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The Lab Is Closed: A Collective Future Is Open

by Matthew Applegate

The fallout from our current crises has not yet settled. As we have adapted to online iterations of our work, we have also experienced a profound loss of life, paired with an unprecedented economic collapse. How these crises might affect higher education writ large is perhaps already glimpsed by present conditions of austerity. For Digital Humanities (DH), the uneven and combined effects of the crises could fundamentally alter our disciplinary practice.

Digital Humanities are an assemblage of academic tools and methods that demand intellectual evolution. This is, first, a fact of DH’s disciplinary formation–interdisciplinary and technologically driven–but one that is still frequently debated. Second, the demand to evolve is a political principle realized in DH’s practice. Among its many iterations, traits like collaboration, generative thinking, and making are centered, modeling an intellectual evolution meant to resist individualism in the rush to produce knowledge within larger structures of individual gain. How these disciplinary practices are distinguished from long-established modes of humanistic inquiry define DH as much as they create inevitable tension.

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MATTHEW APPLEGATE is an assistant professor of English and digital humanities and director of the Writing Concentration at Molloy College in New York. Photo Credit: Lukas Firestone

Despite its digital character, institutional space—particularly the laboratory space—is most often the control mechanism that allows DH to realize its disciplinary potential. The lab, and all of its attendant costs, provides the material conditions for DH to affect humanistic inquiry because it gives us space to occupy. The DH lab might mimic more traditional iterations of the space, but it is often housed within a communal space like a library, maximizing the lab’s interdisciplinary potential. The lab is the chapter house of DH praxis, tantamount to access, technology, affiliation, and so many more aspects of what DH scholarship assumes in its practice. But what happens when the lab is closed, in some cases, for good? The question is not new to our condition of crisis, but is certainly more pressing. Perhaps the most obvious consideration here is precisely how institutional closure will produce conditions of unequal access. The speed at which DH labs reopen and provide their participants with resources will be a marker of privilege—prestige institutions stand to widen an already far-reaching gap between land-grant and teaching institutions of various sizes. For many of us, if not the majority, re-creating the resources and experience of the lab in our apartments or via Zoom is an impossibility. Even DH’s minimal iterations, which often offer the best examples of collaborative DH work, are likely to be inaccessible to most in our isolated and fragmented experiences of a global pandemic.

Perhaps the less obvious consideration of DH’s disciplinary evolution lies outside its preferred institutional space. Perhaps it’s not a question of space at all, but of method. Consider David M. Berry and Anders Fagerjord’s argument in their coauthored Digital Humanities: DH “needs to become more self-reflexive and, yes, theoretical in its approaches, to widen its intellectual breadth and depth” (11). Theory’s status in DH work remains marginal. Feminist and postcolonial interventions in DH are our most visible theoretical incursions, but Berry and Fagerjord’s argument aims to center incursions like these and expand them, “deepening [DH’s] critical reflexivity about the work and methods of its subject area” (18). It could be, to echo bell hooks’s “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” the formation of a disciplinary disposition where “our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation”; a condition where “no gap exists between theory and practice” (2).

This is precisely where my book, Guerrilla Theory: Political Concepts, Critical Digital APPLEGATEHumanities (Northwestern University Press, February 2020), models an approach to theory-driven DH work. The figure of the guerrilla, once commonly invoked in discussions over DH’s disciplinary formation, serves as a heuristic for theorizing the discipline’s continued evolution. My book is motivated by three future-oriented tasks: to (1) identify productive agonisms internal to DH praxis; (2) forefront disciplinary antagonisms to clarify DH’s disciplinary formation; and (3) position DH within a larger constellation of intellectual work that refuses to exclude the material realities of radical difference from their conceptual lineage (50). In this way, theory does not signify a return to individualism, nor a panacea to crisis, but rather an alternative practice for realizing collective goals.

In short, a theoretical turn in DH praxis is a dialogical act that demands participation and remakes our disciplinary conditions. Further, the self-reflexive work that theory offers us is a means of engaging with DH praxis absent heavy reliance on institutional funding, space, or expensive tools. Guerrilla Theory takes these propositions seriously, as it also signals a political turn with which to situate collective responses to radical institutional and disciplinary change.

Crises and Communities: Reflections on Husserl and the Idea of Europe

by Timo Miettinen

In his writings on the philosophy of history, the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) described crises as “accelerations of historical processes.” According to him, historical crises such as wars or political revolutions did not entail a complete breakdown of historical developments, but rather, an increase in their intensity.

