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.

1 comment:

  1. Making the archive accessible to the communities it represents will demand more than just leaving the door open, though. Accessibility for people that have forcibly been kept out of institutions for ages is not just financial, physical or geographical; it's about inviting people in and welcoming them. It's not easy to convince the wary, but I hope they make that effort.
    As to the Circum-Atlantic Clash, Don Letts' autobiography _Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers_ may be a good place to begin? I haven't actually read it, but I wonder.