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Time in the novel, national communities and ethnic literature

July 13, 2012

“The appropriation for literature of the social and the historical may be celebrated as a blurring of the boundaries of conventional categories, but it also burdens literature with tasks that may undermine the autonomy of the individual writer; just as the conflation of the personal and the collective raises the question of the public (and, therefore, political) responsibility of the literary work in the representation of collective consciousness. It may be argued that literature has been endowed all along with such responsibility in its association with the nation. Timothy Brennan writes that,

‘It was the novel that historically accompanied the rise of nations by objectifying the “one, yet many” of national life, and by mimicking the structure of the nation, a clearly bordered jumble of languages and styles. Socially, the novel joined the newspaper as the major vehicle of the national print media, helping to standardize language, encourage literacy, and remove mutual incomprehensibility. But it did much more than that. Its manner of presentation allowed people to imagine the special community that was the nation.’

Brennan’s reference in the last line is to Benedict Anderson, who pointed in his Imagined Communities to the correspondence between “the ‘interior’ time of the novel” and the “‘exterior’ time of the reader’s everyday life,” which “gives a hypnotic confirmation of the solidity of a single community, embracing characters, author and readers, moving onward through calendrical time.”

Where there is some assumption of cultural and linguistic homogeneity, as in the case of national culture, the individual work of literature may still claim a unique voice through or in opposition to the national culture.” (215) He continues: “The situation is somewhat different [-p.216] in the case of minority and transnational literatures in a heterogeneous cultural and linguistic context—heterogeneous not only in the composition of the transnationalized national society, but in the constitution of the minority group itself. In such a context, the very affirmation of diversity burdens the unique creative voice with the additional task of social and cultural interpretation, of mediating not only between different spaces but different times. Within such a context “the characters, the author and readers” do not belong in the same spatiality or temporality, and “the interior time of the novel” does not confirm but challenges “the ‘exterior’ time of the reader’s everyday life”—where the very language in which the novel is written, while it is seemingly the very same national language, nevertheless calls for translation because its idiom now includes the legacies of many other languages. More is at issue in this situation than the identity of literature. The issue, ultimately, is that of the status of the nation itself as political and cultural form.” (215-216)

Arif Dirlik (2002) ‘Literature/Identity: Transnationalism, Narrative and Representation’. The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 24: 209-234

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