Romantic Circles Blog

Teaching While Black: Notes from a College Professor in a Time of Civil Unrest

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Salita Seibert, Carnegie Mellon University

 

It was May 18th and students were logging into the zoom session for the first day of remote instruction. The first words I heard were, “oh my God, my professor is black.” This was said with obvious dismay and followed by abrupt quiet. I sat in stunned silence for what felt like eternity. I later learned from watching the class recording that the awkward silence lasted only seconds. Unable to process the moment, to make it a “teachable moment,” I launched into my planned course overview. The entire time I felt uncomfortable. I felt like a racialized specimen under a microscope being picked apart and judged by my students. Adding to my discomfort, when I sought institutional support and advice for myself, Human Resources advised me to start a dialogue with the student instead of addressing the anxiety I expressed about the zoom incident.    

The second week of class was defined by George Floyd’s killing and national and international protests against racism, police, violence, and the failings of the justice system. George Floyd is a tragic variation on a theme I have lived for years. It triggered thoughts of my brother, dead for thirteen years and murder unsolved. I thought about Antwon Rose Jr., who was shot in the back by an East Pittsburgh police officer fifteen minutes from my home. I thought about the safety of my son, my cousins, and friends. I protested along with millions. While my television and social media feeds showed a nation’s discontent and balanced on a razor’s edge of change, I taught students how to write a thesis and organize their paper. For two hours every day I battened down the hatches and tried to just be a teacher. The tumult of the outside world came through in a student paper with an off-topic denunciation of protesters, another student wearing blue lives matters t-shirts, and class discussions in which I barely kept the peace between some of the more vocal students. I felt judged for the color of my skin by my students and unsupported by administration. The words “oh my God, my professor is black” repeated in my mind the entire six weeks of class.

Three months later the writing faculty received an email reminder to administer a writing diagnostic. In contrast to previous semesters, this email contained an essay “Black Men in Public Spaces” by Brent Staples, which we were encouraged to use instead of one of our own choice. This 1988 essay is Staples’s reflection on the way in which blackness is seen as menacing and threatening in public spaces even in the absence of provocation. This fear, he notes, is perilous to the health and safety of black men (and women). I thought of Rodney King, Jonny Gammage, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Atatiana Jefferson, and Breonna Taylor. Tragically, over thirty years later and Staple’s narrative continues to have relevance. While I was not there for any faculty discussion related to choosing the essay, it was clear that someone decided to seize the moment and make it teachable. I did not want a teachable moment. I did not want to teach my trauma. I chose to assign an essay on social media and literacy, desperate to avoid a repeat of my uncomfortable summer class.

September 23rd was a blur. I know Breonna Taylor had been dead for six months on September 23rd when the grand jury declined to charge officer Myles Cosgrove in her death. I know Breonna Taylor was in her bed when officer Myles Cosgrove fired the shot that killed her on March 13th 2020. I know another officer was indicted on three counts of endangerment of Taylor’s neighbor. I know I taught three classes. I do not remember what I taught. I do not remember what I said. I remember hurriedly cutting my last class short to cry in my car. I remember I was paralyzed with grief and unable to drive.

Across the street from where I cried in my car, Dannielle Brown sat on day 77 of her hunger strike demanding answers in the death of her son Marquis Brown. The official Duquesne University report states that in October 2018 university police responded to a call concerning Marquis Brown acting erratically. Shortly after police arrived, Marquis Brown managed to throw a chair through a window and jumped sixteen floors to his death.  Danielle Brown has and continues to question the official story and criticize the university’s response to her son’s death. The questions she asks are, what if anything was done to de-escalate the situation? Did officers view Marquis Brown, a black man, as a person in crisis or a threat? A trail of bodies that have led to the current moment of civil unrest make it necessary to ask these questions. I sat in my car crying, watching a mother’s protest, and listening to the swelling sounds of protest coming from two blocks away in response to the grand jury’s decision in the Breonna Taylor case. In the days that followed, as protests large and small swelled so close that they could be seen from classrooms and dorm rooms, the university reminded faculty to think of their students.

So, what have I learned from all of this? First, I’ve grown to hate the phrase “teachable moment.” In response to the swell of civil unrest, universities have encouraged faculty to talk to students and make this a teachable moment. I never realized, until confronted with a moment that I was not emotionally equipped to teach, how much pressure there is to be always be ready for “the moment.” Second, the amount of intellectual and emotional work that is being asked of instructors is astronomical. In addition to our regular work there are emails suggesting the adoption of “antiracist” readings and ideas for class discussion. We are asked to put statements of solidarity against systemic racism in our syllabi. We are told to be flexible and understanding with our students. To be clear, I do not object to any of these things. The issue is every email contains more things for me to do when what I really need is support and resources to help me process everything happening. I am struggling to find my balance in a classroom where my blackness is viewed with dismay and in a world that sees my skin color as a threat.

University administration must be as responsive to the needs of faculty as they are to students. To start, they should offer free mental health treatment to all faculty—tenured and untenured—who require it at this time. They have to acknowledge and work to eliminate microaggressions that people of color, like me, experience in the classroom. Finally, they must stop pressuring instructors to teach a moment we are struggling to come to terms with. While waiting for all of these things to happen, I will continue to process my trauma and pain outside of the classroom. I will work on unlearning the thought that I have failed my students when I don’t grasp a teachable moment. And I will figure out how to be comfortable teaching while black.

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How the Pandemic Made Us a Minority

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Suh-Reen Han, Seoul National University

 

My sister lives in LA, and our weekly Facetime chats across the Pacific have lately turned into outbursts of grievances about the prolonged pandemic crisis. My sister’s tirades against government incompetence and apathy have been escalating, and I have come to share her worry about raising two children amidst a growing environment of intolerance. Despite our common distress and outrage, however, I have to be honest in acknowledging that my pandemic experience comes with mixed feelings. On the day that the news of the first COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea appeared, I remember Director Bong Joon Ho and his cast having a celebratory lunch at the presidential residence after Parasite had won four Oscars. News of quick and innovative containment of the virus followed the initial chaos, and soon South Korea was globally hailed as the forerunner of successful disease control. The Korean Baseball Organization was one of the first professional baseball leagues to start its 2020 season last summer, and the games were aired daily on ESPN for those thirsting for live sports. Just recently, the K-pop group BTS topped the Billboard 100 chart with their first English single, which they released in the hope of “revitalizing” their global audiences “in this very difficult time.”

Koreans still stand in awe of the global attention they have garnered during these strange times. I say “global” not because America is the world, but because America is usually the last to open up to foreign cultures. This global recognition, however, has proven to be a double-edged sword since it drew attention to our racial difference and instigated old and new racial prejudices. Hate crimes and derogatory remarks made against Asians also became part of our news. We were suddenly a racial minority.

When did we become a minority? How did we become a minority? Of course, Korea is no exception to social divides and inequalities along gender, class, and political lines. Even if race may not be a particularly dominant part of our domestic discourse, encounters with other races and ethnicities, on both individual and national levels, do let us know of our place in racial politics. And we, too, use racial politics to our advantage or disadvantage. However, something feels different this time. Our reduction to a racial minority feels, not necessarily unjust, but perceptually jarring. The discrepancy between the racial discourse generated around us under global scrutiny and our experience of representing our own culture on the global stage is baffling. Most cultures do not set out to represent a race but rather a lived experience and a heritage, and the idea of racial representation does not sit well with the experience of life and culture. No person “represents” a race unless she or he is forced to by political ideology or systematic discrimination.

