Literature

By Clarke, George Elliott | English Studies in Canada, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Literature


Clarke, George Elliott, English Studies in Canada


Who may dare improve upon Raymond Williams's dexterous mapping, in Keywords (1976), of the socio-political morphings, through centuries, of the term literature and its connotations? Not me, certainly, though I feel compelled by Williams's example(s) to attempt a provisional update/ addendum.

Williams's reading of literature observes that the term began to be applied in the 1770s, in Germany, to denote the oeuvres of nations and their author-citizens (185). Past-modernism and deconstructive critiques evacuate concepts of "nation" and "citizenship" and "author(ity)." In addition, electronics-based, corporate capitalism, or "globalization," ensures that countries and nation-states (excepting the militarist United States and Russia, Islamist Iran, revolutionary Cuba, and proto-superpower China) cannot exercise any genuine sovereignty beyond the police coercion (suppression) of their worker-citizens. (Capital "flows" beyond borders, but labour "pools" within them.) For these reasons, along with the monitored migration of skilled workers, entrepreneurs, professionals, and Intellectuals from ex-colonies to imperial metropoles, it is chic now to speak of "deterrioralized literatures" and "exilic writers:' Tire concept of a "national literature," say, of Canada, or France, or Brazil, or Iraq (for that matter), must now be treated warily. However, countries continue, somehow, to exist (as anyone who pays taxes must concede), and degrees of "national" (multi)cultures, local practices, laws, languages, and governance structures (including armies) also persist. Moreover, while every "national literature" (perhaps none more so than that of Canada) boasts numerous writers born offshore, these writers also assume (depending on length of residency) aspects of the "host" or "adoptive" culture. For example, Austin Clarke is a Barbadian-Bajan-writer by birth, but he is also now a "Canadian" one, as any comparison of his work with those of intro-Caribbean authors will reveal. In sum, the idea of a national literature is less stable now than it seemed to be in 1976, but it can hardly be accounted a fiction.

Another major shift in our conception of literature has been its expansion to the arts of orature-or "oral literature." Coined in 1983 by three Nigerian critics-Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa femme, and Ihechuckwu Madubuike-orature denotes the form of literature most amenable to implementation by socio-politically marginalized, racial and religious minorities, and post-colonial peoples, many of whom may never "get into print," but almost all of whom readily "comeinvoice:' Thus, "Dub" poets, Spoken Word poets, Hip-Hop rhymesters, Calypsonians, singer-songwriters (including the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature nominee Bob Dylan), "storytellers" (hear Lousie-Miss Lou-Bennett of Jamaica), folklore presenters, orators (Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Fidel Castro, etc.), and even stand-up comics, may now be considered creators of literature, especially once their recorded, performance texts are published. Other oral-derived forms that can become literature include slave narratives, sermons, recipes, talk show transcripts, trial testimony (see Poetry Under Oath: From the Testimony of William Jefferson Clinton & Monica S. Lewinsky [1998]), and the argot of "cool" communities. Ironically, the eruption of orature within the precincts and canons of literature returns the latter term to its pre-Romantic sensibility. Williams points out that the vocal-rhetorical side of literature was once expressed by poetry, defined in 1866 as being applicable to either "speaking or wryting Poetically" (186-7, my italics). Williams also states, "Poetry had been the high skills of writing and speaking in the special context of high imagination..:' (187). What a terrific debt we owe to the African-American cording artists, Sugarhill Gang, and their 1979 hit, Rapper's Delight, for initiating a global revival of interest in witty, pungent, acerbic, political, and truth-telling rhyme.

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