SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for June 2018: Ana Schwartz
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
In a 2003 interview with Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman proposes that her 1997 book, Scenes of Subjection, might be thought of as an “allegory,” or a “history of the present.” Neither the interview nor the monograph were familiar to me when I began to specialize in early American literature, so I wouldn’t have put it this way then—nevertheless, this formulation neatly indexes what I found and continue to find compelling about the texts written by European settlers in the first centuries of arrival in America: these texts contain data that help illuminate some of paradoxes and injustices of the present. I was interested in learning more about these texts because I hoped eventually to be able—as Said’s Gramsci insisted—to be able to “compile an inventory” of the traces that those early American histories have left in me and in others for whom genealogical belonging in America has been heterogeneously foreclosed.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
The excitement and enthusiasm tends to take place at the level of passages or episodes rather than text or author. Sometimes these inchoate flashpoints appear and disappear ephemerally, but sometimes they stick with me. Take, for example, a moment at the end of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, a text I know well but don’t especially love. In the middle of a paragraph reflecting on her many English friends, Mary Rowlandson says, jarringly, “Solomon says, Money answers all things.” In moments like these, I find it difficult to resist the feeling that this person has known something I think I recognize. The prospect of unpacking and satisfyingly describing the object of our (possible, speculative) shared recognition is a really exciting one, but these moments don’t stand in for the text or the writer of the text. And it seems like a good methodological rule to nurture skepticism towards that shared recognition.
What are you currently working on?
Two and a half book projects! The first, and most immediately pressing, is a transformation of my dissertation. It’s about biopolitics, ugly feelings, and white settler colonialism. This one claims the crown right now, but the other two projects relate to it like the court jester and the maligned, resentful younger sibling. This summer I’d like to wrap up an article in which, among other things, I get to do a reading of a passage in a contemporary novel, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World. It’s a short novel with a big reveal—you think it’s going to be about the contemporary U.S.-Mexico border (and it is!) but it’s also about other crosscutting political themes: imperialism on a global scale, the imbrication of nation and family, necropolitical guilt. The article I’m writing goes on to reflect on these themes and their expression in early America, but it’s been a real treat—and also a challenge—to try to write satisfyingly about a novel that’s troubled me since I first read it two or three years ago.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I just finished Jasbir Puar’sThe Right to Maim, which was even more dynamic and thought-provoking than I already anticipated it being. To the degree that Puar writes about settler colonialism, her insights have important implications for early Anglo-American studies, and it’s been energizing to think about how these implications might shape the questions we ask of our texts. I also learn a lot on Twitter—sometimes specific things about the world, sometimes new ways of framing and theorizing known phenomena. I try to be a good citizen of the twitter public sphere, to amplify voices, perspectives, and initiatives that extend the ethical priorities of my scholarship. Maybe I should create a different account for the memes, but I probably won’t. Those are little critiques and theories, too.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
They know who they are. Their work, the work that inspires me the most, exemplifies the complex notion of critique that Spivak has outlined, a vision of critical work that would deprioritize the “exposure of error” in favor of what she calls “the giving of assent without excuse” and that would consequently allow the critic to inhabit and deconstruct a discourse or an epistemology. Spivak, cautiously, calls this work “love,” and I think one of the consequences of her injunction is not just that we think about the stakes of our work differently, but that we think about love differently, too.
Ana Schwartz will be assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin beginning this fall.