Wednesday, July 10, 2019

American xenophobia and the roots of the housing crisis

Harris Fine Block, Broome and Orchard Streets, New York (1898 and 1901).
Hornberger & Straub, architects. These facades are typical of many immigrant-built
tenements of this period. Recently rehabilitated, they command high rents
 in an increasingly desirable neighborhood. Photograph by Sean Litchfield.

Lecturer, Parsons/The New School of Design

As I was finishing the final manuscript for The Decorated Tenement over the course of 2016-17, the nation was once again thrust into the depths of a culture war that in so many ways resembled the story I was telling about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The elements were there: xenophobia that dissolved into calls for a sharp curtailment of immigration; a widespread public debate on what it means to be an American; vocal anti-urbanism despite the growth of cities; and all of this in a time of heightened economic disparity. But in some ways the past was not like the present. During the Gilded Age the housing question, indeed the thrust of the housing reform movement, was not about quantity or even affordability (at least in New York and Boston, where I focused my research); in fact, the Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century was at many times a renter’s market, with vacancy rates and competition among landlords that would be the envy of any current-day, rent-burdened New York City tenant.

The Decorated Tenement demonstrates that the old American xenophobia is deeply intertwined with the roots of the new American housing crisis. My story focuses on a widespread, but little understood, culture of erecting radically improved “decorated” tenements in the Lower East Side and the North End and West End of Boston between about 1880 and 1910. This construction was carried out almost exclusively by recent immigrant builders (primarily Germans, Eastern European Jews, and Italians) who built buildings designed by immigrant architects. In an era when the needs and desires of the immigrant working class were routinely disdained or ignored, these buildings represented a vast physical, technological, and aesthetic advancement over the iconic slums that they replaced—even if they did not meet middle-class expectations (or subsequent ideals).

Yet if the increasingly vocal proponents of housing reform in this period even perceived the substantial social and material improvements represented by these buildings, they dismissed them as cheap shams or a distasteful sign of misplaced priorities. Whatever their other motivations in advocating the reform of housing conditions, many viewed the tenement as simply un-American: a foreign invasion, an evil that civic-minded elites were called upon to restrict by leveraging their cultural, political, managerial, and spiritual prowess. Most considered the eventual elimination of the tenement in favor of a cottage in the suburbs to be the highest social good. Many saw multi-family housing as a treacherous deviation from a divinely inspired social order. William B. Patterson, a leader in the Methodist Episcopal church, was perhaps the most unabashed, suggesting with rhetorical flourish that the biblical murderer and city builder Cain himself was the originator of the tenement. Patterson plainly articulated an idea commonly held by many American Protestants: “The tenement is an impediment to God’s plan for the home.” No matter how decent, safe, or commodious such a building could be made, he insisted, “this basic fact will remain.”

Elaborate parlor of a Mulberry Street tenement, pictured circa 1905.
From Lewis E. Palmer, “The Day’s Work of a ‘New Law’ Tenement Inspector,”
Charities and the Commons 17 (October 6, 1906): 85.
Courtesy of Harvard College Library. 

The permanence and intentionality of the new, immigrant-built decorated tenements seemed to embody the elite fear that highly visible signs of social, cultural, and economic difference were now an immutable feature of American urban life. In these buildings tenants had a whole host of things that many in the working class never had access to before: a kitchen with a range, a boiler, and a sink with running water and sewer connection; a dumbwaiter easing the vertical lugging of goods and fuel; a flush toilet, albeit likely down the hall and shared with a number of other families; a separate parlor, wallpapered, with folding blinds, a faux-marble mantel, and fancy lambrequins, even if the room was rented out at night or doubled as a bedroom; gas lighting; maybe a dining room; a marble lobby with colored glass, painted frescoes, and tile floors; all in a building whose facade employed widely understood visual symbols of respect and propriety.

Reformers critiqued these buildings harshly. Many framed their denouncement with ethnic stereotypes, often with explicit racism and anti-Semitism. “For the old absentee landlord, who did not know what mischief was afoot,” reformer Jacob Riis noted in 1902, “we have got the speculative builder, who does know, but does not care, so long as he gets his pound of flesh.” Earlier Riis had called the Jewish tenement builders of the Lower East Side “intruders,” nefarious outsiders impervious to criticism and insults. Riis was particularly blunt about the spiritual dimensions of his war against the tenement and its creators. “It is the devil’s job,” he declared of tenement building, “and you will have to pay his dues in the end, depend on it.” These characterizations served to bolster the reformers’ claims of superior knowledge and moral standing, reinforcing their claims to greater control over the working-class landscape.

Just as many immigration restrictionists in this period called for a curtailment of European immigration as a way to preserve an American identity, many housing reformers advocated for and succeeded, by the 1920s, in constructing a regulatory structure that led to a sharp decline in the private construction of affordable housing. Nothing like it has happened in the American city since. Soon a severe but essentially permanent housing crisis developed, which even public housing and rent regulation were ultimately inadequate to address. The demonization of the tenement also provided fodder for proponents of the mid-twentieth-century urban renewal schemes that led to the destruction of wide swaths of these neighborhoods. In many ways we still live with this legacy. Despite the thousands of decorated tenements still extant and occupied — at increasingly high rents — we can see the roots of the present housing crisis in the conflict over their construction.


Zachary J. Violette is author of The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age. Violette is preservation consultant and lecturer at Parsons/The New School of Design.

"A rich array of unique historical insights into market-driven design, urban building and financing practices, and the consumer desires and aesthetic preferences of immigrant renters grasping for modernity in America."
—Donna Gabaccia, University of Toronto

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

College is for the connections . . . and the architecture


After the recent college admissions scandal in the United States, many people were left scratching their heads. Who would pay half a million dollars just to secure a place for a child at the University of Southern California? Sure, USC comes in at a respectable 22nd place in one national ranking of American universities, but one of the perspective undergraduates had already posted a video on her YouTube channel in which she explained: "I don't really care about school, as you guys all know." She went to college for the connections, not for the academics.

Such an attitude is not new, even if the medium, YouTube, is. One of the key themes in Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory is that since the 1600s Americans have imagined the collegiate experience as an opportunity to socialize. It’s not that academics were unimportant, but they were not the main event. In 1741, Ben Franklin hinted that a good reason to attend college was to make a good marriage, which was especially necessary because the colonies did not have the long-standing social registers that were built into the British class system.

Soon, Americans were constructing dormitories on the Oxford and Cambridge model as a means of cementing relationships among young men of a certain social class. And thus the quintessential form for an American dormitory, lifted from Oxbridge, became the quadrangle.

Credit: Ayla Lepine

In 1903, Charles Van Hise, then-president of the University of Wisconsin, stated that if one were to name the most fundamental characteristic of English universities, it would be "the system of halls of residence." He then went on to make an astonishing claim: those residential colleges gave rise to the British Empire. He wrote that "the college system may seem absurd, but for some reason these universities have produced an astonishingly large proportion of great statesmen, writers, and scientists. The men of Oxford and Cambridge have been largely instrumental in extending the empire of Britain over the earth; they have contributed liberally to the greatest literature of the world; they have furnished many fundamental ideas to science." This rather extreme endorsement demonstrates the intense affection for the dormitory as a space that shaped student character.

