In Praise of Zombies

We need to talk about zombies.

In a recent article in Inside Higher Education about the precipitous decline in the number of English majors at my institution, the University of Maryland, College Park, the undead rear their charred and mutilated heads. Our zombie friends, we are informed, promise (or threaten) to help lure resistant students back into the English major:

Cartwright said there’s a demonstrated interest in updated versions of Great Books courses, but also in what he said some have called “zombie courses” — pejoratively, not descriptively. Those include courses on such popular genres as science fiction, fantasy literature, J.R.R. Tolkein, regional literature or children’s literature.

Cartwright said there’s some feeling among his colleagues that such offerings equate to “dumbing down” the curriculum.

Zombies might increase enrollments, but it seems that there are fears that more majors might come at a terrible price: a “dumbing down” of the curriculum.

As someone who has taught a variety of zombie courses, both at UMD and elsewhere, as someone who will undoubtedly teach more, and who will enthusiastically help spread the zombie plague across College Park, I’m always alert to possible misunderstandings about what such courses look like, what their justification for existing is, and what kind of intellectual demands they make on students. The common presupposition is that courses on popular genres and forms — such as comics, science fiction, and television — eat the brains of students. They represent a zombification of the curriculum, a submission to inexorable market pressures, which might be understood as part of a broader corporate takeover of the university. We used to trade in rigorous knowledge; now we deliver edu-tainment to the slovenly, capricious undergraduate masses, who punish us in our teaching evaluations if we don’t pander to them.

There are two sorts of degradation involved in letting curricular zombies eat our brains. On the one hand, we’re allegedly abandoning Great Books or culturally serious texts in favor of lousy popular works. On the other hand, we’re hollowing out the methodological core of literary studies as a discipline. That is, we used to trade in aesthetically sensitive close analysis of difficult or historically important texts. Now, we’re allegedly doing little more than teaching cultural history or adopting cultural studies methodologies (methods that can be applied to anything, from cereal boxes to Shakespeare). We’re all becoming less intelligent versions of Murray Siskind from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise.

These are serious concerns and deserve a careful reply. If zombie courses were only about putting butts in seats, we should not teach them at the university level. If such courses were little more than examples of cultural studies or cultural history, we might need to have a discussion about the proper disciplinary boundaries of literary study. (Although, I should say I am in favor of accepting the broadest possible conception of literary study, and see nothing wrong with having cultural studies be integrated into literature departments. Frankly, I thought these questions of disciplinary boundaries were settled in the eighties. In any event, actually existing literature departments, including the department at Maryland, teach much more than Great Books: we teach film, linguistics, rhetoric, digital humanities, among other dynamic subfields.)

Over the last few years, I’ve taught comics at the undergraduate and graduate level as well as a range of science fiction classes. I’ve also taught courses on canonical twentieth-century fiction and courses on various avant-garde and experimental literatures. So I feel as if I have something to say about the way zombie courses tend to go, and how zombie courses compare to more traditional literature classes. My experience has been that, while they do — fortunately — get butts in seats, courses on popular genres and art forms can sometimes be much harder for students to adjust to. Many students have a harder time learning (for example) how to read comics critically than they do canonical works. They know how they’re supposed to talk about Virginia Woolf; they initially have no idea — or only a very shallow idea — about how to respond to Alison Bechdel. Indeed, many students come into the classroom assuming that we’ll be reading what they regard as canonical within a popular art form, or that we’ll be reading for plot, or that every week will be pure fun.

As my students quickly learn, the reality of the zombie classroom is very different. In my SF and comics classes, the first couple weeks are invariably partly devoted to disabusing students of these ideas, to helping them learn to suspend other ways of reading, and to teaching them to read art forms they thought they understood with new eyes. My pedagogical aim is to re-channel the considerable passion students bring into such classes toward more critically focused ends.

