How I Spent Shakespeare’s 400th Deathaversary

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The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

Flipping Borges, this lively academic pastiche by David Greig imagines Hell as an infinite library, containing “every book every written…and every book never written.” That endlessness might sound pretty good to academics, but when the Devil is your only librarian, it’s hard to get home.

Prudencia Hart in the snow (Photos Peter Dibdin / Arts & Ideas)

Prudencia Hart is a Scottish academic traveling to a border ballads conference on a snowy midwinter’s eve. She believes in beauty, truth, and the snow tires that get her safely through the storm. Her bete noir is Colin Syme, a motorcycle-riding spouter of laddish quips and theoretical bon mots. He says that the literary tradition to which Prudencia has dedicated her life and career contains neither “borders” nor “ballads.” He thinks post-panel Karaoke is the real point of the conference anyway.

It’s a love story, as you might have imagined. But the male lead isn’t only the bloke in support of whom the audience joined in on a rousing football chant of, “there’s only one…Colin..Syme!”

It turns out, in fact, that introverted Pru finds another love, to whom she’s finally able to croon a song at the play’s end after having previously run away from the Karaoke mic into the snow and inadvertently fallen into Hell. She found her lover there, where he was her jailor-librarian for four millennia. All their years together vanished when she later escaped back into the present day with the help of Colin’s chivalric strip-tease and iron grip.

The full cast (Photo Peter Dibdin / Arts & Ideas)

The full cast

Like some of the ballads Prudencia studies, the play spins around the Devil loving a mortal woman. But in this case, Pru becomes the wooer. It turns out that the Devil can be brought into love only if you teach him to speak in rhyme. Even the immortal Enemy, it seems, can’t resist a good couplet.

The near-constant rhyming patter — much of the play’s dialogue is in ballad meter — gave the show a delightful energy, as did the setting among the tables and patrons of the GYPSY bar I used to go to in grad school.

As satire, it was pretty straightforward: Pru loves beauty, Colin just wants to start an orgy. Stop me if you’ve heard the one about academic careerism before! The dazzling Master-and Margarita-esque turn to Hell roughly halfway through the action, however, led to a deeply felt exploration of love, rhyme, and the allure of literary and nonliterary things. Pru finally chooses Colin’s fleshy world over the Devil’s library — but not until her 4,000-year Hades fellowship has run its course.

Prudencia and her songs will be in New Haven only two more afternoons, but there’s a US tour just starting now, with visits to New York, Burlington, Santa Ana CA, and a few other places before returning to Scotland and the UK in the summer. See her if you can!

The play is a perfect antidote for the exhaustion that follows on conference season!


Communities of #shakeass16 in NOLA

My head’s still spinning from a glorious NOLA SAA, which finished early on Easter Sunday with a turbulent flight back to JFK that gave me one last unsettling tap on the shoulder. Who’s there?

Will head

Totems of SAA

Not…this big & bald guy who wrote some old plays?

I love pagan rituals and jazz funerals, but my SAA this year was about all about community — which means many things at our annual gathering, but for me especially this year it meant Seminar #51, the last one in your program. “Shared Practices and Shakespearean Communities,” was co-chaired by me and Matt Kozusco, with expert responding by Ayanna Thompson, Peter Holland, and Rick Godden. What a ride it was! Still bumping along in the jet stream of my thoughts.

Despite the thrills of seminar-ing, the culinary and biblious pleasures of New Orleans, a blazing set of paper sessions, and some positive steps toward completing the labors of the #shakeass17 Program Committee (marching into Atlanta next year!), my SAA’s undersong wasn’t all smooth. News from back home in CT undercut my contentment. While I was away, my daughter’s year-old injury flared back up. (Last year her foot was run over by her baby-sitter’s car when pulling out of our driveway, generating a long-running paroxysm of parental guilt I suspect many will recognize.) Alinor, solo parenting while I feasted, got sick. My son had his first week back to school after break. I was unhappily part of the community of fathers who weren’t there for their families on Easter morning.

Jazz funeral

Jazz funeral

Thesis #1 (which I didn’t quite spit out in the seminar): Communities are groups to which we can never fully belong, because we always fail them, some of the time.

We had a diverse bunch of papers: four historicist studies, three new media analyses, and three portraits of contemporary performance groups. After plenty of detailed textual responses before the conference, we wanted our two hours in NOLA to start something new. So we invented a party game:

Name two communities in which you are an active member, and one from which you are barred from membership.

