Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Homegoing, Black Goddess... Bigger than Africa, Bigger than the Black Atlantic

One of the lovely things that summer always brings for me is the New York African Film Festival, hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, and Maysles Cinema. This year I saw eleven of the programs of feature films and shorts, some of them premiering for the first time in the U.S., some of them old classics brought back to the silver screen from the archives. Two of the movies I saw this year were about the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and the ongoing cultural work that maintains the ties between black people in the Americas with their African motherland. One of these is Bigger than Africa, a new documentary about the persistence of Yoruba culture across the Americas to our present day, that premiered for the first time in New York at this festival. Its director Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye, originally from Nigeria, was there to answer questions about his movie after the screening. The second was an older classic, Black Goddess (A Deusa Negra), directed in 1978 by Ola Balogun that takes place in both Nigeria and Brazil and provocatively travels not only across the Atlantic but also across time, from the 1970s back to the 18th century. Perhaps coincidentally, during my subway rides to and from the festival this year, I was reading the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, published in 2016, that tells a genealogical saga of the descendants of two half-sisters, one who remained in Ghana and one who was sold into slavery and shipped to North America. The novel progresses through eight generations of the family from the eighteenth century to the present day. Chapter by chapter, the reader moves back and forth across the Atlantic, as the histories of two separate worlds unfold through the lives of a single family genealogy.

Naturally, since I experienced these three interesting works all in the same week, my mind made connections between them, noticing similarities and resonances as well as differences. How do these three works tell their "Atlantic" story -- a story both of space and of time? And perhaps it is obvious here that I'm also alluding to Paul Gilroy's famously provocative book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, first published in 1993, but I'll come back to his book at the end of this blog post.

The director of Bigger than Africa explained to us in the audience during the Q&A that he got the idea for his movie after he moved to America from Nigeria and began noticing Yoruba influences in western culture. His argument is essentially that Yoruba culture is "bigger than Africa" because it exists all across the world. What was incredible and wonderful about this movie was its movement across the Americas. He interviewed experts, artists, and community leaders in South Carolina, New York, Cuba, Trinidad, and Brazil. Members of the Oyutunji African Village in South Carolina explained how black people in the United States reclaimed African culture in the 1950s and 60s out of the dehumanizing oppression and degradation of American slavery and Jim Crow. Interestingly some of the inspiration for reclamation of Yoruba culture in particular came after black activists and writers traveled from the U.S. to other places in the Americas such as Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad where many of the Yoruba traditions had survived and continue to be practiced through events like the annual Olodum festival in Brazil. Trinidad also has a Yoruba Village to preserve this heritage. One of the explanations for how Yoruba culture remained so vibrant in Cuba and Brazil is that it was able to somewhat easily syncretize its traditions with Catholic practices, each Catholic saint matching up to a Yoruba deity -- a sort of cultural camouflage so that African culture wouldn't be totally suppressed by the European colonial governments. What was especially cool about this presentation at the NY African film festival was that some of the spiritual leaders of the Yoruba cultural movement from Harlem and from South Carolina were present in the audience to share in this profound moment. Just to be clear, this is a movement started by African Americans whose ancestors were brought to America on slave ships centuries before, not by recent Yoruba immigrants. The filmmaker, in contrast, is a Yoruba immigrant who reached out to these African-American organizations as he was making his film. So, what is interesting about this film is that it's not the story that many Americans are used to hearing about -- the story of black people in America "going back to Africa" to rediscover their roots; rather it's the opposite, an African coming to America to discover the persistence and transformation of his heritage.

As impressive as this film is, there were two things I wondered about. First, the film was so focused on what was exceptional about the Yoruba culture in America that he never really explained how Yoruba culture compared to other African cultures such as the neighboring Akan, Hausa, Igbo, Wolof, Fulani, Bantu, Fon, etc., as well as the Congo further south. We learn nothing about how these ethnic groups relate to each other in Africa. Did they all share some similar religious practices and ideas that might have contributed to the syncretic, multi-ethnic culture in the Americas where various African, Native American, and European cultures mixed, or were the Yoruba unique? Although the movie was being screened widely throughout the Americas, it was unclear from his answer to one of the questions from the audience how his implied argument about the "exceptionalism" of Yoruba culture in the Americas was being received in his home country of Nigeria where the Yoruba are just one of many ethnic groups. What I hope the film inspires is future movies on the many ways the multiplicity and diversity of African cultures transformed the Americas.

