Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ethical Geography: How abolitionists used spatial practice to reject their own authority

Ralph Waldo Emerson ca. 1857. 
Photograph: George Eastman House Photography Collection

Assistant professor of English at Florida International University

I. Toward a New New Abolitionism

Abolitionism, the movement formulated in the United States north to bring about an immediate end to slavery in the US south, was, in its moment, the watchword for rabble-rousing, for the unsettling of social hierarchies, for threats to the racial, religious, and economic order. In the hundred and eighty-plus years since its coalescence as a social movement circa 1830, its fortunes have fluctuated wildly. It has been used as a term of approbation or disdain, from the right and from the left, often depending on the racialized politics of assumed knowledge and posited solidarity that accompany its invocation.

Perhaps abolitionism’s most important period of post-hoc reimagining occurred in the middle 1960s, as white academic historians’ late-dawning acknowledgement of the history-making work of the civil rights movement reframed the terms of their inquiry into its clear historical precursor. This watershed in mainstream historiography brought about a new appreciation of the interracial abolitionist movement, a new focus on the pervasiveness of resistance among the enslaved, and the long-overdue granting of testimonial authority of the ex-slave narrative.

However, this important victory for abolitionist historiography—which perhaps tellingly dubbed both its own efforts and those of the civil rights movement “the new abolitionism”— served to magnify the ethical hazards of interracial advocacy, past as well as present.

As the critic Ashraf Rushdy has noted in his indispensible exploration of the emergence of the neo-slave narrative in African American literature of this period, “At precisely the time when academics were responding to the early civil rights movement by producing newly sympathetic histories of American abolitionists, white northern volunteers arrived in Mississippi and demonstrated to the African American social activists just what was problematic about certain kinds of abolitionists. Many of these white students […] were utterly insensitive to the traditions and cultural practices of the African American people of Mississippi. They also seemed to have brought with them the abolitionist belief in their presumed responsibility for the souls of those whom they would save.”

By this account, academics learned from the civil rights movement what they had forgotten about the historical agency abolitionism, even as the micropolitics of interracial cooperation in the present appeared to mark a certain limit to any purely adulatory view of the abolitionist movement. Thus, we might wish to say, as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested in 1844, “That we are indebted mainly to this movement, and to the continuers of it, for the popular discussion of every point of practical ethics.” But, from a more suspicious angle, we could just as easily find cynicism, careerism, and an early articulation of the formation now widely known as the “white savior complex.”

We can, after all, see such a movement adumbrated in Rushdy’s own language, in which the ethical lapses of “some abolitionists” shade into a generalized “abolitionist belief” in the availability of enslaved African souls for their saving. It is this version of historical abolitionism that has become a synonym for racial discipline disguised as care.

This contemporary view of abolitionism lodges an important critique of liberalism’s tendency to equate self-determination with the acquisition of a white male political subjectivity. However, it leaves another cherished liberal fallacy largely untouched—the notion that history always discloses forward progress, and that the present always has superior critical leverage on the past. The result of this fact for contemporary cultural studies, I argue, is that we have prematurely ruled out the possibility of abolitionist self-critique precisely because we find its offenses so very familiar.

With Abolitionist Geographies, I make a claim for a new “new abolitionism.” One capable of articulating its own ethical risks, and, crucially, one inclined to use the literary imaginary’s status as the realm of the possible as the place to work them through.

Cutting against the image of the abolitionist as prefiguration of the Civil Rights movement’s bluff white college man striding into Mississippi, the literary abolitionism I examine is precisely concerned with the fight against slavery as a problem of spatial practice.

Abolitionist geography is the name I give to the literary mode in which abolitionists ponder solutions to the problem of their own spatial remove from the institution they are trying to overthrow.

II. Mapping Dissent

“I am looking into the map to see where I will go with my children when Boston & Massachusetts surrender to the slave trade.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Geography, especially understood in narrow terms as cartography, often appears to be the very essence of spatialized discipline. The fixing of borders and mapping of terrain is a technology of war, of nation building, and of conquest. Its salient visual orientation—the aerial view—belongs to the surveillance craft and the skyscraper. This angle of vision required by cartography survives in maps as perpetual reminder of the violence of conquest.

When approached from the post-civil rights-era perspective that emphasizes its compromised motives and unconscious biases, abolitionism comes to resemble mapping and map reading in the intimacy it seems to posit between knowledge gleaned from afar and designs for social reorganization imposed from without. As an aesthetic matter, the abolitionist’s angle of vision seems to assume—indeed usurp—the position of the slaveholder by observing slavery from above, the position of authority, rather from below, the position of resistance uncompromised by power and privilege.

