American Gloom … and Beyond!

by Sarah DeYoreo

Before anyone gets too excited, this title is not meant to signal an optimistic turn in the essays that comprise this blog. Optimism is not, it seems, a mood well-suited to humanistic inquiry in the 21st century. (We will continue to ask why not.) The “beyond” in the title refers instead to a significant change in the scope of these essays, which, having been confined mainly to American and European writers and thinkers, is now being expanded to engage with what is sometimes called “global” or “transnational” literature: writing produced by inhabitants of the greater, largely non-white world.

More specifically, and alongside its continued focus on American literature, this blog will now pay close attention to literatures produced by inhabitants of places once or still subject to, and still bearing the marks of, the horrors of European and American (neo)colonization. While widely diverse in form, style, and content, these are literatures often preoccupied with questions of violence, power, imperial domination and control, and the lasting effects that each of these has on land and the people who live there. Reading these texts closely often requires a double, contradictory move: both a disentangling or deciphering of numerous histories of human and geographical violence and exploitation superimposed upon and enmeshed in one another in impossibly complex ways and a recognition of the limits of such deciphering.

Ultimately, a central question that often emerges from these engagements is, appropriately, a question of reading: faced with the limits of decipherability—the limits of hermeneutics in the classical sense—how does one continue to read in a way that is attentive, committed, and ethical? What might this kind of ethical reading look like? While we will likely not respond to this question directly, the essays here invariably engage with it in more or less indirect ways. Certainly it is our hope, if not to define ethical reading, then to enact it. Thus, these essays are attempts to read in ways that are careful, patient, generous, attuned to alterity, illegibility, and difference, and highly conscious of reading as a social and political practice. While they do not aim to exhaust the texts they look at—this kind of exhaustive reading would be, arguably, both impossible and counterproductive—they explore, sometimes rigorously, sometimes only haphazardly, potentially productive avenues of thought opened up by their readings.

So, if not optimism, then what? Are gloom and despair the only modes we have left? In his 2003 preface to the 25th anniversary edition of Orientalism, Edward Said writes:

The recent deaths of my two main intellectual, political, and personal mentors, Eqbal Ahmad and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod … have brought sadness and a certain stubborn will to go on. It isn’t at all a matter of being optimistic, but rather of continuing to have faith in the ongoing and literally unending process of emancipation and enlightenment that, in my opinion, frames and gives direction to the intellectual vocation. (xv)

A similar kind of “stubborn” faith, I think—faith, often, in spite of itself—motivates our efforts here. Often, it is a faith in something like the power of language, writing, and discourse to (re)shape and so effect positive change in the world, but it is also—and increasingly, for me anyway—faith in the immense potentials of reading and of listening, and in the kinds of alternative engagements with the world and with others that these activities both sustain and inspire.

So, without further ado, into the Gloom!

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 25th Anniv. Edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.