The historical process is suddenly accelerated in terrifying fashion. Developments which otherwise take centuries seem to flit by like phantoms in months or weeks and are fulfilled.

Interestingly, Burckhardt compared crises to “epidemics” where “infection flashes like an electric spark over hundreds of miles  . . . the message goes through the air . . . things must change.”

TIMO MIETTINEN is an adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki.

As I am writing this blog in April 2020, the COVID-19 epidemic has become a global pandemic. Particularly in the Western world, the situation resembles the moment of crisis described by Burckhardt. Everything is accelerating at a phenomenal pace: existing technologies in teleworking are being adopted; new forms of online teaching are being put to use; many are trying to find new ways to connect with their loved ones from a physical distance. Amazon is hiring one hundred thousand new employees to cope with the incredible surge of demand for online deliveries.

In global politics also, the coronavirus epidemic has intensified, rather than transformed, many ongoing developments. What we are witnessing is indeed a resurgence of the nation-state as a continuation to the increased protectionism of the 2010s and the overall deterioration of a rule-based system in the age of Trump and Brexit. International institutions such as the WHO are simply weaker and unable to generate a joint response at the national level. Borders and walls are in the making.

Life, learning, and leisure—all are changing at a rapid pace.

The German philosopher Edmund Husserl also wrote in a time of crisis. Following the devastating experience of the First World War, Husserl’s philosophical project—phenomenology—went through a radical reorientation both in style and substance. In contrast to his earlier works, focusing on themes such as meaning and subjectivity, Husserl’s post-1919 works were defined by a heightened interest in questions of normativity, communality, and history. All of these topics crystallized in Husserl’s reflections on Europe from the early 1930s onwards.

In my book Husserl and the Idea of Europe (Northwestern University Press, 2020), I argue that for Husserl, this postwar crisis was not simply a negative experience. Instead, the crisis provided an important incentive to rethink the basic principles of modern rationality and its ostensible collapse in an age of havoc and national egoism. This was due to the fact that Husserl understood crises not so much as destructions of meaning but as their “emptying”: we realize that we have been living according to beliefs and convictions that we cannot fully justify.


According to Husserl, the very idea of rationality had gone through such an emptying. Following the triumph of the modern natural sciences, rationality had lost many of its normative or ethical connotations, becoming primarily a tool of control and calculation. This did not mean, however, that rationality ought to be abandoned. Instead, reason was to be conceived again in its full sense as the overarching responsibility for one’s cognitive, practical, and political judgments.

Here, the problem of community turned out to be of particular importance. Already in his writings of the late 1910s, Husserl began to emphasize the role of other subjects at the most fundamental levels of apprehension: our ability to constitute an objective world is intimately tied to an awareness that there are others who possess similar perceptual capabilities. What I am as a person and how I constitute the world is fundamentally dependent on others.

This was not simply a theoretical observation. Ethical thinking, too, was to be rethought on the basis of this fundamental interconnectedness of subjective viewpoints. Following the vocabulary of his time, Husserl called this social ethics. We cannot judge our actions simply on the basis of the idea of an isolated subject making rational choices. Instead, we need to understand ethics as a fundamentally communal practice of mutual assistance and critique.

Is not something similar at stake with our responses to COVID-19? For decades, our thinking about health—particularly in the Western world—has been conducted on the basis of an individual, even isolated subject. We carry the responsibility and the risk primarily for those decisions that we make by ourselves. I can increase my health by doing the right things. In contrast, by smoking cigarettes I am primarily hurting myself; through unhealthy eating it is I who suffer . . .

All of this has major political implications. Institutions such as insurance companies then calculate risks on the basis of our personal situation. The older I am, the unhealthier my lifestyle is, the bigger the insurance premium.

Epidemiological crises, however, are of a different sort. They are far less dependent on the individual choices of individual persons. None of the restrictions make sense if they are only followed by a small number of people. As in the case of vaccinations, for instance, in order for measures to be effective, more than 90 percent of the population needs to follow them. Moreover, the risks are distributed unevenly: those who take the biggest risks (for instance, by not following recommendations for social distancing) are not necessarily those who suffer the most.

