Category Archives: Politics

The Scholar between (The Limits of) Life and Politics

This year, I went vegan. This past week, the ethical and environmental consequences of my veganism became profoundly challenged. In what follows, I use my experience as a scholar invested in animal studies and animal rights to begin exploring the meaning and tensions involved in the cultivation of an orientation where scholarship and the politics of everyday life become intertwined. I do so neither to laud myself, nor to assert the necessary salience of my concerns per se. The ground I’m on is unstable, supported by monocrop farms, and made possible by the production of GMO plant foods. My interest here is in locating a nexus of potentiality and tension. I look to ask and get feedback on how to grapple with a set of social circumstances that constitute a horizon that delimits the desired results of the changes one wishes to contribute.

Increased work in areas of intersection between the history of art and methods of animal studies led me to a new ethical orientation. Artwork to which I’m drawn, by artists from Hogarth to Blake in the eighteenth century, to Matthew Barney in the twenty first, frequently thematize the position nonhuman species occupy as within a realm of moral rights. I realized that if I accepted such a thematic interplay as valid, I was therefore impelled to oppose the commodity status of other animals as machinic apparatuses of culture transmute them into objects of exchange-value (e.g. meat production) and use-value (e.g. dairy milk production). I had been a vegetarian for more than a decade. But the repetition of intellectual engagement with a view towards these issues crystallized my commitments to animal rights at a higher level of intensity. My life trajectory prior to the academic world drove this component of my research commitments; my research commitments came to deepen and transform the political aspects of my life commitments. A circuit was formed, whereby life, scholarship, and politics might form a mutually illuminating constellation of shared concerns and pursuits. I ultimately came to a conclusion. I could not continue to pursue scholarship that seeks to place human beings in an equitable relation to other animals, while at the same time continuing to occupy a privileged position in consuming animal products.

Yet, this space quickly appeared to me to be much more complex than I had anticipated, the way forward more convoluted. This was brought to an apex point for me during a recent meeting of the Chicago Animal Studies Workshop. There, Alice Kuzniar of the University of Waterloo led a wonderful meeting on writing she is doing on the Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s 2005 film Our Daily Bread (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Still from Our Daily Bread (2005), dir. Nikolaus Geyrhalter. http://www.ourdailybread.at/jart/projects/utb/images/img-db/1132770640350-498×280-top-left.jpeg

The work completely cut across the very sense of self-accomplishment I experienced upon going vegan. What is deeply devastating about Geyrhalter’s film is that it so profoundly juxtaposes the means of techno-agriculture production relative to animal and plant life alike. Geyrhalter’s film alternates between settings that show animal and plant life being turned into commodities by like means of production. One scene shows dairy cows being forced onto a carousel that automatically moves them into position to be mechanically milked. The sounds of automation disturbingly define the sonic space. In another, the camera reveals a greenhouse where a nondescript crop is being grown under artificial light, with a machine moving under the lighting mechanism to water the plants. They won’t see actual sunlight until they depart to be sold. Similar sounds of robotics comprise the aural background of both scenes of the film. One is stunned into the realization that advanced industrial agriculture forms a horizon within which one is situated, irrespective of whether one consumes animal products like milk, or not.

And in this regard, I was astonished by the extent to which the filmmaker’s work stages what the romanticist Forest Pyle has recently identified as a radical aestheticism operative across romantic and post-romantic art. In this mode, the very ethical valences of the artwork become undone by its operations. Introducing the idea in Art’s Undoing, Pyle first observes that in “the broadest sense an aestheticism can be attributed to a text when the performance of its aesthetic reflection (which is necessarily a self-reflection) effectively severs the relationships (whether analogous, homologus, preparatory, supplementary, or complimentary) between art and knowledge by subsuming the latter into the former.” He goes on to assert that a text might “be understood as succumbing to a radical aestheticism the moment it finds itself and its representations of the aesthetic at its vacating radical.” The corresponding implication is that a “radical aestheticism offers no positive claims for art (either those based on ethical or political grounds or on aesthetic grounds)” and becomes “a kind of black hole from which no illumination is possible” (4). The logic of aesthetics Pyle describes, indeed, deconstructs the very possibilities of ethical movement or imperatives to be derived from a work of art, like that of Geyrhalter. The work of art’s aesthetic performance of itself radically collapses conditions for positive formulations of knowledge.

