Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Brief History of Seven Killings and the Specters of Marx

This spring I read Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, along with the students in my colleague's senior seminar. I'd been curious about the novel after it won the Man Booker Prize, the Bocas Prize for fiction, and a bunch of other prizes in 2015, and her class not only gave me a good excuse to read it but also the motivation to finish all 686 pages. Here are a couple of reviews from his peer novelists Michiko Kakutani and Kei Miller, whose works I also hope to read soon. It's hard to explain this novel, since it's bit like asking Jimi Hendrix's question, "have you ever been experienced"? And it's perhaps even harder to explain what a Jamaican novel about the significance of Bob Marley in the 1970s and 80s has to do with the book Specters of Marx -- a work by the famous philosopher of "deconstruction" Jacques Derrida written in 1993 in response to the predictions a few other philosophers were making about the end of communism after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Conjuring a connection between these two books may seem like a bit of voodoo, but that is what this blog post will do.

First, what is the experience of reading James's book, which is neither brief nor a history, and in which a hell of lot more than seven people are killed? Try to picture this. Take your favorite epic gangster movie, like The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), or Scarface (1983) that tells the rise and fall of a family criminal dynasty -- especially Scarface with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfieffer about the Cuban-American mafia's cocaine trade, the Miami music scene in the late 70s, and a dark nightmare version of the American dream. But tell that story the way William Faulkner would tell it, like in his classic novel As I Lay Dying, where each chapter is written as if you were inside a different character's head -- not only the various rival gangster's heads, but also the heads of a CIA agent, a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, and a woman who once had sex with Bob Marley but tries to escape her past. What unites all the different characters in this novel is that they all were in some way connected to the assassination attempt on one of the world's most iconic musicians, Bob Marley, in 1976. Indeed, the spirit of Bob Marley and his famous efforts to find a peaceful resolution to Jamaica's political conflicts haunts every page of this novel, though we never get Marley's point of view. Moreover, the novel gives you some of the small fry's perspectives -- not just the head honchos of the gang, but also the pawns, like how Tom Stoppard's famous play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead gives you the minor characters's point of view on Hamlet. So, the novel seems to attempt to do the impossible, putting the reader in the minds of some low-level criminals who are recruited by the American CIA to kill the person whose album Exodus was voted by Time Magazine as the best album of the 20th century.


But even that doesn't really do enough to describe the novel. Each chapter focuses on a single day -- chapter one on December 2, 1976 the day of the attempted assassination, chapter two on the following day, December 3, and chapter three a few years later, February 15, 1979, as the characters reflect on the consequences of the assassination attempt. Chapter four enacts a geographic and temporal shift, as some of the main characters move from Jamaica to New York on August 14, 1985 during the rise of the crack epidemic. Finally, chapter five concludes the novel on March 22, 1991. Some of the scenes in the fourth and fifth chapters about black gangs and the crack trade almost seem to be pulled directly from movies such as New Jack City (1991) starring Wesley Snipes and Ice T, theme song by Queen Latifah. But the novel's global consciousness extends far beyond such Hollywood fare by linking American economic interests in controlling the mining of bauxite in Jamaica, the CIA's efforts to suppress the influence Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba on neighboring Caribbean countries, and finally the rise of the cocaine trade that was, ironically, partly encouraged by some American agents as a tool for undermining and disrupting left-leaning governments who might be tempted to nationalize their industries and protect them from American corporations. In addition to the inward psychology of the characters and the outward international intrigue, the novel also gives us copious references to the Jamaican music scene in the 1970s and New York music scene in the 1980s, so that you can spend hours of your time not just getting lost in the text of the novel but also getting lost in a YouTube hole or Pandora's box of listening pleasure. Finally, add to all this the character of a ghost who concludes each chapter with some cryptic historical commentary.

So, what is actually the "brief history" that the novel is telling us about, and why does this novel, published in 2014, end in 1991? The title of the novel, we only find out in the final chapters, is a reference to a fictional series of New Yorker magazine articles published in 1991 on the Jamaican gangs in New York City and the crack epidemic. Although the series of seven articles, each about a different killing, are fictional, such articles about Jamaican and Dominican gangs involved in the drug trade were actually written for the New Yorker, such as [this one], published in 1989. But the novel ends with the gangsters suppressing the real story by threatening the journalist. In a sense, therefore, the novel is uncovering the secret history of how Jamaica's political history following its independence from British colonial rule contributed to the conditions of black life in America in the late 1980s. By uncovering this secret history, the history that was not allowed to be published in those original New Yorker articles, James is in a way giving the ghosts of our dark nightmarish past that haunt our present an opportunity to speak to us. But why end in 1991?

My theory about why 1991 requires a bit of historical context. Following the independence of Jamaica and other colonies in the 1960s, the difficult economic issue for postcolonial states was how to manage their newly liberated economies. Governments were faced with two choices: option one, sell off their business interests to American and European corporations; option two, nationalize the business interests to protect local control over them. In Jamaica, one of the biggest differences between the two political parties was where they stood on this issue, the conservative Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) supporting option one, and the more left-leaning People's National Party (PNP) supporting option two. Obviously, the second option looked too much like socialism for the United States government that ultimately aimed to assist the interests of American corporations in the newly liberated colonies. James's novel A Brief History of Seven Killings reveals the American position through conversations among the CIA agents arguing with each other over how to promote American interests in Jamaica. But most of this history is not new information, and one can read about it in many scholarly works on that history as well as more popular bestsellers such as Naomi Klein's influential book The Shock Doctrine (2007). One of the classic works of world literature about the relationship between the United States and the Caribbean is Jamaica Kincaid's vicious satire of tourism, A Small Place (1988) about the legacy of colonialism, that was later adapted into the documentary movie Life and Debt (2001) -- a movie that more fully than the book explores the influence of the United States and the International Monetary Fund on the lives of ordinary Jamaicans.



In the novel, we are exposed to this issue in several ways, first through conversations between C.I.A. agents and the leaders of the gang that supports the JLP, and later through conversations between an American representative of the a bauxite mining corporation in Jamaica and his Jamaican girlfriend. The two political parties didn't just fight each other in the elections but also in the streets through rival gangs. In response to this political crisis, Bob Marley, reggae culture, and Rastafarian religion stepped in to reconcile the two conflicting sides and imagine a third way: their alternative being a more Afrocentric vision of political life that was neither Euro-American-capitalist nor Soviet-Marxist. The argument put forward by the novel is that the CIA saw Marley as a political threat to its agenda and used the gangs as a tool to achieve its ends. But the CIA couldn't control the monster that it had created, and so we have the convoluted plot of the novel.

How does all this relate to the Derrida's Specters of Marx? To understand this, one has to go back in time to the year 1991 -- and perhaps this is why the novel ends in 1991 -- the year the Soviet Union collapsed. American journalists, politicians, and philosophers were gleefully predicting that with the fall of communism, the great ideological battle between communism and capitalism had ended. Human rights and democracy had triumphed. Conflicts from large scale wars between states to small-scale battles between the gangs in Jamaica would end. The most famous example of this was a work of philosophy by Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992, that expanded an earlier essay he wrote in 1989. In hindsight, viewing the past from our present moment in 2018, Fukuyama's ideas do seem utterly naive and silly, because almost immediately after he predicted the end of history and the universal triumph of liberal capitalism, Yugoslavia collapsed into brutal ethnic conflict, Somalia collapsed into open gang warfare, and on and on. Derrida presented a scathing response to Fukuyama at a conference in 1993 at the University of Riverside, California, in which he pointed to the ongoing problems of massive foreign debt, ethnic conflict, immigration, and most importantly the inherent contradiction between the ideology of multicultural democracy and the interests of multinational corporations. In other words, for Derrida, whatever one's political viewpoint may be, the past was not simply in the past; it persists. That conference was later published as two books, one being Derrida's Specters of Marx, and the other being Whither Marxism that collected the other presentations at the conference.

