Realist Ecstasy: Religion, Race, and Performance in American Literature, Lindsay V. Reckson’s sweeping account of the bodily and affective repertoire of enthusiasm, ecstasy, (dis)possession, and inspiration that both constitutes and fractures realism’s representational terrain, gestures out.
This is not surprising given the crucial role that gesture, as analytic and practice, plays in the project. As she summons an expansive cast—which ranges from W. E. B Du Bois to Stephen Crane to Nella Larsen, among others—and coordinates an equally capacious archive—one that includes writing by Anna Julia Cooper, James Mooney’s photographic, filmic, and sonic experiments within the nascent field of ethnography, and embodied movement—Reckson excavates what she describes as the “gestural and performative idioms of religious ecstasy” that, together, (re)work realism. These practices take shape in syntactical structures, choreographed rituals, literary genres, and modern technologies, populating what she describes as the “dramas of realist ecstasy” (2). Whether it be the comportment of indigenous dancers who invite us to see realism as reenactment or “the turn of the century’s promiscuous forms of button pressing” that she attends to in her study of the camera and the electric chair, the gestures that Reckson constellates loosen realism’s regulatory workings and illuminate its constitutive contradictions (186).
After all, as Reckson reminds us in the earliest chapters of the book, realism’s representational wheelhouse was in large part animated by a voracious desire to compel everything and everybody to legibility in the name of social management, regulation, and the utter will to order the seemingly disordered modern landscape. Across each chapter, Reckson shows how every effort attempt to classify, quantify, and capture is shadowed by the “strange” chaos that it sought to identify and contain. Importantly, and critical to Realist Ecstasy’s charge, this “strange” terrain is deeply racialized. Indeed, one of Realist Ecstasy’s key interventions is the notion of Jim Crow secularism, the affective terrain that in its attempts to protect and consolidate whiteness violently disavows the excessive, the erratic, the errant, and the wayward as the provenance of the racial “other.” In other words, “realism is everywhere haunted by the frenzy it tries to contain and forget,” a haunting that throws a wrench into secularism’s myths of historical progression and linear time (234). Rather than naturalizing a secular view of history in which the past is distinct from the present, or shoring up racialized boundaries, Realist Ecstasy hunts down the specters that realism depends upon. In so doing, realism is exposed as a project that is as always already aligned with the what she describes as the “frenzied bodily semiotics of Jim Crow,” a domain of deep feeling that sought to govern the racialized terms of bodily transcendence (234).
If gesture in Realist Ecstasy is part of a choreographic repertoire that exposes realism as iterative and performative, then gesture also emerges as the book’s organizing principle and methodology. That is, if gesture is a signal term and practice within Realist Ecstasy, then it also helps us to think through the way in which the book itself is deeply collaborative, richly citational, and endlessly generous. This is what Lindsay Reckson, in her response to Elizabeth Freeman, elaborates as a methodological imperative that “insists upon collective praxis and refuses the colonial order of disciplines.” As it cracks apart and disassembles the fictions that realism depends upon, this book extends many invitations, encouraging us readers and fellow critics to think beside her as we also (re)consider the archive of realism that we think we know so well. Reckson names this methodological orientation “besideness,” a key term that allows her to summon a cross section of scholars, fields, and disciplines. Besideness, she also notes, cuts across the fictions of progress and autonomy that were central to the turn of the century’s regulatory logic, but also the modern academy. What I am trying to point out here, and what the generous and brilliant contributors to this forum are responding to, is the way that Realist Ecstasy enacts and encourages the alternate modes of being together that each chapter calls forth. The five essays in this symposium are a testament to the critical work that Realist Ecstasy’s gestural terrain activates, whether signaled by a citation, a quiet textual hail that takes shape as an open question, or a nod to some future provocation that hasn’t been announced.
The first essay, by Elizabeth Freeman, begins by registering the productive overlaps between her recent book Beside You in Time and Realist Ecstasy. As Freeman notes, that she and Reckson were unknowingly writing “beside” each other is a function of the contrapuntal time that is written into realism’s archive, a time that queer studies and performance studies work to unearth. Freeman’s essay draws out the interplay between what she describes as “forms of relationality” and the “genres of relationality” that Reckson attends to, genres like theater but also photography and realism itself, as she tracks the stakes of Realist Ecstasy for queer studies, a field that she notes has often had a difficult time sitting beside religious discourse. For Ashon Crawley, thinking with Realist Ecstasy returns him to foundational writers—from Fred Moten to Ida B. Wells—as he considers how “being moved,” or more precisely the renunciation of shared collectivity, is at the heart of the myth of the self-possessed (white) liberal subject.
In “To Read Beside: Of Ecstasy, of Encounter,” Kelina Gotman takes hold of Realist Ecstasy’s invitation and begins to imagine and reconstruct the chorus of interlocutors who create the score for Reckson’s work, the texts and archives that she carries with her. Gotman stages and in many cases pursues the series of invitations that Reckson offers. The stakes of what she describes as the book’s “contrapuntal moments” are “a way of working away from explanation, extraction, and towards the rhythmic sway of observations.” It is precisely in this spirit that Allison Curseen attends to what she describes as the “energetic materiality that attends ecstatic black bodies.” As she visits texts that Reckson takes up, from Nella Larsen’s Quicksand to W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Coming of John, Curseen explores the “frequency with which the rolling refusals, social communions, queer reunions and otherwise collectivities held open in realist ecstasy is meditated by material and metaphorical invocations to the queerly seductive and dangerously powerful elements of nature.” Finally, as she unspools the ways that Realist Ecstasy gestures toward Black feminist practice, Erica Edwards considers how Black feminist performance also registers the cracks in the “secular fallacy” that is at the heart of American realism. Edwards receives Reckson’s invitation and extends it into the twentieth century, illuminating how what she describes as Black feminism’s “antic forms” are also always already emerging in deep grooves where (as Reckson puts it) “ecstasy abuts terror” (234). That Realist Ecstasy, a book whose center of gravity is the turn of the twentieth century, moves well into the late twentieth century speaks to the kinds of historic recurrence and haunting that Reckson argues are at work in realism and which Edwards show are constitutive of an “antic” glitch that interrupts secular progressive time and conditions Black feminist productions that remain intransigent to realism’s arrest.
Each contributor to this symposium takes up at least one of the archival, theoretical, conceptual, or textual gestures that Reckson offers. Together they “linger,” “tarry with,” think “beside,” and engage in the deeply collaborative project that Realist Ecstasy’s gestures invite us into.