It may be time to rethink the minority question. The “minority” has been a politically valuable and often ethically imperative concept in a world where not all groups get equal political representation. And we certainly need it now more than ever. However, the minority cannot adequately remain a political category when it comes to cultural representation. To expand the minority question from the political to the cultural, I call forth Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of minor literature from their Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Minor literature is defined less by the minor status of its maker or language than by the more radical dynamic of its “becoming-minority” in relation to major literature. Major languages become deterritorialized when minor uses make them strange and intense: Deleuze and Guattari’s examples are Kafka’s Prague German, Beckett’s English and French, and Black authors’ American English. While individual concerns merely connect with other individual concerns in major literatures, the individual connects immediately with politics in minor literatures, producing “collective assemblages of enunciation.” The individual in minor literatures is not a subject speaking for oneself or a group, but a solitary being opening up to everything that occurs in history and thus meeting one’s limiting boundary in the form of politics.

Today’s world is virtually connected, all the more so because of the pandemic. The becoming-minority of cultures is not confined to regional politics or colonial relations anymore. Non-English content on the Internet now comes with auto-generated captions or subtitles provided by streaming services; if not, devoted fans are more than willing to translate content into multiple languages and share. Minor cultures even in foreign form have the platform to gain global recognition and deterritorialize major cultures. Deleuze and Guattari refer to the minor author’s deterritorialization of language through its intensive, creative, escapist use as “pop”—as in pop music or pop writing. Perhaps it is not surprising that the truly political becoming-minority is starting with pop culture today.

The globalization of becoming-minority could also have implications for literary studies. Last semester, my graduate seminar read the Seventh Book of Wordsworth’s Prelude alongside the London poems of Park Tae-Jin, a Korean poet and foreign correspondent who also wrote of metropolitan wonderment a century and a half after Wordsworth. Our comparison of the two poets ended with the recognition that Wordsworth’s ability to textualize and read the metropolis comes from his uniquely earthly vision—one that allows him to imagine a nature greater than any human empire and thus boldly reduce London into a scale model of the British Empire. Park also wanders about London’s streets but thoroughly embodies the urban experience through sensory imagery and movement, only to wonder about the power of the imagination that took the West to the moon in the twentieth century. Against Wordsworth’s imperial vision, Park’s refusal to see beyond what meets the eye makes him a minor author. Against Park’s bodily vision, however, the “Earth” that opens Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” becomes a particularly Western vision. In this global context, Wordsworth also becomes a minor author. For me, this year will be remembered as the year I started contemplating the becoming-minority of British Romanticism.

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Hard Lessons

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Thora Brylowe, University of Colorado Boulder

 

Last year, I set myself up with a sweet schedule available only to those of us lucky enough to have landed on the R1 tenure track. In Spring 2020 I would teach two interrelated workshops: one in our art museum, a first-year seminar, and one in my printing lab, an advanced course on the history of the book. Both classes revolve around an exhibit I and two colleagues planned on the fantastic collection of anatomy atlases held at our med school library. My plan was to teach them both once a week on Wednesdays. Even in my rarified position, this schedule is highly irregular, only possible with lots of permissions, which I got because both classes were hands-on workshops that would benefit from a maximum amount of uninterrupted time. Also, because the classes had different administrators—our first-year seminars are run by the College of Arts and Sciences, not the English Department—nobody was really in charge of granting permission to teach my whole load in one day. This meant almost a full week between classes to skulk off to archives and lots of writing time. I was excited.

This kind of teaching takes a lot of planning. I had envisioned classes that would learn together and teach each other. I was (and am) working with a curator, Hope Saska, and she in turn coordinates with the whole museum staff to make possible the exhibit we had planned to mount in February of 2021. We are also working with a colleague in Pittsburgh, Rebecca Maatta, an expert in the history of medicine, who is planning a parallel exhibit. We spent a year creating classes we’d team teach: a curator, a book historian, a medical humanist. Two cities, two exhibits, resources from five campuses across two states. We met, we talked about space, theory, and books. We researched other exhibits, worked out regimes of borrowing materials, and talked about contemporary artists whose work would complement the great books by Vesalius, Govert Bidloo, John and Charles Bell, and Henry Gray at the center of our exhibit. We read, coordinated and met over, yes, Zoom. We met, wrote proposals, borrowed materials, rounded up speakers, compared syllabi, assembled our schemes.

Of course, Reader, you know the next part of the story: like you, we were sent home in late March. A summer of shrinking budgets, furloughs, retirement incentives and canceled conferences followed. Teaching, some argue, has since then been irrevocably changed. Our excellent campus museum remains closed, which means our exhibit is on hold. Borrowing artwork has become impossible, so the exhibit, when it does launch, will be significantly reduced in scope.

To reverse course for a second, let me say what I think I’m doing when I teach classes like these workshops. The lessons I like best are the ones where students understand first-hand the physical labor that goes into transmitting ideas. I like them to set type till their backs hurt, to roll the etching press so they can actually see the damp paper pushed into the grooves cut by the burin, to cut a pen from a goose feather, to transform iron and oak galls into black ink. I also like the moment when it first dawns on undergraduates that museums are not inert, unchanging bastions of culture: seeing my students see museums as made spaces, seeing them see exhibits as arguments to walk through, purpose-built to make a public learn certain things in certain ways—seeing them see that curators and exhibit builders and design shops and collections managers work hard to make their labor invisible. Those are lessons I want undergraduates to learn.

Traditional recovery projects are important, but they reinforce the same dull round (author-text-reader) that has ruled our hermeneutic work since the Romantic period. And while I appreciate the urge to do so, it’s pretty hard to find nonwhite British oil painters to recover. If we want our humanities to stop being so white and so elite, we should probably start thinking about all that labor that renders itself invisible, sometimes on purpose—as Adrian Johns showed us of printers—and sometimes because workers cannot possibly realize their vital place in your encounter with that painting. How much more equitable would art history look if we started paying attention to the security guard who melts into the background when you look at a painting, or the weavers who made the linen it’s painted on? Women and people of color are everywhere in the ol’ Western Canon. We only need readjust our focus. I hope my students’ embodied awareness of the labor involved in making sanctioned cultural works like painting and poetry helps them appreciate more vividly the variety of minds and bodies that go into the making of the culture we all enjoy.

But, returning to our current predicament, what to do? My lab is too small to accommodate more than one student at a time under COVID measures. The museum shuttered its study room for similar reasons. Still, I think I am mostly managing to teach what I was hoping to get across. The museum staff repurposed an entire gallery into a cavernous classroom, which solved one of my space problems. Sadly, we will have no lesson on the Edinburgh Stereoscope Atlas of Anatomy, because we can’t properly sanitize the museum’s antique stereoscope. Students can’t leaf through Vesalius or crowd around Charles Bell’s System of Dissections. Instead they stand before a table one at a time—at a distance of six feet—while we, The Classroom Authorities, turn the pages for them. I did manage scaled-down book history lessons while the weather was still warm. I set up outside, with type sticks and cases and a small proof press inked only with carbon paper. We did not spend hours making attempts at Romantic-era methods of sending words through time and space. No paper was marbled. No bindings were sewn. No ink was made. (We did cut quills at a distance, hand-sanitizer at the ready.) There were instead the usual digital tools. I video-recorded an anatomy-of-the-book demonstration from inside the lab, but mostly we watched on screens as actual professionals did the engraving or printing or binding. I petitioned for emergency teaching funds so I could buy each student a cheap hand-press-era book to dissect/research/reverse-engineer. They will have to cut their books apart in the privacy of their own homes, though, using tutorials about imposition and binding found on YouTube. Screens will have to replace sitting on the floor with sheets of paper, helping each other fold and refold until the duodecimo comes out the way it looks in Gaskell. Instead of printing woodcuts and intaglio themselves, they see the difference via pixels—because I used the research money I thought I’d be spending on travel to archives to buy a good document camera.

