Animate Literacies: Literature, Affect, and the Politics of Humanism
Duke University Press, 2019
Reviewed by Margaret Mendenhall
According to Nathan Snaza, it matters that I read most of Animate Literacies on the bus, lurching forward and backward in stop-and-go traffic, inhaling traces of exhaust and other people’s perfumes. The scene of my morning commute was part—and a very small part, at that—of what Snaza calls the “literacy situation,” which he defines as “scenes of pre- or aconscious collision and affective contact” in which “intrahuman politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, and geography shape the conditions of emergence for literacy events that animate subjects and the political relations with which they are entangled.” That is, as I read terms like “literacy situation” and “assemblage” and “affective modulation” and “Man”out of Snaza’s book, there is much more shaping my literacy than the words. It matters that my pencil wobbled unsteadily against the rumble of the engine. It matters that I listened to music through my headphones. It matters that a stranger grabbed my attention to ask about the club out the window, and that I replied standoffishly, preferring to be left alone. Those things more than matter, in fact: they became part of my reading, part of my very ability to read.
According to Snaza, literacy inheres not just in the interaction of a reader and a text, but also in rocks, plants, dirt, wasps, sheep, and innumerable other nonhuman agents as they move through space and time—some transforming by long processes into ink or paper, others shaping the reader’s experience by way of affect. This almost magnanimous reconceptualization of literacy lays the groundwork, rather surprisingly, for Snaza to indict educational institutions on political grounds. Humanist education is not an idyll where instructors use literature to improve students’ minds, Snaza argues, but a state-sponsored project that marshals disciplinary boundaries to funnel thinking individuals into a narrowly conceived, politically fraught mold of “Man” (a term he borrows from Sylvia Wynter)—a mold by which so many are contrasted into categories of Other, and thus dehumanized. Ultimately Snaza hopes to rethink literacy as a phenomenon that “subtends and overspills the state’s restriction of it.”
I would outline the way each chapter of Animate Literacies builds toward this larger argument, but that would do little justice to the mesmerizing meander of ideas that makes Snaza’s project so interesting. Rather than four or five mostly-discrete essays welded together by an introduction, he offers sixteen short chapters whose arguments, critical engagements, and textual analyses constantly loop through and recall one another—rather like the woven nests he discusses in Chapter Ten. The best I can do here is enumerate some of the strands by which that nest is woven.
Most significant, perhaps, is the contrast between plan and improvisation—between power and play—that mobilizes Snaza’s critique of the “statist capture of literacy.” The state binds individuals to a pattern of Man—who is white, male, cisgendered, straight—at the expense of anyone who does not fit that pattern. If that’s true, Snaza suggests, then the way out of that capture is to disregard pattern altogether. As readers, we should release our attention from the quest for answers and solutions, embracing instead the possibility of being bewildered. Practicing what he preaches, Snaza wants us to be bewildered by his book. “Like the stoner alone in her room who says a word so many times it loses its ability to signify,” he writes memorably, “I try to look at these things over and over from different directions and distances so that they lose solidity, become uncertain, start trembling. Answers don’t really interest me, but questions can disperse energy.”
Bewilderment can happen in a lot of ways: by allowing the ghosts of Toni Morrison’s Beloved to haunt you (Chapter Three); by following Edna Pontellier’s disorientation in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (Chapter Nine); by noticing the “affective capacity” of smell in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Chapter Twelve); by recognizing the ways a text can generate physical pleasure (Chapter Thirteen); by getting a classroom full of students to love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Chapter Fourteen). Haunting, noticing, recognizing, loving—Snaza’s close readings are variations on the theme of attention, another important strand in the woven nest of Animate Literacies. For Snaza, attention is the mechanism by which bewilderment can take place: we unfasten our attention from discipline, from statist interpretations of literature and humanity, and instead let it range among the vast expanse of that literacy situation which “humanizing assemblages” (like schools) are normally so happy to let us ignore.
A third major strand at work—though one which, surprisingly, Snaza does not theorize outright—is animation. All of those affects and entities that collide with us and draw our attention in the literacy situation do so precisely because they are animated, always moving through space or time. Thus, “orientation” becomes a crucial keyword in Snaza’s theory of literacy. The “violence of humanization” is not so much a binding or molding to Man (as I’ve oversimply characterized it above) but a “reorientation, redirection, or disciplining” of our otherwise free movement through the world. Bewilderment is a disorientation of attention, and that’s what makes it liberating.
Dovetailing feminist and queer new materialism, posthumanism, affect theory, ecocriticism, and a touch of Marx and Foucault, Animate Literacies demands a lot of its reader, though it almost always rewards strenuous attention with its rich and energizing combination of love and critique. The book’s primary gift, I think, is its foundational assumption that loving something is not the same as accepting it unequivocally—whether it’s a book you read or the humanities department you scramble to resuscitate (even as it suffocates you).
That said, Snaza’s gift is ultimately not for me, because the literature I love and critique—at the risk of disciplining myself—was mostly written before 1700. In Chapter Eight, Snaza outlines a brief history of academic disciplines as the basis for his critique of educational institutions: though this “‘de-partmentalization’ of knowledge” goes back “at least as far as Plato’s Republic,” it “undergoes a particular intensification during modernity, one that passes a particular threshold between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries and takes on its present form, more or less, in the nineteenth.” Thus, though some of Snaza’s approaches are operative “even” in eighteenth-century novels, his literary engagements here don’t precede Frankenstein in 1819. Later, in Chapter Fifteen, Snaza highlights the “subjunctive capacity” of play, which “opens the present toward unknown and unknowable futurity” and thus allows us to expand our sense of what politics can do. I wonder: can we also expand our sense of politics by opening the present toward the unknown and unknowable past? What happens when we trouble that all-but-arbitrary temporal border of “modernity” that Snaza uses to circumscribe his critique of humanization? Perhaps a necessary first step toward escaping the confines of discipline is to dissolve the borders within the discipline, to find bewilderment by playing with texts across huge distances of time and expertise. In the meantime, Animate Literacies offers an impressive web of techniques for teaching ourselves to read—not because of our humanity, but in spite of it.