Issue 18 Letters

World crit

Dear Editors,

Throughout “World Lite,” we are presented with a dizzyingly megalomaniacal idea of world literature: writers from outside the US and Britain, regardless of time or place, whose association with the category exists only in publishing circles and Western literature departments and the minds of their graduates. The editors seem to think that the right kind of universalism is missing from contemporary literature and literary culture—not that any definition of world literature is too cumbersome and unenlightening to use.

If “global capitalism” is responsible for eliding the local, so too is any cultural criticism that sees the whole world and all its writers as a valuable unit of analysis. The piece simply does not account for work that does speak to local contexts (anticaste literature, for example), hasn’t been translated, and/or is out of tune with the tectonics of the global market. More to the point, it blames the apolitical nature of the world lit industry on third world authors rather than on their Western appropriators.

Perhaps the editors should read more to their taste. Why not give up after reading a chapter of comatose prose by Kiran Desai? Reading with piety produces whiny results—every moment spent on the receiving end of streamlined identity politics is a moment you won’t get back. Reading without piety, on the other hand, is a liberating thing.

—Poorva Rajaram and Michael Griffith

Dear Editors,

The Chinese writers you should have mentioned, according to your strange definition of “world lit,” are Yiyun Li and Ha Jin, not Yan Lianke, Ma Jian, and Mo Yan. Yiyun Li and Ha Jin both were born in China, but they now write in English for an anglophone audience. As for Ma Jian—and any other member of the “exiled” Chinese writer-dissident community—he’d probably protest that he’d love to be read in China, in Chinese, if it weren’t for the fact that his books are banned. Instead he writes in Chinese and his wife Flora Drew serves as his English translator.

With regard to Mo Yan and Yan Lianke, nonanglophone readers will reject the oversight of their use of language. Both write in a rustic, down-homey style that works well with mainland Chinese readers, but whether that’s translatable to an anglocentric context is questionable. It’s bewildering to me that they’re lumped here with Mohsin Hamid, Anita Desai, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and J. M. Coetzee. Hamid lived in the US as a child, attended an American school in Pakistan, and graduated from Princeton. Desai left India at 14, and Adichie wrote some of her first published work as an MFA student in the US. When the novels of Yiyun Li, another graduate of an American creative writing program, are translated into Mandarin, they feel twisted and irrelevant; her stories have become so essentially American that they feel twice removed from what’s happening in China.

Meanwhile, the claim that Yan Lianke has “gained creative power” after “going underground” rankles. Partly this is because Yan is very much on the surface—he writes self-criticisms in response to official censure, teaches at a major university, and consciously chooses to publish in Hong Kong. But more significantly, to say he’s “gone underground” suggests that perhaps prison is next. That this would further enhance his creative power is one of China’s greatest literary myths. In or out of prison, Yan Lianke, like Mo Yan, and perhaps like Ma Jian, is a good writer, and he will continue to be so, if you accept him in his proper context.

—Alice Xin Liu

Dear Editors,

Your “World Lite” is entirely correct, and entirely pointless. Books written by the third world elite serve as visiting cards to the parlors of the first world elite—sure, yes. American readers (if there are any) are initiated into the lives of the less fortunate, and so get art and an education at once. Reading guides, secreted amid the endpapers, might even tell them how to go online and get involved in the cause: stop the hunger suffered by the protagonist and his or her ilk, et cetera. But to show the folly of this phenomenon there’s no need to go back to the German majuscules and how the Nationaldichter persona of a Goethe perversely developed into the spread of Weltliteratur. The contemporary is far more palpable, and purposeful. Truth is, large (for-profit) American publishers publish crap, from the US and from abroad (3 to 4 percent of the books published in the US each year are translations, is the oft-reported figure). Meanwhile, small (nonprofit and university) American publishers subcontract their acquisitions to EU member state cultural councils and organizations like the Goethe-Institut and the Instituto Cervantes. These bureaucracies help subvent translations, and with increasing frequency dictate the writers and books to be translated. Most of the time they have decent taste. Other times they put their money behind the politically acceptable, or well connected. For example, one of my publishers, Dalkey Archive Press, has a Hebrew Literature Series sponsored by the Israeli government. For every brilliant Orly Castel-Bloom book they do, there’s a dud by Eshkol Nevo. For its part, the US, which does not subvent literature, exports its product abroad in stunning quantity. I was once arrested in Berlin for drunkenly stealing a cardboard cutout of Paul Auster.