Unprofessional mourners

Unprofessional mourners

Mine were straightforward, though also impermanent: I’m a parent of teenagers and an early modern ecocritic. I was amazed at the multiplicity of the different groups in which people claimed membership: Notre Dame football fans, black Shakespeareans, surfers, non-tenure track faculty, actors, St Louis Cardinal fans, hikers, people who speak more than three languages, atheists, soccer coaches, curlers. Shakespeareans was the unspoken common referent, though I’d intentionally spiked our punch with two brilliant medievalists, Jonathan Hsy and Rick Godden, who spoke eloquently about being near but not of Big Will.

From what were we excluded? Playing baseball, tenure, teaching Shakespeare classes (some of us teach other things), living less than 2,000 miles (!) from family, the Catholic church. We talked about exclusion by choice or by fiat, which leads me to my second not-quite-expressed thesis/conclusion:

Thesis #2: We have less choice in communal identities than we like to claim. When we speak of choice, we are engaged in hiding community’s costs.

Maybe my theses and their mostly invisible sources in domestic unease make me sound churlish? My main role in the seminar room, as I remember it, was to insist on the productive laboring force of communities, which can create things that individuals cannot. The constant chorus of our session was thinking about the SAA: we compared it (favorably!) to RSA; thought about its differential points of access, including for medievalists and working-class academics; even discussed a controversial lunchtime speech of a few years ago. Maybe it was being on the Program Committee and so seeing the full spread of next year’s options, but I was struck this year more than usually by the swirl of SAA, its vectors and diversities.

Communities are of necessity both inclusive and exclusive. Barriers to entry can be structured with clear routes of access but always remain visible, if only to facilitate the “shorthand” of shared knowledge that Peter Holland described in our seminar. That shorthand is also unevenly accessible, as our medievalists, scholars of color, and non-tt faculty emphasized. How much, I wonder, does open recognition counter barriers to access?

One answer appeared in the great moment at the Scholars of Color social in which Ayanna stood on a chair (or table, I couldn’t really see) and made visible the community of scholars of color in order to introduce them — or encourage them to introduce themselves — to other named communities, including SAA officers, Folger Library staff, and editors of journals. It felt like an implicit answer to some of the seminar’s questions, as well as a hopeful sign for the future of the SAA.dancing

Two hours of conversation seldom leads to tidy conclusions, but I feel as if the seminar showed at least one new thing to me, and perhaps also to others: thinking explicitly about community both inside and beyond our scholarly work makes its shapes and contours visible. That visibility puts us in a position to create positive change.

Which leads me to my last unstated thesis, a partial rebuttal of the second:

Thesis #3: Communities are tools for creating new knowledge. Like language or the iphone in my pocket, these tools afford some forms of knowing and discourage others. The best purpose of communities is to extend the power and range of our knowing.

That’s a practical claim, and it omits the real & tangible pleasures of communal belonging in favor of an outward-directed interest in making new things. I love belonging as much as the next SAA addict, and I suspect my focus on knowledge creation is a partial shield for more selfish pleasures.

One feature of SAA as a community that received garish exaggeration this year is our cultish devotion to a single individual, White and Male and Old and Bald (like me). Shakespeare’s “deathaversary” (to borrow Miriam Jacobson’s nice formulation in the introduction to her stunning paper) saw us dancing around his effigy in the company of professional mourners and a jazz funeral. It was silly & fun & allegorical — surely we can all admit that much? One tension in community-making remains that it’s hard to stay individuated within large groups — it’s not easy to be, in Coriolanus’s terms, “author of myself,” while dancing around Shakespeare’s head to New Orleans jazz rhythms with our once-a-year conference besties. Might we Shakespeareans be less authorial and authoritative than we like to claim? Might the face of our collectivity — that grimly famous but still opaque visage — speak us as much as we attempt to distinguish ourselves?

I’m home now, and I think mostly forgiven my treacherous absence in a time of need. But I’m still thinking (and blogging!) about SAA, including the many things that, despite my 5-day stay in NOLA (a conference record I aim not to repeat soon), I missed. Wendell Pierce’s talk, the paper session with Amanda Bailey, Julian Yates, & Ben Robinson (I went to its chronological rival, with Kim Coles, Drew Daniel, and Katherine Eggert: choices!), Erika Lin’s session on Mardi Gras Shakespeare. One can’t be everywhere, as this past week has re-taught me. Belonging is aspirational, impossible, costly. To recap my contradictory theses: we can’t join, joining costs, we must join to build and change.

