Dora Malech: Poetic Influence and Poetic Constraint, Ex Post Facto

MalechThe last question in W. S. Merwin’s gnomic Q & A poem “Some Last Questions” is “Who are the compatriots.” In the process of writing my most recent collection, Stet: Poems (Princeton University Press, 2018), I found that question—who are the compatriots—running through my head again and again. I had embarked on a project of constrained poetry (poems engaged with form outside of the traditional parameters of rhyme and meter, in my case, through procedures of erasure, lipogram, and anagram in particular) without any clear sense of why I was drawn to these processes. It began intuitively, a “lonely impulse of delight” drawing my attention to the limited and recombinant, but I soon felt the seemingly arbitrary becoming necessary, even revelatory, for me. The more I reflected on my process, the more these forms directly spoke to and enacted the individual context out of which they arose—the change in my own life (interpersonal, geographical, embodied, and so on) a function not of the impossible “fresh start,” but of my metaphorical and literal pre-existing conditions. I could only write myself new by acknowledging what and who and where I already was; to that end, I begin the collection with an epigraph from Henri Cole’s poem “Anagram”: “Scrawling the letters of my name, I found and changed what I became.”

The collection foregrounds its influences (Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Unica Zürn’s Hexentexte, for example)—writers and writings I sought out as I processed my process, attempting to find precedents and context for my formal constraints—but lately, I’ve been struck by the way in which the “project” of a book doesn’t end when the book itself ends. There’s some element of frequency illusion at play, sure, but now, in the wake of Stet, I find my compatriots everywhere—other contemporary poets working with anagrams, lipograms, abecedaries, and so on. Each time I read new (or new to me) contemporary work engaged with constrained form, I find myself attending to the why of form anew, and finding different answers in each poet’s work. Here at the end of poetry month, I wanted to celebrate the work of my compatriots, drawing up a short list of those who are keeping me company.

If you’re looking for contemporary anagrams, check out Mike Smith’s Multiverse, published by BlazeVOX books in 2010, and Kevin McFadden’s Hardscrabble, published by The University of Georgia Press in 2008. Both of these collections use the anagram to explore the making of identity, particularly focused on embedded lineage and American literary identity. Then there’s K. Silem Mohammad’s Sonnagrams 1-20, published by Slack Buddha Press in 2009. While these anagrams of Shakespeare’s sonnets seem to resist being taken too seriously, presenting themselves as more conceptual than lyric, I can’t help but find the actual language strangely compelling. The print version of the sonnagrams is now hard to access, but there are still plenty of individual sonnagrams floating around on the internet, which, while frustrating, seems a fitting fate for poems that came out of the Flarf movement. Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border (Sarabande Books, 2009), its title an anagram of “Robert Redford,” uses this titular anagram as a kind of enactment of the imagining and reimagining (including the imagining and reimagining of an imagined relationship with “Robert Redford”) to be found therein. The use of the anagram in Jeffrey Pethybridge’s Striven, The Bright Treatise (Noemi Press, 2013) fascinates me in its ambivalence. In an interview with The Rumpus, he says:

[With] the anagrams, I think of them as a kind of linguistic materialism which works with the book’s engagement with the materialist psychology in contemporary psychiatry (brain chemistry) and the early modern materials psychology of humoral theory, so the poem refracts those ways of conceiving of human affect and cognition. And also, as a writer, the constraints and strictures sponsor creativity for me / they help me make the poem . . .

And one of the first pieces i made was “The New Humors(1),” which started when I was reading the word serotonin in the dictionary and saw the anagram no tin rose, which then immediately recalled Stein’s a rose is a rose is a rose. And then I was launched into a poem.

When asked to speak more about the connection between materialist psychology and anagrams, he writes:

[They] are two different intensifications of material: anagrams are a linguistic materialism—making a poem mostly out of the letters of a given word; and the focus on brain chemistry is a focus on the material body as the cause of suicide rather than in the mind, the psychological drama.

I’m fascinated by this uneasy relationship the book has with the reductive nature of the anagram – Pethybridge interrogates that reduction in terms of lived experience, while also letting its poetic constraints prove paradoxically productive.

Terrance Hayes’s “A Gram of &s” series in Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002) uses a kind of end-“rhyme” anagram form, based on a word game found in newspaper puzzles. Using the game’s specific constraints, each end word re-works letters of the poem’s title into new words, “Stupor” becoming “sour,” “sport,” and so on. This form interests me because it manages to foreground transpositions of sound alongside the visual.

I haven’t noted every single anagrammarian out there, but it should give some sense of who’s working with alphabetic transposition in poetry, and why. I’d love to move on to the lipogrammarians and the poets working with erasure and redaction now (Marwa Helal! Solmaz Sharif! Kristi Maxwell!), but I’ll adhere to the constraint of a blog post and wrap this celebration up before I hit 1000 words. I feel lucky to have found the compatriots on the page, and luckier still that I’m still discovering new ones. Happy reading, and Happy Poetry Month.

Dora Malech is the author of two previous books of poetry, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in the New YorkerPoetryThe Best American Poetry, and many other publications. She is assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

Poetry Editor Anne Savarese Celebrates National Poetry Month

National Poetry Month is the perfect occasion for us to celebrate the many poets we have been lucky enough to publish through the years in our two poetry series, both of which began in the early 1970s, and to spread the word about recent and forthcoming poetry collections.    

The Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently edited by Susan Stewart, is dedicated to publishing the best work of today’s emerging and established poets. Originality is one of its hallmarks, and its recent titles represent a range of forms and perspectives: Austin Smith’s reflections on the rural Midwest and contemporary America in Flyover Country; Dora Malech’s innovative wordplay in Stet; Myronn Hardy’s variety of voices and locales in Radioactive Starlings; and Miller Oberman’s combination of new work and Old English translations in The Unstill Ones.

Coming soon in the series are two books from established poets: Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2017, by Eleanor Wilner, who received the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry from the Poetry Society of America on April 18th, and The River Twice by Kathleen Graber, the first volume in nearly a decade from the author of The Eternal City (2010), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award.

Another poetry series at the Press, the Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, provides a forum for first-rate literary work by translators of various backgrounds, working in a variety of modes. The series is deliberately eclectic, with notable titles ranging from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sharrard’s now-classic translations of George Seferis and C. P. Cavafy, to Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire, to Peter Cole’s anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492.

The most recent book in the series, Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010, by the late Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély, translated by the award-winning Ottilie Mulzet, is the first selection of the three current series editors, Peter Cole, Richard Sieburth, and Rosanna Warren. This fall we will publish Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, translated from the Italian by Taije Silverman with Marina Della Putta Johnston, and we look forward to new translations under way of poetry in Arabic, ancient Greek, and medieval Galician-Portuguese, among others.

We also salute the many venues that help poetry come alive on and off the page, from the Monday Night Poetry series at KGB Bar in New York’s East Village to The Slowdown podcast with Tracy K. Smith. Outstanding poets and translations await your discovery, in April and throughout the year.

 

Jonathan Bate on How the Classics Made Shakespeare

Ben Jonson famously accused Shakespeare of having “small Latin and less Greek.” But he was exaggerating. Shakespeare was steeped in the classics. Shaped by his grammar school education in Roman literature, history, and rhetoric, he moved to London, a city that modeled itself on ancient Rome. He worked in a theatrical profession that had inherited the conventions and forms of classical drama, and he read deeply in Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca. In a book of extraordinary range, acclaimed literary critic and biographer Jonathan Bate, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare, offers groundbreaking insights into how, perhaps more than any other influence, the classics made Shakespeare the writer he became.

Is Shakespeare on par with the ancient Greek and Roman writers of the classics? What made him stand out, rather than his contemporaries?

Astonishingly, considering that the theatre was still a fairly disreputable profession in Shakespeare’s time, people began comparing his works to those of classical antiquity even in his lifetime. His poems were compared to those of Ovid, his comedies to Plautus and his tragedies to Seneca. A few years after his death, his fellow-dramatist Ben Jonson wrote a poem in his memory—it’s included in the First Folio—in which he claimed that Shakespeare’s plays actually surpassed those of the ancients. Given that Jonson himself was phenomenally learned in the classics, that was a striking claim indeed. It does immediately provoke the question: why has Shakespeare and not Jonson or any of the other fine dramatists of the Elizabethan age become our classic, the modern equivalent of Sophocles or Virgil? That’s a question I’ve explored in my earlier books on the history of Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation—I return to it in the final chapter of this book, where I look at the classical idea of “fame”—but the implicit answer I have found, in the several years it took to research and write How the Classics made Shakespeare, is that the sheer range of his work was unmatched by any contemporary. Jonson was more obviously compared to Horace, Spenser to Virgil and Bacon to Cicero, but Shakespeare seemed to combine the gifts of them all. Similarly, Marlowe was great in tragedy and Jonson in comedy, but Shakespeare was, as he wittily puts it himself in Hamlet, the master of every genre, “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.”

