Disunified Aesthetics: Situated Textuality, Performativity, Collaboration by Lynette Hunter. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2014. 314 pp. $39.95.
Disunified Aesthetics focuses on Canadian counter-hegemonic writing of the 1970s to the present, including that of Robert Kroetsch, Lee Maracle, Nicole Brossard, Alice Munro, bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt and myself – but one isn’t told that by the title. The book is equally an investigation of the ethics of reading, writers’ responses to globalization, the partiality of human subjects, literature’s relationships to social change, the dynamics of performance art, and of how art can imagine and thus open a way from the current hegemony of liberal humanism, with its quietly patronizing assumption of universalist values, to “democratic humanism,” in which people value the differences that they make among themselves and can act “together and apart at the same time” (248). Proposes Hunter,
The book can be read as a series of insights into the literature and poetics
of the last two decades, or as a book that tells a story of moving from a traditional view of the
relation between the artist, the art, and its reception to a more radically democratic view
of aesthetics and ethics. (4)
Why Canadian writing? In part because Hunter, currently Distinguished Professor of the History of Rhetoric and Performance at the University of California, Davis, and for many years Professor of English and Canadian Studies at the University of Leeds, grew up in Canada, but in part also, Hunter suggests, because Canadian writing has been unusually rich in its imaginings of the social and political otherwise, the alternate, the previously unimagined. “The key motivation of my commitment to the verbal arts in Canada is that I found in so many writers a challenging and engaged iteration with language, society and culture,” she writes in her preface. “Canadian writers have always made it possible for me to value ways of living and knowing that are not usually heard or recognized” (vii). Much later, “The interaction of the critical essay with performance made here by Disunified Aesthetics is part of a recognized Canadian literary tradition” (284).
The book is divided into three sections. The first, “Situated Textualities,” presents texts and critique associated with Hunter’s first three attempts at performed textual engagement, initially (1994) with Kroetsch’s novel The Puppeteer, then (1995) with contemporary Canadian women’s writing, and later that year with Indigenous women’s writing in
The second section, “Performativity,” presents performances and related texts that focus on women in the academy (1997), my own 1963-94 poetry (1999), the writing of Nicole Brossard (2005) in which Hunter’s performance consists of translation and collaboration, and writing by Alice Munro – in three cases again accompanied by internet videos. Here Hunter considers the different creative contexts of rehearsal and performance, one infinitely open to change but with an extremely restricted and informed ‘audience,’ and the other subject to accident and unexpectable response from a variably uninformed audience. This concern with audience moves much of her discussion from the text she is engaged with to how the performance itself might effect changes on an audience member. “[P]erformativity,” she writes, “in this book signifies work alongside the hegemonic. It draws on the energies that circulate within bodies, among bodies, and between bodies and other animate and inanimate elements in the world, and is inflected by but not primarily responsive to the hegemonic” (111). (I must add at this point that not only my own writing was the focus of one of these three performances but that I was also fortunate myself to be in the audience of some of Hunter's other performances, and published a textual version of two of these in my journal Open Letter. So I am a “partial” reader of the book in all senses in which Hunter uses that word here – not that Hunter [nor I] believes that there are anywhere ‘objective’ readers.)
The third section, “Collaboration,” presents performances and related texts concerning at least in part Daphne Marlatt’s this tremor love is (2005), bpNichol’s Organ Music (1995/2008), and the book as a material object (2007). Framing the section is Hunter’s observation that resistant art production is open to "those only partially disempowered, so that a large proportion of people in the nation-state, such as workers or the unemployed or voteless homemakers, are disenfranchised from aesthetic work or the making of value” (221). The performances here are in a sense allegorical in that they propose and enact sharings of art production that could, but don’t yet, involve more participants.