See everyone in Atlanta next year!



Anthropocene questions

I’m back from a weekend ACLA seminar on “Anthropocene Reading” organized by Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor. It was three two hours sessions, spaced over two days, with all of the contributions moving toward a book collection, *Reading the Anthropocene: Literary History in Geologic Times*, coming soon from Penn State UP.

I’m left with a swirl — I might say a vortex, in a nod to Jeffrey Cohen’s “Anarky” — of questions and still-percolating thoughts. A few of them will spill out here, as I get ready to finish my contribution to the book in the next few weeks.

  1. What if it’s a failure? I don’t mean my chapter, though I suppose that’s always a possibility, but the Anthropocene itself, as a productive concept for the humanities. Benjamin Morgan, who wasn’t actually in Cambridge this weekend, put this point rather brilliantly through his reading of two Hardy novels that I don’t know: what if the Anthropocene names an impossible thought, a task that we cannot accomplish, precisely because positing the conceptual unity of (to borrow Tobias and Jesse’s subtitle) human literary history and vast geologic times isn’t finally possible? One response to this dilemma might be Hardy’s tragic novels — but in writing theoretical criticism rather than fiction, how can we acknowledge the abiding presence of failure and incommensurability?
  2. What sort of eyeglasses do we need? Many of us over the three sessions talked about different kinds of artificial aids in undertaking the project of Anthropocene Reading. Jesse and Derek Woods talked about the affordances of technology, and many of us talked about different kinds of formalism, especially the strategic formalism recently outlined by Caroline Levine. History and Genre are also powerful spectacles through which we can stare at the Anthropocene glare more or less directly, though always at the risk of some distortion. Jennifer Wenzel’s great talk on Waiting for the Barbarians made me think of the sinister opening image of the torturer’s sunglasses, which mark less an inability to see than a refusal to acknowledge the physical world:

I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? (Coetzee 1)

3. Always allegorize! We spent a lot of time debating alternative forms of periodization, ranging from Jeffrey’s through-going skepticism of any firm period markers to my perhaps incoherent embrace of All The Dates. But I came away thinking about allegory (and genre) as much as about periodicity. Making meaning out of signs, from lyric poems to carbon traces in ice cores, is what we do. To deform another of Jameson’s maxims of modernity: “we cannot not allegorize.”

4. Earth as text and disruption of text: I was struck, especially when Tobias, Jesse, and others, including Dana Luciano, who also appeared only via paper, engaged with earth systems science, that their methods entailed a re-interrogation of close formalist reading practices. On some level, that self-reflexive interrogation is the gambit of the book, I suppose, but, as Jesse said to me after the session yesterday, it felt surprising to go all the way back to Derrida! It may be that deconstructive self-interrogation is something that humanities scholars can usefully add to stratigraphic methods — though stratigraphers are all too deeply aware that traces can vanish and that the absence of signs is not a sign of absence. I also wonder about the instability of treating the living earth, or “earth system,” as a text — even more than a vulnerable page, the earth is never identical to itself in time. Perhaps our methods need to borrow from the ephemerality of performance history, as well as the (relative) stability of the written text? There is no unitary earth-text that remains constant in time: the dynamism of the earth, the key insight of 19c geology, poses interpretive problems.

5. Atmosphere and rock:– inscription and erasure?: Tom Ford’s great paper on Jane Eyre made me think about the multiple layers of our planetary system, the globe’s envelopment in layers of rock, water, and gas. The stratigraphic “signature” is written in ice and rock, but carbon dioxide moves around the system as a gas — which means that in order to become legible, the solid must become gaseous and later solidify again, or mark a solid surface. (Ocean acidification, another Anthropocene signature, is perhaps a slightly different case.) Atmospheric carbon appears (to human eyes at least) erased, while geologic signs are (theoretically) part of a permanent record. A system of writing, however, requires both inscription and erasure, as Roger Chartier has shown. Does that mean that an Anthropocene Text, the Writing inscribed by the Anthropocene, must be read in air as well as solid forms?

6. What if it’s not new? This is perhaps a pre-modernist’s question, when he finds himself surrounded by people whose scholarly archives range from the 18th through the 21st centuries. We entertained lots of early Anthropocenes in the seminar — 1610 was the magic number in which I don’t quite believe but enjoyed playing with in my essay, but we also talked about the dawn of agriculture 12,000 years ago, the Industrial Revolution, Great Acceleration, etc. There seemed to be a desire to accept multiple iterations, perhaps even a repeated pattern of Anthropocene-ing. But if that’s the case, such repetition and extension might qualify the radical novelty of this latest Age of Man.

