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The Poetry Of W.E.B. Du Bois With Rebecka Rutledge Fisher

August 31, 2020 | Sophia Ramos

Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature Rebecka Rutledge Fisher discusses her decades-long research on the work of prolific author W.E.B. Du Bois.


Philip Hollingsworth 00:04

Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode I speak with Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature Rebecca Rutledge Fisher. In our conversation, Professor Rutledge, Fisher discusses her latest book project on the poetry and poetics and the interdisciplinary writings of WEB DuBois. All right, Rebecca, thank you very much for joining me today and talking with me about your research.

Rebecca Rutledge Fisher  00:44

Thank you for having me is really such a pleasure to be here. And to get a chance to talk with you and talk about this work that has been so important to me and, and hopefully to other people.

PH 00:57

I guess to start out, how would you describe your research interests in general, in one or two sentences, I know that’s hard,


Given me nuisances, now,  I tried to limit myself to one with a colon, right? You can stretch that sentence on, right? Like if you know how to arrange it. But in one sentence, My interests are situated in black critical theory. And so here comes the colon. I am interested in how black critical theorists drawing upon the black radical tradition. And we could talk about that a little bit more, use what I call the deep sublime, to analyze and actively resist political strongholds of systemic racism and white supremacy. And I’m interested in their use of various literary devices or cultural devices, artifacts, as they work in the interest of global justice and human conviviality for all people. So it’s a movement through the black radical tradition to a kind of global humanism.

PH 02:15

I was intrigued by that term, the deep sublime. Can you talk a little bit about that?


Yeah, it’s a term that I’ve been developing. And it’s informed by 18th century theories of the sublime that come from Immanuel Kant and less so from Edmund Burke. But from the manual Congress, it’s, it’s in the French and German traditions of the Enlightenment, that I’m better versed than in the Anglophone traditions, I’m a comparative by training. And so I’m interested in Kant’s notion of the sublime as he develops it in the critique of judgment, the final of his three critiques, where he seeks a way of traversing the gap that separates pure reason and practical reason. So for him, it is the reads, then that comes through or the experience that comes through an engagement with the sublime right with the aesthetic. And so I should say, with the aesthetic, if that aesthetic engagement comes via a sublime experience, right, the natural sublime, where you might be looking at a great mountain or a huge gulf, or hopefully you’re not looking at a tidal wave or tsunami, but some grand naturally that and he also thinks of him in terms of the mathematical sublime notions of infinity. what Kant postulates is that we can come to at least approach knowledge and understanding that we can’t fully grasp, but know is there and we do that through this engagement with the sublime. So my theory which I’m developing in relation to this book on Dubois, is looking at what I’m calling the poetic sublime. How one imagines that which lies beyond knowledge, and articulates that imagination through the poetic and so the poetic then becomes instrumental in creating new knowledge, because it can then lay the foundations for that.

PH 04:54

Well, thank you for that. And you mentioned it in your answer about the sublime earlier, but can you talk about Your current research project.


Well, the project is titled The Thinker as poet, the poetry’s and poetics of WEB DuBois. So before I get to the discussion of the sublime, I just want to give you a little bit of background here and talk about Dubois as being one of the foremost black radical figures figures coming out of the black radical tradition. Of course, there are many others have extraordinary merit, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, who’s in a renaissance of sorts right now, and Horton Spillers, in the United States, Franz Fanon, and what we saw in the Francophone Caribbean, and will they swing Bank of Nigeria, but Dubois is for me, Paramount, I’ve studied his work for more than 20 years and published a number on him. And he’s the focal point of my first book, as you know, habitations of the veil metaphor and the politics of black being in African American literature. And so there I was focusing on metaphor as a way to forge new knowledge right metaphors as exploration, and both land knowing that open up the unknown. This current book builds upon DuBois was a lever, and the really the framer of that first book project, the current research project, AIDS me in developing what I’m calling a concept of poetry’s will allow me to focus on the broader array of emotions Dubois put forward, DuBois was trained in philosophy, he studied psychology under William James at Harvard, he was also trained as a sociologist and actually carried out the first work of urban sociology in the country. And so he is one of the founders of that discipline. And he carried out many works in historiography, that would revise the historical record, and actually counter some of the methodologies that were dominant in his own day. But each of those works, he uses the poetic, right? In each of those words, he either inserts of poetry, to convey a sense of knowledge of work of poetry, to convey a sense of knowledge, or he takes recourse to poetic language, in his own draft eggs. And so what I’m interested in is the ways in which he intervenes across a variety of disciplines that have frequently sometimes unconsciously served as academic strongholds of racial and social injustice, to make incisions there, and use the plural poetry’s rather than the singular poetry to kind of account for this multi disciplinarity and this transdisciplinary that we see him engaging in really before interdisciplinarity was a thing or even allowed in the American Academy. And so that’s part of what I’m doing in, in this project.