Geyrhalter’s film instantiates precisely these conditions of collapse. In Our Daily Bread, the dispersion of productive modes across animal and plant food cultivation leaves the viewer with questions regarding the very efficacy of a dissenting position that would oppose the contemporary food industry. If one’s consumption of plant foods, to the exclusion of animal ones, leads to the increased utilization of artificial environments for the growing of genetically modified crops, is the situation for plants any less perverse and cruel than that of animals raised for slaughter, milk, and clothing? What is the way forward, when one can begin to become clear on some aspects of the system, but is interpellated in such a way that the path forward is seemingly obscured by a horizon of production that appears to have always already enfolded potential directions of opposition and critique?

 

Works cited

Pyle, Forest. 2013. Art’s Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism. New York: Fordham University Press.

 

Young Poets. Young Scholars.

When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad in England for a semester, and as part of my Modern British Poetry class, I took a literary pilgrimage to Wentworth Place, Keats’s home in Hampstead. This trip was genuinely transformative for me, as it fueled a fantasy that I was John Keats’s lover in another life (hey, we all have our literary crushes). And more importantly it began my creative and scholarly work on the poet. As I wandered room to room, swooning over the handwritten manuscript of “Ode to a Nightingale” in the corridor and tearing up at the death mask encased in the library, I hadn’t a thought of my future with the poet.  But this week I received an acceptance to the first ever Keats Foundation conference at the Hampstead house.  And I began to reflect back on my 20-year-old self and how she would laugh to know that she would return to Wentworth Place as a career Keatsian almost a decade later.

Over the last month, I have been thinking a lot about how identity gets organized, both my own as I am beginning to define myself as a young scholar and that of the poets I study.  This all came about as I prepared proposals for the Keats and His Circle conference in Hampstead and NASSR 2014.  For each of these, I am looking to begin some foundational dissertation work that looks at identity organization in the Cockney School.

Journalist, poet, and radical Leigh Hunt attempts to organize the second generation of Romantic poets in his creative works and his weekly newspaper The Examiner. Though he never writes an overt manifesto and never claims the emergent artists of Romanticism’s second generation as “his” school, I believe he constructs a clear political and artistic mission for himself and his friends. In The Examiner on December 1, 1816, Leigh Hunt published the “Young Poets” article, which announced a new school of poetry led by Percy Shelley, John Hamilton Reynolds, and John Keats (with a nod to Lord Byron). As he writes here and elsewhere, this new school was not innovative so much as restorative, returning the focus of modern poetry to “true” nature and more genuine understandings of “human nature.”

Hunt organizes their poetic identity both as an extension of and reaction to the first generation (esp. after the publication of Wordsworth’s Excursion, lambasted by Byron, Hunt, and Hazlitt as the mark of Wordsworth’s establishment allegiance). He says the new poets are continuing the cultural work begun with the linguistic and political experiments of Lyrical Ballads, a project he believes the now conservative first generation has abandoned. As he defines the cultural work to be done by his school of artists and political reformers, he touts the revolutionary power of loose versification and conversational language (he maintains that the language of conversation is the language of “true nature” and “nativeness”), but he also touts cheerfulness and sociality, as opposed to the Wordsworthian egotistical sublime–poetic insight emerging through solitude. Hunt and crew value brotherly love, charity, and a mutual support of fellow beings. And they uphold these virtues in contrast to the modern vices of extreme individualism, commercial interests, and exploitation of the disenfranchised.

As applied to this circle, the term “Cockney School” in itself demonstrates the ways in which identity gets imposed upon a person or group. Famously, “Z,” a semi-anonymous critic for the Edinburgh Review, printed a series of vicious essays on this group of liberal (and often dissenting) intellectuals from the London suburbs, titled “On the Cockney School of Poetry.”  According to Z, the school was headed by Leigh Hunt, and included such figures as Keats, Webb, Haydon, and Hazlitt.  His reviews frequently digressed from the work of this school, using ad hominem attacks to belittle the men with their shortcomings in class–all with the intent to discredit this second generation of Romantic artists because of their politics.  Intriguingly, pieces of this class prejudice against Cockneys precedes the era, and the stereotype can be seen today in the classic appropriation of Liza Doolittle style Cockney accents in parodies of the English.  A particular favorite of mine in the last year has been Fred Armisen’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II as a sort of Cockney thug on Saturday Night Live.