I say I’m mostly teaching what I hoped to get across because I’m telling the material rather than asking students to use their bodies to practice and learn. Much as I love the sound of my own voice, I very much doubt its lessons stick half as well as those learned through experience. Of course, I’m taking opportunities to remind my classes that digital mediation, too, is filled with invisible labor, that they get to “be their own authors” or “self-curators,” as various social media platforms would have it, only at the expense of low-wage workers in server farms and the enslaved children mining the minerals that make their digital world go. Still. Way too much talking. If teaching has in fact changed irrevocably, I am going to have to do some serious thinking about my own labor. It took a lot of research in pedagogy, a lot of grant writing, a lot of sweat, and quite a few bloody knuckles to come up with what has proven to be an effective strategy for teaching Romantic-era mediation. Unsurprisingly, teaching the history of mediation on a digital screen comes up just about as short as teaching it out of a book. I’m not convinced retooling this machine is going to work.

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We Do Not Know What a Body of Theory Can Do: Romanticism in the Pandemic

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David L. Clark, McMaster University


We can think abstractly about the world only to the degree to which the world itself has already become abstract.
          —Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious


The deadly pandemic conditions demand a radical reconsideration of all forms of critical investigation—not only immunology, demography, epidemiology, and health studies, but also practices of knowledge that address the braided futures of racial justice, global capital, climate change, and the public good amid the predations of fast and slow violence. As I teach my classes through the aperture of a tiny camera, the future of the humanities also feels profoundly at stake. Yet as a researcher and educator, I often feel strangely immobilized; I am mostly groping in the dark, to recall something Freud says when he thinks about the death-drive, reminding us that making little or no headway may be the only way to do justice to certain intense and difficult questions, especially questions concerning la vie la mort.  Never have I more acutely felt the torsions rippling through Derrida’s injunction, “Take your time, but be quick about it because you do not know what awaits you.” Yet I am also learning something from this mood of expectant stasis, and to recognize what an unearned gift it is to be in a position to shelter a space for a form of thinking whose indolence, despondence, and désoeuvrement I recognize to be paradigmatically Romantic. To be sure, different communities are differently enduring conditions of extraordinary agony, loss, and uncertainty, but my hope is that this wounding precariousness doesn’t mean that colleagues react to the current conditions by reaching too quickly for certitude, thereby abandoning a Romantic predilection for not-knowing and non-knowledge that is inseparable from the open-ended labor of professing the humanities.

Arundhati Roy tells us that the COVID-19 moment is “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” Her claim is as much an invitation to consider the possibilities of the threshold as it is a summons to make the crossing. In that spirit, let us resist the temptation as thinkers dedicated to the exploratory energies of critique too hurriedly to traverse this verge, as if claiming to know in advance what lies or should lie on the other side. I say this while also fully acknowledging the importance of never losing sight of what must await us on the far shore. Certainly, let there be the abolition of the cruel racisms and structural inequalities that the pandemic exacerbates but whose miserable origins lie in the global system of slavery that was perfected during the time of Blake and Wollstonecraft and Equiano. But what a theoretically inflected humanities will look like once it has made this perilous passage—assuming that it makes it at all—is for me much less certain and may in fact be indifferent to certainty. In the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic—which remains a pressing concern, with well more than thirty million deaths to date—Paula A. Treichler’s How to Have Theory in an Epidemic (1999) was taken up as an exemplary defense of thinking critically about the experiences, representations, and understandings of HIV and AIDS. For Treichler the secreted deaths and ungrieved losses of the AIDS pandemic made sustained critique a mandatory part of learning to live with a virus for which there is still no vaccine and that has always disproportionately affected marginalized communities—not necessarily so for this latest pandemic, when we see a surge in a summary decisionism that denounces what is called “theory” to be useless and distracting, if not dangerous. How not to have theory in a pandemic is too often the order of the day. Ground zero for this denegating gesture is the reaction to Giorgio Agamben’s brief speculations about the Italian government’s “techno-medical-despotism” in response to the crisis. What interests me here is less the persuasiveness of Agamben’s claims and more the level of outrage that those claims have triggered, up to and including the denunciation of his entire biopolitical project. “Forget about Agamben,” Sergio Benvenuto proclaims. This immune or perhaps autoimmune gesture has spread virally through elements of the scholarly community, leading thinkers to disavow tout court the risky gesture of thinking aloud about the topical as an always already abstractable matter rather than as an ethical substratum beyond which no further contemplation is required or permissible: “It would be obscene and unethical to theorize about the epidemiological catastrophe that is unfolding under our very eyes,” Rosi Braidotti writes: “This is not a time for grandiose theorizing.” Professing cultural critique was once treated as “the weak link” in the war on terror; now it is characterized as the chink in the armor in the war against the virus. Whence comes this moralizing panic regarding the putative immodesty of theory, its embarrassing untimeliness and inertness? Of what contagion is this reaction a neuralgic symptom? Why do “practitioners,” or whoever is imagined to be the antithesis of “theorists,” assume that theory is theirs to know and claim with such confidence? And who but the more vulnerable members of the profession—graduate students, new or precariously employed scholars—most feel the force of this kind of authorized interdiction?

These questions all sound uncannily familiar because, since long before the pandemic, theory has been the subject of scolding disciplinary measures—always too foreign, somehow at once scarily communicable and maddeningly incommunicable, both catching and perversely out of touch. To a Romanticist, jettisoning theory in favour of the unassailability of practice feels like déjà lu all over again, as if the labor of slandering Shelley, and with him all that is deemed to be self-indulgent and profligate, or the compulsion to disavow the impractical and careless theoreticism of the French Revolution, is never complete. After Romanticism, it seems, there is no having done with theory, and there is no having done with the refined pleasures of having done either. Charging theory with the crime of abstraction and immorality has had a storied career, extending through the 1980s, when the name “Paul de Man” was weaponized as metonym for all that was wrong with a “deconstructionism” whose roots and collaborators, it was suspected, lay, respectively, in Romanticism and with Romanticists. When the previous President of the MLA went so far as to blame Trumpism on the pernicious influence of de Man, you start to understand that the origins of the animus towards critique lie too deep for tears. My point is that if the humanities are indeed passing through a portal, then among the many things to be changed in medias res is the anxiously reiterative sifting of theory from its more practical and productive and less obscene others. Adorno forcefully makes this very point in 1969, another historical flexion point, in a programmatic piece that is written in the tradition of Kant’s snappy essay, "On the common saying: That may be correct in theory but it is of no use in practice." The Prussian philosopher knew a thing or two about the perilous position of theory and critique under duress and amid the emergency measures for which wartime in particular calls or is said to call. Late in his career, Kant jokes that his “ineffectual ideas” about peaceableness will be easily dismissed as so much dreamy and unworkable nonsense. Writing in the mode of a perpetual peace project, he deliberately adopts the genre that was in his day most closely associated with the clueless irreality of philosophy, especially philosophy that gave itself to think untrammelled thoughts that are not sutured to things as they are and to what we know or will know. But Kant is winking at his readership: it was the “sorry comforters” preaching realpolitik who were in fact the dreamers, nourishing fantasies of a completely administered world, and legitimizing what Adorno calls “the repressive intolerance to thought that is not immediately accompanied by instructions for action.” 

