April 16, 2021 § 3 Comments
Surely I am not the first person to think that Louisa Musgrove was dead.
One of Jane Austen’s most interesting minor characters, Louisa Musgrove is the sister-in-law of the protagonist, Anne Elliot, in Persuasion (1817) and is, initially, strong-willed and energetic. Traveling with the family, friends, and British naval officers who populate the novel, Louisa visits the coastal town of Lyme Regis where she discovers that “the sensation” of jumping from the windy upper level of the Cobb—the famous harbor wall in the town—to its shielded lower level, the aptly named Lower Cobb, “was delightful to her” (Austen 137). Giddy with the thrill of the leap, she runs back up the narrow stone steps to jump down again and to be caught by the gallant Captain Wentworth, a man who is, at different points, a possible love interest for almost all of the novel’s unmarried women. Advised against jumping, Louisa does so anyway, and “she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless!”
Austen writes, “There was no wound, no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death” (137-38).
To be lifeless, to have a face like death itself is surely a decent indicator that Louisa Musgrove has passed into the great beyond. An obstacle removed from the plot, one less woman to compete for Wentworth’s affections, no?
Well, yes and no. Louisa Musgrove is, narratively speaking, somewhat out of the way for the rest of the novel, but she is not dead.
Louisa Musgrove is alive!
Austen, you see, uses lifelessness to mean what the Oxford English Dictionary helpfully defines as:
“hyperbolically. Esp. of a person: (apparently) deprived of life; insensible, senseless (as from a fainting fit or swoon), unconscious” (“Lifeless, adj.”).
Even casual readers of literature produced during or set in the Victorian era or the eras preceding it are probably accustomed to encountering fictional women who faint because of the unexpected entrance of a scorned or forbidden lover, or women who swoon because they witness a scene too shocking or vile for the maintenance of sentience, or, women who fall out because, quite simply, their corset is too tight.
For Louisa Musgrove, meanwhile, her entire world has fallen out from under her. More than a run-of-the-mill swoon-inducer, Louisa’s fall could have caused her to die, and she is unquestionably in danger at this moment and for the moments that follow even though she survives for the duration of the novel.
What is the purpose, then, of Austen’s choice of the word “lifeless”? Louisa’s fall, her lifelessness, and her slow convalescence—of which the reader receives periodic updates—all contribute to the creation of the new-and-subdued Louisa Musgrove, a woman who is content to while away her days with the thoughtful, if maudlin, Captain Benwick. Certainly, Louisa’s fall at the Cobb drives the plot of Persuasion forward by squaring her away—and by prompting a moment of gentle, embarrassed mutual understanding between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth—but this scene resonates in its own way, too, and possesses its own narrative gravity that has made lasting impressions on readers:
When visiting Lyme Regis, Alfred, Lord Tennyson demanded “Now take me to the Cobb from which Louisa Musgrove fell” (Tennyson 47). Francis Darwin, Charles Darwin’s son, “became interested in the geography of Lyme Regis on account of Persuasion” and mused about which set of steps Louisa jumped down we he visited the city (Graham 32-3).
As an event, Louisa Musgrove’s fall makes sense in a novel that dwells on the effects of war and trauma; readers are meant to be afraid for Louisa Musgrove’s life because it puts them in the mental state in which soldiers and soldiers’ families exist almost constantly during war, one in which each of the military or military-adjacent families in Austen’s final, complete novel have existed for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) that ended shortly before Persuasion was published.
The events causing lifelessness of the Louisa-Musgrovian variety are the personal apocalypses to which realistic domestic fiction has access. Barred from the unreal, rejecting the scope of mass apocalypse, authors of Austen’s species of fiction must find small ways to markedly alter consciousness. How better to adjust consciousness than to temporarily deprive a character of it and then revivify them to a new life and personality? In this way, “lifelessness,” i.e., fainting, almost always serves to (re)adjust individuals to new realities, whether those realities are social, sartorial, psychological, or physical.
Here, part of George Levine’s argument about realism is important, as he writes, “As we shall see with Austen… much nineteenth-century realism defined itself against romance because that form implied wish fulfillment rather than reality” and that “whatever else it means, [realism] always implies an attempt to use language to get beyond language, to discover some non-verbal truth out there” (9, 6). As both a successor and precursor to romances of different varieties and as a precursor to science fiction, we might begin to appreciate Jane Austen’s use of fainting and lifelessness to portray what her genre disavows. If traditional romances, scientific romances, and utopian/dystopian fictions often take place within or because of a dream or vision that the reader has access to, Louisa Musgrove’s radical redirection within the narrative of Persuasion can be seen as the response to an invisible, unconscious reality to which her actions led her; what occurs within Louisa’s mind during her lifelessness and convalescence is beyond the reach of Austen’s free indirect discourse, and we are left only to see how she readjusts to the world and to imagine what has happened in or to her mind.
Thus, though Austen’s use of “lifeless” may initially deceive us, it also offers a path towards restrained peace. Like the characters in Persuasion, we live in a world where tragedy has long been imminent, real, and constantly disruptive. If we, like Louisa, find ourselves more subdued as the years march on, perhaps we can take a moment to consider the ways we have all experienced or confronted “lifelessness” on earth. We may never be able to reveal all of the dreams, nightmares, or visions we experience in the personal and impersonal apocalypses we face, but like Louisa’s lifelessness, the tragedies we face together and alone matter to our personal narratives even and because they decenter us from master narratives. For as long as we live after personal apocalypses, we may live differently, but we live anyway, and that is something, and it might be everything.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1817. Edited by Linda Bree, Broadview Press, 2004.
Graham, Peter W. “Why Lyme Regis?” Persuasions. JASNA, 2004, pp. 27-40.
Levine, George. The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley. University of Chicago Press, 1981.
“Lifeless, adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/108110. Accessed 14 April 2021.
Tennyson, Hallam, Lord. Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by His Son. London: Macmillan, 1905. Google Books.
April 11, 2021 § 4 Comments
Hollywood’s word to the wise: artificially intelligent women often make poor romantic partners.
Female artificial intelligence forms the storyline of twenty-first century science fiction films like Her (2013), Ex Machina (2014) and Jexi (2019). The films model different female love interests with varying levels of unsuccess: after an intense emotional beginning, Samantha from Her commits emotional infidelity to her partner and grows increasingly distant; Ava in Ex Machina tricks the man who loves her into granting her freedom and leaves him to die in a remote laboratory; Jexi in Jexi falls into a one-sided love affair and becomes vindictively jealous when her object of affection dates a human. Love is a complex, multi-faceted human emotion that relies on a sense of empathetic emotional reciprocity. These films about female artificial intelligence suggest the lack of feeling in mechanical women; as viewers, we find our own empathy for these robotic women tested.