Nevertheless, the Hunt circle appropriated the qualities of this pejorative stereotype and other labels applied to them, reading into these intended delimitations a revolutionary power for greater liberty. Z complained of their inferior education, their limited knowledge of Greek and Latin, but for Cockneys like Hunt, Keats, and Reynolds translations and retellings proved more democratic, opening new worlds of knowledge and opportunity for people of middle and working class backgrounds. Chapman’s Homer introduces Keats to new peaks, new oceans, new planets, horizons previously inaccessible. Z complained of their vulgarity and obscenity, but Hunt, Keats, and Shelley celebrated sensual overflow and freedom of expression.  Their poems portray this liberty literally by catalogues of sensory images and metaphorically by unconventional representations of love (sympathetic idolaters, demon lovers, love triangles, etc.).

In a trend I find problematic, Keats scholars of the twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries perpetuate a prejudice against Keats’s supposed Cockney roots, often undervaluing the politically engaged young Keats of 1816-1817.  Moreover, they divorce his later work from Hunt’s influence (rightly so, perhaps, as Keats distanced himself from Hunt for numerous personal and professional reasons). As a young scholar just beginning my work on Keats’s Cockney roots, I don’t know yet to what extent I agree that Keats’s work transcends his Cockney identity.  Though his 1820 volume may demonstrate sophistication well beyond the wrenched rhymes or weak adverbial descriptors of Huntian style, his thematic concerns remain deeply Cockneyfied.  Romances like Isabella; Or the Pot of Basil and Lamia betray his continued resistance against a modern capitalist economy that exploits both human and nonhuman resources.  And even his great ode sequence, which ostensibly celebrates a pure aestheticism, carries the taint of political agenda and historicity.  The nightingale disappears, the poet awakes. He returns to a historical reality of the Six Acts, the Corn Law Protests, Peterloo, disenfranchisement, disease, and personal loss. To say the least, his 1820 volume shows a conflicted relationship with the Hunt school (perhaps a topic for another post).

Armisen’s Queen from SNL 2013

I feel immensely fortunate to have the opportunity to explore London and its suburbs again, as a slightly more seasoned romanticist, Keatsian, and anglophile. And while I will not adopt a phony Cockney accent for the duration of my visit, I will expand upon my original pilgrimage, exploring the sites that were key to the school’s development.  On the list thus far, other than Hampstead Heath, of course: Edmonton, Enfield, Guy’s Hospital, and the Vale of Health.  I will keep you apprised of my plans for exploration as well as archival research as the reality of this trip continues to set in.

Inaugural Post to the Artist in E-Residency Position

Something From Home Nicole Geary intaglio, collagraph, chine collé 11" x 14"
Something From Home, Exhibited 2013. Intaglio, Collagraph, Chine Collé, 11.00 x 14.00 in. (27.94 x 35.56 cm.

 

I first want to thank the NASSR Grad Caucus Board for such a warm welcome to this blog and, also, to the NASSR community. I am thrilled about the many ways in which my role as an active artist can contribute to conversations about, and in response to, issues in Romanticism, illuminating both historical frameworks and existing political or ideological currents. I’ve been provided such energetic feedback to all of my initial questions that I now feel I am ready to tackle an initial post. To do so, I’ll introduce myself more thoroughly. I recently graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Printmaking from the University of South Dakota and I am currently living and working in San Antonio, Texas. I teach printmaking, make prints and sculpture, and also involve a good deal of geological and art-historical research in my practice.

To more fully explain my work, I need to talk about where I’m from and what I’ve studied. I’m going to take some latitude to go into a little selected personal history and write at some length about what drives me to make work.

