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).