NARRATOR: This is a production of Cornell University.
MARGO NATALIE CRAWFORD: Welcome, everyone, to the last lecture in our 2011 Comparative Ethnic Studies series. It is my pleasure to introduce our speaker.
Sharon Holland unsettles. In the foreword to Black Queer Studies, she writes, quote, "Home is a four-letter word. And the practice of Black queer/quare-- Q-U-A-R-E-- studies embodies all of its double meanings," end quote. Sharon Holland's work dislocates the home tied to African-American studies, Native American studies, Black feminist studies, and queer studies. She unsettles.
In Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds: The African Diaspora in Indian Country, she begins the task with a new travel narrative to, quote, "a place where the Indian and the African haunt the edges of colonial history and herstory." She unsettles.
In Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity, as she explains her use of Toni Morrison's Unspeakable Things Unspoken, she reminds us, quote, "that ultimately Morrison called for critics to transgress boundaries, to undertake a type of travel that necessitated another kind of understanding, that retrieving both literature and imaginary subjects from a space that is simultaneously spiteful, loud, and quiet is necessary and dangerous work." She unsettles.
Her necessary and dangerous work has led to the forthcoming book The Erotic Life of Racism. This forthcoming study analyzes the last decade of humanity's scholarship on race. We, we who have had the pleasure of reading parts of The Erotic Life of Racism, eagerly await this necessary and dangerous work that unsettles Black feminist theory, critical race theory, and queer theory.
She writes, quote, "What aspects of feminist thought, especially Black feminist thought, had to be eliminated in order for the erotic life of queer theory to become legible? The erotic life of racism redirects our attention to desire so that it is no longer free of racism." These are still her words, not mine. "But rather embedded within it, so that when we think of our erotic life, we are always already thinking about a racialized territory." She makes the legible, legible. She unsettles.
Sharon Holland's works include Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity (2000), which won the Lora Romero First Book Prize from the American Studies Association, and the coauthored volume Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds: The African Diaspora in Indian Country (2006). The Erotic Life of Racism is forthcoming from Duke University Press.
She is Professor of English, African and African-American Studies, and Women's Studies at Duke University. It is my pleasure to welcome Sharon Holland.
SHARON HOLLAND: Wow, that was an incredible introduction. I'm honored. And I hope I can live up to at least half of it this afternoon. Thank you for coming out on what is a gorgeous day. I'm sure we'd all better be in the quad. So I'll try to be as brief but hopefully entertaining as I can be.
This paper that I'm going to give today is just, basically, entirely speculative in so many ways. And it covers the beginnings of the next book project that I'm working on that's loosely entitled-- well, the real title is just Perishment. And I have a subtitle. I'm not sure I'm all that happy about it. So anyway, the title here is Human/Animal, Black/Indian. And I have two epigraphs.
The animal looks at us. And we are naked before it. Thinking, perhaps, begins there. [FOREIGN LANGUAGE], the animal that therefore I am. Second
Epigraph. Where else but in this disorganized world would such an encounter be possible? Toni Morrison, A Mercy.
First section, Nemesis. In the revised and expanded edition of The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, originally published in 1988, and about which Alice Walker said, and I quote, "This powerful book will take a lifetime to forget." I'm not sure if that was really faint praise or not.
But Marjorie Spiegel begins to bear a series of always awful and sometimes artful proofs about the relationship. Is this echoing a lot? Sounds like echoing to me. You can hear me? OK. Just want to make sure.
Sometimes artful proofs about the relationship between the suffering. Think Bentham 1789. Think Levinas.
At one point in her critique, Spiegel turns herself to the literary and Sterling L. Brown's 1968 essay Negro Character as Seen by White Authors. While noting the post emancipation shift in the attitude of whites toward their Black counterparts, Brown uses the image of, quote, "the docile mastiff turned rabid mad dog" to draw readers' attention to the stereotyping of Blackness as bestial.
Spiegel then observes that, quote, "In seeing comparisons of Blacks to animals that were so prevalent in the period literature of his study, Brown accepted and, through his response, subsequently strengthened the negative views about animals held by racist authors. Brown's indignation at these offensive books blinded him to the fellow victims of their propaganda," end quote.
Spiegel's assessment pulls in two directions. The first is more obvious, that stereotypes of animals are universally held. The second is more opaque, that Blackness's normative gaze upon the animal therefore prohibits ethical relation. And in an encounter with the animal, enslaved experience can justify dropping the bottom out of the question of Blackness as ethical commitment to the animal other, put another way. This is a fundamental problem to which I will return.
In the course of her examination of animal and human suffering-- and this is an important detail because no moment of comparison in the book opens the possibility of shared pleasure, only pain-- she makes the obligatory nod towards condition and sentiment of the Native American.
Spiegel writes in a chapter on hunting, and I quote, "Notably, traditional culturally intact Native Americans and many other Aboriginal peoples hunted out of real necessity, with respect for and in harmony with the balance of nature. Theirs was not a profane act nor an unconscious attempt to symbolically conquer chaos. Harmony and respect were central to an entire worldview, a view of the universe with which the very lives of Native Americans were in view, from birth until death, and in their philosophy, from death until rebirth," end quote.
Now that's a mouthful. This type of conceptualization of Indian life is not uncommon. And Phil Deloria painstakingly documents how we as, an American culture, arrived as such overwhelming and overarching collective sentiment about Native Americans in his important book Playing Indian.