In his argument, Derrida suggests something similar to what some psychoanalytic philosophers call "the return of the repressed." I think for today's generation, the most obvious example of this is Al Qaeda, the militant Islamic organization that was funded in the 1980s by the American government under President Ronald Reagan to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After the Cold War ended in 1991, the United States simply abandoned Al Qaeda, which eventually, as everyone knows, led to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In some ways, James's novel similarly connects the crack epidemic in the United States to the clandestine activity of the CIA to undermine socialism in the Third World. As Lauryn Hill put it in her classic song "Lost Ones":
Now don't you understand, man, universal law?
What you throw comes back to you, star
Never underestimate those who you scar,
Cause karma, karma, karma comes back to you hard! 
But Derrida's theory and James's novel both go further than just narrating political karma and the ways that the nightmarish past haunts our present -- they go even further by deconstructing the binary between presence and absence. The mistake is to think that just because something is absent, it is no longer present; the meaning of "present"  being a belonging to our time and place. So, Fukuyama's mistake was to think that because of the fall of the Soviet empire, socialism was no longer present. Fukuyama forgot three things: one being all the criminal acts perpetrated on all sides during the Cold War and their real and enduring effects on peoples's lives; he underestimated all those whom the U.S. and Russia scarred; two being the utopian dream of a way out of this mess, the promise of Bob Marley's music that still galvanized cultural resistance to the materialism of global capitalism; and three being the on-going need of American-style capitalism for an "other" or some kind of boogey man to define itself against or blame for the fact that capitalism and democracy have not solved the world's problems. As Marx wrote in the opening paragraph of The Communist Manifesto, from which Derrida takes the title of his book, even if communism did not exist (and even if Marx did not exist), the bourgeoisie would have to invent it (or invent someone like him), in order to justify its own exploitative behavior. And so, we can think of  James's novel as what Derrida calls a "hauntology," or, in other words, a deep analysis of how what seems to be absent or past still "haunts" -- or even still exists within -- our present.

One of the things about the novel that troubled me about James's novel was how dark and depressing the novel was throughout; indeed, for a novel supposedly inspired by Bob Marley, it seemed to me that all of the joy, love, and humanity of reggae music and Jamaican culture was obliterated by the overwhelming violence. On the day that I visited my colleague's class to discuss the novel with her students, this is the question that I raised, because I didn't know how to answer it. Indeed, the acts of violence are so brutal that it's interesting to note the ways even Marlon James avoids the full psychological implications of such violence. He manages violence through a change of point of view as the chapters shift from one character to the next. For example, although it is the gang leader Josey Wales who aims his gun at Bob Marley's heart, Marlon James puts the reader in another character's head when this happens. We never know what Josey Wales was thinking when he did the dastardly deed. Likewise, when almost a decade later Josey Wales goes berserk in a crack house in Brooklyn, Marlon James suddenly takes us out of Josey Wales's head (p.576) and instead into Weeper's head, who dispassionately observes Josey's brutal massacre. It's as though Marlon James can't bear the awfulness of what his characters have done, so he places the reader in their heads only before and after they do it, not during. But while my colleague, her students, and I were discussing how depressing and brutal the novel is in class, one of the students brilliantly pointed out that the absence of that joy is in fact not absent at all, since the sinister violence of the novel makes us feel the need for that music all the more. Bob Marley's love is always a present absence. As one of the characters says about Marley (p. 56), "Is not that music take away the pain, but when it play, I don't ride the pain, I ride the rhythm."


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Cinematic Geography, Historical Time, and Whether to Globalize the Eighteenth Century on the Screen

Recently, with Srividhya Swaminathan, I co-edited a new collection of essays entitled The Cinematic Eighteenth Century: History, Culture, and Adaptation for Routledge that as a whole investigates how the eighteenth century is represented in contemporary cinema. The essays by eleven different authors range from analysis of adaptations of novels by Jane Austen and Daniel Defoe to analysis of movies about pirates, slavery, sexuality, mental illness, royalty, the cult of celebrity, and ethnic conflict as well as, of course, satire and parody of such attempts to represent the eighteenth century in movies. All of the essays can, of course, be read individually, depending on the interest of the reader, but our hope is that taken together they will engender a sense of the diversity of the eighteenth century and inspire the reader to make connections among the many different movies, cinematic styles, and topics -- a philosophically rich cultural mosaic. I think this quality of the book is what makes it an original contribution to the academic fields of eighteenth-century studies and film studies.

But the work has inspired a new set of questions for me about the eighteenth century as a period of historical time and how we conceptualize its geography. I could not help but notice that our essays were primarily about films produced in the United States, England, and France about subjects in those three countries, and I could not help also notice the same pattern at the annual conference of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS). Since early drafts of all but one of the essays were presented at various ASECS conferences, this common feature is not surprising. Although ASECS is officially open to scholarly work about anywhere on the globe, the organizers of its conferences have for a long time expressed a self-conscious frustration over their inability to attract a truly global sense of that historical era -- not simply the desire to include the other continents of Asia, Africa, and South America, but also the other parts of Europe (e.g., Spain, Germany, Italy, etc.) that receive remarkably little attention compared to England and France. 

And I certainly share this collective frustration, especially recently since I have been conducting research and teaching classes on African Cinema; my time as a Fulbright Scholar in the film program at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia will soon be realized in a chapter I co-authored with Teferi Nigussie Tafa on Oromo Cinema for the first scholarly book on the film history from the Horn of Africa (to be published in 2018 by Michigan State University Press.) But what to do?

There are, I suppose, two directions we might take here. One approach is asking how such figures as Robinson Crusoe and Marie Antoinette are appropriated by cinema from other continents. Sometimes the unconscious fetishization of European narratives leaves one with an uncanny feeling about the displacement of a European doppelganger in another space (e.g. the adaptation of Jane Austen novels to Japanese manga comics.) Other times, one appreciates the deliberate critique of European hegemony by the filmmaker via role reversals, ironic exaggeration, etc., in a flipping of the script (e.g., the movie Local Hero set in Scotland, or a recent film on the slave trade by Amma Asante, Belle.) We might also consider the many Italian-made swashbucklers -- films that represent British, French, and Spanish colonialism as absurd sexual farces with rakish pirates (e.g., Blackie the Pirate, 1971.) 

But another direction we ought to appreciate as well is a more autonomous representation of local culture entirely unconcerned with Europe. One example of such a films set in the eighteenth century is the Bollywood blockbuster Bajirao Mastani (directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali in 2015) about Hindu-Muslim relations in the Maratha kingdom; other examples might include the many Japanese samurai movies about the famous 47 Ronin

The problem with the first approach is its Eurocentricity as if a film made anywhere in the world has global significance in relation to the European (generally white and male) metanarrative of history. The problem with the second approach is its parochialism, ignoring the centuries of commerce, cultural exchange, and imperial dynamics that precede it. 

