I never reach for Animate Literacies without being drawn back into the conditions of its making, never touch it without it summoning the details of its emergence. In the years before Nathan wrote this extraordinary work, it was being conceived through the movements and momentums of his everyday life. I had a pleasure of witnessing and often participating in these pathways, as we were undergoing a kind of revolution together. We were experiencing an intimate sea change, learning together how to confront the stark limits of our formal educations. All at once, we were engaged in an experimental form of living as best friends and queer collaborators, setting out to make a life together that broke from conventional notions of what constitutes family. We were cohabitating in a small house on Allen Avenue alongside an old blind tabby cat and an incessantly verbal toddler. Our life had shifted from a false sense of total independence to a series of full-throttled codependencies—suddenly and palpably, we were a network of living beings who each needed particular forms of care and attention that were always underway and shifting.
Nathan had emerged as my primary physical and emotional support through a long and disabling health crisis, during which he steadied himself to become an anchor, mooring me through various ongoing forms of intervention and rehabilitation. At the same time, I had set out to write my first book, racing too quickly along the tenure clock and pivoting toward Nathan at every turn to help me to think and unthink the governing logics at the heart of Enlightenment thought. He crawled fully inside my work with me, becoming so intimate with it that it became a shared home, unequivocally ours. While I wrote, he cooked dinners and changed nappies, offered quiet love to our beloved old feline, taught far too many undergraduate classes without job security, studied and learned softer ways of embodying and being embodied by the world. And then the very day I finished and submitted the book, Nathan turned to me and announced: I’m going to write my book now.
And he did, immediately and with a kind of pace and zeal I’d never witnessed before. Through all that caregiving, all that physical and emotional investment in the collective, all that attention to our bodies and needs, Animate Literacies had been developing and emerging so fully in his mind that by the time the actual writing took place, it seemed to have already emerged. Those countless acts of care—of attunement and re-attunement—that had come to shape our lives over years were the living material of this brilliant book. Those years had been a whirlwind time that was catching and metabolizing everything, including our endless pack interruptions, which themselves became part of his frame in thinking and finally writing the book. Suddenly a whole manuscript appeared, and as I read through, I understood immediately how much of life as we were learning to live it differently was in these pages.
Animate Literacies directs our lives of study to the material and affective encounters that give and take shape to our variously marked bodies, human and beyond. “I confront the impossibility of knowing where and how far back a frame has to be drawn” (15), Nathan writes in his breathtaking meditation on “dispersed pedagogy” in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. This is, to my mind, the most beautiful of impossibilities, where we are challenged toward both the microbial and the enormous, asked not only to play with scale but to situate ourselves within the frame as agents and actants whose ultimate de-centeredness enables so much more life. His animation of scenes of literacy across some of the most canonical literary texts disorient our received ideas about what it means to read, to teach, to learn, to study—in short, to love.
Early in the book, Nathan describes being engaged in an “experiment with sharpening myself to some things toward which my liberal humanist education (in literary studies) has dulled my attention” (21). This “sharpening” is not a piercing act but an orientation to heightened attunements, opening us to ever-widening ethical, spiritual, and political modes of tracking across myriad concurrent scales. This is what I love best about Animate Literacies, where I see most palpably how and when Nathan abandons altogether the distinction between intellectual thought and practiced life. Here, life makes thought possible. And thought is a world that changes how we live, how we commune, how we become capable of reaching for and being reached by more and more of what we’ve been taught to disavow.
It makes sense, then, that this symposium is brimming with engagements by a host of thinkers for whom Nathan’s work serves as an invitation toward an ethico-politics not only about what constitutes something called “literacy,” but about how we have each come to read, teach, listen, and ask questions as individuals and as a wider, disaggregated collective. Those of us who contribute here are joined by virtue of having each been changed by the claims and calls of Animate Literacies.
For months now, Nathan and our ten-year-old have been immersed in a long unfolding adventure of Dungeons and Dragons, a game that hinges on battle and domination but that they have somehow transformed into a world of communal living and evermore nuanced forms of intricate dehumanist coexistence. Yesterday while preparing a meal I overheard part of the game unfolding: A pack of wolves played by Nathan (as Dungeon Master) had surrounded our daughter’s avatar, Rose Thorn, and demanded that she give up her flock of beloved chickens so that the wolves could feast. “I don’t want you to do that,” Rose Thorn replied firmly. “We don’t care what you want,” the wolves persisted. She repeated again, “I really don’t want you to do that,” her voice beginning to shake. The wolves persisted, and just as our daughter begins to become desperate, Nathan asks her a series of questions: “Why do you think the wolves are so angry? What might have happened to them to make them feel this way? What can be done to help this situation?” And then a story begins to unfold between them that patiently brings the wolves into fuller frame, a story of how a dragon has ruined their habitat, leaving them as a roving band of rogues.
At night while brushing her teeth, our daughter tells me about the dragon wreaking havoc in their world, and declares that it’s her keenest mission to discover why it’s become so cruel, and ultimately to befriend it. She is learning her father’s lesson; widening and widening and widening the frame to understand how and why the world is as it is, to read the scene otherwise, and in so doing, to invent or resurrect the otherwise-world.
Of motivation and change, or, keeping company with Animate Literacies
1. Keeping Company
I wish to echo the spirit and manner of Nathan Snaza’s book, to suggest how it moves me affectively and intellectually, pedagogically and politically, in distinguishable but inseparable ways. Animate Literacies unfolds in a form unusual to academic writing, a form that reflects the expansive and thoroughly heterogeneous terrain of intellectual and literary genealogies who keep company in it. “Keeping company” comes to me as the most appropriate way to describe the ethos of this book that has such enormous scholarly heft yet manages to exude this ethos of welcome and collegiality. So, here, I write in a wandering, errant way in hopes of echoing that ethos, intending in this small way to share the vitality of this book that, indeed, keeps me such good company.
2. Motivation: Origin Stories
In sixth grade, I spent virtually every afternoon after school in the public library in the northern New Jersey town in which I attended middle school. I did homework, sometimes with friends but often alone, sitting at the blonde-nearly-yellow, hardwood, polished tables to the left of the entrance to the main room. I have tactile memories of the card catalog – of the worn and warm brownness and brass pulls of the drawers and the satisfyingly thick cards necessary to navigate the industrial, steel shelves holding so many volumes. I read my way through the entire shelf of Agatha Christie mysteries on hand – some 22 of them as I recall – in the course of the time I spent there.
I loved reading as a child and my memory has me enjoying my time in the library. The library was an easy place, always welcoming, always comfortable. It was only much later that I figured out I was there so much because my parents both worked outside the home and my mother, to whom care for me fell, couldn’t pick me up until her outside-of-home work was done. From their perspective, the library was a safe and even good place for me to wait, a de facto child care center and one associated with study to boot.
I also grew up going to summer school, then freely available in the southern California (to which we first migrated from Korea) and New Jersey (to which we later moved) public school systems and have strong memories of enjoying that time. Again, only much later would I realize that summer school, too, was about childcare as much as about educational opportunity. When I was quite young, with a sense of unquestioned safety that feels almost otherworldly against contemporary pervasive concerns about “stranger danger,” my parents regularly parked me at bookstores while they ran errands, rightly knowing that I’d be content amid the books. Libraries, classrooms, bookstores – books most of all – have taken care of me always.
All this is of course memory, and so, instructive not for its verisimilitude but rather for the role it takes in my origin story. It’s a terribly romanticized ideal, the origin story that narrates the immigrant child for whom English is a second language, grown into English professor by dint of a love of reading. It’s a story that maps quite neatly into the meritocratic fantasy at the center of the U.S. nation’s self-fashioned identity as a nation of immigrants blessed with equal opportunity. It is true that it was the public nature of schools and libraries that nurtured my attachment to books and reading, and it is equally true that the gendered division of labor and inadequacy of available childcare to working families also forms that public sphere within which such attachment fostered. I became an English professor because of libraries and labor demands which precipitated love for books.
I still love reading, which is to say, I take great pleasure not only in the act of taking in words, but as Snaza provides in such rich visceral detail, “what I love about literature is not any particular book but a particular corporeal practice”:
I love the event of sitting with a book, and the way that the nonhuman agencies swirling in and around that event affect my body as much as my cognition. Reading is, as much as it is about learning or narrative pleasure, about sitting in cafés, in my favorite chairs, in front of a classroom. It is caught up with pleasures of drinking coffee, or tea, or wine, smoking cigarettes or pipes. (130-31)
Fully and thickly embodied in these ways, Snaza takes note of the affect that even unopened books may have, in part because they may “signal a certain lifestyle, tied to class,” which locates (his) pleasure of them inextricably in relation to “the pleasure of learning to inhabit a class habitus that is always in a sense aspirational” (131). He summarizes, “literacy events make, unmake, and remake us, and there is, or can be, enormous pleasure in this movement of becoming” (131). Reading in this regard is much more than a private activity between an individual and a text. Instead, it is an opening out to the possibility of being other than the present self, and that possibility itself indexes the imaginary made available by material history – class differentiation among them. Our love of and for reading, our affective relationship to books, are tethered to the formation and authorization of aspirational horizons decidedly social and historical in nature.
Snaza’s elaboration of the erotics of literacy – the pleasures and transformative potential of reading, of books – brings forward the proposition he develops in concert with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to shift the conceptualization of literacy from events to situations. The concept of a literacy situation, he explains, “allows us to see how events of conscious meaning production are inseparable from a much wider field of relations and movements” (17). Situations are, following/quoting Lauren Berlant, to be understood as states “in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amid the usual activity of life” (17). Such a shift, in brief, allows us to acknowledge the conditions of possibility within which we move and are moved: What are the material constraints and provisions and corollary affective relations that compel and prohibit, that delight and discourage, the emergence of certain somethings as sufficiently significant to function as events?
The origin story that posits a love of reading nurtured at public libraries and schools at its center, cast in terms of a literacy situation, becomes a portal to apprehending the organization and orientation of desire for national belonging central to U.S. national identity formation, as well as entry to everything from Cold War geopolitics to the impact of the 1968 Immigration and Naturalization Act under which families like mine entered the United States, to the affordances wrought through the histories of segregation, exclusion, and expropriation endemic to settler national life comprising suburban New Jersey living, and to the facts of bookness and librariness and tableness and how they come into being as such. Indeed, as Snaza submits, we are vibrantly, vitally animated by more-than-human entities such as these. It is thus the decidedly unromantic materialities of immigration law and global geopolitics and circuits of labor, combined with the world-making/-destroying impact of colonial modernity’s establishment as the world historical dominant, that comprise the wider field of materially induced affective relations and movements resulting in the love of reading I profess.