What I'm interested in for the purposes of this talk and for the aims of my larger project called, tentatively, Perishment: Thoughts at the Intersis of the Human/Animal Distinction is not how or why we arrived at our conclusions about Blacks' and Indians' relationship to the animal, but rather how we might think through these historicized entanglements. I say historicized because views of Indian life and animals are sedimented in a kind of archaic, to borrow from Deloria, historicization of an Indian time before settler colonialism.
Views of Black life and animal solidified during slavery, as Siegel's book relentlessly catalogs. What is interesting about Siegel's front loading of negative Black relation to the animal via Brown's work is that she ends her observations with several quotes in support of her comparative argument. Three of these are pulled from Frederick Douglass and the most famous African-American vegetarian, Dick Gregory. Then he became a food food-itarian, I think, for a while and then moved back to vegetarianism. It's not funny. Not funny.
In particular, the first quote from Douglass's narrative is, and I quote, "There is no denying that slavery had a direct and positive tendency to reduce coarseness and brutality in the treatment of animals, especially those most useful to agricultural industry. Not only the slave, but the horse, the ox, and the mule share the general feeling of indifference to the right naturally engendered by the state-- sorry, by the state of slavery. The master blamed the overseer; the overseer, the slave; and the slave, the horses, oxen, and mules. And violence fell upon the animals as a consequence," end quote.
The nagging question I have is why Spiegel doesn't use their work as evidentiary claim for her argument. Why front load a lack of ethical connection when the literature might tell us otherwise? In the comparative framework I am drawing here, the Black relation to the animal is rendered as a blind spot, impossible because of the machinations of slavery. Indian relation to the animal is naturalized as part of the cultural matrix, universalized to the point of becoming the great Indian chain of being.
To push this argument a little further, I do want to note that I am purposely picking on Spiegel. But my nudging is intentional here, as I believe there is something to be gained from thinking through this opposition between Indian and Black, among Indian, Black, and non-human animal.
Years ago, I wrote an article about Afro-native literature and the importance of thinking through issues of sovereignty and emancipation. I now pick up the loose thread of that argument in order to think through the relationship of these stereotypical views of Black-Indian relation to the non-human animal.
In the literature at least, it seems as if freedom and self-determination are tasks that Indian and Black peoples are not up to accomplishing on their own. Moreover, I want to also note that this fitness for self-government is dependent, not upon the relations among humans per se, but mired in one's relationship to the non-human animal, making the present day question of the animal absolutely important to the articulation of aspects of sovereignty and freedom constitutive of Indian and Black life, respectively.
Taking one more glance at Spiegel, in the same chapter on hunting, where she gives praise, specious though it might be, to Indian life ways, she also states rather offhandedly, quote, "Hunters may pay up to $50,000 to legally kill an endangered polar bear in Canada, purchasing a hunting license from a Native American tribe that peddles them for cash," end quote.
So much for the peace, love, and coconuts argument about native culture which ends the chapter. Here, the beautiful fiction of Indian essence can smack in the face over the issue of sovereignty. When it comes time to self-determine, the Indigenous body is a mere peddler, a black market capitalist. End quote. I mean, that's not end quote. I actually said that. So, too, this is what happens when you're too proud to get those bifocals.
So, too, does Black life falter on the wake of the emancipation. As Spiegel quotes Brown's opinion that, "In freedom, they are beasts," end quote. The twin images of the sovereign and the beast are brought to bear here in a stunning kaleidoscopic interplay. This art resonates with my larger fourth book project, Perishment project, as I endeavor to expose a global conversation about sovereignty and vile power, the intellectual work in Native Studies that should inform it.
For the purposes of today's lecture, I hope to understand this connection among Black, Indian, and non-human animal as it is drawn and Toni Morrison's A Mercy. How many readers here of A Mercy? OK. A peculiar, pithy, but dense homage to relationships among peoples in the fledging nation circa 1690.
But first a bit on sovereignty and freedom. After the 1871 congressional decision to suspend treaty making practices with Indigenous peoples, the United States entered into a colonial power relationship with them, at least in the eyes of Kevin Bruyneel's The Third Space of Sovereignty. In the period between 1871 and the political movements of the '60s that brought forth moments like the American Indian Chicago Conference, this colonial relationship devolved, to put it mildly.
Thinking through both Phil Deloria and Bruyneel's arguments about the necessary mythic disappearance of the Indian into an archaic past, I am intrigued by how this naturalizing of Indian being through issues of non-sovereign rule can be understood alongside self-determination and emancipation also as a note which returns the Indian and Black other to a deteriorizing natural state, to a beast who cannot be governed by itself or others.
In Jacques Derrida's famed first volume of his last series of lectures, The Beast and the Sovereign, he notes, and I quote here again, "Here, whenever we speak of the beast and the sovereign, we shall have in view an analogy between two current representations: current and, therefore, problematical, suspect to be interrogated. Between this type of animality or living being that is called the beast or that is represented as bestiality, on the one hand, and, on the other, a sovereignty that is most often represented as human or divine, in truth, anthropo-theological," end quote.
Thus, the condition of sovereignty is weighted heavily in the direction of non-human animal or, after Derrida, a type of animality, making ideas of animal being intrinsically bound to the ability of the sovereign to self-determine, not only his or her own fate but that of others. Derrida paints the landscape of interaction between beast and sovereign with the stuff of fairy tales, the big bad wolf, among others, demonstrating that the archaic or the no longer efficient is also in play during this scripted interaction.
To solidify what I mean by this archaic past that I also mentioned earlier, I turn to Bruyneel's apt description of the catch-22 that native peoples find themselves in, and in relation to what he terms-- and this is perhaps another mouthful-- "the modern American liberal democratic settler state," end quote.