I grew up in North-Central Florida for most of my life, born and raised in a swampy and green part of the state that informed most of my understanding about nature and animals. The idea of mountains, snow, desert, or indeed of other spaces, is foreign to me. I am captivated by the idea of travel while at the same time am imbued with a sense of desire for “home.” In many ways, the work that I make is about exploring the feeling of longing for two places. As a young art student, Jean Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra” always resonated with me, perhaps because I grew up in Florida, and he most briskly takes Disney down to a mere order of infantile fantasies. [It should be noted that Baudrillard is referencing the Disney Land in Los Angeles, but I hold that the same is true for its own iteration in Orlando, again the simulation of itself.] I believe Baudrillard’s writing on simulacra also held sway with me. I felt that a place could hold a fantasy, a wonder, significance – and be in reality nothing more than a swampland.

By the time I reached graduate school, I’d found that my attention to land and the impression that certain areas had upon me were developing into a research-based artistic practice focused on maps and geology. I was interested in understanding more thoroughly, on a scientific and rational basis, why land was so important to me. I specifically wanted to take emotion out of the equation. It was my point of conjecture that my feelings of homesickness, anger, pain, or regret were, to put it logically, contaminating my results. In an attempt to dissolve those feelings into a solution of metaphor, charts and graphs balanced sensitive marks. It was tricky at first, because old anger and severe homesickness didn’t want to be dealt with. I looked for ways in which I could talk around these feelings without being too blatant. The more I read about maps, the more I realized that signs and signifiers wouldn’t work for me anymore. Replacing emotion with a symbol was too simple an answer; the reality of emotion goes deeper and is felt more thoroughly than any pocket-size road atlas could contain. To go forward and really grapple with emotion I must nod to the oft-referenced Jorge Luis Borges fable and say , “the map is not the territory.”

Geology seemed to have all of the answers. As a printmaker, I work in layers and stages naturally, and the process of observation and investigation is something of a peek into history. I had been slowly growing more aware that to know what my work was about in the present, I needed to know where it came from. I desired to be able to read the strata of my own history. Geologists can do a wonderful thing: they can walk out into the world and, using careful observation, tell you what kind of environment used to exist there thousands or millions of years before. They see the world as it is now and as it was then, peeling back the layers of time before them like the blankets on a press bed to slowly reveal the surprise beneath. Geologists and printmakers both work in strata.

My prints are often akin to a journal page or even a field note, a place for working out internal thoughts or recording events: poetry of inner questioning and curiosity. Formally I tend to be drawn to the work of artists that utilize their own handwriting or found items into prints or drawings, like the pages of a well-loved diary or sketchbook. To me, this is part of the process of knowing. Scientific diagrams are beautiful and clean, as they are meant to be effective teaching tools. What tends to be forgotten is the disarray that went into the collection of data to get to that well-prepared and perfect outcome. I’ve become more interested in the mess that came before.

I welcome any comments in response to this evolution and to these thoughts as I’ve outlined them. As this is my first post, I’d like to share more as I go along, diving into more diverse realms of pedagogy, practice, and specific areas of research.

 

Quarterly Editor’s Note: Interdisciplinary Idea(l)s & Graduate Studies in Romanticism

It’s been an exhilarating and frenetic start to autumn, not least because I’ve been entrusted with managing this extraordinary blog in addition to taking up my first position at Northwestern in the capacity of graduate fellow at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. There, I’ve been—and will spend the better part of this year—gearing my energies towards the organization of an exhibition of William Blake’s art in relation to his reception into the literary, musical, and visual cultures of the long-1960s. In many ways, it’s a dream year. Yet, the first five weeks of the quarter—serving as both a curator and editor of sorts—have become cause for new meditations on new possibilities. Convening a group of accomplished scholars working on romanticism and re-constructing Blake as an artist whose work becomes an impetus through which further acts of artistic production became catalyzed has led me to consider the role our blogging community plays in the generation of new approaches to both research and teaching. At its core, it seems to me that the blog represents a space in which our experiences are shared, best practices are disseminated, the rush of new insights are felt, and that new directions in scholarship become swiftly circulated so that others might immediately benefit. To my mind, it is when this dialogue takes place at the nexus of differing disciplinary practices that it proves most effective. These commitments inform how I’ve gone about organizing the blog for the coming academic year. As a result, in what follows—my first “editor’s note,” an exercise I hope to repeat quarterly, not as a point of privilege but as a means to synthesize and highlight certain aspects of the blog’s discussion from time to time—I introduce this year’s new authors, discuss my launching of a contemporary artist in “E-Residence” position with the blog, and present an imagining of how these matters might play out. Moreover, I invite comments and suggestions as to how others feel about the goals and objectives of the blog, and specifically about what others might wish to see addressed in the coming months.

