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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

Interview with Brian T. Edwards, author of “After the American Century”

Brian T. Edwards, After the American Century

“Culture jumps publics all the time in the digital age, and what it means and where it goes is completely unpredictable. Diplomats are well aware of the technologies by which to spread culture in the twentieth-first century, but they have not yet caught up with the logics of the circulation of culture in the digital age.”—Brian Edwards

The following is an interview with Brian T. Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East

Question: Is that a real photo on the cover or is it photoshopped?

I took the cover photograph in Isfahan, about 200 miles south of Tehran. Isfahan was once one of the major cities of the world, twice the capital of Persia, and is filled with architectural masterpieces from the Safavid dynasty with a city square that is simply breathtaking in its scale. So when I turned a corner and came across this mural, with Mickey Mouse popping out of a jack-o-lantern and Walt Disney birds, it struck me that America was another empire that had left its mark on this city—part of the urban landscape now, with people passing by going about their daily business. Maybe it was the pumpkin, but there was something autumnal in that fading mural that hinted at the passing of the American empire.

I showed the photo to one of my Iranian students. He said it reminded him of the walls in the kindergartens and nursery schools when he was growing up, where pictures of Mickey Mouse were painted everywhere. The Simpsons were popular too, he said. It was expensive to buy notebooks and school supplies with these American cartoon characters, while the walls were free. Later in the book (page 117), I include a photo I took of a food court in a Tehran shopping mall, where you can see a similar phenomenon with Shrek, another American cartoon character who has had a profound impact in Iran.

Q: What does the book’s subtitle mean? Why “ends”? Do you mean to suggest that American culture is no longer present in the Middle East?

BE: Quite the opposite! By using the plural of the word “end,” I meant to evoke its multiple meanings—endpoints, uses, meanings, aims. I did also mean to nod at the meaning evoked by “end” in the singular (that something might come after the end of the American century). What I’m interested in discovering in this book is what it means that US culture is popular in the Middle East, almost part of the fabric of life, even while the United States as a political entity is increasingly unpopular. But unlike during the Cold War, or the so-called “American century,” when people like Henry Luce and the US State Department wanted to leverage the popularity of US culture, it now means a lot more than Coca Cola, jeans, or jazz music. Of course American culture still refers to Hollywood movies and hip hop, both of which are popular in the Middle East and have inspired local artists. But American cultural products in the digital age also include platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and cultural forms that are recognized by people in different parts of the world as “American”—say a movie formula, like the teen romance, or action-hero comic books, or cyberpunk. All of these end up in popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa, where they become new things, ultimately unrecognizable to American culture itself. So I’m really interested in what this all means, what the “ends” of these versions of American culture are, where they “end” up.

Q: What’s the deal with Shrek?

BE: Shrek makes two extended appearances in the book and shows different routes a particular cultural object can take in the digital age. In Tehran, I was startled to keep coming across images of the green ogre, from the food court at the shopping mall in the north part of the city to 2-by-3 foot Persian-language books retelling the Shrek story. Most interesting were the competing dubbed versions of the different Shrek movies—some of them more illegal than others—about which people had very strong feelings. I had come to Iran in part to try to understand the debate over the film director Abbas Kiarostami, but instead became obsessed with figuring out what one of my informants meant when she said that Shrek was really an Iranian movie.

I came across a very different Shrek in Morocco, where a hugely popular Moroccan video pirate artist used it in his most famous work. The video pirate, named Hamada, took a dance scene from Shrek and dubbed a popular Moroccan song over the soundtrack. The work that resulted, which became known as Miloudi after the singer whose work was dubbed over a clip of Donkey singing, started a phenomenon in Morocco in the mid 2000s and launched Hamada’s underground career.


Monday, November 30th, 2015

Book Giveaway! After the American Century, by Brian Edwards

This week one of our featured books is After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East by Brian T. Edwards.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of After the American Century to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Wednesday, December 4th at 1:00 pm.

After the American Century offers a fascinating tour of the appropriation and deployment of American popular culture in a globalized, restless Middle East.” — Marc Lynch, author of The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East

After the American Century is a book of exquisite audacity.” — Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Videos: Celebrating “Between Men” and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Between Men, Eve Sedgwick

The Center for the Humanities at CUNY has very graciously put up videos from the four different panels that convened around the publication of the Thirtieth Anniversary Edition of Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Click on this link and scroll down to the bottom where you can view the videos from the event.

Highlights of papers include, “The Eve Effect,” Wayne Koestenbaum; “Between Men’s Bodies,” Michael Moon; Beyond Between Men: Eve Sedgwick’s The Warm Decembers,” Carolyn Williams; “Between Men in 30 Years,” Cathy Davidson; “Gen/Ten,” Sharon Marcus; and a special panel on publishing Eve Sedgwick.

