Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Patchwork, or the "Pile-Up of Possibles," in How to Make an American Quilt

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Patchwork, or the "Pile-Up of Possibles," in How to Make an American Quilt

Article excerpt

Multiple, polymorphous, variegated, the paradigmatic motif of patchwork generates the weft and the weave of the meaning of Whitney Otto's kaleidoscopic text and sets it squarely in the quintessentially American domain of the 'pile-up of possibles" (Lachaud).


An art of juxtaposition, governed by the principles of heterogeneity, patchwork follows the rule of fragmentation that favours contact, contrast, and difference. In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, G. Deleuze and F. Guattari qualify patchwork as a space made of "a set of vicinities" (485) that can give rise to effects of "symmetry" (594) but that remains open, informal, rhizomatic (mobile, multiple, non-generative) and "defined solely by a circulation of states": "a rhizome has no beginning or end, it is always in the middle, between things, inter-being, intermezzo" (25). Illustrating this theoretical approach is the picture of a crazy patchwork, a pattern whose characteristic is to "fit together pieces of varying size, shape, color, and [which] plays on the texture of fabrics" (476).

A cultural art of the second-hand, the American patchwork quilt displays this rhizomatic nature in the sense that it never starts from scratch but creates instead new relationships out of material gathered from all origins (ceaselessly mixing and matching fabric imported from the old world, textiles produced locally, and, later, Indian cottons and silks). Materially tied to the unfolding destiny (or destinies) of America, patchwork seems to be its true cover. Created from fabrics that carry a history with them, the quilt transmutes diachronic time into a synchronic whole, though without discarding the dimension of depth that rises to the surface. A "place of memory," patchwork thus emerges as an isomorphic and rhizomatic image of America diversely captured in weft and weave. Patchwork and America also both manifest a rhapsodic dimension, following here the etymology of the word rhapsody (from rhaptein 'to sew'), the discovery and creation of the continent--the frontier advancing state by state--and the way i n which quilting work progresses--block by block--can indeed be compared: built, stitched together, they "assemble in heterogeneity" (24), fabricating themselves piece by piece across time, with every step and stitch an indelible part of the pattern.

Published in 1991, How to Make an American Quilt, by Whitney Otto, casts fresh light on the multiplicity of issues around patchwork as identified by Deleuze and Guattari. In this novel, in a sort of saturation of interconnections, the patchwork quilt covers at the same time the primary theme, the structure-generating pattern, the central metaphor threaded throughout its texture and the paradigmatic motif that generates the novel's web of meaning. It is from this approach, lying between these theoretical models and thematic series, in terms of both connection and distinction, that the sense of its form and content may be read.

As indicated by the stock phrase "how to" in the tide, Otto's text belongs on the shelf next to all those series of practical handbooks that are so uniquely American, compact guides to life whose mission is to instruct their readers according to the (normative) principle consisting of making the unfamiliar familiar, based on standardized approaches. Yet the qualifier "American" modifies this mission: Otto's point here is not to explain how to make a quilt but how to make an American quilt. Paradoxically, this qualifier both shrinks the realm of the quilt to a specific category and projects it out to cover the continent, thereby raising the question of the identity of the United States of America and of its modes of representation. What are the dynamics of the connection between America and quilt? What does patchwork have to say about the United States, and vice versa? It is around these central questions that the uniquely textured text of Otto's novel is woven. …

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