[English version of a January 28, 2013 inteview, first published in Spanish: here]
SPACE AND LITERATURE:
AN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT T. TALLY JR.
ANDRÉS LOMEÑA: The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk published Spheres, and he said that we could call his trilogy “Being and Space” (completing “Being and Time” by Martin Heidegger). You have contributed to develop, along with Bertrand Westphal, geocriticism. Why spatialities are arriving so late? Why did temporalities prevail? What are the historical or theoretical reasons for that? Are narratology, structuralism or deconstruction responsible/guilty of this situation?
ROBERT TALLY: Sloterdijk’s series looks really fascinating, and I expect it will be a very influential contribution to spatiality studies, particularly with respect to architecture and critical geography. The “spatial turn,” as it has been called, seems to be both a significant shift in critical attention, on the one hand, and a somewhat overstated phenomenon on the other. After all, space (Raum) was rather important to Heidegger’s own philosophy, and the supposedly temporally-minded phenomenologists were unquestionably interested in spatial concerns. However, it is true that space was held inferior or less interesting to philosophy in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Michel Foucault’s famous lecture on heterotopia from 1967 declared that, while the nineteenth century was obsessed with history and time, ours is the “epoch of space.” Part of this earlier attention to temporality has to do with the dominance of the Hegelian model of history and Absolute Spirit, and more so with the general view of progress in the nineteenth century, one that was so strong that even Darwin, who knew better, had to end the Origin of the Species with a vague, unconvincing account of how natural selection had some sort of teleological (and moral!) plan. In the United States, the Progressive Movement foundered on the shoals of the First World War, and, more broadly, I think that the dystopian circumstances of the postwar period helped to change these views of time as smoothly flowing and inevitably progressive. At around the same time, in both the arts and the sciences, new theoretical models began to displace these others. For instance, modernism is frequently associated with time (e.g., Proust’s inevitable mémoire involontaire), but it is also the genre of “spatial form,” as Joseph Frank observed, and much of the temporality on display in modernist literature must in a sense be spatialized in order to “see” the experience of time, as is visible in Joyce’s Ulysses or in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, for instance. With the postwar developments of structuralism and postcolonialism, what Edward Said might call a “geographical inquiry into historical experience” takes precedence, and we can see in Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques or even Lacan’s geography of the unconscious. Foucault himself, who after all called his historical researches “archaeologies,” employs a powerfully spatial approach to both power and knowledge. Narratology and deconstruction also contributed to a kind of spatial turn in literary studies, as these practices have a way of spatializing the text and attempting to map it. Westphal is both influenced by, and respectfully opposed to, some of this earlier textualism, as he wants to return to a more straightforward referentiality – there is an hors-de-texte! – in order to apprehend the “real” spaces depicted in literary and filmic texts.
I think that Gilles Deleuze may deserve a special place in all this. He has been called (rightly, I believe), the twentieth century’s most spatial philosopher, and it is perhaps not accidental that of all those normally associated with poststructuralism, Deleuze was the least enamoured of Heidegger. Indeed, I have always found it to be a subtle provocation that, at a time when all of his peers were immersed in the “three H’s” – Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger – a young Deleuze embraced a fourth, Hume, and wrote an important little book on him, Empiricism and Subjectivity. Given the importance of Nietzsche, Spinoza, and Bergson to Deleuze’s subsequent philosophy, I think that the Hume materials have been underappreciated, but Hume’s work is central to Deleuze’s own thought, a point I tried to make in my essay “Nomadography: The ‘Early’ Deleuze and the History of Philosophy.” Deleuze’s spatiality is not limited to his conceptual vocabulary, although one sees it clearly in the language of deterritorialization, reterritorialization, smooth and striated space, geophilosophy, and so on. Both I and Westphal were drawing upon Deleuze when we, independently and coincidentally, came up with the term geocriticism (or géocritique). I should add, however, that Deleuze’s work, and that of geocritics, does not ignore time. One need only think of the astonishingly original books on Cinema, the time-image and movement-image. What has changed in late-twentieth-century thought, as Foucault said, was the relative emphasis. In the post-Kantian scheme of things which lingered on in European philosophy until the 1920s, perhaps, space was the empty container in which “what really mattered” unfolded or took place. But in the postwar period, under the influence of structuralism, yes, but also such things as Fernand Braudel’s “geohistory” and the Annales school, not to mention Einsteinian physics, and so on, space made a comeback, and in the work of important philosophers, hsitorians, and critics, space at least joined time as an equal partner, with spatiotemporality or the chronotope becoming a significant feature of contemporary work.