Credit: Carla Yanni

But why the quadrangle? The quadrangle looks back to the traditional shape of the cloister in a monastery or an Italian Renaissance palazzo. Although a series of linked quadrangles is typical in the UK, the sequential type is less common in the US. Demonstrating characteristic brashness, the members of America’s ruling class took the British examples as bland suggestions to be improved upon with Yankee wealth and extravagance. The quadrangles at Yale are far more elaborate than their British forbears—no Yale student had to go the men’s room in a cold dark basement. In addition to the romantic associations with English elite universities, the geometry of the quadrangle creates an enclosed, private outdoor space, like a room that is open to the sky. The square donut reinforces the smallness of a community within the larger university and sets a firm boundary that prevents possible encroachment by the outside world. It is a laboratory for forming friendships, creating networks, and socializing.

The study of one building type over time allows us to see different architects solving the same problems in different contexts. In my research, I study the social history of college residences to reveal the way designers and patrons tried to shape the social lives of students. Architecture is implicated at every level of the social and relational environment in which students live.


Carla Yanni is professor of art history at Rutgers University. She is author of The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States (Minnesota, 2007) and Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display.

"Living on Campus is an outstanding contribution to the research literature on student life and college residence halls. Carla Yanni’s rigorous scholarship and captivating writing style invites the reader into the lives of students and the places they live from the early colonial period to present day. She skillfully uses students’ life experiences and her deep historical and architectural knowledge to show how student life, architectural design, and educational philosophy interacted throughout history to shape the collegiate experience. This is a must read for anyone interested in student life in college residence halls."—Gregory S. Blimling, author of Student Learning in College Residence Halls: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why

"What a lively and fascinating study! Living on Campus offers compelling looks at architectural plans, façades, and interiors of residential buildings for college and university students. Attentive to the myriad issues of college life, the work links the history of dormitories to the diverse lives lived within—and without—their walls and to the changing goals of campus administrators and donors."—Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, author of Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s

"In clear, elegant prose, Carla Yanni tracks the 350-year architectural history of the college dormitory and exposes its contested social meanings, marked by inclusions and exclusions on the basis of class, gender, and race. This is a remarkable achievement—a welcome addition to the architectural history of youth, higher education, and institutions."—Marta Gutman, author of A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850-1950

"In Living on Campus, Carla Yanni interrogates the social history of college residences to map the struggles between inclusion and exclusion that frame the daily life of the American campus. From the development of moral character to the creation of a democratic citizenry, these buildings go hand in hand with the libraries, classrooms, and laboratories that make up the pedagogical space of higher education today."—Sharon Haar, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

An Interview with Helene Uri, author of CLEARING OUT


As the translator of Clearing Out, I’m delighted to be able to introduce the Norwegian author Helene Uri and her marvelously written and moving novel to a North American audience. Clearing Out is a novel of losses (languages, histories, and parents), but also of discoveries and rediscoveries (heritage, memories, and love). In asking Helene Uri the questions below, I’ve focused largely on the Sami elements of Clearing Out. Yet the strength of the novel is that it succeeds on many levels, parallel and overlapping, in telling two stories, one autobiographical (Helene) and one fictional (Ellinor): two contemporary Norwegian women, both linguists, both dealing with the loss of an older parent.

Uri is one of those authors whose work spans many forms: literary fiction, young adult fiction, popular nonfiction about language, and academic work on linguistics. She has a PhD in Linguistics; she has appeared frequently on Norwegian television (including a past stint as host of the travel-bicycling reality program Girls on Wheels); and she writes a regular column on language for Aftenposten, one of the country’s main newspapers. Her most recent book, Who Said What: Women, Men, and Language (2018), won the country’s prestigious Brage prize for nonfiction for its witty and intelligent take on the issue of gender in speech.

Language, including the linguistic phrase “language death,” which occurs when a language loses its last native speaker, plays a large role in Clearing Out. In Norwegian the title Rydde ut means, in its most direct translation, “to clear out,” and can describe the efforts adult children make to deal with the accumulated possessions of their elderly parents, which sometimes spark questions and reveal secrets. But the term can also have more sinister, active meanings: “utrydde” means “eliminate, eradicate, obliterate, wipe out, exterminate, kill off.” An “utryddet språk” is a language threatened with extinction.

There are nine Sami languages in Sápmi, which covers the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The Sami language with the most speakers (estimated at around 20,000) is Northern Sami. Over the past decades, numerous programs have been created to help save and promote several of the languages, with success. Yet other Sami languages are edging closer to extinction. The character of the linguist Ellinor has much of interest to say about dying and dead languages from around the world but until she arrives for a research project in Finnmark and engages with the men and women who speak or don’t speak Sami, who remember when they stopped or why they never started speaking Sami, Ellinor doesn’t fully engage with the pain of language loss. Helene, as Ellinor’s creator, is not unlike others in Norway with a forgotten, often suppressed knowledge of a family tree that includes Sami grandparents or great-grandparents who decided for various reasons to “pass.”

For millennia the indigenous Sami people hunted and herded reindeer, fished, and built boats along the coasts and in the mountains and valleys of inland Fennoscandia. Often coexisting peacefully with settlers from the south, their existence became more precarious in the seventeenth century with the advent of missionaries and colonists, who dislodged them from their age-old grazing, hunting, and fishing territories. Punitive laws followed, including sending children to boarding schools and forbidding the Sami language. Many Sami resisted and fought back in the courts and engaged politically; others intermarried or assimilated and hid their old identities. Some emigrated to North America and, in doing so, erased their Sami backgrounds

There’s currently a resurgence of interest in the United States and Canada in Sami heritage. The Minnesota-Finnmark writer Ellen Marie Jensen, author of We Stopped Forgetting: Stories from Sámi Americans (2012), is part of a new wave of Sami-American researchers, organizations, and cultural events dedicated to delving into family connections and celebrating new forms of engagement. In Norway the issue of Sami identity and rights is complex and often painful. Along with cultivating pride and a renewed exploration of culture and language, the Sami grapple with continued prejudice and the “shame” that Uri refers to below (as well as ongoing struggles against resource extraction from corporations that threaten their land and livelihoods). In 1997, King Harald V of Norway made a formal apology on behalf of the state to the Sami parliament. Norway’s parliament recently instigated a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to investigate and attempt to heal past injustices and abuses against the Sami and Kven (ethnic Finns in Norway) population.

One of the things that sets Clearing Out apart from much of contemporary Norwegian fiction is the inclusion of Sami history and Sami characters, not just as window dressing but an integral part of the narrative. Anna and Kåre are fully realized characters, intelligent, complex, and generous individuals—far from the stereotyped Sami figures that have appeared on the margins of Norwegian literature for two centuries. Ellinor’s relationships with them add depth to the story, and Anna and Kåre’s irony and insight also intensify the themes of historical displacement, political conflict, and renewed interest in Sami culture (Anna was and is an activist and Kåre’s grown children take pride in their Sami background). The novel also casts a welcome light on the coastal Sami society of Finnmark.

