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Moving Words, Crossing Boundaries: Anne Carson’s Queer Books and the Material Turn in Comparative Literary Studies

Liedeke Plate

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1This article explores the ways in which the material turn in the humanities and social sciences contributes to the redefinition and reformulation of the objects that comparative literature studies. It asks how attention to « things » modifies our practices as comparatists, and how this renewed focus on the materiality of literary works can be understood as aligned with gender and queer studies. To inquire into these questions, I focus on the work of Anne Carson, specifically Nox (2010), a work that I will argue is crucial to this understanding in many respects. Indeed, if queer can be defined as « any act that challenges, questions, or provokes the normal, the acceptable, and the dominant » (Kreisinger 2015: 481), then Carson’s work can be regarded as queer, challenging dominant conceptions of reading as a cognitive rather than a multisensory activity, engaging the senses to provoke a queer orientation towards the object of reading if not the world at large, disorienting to speak of loss, disturbing the order of things. To do this, I build on Sara Ahmed’s insights in Queer Phenomenology (2006) and bring them in dialogue with Carson’s work. As Ahmed discusses, bodies take shape as they move through the world directing themselves toward or away from objects and others. Arguing that queerness disrupts and reorders the spatial organization of social relations, Ahmed reveals how a politics of disorientation puts other objects within reach objects that might, at first glance, seem awry. Carson’s Nox, its production and its reception, attest to such queer disorientations.

Bookishness: Anne Carson’s Multimodal Work

2Often genre defying, Carson’s work is at the crossing of many intersections, mixing the classical and the contemporary worlds, word and image, prose and poetry, breaking down boundaries between inside and outside, self and other, old and new, male and female, translation and original. Carson is a professor of classics as well as an internationally acclaimed writer with a background in graphic design and a predilection for mixed media projects. She has translated and modernized a number of classical texts, for instance Antigonick (2012), a version of Sophocles’ Antigone that engages its reception history and comes in handwritten capital letters on white pages interspersed with translucent vellum pages with drawings that overlay the text, extending the range of senses engaged in the act of reading and in the reception of the work. This experimentation with the form of the book extends to her recent work Float (2016), a collection of poems which comes as twenty-two chapbooks collected in a transparent case; slim individually bound poems on a variety of topics to be read in no fixed order. In Nox (2010), an accordion book in an ash-grey box in which a translation of Catullus’ elegiac poem 101 is developed literally, unfolds as an approach to remembering her deceased brother, she reproduces her scrapbook containing photographs, paintings, drawings, collages, a letter her brother once wrote home, and bits of text retyped or composed, photocopied, and stapled (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Anne Carson’s Nox

Stacey Shintani (Flickr/Creative Commons)

3Variously termed « bookish », « intermedial » and « multimodal », such works, « experimenting with the possibility of book form, playing with the graphic dimensions of text, incorporating images, and testing the limits of the book as a physical and tactile object » (Gibbons 2012: 420), require the integration of various literacies and as such, literally stand at a crossroads. Redefining the act of reading as a multimodal and multisensory activity, it also redefines the objects that comparative literature studies. Indeed, in multimodal literature, Alison Gibbons submits, writing becomes designing and reading becomes performing and the transmodal construction of meaning (Gibbons 2012: 421). It requires, Wolfgang Hallet explains, « the ability to decipher not only verbal language but also other codes and languages » (Hallet 2009: 150). As the role of the narrator shifts from narrating to presenting, showing found, retrieved, or collected documents and sources, multimodal literature « often pushes at its own ontological boundaries, […] challenging readers in both cognitive and physical terms » (Gibbons 2012: 420-1).

  • 1 For a discussion of these, see for instance Pressman (2009).

4It should be noted that Nox is not unique in this, but that Carson’s work on the materiality of her medium, exploring the possibilities of the printed page, testing the limits of form, fits into a broader trend in contemporary literature. As a counterpoint to the rise of e-books and e-readers, and in the wake of new technologies that make it possible to print images and word-image combinations more easily and cheaply than ever before (Gibbons 2012: 420), there is an upsurge of literary works experimenting with the form of the book and the materiality of the printed page on today’s mainstream publishing market1. Think of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) and Tree of Codes (2010), and Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (2007); Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World (2005), a « graphic novel » composed entirely of fragments of text found in 1960s women’s magazines, assembled and collaged into a new text; Lauren Redniss’s graphic biographies of Pierre and Marie Curie in Radioactive (2010) and Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies (2006); and S. (2013) by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, which looks like an old library book and contains the story of two readers as they leave notes for each other in the book’s margins and slip postcards, photographs, newspaper clippings, letters and a map drawn on a paper napkin between the pages.

5Such literary works explicitly resist the digitalization of culture, especially in book publishing; the dematerialization of the book, its transformation into code read by machines. As one of the authors of S. puts it :

It’s intended to be a celebration of the analog, of the physical object. In this moment of e-mails, and texting, and everything moving into the cloud, in an intangible way, it’s intentionally tangible. We wanted to include things you can actually hold in your hand: postcards, Xeroxes, legal-pad pages, pages from the school newspaper, a map on a napkin. (Rothman 2013)

6Creating the book anew in and for the digital age, such works renew a conventional book form (the codex) by harking back to ancient techniques of book construction (e.g., the folded structure of the accordion book in Carson’s Nox or the flipbook in Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and re-create the intimacy of reading and sharing a book, for instance through the use of handwriting and of personal documents such as photographs. Reverting to old traditions of bookmaking to provoke new orientations towards the object of reading, and as such, inviting reflection on reading as an embodied, cognitive, and social practice, works like Carson’s contribute to the redefinition and reformulation of comparative literature’s object of study.

