The Polemics of Andrew Piper’s ENUMERATIONS

This is in response to Andrew Piper’s new book Enumerations: Data and Literary Study (Univ of Chicago Press, Aug 2018).

Piper’s characterization of literary studies does not hold up to contemporary literary studies (of which he is a part). He only uses examples from Auerbach and Barthes. While both of these are mammoth names in literary criticism, there are many useful counterexamples to Piper’s claims about modeling, which he places in a false binary against literary criticism. What Piper seems to say is that literary criticism is bad at doing what it sets out to do because it fails to “foreground the constructedness of knowledge and the observer’s place within it,” which is something he suggests models do inherently (9). However, I’m not sure this is so. An important counterexample to this inherent quality of modeling can be found in the critical genre of new historicism, which Piper particularly damns as failing its own premises, a “great [paradox] of intellectual history” (8). Susan Sontag is one critic who comes to mind that would remind Piper that models, like images and other cultural creations, only reveal their processes/biases of creation when they are presented with this in mind. In other words, models will only “implicate us within them” if they make explicit these means of presentation (11).

Models, though, are tricky because, as Piper points out, “much of the language of empiricism that has surrounded the initial rise of the field” centers a notion of equivalence between numerating and objectivity (ibid). This is to say that modeling may actually be a place at the bottom of a steep hill where each step is marred by the weight of the societal perception that when something is in a graph it is scientifically proven and thus objectively true. Models, therefore, do not fundamentally make explicit their biases or constructedness because they are also produced in a culture that associates modeling with objective truth. This critique of modeling is, of course, a new historicist one. I am obviously skeptical that modeling inherently prompts a hermeneutic analysis of the data it models. On the contrary, I think the perception is that when data is modeled, its conclusions are fixed truths. In the same way Piper argues against Auerbach’s misuse of anecdotal evidence, models can be and are used as anecdotal proof of ideological claims. This is what I mean when I say he sets up modeling and literary criticism (particularly new historicism) into a false binary. They need not be battling. A better argument for Piper’s book would be that modeling and new historicist methodologies ought to be employed to “foreground the constructedness of knowledge and the observer’s place within it” by disassociating societal claims that models showcase objective truth.

Piper thinks criticism is “magic,” whereby “the imperious pronouncements of the literary critic who is only ever right” disseminates knowledge but this is not inherently so (11). Many critics, including those who study gender and sexuality and those who do cultural studies, seek as their onus the revealing of the proliferation of structures of power like that of the “magic” “imperious” critic. Critical University Studies does so within academia itself. Piper caricatures criticism as a big bad wolf-type villain, which frames his intervention as a vive la revolution stick-it-to-the-man. But neither of these things are true. Critical processes are developed over decades and centuries, are constantly reflexive, and are thus not fixed truths. They can make “the study of literature more architectonic and less agonistic, more social and collective” (11). For examples, a critic interested in doing cultural studies must first understand the precedent methodologies of critics like Grascmi, Althusser, Leclau, and even Marx because cultural studies did not up-and-go like the Big Bang. On the contrary, it was developed out of many questions posed by different critics using different methods and data as well as out of the critiques of previous systems of criticism in much the same way empirical science developed. The glaring difference, of course, is that only one of these things is ripped to shreds by Piper.

Piper does acknowledge that his processes are “in many ways no different from the critic’s approach,” though this is only after setting up a polemic against criticism (17). I actually agree with much of Piper’s conclusions about the ways digital computation modeling can reveal how “context is never fixed, but always perspectival” (ibid). My friction is in suggesting that modeling inherently does this without first making it an explicit goal, acknowledging that modeling exists in a system of empirical-centrist dogma that frames the conclusions of numerating methodologies as objective truth. “Focusing on the implicatedness of modeling,” in Piper’s words, “helps us see the intersections…rather than the mutual exclusivity” of “nascent empiricism or residual subjectivity surrounding reading” (19). Piper’s presentation of repetitive, implicated, distributed, and diagrammatic reading may shift contemporary studies away from binaries like “distant/close, deep/shallow, critical attached” reading. His book may, indeed, “[mark] out an end of a particular tradition, in which the technologies of the book and the photograph have been used as the exclusive tools of understanding those very same media” (21). Why, though, does Piper begin the book with a polemic against the very criticism he wishes to employ via computation modeling? In other words, Enumerations may actually be the most recent formulation of new historicism, not its enemy.

“‘The woman as she was made’: Narrative Representation of Black Females in Zora Neale Hurston’s Fiction”

Zora Neale Hurston is celebrated as one of the most important writers of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Modernist movement. Perhaps the most important female black writer of the early twentieth century, she perfected the depiction of the southern black middle-class, the proletarians on whose backs the elites of the Harlem Renaissance would gain success. Ever critical of her part in this, she described the duty of literature to “hold up the mirror to nature” (Jones 68). This meant, for Hurston, “to render a more accurate and sophisticated depiction of African-American life and culture” (ibid. 69). A master of using dialect in her fiction as well, her writing therefore problematizes normative notions of ‘sophistication,’ particularly due to its primary focus on the depiction uneducated black females. As Sharon L. Jones notes in Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West, “Hurston has been misread as a writer who failed to address the social, political, and economic issues of her time…Hurston criticizes injustice in a subtler way through her handling of the domestic arena” (ibid. 88). This essay, adjacent to Jones’ work on protest in Hurston’s work, discusses the representation of the black female experience in Hurston’s short and long fiction with emphasis placed on the representation of the working black woman and her struggles both within a fixed social economy and a fluid social economy.

