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: Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “An Unthinkable History” (1995)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-event.” Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 70-107. Print.

In his article, Trouillot offers important historical background on the Haitian Revolution. He exposes the paradox of Enlightenment thought, which celebrated universal human rights and equality while oppressive institutions of slavery and racial oppression still persisted. Trouillot asserts that “Colonization provided the most potent impetus for the transformation of European ethnocentrism into scientific racism,” where the enslavement of blacks were rationalized as a result of their inherent biological inferiority (77). He demonstrates that for the first time, humanity was considered in terms of varying degrees, where some groups were more human than others. It was widely believed that at the very bottom of this scale, “enslaved Africans and their descendents could not envision freedom—let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom” (73). Trouillot therefore argues that even as it happened, the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” for the people of the time and even afterwards as world nations refused to officially acknowledge the new republic. Trouillot borrows Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “unthinkable” as referring to “that which one cannot conceive within the range of possible alternatives which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions are phrased” (82). He describes how French delegates, such as Jean-Pierre Brissot, could not immediately accept the news that a revolution had occurred in Sain Domingue, outlining reasons for its sheer impossibility. Trouillot further asserts that when such facts became undeniable, much effort was expended to specifically narrate the revolution in a way that would fit into a white European worldview and uphold its racial and cultural hierarchies.

He discusses two different “formulas of silence” employed, one that involves complete erasure of the Haitian Revolution all together through archival omission and the another that attempts to trivialize the event by ignoring its radical, singular components (96). As examples of the first Trouillot cites Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age o Revolutions 1793-1843, which makes almost no reference to the Haitian Revolution and the way in which French historians have long downplayed the significance of losing Haiti, its most valuable colonial possession at the time. (99, 101). The second, which Trouillot seems to identify as even more troubling, is how specialists on Haiti persist to search for external factors that influenced the revolution rather than accepting and recognizing the internal work of the slaves themselves.

Trouillot’s emphasis on the importance of analyzing how the Haitian Revolution is narrated and for what ends will be particularly helpful in formulating my own thesis. In Secret History, Sansay herself seems to directly comment on how the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” for the French who believed that it would be easy for them to quickly re-colonize the island. I will examine further whether this is due to her status as an American in Saint Domingue. I am also interested in exploring how the narrative addresses other realms of the “unthinkable” in regards to gender relations—the murderous jealousy of Creole ladies and women of color as well as Clara’s own horrifying experience of domestic abuse which was “unthinkable” for her sister.