Reflections on 2020

Published: November 14, 2020

Coming to You “Live”: COVID, Zoom, and Performance Studies

CARLA NEUSS, PhD candidate, UCLA Theater & Performance Studies

December 1, 2020

As a scholar of medieval drama and performance studies, I’ve been watching with bated breath to see what the COVID era will generate for scholars of performance with regards to a debate considered resolved within the field: the question of liveness. Within performance studies, scholars Peggy Phelan (1993) and Philip Auslander (1999) famously posited opposing arguments on the nature of liveness in the early 2000’s; Phelan argued for an ontology of performance in which the “live” is situated as ephemeral and unrepeatable, what she terms “representation without reproduction.” It characterizes any art form that cannot be reproduced or commodified through recording technologies. Auslander counters her perspective, pointing out the etymology of the notion of “liveness” as co-emergent with recording technologies, historically situating the first use of the term “live” in a BBC radio performance in the early twentieth century and framing the concepts as mutually constituting. Ultimately, performance studies considered the debate a draw, often eschewing the binary of “live” and “recorded” altogether in subsequent scholarship. Indeed, performance studies regularly considers cultural production beyond the “live” performance encounter, including film, new media, and artificial intelligence.

Given this background, my own interest in resurrecting the question of liveness in terms of affect, phenomenology, and cognitive theory was met with shrugged shoulders early in my doctoral work; the question, I was told, was considered mothballed and uninteresting. With COVID, however, we are seeing liveness as a concept dusted off and now plastered across headlines in popular discourse. If liveness is fundamentally co-presence within space and time, COVID has disrupted our ability to share space, since spatial co-presence, it turns out, is what the coronavirus requires to spread. The virus, in this sense, is a phenomenon of the live. Thanks to technology—and the now ubiquitous status of Zoom—we have a range of ways to achieve temporal co-presence without the attendant risks of spatial co-presence. After eight months of daily usage of the medium to sustain both our working and relational lives, the complaints of “Zoom fatigue” are running rampant. As early as April 2020, The New York Times published an article titled “Why Zoom is Terrible” stating that “In-person communication resembles video conferencing about as much as a real blueberry muffin resembles a packaged blueberry muffin that contains not a single blueberry but artificial flavors, textures and preservatives.” The article centered on how Zoom limits the most important aspects of perception, from facial micro-expressions to direct eye contact, resulting in our brains working overtime to compensate for the interpersonal data that we unconsciously rely on in co-present communication. The results are not only exhaustion but much lower levels of empathy and trust between people who are communicating via the platform.

Liveness, it seems, is having a moment. Only by being denied in-person, co-present interaction are we suddenly fully realizing that sharing space is as vital to communication as sharing time. I see the discourses on affect, phenomenology, and cognitive theory as rich areas to explore in regard to liveness. Theresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect (2014) posits that affect manifests materially in the co-present encounter; citing the colloquial experience of “reading the room”, she argues that “the transmission of affect, whether it is grief, anxiety, or anger, is social or psychological in origin. But the transmission is also responsible for bodily changes…in other words, the transmission of affect, if only for an instant, alters the biochemistry and neurology of the subject. The ‘atmosphere’ or the environment literally gets into the individual.” Recent work in cognitive theory, embodied cognitive and what philosopher Dan Zahavi calls “naturalized phenomenology” also proffers new ways to approach liveness by bridging traditional disciplinary boundaries between philosophy, science, and the arts. My own article forthcoming article in The Journal of Dramatic Theatre and Criticism (vol. 35), “The Apocalypse Will Be Staged”, strives to model such interdisciplinarity through what I term “affective atmosphere” as a mode of theorizing the capacity of live performance to phenomenologically blur subject and object. As we begin to approach the post-COVID era, I am curious and hopeful to see how the arts and humanities, and performance studies in particular, will take the “liveness debate” back out of the closet, dust it off, and consider it in new and productive ways.


Associate Professor MATTHEW FISHER
UCLA Department of English

November 14, 2020

Global pandemic. Environmental crisis. A growing wave of protests and cries for change to the systems that continue to benefit some at the expense of many others. My students and I are studying 1348—the year the plague or Black Death reached England—and the aftermath of the deadliest pandemic in recorded history across Britain, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. Things look disturbingly familiar.