How important was it that Shakespeare’s audiences understand allusions to fables and myths? Did Elizabethan theatre-goers have greater cultural literacy than modern audiences at Shakespeare plays when it came to understanding these references?

This is a big theme—and an anxiety—in my book. You have to remember that Latin was the absolute core of the Elizabethan schoolroom curriculum. Grammar school meant Latin grammar, morning, noon and night. The history, literature, thought and culture of ancient Rome—and, to a lesser extent, Greece—was everywhere in education, in the Elizabethan frame of mind, even, I suggest, in the architecture and iconography of the city of London. The theatres themselves were designed on Roman models. This meant that anyone who was literate, and probably quite a few citizens who were not, would have known what Shakespeare was talking about when one of his characters mentioned Hercules or Julius Caesar or Lucrece or Adonis or Actaeon or Alcibiades and a hundred others. My anxiety is that with the decline in knowledge of classical literature, history and mythology, many such references now pass over the heads of playgoers and students. For example, I have a riff in the book that begins with an inscription on a funeral monument in a London church in the parish where Shakespeare lived and then goes into a reference to Jason and the Golden Fleece in The Merchant of Venice. Both the monument maker and the playwright clearly assumed that people would know that story—but not many of us know it now (though maybe it is handy that Disney has reanimated some of the old classical myths!).

In the book, you say that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights agreed that “a work was good not because it was original, but because it resembled an admired classical exemplar.” If there are only 7 basic plots under the sun, why do modern audiences and writers frown upon stories that aren’t “original” while also still appreciating Shakespeare for his ability to pay homage to the classics? 

I like to tell my students that they need to get the nineteenth-century Romantic idea of genius and originality out of their head when they think about how Shakespeare put his plays together. It’s better to find an analogy in the way that art students were trained for centuries: you begin by copying the works of the great masters—that is how you hone your technique— and then you start performing variations on classical themes. That is how you prove your ingenuity: by variation and embellishment, not starting with a blank canvas. My book grew from a series of lectures at the Warburg Institute in London: it was the Warburg scholars, such as E. H. Gombrich in whose memory the lectures were named, who did more than anyone else to help us to understand this Renaissance process of offering original re-presentations that engage in dialogue with what they called “the classical tradition.”

Plenty of people have accused Shakespeare of plagiarism, or of lacking sufficient training in Greek and Latin. What are some other common misconceptions about Shakespeare that you’d like to rebut?

These claims go back to Shakespeare’s own time and to the indignation of university-educated dramatists, such as Robert Greene (who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), upon witnessing the rapid rise to theatrical prominence of the man from the backwoods with only a grammar school education to his name. But we need to remember that the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon produced some real talent—one of the schoolmasters was a published author of Latin verse, while Shakespeare’s fellow pupil Richard Field became a distinguished printer of books in many languages. The danger of the misconception created by jealous writers such as Greene is that it leads all too easily to the idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have been educated enough to write the plays … and that leads to all those ridiculous authorship conspiracy theories. The classical learning in the plays precisely matches that of the grammar school curriculum, with some later reading added on (notably the English translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans). The poems and plays are emphatically not written in the very different styles that we find among university-educated dramatists, Inns of Court trained lawyers, let alone aristocrats.

Is there any classic tale that Shakespeare reimagined that has made a lasting impression on you? 

I guess the one that has most haunted me is his adaptation of Ovid’s story of how the artist Pygmalion made a statue of a woman that was so beautiful that he fell in love with it and the gods then brought it to life. That’s an allegory of the power of aesthetic delight and a very sexy story, but also a slightly seedy one in which the woman is merely the object of desire. What is beautiful about Shakespeare’s reimagining is that the statue is not some abstract notion of female beauty, but a once and once again beloved wife who has been abused by unfounded male sexual jealousy and is then given back, so that the husband has a second chance—I’m talking, of course, about Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, where the reanimation at the end is an allegory of the power of theatrical magic (achieved through distinctively female agency in the form of Paulina) and at the same time a triumph of love as opposed to an act of sexual desire. The whole question of eros and its relation to theatre and to magic is at the heart of my book.

In your opinion, are there any writers from the past century who drew upon the classics and/or Shakespearean plots and might stand the test of time like Shakespeare still does today?

There was no guarantee that it would be Shakespeare rather than some other dramatist who became our immortal, and by the same account it would be a fool’s game to guess who will and who will not endure from the last hundred years. What does strike me, though, is that the poets whom I find myself reading—as Ben Jonson said we should read Shakespeare—“again and again” all seem to have been steeped in the classics, fascinated by the old stories and adept at translating, imitating and remaking them. I am thinking, for example, of W. B. Yeats, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They were the poets who, along with Shakespeare, were my first “classics” when I was a teenager and a student.

Jonathan Bate is Provost of Worcester College and professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College. His many books include Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare and an award-winning biography of Ted Hughes. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC, has been on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the coeditor of The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works,

Austin Smith on Becoming a Poet

SmithBecause my father is a poet, I met many poets as a boy. They would come to Freeport, Illinois to read through a series curated by the poet and provocateur Kent Johnson, who taught Spanish at the community college: Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Forrest Gander, Michael Mott, Armand Schwerner, John Haines, Michael Heller. They would sometimes come out to our farmhouse for dinner. I vaguely recall those evenings, the warmth and laughter, the candlelight, the copious amount of eating and drinking. They were late nights, despite the fact that my dad had to be up at 4 to milk cows. The neighboring farmer, Colberg, would have seen Michael Mott walking down Winneshiek Road with a walking stick and a cape. My Dad still talks with him on the phone almost weekly. When Snyder visited, he told my Dad that he should teach the cows to meditate, so they wouldn’t need to be milked or fed for three days, and then he could come out West for a visit, and Snyder could show him his trees. It struck me even as a boy that being a poet was about more than merely writing poems (though there’s nothing “mere” about that): it was an entire livelihood, a way of being in the world. Were I to become a poet too, there would be friends to welcome come evening, books to exchange, good meals by candlelight, long walks in the morning, conversations that bordered on the theological. That has been more or less true. My best friends are the friends I have made through poetry. One becomes part of a larger family, composed of both the living and the dead. Indeed, sometimes the latter seem more present than the former.

The first time I heard my father read poems, at the art museum in town, I understood that there was a different register of language available to us. It was a similar register to the language I heard at Mass on Sunday mornings. Not long after learning of this register, I wrote my first couplet, in a notebook titled Poetrey (sic):

 

            The fire is burning hot.

            I can hear the hunter’s shot.

 

I can still recall how it felt to write this line, kneeling before the fire on an old woven oval rug that sparks from past fires had charred black divots in. I had built the fire. Now, by its light, I was writing of it. I was writing also of the sound of the hunters on the hill shooting geese. It was a lie: I couldn’t hear them in that moment (after all, who hunts at night?) and yet it was somehow still true. The domestic comfort of the fire was somehow connected to the firing of guns on the hill, and the rhyme of “hot” and “shot” proved that. Language, which had before seemed arbitrary, suddenly held within it an infinity of keys and locks. By using language in the right way, by fitting the right key to the right lock, a door could be opened that had never been opened before. One could enter a room that was being created as one entered it, like a room in a novel.

I started reading the books I found on the shelves, inclined towards the slimmest ones because they were certain to be poetry collections. I loved a short book of short poems by Merwin, Finding the Islands. And I loved also those New Directions volumes that Rexroth put together, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. To read a poem was as much a visual experience as it was a mental one: the preponderance of white space compared to the black text, the cleanliness (usually) of the left margin versus the surflike shape of the right.

And I kept writing. Kent Johnson published my first poems in the literary journal he edited, The Prairie Wind. When Margaret Gibson came, I shared some poems with her. I remember how we stood in one corner of the living room, in lamplight. She must have thought, “What a strange, precocious boy.” I don’t know what I was asking for. Certainly not feedback on the poems themselves. Some kind of permission, perhaps. I wanted to know, as I still do, whether I’m allowed to live this life, which seems, despite its obvious financial difficulties, the only life I could ever have led: a life of books, friends, travel, meals in cities I would have no reason to visit were I not there for a reading, gossip, but mostly solitude, trying a thousand keys in the lock.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in the New YorkerPoetryPloughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.

