Monday, March 11, 2013

Attitudes, Affects & Alliances in Scholarship (Part 4): Rust


Patrick Henry


The below is a textual restoration and revision of thoughts first delivered during the “Attitudes, Affects, and Alliances in Scholarship” roundtable at the EGSA Symposium at the George Washington University on Friday, 15 February 2013.


During eight years of my life—four years of undergrad, then two master’s degrees—I kept a rusted spike, meant to secure railroad ties to the earth, on my desk as a paperweight. Perhaps, it was an unconscious effort to subjugate my past, my private history, to my goal of becoming a writer and a literary critic. 

 Or, the spike was an artifact, sheathed in russet flakes that shed red-brown particles on papers and books, that functioned as a reliquary of experiences past: developmental years passed in Bellwood, a small borough tethered by railroads to the nearby city of Altoona, the city and its railyards and its engine workshops and the Altoona Rail Roaders Memorial Museum final testaments to Pennsylvania’s bygone stature as the keystone of American, industrialist infrastructure.

Forget Pennsylvania’s history, its myths of progress and the visionary lieutenants of such captains of industry as Andrew Carnegie; all these lines of iron and steel long ago became the Rust Belt. And the rail lines, its cinctures, extend from one buckling town to another, spreading economic free fall’s corroding touch. 

 In villages and boroughs and cities across Pennsylvania, houses shed their siding as decrepit cars hunker on blocks in front yards, roads are chocked with potholes, and communities are shrinking as the opportunities vanish.


This is, we are told, the fate of this place: rust freezes gears in place, causes machines and progress to fail. When rust makes a cameo in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the “Man of Ideas” Joe Welling rants that rust is only an inevitable form of decay: “Decay you see is always going on. It doesn’t stop. Water and paint can’t stop it. If a thing is iron, then what? It rusts, you see.” 

This teleology of rust is not unlike a sinister mystery of faith: a thing’s newness fades; it corrodes, surrenders to rust; it crumbles into dust. But I refuse to accept the nihilistic, tarnished historicism of Anderson’s Joe Welling. 

 After all, rust also indicates a chance for restoration; through refurbishing anything literally or metaphorically rusted (even something as simple as the rusted railroad spike that once served as my desktop paperweight), we discover the possibility to recover past narratives and experiences that are lost in what Welling suggests is the telos of rust, the stagnant state of decay.

Instead, those rusted machines that lurk throughout a place like Pennsylvania should be sites that allow us to remodel our thoughts about every mode of history, from those private stories that we keep close to our hearts to the sweeping panoramas of documentary accounts. Our memories can render rust, then, as a complex metaphor for the multiple ties to our pasts and the histories of others, to the conditions of life today, and to potential futures. 

 After all, we carry those histories guised with so many flecks of rust with us as we propel toward the future or ruminate on the past; they are parts of our work whether we will it or not, like the railroad spike leaving its patina of dust on my old manuscripts. 


 If we keep this perspective in mind—that rust represents how intricately entwined the past, present, and future are—we can, as Walter Benjamin writes in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “brush history against the grain.” 

So, memory and recollection are the tools we use to restore the rusted object and the multiple histories that it contains. This is at work in T.S. Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” when remembrances stir stillness into a frenzy:

The memory throws up high and dry 
A crowd of twisted things; 
A twisted branch upon the beach 
Eaten smooth, and polished 
As if the world gave up 
The secret of its skeleton, 
Stiff and white. 
A broken spring in a factory yard, 
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left 
Hard and curled and ready to snap.

Here, the memory of Eliot’s poetic persona, akin to my essayist’s voice in this reflection, has set rigid rust into subtle movement. So, these are my thoughts, assembled from so many pieces of literary rust, made into a textual artifact for you. I’ll leave the restoration in your hands.

Listen via Podcast to
the M.A.T.C.H. Round-Table 
"Attitudes, Affects & Alliances 
in Scholarship"
15 February 2013

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