There were are few moments this past weekend in which people seemed to be seeking a new language, or meta-language, appropriate for Anthropocene reading. The revolutionary energies of 20c modernist and 19c Romantic poetry, not to mention 19c geology, reinforce the need for the new.

But when I think about the Anthropocene as an incitement to narrative and a hermeneutic challenge, I keep coming back to an old-fashioned literary historical awareness that the way novelties emerge over time is through the recombination of old materials. Generic innovations, from 17c tragicomedy like the one I talked about to Tom’s Victorian novel and Jennifer’s post-modern novel, emerge from recombining old things in new ways.

Is the Anthropocene really new, or is it a particular way to recombine things that have been with us as long as human culture?

Driving home into the glare of sunset, I found myself mulling that there is a fixed amount of carbon on our planet. Very little enters or leaves the entire system. Petromodernity has been all about moving the carbon around, from its “transputrefied” forms as oil and coal to all those parts per million in the atmosphere. From a certain point of view, it’s not that absolute a difference.

But it’s enough.


Trevor Nunn’s Pericles (at Theatre for a New Audience)

The wedding of Thaisa and Pericles

The wedding of Thaisa and Pericles

[Apologies for the delay on posting this — it’s been a busy spring!]

A few days before I saw Tfana’s new production of Pericles, I read through a couple dozen early-in-the-term student papers on the play. Many of my students uncovered in this strange play a semi-feminist ethos, in which feminine power resists or restructures masculine violence. Most of these papers were about Marina and the play’s final two acts, but one of the most original explored Thaisa after her shipwreck. The left-for-dead heroine upon being returned to life points herself toward the Temple of Ephesus instead of her lost husband. Her turn to Diana, my student’s essay implied, pivots the play: human desires no longer take center stage. What if the important things are elsewhere?

I was thinking about that nonhuman turn when watching the latest Pericles to come to Brooklyn.

I found a lot to enjoy, especially visually and musically, in Trevor Nunn’s production. The scenery, which you can get an extended taste of in this batch of photos Tfana released on Facebook, and the music, performed by PigPen Theatre Co, were just fantastic. The costumes and sets were wonderfully intricate.

Like Christopher Isherwood in the Times, I appreciated the energy and verve of the production. We didn’t love the same performers; he thought Christian Camargo in the title role played with “marvelous clarity” and “real feeling,” while I thought he was just a bit stiff. We agree that Lily Engleert was too “petulant and prissy” to be a great Marina, but our biggest disagreement is about Gia Crovatin’s Thaisa, who Isherwood thought showed insufficient pathos but I thought was one of the revelations of the night.

Thaisa’s an interesting role, and she often ends up playing second fiddle to her daughter Marina, who redeems the play after a fourteen-year gap. Crovatin’s performance, to my mind, brought forward the strength and confidence that Engleert’s Marina lacked. Nunn’s direction added to the part, with Thaisa and Pericles sharing an extra-textual song — which the production cleverly repeated: it was a wooing song (Pericles to Thaisa), a lullaby (Pericles to baby Marina), and a song of reconciliation (Marina to silent Pericles near the play’s end). (The New Yorker review has some more information about the play’s music, composed by Shaun Davey.)

Beyond Thaisa, the other standout for me was Gower, played with musical gusto by Rafael Nash Thompson. Much of the play’s creaky plot-machinery relies on the fourteenth-century ghost-poet’s four-beat exposition, and letting those words, judiciously compressed and at times reworked, blossom into song proved an inspired choice. Gower’s smile and deep voice cast a harmonious net over the production, perhaps muting the play’s tragic depths but adding a coherence that’s not always easy to find, especially not in this production’s lead roles. I’ve seen better productions of this play, but not better performances of these two roles.

Get down to Fort Greene soon — it’s been extended through April 10!


MORE&MORE (the invisible oceans)

2016-02-19 15.16.18It doesn’t matter where you start.

You could begin inside anything: a container, the surf, the bitforms gallery on the Lower East Side, the website for punctum books

I like printed books, so I’ll start with A Guide to the Harmonized System. A brick of a book, not really for reading but for dancing around inside, filled with numbers and codes. From the unpaginated prefatory page:

You will have to learn about the way articles for import/export are codified. The Harmonized System Code was created by the World Customs Organization (WCO) to categorize goods into approximately 5,000 commodity groups, used in the service of import/export by more than 200 countries worldwide.

