Panel Summaries and Responses 2014

Panel 4 Response

The Environmental Turn

By Anusha Alles

In our first paper, John turns to the topographical writing of Thomas Pownall, Gilbert Imlay, and Tench Coxe. As Europe became dependent on North American wheat in the 18th century, writers of westward expansion imagined British North America as increasingly geopolitically integrated within a larger world ecology. Rivers were essential to this project, John argues; for these writers they served as natural boundaries and interstate channels of commerce, offering a means of evenly spreading republicanism and commerce throughout the continental United States. Rivers would allow territorial expansion and political unification of the nation; by geopolitically connecting the western territories to the Caribbean and greater Atlantic, rivers could render the United States capitalist emporium of the world.

Alexei takes up Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth as a means of examining an ongoing and shared project of rural modernization in both China and the U.S; Buck’s text, he argues, offered reformers a common vocabulary. His paper is a “reevaluation” of her work, as several decades of scholarship primarily emphasize Buck’s orientalism. Although others have noted The Good Earth’s popularity in both China and the U.S for its rejection of large landholding, its idealization of the purity of rural people, and its attempt to address agricultural development in both countries, Alexei argues that this moment of synthesis must be framed within a larger history of dialogue and convergence between the two nations. This history includes the work of American rural reformers in China; the significant overlap between Buck’s literary project of rural modernity and that of Chinese writer Mao Dun; and Chinese renegotiations of Western terms—neologisms, Alexei writes, that enabled China to imagine itself on “the same trajectory toward Western modernity.”

Jenn investigates the recovery work of imaginatively “repurposing” the Arctic, which has been depicted in American literature both as a dead landscape and a site of spatial and temporal impossibility. The Arctic is rendered “outlandish,” as Hester Blum writes. It is queer in its multivalent and fantastic possibilities. In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez’ colonial and proprietary gaze alienates the Arctic as spectacularized site of otherness; he problematically attempts chart the unchartable Arctic via the production of encyclopedic knowledge. Jenn turns to Eileen Myles’ The Importance of Being Iceland as a way of opening up other ways of seeing, relating, and imagining place; her text is self-reflective, non-linear, and personal, keeping “multiple possibilities and analyses in play.” While Lopez attempts to fully know the Arctic, Jenn argues, Myles as queer poet embraces radical difference. In doing so, Myles is able to “ope[n] the outlandish Arctic simultaneously to speculative alterity and planetary belonging.”

I want to elaborate on two central points of conversation I saw emerging between your three papers:

First, all three of your papers examine the surveillance and management of land and bodies via grids—biological and textual. Jenn, you critique Barry Lopez’ colonizing attempt to taxonomize and contain the Arctic landscape and its lifeforms. And of course, as you write, this is part of a larger biocolonial and textual project that grids human and nonhuman life via a racialized, gendered, heterosexist matrix. We might think particularly about Londa Schiebinger’s work on the imperial logic of the Linnaeus classificatory system. John, you contrast the “uniform grid” of the 1784 and 1785 Land Ordinances with the natural model of rivers—perhaps we could open this up in relation to Jenn’s paper. Alexei, you write that both Chinese and American states advocated for a sort of gridding of smaller farms via the nuclear family unit. How is such a vision of agricultural management intertwined with the heterosexism of the nation-state? I’m also interested in the histories you give us of Chinese neologisms, and how this might potentially connect to Jenn’s comments on taxonomy. How does the negotiation of the natural landscape as social space take place at the level of language? It’s something you point to in the Chinese use of “peasant,” rather than “farmer.”

Second, you’re all working through global ecologies—economic, literary, and environmental. Perhaps we could think more about how we locate the human within these ecologies, in differential relationship to other humans and to nonhumans, whether plants, commodities or technology. John, I was so struck by the descriptions of the riverine continental interior you cite: Imlay describes the territory as the “western waters”; Pownall writes of the complete “dominion of the watry element” and describes the trans-Mississippi west as “masses” of water. These descriptions seem almost oceanic rather than riverine. Thinking about how these writers envision connections to the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean islands, I wonder how the circulation of the African enslaved accompanies the circulation of wheat in tracing and enabling this particular ecology. I’m fascinated by this extension of the Black Atlantic—the oceanic geography of the slave trade—inland, and I wonder whether 18th century writers are also thinking about the movement of enslaved bodies as another commodity that secures Jefferson’s vision. Alexei, I’d like to hear you speak more about technology and the human. Buck and other agricultural reformers understand contact with technology as a marker of progressive rural modernity; technology seems to enable a sort of temporal, economic, and political legibility for rural farmers in the eyes of both Chinese and Western states. And Jenn, I’d like to hear more about how both Lopez and Myles locate indigenous people within the Arctic. What is the relationship of indigenous people to this landscape as daily inhabited and real, not imagined, space? How do we reconcile indigenous political claims to land and sea rights with a project of speculative alterity?