In Bruyneel's assessment of Mille Lacs Band's response to then Wisconsin governor Jesse Ventura's challenge to native sovereignty, he notes, and I quote, "There are two prevalent American sentiments about Indigenous peoples' political status. The first sentiment is that the Indigenous tribes and nations claim to form a sovereign that is unclear because it is not easily located inside or outside of the United States. The spatial logic is quite simple. The tribe is part of the United States. It is not sovereign. But if it is to be sovereign, it cannot be part of and thus make demands on the United States."
"The second sentiment is that the treaty secured rights of Indigenous tribes stem from an archaic political time that cannot assume a modern form. In some, Chippewa sovereignty is not permitted to develop into a modern form and engage in practices commiserate with present day American political life," end quote.
Assessments of what Black freedom at the time of emancipation and beyond would look like travel along the lines of the racist to the truly celebratory. While the state of Black persons in the US is neither colonial nor post-colonial, this neither/nor boundary, this inability for Blackness to settle into its progress, is reflective of the same states of injury and redress outlined by post-colonial theorists.
In many ways, once formal campaigns to repatriate Blacks to Liberia, for example, ceased. The Black body, like its Indian counterpart circa 1871, was cast in a web of constant attempts at domestication. No longer what Bruyneel calls a foreign concern. Indian-ness, and I would add Blackness here as well, became a domestic problem to be solved through attempts at veritable eradication.
But present life demonstrates the absolute failure of this effort to domesticate. I want to turn now to Morrison's A Mercy to demonstrate ways in which this attempt to answer the question of Black freedom and Indian sovereignty, to how the novel clears the way for such-- I'm sorry-- ways in which this attempt to answer the question of Black freedom and Indian sovereignty is managed by Morrison in the negative.
I also want to draw our attention to how the novel clears the way for such domesticating through the figure of the non-human animal and human association with it. The next section is entitled Of Beasts and Sovereigns.
I just realized I don't have the time. Get the time, someone?
SPEAKER 1: 4:56.
SHARON HOLLAND: 4:56? OK, thank you.
We are a nation obsessed with origins. If one were to listen to the human cry from distant corners of this country's Tea Party revolutionaries, we would think that our origins certainly do not reflect the diversity of persons who pepper this small portion of the globe we call home.
In A Mercy, the notion of origin is always already that, a notion usually vague and unimpressive as a foundational idea of something. When we wish, in our present tense, for how things were, we reset the clock on the past populated with those whom we imagine reflect our core values as a nation and then repackage that thing called history for more popular consumption.
Nothing is so Black and white as our ideas about history when we get down to the business of hating one another. Anyone who wants to get back to that mythical and happy nation that our founding fathers authored hasn't had the pleasure of reading the tedious diary entries of Cotton and Increase Mather; or delighted in the musing of one Michael Withersworth; or contemplated Thomas Jefferson's more self-reflexive chapter called Manners and notes on the state of Virginia on the devastating habit that centuries of slavery can wreak upon kin, home, and, ultimately, nation; or venture to read William Apess's stunning manifesto; or had a look at David Walker's Appeal.
When you start to have conversations about who belongs where and why, where and when, and why, I am reminded that except for certain tender mercies like acts of friendship, salvation, and sustenance, none of us do belong. Diversity in this nation is not new. In fact, it is, plainly put, a mercy, if a mercy can be understood to encompass all the acts between human beings that comprise the nature of diversity itself.
In these times, our very biodiversity is dependent upon a mercy. Acts of acknowledgment, kindness, and bravery pull human being from the arc of hatred and isolation into the bandwidth of compassion and consideration of the other. Those same acts, in turn, must also pull a non-human animal being from the brink of extinction.
A mercy, according to the OED, can be a blessing or a relief. In many ways, a mercy is an ethical commitment.
In his brief essay On the Name the Dog or natural rights-- there goes that dog again, right?-- from difficult freedom, Emmanuel Levinas observes, and I quote again, "With the appearance of the human, and this is my entire philosophy, there is something more than my life. And that is the life of the other," end quote.
In the Cartesian tradition that Levinas follows, it is important the animal is distinct from the human. For some philosophers, this difference is speech. For Levinas, it is the face. The face holds the possibility for recognition, for exchange, for mercy. Animals are thought to be incapable of such reciprocal looking; hence, the beginning of the talk in Jacques Derrida's standing before the animal naked gazing upon you.
In her astute review of the novel, that is, A Mercy, New York University scholar Elizabeth McHenry writes that the book is, quote, "a story about a world in which acts of mercy prove ambiguous and the lines between cruelty and compassion are murky at best," end quote.
Indeed, somewhere between the ambiguous and the murky, cruelty and compassion, the ethical commitment floats, awaiting our attention, our action. A Mercy-- and this a really bad summary. So I apologize. But in Morrison's-- Actually, I wrote a much longer one. And then that was like four pages. So I thought, I'm just going to give you the really bad cliff note version. And then we can talk a little bit more about, obviously, what's missing here.
A Mercy tells the story of Florens, Lina, Sorrow, and Jacob and Rebekka Vaark. On a small but steadily growing farm in Virginia, Jacob, an orphan himself hailing from Amsterdam, acquires Florens and Sorrow, both abandoned and in need of a home.
I'll examine at some length the scene in the novel that describes how Florens comes to live on the Vaark farm later. But the central action of the novel revolves around Florens's sexual obsession with and journey to find the blacksmith who has knowledge of healing herbs that might bring Rebekka Vaark back from the brink of a smallpox death.
