Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dialogism, et al.

Zehra Çirak’s poem, “Kein Sand im Rad der Zeit [No Sand in the Wheel of Time],” from her collection Fremde Flügel auf eigener Schulter [Foreign Wing on a Familiar Shoulder] (1994), plays with the referentiality of the lyric “I,” the poetic speaker. Çirak’s status as a minority writer in Germany was established when she was awarded the Adalbert-von-Chamisso Prize in 1989 (for young writers whose native tongue is not German). In this “thing poem,” the speaker is a bicycle. However, it is not just any bicycle, but a bicycle circulating dialogically between her work and the tradition of political lyric poetry in Cold War and post-Cold War Germany. Çirak’s poem references two others, Bertolt Brecht’s “Der Radwechsel [Wheel Change]” (1953) and Günter Eich’s “Sand im Getriebe [Sand in the Gears]” (1960). These two poems have a status beyond their texts—Brecht’s poem became an example of the postwar notion of “political” art (art that is political because it refuses political content); lines from Eich’s poem are well known and have even become a slogan for the anti-globalization organization Attac. By pointing out its intertexts, I read Çirak’s poem in dialogue with other works dealing with the relation between the literary work and society, between literary referent and social reference, because this, roughly speaking, is the terrain of dialogism. With Brecht and Eich as points of reference, Çirak’s poem can be seen to raise questions about how ethnic literature speaks the language of a national literature, even as it takes place in the gap between the things and words of a national language.

In approaching this instance of intertextuality through the notion of dialogism, I mean to highlight a structure of identification and dis-identification that is at play in the figure of the poetic “I,” and which refers to the lyric subject’s otherness to itself. I argue that Çirak’s minor poetry eschews its expressive function vis-à-vis national literature and actively constructs the ambivalence of the lyric “I” through a transformational dialogue with that literature concerning the things of culture and the poetic language that purports to refer to them. This raises a central question: how does the ambivalence of the ethnic, dialogic, and lyric “I” invite us to think differently about the politics of identity in the lyric speaker? Thinking about “ambivalence” as a matter of dialogism, I take up the insight that the lyric speaker is at the same time an individual (monological) moral subject and a collective (dialogic) social force. In “Word, Dialogue, and Novel,” Julia Kristeva describes this ambivalence as the work’s being constituted by both monological and dialogical spaces. Ambivalence is another way of thinking about the radical alterity of dialogism, in contrast to mere opposition of author and character.

My readings of Çirak develop these ideas about the ambivalence of the lyric “I.” Çirak engages with this gap in referentiality because in writing and speaking about her poems she eschews the particularity of culture in favor of more universal questions about identity, violence, and embodiment. As an author who dis-identifies with her status as a minority writer, an attitude that is shared by many artists and writers who refute their Turkish-German or other hyphenated identity, she presents the central paradox of this dialogic referentiality as how to read the ambivalence of ethnic identity within a national tradition. As John Kim describes, and as bears out in scholarship on Çirak, this trend to read “the specter of the autobiographical ‘self’ when reading the figure of the ethnicized narrative ‘I’” (333) extends to reading Çirak’s dis-identification with this identity as a part of her poetry. Çirak scholar Marilya Veteto-Conrad presents a good example of this when she describes this conflict that was there for Çirak between her poems being read for “aesthetic value” versus primarily for their “ethnic origin.” Although I arrive where Kim does in thinking how the parallel structures of ethnicity and irony lead to the self’s “absolute negation in ‘being’ nothing” (349), I find that dialogism allows the question of the ambivalence of this poetic identity to be raised as an ethical and political question.

If, as I argue, the terrain of dialogism is the relation between literary referent and social reference, Çirak’s play with the referentiality of the poetic speaker shifts the coordinates of subject and object with German lyric poetry. The critical discourse of Migrationliteratur challenges common understandings of dialogic communication “as a process in which readers and characters engage as representatives of discrete worlds.” In The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature, Leslie Adelson proposes that such dialogism be understood instead through the “riddle of referentiality,” a phrase that she uses to indicate the chiasmic relation between figuration and referential meaning. Adelson describes how this takes place as a dialogic encounter “between an object of analysis and its interpreter, one that seeks to bridge a gap inherent in the initial relationship” (24), but as she claims, critical work should aim to keep open this gap rather than to close it. In poetry, the lyric “I” takes place in this gap as a reference that arises in the ambivalence of thing and word.

Theoretically, these thoughts draw on the limitations of Bakhtin’s theory for dialogism, which originate in his distinction between poetry and prose and his insistence on the non-dialogic aspect of poetry. Paul de Man’s reading in “Dialogue and Dialogism” of Bakhtin’s distinction between the “expressive” aspect of poetry and the dialogical aspect of the novel resolves into a “separation of trope from dialogism.” De Man thus points to how expression forms a limit of the dialogic work, returning to questions of referentiality explored in thinking about the literal and figural grounds of metaphor. Developing the critical work of Adelson and Kim on referentiality, I advance this thinking about why poetry does not count as a form of dialogism to think about why the dialogism of migration and minority literature so often reduces the “I” to an expressive voice. Another point of reference is Peter Hitchcock’s Dialogics of the Oppressed (1993), in which he proposes that Bakhtinian aesthetic activity, which involves this structure of identification/dis-identification (first as the author puts himself in the place of the character and then as he moves away from this identification (47)) makes the theory of dialogism particularly apt for thinking about what he calls “subaltern subjectivity” (xi), of those who are oppressed on the basis of race, gender, or class. Building on this critical theoretical work, I argue that reading minority poetry dialogistically illuminates some of the problems of the expressive subject, in particular, assumptions that surface about the politics of identity in poetry.