Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey cover

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey pulls off the difficult feat of being both relentlessly self-reflexive and (on the whole) a genuinely enjoyable read. It is, after all, a commentary on the writing and reading of novels, and more specifically on the then-popular genre of the gothic romance. The commentary is both diegetic and extradiegetic: conveyed by individual characters and also by a narrator who claims (to some extent at least) to transcend and stand outside the action. I say that the narrator is only able to transcend the action “to some extent” in that she (or he) recognizes that this novel, too, is bound by (or chooses to be bound by) many of the same conventions that structure the object of its reflection. Hence the form of Austen’s novel itself also provides a commentary on novel-writing and, again, on popular genres in particular. Any distance that Austen takes from what she (or her narrator) sometimes calls her “sister author[s]” (81) can only be temporary or provisional. Ultimately, they are all in this together even (especially) if Austen chooses to parody and so implicitly criticize (but also mimic) some of the structural expectations of the genre.

To put it another way: this is a novel that repeatedly switches between critique and indulgence. It plays a double game of ostensibly taking its distance itself from the gothic commonplaces (“gloomy passages [. . .] ponderous chest[s] [. . .] unintelligible hints [. . .] violent storm[s]” [115]; “dreadful situations and horrid scenes [. . .] midnight assassins or drunken gallants” [122]) that it so hilariously sends up, and at the same time indulging itself in precisely these same clichés. It’s as though Austen were allowing us to partake of a guilty pleasure: her critical jabs at the genre absolve us of most of the guilt, and leave us with almost all the pleasure. In short, here Austinian irony comes close to the postmodern sense of the term: a knowing imitation whose knowingness supposedly absolves it from complicity.

Except that Austen doesn’t quite let her readers–or even herself–off the hook. She undoubtedly agrees with Henry Tilney, her heroine’s suitor, that “the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (77). We can’t, or shouldn’t, deny the pleasure that novels bring us. But this is not to say that we cannot question that pleasure. Indeed, Austen has quite a complicated relationship to pleasure: she is far from averse even to the simplest (“unaffected” [23]) of pleasures, and indeed is skeptical of the mannered pedagogy in taste that Henry elsewhere offers in the form of a “lecture on the picturesque” (81). At the same time, she is consistently critical of those characters whose only concern is with their own pleasure, and who neglect therefore duty and responsibility. A novel, for Austen, also has its responsibilities–and in the case of Northanger Abbey, that involves perhaps above all an education in the power of self-reflection, and its significant but subtle difference from self-regard.

Ultimately, however, I think that Austen shows herself to be dissatisfied by her approach in this early novel. Her rush to conclude at the end, jumping through the hoops of formulaic conventions without taking the time to allow us to enjoy them, pulls the rug from under our feet. In the novel’s final few pages, which hurtle us towards our hero and heroine’s marriage (“the bells rang and every body smiled” [186]), while reminding us rather too insistently of “the rules of composition” (186), feel churlish at best: as though she felt she had to fulfill the promises that her acceptance of generic conventions implied, but no longer got much pleasure in doing so… or perhaps feared that she had already over-indulged both herself and her readers. There is something anticlimactic about this conclusion, and it makes sense that in subsequent novels she will perfect a properly Austinian irony, leaving behind the (perhaps too crude) pleasures of imitations whose knowingness is never alibi enough.

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, cover

Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is often seen as a riposte to European representations of African life and culture, not least for instance Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Achebe memorably described as the work of “a thoroughgoing racist.” Achebe’s critique is that Conrad’s novella treats “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” Moreover, he continues, “The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.”

I wonder, however, about the effectiveness of this riposte. Not least because Things Fall Apart reads as an extended obituary to a vanished way of life and as such mimics a quasi-anthropological perspective on colonized cultures. However much Achebe wants to distinguish himself not only from Conrad but also from the colonial District Commissioner who features at the book’s conclusion as a would-be ethnologist contemplating writing a book to be entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (209), he sustains rather than undermines the tropes that enable such Eurocentric visions.

