- IntroductionBorder States
“Border States” was the theme of the 2016 MMLA conference in St. Louis, Missouri, a city that has a pretty fraught history with borders. The city proper is small, thanks to the borders created by municipalization. Surrounding the city for over a century has been a cluster of more than eighty municipalities that comprise three times the population of the city itself. Whether we know it or not, this cluster is what we think about when we think of St. Louis. Jonathan Franzen, of the tony municipality of Webster Groves, wrote his first novel about this clustering. The STL municipality on everybody’s mind in 2016 was Ferguson. The wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 9, 2014, had produced the Black Lives Matter movement; and the photo of Edward Crawford wearing an American flag T-shirt and throwing a canister of teargas while holding a bag of Red Hot Riplets (made in the municipality of Fenton) had become an iconic image of resistance to the militarization of the police force. Clusters were breaching their borders all over the Midwest.
In this context, in a downtown St. Louis Hilton in mid-November, hundreds of academics conferred about such subjects as migration and mobility, the legacies of westward expansion, interdisciplinarity, states of the profession, [End Page 5] and pedagogical practices in secondary and higher education. One outcome of the St. Louis conference was a questioning of the very borders that exist between academic work and social activism. That questioning evolved into the 2017 MMLA conference theme: Art and Activism. In other words, talk about borders gave way to talk about the efficacy of maintaining a separation between the work we do and the political convictions we hold.
As the second decade of the twenty-first century has become marked by the political and cultural gains realized by an alarming resurgence of nationalism, misogyny, xenophobia, and racism, academics everywhere have had to rethink their commitments to disciplinary borders, to the meaning and nature of their scholarship. What does it mean to produce rigorous disciplinary scholarship in a context wherein the welfare of our students, specifically that of our most vulnerable students, is at risk, a world wherein campuses have had to imagine contingency plans for if/when ICE agents come knocking? Some of us have redoubled our commitments to carrying on with the integrity of disciplinary scholarship. Some of us have supplemented our scholarship with public writing aimed at a larger, sometimes nonacademic, audience. Some of us (I hope I’m not the only one) have just stalled; we’ve woken up in a world where ideas don’t matter any more, where borders mean actual walls, and where the institutions we thought would ensure the integrity of the public trust have pretty much failed. We’ve taken to gallows humor, to apocalypse. We can’t go on, we’ll go on.
Which is why I am happy that this issue of JMMLA is such a repository of hope. Walls crumble inside this issue, but in a good way. There is a palpable nostalgia for a previous era in here, but it is progressive nostalgia. There is proof that the work of decolonization is far from finished, but that proof comes in the form of an acknowledgement that fugitives and rebels are still among us and that they are busy carving out free territory. There is homelessness, but it is the binding, collective homelessness of the postnational era. There is a very old kind of scholarship in here, but it is, rather than fusty, it is vibrant and delightful. And there is a new kind of scholarship in here, scholarship that will remind us that the classroom is the fruitful borderland that tracks the progress of the demographic and linguistic shifts that in turn force us to keep asking questions about borders in the first place.
The majority of the essays in this issue could be classified as traditional [End Page 6] literary scholarship, in that most of the pieces are theory-informed close readings of a set of literary texts. But do not misunderstand this seeming traditionalism as a kind...