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Midrash  

Carol Bakhos

In modern parlance, midrash (Hebrew root drš, “to investigate, seek, search out, examine”) refers to any act of interpretation, but in its strictest and most precise sense it refers to ancient rabbinic biblical interpretation. Midrash is both the process and product of interpretation contained in vast compilations of midrashim (plural) as well as in other rabbinic works such as the Talmud. Compendia of midrashim not only preserve interpretations and teachings but also reveal a curiously postmodern, polysemic approach to scriptural exegesis. These compilations are often categorized according to three (problematic) descriptive binaries: halakhic or aggadic; tannaitic (70–200 ce) or amoraic (200–500 ce); and exegetical or homiletical. Through the midrashic process, the Jewish sages of antiquity made the Bible relevant to their contemporaries, taught moral lessons, told fanciful stories, and developed as well as maintained theological beliefs and ethical codes of behavior. The study of midrash provides a portal into the cultural world of the rabbis of late antiquity; it also serves to highlight their approach to and assumptions about scripture, and their guiding hermeneutical practices and principles. Midrashic interpretation employs a variety of exegetical techniques that are often tightly connected to the language of scripture. In addition to wordplay, the rabbis occasionally use gematria, whereby the arithmetical value of Hebrew letters is used to interpret a word or verse. Intertextuality and the atomicization of scriptural words, phrases, and verses are fundamental characteristics of the midrashic method. Although the term midrash applies specifically to rabbinic biblical interpretation, it is sometimes used more broadly as a synonym for aggadah, which includes rabbinic stories, maxims, and parables. Critical editions of midrashic compilations as well as digital advancements and translations give scholars in cognate fields the necessary tools to understand rabbinic literature and undertake comparative studies.

Article

Amritjit Singh and Aaron Babcock

Racial patterns at any given time have been intertwined with local contexts, economic and political conditions, technological change, and a growing awareness of the socially constructed nature of race and gender. Race in the modern sense of the term emerged first in the 18th century amid the transformative changes of the industrial revolution, a growing slave trade, and the spread of European settler colonialism and imperialism in Asia, Africa, and the Western hemisphere. As a means of categorizing populations, race was a useful tool in justifying both slavery and imperialism. A further solidification of racial taxonomy developed over the course of the 19th century in which peoples and nations were grouped as genetically distinct. Race was thus essentialized and difference became widely accepted as biological and measurable. In the early decades of the 20th century, the view of race as biologically determined and immutable gradually gave way to sociological and anthropological reconsiderations of previously held assumptions. Contemporaneous to this reorientation of thinking on race was the growth of ethnicity as a related but distinct form of grouping populations that reframed identity as rooted in a shared national and sociopolitical history. In the 20th century, race across scholarly disciplines began to be divested gradually of its biological and genetic aspects and a recognition of race as a legal and social construction had emerged, especially in Postcolonial Theory and Critical Race Theory (CRT). In fact, what was viewed as “race” around 1900 (e.g., the Irish race, the Jewish race) came to be defined as “ethnicity” in the 20th century. For centuries, however, race has been used as a means for exercising power and control and as a defense of a racial caste system that privileges select groups. Through their many creative uses of memory and history, writers and artists in the United States and elsewhere have long responded in multiple genres by offering their own versions and visions of individual and community, complicating in the process our understandings of race, ethnicity, gender, nation, majoritarianism, and citizenship—the tangled issues that continue to haunt Americans and many others around the globe. Historians, literary scholars, and theorists have also played an active role in challenging old orthodoxies on race and ethnicity through multiple overlapping approaches, including African American Studies, Ethnic American Studies, Black Feminism, Postcolonial Studies, and Critical Race Theory (CRT).

