In this episode of High Theory, Brian Fairley tells us about Polyphony, a concept from music that describes multiple melodic lines sounding at once. The many voices of polyphony have an ancient and colonial history, which has reappeared in some key reverberations in twentieth century criticism and theory. 

In the conversation, we discuss several texts, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929); James Clifford and George Marcus, Writing Culture The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (UC Press, 1986); Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (Knopf, 1993); and one of Kim’s favorite scholarly books, Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton, 2021). Brian also discusses Denise Ferreira da Silva’s work “On Difference Without Separability.” 

Brian Fairley received his PhD in Ethnomusicology from New York University in 2023; he is currently a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Music at Amherst College.His manuscript in progress, Dissected Listening: Race, Nation, and Polyphony in the South Caucasus, excavates a series of experimental sound recordings from 1916 to 1966 to show how the concept of musical polyphony emerged in tandem with techniques of multichannel sound and imperial discourses of racial, national, and religious difference. His work has appeared in the journal Ethnomusicology and is forthcoming in Theoria: Historical Aspects of Music Theory, as well as an edited volume titled Key Terms in Music Theory for Antiracist Scholars

The image for this episode is Paul Klee’s 1932 painting “Polyphony,” which is in the public domain in the US and Europe, but maybe not in Mexico. Digital image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Sillies: Horses

Warning: this episode of High Theory is very silly.

In our new summer series of “Sillies,” Saronik and Kim ask each other how simple things will achieve the grandiose task of saving the world. In this episode, Kim asks Saronik about how horses will save the world. 

The texts we mention (or meant to mention) in the episode are (in some vague order):

Peter Shaffer, Equus, 1973

Girish Karnad, Hayavadana, 1971

Sharon Patricia Holland, an other: a black feminist consideration of animal life (Duke UP, 2023)

Mackenzie Cooley, The Perfection of Nature: Animals, Breeding, and Race in the Renaissance (Chicago UP, 2022)

Raymond Malewitz, “On the Origin of ‘Oops!’: The Language and Literature of Animal DiseaseCritical Inquiry 45 (Summer 2019). 

In this episode we used sound effects from freesound.org.  To make the episode we downloaded sounds created by the following users: BUNCHA SOUNDS BOI!; InspectorJ; felix.blume. Click the link to hear the sound.

This episode’s silly image was created by Saronik Bosu. It is a distortion of “Whistlejacket” (1762) by George Stubbs

Bombay Talkies

In this episode of High Theory, Debashree Mukherjee talks about the pioneering film studio Bombay Talkies, founded in 1934 in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) by Himansu Rai and Devika Rani. Its cast and crew of diverse global origins and training, offer new ways of writing the history of labor in Indian Cinema. In the accompanying B-Side, she focuses on her new book Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema, which features rare behind-the-scenes photographs from the personal archive of cinematographer Josef Wirsching. Wirsching brought the influence of German Expressionism to Indian cinema, and was responsible for the cinematic stylings of groundbreaking films like Achhyut Kanya (1936), Mahal (1949), and Pakeezah (1972).

Debashree Mukherjee is Associate Professor of film and media in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University. Her first book, Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City (2020), approaches film history as an ecology of material practices and practitioners. Her second book project, Camera Obscura: Media at the Dawn of Planetary Extraction, develops a media history of  oceanic migrations and plantation capitalism. Debashree edits the peer-reviewed journal BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies and in a previous life she worked in Mumbai’s film and TV industries as an assistant director, writer, and cameraperson.

Image: Sourced from Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema with permission.


In this episode of High Theory, Eram Alam talks with us about shortage. A political tool, rather than a natural lack, the concept of a shortage changes the flows of goods and people across borders and space. The concept of a doctor shortage was used in the US immigration reform of the 1960s to recruit discount elite labor from newly postcolonial nations, creating the downstream effect of shortages in their countries of origin. These recruiting practices remain in effect, with a US physician workforce that is approximately 25% international medical graduates, while domestic and international doctor shortages abound. 

Eram Alam is an assistant professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her book The Care of Foreigners studies the enduring consequences of post-colonial migration from Asia to the US.  We’re so excited to read it when it comes out! In the meantime, you can read her article “Cold War Crises: Foreign Medical Graduates Respond to US Doctor Shortages, 1965–1975Social History of Medicine 33 no. 1 (Feb 2020). 

This week’s image of a hospital corridor was uploaded to the image sharing site Pixbay by a user named Mitrey.

Queer Mysticism

We close Pride Month of 2023 with Jamie Staples talking about queer mysticism. This includes instances in medieval Christianity where an embodied and erotic experience of life, within and between persons, became the basis for an apprehension of divinity. The conversation particularly focuses on the poem “Dark Night of the Soul” by 16th century Spanish poet St. John of the Cross and the work of 14th-15th century English mystic Margery Kempe. Jamie shares his own story to show how queer mysticism can offer resources from within Christianity to build a personal and communitarian politics against fundamentalist discrimination and hatred.

Starting this fall, Jamie Staples will be Visiting Assistant Professor of Medieval English literature at Trinity College in Hartford. His research takes seriously the productive intersection of mystical theology and poetry in the development of alternative modes of critical thinking in the late Middle Ages. He’s recently written two articles focused more specifically on the queer mysticism that he will be discussing today, one on the fifteenth-century Book of Margery Kempe, published in Romanic Review, and the other on the fourteenth-century poem Cleanness, published in Exemplaria.

Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu

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The Environmental Unconscious

Steven Swarbrick talks about poetic engagement with nature in the work of early modern poets ​​Edmund Spenser, Walter Ralegh, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton. Here language is influenced not by the manifest and the conscious, but the unconscious or void, as understood in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. This work is the basis for his hope for a reorganization of thought in contemporary ecocriticism around a politics of degrowth instead of additive policies that serve to greenwash capitalist economies.

Steven Swarbrick is an assistant professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York. His research interests include early modern literature, contemporary continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, the environmental humanities, and sexuality and film studies. He is the author of The Environmental Unconscious: Ecological Poetics from Spenser to Milton (University of Minnesota Press, 2023) and co-author, with Jean-Thomas Tremblay, of Negative Life: The Cinema of Extinction (Northwestern University Press, under contract). He is currently working on two books: Unknowing Sex: Shakespeare against the Historicists and Destituent Ecology: Libidinal Politics for the Environmental Left.

Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu

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Rhetoric of Decline

In this episode of High Theory, Jed Esty talks about the Rhetoric of Decline. Declinism names the contradictory political narrative that America will always be the greatest country in the world, yet is in constant danger of losing its place in the global pecking order. Studying this rhetorical log-jam reveals its prominence on both the left and the right, and its toxic effects on our national discourse. But comparing the end of America’s empire to Britain’s imperial decline in the twentieth century can help us muddle out of this mess. 

The basis of our conversation is Jed’s recent book The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at Its Limits (Stanford UP, 2022).  It’s a cool short book with an x-ray spaceman on the cover. You should read it, even if this isn’t usually your cup of tea. 

Jed Esty is the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches and writes about Anglophone literature after 1850, with special interests in modernism, critical theory, history and theory of the novel, colonial and postcolonial studies, the Victorian novel, and post-45 U.S. culture. He is the author of Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development (Oxford 2012) and A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton 2004). 

This week’s image was made by Saronik Bosu in June of 2023.

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Sillies: Jeans

Warning: this episode of High Theory is very silly.

In our new summer series of “Sillies,” Saronik and Kim ask each other how simple things will achieve the grandiose task of saving the world. In this episode, Saronik asks Kim how jeans will save the world. Yes, we mean denim, not genes.

Some reading that might help assuage the silliness, and support our absurd arguments is listed below:

In this episode we used sound effects from freesound.org. To make the episode we downloaded sounds created by the following users: MATRIXXaj_heelsdeleted_user_5959249LittleRobotSoundFactoryTarynMichelle101YellowbearvoxlabNikiPlaymostoriesTasmanianPowertrader_onemilkywaysurroundsmejosefpresBugInTheSYSpaulnorthyorks. Click the link to hear the sound.

This episode’s silly image was created by Saronik Bosu.

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Sheila Liming talks about the party,  social gatherings that occasion joy and dread and various emotions in between. The party is both a pause and an acceleration in the life-work continuum, it can deaden political motivation and engender fresh politics. We discuss the horrible parties in The Office and the wonderful parties in Small Axe, among other things.

Sheila Liming is Associate Professor at Champlain College in Burlington, VT, where she teaches classes in American literature, writing, and media. She is the author, most recently, of Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time (Melville House, 2023), and also of the books Office (Bloomsbury, 2020) and What a Library Means to a Woman (Minnesota UP, 2020). Her writing has appeared in publications like the The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Lapham’s Quarterly, LitHub, The Globe and Mail, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. 

Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu

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Global Asia

Cheryl Narumi Naruse talks about the transformation of Singapore over the past decades into a site of postcolonial promise, with economic prosperity and cultural soft power. She discusses a range of texts ranging from official state documents to the immensely popular book and movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, which bear witness to and contribute to this change.

Cheryl Narumi Naruse is Assistant Professor of English and the Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of the Humanities at Tulane University. Her research and teaching interests include contemporary Anglophone literatures and cultures (particularly those from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands), diasporic Asian and Asian American literature, postcolonial theory, cultures of capitalism, and genre studies. Her first book, Becoming Global Asia: Contemporary Genres of Postcolonial Capitalism in Singapore is forthcoming from University of California Press in 2023. She is also working on a second monograph which explores the illegibility of Singapore/Malaysia—as the comparatively “cold” Southeast nations in the context of the Vietnam War—in Asian American and postcolonial studies. 

Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu

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