Personal Blueprint: Mapping Adaptation in the Digital Age

Inspired by Blueprint for Counter Education by Maurice R. Stein and Larry S. Miller, I have created my own Bibliography à la Blueprint as a preparation for my upcoming thesis in Media Studies. So as to not waste a design and paper I’m proud of (and to fill up this recently empty blog) I am sharing my poster and explanation. Enjoy.

Higgins Finished Blueprint

In developing the basic design of my poster I settled onto a handful of major topics I wanted to ensure I addressed in the layout: 1) The distinction of different forms of informational data. 2) The organization of information into narrative sequence to develop “story.” 3) The process of adaptation/appropriation of narrative stories. 4) The conflict between the convergence of data and the splintering of narrative into new forms due to digital reproduction and proliferation. These topics provide the foundation for the poster in the macro, as I discuss the poster’s means of addressing these issues I will also “zoom-in” to examine a variety of more specific details and relationships present within the design.
The most prominent feature of the poster is the centered collage consisting of Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel placed on top of an antique map of the world. The prominence of Bruegel’s painting is both inspired by the use of the pentagon/five-sided-house used in the original Blueprint, a convenient architectural analogue for the creation of a pedagogic foundation, and is also itself a commentary on the power of adaptation (utilizing a painting adapted from a biblical story) and an appropriation of the meaning of the Tower as a symbol: a structure of language, a database, a process. In the Biblical narrative the Tower of Babel is a database that homogenizes, but its destruction subsequently splinters all data (language) into new forms (therefore ensuring that the destruction is itself an act of restructuring). The tower is titled as “fiction” and sits upon the Earth, which is identified as “reality.” Both of these titles should be regarded with some level of skepticism, at least from a contemporary viewpoint, but nonetheless it is important to see the distinction between “reality” as determined by the senses, the so- called objective form of the world, and the development of narrative interpretation and language which allows translation, adaptation, and interpretation lay down the “unreal” atop the “real.” Emerging from behind the Tower is a blank circle simply entitled “Hyperreality,” here is the unseen overlap of “fiction” and “reality,” the facets of subjectivity. It has no particular image attached, as hyperreality is not distinguishable from what we experience, nonetheless, it is identified as hyperreality may be recognized and discussed. It emerges from behind the tower, as it exists behind the perceived reality and fiction of our existence.


Before I engage with the other prominent set of images on the poster (the portraits of the four authors who rest in the corners) I will talk about the division between the right and left sides of the poster. Looking at topics 1. (Data) and 2. (Narrative organization) I split the poster into two sides. On the left is the development of narrative and plot, and the way such organization of information interacts with memory, history, and writing to develop artistic movements. On the right exists a web of different forms of data, with a focus on text, and the way that data is interpreted and reinterpreted. While both sides seem to begin with “reality,” as indicated by the branching arrows, it is actually more ambiguous that it first appears. While there may be a “beginning” in reality, there is no discernible end, with the topics spilling into a jumble. As Julie Sanders points out: “Adaptation has, perhaps, suffered from an emphasizing post-Romantic Western culture on a highly singular notion of creativity and genius but is finding new purchase in the era of global circulations and the digital age of reproduction and re-makings… perhaps it will increasingly serve us better to think in terms of complex filtration, and in terms of networks, webs and signifying fields, rather than simplistic one-way lines of movement from source to adaptation. In the latter model, certainly, the importance of audience, reception and contextualized production of meaning is made properly visible.”[1] It is only natural, then, that the poster resemble more a web (or perhaps a nebula, as the overuse of interconnecting lines would overwhelm the information on display) where the interactions between creators, topics, data, and history is messy and occasionally unclear: as one writer, this bibliography is just as much a map of my personal connections as greater cultural associations.


Looking at this dichotomy between cultural organization and raw data we can use the four figures (Joyce, Burroughs, Borges, and Eco, positioned like the personified winds on an antique map) as grounding cardinal directions in the mess of associations. At the top, Joyce and Burroughs both face each other as archetypal figures of modernism and postmodernism respectively, both within the tradition of writing within the English language and playing within that tradition. Joyce carries the archetype of adaptation from one piece of literature into another (i.e. the Odyssey into Ulysses) while Burroughs plays with the intertext via the rearrangement of personal information with fiction, essay, and other texts (Naked Lunch, The Nova Trilogy). Below, two authors whose work exist outside of the English language, and participate in adaptation as translation, whose careers bridge, deny, skirt, or blend the modern and postmodern categories, both by playing with the interaction of reality, fiction, and conspiracy through use of essayistic form in fiction (Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote; An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain) and through historical analysis and semiotic exploration through narrative form (Foucault’s Pendulum, Name of the Rose). In these cardinal points we have English language, translation, narrative adaptation, collage, and the absorption of history and memoir into fiction.

