14 August 2020
Print can seem like a slow medium these days. In the last issue, I started my note to the reader admitting that I—we, I could safely generalize—did not know what the pandemic would look like when the issue would reach subscribers’ hands a mere month later. I begin here with a similar admission. What you hold is an issue loosely themed “back-to-school,” but we are going to press at a time when there is no clear sense of what “back to school” will look like for anybody, even for those with a start date just weeks from now, even for those who have already started. (The University of Georgia is slated to start 18 August.) The theme came to mind when assistant editor Soham Patel suggested we publish Craig Santos Perez’s “Teaching Ecopoetry in a Time of Climate Change” in the fall, because its pedagogic thrust fits the season. Another school-related piece came in through the wire—I forget which—and that was enough to get the party started. This was an ad hoc process, unlike the one for our Spring 2020 census issue, which means we went about our submissions as we normally do, but with an opportunistic eye for the theme and our fingers crossed. All the while the pandemic came, and stayed, and stayed—and when the curve didn’t flatten by June, the diurnal ritual of going back to school, that collective practice central to time-keeping for modern societies across the globe, which we often take for granted, was put into question. Up until very recently, I had thought the words in this issue would inhabit and play with the familiarity of so certain a moment: the classrooms, recess, locker rooms, shame, pride, friendship, alienation. But now, there will likely be a sense of nostalgia, a distance, and discord in your reading experience that I could not have anticipated.
I say that print can seem like a slow medium these days, because it hasn’t always been the case. As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, immense advancements in printing technology gave print the aura of immediacy and omnipresence that has in our century left paper, it feels, for its current primary residence—the internet. Nor can the difficult punctuality we currently feel in print be explained entirely by the relentless march of technological innovation. As we know, over the past, say, fifteen years, there has been a collective decision to be less prompt with replying to emails, even though no form of communication more “instantaneous” has arrived during that time. When speaking about “mass-communication” in Culture and Society (1958), critic Raymond Williams notes that “there is a general tendency to confuse the techniques [of communication] themselves with the uses to which, in a given society, they have been put,” adding, “reception and response, which complete communication, depend on other factors than the techniques.” In other words, the speed of any given type of communication is at least as much, if not more so, about a population’s interaction with and expectations about the medium than about any quality inherent in the technology.
In this society, our orientation toward the internet can make us grow unaccustomed to a state of being out of which words such as curiosity and inquiry are born: the ability to be comfortable, to dwell, and even to thrive in a state of not-knowing. With Google and Wikipedia at our fingertips every waking moment, we have been inured to expect an answer immediately to any question we might encounter. Not only does the Socratic standard for the love of learning—knowing you know nothing—feel less like a paradox than an extreme impossibility today, but to have any incidental moment of not-knowing grow beyond its immediate birth feels increasingly unnatural.
The immediacy of certain understanding is also what stereotypes promise. Writing specifically about race, political theorist Étienne Balibar states, “the racist complex inextricably combines a crucial function of misrecognition (without which the violence would not be tolerable to the very people engaging it) and a ‘will to know,’ a violent desire for immediate knowledge of social relations” (italics in the original). To my mind, nothing demonstrates this better, and more profoundly, than Frantz Fanon’s chapter “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” in Black Skin, White Masks (1952). Nothing is more trenchant about Balibar’s point than the equivalence of the two phrases in Fanon’s opening sentence, one phrase, “Look, a Negro!,” spoken “simply” as code for a more vitriolic one. Fanon’s autobiographical-critical text describes how the racist complex, which he calls “the racial epidermal schema,” corrupts the racialized body’s ability to function normally as a body in the world, for one’s actions are “overdetermined from the outside.” The dominant group’s “violent desire for immediate knowledge” imposes a framework of being onto the Black subject, delimiting his/her/their comportment and actions from the outset: “For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.” When Fanon recognized this state of affairs in his own life, he laments, “I was no longer enjoying myself . . . I was responsible not only for my body but also for my race and my ancestors.” “The white gaze,” he continues, “the only valid one, is already dissecting me. I am fixed.” Stereotypes are not exclusively about perpetuating disparaging images (I am a member of “the model minority”). Rather, these epistemological complexes fix subjects into frameworks of understanding so that others can engage them strictly through stereotypes, that is by legitimizing and indulging the desire for immediate knowledge of one’s social relation to that subject, whether that framework is built around race, gender, sexuality, class, region, or any other category of identity.
To say that, on the one hand, stereotypes are the means by which “a violent desire for immediate knowledge” dominates the world, and, on the other, that the prevalent orientation toward the internet these days habituates its users to expect, naturally and unconsciously, immediate knowledge is not to attribute any essential oppressive quality to the internet or liberating quality to print. There are certainly books and pamphlets printed today that peddle stereotypical accounts of people. And one can of course be online without being a bigot. (Please follow us on social media!) These are tendencies of media historically determined by the “reception [of] and response” to these different modes of communication conditioned out of us. But to recognize how the historical standing of the internet meshes with the structural working of stereotypes can be meaningful. For now, let’s just embrace print’s tendency to lag, and appreciate literature all the more, because literary language can slow the speed to know even more. Such workings of literary language as polysemy, figures of speech, irony, and narrative make language run at the pronounced risk of uncertain meaning, which requires more active engagement from the reader on the semantic and syntactical level at the very least.
Immediate understanding requires habitual thought. So the drag of literary language always has the potential to at least question, if not undermine, habitual thought, whether we read with or against the text’s grain. It is no coincidence that the second half of Fanon’s chapter leads its reader through reading after manic reading of literature, replete with surprises, bafflement, and the epiphanic thrill of unlocking a text. Fanon depicts himself reading texts closer and closer, more and more slowly, as he makes sense out of, and outside of, the confining experience of having to negotiate life within a racial epidermal schema. This is not to imply that “cultured” people are more enlightened. Fanon, among legions of others, has demonstrated how culture has been weaponized in the service of numerous bigoted epistemological complexes. And this type of language is not exclusive to “high culture.” It would do one worse than to read Ralph Ellison unpack the rich figurative meaning and folk wisdom of the 1940s Black colloquial phrase “Oh, man, I’m nowhere.” Simply put, what threatens the promise of immediate knowledge is the full presence of someone other. About “mass-communication,” Raymond Williams concludes:
A man’s concern for value—for standards, as we say—properly expresses itself in the effort towards a community of experience on which these standards can rest. Further, if his concern for value is something more than dogma, he will hold himself open to learn other values, in the shaping of a new common experience. The refusal of either course is a petulant timidity. If one cannot believe in men, and in their common efforts, it is perhaps only in caricature that one can believe in oneself.
Although I would have Williams define “common experience” more pointedly around difference and antagonism than he ultimately does, a work that requires the full, active presence of writer and reader, speaker and audience, text and subject, will be preternaturally capable to enable others to overcome dogma. I’m certain that Williams could not have anticipated that sixty years after Culture and Society he would have as evidence for his statement an American head-of-state who is 1) described by many who know him as disdaining print material for the time it takes to read it, and 2) the savviest, most influential user of social media to date. The petulance, caricature, and narcissism are for us to assess.
Spend time with this issue, if you can. “College,” by esteemed Indian writer Vinod Kumar Shukla, follows a boy’s education of and through economics, theater, and his upbringing in a financially strapped Brahmin family. The accompanying essay, by Vidyan Ravinthiran, argues that “the further into [Shukla’s] world one travels, the more unsure one gets,” because in Shukla’s distinctive style “the movement of prose toward the curvatures of verse can further the fiction-writer’s work, discovering (with each sentence) a new angle on individuals and their ligatures.” You can see the unmaking of poetic language at work in Wayne Koestenbaum’s poetry, written in an alternative mode of day-keeping. Radiclani Clytus offers an essay about Black art, music, and spectatorship that follows the evolution of jazz-musician-cum-performance-artist Jason Moran from concert hall to white cube, ending with a prolonged look at Moran’s collaboration with Kara Walker at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Using philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of musical listening, through which “[we] promiscuously sense our way through resonance without rational comprehension,” Clytus shows us “how black musicians innovate through the vicissitudes of black creative ferment, and thus harness the profound communion of musical listening” in order to make us, the audience, “more attuned to the serialization of black death.” We also have a special feature on an exhibit currently up at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through Children’s Books is the first exhibition to showcase the collective work that children’s book artists have made throughout the years to educate—delight and instruct—their readers about the long, ongoing legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. We include a selection of images from the exhibition as well as an interview between managing editor C. J. Bartunek and guest curator Andrea Davis Pinkney, an award-winning author of children’s books herself as well as a vice president and executive editor at Scholastic. What’s more: there’s a poem in this volume in which our iconic Georgia hot dog chain makes a cameo. What’ll ya have?
A few other updates from around the virtual office:
• As we continue to strengthen the multimedia presence of The Georgia Review, we are launching a new online platform this fall, which will regularly feature original work suited for the internet. There will be project spaces, such as one edited by Soham Patel that presents a living digital archive of last year’s Writers for Migrant Justice readings. We will be posting two standard reviews per month; this fall includes reviews of Deborah Paredez’s Year of the Dog by Erik Gleibermann, Stephanie Danler’s Stray by Erin Lewenauer, and Lawrence Wright’s The End of October by Darby Walters.
• In partnership with UGA’s Special Collections Libraries, we are proud to present our keynote speaker for the twentieth-anniversary celebration of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame: W. Ralph Eubanks will be giving a talk titled “Georgia’s Literary Past and the Future of Southern Letters” virtually on Sunday 8 November at 4 p.m. Please follow georgiawritershalloffame.org for further details.
Not every piece in this issue is about school, but there are enough for a leitmotif that can echo through each of these works. More importantly, I hope that, while reading this latest installment of The Georgia Review, you can experience at some point what Clair Wills calls, in a recent essay on the arts of dance and reading, “a kind of uncertainty, a positive doubt” in “the delay” of such reading.