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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Decolonizing Praxis

In this episode of High Theory, Erin Pineda talks about decolonizing praxis. Black American activists in the 1950s and 1960s used strategies of civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action as part of a broader anticolonial movement. Reading their story in an international context can help us rethink the narrative of the US civil rights movement enshrined in American political theory. 

In the episode Erin references Jack Halberstam’s concept of “low theory” which derives from the work of Stuart Hall, and appears in the book, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP 2011). She also references several mainstream liberal political philosophers who set the terms of the debate about “civil disobedience” in the US academy in the 1970s, John Rawls Theory of Justice (Harvard UP, 1971), Hugo Bedau, “On Civil Disobedience” (Journal of Philosophy 58, no. 21 (1961): 653-665) and Carl Cohen, Civil Disobedience: Conscience, Tactics, and the Law (Columbia University Press, 1971). Pineda writes against this tradition. The American activists she studies developed a different set of theoretical commitments to civil disobedience that are a bit less polite, and have a bit more potential for actual revolution. 

Erin Pineda is the Phyllis Cohen Rappaport ’68 New Century Term Professor of Government at Smith College. She teaches courses in the history of political thought, democratic theory, race and politics, social movements and American political thought. Her research interests include the politics of protest and social movements, Black political thought, race and politics, radical democracy and 20th-century American political development. If you want to learn more about the topics she discusses in this episode, read her book! It’s called Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford UP, 2021).

The image for this episode is a photograph of Black student Elizabeth Eckford being jeered by white student Hazel Bryan as she attempts to enter Little Rock Central High School, taken by Will Counts on 4 September 1957. It’s one of the more famous images of school desegregation from the US Civil Rights Movement. This digital version came from wikimedia commons.

The image for this episode is a photograph of Black student Elizabeth Eckford being jeered by white student Hazel Bryan as she attempts to enter Little Rock Central High School, taken by Will Counts on 4 September 1957. It’s one of the more famous images of school desegregation from the US Civil Rights Movement. This digital version came from wikimedia commons

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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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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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Erin L. Thompson talks about monuments, and their role in American public life. Public art intervenes in directly in politics, shaping social behavior in the present. Monuments, in her account, are a bid for immortality that says “this is how things are” but often means “this is how things should be.”

In the episode she talks about The Houston Museum of African American Culture. They are engaged in a super exciting project reinterpreting the cultural memory of the US Civil War, as the first Black cultural institution that has re-housed a Confederate monument.

If you’re keen on the history and politics of monuments, check out her brand new book: Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments. It’s coming out from Norton this Tuesday (Feb 8)! You learn more about the book, and her upcoming talks on her website:

Erin L. Thompson is an associate professor of Art Crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Her first book Possession (Yale UP, 2016) studied the history of theft at the heart of private art collections from the Ancient World to the present.

Image: Statue of a man on a horse, part of the the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial at the US Capital, described in this article from the Architect of the Capital, US government website.

Music used in promotional material: ‘Morrisson’s jig – Leslie’s march’ by Aislinn

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Kim talks with Chad Hegelmeyer about the institutional turn in literary studies.

Chad references Jeremy Rosen’s article “The Institutional Turn” from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.

We also talk about: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (Harper Collins, 1963), D.A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police (U California Press, 1989), Nancy Armstrong’s How Novels Think (Columbia UP, 2006), Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (Harvard UP, 2011), and Janice Radway’s books, Reading the Romance (UNC Press, 1984) and A Feeling for Books (UNC Press, 1997).

Chad quotes several texts referenced by Rosen:
Franco Moretti’s Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms (Verso, 2005)
Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Cornell UP, 1982)
Mark McGurl. “Ordinary Doom: Literary Studies in the Waste Land of the Present.” New Literary History 41, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 329–349.

In the longer version of our conversation, Chad gave several other examples of the “institutional turn” including: James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Harvard UP, 2005); Claire Squires, Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain (Palgrave, 2007); John B. Thompson, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Polity, 2010); Laura J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (U Chicago Press, 2008); Jim Collins Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture (Duke UP, 2010).

Chad is a friend of the pod! He writes about fact checking and literature, and he’s a postdoc in the English Department at NYU.

Today’s image is a photograph of the “Staircase of the National Museum of Slovenia” taken by Petar Milošević, posted under a creative commons attribution share-alike license on Wikimedia Commons.

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Kim interviews Alliya Dagman about mimesis.

Alliya references Plato’s Republic and various internet memes, including a John Oliver meme about how Xi Jinping hates being compared to Winnie the Pooh.

E. H. Shepard’s 1928 illustration of the honey loving Pooh bear (not yet a dictator).

Alliya is a PhD candidate in the English Department at NYU. She writes about poetics and theory, and is a vital force behind the Organism for Poetic Research. She is a badass WordPress developer too!

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