Happy Halloween, Time for Your Zombie History Reminder!

This post will be quick.

I was inspired by a student’s response to my lecture on the transition from early zombie cinema to Night of the Living Dead.

She sent me this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/31/opinion/a-zombie-is-a-slave-forever.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

It’s an EXCELLENT New York Times article about the history of the zombie. I can’t say enough about this, so I’ll try not to say too much.

The ubiquity of zombies is something that fascinates, excites, and disturbs me. As the author of that NYT article explains, they are inextricably bound up in a really problematic, vicious, and brutal history of racism, colonialism, and imperialism. No matter what kind of zombie you are evoking, it is citing this history.

Furthermore, films that set out with no intention at all of reproducing or replaying moments of this problematic, cited history, are constantly doing so: it is not an unfortunate coincidence that the starving, test-subject zombie near the end of 28 Days Later is a collared and chained African American man; just as it is no unfortunate coincidence that the character of Selena wields a machete.

I screened Night of the Living Dead for my class today (ENGL 165 CI). About 5 students showed up and I felt pretty good about that — 7PM the night before the biggest day of celebration in UCSB, screening a film in the public domain… not bad.

What I tried to emphasize to these students is that no matter how much we alter, and westernize, and ‘update’ the zombie — and even the very first zombie films (White Zombie, King of the Zombies, I Walked With a Zombie, etc)  alter and westernize this figure — it will ALWAYS bear the traces of its dark history.

There are a number of reasons that the zombie has become such a cultural figure in the US today. It is a figure for a future that defies imagining — despite a few stories, books, and films on the contrary — no one knows what it would be LIKE to be a zombie. It is the telos of our nightmares and our utopian dreams, the figure we know that we will all become and the figure we recoil at the sight, smell, or sound of. The zombie is at once Hardt’s and Negri’s multitude, the uncontrollable mass or crowd, and the abused slave majority. The zombie is an allegory waiting to be made, an empty vessel waiting to be filled with representational meaning… but that vessel is never TRULY empty, it always bears inside it the materials and context of its creation.

Keep this in mind the next time you see the ADA’s new campaign about “Zombie Mouth” or the next ad for a zombie film.

I’m not saying don’t consume it, or don’t enjoy it, just enjoy it with caution and with care, lest you ingest something that you don’t want to… after all as Murder Legendre says in White Zombie, “Just a pinpoint is all that’s needed.”

Viva Las … MSA14

Howdy there reader,

So, I had the great pleasure and honor of attending the 14th annual Modernist Studies Association at the Flamingo hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

(This is what The Flamingo looks like… if you’re curious, picture from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Flamingo_Hotel_Las_Vegas.jpg accessed 9:35PM 10/21/2012)

Here are links to some information if you missed out (click on the pdf version of the program to search names and look at panels):

Conference home page: http://msa.press.jhu.edu/conferences/msa14/index.html

Program: http://msa.press.jhu.edu/conferences/msa14/program.html

Modernist Studies Association main page (in case you want to know more): http://msa.press.jhu.edu/

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Now, this was my first MSA, but I had heard wonderful things about it from professors and colleagues for years. They totally undersold it. This conference was AWESOME. And I’m not saying that because it was in Las Vegas (my second trip to Vegas, just not a fan, though I did have a great time, and I understand why some people fall in love with it). There are a few reasons that I find MSA to be one of the best conferences I’ve attended:

1. The sense of community is more tangible there than at most other conferences I’ve been at (I hear great things about similarly considered conferences with a disciplinary bent, as well).

2. The quality of work presented was absolutely thrilling. I think 75% of the papers I heard were top-notch, tell my girlfriend (who works in a totally different area) all about them good.

3. The approachability of everyone was just awesome. I ran into some professors I’ve met in the past and all were happy to exchange a few words and to chat about the conference. I met a ton of new people doing cool work and have plans to email and follow up with a lot of them.

So, those are the reasons the conference itself was awesome, the ones I suspect hold relatively close to true each year. Let me tell you about just some of my personal highlights. Before I do, though, let me stress the some and the personal — these are just a few of the great things that pop into my head reflecting on the conference on the fly.