Marion Turner on Chaucer: A European Life

More than any other canonical English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and worked at the centre of political life—yet his poems are anything but conventional. Edgy, complicated, and often dark, they reflect a conflicted world, and their astonishing diversity and innovative language earned Chaucer renown as the father of English literature. Marion Turner, however, reveals him as a great European writer and thinker. To understand his accomplishment, she reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life, focusing on the places and spaces that fired his imagination.

What compelled you to write a biography about Chaucer that focuses on place rather than chronological events in his life?  

I was trying to find a way to get under his skin. Although we have an extraordinary amount of information about Chaucer—mainly because he was a government servant, and records were meticulously kept—we don’t have personal letters, diaries, recollections, the kind of material biographers of more recent subjects can access. But I realised that I could get into his head—his imagination—by focusing on his environment: the art he saw, the streets he travelled, the kinds of buildings and structures he lived in. He had an extraordinarily adventurous life—travelling to multicultural communities in the Iberian peninsular, being taken prisoner and ransomed in the Hundred Years War, travelling at least twice to Italy, picking up manuscripts on the way, seeing slave markets in Genoa and the art of Giotto in Florence. Some of my chapters focus on actual places, such as Navarre, Vintry Ward in London, or Reims; others on more conceptual spaces such as Peripheries, Thresholds, and the Cage; and others on institutions such as the Inn, the Great Household, and the Abbey. For me, this structure enabled me to get inside Chaucer’s world, to think, for instance, about what it was like to live in a much more public way than we do now. And this structure also allowed me to follow particular themes and threads more organically than a strictly chronological structure would. At the same time, I am interested in the development of his imagination across time—in how he became the poet of the Canterbury Tales—so I did maintain a rough chronology, with the book divided into three parts that each span a phase of his life. One wonderful thing is that many of the places that mattered in Chaucer’s life can still be viewed today—the walls and Tower of London, for instance, or the medieval town of Olite in Navarre. I found tracing his footsteps to be profoundly important as I researched the book.

Why was writing a narrative poem in English so revolutionary in the 14th century? What was particularly challenging about that task, from a linguistic and stylistic standpoint?

People had been writing long poems in English before Chaucer, and indeed there is an unbroken tradition of poetry in English going back to Beowulf and even earlier. But it wasn’t a prestigious language in Chaucer’s day—the prestigious languages were French and Latin, and English was very much the poor relation. Then things started to change, and Chaucer was at the forefront of that change. In the second half of the fourteenth century, Chaucer was part of an upsurge in the production of texts in English—other poets, such as Gower, Langland and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were also writing in English, religious writers including the female author Julian of Norwich were beginning to write texts, and English was increasingly used in government—for instance in the law courts.

Chaucer was an innovator in what he did with English. At this time, court poets were writing in French, and it was completely new to write a courtly love poem—these were called ditz amoureux—in English. When Chaucer wrote his first long poem, the Book of the Duchess, it was very much in the style of French poets, such as Machaut and Froissart. Chaucer then went into a kind of experimental frenzy—he developed all kinds of new verse forms, and really pushed the boundaries of what English poetry could do. Most notably, he invented the iambic pentameter—the ten syllable, five stress line that became the building block of English poetry, and was used by later poets such as Shakespeare. Chaucer had to borrow a lot of words from other languages, and invent new words, to expand what English could do. He even complains in one short poem about the scarcity of words in English. Indeed, he was so newfangled that he invented the word newfangled!

Clearly, Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most important figures in the English literary canon because of his myriad contributions to the language and the poetic form. Is there anything that readers might find surprising?

So many things. The idea of Chaucer as father of English literature came about after his death, in the fifteenth century, and has gathered momentum ever since then. But in many ways, it really misrepresents him, and makes people think of him as a rather establishment, patriarchal, national figure. One of the things that I want to get across in this book is that he was a great European figure—and that for Chaucer the idea that being English somehow meant not being European would have been crazy. His choice to write in English was very much inspired by what Italian poets (such as Dante and Boccaccio) had been doing—he was part of an international trend to focus on more accessible vernaculars, rather than prestigious, exclusive languages. His life was outward-facing—he travelled a great deal, was multilingual, and in London was living at the heart of global trade networks. You could buy spices from Indonesia in London in the fourteenth century, and Chaucer’s childhood ward had more immigrants living there than any other London ward.

And much of Chaucer’s writing is indeed focused on the importance of allowing different kinds of people to read and to tell stories. In contrast to his sources, when Chaucer wrote a tale-collection he ostentatiously made sure that the tellers were from myriad social groups, and refused to allow principles of hierarchy to dictate the order of the tales. Another great example is his dream poem, the House of Fame, a poem which attacks the idea of the canon, and emphasises that a poet or storyteller can’t only rely on old books—they have to go to the streets, listen to their neighbours’ gossip, find inspiration in life as well as libraries. Literature, for Chaucer, was dynamic and living, and that is one reason why it has survived so well and continues to inspire so many contemporary poets to make their own creations. He’d have loved that!

A particularly disturbing anecdote from the book reveals that Chaucer was very likely accused of raptus, or rape, though this is hotly contested by literary critics who hold that his treatment of female characters made him more sympathetic towards women in general. What does this shred of evidence mean for us as readers, when we’re forced to grapple with the overlap between an important writer’s public and private lives, or between their works of fiction and their reality? 

That’s such a difficult question, and it has many parts to it. I suppose the key question here is what is the relationship between life and works? It seems to me to be very dangerous to assume that because someone shows sympathy to women in their writings, or music, or films, they could not also be personally violent towards them. Whatever Chaucer, or Marlowe, or Ezra Pound did or thought does not, ultimately, affect my judgement of their art. And if we only read works written by people of whose opinions and actions we approved, we’ll certainly be intellectually impoverished. I do think there is a difference if we are talking about people such as Roman Polanski, or Michael Jackson, whose victims are still alive today—a difference in terms of our sensitivity towards and respect for those people. A separate question is whether Chaucer was indeed guilty of this accusation—and that remains an open question, which scholars are still debating, and which I do talk more about in the book. I’m also interested in many aspects of his relationships with women in this biography—in particular his daughter, whom no one has written about before, and his first employer, Elizabeth de Burgh, who dressed him in scandalously tight trousers when he was a teenage page.

What do you hope that readers take away from Chaucer? 

One of the mantras of the Canterbury Tales is ‘diverse men, diversely they said.’ In other words, different people have different opinions. Chaucer himself is profoundly interested in perspective, in the idea that what you see depends on where you are standing—both literally and metaphorically, That’s something that contemporary scientists and artists were interested in too, as men such as Oresme debated about the rotation of the earth, for instance. In the Tales, Chaucer shows us that the same tale can be told in contrasting ways by different tellers; that readers or listeners will interpret stories in varying ways; and that no one interpretation is final or authoritative. I hope that readers will be caught by surprise and interest when they read about the global medieval world, or about Chaucer’s preoccupation with imagining astral flight, or about Chaucer’s role looking after the king’s falcons, or about what it was like to be imprisoned in 1359, or about Chaucer’s journeys amongst Jewish and Muslims communities, to give a few examples. But mainly I hope that each reader finds something that fascinates them, something that maybe challenges a previously-held assumption or belief—but what that is might be different for each reader.

Marion Turner is associate professor of English at Jesus College, University of Oxford.

 

 

 

Justin Smith on Irrationality

It’s a story we can’t stop telling ourselves. Once, humans were benighted by superstition and irrationality, but then the Greeks invented reason. Later, the Enlightenment enshrined rationality as the supreme value. Discovering that reason is the defining feature of our species, we named ourselves the “rational animal.” But is this flattering story itself rational? In this sweeping account of irrationality from antiquity to today—from the fifth-century BC murder of Hippasus for revealing the existence of irrational numbers to the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of Donald Trump—Justin Smith says the evidence suggests the opposite. From sex and music to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history.

What led you to write a book about irrationality?

I had long supposed that human thought and behavior have been a relatively static thing for the past 200,000 years, that there is a fairly narrow range of species-specific responses to the world around us, and that these are not going to fundamentally change until or unless we become a different sort of animal. The past few years have tested this long-held assumption. I came to feel that the world was going mad, that many people, including many I know and love, were now speaking and reasoning as if they had passed through to the other side of a looking-glass, or had come back from the other side, and were now communicating in a frenetic glossolalia or in pretend robot-voices. And it terrified me. I began to wonder whether this is not a normal process of disillusionment one can expect to go through at a certain stage of life, when the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that human beings have been bonkers all along and that society is just a flimsy tarp that camouflages this madness, or whether, instead, there really is something important about the present moment that is bringing the irrationality out, like methane from below the ice of the melting tundra. It seemed to me the best way to answer this question would be to investigate it historically, with a maximally sweeping view, attempting so to speak a genealogy of irrationality, one which reaches back into the past, but always with an eye to understanding the present. 

