Wednesday, January 03, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different

The next paragraph's "Faulknerian feat[] of subordination" should not be read by anyone not named Scott Eric Kaufman. If you want to find out what I think about Marshall, Devi, trauma, and mourning, I recommend skipping to the third paragraph. But if you're wondering what a Hawthorne blogger is doing blogging on something and some, uh, two other than Hawthorne, the next paragraph may do. And if you're interested in how not to write when writing a conference paper, the next paragraph will most certainly do. Oh, and if you love it when the author of a blog nobody reads tells inside jokes to himself, the next paragraph is a must-read. (Must fight temptation to tell anecdote about the SF story I wrote for my AP Chemistry class and how easily amused I am. Aaaargh. OK, done. Yes.)

"Old School" readers of this blog (that empty set) will no doubt recall it used to be "mostly about Hawthorne" (and still is, in its technorati profile--I'm that lazy!). New readers (and how do you afford your rock and roll lifestyle, may I ask?)--coming here from such generous linkers (and good titlers) as The Hobgoblin of Little Minds (I'd thank BikeProf in a comments on his post, but one of the annoying features of the new Blogger, one which makes you wonder why they put it in there, is its tendency to freeze when you try to post a comment--or wait, is that just a feature of the ancient computer I'm using here in Chiba?), Old Is the New New, and Quod She--will have already noted that it now is "chiefly about Hawthorne matters" (for reasons I'm sure I'll devote a boring post to when I run out of material for Monday blogging [yes, the obscurest blog in blogoramaville has a programming schedule]). The point is, I'm delivering a paper in Hawaii on traumatic displacements and militant mourning in Paule Marshall's 1969 novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People and Mahasweta Devi's "Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha," a short story translated into English by Gayatri Spivak in 1995 for Imaginary Maps in T-minus, oh, less than 8 days, so the Hawthorne blogging is going to be kept to a minimum the next few days as I try to tame the formless monster that began as a paper at the 1996 American Studies Association convention on trauma and diaspora in CPTP, evolved into a submission to a collection of essays that to my knowledge was never published, morphed into a paper I was planning to insert into one of the collections of essays that I'm supposed to be co-editing, and then refused to copy itself onto the memory stick that I brought to Japan last August, forcing me to start from scratch this semester as I bring in a new topic and new writer to an already-far-too-complex (and possibly lost) old essay. So good ol' Intertextual Thursday is going to begin the project of helping me not embarrass myself more than I normally do at academic conferences, even if the main purpose of this one is to see my parents and let them see their grandkids for the only time between the Augusts of 2006 and 2007. Oh, and to make up for my most humiliating job interview ever, during which I established personal records, hopefully never to be challenged again, in the categories of inability to think on one's feet, inability to hide how flustered one is, and rapidity with which one gives up on oneself in an interview. That's all.

Anyway, my third attempt to begin this post will begin, as I tend to do here, with a quotation. It's from my conference proposal that got accepted (with a close-to-$400 registration fee, I suspect most proposals get accepted--not that that's a bad thing--so judge for yourself whether mine is any good):

Although intellectuals and activists working to define and contest the boundaries and methodologies of postcolonial studies have since its inception emphasized the comparative, transnational, and indeed global nature of the field, they have so far failed to analyze together two works of literature that offer profound meditations on the meaning, significance, and stakes of colonial/racialized trauma/testimony and mourning/melancholia in their respective times and places: Paule Marshall's novel The Chosen Place, The Timeless People for the post-independence Anglophone Caribbean and Mahasweta Devi's "Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha" for post-independence India. This failure represents a missed opportunity to bring together not only two quite different colonial/post-colonial histories and regions but also two vibrant fields of study with quite relateable trajectories.

This paper proposes to show how Marshall's and Devi's texts both represent and enact the best kinds of literary, historical, ethical, and political connections and relations postcolonial theorists, critics and scholars have been calling for, marking out, and arguing over for the past two decades. In so doing, I will suggest a certain exemplarity in the intertextual dialogue between The Chosen Place, The Timeless People and "Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha," one that has serious implications for future developments specifically in postcolonial studies and more generally in the humanities. Attending to the formal, structural, and indeed theoretical similarities between the two works will allow me to address such pressing debates within postcolonial studies as how to recognize colonialisms' impact on differently colonized groups along with the deep structures of resistance practiced by such groups, how to assess nationalist, internationalist, and transnationalist forms of resistance, and how to respond to the difficult divisions between activists from the metropole and subjects in the periphery. But it will also allow me to address such pressing debates over postcolonial studies as its intellectual and political origins, geographical and historical scope, relation to other fields, and potential for transforming both academic practices and institutions and their publics.

It may seem that I am asking a medium-length novel and a long short story to carry an inordinate amount of weight in my argument. But a quick glance at their quite similar plots and themes alone should dispel this view. Marshall's and Devi's works, although produced in different decades and regions, in response to two quite different forms of colonialism and two ambiguously (post)colonial temporalities, tell basically the same story: a well-informed and well-intentioned activist from the metropole (in the former, a radical Philadelphia anthropologist who leverages the desperation of his philanthropist funders for a success story, not to mention a tax break, into control over an alternative-to-modernization development project in the Bournehills region of a Caribbean island suspiciously like 1960s Barbados that aims to build from local knowledge and practices, empower the poorest of the poor agricultural workers in the region, and model ecological, economic, and political sustainability; in the latter, a radical urban journalist who leverages his activist and government connections to travel to and report on the failure of public and private aid efforts in a famine-stricken tribal region suspiciously like 1980s India) slowly comes to realize the profundity of the limitations of his original project (due to local, national, regional, and international politics in the Cold War era), suffers a crisis with a female lover (the former on-island; the latter long-distance), experiences reality-bending events (the former a metaphorical 'road to Damascus' conversion experience; the latter a quite magically real encounter with the 'last of the pterodactyls'), and most importantly bears witness to the historical and contemporary trauma of the rural people of the region, yet finds himself unable to offer any kind of testimony to the world outside the region. The most both sympathetically-portrayed metropolitan intellectuals can offer to the people of the region is a kind of barely articulate recognition of what they have come to dimly understand as a massive mourning project by those people for centuries-old failed rebellions against enslaving/colonizing forces.

Even this bare structuralist analysis gestures toward the deeply entangled meanings, significances, and stakes of this common Marshall-Devi story of colonial/racialized trauma/testimony and mourning/melancholia. Teasing them out and using them to take positions on crucial issues within and over the past, present, and future of postcolonial studies--and their implications for both research and teaching in and curricula and institutions of the humanities--is the project of this paper.

OK, so, sound interesting? Anyone read either or both of these works? Or heard of these authors? Thought to analyze them together? Done so? I'm under the no-doubt-mistaken impression that I am actually the first to do this. I'm happy to find out I'm wrong b/c it'll save me loads of time and space in the article that will someday follow from this....

Oh, and before I start, let me note that I've already criticized my earlier Intertextual Thursday postings as not living up to their billing--not "really" being intertextual. I've failed to do more than identify links between two works (here, The Scarlet Letter and Beloved, a much-travelled path, but one on which there is always something new to notice)--failed, that is, to explore what follows from them. As you can see from my conference proposal, years of commenting on failed comparison-contrast papers from students have vaccinated me, if you will, against falling into this trap in the genre of proposal-writing. But following through on the promises made in proposals like this one, in a way that will be satisfying both to me and my audience (assuming I have one--my 1996 Marshall paper, for instance, featured a smaller audience than panel, and two-thirds of the audience was made up of friends of mine), is the challenge facing me this week. It's not just an issue of making my balky (and nebulous and missing--cf. 2nd para if you were foolish enough to actually skip it!) prose "talky" or of concisely introducing my audience to two authors and works, two regions and traditions of social/cultural analysis of them, two theoretical concepts and two intellectual/activist projects concisely enough to leave me enough time to develop and support my claims convincingly. It's the challenge of balancing enumeration of similarities and differences with tallying of meanings, significances, and stakes with the taking and defending of positions in academic and more-than-academic wars of position.

So I'll let you "all" see the "draft" this Saturday (even if it doesn't deserve the name), in a slightly revised version of CitizenSE's Latest Crazy Hawthorne Idea. Hopefully I'll be able to actually come up with a decent ending to one of my posts on this blog that day. I may actually have to hold myself to some standards if people are actually reading this blog!


Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Can I plant a flag? Because, to be honest, I've been reading you on the sly since the beginning of December, and have been planning a post about CSE for the past two weeks. If you rather I didn't praise you, I understand...but I also wonder whether that means you didn't receive any of the emails I've sent this month. If you're ignoring me, well, I understand. I'd ignore me too.

The Constructivist said...

Hey Scott, thanks for the nice note and apologies for being so tough to reach over email lately. And thanks for being an Old School reader of a new blog!

If you've been trying to reach me at my Fredonia email address, I haven't been receiving any mail the past month b/c I'm way over my quota for that account and haven't had time to delete hundreds of CFPs and messages from other listservs I'm too technoilliterate to unsubscribe from! If you've used my Kyushu U or Seinan Gakuin U addresses since December 22, I haven't been able to access them from Chiba. I'll be back in Fukuoka on the 7th, so will be able to check them then. But the address I'm using most often here is b r u c e s i m o n 1 8 [at] y a h o o . c o m so feel free to use that (after taking out all the spaces).

Feel free to write anything you want about CitizenSE wherever you want. If I have time Monday I'm going to be doing a Hawthorne, racial science, and evolution post you may be interested in. Might be a fun one to respond to....