Ironically, what this film could also have included in its archival footage was other movies that have been featured at the same African film festival -- namely the movie Black Goddess, written and directed by another Nigerian, Ola Balogun, in 1978, forty years before Bigger than Africa. Ola Balogun's film, which you can watch on YouTube (unfortunately without subtitles, so it helps to know Portuguese), in some ways is a perfect cinematic example of the previous generation's efforts at a global, Pan-African solidarity. The meaning of the film is conveyed through flash-back techniques juxtaposing historical moments. The opening scene of the movie is a battle between two African states in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, resulting in some captives being sold into slavery, and then the movie immediately flash-forwards to a scene of contemporary, urban Africa in the 1970s. It then proceeds to tell the story of Batatunde in Nigeria who is asked by his dying father to find his relatives in Brazil who had been enslaved centuries before. After arriving in Brazil, he seeks out a Candomble priestess in hopes that she can help him find his family. In Brazil, especially in Bahai, Candomble is the one of the forms of religion also discussed in Bigger than Africa where Catholic, Yoruba, and other ethnic traditions fused to form a new religious tradition. In the movie, Batatunde is happy to learn about how African cultural practices have been adapted to the American context as he learns one of the dances and falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the priestess. She has a vision that they must travel to Bahai, and after they travel there together, he is thrown into a trance and has a dream about a conflict between slaves and masters in the eighteenth century. Some of the same actors and actresses play the parts in both time periods to help establish the continuity across time. This flashback technique was employed fifteen years later to great effect in a more well-known movie Sankofa by the Ethiopian-American director Haile Gerima in 1993. What amazed me, as I reflected on my experience watching the movie, is how little attention Ola Balogun's movie has received in the scholarly literature compared to similar movies. Although I had two years ago researched and published an essay in the book The Cinematic Eighteenth Century on movies about slavery, in which I talk about African movies such as Sankofa and Ceddo as well as Brazilian movies Xica and Quilombo, I had never heard of Black Goddess before. I became simultaneously ashamed of my own ignorance and frustrated with the lack of scholarly attention to this movie. Here is a clip from Sankofa of the historical flashback technique:

These movies were all on my mind as I read Yaa Gyasi's novel Homecoming. Like the movies, the novel is tremendously ambitious in its transatlantic and historical scope, but it is also quite different from the movies. The novel begins with stories about two half-sisters in the eighteenth century, one of whom is somewhat forced by her mother to marry a white slave trader and the other is captured in a battle between the Asante and Fante and sold into slavery. Thus, the novel sets up two parallel family trees with a singular paternal root, one tree in America and one tree in Ghana. Each chapter a different generation, the novel explores some of the salient issues for each historical moment, so it almost feels like, through this family, we the reader are being educated on some of the major issues for black history on both sides of the Atlantic: e.g., the slave trade, the difficulty of keeping families together during slavery, the challenges to solidarity among white and black laborers after the Civil War at the end of the nineteenth century, the migration north to New York, racial passing, jazz, drugs, college, etc. On the Ghana side, there are the conflicts between ethnic groups encouraged by Europe to facilitate the slave trade, the war between the Asante and the British, the introduction of the cacao crop, the training of a comprador class of elite Africans to serve British interests, etc. Each chapter could be a novel in and of itself, and in fact, they sometimes reminded me of other novels I'd read, but that sort of in-depth character development and exploration of a single event is not the goal of her novel. One can hardly criticize her for skimming the surface of three centuries on two continents.

