In addition to a few novels, Gayl Jones is the author of Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, an academic work that shows by a series of close readings of black authors who actively incorporated African oral or musical traditions in their writing. Jones argues that this incorporation was crucial in each writer's case to their development; it allowed them to find their voice. In a review of the book, Sven Birkerts faintly praises Jones for the closeness of her readings, but he rails at her for ducking the important questions:
the central problem of Jones's study… is, simply, that to set up her thesis, she also decides to set up a straw-man figure called "European and European American traditions," and, alternatively, "Western literary forms." This shorthand seems tenable enough at first glance—we have a reflex sense of what she means—but on closer inspection, it crumbles away. In that crumbling, certain deeper and more vexing issues are disclosed… Given the context, African American literature, and the title's telltale "liberating," I cannot but pick up trace elements of the pejorative. And though Jones never spells out her conception of these traditions—which she absolutely should—I sense throughout that she has construed them as essentially upright (or uptight), formal, prescriptive, exclusionary, canonically oriented in their references, and altogether unsuited to the expressive needs of the African American culture—indeed, of any Third World culture.Birkerts lustily takes this last note as an opportunity to prove how much Jones is ignoring in her cruel quest to monolithize Western culture. What about modernism? he asks. "Jones effectively preempts any discussion of European and American modernism, which was not only contemporaneous with the careers of most of the writers under discussion, but which was also entirely given over to cutting ancient boundary wires and opening up aesthetic options of every sort. Liberating Voices gives almost no inkling that this was a revolutionary era within the white European tradition."
This is important. What is Jones talking about when she conjures up this monolithic entity? What underlies the conjuring? Is she suggesting that there is some general way in which these traditions prescribe what literature ought to be and proscribe everything else, or is she referring only to specific forms and conventions?… Jones never makes this clear, and by not doing so she leaves the impression that they, whatever they were, remained closed to the kinds of expression that African American writers found impressive.
Marshalling the full weight of aesthetically emancipated modernism, Birkerts happily proceeds to drive what he thinks is Jones's argument into a tiny, beleaguered corner, pinning the "liberation" trope until it is revealed as just another way of grabbing "authority." Black writers started wanting authority at some indeterminate point in literary history, Birkerts pontificates, but the only way they found they could do that was by being/sounding blacker. "The point is that while the African American writer might very well have developed a wide and useful expressive idiom from available models, the expression itself would necessarily carry the taint of prior use. A work could manifest every artistic excellence and still lack the authority conferred by a sustaining cultural connection. It makes perfect sense that the African American writers should have sought to anchor their production in what are widely felt to be the well-springs of African American culture—oral narrative and music."
Birkerts's review was published in 1992, Jones's study the year before, at what I take to have been approximately the high-water mark of the culture wars. Birkerts's and Jones's arguments have since become almost rote, worn by heavy use. Yet I think a revisiting of exactly what these positions were and what they've hardened into now presents a really interesting window not only on what this debate was, but what its legacy has been. Additionally, I think the distance from the weariness, the fever, and the fret of the early 90s allows a clearer look at how vast the shortcomings of Birkerts's critique really are.
In "On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary," Amy Hungerford (whose lectures on "The American Novel Since 1945" are available to view here) writes:
by the end of the century scholars of the period since 1945 had the pleasure of a vastly expanded canon, a wealth of well-crafted novels from relatively unknown writers to consider, a few major careers to account for, and the task of defining the second half of the twentieth century ahead of them. Wendy Steiner, in her section of The Cambridge History of American Literature, volume 7 (1999) (“Postmodern Fictions, 1970 to 1990”), quite elegantly represents the position in which the next generation of scholars of this literature found themselves as they defended their dissertations in the closing years of the twentieth century. She showed how a reading of experimentalist novels can be—and, indeed, must be—integrated with a discussion of realist writing. She thus set herself the task of undoing the reigning bifurcation of contemporary fiction into the “postmodern” avant-garde and the writing of women and people of color that was so often dismissed, in the academy, as naively realist or concerned more with social issues than with the development of literary aesthetics.This bifurcation is very active in Birkerts's critique of Jones, as he tries to dragoon Jones's examples onto the side of formal experimentation, suppressing any concerns they might have with realism or social issues. Toomer and Baraka and Hughes and all the others thus must be seen as experimenting with new forms of aesthetic production, trying to broaden the expressive register of the written word in ways inseparable from modernist or postmodernist experimentation. By looking at these writers in this way, and in this way only, Birkerts opens up for himself the room to critique Jones for ignoring the fact that white people were trying just as hard as black people to subvert white aesthetic traditions. Really, he says, everyone's on the same side here, just trying to make lit new, so what's the big idea getting huffy and giving white tradition the finger?
