Notes from “In the Wake”

Sarah-Nelle Jackson, University of British Columbia

On October 23rd, 2020, over two dozen attendees gathered virtually for the Oecologies Research Cluster’s inaugural panel of 2020–21, “In the Wake: Response and Recovery in the Premodern World.” Drawing connections between our present crisis and past catastrophes, panelists Urvashi Chakravarty (University of Toronto), Gabriel de Avilez Rocha (Brown University), Rebecca Totaro (Florida Atlantic University), and Elaine Treharne (Stanford University) explored medieval and early modern histories of solidarity and resistance amid natural, political, and pandemic upheavals.

In his opening remarks, moderator and Oecologies co-director David Coley (Simon Fraser University) encouraged us to frame “In the Wake” not as an expression of anxiety and despair over our current, pandemic moment — at least, not entirely. Instead, Coley explained, the panel would look to the past for futures that might arise from our own response and recovery in the present: an optimistic spirit of medieval prudentia that recognizes our own moment as one forged in and out of responses and recoveries past.

“In the Wake” took its name from Christina Sharpe’s homonymous monograph, which develops the varied, temporally fraught significances of the word wake. Speaking first, Urvashi Chakravarty built upon Sharpe’s attention to Black life “in the wake” by considering racial discourses of futurity and apocalypse in William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Tracing languages of degeneracy, stains, and stamping in Lear, Urvashi showed how the play’s “apocalyptical possibility” emerges as inherently racialized. As a result, she concluded, we face the difficult and urgent task of imagining worlds beyond and besides reproductive white futurity. (This conclusion pointed to the photo with which Chakravarty began: an early 2020 Associated Press image of four young, white climate activists. AP had cropped from the picture a fifth activist, Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, erasing black activism and framing climate activism as a white project.)

From the prospect of refusing white futurity, Gabriel de Avilez Rocha turned our attention to an historical refusal of colonial futurity on the West African island of São Tomé. In 1537, a prodigious fire swept the main colonial town of the Portuguese-occupied island, destroying swathes of colonial goods and quarters and hamstringing the island’s trade in sugar and the enslaved (or enslaved peoples). Although the arson constituted a remarkable event in its own right, Rocha argued that we consider longer arcs of resistance and insurgency that predate and contextualize singular disasters. Outlining a long collaboration on the island between fugitive Africans and the dense forests beyond the colonial town, he showed that the fire was a culmination, but hardly the debut, of socio-natural insurgency on São Tomé against Portuguese colonialism.

From counter-hegemonic praxis, we moved with Rebecca Totaro to the widespread governmental and communal collaboration that bound Elizabethan England in the face of pandemic. When the bubonic plague arrived in England, documentary evidence suggests, the queen and her privy council issued national quarantine orders that isolated subjects in body but united them in spirit. Totaro took us through examples of guides for at-home Anglican worship, poetic meditations on friendship and community, and lists of trusted women within several communities who helped identify those who had died of plague. These materials offer instructive contrast to the conspiracies and xenophobia of the current response to the COVID-19 pandemic: a governance and neighbourliness rooted in mutual care can guide us through our present catastrophe and future ones.

Elaine Treharne turned from textual evidence to textual absence in catastrophe’s wake. What do literary and textual historians do, she asked, when a silence, a dearth of data, follows in the wake of catastrophe — and how does this differ from what we ought to do? Reading elision in surviving sources after the Norman Conquest of 1066, Elaine queried the difference between silent and silenced voices, quoting Patrick Wolfe to remind us that then, as now, “Settler colonialism is inherently eliminatory.” The absence of evidence does not necessarily signal compliance or ease, Treharne argued, pointing to the silence or silencing of the colonized English under Norman rule; of dissenters in Syria, Egypt, and Uyghur province in Xianjing; and in the systematic omission of Native Americans from COVID-19 public health data. Scholars, she concluded, must be mindful of our roles in creating and interpreting data. 

After an audience Q&A, Coley concluded the event by putting a question to the panel: “How do we bring these ideas into the now, the present moment of crisis, rebuilding, suppression, hope?” Together, the speakers emphasized the importance of defining ourselves against hegemonic categories, both academically (through interdisciplinary work, for example) and socio-politically (by not narrating the current pandemic into nationalized silos). 

The panelists offered exciting, important steps toward this kind of critically-engaged work. In the wake of their global, interdisciplinary papers, presented to a global, interdisciplinary audience, we at Oecologies dare to return to optimism: all those present on October 23 began the important, challenging work of response, recovery, and revitalization. Part of that success, I think, involves recognizing how very far we have yet to go.

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