The “Minor Writer” and Literary Value

The Metapragmatics of the “Minor Writer”: Zoë Wicomb, Literary Value, and the Windham-Campbell Prize Festival

by Aaron Bartels-Swindells

The essay begins:

UnknownIn the festival program for the 2013 Windham-Campbell Prize for Literature, Zoë Wicomb, a South African writer primarily known for her work during the postapartheid era, construed her success as “impossible. For a minor writer like myself, this is a validation I would never have dreamt of.” The prizes, given by Yale University, are among the most lucrative individual cultural awards in the world, worth $150,000 each, and the honor was well publicized: in addition to generating global media coverage, Yale hosted a four-day festival that included a prize ceremony and reading. Wicomb’s self-identification as a “minor writer” seems slightly paradoxical in light of such publicity and remuneration. What, then, does “minor writer” signify? How is that significance shaped by broader frameworks that change throughout time and space?

My approach to these questions understands signification as the effect and effectiveness of social action. My adoption of language-in-use methodologies is inspired by Wicomb’s pragmatist analyses of contemporary South African literature and culture, which demonstrate an acute sense of how utterances interact with contexts fashioned through social action. In one such essay, “Shame and Identity: The Case of the Coloured in South Africa,” Wicomb examines how contemporary discursive formulations are produced by and engender “coloured” shame. She uses the past and present of coloured shame to consider the fate of South Africa’s “youthful postcoloniality,” analyzing “ethnographic self-fashioning” and “discursive construction by others” in relation to “the narrative of liberation and its dissemination in the world media that constructed oppression in particular ways.” This formulation provides the impetus to consider how narratives about oppression emanate and are taken up in ways that effect localized articulations of identity. Wicomb’s paper encourages us to examine the significance of the “minor writer”—and its poetic resonances with “minority”—in relation to her claim that “the newly democratized South Africa remains dependent on the old economic, social, and also epistemological structures of apartheid, and thus it is axiomatic that different groups created by the old system do not participate equally in the category of postcoloniality.” We should also think about how the term “minor writer” functions in relation to Wicomb’s literary works, following her discussion of the deleterious influence that these epistemological structures and narratives about oppression have on metropolitan reading strategies that stress cultural hybridity.

Unknown-1Wicomb’s second novel, David’s Story, from which she read at the Windham-Campbell Prize (henceforth WCP) festival, stages many of her concerns about shame, cultural hybridity, the effacement of history, and the past and present status of women in the struggle for justice in postcolonial society. The novel, according to critic Dorothy Driver, is “self-consciously positioned as a postmodernist text” and “dramatize[s] the literary, political, philosophical and ethical issues at stake in any attempt at retrieval of history and voice.” Set in 1991, after the release of Nelson Mandela, and told by a nameless amanuensis, the narrative weaves a number of related plots that imply connections between past and present around that of David Dirkse, a former guerilla of the African National Congress (ANC), who, after the unbanning of the movement, researches the history of his coloured roots. The segment that Wicomb chose to read does not mention David and is drawn from the second narrative of David’s Story, which is about a “minor Griqua chief.” How does this excerpt from the narrative function in relation to Wicomb’s self-description as a “minor writer”?

This article considers postapartheid narratives of liberation and the activity of parsing a text in relation to the creation and circulation of literary and social value. Thus, while I focalize my discussion through the term “minor writer,” my aim is to understand how the expression functions in relation to the schemata of value to which its usage points. The article proceeds in two parts. The first examines how two distinct usages of “minor writer” index different schemata of social knowledge. From Wicomb’s use of the phrase in an interview from 2002 about writing and nation, I explicate how “minor writer” articulates a self-reflective orientation to the intersection of literary and social value in South Africa. I then contrast this usage with the section on Wicomb from the WCP program, which effects a transformation of social value by yoking representations of Wicomb’s literary persona and voice to a particular kind of chronotopic formulation of South Africa. My reading of this artifact demonstrates how microdescriptions of Wicomb and her work evoke macroconstructions of South African society, a process that occludes Wicomb’s self-positioning in the earlier interview. The second part asks how discourses from the WCP festival concerning value circulate beyond it, and whether they affect how we read texts that move between schemata of value. At stake throughout is how the power to consecrate literary value is metapragmatically constituted and contested in relation to the term “minor writer.” Continue reading …

How does the significance of Zoë Wicomb’s description of herself as a “minor writer” in the 2013 Windham-Campbell Prize festival program contrast with her other uses of the term? Arguing that the term’s usage at different times and places indexes distinct schemata of value, I examine the program as an artifact that sediments a certain formulation of Wicomb’s literary persona and provides affordances for parsing her literary works.