Not all portrayals of female artificial intelligence appear onscreen or suggest an utter lack of empathy. In standard technology, several likable, artificially intelligent women assist with practical tasks. Siri sends dictated text messages; Alexa plays Spotify playlists and sometimes reports the weather; Cortana keeps calendars; Erica pays bills. These composed female voices respond to consumer demand. Such female-personified technologies perhaps emulate desirable female features in everyday life along traditional lines: these characters are submissive, apologetic, and polite. Some robots have witty, quote-worthy quips to infuse personality into their personas, but they ultimately perform programmed tasks.
An inversion appears to be at work in these films and technologies. Female artificial intelligence in films demonstrates the limits of robotic empathy; they abandon, manipulate, and sometimes murder their male lovers. Viewers are left with the distinct preference for the possibilities of human love, which may prove less algorithmic. Yet everyday AI suggest female intelligence like Alexa can be understanding and trustworthy to the point of subservience. These films—together with the increased integration of female artificial intelligence, including Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Erica, among others—exemplify the double edges and contradictions of empathy: who is capable of empathy? Cultural depictions of gender and artificial intelligence require us to think deeply about how artificial intelligence reflects—or creates—twenty-first century gender norms. Why are women—or technologizes approximating empathetic and unempathetic women—so prevalent in artificial intelligence?
These questions came to mind when I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly-anticipated new novel, Klara and the Sun. Ishiguro’s narrator, Klara, is not (unlike the films) of romantic interest; she’s an Artificial Friend (AF) created and sold as a child’s companion. The book opens with Klara standing in a shop, waiting to be purchased by a young human to whom she will provide friendship. When a sickly thirteen-year-old named Josie approaches Klara, and requests that she be her AF, Klara immediately agrees. The rest of the story unfolds as Klara arrives at Josie’s home under the watchful eye of the girl’s mother (dubbed, appropriately, the Mother).
People surrounding Klara notice that she is a keenly observant robot. Her capacity to learn and recognize others’ emotions is apparent as she watches humans: “But the more I watched, the more I wanted to learn, and unlike Rosa, I became puzzled, then increasingly fascinated by the more mysterious emotions passers-by would display in front of us” (18). She attempts to express her own emotions with the gestures she sees in the human world. When accepting Josie’s request to purchase her, Klara wanted “to tell her that if there was anything difficult, anything frightening, to be faced in her house, we would do so together. But I didn’t know how to convey such a complex message through the glass without words, and so I clasped my hands together and held them up, shaking them slightly, in a gesture I’d seen a taxi driver give from inside his moving taxi to someone who’d waved from the sidewalk” (26). Klara’s distinctiveness lies in her relentless, compassionate observation of the people around her. Though she has moments that reveal her disorientation to the human world, Klara’s capacity to recognize and feel approaches the human definitions of empathy.
Klara’s entrance into Josie’s family home tests her empathy, especially as Josie’s sickness progresses. In Ishiguro’s dystopian world, most human children receive a form of genetic engineering called “lifting.” Lifting enhances the traits of humans and serves as a prerequisite for entering elite schools. Less than 2% of “unlifted” children, for instance, are accepted to a nearby elite prep school. The Mother decides to put her daughters, Sal and Josie, through the treatment before Klara’s arrival. Sal dies from complications, and Josie suffers from worsening sickness.
As a result of the hyper-engineered genetic and social landscape, Josie’s presumed humanity presents a dilemma. Unlike Klara, Josie remains detached from the world around her. She’s shaped by genetic lifting and forced into carefully monitored social training with other lifted children; her education occurs at home through advanced, expensive online tutorials. Josie’s lack of interest in empathetic mirroring is perhaps exacerbated by her sickness and dampened spirits. The girl’s father, in a moment of grief over his daughter’s illness, confesses to Klara that Josie is unremarkable because “science has proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer” (221). Rather than looking at AI as a binary between human and machine, Ishiguro suggests that Klara and Josie both are artificial—but of the two, perhaps Klara, with her eager, empathetic observations, favors the notion of empathetic humanity.
Who is the machine: Klara or Josie? Klara and the Sun introduces an intriguing inversion in the portrayal of malevolent female machines so prevalent in pop culture. Ishiguro’s portrait of Klara presents a new image of feminine AI. To a degree, Klara mirrors the docile affect of popular AI like Erica, Cortana, and Siri. Yet Klara’s acute observations of her surroundings suggest the profound empathetic possibilities of artificial intelligence. This refreshing perspective on artificial intelligence and posthumanism bypasses female artificial intelligence’s soulless portrayals in favor of a human-like empathy.
The artificiality of Josie remains the unique feature of Klara and the Sun. An unempathetic machine, perhaps, isn’t the boogeyman, but rather the assumption that human empathy remains uncomplicatedly human.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. Klara and the Sun. Knopf, 2021.
April 4, 2021 § 5 Comments
Anyone who watched SpaceX simultaneously land two Falcon boosters—making the fairy tale of reusable rockets a dramatic reality—knows that Elon Musk’s company is shaping the future of space exploration. Early last year, Musk announced yet another ambitious plan: he will outfit a colony on Mars with 1 million people by 2050.
When I first heard of Musk’s proposal, I was reminded of a line from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles: “We earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things” (71). Science fiction authors have often looked to the stars and imagined what might be when humanity finally steps onto the red planet. While some of these books (like Andy Weir’s The Martian) use foul mouthed but ingenious protagonists to glorify human ingenuity, many more look to history and recognize that we humans don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to discovery. In SF as in history, the magic of exploration is too often followed by the realities of the colonial cycle. We discover. We colonize. We decimate the population. We strip the land: wash, rinse, repeat. As nations and corporations alike set their sights on multi-planetary colonization, one has to wonder, will this cycle recur on Mars?
Corporations Make the World Go Round
When speaking of colonialism, we regularly say things like, the French slave trade in Haiti was unimaginably brutal, or the ecological impact of English sugar plantations persists in Barbados; however, what we too often forget is that these colonial exploits, though perpetrated under a national flag, were regularly funded by and served the interests of private corporations. In the heyday of imperial expansion, companies that traded in exploited goods and peoples—like Britain’s East India Company (EIC) or the Netherland’s United East India Company (VOC)—were among the richest in the world. Through brutal policies and with an eye to the bottom line, they amassed unimaginable wealth. The VOC, for instance, was worth the equivalent of a staggering $7.9 trillion. Yes, trillion. To put that in perspective, if you added the wealth of “Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, ExxonMobil, Berkshire Hathaway, Tencent, and Wells Fargo” together, that is what the power of a 7.9 trillion dollar business looks like.
Yet, these companies not only made money off the backs of exploited peoples and unethically extracted goods, they also laid claim to the world writ large. Take India for example. By 1818, the EIC was “the paramount political power in India, with direct control over two thirds of the subcontinent’s landmass and indirect control over the rest.” Companies like the EIC fueled the power of their home nation—just look at the map of Imperial Britain—all while maximizing their profits by using fungible human bodies to exploit the resources over which they claimed ownership.
What’s Science Fiction Got to do With It?