Achebe’s novel is certainly obsessed with mourning and death: both the ultimate suicide of its protagonist, Okonkwo, a strongman in an Ibo village called Umuofia, and the vanishing of the precolonial customs and structures with which Okonkwo’s demise is associated. Okonkwo is an ambitious striver, whose rash actions lead first to his exile from the community and later to his killing himself (an unholy action) as he realizes that resistance to cultural invasion is apparently futile. But this has already been foretold: towards the end, after a convert interrupts a ritual performance and unmasks one of its participants, we hear that “the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. [. . .] Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and terrible sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming–its own death” (187). We are, I think, to share in this sorrow, and thus to condemn the coming of the colonizers.

But such lamentation is a typical feature of colonial discourse itself, which regularly mourned–and continues to mourn–the destruction of indigenous practices and lifestyles for which it itself was and is responsible. From the cult of the “noble savage” and The Last of the Mohicans to the fascination towards supposedly uncontacted tribes from Amazonian Peru to the Andamans, imperial powers have always professed ambivalence towards the consequences of modernization and/or development. But this mourning is expressed so as to suggest that these are the inevitable victims of a progress that is unstoppable, the price we pay for so-called civilization. At the same time, the anthropological lament tells us that as soon as the pristine authenticity of the indigenous is compromised, they cease to be (really) indigenous at all. Hence, it is not only no use trying to save the victims of colonization: in that as soon as we know of them they are irredeemably transformed (acculturated, inauthentic), it is not worth saving them either.

Perhaps the success of Achebe’s book, as no doubt (and by some distance) the best-known and best-selling novel written by a black African, is due to its playing into precisely this colonial fantasy. It helps that its narrative is set in some rather vague and imprecise past: the Ibo are presented very much as people without history, whose way of life is perpetuated through constant repetition undergirded by folk memory. As the colonizers arrive, inducing a “terrible sound” never heard before and “never to be heard again,” this is the eruption of a new mode of temporality into an otherwise relatively static (at best, cyclical) way of life. Okonkwo then has to die, in a foolhardy act of useless resistance, because his life is unimaginable after the taint of Western corruption has come.

In fact, however, the Ibo (now usually called Igbo) have had a rather more interesting postcolonial history than the novel suggests. Indeed, the very notion of Igbo identity is itself largely the product of colonial contact, and led to a dramatic twentieth-century history (not least the Biafra rebellion) in which Achebe himself played a not insignificant part. But this afterlife of the I(g)bo would come as a surprise to a reader of the novel, riven through as it is with an air of chilling finality. And I would argue that this attempt (almost literally) to close the book on I(g)bo culture is as dehumanizing as anything to be found in Conrad or his ilk. For it denies them their human complexity, even as the figure of Okonkwo himself (twice over traitor to his tribe) points indirectly to the mythic dimension of the dream of precolonial purity.

For more, see my lecture on Arts One Open.

Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez

Anyone who teaches Latin American literature, as I do, has been profoundly affected by Gabriel García Márquez, who has died at 87. For some he may have been their entry into the field. And he certainly is for very many of our students. His short stories and novellas are accessible and (sometimes deceptively) easy to read, so they are often taught at high school or in introductory university classes. More to the point, García Márquez, or what was said about García Márquez, helped shape an image of Latin American literature, and what it meant to study it.

“Magical realism,” the literary style with which he was indelibly associated, seemed to combine exotic sensuality with a vague sense of political commitment. It promised a happy coincidence between aesthetics and politics, such that even the act of reading might make you a better person if not help change the world. No wonder that reading the Colombian Nobel laureate, and especially his classic One Hundred Years of Solitude, was so often experienced as a life-changing event. The spokesperson of the Swedish Academy, at García Márquez’s Nobel Prize ceremony, described his writing as a “spiced and life-giving brew.” This suggestion of vitality crossed with intoxication characterized much of the reception of the Latin American “Boom,” which also included writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. Moreover, it set the tone for our expectations of the region’s literature as a whole.