According to Jones, Hurston’s stories “Spunk” and “Sweat” “reveal Hurston’s deft incorporation of folklore, dialect, and power relations within heterosexual relationships” and contain characters that “anticipate protagonists in her novels” (Jones 81). In “Spunk,” the titular character is an intimidating man with larger-than-life personality that allows the protagonist Lena “who desires adventure and excitement as a relief from her humdrum existence” when they develop a relationship with one another. However, this comes at a cost: her husband’s life. If “the moral of the story is that consequences arise for one’s actions, at least for the male characters…[while] Lena lives on, possibly to perpetuate the cycle of men sacrificing their lives for her,” as Jones’ says it is, then the function of the black female character is as object in a “cycle of men” (ibid. 82-83). The story’s emphasis on the “abuse and misuse of power” results in the same consequence: Spunk and Lena’s husband dead, leaving her free to find more meaningful love (ibid. 82). The moral here may be something else still: men must be sacrificed for female autonomy. What remains true is the depiction of Lena as an ordinary woman within the domestic sphere. She must rely on a man for survival, which even the townspeople note after Spunk’s death. Yet, might this depiction jeopardize any true autonomy? While this may remain implicit, with “Spunk” Hurston is questioning whether a black woman can truly realize autonomy. This is to say that while Lena never explicitly desires autonomy from men or even necessarily separation from her husband, as proven by her guilt when he is killed by Spunk, Lena functions to shed light on the question of black female autonomy itself in that she is an article of speculation for the townspeople, quite literally a piece in a fated narrative. The need of the townspeople to consume her story or to speculate on its trajectory questions Lena’s own autonomy in choosing her destiny on her own.

Hurston’s 1926 story “Sweat” on the other hand takes up a more explicit representation of the working class black woman. Delia, the story’s protagonist, is a washwoman and principal breadwinner for her family. Jones, in quoting Angela Davis, notes that “African American women performed the majority of domestic work in their own homes as well as the homes of white bourgeois women” (Jones 83). Delia’s work and “sweat remains unappreciated by the ones she labors for–her husband and the whites in her community” (ibid. 83-84). She endures abuse at the hands of her employers and most at the hands of her husband. This depiction of Delia is a fixed one: triple oppression. The classism, racism, and sexism Delia endures is a part of the expansion of the black female representation that Hurston desires, the so-called “more accurate and sophisticated” portrayal (ibid. 69).

Hurston’s most celebrated work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, depicts a more fluid social economy through which a black female may operate. The protagonist Janie goes through three marriages, the first because her Nanny wants to ensure a better economic stance than she had as a former slave, the second because of the Spunk-like swagger and illusory freedom offered by Jody, and the third because of true love. The socio-economic fluidity of each of these is captured by Jones’ essay when she says “Hurston represents the contrast between the folk and bourgeois aesthetics through Janie’s account” (ibid. 90). Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, offers a better economic position than older generations in her family, namely that of Nanny, who is a former slave. Jody, in becoming the mayor, allows Janie to become the bourgeois of the town, untouchable by the ordinary townspeople. With her third marriage to Tea Cake, she returns to folk status. The novel is understood from the beginning, as a framed story, as the story of progression “from object to subject” for Janie (McGowan 86). This liberation can only be realized because of this social mobility. The project of black female autonomy that exists in questions for “Sweat” and “Spunk” has come into its realization. For her recapitulation of the story, Jane is telling the story of “the woman as she was made” by herself. The novel begins with Janie’s entrance into the town she left after Jody’s death wearing folk garments, different from those worn during her time as the bourgeois wife of the mayor. The townspeople use this to speak about her descent in social standing. However, at this moment when the townspeople are defaming the woman they once were required to look up to, she tells her best friend Phoeby Watson the story of her life, a story she tells herself and therefore owns. This performance of storytelling is read by Carla Kaplan as a revelation of her sexuality, the novel ending with an orgasm and peace (Kaplan 99). Nonetheless, the depiction of her social mobility allows this to take place.

In the domesticity of black female characters of Hurston’s writing, she questions the autonomous ability of these women. She questions whether lack of ownership over one’s own narrative can deflate one’s own autonomy or socio-political mobility. Further, in portraying holistically the sexuality, dialect, and maturation of different black female characters, Hurston accomplishes a more sophisticated representation of African American life and culture.

Works Cited

  • Jones, Sharon L. “‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’: Social Protest in the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston.” Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002, pp. 67-116.
  • Kaplan, Carla. “‘That Oldest Human Longing’ The Erotics of Talk in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms, Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 99-122.
  • McGowan, Todd. “Liberation and Domination: Their Eyes Were Watching God and the evolution of capitalism.” The Feminine ‘No!’ : Psychoanalysis and the New Canon. State University of New York Press, 2001, pp. 85-100.

On the Through-line of Violence from Slavery to Present

This was submitted in response to an essay question for the final exam of a survey of American Literature from 1850-present.

Charles Chesnutt, who only receives an education because of the Freedman’s Bureau, writes in the Reconstruction Era America, fables of dispossession. The exploitation of blacks in America, we learn from these stories, does not end with slavery. His two characters John and Annie are created, I argue, as critiques of the Northern white capitalists come down to the South to take advantage of the economic destruction that was caused by the war. Slavery transforms into sharecropping whereby the economically wealthy class remains on top while the poor freed blacks are damned to tell their stories for amusement, joy, or if they’re lucky, publication. In Chesnutt’s case, publication only exists as playing into the stereotype of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (as we see from the cover of the original edition of The Conjure Woman) or the minstrel shows that came out of these fables of dispossession. The stories Chesnutt presents are stories of witness, witness to the disenfranchisement of blacks by the white capitalists. Instead of the slave master, the white capitalists of the north move in an notice the land is “neglected” as John says in one of the stories. What John notices as neglect is actually Julius’ owning the land. What John calls neglect is no white person owning the land and it is what gives John permission to recolonize the land for his own gain. Julius receives a job out of it as ‘consolation.’ It is in this way that slavery becomes expropriation to make sure blacks stay at the bottom rung of the economic strata.

