Literary Studies and Anti-Blackness
A common critique of the American New Criticism is that its focus on the text above all else marginalized black writing. The method of close reading emphasizes formal complexity above political urgency, which put black writers at a disadvantage as the Southern critics who developed the method perceived race as inherently political. Yet in the 1940s and 1950s, black writers argued that the institutional practices established in English Departments by the New Critics proved as exclusionary, if not more so, than New Critical interpretive methods. Black writers on the left experienced New Criticism as an instrument for the widespread institutional exclusion of black literature and black scholars in predominantly white universities. Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Melvin B. Tolson, and numerous other black critics highlighted that the most significant New Critical contribution to the university was actually a new means of marketing race-based exclusion under the guise of academic literary study, an effort that supported liberal statecraft. In response, black writers saw the study of literature in the university as an extension of the American colonial impulse abroad and legal segregation at home. Understanding New Criticism: Blackness and the University expands the familiar of critique of New Criticism’s method by making available the essential perspectives of black writers on the New Criticism’s institutionalization.
Black writers sought to develop a different set of critical and institutional practices that would counteract the role of literary studies in enforcing the racial order at home and abroad. This development did not occur in predominantly white universities, but behind the closed doors of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations, in the classroom at a Communist labor school under F.B.I. surveillance, and in an imagined exposé of academic criticism’s implicit racial logics on the pages of The Sewanee Review. The result is a critical practice that wields literary criticism and cultural production as essential “weapons” in a broader political and economic struggle.
Identifying mid-century black literary critical practice as crucial to the development of social and political resistance directed towards the university, Understanding New Criticism: Blackness and the University offers essential context for the student-led rise of black studies, ethnic studies, and feminist studies programs in the late 1960s, not to mention the campus protests of our present. This book illustrates how ideas about literature and blackness solidified into academic practices; how black critics have actively resisted such practices; and how in that struggle black writers established a politically and socially grounded literary criticism. In a moment of crisis for literary studies and for the university, Understanding New Criticism delivers a necessary reflection on the discipline’s anti-black racism and its persistence in our present. At the same time, the book suggests that an anti-racist, materialist criticism developed by black thinkers in the 1940s and 50s brings forth a materialist model for interpretation and education.
Part of my work on Melvin B. Tolson and Allen Tate will be published in Criticism in Fall 2017. Also I have explored my concerns with extant forms of disciplinary history in an essay for Public Books, which was translated into Italian, and I have presented this work at the Meeting of the Modern Language Association, the Modernist Studies Association conference, and, this October, at the History of Humanities V in Baltimore.
Life and Death Beyond the University
Historians have begun to argue that the foundations of mass incarceration were poured in the 1960s with Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and other policies that impacted urban development. Universities in American cities had much to gain from these policies in that they expanded their abilities to acquire and redevelop surrounding neighborhoods, as well as to develop armed campus police forces to protect university interests. Life and Death Beyond the University traces how writers of color represent the development of these strategies for the expansion and security of university plant. This book will be among the first that push inquiries into the imperial dimensions of the university beyond the academy’s knowledge production. In other words, the university does the material work of racial capitalism within American cities, in addition to providing the epistemological support necessary for the smooth functioning of this system. Indeed, novelists, such as John Edgar Wideman, show that university growth has the capacity to dispossess people of color and to subject them to a heightened security regime via what Achille Mbembe calls “infrastructural warfare.” The effect of growth for the urban university a clear partition between the life-giving promise of social mobility on campus and the letting-die enforced beyond campus.
I have an ongoing interest in how the Digital Humanities has been defined in relationship to the history of literary studies. In particular, I have concerns about whether many methods and practices that are seen as digital are really new at all. Further, DH’s appeal to novelty only affirms its ties to other privatizing measures within the contemporary university. DH as a category may actually provide a more effective way towards surfacing the long history of literary study’s entanglement with developments in capitalism.
I’m working on an article that looks at the history of diagrams in literary studies as a way to consider digital methods as part of the history of the discipline, while not fetishizing their novelty. I’ve presented a part of this work at MLA.