Sunday, May 18, 2008
Through Other Continents
Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)
This book is a call to think outside the limits of American literary study (and study of other literatures as well). Dimock calls for interpreting American culture as an extreme holism incorporating human experiences reaching back into "deep time" and across the globe, a paradigm she sees as best illustrated by the spread of religion and languages. (She also uses Deleuze/Guattari's rhizome idea to illustrate this.)
Articulating an understanding of humans as fundamentally connected through the experience of embodiment, she then goes on to destabilize any number of other supposed "connections" which create the categories by which we define our academic studies. "Eras," she argues, should be seen as more plastic; even death should not curtail our inclusion or exclusion of particular people in categories of inquiry (this is a post-human moment). Dimock argues that the nineteenth century, with its expanding scientific knowledge, created opportunities for some people to see themselves as part of a "species" instead of as nations.
An example of a person in the nineteenth century American scene whose thought must be seen as transcending these boundaries is Thoreau, whose interest in the Bhagavad Gita Dimock sees as a "translation" across time. (John Brown, she argues, is also translated "across death" by his actions and by Thoreau's writings.) The acts of reading, writing, and translation are all radical acts, she argues, which challenge the primacy of time and allow us to hear the dead and reaffirm connections between ourselves and those who live far from us. Ezra Pound and fascism; Henry James in Italy; Robert Lowell and Vietnam all show up in different chapters. Her final chapter, on Gary Snyder and Native American and Japanese thought about tricksters (liminal animal/human figures), animals and ecology, reaffirms her conclusion that embodiment points the way to connection and empathy.
Dimock is in the English and American Studies departments at Yale. She recently co-edited a book on transnationalism and literary studies, Shades of the Planet, with Lawrence Buell; has written a book on Melville and individualism; and co-edited, with Priscilla Wald, a special issue of American Literature which I should read: Literature and Science: Cultural Forms, Conceptual Exchanges (Duke UP, 2002).