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Plenary Interview: Dr Urvashi Chakravarty on Fictions of Consent and what she has coming up next!

By Saraya Haddad (Co-Chair, 2024)

Saraya: Can you just tell us a little bit about your recent publication Fictions of Consent

Urvashi: Fictions of Consent is about the prehistory of racialized slavery in early modern England. The book thinks about the long genealogies of racialized slavery, and how, in the early modern period, these ideologies are seeded in a range of different everyday spaces. I look at the theatre, the family and the school room as quotidian sites where these racial ideologies come into being, and I explore the development of the stain of slavery—a translation of the Latin phrase, macula servitutis—as  a marker of a somatic and heritable slavery. I suggest that in the early modern period we also see the reception of classical slave plays which I argue are a kind of intellectual and ideological archive and progenitor for the larger frameworks of racial slavery which would take hold in the Atlantic world. 

Saraya: it's wonderful that you are giving premodern critical race studies more representation. Why do you think this is so important to our field? 

Urvashi: There’s been a generation and more of really important work in premodern critical race studies (PCRS). And that work was deeply informed by critical race theory, by Black feminist thinking, by intersectionality: that scholarship is at the foundation of this field, and of course I’m talking about work by people like Kim Hall, Margo Hendricks, and many others. At this current moment it’s really important to take stock of and think about the next steps for premodern critical race studies, for a couple of reasons. One of them is that critical race studies is an excavation of systems of power: to think about race is to think about power. At this particular moment, if we want to explore the long genealogies of the myriad inequities we are confronted with today, PCRS gives us the tools to interrogate power, and to think not only about how these systems are and were constructed, but also about the fictions that sustain them. PCRS is deeply invested in exploring, and examining, the larger structures of capitalism, of politics, of the environment.  All of these massive, often overwhelming, systems seem like they have always already been in place, but PCRS gives us the tools to interrogate the narrative structures that underpin them.

Saraya: I think so often as early modernists, we hear comments like “why does this matter today?”; people don’t realize the kinds of research we do is so pertinent to our world now. In what ways do you feel your work is important to how we can tackle current societal and or global issues?

Urvashi: I’m hugely interested in material and ideological genealogies. To give one example: In the introduction to my book, I talk about a very famous tweet that the Treasury sent out in 2018 where they boasted that until a few years previously, all British citizens had been paying for—and hence, they implied, could take credit for—the abolition of slavery. It was such a striking moment because, for me, it really encapsulates how these structures of power are constructed and narrated. Yes, taxpayers had been paying the bill for abolition for nearly two centuries, but that's because the bill was massive—and that mammoth amount was paid to enslavers to compensate them, not to enslaved people. What was striking to me about that moment was it was portrayed as a feel good narrative around the British abolition of slavery that continues to perpetuate itself into the 21st century. The reason I wrote the book, and the reason I do the work that I do, is because I'm really interested in the prehistories of the structures of power at work today and in the naturalisation of those systems. Part of my aim is to denaturalize those architectures of power, and one way that I try to do that is by unearthing, and interrogating, not just their material but also their narrative genealogies. Why is it that the myths of British liberty and its exceptionalism still hold so much sway, and how can we denaturalize not only those stories, but the sentiments attached to them? 

Saraya: How do your personal interests/ hobbies inspire or tie into your area of research?

Urvashi: One of the things that immediately comes to mind is that I'm really interested currently in thinking about futurity, in how we see the future and what we even mean when we talk about futurity. Who has the capacity to imagine the future? I argue that that's a racial capacity. A lot of my thinking around this topic comes out of the conditions of the pandemic: temporality was extended, attenuated, and curtailed in several different ways, for so many of us. That particular moment got me thinking about how temporality functions: I’m thinking a lot with queer temporality, but also trying to articulate what I call a kind of racial futurity, and how we can imagine a future and to what extent that imaginary is a racialized capacity.

Saraya: What advice would you give to those hoping to pursue a career in academia, or a similar sort of field.

Urvashi: I would say two things. In the previous question you asked about hobbies and interests; I'm the first to confess I’m currently at a stage in my life where I look around and think, ‘I need to cultivate more hobbies!’. And so my first piece of advice for people looking to a career in academia is to cultivate as fulfilling a life as possible outside of it. Try to have communities, hobbies, rest days, people who are outside of your work and outside of academia that you can go to who will serve to remind you of what's important. In academia we can be really consumed by our work,  it can feel very all or nothing, and this is true of course for creative sectors as well. The second thing is: remember that the work that we do is invigorating, it's exciting, it’s enlivening-but it's also labour. We would do well to remember that our solidarity needs to be with each other, and that labour solidarity is needed for our profession to survive. 

Saraya: I think, increasingly so, there's a disenfranchising of the humanities and the arts, and it is not seen as work; that is a brilliant message, thank you. What is your favourite Shakespeare/ early modern play, and why?

Urvashi: The first play that comes to mind, especially because I'm currently editing it, is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The more I work on it, the more I'm fascinated by the questions it raises around consent, around queerness, around race, around labour. The second play I'm fascinated with at the moment is The Merchant of Venice; I'm really interested in how it constructs a very particular kind of racialized gender. Finally, the play that I'm perennially obsessed with is Heminges’ The Fatal Contract and how it disrupts its compact with the audience. 


Saraya: Can you tell us a little bit about your current research?

Urvashi: The book I'm currently writing is about racialized gender and racial futurity in early modern England. The book argues for a very particular iteration of racialized gender that comes into being with, and response to, the larger frameworks of enslavement and imperialism in the British Atlantic world, and it especially explores the nexus of race and reproduction. I argue for a specific assertion of racial futurity that emerges in this period, which is both a part of and extends beyond reproductive ideologies and frameworks.

Saraya: Lastly, what can we look forward to in your talk? 

Urvashi: The talk is in two parts. The first looks back a little bit at Fictions of Consent and particularly thinks about the sites of slavery that I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. I think about the landscape of what slavery looked like in this period, and what the framework of the stain of slavery, as I call it, did to that landscape, and how this informed larger architectures of Atlantic slavery. In the second part I plan to move into an extension of some of these arguments, and I'm particularly interested in thinking about how the capacity to enslave itself became a form of white property that was bound up with ideas of nation making.

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