Friday, April 10, 2015

Introducing "Verge: Studies in Global Asias"

The history of scholarship on Asian America, when juxtaposed with the fields
of Asian Studies, reminds us how much nations, national movements, and
other forms of national development continue to exert influence on the world
in which we live.























BY TINA CHEN AND ERIC HAYOT

Now, more than ever, the singularities of world history—whether imagined as a Hegelian “end of history” via the universalization of liberal democracy, a utopian fulfillment of the dream of total market capitalism, the consolidation of realpolitikal fault lines dividing economic orders or social regimes, or as the production of a single worldwide Weltanschauung via some combination of media consolidation and the internet, each of which has been called “globalization”—require us to understand the past, the present, and the futures of Asia. The immediate reasons for doing so are clear: the increasing influence, economic and political, of the new Asian superpowers, China and India; the alternative systems of human rights emerging from the “Asian values” debate; Asia’s role as the socio-cultural vanguard of global futures and global geographies, captured in the techno-Orientalist imaginaries of films like Blade Runner, The Matrix, and The Ghost in the Shell, or in scholarly analyses of the postmodern, cosmopolitan megacity; the possibility that among the first victims of global warming will be the Republic of Kiribati, two of whose islands disappeared underwater in 1999; the still-emerging political effects of powerful transnational communities of “flexible citizens” in Singapore, Taiwan, or India; and, finally, the growing global influence of diasporic communities of Asians abroad—in the United States, in Europe, in Africa, in Australia, and of course elsewhere in Asia itself.

And yet the belated “arrival” of Asia on the shores of the global present obscures, if we allow it, the fact that Asia has been present in the world-making project of history and human life from the very beginning. We may want to say that the “rise” of Europe made that longer history difficult to see, or attribute the epistemological limitations of twentieth-century historiography to an effect of power-knowledge structures that derive from critical kinds of conceptual divergence. Nonetheless, we must now recognize that the kinds of “world” historical claims made for the twentieth century (or even the sixteenth) relied for their force on a very particular theory of what made history “worldly.” Restoring a long view to the history of Asia’s place in and as the world in order to better understand and shape how we think about the present is one of the most pressing tasks for serious humanistic work about world-systems and the imaginative geographies they simultaneously enact and exemplify.

At the same time, we must recognize that the world built out of the putative European “divergence” from Asia can be characterized equally well by a series of subsequent convergences, a mixing together of ideas, people, and things that has left untouched no corner of the planet. “Globalization” is, in fact, one name for this converging impulse, which seems at times to emerge as much from universal history itself as from any personal impulse to connect, to transact, or to travel. To think globalization today is thus to think a pattern: divergence, then convergence … and then, beyond a certain limit … divergence again? No one knows. But it is our job to speculate, and to learn as much as we can from the example of the past, which has the advantage of being what we can know and the disadvantage of being always a bit, or more, unlike the presents and futures that face us.


Inclusiveness

Much of this work on transnationalism has, paradoxically, highlighted the continued relevance of the nation-state to the formation of culture, the practice of history, and to the realm of international affairs. There is no transnationalism without the nation. Here the history of scholarship on Asian America, when juxtaposed with the fields of Asian Studies, reminds us how much nations, national movements, and other forms of national development continue to exert powerful effects on the world in which we live. Such movements also remind us of the importance of inter-nationalism, of the kinds of networks that can spring up between states and which can work to disrupt the smooth passage of the planet into a utopian post-national future. We should make clear at this juncture that Asian American Studies stands in for a broader commitment to studying Asian influence—the migration of people, things, and ideas from the region we call “Asia” today, or recognized as Asian in any given historical context—as globally as possible. We conceive of its inclusion as a starting point for inclusiveness, rather than a limit to it. The growing interest in the global and the transnational across disciplines thus brings the various Asia-oriented fields and disciplines—history and literature, Asia and Asian America, East and South, modern and premodern—closer together. Verge aims to occupy and enlarge that proximity.

Verge’s project emphasizes doubly decentered scholarship and what emerges is a new kind of materialist history: a history that shows how the ideas at stake in traditionally centered forms of scholarship emerge through and shape the material activities that act as their ground. This decentered approach has made it possible today to imagine a journal that includes scholarship from scholars in both Asian and Asian American Studies. These two fields have traditionally defined themselves in opposition to one another, the former focused on an area-studies, nationally and politically oriented approach, the latter emphasizing epistemological categories, including ethnicity and citizenship, that draw mainly on the history of the United States. The past decade has seen a series of rapprochements in which, for instance, categories “belonging” to Asian American Studies (ethnicity, race, diaspora) have been applied with increasing success to studies of Asia. For example, Asian Studies has responded to the postnational turn in the humanities and social sciences by becoming increasingly open to rethinking its national and regional insularities, and to work that pushes, often literally, on the boundaries of Asia as both a place and a concept. At the same time, Asian American Studies has become increasingly aware of the ongoing importance of Asia to the Asian American experience, and thus more open to work that is transnational or multilingual, as well as to forms of scholarship that challenge the US-centrism of concepts governing the Asian diaspora.

More generally, one might say that the historically awkward split whereby the study of immigrants from Asia was relegated to a variety of national studies, most prominently Asian American, while the “home” countries of those same immigrants were studied under the area studies model, has produced a model of “uneven” or differential development, in which the conceptual categories used to study one group of people (such as ethnicity, citizenship, labor, in the case of Asian American Studies) have been quite different than those used to study the ancestors or relatives of that same group (community, urbanization, trade). Bringing the two disciplinary fields together thus allows us to cross-pollinate the categories of analysis, asking, for instance, how a concept like the nomad, so important in a variety of Asian Studies fields, might usefully be applied to Asian American populations, and to ask, in turn, if the evidence from the Asian American example can usefully shape the concept of the nomadic as an evolving mode of social being (in a radically different historical context).