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Carol Jacobs on the Style of W. G. Sebald

W. G. Sebald

“Sebald insistently refuses to call his works nov­els. Prose book, prose text, prose literature: just not novel.”—Carol Jacobs

In the following excerpt from Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs examines Sebald’s distinct style, his famous use of photographs, and his mixing of fact and fiction:

Yet even before he embarked on his literary path in the mid eight­ies, Sebald will insist, he was already on the path from science or scholarship to fiction. “Yes, it was about the middle of the 80’s. And one needs to mention first that already as a literary scholar actually I was working in an unorthodox manner and I always went to the limits of what was possible or acceptable in literary schol­arship. This rather essayistic procedure moved then, I believe, more or less naturally in the direction of the more fictive.” To be sure, he explains, while frequently calling into play the same image, his current work, it too, requires research; but this research is hardly academic. It never goes straight forward, its path can never be retraced, and it places him in the role of a dog.

When I do research for my books, I don’t do it according to academic methods. One follows rather a diffused instinct; the trajectory of the research can then no longer be replicated because it looks like the way a dog runs across a field to follow a scent. That is a rather primi­tive form of research, always with the nose or muzzle on the ground.

In this way one always finds very peculiar things which one would never have reckoned on, things which you can never find in a ratio­nal way, that is when you do research as you learned to do it at the university, always straight ahead, right, left, right angles, and so on. One has to search in a diffuse way. It should be a matter of discovering precisely in the manner that a dog seeks, back and forth, coming out and going back down, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast.

If Sebald’s manner of research isn’t precisely rational, if it is a bit all over the place, we, his readers, know at least what he collects: photos, documents, citations. Their function, however, Sebald readily admits, is ambiguous. Photographs, he says, are the “true documents,” they make it possible to hold onto things. “It’s necessary to hold onto these things somehow or other. Of course you can do that by writing, but the written is no true document. The photograph is the true document par excellence. People let themselves be convinced by a photograph.” And yet holding onto things and convincing the reader is not quite or not all that Sebald is after. For what interests him more than a document that seems incontrovert­ibly “true” is the suggestion of the faint, the dim, the indistinct. “I don’t want to mount pictures of high photographic quality into the texts, rather they are simply documents of found material, something secondary. It is actually very nice when this lack of clarity enters into the photos” Photographs are there­fore at once “the true document par excellence” that convinces the onlooker, and yet they are also there to unnerve the reader: they right­fully introduce irritation and insecurity. “Thus many of these docu­ments are in fact documents. . . . On the other hand there is the one or the other of the photographs, one or other of the documents that is put in with another end in view, where, really . . . that is the falsi. ca­tion theme, which is to say: it is also a matter of making the reader uncertain. The reader should indeed think about: what is true in these stories, no?”


Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Between Men at 30

Between Men, Eve Sedgwick

We’re very excited to be participating in an event today at the Graduate Center at CUNY to celebrate the 30th anniversary edition of Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

The Conference will be live streamed from the 10 am start through 5:30 pm. The Center for Humanities at CUNY will be live tweeting the event at @HumanitiesGC; and the hashtag for the conference is #BetweenMen30

The one-day, interdisciplinary and international conference will address both the singular impact of Sedgwick’s ground-breaking work and its multiple and on-going ramifications. the symposium features a series of short papers engaging with the text, its reception, and its relevance to the evolving field of queer studies. Additionally, a panel of editors, including our own Jennifer Crewe, who have published, and continue to publish, Sedgwick’s writing will discuss working with her and the nature of her authorship as its image or significance changed over the decades.

In addition to our thirtieth anniversary edition of Sedgwick’s Between Men, with a new foreword by Wayne Koestenbaum, the conference will also celebrate the publication of and a chapbook by Guillotine Press of a previously unpublished 1990 essay of Sedgwick’s, Censorship & Homophobia, with a foreword and notes by Sarah McCarry.

Other participants include: Wayne Koestenbaum, CUNY Graduate Center; Michael Moon, Emory University; William Germano, Cooper Union; Nancy K. Miller, CUNY Graduate Center; Ken Wissoker, Duke University Press and CUNY Graduate Center; Carolyn Williams, Rutgers University; Cathy Davidson, CUNY Graduate Center; Sharon Marcus, Columbia University; and Jonathan Goldberg, Emory University.

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Sebald’s “Air War and Literature”

Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

“Sebald demands a language that closely follows upon the events of destruction and brings them into our memory … Sebald calls for a language that makes one see.”—Carol Jacobs

In the following excerpt from Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs discusses Sebald’s controversial “Air War and Literature,” and his call to remember German victims of the allied bombing:

Five years after the first publication of The Emigrants in 1992, Sebald gives a series of lectures entitled “Air War and Literature” (“Luftkrieg und Literatur”). The Emigrants closed with the judgment of Genewein, the would-be documentarian of the Lódz Ghetto who imagined, no doubt, he was fixing reality in place. “Air War and Lit­erature,” as it opens, demands an aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) that turns that suspicion of the documentary on its head. It sets us up for a theory and practice of “concrete memory.” Representation is clearly called upon to serve reality. Still, the shift from the earlier prose fiction to the “Air War” lectures is no symmetrical displace­ment, no difference as extreme or easy to grasp as that between night and day. It is no move, say, from the frivolities of art to the gravity of history. Sebald’s ultimate refusal to be the vehicle of a déjà vu, the writer’s fundamental skepticism by the end of the lectures with regard to what has been seen, establishes a kinship between his commentary on German postwar literature and his earlier liter­ary publication. And yet this is hardly evident at the outset of those lectures.