Panel 2 Response


By Jordan Brower 

This panel is titled “Bilingualisms,” but another, perhaps even more appropriate name might be “Revisiting the Archive,” since all of our papers interestingly interrogate the archive in different ways. For Nick, the archive presents necessary gaps that are part of the very study of the Federal Writers’ Project. In studying performance and performativity, especially in the context of international exchange, Kristin deals with what seems to me be an ephemeral and therefore elusive archive; I’m excited to hear more about how she conceives of her work with respect to her archive. And Jordan is dealing with something like a meta-archive, with Washington Irving reworking the archive of Obadiah Rich and Don Martin Fernandez de Navarette.

Nick started our panel on a refreshing polemical note, asserting, “the American slave narrative tradition is deeply fissured,” that fissure being between nineteenth-century autobiographies and twentieth-century interviews. As Nick argues, the latter form, produced in abundance by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration under the direction of folklorist John A. Lomax and journalist Lyle Saxon, would help to ameliorate the supposed lack of slave narratives in the Francophone tradition. But Nick goes on to show that the search for the French Equiano is inhibited in two respects. First, the two kinds of narrative differ in purpose: whereas the literary heirs of Equiano in the Antebellum United States wrote within the editorial confines of Anglophone abolition, the narratives collected by the FWP were motivated by the desire to preserve African-American folklore. Nick, I would be interested to hear you talk more about the formal differences to which these editorial decisions gave rise. The search for the “French Equiano” is inhibited by the inconsistent and often opaque editorial practices of the Louisiana Writers’ Project: for instance, it is often difficult to tell why an interviewee switches from English to French or Patois, and it is likewise difficult to ascertain when an interview has been translated. Ultimately, Nick I think convincingly argued that these difficulties are constitutive of the study of slave testimonial literature.

Kristen took as her object of study ““Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s” longstanding presence in Germany and the plasticity of its cultural uses,” and specifically the “performative aspects” of the text’s uptake and deployment in Germany. Of especial concern for her was the way in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin both defined blackness and Americanness for Germans, as well as, intriguingly, how the text contributed to the formation of German identity. After detailing the German people’s long history of opposition to slavery and problematic identification with the enslaved, Kristen turned her sight specifically to Onkel Toms Hütte. Along with the uptake of the book came a desire for African American performers and performance. So popular were African American acts in Germany that blacks of any national origin were referred to as African Americans; this lead Kristen to the memorable formulation “the mutability of black identity in this context generates questions of national passing and racial performance for blacks and whites alike.” Kristen then looked at the change in representation of scenes in illustrations of Onkel Toms Hütte as an index of Germany’s emerging status as a colonial power in Africa. Whereas drawings in early German editions were identical to or closely resembled the U.S. originals, later editions featured images of black manual labor; Kristen argued that these images provided visual justification for colonialism. I think this is a very provocative and interesting claim, Kristen, and I’m wondering if you could discuss this further, and perhaps indicate how other kinds of cultural forms registered Germany’s colonial project. Kristen concludes on a tantalizing note, explaining how Onkel Toms Hütte became the inspiration for a social housing development designed by Bruno Taut. Given the fact that Onkel Toms Hütte endured in the German imagination into the 1920s, I wonder to what extent the work is still present in the nation’s culture today.

Jordan began his paper by demonstrating for us that “United States of America” is a name under tension, pulled between, on the one hand, the North American nation of the “United States” and, on the other, the more geographically expansive and temporally long-lived hemispheric conception of “America.” This laid the foundation for the fundamental question of his paper: “how does historicizing the available language and contexts of early 19th-century nationalist expression recover a more internationally-conscious set of representational allegiances in Washington Irving’s History of the Life and Voyages of Columbus?” In establishing both Irving’s failed speculation in a Bolivian copper mine as well as the larger issue of changing political dynamics in the Americas among emerging nations, Jordan provided that context, making evident the Columbus book’s investment in the United States’s position among what he eloquently called “the welter of nationalisms developing in the Americas.” That investment manifested in two ways: first, in the “massively anachronistic” maps of Columbus’s voyage that figure the U.S. in great detail, which he took as a sign of that country’s geopolitical centrality and might; and second, in Irving’s “Preface,” which expresses the author’s belief in his ability to bring together the various incomplete narratives of Columbus’s expeditions, a belief that he took to be analogous to the U.S.’s ambition to be the center of the Americas and indeed of “a world history.”

