Spahr:Contemporary US Poetry & it’s Nationalisms

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Bersani and Dutiot on Assyrian Art

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Time as the Number of Movement Through Class in Orphans Of The Storm

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Film / Genre Altman Ch 1 & 2

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Melodrama week 1 notes

Thursday, January 15

Perils Of Pauline (Gasnier, 1914)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Porter, 1903)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (Daly, 1914)

“Melodrama and the Consequences of Capitalism” in Singer, Ben. Melodrama And Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts . New York : Columbia University Press, 2001.

Chen, Chris. “The Limit Point Of Capitalist Equality: Notes toward an abolitionist antiracism.” End Notes 3 (2014) []

Gonzalez, Maya Andrea. “The Logic Of Gender.” End Notes 3 (2013). []

Caffentzis, George. “On The Notion Of A Crisis Of Social Reproduction: A Theoretical Review .” The Commoner, no. 5 (Autumn 2002). []


Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin . New York : SInget , 2008.

Gerould, Danliel C. American Melodrama. New York City: Performing Arts Journal Publications , 1983.

All of “Melodrama and the Consequences of Capitalism” in Singer, Ben. Melodrama And Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts . New York : Columbia University Press, 2001.

To start sketching a set of problems, we can posit that melodrama starts as Ben Singer says it does in Melodrama And Modernity, when plays began calling themselves melodramas: in 1800 in France. That year Guilbert de Pixerecourt’s Coelina ou l’Enfant du Mystère appeared in Paris, and was a great commercial success. Coelina was produced almost 1,500 times. 1802 Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery appeared in London and as Singer writes was a “template for the genre.”

Singer’s account of the origin of melodrama allows us put the emergence of melodrama in the context of the emergence of capitalism. The decade long French revolution had ended in 1799, a year before Coelina appeared, with Napoleon Bonaparte’s seizure of power in the coup on the 18th Brumaire. Melodrama would develop a cinematic form, even in it’s theatrical guise, over the course of the 19th Century. Marx described French and English working conditions in Capital V. I. He cites and paraphrases British government reports in writing that’s often reminiscent of writing in realist and sentimental novels of the period.

We will need to keep in mind two features of the 19th century: 1) It saw the completion of a process of proletarianization, the creation of a population that has to labor to eat, survive, and reproduce. Peasant populations had been and continued to be dispossessed of their access to land and sustenance — forcing them to move to cities creating a proletariat stratified into layers such as the working class and reserve labor pools. 2) Working conditions were intolerable and workers responded to them with class struggle. Factory and workshop owners enclosed workers in the work place initially paid by the day, and, tried to make the workers stay at their jobs for as long as possible. When workers resistance and reformist government intervention established a standard working day, the bourgeoisie used machines to increase worker‘s productivity and exploit them more intensely in a fixed same amount of time.

Here is a description quoted by Marx from the 9 year old William Wood

Fifteen hours of labour for a child 7 years old! J. Murray, 12 years of age, says: “I turn jigger, and run moulds. I come at 6. Sometimes I come at 4. I worked all night last night, till 6 o’clock this morning. I have not been in bed since the night before last. There were eight or nine other boys working last night. All but one have come this morning. I get 3 shillings and sixpence. I do not get any more for working at night. I worked two nights last week.(I, Ch 10)

In the quotation bellow, note how seamlessly Marx’s prose fits with newspapers prose he cites, though he describes the paper as “crying” suggesting that it presents the point of view of it’s free trade supporting owners sensationalisticly or even ‘melodramatically.”