AARON BARTELS-SWINDELLS is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hazlitt’s Ephemeral Style

Talking with Texts: Hazlitt’s Ephemeral Style

by Tristram Wolff

The essay begins …

Since social life, like art, is a problem of appeal, the poetic metaphor would give us invaluable hints for describing modes of practical action which are too often measured by simple tests of utility and too seldom with reference to the communicative, sympathetic, propitiatory factors that are clearly present in the procedures of formal art and must be as truly present in those informal arts of living we do not happen to call arts. . . . Is not the relation between individual and group greatly illuminated by reference to the corresponding relation between writer and audience?

—Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change

Introduction: Mouthiness

When he wrote this passage, in 1935, Kenneth Burke was—as ever—looking for ways to persuade readers not only to observe written texts themselves as forms of social action but also to observe social action through what he called “the poetic metaphor.” According to this view, social life is a kind of “composition”: it is guided by questions of address (the “problem of appeal”); its “assertions,” as he puts it, must be “socialized by revision.” Though generally overlooked, the “communicative, sympathetic, propitiatory factors” foregrounded in art similarly bear the weight of social interaction (such “factors” belong, in the context of this special issue, to the indexical threadwork that allows “participation frameworks” to hang together). In the epigraph’s final line, Burke suggests that cultural-historical relations of a literary kind, as between “writer” and “audience,” revealing lines of separation imaginable between individual and group in a given social formation. Better remembered for arguing that literary forms bespeak and contest broader cultural convictions, here we are reminded that Burke also advocated thinking about social relations themselves through categories of verbal art.

In the work of British romantic essayist and political radical William Hazlitt (1778–1830), vivid accounts of the sociable worlds of everyday speech in early nineteenth-century London—in the tavern, parlor, pulpit, theater, or Parliament—are often likewise enmeshed in questions of literary form, in a comparable if unsystematic fusion of literary and social criticism. Burke’s comments (and the ethnopoetic and metapragmatic fields of research that Burke indirectly influenced) retrospectively help clarify that what enables Hazlitt so readily to assume continuities between literary writing and sociable ways of speaking is a version of the belief that language, whether literary or not, is active in and constitutive of the worlds around it. Moreover, the inseparability for Hazlitt of politics and style points to his intuitive grasp of the latter—in any of the discursive genres he analyzes, including his own writing—as practical activity.

In this he seems to have had an early sense of how, as V. N. Voloshinov emphatically put it, “poetic work is a powerful condenser of unarticulated social evaluations,” and reciprocally the way that “these social evaluations . . . organize form.” If the Marxist-inflected idea of language as practical activity elaborated by the likes of Burke and the Bakhtin circle aided later influential theoreticians of sociolinguistic practice like Erving Goffman, Dell Hymes, and Michael Silverstein in bridging analytic domains by offering theories of social discourse imagined through categories borrowed from verbal art (for example, performance roles, genres, meter), the point of departure for this article is to open backward onto a longer history of thought that presumes the mutual involvement of linguistic styles and social fractions. For this account, the prehistory of a literary sociology like Burke’s materializes in an earlier view of language as constitutive social activity. Though their narratives conflict in some respects, critics seem to agree that, for various reasons, views of language as historical, “public,” and active take recognizable shape in the literary era we now call romantic; indeed, one head of the difficult hydra called “European romanticism” was a rapid shift in available theories of linguistic change and interaction. Under romanticism’s monstrous shadow, then, this article zeroes in on William Hazlitt as one idiosyncratic precursor for language-in-use. Continue reading …

This article considers how the essayistic style of William Hazlitt’s printed texts produces, in its form, a critique of what it considers conservatism in speech and its uncritical reception. Situating Hazlitt in a longer history of thought that considers language a form of practical activity, I argue that the conversational character of Hazlitt’s writing is calculated not to resemble speech, but rather to take aim at speech’s false spontaneity.

Tristram-WolffTRISTRAM WOLFF teaches in the Comparative Literary Studies Program at Northwestern University. He was a cowinner of the ACLA’s 2015 Bernheimer Award for best dissertation in the field of comparative literature. He is currently completing a book on the poetics and politics of the linguistic root, titled Frail Bonds: Romantic Etymology and Language Ecology.