Which isn’t in any way to disparage zombie courses, but to sing their praises. These courses can be the most intellectually rigorous and aesthetically transformative classes that college students take. And the nature of this transformation isn’t only about alienating them from their naive enjoyment of popular genres. I can’t speak for others, but my method of teaching these materials is practically old fashioned. (This isn’t, it should go without saying, the only valid way to teach popular art.) I insist that the reason we’re reading comics isn’t in order to learn something about the culture, but because many of the books I assign are masterpieces. And they’re masterpieces you can’t just read casually or unthinkingly. You need to learn to read, for example, Chris Ware’s Building Stories. To fully appreciate Ware’s brilliance, you need to become familiar with the history of comics and become comfortable reading a variety of comics styles and formats.

At more advanced levels, you need to develop the capacity to assess critically sophisticated theories about the poetics of comics. None of this is, as many of my students will attest, easy to do. Giving students access to an important, brilliant, historically significant corpus of art seems to be an entirely appropriate activity for the undergraduate classroom at a university. After you have taken a Zombie Course, you may discover you have actually just taken a Great Books (or in the case of Ware, a Great Box) course without realizing it, and you may also decide that any Great Books course worthy of its name cannot afford to ignore the recent surge of brilliant zombie art. If anything, we need more Zombie Courses than we have, and one hopes — in time — even full-blown Zombie Majors (or at the least Zombie Double-Majors).


A Delicious Breakfast Burrito at LARB

My review of William Gibson’s newest novel The Peripheral is now up at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

NEAR THE END of The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest novel, there is a short chapter dedicated to the problem one character faces in acquiring a breakfast burrito.

The burrito is for one of the novel’s two protagonists, Flynne Fisher, who is traveling to see her mother. Assassins have been pursuing Flynne ever since she witnessed a murder while she was playing what she thought was a video game. To protect her, her brother Burton, a former Marine who fought with a group called “Haptic Recon 1,” has ensconced Flynne in an armored truck that looks like a “Hummer limo,” which is itself protected by two manned SUVs as well as a small fleet of drones.

Getting a burrito into Flynne’s hands, through these layers of security, creates a logistical problem that Gibson relishes in describing.

Read the rest here.


Korzybski’s SF Legacy

Earlier this month, an essay I wrote about Alfred Korzybski appeared on io9. Korzybski’s the founder of General Semantics, which is  a sort of meta-science that tried to give an account of humanity’s relationship to language and abstract thought. I first learned about Korzybski through my research on William S. Burroughs (who was a big fan of Korzybski’s “non-Aristotelian” ideas). I quickly discovered that Korzybski influenced a wide range of disciplines and played a big role in the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. You can read the essay here.


Utopian Foresight

Last week, I had a short essay published in Slate that discusses the failure of recent popular science fiction to imagine Socioeconomically Less Awful Futures. This failure is, in many ways, understandable, given how Socioeconomically Awful the present is, but I suggest that it might be interesting to conceive of science fiction as a genre with a special power to help us think rigorously about what kind of future we’d prefer to live in. There are a few examples of recent fiction in this vein, but I think we need more — and more ambitious — efforts at Utopian foresight.

I wrote the piece as part of a series of posts by Future Tense promoting the release of Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. It’s an anthology that tries to imagine such positive futures, though there are a variety of themes and political perspectives in the anthology (not all of which correspond to my own). I contributed a story called “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA.” The story’s not exactly about economic inequality, but it responds to the Pretty Awful socioeconomic world imagined in my first novel, Pop Apocalypse.

On the whole, the story’s a bit less dystopian, and a bit less satirical, than Pop Apocalypse, but it’s also a kind of mini-sequel in that the story imagines a possible tactic that might help overcome centralized control and surveillance of the Internet (what I call the mediasphere).


Infinite Wallace / Wallace infini

I’m going to be participating in the Infinite Wallace / Wallace infinite conference in Paris next month (Sept. 11-13). The conference features a cool-looking lineup of talks. My own talk is entitled “What is a turdnagel?” and will, as the title makes apparent, be a preliminary effort to answer this very important — and woefully understudied — question for David Foster Wallace Studies. If you’re in or around Paris, come check us out.


Nealon, Amis, Eggers, Wallace, Pynchon

I’ve published a few pieces since I last blogged.

1. Over the summer, my review of Jeffrey T. Nealon’s Post-Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism came out in Contemporary Literature. My review is mixed. Post-Postmodernism is an engaging book, sometimes even fun to read (a rarity for academic prose), but it’s ultimately too beholden to Fredric Jameson’s account of postmodernism.

2. In October, I wrote a review saying a few nice things about two novels by Kingsley Amis, The Green Man and The Alteration, and arguing that it might be appropriate to think of him as a sort of New Wave science fiction writer.

3. I wrote a review of Dave Eggers’s novel, The Circle, for The American Prospect. I was not a fan, though it has a few compelling moments, especially in its representation of office work.

4. In boundary 2, I published an academic essay called “The World of David Foster Wallace.” I make a few comments on the “worldliness” of Wallace’s novella “The Suffering Channel,” and consider charges that American fiction is parochial.

5. In the Winter 2013/2014 Iowa Review, just out now, I review Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. It’s arguably Pynchon Lite, but I’m a sucker for Pynchon. My review is not available online, but you can see the TOC of the issue here.


Review of Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens”

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Review of Books ran my review of Jonathan Lethem’s newest novel, Dissident Gardens.

IN 2004, The New York Times reported on the effort of the borough of Queens to find a replacement for Hal Sirowitz, its departing poet laureate, “one of those rare New York writers who is willing — eager, in fact — to identify himself with the borough.” The qualifications for the position were simple: “The winner must be someone who has lived in Queens for at least five years and has written, in English, ‘poetry inspired by the borough.’” But finding someone who met both criteria proved more difficult than expected. Compared to other boroughs — especially Manhattan and Brooklyn — the Times concluded that “[t]he muse has been less kind to Queens.” Submissions ranged from poems celebrating the fact that the city’s two airports were housed in the borough to odes to those felled on Queens Boulevard, America’s premiere Boulevard of Death.

With Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem — now, inconveniently for official purposes, a resident of California — makes a belated bid for the job of the borough’s poet laureate. Lethem’s longstanding willingness to traverse borders, whether of culture, race, or genre, carries him away from his beloved Brooklyn into what his narrator calls “that impossible homeland of steaming stacks and tombstones.” Dissident Gardens suggests that if you can overcome what Lethem calls “Boroughphobia,” you might find in Queens the makings of something like Utopia, a word often hard for American tongues to pronounce without irony.

It’s a book that takes a hard, often uncomfortable, look at the legacy of the left. You can read the rest here.


A MOOC Roundtable

(From Arcade.)

MOOC is, let’s face it, an ugly acronym. As almost everyone in the world of higher education learned this past academic year, it stands for Massive Open Online Course. 

Despite its inelegance, the word has gained a life of its own — a (not always positive) conjuring power on the lips of pundits, administrators, and activists. The MOOCs are coming! They’re threatening to pillage the faculty club, or promising to liberate our students from non-superstar local faculty (who in her right mind could bear to take a course on Justice not taught by Michael Sandel?), or giving everyone the tools to do more interesting things in the classroom, thereby increasing the efficiency of university instruction. It depends who you ask.

The Rise of the MOOC has become an occasion for the continuation of a far larger, in my view more important debate: about the future of affordable, high-quality public education, the imperiled working conditions of faculty, the unhappy job prospects of graduate students and contingent labor, and the purpose of higher education in a winner-take-all market economy, (not to mention the justification for the massive debt students take on to acquire this education).

The Los Angeles Review of Books has just posted two parts of a roundtable on MOOCs and the humanities (part one is here and part two is here), featuring thoughtful contributions by Al Filreis, Cathy Davidson, Ray Schroeder, and Ian Bogost. (It includes a brief introduction by Yours Truly.)