The opening of the novel is decidedly animal. Florens is the first character we meet. And in classic Morrison fashion, she comes to us out of the ether in the middle of accounting a difficult experience and enjoying our ability as readers to be shocked into the time of the novel.
Morrison writes, "Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done. And I promise to lie quietly in the dark. I will never again fold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle," end quote.
There goes that dog again. And the madness of teeth bared, limbs unfolding. In the classic definition of bare, the process is not a revelation but an unconcealment, the removal of a covering from something. This is no secret being exposed. This act is making known what is always already there. Think Heidegger here. Think [INAUDIBLE]. Think, too, precarious life of some sort or other.
I want to leave Florens's opening statement for other moments in the novel where this attachment to the animal is reiterated and becomes central to the novel's metaphorical landscape. The Indigenous character in A Mercy, and the oldest of the three indentured women on the farm-- and there's arguments about whether they're indentured servants or whether they're slaves and slave peoples. And we can talk about that a little bit, if you'd like.
Also the three indentured women on the farm. Lina, quote, "had been purchased outright and deliberately." In the only chapter dedicated to her story, Lina worries about the festive mood that overtakes the farm at the building of Jacob Vaark's, quote, "double storied, fenced in, gated house, like the one he saw in his travels," end quote.
In true Thomas Sutpen form, Vaark sets to making his design come to fruition. Lina notes only, quote, "Killing trees in that number without asking their permission. Of course, his efforts would stir up malfortune," end quote.
This is the first indication we get that Lina is different from Sorrow and Florens, the two orphan girls that Vaark rescues one at a time. I will return to Linda's relationship with nature in a bit.
But I want to remark upon how Morrison positions Lina to literally read the threat that Black freedom poses to the territory and, eventually, the farm that they all inhabit. Upon meeting the unnamed blacksmith hired to work on the gates to Vaark's mansion, Lina recounts, and I quote again, "Learning from mistress that he was a free man doubled her anxiety. He had rights, then, and privileges like sir. He could marry, own things, travel, sell his own labor."
"She should have seen the danger immediately because his arrogance was clear. When mistress returned, rubbing her hands on her apron, he removed his hat once more, then did something Lina had never seen an African do. He looked directly at mistress, lowering his glance, for he was very tall, never blinking those eyes slanted and yellow as a ram's."
Again, it is the animal who lets us know the human's condition. Contemplating the blacksmith's relative freedom, Lina tells us, quote, "In the town she had been taken to after the conflagration that wiped away her village, that kind of boldness from any African was legitimate cause for a whip."
And remember it's for a whip, not a whipping. So I'm very much interested in the idea of the presence of the whip itself as prohibiting certain behaviors as opposed to the actual act. And there's moments like that in this novel that are bothersome to me, or attractive.
It is interesting that we find out about Lina's people-lessness at the precise moment that she describes punishment for an exercise of free will or, because we are talking about a gaze here, punishment for the face to face practice of ethical commitment to the other. Morrison as Lina not only repudiate this commitment in racialized terms but also states her relationship with such commitment as a kind of homelessness.
I would like to argue that the state of dispossession, if possession marks the free, as in the paragraph above, unmakes Lina's relationship to sovereignty. She becomes a character for us in the midst of making her own kin-less state while referring to potential punishment for a simple act of practiced belonging, the face to face, eye to eye of the blacksmith and the mistress.
Unlike Florens and the blacksmith, Lina is tortured by the animal. As just a few pages from the scene above, she tells us of the disease that took her family and all the others. Morrison writes, and I quote again, "At first, they fought off the crows, she and two young boys. But they were no match for the birds or the smell. And when the wolves arrived, all three scrambled as high to a beech tree as they could. They stayed there all night, listening to gnawing, baying, growling, fighting, and, worst of all, the quiet of animals sated at last," end quote.
In many ways, the novel is about the awful quiet of animals, human and non-human, sated at last. Remaking herself through a bricolage of conquest in the Americas, relying on memories of, quote again, "and her own resources, she cobbled together neglected rights, merged Europe medicine with native, scripture with lore, and recalled or invented the hidden meanings of things, found in other words a way to be in the world. She called with birds, chatted with plants, spoke to squirrels, sang to the cow, opened her mouth to rain," end quote.
A new world Temple Grandin, she becomes the quintessential American by being dispossessed of the narrative of her past. In her state of relative cultural collapse, she turns to the animal and communicates. Such communication does not signal meaning making so much as it signals at becoming animal that serves as a rationale for the novel's treatment of Lina as a medium.
And I'm not saying here that pieces of what Morrison is narrativizing didn't happen in some way, shape, or form. I'm interested in how that happening is juxtaposed with all the other characters in the novel and might open up another territory for investigation for us as critics.
Whenever we move back in the past, the world becomes thick with non-human animals. Moreover, the unmoring of Lina and her subsequent new world remaking prepares her for the following, at least according to Sorrow.
And I quote again that, "Lina ruled and decided everything sir and mistress did not. Her eye was everywhere, even when she was nowhere," quote. For Sorrow, Lina is the king of kings, the doer, the decider. And she has the power to take the first but not the second child of Sorrow and abandon it to float down the waters of a nearby creek. The possibility of becoming sovereign, in that kind of Derridian way, couched in the most restrictive terms, where the beasts around are tamed and power over life and death is in full exercise.
Last section, Ethical Lessons. I want to travel to the second brief section of the novel under the umbrella term A Mercy and think through some of the novel's challenges to what I'm thinking of as the ethical commitment.
I will start with Jacob's rescue of the raccoon. In many ways, this scene is the first human act of the story. But it also involves an animal and demonstrates the ways in which saving the animal is always at the threshold of saving, rescuing human being and sometimes from itself.
