“From Sovereignty to Ethopoiesis: Literature, Aesthetics, and New Forms of Life,” The Comparatist 36 (2012): 86-106.

My article in The Comparatist is finally out. It is essentially a distillation of the methodological argument of my dissertation, though stripped of all the particular literary contexts with which it is developed there. It shifts the scene slightly, and focuses on the question of “sovereignty” that appears in Foucault’s early writings on literature, a concept he shares with Derrida, and that both take from Bataille. I highly recommend the rest of the articles in the issue as well.

The essay traces what becomes of this idea as it evolves into “the final Foucault,” where ethics is related to treating being as a work of art. In it, I also try and distinguish the specific discourse of “literature” from an aesthetic function that often, though not always, resides within it. A passage, not random:

Considering the domains of archaeology, genealogy, and ethics, this aesthetics would be defined by the virtual production of new subjects of enunciation in discourse around which practices can be actualized as new forms of life.

Emphasis original, &c.

The Burden of Color

Things themselves become so burdened with attributes, signs, illusions that they finally lose their own form.

—Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization

A recent episode of Radiolab on color took up one of my favorite lines of thought on language, by way of color (here’s another version of it in relation to wine). Specifically, it notes that the color “blue” does not exist in the earliest periods of most languages, and that colors are sort of sequentially introduced in the history of language. First, black/white, then red, then other colors, and finally, and almost always last: blue.

Guy Deutscher, one of the guests on the program, has a great quote from nineteenth century German philologist Lazarus Geiger discussing ancient sagas in general:

These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. … But there is only one thing that no one would ever learn from those ancient songs who did not already know it, and that is that the sky is blue. (#)

Deutscher speculates that this pattern in language derives from both the dearth of naturally blue objects in the world—which are extremely rare—and, more interestingly, the lack of a need for a color-word until a culture can reliably make that color. Or, the word for blue is useless unless, well, you can put blue to use.

And for people without the color-word for blue, like the Himba of Namibia, the color blue just doesn’t exist … or rather, it exists, but it just doesn’t signify for them. They sort of just don’t notice the difference between, say, blue and green.

And the sky? The episode speculates that its association with the color blue is more cultural than we might think. And any idea that can make me question whether or not the sky is blue—to make me see the very sky differently—is worth a blog post …

The Radiolab episode “Colors” 

… the old mindless sentient undreaming meat …

And if you haven’t got honor and pride, then nothing matters. Only there is something in you that doesn’t care about honor and pride yet that lives, that even walks backward for a whole year just to live; that probably even when this is over and there is not even defeat left, will still decline to sit still in the sun and die, but will be back out in the woods, moving and seeking where just will and endurance could not move it, grubbing for roots and suchthe old mindless sentient undreaming meat that doesn’t even know any difference between despair and victory, Henry. 

—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (#)

“We Just Don’t Have That Many Substances”

Lydia Kerr, a friend and colleague of mine from the University at Buffalo, has an interesting article responding to Eliza Slavet’s essay on Freud and Jewishness at the Religion & Culture Web Forum of the University of Chicago’s Marty Center. Lydia has put a lot of thought into the question of race and psychoanalysis, and this brief response is a good illustration of her ability to concisely demonstrate the usefulness of psychoanalysis—particularly, Lacanian—for thinking race. She argues that in addition to extended substance (materiality, genetics, the body) and thinking substance (the immaterial* realm of ideas and social construction), we also need to add what Lacan called a third category—la substance jouissante—enjoying substance, or jouissance. Take a look.

*I am increasingly of the opinion that the category of the ‘immaterial’ is of diminishing utility, and that Lacanian psychoanalysis seems to be a fruitful point of departure.

Recap: MLA 2012

This year’s MLA saw me organizing a panel, instead of presenting on one like last year. The panel was entitled, “Nineteenth-Century American Sentiment, Radical or Otherwise,” and was dedicated to featuring current scholarly work in the field of nineteenth-century sentimental American literature. Of course, this panel reflected many of my own interests, particularly the last section of my dissertation which deals with sentimental fiction and its relation to the culture that surrounded it (a post on finishing my dissertation is part of the backlog I mentioned before, though I did manage to get up a table of contents).

