In my first semester as a new assistant professor at Butler University, I incorporated ERC-TIDE’s open-access Keywords of Identity, Race, and Human Mobility in Early Modern England (Amsterdam UP, 2021) in my undergraduate British Literature survey on worlding and worldmaking. In the text we read, my class traced how British writers of the premodern past imagined the world and their place in it. To this end, our class was interested in how language contributes to world-building: particularly, how words shape our knowledge of the world, our encounter with difference, and our understanding of the expansive scope of space and time. Looking through the interpretive prism of TIDE’s Keywords, my students quickly realized that language points to conceptions of the world in two different directions: one aims at possession, control, and extraction, or what postcolonial theorists like Gayatri Spivak call “worlding”; and the other, worldmaking, especially when attached to marginalized communities, dreams of alternative worlds built around human and planetary interconnectedness or conviviality (see the scholarship of Paul Gilroy and Pheng Cheah).
The historical essay assignment builds on Amrita Dhar’s incisive and generative lesson prompts, which she details in a post on this website’s blog. In the spirit of circulating rather than hoarding knowledge, students chose a keyword each; they wrote about their keyword’s journey from the premodern past into our present; and most importantly, they shared the insight they harvested during lively class presentations. By emphasizing collaborative learning, this assignment provided a daily reminder that language and power are intimately connected; they exist as facets of the same apparatus through which we can detect the workings of empire and its mechanisms of racial terror. For example, the conversations around the keywords “rogue,” “vagrant,” “alien/stranger,” and “gypsy” offered a glimpse of a world defined against belonging and in relation to citizenry, surveillance, and control. Asking students to position their keyword in the context of worlding and worldmaking allowed them to draw informed conclusions about the constellations of material and figurative forces that survey and hierarchize the world we continue to inhabit.
Closer to home, words shape policy, justify war, and have consequences on real lives. To illustrate my point, I will focus on the keyword “rogue”; particularly, how my class’s discussion of this keyword opened up critical paths to explore the power dynamics that render a person, groups, or nations as threatening outsiders, in the premodern past as well as in our lived realities. In the “Act for Punishment of Vagabonds” (1572), my class detected the punitive language of the state in eradicating those who threaten its ideology. When we juxtaposed “rogue” with the keyword “citizen,” we discerned the rhetorical strategies that inversely authorize the ideal citizen from which these borderless people depart. More perniciously, this language hardens through time: what starts as policing “lawless” individuals in the premodern past morphs into the hegemonic control of “rogue states” in our present.
The word “rogue,” my class realized, was utilized to designate nation-states that did not adhere to the Western hegemonic world order. The same rhetorical strategies that legitimized the identification and persecution of outsiders in the premodern past, including vagrants and vagabonds, the poor and the homeless, seasonal workers and refugees, migrated into our twenty-first-century world. In United States foreign policy lexicon, the word “rogue” became a nomenclature for recalcitrant and racialized states such as Iraq, Iran, Cuba, and Libya, “whose identity is to some extent defined by acting outside of the standard rules of international law,” in the words of Former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake. This “rogue” designation justified aggressive intervention, from economic sanctions, to regime change, to violent bombing campaigns.
Undoubtedly, my students were amenable to making connections through a transhistorical arc because they have digested the main purpose of Keywords of Identity, Race, and Human Mobility: “to examine certain terms which repeatedly illuminated points of tension, debate, and change around issues of identity, race, and belonging throughout this period” (9). What this work makes crystal clear is that as present-day readers of the humanities, we cannot overlook, excuse, and rationalize histories of violence. As residents of an imperialist power on stolen indigenous land, one that continues to punish homeless and migrant people, criminalize borders, and violate the Global South, our duty is to address, to make legible, the attendant harm in the texts we read, as we dream of a just and harmonious future.
Mira Assaf Kafantaris