I’m Not a ‘Literary Critic’

Recently, I’ve been re-reading Aimé Césaire’s A Notebook of A Return to the Native Land (1947). André Breton’s introduction to the 1947 edition, ‘A Great Black Poet’, has been of particular interest (as well as nauseous reading). Despite being almost crowded out by the condescension of Breton’s voyeurism, his introduction does demonstrate a persistently instrumentalist understanding of literature that I find deeply appealing; Andre describes Césaire and his poetry as prophetic, a writer ‘of times to come’, and of Notebook as a ‘lyrical monument’. Breton engages with the ‘component[s]’ of the poem’s ‘nature’ and describes Césaire’s writing as ‘diverting’ from the ‘previous function[s]’ of sign and signifier by creating a prose-poem ‘”with “a theme”, if not “a thesis”‘. One of Notebook’s translators, Annette Smith, similarly describes French Surrealism as something that ‘resonate[d] both with his [Césaire’s] personal aesthetics and with the countercultural aesthetics and political goals of the budding Negritude movement’. Like Breton, Smith considers Césaire’s Notebook to be something that has ‘political goals’ and is part of a ‘countercultural’ ‘movement’. There is a cohesiveness of purpose and desired outcomes associated with Césaire’s poetry: this is a work that is part of a vision. In the context of 21C poetry and prose, having such a vision seems as absurd as it is uncommon.

In considering all of the above, my initial thoughts turn to how Breton’s functionally-oriented language — his instrumentalist emphasis on components, theses, functions, and monuments — can be considered to be participating in that historical elision of black people and automata. Or, phrased differently, how Breton’s effusive and mechanistic description of ‘A Great Black Poet’ is part of that historical linkage of automation, robotics, and androids, with the Black Atlantic, slavery, and black people. Césaire’s writing is measurable — it has goals, it has components, it has functions, it has theses — and every aspect of the poem that can be considered quantifiable is intimately connected with allowing Breton to ascribe a vatic quality to the poem: Notebook is an arresting blueprint of the future. Louis Chude-Sokei has discussed this discursive history of linking the present and future automation of labour, black people, and modernity, in his Black Technopoetics. I’d highly encourage reading it; if anything, Césaire’s work appears more surreal in being a work of art that’s attempting a visionary rupture in politics and aesthetics.

In considering this functional approach to Césaire and its roots in race and racism, I am reminded that I cannot think of any writing by white authors that is approached in the same vein that Breton approaches ‘A Great Black Poet’. That is to say: I can’t think of any writing by white authors that is approached with the view that their poetry or their prose or their plays are elegant machines designed to perform discrete theses that seek to accomplish finite objectives. Why is that the case? Why can’t we approach all writing in this way?

One answer to these two questions could be that such an approach is dehumanising. Therefore, we shouldn’t do it. To approach a poem as something engineered, or to approach a novel as a machine, is to somehow reduce it or its author to mere mechanics of language; such an approach assumes literature is much more formulaic and determined than it actually is. But I don’t think that a functional, formalist, instrumentalist conception of and approach to Literature must necessarily entail the condescension, the racism, and the presumptiveness that features in Breton’s writing. We might associate such an approach to literature with the long durée of the British empire and the literary practice of its white subjects — the desire to measure, quantify, and contain writing in a system of analysis and judgement under seemingly iron clad principles has undoubtedly been bound up with the expression, expansion, and enforcement of imperialism and colonialism. But surely it doesn’t have to be? One does not *have* to entail the other.

It’s possible to approach the poetry, the prose, and the plays of a given author as devices, crafted and calibrated with limited capacities, discrete possibilities for interpretation, and select purposes for which the text can be applied. Derrida’s idea of free play sought to challenge that — claiming that the ‘structure’ of, say, a novel, changes during the passage of time; what was once ‘the centre’ of a work is potentially no longer the centre a century after publication. Yet Derrida’s notion of free play is not so much a usurpation and denial of structure but, more so, an indication that formulas are far more plastic and labile than we may assume. Indeed, there are some contemporary writers who, to some extent, claim such a formulaic approach to literature as their mission statement. Stylistics and/or ‘Cognitive Poetics’, for example. These Stylisticians produce analyses of literature rooted in a quasi-scientific methodology that explores the finite yet richly recombinative interpretative possibilities of a text through analysis of the various levels that language operates on in a text — how the syntax, morphemes, phonemes, narrative focalisation, lexical changes, reader-response etc., contribute to the felt experience of a text’s texture. Elena Semino, Gerard Steen, Peter Stockwell, Violeta Sotirova, Joanna Gavins, etc. etc. In my admittedly short and ignorant life, it appears to me that these figures come closest to proving that the analysis of text-based culture can take a mechanistic and functional focus and that this does not necessarily entail dehumanisation.

Despite my admiration for them, I am not a stylistician. What some stylisticians abidingly emphasise is the analysis of the language itself: What’s on the page, what has been written. This isn’t to say that history, psychology, ethics, geography, sociology, politics, and philosophy go out of the window. But, compared to trad. ModCon. lit. crit. these subjects are not and cannot be the centre stage of analysis. These subjects can complement an analysis and help contextualise what is already there. But they cannot be the analysis. They can’t be seen to detract from the text or displace the primacy of the text itself as the evidentiary basis of the analysis. And, in doing this, I do believe something substantive and purposive is lost: the relevance of the work to larger concerns, contexts, cultures, histories, is not fully communicated.

Comparatively, in some quarters, I have heard my contemporaries — ‘Literary Critics’ — cringe at the idea of a mechanical, functional, instrumentalist understanding of literature and how we are to analyse literature. Theory reigns supreme. Literature, ironically, becomes a tool for thinking about Big Questions and probable theories of culture — but thinking about the text as a determined formula, as an arrangement of patterns, as an instrumentalist and mechanical operation at the crossroads of politics and aesthetics, is not deemed appropriate by some. To do so would be limit, reduce, and circumscribe the interpretative possibilities of a text. The result of this is much talk about climate-disaster, the representation of marginalised people through the lens of fictional characters, the connection between philosophy and literature, the ethics of the reader and reading, psychology and politics and religion and history. And, yet, these analyses almost always lack the tight, dogged focus on the text itself; they lack a concern with the text itself as textual matter.

It would be easy to make many charges against me here. That I have manufactured a reductive characterisation of ‘two sides’ that may not even exist and that can be resolved through a balanced ‘give and take’ from both sides. That I am essentially a hackneyed and less articulate C.P. Snow, speaking of ‘two cultures’ at least sixty years after that similar debate was had. What I do know is that I am not a ‘Literary Critic’ — an embarassing term of self-satisfaction that seems increasingly removed from what is needed: a functional, programmatic, instrumentalised, and mechanistic conception of and approach to literature. Nor am I the opposite: a taxonomist of prodigious detail whose inquisitiveness is enchained only to the text as the be all and end all. Because there is no hermetically sealed ‘just the text’. There are no ‘Big Questions’ that are or can be divorced from the text satisfactorily. In the written mediation of reality, the artificial imposition of divisions and boundaries and separation serves only to exacerbate the dissatisfying practice of critique. It seems, to me, in part, to be a question of capacity and communicability. How can we engage with it all? How can we adequately account for all the interpenetrating components that best evidence the political, social, and psychological applications and possibilities of a finite text?

I can’t answer this question. But I am trying to. For now, instead, I am left with a messy array of questions, asking how I can achieve what I want to achieve: a functional and aestheticised engagement — somewhere between a diagram and an oil painting — with how literature evokes politically salient conflicts of consciousness in the malleable finitude of a text. More pressingly, I am left without affiliation; I look across the vibrant inadequacy of ‘my discipline’ and lament that my vague vision can’t be communicated, let alone marshal practical collaboration and augmentation of that vision into something better than I alone could achieve. The movement, the goals, the components, the political-aesthetics that animated the great monument of Césaire’s writing are lost when I consider how to collectively realise my diffuse critical priorities. Phrased differently: the past achievement of past writing and past collaboration seems so pertinent to contemporary conditions; yet the energies and desires that enabled those achievements, writings, and colloborations remains so absent. How do we realise that energy in the synthesised movement of present aspirations, present critical priorities, present milieu, and present problems? This question and its answers both stalk and elude me; I am left punching smoke.

Published by CJGriffin

I am a PhD Researcher of Contemporary Anglophone Literature at the University of Warwick. I mainly research 'the secret', neoliberalism, and the novel since the turn of the twenty-first century in Britain, drawing on literary studies, politics, philosophy, history, poststructuralism, postcritique, affect theory, and aesthetics.

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