Hurston’s female character Janie represents the triple exploitation of poor black women in the rural south of the early 20th century. Janie, in an attempt to find her ‘self,’ looks from husband to husband until she finally realizes in retelling her story to Phoebe that the self can only exist after such devastation within one’s own story. Even when she is with Jody, Janie talks about taking her self and putting replacing it with furniture. Or setting her self on a shelf inside herself. This dissociation of the self is, in my argument, Hurston’s attempt to represent what Marx calls our alienation from the self. What capitalism renders is people who have social relations with things and economic relations with people. After Jody opens up a story is when their relationship begins to deteriorate in the novel. At every marriage, it is the financial dependence or the financial insecurity that Janie has that ultimately, I argue, forces further divorce from herself. This is Hurston’s representation of the triple oppression of a poor black woman in the rural south.

What Walt calls Faulkner’s only reflective moment is at the end of Go Down, Moses with the character of Gavin Stevens. There is no reconciliation for the ultimate destruction and complete violation that is slavery. That seems to be the true tragedy of Faulkner’s novel. No matter what Stevens decides to do, obituary or not, money or not, funeral or not, there is no amount of present reparation that can create penance for slavery. This is to say that the economic structure of today is predicated on the economy created by the system of slavery, which means there is only one economic structure that has ever existed in America — capitalist slavery. It is only transformed from chattel slavery to another form of economic immobility.

The biggest moment in Brooks’ poetry that stands out is at the end of “The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad of Emmett Till” when the complete horror that is the grief of Emmett Till’s mother just empties out onto a landscape, as if such horror can only be understood as being outside of oneself. It makes me emotional even to type this, because one can only imagine that the biggest tragedy is something that divorces oneself from even being able to look into its direction, the only option being to turn away and look out into a landscape. Emmett Till, the boy beaten for allegedly catcalling at a girl–something she has since admitted never happened–had been beaten so bad, almost beyond recognition. His mother wanted him to have an open casket, to show the world that the horrific violence committed against blacks in America had not stopped at slavery. For every progression, there is a steady response of retaliatory violence.

This transforms into the hoodie on the cover of Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. What the hoodie represents is a complete identification, or rather a stripping of individual identity, emptying out onto a landscape of racial slurs, racial stereotypes, and ultimately violence. This violence, in 2017, is protested but not condemned in court as unjust. Michael Slager received a plea deal just this week. He will not have to receive a lifetime prison sentence for shooting Michael Scott at a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina. What may seem as isolated incidents from slavery until now is actually one throughline of violence. The subjection of black people to violence in America has only transformed in nature and name. It is still violence. Literature presents an opportunity to imagine a world that could be better, to call a world that is unjust what it is. Until true democracy is realized, the representation of violence will persist. What Rankine did is considered a political act. It is, therefore, a political act to represent reality. That is what is at stake in the “alternative fact” America.

The Development of Consciousness from James to Robinson

This was submitted in response to an essay question for the final exam of a survey of American Literature from 1850-present.

Henry James, as we read in Washington Square, is a student of the French Realist school of thought. This is to say, according to Standhal, the job of the novel is as a mirror that walks along the road, reflecting back whatever exists in the world. It is only then that criticism can be made. In other words, the project of the novel is in mimesis, or in a performance of a reality. Instead of a plotted reality, James is interested in the representation of consciousness. Instead of the first-person narrative, though, James chooses instead to acknowledge the narrator as an outside entity thinking in on Catherine, who has her own thoughts. This is to say that while we never have access to Catherine’s thoughts (except one brief moment toward the end of the novel), we do have access to the thoughts of the narrator. This access to the thoughts of the narrator means we have an outsider’s view of what Catherine represents within the tapestry of American life at the time. Catherine does not exist as a subjective being in a universe by herself, she exists having been defined by those around here, particularly by her father who is constantly obsessed with finding someone who is worthy of her value — her dowry, her economic value. So, when James sits down to ask himself how he can represent the reality of consciousness for a character, the operation of consciousness seems to be an attempt to represent a subject within the trellis of the economics, which is to say the operation is to call forth economics or social class and history in his representation of reality and of “real” consciousness. This leaves two possible functions for consciousness: If the social classes do not exist, then his representation is generative of the representation of subjectivity within the American economy. If the social classes do exist, then his representation is perhaps an early critique on the reduction of anything or anyone (especially gendered things and ones) to their economic value.

This shifts when we read Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. With modernism, the narrator partakes in the action of the story. The only access to reality is through consciousness instead of standing on the outside, as if to stand on the (economic) structure itself like with James. Knowledge about the world is only verifiable for the modernist, for Cather, through a subjective perspective. The critique of one’s complete innerness being reduced to an economic value becomes complete submersion into subjectivity, an outright rejection of an objective understanding of meaning. In other words, there is no other Ántonia other than “my” Ántonia. The narrator’s relationship with the titular character is what brings her into reality. More specifically, it is Ántonia’s existence in the consciousness of the Jim, the narrator, that makes Ántonia “real.” Indeed, Jim Burden’s “burden” is that of the observer, the position from which one can call forth Ántonia’s story, as if without his story–the novel itself–there is no Ántonia. This is obviously a much more heightened version of what consciousness does for Cather’s writing. However, what we gather is the way subjective consciousness can either create–to the nth degree–or fail. There is nothing reliable about subjectivity and there is nothing objective about the representation of reality. That is how consciousness changes with Cather.

