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Du Bois’s Telegram

Literary Resistance and State Containment


Juliana Spahr


Harvard University Press, 2018

Hardcover. v+246 p. ISBN 978-0674986961. $29.95/£21.95/€27


Reviewed by Arlette Frund

Université François-Rabelais, Tours





To study the relationships between literature and politics is to contemplate the making and the doing of literature in the world and thus its relation to power. As Jacques Rancière states in The Politics of Literature, “literature is involved in this partition of the visible and the sayable, in this intertwining of being, doing and saying that frames a polemical common world.” By offering formal possibilities of new narratives and new voices that challenge embedded sites and notions of power, literature becomes a political force to be reckoned with. Can it remain autonomous when state governments take an interest in its productions in order to control the discourse on nation at home and abroad? Can literary resistance and activism survive in those circumstances? To those questions that constitute the core of the book’s demonstration, Juliana Spahr, a university professor and a poet, tends to more or less answer no as early as in the introduction.

Spahr is not interested in discussing writers’ commitment to the political issues of their times or the ways they deal with political events in their works: she understands literature to be an institution that, as such, can be intrumentalized by the State Department and liberal foundations that work with the government. Who gets to be published? Who gets to represent American literature abroad? Can literature still be radical? Using a postcolonial theoretical approach grounded in notions of nation, empire and language, Spahr conducts a structural analysis of literature that concentrates on external influences and their impact on the production of literature and its power to resistance and contestation during three time periods: turn of the twentieth century avant garde modernism, literatures of the 1960s and 1970s, and turn of the twenty-first century literature that includes other languages.

To introduce the relationship between literature and the state, Juliana Spahr discusses the absence of W.E.B DuBois, the leading African American scholar, political activist and social commentator on American life, from the 1956 First Congress of Black Writers and Artists organized by Alioune Diop from Présence Africaine in Paris. DuBois who had been invited was unable to attend the Congress because the American government had revoked his passport in 1955, but he sent a telegram to be read at the conference in which he stated that the State Department was intent on controlling the discourse on race conditions in the United States and resented him for his socialist vision. DuBois’s voicing of government interference in the production of knowledge provides the title for the book and also enables Spahr to identify patterns of governmental involvements in relation to the organization of the 1956 Congress such as two CIA front groups that funded cultural diplomacy projects at home and abroad.

Though the author draws from a wide variety of literature and scholarly works, she frames her thesis around a Audre Lorde / Theodor Adorno paradigm, carving out an approach that navigates between Lorde’s claim that literature encompasses change and action and Adorno who mentions that there is no time for political works of art. Spahr wonders why literature as a medium of resistance has a tendency to follow a path that leads from Lorde to Adorno, that is literature develops close connections with radical movements that get limited and severed by state pressure and institutions to finally embodying conformity. The book is divided into four chapters, “Turn of the Twenty-First Century : A Possible Literature of Resistance”, “Stubborn Nationalism : Example One, Avant Garde Modernism”, “Stubborn Nationalism : Example Two, Movement Literatures”, and “Turn of the Twenty-First Century : The National Tradition”.

In the first chapter, Spahr concentrates on contemporary literature that attempts to be revolutionary because it includes over thirty other languages than English, some indigeneous, some colonial, and some herited. Influenced by the works of Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, and her own experience in Hawai’i, the author considers standard English as a colonial language that was imposed in the United States and is now imposed in the rest of the world. As English was contested because it represented a threat to other languages at the turn of the twenty-first century, there were, on the one hand, language revitalization and preservation projects to fight linguicide and, on the other hand, state legislation to make English the official language. The discussions around the role of English as a national language or language of oppression provoked writers to reckon with the political implications of using standard English in their works. Spahr documents what she calls “linguistic intensification” in the works of contemporary writers and, particularly, in the literature of Hawai’i that provides a good example of nationalist literature and resistance to nationalism. Spahr concludes by stating that though this literature that includes other languages is critical of globalization and refuses state-sponsored cultural categorizations in literature, it has limited reach and is not perceived as relevant to resistance movements.

