Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Alive in the Age of Lovecraft

Professor of interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University

Under the right circumstances, certain texts suggest a “weird realism,” circumstances (as described by Graham Harman) when language either struggles to describe the impossibly real or when it overflows with multiple possibilities. One of H. P. Lovecraft’s strengths as a writer lies in his constant insistence that there was always something just outside of human ken, something that might be understood by analogy or at the risk of one’s sanity. Human beings, as the opening of “The Call of Cthulhu” suggests, are simply not equipped to handle certain forms of knowledge.

For years, I introduced students to Lovecraft cautiously, as though we were all anxious about this evocative power. But things have changed dramatically over the last two decades. If we once approached the author reluctantly, we now embrace him as a cultural phenomenon. Students may not know his work any better, but they’re more likely to know something about his life, his work, and his monsters. Whereas I used to regale students with connections between Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, or Robert Bloch, I now find ways of introducing him through references to films, internet memes, music, YouTube videos, board games, and the like. One semester, a student taught us all how to play the overly complex game Arkham Horror during finals week. Another student gave me a copy of Cthulhu Fluxx, a fun card game that I happily played with family and friends.

It’s rare for authors, especially those in the pulp tradition, to achieve such strange 21st century heights so quickly. Lovecraft, no longer an obscure pulp writer, is now a public figure, the creator not only of Cthulhu but also of a body of imaginative and fascinating tales that are enjoying a new generation of readers. Even though the notion of a unified “Cthulhu Mythos” is controversial, Lovecraft’s universe nevertheless remains one of the coolest and most expansive imaginary sandboxes out there. How did Lovecraft become so popular?

There’s no simple answer to the question, but much can be gained from exploring the range of connections and intersections that draw on Lovecaft in some way. I’ve already mentioned some of the ways popular culture appropriates Lovecraft. Another productive development comes from Lovecraft’s increasing prominence in philosophical discussions, especially those stemming from Harman’s aforementioned weird realism or the way a story like “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” factors into Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s work in A Thousand Plateaus. Moreover, Lovecraft’s cosmicism, especially the way he shifts attention decidedly away from the human, overlaps with recent work concerning posthumanism, animal studies, and deep time.

Lovecraft isn’t exactly a critical darling, but he’s certainly no longer the embarrassment to the literary establishment that he once was. In the last few years, new editions of his work have appeared, including those from Oxford University Press and the Library of America. He is also an acknowledged influence on graphic novels, films, songs, illustrations, sculptures, and more. In the early months of 2016, Matt Ruff (Lovecraft Country) and Victor LaValle (The Ballad of Black Tom) released novels featuring explicitly Lovecraftian themes and ideas. Jacqueline Baker’s 2015 novel (The Broken Hours) examines the last weeks of Lovecraft’s life.

Lovecraft’s afterlife is certainly impressive, but his fame also brings renewed controversy concerning his blatantly racist attitudes. Though some prefer to dismiss his racism as a thing of the past, or to somehow separate the man from his fiction, others want to understand how racism shapes Lovecraft’s writing, particularly his approach to core themes such as impurity, abjection, and hybridity.

In 2015, the public side of this controversy came to a head when the World Fantasy Convention determined to no longer give the “Howie” (a small bust of Lovecraft) to award winners. Critics of this change decried it as bowing to political correctness; others applauded the change as a sign of progress. W. Scott Poole’s forthcoming biography of Lovecraft argues for greater frankness not only concerning Lovecraft’s racism but also calls for a wider awareness of the ways racism structured political power in the United States, especially in the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction—and how these problems continue to shape American public life in 2016.

Jeffrey Weinstock and I developed The Age of Lovecraft around two key questions:

Why Lovecraft?

Why now?

The answers are complex and paradoxical. Lovecraft is a controversial writer, but his newfound fame should lead to better research, criticism, and understanding. For me, much of the current appeal lies in the excitement and power of sharing an imaginative space, the kind Michael Saler describes in his insightful book As If. If that’s the positive reason, there’s also a negative one: a pervasive fear of death. As Lovecraft writes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature, “the one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.”

In Lovecraft, anything is possible but death remains inevitable—and is always lurking just outside the door.


Carl H. Sederholm is professor of interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University. Sederholm is co-editor, with Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, of The Age of Lovecraft

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Looking back: Breast cancer activist Barbara Brenner on cancer wristbands

Barbara Brenner, a key figure in North American breast cancer history, wrote the following piece in 2005 as a Perspective for the San Francisco public radio station KQED. Brenner died in 2013. So Much to Be Done, an anthology of her political and personal writings, has been published by University of Minnesota Press.


Anyone who knows that I’m a breast cancer activist knows that you won’t find me wearing pink paraphernalia, let alone one of the Livestrong wristbands from Lance Armstrong. While I don’t wear one, it did strike me when the yellow wristbands first appeared that they are visual evidence of the number of people who are living with cancer in the United States.

But that’s not the visual effect we’re getting. Instead, we’re seeing a whole rainbow of wristbands, including the pink ones signifying—you guessed it—breast cancer. Dr. Susan Love is raising funds with one; Target is selling “Share Beauty, Spread Hope” bands; and the Komen Foundation offers its very own “Sharing the Promise” version.

As a breast cancer activist, I’m concerned that, once again, the breast cancer movement is separating itself from the rest of the cancer world. This might sound strange, coming from someone who works for a breast cancer organization and who’s been living with this disease for 12 years. But I hear from increasing numbers of people that breast cancer gets a disproportionate amount of attention, especially when the incidence of many other cancers is also on the rise. And I’m worried that things like these pink wristbands will only add to a growing sense and frustration that breast cancer advocates don’t see themselves as part of a larger cancer community. For once, can’t breast cancer advocates be trees living in the forest of folks living with cancer?

I think we do everyone a great disservice when we separate ourselves in unnecessary ways. Would there be some harm in people who care about breast cancer wearing a yellow wristband? Is there anything gained by separating ourselves with pink ones? Can’t we sometimes work with a bigger vision that sees what we have in common instead of what separates us?

Like many people, I’m inspired by Lance Armstrong. I’m also inspired by the many women who continue to live their lives despite breast cancer and other cancers. Instead of a colored wristband, I wear a button that says, “Cancer Sucks,” which speaks to everyone’s experience with the disease. The language isn’t pretty, but neither is cancer.


Barbara Brenner was executive director of the nonprofit organization Breast Cancer Action, based in San Francisco. She died in 2013 at the age of sixty-one.

Several events are planned in the San Francisco area and elsewhere around the launch this month of So Much to Be Done, an anthology of Brenner's writings. Click here for a full list of events.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Remembering the fierce thinker and jazz historian Albert Murray, who would have turned 100 today.

Albert Murray (1916–2013), renowned jazz historian, critic, writer, social and cultural theorist, and cofounder (with Wynton Marsalis) of Jazz at Lincoln Center, would have turned 100 years old today. We remember him with an edited excerpt from Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues (May 2016).


"In order to know what the statement is, you have to know what is involved in the processing"
Edited excerpt from an interview with Greg Thomas

Greg Thomas: Could you go a little deeper into the concepts of folk art, popular art, and fine art?

Albert Murray: The three levels of sophistication or technical mastery involved in the processing of raw experience into aesthetic statement. That's a whole encyclopedia right there. Art is a means by which raw experience is stylized—goes through a process by which we mean stylized—into aesthetic statement. The style is the statement. In order to know what the statement is, you have to know what is involved in the processing. Involved in that would be degrees of the control of the medium that you're working in. Some guy comes up with a poem—but they don't know grammar, they can't pronounce the words, they don't know syntax—that's going to be folk level, man. A good example would be, somebody says [sings in blues cadence]: You be my baby, and I'll be your man. Not "If you will be my baby." That's folk level, we can tell. It's pronounced on a folk level. It can be very moving, very authentic—but it's limited. It's an acquired taste for a more sophisticated person, like a cruder recipe. Now, you get a guy saying [singing]: Is you is or is you ain't my baby? [1944 Louis Jordan song] That's bad grammar, but it's pop. You  know that's not folk. The guy's kidding. "Are you or aren't you my baby?" That won't work. He wants to be very close to the earth. [singing] Is you is or is you ain't my baby? The way you acting lately makes me doubt you is still my baby, baby. The way you say "baby," that's some country shit. But you could do that in a fifteen dollar or twenty-five dollar cover charge place. These other guys out there strumming, that's another thing, they got a tin cup in the town square on Friday afternoon. Now, the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement would be: [hums Ellington's "Rocks in My Bed"] That's the blues on another level. Technically more refined. More complex, more difficult to play. More complete control over the means of expression.

GT: Some of what [Constance] Rourke was counterstating was some of [T. S.] Eliot's elitist conceptions or I guess maybe the stereotype of Matthew Arnold's conception of culture. They also had a conception of, say, "fine art." But it seems to me that Constance Rourke was trying to privilege and focus on the folk form and the popular form.

AM: It's a dynamic that you want to get that adds up to Constance Rourke. What she discovered, as I understand it, was a principle for the definition of culture that was derived from the German philosopher Herder. It gave her insight into the fact that cultures develop. They come from the ground up, not from on-high down. Most people were lamenting that there was no high culture. You forget, these were barbarians—Europe in the Dark Ages. When you come out of that, they've got an art form. They've got the gothic cathedrals, they've got these goddamn vitraux, the stained-glass windows. They've got scholarship, although it's on sacred texts and so forth. Then, when they get to the Renaissance period, they rediscover Rome and Greece. Then they have a broader context of what they're doing. These guys had been all the way from savagery all the way up to Praxiteles to the Parthenon to Sophocles and Euripides and Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—all these refinements. Then you had all these extensions of that because the Romans could reach over there and get it. The Greeks were still around, for them. Any great Roman family had a Greek master. And they went around acting like Greeks. Just like classy Americans acted British and would speak with a slightly British accent, like that Boston thing. Well, that's the way that I understand it—that educated Romans spoke like Greeks. Which makes all the sense in the world, doesn't it? One is able to look at it this way because of the dynamic that Constance Rourke revealed. Extension, elaboration, and refinement—it's not just bootlegging something in.

GT: Process, continuum.

AM: You can see it in Mark Twain! He's a half-assed newspaperman, he writes about what he knows about, he's writing a fairly simple report, but the storytelling thing takes over at a certain point—and he's into art! He made the steps. You can see it. Whitman!—you've gotta make it out of this and it's gotta be like this. So when you've got Moby-Dick—there ain't nothing over there like that. It's a novel, it's not The Iliad and The Odyssey. It's something else. It's a big, thick American book about process. When I was in high school there was nothing like football movies, nothing like college movies. This sweatshirt comes from the 1930s, man! You find that very pragmatic level of how things are done at a given point. Life on the Mississippi—how it is to be a riverboat captain. The romance of it. It's a very practical thing. What's a riverboat captain? But it's transmuted into poetry. What the hell do you get in the first 150 pages of The Seven League Boots? Life on the Mississippi! What you'd call the Life on the Mississippi dimension. Nothing can be more American than "How do they do what they do?"


Albert Murray (1916–2013), author of thirteen books including Stomping the Blues, was a renowned jazz historian, novelist, and social and cultural theorist. He cofounded Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1987. His finest interviews and essays on music have been compiled into a volume, published this month: Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The politics behind the metabolic health crisis in the United States

Assistant professor in the Science in Society Program at Wesleyan University

Our metabolic health crisis—as defined by the conjoined endemics of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity—continues to surprise biomedical researchers, frustrate health experts, and disable and harm millions of people. This week, three news stories illuminate yet again how the most important challenge that the metabolic health crisis presents is not biomedical or scientific, it is political. A political framing of metabolism matters because how we frame and interpret unjust and harmful situations shapes our options for insurrection against those situations.

The first story comes from the intersection of biomedical science and reality television. The New York Times scooped a new study, to be published in the journal Obesity, reporting that contestants on NBC’s reality TV show The Biggest Loser regained the weight they lost after the show’s end because of metabolic changes induced by extreme dieting and exercise. As reported by Gina Kolata:

It has to do with resting metabolism, which determines how many calories a person burns when at rest. When the show began, the contestants, though hugely overweight, had normal metabolisms for their size, meaning they were burning a normal number of calories for people of their weight. When it ended, their metabolisms had slowed radically and their bodies were not burning enough calories to maintain their thinner sizes.

The extraordinary plasticity of a body’s metabolism was a surprise for these obesity researchers and it certainly raises questions about how overweight people should go about achieving what are thought to be “healthy weights.” Yet, the biomedical claim that an overweight body is always an unhealthy body is more contentious than productions like The Biggest Loser would suggest. Scholars have interpreted the obesity problem as a socially induced moral panic that pathologizes overweight bodies and targets them for constant biomedical intervention and ethical judgment. Treating metabolism as an individual biomedical problem makes it more difficult to diagnose the metabolic health crisis as a social and political problem that impacts entire populations of organisms in patterned ways.