My question after Kant is whether or in what way will theory survive the current war. Is it to be barred passage through the portal of the present, deemed an unwanted parasite on what is proclaimed to be “real,” “practical,” and thus irrefutably true? If theory is meant to survive, I would suggest, it will be in the mode of survivance, a living-on that is in the service of neither death nor life (including the demise or flourishing of a field, Romanticism, for example), i.e., suspended between worlds rather than compelled to perish in one world or thrive only as praxis in the next. More: it is not the impracticality of theory that is the true source of its inextinguishable trouble, but the deeper scandal of an ineffectuality—or “scarcity,” as I argue elsewhere—that is irreducible to either theory or practice, a thinking beside itself that remains otherwise illegible as long as we continue to allow the dyad of theory and practice to police our conversations. Alain Badiou argues that the pandemic demands “new figures of politics.” Those figures include gestures that are, like Kant’s reflective judgment, not in possession of their own concept and that refuse the imperative for thinking always and everywhere to be productive, actionable, unresigned, or salvific. These would be Romantic figures, in other words, and new in the sense of never getting old. For if Romanticism has taught me anything it is that we do not know what a body of theory can do.

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The Signs of the Times

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Bakary Diaby, Skidmore College

“She demonstrates the difficult labor of thinking the world anew”
              —Katherine McKittrick on Sylvia Wynter

*content warning: racial slurs*

The night before the written component of my doctoral qualifying examination, I was reviewing Thomas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” when the air was pierced by shouting. No more than a few feet from my ground floor apartment’s windows, my upstairs neighbor was making it clear that he “f--king hate[d] ni---rs” and that he planned to “kill every last goddamn ni---r in the country.” He swore that if the six police officers charged for the murder of Freddie Gray were found guilty, then there would be a “race war” and that I “would find the Klan right outside [my] window.” He then threw a recycling bin at my front door, went upstairs, and continued yelling. Clearly, he was upset about something.

As a Black student in a predominantly white professional and social environment, I was accustomed to feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or exhausted, but never had I felt so scared. The threats threw me into an everyday where the desire to hurt me was commonplace and even sanctioned.

And then I had to think about Romanticism.

Just about six weeks later, I began working on my dissertation prospectus when we saw another sign of the times: Dylan Roof killed six women and three men during a Bible study in what they believed to be a sanctuary. I watched vigils for the Emanuel Nine and saw the Confederate flag on Roof’s car.

And then I had to think about Romanticism. 

I could keep listing these events, and we know there have been many more. They just keep happening. Now, with the most recent signs of the times, I knew that at some point, for my own sake, I would have to grapple with how (or if) Romanticism fits into the mélange of feelings I have been experiencing as of late.

In her 2016 book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe suggests that “for Black academics to produce legible work in the academy often means adhering to research methods that are ‘drafted into the service of a larger destructive force…,’ thereby doing violence to our own capacities to read, think, and imagine otherwise.”  To resist this force, Sharpe engages in what she calls “wake work,” a mix of interdisciplinary and undisciplined approaches to objects of study. Clearly now is the time for such work, to engage with the difficult labor of thinking the world anew, of teaching to influence the infinite, and of imagining otherwise.

After my neighbor’s targeted racist episode, I ended up writing an essay on Austen’s Mansfield Park, Shelley’s Defence, and Smith’s Beachy Head. It was a meditation on what Romantic agency could look like amidst precarity and fear. It was the essay that I needed to write. I concluded that Romantic consciousness requires presence in the world, and that Romantic politics requires attention to the people and things in it. But this presence and attention should not be limited to subjects of the past. Instead, I hope more underprivileged scholars take the space that they deserve and I hope we pay more attention to historically unappreciated work. The essay crystalized for me how Romanticism at its best––and perhaps only at its best––holds the potential for transformative empathy with the vulnerable. But I work in the wake of another Romanticism as well, one whose liberationist philosophy was subsidized by enslavement, genocide, and imperial expansion.

Many period-based scholarly organizations are posting statements condemning racism and promising diversity (but, of course, many have not). But what’s more, they are also admitting to their period’s complicity. For example, the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies posted a note “On the Killing of George Floyd and on the Persistence of Racism in America” on their website, describing how “those of us who study the eighteenth century know [that] today’s racialized violence in North America was prefigured by the eighteenth-century institutions of slavery and the slave trade and the practices of settler colonialism.” And the Renaissance Society of America remarks that “because the Renaissance is often considered an era that marked significant advancements in human progress and the beginnings of modernity, we must acknowledge that the structures, mentalities, and attitudes that emerged in this period also helped to shape the systemic injustice and inequalities we experience today.” Statements from organizations like NASSR and BARS have already observed how Romanticism has contributed to present-day oppressive structures as well.

While a statement is no panacea and it will prove to be hollow without substantive steps taken to change the status quo, perhaps these statements signal a greater acceptance of often overlooked and marginalized research. Perhaps we stand at the precipice of change and can expect more great work by BIPOC scholars to be celebrated and cited. Perhaps. Nonetheless, we and those future scholars must not give Romanticism an alibi for the current moment by continuing to subordinate the crucial task of thinking the world anew to dated ideas in the hopes of keeping Romanticism familiar. Instead, we should explore the role Romanticism played in how we got here and contemplate too what it has to offer for the present. I hope we collapse the space between the signs of the times and the work we produce. A more undisciplined Romanticism could perhaps put an end to our default business-as-usual quietism. Perhaps. 

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Teaching During Quarantine in the District of Columbia

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Daniel DeWispelare, George Washington University

 

The Covid-19 lockdown in the District of Columbia happened rapidly. I taught my final in-person class at George Washington University on March 5th. Non-essential businesses were closed on March 14th. The District’s mandatory stay-at-home order began April 1st. This normally noisy city became a place where, with the apartment windows open, you could hear a lone jogger pounding the pavement a block away. 

Race and its inequities pervade all anecdotes I have learned about my adoptive city. Old DC metro trains were carpeted so that suburban commuters could feel like they were safe in their living rooms while shuttling to and from work. And the booming gentrification of the 2000s and 2010s grew directly out of the popular uprisings following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Condo developers in recent decades have bought, bulldozed, infilled, and whitened parts of the city that have been in disrepair and civic neglect since 1968. At some point a few years ago I first heard the buzzing thrum that commercial property owners downtown broadcast outside their lobbies to keep the unhoused from sleeping nearby. It’s impossible to unhear. 

Currently, I live in a one-bedroom rental apartment on the fourth floor of a large building on East Capitol Street, three blocks from the US Capitol building. Sounds in this apartment have always been signifiers, but perhaps more so now: helicopters, police sirens, ambulances, and chanting crowds are sure alerts that something is afoot. Peaceful protests pass this way, especially frequent since the the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. In the midst of these life-giving gatherings, antisocial, opportunistic behavior passes this way too. On my block alone, the Grubb’s Pharmacy, dating from 1867, saw three attempted burglaries in two weeks. Shop owners in the area speculate that these robberies are about opioid addiction, another US public health crisis in addition to coronavirus and systemic racism. One tragedy of the robberies at Grubb’s is that some repellent thinkers and pundits have mischaracterized the store’s smashed windows as the result of the truly historic, popular, and peaceful series of protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter.