You say that irrationality is ineliminable from human life. Why do you think humans are so inherently irrational? Why doesn’t it seem to matter to us if there are facts that directly contradict our irrationally-held beliefs?

The point of emphasizing its ineliminability is that, again at least until we become a different sort of animal by evolution or by genetic engineering, harm to human beings will be reduced if we understand irrationality as something to be managed, in the way we manage our proneness to tooth decay and do not simply knock our teeth out and replace them with dentures, rather than as something to be obliterated, like polio or cancer. Historically, every attempt at structuring society in a perfectly rational way has been a folly, and has resulted in tremendous individual suffering, in part because the human beings made to endure such political projects remain exactly the same inwardly as humans in those societies that have found effective ways to manage all our dark impulses and unjustifiable but beautiful attachments rather than simply to suppress them. In this respect my argument is kind of boring in its centrism and its attachment to the golden mean, but it also discerns, I think, an important dialectical connection between the two poles in question: do not become too devoted to reason, or you will be pulled over into the opposite extreme. 

Can groups like LessWrong ever really eliminate irrational decision-making as it relates to artificial intelligence and business operations?

Of course not. As I say in the book, they’d be a lot better off just reading some Virgil or Shakespeare and not worrying so much about whether it’s helping them to better apply Bayesianism to their daily lives, rather than acting as if human flourishing is equivalent to making rationally justifiable choices. I mean, obviously, if you spend your days writing Harry Potter fan-fiction, which seems to be a thing in that subculture, something has gone very wrong, and no amount of formal epistemology or probability theory can rescue you from what appears to an outsider to that subculture as an obviously bad choice, not just of how to spend one’s time, but of a whole form of life. 

Is there any benefit to thinking or behaving irrationally?

Sometimes, but it can also kill you, so you need to make your decisions wisely. Sometimes it’s a good idea to smoke; sometimes it’s a good idea to be foolhardy in combat; sometimes it’s a good idea to free solo climb El Capitan. Other times it’s not. The big mistake is to suppose that one can turn to philosophy to find ‘rules for living’ that would dictate generic principles applicable in all circumstances, rather than acknowledging that the only answer is, often, what may be called a radical choice, ungrounded in any principle or rule. 

So, what can we take away from all of this?

The book is an essay and not a theoretical or argumentative work, which means that it is a contribution to a genre in ill repute among academics, and runs the risk of being dismissed by my philosopher-peers as conveying little more than what is called on Twitter a ‘mood’. I can live with that. Moods can be diagnostically very useful, and we certainly know more about what people were really thinking, say, in the 16th century, when we read Montaigne than when we read Francisco Suárez. In any case if the book were making a theoretical argument, it would almost certainly be wrong. In being honest about its true character as an essay, I may hope that at least some readers will be able to share the mood of it, and perhaps thereby to accompany me in the project of becoming a bit wiser. 

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7–Denis Diderot. His books include The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton). An editor at large of Cabinet Magazine, he also writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and other publications.

Miller Oberman: On Mentorship

ObermanWhen I was sixteen, like many teenagers, I worked in a corporate coffee shop in a corporate bookstore; I won’t name them here. In that bookstore I started to read contemporary poetry. I read everything lucille clifton had written and could recite half of it, and I read Split Horizon by Thomas Lux. By chance, I saw in a magazine that he taught a summer workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, and applied. It was the first time I ever printed my poems and put them in an envelope. I was accepted, and my parents let me get on a bus alone to go from Virginia to New York. When I arrived, I was told that the workshop “was for adults,” but I argued my way into Lux’s classroom, and at the end of the week, he suggested I come to school there. I never tested well and wasn’t sure I could get in, but he said to apply and to “shove a note in there that says ‘see Tom Lux about this kid.’” I did. It wasn’t until he died in early 2017 that I realized how common this story is. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of poets Tom taught, helped get into school, found jobs for, believed in.

I had incredible teachers as an undergraduate. Marie Howe sat me down behind her desk and physically taught me how to make line breaks, and I think I have most of her book What the Living Do memorized. Suzanne Gardinier taught me patience and persistence, and that good poets are better readers, and Victoria Redel showed me the freedom in rejecting barriers between genres. But Tom was my first mentor, and the first poet who made me believe I could be one myself.  

Tom was an incandescent teacher. On the first day of class he read us Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” performed it, really, and though I followed almost none of it, it was somehow the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Perhaps this is because after he finished reading it, he said, in the same tone as he’d read it in: “I would sell every single one of your souls to have written a single line of this poem.” I read it again. And again. Today it reminds me of Tom’s poem, “An Horatian Notion,” from Split Horizon, the book that caused me to apply to the summer workshop in the first place. Tom begins by describing what he sees as the illusion of God-given genius or inspiration, “the gift,” model, which he considers ridiculous. He counters, arguing instead:

 

              You make the thing because you love the thing

              and you love the thing because someone else loved it

              enough to make you love it.

 

For Tom, the removal of the common fantasy of the artistic “bolt of fire” only adds intensity to the process. The poem concludes:

 

              And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded

              toward the earth’s core.

              And with that your heart on a beam burns

              through the ionosphere.

              And with that you go to work.

 

This “heart” burning “through the ionosphere” has everything to do with mentorship. It is how we are made, how we measure ourselves, what we take with us. This is the eternal life art promises—someone loves a thing “enough to make you love it,” and you love it enough to make another love it, and so on. It doesn’t come from heaven, it’s not a bolt from the blue, it comes from our mentors; either on the page or in the flesh. Taking the mystery out of the process doesn’t diminish it: we still get the “core,” the center of the earth and the heart, and the “ionosphere,” as our words travel outwards, above the earth’s surfaces and our own.

Tom died just before my first book, The Unstill Ones came out, and the fact that he read it and wrote about it means a great deal to me. As I did when I was young, I nervously printed the poems and mailed them to him, hoping that when he read it, he would see some of his teaching in my poems in a way that might make him proud. I know that the poems in the book where I see his influence are some of my own favorites. I hear Tom’s voice in my poem “Lies After the War,” because it’s dark and funny at the same time, one of the only poems in the book that attempts humor. And of course, in my poem “Voyages,” which begins with a quote from Hart Crane: “and could they hear me, I would tell them.”

Miller Oberman has received a number of awards for his poetry, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a 92Y Discovery Prize, and Poetrymagazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. His work has appeared in PoetryLondon Review of Books, the NationBoston ReviewTin House, and Harvard Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Myronn Hardy on Origin: “Birches”

It began with that set of Encyclopedia Britannicas on the tall family room shelves.  Those maroon and navy bound books that had everything in them.  The volumes I often used to lookup random things: cities, countries, animals, historical figures and events.  Those were the books we had in my Michigan childhood home.  Those books and a random one I hadn’t touched until I was six or seven, the thick book with a black dust cover photograph of blurry sun beams passing through heavy boughs of nondescript trees. 

I remember having to hoist myself onto the counter and stretch my arm to its limit just to pull that one book from the high shelf.  Once safe, down from the counter with the book in hand, safe on the gray carpeted floor, I read its cover, The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged.  I opened the book erratically to the poem, “Birches.”  I read it intensely.  I knew what the world “birch” meant because there was a birch in the front yard.  And whenever my parents and I walked through the yard, or other yards or forests, they’d named the trees in it.  Perhaps they wanted me to know their names, to know they had names, histories even.  They wanted me to be aware.

In that poem, Frost refers to ice storms and that ice breaking from those birches as glass.  After a storm, I remembered making the same assertion in my very young mind.  The language in the poem was thrilling.  The way it worked on the page both charmed and perplexed me.  I got up from the floor to ask my mom what was the difference between this form of writing and what I’d seen in those encyclopedias or the newspaper.  She said, “This” she pointed to the poem, “is concentrated.”  She when on to compare it to the pulpy-concentrated orange juice she mixed with water each morning. 

            “So this is pure?” I asked.

            “I don’t know about pure but that’s kind of it,” she said.  I didn’t tell her then, but I felt I’d found something to make, something to attempt to make.  I found myself staring at that birch in the front yard and noticing the strange beauty in its pealing skin.  Somewhere in the process of staring at this tree, and once swinging in its boughs, I realized that that poem and other poems I’d read in Frost’s book, were prompting me to notice or see more profoundly: to notice the small, or what I’d later be told, the “insignificant.”  And that my task, perhaps, was to make that “insignificant” thing momentous, to make it the center.