Steven Justice on Historicism

Representations’ Steven Justice will present the 2016 Gayley Lecture at UC Berkeley

HISTORICISM: A EULOGY

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On Wednesday, APRIL 20, from  7:00 to 9:00 PM in 300 Wheeler Hall (Maude Fife Room), UC Berkeley

Steven Justice is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (California, 1994) and Adam Usk’s Secret (Penn, 2015). He is currently writing a series of books on belief and historical inquiry.

In addition to his editorial work for Representations, Justice’s written contributions include “Did the Middle Ages Believe in Their Miracles” (103, Summer 2008) and “Inquisition, Speech,and Writing: A Case from Late-Medieval Norwich” (48, Fall 1994).

Endō Shūsaku and Frantz Fanon

Crossed Geographies: Endō and Fanon in Lyon

By Christopher L. Hill

Textual evidence indicates that the novelist Endō Shūsaku read the anticolonialist writer Frantz Fanon in the early 1950s, incorporating Fanon’s arguments on color and colonialism into his depiction of Japanese subjects after 1945. In this essay, examination of that heretofore unnoticed encounter provides an opportunity to reconsider the paradigms by which each writer is understood today and the terms in which they imagined a world not ordered by empires, whether European, American, or Japanese.

The author writes:

“The paths writers trace in the world tell as much about the geographies scholars give them as the geographies they lived. Figures of international repute pass each other unnoticed if the conventions under which we labor don’t allow a meeting. Once acknowledged, such encounters are an opportunity. Unexpected encounters reveal greater forces at work; new questions demand answers. Through crossed paths we can see the world in a different shape, but only if we are willing. In disciplinary and conceptual terms, we shy away from the leap of scale that making sense of an encounter between, say, a novelist from Japan and an anticolonialist from Martinique requires. It is easier to blow up or clone—to ‘globalize’ a national field or to deploy a theory anew—than to struggle toward a geohistorical problematic, a transnational frame for criticism, that would not reduce the unevenness and heterogeneity of the geography of lived experience to a comforting, because familiar, model. Two discomforting journeys may suggest the way.

200px-Frantz_Fanon“In early 1943 Frantz Fanon, who later became famous for his writings on colonial psychology and the struggle against colonialism, dropped out of his lycée and took a boat from Martinique to Dominica, where he hoped to join the Free French army. He was sent home, but the following March, after Martinique rallied to Charles de Gaulle, he sailed for Morocco with some one thousand volunteers. Fanon told a teacher that when freedom was at stake, all were concerned—but only the officers and some of the noncommissioned officers onboard were white; the rest of the volunteers were black. In the training camp in Morocco, soldiers from Martinique and Guadeloupe (‘old’ French colonies) ate the same food and wore the same uniforms as white soldiers; they lived apart from recruits from Morocco, Algeria, and sub-Saharan Africa. Fanon and his friends quickly saw that the army that had been formed to fight fascism had a racial hierarchy: whites at the top, North Africans at the bottom, and black West Indians ambiguously above the African Tirailleurs sénégalais in the middle. When Fanon’s unit decamped to Algeria in July, he discovered that the locals loathed black men. By the time he was fighting in France, in autumn, he was doubting his position between European soldiers and the Tirailleurs, because the black soldiers seemed to face the worst action. In January 1945 he wrote his brother that his reasons for joining up had been wrong; in April he wrote his parents the same.

“Fanon returned to Martinique in late 1945 and finished his baccalaureate. With funds provided for veterans’ education, he sailed late the next year for Paris, where he planned to study dentistry. He left Paris abruptly a few weeks after arriving there and went on to Lyon, where he enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at its university, specializing in psychiatry. He read widely, attended classes by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and gave some lectures of his own. In May 1951 he published ‘The Lived Experience of the Black Man’ (‘L’Expérience vécue du noir’), an essay on Antillean men’s discovery that in France they were considered to be black. He took a temporary post in Dôle while he finished his thesis, which he defended at the end of November. He spent several weeks in Martinique in February and March 1952, but, deciding against practicing there, he returned to France and took a post at the clinic in Saint-Alban run by François Tosquelles, where he developed the foundations of his social psychiatry. In February he published an essay on the psychosomatic illnesses of North African men in Lyon, ‘The North African Syndrome’ (‘Le Syndrome nord-africain’), and in June, Black Skin, White Masks (Peau noire, masques blancs). (‘The Lived Experience of the Black Man’ was its fifth chapter.) After another temporary assignment in 1953, he took a post in Blida in Algeria, where he moved in November, and began learning about the struggle against French rule; in 1955 he began his work with the anticolonial Algerian National Liberation Front. He never returned to Martinique.

b2767b0b“In June 1950, Endō Shūsaku, who later became famous for fiction about Catholicism, began a journey in a different part of the world that, like Fanon’s, took him to Lyon. The first leg was a fourth-class voyage from Yokohama to Marseille. As Endō observed in his diary, relations among the passengers were determined by wealth, race, and the hierarchies of Western colonialism. A group of African soldiers from the French colonial army shared his compartment. They were returning to Saigon after escorting war criminals to Japan. During several port calls, Endō, and other Japanese students too, were treated as war criminals by local authorities. In Manila they were assembled on deck, while Filipinos on the docks shouted ‘Murderers!’ and ‘Assholes!’ in Japanese. In Singapore they were forbidden to disembark. While passing through the Suez Canal he learned of North Korea’s invasion of the South and US President Harry Truman’s order to intervene. After arriving in Marseille, Endō spent July and August with a Catholic family in Rouen, where he encountered a Japan-hating young man whose brother had served in Indochina during the Asia-Pacific War.

“In September Endō settled in Lyon, where he enrolled at the Catholic University and the University of Lyon’s Faculty of Letters to study French Catholic writers. In the streets Endō encountered plaques marking locations where fighters in the French Resistance had fallen; he also learned about a massacre of civilians by the Resistance in the town of Fons. His experiences on ship and the traces of the Resistance in France pushed him in the following years to write several stories, two novellas, and a novel about collaboration, resistance, and war crimes in France and Japan. Twice in 1952 Endō spent time in sanatoria in the Alps for tuberculosis. He moved to Paris in the autumn of that year and was hospitalized there in December. One of the patients in his four-bed room, a veteran, berated Endō with memories of his treatment by the Japanese army in Indochina. In January 1953 he departed Marseille for Japan because of his health. In 1954 he published a semi-autobiographical story called ‘As Far as Aden’ (‘Aden made’), about a Japanese student’s time in France, where he discovered he was un jaune, a yellow man, in the eyes of French whites….

“Yet the geographies of each writer’s lived experience are not as distinct as those in which scholarship presently confines them. The circumstances that shaped their writings on color and colonialism were at once personal and part of a history that encompassed both the Caribbean and East Asia. Reading Endō’s work through Fanon’s, and Fanon’s through Endō’s, reveals a mid-twentieth-century history of race and racialization on a large (I will not say global) scale. In this history decolonization and what should be called the de-imperialization of Japan by the victors in the Asia-Pacific War are entangled with the demise of the European empires and the rise of the American. The transformations coincided with manifold changes in the social meanings of black, white, and yellow and the rights associated with them. A history and a criticism in which this kind of encounter is plausible and meaningful must dismantle the analytically separate problematics of anticolonialism and decolonization, on the one hand, and of “postwar” and the Cold War in Asia, on the other. Reconstructing the history that connects Endō and Fanon does more than historicize these two writers’ early works. It suggests too what can be gained from an intellectual history and a criticism that ignores divisions more constructed than real while acknowledging, rather than trying to reconcile, the heterogeneous and sometimes contradictory qualities of the geography that results.” Continue reading …

CHRISTOPHER L. HILL is Assistant Professor of Japanese literature at the University of Michigan. The author of National History and the World of Nations: Capital, State, and the Rhetoric of History of Japan, France, and the United States (Durham, 2008), he is currently completing a book on the transnational career of the naturalist novel and beginning a project on Japanese writers in the “Bandung moment” of the 1950s.

Shelley’s Lucretianism

Growing Old Together: Lucretian Materialism in Shelley’s “Poetry of Life”

by Amanda Jo Goldstein

Goldstein’s essay, published in Representations 128, explores Percy Shelley’s The Triumph of Life as a strategic revival of Lucretian poetic science: a materialism fit to connect the epochal, romantic interest in biological life to the period’s pressing new sense of its own historicity. Shelley mobilizes Lucretian natural simulacra to show how personal bodies produce and integrate passages of historical time, exercising a poetics of transience that resists the triumphalism characteristic of both historiography and vitalist biology in the post-Waterloo period. Representing aging faces as mutable registers of the “living storm” of a post-Napoleonic interval, The Triumph depicts the face-giving trope of prosopopoeia as the unintended work of multitudes—demonstrating a nineteenth-century possibility of thinking biological, historical, and rhetorical materialisms together.

