Computer Graphics

In this episode of High Theory, Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan talks with us about computer graphics. Emerging from tools for sailing and warmaking, like sea charts and radar, modern computer graphics are technologies of mapping and managing risk. They seem intent on absorbing the human sensorium into the machine.  

In the episode Bernard refers to computer graphics as “techniques of addressing,” a term he attributes to Ranjodh Singh Dhaliwal.  He also uses the term “operational images” which comes from the work of Harun Farocki, and talks about SAGE, the US Government’s Cold War era Semi-Automatic Ground Environment Air Defense System.  Bernard references Paul Edward’s book A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (MIT Press, 2013). He also mentions the German scholar Christoph Borbach who has written on auditory computer interfaces, and American disability studies scholar Mara Mills, who has written on the Deaf history of computing.  He was kind enough to give us an extensive bibliography on this topic, which is posted below. 

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan is a reader in the History and Theory of Digital Media at King’s College London.  He has a brand new book out on the cybernetic history of French theory, called Code: From Information Theory to French Theory (Duke UP, 2023). Kim met him when he came to give a talk at the Stanford Humanities Center in January 2023.  He wore denim and had a slightly manic affect. People came all the way from Berkeley to hear what he had to say, which is quite impressive in the Bay Area.  

Places I’ve developed these topics in print:

Galloway, Alexander, and Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan. “Shaky Distinctions: A Dialogue on the Digital and the Analog – Journal #121 October 2021 – e-Flux.” E-Flux, no. 121 (October 2021).

Geoghegan, Bernard Dionysius. “An Ecology of Operations: Vigilance, Radar, and the Birth of the Computer Screen.” Representations 147, no. 1 (August 2019): 59–95.

———. “The Bitmap Is the Territory: How Digital Formats Render Global Positions.” MLN 136, no. 5 (2021): 1093–1113.

A video lecture talking about these topics:

My lecture starting around 3 hours, 7 min. mark on this YouTube Video: “Screening the Environment: From Rough Waters to Computable Grids.” Vivre par(mi) les écrans : passé et avenir, Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3, April 2022.

Scholars whose works have inspired my remarks and research:

Bredekamp, Horst, Vera Dünkel, and Birgit Schneider, eds. The Technical Image. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. A great collection of essays in the spirit I try to follow in my own work.

Cardoso-Llach, Daniel. “Architecture and the Structured Image: Software Simulations as Infrastructures for Building Production.” In The Active Image: Architecture and Engineering in the Age of Modeling, edited by Sabine Ammon and Remel Capdevila-Werning, 23–52. Cham: Springer, 2017.

Denson, Shane. Discorrelated Images. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021.

Dhaliwal, Ranjodh Singh. “On Addressability, or What Even Is Computing.” Critical Inquiry 49, no. 1 (Autumn 2022): 1–27.

Farocki, Harun. “Phantom Images.” Public, no. 29 (2004): 13–22. Where he briefly discusses the term operational images to which myself and so many others are indebted.

Gaboury, Jacob. Image Objects: An Archaeology of Computer Graphics. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 2021.

Hoelzl, Ingrid, and Rémi Marie. “Google Street View: Navigating the Operative Image.” Visual Studies 29, no. 3 (2014): 261–71.

Parikka, Jussi. “Operational Images: Between Light and Data.” E-Flux, no. 133 (February 2023).

Schneider, Birgit. Textiles Prozessieren. Zurich: Diaphanes, 2007. A great early study of the relation of computation to graphical—as well as visual, practical, labor, and craft—histories.

Vardouli, Theodora. “Skeletons, Shapes, and the Shift from Surface to Structure in Architectural Geometry.” Nexus Network Journal, 2020. (One of many inspiring texts and projects Theodora’s put into the world, on compters, graphics, and space.)

This week’s image is a radar loop of the December 16 2007 Eastern North America winter storm, found on Wikimedia Commons. The loop runs from Saturday Morning at 7 AM (Dec 15) to Sunday Night at 7 PM (Dec 16). The image is in the public domain because it was made by someone who works for the National Weather Service in Burlington, Vermont. The rate of change of the GIF was slowed down to avoid triggering folks with photosensitive epilepsy. 

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Swati Moitra explains how reading can be a subversive and even revolutionary act in certain socio-historical contexts. She draws especially from her own work in the history of women’s reading practices in nineteenth and early twentieth century India, in particular the region of Bengal. She talks about the dual indices of literacy and pleasure in her work, and its affiliations to fields like book history and print cultural studies.

Swati Moitra (M.Phil., Ph.D.) is Assistant Professor at the Department of English at Gurudas College, University of Calcutta. Her areas of interest include book history and histories of readership. She is the recipient of the SHARP Research Development Grant for BIPOC Scholars 2022.

Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu

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Cooperative Extension System

In this episode of High Theory, Karl Dudman tells us about the Cooperative Extension System.  

Formed in 1914 as an extension of the Land Grant University system in the United States, the Cooperative Extension System is an extraordinarily public model of scientific communication. There is an extension officer in every county of the US. The original goal was to transmit academic scientific knowledge on agriculture to America’s farmers, but the program’s remit has expanded over the past hundred years. And it varies widely from place to place. You might go to an extension office to test the soil of your rose bed, to find a food pantry, or attend a kids exercise class. You might also have a conversation about climate change. 

In the full version of our conversation, Karl discussed the National Extension Climate Initiative which aims to unite climate change education and research across the cooperative extension system and Christopher Henke’s book, Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power: Science and Industrial Agriculture in California (MIT Press, 2008).

Karl Dudman is doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Science Technology and Society. He does qualitative research on climate science in the US. His ongoing fieldwork, hosted by the North Carolina State Climate Office, examines how actors within climate science, coastal management and local politics navigate accelerating sea level rise in the context of widespread ambivalence towards the mainstream climate change narrative. Karl is also a photographer, and through his work explores the politics of competing cultural relationships with landscapes, and their subsequent representation.

This week’s image is a photograph of two men in a field of tall grass taken November 11, 2008 by Dennis Pennington, Bioenergy Educator, Michigan State University Extension.

ACLA 2023

How Will Critique Save the World? : Popular Theory and Public Humanities

This episode of High Theory is based upon a conference paper Saronik and Kim wrote for the American Comparative Literature Association Conference in 2023. It departs from our usual conversational style, in that we take turns reading sections of the paper aloud. But we could all do with a dose of formality, right?

The paper we read is titled, “How Will Critique Save the World? : Popular Theory and Public Humanities” and it talks about the method wars on Twitter, the cameo appearance of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation in The Matrix, alt-right conspiracy theory, and the academic job market. The full revised text of our conference paper is available below, with references.

The image accompanying this episode was made by Saronik Bosu. Don’t use it without asking him.


Every year from 1986 to 2014, the Queer Students Alliance at Brown University held a party called “Sex Power God.”  Key terms of critical practice—the erotic, the divine, and queerness in the university get you most of the way to new historicism while the critique of power is central to theory from Machiavelli to Marx, Fanon to Foucault—appear in the name of a notoriously raucous student bash. We contend that popular forms have been central to the construction of critical thought and remain necessary to any compelling future orientation.

When we wrote this talk, we were responding to a call for papers that included a line about critique being “a hangover from the bad old days of high theory.” Kim and I loved this phrase not just because we host a podcast called High Theory, but because it locates the history of critique in the body. In the bad old days of high theory, with Deleuze and Guattari, “We had hallucinatory experiences, we watched lines leave one plateau and proceed to another like columns of tiny ants. We made circles of convergence.”[1] Then we woke up with a hangover and a grumbling ambition to critique. When we were deciding on a name for our podcast, the word ‘high’ signifying the ambition of our remit – we planned to be promiscuous with our definitions (just as we are in real life, perhaps). Theory would include the Frankfurt School and its descendants to an extent, but rather than trace a tap root that takes us back to Aristotle, we would follow the rhizomatic tendrils of thought to all sorts of adventures in cultural criticism. We would even talk to physicists and computer scientists. An interdisciplinarity of method of query, we thought, could be met by the grand inclusivity of theory in our historical moment. Despite the hangover.

A word here about parsing theory and critique and criticism as distinguishable methods. We based our podcast on the connotative overlap between theory and critique not so much as contingency in the history of literary critical humanities, but as the prerequisite condition of our work. As grad student and contingent scholar, our interest lay in what ‘doing theory’ could say about the state of the profession, or more importantly, what it could do. In 2020-2021, that corner of Twitter where literary humanists live was rocked by debates that were collectively termed the “method wars”. Lines were drawn in the sand, especially between efficacies of critique and post-critique, between supposed attitudes towards the pleasure of the text in both camps. In due course, academic twitter made fun of academic twitter and the fact that it had found devolving into a “method war” necessary. In her essay titled “The Shush”, Kyla Wazana Tompkins pointed out that “These are not method wars: these are resource wars. Every “war,” if we even want to use that term so loosely from here on out, is going to be a war of resources pretending to be something else. As perhaps all war has ever been.”[2] As grad student and contingent scholar, we wanted to code resource scarcity into the way in which we deployed theory, never bound in stringent definitions, and often as euphemism for all sorts of readings. Times are hard, and no kind of analytical pleasure should be foregone.