The point is not to disavow pleasure but rather to understand the fundamental, radical, irrevocable sociality of reading, which is also to say, of being human itself. The impact of Sylvia Wynter’s thinking on Snaza’s thinking regarding the equation of human with Western Man, is everywhere present in the encouragement his book offers to ask after the occlusion of the sociogeny of the human and accompanying denial of the animacy of more-than-human entities. I love reading is an indirect attestation of membership in homo narrans, which is also an openness to movement/moving/being moved by others, by another: “We love what pierces us, pricks us, gets under our skin” (25). The proprioceptive encounter with (an)other is the condition for love, and openness to what is unfamiliar the grounds of pleasure.
I’m struck as I write this by the regularity with which, over many years, I’ve advised people preparing applications for doctoral work in English to be wary of rationalizing their interest in their personal statements that are part of most applications, in terms of the love of reading. And/but also, I’m struck by the ubiquity of the love of reading as the motivating grounds of such applications. While not bad advice in the instrumental sense that such declarations of love are, in my experience, generally considered insufficiently scholarly to warrant positive evaluation by admissions committees, I understand now in the light Snaza casts that it is at least inadequate. Perhaps the advice ought instead to be: Share the experiences and contexts and conditions that bring/compel/make you describe your motivation in terms of love; tell us about the kind of pleasure you find and the environments and scenarios – the situations — in which reading/writing/thinking are events for you and how they might be similarly so for others. Such a widening of frame to the situation would much better enable us to sense the worlds out of which the “I” who loves to read emerges, as well as those which that “I” might render possible. What if we were to think the (in my view mostly disheartening in normative forms) project of diversity-equity-inclusion as a matter of bringing forward as wide an array of relations narrated as origin stories (personal statements) as possible, always with an eye toward amplifying those subjugated in the establishment of the humanism that overrepresents the Man as human, as Wynter provides? What if, instead of asking, why should we admit you, we ask, what leads/allows/requires you to be here? This is a part of what Snaza gives us, this emphasis on asking after and remembering always that there are conditions of possibility that are also always relations of affectively experienced power dis/organizing matter into event, object, and being.
3. Change: where ante- and anti- meet
Like Snaza, I’ve been disinclined to traffic in the discourse of the crisis of the humanities. While clearly, we are living the massive defunding of public education and related foreclosures to cherishing the possibilities and vitality of the study of human expression and activity, the language of crisis obscures all too easily the ongoingness of poverty, incarceration, and other forms of state and state-sanctioned violence in fact rationalized by the versions of humanism and humanities correlating with the establishment of colonial modernity as the world historical dominant. Instead, like Snaza, I’ve been more interested in focusing on changeability, on what might be possible within the contexts within which we work, and by their transformation. I quite agree with his claim, derived in conversation with Gayatri Spivak’s work, that “reading literature…makes us other than we are. Literacy events change us” (134).
My own consideration of this issue of changeability, also following in part from engaging Spivak’s work, has taken shape by wondering whether aesthetic education might be concertedly mobilized toward the ends of cultivating Other worlds into being. For Snaza, errancy allows for knowledge production and meaning making in difference from commonsense (“our movement will necessarily be errant, for we are trying to go somewhere that is not known in advance,” 14-15); I think of this as a reminder that much of what we’re after is unlearning habits of knowledge steeped in the ideologies and orientations and excoriating material realities that are the stuff of liberal colonial modernity. Statist literacy and normative aesthetic education are coupled projects that convey the pedagogies of such modernity; they are in this regard infrastructural. What use of these infrastructures might we make towards the ends of precipitating change by un/learning?
I’ve been thinking such a question through the problem-space of curriculum design. There is a familiar if somewhat strange convergence of phenomena in English departments, which on one hand are often the institutional spaces where feminist and queer and ethnic and decolonial studies and so on dwell, while on the other, are decidedly populated by attachments to the compartmentalizing geographic and temporal protocols of the knowledge paradigms that are the received legacies of liberal colonial modernity. Curricular discussions accordingly regularly unfold as versions of the so-called canon wars, and distribution requirements are sometimes seen as structural remedy to ensure that students enroll in earlier period courses that can be harder to fill because seemingly such distant topics.
Into this scene, we might try to remember that our attachments to literature and teaching and research were not initiated by field formation or knowledge categories but were instead consequent to the pleasures and curiosities and stickiness of ideas encountered in books or classrooms or writing – or libraries or bookstores and so on. Despite the syntax of the academy that implies a near ontological state to the bases of knowledge, archives, and intellectual traditions we engage (i.e., “I am an Asian Americanist” or “I am a Victorianist”), such administrative rubrics are precisely that: vehicles by which authority, which is to say, power and resources, are differentially distributed. Instead of arguing for more or fewer classes or specialists of one century or region or another, what if we shape curriculum around questions of pleasure and attachment, as in, what ideas animate us? What archives and libraries and platforms condition the pleasures that are research and scholarship, and what are the conditions of possibility that bring us to such pleasures and sites? How has reading changed us, in what ways, toward what ends? What do we teach to offer the possibility of change, in what ways, toward what ends? Here, in Snazian fashion, the object (the book, the archive, the word, the class) and field of affective relations takes the lead, in a syntactical reversal that subordinates the liberal humanist tendency toward the declaration of ontological certainty and related causality.
Relatedly, a simple (but not simplistic) syntactical and dictional shift from “I am” to “I study” registers a radically incommensurate relationship to liberal colonial modernity. Snaza, following Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, rightly submits that study happens everywhere and decidedly not only in universities. Exemplifying the #StandingRockSyllabus among others, he notes that “study becomes a collective activity of collective reorientation: toward each other (not reducible to the human), away from the state” (159).
The ante- and the anti- meet on these grounds of a praxis rooted in errancy and characterized by paying attention to the direction of our direction, by attunement to what unsettles us as much as to where state investments lie, to wandering and bewilderment and pleasure. Collectively finding/feeling/thinking our way through, with and toward each other, which is also always more-than-(Man as) human….this is one way this book keeps us company, one way this book teaches us how to be good company.
On Learning to Read, Again
My earliest reading was not in a book. It is an unwritten story my father told me from the unlined pages of his childhood memory. He translated the story into English for me from his mother tongue. I was the sole reader of a sorry tale.
“Then, all the children died” is how it begins.
A mysterious illness fell upon the village. Nobody knew what it was. One by one the children in each of the houses next to mine died until every single one of my childhood friends were lost forever.
I see me staring back intently at him taking in each word. Even before I could read text, I felt myself first studying the author, taking the other’s words in, making sense of the delivery, feeling struck by the syntax, rattled by the heavy accent cadence, reeling from the content and not able to relate at all.
Did you die too? I had to ask, unsatisfied with the ending of his story. It was his turn to stare silently into me, eyes big with unshed tears, lit up with recognition.
Yes, he quickly revised the ending of the story. I died too. My friends died and my childhood died with them.
Nathan Snaza’s Animate Literacies, Literacies, Affect, and the Politics of Humanism recalls a story of the human I never forgot. Snaza’s critical and interdisciplinary understanding of literacies animates in me a story buried in the family archive haunting me still. It reminds me that how and what we learn of profound significance is often totally outside of our formal education(s). And yet our literacies both schooled and unschooled are implicated in the creatures we are and can become. Animating and animated by narratives of the human, Snaza urges readers to think of literacies as deeply implicated in the formation of personhood and the social formation of the world.
Literacy in and as English, as he and I both understand it, is a distinctly colonial project. Or as Gayatri Spivak finds, English literature as delivered by the British Empire “uncoercively re-arranged the desire”1 of millions of subjects worldwide. Snaza’s engagement of literacies reveals one’s insertion into language to be a deeply affective, erotic, and aesthetic experience. We are seduced into words animating an indescribable creature at birth without our consent and with no recourse to say “no, the word is nothing like me at all.” The colonialization of our native being is repeated at school when the discourses of the dominant are poured into us through the seemingly innocent act of learning to read. “And we do like our dearest common notion of reading to remind us of the whole family scene.” Peggy Kamuf, Derrida’s translator reminds us: “Reading is also thereby getting produced and maintained as the site for the patriarchal, paternalistic family’s reproduction of itself. The practice gets passed down, most typically, in the voice of mothers, usually mothers, reading aloud to their children.”2
Snaza’s penetrating study of the onto-epistemological and kinship aims of literacy should cause one to pause and fall back on memories of learning to read. My own memories of reading make me question the kind of human I can be. Unlike the children whose first stories were fairy tales and of Dick and Jane3 innocently frolicking through the countryside, my literacy was sparked by a story outside of institutions, a story of dirt-poor poverty common to rural life in India post-Partition. It is one nowhere to be found in, unthinkable to the white cultures in which I was raised, one that recurred across my life: of poor brown children who are in the first place unrecognized as children and who never got to live. And it makes me wonder: Is human being possible without a childhood?
A story of dead childhood my father passed on to me illustrates what Snaza calls, “the literacy situation” (3), one that I further understand as the symbolic means and methods a child is given for authoring one’s existence. The literacy situation, Snaza writes, “is where intrahuman politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, and geography shape the conditions of emergence for literary events that animate subjects and the political relations with which they are entangled” (4).
In a sense each of us is caught in a literacy situation, given a language, in a narrative plot, delivering to us a history and story that precede and predetermine one’s existence. We are inserted into our story via childhood literacies we are given to learn to communicate by and for significant adult others. These literacies deliver our story at birth in names containing genealogies of the intrahuman unconsciously delivered in each: girl, dark, healthy. Words used to identify an undefinable creature stand in for an unspeakable existence until the tiny thing learns to mimic those words imagining they magically spring from her own mind.
Literacies is a kind of magical trick of the other even if presented as a science of the mind or theory of education. It is one, Snaza reveals, to be both critical to the kind of humans we are and can become. Rethinking literacy through its affective lure, as that which animates and is animated by “a whole host of actants and agents” (4), Snaza charts out a new way to think about and experience bewildering symbolic life.
