Monthly Archives: November 2015

Tonton Macoute (HUM303)


Tonton Macoute (Creole: Tonton Makout) can be translated as “bogeyman,” though it literally means “Uncle Gunnysack.”

See this excerpt:

In 1959, only two years after becoming president, “Papa Doc” created a paramilitary force that would report only to him and would be fully empowered to use unremitting violence to maintain the new administration’s authority to summarily dispose of its enemies. This marked the birth of one of the most brutal paramilitary organizations in the hemisphere and was justified by the leader’s profound paranoia towards the threat posed by the regular armed forces. Haiti’s military began to steadily lose a great deal of authority with the consolidation of the François Duvalier regime, which it would not recover until 1986, when the pressure coming from senior military officers played a major role in the fall of Jean-Claude. A spate of coups followed, with military figures occupying the vacancy left by “Baby Doc.”

The Haitians nicknamed this warlord-led goon squad the “Tonton Macoutes,” after the Creole translation of a common myth, about an “uncle” (Tonton) who kidnaps and punishes obstreperous kids by snaring them in a gunnysack (Macoute) and carrying them off to be consumed at breakfast. Consequently, these torturers, kidnapers and extortionists were feared not only by children, but also by the country’s general population, as well as by opposition members and business men not willing to make enforced pay-offs to the authorities. The militia consisted mostly of illiterate fanatics that were converted into ruthless zombie-like gunmen. Their straw hats, blue denim shirts, dark glasses and machetes remain indelibly etched in the minds of millions of Haitians.

Ever since its establishment, this brutal organization had free rein to act unreservedly, disregarding any ethical or civil rights of the citizenry that might interfere with its indiscriminate violence. They were not accountable to any state branch, court or elected body, but rather only to their leader, “Papa Doc.”


Bookfish (HUM220/ HUM303/ HUM415)

Look at this book. Nothing in it is accidental. It is written. Everything has been put here for a reason. This certainty provokes our desire. There is a message here to interpret. How are we to understand it?

Knowledge is formed according to different methods. You can study the history of a thing, its development. You can analyze its structure by breaking it into parts.

Think of a fish. If you want to know the fish you can observe it: watch its action and see where it goes. If you really want to understand the fish you can capture it. You can kill it and open it up. Doing so entails a necessary violence. Understanding comes at a price.

The same is true for a book. The moment of fully engaged reading is like a swimming fish: pure process, complete absorption. That’s the story, working; the spell produced by its movement. But any effort to account for the story—to explain how it works—requires stillness.

Creating stillness—arresting the story in order to understand how its effects emerge from the interrelationship of its elements– is the act of interpretation.

Final Essay (HUM220)

Read the prompts very carefully. If you have any questions about the prompt, please direct them to this post.

Both of the prompts listed below should focus on the central question of how specific gothic materials and conventions are used by an author to explore/criticize/defend cultural values. Formulate a specific thesis statement and prove it with the text. Vague generalities will not be sufficient.

  1. The Black Spider. Identify specific narrative elements of this short novel and explain how they work to impart a moral education to the reader. You should have a total understanding of The Black Spider’s structure: a) its use of framing and embedded narratives and b) the overall plot and its most significant events. As with your first essay, you should also pay close attention to the symbolic dimensions of character, imagery, and diction.
  2. The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson’s novel represents an effort on the author’s part to unravel/trouble/criticize cultural values pertaining to sexuality and gender. What are these values? How are they treated? What specific narrative elements and particular gothic tropes does the novel use to do this work? What are the ultimate results? Email me a polished, 250 word paper proposal by Dec. 4 if you would like to pursue this prompt.

Consult the Paper Guidelines page for further instructions. Your final essay is due to ilearn by 9 am December 14. You are NOT required to turn in a hard copy. No late papers will be accepted under any circumstances barring a documented, life-altering emergency.

Final Essay (HUM415)

If you have any questions about the final paper, please direct them to this post.

Choose one of the novels. Your goal is to produce a thoughtful, creative, and informed ideology critique of your chosen text. To do this you will need to

  1. research your novel AND
  2. use at least three of the theoretical readings we’ve discussed this semester.

