Saturday, April 27, 2013

Land, Language, and the Indigenous Center of a Decentered Early American Studies; Or, How To Mean Things By Doing Stuff

Yesterday afternoon, I went to this wonderful symposium at Columbia University entitled "Rethinking Land and Languages: Dialogues in Early American and Indigenous Studies" that featured scholars from diverse disciplinary perspectives. One of the agendas of the conference was to place indigenous peoples at the center of the academic field of early American studies, thus displacing the Pilgrims from that privileged position. Towards that goal, the organizers of the symposium raised questions about the relationship of cultural practices to land and language that encouraged the panelists to think beyond problematic binaries such as colonizer/colonized and orality/literacy. Several of the panelists urged us to think of American Indians internationally, noticing their historical presence in Europe as well as the surprising contiguities and connections among Indigenous and European intellectuals both then and now. Other panelists urged us to think of the many material practices other than print culture, such as sign language, wampum, and art that both Europeans and Native Americans used to communicate with each other. We were asked to consider how "language ideologies" functioned in sometimes politically binding, other times culturally exclusive, and yet almost always in socially indeterminate ways.

Before I begin explaining my own perspective, I want to first admit that it would be impossible for me to do justice here in this little blog to the many subtle, nuanced presentations by each scholar, and I was inspired to go read their recently published work. For the record, the panelists included (in alphabetical order) Celine Carayon (Salibury University), Christian Ayne Crouch (Bard College), John Gambler (Columbia Univrsity), Elizabeth Hutchinson (Columbia University), Karl Jacoby (Columbia University), J. Kehaulani Kauanui (Wesleyan University), Karen Kupperman (New York University), James Merrell (Vassar College), Andrew Newman (Stony Brook University), Birgit Brander Rasmussen (Yale University), Coll Thrush (University of British Columbia), and Caroline Wigginton (Rutgers University.) And much respect and gratitude was given by everyone to the organizers Zara Anishanslin (College of Staten Island/CUNY), Julie Chun Kim (Fordham University), and Cristobal Silva (Columbia University) as well as the graduate assistants from Columbia University, Vesna Kuiken and Melissa Morris.

Given all this brilliance, I will begin humbly by focusing on one specific question that seemed to startle both the panelists and the audience. During a conversation about language and the cultural contexts for various communicative practices and all the different ways we might value things other than print culture, someone asked provocatively, "well, what doesn't count as language?" The implication was that the panelists had suggested such wide-ranging congruity across different cultural practices that one might argue they had stretched the category of "language" a little thin. Coincidentally, earlier this week, in the entirely different context of my undergraduate class on literary theory, I had just taught a couple chapters from How To Do Things with Words by J. L. Austin and the response to Austin by Jacques Derrida in an oral presentation entitled "Signature, Event, Context" that was later published in the journal Glyph and republished in two other places, Limited Inc and Margins of Philosophy. Austin essentially focuses attention on what he calls "performatives" -- linguistic utterances that do not mean things that can be judged true or false but rather do things that might be contractually or socially binding. The example that Austin uses is when two people say "I do" and are then legally married.

A very different sort of example more relevant to the symposium might be when the Dutch supposedly "purchased" the island then known as "Manna-hata" -- and now called Manhattan -- from the Lenni Lenape Indians. Here, perhaps a cultural misunderstanding, the Dutch thinking that the exchange of goods signifies a purchase and transfer of dominion over land, and the Lenni Lenape thinking that the exchange signifies an agreement to share in the use of the land for mutual benefit. In lieu of a published, notarized treaty, or even a common vocabulary, the Dutch and the Lenni Lenape communicated (or miscommunicated, since the conditions that Austin sets out for a successful doing-of-things-with-words would not have been satisfied in this transaction). One noticeable point made by the symposium is that neither "words" nor "writing" (as we usually think of these things) would have been the primary means of communication, and this raises the important and difficult theoretical question of how we might consider language and writing traditionally conceived in light of these other signifying practices, objects, behaviors, and transactions. And this is what prompted the question that I mentioned above, "well what doesn't count as language?"

