Measured Unrest in the Poetry of the Black Arts Movement

As one of the graduate fellows at the Scholars’ Lab this year, I am working on a year-long digital project (that’s also a chapter of my dissertation) in collaboration with the folks at the SLab. To sum it up in a sentence, the project hopes to offer a proof-of-concept for performing sentiment analysis on some of the most politically and affectively charged poetry of the 20th century, that of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Today I wanted to post a brief overview and introduction to what I’m working on.

For some context, my research investigates theories of affect as they relate to race, class, and gender in American literature. I focus in particular upon the provocation and articulation of emotions like frustration, anger, and discontentment within recent US literary history as they relate to systemic injustice. An agitprop play that ends with shouts for workers to unite in class revolution; a poetic broadside that vents frustrations against white supremacy in America; a novel that indulges in a revenge fantasy against America’s colonial history. Unlike plays, poems, or novels that seem to obscure, submerge, or confound their own political dimensions, these works wear their hearts on their sleeves: they are frustrated, pissed off with how things are, and unafraid to speak truth to power in a direct, seemingly “un-literary” way.

At a certain level, then, this is a question of how, where, and to what ends aesthetics and politics meet in a work of literature. To offer a tidy narrative of this prickly history, this sensibility that mobilizes aesthetic objects to address political injustice has posed all kinds of unexpected, even contradictory problems for literary study. On the one hand, the cool detachment of aesthetic mediation keeps experimental works like John Dos Passos’s Communist-leaning U.S.A. trilogy from being seen as mere propaganda, but runs the risk of appearing elitist or self-indulgent. On the other hand, the red-hot political outrage of a protest poem by Amiri Baraka or Sonia Sanchez grounds itself in the present, but may be attacked for subordinating aesthetic sophistication to political agendas. “Anger is loaded with information and energy,” says Audre Lorde in a 1981 speech on its political uses—but the nature of this affective information, sparked by a given political present, becomes highly vexed when articulated by different groups through aesthetic objects.

Building on recent scholarship (like the work of Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai) suggesting that feeling gives structure to cultural formations, I argue that a history of unrest in America reveals a pattern of artistic response, a sensibility, precipitated by specific historical moments but translated into aesthetic practice through a stable constellation of affective structures. To this end, I examine continuities between politically-engaged aesthetic projects from three periods of discontent in American history: radical journals like Partisan Review in the 1930s; the revolutionary poetry of the Black Arts Movement in the 60s; and contemporary revenge-driven novels drawing from the Red Power movement.

My digital project as a graduate fellow is the second of those three chapters. In it I hope to ask two questions in particular: first, how are the feelings associated with injustice in the 1960s and 1970s coded in terms of race and gender? The Black Arts Movement first took shape at the height of the Black Power Movement with the foundation of the Revolutionary Theatre by Amiri Baraka in 1965. As Larry Neal—one of its principal theorists—says in a 1969 manifesto, the “Black Arts movement seeks to link, in a highly conscious manner, art and politics” toward “the liberation of Black people.” Moreover, the movement’s “black esthetic” is famous for its affective dimensions, often exploring the limits and political uses of anger, frustration, and poetic rage. But while BAM writers sought to link art and politics through explicitly racial terms, many—though by no means all—were marked by a failure to attend to the intersections of gender with racial injustice.

This leads to my second question: what can natural language processing techniques like sentiment analysis show us about the relations between different dimensions of poetry—like affect and gender—given that poetry, unlike movie reviews or customer feedback, is highly figurative and notoriously difficult to quantify in terms of sentiment or opinion? How can we combine the powerful scale of sentiment analysis with the granularity of close reading to explore the intersections of feeling, gender, race, and injustice in the radical poetry of this period? Moreover, by employing an interpretive method that is in part suspect from a revolutionary perspective—a distanced, potentially de-contextualized computational analysis—I wonder: what limits might these methods have in reading texts that are themselves shaped by the experience of an intense surveillance culture fearful of radical thought?

The already vibrant conversations on sentiment analysis and NLP more generally have been illuminating in forming my questions. The discussion between Matthew Jockers and Annie Swafford on the Syuzhet package and “archetypal plot shapes” has helped me not only to explore the current possibilities and limitations of sentiment analysis as applied to literary corpora, but also to think through the kinds of results we expect from digital projects and how we verify those results as an academic community. With regards to poetry and NLP more specifically, Lisa Rhody’s topic modeling of highly figurative ekphrastic poetry is a great model for how unexpected failures in textual analysis can also be productive, prompting us towards new questions as well as new understandings of familiar methods like close reading.

So far I have been working in collaboration with folks at the Scholars’ Lab to work through the NLTK handbook, building and prepping my corpus, and beginning to implement some NLP techniques with TextBlob on what I have so far. Another post on those first forays into NLP and sentiment analysis coming soon! In the meantime, if you have any questions about the project, texts or tools I should check out, or just find it interesting and want to talk about it, send me an email! I’ll be posting about my progress over the course of the coming months and aiming to keep my process as open as possible to new ideas, feedback, and inspiration from unexpected places.

Ethan Reed is a 2016-2017 graduate fellow as well as a Ph.D candidate in English Literature at the University of Virginia, working with 20th and 21st century texts and feelings of injustice in recent literary history. Before being a graduate fellow, Ethan was a 2015-2016 Praxis Fellow. He is also interested in exploring the links between materiality, textuality, and physical computing in and out of the Makerspace in the Scholars' Lab.

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