Walk the Tightrope: Toward a History of Minor Literatures
Penn State University, Estados Unidos
Roland Barthes wrote that to say “I teach literature” was to utter a tautological statement, since literature is essentially what is taught. So it is interesting to note that before they propose a concept of minor literature, Deleuze and Guattari begin by detaching Kafka from what the universities call Literature. According to Réda Bensmaia, this process permits a reversal. It allows them to enter into Kafka’s work without being weighted down by the old categories of genres, types, modes, and style. “[…] instead of Kafka’s work being related to some preexistent category or literary genre, it [the concept of minor literature] will henceforth serve as a rallying point or model for certain texts and bi-lingual writing practices that, until now, had to pass through a long purgatory before even being read, much less recognized.” (Bensmaia xiv)
At times it is as if this concept put forth by Deleuze and Guattari offered a shortcut. So the goal here is to see an emerging literature in light of the concept of minor literature.
Let us keep in mind that in this present study, U.S. Latina literature will serve as a paradigm, and for several reasons. In her Introduction to the Critical Study of Latino literature entitled European Perspectives on Hispanic Literature of the United States Geneviève Fabre writes, “Critics have been first compelled to fight against certain current allegations: that Hispanic literatures in the United States are new and as such are still suffering from immaturity, coarseness of literary devices, lack of sophistication; that they are a by-product of the 1970’s political movements, therefore ephemeral and limited to propaganda and protest or condemned to be mostly documentary, testimonial or journalistic.” (Fabre 7)
Fabre then adds that the Hispanic voice can no longer be denied and that Latinos cannot be satisfied with a minority or subliterature status.
Henry Louis Gates addresses this by coming to the conclusion that the ritualized invocation of otherness is losing its capacity to engender new forms of knowledge and that the margin may have exhausted its strategic value. “We must prepare to forego the pleasures of ethnicist affirmation and routinized ressentiment in favor of rethinking the larger structures that constrain and enable our agency.” (Gates, Introduction to Scholarship 299)
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., however, contends that the margin is produced by the center and that the other is produced by the self or the same. He reminds us that we tend to forget that the position of the margin is an effect of the center rather than what he calls an autonomous agency of subversion. He then quotes Sneja Gunew who writes that these minority writings have been in general homogenized, for the center is quite able to accommodate change, change which is safely contained.
To this Gates adds that the threat to the margin comes not from assimilation or from an attempt to strip it of its alterity, but rather from the center’s attempt to preserve that alterity, and this results in the homogenization of the other as simply other.
A mere decade takes us from U.S. Latina testimonial and confessional writings, to works that are considered literature (with a small “l”) and analyzed in light of critical theory. The demarginalization and the crowning of the works of literary quality, however, are not altogether innocent moments and processes. Since it is a long, meandering road that goes from a simple text, to its abandonment and then to it challenging of the canon, so it will be interesting to find out what scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari propose when it comes to minor literatures.
As the etymon of minor implies, it’s lesser. There’s no way around it, and in fact it is an excellent place to begin, at the bottom. The English word minor comes from the Latin comparative adjective, minor-minus, the lesser or smaller of two. According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, it was first recorded in 1410 with that meaning. The general sense of less important, and not significant, was recorded in 1623. So, the next question that comes to mind is whether or not a minor literature is a less important and less significant literature.
It could be. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that.
Nonetheless, the Oxford Latin Dictionary defines the adjective not only as “lesser,” but also as “smaller,” and “younger.”
Hopefully, therefore, the word minor will not become politically incorrect soon and will instead come to mean not only something of lesser importance and significance (which could very well be a necessary phase), but also something newer, younger, something in the process of becoming.
In his essay included in Introduction to Scholarship, Gates delves into the terminology: ethnic, minority, mainstream, marginality. He explains that although we are all ethnics in America, initial uses of the term ethnic connoted of color or minority in terms of demographic data or political representation. “The implication of minority as “minor”, “less than,” or somehow non-central to major scholarship adheres to all these terms. Even margin-center terminologies, which proved initially enabling in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, sometimes served to re-inscribe the isolated status of these emerging literatures.” (Gates, Introduction to Scholarship 293)
Although Gates does not subsequently attempt to define or circumscribe the terms, he comes to the conclusion that all definitions of ethnic tradition are both tautological and essentialist. Such traditions, he believes, are defined not by texts, but by authors, and even more precisely by the ethnic descent of the authors. He then points out that the 70’s style hermeneutics saw the death of the author and that the 80’s style cultural politics brought the author back.
So let us leave the word minor with all the meanings considered above attached to it. Let this minor literature here be all that. Let’s opt to keep every single value judgment contained in the “little” word.
Surprisingly enough, the noun minority doesn’t appear as negative or diminutive at first. When referring to a minority group, we are not necessarily implying that the group is less significant or important. But then again one never knows, for socially one tends to think that minorities are less privileged than majorities, so let us be ready for that acceptance as well. What matters here is that a word capable of containing negative connotations and positive energy - simultaneously - has to be a dynamic word.