The second chapter deals with modernism and the U.S. cultural diplomacy programs during the Cold War. Spahr starts by giving an academic definition of modernism as a challenge to national literatures because it is shaped by atypical aesthetic forms and is an international movement. Yet, when Spahr taught Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons at the University of Hawai’i, her students helped her realize that modernist literature developed in response to colonialism and was shaped by the literary traditions of the colonies. Spahr then articulates a new understanding of modernism around notions of colony and empire that includes anticolonial writers and Pan-Africanism. Stein’s writings work as a pivotal point in that section since they allow Spahr to study their receptions before and after World War II and to underline the shift towards a more national representation of modernism to emulate the Soviet Union cultural diplomacy program. Because cultural front groups for the C.I.A. and private foundations funded a number of cultural magazines, festivals, and conferences at home and abroad and supported some writers but not others, Spahr contends that they defined the canon of American literature. Spahr’s analysis of the manipulation of the republic of letters extends to Europe and Africa, where the Congress for Cultural Freedom was instrumental in controlling and allowing English-language literature to emerge.

The next chapter continues the examination of “stubborn nationalism” by focusing on the literary movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Spahr concentrates on leftist political movements, social rebellions and movement literatures interested in cultural independence, revolution in the arts and in education which call for resistance and cultural uplift. She singles out two works that are crucial for understanding the role literature can play in fostering political organization and the importance of autonomous venues for publication, Rodolfo Gonzales’s I Am Joaquin (1967) and Gwendolyn Brooks’s Riot (1969). After recognizing that movement literatures have become the dominant literary tradition in the second half of the twentieth century, Spahr uses the remainder of the chapter to research the reasons why they transform into a multicultural literature that emphasizes representation and inclusion at the expense of militant politics. Though she explores extensive rationales, Spahr insists on the actions and funding of the State Department and private foundations to neutralize resistance and critical antiracism. She explains that a well-funded and powerful counterinsurgency instrumentalized literature towards a more culturalist shift in order to undermine social and structural changes, a manipulative pattern that Sphar recognizes as constant when it comes to recuperate resistant movements.

In the last chapter, Juliana Spahr pursues her critical analysis of literature’s “stubborn” relationship to nationalism by making a number of points about the Bush administration’s interest in literature, the tradition of the inaugural poem and the institutionalization of higher education. Though she recognizes that literature is more autonomous at the turn of the twenty-first century, Spahr moves away from embracing the idea that literature is transnational: where scholars perceive influence between national literary traditions, Spahr envisions appropriation since she considers that globalization is another form of imperialism in which the U.S. State Department plays an important role. She describes the nationalist agenda of the state at home and abroad through the implementation of the International Writing Program in Iowa, the institutionalization of creative writing, propaganda publications distributed by U.S. embassies, and literary tours abroad whose purpose is to reinforce American values. Spahr also notes the close relationship between contemporary literature production and distribution, private funds and businesses that tie literature to economic and national security interests. Though she acknowledges that meaningful books are being written, Spahr laments the state strategy that consists in recuperating resistant forms for its nationalist concerns and emptying them of their content. The structural conditions of production and distribution limit the possibilities of political works and of an equitable representation of writers.

Though Julianne Spahr believes that literature has a role to play in the political sphere and that literature can provoke and resist dominant powers, she is interested in understanding why literature has had a complicated history with politics and resistance movements; in other words, why there are more writers and less intellectuals. Her study focuses on the government’s interest in literature and its impact on literary production in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Spahr analyzes the structural reasons for the institutionalization of literature – the role of private foundations, of higher education, of businesses, of the publishing industry and pressures of the marketplace that dictates who gets to be published, to be listed in anthologies and to be sent abroad as ambassadors of American literature. Though Spahr does not want to incriminate individual writers, she still mentions authors from all venues of American society who have participated in state cultural programs because they lack the critical perspective on economic and social conditions. But her book sheds new light on the impact of capitalism on literature and participates in the wider conversation of its role in the world of arts after the recent scandals involving private foundations such as the Ford Foundation and business such as the Sackler corporation.



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