At the center of all this is how truly excited and elated I am with respect to the Romantic Studies graduate blogging team joining the community with the advent of the 2013/14 academic year. Perhaps, it is because I am the resident art historian of the NASSR Graduate Student caucus, but what I enjoy most about this collective of emerging scholars is the dazzling array of interdisciplinary work that—to my mind—comprises the very best in scholarship presently being undertaken in our field. In this regard, I am extremely delighted to welcome the graduate students who will begin writing for the blog, all of whose work stands at the interstices of romanticism and a veritable range of disciplinary practices, from economics and gender (Renee Harris), to the medical sciences (Arden Hegele), to the digital humanities (Jennifer Leeds), and all the way to archaeology (Deven Parker). Given the critical mass of perspectives and viewpoints this fall’s new cadre of bloggers represent, the discussions that take place here promise to be important, insightful, and vital ones. Just as well, I am thrilled to welcome the first scholarly collective to be featured on the blog—the highly enterprising Arizona State University 19th Century colloquium. In principle, I believe it’s crucial for us to chart, not only the ideas and practices that we come up with on our own as romanticists (and/or as scholars of the long eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries generally), but also the advances that necessarily come about through the social networks with which we identify. After all, it is my contention that when we do our best work, we often do so when we operate neither in scholarly isolation nor in seclusion, but when we combine minds and efforts taking part in robust scholarly communities.

Further, I am ecstatic that Nicole Geary (Printmaking MFA, 2013) has accepted the caucus’s invitation to join the blog as this year’s Artist in (E-)Residence. Because Nicole’s work as a printmaker and sculptor intensely engages issues of contemporary ecology, geology, and memory—and does so within the artistic key of a research-based practice predicated upon on a scientific methodology—I thought Nicole a particularly well-suited artist to take part in the NGSC. Her art grapples with a set of social/environmental problems and critical and aesthetic possibilities resonant with the scholarship presently being taken up by a number of caucus members. While the idea is an experiment on my part—though not entirely original, in that other communities have sought out insights that might be gleaned from scholarly/artistic collaboration—I am eager to see how an artist’s perspective will illuminate our own work as scholars in new ways. Also, I find myself enticed by the prospect that our community might contribute to the production of art within our own social/cultural horizon. Ultimately, it is my hope that the Artist in (E-)Residence caucus post might prove sufficiently viable so as to alternate in succeeding years between a poet and an artist working in visual or other media (musical, architectural, or otherwise).

In any event, I enthusiastically anticipate a quarter, and year, for this graduate student caucus wrought with brilliant possibilities for intellectual revelry, debate, and jouissance at every level. Indeed, posts have already been proposed taking up a range of topics from thinking through contemporary issues of fracking with Percy Shelley, to issues of gender and sexuality as they pertain to Michael Suk-Young Chew’s recent book, Jane Austen: Game Theorist, to the critical issue of the contingencies, risks, and rewards associated with open-access online scholarly engagement.

The year promises to be lively. The state of graduate studies in romanticism is strong. Therefore, I say, please join in the discussion, either by way of comments or as a guest blogger. We look forward to your participation.

 

 

 

The Day After Payday: Graduate Students, Gleaning, and Apocalypse

Jean-François_Millet_(II)_-_The_Gleaners_-_WGA15691Finally after a long, cold summer, payday finally arrived! It was yesterday, the tenth of October. The frost has melted and the money has blossomed. It is for some the first payday since school ended in June. Sure, it was a glorious summer, sitting everyday in a library, reading and writing. After all, as long as you “do what you love,” the conditions in which you live do not matter. So I’ve been told.