The world and all its objects are there, from ‘CAMEL-BACK’ STRIPS  to ZIRCONIUM WASTE. 2016-02-19 15.16.00

I’m in there too, along with a dozen other salt-water writers including friends like Stacy Alaimo, Chris Piuma, and Phil Steinberg. Plus people whose work I admire and hope one day to meet, like Astrida Neimanis, Elspeth Probyn, and Heather Davis. And others whose work I don’t know yet.

We each picked a dozen or so items to annotate. Paging through the brick, you can go for pages with only codes, and then suddenly see a annotated entries like the ones for containers on p92:

page 92 of The Harmonized System

page 92 of The Harmonized System

Three entries in a row reconfigure the right-hand column of text:

Dylan Gautier: Freedom of the Seas was the largest passenger ship every built (by gross tonnage) until construction of the Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis-class ships.

Me: What if we’ve all become container-shaped already? Containerized, as the economists say? What does it feel like to be in a box?

Marina Zurkow: Container, from Latin contineo (“to hold or keep together, comprise, contain”) combined form of con- (“together”) + teneo  (“to hold”)

It’s hard to speak certainly about these nearly 500 Harmonized pages, but I haven’t found another triple run of annotations in my swims through the text. Do containers especially frighten or fascinate us?

I also like galleries, so I went down to bitforms a bit less than a week after the show opened. The pictures in this post are mostly iphonepix from the inside of the gallery, including the wallpaper printout of the book-brick’s contents (minus the annotations) and some gorgeous swimsuits with images of import/export items on them. I didn’t spring for a suit because I wasn’t sure my daughter would wear it, but I did buy two postcards.

Gallery Wallpaper

Gallery Wallpaper

There’s a second book, too, The Invisible Oceans, a thin and somewhat more conventional artshow book. It features an interview with Marina Zurkow, a great discussion of Allan Sekula’s inspiring film, “The Forgotten Space,” explanations of some of the HS codes and the icons designed for them, and more gorgeous images.

The last thing I encountered is the website, Like our oceanic globe, it’s worth navigating slowly.

No matter where you start — the brick-book, the thin book, the gallery, or the website — you end up swirling around inside our oceanic swirl, reckoning with the dynamic patterns that human commerce and culture are sending across and under and around vast watery spaces each day. What I love about this project is its eagerness to embrace scale and disorientation, the inhuman-ness and expanse of oceanic space. Visible and invisible oceans remind us that human bodies remain tiny things splashing around saltwater spaces.

Two postcards from the show

Two postcards from the show

What does it feel like to be in a worldbox shaped like the ocean?

Go read & see & surf the many parts of MORE&MORE! The gallery show is open until April 3. The books & webspaces will keep floating after that. 2016-02-19 15.16.08




Shipwreck Modernity (UMP Blog post)

[Reposted from U Minnesota Press Blog, 4 Feb 2016]


The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt, 1633. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Shipwreck and the Age of Discovery

Humans love to tell stories that put humans at the center of things. In these fantasies, the Renaissance celebrates the rebirth of human knowledge, the Enlightenment shines its light on human realizations, and the postmodern era fractures human ideals. More recently, the Anthropocene shoulders its way into view with the power of Old Man Anthropos, the all-powerful Man who ruins everything.

These anthropocentric visions paper over the disturbing truth that human history overflows with unexpected turns. We seldom end up where we thought we were going. Stories about transformation and tragedy err when they claim more certainty about their destinations than they really have.

To put it more directly: the Age of Discovery was an Age of Shipwreck.

Modernity remains a contested term in literary and cultural scholarship, and controversies about the meaning of “early modernity” capture the unsettled nature of thinking about historical change and continuity. Ideas about transformation have long dominated scholarship of the literature and culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whether that transformation appears as a “Renaissance” of classical forms, a “Reformation” of Christian cultures, or through more particular discourses such as skepticism, political republicanism, or the rise of empirical science. My book Shipwreck Modernity supplements these human-centered visions with disaster. Adding the modifier “shipwreck” to the modernity of European culture’s first age of globalization minimizes human control and relocates unplanned errancy at the center of world history.

