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The Plague Lit Podcast: Reflections on New Radio Learning in Lockdown and Global Pandemic
An interview with Michael Collins, Senior Lecturer at King’s College London, on podcasts as tools for learning and the literature of pandemics.
05 October, 2020

The Plague Lit Podcast is a three-part podcast produced by members of the English Department at King’s. It explores the subject of the relationship between literature and pandemics with contributions from Dr. Jon Day, Dr. Kelina Gotman, and Dr. Emrys Jones.

Why did you choose the medium of a podcast to present your lectures on plague fiction? 

I think there is something really powerful about radio, and the human voice. There may be a day for the resurgence of radio – or it may already be happening. There is a great deal of mistrust about imagery, and a kind of saturated world of images online. As tutors a lot of my colleagues, and I may be starting to catch the podcasting bug. The idea of listening to the human voice and paying attention to it in that kind of podcasting style can be useful to keep in mind while preparing for lectures.

How does it compare to traditional teaching methods such as lecture captures?

Lecture captures offer more of an inferior experience, compared to actually being in the room whereas I think podcasts may actually be superior. It creates something online that is distinct. PowerPoint presentations can be a rather distracting medium, and I think it takes away some of the intimacy and attention that you can draw from the voice. For me, listening to a good podcast is closer to the experience of reading a book. It is closer to that form of communication where you only have one speaker and one listener. I think reading and teaching should closely reflect one another, and the podcast is closer to that than lecture captures. 

In your article for the English Blog, you suggested that sometimes ‘book people’ and people of literature tend to glaze over the history of podcasts – why do you think that is?

I think there is a general conception about the history of radio that is ‘techy’ or ‘nerdy’, and that it may not be as serious. There is a tendency in English literature students and lecturers to really love large novels as “proper literary works”. I don’t quite come to things that way for a number of reasons; my love of the radio being one and my love for the short story being the other. Hence, the novel has never occupied that same kind of space. American literature also doesn’t necessarily have the novel as its main form – it has the essays, the short stories, and the fragments. There are cultural elements around my attraction to the podcast that makes me kind of different from the sort of ‘‘great rise of the novel’ story in English literature. 

Should this mindset change? If so, why?

In these times, I think we need as much time as we can to get away from our screens. We are essentially doing everything, like meetings and seminars, online. When it began, podcasts were developed as a file that could be shared and listened to anytime on our iPods or phones. It allowed a degree of movement and security, allowing us the freeing capacity to organize our time in a different kind of way. Amid a global pandemic, podcasts will be important to give us a break from having our eyes glued to the screen.

On the topic of sensory experiences and movement, Dr. Gotman in Episode Two explores the difficulty of movement during pandemic, becoming so transparent that we are alarmingly aware of its restrictions. How would you imagine this play into our discussions?

One of the interesting phenomenons that struck me, and Dr. Gotman expresses this very well, was that lockdown wasn’t just confinement to our houses – it was a confinement to our screens as well. Radio is a broadcast medium that occupies the air in a way and allows you to move just like music would. This is important to us if our physical space in the world is confined. We can claim back some of our embodied space by finding other ways to engage with information. This relationship with physicality is essentially what I and Dr. Gotman was trying to get at.

Can you expand upon this relationship?

In American literature, the form of short stories historically developed as a way of engaging with stage and public culture, whereas the novel was more inclined towards internality and the individual, rather than the collective. I’ve always been fascinated by the role that literature and thought play in negotiating physical space and interpersonal relations. Music, sound and radio also have an important role to play in that.

While listening to the podcast it seemed that everything that was being talked about in regards to past works of literature was very relevant to the present time of this pandemic. Dr. Gotman also talks about exoticism during a pandemic.  

One way to look at this would be to look at the broadcasting service and the view that the metropole had of its ‘‘other’’. Broadcast then I think has a role to play in the construction of that space. The idea of a reporter or travel writer being embedded in another culture and broadcasting that story back creates certain kinds of dynamics of power.

Can we connect this with what Dr Jones talks about with Daniel Defoe as an unreliable narrator in the Journal of the Plague Year as someone who exhibits competing opinions and a lot of misinformation?

Absolutely, and we can definitely see nowadays having been through the Covid-19 pandemic that the misinformation, conspiracy, forms of otherization, and racialization are absolutely the meat of pandemic fiction. 

One of the figures that I didn’t talk too much about in the podcast, but was very interested in, is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories The Masque of the Red Death constantly refers back to the idea of the bizarre, strange, and the ‘other’, as a way of describing the pandemic [The Red Death]. Misinformation and rumours spread so easily, and everything becomes distorted and gothically strange. Hence I think there is clearly a way that ideas around dissemination and transmission are connected with questions of distortion and misinformation.

Is this what you were referring to when you talked about ‘the metaphorical energy of the plague’?

It is clear to me that plague fiction is almost never about plague. There’s something that makes it very difficult to confront that. I talk to Dr. John Day in the first episode about the fact that there is a disease in language that makes it impossible for us to confront things like pathogens – they are beyond us. Plagues quickly become about something else; they move you away, metaphorically from the actual experience space into another conceptual space. For example, literature around intoxication, drugs, and altered states are very rarely about those things, rather about some other social thoughts.

So finally, if we had to put a bow around the Plague Lit Podcast, how would you encapsulate it in a few words?

Firstly, the Plague Lit podcast was about trying to take something that was dark, and turning that into some kind of productive enterprise. The second thing I would say is that it is definitely about how literature speaks across time. Under certain conditions, certain sorts of events, something that was written 400 to 500 years ago can make sense in the present. There is a resonance that speaks across time. This is powerful to me. 

For so long, literary criticism has been about the very historical conceptual moment in which something is produced. However, I think something about plague fiction and this experience we are facing, disturbed those categories and those temporal time-based distinctions. It got to something too important about literature that we most often miss, which is that… humanity is a single thing. We all share it, and can actually understand other cultures and other periods of time – maybe not fully or transparently, but it is something that literature reminds us of really well. The least we can do is to try and understand one another, and that is what is important.   

The podcast is available through Spotify and https://www.kcl.ac.uk/people/dr-michael-collins

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