4/1030: narrowing down the questions

A few weeks ago, I set up a revised list of research questions to submit as a part of my application for acceptance as PhD candidate. One of these questions, the one I call my thesis question (since I believe answering it brings me closest to my claim) is:

What power do intermedial references have in literature that allows authors to use them in migration literature to help enunciate the individual voice of a depicted minority character?

I followed this question up with a lot of sub-questions, for example “what is individual voice?” “how authentic is this voice?” and others to help address the follow-ups I anticipate from critics. Apparently, it’s good I challenge my own question, since the follow-up is pretty much what I expected.

I sent my question to my MA thesis sponsor, and he graciously replied with some very helpful suggestions.

First of all, I definitely need to back up my ideas about individual voice with theory. I have Bakhtin (ah, M.M. Bakhtin, how I would have loved to have met you) as my main man. I also have a few Composition and Rhetoric theorist in my armory. As far as the authenticity of this voice, I have Bhabha and Spivak to analyze again.

My mentor, then sponsor, seems to think I should avoid focusing on individual voice and instead focus on the intermedial references. For example

“How and why are intermedial references so common in migration literature?  What meaning(s) do such references contribute and/or elucidate?  How and why is intermediality a significant element of migration literature?

I don’t mind using these as my prime research questions. I even have them as a part of my list of things to do. I was afraid, however, that the question was too broad and leaves open too many answers. I thought I had to already have an idea of the answer in order to propose my project. But perhaps I should allow myself more room for hypotheses. After all, it has crossed my mind that the better answers have to do with crossing borders. The breaking down of linguistic and media borders is conducive to the breaking down of cultural borders. My issue with this claim is that I thought that it was laengst geklaert. I mean, who doesn’t see the breakdown of borders and norms in literature today? And the novel, of course the novel transgresses former expectations; that’s what makes them novel.

I think I’m onto something when I say that intermediality is a significant element because it breaks up secondary discourses and opens up for new kinds of voices. What are these new kinds? I guess I still have to clarify that.

Honestly, whenever I think I’ve figured something out, I manage to get sucked into a whole new sets of challenges and possibilities inherent to my questions.  I fear I may never get anywhere… I’ll keep reading and reading and now have any answers- just more questions.

Maybe it’s time to start doing literature review conscientiously again- find some answers before asking more questions.

Disclaimer: this series is a collection of brainstorms and free-writes that are a part of my planning for actual text in my dissertation. Therefore, I am giving myself the liberty to make mistakes, make assumptions (call me out on offensive ones, though!), not tie up loose ends, and generally not make any sense. 

Copyright 2016 Dorothea Trotter: because these writings are planning for actual text in my dissertation, some of this will appear in my dissertation. I hold the right to the words in this post and require that interested parties ask for permission before copying the words or ideas too closely. Obviously, the date of posting is the date of copyright and I reserve the right to challenge suspected plagiarism in my future dissertation submission using these blogs as proof of originality. 

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2/1030: Why comparative literature?

When I went to submit my application to the department of Comparative Literature for the right to complete my PhD through the FU AVL department (don’t worry about acronyms- see disclaimer below), I realized, waiting in the hallway, that I hadn’t made clear why a comparative study was necessary for me to make the claim I aim to with my dissertation (see “About My Dissertation”).

I want to show how media changes the individual voice of minority characters in literature- but why couldn’t I do this with just German or just English literature? Also, why am I applying to AVL as opposed to the English or Germanistik departments? Well, I suppose the topic on its own refers to something I’m trying to address that may be happening in all literature. I don’t think think the conjunction of multimedia and multicultural/ethnic societies is merely a timeline coincidence. I know that the two work together. Thus, I definitely am pursuing an allgemeine Literatur Untersuchung.

I also suppose that looking at postcolonial, or New German and English Literatures is comparative in itself, since its challenge is addressing the changing cultural tones and linguistic features appearing in “national” literatures. Popular German, English, and no doubt many other “national” literatures are no longer written by, for example, Germans born in Germany speaking only German.

On another note, my study is for the field of Comparative Literature since I am also comparing mediums. TV news has a different function in the truth/fiction portrayal than realist novels. I can compare the effect of the narratology in news with the narratology of a book, and still be looking at literature.

I know what I am doing is work for the field of Comparative Literature. The short Wikipedia definition (why, oh why am I resorting to Wikipedia?) is that

Comparative literature is an academic field dealing with the study of literature and cultural expression across linguistic, national, and disciplinary boundaries.