In response to that question, giggling childishly and quietly to myself as I am so often wont to do, I could not help imagining an essay that reverses the title of Austin's book like this: "How to Mean Things by Doing Stuff." But more seriously, I think the debate during the symposium actually illustrates many of the issues raised by Derrida in his deconstruction of How to Do Things with Words, and so my hope in this blog is that I can use the event of this symposium as a useful example to help explain Derrida's "Signature, Event, Context" to my students (since my students told me they found Derrida pretty dang impossible to understand.) At the same time, perhaps I might even say something interesting for my early Americanist colleagues.

Derrida begins by complicating and problematizing the notion of "context" for any communicative event by exploring Austin's main argument about what conditions guarantee the effectiveness of any performative utterance. To illustrate this problem, we might consider the example of the miscommunication between the Dutch and the Lenni Lenape, which would represent a failure for Austin because there were no established conventions, because the Dutch did not act in good faith, because the message could not be clearly received, etc. However, Derrida suggests that conditions are never perfectly guaranteed because any act of writing or perfromative utterance carries within it the expectation that it can be repeated again whether or not the speaker and hearer are still present -- that it is "identifiable as conforming with an iterable model" -- except that paradoxically the foundation for this iterable or repeatable model are speech acts themselves. In other words, the model as such is anticipated by the individual act.

OK, hold up, let me pause for a second. Summarizing one sentence of Derrida is hard enough, but summarizing an entire lecture in one paragraph... geez.

Perhaps I can explain better if I give Derrida's joke version of what language is. Imagine the following scenario where a boss has sent his employees a memo that explains how to interpret the memo he hasn't yet sent. This of course hardly ever happens, but what's humorous about it is that we all know that when the boss sends a memo, he or she assumes the employee is able to understand what it means and doesn't require a pre-memo. Also, most of us have enough experience to know that that is not always the case that the employee knows how to interpret the boss, so maybe such a pre-memo is required, except of course that such a pre-memo about how to interpret something could not possibly make sense without the actual memo that needs to be interpreted. The point here is that what makes language language is that any single utterance anticipates a generalizable interpretative framework. In such a framework, the relations between the writer and reader are maintained by the writer's mark or signature that opens up the conditions for further communication, i.e., another memo explaining the previous one.

The ironic upshot of all this is that Derrida completely reverses Austin's point that poetical and theatrical speech acts are secondary in contrast to the primary "real" speech acts that constitute our social relations. For Derrida (and for myself as well), if any act of language assumes and anticipates a larger code or set of conventions, it is precisely the imitative performance of poetry and theater that gives meaning to language, not the other way around. To illustrate, let me give an example from personal experience when I was teaching English in Japan. My 7th-grade students did not know any English, and I did not know any Japanese, so how could any effective communication happen. Gestures? Pictures on the chalk board? Exchange of commodities? Yes, all of this happened, but also play-acting, a sort of theater through which the very conventions of real speech acts were codified. Hence, it was wonderfully apropos of one panelist to begin her presentation on the challenging work of translating between Indian and European discourse with a brief discussion of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, a recent performance of which had inserted Indian vocabulary into the famous staging of the colonial encounter between Prospero and Caliban. Let us return to that foundational moment of encounter between the Dutch and the Lenni Lenape that has been painted, narrated, and performed ever since, and might we imagine a group of people standing on the shores of Manna-hata in 1626 doing improvisational theater in order to negotiate their interests? Furthermore, play-acting is serious business. In the case of the Dutch conquest of Manna-hata, as well as the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, we can see that the ideologies of language (i.e., the conventions of meaning anticipated and assumed) carry within them the threat of violence.

I've focused on this somewhat mythic story about the encounter between the Lenni Lenape and the Dutch colonists because it was invoked at the outset of the symposium by its organizers and panelists. Why it was invoked is because of the obvious irony of holding a symposium that aims to make Native Americans the center of a conversation when that conversation was happening on land on which they once lived. In fact, as the organizers observed at the outset, the Native American Council of Columbia University is at this very moment petitioning the University to acknowledge that it stands on Lenni Lenape land. You can read and sign the on-line petition, and in doing so you would be doing things with words -- a "performative" whose effects are not guaranteed precisely for the reasons enumerated above. Also invoked was Joanna Barker's Tequila Sovereign blog post on Occupy Wall Street that observed that all of Manhattan is already occupied Indian territory. In other words, as one panelist so adroitly explained, settler colonialism is not simply an event that happened in the past; rather, it is a structure that persists still today (and of course, this is Derrida's point about the eventfulness of any speech act and the signatories that underwrite its maintenance.) Consequently, this performative political gesture of the symposium in solidarity with the absent presence of Native Americans reflects precisely the issue of presence and absence that Derrida argues is immanent to the structure (or context) of all communicative acts.