            This one poem, this one book of poems, that almost fresh awareness of the birch in our front yard, began my seeing, my imagination, my seeing-imagination in poetry.  It began my writing of poetry.  I had no idea but now pondering it, sifting through it, there is the birch.  There are birches. 

            In high school, one of the large boughs of the birch had becoming infected.  The leaves became yellow and dropped in the summer.  Eventually, it had to be removed from the tree to potentially save the whole of it.  Of course, this large bough seemed to be almost half the tree.  I watched that large part being sawed off and helped with its later chopping up and removal from the yard.  I later wrote something about this.  A poem that began with yellow dust billowing from an electric saw as yellow leaves blew about the speaker in August. 

            That image became nightmarish.  It kept repeating itself in dream and I kept writing that poem, kept changing it.  The poem never worked but it marked a moment:  the birch’s almost death, that title of the first poem I remembered reading, and my first real attempting at writing poetry.

            In 2009, a year after my second book, The Headless Saints was published, I received the Robert Frost Poetry Fellowship to attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  A month after that conference, I moved to Morocco where I lived and taught at a university there for nine years.  I didn’t see any birches there. But there were sycamores and cedars.  And I wrote several poems with those trees in them.

             I’ve lived now in Maine for eight months.  Here there are birches everywhere.  And I’ve seen their branches covered with ice.  I’ve been carrying around Frost’s “Birches.” 

            I keep thinking about this idea of return, the space of return.  These groves of birches I walk though almost every day is a return I hadn’t expected.   Perhaps this is the next poem. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.

Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence

The Nineteenth Amendment, which allowed women to vote in the United States, was ratified 99 years ago. Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence, a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, features some of the countless American women who fought for nearly a hundred years to win the right to vote for themselves and their communities.

While some of the leading figures of the suffrage movement have received deserved appreciation, the crusade for women’s enfranchisement involved many individuals, each with a unique story to be told. Bringing attention to underrecognized individuals and groups, the exhibit looks at how suffragists used portraiture to promote gender equality and other feminist ideals, and how photographic portraits in particular proved to be a crucial element of women’s activism and recruitment. It also explores the reasons why certain events and leaders of the suffrage movement have been remembered over others, the obstacles that black women faced when organizing with white suffragists and the subsequent founding of black women’s suffrage groups, and the foundations of the violent antisuffrage movement.

These five activists are all featured in the exhibit and in the accompanying catalogue by curator Kate Clarke Lemay, which presents fresh perspectives on the history of the movement and sheds new light on the movement’s relevance for our own time.

The exhibit runs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, from March 29, 2019January 5, 2020.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Studio Portrait of Alice Dunbar Nelson. Sitter: Alice Dunbar Nelson, Artist: R.P. Bellsmith. Gelatin silver print. ca. 1895. Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers, University of Delaware Library, Newark, Delaware.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a teacher, writer, and activist who mobilized black women’s clubs to support the war effort during World War I. The work of these clubs and the patriotism it represented helped prove that women deserved the right to vote.

 

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Artist: Sallie E. Garrity. Albumen silver print. c. 1893. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Ida B. Wells began advocating for black civil rights after being forcibly removed from a ladies’ train car because she was black. She took her case all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wells also published a pamphlet of her lectures on lynching, which she delivered across the United States, England, and Scotland.

 

Zitkala-sa

Zitkala-sa. Artist: Joseph T. Keiley. Photogravure. 1898 (printed 1901). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Zitkála-Šá led the first national all-Indian organization that advocated for Indian rights, The Society of American Indians, and founded the National Council of American Indians. She fought for citizenship rights and was compared to Joan of Arc. Even after Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, thanks in part to Zitkála-Šá’s work, Native Americans in many states still were not allowed to vote.

 

Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Sitter: Victoria Claflin Woodhull, Artist: Mathew B. Brady. Albumen silver print on card. c. 1870. Fine Arts Library, Harvard University.

Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, promoted judicial strategies for winning the right to vote. She also fought back against the sexual double standard that allowed her to be criticized for her “free love” philosophy while male leaders such as Henry Ward Beecher suffered no public criticism for committing adultery.

 

Mary E. Church Terrell

Mary E. Church Terrell. Sitter: Mary Church Terrell, Artist: H.M. Platt. Albumen silver print. 1884. Courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

Mary Church Terrell devoted her life to activism after her friend Thomas Moss was lynched. She served as president of the National Association of Colored Women and spoke on racial equality before the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her signature phrase was “Lifting as We Climb.”

Public Thinker: T. L. Taylor On Gamergate, Live-Streaming, and Esports

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

The qualitative sociologist T. L. Taylor is a professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and cofounder and director of research for AnyKey, an organization dedicated to supporting and developing fair and inclusive esports. She explores the interrelations of culture and technology in online leisure environments, writing in a clear style and with an evocative voice about gender, inclusivity, and diversity in those virtual spaces. Around this research she has built a career that has taken her from California to North Carolina to Denmark to Cambridge, brought her in front of audiences at the White House and the International Olympic Committee, and led her to speak to the New York Times, PBS, and the BBC as a gaming expert.

She is the author of three books and the coauthor of another. Her latest, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, was published last fall. We spoke about that work, and in particular about online gaming culture, esports, and the economies of live-streaming, and put it in conversation with the Gamergate controversy, noting how the virtual worlds shaped by broader cultural currents might build a more welcoming and accessible future.


B. R. Cohen (BRC): Your research and teaching look at online gaming, esports, the sociology of virtual spaces, and the like. But I want to start with Gamergate. I should know what it is and understand its nuances, but maybe I don’t.

T. L. Taylor (TLT): Well, it began about five years ago, and you might think of it in two ways. First, Gamergate was targeted, systematic harassment of women in gaming, including developers, academics, and game critics. Although it was cloaked in the language of concern about “ethics in gaming,” it was essentially a targeted anti-feminist movement primarily against a host of women. But there’s the second way to think about it. We’ve now seen how its shape and method were a kind of template or dress rehearsal for the alt-right movement, which has been front and center in the last couple years.

BRC: Was that apparent at the time, or has it become clearer since?

TLT: Maybe a little of both. A number of commentaries have since connected what happened in Gamergate with patterns we now see with the alt-right. The forms of harassment are similar, as are the use of various online sites like 4Chan and Reddit.

BRC: Direct connections, too?

TLT: Yeah, definitely. Milo Yiannopoulos and Breitbart played a part in Gamergate. Brett Kavanagh’s friend Mark Judge, and many alt-right guys, were involved in attacking women like Anita Sarkeesian, who is a leading voice on women and video games. She was viciously harassed. Her life was threatened, and she was doxxed. These Gamergate tactics are the bread and butter of what we see in the alt-right movement more generally. To be frank, I often say that—for good or ill—gaming is the canary in the coal mine for broader cultural, critical, and political issues. Gamergate is a profoundly unfortunate example. To call it misogyny would be an understatement.

BRC: This was in 2014?

TLT: Around then, yes. I should say, too, as someone who studies gaming culture, gender, and technology, a pattern often emerges here. You start seeing a reactionary response when you get a critical mass of women, people of color, or queer folks in a space expressing their own thoughts about their circumstances, pushing back on the culture, and not merely echoing whatever the dominant culture is saying. This is when you get people involved in things like Gamergate or the alt-right purportedly defending “ethics in games” when, in fact, they’re mostly just perpetuating hate and fear. So it was a really nasty time. The people who bore the brunt of it were developers and people like Sarkeesian.

BRC: As a scholar studying this phenomenon, how much did you get caught up in it?

TLT: I got tagged in briefly early on, but I think in part because of my name I’m often seen as a man online, so I was not targeted in the same way.

BRC: You pointed me to the Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology (ACE) just last fall to show that this is still going on.

TLT: In fact, there was a huge controversy and protest movement that eventually led to the conference being cancelled. The ACE conference chair had invited Steve Bannon as its keynote speaker. I mean, the ACE Twitter account previously had Ada Lovelace and all these amazing women in technology in its header image, and yet two years ago the conference chair behaved appallingly on Twitter toward women, particularly junior women scholars. And then he tried to bring Bannon to a conference he was chairing. Gamergate wasn’t some isolated aberration; it was a convergence of off-line misogyny with online platforms and gaming spaces. The alt-right dovetails into that all too well.

BRC: So Gamergate is about gender and technology, certainly, but more broadly it’s about how marginalized peoples use these games to connect with each other and are re-marginalized within these online communities.