Beautifully constructed, Clearing Out is both a clearing out and a gathering together of old and new stories from Norway’s past history and current preoccupations. For many Norwegians (and readers of Norwegian fiction in translation) the far north is a strange country. In this novel Helene Uri bravely takes a step toward acknowledging what has been lost of language and memory, as well as what can be recovered and remembered.


Novels that combine fiction and autobiography seem to be gaining currency, in Norway as in other countries. How do you see Clearing Out fitting into this literary genre?

I was surprised when I discovered I was unable to write about language death and the Sami language without writing autobiographically. It took me a long time to realize I actually had to include myself, as myself! I’d never done that before. In my earlier novels, the "I" has always been someone else. Now there was a close, if not completely overlapping, relationship between the novel's first-person narrator and the novel's author. I didn't want to write an autobiographical text, but it couldn't have happened otherwise.

There are relatively few novels in Norway that include Sami characters such as Anna and Kåre, characters who defy certain stereotypes. What was in your mind as you created them?

Generally speaking, I suppose I thought of them as I always do when I create my literary characters: I want them to be alive and believable. People are people regardless of ethnicity, social class, gender, and age. A human being is first an individual, then a member of a group. But after having said that, it’s obvious that the certainty of your own background is one of several factors that shape you as a human being. And when a group of people has been oppressed, the certainty of belonging is something that characterizes the people of that group. And I wanted this certainty to be reflected in the characters.

One of the main characters, Ellinor Smidt, has a PhD in linguistics and so do you. You’ve also published a number of popular books about the Norwegian language. Can you say something about your choice to look at language through the prism of a character studying “endangered languages” in Norway itself? Was your intention in part to educate the general Norwegian reader?

When I write nonfiction books on language, I want to inform, and yes, "educate," my readers. When I write fiction, nothing could be farther from my mind! I wanted to write about language death because the theme has enormous narrative power. An image that popped into my head early on was this: A grandmother sits with her newborn grandchild on her lap. She bends over the child and sings a lullaby that her mother and grandmother sang to her, and she knows that the child she holds in her arms will never understand the words in the song.

But if my readers end up thinking about language death­—that around fifty languages ​​disappear every year—then that’s a good outcome as well.

What has been the reaction from the Sami community(ies) in Norway to Clearing Out?

I’ve only heard positive things. I’m telling my story and others must tell theirs. In any case, many feel it’s a relief to read a narrative where the shame is lifted.

The search for buried family histories is a resonant one in North America, where many immigrants often shed their names, language, and even ethnicities in order to fit in. A number of Sami-Americans have had no idea they had Sami ancestors. Do you think this phenomenon might be more prevalent in Norway than many have thought?

They say that if you have family from the north of Norway, then it’s likely that Sami or Kven (a Finnish ethnic minority) forefathers and foremothers will turn up. So, yes, this is common—and it’s also common that one does not know because the shame of it has been covered up. I recently visited a library in Nordland where they had blown up a huge photograph of two older people sitting on stone steps in front of a house. In itself, the photograph was beautiful, but the most interesting thing about the photo was what a later relative had done with it: He had scratched off the footwear of those depicted. Both of the elders were wearing komagers (traditional Sami shoes), but where the komagers should have been, there were only lots of angry, white lines on the image.

Have you continued to learn more about your family since your novel was published a few years ago?

I’ve gotten to know several relatives—and I hope to continue to learn more about them. And about the family. And about the Sami people. It will probably turn out that I have some relatives from that side of the family in the United States as well.


Helene Uri is a Norwegian novelist whose writing has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She is a trained linguist and the author of thirty books, including Honningtunger and De beste blant oss. She was awarded Norway’s 2018 Brage Prize, determined annually by the Norwegian Book Prize foundation, and has served as a board member for the Norwegian Language Council and the Norwegian Writers Union and was on the jury of the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. She is vice president of the Norwegian Academy of Language and Literature and lives in Oslo.

Barbara Sjoholm is an award-winning translator of Norwegian and Danish and the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction. She translated the Sami stories collected by Emilie Demant Hatt in By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends (Minnesota, 2019).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Turbulent Thoughts of a Peaceful Mind


"Who am I? A vortex. A dispersal that comes undone." —Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics

An extraordinary philosopher of science has passed away.

Michel Serres was a Henri Bergson for the fractal age. He combined a precise grasp of the sciences with a philosophical appreciation of its lack of understanding of time and history.

His philosophy may have seemed “incomprehensibly French” to an Anglo-analytic eye, but Serres was a true polymath in a classical vein that has gone extinct in a world of institutional specialization. He was a philosopher of science who eschewed the dominant languages of both philosophy and science, and for this reason he was more incisive and relevant than most.

Deeply erudite in mathematics, physics, history, philosophy, and literature, Serres witnessed scientific revolutions first hand that transformed his thinking: the invention of topology in mathematics and that of quantum mechanics and cybernetic systems in physics.

At the turn of the 1900s, Bergson tried to speak across an emerging divide between philosophy and science, but half a century later Serres realized the widening gulf had made such a task impossible. Philosophy was fundamentally unable to account for the new directions of science, and science no longer had any use for philosophy (unless it served a legitimatory function). He had to blaze his own trail.

One of Serres’s key insights was that both philosophy and science were stuck in a framework of thinking in terms of subject and object relations: representation vs. reality, theory vs. experiment or observation, scientist vs. nature, etc. He tried to show a “third,” usually invisible, element at work in any such relation—a mediator or an excluded middle. Serres proposed philosophy in terms of prepositions rather than subjects or objects, theorizing relations between beings rather than beings themselves.

From this arose influential concepts like quasi-objects, exemplified by a football in a game, which is neither subject nor object but rather confers subjectivity on the player who has it. A quasi-object is a relation that structures the game. Serres’s ingenuity of thinking inspired, among many things, the development of actor-network theory in science and technology studies.

In The Parasite, he weaves together fable, history, and science to describe a logic not definable as subject or object, or within a certain space, but in terms of a host-guest relation. As a hidden “third” actor, the parasite works as an operator of change, a “thermal exciter,” on all scales, including humanity itself and its relation to the environment.

The parasite is intrinsic to the system as an operator of change, a disruptive tendency, a chaotic variable introduced to a smooth flow. In The Birth of Physics, Serres shows how the same logic is found at the heart of an ancient idea of Lucretius and Archimedes.

In the vortex, Serres finds a leitmotif of nature and thought itself.

What is readily apparent in rivers and clouds is also present in all dynamic behavior, from the double helix of DNA via parasitical disruptions to cosmic scales. For what are spiral galaxies if not vortices of force?