With Faulkner–still modernism–the focus is still on submersion into subjective consciousness. However, while Cather (and in many ways Hurston, as well) is interested in the ways naming things from a subjective point of view makes them real or somewhat real (flawed in that there is no objective naming, only naming that exists within the preconceptions of a single consciousness); Faulkner, on the other hand, is focused on the syntactical performance of consciousness itself. Faulkner is interested in the ways sentences are like thoughts. The project of the novel seems to instead of creating a plotted reality or a representation of reality, the representation of the performance of consciousness. Under Faulkner’s model, the reader does not simply understand that everything is subjective, but that subjectivity is so submersive that it is in reading a novel or chapter in its entirety that one gets the feeling that one has thought what is happening. In other words, only after reading the first chapter of Go Down, Moses does one have a sort of feeling of what is happening. Each sentence alone does not itself create story, it is the submersion into each thought, each sentence or as Pound calls the lines “flashing impressions”, into the performance of thought–altogether–that we understand plot or reality. Consciousness, then, is not represented just in its perspective as a subjective point of view, but as performed, as something which itself involves action. That is Faulkner’s innovation.

With Pynchon, we almost return full-circle to Standhal’s mirror from the Jamesian innovation. However, whereas the modernists tried to defamiliarize the process of consciousness (like Faulkner’s syntactical performances), the postmodernists use the over-familiarized commodity to commodify consciousness. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas gets caught up in the dendritic mesh of global capitalism. At every stage, she questions whether it is all real or whether the will is a hoax. We never get an answer to this, left to wonder whether consciousness itself has been commodified and sold and rebranded and resold, which is to say whether consciousness itself can be manipulated or is manipulated by global capitalism or deindustrialization.

Finally, with Robinson, consciousness circles back in a repeated spiral, constantly within both past and present. The first two sentences of the novel tell what the rest of the novel explains, first begging the question “why continue to read?” Walter Benjamin reminds us that everything in the present owes something to the past, the past owns part of the present. This is to say that consciousness does not only take place in the present. The final innovation of consciousness is its awareness in both a present moment and a fixed or unfixed past. As the surface action unfolds, it is both indebted to the past itself and the way the past exists in the consciousness of the self.

Hysteria in 1898

I wrote this after reading The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a wonderful ghost story published in 1898.

In his address to the American Medical Association in 1898, Dr. James E. Moore offered advice on female surgical patients suffering from hysteria:

“When a neurotic female presents herself for surgical treatment, and the subjective symptoms are out of all proportion to the objective, we should be upon our guard, for operations under these circumstances are seldom of more than temporary benefit. These patients … by careful observation, the surgeon may satisfy himself that their sufferings are purely imaginary.”

He later adds:

“An hysterical joint occurs, as a rule, in an hysterical patient. The pain is not that of an inflamed joint, but is an hyperaesthesia [excessive sensitivity]. The deformity may resemble very closely that of tuberculosis, but there is a difference. The symptoms are all exaggerated, and the whole condition gives the experienced examiner the impression that the patient is playing a part.”

Thus, while female surgical patients may suffer from excessive sensitivity, their hysteria should, as a rule, be treated, according to Dr. James E. Moore in 1898, skeptically, for they are neuroses, read: ‘purely imaginary.’

This cultural text reveals a very specific prognosis for women suffering from post-operative complications. The speech Dr. Moore gives is about the complications suffered after an operation, as he begins discussing the symptoms of several of his male patients, which describes as “splendid specimen of physical manhood,” in all but their symptoms. He moves on, however, to a discussion of the risks surgeons have when treating “neurotic female[s]” who have the same or similar symptoms, which he claims are “purely imaginary” (Moore).

There is circumstance to believe not just that Dr. Moore would be classified in 2017 as a sexist, but that there exists a distrust in 1898, or at the very least a skepticism, about the ability of a female post-operative patient to recognize abnormal symptoms in her own body. There is, in other words, a questioning in the validity of a female patient’s statements regarding her own experienced symptoms. This skepticism may drive, Dr. Moore warns, surgeons to be aware these patients may “fall into the hands of unscrupulous, would-be surgeons” (Moore). The fear is not necessarily that females are lying but that they may fall victim to surgeons looking for any reason to up-charge and perform surgery on unneeding, naïve patients.

However, despite this performative concern for the well-being of female patients, Dr. Moore still makes clear the skepticism that exists over the autonomy of the female body, namely that she may not understand it regardless of it being her own. This stigma, I argue, regardless of its legitimate place in observance to mental incapacitation that may occur in some patients, exists nonetheless to further alienate a female subjectivity from itself.

The same year Dr. James E. Moore gives his prognoses to a group of male medical practitioners at the American Medical Association, Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw is published. In the novel, a governess is constantly haunted by the ghosts that exist in the house in which she is taking care of two beautiful children. These ghosts, she believes, are manifestations of the evils within the children and their reluctance to let her raise them.

Half a century after Dr. Moore’s speech and Screw‘s publication, the novella had become perhaps the most influential piece of short fiction ever written for the New Critics. Edmund Wilson, writing for the Hound & Horn at Harvard, is the first to question the sanity of the governess in James’s novella: “Observe that there is never any evidence that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts” (Wilson 385). He goes on: “The Turn of the Screw, then, on this theory, would be a masterpiece…as a study in morbid psychology” (Wilson 386).