It also draws attention to the exclusivity of the very conventions that make such a performance repeatable. In this case, the conventions of academic discourse and the question of whether academic discourse is appropriate for the performative political gesture in solidarity with the Native American Council of Columbia University who, so far as I could tell, were also not present at the symposium, just like the Lenni Lenape. Attending to that absent presence, and perhaps deconstructing the difference between academic discourse and public discourse as one member of the audience asked that we do, what might the conversation on Friday have been like if the academic conventions of the symposium had been violated and the Native American Council of Columbia University not only invoked in prefatory remarks but made participants in its planning?
 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Virtue, Commerce, History, and Cuisine in the novel GraceLand by Chris Abani

I recently finished reading the award-winning novel GraceLand, written by Chris Abani, first published in 2004. It is a wonderful novel about a young boy named Elvis who dreams of being a professional dancer and sometimes impersonates his namesake, Elvis Presley. The novel moves back and forth between Elvis's life in the small town of  Afikpo, Nigeria at the end of the 1970s and his life in Nigeria's largest city Lagos in 1983. In the 1970s, we see Elvis as a young boy affected by family tragedies including the death of his mother who encouraged his dancing, the rape of his cousin, and the downfall of his father. There are other events, but I don't want to spoil some of the surprises that Chris Abani so carefully and brilliantly plotted. The 1983 sections take place deep within the slums where we see Elvis's alcoholic father, depressed about his failed attempt at running for political office, and Elvis, scratching out a living on the margins of society, sometimes pursuing his dream of dancing, but mostly engaging in criminal acts under the tutelage of his friend Redemption. To put the story in historical context, most of the novel takes place during a period of corrupt democracy that began in 1979 (when the military returned the country to a nominal democracy) and ended with a coup in 1984 (when the military took the country back under its control.) As has been observed by other readers, the novel complexly and richly explores several themes such as the struggle of Nigeria to develop as a democratic nation in the context of neocolonialism and the economic and cultural relationship between Nigeria and the West. As the scholar Madhu Krishnan has argued in several essays [here], [here], and [here], the novel navigates the dilemmas faced in the historical wake of colonial and postcolonial violence -- dilemmas between a desire to imitate the modern Western nation state and the desire to recuperate traditional culture and values. Such themes are explored mostly through the marginalized figure of Elvis, who seems to maintain an ironic, quizzical, open-ended relation to both the American and the Nigerian culture (including novels, jazz, movies, cigarettes, food, etc.) that he consumes.

What struck me -- and what I want to discuss briefly in this blog post -- is something I haven't seen mentioned much in the scholarly discussion of Abani's novel. At the beginning of almost every chapter, Abani includes a recipe of some traditional Nigerian dish or an explanation of the medicinal properties of local plants. In the acknowledgements in the back of the book, he notes that "R. C. Agoha's book Medicinal Plants of Nigeria was an invaluable resource." The recipes serve several functions in the novel. As part of the main plot, they come from the recipe book of Elvis's deceased mother that he carries with him always as a token of his mother's love and a memory of better days. Certainly, for both Abani and his character Elvis, food is an important memory tool, and Elvis's grandmother Oye even urges him to draw pictures of the plants "so you won't forget" (p. 44). However, at the same time, Elvis seems confused by its contents, doubtful that the plants will have any medicinal effect (p. 80). Elvis also wonders whether the recipes are authentic and doubts his culture had a need to ever write down its recipes (p. 146), even though the Nigerian Omosunlola Williams did in fact do that in a Cookery Book, published in 1957, something Abani never mentions. Beyond a brief explanation that the recipe book is a symbolic link to his mother and the ambivalence Elvis seems to have towards traditional Igbo culture, Abani offers almost no interpretation or contextualization of these snippets of culinary and medicinal culture that hang in italic font at the start of his chapters. Some of the medicinal qualities seem to relate thematically to plot points, but ultimately how they function in relation to the plot is as opaque as the political and cultural commitments of the novel's main character.