Around the edges, bordering the diagram, there are a list of specific works (on the top and bottom) and mediums and forms (the left and right). The works listed at the bottom of the poster are primarily chosen as examples of either particularly relevant hypotexts (“the source text of any appropriation or rewriting”)[2] or adaptations or intersexual works that exist within very traditional forms without much attempt to “break free” of their medium or source (The Coen Brother’s O Brother Where Art Thou, for example, is an artfully crafted film and adaptation of the Odyssey/Ulysses, but it exists singularly as a traditional film).

There are a couple of ambiguous choices added to the bottom list, particularly Gogol’s Viy and Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Both of these pieces contain elements of metafiction, Viy claims to tell an old folk tale once told to the author that does not actually exist in any folklore [3], Pale Fire examines a poem by an author that exists only within the fiction of the novel itself. While both of these works do seem to branch beyond the traditional methodology of adaptation and form I decided to include both of them in the bottom since Viy is still a straightforward short story despite its dabbling in metatextual subtext and Pale Fire, while extremely allusory, does not strive to provide a hyperrealist layer to the life of the reader in the way a work such as House of Leaves or Ficciones does. As a work it is more concerned with its own examination of fiction, criticism, and narrative than with imposing itself upon the reality of the reader and their perception of the real.


The top list is more concerned with works that exist as hypertexts (“the appropriative or adaptive text”) [4] such as Joyce’s Ulysses, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, the opera/album The Black Rider produced by Robert Wilson, W.S. Burroughs, and Tom Waits; or works that seek to play with the notion of adaptation or medium in a way that imposes itself on the reality of the reader, contributing to the notion hyperreality. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (Fig A.) not only tells the story of a (fictional) film, but also does so by completely disregarding the traditional form of the novel, utilizing labyrinthine footnotes, “windows” of text, photographs, citations to nonexistent sources, and falsified quotations from real individuals. The ergodic nature of the novel ties it closely to the contemporary digital form of the hyperlink and computer screen and teases the reader’s perception of what is real. William Gibson and Dennis Ashbaugh’s Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (Fig. B) is a self-destructive electronic poem and artist book. While Agrippa’s examination of memory is itself a form of adaptation, the poem’s encryption and the physical book’s intentional deterioration may also be treated as a commentary on the nature of adaptation and reproduction in the digital age: what is the value of that which may be replicated perfectly and never lost or changed? In this way, Agrippa could potentially serve as a contemporary, artistic companion to Benjamin’s comments on the loss of story and devaluing of experience in The Storyteller.


Two other works stand out within this list, being chosen for rather unique reasons: C.G. Jung’s The Red Book (Fig. C) is present for it’s attempt to translate/adapt the experience of dreams and visions into a literary and artistic form, one which Jung very clearly produced after the fashion of illuminated religious texts in a time of mechanical reproduction. The computer game/digital play Kentucky Route Zero (Fig. 4) by the company Cardboard Computer is an experiment in modernist/surrealist text within an interactive setting, utilizing player choice with dialogue that has no tangible effect upon the direction or narrative of the game itself. The game’s utilization of literary and theatrical practices within the emerging medium of interactive narrative games suggests a form of intertext that exists across mediums via technique as well as narrative allusions.

While there are numerous other subjects, authors, and associations that could be discussed within this poster, I feel that the overview provided above covers the basics of its design and the questions and topics it wishes to address. There is any number of texts that could be analyzed and discussed with respect to the process of adaptation of narrative in the age of digital reproduction, though I will admit I find myself dissatisfied with the traditional methodology of dissecting the process of adaptation (or, indeed, any literary or cultural process) by the analysis of individual work. The zoom-in, the scalping of the text, the pages upon pages of description of dead events within a story as though the depiction of events, the technique, the use of words, is really of any importance at all: the illusion that these are a real happening. What I hope this poster indicates is my interest in the relationship between these works, between the authors and the viewers: that process tied within these works which exists invisibly and in flux.



house_of_leaves2Fig A: Excerpt from Danielewski’s House of Leaves: Exemplifying the play of text as a form of visual information within the contemporary digital age of reproduction.



