Early Modern England’s Social “Bag of Tricks”

by Dorie Perez

“I’d sit at the back of the room to present this paper,” said Rhea Riegel, a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Humanities graduate group and a 2014-2015 Center for the Humanities Graduate Fellow, “but that’s not what a real trickster does.” Real tricksters, like the infamous literary figures Puck from the plays of William Shakespeare and Robin Goodfellow, the archetype that Robin Hood is based on, do their dastardly deeds with an eye towards the future. Riegel says they offer an example of alternative behaviors where social change fosters a rethinking of social roles during moments of upheaval. Tricksters do the important work of challenging or, invariably, reinforcing social roles and morays that the public must then reproduce.

Riegel’s work on Early Modern English literature includes the literary canon of Robin Hood, known to 17th Century readers as Robin Goodfellow. Robin Goodfellow’s “punishment” for bad behavior is to reset “wrongs” – lecherous uncles are whipped and bawdy women dunked in duck ponds to the delight of spectators learning a collective lesson. Humor itself is seen by scholars like Riegel as setting up social conditions for commentary or a rethinking of codified relations. The types of humor that tricksters use are up-ending, but not the full satirization of current events that the modern reader may be accustomed to. Satirical activism as a brand of humor is distinct from situation comedy. Whereas satire disrupts, comedy reaffirms social “truths”. Allegorical tales of lessons learned – Robin Goodfellow punishes rather than scolds, acts rather than relays messages like angels and other divine messengers – making his role in Western literary tradition social rather than based on religious canon or politically attuned to current events of the Early Modern era. His actions serve, in the Foucauldian sense, as correctives of behavior, a task seen as a shared social responsibility.

Another trickster figure Riegel centers her study on is that of Moll Cutpurse, a composite character purportedly based on a real figure in history who challenged gender norms by dressing in masculine clothing to trick unsuspecting targets. Cutpurse becomes the embodiment of changing gender norms during a period of intense social upheaval. The events of the 17th Century in England were incredibly disruptive; the English Civil War, religious strife among warring Catholics and Protestants, the Great Fire of London and the death of Charles I on the orders of a newly-empowered Parliament served as unsteady social ground to negotiate. Trickster figures flourished in the work of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries as ways to reorient audiences to a dynamic reality of changing norms they would then need to make sense of.

Monsters and a “Good Old Fashioned Apocalypse”

by Marieka Arksey

The word monster, deriving from words meaning reveal or display, is appropriately chosen by David Castillo of SUNY Buffalo as a vector through which to explore the social, political, and economic contexts producing horror fiction throughout the past 400 years.  In the 17th century, monsters were associated with aberrations of the natural order, health and the authority of rulership.  Yet despite the fear they inspire, monsters are also the subject of curiosity; beings that embody the liminal spaces between certainty and doubt, apprehension and fascination.  As this liminal entity and as a representation of the human body in an altered state, they are ideal forms through which to explore forbidden or taboo subjects, and for creating a mirror upon which the less desirable aspects of our selves are reflected.

Castillo argues at a recent Merced Seminar in the Humanities event that death, while a trans-historical source of anxiety, is reflected and reshaped in historically specific modes, providing revelations and warnings that are both enduring and are themselves historically specific. He proposes that social-historical and political readings, and feminist and psychoanalytic approaches are ultimately complementary.

Castillo frames his argument around two main categories of monsters: vampires and zombies – both of these requiring deaths as part of their transformations, embodying a loss of identity, engaging in mass human predation, and both being very much liminal beings in that they are ‘undead’.  While other monsters surely exist which provide a lens into humanity, few contain the supernatural elements that make vampires and zombies as malleable in their role as horror fiction characters.  He then focuses on the recent zombie phenomena in Spain as an example of this localized use of ‘monsters as display’.  Using these examples, Castillo asks three main questions:

  1. What do monsters reveal about us?
  2. What do they warn us against?, and
  3. Why is it that people are naturally drawn to reading books about dystopian societies?