But “magical realism” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is an excellent advertisement: it draws readers in, providing them with rationale and explanation for narratives that might otherwise feel bizarre or even off-putting. On the other hand, it is a reductive and restricting framework that denies the sheer variety of Latin American cultural expressions. It is not really a style characteristic of very many authors. Indeed, it is hardly that characteristic of García Márquez himself, supposedly its prime exponent. I have seen many students search for (and claim to find) magical realism throughout texts such as Chronicle of a Death Foretold or “Nobody Writes to the Colonel,” an exercise that sadly ends up massively missing the point. Victim of the appealing and tremendously successful image of Latin American letters that it had helped to create, García Márquez’s work too often fell prey to its own success.

For these reasons, and perhaps also because of a certain satedness, García Márquez’s work is today sometimes treated as a kind of “gateway drug” for students, rather than as a serious object of scholarship. It is as though we give novices a sniff of a levitating maiden or a child with the tail of a pig, holding out the promise of more of the same, only then to turn around and forcefeed them testimonial literature or avant-garde experimentation, colonial chronicle or postmodern play. No sooner are they hooked on the Boom than we try to wean them off it. Meanwhile, there is less in the way of sustained study and attention to García Márquez than ever. Which is surely a pity.

For there is no doubt that Gabo, as he was (over-)familiarly called, was indeed a great writer, if not always a consistent one. One Hundred Years of Solitude will surely remain the book with which he is most associated, if only for its daring ambition to encapsulate the region’s history in a quasi-Biblical arc from Genesis to the Apocalypse, all via the story of one (admittedly sprawling) family in a small town in an out-of-the-way corner of the Colombian littoral. This is Macondo as allegory for the Americas, a transposition that jumps straight from the local to the continental, and even the universal. But perhaps his true masterpiece is The Autumn of the Patriarch, a sustained investigation of authoritarianism by means of ventriloquy and formal inventiveness. The General in His Labyrinth will also have its supporters, as an examination of the paradoxical powerlessness of power, and of the political quagmires that were written in to the region’s constitutions from the outset.

But it is surely worth returning even to the lighter and more sentimental work–and here I include the wildly successful Love in the Time of Cholera–perhaps to rip it, similarly, from the somewhat sickly embrace in which it is cherished and held. For there is and was a harder underside to García Márquez, belied by the almost kitsch picture that he painted both (too) often in his fiction, and for the camera and the press. Maybe it would be best to regard “magical realism” as a rather cynical joke at the expense of its many fans. Maybe it is only a sense of irreverence, in the face of this most revered of writers, that can allow us truly to read García Márquez as he has seldom been read before.

Finally, let me point out with some pride the ways in which our students can give back and produce public knowledge. I taught texts by García Márquez back in 2008, and again in 2010, in courses that had a Wikipedia component with the projects “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem” and “Magical Realism Reconsidered”. Both times, students were asked to write or edit articles on the online encyclopedia, and both times among those articles was the one on García Márquez. And although this entry never became a “featured article” (one of the 0.01% very best), it was adjudged a “good article” (in the top 0.1%) as frankly they quite transformed it: providing sources and references and fleshing it out into a true public resource. So when, unsurprisingly, on the author’s death the numbers visiting his Wikipedia page rocket–from an average of about 1,500 a day in March, to almost 100,000 on Thursday and then almost 210,000 yesterday–it’s a strange but rather satisfying feeling to realize that all those people are reading my students’ words.

Gabriel García Márquez Wikipedia screenshot

Ernesto Laclau

Ernesto Laclau

I have spent almost the entirety of my academic career reading, and responding to, Ernesto Laclau, who has died at the age of 78. Ernesto was one of the great systematic thinkers of the past fifty years, possibly the most influential Latin American theorist of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and one of the most significant influences on Anglo-American cultural and political theory as a whole. We all write to some extent in his shadow and in his debt, myself perhaps more than anyone.