Asia and its relationship to the world

The experiment here is therefore not to produce a superficial convergence of interest in Asia (or to ratify some ethnic commonality to a new version of “Asian” history). Verge responds, rather, to the enormous recent growth in scholarship that asks how Asian immigrants around the world have served as conduits for a variety of Asian concepts, objects, or forms of social life (perhaps most obviously in terms of food), and as vectors for economic and cultural transactions directed from their new homes back to their old ones, in ways that substantively affect the history of Asia—and vice versa. And we turn, via our observation of the effects of this historically local series of happenings on our own contemporary societies, to a variety of questions involving the production of the global, or of world-systems, that extend all the way back to the earliest moments of human history. “Asia” has been “global” since long before the diasporas of the nineteenth century; the question is how, and why, and what kinds of forms—social, cultural, and historical—have consolidated themselves around the various forms of locality and worldliness that characterize any dynamic culture.

We therefore invite work that showcases the intersection between Asia and the globe—these two concepts vibrating, to be sure, between their purely fictional meanings, and their most ordinary, commonsensical ones—that considers the interaction of cultures from the earliest beginnings of human civilization, and that remembers that if we consider plant or animal life, the transactions go back well beyond that blessed beginning. If we are to recognize the importance of flow and movement as factors in the production of world history, we cannot restrict the study of Asia to any fixed geographic region of the planet, any historical period, or even, if we take Naoki Sakai’s suggestion that “we should use the word Asian in such a way as to emphasize the fluidity of the very distinction between the West and Asia rather than its persistence” seriously, any specific cultural or biologically constituted population. “Asia” happens anytime, everywhere, and applies to everyone: Verge studies it as a global concept.

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Tina Chen and Eric Hayot are editors of Verge: Studies in Global Asias, a journal that showcases scholarship on “Asian” topics from across the humanities and humanistic social sciences, while recognizing that the changing scope of “Asia” as a concept and method is today an object of vital critical concern.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On California's Water-Free Future

California's Mono Lake, pictured in August 2014.


BY KAREN PIPER
Professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri


The solution to California’s drought is simple: stop shipping water to China. Farmers, who use 80% of the state’s water, ship crops containing “virtual water” (the water used to grow these crops) to places like China, Afghanistan, and Turkey. Stopping these exports would save six trillion gallons of water per day—enough to solve the problem in the short run. In fact, California could shut down farming altogether and still be fine, since agribusiness only supplies 2% of the state's GDP. But in the long run, as I told my mother, it is time to think about moving out of California. Luckily, my mom followed my advice, packed up her house in California, and moved to Seattle, where water is cheap and plentiful . . . at least until Californians come for it, which is everyone’s fear north of the border.

California is the world’s guinea pig, since it was the first in the world to construct massive concrete water transfer systems, beginning with the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. These systems have a natural lifespan, yet California was built on the fallacy that indefinite, inexhaustible growth was possible by moving water around like so many chess pieces. Back then, the idea was that you could drain swamps, irrigate, and otherwise spread water evenly across California to create the Jeffersonian dream of small farmers. Today, California’s water politics are like a giant chess game in which everyone is losing—yet no one will stop playing because they’ve been playing so long.

I always tell people to watch California to see the consequences of modern water conveyance systems.  California destroyed 90% of its wetlands. Its dams silted up and are some are being taken down. The west side of Central Valley is becoming a salt-covered desert. (Just drive down “Alkali Street” at the Tachi-Yokut reservation, and you will see what I mean.) Two regions have become toxic dust bowls, and the state is frantically trying to figure out how to fix these problems. Today, I use California as an example of what not to do.

Throw climate change in the mix, and you have a major disaster. Currently, the Sierra Nevada mountains have only received 6% of their average snowpack, which has never happened before in recorded history. Governor Jerry Brown has mandated that urban users receive only 75% of their normal water supplies. The extra 69% will come from reservoir storage, groundwater pumping, and the Colorado River. Yet NASA scientists are saying California only has one year worth of stored water left. What will happen the following year? While people complain about being in a four-year drought, the truth is that they should be planning for a 20- or 30-year drought. As the planet heats up, weather patterns change, rocks warm, and snow melts.

Today, urban Californians complain (rightly so) that Brown did not cut water for farmers—most likely because they fund his campaigns. So farmers will keep getting their water, based on a complicated and arcane allotment system; many will use that water on wasteful flood irrigation. Others will pump groundwater, which is cracking housing foundations and causing wells to go dry. Californians should not have to suffer health consequences from a lack of running water so a neighboring farmer can sell pistachios to Afghanistan. This is an equity and human rights issue, and residents could actually sue the state thanks to a legally enforceable U.N. resolution stating that everyone has the right to an adequate supply of clean water. Some farmers are choosing to sell their water at astronomical prices ($700 to $1,800 an acre-foot) to urban areas, making larger profits than they would from farming. Water markets, which everyone promised would solve the problem, are instead allowing agribusiness to gouge urban consumers and dry up neighbors’ wells.

At the same time, the last thing California needs is a third toxic dust bowl in the Central Valley, so I am not actually advocating stopping farming. Instead, what California needs are simple regulations about how farmers can farm, such as:

1) Do not allow farming for export, which essentially exports California’s water.

2) Enforce laws stating that farms should be no more than 960 acres. Farmers have been finding loopholes around these laws since they were enacted. The initial proposal was that a family farm would be 160 acres, which later changed to 960 acres. How we got to 10,000-plus-acre farms is another story.

3) Provide incentives for growing drought-resistant crops and switching to organic, which uses less water and rebuilds soils to allow them to retain more moisture.

4) Provide incentives for permaculture, agroforestry, and agroecology techniques. The World Bank is already doing this in marginal lands around the world, knowing that these methods are less water intensive and rebuild the soil. Permaculture is being deployed in Australia to deal with its drought, and there are plenty of permaculture experts in California who could be enlisted to help.

5) Fertilize with biochar. Biochar is a charcoal-based soil additive used both to fertilize and combat climate change because it captures carbon in the soil.

Finally: plan for the worst. Even if we were to stop all carbon emissions today, the planet would still warm another 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (.8 C) as the ocean releases stored carbon. More importantly, climate change is happening now and no one really knows what “now” will look like anymore.