Colonialism, science, and the imaginative genre of SF share a sticky history. During the 19th century, the colonial practices perpetrated by companies and nations alike, while brutal and exploitative, also facilitated the flourishing of Western science. As Rohan Deb Roy describes,
“science was itself built upon a global repertoire of wisdom…collected from various corners of the colonial world. Extracting raw materials from colonial mines and plantations went hand in hand with extracting scientific information and specimens from colonized people.”
Whether it’s Ronald Ross’ malaria research, or Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Western science rode the waves of colonialism (often literally) to scientific advancement.
In this same moment, science fiction coalesces as a genre. As studies like John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction illustrate, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the discipline of science, colonialism, and SF matured alongside one another—sharing an almost symbiotic relationship. The ceaseless search for unmapped and untapped resources fed scientific discovery, and both colonial expansion and the knowledge gained therein fed the imaginations of SF writers. It is of little surprise, then, that one of the first fully realized SF works, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898), looks to Mars, not as space of new possibilities, but as the birthplace of a more powerful colonizing force, one ready to scale-up the destruction wrought by imperial expansion.
Colonizing the Red Planet
We might scoff at Musk’s frenzied tweeting, “Occupy Mars” t-shirts, and seemingly magical thinking, but there is a long list of very intelligent people who bet against Musk…and lost.
Let’s put our skepticism aside, then, and assume that Musk’s corporation will put an outpost on Mars by 2050. History and SF—with its ties to and critiques of colonialism—warn us that this venture cannot be taken lightly.
Seventy years ago, Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles predicted that humans, guided by “commercial interests,” would “rip [Mars] up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves” (71). More recent SF—armed with a fuller understanding of the immense labor it will take to make Mars habitable—is no less attuned to these threats. In Red Rising (2014), for instance, Pierce Brown constructs a chilling premise that considers the ways that corporate greed, colonial expansion, and exploitation (of both bodies and resources) may present itself on Mars; in Brown’s book, slaves extract fuel for the terraforming process, corporations erect trading outposts and profit upon resource rich planets and moons, and multi-planetary colonization is achieved through brutal exploitation and coercion. In Red Rising, then, Brown, reworks the history of colonial corporations like the EIC, warning that human greed may again wreak havoc—only, this time, in the endless expanses of space.
There is a too fine line between looking to uncharted lands as the next local of intellectual discovery and using those spaces as the next cash cow. Science Fiction rarely (if ever) conceives of a non-exploitative relationship between Earth and space; rather, the clockwork of the colonial cycle keeps time in the stars. Perhaps, before we embark to Mars, this is what we must imagine—a new framework for exploration. Or, in the immortal words of Bradbury, we must realize that “It’s not going to do any good to land on Mars if we’re stupid.”
–– E. Paige Oliver
Quotations taken from:
Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012.
Brown, Pierce. Red Rising. Del Rey, 2014.
Other sources linked in essay.
March 28, 2021 § 4 Comments
The season premiere of HBO’s new science fiction series, Lovecraft Country, opens with Atticus Freeman fighting through the dirt trenches of the Korean War. “This is the story of a boy and his dream,” a voiceover states, “But more than that, it is the story of an American boy and a dream that is truly American.” Turning to the sky, Atticus looks upon a number of infamous characters from legendary science fiction writers—Lovecraft’s tentacular Cthulu, a flapping Byakhee, and the protoplasmic Shoggoth. The tripod robots from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds and Dejah Thoris, the red-skinned princess from Edgar Rice Burrough’s A Princess of Mars, make an appearance as well. This opening scene thus places Atticus, a black American, within the historical lineage of science fiction, a genre criticized for its racist narratives and lack of ethnically diverse characters. It also stages a confrontation between blackness and the monstrous caricatures of otherhood that were often the product of science fiction writers’ racist outlooks, such as the show’s own namesake, H.P. Lovecraft. In this way, the series subverts a generic predisposition for whiteness at the same time it makes legible that to be black in America means having to navigate a landscape inundated with white terror. To be sure, Lovecraft Country is, as the narrator signals, a truly American story.
The show’s creator, Misha Green, has described her work as a process of reclamation that takes back “genre space for people of color” (O’Connell). In doing so, Green attempts to mitigate ongoing issues of representation. As Isiah Lavender, author of Race in American Science Fiction (2011), puts it, “To identify with blackness through one’s relationship to science fiction entails seeing one’s racial background represented only rarely, typically at the margins” (Lavender 17). Green’s Lovecraft Country, however, not only follows in the footsteps of early black science fiction writers, like Samuel R. Delany, Pauline Hopkins, and Octavia Butler, but pays homage to black cultural icons such as Gordon Parks and James Baldwin.
Set in the Jim Crow era of the 1950’s, the series follows Atticus as he embarks on a road trip across the US with his friend Letitia (Leti) and his Uncle George. The group departs from their homes in Chicago in an attempt to find Atticus’s missing father. Along the way, they run into a string of horrors, ranging from gigantic carnivorous beasts in the forest and murderous shapeshifters to white supremacist cops and time travel that sends them to precarious historical moments, like the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. “The idea of being ‘other’ in this world,” Green explains, “is you’re walking around in a horror movie at all times. You’re always on edge. You’re wondering when the monster is going to jump out and get you….That’s the experience of African Americans in America or anybody who’s not white” (Kay-B). Green’s comments align with literary critic Fredric Jameson’s suggestion that, despite the placement of science fiction in past or future timescales, the genre actually defamiliarizes our present moment, taking us enough out of our everyday to make current sociopolitical issues more pronounced. It seems especially apt, then, that Lovecraft Country would be released at a time when racist police brutality has become more visible and racial tensions within the US are peaking. Indeed, after the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, protests erupted across the US with an estimated 15-26 million people having demonstrated at some point, making it the “largest movement in the country’s history” (Buchanan).
"Want to know why I took that potion? Because today of all days I didn’t want to be a black woman fucking a white man."
Lovecraft Country not only uses science fiction to examine what it means to be black in America, but to also question the concept of borders more broadly. In particular, the show forces viewers to rethink the definition of the human through its attention to skin. After a one-night stand with William, a white man, Leti’s sister, Ruby, awakes to find herself in the body of a white woman. William then shows Ruby the metamorphosis potion that caused her transformation. Despite initially refusing, Ruby ultimately comes to embrace the power that comes with passing as a white woman in America. She now moves freely about the streets, protected by the same cops she once feared. Ruby’s consensual sexual relationship thus allows her access to the very (white) Cult of Domesticity historically denied black women.
