Animal

In this episode of High Theory, Mackenzie Cooley talks about animals. The animal lies at the center of science and the human, from imperial conquest and Enlightenment thought to the creatures on our dinner plates and sitting beside us at the table. The practices of animal breeding and the politics of making life are, in Mackenzie’s account, key to understanding the history of race, as a concept that emerged in the Early Modern World.

For more animal encounters, check out her book The Perfection of Nature: Animals, Breeding, and Race in the Renaissance (Chicago UP, 2022). In it, Italian horses and Mexican dogs provide examples of controlled breeding before eugenics, help us understand how human difference was understood in the colonial encounter, and illuminate undertheorized notions of generation and its discontents in the more-than-human world. 

Tag dog and Bartolomé the cat sometimes participate in the making of High Theory, but the podcast is not necessarily pitched to non-human ears. If you want radio for animals, listen to Bad Animals on WFMU. 

Mackenzie Cooley is Assistant Professor of History, Director of Latin American Studies at Hamilton College. She is an intellectual historian who studies the uses, abuses, and understandings of the natural world in early modern science and medicine. And she has two Newfoundland dogs. 

The image accompanying this episode is a painting of a Newfoundland Dog by Charles Henry Schwanfelder (1812), from the collection of Temple Newsam House, Leeds Museums and Galleries

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Melodrama

We often misuse the word melodrama with abandon, especially to characterize other people’s behaviors, but Greg Vargo defines it for us once and for all. Emerging in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the predominant Western theatrical form, it is a genre of crisis. To that end, it employed hyperbolic language, extreme situations, extraordinary coincidences, stark oppositions and so on. Greg talks about his own ongoing work on melodramas about race, their histories of performance, and the storied career of the African American actor Ira Aldridge.

Greg Vargo is Associate Professor at the Department of English, New York University. His research focuses on the literary and cultural milieu of nineteenth-century British protest movements and the interplay between politics, periodical culture, the novel and theater. His first book, An Underground History of Early Victorian Fiction: Chartism, Radical Print Culture, and the Social Problem Novel (Cambridge UP, 2018), won the 2019 North American Victorian Studies Association’s award for best book of the year in Victorian Studies. He has recently edited Chartist Drama (Manchester UP, 2020), a collection of four plays written or performed by members of the working-class movement for social and political rights known as Chartism. A new project focuses on anti-imperialism in nineteenth-century popular culture (across such media as penny novels and stage melodrama) as well as in radical politics.

Image: © 2024 Saronik Bosu

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Close Reading

In this episode of High Theory, Jonathan Kramnick talks about Close Reading. Contrary to the name, it is less a form of slow or focused reading than an immersive practice of writing. The classic methodology of New Criticism has become, in Kramnick’s estimation, the shared foundation of literary studies in the university.

Our conversation was inspired by Jonathan’s new book, Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies (Chicago, 2023). In the book he aims to “present a view of literary criticism as it is practiced across the academy in order to defend its standing as a contribution to knowledge” (vii). His defense of this foundational critical method joins a slate of recent metacritical books on the discipline of literary study, and the state of the humanities today.

Jonathan Kramnick is the Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale University. His research and teaching are in eighteenth-century literature and philosophy, foundations of literary theory and criticism, and interdisciplinary approaches to the arts. His prior publications include Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness (Chicago, 2018), Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson (Stanford, 2010), and Making the English Canon: Print Capitalism and the Cultural Past, 1700-1770 (Cambridge, 1999). His current book project on Alexander Pope, William Cowper, and the poetics of designed environments is titled Earthworks: Two Before Romanticism. He is also director of the Lewis Walpole Library and the editor (with Steven Pincus) of the Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History for Yale University Press.

The image accompanying this episode was drawn by Saronik Bosu in 2024.

Criticism

In this episode of High Theory, Matt Seybold tells us about Criticism, the glue that holds the bricks of culture together. Cultural critics are a necessary component of the intellectual ecosystem, who have the power to analyze both the material conditions and the myths that make up our world. 

Matt is the host of the American Vandal Podcast at the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. In his recent podcast series, Criticism, LTD, Matt investigated the state of criticism in the academy and the public sphere. There is a nifty substack newsletter with the transcripts from Criticism, LTD, if you’re keen. Kim and Saronik were among the many podcasters, public intellectuals, and critics that Matt interviewed for the series, and we’re excited to have him back on High Theory to tell us about his investigations. 