And Chris Abani is not unique for using food in his novel. His fellow Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie includes so much description of food at the beginning of her novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) that my stomach was rumbling with hunger when I read them (a point that dramatizes the tragic starvation that happens later in the novel when she describes the horrors of the Biafran War.) Another novel that, like Abani's, explores the ambivalent, transnational relation between the author's homeland and adopted America through the figure of cuisine is Francesca Duranti's Left-Handed Dreams (2000). The rhetorical role of food in literature is a curious topic. One might blandly observe that both food and literature bring people together. From a rather cheerful, internationalist perspective, both food and novels serve as cultural ambassadors between nations. Food is a way one retains cultural traditions, but at the same time the fetishization of "authentic" and "traditional" cuisine also indicates the loss of the broader culture and economy that created that cuisine, as the commercialization of food subsumes selected cultural traditions to the Western marketplace and suppresses other, less comfortable cultural traditions. For example, I have known Americans who will openly express dislike of the religious and other cultural traditions of other countries at the same time the gush with pleasure over that culture's food. One might also note that food often symbolizes the blending of cultures, a sort of material emblem of an idealized hybridity. Along those lines, noticeably some of the traditional Igbo dishes include "curry" (which is a British innovation of Indian food) and peanuts (now a staple food of west Africa, imported originally from South America.) The recipes themselves seem to combine pre-colonial and industrial ingredients and techniques. Moreover, it seems easy enough to make an analogy between the production and consumption of food and the production and consumption of novels. To sum up, in this paragraph, I have listed a few ways one could think about food symbolism in literature, but they are not the ways I think of it.

Rather, the transnational commerce of food and the exploitation of local indigenous resources by powerful multinational corporations is big business that does not benefit everyone equally. Something about Abani's inclusion of medicinal plants and recipes reminded me of the recent popularity of Rooibos "Red Bush" tea from South Africa and the global trade in such exotic, indigenous plants. My own interest in the novel's food symbolism is more historical and economic, as you might guess from the title of this blog post that alludes to J.G.A. Pocock's book Virtue, Commerce, and History, a seminal work of scholarship that explores the history of eighteenth-century British political ideas (including such ideas as "nation" and "democracy") in the context of the Atlantic trade. Pocock is one of the "founding fathers" of Atlantic History, and his argument emphasizes how philosophical and political statements celebrating particular sorts of national or personal virtue are unstable rationalizations of very particular political positions on the trade of sugar, tobacco, rice, fish, pepper, wool, cotton, wood, etc. Alongside Pocock' book, we might also include scholarship that focuses more intently on food and transatlantic trade such as the famous Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1800 by Richard Grove, Black Rice: The African Origin of Rice Cultivation in the Americas by Judith Carney, and many others. To a much longer bibliography of such scholarly work, I might add my own modest essay "Doctoring Ideology: James Grainger's The Sugar Cane and the Bodies of Empire." These accounts of the cultural politics of food in the eighteenth century seems to me to have something in common with Chris Abani's account of Nigeria's historical memory.

Considering Abani's (or Elvis's mother's) Igbo recipes and medicinal traditions in terms of international commerce, I'd like to pose a thesis about the novel GraceLand, and I'd like this thesis to in some way respond to the many scholarly analyses of GraceLand that have focused on the complex dilemmas, ambivalence, and struggles that are so much a part of the postcolonial situation. And I say "I'd like to pose a thesis" that does all these things because I haven't yet figured out what it is. (Also, if I let this blog post take up any more of my time, I will never finish some other things that I actually have to do for my job.) Instead, I will just point out two things in the novel that seem to me to be very important to any scholarly analysis of it.

First -- and I must give a spoiler alert here -- the dramatic turning point of the novel happens when Elvis and his friend Redemption are in the middle of a smuggling operation for a corrupt army colonel. Redemption says that the commodity they are smuggling is a secret, and Elvis assumes they are smuggling drugs again, like they had before, but Redemption hints that the commodity they are smuggling this time is much more valuable. Elvis wonders what could be more profitable than drugs, and we eventually find out -- human trafficking, specifically human trafficking for body parts to be used in expensive medical organ transplant procedures. Up until this point in the novel, Elvis is willing to go along with Redemption's criminal schemes, but the realization that he is trafficking in human bodies traumatizes him. Moreover, the novel forces its American readers to confront the fact that the market for human body parts is generated by the United States. Similar to the context of eighteenth-century Atlantic history, in which a common theme is how Europeans were conflicted between their desire for sugar, tobacco, etc., and their knowledge that it came from a deadly and brutal slave economy. I don't think Abani meant to associate the recipes at the beginning of each chapter and the Conradian horror of human trafficking. Rather, I am juxtaposing the novel's representation of the commerce of these two things (food and humans) as a way to explore the problem of what the anthropologist James Ferguson calls the "neoliberal world order" in his book Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order.