Notably, the novel itself functions as a kind of critique. In other words, in telling a story (in constructing a storyworld, creating characters, and inventing and organizing events in the form of a plot) the novel constitutes an effort to describe and criticize the society in which it was made.

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Spring Readings for HUM303

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899) 9780141441672

Like chattel slavery, colonialism is Gothic in the extreme. In projecting his own shadows onto the African landscape, the European is ultimately imprisoned by that which he attempts to master.

Charlotte Dacre, Zofloya, or The Moor (1806) 9780199549733

A Terror Novel written at the time of the Haitian Revolution. Incest, murder, supernatural evil, and miscegenation.

Nick Groom, The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction 9780199586790

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) 9780140437959

Jacobs is working in the vein of the Gothic Romance, influenced by a subgenre established by Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

Thierry Jonquet, Mygale (1995) 9780872864092

A roman noir that slips into the nightmare territory of involuntary surgery and subterranean imprisonment.

Franz Kafka, The Castle (1922) 9780805211061

Kafka uses a core image and setting of the Gothic to explore the centerlessness of modernity.

Considered and deferred:

RL Stevenson, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca

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My Spring semester has already begun. I’m formulating reading lists for my courses, which is always an obsessive pursuit: do I pick Matthew Lewis’s notorious The Monk or Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya? What about a Gothic Romance? Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is clearly some kind of apotheosis of the modern Gothic, but perhaps Wuthering Heights is of greater historical interest? Hasn’t everyone already read Wuthering Heights? Why do I keep assuming anything at all about what students have read? What happens when heights wuther?

Ideally, a Humanities course on the Gothic would cast a wide net, encompassing not only canonical texts but pushing to the limits of the Gothic. Loosely construed, the Gothic could include novels, poems (“Christabel” or “The Goblin Market”), music, painting, architecture, gardening, and film over the course of, say, half a millenium and across several continents– Europe, obviously, and Asia and America, though Africa presents a problem.* It all depends on what we mean by the term itself, and formulating a viable definition relies, in turn, on how we use categories such as genre, mode, style, and discourse. Wallowing in these kinds of open-ended questions– We might ask, “What is a genre?”– is, essentially, the purpose of this project. Ultimately, you pick a subject in order to ask questions which have no definitive answers; it is in the attempt to arrive at this horizon that the work gets done.

Recently I heard someone say that the purpose of the Humanities as a discipline is to think about how people have thought about what it means to be human. There is no inevitable moral benefit to this line of inquiry, unfortunately. Studying philosophy and literature and history will not make you an ethically superior person. After all, some of the Nazi elite were great humanists, after a fashion, in that they possessed a thoughtful appreciation of certain cultural works. On the other hand, Hitler, a mediocre artist with a keen fashion sense, cherished the kitsch nudes of Ziegler (“the master of German pubic hair”) even as he deplored and destroyed some of the great paintings of European Modernism.




*If there is a case to be made for an African Gothic wouldn’t it emerge from the heart of darkness that was European colonialism? Imagine the barracoons at the Bight of Benin, tin pots and cloth traded for captives, King Leopold, “the wild and gorgeous apparition” of Kurtz’s mistress, the Scramble, Black Water Fever, hand-chopping, Chinese Gordon’s severed head placed at the Mahdi’s feet.

Readings (HUM415)

Try to answer these questions. On paper.

What does it mean to be locked out? What forms do the “logics of expulsion” take? What is the difference between sub-prime and super-prime? What does the situation Sassen describes mean for urban culture?

What is the difference between economy and chresmatics? What is the role of education under neoliberalism? How do Normand (long hair) and Omar’s (glasses) arguments, implicitly, conceive of ideology?

What “versions” of ideology have we encountered since August? How do they differ?

In what way is democracy the ideology of empire? What is imperialism? Historically, how has it been justified? What is “the US conception of democracy”? What does global capital need in order to function efficiently? What does the following analogy mean: citizenship: class society :: sovereignty : imperialism ?

Is “Without Sky” an allegory? What is an allegory? Or is it a kind of manifesto? What are the politics of this narrative?

What themes unite all of these readings?