Article

Cheryl Lousley

Ecocriticism describes and confronts the socially uneven encounters and entanglements of earthly living. As a political mode of literary and cultural analysis, it aims to understand and intervene in the destruction and diminishment of living worlds. A core premise is that environmental crises have social, cultural, affective, imaginative, and material dimensions. Although ranging in its critical engagements across historical periods, cultural texts, and cultural formations, ecocriticism focuses on the aesthetic modes, social meanings, contexts, genealogies, and counterpoints of cultural practices that contribute to ecological ruination and resilience. These include myths about frontiers, progress, and human mastery over animality and nature; capitalist modes of valuing, devaluing, and radically transforming lifeworlds; and biopolitical and racialized inequalities in health, risk, development, and disposability. Ecocriticism also involves broad theoretical engagement with discursive formations and semiotic significations, including the interrogation of crisis frameworks and apocalyptic representations, considering their histories, scales, and temporalities, while also asking how any particular socioecological arrangement comes to count as a matter of concern, for whom, and in which contexts. The concept of nature is a long-standing theoretical topic in ecocriticism. While nature may seem, rather straightforwardly, to be the domain environmentalism seeks to protect, it is a concept on which hinge crucial and contested claims about ontology (the nature of something, such as assertions about human nature as an inherent, often determining set of shared qualities) and epistemology (how we know what is real, such as the scientific practices through which credible assertions can be made that the planetary climate is changing), claims whose modern authority has rested on positioning nature as a domain outside culture. While structuralist and poststructuralist theorists have destabilized the binary opposition of nature to culture, the political and epistemological imperative to engage with nature as simultaneously material and semiotic has spawned an array of theoretical developments, from Donna Haraway’s cyborg figure and other “natureculture” assemblages to new materialisms. Meanwhile, nature circulates as a commodity form and spectacle animating digital, film, and television screens as well as many other consumer products and experiences. Cultural studies approaches to ecocriticism raise questions about the relationships of visual, narrative, and sound representations to economic power, media technologies, and the material and social ecologies through which they are produced and which they form and transform.

Article

Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson and Amy Nigh

In the everyday sense of the term, genealogy describes the study of ancestry and the tracing of a pedigree. As such, genealogy serves to follow the element in question to a singular origin which constitutes its source and guarantees its value. As a philosophical notion, however, genealogy is opposed to such tracing of a pedigree and instead describes the interrupted descent of a custom, practice, or idea, locates its multiple beginnings, and excavates the conditions under which it emerged. In this technical sense of the term, genealogy is a form of historico-philosophical analysis that mobilizes empirical material to uncover historically specific conditions under which the object under examination was able to emerge. Genealogy thus reverses customary explanations of objects of cultural history, according to which these objects are either necessary end points of historical development or results caused by some anthropological principle. Instead, genealogy reconstructs the history of their objectification—that is, of their contingent formation as an object of concern and intervention. Phenomena that are typically assumed to be the causes of certain practices, institutions, laws, norms, and so on are here revealed as effects of the very things they were thought to cause. The problems with which genealogy is concerned are historical formations that rely on and simultaneously make possible forms of knowledge, norms of behavior, and modes of being a subject. While the invention of genealogy in its technico-philosophical sense is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, a genealogy of genealogy itself reveals its numerous beginnings in a wide range of discourses and practices that constitute its conditions of possibility.

Article

Twenty-first-century anglophone literatures of the Global South are increasingly contending with the waning of the postcolonial welfare state and the rising hegemony of world markets. As a result, contemporary anglophone writing, predominantly from India, Nigeria, and Mexico, offers a re-descriptive matrix for postcolonial studies. Ranging from novels about neocolonial expansion to nonfiction about rising economies of scale, both diasporic and national anglophone literatures use the narrative conceit of entrepreneurship to diagnose the sheer reach of neoliberalism. Whether casting it as a mainly US-backed economic regime, the latest iteration of first-world developmentalism, or a post-1989 fallout of world economies toward a universalized market logic, neoliberalism has had a significant impact on the narrative forms and subjects produced within contemporary anglophone literatures. In the wake of the 2008 collapse, recession economics has precipitated varied reflections on the pernicious effects of hyper-valuation and its effects on the Global South by postcolonial and diasporic novelists like Aravind Adiga, Mohsin Hamid, and Teju Cole. Global Anglophone writing, broadly conceived, insistently calls attention to the material and psychic damage inflicted by the peripheralization of postcolonial nations in the production of a profitably global market imaginary. By tracking the formal centrality of the Bildungsroman, Indian, Nigerian, and Mexican writers demonstrate how they reject the universalism of Bildung as global development and instead gravitate toward a politics of compromise, failure, and refusal. They offer a grim counternarrative to the aspirational and upwardly mobile ethos that characterizes nonfiction from economically ascendant postcolonial nations. In modes of novelistic and nonfiction writing, a variety of figures, from murderous entrepreneurs to discontented psychiatrists to cynical bloggers, complicate the landscape of global neoliberalism. If the framework of the global troublingly obfuscates questions of labor and economic justice, then these diverse subjects self-consciously mediate between marginal cosmopolitanisms and precarious work regimes to reveal the stakes of transnational capital. In doing so, Global Anglophone literatures attest to an urgent need to rethink free market economics by finding new, egalitarian solutions to the problem of uneven development.