Morrison writes, "Jacob urged the mare to a faster pace. He dismounted twice, the second time to free the bloody hind leg of a young raccoon struck in a tree bark break. Regina, the horse, munched trail side grass while he tried to be as gentle as possible, avoiding the claws and teeth of the frightened animal. Once he succeeded, the raccoon limped off, perhaps to the mother forced to abandon it or, more likely, into other claws," end quote.
Between two animals, the mare and the raccoon, and two iterations of claw, one belong to the raccoon and the other to an unknown predator, Jacob commits his first act of mercy. It is 1682. And he is traveling via the Lenape trail on his way to a plantation called Julio, owned by a man named de Ortega in Maryland.
The act of dislodging the injured raccoon is meant to tell us who Jacob Vaark is. The work with the animal is meant to steer us into future work with the human. And it does, as his second act, the taking of the girl Florens in exchange for an unpaid debt, appears to be a mercy of signature meaning. Yet we find that all acts of kindness, as in the case of the raccoon, that one could argue, was freed for death, are not always ethical acts.
If the ethical commitment of the human is to the other, something more than my life, then what is Jacob's face to face commitment to Florens, the girl child Florens given to Jacob by the broke plantation owner in Maryland?
We learn at the end of the novel that a mercy is this solitary act. All of the others in the novel are just reverberations of the same, like a ripple on a pond. Morrison provides some answer to the conundrum of this second act of mercy in Jacob Vaark's attitude toward trading in human cargo. As Jacob notes, flesh was not his commodity.
But we are introduced to Jacob's disdain for slave trading, not because of his absolute abhorrence of the thing itself, the trade in flesh, but because of the people with whom he associates such trade. He sees Maryland as a platinous state that was Roman-ish to the core, quote, end quote. I mean, I'm quoting here.
"Priests strode openly in its towns; their temples menaced its squares; their sinister missions cropped up at the edge of native villages. Law, courts, and trade were their exclusive domain. And overdressed women in raised heels rode in cars driven by 10-year-old Negroes. He was offended by the lax, flashy cunning of the papists."
Jacob is not repulsed by slavery so much as he is unnerved by Catholicism. There was something beyond Catholic in de Ortega, something sordid and overwrite, says Jacob. We have more descriptions of de Ortega and his plantation's inhabitants. A sloven man. Their narrow grasp of the English language. The foolish, incomprehensible talk and curdled, arrogant thought.
It is here that Morrison sets attention in the novel in religious difference rather than racial difference and, I would also add, in gendered difference. If the opening scene of Vaark's travel south holds open the possibility of his interspecies compassionate practice, the scene between human beings in the first section rests us-- I'm sorry.
The scene that begins in the first section that arrests us is between Jacob and Florens's mother, the woman we will eventually come to know through her own brief narrative at the novel's close.
Morrison writes, and it's a rather long quote.
"Please senor, not me. Take her. Take my daughter."
Jacob looked up at her, away from the child's feet, his mouth still open with laughter, and was struck by the terror in her eyes. His laugh creaking to a close, he shook his head thinking, God help me if this is not the most wretched business.
"Why, yes of course," de Ortega, shaking off his earlier embarrassment and trying to reestablish his dignity. "I'll sell her to you immediately." His eyes widened, as did his condescending smile, though he still seems highly agitated.
"My answer is firm," said Jacob, thinking, I've got to get away from this substitute for a man, but thinking also perhaps Rebekka would welcome a child around the place. This one here swimming in horrible shoes appeared to be about the same age as Patrician. And if she got kicked in the head by a mare, the loss would not rock Rebekka so.
"There's a priest here," de Ortega went on. "He can bring her to you I'll have them board a sloop to any port on the coast you desire."
"No," I said, "No."
Suddenly, the woman smelling of clothes knelt and closed her eyes. They wrote new papers.
But what brings Vaark to this end? I would like to offer that the differences here could all be parsed through the article that moves us forward through acts of mercy throughout the text. Instead of the mercy, where "the" refers to something known to the listener, we have a mercy, a act more unknown and unspecified. What brings Jacob face to face with the mother about to give up her child is a turning point in the tension between Vaark and de Ortega.
Quote again, "Jacob raised his eyes to de Ortega, noticing the cowardice of unarmed gentry confronted with a commoner. Out here in the wilderness, dependent upon paid guards nowhere in sight this Sunday, he felt like laughing. Where else could rank tremble before courage? Jacob turned away, letting his exposed, unarmed back convey his scorn. It was a curious moment. Along with his contempt, he felt a wave of exhilaration, potent, steady."
And it's at this moment that he sees Florens's mother. Immediately after this, Jacob passes the cook house, sees the woman in the doorway, and is offered the child. Like Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen again in Absalom Absalom, his visit to the big house produces an articulation of class difference so profound that it sets him to laughing, until he comes face to face with the woman.
With the ethical commitment before him, Jacob can be persuaded to take the girl as an afterthought in a series of relations grounded in inequality. He realizes, and I'm quoting here, "not for the first time, that only things, not bloodlines or character, separated them," end quote.
Moreover, class relations here, as evidenced by the myriad of references to de Ortega as a feat, are laced with sexual energy and gendered life. A mercy here is a singular but mysterious act known only to the interlocutors.
In any event, this mercy significant is not reciprocated by Jacob. He does not think of that moment literally in kind or in relationship to Florens's mother, but rather as evidence of his elevated stature in the world. This elevation causes him to have fantasies of building, quote, "a house that size on his own property." And again, like--
A house that size on his own property. Later in the same section, we learn that Jacob, quote, did what was necessary. Secured a wife, someone to help her. Planted. Fathered. End quote.
