English 250

Research Seminar: The Recovery Imperative

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
3 Fall 2011 Best, Stephen M.
Best, Stephen
Thurs. 3:30-6:30 102 Latimer

Other Readings and Media

Baucom, I: Specters of the Atlantic; Dayan, C: The Law Is a White Dog; Derrida, J: Archive Fever; Hartman, S: Lose Your Mother; Love, H: Feeling Backward; Latour, B; Reassembling the Social; Palmie, S: Wizards and Scientists; Warren, K: What Was African American Literature?

A reader may include works by Theodor Adorno, Anjali Arondekar, Walter Benjamin, Vincent Brown, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rita Felski, Jennifer Fleissner, Ranajit Guha, Saidiya Hartman, Jared Hickman, Steven Knapp, Bruno Latour, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Ricoeur, David Scott, Michael Taussig, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Slavoj Zizek.


Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of defeat, and when it comes it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.

-- William Morris (1886)

History moves as the shadow to Morris's prose, and that movement conspires with problems of interpretation and naming not only to produce the hidden history of the defeated, but to moderate the scholar's ambition to know the past. It is just this inertia that leads to the "promise" of continuous history, as Michel Foucault would mark it, the guarantee "that one day the subject, in the form of historical consciousness, will once again be able to appropriate, to bring back under his sway, all those things that are kept at a distance by difference, and find in them what might be called his abode." We have come to accept the redemption of the dead as a kind of critical second nature and to take as fundamental ambitions of all historical work the drive: [a] to restore agency, voice, and interiority to those to whom such qualities have been denied; [b] to continue, reanimate, or complete the political projects of those who were defeated by history; and [c] to make a part of the social order "all that which did not fit properly into the laws of historical movement" (Adorno). The "recovery imperative" thus names both a retrieval of the past and a repair of the subject. It seeks to undo Hegelian condemnations of those perceived to be "without a past" as unfit for it.

Despite these laudable ambitions, the recovery imperative has been the object of serious questioning of late, by scholars who wonder if redemptive or redressive history is the only kind we can either have or perform. This is work that has been written from a wide range of perspectives: the politics of refusal (Love), the critique of the social (Latour), the embrace of pessimism and failure (Scott), and the antisocial thesis (Edelman), to name a few. It is work, generally, that reflects the attempt to write from the perspective of that which avails against recovery, and to hold the negativity of the unfit in the space of critical writing (i.e., the disruptions that thwart efforts to determine political goals according to a model of representation). It is work that calls for, in the words of Mick Taussig, "muted and defective storytelling as a form of analysis."

As epithet, vociferation, and declamation often both render the defeated undeserving of history and make available to us the very existences we want to encounter, is there something productive about being "unfit for history"? What can the framing of redemptive historiography not countenance? Is the project of continuing or completing the political projects of the past foreclosed by our own present conjuncture? Is there something essentially redemptive in the critique of redemption?

We will begin by reading key texts in the tradition of the recovery imperative, along with recent work that sustains the claim to genealogical continuity between the past and the present (Dayan). We will then seeks to study the philosophical, critical, and ethical background of four moments in the critique of the recovery imperative: [1] critiques of symptomatic reading (Fleissner, Felski, Ricoeur, Marcus and Best); [2] interrogations of the archive as anamenesis, or a force that countervails memory (Arondekar, Baucom, Derrida, Hartman, Palmie); [3] the problem of looking "behind" or outside the object of representation (Love, Latour); and [4] explorations of the limits and paradoxes of Western conceptions of historical time (Chakrabarty, Hickman, Taussig).

Though my own expertise is in Atlantic slavery, the accent on philosophical and critical contexts means that no single literary period or canon will figure as primary in our conversations. I invite lively and passionate critique of the scholarly works we'll be reading, but my ultimate goal will be to weave that critique into a positive set of arguments about method: what is the methodology of the text in question?; is there a shared methodology across these texts?; how does one use the work of another scholar to assemble the fundaments of one's own?

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