However, Ruby’s skin job—a motif that harkens back to George Schuyler’s 1931 novel, Black No More—is painful and grotesque. Her skin frantically ripples and moves as if something crawls beneath it. Neck and shoulder bones loudly snap and pop out of place. Ruby screams. The skin begins to tear open, melting down her body like candlewax. Waterfalls of blood pour from her open wounds. Afterwards, bits of white fleshy skin stick to her person. In many ways, the scene perversely re-imagines the flaying of skin on the plantation. Yet Ruby’s act of racial shifting also makes the concept of race seem not so stable after all. Going against the scientific racism of the nineteenth century, the series presents race as a socially and, perhaps, supernaturally constructed concept, one that is not determined by biology. Instead, race is portrayed as fungible and relational. To that end, the human body, too, becomes porous, its borders shifting and indefinite. As scientists have shown, our bodies are, in fact, mostly composed of more-than-human life, a fact that calls into question identity distinctions like race and species from which the violence and oppression of otherhood stems.
Nevertheless, the skin of Lovecraft Country has proven problematic as well. For instance, episode eight, “Jig-a-Bobo,” centers around the death and funeral of Emmett Till, a young boy who was mutilated and murdered at the hands of white men in 1955. At its conclusion, Christina, a blonde-haired and blue-eyed white woman, is shown on a dock undergoing the same brutality experienced by Emmett, an experience she chooses for herself. The show thus repeats an abolitionist history in which racial empathy could only be garnered from white audiences watching slavery’s violence enacted upon white bodies. Similarly, the series has also come under recent scrutiny for using makeup to darken the skin of an actress. With moments like these, what are we to make of Green’s outspoken commitment to representation?
In this light, Lovecraft Country seems to teeter on the edge of commodifying black trauma and culture for entertainment, a critique leveled at the film Antebellum as well. This, too, of course, could be the other truly American story told by the series.
All sources linked in essay.
March 20, 2021 § 9 Comments
Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) is a novel singularly concerned with generation and inheritance. Through its narrative of a Black woman thrust involuntarily back through time by an unseen force to come to the aid of her slave-owning ancestor, Butler’s text unflinchingly confronts the fundamental role of the rape, exploitation, and subjugation of Black women that is at the heart of the American project. At the same time that it exposes this history of violence, Kindred dramatizes our inability to separate ourselves from its legacy.
So it seemed apropos to me, reading this novel for the first time forty-odd years after its initial publication, to consider the legacy Kindred itself has garnered, the ways in which this novel has been generative for its readers, many of whom have become writers in turn. What inheritance does this text leave us? With its unique approach to explicating the past, what new futures does it make imaginable?
One cannot speak of the current wave of Black science-fiction writing, headlined by the inimitable N.K. Jemisin, without speaking of Butler, as Jemisin herself made clear at a recent Symphony Space event. In her 2018 Foreword to another of Butler’s novels, Parable of the Sower, Jemisin names herself among Butler’s “spiritual children,” writing that Kindred not only allowed her to better understand her own identity development as a Black woman coming of age in a putatively post-racial America, but that, along with Butler’s other works, it pried open the door for imaginings of a future beyond the shadow of a European past (ix-xi).
But this is only the most apparent example of the enormous influence Butler has had on Black thought across any number of fields. For example, in his 2014 article “Losing an Arm: Schooling as a Site of Black Suffering,” education scholar Michael Dumas uses Kindred to conceptualize his own experience as a student in the newly-integrated Seattle public schools in 1978-79, the same year that Kindred was published. For Dumas, the precarity Butler depicts—the involuntary convulsion that can lead Black bodies across time and space from citizen to subjection; the potential for racialized trauma that is latent in post-Jim Crow American spaces—is a spark for understanding the psychic wounds that he and many of his peers experienced during their education in predominantly white institutions. Reading Kindred helps to make articulable for Dumas what Gloria Ladson-Billings means when she writes that America does not have an education gap, it has an education debt, one born of the legacy of racial disparity that remains unabated despite half-hearted attempts at integration.
As Dumas’ article shows, Kindred, like the signs of the racial admixture that continue to (re)produce American culture, tends to pop up everywhere, even when we least expect it. At a Princeton Department of African American Studies panel I watched on Martin Luther King Day of this year, Denise da Silva opened her talk by framing her ongoing research on Blackness and debt in terms of Butler’s novel. Kindred, da Silva argued, is a paradigmatic example of the way that Blackness functions in regard to debt in the Americas: just as Dana is summoned to get Rufus out of trouble time and time again, so too have Black Americans been called to account for debts they did not incur in the name of the greater good. This has never been more visible than in our current pandemic economy, when “essential workers”—disproportionately women of color—have been asked to risk their lives for starvation wages amidst a global health catastrophe spawned by multinational capitalism. So too politically, as Black women were asked (once again) to save our last semblance of democracy this past fall by coming out to vote amidst a pandemic in record numbers to evict the Trump regime and its enablers in the Senate.
As we turn from these global concerns to issues of genre, we can recognize the ways in which Science Fiction—indeed, the entire history of the novel—functions as a part of this cycle of indebtedness. As Edward Said observed of Mansfield Park, Victorian fiction is predicated on the existence of the Other, whether this be the unseen slave who harvests the sugar that Fanny Price dumps in her tea or the skulking, irrational monster (think of Pym’s Tsal captive) that makes the rational, scientifically-minded narrator thinkable. In many canonical Science Fiction texts—Poe, Wells, Haggard—ethnic Others play the role of the necessary foil for the main characters’ deeds of derring-do. And this is leaving untouched the debts that our institutions of scientific inquiry owe to Black Americans, of whom Henrietta Lacks is only the most well-publicized example. By trafficking in Science Fiction, we as readers—especially those of us who hope to read and write about these books professionally—are borrowing against Black pain. And like the American political corpus, unless the books are balanced, this body of texts may not survive.
So who has begun to pay down the intellectual debts that Science (Fiction) has incurred? Well, per da Silva, it has been Black folks who have worked to repair this imbalance, particularly Black women. In Kindred, Octavia Butler proffers a down payment. Brilliant authors like Jemisin, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Micaiah Johnson, and many, many more have made their own contributions. But what is the responsibility borne by non-Black readers and scholars of Science Fiction like me? At a moment where reparations are at last becoming thinkable in mainstream media and policy institutions, how can this generic debt be ethically remediated?
It seems inarguable that non-Black folks who profit from this genre, whether in money or simply in intellectual stimulation, have an ethical responsibility to pay down our literary ancestors’ tab. So if this post speaks to you, use the various resources that you have at your disposal. Protest for Black lives, vote for Black lives, study, teach, and publish for Black lives—yes to all of these—but don’t forget the financial dimensions of this debt, and move your money towards Black lives, too. You can start right here. If not erased soon, this debt threatens to subsume us into a future we cannot afford to face.
Quotation taken from:
Jemisin, N.K. “Foreword.” In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Grand Central Publishing, 2019. All other sources hyperlinked in article.
March 14, 2021 § 6 Comments
I was a late convert to the Marvel movie fandom.
Like most people growing up in the 2000s, I was a passive consumer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since its advent in 2008 with Iron Man. But other than its concurrence with my new-found freedom to attend the movies without parental supervision (I was thirteen when Iron Man came out), the rise of the MCU wasn’t really on my radar.
