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A Note from the Editor: Sorcery, Silence, and Becoming-Comparative Literature

Lydia Brambila

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Note from the Editor:

Sorcery, Silence, and Becoming-Comparative Literature

 

Animal, Artist, Hybrid

 

Much popular speculation has arisen in the past year in response to the Coen brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, in an effort to “make sense” of the enigmatic cat(s) woven through the plot. My personal favorite among these theories confers upon this “shifty, totemic cat” the role of a symbolic “device... to amplify Llewyn’s quest for identity” (Wainwright). This cat, in elegant counterpoint to Llewyn’s alienating yet tragic stumble, invites the viewer to engage in the classical literary exercise of scouting out mythic tropes from the Western canon.

            This instance of an animal and human crossing borders brings to mind some immediate associations. The first: a cat who steadily gazed at Derrida’s naked body and drove Derrida to contemplate the logocentric apparati that legitimize some forms of speech while silencing others (372). The second: Deleuze and Guattari’s contemplation of “becoming-Other” as the process propelling both evolution of life and the creation of art. Writers, like sorcerers, combine the Self and the imagined Other to produce works that are “traversed by strange becomings that are not becomings-writer, but becomings-rat, becomings-insect, becomings-wolf,” and, it may follow, becomings-cat. For evolution is not only the result of affiliation between members of a species, but also the result of filiation between members of different species, influencing one another within a larger web of relations (240).

            The act of creating art is itself the result of imaginative hybridity between the writing Self and the imagined Other. The symbolic interplay between folk artist and animal in Inside Llewyn Davis is the sort of unnatural becoming-Other that literary analysis attempts to critically traverse. Rigorous criticism enables the reader to cross borders into the Other through interpretation, dialogue, and imaginative projection. In turn, comparative literature allows us to cross borders of national affiliation and national language such that we may create in its place a discipline of transnational hybridity through filiation--ever-hybrid, ever-multiple, ever-evolving.

 

In Defense of Fiction

 

Over the past few decades, a trend towards departmental consolidation in the humanities has pressured comparative literature departments to assimilate under the umbrellas of “culture” or “area” studies.  Jonathan Culler reflects on the pressure from his own institution to turn comparative literature into “the study of cultural productions or discourses of all sorts” (254), thereby drawing the focus away from literature itself. Why argue in opposition to this consolidation? What does the study of literature provide that area studies and cultural studies do not? Fiction, one could protest, is a deliberate effort to invent a non-reality; how can literary analysis use this material to productively inform agents of change in the world?

            In defense of fiction, I introduce an unlikely witness. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz asserts: 

 

anthropological writings are themselves interpretations, and second and third order ones to boot. (By definition, only a ‘native” makes first order ones: it’s his culture.). They are, thus, fictions; fictions, in the sense that they are “something made”, “something fashioned” --the original meaning of fictiô--not that they are false, unfactual, or merely “as if” thought experiments (155).

 

Over the past few decades, scholarly ethnographic literature has undergone a reflexive, self-aware revolution, demonstrating a general trend toward undermining the supposed objectivity of the etic (outside) observer and taking into account the contingency of interpersonal interactions that then determine the observer’s interpretation of “culture.” Nevertheless, these anthropological interpretations are still, to borrow from Geertz, culturally produced interpretations of the “second and third order.” Let us consider, then, what must be interpretations of the first order: the interpretive “fiction” of Geertz’s “natives.” If fiction is “something made, something fashioned,” then literary fiction reveals the writer’s own imaginative rendering of reality’s elements. The writer’s production of a deliberate non-reality through fiction is a transposition of personal experience, producing a situated epistemology that informs responsible, equitable scholarly discourse.

            As a second witness in defense of the role of fiction in the humanities, I introduce Spivak, who, with an eye toward the current context and possible future of our discipline, suggests that

 

the proper study of literature may give us entry to the performativity of cultures as instantiated in narrative. Here we stand outside, but not as anthropologist; we stand rather as reader with imagination ready for the effort of othering, however imperfectly, as an end of itself (389).

 

Here is our role: not to be absorbed by the usurping, neoliberal influences of the “game theory and rational choice” that contextualizes much of the modern study of the world’s cultures (Spivak 389), but rather to continue supporting the critical exercise that is the close examination of ourselves through the closer examination of literary texts. As students of literature, we are readers, subjective observers ready to commune with the other in the sorcery of interpretation. Our role is to pursue the imaginative Other not as a monovocal utopian figure, but as the multiplicity of global Others: the many selves shuttling in constant and living narration.

 

Situating the Issue

 

The pieces published in this issue are all, in part, a contemplation of the “not one but many silences” (Foucault 27) that pervade experience: miscommunication and stammering in Beckett’s Molloy; alienation and empathy in Bakker’s Ten White Geese; silence and immediacy in poems and short stories from the Holocaust; cultural hegemony expressed in Zamyatin’s We and repressed in modern interactions with technology; the problems of scientific paradigmaticism as evidenced by Musil’s The Man without Qualities; the sanctity of borders and the politicization of bodies in the work of Augustine and Rozitchner; the promise of regeneration in Borges and Eliot; and so forth. As students committed to the future of Comparative Literature, we hope that this issue is in part a sign that the discipline will “reclaim the role of teaching literature as training the imagination—the great inbuilt instrument of othering” to better investigate the “incessant shuttle that is a ‘life’” (Spivak 389). The attentive reader will notice a shifty, totemic figure shuttling through these pieces, guiding us toward the borders we have yet to cross.

 

Lydia Brambila

The University of Georgia

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Culler, Jonathan D. The Literary in Theory. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2007. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1987. Print.

Derrida, Jacques, and Marie-Louise Mallet. The Animal That Therefore I Am. New York: Fordham UP, 2008. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Geertz, Clifford. "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture." Ed. Yvonna S. Lincoln and Norman K. Denzin. Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in a Handkerchief. 1st ed. Vol. 3. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2003. 143-68. Print. Crossroads in Qualitative Inquiry.

Wainwright, Tim. "What's Really Going On With the Cat in Inside Llewyn Davis: A Theory." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.

 
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