This Thing Called the World: The Contemporary Novel as Global Form

This Thing Called the World: The Contemporary Novel as Global Form

by Debjani Ganguly

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Overview

In This Thing Called the World Debjani Ganguly theorizes the contemporary global novel and the social and historical conditions that shaped it. Ganguly contends that global literature coalesced into its current form in 1989, an event marked by the convergence of three major trends: the consolidation of the information age, the arrival of a perpetual state of global war, and the expanding focus on humanitarianism. Ganguly analyzes a trove of novels from authors including Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, and Art Spiegelman, who address wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, the Palestinian and Kashmiri crises, the Rwandan genocide, and post9/11 terrorism. These novels exist in a context in which suffering's presence in everyday life is mediated through digital images and where authors integrate visual forms into their storytelling. In showing how the evolution of the contemporary global novel is analogous to the European novel’s emergence in the eighteenth century, when society and the development of capitalism faced similar monumental ruptures, Ganguly provides both a theory of the contemporary moment and a reminder of the novel's power.
 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374244
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/21/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Debjani Ganguly is Professor of English and Director of the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Caste and Dalit Lifeworlds: Postcolonial Perspectives.
 

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This Thing Called the World

The Contemporary Novel as Global Form


By Debjani Ganguly

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6156-5



CHAPTER 1

REAL VIRTUALITIES AND THE UNDEAD GENRE


Putting the Novel in Its Place

"The novel achieved its devastating success as an upstart," writes Marthe Robert in The Origins of the Novel. She is reflecting on an oft-expressed anxiety about the novel's prodigious and promiscuous adaptation of whatever came its way and the threat of anamorphism that has hovered over this genre in modern literary studies. Robert's breathless inventory of its many suspect attributes is worth quoting at length:

Graduating from a discredited sub-category to an almost unprecedented Power, it now reigns more or less supreme over the world of literature which it influences aesthetically and which has now become economically dependent on its welfare. With the freedom of a conqueror who knows no law other than that of his unlimited expansion, the novel has abolished every literary caste and traditional form and appropriates all modes of expression. ... And while it squanders an age-old literary heritage it is simultaneously intent on monopolizing ever wider provinces of human experience of which it frequently claims an intimate knowledge. ... Revolutionary and middle-class, democratic by choice, but with a marked tendency for totalitarian over-rulings of obstacles and frontiers, free to the point of arbitrariness or total anarchy ... [yet it is also] strangely parasitic; for the novel is naturally compelled to subsist both on the written word and on the material world whose reality its purports to "reproduce."


The novel's faults by this account are "very grave indeed," as Mr. Darcy would say to Elizabeth Bennett in response to her own breathless and angry inventory of his suspect character. A parasite, a conqueror, a commoner, an anarchist, a totalitarian persona, a thief, a shape-shifter, and an outlaw. No wonder so many writers, theorists, and critics over this past century have periodically wished the novel dead. Barring Bakhtin and Lukács, who each built complex theories of literary production around the novel, elaborate theories of emergent cultural forms and technological regimes have been propounded to hint loudly at the imminent obsolescence of this insouciant genre. The rise of photography, cinema, and television and the subsequent explosion of digital media have each been put forward as reasons why the novel may be on its last legs. A quintessential product of the print revolution, the age of the novel in such understandings broadly extends from 1830 to 1960, after which its cultural dominance diminishes in direct proportion to the rise of the media industry, especially the ensconcing of television sets, and now the personal computer, in the intimacy of the domestic sphere.

The realm of the hypervisual and the spectacular in our digital age is posited as a devastating rival for the novel, often by novelists themselves. In 1991 Don DeLillo pronounced the death of the novel in the face of horrific spectacles of terror in our time. "I do think," he averred, "we can connect novelists and terrorists. ... In a society that is filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption the act of terror may be the only meaningful act. ... True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways writers used to aspire to." DeLillo's anxiety about the narrative power of terror is echoed by the character Bill Gray in his novel Mao II. "What terrorists gain," says Gray, "novelists lose. The degree to which [terrorists] influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought." DeLillo reiterated this position after 9/11 in his powerful essay "In the Ruins of the Future": "Today again the world narrative belongs to terrorists. Terror's response is a narrative that has been developing over years, only now becoming inescapable. It is our lives and minds that are occupied now."

Against this thesis of the death of the novel in the face of horrific media spectacles and the inordinate influence of visual media, I propose that we rethink the role of the novel in our hypervisual age in terms of the genre's fundamental open-endedness to new influences, including the multimedial. The novelistic trajectory is itself a phenomenon of constant accrual and renewal. In other words, I think it is worthwhile to renew an argument for what, after Bakhtin, is popularly called the novelization thesis — that is, a historicist understanding of the novel as having an infinite future because, by its very nature, the novel "reflects the tendencies of a new world in the making." This means that rather than seeing new visual genres as competitors of the novel, we can explore the ways in which the realm of the visual itself exerts an extraordinary pull on the novelistic imagination. In light of the specific concerns of this book, for instance, we might productively explore how the novels themselves abstract the phenomenology of spectatorship and exorbitant visual witnessing in our time. In doing so we conceptualize the phenomenon of novelization not in terms of the novel's exceptionalism, which can often sound grandiose, totalizing, and ahistorical (everything is novelistic), but by attending to the shifting horizons of novelistic work in different technological eras.

In the spirit of André Bazin's appeal in the age of cinema for a common ground of "technical civilization," it might be best to abjure what he called "competition and substitution" in the study of evolving forms and genres and focus instead on what kinds of enrichment — of both genres and publics — are enabled by developments in each technological era. Bazin's essay "In Defense of Mixed Cinema" was a significant intervention in the mid-twentieth century against the movement of "pure cinema," a movement intent on affirming the absolute autonomy of cinema as an art form. When he talked of some films in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a "point at which the avant-garde has now arrived, the making of films that dare to take their inspiration from a novel-like style one might describe as ultracinematographic," this was often interpreted as his valorization of the novel as some kind of ur-form to which the cinema would always be indebted. True, Bazin claimed for the novel a technological longue durée for which cinema's avowed technological wizardry was no match. A close reading of the essay, however, reveals Bazin's deep insistence not on the superiority of the novel as an exemplary product of what he calls our "technical civilization" but on his critical appeal to attend to the rich aesthetic convergences that emerge as novel and cinema battle it out for the minds and imaginations of the publics. The critical point to note here is that it was Bazin who cleared the theoretical ground for asking questions that are actually attentive to the interpenetration of genres, the recursive historicity of their formal and technological evolution, and the consequently changing phenomenology of apperception.

The discussion thus far provides a rich and enabling opening from which to understand the complex habitations of the novel in our era of proliferating digital and visual genres. The imagistic and the visual are such a given that it is pointless to argue against their influence by positing the influence of the novel as a counterpoint in print. It is far more illuminating for novel scholars to understand the transformation of apperception on novel worlds of our time and to explore the ways in which the idea of the novelistic itself is in the process of being transformed by the vastly magnified spectrum of ocular and sonic stimulation that characterizes our information age. The relationship between the verbal and the visual, narrative and image, the print and the digital has never been more fraught or more charged with radical transformative possibilities than in this information-rich, war-torn age.

In this chapter I illustrate this argument in two ways. First, I trace a mode of novelistic intermediality derived from the trope of ekphrasis — the verbal description of a visual object — and argue that the novel, far from being dead, manifests a radically new mode of engagement with an ever-expanding realm of virtual publics. Second, I undertake a reading that complicates the relationship between the widespread mediatization of war-induced humanitarian crises and visualization of such crises in contemporary novels. I argue that the melancholic mode that these novels adopt operates with a dissensual force that destabilizes the visual economy of media representations of war and humanitarian suffering.


Intermediality and World-Making

In order to explicate in some detail my argument about intermediality and novelization, I begin with a reading of excerpts from Martin Amis's story "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" and Ian McEwan's novel Saturday. Given the extraordinary focus on 9/11 in recent prognostications on the novel's death, that date is central to these excerpts. Together they serve as a frontispiece to my extended contemplation on the powerful provenance of the novelistic imagination in our age of endemic violence and visual witnessing. In what follows I am mindful that I am using a short story to talk about the novelistic imagination. My rationale for doing so is this: Amis is primarily a novelist, and this creative venture represents his intention not so much to consciously experiment with the form of the short story itself as to craft a few short and sharp descriptive vignettes of Muhammad Atta's final hours based on scattered CCTV footage, an effort he hoped would help him write a novel on the aftermath of 9/11. Amis has also gone on record that he was tempted to craft his story of the last days of the lead hijacker of American Airlines Flight 11 after being repeatedly exposed to the televisual spectacle of the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center alongside the security footage of Atta's movements before his group boarded the ill-fated flight — a visual juxtaposition that stimulated his novelistic imagination. It is Amis's transcription from image to text, to fill in the gaps, as it were, that makes this piece relevant to my argument.

As he descended slowly around 8:44 a.m., he first saw the "lesser totems of Queens, like a line of defence for the tutelary godlings of the island." Then "he came clattering in over the struts and slats of Manhattan," and "there it was ahead of him and below him — the thing which is called the World." Thus culminates Amis's short ekphrastic narrative of the last moments of the life of Muhammad Atta, just before he crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on that fatal September morning. Atta's contemplation of his target — the thing called the World — reverberates in a kind of intermedial temporal flash across millions of screens round the world that played over and over again the imagistic horror of the burning towers. Intermedial because it remains suspended between narrative and image, between Amis's literary transcoding of a gap in the report of the 9/11 Commission — the impetus for his story — and the global circulation of video footage of Atta and his suicide squad making their way through the security checkpoints at Logan Airport just before boarding the plane.

Published on the eve of the fifth anniversary of 9/11, "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" has its origins in this sentence from the report of the 9/11 Commission, which Amis cites at the start of his story: "No physical, documentary or analytical evidence provides convincing explanation of why Atta and Omari drove to Portland, Maine, from Boston on the morning of September 10, only to return to Logan on Flight 5930 on the morning of September 11." Amis attempts to fill this evidentiary gap. His story unspools with graphic details of Atta performing his morning ablutions in his Maine hotel on the dawn of September 11. The world has been incessantly exposed to the blurry long shots of security footage of this fully clothed, squat and muscular Egyptian, here given flesh in Amis's adroit hands with a slow close-up of a stripped-down Atta, as if to magnify for the rest of the world his rancid body and soul on the day he carried out his murderous act:

Now, emitting a sigh of unqualified grimness, he crouched on the bowl. He didn't even bother with his usual scowling and straining and shuddering, partly because his head felt dangerously engorged. More saliently, he had not moved his bowels since May. In general his upper body was impressively lean, from all the hours in the gym with the "muscle" Saudis; but now there was a solemn mound where his abdominals used to be, as taut and proud as a first trimester pregnancy. Nor was this the only sequela. He had a feverish and unvarying ache, not in his gut but in his lower back, his pelvic saddle, and his scrotum. Every few minutes he was required to wait out an interlude of nausea, while disused gastric juices bubbled up in the sump of his throat. His breath smelled like a blighted river.


The close-up shot zooms in with excruciating detail on the terrorist's face as he scans it in the shaving mirror. But of course it is Amis's gaze that is projected onto this passage: a gaze over the shoulder of Atta that pierces the terrorist's mirror image. The mirror image becomes Amis's contemplative window as he asks, How can this man not hate his visage, the "disgusted lineaments of the mouth" and "the frank animus of the underbite?" Amis here transcodes for the reader yet another gap, this time in an image — that of the inscrutable, forever nonvocalized, full frontal photograph of Atta in the files of the 9/11 Commission Report. The author face-reads with an acuity that in the absence of a camera only the literary imagination can conjure. Who else but a novelist can even begin to give shape to the mutating visage of a leading member of "a peer group ... for whom death was not death and life was not life" and who was about to embark on his monumental journey to his own Judgment Day?

The worst was yet to come: shaving. Shaving was the worst because it necessarily involved him in the contemplation of his own face. He looked downwards while he lathered his cheeks, but then the chin came up and there it was, revealed in vertical strips: the face of Muhammad Atta. Two years ago he had said goodbye to his beard, after Afghanistan. Tangled and oblong and slightly off centre, it had had the effect of softening the disgusted lineaments of the mouth, and it had wholly concealed the frank animus of the underbite. His insides were seized, but his face was somehow incontinent, or so Muhammad Atta felt. The detestation, the detestation of everything, was being sculpted on it, from within.


Earlier I used the term ekphrastic to describe Amis's story. Ekphrasis is an age-old rhetorical device in which the essence of one form of artwork is conveyed in another medium. A painting, say, of Michelangelo's sculpted masterpiece David would be a good example, as would a sonic transformation of a classic literary text. In modern literary and art theory, the term has almost exclusively featured as a device for translating the visual into print medium. That is, it is a text replete with vivid description. But more happens in ekphrasis than simply a secondary description of the original work of art. In a work of ekphrastic aspiration, as Mieke Bal usefully explains, the "radical, ontological difference between visual and the linguistic utterances is suspended in favour of an examination of the semiotic power of each and their relation to truthful representation. The age-old trust in the reliability of vision yields to the delicate balance of words and images in the production of evidence." Keeping in mind Bal's emphasis on the suspension of medial difference in a quest for "truthful representation" that could produce "evidence," does it make sense to speak of the ekphrastic force of Amis's story? At first this question may appear forced. For what work of visual art does Amis's descriptive effort bring into vivid life? And yet if we shift our terms of reference from art to medium in understanding the contemporary force of this rhetorical device, we can move toward a compelling reading of the ekphrastic force of not just Amis's story but of much novelistic work that has emerged in our digitally mediated, information-rich era.

What stands out in "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" is the vividness of the description as it probes deep into the corporeal and metaphysical unease of the terrorist as he contemplates his habitation in what he sees as an unclean world: "Adultery punished by whipping, sodomy by burial alive: this seemed about right to Muhammad Atta. He also joined in the hatred of music. And the hatred of laughter. 'Why do you never laugh?' he was sometimes asked. Ziad would answer: 'How can you laugh when people are dying in Palestine?' Muhammad Atta never laughed, not because people were dying in Palestine, but because he found nothing funny. 'The thing which is called World.' That, too, spoke to him. World had always felt like an illusion — an unreal mockery."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from This Thing Called the World by Debjani Ganguly. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction  1

1. Real Virtualities and the Undead Genre  39

Part I. World

2. World-Making and Possible Worlds  69

3. Spectral Worlds, Networked Novel  87

4. From Midnight's Child to Clown Assassin  110

Part II. War

5. Visualizing Wartime: A Literary Genealogy  135

6. The Sky Is Falling: The Narrative Screen of Terror  157

Part III. Witness

7. This I Saw: Graphic Suffering  175

8. Forensic Witnessing: The (Non)Evidence of Bones  192

9. Affective Witnessing: Orphic Netherworlds  219

Coda  249

Notes  261

Bibliography  279

Index  293

What People are Saying About This

David Damrosch

"In this compelling study, Debjani Ganguly makes a powerful case for novelistic witnessing as a countervailing force in today’s 'mediated deathscapes' of terrorism and state violence. Situated at the intersection of postcolonial theory, world literature, and media studies, This Thing Called the World will interest anyone who wants to think freshly about the function of literature, and of criticism, at the present time."
 

Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History - Ian Baucom

"This Thing Called the World makes a superb contribution to the study of the contemporary novel and to the energetic debates on world literature. Debjani Ganguly's work is informed throughout by her deep and subtle understanding of the scholarship on the history of the novel and a broad range of literary, media, and political theory. Her close readings of the wellchosen and impressively extensive primary texts are invariably fine and are often stunning in their nuance and insight. An extremely important and significant book."
 

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