Symposium Introduction

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.

Brenton Boyd

Response

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. 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.” 

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. 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 into “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.” 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”. 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.” 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.

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.” 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” 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). 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.” 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.” 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

    Nathan Snaza

    Reply

    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: 

    I am reminded of the linguistic and conceptual relations between thinking and thanking, at least in Germanic languages. Because I can no longer think about anything without engaging with Sylvia Wynter’s words, her phrases, her sentences that pursue expansive grammars capable of holding together so many disparate and difficult things without ever giving in to homogenizing violence, I wonder what it would mean to say that I offer all of my thought as thanks for what Wynter has given us. Here again, though, I worry about this “I,” because I constantly feel myself thinking in relation to others thinking in relation to Wynter. And today I want to celebrate them too, you, us. Thinking-with is thanking.

    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

Kandice Chuh

Response

November 29, 2022, 1:00 am

Aparna Mishra Tarc

Response

December 6, 2022, 1:00 am

Asilia Franklin-Phipps

Response

December 13, 2022, 1:00 am

Greg Seigworth

Response

December 20, 2022, 1:00 am

Maura Finkelstein

Response

December 27, 2022, 1:00 am

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