TLT: It’s this strange unfortunate double side of game culture. Gaming and geek culture have historically been places where people who felt like outsiders found connection through geeky loves and pastimes, whether they are games, anime, or comics. But as is often the case with subcultures, they also have heavily policed themselves. They police the boundaries of what they are and who is allowed in. As gaming has become mainstream, the stakes in policing those boundaries seem to have gotten even higher for many people. The question of whether you’re a “real gamer” or a “real comics fan” becomes more intense. It’s happened in a number of related subcultures. We have Gamergate, yes, but both the comics and science fiction communities, for example, have had their own version of this.

BRC: How did you come to this topic, this field? These are all social spaces that I see a sociologist would study. How do you make sense of these gaming and esports cultures in your work?

TLT: Well, I studied sociology as an undergrad at Berkeley and as a graduate student at Brandeis. From early on I was drawn to qualitative work and ethnography in particular. I’m probably not an anthropologist, though, because I’m also drawn to thinking about institutions and organizations in particular ways. Not that anthropologists don’t do that, but sociologists do something slightly different. I ended up at Brandeis, because there were only a handful of places to do qualitative sociology in the US at the time.

BRC: Where did your interest in computers and gaming come from?

TLT: I should’ve also mentioned that I was a community college student before Berkeley, and I’m a first-generation college student from a working-class family. I didn’t grow up with a computer in my home. We didn’t even have an early Atari. I played video games at the arcade but that was about it. My undergraduate thesis was on consumption practices among young Cambodian refugees in San Francisco. It had nothing to do with technology. But in 1991 I went to graduate school, moving from California to Boston, and started using the internet mostly because it was available and I wanted to stay in touch with a few friends from undergrad. I started spending a lot of time online and ended up doing my dissertation on embodiment in early virtual environments. This was before Second Life. These were text-based worlds, multiuser dungeons. Did you ever get into these things?

BRC: I didn’t. I’m not sure why. I think SimCity was the height of it for me.

TLT: You missed out on a host of early text-based games. Zork was one, in which you look around the room, go left, go right, by typing the commands. I got interested in the multiplayer ones because you’d head into online text-based worlds full of random people, bringing to mind that old New Yorker “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon. In that spirit, a good part of the conversation in the 1990s was about identity on the internet. Sherry Turkle was thinking about identity in new and important ways in Life on the Screen. I was her research assistant in the 1990s, which helped develop my thinking on it. I noticed, though, that there was a sense of a presence in these worlds, which got me thinking about embodiment in online spaces, not just about identities. That’s what I worked on.

BRC: I take it that EverQuest was an exemplar of these games?

TLT: Right, that is what’s known as an MMO or MMORPG, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. EverQuest wasn’t the only one, but in the 1990s it was one of the big ones. Unlike all those text-based worlds we’d been hanging out in, EverQuest and other MMOs brought graphics. My first book [Play between Worlds] was about MMOs.

BRC: Last fall I spoke with Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose research on social media grew along with his own biography as someone coming of academic age in the 1990s, when the internet was taking its current form. It sounds like you had a similar trajectory, but how did you come to study that game?

TLT: By the end of my dissertation I was mostly tired of it, as grad students usually are. Some of the people I met doing my dissertation research started telling me about this game, EverQuest. I thought, “Oh, that sounds like a fun distraction,” so I started playing it. Pretty quickly I realized, “Oh, no, wait, wait, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff happening here.” That’s how I got into the game as a player, and that was the hook that got me studying it as a sociologist.

BRC: When you were in those virtual worlds thinking about identity and then embodiment, did gender dynamics stand out right away?

TLT: Yes, right away. They were clear and crystalized within the game spaces in particular. In my early work on embodiment, I wrote about gender and sexuality, but because game spaces so clearly represent the gender issues visually, they’re hard to miss. Or in the case of esports, they’re so egregious; it’s stark. You asked about gender dynamics but, honestly, it wasn’t until grad school that I had any kind of serious feminist awareness. My eyes were always focused on class and socioeconomic issues when I was younger, because of my own biography coming from a working-class family. So for me, socioeconomic class issues were the early hook, while the feminist and gender questions came later.

BRC: It’s difficult in the necessary discussions of intersectionality to think of socioeconomic factors as an intersection, too. So many things can intersect.

TLT: It’s funny, I teach a games and culture class in which we do sessions on gender and race. I try to model thinking on how various aspects of our identities and biographies interact and collide. I talk about how I am a woman, but I’m also from a working-class family—and a white one at that. It’s very hard to do it all, but thinking across these areas is key. And intersectionality, as a way of thinking about interlocking systems of oppression—particularly for people of color—is such an important concept to expose students to.

BRC: How do you approach it?

TLT: I think for me it’s about the sociological imagination, something that the sociologist C. Wright Mills talked about. When I started taking sociology classes, I was like, “Holy shit.” This idea helped me take what felt deeply personal, individual, and family-based and link it to a bigger conversation. That was the first critical intellectual intervention in my life.

BRC: Your work beyond the MIT classroom is in touch with the gaming world as well. You used the phrases “gamers,” “game space,” and “gaming space.” Are those common terms? You’ve got gamers; you’ve got fans, audiences, and markets; and the rise of professionalization comes up in your books. But what is your relationship with the gaming community?

TLT: That’s a tricky question. I’m a low theory person at best, which means I don’t have typological models in my head, so I use those terms a bit colloquially. There isn’t one single game community or one kind of person who is a gamer. Each of my projects tries in some way to show the heterogeneity of the gaming space.

BRC: I don’t know much about those gamer spaces, those social worlds. That’s probably obvious by now. A few years ago, I was playing a game with my kids, Game of War, which we all joined on our devices, made our avatars, and played and chatted with people from all over the world. It didn’t take long to learn about the ways that personalities stuck out in those games, the ways people played them—aggressively, congenially, or otherwise. This was my first experience seeing that this was an entire social system worth examining. But even that felt different than the trolls on Twitter or the comment threads on Facebook. How do the social networks in these games differ from other social media, from Twitter or Facebook? Is it a whole different beast?

TLT: I would say there are many things happening. For example, much of what I talk about in my new book on live-streaming, Watch Me Play, would look familiar to people who study social networks. And some things would look familiar to people who study precarious labor and the gig economy. The stuff that’s happening in gaming is not separate from those broader cultural trends and developments. But it’s even messier, because people very regularly use a variety of other social networking sites to facilitate their game play or live-streaming.

One of the things I talk about in the book is how people are using Twitch to live broadcast their game play to each other, but they’re also using Twitter to keep in contact with fans and audience members. So one consistent thread in my various studies of online gaming is this notion of the assemblage, an assemblage of sites and practices that people rely on to make up their gaming or online experience. You can’t just take the artifact of the game—the specific software or platform—and fixate on it and think you understand something meaningful about gaming. The assemblage notion extends to different actors, stakeholders, institutions, and platforms; they all have to come together to make a particular game or cultural activity around a game happen.

BRC: You’re marking the development of the combination of so many different networks that couldn’t have happened at any other time.

TLT: Exactly. And for me it’s also a bit of a methodological intervention. If you want to understand these spaces and experiences, you have to understand that people aren’t just Twitter users, they aren’t just television watchers, and so on. We have a range of things cobbled together to make up our leisure or recreational practices.

BRC: You’re being technically intersectional.

TLT: Yes, yes, I like that. I think it would be an analytic mistake to focus on individual artifacts, even if methodologically we sometimes have to home in on particular platforms. But your participants often lead you elsewhere. You miss the dynamic interplay and misunderstand a lot of the social practice if you don’t follow those other threads.

BRC: You also write about structural cultural differences across the world, so it isn’t just about the context of cross-platform gaming experiences at one point in time. It’s also about cultural differences. In preparing for this conversation I kept seeing references to South Korea as a pioneer in a lot of these areas, or to Europe and North America as different regions with similar technical things that play out differently.

TLT: That is the sociology side of me, to be honest. With esports, people will often say “Oh, if we could just be like South Korea.” I wrote about that in Raising the Stakes. At the time, South Korea had television stations broadcasting esports and esports teams and sponsors. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that we can’t be like South Korea. Their esports culture came from a set of government policies, technological infrastructure, and cultural patterns of use based on the way youth culture is organized. So if you build your model based on a particular piece of hardware, software, or infrastructure, you’ll likely miss how it’s developing in other places in completely different ways. It’s a bit “Science & Technology Studies 101” to say that cultural context shapes technologies, but with new fields arising and new social spaces like esports, I’ve found that we need to keep showing this.