The COVID-19 crisis necessarily entails a communal response. The problem is, however, that these kinds of responses are incredibly difficult to coordinate. This especially concerns liberal-democratic societies that rely on fundamental rights to conduct one’s life according to one’s wishes. But even in the most totalitarian societies, it is simply impossible to monitor hand hygiene or control every single human encounter.

In the age of epidemiological crises, we need trust—both in institutions and other human beings.

As I show in my book, Husserl’s heightened interest in problems of community did not take away the idea of individual responsibility. Instead, the new dynamism between the individual and the community led him to reconceive the scope of individual responsibility to encompass a wider horizon of other subjects. I am not simply responsible for my own beliefs, deeds, and judgments, but also for creating and promoting a society in which everyone is able to do the same: to reflect on their beliefs and actions freely.

And, as Husserl argued, this was what philosophy had been about already since its inception in ancient Greece: a radical practice to reflect on our convictions in the spirit of mutual assistance.

What is perhaps reassuring for our own situation is that these phenomena of trust and communal cooperation are not universal constants. They vary according to historical circumstances, and they are dependent on social models and political institutions. And it is exactly the moment of crisis that can help us to reflect on how well our current institutions serve us.

Speaking Up to Speak Out

Welcome to Northwestern University Press where we mark this year’s University Press week with the theme: “How to speak up and speak out?” It’s an apt question that highlights why we’re here.

In a publishing environment that increasingly favors middle-of-the-road, low-risk, high-return books, university presses are among the few publishers that find, tell, and highlight important regional stories that would otherwise go untold. An example here at NU Press is Lee Bey’s Southern Exposure.

Fig_B_frontpanelThe book is an insightful and illustrated guide to the glories of Chicago’s South Side’s built environment. Often dismissed or derided as a place of abandonment and violence, the South Side is the origin of many of the most iconic elements of Chicago culture and home to many of its most storied architectural landmarks.

In the book, Bey, a former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic who also served as deputy chief of staff for urban planning under Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, traces the story of the South Side, which despite decades of disinvestment, is home to many architectural treasures that await rediscovery by travelers to Chicago and architecture aficionados.

Designed by architect Gerald Siegwart, Pride Cleans (now renovated) on 79th St. has been an architectural icon since 1959.

The cover features the D’Angelo Law Library on the campus of the University of Chicago. Designed by Eero Saarinen, the building has graced Hyde Park since 1959. Another mid-century classic is the Chatham neighborhood’s Pride Cleaners (right), an unforgettable example of bold, futuristic style. Designed by Gerald Siegwart, the building’s hyperbolic parabaloid concrete roof continues to attract fans and admirers at the corner of Seventy-Ninth Street and St. Lawrence Avenue.

Interior of the First Church of Deliverance at 4315 South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. The building was originally a hat factory.

In addition to numerous classic and innovative businesses, the book also tours public parks and beaches, homes and residences, and places of worship. A fascinating example is the First Church of Deliverance at 4315 South Wabash. Originally constructed at a hat factory, in 1939 Walter Thomas Bailey partnered with black structural engineer Charles Sumner Duke to remodel and expand the building. They doubled the building’s width, added a second story, and refaced the façade in white terra cotta.

In Southern Exposure, Bey and Northwestern University Press celebrate the vibrant and resilient culture of Chicago’s South Side, offering a luminous example of how university publishing can spotlight unsung stories from our shared history.


Introduction to “Merleau-Ponty’s Developmental Ontology”

Below NU Press is pleased to reprint the introduction to Merleau-Ponty’s Developmental Ontology by David Morris, professor of philosophy at Concordia University and author of The Sense of Space.


Sense, Development, and the Phenomenology of Nature

“Nature thus interests us neither for itself nor as a universal explanatory principle, but as an index of what, within things, resists the operations of free subjectivity, and as concrete access to the ontological problem. If we refused to grant any philosophical meaning to the idea of Nature, and if we reflected directly on being, we would risk placing ourselves immediately at the level of the subject- object relationship, which is an elaboration and secondary, and we would risk missing an essential component of being: brute or wild being which has not yet been converted into an object of vision or choice. It is this that we would like to rediscover.”
—Merleau-Ponty, “Nature or the World of Silence” (“NMS”), 53

“‘What is the world?’ or, better ‘what is being?’— these questions become philosophical only if, by a sort of diplopia, at the same time that they aim at the state of things, they aim at themselves as questions— at the same time that they aim at the meaning “being,” they aim at the being of meaning and the place of meaning within Being.”
—Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 119– 20/160

Morris3DThis book articulates three overlapping philosophical themes— sense, developmental ontology, and the phenomenology of nature— that, I argue, are crucial to Merleau- Ponty’s philosophy, even if Merleau- Ponty did not in his lifetime succeed in fully elaborating these themes himself or do so under precisely these headings.