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Karen Piper is author of The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming ChaosCartographic Fictions, and Left in the Dust, which the Los Angeles Times has called an “eco-thriller” that every “tap-turning American” should read. A regular contributor to Places magazine, Piper is also a winner of Sierra’s Nature Writing Award and has published in numerous academic journals. She is professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri.

"Tack-sharp reportage. Piper’s report makes for anxious yet informative reading." —Kirkus Reviews

"A deeply moving exposé of how ordinary people’s lives can be altered irrevocably by corporate greed." —New York Journal of Books

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Autism Awareness Day 2015: Adding "acceptance" and "alliance" into conversations about autism.

Simplican, pictured here with her brother, discusses
the range of diversity in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).



BY STACY CLIFFORD SIMPLICAN
Postdoctoral fellow, Michigan State University


Today is World Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day. The organization Autism Speaks is promoting a “Light It Up Blue” campaign to encourage individuals and whole cities to go "blue" to raise awareness about autism. If you are reading this blog post a day late, don’t worry. All of April is dedicated to Autism Awareness and Acceptance, so you still have time to find that blue tie or scarf.

But beyond wearing blue, what should we do to commemorate this day and month for autism awareness and acceptance? That question has been heavy on my mind. I want to use my blog post to raise awareness about the spectrum of the autism community.

When I say spectrum, I’m not talking about diagnostic criteria—although these diagnostic categories are important. Briefly put, in 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders made a dramatic change in how autism is classified by uniting a whole range of “disorders” (including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified) into a unified category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

What this means is that there is huge diversity in people with ASD. Let me give you two quick examples. Last week I participated in a research colloquium on a study conducted using virtual reality technology with thirty adults with ASD. Many of the research participants were in the audience and they discussed their perceptions of the virtual reality experiences and potential future uses of the technology. The conversation was stimulating, funny, and—for the researchers—very rewarding. This is one point on the spectrum.

A few days later, I received an update about my adult brother with autism. My brother lives in a developmental center with about 100 other people with severe to profound intellectual and developmental disabilities. My brother has not said a word since he was two years old—now almost 30 years ago. I would love to give my brother a high-tech tablet so I can at least see him, since I can’t talk to him. But my brother has challenging behavior. A long trail of demolished televisions, DVD players, walls, toilets, light fixtures, door frames, and many other objects follow in his wake. He is another point on the spectrum.

But like I said, I want to raise awareness about the spectrum of the autism community. This spectrum explains why activists call this day either Autism Awareness or Autism Acceptance Day.

Autism Speaks is promoting World Autism Awareness Day, as it has done since 2008. Autism Speaks describes itself as “the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism.” Hence, Autism Speaks takes a medical model approach to autism. If we are raising this kind of awareness, then we will probably focus on finding medical interventions that can alleviate the symptoms of autism, or finding the genetic causes of autism in the hopes of eliminating future cases of autism.

Disability activists, however, have criticized the medical model approach to disability precisely because of its emphasis on rehabilitation and cure, rather than an emphasis on human rights and civic participation. This explains the acceptance part of the day. Autism Acceptance Day was started in 2011. This approach promotes accepting autism as a “natural part of the human experience,” promoting human rights of people with autism, and listening to the voices of people with autism.

Hence, just like autism is a spectrum, so too is the advocacy community. As a feminist theorist who works on issues of social justice, I appreciate the work of autism activists in shifting attention to acceptance rather than awareness. But I want to push back and ask: are there risks in acceptance?

The definition of acceptance is “the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group.” To me, acceptance implies an end to struggle.

In contrast, in my qualitative research with the self-advocacy movement run by and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the United States, what I appreciated most was the struggle between self-advocates and nondisabled allies. I describe some of these struggles in my book The Capacity Contract where I focused on another a-word: alliance.

Building alliances in the disability communities that I observed meant a willingness to point out paternalistic behavior—even among well-seasoned activists. Alliance also meant a willingness to handle these missteps with a sense of humor—as laughter at our own mistakes is a kind of forgiveness we offer to one another—thus making our continued alliance possible.

I would like to celebrate World Autism Alliance Day. I would like to envision a world in which we are willing to form alliances with one another—amid misunderstandings, conflicting models, challenging behavior, painful histories, and deep differences. My brother needs an ally, and—on many of my recent days—so do I.

So let’s commemorate this day by forging a new alliance. Go find that blue tie or scarf before April passes you by and let’s not just wear it. Let’s tie it together.

Are you with me?

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Stacy Clifford Simplican is author of The Capacity Contract: Intellectual Disability and the Question of Citizenship. She is a postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University and the DOCTRID Research Institute, which focuses on improving the quality of life of people with intellectual disabilities.

"The Capacity Contract brings much-needed insights to both political theory and disability studies. Its original analysis calls for the fuller recognition of the contributions of the intellectually disabled and their social inclusion as citizens."
—Kristin Bumiller, Amherst College


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Minnesota: Midwest or North? Karen Babine on why how we talk about place matters.


Tettegouche State Park in Minnesota on the North Shore of Lake Superior; photo taken from Palisade Head (foreground) looking NE to Shovel Point (midground) and Sawtooth Mountains (distant background).

BY KAREN BABINE
Assistant professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota


When I lived in eastern Washington, I learned the place was called the Inland Northwest and it had a separate identity from the western side of the Cascades. In Nebraska, I learned what the Great Plains meant, that they were not exactly the Midwest. Minnesota: Midwest? North? How we come to talk about the places under our feet seems to be an integral part of how we understand who we are, by knowing where we are in a way that is nameable and identifiable.

I was living in Nebraska when it adopted the slogan Nebraska Nice, a move that elicited much eye-rolling from Minnesota. On one hand, I didn’t care too much, even as I wondered about Minnesota Nice™ as an ideal and identity. If we couldn’t lay claim to that phrase—what did we have left that was uniquely ours? Who were we, as a collective?

Most Minnesotans have a list of trivia at hand when anyone challenges the legitimacy—and awesomeness—of the state. The first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Minnesotan. I know that many of the important apples of the last several decades (Honeycrisp, SweeTango) have come out of the University of Minnesota Ag School. We have the Mayo Clinic, 3-M, Andersen Windows, Target, Best Buy. Books, music, movies, food, history—most of us have an arsenal of examples to argue that Minnesota is valuable, because it is also a state that’s easy to make fun of.

