Question of scale

November 9, 2011

A great conference at the University of Maryland.  “Rethinking World Literature/ Other World Literatures” — this is what a lot of us claim to be doing, but probably not with the same panache, conviction, and embarrassment about conviction that made this emotionally as well as intellectually scintillating.  Papers range from the satellite planetarity of Antarctic surveillance to the refusal of Creole texts to be portable.  Heady stuff.

One paper that especially stuck in my mind was Peter Hitchcock’s, on the politics of scale.  World, globe, planet – these words are so often taken as synonymous with scale enlargement.  Peter began, however, with Blake’s grain of sand, arguing that a radical downshift in scale can be equally transformative.  The danger, for all of us, is to have one particular scale naturalized to the point of analytic invisibility.  Juggling it – going back and forth between the macro and the micro – will itself say something about the adequacy or inadequacy of our method, the adequacy or inadequacy of our body of evidence.

I’ve been thinking about this all week.  What does it mean for Americanists to focus on the very small — not large categories like race, gender, class, but the tomb stones in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, Gertrude Stein’s and Richard Wright’s?  What do these tell us about the shape and coordinates of their career?  And what if we were to read Wright, not by way of Native Son or Black Boy, but through the 4000 haiku poems that he wrote in the 18 months before his death?   The strict 17-syllable Japanese form seemed to give Wright just the sustenance he needed.  He wrote the poems obsessively, in bed, in cafes, in Paris and in Normandy, where he had a farm house.  His daughter Julia, in her preface, says that they are “antidotes against illness,” that “breaking down words into syllables matches the shortness of his breath.”  As much as anything else, world literature is about scarcity and finitude.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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