Over the past few months, the first phase of the Keats-Shelley Association of America’s Virtual Roundtable: Toward an Anti-Racist, “Undisciplined” Romanticism has been live on our blog. The aim of the Virtual Roundtable is to ask our esteemed participants a series of vital questions regarding current and future study of Romanticism; including what new frameworks—theoretical, textual, generic, historical, multiracial—could and should transform the study of British Romanticism and help the field find modalities of anti-racism worthy of our moment. How can BIPOC lives begin to matter more fundamentally to the study of British Romanticism, and within the field of British Romanticism? And more pointedly: what must become of British Romanticism, and Romanticist associations for the study of the field, in the age of Black Lives Matter? Could John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, or Mary Shelley for that matter, ever factor into such a shift in approach, which is to ask: can an organization named after these figures ever effectively decenter them? How important is it that they be decentered for anti-racist work to flourish in the field?
With the second phase of the Virtual Roundtable, a colloquium between participants recorded on Zoom, coming to the K-SAA’s site very soon, we decided to ask co-organiser of the Virtual Roundtable and Associate Professor of English, Dr David Sigler, a few questions regarding the aims and outcomes of the event.
Hi David – thanks for agreeing to chat with us! We enjoyed and learned so much from the virtual roundtable you co-organized. Firstly, could you introduce yourself please?
Hi! I am a Romanticist based at the University of Calgary, in the frozen world of Canada, and more specifically in the traditional territories of the people of Treaty 7 and the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III. My research so far has mostly been on Romantic-era gender and sexuality studies, women’s writing, and psychoanalytic theory. My co-organizer for this roundtable has been Andrew Burkett of Union College in New York, who is known for his work on media theory and British Romanticism, as well as issues of deep time and evolutionary theory in nineteenth-century studies. I have served on the K-SAA Outreach Committee for the past few years, and Andy also serves as one of the Review Co-Editors for the Keats-Shelley Journal. We are both white settler scholars.
“our panellists do not seem to be daunted by impossible tasks”
Can you tell us about the roundtable and the invited speakers?
I can! We wanted to assemble leading experts in this area and ask them how we might start to make thinkable an anti-racist, “undisciplined” study of British Romanticism, to borrow a well-known concept-metaphor from Dr. Christina Sharpe. Such a task is, we know, in many ways an impossible one, given how nineteenth-century British literature is irreducibly the product of a huge and racist global empire, making it inseparable, in a basic way, from imperialist and white supremacist ideologies. But our panellists do not seem to be daunted by impossible tasks.
We asked them to consider the relation between scholarly and community anti-racist efforts, the racial parameters of British Romanticism as a formal and historical phenomenon, and strategies for making British Romanticism today, as a field of scholarly study and popular interest, more welcoming to people of colour and more diverse in its range of subject matter. We asked them: what new frameworks—theoretical, textual, generic, historical, multiracial—could and should transform the study of British Romanticism and help the field find modalities of anti-racism worthy of our moment? To what extent should we see the questions “of our moment” as, also, historical questions? How can BIPOC lives begin to matter more fundamentally to the study of British Romanticism and within the field of British Romanticism? And, more pointedly: what must become of British Romanticism, and Romanticist associations for the study of the field, in the age of Black Lives Matter?
We wanted to bring together scholars from all different career stages, and who have been thinking through different aspects of the problem in innovative ways. We were surprised at the extent to which these colleagues were very graciously willing to give their expertise to this project. Andy and I have definitely learned a lot from their work here. I mean, we’ve learned a lot from their work overall and in general, but I have also learned from their work on this Roundtable specifically. We think that the videos collected for this project do offer a quite remarkable set of reflections—difficult, honest, mournful, theoretically engaged, and at times even inspiring and hopeful, if I could speak in such a way.
“It was time really to reckon with the whiteness of British Romanticism as a field”
How did this roundtable come about, and why did you decide that now was the right moment for this event?
The Keats-Shelley Association of America has for several years now been working to design scholarly events focused on questions of diversity, anti-racism, community, activism, and racial justice as they pertain to the study of British Romanticism, and I have been glad to be part of those conversations. Some of these events, such as conference sessions, had to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But in the Summer of 2020, the urgent need for such projects once again became tragically apparent, of course. People worldwide were taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to demand justice. We were asking not only for new visions of policing and a modicum of accountability from police departments, and to demand an end to the extrajudicial killings of our fellow citizens, but also to think in broader ways about the racism that is built into all of the institutional structures, professional and otherwise, that make up our lives. All scholarly organizations, including the K-SAA, were urgently needing to examine and reimagine the epistemological underpinnings of their fields. The K-SAA Executive, in the midst of a suite of progressive organizational changes, asked Andy and I to plan a (relatively) Covid-proof virtual session, which would draw on the expertise of Romanticist colleagues who have published and worked on these topics in innovative ways. It was time really to reckon with the whiteness of British Romanticism as a field and to identify some of the barriers that have long been in place for scholars of colour coming up in this field.