If we take Twitter for the public sphere, and we do so cautiously, the method wars become a contemporary form of popular theory rather than a spat of academic infighting. The pleasure of the text at stake in the methodologies of critique and post-critique looks a bit more embodied and a bit less arid when we focus our attention outside the classroom. What is it that makes theory worth fighting for? Our hunch is that it’s something that lies between the university and the public.

The rest of this paper is dedicated to another example from the bad old days, one that latches on to the sex appeal of high theory, only to get trapped in a dynamic of appropriation and misappropriation that brings us back to the contemporary suspicion of theory as conspiracy.


The 1999 film The Matrix opens with an image familiar to anyone who has walked through a university library during finals week: a person passed out with their head on a computer keyboard. In the film, Neo sleeps in the reflected light of an endless scroll, news media on the computer monitor, headphones plugged-in to the CD player. Byung-Chul Han’s work on burnout asks us to read Neo in relation to the overtired knowledge workers of neoliberal achievement society.[3] The cyber-punk image of illegal hacking late into the night loses its frisson of resistance when we realize it is simply another version of working from home.

Neo is wired into the machine, a cyborg subject with headphones for ears, merged with his desk and its technological detritus. The curve of his body slumped against the desk mirrors the curve of the ergonomic keyboard in front of his face.[4]  He is awakened by a disruption of the graphical interface: someone has hacked his computer. “Wake up, Neo…” the hacker types, “The Matrix has you…” It issues a command, straight out of Lewis Carroll, “Follow the white rabbit.” Then to confirm its Godly providence, it types: “Knock, knock, Neo.”  Neo stares at the screen in disbelief, then starts when the knock comes at the door. He turns around to attend to the sound, and the text on the screen disappears. This paranoid opening sequence sets the terms for the famous red pill blue pill scene that has been taken up with a vengeance by the alt-right on the dark web today. But I would like to suggest that it can also teach us something about critique and post-critique.

When Neo opens the door, he encounters someone he knows: Choi, a guy with a leather jacket, a fondness for mescaline, and a sardonic and sexy-eyed companion called Du Jour. The crew surrounding Choi is dressed for a luxe warehouse rave or Berlin techno club, and indeed they go clubbing in the next sequence. But they’re there to buy drugs, or something like it.  Choi hands Neo two grand in cash through the crack of the door. Neo retrieves a mini-compact disc from a hollowed out book. “Hallelujah,” says Choi when he receives the disc, “You’re my savior, man, my own personal Jesus Christ.” Neo replies with anxiety, “You get caught using that…” and Choi cuts him off, “Yeah, I know, this never happened, you don’t exist.”[5]

These lines establish the transaction as illicit and pleasure making, and we could trace a line back from the language of salvation to Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”  The scene is full of tropes of the illicit drug trade, from the lateness of the interaction and the squalor of Neo’s apartment, to the cash payment and the hollowed out book.  But it is the book that interests us here, a cloth-bound hardcover with Simulacra & Simulation stamped on the cover. You’ve seen the film, and you’re listening to a theory podcast, so you saw this coming a mile off – but that might just be because you’re a paranoid critic. At any rate, the prop is not identical to the book. The cloth bound University of Michigan Press 1995 edition of Baudrillard’s text, translated by Sheila Glaser is red, with the title printed on the side, and it’s a rather slim book. In the film, the book is green, the title is embossed on the front cover in gold, with a rather dramatic ampersand, and it’s fat, the thickness of A Thousand Plateaus. You can’t see the author’s name, probably for copyright reasons.  But when Neo opens the book, the page that faces the hollowed out section is taken from Baudrillard’s text. It’s the first page of the final chapter, “On Nihilism.”

