In modern parlance, midrash (Hebrew root drš, “to investigate, seek, search out, examine”) refers to any act of interpretation, but in its strictest and most precise sense it refers to ancient rabbinic biblical interpretation. Midrash is both the process and product of interpretation contained in vast compilations of midrashim (plural) as well as in other rabbinic works such as the Talmud. Compendia of midrashim not only preserve interpretations and teachings but also reveal a curiously postmodern, polysemic approach to scriptural exegesis. These compilations are often categorized according to three (problematic) descriptive binaries: halakhic or aggadic; tannaitic (70–200 ce) or amoraic (200–500 ce); and exegetical or homiletical. Through the midrashic process, the Jewish sages of antiquity made the Bible relevant to their contemporaries, taught moral lessons, told fanciful stories, and developed as well as maintained theological beliefs and ethical codes of behavior. The study of midrash provides a portal into the cultural world of the rabbis of late antiquity; it also serves to highlight their approach to and assumptions about scripture, and their guiding hermeneutical practices and principles. Midrashic interpretation employs a variety of exegetical techniques that are often tightly connected to the language of scripture. In addition to wordplay, the rabbis occasionally use gematria, whereby the arithmetical value of Hebrew letters is used to interpret a word or verse. Intertextuality and the atomicization of scriptural words, phrases, and verses are fundamental characteristics of the midrashic method. Although the term midrash applies specifically to rabbinic biblical interpretation, it is sometimes used more broadly as a synonym for aggadah, which includes rabbinic stories, maxims, and parables. Critical editions of midrashic compilations as well as digital advancements and translations give scholars in cognate fields the necessary tools to understand rabbinic literature and undertake comparative studies.
Parody, Pastiche, and Intertextuality in Asian American Novels
Amy C. Tang
The repetition and reframing of styles, forms, and texts variously known as pastiche, parody, intertextuality, appropriation, or sampling is a pervasive practice in Asian American literature. Since the emergence of Asian American literary studies in the 1970s, such strategies have formed a key site for negotiating the terms of Asian American identity, politics, and culture. While pastiche has been recognized as a signature style of postmodern culture at large, it has held particular significance for Asian American literary and cultural studies because of its resonance with Asian American identity. Because Asian Americans have long been stereotyped as mimics of Western culture, and because the category Asian American refers to a coalition of multiple and diverse ethnic groups, Asian American identity itself seems constituted by the formal operations of imitation and recombination central to parody and pastiche. The close alignment between Asian American identity and these formal practices has made shifting critical attitudes toward parody, pastiche, and intertextuality into a telling register of evolving conceptions of Asian American identity. In the cultural nationalist era of the 1970s, pastiche was seen as the formal expression of Asian Americans’ tendency to repeat and reproduce dominant ideologies, a sign of complicity with white racism, and a lack of cultural integrity. By contrast, a second wave of Asian American criticism in the 1990s embraced strategies of textual repetition as subversive parody rather than complicit pastiche, reinterpreting them as articulations of a politically oppositional, hybrid and heterogeneous Asian American subject. Since the turn of the millennium, the use of parody, pastiche, and intertextuality in Viet Nguyen’s prize-winning 2015 novel The Sympathizer intimates yet another iteration of Asian American identity centered on the war refugee, a model of Asian American subjectivity which shifts attention from traditional topics of immigration and assimilation to urgent questions of imperialism and militarism. Taken together, these examples demonstrate how the formal strategies of parody, pastiche, and intertextuality have served as crucial sites for the invention and reinvention of Asian American identity, politics, and aesthetics.
The Contemporary Gothic
Xavier Aldana Reyes
The writings covered to by the umbrella term “Gothic” are so varied in style, thematic interests, and narrative effects that an overarching definition becomes problematic and even undesirable. The contemporary Gothic, drawing on an already fragmented and heterogenic artistic tradition, is less a genre than a vestigial type of writing that resuscitates older horrors and formulas and filters them through the echo chambers of a modern preoccupation with the social value of transgressive literature. In a century when the Gothic has once again exploded in popularity, and following a period of strong institutionalization of its study in the 1990s and 2000s, establishing some of its key modern manifestations and core concerns becomes a pressing issue. The Gothic may be fruitfully separated from horror, a genre premised on the emotional impact it seeks to have on readers, as a type of literature concerned with the legacy of the past on the present—and, more importantly, with the retrojecting of contemporary anxieties into times considered more barbaric. These have increasingly manifested in neo-Victorian fictions and in stories where settings are haunted by forgotten or repressed events but also by weird fiction, where encounters with beings and substances from unplumbed cosmic depths lead to a comparable temporal discombobulation. The intertextual mosaics of the contemporary Gothic also borrow from and recycle well-known myths and figures such as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster in order to show their continued relevance or else to adapt their recognizable narratives to the early 21st century. Finally, the Gothic, as a type of literature that is quickly becoming defined by the cultural work it carries out and by its transnational reach, has found in monstrosity, especially in its mediation of alterity, of traumatic national pasts and of the viral nature of the digital age, a fertile ground for the proliferation of new nightmares.
Anthologies, in the broadest sense of collections of independent texts, have always played an important role in preserving and spreading the written word, and collections of short forms, such as proverbs, wise sayings, and epigraphs, have a long history. The literary anthology, however, is of comparatively recent provenance, having come to prominence only during the long 18th century, when the modern concept of “literature” itself emerged. Since that time, it has been a fundamental part of literary culture: not only have literary texts been published in anthologies, but also the genre of the anthology has done much to shape their form and content, and to influence the ways in which they are read and taught, particularly as literary criticism has developed in tandem with the rise of the anthology. The anthology has also stimulated innovation in many periods and places by providing a model for writers of different genres of literature to emulate, and it has been argued that the form of the novel is much indebted to the anthology. This is connected to its close association with the figure of the reader. Furthermore, anthologies have helped to define what literature is, and been crucial to the canonization of texts, authors, and genres, and the consolidation of literary traditions. It is therefore not surprising that they were at the heart of the theoretical and pedagogical debates within literary studies known as the canon wars, which raged during the 1980s and 1990s. In this role, they contributed much to discussions concerning the theories and politics of identity, and to such approaches as feminism and race studies. The connection between the anthology and literary theory extends beyond this, however: theory itself has been subject to widespread anthologization, which has affected its practice and reception; the form of theoretical writing can in certain respects be understood as anthological; and the anthology is an important object of theoretical attention. For instance, given the potential which the digital age holds to transform how texts are disseminated and consumed, and the importance of finding ways to classify and navigate the digital archive, anthology studies is likely to figure largely in the Digital Humanities.
“Reading” is one of the most provocative terms in literary theory, in part because it connotes both an activity and a product: on the one hand, an effort to comprehend a text or object of knowledge, and on the other, a more formal response. Both senses of the term originate in the premise that literary and other cultural texts—including performances, scripted or not—require a more deliberative parsing than weather reports and recipes, or sentences like “rain is expected today” and “add one cup of flour.” At the same time, reading serves as an explanatory trope across various sites of 21st-century culture; in a tennis match, players “read” the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and strategize accordingly; a cab driver “reads” a GPS when plotting an efficient route to convey a passenger. But an engagement with literary and cultural texts is a different matter. In its former sense as a set of protocols or procedures, reading resides at the center of disciplinary debates as newly formed schools, theories, or methods rise to challenge dominant notions of understanding literature, film, painting, and other forms. Frequently, these debates focus on tensions between binary oppositions (real or presumed): casual versus professional reading (or fast vs. slow), surface reading versus symptomatic reading, close reading versus distant reading, and others. Like the term “reading,” readers are variously described as “informed,” “ideal,” “implied,” and more. In some theoretical formulations, they are anticipated by texts; in others, readers produce or complete them by filling lacunae or conducting other tasks. Complicating matters further, reading also exists in close proximity to several other terms with which it is often associated: interpretation, criticism, and critique. Issues of “textuality” introduce yet another factor in disagreements about the priorities of critical reading, as notions of a relatively autonomous or closed work or object have been supplanted by a focus on both historical context and a work’s “intertextuality,” or its inevitable relationship to, even quotation of, other texts. In the latter sense of a reading as an intellectual or scholarly product, more variables inform definitions. Every reading of a text, as Paul Ricouer describes, “takes place within a community, a tradition, or a living current of thought.” The term “reading” is complicated not only because of the thing studied but also because of both the historically grounded human subject undertaking the activity and the disciplinary expectations shaping and delimiting the interpretations they produce. And, in the 21st century, technologies and practices have emerged to revise these conversations, including machine learning, computational modeling, and digital textuality.
Literary texts have long been understood as generative of other texts and of artistic responses that stretch across time and culture. Adaptation studies seeks to explore the cultural contexts for these afterlives and the contributions they make to the literary canon. Writers such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens were being adapted almost as soon as their work emerged on stage or in print and there can be no doubt that this accretive aspect to their writing ensures their literary survival. Adaptation is, then, both a response to, a reinforcer of, and a potential shaper of canon and has had particular impact as a process through the multimedia and global affordances of the 20th century onwards, from novels to theatre, from poetry to music, and from film to digital content. The aesthetic pleasure of recognizing an “original” referenced in a secondary version can be considered central to the cultural power of literature and the arts. Appropriation as a concept though moves far beyond intertextuality and introduces ideas of active critical commentary, of creative re-interpretation and of “writing back” to the original. Often defined in terms of a hostile takeover or possession, both the theory and practice of appropriation have been informed by the activist scholarship of postcolonialism, poststructuralism, feminism, and queer theory. Artistic responses can be understood as products of specific cultural politics and moments and as informed responses to perceived injustices and asymmetries of power. The empowering aspects of re-visionary writing, that has seen, for example, fairytales reclaimed for female protagonists, or voices returned to silenced or marginalized individuals and communities, through reconceived plots and the provision of alternative points of view, provide a predominantly positive history. There are, however, aspects of borrowing and appropriation that are more problematic, raising ethical questions about who has the right to speak for or on behalf of others or indeed to access, and potentially rewrite, cultural heritage. There has been debate in the arena of intercultural performance about the “right” of Western theatre directors to embed aspects of Asian culture into their work and in a number of highly controversial examples, the “right” of White artists to access the cultural references of First Nation or Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities has been contested, leading in extreme cases to the agreed destruction of artworks. The concept of “cultural appropriation” poses important questions about the availability of artforms across cultural boundaries and about issues of access and inclusion but in turn demands approaches that perform cultural sensitivity and respect the question of provenance as well as intergenerational and cross-cultural justice.
Queer South Asian Diasporas
Queer South Asian Diasporas can refer to the individuals and communities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people who trace their ancestry to the South Asian subcontinent, but have lived beyond its borders. These communities and individuals generate vibrant forms of cultural production: writing, activism, filmmaking, performance art, and creative manipulations of everyday practice. Additionally, queer diaspora can refer to a particular way of analyzing South Asian public cultures and discourse through a transnational lens with an eye toward the ways that normative genders and sexualities are managed and manipulated to secure and undo nationalist projects. Given the dislocation rendered by pushes and pulls from multiple nations and communities, a common theme in the theorization of queer diaspora and the representation of LGBTQ South Asian life is the struggle over and production of “home” as physical space, affective landscape, and shared embodiment. Theories of queer diaspora help scholars understand how some practices that are not particularly associated with mainstream queer identities can be interpreted as queer, especially when read in the context of South Asian histories. The homosociality of South Asian domestic life, filmic conventions, and ritual practices lend themselves to queer interpretations. While these intimacies do not read as queer to everyone, LGBTQ South Asians precisely apprehend these queer possibilities as alternatives to white and Western gay habitus. Also, queer diaspora explains that migrant, postcolonial subjects are often perceived as having non-normative genders and sexualities given the ways that imperial projects have managed those aspects of human life. This framework is reflected in the narratives of LGBTQ South Asians who name how their (un)desirability is based on race, including the hair on their body, their ethnic heritage, and the stereotypes they are associated with.