Snaza is keenly and curiously aware of literacies’ keynote in the writing and unwriting of human being as (white) Man. This certain version of human, specific, binary, superior haunts the project of literacies as it opens up pathways to rearticulate it. “What is literacy? What is the human? What is collectivity? What is politics?” (5) Snaza asks gathering up critical theories as method and showing that English literacy affects every area of academic enquiry despite its foreclosure in the empire of empiricism, the evident of evidence, the schooled of the scholarly that has come to capitalize humanistic education under the latest, and perhaps, last modernity.
Snaza looks to the post-human and Judith Butler’s call for “certain departure from the human that takes place in order to start the process of remaking the human” (in Snaza, 8). If also drawn into the dazzling playground of thought, the speculative, futurist, and entangled frameworks this historical moment affords, my position of thinking is as an educationalist, one that finds literacies cannot exist without an infancy. Thus, I think through Snaza’s more-than-human project of reanimating literacies as primarily a pedagogical one.
Pedagogy refers to the delivery of literacy education through relational and/or affective bonds. It has ties to animation as pedagogy arises with the need to bring the child into the world as a life-giving act. Pedagogy arises in infancy with the human adult entrusted to take carriage of a small creature. The infant, as Lyotard4 argues, is not yet human and in (the process-of-becoming) human, and requires education, and more precisely, literacies, to gain membership in the adult community of human.
There may be no way to think of literacies outside the human problem because there is no way for an infant to become a person without the humans that speak. Here, I resound Jacques Derrida’s “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte”5 which I understand to mean that everything our kind of animal can think already always takes the shape of the other’s words. Language both condemns and liberates the body from a fundamental silence that cannot be named, tolerated or borne. Perhaps the best we can do, as Snaza also indicates, is release ourselves from the “human as Man” project as Sylvia Wynter6 puts it, to face the animal infancy we share with other beings we cannot bear to be like.
An animal like others “of no great significance,” as Yuval Harari reminds us, humans “appeared long before there was a history.”7 Humans, Harari also tells us, are born prematurely and are dependent on their adult counterpoints for many years. The name human tries to account for this delayed, disabled condition by making the tiny useless creature something it is not: Homo Sapiens meaning “man who knows.” The name Man is produced out of negation of what was once an animal-infant, a projection wrought from a need to assume some kind of mythical primacy wrought from the accident of being born a creature that speaks, what Freud conceived as a primary narcissism8 or autoaffection9 as Derrida revises. We have a dire need to speak what we cannot know for sure, which is the kind of creature we feel we are. Herein, with a primary love (of self) as one first experiences from a (m)other, lies our humanizing trouble.
It is love, a radical, affective, suturing self-other dependence, that makes departures from the human, or the name given to the animal we are, difficult. My work revives study of pre-human, pre-literate states because my feeling is that we might begin to understand literacies as more than symbolic if we learn how to learn to read from babies. We read for our lives, as Adrienne Rich10 insists, as all animals and alive amongst object do, to communicate to each other for our collective survival. We might learn to read from this formative prehuman and intrahuman position to learn what literacy is and actually does to the people we really are.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines pre-human as a purely animal state, the immobile and babbling one we hate to admit we have been all along, the one we return to dribbling and barely moving at the end. The pre-human, the dictionary tells us, antedates and is ancestorial to the human, a creature preceding time, space and story. In reality this creature does not inhabit a past historical age but our evolving present and future unknown. We do not want to face our pre-human self, or at least man does not want to begin the story of himself with the animal we also are.
Reading each other is our primary way of becoming human and we do it from birth. Like the wide-eyed animal in a desolate landscape, the infant human is thrust out of the womb into an unfamiliar country. Reading for the infant feels a bit like how Snaza describes Frankenstein’s monster reading for the first time: “I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike the beings concerning who I read” (205). The monster’s account reminds us that reading estranges us from our self even as it lures us into identification with the other through enticements of words.
“What happens when we read?” Snaza asks us (Chapter 11). Mostly we do not know because the text, like an infant, is unpredictable. “It might be better,” J. Hillis Miller cautions, “to think of them as so may unexploded bombs that may have who knows what result when they get read by the right (or the wrong) person at the right (or the wrong) place or time” (Snaza, 105). Everything we learn in school tells us the opposite of what feel when we read. Words can be decoded. Sentences need to make sense. Understanding is akin to comprehension. Reading is understood as decoding words. Writing as verifying and making those understandings true and factual or true and fictional. The text can be mastered the way a child can be forced to take on meanings that they soundly resist.
Snaza relocates what has been written of the human-as-man story in English literature. The novels he selects, however, many considered classics, literacies as they arise in the lives of those who are not man (monsters, ghosts, sub and non-humans). Snaza reads in novels such as Beloved and Frankenstein literacy situations that startle and, I think, can take us back to our pre-human situations. In the form of an adult infant baby or an infant adult monster, we can find ourselves unusually recognized perhaps in the way the authors were searching for a language to, in the first place, the creatures they once were and are.
Poet Dionne Brand rejects the name “human” even as she excavates its keynote in an almost completely “ravished” world where “Black people do not enter white plot as subject.”11 If not present as subject this violent genocidal erasure haunts the white plot as prior and postscript. As Snaza rereads in Morrison’s Beloved. “Dwelling with haunting,” he writes, “can unsettle this [white plot], sending out attention in other directions, and back toward questions of how that particular social order was able to emerge at what costs” (21).
Unsettling the plot is language itself, which has this special quality to unravel its man-made logic, and its fixed grammars of being as it coheres its white mythologies. In a sense language haunts its very pronouncements to reveal new openings if we can break open the syntax, flatten the binary, blur the pronouns, turn noun into verb, object into subject, fact into fiction. As Snaza reads I am transfixed with his selected passages animating literacies. In his readings, I find that it is the most poetic of language that breaks the plot of human stories. We need to break the plot of our kind to liberate the narrative into the fragile fragments of significance each and everything on the planet is.
Poetry is perhaps the closest formal language we have to the incomprehensible yet deeply animate babble of the infant. Situating literacies in the pre-human, pre-verbal time of infancy alerts us to an unintelligible and yet paradoxically profoundly intelligent situation of existence. And yet we have not learned to read poetry as the only narrative depicting an incoherent self that makes sense against the plot-heavy takeover of our lives.
My earliest reading was a poem of dead children, a story with no plot, no ending, no future in sight. From this poetic fragment I learned to read of a felt yet unfathomable agony by which my father delivered the words. Then, all the children died. It is this sentence of death that liberates me from the white kinship plot telling of happy family romance that exists for no child whether they know it or not.
Animate literacies alert me also to the great role that pedagogy and poetry play in re-educating us from the killing literacies leading us further away from the truth of what humans really are, the deeds we have done to others like and unlike us, the decimation of the land we do not own and to which we cannot lay claim, what we are capable of, the absolute harm we wage with the nomenclature we wield with and on each other. We need to have the courage to tell a yet-to-be-told story of how the English language and literacy mutilated a shared world. I read Nathan Snaza’s call to “bewildering literacies” as a call to learn to read anew into and out of the stories animating our ghosts and the unthinkable acts that reside, a project that requires our every attention and urgency. “We can,” he boldly claims, “then begin to redirect our attentions, perceptions, energies, and movements, if we ask again, without pretending to know in advance, what we’ll find or where it [literacies] will lead us” (163). It is not too late; another world is waiting, as Arundhati Roy12 reminds us, if we can bear to gather up its bled-out pieces to read, write, repair, and remake it. It is through reading our sorry selves closely, distantly, deeply, animatedly, again and again, that we can learn to rewrite the mess we have made of a beautiful world and all of its ravished inhabitants needing words through which they can breathe, grow, love, and persist.
Gayatri Spivak, “Righting wrongs,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 103 (2004) 523.↩
Peggy Kamuf, “The End of Reading,” Book/Ends (Unpublished lecture, 2004).↩
Zerna Sharpe, Read with Dick and James (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1956).↩
Jean-François Lyotard, Inhuman. Reflections on Time. Trans. G. Bennengton & R. Bowlby (Paolo Alto: Stanford University Press: 1991). ↩
Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. Trans. G. Spivak. (Boston: University of Harvard Press, 1978).↩
Sylvia Wynter, “NHI. An Open Letter to my Colleagues,” Knowledge for the 21st Century (1994) 1.↩
Y. Harari, Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Signal, 2016) 1. ↩
Sigmund. Freud, On Narcissism. An Introduction (New York: Read Books: 2015).↩
Jacques Derrida, On Grammatology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).↩
Adrienne Rich, What is Found There. Notebooks on Poetry (New York: Penguin: 1978).↩
D. Brand & R. Enright, “Pressure on Verbal Matter. Dionne Brand and the Making of Language,” BorderCrossings, https://bordercrossingsmag.com/article/pressure-on-verbal-matter↩
A. Roy, “Another World is not only Possible. She is on her Way,” Truthout, https://truthout.org/articles/arundhati-roy-another-world-is-not-only-possible-she-is-on-her-way/↩
A few weeks ago, I had dinner with an old friend. We discussed how much the pandemic had changed us. I said I worried that it hadn’t changed me enough. She responded, well, you had already figured out that you’d rather be at home with a book before all of this. While I took her point, the only reason that I had figured that out was because I went to graduate school in a small white town in Oregon, where I did not know anyone and often did not feel comfortable leaving my house.
Nathan Snaza writes that the literacy situation is “where intrahuman politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, and geography shape the conditions of emergency for literacy events that animate subjects and the political relations with which they are entangled” (4), what my friend understood as a preference was significantly more complicated. I preferred to be home, reading a book because I was the first in my family to go to graduate school. I was also the only black woman in my program and one of the very few black students at the university. I was from a big city where all of the social rules were different, and often I had uncomfortable or painful interactions with others when I left my house. My desire to read as many of the books that were not intended for me and those intended for me cannot be separated from the literacy situation. Had I gone to graduate school in a place where I felt certain or safe, might I have read significantly less? Biked more? And what would be the consequence?