“Hegemony” was Laclau’s signature concept. He was not the first theorist of hegemony, but he made the term his own and spent decades elaborating a theoretical structure around the basic recognition of the contingency of political allegiances. This insight first came to him as an activist in 1960s and 1970s Argentina, faced with Peronism’s extraordinary capacity to mobilize people of all classes and every political inclination. Populism thus became the great problem that Laclau addressed. He showed the ways in which populism posed difficult questions for political theory, but also the practical issues it raised for any movement that sought social change. It is worth underlining that, for all the occasional abstraction of his theorizations, first and last Laclau was a militant.

Beyond theorizing hegemony, Laclau added a series of new formulations to our lexicon of political theory, often taking up terms elaborated in other fields (Linguistics, Psychoanalysis, Poststructuralism) and putting them to new uses in an effort to understand the fundamental workings of politics. A mark of his originality and significance is the ways in which he gave new life to notions such as “articulation” or created concepts such as the “empty signifier.” Laclau’s strength was his combination of eclecticism and flexibility in his sources and case studies–he had provocative observations on everything from medieval mysticism to Turkish nationalism–with a steadfast consistency and focussed sense of purpose.

It is no doubt partly thanks to this focus that Laclau was able to enter a lecture hall with half a dozen words scribbled on the back of an envelope for notes, and proceed to give an hour’s fluent, densely argued exposition of his thought. In some ways he was always expounding the same basic intellectual architecture, if always accommodating or responding to critiques while taking on new topics or new issues of pressing political importance.

For Laclau was indeed above all else a systematizer, and the system he constructed had great power and a certain seductiveness. This was perhaps his signal virtue, and it is the reason why I regard his version of hegemony as the strongest and most developed that we have. And it is also why I took issue with it, in a critique that was always driven by respect for what Laclau had accomplished and with acknowledgement and gratitude for what he had made possible.

Back in 1997, as a graduate student, I invited Laclau to Duke, along with his partner (in writing and in life), Chantal Mouffe. I was thrilled to host them for a few days in North Carolina, and very much liked them in their various ways: Mouffe, animated and spiky; Laclau, calm and generous, the very image of the perfect gentleman, thoughtfully playing with his mustache or drawing elaborate patterns with pen and paper as he listened intently to a question offered to him. Both of them were rich conversationalists, and what is more, a lot of fun to be around.

In a long (no doubt over-long) introduction to one of their events, I said among other things the following:

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe are among the most important thinkers of our time, who have continually redefined the fields of political and cultural theory, philosophy, and ethics. Their visit to Duke will be a major event, especially as they promise to put their theoretical insights to work in the analysis of our current situation in an uncertain world of globalization and political and cultural upheaval.

[. . .]

Indeed, anyone concerned with analyzing social processes, cultural development, the meaning of politics and particularly the effort to enrich and deepen democracy has had to work through the contributions of Laclau and Mouffe in these areas. They have provided perhaps the most thorough and the most challenging general theories of society and culture for a whole generation of researchers and activists. Especially for those on the left, their work marked a watershed between a generation that had remained within the Marxist tradition, and the “new wave” of cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and particularly the work on “new social movements” that has been heavily influenced by Laclau and Mouffe, and that has been a means to understand developments in modern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere in this era of globalization.

[. . .]

In short, Laclau and Mouffe are theorists of the first order, who have shaped not just one but several fields of study and research, and yet who have always remained engaged with the most practical and pressing of contemporary problems. Their influence has been marked for twenty years, but their 1983 masterpiece Hegemony and Socialist Strategy even grows in importance, given the prescience we can now see it showed concerning the challenges posed by world developments of the most recent ten years. Their work since has only deepened and extended their impact and importance. Their visit to Duke will be inspirational and productive for all those working in these areas they did so much to define.

