Welcome to the Pre-Conference Conversations for the New England American Studies Conference. We're writing about the things we'll talk about the conference--join the conversation!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Word and Image in the Print Culture of Atlantic Slave Revolt

The paper I will present at the NEASA conference this fall attempts to theorize the relationship between prose narrative accounts of Atlantic slave revolt and the illustrations that often accompanied them. Approaching the Nat Turner insurrection (1831) through the lens of media studies, I examine the tensions that exist between the content of these written accounts, which tend to emphasize the contingent and exceptional nature of violent slave uprisings—and thus the impossibility of their recurrence—and the discursive thrust of their frontispiece illustrations, which often undercuts this attempted containment. The genericized woodblock images that precede these pamphlets often operate by an allegorical logic that undermines the text’s overall efforts to render the Turner revolt a singular phenomenon. Moreover, the images’ technological reproducibility—emblematized by the fact that the image accompanying Samuel Warner’s Authentic and Impartial Narrative (1831) of the Turner revolt is recycled in an account of an entirely different uprising during the Seminole War several years later (the anonymous Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War, 1836)—gives the ultimate lie to claims to insurrectionary exceptionalism.

I am still working to verify my hypotheses about the kinds of printing networks that would have permitted the woodblocks used to create these images to migrate between the different urban hubs of antebellum printing (I have determined that the images are not merely copies of each other). As I do so, it would be very helpful to know if others involved in this year’s conference are addressing similar issues through different materials and how they are approaching them. I would be interested to hear about other projects that attempt to trace the provenance of shared printed matter and then to leverage this information into an argument about the literary or ideological content of texts.

The second question I would like to pose here involves how digital archives are making different kinds of scholarship possible. As my paper will detail, this project would not have been possible without both expansive online research into the visual culture of Atlantic slave revolt (which rendered the recycling alluded to above visible to me) and more traditional archival research (which confirmed it). Likewise, digital remediation will make it infinitely easier for me to communicate my findings at our conference and in the classroom. At the same time, it would be naïve to regard such remediations as substantially different from the ones that take place between the different texts I mention. If the tools of digital literary studies have become sophisticated enough to generate new readings of old texts, how can they also help us to view our own scholarly and pedagogical practices in new lights?

-Alex Mazzaferro

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alex,

    I'm doing a lot of archival research online as well, and I wonder if you have the same thoughts about this as I do--I sometimes think about whether the research I'm doing is "real" research, because I cannot see the original documents.

    But I think this will be less and less of an issue as time goes by, because I think it's the way the world is moving...

    Jonathan Silverman