In some ways, as a Washington Post review of the novel observed, Homecoming is kind of like the famous TV miniseries Roots, which was originally broadcast in 1977, one of the most-watched shows of all time worldwide about several generations of a family, starting with the capture of the famed Kunta Kinte in Africa in the eighteenth century and ending with his grandson George moving the family west shortly after the Civil War. One of the main ideas of Roots was the same idea as the two films mentioned above -- the search for a connection with the motherland and a reconstruction of the genealogical and cultural links across time and space. The novel Homecoming in some ways changes the directions of that quest for roots. As the author mentions in her interview about her novel with the Daily Show's Trevor Noah, after she immigrated to America with her parents, she felt confronted by two aspects of her identity, her ethnic identity in Africa and her racial identity in America, as a young woman existing between two ways of looking at the world and searching for connection on both continents. In contrast to Roots, which tells a very linear narrative moving from Africa to America, the novel Homegoing tells a parallel story in two places. But, I argue, this isn't just a matter of space, but also a matter of time. Why I say that is because when Roots tells a story of movement from one place to another, the historical framework is entirely American. Despite its interest in rediscovering their roots in Africa, it is remarkably un-historical when it comes to Africa. Hence, its spacial movement westward is in a way a metaphor (or chronotope) for American temporal movement, the progress of the nation in history. This is perhaps why it was so popular with white audiences, since it was, after all, the story of America. In contrast, Homegoing is not just the story of America and doesn't just follow the American sense of history. Instead, it puts two histories in dialogue with each other, one a history of racial conflict/identity, the other a history of ethnic conflict/identity.

Coincidentally, the very same year that Yaa Gyasi published her novel, the History Channel broadcast a re-make of Roots. Several reviews of the new television version questioned why re-make the show -- in other words, why not just re-broadcast the old show -- unless they were going to do something innovative and new? (They didn't change much, in fact.) In a sense, Yaa Gyasi's novel gives us one sort of innovation that audiences may have been hoping for, as did a wonderful Canadian show broadcast the year before, The Book of Negroes (2015). One of the profound ways Homegoing challenges us in ways that the original Roots and the movie Bigger than Africa don't is by asking Africans to think about their own contribution to the slave trade. Many of the Asante and Fante characters are directly involved in the trade and even profit from it. In contrast to this central plot point in the novel, we never learn from the documentary movie Bigger than Africa what the Yoruba kings and queens were doing in the eighteenth century while the slave trade was happening.

Obviously, in some ways, Homegoing is like the movies Bigger than Africa and Black Goddess, but in some ways it is quite different. All three of them come at the topic of American culture from what we might call an "African" point of view. However, there are some significant differences between these three works, and one of the biggest differences, I think, is their sense of time. Bigger than Africa asserts a clear continuity of Yoruba tradition across the Atlantic and across the Americas. In that movement, time almost seems to be suspended, the gap between the eighteenth century and the twentieth century reduced almost to nothing, as he discovers resemblance everywhere. Although the movie does recognize the considerable labor and political activism of black intellectuals in the twentieth century to shape and create Pan-African continuity, one might argue the movie does not do enough to explore how that labor happened and what it accomplished in its profoundly political transformation of the world in which we now live.

In contrast, Black Goddess uses the cinematic techniques of flashback and montage to deliberately foreground the question of continuity and discontinuity as a philosophical question. The drama of Black Goddess is not the discovery of that continuity, but the search for it. At the end of the movie, the hero Batatunde never finds his lost family, but he does find love. His psychic journey back in time through the mystical, cinematic dream does not recover his lost genealogy and does not compensate for the two-century-long gap in time, but it does give him wisdom and understanding. Moreover, throughout the movie, over the narrative is its soundtrack (the soundtrack being almost more well-known than the movie itself), which is not traditional music from the past, but hip, experimental jazz. While the story may take us back in time, the music takes us forward.

