- An Overrepresentation of the State?
Nathan Snaza's Animate Literacies is a long-overdue invitation to think not only about what literary texts mean but also about the dynamics of how, for whom, and why they mean. In this book, the words close reading take on multiple meanings as the author sidesteps debates of microscopic symbolic interpretation in favor of training attention on the sprawling "literacy situations . . . where intrahuman politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, and geography shape the conditions of emergence for [subjectifying] literacy events" (4). To this end, Snaza—director of the University of Richmond's Bridge to Success Program—presents the compelling argument that we ought to "speak less of literate subjects . . . than of literacies . . . jacked into state apparatuses of control" (73). The goal of Animate Literacies, then, is made clear by the plural literacies of its title: to interrogate the ways in which modern states have leveraged the unquestionable good of a single capital-L Literacy as a means to define just who figures as a human under law, thus preventing the reimagining of the political status quo.
Snaza's book straddles the trenches of textual analysis and the abstraction of high theory, and the author is clear from the outset that the goal of this strategy is not to provide answers per se but, rather, to fashion "a machine that asks questions—What is literacy? What is the human? What is a collectivity? What is politics?" (5). The theory-text back-and-forth is most defined in the first eight chapters, which arguably present the core intervention of the book (or at least serve as a solid base from which to make the more speculative [End Page 277] interventions of the book's second half). Here, Snaza attends to the literary representations of literacy and literacy instruction in Toni Morrison's Beloved (chaps. 2 and 3) and Frederick Douglass's Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (chaps. 5–7), which both ground and further nuance his more theoretical claims.
Two theoretical chapters—each titled "Humanizing Assemblages" in a nod to Alexander G. Weheliye (2014)—punctuate these two close-reading trajectories, and it is in these pages where Animate Literacies gains most of its energy through its extensive engagement with the work of Sylvia Wynter. Most important is the way in which Snaza draws on "Wynter's argument that the human is not a noun but a verb, a praxis" (72), as well as her analyses of the profile of the Western, bourgeois model of "Man" that overrepresents itself as the human (Wynter 2003). In Snaza's readings of Douglass and Morrison, literacy (in the singular) emerges as a dynamic assemblage of forces through which this human is defined. By way of Wynter (as well as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari), this capital-L Literacy is posed as the accomplice of capital-M Man and the capital-S State. For Snaza, then, opening up to different literacies means opening up to different ways of being human outside the liberal humanist project critiqued by Wynter and, by consequence, different modes of politics outside the state.
To depart from state-inherited conceptions of literacy, Snaza uses the second half of his book to offer more speculative interventions that foreground how the politics of literacy can become less about how to reproduce meaning within the liberal state apparatus and more about touching the manifold "nonhuman agencies at stake in literacy practices" (18), those that play an active role in adjudicating what ultimately becomes politically legible through the fictional lens of (hu)Man. By the book's end, Snaza argues convincingly that "attuning to this complex relation of differential agencies and animacies . . . requires not only that we see literacy as happening everywhere all the time, but [as] a constitutive feature of the social as such" (144). Again, following Wynter, literacy is not a noun but a verb, not an index but an animate...