I want to begin by describing the literacy situation in which I completed Animate Literacies and subsequently wrote this response. I read the first half in my office. The first office that I’ve ever had. I read Animate Literacies as someone who pays attention to education’s simultaneous violence and potential (141). The space is cluttered with recycling that I have not taken out and not-yet-unpacked boxes. My office is a metaphor for the ambivalence I feel about my career track, even as I know that I am lucky to have a job in a cruel and vicious academic job market. I read Animate Literacies at the end of the school year when I felt at a crossroads after two years of struggling to consider what it means to read, teach, and write in a time such as this one and in an institution that does not have any answers. At this time, what seemed to animate my effort in the past feels significantly less motivating. I have struggled to figure out how I might read and think in ways that challenge me along with the students under my care as a junior scholar who is often overwhelmed, uncertain, and anxious about what I am doing and why. How might I read and think in this literacy situation? Animate Literacies offers an ongoing response to many questions that I have not yet been able to articulate.
I completed the second half of the book in the hours between drives up to Rochester, NY to help my partner move. As we filled the back of both of our cars with things we did not precisely want but knew we would need, I realized that I had moved 24 times since leaving home at 18. I have moved by car, truck, plane, and subway. I had moved because I came of age in a time when one often needed to move if one wanted a life different from the one their parents had led. In my case, I wanted to go to graduate school to learn what I was on the very edge of sensing as a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles. I tried to understand why teaching English seemed insufficient and even ridiculous. I wondered why when I said you will need to know this, my body tensed as if somewhere I worried I might be lying. In all of the moves from place to place, the worst part is always carrying boxes of books up and down apartment stairs and across cheap rented apartments near (or quite far) from the campus that I would be walking, biking, or taking public transportation to. My path to becoming an uncertain and ambivalent academic has been parallel to packing and unpacking boxes of books in different (often depressing) temporary abodes. More directly, becoming an academic, a scholar, and a teacher in a way that I can live with has been cumbersome, excruciating, overwhelming, and miserable. But not only those things.
Animate Literacies helps me think anew about my education and history of reading. And my mother is deeply implicated in that history. While I have strong critiques of the education I have received and still carry with me profound disappointment, I continue to see some value in continuing to try. This is inherited. Before I was born, I was in the college library—the fetus that would become me. Future me floated in my mother’s belly as she crouched down in the stacks, sloshing future me about, worrying about proving her capacity to read and think in the ways that her professors recognized, much as I would 20 years later. My mother was a senior in college studying journalism and photography at Cal State Long Beach. She was the first person in her family to go to college and loved reading books to her growing belly. In her graduation photo, she is cradling me in her arms. The image is black and white, taken with the camera that she bought when she planned on becoming a photographer. The picture helps me understand my mother and her unrelenting determination for both me to become literate in a very particular way.
Rather than understanding earning an education as the result of a series of choices, I better understand it as the desire to become the kind of person who could be regarded as human enough to be afforded greater choice. My mother did not think that white people were superior. She knew better, but she understood that education of a particular kind would afford me greater options than she had been afforded. Snaza writes, “Literacy and its materiality are never separable from intrahuman social and political hierarchy” (p. 56). The choices to pursue particular kinds of literacies and leave off others cannot be disentangled from our historical, social, and political positioning.
The Pleasure of the Text
My mother loves to tell the story about me getting kicked out of daycare because I would fight the other kids for tearing up the books. I do not know if I loved books at that age, but I think I loved stories. My kindergarten teacher pulled a few of us aside and taught us how to read. I still can recall the green and white plaid sheet that hung over our heads as we sat around her, our eyes following her index finger as it slid across the page. I don’t remember much else about that experience. I do think that I learned that reading early and reading well afforded me a privileged status in the space where I was most often required to be—school. I also learned that being a reader in the ways associated with smartness gave me greater latitude to act and be in ways that would otherwise be unacceptable. I cannot separate the pleasure I found in books from this status that I received as someone considered to be a smart Black girl–a good reader, a good speaker, and a good writer.
I moved from my all-Black private school to a public school that served very wealthy white children for elementary school. I had never been around so many white people before that and had no opinion or thought about them. For the next 27 years, I would only attend white schools.. As a result, I have been surveilled, judged, evaluated, and held to account by white people for my entire education—white people who, for the most part, have had little experience reading, knowing, or engaging black people beyond their projections. I am regarded as lucky to have had access to such an opportunity. While I don’t necessarily disagree, the complexity of the experience of being a Black person—constantly evaluated by white people who, more often than not, have zero stakes in your well-being or learning—is rarely acknowledged or even imagined. Schooling as a humanizing assemblage helps one reflect on this experience in a way that challenges individualist notions of imposter syndrome.
To be regarded as capable as a Black kid, then college student, and later graduate student, I needed to read in ways recognizable to those white people—teachers, graders, and administration. I needed to beat them at their own game. I wrote for the school paper with two other racial minorities in college. We sat in a cluster in the back of the room and communicated with our eyes, foreheads, and pursed lips. My editor, an anxious white woman who had two tones that she used when she spoke to me—accusatory or exasperated—asked me how I could write such a good review. Rather than being offended at the suggestion that I was not capable of such writing, I shrugged. The truth was that I had no idea what made my writing good and what made my writing bad. I just knew that my opinion was not relevant to the discussion.
Rather than imagining a world in which everyone would be admitted into the elite classroom to become fully human through discussions of literary fiction and the great books of the various canons, I want to reverse the directionality and track how other literacies are entangled with alternative ways of being human. Instead of a unifying rush toward assimilationist inclusion, I want to call for a mass exodus from Man’s classrooms, seeking out other changeful sites (142).
I am still an anxious reader, although less so as I age. The nervous system can only take so much. I am a fearful and stressed reader because I have been educated in schools attached and invested in my dehumanization (158). I am unlearning my education in favor of something else in many ways. This process is painful but necessary. Despite this complicated history and relation to particular kinds of literacy associated with school and knowledge, I am still lucky. I learned to read books before knowing that I would have to prove my facility with language to prove deservedness.
As a kid I spent weekends at my father’s. At his house I had no room of my own and no friends. I was lonely but found great pleasure in stories. I brought stacks of library books and read through them one by one. I was not thinking of proving myself capable, expanding my vocabulary, or studying the structures of the sentence so I could be good enough. I was not thinking about getting into college or staying in college. I was not worried about getting a job or completing my thesis. I did not care about the academic job market or temporary and precarious legibility. I sat reading book after book for the story. For the good feeling–the surprise, the shock, the recognition, the confusion, and the joy. For the feel of the pages. For the smell. For the distraction from the loneliness of growing up with mean teachers and few friends. Even as I often must read under duress, worried about deadlines and teaching, I can remember the feeling of reading a book only for pleasure. The knowledge of the pleasure that can be found in texts, stories, narratives, and encounters with texts has saved my ass. This space of pleasure and refusal of the terms that have framed so much of my recent reading life remains a space of potential and change.
In the months since I have read Animate Literacies, I continue to grapple with its concepts and ideas. I worry over the implications of this text on my work with future teachers. I have historically challenged narrow notions of education and discussed the harm that such conceptions produce. I struggle to hold the critique of education alongside its possibility, and to leave students with more than despair. We collectively imagine what education may become without schools. Literature helps us do this. Animate Literacies provides an ongoing provocation for a reimagining that accounts for past and present injustices alongside current and looming crises, without giving into despair. We can ask ourselves, “What is literature? What is literacy? What animates it? How might it animate us? How might it animate us otherwise?” (163). I will take inspiration from this text as I support students and they support me in differently knowing and feeling literacy.
“Lucidity Came Slowly”
Lucidity came slowly
I awoke from dreams of untying a great knot
It unraveled like a braid
Into what seemed were
Thousands of separate strands of fishing line
Attached to coarse behavior it flowed
A calm it urged, what else is here?
“Paprika” by Japanese Breakfast1
What else is here?
I love how Nathan Snaza is attracted to the force of questions (65), drawn to what might seem, initially, to be relatively simple sorts of queries. It is not because I expect Nathan to pursue and then deliver right-sized answers to any questions posed. Nope. Rather, it is for how he leans into the very force of the question to reveal the vital and numerous (ultimately unquantifiable) “strands of fishing line” at play in a literacy situation, the conditions that give distinct contour and tempo to the this-ness of any particular literacy event. Instead of an answer that clinches and closes, Nathan offers a vibrant and purposefully untied (versus united) array of the immanent/particulate intensities and the sludgy sediment of slower flowing tributaries that filter into a question’s formation: an agencement (fielding) or loose-limbed assemblage of things unhemmed by their potentials, of potentials never fully adhered in/to their things to begin with (although plenty of folks might have mistakenly thought so). If Nathan was not a writer of such clarity and disarming forthrightness, the fact that his text’s core arguments routinely flee on all of their sides at once could grow unwieldy and cumbersome (so much weight to unburden in preparation for flight, in dissolving into the immersive solution that the fielding of any question envelops). Thankfully, however, the experience of reading Animate Literacies feels more like the unfolding onto one after another expanse for non-mastery and collision.
In the supple ontogenetic theory-architecture of Nathan’s book, literacies are animated—first and foremost—by the sheer width and generative (or at least messy potentials for) sensory warps and wefts of the more-than-/other-than-human. This shifting surface—he calls it a “contact zone”—serves as Nathan’s (unspoken) plane of immanence, always-to-be-made: as the constitutive outside that many of the predominant versions of post-Enlightenment philosophy, disciplinary-shaped analyses, and commonplace reading pedagogies have brutishly produced, aided, and abetted in the production of “Man” (now, to be unmastered and dismantled). And, even more crucially, Nathan shows that this plane must also be rendered, not as one massive reaction-formation against taken-for-granted humanities discourses, but as the site of extra-human abundances and leaky porosities that have too seldom been acknowledged or understood in their own light, on their own terms (or, if dimly recognized, then deemed to be inscrutable, unworthy, or irredeemable), now to be nurtured and extended … furtively, fugitively, ephemerally.
