Ross Chapman recounts the panel discussion, “Reading the Election”, in which the drama of this election cycle was connected to literature. This event was the perfect antidote for election season sour grapes.
“In the wake of the election, what can the study of literature offer us?” Rachel Eisendrath posed this question to a somber Ella Weed Room in Milbank Hall yesterday evening. Eisendrath, Assistant Professor of English at Barnard, moderated the panel discussion “Reading the Election,” put on by the Barnard English Department. In a “brutally reductive landscape of soundbytes and slogans,” she asked, what purpose can literature serve? She and the other panelists advocated that art should not be thrown away, and learning and action should not be mutually exclusive. Before the panel proper began, Eisendrath promised that each speaker would take five to eight minutes. Predictably, the speeches took over an hour.
Christopher Baswell, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of English, got the festivities started. “I have a handout,” he announced, “because if you don’t have a handout, it’s not the English Department.” Baswell, a medeival and renaissance specialist, brought The Parliament of Fowls by Chaucer to bring in the old English ideal of “comun profit.” He argued that the older and deader a work or society is, the more alternative it can be. (He was quick to follow up and point out that this was not a total endorsement.) Common profit extends across the world and across generations, and the idea circulated in London in the 15th century. Chaucer, through common profit, expresses the possibility of some sort of human salvation through the advancement of others. In a call to action, Baswell encouraged common profit as a forward option for those seeking direction under a new presidency.
Next up was Achsah Guibbory, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of English, another student of old literature. Her class had been reading the works of John Milton in the lead up to the election. His prose pamphlets in the mid-17th century expressed an obsession with liberty – he argued that all men were naturally born free. In a century of British revolution, Milton made freedom, reason, and choice “his holy trinity.” While he believed in the possibilities of the human will, he did struggle with the possibility of the English making a bad decision, such as returning to monarchy. Guibbory also cited a call to action from Milton at the end of Paradise Lost. As opposed to seeking inner paradise, we must go out into the world and seek to make it a better place.
Jennie Kassanoff, Associate Professor of English, gave the longest talk of the evening, tackling the current discourse of a “post-fact” or “post-truth” era. While its current rise was accelerated by reality TV, and the idea that people normally exaggerate what they truly mean when appealing to the public, the turn away from truth is nothing new. Kassanoff argues that there is a basic American tradition of forgetting things, as expressed in novels such as Washington Square in which heroes are given the option to leave the past behind and do things over. The Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder followed that same tradition of forgetting the past and throwing precedent to the wind. While the old systems of nefarious voter suppression have died down, equally dangerous methods of gerrymandering and Voter ID laws still disenfranchise voters who should have been protected by the Voting Rights Act. Kassanoff implored the audience to vote in local, non-presidential elections to affect change outside the purview of the president.
Finishing the program was Timea Szell, Senior Lecturer in English. She shared stories of growing up under Stalinism, and she did not mince words when it came to “that creature that is our president-elect.” “Even if I were a white supremacist,” she jabbed, ” I would not want him to be my candidate because he does not make a good example for white supremacy.” She discussed the linguistic failures (and appeals) of the Make America Great Again slogan. The use of “America” as opposed to the “United States” draws on colonial language, and greatness varies wildly based on the viewer. She concluded that the statement’s “again” imperative had the subtlety of the question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” During a panel which often danced around Donald Trump’s name, Szell confronted him head-on.
Just trying to deal with everything via Barnard Digital Commons