Reimagining, Repurposing, Reckoning: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and the Aesthetics of Infrastructure
Lecture by Laura Bieger as part of a larger research project on the Underground Railroad.
This talk is part of a larger research project on the Underground Railroad—a clandestine infrastructure created in a collective act of civil disobedience that enslaved persons of African descent used to escape from bondage in the Plantation South, and that became an important platform in the fight against anti-Black racism after the Civil War. My aim is to reassess the aesthetic and imaginary components of the Underground Railroad: How was it driven by a ‘radical imaginary’ (Castoriadis) that brought forth an alternative infrastructure? How did this new infrastructure, which was not an infrastructure of extraction but of liberation, make creative use of elements, processes, and terminology of a given infrastructure of colonialization, with the purpose and effect of undermining it?
Drawing on an understanding of ‘people’ and ‘language as infrastructure’ (Simone, Larkin, Kristeva), my overarching claim is that examining the aesthetic and imaginative components of the Underground Railroad can help us understand how its resistance function has changed: The transformation from flight network to a web of memorial sites was linked to artistic endeavors that both explore these components and exploit them for political ends. In this talk, I draw on my work on engaged literature and relational aesthetics to think about how Colson Whitehead’s prizewinning novel The Underground Railroad (2016) contributes to a collective effort of using this repurposed infrastructure to mobilize the reading public against anti-black racism in the U.S. today.
Laura Bieger is Professor of American Studies at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. She is the author of Belonging and Narrative (transcript 2018), which considers the need to belong as a driving force of literary production and the novel as a primary place and home-making agent. In another book, Ästhetik der Immersion (transcript 2007), she examines public spaces from Washington DC to Las Vegas that turn world-image-relations into immersive spectacles. Her essays have appeared in New Literary History, Narrative, Studies in American Naturalism, Amerikastudien/American Studies and ZAA. Her current work explores the relational aesthetics of socially committed art in and across different media, with a special focus on engaged literature and the reading public.