload wipes or otherwise malforms their work, I receive lamentations explaining what happened, hoping I’ll be merciful.  The stakes in these instances are relatively small – a pietá over, at most, two or three points in a class scored out of 1000 – but the students’ frustration with the system is often palpable.  The obvious thing that has happened is that the technology has become more central in the students’ experience.  Rather than supplement my in-class lectures, the LMS is now the primary way of completing work.  When the tool fails, the student’s immediate fear is that, from my perspective as an instructor, this is also their failure.  These classroom technologies become more conspicuous as things that separate the students from the class and what I suspect they understand as the “real” me.

To provide evidence for this last assertion: the desire for in-person office hours is often framed by my students as a need to find out what “you” really want.  This is familiar rhetoric: I’ve heard it before in meatspace classes.  But I’ve heard it more frequently, and with a stronger valence of confusion, with this online course.  One student told me she wanted to know about what she called “your ideals,” and explicitly stated she felt like the online nature of the course had kept her from finding out what I wanted on our assignments.  Again, this is not a complaint unique to online coursework, but I think it’s important that in this scenario, technology can and does take the fall.


In the preface to his 1659 translation of the Czech pedagogue John Comenius’s Orbis sensualim pictus, one of the first illustrated textbooks, English humanist Charles Hoole explains how the innovation of adding pictures to the book, alongside parallel vernacular and Latin captions, will allow students to pick up Latin much more easily and quickly than ever before.  The reason for this, he argues, is that the sensual quality of the illustration and a preexisting knowledge of vernacular English allow the student to ground the Latin in a personal, experiential reality inaccessible when one is simply laying out grammatical rules.  This is incredibly important for Hoole, as he writes it is “the very Basis of our Profession, to search into the way of Childrens taking hold by little and little of what we teach them, that so we may apply our selves to their reach” (sig b1v).

What strikes me is Hoole’s commitment to the needs and limits of his students, based on a generalized sense of their day-to-day experiences.  The basis of our profession, he says, is to “apply ourselves to their reach” – to meet them halfway, and then move further along together.  I am reminded, actually, of Lisa Spiro’s argument that what defines the digital humanities is not necessarily the computational analysis of texts, but rather “collaboration, openness, and experimentation” as it is afforded by new technologies (“This Is Why We Fight”).  I am not arguing that the digital humanities will allow us to rediscover some forgotten or lost element of humanistic education.  But I would like to suggest that in his bid to defend the utility of the picture book, Hoole is engaging in precisely the “difficult thinking” Sample advocates, though his humanities are analog: he considers the perspectives and needs of his students and then does his best to search out technologies that will help him meet those needs, developing what Sample calls “rational empathy.”  Difficult thinking about DH, at least for me, has likewise foregrounded the importance of the interactions I have with my students as they are maintained and facilitated by our classroom technologies, and how this often seems to put my students at what they feel is a disadvantage.  For Hoole, studying what he calls the “representations” in the picture book is an intuitive activity, in that it is more or less the same as seeing or imagining the things themselves.  The technologies at work in my online teaching, however, seem to throw into question precisely the gaps between what my students see or read, what I write on our wiki pages, and what they hear me say in our videoconferences.


I plan on disseminating a survey to my students before the end of the semester, in which I’ll ask some particularly pointed questions about their experience in the class, and try to deduce a more evidentiary basis for what is right now a hunch.  What I suspect happened is something that supports the old platitude, you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone.  That is, certainly my students had expectations for what an online course would be and how it would function.  Maybe some of them even relished the idea of never having to see me face to face.  Maybe some of them thought it would be easier than a normal course, precisely because it was technologically mediated – we must keep in mind that our students may be as prone to facile thinking about the digital as we are.  But on the other hand, I recognize that I myself am an intuitive and a familiar piece of classroom technology that seems to have malfunctioned: from a student’s perspective, the online instructor is like a volume that is always checked out of the library, and can only be read in 15 page chunks on Google Books.  As I continue to the end of this semester, then, I know I must work in new ways to identify my students’ reach and apply myself to it, and to keep in mind the difficult thinking we all must do – students and instructors alike – in the weeks and years to come.

Blogging the Quals: Oops

Oops! I guess I’m still blogging the quals, even though I forgot to blog them all for the past several weeks!  I became too obsessed with reading and getting stressed out due to my upcoming move.  But in good news, I finished reading last week!  Woo!

I kept all my notes in a Twine document.  Here’s what it looks like:


WOW. Okay.

Right now I’m busy drafting my exams questions, and am scheduled to go through the exam itself on September 24th.  Excellent.  I’ll leave you now with another picture, a long quote from a source, and a brief reflection.