In the episode he offers a recuperative reading of Mark Twain’s acerbic take on critics in his late notebooks: “The critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug; he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” (see p. 392 of this Harper & Brothers, 1935 edition of Twain’s Collected Works, on archive.org). He references Jacques Derrida’s book, Limited Inc (Northwestern UP, 1988), which contains the *famous* essay “Signature, Event, Context” and a critical debate about Apartheid. And he also discusses Jed Esty’s Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at Its Limits (Stanford UP, 2022) and our episode with Jed on the Rhetoric of Decline. You can also take a listen back to Matt’s earlier episode with us on  Economics

Matt Seybold is Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, as well as Resident Scholar at the Center For Mark Twain Studies. He is the executive producer and host of the American Vandal Podcast, and founding editor of MarkTwainStudies.org. He is co-editor (with Michelle Chihara) of of the Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics (2018)and (with Gordon Hutner) a 2019 special issue of American Literary History on “Economics & Literary Studies in The New Gilded Age.” Recent articles can be found in the Mark Twain Annual, American Studies, Reception, and Los Angeles Review of Books. He tweets (or exes?) @MEASeybold

The image for this episode was made by Saronik Bosu in 2024.

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Teaching

In this special episode of High Theory, Ramsés Martínez Barquero and Abigail Cowan interview their graduate student colleagues about teaching. They turn our attention to graduate study as one of the foundational aspects in building academic knowledge, and show us graduate instructors encountering the classroom as a learning environment for teachers and students. Abigail and Ramses recorded interviews with eight fellow graduate students in a story circle they held at the PennState Humanities Institute as part of their Public Humanities Fellowship program. The episode weaves together stories of anxiety and humor, pushing against self doubt, and finding community while pursuing graduate studies.

Ramsés Martínez Barquero is a M.A/PhD student in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He earned a BA in Spanish Philology in Barcelona, where he was born and raised. While  at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Ramsés collaborated with GEXEL (Grupo de Estudios del Exilio Literario), a group that focuses on the Spanish Republican Exile, which took place after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). His interests and research projects focus on the republican exile, such as Max Aub’s and Antonio Buero Vallejo’s epistles, almost unknown authors like Álvaro de Orriols, and the communication between the exiled authors and the ones who lived inside Spain during Franco’s dictatorship. Ramsés is also interested in contemporary theater and authors such as Juan Mayorga. Overall, Ramsés investigates Spanish Republican Exile along with XXth and XXIth century Spanish literature, focusing on exile, literature during the dictatorship and cultural studies that focus on topics such as cultural memory or historical memory in Spain and Europe.

Abigail Cowan is a graduate student for the Department of English and a teaching assistant for English and Comparative Literature. She is experienced in teaching Rhetoric and Composition, Human Rights and World Literature, and Technical Writing. Her inclusive and collaborative pedagogical approach emboldens students to advocate for their learning needs and seize their passions. Abigail earned her Bachelor’s degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. Her current research interests include women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Marxist feminism, speculative fiction, and digital humanities. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, singing, reading, and cuddling her cat, Omar.

Kristina Bowers is a PhD student at Penn State University studying Rhetoric and Composition and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Their research interests include queer/trans, feminist, and embodied rhetorics; digital humanities methods; Writing Program Administration; and editing. They hold a Masters of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in Teaching K-12 English as a Second or Other Language as well as a BA in English/Women’s and Gender Studies. They have experience teaching EL students at a K-5 school, consulting and program coordination in a university Writing Center, and editing professional and academic materials. In their free time, Kristina enjoys hiking and cooking with their wife.

Vani Gupta is a doctoral student in the HDFS Department at Penn State University. With research experience at the Decision Lab in IIT Kanpur, she focused on studying the impact of Covid-19 on anxiety and foraging decisions. Vani holds a Master’s degree in Biological Sciences and Bio-engineering from IIT Kanpur and a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from Delhi Technological University. Her research interests include neuroscience of mindfulness and empathy through decision making, across different developmental periods. In her free time, she enjoys singing Hindustani classical music, learning Sanskrit, and volunteering. Vani also loves traveling and engaging in interesting conversations with ‘humans’ across the world.

Ash Mayes is a master’s student in the English department. Her studies center rhetoric and composition studies with particular emphasis on digital multimodal composition. She is interested in studies of labor, food, and technology. Additionally, Ash teaches rhetoric and composition and technical writing courses to undergraduate students. Her pedagogy takes a universal design approach to build upon and expand the multiple and intersecting literacies, skills, and perspectives that students come into the classroom already possessing.