In the last week of June, 1863, all the London daily papers published a paragraph with the “sensational” heading, “Death from simple over-work.” It dealt with the death of the milliner, Mary Anne Walkley, 20 years of age, employed in a highly-respectable dressmaking establishment, exploited by a lady with the pleasant name of Elise. The old, often-told story, [56] was once more recounted. This girl worked, on an average, 16½ hours, during the season often 30 hours, without a break, whilst her failing labour-power was revived by occasional supplies of sherry, port, or coffee. It was just now the height of the season. It was necessary to conjure up in the twinkling of an eye the gorgeous dresses for the noble ladies bidden to the ball in honour of the newly-imported Princess of Wales. Mary Anne Walkley had worked without intermission for 26½ hours, with 60 other girls, 30 in one room, that only afforded 1/3 of the cubic feet of air required for them. At night, they slept in pairs in one of the stifling holes into which the bedroom was divided by partitions of board. [57] And this was one of the best millinery establishments in London. Mary Anne Walkley fell ill on the Friday, died on Sunday, without, to the astonishment of Madame Elise, having previously completed the work in hand. The doctor, Mr. Keys, called too late to the death-bed, duly bore witness before the coroner’s jury that “Mary Anne Walkley had died from long hours of work in an over-crowded work-room, and a too small and badly ventilated bedroom.” In order to give the doctor a lesson in good manners, the coroner’s jury thereupon brought in a verdict that “the deceased had died of apoplexy, but there was reason to fear that her death had been accelerated by over-work in an over-crowded workroom, &c.” “Our white slaves,” cried the Morning Star, the organ of the Free-traders, Cobden and Bright, “our white slaves, who are toiled into the grave, for the most part silently pine and die.” [58] “It is not in dressmakers’ rooms that working to death is the order of the day, but in a thousand other places; in every place I had almost said, where ‘a thriving business’ has to be done…. We will take the blacksmith as a type. If the poets were true, there is no man so hearty, so merry, as the blacksmith; he rises early and strikes his sparks before the sun; he eats and drinks and sleeps as no other man. Working in moderation, he is, in fact, in one of the best of human positions, physically speaking. But we follow him into the city or town, and we see the stress of work on that strong man, and what then is his position in the death-rate of his country. In Marylebone, blacksmiths die at the rate of 31 per thousand per annum, or 11 above the mean of the male adults of the country in its entirety. The occupation, instinctive almost as a portion of human art, unobjectionable as a branch of human industry, is made by mere excess of work, the destroyer of the man. He can strike so many blows per day, walk so many steps, breathe so many breaths, produce so much work, and live an average, say of fifty years; he is made to strike so many more blows, to walk so many more steps, to breathe so many more breaths per day, and to increase altogether a fourth of his life. He meets the effort; the result is, that producing for a limited time a fourth more work, he dies at 37 for 50.” (Capital V I, Ch X)

As implied by Maya Andrea Gonzalez’s essay “The Logic of Gender,” family structures in Western Europe and the US, the emerging capitalist core, were reorganized over the course of the 19th century. Sylvia Federici’s Calaban And The Witch describes domestication of women and the privatization of the family the violent transformation of feudalism to capitalism in Caliban And The Witch. From the economic point of view, from the point of view of capital, those who were once peasants had to reproduce themselves as something else, they had to reproduce themselves as individuals who had the potential to labor and whose only source of sustenance was the wage. Older, more communalized and differently organized, agrarian family arrangements disappeared over the course of between the late 16th and end of the 19th century, eventually replaced by the nuclear family with one man, the husband, who works for a wage, one woman, the wife, who labors domestically and has mediated access to the husband’s wage, and children. In order to create a disciplined workforce and labor pools begging and vagabondage became crimes, the illegal figure of the witch as an old woman who sold medicines was created. The poor were forced to reproduce themselves differently than they had.

For the moment, let’s define social reproduction as follows: the daily and generational reproduction of abstract labor power, of the capacity to work at whatever job, in such a way that remains dependent on the wage to continue. Let’s also remember that labor power is a special commodity among commodities, which has consequences for it’s barer:

From this standpoint, the proletarian confronts the world in which the capitalist mode of production prevails as an accumulation of commodities; the proletarian does this as a commodity — and therefore this confrontation is at once a chance meeting between one commodity and another, and at the same time an encounter between subject and object.” (Gonzalez 2013)

Under capitalism, the family and the home become an enclosed space where labor power is reproduced:

If we were to compare the production of labour-power with the production of any other commodity, we would see that the “raw materials” used for this production process, i.e. the means of subsistence, transmit their value to the end product, while the new labour needed to turn these commodities into a functioning labour-power adds no value to this commodity. If we were to push this analogy further, we could say that — in terms of value — labour-power consists only of dead labour.” (Gonzalez 2013)

This process culminated with Fordism, and its new standards of consumption and reproduction. With the generalisation of retirement benefits and retirement homes, generations came to be separated from each other in individual houses. The allocation of family responsibilities between husband and wife became strictly defined by the separation between the spheres. … activities that used to be carried out together with other women (such as washing clothes) became the individual responsibility of one adult woman per household. The married woman’s life often came to be entirely confined to the IMM sphere. It became the fate of most women, and their entire lives (including their personality, desires, etc.) were shaped by this fate. (Gonzalez 2013)

Let’s also note that both Gonzalez’s essay and Chris Chen’s argue that the structure of the family divides the proletariat, divides those who must work to eat.

For instance, under the conditions of slavery in North America, the classification of white was necessary to maintain the property of masters over slaves. Women were also classified as other, but for different reasons, as we shall see. One factor worth mentioning here is that within this relation of white/person of colour/woman, the preservation of the purity of the “white master”, as opposed to the “black slave” is of the utmost importance — as well as the strict preservation of the dominant master signifier of equality (“white blood” and therefore “white mothers”) across future generations of the bourgeoisie. Therefore the division between white and non-white women was also closely regulated in order to preserve such a taxonomy, within the mixed context of both plantation-based commodity production in the New World and the rise of industrial capitalism. (Gonzalez 2013)

Once a group of individuals, women, are defined as “those who have children” (see Addendum 2) and once this social activity, “having children”, is structurally formed as constituting a handicap,20 women are defined as those who come to the labour-market with a potential disadvantage. This systematic differentiation — through the market-determined risk identified as childbearing “potential” — keeps those who embody the signifier “woman” anchored to the .. sphere. Therefore, because capital is a “sex-blind” abstraction, it concretely punishes women for having a sex, even though that “sexual difference” is produced by capitalist social relations, and absolutely necessary to the reproduction of capitalism itself. One could imagine a hypothetical situation in which employers did not enquire about the gender of an applicant, but only rewarded those who have “the most mobility” and those who are “the most reliable, 24/7”; even in this case gender bias would reappear as strong as ever. As an apparent contradiction, once sexual difference becomes structurally defined and reproduced, woman as a bearer of labour-power with a higher social cost becomes its opposite: the commodity labour-power with a cheaper price. (Gonzalez 2013)

The cursory treatment of racial violence in the historical narration of “primitive accumulation” remains a fundamental blind spot in Marxist analyses of the relationship between “race” and capitalism. In the era of the conquista and in the transition to capitalism, “race” came into being through plunder, enslavement, and colonial violence. At the very same time, primitive accumulation in England produced a dispossessed and superfluous ex-peasantry, for the factory system that might absorb them had not yet been created. Many of these ex-peasants were eventually sent to the colonies, or inducted into imperial enterprises — the navy, merchant marines, etc. In the 18th and 19th centuries, more of these surplus populations were integrated into the developing capitalist economy, whether as chattel slaves or as wage labourers, according to an increasingly intricate typology of “race”. Finally, after decades of compounding increases in labour productivity, capital began to expel more labour from the production process than was absorbed. That, in turn, produced yet another kind of superfluous population in the form of a disproportionately non-white industrial reserve army of labour. At the periphery of the global capitalist system, capital now renews “race” by creating vast superfluous urban populations from the close to one billion slum-dwelling and desperately impoverished descendants of the enslaved and colonised. (Chen 2014)

