Afterword: New Studies

By Kodat, Catherine Gunther | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Afterword: New Studies


Kodat, Catherine Gunther, Philological Quarterly


I hope I have suggested the epistemological priority of this unfamiliar kind of allegorical vision; bur I must admit that old habits die hard, and that for us such unaccustomed exposure to reality, or to the collective totality, is often intolerable, leaving us in Quentin's position at the end of Absalom, Absalom!, murmuring the great denial, "I don't hate the Third World! I don't! I don't! I don't!"

--Fredric Jameson

OF ALL THE THINGS Fredric Jameson expected to accomplish in writing what turned out to be one of the most controversial essays of his career, the simultaneous launching of the New Southern Studies and the New Modernist Studies probably was not one of them. However, if we are willing to entertain the possibility that the first stirrings of these seemingly quintessentially twenty-first-century movements within U.S. literary and cultural studies might predate the 1990s--granted, a big "if," and a risky one, too--then we could do worse than consider the tremors set in motion by the penultimate paragraph of Jameson's "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism" the 1986 essay more usually faulted for its breezily totalizing claim that "all third world texts are necessarily ... allegorical" (1) than praised for its daring inclusion of the modern U.S. South within the postcolonial world. (2) Today Jameson's rhetorical alignment of Faulkner s South with Lu Xun's China and Ousmane Sembene's Senegal emerges as the essay's most uncannily prescient critical gesture, foretelling in retrospect the move to a transnational, postcolonial calculus that, as several of the essays in this special issue deftly demonstrate, is perhaps the single largest shared aspect of the New Modernist and New Southern Studies.

Almost certainly, he intended nothing of the kind. For the passage substituting "Third World" for "South" means not to accomplish a radical revision of an insufficiently flexible First/Second/Third World model of the global political economy (a structure the essay as a whole takes as given, in the usual late-cold war fashion), but rather to address what Jameson sees as a lingering tendency among literary scholars to treat allegory with disdain: it is "a form long discredited in the west" (73), where "the telling of the individual story and the individual experience" via "the massive and monumental unifications of ... modernist symbolism" came to be more highly esteemed than "the whole laborious telling of the experience of the collectivity" that is, to Jameson's mind, allegory's special talent and task (85, 73, 86), the thing that makes it a particularly suitable method for representing struggles of national discovery and self-determination. Jameson champions allegory even as he acknowledges that the "modernist" prejudice against it is already fading (allegory is "experiencing a remarkable reawakening of interest in contemporary literary theory ... once again becom[ing] somehow congenial for us today" [73]). And, in truth, a quarter-century on we have accomplished a complete sea change: allegorical modes of interpretation in every conceivable register (psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist) now dominate the field. If there is no longer such a thing as "Third World" literature, and if we no longer read works once subsumed under this disappeared category as "necessarily" allegories of nation, allegory yet has become a privileged hermeneutic in literary studies, prose narrative its preferred vehicle.

It hardly needs mentioning that the (Southern Modernist-identified) New Critical practice of "close reading" a single (English language) poem with the aim of demonstrating its "paradoxical" (often crypto-Christian) "organic unity"--a practice Jameson condemns as the "homogeneous representation" of precisely those problematic "massive and monumental unifications of ... modernist symbolism"--has been swept away in the marvelous whirlwind generated by the proliferation not only of critical methodologies but also of textual subjects, and that these large-scale transformations have reshaped the landscape of twenty-first-century literary studies in fundamental ways. …

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Afterword: New Studies
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