Françoise Král, Social Invisibility and Diasporas in Anglophone Literature and Culture: The Fractal Gaze
Françoise Král, Social Invisibility and Diasporas in Anglophone Literature and Culture: The Fractal Gaze. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014, xi + 230 p. ISBN 978-1-137-40138-0.
1Power, as both Shakespeare and Foucault knew, is a matter of vision. Who observes, who is seen or seeks to hide, who is banished from sight or evades the gaze – the scopic operations of discipline and punishment have ever been the measure of authority and resistances to it. In the context of today’s liquid modernity, of global diasporas and mediatised spectacle, Françoise Král attends to the ocular fortunes of subjugated peoples as they are represented across a range of cultural forms, chiefly photography, film and literary fiction. The result is a book which raises a great many important questions and circumnavigates an interdisciplinary terrain of intellectual resources, even if it struggles to synthesise into an entirely coherent, patient whole a more fluent contribution to an ever-pressing conversation about minoritised lives.
2Social Invisibility and Diasporas is organised into three parts. In the opening section, “Theorizing Invisibility Studies”, Král’s discussion proceeds from positing and questioning the allegedly opposed conditions of visibility and invisibility especially in our current century when the hypervisibility of marginalised peoples is as problematic as their elision from view. These opening pages seek to fashion a conceptualisation of visibility fit for contemporary purpose and attend to the differential and essentially “fractal” nature of vision (more on this later). Král notes that perception is ever a social, cultured activity which produces visible and invisible lives always marred by the segmentation and wilful blind spots. Within this economy of representation, invisibility can be a sign of oppression but also a tactic of evasion, a way of refusing the scopic authority of the gazing subject. Similarly, appearing in sight can be as much a mode of control as an assertion of human personhood and demand for proper recognition. This attention to the complex optical production of subalternity is soon given august postcolonial credentials, to the extent that Král’s study pivots on a central Spivakian question (although Král never puts it as pithily is this): can the subaltern be seen?
- 1 Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (London: Viking, 1988), p. 249.
3Drawing initially upon examples from Rushdie and Kafka, Král explores these paradoxes of invisibility, especially the problems of becoming visible on someone else’s terms as a way of both securing survival but being seen only as a body, denied full personhood. For diasporic peoples, social visibility, it seems, often rests upon such dubious moments of scopic interpellation, visualised in terms which render the subaltern’s humanity as concealed, “visible but unseen”1 in Rushdie’s parlance. Král concludes the book’s first part by implicating the viewer in this production of social visibility as part of a demand for a new gaze, and points to the role of diasporic art in firmly locating the responsibility for ethical seeing in part within the eyes of the beholder.
4While Král never follows up fully this interesting issue of the ethics of visual consumption, her subsequent chapters cluster together a range of related ideas through her close engagement with examples of diasporic cultural reflection. The second section, “Artistic Scenes of Visibility”, begins with a discussion of “dysgazing”: the process by which diasporic artists displace and disrupt the seemingly smooth scopophilic flow of authority by presenting a cognisance of bodies that aspire to subjectivity rather than instrumentalization. Here Král discusses art by Larry Rivers, Keith Piper and others, and looks closely at the visual work of Mona Hatoum, especially her short film Measure of Distance (1988) and installations such as Recollection (1995). Consequently, she reaches some useful conclusions in this section about the precarious process of evading normative scopic control in art while at the same time empowering an alternative, ethical mode of making visible subaltern lives. It’s a similar story in Král’s reading of diasporic film, especially the work of the director Mira Nair; clearly, the use of a visual medium such as film affords Král a fine opportunity to concretise some of the more abstract thinking which permeates her discussion. That said, I would have preferred her to have stuck more closely to a smaller suite of conceptual ideas when engaging with cultural texts, chiefly those raised in the book’s first part, so that the range of thinking might have become a little more coherent. Král’s tendency to stack ideas ricks cluttering her prose, and at times her best points are in danger of toppling over due to the amount of conceptual freighting they accrue.
5The final section, “Sites of Invisibility”, wrestles firstly with the precarious condition of home for diasporic peoples and attends to a range of literary examples from the novels of Sam Selvon to Marina Lewycka. While it wasn’t exactly clear to me how the matter of social invisibility was broached here specifically, some useful materials emerge about the composite nature of diasporic homes in an increasingly liquid contemporary environment. Král moves the discussion to the diasporic city and soon offers one her best ideas: “kineography”, that sense of the city as ever in motion, always on the move. As she shows, such mobilities are always striated by inequality and can be thought of as specifically “fractal”: that is, structured divisively in a manner which repeats and reproduces itself in shifting patterns of unswerving inequality. Král makes good use of Hari Kunzru’s novel Transmission (2004) and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006) in these pages in order to undergird the fractal city and also approach what she calls the “fractal gaze”: a way of seeing which aligns neatly with the segmented scope of authority’s selective vision. If fractal vision “de-segments” diasporas, removing them from the line of sight, then Král calls for a “re-segmenting” which exposes and restores to sight the frictions, tensions and conflicts that characterise the modern city’s kineography and hence challenge the sense of city as more benign melting pot of convivial difference where contrary cultures merrily rub along together. Such officious images of urban life today render opaque the city’s troubling liquidity even as they offer glossy pictures of cheerful civic synthesis. Certainly, in her short conclusion to the book Král urges her readers to rethink the obvious as opaque and attend to the modes of misunderstanding which are created when the local and global encounter each other in today’s overlit media panorama.
6For me at least, Král’s tireless critical imagination pays dividends in its more microscopic mode when she raises new ideas, coins new concepts, and thinks at close quarters about the impressive range of texts she reads. I was less satisfied by the book’s macroscopic infrastructure, which is less coherent and consistent. Král’s use of Spivak’s notion of subalterneity is certainly empowering in a scopic rather than sonic context (the subaltern as both a seen and a speaking subject). But the inevitable issues of agency which this conceptual approach raises, and which Spivak locates in that famous titular question – can the subaltern speak? – seem less of a concern for Král who sometimes recasts tough matters of action and subjectivity as more transparent tactics of choice, of what diasporic subjects elect to do. Also, the potential double bind of both visibility and invisibility in the service power, so that no scopic state is more less dissident, seems to remain to the end of the book as a situation to be discerned rather than a condition to be confronted or challenged (there was certainly an opportunity to do just this in the discussion of Hatoum’s work). Had Král been less eclectic in her conceptual manoeuvres and a little tidier with the range of ideas on offer, a more robust and concrete argument may have emerged. Much more is raised than resolved in this book, while a clear central thesis is not always visible at times. As such, Král’s work is in danger of falling foul of a certain opaqueness of its own (the number of typos and glitches in the text do not help either, alas). That said, and in sum, Social Invisibility and Diasporas has a great deal to offer the patient reader, and one admires the valiant, and often fertile, attempt, to work across a range of ideas, texts and disciplines with verve, purpose and an admirably creative critical vision.
John McLEOD, « Françoise Král, Social Invisibility and Diasporas in Anglophone Literature and Culture: The Fractal Gaze », E-rea [Online], 14.1 | 2016, Online since 15 December 2016, connection on 22 February 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/5426Top of page
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