Theorists such as Walter Mignolo (in his book Local Histories/Global Designs) and Arif Dirlik (in his book Postmodernity's Histories) have attempted to dialectically work through the problematics of these two approaches. Mignolo proposes something called "border thinking" that foregrounds the diversity of perspectives -- i.e., how a global event might look when framed in terms of a local epistemology rather than a Eurocentric one. One example of this might be the now classic movie Ceddo, directed by Senegal's most famous filmmaker Ousmane Sembene in 1977. The focus on the film is the conflict between the expanding influence of the Muslim Imam over the king and the local traditions of the ceddo (translated sometimes as commoners, other times as outsiders), but in the background of the film is the presence of European colonialism represented by a slave trader and a solitary priest. Hence, while the movie fully attends to the complex dialectic of world history, Europe's role in this history is marginalized while African cultural dynamics are centered. 

I'm gathering information about other films, as well as other theoretical approaches, to this topic, so comments and suggestions are most welcome.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

American(ist)s in London: the SEA, ECS, and Beyond

Yesterday, I returned home to Brooklyn after twelve wonderful days in London where I attended two back-to-back affiliated conferences -- the first for the Society of Early Americanists (SEA) and then for the Early Caribbean Society (ECS) -- after which I stayed on for a week to explore the city, do some research, spend time with old friends, and make new friends. It was my first time in England, that country being somewhat a "virgin territory" for me (so to speak): my first time to see the famous Palace of Westminster and the Big Ben clock, my first time to wander around Brixton Market, and my first time to eat the fabled "mushy peas" that before this trip I knew only from Joe Strummer's hit song "Bhindi Bhagee" that celebrates London's world cuisine from his 2001 album with the Mescaleros, Global A Go-Go. (If I'm going to write about London in the context of the Caribbean and trans-Atlantic scholarship on the eighteenth century, I figured what better way to start than with a reference to Joe Strummer and The Clash, the punk band that most conscientiously mixed Caribbean, British, and American musical styles and politics, and that is also a favorite band of my wife Maya, who unfortunately could not be with me on this trip. I wonder, has the book about the Circum-Atlantic Clash not yet been written? I promise to come back to the significance of The Clash for the SEA and ECS conferences later in this blog post.)

And also, of course, it was my first time travelling up and down and across the River Thames; for me, perhaps, like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, I felt a bit that "going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world." There, in all it's material there-ness and sediment of history, was the visible epitome of so much of my own scholarship and teaching on the eighteenth century and the institutions of the capitalist world system that emerged from it. The day after the conferences, several of us serendipitously found each other at the Museum of London Docklands, first opened in 2003 on the site where once the West India Company unloaded its sugar. The museum wonderfully tells the history of the Thames River as an economic foundation for London as a global city, including the important role that sugar and the transatlantic slave trade played in its development -- all echoing the plenary presentation by Nuala Zahedieh that concluded the SEA conference. Today, the Docklands is the site of a variation on an old theme, a newer post-industrial sort of commerce, developed under Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister, the Docklands being the only part of London to have a cluster of skyscrapers including Barclay's Capital, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and HSBC (one of the world's largest banks, formerly known as the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), etc. The rest of the city remains, of course, committed to a more classic architectural aesthetic and low-rise building codes. From sugar and slaves to hedge funds and cyber speculation, the docks built by the West India Company couldn't be a more fitting location for London's shining new financial district. Directly across the river from this towering skyline is a more pastoral scene of expansive green lawns and the grecian columns of neoclassical architecture, Greenwich, the home of the Royal Naval College, the Maritime Museum, and -- most famously -- the very geographic center of modern chronographic world time and the imaginary point of connection between the western and eastern hemispheres, the Royal Observatory.

The SEA conference on "London and the Americas, 1492-1812" was put together by Kristina Bross and Laura Stevens, hosted by Kingston University, and ably organized by the seemingly tireless Brycchan Carey, Justine Honeywill, and Lucy Williams. For those unfamiliar with the SEA, you might well imagine that the usual locations for conferences on the study of "early America" are in the famous colonial cities of Boston, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, etc., but since the late 1990s, paradigm shifts towards Atlantic, hemispheric, and global approaches to such literary history have motivated a change in venue and have opened up new possibilities for collaboration and conversation. One of the most obvious benefits is that slight change in where the presenters come from, as the conference in London brings more scholars from Great Britain and other European countries as well as scholarship about Latin America and Africa. Also, as Matthew Shore of the British Library pointed out as he reflected on the nature of that library's archive, it also brings a change of perspective. Traditionally, for scholars of the early colonial period who are based in the United States, the cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston loom large, but for scholars based in England, it's the East and West Indies. As you can see from the conference program of all of the many papers that address the question of London's relation to the Americas, the approaches one might take seem almost infinite. I learned so much, and am grateful to all of the participants as well as to the organizers, and I fear that in this blog I couldn't do justice to the variety of great work, so I will shamelessly just mention my own paper as an example: "The Circum-Atlantic Surrogation of Ethiopia in the London Public Sphere" traced a textual history from Ethiopia to Portugal to Germany to England and finally to Massachusetts and Jamaica, but focused on the range of different discourses (religious, scientific, and belletristic) about Ethiopia circulating in London from the 1690s to the 1790s in order to open up a place in British-American literary history for the often ignored Oromo ethnic group.

Because of our location in the charming London borough Kingston-upon-Thames, just across and down the river from the splendiferous Hampton Court Palace, once the home of King Henry VIII, and the very building where so many of England's decisions about its colonies were discussed and made, many of us took a guided tour and let our imaginations of court intrigue (as well as gigantic hunks of roasted meat and tankards of ale) run wild as the charming and expert guide engaged our collective knowledge of royal history. Curiously, however, none of the conference papers focused on the personalities of kings and queens and their retinue. Rather, the focus was elsewhere: Native Americans travelling to London, the impact of the Haitian Revolution, collectors of natural history, abolitionists, novelists, book-sellers, pirates, rakes, dandies, and a multitude of men and women writing and living and strutting their stuff from the margins to the center.

Recollecting an essay by David Armitage where he quipped that "we are all Atlanticists now" (observing that the field of early American history had shifted so much that dealing with the movement of people, commodities, ideas, books, and even governments across the Atlantic in some way or another was now unavoidable), I might offer a sly rejoinder, "we are all Caribbean(ist)s now." Obviously I don't mean to suggest that Kingston, Jamaica ought to replace that other Kingston (the one upon the Thames where we had our conference) or that it ought to replace the more traditional centers of early American study such as Boston, but rather to suggest a creolization of our academic work as well as the unavoidable importance of the Caribbean now for my own field of early American literature. As I have theorized elsewhere in this blog about the Atlantic paradigm for teaching, the various synecdoches and metaphors we select for our approach to archival material (e.g., metaphors such as nation, revolution, founding, ocean, ship, network, etc.) present us not only with different sets of questions and disciplinary orientations but also with different feelings and politics. What might the Caribbean as more than just a place -- also a metaphor, a disciplinary orientation, a politics -- do to us? (Can I mention The Clash again? Their appropriation of Jamaica's ska and rude boy culture and their Rock against Racism concert? Or, can I make an inside joke for everyone who attended the SEA panel "Transatlantic Aesthetic Genealogies" and reference that important fanzine for new wave and punk rock, The Trouser Press and its special issue on The Clash?)

