English Faculty Lecture: Phillip Brian Harper on “The Challenges of Literary Contemporaneity”

By Gina Elbert

By offering classes on modern literature and developing programs like NYU’s own Contemporary Literature Series, English departments at universities strive to incorporate contemporary work into their curriculum. But what is “contemporary”? Where does the contemporary period begin, where does it end, and when does a work no longer fit into that category? Every university that confronts this question answers it differently. On the night of October 5, Professor Phillip Brian Harper presented his own response at the annual English Department Faculty Lecture, “The Challenges of Literary Contemporaneity: The Case of Rankine’s Citizen.”

Harper began with a brief discussion of the publication history of Ishmael Reed’s 1972 Mumbo Jumbo, a novel about jazz and dance in the 1920s. As Harper pointed out, the original bore multiple images that depicted the hip hop culture of the 1970s. Later, when the book was reprinted in 1988, these images were replaced with others, but neither set of images was directly related to the 1920s. Both the original choices and the substitutions bring to the forefront questions of thematic and ontological contemporaneity. Did the images of the hip hop period make the racial issues surrounding the jazz age feel more contemporary? Did the 1988 update make the new version of the book more contemporary than the original had been?

This question became the jumping-off point for exploring Rankine’s Citizen. Harper directed the audience’s attention to page 134 in the book, which lists the names of people of color who have been shot in the last few years. The first printing of the book included the line, “In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis,” to memorialize a Florida teen who was shot in 2014. The second printing followed the same format but added another name to the list. The third printing listed four names, and by the time of the twelfth printing, there were even more names followed by a series of lines that said simply, “In Memory.” These fill-in-the-blank lines, which fade into blankness at the bottom of the page, anticipate future shootings. These reprintings do not constitute separate editions as they did with Mumbo Jumbo, explained Harper, but like the editions of Reed’s novel, they represent an effort to stay up to date with current events.

Claudia Rankine, excerpt from Citizen. Copyright © 2014 by Claudia Rankine. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org
Claudia Rankine, excerpt from Citizen. Copyright © 2014 by Claudia Rankine. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org

Harper proposed three critical lenses for viewing page 134 of Citizen. One approach might be to think of the page as occasional poetry, which is composed as a reaction to a particular event and is not necessarily representative of anything beyond itself. Despite the page’s public and ephemeral nature and its performative function, however, such an approach fails to take into account the anticipatory lines of “In Memory.” One might also consider site specificity when reading the page and focus on the relationship between the geographic location referenced in a piece of artwork and the piece itself. Like occasional poetry, site specificity is not sufficient to explain Citizen for the murders listed on page 134 happened in geographically diverse locations. On the other hand, the page itself is potentially a site where emotions, like the expectation of future pain despite the desire to prevent it, are played out. Finally, one might approach the page by considering the author’s intentions and the “true nature” of the object. The problem, however, is that such an approach assumes the page is static, and Citizen is too dynamic for a fixed view of authorial intention. This page is special precisely because it is always changing according to circumstances, such as the book’s popularity and subsequent need for reprintings, which Claudia Rankine could not have anticipated when she first published her book.

Because Harper’s theory is a self-described “work in progress,” he recast the post-lecture question time as a discussion session, in which colleagues and students offered additional ways to think about the novel. One member of the audience asked about mediality and the effect the 24-hour news cycle could have on a work like Citizen. Despite the book’s attempts to stay up to date, news travels so quickly via the internet that there is no way that a print publication could keep up. Is it possible, then, for Citizen or any other book with a similar structure to truly remain contemporary or will the book be obsolete almost as soon as it is published? Another member of the audience, Professor Patrick Deer, proposed war culture and memorialization as concepts relevant to the novel because militarized policing seems to lurk behind the deaths listed in Citizen. Deer explained that there are few or even no physical war memorials for the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, signaling that there has been a shift away from such monuments as the Vietnam War Memorial and towards abstract memorialization. Citizen, then, can be seen as such an abstract memorial responding to a war between different races. Finally, someone observed that Citizen would not be Citizen were it not for the many racially tense moments that build up and have a long-lasting effect on its victim. “One microaggression does not a microaggression make,” she explained, adding that page 134 is not just a list but an accumulation of many acts of violence over time. Where does that leave the reader, then, with all the blank space awaiting even more crime?

Open-ended as the discussion was, Harper did, however, have an answer to the question of defining “contemporary literature” in English departments. He believes that departments should forego the attempt to keep updating their curriculum and instead focus on what any given work considers urgent. “The form of the work represents its own form of contemporaneity,” he said. It is interesting, then, that “Challenges to Literary Contemporaneity” represents his own attempt to stay contemporary: because Citizen was published after Harper wrote Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture (NYU Press, 2015), this lecture acts as a self-described “coda” that invests his book with new significance.