- Introduction:The Rise of the Elsewheres
Somewheres are the place[s] where art gets critiqued, art gets evaluated, art gets valorized, art gets sold, art gets consumed, art gets projected, art gets academicized. And yet it’s elsewheres—these places no one pays attention to, these places that for the larger [intellectual and artistic] markets don’t matter—that produce the best art. … no one understands a given moment in a given place like the outsider peering in.(Junot Díaz)
Russell Brand got it right when he told Jeremy Paxman that one definite victory of the Occupy Movement is that “it introduced to the popular public lexicon the idea of the 1% vs. the 99%.” This convenient shorthand for income inequality marks a translation of Thomas Piketty’s influential field theory of wealth distribution, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), from the language of economics (not to mention French) to the language of the streets. This special issue of the Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association recognizes a similar shift: The 99% is to wealth distribution as “elsewheres” are to the distribution of cultural authority in art and literature.
The term elsewheres is useful because it is hospitable to more established ways of thinking about the relationship between periphery and center, margin and metropole, while also accounting for the unevenness of the split. From Raymond Williams’s country/city designation to the various porous binaries of postcolonial and diaspora studies, established ways of thinking about the split always amount to a qualified polarization, always suggest the “bouncing back and forth between the benighted provincialism of a small village and the benign disinterestedness of a great metropolis” that Ralph Ellison recounts in the [End Page 7] introduction to Invisible Man (1952). While for Ellison this bouncing is “not a bad discipline for an American writer,” the perpetuation of the idea that there’s an even split between urban and rural is a bad discipline for an American scholar (xi). The elsewhere designation is useful, then, because it presupposes a somewhere in the same way that the 99% confirms the existence of the 1%. It highlights the massive inequality built into the opposition. What’s more, the somewheres (New York, Paris, and London, etc.) that vet the art of elsewhere are also, like the 1%, massively outmanned. To follow the logic of the somewhere/elsewhere paradigm, then, is to think both apocalyptically and optimistically. It is to acknowledge that though the centers of culture cannot hold, it does not necessarily follow that things fall apart. Indeed, thanks to the solidarity built into elsewhere affiliation, things might just unite.
Fantasies and Fallacies
Because we live in an age of a so-called “genre turn” in literary fiction, when the novelists who thirty years ago would have written turgid metafiction are instead writing zombie novels, we can imagine the publication of a post-apocalyptic novel about the demise of the New York City publishing industry. In fact, Colson Whitehead may have already written that novel. Representing a doomed attempt to resurrect Manhattan in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) dramatizes the futility of efforts to save traditional global capitals once the biomasses have agreed upon a common goal, once the human microphones of Zuccotti Park start shouting “BRAINS!” Imagine a sequel to Zone One, where the publishing industry reinvents itself as long-tail presses that sprout up and rule from such places as Peoria and Jackson Hole. How different would that be from the craft beer revolution that put places like Bend, Krebs, and Kalamazoo on the map?
Such is the fantasy of the elsewhere advocate. But it’s not the point of this issue to indulge in such fantasies, or even to strike an anti-NYC stance.1 It’s tempting, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, to use the introductory pages of a scholarly journal sponsored by the Midwest branch of the Modern Language Association to channel John T. Frederick or H. L. Mencken, editors who, in first two decades of the twentieth century, projected the ascendancy of the American elsewhere. [End Page 8] In his essay “The...