We'll just skip this and go into the next session.
So I want you to remember this. This one thing here, swimming in horrible shoes, appeared to be about the same age as Patrician. And if she got kicked in the head by a mare, the loss would not rock Rebekka so, end quote.
The death of their fifth child has rocked his otherwise capable wife Rebekka. And so the substitute child, the enslaved, is valued, is exchanged because a loss would not rock her so. Florens's figured death by mare two times as the first mare Regina, who has a name though Florens's mother does not, carries Vaark to the de Ortega plantation, bringing about her separation from her mother.
And the second mare, having already killed the five-year-old Patrician, is conjured here to produce a second value for Florens. The capriciousness of the animal is utilized by Morrison and to mark Florens's situation in Jacob's eyes. The proximity to the animal makes her status as chattel even more cogent. The exchange of child for slave child, the end of Vaark's bloodline, the presence of the mare, produced a sexually potent situation.
Remember it's a horse. It's a mare, not just a horse here. If anyone has ever tried to ride a mare, they know what I'm talking about. A charged scene of sexual possibility is emphasized during de Ortega's tour of, quote, "the little sheds on the plantation," ostensibly to have Vaark to left a slave to settle de Ortega's outrageous debt.
As they pass the cook house, Jacob sees Florens's mother and says, "Her. That one. I'll take her." Realizing that the clothes scent which follows her is also evident in de Ortega's sweat, quote, "He suspected that there was more than cooking de Ortega sought to lose."
Like an animal, Jacob senses de Ortega's weakness. In these scenes of sexual tension and transgression, we are ever reminded that diversity is also interconnectedness; that we cannot pull apart the racial elements of the novel from their embedded in class; that we cannot have our race and class without our sexuality, too; that we can not have our discussion about sovereignty and about freedom without thinking about the animal.
As the section closes, we see Jacob remember Regina, his released mare, fondly by remarking upon the night sky, a canvas smooth and dark as Virginia's hide. As he washes away, quote, "the faint trace of coon's blood," end quote.
I cannot help but think about the double meaning of coon here. In the end, his walk in the warm night air, his reflection upon the animal, brings him to the following conclusion. And I quote one more time, "Now he fondled the idea of an even more satisfying enterprise. And the plan was as sweet as the sugar on which it was based."
And it's at this moment that he changes his mind and starts to really get into the rum running business. The sexual satisfaction that comes from capital gain is palpable here. Jacob settles upon this plan after a conversation with patrons at Percy's tavern.
But he also settles upon this plan in the wake of another scene with another horse. On his way to his lodging, he saw a man beating a horse to its knees. Before he could open his mouth to shout, rowdy sailors pulled the man away and let him feel his own knees in the mud.
Two things angered Jacob more than the brutal handling of domesticated animals. He did not know what the sailors were objecting to. But his own fury was not only because of the pain inflicted on the horse but because of the mute, unprotesting surrender glazing its eyes, end quote.
Brutal handling of domesticated animals and attempts at domestication, at civilizing, and acculturation, have more in common with animal being than we might think. There are two gazes in this opening section: that a Florens's mother, who remarks at the end that she had, quote, "gathered you and your brother to stand in their eyes," end quote.
One could argue that the only human endeavor that matters is the ethical commitment to the other, who can be seen because of the commitment to more than one's own life. It is clear that Florens's mother sees, recognizes, and inhabits this space called a mercy. It is also clear that Vaark's own vision is skewed by the way in which Florens is exchanged for so many things in the beginning of this section, an exchange mediated by the participants and relentless referencing to the animal.
The focus on the human in the novel is consistently interrupted by the gaze of the non-human other, which calls for sharper focus on the doers and the done to, demands clearer perceptiveness about what freedom and sovereignty mean in the context of this new world order, whose logo centrism necessarily and repeatedly puts human at odds with animal in a kind of relentlessness that we must imagine we need to unpack. Thank you.
MARGO NATALIE CRAWFORD: [INAUDIBLE]
SHARON HOLLAND: That's OK. I just wanted to see how long it was. Just curious.
MARGO NATALIE CRAWFORD: Well, I'll start. Thank you so much, Sharon. What I'm wondering about the love because when you think about everything that she does with the angle in A Mercy, I'm wondering if you're interested in the way that she decides in A Mercy, of course, to go back to the 17th century, 60 countries. But in the law back then, which she's giving us the 19th century, but she also gives us that focus on the animal. But it's the same in some ways but different. Right?
So I'm wondering if you can think about two parts of the love. I'm wondering if it all becomes productive to do so. The part in School Teacher, of course, tells the children to line up to human and animal characteristics.
SHARON HOLLAND: Make sure you line them up.
MARGO NATALIE CRAWFORD: Right.
SHARON HOLLAND: And to make sure you line them up.
MARGO NATALIE CRAWFORD: And then, of course, that other part when Paul D tells Stepha, you have two feet, not four. Right? So I'm wondering. And the reason why, just to say a little bit more. The reason why I'm thinking about it, not only in terms of what she's doing with animals in both, but I guess like everybody, I'm still trying to figure out what in the world she means when she tells us that a mercy is about that pre-race moment. It's possibly really much more complex than what we think.
SHARON HOLLAND: Even what we try to talk about. Yeah.
MARGO NATALIE CRAWFORD: So, yeah, whatever you want to do.
SHARON HOLLAND: And that's what-- well, I feel like I can start with the second part first because I feel like that's why I'm interested in the characterization of Lina. In order to signal this kind of pre-race moment, she prevents a native character, right? And I'm interested in how Lina is deployed in the book as a figure of that moment in particular.