I should also note that the forces we associate with globalization undoubtedly play the most significant role, and that we should not forget the material underpinnings to all of this abstract philosophizing. Goethe had suggested that world literature emerged in the wake of Napoleon’s campaigns, as different national and intellectual traditions were forced to confront one another and to imagine their own cultural specificity. Well, wars are spectacular events, and they therefore make for highly visible milestones in history and in the history of ideas; hence, we say that spatiality became more prevalent after the First and Second World Wars. However, the discontinuous and rapid expansion of capitalism itself, which the world wars also had something to do with, has helped to make spatial or geographical matters of paramount importance in understanding cultural and social productions today. Marx had connected the expansion of capital into the world market to the “cosmospolitan character” of all production, including literary productions, and in an age of globalization, the spaces of the world system must be mapped in order to grasp the current cultural situation of even rather local events. See how it is with the recent financial crises, the Occupy Wall Street movement, or the indignados. This is why I have found Fredric Jameson’s assessment of postmodernism so convincing, since it is grounded in the material infrastructure of the mode of production, while also conceding the difficulty, or impossibility, of representing the totality of forces affecting each of us. What he called “cognitive mapping,” with its clear recognition of the spatial anxiety afflicting us today, still seems to me a useful, perhaps even unavoidable, strategy for grappling with the postmodern condition, which is at least in part to be understood by this new spatiality produced by and reflected in globalization.
A.L.: The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorckock is a Uchrony which has just been reprinted. Moorcock has said about this republished book: “I got the idea for the books from reading Fabians (a socialist intellectual society very influential in the 20th century). Both H.G. Wells and E. Nesbit were members. Like many left-wing intellectuals of their day, they thought imperialism could be benign, especially the British Empire. I wanted to show how imperialism was never benign. When we first encounter it in the book, it seems pretty cool, but gradually Bastable discovers otherwise. It proves to be pretty unpleasant. I also wanted to take a look at American imperialism, which in the 60s and 70s had begun to be identified as such.” You have talked about the writer as a literary mapmaker. What can we do with “space” in literature? Tracing political posibilities and conflicts? What do you expect from geocriticism in the near future?
R.T.: I am glad that you have selected an example from fantasy or science fiction, because I feel strongly that such works provide excellent examples of literary cartgraphy (as I use this term) and opportunities for geocritical analysis. A lot of really good work has been done on the spaces in literature, particularly when considered as a kind of realistic mapping of “real” places, such as Dickens’s London, Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, or Joyce’s Dublin. Clearly there is also literary cartography in such fictionalized worlds as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County (which both is and is not related to Lafayette County, Mississippi) and even Tolkien’s Middle-earth. What’s more, the preference for real-world places ignores the fact that such topoi, when incorporated in to the world of a novel, for instance, become fictional places. One cannot “really” visit Joyce’s London any more than one can visit Hobbiton (despite what tourism officials in Ireland or New Zealand would have you believe), since those places exist in the imaginations of the readers, as Virginia Woolf pointed out a century ago in her essay “Literary Geography.” But, as I’ve written in the conclusion to my Spatiality book, “science fiction or utopia or fantasy enable new ways of seeing the spaces of our own world, while also imagining different spaces altogether.” Moorcock’s somewhat steampunk world is a good illustration of this, as it posits a recognizable historical world that is nevertheless otherworldly, and in so doing allows us to think such real-world matters as racism, imperialism, and socialism. I think that a proper vocation of geocriticism will involve the spatial analysis of these real and imaginary places as they appear in literature, which can then be connected in interesting ways to the spaces of our own lived experience and speculations.
A.L.: What is the importance of “theory of possible worlds” (Lubomir Dolezel, Thomas Pavel, Marie-Laure Ryan) in the return to spatial considerations? In 2012, Eric Hayot published Literary Worlds and Jonathan Hart Fictional and Historical Worlds. Perhaps we are attending to a new reborn of fictionality as a way to think about literature, space and society.
R.T.: Yes, I do think that this work on “possible worlds” has contributed productively to spatiality studies in literature and to geocriticism in particular. I know that Dolozel and Pavel have influenced Westphal a lot, and indeed Westphal’s most recent book, Le Monde plausible: Espace, lieu, carte, deals directly with his notion of a “plausible world.” Both Hayot and Hart are helping to re-imagine the spaces of literature in an almost geophysical or cosmographical sense, and I find their approaches quite interesting. The overlapping territories of history and fiction provide fertile ground for geocritical research, and I suspect that there will be much more to come.