In a nutshell, sense is Merleau-Ponty’s concept of meaning as manifest within being itself, versus meaning as an ideal or nominalist imposition on being. It is one of his earliest and greatest discoveries, and the problem of the being of sense pervades the rest of his philosophy. What I call developmental ontology is, I argue, entailed by the being of sense and is implied by Merleau- Ponty’s own work. This is an ontology in which the fundamental term is not, for example, substance, matter, or idea, but a movement I call development, through which being engenders determinate, interrelated differences, together with their differential context, thereby enabling a sense within being. Phenomenology of nature is my name for a deepening of phenomenological method demanded by the problem of sense.

This new method is required because, as Merleau-Ponty increasingly realized, philosophy is liable to misconceptualize sense, a meaning manifest within being, if it reflects on being from above, from within subjectivity. Philosophical reflection must be radicalized, which for Merleau-Ponty means that philosophy must reflect on its own roots in being (its radix, the Latin word for “root”). This also means grasping that reflection is not solely or purely an activity of philosophers but is an operation of the being in which reflection arises. Reflection thus involves passivity, a theme already implied in Structure of Behaviour, that permeates the Phenomenology, and becomes ever more pervasive in Merleau-Ponty’s later work. The phenomenology of nature is a methodological strategy for addressing this issue, for letting nature lead the way in reflection. It proceeds by studying nature— being as the manifest domain in which we find ourselves and through which we access being— so as to glean conceptual insights as to how being operates, thereby correcting philosophical prejudices. Merleau-Ponty often pursues this sort of strategy. The phenomenology of nature aims to reveal nature participating in reflection, and reflection participating in nature, such that reflection is deeply radicalized and revealed as an operation in and of being, as older than ourselves and our philosophical traditions. In the first epigraph above and other passages Merleau-Ponty urges that this deepening of radical reflection is necessary if our task is rediscovering brute, wild, or raw being making sense in its own way, before we have converted being to the cause of making sense to us and our philosophical and scientific demands. This book’s phenomenology of nature follows Merleau-Ponty’s effort to return to things from within nature, but it takes advantage of recent empirical and conceptual advances in science not available to Merleau-Ponty, thus resuming his critical engagement with science and learning new things from it.

Excerpted from Merleau-Ponty’s Developmental Ontology by David Morris, published as part of the SPEP series, Anthony J. Steinbock, General Editor. Available in cloth, paperback, and ebook editions. Please visit www.nupress.northwestern.edu, independent bookstores with robust philosophy collections, and online retailers.

“50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology” – Table of Contents

This week, NU Press travels to Pittsburgh for the annual SPEP meeting, where we’ll introduce 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology. Edited by Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon, the book is attracting an unusual amount of attention. “Anyone who questions the vitality of contemporary phenomenology as a site of radical questioning,” said How to Read Sartre author Robert Bernasconi, “will find the perfect antidote in Fifty Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology. The rich variety of marginalized perspectives represented here is a valuable corrective to so many works of philosophy that have gone before.” In response to the interest in the book, now on sale on our website, from online retailers, and bookstores with exceptional philosophy collections, we’re pleased to offer below the table of contents to this rich collection.

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An excerpt from “50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology”

The passage below is the introduction to 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology edited by Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon, available now from Northwestern University Press. The book will be featured at the press’s exhibit at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. 

50Concepts3DIntroduction: Transformative Descriptions

“How could an anthology possibly have a central perspective?” —Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception begins with a question: “What is phenomenology?” Nearly three-quarters of a century later, this question remains unanswered. Our volume does not propose to answer it but rather to honor its generative insight, an insight that Merleau-Ponty inherits from Edmund Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, namely that the philosopher is a “perpetual beginner.” As a philosophical tradition, phenomenology has privileged wonder, ambiguity, and curiosity over the Cartesian drive toward certainty, determinacy, and indubitability. One of phenomenology’s most axiomatic methodological commitments is the refusal to accept the taken-for-grantedness of experience. This commitment entails the perpetual interrogation of the most familiar features of our everyday experiences, not to deny them but in order to know them better. Like literature, history, and anthropology, phenomenology has yielded rich descriptions of lived experience. Phenomenology is marked by a faith that such descriptions can disclose the most basic structures of human existence, including temporality, perception, language, and intersubjectivity. As these structures are brought into relief, our understanding of our own experiences is transformed, and our deepest assumptions about our very being in the world may be challenged.