PH 08:34

Thank you for that. So would you consider the use of poetry and poetics almost as a rhetorical device is, is to is that off base or, I don’t know.


Not off base, this all at all, I’m, I’m more so interested in poetics as not so much a rhetorical device, but as a as the basis of the methodology, right? So we can poetry and the related word poetics from the Greek police’s meaning to make so there is a kind of scaffolding that’s undertaken in the poetic and specifically in conceptual. So we very often think of poetry in terms of word play, and in terms of the kinds of rhetorical devices that you’re talking about here. But we also have to think about poetry in terms of its imaginative forces, right, what it can indicate as the beyond of what we understand. So it’s through the poetic that we can imagine that which lies beyond what we know what we have historical periods through the poetic and specifically poetry as thought. And so I’m being influenced by Martin Heidegger here. A bit as well, so poetry as thought and thought, as poetry. It’s in employing the poetic in that way that we are, in fact able to establish new knowledge. And we can only come to new knowledge by imagining that which is not. And in fact, such imagination is always poetic. And I would argue that this is the case, no matter the discipline, whether we’re talking about neurology or robotics or psychology, or sociology. Archaeological reconstructions of prior societies, for instance, are political in nature. And archaeologists very often hypothesize the gaps and their findings to recreate a sort of scenario to establish a history. In fact, they are the sizing when they undertake those attempts to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of what was so any extend ourselves into the hypothetical into the unknown, we are actually finding ourselves into the deep reaches of a poetic sublime, out of which we are able to craft knowledge.

PH 11:15

Oh, thank you for that. I went to grad school at UNC and I was in romance studies and did your Spanish Yeah, yes. And Spanish American literature. And I taught a literature course. And I always talked about how I was kind of talking about pros versus poetry and always see poetry as a way like if you’re, you’re cooking, and basically cooking with words, and you’re you’re really boiling all that down to that essential, like, basically, you’re making some thick stew versus like a big a big soup. So you’re a centralizing the idea or the the image. And that’s really a wonderful way to think about it. Your a- that’s a thick rendering. So there’s kind of density there. Yeah.  Like a rue or something- I don’t know. I’ve been watching Top Chef recently. So how do you envision your current project on DuBois in his his poetry or poetics shaping your field of study or the understanding of his work?