My goal for the panel was two-fold. First, I wanted to feature papers that dealt with the political nature of sentimental literature in the period, with a particular eye toward its use in the radicalization—or otherwise—of its readers. Second, I am interested more broadly in accounts of sentimental culture which are at once more complex and more specific. I believe that scholars all too often judge the political implications of sentiment from the perspective of the present, using criteria unavailable to most individuals of the era being judged. Along these lines, each of the papers articulated areas in which a nuanced vision of sentiment illuminates the complex cultural situation of the nineteenth century.

The first paper was given by Kevin Pelletier of the University of Richmond, and was entitled “‘Can Fear of Fire Make Me Love?’: Nineteenth-Century Apocalyptic Sentimentalism.” He argued Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous injunction to “feel right” is often read too narrowly, focusing on a single class of sentiments defined by love, compassion, and sympathy at the expense of a whole other class defined by fear. However, as is obvious in Stowe’s texts themselves, nineteenth-century sentimentalism had profound misgivings about the ability of love alone to do the work that many scholars claim for it, i.e., the forging of social bonds, often outside the confines of received class, gender, and racial roles. Thus, visions of an apocalyptic God, with all their attendant sentiments of fear and terror, were regularly employed to buttress love and transform those recalcitrant to its righteous powers. In this regard, he juxtaposed David Walker’s Appeal and its invocation of apocalyptic sentimentalism to Stowe’s use of a similar discourse in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Between the two, we not only see an important expansion of which forms of affect are included in ‘the sentiments,’ but an important connection to a theological discourse which viewed fear and love not as antagonists, but as necessarily complementary forces. It also demonstrates how and why Walker’s situation lead him to form “[h]is own theory of sentiments” as a necessary political tool with regard to often less-than-sympathetic white audiences.

Second was Leslie Petty’s “‘Every woman … should raise her voice’: Rethinking White Women’s Activism in William Wells Browns Clotel.“ While following upon similar themes, it shifted them into the register of early African-American fiction. Using as her touchstone William Wells Brown’s 1847 lecture to the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, she argued that Clotel undertakes a conscious recasting of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The text’s heroine, Georgiana Peck Carlton, constructs a less passive role for white women’s activism in antebellum America. Going beyond the politics of ‘indirect influence,’ she not only presents an alternate model of feeling for contemporary readers, she also demonstrates how sentimental tropes and characters could and were taken up and redeployed beyond the confines of what was deemed socially acceptable. In Clotel’s rewriting of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we see divergent discourses—slave narrative and sentimental novel—stitched together to form something new, which nonetheless relied upon the power of both its original genres. As Petty notes, “it is in his depiction of this white activist heroine that Brown most consciously critiques white female abolitionists … even while he acknowledges their importance and imagines ways that their activist impulses can be translated into immediate, fundamental reform … by imagining a white woman who both ‘feels right’ and does something about it.”

Finally, April Davidauskis’s  presented a paper which attempted to call into question the very terms of the debate over sentiment’s radical or conservative penchant. Her “Deemphasizing Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century American Culture” used E.D.E.N. Southworth’s popular, roguish heroine Capitola Black to analyze “how the gendering process works for women beyond sentimentality, yet within normativity” in the nineteenth century. With a wink at Sarah Palin, she invoked such roguish figures as Gothic heroines, protagonists in romances of the U.S.-Mexico war, cross-dressing women, actresses, activists, and performers to demonstrate how, in her view, “scholars have overemphasized sentimental culture in order to understand not only what ‘women’s culture’ is, but also to limn out the terms of normative feminine identity.” Focusing the terms of the debate on sentiment not only obscures these other possibilities, Davidauskis argued, but may make identities that were normative at the time look more radical than they actually were.