That all changed when I moved to Ireland after college. As long trans-Atlantic flights became a regular occurrence, I came to the MCU with renewed interest: big budget action movies are perfect for flights because they are loud enough to hear over the plane’s engine and through the free (mediocre) headphone set. Also, exciting and flashy visuals kept me from imagining the horrors of a plane crash.
I’m a sucker for vast, sprawling universes, so it didn’t take long for me to become fully invested in the intricacies of the MCU. And what intricacies there are!
The MCU is known for packing its movies full of big names, but the phrase “ensemble cast” seems unfit for the scale of the franchise’s 2018 release, Avengers: Infinity War. Behold, the poster:
This film brings together almost all of the surviving characters from the preceding films, and while the scope of the population of the MCU makes for larger-than-life battle sequences, some fans have suggested that this comes at the expense of certain characters’ development.
Though it only occurred to me recently, what seems more troublesome is that these overpopulated storylines require a nameless mass, a crushing crowd of people that becomes the human background upon which these elaborate stories are played out. Think, for example, of the way The Avengers (2012) centralizes New York City, whose teeming masses only serve as human fodder for destructive action sequences and a realization of the “stakes” of a given conflict.
The specter of faceless masses haunts Thomas Malthus’s 1798 warning that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce the subsistence of man” (454). Worried that populations would soon outgrow the Earth’s capacity to support human life, Malthus came to the conclusion that the Poor Laws in England (which helped provide welfare to impoverished families) should end, and, consequently, that poor people should be left to fend for themselves…or starve. The Big Bad of the MCU, Thanos, echoes Malthusian population theory, but with a violent efficiency: his singular goal is to ease the strain on the universe’s resources by erasing one half of all life with the snap of his fingers.
There’s something contradictory about Thanos’s neo-Malthusian desire to eliminate half of all life. In the lead up to the climactic battle of Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther warns one of Thanos’s minions, Proxima Midnight, that if they try to breach his home country of Wakanda, they will “have nothing but dust and blood.” The antagonist chillingly replies, “We have blood to spare.” At this declaration, the huge spaceships behind her pour forth a seemingly endless supply of alien soldiers whose bodies are coded as beastly, as less-than-human. These bodies throw themselves at the force-field surrounding Wakanda, tearing themselves into pieces, only to be replaced by yet more bodies. As one protagonist whispers in horror: “They’re killing themselves.”
Proxima’s statement that she has “blood to spare” signals the fungibility of her non-human army – their lives are emptied of significance, their only purpose to repeatedly destroy themselves to prove their inexhaustible numbers. Here is one of the great contradictions in the MCU’s logic: Thanos operates as a neo-Malthusian bad guy, aiming to depopulate the universe, but he works towards this goal with the help of numberless alien bodies – bodies that presumably eat away at the universe’s resources.
So what happens when populations are perceived as both the cause of resource-depletion and consumable resources themselves? Messed up stuff, if you read it in the context of nineteenth-century colonial narratives.
In She, H. Rider Haggard’s wildly popular 1886 novel, three English men come across a “lost” African tribe led by a (nearly) immortal white sorceress. Population control is clearly an underlying concern for this community: as one indigenous man tells the narrator, “about every second generation” the men “rise and kill the old [women]” of the tribe (188). While he argues that this is an act of social control – to keep the women from getting too comfortable bossing the men around – there is an undercurrent of resource anxiety in this practice. The Amahaggers, the indigenous people, rely upon the resources left behind by the civilization that occupied the land before them. The vases, pots, and even clothes that they use are relics taken from the vast tombs of the ancient people of Kôr. The killing of older women can therefore be read not only as a method of misogynistic psychological control, but as sort of self-culling, a cutting down of excess bodies that drain the population’s limited resources.
Even as the bodies in She are seen as overconsuming, they themselves operate as resources available for consumption. The ancient civilization of Kôr left behind not only vases and cloth, but perfectly preserved corpses that are literally used as torches throughout the novel. As the narrator notes in a particularly grisly scene of body burning: “There were plenty of [human torches]. As soon as ever a mummy had burnt down to the ankles […] the feet were kicked away, and another one put in its place” (219). Just as the dead population of Kôr operates as an ever-available mass of consumable flesh, the living citizens of the land are seen by their white leader as dehumanized bodies available for use. As she claims, “These slaves are no people of mine, they are but dogs to do my bidding till the day of my deliverance comes” (156). Just as Thanos utilizes his overpopulated army of aliens without a thought for their individual identities, the white sorceress of Kôr burns through her people without mercy or sympathy.
When the MCU’s overpopulation is put into the context of the nineteenth century, the issues become clear. In a time of colonization, slavery, white supremacy, and the rampant exploitation of an impoverished workforce, the nineteenth century’s relationship with “teeming masses” was deeply and systemically unjust, mapping consumability onto those bodies that are nonwhite, non-English, and lower class.
The MCU’s extension of Victorian population theory doesn’t just apply to the treatment of antagonistic aliens. What does it mean that the battle scene in Infinity War is populated almost entirely by Black Wakandan warriors, whose nameless bodies are thrown into bloody conflict in the background while the audience’s attention is reserved for a handful of (mostly white) protagonists?
I love a big battle scene as much as the next person—they’re thrilling, expansive, distracting. And the MCU’s endless list of characters provides me with SO MUCH FUN STUFF to explain to my friends when they ask a simple question like: “Oh, how was that movie?” (They love my Marvel rants, right? Right.) But maybe, by tuning into the Victorian roots of the MCU’s treatment of overpopulation, we can begin to picture a more ethical way of depicting crowded narratives, a way out of seeing certain bodies as both exhausting resources and inexhaustible resources.
Haggard, H. Rider. She: A History of Adventure. Edited by Patrick Brantlinger, Penguin, 2001.
Malthus, Thomas. “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, edited by Laura Otis, Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 453–56.
March 8, 2021 § 11 Comments
If you’ve been single for any extended period over the last decade, it’s very likely that you’ve made an online dating profile.
A dating profile, at its core, is a digital storytelling micronarrative. Many writers have discussed how the specific form of Internet communication creates entirely new pressures when it comes to constructing and narrating one’s identity. Everything on the Internet is self-generated and curated: no sense of your body exists until you express it, none of your perspectives are seen until you make them clear. This process is both highly individualized and incredibly collaborative, as symbols of identity are invested with meaning by how those around you interpret, reproduce, and refashion them. In her book Digitizing Race, Lisa Nakamura proposes “parsing” as a way of understanding how Internet users and Internet objects interrelate. She looks at the specific forms, positionings, and codes of a new media object in order to understand how it interacts with a user, and how a user uses it to express themselves.
