Enacting feminine alterity in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping
Makayla C. Steiner
Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping is a novel about women that is frequently read as a feminist version of the American male Bildungsroman. Beginning with its very title, it highlights various methods by which feminine alterity may function to welcome the lonely and make the home a place of refuge, while also illuminating its theoretical limits. This essay argues that Robinson’s adult women characters both support and complicate the lived efficacy of feminine alterity as they attempt to create a welcoming home for two young orphans. It also demonstrates how Robinson’s aesthetic is the most successful enactment of feminine alterity because it makes ethical behaviour – what Levinas sometimes calls holiness – possible.
Mesmerism, celebrity practitioners and the schism of 1842–3
This chapter examines the uneasy relationship between phrenology and mesmerism, and the division of opinion with regard to the potentially secular implication of the pseudoscience that further eroded phrenology’s position in mainstream culture. Attention is paid to how John Elliotson came to dominate the debate on phrenology’s utility in London medical circles, and how the journal he edited – the Zoist – was instrumental in redefining the nature of the pseudoscience. The chapter also considers the equally lively debate outside the English capital and makes detailed references to reports of the careers of a number of now-forgotten provincial phrenologists and phreno-magnetists, these latter being practitioners of both phrenology and mesmerism. As well as the apparently sincere demonstrations that were given by the evidently philanthropic Spencer Timothy Hall, the chapter examines the somewhat more scandalous activities of Henry Bushea as well as the controversial opinions of William Collins Engledue and their relationship to the schism which proved the downfall of the Phrenological Association – a short-lived and elite body which never quite exercised an effective oversight of British phrenology. The chapter concludes by intimating the rise of a commercial phrenology increasingly shaped by touring American practitioners and analyses the rise of the influential Fowler and Wells publishing empire and its subsequent reinvention as a consulting practice headed by Lorenzo Fowler in London. Beyond this financially lucrative phrenology, other practitioners persisted as mere entertainers, occupying booths at fairgrounds or on seaside piers. These were the declining years of phrenology.
The chapter begins by reappraising the encounter which conventionally forms the climax of Spurzheim’s British tour – a demonstration of anatomy which Spurzheim made in Edinburgh – the content of which apparently prompted a bad-tempered verbal exchange between Spurzheim and Gordon. Greatly mythologised by proponents of phrenology, the actual details of this encounter are revealed through access to an unreprinted contemporary newspaper account published in England rather than Scotland. The subsequent reception of Spurzheim by the Edinburgh intelligentsia is then contemplated, before the chapter moves to consider the impact of Spurzheim’s teaching and writing upon George Combe, the Scottish lawyer who would become the central figure in a specifically British incarnation of the pseudoscience. A major consequence of Spurzheim’s visit was the establishment of the first British phrenological society in Edinburgh in 1820: the history, foundation, rules and activities of that influential body are discussed at length, and its influence upon a substantial network of local societies across the United Kingdom is demonstrated through insights into the meetings they organised and the museums they maintained. The activities of the Phrenological Society of London, founded in 1822, are also discussed, and in particular the examination which its members made of the crania of convicted criminals. The chapter closes by intimating the background to the slow decline of the phrenological societies and anticipates the gradual integration of phrenology into mesmerism under the particular influence of the London physician and teacher of medicine, John Elliotson.
The historical setting of Beckett’s Film in 1929 is conventionally related to the significance of that year in the history of film. But Beckett's use of the device of the ‘angle of immunity’ suggests an additional historical context. Both the setting of Film in 1929 and its production in the early 1960s prompt me to inquire into the medical meanings of ‘immunity’ in a film whose damaged protagonist, dilapidated setting and production in the sweltering heat of New York in July prominently raise issues of health and disease. I supplement my inquiry into the medical meanings of Beckett’s ‘angle of immunity’ with an exploration of the concept’s social significance. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s and Roberto Esposito’s reflections on community, immunity, and autoimmunity, I note that O’s flight in Beckett’s Film is not merely a flight from perception but also a flight from community. This flight from community manifests the destructive, autoimmunitary logic of the self/not-self dichotomy that the immunological revolution succeeded in placing at the heart of immunology as Beckett was shooting his film.