Gonzalez explicitly argues that the structure of the family, the role of women in families creates gender as a division of labor between housework and waged work; Chen’s essay implies that the formal and informal regulation of who can be in a family whom, the control of the generational reproduction of race creates, different labor pools creating a differential in wages. If there is an element of racial domination that exceeds but takes form from class domination, it involves the often violent regulation of kinship. This can be seen in the function the sale of George and Eliza’s son along with Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Over the course of the 19th century, the emerging family form reproduced new social types, new characters who found work in factories, and who was enlisted in the twin projects by which capital accumulated the necessary wealth to keep itself going: colonialism and slaver. Under all the myths and affects, everyday life consists of reproducing labor power for its own sake. To reproduce labor power for it’s own sake, subjects who live to work are needed, rather than subjects who work to live. The creation of such subject requires a certain kind of family. The centrality of the separation of Eliza and her husband George in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Perils Of Pauline’s need to set up all of it’s episodes by having Pauline’s dying guardian leave her inheritance in the hands of Koerner. In a sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicts the main contradiction between slavery as an economic structure in which slaves themselves were both a source of toil and commodities for their owners. They had both a use value and an exchange value (plantation threatening debt forces Shelby to sell Tom to Haley along with Eliza’s boy), and the kind of stable family structure required for efficient reproduction of “free” abstract labor power. When the family form required by capital becomes part of the ideology we might call Christian benevolence, it becomes possible so make the mistake the naturalized family for an an ideal appropriate for chattel salves. Perils of Pauline insists that the possibility of a coherent family depends of a gendered division of labor in which women work as wives while husbands colonize, from a balloon like a cartographer, on the wild western frontier, in a location that which seems to either the Florida keys or other US territories in the Caribbean.

As David Grimstead points out in Melodrama Unveiled, from it’s beginnings  in the US with the early 19th century theater of William Dunlap in New York, melodrama was associated with the social good. Dunlap was interested in “proper exhibitions before a free and well ordered people” in order to help create a rational society ideally governed. His plays portrayed slavery and drunkenness as bad, but immediate abolition and temperance laws as imprudent. He would stage plays, many from Europe, combining the ordinary and the unusually pathetic, ordinary, everyday activity and heartbreak. Late 18th and early 20th century US plays such as Augustin Daily’s Under The Gaslight and David Balasco’s The Girl Of The Golden West. The former has elaborate stage directions describing the housework the actors should be doing and the latter stresses it’s frontier settings. The plays enacted a theology of feeling where in the stronger and purer a sentiment, the true and closer to the good it was. That theology of feeling was played out across narratives of courtship and kinship. The social good and the proper affects, the proper emotions, the right kind of subjects to experience them were produced in the process of creating families. As we can see from the films screened Tuesday, certain features of the way melodramas were staged will be important to us. We should note that among theatrical genres, melodrama privileges visual expression. Some have attributed this to the difficulty of lighting plays in the early 19th century, or even to uneducated audiences more responsive to spectacle than language. In an essay with the suggestive title “Speaking Pictures” published in a 1980 anthology called Melodrama, which is on reserve at the library, Martin Meisel analyzes this tendency as pictoralism. Though the compositions of pitctorialism tend to involve figures expressing emotions or affects through poses, much pictorialism, especially in properly cinematic melodrama, involves a high degree of what Michael Fried calls absorption, that sense of completely concentrating on an activity, an affect, or the activity of expression. Especially given that Fried takes the notion of absorption from the same discursive formation tha layed the ground work for Isbonian theater, a century and a half ahead of time, we might also think of as enclosure by the modern theater’s famous “fourth wall.” (Fried 1988) In “Speaking Pictures,” Meisel traces pictorialism to the late 18th Century theatrical invention of “the effect,” meaning dramatically key moments when in a French or English play, the actors and setting of a play would resolve themselves into a picture or iconic composition and the blocking would give the audience time to admire it. Such climax’s were known as “situations” and one might see melodrama as a visual dramaturgy organizing a play into a series of realized situations — or the production of situations for their own sake. Sometimes the effects would involve revealing another space behind the rear of the stage, showing a garden, road or vista with groupings of figures composed within it. Note that similar to one of Eisenstein’s attractions a situation resolved into a pure effect — an effect in the spectator that linked perception with emotion, affect, and moral reason directly.