Perhaps the single question that most immediately underlies Nathan’s orientation to the world/his work is: “what counts as ______?” In other words, what counts as “human?” As literacy? As a body? As writing? As reading? And so on. The modulating answer-assemblage that Nathan offers to such “what counts as” questions might be pitched differently based upon the singularity of its emergence but, ultimately, the implicit response is unchanging. So, what counts as _____? The answer: EVERYTHING. That is, analytically, you will still—sigh, because there is no way out but through—need to account for, attune to, all that tragically world-curtailing stuff that’s been historically (over)hemmed and (over)counted along with all that has been under- or non-represented (omitted through ignorance or reduced to silence/inertness/death by violences at any and every scale) + all that decidedly other stuff—presumably more viscerally vibrant entities/forces—that teem outside of the inside/outside constitution of “Man.” The ethico-aesthetic pay-off: in doing this (and, yes, it’s a necessary but impossible task), you might get somewhat closer to sustaining a longer glimpse of the whole or open totality that is idling in relation-potential alongside the propelling frictions and fusions of its jostling parts. You’ll have arrived at the source (or force) of change, acquired an intuitive sense for those differences that might make a difference (whisper: it is not one place and you probably won’t be staying long before everything modulates elsewhere-&-elsewhen). It likely goes without saying but this kind of undertaking can make for quite a crowd—this fucked-up world, the next one-to-come—and it requires the most careful, ongoing tending and capacious parsing, not by tagging and enumerating all-of-the-things but, as Nathan demonstrates, by affectively attuning to uniquely situated intensities in their subtlest-to-most-seismic gradiences and roamings. Anyway, that’s the world/s-straddling ontology that Nathan is continually chasing and it becomes the motor for whatever animacies feed into the whirling affect-assemblage for ever-new approaches to literacy and reading practices that he is incessantly-imaginatively jury-rigging throughout this book’s sixteen chapters.
How’s it feel to be at the center of magic
To linger in tones and words?
Projecting your visions to strangers who feel it
Who listen, who linger on every word
Oh, it’s a rush
Oh, it’s a rush
– “Paprika,” Japanese Breakfast
How’s it feel to linger in tones and words?
I am reminded of something that Michel Foucault captures—so magnificently—when writing about the force-affects of reading Maurice Blanchot.2 The rush that comes in discovering the outside of discourse:
From the moment discourse ceases to follow the slope of self-interiorizing thought and, addressing the very being of language, returns thought to the outside; from that moment, in a single stroke, it becomes a meticulous narration of experiences, encounters, and improbable signs – language about the outside of all language, speech about the invisible side of words. And it becomes attentiveness to what in language already exists, has already been said, imprinted, manifested – a listening less to what is articulated in language than the void circulating between its words, to the murmur that is forever taking it apart; a discourse on the non-discourse of all language; the fiction of the invisible space in which it appears.3
Operationalize this “murmuring” that “takes apart” (humanism, normativity, modernity, coloniality, anti-blackness, etc.) as the practice of pedagogy turned toward the non-discursive and you might see almost immediately how Nathan’s varied approaches to new modes for literacy—affective attunement, bewilderment, experiments in “performing the human” (154)—are circulating, indeed, in the same animating void where, he says, “all matter exists in entangled relations that carry virtual possibilities for novelty and the becoming otherwise of entities and relations” (161). For me, this formulation about the potentials of matter and entangled relations to offer “virtual possibilities for novelty” and to “become otherwise” lies at the feely core of the compellingly gorgeous, generative, generous, and hope-beyond-all-reason-for-hope ambitions conveyed by Nathan’s book.4 But this is also when I want to push further along the edges of Nathan’s thesis, to extend the collective force of his questions toward slightly other (but adjacent) tendings and to raise questions to which I too cannot even pretend to supply right-sized answers.
I want my offering to woo, to calm, to clear, to solve
But the only offering that comes
It calls, it screams, there’s nothing here
– “Paprika,” Japanese Breakfast
In “Paprika,” Michelle Zauner is wrestling with the very act of creating, of composing, of finding/losing one’s self in the void of an offering: both her’s (“my offering”) and from the outside (“the only offering that comes”). The dread that nothing’s here, waiting receptively in the immanence, listening to the void’s murmuring, scratching around for the invisible side of words: I am not claiming that this is a remarkable situation (there are a million and one songs and poems and essays about finding your muse). Its complete mundanity is the larger point for me: nothing’s here, or, everything’s here but nothing’s made … until you’ve joined the outside and composed it. And here’s the crux of my small but wriggly worry over Animate Literacies: How can a plane of immanence also be(come) a plane of composition?5
That is, Nathan’s brilliant and impassioned take on literacy transpires almost entirely from a posture or position of reception, of reading, of gathering up affect and intensities, of becoming sensitive and haunted, of building up tingly modes of attention, intuition, and attunement, of knocking out the props from under mastery anywhere/anytime that it believes it has stuck the landing, etc.6 This is sublime, truly—I am 100 percent down with all of this. But I also wonder about what must happen then to move from the book’s chief emphasis upon “capacities to be affected” (receptivity / reading / becoming-sensitive) toward a becoming-active of “capacities to affect,” shifting the mattering of the literacy situation and event from the reading, analyzing, attuning to the literacies of making, creating, composing. It is undeniable that Nathan offers vividly realized affect-attentive exemplars—from Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Frederick Douglass’ narrative account of his life to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—to show how the capacities for being affected and to affect come to play out in these specific circumstances and/or in the sensuous relations between these stories and their readers. The pedagogic aim in this heuristic should not be diminished![/footnote]The becoming-active of the capacity to affect does not resemble or find its multi-faceted representation in the myriad ways that a body can be affected (although a body is dominated by capacities to be affected far more than by the capacity to act). However, capacities to be affected (sensibility) and capacities to affect (power / potential) are mutually imbricated; it is not one or the other nor is it one after (or before) the other. Sometimes a body won’t know or sense which is which until a particular cut of action or the event arrives.[/footnote] And, certainly, the becoming-active of composition can rely, at least in part, upon the more-than-human resources/resonances that Nathan develops as he homes in on his readerly-receptive affect-attunements … but, to put it simply, ‘to be affected’ is never quite enough. To get old school here for a moment, as Walter Benjamin has it: “What matters … is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is, readers or spectators into collaborators.”7 Putting the stakes of composition right alongside a politics of attention and attunement moves the literacy-apparatus that much closer to the real potential for producing collaborators.
While I don’t share Bruno Latour’s misapprehended countering of critique (supposedly out of steam) to composition (full steam ahead), his “Compositionist Manifesto” does explicitly call for a proliferation of nonhuman agency (not just capacity) and animacy that chimes well with some of Nathan’s own views. It is not “who” composes but “what” composes (and the materials through which an act of composition is accomplished might not include words or even tones). Further, Latour is quite clear that “if we wish to compose a common world” “we [will] need to have a much more material, much more mundane, much more immanent, much more realistic, much more embodied definition of the material world.”8 I suspect that Nathan would want to raise a question or two over what counts as ‘common’ in Latour’s “common world” (as do I), but all those ‘much mores’ are indicators of the kind of ballast Latour imagines we are going to need to navigate (and negate) the contemporary bifurcation that has re-opened up between science (as mastery) and wonder (as paprika).
And it is into that particular science/wonder murmuring void that Katherine McKittrick’s latest work Dear Science and Other Stories addresses itself—an absolute compositionist manifesto for black studies (and, well, everything) that takes, as does Nathan, Sylvia Wynter’s “Man” as the theoretical perch for finding a way outside of the clusterfuckery of our times by facing up to and facing down its knowledge systems again and again. “What if,” asks McKittrick, “we read outside ourselves not for ourselves but to actively unknow ourselves, to unhinge, and thus come to know each other, intellectually, inside and outside the academy, as collaborators of collective and generous and capacious stories?”9 That’s where the capacity to affect (e.g., storying)—as well as the capacity to be affected (e.g., attuning)—might take us and the more-than-human us, into the void where we encounter each other, collaborate, and get capacious together. With Animate Literacies, Nathan Snaza gives a invaluable lesson in how following the force of questions can bring into account “what else is here” if we attune to the affective: getting to that animating force is more than half the equation, composing with those forces to reach for decidedly different ends is the task that remains perpetually incomplete.
Michelle Chongmi Zauner, Jubilee (Dead Oceans, 2021).↩
Fred Moten has, on more than one occasion, referenced Foucault’s Blanchot essay as one way to grasp the configuration evoked by “the black outdoors.” See Fred Moten and Hartman, Saidiya (2016). “The Black Outdoors,” [videorecording, Oct 05] The John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University. URL: https://fhi.duke.edu/videos/black-outdoors-fred-moten-saidiya-hartman ↩
Michel Foucault, “The Thought from the Outside,’ Foucault/Blanchot (New York: Zone Books: 1989) 25–26. ↩
I take this sentence to be the most compressed expression of the thesis that guides Nathan’s Animate Literacies: “Becoming sensitive to the outside of humanizing literacies, to the situation, involves becoming being haunted and learning to attune to the material presence of histories of violence in literacy situations and their affective tonalities” (33).↩
I am not going to be able to explore this particular angle more fully here, but I would argue that if one wishes to circumvent Alexander Galloway’s derisive “nature’s largess” accusation leveled, in part, at affect theory and new materialism then the plane of immanence cannot be understood as simply waiting there (wherever ‘there’ is), like an eternal state of nature, waiting to be received/absorbed, passively or even actively. See Alexander Galloway, “The Swervers” [blogpost, June 6, 2017], Alexander R. Galloway Blog. URL: http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/the-swervers. Deleuze will sometimes refer to the plane of immanence as a plane of consistency (where the world’s stuff hangs loosely together) or, better for my purposes here, a plane of composition (even a ‘plane of musical composition’: see ‘Spinoza and Us’ in Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy [San Fancisco: City Lights, 1988). A plane of composition must always to be made, “constructed piece by piece, and the places, conditions, and techniques are irreducible to one another. The question, rather, is whether the pieces can fit together, and at what price. Inevitably, there will be monstruous crossbreeds” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (University of Minnesota Press, 1987): 157.↩
Along these lines, see Nathan’s footnote 5 to Chapter 14: “My aim here, as in many of my other writings (Snaza 2013a, 2015b, 2018), is not to offer classroom methods but to call for teachers and students to experiment with ways of attuning to the more-than-human situation of education” (186).↩
Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writing (New York: Schocken Books, 1978) 233.↩
Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto,’” New Literary History 41.3 (2010) 484. ↩
Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories (Duke University Press: 2021) 16.↩
Three Threads of Thought
Every two years, I reread Octavia Butler’s magnificent novel Dawn (one of the perks of teaching a text is returning to it again and again, watching it change and change you…).1 Early into the novel, the protagonist, Lilith—who was saved by an alien species called the Oankali after nuclear war destroys the earth—asks one of her savior-captors for pen and paper, in order to write down the information she is learning in and about this new world. Her savior-captor, Nikanj, refuses—these records are dangerous, writing and recording is a threat to the new world the Oankali are creating. Instead, Lilith must be bio-engineered to remember, to absorb information, to change that information just as it changes her. To transform the dictatorship of narrative—a static commitment to binaries and perspective and hierarchy—into something alive, an animate form of boundary-crossing knowledge, capable of constant change. Bodies become texts that must be revised, revisited, and reconfigured as meaning and context changes.