Jordan, I hope you would talk to us a bit more about the maps in the U.S. and English editions of Irving’s book. As I was reading your paper, I kept wondering about the conventions of cartography in the early 19th century. Do you have a sense of how the maps in Irving’s books compare to contemporary productions, either of the voyages of Columbus specifically or of the Atlantic more generally? The reason I ask is because it seems unclear to me whether we’re looking at a 19th century representation of the Earth that contains Columbus’s tracks, or rather a representation of the Earth as it would have been conceived in the 15th century. That comparison would help me know to what extent Irving’s maps were consciously anachronistic. I also wondered if you could speak briefly to the anticipated audience for the History: was its translation into 9 languages by 1859 anticipated by either the author or his publishers? Or was this conceived to be of generally “United Statesian” interest? I ask because the robust representation of the U.S. in the map strikes me above all as shrewd marketing: either Washington or his publishers expected a U.S. audience, and therefore privileged the U.S. on the map as a way to orient and perhaps even flatter the reader. With that said, another question would be: what do the maps in the translations look like? Finally, I invite you, if you like, to speak about the content of the History, especially with respect to how it contributes to the book as an allegorical fantasy of emerging U.S. power.


Panel 3 Response

Ethnographies of Material Life: Oceans, Anchors, Detours

By Tao Leigh Goffe 


 With these three papers, Corey Johnson’s “Material Effects: Queequeg as Ethnographic Subject,” Stephanie Tsank’s “Kingfish from the Price Chopper: Getting a Taste of Global Citizenship” and Stephan Kuhl’s “Beyond Savagery: Richard Wright on West Africa and White America” we enter the space between the continents, a transoceanic imaginary, between Asia, between Africa, between America and Europe. We enter the literary imaginary of the South Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean.  In each of these texts cultural objects function to anchor the negotiation of diasporic identities for the various characters and authors. Corey Johnson argues that Queequeg stands in as referent of the “second diaspora” of one fifth of indigenous Hawaiians and Maori New Zealanders left home to work at sea. Crossing oceans and laboring overseas they became inducted into modernity, became racialized as Pacific Island diasporic subjects. In The Inheritance of Loss, Saeed, an undocumented migrant from Zanzibar to the United States is deported only to return to the US again, where he finally gains citizenship through a green card marriage. When the Judge sets sail for Britain he is eager to cast off his Indianness, and literally jettisons his mother’s home-cooked puris, wrapped pickle, chilies, and bananas. But, he too makes a return oceanic journey to settle in West Bengal. For Richard Wright the journey to the Gold Coast, present-day Ghana, is also a type of return-journey that echoes the slave ships that may have departed the Gold Coast with his ancestors aboard centuries before. But for Richard Wright, traveling to the Gold Coast is a return that isn’t a return at all, rendered even more fraught by Wright being rejected by country of his birth, the United States. Saidiya Hartman writes of what it means to “Lose Your Mother” and this has a double meaning for Richard Wright, who found a new home as many American writers have over the generations, in Paris.  Symbolism of the voyage is important to all of these narratives whether it is aboard the Pequod, the Middle Passage, or the undocumenteds’ journey. In these oceanic crossings, ethnography is the detour, the detour that defines the self. Writing the Other becomes self-portrait.

These three Americans authors—Herman Melville, Richard Wright, and Kiran Desai— represent an evolving relationship to Americanness and how the American literary identity has evolved from the 19th century, to the 20th century, and the 21st century. How American are they? How un-American are they? Are they viewed as canonical or peripheral? Herman Melville’s grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War. Richard Wright was blacklisted for his political affiliations and became a permanent expatriate French citizen in 1947, meanwhile Kiran Desai migrated to the US at the age of 15 and lives here as a permanent resident, which is why as a citizen of a Commonwealth nation, India she was eligible to win the Man Booker Prize in 2006.


In these oceanic voyages, materials become anchors, things, the stuff of life, objects. Corey Johnson calls our attention to effects as a way of reading, mining literary production, if we think about material effects, personal effects, and last effects.

