Overcoming Isolation in the Great Depression

This week in North Philly Notes, Abigail Trollinger, author of Becoming Entitled, writes about how workers in the 1930’s shed the stigma of unemployment and gained a sense of entitlement, and what we can learn in the age of COVID.

Unemployment is often hugely isolating, even when it happens en masse. It was for workers in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. And considering recent debates over unemployment insurance, it seems that COVID-related unemployment has left many jobless workers facing economic insecurity alone.

Becoming Entitled: Relief, Unemployment, and Reform During the Great Depression tells the story of jobless workers and the urban reformers who worked to redeem them. It was an uphill climb: in the 1930’s, workers faced an American culture that was slow to defend the jobless and a federal government that was unwilling to fund the relief they needed, situations that only seemed to reinforce a jobless worker’s feeling of personal failure. As one worker described in Chicago of that year, “I was out of work two years last month. I have never gone for charity. I was ashamed to go.”

In 1932 Chicago reformers rightly sensed, then, that an unemployed worker’s first step toward survival might be the small step of seeing others like them and shedding their sense of shame. Which is why, in Chicago, the newly founded Workers’ Committee on Unemployment (WCOU) hosted seven hearings across the city that allowed workers to tell their stories, and to hear the stories of their neighbors, their landlords, their grocers, and their kids’ teachers. Once workers saw themselves as part of a group, rather than part of the problem, they were able to craft solutions to the economic crisis facing them. As members of the WCOU, workers offered collective action to solve both immediate and long-term problems.

Was a jobless worker’s electricity shut off suddenly, leaving their family in the dark? A formerly employed electrical worker could come turn it back on! Was a family unable to pay rent and thrown on the street? A WCOU member with a truck could help them move! Was a caseworker routinely cutting clients relief funds? The WCOU was there—protesting at the relief site! And were the state and federal governments failing to provide relief where it was highly deserved and much needed? The WCOU was ready to protest—like the 1932 silent march through Chicago.

What emerged from the hearings, the mutual assistance, and the protests was a sense of worker entitlement, or the belief that jobless workers had the right to ask for protection from the state—that when the economy fails, the state is responsible for preserving the dignity and livelihood of those most impacted. As a WCOU pamphlet on declining relief budgets said, “You are entitled to live.… We can not beg all the time. We must ask and demand.”

Unemployment and isolation. These are not unfamiliar concepts for many Americans right now, as the nation has faced unemployment rates between 8-14% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jobless workers in the U.S. have had support in the form of the CARES Act and some stopgap emergency funds, and yet they, too, face questions about how much relief they really need. Debates in Congress over stimulus plans (the Heroes Act and the Heals Act), in which legislation has stalled over how much weekly income the unemployed should receive (ranging between $200 and $600 a week), suggest that either jobless workers have a miraculous economy of thrift or that they earn more than they say. And on October 5 the Wall Street Journal reported that some states are requesting that workers who were inadvertently paid more than they were allotted should return as much as $8,000 to the state.

Workers in 1932 did not have a pandemic to reckon with, but their story is a reminder of the fact that entitlement is not a given, even in the midst of national crisis. As we approach the 2020 election, let us call for a generous entitlement that offers both relief and dignity to the many thousands of Americans who currently feel isolated in their economic insecurity.

Living amidst constant disruptions that keep on taking new forms.

This week in North Philly Notes, Ghassan Moussawi, author of Disruptive Situations asks, What kind of everyday life strategies can we use in these times?

Since March 2020, we have been living in uncertain and troubling times due to COVID-19, where our lives, everyday routines, and sense of safety have been heavily impacted. However, as we have witnessed, the global pandemic has and continues to affect peoples’ lives differently, where the most precarious people have most been affected by the pandemic. For example, there are higher death rate among communities of color, especially Black, Indigenous, undocumented, queer and trans people of color and communities in the U.S.

What came as a shock to many is the sudden interruption of everyday life as we know it. People are lost, confused, and mourning the loss of their routines and the stability in their lives. While some might say, we are living in “a new normal;” the definition of “new” and “normal” keep changing to the extent that the term “new normal” fails to account for the moment we are living in. The majority of people living in the U.S. today have not encountered such sudden shifts and disruptions in their everyday lives. For queer people and communities of color, however, pandemic and government neglect are familiar; the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s wiped out an entire generation while the Reagan and Bush administrations looked the other way.

We think of these as exceptional times, however, how do scholars account for people’s lives in places where everyday life disruptions and uncertainties about the present and future are normal and normalized? What kind of everyday life strategies can we use in these times?

Disruptive Situations_smMy book Disruptive Situations answers the question above, by looking at the everyday life strategies of LGBT people living in post-civil war Beirut. I ask readers to take a step back and think about what it means to live amidst constant everyday life disruptions that keep on taking new forms. Disruptive Situations comes at a time when we are all experiencing a sense of loss and disorientation, and my hope is that the book might shed light on how people survive constant and imminent disruptions, caused by wars, civil unrest, and everyday violence.

