Complaints, despair

I’m troubled by the metaphors (?) this week’s secondary readings use to understand the translation and circulation of “world literature.” First, Berglund leans heavily on the idea of a linguistic core, periphery, and semi-periphery, apparently invoking world-systems theory. (While the terms “core” and “periphery” seem to be commonly used in network analysis, the use of “semi-periphery” is, as far as I can tell, basically exclusive to world-systems.)

I put a question mark after “metaphors” in the preceding paragraph because I’m not sure precisely how we’re meant to read these terms. Are they naming a relationship of domination and exploitation? Suggesting a homology between an economic world system and a linguistic or literary one? And what exactly is the “periphery” in this model? Berglund plays fast and loose with the concept, first describing Swedish novelists as “writing from a periphery” (77) then seeming to accept Heilbron’s quantitatively/sociologically-based identification of Swedish-language novels as “semi-peripheral” (83). Meanwhile, world-systems theory consistently identifies Sweden as a core country. Ultimately, this lack of clarity on the definition of periphery seems to contribute to Berglund’s ambivalent conclusion that “‘otherness’ or ‘exoticness’” are both “a requirement and an opportunity” (87). In this model, Swedish literature seems to wind up almost but not quite exploited, and almost but not quite dominant. I suspect that more clarity would be possible were this analysis backed by a clearer account of political and economic power dynamics on a global scale, in addition to its account of global literary production.

Beecroft substitutes the idea of multiple “ecologies” for the core-periphery model Berglund employs, but his model of world literature remains dependent on some dubious ideas about the ease of immigration, multiple citizenship, and movement across borders. Discussing global literary ecology, Beecroft suggests that as languages and texts “escape the bonds of the nation-state,” “we may be moving in the direction of just such a borderless world” (36). As nice as it is to think about the “writers of the future Anglosphere […] carry[ing] dual passports” (264), we may also wish to question who can simply “choose” to take on such a global identity given the current climate of militarized borders and renewed assaults on immigrants and refugees.

In summary, it seems that both these theories are evoking political realities of immigration and core-periphery relationships only to submerge those issues again. These issues are, however, raised fairly explicitly by Faceless Killers, a book about how “foreigners” are violent and dangerous, or really aren’t, or are after all, and about its protagonist’s libidinal relationship to blackness. (Is this novel exoticizing Sweden as Berglund suggests, or is it exoticizing blackness and other forms of racial and national difference!?!?!?) This post is too long already, so I’ll leave off here, mid-idea.

Himes and the refusal of “ethnic realist” narration

I find these excerpts from The Program Era helpful for their schematic mapping-out of the contemporary literary field, but I also question McGurl’s account of the strategies available to racialized and otherwise minoritized writers. McGurl seems to imagine a literary field whose alternatives lie on a spectrum from ethnic realism to technomodernism, both of which are necessarily mediated by the university. This seems to suggest that all (“literary”/non-genre?) literary production by people of color ultimately serves the university, becoming part of its (raced, classed) project of social reproduction. While this is pretty undeniably one of the functions literature performs in society, I’d like to believe that some intervention is possible for writers of color beyond endlessly reproducing their (our?????) difference from whiteness in service of the reproduction of both whiteness and capital. I’m also troubled by the “strategic triumphalism” of McGurl’s conclusion. If “systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance” in literature, how can we even begin to think of the potential “excellence” (whatever that means) of working-class writers, writers of color, or anyone else belonging to a group that has been systematically excluded from the university and denied the “investment of capital” McGurl points to (409)?

I don’t really have the tools to deal with either the social reproduction questions or the aesthetic evaluation questions I’m raising here. So I’d like to set those aside for a moment and think about how the formal features of Cotton Comes to Harlem might challenge the logic of cultural pluralism that the literary establishment as described by McGurl relies upon. I imagine that McGurl would classify Himes’ work as genre fiction rather than either ethnic realism or technomodernism, but I do think Cotton might provide a model for “genre” techniques that could be absorbed by either of those modes in order to challenge the logic McGurl sees as foundational to them.

