The “Wild Space of Thought”
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Saidiya Hartman on undergrads and abolition.
By Sam Needleman.
In October, the cavalcade of banal administrative emails stalled for one sweet moment to make way for a mid-morning gem in our collective inbox: Professor Saidiya Hartman, Bollinger wrote, had been appointed University Professor, Columbia’s highest honor.
Hartman, a literary scholar and cultural historian, is a singular presence at Columbia and in academia more broadly. Her three books—Scenes of Subjection, Lose Your Mother, and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, published last year—blasted open disciplinary and stylistic barriers. In her studies of bondage and freedom, race and gender, domination and subversiveness in the history of the United States, she is rigorous, sweeping, and utterly original. She alternately takes an axe to the archive and waters it like it’s an undernourished tree. To read Hartman is to realize that academia’s been doing it wrong all along; thankfully, she’s here to point us in the right direction.
She explained the thrust of her scholarship when she was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant last year: “What motivates my work is writing about the lives of those who are unknown, dispossessed, exploited, disposable, and I guess what motivates me are the surprises in the archive, the complexity and the wonder of these lives that have largely left few traces.”
Judith Butler, once Hartman’s professor at Wesleyan, told The New Yorker that in class, Hartman was “so smart that I thought the windows were gonna blow out,” adding, “the quickness of her mind and the sharpness of her critique were breathtaking.” Indeed, Hartman’s answers to the big questions, delivered over the phone on a recent afternoon, speak for themselves.
The Blue and White: First, congratulations on your new position. What was it like to be named University Professor at Columbia? Saidiya Hartman: It’s a huge honor. I was delighted. One, it’s the University’s highest honor. And second, it gives me the freedom in my teaching to do exactly what I want in whatever department I want, and just fully devote myself to my teaching and writing. So it was wonderful.
B&W: You came to Columbia in 2007 after over a decade at Berkeley. What has this university been like for you as a teacher and thinker?
SH: That’s a great question. You know, each institution has its own strengths, its distinctive culture, and I think that one of the things that I have really liked about being at Columbia is the passion of the undergraduates, and particularly the way advanced undergraduates and graduate students can sometimes share seminars. That’s been really nice. For example, I had maybe four or five really, really smart undergraduates who were then able to participate in a graduate seminar with me, and I think that was just a lovely opportunity and also a wonderful illustration of the intellectual strength of the best Columbia undergraduates. I think that one of the things that also feels distinctive to Columbia is the diversity of the undergraduates. I think this is still true—that there are more first-generation college students at Columbia than any other Ivy League, and I think you feel that in the classroom.
B&W: I’m thrilled you brought up undergrads, because this is an undergraduate publication, and we’re often thinking about the ways that we interact with the graduate students and the University as a whole. Do you enjoy teaching undergraduates, and what do you get from that experience?
SH: I do enjoy teaching undergraduates. I’ve had brilliant graduate students at Berkeley and at Columbia. What I like about teaching undergraduates is that you have an intellectual curiosity and passion, a brilliance that’s not yet directed toward a professional project. So a really smart undergraduate in a literature seminar is not thinking about himself or herself or themself as a member of the profession—it’s just having a passionate engagement with literature. And I think of it as potentially a kind of wild space of thought, where one has the opportunity to take advantage of what still feels like an incredible luxury, which is just the space of thinking, and a thinking that doesn’t need to have any instrumental value. I think that that’s what’s particular to undergraduate education, this kind of cultivation of critical and creative capacities.
B&W: Will you tell us about your time as an undergraduate? What were you thinking about? What made you tick?
