Welcome to the Monkey House: Teaching the 2016 Election in a Literature Course

Close reading as a tool to study political narrative

I did a selfish thing. I’m a graduate student in Comparative Literature and I needed to come up with a class to teach. Winter semester. 14 weeks. What I wanted more than anything, though, was an excuse to enlist the hungry undergraduate minds at my fancy elite university to help me figure out the 2016 presidential election. So that’s what I did.

I called it “‘Welcome to the Monkey House’: How Politics Becomes a Reality Show.” The monkey house part I stole from a Kurt Vonnegut story. It felt appropriate, and I didn’t think he’d mind. It had the feel of a class you’d see on a college campus. In Political Science, probably — maybe History. Twice as many students as the course could accommodate showed up to the first day of class. And while all of them were clearly fired up about the topic, many of them had the same question: why the hell was this being taught in a literature department? It was a valid question. And I want to try to answer it now.

There was a more obvious path we could have taken: we could have focused on the politics of literature — plays, stories, novels, creative nonfiction dealing with or intervening in heavy political issues. Instead, though, I wanted to focus on the literature of politics. “What we’re gonna do,” I told my students, “is read politics with the same kinds of critical tools we use to analyze literature.”

We could have focused on the politics of literature. But I wanted to focus on the literature of politics.

There was one novel on the syllabus (it was by Kurt Vonnegut, which only seemed fair). For the most part, though, the primary material we analyzed included things like: the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, Eisenhower’s farewell address, images of protests in the ’60s, political attack ads, Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech (and a Captain America comic in which Reagan turns into a snake monster), the Colbert Report, news reports of 9/11. And Donald Trump. We talked about Trump a lot.

What does it mean to read politics like we read literature? Why bother? To start, politics in America tries hard to make itself literary. “Every candidate has a story,” I told my students. “Those stories are very carefully crafted to create specific effects. And the candidate has teams of people coming up with ways to edit their life and turn them into the protagonist in a plot we can all recognize. They all do it. Every candidate has a story.”

“And every movement has one,” a student piped in.

“Yup,” I said.

“And every country, really.”

“Yup.”

One could argue that politics itself is a battle over stories — which ones get told and how, and what gets left out. But this is just the beginning. Because, once a person starts to see how much their understanding of politics is controlled by powerful storytellers — candidates, journalists, speech writers, history textbooks, movies, national monuments — they start to get more suspicious. It’s like noticing a scratch on the lenses of glasses they didn’t even know they were wearing. They start asking different questions. They start thinking like a reader.

One could argue that politics itself is a battle over stories — which ones get told and how, and what gets left out.

In one sense, students know this already. They’re aware that every news source connecting them to what’s going on in the world is going to have some kind of bias. And it’s pretty easy to connect this to the question most of them remember from their high school literature classes: how “reliable” is the narrator? The biases of unreliable narrators (newscasters, candidates, uncles) may be glaringly obvious. But often they’re much harder to see, especially in narratives that claim to be objective. They’re often hidden in the details, in the language used, in specific word choices, in the things a narrator chooses to emphasize and the things she chooses to leave out, in tone, etc. To get at that stuff requires what literature scholars call “close reading.”

Students are pretty much always taught that the main goal of reading literature is to find out what the story “means.” This is a metaphor for that. Such and such character represents X. While reading for this kind of symbolism can be fun, it’s much more important to ask: how does literature work? To read the literature of politics, one has to move beyond asking what literature means and ask what it does.

To read the literature of politics, one has to move beyond asking what literature means and ask what it does.

Analyzing what literature means isn’t inherently a bad thing. But if that’s as far as things go, literature becomes a museum exhibit students can look at from behind glass. A book and its “meaning” exist on their own, like a historical artifact with a description on the panel next to it. Analyzing how literature works, though, removes the glass. It makes the individual reader part of the exhibit, and the exhibit part of the reader’s world. I’ve stopped asking my students what they think this or that passage means. They get much more animated when I ask how this or that thing made them feel, how it changed the way they think, how it affected them and why. These, I told them, are exactly the kinds of questions people following the election need to ask.

To read literature is to be transformed, however slightly, through language. The millions of particles that make up a person are readjusted; they come out as something, even microscopically, different than what they were going in. The words on the page hot-wire new feelings to old memories, they challenge “common knowledge,” they connect people as they are to visions of what might be, or what might have been, they let people see through skulls other than their own. They let people imagine worlds that don’t yet exist, and reimagine ones that do. This is the power of language itself as one of the basic chemicals of our cultural life. Even one word on a dumb billboard, for example, can make me feel enormous things. Perhaps what we call literature is just better at harnessing this power, concentrating it. But so is politics.

To read literature is to be transformed, however slightly, through language.

The language of politics matters immensely. Not just because of all the things it could “mean,” but because of what it can do. Language is largely how people experience the political world. Politicians say stuff, newscasters talk about it, journalists and bloggers write about it, people discuss it — these language games shape our very perception of politics. In his book Constructing the Political Spectacle, political scientist Murray Edelman writes, “It is language about political events, not the events in any other sense, that people experience… political language is political reality.”

Like literature, political speeches are drafted and redrafted. Teams of people argue over the right adjective or verb. Because the words matter. The narrative matters. Narratives help people make sense of the garbage heap that is piling up every second of every day. There’s always too much. Citizen-consumers who have less and less time to sort through everything themselves rely on others to explain what the main plot points are, who the key characters are, what the conflict is, what resolution should be hoped for, etc. A nation of readers needs narrators to structure the flow of information in ways that inform but also entertain, that keep their attention. But a nation of close readers questions the power of influence those narratives have.

A nation of close readers questions the power of influence those narratives have.