How does “ethnic realism” stake its claim to knowledge of a culture or experience? McGurl doesn’t say much about its formal properties in the excerpt we read, but I imagine it involves a sort of reversal of 19th century realism’s equation of knowledge with social distance. First-person or highly focalized third-person narration from the perspective of one or two primary characters replaces a more omniscient, wide-ranging, and detached view, suggesting that the narration, like all knowledge, stems from a specific social location—likely one close, if not identical to, the author’s.

By contrast, Himes seems to refuse both these modes of narration. As Eburne puts it, Himes dramatizes the “collapse” of the “fixed point in intellectual space” from which one might understand a culture or a political struggle (807). Neither an “objective”/omniscient perspective nor an individual/personal one seems possible here. And yet, the narrator does seem to display a sort of omniscience in their (its?) ability to move across character perspectives and social strata—like a multiplot Victorian novel, without either the chatty narrator or the free indirect discourse that allows characters to briefly take over the telling of the story. Ultimately, I’m not sure how to characterizes Himes’ narrator other than by what the narrator isn’t. But I’m interested in that narrator’s ability to refuse either detachment or personalization, and how this seems to complicate easy equivalences between the author’s social position and the work.

The vanishing object of literary-sociological study

In his focus on the structure of social relations within the literary field and the role literature plays in the field of power, Bourdieu seems to direct his attention away from the actual content or form of the works produced by his actors. He does at one point mention the preference of the avant-garde for “pastiche or parody” (Bourdieu 313), two terms we’ve previously associated with both modernism and postmodernism, and his idea of “art for art’s sake” seems to suggest something like Greenberg’s avant-garde “artists’ artists” who theorize the medium itself (Greenberg 8), minus Greenberg’s evaluative judgments about “real” and “ersatz” culture. Apart from these moments, though, “The Field of Cultural Production” doesn’t tell us much about what texts look like as aesthetic objects, or what they do beyond scoring points for their creators in the struggle for social distinction. We get little sense of literature as potentially registering social contradictions or anxieties, expressing utopian longings, compensating for some emotional intensity absent in its readers’ lives, or any of the other functions literary critics have attributed to it.

Can Bourdieu’s more structural, sociological approach be reconciled with the forms of close reading and ideology critique more closely associated with literary criticism? I do think that certain close reading-based questions can help us to mediate between individual texts and Bourdieu’s account of the structure of the literary field, for example:

  • What types of culture are depicted in the text? What do we as readers seem to be meant to feel toward that culture (recognition, estrangement, contempt, awe, aspiration, etc.)? What type of habitus must a reader have in order to experience that reaction?
  • How does the text interpellate the reader? (For example, “you” addressed as the medical student confused and unsettled by Lord Peter in Whose Body?, or Sayers’ footnotes that purport to teach you more than Lord Peter knows about editions of Dante.)
  • Following Leavis and Greenberg: how “difficult” is the text? What type of reader is most likely to seek out that level of difficulty (thinking about labor, leisure, access to education, etc.)?

It may also be useful, however, to think of Bourdieu as continuing the project of literary critics such as Leavis, whose work similarly downplays from close reading in favor of other methods (though she seems to attend more to potential effects of the text upon the reader than does Bourdieu). Both are thinking about gradations of power and prestige within the literary field—and both projects also seem to point toward the difficulty of just such a project. Leavis, as we’ve noted, aims to produce a study of readers yet finds that she can only go about this by surveying writers. Bourdieu seems to build here on his earlier work in Distinction, which elaborated a theory of taste as socially determined, drawing on extensive surveys of French people across classes about their economic position, tastes, and consumption habits. But rather than continuing such contemporary, empirical work, he applies his theories back to the moment of the formation of a stratified literary field in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Reading these two texts together seems to suggest that there’s something slippery about readers (or even authors) as sociological subjects, and that they must be approached with caution and from some distance, whether via readings of the texts themselves rather than engagements with the individuals producing and consuming them; surveys carefully distributed only to a particular population; or historical analyses whose bearing on the present is implied but not quite made explicit.

Survey and data on tastes in visual art, from Distinction. Why not do this for literature?