Tuesday, March 8, 2011

4 Technological Implications of the Gates and Warren Debate for the field of Af-Am Literary Study

Folks in Af-Am lit circles, at least a number of my friends and friends of my friends on facebook, have been talking (often critiquing and complaining about) an essay “Does African American Literature Exist?” by Kenneth Warren from his book What Was African American Literature?

Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education, which published the essay, followed up with an online chat session, The End of African American Literature?, with Warren and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I read the transcript from the discussion/debate. For now, I wanted to jot down a few of the technological implications of the session for the field of African American literary study.

1.) High-profile, online chat session

It’s one of the few high-profile discussions/debates related to African American literature to take place using an online chat session. The visibility and value of the venue – The Chronicle of Higher Education – along with the reputation of the participants, especially Henry Louis Gates, Jr., contributed to the high-profile nature of the session.

2.) Signifying as Technical Skill 
Throughout the online chat session, Gates’s signifying, that is, the use of verbal indirection to make sly and humorous critiques, was an energizing and entertaining element of the discussion.

For example, at one point, Gates said to Warren, who’s a professor at the University of Chicago: "By the way, I don't know about Chicago, but up here, we haven't entered a 'post-race' or 'post-black' anything! There won't be post race until we are post racism." Among other things, Gates could have been alluding to being arrested at his house.

Later, Warren wrote that based on his ideas, "a course in Af-Am lit would be begin in roughly 1890 and end somewhere in the 1970s." Gates quickly responded “Not in my class! It begins in 1770 and ends yesterday."

In many respects, Gates’s signifying and verbal play can be viewed as useful *technical* skills. Indeed, signifying amounts to a complex system of producing links in short, tweet-like statements.  

3.) Hi-tech Venues for African American Literary Scholarship 

The appearance of Warren’s essay and the subsequent online chat session in The Chronicle of Higher Education might, in a positive sense, tell us that discussions of African American literature can and do take place beyond the realm of black literary journals.

On the other hand, the fact that the essay and online chat session did not and probably could not (at this point) appear in a leading African American literary journal dedicated to African American literary scholarship might tell us something—not to positive—about the state of such venues. That is, our “leading’ journals are not yet digitally equipped to host live, online chat sessions. And few of those journals have active blogs.

4.) The Transmission of Provocative Essays

At one point, Warren mentions that “African American literary study has a bright future,” and Gates followed up by noting that “I agree with my friend, Ken, about the bright future, as long as he keeps writing provocative essays such as this one!”

Signifying aside, the transmission of Warren’s article -- via email forwards, blogs, facebook, and twitter links -- represents an important model for how African American literary scholars might reach broader audiences.

Feel free to let me know of additional technological implications.

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