All I would add to that tribute is to note how productive Laclau (and Mouffe) continued to be over the following decade or two. Laclau’s On Populist Reason of 2005, for instance, has every right to be considered on the same level as Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I look forward to his new book, now to appear posthumously, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society. Indeed, what is striking is not only Laclau’s consistency of purpose, but also the consistently high quality of his work. He was never one to rest on his laurels.

Our paths crossed a few times after that meeting in Duke, if never with quite the same intensity. Last summer a friend told me that my name had come up in conversation with Laclau at a conference in Italy, and I thought to write to him to reiterate my respect and admiration for his work, as well as for him as a person and intellectual of such stature. I am sorry that I failed in the end to write. It is a true loss that someone who has had such profound influence on the landscape of our thought, and perhaps on mine in particular, is with us no more.

Adrianne Wadewitz

Adrianne Wadewitz

“Awadewit hates us,” murmured one of a small group of students as they shuffled into my office. I was teaching a course on the Latin American dictator novel, a course that I had given the title “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem.” One of the assignments asked students to write or edit Wikipedia articles. And as part of this project, we had come into contact with numerous Wikipedia editors, who often went by strange monikers such as EyeSerene, Wrad, Karanacs, and Geometry Guy. One of the editors who stood out and had helped the most went by the name of Awadewit. And Awadewit had bad news for my students: large parts of their contributions to the article they were editing, about the classic nineteenth-century text Facundo, were plagiarized. Hence this meeting to discuss what felt like a crisis.

Awadewit was firm but absolutely fair with my students. There was no tolerance for plagiarism, and the relevant sections were cut from the article forthwith. But there was no demonization, either. The students were well-intentioned, but hazy as to how to deal properly with sources. This was a wake-up call, and a sharp but surely effective way to learn what plagiarism was and why it was significant. This was a lesson they were not going to forget. Where they were fortunate was in that there was still time to fix the problem. And indeed, after plenty more work from the students as well as other Wikipedia volunteers, “Facundo” went on to pass peer review and be declared one of the very few (0.5%) of the online encyclopedia’s entries that are deemed “good articles.”

What was extraordinary, however, was the effort and care with which Awadewit had reviewed the article and my students’ contributions. Tracking down the plagiarism, for instance, had required reading some of the relevant books and scholarly articles that the students had used as sources. This effort was well above and beyond what was expected of these pseudonymous and anonymous editors we had been learning to work with in this assignment. It was no wonder that Awadewit had won deserved renown on Wikipedia not only as a prolific writer of so-called “featured articles” (the 0.01% of entries that are a cut above even “good articles”), particularly in the field of British Romanticism, but also as a careful and conscientious, but very supportive, copy-editor and mentor to other editors whatever their interests or expertise.

At some point, Awadewit and I started exchanging emails, from which I discovered that behind the moniker was Adrianne Wadewitz, a PhD student in English at Indiana University. We had a series of conversations I consistently found illuminating and inspiring, not least because this was someone from a similar background with similar goals. But she was much more familiar with Wikipedia than I was, and had been thinking longer about some of the issues involved in using it in the classroom. She was above all passionate about opening up scholarship beyond the Ivory Tower, and about writing articles on (particularly) women authors such as the eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Wikipedia offered space and scope for introducing such figures to a new audience, while retaining scholarly standards and rigor. At the same time, she and I were dissatisfied in similar ways with the current state of the encyclopedia, not least the limited and constricting ways in which (particularly) literary topics were treated. She was unsure about how exactly to bridge the gap between Wikipedia and the academy, or how to calm the mutual suspicions on both sides, which was in part why she still adopted a pseudonym online, albeit one that retrospectively seems relatively transparent.