DC is a city of extreme polarities. Twenty blocks to the East of my building is the Anacostia River, the eastern banks of which were built up in the late-nineteenth century by freedmen and fugitive slaves alongside a Nacochtank trading center, or “anaquash,” anglicized “Anacostia.” Frederick Douglass’s house is perched there on a hilltop looking northwest over the district. Twenty blocks to the West of my apartment building is the recently rechristened Black Lives Matter Plaza at 16th and H Streets NW, just north of the White House, an area that on a pre-Covid day was usually swarming with lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants. For now, this plaza is a focal point of the ongoing movement for the safety and sanctity of BIPOC lives, not just in the US, but around the world. 

Because I am a teacher, I have tried in my mind’s eye to record the tumultuousness of what we are living through now, knowing full well that the “we” in this context should be critiqued intensively. I have wanted but have so far failed to figure out how to document this moment—in writing, in photos, in video, or in something else entirely. Those questions will obviously need to be collectively answered going forward, and of course this process is already well underway. 

At Black Lives Matter Plaza the people’s historians are already archiving the signs that have been produced by weeks of peaceful protest. Drone footage of massive peaceful rallies take on the air of the sublime. The music, slogans, chants, and collective die-ins will be memorialized somehow. We also have—and have had for so long—ghastly records of white racial terror. Most importantly we have the testimony of the brutalized, both now and in all earlier historical moments. Now is the time to do the work of knocking the Edward Colstons, Leopold IIs, Albert Pikes, and their analogues, out of our curricula for good. 

*

In January of 2020, I began teaching an in-person course on “Riotous Literary Forms.” I have found that it is a good icebreaker to ask students when they think “the now” begins. Ultimately, this question is about how culture marks time, not empty calendar time, but affective, eventful time. Students often suggest that the contours of the present can be found most obviously in the invention of the internet, or in the economic collapse of 2008. Some say that 2014 is the most important recent marker of historical change, and here they mention the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest and police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. 

When the semester began, I had planned to examine literature from the eighteenth century and nineteenth century that stages popular uprisings, revolutions, and riots, including but not limited to bread riots, swing riots, dock riots, machine breaking, slave rebellions, etc. When we moved class online in March, I feared that my syllabus was totally irremediable, and perhaps it was. For the first two weeks we read Zola’s Germinal, which chronicles the lives of starving and striking miners, and this at a time when students’ parents are losing work and hemorrhaging money. We moved tentatively on to Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, which is a wonderful reworking of the themes of Beloved, but which also has at its heart a smallpox epidemic that I failed to prepare the students for. Matters were made worse when we came to the last work of the class, Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, an oral chronicle of ecological and social cataclysm.

The class’s conversation started slowly and innocuously with students suggesting safe topics as though TikTok dance routines and out-of-touch celebrities during quarantine could commemorate this moment, one in which racist and colonialist statues are being pulled down all over the world. The conversation moved on to a discussion about embodiment, binge watching, online class attendance, and debilitating computer fatigue. Someone nudged the conversation in the direction of the extreme racial and gender disparities that quarantine reveals, both nationally and abroad. One student commented that, in the US, a wide swath of the population was sheltering in place while the immiserated workers of the gig economy delivered them food.

What cultural forms capture the extreme disparities and in-built hierarchies of the battle dome that is US American society? What cultural forms are commensurate to the representation of these two proximate moments, first the pressure cooker of Covid-19 and then the explosion of popular protest in reaction to racialized police violence? What forms usher American white supremacy to its dissolution?   

As I plan my syllabi for the year to come, I am thinking about how to bring my lessons up to the task of framing the new moment that is beginning—and this is a difficult problem. Obviously solving this problem requires a decolonizing approach to curriculum. But even with such an approach one’s interventions run counter to the ambient and enduring inequity that stalks every aspect of the normal, especially in a long-stratified city like DC. I am reading and reading, even as it seems impossible to predict how instruction will proceed in the fall, or if it even should. 

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Maroon Resistance, White Violence, and Romanticism’s Envy of Black Freedom

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Kerry Sinanan, University of Texas at San Antonio

Since the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020, and the subsequent global Black Lives Matter protests, police violence and hate crimes in the US against Black people have continued, unabated. As Stacey Patton wrote on 22 June, drawing words Billie Holiday made famous, “America’s trees are bearing a strange and bitter fruit—dead black bodies.” Tragically, the list of the names of African Americans recently found hanging from trees keeps growing:

May 31: Malcolm Harsch 38, Victorville, California.
June 9: Dominique Alexander, 27, Manhattan, New York.
June 10: Robert Fuller, 24, Palmdale, California.
June 17: unnamed boy, 17, Spring, Texas.

Although Malcolm Harsch’s death has now been accepted as suicide by his family, they initially feared he had met the same fate as “thousands of blacks who were lynched." On Tuesday 16 June, the attorney for Robert Fuller’s family, Jamon R. Hicks, explicitly linked the hangings to the practice of lynching: “For African-Americans in America, hanging from a tree is a lynching. Why was this cavalierly dismissed as a suicide and not investigated as a murder?” Many see these hangings as a punishment for Black Lives Matter protests and calls to abolish the police. As Patton asserts, “These recent incidents do follow the historical pattern of displaying black bodies publicly to intimidate black communities.” Since these deaths, nooses have been found hanging from trees in Oakland, California, Harlem, New York, Las Vegas, and elsewhere.

The June 1 anniversary of the Tulsa massacre in 1921 reminded us of this pattern of extreme violence as a response to Black articulations of independence and freedom. As Karlos K. Hill writes, “[T]he Tulsa Massacre was not an exceptional event. Over the course of American history, more than 250 episodes of collective white violence against black communities have occurred.” Just as Tulsa was a punishment for Black achievement, recent hangings can be seen as a punishment for further Black success: the peaceful, ongoing, mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism in every US state, especially because many non-Black people have joined to push for real changes that might prevent the ongoing death of Black people. This success, albeit only partial at this point, still marks a real shift: BLM in 2020 has, as Blair L.M. Kelley states, “raised the floor of what’s possible” as evidenced by the Minneapolis City Council recently voting to abolish its police department and replace it with community-led programs.

White supremacy’s reassertion of itself in response to Black resistance must be situated in the context of slavery’s legacies. As Christina Sharpe asserts, “chattel slavery continues to animate the present.” The long history of white violence begins with Caribbean slave revolts. The brutal punishment of rebellion on slave plantations aimed to obliterate Black freedom and recuperate liberty according to colonial norms. When enslaved people, as Olaudah Equiano testifies, “still retain so much of their human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their misery, and retaliate on their tyrants,” they were most viciously punished. Equiano details the extremity of white violence tolerated by slave laws: “I was present when a poor fellow was tied up and kept hanging by the wrists at some distance from the ground, and then some half hundred weights were fixed to his ancles, in which posture he was flogged most unmercifully.” The lynchings that we see now have clear precedents in the kind of “hanging” that Equiano painfully details. This long history of excessive white violence tells us something clearly: it was, in fact, slave rebellion and Maroon resistance that articulated the freedom par excellence that white Romanticism claimed, and continues to claim, as its own.

John Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) presents a record of the legalized brutality that the white Dutch colonists in Suriname visited on enslaved people and Maroons. Maroon wars in Suriname would be a thorn in the Dutch side for decades after the British ceded Suriname in 1667. The colony frequently lost slaves to the dense forests as they freed themselves. By the early 1770s Suriname’s Governor Nepveu asked for more troops and Stedman arrived as a paid mercenary for the Dutch with the rank of Captain. The battles he participated in were part of “The First Boni War” (1765-77). He witnessed mutilations and maimings, and represented them in words and images. An engraving by William Blake based on a sketch by Stedman, A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows, shows why parts of his Narrative became powerful Romantic-era abolitionist tracts, despite Stedman’s own preference for amelioration. He accompanies this gruesome image with transcribed testimony from a white spectator: “I saw a black man hang’d alive by the ribs, between which with a knife was first made an incision, and then clinch’d [by] an Iron hook with a Chain. . . .” Here, violence is deliberately staged as a spectacle to crush Black resistance. The pronouncement of the punishment to be given to the rebel Saramaka Maroon, Joosie, in 1730 shows that the language of the colonial judiciary institutionalized extreme white violence as a response to resistance:

[He] shall be hanged from the gibbet by an Iron Hook through his ribs, until dead; his head shall then be severed and displayed on a stake . . . As for the Negroes Wierrie and Manbote, they shall be bound to a stake and roasted alive over a slow fire, while being tortured with glowing Tongs. The Negro girls . . . will be tied to a cross to be broke alive . . .

The terms of present-day lynching, licensing white violence as a response to Black freedom, are established in the legal sentencing of the slave colony.

William Blake, A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows

William Blake, A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows

Stedman’s position is deeply compromised: he sympathizes with Maroons and enslaved people, but maintains his belief in white power, even while he lambasts it as corrupt. Ultimately, his Narrative became a powerful argument against his stated ameliorationist position. Stedman reveals that the spectacle of the mangled and lynched Maroon rebel’s body serves specifically to dehumanize Black rebellion, just as today’s lynchings attempt to punctuate BLM protests for freedom with a punishing end that reinstates white power. We must reject this white teleology.

In his conclusion, Stedman admits that the

Acts of Barbarity I have so frequently Related through out this Work, are Assuredly Sufficient to melt the Heart of the most unfeeling with Compassion, nor is it to be Wondered that Armies of Rebels at every Hazard Assemble in the forest to Seek Revenge & Liberty[.]

The justified resistance of the Maroons makes Stedman’s loyalty to white power untenable, forcing him to acknowledge that liberty is their domain.

From Stedman’s journals to now, then, the lynched Black body is produced by white failure. Black emancipation remains extraneous, “in the forest,” physically and philosophically, ironically figuring what Romanticism would like to imagine of itself. Francesco Bartolozzi’s engraving for Stedman, A Rebel Negroe Armed and on his Guard, presents an alternative image of Black resistance: competent, whole, free, running out of the print’s frame. White power needs the spectacle of the lynched Black body to forge its own ties of kinship, but nevertheless envies Black resistance, figured by the running Maroon, who remains persistently, subversively outside the imposed borders of white violence. 

Francesco Bartolozzi, A Rebel Negroe Armed and on his Guard

Francesco Bartolozzi, A Rebel Negroe Armed and on his Guard

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Uprising, or “a kind of manna”

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Lenora Hanson, NYU
 

George Floyd was murdered over a “(potentially) counterfeit” bill used to purchase cigarettes at a convenience store—for getting something he needed. (In 2014, Eric Garner was selling cigarettes “fraudulently.” Rayshard Brooks was murdered for idling in a fast-food drive-thru.) It does not matter whether that bill was counterfeit or not. Its “potential” was the contingent event that became the condition of structural violence in which no event is allowed to remain contingent. That this bill can be suspected as “counterfeit” exposes a scene that always must be secured by the police. This is a scene in which the fraudulence of money’s “universal equivalence” threatens to be exposed for what it has always been—a false border between those designated to die and those designated to live inside or outside of property. “Counterfeit” money is always a tautology, a repetition of sameness.  It requires brutal surveillance to preserve its fiction. One of these fictions is that the origins of money as we know it never involved the exchange of persons. But another is that the surplus of needs and dependencies that define human life could ever be reduced to the sameness of exchange. Such enforced sameness is the real counterfeit, the contra-facere, that has been made against those needs that will always exceed exchange, and in so doing always refer back to the creation of universal equivalence through slavery. The looting that followed Floyd’s murder, and the murders of so many others before him, rescinds the false equivalence that necessitates murder to retain its border. In this sense, recent riots affirm and perform the action for which Floyd was murdered—getting something that he needed without reducing that need to sameness.

Uprisings that take the form of looting are, as Amanda Armstrong reminds us, always already racialized and global. Looting, a nineteenth-century English translation of the Hindi verb lut (to rob), is the refusal of an everyday exchange that remains inseparable from the chains that make such equivalence possible. Living outside the counterfeit of equivalence has a history, but one that runs counter to the equation between sameness, self-possession, and freedom. In his Treatise on Sugar (1799), Benjamin Moseley generates a science of this sameness, weeding through the unruly roots of sugar in an attempt to isolate a pure history separate from a surplus of things that can be used to sweeten: “the maple, the birch, the red beet, the parsnip, the grape, wheat, and etc.” Against this surplus of sweetness, Moseley’s science seeks to establish the sugar cane as a proper and proprietary object that can justify the difference between Europeans and Africans, and thus secure slavery as a world-historical agricultural endeavor. For Moseley, it was a brutal fact of nature that Africans had to be enslaved in order for this thing to become an item of exchange. Without it, the needs of laboring populations in Europe could never have been met. But the Treatise provides another science that routes us back through India and to Floyd’s “theft.” This other science is a kind of looting, a satisfaction met against equivalence. According to Moseley, Arabs did not understand the production of sugar by Indians. Rather, “they thought it was the dew, which, falling on the Indian canes, concreted: and that it was a kind of manna.” Moseley assumes that, without the knowledge of commodities, these non-Europeans thought that sugar simply fell from heaven, without a proper history. A misunderstanding of the brutal counterfeit of commodities is always imputed to others who obtain what they need in different ways. In this other science, the cops would never be called. Which is why looting, counterfeiting, and stealing –all ways of living outside of exchange—had to be created as crimes at the same time that humans were exchanged and insured as property.

Meeting one’s needs outside of the strictly policed boundary between equivalence and non-equivalence is no mere economic phenomenon. Joshua Clover has recently argued that riots and looting are the actions of those dispossessed from access to the wage, a dispossession that is deeply racialized. But getting what one needs through means that mock a counterfeit equivalence, as in the case of riots, also reminds us that race denotes a surplus of ways of getting things otherwise and of other modes of circulation. One aspect of enslavement, then, was a separation which took centuries of law-making to realize and enforced the identification of race with non-equivalence in a strictly juridical mode. George Floyd was killed under this condition that the condition of slavery produced—a condition that demands the deadly securitization of a counterfeit equivalence.

Slipping a counterfeit for a stolen good made on stolen land by stolen labor—this is a performance of another kind too. It is a way of meeting needs that looks like superstition (“a kind of manna”) to a plantation owner and like theft to the police, because they make and enforce a law in which needs cannot be met outside the brutal enforcement of separability through equivalence. Lifting the borders around property—whether through counterfeit bills, Gucci bags, wagons of corn, or street-corner sales—is the continued refusal of false equivalence between our infinite and surplus needs and the ever-deviating ways that they must be met. It draws from a history of refusal of the always deadly sameness of that calculation. Thomas Malthus and Patrick Colquhoun and John Mill and J.R. McCulloch knew this, and designed theories and policies to distinguish the messiness of needs from the imputed equivalence of wages. Looting undoes that securitized counterfeit, for a moment. To revel in the generative history of that refusal is also to refuse to cover over the vagrancies of needs that have been written, as Saidiya Hartman has shown, as the history of blackness.