Fig B: Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) is a poem stored on a floppy disk that self-encrypts after a single use, stored in an artist’s book featuring pages chemically treated to fade after their exposure to light.



Fig C: The Red Book (“Liber Novus”) is a text produced with calligraphic pen, ink, and gouache paint all by hand. The text attempts to reconcile the symbolic and universal experiences of dreams within the modern age. It may be seen as a struggle with the conception of the Monomyth that Cambpell and Joyce dealt with in their own works, as well as Jung’s own work with Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, via a spiritual journey into imaginative and creative practices (i.e. artistic production).


krz1.jpgFig D: Kentucky Route Zero utilizes a hybrid of text, image, sound, and interactivity while containing references to a multitude of texts and real-life objects suck as 100 Years of Solitude, As I Lay Dying, and Project Xanadu. It’s utilization of specific literary techniques and allusion is, in its own way, a unique adaptation ofform from one medium into a (supposedly) incompatible alternative.


[1] Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation 2nd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2016), 33.

[2] Ibid 214.

[3] The claim contained in a footnote from the beginning of the story: “Viy is a colossal creation of old imagination. This name is applied by people in Little Russia to the chief of the gnomes, whose eyelids reach to the ground. The whole story is a popular legend. I did not wish to change it in any way and tell it almost as simply as I heard it.” (Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, 155)

[4] Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation, 214.


Living in a Satire: The Limitations of Political Humor against Hate


The day after the disastrous Trump Press Conference, where the President of the United States stated in response to a question regarding the Charlottesville protests and attacks executed by whites supremacists: “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” I discovered an article on my news feed by Vice called “What the Hell Was That?” Seems like an appropriate response to the surreal horror of Trump’s bizarre responses, but I was thrown off by the comment Vice News shared the article with:

“We should probably just use this headline every day.”

There is, I admit, some truth to this: it seems our nation is continuously spinning out of control with one atrocity and horrible remark following the next, but the nonchalance of this statement, the unnecessary attempt at scavenging a bit of wit and humor – no matter how bitter – dampens the rage of the article itself.

Humor has long been a weapon to be wielded against oppressors. Satire is one of the oldest genres in the world, being utilized regularly in Ancient Egypt and Greece, and in more recent years the Yippies (Youth Internationalist Party) utilized theatrical pranks and gestures (for instance, nominating a pig as president) to mock the status quo with “symbolic politics.” But just because humor is abundant and well-established as a political tool does not mean that it is always effective or appropriate to use, especially in a society that seems to have become a satire of itself. Even in the funniest, most irreverent, satires (be it Doonesbury, The Simpsons, Dr. Strangelove, Blazing Saddles, Fight Club, Grand Theft Auto, or even Borat) the characters live with sincerity, conviction, and seriousness. They are not simply shuffling about their lives guffawing, rolling their eyes, and making jokes about the president in an attempt to get a laugh, because living in a satire is deadly serious. Humor must be used decisively and skillfully, it simply doesn’t work to drop a bit of wit, smile sheepishly, and pat yourself on the back. It can’t be half-sword, half-shield.

Many believe that humor can be used to deligitimize hate and ignorance, but while hatred is absurd, it is not always easy to shame into submission. The Neo-Nazis and Alt-Righters are fueled by feelings of victimization, a certainty that it is the world that is descending into absurdity. When you humiliate a bully, the bully may back down for the moment, but that wont make them less angry, or less inclined towards violence. Some may point to the humorous subversion of Wunsidiel’s Rechts Gegen Rechts (“the Right Against the Right”) as proof of the effectiveness of humor against hatred, but don’t forget that these tactics of humor are tied to the real world: ” For every meter the neo-Nazis marched, local residents and businesses pledged to donate 10 euros (then equivalent to about $12.50) to a program that helps people leave right-wing extremist groups, called EXIT Deutschland.” These are not just jokes with a political bent, this is a movement dedicated to utilizing nonviolence to produce introspection and remove the power of a neo-nazi march. Also remember: the German goverment’s response to neo-Nazi marches in Berlin was very different than in America:

“For the neo-Nazi march, one flag per 50 people was allowed, images of Rudolf Hess were forbidden, as were drums and military music. Police individually searched each marcher in a specially set-up tent before allowing them into the penned-off march area. The neo-Nazis had to cover up tattoos and they weren’t even allowed to chant slogans. In a country where guns are banned, nothing more dangerous than a mobile phone was allowed on them. Whereas in Charlottesville, there were fully armed militias on the streets.”

It is easier to utilize humor as a weapon when hatred is already considered unacceptable, but when alt-Righters feel justified and vilified, when they wield the memetic flag of “kekistan” on an online trolling campaign to incite anger, when Trump tries to fight absurdity by being more absurd, we must consider carefully when we need to tell jokes and when we need to speak plainly. The alt-Right is bearing the standard of a joke proudly, they are using the very same tactics of theatricality and absurdity as the Yuppies used:

In many ways, Kek is the apotheosis of the bizarre alternative reality of the alt-right: at once absurdly juvenile, transgressive, and racist, as well as reflecting a deeper, pseudo-intellectual purpose that lends it an appeal to young ideologues who fancy themselves deep thinkers. It dwells in that murky area they often occupy, between satire, irony, mockery, and serious ideology; Kek can be both a big joke to pull on liberals and a reflection of the alt-right’s own self-image as serious agents of chaos in modern society.

It seems appropriate that the New York Times retrospective great comedian and activist Dick Gregory shares his quote: “Humor can no more find the solution to race problems than it can cure cancer.” Humor is not the panacea of politics, but it is a tool for introspection and it can be used to expose hate for what it is: stupidity and absurdity. But it seems at this point, at least in America, that the hate is pretty open and identifiable, and we’re already a joke to the rest of the world. If we are living in a satire, maybe we should tread carefully and take things a little more seriously.

The Taste of Snow

Sugar covered snowflakes were the cookies, they were rich and had that brown plumpness that that most people think only doughnuts own, but instead of one hole each had an intricate maze of deep-fried criss-crosses. No two were alike, just like the real thing, and when you bit into one the powdered sugar and glaze would slip through and electrify your tongue. They also dissolved like real snowflakes but I always wished it would rain down cookies from the sky rather than what I was told was frozen water. The recipe was closely guarded and only brought out when we brought a pine tree into the house, and I waited eagerly for that taste of sugar on dough. Too young to cook I would wait by the mixing bowl as it growled and wait by the oven as it hummed and wait by the window as something not quite so taste fell silently by. I think I was by the window when there was a crash, not the clammer of pans but the brittle kind that means you need to watch your step.

“There’s glass in it now”

“Not enough to make more”

It was a real dilemma. Make glass-filled cookies, or no cookies at all. I, being young, brave, and by the window where glass looked perfectly safe, thought I’d take my chances. But I was short and in the minority. In the end we made them, but only to look at. So I had to eat real snow and watch the platter to try and remember the crisp taste of silent fireworks and lemon glaze. We never made them again because the cookbook got too wet to read. I’ve always wondered how many other children had the chance to learn what snowflakes really taste like.

Notes of a Dirty Young Man: Addendum

It’s been a little over a month since I posted my long rant about my depression, my most infamous post by my own standards since it gained the most views and earned me more than a few concerned messages. I suppose that happens when you drop certain words in a public forum, but now I want to say things with a clearer head on my shoulders. First, I need to thank all of my friends and family who have reached out to me, and supported me, and assisted me in getting help. Thank you to those of you who simply took the time to read some long mind dump on the Internet. The attention was appreciated, it was helpful. I don’t mean to say that it was clickbait, because I was being desperately honest. Sometimes we need to know that we are simply seen by the world, and that we can leave a mark upon it.

I have medicine now, and in less than a week of medication I feel like a person again. The part of me that is me, that is Patrick, had been distant for a long time, and I had to scream to myself at the top of my lungs to get my body and brain to function. It was exhausting, and I was growing increasingly distant. I was telling myself that I would feel better if I solved problems in myself, and it was all the more devastating when solving those problems had no payoff. I was close to the conclusion that the problem was myself. Now, with medicine, there is still pain, there are still moments that can dig up sadness and shame and guilt, but these moments no longer close in on me. The cycle of worrying is lessened. There are still dangerous ideations, but I see them for what they are: reflexes. They are thoughts that pass by as single frames in the film of my life. They are not cloying.