Following the SEA conference on London was an affiliated ECS symposium on the Caribbean organized by Tom Krise and Ritch Frohock. Perhaps the fact that it is only the third of such symposia suggests something about the narrative turn our field has taken (not to mention the narrative turn my own blog post has taken.) One question guiding much of the discussion was how we might give definition to an "early Caribbean literature" as panelists examined poetry, novels, slave narratives, and pirate narratives produced both inside and outside the Caribbean. As a few participants noted, usually the people living in the Caribbean today locate the origins of their national literatures with the independence movements and anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 60s, and so locating the tradition within the colonialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries might seem problematic. How is and is not Caribbean literature a part of and/or apart from the literary history of European empire? Unfortunately not central to this conversation but importantly raised on the margins of it were questions about the location of the archive and the question of our relationship to the communities of Caribbean people that our scholarly work might actually impact. As Desha Osborne reminded us all at the symposium, local communities and their archives are often understandably resistant to scholarship that is located within the elite institutions of Harvard and Oxford at the centers of imperial power.

The location of the archive and its relation to the communities it aims to serve is, I think, the most valuable question I took away from my experiences in London. As Ryan Hanley  pointed out during a conversation on the SEA panel about the practical advice for using the archives in Great Britain, much of the colonial archive is located in London rather than in the locations that the archive represents (such as Jamaica, Ghana, and India), and perhaps, ethically speaking, it ought to be given back. This theoretical point was driven home for me when I went to the incredible British Library to do some research after the conference and immediately encountered old friends and colleagues from the United States whom I hadn't seen in years; all of them were doing research there. The British Library is obviously more than just a global archive; it is also a transnational gathering place. Ryan's point was also driven home for me when I joined my co-panelists from the conference Greg, Kristen, and Tabby to visit the Soane Museum. Walking through the Soane museum is like discovering that a wealthy old relative that you never knew about has left you an inheritance, and when you go to visit the house to explore the beautiful library of a very learned and cultured man, you cautiously descend into the basement, slowly open the door, and suddenly find piles and piles of ancient artifacts, statues, paintings, and even a sarcophagus that you presume might all be stolen from Greece, Rome, Egypt, and who-knows-where. If the museum were a movie, it would be a mash-up of My Fair Lady and National Treasure. After the Soane Museum, we walked across the public square to the Hunterian Museum inside the Royal College of Surgeons where one finds hundreds of jars of still-born human fetuses, abnormal human bodies, penises, exotic animals from around the world, etc., all collected in the late eighteenth century. Although the Soane Museum's collection is art and ancient culture and the Hunterian's is science, the strikingly similar logic (or obsessive illogic) to both collections is obvious to anyone who visits both at the same time, as if the British were deliberately conspiring to prove Michel Foucault's thesis about the eighteenth-century's ordering of things. However, the wonder and laughter provoked by these exhibits, much like the hilarious Borges story about the "Analytical Language of John Wilkins" and the Chinese encyclopedia that Foucault cites, actually made me speculate how someone 200 hundred years from now might view the long list of presentations on the programs for the SEA conference and ECS symposium (our own disordered ordering of things.)

So, returning to this question about Caribbean literature, the location of the archive, and the local communities we ought to aim to serve, I would venture to say that the "definition of Caribbean literature" that was repeatedly raised is the wrong question. Rather, as the Martinican philosopher and poet Edouard Glissant argued, we ought to ask ourselves instead about the poetics of relation. Political relations, dynamic creolization. A few days after the conferences, I attended the opening festivities for the new Black Cultural Archives located in the heart of Caribbean London, the culturally vibrant neighborhood of Brixton (and you can see pictures of the event [here].) We've come a long way from the Brixton Riots in 1981, 1985, and 1995 and the prophetic Clash song "The Guns of Brixton" of 1979. As I quipped in a conversation with some friends, if Shakespeare's Globe (the theater reconstructed by an American actor and now a popular tourist destination) is the center of where English culture was, then the Brixton market and the nearby clubs is the center of where English culture is. Featuring dub poetry by Linton Kwesi-Johnson, performance art by Jonzi D, and speeches by prominent intellectuals, the speakers there voiced the same point about the location of culture that was raised by Ryan at the SEA and Desha at the ECS -- the importance of locating the black archive within the black community. It's partly a question of the politics of identity and the poetics of relation, but also a question of access, and so I really appreciated how, in their presentation to the ECS, Nicole Aljoe and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon emphasized the accessibility of their new Early Caribbean Digital Archive to the communities that the archive represents.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Trading Sweetness: The Story of Kara Walker and the Domino Sugar Factory

This past weekend, I visited Kara Walker's art instillation at the old Domino Sugar factory in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, along with my wife Maya, my friend Emma, and hundreds (if not thousands) of other people who all waited in line to get in. Once upon a time the largest sugar refinery in United States, supplying the sugar for half the population of the country, it was shut down in 2004, just a few years after one of the longest labor strikes in New York City history, causing more than 200 workers to loose their jobs. In a somewhat controversial decision by the city government (which you can read about [here]), the building will soon be converted to condos and apartments, but the developers will attempt to preserve some of its historical legacy and include some much-needed low-income housing. To honor the historical significance of the site, the famous artist Kara Walker was asked to create an instillation which you can visit free of charge until it closes on July 6th when the art will be either destroyed or moved to the Brooklyn Museum and the demolition and reconstruction of the premises will begin. Walker's sculptures are partly made out of sugar and comment on the history of the transatlantic sugar trade, including the legacies of slavery and racism, the excesses of consumer capitalism, and the sediment of history within a context of urban decay and renewal. In a conversation about the exhibit with The New Yorker magazine [see here], Walker discusses her own inspiration and alludes to a book with which most readers of my blog "Atlantic Literature" will be very familiar: the classic work by the anthropologist Sidney Mintz on the history of sugar consumption and slavery, Sweetness and Power.

Because both the exhibit and the factory have been photographed and written about extensively elsewhere, I will try not to repeat what has already been said, but instead offer a slightly different perspective with some of my own photographs and thoughts. My own interest is in the literariness of the exhibit, the way it tells a story, as well as the way two of my favorite contemporary authors, novelist Edwidge Danticat and poet Tracy K. Smith, contributed virtually to the story of that event.

But before I give my own view of the event, here are some links to other websites worth checking. The website for the exhibit [here] includes links to the literature by Danticat, Smith, and others [here]. There is also a decent review with a nice photo gallery in the Journal Sentinel. Beyond the exhibit, to learn about the history of the factory, check out the official report by New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which includes some good photos. For more artistic photography of the factory by the artist David Allee, see this on-line showcase in The New Yorker magazine.

By the time we came to see the event (and it is truly an event), it had already become something of a "must see" just so that you could say that you saw it and that you participated in the memorial before the place was turned into riverside condos for lawyers, bankers, and other young, and perhaps (we might imagine to ourselves) morally despicable, upwardly mobile professional types, because this is not merely an art instillation, after all; it's also an event -- an event that is itself historical at the same time that it is also a commentary on repressed history, so that it is like history's double, an uncanny doubling. And of course, given my own interest in the literariness of sugar (as my very first published academic article is about a 1764 poem entitled The Sugar Cane), I was doubly motivated to go.

