Monday, July 19, 2021

Q&A with Debbie Felton on Serial Killers in Classical Myth and History

Jack the Ripper. Jeffrey Dahmer. John Wayne Gacy. Locusta of Gaul. If that last name doesn’t seem to fit with the others, it’s likely because our modern society largely believes that serial killers are a recent phenomenon. Not so, argues Debbie Felton—in fact, there’s ample evidence to show that serial killers stalked the ancient world just as they do the modern one.

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Felton brings this evidence to light in Monsters and Monarchs, and in doing so, forces us to rethink the assumption that serial killers arise from problems unique to modern society. Exploring a trove of stories from classical antiquity, she uncovers mythological monsters and human criminals that fit many serial killer profiles: the highway killers confronted by the Greek hero Theseus, such as Procrustes, who tortured and mutilated their victims; the Sphinx, or “strangler,” from the story of Oedipus; child-killing demons and witches, which could explain abnormal infant deaths; and historical figures such as Locusta of Gaul, the most notorious poisoner in the early Roman Empire. Redefining our understanding of serial killers and their origins, Monsters and Monarchs changes how we view both ancient Greek and Roman society and the modern-day killers whose stories still captivate the public today.

To celebrate the publication of Monsters and Monarchs, we asked Professor Felton some questions about her book.

The introduction to Monsters and Monarchs mentions several serial and mutilation murder examples from far earlier than the usual Jack the Ripper references. Is there a particular case that sparked your ideas, or do you have a “favorite” (inasmuch as one can have a favorite serial murder)?

Well, I definitely wouldn’t say I have a “favorite.” In fact, the material was pretty disturbing, even though accounts from antiquity don’t have the same immediacy or sense of reality as modern accounts. And there were several different cases that got me thinking about serial killers in the ancient world. The main one that sparked my idea for the book comes from the second century CE and is discussed in chapter 9. This story, by the Greek writer Pausanias, describes a drunken sailor who attacks a local girl and is then stoned to death by the townspeople, but who comes back as a ghost or reanimated corpse of some kind and starts killing the townspeople in revenge. It’s a very weird story and lends itself well to a lot of different interpretations. But some of the minor details brought to my mind aspects of serial killing, such as the characterization of the killer. The other cases that struck me as very serial killer–like were those involving the Greek hero Theseus—like Procrustes, for example, who invited tired travelers to stay overnight in his roadside home, but then murdered them in various ways to get them to fit his guest bed. He basically had a murder kit that included a saw (for cutting off limbs that were too long) and a hammer (for smashing limbs to extend them if they were too short). Procrustes’s attempt to make Theseus fit the bed doesn’t go quite the way he expected. So these cases were all from myth and legend. One of the more realistic cases, from the fourth century CE, describes a highwayman who doesn’t just rob his victims—he tortures them and cuts them into bits. 

In the first chapter, you tackle the difficulty of “trying to make arguments about what motivated people in antiquity” by affirming that “the human mind, human behavior, and human emotions have remained very much the same across time” (13). What were some of the challenges in approaching your work with this mindset? How did it enrich the work?

The main challenge, not surprisingly, was that despite the stated similarities in our minds and reactions, when we talk about ancient Greece and Rome we’re still dealing with substantially different cultures from long ago, when people dealt with death in a far more immediate manner than most of us do now. Aside from the frequent military engagements (both at home and abroad) that most adult men would have experienced at some point in their lives, deaths from illness and old age would usually occur at home, not in an impersonal environment (like a modern hospital). And revenge killing was common in early Greek culture; laws punishing certain types of homicide developed slowly over time. What surprised me was that the reaction to what could be classified (in modern terms) as serial mutilation murder was essentially the same as now: horror that one human being would do this to another, and frustration that the killer couldn’t possibly be punished sufficiently in proportion to the crimes. And these considerations enriched the work in the sense that they made me pay closer attention to Greek and Latin descriptions of the killings as well as of people’s emotional reactions.

The modern world of true crime is fraught with the tension between perpetrator, victim, and bystander; you take care to note Joseph DeAngelo (the “Golden State Killer”) and Ted Bundy alongside Nero and Agrippina. Does that same tension between observers (modern or ancient) exist in studying ancient murder?

I would have to say that this tension does not exist or occur in antiquity in quite the same way, mainly because it is not possible to indisputably identify even one specific individual serial killer from ancient Greece or Rome. Rather, my research indicates that what we would call serial mutilation murder was recognized as a phenomenon, but without what could be considered any serious or reliable forensic evidence. Ancient “evidence” consisted primarily of witness testimony—which, of course, is often biased and highly unreliable—and confessions, which themselves were often likely to be compelled rather than entirely voluntary. And in the cases of what sound like serial killings, we have neither witnesses nor confessions. So, for example, with Nero, our sources are highly biased historians and biographers who were writing with hindsight and who were keen to depict the emperor in an extremely unflattering light, and his victims and bystanders in a sympathetic one. What’s especially interesting about Nero is how the sources describe him as having the sort of behavioral progression we associate with serial killers—being callous and violent even as a very young man, with his (alleged) crimes escalating over the years from bar fights and rape to torture and murder.

The accounts of ancient serial murder in your book stem from various tellings of myth, such as those found in epic poetry and tragic drama, but also from historical records. How do the transformations, simplification, and dissemination of these accounts affect our contemporary reading of them?

I think the sort of simplification you mention is precisely the reason why there has been very little previous discussion of serial killers in antiquity or even discussion of the possibility of serial killers in antiquity. This project met with quite a lot of skepticism from academic colleagues when I first mentioned it, whereas, when I started researching, it was quickly obvious that the general public on social media were already raising questions about similarities between mythological characters such as Procrustes and modern serial killers—the same questions I had been asking myself! So the questions seemed worth answering. And I think our contemporary reading of these accounts results in a certain amount of surprise, from the recognition that—even without the level of psychological and forensic detail available for modern serial killings—the motivations and methods in antiquity are recognizable. Take Medea, for example. She’s a mythological character, a princess who is also a witch, who first kills out of amorous obsession, chopping her brother into bits and strewing them in the sea so that her father, who is pursuing her and her lover Jason (who has stolen the Golden Fleece), will have to slow down to retrieve the body parts for burial. Later, she arranges the murder of Jason’s rival for the throne. But when the relationship sours—when Jason rejects her for another princess, a Greek rather than a foreigner like Medea—she gets her revenge on him by killing not only his new fiancée but also the two sons Medea had borne him. Although Medea is a character from Greek myth, her story serves as a prototype for what forensic psychologists identify as “spousal revenge,” one of the main reasons parents kill their children. This type of filicide (child killing) sometimes occurs when a spouse discovers their partner is cheating on them, or during especially bitter divorce proceedings, such as when the partner who gets custody threatens to move away with the children.

The arguments in Monsters and Monarchs open the door to many new possibilities and connections between mytho-historical accounts and the reality of our world. You explore, for example, the notion that the Sphinx of Thebes was a real bandit—and then later mention that posing riddles is sometimes a practice of contemporary perpetrators like the Zodiac Killer. What is the value that you see in reading history across periods in this manner—not necessarily answering an extant question, but broadening the application of a definition? 