Ana Sofía Semo is a second-year graduate student in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, and now she teaches Spanish 2 in the Spanish Basic Language Program. She obtained her B.A. in Social Communication on which she specialized in film language. Her undergraduate dissertation was on the representation of sexuality and eroticism in the Mexican Golden Age Cinema. She also studied Semiotics and History of Ideas at the National University of Entre Ríos in Argentina. Moreover, she worked as a soft news reporter for Reforma newspaper in Mexico City and in the communications area of an NGO. Her current research interests include the representation of Jewish women in contemporary Latin American literature, Jewish studies and Gender and Women studies. In her free time, Ana Sofía loves discovering new places on her bike and cooking.

María José Andrade Gabiño is a Ph.D. student in the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese Department. She holds a BA in literature from the Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP) with an honors thesis about masculinity constructions in the Ateneo de la Juventud, a group of young writers at the early twentieth-century who became essential figures in the configuration of post-revolutionary Mexico. She has worked as a journalist in LADO B, an independent digital newspaper in Puebla, Mexico. Her journalistic investigations have been around cultural production, feminism, LGBT+ community and the current situation of violence against women in Mexico.

Alex Mika is a second-year PhD student in the Penn State English Department studying Shakespeare’s cultural legacy via literary, cinematic, and dramatic adaptations of his works. He is especially interested in exploring the ways in which Russian literary and dramatic figures have engaged with Shakespeare’s plays. He also enjoys learning languages, playing the piano, and occasionally falling down rabbit holes. 

The image for this episode was made by Saronik Bosu in 2023. 

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Plot

In this episode of High Theory, Pardis Dabashi tells us about plot. A plot consists of a change with stakes that establish norms. This seemingly simple structure shapes novels, films, politics, and our world, from easy seductions of comfort to difficult promises of liberation.

In the episode, Pardis references Thomas Edison’s 1903 film, Electrocuting an Elephant, which is super sad, and kind of terrifying, but an economical explanation of plot. She also discusses Max Ophüls’s 1953 film, The Earrings of Madame de… as an example of a film with a potentially liberatory plot. We recommend you watch the latter, not the former. Other texts referenced in this episode include Mary Anne Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time (Harvard, 2002) and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Duke, 2011) and Female Complaint (Duke, 2008).

The occasion for our conversation was Pardis’s new book, Losing the Plot: Film and Feeling in the Modern Novel (U Chicago Press, 2023). If you’d like to get yourself a copy there’s a 30% discount on the University of Chicago Press website with the promo code UCPNEW. It’s a book about film and literary modernism, including the work of Nella Larsen, Djuna Barnes, and William Faulkner. The cover is really beautiful, and it’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested in either of the genres it addresses.

Pardis Dabashi is an Assistant Professor of Literatures in English and Film Studies at Bryn Mawr College, where she is also Affiliated Faculty in the Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and North African Studies Program (MECANA). She has published everywhere, and is friends with everyone! She teaches courses in twentieth-century literature, film studies, Middle East studies, and theory. She was also one of the first guests on High Theory! You can listen to her 2020 episode on The Autonomous Work of Art if you’re feeling a flashback.

The image for this episode is a publicity still from George Cukor’s 1936 MGM film Camille, showing Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in a tense embrace. Digital image from Wikimedia Commons.

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Nature-Study

In this episode, John Linstrom tells us about Nature-Study, an educational movement that began in the rural classrooms of American Progressive Era. It takes students and learners of all kinds out of the classroom, away from the textbook, and into the world, to observe and learn. It offers us a mode of attunement to the world that we might use to heal the divide between rural and urban, and kindle the kind of social change we need to get the world off fossil fuels.

Our conversation is centered around the new scholarly edition John edited of Liberty Hyde Bailey’s The Nature-Study Idea (Cornell University Press, 2023), which just came out. It’s the first book in the new The Liberty Hyde Bailey Library, a series for Cornell University Press reintroducing the ecological and critical-agrarian writings of L. H. Bailey (1858-1954). John was one of our first guests on High Theory back in 2020 – so if you want to listen back, you can check out the episode on Ecosphere. John told me when were were preparing to record that there was some debate about the dash in “Nature-Study” back in the day, but that he was on the side of the dashers, because the women teachers who led the movement favored the dash.

John is a Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Climate and Inequality at the Climate Museum in NYC. He is also the author of a book of poems called To Leave for Our Own Country coming out with Black Lawrence Press in April 2024. He believes in poetry’s power to foster communities for change, human and more-than-human stories and visions of climate justice He received his PhD in Literature from New York University and his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. John, Kim, and Saronik spent a lot of time together as grad students at 244 Greene St. in NYC. John and Kim used to run a working group on agriculture and literature, called Farm to Text. John lives in Queens, where gleans deep joy from holding his baby daughter, singing choral music, and eating large quantities of pesto.

