Illuminating Humanities: Michael Collins
The Glasscock Center is excited to continue its series which highlights humanities research at Texas A&M, and the vital role played by the humanities at the university and in the world beyond the academy.
For our next highlight, we invited Michael Collins, Glasscock Internal Faculty Fellow, to tell us about his project on American mass incarceration through the eyes of poets.
Tell us a bit about your current research project.
My project explores, through the eyes of poets, the prehistory, rise and (hopefully) the decline of American mass incarceration. In my 2021 Glasscock presentation, I focused on two prehistory poets--Bob Kaufman and Etheridge Knight.
Kaufman lost a career in the merchant marine when he was irrationally classified as a security risk during the Red Scare. Thereafter, he was frequently jailed for small offenses and, once, subjected to devastating shock treatments. He nevertheless produced poetry that illuminated the social and legal madness he could not escape.
Knight similarly illuminated what he could not escape, characterizing penitentiaries as part of a larger “prison/america” that immured black people in a sometimes brutal second-class citizenship. During the 1970’s-1990’s rise of mass incarceration itself, drug addiction, the cause of Knight’s crime, was transformed by politicians into a national security risk worthy of a “war” that packed nonviolent users into prisons. Prison poets illuminate this absurdity.
What inspired your interest in this topic, and why is this topic significant?
"…it allows for a reading of bad lawmaking as a species of bad literature—a literature that allows lawmakers to legislate on the basis of two-dimensional comic strip versions of reality."
I have long been fascinated by the contradictions between the ideal of the law as something that coordinates the desires, ambitions, plots and plans of a population, and the grubbier reality of lawmaking as something that reflects and reproduces unjust power relations, sometimes by using techniques perfected in literature. These techniques include metaphor (“the war on crime” is a famous one), alliteration (“stop the steal,” for instance), and the crafting of maxims (i.e., “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”).
I believe my topic is significant because it allows for a reading of bad lawmaking as a species of bad literature—a literature that allows lawmakers to legislate on the basis of two-dimensional comic strip versions of reality. (True, in some cases, this is an insult to comic strips).
Because it acknowledges life’s complexity, the work of writers I focus upon provides a good reality check for anyone who (at the present moment of rising crime) may be tempted to repeat the mistakes of the past, and reverse what has become a bipartisan effort to reduce prison populations.
What do you find rewarding in your work?
The discovery of unexpected connections between eras, peoples, policies and, sometimes, tragedies, is what I find most rewarding about my work. The world can be a very confusing place, and each new connection dispels, for a little while, a little of the confusion.
Why are the humanities and humanistic social sciences important to society as well as to you personally, especially in the current moment?
“…my reading in Africana Studies areas reveals a kind of sunken Atlantis of knowledge, tropes, history, and legal and social scientific perspectives under mom-and-apple pie America—an Atlantis everyone would benefit from raising into the light.”
One of the things America is suffering from at the present moment is an inability to separate the aforementioned comic strip versions of reality from the planet in its full complexity. America is suffering, in other words, from a paucity of mastery of the humanities and humanistic social sciences.
In one of my essays, I claim that America abhors a nuance. Well, the humanities in general, and, in particular, my own specialty, literary criticism, specialize in the contemplation and exploration of nuance, and also in the exploration of imaginative creations (including nations, which are “imagined communities,” the historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson argues).
Complex literature prevents us from being too rigid in our beliefs by showing us how much we miss: How do you know, William Blake asks, that every bird that passes isn’t “a vast world of delight, closed by your senses five?” Similarly, my reading in Africana Studies areas reveals a kind of sunken Atlantis of knowledge, tropes, history, and legal and social scientific perspectives under mom-and-apple pie America—an Atlantis everyone would benefit from raising into the light. The scholar Orlando Patterson, for instance, argues that freedom as a value was born of “the experience of slavery.”
Besides your work, what is something you are passionate about?
I am passionate about music. Wynton Marsalis, commenting on the paradox of a jazzman like Charlie Parker giving superhuman performances on stage but falling apart due to drugs offstage, said that when musicians are performing, they are in a perfect world. Because it is hard to leave that perfect world to return to the ordinary one, someone like Charlie Parker might compensate for the loss with drugs. Well, when I listen to a great piece of music, I am in a perfect world. Sometimes the things I hear just don’t seem possible. And yet I hear them. Not having produced the impossible, I can just appreciate it without feeling its loss when the moment of creation ends.
What are some future research projects that you are, or want to, work on?
Actually, I am in the middle of a pile-up of research projects that accumulated before the Glasscock Center lightened my teaching load. One project (a draft of which I finished by moonlighting while working on prison poetry), develops a 2017 essay of mine into a book on America’s long argument over affirmative action. Another project, developed while moonlighting from my moonlighting, is an essay and interview collection I am editing. It features translators of, and collaborators with, the poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Other projects are on the back burner. I’ll focus next on the first one that gets a contract.