Indeed, in contemporary literary and cultural criticism, the prevailing approach to abolitionism has been to deconstruct its claims to moral authority as too enamored of mastery-by-other-means.

Abolitionist Geographies is committed by contrast to the importance of what used to be called “outside agitators” to social protest movements, and the possibility—indeed urgency—of self-critical activism in the past and in the present. Abolitionist Geographies argues that abolitionism developed a spatial vocabulary through which to probe and conditionally resolve its own ethical contradictions.

One nicely compressed example comes from a letter Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to his brother, William, in 1856, during the particularly fraught period around the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In this statement, “the map” is cast not as a technology for mastery at a distance, but rather as a metaphor for New England abolitionists’ increasing sense of themselves as beset on all sides by a hostile state.

Indeed, the period of the late 1850s produced a number of examples of maps and mapping represented as tools of resistance, critique, and subversion, culminating with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

Other examples include:
  •  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s celebration of slave resistance and marronage in Dred (also 1856) in terms of the Great Dismal Swamp’s resistance to mapping:
“The reader who consults the map will discover that the whole eastern shore of the Southern States, with slight interruptions, is belted by an immense chain of swamps, regions of hopeless disorder, where the abundant growth and vegetation of nature, sucking up its forces from the humid soil, seems to rejoice in a savage exuberance, and bid defiance to all human efforts either to penetrate or subdue.”
  • The white antislavery militant Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s admiring biographical sketch of Nat Turner, which circulates a apocryphal story of the rebel as map-reader:
“To this day there are traditions among the Virginia slaves of the keen devices of ‘Prophet Nat.’ If he was caught with lime and lampblack in hand, conning over a half-finished county-map on the barn-door, he was always ‘planning what to do if he were blind;’ or ‘studying how to get to Mr. Francis’s house.”
  •  The Black nationalist Martin Delany’s novel of transnational slave revolt, Blake; Or, the Huts of America, which represented the enslaved person’s escape north in terms of a navigator’s ability to travel long distances by scanning the skies:
After a few minutes “busily engaged with a pencil and paper” the rebel Henry Blake composed a diagram of Ursa Major, and then instructed a group of aspiring fugitives on how to read the relative positions of the stars as the means to find “the North star, the slave’s great Guide to Freedom.”

In contrast to the master’s aerial view, that is, Delany offers a lesson in astronomy as a revolutionary bottom-up alternative, one that can start anywhere, and lead anywhere, and that can be made readily available to the enslaved.

In Abolitionist Geographies, I examine a range of such spatial expressions of abolitionist dissent. Beginning with the 1830s, I trace abolitionists’ attempts to glean lessons from the problematic imperial administration of British West Indian emancipation for their own explicitly anti-authoritarian purposes. In the1840s, I examine Garrisonian abolitionists’ efforts to spatialize the problem of their complicity with slavery, what Garrison called “the guilt of New England,” through the controversial geographic metaphor of “disunion.” Finally, for the period of intensified crisis on the eve of the Civil War, I trace abolitionists’ increasing investment in paramilitary tactics as a spatial manifestation of their ethical claims.  


Martha Schoolman is assistant professor of English at Florida International University. She is the author of Abolitionist Geographies and coeditor of the essay collection Abolitionist Places.

"Abolitionist Geographies offers exciting new ways of thinking about place, time, politics, and form in the antislavery writings of such important antebellum writers as Emerson, William Wells Brown, Martin Delany, and Stowe. Drawing on recent work in diasporic and hemispheric studies, Schoolman shows how key writers of the time made use of spatial experimentation to conceive of the nation well beyond North and South sectionalism. Abolitionist Geographies poses a fresh challenge to scholars of the period to address matters of nation and geography more complexly."—Robert S. Levine, author of Dislocating Race and Nation

Friday, November 14, 2014

#UPWeek: Writing the Continuous Book.

This post is published on the occasion of University Press Week, in which about 30 university presses have published posts on five significant topics: collaboration; your Press in pictures; connections with popular culture; a throwback look at an influential project or series; or #FollowFriday, today's topic on university presses and social media. Find more details about University Press Week here.

The siphonophorae, considered by Gabriel Tarde
to be the embodiment of sociality.

Professor of anthropology and director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin

Books capture and convey the motion of thought as it grapples with topics or conjures up scenes. But does that line of thinking simply come to an end when the book does?

Covers close the book and seal it as complete, perhaps even definitive. What happens in cases where thoughts want to stay in motion? 

