Changing the subject: archives, technology, and radical counter-narratives of peace.

Author:Foster, J. Ashley


What, in any case, is a socialist feminist criticism? The answer is a simple one. It wants to change the subject. The critic is committed to social change in her workplace, the university, as well as to political activism in the world.

--Jane Marcus, Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman

Thinking peace in a time of war with undergraduates is a radical endeavor. It asks young writers to question their fundamental assumptions about human nature, the construction of society, and the way in which we (as global citizens) conduct our politics in world affairs today. As Paul Saint-Amour has shown in Tense Future, we are trapped in a "perpetual interwar," where Saint-Amour uses "inter + war to denote not only 'between wars' but also 'in the midst of war'" (306). He shows that the totalizing discourse of war has infiltrated every part of the social order, including notions of past and future: there is nothing outside of the war. (1) Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, asks incredulously, "Who believes today that war can be abolished?" She then answers with the declaration: "No one, not even pacifists" (5). Students often chime in with assent and agreement to this notion; the idea of peace, while lovely, is not practical. Seriously considering peace unsettles them. As pacifists have often reminded us, establishing a true, sustainable peace necessitates a radical and progressive restructuring of society, where the imagined peace requires being built upon a social intersectionality of feminism, socialism, human rights, social justice, racial equality, and an even distribution of power throughout the globe. Radical pacifist beliefs are often accompanied by anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist beliefs, and argue for racial, gender, economic, and social equality. This world model demands a radical restructuring of our current lives and practices, and, the militant metanarrative of history tells us, is impossible. The difference between what should be and what is, is so great, such a rupture from the present, that it is potentially alienating to students.

As countless authors have shown, the story of a dominant "Western" history is one of battles won and lost, the lives of great men, and the inevitability, if not grandeur, of war. However, archives of the modernist era provide a counter-narrative of movements and people who worked rigorously for peace and equality during times of war, who argue that war is a choice, not a necessity of existence. It was a time of avid mobilization, but it also marked a flourishing pacifist global momentum, with the peace movement in Britain hitting its apex in the 1930s, women's movements against fascism and war organizing internationally, the Harlem Renaissance fighting racism in the United States, and the Indian National Congress nonviolently protesting British Imperialism. The international organization for peace is a counter-narrative that has been consistently, and the feminist critic suspects systematically, written out of the dominant story of Western history, and can be reconstructed and retraced through the recovery of what J. Ashley Foster calls here the "peace archive." (2)

Including students in this mission, introducing them to radical archives of what has elsewhere been called "pacifisms past," (3) radicalizes the classroom and allows undergraduates to become critical contributors to constructing counter-narratives of peace.

This article argues that performing the recovery of pacifist art and actions through archival research of the modernist era encourages students to engage in radical ethical inquiry. This article is based on four sections of the Peace Testimonies in Literature & Art freshman Writing Seminar, designed and taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing and Fellow in the Writing Program J. Ashley Foster at Haverford College, and walks the reader through the construction of a student digital humanities and special collections exhibition, Testimonies in Art & Action: Igniting Pacifism in the Face of Total War. This exhibition ran from October 6 to December 11, 2015 in Haverford College's Magill Library and involved extensive collaboration between Haverford's library staff and students. In synergistic cooperation with Foster, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts & Head of Quaker and Special Collections Sarah Horowitz, and then Coordinator for Digital Scholarship and Services Laurie Allen (who has since moved to Penn Libraries) worked to help shape the course assignments and ensuing exhibition. The exhibition placed archival materials in conversation with the major modernist pacifist documentary projects of Langston Hughes' Spanish Civil War poetry and dispatches, Muriel Rukeyser's "Mediterranean," Pablo Picasso's Guernica, and Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas. This undertaking was driven by the questions, "How does one respond ethically to total war?" and "How can archival and special collections research do the works of peace?" Built around the work of these classes and materials from Haverford's Quaker & Special Collections, Testimonies in Art & Action allowed students to deeply interrogate a variety of pacifisms and become producers of a critical discourse that challenges the status quo position that violence is perpetually necessary and the most important