BRC: There’s more to it than drag and drop. Do you still see that kind of a drag-and-drop version of technology transfer circulating in mainstream media?

TLT: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s funny because in the spaces that I study, whether it’s esports or live-streaming, people build elaborate imagined audience-use models in their heads. I think that’s a lovely model, but it depends on so many complex factors that the technological determinists fail to acknowledge. How does the harassment of women and girls or the regulation of their leisure in particular ways shape their participation in gaming? This is where the nastiness of gaming sometimes comes into play, where models circulate in game communities about what “real gaming” is and what “real gamers” look like. And those are often deeply out of touch with the complexity of context in which people game or how taste and preference develop.

BRC: How do your studies of gaming fit with media portrayals of online communities, esports, or otherwise? You just mentioned determinism, and I think there’s a tendency in the broader media to focus too much on causation and impact, which we probably see with all new technologies. They’ll say, for example, that gaming is causing a problem, gaming is causing a new market, gaming generates harassment, gaming provides new opportunities. Your research helps correct that, I think, by also talking about what leads to gaming, not just what gaming leads to. If people want to talk about how gaming is increasing cultural friction, as with the harassment or gender issues, it would seem that we should attend to its foundations beforehand and not just its outcomes.

TLT: That determinist impulse is so common. When I’m talking to press, I often get the “Where’s it going?” or “What’s next for esports?” questions. And I answer that I am not a futurologist; there’s too much contingency. For me, the most interesting parts of the story are all those contingencies. I’m drawn to skirmishes, gaps, breakdown moments, and the little stories about everything falling apart. Those help to highlight the stakes. None of that is terribly satisfying for people looking for causality models. Esports and live-streaming are closely tied to commercial interests and are in a hype bubble right now. And so I think when I get those questions these days, I just have to say that it’s tied up in pure financial speculation. It’s kind of awful what’s happening in that regard. A lot of people just want to make a lot of money by figuring out what the next thing is. I couldn’t care less about that. For me, those aren’t the most interesting questions.

BRC: Studying commercial spaces and entertainment technologies must bring its own difficulties as a scholar.

TLT: That’s true. Much of the stuff I study either has an inherent commercial element, or there’s somebody who comes along and wants to commercialize it. But I tend to focus on things that have arisen out of user desire and community practice. I think that’s what makes the hype stuff tricky. Even though we’re in an esports bubble right now, I don’t think this thing called esports will ever go away, because it comes from actual people and users building grassroots communities.

BRC: On that point, I want to get back to Twitch and the rise of game live-streaming. Twitch is one of the things that’s commercializing esports, I take it?

TLT: Absolutely. Live-streaming amplified broadcasting, which brought in a bigger audience. That, in turn, has caught the eye of commercial interests. I was just at TwitchCon. It’s now a huge convention, which I guess speaks to the growing phenomenon. It’s massive. Twitch is a video platform on which people stream and watch games. Game live-streaming on a site like Twitch taps into the long-standing pleasures people take in sharing their play with each other, whether that’s sitting on a sofa watching your friend play or making and uploading your own videos. Twitch found a way to build a platform around that user activity. They are, of course, trying to commercialize it. It comes from an authentic and true experience but is now part of a larger culture of monetization and platform economies. Those who are now trying to earn a living or make ends meet by streaming games are tied to gig economies and precarious labor.

BRC: It makes me realize that I didn’t find Dragon’s Lair in your index. That’s my go-to when you talk about spectator video games. I remember arcades in the 1980s, everybody crowded in to see. It was the only video game with a TV screen above it so others could watch. Everybody would huddle around.

TLT: Right, that old arcade game, exactly. That sense of spectating is an important part of gaming. Sure, sometimes we play alone, and nobody’s there to watch, but the pleasure of watching and being watched has always been a part of gaming. Esports and Twitch as a platform tapped into that for the digital age. I was trying to understand that space as a sociologist for this new book. I got into the project because I saw that people were trying to bring gaming to spectator audiences and doing so in all kinds of creative ways, jamming technologies together. Then Twitch came along as a platform and made it easy. Or easier, I should say. Part of this story was coming to understand the dynamics of live-streaming not necessarily as sports but as entertainment, as media entertainment.

BRC: So who is the audience for your work? You’ve published books with academic presses and written in an accessible voice about complicated social and technical issues. You also teach about these things at MIT. But you’re also working with, writing about, and writing for these dynamic communities that are still in the making.

TLT: I think the books have been picked up by nonacademics because they act as a kind of legitimizing artifact and help chronicle a history. With esports folks I think they felt like, “Oh my God, somebody is paying serious attention to us.” It was a totem of legitimation, which is gratifying. I honestly don’t expect nonacademics to read my books. I really don’t, but of course it’s rewarding when the communities I study pick them up.

BRC: You do more specific public-facing things, too, like AnyKey, which, and I’m quoting your mission statement here, aims “to help create fair and inclusive spaces” for marginalized communities online.

TLT: That’s right, AnyKey has been a more explicitly publicly engaged project. Public talks, stuff on YouTube, things like that. AnyKey is where I try to do most of the public-facing work. My work with the initiative has also involved doing shorter white papers meant to actually provide helpful guidelines or insights, because just trying to distill these complicated things is a monumental task.

BRC: What are the general basics of AnyKey?

TLT: It started a few years ago. This actually dovetails with our conversation about Gamergate. When Gamergate was happening, Intel sort of blew it on their first-pass response. They got a lot of heat at the time, but they actually learned a lesson and made a big announcement that they would be supporting a number of different diversity initiatives. They were going to start taking diversity and inclusion more seriously and dedicated a chunk of money to sponsoring various measures. Because of the esports work I had done, I knew people at the Electronic Sports League (ESL), and one of them who’d been hearing me talk about gender for many years came to me and said, “Do you think there’s something we could do? Should we try to get in on this Intel stuff?” ESL has been working with Intel for years on esports. I said “Sure, let’s try to do something.” We connected up with Morgan Romine, who has a PhD in anthropology and who I codirect AnyKey with, and pitched to Intel research-driven initiatives around diversity and inclusion in esports. It worked, and we got some sponsorship money.

BRC: What exactly do you do there?

TLT: We’ve tried to do a range of things so far. Like I said, it’s research driven so we do fieldwork studies, we do workshops in which we try to get a sense of the key issues by working with various stakeholders, and we spend a lot of time talking to lots of folks in the esports space about the challenges they are facing. I’m the director of research and Morgan, my cofounder and director of initiatives, is the one who spins up concrete projects based on our findings. It covers everything, from practical skills like how to moderate chats to more symbolic issues. As an example, one of the things we heard early on is that women who were active and thriving in the esports space all had had these formative moments in which they saw another woman doing it, being involved in esports in some way, and it gave them a sense of like, “Oh wait, I could do that.” That led us to produce a series of videos profiling women in the scene. It was a “if you could see it, you could be it” kind of thing.

BRC: A kind of social inoculation, exposing them to the possibility?

TLT: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of amazing when you start talking to people who are really making it. I love it. I have always been very interested in the women who manage to stay in a space that is so hostile to them. I mean anywhere, in any forum, not just online. Like, how the hell are they doing that? What is going on? It was the same way with esports, leading us to think about what we can learn from the women who are there. There was this thing they had come across and someone else was doing it, playing in that space, and it became seared into their imagination that they could do it too. That doesn’t remove all of the barriers, not by a long shot, but that power of the symbolic was real. So we do studies as well as practical things.

BRC: Like the chat moderation guides?

TLT: Right, yes, and we put out other guidelines like that. We have one on gender-inclusive tournaments, for example. We often support women’s tournaments, but we want those tournaments to be trans inclusive. So we did a whole …

BRC: That’s a thing, gender-defined tournaments?

TLT: Yeah, yeah, and women’s tournaments in esports are tricky because I think most of us who support them see them as a stopgap. Ultimately, we don’t want a world in which men and women are playing on separate teams. There’s no good reason for that. But the harassment of women in this space is so strong that we tend to feel that if you don’t give them opportunities in women-only tournaments, they won’t get the experience. So we see women’s tournaments as necessary for now while working toward gender inclusivity more broadly in esports.</

But even then, we were seeing tournaments happen that were women-only, but the language around them was not trans inclusive. That led us to put out a white paper covering a variety of issues like, for example, how to be gender inclusive when taking photos for your event, making sure that all the photos aren’t just of men. Even that degree of guidance was necessary. But also explaining to people how pronouns work and how to think about having trans inclusivity based on a “you are who you say you are” rule. It’s all in the research section of the AnyKey website.