Rather than show the opening parable of the map that replaces the territory, from which Morpehus quotes, “the desert of the real” (which of course then became the title of a book by Žižek a few years later), the Wachowskis chose the final essay, in which Baudrillard critiques critique. And I’ll quote from Baudrillard’s text here, and in fact this quote is from the page facing the hollowed out section, the page you see in the film:  

Today’s nihilism is one of transparency, and it is in some sense more radical, more crucial than in its prior and historical forms, because this transparency, this irresolution is indissolubly that of the system, and that of all the theory that still pretends to analyze it.[6]

So the transparency of nihilism belongs to both theory and system, it is indissoluble from it. And “the system” in this sentence is paired grammatically with “all the theory that still pretends to analyze it.” This is a meta version of Han’s argument about “neoliberal achievement society” – we imagine we can escape the system by working harder, thinking faster, pushing ourselves beyond the norms and confines of the capitalist workplace, but in fact our extraordinary labor is presupposed by the system of late capitalism, even constitutes it. In Baudrillard’s words, “The Matrix is the kind of film about the Matrix that the Matrix itself could have produced.”[7]

Baudrillard’s response to the film in a 2003 interview with Aude Lancelin is that they got it wrong. The Wachowskis mixed-up the hyperreality of post-modernity with the ancient problem of the world as illusion, “The most embarrassing part of the film is that it confuses the new problem raised by simulation with its arch-classical, Platonic treatment. This is a serious flaw.”[8] When Neo takes the red pill, he emerges into a real world outside the Matrix. But in Baudrillard’s analysis, to quote another theorist, “il n’a pas de hors-texte” – there is nothing outside the text. Theory has become identical to that which it analyzes, critique has no teeth because there is never any external vantage point, only the system that constitutes the real. Granted, Baudrillard took the long way around to the feminist critique of standpoint epistemology, but that’s besides the point. Or maybe it is the point.

Towards the end of the final chapter in Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard complains, “We are in the era of events without consequences (and of theories without consequences).”[9]  But that late-nineties moment when media and theory seemed to be collapsing into each other, epitomized by The Matrix and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, has passed. The ouroboros of theory ate its own tail and coughed up the shreds of the map. The role of prominent academics in the #MeToo movement revealed theory to be just another discourse of power, as Baudrillard suggests. The bad reading of hyperreality which supplied the paranoid allegory of The Matrix has escaped into the conspiracy politics of the present. Theory has consequences. We are living in its wake.


We would like to suggest two directions we might go in closing.

The final image of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation features the narrator calm, content, and empty, having succeeded in her quest to sleep for a year. The chemically induced sleep of Moshfegh’s narrator and the overtired hacker sleep of Neo reframe the flat affect of post-critique. The late-capitalist dynamic of achievement and burnout in Han’s analysis helps explain the credential inflation John Guillory sees undermining the academic job market. And it all just makes me want to go to sleep. So that would be the hangover.

But there’s also paranoia, and we can think here of Sedgwick’s essay on paranoid reading, and the red pill blue pill scene from The Matrix, as the arch metaphor for alt-right conspiracy theory. The “Sex, Power, God” party at Brown, with which we opened was shut down in 2014 due to concerns about sexual violence associated with the #MeToo movement, but in 2005 it was secretly filmed by a reporter from Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor” – a conservative backlash that forms a historical context for the “Critical Race Theory” panic of the present. And this too is a form of popular theory. So a choice I will pose to you in bad faith, alt-right and alt-ac?  “You take the blue pill… the story ends… You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland. And I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”[10] 

[1] Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) tr. Brian Massumi. p.27

[2] Kyla Wazana Tompkins, “The Shush.” PMLA 136 no. 3 (2021): 417-423

[3] I am thinking here of “The Tiredness Virus” The Nation  (12 April 2021)  but the larger work to which that article referrs is Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, Stanford UP, 2015.

[4] It looks like a dvorchak keyboard when he’s sleeping, but when he actually starts typing on it, it turns out to be an ordinary qwerty keyboard. 

[5] The Matrix, directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (1999, Warner Brothers).

[6] Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 159.

[7] Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art, 202

[8] Baudrillard, “The Matrix Revisited,” Interview with Aude Lancelin, The Conspiracy of Art, 202.

[9] Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 164

[10]  The Matrix, directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (1999, Warner Brothers).

Choice Architecture

In this episode of High Theory, Eli Cook tells us about choice architecture. The term was invented by behavioral economists in 2008 who proposed it as a soft-power model of “libertarian paternalism” to influence consumer choice. Eli traces their concept through a twentieth-century history of structured choices, from personality tests and the five-star rating to the swipes and likes of platform capitalism. He shifts our attention from the rhetoric of consumer choice as freedom to the power of “choice architects” who determine the options for us.

