Category Archives: Literature

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?


Troubadours and the Production of Early Chicano Literature

by Dorie Perez

Pulling from a historically oral tradition, Chicano Literature sought to create and analyze texts of the Chicano cultural output that advanced during the social movements of the 1960s and into the 21st Century. Attempts to codify the literature of Chicano Studies into its own canon often sought to legitimize its study by turning oral tradition into the written word, the medium used most by the Humanities. This process of making “legible” work from Chicano scholars previously unrecognized by the academy framed such work as both cultural expertise and political argument.

The Center for Humanities’ final seminar for the Fall 2014 semester was led by Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez who presented his paper “Of Modern Troubadours and Tricksters: the Upside-Down World of José Inés García”. Martín-Rodríguez writes of the work of Chicano scholars in the 1980s to reclaim their discipline’s written past by doing literary “recovery,” looking for the beginnings of a Chicano movement found in works previously ignored in the development of the canon. Thus, literary histories of previous scholarship are vital to work to shift the analysis of academic literature away from its Eurocentric focus. The medium of such critique was the novel and social history, yet other genres such as poetry, letters and humor are where social commentary from the fringes are best received.

Understanding poetry as a medium – short pieces with big impact – is central to the analysis of José Inés García, whose work has been virtually ignored by Chicano scholars. In the vein of recovery and through the poetry, Garcia’s work is identified by Martín-Rodríguez as significant to the development of Chicano literature, voicing issues of identity and social tension that would serve as the core ideas of subsequent Chicano authors. This recovered history is remarkable – very few copies of García’s work exist. Other poets like Bartolo Ortiz and José Díaz from the same time frame (early 20th Century) often used self-publishing to produce their work, sold door-to-door by authors eager to seek an audience within their own community. The entrepreneurial schemes to get their work read and published show the innovative ways in which this early cohort sought recognition. Calling himself “El trovador moderno,” or the modern troubadour, García’s writing extended to journalism. He edited El Progreso and La Cronica, local Spanish-language newspapers in the American South West.

The inversions that make José Inés García’s work so compelling are contextual as well as literary; García suffered an accident in mid-life, leading to permanent blindness that did not hinder his work as editor, translator and poet in New Mexico. He was also raised Protestant in an ethnic enclave of New Mexico, something of an outlier in traditionally Catholic Hispanic circles. His winking inversions continue in his focus on trickster figures, a literary trope used often to make light of intercultural tensions and difference. The transformation of gender roles happening during a time of social upheaval also captured his attention, producing several works that play on themes of gender. Given such topics, the early date of such work remains significant in its analysis of social change. Martín-Rodríguez was able to capture this recovery, adding to scholarship on forgotten figures central to Chicano Literature’s literary corpus and style.

Nikkei and the Novel: Hybridity in 21st-Century Brazil

by Dorie Perez

Ignacio López-Calvo’s research on literary works of the Japanese immigrant experience in Latin America shows how traditional models of cultural transitivity between mainstream and ethnic minorities are disrupted. The novels he studies reflect changing values in 1970s Brazil and how people remake trajectories of assimilation; this is where his work co-aligns with the Center for the Humanities’ 2013-2015 two-year theme of “The World Upside Down: Topsy Turvy.” The Nikkei community maintained its opposition to cultural assimilation in Brazil, insistent that they were a model to be followed rather than an ethnic minority to be subsumed into the larger dominant culture. This reconfiguring of the classic shift from “yellow peril” to “model minority” is inverted in the Brazilian context.

harper's image
Image: Harper’s Weekly image depicting Europe’s need to protect the world from “yellow peril.” This was a term attributed to Kaiser Wilhelm, who dreamed of a fiery Buddha threatening the Occident. Source:

López-Calvo places his scholarship in a framework of decolonial theory by selecting two fictional pieces as examples of personal testimony and instruments of empowerment for comparative analysis of larger themes of cultural development and inclusion. Yawara!, Julio Miyazawa’s first novel, examines the immigrant experience as an ongoing search for inclusion that encompasses acts of emplacement, place-making and what makes a person “Brazilian.” The book Uma Rosa para Yumi provided context to a fictionalized account of the Nisei involvement in revolutionary youth activity during the 1970s. These novels offer a truth within fiction, a “new, hybrid Nikkei third space” of cultural celebration, historical memory and claim to place.

ignacio seminar

Faculty, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows contributed to a lively discussion focused on the cultural output of Japanese immigration to Brazil that stemmed from issues of belonging, power, and self-identity. Questions were asked about the ways in which this real experience was fictionalized to tell a greater truth that exceeded the bounds of a community seeking to reinforce its model minority status, and whether resistance to cultural fusion came from its own place of hierarchical racialized thinking.