The fifty concepts that appear in this volume exemplify the continuing fecundity of attunement to lived experience and its structuring conditions that have been a hallmark of the phenomenological method. Together they also expand our understanding of phenomenology’s potential far beyond its classical horizons. Our intellectual landscape has now been significantly shaped by disciplines that did not exist when phenomenology’s foundational texts were being written. It is our conviction as phenomenologists that the diverse disciplinary perspectives offered by feminist theorists, critical race theorists, queer theorists, decolonial and indigenous scholars, disability studies scholars, and others are crucial for phenomenology’s future. They are also producing exciting readings of the phenomenological canon from marginalized perspectives that breathe new life into its foundational texts. By illuminating constitutive aspects of human existence that challenge the universalizing tendencies of philosophy, they bring new accountability and new promise to the practice of phenomenology.

A central Husserlian tenet is that an experience can never be understood or described in isolation. This means not only that our experiences are interconnected but also that xiv Acknowledgments they are always generated from particular places, times, and cultural milieus. More specifically, Husserl claims that there is a dynamic and reversible figure/ground structure to all experience whereby in focusing on an individual phenomenon, all else necessarily recedes into a more or less indeterminate background. This holds true not only for perceiving and conceiving but also for imagining, judging, willing, valuing, and feeling, that is, for the many different ways we are intentionally oriented toward the world around us. The figure/ground structure, he asserts, is itself situated within multiple horizons of significance, including temporal, spatial, social, historical, cultural, political, and institutional horizons. These horizons actively inform our experience and for the most part do so prereflectively, without our explicit awareness. Nonetheless, they exert substantial influence in determining what becomes the figure and what remains the ground. Merleau-Ponty, focusing on the primacy of perception, describes the ways in which perceptual patterns become sedimented over time as embodied habits. Habits can render the world comfortable, familiar, and predictable even though, as several entries in this volume remind us, they necessarily limit our horizons, foreclosing some perspectives and possibilities by privileging others.

Contemporary phenomenologists increasingly recognize that these foreclosures are a function of structural, political, and institutional inequities that are internalized as personal biases and habits. This insight has inspired a critical phenomenology, one that mobilizes phenomenological description in the service of a reflexive inquiry into how power relations structure experience as well as our ability to analyze that experience. Critique is not critical if it refuses to situate itself, to recognize the limitations and liabilities of its own perspective. A critical phenomenology draws attention to the multiple ways in which power moves through our bodies and our lives. It is also an ameliorative phenomenology that seeks not only to describe but also to repair the world, encouraging generosity, respect, and compassion for the diversity of our lived experiences. Such a project can never be an individual endeavor, moreover, but requires coalitional labor and solidarity across difference.

The authors collected in this volume range from distinguished scholars revisiting some of the terms they have coined or made famous to newer voices who are actively working to expand the boundaries of what counts as philosophical inquiry. These thinkers bear varying degrees of fidelity to phenomenology as a method and a tradition; however, as their entries reveal, each offers rich phenomenological insights that open up new horizons for critical phenomenology. This volume is intended as a resource and also as an invitation to you, our readers, to join us in the interrogation of both the familiar and the unfamiliar, whether in experience, thought, or perception. In so doing, we make the familiar newly strange and bring the unfamiliar in closer, even while preserving its alterity. Such a critical phenomenology—whatever it may become—disrupts sedimented patterns of thinking and perceiving, creating the conditions of possibility for new and unpredictable futures.

Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon Santa Fe, New Mexico, November 2017, and North Pomfret, Vermont, March 2018

50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology is available now on our website and in person at the annual meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in Pittsburgh, PA from October 31–November 2.




A Poetry in Community: Rivers, Songs, “Miracle Marks”


“Mira dances, how can her ankle bells not dance?/…I am at Hari’s feet; I give him body and soul./ A glimpse of him is water: How thirsty I am for that!” – Mirabai (as translated by Robert Bly)

Living is full of thirsts, our drawn days of summers, the body aching for company, soul-witness, democracy, justice. When I am thirsty, I sip on Mira, imagine her playing the ektara, diving into devotion, into lines that would become poetry, would become song, would become holy.