Eli takes the term “choice architecture” from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale UP, 2008). He mentions the industrial psychologist Walter Dill Scott and the inventors of behavioral economics, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Amusingly, there is a New Yorker article about Tversky and Kahneman written by Thaler and Sunstein, called “The Two Friends Who Changed How We Think About How We Think.” (New Yorker 7 Dec 2016). In the full version of our conversation, Eli referenced the work of Sophia Rosenfeld on the longue durée history of choice.

Eli Cook is a historian of American capitalism. He works as a Senior Lecturer in History and as head of the American Studies Program at the University of Haifa in Israel. His first book The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life was published by Harvard University Press in 2017. Last year, he was a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center where he worked on his new book about choice architecture.

Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu

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Affective Masculinities

Amrita De talks about affective masculinities, aspirational linkages with dominant scripts of masculinities, socially organized. As she expands her work beyond her study of South Asian masculinities, she talks about how understanding and loosening these linkages entails crucial feminist work. She also talks about Shah Rukh Khan.

Amrita De is a Postdoctoral fellow in the Center of Humanities and Information at Penn State University. Her research focuses on global south masculinity studies and affect theory. Her works have been published in NORMA, Boyhood Studies, Global Humanities and are forthcoming in other edited collections. She is also working her way through her first novel centered around contemporary Indian Masculinities.

Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu

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In this episode of High Theory, Dennis Duncan tells us about the history of the index. At it’s simplest, an index is a table with columns that allow you to match sets of terms, most often topics and page numbers. Google is an index, as was the first bible concordance, completed in 1230 under the direction of a French Dominican scholar named Hugo de Saint-Cher. 

In the episode, Dennis quotes a line from Alexander Pope’s Dunciad:
How index-learning turns no student pale,
Yet holds the eel of science by the tail 
(book 1, lines 279-80)

He also references Nicholas Carr’s article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (The Atlantic, July/Aug 2008), and the book based upon it, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2011), both of which make an argument against shallow reading that Dennis argues goes all the way back to medieval critiques of the index. In the longer version of our conversation, we talked about Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler

Dennis Duncan is a scholar of book history, translation, and avant-garde literature at the University College London. His book about the history of the index, Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age was published in the US by Norton in 2022. The book includes two indices, once made by indexing software, and the other by Paula Clarke Bain.

This week’s image is a portrait of Hugo de Saint-Cher, made by Tommaso da Modena. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Full citation: Hugues de Saint-Cher († 1263), bibliste et théologien, Paris, Centre d’études du Saulchoir, Actes du colloque 13-15 mars 2000, Brepols, coll. « Bibliothèque d’histoire culturelle du Moyen Âge », n°1, Turnhout, 2004, 524 p., ISBN : 2-503-51721-8

Queer Space

In this episode of High Theory, Jack Jen Gieseking tells us about queer space. Queer geographies matter alongside queer temporalities. And it turns out that lesbian life in the 1950s cannot be generalized from the specific history of Buffalo, New York. 

In the episode they reference a number of scholarly books including J. Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (NYU Press, 2005); Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Duke UP, 2010); Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (Routledge, 1993); Mairead Sullivan, Lesbian Death: Desire and Danger between Feminist and Queer (Minnesota UP, 2022); Henri Lefebre, The Production of Space (La production de l’espace, Editions Anthropos, 1974, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Blackwell, 1919).  He also names a number of scholars, including the geographer Gill Valentine, the historian David Harvey, and cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin, and the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality

Jack Jen Gieseking is a Research Fellow at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center. Their book A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers was published by NYU Press in 2020, and has a companion website called An Everyday Queer New York. They are working on a new book called Dyke Bars*: Queer Spaces for the End Times that uses the trans asterisk to invite consideration of queer spaces not historically claimed as dyke bars.

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Near Death Experience

In this episode of High Theory, Laura Wittman tells us about near death experiences. The central feature of these experiences is a vision and a story, which it turns out are a lot stranger than the “best seller” version. These narrative encounters with death often inspire people to make dramatic moves in search of a more meaningful life, from newfound religious faith or activist commitments to career changes and divorce.

In the episode, she talks about the changes in what makes a good death, from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, and how the narratives of near death experiences reflect our desires for older forms of sociality around life’s passing. She references Oliver Sacks’s book Hallucinations (Random House, 2012) in regards to the visions patients experience in hospitals, and their desire for a witness in the moments of lucidity that often occur before death.