As I show in my own work, inspired by Serres, the metaphysics of the vortex resurfaces constantly in the history of science, as an early cosmology (Descartes), as atomic ether theory (Thomson), as implosive dynamics (Schauberger), and in other forms. But this qualitative understanding of the relation between energy and matter is always eclipsed by a framework of quantification—mechanistic or probabilistic—that tries to purge the chaotic element from the system. Despite its explanatory simplicity, the vortex remains “but a metaphor” to the physicist, who has inherited a certain language of science introduced in the era between Archimedes and contemporary chaos theory.

Serres’s abandonment of the traditional languages of both philosophy and science came at the price of not always being understood. His distinctive style resisted academic jargon and used ordinary language (playing with the French in the way Heidegger played with the German, often making him eminently untranslatable into English). He combined a poetic sensibility with the logical precision and erratic (sometimes frustrating) swiftness of a brilliant mathematician. If he does not leave behind a school of thought, his legacy is consonant with his style of philosophy: inspiring unorthodox thinkers and opening new pathways across divides.

But inspiration still flows, and the vortex keeps spinning.

Rest in peace, Michel Serres.


Bjørn Ekeberg is a philosopher of science and author of Metaphysical Experiments, published by University of Minnesota Press.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Growing Up in Westeros: Breaking the Wheel of Fantasy Expectations


The tendency to set up—and then dash—the expectations of fantasy has always been crucial to HBO’s Game of Thrones and its source novels by George R. R. Martin. (I refer to them collectively below as GoT.) From the beheading of Ned Stark to the slaughter at the Red Wedding, much of the story’s claim to fame comes from the way that it “realistically” kills off high-minded main characters. The shock and emotional anguish that fans express at these moments reveals just how widely held and deeply cherished the norms of medievalist fantasy are; in particular, the expectation that the “good guys” will win, or at least survive. But Martin has always been unapologetic about his mission to explode people’s expectations of fantasy, and has referred derisively to the pseudo-medieval worlds in works by “Tolkien imitators and other fantasists” as “a sort of Disneyland middle ages”: childish, inauthentic, idealized, sanitized.

This statement reminds us of something that viewers may have forgotten: GoT has always been about the gap between childhood expectations and adult experience—seen especially clearly in the concluding montage of the show, which focuses on the destinies of the surviving Winterfell kids. The stories of Stark children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Rickon, and the fostered boys Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy overturn an array of popular children’s fantasy plotlines from the twentieth century, with GoT offering its own brutal alternatives as part of a “grown-up” retelling for adult audiences today. This is not to say that there are no moments of triumph, heroism, and luck in the series; instead, it maintains a constant pleasurable (or anxious, depending on your view) uncertainty about whether its plots will tip towards catastrophe or towards what J. R. R. Tolkien called “eucatastrophe”: the “sudden joyous ‘turn,’” the characteristic happy endings of fairy tales.

But how did we come to expect safety and triumph for our favorite characters in the first place, when they exist in worlds defined by violence and supernatural dangers? Why are we rooting for feudal lords, monarchs, and colonizers anyway? The answer lies tied up in the history of the fantasy genre, which emerged as the form we now know during a period when English literature and culture was being transformed by modernism, cosmopolitanism, the decline of Empire, and a pervasive belief that science and rationalism had disenchanted the world. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Tolkien and his Oxford colleague C. S. Lewis launched a counterattack against these cultural directions, using a surprising, and wildly effective, weapon: children’s literature. Their fantasies The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia drew on the heroic traditions of medieval literature and recast such tales in line with more recent ideas about children as inherently magical, innocent, and inclined towards goodness. Ignored by the academy and literary establishment, their writing sparked a wildfire of new medievalist fantasy in the second half of the twentieth century, the “imitators” that Martin mentions above. And these stories, which so many people encounter in childhood, set the norms that GoT repeatedly upends with its darker twists and turns.

Of the Stark children, Robb, the oldest son, suffers the sharpest and most complete lesson in the unreliability of fantasy conventions. Robb takes on the role of the chosen boy hero, right-born and well-meaning like Peter Pevensie in the Narnian tradition, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, or Will Stanton in Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence. Too trusting, he dies in a trap alongside his followers. Sansa is the fair damsel, a princess figure who dreams of courtly love and advantageous marriage. She becomes a victim of sexual and other forms of violence, a political pawn repeatedly married off for others’ gain. Only after Sansa experiences what Shiloh Carroll calls “violent reeducation” does she end GoT as queen of her own people, a position achieved through her own shrewd and powerful actions. Arya takes up the tradition of female knights like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, Tolkien’s Éowyn, and women warriors of medieval literature who hide their gender for the chance to fight. But in GoT, Arya’s survival through disguise comes dangerously close to turning her into a cold, unmoored assassin (“a girl is no one,” she learns to say of herself) before she returns to her family, destroys an undead king, and turns to other quests. Her younger brother Bran, body broken but endowed with supernatural abilities, journeys into the wilderness seeking wisdom like Lewis’s spiritual searchers in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Bran gains greensight as the Three-Eyed Raven and returns to his family as an eerie and emotionally distant presence. His crowning as king of Westeros at the end of the series is hardly joyful; barely human, Bran finds little pleasure or triumph in the role. The Stark family’s youngest, Rickon, is hidden from his family’s enemies early in the series much like the young Arthur of medieval legend. While his fate in the books remain unknown, in the TV show he is betrayed and executed by his father’s former bannermen for their political gain.

The trajectories of the Starks’ two foster-children also allow GoT to explore the common theme of outsiders in children’s fantasy. Jon Snow is the unlikely hero, a Frodo-figure dedicated to the higher good and—like the young Arthur of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and, later, Harry Potter—an orphan who longs for acceptance and roots while secrets swirl around his identity. In spite of Jon's successes and (in the TV show, if not the books) the revelation of his noble birth, he ends GoT where he started, a literal outsider banished to the far northern reaches of Westeros after murdering his own lover and queen. Meanwhile Theon, Ned Stark’s ward, plays the part of the arrogant incompetent who needs to be reformed, a descendent of Lewis’s Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Scrubb in the Narnia books and Ursula Le Guin’s Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea. Theon tries to play the role of usurper in Winterfell, but is captured by a sadist whose torture reduces Theon to a trembling servant. His happy ending is the chance to die with honor, defending the family he betrayed and demonstrating the capacity for redemption.

These characters’ suffering in GoT raises questions about how well “Disneyland” upbringings in safe, morally “stark” spaces of childhood--such as the plots of most medievalist fantasy--serve young people as they enter into adult life. Moral clarity; the certainty of right overcoming wrong; eucatastrophe and the promise of happy endings; heartwarming family reunions and the finding of true love: these are not only the norms of children’s fantasy since Tolkien and Lewis but also the dominant myths of modern Anglo-American childhood, cycled and recycled through children’s media from picture books to video games to holiday specials. At the same time, the fates of the Winterfell kids don’t suggest a simple rejection of fantasy norms so much as a shift towards what Lee Konstantinou calls “postirony”: a twenty-first-century mode that acknowledges the miseries of life but which “moves past irony” to find meaning and, I suggest, alternate forms of enchantment.