To lut, then, is to move across thresholds otherwise secured by cops and the metaphysics of money and to recover an undocumented history of another ordering between needs and their meeting. This movement refuses the passage of needs in their difference through a necessarily securitized-sameness. Moments of looting remind us that no space exists between the tautologies of the state and the securitization of property. Every instance of exchange is not only an enactment of the reality of abstraction in Marx’s sense, where abstraction is lived as the social process of meeting needs through the exchange of money. It is also the everyday transformation of what we need—as the sign of a deeper dispossession that takes the form of interdependence—into a property that can be policed, into a sameness that could only be produced through the difference of slavery.

As a mockery of the false equivalence of exchange, looting performs a defense of black life, passing through Hindi to revel in a global practice of meeting needs otherwise. As Fred Moten writes, “[l]eaving, differing, stealing away, is always under the threat of the interdiction, of protected theft, of mastery’s ‘protected’ right to steal.” The use of counterfeit bills, the lut, the sweet falling of dew—these all undo the tautology that renders every bill counterfeit as a claim to universal sameness. These instances smuggle tautology out of the habit of everyday exchange. From tauto-“the same” and logos “saying,” they turn us to legein, “to say.” Say their names. “To say” derives from the root leg, “to collect, gather” and “to speak,” “to gather words, to pick out words.” These differing repetitions of deviating accumulations—of gleaning against the violence of property—provide figural deviations from a law that, as Sora Han writes, “makes recourse to self-evidence so self-evident that it negates the necessity for judicial review at all.” As movements move forward with the cries of “Defund the Police,” these collected and repeated counterfeits remind us that to truly defund the police we must also undo property at every turn so that, at last, there is nothing to defend.

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Recap of RC Pedagogies Spring Reading Group on MWS's "The Mortal Immortal," by Holly Hirst

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The spring meeting of the Romantic Circles Pedagogies Reading Group took place on 19th March. Participating were Holly Hirst (Manchester Metropolitan University), Kirstyn Leuner (Santa Clara University) and Dana Van Kooy (Michigan Technical University) looking at Mary Shelley’s 1833 tale ‘The Mortal Immortal’. The tale is narrated by the eponymous ‘mortal immortal’ Winzy, who tells the tale of his own apprenticeship to Cornelius Agrippa, his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Bertha and the elixir that gave him an enduring and possibly immortal bodily life.

Image result for the elixir of life cornelius agrippaThe discussion of the tale revolved around three key questions: the purpose of the narrative, the issue of immortality and the question of love. Our discussion started with a question about the nature and the purpose of the narrative. While clearly a first person narrative, it is not clear to what extent it is a journal, a letter or more generally intended for public rather than private consumption. Comparisons can be drawn between the narrative technique of ‘Mortal Immortal’ and the journal style stories to be found in journals like Blackwoods in the period but also, more directly, to the confessional narratives of Frankenstein (1818) or the found ‘manuscript’ of The Last Man (1826). Each of these comparisons suggests a potentially  unknown but implied reader. The question remains, however, of the purpose for which the text was written. Our discussion covered a number of possibilities and highlighted the tension between the reasons expressed in the first and last paragraphs of the tale.

Winzy begins by claiming,

I will tell my story, and my reader shall judge for me. I will tell my story, and so contrive to pass some few hours of a long eternity, become so wearisome to me.

This emphasis on the dual aims of relating his story for exterior judgement and passing time has been overwritten by the end of the narrative with far more ambitious aims.

Before I go, a miserable vanity has caused me to pen these pages. I would not die, and leave no name behind. Three centuries have passed since I quaffed the fatal beverage: another year shall not elapse before, encountering gigantic dangers--warring with the powers of frost in their home--beset by famine, toil, and tempest--I yield this body, too tenacious a cage for a soul which thirst for freedom, to the destructive elements of air and water--or, if I survive, my name shall be recorded as one of the most famous among the sons of men. (My emphasis)

The emphasis on simply his tale has been overwritten by a desire for monumentalisation, his tale as monument, betraying a thirst both for fame and meaning. Emphasis is placed on the idea of his ‘name’ surviving here but the question consistently in the discussion was to what extent the tale fulfils that function. We receive very little information about Winzy, with Agrippa and Bertha being more important foci of the narrative and receiving through it a form of immortality. Image result for authorWinzy’s name is eclipsed by theirs and his history is empty as the tale contains little information about who he was as an individual. Is the story then an attempt by Winzy to discover himself and a name worth leaving behind? Or does it simply betray the ‘miserable vanity’ of his desire, erasing his individual identity as it attempts to construct it? There is also an interesting overlap between Winzy’s lack of identity and the author’s. The title page tells us this story was written by the ‘writer of Frankenstein’. Mary Shelley’s name is eclipsed by a title as Winzy’s name is eclipsed by a title – the mortal immortal. Our discussion tied this into the discourse on authorship of the time, noting the emphasis on titles rather than names in the cases of, for example, Joanna Baillie and Walter Scott and contrasting it with the emphasis on authorial authority in Wordsworth.  Titles, in the case of ‘The Mortal Immortal’ and both its narrator and author, erase names and the individuals behind them.

Our discussion moved onto the idea of narratorial control. Winzy writes his own narrative and thus, in a sense, attempts control of his own story. He is, therefore, an unusual case of an immortal exercising agency over their own immortality. We drew parallels throughout with Mary Shelley’s collation and editorship of Percy’s work and the way in she effectively made or created him as an author. His immortality was defined by the nameless mortal. We also compared this desire for narrative control with Shelley’s other works, Frankenstein and The Last Man. In Frankenstein, of course, we hear a melange of voices seeking authorial control. In The Last Man, with its curious narratorial construction of travellers in the 18th century finding a scattered Sybelline prophecy detailing the last days of the last man, we find a helpless lack of control dressed as control. Both strategies can be potentially traced in ‘The Mortal Immortal’.

Our discussion, by this point, had branched into the topic of immortality and the obviously negative reflections on immortality represented within Winzy’s account. Immortality is essentially loneliness for Winzy. Despite his marriage he reminds isolated, missing an equal, a partner or someone simply on the same bodily trajectory as himself. Image result for manfred byronLonely and afraid of death, this very fear drives him from people because while he is fairly sure about the slowness, if not non-existence, of his own decay, he cannot be assured of his immunity to violent or sudden death. He seems driven by a will to exile, similar to that found in Byronic narratives such as ‘Manfred’ and in direct opposition to Lionel’s desperate search for company in The Last Man; beyond Bertha, he makes no attempt to seek any other form of human company or integration with the world. (Throughout I made incessant references to the Highlander movie, which, I maintain, offers an interesting counterpoint: a man in a similar situation who makes all the other choices, including seeking alternate companionship, thus highlighting Winzy’s failure.) In his account, we find a solipsism. His intent focus on his own journey and his attempt to understand himself have cut him off from the greater population.  He addresses no other problems or wider issues in his narrative, his is not a global or even a national tale, it is an individual one. His concentration is throughout on his own nature and the nature of his immortality. Like Frankenstein’s creature, he is trying to find out what is human in himself, the mortal in his immortality and in what that consists. Is it in language, reason, literacy, speech, historical consciousness, or emotion, particularly love. If so, he, arguably, retains them all but the question remains of whether his immortality has somehow changed him and robbed him of his humanity along with his mortality.