It is my argument that Wilson’s questioning of the mental fitness of the governess is not only predated by the Moorean medical notion that a female autonomy must be met with skepticism when she presents as ‘neurotic’ and ‘hysterical,’ but that it in fact is a part of a through-line of criticism that questions the autonomy of the female body. In other words, I question how much “The Ambiguity of Henry James” relies on his protagonist in The Turn of the Screw being female. (Read: Would critics ask about the integrity of the first-person narrative in James’ novella were the protagonist male? Would Mrs. Grose, whose name Wilson erases and is called simply “the housekeeper” in his essay, be questioning the legitimacy of the ghosts in the story were the governess to be the governor?).

These questions may come as some to be an ahistorical angry rant, I nonetheless point out that other ghost stories may themselves also be looked at as “ambiguous” “[studies] in morbid psychology” yet they are most often not, read instead as legitimate horror tales about the physical detriment a ghost can commit against the living. We must evaluate the through-line that exists of criticism of female autonomy from at least Moore, a doctor of James’s contemporary America, to the first placement of this skepticism onto James’s protagonist. Until then, we are ignoring the ghosts that exist in criticism itself.

 

 

Works Cited

Moore, James E., M.D. “Hysteria From A Surgical Stand-point.” American Surgical Association, 27 April 1898. Special Address. AMA 1898 James E. Moore speech.pdf

Wilson, Edmund. “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” Hound & Horn, vol. 7, no. 1, 1934, pp. 385-406. Wilson on James.pdf

Distance in Hassan Blasim’s “The Killers and the Compass”

There is no such thing as diversity in Arab America; there are diversities. We do not adhere to a singular body politic: we engage in all sorts of politics. We do not occupy an Arab American culture: we belong to numerous cultures housed, somewhat reductively but usefully as intellectual shorthand, under the rubric of an Arab American ethnic community. We do not produce a particular style of literary fiction: like all good authors, we write literary fictions spanning the available range of aesthetic and structural paradigms – sometimes we alter them to better exhibit cultural flavor, and sometimes we transcend them and create new ones.

Steven Salaita, p 2

Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics

 

The simultaneity of remoteness and intimacy gives distance a plural status in literature. One can be both near to something because of empathetic experience and far from it relative to its physical subject as a reader. If I relate to a character I am emotionally intimate with him or her while simultaneously distant from him or her, as I exist outside the fictional story-world, beyond the pages of the book. But how does this simultaneity help us understand plurality in world literatures? In this essay, I will explore how Hassan Blasim’s “The Killers and the Compass” takes up the simultaneity and relationality of distance by invoking the very act of storytelling and making rhetorical shifts in tense sequence. It is my argument that by so doing, Blasim’s story accomplishes the “ethic of plurality” Salaita says exists for Arab (American) literature and affirms Al-Ali and Al-Najjar’s claim that “Iraqis exist in the plural as any other population” (Salaita 2, Al-Ali and Al-Najjar 32). While Blasim is not himself Arab-American, the translation into English of his stories in The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq presents an important space to further problematize the dangerous us/them binary narrative that exists between what is represented as a dominant U.S. culture, which is itself self-actualizing and patriotic, and what is simply represented as “Arab” culture, which in its creation must oppose and threaten the former and thus must be un-patriotic and non-dominant and which becomes ultimately racialized. In an effort to explain what Carol Fadda-Conrey calls a post-9/11 resurgence of portraying Arab people “through an antihomogonous lens,” I will argue that by invoking distance in the very act of storytelling in “The Killers and the Compass,” Blasim’s characters inhabit a plurality in themselves because of their plural story-world (Fadda-Conrey 534). I will then move on to how the relational function of distance operates to break down or problematize non-plural representations of any peoples and simultaneously re-establishes the artificial boundaries that prevent yet necessitate different realities.

As his older brother, Abu Hadid, trots Mahdi around the neighborhood, each encounter invokes storytelling as a means to understand character. This is to say that for Mahdi, every relation he has to where and whom they visit is tied to a story. The muddy lanes are muddy because of a storm, the smell of fried fish becomes about Majid the traffic policeman’s being drunk, even Abu Hadid’s picking up a stone and throwing it at cats becomes a story about Abu Rihab and his daughter (Blasim 14-15). Blasim’s invocation of storytelling within his story aesthetically creates community within the story. It takes little narrative space to create a sense of a larger community within the neighborhood. Beyond this, it also creates minor structures of storytelling that are then echoed and expanded in the story-within-the-story of the Palestinian kid and the compass.

For example, the shirt as a device travels. Abu Hadid orders Mahdi to take his off then orders the mechanic to fetch a new one. The clean one is from mechanic’s son who is a student at medical college. This is to say the shirt is the article of relation – who wears it, where does it come from, what does it smell like. Associations between the shirt and those who wear it are also in tandem with the way the shirt encounters distances: literally from one person to the next and figuratively based on the experience of the shirt, the shirt “smelled of soap” and was that of the student’s (16). It also inhabits a space of surprise when it fits Mahdi. By invoking this sense that beyond every geographic location in the neighborhood, beyond every article of clothing even, is an infinite number of characters, stories, or memories relationally connected, Blasim is affirming the plurality of these characters. The narrator does not exist in one storyline or even two, but in any infinite number of storylines.

A bit later, there is a brief interlude within the story about Abu Hadid that makes shifts in tense between past, present, and future. What is so special about Abu Hadid that his story can operate both in a past tense that contains a future interlude? This only lasts one paragraph and then the story continues in the past tense. Beyond the paragraph, the story shifts from just past-tense to a future tense: “I would never understand what the man [who Abu Hadid sexually assaulted with a cucumber] had to do with my brother” (18). The interlude creates another circle of distance outside of the story. This is different from the earlier moment when Mahdi questions what his brother whispered to the gerbil: “All along the way I was wondering what Abu Hadid had whispered in the gerbil’s ear” (16). The latter happens within the story-world while the former is outside it. This shift with the interlude allows for the story-world to have another layer within itself. In other words, it’s a story within a story within a story, endlessly. In a story about storytelling, this device may also be a way to remind the reader that he is still reading a story. Nonetheless, the effect is that within each story is itself another story and so on forever.

The narrative distance seems to again affirm the plurality of the universe Blasim creates or is referencing. If there are an infinite number of stories within stories, the more realistic his world remains. While his darker more experimental style seems to toggle into the fantastical, the world Blasim creates is as real as it gets. It is this aesthetic of narrative distance that complicates each character’s life. In a story that seems to be about establishing one’s own god-ness through fear and violence, distance is also unequivocally tied to this relationship.

Distance is relational; it requires at least two parties. It is defined as the observable or felt space between two or more things (OED Online). Understanding something as inhabiting multiple valences of location – being relational, needing more than one part – is another way of saying it operates plurally. Salaita’s monograph, quoted as an epigraph to this essay, aims to take up different sociopolitical contexts for in-depth literary analysis of Arab-American writing, giving due acknowledgement to the frequently misrepresented peoples of Arab America in what self-manifests as a more-dominant American ‘mainstream’ culture. His impetus for this analysis is in establishing what he calls an “ethic of plurality” (Salaita 2). What does this plurality look like? One of the answers to this question may be in the relational quality of distance.

Distance can be far or near, long or short. Intimacy may be accomplished through a short distance while remoteness may be accomplished through a longer one. The plurality of distance exists in its relational quality. As Dara N. Byrne points out in her essay “The Future of (The) ‘Race’: Identity, discourse and the rise of computer-mediated public spheres,” social networking websites like AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, and Naijanet can function to facilitate “diasporan interconnectivity” (Lane 439). The plurality that exists in distance’s relational qualities exists because of its simultaneous use toward intimacy and remoteness. One may find intimacy from a remote location by using the Internet. One can be both near to something and far from it because of the remote connection the Internet offers. Even the phrase “remote connection” seems almost oxymoronic given the context that remoteness requires vast distance. Remoteness, in fact, requires connection, for its very understanding lies in its relation to a different perspective.

In her review of Roy Scranton’s War Porn for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Hoenicke says,

All of these characters, and all of us — we either face our realities or don’t, but they remain realities. The Iraqis are for the United States and against it; the people are religious but not always devout; there is intelligence on both sides, and ignorance.

It is the simultaneity of remoteness and intimacy that remains integral to understanding the complex underpinnings of any global landscape. The minutiae are doubly crucial and no local, simple view can suffice. It is by recognizing the vast complexities within each locale, the myriad of details in each character relationship, that we can begin to condense and collapse the orientalist binary that not only sets up West and East but ties them to an endless battle between one another. Further, it is also in recognizing that the binary exists for many people and that the orientalist west-east/us-them dichotomy is the dominant worldview that we can begin to find ways, like in analyzing Blasim’s fiction, to collapse this narrative. Before we can prove the boundaries we create between ourselves are artificial, we must first acknowledge the different power structures that create and benefit from these boundaries. I hope that this essay and other like it become a means to explore these issues further.

 

Works Cited

  • Al-Ali, Nadje and Deborah Al-Najjar, editors. We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. Syracuse University Press, 2013.
  • Blasim, Hassan. The Corpse Washer and Other Stories of Iraq. 2014. Translated by Jonathan Wright, Penguin Books, 2014.
  • “distance, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Accessed 11 November 2016.
  • Fadda-Conrey, Carol. “Arab American Citizenship in Crisis: Destabilizing Representations of Arabs and Muslims in the US After 9/11.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, 2011, pp. 532-555.
  • Hoenicke, Sarah. “When the Hurlyburly’s Done: Roy Scranton’s ‘War Porn’” LA Review of Books, August 16, 2015. Accessed 11 November 2016.
  • Lane, Richard, editor. Global Literary Theory: an anthology. Routledge, 2013.
  • Salaita, Steven. Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Gwendolyn Brooks and Form

“Our selection” refers to chosen passages from A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945.

In our selection, the first named ballad is “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie” but several of the other poems have balladic rhyme or structure. The ballad can be used to express love, like with the one about Mabbie, but it can also be used to intensely describe a character and invoke emotion (like with Blues ballads). Nonetheless, I’m really curious as to how Brooks uses the ballad to problematize these notions of the form and unsettle or give commentary to other social issues within the form.

As to this second point, I’m really interested–and perhaps this is a question more than an observation–in what the form affords the content: how does the form impact Brooks’ taking up of interracial love or white supremacy/preference for whiter complexion in “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie,” about Willie Boone’s choosing a white “lynx” over Mabbie’s chocolate complexion? How does the form of the ballad help to emphasize the differences drawn out between Sadie and Maud in the poem of the same name?

How does the balladic structure almost make tragic the story of De Witt Williams in “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery”? Is it just the imagery in “The Last Quatrain of The Ballad of Emmett Till” that makes it so aptly tragic (here I’m thinking specifically of “tint of pulled taffy” “she is sorry” and “chaos in windy grays”) or is it this imagery in combination with the balladic form which makes the repetition of that rhyme (taffy, coffee, sorry, prairie) almost a recircling of grief?

As a poet, I’m always thinking about why one may use form–what possibilities does form open up? It is a common misconception, in my belief, that forms somehow create rigidity (a lot of times people call forms “rigid”). On the one hand, the structure provides an outline. On the other–and this is more interesting to me–there is a historical use of the form and the affordances/the affect of the form’s structure. For example, with the ballad structure, one must ask “What effect does the repetition of the rhyme create?” With the song, “How does the performative nature of this form relate to 1) its overall content and 2) its lyrical imagery?”

At every word, the poet makes a decision. I’m curious what we can discover together about Brooks’ decisions.

Faulkner’s Stream of Consciousness

Here, I am pulling a passage from “Pantaloon in Black” from Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942). The lower paragraph is more an experimental flash-fiction piece than a response, though I encourage you to read it both ways.

 

“…the hearth and stove and bed, were all a part of the memory of somebody else, so that he stopped in the half-open gate and said aloud, as though, he had gone to sleep in one place and then waked suddenly to find himself in another: “Whut’s Ah doin hyar?” before he went on. Then he saw the dog. He had forgotten it. He remembered neither seeing nor hearing it since it began to howl just before dawn yesterday–a big dog, a hound with a strain of mastiff from somewhere (he told Mannie a month after they married: “Ah needs a big dawg. You’s de onliest least thing whut ever kep up wid me one day, leff alone fo weeks.”) coming out from beneath the gallery and approaching, not running but seeming rather to drift across the dusk until it stood lightly against his eg, its head raised until the tips of his fingers just touched it, facing the house and making no sound; whereupon, as if the animal controlled it, had lain guardian before it during his absence and only this instant relinquished, the shell of planks and shingles facing him solidified, filled, and for the moment he believed that he could not possibly enter it. “But Ah needs to eat,” he said. “Us bofe needs to eat,” he said, moving on though the dog did not follow until he turned and cursed it. “Come on hyar!” he said. “Whut you skeered of? She lacked you too, same as me,” and they mounted the steps and crossed the porch and entered the house–the dusk-filled single room where all those six months were now crammed and crowded into one instant of time until there was no place left for air to breathe, crammed and crowded about the hearth where the fire which was to have lasted to the end of them, before which in the days before he was able to buy the stove he would enter after his four-mile walk from the mill and find her, the shape of her narrow back and haunches squatting, one narrow spread hand shielding her face from the blaze over which the other hand held the skillet, had already fallen to a dry, light soilure of dead ashes when the sun rose yesterday–and himself standing there while the last of light died about the strong and indomitable beating of his heart and the dep steady arch and collapse of his chest which walking fast over the rough going of woods and fields had not increased and standing still in the quiet and fading room had not slowed down. Then the dog left him.”

 

I’m writing this post on anti-histimines, which is perhaps only the rightest way one may write on Faulkner’s prose. I’m so aware of the taxation of thought that with every blink, not only does (as the cliché goes) each of my eyelids get heavier and heavier, but so too does it seem I am closer to acquiescing to the epic treachery and volatility — not malicious treachery or volatility, just to be clear — that my mind has become on this drug, something that feels closer to sleep than un-sleep, something which is by its very nature sirenic (that is, calling to me to give in or release or blink longer until blinks are longer and longer are blinks so that instead of blipping by the blinks and blight of sleep, slipping down sanctuary). The ceilings in the library, have you ever noticed?, they are each so prismatically shaped. Triangular prisms, some with ventilation vents, some without (and those without still have lights, are as dusty, if not dustier, than those with ventilation vents). And I wonder, too, perhaps you have also wondered this, whether the change in carpet design is intentional to keep one awake (though, I must also add, not only is one not always looking at the floor–or even if he were, he is not always noticing the patterns of the carpet, unless subconsciously–were one to be looking at the floor and becoming drowsy, it may not prevent–perhaps it even may encourage–sleep). The magazines in the contemporary section are all labeled with neon green stickers, which is intriguing, yet what I remember most about the magazines is Camille (the librarian) telling my class last semester in the classroom on the second floor with computers that were the library not to have something we want, we need only tell her to buy it and she will. Why I connect this to the magazines is odd, though, because Camille was not alluding to magazines; she was alluding to books on scholarship. I just realized, after looking down at my watch–it is a nice watch I bought for myself (from Amazon) that was very cheap, yet has lasted much longer than other, cheaper watches I bought–that I have over and hour and a half before my class today and I don’t think, unless I either take a nap or have some breakfast, that I will make it. I am, as it were, a zombie.

On Pound’s “A Pact”

Image rendered from https://media.poetryfoundation.org/m/image/957/ezra-pound.jpg?w=448&h=&fit=max.

Pound begins the poem by presenting opposites, wanting to form a pact with Walt Whitman despite having detested him and then again with the image of a “grown child” in line 3. The image of the pig-headed father is also somewhat of an opposite in that pig-headed means obstinate or stubborn (OED) and yet the speaker of the poem is abstaining from his/her typical stubborn behavior of detesting Walt Whitman by now making a pact with him. This is all presuming, of course, that making a pact is only something someone does with someone they do not detest (though one might make the argument that may not necessarily be the case). Nonetheless, the image of the “grown child” seems to be setting up some sort of opposition.