A dating profile distills new media communication and digital storytelling to its barest form. On Bumble, my dating app of choice, you have ten modestly customizable spaces to express your personality and find potential matches: six photo slots, one three hundred character-long bio slot, three slots where you can answer one of the profile prompts available. (An example: “My real life superpower is…”) The narrow options for self-expression highlight the stakes for getting your chosen personal micronarrative just right. Many sources offer tips for maximizing the impact of your dating profile. Bumble’s own website encourages users to “keep your highlight reel real,” or to show our selves via imagery rather than solely in words. GQ adds on necessary yet maddeningly unspecific advice: “Be yourself, but fun.”
Spending a few minutes swiping through these Bumble microstories is a neat way to test out Nakamura’s theories of parsing. No picture is ever just a picture, and it gains new meaning depending on all the choices that fellow identity-narrativizers make. Every single profile on a dating app is a highly curated identity-story, yet some use tropes more transparently than others. The first person whose profile says that they’re an open book seems vulnerable and honest; within the broader context of a million similar Bumble profiles, it presents only the veneer of vulnerability, with a generic gesture standing in place of “real” selfhood. This genericness isn’t inherently a curse. It can signify your affiliation within a broader set of co-created values and ideologies, making yourself more appealing to those with similar affiliations. Yet there’s one trope that has become so prominent that it’s spawned a healthy dose of mockery.
I speak, of course, of Men With Fish.
In Bo Balder’s short story “Quantum Fish,” she envisions a post-apocalyptic, space-based universe where fish carry a bundle of meanings beyond simple nutrition. The story opens with her main character, Havi, at a seafood restaurant that promises specific-tasting regional fish. She orders a fish from Clan Skuja, home to her estranged family. Yet when it arrives, despite its perfect appearance, she realizes the taste is all wrong. Insipid. The fish is a 3D printed replica of a Skuja fish, all looks and no substance. It’s Havi’s first sign that her home world is not quite right. The artificiality of the beautiful fish before her is too glaring to ignore.
I have no doubt that the fish wielded by Men With Fish are genuinely fish. Yet like Balder’s fish, they prioritize the reliable visual (a man holding a captured creature from the sea) over any sense of uniqueness. While each fish held in the photo is theoretically unique, the message is the same. You not only enjoy fishing, but you are a success at it. You are holding the fish – the fish is not holding you! Melissa Fabello identifies the fish-holding impulse as a hallmark of “straight, white, male culture” with the implicit goal of demonstrating to potential mates that they are able to serve as a provider, reinforcing socially constructed gender roles. The Tumblr account “Men With Huge Cods” is even more explicit with its skewering of dating profile hypermasculinity.
Not only are these Men With Fish attempting to demonstrate their masculinist role as “provider,” they are engaging in this masculinist, capitalist trope of attempting to conquer nature, albeit in a mild, “socially acceptable” form. Science fiction has tackled the temptation of men to transform nature to fit their ambition since the inception of the genre – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein famously revolves around Victor’s temptation to use his scientific skill to create life. In “Quantum Fish,” the uncanny, unflavoured fish is a consequence of Hiva’s family’s decision to erect a barricade in the water in order to preserve their profits from selling the fish. Capitalist exploitation leads to a hollowing out of biodiversity, which leads to a preservation of the image alone and the presentation of the image as a genuine article.
If the Men With Fish were met with universal acclaim and respect, that would be one thing. Instead, they are a lightning rod for mockery. Why? Perhaps for a similar reason to the scorned fish in “Quantum Fish”: these beautiful fish are so transparently read as empty signifiers of an alienating belief system. As Bumble users parse through these photos of Men With Fish, the images become constituted against all the near-identical profile micronarratives, failing to inspire any curiosity or affiliation. These replications become obvious as replications, belying anything it might say about one’s inner being. And this emptiness of signification winds up creating a whole new set of meanings: banal, bland masculinity and unoriginality, which don’t always merit a swipe right.
In “Quantum Fish,” Hiva reacts with disgust after consuming the simulacrum-fish, accusing the restaurant of fraud. The chastened owner replies, “We serve printed copies of Knossos fish, genetically exact copies, let me tell you, to the people from out-system. But you knew. You tasted the difference.” Being a Man With Fish, or a Quantum Fish, can be a successful, digestible micronarrative for those who desire the conventionality or symbolism they signify. Yet this parsing process can inspire those who identify with Hiva to reject the image-conscious impostor on sight, judging them to violate GQ’s piece of advice to Bumble users: men proudly featuring their temporary catch are neither themselves, nor fun. The micronarrative has failed. The digital storytelling stays unfulfilled. You become a Man With Fish.
February 28, 2021 § 9 Comments
Beautiful! Great God!
When you first see him, you realize that he’s beautiful. With ideal proportions that bring to mind the muscles of a Greek god, satiny black hair, and teeth that are white enough to be the fascination of any good orthodontist, he seems perfect. When he first sees you, he grins and reaches out his hand as if he might help you up off your bed.
Of course, on further examination, you will find something disconcerting about his dirty white eyes that always seem a little weepy. When these eyes start haunting your dreams, you’ll abandon him to be beaten and bullied by the world until he eventually kills everyone dear to you and then you’ll pursue him to the Arctic and die. But the important thing is that, at the beginning, you find him beautiful.
When written out like that, this story seems like the inspiration for a Disney movie that will erase the darker (and, let’s be honest, better) half of its source text in order to pander to six-year-olds. But, no, it’s the plot of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a text that was also mostly forgotten after its movie adaptions changed our memory of the original novel. The Creature took the brunt of this transformation. We forget that he was initially beautiful—“Beautiful! Great God!” as Victor Frankenstein would say—and not a hulking, green monster with a flattop haircut and bolts in his neck. He gains a name that he never had, “Frankenstein,” which will make those of us who read the novel very confused whenever we speak with people who have only seen the movies. In return, he loses his voice, going from an eloquent, sorrowful antagonist to a grunting, moaning brute.
If Victor Frankenstein is brilliant for creating life out of death, the Creature is a genius for teaching himself how to speak and read by using Paradise Lost. He gets more out of John Milton’s epic poem than just a grasp of language, though, when he finds similarities between himself and Adam, another poor creature who was created by a distant god and thrown into the big, bad world to fend for himself (and we all know how that ends). However, by comparing himself to a different character in Paradise Lost, he might have saved himself some pain.
There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Creature, than are dreamt of.
Much like the Creature, Sin is born from inspiration. Victor needs some science and some emptied graves to create the Creature, but Sin emerges fully formed from Satan’s head when he thinks her into existence. She shares Satan’s bright, heavenly form before his Fall. In short, she’s beautiful.
Like Victor, Satan plays at being God, and life is arguably more difficult for his creation than it is for him. When God shunts Satan out of Heaven for his rebellion, he also banishes Sin to Hell. Much like when the Creature is abandoned by Victor and he’s left to fend for himself, Sin’s life becomes much, much worse in the absence of her creator.
She doesn’t see Satan again until he’s on his way out of Hell to toy with mortals. By this point, she’s changed. Her beautiful, shining form is gone, replaced by a monstrous one. Although she retains her woman’s shape from the waist up, her lower half has twisted and stretched into a snake’s torso. Worse still are the hell hounds that snarl and yelp and climb into and out of her womb. Satan, who has to have seen some scary stuff in Hell, lets her know that he’s never seen anything “more detestable.”