First, I think it’s important to point out that the notion of the Theban Sphinx as a real-life bandit was already a theory more than two thousand years ago. Even in ancient Greece there were philosophers and mythographers who questioned the reality of mythological stories—who wanted to interpret them more literally, or at least more rationally. So you’ve got a figure such as the little-known Palaephatus, from the fourth century BCE, who wrote a book providing rational explanations for myths. He noted how absurd it was to believe that monstrous hybrid creatures could ever physically exist (their anatomy and physiology simply wouldn’t work!), and suggested that the Sphinx story grew out of a local Theban legend about a female bandit who robbed and killed travelers in the vicinity of the city. Second, I don’t think it’s useful to insist, as Palaephatus did, that virtually every case of a monster killing people can and should be rationalized into a more realistic scenario. A lot of monsters can be taken as metaphors for the unknown, for our own mortality, or, even less abstractly, as dangers present in nature—a swamp emanating poisonous vapors perhaps becomes personified as the Lernaean hydra (a swamp monster), for example, though such metaphors are themselves a type of rationalization. About posing riddles, there are several different aspects to consider: In a case like that of the Sphinx, we have a monstrous killer taunting her victims—a method of psychological torture, since the victims hold out hope that they might answer correctly and be released. But in folktales and possibly even in recorded history riddles have been posed to the potential suitors of princesses, and the suitors’ failure to provide the right answer results in, at best, their humiliation and, at worst, their execution. Contemporary serial killers, both fictional and real, may use riddles to torture their victims (see pages 142–143), but more often they use them to taunt the police, sending them letters in code, as the Zodiac Killer did. So did the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader. Reading fictional and nonfictional accounts across time that present and try to explain these details provides the sort of long view of human behavior that can make us rethink our assumptions about the uniqueness of modern serial killing.

Debbie Felton, Professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the author of Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity and editor of Landscapes of Dread in Classical Antiquity: Negative Emotion in Natural and Constructed Spaces.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Nicholas F. Centino's Author-Curated Razabilly Playlist

A hybrid of country music and rhythm and blues, 1950s rockabilly is loud, raucous, and rebellious. Rockabilly music, recognized as one of the earliest iterations of what we now know as rock and roll, is responsible for launching the careers of musicians including Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Now, decades after the genre’s midcentury heyday, a vibrant scene for rockabilly musicians and fans thrives in the Latinx metropolis of Los Angeles. While the genre is dominated by white people outside Los Angeles, within greater LA, Latinas, Latinos, and Latinx peoples make up the critical mass of the Rockabilly scene.

Despite the eponymous name, LA’s contemporary Rockabilly scene embraces a broad range of roots music, including not just rockabilly but also jump blues, western swing, and others. While all the tracks cited here are excellent, the following playlist is best thought of as an audio companion to Razabilly: Transforming Sights, Sounds, and History in the Los Angeles Latina/o Rockabilly Scene rather than a “best of” compilation. As such, each track was selected to provide particular insight into the scene and the sensibilities of its Latina/o/x participants.

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“Power of the 45,” pts. 1 and 2
Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys

There is no better way to kick off this playlist than with the ambassador of Southern California roots rock himself: Big Sandy. A fixture of the contemporary international Rockabilly scene for well over thirty years, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys draw on a broad family tree of musical lineages. Featured on their 2006 album, Turntable Matinee, “Power of the 45” pays homage to those lineages and legacies as enduring capsules of joy and memory shared among friends and family. Pay close attention to the band and artist names dropped as the music fades out at the end of part 2, including, among others, rockabilly legends Sleepy Labeef and pioneers of the Chicano Eastside sound Thee Midniters. Stick around after that and you will be treated to a hidden acoustic rendition of their composition “Spanish Dagger.”

“The Hippy Hippy Shake”
Chan Romero

While Richie Valens is remembered as the quintessential Latino 1950s rocker, he was only one of several Latino rock and roll musicians on the national stage in those formative years. Chan Romero, a Mexican American teenager from Montana, was recruited by Bob Keane to be Richie’s heir after Valens tragically lost his life in 1959. With their growling guitars, relative obscurity, and the cultural resonance of the lead singer, songs by Romero, especially “My Little Ruby” (1960), are tailor made for the Latina/o/x Rockabilly scene of Los Angeles. Released in 1959, Romero’s signature tune, “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” would later be covered by the Beatles in their 1963 performance on the BBC.

“Dance in the Rain”
Luis and the Wildfires

Helmed by Reb Kennedy, Wild Records has been taking the international Rockabilly scene by storm since the 2000s, introducing a global audience to young Los Angeles musicians and performers, many of whom are Latina or Latino. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, Luis Arriaga brings an unbridled energy to his music, providing a sight to behold on stage and a sound to be enveloped by on tracks such as 2010’s “Dance in the Rain.” Speaking to the broad retro tastes embraced in the Los Angeles scene, the Arriaga turns to a hypnotic post-rockabilly sound to craft an organized chaos.

“La Plaga”
Los Teen Tops

As demographics continue to shift in contemporary Los Angeles, migrants bring legacies of popular music from their nations of origin. A cover of “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “La Plaga” (1959), by Los Teens Tops, typifies an archive of 1950s rockabilly tunes interpreted by Latin American artists in the 1960s. This soundscape formed a familiar musical terrain that appealed to first- and second-generation immigrant youth from Mexico and Central America discovering the Rockabilly scene in the 1990s and 2000s.

“‘Til the Well Runs Dry”
Wynona Carr

With a big brash sound, “Till the Well Runs Dry” is a vocal- and horn-driven number that begs listeners to dance. Given decades of solidarity and interethnic cultural exchange, it is little surprise that African American jump blues from the 1940s and 1950s dominates the playlists of many DJs in the Los Angeles Latina/o Rockabilly scene. In the 1950s Carr was signed to Specialty Records, a Los Angeles–based record label that launched the careers of musical icons including Little Richard and Sam Cooke.

“Boy with the Angel Eyes”
Vicky Tafoya and The Big Beat

Drawing on the soulful legacy of Chicano lowrider oldies, “Boy with the Angel Eyes,” like other, similar songs, is a sharp departure from the hiccupping, guitar-driven sounds of rockabilly. Nevertheless, that cultural and emotional connection keeps the Inland Empire’s Vicky Tafoya ever-present in the Los Angeles scene. Often adorned in zoot suit slacks and crowned with an elaborate 1940s hairstyle, Tafoya draws on rich elements of Chicanx cultural memory in her performances, covering fan favorites such as “Angel Baby” alongside her original material.

“How Low Do You Feel?”
Ray Campi

Substitute teacher by day, rock star by night, Ray Campi enjoyed a career that represents the longevity of the rockabilly revival in Los Angeles. An original 1950s performer, Campi was rediscovered by Ronny Weiser (Rollin’ Rock Records) in the 1970s and continued to perform rockabilly until his passing in March 2021. With its foot-stomping call-and-response structure and taunting guitar riffs, “How Low Do You Feel” (1979) is a classic of the Rollin’ Rock era of Los Angeles rockabilly.

“Rosa Maria”
Moonlight Cruisers

Epitomizing the Latina/o/x transformation of the Los Angeles Rockabilly scene in the early 2000s, the Moonlight Cruisers, Pachuco Jose y Los Diamantes, and other such bands peppered their performances with straight-ahead cumbia tunes. Cumbia, a working-class musical genre originating in Columbia and expanding to other parts of Latin America, is simply the go-to party music for many Latinas/os in the Los Angeles area. Listen closely, however, and you will hear the distinctly rockabillyesque picking of Al Martinez behind the lyrical delivery.

Thee Lakesiders

Representative of possible new and divergent directions that retro-Chicanx music can take in (post-) COVID-era Los Angeles, Thee Lakesiders’ “Parachute” (2018) is a melancholic rumination invoking intense feelings of loss and yearning. The duo’s pachuco/a aesthetics synchronize with their self-conscious interpellation of cultural memory and resistance in the postindustrial landscape of LA. Available as a 45 rpm disc, their latest work, “Can’t Fool Me Twice/Show Me Love,” was released in May 2021.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Interview with Ji Eun Lee about Kazuo Ishiguro

Interview with Ji Eun Lee, author of “Norfolk and the Sense of Loss: The Bildungsroman and Colonial Subjectivity in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go,” TSLL: Texas Studies in Literature and Language 61.3 (2019): 270-90. Interview conducted by Corey Brooks.

Kazuo Ishiguro, December 2017

Could you describe your first encounter with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go? What do
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you remember of the experience, and how has your appreciation of the novel evolved since that time?