A.L.: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy includes a map which mixes fictional ideas from Hardy with real geographies. Moreover, we have maps in every epic fantasy (from Tolkien and Robert E. Howard to George R.R. Martin), even in Watership Down by Richard Adams (a rabbit social fable!). What can we study or learn from this maps? Dante´s cartography was something really important in the past, but ... what about that other maps? What do they show us?
R.T.: It is a fascinating question, and I want to look at it in two, perhaps opposing, ways – a sort of Janus-faced repsonse, I’m afraid. I think that there is always a tension, a competition perhaps, between text and image. In my own use of the term literary cartography, I have emphasized the degree to which narrative it itself cartographic; so, while the inclusion of actual graphic maps might supplement the narrative’s literary cartography, such “real maps” cannot be confused with the project of literary cartography itself. You may have noticed that, in all of my published work so far, at least, I do not include any charts, nor graphs, tables, photographs, or illustrations of any kind. For me, it is important to recognize that storytelling is a kind of mapping activity. In some ways, ironically, the literal maps get in the way of the literary cartography I have in mind. Also, of course, my use of the term cartography – much like Jameson’s cognitive mapping – is partly metaphorical. That is, while the real-world spaces are still very important to me, the narrative mapping of the world that takes place in works of literature is as much social as geographical, and the aim is not so much to represent the social spaces in a mimetically faithful or true way (which is impossible, at any rate) as it is to provide a useful metanarrative in its own right.
You mention Dante, who offers an excellent example of a kind of literary cartography. Although most editions of the Commedia now include many maps, Dante did not draw one. Rather, he narrates his fictional deliverance from the selva oscura – and, really, is there any better figure in world literature for spatial anxiety than this moment? – partly by enacting his own multi-layered cartography of an otherworldly world system. Dante’s famous four levels of meaning (literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical) become different ways of reading his maps, each of which provides aid and comfort for the reader’s own exploration of this territory. In Canto XI of the Inferno, Virgil and Dante are stopped in their tracks by the oppressive stench emanating from the seventh circle, and Virgil takes the occasion to outline the moral geography of Hell, which is laid out according to Aristotelian principles. While no physical map is drawn on paper or sketched in the sand, Dante’s pilgrim immediately understands the rationality of the architectural design of this domain. It is a metaphorical, but no less real, form of mapping, one which guides both the character and the reader through the infernal realm.
The inclusion of actual maps, from crude line drawings to state-of-the-art graphic images, in literary works is not new, as you note. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the map is also crucial to the story itself, since Thorin’s quest for the Lonely Mountain is made possible only when Gandalf presents him with his father’s map, and this same map is part of the adventure, as when Elrond reads its moon-letters. Tolkien himself drew that map, and it serves as the reader’s guide, in addition to aiding Bilbo Baggins and company. In some works, particularly in the fantasy genre, it seems, maps have become almost mandatory – although Terry Pratchett, in the foreword to his mock fantasy The Color of Magic, explains that “[t]here are no maps. You can’t map a sense of humour.” Such maps do help the reader orient him- or herself in the fictional world depicted in the narrative. I myself am in the middle of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, and I frequently find myself flipping back to the front to regard to the map of Westeros. (Like Tolkien, by the way, Martin also includes appendices which list the geneaologies of the great “houses,” and this too aids the reader in understanding the world. Thus the maps offer a geographical counterpart to the deep historical time outlined in the appendices: space and time.) The Tolkien-scholar Tom Shippey has noted that The Lord of the Rings’ origins lie in its “cartographic plot,” that Tolkien needed to project the geography of Middle-earth further in order to conceive a sequel to The Hobbit. The exodus-tale of Watership Down is similarly carographic, even if now the people are rabbits. (By the way, Tolkien despaired that certain readers had somehow confused his hobbit with a rabbit!) Generally, in such works, the map and the text go hand-in-hand.
These maps are undoubtedly useful to the reader. But, in some respects, the inclusion of an actual map in a book that contains an already cartographic narrative is arguably confusing. We see this sometimes when the two don’t quite jibe, and we feel that there is an error in one or the other, a flawed image or a mistake in the narration. In this, the map might be like other illustrations or film adaptations, maybe, which could be said to rob the reader of the opportunity to one’s own mental images of characters or events. (For example, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, despite contrary evidence in the text itself, always appears to me looking like Marlon Brando, so impressive was Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now on my imagination.) From the perspective of geocriticism, both text and image would be material for critical analysis. I think that the maps included in novels are worthy of consideraton, whether inserted by the author as an intended portion of the story, supplied later by a publisher or editor as a guide to the reader, or some combination of the two. However, in my conception of how literary cartography operates, maps themselves are not required, and any critical approach that looks at the graphic map and the textual narrative would likely have to address the rivalry between them, as well as their complementarity.