Taking pills makes me nauseous, I eat less than I should when I am already too thin, they make me tired, I find reading more difficult, writing too, I can fuck but not cum, I cannot drink, grapefruit is poison, but I don’t really care because I actually feel interested in life and not bored with being. I have plenty of problems but now I don’t drown by thinking about them, I feel ready to move forward and face them. I feel ready to attempt reconciliation with those I have hurt, rather than relying on apologies and running. I have never believed that happiness is the true goal of living, so I am well prepared to live now with a rational sadness, but I do not feel afraid of happiness or contentment anymore either. Some caution is necessary, relapse is possible, it has happened before. There is no escaping certain cycles of life, but there are ways to learn how to bear them. I appreciate the patience of this world. I appreciate its love. I appreciate the struggles of those who are not me, and those who have put aside their own struggles to help me. I hope I can give as much love and patience and support in return.


– PH

Manifestophilis: Lies, Reality, Dreams

Patrick Higgins: Would you say you are a liar?

The Devil: Yes. But I’m only saying that to be honest.

PH: Are you a compulsive liar?

TD: In a sense. I lie compulsively as a choice. My whole being is constructed from compulsion and spontaneity, it’s all eating meals where I can. Ingesting what will give me a new feeling. Lying just plays into that. But I don’t lie to deceive.

PH: Doesn’t lying require deception by necessity?

TD: Yes, but lying can be a vehicle for things other than deception. Sometimes one deception is used to make a much bigger point. I am never more sincere than when I am lying, because when I am lying I’m lying at something that deserves to be lied to. It’s a puzzle: if you can figure out what the deception is, it will reveal more of my honesty underneath.

PH: Would you say you’ve been lying regularly throughout these interviews?

D: When you agree with what I say, that’s when you should think twice.

PH: But isn’t that a little bit hypocritical? You’ve said before you have a great disdain for people who purposely conceal their intentions behind this kind of ambiguity. 

TD: Well, perhaps it’s a case of do as I say not as I do. I would also like to point out that there’s a significant difference between the claim that that everything is relative and the claim that everything can be doubted. Truth can be doubted and still be true, or perhaps it’s true in a different way than we realized. Doubt is incredibly important in all things, so there can be a kind of lying that utilizes that necessity and that power. Any sort of report, any kind of statement is, to some degree, a lie because it is never the event itself. 

PH: Nora Ephron, in an interview with Studs Terkel, said regarding journalism that “all writing is about selecting what you want to use and once you choose what you want to select you’re not being objective.” 

TD: Yes, exactly.

PH: It’s also a bit of a predicament though, because, in that interview she continues by saying that she struggled with the feeling that portraying the feminist movement truthfully was going to do it more harm than good. 

TD: Well, yes, because progress is ugly. It’s unorganized. It’s not this idealized thing that rides in on a white horse in bright shining armor. It’s a weird thing where change simultaneously requires an incredible cynicism because – as I said – you need to doubt everything to avoid being controlled, but you also need to have a bit of Don Quixote idealism about you. You need to doubt facts and believe things that aren’t true to get the right mix that allows you to live effectively and purposefully. 

PH: I think there’s a big difference between facts and truth, in that the experience of personal truth, ideological truth, can exist and remain powerful even if it runs in the face of facts.

TD: Well belief is certainly just as powerful as fact. It doesn’t matter how things actually are if you can’t see or comprehend that reality, because those facts aren’t going to determine your actions.

PH: Which can be a real problem when you have people manufacturing a truth that instills fear.

TD: Right. It can be good or bad. Again, the most healthy Truths, I think, are those that can maintain a heavy level of doubt while acknowledging facts. Being in the process of seeking what works. It’s sort of a spiritual science. 

PH: It’s kind of a Feyerabendian method of psychology.

TD: Yeah, kind of like that.

PH: Of course you run the risk of blinding yourself with doubt and falling into the same trap.

TD: Of course. The risk is there. There’s always risk in anything.

PH: Do you think there’s any way to mitigate that risk? 

TD: Well because this is structured around the individual, the personal, its hard to concoct a universal panacea for ideological traps. Probably the best you can do is simply try and insure that you have people around you that are capable of bulwarking yourself against dangerous shifts. Have people who can speak to you reasonably, fight back if you become too certain of an ideology, support you if you’re too unsure of yourself. It’s unfortunate that the only solution I know is external, because that means you have less control of it, but human nature was never constructed around the individual being in complete control of themselves anyway.

PH: So really its about constructing whatever web of facts and lies works for you?

