Recap: “Territory, Narrative, Causality” Colloquium at CU Boulder

On October 5th, 2017, the 18/19 Graduate Reading Group at CU Boulder hosted our first event of the year: a research colloquium featuring Evan Gottlieb of Oregon State University alongside our own Rebecca Schneider and Paul Youngquist. Our group has moved to this new panel-style model (as opposed to the individual 40-minute talk) over the past year for a couple of reasons: it gives our graduate students the opportunity to present their research alongside faculty, and the diversity of topics attracts a larger audience. Using the same model, I presented my work on Romantic harlequinades alongside Thora Brylowe and Julia Carlson back in April, and it went so well that we decided to do it again with Evan, Rebecca, and Paul! Stay tuned for more events of this type.

Our theme for the 10/5 colloquium was “Territory, Narrative, Causality: Rethinking Romanticism’s Disciplinary Assumptions,” and in retrospect a better theme might have been “negative knowledge.” In asking the audience to rethink the perspectives and methods from which we traditionally approach Romanticism, each panelist showed us how we might glean knowledge of the period from what isn’t in available archives: we can read against the intended purpose of what’s there in order to reveal something else. This approach works especially well for those Romantic-era voices, especially the enslaved, who were prevented from recording themselves in print and other available media.

First, the inimitable Paul Youngquist showed us how the practice of cartography in colonial Jamaica had the unintended effect of recording the insurgency of the Jamaican Maroons. He argued that, even though maps were created to divide property among white slaveholders–indeed, the maps mostly consist of landowner’s names–the immovable presence of the Maroons’ Trelawny Town speaks to the Maroons’ efforts to resist imperial power Of course, the British used cartography to define and expropriate Maroon territory, but what happens in the physical document–Trelawny Town sitting smack dab in the center of the map, as though smirking at the landowners’ names surrounding it–also attests to print’s ability to record an unintended moment of resistance. Youngquist’s research drew on his time in Jamaica learning from the Maroons themselves, who continue to inscribe the Jamaican landscape with their history of insurgency. 

Next, my graduate colleague Rebecca Schneider argued that we can deploy the critical methods of the Romantic fragment poem in the service of runaway slave ads from eighteenth-century Jamaican newspapers in order to resurrect the personhood of the enslaved. In doing so, she posited a solution to one of our field’s biggest problems (!): how do we study the voices and cultural contributions of a population that couldn’t read or write? Reading runaway ads like we read Romantic fragments–as whole despite their fragmented appearances–Schneider showed how the ads implicitly reveal information about the bodies, lives, and identities of the enslaved individuals, even though their intended purpose was to recapture the people in question. We get names, body and personality descriptions, and even quotes from the enslaved, allowing us to partially reconstruct them as living, breathing subjects in a system that sought to deprive them of agency. A revolutionary intervention indeed.

Finally, Evan Gottlieb taught us how Quentin Meillassoux’s critique of correlationalism–which upends traditional understandings of causality and historicity–might allow us to rethink the seemingly bounded world of Scott’s Waverley novels. I’ll confess I was unfamiliar with correlationalism and Meillassoux’s work prior to the talk, but Gottlieb provided a concise summary in which he explained how we take for granted that certain events will result in certain outcomes. Meillassoux challenges the intellectual tradition that this kind of determined cause/effect thinking is based upon (Hegel and Kant primarily) and posits a model of infinite outcomes. This model illuminates Waverley’s fictional universe in new ways, giving us a new angle from which to read moments of unpredictability and randomness–like storms and weather, or when a horse loses its shoe on a highway. The highlight of Gottlieb’s talk wasn’t just his new perspective on Scott–in which he radically departed from Lukac’s “historical consciousness” model–but rather his explanation of correlationalism and Meillasoux’s unique brand of Speculative Realism. I, for one, would like him to make a series of YouTube videos breaking down and condensing the entire Speculative turn. Please and thank you, Evan!

In sum, the 18/19 group kicked off the 2017-2018 year with a tour-de-force of a colloquium. Thanks to all who were involved or attended! Stay tuned for future event recaps.

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18/19 organizers with our fabulous panelists! Photo credit to Grace Rexroth.

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