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SHSU Grads Make Literature 'Pop,' Focusing Academic Research On Wrestling, Vampires

Aug. 13, 2013
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

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As Tim Ponce (left) and Travis Franks enter doctoral programs this year, their focus on different aspects of popular culture will continue. Ponce will present a paper on vampiric imagery in Aeschylusís Agamemnon in November, while Franks's academic interests routinely incorporate popular culture, from western novels to the Kiowa Chief Santana, who was once buried in the prison cemetery near campus, to professional wrestling. Ponce's interest lies predominantly in examining texts themselves, while Franks explores the implications on the outside world of the way characters and cultures are depicted from a historical perspective. —Photo by Brian Blalock

 

Within Bob Dylan’s expansive catalog of music is his 1979 song “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” in which he sings “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking / Make myself a different set of rules.”

Close to 30 years later, Dylan’s words would do just that; his music, and its treatment within a literature class, would “change a way of thinking” and create a “different set of rules” for a transfer student, a then-history major who enjoyed reading and considered himself a good writer.

In his first semester as an undergraduate at Sam Houston State University in 2006, Travis Franks took English professor Gene Young’s survey course on American literature.

“I remember the day. We looked at Bob Dylan lyrics as poetry,” said Franks, adding he was struck, as a musician, by Young’s approach. “I guess, like a lot of people, I had a misconception of what the study of English or the study of literature is; I thought it was just canonical stuff. But Dr. Young probably knows more about American music and the history of American music than anybody on this campus.

“Within the next semester or two I took his ‘Texas Crossroads’ class, which is all about the intersections of everything that makes up what you could define as the Texan culture; so art, literature, music, but also politics and food and folklore,” Franks continued. “All of that falls under the same umbrella for English studies. I was fascinated by that. The opportunity to write about music and folklore, as well as literature, is something that I wanted to do; so I really found in Dr. Young a role model for the type of study that I wanted to do.”

Throughout both his undergraduate and graduate career at SHSU, Franks encountered other faculty with research interests that might be considered “outside of the box” by academic standards, such as Ralph Pease’s film and literature class; Michael Demson’s interest in the graphic novel; Robert Donahoo’s research on southern culture, food and religion; and Kimberly Bell’s use of game theory as a means of interpreting Middle English texts.

Other faculty were incorporating popular culture into their research publications, through comparative studies or examining cultural depictions throughout time and media, from historical documents to film. Especially influential on Franks’s eventual academic path were April Shemak’s critical work on the “Other” and former English faculty member Drew Lopenzina, whose work on Native Americans inspired Franks’s thesis on native identity in different literatures of Texas.

“Our faculty here is so diverse; as long as you have a good critical framework for wanting to look at things, at low art, we have the kind of faculty here that can do that,” Franks said. “My professors provided me with a blueprint for how to comment on and critique popular culture in a way that tries to be compassionate and encourage conversation.”

Wrestling with Pop Culture

When Franks discovered the work of 20th century literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes in Shemak’s “Theorizing the Other” course, he found that “good critical framework” for turning another personal interest into a research endeavor. This time, it was professional wrestling.

A 1957 essay by Barthes explored Parisian wrestling through “semiotics,” the study of symbols, by examining wrestler gimmicks or personas, how those personas interact and what they stand for (think: the hero versus the villain), and then tying it all to ancient theatre.

“A wrestling villain is going to come out and sneer at the crowd or pose a certain way, and you’re going to understand that this guy is going to do all these things that are villainous, and throughout the match he will do things that will live up to that in his role of the villain,” Franks said. “The face, the hero, will do the opposite of that.

“Parisian wrestling, as he was talking about, is sort of a play of ethics, a morality tale that’s playing out in front of people, but there’s pleasure for the audience to be able to watch that, according to Barthes,” he said. “It’s like reading Antigone. By the time you get to the end of it, there’s the lesson. The last lines of Antigone are that ‘proud men in old age learn to be wise,’ so you take some kind of moral away from it.

Chief Jay Strongbow & the Power of Performance

“For Barthes, it’s the same sort of thing; the wrestling match is self-contained just like a play, and at the end of it you’ve seen this level of conversation between these two wrestlers, these two grapplers, and how they tell their narrative is through their fight with each other,” he continued. “At the end of it, you take a moral lesson away from it. You watch the hero win and he’s vanquished the cheater who treats the fans roughly and you learn that cheaters never prosper. It’s pleasurable for us to see those sorts of things.”

In applying this work to American wrestling, Franks has been able to discuss the implications of one of his favorite characters Chief Jay Strongbow, a “Native American” wrestler portrayed by Joe Scarpa in the late 1940s through his retirement in 1985, who became known for moves such as the “Tomahawk Chop” and the “Indian Deathlock.”

Franks eventually wrote a paper, “It Isn’t Real: Reality, Identity, and Stereotype in Professional Wrestling,” which he has presented at a graduate colloquium and has submitted for publication.

In the paper, he differentiates his work from the work Barthes did on wrestling by examining political motives behind certain characters and why characters are portrayed as they are; for example, what does it mean that the “Indian” Strongbow was actually portrayed by an Italian American? Does that change the way we view his signature moves or the fact that he wore a traditional headdress and would go on the “warpath” in the ring?

“You see an Indian in the ring, but he’s not actually Native American,” Franks said. “Where it gets really tricky is that it’s not native people playing the native gimmick at all; it’s often white people, and you find that there’s a long history of that sort of thing, not just in wrestling, but in film, all the way back to the earliest films; in wild west shows; in the Boston Tea Party, which was white guys dressing up like Indians. The thing that I’ve found is that it’s always for the audience’s benefit; they always do that with an audience in mind.