TD: Yes, preferably at little or no cost to anyone else. It’s not about rejecting real facts, or reading lies, its about asking yourself what information you yourself need to live on. If some factual information does not effectively encourage your way of living, you can acknowledge that it is a fact, but not feel obliged to carry it into your worldview.

PH: But can’t that still be dangerous? If I doubt the facts that build the foundations that other people live upon, even if I only do so to provide a positive ideology for myself, won’t I damage other people’s lives by the living of my own life?

TD: Yes, you will, but that will happen no matter what. It’s important to remember that this works in conjunction with other things I’ve talked about. You need to establish your own damage control through the people around you, and you should always remember that if the methodology of this selective process works for you then it can work for other people too. So when you move into situations where you’re working with other people you need to curb some of those selections and start considering ignored facts. The more people involved in this process the more you need to cut away the necessary self-imposed illusion.

PH: In these collective situations is there still an illusion being maintained?

TD: Certainly, they’re just collective. I mean, what is mass media but a collective dream cultivated by groups? 

PH: But what about in the reality of decision making?

TD: Well then the dream just gets put onto the supposed reality of the world. The systems we establish, whether they give us libraries, renovate cities, or illegitimately incarcerate thousands, they’re just dreams. Dreams put into motion by groups with enough power to enact their view of the world on our reality.

PH: So their dream can be our nightmare. 

TD: If we don’t like it, which we usually don’t. And by “we” I mean almost everyone outside of that group. So either we need to find new dreamers to speak for us, or we need to stop having small groups speak for all of us. 

PH: Do you think either possibility would work?

TD: The latter could work, but only in the face of real crisis or incredible technological advancement. People would make decisions as a group like that only  because they were cut off from everyone else or if there was no need to get anything from outside of the group. Either its a city-state by necessity, or by automation. 

PH: Which you’ve already established has its own problems. What about the first possibility, getting new dreamers?

TD: Certainly that’s still possible, but it is becoming more difficult. I blame that in part because of the rise of media that can project the dominant dream, it makes it harder to think up anything new. Plus, the people constructing this dream-media are also profiting off of it, so its self-feeding. 

PH: What would your dream be if you could enact it?

TD: Lots of drugs. Lots of sex. Lots of art. Enough science to keep it interesting. Arranged outlets for concentrated violence at nobody’s expense. A reduction in the human population. Domesticated bears for pets. A lovely sort of chaos.

Relatability is Not Necessary for Good Art


With any sort of artistic creation, particularly those that one hopes to show to the world and maybe make a bit of a living off of, there always seems to come up the question of how relatable the work is. Does it speak to the audience on a personal level? Do they feel drawn in to the work? Can it run parallel to the lives of the audience? These can be very important artistic questions, but recently it feels like these questions (or perhaps certain answers: “yes yes yes!”) have taken large portions of artistic critique and development hostage. It seems like nothing kills art faster than a casual “it’s not relatable” or “it’s not relevant,” and that’s terrible.

This topic surged up to the cultural forefront for awhile in 2014 after Ira Glass tweeted

@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks

It didn’t take long for a slew of articles to pour out dissecting Glass’s claim that Shakespeare sucks, most of which happily concluded that he was wrong. Many focused on pointing out how Shakespeare could be relevant, how it could speak to the human condition, etc. etc. Rebecca Mead, however, took a different approach in her New Yorker article The Scourge of “Relatability” and attacked the notion of “relatabliliy” being an effective yardstick for artistic criticism or legitimacy.

What are the qualities that make a work “relatable,” and why have these qualities come to be so highly valued? To seek to see oneself in a work of art is nothing new, nor is it new to enjoy the sensation. Since Freud theorized the process of identification—as a means whereby an individual develops his or her personality through idealizing and imitating a parent or other figure—the concept has fruitfully been applied to the appreciation of the arts. Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure.

Shortly after, Derek Thompson rebuffed Mead’s article by writing The Power of Relatability in The Atlantic:

Relatability might be a neologism, but like a King Lear play set in 21st century Washington, D.C., it merely puts a modern dress on an old idea. Many of the best plays have—and still do—relate explicitly and purposefully to their contemporary audiences. It wasn’t by accident that Oscar Wilde repeatedly skewered the upper-crust of Victorian society and became beloved for it. After all, his audience was upper-crust Victorian. It wasn’t coincidence that Shakespeare, writing for an audience that often featured sitting English monarchs, wrote 10 plays about former English monarchs.

