Sunday, February 14, 2010

Phillis Wheatley and Augmented Reality

In the course I'm teaching this term at Harvard, my students and I are still trying to conceptualize how we might organize various materials on slavery associated with history of the university in a visually stimulating way, in an exhibition in Pusey library cases as well as, perhaps, through some sort of Augmented Reality (AR) smart phone interface (along the lines discussed in my previous post). The students are especially eager to explore the experiences of enslaved women associated with the early years of the history of Harvard College.

We've been puzzling over ways in which to include literary materials. The other day as gathered in the Archives, we pondered Phillis Wheatly's famous poem, "To the University of Cambridge in New-England" (1773), reproduced at:

A scanned version of the first edition is at:

We couldn't help but notice that the poem was published in the same year, 1773, that Harvard students debated the ethics of African Slavery at Commencement. (The frontespiece of the book in which the poem appers, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, is reproduced above)

It is a complex poem, in which the poet simultaneously engages in self-abnegation while presuming to preach to the privileged Harvard students about the dangers of sin and the necessity of living up to the privilege they have been given to "scan the heights/Above, to traverse the ethereal space.'" The poem nicely encapsulates a problem that seems to run through the foundations of the early modern university, that it on the one hand is a tangible manifestation of the Celestial Kingdom (a point made manifest in the soaring spires of the campus) yet rests upon all to human foundations of exploited labor. By "sin, that baneful evil to the soul" Wheatley may not specifically have meant the slave trade and slavery, but a retrospective reading might be developed along those lines. She seems to constitute the unseen body of fellow enslaved Africans as moral witnesses to the hypocrisy of White Christendom; the enslaved simultaneously gaze through the gates of the university at those who gaze upon the mysteries of the universe, yet the enslaved themselves sternly look upon those who sit in privilege.

How might one capture these ambiguities and ironies in a mobile AR multimedia installation? Walking across the Harvard Yale might one, upon gazing at Massachusetts Hall or another early College building through the viewfinder of an iphone, see a floating icon of Wheatley, and then click on it to read and hear her poem, read by a student? Might there then be ways to access student critical commentaries on the poem, or perhaps for the visitor to contribute her or his own readings?

Update: Plans are coming together for the conference, "Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies" (Feb. 3-6, 2011) to be hosted by Emory University. We had a very productive planning meeting at Emory a couple of weeks ago, and the Call for Papers should be out soon. We had many exciting discussions during the day about ambiguous university responses to the problem of slavery in their past. I was fascinated to learn of the controversial portrait of Yale's initial donor, Elihu Yale, which depicts him being served by an enslaved youth. The University has removed the portrait from the room in which the Trustees meet:

Yet it doesn't appear that there has been a full public discussion of the meaning and power of the image. [By the way, I am struck by the constant insistence by those involved in the case that Elihu Yale was neither a slave owner nor directly involved in the slave trade; the matter is presumably worth investigating carefully.]

1 comment:

simwave said...

Augmented Reality has long been the realm of futurism and science fiction. The arrival of fast mobile internet and powerful internet connected devices has made way for Augmented Reality applications with practical value.

Virtual Reality Exhibit