In addition to posing questions for each of the panelists, I also attempted to distill some commonalities in my response to these three papers. Though divergent in many respects, I found that each of the texts manifested the increasing complexity of the concepts which govern our discussion of the sentimental and the sentiments. Indeed, each paper could be seen as bringing to light a contemporary critique of what it means to “feel right” as a political act. They echoed Cindy Weinstein’s warning against “monolithic and consistently pernicious account[s] of sympathy” which “[fail] to take into account the extraordinarily rich and ideologically diverse debate about sympathy that was taking place in the antebellum period” (link). Just as David Walker formulated ‘his own theory of sentiments’ with particular political goals in mind, different discourses of sentiment abounded at the time. From mesmerism and animal magnetism, to the medical discourse of the nerves, to handbooks on female conduct, multiple cultural discourses competed to inculcate the proper ways of knowing, acting, and feeling about the world. Indeed, it may be that what all these discourses show is how the sentimental itself is probably neither radical nor conservative in and of itself, but a battleground upon which various tactics and strategies play themselves out. Returning to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s injunction to “feel right,”  I concluded by arguing that, in the debate over sentimental culture, we have placed too much emphasis on the feel and not enough on the right.

Once, after a discussion of the doctrine, Dōgen instructed:“It is not good to overwhelm another person with argument even when he is wrong and you are right. Yet it is also not right to give up easily, saying ‘I am wrong,’ when you have every reason to believe you are right. The best way is to drop the argument naturally, without pressing the other person or falsely admitting that you are wrong. If you don’t listen to his arguments and don’t let them bother you, he will do the same and not become angry. This is something to watch carefully.”

—A Primer of Sōtō Zen: A Translation of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki, by Reihō Masunaga, An East-West Center Book, Published for the the East-West center by the University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1971. (

Billy Renkl – Night Flight (2010)

A collage by Alabama artist Billy Renkl, who writes:

It is important to the meaning of my work that a viewer understand the components of the collages have had a former life as objective information (that this is a page from a botany textbook published in 1820, for instance, rather than a reproduction of that page).

An old star chart, sketches of birds and flowers, an archive grasped from its obsolescence and stitched together into “something imprecise but now filled with metaphor.” The image evokes a sort of nostalgia for these prosaic attempts to illustrate and organize a world in which distances were infinitely greater, a simultaneous regression into a distant past and our youth amidst didactic books, where an image opened whole new worlds. The simple artistry of these ancient printing techniques becomes a work of art once again, if not for the first time, preserved now in this new form which lures the viewer with its simple lines, a neatness born of material necessity returning as a forgotten discipline of elegance.

The sides were always strange,“ Beychae said. ‘We all said that all we wanted was the best for the Cluster, and I think we all meant it, mostly. We all still want that. But I don’t know what the right thing to do is; I sometimes think I know too much, I’ve studied too much, learned too much, remembered too much. It all seems to average out, somehow; like dust that settles over … whatever machinery we carry inside us that leads us to act, and puts the same weight everywhere, so that always you can see good and bad on each side, and always there are arguments, precedents for every possible course of action … so of course one ends up doing nothing. Perhaps that’s only right; perhaps that’s what evolution requires, to leave the field free for younger, unencumbered minds, and those not afraid to act.”

Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons (#)

Recap: MLA 2011

The panel I was on at the MLA, “The Global American South in the Nineteenth Century,” turned out to be quite interesting, as I expected it to be. The four presentations (three papers and Caroline Levander’s response) all focused on the antebellum South, yet they all diverged in interesting ways. (Thanks especially to Lloyd Pratt for putting it all together.) I’ll treat each in the order they were presented.

My paper, “An Archaeology of Slave Management: From ‘The State of War Continued’ to ‘No More Beautiful Picture of Human Society,’” was comprised of three components. The first was a juxtaposition between the colonial regime of slavery and the humanist one which emerges in the mid-eighteenth century and continues up until (and probably extends across) the Civil War. The second was a distillation of slave management discourse from the humanist regime, whose three principles are the moderation of the body, the cultivation of sentiment, and the inculcation of habits. The final section was an argument to the effect that we need to read slave narratives in the context of these, quite literal, master narratives, using Frederick Douglass’s Narrative as an example, and arguing that Douglass takes great pains to refute these specific principles of humanist slavery.

