In a class dedicated to understanding, and defining, ecological knowledge – that is, knowledge that encompasses the tangled systems of interconnectedness in which we live – I found Christina Sharpe’s essay “In the Wake” to be one of the more crucial pieces we have read in this class. It critically observed the systems in which we live rather than simply reproducing the systems in novel form. In using an autobiographical form, Sharpe was able to prod at social, cultural and historical systems with a vigor that the novels that we have read so far do not achieve. That is not to say the novels we have read are not mind-blowing examples of complex, ecological thinking, but I did find that this essay in conjunction with The Woodlanders and even Middlemarch critically advances the project of understanding and defining ecological knowledge of systems.
While reading this essay, I kept thinking about the difference between the experience of reading an autobiographical piece and a purely fictional piece like The Woodlanders, or the other novels we’ve read this semester. Sharpe quotes Saidiya Hartman to explain why she uses her personal history in her argument: “the ‘autobiographical example…is not a personal story that folds into itself; it is not about navel gazing, it’s really about trying to look at historical and social process and one’s own formation as a window onto social and historical processes, as an examples of them.’ Like Hartman, I include the personal here, ‘to tell a story capable of engaging and countering the violence of abstraction’” (p. 8). While the Victorian novel does not necessarily commit acts of ‘violent abstraction,’ without the element of autobiography perhaps they inevitably become less politically or socially active. In other words, while reading this piece I was struck by the difference between a political passive work like The Woodlanders – that is, a work that might observe and reproduces politics, functioning or otherwise, into novel form – and a politically active piece like Sharpe’s essay that uses small flickers of stories to light a complete picture of a world built on faulty, unstable systems of oppression.
The social, political and cultural systems we have discussed and observed in the novels we have read this semester have been mostly stable – at the very least, they are self-sufficient, but in most cases, political uprising is still a distant whisper and the novels themselves do not seem to take political stances on one side of any particular argument. Granted, many of the novels we’ve read look at the rumbling progress of enfranchisement across classes, agency fought for by laborers in an increasingly industrial world, women’s rights becoming a more foregrounded issue; but even in a novel like Middlemarch, Eliot resigns somewhat to the idea that in this world there will be as many “unhistorical acts,” as many Saint Teresa’s, in the future as there are in the past and we owe the world we live in to those Teresa’s. She resigns, in some measure, to the system itself, using the novel to recreate that system and present it for any observation, critical or simply voyeuristic. Sharpe, on the other hand, presents a specific set of stories that articulate the ways she and her family exists in a system that does not work for them. Sharpe writes, “Wake; the state of wakefulness; consciousness. It was with this sense of wakefulness as consciousness that most of my family lived in an awareness of itself…and in the wake of the unfinished project of emancipation” (p. 5). Sharpe points out that she and members of her family are not allowed to be high functioning cogs in the machine of social systems, but rather destined to be smothered by the system itself; therefore, in this autobiographical presentation of political and social systems, Sharpe insists that in learning about our ecological web of interconnectedness we do not miss the ways that the web itself is misrepresented in culture or even oppressively designed by culture; that perhaps connections themselves ought to be interrogated for artificiality just as artificial separations are interrogated in this school of ecological thought.