The speaker also seems to be calling attention to time’s construction. The verb tenses shift from present (I make) to past participle (I have detested) back to present (I come) back to past participle again (Who has had) to present again (I am old) then simple past (It was you that broke) to present (Now is). Beyond the tense shifts, the speaker says “I am old enough now” (5) as if within the “now”-ness of the present tense, there is also an “old.” In other words, recognizing old-ness also recognizes that time passes—that something, here “I,” goes from young to old over a period of time. But that word “old” is smushed in between present tense “am” and a reference to the present, “now” (5), rendering time in the fifth line inconsistent in that there is both a set, stationary present in the “now”-ness and a passage or movement of time in the word “old.” Further down in the poem, the speaker even says “now is a time” — using the unspecific article “a” over “the,” implying there are several times, one of which is “now” (7).

The notion of carving Walt Whitman’s “new wood” in conjunction with Pound’s words in “RE VERS LIBRE” (1913) seems to refer to taking a wider free verse, long Whitman line and chiseling it down to something more structured and succinct (6). Pound has done just that. Each of these lines are purposefully broken, all but one by punctuation, and the poem itself is presented in no set meter or form, giving it a “commerce” shared between Whitman and Pound (9).

The OED defines commerce as “Exchange between men of the products of nature or art,” giving credence to the idea of a shared sap and root between the speaker and Whitman in line 8; however, my understanding of commerce is in the mercantile or economic sense– that there is monetary value about an object that becomes traded and in that sense, there is a commercial relationship between the traders of that object. Were poetry to be this object, as I understand wood to be functioning that way in this poem, then both uses of commerce seem to fit to Pound’s use. However, I don’t want to stop at “well, it works,” either– why use commerce? Wood is a natural good, so perhaps the metaphor extends into choosing that word “commerce.” What do you think?

The Anxiety of Waiting in Basma Abdel Aziz’s THE QUEUE

For this, I’m reading Chapter 19 of James L. Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East: A history (fourth edition from Oxford Univ. Press) and Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue published in 2013 and then translated by Elizabeth Jaquette and published in 2016 by Melville House. Photo from https://media.npr.org/assets/img/2016/04/29/the-queue-cover-final2_wide-cc4b1914da37ce4ca9181d8e6ced2ac4c05793be.jpg?s=1400.

  1. “[Ines] wouldn’t leave her place for more than a moment, and Um Mabrouk began to send Mabrouk to bring her breakfast every day” 130
  2. “Yehya was distraught for days” 154
  3. “For several weeks [Amani] hadn’t seen or spoken to anyone but Yehya” 174
  4. “For weeks before she’d left her job, Amani hadn’t made any sales” 204
  5. “[Amani] didn’t know how she’d arrived in this emptiness, how time was passing, or whether it was passing at all.” 152

At the end of the Gelvin chapter on the Arab Uprisings, he annotates the historical use of the “spring” metaphor from “Arab Spring” and its first use, “Springtime of Nations,” which ultimately led to the incorporation of liberal ideals into society and government in the greater European area – “even if the realization of those alternatives [to autocratic government] might take a century and a half or so” (346). Thus, he comes to, at the very end of the chapter, a notion of waiting. That perhaps the Arab Uprisings are still in their beginnings or middles and the more liberal governments of the region are in the future. While of course this may be so – that is to say of course time in its most fundamental understanding moves linearly and forward – I wonder if the very question The Queue seems to take up is what that waiting may look like on the ground. In other words, while one might say the region is bound to fully realize the revolutions’ ideals in due time, that due time may in fact complicate that realization and its process.

Above, I’ve chosen several quotes from The Queue that outline, in the first four (from pp 130, 154, 174, and 204), moments when characters experience the anxiety of waiting. To an intentionally absurd extent, the characters spend their time waiting – that is to say all of this waiting occurs in “weeks” or “more than a moment,” both which blur the notion of time as a definable set of moments. In other words, we might experience time as a definable set of points, each moment passing its previous equal. What The Queue’s characters seem to experience via the anxiety of waiting is time not as a set of definable points but time which has begun to itself seem so long, it has become indefinable. I think we all feel this in a colloquial setting – the way we use “five more minutes” or “a few more minutes” interchangeably, each of them undefined when we use them in their own specific (with “five”) or unspecific (with “few”) means. The point is not that we wait exactly five minutes nor that we define how long a few minutes might be. It is the act of waiting that is the point. And in that act of waiting, the specific amount of time, again, does not seem to be what is relevant, which is to say time goes from being undefined to being indefinable, experienced in The Queue as hyperbole or absurdity – or, as I call it, irrelevant. The point, again, is waiting. Not necessarily time.

I digress now because I feel like I’m beginning to sound pedantic.

As I spoke about earlier, this creates anxiety for the characters who have to wait. Ines has to be brought breakfast, Yehya is distraught, Amani speaks to no one and loses her job. Ultimately, then, the anxiety of waiting accumulates and seems to affect the characters’ goings-on in their daily lives. So what does it mean for interference or deviation to seem to cause anxiety? For Gelvin’s piece, it seems to be anger and need for interference and deviation manifests in revolution and where The Queue places itself is after a revolution. The Queue then seems to be making the argument that despite revolution, the afterlives of revolution are weighed down in anxiety and waiting.

This brings me to the final passage above: “[Amani] didn’t know how she’d arrived in this emptiness, how time was passing, or whether it was passing at all.” 152

Time seems to collapse or at least become blurred – that is, felt as time/waiting itself rather than any incremental or specific ordering of time – in the novel due to the sheer amount of waiting. Waiting seems to be the cause of much of the anxiety – for Gelvin’s subjects it seems to be about waiting for the realization of liberal ideals whereas for those characters in The Queue it seems to be that and the fear of the new government and the ways that new government can and does exploit its people. I think a paper is to be written on the ways neoliberal, militarized capitalism functions in The Queue as a means of causing fear and anxiety via waiting.