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Ato Quayson's Calibrations: Reading for the Social offers little comfort to practitioners of traditional sociological criticism. Nor does it vouchsafe any satisfaction to those who seek the value of literature in formal and aesthetic virtues alone. The startling, but simple, lesson of this remarkable book is that neither literature nor what we are wont to think of as the social precede the act of reading. Hence the book's opening foray: "This book is about close reading" (xi). "Calibrations," the particular form of close reading advocated by Quayson, reads literature and what lies beyond "as a way of understanding structures of transformation, process, and contradiction that inform both literature and society" (xi).
Situated beyond the crude polarities of apolitical, textual formalism and vulgar sociologism, Calibrations offers alternatives to absolutist subscriptions by investigating much that goes without careful inquiry. Quayson begins by asking us to reconsider such questions as, What is art? What is the social? What is the role of literary interpretation in exploring this relationship? And perhaps most significantly, what is the relationship of historical trauma to the literary, given debates about the referential locus of meaning? Quayson's meditations on these questions yield pithy and thoughtful responses: Art, he concludes, is "a transitional object-process, a representational oasis to which we constantly return as we negotiate our alienations from reality" (xxv). Emphasizing that mimesis is defined through distance, Quayson obliges us not only to concede "the caesura between reality and representation"—a familiar enough stance in literary criticism—but also the constitutive ambiguities that characterize the social (xxiv). In this view, literature is of value not because [End Page 222] it approximates or exceeds reality, but because a methodological calibration allows us to "wrest something from the aesthetic domain for the analysis and better understanding of the social" (xv). Indeed, the social is "an object produced out of an interrogation." Simply put, it is not just there to be recuperated so much as it is something that "has to be read for" (xxxi).
This much said, Quayson proceeds to demonstrate strategies allowing one to read for what he calls dialectical embedding in various texts. Counseling against a binaristic understanding of the dialectic, the author asks us to think of "the two poles [literary and social] as containing within themselves interrelating segments that are themselves in a dialectical relationship to various other subsegments in the other pole(s)" (xxxii). Drawing upon Althusser, he recasts the dialectic as the interaction between dominant and subsidiary logics in an unpredictable relationship (xxxiii). The six chapters that follow demonstrate the author's ranging erudition and references, effectively underscoring the flexibility of his interpretive organon. A discussion of Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land (1992) investigates forms of alienation shared by literary and anthropological texts. A chapter featuring Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions (1988) allows Quayson to examine the ways in which social imaginaries such as cultural heroism articulate relations between the private and the public spheres, even as they morph through changing historical contexts. Constellating Dambudzo Marechera's House of Hunger (1978), Yvonne Vera's Without a Name (1994), and the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, the author presses psychoanalysis into discussions of ex-centric perspectives that lie beyond sanctioned narratives of the nation. A chapter on the "discursive nervousness" that attends literary representations of physical disability refers to J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Keri Hulme's The Bone People (1983), among other texts, in a bid to force a reckoning with the discourse of disability not merely as a problematic of representation, but indeed as a "contingent process of becoming" that grapples with the nightmares of the past and the present (100, 124). The final chapter on "Literature and the Parables of Time" separates personal and felt time from clock time. Bringing the philosophical and literary into dialogue, the chapter documents the difficulty in attempting this separation and the ways in which literature can deepen our understanding of the experience of time even as "we contemplate the vertigo of its sheer...