Disunified Aesthetics is thus much more than just the commonplace academic book offering readings a few texts and arguing for their value over others as possible entrants to a hegemonic canon. It challenges the ethics of literary criticism and its relationship to nation-states built on veiled agreements and exclusions. It is different also from the several recent Canadian Literature books that have sought to bring attention to racially or ideologically specific writing in that it examines the ways such writing may relate to globally hegemonic or nationally canonical textuality and argues that often much more and more nuanced critical work, culturally altering work, may be needed to expand their readership. Hunter proposes, for example, that the centre-margin model adopted by many writers and critics is inappropriate for texts that dissent from the hegemonic, suggesting that it is more productive to view them as having deliberately positioned themselves “alongside” – as “in a valued world not responding primarily to the hegemonic” (32).
She suggests that hegemonic texts respond to a “normative ethics,” creating a sense of “enough,”: i.e. that “all that needs to be said has been said”; that many differing (but not necessarily dissenting) texts respond to “responsive ethics” which attempt to modestly alter normative ethics and make things “fit” differently, gaining a situation in which “not all that needs to be said has been said and [some of?] what needs to be said has been said”; that dissenting texts written to be read “alongside” the hegemonic, however, respond to an engaged ethics that “anchors the need for change rather than fit” achieving a situation in which “the unsaid is said in the making of difference, which is an unending process of making present” (16-17).
Along the way she also makes a significant contribution to the decades-long debate about what to call “avant-garde,” “experimental,” or (what bp Nichol resistantly called) “research” writing – words I don’t recall Hunter using once in this book. Saying what has not been said requires new ways of saying because the normative ways have become hegemonic, have become part of – by definition – a unified aesthetics. Artistic activity that would have been named and to some extent normalized (or even glamourized) by those ‘accepted’ words is treated matter-of factly by Hunter merely as non-normative or “alongside” writing. She also contributes usefully to long-running arguments about the importance of craft and “beauty” in poetry – arguments augmented recently by Donato Mancini in his sardonically titled You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence. The art of democratic humanism, she observes, is “only interested in beauty as a sign of discursive efficacy” (248), whereas that of liberal humanism regards beauty as stemming from the achievement of a “fit” with “certain universal values, one of which is that we all recognize it” (218). The normative, that is, regards the recognition of beauty as necessarily unanimous – at least among those it considers equipped or qualified to make such recognitions. Here art is an end in itself, whereas in Hunter’s “democratic humanism” art is a means to end, a means “to communicate among human beings, to recognize the differences that are made, and to value them in the knowledge that we have made them” (219). Art is not eternal but a socially “partial,” time-bound and context-bound means of social leverage. Its history is not one of great works but of ‘great’ (effective) social instruments. Aesthetic achievement rests in the efficacy of an art work’s means. Implicit in Hunter’s theorizing is a social/political understanding of literary and art history, of the ‘avant-garde,’ of the function of museums and of historical survey courses in literature.
As I noted when I began this post, Disunified Aesthetics is a rich, complex, and complicated book – very difficult to represent. At many times Hunter is obliged to invent her vocabulary in order to side-step the normative and its relentless attempts to absorb the dissenting into ‘fit’ with the universal – adding those words such as “fit,” “enough,” “alongside,” and “until” (“what has not been said has been said and then we have a choice” ) to her, and our, critical vocabulary. The complexity, diversity of interlocking focuses, and invention of a non-normative vocabulary challenges even how I may be able to Tweet news of this blog post, and news of the book, since such routine communication relies on normative categories as its ground. To assist bookstores and libraries, for example, the publisher’s CIP information on the verso of the title page categorizes the book as “1. Canadian literature (English) – 20st century – History and criticism – Theory, etc. [etc!] 2. Canadian literature (English) – 21st century – History and criticism – Theory etc. 3. Aesthetics in literature. 4. Performance in literature. 5. Ethics in literature. 6. Creation (Literary, artistic etc.) in literature” – despite there being no hint of Canadianness in the title or subtitle, and only a slight one of etc-ness. On the back cover publisher assigns two categories “CANADIAN LITERATURE, PERFORMANCE STUDIES.”
Indeed, I hope it reaches all those implied readerships.