Sunday, January 10, 2010

The "Future of Collectivities" Panel

The 125th meeting of the Modern Language Association, held here in Philadelphia, was a sad affair. Only 7,000 people were in attendance, down from a few years ago when one could expect about 10,000; there were fewer job searches than ever; publishers such as Wesleyan, which used to have their own booths at the Book Exhibit, often ended up sharing space with four or five others. Although I did not have to deal with such stressful duties as job interviews or panel presentations, my own experience at the convention was pretty bleak: exhausted from a demanding semester, I only attended five panels and a Cash Bar; plus, learning about Chris Bell's death on the second day of the convention and Don Belton's on the third slowed me down a lot.

The program, however, was pretty good -- many fine panels that I didn't attend, and a couple that I did, notably one called "The Future of Collectivities," which only attracted my attention thanks to the presence of Temple grad Mecca Sullivan, who Chip Delany assured me was brilliant. Here is what I remember, or rather what my yellow notebook remembers, of the panel -- apologies for bits that are unclear.

The billed moderator, affect scholar Jonathan Flatley, was unable to make it to Philadelphia from Detroit; IIRC he was ill (no, Ann, I don't know whether he was suffering "Flatley of Affect"). A diminutive colleague of his named Lara Cohen ran the panel in his stead.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan opened with a paper on black feminist theory. She is working an exploration of how voice effects the crucial link between theory and praxis, especially via the claiming and reclaiming of silenced voices. That link requires the mobilization of voice and a hermeneutic apparatus: both are present in the poetry of Harryette Mullen. Mullen's expressions of black female subjectivity require labor on the part of the audience; her subversions of formal generic norms facilitate a multiplicity of social voices, such as have been discussed by Mae G. Henderson --voices that privilege instead of repressing the Other inside black female selves. Whereas Bakhtin identifies heteroglossia as novelistic, Mullen appropriates his term to poeticize the multiplicity of black female identities, as in her morphing of the Classical icon Sappho into the reclaimed black female stereotype Sapphire. Her work's gender stylizations of the body contribute to a big heteroglossic collectivity, populated by hybrid identities.

"Sapphire's Lyre Styles" from Muse & Drudge offers raced, classed, and gendered musical metaphors: in the second stanza alone, there are allusions to funk ("juicy fruit"), jazz ("peaches," recalling Nina Simone's "Four Women") and protest (the tree image recalling "Strange Fruit"), which put Mullen in the company of Hortense Spillers and others who write critiques of an African-American history that would blame the failure of black patriarchy on women. Mullen also uses the mutivalent meaning of the verb "to read" in African American culture. Other authors who imply a heteroglossic black female collective include Shange, with all the differently clad speakers in for colored girls . . . ; Beloved is also amenable to a heteroglossic reading. PUSH is the fragmented notes of an interior collective, leading to the cinematics of differences in Precious. Single models of voice and genre, like the "single-issue frameworks" of politics, will not hold.

Robert Philip Marzec, associate editor of Modern Fiction Studies, spoke of the 21st-century enclosure movement. The talk was part of his project on late 20th century alternative collective land movements, which he is writing partly in reaction to conventional histories of the enclosure movement and to criticism that denounces ties to the land as "blood and soil politics."

Officially, the last Act of Enclosure occurred in the UK in 1914. Enclosures had begun during the 13th century, with the conversion of the Saxon system to the manorial system; the rise of capitalism reduced the system to one of two classes, the enclosers and the dispossessed inhabitants, and effected a new view of the relation between humans and the land, between the State and inhabitants. Today, in the name of "energy security," we see global acts of enclosure being promoted and enforced by [four major technocrats and big transnational institutions such as the IMF and WB --I didn't get all the names], who target developing countries for alcohol-based fuel systems and privatize resources in the name of U.S. energy security, destroying what they label "protectionism" in the name of "fundamental agricultural reform." These changes parallel the enclosure movement's sixteenth century (and onward) transformation of the rural population into wage-laborers while mobilizing panoptic land as a new form of discipline and oppression. Robert Zubrin advocates "improvement" that will create total enclosure of the Third World, with slogans such as All Plants Without Exception can be used to produce methanol. He celebrates Brazil's military dictatorship as a model, despite the explosion in poverty associated with methanol production and the plight of enslaved biofuel workers. Brazil has the largest gap between rich and poor of any country on the earth and among the highest concentrations of land ownership, but this distinction did not arise recently: its economic structure owes much to the colonial history of sugar production.

The Brazilian landless workers' movement founds itself on conceptions of inhabitancy --cohabitation with the land. In opposition to international laws, it's based on food sovereignty and habitation sovereignty. MST, since its founding in 1984, has organized thousands of occupations and had half a million members. It's generated not only farm co-ops but an ontological understanding of existence based on complex relation to the land. Local autonomy wards of the formation of a "panoptic figure"; its critique of the professional speaker/actor prevented MST from creating a new intellectual class separate from workers that would generate authoritarian-paternalistic figures; it wards off the practice of monocropping, which is the chief source of starvation; and in turn it wards off the destruction of the environment that the exclusive production of cane and corn renders inevitable. National and international law is based on enclosure and cannot give sustenance to the global poor; the logic of profit and expediency and annexation will create a new shadow/dispossessed class if not stopped.

