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Jodi Byrd - The Transit of Empire
How does The Tempest’s Caliban, resonate with Jonestown, Guyana, and issues surrounding Cherokee Freedmen’s membership within the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma? Using the transit of Venus as a point of entry, Jodi Byrd’s The Transit of Empire questions the U.S government’s varied definition of “indianness” in the pursuit of settler colonialism. The transit of American imperialism situates “indianness” within a fixed frame to enable colonial expansion, and ensure American security on the continent. However, that definition is always contingent, always tenuous, and relies on the current political needs of the state. The Transit of Empire interrogates the neoliberal mission of the state by comparing examples from the past to the present. Drawing from poststructuralist, postcolonialist and critical race theory, Byrd questions how the trope of “indianness” is used to imaginatively and materially constrain Indigenous peoples through domestic and foreign policies. Such transient discourses not only affirm U.S. expansion, but also affect the realities of Indigenous nations through land claims, resource extraction, and identity politics. By critiquing American neoliberal rhetoric with a strong foundation in the varied history of Indigenous nations, Byrd uses Indigenous critical theory as a lens to interpret U.S. expansionism, and affirm Indigenous sovereignty in the realm of the imagination and the material world. Sovereignty is not only the ability to have judicial and political control over a nation, “sovereignty…is an act of interpretation.”
Special thanks to Katherine Meloche for this review.
Heather Love – “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn”
Even today, where would literary critics be without close reading? The practice is like methodological oxygen – sustaining literary-critical life yet, as such, frequently unremarked, unexamined, taken for granted. The closeness of close reading inheres in this given-ness, which persists even in the face of defenses of close reading or manifestos against it. Heather Love wants to shake things up a bit, by focusing on how the ideologies and the practices of close reading are estranged and entangled. In “Close but not Deep,” she charts the adaptive power of close reading as a practice – or indeed the adaptive power of generations of scholars unable to do without it. Thus in the passage from New Criticism through structuralism and post-structuralism and on to explicitly political approaches such as feminism, post-colonialism, and queer studies, the hermeneutic protocols encapsulated by close reading not only survive but thrive. “Close reading,” Love notes, “is at the heart of literary studies, a key credential in hiring and promotion, and the foundation of literary pedagogy; it is primarily through this practice that humanist values survive in the field.” Here emerges the key tension addressed by Love: that schools of thought expressly, even constitutively critical of humanism (conceptually, ethically, and politically) undermine such critique at the level of method by reinscribing “humanist values” through close reading as a practice. At stake, in this tension, is the prestige of the critic, whose authority and also ethical charisma hinge on the display, in close reading, of textual mastery. One alternative, as Love recounts, is the rejection of close reading altogether, in favor of sociological modes of engagement exemplified by book history, institutional history, and digital humanities. Love, though, ventures instead to imagine how close reading might shed its humanism. The key, in her account, entails the power of description: the capacity to attend closely but not deeply to what texts say. Tracing models for descriptive analysis in the work of Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman, she then ventures a provocative example of her own: a “flat reading” of Toni Morrison’s Beloved – so often celebrated for its epitomization of the humanist powers of empathy – in order to venture “the possibility of an alternative ethics, one grounded in documentation and description rather than empathy and witness.” Attending to descriptive moments in Morrison’s novel, and insisting on their significance to the novel’s meaning, Love renders vivid the political import of flat reading as a practice: to insist on abiding “facts of dehumanization,” and thereby to insist on “what is irrecuperable in the historical record.” The consequences for literary-historical endeavor– the sorts of hard facts and felt truths and uncomfortable intimacies that description, so practiced, might lay bare – are breathtaking.
Vivavan Soni Mourning Happiness
We North Americans are both obsessed with and suspicious of happiness. If we didn’t have so much trepidation about using the “royal we” we might further suggest that this collaboration of suspicion and obsession (not to mention the trepidation) is a symptom of liberal guilt, or at least an example of the kinds of negative affect that—no matter how much we believe in happiness—we produce and endorse under late liberalism. Viv Soni offers a much richer diagnosis of and intellectual history of our happiness dilemma. While conventional wisdom has it that the founding fathers of liberalism were committed to happiness, Soni thinks instead that the origins of liberalism made a politics of happiness impossible, that in fact, something went terribly wrong “at the critical juncture of modernity when liberal states were just coming into being.” Making a provocative link between liberalism and literary history, Soni argues that novels provided the structural scaffolding that turned a classical commitment to political happiness into our impoverished modern notion of happiness as privatized and apolitical. Associated with judgment, tragedy, and funeral orations in classical theorizations, happiness in liberal modernity is now allied with the private realms of feeling, novels, and marriage. The vaunted early liberal commitment to “the pursuit of” or “the right to” happiness never existed, according to Soni, and what appears to be an obsession with happiness under liberalism is actually the dismantling of a politicized project of happiness. Sigh.