If you don’t like relatability, you’re going to hate the history of American theater, which has been steadfastly devoted to writing plays about typical Americans, living in typical America. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is nearly autobiographical and, famously, scarringly relatable to any family that has suffered from a form of addiction; Angels in America and The Normal Heart took on the AIDS crisis at the height of the AIDS crisis. A Raisin in the Sun? Death of a Salesmen? These aren’t exactly Mesozoic dramas. The Crucible might be the most famous American play that isn’t about contemporary American life, but as a metaphor for America in the Cold War, its politics couldn’t be any more current for its contemporary audience.

The point isn’t that great art has to be about contemporary life. I’m not sure great art has to be anything. But so much wonderful theater has served, historically, as an exaggerated mirror held up to a country at a specific moment in history that it’s shocking to see a writer blast the idea that “[a play] be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” Ira Glass did not invent the idea that great plays ought to reflect their times.

I find Mead’s argument more interesting (or, perhaps, more “relatable’). Yes, Thompson is correct in pointing out that Shakespeare wrote plays that featured English monarchs for English monarchs, but the vast majority of his audience was, in fact, the groundlings. Theater was a popular form of entertainment across classes, and his use of language simultaneously balances poetic verse, innovate new words, and baudy humor to keep everyone listening. The fact is, Shakespeare wasn’t just good at making his plays relatable because he felt the need to speak to the human condition, Shakespeare had to keep his audience satisfied to make his living. To bore the groundlings could result in verbal (or physical) abuse of the actors, to displease the nobility could result in losing commissions, funds, or your head. Shakespeare didn’t just relate, he pandered. He pandered unabashedly. There’s plenty of interpretations that indicate Shakespeare was putting in some subversive themes and suggestions between the lines, but that probably wasn’t what made his plays popular at the time. This isn’t to say that making things relatable is bad, but it shouldn’t the be-all and end-all goal of art. Art doesn’t have to play on the personally relatable to be emotional, or meaningful, or just plain interesting. The things that have made Shakespeare last are the broad sweeps, not the specifics. Plays like Angels in America and even the majority of Tennessee William’s work are captivating and powerful, but it’s not like we can say that the majority of people truly have experienced what is happening in these works. What makes many of these plays interesting is how they take topics that were not being talked about, that most people did not relate to, and talked about it anyway. I do not pretend to say I relate to the pain of an AIDS affected gay man, because that’s not who I am, but why should I need to relate to find the story interesting? Why should I need to relate to that experience to feel compassion? To try and boil down these experiences into relatability just further commercializes them. Consider bell hooks concept of eating the other: “where white individuals literally ‘consume’ images and representations of racialized others in order to feel pleasures. She claims that within this ideological structure, privileged white individuals act ‘on the assumption that the exploration into the world of difference, into the body of the Other, will provide a greater, more intense pleasure than any that exists in the ordinary world of one’s familiar racial group.'” (Critical Media Studies: An Introduction, 1st Edition, 145)

In his New York Times opinion piece To Vibrebrate: In Defense of Strangeness Johannes Göransson rejects Matthew Zapruder’s Claim that “superficial introduction of confusion is not how great poetry is made, nor how we’re brought closer to what is most difficult to say.”

Göransson writes:

Not all poems prioritize everyday language. Some poems value arguments and narrative above the experience of language. Sometimes poems have mystical meanings. Zapruder rejects reading poems as riddles, but some poems are indeed riddles. While Zapruder argues that students are turned off when poems are treated as riddles, I have found the opposite to be true. Often students love riddles: they create the sense that words may not mean what they are supposed to (thus flouting his maxim that “One of the great pleasures of reading poetry is to feel words mean what they usually do in everyday life”). Riddles create a sense of mystery.

To further frustrate Zapruder’s binary, the riddle, with its ‘hidden’ meaning, is often keenly language-driven. Poems can be gorgeous precisely in their riddle-like mystery….

Masks and “disguises” are fascinating, and they can also be politically volatile. Masks unsettle identity-based hierarchies: the king might really be a pauper. I think about Raúl Zurita’s Purgatorio (trans. Anna Deeny Morales), the opening of a decades-long poem of resistance to the 1973 Chilean coup. The sequence opens with an image of Zurita’s ID papers coupled with a little poem that asserts that he’s in fact not at all Zurita, but the sex worker Rachel: “my friends think / I’m a sick woman / because I burned my cheek,” he writes (in Deeny’s translation), literally masking or disguising the biographical fact that, upon being released from prison, Zurita burnt his own cheek—an action he took to overwrite/memorialize his torture at the hands of government thugs. This single couplet and its accompanying image wears many masks, many disguises, many disfigurements, many defacements.

