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Forms of Dissent: Teaching the Aesthetics of Neo-Slave Narratives

Thu, November 9, 2:00 to 3:45pm, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Addams, Third Floor West Tower

Abstract

Particularly in our current moment, formalist approaches to literature and culture might seem like a dangerous distraction from the work of dissent. Now is the time to center dissenting voices and focus on the politics of representation, not retreat into the rarefied air of aesthetics. Yet as Phillip Brian Harper has recently argued, “abstractionist aesthetics” of African American literature, which eschew realism and announce their constructed nature, do a better job than realism of undermining and transforming the material oppressions that restrict both black life and its representation (2015). Sharing Harper’s emphasis on formal experimentation as an avenue for imagining new and more just social arrangements, this paper will make the case that aesthetics can bring anti-racist pedagogy into a range of classroom conversations, even those that may not obviously offer space to talk about racial politics.

This paper will compare two classroom experiences of teaching neo-slave narratives to offer strategies for anti-racist approaches to aesthetics. I will juxtapose Kyle Baker’s 2006 graphic novel Nat Turner, which retells the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion through visual and visceral images of torture and brutality, and M. NorbeSe Philip’s 2008 poetry collection Zong!, which formally renders the 1781 murder of captives in the Middle Passage so abstract as to be inscrutable. Put side-by-side, these texts highlight the role formalist analysis can play in connecting abstract representations of violence, students’ affective and emotional experiences with the text, and contemporary practices of dissenting to anti-black state violence. The visual and textual forms of neo-slave narratives demonstrate the key role aesthetics can play in pedagogies of dissent.

This juxtaposition also raises questions about where and when pedagogies of dissent might shape the classroom by troubling the boundaries between difficult topics and more neutral, traditional, or otherwise safe topics of discussion. The graphic novel was included in a course focused on 21st-century literature and art that takes the antebellum past as its subject matter, where themes of torture, sexual violence, and critique of the state were front and center. The poetry collection, by contrast, appeared in a course on avant-garde literature and art, where themes of racial violence could easily be sidestepped. I’ve paired these texts, both difficult in their own ways, to emphasize how literary form throws the boundaries of formal and emotional difficulty into sharp relief. As instructors, we constantly negotiate those boundaries. Turning to form, I argue, offers a fruitful way of negotiating those boundaries and incorporating pedagogies of dissent—grounded in students’ affective responses to aesthetic experimentation—in ways that are not simply thematic. In this way, an emphasis on aesthetics also offers a way to center marginalized voices without simply offering them up as sympathetic spectacles. Instead, students engage formal difficulty as an entry point into valuable emotional and political difficulty.

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