The dragon queen Daenarys Targaryen repeatedly claims that her goal in seeking the Iron Throne of Westeros is to “break the wheel” of power that crushes so many people in the GoT’s world. Jon kills her as she reiterates this dream in sight of the throne, in spite of his love for her, because he has come to recognize that self-righteous idealism can lead to despotism just as well as greed and malice can. The series ending suggests that audiences, too, have to “grow up.” We must kill our dreams of fantasy conventions and follow the postironic paths of Jon and the other remaining Winterfell children by first recognizing the hidden tyrannies of simplistic hierarchies and inflexible moral ideals, and then finding re-enchantment in more complex, unexpected arrangements of people and power.

But even as it aims to overcome tired fantasy tropes, GoT remains caught in and reaffirms one of the genre’s most exhausted norms of all. From the Winterfell brood to the dragon-strafed youth of King’s Landing, the young people we are asked to identify with in this narrative all look suspiciously similar; only white children’s stories seem to really count. As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas argues, the one black girl in Martin’s books, Missandei of Naath, appears in the TV show as a sexualized adult; and her story is cut short to further the stories of white characters in the most brutal and degrading of ways. Even the series’ more hopeful conclusions betray its Orientalist mindset: as one Atlantic historian friend pointed out, Arya’s sailing west under the Stark crest at the show’s end unproblematically celebrates her turning into a settler colonist. Martin’s dated understanding of history shows, as Kavita Mudan Finn has suggested, and the misogynist and colonialist biases of his sources carry into the series’ ambitious attempt to rethink the underlying premises of the genre. When will medievalist fantasy break that wheel?


Maria Sachiko Cecire is assistant professor of literature and founding director of the Center for Experimental Humanities at Bard College, and the author of the forthcoming book Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children's Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Poetry and Extinction in the Anthropocene


Life itself is a form of poiesis, a perpetual world-making. But if eco-criticism also sees the poem as an exercise in world-making, how are we to read it in an age of extinction?

Perhaps more than any other environmental crisis, extinction pitches us into deep time: into awareness of the richness of our inheritance from the deep past, and the depleted legacy we will leave to the deep future. But in the midst of death, the pull of connection persists. To make kin is to incline towards another, relinquishing the illusion of the separate, bounded self for the startling reality of the self in community; that is, to perform a clinamen, a swerve between contexts. As I argue in Anthropocene Poetics, clinamen can help define a poetics of kin-making in an age of extinction.

In Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Latona and Her Children,’ we find an example of kin-making organised around the swerve of clinamen. The poem is an ekphrasis, responding to a seventeenth-century Dutch tapestry depicting a scene from the myth of Latona, or Leto as she appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Ovid’s telling, she is seduced by Jupiter and conceives twins (Artemis and Apollo), and as punishment is made by Juno to wander the earth without refuge, “debarred from settling anywhere in the world.” Her exile continues after she gives birth, and one day, under a blazing sun, she arrives with her children by a lake in the land of the Lycians. She seeks permission from the Lycian men working the shoreline to drink from the lake, and to give water to her children, but they refuse to take pity on her, and even maliciously stir up the muddy bottom with their feet. Outraged, Latona pronounces a curse on their inhospitality—“live forever in that lake of yours, then!”—and turns the men into frogs.

As a form of clinamen, ekphrasis encloses a number of swerves: like apostrophe, it performs a turn towards an object; as in citation, it draws another artwork into itself; comparable to metaphor, it is an account of one form in the manner of another. It also poses a particular temporal relation: that of the stilled scene. The archetypal Romantic ekphrasis is, of course, Keat’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ which rhapsodises “silence and slow time.” Capildeo, however, shows how ekphrasis may allow us to think “fast and slow time together”, as the artist Ilana Halperin suggests we must do in order to grasp our own “geologic intimacy.” The first stanza reads:

This tapestry’s in sympathy

with wives who have been wronged

in gorgeous-feeling houses

where rage bindweeds into rugs.

You could lay your cheek against this

woolly silky rosy thread,

smug in a censored village

where the frogs have been erased.

The opening lines positions this as a poem in search of affinity: art is a form of kin-making, Capildeo affirms, a means of inclining beyond singular experience. The maltreated Latona is, of course, the primary focus of sympathy, but Capildeo’s prefatory note, that in making the tapestry, “the heads of men were woven as frogs and then altered to human,” also introduces a rather ambivalent sense of multispecies relations. For one, it inverts the metamorphosis, changing frogs to men rather than men to frogs, introducing a ghostly sense of kinship. The human genome shares around 1,700 genes with the genome of the African clawed frog, and many common elements of structure—structures that were present 360 million years ago, in the last common ancestor of all mammals, amphibians, and birds alive today. Prefaced by this creaturely haunting, we enter the poem aware that we, like all species, are what Deborah Bird Rose calls densely woven knots of embodied time.

The inversion (frogs to men rather than men to frogs) initiates a series of clinamen or swerves that undo the neat justice of the Ovidian myth. The erased frogs in the first stanza turn towards the ‘erased’ Latona, wandering in exile in the second; the “bastard fruit” she carries in her womb turns towards the final stanza, which is preoccupied by the Dutch weavers’ decision to enclose the scene of abuse in a vision of bucolic calm, surrounded by “green, without drama.” The frame transmutes the violence of the myth into the violence of enclosure, and the forcible exclusion, like that of Latona, of nature as the outside of human experience.

Capildeo’s swerves show us that the malice of the Lycians begins in their destructive attitudes towards their environment, as no more than a resource to be exploited or withheld. In turning attention to the frame, however, Capildeo also looks beyond it, laying the poem open to other times and places that torque the myth into an Anthropocenic context. The “reassuring woodland décor” also hints at “signs of Artemis to come,” and this intimation that another kind of relation with the natural world is possible prompts a final turn: one that looks back to the animal of its opening stanza, and to the fast-and-slow-time-together of extinction—back, that is, to the “censored village / where the frogs have been erased.”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Sixth Extinction opens with a visit to El Valle de Antón, a town in Panama that, in 2006, lost virtually its entire population of golden tree frogs in an outbreak of a deadly chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Bd is responsible for the extinction of around ninety frog species since the 1970s, along with serious decline in around another five hundred amphibian species; a quarter have lost more than 90% of their population. It emerged in the Korean peninsula sometime in the 1950s and, coeval other symptoms of the Anthropocene, spread rapidly worldwide. International shipping, the mass transit of soldiers during the Korean War, and the global trade in amphibians as pets have introduced Bd to Australia, North, South, and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula in a matter of decades. Kolbert notes that frogs evolved “at a time when all the land on earth was part of one large mass”—the Pangaea supercontinent—a geologic reality of the deep past effectively reconstituted by global trade: biologists refer to contemporary trade networks as “a functional Pangaea for infectious diseases in wildlife.”

Like Leto searching for a place to rest, Bd has found a home on six continents in a matter of decades. There are other peculiar parallels, other swerves between myth and reality. One key early driver in the spread of Bd was the use of African clawed frogs in mid-twentieth century pregnancy tests; the disease itself causes the animals’ skin to harden and slough off, preventing them from taking in fluids. There is currently no viable cure for Bd in wild frog populations, which continue to decline alarmingly, embedding a deep irony in Latona’s curse on the Lycians: “live forever in that lake of yours.”