Palimpsest Texts

Testimonies in Art & Action: Igniting Pacifism in the Face of Total War grew out of J. Ashley Foster's Peace Testimonies in Literature & Art Writing Seminar, taught at Haverford College, Spring and Fall 2015. (4) This freshman class, which fulfilled the writing seminar requirement, was structured around five main, what Foster calls, modernist pacifist documentary projects (5): Langston Hughes' Spanish Civil War poems and dispatches, Pablo Picasso's Guernica, Muriel Rukeyser's "Mediterranean," Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, and the Quaker relief effort for the Spanish Civil War. These projects document the pacifist artistic responses to total war and the history and experiences of the author, creator, or those on the ground in Spain during the Civil War of 19361939. As the collaboratively-written and edited catalogue describes, all of the main works contain:

... many layers of composition and compilation. For example, [Woolf's] Three Guineas, which Jane Marcus has called a "part of a major documentary project" [(xlv)] and an "interactive" [(xlv)] text, was compiled based upon three reading notebooks that included letters, newspaper articles, and typed-out excerpts. Muriel Rukeyser's poem "Mediterranean" is part of a much larger series of writings on Spain, which includes the novel Savage Coast, news articles, and prosaic-philosophical meditations. Pablo Picasso's great mural Guernica has been documented by his partner, the surrealist photographer Dora Maar, allowing us to study various stages of creation. Langston Hughes' Spanish Civil War dispatches are in conversation with his poetry, creating an intricate dialogue of his time in Spain, encounter with total war, and anti-fascist beliefs. The Quaker relief effort can also be followed through reports, letters, photographs, fundraising pamphlets, and meeting minutes, many of which adopt modernist concerns and aesthetic techniques to conduct their mission.


The nature of the course material itself, then, focused on the activists who responded to the Spanish Civil War, is radical. All of the course texts offer a divergent and multifaceted view of pacifisms that intersect with other major social causes. Woolf's blend of socialism and feminism converges into a radical pacifism that seeks to reform education, equalize society, and eradicate war in Three Guineas. Picasso's anti-fascism, communism, anarchist traces, and pacifism blend into a fearful protest of total war in Spain. Hughes points out that peace must be based on racial equality and shows how his anti-racism, anti-fascism, and communism intersect to imagine a world with social equality. Rukeyser's militant pacifism, and support of a violent fight against fascism, unites with her socialist sympathies to render an ambivalent call for revolution that is juxtaposed with her longing for peace. The Quaker relief in Spain witnessed a peace testimony that adopted a social justice dimension. (6) All of these modernist pacifist documentary configurations imagine a peace that necessitates massive social reform and are therefore radical.

The fact that this radicalism can be traced and studied through layers of composition and compilation makes these materials vital in the writing classroom. The existence of contextual historical archives for these projects provides students with the opportunity to trace the creation of the works, emphasizing the importance of rethinking, revision, and the evolution of ideas. For example, students used the digital archive of Virginia Woolf's reading notebooks for Three Guineas to better understand the way in which Woolf was responding to a militant, patriarchal cultural climate. Laurie Allen and Foster created a series of digital humanities projects that would reflect this palimpsest, intertextual, and hypertextual way of reading. Foster named them "digital annotations." Drawing upon the digital archives of Picasso's stages of Guernica and Woolf's reading notebooks for Three Guineas, students were asked to study these online resources next to the final versions and construct arguments based on how these archives illuminate elements of the final works. What do you learn from studying these archives next to the "finished" compositions, the students were asked? How can you trace the pacifism, feminism, communism, anti-fascism, and other forms of political intersectionality throughout the stages of the text?

Using Omeka's Neatline, students digitally "annotated" and embedded the sources and stages of creation in the "final" versions of the texts and paintings themselves. This collage-like visual...

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