What is being left out of these narratives, and why? Which characters are being painted as the protagonists/antagonists? What is the perspective (who is speaking?) and who is the intended audience? Where does the plot start/end, and how does that affect the story itself? (Stories of the evolution of ISIS, for example, or the nature of Russian military aggression in Eastern Europe today vary wildly depending on who is doing the telling and where they start the story. And who is listening). Lastly, how is language being specifically used to manipulate the audience? Because every narrative manipulates (or at least tries to). The ones that pretend they don’t are the ones people should be suspicious of.

Here’s a simple example: many candidates during this election season tried to fit their life story into the “underdog” narrative. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz (even, yes, Hillary Clinton) would downplay momentum and repeat phrases like “They counted us out, but…” or “Who would have believed that…?” The implication was that each candidate and his/her supporters had overcome some big obstacle “against all odds” (Trump’s “victory tour” is already an ongoing masturbatory exercise in this kind of narrative manipulation). Such rhetorical conventions feel painfully familiar and obvious, because they work. But why? Why is this so much more appealing to audiences than, say, proclaiming, “Everyone expected us to win, and we DID!”? This is a very literary question.

Americans love the underdog narrative, which is at least as old as David and Goliath (and thus carries a whole lot of religious/existential baggage). It’s also carved into the origin story of America itself: Puritans were outcasts facing unbearable odds in a new, harsh land (including the “savage” natives they all but eradicated); America’s revolutionary forefathers were schoolteachers and scrappy farmers facing a gargantuan empire; so on. From the beginning, the American identity fused itself with the underdog narrative. There’s a righteousness and good feeling that comes with the narrative, “proof through the night that our flag was still there.” And when candidates paint themselves as the underdogs they are deliberately trying to associate themselves with that righteousness, that good feeling. It gives all the pleasure of triumph without the guilt of being the bully.

There’s a righteousness and good feeling that comes with the underdog narrative, “proof through the night that our flag was still there.”

To understand how these kinds of narratives work involves more than analyzing the ways that political language — speeches, textbooks, songs, etc. — structure reality to fit into such narratives. That’s part of the job, but it mostly focuses on the ones crafting the message (i.e. the “author”). To focus on the “reader’” involves analyzing how and why people respond (or don’t respond) to that message, how and why certain narratives make people feel/think/act certain ways. Narratives manipulate, but they only succeed under the right conditions. If people don’t identify with the elements of a story, they won’t allow themselves to be manipulated by it. The only way to make sense of this election is to read closely for the emotions, the hopes and anxieties, the prejudices and values that prop up the narratives Americans buy into and politicians use — to understand how and why the narratives work.

I’ve said the same about Donald Trump. People who chalked up Trump’s political success only to his supporters’ ignorance and bigotry were missing all the conditions (cultural, personal, economic) that made so many people more receptive to the narrative he was peddling. To quote Murray Edelman again, “The human mind readily rationalizes any political position in a way that will be persuasive for an audience that wants to be convinced.” It’s an obvious point, but so many commentators seem to overlook how Trump’s narrative of national humiliation, domestic chaos, “political correctness,” free trade disasters, and the need for an “outsider” to fix the Washington establishment struck a chord in people who saw something in it they could identify with for complex reasons. They “wanted to be convinced.”

The ills, fractures, and power struggles this election brought to the surface aren’t going to go away. And it’s necessary to teach them in literature classes. To read them closely, even when it’s tremendously uncomfortable, and discuss them productively requires that people respond to the lives and perspectives of others with true empathy, openness, and appreciation for complexity. People have reasons for believing the things they do. And when others don’t see that, when they reduce people to simplistic things (“racists,” “losers,” “whiners,” etc.), it makes it easier for them to hate one another. This is the kind of tendency literature fights against.

The ills, fractures, and power struggles this election brought to the surface aren’t going to go away. And it’s necessary to teach them in literature classes.

This doesn’t mean that empathy and understanding will solve everything — this is just where the work begins. Nor does it mean that all world-views and narratives, especially those that pose a clear physical and existential threat to others, should be treated equally. This is about teaching students the real-world, no-bullshit value of exercising the critical understanding and narrative analysis they learn in literature courses.

Especially since the invention of television, as time and deep attention have become increasingly rare and the most entertaining stuff gets the most airtime, politics in America has driven itself away from complexity. It relies more and more on reducing unbearably complicated realities to spectacular content and pre-packaged narratives that people recognize. The scariest time for American politics was probably after the collapse of the Soviet Union — suddenly the great villain, the competitor that had given U.S. “progress” meaning, was gone. Suddenly America had fewer narrative tricks to justify its worldwide military-industrial complex. But, true to form, American politics found ways to fit new realities into old plots. When George W. Bush declared “war on terror,” he created the basis for the most successful political story-telling franchise in existence: an episodic, world-historical narrative in which the U.S. could be the perpetual hero fighting a villain that could never be completely killed.

Students can learn to see the narratives that influence them and how to open those narratives up to different interpretations.

The point is not to excuse terrorism, of course; it’s to understand how narratives work and the real political consequences they have. Narratives tell people how to see reality, how to see themselves, what to sympathize with, what’s important, which people/characters to hate, which values are worth fighting for, even killing for, so on. Politicians craft narratives to justify things that would be unjustifiable otherwise. Newscasters reproduce narratives that stoke anxieties and make people fear their fellow citizens but, nonetheless, keep them watching attentively. “In our time,” George Orwell wrote, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

But close readers can deconstruct these narratives. Word by word, brick by brick. Students can learn there are other options. They can learn how to see the narratives that influence them and how to open those narratives up to different interpretations and craft alternate endings. They can become better equipped to connect to other people with radically different lives and to explore the hard complexities of a world that changes drastically when looked at from different angles, when told through different narratives. They can find a way out of the monkey house. And literature can help get them there.

About the Author

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