Article

Peta Mitchell

Since around 1970, and across a broad spectrum of humanities and social sciences disciplines, there has been an ongoing and critical reassessment of the role played by space, place, and geography in the formation and unfolding of human knowledge, subjectivity, and social relations. Starting with the identification of a distinctive “spatial turn” within critical and social theory in the second half of the 20th century, it has become a commonplace to recognize space as being political and as having a particular affective and effective power. A distinctive constellation of socio-technological changes at the start of the 20th century brought the question of space to the critical foreground, and, by the end of the 20th century, a loosely defined and interdisciplinary “spatial theory” had emerged, while a number of fields across the humanities and social sciences had avowedly undergone their own “spatial turns.” More recently, new critical approaches have emerged that foreground the geo- as both a starting point and method for critical analysis as well as new inter-disciplines—namely the geohumanities and spatial humanities—that provide a focus for the range of work being done at the interstices of geography and the humanities. With the rise to ubiquity of geospatial and geolocative technologies since around 2005—and their almost wholesale penetration into everyday life in the global North in the form of the GPS-enabled smartphone—the question of the geo- and its role in locating and mediating human experience, knowledge, and social relations has become ever more salient. In an era where the geo- becomes geolocation, and is increasingly defined by networked relations among humans, digital media, and their locational data traces, new approaches and schools of thought that transect geography, digital media, and critical and cultural theory have once more emerged, constituting what may be thought of as a new, digital spatial turn. Charting the trajectory of the geo- as a key site and mode of critique across and through these often overlapping “spatial turns”—across time, space, and disciplinary boundaries—is itself a work of geolocation.

Article

Natural language generation (NLG) refers to the process in which computers produce output in readable human languages (e.g., English, French). Despite sounding as though they are contained within the realm of science fiction, computer-generated texts actually abound; business performance reports are generated by NLG systems, as are tweets and even works of longform prose. Yet many are altogether unaware of the increasing prevalence of computer-generated texts. Moreover, there has been limited scholarly consideration of the social and literary implications of NLG from a humanities perspective, despite NLG systems being in development for more than half a century. This article serves as one such consideration. Human-written and computer-generated texts represent markedly different approaches to text production that necessitate distinct approaches to textual interpretation. Characterized by production processes and labor economies that at times seem inconsistent with those of print culture, computer-generated texts bring conventional understandings of the author-reader relationship into question. But who—or what—is the author of the computer-generated text? This article begins with an introduction to NLG as it has been applied to the production of public-facing textual output. NLG’s unique potential for textual personalization is observed. The article then moves toward a consideration of authorship as the concept may be applied to computer-generated texts, citing historical and current legal discussions, as well as various interdisciplinary analyses of authorial attribution. This article suggests a semantic shift from considering NLG systems as tools to considering them as social agents in themselves: not to obsolesce human writers, but to recognize the particular contributions of NLG systems to the current socio-literary landscape. As this article shows, texts are regarded as fundamentally human artifacts. A computer-generated text is no less a human artifact than a human-written text, but its unconventional manifestation of humanity prompts calculated contemplation of what authorship means in an increasingly digital age.

Article

Matthew Woodcock

Early modern regional drama produced in England between the Reformation and the closure of the public theaters in 1642 can be divided into three categories: provincial performances by touring playing companies; entertainments and masques staged by civic, ecclesiastical, and aristocratic hosts during Tudor and Stuart royal progresses; and drama produced by towns, cities, and communities themselves. There are also many instances of performances where these three categories overlap or interact. Touring companies under royal or noble patrons performed in a variety of locations upon visiting settlements in the provinces: in guildhalls, inn, churches and churchyards, open spaces, noble or gentry households, or, on a few occasions, purpose-built regional playhouses. There is extensive evidence of touring companies playing in the provinces across England and Wales until the 1620s, although there were fewer opportunities for patronized touring companies under the Stuarts and greater incentives and rewards for performing in London and (from 1608) in the new indoor theaters. Drama also came to the provinces during Tudor and Stuart royal progresses in the form of shows and masques staged in urban communities, elite domestic houses, and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The heyday of such entertainments was during Elizabeth I’s reign; between 1559 and 1602 the queen visited over 400 individual and civic hosts. The reigns of James I and Charles I saw far fewer progresses into the provinces and the principal focus of Stuart royal spectacle was court masque and London’s Lord Mayor’s shows. Nevertheless, the monarch and royal family were entertained around the country from the 1620s until the 1630s, and Ben Jonson played a key role in scripting some of the provincial masques staged. Early modern regional drama also took the form of civic- and parish-based biblical plays and pageants that continued medieval guild-based performance traditions. Drama was also performed in provincial schools and in the universities, as well as in private households, throughout the period. Examining early modern drama from a regional perspective, and identifying how, where, and why drama was performed across the country, enables the construction of a broader and more complex understanding of theater and performance as a whole in the 16th and 17th centuries. When it comes to reflecting the wider social, geographical, and gender demographics of early modern England, regional drama is shown to offer a more truly representative, inclusive conception of national drama in this period than that which is predicated on London-based material alone.