Featuring twelve original essays by leading Beckett scholars and media theorists, this book provides the first sustained examination of the relationship between Beckett and media technologies. The chapters analyse the rich variety of technical objects, semiotic arrangements, communication processes and forms of data processing that Beckett’s work so uniquely engages with, as well as those that – in historically changing configurations – determine the continuing performance, the audience reception, and the scholarly study of this work. Greatly enlarging the scope of earlier discussions, the book draws on a variety of innovative theoretical approaches, such as media archaeology, in order to discuss Beckett’s intermedial oeuvre. As such it engages with Beckett as a media artist and examine the way his engagement with media technologies continues to speak to our cultural situation.
Beckett’s television plays stage a seeming disparity between their often difficult and affectively challenging subject matter, and the deliberate aestheticism and formalism of their representational strategies. This is made even starker by the austere formal qualities of their medium: the limited, rigidly framed TV screen, its flatness, the shades of grey in a black and white broadcast, the stark televisual light, produced by the firing of a cathode tube onto the television screen, the frequently ‘flat’ or ‘indifferent’ tone of their voice-over and the often ‘staring’ camera eye, as Beckett called it in his manuscript drafts. And yet, the answer to how the plays’ affective content is communicated seems to reside precisely in the unusualness and precision of their form, in the clinically framed shots and the abstracted, calculatedly affectless sets, in their detailed foregrounding of the artifice of representation, in their late-modernist, minimal, pared-down style, even in the brevity and semantic reticence of the scripts.
This chapter discusses the concept of exhaustion in Beckett’s literary texts and plays. The course of the argument follows Gilles Deleuze’s essay on Beckett, but relates the concept of exhaustion to the history of science and media studies. Since the nineteenth century physiology and psychiatry have investigated the effects of exhaustion, which ultimately leads to the destruction of the subject. Deleuze argues that exhaustion may also bring an unforeseen possibility or the emergence of invention. Beckett’s notion of media helps to grasp the nexus between exhaustion and invention. Since the technological basis of a medium is constantly evolving and changing, there is no single entity, apparatus or essential technological feature that constitutes ‘theatre’, ‘film’ or ‘radio’. Beckett makes inventions by exhausting the possibilities that are intrinsic to a medium and by stripping it bare to its inherent dispositive.
This chapter analyses Beckett’s reconceptualisation of the body in his later theatre – Happy Days, Play, That Time, Footfalls and Not I – against the background of his work for radio and, to a lesser extent, television in the 1950s and 1960s, focusing in particular on All That Fall, Embers and Eh Joe. Through concepts such as intermediality, remediation and embodiment, it argues that Beckett’s early opposition between technological and non-technological genres, in terms of physicality and voice, becomes increasingly untenable in the 1970s, which leads to a re-embodiment of his theatrical work by way of radio’s disembodying influence. The chapter thus shows how Beckett’s exposure to new media throughout his later career invited him to revisit as well as revise his own preconceptions about drama in its various forms, and use that experience as a driving force of theatrical innovation.
This chapter reconsiders Beckett’s well-known devotion to the convention of the proscenium arch. It argues that Beckett’s practice disrupts familiar ways of thinking about the proscenium as historically constant in its effects. Beckett, to use the Brechtian term, refunctions the proscenium. The chapter argues that Beckett’s insistence on the proscenium as pictorial frame responds to a historical situation in which that frame had migrated from the theatre to the ubiquitous media of film and television. Beckett’s plays experiment with the changed situation of the theatrical proscenium in the wake of its generalisation as a format for mass-mediated representations. Focusing especially on Endgame, the chapter argues that in Beckett’s work the theatre became a site to scrutinise rather than to reproduce the ideological effects associated with the proscenium and its subjectifying force.
This chapter analyses the aesthetics of Beckett’s dramas for TV, in relation to theorisations of the significance of texture in television and film, and histories of television production and reception technologies. It compares Walter Asmus’s 1986 television version of Was Wo [What Where] with his 2013 reworking of the same drama for the screen. The earlier version was broadcast in 625-line video, limiting contrasts between light and dark, whereas the 2013 What Where is in HD digital format, enhancing image clarity but stretching the limits of TV technology for the representation of black. These technical and aesthetic comparisons are placed in the context of Beckett’s earlier screen dramas of the 1960s and 1970s, which also exploited and challenged the video and film technologies used to produce them. By focusing on black, the chapter explores the significance of unlit space and texture in Beckett’s screen work. It argues that Beckett’s TV work uses the apparent nullity of black to draw attention to the representational capabilities of the TV screen, and links visual style to the materiality of television technologies.