I first read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for a graduate seminar in my first year at UCLA and eventually wrote a final paper on this novel for another class, which was taught by my adviser Jonathan Grossman. He allowed me to write on any novel, and recollecting my first encounter with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day at a used bookstore I visited impromptu and my attachment to it, I decided to write my final paper on Never Let Me Go. On my first read, I automatically saw the link between the clones and Homi Bhabha’s theory of colonial mimicry, as I was deeply immersed in postcolonial studies then, and saw the revision of the traditional trajectory of the bildungsroman in the clones’ frustrated dreams ending with total emptiness. Two years later, I presented the paper at a graduate conference themed “excess,” which happened to appear in the Bhabha quote I had. I got excellent feedback, especially from Melanie Jones, who suggested that I should see the sense of loss not as an end point of stunted development but as a creative force opening up alternative possibilities. That inspired me to see the loss as a constituent void producing another form of existence outside the binary between colonizer-colonized. My students who read Never Let Me Go together in my class also boosted my admiration for the novel. Anne Bardet was one of them. I was so proud of her when her final paper “Breaking Free from Systemized Collective Individuality” critiquing the shared echo chambers of today’s SNS-based social interactions won the 2018 Teague Melville Elliott Undergraduate Essay Award honoring the best humanities writing in lower- and upper- division undergraduate classes at UCLA.

Ishiguro display, Stockholm 2017

What advice would you give to a first-time reader of Ishiguro?

Please don’t expect to discover anything Japanese in his works just because he is Japanese-British. Except in his first and second novels The Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), Ishiguro has consistently refrained from adding a reflective touch as a Japanese immigrant and rather tried to write on diverse issues not limited to his ethnic heritage. I would recommend starting with The Remains of the Day (1989), When We Were Orphans (2000), and Never Let Me Go (2005)–which I consider Ishiguro’s classics—paying close attention to the language and settings that parallel the narrator-protagonist’s awakening. In many of his novels and especially in these three, the reader’s expectation for the narrator’s reliability is gradually betrayed by the revelation of the hidden meaning behind the narrator-protagonists’ naïve yet deceptive writing style. The narrators’ submissive yet subversive developments often happen along their experiences of spaces, as shown in Stevens’s road trip from aristocratic country estates of Oxfordshire and Salisbury to untamed  landscapes in Weymouth, Christopher Banks’ journey from London to Shanghai, and Kathy H.’s lifelong entrapment in and departure from Hailsham, the Cottages, and donation centers. Ishiguro’s most recent novel Klara and the Sun is a wonderful sequel to Never Let Me Go. It insightfully continues the question of what constitutes humanity through the perspective of a non-human first-person narrator—this time, an AF (Artificial Friend)—whose personalized consciousness and development contest the human monopoly on individuality, with uncertain yet resilient hopes for the future.

Never Let Me Go was published in 2005. How does it fit into or modify the genre of the bildungsroman?

The bildungsroman, the etymology of which derives from the German word Bildung meaning education or formation, features a young individual who matures to adulthood harmoniously incorporated into society. Karl Morgenstern and Wilhelm Dilthey, who first introduced this term for the genre, both emphasize the teleology of individual development, as Dilthey writes that in a bildungsroman, “[a] regular development is observed in the life of the individual: each of the stages has its own intrinsic value and is at the same time the basis for a higher stage.” M. M. Bakhtin claims that individual development in this type of the novel happens on the convergence between private time and history, arguing that “He [the man] emerges along with the world and he reflects the historical emergence of the world itself.” Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, on the surface level, fits into this taxonomy of the genre, as it starts with the clones’ childhood and follows their journey as adults after leaving Hailsham. The teleological progress implied in the bildungsroman, however, can no longer work, given the absence of the future in the clones’ destiny ending with donation. The novel’s narrative disconnects the clones from historical time promising self-integration into society, and in this unsettled bildungsroman, the development, or un-development, of the clones unfolds between spaces that impose institutional norms. Unlike the traditional bildungsroman characters who triumphantly age into individuals accepting societal values, the clones face the loss of their organs and of their autonomy, embracing subjectivity devoid of agency.
  • Dilthey, Poetry and Experience, edited and translated by. Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985, p. 390.
  • Bakhtin, “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism (Toward a Historical Typology of the Novel),” Speech Genres & Other Late Essays, edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist; translated by VernW. McGee, Austin: U of Texas Press, 1986, p. 23.
The Grand Pier, Weston-super-Mare

Ishiguro protests being called a postcolonial writer. Why do you suppose this is?

In the interview with Groes I cited in my article, Ishiguro is very skeptical about the word, saying, “I’ve never understood the categorization of postcolonial writing. [. . . ] Does ‘postcolonial’ mean writing that came out in the postcolonial era? [. . .] Or does it mean writing by people who don’t have white skins?” suggesting that the term delimits expectations about the topics that non-white writers are supposed to write about. Surely, the term “postcolonial” began as a theoretical concept formed around the concept of the nation and national consciousness (Frantz Fanon), the Subaltern’s unspeakability (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), Orientalism (Edward Said), and a clear sense of writing back to the center as shown in exemplary novels such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), and J. M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986). At some point, however, it attained a restrictive function categorizing writers not based on their literary styles but on their biographical, racial backgrounds. This tendency underlying the term may discomfit the younger generation of writers in the twenty-first century, whose focus has shifted away from the national context to conflicts between general concepts born out of Western modernity such as humanity or individuality. Also, their literary styles are so diverse and cannot be defined in homogenizing terms. As Ishiguro notes clearly in the other interview I cited, he is “interested in the way words hide meaning,” whereas Salman Rushdie, in his view, “seems to be reaching out—to express meaning that can’t usually be expressed through normal language.” Ishiguro wants to be free from any constraints pre-determining the thematic and literary scopes imposed by the early definition of the term.
  • Ishiguro, "The New Seriousness: Kazuo Ishiguro in Conversation with Sebastian Groes," 2009, Kazuo Ishiguro: New Critical Visions of the Novels, edited by Sebastian Groes and Barry Lewis, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 263
  • Ishiguro. “An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro,” interview conducted by Allan Vorda and Kim Herzinger. Mississippi Review, vol. 20, 1990, pp. 135.
Ishiguro in Stockholm, December 2017

You’ve suggested we understand the “postcolonial” to involve “the epistemological reshaping of subjectivity that reverses the progressive, linear, teleological frame of individual development.” What are some works published since Never Let Me Go that you would categorize as new “postcolonial” literature?

I will confidently nominate Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (2009) for the title of “new ‘postcolonial’ literature.” Based on the real historical tragedy of the massive toxic gas leakage at the American company Union Carbide that killed thousands of people in Bhopal in 1984, the novel tells a story of the twenty-year old narrator-protagonist named “Animal,” who can only walk on fours as he was born with a disorder stemming from the disaster. The political, economic irresponsibility of the “Kampani,” which caused the event, is visible in environmental injustice haunting the people living in the fictional city of Khaufpur and Animal’s unfulfilled desire to be like any other human walking on two feet. Animal’s development, however, moves beyond the purposive singular trajectory of humanity. Instead of defining himself as nonhuman or not-yet-human, Animal confirms his unique subjectivity as “the one and only Animal.”  The narrative that flips back and forth in time and the paratextual elements consisting of an accompanying website, translations, and glossaries joyfully depart from the center-bound critique of colonial capitalism and the stabilizing framework of identity-formation. Also, Amitav Ghosh’s non-fiction essays in The Great Derangement: The Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), together with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s seminal essay “The Climate of History: The Four Theses” (2009) and Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s recent book Allegories of the Anthropocene (2019) invite us to consider a postcolonial literature that shifts its focus from the twentieth-century nationalistic struggle for agency to environmental discourses concerning the status of the human in the geological, planetary scale of climate change in open-ended, indefinite narrative forms.
  • DeLoughrey, Allegories of the Anthropocene. Duke UP, 2019.
Holkham beach, photograph by Edward G. Jones

Could this new definition of postcolonial narrative be applied successfully to older works of literature? If so, could you name a book or author that might especially benefit?

Yes, of course. I highly recommend Michelle Cliff’s Abeng (1984) and its sequel No Telephone to Heaven (1987). Both novels feature the coming-of-age story of the light-skinned heroine Clare Savage, whose unstable racial identity belonging to neither black nor white parallels the novels’ quest for an alternative history of Jamaica opposing the institutional doctrine of British colonialism. The yearning for teleology still persists, but her development, especially in the second novel, is fissured by narratives oscillating between micro- and macro- histories and even fragmented perspectives crossing temporal and spatial boundaries.

Homi Bhabha’s theory of mimicry plays an important role in your essay. Would you define it for us?

Bhabha writes that “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, "as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite” and affirms the lingering trope of dissimilation opposing the complete identification with the allegedly superior colonizer by emphasizing the “ambivalence” shaping mimicry through “its slippage, its excess, its difference.” According to Bhabha, mimicry is a state of ambivalence between assimilation and dissimilation that begets a subversive power of critique. My take on mimicry, however, is that it engenders a sense of loss, which obstructs the capacity for criticism and can instead articulate subjectivity outside the binary between the colonizer and the colonized.
  • Bhabha, Homi K., “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” The Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994, p. 122.
Homi K. Bhabha, 2010

Bhabha can be a difficult writer to follow. What challenges does literary theory face today in an era of more straightforward prose?

Bhabha’s language can be very dense, complicated, and yes, difficult to follow. In my view, however, literary theory does not have to be written in complex prose. Contemporary theories have adopted clear simple language echoing scientific organization and defining key concepts in less metaphoric and more common yet correspondingly exact language. When I read contemporary theory in posthumanisms, animal studies, ecocriticisms, etc., I feel that literary scholars today are taking a more direct, approachable outlook on language. 

How do you wrestle with this tension in your own critical practice?

I try to keep revising, re-reading a draft as if I have never read it. I also try to identify keywords of my arguments and see whether I can redefine them in more clear language by avoiding jargons that only I can understand. Meta-reading scholarly articles also helps. From time to time, I meta-read some articles by highlighting key phrases and sentences that I particularly like and add them to my corpus of lucid academic language.

Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day was filmed in 1993, and Never Let Me Go in 2010. What are some of the specific challenges involved in transposing his novels to the big screen?

The biggest challenge I see in the task of filming his novels, especially these two novels, is the presence of the first-person retrospective narrators who filter and unpack the stories through their own subjective positions in time, because films can only show scenes unfolding in the moment. I am not sure whether Mark Romanek’s film Never Let Me Go did justice to Kathy’s narration, which the novel presented as complex narrative texture gradually stripped off of her reflective musings. I admire, however, how James Ivory’s film The Remains of the Day embraces this challenge and creatively uses camera angles and voice-overs reading letters to reshape the narrative points of view into the twofold structure vacillating between Miss Kenton’s and Stevens’s perspectives. The film starts with Miss Kenton’s letter, positing the past and the present perspectives in one frame. It also adds another layer of perspective in resemblance to the third-person omniscient viewpoint at the end, when the camera zooms out from Darlington Hall to follow a bird that alights from the house and soars over the grass of the surrounding estate. This cinematic omniscient perspective implied in the bird’s-eye view of the ending scene suggests that both Stevens and Darlington Hall are set free from Stevens’s retrospective gaze that has hitherto confined them to the past. 

What are you working on now?

Currently, I am working on a couple of exciting research and pedagogy projects. My first book-in-progress, Walking London: Urban Gaits of the British Novel, examines the novel’s development alongside the city through the perspective of a city-walker, whose gaits differ depending on the shape of the urban environment. I analyze how the characters walk—jostling and jostled in dense traffic, prowling across cross-species encounters, wooshing alongside accelerating vehicles, and cruising through racially-gentrified urban districts—in novels by Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, and Sam Selvon. My book translates the unintentional, collective, instinctive, absent, or disjointed agency inherent in these urban gaits into narrative movements engineering an environmental reading and thus counters a long-held view (currently under much pressure) of the novel as dominated by agential individuals. Another important work I am doing is Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom. It is a digital humanities project that incorporates a race-conscious standpoint into interdisciplinary teaching practices, initiated by some Victorian scholars last year at the call of “Undisciplining Victorian Studies” by Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy Wong, who bravely proposed to disrupt the assumed whiteness in Victorian readership and pedagogy. I joined the team and have been developing study materials and guidelines, especially about nineteenth-century Africa and the British Empire. Last but not least, as a BK21 postdoctoral fellow in “Interaction English Studies in the Era of AI (Artificial Intelligence)” at SKKU, I am working to make sure that my engagement with environmental humanities, medical humanities, and anti-racist Victorian pedagogy aligns with the BK21 team’s goals of shaping new forms of interaction between human and nonhuman intelligence in 21st-century technologies and environments. If you want to learn more, please check the programs’ websites and come see me at the MLA panel “Victorians in Location” next year! 

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Celebrating the Women on Our Staff

Inspired by Women’s History Month, the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion group at UT Press honors the labor and expertise of the women on our staff. In particular, we highlight here the work and knowledge of a number of departments that are not as public facing as others yet are critical to our shared success. Here are a few snapshots of our colleagues whose indispensable expertise enhances every aspect of the Press. They are truly experts in their fields.

Lizbeth Lynch, Chief Financial Manager:

How long have you been at the Press?
It will be 2 years the 25th of March.

Tell us a little about what role/department you started and your current role?
I was hired to fill the position of “Chief Financial Manager” which I still have and as of now I have absorbed Linda Ramirez’ duties (the former accounts payable manager) as well.

What are some of the misconceptions about your job?
That I make UT Office of Accounting’s rules! I promise you! I only enforce them in order to ensure that our unit is and continues to be in compliance with the University of Texas at Austin Handbook of Business Procedures.

Tell us something people don’t know about you!
Something very few people know is that I was born at 25 weeks. Totally true! I spent several months in the incubator and the doctor told my parents that they should consider unplugging the machine because “back then” they didn’t have computers so the incubator’s oxygen’s levels needed to be regulated manually 24 hours a day. It was very expensive and my parents didn’t have the financial resources and had six other children to feed. The doctor felt that even if I survived I would be a burden to the family since I would be severely handicapped. My parents objected and prayed for me. They said that I am living proof of God’s existence.

Sharon dressed as Weird Al for our 2019 staff Halloween Party.
She wrote an original song for our Senior Editor Casey Kittrell:
You've got a book on Karen Carpenter;
You've got a book about John Prine;
You've got a book on Michael Bloomfield
And a book on Kathy Valentine,
You've even got Lhasa de Sela
But there's one name that I don't find:
Mr. C. Kittrell, sir,
I couldn't help but see
You've got books about these other folks;
You ain't never had a book on me.
Sharon L. Casteel, Digital Publishing and Reprints Manager

How long have you been at the Press?
26 years.

Tell us a little about what role/department you started and your current role?
I started as an acquisitions editorial assistant; after a few years, I moved into the marketing department and later the IT department. My current title is digital publishing and reprints manager.

What are some of the misconceptions about your job?
In spite of my job title, I spend as much time on database and metadata wrangling as I do on ebooks and reprints. I've been responsible for our ONIX metadata since we first sent an ONIX feed in 2001.

Tell us something people don’t know about you!
I would say "I knit", but everyone who's been in a meeting with me knows that.... One of my hobbies is genealogy, and I spend a lot of time on WikiTree. It's a fun challenge to pick a deceased author or biography subject, research as much of their ancestry as I can, and see whether I can connect them to the main WikiTree tree.

