Thursday, April 27, 2006


How strange the change! Just catching up with the discussion of major vs. minor literature over at Johannes' blog (find the relevant entries here, here, and here). The first thing I notice about introducing Deleuze and Guattari's Kafka book into this conversation is how it illuminates what a problematic category "minority" is. Hasn't it already become both un-PC and increasingly inaccurate to speak of people of color, queer people, Hispanics, etc. as "minorities"? If "major" and "minor" are stances taken toward a language, doesn't that de-essentialize what we mean by "minor"? And indeed we can find writers of every "minority" group writing "major" English, grafting their experience onto/into the language by the most conventional, lyric-I-centered means available. Johannes quotes D&G as saying, “We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary condition for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature.” How are we to understand "revolution" if "the minor" does not designate a particular group or class, but a mode available to groups and classes willing to occupy the position of the minor? So I think it's the desire for revolution itself, even on the micro scale (literary revolution, local revolution), as opposed to the reformist/liberal impulse to change the power structure from within (accepting a certain co-optation of oneself as the necessary price for this) that must define the minor not as any sort of category but as a tactic, another name for the tactics of ordinary life that Michel de Certeau talks about such as bricolage or la perruque (doing your own work on company time).

That suggests that the "major," as befitting a "center" or "mainstream," has its own divisions: there's a liberal wing that attempts to define the major or "the great" as being under the sign of humanism, and a conservative wing that operates under the sign of tradition. To a minoritarian revolutionary these differences are unimportant, because both wings seek to strategize literature as a territory, with the liberals parceling out tokens to the minorities they are able to recognize and the conservatives besieged and besieging. Minor literature's deterritorializations are supposed to hollow out and destablize the pluralist humanism (with all its accommodations to and imitations of the operations of capital) of the liberals as well as the white supremacist patriarchal tradition of the conservatives. Excellent: that's the kind of critical work postmodern writing is good at, acting as if there were no use in a center. Yet we, or at least I, am haunted by the center, even as a void. Without some notion of the universal, how can real change take place? How can we have anything but a steady devolution into ever-more fragmented minorities? Viva la difference doesn't bring 'em to the barricades.

That brings us to community vs. consensus. I read community—or better, collectivity—as that which aspires to the universal but doesn't make the mistake that liberal and conservative majoritarians do, which is attempt to situate their contingent values in the center so as to conceal and erase their contingency; instead, taking my cues from Zizek and Laclau, they see the universal center as a space that they can only provisionally occupy, for it has no content of its own. Historical actors step into the universal for a moment (the moment of Badiou's "event") and claim their right to it: so for example in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement blacks and their leaders demanded to be treated not just as human beings, but the human beings or being: we recognized ourselves and our highest aspirations for dignity and freedom in the faces of the marchers, and were shocked into redefining our polity (which is not to say that powerful residual forces don't continue to try and force black people back out of the category of the human). Perhaps the newly empowered immigrant rights movement will prove in hindsight to have been the beginning of a similar moment, in which the "minor" (and a "minor" language, Spanish) became "major" long enough to alter our sense of what it means to be major, and of who shall be admitted to be a fellow subject rather than an object.

A lot of people can't envision community as being other than governed by consensus, which is a fine word for the will to transform the Other into the Same. Some people look at a small town and see intimacy, shared burdens, a participatory identity; others see cramped quarters, gossip, and small-mindedness. Sometimes I think we just have to take the good with the bad. But collectivity tantalizes me with its promise of a mode of action and organization that can ride the tiger between major and minor, neither seeking turf for itself nor struggling futiley against the very concept of turf. Obviously this is beyond the work of any individual writer—but I do think, when I called Dan Beachy-Quick's writing "major," that I was unconsciously expressing my desire for this provisional zone. Dan's work is engaged with the major and the idea of the major, yet I don't think he wants either to be assimilated by or completely deterritorialize his chosen turf (canonical nineteenth-century American literature, in the case of the piece I discussed). He's opening up cracks in the major where new words and desires might sprout, while also assuming that the major/center/universal is something to be valued as a means to the end of expanded subjectivity. This is risky: the major will, Borglike, always try to grab you and make you part of it, or else spit you out with even greater (or at least more obvious) violence. What might save Dan is his fellow adventurers: others' intersecting projects, others' critical attention to his project, and an increasing tendency toward active participation (what I might call pro-jection) that all might help to keep him honest and keep him supplied with imaginative resources. Such, anyway, is how things work in my utopia of poetry, which I swear to you actually exists for long moments, even here, even now.