We arrived at 4 pm on a nice summer day and for about half an hour stood in a line that extended two blocks while volunteers in white T-shirts (all pretty young women; I don't know why there were no men) had us sign a legal waiver since the site was a live construction zone. When we finally walked into the cavernous factory room, the smell was a vague residue of burnt sugar and mildew. I thought it smelled kind of nice, but a little girl was holding her nose. We then encountered little life-size statues of slave boys of various colors, from dark molasses to deep red and yellow, scattered about the factory floor. As consumers of this sugar-coated art, we merely walked around. Noticeably, the floor was sticky around the statues. At the far end of the space is an entirely different sort of statue, a gigantic sphinx, coated in refined white sugar, with exaggerated, sexualized features that bizarrely mix the symbols of the Egyptian mythos with the equally powerful mythos of the American Aunt Jemima mammy. After admiring the imposing front of the sphinx, we walked around the enormous backside and found ourselves, as connoisseurs of art, reluctantly admiring the sphinx's vulva. History doubled over.

I can't say I know what other people felt or experienced. It seems in many ways the show invites you to come up with your own narrative, but what is inescapable is the connection of sugar production to the labor of black bodies and a history of economic and political oppression. What is less clear is where we are in history, since Walker's postmodernist style that alludes both to ancient Egypt and to the nineteenth-century high society of New York that would feature such sugar-coated statues at dinner parties -- as well as to the context of a rusted factory -- seems to flatten history out at that same time that it references its depth. Which moment in historical time are we inhabiting as we walk through such Las Vegas-like statuary and this soon-to-be forgotten factory... or rather... this never-to-be forgotten factory, if the goals of artwork's commissioners are to be realized.

Such temporal uncertainty, I think, is important since the factory was built at the end of the nineteenth century, at a moment that most Americans believe is after the end of slavery; however, contrary to the ideology of progress and the heroism of President Lincoln so often told in American cinema and elementary school classrooms, in truth the already globalized nineteenth-century American economy still relied on slave labor throughout the world to feed its appetite, often a labor force managed from afar by businessmen in New York and New England. The indeterminacy of time and place in the exhibit seems to want us to ask when? where? what are the connections? And so, an important and much-needed supplement to Walker's narrative is Edwidge Danticat's essay "The Price of Sugar" that points out how the actual conditions of sugar production have not changed that much, that this apparent artistic commentary on history's ghosts is also our present. In her essay, a complex multinational configuration of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republican doing hard labor for U.S. corporations.

In contrast to the uncanny sense of time in Walker's art that is somehow out of time and place yet also fully present within the depths of history, Tracy K. Smith's contribution to the virtual instillation, her poem entitled "Photo of Sugar Cane Plantation Workers, Jamaica, 1891," is oddly specific about time and place. She begins by putting herself into the photo -- "I would be standing there too," the poem begins -- a self literally and figuratively "conjured" up by the gaze of the photographer as if she is asking us, the reader, to ask ourselves who we are in relation to this photography, this small trace of history. Her poem reminds me a bit of the world music hit "Sugar Cane" by Les Nubians.

Traces of history. A present suspended in time. An uncanny dialectic.

What about other traces? Others perhaps not so present, or perhaps not so absent after all? Obviously, the over 200 workers of the multiethnic labor union of Polish, Italian, Jamaican, Latino, African-American, etc., people, whose impressive 20-month strike failed in 2000-2001 and who are being gentrified out of their Brooklyn neighborhoods that have become such hip and expensive real estate. Perhaps less obvious, the many (unpaid?) volunteers (also multiethnic) who labored to create this artwork about the history of (unpaid!) labor. Perhaps even less obvious, another sort of labor, the sailors (also multiethnic) on the ships that transport the sugar from Cuba, Mississippi, Brazil, and elsewhere. And perhaps least obvious, the insurance on the boats that sank and on the slaves that died (as dramatized recently by the new movie Belle) as well as on the factories that burned down -- the value of a dollar, a piece of rag paper, whose worth is a future's market of land speculation, risk management, and our best guess as to the productivity of human beings and nature.

But also -- as Walker's art provokes to think about -- poetry, sex, witchcraft, and most importantly community. A conjuring and a building.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Teaching Eighteenth-Century "Atlantic" Literature, Part Two

In my previous blog post, I focused on the institutional context within which we imagine, experiment, and teach the literature and culture of the transatlantic eighteenth century. In this post, I will meditate on some of the metaphors that scholars often use to help them conceptualize Atlantic and/or oceanic paradigms. As I was researching my conference presentations, it seemed to me that, among my fellow-travelers in the Atlantic World, there was a shift happening, a movement toward a more expansive "oceanic" world that expanded geographic, temporal, and textual horizons of academic inquiry, and this current of scholarly inquiry was prompting some methodological questions as well as quite a few metaphorical conceptualizations in special issues of journals such as the PMLA, WMQ and EAL as well as the journal most relevant to this blog, Atlantic Studies. Following the example of Nobel-prize-winning author Derek Walcott's often-cited (but perhaps less-often read) poem, "The Sea is History," scholars have followed with their own speculative and prospective metaphors for the relationship of the sea to literary history: the sea is... a passage, a bridge, a barrier, a penitentiary, a promise, fluidity, cultural flows, a plane of immanence, a socio-ecosystem, the conduit for socio-economic networks, etc.  In response to these metaphors, one of the leading advocates for the new oceanic studies, Hester Blum, began her brilliant and now often-cited argument with the sentence, "The sea is not a metaphor."

Not just a metaphor, true, but what? A mystery?

Before I reflect a bit on these metaphors and materialities, a brief anecdote. A few months ago, when I was composing my presentation on teaching oceanic literature for the ASECS conference, media attention was all on Malaysian Airlines flight 370 that had seemingly been swallowed up by the ocean, lost entirely, somewhat like a real-world version of the popular TV drama Lost. News outlets such as CBS and CNN even have entire web pages devoted to this single story, and now, months later, the airplane has still not yet been found. If ever there was an argument for thinking about the sea not as a metaphor but as something purely material, unrepresentable, asignifying, terrifying, and so vast. But listening to all this coverage, I immediately thought of the hundreds of stories they were not telling about refugees lost on small boats in the middle of the ocean -- the stories that network television does not want to tell. In contrast to the network news, artists do want to tell them. I also thought of the short story "Children of the Sea" by Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, the opening story in her first collection of short stories, Krik? Krak! One of the most touching and memorable short stories I have ever read, in it a group of refugees from Haiti, crowded onto a little boat, floating in the middle of an ocean, in the middle of nothingness, uncertain of their destination, even less certain of where they have come from; they not only remember, forget, love, hope, and despair but also urinate, thirst, and die. And in death, possibly remembered, possibly forgotten. Who is remembered and the subject of narrative? For network television, the lost plane. Thinking about what Judith Butler calls "precarious life" and the injustice of how it is valued, I might suggest a Marxist analysis, like Ian Baucom's Specters of the Atlantic, to analyze how the difference between the Malaysian airline deaths and the refugee deaths is primarily one of insurance and futurity. The Malaysian airline a global capital investment integrating the economies of national publics, both lives and property insured and risk carefully managed. As the scholar Michelle Burnham has argued, transoceanic literature narrativizes risk and time as part of an economy of distance and scale. I agree. But it doesn't only do that.

Not just a mystery, but also a melancholy.

