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Article

Identification  

James Purdon

The term “identification” denotes both a social procedure (the act of recognition by which a person is acknowledged, formally or informally, to be a specific individual) and a genre of text (the marks, signs, or documents, such as signets, signatures, passports, ID cards, and birth certificates, which formally record and enable that procedure). Like many forms of literary narrative, the genres of identification are explicitly concerned with questions of the stability—or mutability—of the self. Who is this person? Do people change? If so, what, if anything, remains constant: how can we be confident that this is “the same” person? How much control do individuals have over the recording and representation of their personal characteristics? And how do those objective records relate, or fail to relate, to lived experiences of unique subjectivity? One distinction to be drawn between literary narrative and identification is the different value each has tended to give to temporality. Put simply, an identificatory technique is deemed to be the more effective the more capable it is of excluding from the process of identification those personal characteristics that might alter over time. Fingerprints and DNA, for instance, are among the most valuable identificatory tools because they remain constant from before birth until after death. Photographs, meanwhile, possess some identificatory value, but many factors can cause rapid and drastic changes in an individual’s physical appearance: this is one reason passports and similar documents include expiration dates and must be renewed. Narratives, on the other hand, are by definition temporal structures. They tell us that certain things happened or failed to happen. They frequently register and explore change and transition, and even narratives concerned with stasis and changelessness are obliged to acknowledge and account for the passage of time. In this sense, identification and narrative would seem to be at odds with one another. Identification exists to formalize the attribution of identity by rendering narrative irrelevant: the border guard who demands a valid passport will not accept an autobiography in its place. Yet several features of identification complicate this apparent antagonism. Firstly, identification documents function not only to record identities, but actively to constitute both individual identities and the broader concept of identity in a given society. They become not just records which diminish the significance of narrative, but constituent parts of the way individuals understand their place in society and by extension their own experience. Identification becomes part of the stories that individuals tell themselves, and tell about themselves. Secondly, because officially ratified forms of identification have a unique probative force, they themselves have become powerful tools in the production of stories and selves. The criminal who wishes to manufacture or steal a new identity must become adept in the deployment of official documents as a way of authenticating a fictitious claim to recognition. Finally—as countless scenes of identification trouble in fictional works suggest—the moment at which citizens are obliged to identify themselves by recourse to the data contained in identity documents frequently generates a reaction in the form of a heightened sense of individuality. The modern citizen is never more conscious of the complexity of their own story than at the moment when they hand over the misleading simplification, printed on passport or ID card, which constitutes their “identity.” Over the 20th century in particular, as modern systems of identity management became ever more technologically complex and bureaucratically stringent, literary works found new ways to describe and explain the effects of such systems on individuals and on the societies they inhabit.

Article

Performativity  

Julie Rak

The concept of performativity is foundational to the study of gender, but arguably no concept within gender studies has been more misunderstood and misapplied. A journey through the development of performativity as a critical tool from its beginnings in linguistics and philosophy, to its foundational work in poststructuralism and then its general acceptance within the study of gender shows how and why the concept of performativity is at once obvious and difficult to grasp, connected as it is to ordinary life and speech and to abstract theories of identification, all at once. J. L. Austin proposed performatives as utterances that were not constative, in that they were not verifiable, famously arguing that performatives are illocutionary, because they “do” an action as they are said or written. Austin’s focus included the environment or scene of the utterance, where speakers and situation had to match the intent of the performative in order for it to work. From then on, performatives became the subject of linguistics and speech act theory, and then were important to many critical theorists, notably Shoshana Felman, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, all of whom developed postmodern and poststructural approaches to language and representation which saw that performatives offered an alternative route to thinking about how meaning is produced. Poststructuralists interested in the work of language and politics found performatives helpful for thinking about the impact and force of statements. Judith Butler, who in particular is associated with poststructural thinking about performatives, developed a theory of performativity which linked it to ways of doing gender. In her rethinking of performativity and gender, discourse and repetition construct a sense of what gender identity is. Performativity in Butler’s view explains how gender identity constructs subjects and then is connected (often falsely or painfully) to ideas about sex assignment, bodies and sexuality, although the constant repetition of gender norms can result in new and unexpected ways of being gendered. Performativity in Butler’s work is not performance, although it has been widely interpreted that way, because performativity does not assume that a subject pre-exists its discursive construction. The repetition and reiteration of gender norms provides a fiction of interiority and identity for subjects, although Butler leaves open the possibility of the remainder, or excess, that has political potential to make other kinds of gender identities. Performativity was hotly debated within feminist theory, queer theory, and trans theory because Butler’s version of the concept critiqued the work of agency while still insisting on the importance of politics. Eventually, the concept became central to non-essentialist approaches to identity formation.