The tremendous shortfall of this position is that it simply can't understand that innovation is not exclusively undertaken for expressive/aesthetic purposes. Experimentation isn't always about finding new ways of creating an aesthetic experience; it isn't sheerly formal. What Corregidora demonstrates very well is that experimental strategies are also deployed to invent or improve forms of transmission, of passing an idea, a feeling, a though, a warning, a lesson, a story, a memory, a message on more securely, more durably, more clearly or more indelibly. The novel is vitally concerned with the transmission of the experience and memory of slavery from one generation to the next, from one woman to the next. Jones seems to question whether any form of transmission is secure, whether any memory is durable enough to last, and the novel is in many ways an effort to try out new forms of transmission and evaluate their clarity and robustness. Purely written forms of memory are shown to be untrustworthy, as the slave-owners are able to burn all the documents that would tie them to their cruelty. The counter to this textual liability is oral culture, which can be diffused into the community through a general broadcast method (represented in the novel by the singing of the blues) or tied more narrowly and more intimately to a lineage, to genetic reproduction, the creation of a new "generation" to whom one can pass the story. Yet Ursa, the protagonist of the story, finds both methods ultimately fail her; when she is attacked by her husband, she suffers injuries which necessitate a hysterectomy, and, having produced no children, she now becomes a genetic dead-end. She also finds her ability to sing the blues too controlled by the men she attaches herself to; by choosing men to sing to or to sing for, she loses her ability to transmit a story or a memory that is properly her own.
The fact of her writing and the experimental form that writing takes suggest that Jones was attempting to find a form that superimposes orality and textuality in a manner that covers each medium's weaknesses and liabilities. Jones is writing not so much in defiance of the bifurcation Hungerford describes as she is writing above the recognition that such a bifurcation exists. After reading Corregidora, Birkerts's critique that she slights the value of modernism's experimentalism comes to seem like a wholly different conversation; Jones doesn't dialogue with Joyce or Pound because they simply aren't relevant to her project, to what she means by "liberation," to what experiments she conducts.
The idea that modernism is not overwhelmingly relevant to every literary object is perhaps one of the most radical positions one can take at the moment. Our feelings and affective associations (even more than our ideas) about modernism structure everything about the categorization, evaluation, and historicization of literary objects.
One of the primary results of this overdetermination has been the bifurcation of experimental fiction and realism described above. The division between formally minded experimentalism and socially minded realism is so dominant and oppressive that championing either side of the issue obligates certain responses to the other side. Accusations of naïvete (formalism is naïve because it disregards context; realism is naïve because it disregards language's inherently unstable referentiality, etc.) are a—perhaps the—primary argument, followed by implications of undesirable political affinities (largely tied to those forms of naïvete). But let's not forget the eternal condemnations of the other side's inchoate sterility, narcissism, and solipsism (traits which are applied, strangely, to either side with equal vigor and vim). I think reading someone like Jones shows us that we make these same arguments over and over again not because the ideological options have always and ever been the same, but because the debate is set up to produce only identical iterations of the same affective associations.
The path Hungerford describes in her excellent essay is exciting precisely because it seems so decoupled from the affective associations of this bifurcation, and from the overdetermining emotive resonance that modernism retains to such an intense degree among those who study literature—Hungerford seems eager to build new associations to these literary periods and events. Her essay practically rings with the excitement of this break, of being able to take these literary artifacts into new discussions that aren't predetermined by decades of entrenched oppositions. The essay demonstrates how fertile these new discussions can be, and points out a few of the scholars who are engaging in them: Andrew Hoberek, Rachel Adams, Sean McCann, Michael Szalay, Mark McGurl, Jonathan Freedman, Debbie Nelson, and Brian Edwards. Hungerford also refers to a group of scholars of which she and many of those just named is a member:
Another way of registering where we are now is to cite the founding, in the fall of 2006, of Post•45, a collective of scholars mainly just finishing first books or in the middle of second books. What emerged at the group’s initial symposium was the growing edge of scholarly work in the field formerly known as contemporary, produced by a new generation of scholars born at or after the end of the 1960s. For this generation, the 1960s are history, not memory—an advantage when it comes to the business of historicizing—and the politics of the 1960s are less a nostalgic ideal than an ambivalent example of what happens when institutional politics turns into cultural politics. Some of us work in the wake of our disillusion with multiculturalism, some in the hope of bringing a related agenda of inclusiveness further along with a more complex conception of what can be done with such an approach.To say this development is exciting to me is an understatement. It's what I've been waiting to hear ever since I started reading theory or academic criticism.
And to be honest, it's what I'm still waiting to hear from the blogosphere, although I have hopes that it will eventually come. But that's probably another, very different post.