Clearly I am looking at expression across linguistic, national, and disciplinary boundaries. What I don’t understand quite for myself, or how to justify to others, however, is why I’m only looking at German and English literature. Clearly, I can’t use my own personal history as justification- I’m fluent in both languages so…

No. There has to be a better reason. Short of making something up to fit, something in the back of my mind may be the answer. Both England and Germany played large roles in European and World History. Both countries experienced huge shifts with the end of WWII. England was made to accept the independence of most of its colonies and Germany, for lack of thoughtful phrasing, became a colony. They are both global superpowers that became significantly impacted by migration following WWII, with rather homogeneous societies becoming extremely heterogeneous within a generation- so why wouldn’t it be interesting to see how their literatures  compare? Especially in a question about the strength of minority voice in the literatures?

As some rebuttal to this argument, I have to consider France- another major superpower greatly affected by migration. I have very little knowledge about French literature, and even less about contemporary French literature. Is focusing on what I know a good reason to stick to two countries? I feel uneasy about that. It’s something I will have to return to.

The good news: I just completed my second day of writing about my project, as is my goal for the next 1028 days. I’m not sure if I want all this public or not- I’m especially concerned about being able to claim originality for a new contribution to research. I should probably get some advice about this though as I continue on. However, I hope that by posting this, I also generate some conversation. I don’t want people to randomly be able to cite stuff, but rather challenge me, ask me questions.

Disclaimer: this series is a collection of brainstorms and free-writes that are a part of my planning for actual text in my dissertation. Therefore, I am giving myself the liberty to make mistakes, make assumptions (call me out on offensive ones, though!), not tie up loose ends, and generally not make any sense. 

Copyright 2016 Dorothea Trotter: because these writings are planning for actual text in my dissertation, some of this will appear in my dissertation. I hold the right to the words in this post and require that interested parties ask for permission before copying the words or ideas too closely. Obviously, the date of posting is the date of copyright and I reserve the right to challenge suspected plagiarism in my future dissertation submission using these blogs as proof of originality. 

The True History of the Kelly Gang

What is “true”? And how is this the most “true” history we have of the famous “bushranger” and outlaw?

Initially, the story of an Australian man who becomes his country’s “Robin Hood” seems far off the map of “post-colonial literature.” Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is of course new, and English language, literature. However, it does not fall into the normal stereotypes of what makes literature post-colonial at all (specifically speaking, it initially seems like it has little to do with race, former colonies [that one is just ignorance], and crossing borders). However, of course this is “post-colonial” literature. There are many signs for it and justifications for the label. Because it’s so easy to take this literature (and much of the “new” literatures being produced) and point out “post-colonial” aspects, I am beginning to wonder if our world is just so marked by colonialism that conceiving anything outside of this hegemony is even possible. If so, I think I am a bit disappointed because there must be other, news ways of talking about literature.

However, I need to illuminate a few reasons this is “post-colonial.” Different ethnic minorities are clearly pointed out fairly early on in the novel. First of all, Australia was an English colony with indigenous people already living on the land, just like many of the UK’s other colonies. Furthermore, these indigenous people (who are/were People of Color) were referred to as “black” and come up several times in the novel, the earliest occasion when Ned and Jem are out and about: “Cor look at them blacks said Jem […] damn them said Jem we was raised to think the blacks the lowest of the low but they had boots not us […]” (Carey 15). The lack of boots indicates an economic status that illuminates a further distinction of social status and class within Australia that extends beyond indigenous groups. One can further consider that Ned Kelly and his family (as well as many of his “peers”) were Irish and therefore another group of colonized people. Am I saying that racism or race/ethnicity relations define a text as post-colonial? Nope. But I do suggest that it is worth discussing in the context.

A more nuanced reading will reveal many other facets that are common themes in post-colonial literature. There is the large question of voice and who is allowed to speak. Ned Kelly is a criminal, yes. But he is also an individual who has experienced suppression and injustice and he is given a voice “in a dazzling act of ventriloquism” (as the eloquent writer on the back of my book writes) that is otherwise denied him. In light of essays like “Can the Subaltern Speak,” this move is rather “post-colonial,” though care must be made to consider that Kelly doesn’t really belong to the subaltern, nor is his representation skewed by a discourse that originally misunderstands/suppresses him (though I suppose someone more educated in criminal anthropology/psychology may disagree).

Perhaps the most valid point about the “post-colonialness” of this novel is that it makes many of the same moves as other post-colonial literature in its “rewriting” of history. Not only is the question of time itself constantly pushed through the forefront, with things like the epigraph by William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It is not even past,” but the way time is represented is challenged in more than just content. One has mixed mediums of parcel titles, letters, and references to newspaper articles and telegrams. The letters are presented as real, non-fiction, and yet they were created by Peter Carey. At the same time, this voice of Ned Kelly seems just as valid as any other voice (perhaps also because it uses the model of a real sequence of letters written by Kelly) that may have been provided by another writer. This complicates our ideas of “objective” history, “true” history, which is again very relevant to the discussion of post-colonial literature.

Gah, I feel like there’s more that needs to be said here… I’ve left some thoughts unfinished, but I have a thesis to go and write, so…

This was a good book and quick to read.  Even taken outside of the post-colonial context, it is a new way of looking at an old story and provides a sympathetic explanation for a few murders and criminal actions (though I still don’t condone it, it’s very western-esque, though labeling it as such opens a whole ‘nother kettle of fish).

“New English Literatures”

There’s a new trend in German academia to refer to English post-colonial literature as “New English Literatures” or “New Literatures in English.” This means that the course I recently signed up for at the Universitaet Hamburg is not necessarily about English lit. Neuerscheinungen, or newcomers, but rather about a more specific branch of Neuerscheinungen, and while many of the works published today are “post-colonial,” the term can be applied to much older works.

That last clause is debatable, and I’m going to have to spend some time defining the term first.

The quickest etymology of the word “post-colonial” is to take the prefix and recognize that it means “after.” Therefore, “post-colonial” means “after colonialism.” This means that “post-colonial literature” refers to literature that was written after colonialism, right? So, after colonization was…

Sure, this is an adequate conclusion if you want to simplify matters and say that colonialism is over and that it ended with the relinquishment of the British colonies just at the end of World War II. But what about the U.S. and Puerto Rico? What about the Soviet Union? Furthermore, as John McLeod points out in his book Beginning Postcolonialism, even when the colonizers release any economic or political power in the the country, many formerly colonized nations and their former colonizers continue to operate within colonial relationships that still exist. “Colonial ways of knowing still circulate and have agency in the present; unfortunately they have not magically disappeared…” (McLeod 32). Even when the colonizer is no longer physically present, structures still perpetuate.

One of my favorite structures to talk about is language (I’m a philologist and literature student), and I see the topic of language in “post-colonial” literature as important to think about when thinking about this kind of literature. Often, post-colonial literature is written in the language of the former colonizer. Much post-colonial literature is written in English. Initially, it seems that talking about oppression, for example, in the language of the former oppressor seems to perpetuate the extent of that oppression. However, one can also look at the use of the language as a medium to give the former colonizers access to the way the formerly colonized felt and feel. If these texts were written in Bengali, a Nigerian language, or Jamaican, they would reach a much smaller audience. Furthermore, language changes and the way it’s used by many of these authors is different. Often, the language is appropriated by the writers (one of the key strategies of post-colonial writing, along with assimilation and abrogation).  So while the structures, like language, still perpetuate, there are other factors at work.

Because of these observations, I think we can agree that “post-colonial” is a bit inadequate to describe the works we’re reading in this class, especially since many works in many different languages are post-colonial, but we’re only looking at English ones.

There I go again, though, talking about works that are post-colonial without saying what makes a work post-colonial…

Let’s start with who is entitled to being post-colonial. Is it the former colonized? Or can it include the former-colonizer? what about the fact that there’s tensions in national and individual political and cultural identity? what about the fact that post-colonialism addresses present day transformation from the past, and yet is still formed by the past? these works explore oppression, but also describe/enact counter-movements to this oppression.

McLeod summarizes that postcolonialism involves one of more of the following (on page 33):

  • Reading texts produced by writers from countries with a history of colonialism, primarily those texts concerned with the workings and legacy of colonialism in either the past of the present.
  • Reading texts produced by those that have migrated from countries with a history of colonialism, or those descended from migrant families, which deal in the main with diaspora experience and its consequences.
  • In light of the theories of colonial discourse, re-reading texts produced during colonialism; both those that directly address the experiences of Empire, and those that seem not to.

I spent my first official sitting in my “New English Literatures” class discussing with the professor and the others about the term and what it can apply to. A lot of discussing. What can be called “post-colonial” is perhaps even more complicated leaving class than entering it, but I came up with a working definition for the term that I will be revising throughout the course of my MA thesis writing. My MA thesis has to do with literature written by/about migrants/migration, and therefore I need to have a good definition to declare early on in my thesis:

Right now, I see post-colonial literature as literature written by “former” colonized or colonizers, who explore the boundaries left (or opened) by colonization and question the “established” “truths” of nation, language, identity, heritage and perspective.

Of course, my definition is still includes colonization, which is why I don’t see my literary focus as post-colonial literature, but rather cultural studies… stay tuned for a post on what that is all about.