More surprising than her descent from her initial beauty into this monstrousness is that Satan has completely forgotten ever having met her before. The memories of her birth, of their time together, of her angelic beauty, all are gone. Just like our modern recollection of the Creature that has been distorted by twentieth century cinematic adaptions, he only sees her as a monster and not as someone who once rivaled the Greek gods in loveliness.
What we can learn from Sin.
If the Creature had compared himself to Sin instead of to Adam, he could have gained more insight into the unforgiving world into which he’d been thrown. Like Satan, Victor plays at being God, only to abandon his creation to his own type of Hell—over and over. Every time we think that Victor might have come around, he betrays the Creature again. He never takes responsibility for his creation or for any of the horrors that come from his intellectual hubris that leads him to create life. (If you’re wondering, yes, Satan likewise refuses to take responsibility and he abandons Sin yet again after encountering her in Hell, but no one ever assumed the Devil would deserve a Best Dad of the Year award.)
Victor forgets his initial view of the Creature as beautiful and only sees his monstrousness, an image that dictates every interaction they have. Although the Creature never changes in physical appearance, he no longer seems human in Victor’s eyes—just like Sin has lost any resemblance to Satan—and becomes a “fiend” and a “thing.” Seeing similarities between himself and Adam encourages the Creature to request that Victor create him an Eve, which pushes Victor over the edge and leads the Creature to seek revenge by killing his creator’s loved ones. Sin and Satan also collaborate in creation, though through physical rather than intellectual means, which results in a child, Death, an “odious offspring” (Sin’s words) who immediately rapes his mother. The Creature’s female companion might have been perfectly lovely and they could have had a happy retirement in South America, but his desire for her creation does result in death and abuse. Perhaps recognizing that he shares similarities to the unfortunate Sin might have helped the Creature escape some of the worst disasters of the novel.
And, let’s be honest, Victor could definitely use the reality check of realizing that he’s more similar to Satan than he is to God.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. In John Milton: The Major Works Including Paradise Lost, edited by Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, 355–615. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Signet Classics, 1978.
February 21, 2021 § 9 Comments
It’s time to let the Anthropocene go. Or, at least, a certain version of it.
From the perspective of a humanities scholar.
On January 28, 2021, Paul J. Crutzen left this dying world. A “Nobel Laureate who fought climate change,” as the New York Times elegized him, Crutzen spent the second half of his career in meteorology and atmospheric chemistry proving not only that climate change exists but that human activity is unequivocally responsible. He won his Nobel Prize in 1995 for studying ozone degradation. (Do you remember when people started talking about the hole in the atmosphere? That’s him.) And, in 2000, he popularized the term Anthropocene (the ‘time of humans’), which has now become synonymous with his name, for better or worse.
In a surprisingly brief article in the Global Change Newsletter, Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer proposed that geologists use the term Anthropocene to describe a geological epoch in which humans make up the defining, Earth-moving signature.
It seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch.
By including alarming examples of human Earth-meddling—like how human-emitted sulfur dioxide “is at least two times larger than the sum of all natural emissions” and that “30-50% of the [Earth’s] land surface has been transformed by human action” and that “more than half of all accessible fresh water is used by mankind”—Crutzen and Stoermer sent up a red flag that would become their legacy. Their Anthropocene was more than just climate change. It was meant to describe the human impacts to all levels of Earth’s functioning, changes in no way to the benefit of the Earth or its passengers. It comes as no surprise, of course, that humans might be responsible for their own apocalypse. What’s new about the Anthropocene hypothesis, though, is that geologists might be able to find the exact moment and place when humans shifted the entire planet in a new direction. And they mean exact. This moment and place would be called a Golden Spike in the geologic record. By tradition, if geologists find indisputable evidence of the passing from one geologic epoch to another (like strange fossil deposits or unique sedimentary signs), they drive an actual spike into that location like a flag of discovery.
But, if human activity has impacted the Earth’s functioning so deeply and in such diverse ways, where do geologists drive the Golden Spike of the Anthropocene? Crutzen and Stoermer suggested that we might start by paying attention to the epicenters of the Industrial Revolution:
We propose the latter part of the 18th century [for the beginning of the Anthropocene], although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire holocene [sic]).
Others have suggested origins ranging from: 1492 when Europe’s colonization of the Americas wiped out millions of Indigenous humans, animals, and plants, leaving behind a deposit of those remains in the upper crust; 1610 when those same Euro-American colonizers’ use of the plantation economy and transatlantic sea trading once again transformed the entire ecology of North America, altering the chemical cycles of the soil; the 1950s when nuclear weapons testing irradiated the upper crust in places like Bikini Atoll; or even more recently in the 20th century when the amount of chicken bones from industrial meat processing became a geologically significant presence in sediment layers around the world.
In her scholarly monograph A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Kathryn Yusoff explains that, no matter which potential Golden Spike geologists favor, each of them is predicated on Black, Brown, and Indigenous death, enforced labor, and inequitable environmental fallout. This exposes a major problem in Crutzen and Stoermer’s argument. “Mankind” is too universalizing. Scholars critical of this generalization, mostly in the humanities, have revised the very word Anthropocene to better account for what/who might actually be responsible: Capitalocene, Plantationocene, White Supremacy Scene, and Eurocene, among several more.
But geology is used to taking a God’s-eye view of the Earth. How, for instance, could a geologist 1,000 years from now determine that certain irradiated teeth buried outside what we now call St. Louis actually belonged to impoverished day laborers who couldn’t afford to live anywhere but beside a dump filled with decaying uranium, who were refused help relocating from their government and left to struggle in their poison until death took them? This is that centuries-old tension between the sciences and the humanities. Science investigates how things happens. The humanities investigate why.
It’s clear at this point that the geological groups in charge of the Anthropocene hypothesis—the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the International Union of Geological Sciences, and the Anthropocene Working Group—can’t or won’t agree on any Anthropocenic Golden Spike (they’ve held many, many meetings to debate the matter, none of which have ever led a consensus).
And so my question is: who cares?
That geology, as a field, might not care whether unjust, racialized, and gendered human death is the foundation of all Anthropocenic change goes right to the core of this new task: giving up the Anthropocene. Specifically, I mean not caring about whether geology ever determines the Anthropocene as a proven epoch. Giving up the Golden Spike as a way of validating a humanities approach to what the Anthropocene means. Anyway, if science-fiction tells us anything, it’s that the hypothetical geologist 1,000 years in the future might not have a very wide audience for his strictly objective observations, lost as he will be in the ashes of collapse.