One point of reference for this frugal summer has been Agnès Varda’s 2000 documentary, The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse). Varda’s film covers the history and contemporary practice of gleaning in France. Gleaning is the agricultural practice of gathering scraps leftover from the harvest, such as grain, potatoes, or whatever is available. It is a practice largely reserved for indigent peoples. While I initially picked up this film for the short interview with psychoanalyst, Jean Laplanche, since viewing the whole documentary, I have thought much more about gathering scraps.

Historically, gleaning has been considered a common practice, recorded as far back as the Bible, at least. It was often conducted by women and in groups.  But in 1788, gleaning was criminalized in England (collecting dead wood on the property of someone else was made illegal in the same year, which informs the plot of William Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”). In many court cases involving gleaning, it was actually the land-owning farmers who were the accused, namely for assaulting gleaners.[i] But regardless of who brought charges against whom, according to the “law,” there was one less way to survive.

Today—or at least thirteen years ago—Varda observes that gleaning has become somewhat of a solitary practice. Not only do gleaners search farmland for leftovers, but also the markets, garbage bins, and alleyways. Largely urban dwellers, Varda discovers that a good gleaner knows which grocers, bakers, and even which fishmongers throw away food before it has spoiled. It is striking how many of the people Varda meets glean out of repulsion to the capitalist culture’s insistence that consumers continuously purchase commodities. For some, their commitment to glean is very much a moral issue.

In Seattle, where I live, it is illegal to forage in public parks, another form of gleaning. Over the summer I heard a news broadcast about how foraging is illegal here but that the Seattle Parks department is becoming more tolerant and actually teaching people how to forage for things, like nettles, without destroying ecosystems.

I am simultaneously pleased and troubled by this decision. I am pleased because it seems wise to use these spaces to also grow and harvest food so that urban dwellers are not limited only to imported products, which cost more money and require more fuel for distribution than locally grown products.

But if gleaning is given a bit of a (neoliberal, hip, west coast) shine to it, in the same move we become complacent with regards to very real things that cause some people to glean out of necessity, for instance, corporations and governments that rely on interns, or universities that rely on adjuncts and graduate student teacher assistants.

In a “roundabout” way, such complacency is already recognized. Shifting attitudes with respect to foraging in public parks (in other major cities, as well) follows from fears about an “uncertain future,” namely: “Climate change, extreme weather events, rising fuel prices, terrorist activity.”[ii] The reason that cities are softening up on gleaning is not because the poor have suddenly found a place in the proverbial hearts of middle-class Americans. Rather, gleaning needs to be appropriated by the so-called “creative class” in order to survive the next 9/11, tsunami, or cosmic collision.

Here I am reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s now well-circulated quote concerning apocalypse: “we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on…it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”[iii]

In other words, rather than make it so that a real majority in the world has access to basic health care, clean water, safe food, warm shelter, as well as access to a quality education—and thus possibly diminishing the desires of some to destroy the planet or large sums of it—we are learning how to identify and cook nettles, and openly admitting that we are doing so in preparation for the next big catastrophe.

Perhaps there is no solution. Perhaps the damage is too great. But too great for what? Yes, climate change is real, its current trajectory is being driven primarily by human actions, and its effects will be profound, and most likely, profoundly bad.

And yet, this past weekend at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts’ annual conference (this year’s theme was the “Postnatural”), I heard about another approach. One of the keynote speakers, Subhankar Banerjee, an artist and environmental activist, spoke about “long environmentalism.”

The concept itself is still being worked out, but I would contrast it to assumptions that technological innovation is going to suddenly fix that whole climate change problem. Likewise, governments, corporations, and universities are not going to suddenly care about the needs and welfare of the displaced, the underpaid, and the overworked. I would say that these two seemingly disparate issues both require a similar “long” solution. For any problem humans and other species face today, the solutions require drastic changes to our ways of living: no quick turnaround is to be had. It’s great that cities are legalizing foraging and the colleges are starting recycling programs. But these are paper towels on a massive oil spill.

I do not promise organic unity in the conclusion of this post. That would be perverse. Instead I conclude with an anecdote:

Walking through campus after the English department’s annual reception during the first week of classes (that is three weeks ago), a number of my fellow graduate students and I came across a box of cookies left on top of a trashcan. One of us grabbed the box, to the horror of some and the ecstatic glee of others. As hands reached into the assortment of cheap, sugary treats, I announced to my cohort, “We’re gleaners!” At least one of them looked at me and understood my meaning. We smiled our intoxicating smiles and forgot for a second that we were really gleaning.

