Romantic Circles Blog

Aside from Insurrection

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Padma Rangarajan
UC Riverside

French troops march up St. James's Street, London. A tree of liberty has been planted in the foreground, a town square; a man is tied to the pole, and another man flogs him with branches. Chaos abounds.

James Gillray, Promis'd Horrors of the French Invasion, or Forcible reasons for negotiating a Regicide Peace, 1796.
Digital reproduction courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum, London.

What exactly did we witness on January 6, 2021? On that day and the days following, politicians and the media experimented with a variety of terms to describe this protest-turned-riot, this planned attack that seemed entirely unplanned, this farrago of menace, bacchanal, insouciance, and chilling coordination. The most apt term is probably insurrection—a rebellion in miniature. But of all the terms tried and tested (coup, uprising, the wonkish putsch) the most potent and problematic of these is “terrorism.” Only hours after the zip-tie brandishing, live-streaming mob had been ejected from the building,  Republicans and Democrats were briefly united by language as senators from both parties denounced “domestic terrorism” perpetrated by a group of “thugs.” More than all the other possible appellations, “terrorism” is the open sesame, an incantation with the power to move the imagination and the gears of government. While “insurrection” has a slightly fusty, tricorn-and-muskets quality about it, “terrorism” feels irresistibly urgent and dangerously modern. Above all, the invocation of “terrorism” creates a narrative that is at least partly predetermined. We may not know exactly what an insurrection looks like, but we have plenty of expectations about how a terrorist attack should look.   

That both Republican and Democratic lawmakers felt the need to qualify the Capitol attack as “domestic” terrorism is not insignificant. Both “terrorism” and its companionate “thug”  imply a foreignness, a racially coded form of criminality and an essential illegality. In the case of “thug,” such foreignness is embedded in the word’s colonial history. “Terrorism,” other hand, also a loanword (from the French terrorisme) and a neologism of the 1790s, initially referred to the violent actions of a government against its own citizens. Robespierre famously sought to align terror with virtue as a distinct revolutionary principle, but in the aftermath of the Terror, “terrorism” emerged as a damning descriptor for the actions of the recently deposed Jacobin government. As the word was adopted into English, it was applied as a descriptor for violence by subjects against their own government as well as to the violent actions of a government against its own citizens.  Either way, there is nothing more domestic than terrorism. Its original purpose was not to identify the horrors of a foreign attack, but the trauma of autochthonous implosion.

Terrorism’s slide into foreignness has a long and complex history, but we can speculate that, its ability to galvanize governmental action aside, the usefulness and comfort of the word “terrorism” in the context of the Capitol attack is the implication that the violence we witnessed was an aberration or somehow outside of American history, and not the culmination of longer and entangled narratives of racial grievance, class inequality, disinformation, and historical myopia. Wielding our contemporary understanding of terrorism as a surprise shock from elsewhere, then, becomes a way to inoculate America from its own worst self, and to push it to the borders. It’s unsurprising that some scholars have objected to labeling the Capitol attack as terrorism on the grounds that expanded anti-terrorism legislation, even if formed with the intent of countering domestic terrorism, may have the reverberative effect of increasing the surveillance and harassment of immigrants and religious minorities. 

But it is also possible that reckoning with the longer history of terrorism forces us to confront rather than circumvent uncomfortable truths. I began this reflection by stating that the Capitol attack was properly described as an insurrection—a violent uprising against government—but the most remarkable aspect of this insurrection is that it was fomented by governmental leaders and involved members of the military and police. Can what happened at the Capitol be considered an insurrection against the government if it was actively encouraged by some of the leaders of that same government? Seen in this light, the Capitol attack was a quintessential act of terrorism, if we understand terrorism not as a manichean struggle between good guys and bad guys, insiders and outsiders, but as originally occupying a disturbingly liminal area between state and anti-state violence. Terrorism may be the only word to describe a violence that was partly abetted by the very powers it attacked.  

One might legitimately ask why it matters whether we label this an act of terrorism, or insurrection, or whatever. It has always mattered. In The Fire Worshippers, an elaborately allegorical reflection on English colonialism in Ireland, Thomas Moore—indecisive Irish nationalist but highly perceptive poet—wryly notes the magical effect a single word can have on shaping collective perception: 

Rebellion! foul, dishonouring word,
Whose wrongful blight so oft has stain'd 
The holiest cause that tongue or sword
Of mortal ever lost or gain'd. 
How many a spirit, born to bless,
Hath sunk beneath that withering name, 
Whom but a day's, an hour's success 
Had wafted to eternal fame! 