In the scholarly conversation about the so-called eighteenth-century "Atlantic World" there is a green Atlantic, a black Atlantic, a red Atlantic, and even a blue Atlantic -- each color coding its own scholarly agenda that focuses on the ecology, race, class struggle, and finally the physicality or immanence of the ocean itself. There is also a "dry Atlantic" (thoroughly discussed by Jordana Rosenberg's contribution to Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century) that focus on the transformative effects of the Atlantic on landed labor and geopolitics. One might dub this the brown Atlantic (except that Rosenberg's term "terrestrial transatlantic" is clearly better.) Sadly, so far, there is no pink or purple Atlantic. Maybe soon, in theaters near you. In many of the colorful descriptions of these variously conceptualized Atlantic cultures, the ocean is a metaphor for cultural flows or in other cases a synecdoche for commerce and the empire of the seas that integrated the networks of trade. Against this formulation is the argument that the ocean is not a metaphor but a unique site of labor, sociality, and human relations; therefore, we ought to focus on the literary practices that were performed by, or were relevant to, this community of laborers on the sea. Still others argue that the ocean is not even a site of human relations and work, but, thinking posthumanistically, it is a material thing or ecosystem, that is to say, something material, not something representative, or, in other words, something asignifying. Reflecting on these Atlantics and oceanic studies in light of Malaysian airlines 370, the thousands of forgotten refugees, and Edwidge Danticat's story, I recall there is also a dead Atlantic -- the dead Atlantic being the subject of the most seminal work of all about "circum-Atlantic" literature and its performances of memory and death by Joseph Roach, is it not?

Against all of this, we might imagine critics of the "oceanic turn" raising questions. If the ocean is a synecdoche -- or euphemism -- for commercial empire, aren't overland and river networks of commerce just as relevant? Do we emphasize the macro-level movements or micro-level locations and flows? If the ocean is a site of unique labor, giving rise to the modern labor strike (the metaphor coming from sailors "striking" the sails in protest against the brutal labor conditions imposed upon them by the ship's captain), are those labor conditions really different from those on plantations, in mills, mines, etc., that are part of the same economic system? Are ship labor and land labor commensurable or incommensurable? If the ocean's materiality is the point, is it not a materiality understood only in relation to human experience, social relations, and, of course, literary representation?

For me, here, the point is the relation -- not the thing itself -- and how beginning a line of inquiry with the ocean makes visible alternative forms of relating.

Obviously all of these theoretical arguments about the scholarly object of inquiry, but what about the classroom? In the classroom, the key question is not just the relation among the texts and things, but also the relation of our students to them -- or non-relation. After all, isn't that what all teachers fear, that our students won't relate at all to what we're teaching? How to produce an alternative form of relating such oceanic literary history to our students. The traditional model of early American literary history, of course, always implicitly, if not explicitly, framed the relation of literary history to student in terms of a patriotic identity and its foundational moments of discovery, revolution, and progress. Later, the multicultural model broadened that relation to be more inclusive of difference identities. In today's more globalized world, as a few of the contributors to Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century remarked, when many students are immigrants and others may be finding jobs overseas, an emphasis on a more transnational cultural geography and migration might seem to make sense. Here again, relating the subject to the student, and the question of how to do that. The poverty of an emphasis on identity is that it reduces the relation to a relation of identity rather than a relation of doing or a relation of dreaming. In contrast to identity politics might be a relation to fantasy (e.g., one of the essays in Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century on piracy.) Whether the students are the children of poor immigrants or the children of the wealthy elite, the student's fantasy life may not be included in that relation of identity. Not just the so-called American dream of upward mobility, but also the American gangster, the eighteenth-century pirate, the illicit transatlantic romance across social lines of class or race, or whatever line of flight that supplements our being, etc.

Not just a melancholy but also a fantasy?

In the background of all this relating of a body of literature to the student body (or to the new national/global imaginary) is a pedagogy informed by Paolo Friere's famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed. According to this pedagogy, we ought to begin with the students and what they seek to become rather than with a bank of knowledge. Friere's project was originally a working class pedagogy for adult students who were actually themselves workers -- a dialogic method that combines practical skills and critical consciousness to work for liberation from oppression. But in the college classroom, in which our students are part of the bourgeois class (the oppressor) or petite-bourgeois class, not the proletariat (the oppressed), such a pedagogical approach might seem to be pure nonsense, unless the point is to transform over-privileged spoiled students into conscientious, self-critical allies of the oppressed. Or, another way of thinking about it, in these days of rising student debt and anxiety about the job market (both now highly politicized subjects -- for instance, a bill addressing student debt recently put to the U.S. Senate), perhaps a critical understanding of the origins of that transoceanic capitalist system to which they are subject through debt and the job market.

Not just fantasy, but also anger and militancy?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Teaching Eighteenth-Century "Atlantic" Literature, Part One

Almost exactly a year ago, on a panel organized by the Society of Early Americanists (SEA) on the subject of pedagogy at the American Literature Association (ALA)'s annual conference, I gave a presentation about an undergraduate class that I had developed over three years by trial and error called "Pirates, Puritans, and the Revolutionary Atlantic World." An early version of the syllabus for that course was already linked to the SEA webpage for teaching resources. The question that I raised at that conference is the very same question that I am always thinking about on this blog Atlantic Literature -- how do we conceptualize Atlantic literature? But also, how do we communicate this conceptualization to our students in the context of a broader undergraduate curriculum? My paper told the story of how I began to use literature about pirates as a hook (so to speak) for getting students excited about some difficult and sometimes dry literature about heavy topics such as economics, slavery, science, and transatlantic social networks; what I learned, however, is that pirate literature was not just a hook, but that it would actually change the way my students and I read and interpreted many of the more canonical texts in very productive ways. After the positive feedback and encouragement I got at that conference, I decided to develop the paper further into something worth publishing and also apply for the "Innovative Course Design Award" given by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS). As fortune would have it, I won the award, and along with the two other winners, I gave a presentation at the next ASECS conference, which was held in Williamsburg in March, just a few months ago. At the same time, I was also on another panel at the ASECS conference about the new "oceanic" paradigm for literary study that both critiques and develops that Atlantic paradigm.

Here I want to step back and reflect on all of this (as I am in the midst of revising my longer essay about it) in two different posts on my blog -- part one that you are reading now is about the institutional context for thinking about teaching oceanic literature, and part two will be about the concepts and metaphors we use for theorizing it. In addition, both of these blog posts aim to redress an error, for while I was doing the research for my previous essay and doing my own teaching, I was unaware of a book that collected a bunch of essays by different professors on the very same topic, Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century, edited in 2010 by previous winners of the same ASECS award Cristobal Silva and Jennifer Frangos. I will try to offer an elaboration and critical reflection on this useful book as well as some self-reflection.

The main idea for this post is rather basic but still merits discussion, I believe, and that idea is that innovative, dedicated teaching is greatly affected by its institutional context. It is obvious to say that institutional support and academic freedom matter. What is less obvious is the variety of ways and forms that mattering can take as well as the conflicting obligations and dilemmas a teacher will face when they are deciding what to teach and when they are testing the waters to see what is possible. My own experience was very similar both to that of my fellow award winners and to that of the editors and many of the contributors to Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century. I was lucky to work at colleges committed to progressive education. My first experience was at a Catholic liberal arts college in central Minnesota that emphasized social justice and the central role of literature for an ethical life and where I was given a lot of freedom and encouragement to experiment with courses that ask students to think about the relationship between literature and economics and their own vocation as my course did. Later I took a job at a secular liberal arts college in New York City that emphasized interdisciplinary learning, team-taught classes, and a connection between academic learning and its worldly application and therefore would value a class that could potentially make all of those sorts of connections.

Likewise, one of the very first points that the editors to Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century make is the need for mechanisms for alternative teaching models such as team teaching that could manage the logistics of scheduling and classroom space (in their case, a professor of American literature and a professor of British literature) as well as the importance of a supportive department. Almost all of the contributors to their book foregrounded the institutional context for their class, whether they taught at a 2-year college or at an urban public university that catered to a significant number of first-generation immigrant students.

