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  • Reading Calibrations:Re-reading for the Social
  • Anjali Prabhu

In Calibrations, Ato Quayson provides us with a highly stimulating and thought-provoking method by which the literary aesthetic domain is read in order to shed light on larger social processes (xv).1 Although there is some fluidity in the direction of this movement of thought, the motivating factor, indeed the primary interest in the aesthetic, is to put it to use for an understanding of the "social," which, for Quayson, should be de-linked from the more specific term "society." Calibrations involves a "situated procedure of attempting to wrest something from the aesthetic domain for the analysis and better understanding of the social" (xv). In putting forth this method, which he terms the very thesis of his book (xi), Quayson highlights certain terms that become crucial to an explication of the method. I begin my re-reading by pursuing a quick engagement with a few of these terms as defined by him before proceeding to closely track the method he calls "calibrations."

In explicating "the social" as different from "society," Quayson is at pains to stress that it is from a calibration of the literary that the social comes into view (xx-viii). Although he spends less time spelling it out, it is clear that the idea of the literary or the aesthetic is rather one of the text (any text) that the calibrator identifies and closes off as such. In this manner, stories about market women or anecdotes can fulfill this role of the text as "starting point." What is less clear is the way in which such texts, when wrested from outside what is strictly speaking literary, are aestheticized in this account. This point will become pertinent to the application of literary tropes in a narrative from "real life" that is then aestheticized for a reading of the social.

We see some of this difficulty reflected in the way the shift occurs in the presentation of what is to come on Ken Saro-Wiwa's untimely death: "Elements of tragedy as a process rather than merely as a literary genre are outlined to show the degree to which the African post-colony, exemplified in this case by the contradictions that have shaped Nigerian history, produces a tragedy unerringly mimetic of the tragedies we encounter in literary texts" (xxxix). While Quayson correctly indicates that any contextualizing or historicizing of the literary text involves a notion of society which "is saturated with the interests and perspectives of the analyst" (xxix), he seems less concerned with a) the choice of the literary texts for the generation of particular aspects (or vectors) of the social and b) the choice of particular bracketings of the social that are aestheticized into functioning on par with the literary text in the method of calibrations that is elaborated. He goes further to then suggest that [End Page 97] that since both the literary and the context are thus constructed, there is an implicit tautology in the enterprise of reading literature through context or vice versa (since both only serve to expose the "kernel") (see xxx).

For Quayson, "Literature and the social are related to each other because they mutually mirror systemic heterogeneities that manifest themselves as constellated and reconstellating thresholds" (xxxi). It is unclear what exactly the motivation is to separate the literary/aesthetic from "the social" when, in reality, these boundings and narrativizations are carried out as a re-writing in the form of the literary to then extrapolate about not so much the social itself as the notion of History (and historical time) as the condition of its possibility. The difference is that when the "text" is lifted out of society, it functions to signal the thresholds of the specific society, whereas, according to Quayson's formulation, the literary need not (indeed should not) be chosen from a particular region to generate ideas about the social of that region (97-98). In following Althusser's call to interrogate the structure of the whole in order to reveal the particular conception of history that allowed it (see xxx) in the first place, Quayson gives us a clue as to why the literary and social should...


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pp. 97-103
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