Just as Lilith is transformed by her time with the Oankali, I have been changed by Nathan Snaza’s Animate Literacies—I can no longer see Butler’s text, or any text, without Snaza’s illuminations. And my reading, writing, teaching, and thinking is so much better for it. As I reread Butler’s novel this year, I noticed the sentences I had previously underlined or highlighted, where I attached fluorescent tabs to the pages of my book. I thought of this pleasure through Snaza’s framing—“discovering marks made by a past version of myself (or someone else) in the margins” (131). I laughed at little notes my past-self left for my future-self. Some of these marks I understood but most seemed of another language, one I no longer understood with fluency. This reading-as-return was a form of time travel and I was captivated by this temporal collapse. Just as Lilith is transformed into something new through her entanglement with the Oankali, I return to the text transformed, again and again. I have been changed, and then I am changed once more through my reading and rereading.
While many texts haunt, inform and guide Snaza’s own text, none are so central as Toni Morrison’s Beloved. While Dawn is a novel about climate apocalypse fueled by nuclear war, Beloved is a novel about an apocalypse created by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Both stories involve Black women in captivity, grappling with a splitting of self imposed by outside forces. Lilith is captured by an alien species interested in creating new forms of life through cyborg human-alien entanglements, while Sethe is fractured by the trauma of her enslavement, even as she lives a supposedly free life in Ohio, far from the horrors of Sweet Home.
In his second chapter, Snaza begins with a scene from Beloved. The character Schoolteacher is observing the work of his pupils. Showing them how to read, how to write, how to “be” human. This “being human” is of course fraught in the text, as the scene is filtered through Sethe. “Humanizing education,” Snaza shows, “cannot proceed without simultaneous dehumanizing” (13). Just as the Oankali distrust the inherent hierarchies humans have first created and then codified through writing, Snaza shows how literacy and a humanizing education as theory is always wrapped up in a movement from dehumanized to humanized subject. These crossings are informed by violent ordering logics—it is not just about the subject becoming human. Instead, a humanized subject can only exist in relation to a dehumanized subject. However, as Zakiyyah Iman Jackson shows in Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, “Beloved destabilizes the very binaristic and teleological epistemic presumptions that authorize the black body as border concept.”2 Even as these binaristic categories are constructed and policed, their logics cannot contain the materiality of embodiment.
Even as Snaza reveals these two primary binary ordering logics of Western imperial thought, we are also witnessing an untangling of subject-object involved in a literacy situation, which involves “sustained attention to dehumanizing violence with an attunement to what is often called the “more-than-human” (4). Guided by a methodology echoing Donna Haraway, Snaza performs an untangling of literacy and shows us how commodities always result from multispecies entanglements (16) and therefore cannot be understood otherwise. Similarly, through Lilith and the Oankali, Butler suggests that understanding the human-cyborg body as a site of knowledge production might be imagined through nonhuman alien entanglements. These literacy situations allow us to imagine texts beyond inked marks on parchment and paper. Instead, the flesh body is constantly transformed through these encounters.
In Dawn, a human woman becomes modified by Oankali DNA. In Beloved, an enslaved Black woman experiences both objectification and subjectification, humanization and dehumanization, through the overheard lessons of white children in an education setting. Sethe hears a word—“characteristics” (2019: 14)—a word she is not supposed to know. Still, the sounds reach her ears, the word materializes in her mind, and now she possesses it, knows it, is transformed by it. She understands how she has been spoken about and she understands something she is not supposed to have access to. Transformations are happening. Borders have been crossed. The world is different because words have provided an otherwise, an other-world. Categories fail to do the ideological work of containment.
Just as my relationship to reading and literacy has been changed by Snaza’s work, my relationship to writing and sentences have been transformed by Renee Gladman, writer of drawings that are also sentences. It was with Butler and Snaza’s words lodged in my mind that I read her newest book, Plans for Sentences (2022), which, while clearly linked in a series of drawn writings, beginning first with Prose Architectures3 and then One Long Black Sentence 4 also continues a line of thought begun in her poetic-essay collection (for want of a better ordering-category) Calamities (2016). Calamities consists of a series of prose poems, most of which begin with the line, “I began my day….” A sentence, both promise and possibility.
Early on Gladman writes, “I wanted to document the questions that led to writing, writing such as I was doing then.”5 Might this process of documenting the questions that lead to writing be understood as a meaning situation? (or “a commotional field” to use Gladman’s words).6 And might a meaning situation for writing be like a literacy situation for reading? Are they the same? Or are they opposites? And in being opposites, are they also the same? Later, Gladman notes, “I had learned…that it was possible to make beautiful complex structures with paper and you do not need to be an architect to do this.”7 We can build worlds in wondrous ways, she tells us. We are only limited by our imagination.
I imagine that Plans for Sentences—like the previous two books of prose architecture—emerges from a singular long thick black line, “a new territory,” which concludes Calamities.8 Plans is made up of fragments, most of which begin with “These sentences….” Or just the word “These,” juxtaposed next to line drawings (sometimes with water color saturation) that are both sentences and cities.
Worlds of words.
The shape here is important.
We are located. In time. In space. Which becomes the same. On the page.
Is a sentence.
Are a sentence.
But Gladman never tells us what these drawings are. She only tells us what they will do, what they will become. In this way, Gladman’s creation is like Oankali wisdom, showing us how to resist fixity, resist settlement. If we enter a text not in search of answers, but instead in search of emerging worlds, how might we also resist the categorizing rationality of humanistic logic?
I read Gladman’s sentences and I look at her drawings and I see worlds on a page play with form, play with story, play with meaning. Towards the end of his own book, Snaza writes: “What happens when I read is unpredictable, finally, because of the unanticipated participation of a host of agentic participants in the literary situation that are making me up as a reading thing” (114). The meaning situation of Gladman’s work pushes at the limits of language. The drawings look like lines that make up sentences but the words resist capture, remain elusive, ask the reader, who is also a visitor, to inhabit a world at the edge of legibility. Or, as she shows through her unnamed linguist-traveler in Event Factory, the first of four novels about an imagined city-state called Ravicka, “My wanderings began to lead me repeatedly to the same predicament: standing in relation to something I could not see. But, I reasoned from that elevated place, my time here had proved that what one ‘couldn’t see’ was not always what was there.”9 I have been transfixed by this sentence for almost a decade now. It changes every time I read. I imagine I will be learning from this sentence for the rest of my life. I will always need this sentence. I will never really understand the world held in its words.
How do we sit at the edge of meaning and participate in its making, while allowing that process of making to remain an unsettled thing? What is a world where “what one ‘couldn’t see’ was not always what was there?” In Plans for Sentences, the lines and paragraphs beside the figures speak to the worlds being built by the figures but they do not speak of what the figures are. Both Snaza and Gladman ask the reader, who is also a visitor, to crawl into a structure, made both of form and of feeling, and experience something simultaneously bewildering and illuminating. Or, they show us how these two affective frames are also the same frame. A situation of meaning that refuses to be static or settled. What cultural theorist Claire Colebrook might call “an ethics of indiscernibility” (2015: 232).
Gladman’s lines interrogate the structural possibilities of what a sentence can be. What was once inscribed becomes uninscribed—an unsettling of form that feels both familiar and unfamiliar, legible and illegible. Or, something else, existing beyond these binaries and not at all in response to them. A commitment to writing and drawing as a practice of disruption. Such a framing speaks also to the unsettling of bodies, of subjects, of categorized thinking. Lilith’s subjectivity is undone through bio-engineering, Sethe’s subjectivity is undone through overhearing. Inscriptions of self then dissolve and are not reinscribed—instead, they remain in the space of “un.” Following Colebrook’s call for “an ethics of indiscernibility,”10 trans studies provides a mode of engaging such an undoing of subjectivity without disregarding the matter of embodiment. In thinking through racial and gender distinctions, Marquis Bey asks, “What would it mean not to recapitulate the very logics we are seeking to undermine even if the refusal of recapitulation makes us uncomfortable?”11 They then answer: “Uninscriptions unmark sites of change, of movement, of absence that vex the requisites of the scene. If we must be inscribed, we demand to be inscribed un-ly, crossed and X’ed out, annotated, redacted, misspelled, and run-on.”12
There is an ethics to this use of “un”—a grammar that operates not as resistance but instead as refusal. Returning to Colebrook, this ethics “would be transitive: not proceeding by way of the modern liberal paradigm of respecting the borders of the other and not fetishizing self-renewal by way of the other.”13 This allows Colebrook, thinking trans studies and animal studies alongside each other, to argue against both proper relations and frames of difference. C. Riley Snorton picks up on Colebrook’s engagement with the transitive frame, showing how both “trans” and “black” have been “constituted as “fungible, thingified, and interchangeable,” which allows him then to ask, “What does it mean to have a body that has been made into a grammar for whole worlds of meaning?”14
Colebrook’s initial frame and Snorton’s extension of the term make me think again of Sethe’s encounter with Schoolteacher’s pedagogical practices. Snaza shows us how Sethe is not simply witness to these practices, but also enables their performance, as she (Sethe) makes the ink Schoolteacher uses to instruct his students (15). Sethe is not only grammar within Snorton’s analytic, but also the labor of grammar if grammar is understood in its most basic terms, meaning “a thing written.”
