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. 

Notes.

  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. https://www.npr.org/2022/12/23/1144981383/rax-king-elin-hilderbrand-steph-cha-favorite-book-recommendations; 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

Abstract

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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Ethical AI

In this episode of High Theory, Alex Hanna talks with Nathan Kim about Ethical AI. Their conversation is part of our High Theory in STEM series, which tackles topics in science, technology, engineering, and medicine from a highly theoretical perspective. In this episode, Alex helps us think about the complicated recipes we call “artificial intelligence” and what we mean when we ask our technologies to be ethical. 

In the episode Alex references an article by Emily Tucker, called “Artifice and Intelligence,” (Tech Policy Press, 17 March 2022) which suggests we should stop using terms like “artificial intelligence” and an opinion piece in the Washington Post, on a similar theme, by Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, “We warned Google that people might believe AI was sentient. Now it’s happening” (17 June 2022). She also mentions a claim by Blake Lemoine that Google’s LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) is sentient.  We’ll leave that one to your googling, if not your judgment. 

Dr. Alex Hanna is Director of Research at the Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR). A sociologist by training, her work centers on the data used in new computational technologies, and the ways in which these data exacerbate racial, gender, and class inequality. You can read her recent article, “AI Ethics Are in Danger. Funding Independent Research Could Help,” co-authored with Dylan Baker in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and learn more about her work on her website

This week’s image was produced by DALL-E 2 responding to the prompt: “generate the image of an artificial intelligence entity, deciding to protect shareholder interests over public good, in the style of Van Gogh.”

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Neurasthenia

In this episode of High Theory, Kim talks with Saronik about neurasthenia. A disease that no longer exists, neurasthenia was a nineteenth century American epidemic of energy depletion. Thinking about this diagnosis can help us understand the social functions of medical knowledge, and how that knowledge changes over time.

In the episode Kim discusses two nineteenth-century medical texts: American Nervousness: It’s Causes and Consequences (New York: Putnam, 1881) by George Miller Beard, which popularized the diagnosis, and Fat and Blood: And How to Make Them (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1877), by S. Weir Mitchell, which popularized the “rest cure” treatment. She also references three scholarly texts: Tom Lutz’s American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Cornell UP, 1992); Carolyn Tomas de la Pena’s The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American (NYU Press, 2003); and Anson Rabinbach’s The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (UC Press, 1992).

Kim Adams is one of the co-hosts of High Theory. She works as a postdoctoral fellow at the Pennsylvania State University Humanities Institute, where she is writing a book about electricity and the body in American medicine and literature. She also runs a working group on pain management as a cultural process, called Politics of the Prescription Pad. She lives in Rhode Island and has a very large dog named Tag.

This week’s image is a 1907 painting titled “On the Southern Plain” by Frederic Remington. The painting shows soldiers on horseback in the American West. Remington was diagnosed with neurasthenia and treated with the “west cure” (discussed in the episode) by S. Weir Mitchell himself.

Off-Shore Aesthetics

Sritama Chatterjee talks about a model of literary criticism that she developed in the process of writing her new essay on shipbreaking in Bangladesh. It is a form of materialist understanding for texts, places, and geographies together, taking into account particular signifiers of a place and looking at correspondent literary responses. 

Sritama is a literary and cultural theorist of the Indian Ocean World, in the Literature program at the Dietrich School of Arts and sciences, University of Pittsburgh. Her dissertation project titled, “Ordinary Environments and Aesthetics in Contemporary Indian Ocean Archipelagic Writing” has been awarded an Andrew Mellon Pre-Doctoral Fellowship from her graduate school for outstanding research and scholarly excellence. Her work on the Indian Ocean archipelagos also takes the shape of a collaborative public-facing, community project Delta Lives, which platforms communities in Sundarbans telling their stories. As part of her commitment to rethinking environmental humanities pedagogy, she has edited a cluster on “Water Pedagogies: From the Academy and Beyond” published by NICHE Canada which brings together a set of eleven articles from scholars and activists reflecting on water pedagogy. 

Image: © 2022 Saronik Bosu

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Civil Disobedience

Eraldo Souza dos Santos talks about the invention of civil disobedience as a form of political action around the world, and the need for its redefinition to describe activism present and future. In the episode, he references John Rawls’s classic definition from A Theory of Justice (Harvard UP, 1971) and Erin Pineda’s new book, Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford UP, 2021).

Eraldo Souza dos Santos is a philosopher and historian of political thought whose research explores how political concepts have come to shape political discourse and political practice, and how political actors have come to contest the meaning of these concepts in turn. In his current project, he traces the global history of the idea of civil disobedience. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Panthéon-Sorbonne University. He has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Académie française, the Maison française d’Oxford, the Leuven Institute for Advanced Studies, the Munich Centre for Global History, the Friedrich Nietzsche College of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, the French-Dutch Network for Higher Education and Research, and the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel, among others.

Image: Bas-Relief of the Salt March led by M.K. Gandhi in March-April 1930, photograph by Nevil Zaveri, available here under Creative Commons.

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Probability

In this episode of High Theory, Justin Joque talks with Júlia Irion Martins about Probability. This conversation is part of our High Theory in STEM series, which tackles topics in science, technology, engineering, and medicine from a highly theoretical perspective. If you want to learn more about the philosophical, technical, and economic implications of probability, check out Justin’s new book, Revolutionary Mathematics: Artificial Intelligence, Statistics, and the Logic of Capitalism (Verso, 2022).

Justin Joque is a visualization librarian at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Justin’s research focuses on philosophy, media, and technology and he is also the author of Deconstruction Machines: Writing in the Age of Cyberwar (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

Image: © 2022 Saronik Bosu

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Melancholy

In this episode of High Theory, Laura Stokes talks about melancholy. One of the four humors in ancient humoral medicine, melancholy, or black bile, is a fluid substance and spiritual principle that was thought to move within the human body. A proper quantity of black bile allows one to be calm and contemplative, thoughtful and withdrawn. A superabundance produces sadness, indigestion, and a host of other evils. Research is a melancholy practice; scholars are prone to melancholic dispositions.

Throughout the episode Laura refers to Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholyan early modern text that describes the sources, symptoms, and treatments for a surplus of melancholy, in a rather meandering way, with an entire separate disquisition on love melancholy. It was published in multiple versions over Burton’s lifetime – people usually cite the 1638 edition.

Laura Stokes is an associate professor of history at Stanford University where they study Early Modern Europe. Their first book Demons of Urban Reform: Early European Witch Trials and Criminal Justice, 1430-1530 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) examines the origins of witchcraft prosecution in fifteenth-century Europe against the backdrop of a general rise in the prosecution of crime and other measures of social control. They are currently working on a microhistory of a murder conspiracy within the Basel butchers’ guild at the turn of the sixteenth century, which is really about Early Modern economic cultures. And they run pretty amazing summer reading groups.

Image: © 2022 Saronik Bosu

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100th Episode: Public Humanities

Saronik Bosu talks about humanities work engaging diverse communities and publics, misconceptions about what the ‘public’ in public humanities might mean as well as the recent attention paid to it by academic departments. In a longer version of the conversation, some individual instances of various digital humanities and archival projects are discussed. Here he speaks mainly from the perspective of his own work as a humanities podcaster and creator of humanities programming.

Saronik Bosu is a doctoral candidate at the Department of English, New York University. He researches literary rhetoric and economic thought in contexts of decolonization. He is co-host of this podcast and the 2022-23 NYU-Mellon Public Humanities Doctoral Fellow. His work has appeared on journals like Interventions and Movable Type, as well as Avidly and Post45. He also makes art and works together its integration with scholarship.

Image: © 2022 Saronik Bosu

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Red Cat

In this episode of High Theory, Leigh Claire La Berge talks about red cats: communist cats, revolutionary tigers, radical felines of all stripes. The red cat is a provocation, and an invitation to think differently about economic history. Leigh Claire continues our spooky theory of cat concepts for Halloween 2022. 

Her book Marx for Cats: A Radical Bestiary will be published by Duke University Press this coming summer. It takes seriously the premise that you can tell the history of capitalism through the figure of the cat. As a bestiary, it has a hundred pictures of cats, from a vast archive that spans the ninth century to the present. It began as a series of filmed conversations with cats on Marxist theory.  You can watch them at marxforcats.com 

In the episode she references The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau. Each of the two cover images from the initial publication depict cats.  One of them forms the cover image for this episode. In the longer conversation, she referenced Kate Evans’s Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso 2015) and Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese’s Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics (Verso, 2022). 

Leigh Claire La Berge is an Associate Professor of English at BMCC CUNY, where she studies the intersection of contemporary cultural production and economic forms. Her prior books include Scandals and Abstraction: Financial Fiction of the Long 1980s (Oxford, 2014) and Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (Duke, 2019). 

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