One of the things we do with those best practices is simply to try to help people who want to make this space better and to give them language and frameworks. We just released another set of guidelines maybe a month ago on how to moderate your chat if you are streaming your esports tournament. Because the chat can be really awful if left unmoderated. And, again, a lot of people want it to be better but they don’t know where to start. So we put out these guidelines to help people.

BRC: Is this extracurricular for you? Or is it part of your job description?

TLT: Yeah, I don’t get paid for it. It’s extra. [Laughs] Public-facing work is such an interesting challenge, and this work with AnyKey has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. We’re trying to take critical or feminist frameworks and interventions and make them accessible, spread them widely, and get them out of the classroom. It’s hard. I find a lot of people want things to be better, they want to do better, but they don’t have the tools or alternative language to get there. Once you give them that, they’re like, “Oh, okay, yeah, I can do that.”

T.L. Taylor Watch Me Play book cover

 

This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen.

Featured image: T. L. Taylor. Photograph by Bryce Vickmark

‘Cute’ around the world

kittenCuteness has taken the planet by storm. Global sensations Hello Kitty and Pokémon, the works of artists Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons, Heidi the cross-eyed opossum and E.T.—all reflect its gathering power. But what does “cute” mean, as a sensibility and style? Why is it so pervasive? Is it all infantile fluff, or is there something more uncanny and even menacing going on—in a lighthearted way? In The Power of Cute, Simon May provides nuanced and surprising answers. 

Although “cute” is a versatile word in English, we questioned our multilingual colleagues and learned that that’s not necessarily the case in other languages. Read on for an exploration of “cute” around the world.birds

 

Brigitta van Rheinberg, Director of Global Development
German

I think the closest equivalent to the English “cute” would be the German word “süß,” which means “sweet” or “adorable.” Babies can be “süß” as can animals or people, or you could use the word to describe a certain behavior (as in how somebody smiles). Other words that get close to the English “cute” are “niedlich,” or “reizend” or, very colloquially (and in my opinion inappropriate and outdated because it is used in a more sexual way for young females): “schnuckelig.”  That word in fact seems straight from the 50s and 60s, so one would hope not to hear it much any longer except perhaps in an ironic and self-reflective way, we hope? Then there is “putzig” (somewhat arcane, perhaps for a small furry animal) or “goldig” for a young child. On reflection, there isn’t quite one exact word that expresses all the connotations that we have for the English “cute.”

Marlene Richardson, Administrative Assistant
Jamaican Patois

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of CUTE being expressed in our Jamaican culture, or “patois,” is in describing a woman—is a “Miss Hottie Hottie.” A “Miss Hottie Hottie” isn’t limited to North America’s standard of beauty; her body type can be big, medium, or small, her complexion can be medium, dark, or fair. It doesn’t matter her class status. A CUTE ‘ooman (note the spelling of the word woman in our patois language) know how fi put dem self together! Di clothes don’t have to be expensive. Dem just know how fi wear di clothes to look fashionable.

Chris Lapinski, Design Coordinator
Polish

The English word “cute” is astonishingly versatile. A vast range of living things, inanimate objects, and places can be called cute. If you’re visiting a charming little town, for instance, you might remark on how “cute” it is. The closest equivalent to cute in Polish is the word “słodki,” a homonym that means sweet. It is pronounced swuht·kee. Słodki can be used literally and figuratively, but only within certain limits. I could call a baby “słodki” or a puppy “słodki” or a cup of tea “słodki,” but I would be remiss to describe a town as słodki. For that, I would have to say “uroczy” (oo·ruh·chih), which translates roughly to “charming”—but uroczy too has its limits. Alas, there is no word in Polish with the same distinctiveness and adaptability as cute. 

Ines ter Horst, Director of Contracts, Rights, and Permissions
Venezuelan Spanish

Depending in which Spanish speaking country you are, there are many particular ways of saying cute. In Venezuela, the word cute would translate as “cuchi,” and refers to something or someone small and cute, as a baby or a figurine such as Hello Kitty. It would also apply to a sweet situation, such as a small kid randomly giving someone a hug. In Spain, cute is ‘mono/mona’ and applies to babies, and is used to describe an attractive person of any age.

Dimitri Karetnikov, Illustration Manager
Russian

There are some words that do not translate seamlessly into Russian, “privacy” and “savory” are classic examples. I think cute is one of them. The common translation of “cute” is милый or милая (female), it sounds like miliy /milaya. However, this translation has other meanings, depending on the context. Generally it covers the more romantic aspect of cute, and it is often used to describe a kind and/or attractive person, it is quite beyond the cute spectrum. If I wanted to describe a cute comedy, or a comically cute puppy, I would say забавный or забавная (female) sounds like: zabavniy /zabavnaya.

Xuetong Zhou, Associate Marketing Manager 
Chinese

In Chinese, there are two different ways to describe cute. One is “可爱”, which means loveable, in the sense of being cute. The other expression is “萌”, which actually derives from a Japanese word “萌え”. “萌” means something new born, for example we would refer to a sprout as “萌芽.” Another word to describe cute things that illicit an emotional reaction is “萌”, used most often by the younger generation.

Margaret C. Jacob on The Secular Enlightenment

JacobThe Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In this landmark book, familiar Enlightenment figures share places with voices that have remained largely unheard until now, from freethinkers and freemasons to French materialists, anticlerical Catholics, pantheists, pornographers, readers, and travelers.A majestic work of intellectual and cultural history, this book demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

What accounts for the fact that ordinary people began to see the world on its own terms, rather than through the prism of religion, during the 18th century? 

So many factors were present but I would highlight a few: the realization that there existed whole continents where the Christian God was unknown; the growing realization that Europeans had persecuted and enslaved non-Europeans often in the service of religion. The behavior of the clergy at home was one of the main themes in the new pornography; and of course religious divisions between Catholics and Protestants played into skepticism about all the claims of religion. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the ensuing persecution of French Protestants put the issue of religion, and how its representatives treated others, on the European wide agenda. This was compounded by the thousands of Protestant refugees to be found by 1700 in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, etc. They were articulate and took to the printing presses to alert the world of the injustices perpetrated by the French king and clergy.

What does your book bring to the conversation of secularization during the Enlightenment that hasn’t appeared before?

The book draws upon new sources, many of them found only in manuscript form. Such sources often reveal private thoughts and struggles about the veracity of religion or expressions of doubt and clerical hostility. It also crosses national boundaries, and focuses on the main urban centers in Germany, Italy and of course France, the Dutch Republic and Britain.

How common was it for ordinary people to read the works of Enlightenment thinkers during the 18thcentury?

It depends upon what we mean by ordinary. Anyone fully literate had access to the ideas found in the new journals or the writings of the philosophes. Note also that in France, for example, local clergy were advised in detail what heretical books contained so as better to refute them. From the pulpits of London (and the Boyle Lectures) to the French provinces any listener could hear about the details of the latest heresy.

Why have the voices of people you shed light on in the book been largely silent up to now?

So much attention has been given to the major thinkers from Locke and Newton to Adam Smith and Rousseau that lesser folk, often their followers, do not receive attention. Also digging in archives means a lot of travel to places often off the beaten track. How many books access archives in Leiden or Strasbourg or Birmingham? However, I do not neglect the major thinkers.

How did the religious establishment of the 18th century react to this shift?

Not as many people were burned at the stake or tortured as in previous centuries but there are big exceptions: the wife of a Dutch pastor and school teacher, a heretic, who went mad while locked away in prison; the book seller from Strasbourg who went to Paris in search of bad or forbidden books and spent over two years in the Bastille; the Italian heretic forced to flee to London where, impoverished, he continued to publish.

Do we see any attempts at justification on the part of groups or individuals for their decreasing attention to religious matters?

The literature of heresy consistently mocked the pretensions of the clergy and courts; their perceived hypocrisy was one good reason to avoid religion altogether. Others, like the busy industrialists in northern England, could plea the pressure of work or family obligations, so too could travelers and itinerants.

Was there anything that surprised you when you were researching for this book?

Yes, how many people had been left out of Enlightenment history; how incredibly thorough the French police were at spying and reporting on heretical behavior—or what they thought was heretical. Similarly, how coteries could remain relatively underground and then circulate some of the most virulent heresies of the age, for example, the group that brought out the Treatise on the Three Impostors. It argued that Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed had been the three. All involved managed to die in their beds.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

Antidotes to the claims made by biased contemporary clergy; the role of deism and freethinking for American philosophes like Jefferson and Franklin; and finally, how widespread enlightened ideas were by 1750.

Margaret C. Jacob is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her many books include The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans and The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850. She lives in Los Angeles.