Shipwreck modernity describes an understanding of historical change that is impersonal rather than humanized, material as well as ideological, and driven by random catastrophes more than singular acts of vice or virtue. Turning to shipwreck follows the offshore trajectory of recent scholarship in the oceanic or “blue” humanities that treats the sea as a corrective to pastoral dreams of harmony. This saltwater approach to human cultural history places the encounter with what oceanographers call the World Ocean at the center of the global movement of European culture. Ocean currents and prevailing winds drove European ships around the globe, carrying and encountering viruses, plants, animals, languages, cultures, and catastrophes. The disasters and narratives of hybridity that emerged comprise a global shipwreck. The rapid integration of the ecologies of Afro-Eurasia with the Americas created disruption and change on a massive scale that continue to resonate today. Shipwreck modernity brought smallpox to the Americas and the potato to Ireland, while disrupting local ecologies around the globe.

No trope in the oceanic archive resonates more than shipwreck, an ancient story of disorientation and disruption that punctuates Western literary culture from Odysseus and Jonah to Prospero and Robinson Crusoe. Especially during periods of maritime expansion, shipwreck narratives portray humanity caught between divine fiat and the insufficient promise of human agency. The technical labors of mariners in crisis, as portrayed by canonical authors such as Shakespeare and Defoe as well as common sailors and others, create allegories of humans struggling to endure nonhuman environments.

Representations of shipwreck in and beyond the early modern period suggest three subcategories or interpretive clusters for human-ocean encounters: wet globalization, blue ecocriticism, and shipwreck modernity. Each of these phrases identifies a trajectory for blue humanities scholarship.

Wet Globalization: Twenty-first century responses to globalization sometimes fly above the earth in passenger planes. The blue humanities recall that historically and still today, the global economy floats on ocean currents.

Blue Ecocriticism: The sea’s overwhelming physical presence in the natural environment emphasizes that this element, long marginalized by green eco-thinking, can revolutionize ecological thought in a post-sustainability context.

Shipwreck Modernity: From an oceanic perspective, the story of emerging modernity resembles a catastrophe-ridden epic of ocean-fueled expansion and its attendant disasters.

Responding to the alienating pressure of the ocean on human bodies and institutions makes the blue humanities a form of post-human investigation. With cognates in post-sustainability ecocriticism, cyborg studies, catastrophe studies, and other discourses that separate humans from the spaces that comfort them, the oceanic turn in humanities scholarship combines ancient narratives that remain vibrant in contemporary culture with a new emphasis on dynamism in the relationship between humans and their environments.

Shipwreck Modernity refuses sentimental consolations such as green sustainability or political utopianism. But it does not sink into the depths without hope. The shock of immersion has positive lessons as well as critical ones. The book ends in the “bright light of shipwreck,” alongside the hybrid vision it names the Bookfish, with “Seven Shipwrecked Ecological Truths.” Seeing catastrophes as opportunities means seeking an ecological future with wet swimmers rather than dry sailors, in an oceanic world in which survival, while only temporary, gives pleasure. This wet and disorienting vision shines a light on early modern ecological globalization that resonates with our post-climate change present.


Steve Mentz is author of Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550–1719. He is professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City.

“A compelling, provocative, even lyrical piece of scholarship that will undoubtedly inaugurate new critical discussions in the fields of maritime humanities, eco-criticism, early modern English literature, and shipwreck studies.”
—Josiah Blackmore, Harvard University


Of Marronage and Maroonage: College of Charleston, Feb 2016


Co-hosted by CLAW

Last weekend, a group of academics who were diverse in some ways – literary critics, historians, and anthropologists, from various locations and career stages – but less so in others – mostly white and male – lived and thought together in relative isolation at the College of Charleston. Were we maroons, building shared discourses in solidarity? Or were we marooned, stuck for a time at the southeast edge of Carolina?

The correct answer seems neither, since we were graciously hosted and were all able to fly off home when we wanted to. But the unstable opposition between marronage, which refers to the forming of free communities by escaped slaves and indigenous peoples in the New World, and maroonage, the experience of being cast away, structured our formal and informal conversations. The open question remains how these concepts best relate to each other.

The conference was convened by Joe Kelly, an Irish studies scholar turned early Americanist, and Rich Bodek, a Weimar historian with insatiably wide interests who gave a fascinating paper about L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, a counter-history in which a 20c scientist transported to 9c Rome attempts to save the Empire with technology.

Live oak

Live oak

The historians among us and especially the distinguished anthropologists Richard and Sally Price focused on maroon communities in the New World. The Prices have spent their careers in large part working with the Saramaka people, descendants of escaped slaves who live in the interior of Suriname. Rich’s powerful keynote lecture discussed this work and described his Saramakan collaborators as theorists and historians. (At the bar later, the Prices told me a harrowing story of evacuating their sick five year old daughter from a Saramakan village; I found the story especially moving because that daughter, now an English professor at Harvard, was a friend of mine in grad school in the late 90s.)