Striking similarities between the vampires and zombies who take humans en masse to be their sustenance slaves.  Today, both vampire creation and zombie creation are often made possible by a viral infection, both feed off humans, and both require the death of the pre-vampire or pre-zombie for their transformation to occur.  But where the two still differ is in that no one desires to become a zombie.  As Castillo points out, zombies have no soul.  Their rise to power is aimless. They have not been romanticized and made attractive in the way that vampires have.  They are just a mass of decaying flesh.  And yet, more people in America at least seem to be willing to consider the actual possibilities of zombies (in the way that they are portrayed in fiction) over that of vampires.  The term “Zombie apocalypse” exists throughout our vernacular; “vampire apocalypse” does not.  This distinction is worth exploring and goes some measure to explaining why in Spain, Castillo’s case study of the phenomena of the rise of monster fiction, zombies have become the monster of choice.   It also leaves questions that may prove interesting to explore:  Why aren’t vampires being popularized in Spain in the same way that zombies are?  Zombies and vampires appear to be equally popular in North America right now, but this does not seem to be the case in Spain.  Following that this speaks to different and very historically specific social and cultural conditions in Spain than in North America, what does this say about modern Spanish perspectives of the future?  What does this say about modern American perspectives?  Are we just dealing economic situations, or is there something else within our cultures that had led to the disparate uses of monsters as cultural mirrors?

The tension between fear and curiosity, constructions of identity and otherness and our exploitation of these groups, are, as Castillo discussed, justification for the mass murdering of groups that threaten our status quo, and the loss and attempted regain of control are recurrent themes.  The numerous ways in which zombies can be created and can manifest appears to make them more ideally suited than other ‘undead’ monsters to revealing the changing anxieties we have and mean that they have been, and likely will be, an enduring form of monster across all genres.  Fantasist thinking about ourselves and our survival skills is empowering to societies that are anxious about how disconnected we are despite (and because of) our dependence on technology and is argued to be one of the roots to movements such as the ‘tiny house movement’, ‘going off the grid’, and the ‘backyard’ or ‘urban farming movements’.  His article leaves us asking ourselves: what would you do if you could start over, and, more importantly, would you be able to survive?


Unto This Last: Marxism, Debt, and Usury

by Mario Sifuentez

During his visit to campus this spring, David Palumbo-Liu discussed his article “All That is Sold Melts into Air (Again)” with faculty and students. He urges us to shed the shackles of an old morality in order to rid ourselves of the pressing guilt that we feel when we owe money. He argues that this guilt clouds our understanding of what exactly happened during the 2008 meltdown and offers instead a countermorality, that is based on a different sense of morality and justice.

This version of capitalism positions the proletariat as owing future labor to their capitalist overlords and that alienation of wage labor has now become an alienation based on debt. Debt follows us everywhere; it is ever present in our minds, in our labor, and most importantly in our credit score. The credit system is alienating because it eliminates a material good and replaces it with something ephemeral and intangible, it replaces it with distrust and suspicion on the side of the lender, which in turn makes the borrower feel untrustworthy.

In the case of the 2008 meltdown, the borrower, large corporations, escaped the scrutiny precisely because they are not people, they cannot feel alienation, they are not moral beings, and they cannot be held accountable. In the end we pay for their debts twice over in the form of taxes and services not rendered.

So what do we do? Palumbo-Liu reintroduces the notion of a countermorality, one that creates a “whole new social imaginary” that invests heavily in a new kind of language and new kind of vocabulary. One that allows us to reinvent, explode, and construct new meanings for ourselves and places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the one percent.

In reflecting on Palumbo-Liu’s article, I am reminded of Stephanie Black’s fantastic 2002 film, Life and Debt. In the opening sequence, three Rastafarian men sit around a fire discussing the morality of lending money with high interest rates and the indebtedness that has been forced on Jamaica. They read from Exodus 22:25 “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” The Quran similarly tells us in 2:275 “Those who charge usury are in the same position as those controlled by the devil’s influence. This is because they claim that usury is the same as commerce. However, God permits commerce, and prohibits usury. Thus, whoever heeds this commandment from his Lord, and refrains from usury, he may keep his past earnings, and his judgment rests with God. As for those who persist in usury, they incur Hell, wherein they abide forever.” Ancient Hindu and Buddhist text also demean and condemn usury.

