Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium: Panel 3, Derrick Spires & J. David Cisneros - Response by Ben Bascom

Friday, March 18, 2016

posted under by Roman Friedman
[On March 14, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, highlighting the research projects of our current Faculty Fellows. Panel 3 of the day included Derrick Spires, Assistant Professor of English, and J. David Cisneros, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication. Below is a response to this panel from Ben Bascom (English).]

Citizens as Verbs: The Politics of Belonging in Nineteenth-Century and Contemporary American Citizenship
Written by Ben Bascom (Department of English)

As part of the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium held on Monday, March 14, Derrick Spires (English) and J. David Cisneros (Communication and Latina/Latino Studies) shared portions of their current projects. Their fortuitous combination on this panel illuminated a series of overlapping interests, particularly highlighting how their scholarship reimagines the cultural work of citizenship as a workable ideal within the lives of marginalized groups—either from those outright disenfranchised as black men in antebellum America or those demarcated as transgressors of law through rhetorics of illegal immigration. Although they focus on disparate contexts and time periods, both offered insightful readings of belonging in the United States through focusing on citizenship as a cultural value that both contests and revises the state’s buttressing of rigid legal definitions. In this blog post, I will recap major portions of their arguments and illuminate a few questions that their work provokes.

Spires, a scholar of nineteenth-century African-American literature, titled his presentation “On Violence and Citizenship in Frances E. W. Harper’s American, 1854–1861” and in it he demonstrates how black nineteenth-century American writers pulled from histories of violence in order to produce revolutionary understandings of citizenship and belonging. Examining references to Margaret Garner in the poems of Frances E. W. Harper—the author of the first short story published by an African American—Spires shows how Harper appeals to scenes of violence in her writings in order to envision revolutionary, as opposed to sentimentalized, modes of citizenship. Harper conceived of a revolutionary politics based on everyday life, Spires contends, through mobilizing a radical sensibility that resisted a politics of right feelings as promoted by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. The thrust of Stowe’s argument is that sentimental representations of slavery can influence readers to “feel right,” in her words, through inducing them to shed tears of sympathy for the plight of the “lowly.” Instead of this model, Harper wishes to speak back to the subjecting and abjecting powers of slavery, actively reinterpreting the past and imagining new possibilities.

For Spires, Harper provides a crucial case study to think about black theories of citizenship because of the subtle differences between her 1854 and 1857 editions of Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. Where the earlier version includes poems that sentimentalize enslaved bodies as objects in need, the 1857 version moves to instead give voice to previously erased subjects: in the case of a poem about Margaret Garner, Harper actively gives voice to her calculated decision to pursue violent means to keep her children from a life of slavery. Quoting bell hooks, Spires calls this “the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice.” As such, the 1857 version works against dominant anti-slavery work, refusing to bridge an experiential gap between how it feels to be enslaved to instead expose the structuring devices that naturalize and normalize such dynamics. 

Between the years of Harper’s editions, Spires reminds, a series of violent encounters with slavery circulated in the print public sphere, from stories about John Brown and “Bleeding Kansas” to massive slave uprisings all over the southern United States, and of course to Margaret Garner freeing her child from a future life of slavery. In his overall project, Spires examines how sites of violence become understood as scenes of revolutionary practice in the writings of nineteenth-century African Americans, and so he collates these violent events under the heading of “the spirit of 1856” to associate black American responses to the limits of citizenship and the bondage of slavery with a metonymic connection to Patrick Henry’s iconic “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech from the era designated “the spirit of 1776.” Through arguing that Harper and other African-American writers were attuned to “the spirit of 1856,” Spires makes visible the ways sentiment and sentimentality hold at bay determinations to violent actions, the possibility of which disallows revolutionary change and possibility.

Spires had begun his presentation by distinguishing between the what and the how of citizenship, specifically clarifying that he is interested in a practice-based notion of citizenship in antebellum U.S. political culture that allows for the work of someone like Harper—doubly disenfranchised as a black woman—to be imagined as an engaged citizen. While it would be easy to locate within the canon of U.S. state and federal law how citizenship has historically been reserved for white (often property-owning) men, Spires instead is interested in how African Americans sought to fashion lives that expand and contest such static notions. Resisting conceptions of citizenship as a fully formed, self-evident category, Spires theorizes citizenship as a participatory practice, capaciously open to those who are ostensibly defined in negative relation.