I chose to teach a Fiat Lux seminar on the Black Death in Fall Quarter 2020 to connect with some of the newest UCLA students, many of whom started their university life on Zoom from their childhood bedrooms, and also to address a question that has long interested me: why did it take 50 years or so for medieval literary and poetic texts to explicitly engage with the plague?[1] Beyond Boccaccio’s Decameron (and to a lesser extent Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale), one can read most of the poetry of the last third of the 14th century without ever suspecting that Yersinia pestis killed between thirty and sixty percent of the population in large swathes of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

My own expertise on medieval England was only the foundation for this seminar. The pressures of pandemic and politics alike call for collective engagement, and make breadth an imperative. As students and scholars, our class is deeply indebted to the work of Joris Roosen and Monica Green, who assembled a 100-page (and growing!) bibliography of scholarship on every aspect of the plague, from “effects in the emerging Islamicate world” to “pathogen identification/aDNA” to “Climate/Volcanic Involvement.”[2] Monica Green, along with several other participants, participated in a webinar in May 2020 sponsored by the Medieval Academy of America, which our class viewed as an introduction to the field.[3]

So far this quarter, we’ve read the introduction to The Decameron alongside essays on violence against Jewish communities, on the residents of Cairo and how the Islamic faith framed very different responses to the plague than seen in Catholic Europe, on the labor crises created by the death of so many, and on the shift from freedom to enslavement for women working as wet nurses in Barcelona. This week we will be reading the famous La Danse macabre or “Dance of Death” (c. 1426), before turning to Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, and finally (at the request of the students), “more gnarly stuff like Boccaccio.”

The resonances between medieval past and present have been a constant part of our class conversations. When Boccaccio’s story tellers set off for a villa just outside of Florence, “on their arrival the company discovered, to their no small pleasure, that the place had been cleaned from top to bottom.” Essential workers, then as now, could be rendered invisible by privilege and wealth. From the attempts to regulate labor in medieval England to California’s Proposition 22, the resonances are unmissable. We’ve considered the scapegoating of people of different faiths and races in the medieval world alongside anti-Chinese racism and the disinfectant sprayed on Roma populations by crop-dusting aircraft in Bulgaria in March 2020, and the ways in which misogyny shaped how women experience the burdens of plague and pandemic. The class has never lacked for things to discuss.

As we cope with the intense stresses of our insistent present, the study of the medieval past has offered our class tangible insights into how our “unprecedented” times reflect legal, economic, and cultural pressures that are all too legible 700 years later. The seminar has provided not only the comforts of community, but also the hope that we can shape the frames in which we understand our world, and thus the conversations about how to change what comes next.

[1] See the recent scholarship of David K. Coley on this question, and his short blog post “Why Is It So Hard to Write When the World is Ending” ( [Accessed November 2020].

[2] Joris Roosen and Monica H. Green, “The Mother of All Pandemics: The State of Black Death Research in the Era of COVID-19 – Bibliography,” ( [Accessed November 2020].

[3] “The Mother of All Pandemics: the State of Black Death Research in the Era of COVID-19 – Webinar” [Accessed November 2020].

Premodern Minorities and Civil Rights

University of San Diego Department of History and CMRS Associate

October 30, 2020

The momentous civil rights protests over the past six months have encouraged me and many of my colleagues who study premodern ethno-religious minority groups to consider what insights we might draw from our work to help us process and contextualize the current evolving situation. Shortly before Labor Day, the Trump administration denounced white privilege, anti-Blackness, and other concepts drawn from Critical Race Theory as “divisive, anti-American propaganda” and moved to ban diversity training throughout all government agencies. Writing recently for The Atlantic, Ibram X. Kendi made the case that these “absurd” defensive maneuvers have inadvertently helped American society acknowledge the existence of structural racism and prepared it to adopt anti-racist tactics: Trump “has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality” (September 2020 issue). Historically speaking, this phenomenon of denial is remarkably recent, emerging during the civil rights movements of the past century at the earliest. As Kendi and other commentators recognize, it makes white supremacy considerably tougher to combat.