And so that's part of the reason why I was interested in this. As you can see from my reading, I'm not too enamored of what Lina-- She only gets one section that's actually about her. And everyone else gets at least two. Well, Jacob, I dont' think gets another one. So she and Jacob end up having only one, and Rebekka.
But Florens, at several points, is clearly like the central character of the novel in many ways.
But to back up to Morrison, I feel like there's a lot of science. There's been a lot of attention to scientific racism. You have two feet, not four lining up. There's a lot of attention in Morrison to taxing, right? Taxonomies, sorry.
But it seems as, if she's kind of going to this pre-racial moment, what in a sense figures belonging in a moment where race doesn't solidify things for you? And I really feel like she needs use make the animal a really productive kind a rum runner here in this novel in order to do that.
And so I was interested. Because of that moment, I was interested in talking about this book for the study ongoing on Perishment and the human/animal distinction because it seems as if there is a problem of embodiment in the novel. The human keeps slipping. It just slips. It's constantly, he's slipping. So that's [INAUDIBLE].
So I feel like some of this is more definitely 19th century examination wherein certain things it becomes solidified. And here, certain things haven't become solidified. So, then, what do we use so that we can be able to see them? And what you end up doing is use the animal to solidify the theories that come after it, so to speak.
MARGO NATALIE CRAWFORD: I just think it's so fascinating because then of course we have this obsession, for better or worse, with this post-racial discourse in Morrison because [INAUDIBLE].
SHARON HOLLAND: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, she drops the novel right when everybody was in their kind of post-colonial-- They were kind of like, one lives in the southern house and aligns with Morrison. Peace, deliverance. I'm not going to say no. I was going to stay nice. Or a little too frightening. Little too late in the afternoon for that. There might be an animal in there.
SPEAKER 2: Yes, thank you very much for your talk. I was wondering, in most of your book project you'll be attending any attention to questions of cannibalism perhaps or [INAUDIBLE] you speak to that constitute others that are often analyzed?
SHARON HOLLAND: No, not really. No. I mean, I have friends-- Right now, I've been working in food studies but never actually have produced work in food studies. And there are a group of us who at one point kind of were real collective. We were interested in the visceral. And there were several people involved there who were looking at cannibals, this idea that I'm actually teaching towards called eating the other, but not necessarily focused on the cannibalistic aspects of food through a human animal.
But thinking in a sense about how food studies is always, man, it's not necessary to talk about race very much in a very protective way, right? So it's always protecting its objects, right? Just the view of the food, right? But a flower-less chocolate cake is a black beast-- literally, the French. If you got to learn how to make one, you got to travel through nemesis to get there, right?
So I can give you someone named Kela. Kela Thompson? Kela Thompson.
SPEAKER 3: Tomkin.
SHARON HOLLAND: Tomkins, thank you. Yeeah, I knew it was wrong. Kela Tomkins is very much interested in cannibalism and has done some really interesting stuff. Not necessarily cannibalism. But is really doing some very interesting stuff on the 19th century viscerality of eating. Literally pleasuring yourself with the other by ingesting him or her.
So I guess cannibalism but very different kind and a more fuller version.
SPEAKER 4: So I have two questions, actually. So first one, [INAUDIBLE] had this work The Native Science. [INAUDIBLE] from Mexico. But one of the things he points out is that it seems to be the truth as far as I make it, is that there's no word for animal in native langauges. The difference is not construted, here are these oppositions. And I've done the work of it. It's the nature/culture, part and parcel of that whole configuration.
So I don't know how that might impact what you're doing. So that's just one point. If you look at this in a way with respect to the question of the animal, it's not there. There are different kinds of questions.
The other point is I'm kind of curious about Bruyneel's characterization of the colonial coming in 1871 since, really, the colonial moment, I think, can be dated back to [INAUDIBLE] Acts where the Congress of the United States takes control over Indian land. And certainly, by Georgia 1832, we had domestic nations, that oxymoronic construction of the sovereign. So the ending of the treaty arrangements with the US and abroad with nations would be a rather late moment when we're talking about this.
SHARON HOLLAND: That's why I credit it to him because I though maybe that would call-- it's interesting because he's talking about the third space of sovereignty. I was interested in how aspects of what he's talking about this book might actually relate to work on sovereignty, that theoretical work on sovereignty. And one of the things that I've been trying to do is to find a way to have work on sovereignty and, say, perception actually take into consideration the vast amount of work in native studies on that particular word, and its meaning, and its permutations.
And because sovereign encompasses beast, it was really kind of an interesting way to talk about the animal, which is basically what the sovereignty argument is about in studies on state of exception. But when I get to the other part of the paper, obviously, I'm going to be talking about what it means, how sovereignty is not in a sense fashioned in the same way as beast versus sovereign in same kind of a wedge Derrida is trying to make.
But it does bring about this manifestation of an animal as written, as imagined through colonial eyes. The ungovernability of the other's body creates a state of being at. So it's not a one to one correlation I'm looking for. It's not necessarily what I'm looking for. And the existence of a category, but how a category is created and the work that it does.
And Morrison is utilizing that category through the figure of Lina. I find it very problematic.
SPEAKER 4: You know, in Johnson v. McIntosh, part of Morrison's argument for dispossession of Native Americans, and the taking their land, and the-- is the fact that they are not governable, is they're not absorbable into the politic.