In Beloved, someone (Sethe) cast outside nineteenth-century bounds of “the human” (being a Black enslaved woman) blurs the boundaries of being and knowing simply by moving through space, encountering language, and changing herself through these forms of encounter and absorption. This is not an optimistic or a hopeful reading. It is instead an acknowledgment of an always-unsettled, always-becoming way of existing as embodied form. The borders of knowing and unknowing, like bodies, are porous. This porosity and plasticity of being and knowing echoes or is informed by trans studies, which, as Susan Stryker has argued, “has a radical political potential … in articulating and manifesting how it is that we have, as living people, a capacity to change the signification of embodiment.”15
This framing brings me back to Snaza, who sees such “radical political potential” in reading and literacy practices. Early into the book, he writes, “My primary hope is that this book will make the reader feel differently about literacy and the ways it is institutionalized, and that this affective modulation can enable different ways of acting as readers, writers, teachers, and beings in a world woven from dense, bewildering ecologies. This is in keeping with one of my most basic claims about literacy: that it is affective more than symbolic or conceptual” (10). If literacy is the body of a human-Oankali cyborg; if literacy are the lines of Gladman’s worlds, which are both sentences and structures; if literacy is uninscription as a “a radical political potential” through “an ethics of indiscernibility,” then literacy here is indeed more affective than symbolic or conceptual and asks not just what animates literacy and how might it be animated otherwise, but also: what animates us? And how might we be animated otherwise?
Octavia Butler, Dawn (London: Aspect) 1997. ↩
Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York University Press, 2020) 38.↩
Renee Gladman, Prose Architectures (Seattle: Wave Books, 2017).↩
Renee Gladman, One Long Black Sentence (Ithaca: Image Text Ithaca, 2020).↩
Renee Gladman, Calamities (Seattle: Wave Books, 2016) 5.↩
Renee Gladman, Calamities (Seattle: Wave Books, 2016) 122.↩
Renee Gladman, Calamities (Seattle: Wave Books, 2016) 56.↩
Renee Gladman, Calamities (Seattle: Wave Books, 2016) 121.↩
Renee Gladman, Event Factory (St. Louis: The Dorothy Project 2010) 108.↩
Claire Colebrook, “What Is It Like to Be a Human?” In TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 2.2 (2015) 2.↩
Marquis Bey, The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Gender (University of Minnesota Press 2020) 70.↩
Marquis Bey, The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Gender (University of Minnesota Press 2020) 77. ↩
Claire Colebrook, “What Is It Like to Be a Human? In TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 2.2 (2015) 232.↩
C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (University of Minnesota Press 2017) 7, 11. ↩
V Varun Chaudhry and Susan Stryker, “Ask a Feminist: Susan Stryker Discusses Trans Studies, Trans Feminism, and a More Trans Future with V Varun Chaudhry,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 47.3 (2022) 796.↩
Man, Bewilderment, & Anima-Literary Pedagogies
In a Curriculum Inquiry article published just months before the release of his first book, Nathan Snaza mobilizes a powerful critique of the Western liberal education complex as one telically driven by the settler-colonial impulse to universalize a specific rendition or genre of the human that Sylvia Wynter calls “Man”—a hegemonic mode of the human subject predicated on biorational sensibility and solipsism. For Snaza, a productive response to this impulse demands a shift away from appeals to multiculturalism or post-racialism and toward “dispersed and even antagonistic modes of performing the human otherwise” that will activate the potential for a new epoch in which Man no longer overrepresents the whole of humanity.1 Traversing Wynter’s thought in concert with public syllabus projects that address discrete manifestations of neocolonial violence—such as the murder of Michael Brown and pipeline construction in Standing Rock, ND—Snaza does not allow the problem of Man to eclipse modes of being human embedded in the black and indigenous communities directly impacted. On the latter he writes articulately:
“Land is agential, and the human is one of its effects. Thus, what the #StandingRockSyllabus offers is a conception of the human as land, and a way of critiquing the racialized violence of the settler state that interprets it intersectionally through considerations of corporate extraction and dispossession, and problems of ecology, health and biopolitics.”2 Land and this mode of being human are entangled if not coextensive in their mutual capacity for agency and their propensity to respond to violences committed against them. I take this article and its poignant human-as-land example as a companion to Animate Literacies: Literature, Affect, and the Politics of Humanism—a scholarly text investigating nonhumanist ways of imagining relationality in conjunction with a theory of literacy as “a contact zone [in] which an animal, including a human animal ([not] a selfsame, bounded biological entity let alone a disembodied liberal individual with a halo of consciousness), is entangled with a host of matters” (60). In this zone, Man cannot eclipse the whole of potential humanisms, let alone the agency of nonhuman actants with which we are all entangled.
Last academic year, I had the momentous opportunity to teach both an introductory literary criticism course and an African American Studies seminar with Animate Literacies as one of many metacognitive stimuli. Haunting, timely, and insightful, thinking with Snaza through the course-building process opened up new avenues for questioning the ethics of assenting to an institutionalized, “seminal” canon or implicitly arguing a case for black humanity-cum-rationality in syllabi that ultimately promote Man as our premier genre of the human. I welcomed the challenge to rethink my understanding of literature as an object of study as well as the assimilationist rhetoric of many figures in early black cultural history. But here was a symptom of the problem: I shuddered at the thought of isolating a part from the whole precisely because that part had come to stand in for the whole. I came to realize that European strands of literary criticism and appeals to black rational humanism were indeed overrepresented in my earliest encounters with these fields. What would an introduction to the study of literature be without the critical methods generated and prioritized by the Western liberal education complex? What becomes of the study of African American life without claims to reason and scholarly legibility to ground black folks in the hu(M)an that our present, secular mode of humanities dictates?
There had to be some compromise in the ponderous task of building a course that takes the stakes of Animate Literacies seriously in combatting the overrepresentation of Man and his epistemic brainchildren in the humanities classroom. Indeed, for me, the stakes were higher than ever. My classroom no longer seemingly transported students outside the world to observe it with fresh eyes from above. That façade dropped, and my classroom became a battlefield in a world hell-bent on sustaining the patrimony of Man. Literature, along with my disciplined reason, had collapsed into the spoils of war. But this literature to which I had been accustomed was merely a part of the whole of what literature is and what it could be. My classroom needed to embrace the multiversality of literature. It needed to be more readily open to what Snaza compellingly describes as bewilderment—“an affective condition of disorientation that happens when disciplined attention fails and we become aware of the more-than-human literacy situation that swirls around us and in us” (9). Bewilderment would convoy my attempt to decenter European literary criticism and assign writers or critics embedded in racial, gendered, and colonial literary histories, in particular. This allowed both student and teacher to be self-reflective and to bask in the totality surrounding them— as a metacognitive approach to learning via what Megan Watkins describes as “accumulating affects”—without allowing said accumulation to be contained by Man’s humanizing assemblages.3 Snaza put it most eloquently his third chapter, a profound meditation initiated by Toni Morrison’s Beloved, “I am entirely enmeshed within the object [I] am trying to track: my perspective is resolutely partial, entangled, situated. Indeed, this entanglement between my self and literature is such that I could not exist as I am without it” (24). To read, then, is also to inhabit multiple worlds and systems, bodies and forces, bewilderingly without contradiction and to irrupt “ecology of actants” that relentlessly irrupt into us.
Animate Literacies is a rich and daring, eloquent and provocative text that will haunt you in the best of ways—literary scholar or not. I could sing a few more praise-songs for it—many of which are in the key of “Chant Down Babylon”—but I wish to express in this capacity the extent to which Snaza’s book represents, for me, both an affirmation of my cynicism toward the humanizing (or civilizing) mission of Eurocentric literary curricula and a touchstone for unthinking the rote methods by which that mission has delimited what literature is, what it can do, and whom it serves. Snaza introduces a new theory of literature rather than a new literary theory, echoing in large part Sylvia Wynter’s conviction that a genre of the human predicated storytelling—homo narrans—might stage the conditions necessary for a new epoch disentangled from the ontoepistemic solipsism of Man-2 and reveling in what Glissant would call the “non-totalizing totality” of beings. I want to further embrace the sense of bewilderment wherein literature harbors more questions than answers; wherein disciplinary ground ruptures and leaves us with a disorienting totality; wherein literacy is not a matter of epistemic standardization or reading comprehension but a multiverse of possibility that animates otherwise futures and activates new modes of being human (163).
We might turn to Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s “Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism” and her 2020 book Becoming Human for further elaboration regarding the processes whereby material or conceptual dimensions of the racialized human reflect discursive apparatuses producing what Snaza calls a porous “contact zone” between animals, forces, plants, and objects. For Jackson, this contact zone would harbor possibility while attesting to the hylomorphic processes in which “the fleshly being of blackness is experimented with as if it were infinitely malleable lexical and biological matter—a form where form shall not hold—such that blackness is produced as human, subhuman, suprahuman at once.”4 This zone seems crucial for thinking relationally about the non-totalizing totality without reifying the racial-colonial technologies at work in the Western liberal education complex, as well as, in my scholarship, for exploring the possibilities and dangers of thinking with ontoepistemologies forged in an antiblack world. I would argue that Jackson’s, Wynter’s, and certainly Snaza’s work task us not only to imagine new modes of the human but also new ontometaphysical possibilities as we inhabit what Françoise Vergès calls the “racial Capitalocene.”5 How might Animate Literacies push us toward the end of the world as the end of Man’s ontometaphysical domain?