These papers ask us to rethink novels and even characters, as types of archives, as receptacles that house that refer to more than just fiction? Not only are “the things Queequeg carries,” the “bric-a-brac”— Yojo his Congo idol, his tomahawk— “outward signifiers” they are also literally and figuratively cultural artifacts. Objects were very important to Melville’s grandfather Major Thomas Melvill who “proudly showed his grandson the vial containing tea leaves brushed from his clothes after he had taken part in the Boston Tea Party, dressed in Indian garb and war paint” performing indigenousness nativeness, savagery, & barbarism, and ultimately the theatricality of American life as Ralph Ellison describes it.

So too are the kingfish in coconut milk that Stephanie Tsank identifies in The Inheritance of Loss cultural artifacts. Her paper has us question what is “ethnic cuisine?” Ethnic to whom? What would a non-ethnic cuisine taste like? In 1981, Arjun Appadurai proposed “gastro-politics” as a way of thinking through conflict and the cultural practices surrounding food in Hindu South Asia. More recently scholar Parama Roy has written about the grammar of alimentarity and how it’s intertwined with alterity in postcolonial literature. When the characters in The Inheritance of Loss are eating, are they fetishistically consuming the Other? Are they nostalgically eating home? Or are they eating themselves? Food is a type of cultural artifact, however it does not always hold the “authenticity,” tradition, and essence it is believed to in centuries of unaltered recipes. For instance, the heat and fire of the chilies in South Asian curries would be missing if Christopher Columbus hadn’t brought them back from Hispaniola and Mexico. Thus the Americas are literally in and inextricable from India. Indeed the terms curry, kedgeree, punch, and mulligatawny, are inscribed as new Anglo-Indian vocabularies mapped, or imposed, onto British India. These are the byproducts of modernity. Interestingly, though the Anglophile judge studies the “foodways” of these Indian foods, these cultural artifacts, and the long history of globalization when he is in Britain, he remains an Anglicized mimic man.

Richard Wright’s Black Power as travelogue is also a type of cultural artifact, a receptacle of what Corey Johnson calls “faraway vocabularies.” The materials that play a significant role in his narrative are clothing, or rather the absence of clothing, and gold. Wright died six years later in 1960 of amoebic dysentery he likely contracted whilst visiting the Gold Coast, at the age 52. All of these objects importantly gesture to the multiple rather than singular genealogies of globalization.


Whether these subjects are the products of “ethnographic borrowings” or “first-hand experience,” they gesture to man’s taxonomic urge.

And yet I would argue that as Diana Fuss has written of the psychoanalytic process of “identification” as “a detour through the Other that defines the self,” ethnography is a self portrait. Are works autobiographies through another? How can we think of the oceanic journey as a type of detour? Fuss also writes that identification involves not only the “entry of history and culture into the subject” but also the entry of the subject into history and culture.

It would have been easy for Richard Wright to romanticize Africa as Motherland; instead he considered the industrialized futures of the West Africans he encountered. He mourned the loss of what he saw as their innocence. He could see them becoming him, literate, Western, and industrialized but importantly disinherited. Wright didn’t wish upon them as Stephan Kuhl contends the “pain and anxiety,” of being modern racialized subjects. He wished for progress of industrialization without the neuroses of modernity, without the baggage of being modern.  The result of this psychoanalytic detour is performed in Savage Holiday, in which there are no primary black characters, only preoccupied white ones.


 Labor: Let’s consider as Corey Johnson says that Queequeg is a stand in for a historical class of laborers and that as Stephanie Tsank suggests Biju and Saeed are representatives of an underclass of undocumented restaurant workers in a “variety of underground kitchens replete with fellow illegal cooks and characterized by suspect working conditions.” What are we to make of these literary works as the documentation of their labors?

Psychoanalysis:  Each of these novels involves the fear of and fascination with the cultural practices of the imagined “savage,” “the primitive,” the Barbarian. We have images of an Indian man eating chapattis with a knife and fork, Richard Wright’s concern with the absence of clothing, bodily secretions, and lack of indoor plumbing, and the threat of Queequeg as non-Christian, as pagan? The concern seems to be what separates “us” from “them.” Perhaps this reveals a fear of the inner-savage, inner-barbarian, by the ethnographer mediated through these effects and objects?


As Corey Johnson writes in his paper, Melville says of Queequeg’s place of origin, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”  If indeed, true places never are down in any map, then perhaps we must look to interior colonies, and the interior imaginaries that these various cultural artifacts, materials—whether a peace pipe, a papadum, or a travel diary—offer us entry to.

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