Okay, disclaimer aside, first thing: it was absolutely AWESOME to see so many great modernist friends, I saw former UCSB colleagues and friends (Julia Panko! Mike Frangos! Our former post-doc Josh Epstein! Our current post-doc Scott Selisker), a former undergrad colleague of mine (Katherine Ryan), and even a very important former undergraduate professor of mine, Tim Newcomb, whom I had a wonderful conversation with. So, the people, the reunions, the conversations, come first to mind.

Then there was my seminar, which was very well run by Professor Jane Fisher: SEM 6. Modernism, Contagion and Spectacle (for a full list of the participants in this really engaging, really productive discussion, just check the program!). I felt like I walked away with so many ideas.

Of course there was the first Zombie Modernisms panel, I really liked all of the work there, and I was somewhat familiar with the work of those panelists from an amazing conference I attended in Louisville last year — it was part of the reason I ended up starting this blog, actually. Professor Ed Comentale’s paper really blew my mind, though. It did exactly the kind of work that I want to do — well historicized, race-conscious, bridging modernism and popular fiction. Jonathan Eburne’s talk (a) gave me yet another reason I need to look at Ulrich Beck’s work directly and (b) piqued my interest in the source material for Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. Professor Aaron Jaffe rounded out the panel with a hilarious and very insightful discussion on how to use Lovecraft in relation to modernism. What I really took away, though, is how much we should consider Lovecraft as an integral influence on the development of the Americanized figure of the zombie. As someone trying to do work on both modernism and zombies, it was a great thrill to see people doing such awesome work on it. In fact, there were two panels on the topic! To my great regret I didn’t get a chance to see the second panel, but I’m sure it was equally awesome.

The business lunch was great. For a nominal fee, I ate a delicious 3 course lunch and got to see under the hood of the organization, so to speak. I — very quietly — love administrative work like that, and it was great to see how the organization operates and to feel like I was part of it.

Oh, what else… J. Hillis Miller Plenary… wonderful receptions every night… a great selection of books… an AMAZING panel on Security to Surveillance in the Harlem Renaissance. On that note, Professor William J. Maxwell really shined in this panel… even though his paper was read in absentia! Professor Paul Peppis did an absolutely wonderful job reading the paper, and explained to the audience that Professor Maxwell is finishing some SUPER cool work on the F.B.I. and its relation to the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, in a book tentatively titled F.B. Eyes, so keep an eye out for that.

I could just go on and on — as it is, I’ve been writing this post for the better part of over an hour now — but the point in all this is really just to say: I had a wonderful time at MSA14 in Las Vegas; I learned a lot; I wanted to share some highlights; and I hope that you find this helpful if you are on the fence about a discipline or methodology specific conference.

Well dear reader, I have to wash some dishes, pet some cats, and get myself to an early bed.

Thanks for eyeing my scribbles.

Course Update — Better Late Than Never!

Hello Dear Reader,

 

I realize I am a bit tardy in the upkeep of this little blog, I thought I would have wifi in vegas, but alas, it was not so, for that reason I’ll be doing this post, updating how my class (ENGL 165 CI at UCSB) is going. I’ll follow this up right away with a post about MSA14, which I just attended in Las Vegas. 

 

So far in the course, we’ve worked our way through Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an excerpt from Microbe Hunters and some excerpts from the news surrounding the Bas-Congo virus, and the sci fi novella Who Goes There?

I keep getting pleasantly surprised by my — very awesome — class of 37 (almost full!).

First I was really surprised at how much the students all liked Dracula. There seemed to be very close to unanimous appreciation and enjoyment of the text in the context of infection. There was a tendency to focus on the role of religion, but the students really started to dig deeper and their analysis really began to shine when we started to consider Mina in relation to media and infection. It was so invigorating.

Then! I got them to admit that they enjoyed — or at least, did not hate — a group project! That was also a surprise. There seemed to be a really strong engagement when we tried to think through the language of infection/immunity//terror/security at play in Microbe Hunters and articles about the Bas-Congo virus. This may be my proudest story about this class so far (sorry this is just gushing about how awesome my students are… I’ll get to some more substantive reflections soon, I swear!). Some of my team (that is what I often like to call my class, to emphasize that we should be working together, and that I am not an unassailable authority figure, but also a student who is learning with them, even as I teach them) … but yes, some of my team pointed out that the language in both tied in to the exploitation of the global south, and the characterization of Africa and Asia as primitive places. We had a wonderful discussion about the politics of the pharmaceutical industry and the uneven treatment of the global South and global East by American media outlets. The students thought very synthetically and kept tying the readings back to Dracula and made me as proud as can be.