So too, perhaps, does Homegoing, ultimately ask us to look forward. The end of the novel is, not surprisingly, similar to the end of Black Goddess, as the descendants of the African and the African-American sides of the family finally meet, fall in love, and travel back to Ghana, reconciling the 200-year divide. All the history of the novel seems to serve the purpose of orienting this future coupling. Curiously what is not really explored at all in Homegoing is precisely what the two movies explore -- the survivance of African ethnic culture (whether Yoruba, Asante, Fante, or other) in the Americas. By the end of the twentieth century, the African-American characters of Homegoing seem to know hardly anything about where they came from. Although some of the characters at the beginning of the novel maintain a few words of the Twi language, what is missing from the American chapters of Homegoing are the laborious efforts of many African Americans to reclaim their cultural identities, and a long list of literary classics, starting with Olaudah Equiano in the eighteenth century to Martin Delany in the nineteenth century to W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston in the twentieth century to remind us of the centrality of Africa for American culture. Yaa Gyasi perhaps missed a golden opportunity to think about the intersections of American racial identity and African ethnic identity in her chapter on jazz, since arguably, that's what jazz is all about. Instead, unfortunately, the novel focuses on the alcohol and drug culture around the jazz scene, and not the music itself. Likewise, on the other side of the ocean, one would not know from the novel that the United States had any connections at all to west Africa after the termination of the transatlantic slave trade in the early nineteenth century, but in fat, not only were Hollywood movies popular in west Africa (famously Charlie Chaplin movies but also, weirdly, westerns), so too was the United States all up in Africa's business all the time after World War II, often dangerously so.

In other words, if the goal of the novel was to reconsider the ways in which the two sides of the Atlantic connected, there are many other points of connection still yet to explore -- and what this means is that there are a lot more stories to tell, movies to make, and novels to write!!!

I want to conclude with a brief, theoretical meditation on Paul Gilroy's book The Black Atlantic and how we, as scholars, understand and make use of that book. Clearly, the subject here is both geographic and temporal. It is geographic because all of the texts I've discussed here make, in different ways, a connection across the Atlantic, and it is temporal because they also make that connection across the centuries. Readers of my blog who are students and professors of literature and history probably will recall how Gilroy, back in 1993, argued for the historical importance of the transatlantic slave trade and the transatlantic culture that emerged out of that traumatic event for what we call "modernity." In many ways, his argument challenged the still dominant understanding of world history and human progress that has been presented in schools in mostly Euro-centric terms. My point about Gilroy here -- a point that I think my interpretation of the movies and the novel suggest -- is that when we conceive of the "Black Atlantic," we are confronting a conundrum of temporality, not just a conundrum of spatiality. Those who study and teach the "black Atlantic" perhaps should recall that Gilroy's argument was not just geographic and racial (i.e., thinking of culture in terms of racial dynamics across an ocean rather than thinking of culture in terms of a nation, like "American culture" or "French culture, etc.) Gilroy's argument was also temporal, challenging our understanding of historical time. His fundamental thesis is not about the Atlantic itself but about "the modern" and of what it means to use the word "modern" in a sentence. Although my colleagues who are scholars of the eighteenth century focus on the first chapter of his book about the slave trade, they sometimes forget that most of his book is about the twentieth century culture from W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright to jazz and hip hop. His two central metaphors are the slave ship and the LP record. Point being, the sense of African temporality and its futuricity are not just bigger than Africa, they are bigger than the Atlantic too.

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. After that strike, more than 200 workers lost 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 they 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 many readers of my blog "Atlantic Literature" that you are reading now 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 this Smithsonian magazine article. 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 wealthy 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 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 famous Egyptian monument with the equally powerful imagery 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 alludes to multiple historical moments: ancient Egypt, the eighteenth-century slave trade, and 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. Mixing all of these historical references together seems to flatten history out at that same time that it gestures at 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 popular American movies 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 that labor was 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. Her essay reminds us of the 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 -- an imaginary self literally and figuratively "conjured" up by the gaze of the photographer. It is as if she is asking us, the reader, to ask ourselves who we are in relation to this photograph that is just one small trace of a larger history. Her poem reminds me a bit of the world music hit song "Sugar Cane" by Les Nubians, a group my wife and I saw perform in Brooklyn's Prospect Park the year before.

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?