Meet Your Humanities Faculty: Douglas Jones

Our Fall 2022 tgiFHI series continues with Douglas Jones, Associate Professor of English and Theater Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Jones on his research interests, methods, and practice.

Tell us a bit about your research interests and how they developed for you.

My current research agenda is clustered around three primary areas: 18th- and 19th-century American literary studies, performance studies, and political theory. I came to these fields somewhat organically in terms of how they allowed me to ask certain questions about early American political cultures. One of my chief interests going into graduate school was the cultural work that facilitated Americans’ imaginings of themselves as a new nation with radically different types of persons as part of that polity. What I discovered very quickly is that the traditional archives of literature, written personal accounts, and monuments only tell us part of the story. There's another kind of archive, if you will, of embodied action, of oratory, theatrical culture, discourse, and being on the streets. So much of early American history emerges from spectacular performance events, the Boston Tea Party for example. My attraction to the intersections of early American embodied cultures and literary cultures was necessary and swift.

I was especially drawn to the question of how the United States positioned itself in relation to the institution of chattel slavery, since the US was founded on democratic principles such as consent of the governed and equality before the law. That moved me to working in various antislavery and proslavery archives. Those archives are full of written and material effects, but also ephemeral, embodied, theatrical, performative ones. So, if I wanted to ask the sorts of research questions that I wanted to ask and, indeed, answer them, I had to embrace various fields. I had no choice but to work across fields, disciplines, and methods. 

Consider enslaved persons’ and their descendants’ relative lack of access to the materials that make up traditional archives. Any interest in the ways in which they crafted political cultures; created and transmitted knowledge among themselves and others; or innovated aesthetic praxes requires working with what performance theorists call the repertoire of embodied action. As my current research suggests, these populations used the repertoire to a do a lot of theorizing of, say, the political. Traditional approaches to the history of ideas will always fail to miss these populations’ pivotal elaborations of political thought and practice. Happily, scholars are developing methods with which to understand how intellectual production happens on and through bodies in time and space. 

Can you say a bit more about your research methods and specifically what your day-to-day research practice looks like? Is there is a particular text that you're working on right now that you find especially interesting?

My day-to-day research practice depends on where I am in the project. For example, if I'm working in an archive or historical society or library, my day might include pulling out boxes, reading letters, reading newspapers; just doing a lot of retrieval, taking pictures, and getting copies. So that's what one day in my life as a researcher might look like. 

I try to do most, if not all, of this work before I begin my writing process. I spend a lot of time researching in collections, libraries, and archives so that I can later dedicate the bulk of my time to the writing. Once I am writing, I'm fairly disciplined in terms of setting down objectives for the week and meeting them. There was a practice that I developed for myself in graduate school: when I was writing my dissertation, I aimed to write a single-spaced page per weekday. If Saturday rolled around and I only had three pages when I should have had five, Saturday became a catch-up day. Because I wanted my Saturdays for Saturday-type stuff, I almost always made sure that I was on schedule. That type of writing discipline and regiment really works well for me.

I’m a big proponent of putting something on paper and refining it later, as opposed to trying to craft that perfect sentence or paragraph up front. So, a lot of the time when I say I am “writing,” I am really editing. One thing that happens regularly during my process is find myself moving to areas that I didn't outline—it’s almost magical! Sometimes they are digressions and tangents that don't work, but very often they do. This is to say that for all the writing discipline I espouse and try to practice, I do leave room for improvisation and a bit of wandering. But for any of this to happen, I must have the lion’s share of the archival research done.

The next question is about interdisciplinarity. Can you say a little bit more about how it plays out in your work?

One of my primary fields is performance studies, which emerged out of a peculiar combination of anthropology, rhetoric, literary studies, theater history and criticism, and philosophy. So, for me, interdisciplinarity is at the core of my training and critical approach.

That said, my subjects often lead me to different disciplines, because historical figures work within and across and against what we now call disciplines. This is especially true of the populations of British North America and the United States I study. To be sure, literary theory offers tremendous insights in the formal-generic aesthetics and political interventions of, say, classic antebellum slave narratives such as like Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of 1845. But at the same time, abolitionists like Douglass and their proslavery detractors worked at the lectern: they were orators whose words moved the social and political order of the day.

To take another example: I'm currently writing a book at the intersection of literary studies and political theory, especially democratic theory. The project, I hope, honors the literariness, the writerly, the formal aesthetics of my objects of analysis on one hand, but also, on the other hand, how they elaborate and reconceptualize specific democratic principles. It has been difficult crafting methods and identifying interventions because literary studies and political philosophy don't talk to each other very often; their terms and priorities don't regularly intersect.

I found myself asking questions like: how might I read political theory out a set of evangelical poems that is legible in political philosophy? What do these poems do as poems that might engender a particular understanding of some rudiment of democracy? What does the literary sketch as a genre, as a very popular genre in the mid-nineteenth century, offer a political philosopher that might be interested in questions of democratic subjectivity? What does the literary sketch supplement, complement, and elaborate in our understanding of democratic personhood that we have missed because we have relegated the genre to the work of culture, outside politics? 