This post explores ‘career’ as a key term and concept with which to imagine the histories of liberalism and literary history.
Career: If liberalism and literary history do have careers, then a really profitable understanding of their entanglements might require a visit not just to the library but also to the turf accountant’s. For the word “career” starts its career in the realms of horseracing and the tournament. Thus we get ideas of ground or course – spaces of contest, of victory and defeat, of symbolic capital and symbolic (as well as real) violence. Heavily ritualized, such spaces proliferate contingencies – the gamble, as it were, on the gambol. What seems particularly striking, in these definitions, whether they entail ground or course, gallop or frisk, swift motion or full swing, and whether they feature horse or falcon, person or star, is the repeated emphasis on furious, bursting movement. Indeed, despite the early and the current sense of groundedness (such that gaining a career now typically connotes settling down) the term is, to judge from these definitions, as much as anything about buzzing, speeding, careening. So does the wager to venture on the careers of liberalism and literary history take odds on their continued circulation together? Stands to reason: the two sure do get around.
Selected definitions and quotations from the OED
†1. a. The ground on which a race is run, a racecourse; (also) the space within the barrier at a tournament.
b. transf. The course over which any person or thing passes; road, path way. Obs.
†2. a. Of a horse: A short gallop at full speed (often in phr. to pass a career ). Also a charge, encounter (at a tournament or in battle). Obs.
†b. ‘The short turning of a nimble horse, now this way, nowe that way’ (Baret Alvearie); transf. a frisk, gambol. Obs.
3. a. By extension: A running, course (usually implying swift motion); formerly applied spec. to the course of the sun or a star through the heavens. Also abstr. Full speed, impetus.
b. Hawking. Career, in falconry, is a flight or tour of the bird, about one hundred and twenty yards.
4. fig. Rapid and continuous ‘course of action, uninterrupted procedure’; formerly also, The height, ‘full swing’ of a person’s activity.
5. a. A person’s course or progress through life (or a distinct portion of life), esp. when publicly conspicuous, or abounding in remarkable incidents: similarly with reference to a nation, a political party, etc.
b. A course of professional life or employment, which affords opportunity for progress or advancement in the world.
a1586 Sir P. Sidney Arcadia (1590) iii. xvi. sig. Rr5, It was fitte for him to go to the other ende of the Career.
a1616 Shakespeare Henry V (1623) ii. i. 121 The king is a good king, but … he passes some humors, and carreeres.
1667 Milton Paradise Lost i. 766 Mortal combat or carreer with Lance.
1762 W. Falconer Shipwreck ii. 30 Vast torrents force a terrible career.
1810 Scott Lady of Lake iii. 114 Stretch onward in thy fleet career!
1866 ‘G. Eliot’ Felix Holt I. i. 40 Harold must go and make a career for himself.
1884 Contemp. Rev. 46 99 An artist, even in the humblest rank, had a career before him.
1951 R. Hoggart Auden vi. 200 The career-girl Rosetta yearns for her lush English landscape.
Jonathan Flatley “How A Revolutionary Counter-Mood is Made”
The mood can get morose on the LLH shop floor these days, what with toxic austerity permeating both academic and economic “management,” “voluntary severance” promoted for accomplished literary historians, and Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s increasingly absurd performance of autonomous subjectivity, not to mention the tribulations of Obamacare and the international politics of pipelines. What’s more, that morose mood itself can come (more than austerity or pipeline) to seem or be the thing: the cause for rage or despair and so the source of impasse. Mood goes a long way toward making the world – what’s palpable or impalpable, thinkable or unthinkable, possible or impossible at any one time. Jonathan Flatley really gets this situation, and he has the tonic. “How a Revolutionary Counter-Mood Is Made” offers a compelling account of the significance of mood in the making –and the un/re-making – of worlds. Key to the argument is a concept of “affective attunement,” a means or mode of sharing feeling-in-common and so of galvanizing a shift in mood, a passage into counter-mood, such that social change and political resistance become newly possible. The literary-historical case, for Flatley, involves the activist work of the Detroit-based Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a militant African-American workers’ collective inspired, in reading Lenin, to launch a factory newspaper in 1968 that used the repeated and insistent description of injustice to outrage its readers, and so provoked the affective attunement necessary for revolutionary counter-mood to emerge. And if DRUM’s historical moment and specific example are, as Flatley observes, now largely forgotten, nevertheless “the mood still circulates.” So let’s channel it.