Although erased, the frogs populate the poem’s soundscape, in the many ‘g’ sounds—wronged; gorgeous; rugs; smug; glanced at too in rage and village—that cluster in the first stanza. Rage is bound into this tapestry, not just the wrath of maltreated Latona but the scandal of extinction as well. As Capildeo’s ekphrastic poem swerves away from the tapestry’s frame and inclines towards the animal hidden in the weave, the immense slow time of evolution and the devastatingly fast time of species loss flow through it. Through the figure of the clinamen, Capildeo’s poem urges us to swerve back towards life, and to see that our responsibility in the Anthropoecene is to cultivate collaborative rather than exploitative relations with other species. It reminds us that life, woven in deep time, is itself a form of poiesis, an ongoing exercise in world-making.

David Farrier is senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Unsettled Narratives: The Pacific Writings of Stevenson, Ellis, Melville, and London and Postcolonial Asylum: Seeking Sanctuary before the Law.

"The Anthropocene spells trouble: not only with respect to the global environmental changes, largely for the worse, to which it refers; but also in terms of the troublesome nature of the word itself. David Farrier’s brilliant elucidation of a multi-faceted ‘Anthropocene poetics’ delves into these troubles with great philosophical, scientific, social-ecological and aesthetic discernment. Whilst acknowledging the limited efficacy of poetry in response to the immense challenges of our perilous times, his carefully contextualized close readings of exemplary texts do indeed demonstrate how literature, and other art forms, can ‘help to frame the ground on which we stand as we consider which way to turn.’ This is, moreover, not only a work about poetry: it is also an exquisitely poetic work of scholarship." —Catherine Rigby, Bath Spa University, author of Dancing with Disaster

"In Anthropocene Poetics, David Farrier ventures into a poetics of the Anthropocene and calls for the need to create ‘an Anthropocenic literary imagination.’ Exploring the Anthropocene conundrums and dysphorias with avant-garde and lyric poetry, Anthropocene Poetics will certainly change the way we perceive deep time as well as our understanding of the poem. Imagine a creative becoming enfolded by the new poetics of deep and thick time!"—Serpil Oppermann, Cappadocia University

"The Anthropocene needs poetry. With its vorticular temporalities, swift shifts in scale, enmeshment of the human and the nonhuman, and constant challenges to the adequacy of language, this age of ecological crisis may never be better understood by any other technology—even as the Anthropocene changes what we understand a poem to do. David Farrier’s brilliant new book is a rapturous meditation on ecocriticism, time, the limits of human comprehension, and the power of the humanities in a turbulent era." —Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, author of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The legacy and nostalgia of the Star Wars franchise


“Every generation has a legend.”

I have seen these words twice in my lifetime. The first time, I was twelve years old and downloading the first teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace on a 56k dial-up modem in rural Australia. These were the early days of the internet. The idea of a trailer as an event, and the practice of streaming video were both just beginning to take hold. I watched with awe at literally every frame for this new film: every ten minutes or so I would have a new five-second section to contemplate. I scrubbed through them with the arrow keys of my prehistoric desktop computer, my eyes only inches from the screen. Darth Maul drawing his lightsaber. Gungans in the mist. A new Jedi order.

The second time I saw these words was on April 12, 2019. I was thirty-two and live-streaming a panel from the other side of the world as the first purrs of a weapons-grade marketing campaign for Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker came sputtering to life. In a year of enormous, culture-defining blockbusters, this would surely be one of the biggest. The ‘saga’ was coming to an end; a new caretaker in the forms of Disney and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy would shepherd the Skywalkers towards a final full-stop.

The story of the twenty years between The Phantom Menace and The Rise of Skywalker—filled with six ‘saga’ films, two anthology films, three animated television series, two in-production live-action series, uncountable characters and actors, and the biggest transition in the franchise’s history from the outsider millionaire George Lucas to the insider corporation of Disney—is too big to be told. How do you encapsulate the white-hot rage that George Lucas and his prequels faced for Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians, and the adolescent pouting of the man who was supposed to become Darth Vader? How do you explain away the Mickey Mouse jokes that greeted the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, or the fears that Star Wars would become an all-singing, bland sell-out? How can we begin to understand the apocalyptic hatred that actors Kelly Marie Tran (Rose from The Last Jedi) and Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks from the prequels) were on the receiving end of, and then, unbelievably, the rapturous standing ovations and sports-like chants of support they both received that same weekend in April, 2019, as Star Wars fans welcomed them like long-lost relatives?

“Every generation has a legend.” This is a marketing line with bite, and if anything can tell us about this almost unfathomable moment in pop culture, it’s this. The generations of Star Wars illuminate our current cinema, franchise-making, and the self-made myth of nostalgia.

Nostalgia’s pull has multiplied in our times because media augments memory. When we watch an old film, in some part we grasp at who we were when we saw it for the first time. This is of course an impossibility: we cannot time travel or grow younger, and so nostalgia provides us with a kind of impossible homecoming, a return to a place that we can never really go to. When Rogue One’s costumers went to remake the 1977-era Stormtrooper for 2016, they found that the grills on the side of their helmets had to be built in—the cheap stickers that looked fine on ‘70s Panavision filmstock would today not live up to memory’s rosy recollection. Fans can never return to the moment they fell in love with Star Wars for the first time, but Han Solo can return to the Millennium Falcon: Chewie, we’re home.

Indeed, the greatest trick of the sequel trilogy—this new Disney era—has been to displace fans’ own awe and thirst for a nostalgic return into the mythology of the films themselves. By the time of The Force Awakens, Luke Skywalker has become myth. The Jedi, the Force, the Empire, these are all distant memories spoken of in disbelieving tones: our new heroes mirror our own watery-eyed shock at reencountering them again, as if our memories have taken on corporeal form. It’s true, we’re told. All of it.

Star Wars generations are identified, created, mythologized. Göran Bolin argues that nostalgia is at the root of generational gaps, often appearing between parents and children through insurmountable differences in their respective media landscapes. Adults hated the prequels in 1999, but those who grew up with them now use them to signal their own yearning for youth. The secret, for Disney, has been in simultaneously addressing three generations: first, in authorizing a return to the ‘home’ of the original trilogy for older fans; second, in not alienating the prequel kids; and finally, in opening up enough points of entry to galvanize a generation of newcomers, for whom the stories of Star Wars were for other people.

With nostalgia, with ageing generations, also comes legacy. The next best thing to an actual return to youth is the passing on of experience, and knowledge, and passion. Parents pass Star Wars on to their children, and now, the films do it too. Carrie Fisher, in her memoirs, The Princess Diarist, keenly observes this point through her years of interacting with Star Wars fans. She notes how Star Wars fans have a “common language that runs from five to eighty-five,” that is deliberately and almost ritualistically cultivated by parents in their children. Do you show your kids A New Hope or The Phantom Menace first, you ask?

