BCNM at American Studies Association 2022

02 Nov, 2022

BCNM at American Studies Association 2022

This year’s theme was an homage to the cultures and knowledges too often dismissed.“The roof is on fire” invited strategies that draw our attention to and command a multisensory, multiregister engagement with the world as it is and as we want it to be. We're thrilled BCNM faculty and alumni were featured in this great program.

Kieth Feldman presented "Archives of a Ruinous Future: Relational Analytics in Arab Diasporic Literature." From the abstract:

In a 2017 essay, the French feminist historian and political scientist Françoise Vergés asks: “What methodology is needed to write a history of the environment that includes slavery, colonialism, imperialism and racial capitalism, from the standpoint of those who were made into ‘cheap’ objects of commerce, their bodies as objects renewable through wars, capture, and enslavement, fabricated as disposable people, whose lives do not matter?”

In taking up this question, Vergés offers the term ”racial capitalocene” as one possible critical concept. The racial capitalocene is of course a rejoinder to the use of the term “Anthropocene,” widely understood as “the human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth.” In crafting this concept, Verges melds historian Jason Moore’s (2017) rendering of capitalism in the historical transformation of geology, ecology, and environment, with the insights of Black studies scholar Cedric Robinson into the ways the history of capitalism is always a history of racial capitalism. Verges joins numerous scholars across the critical human sciences (from Latour to Haraway, Chakrabarty to Baucom, Yusoff to Mirzoeff), to challenge the de-historicizing quality and effect of Anthropecene discourse.

This paper takes Verges’ methodological question as a prompt to consider two experiments in contemporary Arab diasporic literature. In particular, it considers the place of archival source in Laila Lalami’s The Moor's Account (2015) and Omar El Akkad’s American War (2017). Both novels dramatize the affordances and authority of state-sanctioned documentation--seizing on what I call the archive’s imperial formalism--even as they recast, trouble, and press on the limits of such forms of documentation. The Moor’s Account inhabits the form of the mid-16th century ”La Relacion,” in order to recount a foundational moment in the history of Spanish contact with North American Indigenous communities, told here from the perspective of the enslaved Moroccan translator Mustafa al-Zamori. American War recasts the war on terror's most iconic archival forms--redacted state documents, government testimony, photography from refugee camps--to speculate on the history of a ruinous future, one grounded in the present contradictions of empire and extraction, humanitarianism and racial ordering.

In reading these novels together, this paper argues that Lalami and El Akkad cultivate ”relational analytics” (Lowe and Manjapra 2019) to surface entangled histories of SWANA migration, the arcs and impacts of trans-Atlantic processes of racialization, and the violent geographies of displacement and refuge. Moreover, they trouble the overlapping chronotopes of the forever war (Kapadia 2019) and the Anthropocene (Demos 2020, Mameni 2021), pressing critically on their sharply periodizing origin stories and the open-ended space and time of their futures.

Hannah Zeavin presented "Screening Mother, Coding Baby: Predictive Control, Incarcerated Mothers, and Attachment Theory in the Prison." From the abstract:

Attachment theory, at first blush, seems out of place in the carceral imperative to capture an ever-increasing population. I will argue that attachment theory has always been a predictive theory, a “racial calculus” centered on maternal fitness. While this has had many implications outside the carceral context, where attachment theories continue to be used to generate prognoses of developmental outcomes, my focus is on how attachment theory combines with other forms of carceral prediction. Like algorithmic sentencing, attachment theory operates on the understanding that by looking at a number of factors in the here and now, one can predict a then and there to come, removing psychological depth in favor of a system of behavioral if-then. But its evidence is drawn from one major source: the infant’s face.

Both practices elide the difference between prediction and control. Indeed, the two cross each other under the sign of preventing recidivism in a society that increasingly incarcerates mothers. Here, I take attachment theory and its attendant assumptions about parental—especially maternal—care to be a central logic that is deployed contradictorily in the carceral context: to keep incarcerated mothers and their children together, and to keep them apart. By focusing on Rene Spitz’s photographic and documentary work on infants in the prison nursery at Bedford Correctional and attachment theory’s many afterlives in the carceral context, I argue that attachment theory and its precursors become a form of actuarial data, deployed for prediction in the service of managing family life within and beyond the prison.

Ra Malika Imhotep presented "A Nigger Mess: Vernacular Acts of Sublimation in Clementine Hunter’s Return(s) to the Honky Tonk." From the abstract:

In contrast to the standing art-historical appraisals of Hunter as a singular creative luminary who seemed to stumble into a ‘valuable’ art practice, I read Hunter’s commitment to “marking pictures” of her Nachitoches Parish community at work and play as evidence that she valued her own folk culture over the expectations of white patrons (C. Hunter and Robinson 1979). Just as Hunter's depictions of black figures in the fields of the Melrose plantation picking cotton mark the material stasis of life on the post-Emancipation plantation, Hunter’s numerous renderings of the Nachitoches Parish Juke Joint/Honky Tonk aestheticize or ‘mark’ wayward articulations of Black social life (& death). As far as I know, there are at least 10 versions of this painting in existence variously named “Saturday Night,” “Saturday Night in Cane River,” “Saturday Night at the Honky Tonk,” “Saturday Night at the Jook Joint” and according to an inscription written by Mistress of the Melrose Plantation, Cammie Henry, in 1966 there is a “better known” incendiary title: “A Nigger Mess - Saturday Night.”

Some Art Dealers Say that Hunter’s repetitive renderings of the drinking and violence of the Jook Joint are extensions of her Catholic piety. But the wall text accompanying a painting of “Saturday Night” featured in a 2021 show at the Louisiana State Museum: The Cabildo in New Orlean’s French Quarter district offers another explanation from Hunter herself. Apparently Hunter, “used to like to hear them play the music” and would “go there and drink [her] head off.” But she, “ went down there one...Saturday night, and they was shooting so much all over the place, [she] fell down and when [she] fell, [she] got up…” and ran all the way back home. While she used to drink she declares she “never made no racket or nothing.” And after that traumatic Satuday night she “got [her] drinking and stay to [her house]. No went back there no more.”

This paper engages Hunter’s “Nigger Mess” as evidence of a traumatic memory. A moment where she witnessed, first-hand, the intramural violences that attend to Black sociality. A moment where her good times were interrupted by a hail of gunshots. A moment she ran away from. A scene that drove her back to the domestic sphere of her own house. Understanding Hunter’s “Honky Tonk,” in this context brings Hunter into dialogue with other Black feminine figures who adapt in the face of patriarchal violence and utilize aesthetic practices to respond, release, fuck with, and maybe even heal, the precarious histories written on to the Black femme body.

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