The literary contributions to the event were, as you might expect, more speculative. Joe Kelly and I both wrote about Bermuda, in particular the 1609 wreck of the Virginia Company ship Sea-Venture, which led to a group of 150 English colonists being marooned for ten relatively comfortable months, during which time a mutiny provided tantalizing clues about emerging ideas of political independence. Another literary panel explored utopian fiction, including science fiction, focusing on the positive visionary element of maroonage – which doubled back from sci fi to Bermuda via The Tempest and Forbidden Planet.

Boats in for winter

Boats in for winter

We kept circling around questions of active control and passive victimhood in our narratives and discourses. In my literary way, I wanted to categorize these modes through genre: the maroon story tells an epic tale of making a new homeland with interesting echoes of the Aeneid (which I’ll teach this week in Queens). It’s strange to think about Virgil’s epic, one of the dominant models for European imperialism, as providing a template for the struggle to forge Afro-Indigenous communities, especially since the Dido episode is often read (for example in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra) as a refusal of African alliances. But heroic maroons fit the epic mold, whether they are modern Saramakans preserving their earliest histories or the “maritime maroons” of Isaac Curtis’s research, who escaped from slave plantations in the Antilles to found independent societies on other islands. Recovering this heroic past has powerful political resonance in the present, as Eddie Shore’s project on quilombos in twentieth-century Brazil and Barry Stiefel’s on maroon monuments both show.

The passive genre that explores the castaway experience of maroonage is romance, an omnipresent literary form that perhaps lacks its Virgil – unless, like me, you think the Odyssey is more romance than epic. Romance narratives of survival from Heliodorus’s Aethiopian History to The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe champion different virtues than epic. Romance heroes and (more often than in epic) heroines display skills of indirection, endurance, interpretive acumen, even magic. Sometimes these narratives anticipate imperialist horrors; Crusoe technologizes his island while enslaving Friday, Prospero transforms his into dreams while brutalizing Caliban and dominating Ariel and Miranda.

The provisional separation between epic maroons and romance castaways does not capture anything like the flexibility of the narratives we tell about isolated communities forming and re-forming themselves after dislocation. I’ve written a  book about romance indirection in the prose fiction of Elizabethan England, but more relevant to this past weekend’s conference, I think, is my more recent argument that shipwreck represents a literary-and-historical inflection point, a micro-narrative of crisis and disruption that opens up new possibilities. The maroon epic of settlement and community formation explodes out of slave-taking and revolt – which events aren’t (always) accompanied by actual shipwrecks, but which like shipwreck shatter old ways. Romances of castaways who endure and (sometimes) return home end up redeeming shipwreck, which becomes, in Northrop Frye’s resonant joke, nothing more than a “means of transportation” in this literary genre.

I end up thinking that the clear and important opposition between active marronage and passive maroonage, on which Rich Price insisted in his plenary lecture, conceals a meaningful second-level exchange between these modes. Heroic maroons from Saramaka to Jamaica to Brazil make use of romance tactics of rhetorical shaping, indirection, and concealment – as the extraordinary example of Rich’s local historian, interlocutor, and collaborator Tooy shows. (I devoured most of Travels with Tooy on my flight home – the instantaneous joys of the Kindle app!) Romance heroes and heroines from Shakespeare’s Miranda to Stephen Hopkins on Bermuda to the nameless woman who narrates Haushofer’s The Wall rely on romance tactics but also produce heroic substance – as Peter Sands’s reading of The Wall as ecofeminist parable shows. These modes are contrasting but never quite distinct; narrative culture, both historical and literary, operates through a constant shifting and competitive exchange between both modes. All maroons are recovering from being marooned; all castaways are struggling toward a new version of settlement, even if that settlement may be located in an (always changed, sometimes unrecognizable) Ithaca.

My own written contribution to the conference was “The Bermuda Assemblage,” an essay that sketched a theoretically post-human and explicitly non-human history of the English Bermuda settlement between the shipwreck of 1609 and the mid-1630s. At times I felt as if my essay ran tangentially away from some of the most interesting parts of the conference’s discussions, including the extraordinary reconstructions of maroon societies in the Lesser Antilles, Columbia, Suriname, Brazil, and elsewhere. To an extent, the four panels, plenary, and final roundtable kept literary and historical methodologies isolated; the opening panel explored speculative utopias, the second splashed onto Bermuda, and then after Friday lunch we turned from literature to historical marronage, and never really looked back.

