- The Fact of Resonance: Modernist Acoustics and Narrative Form by Julie Beth Napolin
What happens to us, as readers, when a scholarly monograph's organizing principle is not progression or demonstration, but resonance? If we are lucky, we experience a theoretical acoustics that pairs ostensibly disparate ideas without hierarchizing them, indeed that contests the hierarchies implied by principles of causality, linearity, and teleology. With Julie Beth Napolin's The Fact of Resonance, we are lucky.
Modernist narrative, Napolin establishes, relies on the consolidation of "phenomena as the presence of substance, a here and now of imperial self-possession sensing itself" (3). This "consolidated vision"—a term that Napolin borrows from Edward Said—posits a synecdoche between subject and empire; the phenomenological subject's self-presence is possible within a "total and all-encompassing" England (3). The consolidated vision is conveyed by what Gérard Genette paradoxically calls a "voice." Paradoxically because this voice, a mere "textual effect of the verb's mode of action," is not audible; it presents itself as soundless and neutral (2). In the name of relaying fiction without friction, the so-called neutral voice silences "what is not immediately present in and as enunciation itself" (3). Napolin's ambition in The Fact of Resonance is to attune readers to the acoustics of what the neutral voice represses—that is, elements of sexual, cultural, linguistic, and especially racial difference as well as the forms of violence they register and incite. Colonial and postcolonial encounters, which Napolin surveys primarily in Joseph Conrad's corpus, grant us access to an acoustics that displaces and liminalizes modernist narrative's consolidated vision and neutral voice.
Resonance determines at once the form, the content, and the method of Napolin's inquiry. Sound, the author tells us at the onset, is the novel's "motivating force, one that brings narrative into being" (1). The suggestion that literature is fundamentally sonorous—that is has a voice, that it is recitative, that it is tangled with oral practices—enables us to approach listening as, more than a metaphor for reading, an attribute of reading. On the book's concluding page, Napolin confirms what has by then become evident: that "literature and sound technology are coformations, that literature is a form of sound technology and sound technology a form of literature" (229). If Napolin draws our attention to "resonance," rather than "sound" more generally, it is because resonance is relational and therefore, per Édouard Glissant's theory of relation, creolizing. Resonance is a sonic byproduct of relations—relations between characters and relations between fields of study.
The Fact of Resonance claims as relatives such varied fields as literary studies, sound studies, media studies, Black studies, postcolonial theory, and anthropology. Academic conventions would have us label this work "interdisciplinary," and Napolin muses about disciplinarity and its discontents on occasion, but a more significant methodological intervention is on display. Napolin's method is not additive (this field's concerns, plus this other field's concerns), but, I would venture, catachrestic. It consists in deliberately "misusing" theories whose medium specificity traditionally espouses disciplinary divisions. For instance, Adriana Cavarero, whose ontology of vocal uniqueness is contingent on audible expression, makes an appearance in a discussion of narrative voice. Napolin's gambit reaps dividends: it teaches us that real methodological misuses are occasioned by the disciplinary partition of phenomena—audible vocal expression and narrative voice—that are co-constitutive. Although Napolin does not explicitly state such an aim, a catachrestic method also deflates the ableism that informs a theory of vocal expression like Cavarero's. [End Page 390]
"If the sound of history is a reverberation, then it cannot be linearly reconstructed," writes Napolin (229). Without historical or narrative chronology as a guide, The Fact of Resonance triangulates three key concepts: voice, echo, and sinister resonance (7). A feat of criticism, the inaugural chapter grows into a vast close reading of the first two words of Conrad's debut novel, Almayer's Folly: "Kaspar! Makan!" (quoted in...