I find myself often struggling with this balancing act. But it is a significant one to perform because, by reading early black literary as political philosophy, we encounter perspectives and knowledge-making that are sorely missing in the field precisely because early black writers, both free and enslaved, very rarely turned to formats like the essay or the treatise as their primary modus for philosophizing. For them, literary-intellectual culture and political culture are one-in-the-same. The kinds of disciplinary bifurcation that we might see now in our own cultural lives did not really obtain in long nineteenth century. This is why the publication of Phyllis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773 was such a momentous political event. Thomas Jefferson wrote about Phyllis Wheatley on multiple occasions, most notably in his States on the Notes of Virginia (1785), because there was something about writing as an enterprise that had deep political consequences and implications in the eighteenth century, especially racialized ones. For better or for worse, we don’t have that sort of relationship with literary culture today. 

Tell us about your presentation for tgiFHI. What are some of the takeaways you want people to walk away with?

For tgiFHI I'm presenting some thoughts on the relationship between a practice called black minstrelsy, African American literature, and modern black subjectivity. Black minstrelsy was a theatrical phenomenon in the second half of the nineteenth century in which black performers donned blackface to perform their own versions of the minstrel show. Essentially, they took over the minstrel show, figuring, “Well, if white men in blackface can become rich and shape Anglo-American societies mocking us, watch what we can do.”

Forms of comedy like standup and the sketch and musical forms like as ragtime, jazz, and the blues all emerge out of the black minstrel show. For black performers and their black audiences, minstrelsy in no way affirmed black people as genetically deficient, as those who are inherently and always unintelligent, who are linguistically inept, who are incapable of being full, productive citizens in the American polity. Rather, they used minstrelsy and the blackface mask as theatrical conventions with which to tell their own stories and wrestle with their own sensibilities and desires, doing so with little to no regard about how others might judge them.

These performers, choreographers, composers, dancers, singers, musicians, instrumentalists, jugglers, and comedians weren’t especially worried about the “politics” of their minstrelsy. They were most invested in the social milieux they were creating for themselves and their audiences. The talk is going to deal with how black minstrelsy formed, what it does, why it does what it does, and how it influenced and shaped modern (African) American cultural formations and identities in ways that critics at the time and since either ignore or don’t want to talk about. We find that the black minstrelsy exerted a tremendous influence on black literary modernism, that is, the texts we associate with the Harlem Renaissance. That influence is in the characters, in how plots unfold, in narrative twists, in how the comedy is figured, and more. In short, my talk will consider how the seeds of modern black American literary production were planted in black minstrelsy. What's especially fascinating is there are so few, too few, critical approaches to that understanding that influence. 

We have writers like Rudolph Fisher and Zora Neale Hurston who embrace black minstrelsy and, more broadly, black vernacularity; they didn’t shy away from the fullness of black sociality: it became the wellspring of their art. Then we have someone like a James Weldon Johnson, who, while recognizing the importance of black minstrelsy, also decides against embracing it too much because he doesn't want his work to reaffirm some of its stereotypes. And then we have someone else like W.E.B. Du Bois who just rejects it and tries to offer forms of writing that are completely devoid of black minstrel material. The thing I would like people to take away from the talk is that when we conceptualize movements like the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement, it’s important to remember that they don't constitute absolute breaks from what came before or what is around it: there are continuities, transformations, spill overs. These movements that we study, oftentimes as high culture, as “Literature,” have a deep and tangled relationship with the vernacular, with popular culture. One cannot really understand the work of Langston Hughes, Rudolf Fisher, Marita Bonner, Jesse Faucet, or Nella Larson separate from the popular. But with the controversy that is black minstrelsy—blackfaced black performers in minstrel shows of their own making—scholars have largely refused to embrace it as worthy of serious critical treatments. My aim in this talk and the broader projects from which it derives is to help reveal just how important black minstrelsy was in the making of modern (black) America and, thus, why we should be studying it.

What classes are you teaching this year?

I’m teaching a course that is part of the Transformative Ideas program. The course is at the intersection of literary studies, theater studies, and political philosophy. It is a course about power: What is power? How is it constructed? How is it understood in terms of its relationship to the state? In terms of sovereignty and authority? In terms of violence? What are the ways in which we recognize power? How is it created? Transferred? Lost? 

In the class we read foundational political philosophers on power such as Machiavelli, Arendt, Mills, Weber, and Fanon, among others. We then pair up their text(s) with dramatic literature. And what this approach allows students to think about is the important of performance and other forms of public culture to the maintenance or transferal or accumulation of power within a polity. For example, we read Machiavelli’s The Prince alongside Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Students were very interested in the question of ambition: How does ambition function? How does it help you not only to procure power, but also to lose power? Machiavelli talks about when to use overriding force; he says the prince should use force once and for all, that he should not string it out. Students saw an illustration of this Machiavellian principle in Macbeth's downfall. This course is really trying to understand some of the cultural elaborations of what we call political power.

My students in the course loved Antigone. We wrestled with this clash between state power, which Creon represents (and must represent because Thebes is just coming out of a civil war), and cultural power, which Antigone represents in her effort to bury her brother Polyneices. Why is that clash so affectively and intellectual generative? And why does Creon win out? Or does he? What does the play say about state power versus cultural power as it takes shape in family and religion? We read Antigone alongside Plato's Crito. In the Crito, Crito says to Sophocles who is awaiting his execution, “Hey, we've got to get you out of prison and go somewhere else, and there you can raise your sons. It's important for your family that you escape.” To this Socrates says, “No, I can't do that, because the law and the state is more important than my family or any family. How can I raise my sons with honor and integrity if we are living elsewhere as fugitives, in rank violation of Athenian law?” The sorts of questions that these pairings of political philosophy with drama have prompted have been incredibly exciting for students to take up.

Associate Professor of English and Theater Studies Douglas Jones.
Associated Program(s)