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?

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