Well, for this particular study, as I was telling you a little bit before we got started, it was it was really re energized by the current activism that we’re seeing, not only across the United States, but across the world. And so there’s been this global reverberation of the Black Lives Matter movement. And among their many calls is also a renewed call for anti racist humanism, anti racist humanism, and departments of literature, as well as across the academy writ large. And so I hope in my work to respond to this call, and I’m doing so by profiting from the voices deep awareness of the radical powers of the poetic. He was also however, sublimely aware of the ways in which poetry as the crown jewel of the literary genres could be used conservatively to reify, the status quo. And I’m sure that, you know, I will bug some fans by saying, that’s exactly what’s articulated in many versions of the new criticism, up through the 1960s 1970s. Right. So, DuBois was also writing poetry. At that time, Dubois began when he was born in 1868, began his published his career as a published writer at the tender age of 15. And wrote up until the time of his death at age 95. So we have 80 years of writing from DuBois. All across this time, he wrote poetry up to the time of his death, and His death actually came on the eve of the great march on Washington. So that’s an interesting incision. And in in that moment, the great march on Washington, the ensuing signings of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, the incendiary moments that would come just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. And then, as we began to move out of those moments, we began to see a shift in the Academy right, so not only the founding of departments of black studies, but the admission of the first women, white women into the UK had me. And many people don’t realize this, but white women academics very often come into the academy under the title of minority professor. So send it was then only later, as we began to as a country to allow people of African descent to earn the PhD in remarkable numbers. So as we began to train scholars, who would then come into the academy, and what for some of them instruct based on the status quo. But for others, there came this incisive moment where they recognize very clearly that every work of American literature is about race, even works that portray only white characters, those works too. So you know, the aftermath of that revolution, I’m calling it the bringing of critics of color into the academy, I’m still reverberates, we still have, yeah, I mean, you can look at local examples in the Academy of the breaking off from departments of literature, of a collective of scholars who wanted more progressive, or incisive examinations of that literature. So you have at, let’s say, Duke, for example, Department of English and a program and literature, that same kind of schism take place at Syracuse University. So there are still debates over the kinds of racial conservatism that have been enacted through the dictates of formalism and new criticism. So it’s my hope that do Boyce’s work, my work on Dubois will shed light on his use of poetry. And the ways in which the poetic has figured not only in the tradition of black critical thought, but also most significantly in the contributions of black radical followed in support of global humanism and universal rights, as we begin to pay attention to those questions in very important ways, in our specific departments. And for me, that would be in Department of, of literature. So I hope that my work has some impact on the humanities writ large and on the contributions that an anti racist, anti white supremacist humanities can and must make to society.

PH 17:41

To wrap things up, I just wanted to know, if people you know, in anticipation of this work, want to get started on on, you know, books related to what you’re working on currently, or some of the primary resources. What’s a book that inspired your research?


Well, again, I turned to Dubois, all of the voices books inspire me. And of course, the one that people would probably be most familiar with is his Souls of Black Folk, which was published in 1903. And that’s a book that’s dear to my heart. I suppose though, I cannot choose only one. So if I had to say which books of Dubois is most inspired me, I would actually choose two different ones. The first would be Black Reconstruction in America, which was published in 1935. And that’s a book of critical historiography that actually revises our own thing of the unfolding of the Reconstruction period in the south and across the United States, and Dubois, contextualize it globally. It was widely contested, and it’s de, but it is now the standard understanding of the Reconstruction period. So that is that is the first one that globally inspired study of democracy in the United States and in the American South before and after the Civil War. The second would be a lesser known work of his and titled the world in Africa from 1947, so a couple of years after the founding of the United Nations, and that’s a groundbreaking research situation of Africa in the crucible of world history. He takes us back to a time prior, even to the Egyptians who civilization arose before that of Greece. And indelibly shaped the civilization that would arise in Greece. And so both of these books are instrumental in my work as I work towards grasping a decolonize global history of poetics, in which Africa signal roll is is recognized The world in Africa guided me to a history of poetry that begins not with Homer, but to but with a time even before Aesop, the Ethiopian poet who is cited as a forbear by both Homer and Eliot, and by Aristotle in the rhetoric and the poetics, and Black Reconstruction as a work of critical historiography, that is liberally punctuated with poetry and poetics, and is nearly explicit about the important role that poetry can play in piercing what Dubois calls the propaganda of Eurocentric history, a history that still survives today. And that seeks to justify the oppression and marginalization of black people and people of color. So these works have taught me that colorblind liberal politics are just as malignant as anti black racism. And that key words such as tolerance and diversity and inclusion, do little more than benignly reinforced the ideals behind white supremacy. So they give me energy. When I feel my own energy is flagging, they give me inspiration in terms of method and depth and reach. So truly, those are inspiring books and and very accessible to anyone who, who wants to look to them for inspiration of their own.

PH 21:36

Wow. Well, thank you very much. That was great. Rebecca, I just want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. And and I wish you the best and and have a have a great rest of your summer.


Thank you so much. I’m looking forward to working with the other fellows at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities here at UNC and to learning from everyone who obviously we’ve got some great projects that have been funded this year. And I’m just looking forward to being nourished by all that great knowledge that’s going to be going around the room during our weekly lunches. So thank you very much Philip for for having me.

PH 22:20

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