In T. S. Eliot’s collection of literary essays On Poetry and Poets there is an address entitled “What is Minor Poetry?” This is a suitable point of departure for these reflections, except that we will replace the word poetry by the word literature.
In spite of the fact that the title is a question, Eliot warns his readers or listeners in the very first sentence that he does not propose to offer a definition of minor poetry. To attempt to do so would be dangerous since one would then expect to settle who or what is major and who or what is minor. Moreover, no one would agree.
Deleuze and Guattari, on the contrary, have no problems attempting to answer the question “what is minor literature?” not so much by trying to determine who is minor, but rather by asking why something is considered minor, and by transforming the concept of minor literature into a category.
After promising his audience that he will definitely not answer the question Eliot proceeds to explain how the word minor can mean different things at different times and even different things at the same time. In any case, Eliot immediately urges his readers or listeners to dispel any derogatory association with that word and any notion that it is easier or less worthwhile to read minor literature or poetry. This remains quite a difficult task because however way you look at it, and so long as it is Eliot’s theme, the word minor keeps its everlasting meaning, which we know so well.
We will have to wait for Deleuze and Guattari for the word minor to be invested with another brush-stroke of meaning. Once again, indeed, the attempt at a definition will cease, and the task becomes an approach.
The pour in Deleuze’s and Guattari’s Pour une littérature mineure, is not simply an apology, it is a new approach, almost a discovery. Then, when Kafka happens to be the figurehead, the world of lesser and greater suddenly turns upside down and minor is suddenly invested with an almost mathematical quality, in the Kantian sense that the negative number 20 is no lesser than the positive number 20, and no greater, just something else, a mirror image but not a tautological one, almost the Lacanian “je est un autre”, another and the same. In other words, the term minor is stripped of its comparative meaning and becomes a new category.
In fact, “What is minor literature?” was not the real question for Eliot. At a given moment in his lecture he formulates the real questions, or the ones behind the anteed one that asks for a definition. Those new questions are: “What kinds or minor poetry are there?” and: “Why read it?”
And indeed, why read minor literature with so many established voices out there and when a lifetime would not be enough to even skim the surface of the major? The first reaction to such a question is that if the world had only produced such staid traditionalist readers they would have become extinct long ago. Or we would only be reading Homer because everything else that follows is too minor.
The second reaction is that in the obstacle course that may lead to establishment or the crowning inclusion in the canon, when the writer is at home base and the die is first cast the numbers will never be high enough, and there is an inevitable move to a space or a condition called “minor”. There may subsequently be a reason for an immediate second or third turn, or there may never be another turn. Whatever the case may be the fact remains that it is necessarily is a space called minor that the piece must fall first. Here, indeed, minor is simply the quality of being younger.
In an effort to determine why one should bother reading minor literature, T. S. Eliot takes anthologies into consideration. This is how a speech dedicated to the question “What is minor?” became an exploration and an explanation of the uses and dangers of literary anthologies.
“ [. . .] because one association of the term ‘minor poetry’ makes it mean ‘the kind of poem that we only read in anthologies. And, incidentally, I am glad of the opportunity to say something about the uses of anthologies, because, if we understand their uses, we can also be guarded against their dangers.” (Eliot, On Poetry and Poets 39)
Before I proceed any further I would like to dwell on the words “the kind of poem that we only read in anthologies.”
Since this is an effort to shape a history of minor literatures, and since history suggests a chronology of some sort, I consider that at the beginnings of a minor literature are the writings that we only read in anthologies.
“Of course,” T.S. Eliot writes, “the primary values of anthologies lies in their being able to give pleasure: but, beyond this, they should serve several purposes.” (Eliot, On Poetry and Poets 40)
The first purpose is to give young unpublished writers a voice. According to Eliot anthologies such as these are valuable to both writers and readers. The writer can see himself in print and the reader may become aware of emerging voices.
Next to these anthologies of young emerging writers are those with the widest circulation, such as The Oxford Book of English Verse, that survey an entire literature. Eliot believes that anthologies such as these serve their purpose when they allow a reader to get acquainted with certain classic authors, but that their values is soon over, for “we do not go on reading anthologies for the selections from these poets.” (Eliot, On Poetry and Poets 41)
Before returning to the subject of minor poets as those that we only read in anthologies, Eliot mentions another one of the multiple uses of anthologies. “[…] one which can only be served if the compiler is not only very well read, but a man of very sensitive taste. There are many poets who have been generally dull, but who have occasional flashes.” (Eliot, On Poetry and Poets 43) At the end of that same paragraph Eliot concludes that anthologies are useful because no one has time to read everything.
Now we can return of the subject of minor literature as literature that is only read in anthologies. In examining these anthologies in subsequent chapters we will see what Eliot means when he states that there is more than one type of minor poet.
Although Eliot promised not to give an answer to the question, “What is minor?” he did so, ultimately. We can keep this definition, and add it to our list that already contains the words lesser, smaller, and younger. Minor literature is literature that is only read in anthologies.
