"Between Two Stools: A review of Negotiations: An International Journal of Literary and Cultural Studies 1 (March 2011)" by Péter Kristóf Makai
Péter Kristóf Makai is a PhD student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. His PhD project investigates the representation of mind in and empathic response to autistic literature, but also immersed in games studies/ludology and studies on science fiction and fantasy. Email:
Every time a new scholarly journal is created, a promise is made. That promise is made towards a scholarly community, addressing them both as readers and writers. On the one hand, it is a promise that the articles published in the journal will prove relevant to a particular academic field or subfield, producing new knowledge. It could even express the desire for creating a new school on an old field by the theoretical or methodological views developed therein, drawing scholars’ attention to subject matters heretofore unexplored. On the other hand, a new journal promises scholars who would like to contribute to research in the field a suitable venue for debating the merits of their research project via its editorial board; and after subsequent quality control procedures, such as peer review, they will publish these new findings. That much goes without saying, and yet I find that time and again, in negotiating between the supply of available papers and the demand for publication venues, new journals have a hard time defining their smaller area of expertise – their breeding ground for new ideas.
Last March, the Department of English at India’s University of North Bengal published the inaugural issue of their journal for literary and cultural studies, Negotiations. Given its geopolitical position as an English Department in India, it is hardly surprising that Negotiations locates itself largely in the nexus of postcolonial studies. Most of the articles in this issue revolve around the theme of global––more specifically Transatlantic––culture and literature, situating the journal as a site for the exploration of cultural exchange in a locus that transcends the categories of the so-called East and West, arguing that the hierarchy of the “ordinal worlds”-view must give ground to a Middle-World view of global culture. As a result, readers should expect a heterogenic multitude of voices emerging from the journal’s pages, which may only be united in their shared understanding for the need of ongoing debate and discussion surrounding global cultural phenomena under the auspices of critical cultural theory.
And yet, reading the editorial introduction to the present volume and browsing the authors and topics covered in this first issue of Negotiations, I feel that the journal aspires to more, as it heralds the process of critical debate in the following manner:
The negotiation the journal envisages looks to a collective, continuous engagement, and exchange (a non-aggressive argumentation) where there may not be a consensus, or the resolution of differences as such, but which ensures ‘pleasure’ in the unstoppable pursuit of interlocking goals. Negotiations, therefore, sponsors ‘with-against’ fashions of reading, envisages ‘punctuations’ in thoughts and processes where if anything, as Derrida has noted, is ‘passed over in silence it is I.’ […]. The goal is to have a dialogue between seemingly incompatible bodies of knowledge and systems of practice and explore the points of intersection that demonstrate a mutual ‘profit’ in an endless epistemic cross-communication. (5)
That certainly is a tall order but the issue makes it clear that these hopes translate to something more mundane: it is the journal’s bid to provide constructive criticism, a friendly and welcoming environment for contributors of different levels of training and caliber in the spirit of a free exchange of ideas. Fortunately, the majority of the articles in Negotiations also manage to deliver, and live up to the expectations of the editors. When looking at the journal overall, I get the feeling that the remnants of an eternal oppositional stance, conferred upon us by an earlier generation of scholars, are still at work in literary and cultural studies, providing apt cultural critique as well as an occasional heavy-handed jab at acceptable target.
Two contributors to this volume, Nick Selby in his “Transatlantic Influence: Some Patterns in Contemporary Poetry” and Cristian Réka in her “Transnational Negotiations in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel” have managed to provoke genuine questions about my understanding of global culture and its expressions. To a certain extent, even Silvia Nagy-Zekmi’s “Bilingualism of the Other: From Abrogation to (Ex)appropriation” is thoughtful and solid scholarship, if a bit too philosophical for my taste. Not counting some minor quibbles I have, which I shall detail below, these articles seem to have made global cultural studies their own, employing the methods of comparative literature, film analysis and postcolonial theory to create new knowledge in an emerging field. Regrettably, the other two articles, Clair Colebrook’s “Deleuze, Badiou, Proust an Ethics of Literature” and Henry A. Giroux’s “Public Pedagogy and the Politics of Humiliation: Neoliberal Generosity and the Attack on Public Education” are dealing with topics less in line with the scholarly direction Negotiations seems to be headed and the field its creating, even going against the self-declared goals of the journal, quoted above, in the case of Giroux’s article.