Laura Wittman is an associate professor of French and Italian at Stanford University. She teaches nineteenth and twentieth century literature, and her research focuses on what happens to religious experience in the so-called secular modern age. Her book, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body (Toronto UP, 2011) has recently been translated into Italian as Il Milite ignoto. Storia e Mito. (LEG, 2021) She also coordinates the Medical Humanities Working Group at the Stanford Humanities Center.

This week’s image is a photograph of the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier in La Jolla, California, taken by Kim Adams in November 2022. On the top of the pier is a research site for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

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MLA 2023

This episode is a recording of a short paper presented by Kim and Saronik in the panel “Literary Criticism: New Platforms” organized by Anna Kornbluh at the 2023 Convention of the Modern Language Association. In the paper, they reflect on the nature of the voice in the humanities and the role of the humanities podcast inside and outside institutions.

The full paper can be found below and in this GoogleDoc.

Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu

Criticism Amplified: New Media and the Podcast Form

Saronik Bosu and Kim Adams

How does the experience of listening, within our contemporary lived contexts, change the substance and style of criticism today? (A questions of audience, form, and politics answered by Kim)

In 2019, before Covid, before Saronik and I started High Theory, I went to an n+1 launch party.  It was winter in New York, the basement of a hotel in midtown, with a bar that didn’t seem to be serving drinks and a giant wall of speakers that seemed to serve solely decorative purposes. One of the editors read aloud an opening monologue about podcasts. What I recall is a line about intimacy, “their voices so close to our ears.”  Reading back, the editors make a claim about media history: “Podcasts were the first medium designed to be listened to primarily on headphones, by a single person.”(1) They suggest that the form lends itself to “binge listening: each episode, a smooth little capsule, perfectly self-contained, can be popped one after another.” Binge listening implies a kinship between podcasts and the “golden age of television.”(2) The episodic structure makes consumption a process of easy repetition, where everything feels like packaging and waste. Streaming media, unlike radio and tv of another era, imagines a solitary individual receiver, isolated and choosing for themselves. 

Following this logic, we could trace the contemporary boom in humanities podcasting to the isolation protocols encountered by knowledge workers during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. And in truth, our podcast was a pandemic project, made possible by a newfound facility with digital media and comfort conducting virtual conversations, not to mention the lack of venues for academic authors to promote their books. But as the n+1 article suggests, this dynamic of isolation and intimacy was already well underway in 2019.  An Americanist colleague gave me an alternate explanation, that podcasts satisfy the neoliberal obsession with multitasking. (3) We can learn about Sylvia Wynter as we wash the dishes, catch up on political gossip as we fold the laundry, review Orientalism as we drive to work. Isolation is reinscribed as productivity.

How does digital audio production perform the work of literary criticism within the new media landscape? (A question that requires us to historicize media, answered by Saronik)

Like much under our sun, these habits are not entirely new. The history of public education in radio form, in several cultural contexts, is marked by the collocation of everyday work and absorption of sound information that takes the listener out of the ordinary temporal idiom by promising futures with better economic and social capital. Theodor Adorno worked on one such radio program in the 1940s, albeit a short-lived one, run by the Princeton Radio Project. Listening to radio in your drawing room is “atomized listening” for Adorno: the “sound is no longer ‘larger’ the individual…[and] the ‘surrounding’ function of music also disappears.” (4)

Radio makes a piece of music an object of analysis for the listener by reframing it sonically between concert hall and drawing room. The edited nature of podcasts problematizes the voice, whether it is an uncut hour maintaining all the ums and coughs in the hum of the ambient, or a heavily polished product with strategic placement of music and sound effects. Taking care not to draw simplistic analogues, we ask what the humanities podcast can do for criticism and theory by reframing the sound of academic discourse from lecture halls, seminar rooms, and the reader’s subvocalization to headphones and car stereos.

How does the podcast form modify the relationship between the voice and the work of critique? (A theory question answered by Kim)

If we follow Derrida’s argument in the Grammatology, the voice has always been privileged as a signifier of truth and presence in the Western philosophical tradition.  So podcasts are nothing new.  Or at least to theorize speech in ascendant over the written word, contributing a particular “liveness” to the discourse of critical inquiry, is simply to inherit a conservative philosophical tradition that stretches from Plato to Rousseau, one that always imagines writing secondary, inferior, degraded. Even tacky.

