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SAA 2021: Reflections on “Ecology and Pre-Modern Critical Race Studies”

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on May 20, 2021 at 06:18 PM in Cymbeline and the World

After last week’s post examined “Performing Shakespeare in a Time of Ecological Crisis: A Global Roundtable Session,” the Cymbeline in the Anthropocene highlights one more session from the Shakespeare Association of America’s 49th annual conference, which took place at the beginning of April. Chaired by Kim Hall, “Shakespeare Futures: Ecology and Pre-Modern Critical Race Studies” eschewed a conventional panel structure to create an innovative, jointly-authored collaboration between four scholars. To echo the collaborative structure of this important presentation, Cymbeline in the Anthropocene’s discussion of it is presented as a conversation between project leader Randall Martin and graduate researcher Rebecca Salazar. 

SAA 2021: Reflections on “Ecology and Pre-Modern Critical Race Studies”

RM: The recent SAA panel on “Ecology and Pre-Modern Critical Race Studies” framed its theme of unlearning the conventional whiteness of early modern knowledge-making by introducing a new, more collective, format of relay presentation by the four speakers: Ayanna Thompson; Hillary Eklund; Debapriya Sarkar, and Jennifer Park. Thompson opened the panel with a three-step question about Indigenous recognition which all speakers intermittently repeated as a through-line: Who is justice for? Humanity alone? Meaning, white humanity alone? 

RS: These questions were drawn from the work of Kelsey Leonard, a water scientist and legal scholar from the Shinnecock Nation. Using these questions as a foundation for this jointly authored project allowed the four speakers to focus the central concern of this multi-disciplinary collaboration. While all four scholars are specialists in Early Modern literature, their research collectively encompasses Sarkar and Park’s interests in race and gender issues in science and medicine, Eklund’s intersts in Early Modern food and ecologies, and Thompson’s theorizations of RaceB4Race and performance. 

RM: Thompson argued that, historically, Indigenous people have been dehumanized not only by the devastating impacts of European colonialism and slavery, but also by scholarship about the beginning of the early modern Anthropocene. Earth scientists Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin date the latter event to 1610 (the year of Cymbeline, incidentally), calling it “the golden spike.” This refers to the significant drop in global CO2 levels when pathogens introduced by Europeans arriving in the Americas caused Indigenous populations to collapse. The decrease in greenhouse gases has since been reversed by the greater spike in anthropogenic greenhouse gases during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Great Acceleration in the 20th. These events caused further destruction of Indigenous communities; they did not experience a comparably “golden” rebound. Thompson used this illustration of supressed social and environmental equity to call for “unlearning” dominantly white knowledge systems, such as ecocriticism, and for decolonized thinking about conventional disciplinary assumptions and narratives.  

RS: In providing this historical context, what emerged from Thompson’s argument was a historicized foundation for Black and Indigenous solidarities, and the powerful decolonial actions that are made possible when the survivors of colonial destruction join their knowledges together. In addition to the decolonial project this talk sets out for scholars of Early Modern literature to unlearn and remake our fields, our theories, and our methodologies, Thompson adds Christina Sharpe’s imperative that “we must become undisciplined because we are facing a past that is not past.” This serves as a potent reminder that all attempts at decolonization take place in a world that is hardly post-colonial; the urgency of this unlearning stems as much from the continued impacts of colonialism by global empires as from the continued white supremacist legacy of fields such as Shakespeare studies. It is a reminder of our complicity in violent institutions, and a call for scholars to use our institutional power to repair that harm. 

RM: Hilary Eklund picked up on the  call for equity-restoring “unlearning” by linking it to Juliette Singh’s Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (2017). Although Singh’s book focuses on 19th-century colonialism, Eklund advocated the potential uses of its theoretical and methodological paradigms for early modern studies, such as: gaps pertaining to racial injustice in scholarship about early modern Humanism; the “flattening” effects of posthumanism on animal-human relations; and the over-narrow concentration by New Historical studies on single authorship to the exclusion of collaborative knowledge-making and representations (exemplified by this panel). 

RS: The challenge Eklund draws from Singh’s work is that to wrench our epistemology away from that exploitative, instrumentalizing Early Modern worldview in which it is possible to own a person, entity, or idea. Unthinking this philosophy through the question of authorship is a paradigm that shifts the very structure of conventional scholarship: how can scholars relinquish the requirement of top-down authorship and ownership of ideas that pervades academic study? How could collaborative authorship move us toward a ground-up, grassroots model of thinking and doing scholarly work in which ideas are not owned, but collectively tended to? 

RM: Debapriya Sarkar’s model for expanding awareness of the construction of racialized epistemologies and their attendant social exclusions in early modern studies was Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages (2018). Heng’s book questions the common assumption that formal concepts of race emerged only in the modern era. By examining Europe's encounters with peoples who were subsequently racialized from the 12th through 15th centuries, Heng shows how racial thinking, racial law, racial practices, and racial phenomena developed in medieval Europe before systematic, pseudo-scientific epistemologies of race emerged in the West. Sarkar argued that Heng’s research model can be applied to the early modern period as an extension of medieval knowledge-making practices which became institutionalized in the later seventeenth century and beyond. A further hermeneutic point is that racial essentialism was an epistemological construction intended to distribute occupations, entitlements, and power unequally, but which can now be interrogated and exposed.  

RS: In this light: how does acknowledging this history of racialization through “science” and culture change the context of Shakespeare studies? How can incorporating this history into the foundations of Early Modern studies make our inquiries more comprehensive, and more generative?

