Mourning and melancholia are among the primary concepts that have come to interest and structure late-20th- and early-21st-century literary theory. The terms are not new to this historical moment—Hippocrates (460–379 bce) believed that an excess of black bile caused melancholia and its symptoms of fear and sadness—but they have taken on an urgent charge as theories respond to both the world around them and shifts in theory itself. With the 20th century viewed as a historical period marked by cataclysmic events, and literary theory characterized by the collapse of the transcendental signified, attention has turned to mourning and melancholia, and questions of how to respond to and represent loss. The work of Sigmund Freud has been a touchstone in this regard. Since the publication in 1917 of his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” theorists have been applying and critiquing the ideas Freud formulated, and examining how literature might register them. The elegy has been singled out for particular scrutiny given that this poetic form is conventionally a lament for the dead that offers solace to the survivors. Yet, focus has expanded to include other literary modes and to query both the ethics of coming to terms with loss, which is the ostensible work of mourning, and the affective and political desirability of melancholia.
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The “posthuman” is an umbrella term frequently employed in a number of theoretical and critical discourses. It is difficult to find a definition of the term that is shared by all the different approaches that use it, since “posthuman” seems to denote a very diverse group of phenomena, some ongoing and others only predicted or imagined. The “posthuman” is used to describe modes of being resulting from potential enhancements to human nature generated through applied science and technological developments. However, it is equally adopted to identify the decentering of human exceptionalism and the overcoming of the principles of humanism. Depending on the descriptive strategy adopted, the term can be used to identify very different philosophical and theoretical positions, from technoprogressive stances to outlooks that are very critical of technological determinism. These positions, rather than seeing in posthumanism opportunities for an extension of rational mastery and an overcoming of humanity’s biological limits, see in the posthuman condition a chance to redress the balance between human and nonhuman and promote horizontal ontologies and expanded ethics. What these different conceptual positions share is the blurring of boundaries between human, technology, and nature in favor of more hybrid and fluid configurations. Finally, while the term “posthuman” finds a home in science-fiction, it has come to be applied to literary and filmic works that are less rooted in traditional science-fiction themes and subject matters but rather respond to specific events or phenomena, in particular environmental and ecological ones.
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.
A term deriving from the sound of the mechanical printing process able to provide cheap and fast reproductions of literary works, the cliché is at once both a foundation of modern culture and its constant adversary. Denoting a lack of originality, thought, or effort, clichés appear to be the very opposite of literature’s aspirations, and there is no end to the warnings for writers to avoid them at all costs. However, few theorists have spent sustained time detailing the workings of the cliché outside of criticizing their use. Indeed, the cliché seems to resist being thought about too much. At the same time, this resistance to theory can also obscure a range of issues that the cliché raises as a problem for literature. Unpacking these problems suggests that the cliché is not simply an issue of unoriginal thought, but arises from, and is perpetuated by, a number of tensions within the production and circulation of writing itself. These include tensions between artistic worth and literary ownership; between organic creation and technologies of reproduction; between localized communications and universal truth; and concerning the status of the intellectual in relation to the masses and the place of authenticity in late-modern culture.
Northrup Frye expressed a scholarly impatience with what seemed to him the inconsequentiality of literary study, asking if criticism might provide “a coordinating principle, a central hypothesis, which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole" (1957). Cognitive literary theory did not actually answer to Frye’s scientism until almost fifty years later, and when it did, it moved quickly in many directions. But it did not (and still has not) coalesced into a unified theory. The vigor and excitement of the field derive from its openness to many different areas of brain science, the wide reach of its attention to so many varieties of works of imagination—their production, their reception, and their history— and its resistance to a centralizing dogma. In her introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies, Lisa Zunshine, scholar in the field and its best historian, describes cognitive literary critics as working “not toward consilience with science but toward a richer engagement with a variety of theoretical paradigms in literary and cultural studies" (2015). Scholars from most traditional humanities fields: philosophers (both analytical and phenomenological and philosophers of mind and of language), cultural, literary, and art historians, literary critics and linguists, for example, and social scientists as well (anthropologists, archaeologists, and ethologists), have found the various fields of brain science to offer new perspectives on some persistent questions. Studies by developmental psychologists have made major contributions. And as brain imaging has become more powerful and widely used, the hypotheses of neurophysiologists and neurobiologists have come into the picture. Evolutionary biology has made perhaps the largest contribution by providing the overriding argument in the field—namely that human potential, individual behavior, and group dynamics can be studied as emerging phenomena. This begins with bodies that have over the millennia grown into worlds in which competition and cooperation have built and continue to build cultural life.
Diaspora as a concept and a particular phenomenon of migration has a double origin: etymologically, it comes from the Greek verb diaspeirein, meaning to scatter; historically, it refers to the dispersal of the Jews from their ancestral land after the destruction of the Second Temple in 586 bce. The term has been applied to the involuntary displacement of other peoples—for example, the African, Armenian, and Irish diasporas—but the Jewish diaspora has served as the principal paradigm of diasporic experience. Based on the Jewish “prototypical” case, the concept has been commonly defined as encompassing a collective identity shaped by the trauma that accompanies a group’s forced departure from its ancestral land and its emotional and material attachment to the origins that is sustained by the desire to return home or by symbolic manifestations of nostalgia. Although scholars have identified different kinds of diasporas—labor, trading, imperial diasporas—the term has maintained its emphasis on dislocation and loss, evoking at once the experience and politics of dispossession and ethnic identification. Since the second half of the 20th century, however, this understanding of diaspora has expanded to embrace a range of displaced communities—immigrants, migrants, exiles, refugees—and has thus come to be identified with global mobilities as an aftereffect of modernity. The malleability of the concept has given rise to many debates about its meaning, application, and methodology, especially since the late 1980s when diaspora began to attract systematic critical attention. The study of diaspora is generally characterized by both a centripetal and a centrifugal approach: the former, holding up the home nation as the ultimate reference point and thus viewing diasporas as distinct and cohesive entities, is concerned with demarcating the boundaries of the term by establishing categorical definitions and typologies; the latter, viewing diaspora as inhabiting an interstitial space in relation to the receiving nation and thus as a hybrid formation and social condition, is interested in diasporic subjectivity as a question of becoming. This opening up of the concept of diaspora, along with the increased global flow of people and parallel developments in other fields, has meant that, since the latter part of the 20th century, diaspora is examined in the adjacent contexts of globalization, postcolonialism, multiculturalism, transnationalism, and hybridity.
“Discourse” is language in use, and discourse analysis is the study of language in use. Language occurs, reflects, and is interpreted within social and ideological contexts. In turn, language constructs social realities, relationships, and power structures. Discourse analysis explores those functions, operations, and powers of discourse, in texts and other forms of communication events, investigating the ways in which discourse becomes meaningful. It focuses on how implicatures arise in relation to the contexts in which discourse functions. Discourse analysis is particularly interested in the interpersonal dimensions of discourse and in the social relationships and positions constructed through discourse. Discourse analysis has chiefly been informed by text linguistics and pragmatics, though its applications span many disciplines, from geography to psychology, and from literature to politics. This is partly because discourse is a universal and transdisciplinary phenomenon, and partly because many disciplines are asking similar research questions of the discourses and discursive constructs with which they engage. While traditional discourse analysis can be loosely divided into text-focused and speech-focused domains, many discourse phenomena occur across modes, and many discourse analytic approaches are likewise relevant across modes. Discourse is also being recognized as inherently (and in some areas increasingly) multimodal, opening up new avenues of study. Discourse analysis is essentially a critically reflexive field. It is motivated by an interest in social structures and ideologies underscoring discourses and discourse practices and also in social structures and ideologies embedded within discourse analytical stances. This criticality makes it a crucially important tool for the 21st-century era of instant global sharing of discourse, of easily digitally manipulable multimedia discourse, and of “post-truth” Western discourses of political power.
Since around 1970, and across a broad spectrum of humanities and social sciences disciplines, there has been an ongoing and critical reassessment of the role played by space, place, and geography in the formation and unfolding of human knowledge, subjectivity, and social relations. Starting with the identification of a distinctive “spatial turn” within critical and social theory in the second half of the 20th century, it has become a commonplace to recognize space as being political and as having a particular affective and effective power. A distinctive constellation of socio-technological changes at the start of the 20th century brought the question of space to the critical foreground, and, by the end of the 20th century, a loosely defined and interdisciplinary “spatial theory” had emerged, while a number of fields across the humanities and social sciences had avowedly undergone their own “spatial turns.” More recently, new critical approaches have emerged that foreground the geo- as both a starting point and method for critical analysis as well as new inter-disciplines—namely the geohumanities and spatial humanities—that provide a focus for the range of work being done at the interstices of geography and the humanities. With the rise to ubiquity of geospatial and geolocative technologies since around 2005—and their almost wholesale penetration into everyday life in the global North in the form of the GPS-enabled smartphone—the question of the geo- and its role in locating and mediating human experience, knowledge, and social relations has become ever more salient. In an era where the geo- becomes geolocation, and is increasingly defined by networked relations among humans, digital media, and their locational data traces, new approaches and schools of thought that transect geography, digital media, and critical and cultural theory have once more emerged, constituting what may be thought of as a new, digital spatial turn. Charting the trajectory of the geo- as a key site and mode of critique across and through these often overlapping “spatial turns”—across time, space, and disciplinary boundaries—is itself a work of geolocation.
Hybridity captures various ways in which identities are characterized by complexity or mixed-ness rather than simplicity or purity. It is a term that functions as a description of how things simply are, but it frequently appears to take on the characteristics of a prescription. It is not only that identities on various scales are hybrid, but also that they ought to be hybrid, or should become more hybrid. This prescriptive sense prompts reflection on the processes that drive mixed identities, shifting attention away from a static hybridity toward a dynamic and unending hybridization. The idea’s use in many different disciplinary formations typically implies that, while all identities are minimally hybrid, specific historical shifts have exaggerated and accelerated hybridity. Those shifts are associated with European colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade, neocolonial echoes, globalization, and the rise of the cyborg. Such associations raise the question of resistance to the prescriptive recommendation of hybridity to the extent that hybrid cultures are so frequently an outcome of violent domination. Formerly colonized cultures strive to re-establish more fundamental identities, casting the hybridizing colonial period as a brief if damaging and disruptive interlude. Resistance is also found in former imperial centers, with multiculturalism perceived as a hybridizing threat to the core integrity of a melancholic post-imperialism. And commentators continue to warn that automation and related AI will make unexpectedly diverse jobs obsolete in the very near future, a hybrid cyborg future that occasionally begins to feel more machine than human. Ultimately, it may seem that hybridity is opposed to various forms of indigeneity, purity, or in the most general case, humanity in general. However, such oppositions would be misleading, principally because hybridity as a cultural fact and as a concept implies nothing of necessity. Each context demands specific attention to the ways it is hybrid, the processes of hybridization, and the stabilities that follow.
As the second decade of the 21st century draws to a close, Indigenous literary studies in Aotearoa New Zealand are characterized primarily by tension between abundance and scarcity. The abundance relates to a wealth of writers, texts, and forms, both contemporary and archival. Many historical texts and literary contexts are being revealed and investigated for the first time. Abundance in this context also signifies the richness of approach, technique, and language use in both contemporary and archival texts. The significance of this deep archive is yet to be fully realized, due in part to the scarcity of scholars in Indigenous literatures of Aotearoa, a lack which is cemented and institutionalized by the absence of university courses that focus primarily on Indigenous literatures in English. A paucity of published Māori and Pasifika creative texts, particularly long-form fiction, further solidifies a perceptible absence in New Zealand writing. Significant scholarship is being developed despite this, however. And rather than being limited to viewing Indigenous literatures through the lens of English or New Zealand literary history, Indigenous scholars present innovative historical, geographical, and creative genre frameworks that open up multiple ways of reading and engaging with Indigenous literatures. In New Zealand, Māori literature is any writing produced by the Indigenous population. Māori and Moriori are the name of the Indigenous peoples of New Zealand, who also identify within distinct tribal groupings. In international contexts, the word “Indigenous” may be used more frequently to describe Māori, but in a New Zealand context, the term “Māori” is almost exclusively used. It should be noted that Māori is not a literary category, however. It is a cultural identity. It therefore follows that any form of literature can be produced by a Māori writer, and may be labeled “Māori writing.” Drawing on a long literary whakapapa, or genealogy, Māori writers and literary scholars are crossing colonially imposed boundaries to recognize distinctively Indigenous creative and critical epistemologies. Having passed through the Māori cultural renaissance of the 1970s to the 1990s, Māori writers no longer grapple with the need to articulate their right to existence as distinct peoples, but instead enjoy the autonomy to decide how that distinctive existence may best be expressed. One of the most lively aspects of contemporary Indigenous literature in New Zealand is the emphasis on new ways to present, read, incorporate, and interpret te reo Māori in English language texts.