Monday, July 18, 2011

Writing the Ordinary

Harry Garuba presenting

Our session on the 13th afternoon, featuring Meg Samuelson, Harry Garuba, and Laetitia Zecchini, was arguably the most literary of the JWTC sessions. Harry and Meg focused primarily on the novel, while Laetitia discussed the ordinary in poetry. Meg argued that the novel offers the theorisation of everyday lived reality, particularly in a mode of reading which views literary texts as offering novel ways of seeing. The South African novel, Meg argued, has sought to embed itself in the ordinary as a mark of its South Africanness, beginning with the first South African novel, Olive Schreiner’s 1883 The Story of an African Farm [http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1441]. Such an embrace of the ordinary operated as an attempt to inscribe South Africa as a lived place, and not merely as an exotic backdrop. Within South African literary criticism, two major debates around ordinariness can be dated to the 1980s and to the last decade, corresponding roughly to major socio-political developments. Writing in 1984, Njabulo Ndebele’s essay, “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary” [http://www.jstor.org/stable/2636740 ], advanced the writing of the ordinary as a way of reclaiming political and epistemological agency in black South African thought. In 2003, in contrast, Neville Alexander’s book An Ordinary Country argued that the post-apartheid era had transformed contemporary South Africa into an ordinary country, no longer a moral or political exception but a nation like so many others, subject to the rule of neoliberal capital. This ordinariness is then signalled in the South African novel’s turning outwards: its discussion of other places whose conditions relate to the ordinariness of life here.

Harry Garuba also discussed Ndebele’s essay, pairing it however with debates from the other side of the Atlantic. For Harry, literary modernity arrived with an investment in the ordinary, with the novel operating as the genre which invested in the ordinary, particularly through realism. The ordinary in black critical thought, however, has been deployed not as the ordinary of realism and of journalism but rather as the ordinary of the everyday, the ordinary of lived experience in situations of racial oppression and exploitation. In such circumstances, the ordinary becomes a resource which can be mobilized as a resource for social change, an argument made forcefully by James Baldwin in the 1949 “Everybody’s Protest Novel” [eng794spring2010.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/baldwinprotest.pdf ] and the 1951 “Many Thousands Gone” [http://www.dcgogo.com/jamesbaldwin.html]. In a society of the image and spectacle, the representation of the ordinary tends towards a condition of impossibility. Consequently, Harry noted, black critical thought has deployed the ordinary in perverse or at least counter-intuitive ways. The ordinary for Baldwin, for instance, is understood to hold a complex fruit which mere realism cannot capture. In this vision, the ordinary resides in art, and art is the key to unlocking the ordinary.

For Laetitia Zecchini, drawing on Victor Shklovsky’s “Art as Technique,” the purpose of art is the salvaging of the ordinary from readymade forms. In the work of poets like Arun Kolatkar, the ordinary thus becomes a residual space wherein creation and realism can both take place. This idea of the relationship between the ordinary and poetry is deeply indebted to the legacies of modernism and surrealism, evidenced for instance in Georges Perec’s discussion of “The Infra-Ordinary” [http://www.daytodaydata.com/georgesperec.html ]

In the hopes of continuing our conversation in this arena, I will enumerate some of the questions we discussed:

  • The ordinary can be understood as the self-evident, the commonsensical, the banal: that which is so unremarkable that it need not be said. Does this mean, however, that the ordinary tends towards the impossibility of its representation?
  • How can we understand the position of the literary with respect to ordinary life? How might critical theory within literary studies consider seriously the vast array of storytelling practices which occur outside of the form of the novel? How might the study of the literary benefit from attention to non-fiction and oral forms?
  • Attending to fiction enables us to attend to the relations among knowledge, imagination, and everyday lived realities, and, in addition, to the powers of language as such. This has resulted historically in a particularly significant role for literary theory in critical theory as a whole. How might we understand that special relationship between literary studies and critical theory today? Does this special role still hold after the end, as it were, of the linguistic turn?

My own inclinations regarding the ordinary in literary studies have centred less around the writing of the ordinary – its inscription or mobilisation in literary forms – than in something we might term ordinary reading. Such an examination of the ordinary through literary studies would necessitate, I suspect, greater attention to the ways in which unremarkable books are read by unremarkable people, whether in book clubs, in bedrooms, or in commuter transit, usually involving neither the favoured authors of literary studies nor the favoured techniques of academic reading. Ordinary reading is part of our inhabitation in mass culture, a space of literary practice which is mostly unremarked-upon but perhaps not unremarkable. Attending to ordinary reading, however, would take us beyond disciplinary boundaries, requiring, for instance, a nuanced theory of how people from a variety of linguistic and educational backgrounds interact with written materials. Such a project would transgress literary studies’ investment in singularity, necessitating a combined attention to the banality of literacy and the exceptionality of the literary.

Madhumita Lahiri