Image result for frankenstein arcticThe nature of both true ‘humanity’ and true immortality are explored in the text. We had already noted the parallels between Winzy and Frankenstein’s creature. In the last paragraph, this resemblance is heightened through his decision to face the arctic wastes where he test the limits of his own immortality. However the expedition results, however, he will seek death and, conversely, true immortality:

If I survive, my name shall be recorded as one of the most famous among the sons of men; and, my task achieved, I shall adopt more resolute means, and, by scattering and annihilating the atoms that compose my frame, set at liberty the life imprisoned within, and so cruelly prevented from soaring from this dim earth to a sphere more congenial to its immortal essence.

He seeks an immortality of fame but more importantly an immortality of the soul. To return to the question of the changes that bodily immortality have essentially wrought within him, we received the answer of ‘damnation’. There is an echo here of a common trend within 18th and 19th tales, from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to William Godwin’s St Leon or the vampiric tales of the period, which remained more strongly influenced by Eastern Orthodox theologies: an endless life of the body is damnation of the soul. This is, in part, connected to an ongoing theological debate about the interconnectedness of soul and body. In ‘The Mortal Immortal’ there is clear reference to them as distinct entities and the body as a trap for the soul, separating it from both paradise and salvation. We returned again to the concept of the ‘miserable vanity’ of his account and posited the tie here to the existent tensions in his own concept of immortality. While assured of the worthlessness of a bodily immortality and positing the necessity for a free ‘soul’ immortality dependent on death, he remains unable to leave behind the veneration of earthly immortality. His ‘miserable vanity’ is the vanity of his own attempts to create a form of deformed immortality of whose lack of worth he is all too aware.

Image result for vanity personificationConcentrating on this phrase ‘miserable vanity’, however, we were brought back to a slightly differing interpretation of its importance, relating it back to Bertha’s own ‘miserable vanity’. As she ages and Winzy does not she becomes obsessed with the physical signs of aging in, as we decried, a particularly gendered way. We tied the text’s focus on Bertha’s fear and anxiety regarding Winzy’s continuing youth and her own aging process back to the biographical context previously discussed of Mary as Percy’s editor. As Percy remained ever young, made immortal by Mary, unable to age as Wordsworth before him had done into a cranky old conservative. Mary, on the other hand, aged beside his eternal youthful memory. Although speculative, this biographical link was of interest in interpreting Mary’s own negative and gendered portrayal of Bertha’s vanity.

The views of each reader differed significantly in their reading of Bertha (and her vanity). The question centred around the nature of the love between the two characters and the nature of their relationship. Before getting married, Bertha had mocked Winzy for his unwillingness to ‘face the devil’ to attain the riches necessary to marry and had flirted with Albert, the choice of her benefactress. It was his jealousy that drove Winzy to drink the potion, thinking that it would cure him of his love. This series of events was the roots of many of our questions and differing opinions. We were split between a view of pre-marriage Bertha which was largely positive (feisty, independent, opinionated and truly in love with Winzy but frustrated at the delays) and largely negative (coquettish, inconstant, vain). Related imageIn taking the first view, we contend that Bertha changed after marriage into someone more insecure, less rebellious, less independent and worried about the value in her aging body. The question remains, however, at which point this occurs. It is possible to suggest that it begins with the onset of aging, however, we also discussed the point of marriage and proposal as the changing point. The event which leads to marriage (Winzy ‘rescuing’ Bertha as she flees from her benefactress) is brought on by the euphoric effects of the elixir. It is worth noting that we also differed in our interpretation of this event - was Bertha motivated by love at all or a desire to flee and to find refuge (creepily) in his ‘mother’s cot.’  To what extent this relationship was ever about love and to what to what extent this love was equal on both sides is unclear and after this point becomes increasingly murky. The exact effect of the elixir is unclear but Winzt is effectively on drugs, whose exact effect and potency are unclear, and there is also the question of the soul deep changes rendered by the very fact of his immortality. There is, however, an automatic imbalance created in the relationship after the elixir is imbibed– the root, perhaps, of Bertha’s personality change. If, of course, you followed the second reading of Bertha, there is little change and only a consummation of her earlier vanity and concentration on the physical. (Reading against Highlander and its treatment of the relationship tends to push the second reading!)There is an ironic juxtaposition between Winzy’s bodily inability to escape the physical and Bertha’s spiritual inability to escape it – just who exactly is damned by it is, perhaps, unclear.

As the above comment suggests, there is an investigation in the tale of the value of the physical and, more specifically, beauty. Our conversation drew us back here to Chaucer and a comparison with The Wife of Bath in which the question is posited of whether it is better to be young and beautiful forever or loyal. Shelley, perhaps influenced by Chaucer’s tale, of which she was aware, offers a reply of sorts in ‘The Mortal Immortal’ but one which appears to defy the possibility of a correct answer.  We also linked it back to Percy Shelley’s ‘Alastor’ and the question of who we love: Is it the immortal ideal which exists nowhere but in our own minds or the other person, in all their reality, who can never be perfect enough for us. Bertha, at different times in the tale, represents both. In this way, she also reflects Winzy’s changing conception of immortality itself. The images used to convey how he views Bertha (the sparkle in her eyes, the colour of her cheeks) echoes the terminology used in describing the elixir itself. Ironically, he views the object of his love in the same way as the elixir he looked to to cure him of his love. This ambiguous relationship between love and love’s object and the elixir from the very beginning highlights the tensions between immortality and love. Without death life isn’t precious and the question is raised if the preciousness of love fades with it.

Our discussion ended with our investigation of this question and the relationship between love and life. Returning to our earlier questions of the nature of life and the importance of ‘love’ to the definition of human, we discussed whether the elixir made love possible or rather impossible. Is Agrippa’s seemingly deceptive description of the elixir as a cure for love actually the ultimate truth of the potion? Love recurs in Western definitions of humanity from biblical teachings about the importance of ‘love’ both to God (who is love) and to humanity (made in the image of God) to Percy Shelley’s synopsis of human history in Prometheus Unbound.  Love both defines us as human and provides the basis of our immortality – whether in the ‘immortal’ loves of an Eloise and Abelard or in the relationship of love necessary to the salvation of our souls. Love for Winzy is arguably something made possible by the euphoria of early immortality but it cannot survive when the landmarks of mortality are removed, which causes duty (Winzy) and jealousy (Bertha) take the place of authenticity. Alternatively, we could argue that in taking the elixir Winzy rendered himself incapable of human love, which depends on the mortality of both its partners.  Either its preciousness is lost along with life’s own or the love of an immortal being cannot be that of a mortal heart. And yet, it is his love story that fills his narrative as if he, half blind and still seeking the nature of both humanity and immortality, seeks to make his love story his only true chance of both.

It’s never too late to get involved in the discussion. You can access the story here and we welcome comments and further discourse.

- Holly Hirst

RC Pedagogies Spring Reading Group: MWS's "The Mortal Immortal", Apr. 19

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Romantic Circles Pedagogies Spring Reading Group continues its gothic streak and will discuss Mary Shelley's immortal short story "The Mortal Immortal"! We will meet next Thursday, April 19th, at 4pm ET via Zoom.

RSVP here: https://goo.gl/forms/FY35S1kW86mrH6Wk1

Many can attest that our first meeting was lively, great fun, and participants learned a lot from each other. Encore! Those who RSVP will receive an email later this week with instructions for joining the Zoom videoconference chat. We hope you will join us. 

Looking for a copy of the text? There is an electronic edition on Romantic Circles edited by Michael Eberle-Sinatra.

https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/immortal/mortal.html

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