 

 


[i] King, Peter. Crime and Law in England, 1750-1840: Remaking Justice from the Margins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 281-338. Print.

[ii] McNichols, Joshua. “Urban Food Foraging Goes Mainstream In Seattle.” KUOW.ORG. KUOW News and Information, 1 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.

[iii] ŽIŽEK! Dir. Astra Taylor. Zeitgeist, 2005.

A Meditation on the One-Year Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street: Fear, Silence, and Participation

First, an admission: Before this evening I have never taken part in a political or social demonstration. But as a romanticist, I feel very close to revolution, social movements, and political protest.  So where is the disjunction?  There were numerous excuses I gave for not attending Occupy Wall Street events last year, namely writing a prospectus.  But I know I avoided the Occupy movement out of fear.  Fear of falling behind on my dissertation; fear of losing funding as a consequence; fear of being pepper sprayed by police; and fear of a stylistic change.  How do you go from pumping elbow patches to pumping fists?

Given my trepidation, tonight was perhaps the best introduction to protest.   In celebration of the one-year anniversary of OWS, Occupy Seattle held a silent demonstration.  For someone adverse to large crowds, yelling, and subjective forms of violence, in terms of appearance a silent march was a painless excursion.  Regardless, my legs shook the entire time.

In a silent protest, is there anything to really fear?  By and large the demonstration was one of the most innocuous experiences I have undergone with strangers.  I think on a scale of one to ten, the march ranked at a 1.  The American Nightmare concert I attended during college was a 7.  But—when you’re a graduate student—it is not often that you are of primary attention for the police.  It is a vulnerable feeling to have a dozen or more armed officers trailing you through city streets.  Of course, nothing is going to happen, you assure yourself.  No transgressions actually engender this fear, but the conditions of the situation do.  Structurally, we were surrounded.

With diminished levels of violence, it is questionable how effective a protest can be. Did not the group appear to be a bunch of lackluster whiners blocking traffic, hardly moving through the streets in silence?  And yet, the silence produced an eeriness.  Recall UC Davis’ Chancellor walking through a silent student protest last year.  There was a similar feeling tonight, but the structure was reversed.  The silence “emitted” outward from a center and arrested spectators.  Passersby stopped and observed; some took photos; some gawked; some didn’t notice.  One man howled out, “Occupy!”, then apologized to the crowd for his irreverence.  Eerie, yes—but without throwing bricks, engaging police, or detonating bombs it is difficult to make the front page.

But really, silence might be the most violent medium.  Academics enacting silence might benefit from Lenin’s example, as Slavoj Žižek describes it: “after the catastrophe of 1914…[Lenin] withdrew to a lonely place in Switzerland, where he ‘learned, learned, and learned’…And this is what we should do today when we find ourselves bombarded with mediatic images of violence” (8).[i]  Perhaps, but romanticists are a little touchy when it comes to withdrawing to a secluded place in the face of war and corruption.  Rather, we might translate silence to mean neglect.  Corporations need the average consumer.  They are not cancerous but infantile—neglect corporations and their power withers.

In a way, by studying romantic literature, romanticists have all been taking part in political demonstrations.  At the end of the evening, a representative from New York shouted out a “thank you” to New Yorkers for inaugurating Occupy.  A young man to my left replied in a low voice, “New York didn’t start Occupy.”  Agreed.  Forms of protest have a long history, each one particular in its own way, but a history nevertheless with which students of romanticism are familiar.  Familiar—but is reading about protest and revolution enough?  We lose something when we restrict “reading” to the page.  At the same time, it is not as if one marches in a demonstration in 2012 and suddenly “gets” the French Revolution, abolition, or women’s suffrage.  However, because revolutions do not die but decompose and scatter informational bits to be picked up and transformed, it is possible to connect to these historical and contemporary events through various media. So let’s make another admission: learning about revolution through study can be a form of protest, in fact, but if your legs never shake you have at least two limbs left uneducated.


[i] Žižek, Slavoj.  Violence.  New York: Picador, 2008.  Print.