The answer generally has been to write another book, which, under the best circumstances, can take years. But developing a short-format e-book and ensconcing it in social media is a means to write a book continuously.

I was mired in the opening stages of my next book—an ethnography of plant biodiversity science in Mexico and Spain—when Jason Weidemann mentioned to me the experimental Forerunners series at University of Minnesota Press. I was enthralled. Immediately, I peeled off a dozen or so speculative ideas that had been cluttering up the simple analytical frame I needed for writing about multisited fieldwork on plants. These were unruly but intriguing thoughts—on whether “natives” are principally plants or people; on how “model organisms” serves as fables guiding bioscience research; or the notion that a horticultural hermeneutic reaches from the Bible to the root directories of cloud computing. These and many more assembled as Aesop’s Anthropology, a series of short essays responding to one basic question: What can we learn about sociality from other species, once we suspend the belief that it is the unique possession and characteristic of humans? You can read it if you’d like; what I’ll principally convey here is how this format and the modes of social media I’ve engaged with to promote it are turning out to be remarkably generative beyond the book itself.

First, the book as “platform”: there’s more to this than marketing metaphorics. Seeing the essays as templates, I’ve been able to write on new topics before Aesop’s was even released. Laying out a framework of speculative ideas allows me to develop them sporadically, in turn, as new instances arise—in the media or everyday life—rather than having to hive to the scholastic argument format. Using a blog site, I am writing new essays that extend the initial inquiries, generally in surprising direction, or certainly ones I didn’t anticipate when I developed the initial frame. Now I don’t have the maddening wait to get something “in print”; I can write it, post it, and move onto the next idea, knowing they’re all coalescing in ways I won’t entirely anticipate. And who doesn’t like to be surprised by where their own writing leads?

Second, there’s Twitter, a medium I abhorred without knowing much about it. I turned to it, also, for reasons I generally loath: marketing! But it has considerably changed my understanding of how I think and write. Yes, there’s the way “networking” can develop into collaborative approaches, new ideas and directions, different conversations, and all that. Through following others on Twitter, I’ve come across articles, symposiums, and research projects that I would have otherwise entirely missed—even though I do a dogged job of keeping up with academic publishing on my various subjects. The biggest impact, though, was when I realized I could use my page as a curated site, collecting the intriguing items I am finding and not yet sure of how to use. For instance, I read more science journals now, keeping up with my plant scientist subjects. Previously, I would’ve been trolling these for tropes and other ideological operations, evidence of “social constructions” of science. Now, though, I’m more inclined to mimic these scientists and compile findings, research protocols, and study subjects into … what? I’m not yet sure. Probably a synthetic account of plants that combines cultural critique with social observations, percolating with natural science facts and theories, all about that particularly charged topic: evolution. I don’t see the final frame yet at all, but I use my Twitter page to write it up incrementally.

Most liberating of all, lets me write with a persona, one that’s emerged from the book project. I don’t use the page for personal updates; rather, I compile quotes and citations—think links—the way Walter Benjamin imagined composing his Paris Arcades project. My profile picture is a siphonophorae—a remarkable marine entity that appears as a single organism (a jellyfish, perhaps) but is actually a massive colony of interlocking individual zooids. Gabriel Tarde considered it as the embodiment of sociality, which helpfully figures the nonhuman dimension I’m striving to learn from. I only post when I’ve come across new scholarly or news items that variously stretch the connotation of “culture” and “social.” When I reread the page, I start seeing connections between trajectories that I didn’t foresee. In this sense, too, I use it to gain some distance from myself by assuming a curatorial stance for this ledger that is gradually materializing. 

The best part is that though I keep accumulating more material than I know what to do with, my anxieties over what to do with it all are dissolving. I’m just watching what unfolds and trying to learn from it all, rather than worrying about how it will fit in the next book—or anticipating all that won’t make it between the next set of covers. 


John Hartigan Jr. is author of Aesop's Anthropology: A Multispecies Approach, one of the first releases in University of Minnesota Press's Forerunners series. He is a professor in the department of anthropology and Director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (Princeton, 1999), Odd Tribes: White Trash, Whiteness and the Uses of Cultural Analysis (Duke, 2005), What Can You Say? America’s National Conversation on Race (Stanford 2010), and Race in the 21st Century: Ethnographic Approaches (Oxford 2010). He recently edited Anthropology of Race: Genes, Biology, and Culture (2014). Hartigan’s current research on biodiversity in Mexico and Spain is the subject of his forthcoming book from Minnesota, Care of the Species: Cultivating Biodiversity in Mexico and Spain. His blog, Aesop’s Anthropology, reflects on multispecies dynamics broadly.