Until the roundtable, it felt as if the borders between active marronage and passive maroonage were largely unbreached. In that final session, Sally Price and Robert Olwell suggested that the project of bringing the conference’s conversations “between two covers” (a metaphor for publication that, as Sally noted later, is dissolving in cyberspace) should involve reconsidering that division. I spoke my genre-piece then, as an admittedly lit crit-ish way to think about these two entwined narratives.

But what if instead of separating and distinguishing we choose accumulation and mixing?

For the past decade or so I’ve been fascinated with poet-theorist Edouard Glissant, in particular his notions of Relation and historical accumulation. He begins with the Middle Passage and with underwater glimpses of “womb abyss and infinite abyss” (8). He moves to accumulation: Relation

We no longer reveal totality within ourselves by lightning flashes. We approach it through the accumulation of sediments… (33)

In Shipwreck Modernity (2015), I connect Glissant’s poetic accumulation with Rachel Carson’s marine visions (9-10). I’m wondering now if the Franco-Caribbean writer’s models might bridge and mutually inform the ideas swirling in my head after this weekend’s trip to Charleston. Might maroons and the marooned meet on Glissant’s beach?

Thanks to Joe Kelly and Rich Bodek for organizing, and to all my fellow Marronage and Maroonage travelers! I look forward to continuing our conversations.




Plays in 2015

New Year’s Day is for summing up. How many plays did I blog-review in 2015? An even ten, though unevenly distributed: three in Feb, none in March, two each in April and May, none over the summer, one each in Oct, Nov, and December. Mostly in New York, but Songs of Lear and Measure were in New Haven.

  1. NYSX’s Titus Andronicus Feb 4
  2. The Winter’s Tale at the Pearl Theater Feb 23
  3. Songs of Lear by Song of the Goat Feb 27
  4. Cry, Trojans by the Wooster Group April 11
  5. Othello by Titan Theater April 27
  6. Two Gents by Fiasco at Tfana May 2
  7. Tis Pity by Red Bull May 6
  8. Midsummer at the Pearl Theater Oct 4
  9. Henry 4 at St Ann’s Nov 14
  10. Measure for Measure by Fiasco Dec 5



Swimming 2015

A pretty good year in the water: 225 miles is probably the most I’ve swum since I was training intensely with my high school team way back in 1985.

My goal for the year was 200 miles, which I hit on my 49th birthday of 11/3, and then finished fairly weakly in a deadline-filled December.

Month Total Distance
Jan 27.23 miles (=47,925 yards, =43,823 meters)
Feb 20.40 miles (=35,900 yards, =32,827 meters)
Mar 10.68 miles (=18,800 yards, =17,191 meters)
Apr 20.93 miles (=36,830 yards, =33,678 meters)
May 21.01 miles (=36,975 yards, =33,810 meters)
Jun 16.16 miles (=28,450 yards, =26,015 meters)
Jul 20.28 miles (=35,696 yards, =32,640 meters)
Aug 23.19 miles (=40,808 yards, =37,315 meters)
Sep 19.23 miles (=33,838 yards, =30,941 meters)
Oct 19.51 miles (=34,345 yards, =31,405 meters)
Nov 16.86 miles (=29,680 yards, =27,139 meters)
Dec 10.48 miles (=18,450 yards, =16,871 meters)
Total 225.96 miles (=397,697 yards, =363,655 meters)


Or, from the most to least water miles:

Jan: 27.23 miles in 25 swims (all pool) (1.09 m/s)

Aug: 23.19 miles in 25 swims (all open water) (0.93)

May 21.01 miles in 19 swims (1.11)

April: 20.93 miles in 19 swims (1.10)

Feb: 20.4 miles in 18 swims (1.13)

Jul: 20.28 miles in 21 swims (0.97)

Oct: 19.51 miles in 20 swims (0.98)

Sept: 19.23 miles in 20 swims (0.96)

Nov: 16.86 miles in 17 swims (0.99)

June: 16.16 miles in 13 swims (0.95)

March: 10.68 miles in 10 swims (1.07)

Dec: 10.48 miles in 11 swims (0.95)


218 total swims @ 1.04 miles / swim average — which means I swam around a mile for just about 60% of the days in 2015.


I wonder if I can hit 250 next year?