Perhaps the least controversial piece is Nick Selby’s article on transatlantic poetry. It is a straightforward comparative analysis of contemporary British and American poetry, employing the traditional tool-kit of philologists and hermeneuts in a close reading and contrasting of poems by Ric Caddel, Harriet Tarlo, Robert Duncan, Michael Palmer and Susan Howe. In Selby’s title, “some patterns” promises an establishment of systematic correspondences or processes in the creation of the literary work of art, yet at the outset Selby wryly notes that such patterning will prove to be “neither as orderly nor as clear-cut” as the reader would expect (69). Such provisos are par for the course in contemporary philology, whose practitioners have shied away from a strictly textual, positivistic, scientistically objective language of formal analysis; so it should not come as a surprise that Selby’s analysis self-proclaimedly focuses on “the idea of influence in its debating of issues of the textual, the bodily and the poem’s culpability […] within structures of political power” (69). Yet, I feel that this is more of a legitimating gesture for dealing in an area very much suspect in the age of critical cultural studies: reading and analysing poetry, which Selby does with wonderful skill and aesthetic sensibility.
There is much to be appreciated in his reading of transatlantic influences of post-War poetry, including his willingness to work closely with literary antecedents of the poets, drawing upon their engagement with 12th and 13th century Middle English poetry; his subtlety and attention to the integrity of the poetic vision, especially evident in his assessment of Susan Howe’s work; but also the deftness with which he endows all these poets’ willingness to be influenced in order to articulate themselves more clearly. It is in his concession to well-entrenched critical praxis where I find Selby most vulnerable. As he concludes, transatlantic poetry’s power “lies in its act of destabilization, in its radical questioning of what things might constitute a poetic identity. Such destabilization characterizes transatlantic poetic relations and the cross-currents of influence from which they arise” (88), but the critical work which Selby does and the language with which he infuses his analysis are at odds with one another, and that hinders his critical work. He could have made those titular patterns which he feels to be central to transatlantic poetry more explicit and more divergent from what the critical practice of postcolonial studies would allow him to articulate. Perhaps this is what the nascent field of global/transnational studies ought to work on more, that is, reworking the central tenets of postcolonialist scholarship where they prove unduly constraining, either in theoretical vocabulary or in attitude.
Cristian Réka’s “Transnational Negotiations in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel” conveys scrutinous attention to her subject of cultural analysis, and like Nick Selby, her interpretation of Babel moves along similar lines, trying to grasp the global sentiment at play in transnational narratives; this time, in cinema. As Babel is more overtly borne of a particular political climate, Cristian’s effort to contextualise and historically situate the film feels more relevant than Selby’s treatment of poetry. Her analysis of the movie’s plot and themes, dealing in the complex interplay of transcultural agents, proceeds in a commendably linear fashion, and her theoretical musings never obscure the main goal of the text: an interpretation of Babel, and an assessment of its view of a global chain of causation.
Her ostensible critical contribution to transnational studies is how she uses philosopher Robert M. Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality theory to interpret global cultural change as depicted in Babel. She compares Pirsig’s “static pattern” and “dynamic quality” to the metaphor of the butterfly effect (initially developed in chaos theory), to argue that in a global environment, narratives become extremely sensitive to minute changes in that environment. Her understanding of Babel is also informed by postcolonial theory’s use of the “Middle-World” concept and cosmopolitanism. Belonging neither to any of the ordinal worlds (First, Second or Third), they constitute a figurative world of their own: the contact zone of this Middle-World. In Cristian’s view, “Middle-Worlders become post-national figures depicted by specific images that appear with increasing frequency in written and visual narratives worldwide” (31). She then goes on to detail how this comes about in Babel. When discussing the film though, her theoretical inclusion of Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality could have been better supported by a more thorough rationale for its use; and her insistence of the relevance of the static patterns and the Dynamic Quality is less convincing than it could have been, enveloping the supposed status quo and the film’s Chekhovian gun in a metaphysical shroud of mystery. Nonetheless, her interpretation of Babel is lucid, and her conclusion that “in the transnational negotiations [of the film] it is not the group […] but the individual who can primarily overcome and is actually mastering the crises of trust on a global level” (38) rings true to experience.
