September 6, 2016

On Literature

Last year, my favorite poet Anne Boyer did an interview with Amy King of The Poetry Foundation entitled "‘Literature is against us’: In Conversation with Anne Boyer." Boyer writes from the perspective of a disabled body, one which had been unable to work after battling an aggressive stage of breast cancer.

I often think about this interview, Boyer in general, and the notion that literature is, in fact, against us. An excerpt from the interview: “us” I actually mean a lot of people: against all but the wealthiest women and girls, all but the wealthiest queer people, against the poor, against the people who have to sell the hours of their lives to survive, against the ugly or infirm, against the colonized and the enslaved, against mothers and other people who do unpaid reproductive labor, against almost everyone who isn’t white—everyone who has been taken from, everyone who makes and maintains the world that the few then claim it is their right to own. And by “against,” many of us know this “literature” contains violent sentiments toward us, is full of painful exclusions, but that isn’t even the core of its opposition to us. How “literature” is also against us is that it is a magic circle drawn around the language games of a class of people—the rich and powerful and those who serve or have served them. It gives (or appears to give, like any mystification) these words a permission and a weight, dangles the ugliness in our faces and names it beauty, gleefully shows off stupidity and claims it as what is wise. (via The Poetry Foundation)
I can't help but think about Boyer's wondrous claims in the context of being a writer, a reader, a student, a homosexual, a person with mental disabilities, a person with physical disabilities, a substance user, etcetera. This week, I started my last semester of university and a professor in a critical theory class asked us to describe what exactly literature is. I surprisingly had a difficult time with this question and needed to explore it. If, as Boyer argues, literature exists to subdue communities of people, what about literature gives it the agency to oppress? Who makes literature, and how are those devices privileged? Who wins and who loses when we talk about literature?

Historically, literature has often come from positions of oppression. But at the same time, an interesting dynamic exists between representation and the ability to be represented. What affordances does literature give, as Boyer argues, to poor people, people of color, enslaved people, working people, etcetera? If I cannot afford the basic necessities of life, how can I afford to make literature? And what does making literature look like?

One of the biggest problems I had in answering the question "what is literature" is the supposed binary between what is literature and what is not literature. Binaries are social constructs that always give benefit to one side of the paradigm.  That is to say, who has the right to regard if something is literature or not? When you consider the declaration that a piece of work is or is not literature, you quit the forces that create literature itself.

Literature is an experience. And perhaps that is the only classification that it needs.

1 comment:

  1. I think I like your last observation - that literature is an experience. It's something I have to think about. At the same time, I feel that perhaps the construct of what literature "is" or "isn't" is being overthought. To me, literature has many facets, so I go back to your observation that literature is an experience because as day to day living is a different experience for each person, so words read or heard are also not understood or perceived exactly the same way for any two people.