Our goal in organizing the debate was to focus special attention on how MOOCs — and online learning more broadly — might affect the humanities. What special opportunities or problems arise in online classes that teach literature, the arts, or other humanistic subjects? How should we understand the forces that are pushing for the rapid adoption of MOOCs? Are MOOCs in any serious sense a "tsunami” or a perfectly ordinary, practically dull question, easily addressed by thoughtful faculty governance? What relation, if any, can we discern between particular online classes and the what Aaron Bady has called “the MOOC phenomenon.” How might online teaching democratize knowledge or commodify it?

We’ve already succeeded in drawing interesting comments, including a number from David Palumbo-Liu (who is going to be offering a collaborative course with Cathy Davidson at Duke). I invite you to visit the LARB’s site, to contribute to the debate, or to comment here.


New Reviews and Blog Posts

Since I last blogged here, a lot of new writing by me has appeared online.

1. #OccupyGaddis

I’ve written a number of posts related to this past summer’s Big Read, #OccupyGaddis. Here’s the complete lineup (which repeat some I listed below) in chronological order:

There are also some great posts on the LARB blog by Sonia Johnson (here, here, and here) and Joseph Tabbi (here, here, and here). #OccupyGaddis was, on the whole, a tremendous experience. If you haven’t yet, read J R.

2. Reviews

I’ve also been pretty busy writing reviews over the last few months, most of them at LARB.

3. Other Blog Posts

Over at Stanford’s Arcade, I’ve posted a follow-up reflection on John Thompson’s great sociological study of the publishing industry, Merchants of Culture. It’s called “Another Publishing Field is Possible,” and starts this way:

“In order to transform publishing into a less crisis-bound, short-term-oriented system, we must end capitalism,” according to Andrew Goldstone’s – and my – friend, Colin Gillis, a member of the staff collective at the radical co-op, Rainbow Bookstore, located in Madison, WI. Ending capitalism to fix publishing: this is a tall order indeed, but the decisiveness of Colin’s claim gets us thinking in the right direction. For as I suggested in a previous Arcade post, the problems that plague trade publishing are, by John Thompson’s fascinating sociological account in Merchants of Culture, larger than any individual editor, imprint, or company. Many people of good faith – with excellent intentions and impeccable taste – work in the field, but sort-termism, the increasing emphasis on frontlists at the expense of backlists, the escalating allocation of marketing resources to unproven Big Books over myriad worthy Medium-Sized and Small Books by established authors: the forces compelling these changes are now built into the very fabric of how the Big Six do business.

You can read the rest here.


#OccupyGaddis Begins

Over at the LARBlog, I’ve written a pair of posts announcing the start of #OccupyGaddis, a collective summer reading of William Gaddis’s monumental 1975 novel, J R. From my original post:

First, get yourself a copy of the J R, either at your local bookstore, your local megachain, online, an unusually literate yard sale, or–you’d better hurry, before it’s privatized–your local public library.

J R is a long book — 725 dense pages — but our pace will be relaxed. If you read an average of 10 pages a day, you’ll finish by August 30. Here goes the tentative schedule I’ve set for myself:

June 29: pp. 150

July 15: pp. 300

July 31: pp. 460

August 15: pp. 610

August 26: done!

Easy, right? That’s only 75 pp. a week, which’ll leave you plenty of time to enjoy the summer weather, take a vacation, watch the new season of Breaking Bad and recover from the season finales of Girls, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. As you read, you can refer to these annotations of J R, which will clarify who is speaking in the scenes we’re reading, and explicate what’s going on.

Today, a second blog post has gone up about William Gaddis’s relationship to failure. A snippet:

Gaddis may still be our most important unread novelist. He’s widely considered a master of American fiction (he won two National Book Awards and a MacArthur “Genius Grant”), is frequently namechecked as a foundational postmodernist writer, but is rarely discussed at length. Even literary scholars, those lovers of the abstruse and the difficult, hardly talk about him. A 2007 edited collection on Gaddis, Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System, has only been cited a few times since its publication, and the number of hits Gaddis’s name brings up on the MLA International Database is an order of magnitude lower than what one finds when searching for his peers, like Thomas Pynchon.

Hope you can get on board. If you don’t have a copy of J R you can read the first ten pages for free online while you dig yourself up a paper or electronic copy.