Reflections on the Conference

It’s now just shy of three weeks past April 19 and I’m still lingering on the papers presented and conversations had at the first American Literature in the World graduate student conference. “Linger” seems appropriate to my mode of contemplation less because of its suggestions of sentimentality and incipient nostalgia than for its connotations, at least for me, of equivocation and tentativeness (the sight rhyme “gingerly” surely inflects my sense of the word). Although it may not sound like it, this is a strong endorsement of the conference’s ethos.

In treating the “world” – the ostensible limit of any kind of critical consideration – as our horizon of inquiry, we (I) inevitably flirt with harrowing incommensurability: if the frame is so large as to accommodate any conceivable cultural object (whether produced in America or not), what explanatory power can that frame offer? By virtue of their being in the world, can all objects therefore be usefully compared? The fear of a crisis of explanation is, I think, not only justified but the desired consequence of analysis at this scope.

By lacking a privileged metanarrative, interpretive lens, or object of analysis, the conference allowed all participants equal critical footing. Moreover, the conference exposed each participant to the limits of her own expertise, placing each in the position to postpone judgment and instead be receptive (as we always should be but often are not). This resulted in a refreshing openness to the possibility of the chance encounter, the unexpected productive spark, and here we find local empirical support for one of Moretti’s conjectures: “world literature is not an object, it’s a problem, and a problem that asks for a new critical method: and no one has ever found a method by just reading more texts. That’s not how theories come into being; they need a leap, a wager—a hypothesis, to get started.” (“Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (Jan-Feb, 2000)

The three papers to which I responded in the conference’s first panel were excellent not only for their internal development and freshness of insight but even more so for their seeming lack of mutual investment. In developing the grounds for common conversation between them, I found myself pushed beyond my critical comfort zone to my great intellectual benefit. I think (hope) that this was representative of the participants’ experience more generally. I include my response below to give a sense of the day’s excitement.


These three papers have aptly opened the conference by, to use Hadji [Bakara]’s term, dilating the lens of literary study, broadening the analytical horizon for a work of American literature beyond that of the nation-state. Moreover, there is a way that each paper speaks back to the title of this panel, “Shades of World History.” The shades in these papers are, perhaps unsurprisingly, lurking or haunting narratives – shadow narratives, if you will – which exist beyond the surface of the texts. Symptomatic reading, the search for the real latent meaning, is second nature to all of us, so this is a rather banal point. These papers, however, have done more interesting work: they have brought to the fore an implicit correlate of symptomatic reading: that is, in changing the frame or scope of interpretation, by introducing, in effect, more context, the original texts are decontextualized. As I will now try to show now, these papers take decontextualization – in the form of narrative trope, formal principle, and/or historical circumstance – as a fundamental concern. Further, each tames the problem of decontextualization, or exploits its possibilities, as the case may be, through allegory, the literary-theoretical concept discussed to some extent by all three of the panelists.

Wynema is a novel explicitly about decontextualization. Oliver [Baker] began his reading of Wynema by noting that the title character’s assimilation into a White way of life entails her estrangement from her Indian heritage; more broadly, the pervading problem of land allotment and acquisition literally removes Native tribes from their ancestral territory, such that Wynema herself becomes a synechdoche of her people’s dislocation and eradication. This, as Oliver mentioned in his first sentence, seems ironic – why would the first novel by a Native American woman envision the end of Indian identity? If I understand him correctly, this irony results from reading the novel through the lens of identity; the irony disappears and the narrative becomes historically appropriate when it is read as an allegory of the efflorescence of monopoly capitalism and that mode of production’s dominance over agrarian economics. Following the logic of monopoly capitalism, which naturalizes its own endurance and neutralizes alternatives by granting them symbolic value, Callahan’s novel grants symbolic value to the Native American only as an absence, an entity either assimilated or annihilated.

For Ben Bascom, John Ames Mitchell’s The Last American lampoons the imperial prerogative to decontextualize and renarrativize other nations’ artifacts in the name of “civilization” or cultural hegemony. This reading is complicated, Ben argues, by attending to the materiality of the book; while it seems to criticize imperial museumification, the book is itself a museum piece: it not only calls attention to itself as a catalog of sorts on its title page, but it also becomes an allegory of the museum by virtue of the illustrations it accretes over its publication history. The reading gets yet more complex when Ben turns his attention to the trope of looking in these illustrations. In analyzing Figure 7 of the Persian looking out at the reader and by comparing the page to a mirror, it seems to me that Ben raises the possibility of a kind of Las Meninas moment, in which the reader becomes at once the imperial museumifying subject and the Orientalized, museumified object. We’re by now in danger of analytical vertigo, which I think is Ben’s point: his broadest critique is of the historicist’s fantasy of determining meaning through context.

Where decontextualization serves as an aesthetic and epistemological principle in Ben’s reading of The Last American, in Hadji’s paper it is the precondition for a kind of détourning of Herman Melville’s classic novel. In Hadji’s account, Weatherman and the Red Army Faktion re-interpret Moby-Dick by shifting the privileged political persona of the novel from good liberal Ishmael to radical, committed Ahab. Ironically, Moby-Dick’s supposedly essential Americanness – an understanding that led Robert M. Hutchins to include it as the only American novel in his “Spiritual Marshall Plan for Europe” – allowed it to serve as a vector for the transmission of an anti-American concept.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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