SHARON HOLLAND: You can literally be absorbed into my body. You can't be [INAUDIBLE]. And so I'm interested. I'm trying to find a way for folks who have been ignoring native studies for the better part of a decade, the state of exception work, to think through how these various discourses actually have great relation with one another, although they might not take the same object.
And so I'm not sure, in the final analysis, whether A Mercy is going to [INAUDIBLE]. But it's worth probably starting. And obviously now I'm not [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER 4: I haven't read the essay. But you know Mark Rifkin's essay on-- yeah. I haven't seen it, so I won't comment on it.
SHARON HOLLAND: Yeah, Mark is [INAUDIBLE]. So I think you're absolutely right. And I quoted Bruyneel because I want people to know that this is not necessarily my take on where things started.
But I would like to say the first space of sovereignty continues. So it becomes something important. It's very important. It's important to start to kind of take it up, talk about it, and put it out there so that we can establish our own readings of space and time.
SPEAKER 5: I was wondering if you could just say a bit more about the model that you're trying to derive, in particular, whether you're thinking through the animal, the capacity of the animal for ethical action. And the reason I posing this question is because you probably know a lot of the critique of the Derridian [INAUDIBLE] focuses on the gaze is that it's ultimately animal centric. Right? [INAUDIBLE] priority as a human. But animals--
SHARON HOLLAND: And it's very animal-centric.
SPEAKER 5: Yeah, the animal is deprived of the capacity for--
SHARON HOLLAND: [INAUDIBLE]. Come on.
SPEAKER 5: But the animal is not allowed ethical action ultimately. And so if you're interested in undermining the logic of dehumanization, of one needs to get outside of that paradigm. And so I guess I'm wondering if that's the type of concern that you're engaging with.
SHARON HOLLAND: I think the first concern I had when I started this project was to try to trace the history of Blackness as theoretical, but Blackness in theory, not necessarily Black people, per se. Relationship, ethical commitment to the animal. And this kind of came out of that post-Michael Vick moment, where people got into the whole nature versus culture. You couldn't stand up for the animal in any way, shape, or form, because you were racist.
I'm very interested in how we can't-- and I start looking through the literature. And there really isn't a train of thought from [INAUDIBLE] and others, that there's talk of the end. But there's always this kind of looking away, right? Because of that vexed relationship. So that was my first opening.
Then I got a call for all the amazingly productive forces who are doing work. You're now considering going to places like centers of Primate Studies. So it's really taking off. And I think we're doing some animal work on the ground, which is really amazing.
So the second thing I got interested in, I took a seminar with Dr. Conrad and Kathy Rudy on human/animal gender. Talk about the place of women in this relationship. And so one of the ways in which I'm thinking about this project comes from the problem in philosophy of not being, Jerry dog gets to the animal that therefore I am. Always to the end. And it's nothing.
It's like, oh, what about that cat? And you're like, Oh God. You started with the cat. Say something about the cat. And he's like, doot doot, gone, right? So with Derridian, right? You're like, oh, what he's trying to prove is that philosophy can't do it. There's no real way to actually find the animal as interesting in a philosophical tradition that it's very lifeblood is bent, is created from an animal's objection to itself. So I think that's one of the things I'm interested in.
And then the third, to answer that one part of your question about what is the model of ethics, I'm interested in the ethical term. But I'm interested in it through the eyes of the animal. And I'm also interested in how so many of those ethical terms don't pleasure, but they turn on pain.
And then that's with Michael Vick, right? Because at one point in that whole thing, he goes, I love my dogs. I love my dogs. What does it mean to say that? To say that and fight them. Does it mean you love your horse and beat it through a cross-country course because you need to jump that fence?
You know what I mean? These are the questions I'm interested in, right? And I'm interested in it from the pleasure center perspective, which takes into account the animal, hopefully. Does that make sense?
SPEAKER 5: Yeah.
SPEAKER 6: I was just thinking. As you said that, I was just thinking because you mentioned you're not getting [INAUDIBLE] in A Mercy. I was wondering if people like Hurston did demographic work at all, would you accept a lot of these questions in a different kind of way? Have any place at all in what you do? I was just thinking because today we mentioned Told by a Horse and you just mentioned it clearly. And then Hurston's view is all over the place.
SHARON HOLLAND: An actual person is one of the people that she quotes from.
SPEAKER 6: Oh, OK.
SHARON HOLLAND: Yeah, that's another one. In front of their eyes [INAUDIBLE], as far as I can see. So she definitely-- I mean, she's in that-- I hadn't thought about the term. But you know? Hers might be a good idea. Might be a good place to start.
But I think I've got a lot of literature to kind of move through. And I'm trying to figure out whether I want this to be-- one chapter is on [INAUDIBLE]'s novel Pamela, where there are no characters. They're just characters. And I'm really interested in how do you write a novel when your characters' names are Z, X, and Y about human being or relationships.
And so I have very different-- what I'm trying to do is not in my work is be prescriptive. But I'm trying to say, if we open up the question to the end of the standard therefore I am, where the cat is looking you. you're still naked and not in your bathrobe yet, right? What will we find? So but I think there could be a chapter on it. I came through Hurston in graduate school. She was like my all time and one favorite. And I haven't been back in that work.
MARGO NATALIE CRAWFORD: Let's thank our speaker again. Thanks very much.
NARRATOR: This has been a production of Cornell University on the web at cornell.edu.
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Sharon Holland, associate professor of English, African-American studies, and women's studies at Duke University, spoke at Cornell April 28, 2011 as part of the Department of English's Comparative Ethnic Studies Lecture Series.
The series opens up space between, across, and within fields such as Native American Studies, Latino/a Studies, African American Studies, Asian Studies, and Diaspora Studies.