In addition to the specific situation where one teaches, whenever I reflect on my own personal history that led me to teach the way that I do, I find myself thinking about the debt that I owe my mentors: when I was an undergraduate student, about two decades ago, professor Jim Egan taught me how to think analytically about the function of anthologies when the groundbreaking new Heath Anthology of American Literature was first published and to consider the questions foregrounded by Carla Mulford, the editor of the early American section of that anthology and one of the co-founders of the SEA that was established just a few years before I took Jim's class. The field of early American literature was rapidly transforming itself to be more inclusive of women, Native Americans, and African Americans and more conscious of issues of social position, class, and the exclusive nature of the publishing industry. Almost a decade later, when I became one of Mulford's graduate students, she made it a priority for us to think analytically about the institutional structures where we worked. Also important for my thinking about the institution was the work my professors Ralph Bauer and Djelal Kadir did to bring scholars from different fields (e.g., Latin American and Caribbean literature) and different languages into conversation with each other as they organized innovative new conferences and published books that were transformative for our academic discipline and opened its horizon of possibility. When I prepared for my talk at ASECS and wondered what to say, I discovered how much my own "innovation" and "creativity" was not merely my own, but theirs also and an entire community of scholars dedicated not only to scholarship but also to teaching.

This community matters. In a review of an ALA conference and the institutional history of the SEA that I published in the journal Early American Literature, I note that when the SEA was first created and participated at the ALA conference, it organized one panel every year dedicated to teaching. For young faculty concerned about tenure and promotion, the existence of such panels and the ASECS "Innovative Course Design Award" provides public recognition for young teachers who have taken risks in their teaching and have dedicated time to that innovation. Considering that universities have in the past given priority to publishing in scholarly journals as the benchmark for evaluating performance, such equivalent academic recognition for teaching makes a difference by empowering young scholars to take risks in the classroom.

The other point made by many of the contributors to Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century is that when we teach, we are always teaching in relation to courses and curricula taught by our colleagues. Until reading that book, I had not fully given this enough thought, and I think it's a crucial point about this complex, multifaceted relation. While my like-minded cohort at the SEA, ASECS, and ALA conferences might all be fans of these transatlantic and postcolonial approaches that aim to decolonize the minds of our students, some of our colleagues may not be. Moreover, our students are often utterly unaware of the disciplinary histories of "national literary canons" that these new approaches aim to deconstruct. Many of our students may not have taken enough classes in "English" or "American" literature to have a solid grasp of what such a national paradigm for literary study actually means. For me, this raises a serious question that may provoke something of an existential crisis for professed Atlanticists. If the so-called transatlantic and transnational approaches to literary study acquire their self-identity in relation to the supposedly more "traditional" frameworks, then that identification places our course in a secondary, dependent relationship. And in fact, many times I've heard from colleagues, students, friends, and even family that we need to learn the traditional canon first, even though we all recognize that this canon is largely a late nineteenth-century invention (or a fiction), before we can do the more advanced work of deconstructing this fiction.

I think many people would agree with this notion that the traditional sort of class ought to be taught prior to the course that deconstructs it (and is therefore, structurally, given priority), but actually, I don't. I don't think students necessarily ought to learn a wrong thing before they learn to demystify or deconstruct it to make it right. One doesn't teach students that 2+2=5 just so that we can later explain that it's actually 4, and likewise I am not especially motivated to teach an inherently racist, sexist, classist, and nationalist canon that I think was wrong to create in the first place just so that I can later show that it was wrong.  I agree with Cornel West's essay "Minority Discourse and the Pitfalls of Canon Formation" that argues such a scenario reduces minority literature to a secondary, dependent position that merely mimics what it ought to critique rather than realizing its transformative and creative potential. So, I want to focus on a course that begins and ends with questions that are larger than the discipline and that connects with the students where they are -- their imaginary spaces (which includes the movies they watch, the news they hear about, and the multiple and often incoherent historical meta-narratives that inform this imaginary space) as well as their very real anxieties about the future.

The timing of my class perhaps mattered more than the academic debates about canons and academic paradigms because I was teaching it between 2009 and 2012 when the country was in the midst of a financial crisis deeply felt by students worried about their student loans and their career prospects. I hoped my class about the relation of eighteenth century literature to economic issues could be a critical tool that they could use to make sense of their own world.

Nevertheless, in spite of my intention to aim the class at what I believed mattered for our students as they make their way in the world, the issue of our class's situatedness within a larger curriculum defined by a sediment of disciplinary history remains in effect. Obviously our students experience our class in relation to their other classes and the requirements of that curriculum. For those of us attempting to break the mold, it is certainly the case that a departmental curriculum that divides its requirements into "British" and "American" puts us in the very peculiar and uncomfortable position of having to articulate our class in critical relation to the classes of our colleagues (especially since the categories "British" and "American" are not only historically anachronistic to our pre-1800 period but also paradoxically antithetical to the supposedly universal -- or at least cross-cultural -- themes that great literature so movingly portrays.) Moreover, this peculiar position is not only in relation to other English classes, but also to the general liberal arts curriculum. For example, it is increasingly common for colleges to require their students to take two classes on diversity, one focusing on diversity within the nation (e.g., the civil rights movement in the United States) and one focusing on international perspectives. Of course, a transatlantic course such as mine is doing both at the same time, so I have to choose one. When we "pitch" our course to both our students and our colleagues, we are inevitably testing the waters (so to speak) of a very unique set of curricular and institutional configurations that conflict with each other even as they support our endeavors.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Land, Language, and the Indigenous Center of a Decentered Early American Studies; Or, How To Mean Things By Doing Stuff

Yesterday afternoon, I went to this wonderful symposium at Columbia University entitled "Rethinking Land and Languages: Dialogues in Early American and Indigenous Studies" that featured scholars from diverse disciplinary perspectives. One of the agendas of the conference was to place indigenous peoples at the center of the academic field of early American studies, thus displacing the Pilgrims from that privileged position. Towards that goal, the organizers of the symposium raised questions about the relationship of cultural practices to land and language that encouraged the panelists to think beyond problematic binaries such as colonizer/colonized and orality/literacy. Several of the panelists urged us to think of American Indians internationally, noticing their historical presence in Europe as well as the surprising contiguities and connections among Indigenous and European intellectuals both then and now. Other panelists urged us to think of the many material practices other than print culture, such as sign language, wampum, and art that both Europeans and Native Americans used to communicate with each other. We were asked to consider how "language ideologies" functioned in sometimes politically binding, other times culturally exclusive, and yet almost always in socially indeterminate ways.

Before I begin explaining my own perspective, I want to first admit that it would be impossible for me to do justice here in this little blog to the many subtle, nuanced presentations by each scholar, and I was inspired to go read their recently published work. For the record, the panelists included (in alphabetical order) Celine Carayon (Salibury University), Christian Ayne Crouch (Bard College), John Gambler (Columbia Univrsity), Elizabeth Hutchinson (Columbia University), Karl Jacoby (Columbia University), J. Kehaulani Kauanui (Wesleyan University), Karen Kupperman (New York University), James Merrell (Vassar College), Andrew Newman (Stony Brook University), Birgit Brander Rasmussen (Yale University), Coll Thrush (University of British Columbia), and Caroline Wigginton (Rutgers University.) And much respect and gratitude was given by everyone to the organizers Zara Anishanslin (College of Staten Island/CUNY), Julie Chun Kim (Fordham University), and Cristobal Silva (Columbia University) as well as the graduate assistants from Columbia University, Vesna Kuiken and Melissa Morris.