Katherine Biers gave a talk on Susan Glaspell and The Masses on Stage: How Do Groups Form? A rash of texts such as Rheingold's Smart Mobs are rethinking the top-down model of group formation that was, um, formed in the mass media age; but the early sociologists also saw communication as an action, not an identity. To Dewey, Cooley, and Mead, group formation was an aesthetic process. Literature can teach us additional stuff about group formation. Glaspell's 1917 play The People, for instance, asks what would happen if the actual masses showed up at the publishing office of Max Eastman's paper The Masses to claim representation. In Glaspell, the act of communication produces The People.

The science of Public Relations in the interwar period did assume top-down systems; but Cooley, Mead, and Dewey had argued that communication preceded the intention to communicate. In 1917, resources shifted away from philosophy and toward manipulation, creating PR as we know it, the world of Bernays, Lasswell, and Lippmann. But in 1914, Lippmann's "Preface to Politics" allowed for much more agency and aestheticism than his later work -- using William James and Charles Peirce, he advocated an experimental process of personalized media use not unlike what Nicholas Negroponte would come up with in the 1990s ("The Daily Me") but also cautionary-- Young Walter's ideas suggested that self-naming and self-understanding of groups occurs belatedly.

With the war in 1917, the wording and enforcement of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act presumed a mirroring of intentions between active pacifists and the passive receivers of their ideas. The moment in Glaspell's play when three of The People appear at the offices of The People and are told they should have communicated with the paper by mail is an allusion to the fact that, in the wake of government repression, The Masses had had to seek an alternative to newsstand distribution and solicit subscriptions: it'd had to resort to marketing itself. The fact that the fictional magazine The People has circulated randomly is key to the constitution of the three exemplars of The People in the play, which illustrates the belated relationship between communication and self-recognition. Each of the characters recounts how the paper has moved them: one, The Woman from Idaho, acts because she's discovered citeability as a feature of language and life (see Samuel Weber on the Brechtian "gesture"). A passage in the editorial that has moved the paper's readers, "if you move, others will come," yields a lyric moment showing the capacity of anyone to occupy the "you" -- the play's final scene of quotation is an expansive and inviting moment wherein The Woman from Idaho quotes the Lincoln speech that the paper recalled to her. All this suggests that The Masses' appeal to the masses is a theatrical appeal, based on the possibility of misrecognition -- one that can't be reined in by subscription. But remain aware that The People is a satire on collectivism in the name of collectivity.

Robert and Mecca came up with some fine insights in the Q & A period -- I don't have the questions or a decent recollection of them, but I have notes on their answers, viz:

Robert said he had deliberately repurposed the word "sovereignty," a word that's used by the First World State to demonize the people. As the unsuccessful attempts of South Africans to emulate the Brazilians without taking their own country's distinctive political conflicts into account showed, a true transnational network is not there. Although we here are English profs, we should never look at a text of literature as if it is speaking for a movement -- that insight is what's great about Foucault's early dialogue with Deleuze; and it also informs Deleuze and Guattari's late What Is Philosophy? in which they suggest that instead of "speaking for," the philosopher may have an opportunity to "speak before" a movement, an issue that is addressed for example in Coetzee's novels.

Mecca acknowledged that what Bakhtin styles "unmarked heteroglossia" appears in Hurston's work, including her nonfiction texts; and that there's polyglossia in a lot of diasporic literature in ways that points to intersectional identity: consider such works of Suzan-Lori Parks as Fucking A. Heteroglossia appears in all different genres, at moments in which a multiplicity of voices expresses identity issues. Mullen after Three Tall Women encounters Stein and is inspired to go heteroglossic with her work in the "marginal genre" of the prose poem. Like Robert's talk, she seeks to represent a whole that's not a single voice.

1 comment:

Timmi Duchamp said...

Much of interest here, Josh: thanks. "Speaking before" does indeed sound quintessentially Deleuzian. Haven't yet read D&G's What Is Philosophy, but now see I must.

It seems to me that a conscious sense of "speaking before" (which is not at all the same thing as "speaking to" much less "speaking for") is to be recommended to both critical and fiction writers.

Much writing, of course, is "speaking about." I have had it in mind to propose a panel at WisCon on narrative tone & how it affects characterization since last summer when the condescending tone of the [third-person] narrative depicting a middle-aged woman in a short story I was reading got up my nose. Unfortunately, I didn't get a proposal for this in on time. (Maybe next year...)

In any case, the preposition that "speaking" takes for any given piece of writing is crucial-- something that all conscious writers need to bear in mind.