Perhaps this is where the current debate about branding ourselves the North, a separate place from the Midwest, came from. Our state’s motto is Star of the North, after all. I still miss the hockey team being the North Stars, even though I don’t watch hockey. For myself, I don’t think too much about breaking away from the Midwest and claiming ourselves as the North. I think the idea is much more complicated than simple marketing. The idea of the North, from explorers like Roald Amundsen, writers like Sigurd F. Olson and Paul Gruchow, and more, is more of an ideal than it is a place, and it can’t be invented by boosters.

Rhetoric is important—we know this. We talk about the rhetoric we used to turn the Great American Desert into the Breadbasket of the World, while still referring to it as Flyover Country, we acknowledge that we who live in the mid-section of the country are relying on outside voices to give us the geographical identity we feel we deserve. Naturally, we know that this place is important, even if Nobody Important thinks so. But this provokes a necessary question: who are we depending on to validate our geographical and state identity?

Kent C. Ryden, in "Writing the Midwest: History, Literature, and Regional Identity," considers that regional identity, as practiced by writers (though the idea is more widely applicable), is based in “[distilling] felt and known local experience into words in order to replace insignificance with significance, vagueness with precision and meaning” (512). Geographical identity, by its very nature, is arbitrary, without clear definitions. Except for, perhaps, the exception of the Mason-Dixon line, where one region bleeds into another is always unclear. I like it this way—it makes us think, asks us to actively consider why identity and place matter. If Minnesota doesn’t feel like the Midwest, what does that mean?

I tend to think that the idea of North almost by definition obscures, rather than clarifies—and I like that idea. In the introduction to the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s classic Narrow Road to the Deep North, his translator, Nobuyuki Yuasa, writes that “In the imagination of the people at least, the North was largely an unexplored territory, and it represented for Basho all the mystery there was in the universe.” Is the idea of the North a search for a place where mystery and wildness still exist? The idea is problematic under scrutiny, but I wonder if this is the root.

My grandparents’ cabin in Hubbard County is still too far out for cable—in 2015—and I can still drive up the North Shore of Lake Superior and marvel that not only do I lose cell coverage for a significant portion of the drive, but also that there are still places in this country to be considered so remote, so untamed, so much unknown. But I live on the Red River Valley and my sunsets light the prairies in a show of space so immense as to be equally unknowable.

Last weekend, I was in Park Rapids and among the essential updates on my home and friends, I got the information on the benefit pancake breakfast and silent auction for a high school friend who just had surgery, she who was my first friend when we moved to Nevis nearly thirty years ago. While we might like the unknowable mysteries from our landscapes, we seek the knowable from our communities. When we do not know the next step, when tomorrow is fogged to our view, we take care of what we can: we throw pancake breakfasts, we raise money for expenses, we organize meals and rides.

Whatever the North or the Midwest is—whatever Minnesota is—it is grounded in the realities of life and love that retains what it means to be wild.

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Karen Babine is assistant professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota and the author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life. Her essays have appeared in River Teeth, Sycamore Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Ascent, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

"What is the effect of place on character?  Of our birth landscape on how we see the world?  This wonderful, meditative book asks all the right questions."—Will Weaver

Friday, February 27, 2015

How early aviation inspired American utopianism


Frank Paul, "Flying Man," on the cover of Amazing Stories 3, no. 5 (August 1928).

BY ADNAN MORSHED
Associate professor of architecture and architectural history at the Catholic University of America

A hundred years have passed since the world’s first scheduled passenger airline service. In Florida, on January 1, 1914, a Benoist XIV airboat flew from St. Petersburg to Tampa with one paid passenger. The distance was a mere 23 miles across the bay, but it was an epoch-making event, ushering in the age of commercial flight.

Today, air travel has become so mundane a part of our lives that it is difficult to imagine just how extraordinary this experience was in the early twentieth century.

As much as human flight was about conquering gravity and going to distant places without the travails of earthbound journeys, it was also about seeing the world anew from a privileged position in the sky. To many early passengers, viewing the geographic composition of the Earth from an airplane was like being god. This peculiar hubris in many ways foreshadowed the omnipotence with which today’s drone warfare is carried out with surgical precision, or how a satellite’s panoptic surveillance of the Earth is used to create a vast body of data on an unwitting people.

As aviation matured, a hyped cultural consciousness came into focus in America after World War I. The rapid proliferation of aerial photography of cities and landscapes during the 1920s often fused the airplane view with a Promethean seer to whom the Earth promised full disclosure. The mobile “eye” of the airplane seemed to distinguish the twentieth century from earlier times by virtue of its promise to transform fragmentary earthbound experiences into the “mingling lines of Picasso,” as noted art collector Gertrude Stein recalled her first flight over America in the 1930s.

The captivating image of an airplane flying over the rising metropolis led many Americans to believe that a new civilization had dawned. Part popular fascination and part corporate promotion, the airplane was viewed as the harbinger of the “world of tomorrow,” and the aviator was its heroic builder. It was a time of spectacular faith in a shapeable future, when technology, as the American literary critic Leo Marx suggested, seemed to have replaced political will to bring about utopia.

In all of these exuberant visions of the future, aviation presented a peculiar American twist. A new, purported vertical frontier counterbalanced the mythology of the western frontier’s horizontality. It was not surprising that when the twenty-five-year-old former Minnesota farm boy Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic solo in his monoplane on May 21, 1927, many observers assumed that his heroic flight had rekindled the American mythos of the pioneer. “Lucky Lindy” was, as one author suggested in the wake of the sensational flight, “a Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett of the air,” a twentieth-century reincarnation of the frontiersman of the Wild West.

The cover of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Popular Aviation 3, no. 6 (December 1928).

As the American historian John Ward argued, the America of the 1920s—ambivalent about its national destiny—needed an occasion like Lindbergh’s to deliberate on what it meant to be an American. (This was, of course, before the aviator’s fall from grace due to his reactionary politics.) Aviation and the aviator seemed like an alluring new chapter on American exceptionalism.