In 1997 Sebald holds forth from the other side of the German bor­der, from that no-man’s-land of what is, from a certain geopolitical viewpoint, regarded as Swiss neutrality. With his two lectures deliv­ered in Zurich, Sebald drops something of a bomb. What he ostensi­bly speaks of is literature—literature of a particular historical place and time. “Air War and Literature” castigates the failure of a genera­tion of German writers “for their incapacity to record and bring into our memory that which they had seen.” He dreams of a language of immediacy that unproblemati­cally names the experience of the observer, which then, somewhat magically, might become that of the reader as well. Sebald writes of an aesthetic imperative arising out of a “moral imperative,” imposed, in turn, by the particular object to be portrayed: in this case the utter destruction of the German cities by the Allied bombing attacks in the late years of World War II. But here, already, lies something of the well-recognized scandal of his text. The au­thor of those genre-bending volumes about (and yet not always quite about) the Holocaust—The Emigrants and Austerlitz, to name those now most familiar to Sebald’s audi­ence, came to Switzerland in the name of another, the other victim. It is no longer the murdered and expatriated victims of European his­tory and the Third Reich in the thirties and forties, both Jews and non-Jews, but those who by choice or fate remained on German soil. What would they, could they, have to say for themselves, of them­selves? How does their speech or silence relate to their particular po­litical and (thus) moral position and to the more generalizable situa­tion of trauma?


Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

“In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage” — Carol Jacobs on W. G. Sebald

Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

“In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage, but he also sets forth his moral position with an astonishing sense of self-certitude.”—Carol Jacobs

In the following excerpt from the preface to Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs details some of the distinctive features of W. G. Sebald’s fiction:

Three aspects of Sebald’s writing must inevitably strike every reader. To begin with, it is a question of a postwar German author addressing the Holocaust (and other historico-political and ecologi­cal disasters) in a manner the reading public had never before wit­nessed. In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage, but he also sets forth his moral position with an astonishing sense of self-certitude.

Second: every reader is struck by the visual oddity of literary and essayistic works peppered with images: photographs, documents, diagrams, sketches, and reproductions of artworks. The temptation, of course, is to assume that, given the ethical stance, the visual materials are there as illustrations. In Sebald’s writings one soon notices that this assumption is particularly vexed, since he openly plays with the purposeful uncertainty of what he places be­fore our eyes. The visual materials, as Sebald admits in an interview, often serve the purpose of readerly disorientation. And then one en­counters in each of his writings an astonishingly innovative writing style. Given his performances of meandering detours, his shatter­ing of frames, crossing borders, writing tangentially, disintegrating the name, surreptitiously citing, and announcing blindness, what is called for is a careful analysis of the highly unusual literary practices of his texts. How to reconcile such a radical stylistics with moral cer­titude? This is the question. How to understand, as Sebald will assert in interviews, that he can only speak indirectly? The task in reading Sebald, then, is to account for a whole range of concepts: what Sebald called our moral capacity alongside the vagaries of perception and, more generally, how representation in art and literature relates to the epistemological crises that he shows us arising out of the juxtaposi­tion of all these.

That his writings are about vision as the ability to see can escape no reader. Alongside the unusual, interspersed visual materials that rightfully engage so many Sebald scholars a theme of sight is oft en woven into the text. In “Air War and Literature” Sebald reproves those writers who directly witnessed the Allied bombings. What was called for was a steady gaze at what was before them (“Air War”) rendered in a concrete prose that might make the reader see. Still in The Rings of Saturn the narrator will celebrate not only Rembrandt’s verisimilitude but also his rebellion against mimesis. That refusal to copy nature emerges as Rembrandt’s social commentary. Sebald also writes of the remark­able realism of the art of Jan Peter Tripp, while nevertheless insisting that it is less its identity with reality that is worth considering than the “far less apparent points of divergence and difference”. In a late interview, Sebald will go on to insist that the Holocaust, which so concerned him, can only be spoken of indirectly: “So the only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by di­rect confrontation.” These are atrocities, he often takes the opportu­nity to remind us, that he himself, in any case, born in 1944, could not possibly have experienced head-on.

The degree to which written texts are called upon to see and report a factual or historical world of the artist’s experience fluctuates wildly in Sebald’s works and, more crucially, also within each individual work. In the texts we are about to read, neat conclusions about vision-of-the-eye are impossible. And then we encounter the prolific acts of citation, both visual and verbal, that are bound to seem twenty-twenty from a certain point of view. As we all know, however—and no one better than Sebald—the play of montage alters the incorporated material and puts it into new relations that cause us to see and read otherwise.

