How can writing escape complicity? This question is building new momentum. Since the 21st century version of nationalist authoritarian politics has internalized the postmodern recognition that language constructs reality, and warped it for its own purposes in Trump’s tweet-politics, a literature-focused backlash is developing. This happens, for instance, in what Huffington Post culture writer Claire Fallon hailed as “political protest through pointed book-reading” (Nov 2015), when a video of a young woman at a Trump rally went viral. 23-year-old Johari Osayi Idusuyi had sat behind Trump on the podium, taken out a book, and started reading. It was not just any book, but Citizen by Claudia Rankine, which delves into the depths of racial prejudice in the USA. Or it occurs in the much more bitingly satirical spoken word poetry by Nina Donovan, who achieved instant fame when her poem was performed by Ashley Judd on the Womens’ March to Washington in January 2017; her “I am a Nasty Woman” appropriates and subverts Donald Trump’s misogyny to beat him back with his own punchlines.
Yet crisis is not something that one simply endures, and as James Baldwin reminds us, literature can “lay bare the questions hidden by the answers” (Baldwin, Talk to Teachers). Against the rigidity of ideology, it throws us into disarray, and leaves us scrambling, re-organizing, imagining alternatives, clarifying our situation. In this spirit, I have found myself reading my way backwards through 20th century history and across national borders, searching for ways of writing, reading and thinking against complicity. I take my cue from my current research in modernist prose writing to share a working hypothesis for such a politics of form: it is the hybrid texts, which defy what Jacques Derrida has termed the “Law of Genre,” that offer spaces for practicing subversion. Nina Donovan’s spoken word and Claudia Rankine’s texts hover between poetry and prose; but they are the newest versions of a poetic practice that runs deeper into a literary history of dissent, and became particularly salient when responding to the rise of totalitarianism in the early 20th century. The can be traced back to the hybrid prose by Angela Rohr and Mina Loy, which, a century earlier, broke through the rigidity of a militarist wartime logic and a male-centred understanding of thought itself as dominance; it does so by dancing, laughing, and whirling in what I call a gestural poetics of oppositional thought.