As time went on, and as academic or pedagogical use of Wikipedia and other online digital resources came to seem more respectable, if still often experimental and cutting edge, Adrianne felt more comfortable with her dual role, and even began assuming a leadership role. She changed her Wikipedia username to Wadewitz, and organized or was invited to seminars and workshops in the burgeoning field of the “Digital Humanities” around the country. A few years ago, she invited me to participate in a panel she organized in Bloomington for a conference on “Writing Across the Curriculum,” and at last I had the chance to meet her in person. It was a delight. She was as smart, charming yet serious, thoughtful but good humoured, as I had expected; if anything, more so. We chatted about her work (she was on the job market by then) and it was clear she had a bright future.

Over the years, we have sporadically been in touch via email and Facebook, as well as on Wikipedia. In the wake of the Bloomington conference we co-wrote an article. Adrianne moved to Los Angeles, where she had a postdoctoral fellowship at Occidental College, learned to drive (in LA, quite a feat), and took up a new activity, rock-climbing, about which she began writing articles (especially about women climbers) on Wikipedia. She became involved in HASTAC, the pioneering “Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory,” and she asked me to write the Wikipedia article on FemTechNet, a feminist project to rectify online bias, not least on sites such as Wikipedia. She wrote frequent and insightful blog posts on issues such as gender representation online, and reflections on pedagogy and teaching. All in all, Adrianne was becoming an authority, and also an inspiration and mentor to others. She was interviewed and quoted by the Huffington Post and the BBC.

Most recently, she and I had been discussing the Wiki Education Foundation, a new entity spun off by the Wikimedia Foundation to run their educational programs in the US and Canada. I had proposed that Adrianne join their board, and I was happy when the WEF took up the suggestion with some alacrity. She was a perfect match for them, and I hoped that she would help reinvigorate and give direction to the fledgling organization. At the end of February, I happened to be going to LA for a talk, and got in touch to see if she had time for a coffee or the like. In the end, she drove across town to have lunch with me, and on a beautiful Southern California spring day, we spent an hour or so chatting about the WEF but also about the next chapter of her life: her recent job interviews, and the prospect of perhaps moving across the country to the East Coast. Again, it was lovely to see her, and it was good to see her happy and excited about the future.

Last week came the dreadful news that Adrianne had died, following a climbing accident in Joshua Tree National Park.

Adrianne’s death is a profound loss. She was a leader in Digital Humanities and in Open Education, and one of the most insightful and knowledgeable commenters on Wikipedia, pedagogy, and gender. She affected many lives, perhaps more than she herself would have suspected, such as those of my students whom she guided and inspired. A couple of times in the past few years, Adrianne suggested that we co-write an article that she proposed calling something like “The Professor and the Wikipedian.” The sad thing is that now she will never take up her rightful place as professor herself. But on the other hand, she already played both roles for so many people. Indeed, she was professor, Wikipedian, activist, feminist, critic, writer, editor, scholar, as well as pianist, climber, daughter, and so on. Awadewit, Wadewitz, Adrianne had so much impact on so many people. Her memory and her legacy will endure.

Demanding Deconstruction

A position paper that is my contribution to the conference “The Marrano Spirit: Derrida and Hispanism” at the University of Southern California…

Jacques Derrida, Rogues (cover)

“Demanding Deconstruction: A Rogue’s Take or Offering”

What does deconstruction offer? Does it–should it–offer anything at all? Is this very question impertinent, unduly utilitarian? Or to put this another way: what can or should we ask or even demand of deconstruction? And how does this relate to whatever deconstruction might, in turn, ask of us? What can or should deconstruction demand of us? What do we have to offer, if indeed we should think of ourselves as offering anything at all? What can we take from it? What does it take from us? What do we have to offer to this conference, to deconstruction, to Hispanism, or to any other party, interested or otherwise: for instance the people, the subaltern, or the state? What, in turn, do we have the right to demand of Hispanism or of the people, the subaltern, and so on, and what do they have the right to demand of us? How much are we, or should we, be accountable to them? And how might deconstruction contribute to our offering, help us to respond to whatever demands are made of us, or help us think differently about the very notion of demand?

Read more… (.pdf file)