Article

Theorizing the Subject  

Sidonie Smith

Ever since the Greek philosophers and fabulists pondered the question “What is man?,” inquiries into the concept of the subject have troubled humanists, eventuating in fierce debates and weighty tomes. In the wake of the Descartes’s cogito and Enlightenment thought, proposals for an ontology of the idealist subject’s rationality, autonomy, and individualism generated tenacious questions regarding the condition of pre-consciousness, the operation of feelings and intuitions, the subject-object relation, and the origin of moral and ethical principles. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Marx, and theorists he and Engels influenced, pursued the materialist bases of the subject, through analyses of economic determinism, self-alienation, and false consciousness. Through another lineage, Freud and theorists of psychic structures pursued explanations of the incoherence of a split subject, its multipartite psychodynamics, and its relationship to signifying systems. By the latter 20th century, theorizations of becoming a gendered woman by Beauvoir, of disciplining power and ideological interpellation by Foucault and Althusser, and of structuralist dynamics of the symbolic realm expounded by Lacan, energized a succession of poststructuralist, postmodern, feminist, queer, and new materialist theorists to advance one critique after another of the inherited concept of the liberal subject as individualist, disembodied (Western) Man. In doing so, they elaborated conditions through which subjects are gendered and racialized and offered explanatory frameworks for understanding subjectivity as an effect of positionality within larger formations of patriarchy, slavery, conquest, colonialism, and global neoliberalism. By the early decades of the 21st century, posthumanist theorists dislodged the subject as the center of agentic action and distributed its processual unfolding across trans-species companionship, trans-corporeality, algorithmic networks, and conjunctions of forcefields. Persistently, theorists of the subject referred to an entangled set of related but distinct terms, such as the human, person, self, ego, interiority, and personal identity. And across diverse humanities disciplines, they struggled to define and refine constitutive features of subject formation, most prominently relationality, agency, identity, and embodiment.

Article

Mourning and Melancholia  

Tanya Dalziell

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.

Article

Identity Technologies  

Anna Poletti

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.

Article

Literary Translation  

Anthony Pym

Literary translation has progressively been dominated by a Western translation form that imposes basic binarisms, assuming separate (national) languages, a foundational opposition between domesticating and foreignizing translation strategies, and separate voices for author and translator, with the latter in a subordinate position. This binary, individualist, and nationalist conceptualization furnishes a way of talking about translations that often has little to do with the vitality and pragmatism of the literary translator’s craft, where there are mostly more than two options in play. When coupled to notions of literariness that privilege means of expression, the form also produces strong concepts of untranslatability, usually based on the banal observation that different languages offer different means of expression. A strong answer to the alleged impossibility of translation is the idea, found in Walter Benjamin and Andrey Fedorov, that literary translations do not replace their “source” or “start texts” but are instead an interpretative extension of them, and should be read as such. The Western translation form also overlooks the variety of translative activities that existed prior to its rise in the early modern period. With its emphasis on separation and accuracy, it traveled out with the railway lines and steam printing presses of modernity, supplanting most of the non-Western translation forms as literary practices. Western translation studies, as an academic discipline, has followed the same paths several generations later, imposing its binary metalanguage in the process. In this, it has become part and parcel of a world configuration of networks where a few central languages, with English as a super-central language, have enormous numbers of translations being done from them, while they themselves appear to have relatively few translations in them. This has been called the “three-percent problem,” so named because only 3 to 4 percent of texts in English are translations. The low percentage is nevertheless a function of the huge number of titles published in English, which means that English regularly has more translations than do French or Italian, for example. There are nevertheless hegemonic relations in the way that international literary events are created in central languages and then translated outward, such that a disproportionate degree of fame tends to accrue to those who write in the central languages. Can this configuration be changed? If the foundational binarisms of the Western translation form were based on the fixity of the printing press, which separated languages and objectified stable texts, then new translation forms should be sought in the global accessibility and fluidity of digital technologies, which offer translators unexplored possibilities.

Article

Impersonation  

Laura Browder

Impersonator narratives exist at the intersection of literature and history; they serve as interventions during flash points in history. Impersonation takes a number of different forms, but in all cases it is contingent on reader reception. There are narrative impersonations in which reader and writer are willing collaborators and in which readers feel little to no discomfort with an author’s assumption of a voice far from his or her public identity; any novel written in first person is in a sense an impersonation. Yet even when author and reader agree that the work is fictional, this compact between fiction reader and writer can become disrupted when readers question the author’s right to assume a specific voice. There are literary hoaxes, which generally (although not always) involve a body of work whose author is supposedly dead (and thus it is impossible for any actual impersonation to take place). The most analytically productive for textual scholars, however, are the most committed impersonators—those who (at least part-time) inhabit the literary personae they have created. For this last group of impersonators, as is true for some of the others, success depends on having a readership with fixed ideas about the identities the impersonator chooses to inhabit. The impersonator succeeds through a deep understanding of stereotypes and, through his or her success, further imprisons his or her readers in caricatured thinking about race and identity. Yet the unmasking of the impersonator offers the possibility of liberation to readers, in that it forces them to consider the preconceptions that led them to believe in these false narratives, no matter how implausible. Impersonation can be a means for its practitioners to escape historical traps, or identities that no longer work for them; it can be a way for practitioners to put a historically understood label (Holocaust survivor, AIDS victim) on their private, uncategorizable pain or trauma. Impersonation is meaningless without the underlying belief in an authentic voice. And these authentic voices are usually from speakers outside the literary canon.

Article

Virtual Identities  

Zara Dinnen

Virtual identities stand in for a user or player in a virtual environment; they are social media profiles; digital subjects—of human and nonhuman agency. Virtual identities are often imagined as something distinct from the “self” of the user of digital media but technically and existentially they determine the ways a user navigates life online. Virtual identities, then, might also be a category that captures the ways identity itself is virtual; a force of existence that determines how subjects can orient themselves in the world. The questions of what virtual identities are, how they operate, and the kinds of material expression of personhood they afford and signify has been taken up in scholarship across the last thirty years from a variety of disciplines including computer sciences, critical race studies, game studies, gender and sexuality studies, literary studies, new media studies, social sciences, science and technology studies, and visual culture studies. As an imminent figure in early 21st-century life, virtual identities might describe subjects who exist in global digital media networks but who do not necessarily profit from their participation and labor, or who are not always visible. Despite the virtuality of virtual identities, their partial and fragmentary status, they exist as a technology by which to fix identity to an embodied subject—via facial recognition, or biometric scanning, or the coaxing and collection of personal data. The study of virtual identities remains an ongoing and significant task.

Article

Canon and Classic  

Trevor Ross

The literary canon, theorists contend, is a selection of reputable works that abstracts their value for specific purposes: to safeguard them from neglect or censure, reproduce social and institutional values, maintain them as exemplary in the formation of personal or communal identities, or objectify and enshrine standards of judgment. The value of canonical works is not felt reducible to these uses or the interests that canon-making may serve, but canonization is nonetheless thought to be a recognition of their value, even confirmation that this value has been sufficiently established, by consensus or institutional edict, that it no longer requires demonstration. The discourse of canonicity thus relies on an economy of belief about the possibility and validity of agreement about literary value. Within this economy, the canon, in whichever composition, is both the evidence and the outcome of agreement, without which value would seemingly become entirely speculative. At the same time, canonicity is also a form of attention paid to valuable works, and it is not the only such form. Canonical works are treated differently than are other valuable works, and the value of the same work may be described in a different rhetoric of valuation depending on what kind of valuable work it is perceived to be. A work may be treated as a reference point, a familiar and influential text whose contribution to culture is measured relative to one context. It may be viewed as a classic, a singular and standard work whose value is perceived across a distance of time or culture. Or it may be esteemed as a canonical text, whose vital and indefinable contribution is not seen as relative to any particular time or place. The discourse of canonicity thus serves to generate belief in the possibility of suspending, however provisionally, speculation and contingency.

Article

Trauma and Memory Studies  

Karyn Ball

A focus on trauma’s institutional trajectory in literary and cultural theory serves to narrow the transnational and multidirectional scope of memory studies. While Sigmund Freud’s attempt in Beyond the Pleasure Principle to define trauma in order to account for World War I veterans’ symptoms might serve as a provisional departure point, the psychological afflictions that haunted American soldiers returning from the Vietnam War reinforced the explanatory value of what came to be called “posttraumatic stress disorder,” which the American Psychiatric Association added to the DSM-III (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 1980. Multiple dramatic films released in the 1980s about Vietnam conveyed images of the American soldier’s two-fold traumatization by the violence he not only witnessed but also perpetrated along with the ambivalent treatment he received upon his return to a protest-riven nation waking up to the demoralizing realization that US military prowess was neither absolute nor inherently just. Proliferating research and writing about trauma in the late 1980s reflected this juncture as well as the transformative impact of the new social movements whose consciousness-raising efforts inspired a generation of academics to revise secondary and post-secondary literary canons. The publication in 1992 of both Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery as well as Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s Testimony: Crises of Witnessing; In Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, along with Cathy Caruth’s editorial compilation entitled Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995) and collected essays in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996), crystallized a moment when trauma was manifestly coming into vogue as an object of inquiry. This trend was reinforced by simultaneous developments in Holocaust studies that included critical acclaim for Claude Lanzmann’s ten-hour documentary Shoah (released in 1985), the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC in 1993, and, that same year, the international success of Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Other key events that propelled the popularity of trauma studies in the 1990s included the fall of the Berlin wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and South African apartheid governments, and Toni Morrison receiving the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature for Beloved. The latter additionally bolstered specialization in African American studies as a platform for investigating representations of slavery and its violent afterlives. While some critics fault the 1990s confluence of Holocaust and trauma studies for its Eurocentrism, the research pursued by feminist, multiculturalist, and postcolonial scholars in the same period laid the foundation for increasingly diverse lines of inquiry. Postcolonial criticism in particular has inspired scholarship about the intergenerational aftereffects of civil war, partition, forced migration, and genocide as well as the damage that accrues as settler states continue to marginalize and constrain the indigenous groups they displaced. More recent trauma research has also moved beyond a focus on finite events to examine the compounding strain of the everyday denigrations and aggressions faced by subordinated groups in tandem with long-term persecution and systemically induced precarity. Ultimately, then, the scale of trauma and memory studies has become not only global but also planetary in response to intensifying public anxiety about extinction events and climate change.

Article

Lyric Poetry and Poetics  

Daniel Tiffany

Lyric poetry is an ancient genre, enduring to the present day, but it is not continuous in its longevity. What happens to lyric poetry and how it changes during its numerous and sometimes lengthy periods of historical eclipse (such as the 18th century) may be as important to our understanding of lyric as an assessment of its periods of high achievement. For it is during these periods of relative obscurity that lyric enters into complex relations with other genres of poetry and prose, affirming the general thesis that all genres are relational and porous. The question of whether any particular properties of lyric poetry endure throughout its 2,700-year checkered history can be addressed by examining its basic powers: its forms; its figurative and narrative functions; and its styles and diction. The hierarchy of these functions is mutable, as one finds in today’s rift between a scholarly revival of formalist analysis and the increasing emphasis on diction in contemporary poetry. As a way of assessing lyric poetry’s basic operations, the present article surveys the ongoing tension between form and diction by sketching a critique of the tenets of New Formalism in literary studies, especially its presumptions about the relation of poetic form to the external world and its tendency to subject form to close analysis, as if it could yield, like style or diction, detailed knowledge of the world. Long overshadowed by the doctrinal tenets of modernist formalism, the expressive powers of diction occupy a central place in contemporary concerns about identity and social conflict, at the same time that diction (unlike form) is especially susceptible to the vocabularistic methods of “distant reading”—to the computational methods of the digital humanities. The indexical convergence of concreteness and abstraction, expression and rationalism, proximity and distance, in these poetic and scholarly experiments with diction points to precedents in the 18th century, when the emergence of Anglophone poetries in the context of colonialism and the incorporation of vernacular languages into poetic diction (via the ballad revival) intersected with the development of modern lexicography and the establishment of Standard English. The nascent transactions of poetics and positivism through the ontology of diction in the 21st century remind us that poetic diction is always changing but also that the hierarchy of form, figuration, and diction in lyric poetry inevitably shifts over time—a reconfiguration of lyric priorities that helps to shape the premises and methods of literary studies.