SH: It’s interesting that you ask that, because I went to a very small college—I went to Wesleyan University. And one of the things that I have realized recently—and it’s partly through reading the work some others who were undergraduates at Wesleyan, like Maggie Nelson and the writer Alexander Chee—and that is that the Wesleyan experience was so characterized by this intellectual intimacy between professors and undergraduates. So professors would often share the work that they were doing, the books that they were writing, with their undergraduates. Because they didn’t have graduate students, they had demands of us, and those demands were that we meet them. And I realized that was really this very special thing. One of my colleagues now, Gayatri Spivak, I first encountered her when she was a visiting professor in the Humanities Center at Wesleyan. One of the reasons I went to graduate school was because of my relationship with the professor Hazel Carby. That experience shaped me so radically, and I think partly it was just the access to professors and the way in which they engaged us. There was full engagement.
B&W: You mentioned Professor Spivak, who of course is also a University Professor here. Have you engaged with each other as faculty? SH: You know, we have—the funny thing is that I don’t even know if Gayatri remembers that I was her student.
[Laughter] I’ve never reminded her. The seminar that I took transformed me. I came to Columbia as a grown-up, and we share a set of intellectual issues, but no, I think that she doesn’t actually have any memory of that. And of course it’s a very significant memory for me.
B&W: I’m sure she would be thrilled to hear it.
When I told my friends that I was going to interview you, practically everybody said that they learned about your method of critical fabulation in class, whether last week or last semester. You said this method enables you to explore “the limits of the archive” and has been “central to being able to resurrect forgotten history, lost lives, the millions of stories that were lost in the Middle Passage.” It’s obvious at Columbia that this method has been successful and also highly influential. Does critical fabulation feel sufficient for you as a scholar? Does critical fabulation allow you to do all the work that you want to do, to write the kinds of things you want to write? I’m asking this because you’re now in such a capacious position as University Professor.
SH: Critical fabulation opened a door for me, and as someone who was really grappling with the possibility of accounting for the lives of the enslaved, there were the definite limits of what historical method could do. And so critical fabulation was about devising ways to both push against and exceed the limits of the archive, particularly when we think about the social, historical, and material forces that created the archive. For me, methods develop in a particular encounter with records, with objects, with lives, with materials, so that much of critical fabulation as a method informed Wayward Lives, but yet Wayward Lives is a different book than Lose Your Mother, and partly in Wayward Lives, “close narration” and “speculative history” are the terms that I use. Those terms, those concepts, have everything to do with the character of the material that I encountered, with the kind of material. Basically, the therapeutic state produces tons of materials about individual lives. What it does is it turns the individual life into a cave, so with the archive of Atlantic slavery, one struggles with all of the silence, the dearth of the stories, with the utter absence of material. In this period, there were volumes and volumes of materials, case files—I mean, a 200-page case file about a year or two of a young woman’s life. So the question was, what is that excess of that material doing, what is the story that it is telling? Because in a way, the state was also involved in this project of crafting narratives about the lives of these individuals. So how could one use that material and yet tell a different kind of story? So there is a selective reading of archival material, there’s an amplification of first-person statements found inside those materials, there’s thinking about the echoes between the case files and the stories embedded within, and the world of the cinema, or popular songs—a range of sources, the photograph being another, to try to create portraits that would represent this era of radical transformation and social upheaval.
B&W: Thank you for that explanation. Amid the protests against anti-Black racism this summer, you wrote in Artforum, “The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning ‘how to be more antiracist.’ It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism.” What is the role of scholarship in abolition, and did the events this summer change your answer to that question?
SH: I’ll try to keep part one and two of the question. I think when we think of a term like abolition democracy, we’re thinking of scholarly labor, we’re thinking of that really expansive concept of abolition we find in a text like Du Bois’ 1935 Black Reconstruction. I think that what’s so, for me, particular and exhilarating about all of the young folks in the street in the summer is actually how much the practice is informed and shaped by scholarly labor, how deeply informed it is by theory. Many of those people, they’ve read Cedric Robinson, they’ve read Audre Lorde, they’ve read Angela Davis. In fact, those are concepts that then provide the building blocks for these movements, and the movements in turn engender new ideas, new modalities of thought. I think that we could see it in the shock of ‘abolish and defund the police,’ and then people actually grappling with what that might mean, trying to imagine, what is the blueprint for a new set of arrangements look like? In that way, we see the way that movement actually transforms thought. And for me that was incredibly exciting to witness. It gave me a lot of hope about what might be possible.
B&W: On the Columbia level, in your New Yorker—
SH: [Laughter] On the Columbia level!
B&W: Sorry, that was an intro—my attempt at a transition. [Laughter] In your New Yorker profile, you were quoted while looking out your window at campus and the city, and you said, “It feels like a museum. All I see on the streets is private capital and rapaciousness, moving people of color out of New York.”
B&W: What are the most effective ways that faculty and students together can organize against this violence, or even think against this violence?
SH: You know, that is a great question. That is a really, really great question. I think that one, in New York City most immediately, where we have really seen the displacement of people of color and working-class folks from Brooklyn, from Manhattan, from other parts of the city, I think that there is a certain set of demands that are to be made at the city and state level about affordable housing. So people have been saying this especially in the context of the pandemic, in terms of all these empty office buildings. There’s actually enough unoccupied space for everyone to be housed. If that was actually a priority, then we could make that possible. A lot of what we see in New York in particular has to do with the predatory strategies of bankers and investment companies, so we know that any number of communities, from Bushwick to Bed-Stuy to Jamaica, Queens have been targeted by these predatory lending schemes, which actually break communities, extract value, and then make those homes available to others. So it’s a critique and assault on the very institutions that are instrumental in creating the divides between those who are permitted to live and thrive at the expense of others that is so needed in the context of the pandemic. There was an article in the New York Times today just talking about the two New Yorks—this place of extreme wealth and extreme deprivation, and the deprivation and depletion is inextricably linked with the great wealth. Look at a project like Hudson Yards—the incredible tax leeways granted to a project like that—and we have public schools that don’t have hot water. So that’s partly an answer. There are a number of people in the School of Architecture and at SIPA who have plans right now for a different New York. Many, many, many people have a vision of other ways of living and being in New York City that might be much more equitable. It’s just going to require a social movement to realize those social possibilities.
B&W: I appreciate you bringing it to the level of the city. The first work I read by you was Wayward Lives, and it was so interesting to see the way that you foregrounded the city in history—New York and Philadelphia—as your site of analysis, and certain sections, spatially and socially. That was your most recent project. What are you working on right now? Of the things you’re working on, what’s most exciting or interesting to you at the moment?
SH: You know, I’m very superstitious, and I tend not to talk about what I’m working on right now! But I will say that in terms of these issues about the city and possibilities and New York in particular, one of the things that I have thought of writing is tracing the sites of my various family homes in the city, and what an interesting story of development and capital and urban renovation that’s actually documented by the movement of my family through the city, and the streets and the houses and the neighborhoods that have disappeared. I think these issues are not only academic for me, but they’re also very personal. One of the things that was different for me and that I really enjoyed about writing about the 20th century—basically, my other work is about the 18th and 19th centuries—was writing about a place that I’m still very much connected to in space and time.
B&W: Thank you for that answer, and I’m sorry for trying to elicit spoilers from you!
SH: [Laughter] No, no! The other thing that I would say is that certainly in Lose Your Mother—again, the afterlife of slavery, how is it that our present is still being shaped and produced by what many consider the past?—but it was still different to walk in these streets that the characters I had written about had walked through, to see and to think about the successive Harlems—and, of course, Columbia’s own role in the making of those successive Harlems.
B&W: Before I let you go, what are you reading right now? SH: You know what? I’m reading a lot of poetry right now. And I think many people are, because everyone is challenged around focus and long work. I feel like poetry has given me so much, so that’s what I’ve been reading.
B&W: Any poets in particular you care to recommend? SH: I’ve been reading old things that I love. I reread Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk. I have also been reading Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love; Deborah Paredez, Year of the Dog; Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic; and some short speculative novels by Renee Gladman.
B&W: Thank you for the list. It’s a good time to reread things, I think. Thank you for speaking with me today.
SH: No, thank you!