When we made our way to Who Goes There? last week, I was again surprised, but this time a bit less happily. I was shocked to find out that many of my students were underwhelmed by or completely disappointed in the novella (for those of you unfamiliar with it, it is a 1938 sci fi story by John W. Campbell, Jr. that is the basis for The Thing from Outer Space and the 1982 John Carpenter film, The Thing). I say I was less happy about this, but it was refreshing to hear them disagree with me about something, and get a little defensive. The claims they levelled — not that “well written,” disappointing, an interesting premise but not done that well, etc — seem largely my own fault. Firstly, I may have built the text up a bit too much — I think it is amazingly exciting, for completely biased reasons. Secondly, I accidentally furnished them with a rather shoddily composed edition of the story (with typos,  awkward font and spacing), in an attempt to save them money.

The class setup was interesting, because we watched the trailers for film adaptations and discussed them. My team had some very astute observations about what was thematically emphasized in each iteration, in relation to the story itself as well as the themes of the class — I swear these kids are a super class.

So, that catches you up to date, pretty much. The students are really exploring the politics of infection/immunity and terror/security. I hope that they see I am giving them a register to think and speak about a constellation of contemporary socio-political issues with high stakes…

Right now, as I type… and if you read this soon after it is published, as you read this, my students will be finishing up a really exciting experimental assignment. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this assignment, by the way, dear reader.

So, they are charged with the task of watching one early zombie film (they can choose between White Zombie, King of the Zombies, and I Walked With a Zombie)… alongside this, they are also reading excerpts from W.B. Seabrook’s The Magic Island and Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse. They are supposed to think of these things together, concentrating on the role of race in early zombie cinema, and thinking about how these early zombies relate to empire, contagion, gothic or global terror, immunity, or security. 

We discuss this all after I give a mini lecture on the subject this Tuesday! Eep!

Updates on this will follow in the next week or two… I may also follow up with some more pedagogical reflections on the structure of my course and its assignments.

Thanks for reading!

S

Cultures of Infection (My own course about Infection!)

Hello Dear Reader,

I’m back!

I apologize for the delay between posts, but this summer really got a bit hectic. Teaching a course 4 days a week for six weeks, and having 2 weddings to go to in the middle of that, while starting a dissertation and planning a new class for the Fall quarter can take its toll!

But I’m back!

I just want to write, for a moment, about my super awesome new class at UCSB.

I am teaching ENGL 165 (Topics in Literature) and my section is CI: Cultures of Infection: Microbes, Monsters, and the Politics of Fear (or something of the like).

We just kicked off class last Thursday with the first introductory meeting and my (full) class of (super eager) students did a close reading of a passage from Dracula that really addressed some of the major themes of the course. We’re knee deep in Dracula now, and they seem pretty into it.

This course is really a more undergrad friendly, or a sort of poppier version of the kind of issues I am looking at in my dissertation. So, we are hashing out the intertwined lexicon of politics, war, and biology, to examine the idiomatic intersection of infection and immunity and terror and security. We’re starting with Dracula and Microbe Hunters, moving on to Who Goes There and the alien invasion, and then spending most of the second half of the course historicizing the figure of the zombie as it relates to these themes.

Needless to say, I am super excited.

After two class meetings, my students really seem to be, too.

I’ll post you updates of materials we cover in class that seem interesting, but my students seem very engaged by the idea of using fictional portrayals of infection/immunity//terror/security to help understand and gain the language to speak about the intertwined politics of the social, the biological, and the military. To me, that is the ultimate enthusiasm booster: if I can get my students interested in the material and in the pedagogical philosophy behind it, the class can only go well.

I’ll sign off here, but expect a post next week about my students’ reaction to DraculaMicrobe Hunters, and some topical analysis of accounts of the newly(ish) discovered Bas-Congo Virus.

Farewell from you ever-faithful correspondent,

Steve

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