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Interview with Carol Jacobs, author of “Sebald’s Vision”

Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

“In many of [Sebald's] works one is drawn along in elaborate sentences that get you to a destination with only the remotest connections to where they began. It’s like traveling on a train whose tracks are constantly encountering a switch, so there is no predicting where one will end up, and almost no remembering how one could have gotten there.”—Carol Jacobs

The following is an interview with Carol Jacobs, author of Sebald’s Vision:

Question: W. G. Sebald is a vastly popular literary figure. Can you say something about the kind of audience he has drawn?

Carol Jacobs: Writing in 2000 Susan Sontag had this to say of the contemporary literary scene: “Is literary greatness still possible? . . . One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” J. M. Coetzee, too, recognized and eloquently celebrated his work. The New York Times, the New Yorker, The Guardian, The Telegraph—all hinted at what had seemed the inevitability of his becoming a Nobel laureate prior to his tragic death. There is no question that he is a writer’s writer. His work has elicited an astonishing critical response from academics on both sides of the Atlantic. But he is no less a writer who appeals to a very wide range of devoted readers. I have seen them in the New York subway, on planes, and (this has its ironies, given a scene in Austerlitz in which the narrator visits an ophthalmologist) also at my eye doctor’s.

Q: Why the title Sebald’s Vision?

CJ: The awe that Sebald’s writing inspires is no doubt linked to his singular ethical stance, his moral vision. This commitment comes to us by way of a pained melancholy concerning the Holocaust, in Austerlitz and The Emigrants and also in After Nature and Rings of Saturn where he turns to a host of other historical and natural disasters.That commitment comes to us as righteous outrage in “Air War and Literature” in which Sebald had challenged not only the German nation for its failure to deal with its past but also post-war German writers for their refusal to document the bombings of German cities. He also had the courage to expose the military uselessness of that violence. So his is a voice that calls us to attention, that stops us in our tracks with its factual materials and yet sweeps us along with a remarkably compelling narrative at the same time, a narrative that Sebald often insisted on calling fiction.


Monday, October 19th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Sebald’s Vision, by Carol Jacobs

This week our featured book is Sebald’s Vision by Carol Jacobs.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Sebald’s Vision to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, October 23 at 1:00 pm.

Sebald’s Vision is meticulously researched, beautifully written, and certain to become the standard by which future work on this important writer is measured.” — Michael G. Levine, Rutgers University

For more on the book you can read the preface:

Monday, October 5th, 2015

An Interview with Steven S. Lee, author of “The Ethnic Avant-Garde”

The Ethnic Avant-Garde

“Up until Black Lives Matter, there was a lot of talk about ‘post-race’ and ‘post-identity,’ which now seems awfully naïve. I think my book helps us to grasp the ongoing salience of racial and ethnic divides, namely, by explaining how these divides were reinforced after the interwar years.”—Steven S. Lee

The following is an interview with Steven S. Lee, author of The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution:

Q: What do you mean by “the ethnic avant-garde”?

Steven S. Lee: Two things. First, it’s a historical grouping comprised of minority writers and artists from around the world who, particularly in the 1920s and 30s, drew inspiration from the Soviet Union. They saw interwar Moscow as a beacon of both world revolution and cultural experimentation—Moscow as a center for both the Communist International (Comintern) and the international avant-garde. Rather than shared phenotype or descent, what bound this group were the forms in which it trafficked, namely, the defining techniques of the Soviet avant-garde—montage, fragment, interruption. For instance, the ethnic avant-garde encompasses Langston Hughes’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky; abstract suprematist shapes depicting the Bolshevik Revolution as Jewish messianic arrest; and a Soviet futurist play about China that became Broadway’s first major production with a predominantly Asian American cast.

But I also present the ethnic avant-garde as a utopian aspiration, one that exceeds the interwar years and the Soviet Union and that persists into the present. It’s the dream of advancing simultaneously ethnic particularism, political radicalism, and ar¬tistic experimentation—a dream largely crushed by Stalinism and the Cold War, but which I trace forward to Red China, 1960s activism, and contemporary American writing. As a result, we get to see the global scope and experimental potential of minority cultures, debunking the notion that particularism yields provincialism.

Q: How did you arrive at this grouping?

SSL: It’s been a roundabout journey. The project began in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where I spent a year comparing Soviet Korean and Korean American literature. In 1937, Stalin deported approximately 180,000 Koreans from the Russian Far East to Central Asia, suspecting that they might serve as Japanese spies. And yet this wasn’t only a tragedy. The strides that Soviet Koreans made and continue to make, particularly in the cultural and political spheres, are just astounding. For instance, the Soviet Union’s greatest cult rock star, Viktor Tsoi, was half-Korean.