In the introduction to Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass note that in vanitas paintings, as in most of the vanitas tradition, objects are collected, lumped, and represented precisely to underscore their transience in relation to the absent subject:

By their title (vanitas vanitatum, Eccles. I.2) and by the symbolic encoding of things represented (signs of transience and morality), they exhort subjects to renounce objects.  But can such a sequestering hold?  We have reproduced N.L. Peschier’s unusual vanitas painting [above] precisely because the subject finds its way back into the picture, at the top of the pile of objects, in the upper-right hand corner, head tilted like the skull beneath it.  Even in more typical versions, the omnipresent skull itself serves as a reminder of the common materiality of subjects and objects. (1)

All seems well and good here.  The authors  point out the ironic effect of paintings like these: that they themselves incite what they disavow, by becoming “collectibles” for  educated elites, or later on, museums, thus further suggesting an inextricability of subject and object in particular as an effect of the artistic process.  In fact, we might be tempted to say the subject is not even “absent” since, as any good Foucauldian reading tells us, the subject is constructed virtually by the painting, a medium for the gaze that gives the object its meaning.  Hold that thought, though.

I am curious about the claim that “the subject finds its way back into the picture.”  In the hard copy of the book I read the painting was reproduced in black and white, and hence harder to suss out, but the image I inserted above makes its abundantly clear that the “subject” that seems to appear in the upper-right corner is not a human subject at all, but a statue: another piece of artwork, bronze or perhaps terra cotta, whose pose mimics the stony human skull below it.  Directly horizontal to this statue, we discover another “human” reappearance, a sketch posted on the wall (perhaps a Peschier self-portait?).  Neither of these figures meet our gaze; they turn away, to  elsewhere, to spaces outside the frame: to places we cannot ever, will not ever see.

So I will go one step further than simply saying this painting becomes what it renounces: I want to say that it embraces it.  It embraces its own objecthood.  The things in the painting (subjects, in one sense of the word, a sense that cannily denies the necessity of the human) exist beyond us; the painting itself will exist beyond its painter, its collector, the school group that sees it in the museum.  The viewer virtually constructed by this painting is one who meets no sympathetic eye.  Rather than urging us to disavow art, Peschier’s painting suggests the ways in which art disavows us.


On Guy Fawkes in Hell

I missed last week’s blogging the quals, but I’ve managed to keep ahead of my schedule a bit.  So here’s what I’ve read in the past two weeks:


Protevi, John – Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic
Artaud, Antonin – The Theater & Its Double
Bataille, Georges – Visions of Excess
Foucault, Michel – The Order of Things
Copjec, Jean – Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists
Butler, Judith – Bodies That Matter
Agamben, Giorgio – Homo Sacer
Bennett, Jane – Vibrant Matter
Morton, Timothy – The Ecological Thought

Primary Texts: Drama

Milton, John – Samson Agonistes
Anonymous – Two Lamentable Tragedies
Preston, Thomas – Cambyses
Dekker, Thomas – If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil is In It

My little thought for the week comes from the Dekker play; it ends with a scene in Hell during which various characters from the play proper are submitted to torments, but also, because this was 1611, includes a guest appearance by the illustrious Guy Fawkes:


In this little snippet, Fawkes is named and discussed by the various demons who surround him in Hell.  The interesting thing about this is that Fawkes does not realize he is in Hell; every other mortal seems aware of their situation, but Fawkes seems a bit mad.

This is due to his punishment, which the demon Shacklesoul explains: Fawkes “Digd cellars to find where hel stood” and now for all eternity believes himself to be in the cellars beneath Parliament, perpetually on the verge of lighting the gunpowder kegs but never actually doing it.

It might be fruitful to speculate why Fawkes is the only person in Hell given such a special treatment — specifically, to never know he’s in Hell.  With Fawkes  traitor and hence doubly abject, Dekker perhaps seizes this opportunity to highlight his own support of James (since the play, overall, is quite critical of James and his court, and in bad need of a balm).

Yet what is also interesting to me here is the rather proleptic (and of course coincidental) way that the scene predicts the appropriation of Guy Fawkes as a revolutionary for “Anonymous” and his deployment in other aspects of modern consumer culture: an emblem of political upheaval locked into a moment of fruitless action and paranoia, always on the verge of lighting the fires of revolution, but never actually doing it.

Blogging the quals


You may remember that some point I mentioned I am in grad school.  Well, I am now in a position where I am preparing to take my PhD qualification exams which, in case you’re not already an English grad student or PhD yourself, means I’m going to spend this summer reading something like 150 books.

