- Resistance is Futile
Harvard University Press
256 Pages; Cloth, $29.95
This book is in part an autobiography about . . . how I came to realize that if I wanted to understand the peculiar challenges that face writers who want to write against the empire in which they find themselves I could not understand this without also understanding that poetry is "stubbornly national."
The structure of this book's argument loops out from some twenty-first century poetry back through twentieth-century poetry and politics and again up to current times. This circle provides a useful historical analysis of the roots of that big question about working "against the empire" that many writers and other progressive artists face today. After this book's scrutiny of those roots, we return to our moment with a fuller awareness of many of the forces (negative and positive) at work in our literary world. Poet and scholar Juliana Spahr investigates both modes of "literary resistance" and those of "state containment" or recuperation of those resistances. She does so deftly and with convincing detail, more from history than from poetry, which puts us in position to freshly resist that co-optation. The book seems weakest, unfortunately, in Chapter 1 but finds its momentum in building its argument as it goes back through how we got to this point. It is a little weak in that first chapter because it is hard to tell where the argument is going when we begin with a presentation of recent positive achievements in American "literature in English that includes other languages" without a cogent explanation of why this is important. However, the importance of the big question about empire keeps us going. Du Bois's Telegram moves forward to amass evidence and feeling for a newly effective sort of communities imagined in relevant and resistant writing.
The introduction sets up questions about how literature might go beyond its role in nationalism, however valuable that might be in nation-building at its proper historical moment, to help create meaningful and useful resistance to nationalist abuses like cultural and linguistic oppressions and exclusions. Each of the four central chapters then takes on another related aspect of those questions about autonomy and containment: multilinguistic works trying to face down Englishlanguage dominance; modernism's worldwide roots and its stylistic enthusiasms actually being used to corral it by government agencies, major funding foundations, and the universities; movement arts in the '60s and '70s, squelched by those same forces; the further workings of this "cultural diplomacy" program here and abroad to recuperate even "avant-garde" literary energies into "safe," "American" national pride in "diversity" and "multiculturalism." Some effort is spent addressing counter-arguments effectively, but a few terms and ideas are left dangling without definition and critical development (such as those in quotation marks in my previous sentence). This book is conveniently short and well focused, but it seems to suffer a little at times from the academic and art world malady of being too focused on its own crowd as readers. She has gathered a great deal of useful info organized to back effective ideas, but there are gaps to be filled in for a wider audience.
The most important sentence in the book comes late in chapter 4: "Literature has been sequestered into irrelevance." This book concisely shows a lot about how this has happened through the policies and actions of the CIA, the State Department, major funding foundations, and the universities— and about how it happened in response to progressive social and literary movements trying to end run the system. A couple of pages after that statement about irrelevance, Spahr writes: "Literature has a long history of teaching about inequality. It just is in this current moment too dependent on those institutions that create and maintain inequality to be a meaningful alternative to them." She tells her personal story to show how the literature that she herself creates does not reach her own family and friends back home, and she concludes Chapter 4 pessimistically.
The conclusion to Du...