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Generations of Resistance

[Barbara Harlow. Image by Tarek El-Ariss.] [Barbara Harlow. Image by Tarek El-Ariss.]

Barbara would understand that the task of remembering her is harder without a cat curled on my lap, perched on the desk, or emanating a spirit of companionship from somewhere in the house. "Scratches to the cats" was Barbara's sign-off to me on email exchanges. When she said no—shockingly, if rightly—to my first request that she supervise my dissertation, Barbara sent me home with the advice to crawl into bed with my two cats and to come back with a revised prospectus for her to reconsider.

My dissertation cat died last week, just shy of twenty years since the day I brought her home from the shelter in Austin. I'm feeling all over again, if more intimately and keenly, the impulse to reflect upon Barbara Harlow in terms of generation and affiliation, the span of a life and the trajectory of a career.

When I returned to Resistance Literature in the wake of Barbara's death, I saw clearly what I couldn't have seen in graduate school: the astonishing bravery of an untenured assistant professor, turning her back on (thumbing her nose at?) the edifice of high theory and the canons and common sense of Euro/American literary studies. Daring to extrapolate a politically engaged aesthetics from the work of a Palestinian writer! Thinking together the imperative of national liberation and the distortions of literary publishing! Claiming for resistance literature an emphasis on "the political as the power to change the world"[1]! The chutzpah—which Barbara might also name commitment—boggles the mind.

I glimpsed, too, another way of understanding Barbara's perennial disdain for the "postcolonial." Imagine Resistance Literature sitting lonely on bookstore shelves upon its publication in 1987, with Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) and Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious (1981) somewhere nearby. Perhaps an old copy of The Wretched of the Earth—but why would literary scholars read that? Her slim volume would have to wait two years to be joined by The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures and Gauri Viswanathan's Masks of Conquest. Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes wouldn't appear until 1992, Said's Culture and Imperialism the next year, and Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture the next. All these classics of postcolonial studies, nowhere yet to be seen when Resistance Literature entered the scene. Even Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's In Other Worlds, also published in 1987, turns from Europe to the Third World only in its final third.

When I joined the specialization in Ethnic and Third World Literatures at the University of Texas at Austin in 1993, Barbara made clear the difference between national liberation and postcolonial independence. Her wariness about the ascendancy of postcolonial studies was always framed in terms of the political stakes ("…since the struggle is not yet over…"[2]) and a sense that postcolonial theory was inadequate for making sense of literatures and histories of resistance (and the present). Nation and nationalism weren't dirty words. The Third World project was a project, one with continuing relevance to reading literature and the world. These things I learned from Barbara. But it is a testament to her self-effacing modesty, and to her clarity about which fights matter, that not once in more than two decades' conversation on this topic did I hear from her even a whiff of the obvious, careerist complaint: resistance literature was not some upstart arriviste alternative to the postcolonial; quite the opposite. In some ways, she was first.

She was also tough. I used to say that Barbara was unrelentingly frank in her feedback, one aspect of her "tough love" approach to advising graduate students. She refused to make phone calls to pals in hiring departments, or to update a letter of recommendation unless one had done something new worth recommending. She wanted to read complete chapter drafts, not to inspect each little fragmentary lump one might produce (for this she had a sweet scatological metaphor, accompanied by a gesture of cupped hands). A sign on her office door warned away any fool who would request a letter of recommendation without at least two weeks' notice and a stack of required documents in hand (including, in those days, a stamped, addressed envelope). She seemed a hardass, in the same way that I must seem a hardass to my own students.

I now suspect that Barbara was not as ruthless in her candor as it felt at the time. She once shared that an undergraduate student had marveled to her, "You know more than CNN!" What stays with me about this moment was Barbara's tact and subtlety—hearing and accepting the supreme compliment the student intended, while also acknowledging to us its supreme inadequacy as a metric of worldly knowledge. I perceived no tact at the moment Barbara sent me home to my cats, but my sense now is that it was a gesture of empathy, and that invoking the feline was one of her ways of being humane.

The strange thing about teaching is that while every word we utter is ostensibly intended to make a mark, we can be surprised by those that actually do, and it is impossible to predict which they will be.  Barbara's "no" was transformative in demanding something better, prodding me to clarify my commitments. Two other comments have had similar effect. One was her suggestion that instead of environmental degradation, environmental justice might be a productive framework for my thinking about the Bengali writer-activist Mahasweta Devi and indigenous peoples in India—a slight but profound reorientation that has shaped all of my subsequent work on environmental and energy humanities.

The other was her savvy insistence that one must not give up any institutional ground. It was in that spirit, I told her when we last met in January 2016, that I identify as a postcolonialist: to occupy the institutional berth of postcolonial studies and wield it against other frameworks (world lit, global Anglophone) less disposed to cut into the world. We agreed to disagree. What I so urgently want to ask her now is about writing Resistance Literature in the mid-1980s, a moment that Tim Brennan describes in terms of "several shifts of depressing and far-reaching dimensions, both within and outside the academy. A newly emboldened far right-wing political movement began to permeate government and the public sphere, pushing the previous social democratic common sense into the margins and making it appear a lunatic fringe." Those pressures, Brennan argues, accounted for postcolonial studies' disavowal of "the liberatory language of [anticolonial] national emancipation"—in stark contrast to Barbara's solidaristic embrace of those ongoing struggles in Resistance Literature.[3] Why study literature in such a moment, so eerily and dismally like our own? Barbara tells us why, and how. A luta continua. Scratches to the cats.

NOTES

[1] Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature (New York: Methuen, 1987), 30.

[2] Harlow, Resistance Literature, xix.

[3] Timothy Brennan, "The Economic Image-Function of the Periphery," in Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, eds. Ania Loomba et al (Durham: Duke, 2005), 102. 

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