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“Archives for the Future: A Case for Over-Reading”
This event is sponsored by the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute and the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity.
"In this talk I will reflect upon the method I developed in my forthcoming book, The Brink of Freedom: Improvising Life in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World, for interpreting two sets of 19th-century archives: letters from black settler colonists in Liberia between 1820 and 1855, and letters and literature from Mayan rebels and their Creole antagonists during the Caste War of Yucatán from 1847 to 1860. “Freedom” has often been represented as a universal value—sometimes lofty, sometimes impossibly abstract—which history either realizes or betrays. The Brink of Freedom challenges this assumption by showing how freedom circulates as a powerful, nimble, equivocal term coursing through the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. I read for the ways enslaved, colonized, and subaltern subjects speculated about freedom as an ever-changing but strikingly quotidian concept-metaphor around which to organize their political struggles and, indeed, their very lives. I cultivate a reading practice from which documents that seem to be over-saturated with mundane, empirical details emerge, rather, as speculative reflections upon, as well as efforts to interrupt and improvise with, nineteenth-century conceptions of freedom animated by the global systems of racial capitalism and centrist liberalism. To locate and track what I call the quotidian globalities of these documents, I argue that American studies must let go of the comforts of contemporary historicism and learn to read for speculative thought in and amongst the archived everyday, even at the risk of seeming to "over-read" our archives."