“How important is it that writers like Keats or the Shelleys be decentred for anti-racist work to flourish in the field?”
What do you hope to achieve with this roundtable? What problems within the study of Romanticism does this event aim to address?
If any number of people, both professional Romanticists and literary-minded people at large, can engage with our panellists’ ideas here, and maybe use their comments as a starting place for their own teaching or activism or readings in nineteenth-century literature, I think the world will not be unimproved as a result. I hope that does not sound too grandiose—it’s just that ideas really travel, take hold, and make their impact in unexpected ways sometimes, through small moments and practices.
In planning the session, we were seeking to heed the advice of Dr. Bakary Diaby, who has said that “we should explore the role Romanticism played in how we got here and contemplate too what it has to offer for the present.” And so we asked our panellists to think about the barriers that scholars of colour confront in the field and institutionally, and how Romanticists might better learn to see the theoretical work now underway in Black Studies as an important part of their field’s purview. How important is it that writers like Keats or the Shelleys be decentred for anti-racist work to flourish in the field? (This is a question of some importance, as one might imagine, for the Keats-Shelley Association of America). We know that British Romantic literature celebrates, in many cases, a universalized, unstated whiteness and tends to rationalize settler colonialism; yet it also complexly grapples with issues like police violence, chattel slavery and its abolition, biopolitics and the management of ‘populations,’ the construction of racial difference, racialized labour, and interracial sex. We wanted our panellists to reckon with that ambivalence and to suggest meaningful ways through it.
“this Roundtable is just one of many such efforts at the moment”
The roundtable proposes powerful ways to re-form the field of Romanticism, such as adopting a “treaty-based model,” as Nikki Hessell suggests, or learning to be uncomfortable with the things we love and examining what we bring to them, as Atesede Makonnen advises. Do you think study of the Romantic period is moving in these directions? What important work remains to be done, in your view?
Yes, their two videos are particularly potent and far-reaching in their implications, I think. There is no doubt that the field has been moving in these directions with increased urgency lately—partly because our contributors have been among the leaders in that work over the past years and even, in some cases, decades. We would like to think that the collective work in this roundtable could be placed alongside new projects such as the Romantic Circles “RC Unbound” series, or the several special issues of journals, or the upcoming conference on Black Studies and Romanticism to be hosted virtually in June by Mount Holyoke College, and in the scholarship of, or inspired by, the Bigger 6 Collective. So, the good news is that this Roundtable is just one of many such efforts at the moment. But the work that remains is so all-encompassing and fundamental to the field that we would dare not even characterize it as work “remaining to be done”—instead we are talking about the impossible and necessary work of a permanent struggle, indefinite and open-ended, and led by people who are not me and Andy. As you can see, it’s not the sort of task that lends itself well to itemization.
“Very soon we will launch Phase 2, in which our panellists reconvene interactively on Zoom”
We’re very excited for the colloquium coming soon in January, which we understand will have a different format from the virtual roundtable. Can you give us a taste of what to expect?
I am excited too! So, for Phase 1 of the project, our speakers contributed short videos, which are currently available on the K-SAA website in all of their brilliance. Very soon we will launch Phase 2, in which our panellists reconvene interactively on Zoom to talk through the ideas raised in those videos and think about next steps. It was a brilliant discussion (I say, having had a sneak preview of the Phase 2 recording) led by Dr. César Soto of Grace College. That hourlong conversation will appear on the K-SAA website very shortly. The next and final Phase 3 of the project, now in the planning stages, will be a special issue of the Keats-Shelley Journal (if all goes well and as expected) expanding these ideas into full-length essays.
“My thinking about Romanticism has been transformed by the experience”
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
It was a certainly a joy working with Andy and the K-SAA Executive on this project, and I have been dazzled by the expertise and daring of the participants, so I have really appreciated the opportunity to come along for this particular ride. My thinking about Romanticism has been transformed by the experience.
Our thanks to Dr David Sigler for an interesting and thought-provoking interview.
Interviewed by Dr Mariam Wassif and Amy Wilcockson, K-SAA Communications Fellows.