Article

Michael Saler

In the early 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that Western modernity was “disenchanted.” He meant that modernity was defined by the growth of rationalization, which evacuated the shared spiritual meanings and purposes that had characterized premodern societies oriented toward supernatural worldviews. Rather than relying on “mysterious, incalculable forces,” Weber maintained that modernity relied on reason, science, and bureaucracies to manage existence. Weber’s disenchantment paradigm influenced thinkers throughout the 20th century, but since the turn of the 21st century, it has been substantially revised. Critics note that traditional “enchanted” worldviews continued to thrive within modernity, and varieties of specifically modern “re-enchantments” arose as well, consistent with the rational, secular, and consumerist currents of the modern world. Critics also observe that the paradigm was too one-sided in its stress on rationalization as the guiding principle of modernity. The paradigm’s binary opposition between reason and the irrational, or the dialectical transformation of the former into the latter, have been largely replaced by an emphasis on the complementary nature of reason and the imagination. (Indeed, contrary to Weber’s assertion, the imagination itself is now perceived as a “mysterious, incalculable force” within modernity, appealing to the secular and the religious alike.) The new paradigm highlights the intertwined nature of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, reason and the imagination, disenchantment and enchantment. Modernity is characterized less by outright disenchantment than by “disenchanted enchantment.”

Article

Yomaira C. Figueroa

Junot Díaz is a Dominican American award-winning fiction writer and essayist. For over twenty years his work has helped to map and remap Latinx, Caribbean, and American literary and cultural studies. Since his collection of short stories, Drown, debuted in 1996, Díaz has become a leading literary figure in Latinx, Afro-Latinx, and diaspora studies. His voice is critically linked to the legacy of Latinx Caribbean literary poetics reaching back to the 1960s (including Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, 1967). Díaz’s work is likewise transnational and diasporic, often reflecting the lived experiences of working-class immigrant populations of color in northeastern urban centers. Within a broader scope, Díaz’s writing is tied to feminist African American and Chicana literary traditions, with Díaz citing the influence of writers such as Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros in his writing practice. His 2007 award-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, earned him a Pulitzer Prize in fiction and catapulted him into literary superstardom. Díaz followed that success with his 2012 collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, which was a finalist for both the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. In 2012, Díaz was conferred the MacArthur Fellows Program Award, commonly known as the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and in 2017, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2019, he was the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the fiction editor at the renowned literary magazine the Boston Review. Over the course of his professional writing career, Díaz has published numerous nonfiction essays and political commentaries, and coauthored opinion editorials on immigration and reflections on Caribbean and US politics. His short story “Monstro,” published in 2012, further rooted Díaz in the genres of science fiction and Afrofuturism. “Monstro” was understood to be a teaser for a now discarded novel of the same name. The simultaneous publication of the English-language Islandborn and Spanish-language Lola in 2018 represented the author’s first foray into the genre of children’s literature. Like much of Díaz’s literary oeuvre, the children’s books chronicle the experiences and memories of Afro-Dominicans in the diaspora through the perspective of a child narrator. Díaz is one of the founders of Voices of Our Nation (VONA), a summer creative writing workshop for writers of color where he helps aspiring writers to workshop their fiction. Díaz’s fiction and nonfiction writings have catalyzed work in literary, Latinx, and Afro-Latinx studies, prompting renewed discourses on literary representations of masculinity, gender, sexuality, intimacy, sexual violence, dictatorship, immigration, disability, Dominican history, race and anti-blackness, anti-Haitianism, decolonization and radical politics, and diaspora and belonging.