The commerce in human bodies is, of course, the most extreme form of "free trade" -- the absolute moral limit of what an arguably amoral economic system can tolerate. One of the most dogmatic assumptions of neoliberal economics is philosopher David Ricardo's "law of comparative advantage" that recognizes the productive potential of each geographic location focusing on what it can more easily produce and sell. Ferguson does not so much disagree with the practice of international trade as he disagrees with the dogmatism of this so-called "law" that neglects the moral and practical realities of the human condition and political circumstances. The egregious example of this dogmatism that Ferguson narrates is when, in 1991, the chief economist of the World Bank Larry Summers (now one of Obama's advisers) argued that dumping toxic waste in Africa is sound economic policy given that Africa is under-populated. Anyone who has been to Africa knows that it is not under-populated, but putting aside Summer's rather racist assumptions that led him to make factually inaccurate statements, what Summers and the Ricordo-doctrines followed by the IMF and World Bank fail to understand is that the real "comparative advantage" that is being exploited in this situation is not the difference in land scarcity (as they assume), but actually the difference in political power. To put it as briefly as I can, small African countries do not have the political power to enforce environmental and labor standards, and this gives them a "comparative advantage" (an absurd euphemism in this case) to sell out their ecoystems. As has been documented at length, the effect of this very political economy is the destruction of the environment due to pollution and the subsequent exacerbation of health problems among the poor. However, even someone like Larry Summers, who appears comfortable with causing the deaths of millions by encouraging the dumping of toxic waste in their neighborhoods, will not tolerate human trafficking. (And of course, Karl Marx pointed out in response to Ricardo that when you apply the law of comparative advantage to labor, the only thing a landless, uneducated person has to sell is his or her body. It's so easy to demystify the law of comparative advantage as a "universal law" that it's a wonder that neoliberal economists still insist on it so strongly.)

Since Ferguson is an anthropologist, not an economist, his focus is on the discourse surrounding economic issues, not the merits and demerits of specific policy. What he points out is something that Abani actually includes in his novel -- that to convince Africans (or anyone, anywhere in the world, in my view) of the value of American capitalism, pundits have to make moral arguments. In the 1960s and 70s, socialists were more successful at demonstrating the ways Western capitalism was morally evil and antithetical to traditional African values by synthesizing socialist dogma with indigenous philosophies and extensive kin-based social organization. A classic example of this argument against Western capitalism is Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novel Devil on the Cross first published in 1980. But a mere decade later, when socialist governments began to be perceived by the public as corrupt or ineffectual, they began to loose the moral argument, which was supplanted in the early 1990s (not so coincidentally after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decline of Soviet influence in Africa) by a new moral urgency to "reform" according to Western principles of good governance and market pragmatism.

In Abani's novel, we see the old synthesis of socialism and indigenous ethics in the arguments of the aging King of the Beggars (p. 155). Elvis reacts to his friend with some skepticism, not surprisingly since Abani is writing his novel two decades after such arguments were commonplace. Elvis suspects that the representation of indigenous traditions in those early arguments against Western capitalism was too idealized, and his suspicion about the King of the Beggars resembles his ambivalent feelings about his mother's recipe book. Elvis's observation occurs halfway in the novel, when he is conflicted between his loyalty to the revolutionary politics of the King of the Beggars and his loyalty to self-serving, criminal activity of his friend Redemption. However, Elvis's feeling changes considerably laterin the novel after his traumatic experience with human trafficking.