Silvia Nagy-Zekmi’s essay, “Bilingualism of the Other: From Abrogation to (Ex)appropriation” treads far more familiar ground: it attempts to, in that wonderful language of Theory, ‘problematise’ the use of several languages in the postcolonial relevance of Derrida’s theorising as well as postcolonial literature in general. As such, Nagy-Zekmi’s argument revolves around the politics surrounding language use in the former colonies of European and American Empires. The questions explored in her writing, such as the problem of using the colonisers’ language to critique colonisation, the impossibility of resorting only to the colony’s native languages in entering into dialogue with the colonisation process and the lauding of hybrid discourse, is fairly standard fare for postcolonial criticism. So are many of the examples she uses. Her style of writing and predictability make me wonder, for example, whether there could be a time when a postcolonial essay will not have to refer to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, in the context of Latin-America, Alejo Carpentier’s El Reino de Este Mundo. Nagy-Zekmi is most refreshing when she brings examples of literature from the Maghreb countries and when she focuses on the problems of using francophonie as a critical term or a category of literature in speaking about works of art emerging from the former colonies of France. However, my greatest regret is that her literary examples are never explored in nearly enough depth, serving more as an illustration of and underpinning to the theoretical scholarship, rather than existing as autonomous works in their own right. This is also signalled by her extensive use of theoretical references; the critical terminology she uses in her work sends her own possible contributions into the background. Her conclusion is also by far the most tentative of the five writers published in the volume, suggesting that postcoloniality could be conceived of
as a process, not unlike identity. Otherwise, how to place the label ‘post’ onto a state which is not yet fully present and linking it to [that] which has not fully disappeared, but […] this paradoxical in-between-ness is precisely what characterizes the postcolonial world that is neither post nor past. (86)
What she seems to be hesitant about is the very validity of the term which currently designates her area of interest. As is the case with most of the other “post-”s of Critical Theory, the denomination and demarcation of the field owed much more to the oppositional ethos of its earlier practitioners she critiques in her discussion of changes within postcolonial theory. In her article, Nagy-Zekmi is careful not to alter the terms of the discussion just yet, and throughout the article, her own argument faithfully reproduces the dilemmas which postcolonial theorists have struggled with from the beginning, and she waits with devising a substantial solution.
These three articles show considerable potential in that they involve themselves with the very project which Negotiations set out as its own: the production of a transnational discourse that springs from and supersedes postcolonial criticism. It is a long journey they are embarking upon and having travelling companions helps a lot; where one writer is stuck, another might show him a new way of seeing particular problems more clearly. In this respect, Selby, Cristian and Nagy-Zekmi contribute to a worthwhile academic project. I am much more reserved about the inclusion of Claire Colebrook’s and Henry Giroux’s pieces.
