English prof’s book looks at strangeness in American literature and film

October 30, 2018 | Society
What do zombies, Bob Dylan and a children's book about hippos have in common? Each has a part to play in Dr. Josh Toth’s latest book, Stranger America, which looks at figures of strangeness and explores the idea of the “other.”

“One of the main crises that societies face is a tendency to fall back into categorization,” explains Josh. “Even when we try our best to be uncharacterized, we flip things and people into categories because it’s comforting.”

The English prof, who studies and teaches American literature and film, says there is much to learn from looking at narratives that include figures who just don’t fit. Stranger America focuses on characters and real people who are not only different, but disrupt the possibility of even assigning sameness – characters who defy racial, gender, sexual or any other kind of label.

“The book ends up being about how pure radical otherness terrifies us and finding ways to be okay with that,” he says. “It’s about creating an ethical strategy – a kind of toolkit for living – where we accept difference, rather than assimilating or even understanding it.”

While the book is academic and based on high theory – a Hegelian concept of plasticity* – Josh aims to apply it in a very direct way. The first example in Stranger America looks at how a children’s book can illustrate American politics.

It’s about creating an ethical strategy – a kind of toolkit for living – where we accept difference, rather than assimilating or even understanding it.
—Josh Toth

“There’s this idea in Sandra Boynton’s book, But Not The Hippopotamus, that even though a group can be made up of many different things, in this case cats and moose, there’s always a clearly defined other – an outside party that creates the definition of the inclusive party,” he explains. “The hippopotamus is finally invited to join the group near the end of the book, but when you flip to the final page the book ends with the words ‘But not the armadillo.’”

Zombies, androids, American President Donald Trump and discussions about lynchings, animal rights and global warming also make their way into Stranger America, providing literary examples and illustrations of otherness. So does legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who makes an appearance in the book’s final chapter, for his ability to sustain a sense of “infinite otherness.”

“Dylan is notoriously slippery when it comes to revealing himself, but yet he’s very autobiographical. He’ll write an album that seems to be about his breakup with his wife, and then say it has nothing to do with her. He always appears to be giving something of himself, but the narrative is more of a constantly mutating form.”

Ultimately Josh’s goal is to encourage people – his students and other scholars – to look at and comment on these texts through a different lens and in a way that leads toward acceptance.

“To disrupt our desire for order and accept that there is no one coherent picture to any one person, no matter what,” says Josh. “And to consider what might come from embracing, in our encounters with others, a sort of perpetually ungraspable or unfinalizable plasticity.”

*Josh’s definition of plasticity is “that aspect of the self that both gives and receives form, or narrative shape. But it is also what perpetually refuses to be fixed in form. Plasticity refers also, then, to explosive potential, to the cause of subversive disruptions in common (and, thus, ossifying) language.”

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