The image for this episode was made by Saronik Bosu, especially for his friend John, in 2023.

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Sisterhood

In this episode of High Theory, Katherine Turk tells us about Sisterhood, a familial metaphor used to evoke gendered solidarity in women’s movement of the mid-sixties and seventies, and a utopian ideal of equality within the human family. It’s a universalizing but aspirational concept that helped feminists build a political coalition. 

Our conversation is based upon Katherine’s new book about the National Organization of Women: The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America (MacMillan, 2023). This mainstream feminist organization is often neglected in histories of the period, dismissed as a liberal organization dedicated to incremental change. But NOW was an expansive organization that changed over time, shifted the conversation and legal structures in the US, and left an important historical record that we can learn from in social justice work today. 

Katherine Turk is an associate professor of History and an adjunct associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. Her research and teaching focus on women, sex, gender, law, labor, and modern social movements. Her first book Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace (Politics and Culture in Modern America Series, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) studies the history of Title VII of the 1964 US Civil Rights Act, which outlawed workplace discrimination on the basis of such personal attributes as sex, race, and religion. 

The image for this week was made by Saronik Bosu. It shows Aileen Hernandez, Mary Jean Collins, and Patricia Hill Burnett, leaders of NOW who are the primary subjects of Katherine’s book.

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Self Help

In this episode of High Theory, Angela Hume tells us about Self Help, not the neoliberal strategy of self-actualization through consumer choices, but the radical political movement of gynecological self-help, that flourished in the late twentieth century and created a set of portable political tactics based in anarchist feminist philosophy. 

In the episode, she references Alondra Nelson’s book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (Minnesota UP, 2013); Michelle Murphy’s Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Entanglements of Feminism, Health, and Technoscience (Duke UP, 2012); and several health activist organizations, including the Women’s Choice Clinic in Oakland, CA; AidAccess which provides mail order medication assisted abortion; and MYA Network, a group of clinicians seeking to expand abortion access in primary care settings. 

Angela suggested we include three links that everyone should have at their fingertips, PlanC (plancpills.org) which helps people access abortion pills, AidAccess (aidaccess.org) the pill fulfillment service described above, and I Need an A (ineedana.com), a clinic locator. 

In our longer conversation, she also named the Keep Our Clinics campaign, a fundraising effort to support independent abortion clinics, to which pre-sales of her book contributed. We’re sorry we didn’t get this up early enough for you to participate in the pre-sale! But now the book is out in the world, you can even read a review of it in The Guardian

Our conversation is based Angela’s new book, Deep Care: The Radical Activists Who Provided Abortions, Defied the Law, and Fought to Keep Clinics Open(link is external) (AK Press, 2023). A work of public scholarship and a history of medicine, the book tells a story of Bay Area abortion defense—from feminist clinical practice, to underground abortion provision, to street politics and clinic defense—from the 1970s to 2000s. You can read an excerpt from the book in the Post45 contemporaries collection “Abortion Now, Abortion Forever,” which was the starting point for our conversation on High Theory. 

Angela Hume is a feminist historian, critic, and poet, who teaches at UC Berkeley. Her creative and expository writing classes address environmental and health justice, working-class and multiethnic American literatures, feminist and queer storytelling, and more. Beyond Deep Care, Angela is co-editor of Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field (U of Iowa P, 2018). Her full-length books of poetry include Middle Time (Omnidawn, 2016) and Interventions for Women (Omnidawn, 2021).

The image for this episode was made by Saronik Bosu in 2023.

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Plagiarism

In this episode of High Theory, Geoffrey Sanborn tells us about Plagiarism. A concept emerged with the idea of originality, plagiarism challenges some of our most deeply held notions of individualism and status. Hatred of plagiarism is so baked into our culture that it evokes a gut response of disgust, which prevents us from actually analyzing it as a form of social behavior. 

In the episode, Geoff talks about websites that promise to “humanize” chatGPT content, like the AI Text Converter and the Plagiarism Remover. He talks about postcolonial theory, as a tool that might help us analyze plagiarism, and invokes Homi Bhabha’s idea of “colonial mimicry,” which appears in his 1984 article “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” He also talks about the actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, and references David Graeber’s book Debt, which we ran an episode on way back in 2020. It was in the early days of High Theory, so apologies for the audio quality, but we think you’ll like it. 

Geoff is a Samuel Williston Professor of English and department chair at Amherst College. He has published many books about nineteenth century American literature, most recently Plagiarama! William Wells Brown and the Aesthetics of Attractions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), which was the inspiration for this conversation. It’s a really great book!  You should read it. 

The image for this episode was made by Saronik Bosu in 2023. 

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