Sarah Lahey’s paper, “An Englishwoman in the South: The Global Politics of Race in Fanny Kemble’s American Journals,” examined a divergent example of what I referred to above as master narratives. Kemble, an Englishwoman who was critical of slavery in fraught and varying degrees, wrote the journals in question from 1838 to 1839, but was forbidden by her husband, whom she later spectacularly divorced, and only published them later in 1863 as an intervention into the Civil War against slavery. Lahey argues that Kemble’s journals serve to deconstruct the black/white binary that was, and to a great extent still is, the dominant paradigm of interpretation for race in America. Particularly in her triangulation of the relation between white elites, black slaves, and Irish immigrants and poor whites, she teases out the way Kemble’s global perspective cannot be contained within the dominant racial ideology, whether the ideology of the past or the present.  As she concludes, “Kemble might not offer as much insight into the diverse contours of the black community, but her transatlantic vision does provide one of the earliest deconstructions of the white race as a racial entity in antebellum America.”

Matthew Sandler’s paper, “‘Too-Wit’: Poe’s Southern Political Aesthetic in Latin America,” returned us to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, building a series of proliferating connections between his work and that of the Comte de Lautréamont. Lautréamont exemplifies, as Sandler argues, the way “Poe’s dark romanticism came to have tremendous appeal among writers of the American South, the Caribbean, and Latin America.” The Poe-Lautréamont connection represents, then, a whole a series of transnational literary connections that exceed traditional boundaries. In the work of both, Sandler traces a set of common themes, in particular that of the sea voyage. For these authors, the sea voyage does not open onto “the joy of the universe” or “interminable oceans,” as it does for Emerson (#). Instead, they open onto disaster and terror, a reflection of the brutal violence of their times and places, almost as if these two authors are haunted by the restrictions national borders, spatial and cultural, impose upon them. Paradoxically, these intimations of frustration and constraint produce texts which transcend those very limitations, as the history of their receptions attest.

Caroline Levander concluded the panel with a response which centered on the intersection of two terms which governed the panel, the Global and the South. She pointed out that, both in the nineteenth century and today, the intersection of these two terms destabilize the static interpretations that each alone can tend to generate. Whether it be the shift from the conceptual category “Third World” to that of “Global South” that is reorienting today’s geopolitics, or the way that in a global context the American South was only something like the Northern tip of an Americas-wide slave system, adding the Global to the South forces us to recognize and rethink the arbitrary limits that are often placed on either. (For more on her work on The Global South, see here.)

Lives of Infamous Men: old Harry, a slave preacher

From  the Southern Cultivator of June, 1851, an article signed “A Minister of the Gospel” relates the following tale of a slave he refers to as “old Harry,” who presumed to speak against his master, if ever so slightly, in the name of a higher Master:

Another fact, equally notorious, is, that on almost every large plantation of Negroes, there is one among them who holds a kind of magical sway over the minds and opinions of the rest; to him they look as their oracle,—and this same oracle, though most generally a preacher is, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the most consummate villain and hypocrite on the premises. It is more than likely that he has seen sundry miraculous visions, equal to those of John on the isle of Patmos; angels have talked with him, &c &c. The influence of such a Negro on a quarter is incalculable. He steals his master’s pigs, and is still an object commanding the peculiar regard of Heaven, and why many not his disciplines? It may be, and in most cases this influence is, such an obstacle in the way of the missionary, that he can accomplish but little unless his preaching is in unison with the theology of this sage old Doctor of Divinity.

Rev. W. W., an aged and talented Minister of the Gospel had charge of a colored mission some years ago. One Sabbath morning, on going to his appointment at the plantation of Mr ——, he was met by old Harry who had news to tell of a most important character. Said he: “Brudder W., de Lod came down las night ‘pon de top of de house and he call—‘Harry, Harry;’ I say ‘Here me Lod.’ He say—‘Harry, Mista W. and Mista S nebber preach de gospel yet – Hurry, you mus go and preach my gospel.’”

These things show the importance of using every effort within our reach to counteract these influences and to have them properly instructed in the true doctrine and precepts of Chirstianity; and though but little may be done for the adults, much may be done and is doing for the young ones by use of Dr. CAPERS’ catechisms, orally taught.