On December 22, I listened to an NPR interview with essayist Rax King about Lisa Carver’s book of essays Dancing Queen. (5) And King kept saying “voicey” as in “her writing is very voicey, and very lively” and “that’s why I always teach her as the paragon of voicey writing.”  She also did this thing with her voice, when she was looking for her page, where she sang “just a sec-ond.”  Two senses of the word “voice” – the one you teach creative writing students to find, the other vocal performance students to train – both of which the podcast form is supposed to capture.  But does it? (6)

In the interview, King uses a medical metaphor: Carver’s essays are like “that bright pink amoxicillin for kids” – bitter medicine made sweet – “so that they’ll drink it.” Following, then, from Of Grammatology to “Plato’s Pharmacy,” we might think of podcasts as pharmakon. Writing is a drug for Plato, both a poison and cure, because of its ability to record thought permanently and externally. And the podcast is a recorded medium. Audio is digitized and edited, compressed and distributed through an XML protocol. Editing software works by making a visual representation of sound, transforming your voice into a wave form, scribbles on an axis, amplitude over time. The voice in your earbuds may seem ephemeral, intimate, immediate, but it is a drug, an inscription, like all writing, made of ghosts and absence.

What does criticism do when it is sounded out and published in digital formats? (A question of accessibility/privilege, and the future, answered by Saronik) 

But let’s ask again, what can the humanities podcast do, not only as a finished product, but in the labor that goes into its production? At the Humanities Podcast Network, an organization that we co-founded with colleagues in academic podcasting, we advocate for the building of institutional systems of legibility. We seek to define podcasts as lasting contributions to scholarship, from grant allocations to tenure dossiers. Simultaneously, we imagine the extra-institutional future of the humanities podcast, not least for High Theory

In each episode we ask our guests “How [a given topic] will save the world?” Guests imagine maximalist scopes for their research, refute the discourse of salvation, and laugh at the apparent absurdity of the question. But we hope to return the speaker and the listener to the form of critique and the institutions whose borders influence their reading praxes, putting pressure on their definitional and instrumental limits. The putative limits of theory have been the subject of debates on social media popularly termed ‘method wars’, which have been astutely diagnosed by scholars like Kyla Wazana Tompkins as ‘resource wars.’ (7)

Continuing the task of creative and critical reading in humanities departments with terrible financial insecurities pushes us past our limits. The pluralization of ends and proliferation of means for the work of theory requires us to redraw the boundaries of academic labor. The humanities podcast provides a space in which we can change the substance and style of criticism today. 


  1. “The Intellectual Situation” n+1, 34 (Spring 2019): 1-8. p.1
  2.  Ibid, 2
  3.  Chad Hegelmeyer, PhD, New York University.
  4. Adorno, Theodor. “The Radio Symphony: An Experiment in Theory”, Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, University of California Press, 2002. p. 257
  5.; Lisa Carver, Dancing Queen: The Lusty Adventures of Lisa Crystal Carver, H. Holt, 1996.
  6. Transcription of King’s sing-song by Vignesh Sridharan.
  7.  Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. “The Shush”, PMLA, vol. 136, no. 3 (May 2021): 417-423. p.419


If literary criticism in 1922 looked like W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Browsing Reader” column in The Crisis or H.L. Menken’s sarcastic commentary in The Smart Set, in 2022 it looks like a blog post on the LARB, an author interview on the New Books Network, or a #booktok video. Among these new media, podcasts are uniquely equipped to combine critical innovation with public engagement.

In this paper, we ask how digital audio production performs the work of literary criticism within the new media landscape. How does the podcast form modify the relationship between the voice and the work of critique? What does criticism do when it is sounded out and published in digital formats? How does the experience of listening, within our contemporary lived contexts, change the substance and style of criticism today?

While the meaning of literature and criticism vary widely across genres of podcast, from bite-sized literary digests to long-form discussions of underread classics, we are most interested in the ones that combine literary analysis with cultural critique. Our paper examines the state of criticism today from the vantage of our shared experience as the co-hosts of High Theory. This interview-based podcast asks simple questions about difficult ideas. Often we interview scholars who have recently published books, and always we center our discussion on a keyword. This podcast defines criticism generously, and then uses breadth of that remit to play with concepts from the academy. In this paper, taking High Theory as a reference point, we discuss the vibrant life of criticism in podcast form.

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