Consider that many people in the Capitol attack referred to it as the opening salvo of a “revolution,” thus justifying their violence in the arc of American history. “Revolution” is a word that has now acquired the sheen that Moore identified in the word “liberty,” which he describes in the same poem as a “spell-word,” or rebellion’s legitimating inverse. Consider that even after an entire year of events that should properly transcend political partisanship, acts of terror are still being spun through the centrifuge of extremist right-wing media and emerging as acts of revolution. Signification has never seemed so pointless and so urgent. 

We may also feel compelled to resist labeling the Capitol attack as terrorism because it seemed, somehow, simply ridiculous, lacking the deathly grandeur of the destruction of the Twin Towers, that emblematic terror spectacle. The awful sublimity of giant airplanes crashing into giant buildings has been replaced by the tedious analysis of deciphering the QAnon Shaman’s runic tattoos. But, as Napoleon ruefully observed about the retreat from Moscow, the sublime and ridiculous eventually intersect. From this perspective, the Capitol attack’s strange mixture of absurdity and menace— terror arriving via not a dark-skinned stranger but a guy named Baked Alaska—is a terrorism that is strikingly reminiscent of depictions of the French Revolution as a coalescence of the carnivalesque and the terrible. Take, as only one example, Gillray’s Promis’d Horrors of the French Invasion, or Forcible reasons for negotiating a Regicide Peace (1796), a response to the publication, in the same year, of the first of Edmund Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace. In these letters, which were written to protest peace negotiations with the French government, Burke describes Jacobinism as an enemy both tangible and intangible, an “armed doctrine” that, left unchecked abroad, will embolden conspirators at home and usher in systemic devastation. In Gillray’s caricature, it’s not entirely clear where the real locus of danger lies. True, French forces led by a conspicuously racialized soldier wearing the colors of a Haitian volunteer legion march down St. James’s Street on the left, but scenes of civil unrest and violence appear in the foreground, dominated by the central image of Charles James Fox thrashing a shirtless William Pitt. In Gillray’s vision, the French seem like a pretext for the unleashing of violent forces deep within the heart of Britishness. Amidst scenes both horrifying and hysterical (William Grenville’s dismembered body gently dripping blood, the Duke of Bedford in the flesh of a bull tossing Burke into the air), a remarkable lot of paper flies around, one sheet resting in a pool of blood. This is Burke’s armed doctrine, torn in our own era into a thousand digital shards. 


RC Unbound Issue No.: 


Exit Liberty

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Daniel O’Quinn
University of Guelph

James Gillray's 1799 caricature of Napoleon and army, in military garb, pointing their weapons as they advance on fleeing civilians.

James Gillray, Exit Libertè a la Francois!-or- Buonaparte closing the Farce of Egalitè, at St cloud near Paris Novr 10th 1799, 1799.
Digital reproduction courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum, London.

It is now evident that January 6, 2021 was a failed coup d’état, a coup advertised well advance and executed with the same casual, weaponized ineptitude that characterizes all Trumpian endeavours. This has a particular Romantic resonance because the famous coup of 18-19 Brumaire (November 9-10, 1799), in which Napoleon and his allies forcibly dissolved the Directory and installed a new consular government headed by First Consul Bonaparte, was not without its miscues. Unsurprisingly, the aesthetic categories most famously associated with a coup d’état—tragedy and farce, as Marx so powerfully proposed for this event and for Louis Napoleon’s seizure of power in 1851—have been invoked frequently to characterize the assault on the Capitol.  Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte makes for bracing reading in the wake of America’s coup in part because one feels elements of historical repetition and in part because what happened feels so unprecedented.  We are confronted with the paradox of unprecedented repetition—a form of retroaction that both evokes and negates precedent in order to generate a fantasy of autonomous antecedence—a future condition that saturates time itself.  This temporal sleight of hand is in plain sight, for the imperative “Make America Great Again” makes precisely such a claim on the future by collapsing all temporal categories into the now meaningless word “again.” 

Because theatre unfolds in the present and yet mediates between past repertoires and unknown futures, it partakes of the temporal uncertainty of the political. Burke famously derogated the French Revolution as a tragi-comedy, and it was precisely generic hybridity that contravened Burke’s dramatic theory of politics.  But Burke’s invocation of the normative force of tragedy was always already farcical because Georgian theatrical culture was radically expanding its strategies for eliciting affective response across a host of proliferating new genres.  James Gillray’s appraisal of Napoleon’s coup exhibits a less belated sense of generic expectation.  In Exit Libertè a la Francoise!—or—Buonaparte closing the Farce of Egalitè, at St. Cloud near Paris Novr 10 1799, Napoleon strides across the picture plane every bit the tragic hero having suffered the dagger wounds drawn against him in the Five Hundred, a fable shored up by Lucien Bonaparte’s suggestion that armed brigands operating at the behest of the English government were afoot (the relationship between misinformation and the coup d’etat seems very prescient).  Unlike Marx, who uses the notion of historical devolution from tragedy to farce to imagine a certain death drive within the capitalist state, Gillray sets tragedy and farce at cross purposes here in a dialectical image that invokes and undercuts both genres simultaneously. The print’s caption figures the French state as a farcical imitation of equality, but its pictorial rhetoric renders the autocrat as the tragic hero, albeit one whose claims to heroism are mocked by the hideous demeanour of his armed entourage.  As fake tragedy outmaneuvers shitty farce, liberty, that ostensible province of the British constitution, exits the scene altogether.  So, Napoleon’s stance is a parody of tragic heroism: “tragedy” purges the nation of one debased entity, but fills the vacuum with a more fearsome assemblage.

Like Marx and Burke, Gillray figures historical events in theatrical terms, but this print entered the mediascape at a moment of intense theatrical and social experimentation. Audiences and publics were repeatedly confronted with unprecedented affective and generic dispositions in the worlds of both entertainment and politics.  Volatility, something ostensibly singular, became a recurrent experience that was eventually incorporated and expected within both the theatrical and the political repertoire.  At this relatively early moment in the integration of spectacle into both theater and politics, genre’s firm hold on future expectations began to loosen.  New forms emerged that largely eschewed normative causality or probability to create a performative scenario in which anything could happen, making one hyper-aware that the present can take any number of predicates. This heightened sense of the uncertainty of historical predication—how the past makes itself felt in the present and takes on a specific future disposition—makes late-Georgian culture of its time and a harbinger of so much to come.

Characterizing the politically polarized mediascape of Romantic performance in this way allows one to discern all too familiar elements of our current social and cultural predicament.  Open predication is the hallmark of both reality television and on-line gaming: both media feint at generic control but their affective punctum relies on a hyper-simulation of lived uncertainty. Inculcating the feeling that anything can happen is in many ways the Trumpian brand.  Using distraction and obfuscation to disconnect the present from the verifiable past generates the fantasy that all futures are Trump’s future: all temporal differentiation is subsumed into the present of narcissistic identification.  For Trump’s supporters, that means all futures are theirs too, not as a collective, but as individual self-generating self-affirming versions of the self-same.  That this is the endgame of white supremacy and incel misogyny shouldn’t be surprising, but is this tragedy, as so many pundits have opined? Is this farce? 

How do you categorize a performance featuring players who don the skins of animals in costumes carefully designed to show proto-Nazi tattoos; who top the regalia of white supremacy with horned headdresses; who take “direction” from the rants of fascist clowns; who, like strangely confused Romans, fall on their swords by tasering themselves in the testicles; whose patriotism involves laboriously torturing one of the Capitol guards to death (thus proving Johnson’s famous adage); who freely advertise that a similar show can be staged again and again and again because their whiteness ensures that they remain alive?  This coup was staged not to usurp power but simply to guarantee that the show will go on: it was an overtly theatrical condensation of all the Trumpian themes because theatre as a medium is so fundamentally tied to the promise of repetition. The events of January 6th took mash-ups already popular on conspiracy websites and demonstrated in realtime the existence of a mass audience ready to relish the repeated smashing of norms to the point of suborning murder.  A failed coup but a successful spectacle of one constituency’s claim to a solipsistic future fully detached from the constraints of probability or causality.  

Because this parody of a coup deployed a crowd of deluded acolytes rather than an organized junta, it achieved something unprecedented: it became quickly accepted as but one political possibility among many, as the “expression” of a faction, as an accepted “event” that provides a future of self-replication to the Trumpists even while it extinguished the futures of five people and imperilled or permanently altered the lives of myriad others. Those who invaded the Capitol activated a style of historical cosplay that made their present endless, the only possibility for a politics of disruptive narcissism.  In this temporal fantasy, every event is unprecedented and yet a repetition not of the history of white supremacy, but rather of the desired future that propels it.  In this way, fascism’s future comes to pass without being realized or constrained by any singular historical event. For those who instigated this generic rupture, the affective payoff of this plenitudinous “fake” future is already being monetized to pay down Trump’s legal fees, his looming debts, and support the ongoing obfuscation of what he and his minions have done. 

And yet within performative time the present remains a moment when we are other to ourselves, when alterity can be most profoundly recognized. Within the repertoire of American politics, this amplifies awareness of the history of racist and masculinist privilege and challenges any notion that the efficacy of such privilege is timeless. The awareness that these mutually reinforcing forces that have defined American life are ending fuels both the Trumpist delusion and the collective resistance that is opening itself to the radical possibility of liberty grounded in difference. But as Gillray’s print indicates, the now incorporated coup will inhere as a generic possibility that may yet pass into the hands of more ruthlessly effective (or merely opportunistic) players. In that fearsome scenario the stage direction will simply be “Exit Liberty, American style.”

RC Unbound Issue No.: 


Out of Time

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Konstantinos Pozoukidis
University of Maryland, College Park


At the beginning of July during the pandemic, while I was scrolling through my social media, I noticed a post concerning ICE changing its regulations for international students. The article mentioned that, despite most colleges going online, the Trump administration was planning to prohibit international college students from remaining in the U.S. if their programs migrated to a remote mode of teaching. The news was both unsettling and laughable, given that Republicans are the fiercest advocates of free-market capitalism. During a deadly worldwide healthcare crisis that turned into an economic one, hundreds of thousands of international students helped support their local American communities financially (NAFSA: Association of International Educators estimates our contribution to 41 billion dollars for 2018-2019). International students have rented overpriced apartments in college towns for decades while they supported local businesses by purchasing goods and services. With our high tuition, limited funding, and underpaid labor, we provide high-quality education to undergraduates and we staff innumerable campus labs that pursue state-of-the-art research. Universities around the country, several Ivy League schools among them, realized the consequences of these new regulations and moved to contest them in court. In doing so, they used a rhetoric of liberal economics seasoned with a pinch of humanism, underscoring institutional financial impact and the need to protect their international student population. The Trump administration backed off. 

To many of our American colleagues, the Trump administration’s initiative constituted the first direct attack against the international student population. For us, it simply escalated the series of extreme restrictions that shape our lives in the US, constantly threatening our documented presence and forcing us to find our way through a labyrinth of bureaucracy. As tremendously difficult as graduate student life is for many in this country, international students face a distinct set of challenges that verge on the existential.  Our status as students depends on two official documents, the I-20 and the student visa, that require proof of financial eligibility and a trip to an embassy abroad, plus a student visa interview every time they expire. We come to this country effectively under the threat of erasure, since at any point and for no reason, a TSA official has the right to deny us entry. The same applies to any visa renewal application we submit. We are only allowed to work 20 hours per week at our institutions, and we cannot take part-time positions to supplement our inadequate funding. If an international student is married, his or her legal partner is unable to work; for a couple to survive, they need either to live at poverty level or to transfer a considerable amount of money from overseas, which only the privileged can afford. At the same time, and even though with our limited stipends we still pay federal and state taxes, we have no guaranteed unemployment benefits (or to a stimulus check for that matter). All these restrictions existed before Trump’s openly xenophobic administration, but universities consistently resist alleviating our economic precarity as they might by raising our wages, providing affordable housing, or fighting for our partners’ rights to work part-time on campus. Judging from the fact that it took the threat of the new regulations to make higher education institutions support us so publically, I believe a dubious utilitarianism forced the schools to intervene on our part. They did so only to protect revenue, either because they might receive less tuition from those international students who pay out of pocket or because they might lose part of their cheap graduate student labor force.

As someone whose research involves thinking about Romanticism and time, I’ve noticed that myself and other international students experience temporal inequality in the US. By magnifying unexpectedly the material vulnerability of our condition, the Trump administration made visible to institutions, colleagues, and friends that we inhabit multiple, conflicting temporalities. On the one hand, our lives are organized around the routine demands of teaching and study, as well as those involving our intellectual and professional development. On the other hand, our student status allows us to live in the US only temporarily. We count our time in this country backwards from the moment of our un/willed departure. Status renewals or professional training extensions buy us tiny chunks of time that expire after a few months, briefly suspending uncertainty over our departure, while work visas remind us that we will be asked to leave within 10 days if our contracts do not get renewed. Despite economic, educational, and cultural contributions that persist long after we are gone, our documented presence in the US does not count towards a green card, even when some students, such as my friend Katarina, have lived in the States for over a decade pursuing an undergraduate, a Masters and then a doctoral degree.

International student time is always out of sync with American time. Our time is considered too much when the State determines it and not enough when the State demands documentation of our presence. As heterogenous and fragmented as American temporality might seem, an alien resident’s experience of time in this country is defined by a basic alienation from the temporal common that all US citizens actually share. In addition, our home countries have temporalities of their own, with which most of us have failed to keep in sync. Aspects of our social lives move forward or backward with a tempo we cannot follow because we now inhabit different social structure whose temporality we must follow. Many of us actively tried to escape the temporality of our home countries to avoid the interminable repetition of war (as an Israeli colleague once confessed), or the backwardness of sexism and homophobia, or the slow violence of unemployment (close to 60% for youth in Greece). Trump’s possible run in the 2024 elections reminds us that even if we make it in the United States until then, our time might run out for good. 

The U.S. government has long established a complex system to control the presence of foreign nationals in its territory, with very few qualifying for secure status as documented immigrants. For the rest of us, officially termed “nonimmigrants,” our presence is contingent on a discourse that combines Adam Smith’s laissez faire laissez passer with a white, monocultural nationalism requiring strict government control of the workforce that takes into consideration only immediate monetary returns. In this discourse foreigners are welcome only if they work too much and they do exactly as they are told when they are told to do it. The pandemic has exposed many pre-existing inequities in U.S. society, and Trump’s actions reveal yet another: the temporal inequality experienced by nonresident aliens living in the United States. 

In retrospect, the Trump administration did us a favor by highlighting how we constantly face the threat of erasure, with our documented time always counting backwards, ready to expire at a moment’s notice. This situation might have provided a starting point for international students and the institutions that allegedly care for our wellbeing to begin discussing how best to achieve our equitable inclusion in all aspects of American time. I believe we have lost this opportunity, at least for now.

RC Unbound Issue No.: 



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Orrin N. C. Wang, University of Maryland, College Park


I still remember the moment in graduate school when I realized how necessary it was to read Wordsworth’s Prelude through gender and sexuality, since in a fundamental way the poem is about what it means to become a man. I would venture for many the force of that encounter today comes from considering a particular reiteration of that question, how much the Prelude is about what it means to be a White man. And consequently, what it means to be neither White nor a man. Being neither, or being perceived as neither—for many, that is not simply the place where the literary dwells, but the social, political, and existential too.

In my case the most immediate context for this predicament has been the surge in violent attacks against Asian Americans this past year. A number of commentators responding to those attacks have done a good job of making explicit the ties between race and sexuality that underlie aggression against members of the Asian community in this country, a junction the shootings in Atlanta recently crystallized. The inability of the Georgia police captain to make that connection—not believing the shootings constituted a hate crime but conveying instead the suspect’s understanding that his actions were an attempt to deal with his sexual addiction—provided critics with the chance to rebut that view by pointing out how there are many in American society who don’t have the luxury of separating the racism and misogyny invading their lives: young Asian American women whose bullying and harassment are always expressed in racist terms as well as Asian sex workers materially vulnerable to the demands of their customers, exploitation by their employers, and vagaries of their immigration status. The hyper-sexualization of Asian women in society, a predicament that for many makes all Asian women a caricatured fantasy of the sex-worker in the male imagination, is enabled by a racializing imperative underwriting the numerous aggressions, both micro and macro, that Asian American women endure.

There is another dimension to this dynamic that also helps explain the uptick in attacks this year, and how, young women aside, the preponderance of victims have been elderly Asians, both men and women. Other reasons have been widely discussed, such as the racist language of Trump and other Republicans, who by labeling Covid-19 the Wuhan Flu or the China virus attached it to the bodies of Asian Americans, tapping into a history of the “Yellow Peril,” of anti-immigrant paranoia that imagines Asians as indistinct members of an invasive, infectious, and belligerent force. With the psychic strain of over a year of the pandemic, it’s no surprise that anger toward Asian communities should rise and take the pathological form of physical and verbal attacks. And the targeting of elderly and young women would seem to confirm the very nature of this racist hostility as bullying and cowardly, choosing victims thought least able to defend themselves. A number of the recorded attacks are as abrupt as they are vicious and cruel, a push to the sidewalk or a punch in the face, the perpetrator walking quickly away out of the camera’s view.

These connections all seem right to me. I want simply to add another, one presaged by my initial reference to Wordsworth and known all too well in Asian American literature and critical thought: that within this country Asia and the Asian American are neither White nor male. However individual Asian Americans might identify themselves there is always a bar, materially and structurally overdetermined, that prevents entrance to the domain of masculine subjectivity. (Of course, Asian American covers the diverse experience of a number of people and ethnic groups, something activists knowingly deployed when they coined the term in the sixties and which we need to be reminded of given its current reification. But that fact and the barring from Western masculinity I’m describing both simply speak to Laclau and Mouffe’s point about how much identity is not about essence or shared experience but shared restriction; I and others are defined by what constrains us.) Asian American men are not men, which means they either are sexually neutered or racially inscribed by the “feminine” traits of passivity, submissiveness, docility, and meekness—the loss of agency that constitutes someone as an individual who can be victimized with impunity. And elderly and young female Asian Americans, as those beings who supposedly express those traits in a hyper-manner, become the representatives for a whole community of racialized subjects defined by a non-Whiteness that is definitively non-masculine.

We are witnessing a time of self-perpetuating logic, seeded by a politics of racialized scapegoating perfected by the past administration and its boosters on the right.  In such a toxic landscape, where punishing the scapegoat becomes an episodic, reflexive expression of the free-form anger of daily life, little wonder that the target is a race of people defined by their supposed lack of agency and resistance, and that its most exposed members are especially at risk as emblems of that racialized and sexualized vulnerability. Beyond whatever end such attacks seek to accomplish (stamping out the virus or giving the model minority their comeuppance), the attack itself is its own achievement, one to be repeated again and again. Lash out at someone different (neither White nor male) and lash out at someone who is there to be attacked (neither White nor male.) Hence the especially unnerving nature of assaults that in many cases seem so random and spontaneous. In a time when so many openly lobby for vindictiveness as a virtue, with Blake’s jealous Father of Men as their avatar, the everyday violence against Asian Americans becomes figuratively and literally the violence of the everyday, as spontaneous as it is omnipresent.

Of course, the attackers’ cruel delight also manifests a selfish fear, an attempt to erase the mirroring threat of a perceived lack, something missing without which a jealous Father could never exist. Recognizing the smallness of those carrying out these acts, however, offers little comfort to those suffering the pain of an attack or waiting for the next one to happen.

What then is to be done? Aside from supporting the practical demands activists and others are currently making, I would say we must recognize that, given the geo-political realities of this new century, anti-Chinese and thus anti-Asian American sentiment may spike at any moment and take on a life of its own. And that this will happen either in the way I’ve described or another way Asians and Asian Americans have been sexually imagined and punished: not as the docile lotus blossom but as the devious and seductive dragon lady, to use Renee Tajima-Peña’s terms. I would also second what others have said, that the key to resistance to racial and sexual violence lies in solidarity over tribalism. For myself that task involves the quiet, difficult, and defiant work of reflecting upon the place of neither, historically and structurally, as not a limitation or disadvantage, but as a strength and a resource. Not as a fetish or an oppression or an occasion to mourn. Not simply a place either, but the point of an intervention, from which the impetus of a politics might follow. Rephrasing Žižek: neither, yes, please.  

RC Unbound Issue No.: 


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.

RC Unbound Issue No.: 


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.

RC Unbound Issue No.: 


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.

RC Unbound Issue No.: 


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.

RC Unbound Issue No.: 


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. 

RC Unbound Issue No.: 


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. 

RC Unbound Issue No.: