SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, February 2022: Luke Church
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
As an undergraduate in the Literature department at UC Santa Cruz I was mainly focused on 20th century American fiction and experimental form. Having access to courses in the History of Consciousness department contextualized my interest in literature within wider social and political frameworks. The resulting questions I was asking about the interconnections of form, knowledge, and identity in America sent me on a slippery slope backwards—through Melville—into early American literature. During the first year of my PhD at the Graduate Center, CUNY, I was fortunate enough to take courses where we were assigned a range of texts by Sylvia Wynter. Wynter’s analysis and extrapolation of the knotted projects of colonialism and racial capitalism left me reeling with questions regarding the connections between the Americas in the long eighteenth century and our current moment. Taking subsequent coursework with Duncan Faherty showed me that the early American archive could be a generative place to engage these questions.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
“Favorite” seems to be a tricky word for me. Thinking through the context of colonialism often makes it difficult to feel any sort of affective connection to the authors I’m reading or their work. I do find early American writing endlessly interesting, and a figure I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is Edward Bancroft. I first encountered Bancroft in Cristobal Silva’s course on literatures and medicine in the early Atlantic. The series of texts Bancroft wrote from his experiences in Guyana, including a chemical and philosophical examination of natural dyes, has opened up a world of questions regarding aesthetics and knowledge.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on my dissertation, “Chromatic Dissensus: An Otherwise Archive of Natural Dyes, 1750-1856,” which looks at the production and circulation of natural dyes in the Anglo colonial Atlantic world. Through this research I’m analyzing cultivation and organization of a liberal sensorium in the long eighteenth century. Although the textual archive for this project consists of natural history, travel writing, and instructional pamphlets regarding the production of dyes such as indigo and cochineal, my focus on the broader cultural practices surrounding dyes hopes to contextualize how these texts ultimately create knowledge from the extraction and obfuscation of diasporic African and indigenous American ways of knowing. My analysis hopes to explicate the ways in which property participated in the organization of the liberal sensorium in the long eighteenth century, ultimately at the cost of alternative grammars for sensing and knowing the world.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
At the moment I’m reading Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s latest offering, All Incomplete. I’ve also been working through the collected essays in Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness, edited by Tiffany Lethabo Kind, Jenell Navarro, and Andrea Smith, which have been an inspiring reminder that there are alternative worlds waiting to be enacted. This past year I’ve kept Ursula K. Le Guin’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching within reach.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
Although I find the material of early American studies fascinating, the people in this field are what really inspire me to stay with this work. I had the good fortune of meeting Ajay Batra at the Futures of American Studies institute in 2019, and I’m always eager to hear his thoughts on the possibilities for togetherness that fugitive and abolitionist thinkers have gestured towards. I was lucky enough to participate in a panel he put together at SEA 2021, and I was excited by the work being done by fellow panelists Lila Chambers, Katrina Dzyak, Camille Owens, and Kirsten Lee. Not only has Elizabeth Polcha’s research and thinking regarding natural history helped reshape how I think of the genre, but her encouragement of work by junior scholars and her sense of solidarity with contingent faculty is a model to follow.
Luke Church is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the Graduate Center, CUNY.