Similarly wishing to trouble normative conceptions of citizenship, J. David Cisneros in “The Cruel Optimism of ‘Coming out of the Shadows’: Affect, Emotion, and Immigration Rhetoric” examines new imaginaries of citizenship as propelled through contemporary activist and protest work. Building from his current project, “Feeling Citizenship: Migration, Mobility, and the Movement of Affect,” Cisneros examines how feelings about immigration not only saturate the public sphere but also surface and rupture in significant ways—ways that both trouble and reify the state’s interests. The particular archive that he uses comes from the “Coming out of the Shadows” campaign, a series of videos and texts where undocumented residents publicly declare their outsider status with relation to the U.S. nation-state’s protocols of citizenship. Undocumented youth helped begin this project, Cisneros explains, and they drew from LGBTQ discourses around closetedness to highlight the vectors of queerness that inhere to the state’s interactions with policed populations.

The “Coming out of the Shadow” narrative emphasizes the tremendously brave act that is to publically declare one’s precarious status as an “illegal” resident, unprotected by the legal rights, recognitions, and prerogatives of citizenship. The conventions of this genre emphasize an emotionally powerful story that narrates an individual’s journey to the U.S., struggles to fit in and the overcoming of trials, and finally a gesture toward future hopes and aspirations. In one such video, an 18-year-old Colombian living in Queens, NYC declares her desire to become a teacher to bridge achievement gaps while simultaneously lamenting how her status as undocumented by the federal government prohibits her doing so. Such narratives transition from the negative affects of shame, fear, and anxiety to pride, empowerment, and dedication. Key to such narratives is the validation of a “good” citizen that undocumented individuals already are—indeed, that they are markedly different from the image media portray. “Next time you hear a bad story of an undocumented immigrant,” she concludes, “think of me.”

To trouble such hopeful associations, Cisneros suggests that even as these narratives may help shift public attitudes and emotions, they also rely on an optimism that might appropriately be understood as cruel. Indeed, Cisneros calls “Coming Out of the Shadows” a textbook example of what Lauren Berlant has equipped “cruel optimism.” “[C]ruel optimism exists,” Berlant avers, “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Clarifying this point, Berlant goes on to describe this mode of interacting with the world as “a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic.” Within the rhetoric and lived-reality of extra-legal immigration, one’s desire for recognition from the very state formation that articulates one’s illegality further entrenches the vulnerability of such lives. Even as a politics of recognition may shift public opinion, the normative structures of belonging still impact their material lives, especially when desire for attachment and recognition actually opens one up to more precarious living.

Cisneros notes that national belonging and citizenship is the primary form of attachment in these “coming out” narratives. While such desires for citizenship, belonging, and normativity attempt to de-stigmatize illegality, they illustrate an investment in an unreciprocal relation, one where recognition is a one-sided endeavor. “Inside my heart, I feel I am American,” one narrative asserts: “I just wish I would feel loved back at some point.” But the U.S. nation-state is far more hardened in the heart to be moved by such declarations of feelings, Cisneros reminds, as the breakup of families have been key to the mass of deportations under President Obama’s administration. Instead, the nation-state has the power to indefinitely defer citizenship, refusing the appeal to feeling and recognition.

As an example that resists this self-defeating relationship of cruel optimism, Cisneros concluded his talk by a reading of Stephanie Camba’s “Walang papeles, walang takot! (No papers, no fear),” a short online text that challenges normative forms of citizenship. The story Stephanie provides doesn’t seek to prove she’s a good immigrant, nor does her narrative detail personal achievements, but instead she expresses a sense of precarity and a refusal to defer to “a system that ranks us in order and does not see us for our human qualities and complexities.” This text doesn’t pinpoint illegality as a problem that needs to be solved, but rather points at how the state’s subjection produces the very conditions it poses itself as being couched to solve. This example negotiates the normative attachments of citizenship itself without proceeding toward “cruel optimism,” interrupting the system while offering what Cisneros calls a “wary optimism”—a critical cruel optimism that refuses the self-defeated effort at recognition to instead refuse the interpellation of state power. Cisneros concluded by wondering if this mode of wary optimism could imagine something beyond citizenship, producing a new possibility outside the dynamics of state recognition that actually ground the problem in the first place.

Such questions are particularly resonant in the year of a presidential election where discourses of outright exclusion, the demonization of marginalized groups, and the active violence at political spectacle are not merely tolerated by the Republican frontrunner but encouraged. What I gain from both Spires and Cisneros is an invigorated perspective regarding the need to continually work toward justice when it comes to examining the limits and constraints of citizenship, specifically to think of citizenship as a verb—an action to be shared and extended, shaped and transformed—as opposed to an exclusive noun to be policed and normalized.


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