Karen J. Broyles, Journals Production Editor:

How long have you been at the Press?
I've been at the Press for 21 1/2 years (yikes).

Tell us a little about what role/department you started and your current role?
When I first started at the Press I worked in journals circulation, where I entered check batches and generally dealt with customer service at a time when that involved less email and a lot more phone calls & form letters than today. Less than a year later there was an opening in journals production and I changed jobs. Overseeing copyediting and production was a somewhat different process when I first started—two of my five original journals were still typeset conventionally and printed from repro (or "slicks"), and proofs were always bluelines with their acrid chemical smell. The particular publications I work on and my processes have changed a lot, but the basic principles stay the same. We try and run down every detail we can, and we take our responsibility to authors and our other publishing partners very seriously.

What are some of the misconceptions about your job?
For better or worse, working in journals publishing often means people don't fully understand what you do. Probably the most common misconception I get from authors is their occasional assumption that all manuscript edits come directly from me, when in fact I have several great freelancers that handle that aspect of things. Out in the greater scholarly world, I think there's just a lot of confusion and mystery about what exactly publishers do. I try and respond to that by doing everything I can to inform and help authors, especially first-time authors and other junior scholars. And I try to make sure that we add as much value to that end product as we possibly can by going the extra mile.

Tell us something people don’t know about you!
I think most of us have a lot of stories and connections that might surprise our colleagues simply by virtue of living in the world, so it's hard to think of a particular fact people don't know about me. Perhaps that my favorite hangout spot in high school was a cemetery, specifically Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia. I was painfully aware that it was a bit hokey for teenagers to hang around a cemetery, but it's a genuinely beautiful place and sometimes you just have to embrace being hokey. Two of the Allman Brothers are buried there, Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. Sometimes aging hippies would show up to honor them and place pennies on their headstones. I even sent a photo of Duane Allman's grave to a sort of chance penpal I had at one of the many record labels I wrote to in those days; I did a lot of mail ordering records then, which gave me an enduring appreciation for fourth-class mail which has continued into my professional life.

The University of Texas Press has the great fortune to have Lizbeth, Sharon, and Karen on our staff, in addition to many other women whose time, energy, skills, and abilities are essential to and inseparable from our mission to serve the University of Texas, the people of Texas, and knowledge seekers around the globe. We encourage ourselves and others to see and value the incalculable contributions women make in our shared lives, in this moment, and all throughout human history.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Interview with Janine Barchas and Devoney Looser about Jane Austen


Palladian bridge at Prior Park, Bath, England

Interview with Janine Barchas and Devoney Looser, guest editors of “What’s Next for Jane Austen?”, a special issue of TSLL: Texas Studies in Literature and Language 61.4 (2019). Interview conducted by Frida Trevino.

Jane Austen has slowly become one of the great English literary figures, and her popularity seems only to grow. To what does she owe her success?

[JB] Well, just to start with the obvious, Austen wrote some really good stuff. Her success is owing to the quality of her writing—six novels with witty and inventive manners of expression and memorable characters. Her language and people continue to appeal to a great variety of audiences—with her plots and turns of phrase so much adopted and adapted by others that to those who come to her anachronistically (i.e. having started with her heirs and modern derivatives) she can look clichéd and familiar. No amount of marketing or movie making could have made Austen rise so high in the literary firmament if her works were mediocre. That said, I think she owes her initial and most crucial boost to the emergence of the cheap reprint—the inexpensive nineteenth-century book that put her stories in reach of the masses. Cheap reprints, in turn, were made possible by the technologies of stereotyping, pulp paper, and the steam engine. If all that we had were first editions and so-called “fine” and “authoritative” reprintings, Austen would not have been able to saturate popular culture. Lucky timing.

[DL] I agree with Janine in part, but I’d add that Austen’s lucky timing also coincided with the advent of middle-class and women’s education, the struggle for women’s rights, and the popularization of her stories and characters in illustration, textbooks, anthologies, spoken-word performances, and stage adaptations, leading to film and TV adaptations. Is there anything we’re leaving out? Ha! I think what we’re both saying is that Austen as an author wouldn’t be everywhere today if she hadn’t previously been taken just about everywhere before, each time a new popular medium emerged and grabbed that era’s mass audiences.

Emma, family tree

What was Austen's popularity like during and just after her lifetime? Have there been periods of more, or less, attention to her novels since that time?

[DL] Jane Austen was a moderately popular novelist in her lifetime. She had good success, in that she published four novels with great publishers, most of which went into second editions in her lifetime. Those novels got good reviews from anonymous critics. So, it’s a myth that she was an obscure novelist in her own day. That said, she wasn’t a bestseller either. She’s always had a readership. We used to think that in the 1820s—the first decade after her death—she had no readers. One critic even suggested the 1820s were Austen’s period of obscurity. As we’re learning, that just wasn’t true either. Janine’s work in The Lost Books of Jane Austen and my own in The Making of Jane Austen have set out to track the ways in which nineteenth-century readers and critics from a variety of economic backgrounds were gaining access to Austen’s characters, stories, and novels, from editions of all sorts and of many price points, in pop culture repurposing, in illustrations, in schools, on the stage, and even in political speech. She has never been obscure or unpopular, although she wasn’t always a household name.

Jane Austen house, Chawton, England

How would you explain these fluctuations?

[DL] Austen has enjoyed periods of more and less attention, like many authors who’ve endured over centuries. That said, we’ve told her history in a partial and prejudiced way until quite recently. Critics used to say that Austen’s afterlife was largely spent with her authorship and books flying under the radar—appreciated only by a select few—except for two periods of time. We used to say she first gained wide popularity in 1870, when the first full-length biography of her was published, and that she then became popular again in 1995, with the BBC Pride and Prejudice’s Colin Firth in that white shirt. This version of things is just completely wrong. There’s no doubt that 1870 and 1995 were amazing, transformative moments for Austen’s popular reputation. I think we’re still trying to get a handle on why Austen also “popped” in US and UK during the 1830s, the 1860s, the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1960s, and the 1970s. We can point to things like Austen’s reprintings, cheap editions, textbooks, gift editions, political movements, dramatizations, films, and television shows as partial explanations. But there’s just so much more evidence to mine and more to learn about how various kinds of readerships, viewerships, critical acclaim, and fandoms took hold.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England

Film and television have been effective at bringing attention to novels, with examples including the multiple adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Would Austen’s work would be as popular today if there weren’t filmed adaptations of it?

[JB] On this score, Hollywood has been working for us English professors for some years now, filling our classrooms with eager students who already declare they “love” Jane Austen by virtue of having enjoyed a particular movie adaptation (Clueless, Pride and Prejudice, and Lost in Austen are some of the biggest lures). We are duly appreciative!  As teachers, it then becomes our job to redirect the puppy love of adaptation to Austen’s original printed page and show how the movie industry’s versions, however fun and deliciously clever, are not half as witty and satisfying as the real deal. The books, in other words, are even more compelling than the best of these wonderful films! As we explain in our TSLL issue, just as Shakespeare at his 200th anniversary benefited from entertainment innovators such as David Garrick and John Boydell, whose public spectacles garnered unprecedented attention for The Bard, so too has Jane Austen benefited from the attentions of Hollywood. From Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in 1940 to Colin Firth and that wet shirt in 1995, Austen and movie celebrities have mutually reinforced each other’s fame.

But to what extent can a filmed adaptation of an Austen novel do justice to her beautifully and carefully structured sentences? In your opinion, which screenwriters have done her words most justice?

[JB] Searching for false equivalencies between films and books sets everyone up for disappointment because it compares apples to oranges.  As scholars and fans, we should not be too precious or too literal when a beloved literary text is refashioned in a new medium. Take the controversial nosebleed scene in the most recent Emma (2020) film, directed by Autumn de Wilde. Did Austen write that her heroine has a nosebleed? No. But, she did write one of literature’s most adorably awkward proposal scenes. The film found a marvelously unexpected and endearing visual to convey Emma’s heart-racing shock and relief at Mr. Knightley’s offer of marriage. The film strays from Austen’s words in order to capture for a modern audience her original mix of comedy and heartfelt relief; if Austen could witness this, she would surely approve and laugh heartily.

Wilton House grounds, Wiltshire, England

What do you think Austen’s response would be to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and even more so to the increasing popularity of her work?

[DL] My standard answer to this question is that Pride and Prejudice’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet is said to have had a lively, playful disposition and delighted in anything ridiculous. I agree with those who suspect that Austen herself shared some aspects of that disposition, so I think she’d delight in P&P&Z. I also believe that she took her work as a professional author very seriously. What author wouldn’t be pleased to see her writings are still relevant, read, and repurposed, long after her death?

What was the first parody of an Austen work? And what message does it convey about her writing?

This is a tough question to answer, because it depends on how narrowly we define parody. If we define the term widely, then the answer is “Almost right away.” The first piece of fiction to use Jane Austen as an author—as send-up of and homage to her novels—was published in 1823, in The Lady’s Magazine. (I had the pleasure of unearthing this piece and writing about it in the Times Literary Supplement.) It describes the thoughts of a young woman author who desperately wants to write as well as the late Jane Austen. The aspiring author dresses up like Austen, stares at her portrait, and waits for inspiration to strike. Despite Austen’s ghost showing up and practically kissing her, her plan fails. To call that story a parody might be pushing the definition of the word too far, but this 1823 work is a kind of fan fiction. It’s a piece of real-person fiction. I think it’s poking fun at Austen’s family’s 1818 representation of the novelist’s personal perfections in the first biographical notice. At the same time, I think the writer of that Lady’s Magazine piece also completely buys into the idea of Austen’s genius. 

[DL] Interestingly, one of the first copycat Austen novels was published by James Fenimore Cooper, titled Precaution (1820). It was Cooper’s first novel, usually described as an unsuccessful one. It begins with a baronet, Sir Edward Moseley, who’s in debt and embarking on a system of economy, in order to provide for his three daughters. There’s a great deal of evidence of further influence, too—not all of it appreciative—in those early years after Austen’s death in 1817.

Your introduction addresses the urge to monumentalize Austen. Where does this desire to erect appropriate monuments for Austen–or any author–come from? What pitfalls should such a desire seek to avoid, perhaps in relation to Austen in particular?

[JB] Fandom borrows freely from the language of religious devotion, with David Garrick terming Shakespeare “the God of our idolatry” and American critic William Dean Howells coining the phrase “the divine Jane.” Literary fans make “pilgrimages” to Stratford or Chawton and bid for author “relics.” The impulse to build dedicated monuments—statues, museums, or monumental luxury editions—may stem from this same self-perpetuating impulse to demonstrate the fervent nature of devotion and show the importance of a beloved author with a fixed shrine. In the TSLL issue’s introduction we heed the example of Sir Walter Scott as a warning to complacent fans of Austen and would-be monument builders. Once favored as “the Shakespeare of the novel” with exhibitions, celebrations, and a great big spire in Edinburgh—Scott is today, sadly, past praying for in terms of popularity.  Immortality for authors may require the opposite of fixity, namely that every generation of readers remake and reread in their own style. In that sense, some of the most effective monuments may be the films, theatrical riffs, parodies, spoofs, adaptations for children—including travesties that we love to hate. All mimicry or quotation is in a sense homage.
Jane Austen Centre, Bath, England

Austen seems interested in female independence and empowerment. How might Austen respond to contemporary feminism?

[DL] I see Austen as writing fiction that we might call “feminist” avant la lettre—before the term came into being in the second half of the nineteenth century. So, given that interpretation of her works, I think she’d be thrilled to see the ways that contemporary feminism continues to seek greater rights and opportunities for women. I think she’d be proud that her work continues to inspire feminist literature and thought. At the same time, I think anyone who read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), as Austen must have, would be depressed that the conversations and debates we’re having today echo so closely so many of Wollstonecraft’s criticisms of two centuries ago.

Austen is sometimes understood as a “women's author” because of the strong female leads in her novels. Is this reflected in the demographics of your classrooms? What surprises the young men who read Austen with you about her works?

[JB] The notion that Jane Austen’s novels are “chick lit” is a relatively recent myth-turned-reality, solidified by the plethora of paperbacks that “pinked” her in the 1950s and 60s, leaving behind an unintended gendered legacy. At a time when co-education at universities was brand new, publishers gave the covers of the most canonical female writer the pink treatment in order to identify Austen’s books as products ideal for the new female student (think of the pink cars in the 1950s that were only cosmetically “for women”). The powerful pink marketing tactic worked so well to attract female buyers that its legacy now ironically narrows Austen’s perceived appeal.  Some of my Jane Austen classes are about 90% female. This imbalance differs radically from her readers in the late 19th century, when heaps of her books were awarded to both boys and girls as school prizes and bought by men and women alike—across class, gender, and economic boundaries.

Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England

What factor most influences people of all ages to read or reread Austen?

[DL] I think most people first read Austen because someone—a parent, a teacher, a friend, a film director, a video game designer, an actor—either inspired or forced them to. Those of us who reread her do so because we realize her stories are (to repurpose her own words in Northanger Abbey) works in which “the greatest powers of the mind are displayed” and “conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” Her novels display what she called “the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, and the liveliest effusions of wit and humour.” She was talking about novels in general in these lines, but to my mind, hers are the happiest, liveliest, and greatest. Period.

Has Austen affected the way you select new novels to read? What about how you respond to novels by contemporary authors?

[DL] I love to read accounts of contemporary authors who admit that they were inspired by Jane Austen. That brings me pleasure and makes me want to see what Austenian touches they’ve brought to their own works. I’m somewhat more skeptical when it’s a reviewer telling me that so-and-so is “the next Jane Austen”! So, in that sense, yes, my response has been shaped, but I have to admit that I read shockingly little fiction that was published after 1900. Sorry-not-sorry!

Pride and Prejudice seems Austen’s most beloved work. Why do you think this novel maintains such popularity? Is it mainly the screen adaptations?
[JB] P&P may be the darling among Austen’s novels now, but that was not always the case. In Austen’s first ascendency, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility were just as popular in cheap reprints—if not more so. Brace yourself, but I think that Pride and Prejudice is the most popular today not because it is truly outstanding among her works but because it has the lowest bar to entry of the six finished novels. Elbowing aside the famous, wry, opening sentence, P&P is the only one of the six that starts as dialogue. All the others begin with fairly complex family histories—the start of Sense and Sensibility being the most challenging for a reader new to Austen. With the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet a reader is quickly and effortlessly “pulled in” to the story and its humor. It is the only Austen novel that starts in medias res. I think that modern readers expect to be passively pulled across the threshold of a novel’s imagined world and are less prepared to read closely and attentively at a book’s start. Pride and Prejudice offers the modern reader that type of ease.

Stanage Edge, Peak District, England

Are students surprised if they like another one of her novels better than Pride and Prejudice? In general, how have your students ranked the novels?
[JB] Just as a parent should not nurture favorites among their children (Mr. Bennet errs because he does!), I never ask students to rank the books on my syllabi. But I will admit that sometimes a stray editorial comment reaches my ears to suggest that not all her novels are equally appreciated. Mansfield Park is usually the dark horse. I remember how one male student proclaimed in surprise during a class discussion that Mansfield Park was proving for him the “most difficult book” he’d ever read. Although a bit back-handed, he meant the remark as a great compliment to Austen and as a sign of her book’s worthiness and depth.

Are you teaching or reading Austen differently in the time of COVID-19?