“My work is being critical of wrestling in a different way than Barthes would,” Franks said. “I’m saying if the form (the genre, such wrestling) relies on all these signs (the “costuming,” facial gestures, hair, signature moves, etc.), we need to stop and investigate how those signs come about in the first place; what motivations lie behind them beyond just the spectacle in the ring.”

Biting Into Vampirism

Like Franks, SHSU English graduate Timothy Ponce’s interest in the convergence of popular culture and literature came almost by accident.

Ponce, who considers himself more of a “traditionalist” when it comes to literary studies—whose research emphasis tends to be within the British renaissance, medieval and classical traditions—was looking to create some new research for a colloquium presentation when he recalled a joke that had been made between himself and English professor Lee Courtney about a particular scene in a Greek play.

It all revolved around a line in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, spoken by the title character who says of the opposing army, “we drank their blood.”

“We had joked about how he sounds like a vampire, so I decided to run with it,” Ponce said. “When I started digging around in the Greek text, right before that line about drinking the blood, there’s a line that’s not traditionally translated into English, and I was trying to figure out why. In the two translations that even attempt to salvage the line, the Greek words are the ones for ‘to eat raw flesh’ and the word that’s coupled with it are ‘man…’ as in troops of men, an army. So it literally says he ate the raw flesh of the opposing army, which ties to the biting metaphor, which is vampiric.”

As Ponce dug in to the research, he framed his project on Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which dedicates a chapter to understanding vampirism as a control mechanism. As he worked, he found other instances that could be viewed as “vampiric,” some direct and others less so.

One of his proudest finds was uncovering what had previously been a “loose” translation within the description of the sacrifice of Iphigenia by Agamemnon.

“All the translations I ever read said she’s thrown on the altar like a goat, but in looking at the text, I found the original word they translate, which is chimeras; so a chimera, like the monster with a head of a lion, body of a goat, tail of a snake,” Ponce said. “In looking at this as a vampiric idea, Agamemnon sees her not just as an animal but as a soulless monster deserving of death.

“There are a lot of weird parallels between the story of chimera and the story of this young, innocent virgin girl who is now being called a monster and is being sacrificed for a pious, just reason,” Ponce said. “It’s so vampiric, to look down upon, to devalue, those whom you are attacking, to use them.”

He took the translation to Bell, one of the English department’s experts on the classical tradition, and she verified his ideas, even remarking that she was surprised that, to her knowledge, no one else had ever pointed that out.

When he began writing his paper, Ponce drew upon more current fascination with vampires and named it “The Vampire Diaries of the 5th Century BC: The Γελλµ of Agamemnon,” hoping to show how while vampirism as a genre is modern, some of the concepts can be traced back to the Greeks.

“Dracula was published in the late 1800s, the 19th century, and that’s really the seminal vampire text, but the essential concept of the vampire is very old, even though the word is very new. It didn’t enter the English language until 1734; that’s pretty modern by all respects, since English was created in 449,” he said, adding that the consumption of blood, the very essence of vampirism, can be found in the Old Testament.

He plans to extend the paper for presentation at the Pacific Ancient Modern Language Association conference in November.

Making Literature ‘Pop’

For both Franks and Ponce, the incorporation of popular culture, or low art, as it has been viewed in literary history, is practical both in research and in the classroom as future professors. Franks will enter a doctoral program, studying under former SHSU English faculty member Lee Bebout at Arizona State, while Ponce is pursuing doctoral study at the University of North Texas, in the fall.

In the classroom, Ponce said he often uses TV shows and film clips as tools to encourage students who may be predisposed to dislike a certain genre of literature so that students will give that work a chance.

“I bring popular culture into my teaching to make bridges for my students, like with the Euripides’s Madea reference in Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” he said. “That’s just good teaching; it’s connecting one idea to another so they can bring themes or ideas together for themselves.”

Franks said he believes there is inherent value in popular culture, especially because popular culture represents and reflects predominant societal beliefs in the same way literature does.

“I talk in my research about how I have this hunch that because we don’t take the form (wrestling, but also pop culture) seriously, we allow for certain leniency in the content,” Franks said. “(People say) ‘It’s just wrestling; of course it’s outrageous, who cares.’ But if it’s that popular, you should care, especially if it’s doing something dangerous.”

In the case of his work, especially in his focus on native studies, Franks said, in some cases popular culture also can be dangerous, especially when it reflects stereotyped or misinformed portrayals of things such as gender, culture or class, because “those are themes we can find in any narrative, no matter what form it takes that you choose to look at it in.”

Therefore, to Franks, all forms of “art,” both popular and academic (or literary), have merit.

“Critical thinking is not limited to a certain degree of art,” he said. “I’m doing a project right now on western novels. I think of people like our grandparents’ age; if you went into their home and they have a bookshelf, I’m looking at the books that would be on their bookshelf. If people still read, I want to know what they’re reading.

“I think those things are viable, I think they’re crucial, to the stories we tell because they’re the most readily transmitted,” Franks said. “I think there is a misconception about people in the English department (who focus on popular aspects), that there’s a silliness about it, or maybe it’s not taken so seriously, but I think there are important consequences to it.

“And I don’t want to sound preachy and tell people you have to care about this stuff, but it’s as much a part of our daily life, if not more (than other areas). If it’s a sitcom or a popular film, it’s saying something; there’s a reason so many people like it,” he said. “We need to know why that is.”

 

 

 

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