The Power of Words, Literature and Society in Late Modernity

Article excerpt

Buccheri, Mauro, Costa, Elio, and Holoch, Donald, Eds. The Power of Words, Literature and Society in Late Modernity. Ravenna: Longo Editore, 2005. 306 pp.

The background behind this 2005 collection of essays published by the Italian Longo Editore is the questioning of what directions society, culture, and finally literature are taking in the third millennium. And the questions have such a broad scope that the editors Mario Buccheri, Elio Costa, and Donald Holoch decided to approach them from different angles, trying to account for different points of view and literatures, as well as for the social and economic backdrops. In fact what comes out of this collection of essays is a general inter-connection among different fields and a ero ss- fertilization of disciplines which, all together, could help us search for clarifications to our initial queries.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part deals with general concerns about the relationship between literature and the hypertexts, which comprises of both the new technologies and the persistence of literature. The opening essay is Umberto Eco 's "Books, Texts and Hypertexts", in which the Italian semiotician analyses the almost paradoxical presence of paper books in a future world made of hypertexts and books on CD-ROM. But, as far as Eco has a deep knowledge of Middle Ages, he takes the Medieval fear of the Millennium as a comparison not to think of the fear of losing books in a future era, for new technologies do not necessarily supersede the old ones, as much as television or cinema have not supplanted literature yet; the question is analysed with hermeneutical concerns, but also in an ironic tone. The second essay by John O'Neill is titled "The Word's Millennial Power" and it analyses some of the Italian writer Italo Calvino' s works like Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Cosmicomics, and Invisible Cities, in which Calvino sustains the importance of the intellectual figure as a response to cultural entropy, and as a 'heroic' figure fighting against the amnesia of culture. Actually, O'Neill sustains, we must fight to remember and not to forget, for, according to Calvino "Literature (...) re-mythologizes the world, rationalized to the point of barbarism, in order to avoid the fall into cultural amnesia and historical schizophrenia." (12). Again, the issue of cognition is tackled by the following essay, by Lubomir Dolezel, "The Power of Words: Literature, Cognition and Practical Life". In it Dolezel explains why he thinks that the 20th century has been a "linguistic century", and in so doing he refers to the linguist De Saussure, the philosopher Derrida, and the semiotician Eco. That is why the approach to language comes from different angles, because he counters the post-structuralist conviction that language is monofunctional, thinking it is poly-functional and embracing all the concerns of our intellectual and densely practical lives. Umberto Eco 's and Italo Calvino 's works return again in the speculations of Rocco Capozzi's essay "Hypertextuality and Cognitive Experiences in the Labyrinths of Words and Images". In fact, Calvino' s concept of the multiplicity of literature and Eco' s thought about the hyper-textuality weave in Capozzi's conviction of the computer and hyper-texts as "rhizomatic structures" (13). Mauro Buccheri' s "The Return of Orpheus, or the Persistence of Literature and Myth" concludes the first part of the book by taking the figure of Orpheus as a symbol of the persistence of literature and myth as a figure able of bridging gaps. Buccheri sustains his views with contemporary literary and philosophical theories; he sustains that for instance Nietzsche, Michel Serres, or Eco again have developed a cultural system able of standing in between, and where Orpheus would represent the search for meaning even in aesthetic terms.

The second part deals with more historical and philosophical questions, especially concerning Marxism or Bachtinian preoccupations, and the link between the role of the intellectual and market. Esteve Morera' s "Literature, History, and Philosophy: Some Reflections on Gramsci' s Quaderni del Carcere" considers Gramsci 's Quaderni as a hyper-text referring, for its very composite nature, many aspects of life and culture, yet being a historical, cultural, sociological piece of literature. Gramsci' s concept of hegemony and of the intellectual encompasses also the nature of works of art, either revolutionary or reactionary, as for instance Alessandro Manzoni' s The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi). But the focus shifts from Marx to Bakhtin in the second essay, David McNally's "Language, the Market and the University: Bakhtin, Benjamin and the Intellectual in Late Capitalism". McNaIIy considers Michail Bakhtin' s Rabelais and His World as a literary site to discuss the role of the free -exchange of ideas in the pre-capitalist marketplace, which is from the seventeenth up to the nineteenth century. McNaIIy argues against the "commodification" of culture and the role that the church and the state exercised to control culture. Robert Dombroski's "Marxism, Literature and the Curriculum" goes back to a Marxist approach, sustaining that taking distance from a Marxist analysis or an approach to literary criticism in university curricula have been determined by the fear of a silent wave of protest or thinking, so that Marxist political thinking has been separated from literary criticism. He tackles the critical currents of New Historicism and Postmodernism, observing that the first has some Marxist concerns despite its criticism of Marxism, while the latter is in some terms a negation to the light of reason, when one of the main concerns of literary criticism should be to make us understand how the world works with all its social, political, and cultural issues. Of a totally different view is Robert L. Fisher's essay "Narrative, Human Nature and Post-Modernism", which concludes the second part of the book. Fisher thinks that literature separates us from the real world and that, consequently, it is derived from our need to give meaning to life and the world ' s indifference .

The third section deals instead with world literature, embracing many territories and opening it up to contemporary social and cultural issues. Rinaldo Walcott's "Desiring to Belong? The Politics of Texts and their Politics of Nation" analyses three Canadian works of fiction like Lawrence Hill's Any Known Blood, Cecil Foster's Slammin ' Tar, and Andr? Alexis' Childhood to cope with the problems of integration, exclusion, of living on the borders or in a community which does not pertain to you. The theme of 'belonging' is seen through these instances of 'counter-novels', where the so-called minority literatures become just another way of looking at political, social, and cultural issues. Another 'minority' issue emerges from Sergio Maria Guardino' s "Smaller Languages, Greater Identities: The Power of Words in Qu?bec", for he tackles the question of the Francophone minority in Canada, with all the political and linguistic implications derived, but the strength of a language and of a literature do not necessarily depend on the fact of it being a minority language, and in saying this he underlines again the power of words and languages in literature. Keith Ellis' "Power Without Responsibility: The Function of Words in Augusto Roa Bastos' Yo El Supremo" talks about the figure of the dictator Francia in Paraguay. The analysis Ellis makes reveals political overtones concerning a resistance to globalization and the analysis of the dictator's autobiography with its distortion of historical facts. The preoccupation of a writer from a minority literature with larger political concerns is the focus of Zilpha Ellis' "From the Depth of Commitment to the Shallow of Despair: The Career and Identities of Ren? Depestre". Ellis looks at the Haitian poet and writer Depestre's career to search for an evolution in his commitment: from the militant years of his youth, to his contribution in the literature of the Caribbean, to the struggles for liberation in Africa. Similarly, Ato Sekyi-Out remarks in his "Enigmas of the World, Proverbs of the Human Condition: Revisiting Some Postcolonial African Novels" how the hot questions of political independence and struggles for freedom have reverberations in African proverbs and, consequently, in African novels. Sekyi-Out especially lingers on Ayi Kwei Armah's novels The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Two Thousand Season to explore how Ghanian proverbs bring African philosophy to embrace old and contemporary political issues, taking its moves from Franz Fanon' s sociological and philosophical preoccupations. Donald Holoch's essay "Literature and Dystopia: Narrative and the State in China" concludes the third part of the collection. He analyses Sima Qian's narrative Shiji as an account for what the Chinese Han dynasty brought to the Chinese tradition and the political situation can thus be seen also through a dystopian literary approach, more realistic than others even if literary.

Despite of social, political, or economic "ruination" - and one of the concerns of the book relates to the "ruination of the university" (10) - the title provides one, if not the best, possible answer: the power of words. The aptly introductory comment underlines that "words have power, words can make a difference, words are our weapons" (10). So if academics, men of power, writers, economists, sociologists, politicians used words as positive weapons to improve the society, also culture and literature would gain a great deal from it. The preoccupation with the contemporary, globalised, inter-disciplinary system of things is someway comforted by this recognition of power, and by the conviction that the Humanities continue to play a fundamental role in education and society.