How do we make a moment holy? How do we live in the moment? How do we live on in the moment?

One way through is song. When I imagined my book launch for Miracle Marks, I dreamt of garba, dance & poetry – lyrics alive – an interaction, a twining traditions of poet-saint Mirabai, a threading of body & language, spirit & heart, lineage & now. I’m grateful to Aditi Dhruv and Kuldeep Singh, two exquisite dancers who brought my poems to life on June 29. Our work together was not echo but thrum, an ecstasy I like to conceive Mira would have enjoyed, would have delighted, would, too, have sung.

In more ways than one, the Miracle Marks book launch was collective song. As a social practice artist, interaction and engagement is vital to me. After pooling songs from friends & community, I created a Spotify playlist riffing on themes in Miracle Marks – goddesses, rivers, women, liberation. This playlist, River – Miracle Marks Book Launch, threaded the evening, weaving a community of voices through the launch. To everyone who added to the collective play, I am grateful.

These days, when I am thirsty, I go back to this playlist, to the river of time & feeling before, and drink anew from what may be possible, what art makes possible, what community makes possible, what songs of liberation make possible.

If you’d like to experience my work & share song, reach out for book readings, events, and workshops at purvipoets@gmail.com. Find Miracle Marks here and more on my work at http://purvipoets.net and @PurviPoets on social media.

Excerpt: ‘The Meaning of Harold’ from SACRED GROUND

sacred-ground.jpgIn 1968, when Dr. King was killed, Harold was in the Illinois House. He introduced a bill in the Illinois legislature to create the Martin Luther King Holiday. Illinois became the first state in the Union to create this holiday, long before it was a federal law. Harold had to gain the support of a mixed group to pass it. It took a person with the charisma, the intellect, and the political skills of a Harold Washington to make that happen. He took pride in this particular legislative accomplishment.

Harold had immense political know-how, serving in the Illinois House from 1964 until 1976, when he was elected to the Illinois Senate. Following the death of Mayor [Richard J.] Daley, Harold made an early attempt to run for mayor of Chicago in 1977. I worked hard on his campaign, but he was trounced in the Democratic primary that time around. He only carried two wards, even in his own community. But we still knew the time was getting ripe. After Daley died in office, and Wilson Frost was prevented from assuming his duties by the white politicians, the black community was coming together. Jesse Jackson brilliantly mobilized black entertainers to boycott ChicagoFest as a demonstration of black outrage at the white power structure.

After Jane Byrne won the Democratic primary for mayor of Chicago, I worked for her. She couldn’t go anywhere in the black community without one of us; we decided to support her because we felt this would be an opportunity to break the old machine. I personally had to walk Jane Byrne into public housing projects and orient her and advise her on the issues. Of course when the time came for her to take office, all her appointees to the housing authority and the school board were conservative and white. Although Byrne ran as a feminist, and became the first female mayor, she was not interested in equity. African Americans remained shut out.

Meanwhile, in 1981, Harold made a successful run for the United States House of Representatives, representing the Illinois First Congressional District until his election as mayor in 1983. Now, it was during the 1980s that I served on the First Congressional District Office’s Education Task Force, with local and national political implications. And because I was close to Harold, I played a role in managing his mayoral campaign, helping to register voters through groups like the People’s Movement for Voter Registration and United Black Voters of Illinois.

During that period, I met Zenobia Johnson, a member of Harold’s First Congressional District Housing Task Force. Zenobia was also a Chicago public school teacher, active in the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization addressing civil rights issues on the labor front. I did not overlook her beauty or her vivacious personality.

Again, at that time I was co-chair of Harold’s First Congressional District Education Task Force. Those were intense times, packed with wall-to-wall meetings, rallies, and strategy sessions. We ran countless trainings, knocked on innumerable doors. Zenobia says that we courted, married, and honeymooned during the height of the voter registration campaign and mayoral race in 1982. Happily, she recalls my being very gentlemanly and courteous in my courting of her. We’ve now been married for more than three decades.

Making “Atmospheric Embroidery” by Meena Alexander


atmospheric-embroideryWhat goes into the making of a book?  Memory, dream, desire and always the pressure of the present whether overt or as undersong, lacking which composition could not come into being. And each time it feels like a new beginning, starting from scratch.