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN  (Porter, 1903) Detail.

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (Porter, 1903) Detail.

In melodramas acting also came to be thought of as an unbroken chain of pictures as can be seen in melodramtic acting manuals, most famously various versions of Francois Delsarte’s “Applied Aesthetics” that became poplar in the US in the 1880s.

US Manual based on Delsarte’s system

US Manual based on Delsarte’s system

Melodrama’s pictorialism looks backwards to the pre-revolutionary period in France when popular theater with dialogue was illegal and only only pantomime was permitted. It also connects to the characteristic 19th Century form of entertainment, the Tableau Vivant, where figures dressed in costume would compose themselves in a setting so as to form a picture In the melodrama, figural groupings could express states of feeling and incorporate symbolic bodily postures. The tableau vivant tended to appear at the end of acts, where melodrama’s peaks of intensity would come. Indeed, the 1903 Uncle Tom’s Cabin ends with a tableau of Tom’s death. Various problems of scale between the actors and the painted backgrounds called for a new visual model and this connected pictorialism to another typical 19th Century entertainment, the stereoscope.

Oscar_Gustave Tableau Vivant.1857

Oscar_Gustave Tableau Vivant.1857

Singer puts melodrama in the context of modernity and emerging capitalism, understanding the genre as a set of symptoms that compensate for, among other things, the demythologization of the world and like Thomas Elseasser, whom me cites, and who in term relies on Georg Lukacs and the Frankfort School, Singer sees melodrama as an expression of the bourgeois consciousness.

The recovery of myth, the presentation of life in it’s sensuous fullness, a fullness bearing qualities rather than mere quantities, and capable of support the weaving of an autonomous ethic fabric was also sited by Krakauer in his 1960 Theory Of Film. He relies on surveys from the 1920s also cited by Hugo Von Hofmannsthal’s essay, “Ersatz for Dreams,” in which the participants said they wanted those qualities from the cinema, seeking on screen the “glittering wheel of life.” Krakauer puts thee surveys in the section on audience’s “disiderata.” Like Singer and Elsaesser, he doesn’t inquire into the different desires of different audiences, for example audiences divided by class, might have for the cinema. Thus like them he does not wonder about the ways in which films serve contradictory purposes different for audiences fragments and the role of these different purposes in setting films up as both the depiction and enacting of a struggle. (Kracaur 1960) Perhaps we can look at things slightly differently: perhaps melodrama responded not only to the bourgeoisie’s need to orient itself in a world where God and the King no longer provided cardinal points of power, but also responded to what was obvious to the working class: under capitalism, the proletariat is abandoned to reproduce itself. No natural agrarian cycles help sustain the poor, no political actors try to keep them alive. The wage is only thing that connects the poor to the world. Melodrama compensates for such radical demythologization through pictorialism, where the appearance of the diegetic world of the stage and later the screen, the stylization of that world, composes itself so as to make human actions meaningful. If later we come to understand Melodrama as the expression of a struggle, perhaps we can understand that in part in terms of the types of compensation needed by the bourgeoisie and the kind needed by the proletariat.


Chen, Chris. “The Limit Point Of Capitalist Equality: Notes toward an abolitionist antiracism.” End Notes 3 (2014).

Federici, Sylvia. Caliban And The Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York City : Autonomedia , 2004. Fried, Michael. Absorbtion And Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age Of Diderot . Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1988.

Gimstead, David. Melodrama Unvieled: American Theater and Culture . Berkeley : University Of California Press, 1968. Gonzalez, Maya Andrea. “The Logic Of Gender.” End Notes 3 (2013).

Kracaur, Siegfried. The Theory Of Film:. New York : Oxford University Press, 1960.

Meisel, Martin. “Speaking Pictures .” In Melodrama, by Daniel Gerould, 51-68. New York City: New York Literary Forum , 1980

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Melodrama Syllabus

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Bickerton on Witt

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