Deleuze and Guattari take this a step farther. As I already mentioned they have no qualms about trying to define minor literature right away, and they do.
A minor literature according to them has three characteristics. The first is that “[. . .] in it language is affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialization.” (Deleuze and Guattari 16) Deleuze and Guattari explain this first by stating that a minor literature does not come from a minor language, on the contrary, it is constructed within a major language, as are the writings I am concerned with here.
Deleuze and Guattari further explain that in Kafka’s case there was an impossibility of not writing at all, as well as the impossibility of writing in German, and at the same time the impossibility of not writing in German.
At this moment I would like to apply the characteristics put forth by Deleuze and Guattari to U.S. Latina literature. In other words, consider the writings found in several anthologies in light of the category of minor literature.
Once again, there is an impossibility of not writing and the proof is in the writing. There is the landmark anthology, This Bridge Called My Back, which is reminiscent of a heart that has just been torn out of a body and is being held up, still beating, to the sun or the moon -- all that had to be said. Then there is the language, an impossibility of writing in Spanish, an impossibility of writing in English, and an impossibility of not writing in English because Spanish was out of the question. As a matter of fact, Cherrie Moraga even tries to counter this impossibility of writing in Spanish and has her anthology translated several years later. The impossibility of writing in English is also there, for oftentimes we are reading a cardboard language put together with old scotch tape and glue that has been left out to dry.
Deleuze and Guattari explain the impossibility of not writing, “Because national consciousness, uncertain or oppressed, necessarily exists by means of literature.” (Deleuze and Guattari 16) This is where the radical aspect of anthologies such as This Bridge comes into play.
Deleuze and Guattari then add, “The impossibility of writing other than in German is for the Prague Jews the feeling of an irreducible distance from their primitive Czech territoriality. And the impossibility of writing in German is the deterritorialization of the German population itself, an oppressive majority [. . .]” (Deleuze and Guattari 16)
Once again everything is fitting like the pieces of a puzzle. Deleuze and Guattari call this Prague German a paper language or an artificial language, a deterritorialized German, “appropriate for strange and minor uses. (This can be compared in another context to what blacks in America today are able to do with the English language.)”
These are very comfortable parallels with which to work.
I already mentioned in the preceding section that the second characteristic of minor literatures so defined by Deleuze and Guattari was that everything in them is political. Both scholars mentioned how everything in minor literatures is cramped and that this cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. When we take a look at an anthology such as This Bridge we realize that the voices are political, there is no individual, and even the most intimate, like sexual preference, immediately becomes part of a political program and takes on collective proportions.
And this takes us to the third characteristic: in minor literatures everything takes on a collective value. “Indeed,” Deleuze and Guattari write, “[…] because talent isn’t abundant in a minor literature, there are no possibilities for an individual enunciation that would belong to this or that master and that could be separated from a collective enunciation. Indeed, scarcity of talent is in fact beneficial and allows the conception of something other than a literature of masters.”
Here we come full circle since we are brought back to anthologies and the roles they play where minor literatures are concerned. One of the most interesting aspects or perhaps the most interesting aspect of This Bridge, was indeed its voice, which, instead of being the voices of many individuals, is one collective voice. In plainer terms, it is a melting pot, not a salad. In the original version all the women included speak as one, and this in spite of the fact that they probably made no conscious effort to do so. In fact, they probably would have failed if they had attempted to do put forth one voice through the voice of many, as This Bridge does.
In reference to Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari also write, “The second characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political. In major literatures, in contrast, the individual concern (familial, martial, and so on) joins with other no less individual concerns, the social milieu serving as a mere environment or a background;” (Deleuze and Guattari 17)
Anthologies of minor literatures are an excellent opportunity to try Deleuze’s and Guattari’s concept out. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari glorify minor literature in such a way that one cannot help but want to explore it.
“That is the glory of this sort of minor literature,” they write. “[…] to be the revolutionary force for all literature.” (Deleuze and Guattari 19)
Anthologies slowly trace the history of a minor literature. Then again, it could very well be that minor literatures do go through a process before they are considered minor literatures. Perhaps I am clinging here to the capital L notions. I would say that this process is one that goes from minor writing to minor literature. Writing, the act, can sometimes be a predecessor of literature, can’t it? But then again, can we get any younger than minor?
In the heart of their study Deleuze and Guattari ask themselves how many people today live in a language that is not their own. “Or no longer, or not yet, even know their own or know poorly the major language that they are forced to serve? This is the problem of immigrants, and especially of their children, the problem of minorities, the problems of a minor literature […]”
In fact, Deleuze and Guattari believe that this is a problem for all of us as well: “[…] how to tear a minor literature away from its own language, allowing it to challenge the language and making it follow a sober revolutionary path? How to become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to one’s own language? Kafka answers: steal the baby from its crib, walk the tightrope.” (Deleuze and Guattari 19)
All literatures are a tightrope.
© Beatriz Rivera-Barnes
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*Dirección: Associate Professor Mary Addis*
*Realización: Cheryl Johnson*
*© Istmo, 2005*