Ultimately, though, none of this matters. Because the translation-from-abroad market merely demonstrates what all serious American novelists must feel in their bones: now is not the time for literature, or at least for greatness in literature. Social consciousness has become the new beauty. The political has usurped the aesthetic. The German to cite isn’t Goethe, but Hegel: “No man can overcome his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit.”

—Joshua Cohen 

Dear Editors,

“The ideal of Weltliteratur in its modern form,” you write, “dates to Goethe, an indisputably great writer, so Germans say, who happens not to translate very well.” Goethe wrote all kinds of things, some of which I imagine translate better than others, but it seems to me that his writing is too robust to be lost in translation. The most successful early 19th-century English translation of Werther, done by way of the French, came out “faint and garbled,” according to Carlyle, even “execrable,” according to Lewes—but it nonetheless blew English readers away and even frightened many of them. This robustness might be admired rather than ridiculed by any aspiring internationalist opposition in literature.

Goethe is not only “indisputably great”: he has always been controversial, too, in Germany among other places. It is not much remembered today, but one of the essays that Engels wrote just before The Communist Manifesto was an assault on a German socialist’s interpretation of Goethe. Although Engels was as torn about him as many of us are, Goethe clearly had helped to inspire the high internationalism of The Condition of the Working Class in England, and one thing that Engels took the time to protest, as revolution was about to break out across Europe, was his opponent’s tendency to misread Goethe as the inoffensive sort of humanist who would be at home in today’s World Literature.

—Sam Stark

Dear Editors,

As a soon to be ex-professor, I have certainly struggled with the term “world literature.” On our campus we are currently living with the unhappily titled “Masterworks” (which unsurprisingly causes most students with a personal connection to histories of slavery/indenture/undocumented worker status not to enroll, self-selection at its most typically insidious) “of World Literature” (the latter being just about unintelligible to undergrads, as it has always been to me).

To the rank of writers worth reading from an internationalist standpoint I’d add Fernando Pessoa, whose Book of Disquiet still speaks to us one hundred years later, and the contemporary Belgian writer Amelie Nothomb, whose writing seems to refuse the trauma narrative in important and interesting ways, even as it plays with national place and language.

—Stephanie Barbé Hammer


Against Kumar

Dear Editors,

As a second-generation South Asian American and, to be honest, a hack, I read “White Indians” (Issue Sixteen) with great interest. While I was grateful to see right-wing Indian-American opportunists like Dinesh D’Souza and Bobby Jindal excoriated, I had some issues with the takeaway from the piece. Is our best hope for a role model really Kumar, a self-involved caricature written and directed by white people? Why not Bhairavi Desai? Himanshu Suri? Arundhati Roy?

Moreover, in the article’s critique of the hard right politics of the GOP, there seems to be a tacit acceptance of the multicultural politics of the Clinton-Obama Democratic Party. The President may have dubbed himself an honorary desi and hired Sonal Shah and Kal Penn, but he has also been in charge while Pakistan has been bombed and countless people deported. More recently, Penn himself was in the spotlight for having initially supported the NYPD’s racist Stop and Frisk policy, a position he later retracted, to his credit. At the end of the day, if class determines where our politics lie, then the party split between Bobby Jindal and Kal Penn, Nikki Haley and Barack Obama, may be less consequential than that they all navigate a particular form of elite identity politics.

—Saurav Sarkar


Aspirationally Israeli?

Dear Editors,

From the Israeli point of view—which I usually try to keep in check but which I inevitably cannot, nor wish to, completely avoid—I am curious about Marco Roth’s choice of Bar Refaeli and an Israeli logics professor as adornments to “The Drone Philosopher.” These were no doubt deliberate choices, since Kate Upton, for example, is as worthy of the task of relieving drone operators’ erections as her Israeli predecessor on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue; and Australians, for instance, are as proficient as Israelis in symbolic logic.