These will be diverse, though of course largely oriented around my period (Shakespeare and early modern drama) and my theoretical concerns (performance, Renaissance humanism, intellectual history, and contemporary “posthumanism” as it might be broadly construed).  I don’t have any particular interest in saying I’m one type of scholar or another, but I am highly inclined toward what medievalist Eileen A. Joy has called “weird reading.”  Let’s take a look:

Any given moment in a literary work (all the way down to specific words and even parts of words, and all the way up to the work as a whole), like any object or thing, is “fatally torn” between its deeper reality and its “accidents, relations, and qualities: a set of tensions that makes everything in the universe possible, including space and time,” and literary criticism might re-purpose itself as the mapping of these (often in- and non-human) tensions and rifts, as well as of the excess of meanings that might pour out of these crevasses, or wormholes. We’ll call this reading for the weird, which is fitting when you consider that the word ‘weird’ (traditionally linked to ‘wyrd,’ or ‘fate’) is related to the Old English weorðan [‘to become’], rooted in Indo-European *wer– [‘to turn, bend’]. This will entail being open to incoherence as well, as one possible route toward a non-routinized un-disciplinarity that privileges unknowing over mastery of knowledge. The idea here would be to unground texts from their conventional, human-centered contexts, just as we would unground ourselves, getting lost in order to flee what is (at times) the deadening status quo of literary-historical studies at present, aiming for the carnivalesque over the accounting office.

I agree with the general sentiment here.  Joy says in a footnote that she does not mean to jettison historicist criticism entirely, and indeed, I find my current work an attempt to revive some of the stranger, less disciplined qualities of history-making that the Foucauldian turn of New Historicism deanimated.

In order to pass the time by doing something other than simply reading and worrying about my exams this fall, I am going to do my best to post weekly or bi-weekly updates here listing what I’ve read since my last post and, perhaps, some scattered thoughts, impressions, or quotes.  (In this sense I’m taking my cues from when I was in a similar situation as a senior undergrad.)

So let this be the inaugural post in my “Blogging the quals” series.  I’ll list below the eclectic mix of what I’ve read so far this semester, to give you an idea of what’s to come in full force later on.

Lyric poetry (selections)

Lanyer, Aemilia (Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum)
Sidney, Philip (Astrophil and Stella)
Spenser, Edmund (Shepheards Calendar, Amoretti, Epithalamium)
Wroth, Mary (Pamphilia to Amphilanthus)
Wyatt, Thomas (Sonnets)


Ford, John – ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Shakespeare, William – Antony and Cleopatra
— Love’s Labours Lost
Webster, John – The Duchess of Malfi

Period/Field Criticism

Charnes, Linda – Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare
MacKay, Ellen – Persecution, Plague, and Fire: Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England


Bogost, Ian – Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
Latour, Bruno – We Have Never Been Modern
Zizek, Slavoj – The Sublime Object of Ideology

Valerie Traub on History and Early Modern Queer Studies

Demeaning the disciplinary methods employed to investigate historical continuity and change does not advance the cause of queerness; nor does the charge of normalization. For those of us committed to nonnormative  modes of being and thought, the derision implicit in this accusation can only be construed as an attempt to foreclose any possibility of resistance. While proclaiming a uniquely queer openness to experimentation and indeterminacy, the unhistoricists disqualify others’ ways of engaging with the past, seeing in the effort to account for similarities and change over time only a hegemonic, if defunct, disciplinarity. Paradoxically, unhistoricism arrogates to itself the only appropriate model of queer history even as its practitioners imply that history is not something they are interested in making. The categorical quality of their polemic, which implicitly installs queer as a doctrinal foundation and ideological litmus test, goes to the heart of historiographic and queer ethics. It goes to the heart of academic and queer politics. It goes to the heart of interdisciplinarity and its future.

Rather than practice “queer theory as that which challenges all categorization” (Menon, “Period Cramps” 233), there remain ample reasons to practice a queer historicism dedicated to showing how categories, however mythic, phantasmic, and incoherent, came to be. To understand the arbitrary nature of coincidence and convergence, of sequence and consequence, and to follow them through to the entirely contingent outcomes to which they contributed: this is not a historicism that creates categories of identity or presumes their inevitability; it is one that seeks to explain such categories’ constitutive, pervasive, and persistent force. Resisting unwarranted teleologies while accounting for resonances and change will bring us closer to achieving the difficult and delicate balance of apprehending historical sameness and difference, continuism and alterity, that the past, as past, presents to us. The more we honor this balance, the more complex and circumspect will be our comprehension of the relative incoherence and relative power of past and present conceptual categories, as well as of the dynamic relations among subjectivity, sexuality, and historiography.

from The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies