- Shades of ReadingThe Many Places of Literature
In her introduction to Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature, Wai Chee Dimock frames the relationship between "America" and "planet" via "[t]he language of set and subset" (3), insisting, much as in her Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time (2006), on a spatiotemporal or "nested" (8) approach to American literature. Such a move allows her to expand upon the recent postnational move in American literary studies, so as to accommodate what she calls the prenational (7) and the subnational, the latter in reference to Homi K. Bhabha's theorization, in his contribution to the volume, of a "global minoritarian culture" (11). Dimock takes pains to provide a critical framework, alluding to the planetary turn in the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Paul Gilroy, but ultimately the value of Shades of the Planet has less to do with theoretical intervention than with opening up ways of reading literature in keeping with postnational concerns.
Some of the most intriguing contributions in Dimock and co-editor Lawrence Buell's volume function as iconoclastic aesthetics, even as they often argue for reading as a communal or relational act. For instance, David Palumbo-Liu brings together Henry James, Tzvetan Todorov, and R. P. Blackmur so as to explore "Form" (his uppercasing) as "an integral aspect of a meditation on [End Page 624] the possibilities of being together" (224). Although it is sometimes hard to follow what Palumbo-Liu means by "Form" in these various contexts, his contribution works both as an eccentric meditation and as an elegant prolegomenon to two equally ambitious essays: Buell's "Ecoglobalist Affects: The Emergence of U.S. Environmental Imagination on a Planetary Scale," which considers authors as varied as Henry David Thoreau, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Wendell Berry in working "against a nation-centered approach to environmentality" (227), and Rachel Adams's "At the Borders of American Crime Fiction," an insightful hemispheric reading of various crime novels set in and around (both sides of) the U.S.–Mexico border.
Edward Said's influence can be felt throughout Shades of the Planet, and especially in two of the volume's most resonant pieces: Jonathan Arac's "Global and Babel: Language and Planet in American Literature" and Susan Stanford Friedman's "Unthinking Manifest Destiny: Muslim Modernities on Three Continents." Faced with the challenge of defining a platform for the study of literature in a global context, Arac is helpfully pragmatic, insisting that "one may do much to combine large and small scale if one acknowledges the impossibility of completeness and therefore faces the necessity of inventing devices by which to do one's best" (32) and offering some worthy suggestions for curricular reform, among them requiring all doctoral students in American literature to know three languages: English, Spanish, and "a third that is either non-Indo-European or of the global South" (34).
For her part, Friedman seeks to unsettle a "new manifest destiny" (her term) wherein "urbanization = modernization = Westernization = Americanization" (66) through an analysis of what she calls indigenization: "the way cultural practices from somewhere else become indigenous or native through transformative agencies in any given location" (73). Particularly intriguing is Friedman's reading of two acclaimed memoirs by Muslim women, Fatima Mernissi's Dreams of Trespass (1994) and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003); embracing the contradictions and tensions that run through both books, she points to a nuanced conception of "feminism as both indigenous and indigenizing, as both local and from elsewhere, as both transplanted and traveling" (92). [End Page 625]
There is a strong tendency toward abstraction throughout the volume, evident from the (sadly, largely unexplored) "shade" metaphor in the title. In some ways, this tendency reads as an attempt to think beyond the all too familiar (some might say by now facile) modes of criticality and political engagement of cultural studies. (It is, however, hard to say whether the volume's aim is to simply...