To conclude, I agree with Madhu Krishan scholarly arguments on the novel, that the many of the dilemmas the novel stages are never fully resolved, especially the dilemma between American culture and African culture. However, in the context of food and human trafficking -- virtue, commerce, history, and cuisine -- we see Abani struggling to find a virtuous moral position amidst the chaotic commerce of daily life, but I don't think Abani's position is a morally ambivalent one. Rather, publishing his book in 2004, Abani is unequivocally critical of the cosmopolitan neoliberal morality that, according to James Ferguson, became popular among the African elite in the late 1990s, a morality that celebrated "African" identity (the food, movies, and novels that Elvis likes) at the same time that it adopted neoliberal "pragamatism" and adapted African-ness to the demands of IMF policy. The centrality of human trafficking to the plot of the novel is, in my view, what leads Elvis to flee his homeland for America. The novel may be open-ended or ambivalent about traditional Igbo recipes and medicines, but it is not open-ended about the exploitation of African children for organ transplants and the economic system that engenders that exploitation.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reading Open City by Teju Cole

Reading Teju Cole's award-winning novel Open City, published about a year ago, we follow a young half-Nigerian, half-German psychiatrist named Julius in his last year of residency at Columbia University's hospital in Harlem as he wanders around two "open cities": New York and Brussels. The metaphor for the open city, we don't learn until page 97, comes from the decision of the Belgian government to declare Brussels an "open city" in order to avoid bombardment during World War II, but now in the twenty-first century it seems to signify something else -- immigration, a mixture of cultures, globalization, etc. Indeed, the novel's style is a metaphor for itself as its many meditations on music, painting, philosophy, literature, politics, and history suggest a fluid openness to the world's many cultures, and yet, ironically, it is the main character's knowledge of all this culture that seems to give him a shield and enable him to close himself off from the world. The dominant emotion of the novel is a sad isolation. Because the story takes place in the United States, Belgium, and Nigeria, and because Julius spends a lot of time staring out at the ocean, it seemed to me that this novel is a worthy subject for my blog on Atlantic Literature. Indeed, just his brief and fascinating discussion of Moby Dick in the context of post-9/11 New York is perhaps enough to justify my talking about it here. But to be honest, the novel's density and unsettling turns in the plot leave me at a loss for how to begin, and my uncertainty and the anxiety I felt after reading this novel is really what motivates this blog post. I am not sure what I think about it, and I am hoping to get some help by means of a conversation in the comments section of this blog.

I seem to have a lot less confidence than the reviewers for The New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian, all of whom assertively compare Teju Cole to other writers such as W. G. Sebald, Joseph O'Neill, Zadie Smith, Albert Camus, T. S. Eliot, and J. M. Coetzee. That is quite a cosmopolitan list of authors, and given the range of Cole's literary allusions, it is perhaps not surprising that critics would begin to think about his novel in terms of other literary and philosophical works. (Curiously, none of the critics compare Cole's work to any paintings or symphonies, even though the most frequent allusion Cole makes is to the composer Gustav Mahler. And never do we see any references to hip hop, even though in this interview, Cole says that's what he listens to.) Anyway, approaching a book by comparing it to another one is, perhaps, an obvious thing to do, but the act of doing so is of course not a politically neutral act. Our frame of reference will orient our reading. Do we compare the novel to the formal qualities of authors such as Sebald, Camus, and Eliot and thus put Cole's novel in the context of world literature (and "world" here means European), or do we read this novel in the context of other novel about immigration such as Zadie Smith or in terms of post-9/11 New York and globalization such as O'Neill? Or do we assert a Nigerian connection and read it within the postcolonial tradition as does this review [here]? (And to be honest, it is within the context of postcolonial theory that I decided to read Open City after discovering Teju Cole's hilarious satire of American neocolonialism published just a few months ago entitled "The White Savoir Industrial Complex.") This sort of question about the frame of reference with which we read might prompt me to start thinking theoretically about what scholars such as Paul Giles have called the global remapping of American literature. Indeed, as I mentioned in my previous blog post about Edwidge Danticat's new collection of essays, today's literature often seems obsessed with transnational cultural connections. Just a few months after the publication of Teju Cole's novel, the scholar Caren Irr argued [here] that perhaps the old notion of the "great American novel" as the ur-text for American literary self-consciousness has died and given way to a new kind of "world novel" that finds itself "grappling with the pragmatics of global mobility and inequality" (Irr, 678). No longer do immigrant writers focus on the dilemmas of assimilation to the American nation state, but instead they now attend to the dilemmas of transnational affiliations and neocolonialism. Cole's novel and its reviews in the mainstream press all seem to me to be evidence of Irr's argument.

This is all well and good, but neither any of the reviews nor any of the global theories help me come to terms with the two important and really bizarre things about this novel. And here, I must give a spoiler alert; perhaps the reason why the reviews are forced to evasively talk around these two key plot points is because they don't want to spoil the surprise. Thing one, near the beginning of the novel, Julius goes to Belgium in hopes of finding his grandmother, whom he has not had any contact with since he was a young boy, in part because he is estranged from his mother. He has no idea where she is. We never learn why he is estranged from his mother, and soon after arriving in Belgium, Julius seems to forget his original intention, and instead engages in a lengthy debate with an immigrant from Morocco about postcolonial theory. Thing two is at the end of the novel when Julius is confronted by a woman from his home town in Nigeria who claims that when they were teenagers he raped her. This seems to come out of nowhere, because it seems so out-of-character, and after I read it, and I read this passage twice because it was so startling, I expected Julius, who throughout the novel reflects on the significance of almost everything he sees, to explore the significance of this traumatic revelation. However, instead he is reminded of a story by Camus about Nietzsche's interest in a Roman hero, and he talks about that instead. The novel then concludes with him attending a symphony by Mahler during which he is briefly reminded of his grandmother again.

These two plot points, which not only never get resolved but also seem to be forgotten and yet still resonate strongly, are what make this novel great. And if these are the two forgotten moments that make the novel unforgettable, then at its core this is a novel about a man's inability to relate to women. This is Julius's tragic character flaw, and it is a flaw that is hidden behind layers of cultural and geopolitical allusion, and so, ironically, what all the reviews appreciate about the novel -- the main character's acute sensibility and cultural sophistication -- are precisely what those two plot points undermine.

Yes, he is a sensitive, culturally brilliant man, but he is also an insensitive, obtuse jerk.

These two plot points also go against the sort of narrative most of us are used to. Usually, a narrative begins with a lack or a gap that the character hopes to resolve, e.g., mystery, loss, conflict, etc. What pulls the reader along is the desire to see that gap closed, the crime solved, the love found, the disagreement resolved or transcended. But Cole's novel not only frustrates our desire for that gap being closed, it almost seems as though the main character Julius forgot about them entirely. And this is what disturbs me and what leaves me at a loss as to what to think about the novel.

Returning to theory, the novel at once seems to evoke what theorists Deleuze and Guattari call the rhisomatic connections among a myriad of peoples, and it also seems to exemplify the rhisomatic new world order that theorists Negri and Hardt call Empire, but for the character Juluis, none of these connections seem solid enough to matter. Julius is disconnected, lonely, and politically inert. I have in the past [here] harshly criticized the figure of the "lonely African in America" that seems to have become popular in contemporary American literature. In my personal experience and in my scholarly reading, African immigrants are usually the opposite of Julius -- if anything, they are more connected to vibrant, active communities and extended families than they may even wish to be. Hence, Cole's novel reveals the contradictions between the liberal desire for cosmopolitan cultural connectivity and the loneliness, insensitivity, and obtuseness that might attend the literary form that such a liberal desire takes. And so, if the novel's core trauma is Julius's relationship to women, and this trauma is explored (or displaced) narratively through a series of sophisticated yet empty cultural gestures, then how might we re-read the many books about globalization by cultural theorists after reading Open City?


Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Beginning of an Ocean

When or where does an ocean begin? What about an oceanic literature? This is my first blog post for my new blog on Atlantic Literature, and so the question of "beginnings" seems somewhat of an obvious place to start. It may also seem an impossible question. Unlike nations such as Mexico and Haiti, or empires such as Rome, Great Britain, and (arguably) the United States, which all seem to have determinate beginnings (founding moments) and endings, rises and falls, the ocean seems eternal. People come from nations; their roots are there. But they travel and make their living on the ocean -- water routes. The anthropologist James Clifford and the cultural theorist Paul Gilroy suggest that more interesting than the "roots" of culture are its "routes." The wordplay is deliberate. Depending on how you pronounce the words, they might sound the same.