The choice to use Israelis, specifically, as (satiric) refractors in the text creates an undeniable subtext: one in which Israelis, and therefore Israeli policies on the use of drones, are ideals to which Americans aspire. Is this really how Roth conceives of things? Because, as I said, these choices cannot be anything but deliberate; and yet this vein is never pursued but kept subdued, between the lines.

If Roth feels that the US aspires to be Israel, i.e. to recklessly do what it wants and the hell with the consequences, or at least wishes it could employ the same justifications for its actions as Israel does, that is a very surprising position, quite provocative, and itself worthy of an essay.

—Ariel Krill


Rejected

Dear Editors,

Chris Kraus wanted to sell stuff and call her commerce art (“Kelly Lake Store”), but the Guggenheim Foundation didn’t buy it. Neither do I. Kraus, after Jerry Saltz, offers the label “post-art” to justify the idea that whatever you say is art can be art (“you,” in this case, should have professional credentials in art; “you” should be an artist with a degree, and preferably with an exhibition history, or a curator, or a critic). But I like to think that there are reasons why we call some things art and other things something else. I don’t like to rely too much on institutions and credentials. I like the compact definition of art by Lev Vygotsky, the psychologist, who said that art is a social technique for sharing feelings. An implication of this is that art can be felt in different ways: not everyone in the audience shares the same feeling, but they all share the experience of feeling something. Art has to be open to that diversity, or else it isn’t art.

Kraus’s book I Love Dick is art. This does not sound controversial: lots of books are art. But the harder thing to grasp is the idea that the book’s explosion of privacy is art. “The truth about life must be told, in one form or another, and Kraus offers another way of telling,” Elizabeth Gumport wrote in “Female Trouble” (Issue Thirteen). Maybe, if we have to use the term post-art, the way of telling offered by Kraus in I Love Dick is post-art.

I know a lot of people who have read I Love Dick in the last year. It was published in 1997 but these days it feels more pertinent than ever. This is a time of overshare, when devices open up public spaces full of traces of ordinary things that used to belong to private life, and the ways people used to present themselves as subjects in public are falling apart. (I would define overshare negatively against seduction: overshare doesn’t play with the boundaries of privacy as a game of power; instead, overshare insists that they don’t matter, it reminds us that they aren’t real.) Kant began his Critique of Judgment by admitting that aesthetic feeling originates in the body, in its feeling of pleasure and pain, but quickly qualified this by adding that a bodily feeling has to be tempered by a rational one to be worthy of public expression. This yielded the modern notion of art: a technique of sharing feelings within the limits of a conceptually good form. But now we have public spaces online that aren’t regulated by values of the public sphere, and that means we can have a post-art that sloughs off not only artistic genres and mediums but also the conventions of subjecthood—ways of presenting the self in public—that have regulated the movement and reception of art. That’s like I Love Dick—a post-art I can get behind.

I’ll leave myself an opening. Maybe in fifteen years Kelly Lake Store might look like (post-)art to me, in the way that I Love Dick is easy for me to see as post-art now. But it’s hard for me to imagine how it would present itself to me as art, and Kraus doesn’t give me any help here beyond her own “I said so.” Maybe it has something to do with the “somewhere” and “nowhere” distinction, the distance between metropole and province, but even then Kelly Lake Store looks unlike art when compared to Mexicali Rose, which I learned about from Kraus’s exhibition “Radical Localism.” Mexicali Rose, as Kraus writes in her essay, invites people of various backgrounds to make culture however they want. The openness of it is what makes whatever happens there legible as art. It’s a community of thinking and acting.

Kelly Lake Store would be a community of . . . shopping? It sells things. It’s a public space but a boring one. Relations in it are formalized as monetary transactions, which leaves no room in the store for art. To let art in, it would have to give stuff away.

The proposition to make Kelly Lake Store part of an MFA program reminds me of how Soviet universities sent their students to work at collective farms in the summer. It’s useful, maybe even necessary. But those qualities have never been a good fit for art.

—Brian Droitcour


Rancière’s Police

Dear Editors,

In his otherwise entertaining “Balibarism!” Bruce Robbins obliterates the content and meaning of Jacques Rancière’s political writings. Robbins does not only badly misinterpret Rancière, he bestows views upon Rancière that the latter has actively struggled against, in some cases for decades.

Never in his corpus does Rancière claim that rights “exist only insofar as they are asserted and actively claimed.” In fact, Rancière says the opposite. In “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” Rancière quite explicitly notes that rights have two forms. Rights exist first as written inscriptions (for example, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and second as what men and women choose to make of those inscriptions. Rancière’s target in this first claim is the sort of pessimistic interpretation that would ascribe to rights the status of mere illusion unless they are asserted: “[Written rights] are not only an abstract ideal . . . they are a part of the configuration of the given.” Rancière is emphatic on this point because he is as critical of rights skepticism as he is of rights triumphalism.

Robbins is even more egregiously off-target in his interpretation of Rancière’s statement, “We do not live in democracies.” Robbins imputes to Rancière the pessimistic view “that no successful moves toward equality have ever been made, no territory has ever been occupied, no structural advantage has ever been conferred on those who come after.” Rancière again says the opposite. The point of the statement is absolutely not that we have nothing to defend—far from it. The point is that for Rancière democracy is not a regime but rather a form of police, a distribution of positions and functions in society and legitimation of that distribution. Rancière does not, however, insist that democratic politics are useless unless they overthrow the entire police order. In fact he states that police is not a term of denigration, that there are better and worse police: “Police can procure all sorts of good, and one kind of police may be infinitely preferable to another.” As Rancière states prior to this passage, the better police order is the one that has been disrupted by the intrusion of the egalitarian logic of what he calls “politics.” This is explicit in La Mésentente (Disagreement), his most important political text.

The depiction of Rancière as indebted to hopeless all-or-nothing revolutionary romanticism ignores the explicit content and meaning of his work, obfuscating the reasons he is becoming popular. Robbins may be correct that Rancière detests complacency. However, if Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière have followed divergent paths, it does no service to either to so thoroughly misinterpret the latter.

—Luca Provenzano

Bruce Robbins responds:

“Police can procure all sorts of good, and one kind of police may be infinitely preferable to another.” Luca Provenzano quotes this sentence, but he does not quote the one that follows it: “This does not change the nature of the police.” What’s the nature of the police? Two pages earlier, Rancière says, “The police is, essentially, the law, generally implicit, that defines a party’s share or lack of it.” My problem with Rancière was and is that he defines politics as the activity of those who have no share at all. I will spare the reader the many passages where he makes this clear. My point was and is that if you define politics as the activity of those with no share, then you make the achievements of previous political actors and actions disappear. Those past actions would only be meaningful if they increased the share available to present actors. It’s true that in “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” Rancière mentions rights as an “inscription” and thus a “given”—that is, presumably, a line that can be moved forward by our efforts. Unfortunately, everything else that he says about a politics of rights drains that statement of its force. I admire Rancière’s takedown of Agamben and Agamben’s Arendt in that essay, but the description that Provenzano is trying to fight off seems to me quite apt: “all-or-nothing revolutionary romanticism.”


Nonfiction

Dear Editors,

I have been subscribing to n+1 for about two years now. I was glad to find a thirtysomething version of the NYRB (which I subscribe to as well).

I was pleased that both these American “magazines” printed next to no fiction. I feel there are too many magazines packed with fiction, too much obsession with fiction nowadays. In the UK, Granta moved away from fiction briefly—to reportage, photo reportage, and so on—and this was excellent. Sadly, it didn’t last, so I dropped Granta. The Asia Literary Review mixed things up well but then started to get swamped with fiction, so I dropped that.

Now fiction is creeping into n+1, where I find what was 200-odd pages of demanding, interesting, and bold thinking becoming another salon for new fiction. Please don’t let this happen! I really don’t want fifty or sixty pages devoted to stories and novel excerpts—why not graphic novels, art, or photo reportage (just not fiction)? Only the NYRB remains resolutely free of fiction, and I haven’t dropped that yet.

It’s unlikely that I will drop n+1, but I was concerned when suddenly fiction started to flood another magazine I enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading novels, especially pre-1970s novels. I just prefer essays and thought to fiction in magazines.

—Nick Hall

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