The idea for the book started in 2009, when I found many Euro-American media outlets advertising Beirut as a new destination for gay tourism. Though life in Beirut remains highly precarious, such representations downplayed such realities. My book looks at the period 2005-2016, which was marked by a series of assassinations, an Israeli war in 2006, suicide bombings, a shortage of basic services (such as electricity and clean water), and a garbage crisis. Drawing on fieldwork I conducted in Beirut among LGBT people between 2009-15—during the height of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s suicide bombings in Beirut and Lebanon—I ask how we can account for people’s everyday lives amid uncertainty and violence that has no beginning and no end. People in Beirut have devised the term al-wad’ or “the situation” to capture the complexity of these everyday violence and disruptions.

Using the concept of al-wad’, or “the situation,” I raise questions about spaces beyond Beirut, by asking what it has to say about queer life in contexts where precarity and disruptions are the conditions of everyday social and cultural life. Though the book draws on LGBT people’s strategies, these queer strategies are not necessarily enacted only by LGBT people.

Disruptive Situation highlights these and other issues:

  • How and in what ways has Beirut been marketed as a “gay friendly” destination? For whom, is it “gay friendly? It is class and race—and not gay friendliness—that determines who is able to experience Beirut as “gay friendly;” In Beirut—as now amid the COVID pandemic—race and class primarily determine who gets to experience safety and precarity
  • LGBT individuals’ various negotiations or “queer strategies” in navigating everyday disruptions, with a focus on mobilities and access to space. These includes movements within and across the city, to crossing neighborhood borders, and access to “gay-friendly” spaces and communities of organizing
  • Queer strategies that people use, like accepting contradictions, and creating bubbles as both metaphorical and physical spaces of respite to negotiate life
  • What can everyday queer tactics tell us about the local and regional politics, and everyday life violence and uncertainty? This current pandemic also illustrates how it affects LGBT communities differently based on race, class, gender, and documentation status. Similarly, State and interpersonal violence in the U.S. remain heavily determined by marginalization, with Indigenous and Black communities particularly targeted even in the midst of the pandemic
  • What does it mean to conduct ethnographic research at times of violence and disruption? What does it mean when one’s research gets constantly interrupted and one has to leave their research site due to violence and bombings?

I hope Disruptive Situations will help us better understand both how people negotiate constant major life disruptions and how we can come up with creative ways to conduct research when we live in uncertain times, such as the ones we are currently experiencing.

Social Distancing with Shakespeare

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeffrey Wilson, author of Shakespeare and Trump, writes about why people are cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare.

First came the meme to wash hands for the duration of Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot” speech.

Soon society was shutting down. “I’m worried about Covid-19 causing theatres to go dark,” tweeted theater-maker @MediocreDave on March 9, 2020. “Not because I’ll lose income, but because we’ll inevitably be subjected to opportunistic Shakespeare scholars making smug but superficial analogies to the playhouse closures of the late Elizabethan plague years.” That’ll be the end of that, I thought.

The next day, Slate ran a piece from Ben Cohen, “The Infectious Pestilence Did Reign: How the Plague Ravaged William Shakespeare’s World and Inspired his Work, from Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth.” Two days later, Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith was historicizing appropriations of Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing scene for Penguin Books. Another two days, and The Atlantic ran Daniel Pollack-Pelzner’s “Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works During a Plague.”

The content of these essays—Shakespeare born in plague, shuttered theaters prompting his poetry, Romeo and Juliet derailed by quarantine, playwrights sustained by wealthy patrons, disease threatening rival acting troupes, great art created in isolation—is not as fascinating as the questions raised by their method. Why are people cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare? What do we gain from comparisons between social distancing in Shakespeare’s time and in ours? How might our experiences with social distancing help us better understand Shakespeare’s? How can these examples help us think about academic work in 2020?

On March 14, @rosannecash caused a collective groan by tweeting, “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”

Twitter did its thing. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” wrote @sydneeisanelf. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he masturbated incessantly,” said @emilynussbaum.

With doors shuttered, some theaters offered plays and programming online, free to the public, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theater, the Public Theater, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Then came pop-up performances like Patrick Stewart’s #ASonnetADay and The Two Gentleman of Verona on Zoom. What is the value of art in times of social distancing? How is social distancing changing the way art is done? Based on the analogy to Shakespeare, what might the art that comes out of coronavirus look like?

Academics followed suit. On March 23, Andy Kesson, Callan Davies, and Emma Whipday launched A Bit Lit, featuring open-access, of-the-moment interviews with early-modern literary scholars. What is the role of humanistic thought and conversation in times of social distancing? What is the importance—if any—of studying Shakespeare when society is in such turmoil?

Social distancing with Shakespeare soon became A Thing. Kathryn Harkup in The Telegraph on March 15; Andrew Dickson in The Guardian on March 22; James Shapiro on CNN on March 30. The genre was common enough to call for satire. On April 1, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner wrote “What Shakespeare Actually Did During the Plague” for The New Yorker: “Day 25: Definitely too dark. Keep the mood light! No one wants to see a tragedy after a plague.”