I wrote the first draft of the title poem in Provincetown, during a summer of violent storms, sunshine and sudden senseless deaths. The poem is underwritten by migrancy, worlds cut and coupled that one carries around in one’s body. And it is here that the art of Alighiero Boetti with its uncanny doublings comes in. Haunted by his embroidered art work ( ‘I mille fiumi piu lunghi del mondo’) that hung on the wall at MOMA, I kept seeing the names of rivers I had known, the Ganga of my birthplace,  the Nile in Khartoum, the Mississipi – Missouri in Minneapolis. The title is an homage to my father who taught me to love and respect the atmosphere, so threatened now. From my earliest childhood appa taught me the names of clouds, winds and waters.




There is a moment I have turned over and over in my head. I am standing on deck on the SS Jehangir, deep green waves of the Indian Ocean crashing all around. I have broken free of my mother and stand clutching the white railings of the ship. I am dressed in a pink frilly frock with embroidery on the yoke and skirt. The dress whirls about my legs, a froth of organza and lace, wind whipped. Amma had brought it along and tucked it in at the bottom of her leather suitcase, all ready for my fifth birthday. A week and a half earlier we had set sail from Bombay and were bound for Port Sudan where my father a meteorologist would meet us. This was just after Bandung, the historic Afro-Asian Congress of non-aligned nations that met in that Indonesian City. There was an accord between India and Sudan for technical assistance which was how my father ended up traveling to Khartoum. For almost the next decade a half, I travelled back and forth between continents. At eighteen I flew to England to study at a university there. Still that first sea voyage marked me forever, its hieroglyphs of loss and longing filled with meanings I am still trying to decipher.




On board the ship my mother tongue Malayalam and the Hindi I knew from earliest childhood shot out of one ear and the English around me changed utterly. There were white people, clusters of them speaking the language in a strange way. They kept away from us, almost as if the brown of our skin would spread and sully them. When we landed Arabic poured in and later I had friends who also spoke French. In this mingling of languages I understood dimly that there was so much that could not be spoken and that rich, even sorrowful awareness of the unsayable has been with me ever since. Out of this, poetry comes. This fine art of distilling language is also one that is predicated on silence.

I wanted to add that my handwriting can border on the illegible, much to the annoyance and perhaps fascination of others. I attribute this to my attempt as a teenager to perfect a script that would flow in between the borders of the Roman script, the Arabic script and the curvatures of Malayalam, the language of Kerala. It was as much calligraphy as anything else and how well its served me in my adult life is an open question.

Perhaps my poems are like that too, slipping between the lines of separate nations, continents of migration and settlement. Perhaps poems make up steadfast places for me. My body on the other hand is marked as that of a person of color, someone who is bound to a difficult and fractious existence, constantly drawn in, longing to be part of a whole, yet time and again cast out, till that tension has come to coexist with and seems inextricably bound to the idea of belonging.




I think back to mapmaking this book involved.  There are poems that like sign posts stand out for me. ‘Moksha’ evokes the gang rape in Delhi of the young woman Jyoti Singh Pande. Those who did not know her name and those who did called her ‘Nirbhaya’, which means ‘without fear . There is the cycle of Darfur poems based on drawings by children from the war zone. Growing up in Khartoum I had friends from Darfur. Where are they now, I wonder? The poem ‘Univocity’ opens with an epigram from Whitman, Word over all, beautiful as the sky! It starts in Provincetown, flows into my childhood in India and back again into the present of composition.  The last poem is ‘Crossroad’. I wrote it in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election. In its first version, it had the title ‘Winterlight’. I read it out standing on the steps of the New York Public Library as part of ‘Writers Resist’ gathering organized by PEN American Center, January 15, 2017.

The spine of this book of poetry is ‘Indian Ocean Blues’. At its simplest it was triggered by that childhood ocean crossing. I could not have composed the poem without the inspiration of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour Au Pays Natal. Time and again I heard the waves beat in his lines. One sea leads to another I wrote in response. Perhaps our migrant selves are the true marks of being and a steady place, what we constantly long for, is nothing but a palimpsest of time, on which we scrawl ourselves through these vulnerable moving bodies.

I started  the poem at home in the north of New York City, in my apartment not far from the edge of Fort Tryon Park with its exquisite heather garden and winding green passages. I completed the poem in Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas in what had been the summer palace of the British. Raj Shimla an old town of wood and stone filled with bustling villas and chock full of tour buses, cars and pedestrians, still bears a certain melancholy charm.