Every generation, we’re told, has a legend. And now, with the sequel era of Star Wars, with The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker, another generation, another legend, is not so much born as it is actively cultivated by a megacorporation that will be here long after all of us. Like all other generations, it too will inevitably be remembered, mythologised, and ultimately, passed on.

Dan Golding, author of Star Wars after Lucas: A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy, is lecturer in media and communications at the Swinburne University of Technology and an award-winning writer with more than two hundred international publications. He is cohost of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV show What Is Music and the producer of the soundtrack to Push Me Pull You. He is coauthor of Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny, the Fight for the Future of Videogames and has written for popular and web-based publications such as Kotaku, Buzzfeed, The Guardian, IGN, and The Conversation.

"Star Wars is almost too big a subject for any one mind to grasp, but Dan Golding’s look at how the franchise maintains its nostalgic glow in the Disney era stays on target, excavating the unique combination of art and commerce that holds Star Wars together." —Adam Rogers, deputy editor of Wired and author of Proof: The Science of Booze

"Star Wars after Lucas is a useful and welcome review of the past four decades of Star Wars, as well as the strategies that corporations are increasingly adopting in order to perpetuate franchises. In particular, Dan Golding aptly describes Lucasfilm's struggles to balance nostalgic appeals with a growing commitment to diversity and inclusivity." —A. D. Jameson, author of I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture

"Dan Golding’s wonderful book strikes a perfect balance between criticism and knowledgeable fandom. Approaching Disney-era Star Wars, his writing provides important insights into the workings of nostalgia culture, transmedia storytelling, and the power of transnational media industries in the age of global capitalism. His readings of individual Star Wars texts are thoughtful, nuanced, and theoretically informed, while at the same time relating them back to the complexities of branding, cross-platform marketing, and global entertainment franchising. Star Wars after Lucas is essential reading for anyone with an interest in media franchising, globalization, media industries, and entertainment in the Disney era." —Dan Hassler-Forest, coeditor of Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Parents versus Planners


Parents have dreams for their children. Sometimes, the dreams are specific; we want our children to play an instrument, enroll at our alma mater, or become engineers. Mostly, however, we want our children to do what will make them happy. If they want to try out for the school play, enroll in an out-of-state college, go to veterinary school, or enter the corporate world, great. If they want to drop out of college and teach ski lessons, well, maybe that wouldn’t be our first choice, but we will support them. Parents want the future to be wide open for their children.

Is that a realistic option in the modern world? Certain education reformers—let’s call them planners—think that our country can no longer afford to let children find their own way. According to planners, children need to be placed on certain college and career pathways. The name for this is a P20 system, and the way that it runs is through data collection.

The basic idea of a P20 system is to collect data on children from preschool (or prenatal) until the early years of their careers. If children satisfy conditions such as high test scores, then doors such as admission to state institutions of higher education open for them. If children do not test well, then they may be slotted for career and technical education. A P20 system, in theory, is a seamless pipeline from cradle to career. For advocates, this system helps policymakers identify what works in education and prepare young people for long-term success.

Schools have collected data on children for a long time, but things have been changing rapidly in the past two decades. The federal government greatly expanded its role in data collection with the passage of the Education Sciences Reform Act and the Educational Technical Assistance Act in 2002. Now, the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education administers a program for states to build state longitudinal data systems. In 2009, New York won a $19,670,975 ARRA grant to create the “building blocks” of a P20 system that is transforming every corner of the public education system.

Here is a sketch of how the New York state longitudinal data system works. Initially, local education agencies collect data about students’ demographics, coursework, test scores, and teachers. This data is collected, formatted, and standardized before it is delivered to a state data repository. Then, this data is sent to the American Institute of Research to produce growth reports. With these reports, the state can identify a data linkage between teachers and students. In other words, the growth reports enable the state to identify which teachers help their students’ test scores grow more or less than predicted.

Though there has recently been a wrinkle in the state’s plans to use the end-of-year state tests for this purpose, New York continues to have a high-stakes testing regime that evaluates educators on how students perform on standardized tests. In my book, Learning versus the Common Core, I argue that this system pressures schools to narrow the curriculum to testable skills. Gone are the days when teachers could help children develop their unique gifts. This is enough reason for parents to protest the new educational paradigm.

But it gets worse. New York’s state data repository creates transcripts for students. This transcript determines if children may enter the state’s public universities (CUNY, SUNY) or other colleges in New York and out of state. The education department shares the transcript with the state agencies responsible for housing, workforce development, health and social services. The education department also gives this information to the armed forces and the department of correction services.

In short, the state is creating a permanent record for each student that follows them from age five (or before) until they get started with their adult lives.

Will this system benefit young people? Advocates of P20 say yes. But it also creates a condition ripe for abuse—at least if you believe that young people deserve second chances or that there are many ways to show your talents. For example, the state universities may determine that students need a certain score on a single standardized test to earn admission. But what if students shine in other ways?

There is a scene in the movie Interstellar (2014) where Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, expresses a sentiment that many parents experience when they discover the details of a P-20 system.

Cooper: You're ruling my son out for college now? The kid's fifteen.

Principal: Tom's score simply isn't high enough.

Cooper: What's your waistline? 32? With, what, a 33 inseam?

Principal: I'm not sure I see what you're getting at.

Cooper: You're telling me it takes two numbers to measure your own ass but only one to measure my son's future?

Central planners are making themselves, in effect, gods who can determine children’s fates. But there is no reason that parents should accept this new arrangement. Young people deserve to have a wide range of options available to them.

Nicholas Tampio is professor of political science at Fordham University. He is the author of Learning versus the Common Core (Minnesota, 2019).

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Secret of the Secret of Color


Color has a secret.

In one form or another, this has been the message of the recent boom in color studies. Sometimes the secret is psychological. Seeing blue involves not only light waves and retinas, but also an act of interpretation based on lighting conditions and on what, in the past, we’ve made of similar stimuli. That’s why some people saw blue and black in that famous dress, while others saw white and gold.

Sometimes the secret is social. That red shirt you’re wearing? It’s not just red but “spiced apple” or “rapture rose” or some other specific hue picked out and promoted by a color forecasting group, an actual group of actual people who meet up in convention centers to set color trends. Manufacturers have their “color experts,” who decide which hues will be used for the season’s products. That’s why, as Regina Lee Blaszczyk notes in her history of these color professionals, the same shade of lime green or mustard yellow will suddenly seem to be everywhere, from clothing to throw pillows to the menus at the new bakery. The workings of these color cabals are revealed every couple of years in the popular press.

Sometimes the secret is historical. Did you know that “ultramarine” is derived from the Latin for “beyond the sea,” and that the name designated the long passage that lapis lazuli had to take from the mines of Afghanistan to Europe? Or that ultramarine pigment was, for centuries, costlier than gold, which is why artists in the fifteenth-century began using them for the Virgin Mary’s robes? Kassia St Clair’s The Secret Lives of Colour brims with such secrets, stretching from ancient times to modernity. Her entry on Baker-Miller pink, for instance, tells of the brief moment in the 1980s when this Pepto-Bismol-like hue came to be used in prisons, buses, and housing estates because of its supposed ability to subdue the violent impulses of young men. Other books by Michel Pastoureau, Victoria Finlay, David Kastan, and Gavin Evans, to name just a few, reveal similar “hidden messages” about color.

There’s always a secret. The pleasure of reading these books and articles about color is in seeing how something that seems natural and self-evident is in fact the result of complex historical and biological processes. Color, that paradigm of immediacy, turns out to be riddled with mediations.

When I began writing about color and American literature as a graduate student, I too wanted to tell secrets. I found that my period of interest—those essential years between 1880 and 1930 when American modernity took its distinctive form—witnessed crucial developments in how color was made and understood. The mass production of new synthetic dyes changed the look and feel of commercial colors, bringing a vibrant and expansive palette to the goods of everyday life. The emerging science of psychology took color as one of its early subjects, redefining it in the process. Studies of color perception and its relation to environmental stimuli and the state of the observer (whether distracted, focused, listening to sounds, thinking about language, and so on), put forth a detailed view both of how color experience is produced and of how specific colors affect us. Advertisers and social reformers quickly sought to put these theories to work.

By telling the cultural and literary history of color, I wanted to tell a broader story about how the modern sensory scene came about, including an account of the habits of feeling and seeing such a scene demanded. (That’s one area in which literature proves helpful: in dramatizing historical ways of responding to color).

But the more I researched, the more I realized that I was not simply finding further color secrets but witnessing the more fundamental construction of color as something with a secret. In the novels, poetry, decoration manuals, children’s books, philosophical essays, psychological studies, pedagogical journals, and business magazines that I read, and that I discuss in my book Chromographia, I saw how color came to be understood in two separate yet related ways. First, as a distinct domain of nature with its own laws and principles, such that an artist or designer could learn how to manipulate color effects. Second, as an intense and emotionally-charged experience, something that hits the body directly, bypassing conscious thought. I became more and more interested in how these two faces of color fit together, and in how they were often held apart. Because it’s in this duplicity that color came to be something at once immediate and mediated, wholly manifest and yet full of hidden depths.

When L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, he worked with illustrator W. W. Denslow to make his book “glow” with bright color. In fact, the whole narrative universe of the original Oz story—with its color-coded regions and hyper-green Emerald City—is designed to show off the colors of the actual book. As a children’s author, Baum exploited the immediacy of color.

The gates of the Emerald City. Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, illustrations by Denslow, 109. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Yet as an advertiser and window-dresser (before Oz he edited a professional journal called The Show Window), Baum leaned on the “laws” of color, which he held to be hidden from average observers and so perfect for stimulating consumer desire. He gave readers tips on how to manipulate the “set laws” of color and advised that even items “desirable in themselves” still “need[ed] a color effect to throw them out properly”—otherwise consumers might not even realize they wanted it.[1]

The doubleness of color held in other areas as well. Empirical studies of color perception in the period tended to emphasize one of two things: either the direct, bodily reaction to chromatic stimuli (such that certain colors caused certain moods--see Baker-Miller pink), or the complex calculations that the brain makes in order to see a particular color. In this latter case, what we see when we see red is not so much a thing as a set of relations, which our minds mediate into a single sensation, imbued with qualitative immediacy. This, in fact, is what Gertrude Stein discovered when she apprenticed as a color researcher in the Harvard psychology lab in the 1890s. And it’s the basic insight about color that she carried into her famously saturated book of poetry, Tender Buttons (1914).

Two Milton Bradley Color Wheels (bottom right and left), along with several color disks of various sizes. There are also apparatuses for testing the perception of afterimages, luminous color, color blindness, and "appreciation of color." "Instruments for Experiments on Sight," from Hugo Munsterberg, Psychological Laboratory of Harvard University, 8.

The more I saw this dual nature of color in the wider cultural conversation about color effects—and I should note that at the turn of the twentieth century this conversation was livelier than it had ever been—the more I realized that the blend of immediacy and mediation opened a new space for exploring the language of color, and in particular its literary uses. An obligatory move in recent books on color is to point out that language can never do justice to the visual world. This is usually done with an apologetic tone. The idea is that language is an abstract system of mediations, while visual color is a concrete presentation of brute sensation. But if we take seriously the challenge of color’s duality, the way it results from the transformation of mediations into immediacy, and if we are willing to shed the ingrained philosophical habit of thinking of the abstract and the concrete as two incompatible realms (rather than as two phases in an ongoing process), then the language of color is no longer an embarrassment to vision. Rather, our verbal invocations of color—from the names we give it to the ways we narrate its effects—stand as extensions and transformations of color itself.

In Chromographia, I’ve tried to show just how inventive and consequential the literary transformations of chromatic experience were in the early decades of American modernity. There are lots of color “secrets” in the book, many of which give a historical background for the current crop of color books. But perhaps the most important story it tells is that of the secret of color’s secrets.


Nicholas Gaskill is associate professor of American literature at the University of Oxford and tutorial fellow at Oriel College. He is coeditor of The Lure of Whitehead (Minnesota, 2014).

"What happened when chemists invented mauve? When The Wonderful Wizard of Oz taught us childhood meant colorfulness? When Stephen Crane painted courage red? In Nicholas Gaskill’s brilliant, beautiful, and mind-expanding book, we learn the myriad ways in which being modern in America meant no less than an encounter with color itself. And that meant thinking anew about mind and body, language and world, the challenges of the avant-garde and the pleasures of popular culture. Chromographia is that rare and iridescent thing: a philosophically searching contribution to literary–cultural history."—Jennifer Fleissner, Indiana University, Bloomington

"Between the 1880s and the 1930s the world changed color. Nicholas Gaskill’s multilayered study of the period shows how a number of factors—an emerging relational understanding of chromatic experience, the commercial production of synthetic dyes, and theories of vision derived from evolutionary biology—together gave color a new visibility and brilliance and transformed it into a vitally important subject for literary and artistic modernism. If the cultural study of color—let’s call it Chromotology—was a recognized discipline, then this would be one of its principal texts."—David Batchelor, author of Chromophobia

"Chromographia is a study of color perception just as brilliant as all the saturated hues that the new chromatic technologies and synthetic dyes of the nineteenth century brought out like never before. Nicholas Gaskill explores the meaning of this modern, multicolored world from the perspective of the writers, philosophers, psychologists, and educators who, in trying to cultivate a feeling for color, believe that language has the power to augment our sensory encounter with the world and to make life more vivid. This is a dazzling book that puts us in immediate relation with the vibrancy of these decades as we learn about the dynamic forms that color takes, its importance to aesthetic experience, and its intensifying, clarifying role in modern thought."—Elisa Tamarkin, University of California, Berkeley

[1] L. Frank Baum, The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors: A Complete Manual of Window Trimming, Designed as an Educator in All the Details of the Art, According to the Best Accepted Methods, and Treating Fully Every Important Subject (Chicago: Show Window Publishing, 1900), 24, 35.