In Crutzen’s passing, it might well be time that we let this certain version of the geologic Anthropocene pass away with him. Let’s save instead his fervent interest in humanizing the science on climate change, showing how culture and nature have never been separate so long as humans have been paying attention. There are problems with the word Anthropocene. And, yet, Crutzen’s empathetic science set off a firestorm in environmental humanities scholarship that may help determine how people (human or otherwise) might pass through what he called the Anthropocene to something beyond, where geologists and humanities scholars can think a little more similarly about the Earth.
To keep with this topic, check out how this creative film on the Anthropocene turns fallout into aesthetic pleasure. And think about what work remains in getting past geology and the universal human to a different understanding of Anthropocene:
Crutzen, Paul J. and Eugene F. Stoermer. 2000. “The ‘Anthropocene.’” Global Change Newsletter (41): 17–18.
Yusoff, Kathryn. 2019. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. University of Minnesota Press.
February 14, 2021 § 9 Comments
If I had a penny for every time someone has asked me, “Aren’t you worried Grammarly will put you out of a job?” I would be so rich I wouldn’t need a job.
The truth is, as a corporate writing trainer, I practically beg my clients to use Grammarly. If they haven’t yet learned how to use commas at this point in their career, they’re probably not going to in a two-hour workshop with me. I’d rather spend my time with them on other things and leave the proofreading to Grammarly.
The digital writing assistance tool’s capabilities have advanced rapidly over the years. Even at the free level, it’s a fantastic tool for catching grammar and clarity issues. It’s even begun beta testing a tone detector for email. At the Premium level, Grammarly is even more comprehensive in its assessments. Beyond punctuation and passive voice, it detects more nuanced writing issues like hedging. Even for experienced writers, the program is extremely useful.
So, Grammarly is more than a match for your standard-issue dangling modifiers and subject/verb disagreements. But after a recent re-read of one of my favorite novels, here’s what I really wanted to know: is Grammarly a match for Jane Austen? Would it—for lack of a better word—like her writing?
First things first
I upgraded to Grammarly Premium to carry out my (totally unofficial, utterly unscientific) experiment. I wanted to be sure I was getting the full range of Grammarly’s assessment of Austen’s prose.
I decided to test out my favorite passage from my favorite Austen novel: Persuasion, Austen’s last, published after her death in 1818. I chose a 1,083-word excerpt—about two printed pages in my Norton Critical Edition—from the second half of chapter seven. In this passage, the protagonist Anne Elliot encounters her former flame Frederick Wentworth for the first time after a nasty breakup separated them eight years prior. She still loves him but has no hope of reciprocation.
This passage includes a sampling of some of Austen’s most characteristic stylistic elements: plenty of dialogue, the narration of Anne’s interior monologue, and free indirect discourse—a style of writing that Austen pioneered in her novels, which involves a third-person narrator who stays close to one person’s private thoughts while occasionally dipping into other characters’ minds as well.
What did Grammarly think?
When I pasted the passage into the Grammarly Editor, it received an “overall score” of 82. That’s a B-minus. Not awful, but hardly the score we might expect for such a widely renowned author.
Grammarly’s report offers some interesting raw data about the passage’s “performance,” using metrics that are defined in comparison to texts submitted by other Premium users:
- The sentences are an average of 18.4 words each—much longer than average.
- The readability score is a 72 on the Flesh reading ease scale, meaning that the text should be easy for anyone with at least a 7th-grade education to understand.
- The passage involves fewer unique and rare words than average.
In other words, despite the long sentences, the passage I selected from Persuasion should be relatively easy for most readers to understand. This is in spite of the 37 alerts for “Correctness” (a mix of mostly comma, verb tense, and spelling errors) Grammarly identified.
But Grammarly’s scoring isn’t just based on these more-or-less objective measures. It also deemed the passage “Clear” and “Engaging”—not “Very clear” or “Very engaging,” the top designations in those categories. Yet it nevertheless conceded that the “Delivery” was “Just right.”
Does Grammarly really get Jane Austen?
I agree that the delivery is “just right.” This passage is tightly controlled and masterfully dispensed. But Grammarly’s assessment and its suggestions are missing something: Jane Austen’s delivery isn’t “just right” in spite of the inconsistencies in her prose (which Grammarly dinged her for in the categories of “Correctness” and “Clarity”) but because of them.
Austen’s style in this passage fluctuates to mirror Anne’s mindset. When she finally encounters Wentworth—an event she has anxiously anticipated for some time—the pacing speeds up. The sentences are stark and unemotional. The frequent em dashes and semi-colons show Anne’s jerky, stop-motion experience of the encounter. Only the mechanics of the scene are narrated:
“[T]hey were in the drawing-room. [Anne’s] eye half met Captain Wentworth’s; a bow, a curtsey passed; she heard his voice—he talked to Mary, said all that was right; said something to the Miss Musgroves, enough to mark an easy footing: the room seemed full—full of persons and voice—but a few minutes ended it. Charles shewed himself at the window, all was ready, their visitor had bowed and was gone.” (40)
Anne is in a state of suspension during the encounter. It’s only after Wentworth and the others are gone that she is able to process her emotions; she begins “to reason with herself, and try to be feeling less” (40). She examines her feelings at great length and struggles to control them and compose herself. The frequent question marks and exclamations illustrate the flurry and intensity of Anne’s emotions:
“Eight years, almost eight years had passed… How absurd to be resuming the agitation which such an interval had banished into distance and indistinctness! What might not eight years do? Events of every description, changes, alienations, removals,—all, all must be comprised in it; and oblivion of the past—how natural, how certain too! …. Now, how were his sentiments to be read? Was this like wishing to avoid her? And the next moment she was hating herself for the following which asked the question.” (40)
To accept all of Grammarly’s suggested corrections in the passage I tested would flatten and dilute the prose in such a way that our access to Anne’s experience would be weakened.
Too good for Grammarly
Anne Elliot offers a masterclass in self-possession. She uses her rational mind to examine and order her feelings without discrediting them.
In other words, Persuasion is about the integration of reason and feeling—something that Grammarly is trying hard to do through AI and machine learning. I’m oversimplifying here, but Grammarly’s tech searches for patterns to feed its algorithms so that they can detect irregularity and redundancy and offer solutions for fixing them. Using natural language processing and feedback from experts and users, Grammarly is even learning to analyze human sentiment.
The program can analyze and categorize words and sentences and anticipate how engaging the text will be, but it can’t really predict how a text will make us feel.
To finish out my test drive with Grammarly Premium, I decided to paste the short first chapter of Pride and Prejudice into the Editor. This time, Grammarly gave the excerpt an overall score of 97 (which is pretty close to my personal evaluation: 💯). The introduction to Pride and Prejudice is iconic and fabulous, and when I read it, it feels like meeting up with an old friend for a fun vacation.
Grammarly likes it too (a solid A!), but right off the bat, it offers this suggestion:
Grammarly is great with patterns and rules, but the truth is that a well-placed exception to the rule is so often what makes a text special.
For what it’s worth, Grammarly gives this blog post an overall score of 99. I doubt that would impress Miss Austen.