RM: Jennifer Park explored the environmentally and racially prejudicial trope of “ending worlds:” i.e. the self-interested European projection on colonized Indigenous peoples that they were indifferent to or incapable of self-improvement, that their identities were fixed rather than mobile, and that their “indolence” destined their extinction. Assumptions by John Locke and other seventeenth-century writers that Indigenous people resisted social change was also used to justify the colonial exploitation of North American resources in such forms as land-cultivation or mining. 

RS: The parallel instrumentalization of racialized peoples and land/ecology into resources to be used by white empires is not to be ignored. Park cites Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None to illustrate how colonial expansions have been creating exponential world-ending Anthropocenes for Black and other colonized peoples: “The Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopian future that laments the end of the world,” but “imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence.”

RM: Sarkar’s second offering, on the “Poetics of Expendable Lives in The Faerie Queene,” illustrated the Early Modern representation of these ontologically negating tropes in Caliban’s “failure” to assimilate Prospero’s “nurture,” and Mammon’s display of “rendering” base minerals into gold to Guyon Book Two of The Faerie Queene. Sarkar examines both texts to reveal the deep cultural entanglement of colonialism & ecology.

RS: A poignant turn Sarkar notes in both texts is that after the original battles or "conquests" of each area—and the accompanying destruction of Indigenous communities, be this Caliban or the people enslaved by Mammon—any rehabilitation to the land is done only to maximize its utility to the colonizer. The product of this is that non-human nature are deemed more deserving of “reparations” than the Indigenous people who are murdered and displaced—demonstrating the clear hierarchy of animacies practiced by colonial powers that further violates the being and existence of Indigenous peoples.

RM: Hillary Eklund’s second presentation focused on the witches in Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queens. She observed that their “animal” expressions mingle identifiable signs of early modern people living in England’s fenlands. At the time, they were being denigrated and displaced by engineering projects aiming to drain and enclose their marshy homelands in order to create agriculturally profitable land. The effect of “wasteland” reclamation propaganda was to whiten this form domestic colonialism. The takeaway of Eklund’s critical race studies analysis of The Masque of Queens was that we should interrogate our received Humanist artworks and conventions more closely to identify oppositional voices and to reterritorialize racialized communities.  

RS: Eklund invokes Audre Lorde's “The Uses of Anger” to accent one important source of energy for this kind of study: resistance. Lorde’s proclamation that “every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger” evokes the anger of generations of displaced peoples who have suffered under colonialism—a transformative anger that animates the decolonial project for many contemporary BIPOC scholars. 

RM: Jennifer Park next turned to the most characteristic imperative of early modern receipt books: “Take X ingredients …”.  This generic command epitomizes the anthropocentric mastery of nature inherent in domestic knowledge-making. It also implies a culturally white privilege of ecocidal violence towards non-human plant and animal life-forms – or abjected human ones, in the case of “medicinal” mummy. Such emblematically Black and brown bodies have been silently consumed by white Europeans and assimilated into their knowledge-archive as part of the wider construction of normative Western epistemes. These practices also need to be “unlearned.” 

RS: It is disturbing, as Park notes, to register how casually Black and brown bodies were incorporated into recipes as mere ingredients—people were systematically murdered, and their body parts rendered and sold for the utility of white invention. Drawing from queer linguist Mel Y. Chen’s study of animacy hierarchies, Park explores how even the most seemingly innocuous, practical (recipe) language is used to demote the animacy of subjects deemed less worthy of agency and dignity. 

RM: Ayanna Thompson concluded the panel by returning a final time to the panel’s meta-question, “Who is justice for?” She proposed an answer in the form assigning, or rather “unlocking,” the natural rights to ecological flourishing of rivers, forests, geological areas, etc. This entails rethinking their objectification under the terms of legally authorized, dominantly white, ownership and extraction, and under which Indigenous communities have lost control of their lands and self-determination. Reimagining and reframing early modern studies according to the ethos of ecological rights requires applying forms of epistemological “waywardness” and creative disorientation to human-centred theories and scholarly methodologies, and generating new affective experiences of empathy for non-human nature.     

RS: Thompson quotes Patricia Williams’ explosion of rights-based justice: “unlock rights from reification by giving them to slaves. give them to trees. give them to cows. give them to history. give htem to rivers and rocks… so that we may say not that we own gold but that a luminous golden spirit owns us.” The goal of the decolonial project is not simply to keep extending “human” rights to excluded humans and to more-than-human entities, but to move beyond a rights-based model of animacy and agency that has proven insufficient and epistemologically biased. 

In the question period following this presentation, conversation arose about how quickly other disciplines have already adopted decolonial practices of unlearning and decentering Eurocentric epistemologies from their methods of study. As Thompson said, “our field is behind the times. Other people are doing this better and more effectively than we are.” As much as this assessment invites a reckoning for the reticence of Shakespeare studies to incorporate these new teachings, it is also an invitation to multi-disciplinary collaborations: Shakespeare and Early Modern studies can learn from and with other fields who have begun this unlearning already. And it is precisely through collaboration, Thompson reminds us, that we can build “Shakespeare futures that are methodologically and materially undisciplined and dynamic.”

These provocations invite already collaborative projects such as Cymbeline in the Anthropocene to model such possible futures. With gratitude for the work of scholars including Thompson, Eklund, Sarkar, and Park, the Cymbeline in the Anthropocene team embraces the challenge to rethink, unlearn, and remake our scholarly methods going forward.