Emma Smith tackled that tension with a straight face in the New York Times, arguing that “[Shakespeare’s] fictions reimagine the macro-narrative of epidemic as the micro-narrative of tragedy.” Is our experience with coronavirus tragic? What makes something tragic?

Elsewhere in the New York Times, Ian Wheeler cited Shakespeare to argue that, in America, “We need a better patronage system for artists.” In The New Yorker, James Shapiro lobbed Coriolanus-shaped bombs at the Trump administration: “The casual insults, the condescension, and the refusal to accept responsibility will be familiar to anyone who has lately tuned in to the daily White House briefings on the coronavirus pandemic.”

Shakespeare and Trump_smThese various ShakesTakes sift into terms developed in Shakespeare and Trump, my recent book about the surprising—and bizarre—relationship between the provincial English playwright and the billionaire President of the United States. There are the ShakesMemes. There are the Politicitations. And there is the Shaxtivism.

Above all, the Shakespearean gloss on social distancing shows the power—and pitfalls—of Public Shakespeare, where scholars eschew peer-reviewed academic writing in favor of public engagement.

I come not to bury Public Shakespeare, nor to praise it. I want to ask what it is, where it comes from, how it works, and why it elicits simultaneous enthusiasm and nausea. What is behind the push in some scholars to filter current events through Shakespeare? What is behind the tendency in others to get annoyed when they do?

Why are Shakespeareans suddenly authorities on everything—from presidential politics to social distancing? At a time when Donald Trump nonchalantly disclaims, “I’m not a doctor,” then proceeds to use his power and platform to promote hydroxychloroquine, why are Shakespeare scholars going widely outside their areas of expertise surrounding a 400-year-old English playwright to comment on current events?

Four points:

  1. As an early-modern playwright who often represented medieval and ancient history, Shakespeare built into his texts the practice of engaging the present with the distant past.
  2. As artworks that often have scholarly sources, yet are performed for a broad audience of mixed social backgrounds, Shakespeare’s plays have public engagement built into them.
  3. The long tradition of modern-dress Shakespearean performance and adaptation provides a model for scholars looking to bring ideas that are old and artistic into conversation with current events.
  4. At a time when the humanities are said to be in crisis, Public Shakespeare gives scholars a platform to illustrate the practicality and utility of our field.

There is tremendous energy right now behind public-facing ShakesWork with an ethical if not activist edge. There is also legitimate skepticism of that endeavor. As @ClearShakes wrote on April 12, “Guys, sometimes there just isn’t a Shakespeare play that’s relevant to our situation.”

But recognizing Public Shakespeare as more closely related to Shakespearean performance than Shakespearean scholarship helps us understand why, like any show that takes creative risks, some cheer and some hiss.

 

What the Temple University Press staff are reading while sheltering at home

This week in North Philly Notes, we ask the staff what they are reading while self-quarantined.

Shaun Vigil, Acquisitions Editor

While acclimating myself to the Press’s frontlist, it was a special pleasure to discover Kimberly Kattari’s Psychobilly, due for publication this spring. As a longtime fan of the genre — as well as a voracious reader of books on musical subcultures — nothing could have better signaled that my arrival at Temple. This book is truly a perfect match. Kattari’s in-depth accounts have not only helped to launch me into a world outside of my apartment during quarantine, but have also inspired me to pick up my Gretsch guitar and start brushing up on my picking!”

Kate Nichols, Art Manager

I just finished the design/layout of the first pass pages for Amy Finstein’s Modern Mobility Aloft: Elevated Highways, Architecture, and Urban Change in Pre-Interstate America, forthcoming in October. The book focuses on New York, Chicago and Boston and includes 103 halftones and 12 maps. I read a bit as I work, but I primarily focused on the images. Having spent a lot of time living in both New York and Boston, I was very interested in the historic photographs. Once published, I will give this book to my brother who is an architect in Boston.

As for a non-Temple book, I just began reading The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director

I didn’t bring any recent TUP books home. It was too short notice, so along with new book projects, I’m reading and relaxing with James McBride’s Deacon King Kong. Luckily, I bought it before the pandemic hit and since the book is new, there are loads of reviews of it online. Being a former Brooklynite I’m enjoying an escape into a hilarious sixties Brooklyn neighborhood, told in McBride’s usually captivating way.

Aaron Javsicas, Editor-in-Chief

I’m reading Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which is just the right kind of escapism for me right now — a voice from another world, in which records and relationships somehow managed to command center stage. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back?

Mary Rose Muccie, Director

I just finished The Clockmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Morton. I’m a big fan of how she interweaves the past and present around a transformative event, usually a death.  I’ve started an older book of hers, The Secret Keeper. 

Gary Kramer, Publicity Manager

Before our offices closed, I grabbed a copy of our recently published book, Action = Vie, by Christophe Broqua about the history and accomplishments of Act Up-Paris. It is an interesting title to read during the pandemic. I had read (and seen) and been inspired by David France’s How to Survive a Plague, so I am seeking similar inspiration from Broqua’s Action = Vie.

 

%d bloggers like this: