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NASSR 2019 Panel: Beyond the Pale: New Directions in Transnational Romanticisms​​. Reviewed by Alexandra Milsom, Brian Rejack, Shavera Seneviratne

Wednesday, December 18, 2019 - 16:12

Romantic Elements
North American Society for the Study of Romanticism
Chicago, Illinois
August 8-11, 2019

North American Society for the Study of Romanticism
Chicago 2019
Panel: “Beyond the Pale: New Directions in Transnational Romanticisms”​

  • Moderators: Deanna Koretsky (Spelman College) and Joel Pace (University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire)
  • Atesede Makonnen (Johns Hopkins University), “‘The actual sight of the thing’: Horror, Blackness, and Romantic Visualizations of Race”
  • Cesar Soto (University of Notre Dame), “‘Reflections on Exile’: Criollo Romanticisms”
  • Omar F. Miranda (University of San Francisco), “Romantic Celebrity and the Journal of Exile: El Colombiano and The Liberal
  • Bakary Diaby (Skidmore College), “Feeling Black, Feeling Back: Racism, Fragility, and Romanticism”
  • Manu Samriti Chander (Rutgers University--Newark), Respondent

Reviewed by Alexandra Milsom (Hostos Community College, CUNY), Brian Rejack (Illinois State University), Shavera Seneviratne ( University of Minnesota-Twin Cities)

Intro: Deanna Koretsky (Spelman College) and Joel Pace (University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire)

If you were at NASSR 2019 in Chicago, and if you attended Session 11a, “Beyond the Pale: New Directions in Transnational Romanticisms,” sponsored by the Race and Empire Studies Caucus, you probably well recall how things started off. Panel moderators Deanna Koretsky and Joel Pace introduced things by explaining that the panel’s presenters were sharing versions of work that had been recently included in a special issue of Symbiosis (edited by Koretsky and Pace). That issue also includes a “Coda: From Coteries to Collectives,” written by the Bigger Six Collective (about which many Romanticists know from the hashtag #Bigger6). In the spirit of collectivity, Pace led the room in a collaborative reading of that coda by asking attendees to read one after another, with individual readers deciding upon the length (from a single word to a sentence or two) to read aloud. It was a striking display of the commitment to the shift marked in the title “From Coteries to Collectives,” and it set the stage for a group of papers which would each, in different ways, speak to the wealth of exciting work currently being done to expand the multiplicities of Romanticisms across national borders, temporal boundaries, identity categories, and ideological formations.

Atesede Makonnen (Johns Hopkins University), “‘The actual sight of the thing’: Horror, Blackness, and Romantic Visualizations of Race”

The first presenter to speak to this kind of work was Atesede Makonnen (Johns Hopkins University) in her paper “‘The Actual Sight of the Thing’: Romantic Visualizations of Blackness”. Her presentation explored the shift in the way black bodies are discussed in Romantic works and how they codify the boundaries of racial discourse during the period. Portraying how the impression of the black body was moving from one of pity to anxiety in the minds and works of those writing in the early nineteenth century, Makonnen drew our attention to how these reactions were framed around visualizations, or in other words, in ways of seeing black bodies. One notable example she cited was Charles Lamb’s review of Othello, a text in which the “actual sight of the thing”—“the thing” being the sight of a black Othello marrying a white Desdemona—is so horrific that in Lamb’s eyes perhaps Shakespeare should not be staged at all. As Makonnen explains, examples such as Lamb’s, in addition to many other writers such as Maria Edgeworth, show us that this was less about being seen as black but rather that it encapsulated a “white moment of seeing.” What was perhaps most striking about this presentation was also its framing of Romantic visualizations of black bodies within our present context of race and race relations in the twenty-first century. Like the other members of this panel, Makonnen’s paper was a compelling reminder of the ways in which racialized mappings of the body during the Romantic period have trickled down into our current discourse.

Cesar Soto (University of Notre Dame), “‘Reflections on Exile’: Criollo Romanticisms”

Cesar Soto’s talk opened with a type of question familiar to those who frequent talks oriented around #Bigger6 concerns: “Why Mexico in English Romanticism?” This question anticipates objections, still shockingly pervasive, about the importance of studying the literature of colonized spaces, and it also points to a vast array of potential scholarship that has yet to be taken as seriously as it deserves. As his essay from Symbiosis explains, Soto’s work “expands the geographical scope implied by the term transatlantic” (45), raising stakes for those interested in the literature of the period. Like his essay, his talk points to the array of literary, religious, and political writings available to Romanticist scholars who turn their attention to Mexico.

According to Soto, understanding Mexican cultural work in the period at hand requires that we mark the rise of a criollo consciousness (“criollo” defined as someone of Spanish descent born in Mexico) alongside Mexican cultural self-fashioning under the influence of both Spanish imperial rule and English Romanticism. As had the Irish in the eyes of colonial invaders, Mexico’s indigenous, racialized “other” loomed as a perceived constitutional threat to colonial invaders. Soto explained, of course, that criollo ineffectiveness came about largely as a result of restrictions imposed by Spain, but criollo consciousness harbored a deep anxiety that the climate of the so-called New World would cause the criollo people to turn lazy and indolent, as if the climate itself had the power to racialize colonists and turn them into caricatures of the indigenous population.

As we were reminded during Soto’s talk, during the first decade of the nineteenth century, Buonaparte placed his brother on the Spanish throne, initiating an international crisis that would lead to the Mexican independence movement in 1810. In fact, the first Mexican novel—The Mangy Parrot (El Periquillo Sarniento) (1816) by José Joaquin Fernández de Lizardi— was a picaresque written during the war to protest Spanish colonial rule. While providing fruitful literary context for studying Mexican literature of the period, Soto cautioned that when exploring English Romanticism in Mexican culture, scholars run similar risks found in studying Romanticism in Ireland in the period—the complex religious demographics make it essential to tread with circumspection.

Omar F. Miranda (University of San Francisco), “Romantic Celebrity and the Journal of Exile: El Colombiano and The Liberal

Omar Miranda (University of San Francisco) brought us back to England from Latin America in his provocative talk, and like Soto, Miranda reminded us that many important literary figures have been negligently lost in the journey over the Atlantic. His talk focused on Francisco Miranda (1750-1816), an anti-imperialist writer who spent three decades exiled in Europe before returning to Venezuela where he would die after being imprisoned by his government. Miranda’s talk resurrected this alluring “Don Juan figure” in whose image many of today’s more famous Romantic writers sought to fashion themselves. Though Francisco Miranda’s fame has faded, Omar Miranda reminded us, the Venezuelan was Lord Byron avant la lettre, and his advocacy of liberal causes cast the prototype—now cliché—of the outspoken celebrity who uses his or her fame to advocate for liberal causes (think Kim Kardashian on prison reform).

Omar Miranda explained that Francisco Miranda, by “leveraging celebrity status to promote liberty and equality,” set an important precedent for his acolytes: before Shelley, Byron, and Hunt published The Liberal (1816) while in Pisan exile, Miranda produced El Colombiano (1810), a compendium of political treatises, literary works, and reviews that circulated widely throughout the empire. On its pages, he described what Omar Miranda’s Symbiosis essay calls an “alternate postcolonial destiny” (65) and emancipation for Spanish America, and consequently, Spanish authorities banned his work throughout the empire. By restoring Francisco Miranda to a place of prominence among the radical visionaries of his day, Omar Miranda has done a great service to the historical record and our field as a whole.

Bakary Diaby (Skidmore College), “Feeling Black, Feeling Back: Racism, Fragility, and Romanticism”

Bakary Diaby’s paper returned specifically to the topic discussed by Makonnen in the paper which started the panel: the meanings of blackness, then and now. The presentation began with reference to a line from the song “Unloveable” by The Smiths (accurately described by Diaby as “the whitest band ever”), in which Morrissey sings, “I wear black on the outside / ’cause black is how I feel on the inside.” Reading this lyric as an emblematic instance of how black feeling has been and continues to be appropriated by white voices, Diaby suggested that white fragility operates as a key element of how Romanticism and race connect: in Romantic writing and scholarship white fragility has functioned as the precondition for an appropriation of the (perceived) resilience of black being and feeling. Bakary suggests that contemporary affect theory helps enable that appropriation with its emphasis on affect over feeling. In that context, “affect” refers to a pre-cognitive, mobile, fluid force that precedes the more easily fixed and knowable “feeling.” Diaby suggests that it is worth recuperating “feeling” because it preserves an embodied specificity (like, say, the particular feelings experienced in relation to one’s racialized or gendered body) that risks being erased with an undue emphasis on “affect.” Diaby’s paper concluded with the compelling hope that “black feeling,” the specificity of feeling that emerges from the lived experience of being black, does not end up as yet another example of the kinds of denials enforced on black people, as enumerated by Claudia Rankine in her essay “The Condition of Black Life is Mourning”: “no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day… no living while black.” The work of understanding race and Romanticism thus becomes inextricably entangled with how we understand, and perhaps how we change, the way that race and racism operate in our contemporary contexts.

Manu Samriti Chander (Rutgers University--Newark), Respondent

After Diaby’s paper, Manu Samriti Chander offered a compelling set of questions by way of response. Among these were, what language is appropriate and needed to talk race in the context of Romanticism, and what is the other of race talk, which he suggested is, all too often, simply silence. Chander asserted, through his responsive, interrogative mode, that race ought to be not just some supplemental consideration that some scholars bring to bear on Romanticism, but (as Koretsky also compellingly argued in a plenary delivered at the “Resistance in the Spirit of Romanticism” conference in fall 2018) a central and governing concern of the field as a whole. Or, as Chander put it in his own paper at NASSR a few days before, “the problem of diversity is the problem of Romanticism.” 

Q & A

One question posed to the panel at large inquired if their own lived experiences had served as a framing point or methodology of sorts when conducting work that involved a heavy focus on identity and race. Some members like Makonnen reiterated the points they brought up in the talks, and discussed their own relationality to the work they conduct. Others like Miranda, though not necessarily having thought about lived experiences in relation to their work, did discuss the value and power that such work has in shifting the center of Romanticism as many of these #Bigger6 scholars demonstrated during the panel. As a whole, the overall tenor of the Q&A period suggested that the work presented by the panelists was warmly received. The reception also seemed to be inflected by a shared hope that more work like the papers that had been presented there will be forthcoming in the future.