Understood as a system of actions designed to reduce the suffering of distant humans across the world, humanitarianism is intimately connected to storytelling as a means of raising awareness and generating empathy. Humanitarian beliefs and efforts are as diverse as the religious and secular moral philosophies that motivate them. Both aid organizations and government leaders have drawn on humanitarian discourses to gather support for such things as shipments of clothing and medical supplies to those in need, resettlement opportunities for refugees, and even military interventions in the Global South. As cultural platforms that promote themes of human dignity as well as liberal freedom and autonomy, humanitarianism and literature share long histories of influencing each other since the late 18th century. With the adoption of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in response to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during World War II, humanitarianism and the related discourse of human rights have received an increase in popular and literary interest in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Whether or not these discourses are enough to counter the incredible violence of the contemporary period has been the subject of much debate. Global literatures support and critique humanitarianism and human rights as they retell histories of disaster, warfare, and state violence. As literature continues to variously imagine the causes of and responses to world suffering, the intersections of humanitarianism, human rights, and global literature embody a rich site of contestation and possibility for study in the 21st century.
Since the term autofiction was coined by Serge Doubrovsky in the 1970s, a key scholarly debate has been whether autofiction is a genre in its own right, a subvariant of autobiography, or whether it is better approached along lines other than generic. Although researchers have approached this question in different ways, many agree that autofiction is a form of writing that responds to the specific cultural conditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including the relationship between celebrity and everyday life, a variety of scandals and controversies, and forms of public confession. Because writers of autofiction often frame their work either as a form of confessional writing or as writing produced in the aftermath of a traumatic experience, they have typically taken a serial approach to life writing. In some cases, this entails splitting aspects of their lives across separate published works, while others return several times to a single experience in various written texts as part of the process of repetition and working through that marks the aftermath of trauma. Among writers from postcolonial societies, the process of representing trauma is often imbued with a testimonial function, bearing witness to the conflicts and injustices of the colonial era. Autofictional techniques can be used to allow writers to appear as minor characters in narratives that are not ostensibly about them, to activate this testimonial function. In another variation, writers narrate historical incidents that occurred before they were born but which nevertheless concern their community, ancestry, or family. Since these cannot be entirely separated from the life story of the author, to tell the story of those ancestors is also, in a meaningful sense, to narrate an aspect of one’s own history: autofiction at one remove. Renée Larrier has used the dance martial art danmyé as a suggestive metaphor for how Caribbean writers merge individual with social and historical interests in bearing witness to the legacies of the colonial period and slavery. Among various innovations, this use of dance raises the possibility of autofiction existing in media other than print—including graphic novels, fine art, documentary film, and television. By this point, a new generation of media-savvy autofiction writers has emerged capable of using interactive media to promote and extend their published work. Just as the growth of reality genres represented television reversing its own belatedness with regard to literature, so transmedia emanations of autofiction re-reverse this trend, pointing to a complex interaction between what happens in literature and what happens in other media.
Paola Iovene and Federico Picerni
“Chinese workers’ literature” is an umbrella term that comprises diverse writings by workers, for workers, and about workers. In the 1930s, roughly at the same time that an international proletarian arts movement was flourishing, a factory-based reportage literature—mostly written by leftist intellectuals and partly inspired by Russian and Japanese experiments—developed in semicolonial Shanghai. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, writings by workers themselves were officially promoted and published in state-supported venues. Largely consisting of edifying stories, poems, and plays, workers’ literature from the 1950s to the 1970s provided models of behavior and contributed to a shared sense of dignity among industrial workers; it was, however, severely limited in its expressive range. Along with the implementation of market reforms beginning in the 1980s and the privatization and contracting out of most state-owned industry, a new literature emerged in the Special Economic Zones of South China and has grown into a heterogeneous phenomenon encompassing poetry and prose written by countless rural-to-urban migrant workers, the mainstay of the country’s new workforce. These writings have been appreciated for their intimate portrayals of the human costs of economic development, for giving voice to the silent majority of precarious laborers who have made it possible, and for potentially restituting a measure of dignity to a social group whose members were once considered “masters of the country” but who, in the early 21st century, enjoy little job security and few rights. While it is possible to hear resonances across these disparate times and locations, much has changed along the way, including the social position of the worker and the groups associated with this term, the forms they have experimented with and the media through which their writings circulate, and the extent to which the workers have actively contributed to its production and circulation.
Although frequently associated with the digital era, data is an epistemological concept and representational form that has intersected with the narration of lives for centuries. With the rise of Baconian empiricism, methods of collecting discrete observations became the predominant way of knowing the physical world in Western epistemology. Exhaustive data collection came to be seen as the precursor to ultimate knowledge, theorized to have the potential to reveal predictive patterns without the intervention of human theory. Lives came to be seen as potential data collections, on the individual and the social level. As individuals have come to see value in collecting the data of their own lives, practices of observing and recording the self that characterize spiritual and diaristic practices have been inflected by a secular epistemology of data emphasizing exhaustivity in collection and self-improvement goals aimed at personal wellness and economic productivity. At the social level, collecting data about human lives has become the focus of a range of academic disciplines, governmental structures, and corporate business models. Nineteenth-century social sciences turned toward data collection as a method of explanation and prediction in earnest, and these methods were especially likely to be focused on the lives of minoritized populations. Theories of racial identity and difference emerging from such studies drew on the rhetoric of data as unbiased to enshrine white supremacist logic and law. The tendency to use data to categorize and thereby direct human lives has continued and manifests in 21st-century practices of algorithmic identification. At both the individual and social scales of collection, though, data holds the formal and epistemological potential to challenge narrative singularity by bringing the internal heterogeneity of any individual life or population into view. Yet it is often used to argue for singular revelation, the assignment of particular narratives to particular lives. Throughout the long history of representing lives as data in Western contexts, life writers have engaged with data conceptually and aesthetically in multiple ways: experimenting with its potential for revelation, critiquing its abstraction and totalization, developing data collection projects that are embodied and situated, using data to develop knowledge in service of oppressed communities, calling attention to data’s economic and political power, and asserting the narrative multiplicity and interpretive agency inherent in the telling of lives.
In countless ways, plants have been in literature from the start. They literally provide surfaces and tools of inscription, as well as figuratively inspire a diverse body of writing that ranges from documenting changing social and ecological conditions to probing the limits of the human imagination. The dependence of human along with all other life on vegetal bodies assures their omnipresence in literatures across all periods and cultures, positioning them as ready reference points for metaphors, similes, and other creative devices. As comestibles, landscape features, home décor, and of course paper, plants appear in the pages of virtually every literary text. But depictions of botanical life in action often prove portentous, particularly when they remind readers that plants move in mysterious ways. At the frontiers of ancient and medieval European settlements, the plant communities of forests served as vital sources of material and imaginative sustenance. Consequently, early modern literature registers widespread deforestation of these alluring and dangerous borderlands as threats to economic and social along with ecological flourishing, a pattern repeated through the literatures of settler colonialism. Although appearing in the earliest of literatures, appreciation for the ways in which plants inscribe stories of their own lives remains a minor theme, although with accelerating climate change an increasingly urgent one. Myths and legends of hybrid plant-men, trees of life, and man-eating plants are among the many sources informing key challenges to representing plants in modern and contemporary literature, most obviously in popular genre fictions like mystery, horror, and science fiction (sf). Further enlightening these developments are studies that reveal how botanical writing emerges as a site of struggle from the early modern period, deeply entrenched in attempts to systematize and regulate species in tandem with other differences. The scientific triumph of the Linnaean “sexual system” bears a mixed legacy in feminist plant writing, complicated further by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) writers’ creative engagements with the unevenly felt consequences of professionalized plant science. Empowered by critical plant studies, an interdisciplinary formation that rises to the ethical challenges of emergent scientific affirmations of vegetal sentience, literature and literary criticism are reexamining these histories and modeling alternatives. In the early 21st century with less than a fraction of 1 percent of the remaining old growth under conservation protection worldwide, plants appear as never before in fragile and contested communal terrains, overshadowed by people and other animals, all of whose existence depends on ongoing botanical adaptation.
Emerging from feminist and queer theory, trans theory asks us to challenge essentialist and heteronormative understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality. Trans theory teaches us to critique essentialist and binary models of embodiment by attending to and centering the body in theory and in the world. In the early 21st century, trans people are more visible than we have ever been. There is an increasing appetite from “mainstream” readers for trans memoir, larger numbers of trans characters on screen and in the media, and out trans people now hold high-ranking political positions, teach in schools and universities, and act on stage and screen. Rather than the demand for trans stories being driven by scopophilia, curiosity, or voyeurism, it appears that there is a desire to genuinely understand trans lives, bodies, and lived experiences. Visibility comes with a price though, and we must be wary of tracing a simplistic progress narrative in relation to trans and gender diverse people and communities. When we appear in public, we gather our own communities, as well as allies and sympathizers, but these appearances also make us vulnerable to those who still fiercely deny our right to exist—the Vatican City’s thirty-one page statement discussing gender theory in education (2019), where we are told that trans people are “annihilating nature,” is a perfect example of this. While the term “trans” (more often than not) refers to transgender people, it is also a prefix that means “across”; trans denotes movement, going from one to the other, and change. Because we can find trans people across all times, places, and populations, we can also trace a complex, rich, and ever-expanding archive of trans writing, histories, and stories. It is through troubling the idea that trans people are a “modern” invention, that we are the living embodiment of political correctness gone mad, that we can begin to find each other in text, gather together, and work toward making significant social, political, and cultural change.
In a country where literacy rates are among the highest in the region, books are cultural objects cherished by vast sectors of the Argentine population as well as powerful symbolic, cultural, economic, and political artefacts. In particular, books on politics are an indispensable segment in the catalog of any Argentine publishing house. The vertiginous nature of politics and the historical significance of the book in Argentine society are such that the publishing sector has been—and still remains—one of the preferred spaces where symbolic and political power is disputed. Throughout the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st century, the publishing market responded to different historical circumstances by producing headlines that sought to engage readers in different ways, helping them make life choices and understand the significance of their own time, as well as forming or reinforcing their opinions. Manufactured from the Left to the Right, books on politics expressed and shaped wills and aspirations, serving as combat weapons and means for the creation of spaces where ideas and political sentiments flourish. There are historical ties between the Argentinean publishing and political spheres, and the publishing process works as a fundamental form of mediation concerning the production and distribution of political ideas. Against the image of the book as an exclusive bridge connecting the authors with the reading public, a sociological and material viewpoint might focus on the publishing world and its protagonists: the ghost editors and agents who play an indispensable and decisive role in the processes whereby a book becomes an entitled cultural, economic, and political intervention—a great factory of ideas, discourses, and products with material and symbolic ramifications that influence public debates and agendas.
Since 1990, “life writing” has become a frequently used covering term for the familiar genres of biography, autobiography, memoir, diaries, letters, and many other forms of life narrative. Initially adopted as a critical intervention informed by post-structuralist, postmodernist, postcolonial, and especially feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s, the term also refers to the study of life representation beyond the traditional literary and historical focus on verbal texts, encompassing not only other media—film, graphic narratives, online technologies, performance—but also research in other disciplines—psychology, anthropology, ethnic and Indigenous studies, political science, sociology, education, medicine, and any other field that records, observes, or evaluates lives. While many critics and theorists still place their work within the realms of autobiography or biography, and others find life writing as a discipline either too ideologically driven, or still too confining conceptually, there is no question that life representation, primarily through narrative, is an important consideration for scholars engaged in virtually any field dealing with the nature and actions of human beings, or anything that lives.
Luis J. Rodríguez is a Chicano memoirist, novelist, poet, children’s author, and activist. Born in 1954 in Mexico, his family migrated to the United States when he was young. As a youth, he spent many years immersed in the street gangs of Los Angeles while concurrently partaking in community protests and mobilizations that became known as the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It took Rodríguez several years to extract himself from a life of crime and addiction to drugs, though all the while he was writing, painting, and being inspired by revolutionary figures. His first book of poetry was published in 1989, but it was his memoir of gang life, Always Running—La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA, released in 1993 in the aftermath of the LA riots, that garnered him mainstream literary attention. Always Running and its sequel, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions and Healing, eighteen years later, can be labeled testimonio for detailing a Latina/o “lived” experience and fighting social injustices. In many ways Rodríguez can be deemed a “classic” Chicana/o author: he addresses the experience of migration and writes in both English and Spanish; he explores themes of prejudice and identity for Mexican Americans in the United States; and he considers the role of heteropatriarchal aspects of Mexican culture in defining his relationships (with women and children). His steadfast dedication to Native American/indigenous spirituality is a more recent focus in his life and writings, situating him among a long list of Chicana/os who have embarked on the “Red Road,” that is, life as indigenous-identified subjects. But what most arguably sets Rodríguez apart from fellow Chicana/o writers is his allegiance—throughout all his works in all genres—to proletarian politics and concerns for the working classes. His critiques of deindustrialization and its subsequent effects, particularly poverty, are reflected, for example, in his depictions of the Bethlehem Steel Mill of LA, where Rodríguez worked.
This entry develops a definition of literature as an identity technology by bringing together theories of identity formation as a process of identification and introjection, with thinking about reading as a materially grounded process in which readers encounter identities in the form of characters and narrators. The essay critically situates the terms “identity” and “technology” in the study of literature, media, and culture in order to argue that at the linguistic, symbolic, and material level, literature can be used as a means for inscribing and reinscribing identity at the individual and collective level. Drawing on ways of reading literature from autobiography studies and queer theory, this article is about how to read and think about literature as a mechanism through which identity is formed, negotiated and renegotiated, inscribed, and made public. The case studies utilized in this entry are the opening and closing essays of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s important work of literary theory, Tendencies. Sedgwick’s theorization and enactment of reading as a generative, queer practice is brought together with a close reading of her reflections on her own identity and the variety of techniques she uses to situate to her reader to elucidate the utility of thinking literature as a technology used in the ongoing work of identity.