While working on this project in Tashkent, a friend told me about Langston Hughes’s 1932 visit to Uzbekistan and about his little-known, Moscow-published book that favorably compared the Soviet “East” to the American South. From there, the project began to grow broader in scope—from Soviet Koreans to Soviet “national minorities” as a whole, and to the contrasts between American multiculturalism and its Soviet counterparts. I became particularly interested in the long, troubled history of American minorities who saw the USSR as a “frontier of hope” (to quote the Jewish American philosopher Horace Kallen).

Of course, many of the figures I follow eventually became disillusioned with Soviet policies; some of them perished during the Stalinist terrors. However, in trying to understand the allure of what Claude McKay called the “magic pilgrimage” to the USSR, it’s important to keep in mind that these writers and artists weren’t just interested in official policies. They were also drawn to the creative possibilities opened by the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Vladimir Mayakovsky—this lionized branch of the international avant-garde which, as Slavists well know, had itself long been fascinated by minority and non-Western cultures.

Q: How does the ethnic avant-garde change our understanding of the historical avant-garde of the interwar years?

SSL: One of my aims has been to highlight the interwar avant-garde’s inclusive, decolonizing potential, and the key has been to think about avant-gardism as the estrangement of time and history. Following the lead of Walter Benjamin and Peter Osborne, as well as Slavists like Masha Salazkina and Jane Sharp, the book uses “ethnicity” (with its connotations of the past and descent) to highlight the avant-garde’s ability to interrupt linear progress.

Allow me to elaborate. Typically, we see the avant-garde as future-oriented—the revolutionary vanguard and artistic avant-garde as agents of progress—but of course, there are plenty of instances of cutting-edge artists and writers looking to the past for inspiration. Picasso’s incorporation of African masks, Pound’s interest in Confucianism, and Eisenstein’s Mexican film project are well-known examples. The book adds several more to the mix: for instance, we see the futurist Mayakovsky attempting poetry in an “Afro-Cuban” voice, praising Diego Rivera for painting the “world’s first Communist mural,” and then relaxing at a leftist Jewish summer camp on the Hudson.

What I argue is that Mayakovsky and his fellow Soviet avant-gardists embraced (and often identified with) minority peoples and cultures in order to rethink linear progress, and in the context of the Comintern such efforts had a uniquely radical, decolonizing function. This is because the Soviet avant-garde’s efforts to estrange history complemented the Comintern’s efforts to do the same—to coordinate a world revolution that would include peoples of all backgrounds and all stages of historical development.


Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Robert Boyers on the idea of the “Advanced Idea”

Robert Boyers, The Fate of Ideas

The following post is by Robert Boyers, author of The Fate of Ideas: Seductions, Betrayals, Appraisals:

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega Y Gasset wrote extensively about what he called “the height of the times.” Unhappy about the backwardness of his country, its parochial tendencies and resistance to liberal ideas, he urged his fellow Spaniards to acquaint themselves with what seemed most demanding and ambitious in the modern art and thought of the early twentieth-century, and to assess their own Spanish culture by measuring it against the achievements of other European societies. There was, of course, no perfectly reliable or objective way of knowing what was genuinely “high” or “advanced,” and Ortega himself sometimes challenged the assumptions and practices associated with high modernism, most notably in his famous book on “The Dehumanization of Art.” But Ortega always believed that there really was a “height of the times,” and that it was important for artists and intellectuals to try to stay abreast of new developments and unfamiliar ideas. He understood that what was new was not therefore, or inevitably, worthy or impressive, and he feared that publicists and journalists might promote tenth-rate artworks and dubious ideas that lacked seriousness and complexity. But he regarded “the height of the times” as at least a useful fiction that might inspire people to take intellectual risks and to try at least to tolerate bold experimentation in the arts.

We have come a long way from the period when someone like Ortega felt he needed to make such a case. In most western countries, certainly in the United States, the new and experimental enjoy a status beyond anything that people of Ortega’s generation might have imagined. When the New Yorker art critic Harold Rosenberg titled a book The Tradition of the New, more than fifty years ago, he was confirming what had become clear to students of modernity. The new had become, in several respects, the one central, indispensable value within the framework of modernist and post-modernist culture. To speak of “the height of the times” was to signal an openness to the unfamiliar and an appetite for anything that seemed to go against the grain of ordinary popular taste and routine consumption.

By now, of course, vast numbers of people, hungry for novelty and spectacle, flock to museum exhibitions and gallery shows featuring varieties of shock and awe. Even writers operating within the framework of conventional narrative fiction are inclined to experimentation—think of J.M. Coetzee’s masterpiece Elizabeth Costello—while demanding thinkers like Slavoj Zizek command large audiences hungry for difficult and sometimes outlandish ideas.

In light of these developments, it may be useful to ask what may now be signified by a term like “the height of the times.” Is there such a thing as “advanced” art and thought, such that it might be differentiated from the “backward” or “traditional” or “reactionary”? Are there ideas we might legitimately classify as “advanced” and others that are clearly not advanced? Certainly we are inclined—most of us, at any rate—to believe that we know the difference between one kind of idea and another. Thus we say that a respect for “difference” is an advanced idea, and that verisimilitude can no longer be regarded as an important criterion of value in the arts. We assume that such judgments, or assumptions, are more or less secure, which is to say broadly if not universally shared.


Monday, August 31st, 2015

Interview with Robert Boyers, author of “The Fate of Ideas”

The Fate of Ideas, Robert Boyers

In The Fate of Ideas: Seductions, Betrayals, Appraisals, Robert Boyers strikes an unusual balance between cultural criticism and the personal or memoiristic essay. Examining a wide range of ideas—from pleasure and fidelity to “the other” and authority—he argues that people often use ideas to deceive themselves and to deny what is most real about their own experience of the world. Drawing on colorful characters and events in his own life, Boyers tests his sense of particular ideas and considers how their meanings change over time and how we can resist being violated by them. The following is an interview with Boyers:

Q: Usually we think of ideas as the sort of thing that belongs to philosophers and thinkers, and yet yours is a book that often addresses issues that belong to ordinary life and ordinary people. Did you aim, in writing your book, to rescue ideas from philosophers and academics?

Robert Boyers: “Rescue” isn’t quite the word I would use. But I have often felt that in academic discussions of ideas the issues that matter most to all of us are largely ignored. Who would not be disappointed by what passes for serious discussion of an idea like “identity” in the current academic climate? I wanted in my book to demonstrate what it might really mean to take an idea seriously by evoking situations in my own life and in the lives of actual others and then looking closely at the playing out of those ideas.

One such idea I engage in my new book is realism. When I hear academics talk about it, I find, almost invariably, that they don’t begin to do justice to what should be an enormously attractive idea. My students tend to think of so-called realists as sober, not especially interesting people who consider only the given facts of any given case as they labor to arrive at a fair-minded assessment. But for me reality is not the stone we stub our toe on. On the contrary, it’s nothing we ought to associate with the objectively obvious or indisputable. I’ve always been drawn to writers who can never look at a so-called fact without wondering what it might be, or ought to be, who know that what is “real” can only be discovered by imagining alternatives to the established reality most of us believe is all there is. In the chapter of my book devoted to the subject I tried to portray realism as an urgent and embattled attitude to experience, and I tried to identify moments in my life when my own struggle to avoid an easy submission to the obvious saved me from yielding too comfortably to the going view of things.

Q: Are there ideas you take up in your book that seem to you especially dangerous?

RB: Any idea can seem dangerous when you consider how it may be abused. The idea that it’s good to know as much as you can about the author of a novel if you hope to interpret it correctly is, on the face of it, not at all a dangerous idea. Who would not want to know something at least about the background or identity of an author as an aid to interpretation of a book or artwork? And yet, in the chapter of my book devoted to that very question, I argue that there are serious dangers entailed in imposing upon a work of fiction, or a painting, or a poem, expectations drawn from your knowledge of a given writer or artist. Which dangers? For example, those having to do with expecting a black woman writer—based on your idea of what her authorial identity entails—to say in her novel what a black woman writer is supposed to say, and then being disappointed to find that her novel offers something else entirely, something unpredictable and honest and elusive. Something you can’t reduce to a program or a grievance.


Friday, July 31st, 2015

Translation’s Futures and the Work of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries — Rebecca Walkowitz

In addition to discussing the novels of authors such as J. M. Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid, Ben Lerner, and others, Rebecca Walkowitz also discusses the work of web artists Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries in Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of Literature. In the following passage she discusses how their work incorporates ideas of translation and how their works fit into literary modernism and the contemporary literary scene.

Immediately below is Young-Hae Chang’s TRAVELING TO UTOPIA, which Walkowitz mentions in the excerpt.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries collates a literary history of the twentieth century in which translation and translators play a central role. Pound, Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov composed and adapted their works in multiple languages, and all produced important works as translators as well as authors. Like Beckett and Nabokov, Chang and Voge practice self-translation; and like them, they treat the trans­lated versions as new productions rather than as derivations. Yet, for Chang and Voge, the value of the translation does not depend on uniqueness. That is, while Beckett insisted that rendering En Atten­dant Godot in English involved writing a completely new play, Chang and Voge take a page from Borges, suggesting that translations are part of the work, that they remake the work, or that they are indistin­guishable from it.

Because they suggest that translation is integral to production, Chang and Voge are altering the politics as well as the practice of translation. While Pound and other Anglo-American modernists encouraged translation into English, most were far less interested in the circulation of their own works beyond English. Pound trans­lated in order to enrich anglophone literary culture, but Chang and Voge often demote English by concealing or removing the distinction between original and target languages. This is not to say that English is not central to their creations and to the production and circula­tion of those creations. English is the principal language of the Web site, and it appears at some point in most of their work. But Chang and Voge emphasize the regional and political histories in which languages function. By amplifying themes of translation and non-translation, they make languages less neutral, and in this sense they register the inequality of languages, including the inequality that functions within their own works. Pound’s commitment to incorpo­rating multiple languages and multiple vernaculars led to a multilin­gualism with English at its center. Narrating translation and muting idiolect, Chang and Voge make Pound’s dream of multilingualism function multilingually. They create works not only for English lit­erary history but also for the many other literary histories in which their works travel and in which they begin.


Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Rebecca Walkowitz on Writing in Translation

In the following video, Rebecca Walkowitz discusses her new book Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature. In this section of her talk from the Novel: A Forum on Fiction conference, Walkowitz discusses writing in translation:

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Will the New Man Booker International Prize Challenge English’s Dominance in World Literature?

Born Translated, by Rebecca Walkowitz

“Upgrading the status of translators, the prize upgrades the status of multilingualism. It also upgrades the status of translations. No longer merely derivations or adaptations of original works, translated editions will be assessed as works in their own right.”—Rebecca Walkowitz on the new Man Booker Prize for Translated Fiction

The following post is by Rebecca Walkowitz, author of Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature

Earlier this month, the organizers of the Man Booker International Prize announced that they are scrapping the old prize, recognizing the career of a single novelist working in any language, and launching a new prize for a single novel translated into English. So, next year, we’ll have the Man Booker Prize, which celebrates the best novel published in English and also written in English. And we’ll have the Man Booker International Prize, which celebrates the best novel published in English translated from another language. What are the consequences of this change?

The new International Prize is likely to increase the visibility of translated books. All but two of the past International Prize winners have been English-language novelists. That group is no longer eligible, so the Man Booker’s enormous publicity machine will be focused at least half the time on writers who work in other languages. Greater publicity for translated books, it is hoped, will lead to a greater number of readers for those books. Not simply celebrating excellent translations, the Man Booker organizers want to increase the number of foreign-language works contracted by UK publishers.

To be sure, the new Prize is a boon for “foreign” writers, by which they mean writers who use languages other than English. But the organizers also have local readers and local publishing houses in mind. They want English-language readers to have more translations to choose from because they believe that reading books from other languages will help British citizens compete with their more worldly European neighbors. In this sense, the new International Prize, for all its cosmopolitanism, also has nationalist motives: the education of English-only readers. Of course, it may be that reading novels in translation will lead some people to learn additional languages and to think about English as one language among many.

In my view, the new Prize is likely encourage that kind of thinking not because it rewards foreign books but because it rewards translators of foreign books. The prize money (£50,000) will be split evenly between authors and translators, who will share credit for the production of the translated work. Upgrading the status of translators, the prize upgrades the status of multilingualism. It also upgrades the status of translations. No longer merely derivations or adaptations of original works, translated editions will be assessed as works in their own right. Readers will be asked to notice (instead of forget) that the work they are reading was brought from another language.


Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Interview with Rebecca Walkowitz, author of Born Translated

Born Translated, by Rebecca Walkowitz

“For a long time, we’ve assumed that all books begin in one language, often called a ‘native language,’ and then travel out to other languages. This is how we’ve expected ‘world literature’ to work. But today, many books begin in several languages—they start as world literature…”—Rebecca Walkowitz

In Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, Rebecca L. Walkowitz argues that translation should be understood as the engine rather than the caboose of literary history. She analyzes the ways in which contemporary novelists such as J. M. Coetzee and Jamaica Kincaid incorporate the themes, forms, structure, and visual devices of translation in their works to tell this story.

Question: What is a “born-translated” novel?

Rebecca Walkowitz: I call some contemporary novels “born-translated” because they have been published simultaneously, or almost simultaneously (within a few weeks or months), in several different languages. For a long time, we’ve assumed that all books begin in one language, often called a “native language,” and then travel out to other languages. This is how we’ve expected “world literature” to work. But today, many books begin in several languages—they start as world literature—and this is especially true for novels that are written in English. In my book, I am interested in how Anglophone novels have begun to reflect on this situation, embedding their existence as translated works into the stories they tell and even into their structure and style.

Q: How does this affect the way contemporary novels are written?

RW: From the perspective of fiction-writing, the fact that novels will appear in translation right away has changed the way writers use language. Kazuo Ishiguro has talked about his efforts to design his books around structure and narrative architecture rather than around individual phrases or puns. David Mitchell’s novels often tell us about the presence of foreign languages on the page rather than representing them directly (through direct quotation or inflected dialogue). We can see in Ishiguro’s and Mitchell’s novels a focus on narrating languages—describing their relationship to other languages, explaining how they circulate and who can use them, observing which characters understand them and which don’t—rather than a focus on playing with them or reproducing their characteristics on the page. Ben Lerner has noted that his novel Leaving the Atocha Station, about a young American’s experience of learning Spanish in Madrid, emphasizes the encounter with a language one does not understand rather than the “surface effects” of that language. In Jamaica Kincaid’s work, the reader is asked to think about the words they are not reading, because they have been spoken or thought by someone who does not have access to literacy or publication. These novels represent the different ways that characters speak English and other languages by explaining those differences, by telling us about the historical and political conditions of language education, and by developing generic, syntactical, and visual cues that can communicate multilingualism in multiple languages.