Given all this brilliance, I will begin humbly by focusing on one specific question that seemed to startle both the panelists and the audience. During a conversation about language and the cultural contexts for various communicative practices and all the different ways we might value things other than print culture, someone asked provocatively, "well, what doesn't count as language?" The implication was that the panelists had suggested such wide-ranging congruity across different cultural practices that one might argue they had stretched the category of "language" a little thin. Coincidentally, earlier this week, in the entirely different context of my undergraduate class on literary theory, I had just taught a couple chapters from How To Do Things with Words by J. L. Austin and the response to Austin by Jacques Derrida in an oral presentation entitled "Signature, Event, Context" that was later published in the journal Glyph and republished in two other places, Limited Inc and Margins of Philosophy. Austin essentially focuses attention on what he calls "performatives" -- linguistic utterances that do not mean things that can be judged true or false but rather do things that might be contractually or socially binding. The example that Austin uses is when two people say "I do" and are then legally married.

A very different sort of example more relevant to the symposium might be when the Dutch supposedly "purchased" the island then known as "Manna-hata" -- and now called Manhattan -- from the Lenni Lenape Indians. Here, perhaps a cultural misunderstanding, the Dutch thinking that the exchange of goods signifies a purchase and transfer of dominion over land, and the Lenni Lenape thinking that the exchange signifies an agreement to share in the use of the land for mutual benefit. In lieu of a published, notarized treaty, or even a common vocabulary, the Dutch and the Lenni Lenape communicated (or miscommunicated, since the conditions that Austin sets out for a successful doing-of-things-with-words would not have been satisfied in this transaction). One noticeable point made by the symposium is that neither "words" nor "writing" (as we usually think of these things) would have been the primary means of communication, and this raises the important and difficult theoretical question of how we might consider language and writing traditionally conceived in light of these other signifying practices, objects, behaviors, and transactions. And this is what prompted the question that I mentioned above, "well what doesn't count as language?"

In response to that question, giggling childishly and quietly to myself as I am so often wont to do, I could not help imagining an essay that reverses the title of Austin's book like this: "How to Mean Things by Doing Stuff." But more seriously, I think the debate during the symposium actually illustrates many of the issues raised by Derrida in his deconstruction of How to Do Things with Words, and so my hope in this blog is that I can use the event of this symposium as a useful example to help explain Derrida's "Signature, Event, Context" to my students (since my students told me they found Derrida pretty dang impossible to understand.) At the same time, perhaps I might even say something interesting for my early Americanist colleagues.

Derrida begins by complicating and problematizing the notion of "context" for any communicative event by exploring Austin's main argument about what conditions guarantee the effectiveness of any performative utterance. To illustrate this problem, we might consider the example of the miscommunication between the Dutch and the Lenni Lenape, which would represent a failure for Austin because there were no established conventions, because the Dutch did not act in good faith, because the message could not be clearly received, etc. However, Derrida suggests that conditions are never perfectly guaranteed because any act of writing or perfromative utterance carries within it the expectation that it can be repeated again whether or not the speaker and hearer are still present -- that it is "identifiable as conforming with an iterable model" -- except that paradoxically the foundation for this iterable or repeatable model are speech acts themselves. In other words, the model as such is anticipated by the individual act.

OK, hold up, let me pause for a second. Summarizing one sentence of Derrida is hard enough, but summarizing an entire lecture in one paragraph... geez.

Perhaps I can explain better if I give Derrida's joke version of what language is. Imagine the following scenario where a boss has sent his employees a memo that explains how to interpret the memo he hasn't yet sent. This of course hardly ever happens, but what's humorous about it is that we all know that when the boss sends a memo, he or she assumes the employee is able to understand what it means and doesn't require a pre-memo. Also, most of us have enough experience to know that that is not always the case that the employee knows how to interpret the boss, so maybe such a pre-memo is required, except of course that such a pre-memo about how to interpret something could not possibly make sense without the actual memo that needs to be interpreted. The point here is that what makes language language is that any single utterance anticipates a generalizable interpretative framework. In such a framework, the relations between the writer and reader are maintained by the writer's mark or signature that opens up the conditions for further communication, i.e., another memo explaining the previous one.

The ironic upshot of all this is that Derrida completely reverses Austin's point that poetical and theatrical speech acts are secondary in contrast to the primary "real" speech acts that constitute our social relations. For Derrida (and for myself as well), if any act of language assumes and anticipates a larger code or set of conventions, it is precisely the imitative performance of poetry and theater that gives meaning to language, not the other way around. To illustrate, let me give an example from personal experience when I was teaching English in Japan. My 7th-grade students did not know any English, and I did not know any Japanese, so how could any effective communication happen. Gestures? Pictures on the chalk board? Exchange of commodities? Yes, all of this happened, but also play-acting, a sort of theater through which the very conventions of real speech acts were codified. Hence, it was wonderfully apropos of one panelist to begin her presentation on the challenging work of translating between Indian and European discourse with a brief discussion of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, a recent performance of which had inserted Indian vocabulary into the famous staging of the colonial encounter between Prospero and Caliban. Let us return to that foundational moment of encounter between the Dutch and the Lenni Lenape that has been painted, narrated, and performed ever since, and might we imagine a group of people standing on the shores of Manna-hata in 1626 doing improvisational theater in order to negotiate their interests? Furthermore, play-acting is serious business. In the case of the Dutch conquest of Manna-hata, as well as the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, we can see that the ideologies of language (i.e., the conventions of meaning anticipated and assumed) carry within them the threat of violence.

I've focused on this somewhat mythic story about the encounter between the Lenni Lenape and the Dutch colonists because it was invoked at the outset of the symposium by its organizers and panelists. Why it was invoked is because of the obvious irony of holding a symposium that aims to make Native Americans the center of a conversation when that conversation was happening on land on which they once lived. In fact, as the organizers observed at the outset, the Native American Council of Columbia University is at this very moment petitioning the University to acknowledge that it stands on Lenni Lenape land. You can read and sign the on-line petition, and in doing so you would be doing things with words -- a "performative" whose effects are not guaranteed precisely for the reasons enumerated above. Also invoked was Joanna Barker's Tequila Sovereign blog post on Occupy Wall Street that observed that all of Manhattan is already occupied Indian territory. In other words, as one panelist so adroitly explained, settler colonialism is not simply an event that happened in the past; rather, it is a structure that persists still today (and of course, this is Derrida's point about the eventfulness of any speech act and the signatories that underwrite its maintenance.) Consequently, this performative political gesture of the symposium in solidarity with the absent presence of Native Americans reflects precisely the issue of presence and absence that Derrida argues is immanent to the structure (or context) of all communicative acts.

It also draws attention to the exclusivity of the very conventions that make such a performance repeatable. In this case, the conventions of academic discourse and the question of whether academic discourse is appropriate for the performative political gesture in solidarity with the Native American Council of Columbia University who, so far as I could tell, were also not present at the symposium, just like the Lenni Lenape. Attending to that absent presence, and perhaps deconstructing the difference between academic discourse and public discourse as one member of the audience asked that we do, what might the conversation on Friday have been like if the academic conventions of the symposium had been violated and the Native American Council of Columbia University not only invoked in prefatory remarks but made participants in its planning?