This reminds us of three things: first, that loaning and borrowing money are not immoral per se but the act of usury is really the problem. Lending and borrowing money of course are an ancient practice that predates capitalism. So does usury but capitalism’s original sin is normalizing usury in the everyday lending practices of institutions.

Second it reminds us that the United States established this world wide financial system after the Second World War. The United States and its global lenders, the IMF, the World Bank, and the Inter American Development Bank have been turning the Darker Nations into the Poorer Nations for over half a century. The austerity programs that have been enacted on the U.S. populace might be a case of the chicken coming home to roost. Capitalists have long provided a cheaper and more affordable way of life for Americans at the expense of the former colonies around the globe and are now looking here as a place to continue the gouging. For as Palumbo-Liu’s reference to Marshall Berman reminds us, “the only activity that really means anything to the bourgeoisie is making money.”

Finally, I concur with Dr. Palumbo-Liu that the solution might be as simple as refusing to pay our debts. And as difficult as creating a new morality that forces us to talk about debt and debtors in a different framework. But I want to suggest that perhaps we should look to an ancient morality that while perhaps not as radical as Marxism does resonate with more people all over the world. The wrath and the vocal support that Pope Francis recently incurred because he dared to suggest that all foreign debt should be forgiven is indicative that this sort of morality appeals to a wide swath of the darker nations and makes capitalists quite nervous.


Persianate Universal Histories Turned Upside Down

by Kit Myers

With “Breaking Historiographical Boundaries: Early Modern Persianate Universal Chronicles,” Sholeh Quinn turns upside down the traditional way of examining universal histories of the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Most scholars have inspected these historiographies separately because this is still an emergent area of study. In particular, scholars have often been concerned with the last section of chronicles covering the newly established empire. Quinn’s presentation and broader research, however, turn way from atomized analysis of dynasties within this distinct genre toward an approach that investigates the entire chronicles in a comparative fashion.

Quinn’s paper illustrates the fruitful insight gained from—and broader importance of—comparative work. Such an approach makes us consider what part of the picture have we missed, and in what ways do our assumptions get turned upside down by using such an approach? Quinn’s preliminary research considers both the structure and content of four Persianate universal chronicles under the Ottoman and Safavid empires: 1) Mawlana Shukrullah’s (1459) Bihjat al-tavarikh, 2) Ghiyas al-Din Muhammad Khvandamir’s (1524) Habib al-siyar, 3) Yahya ibn ‘Abd al-Latif Husayni Qazvini’s (1542) Lubb al-tavarikh, and 4) Muhammad Muslih al-Din Lari Ansari’s (1566) Mirat al-advar.

Her analysis of universal history reveals that the four chronicles share numerous sectional and elemental components. Historians included portrayals of creation, biblical prophets, pre-Islamic Persian kings, the life of Muhammad and his immediate successors, subsequent dynasties, and lastly, the current dynasty. In looking at these universal histories, Quinn found that they were even less Ottoman- or Safavid-centric than anticipated. Thus, Quinn argues that they should indeed be considered universal histories rather than dynastic. Despite what one might expect, the authors of these universal histories did not explicitly disparage pre-Islamic figures and rulers. Instead, they narrated a shared or “universal” past, placing Islamic history within a larger historical context. Similarly, the authors were not simply Ottoman and Safavid historians because they in fact had varying roles for multiple dynasties, and thus, they were more accurately Persianate historians.

Indeed, the narratives are not entirely independent historiographical accounts but rather closely related and sometimes overlapping variations, revealing low and porous historiographical boundaries. Yet, Quinn’s close reading of the universal histories—such as the way in which Kayumars, who is said to be the first Persian king and first human, was included in the four texts—also illustrates that historians were not merely copying the first chapters of prior universal histories. Historians worked from previous sources but also inserted their own perspectives, making minor to significant revisions of prior accounts. Without a comparative analysis, scholars could easily miss the ways in which historians recorded universal chronicles that possessed shared and divergent pasts. What becomes clear is that studying universal chronicles not only requires understanding the historical context but also historiographical context.