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Marília Librandi-Rocha discusses “Thinking about Literature as a Native” in the DLCL's "How I Think about Literature" series

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Marília Librandi-Rocha discusses “Thinking about Literature as a Native” in the DLCL's "How I Think about Literature" series

Feb 27, 2012

February 13, 2012

Pigott Hall

Professor Marília Librandi-Rocha continued the DLCL How I Think about Literature series with a talk called “Thinking about Literature as a Native.” Professor Librandi-Rocha, originally from Brazil, told the audience that moving to the United States and experiencing daily life as a foreigner has profoundly affected her habits of thinking. It was after becoming a foreigner, she said, that she began to try to think about literature like a native. Librandi Rocha explained that “thinking as a native” is her shorthand for attempting to think about Western cultural artifacts, specifically literature, with non-Western concepts. 

With respect to Western discourse, Librandi-Rocha continued, literature occupies a position similar to that of indigenous knowledge. Both of these realms of thought, the indigenous and the literary, have been subordinated by a scientific rationality that regards them as “adornment” or otherwise marginal in relation to what is “true”; they are in excess of valued knowledge. This occurs because Western concepts ultimately dismiss or claim superiority over the truth claims made by literary texts. Evaluating literature in this manner results in an “incompossibility” between our artistic artifacts and our epistemologies and ontologies. Literature, she suggested, can thus be considered an “indigenous” element of Western modernity.

Recent contributions in the field of anthropology, however, attempt to overcome this one-directional method of studying indigenous cultures. British anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, Brazilian Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and American Roy Wagner have all explored the use of native concepts to question fixed ideas of Western rationality by granting epistemological legitimacy to native ideas. Concepts we regard as fundamental, like that of the “body” and how it relates to its surroundings, Librandi-Rocha observed, are completely different in indigenous cultures. By treating indigenous thought as a subject of dialogue rather than an object of study, these scholars enter into conversation with indigenous concepts, allowing them to reframe essential debates in anthropology.

Librandi-Rocha’s contribution to literary studies is inspired by these anthropologists and their efforts to “decolonize” their respective conceptual frameworks. Following the lead of Viveiros de Castro’s exploration of Amerindian thought, Librandi-Rocha is challenging herself to engage in this same “reverse anthropology” with literary characters, allowing their fictive concepts and ideas to disturb her own epistemological formation. By giving epistemological rights to characters, by treating them as interlocutors, she hopes to gain new perspectives on our own established analytical categories.

Drawing inspiration from anthropologist Michael Taussig and other practitioners of anthropological “fictocriticism,” as well as from the famous “writing lesson” by a Nambikwara chief that Claude Lévi-Strauss recounts in Tristes tropiques, Librandi-Rocha told us that she has begun to experiment with this blend of fiction and criticism herself. She acknowledged that these thought and writing experiments will not escape Western concepts. But, she contended, her objective is to cause a disruption of her own complacency with them, to allow indigenous epistemologies to reverberate in her conceptual arrangement.

Expanding on this sonic metaphor, Librandi-Rocha invited the audience to remember that “minor” strands of Western thought—such as those of Nietzsche and Deleuze—have been concerned with producing and listening to other thoughts. She reminded us that literature, too, produces voices: the words on the page capture the sound of spoken language, which reverberates in the reader’s head as voces paginarum. These are the voices of lived histories and accumulated wisdom, and they are not to be ignored.

Drawing to a close, Professor Librandi-Rocha referred to the perceived crisis in the humanities as a source of the urgencies she feels to renovate our conceptual procedures. She urged us to rethink how we make our work relevant at a time when the humanities are increasingly regarded as “not productive” and “not relevant.” These same words, she reminded us, were used to legitimate the genocide of indigenous tribes, and continue to aid in the devastation of the forests that were once their lands.

Many of her students of Brazilian literature and culture, Librandi-Rocha told the audience, are deeply distressed by the rapid destruction of the environment in Brazil and elsewhere, and look to literature and anthropology for different value systems. Our Western concepts, she warned, may not be sufficient to save the Amazon, which is disappearing to make way for things that are more “relevant” and “productive.” In her classes, she encourages students to listen to the voces paginarum of the “indigenous” side of modernity, to take seriously the voices of lived experience contained in literature. Reading a poem with your class, she told us, is an act of preservation, like saving one tree in the forest. And if literature is lived experience, she concluded, our task as teachers and scholars of literature is no less than the preservation of life itself.

- Adam Morris, PhD Candidate, Iberian and Latin American Cultures