In childhood I learned the story of Sita, heroine of the Ramayana, cast out by her lordly husband Rama. The earth her mother tore open to give her refuge. In my imagination she slips into the earth of Manhattan island, through the crevices of Inwood marble and appears in metamorphic form, on the other side. Time whorls into space, disparate worlds merge in a shimmering whole which is what memory mingling with desire can sometimes grant us. In just this way a child crossing the Indian Ocean encounters Bras Coupe, the brave African American who escaped slavery, organized others to resist and had his arm chopped off in punishment


He rises

Cloaked in amaranth petals

A big man, his wounds



In the course of  composition, over the space of a year or so, I kept listening to the music of Vijay Iyer, in particular his album ‘Solo’ which I had carried with me to India. Through the miracle of email I sent drafts of my poem to Quincy Troupe, all the way in Harlem. He bore patiently with me as I chopped and changed lines. When it was done the poem was published in the journal Black Renaissance/ Noire. The poem is now woven in separate sections through the whole book. While `Crossroad’ is the last full poem, a tiny final section of `Indian Ocean Blues’ which I have called `Lyric Ego’ makes for a fragile, provisional closure.


Interview: Second to None Series Editor Harvey Young

Welcome to Northwestern University Press’s blog, Incidental Noyes, written here at our home on Noyes Street in Evanston next to Lake Michigan. One of the most important niches that university presses occupy in the book world is that of regional publishing. University presses bring to light a panoply of local and regional American stories that would otherwise be unknown or soon forgotten, despite the fact that many of the most illuminating and emblematic of American stories are local ones. In the hands of gifted writers and editors, the lives of individuals and their local communities can reveal the sweeping landscape of American history. Few cities embody that sweep more than Chicago.

In this edition of Incidental Noyes, NU Press editor-in-chief Gianna Mosser interviews Harvey Young, editor of the Second to None series, which invites projects that spotlight the spirit of Chicago and its people in an engaging, widely accessible, and historically accurate manner. These alternative, underground, and yet-to be chronicled stories will reveal the connective tissues that make up the real Chicago.

What role does regional publishing play at a university press as opposed to mainstream publishers?

A university press differs from a mainstream publisher in that it commits to cultivating a lifelong relationship with readers who are also neighbors. It is the primary steward of their stories and histories. In addition, a university press, attuned to local complexities, can best present life in a city as a mosaic, comprised of individual but ultimately integrated stories.

What makes Chicago such a vibrant place to tell stories?

Chicago has swagger. It has always been and continues to be a destination city for hard-working people who are willing to do whatever it takes (legal or otherwise) to realize their dreams. The streets of Chicago were walked by an endless cast of characters who profoundly impacted the region and the nation: Al Capone, Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, and more.



What kind of stories make for the best regional books?

The best stories spotlight the uniqueness of Chicago—its particular challenges and extraordinary blessings. In some cases, this engagement can be explicit such as accounts on the miraculous rise of the city and, of course, its rebuilding after the Great Fire. In most others, it is implicit, a background feature: how neighborhood settlement (and segregation) created particular experiences; how the sports passions and culinary tastes of residents create an identifiable regional identity.

What other university presses do you admire for their regional publishing efforts?

I greatly appreciate the work of The University of Michigan Press. Their regional books tell the story of that part of the Great Lakes and spotlight the pride of place that Michiganders have. I am grateful for the efforts of the University of Florida Press for their commitment to telling very local histories that have been overlooked.

You often write on scholarly topics for popular audiences. What strategies do you use to deliver your expertise in a way that keeps people interested?

Popular writing is public storytelling in a very traditional sense. A speaker stands before a community of listeners who want to be engaged. The aim, in writing, is to remove barriers that block absorption into the story. Feature distinct characters with bold voices. Paint a colorful picture of the city as a backdrop.

HARVEY YOUNG is the editor of the Second to None: Chicago Stories trade series. He is author of four books, including Embodying Black Experience, winner of “Book of the Year” awards from the National Communication Association and the American Society for Theatre Research, and coauthor of Black Theater is Black Life: An Oral History of Chicago Theater. Until January 2018, Young was Professor and Chair of Theatre at Northwestern University. He is now Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University. He is the current president of Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE).