2/21 Seminar Notes

In our seminar this week we discussed Erna Brobder’s Louisiana. Carter began class by playing Jamaican folk music and examples of dub. The folk music was of interest because of how African retention and cultural memory come together with new world Christianity in rural Jamaica, realized in a new kind of sound. Dub music, Carter argued, is intimately connected with the political moment in the 1960s and 70s in Jamaica, and with the Rastafari movement. A genre that remixes existing tunes, accenting base and drums lines, and manipulating the soundscape through the use of effects like reverb and echo, dub tries to create an atmospheric yet fractured sound. Carter’s initial suggestion during class was that Louisiana reads like an attempt to write dub, or a textual version of dub.

In discussion, the idea of the novel as a manipulated, as remade and remixed, resurfaced a number of times. Some metaphors that were used to describe the novel was that of a remix, and Brobder was at one point likened to a DJ. Invoking Weheliye, Al described the remixing in terms of the notion of not a repetition of difference, but a repetition with difference, and Nadia pointed out that the novel seems to invite re-reading. Carter further suggested that the echoing spiritual effects in the text produces and elongation of time, and that this connects to a notion of diasporic memory. This comment also hearkened back to the intro where Carter posed the leading question of how, in Louisiana, the music and the spirit world interact, and how sound operates in the text to create a textual collage of sounded effects. The question of the role of recording technology was also broached in the introduction, and Carter would later come back to this and underline that Ella’s tape recorder is not just a strawman for the connection made in the novel between (cultural) memory and recording, but that the novel also provides commentary on recording technology as such. Shana suggested that the tape recorder could be seen as a symbol of bureaucracy (in its WPA context) and and the oppressive and dominant white culture.

One thread in the discussion that was brought up several times and that is directly connected to the tape recorder is the “I heard the voice from heaven say”-section of the novel. We thought for a while about what word should be used to describe this part: Carter referred to it as “a prologue,” but immediately qualified this by saying that it doesn’t feel like one; the section was also likened to an appendix, though placed at the “wrong” end of the text, and finally simply as “field notes.” Al suggested that this initial section is a way for Brobder to establish legitimacy. Torleif brought up the point that though this section sometimes appears to be a transcript, it does not always read as such, and that the notion of transcript versus interpretation is problematized throughout the novel. Abbie talked about the emphasis on writing in the novel as a problem of agency, and that although we normally ascribe subjectivity to forms of writing, subjectivity in Louisiana seems to operate on alternate or multiple modalities of the production of meaning. We also came to discuss the final embodiment of sound in Ella, and how Reuben here becomes the transcriber, and Ella the medium.

Another aspect of the text that we discussed at some length and from a number of angles was the editorial commentary that opens the novel. Tasia commented at one point that all of our conversations about Lousiana seem to come back to the issue of the transmission of information. Inside the novel, this is thematized in terms of the WPA project and its transformation into Ella’s exploration of her own memories in conjunction with her reception and parsing of the voices of Mammy and Lowly. Circulation thus seems to be a key concept both within the novel, and on a meta-level in relation to the editor’s introduction. Another point that was discussed in relation to these pages is the paragraph on page 4 that speaks about the manuscript’s arrival as being “opportune” because the world is now ready for an expanded notion of knowledge, and more receptive to the kind of knowledge that Louisiana articulates–or maybe it is the other way around: the kind of extra-sensory knowledge that articulates and constitutes the novel. In relation to this we also discussed Brobden as a scholar, and we asked the same questions of her novel that we previously had about its first section: what is it? Although we didn’t arrive at an answer to this question, and it may indeed be the case that the novel resists being classified in this way, Carter did point out that it seems to be literature plus something else. In order to access the knowledge of the text, you need to give into its world, Shana commented. The question of knowledge and its sources was also a through-line in terms of our discussions of archives.

We began the second half of class thinking about a simultaneously resonant and challenging passage from Nancy’s Listening and attempted to parse both  its meaning and implications in and of itself and how it opens up, augments, and generally brings to bear on our reading of Brodber’s complex novel-cum-meditation (drawing from Shana’s understanding of the text’s nature) . In our conversation, we began to gain access to what Carter referred to as broad points of unacknowledged convergence between the two texts, and we explored how Brodber’s work, specifically in her rendering of the recorder, responds to and goes beyond Nancy’s conception of the sonorous. Proceeding from a meditation on the isomorphism between the visual and the conceptual, the section of Nancy’s text we most concentrated on is the following: “The sonorous…outweighs form. It does not dissolve it, but rather enlarges it; it gives it an amplitude, a  density, and a vibration or an undulation whose outline never does anything but approach. The visual persists until its disappearance; the sonorous appears and fades away into permanence” (2). This passage helped us to consider how when we perceive visually, we are able to concretize and isolate both the object viewed and the moment of its viewing. In this moment of visualization, the ability to see something distinctly that can be objectified makes both the object and the viewer discrete figures. Sound, in contrast, is capacious and enveloping: it surrounds both subject (formerly viewer) and object, opening up the possibility for permanence and thus a different conception of time. We see this in the recorder in Louisiana, a technological device that would traditionally preserve temporal linearity, but which, in Brodber’s rendering, confounds a conventional understanding of temporality. Additionally, Nancy’s sense of the perpetuity of the sonorous helps us to think about the ongoingness variously conveyed in Brodber’s text—in terms of memory, political collectivity, construction of narrative, etc. Finally, Rosanne drew our attention to Nancy’s description of the relational and processional (drawing from Abbie’s observation) quality of subject formation (Nancy 12) and drew connections between the contingency of subject formation vis-à-vis Brodber’s characterization of Ella.

Crucial to Brodber’s text and figuring throughout our seminar meeting are questions centered around the interpenetrating concerns of (specifically African) diaspora, movement, collectivity, resistance, and memory. Our conversation mirroring Brodber’s text in its ultimate inability to resolve conclusively the problems raised by Louisiana’s representation of these concepts (which is not to imply that resolution was ever our goal), we nonetheless made headway in considering how Brodber interestingly reconsiders and re-theorizes these ideas in her novel. Specifically, we thought about the song competitions as moments of convergence between/among diasporic cultures in which participants experience or feel mutual recognition through the sensory.

As we approached the end of our discussion, we addressed explicitly a question that existed as an undercurrent through most of our conversation: what are the possibilities of the politics of the text in making a push for different understandings of diaspora and resistance ? Put another way, given the fragmented, disordered, temporally and spatially uncertain qualities of the work, are we able to take away a positive sense of the political, and if so, how does it work? While at first it might seem as if the text makes accessing elements of the political more difficult, despite the presence Garvey and other black nationalist and labor movements within the work, our discussion proved that in several subtle and perhaps even subversive ways, Louisiana amplifies these concerns. Tasia suggested the idea of constant circulation within and outside the text as one way to answer this question (recalling and building upon our exploration of the text’s portrayal of movement). We also looked to the character of Silas as nicely encapsulating the text’s negotiation and understanding of a new version of the political. As both a political organizer and a spiritualist (154), Silas provides a new model of political resistance—a remix, as it were—recasting the political as something unrecognizable which draws upon psychic connections and a spiritual realm, both of which are crucial to growth and the production of history. Finally, the formal qualities of the text provide a way of understanding its politics as neither orthodox, linear, nor predictable.

Gender is another issue that we spent some time discussing. Carter argued that black nationalism influenced black feminism. Don pointed out that gender relations shift throughout the novel in that Reuben at first had no voice at all, but that he, nevertheless, gets to have the last word, a last word which effectively supplants Ella’s voice as the ultimate authority yet does not do so in an especially obtrusive or circumscriptive way. Another issue that was brought up was how Ella willingly assumes the position of domestic housewife. This underscores the racial component in this particular brand of feminism, and contrasts with the white feminist movement of the same time period in that it seeks the empowerment of women at home.

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One Response to 2/21 Seminar Notes

  1. Carter says:

    I am curious, given the point made in this post about our discussion of form, sound, and politics in Brodber’s Louisiana, how we might think through the same issue in Morrison’s Jazz?

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