In the 1930s, no other protagonist exemplified the populist anticipation of an ideal American character more poignantly than the pop superhero Superman, the human-shaped flying machine. Superman presented a masculine amalgamation of two Americas: The horizontal one was epitomized by the superhero’s Kansas upbringing, rooted in Jeffersonian pastoral sensibilities. The vertical one was exemplified by the rising urban theater called Metropolis, where he policed the boundaries of good and evil from the sky.

Superman may have been America’s most iconic global export, a Hollywood safe bet, a corporate brand name, and a T-shirt logo. But, at his core, he embodied how many Americans negotiated their impulse to create a suitable future. At the site of Superman’s public debut—the 1939 New York World’s Fair—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, triumphantly, during the fair’s inauguration speech that “the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.”

If early aviation prompted a culture of technological utopianism, it also presented a paradox. On the one hand, many thought that the solo aviator symbolized the power of the everyman; on the other hand, only a privileged few actually could get on an airplane. The corporate executives of General Motors understood this paradoxical elitist stratification of society and sought its inchoate reversal as a shrewd marketing tool. Visitors to Futurama, the auto giant’s most popular show at that same 1939 World’s Fair, sat in a virtual cockpit to embark on a simulated flight over a future America of 1960. The idea was that if the fairgoers saw the world of tomorrow from the same lofty perspective of corporate bigwigs, then they would be seduced to feel that they were co-builders of the shining world they had just witnessed below. In the end, though, their momentary feeling of empowerment was an illusion that served as a robust corporate advertisement.

Technology and utopianism have a long, shared history in America. From the Wright brothers to Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, the narrative has always transcended the physicality of technology to reveal a powerful nation-driving myth. That is, the idea of America has always been about the future. In The American Scene, Henry James wrote: “It’s all very well for you to look as if, since you’ve had no past, you’re going in, as the next best thing, for a magnificent contemporary future.”

Technology today seems to have embraced a new politics of mass mobilization. Yes, the cult of the likes of Gates, Jobs, Bezos, and Zuckerberg endures. But the global power of social media stems from the very participation of the masses for which these technologies were conceived. There is no Facebook without the people. There is no YouTube if people don’t upload their videos—some of which, indeed, can be life changing, resulting in fame or, at least, notoriety. The promise of individual empowerment by accessing the technologies of information dissemination has become a potent modern political driver. It seems that supermen of our times don’t have to be Superman at all.

Yet, as technology continues to evolve, its potential to create a more dehumanized future cannot be ignored. Is the tech-savvy global citizen with universal online access merely a reinvented consumer of free-market economy in the digital age? Or, will technology become a self-perpetuating end in itself, while human agency diminishes? How does technology’s democratizing power intersect with the specter of governmental online surveillance? All of these remain open questions.

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Adnan Morshed is associate professor of architecture and architectural history at the Catholic University of America, and is the author of Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder.

"Impossible Heights is an original account of the American fascination with the skyscraper and the airplane and the enthusiasm for the new perspective on high from which people surveyed the city and landscape. Adnan Morshed examines the intersections between intellectual biography, visuality, and cultural history and brings together the ‘art of architecture’ with mass culture and spectatorship. In doing so, he illuminates ‘the aesthetics of ascension’ as a widely shared cultural phenomenon that characterized the interwar period." —Gail Fenske, author of The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The effect of Civil Rights photobooks in transforming the social consciousness of young people

Children sit together on a tree limb in an uncredited Seventh-Day Adventist image. From Louis B. Reynolds and Charles L. Paddock, Little Journeys into Storyland: Stories That Will Live and Lift (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1947).


BY KATHARINE CAPSHAW
Associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut



2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, legislation that responded to repressive practices in the South severely limiting black enfranchisement, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. When we think about the Civil Rights Movement, we tend to think through such landmark events, those marshalled by prominent leaders and located in the public record. Considering the events of fifty years ago, in the spring and summer of 1965, the marches in Selma spring to mind, especially given the 2014 film that dramatized “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Young people were deeply invested in the movement, of course, and while we remember the losses of individuals like Emmett Till and the four little girls, other accounts of children’s participation in the movement often focus on numbers – hundreds of children jailed with King in Birmingham, scores of children marching in protests, groups of teenagers in Freedom Schools in Mississippi. When I think about how to access the stories of young people, individuals who worked with great forethought and commitment on behalf of social justice, I think about the public terrain of childhood, which for me is children’s books.

In charting the contours of children’s investment in the Civil Rights Movement, I was excited to read a newspaper clipping located in the Langston Hughes papers at Yale’s Beinecke library. This article was sent to Hughes by Ezell A. Blair, one of the four teenagers who started the 1960 Woolworth counter sit-ins, and described Blair’s friend, Joseph McNeil, in these terms:

 “The youth credited with starting the Southern sit-in demonstrations said today a picture book gave him the courage to do it.” 

The book that inspired McNeil was Hughes’s and Milton Meltzer’s Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956), a compendium of historical commentary, documentation, illustration, and photographs. The article described McNeil’s sense of connection to protest children: “‘I’d read how other fellows had made sacrifices,’ he said, ‘I remembered the kids at Little Rock, and I realized I hadn’t made my contribution.’” Young people’s social action allowed McNeil to see himself and his possibilities differently, as did the photographs within Pictorial History, especially the image of Emmett Till, a boy presented there in an iconic photograph taken sometime before his lynching. The image closes up on his generous smile, his poise emphasized by a dress shirt and tie. I interviewed McNeil about his response to the book, and he reflected particularly about the relationship of racial violence to black childhood:

 “This kind of violence could happen to our parents, could happen to us, and if we did not do something, it would happen to our children.” 

In truth, McNeil saw himself in the photographs within Pictorial History, both in the possibility of a shattered childhood offered by Till and in the courage of young people working towards integration. That identification moved McNeil to take action. The photographs were particularly transformative to McNeil, as he told me:

“Pictures are a powerful way to communicate. . . . Resistance was how I saw it, and in order to understand how we resisted in the past, Hughes captured all of that, smiling on the outside but crying on the inside.” 

Four teenagers in a college dorm looked at the photographs in a history book and decided to change the world. This was something different than witnessing photographs within a newspaper or periodical, though certainly the September 1955 Jet magazine coverage of Till’s lynching galvanized a generation of young activists. The fact was that McNeil and his friends engaged the historical continuity outlined in the book – that black communities had been resisting oppression for centuries – and then saw themselves as the next chapter in that story. The book form and the photographic document made change seem possible.

Other Civil Rights activists saw the potential of the photobook for transforming the social consciousness of young people. The same spring that King marched in Selma, and the same summer that the Voting Rights Act passed, Doris Derby was preparing for her work with the very young through the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM). This grass-roots early education program, which was organized by movement activists, recruited and trained African Americans from the south to build schools and begin teaching. Derby, a black New Yorker who had studied elementary education and cultural anthropology at Hunter College, had been living in Mississippi since 1963, developing adult literacy materials to support the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration efforts. She joined the CDGM as head teacher at Newell Chapel in Holly Springs, Mississippi. One of the first things she did was to create a photographic picture book based on the school and the experience of her students. She told me in an interview:

“I wanted photographs of the children themselves so they could look, and they could say, ‘This is me. I’m seeing my image written. I’m seeing my images in a book.’ They don’t care whether it’s a book published by some well-known publisher. They want to see their images. And they can say, ‘these are my words,’ and they’ll recognize them.” 

The beautiful photobook Derby created, Today, offered a local community the kind of validation that textual representation can provide. And for the children reading Today, photographs of themselves enabled a psychologically transformative experience—of recognition of their own beauty and value, and of their ability to place off-frame the white violence that shadowed the world of their preschool. Today permitted children to claim the process of bookmaking, the authority of authorship, and the control rendered through self-articulation. Psychological freedom, that precursor to social action, was the goal of Derby’s collaborative book. McNeil of the Woolworth counter protests may have imagined himself enacting a future chapter in Hughes’s book; Derby’s students could see themselves safe, happy, and free, within the pages of Today. Derby said of her work with the preschool:

“As you did more, as it became successful, as it was good, as it made strides, resistance! And so people who were willing to participate in it knew that they were resisting, they were fighting for something that was their right, their future as American citizens.” 

In one potent image within Today, children make a tower of blocks in the foreground while women organize for a meeting at the edge of the page. As a community, children and adults were building a new sense of themselves and their future, claiming the power of representation in word and image.

Children play with blocks while adults gather in the background. From Today, Child Development Group of Mississippi, 1965. McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.

Legibility and cultural memory are contests of power. As we recall the landmark events of 1965—the victories of the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration Act, as well as the losses of Malcolm X and the riots in Watts—we can also seek out stories of Civil Rights mobilization that are, perhaps, more local and intimate. We can also consider the idea that books can be social, that a reading experience can draw children into conversation with adults and into conversation with the ideas the books explore. For civil rights photobooks, a form that seeks to inspire a child’s participatory response, images can spur reflection on the possibility and value of a young person’s life.

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Katharine Capshaw is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Storrs and the author of Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks.

"Katharine Capshaw’s new study—intersecting photography, children’s literature, and the civil rights movement—is a rich and strikingly original addition to the growing scholarship on African American childhood. Many scholars will appreciate and be indebted to this important work."—Gerald Early, Washington University in St. Louis

"Capshaw’s analysis and contextualization of the works in question break entirely new ground, offering original ways of thinking about how the photographic book operated as a medium particularly suited to African-American authors, child readers, and messages about civil rights."—Julia Mickenberg, University of Texas at Austin


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

#INeedDiverseGames and why representation in games matters


Image copyright of Sylvie Reuter

BY ADRIENNE SHAW
Assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University 

After years of trying to explain my book, Gaming at the Edge, in a sound byte, I eventually boiled it down to the following: 1) players don’t care that much about representation in games, and 2) that’s a good argument for more diversity in games. In truth, this was actually a bit of a lie on my part. In my research I have found not so much that people don't care about representation, but rather they don’t always care in the way they are often expected to care. It is expected, for example, that people who are members of marginalized groups should care about how people “like them” are represented in media texts. My interviewees, however, spoke of representation as “nice when it happens.” They pointed to the many ways representation doesn’t matter in games and described the nuanced ways it came to matter. By focusing on when representation of social groups matters, we gain better insight into precisely where contemporary games are lacking diversity.

A perfect example of focusing on when and how representation matters can be found in posts to the hashtag #INeedDiverseGames (INDG). The hashtag and subsequent Tumblr community were started in October 2014 by Tanya DePass because, as she puts it, “I am tired of not seeing myself in the games I have spent many years playing.” DePass’s point might seem counter to the ambivalence expressed by many of my interviewees, as her view on representation is more politicized than many people I spoke to. However, what subsequent interviews with her represent is that DePass feels emboldened to demand things from video games that many people I interviewed did not because they felt like the industry wasn’t “for them” or “targeting them.” As I’ve said in the past, game content alone will not ameliorate the representational issues in video games or lure new people into game culture. Rather, people need to be in a position where they feel the right to demand representation from games. And based on the amazingly positive response to INDG, more and more people are feeling that right. Moreover, as many of my interviewees also did, members of the INDG community talk about representation that crosses axes of identity and of the importance of representation and diversity in a cumulative sense. The hashtag, if I might anthropomorphize it for a moment, assumes representation matters; it doesn’t feel the need to make a case for it. As the INDG Paetron page puts it: #INeedDiverseGames because there’s room for everyone at the table.