Monday, July 27th, 2015

Book Giveaway! “Born Translated,” by Rebecca Walkowitz

This week our featured book is Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature by Rebecca Walkowitz.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Born Translated to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, July 31 at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Nancy Armstrong at Duke University says about Born Translated: “Born Translated offers a fresh approach to contemporary fiction. Among the first to offer a convincing explanation of how national traditions morph into the world novel, Walkowitz succeeds in showing—brilliantly, to my mind—how novels by J. M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Kiran Desai, Peter Ho Davies, Caryl Phillips, and W. G. Sebald force us to confront a world where languages, territories, and nations no longer line up.”

For more on the book you can read the introduction, “Theory of World Literature Now”:

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner — A New Perspective on Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

As Anne Fernald suggests in her very thoughtful review of Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, by Viviane Forrester, we don’t suffer from a lack of books on or biographies of Virginia Woolf. However, Forrester’s work, which won the Prix Goncourt award for biography, in its distinct approach to Woolf’s life does offer something new and important in our understanding of Woolf’s life and work. Fernald writes:

[Virginia Woolf] offers unexpected insights and useful challenges to settled ideas about Woolf, her friendships, her marriage, and her imagination. Progressing in sections through five key relationships in Woolf’s life—her husband, her family of origin, her sister Vanessa Bell and Bloomsbury, other writers, and death itself…. Bad or lazy biographers draw straight lines, linking historical figures to fictional characters. Forrester never does that. Instead, she shows patterns of imagery, suggestive links, taking up seldom-quoted diary entries and juxtaposing them against less-familiar passages from the novels to illuminate something that, at its best, seems both fresh and apt.

Much like her subject, Forrester’s own life was both accomplished and complicated. As Fernald writes, these similarities color and strengthen Forrester’s book:

In short, Forrester’s life contained many of the key elements of Woolf’s, but arranged differently: haute-bourgeois family, close acquaintance with painters (a husband, a sister), intellectual background, a mixed Jewish-Protestant marriage that saw strains but endured, and suicide. These personal connections, these experiences, similar but different, add poignancy and authority to her several meditations on living in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism, the artist’s life, and the complex factors that lead to suicide.


Monday, June 29th, 2015

Columbia University Press to Publish New Translations of Russian Literature

Columbia University Press  Russian Flag

We were very excited to read today’s New York Times included an article on our ambitious and very exciting new series of Russian literature in translation. The series, tentatively titled the Russian Library (on Twitter at @RusLibrary) will publish dozens of works in modern Russian literature as selected by the Press and a committee of Russian and American scholars.

While the first books are unlikely to be published until after 2017, the books will include some modern classics in need of new translations with a majority of the titles being contemporary and post-Soviet works. In addition to bringing these works to the attention of English-language readers, the hope is that the series will also contribute to improving relations between the United States and Russia. Stephanie Sandler, a professor in the Slavic Department at Harvard University and one of several American professors to travel to Moscow for the conference, commented:

Think about the good work that can be done by making available a wide variety of perspectives on Russia both from the past and the present. For many of us, the reason to be involved in the project and have it happen precisely at what would seem this inauspicious, high-tension political moment, is that we can start to find bridges between the two cultures and ways to talk to each other.

The series will also help develop a canon for more recent Russian literature, a project that’s not without its challenges as Caryl Emerson, a professor of Slavic Literature at Princeton University, explains:

Part of the problem is the delicacy of trying to define a future canon. The past is established. The Russians take their identity from what they read. What happens when you have a traumatic regime shift? People want things out there that are not known in the West but at what point are they worthy of being known?


Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: Portrait of the Artist as a Thrusting Spiral

Brancusi's portrait of James Joyce

Extending the concept of Bloomsday to Bloomsweek, we take a look at James Joyce for our Thursday Fiction Corner. Specifically, we feature a short excerpt from Nico Israel’s Spirals: The Whirled Image in the Twentieth-Century Literature and Art, in which he examines the use of spirals in Joyce’s work and Brancusi’s spiralesque portrait of the writer (see above) :

In 1929, the editors of the newly formed, Paris-based English-language publishing house Black Sun Press commissioned a drawing of James Joyce from the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi for a limited edition of fragments of the ongoing Work in Progress that they planned to publish later that year. Brancusi
produced two drawings that certainly resembled Joyce but did not have the modern signature style sought by the editors, so the editors asked the artist to try again. This time, Brancusi created a far more abstract work, titled Symbole de Joyce, consisting of three vertical, straight lines of varying lengths spaced at intervals along the paper and, on the right half of the drawing, a large Archimedean spiral (figure 28). Brancusi later commented that this portrait captured le sens du pousser (the sense of pushing or thrusting) he thought to be his model’s principal characteristic. Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann claims that when Brancusi’s drawing was eventually shown to Joyce’s father, who had not seen his self-exiled son in many years, the elder Joyce wryly remarked, “The boy seems to
have changed a good deal.”