An easy example of what Clifford and Gilroy are talking about is the famous band, The Beatles. We could say that the Beatles is an English band, whose roots are in Liverpool, but this is a boring thing to say. More interestingly, and more accurately, we would say that the Beatles are an Atlantic band, whose route began with the transatlantic slave trade, for which Liverpool was created to serve. The Beatles very deliberately borrowed their musical styles from the descendents of slaves who emigrated from the Caribbean to Liverpool during and after World War II, and the meaning of their music was not only an expression of their multiple cultural origins but also an imagination of their destination -- where a bunch of young men in the early 1960s wanted to go, their seemingly endless desire. Where they ended up going was everywhere. We can say the same thing about Bob Marley and Jay-Z. More literary examples might include Olaudah Equiano, Herman Melville, and Caryl Phillips. Here is a recent lecture by the novelist Caryl Phillips about being a writer:



We have heard of the great writers of particular nations -- great "American" novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison, etc. And also French authors, Japanese authors, Chilean authors, Kenyan authors, etc. But what of "Atlantic" authors? Does the national adjective that precedes the noun author matter? In a class I am teaching, we just read T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Roland Barthes's "Death of an Author," and Edwidge Danticat's recent "Create Dangerously." And so, the beginning of the class that I am teaching has determined the coincident beginning of my blog on Atlantic Literature.

T. S. Eliot
To a certain extent, I agree with T. S. Eliot, who mocks those who believe great literature is an expression of the author's personality. For Eliot, personal expression is all fine and good, but not if you want anyone other than your mother and best friend to read it. He argues that literature has significance when it works out of the tradition that makes any instance of artistic expression intelligible as such. Eliot, however, assumes what that tradition is without explaining it. Ironically, for him, even though he was born in America, the tradition he imagines in his essay is English -- the country he emigrated to and eventually became a citizen of. Today, both England and the United States claim Eliot as their own poet. In that sense, perhaps Eliot is an "Atlantic" author. If we psychoanalyze Eliot, we might suspect that his strong emphasis on an English literary tradition is not so much an expression of his own literary roots but an anxious articulation of his destination, an articulation of his secret desire for something other than where he actually came from -- a way out, a route.

Roland Barthes
And what of Roland Barthes's "Death of an Author"? Here he takes the New Criticism's emphasis on the formal qualities of great literature much further than any of the New Critics ever wanted to go. If all that matters to the New Critics (now old fuddy-duddy critics) is the formal qualities of the work (metaphor, imagery, irony, dialectical tension, etc.), then perhaps the author doesn't matter at all. If the origin of the ideas expressed in a novel or poem don't matter, then all that matters for New Critics is the poem, novel, or play itself. We might think of a novel or a poem like a ship travelling the ocean -- a great vehicle that transports deep and significant meaning from one place to another. This is why Barthes begins his essay by quoting a novel and asking who is speaking. It's not just a question of whether it is the author actually speaking or some sort of literary persona or character speaking. It's a question of where the idea came from originally. Is the idea original? What are the roots of the idea? But if all we care about is the formal qualities of the text, then we care more about the "routes" of the idea (not the "roots") -- the text as a way of moving meaning from one place and time to another place and time. If the literary work is like a ship of meaning, then what really matters of course is where the ship is going -- its destination, the reader.

So, following this line of reasoning, when we do literary criticism or write essays for our college courses, we should begin with the destination, the reader, who is.... Hmmmm.... Who is the reader?... How do we analyze the reader? Which reader are we talking about, and is there any difference between one reader and another?... It's all very confusing, but of course the real point here is the relation not only between author and reader, but also between a reader and other readers. This more complex relation is one of Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat's questions in her book Create Dangerously where she speculates about the peculiar position of the "immigrant writer" who seems to occupy many different positions in relation to different readers. Significantly, she begins her essay not with a discussion of any authors, but with a description of a community of readers resisting oppression together through their reading. Later in the essay, quoting Roland Barthes, she asks whether the destination of her own writing (the publishing companies in New York and the reading public in America and elsewhere) is not more constitutive of her art than her origin (the traumatic events in Haiti, partly caused by American foreign policy, that led to her family's emigration.) It would seem that Danticat is even more an Atlantic author than Eliot, and most definitely a more wordly author than he, and this is perhaps why her first book of short stories (published in 1996) begins on a tiny boat full of refugees lost at sea, with the character wondering if the message she means to deliver will ever arrive at its destination.

Here is Danticat speaking about her new book of essays Create Dangerously (2010) a few months ago in a televised interview.


Can we think of literature as ships at sea? Is an oceanic literature a literary tradition without a beginning or an end, without any myth of origin or divinely ordained destination, without originality or destiny? Criss-crossing an ocean of language, waves of meaning.