Of course, like any calls for diversity in games since the game industry began, almost as soon as INDG started, people began tweeting negative reactions to the hashtag. Many of these disparaging tweets included another hashtag making the news in Fall 2014, #GamerGate (GG), despite the fact that INDG began without any reference to GG. Two common refrains in these tweets: “if you don’t like the games don’t play them,” or lists and images of all the non-white, non-cisgendered male, non-heterosexual characters in games meant to demonstrate that games are already diverse. The former represents the common neoliberal logic that demand drives cultural production and that consumers should vote with their dollars if they are unhappy with the end result. The later represents a common misunderstanding of the politics of representation and insists there is some magic quota by which true representation will be achieved and the diversity badge will be unlocked. A third theme was the insistence that people “make their own games.” It is not an inherently bad thing to encourage more people to use the tools available to them to make their own games. However, to pretend that there are no structural inequalities in who gets to make games (even indie games) is very shortsighted. Troy L. Wiggins explores this in in depth in his blog afrofantasy. I, for one, would not enjoy having to make all the games I play just because I am often disappointed in what already exists (my day job keeps me a little too busy for that). We can do better, though. We can acknowledge and help alleviate those structural barriers to cultural production. We can also insist that creators look more critically at their own design decisions.

At a conference this past fall, I listened to a panel discussion about gender representation in games that included people from the games industry and academia. People brought up many of the same problems that feminists in games have been discussing for well over twenty years: the lack of diversity in the industry; the growing number and diversity of people who play any sort of digital games; the dynamics of online game culture, in particular, that make people feel unwelcomed in gaming; and the difficulty of representation and inclusion from a design stand point. These conversations have been going on for so long, in fact, it sometimes feels like being a feminist game scholar is an exercise in futility. Many of us joked, as our work became the subject of scorn by a particular subset of gaming culture, that the entire claim that we were conspiring to destroy games presumed that our work had had any effect whatsoever. Towards the end of the panel, the moderator asked when we would have to stop having these conversations. I said then, and I’ll say it again now: the goal of discussing representation in games is not to achieve perfection, it is to make us all actively reflect on the worlds we are making and consuming and acknowledge what is being left out.

Arguments for representation in games focused for a long time on demonstrating the industry was missing potential markets or by using fears of media effects to add a moral component to demands for diversity. Both arguments miss, however, a much harder to measure reason representation matters: diversity makes material a wider variety of ways of being in the world. Critique is not censorship; it is a request that you do better next time. And when we reflect on the shape of games, the industry, and game studies, we can see small ways in which the conversations started by feminists, queer activists, and racial justice activists (and the intersections between those and other movements), within and outside the industry have made an impact. But as embodied in INDG, it is clear that there is more that can be done. More than that, there are people who have very precise ideas about what can be done! They just need to be listened to and supported.

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Adrienne Shaw is assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University and the author of Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture.

"Gaming at the Edge offers a fantastic intervention into not only gaming, but media studies more broadly. Adrienne Shaw astutely argues that our approach to understanding representation in games has been far too simplistic and, through her careful fieldwork, offers a rich framework for future studies. This is an important book for not only those interested in gaming, but anyone thinking about the complexities of representation and media."—T.L. Taylor, MIT

"
Gaming at the Edge is the book that video game studies needs right now. Adrienne Shaw explodes the notion that video game's gender and race problems will be solved by greater representation of these groups. "—Lisa Nakamura, author of Race After the Internet

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Students on Isherwood: "Come Again, Sir. I Don't Get You," on death and dissociation in A Single Man

Christopher Freeman and James J. Berg, editors of the forthcoming volume The American Isherwood (January 2015), have compiled exemplary essays about writer Christopher Isherwood's craft from their students to share on the Press blog leading up to the publication of their book. If you are attending the 2015 Modern Language Association conference in Vancouver, stop by our booth (B327) to take a look at The American Isherwood, along with many other fantastic UMP titles.

This essay is printed with permission from the author. It has been edited from the original version. 


BY JACKSON BURGESS
Student, University of Southern California


Preface: I took Chris Freeman's class on Forster and Isherwood last year, where we studied texts by and about the two men. The reading list was exhaustive, and while I had some difficulty connecting to Forster's work, Isherwood's left me breathless; I can't count the times I re-read the ending of A Single Man (which resulted in the essay below). Chris introduced us to his friend Jim Berg via Skype, whose critical work on Isherwood we'd discussed, and what resulted was a couple dozen Isherwood-crazed undergraduates and one equally enthused professor.

In "A Last Lecture," Isherwood writes, "There should be a serious art of dying just as there is an art of living." A Single Man taught me the art of dying is one as lonely as it is necessary, and this paper is my attempt at explicating George's grief, as well as Isherwood's mastery of language and the craft.

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For such a slim novel, Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man is packed with more than its fair share of heartache, loneliness, and woe. As it follows George through one full day, it portrays self-destructive thought patters left in the wake of his recently deceased partner, Jim, many of which constitute one thing: dissociation. Indeed, George battles his grief by alienating himself from himself, thus precluding any possibility of residual pain—or so he believes. These defense mechanisms manifest themselves in various ways, among them perceiving his own self and body from an outside vantage point and voluntarily relegating his person to fulfill robotic, mechanical tasks. But neither of these techniques succeeds in prolonged comfort; throughout the novel, George drops his composed facade and lets loose on innocent acquaintances with explosive bursts of rambling, or on himself with indulgent fantasies. These lapses only further substantiate the internal conflict eviscerating his every waking moment, as they are peeks into the "real" George—as Isherwood asks towards the end of the novel, "But is all of George altogether present here?" (183). Examining George's auto-alienation and violent slip-ups is fascinating, but all the more so because of the internal tension they signify . . . if George's mind feels the need to create distance between him and himself, why is our first instinct to disapprove of it? Isherwood's novel portrays these three processes—dissociation, self-mechanization, and loss of composure—as different lenses through which to examine grief, and ultimately make a statement about death and its necessary beauty.


The novel's initial depiction of George is one of absolute distance from self. As he wakes up, George must reassemble his own identity, starting with the fact that he exists, then that he is in a place (his bed), as well as a time (now). His body works itself out, testing its motor functions, described as "that grim disciplinarian [who] has taken its place at the central controls . . ." (10). George's brain is immediately differentiated from his body, which immediately marks dissociation, even in terms of specific parts, which are usually considered one complete entity. But the dissociation doesn't stop there; without thinking about it, George backtracks and temporarily stops referring to himself by a gender at all, instead using the pronoun "it." Before he gets dressed, he reflects, "Its nakedness has to be covered. It must be dressed up in clothes because it is going outside, into the world of the other people, and these others must be able to identify it" (11). The final step to George's existential wake-up routine is remembering his name, which he does: "It knows its name. It is called George" (11). Isherwood plays with our conception of George by introducing him as this uncertain, self-skeptical automaton, emphasizing the dry torpidity in which he lives, and this absence-from-self continues—just a few moments later when, killing ants in the kitchen, he "has a sudden glance of himself doing this" (13). George is separated from his present experience by a buffer of auto-alienation, and by becoming a spectator of his own actions, he loses agency and the capacity to really do anything at all.