This biomedical finding may also prove disheartening for millions of overweight people who struggle to lose weight and keep it off. As Kolata says, “Despite spending billions of dollars on weight-loss drugs and dieting programs, even the most motivated are working against their own biology.” In this conceptualization, the body’s metabolism acts as an agent, conspiring against us to produce embodiments that we don’t want. Equally disheartening, in my view, is the narrow way in which metabolism is constructed as a biomedical process found only in the body and its biochemicals (for example, Kolata features the hormone leptin). In contrast to interpreting metabolism at the level of an individual body, obesity researchers would be wise to incorporate a concept of social metabolism into their theoretical world. The bodies featured on The Biggest Loser don’t exist in a sociological vacuum—they exist within a corporate food regime that makes it next to impossible to eat well in order to be healthy and a corporate pharmaceutical regime that crowds out alternative modes of healing bodies. All too often, the companies that produce and regulate food and drugs in our society are seen as bit actors in the grand play of social metabolism rather than as occupying the leading roles.

This leads me to a second story, which digs into the ways that government regulatory practices shape population and ecological health. The Guardian reports that lobbyists for the United Egg Producers, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, and the National Pork Producers Council are urging Congress to soften Freedom of Information Act laws that force the government to report when the food industry lobbies the United States Department of Agriculture in the form of financing for “checkoff” programs—the sort that are responsible for marketing campaigns like “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” The bill containing this regulatory change is merely proposed at this point, but it signals an ongoing dynamic in which food industries seek to obscure their involvements in shaping government policies that structure our food environment. These companies are able to produce low-cost, industrially manufactured animal products because of vast government subsidies given to other agribusiness that produce corn and soy—two key ingredients in animal feed. These covert actions work to conceal the political problem posed by metabolism and make it hard to resist government regulatory practices that shape population and ecological health. As long as individual bodies remain the target of metabolic intervention (like the highly visible bodies on The Biggest Loser) and not corporations, we are in deep, deep trouble.

But, there is room for hope. A third story cuts against the historical grain created by the biopolitics of metabolism, this one involving the colonial manufacture of sugar in Hawaii. As reported first in January and again in April, the Hawaiian Corporate and Sugar Company has planted its last sugar crop on the island of Maui. This 144-year old vestige of the old colonial sugar production system has determined that it is no longer profitable to use its stolen land for sugar monoculture and instead intends to diversify farming operations into new commodities like sorghum, fruits, and bio-mass. Native Hawaiian activist Tiare Lawrence has called for the land to be returned to the people of Maui so that more sustainable agricultural practices can be implemented like family-scale organic farming and agroforestry. Given the role that sugar plays in the ongoing metabolic crises, both at the level of individual biology and social ecology, this development in Maui signals possibilities for what can take place when institutions that produce inequality are (at least potentially) dismantled and replaced by locally organized social systems that aim to benefit the common people.

These seemingly disparate stories are connected through profound political transformations that link biomedicine and agriculture together. These developments illuminate the biopolitics of metabolism, a term that encompasses the ideas, social practices, and institutional relationships that govern the metabolic health of individuals and groups. In the biopolitics of metabolism, we essentially have a political problem that gets dressed up as a scientific problem, but we have to recognize that the scientific is always a political problem. The convergence of the individualization of metabolism and the concealment of the social dimensions of metabolism have created a context in which solutions to metabolic crises are increasingly understood as a problem of either more technocientific medicine or more transparent government regulations. But, these two pathways have always worked together as mechanisms of biosocial control. Perhaps we should start crafting new political stories about metabolism that help to break this pattern of understanding.


Anthony Ryan Hatch is author of Blood Sugar: Racial Pharmacology and Food Justice in Black America. He is assistant professor in the Science and Society Program at Wesleyan University.

"Bearing personal witness from the frontiers of the quantified self, Anthony Ryan Hatch offers a reimagining of metabolism as a form of social knowledge. Blood Sugar makes a key contribution to our understanding of the evolution of racial health disparities."
—Alondra Nelson, author of
The Social Life of DNA and Body and Soul