Teaching with AL resulted in two dynamically revelatory and challenging semesters that forced me to bracket the natural attitude toward literature as a fixed expressive object, to model that bracketing for students who were tasked to suspend their natural attitudes toward literature and the world in (neo)colonial modernity, and to constantly situate myself in productive disorientation. That is, disorientation as a black, queer, femme body at the helm of a classroom in which bodies like mine had become sites of retroactive violence, possibility, and scholarly inquiry; and disorientation as a subject faced with the limitations of their disciplined logics, their slice of the world, when observing elements of the bewildering totality—much of which is not readily apparent. This echoes critic Michael Bibler’s analysis of Kara Walker, for whom “disorientation—the feeling of being immersed in the images without recourse to a clear map through them—enacts the challenge to linearity.”6 In taking literacy as an “animate practice” (Snaza, 4) concerning even nonhuman animals or things, we are pushed to despoil the foundations of philosophical, theological, and literary anthropology, thereby abandoning Man’s claims to transparency, linearity, and stability. Even so, Snaza does not take this pursuit as an idealistic solution to the imbrication of coloniality and late-stage capitalism in academe that discredits post-Enlightenment modes of literacy, prevents many from pursuing their interest in expressive forms, maintains the economic hegemony of academicians, and inhibits access to general education for millions unable to even graduate high school (141). Nonetheless, in becoming collectively disoriented or haunted by bewilderment, I would suggest that we take a few steps closer toward the “Third Event” that Wynter posits as a kind of birth through the death of Man’s sensorial coordinates to be structured by art and language.7
Snaza’s framework, in part, teaches us lessons about the agential literacies overlooked by anthropocentric thinkers; though, it also indexes things that appear not to be animate or perform animation differently. Things-in-themselves push us to ask: What is literacy without the hegemony of “conscious” actants? How might things read us, and how might our attempts at reading fall apart when we turn toward things? We should ask these questions without rejecting the noumenality that prevents our total understanding of things animated independent of human observation. Seemingly impossible or bombastically speculative, a certain ethics is at play, nonetheless, when we accept the variability of animation without rejecting noumenality or hierarchizing animation as such. To do so, in my view, would be to adopt the tools of Man while partially demolishing his house. Snaza is no initiate to this issue, as he acknowledges in the fourteenth chapter: “[G]etting into the college classroom to closely read literature—and even doing that with an openness toward othering as an end in itself—often requires epistemicide” (141). If the liberal educational complex disengages non-anthropocentric literacies and thereby engages in a subtle yet violent game of epistemicide, then the “scenes of affective collision among entities and agencies” (9) in our classroom demand sustained attention to the animate other without extricating from or projecting ourselves onto it, like Man. Snaza lingers of the subject of the “thing” particularly in relation to Beloved, taking cues from Katie King’s articulation that “things are processes as well as subjects and objects, that they are simultaneously the location for dispute and the subjects of dispute as well as the outcomes of dispute.”8 Literature is one disputed and disputing “thing” for this text; though, I am also compelled by its suggestion that Wynter’s Man is a fiction “written in and as bodies through diffuse humanizing assemblages” (34) that work to disavow the modes of being cultivated by black, brown, queer/trans, and femme collectives innovating possibilities for the (supra)human. Such possibilities, in my view, coincide not only with “alternative ways of performing humanity” (35) but with alternative, imaginative, nonlinear worlds that offer new metaphysical systems and eschew the solipsistic positivism of Man-2. As my current book project triangulates post-Wynterian thought, black queer theology, and speculative literature and performance, I wonder how this shift in attention from subjects to worlds might coincide with Snaza’s ongoing intellectual ambitions or those of Jayna Brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Bedour Alagraa, and An Yountae among others.
I sense in Animate Literacies an intellectual promise and cunning that overwhelmed me when I first encountered M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing (2005). For Alexander, not unlike Julietta Singh’s notion of “future hospitalities”9 or Snaza’s “affective attunement [as] love” (140), shared vulnerability is an ontological dimension of those left in the afterlife of the “Crossing,” begetting not a predisposition to domination but, phenomenally, a sensation of empathy that positions black life in the blur of objects, subjects, non-human beings and intangible forces approximating a Glissantian echo-monde—the world of relational resonances in totality—conveying bewilderment and accumulated terror, not unlike Jackson’s ontologized plasticization or what I call elsewhere “black flesh-in-this-world” (Boyd 2).10 Pedagogies of Crossing is “meant to evoke/invoke the [dark history of the] crossroads, the space of convergence and endless possibility; the place where we put down and discard the unnecessary in order to pick up that which is necessary.”11 This rapturous convergence in her theology of the Crossing parallels the bios/mythoi hybridity of Wynter’s homo narrans as a convergence of living matter and pure possibility: “an expansive memory refusing to be housed in any single place, bound by the limits of time, enclosed within the outlines of a map, encased in the physicality of body, or imprisoned as exhibit.”12 Embodied memory refusing singular presence, essence, or episteme, those touched by the Crossing (and, perhaps, literature) inhabit multiple worlds or none at all. In my reading of Animate Literacies, Snaza is most provocative not only when his analyses sync up with lessons the Crossing has taught us, but also when reading indexes infinite possibilities to be, to become, and to animate across worlds into which literature offers an exquisite glimpse—however fleeting or opaque.
Nathan Snaza, “Curriculum Against the State: Sylvia Wynter, the Human, and Futures of Curriculum Studies.” Curriculum Inquiry 49.1 (2019) 130.↩
Nathan Snaza, “Curriculum Against the State: Sylvia Wynter, the Human, and Futures of Curriculum Studies.” Curriculum Inquiry 49.1 (2019): 138.↩
Megan Watkins, “Desiring Recognition, Accumulating Affect.” In The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Duke University Press, 2010) 270.↩
Lauren Wilcox, “Black Feminism at the End of the World: An Interview with Zakiyyah Iman Jackson.” International Politics Reviews (2022) 4.↩
Françoise Vergès, “Racial Capitalocene,” in Futures of Black Radicalism, edited by G.T. Johnson and A. Lubin (Verso Books, 2017): 74.↩
Michael P. Bibler, “The Flood Last Time: “Muck” and the Uses of History in Kara Walker’s “Rumination” on Katrina.” Journal of American Studies 44.3 (2010) 503.↩
Bedour Alagraa and Sylvia Wynter. “What Will Be the Cure?: A Conversation.” Offshoot Journal, 2021.↩
King, Katie. Networked Reenactments (Duke University Press, 2012) 2.↩
Julietta Singh, “Future hospitalities.” Cultural Critique 95 (2017) 212↩
Boyd, Brenton. “A Queer Visitation: Black Unbelonging and the Gothic Phenomenology of Flesh.” liquid blackness: a journal of black aesthetics (2022) 2. ↩
M. Jacqui Aleander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics,
Memory, and the Sacred (Duke University Press, 2006) 23. ↩
M. Jacqui Aleander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics,
Memory, and the Sacred (Duke University Press, 2006): 314.↩
11.22.22 | Nathan Snaza
On Anticipation as Crossing: A response to Brenton Boyd
In November of 2021, I was an invited panelist at the Critical Caribbean Studies Symposium in celebration of the work and legacy of Sylvia Wynter. I want to begin my response to this Syndicate symposium on Animate Literacies by quoting from the beginning of my talk that day:
As I have spent these last weeks with the responses to Animate Literacies gathered by Julietta, whose introduction spells out so beautifully how I cannot separate thinking from caring, critique from the work of building, sustaining, and tending worlds, my overwhelming response is a kind of thankfulness. I am thankful that the six respondents have found something of interest in my book, and I am thankful for the ways (always plural) their generosity returns my thinking to me in unexpected ways. Being read with such care—and from standpoints that reveal different foci, questions, problems—feels like an invitation to think more, to think with.
I begin here both because what I’ve just said sets the tone for all of my responses, but also because the two other panelists with me that day were Alexis Pauline Gumbs (more on her in a moment) and Brenton Boyd, which is to say that I met Brenton thinking with them, and left the virtual conference that day basking in the afterglow of their remarks, which made me solicitous to keep the conversation going. I was therefore thrilled when they agreed to participate in this symposium.
Animate Literacies, as Brenton succinctly puts it, “introduces a new theory of literature,” but they rightly hold off on that claim until working through my engagement with Wynter’s thought, and in particular her distinction between human and Man (as a specific overrepresentation of the human), and her consideration of the role of storytelling therein. This allows Brenton to zero in on two things that I want to amplify here. The first is Brenton’s claim that the “classroom became a battlefield in a world hell-bent on sustaining the patrimony of Man.” Rejecting the inherent goodness—or even the neutrality—of any pedagogical space is a crucial move, I think, in trying to understand not just what’s “wrong” with literature, but more importantly in trying to figure out what it is about storytelling—and our collective, improvisational tarrying with its complexities—that continues to matter as we angle toward worlds after Man. The literature classroom is indeed a site of agonism, and Wynter’s thought allows me to reframe the common justifications for the study of literature—many of which take some form of “literature makes us more human”—as themselves expressions of colonial violence.
Brenton notes, on this score, a resonance between my work and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s, which is work that I am also always thinking-with. While Jackson and I differently stress things in our uses of “humanizing assemblages” as a concept, we are both highly interested in how practices or genres of the human are “sociogenically” entangled with stories. The story/human relation is always multiple, complex, shifting. The literary classroom practice tends toward the colonial overrepresentation of the human by Man, but there is always more going on. What I call bewilderment appears at that threshold. The pedagogical question becomes, How do we enable—by thinking-with—each other to feel out and tend (in the sense of care for) these other(wise) possibilities?
Brenton meditates on M. Jacqui Alexander’s work—which I cite in Animate Literacies—to think about how bewilderment relates to crossing as affective dis-/reorientations. I’ve learned a lot about how to read Alexander by reading Alexis Pauline Gumbs, whose M. Archive is a series of worlds (she calls theme scenes) that poetically unfurl from specific quotations in Pedagogies of Crossing. Gumbs’s scenes are nuanced responses to—which is to say animations of—things in Alexander’s prose that don’t often command attention from disciplined readers focusing on conceptual clarity and logical rigor. Alexis feels out what else is happening in Alexander’s prose, and conjures “crossing” not really as a concept one can cite or abstractly define so much as a feeling, an affective gravity toward which speculative worldmaking tends. Brenton ends their response by noting that my book “is most provocative not only when [my] analyses sync up with lessons the Crossing has taught us, but also when reading indexes infinite possibilities to be, to become, and to animate across worlds into which literature offers an exquisite glimpse—however fleeing or opaque.”
I love this sentence, and I think it begs a cluster of questions about how worlds take shape, how they shape us, and what potential exists for us to shape worlds beyond Man. In placing Animate Literacies in such intimate conversation with Pedagogies of Crossing, Brenton anticipates directions toward which I’m thinking now, and reminds me just how much Alexander’s notion of “crossing” has shaped my sense of pedagogy, perhaps at least as much as Wynter has. In the Introduction to Pedagogies of Crossing, Alexander notes that such pedagogies “disturb and reassemble the inherited divides of Sacred and secular, the embodied and the disembodied, for instance, pushing us to take seriously the dimensions of spiritual labor that make the sacred and the disembodied palpably tangible and, therefore, constitutive of the lived experience of millions of women and men in different parts of the world.” What Brenton reminds me is that while my attention to materialities and politics in Animate Literacies is always already an attempt to think-with Alexander, I might attend much more carefully to what she here calls “spiritual labor.” I’m trying to do that now, but it’s not something I can do on my own. This is why when I found myself on a panel with Alexis and Brenton to celebrate Wynter, I knew that in sharing my thinking/thanking, I was also being offered the gift of listening, reading, and studying with them.