UCOP Killer said...

I think this cuts right to heart of the problem with D&G's terminology, as much as I am committed to seeing their project expanded (as much as I think they suggest a manner of thinking--about time or identity or literature--that is tantalizingly difficult but also rewarding. Yet, at the same time, I acknowledge, with some reservations, Zizek's (Puppet and Dwarf) and Badiou's (Metapolitics, St. Paul) critique (even as they have both written about Deleuze) that, perhaps only in the hands of would-be Deluezians, the social fragmentation of the multi-cultural project just allows for more open spaces in which capital can circulate, commodifying experience and needs, etc. That vacated center of which you speak.

But when Zizek and Badiou talk about a new militant universalism (a universalizable subjectivity, vis-a-vis the event) or some kind of Leninist militance, I get a bit nervous. Perhaps this is, to some degree, part of my indoctrination in adolescence and college by certain liberal conceptions of the polis and my still-lingering fear of the totalizing, even as I hear the critique of fears of totality loud and clear. But when these guys talk about a universalism empty of content, that totally disregards whatever identity-positions or subject positions or whatnot, I start to wonder what kinds of horrible things--racism, sexism, exploitation--this univeralism would countenance. Badiou never stipulates the nature of his event, what it is we might keep faith with--as somebody said recently, you could be keeping faith with the immigrant rights marches in L.A. and elsewhere, with May '68 or with the Nuremberg Rallies or good old Dixie. And, as I indicated before, the contempt with which Zizek and Badiou greet "minority" claims to respect and acknowledgment makes me shiver. And not in a good way.

Perhaps the post-Deleuzian, post-Guattarian notion of the multitude, in Hardt and Negri, that both respects difference, and yet advocates for a continuous (but also interminable) process of becoming-common is the happy medium here. But there are those who wonder if this is just a liberalism in radical democratic clothing. I hear that, and I'm not sure I can answer yet.

Not name-dropping here. I've been thinking about this stuff a great deal, and this is a good exercise in gathering my thought for this essay I'm getting ready to sit down and start writing, about some or all of these thinkers in relation to some recent imaginings of the social in poetry--Spahr's This Connection, for starters

For those who are interested, Jodi Dean's blog (I cite), has excellent entries on all of these thinkers. She's an avowed Zizekian and somebody who agrees with his critique, so it's worth migrating over there and seeing what she has to say.

UCOP Killer said...

Just a small addition: forming communities/ establishing consens. It's an important distinction, but one that isn't perhaps always clear.

Jessica Smith said...

i wrote my MA thesis as a critique of KTML, using the territorialization/deterritorialization/reterritorialization glossary from ATP to deconstruct the categories of "major" and "minor." basically i argued that everything is always already territorialized (grids, laws, languages, thoughts, geographies, topologies, space-time coordinates, etc.) the "major" is the dominant territorial construction, for instance, the "major" religion in America is Christianity, which is a filter through which we filter/territorialize our world. an act of deterritorialization (which i argue is always a verb) disrupts or dislodges the territory (see the Novella chapter in ATP). the consequence is either reterritorialization as backlash (a reinscription of the original territorial grid), reterritorialization as reform (a change in the original grid), or absolute D (and here I have a completely different take than D&G but I won't explain it here). The point is that there is always a territory in place from the beginning. But at the same time, that territory is always threatened (auto-mmunity, anyone?) by what it attempts to leave out (the minor). Although there are always major-minor tensions, what *is* major and minor is not essential. One gets hints of this in KTML, although D is always interested in maintaining a jewishness, cezchness, maleness, femaleness, etc. But I think the structure of major-minor can be teased out vis-a-vis T/D/R as a non-essentialist description of how power changes hands. This (I argue in the thesis) trumps similar theories of "minor lit" like écriture féminine, because the "minor" is not based on something permanent but on something culturally relative. This can explain why Duras, Kafka, Faulkner, Joyce... all use fragmentary writing methods although they're not all féminine; it can also explain shifts in historical power relations, like Kafka perhaps wrote from the "minor" precipice but he is now a "major" author. I know it's a misreadig of D&G, but I think it's a creative/international/redemptive misreading... the M/m structure is very interesting to me (as is the T/D/R structure) because it's not exactly center-margin and it's not exactly dialectic.