Purportedly writing about the ethics of literature, Claire Colebrook’s article aims at exploring a concept of literature which “go[es] beyond seeing art merely as the description of possible lives, or reading as a trial of self-knowledge and subjective constitution,” an ethics of reading which is “neither communication nor comprehension […] but a confrontation with unreadability” (7). As can be gleaned from the train of thought set forth at the outset, deconstructionist thinking is never too far away from Colebrook’s mind (and J. Hillis Miller is aptly referenced in the first footnote), and her writing is ultimately much less about literature than it is about a poststructuralist philosophy, in which Deleuze, Badiou, Aristotle and Kant team up to conceive of a vitalistic account of literature. Her project puzzles me; while she affirms the Kantian distribution of faculties, stripping ethics away from scientific thinking, aesthetics and pure reason, she half-heartedly introduces such concepts as Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana’s autopoiesis and mentions literary Darwinism, but only to dismiss them later. A pronouncement such as “Philosophy creates concepts. Art creates affects and percepts. Science creates functions.” (8) is not sufficiently qualified by the author’s deployment of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, since it asserts the essential autonomy of ethical philosophy, while remaining unwilling to consider the strong empirical contributions of the sciences, especially evolutionary epistemology, experimental psychology and the cognitive sciences, to our changing concept of ethics and morality. Colebrook’s writing is a hermetically sealed discourse on ethics, which uses Proust or Beckett only as a springboard to write more about Deleuze. It is dense and noun-heavy prose on Deleuze with an occasional turn to modernist literature, but it owes much to the style of her academic forebears, and her presentation of the argument is significantly more complex, if not convoluted than it is necessary to make her case.
Finally, Henry A. Giroux’s article, entitled “Public Pedagogy and the Politics of Humiliation” is a piece I am genuinely at odds with. Giroux’s warning epistle on the imminent downfall of democracy and what he calls “public pedagogy” could, perhaps, find home in a radical education journal, but loses some of its persuasive power in the sheer vigour of its critique. Giroux finds a recent school shooting in Arizona and the documentary Waiting for Superman an appropriate occasion to launch into an unflinching, tour-de-force criticism of the failings of charter schools and higher education. The main antagonists are well-known for those who have read critical theory (or just Marxist criticism in general) before: the rich philanthropists, capitalists, neoliberalism and generally the whole of the private sector. Such blanket disapproval of charter schools and private initiative allows Giroux to set up old binaries of progressive and reactionary ideologies a little too eagerly, and casts his programme of public pedagogy as a movement which can withstand an erosion of “democracy,” a term more debated than defined in the paper. Giroux’s argumentation could have allowed for a more empathetic hearing of the other side, and I believe most teachers only wish they could share his belief in the strength of education’s influence upon socialisation.
Giroux’s article is a rallying cry for radical intellectuals to strike their own colours, even if his ardent defence of leftist values appears overly bold at times, such as when he asserts that “the market-driven juggernaut […] is sucking the blood out of democracy in the United States” (51), a statement which brings the chill down the spine of those who have felt what opposing the free market and unchecked government interventionalism really meant when it was put to practice in the Eastern bloc. No wonder that Giroux is a steadfast advocate of such an overbearing response to charter schools, equating them with cruelty, violence, humiliation, segregation, and outright racism. His bullying style and unyielding arguments sketch out a mind earnestly upset by the recent developments in American education, his article reproducing his own feelings about watching documentaries about charter schools in the reader.
Reading through the journal again, Negotiations is shaping up to be a promising venture. I can find much hope in this younger generation of scholars who try to eke out an academic niche for themselves, transforming postcolonial studies for the purposes of redefining literature and culture in the age of global contact. On the other hand, the institutional and political legacy of the past thirty to forty years of scholarly work in English Departments across the globe looms in front of Negotiations as a formidable hurdle. Reading the editors’ introduction once again, I feel the need to read the next issue of the University of North Bengal’s publication to see whether they will live up to their own vision of this new field they are trying to create. If the articles of Selby, Cristian or Nagy-Zekmi are any sign of things to come, such solid scholarship gives me hope. Straddling the chasm between literary and cultural theory’s established radicalism and an agonistic rhetoric in the name of liberation on the one hand, and another earlier, inherently more conservative tradition of literary exegesis and textual analysis on the other, is a task that all academics in English departments have to undertake.
With its inaugural issue, Negotiations attempts to do just that straddling in the name of developing a global, transnational cultural and literary studies, but at present, it still falls between the two stools of scholarship in the English Department. I will make sure to keep an eye on the journal, because I believe that when it finally finds its voice in the coming years, it will be able to publish articles that will define a new relation to global culture. Until then, I remain a persistent pursuer of its proclaimed goals in my own fashion through reviews, in the spirit of that “with-against” reading the journal favours, that spirit which I would properly call scientific.