[JB] Actually, yes. As I write this, the needs for social distancing may lend new meaning to Austen’s etiquette-bound world—whether or not her popularity revives the curtsey or hat-tip. Not only does re-reading a great work of literature (and by “great” I mean one that withstands interpretive pressures from multiple generations and also rewards repeat encounters by the same reader) provide solace during times of stress, but Austen’s humor now stands out as an essential perk. I just launched a Twitter project called “Pride & Plague” (@PridePlague) in an effort to use humor to cope with our coronavirus angst. “Pride & Plague” logs daily tweets from William Shakespeare and Jane Austen as the celebrity couple practices social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis. Although our TSLL issue includes discussion of social media as “what’s next for Jane Austen,” this is not what I thought was next for me as a scholar (who’d never used Twitter before). Jane Austen remains full of surprises and still capable of lifting our spirits in dark times.

[DL] In late April, I had the chance to help create the first episode of Penguin Classics Crash Courses, part of its new online content efforts to highlight how books connect us at this difficult time. [] In that four-minute video, I talked about Sense and Sensibility, which I introduced and wrote seven essays for, for Penguin. I read one of the novel’s moving passages about illness and recovery. I’m grateful every day for the ways that reading Austen brings me, and so many of us, through silence to greater strength.

Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

In Memory of Dr. Teresa Lozano Long

We at UT Press, and our extended family of authors, are deeply saddened by the recent passing of Dr. Teresa Lozano Long. Teresa lived an amazing, long life, and, in partnership with her husband Joe, provided essential support to so many institutions of culture and learning at the University of Texas and beyond.
At UT Press, we have been lucky to have Teresa on our Advisory Board for many years; all those who have spent time with her at our gatherings have benefited from her warmth, intelligence, and generosity. In addition, Teresa and Joe gave us a gift that will last forever when they launched, in 2001, the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture. The first book in that series, Martha Menchaca’s Recovering History, Constructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of Mexican Americans, was published in early 2002, and in the nearly twenty years since, over eighty additional books have been published with the support of the endowment. We will always be grateful for the Longs’ incredible gift to UT Press, and we look forward to honoring Teresa’s lifelong love of learning through the publication of many, many more endowment-supported books in the decades to come.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Q&A with Dr. Anna Peppard on Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero

From Superman, created in 1938, to the transmedia DC and Marvel universes of today, superheroes have always been sexy. And their sexiness has always been controversial, inspiring censorship and moral panic. Yet though it has inspired jokes and innuendos, accusations of moral depravity, and sporadic academic discourse, the topic of superhero sexuality is like superhero sexuality itself—seemingly obvious yet conspicuously absent. Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero is the first scholarly book specifically devoted to unpacking the superhero genre’s complicated relationship with sexuality.

More info
Exploring sexual themes and imagery within mainstream comic books, television shows, and films as well as independent and explicitly pornographic productions catering to various orientations and kinks, Supersex offers a fresh—and lascivious—perspective on the superhero genre’s historical and contemporary popularity. Across fourteen essays touching on Superman, Batman, the X-Men, and many others, Anna F. Peppard and her contributors present superhero sexuality as both dangerously exciting and excitingly dangerous, encapsulating the superhero genre’s worst impulses and its most productively rebellious ones. Supersex argues that sex is at the heart of our fascination with superheroes, even—and sometimes especially—when the capes and tights stay on.

This week, we are attending the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Annual Meeting virtually, during which we will offer a discount on our new and award-winning film, media, and comics studies books. Apply the discount code EXSCMS during checkout on to receive 30% off the full list price of any book, plus free domestic shipping. This offer expires April 21, 2021.

To celebrate the publication of Supersex, we asked Dr. Peppard some questions about her research.

In the introduction, you present Supersex through many examples that fit a framework of absence and presence, a tense relationship in which censorship can ultimately amplify the very thing meant to be muted. Would you describe the Batman: Damned #1 case?

In September of 2018, Batman: Damned #1 went on sale. It was the first of several scheduled releases within DC’s newly minted Black Label imprint, designed to appeal to “mature” readers. It was also the first on-panel appearance of the Dark Knight’s penis. The context isn’t sexual; the Batpenis is clearly but incidentally visible in one panel of a page where Bruce Wayne strips naked so that his computer may scan him for knife wounds. And the comic’s violence didn’t attract any significant criticism; the issue concludes with a splash page presenting the Joker’s mutilated and crucified corpse. Yet shortly after the release of Batman: Damned #1, every major pop and geek culture outlet ran something about the penis revelation. Mainstream outlets, like Vice and the Guardian, as well as talk shows like Late Night with Seth Myers, also picked up the story. The “Know Your Meme” page for “Batman’s penis controversy” covers several additional flashpoints, including a much-quoted tweet dubbing Batman’s penis “L’il Wayne.”

While much of the chatter was decidedly juvenile, female and queer fans were vocal in defending the appearance of Batman’s penis as an example of equal opportunity exploitation in a genre know for its hypersexualization of women, and as a challenge to the genre’s historical homophobia. Yet DC responded swiftly to try to put Batman’s penis back under wraps. Two weeks after the issue was released, DC co-president Jim Lee blamed the penis on “production errors,” while DC’s other co-president, Dan DiDio, bluntly stated, “It’s something we wished never happened.” Digital editions and subsequent reprintings of Batman: Damned #1 censored the Batpenis by clouding it in shadow. In some ways, however, this absence has only enhanced “L’il Wayne’s” presence. The decision to censor the original comic immediately made it a collector’s item; months later, signed copies of the original (uncensored) Batman: Damned #1 were listed on eBay for over $1,600 USD. Ironically, though, the same sealed plastic case that guarantees these signed comics’ mint-ness ensures they can never be read; as such, the visible penis that makes this comic collectible will remain invisible. But, of course, the fascination we have with superhero sexuality—whether it upsets or excites us—ensures the Batpenis will live on; it’s easily Google-able for any interested parties.

Given that we exist in what many scholars have described as a “pornified” culture, in which pictures and video of virtually any sex act imaginable are only a click away, the uproar over a single, not-overtly-sexual image of Batman’s penis does an especially good job of demonstrating the power and danger bound up in superhero sexuality. Supersex analyzes the evolution of that power and danger across decades, mediums, and moments of production and reception, unpacking why superhero sexuality matters so much, even to those who (supposedly) don’t want to see it, or even acknowledge its possibility.

Considering its global appeal and resonance, what makes the superhero a “quintessentially American (i.e., United States) phenomenon,” especially through the lens of Supersex (17)?

Scholars have often described the United States as uniquely shaped by popular myth. By popular myth, I mean the myths created by and disseminated through popular and mass culture. The American West of the 1890s was a real place, yet our understanding of it is inseparable from the pop mythologizing of it that existed alongside the reality. This example is relevant to the superhero genre because the American frontier indelibly shaped enduring notions of American heroism as supremely individualistic, stoic, and, of course, superheroic; while Supersex focuses largely on conventional superheroes (i.e, those characters following in the legacy of Superman), the building blocks of the superhero are present in the mythologizing of frontier heroes like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and even Teddy Roosevelt as indomitable supermen reshaped (or transformed) by the experience of “conquering” the frontier. For superheroes, the frontier is modern science and the modern American city. But similar themes remain: superheroes are changed by modern science and the modern city into supremely individualistic beings capable of conquering the threats science and cities pose to conventional (American) understandings of society and subjecthood. Sexuality has always had a vexed placed within these myths. Frontier heroes typically reject sexuality, associating it with domestication (and thus, feminization). Superheroes have often functioned similarly, though in both cases, male heroes’ spurning of female companionship contributes to intense homosocial bonds that often contain elements of homoeroticism. Leslie Fiedler references this in his classic study Love and Death in the American Novel. So does psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in his infamous anti-comics diatribe Seduction of the Innocent, originally published in 1954, in which he claimed that Batman and Robin represented “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” Wertham’s book was instrumental in the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a highly strict censoring body that would effectively ban depictions of LGBTQ identities in superhero comics for over thirty years.