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The Triumph of Life was made famous,” says Goldstein, “in late twentieth-century criticism, for the way its ‘disfigured’ faces allegorized the verbal and material violence inherent in figuration as a function of reparative reading. In this article, however, I attempt to show how The Triumph’s last lines pointedly cease to construe figuration as a principally verbal or cognitive process at all. The neglected ‘new Vision’ (434) with which Shelley’s poem breaks off instead urges readers to review the scene of life that The Triumph of Life has been showing all along, but this time under changed philosophical and poetic premises about the relation between life, matter, and trope. For Shelley summons a very old poetic science to achieve his ‘new Vision,’ pointedly depositing the poem’s speakers and its readers in the midst of a closely adapted scene from Lucretius’s classical materialist epic, De rerum natura (c. 55 BCE). This ancient atomist scene construes the sensation of ‘Vision’ itself as a mode of figuration and a feature of material transience.” Read more …

AMANDA GOLDSTEIN is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University. She is the author of essays on Herder’s poetic empiricism, Goethean morphology, and William Blake and the present-day revival of Lamarckian evolutionary theory.

 

Chronicle of Higher Ed on “Surface Reading”

“The New Modesty in Literary Criticism”

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Jeffrey J. Williams’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in identifying a shift toward a new, more empirical, method of literary study, focuses significantly on “surface reading,” the subject of an influential special issue of Representations: “The Way We Read Now” (Fall 2009), edited by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best.

According to Williams, “a good deal of contemporary criticism has performed ‘symptomatic reading,’ a term that conveys looking for the hidden meaning of a text, using, for example, Marxian, Freudian, or deconstructive interpretation…. Surface reading instead focuses on ‘what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts,’ as Best and Marcus put it. Thus the critic is no longer like a detective who doesn’t trust the suspect but more the social scientist who describes the manifest statements of a text.”

Indeed, as Marcus and Best point out in their introduction to “The Way We Read Now,” “The essays [included in the issue] remind us that as much as our objects of study may conceal the structures that give rise to them, they also wear them on their sleeves.”

Find “The Way We Read Now” online, or read pieces by other authors working in this vein (such as Margaret Cohen, Elaine Freedgood, Cannon Schmitt, Eric Bulson, and others) in more recent numbers of Representations, especially the special issue “Denotatively, Technically, Literally” (Winter 2014), edited by Freedgood and Schmitt.

What Was African American Literature?

Representations’ Best, Lye, and Otter in conversation with Kenneth Warren

On Friday, September 12, UC Berkeley English department faculty and Representations board members Stephen Best, Colleen Lye, and Samuel Otter will join Kenneth Warren, Professor of English at the University of Chicago, for a roundtable on Warren’s book, What Was African American Literature? (Harvard University Press, 2011). The roundtable will take place at UC Berkeley in the Maud Fife Room, 315 Wheeler Hall, from 12-2 pm.

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Preparation of the Novel and the Novel of Commission

Notation After “The Reality Effect”:
Remaking Reference with Roland Barthes and Sheila Heti
by Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan

In “The Reality Effect,” Roland Barthes reveals notation’s ideological function within the realist novel; a decade later in Preparation of the Novel, Barthes reconsiders notation as the practice by which the writer provisionally makes literary meaning. Barthes’s revision of his claims for the reality effect helps us see how an emerging genre—the novel of commission—pulls referential, preparatory materials into the novel in order to reimagine the sociality and institutionality of the writing process.

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“Notation After ‘The Reality Effect’: Remaking Reference with Roland Barthes and Sheila Heti” is from Representations’ special issue Denotatively, Technically, LiterallyThe introduction to the issue by Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt is available online free of charge.

The Secret History of Diegesis

“The Secret History of Diegesis”: A Talk by Elaine Freedgood
MONDAY, MARCH 31, 5 PM – 7 PM (300 WHEELER HALL, UC BERKELEY)

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ELAINE FREEDGOOD is Professor of English at New York University. Her books include Victorian Writing About Risk: Imagining a Safe England in a Dangerous World (2000) and The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (2006). Both “The Secret History of Diegesis” and “Ghostly Reference,” just published in the Representations special issue Denotatively, Technically, Literally, are part of her current project,  Worlds Enough: Fictionality and Reference in the Novel.