Jessica Smith said...

here is a more complete but still somewhat manageable version of my argument if it interests either of you.

Ian Keenan said...

Why don’t you decide whether you think an individual writer is major or minor and let us know how it works out?

Anonymous said...

"This can explain why Duras, Kafka, Faulkner, Joyce... all use fragmentary writing methods although they're not all féminine; it can also explain shifts in historical power relations..."

Does your thesis address the aspects of the feminine vis a vis fragmentary writing methods? I'm (re)writing an essay on liminal subjectivities in Acker and Morrison (I may add Hannah Wiener into the mix too) and want to address the ways in which they use fragmentary language to construct 'madness' or de-interpellated identities, and am interested in to what extent these modes can be characterized as 'feminine' and also how to work in D&G's ideas of deterritorialized language, how these practices relate to power and so forth. Any suggestions of other texts I might consult wd be appreciated too.

Jessica Smith said...

yeah, it does. do you want me to email you a copy?

Johannes said...

Josh etc,

Thanks for your lengthy response. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

What is the universal that you see in DBQ?

I think it's something like a Keatsian "negative capability," which is another word for the poetic reverie ("viewless wings of poesy" etc).

What is the "real change" you see as resulting from DBQ's poetry?

On the other hand, what's wrong with valuing our totally fragmented and decentralized landscape? Why do we need to build up a central ant hill and all push crumbs up it?

What I take as D&G's "revolutionary" is not one of bringing people to the barricades, but of undoing the center of language/culture. Poetry can't bring anybody to the barricades (I frankly don't want barricades, and I'm pretty sure you don't want them either), but it is not powerless when it comes to delineating culture and language.

Concrete example: Imagine what would happen to poetry and culture at large if we stopped teaching "american lit" and started teaching all kinds of lit. If we taught Eshleman's Vallejo and Don Mee Choi's Kim Hyesoon instead of Keats and Prufrock. I think it would have a pretty grand effect. Just from the fact that students would have to consider the process of translation and cultural difference alone.

And for certain this would happen: Our poetry would be much less major, centrist etc and much more adventurous and varied.

I don't think "minor" merely means "minority" but there is a strong connection. It has to do with one's relationship to the dominant culture/language. I think it's hard to accept the artificial voice of poetry as natural or universal if you come from another culture and/or language and you've been put through that ringer. That is obviously not true for everyone, but for many it is.

Raymond Williams points out how diaspora and emigration was a large factor in the development of the historical avant-garde. J.Spahr and Maria Damon have made similar claims about American poetry.

Your comments about the immigrant marches are interesting. So you want the immigrant protesters to change poetry? (I may be completely misreading you here.)

Instead of waiting for this to happen, I think poetry should participate in this movement - by questioning the major poetry and its hierarchy, by engaging in minor and minority poetry.

As far as DBQ opening up cracks etc. I frankly don't agree. His work is entirely subsumed within canonical texts and syntaxes and his efforts to open up these texts and write within them doesn't put the texts or himself at any risk, as far as I can tell. They just say 'this is the right frame of reference to work within'.

"Dan's work is engaged with the major and the idea of the major, yet I don't think he wants either to be assimilated by or completely deterritorialize his chosen turf (canonical nineteenth-century American literature, in the case of the piece I discussed). He's opening up cracks in the major where new words and desires might sprout, while also assuming that the major/center/universal is something to be valued as a means to the end of expanded subjectivity."

Isn't this somewhat Bloomian? Are we back to poetry as a struggle to break new ground while valuing the tradition (and the individual talent). Perhaps Elliotic is more like it? You sound a lot like someone shoring fragments against your ruin!

Take care,


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