This attitude of basic dissociation permeates the novel, as George navigates from home to work and elsewhere, but it is only his first defense mechanism; the second is rendering himself a mechanical object, something to be used. When he gets to work, he is uncomfortable having nothing to do, and, as Isherwood writes, "Now he is a public utility, the property of STSC, he is impatient to be used" (49). What's disturbing about George's mentality isn't that he allows others to use him in this way, or even that he desires it—he needs it. Putting himself in someone else's hands lends George a utility, and thereby a purpose. In flight of his bereavement, George longs for something (or someone) to steer him in a direction . . . any direction, really, as long as he's going somewhere. We see him fulfill a similar, dehumanized role when he visits Doris in the hospital and she holds his hand: "[Doris'] grip tightens. There is no affection in it, no communication. She isn't gripping a fellow creature. [George's] hand is just something to grip" (100). It's no coincidence that George is continually shuffled into positions of mindless function; this second defense mechanism of relinquishing selfhood in the interest of manipulative others allows him to put off confronting his own feelings and regrets.

But neither of these practices is entirely successful; at several times in the novel, George loses possession of himself and starts on long rants loaded with misplaced aggression. At least three times he does this in public (lecturing his class, castigating the pretentious Cynthia, and talking to Kenny at his home), each more out-of-bounds than the last (70, 90, 174). These seemingly uncharacteristic verbal blasts are usually entertaining, and always thought provoking, but, more importantly, they give us a glimpse into the turmoil that Jim's death has wreaked on George's psyche. George's thoughts are a frenzy of bottled emotion, and his (at times) intentional dissociation only exacerbates this, as they repress and misdirect. In particular, George's lunchtime interaction with Cynthia reveals the turmoil within him; without warning, he cuts off her drab rambling by saying, "Honestly! Are you out of your mind? . . . My God, you sound like some dreary French intellectual who's just set foot in New York for the first time" (90). George can be a curmudgeon, that much is certain, and his private thoughts about most of his contemporaries are anything but polite, but he is usually able to censor himself and say only what is appropriate. Most of George's neighbors are spared his vitriol. Not so for Cynthia. George lashes out with displaced anger, and, when he has finished, he feels proud of himself.


In addition to releasing pent up energy on others, George also lapses out of his robotic stupor against himself. This comes in the form of long fantasies, driven by excitement or resentment. Before he goes to work, George daydreams about sabotaging a new apartment complex, which is innocuous enough, but he quickly waxes violent, dreaming up an entire vigilante organization whose chief goal is to intimidate anti-gay figures into terrified submission (37-40). For George, this is cathartic and necessary, as it provides a seemingly harmless outlet through which he can vent longstanding rage.

The terrorist fantasy seems to fulfill its purpose, but it isn't until the end of the novel that George has a daydream more firmly planted in reality, both in its inception and execution. After Kenny leaves his house, George imagines him returning with his girlfriend Lois to have sex—a whimsical thought at first, but one that turns more serious when he replaces Lois with a Mexican tennis player from earlier in the day. This seriousness is reflected by the fact that, just two paragraphs later, George thinks, "No. That won't work, either. George doesn't like Kenny's attitude. He isn't taking his lust seriously; in fact, he seems to be on the verge of giggles. Quick—we need a substitute!" (179). George swaps Kenny out for the second tennis player, and he proceeds to masturbate to the thought. But these two details—the fact that this fantasy was a) more rooted in reality, and b) acted upon (through sexual release)—leave it far more mature than the past ones, perhaps indicating that George has matured in the short twenty-something hours over which the novel has followed him.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of A Single Man is its ending—Isherwood poses a hypothetical (a thing that is "wildly improbable") that in the exact moment when George first set eyes on Jim he began developing a lethal arterial blockage, and then, having established the hypothetical, Isherwood depicts George's death that night, organ by organ, piece by piece (185). As the life leaves our narrator, Isherwood writes:

And if some part of the nonentity we called George has indeed been absent at this moment of terminal shock, away out there on the deep waters, then it will find itself homeless. For it can associate no longer with what lies here, unsnoring, on the bed. (186)

The novel ends with violent diction describing a peaceful moment, reflecting the turmoil within George from page one, but what kind of an ending is this? George's self-alienation has been nothing but self-destructive, so why close in this way?

Maybe George's problem hasn't been succumbing to the dissociation, but rather not succumbing enough.



When George is with Kenny in the bar, he describes the future with one word: "Death" (156). The separation of soul and body (or dissolution of either entirely) marks the most perfect and complete form of dissociation. Whether or not it happens this night, it will eventually, and George is all too aware of this. His mind has been wretched and conflicted since Jim's passing, and his natural response has been to detach himself from himself to mitigate the pain, but I think this is more than just a series of defense mechanisms; rather, it is George's natural urge to follow Jim into the grave. We should have seen it coming. When George visits Doris in the hospital, he eyes a bedridden patient getting wheeled into surgery and thinks to himself, "This is the gate. . . . Must I pass through here, too?" (94). He isn't thinking of the patient. He's thinking of Jim. George's inclination to follow Jim into death is the greatest possible testament to the love and devotion of their relationship. George's mind is so set on surviving and rejecting any notion of the future ("Damn the future. Let Kenny and the kids have it") that it can only allow half-assed dissociations which result in inappropriate outbursts and inordinate fantasies, when perhaps it subconsciously longs for more (182). A Single Man is a novel racked with dissonance, conflict, and stretched parts pleading for reunion, but the real reason the hypothetical death in the end reads so beautifully is because it's exactly what George needs.


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Works Cited

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Print.