Annotation: Mark Chiang’s “Capitalizing Form” (2008)

Peer-Review: 0

Chiang, Mark. “Capitalizing Form: The Globalization of the Literary Field: A Response to David Palumbo-Liu.” American Literary History. 20.4 (2008); 836-844. Print.

In this article Chiang responds to David Palumbo-Liu’s attempt to recuperate form as means of forwarding historical analysis in a broader transnational context, while also accentuating the significance of “local contexts of reception” (836). Although intrigued by this re-conceptualization and deployment of form, Chiang calls attention to some troubling ambiguities in Palumbo-Liu’s theoretical framework. He asserts that Palumbo-Liu fails to offer a clear definition of form, suggesting that it can be both seen and not seen depending on various readership publics. Chiang emphasizes that those who cannot see form occupy a precarious situation as they are unable to enter formalist literary debates. Referencing Pierre Bourdieu, Chiang asserts, “the capacity to read literature, muss less to perceive form, must be understood as embodied forms of linguistic and cultural capital. Being unable to see form, then, signals a lack of such capital” (837). He therefore accentuates the need to examine the institutional structures that shape various reading publics (especially transnational ones for the purposes of Palumbo-Liu’s expansive theoretical framework) and influence what forms they see or fail to see. Chiang also emphasizes the need to clarify the difference between form and genre and to interrogate whether an analysis of the latter would accomplish the same formalist goals.

Chiang goes on to discusses Rincón’s thesis on Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1867) and the telenovela but for the purposes of my own research I will focus on annotating his analysis of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange. He argues that while Manzanar Murakami conducts an urban orchestra atop a Los Angeles freeway, he “does not control anything. Rather, his task is sheer comprehension, and his conducting is an effort to grasp the conceptual order underlying the seeminingly chaotic processes of the global system” (841-842). Chiang suggests that in this respect Murakami more closely resembles a “misunderstood literary genius than…[a] conductor who is the leader and public figurehead of a classical orchestra” (842). Drawing a parallel between Murakami’s orchestra and the great wrestling match between Arcangel and SUPERNAFTA as the two major climatic moments in the novel, Chiang asserts that Yamashita distinguishes between respectively high and low art forms as well as the particular “readerships” for each. He emphasizes that “[t]he difference between Murakami’s sonic cartography and the Ultimate Wrestling Championship lies in the contrast between the solipsistic introspection of conducting versus an engaged popular art, one that might be capable of speaking to, and moving the masses” (843).

I would argue however that Murakami’s conducting does not aspire to be introspective as the music is the beautiful melodies of public urban life and does eventually move and affect the masses. Yamashita also does not seem to distinguish Murakami as the leader of a high art orchestra as he is simply a homeless man who quit being a surgeon and was mysteriously compelled to become a conductor without any formal professional training. But while Chiang’s analysis of Murakami remains less than convincing, he does effectively articulate the need to interrogate the politics of reception, the institutions that socialize people to read a certain way and those who are excluded from such formal training. He leaves readers with the following observation: “While we can certainly imagine audiences discussing both high art and low art…it is a somewhat different matter to imagine a conversation in which audiences are discussing the same text in disparate, if not completely, antithetical, ways” (843).

Annotation: David Palumbo-Liu’s “The Occupation of Form” (2008)

As promised an original annotation at last. ^^

Peer-Review: 0

Palumbo-Liu, David. “The Occupation of Form: (Re)theorizing Literary History.” American Literary History. 20.4 (2008): 814-835. Print.

In this article Palumbo-Liu examines two academic journals, New Literary History and American Literary History that grapple with debates about the productivity of formalism in contemporary literary studies. Both journals reject formalism’s ahistorical emphasis on close reading and posit theory as the mechanism that will help “(re)connect the study of literature to the world outside” (816). Palumbo-Liu, however, calls for a reexamination of formalism and ultimately a productive recuperation of formalist concerns for critical literary analyses.

He notes how the emerging school of “New Formalism” articulates “a basic desire to return to close, formalist readings of texts” in addition to a “common feeling that these readings should be attached to the larger socio-historical formations in which these texts were produced” (820). While Palumbo-Liu supports this movement, he attempts to further conceptualize the advantages and insights New Formalism will provide as a critical apparatus in light of the increasing “transnationaliz[ation] of American literary studies” (820). He asserts that “Form” should be viewed as “common place” where readers can articulate their own literary interpretations in conjunction with those of others (822). Palumbo-Liu emphasizes that within a transnational frame, Formalism an analysis of “transsubjectivity,” or “slices” of simultaneous and nonsimultaneous histories” in terms of both temporal and spatial incongruities (828).

In the latter half of his essay he goes on to discuss how Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange offers a productive terrain to employ the apparatus of New Formalism in a transnational context. He notes how the form of Yamashita’s novel reflects the way in which forces of globalization and neocolonialism force people into proximity and dependency, without necessarily a commensurate degree of control and self-determination” (828). He then goes on to analyze the consciousness of Manzanar, who conducts an orchestra from his post atop a Los Angeles freeway, sees the familiar urban sprawl below him steadily morph and change wit “markers of new intimacies and encumbrances” (830). Palumbo-Liu suggests that Manzanar perceives the form of the hidden form of the city beyond its material structural edifices and economic flows, to conduct beautiful urban music from seemingly cacophonous sounds and disparate events.

He also references the preface to The Portrait of a Lady in which Henry James describes “the house of fiction” as containing numerous disconnected windows through which readers can view the work of art. In contrast to James’ configuration, however, Palumbo-Liu suggests that Yamashita’s novel presents overlapping transhistorical and transnational spaces, which is ultimately closer to his own conception of form.

To him, “literary form is…both a material and real ‘thing,’ but one variously inhabited and animated by various occupants” (832). Palumbo-Lui emphasizes that the simultaneous multiplicity of time and space as heterogeneous and overlapping is emblematic of “the contemporary, late capitalist world” (832). Form he asserts finally, serves as “a necessary container and common ground that is precisely not reified but dynamic, a contingent meeting space for otherwise divergent histories, literary and public at once” (833). He therefore encourages the manipulation of form to serve the multivalent interests and concerns of the reading public.