The emergence of what we might call “proto-modern” racial constructs within the context of late-medieval and early-modern European colonialism and empire-building was notably founded on the opposite phenomenon: the open embrace of white supremacy and the overt systematic discrimination of non-white groups. Although scholars continue to debate vigorously whether the concept of biological race had currency before the fifteenth century and the extent to which the Middle Ages can participate in a longer history of race, it is clear that the logic that later developed into modern racism was already deeply rooted within Western Christendom by the High Middle Ages. Although many resident non-conformist groups experienced marginalization, the Jews and Muslims who lived under Christian rule within the principalities of the Iberian Peninsula serve as especially salient examples of the workings of these early discriminatory mechanisms. While uninitiates today who expect barbaric intolerance from medieval societies are often surprised that Christian lay and ecclesiastical authorities drew on theological and pragmatic principles to justify the accommodation of these groups, who technically enjoyed various entitlements including free religious practice, closer attention to the policies governing their lives reveals that these were inegalitarian societies by design. In contrast to today’s racism deniers, no Christian inhabiting these societies would have maintained that a Jew or Muslim was a social equal deserving of egalitarian treatment or opportunities. Christians might recognize the superiority of non-Christians when it came to certain applied areas of expertise, but these signs of respect did not invalidate the basic discriminatory logic founded on the principle that Christianity was the one true religion that maintained Christian culture at the top of the ethno-religious hierarchy. Jews and Muslims tellingly had to pay tithes to maintain Christian ecclesiastical institutions, were barred from important religious activities that were viewed as disruptive, and suffered severe limits on speech, especially concerning religious topics. According to numerous laws that are strikingly similar in form to the anti-miscegenation statutes of later colonial societies, any Muslim or Jewish male caught copulating with a Christian woman would be painfully executed.

Medieval Christian supremacy, which, we are discovering, played a more foundational role in the genesis of white supremacy than once believed, was, in short, consciously and unapologetically discriminatory. Continuing to hold up mirrors to observe our society’s “grotesque image,” while we explore the premodern dimensions of the long history of racism, will help us understand how these centuries-old inegalitarian roots continue to feed our institutions, policies, and social tendencies and empower us to disavow and dismantle them.

COVID will change history

Department Chair and Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America in the World
UCLA Department of History

October 9, 2020

The global pandemic will change history. An illness that will kill at least a quarter of a million Americans within a year must have a massive impact. The many people not included in that number who sicken with the disease—especially those who experience long-term health consequences or who rack up insurmountable health care bills—will find their lives permanently altered. The impact of this pandemic on the economy and on the employment (or employment prospects) of innumerable people has yet to be measured.

Beyond its effects on the future—on the unfolding of history in this moment—the pandemic will also change the past.  Experiencing a cataclysmic pandemic affects the way we and our students think about history. Historians will ask new questions, inspired by the history we are living now. Our students will see the history they study through a new lens. They may have greater interest in past pandemics—such as the plague year in London, the focus of a Fiat Lux course in the history department. They may be more attuned to questions of how governments and societies have handled health crises or how people with incomplete or incorrect medical information resort to preventions and cures based on rumors and unconfirmed theories. They may care to hear more about public health or disease prevention or fake news than they once did.

Such changes in the past and what we hope to glean from it are business as usual for historians, but the idea that the past changes frightens some people. Recently the president has promised to restore a heroic, upbeat tale about American history, one that will deny the existence of any unsavory aspects of the past. This view suggests an unchanging version of the past, of course, but also promotes a version of history that does not challenge those in power and that affirms the status quo.  According to this view, changes in history do not happen as a result of new questions, new evidence, or new sensitivities, but rather from concerted efforts to rewrite the past in support of some nefarious political agenda.

History is more an organic process than the intentional work of those with political aims. The world we live in provides us subjects of interest, questions that require answers, and new understandings of how the world works. Those inspirations then lead us to the past. We care to understand the Black Death, slavery’s origins and atrocities, or how the vilification of women connected to witchcraft prosecutions for reasons often grounded in the present. That does not make them any less a part of the past or our interest in them suspect. Instead, they are signs of the ways in which the present changes not only the future but also the past.