There’s another politics at play in the demand for the “straightforward,” one that is personal to me. As an immigrant, I know how beautiful a foreign language can seem when it mingles with your “native” language, or when you only half understand it, or how certain words take on multilingual echoes (The sound of the English word “barn” in Swedish means “children”). The idea that poetry—or language in general—is ever “straightforward” seems impossible to my immigrant ears and eyes.

But I also know how incredibly political foreign languages are in the current moment. All over the U.S., conservative protests insist we need to speak “English only.” Why? Perhaps foreign languages act as “disguises.” We don’t know what those foreigners might be saying; perhaps they are plotting revolutions in those weird words. But I think the opposite is also true—what foreign ideas, languages, and syntaxes is the immigrant masking with their English? A foreigner can never be “straightforward.” There’s always another language mingling with the English, deforming it, transforming it, constantly shifting it. And vigilant people across the country guard against any accent, any slip-up as a sign of a foreign threat.

People love riddles, they love curiosities, they love unlocking patterns. Sometimes those patterns are those that are personable – the seemingly everyday moments of life we all cherish – other times those patterns are bizarre or inscrutable. Sometimes it is the very breaking of the everyday pattern that intrigues us. I do not subscribe to the belief that art should have “meaning,” but I also dislike that which is proclaimed to be “meaningless.” What I enjoy about art is its ability to be utterly unexpected even when it is being mundane or “personable.” I like that art can simply be interesting, relatable or not.

Gomorrah: A Poem For The Fourth of July

Watch us here,
Mark us, our Empire, our World,
Be careful not to choke on your eyeful:
Our Irradiated, gold fields with their hands
     Stuck like beetles in tree sap.
     Unspeaking their woes with tanned lips,
     Choking behind masks and wasps.
     This is not what they wanted, but
     This is what they are given.
Our skylines with firefly eyes
     behind which, every night, is a beating.
     We were fools and couldn’t stand that
     these towers stood equal with a woman
     and her torch, so we built them higher
     and with fists that have no need to protect
     a flame or body.
Our Railways that straddle our waste
     from belt to sunken, feasting chains.
     What promise, what commerce, came from
     this iron stampede? The massacre of
     red, of green, of yellow: the mixing pot
     is our blood bag, struggling to pump
     the keep pure hope alive.
Gomorrahns: gun-soaked Gomorrahns,
     sign-waving Gomorrahns,
     white-housed Gomorrahns,
     murder-aquitting Gomorragns all.
     Our hands are so small because they
     never practiced holding another heart.
I would rather be a cockroach, K,
     than a patriot with their property.
     Be a smear before being a flag;
     be hurt by apples,
     before throwing down seeds.
What are we that worship a man with a
     kettle-hat equal to he who slew a mountain?
     A bum to he who wielded Freedom
     like Moses threw down Laws?
What are we that we do not pacify
     the birthing cry of gunpowder smoke
     that howled with war once, then again?
     But relish the thought of eternal birth,
     to kill another in the name of one liberty
     again and again?
Gomorrahns, we live on fatburgs
     we live on the backs of cleaners.
     Humanity is cleaner than ourselves in
     Its will to fix a nation of clogs.
     They have no need for voices anymore,
     they have learned to breathe without air,
     only swords are worth their lungs.
Hypocrites? No, for they will cut us down
     for virtue where we cut for fat.
     They will cleanse the vermin that
     would cleanse the wheat.
     They see the poverty in our cornucopia,
     They know what needs be done.
So stand aside your liberties,
     around your waiting coals.
     Wait upon your land, bought by
     ancestors from strangers.
     Stolen by strangers from strangers
     before them: the first blood of all Nations.
They are the swift God’s hand you have been waiting for:
     it is dark, it is unfair, it is beautiful, it is just,
     it is vengeful, it is unmanly, it is sick, it is real,
     it is scarred, it is afraid, it is what it is and
     it is not you.
Be grateful it is not you, your blessing
     is to be the first blood of a new Nation.
     Better than before.
     Welcome the difference.
     Gomorrah, it is time you become