More generally, superheroes are an especially useful illustration of the powerful contradictions informing American sexual ideals. On the one hand, American culture intensely commodifies sexuality. On the other hand, the Wertham example—and the recent controversy about Batman’s penis—demonstrates a concurrent and similarly intense prudishness. Throughout, Supersex discusses superhero sexuality as defined by the contradiction of presence and absence. The superhero genre’s spandex costumes and bulging male muscles and female curves (not to mention the abundance of sexual metaphors communicated through various superpowers) mean that it is inescapably erotic. Yet for much of the superhero genre’s history, sexuality of any kind—let alone sexual diversity of any kind—was effectively outlawed. Supersex examines how stories and fans have negotiated these restrictions and contradictions, within specific eras and over time, in ways that should help our ongoing efforts to understand the larger cultural contradictions informing—and sometimes informed by—the superhero genre.

The sexuality of superheroes can be, as you describe, both “dangerously exciting and excitingly dangerous (17).” We often think of superheroes as invincible, and yet violence threatens many for their sexuality, orientation, identity, and so forth. How does this fantasy address or redress our reality, especially considering the sexual violence we see historically in comics and comix?

Superhero stories—in comics and all types of media—have a definite sexual violence problem. Historically, female characters have borne the brunt of this violence. This is a bit inevitable, due to the nature of female superheroes’ costumes and bodies. Because female superheroes tend to be hypersexualized, any violence they’re involved with or subjected to is inevitably going to be sexualized in a way that male superhero violence often isn’t. But this isn’t just a visual problem; it’s also a narrative one. Sexual violence perpetrated against female superheroes or other female characters within superhero stories is often used as titillation for a presumed male audience, and as a plot device furthering the character development of male superheroes. When it’s the latter, it’s known as “fridging.” The term fridging was coined by comic book writer Gail Simone in reference to a Green Lantern story from 1994, in which the title character arrives home to find his girlfriend murdered, dismembered, and stuffed in his refrigerator. While telling stories about sexual violence can, of course, be very productive, instances of fridging participate in the dehumanization of female characters by ignoring their emotional reactions to such violence; the female characters suffer to justify male emotions and violence, rather than to tell thoughtful stories about female experiences or the larger social issue of sexual violence. There are many other problematic tropes related to violence in superhero stories. For instance, several of the Supersex contributors highlight the relationship between sexual deviance and villainy; evil characters are often coded as queer.

On the other hand, the fact that the superhero genre uses violent oppositions to tell its stories can make it a very productive place to study the thinking behind such oppositions. In addition, violence can, on occasion, destabilize gender and sexual norms. Violent clashes between male heroes and villains—in which spandex-clad bodies are dramatically and almost sensually entwined—can be read as implicitly queer. The violence enacted by female superheroes can also be subversive even—and sometimes especially—when those female superheroes are hypersexualized. By combining sex with violence, female superheroes can challenge the passivity associated with femininity, or objectification more generally. Supersex’s contributors interrogate all these possibilities.

As a highly visual medium, comics communicate so much via costuming and bodies. Is there a type of coded language (in text or marketing) that resonates with Supersex?

Supersex foregrounds the superhero genre as a “body genre”—that is, a genre that’s centrally concerned with telling stories about and with bodies. And the conceit of superpowers and the technologies of comics—wherein anything that can be drawn can be believed—and CGI—which is, in some respects, a new form of cartooning—allow superhero bodies to tell particularly fascinating stories. These bodies are prone to exaggerations that make them superconductors for gender, sexual, racial, and other bodily norms; in many cases, superhero bodies are designed to represent cultural ideals, often in less-than-progressive ways. Yet the exaggeration of superhero bodies is also key to their ability to resist conservative norms. There’s always a measure of homoeroticism or queerness to the form-fitting and frequently flamboyant costumes worn by most male superheroes, which their exaggerated bodies—which are certainly meant to be admired—further showcase. Because objectifying female bodies is less unusual in our culture, the hypersexualized bodies and costumes of female superheroes are sometimes less deviant. Yet even the most stereotypical female superheroes also resist norms by being strong and violent, and even just through their ability to be treated as heroic while wearing costumes that might result in shaming in the “real world.” All genders and orientations of superheroes are also, by virtue of their superpowers, physically non-normative; superhero bodies routinely sprout sticky tentacles or fiery tendrils, merge with rock or metal, and liquify, stretch, bend, or transform into a thousand different sexed and sexless shapes.

Supersex extensively explores the inherent queerness of superheroes, and the consequences of that queerness; many contributors debate the degree to which this queerness is subversive, given its longtime “official” rejection under the Comics Code and after. It’s always important to keep in mind that the fantastic-ness of the superhero body allows it to be both inherently queer and defiantly literal; to repurpose a famous Freudianism, sometimes a flaming teenager is just a flaming teenager.

As the comics medium and superhero genre tracks across all age groups, can you describe when you first encountered comics, and how your engagement has evolved?

I first encountered superheroes through my passionate love, as a twelve-year-old girl, of the television show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. I revisited my love of Lois & Clark for my chapter in Supersex, which examines that show’s rare privileging of a female gaze in its presentation of Clark Kent/Superman as a “sensitive new age man.” I didn’t get seriously into comics until my early twenties, largely for reasons of access; I grew up in a rural area, and didn’t have many places to buy them (the gas station occasionally had an issue of Superman, but it wasn’t something you could count on). But I still managed to fall in love with superhero comics in my teen years, and it was their unique presentation of bodies that did it. I still recall my fixation on a particular panel of a particular issue of a Spider-Man comic; I’m not sure of the issue number, but I’m quite sure it was drawn by John Romita Jr. It was an image of Peter Parker waking up from a nightmare, shirtless and sweaty, in his darkened bedroom. My teenage self stared at that panel long enough to memorize it. I remember trying to understand my fixation on it in a number of different ways. I recall touching the page, as though touching the paper could get me closer to touching Peter; I wanted to know what all those lithe muscles felt like, but I also wanted to comfort him in this moment of private vulnerability, to stroke his cheek and chest and tell him it was just a dream, to urge him to come back to bed. I also acted out the scene, trying to imagine what it would feel like to have those lithe muscles, those super-senses, and the sensation of rightness and calmness that must come with those things, even (or especially) in a moment of crisis. Partly, this experience is indicative of typical teenage hormones—the stuff we all go through when we go through puberty, trying to figure out who we are, what we want, and how we fit into the world. But I also think there’s something about this experience that’s especially typical of teenage interactions with comics and superheroes. I was fixated on this image because comics allow you to do that; their presentation of stories in symbolic fragments means you control how long you look at each image, and, to an extent, how you look at it. I was also fixated because Peter Parker is a superhero; it was the combined strength and vulnerability of his hypervisible body that most attracted me.

When I rediscovered superhero comics in my early twenties (facilitated by the growth of digital comics and my moving to Toronto), I fell even more deeply in love. The same things that interested me about comics and superheroes as a teenager—namely, their unique presentation of hypervisible bodies—felt even more relevant and appealing once I started studying things like queer theory and embodiment feminism. Still, when I started my PhD in English Literature at York University, I wasn’t originally going to write about superheroes; I was going to write about representations of gender in the literary naturalism of Frank Norris. But I eventually came to realize that superhero comics were an ideal place to explore the theories and philosophies of gender, sex, and the body I cared most deeply about. I wanted to talk about how bodies tell stories; superhero bodies tell some truly fascinating stories. I’m still obsessed with these stories, both reading them, and trying to understand them. Supersex is my latest attempt to figure out what these stories mean, to me, to other fans and fan-scholars, and to our culture at large. I’m sure it won’t be my last!

Anna F. Peppard is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow in Brock University’s department of communication, popular culture, and film. She has published widely on representations of gender, race, and sexuality in popular media, including comic books, television, and sports culture. She is a regular contributor to the podcast Three Panel Contrast.