In the latest HKRB Essay Kimberley Clarke discusses the Dylan Nobel Prize saga, arguing that the conflation of music and literature should not be blindly celebrated and reveals some truths about the place of literature in capitalism.
The announcement that Bob Dylan was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was predictably received with divided opinion. Some felt the decision illustrated literature’s capacity to change in an ever-changing world,:‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ and literature is finally keeping up. Articles such as that in The New York Times, which carried the headline ‘redefining the boundaries of literature,’ celebrated the event as evidence that literature is finally progressing beyond its traditional ‘highbrow’ values, proclaiming that Dylan’s award is ‘the most radical choice’ in history. Other outlets, including Vice, have expressed reservations that the merging of literature with other arts such as popular music is perhaps not as worthy of celebration as it might first appear, arguing that music and poetry can only be conflated if both are drastically simplified.
But there is a much bigger problem with Dylan receiving the Literature prize, putting aside the fact that he didn’t even want it and wont notice the prize money (if he even keeps it). Without falling back into the conservative approach of sticking to literary traditions or the ‘literary canon’ or sympathizing with pretentious reservations about mass or popular culture, we need an interrogation of the political implications of moments such as this, moments when literature is asked to redefine itself. In this essay for a specifically literary review site, I want to reflect on what it means that the redefining of literature per se is seen as something to be celebrated? The abolishment of the boundary between ‘literature’ and ‘popular music,’ I argue, may not be as worthy of celebration as first meets the eye. At the very least, such moments are highly political and reflect much more complex contemporary issues than simply the age-old question of literature becoming more open and less elitist.
Image designed for the HKRB by Jeremy Simmons
Perhaps, before answering this, we should ask why an article in 2016 is celebrating Bob Dylan receiving the award as the redefining moment for literature, as if for the last 55 years (since Dylan was at the height of his career) literature has been standing still. It suggests that literature hasn’t already in fact remediated itself in a variety of different contexts since the 60s. On the contrary to this implication, most of the literary community has long considered discussions of high and lowbrow literature to be no longer relevant or useful, and discussions of literature as a term in constant contention and undergoing constant revision are far more common. Perhaps this is why the awarding of Bob Dylan with a Literary prize feels so strange when celebrated as a radical changing of literature; it feels like an archaic discussion, a discussion more related to the interwar period when anxiety over literature for the masses was a contemporary concern. In other words this feels like a deliberate decision to forget the last half a century in order to make the present look radical and celebrate it. One can perhaps forgive the New York Times for desperately searching for positives two weeks before the looming Elections.
Even so, the politics of celebrating a breakdown of boundaries run deep and are in need of analysis. We can explore such moments via Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, two neologisms coined in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia books (1972, 1980) to describe shifts in political, cultural and personal identities. Deterritorialization describes the process by which borders or identities are broken down, and, in a loose way, it is this kind of moment that we see being celebrated with the applauding of the collapse of literature’s traditions. Reterritorialization, on the other hand, describes the re-inscribing of boundaries or the restructuring of identities. Contrary to many since Deleuze who have celebrated deterritorialization as a positive force for good, Deleuze and Guattari were in fact clear that the process of deterritorialization is never happening in isolation and in fact there is a constant dialectic between the de- and re-reterrtorializng processes. In other words, one never happens without the other. To blindly celebrate only one half of the process is to ignore the implications of it’s counterpart. It is important to see that as identity is broken down a new identity is simultaneously being formed and new boundaries are being errected, sometimes more secretly or unconsciously. At the same time, when something appears reterritorializing, there is a simultaneous breakdown of identity which can likewise be more hidden. We can use this framework to reveals that when boarders or boundaries are ‘erased’ it’s often not as liberating as it first appears. Instead its a question of asking what new structures are dialectically emerging in such moments.
In the case of Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize we see a destruction of the boundaries that usually separate literature and music without any questioning of what this breaking down of the identity of literature ushers in as a replacement. We need to ask what it may mean in political terms when there is a blind celebration of only one side of Deleuze and Guatarri’s dual-concept. In other words, it’s not a given that the distinction between music and literature is necessarily one we should erase, as the slightly confused reaction of most people shows, but the event does show us a tendency to celebrate the breakdown of boundaries without thinking of the politics of doing so. Perhaps in the seemingly reterritorializing world of Trump who attempts to re-structure identity along terrifyingly traditional lines, America seized on something it considered deterritorializing to offer some much needed respite.
But what new structure is being created as the accompanying reterritoriliaztion takes place? As literature redefines itself or merges its boundaries there could be a danger of Literature reterritorializing as a commodity (which in some senses has already happened). Indeed, the celebration implies that literature is finally ‘successful’ if it is to re-mediate and converge with other art forms. When literature is asked to redefine itself, instead of this being a liberating process it could instead be argued that literature is under increasing pressure to be ‘useful’ and also to be contemporary or ‘up-to-date.’ If literature has to be useful and relevant, constantly forced to reinvent itself and keep up with the times in order to be deemed worthy, we simply see literature changing to fit a neoliberal capitalist agenda. Literature transformed must now make and produce and easily identify with models that can be easily applied to everything or anything (thus becoming part of the all-encompassing structure of capitalism). Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari’s terms were designed to describe the cultural logic of capitalism so if their terms are at all useful for understanding what us happening here then there is likely to be something capitalist about the process. For literature to be out of date in the present would at least make it out of joint with capitalism.
The selection of Dylan as the musician deemed worthy to be welcomed among the poets brings up the old question of Michel Foucault in ‘What is Literature?’ Of course, any text can be labelled literature, and Foucault ensures that we notice that it is always politics which determines what is deemed to be literary and why. The selection of Dylan indicates not so much that musicians are all now deemed poets but that Dylan particularly is a musician worthy of the accolade. In this way, far from indicating that literature is less highbrow that it has been, the move shows the survival of elitism in the politics of literature today. In other words, it deterritorializes a boundary between music and literature in order to reterritorialize other traditional literary elitisms. At the end, Dylan being chosen for the Nobel Prize shows us literature trying to update itself to chime nicely with capitalism’s dissolution of the differences between commodities and trying to extend what is left of its elitism into the sphere of music.
Kimberley Clarke is the co-editor of the HKRB. She is a postgraduate research student at The Chinese University of Hong Kong working on G.K. Chesterton and the concept of revolution. Her most recent articles have just been published in Politactics (Zero Books, 2016).