A.L.: A new book called Distant Reading by Franco Moretti is going to be published in the next months. Do you share the same goals with Moretti´s project? Are you agree with his developments? Will you write or participate with him?
R.T.: A few years ago, I published a review of Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees in which I expressed my skepticism about “distant reading,” basically saying that I was wary of the literary critic who called for an end of reading. I remain dubious about the effectiveness of so-called Big Data to bring us useful knowledge about literature, which is after all not a closed, scientific system. However, Moretti’s work has been important to my own, and I have always admired the boldness and ambition of his propositions, all the way back to Signs Taken for Wonders and the Bildungsroman study. His conception of the “world text” in Modern Epic informs my own views about Melville and other writers (although, as noted in my Melville book, I disagree somewhat with Moretti’s reading of Moby-Dick), and his Atlas of the European Novel, 1800–1900, is an important contribution to spatiality studies in literature. So, as I say, although I tend to have some reservations about many aspects of Moretti’s “distant reading” project, I have found his work interesting and helpful, and I would certainly welcome the opportunity to work with him and his research team in looking at the theory and history of the novel, as well as literary cartography more generally.
A.L.: You have written about how Melville was a kind of pioneer to create a world literature and helped to see the emergence of a postnational world system. I guess that Jules Verne could be the French example. Perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson o someone else is the English example and Emilio Salgari the Italian one (Sandokan´s adventures). I do not know a good example for my country. Whom would you propose? Are we closer to reach a good map of world literature? I do not know who is doing this task since René Wellek.
R.T.: Alas, my knowledge of Spanish literature is rather limited, but I have always agreed with Foucault that Don Quixote stands at the threshold of modernity, and that single novel is crucial to the literary world system that develops in its wake. Melville himself was quite influenced by it, and he once wrote (in The Confidence-Man) that there were only three truly “original” characters in world literature: Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Milton’s Satan. I suspect he had his own Ahab in mind as a possible fourth, except that Ahab already contains each of these others. The modern world system, in Immanuel Wallerstein’s sense, emerges alongside Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and their adventures are absolutely essential to the developments of world literature and to the theory of the novel. (On this, see Rachel Schmidt’s excellent 2011 study, Forms of Modernity: Don Quixote and Modern Theories of the Novel.)
I don’t know if the world of literature can still have anyone like a René Wellek anymore, but there is good work being done on world literature, starting with the stuff Moretti has done in such projects as The Novel. Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters has been influential, if controversial. In the United States, the work of David Damrosch has been important in rethinking world literature, as has that of Emily Apter and Wai Chee Dimock, to name but a few. Additionally, Jonathan Arac has been engaged in an important critical and literary historical consideration of “the age of the novel,” which has coincided almost exactly with the era of Weltliteratur, as Moretti has also observed. In her spirited defense of comparative literature, The Death of a Discipline, Gayatri Spivak has proposed “planetarity” as an exemplary space for considering such problems. A new colletion of essays to which both Westphal and I have contributed, The Planetary Turn, edited by Amy J. Elias and Christian Moraru, is forthcoming. As you might have guessed, my own view is that world literature be understood as part of the process and effects of globalization, and that any critical reflections on world literature in the twenty-first century will have to account for the tremendous spatial and social transformations associated with this dynamic world system.
A.L.: Anything to add (any tip, like a novel or an essay?)?
R.T.: I want to thank you for the opportunity to discuss these matters here. I think that this is an exciting moment for geocriticism and spatiality studies, as there are many different directions that literary research in these areas can go. At present, I am quite interested in what China Miéville has characterized as the “fiction of estrangement,” a term he uses to help overcome the less productive distinction between realistic or mimetic writing and fantasy, science fiction, or utopian literature. Miéville’s own novels, which include the remarkable Bas-Lag series (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, The Iron Council), The City and the City, and Railsea, are marvelously inventive texts well-suited to a kind of geocritical analysis, and Miéville’s political commitments make him an important voice in social and cultural theory today. I would be remiss if, granted this opportunity, I didn’t also mention my own recent books, Spatiality (an introduction to spatiality studies in literature and part of Routledge’s acclaimed New Critical Idiom series) and Utopia in the Age of Globalization: Space, Representation, and the World System (forthcoming in March 2013). I am currently at work on a study of the geopolitical aesthetic of Tolkien’s world, as well as a book on Fredric Jameson and the project of dialectical criticism. After these, I plan to return to nineteenth-century U.S. literature and examine the development of spatial narratives in antebellum American prose.