Ignacio presentation image

Shakespeare On Site

by Dorie Perez

Shakespeare was coasting on his laurels when he wrote Cymbeline, one of his last works for the theater, and that wasn’t a bad thing. The literary great was sure to add all of his favorite elements to this dramatic work, weaving comic absurdity with historical narrative and familial strife that, happily, wraps up on a high note. Often overlooked, the play’s high energy and whackamole-style cast of characters cropping up at inopportune moments was showcased by the obvious love and attention taken by the local theater company, Merced ShakespeareFest, to put on the production and create collaborations with the local academic community. The Center for the Humanities at UC Merced played host to the Merced ShakespeareFest’s Fall 2014 production of Cymbeline; its disparate plot echoes the Center’s biennial research theme: “The World Upside Down: Topsy-Turvy.”

Hieke Hambey, Merced ShakespeareFest’s founder and executive director, introduced the play to over 100 audience members on the grounds of UC Merced’s new Wallace-Dutra outdoor amphitheater. This venture between both the local company and the University of California at Merced was the first of its kind, and the broader impact of such a partnership was visible. The play drew mixed audiences from both the larger community and the campus, filling the amphitheater for a full two-night’s run. The play, which continued its scheduled performances in Applegate Park the following weekend, centers on the lovers Imogen and Posthumus Leonatus, who are separated by royal decree and brought back together by farce. Musical interludes offered up by local musicians Evan Hall and Soheil Fatehiboroujeni added an unexpected twist, furthering the quirky take on classic Early Modern themes of mistaken identities, flexible gender presentation, ignoble monarchs and devious servants.

Dr. Katherine Steele Brokaw, assistant professor of literature at UC Merced, served as both the lead actress and dramaturg. Her love of Shakespeare and community theater rings clear: “I like the feeling of giving back to the community through working with Merced Shakespearefest and Merced County Opera in the Schools, both of which have benefited from Center for the Humanities grants.” This is the first time that the ShakespeareFest theater company has had part of their work shown on campus, and Steele Brokaw agrees that these types of community connections have a regional impact. “While there is much scholarly merit in these collaborations, I think that it is even more important that these collaborations are ensuring that the performing arts reach more undergraduates, graduates, faculty, staff, schoolchildren, and community members of all ages and backgrounds in the Central Valley than ever before.”

The Wisdom of Farts: Ethics and Politics, Carnival and Festive Drama in Late Medieval and Early Modern France

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin: Theater, Farce, 1907
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin: Theater, Farce, 1907

by Paola Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco

On December 4th, Noah Guynn shared his preliminary work on farce in late medieval and early modern France. This presentation is the first semester of seminars on our two-year research theme: “The World Upside Down: Topsy-Turvy.” In fact, Guynn’s essay, which is the introductory chapter from his book on politics and ethics in medieval and early modern French farce, impeccably shows how both literary works and theater have the power to challenge, change, deliberately reverse, and undermine expected order. In his essay, Guynn aims to theorize and historicize festive comedy, by demonstrating how farce confronts controversies of the day over ethics, politics, and power. Guynn’s exploration of farce questions the prevalent idea that festive misrule is a temporary inversion of social power and hierarchies, responding to a large body of criticism on Bakhtin’s work. Bakhtin describes Carnival as the “the second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance” (9), standing in contrast with official feasts. Critics of Bakhtin see Carnival purely as an instrument of mass-control; this can be summarized by Eco’s words: “The prerequisites of a ‘good’ carnival are: (i) the law must be so pervasively and profoundly introjected as to be overwhelmingly present at the moment of its violation, [and] (ii) the moment of carnivalization must be very short, and allowed only once a year.” (6) Guynn finds a middle ground between Bakhtin and Eco, demonstrating how farce is open to plural readings that attempt to recognize all tensions, negotiations, and dialogues that were mediated by comic theater. Plural reading seems inferred in these plays by the fact that they were often performed in public spaces and accessible to large and diverse audiences (i.e., diverse in terms of age, gender, wealth, social status, education, vocation, etc.) (10).

In exploring this middle ground, Guynn engages with James Scott and his theories of infrapolitics and hidden scripts. Central to Guynn’s work is not only the analysis of scripts – which can only partially reveal the realities of performance and were probably censored before being printed – but, also, archival sources (e.g., formal bans on performance, writs of censorship, and legal records documenting investigations and prosecutions of actors), which give us insight on performers and show how all performances were subject to scrutiny from the elites, thus indicating that the ruling elites perceived theatre, farces, and more broadly festive comedies a potential threat to civic order. These archival sources also show how elites sponsored farces for propaganda in different ways. For example, while Louis XII understood the importance of farce to obtain information on social dissent, Francis I, who was also a patron of farce, controlled scripts, plays, and actors much more than his predecessor through censorship.

Here are a few of the questions I posed to Noah: 1. I would ask you to give us more information on your book project. Will you mainly focus on your archival study or also provide an analysis of some of the most representative scripts of that period? 2. How different were farces that were performed in other periods of the year from carnivalesque farces? 3. How many farces do we know of that were produced in late medieval and early modern France? Can they be grouped based on plot and social, political, gender issues they addressed? 4. Is there a difference between 15th-century farces and 16th-century farces? 5. How much does this genre retain of its ancestor, that is, the Latin atellan farce? Can we recognize in late medieval farce stereotypical traits that date back to the Latin masks of atellan farce? What is really original and innovative in this farce that makes it so contextual? 6. I found your focus on archival sources amazing. I am wondering if iconography can also tell us about the places where these plays were enacted and their audiences.

Music and Religious Change in Shakespeare’s Tempest

by Peter Vanderschraaf

Katie Brokaw’s essay is the culminating part of her overall book project Staging Harmony, that focuses on important contributions to English drama from 1450-1611. For me, studying Brokaw’s essay is proving both a special treat and a formidable but valuable challenge, coming from philosophy (with scant background in literature) and specializing in branches of moral and political philosophy with roots in the early modern philosophical era that begins almost immediately after the composition of The Tempest (with Grotius’ Free Sea).  Brokaw argues that in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest Shakespeare’s writes in a “spirit of finding amicable [and not merely peaceful] coexistence between word, art and ritual (p. 4)”. The discussion here focuses on the role of music (and sometimes dance) in The Tempest.

Some questions/comments for consideration:

  1. This essay discusses primarily The Tempest, written in 1610-1611. Is there a special reason for ending the analysis at 1611 (beyond perhaps the fact that The Tempest is one is Shakespeare’s late plays and Shakespeare is the greatest playwright of his and maybe any era to write in the English language)? Staging Harmony will discuss important contributions to English drama from 1450-1611. Historical tidbit: The London Puritans succeed in having the theaters closed in 1642 until the Restoration.
  2. I agree with Brokaw that interpreting The Tempest as a work arguing for accepting a certain diversity of religious belief and practice makes very good sense. I’m wondering about a possible outlier: the Puritans. My impression is that Shakespeare makes no attempt to “bring the Puritans to the table” in The Tempest. If that’s right, a dull explanation is that Shakespeare may have thought there was little point in trying to appeal to this part of his English culture (since the Puritans would at best ignore his art form anyway). But (again if I am right) could there be a more interesting explanation, namely, that Shakespeare is taking a stance regarding the (now old) question of “tolerating the intolerant”? (I think we face this problem all the time.)
  3. Very quick comment/question: As Brokaw observes, James I was fairly tolerant of religious nonconformism even in his own court. But (as I recently discovered) James had quite interesting ideas about sovereignty. Here’s a quote: “The state of monarchy is the supremest thing on earth. For kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called gods. . . .” Does Shakespeare express a view about sovereignty in The Tempest? (If not it certainly is not a problem for Brokaw’s project but I thought it might be interesting to know about.)
  4. I found Brokaw’s discussion of how people of the time viewed music and its power particularly striking. As Brokaw observes, they connected music with science (”music of the spheres”) and the occult in ways we’re not used to in our time. Just an observation: I wonder if this is another way in which The Tempest reflects what I keep calling the pre-modern tradition (because unlike in the pre-modern tradition, specific discussion of music is largely absent among the early modern philosophers and my impression is that these days, aesthetics is thought of as a “luxury” specialization.)
  5. Ditto for the short but very interesting discussion of sympathy. In Shakespeare’s time sympathy apparently had a wider meaning than in our time, reflecting harmony between music and the natural world as well as harmony between people. For reasons I don’t know (and maybe Brokaw does), in the English-speaking world I think the scope of our thinking about sympathy became narrower (roughly, for the moderns and maybe for us, to sympathize is to mentally put oneself in the place of another) as it started to make a more explicit and important role in English moral philosophy (such as Hume’s “judicious spectator” and Smith’s “impartial spectator”).
  6. Why bother raising the earlier insubstantial question about time period? Comment: My impression is that Brokaw’s interpretation can be thought of as representing a culmination in England of thought regarding relative toleration of diverse religious belief and practice (and maybe artistic practice)? (For example, as Brokaw observes recusants in James’ time were common and Roman Catholics were able to practice their faith — my impression is that places where Catholics could participate in the mass were like “speakeasies.”) From Brokaw’s essay (which I find compelling) I think one can conclude that Shakespeare advocated what one might call a “great society” view (plug for my philosophy colleague Jerry Gaus) whose members not merely accept but appreciate and learn from their differences (as opposed to a modus vivendi view of pluralism decried by Alasdair MacIntyre). The contemporary counterpart is modern politically liberal society (if you approve of it) or “the degenerate West” (if you don’t). Anyway if this is right so far, then what follows and the philosophical response (and you knew I would try to smuggle in some philosophy) are an interesting contrast. The Thirty Years War begins two years after Shakespeare’s death, the English Civil War starts in 1642 and the early modern philosophical era starts around this time. I wonder if Shakespeare’s The Tempest foreshadows a period of terrible disillusionment (especially among philosophers), Leibniz being a possible exception. We get figures like Grotius and Hobbes trying to develop a natural law that in principle could be detached from religion, Hobbes arguing that religious diversity and freedom of expression are neither desirable for civil peace nor necessary for personal salvation, and later Hume hinting that in the end we don’t need anything like religious belief to explain or to justify government and moral practice. (Leibniz tries maybe for the last time before the 20th century to develop a creed that he thinks all Christians can accept and that can reconcile the various Christian churches.)


Personification and the Political Imagination of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Eli Jelly-Schapiro

Amanda Bailey visited our seminar to discuss her work on the philosophic and political imagination of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Through her reading of the play, Bailey illuminates forms of agency and consent that arise out of the fluid intermingling of human and nonhuman entities rather than the embodied and self-contained sovereign subject. Offering a “glimpse of community beyond the semantics of proprium,” Bailey suggests, A Midsummer Night’s Dream gestures toward “an alternative to dominion and the violence it inspires” (3).

Bailey elaborates this fundamental claim through two interwoven threads. First, she examines how metamorphosis functions in the play—not as a process whereby one autonomous and stable ontological entity is transformed into another, but rather as a moment or space of perpetual becoming wherein a series of binary distinctions—subject–object, self–other, man-beast, being-in-itself and being-for-itself—dissolve: a space of “mutability and assemblage” rather than fixity and individuation.

Second and relatedly, Bailey advances—via a close engagement with early modern political thought and early modern contract law—a nuanced critique of how the play figures the conjoined philosophic problems of personhood and consent. The “space of persona” opened up in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reveals the mutability of the human as an ontological category and challenges the political and philosophic ascendancy of the willful sovereign subject—and by extension the structures of state or market dominance with which it is bound.

Central to Bailey’s argument is a lucid exegesis of John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Bailey uses Locke’s meditations on non-corporeal personhood to evince the ways in which, as she puts it, “personification is an enabling condition of the collective rather than a crisis of the individual” (6). It’s worth noting, though, that in other texts, most notably the chapter “Of Property” in his Second Treatise of Government, Locke articulates personhood and consent in the context of a robust defense of primitive accumulation. His famous claim that “every Man has a property in his own person” prefaces an extended reflection on the virtues of enclosure, in England as in the New World (116; ch. 5). And in testifying to the emancipatory powers of money, Locke intimates that when by universal consent money is endowed with value, universal consent is also bestowed upon the inequality that money inevitably produces (Ince 35).

Locke’s philosophic treatment of concepts such as personhood and consent, in other words, was complicit in the naturalization of capitalist and colonial processes. Bailey’s summoning of Locke alongside Shakespeare in the service of imagining an “alternative to dominion and the violence it inspires” is thus somewhat paradoxical. But this contrapuntal application of Locke is precisely what lends her argument its power. She enacts a dialectical move that salvages Locke’s notion of the disembodied person from the uses to which political systems founded on the logic of perpetual accumulation have put it. If Locke’s thought provides philosophic support for capitalist social relations it also, Bailey conveys, contains conceptual tools that might be wielded in the service of alternative social formations.

In this, Bailey affirms an important insight of Stuart Hall’s. The moment of economic determinism, Hall contends in “The Problem of Ideology,” is in the first instance, not the last. Even if our ideas of freedom, equality, personhood, the individual, consent, etc. “derive from the categories we use in our practical, commonsense thinking about the market economy,” what this conceptual vocabulary signifies is never fixed, is always open to contestation and transformation (34).

The contest over what concepts such as “personhood” and “consent” describe, however, is today being won by the ideology of the market. If one lineage of disembodied personhood leads to radical social formations beyond the logic of dominion another finds its terminus in the heart of our own neoliberal moment, wherein a legal fiction, the corporation, is afforded the First Amendment right to free speech. This is not to contradict the anticipatory tenor of Bailey’s account, but rather to highlight its urgency.

Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Karl Marx observed that the universalization of commodity rationality makes “definite social relations between men . . . [assume] the fantastic form of a relation between things” (165; ch. 1).  Today as then, the “personification of things” and the “thingification of persons”—the commoditization of human life itself—are two sides of the same coin. Bailey’s vibrant contribution is to shed light upon alternative cultures of personification that might counter rather than express the alienation of human bodies and human communities.