The Material Turn

7The materialist trend of « bookish » books coincides and converges with the so-called material turn in the social sciences and the humanities, including literary studies. It seems to emerge from a similar concern with the material dimensions of existence the sense, in many parts of the western world, that we own too much stuff; that we don’t know what to do with all this stuff, which accumulates or is thrown out; or, more precisely, that our consumerist culture produces an awful lot of trash; and that as a result, « our most precious [thing], the planet, is dying » (Brown 2010). The concern with « stuff » (Miller 2010; Boscagli 2014) also entails a reevaluation of how we relate to things, matter and the materiality of the world. Material culture studies is an emergent field of inquiry which focuses on the world of objects with which our lives are enmeshed. It explores the relations between people and objects. Redrawing disciplinary boundaries (that separate the study of objects across different disciplines), it offers useful perspectives for studying literature as material culture.

  • 2 I develop this point more fully in Plate (2018, forthcoming).

8« New materialisms » in the humanities and social sciences emerge out of the necessity to rethink our relations to things. It is also a reaction against the dominance of interpretative models grounded in linguistic approaches semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism. Such models took everything as verbal text think of Barthes’s programmatic « De l’œuvre au texte », which, in delineating his influential theory of the text as intertextuality and play of signification, relegated the materiality of the text and of the book to the literary studies’ trash heap2. The emergence of electronic digital computing brought the text’s material support back into view, revealing how the materiality of books has been a neglected area in literary studies. (Of course, there are disciplines such as the History of the Book and the Sociology of Literature that do inquire into the production, transmission, circulation and dissemination of texts as a material practice, but as sociology and social and cultural history, these disciplines fall beyond the scope of literary studies as traditionally defined : « [t]he understanding and preservation of literary texts » [Trimpi 1970: 187]). Today, however, there is increasing recognition of literature as part of a broad media ecology and literary studies as part of media studies broadly conceived witness Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman’s argument for a paradigm shift in the Humanities to Comparative Textual Studies, for instance, making a case for studying textual media from a media standpoint in Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (2013).

9The material turn raises a number of questions for literary studies. What does a new materialist approach to literature look like? What new questions are being raised by approaches to literature that take the matter of literature seriously and, informed by new scientific and ontological approaches to materiality, rethink the literary practices of reading and writing as emergent material practices in which subject and object are co-constituted, enmeshed and « entangled » (Barad 2003; Hodder 2012)? And what does this mean for gender, itself an emergent material practice, as it comes into being in its performance, including its literary performances as gendered writing and gendered reading? Or, to put it differently, how do gender and matter « cross » in literary practices? That is to say, how does the matter of gender come to matter in the materiality of literature?

Literature as Intra-Action and Praxiography

10First off, the new metaphysics of « New Materialism » enables us to (re)think literature as a material practice that allows for the subject to emerge in the acts of reading and writing. Following the work of feminist philosopher and theoretical physicist Karen Barad, we can think of literature as « intra-action », a neologism she coins to speak of the ways phenomena emerge intra-actively, that is, constitute each other as they come into being. Matter, in Barad’s view, « is substance in its intra-active becoming not a thing, but a doing, a congealing of agency. Matter is a stabilizing and destabilizing process of iterative intra-activity […] the materiality/materialization of phenomena » (Barad 2003: 822; original italics).

11Secondly and perhaps more productively because more practical, Annemarie Mol’s praxiographic inquiry into the multiple reality of disease in The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (2002) offers an interesting approach worth exploring for the study of literature. Inquiring into the ways in which medicine enacts its objects and shapes them in its practices, Mol moves away from epistemology to attend to the ways objects are enacted in practice. This praxiography looks into the techniques that make the object atherosclerosis in Mol’s research visible, audible, tangible, and knowable in different places. Mol argues:

It is possible to refrain from understanding objects as the central points of focus of different people’s perspectives. It is possible to understand them instead as things manipulated in practices. If we do this – if instead of bracketing the practices in which objects are handled we foreground them this has far-reaching effects. Reality multiplies. (Mol 2002: 4-5)

12Praxiography rejects perspectivalism : the idea that there are different perspectives on a single object. This entails a politics. As Mol explains: « If practices are foregrounded there is no longer a single passive object in the middle, waiting to be seen from the point of view of seemingly endless series of perspectives. Instead, objects come into being and disappear with the practices in which they are manipulated. And since the object of manipulation tends to differ from one practice to another, reality multiplies » (Mol 2002: 5). For literature and literary study this multiplication of reality might mean that its objects of study are viewed as enacted in different practices those of writers and those of readers, but also those of (copy) editors, designers, and printers, of critics and of teachers, as well as those of booksellers and of reviewers, among others rather than as single passive objects, as for instance in Robert Darnton’s well known « What is the History of Books? » (1982), which identifies a communication circuit in which various agents, from author to publisher to printer to shipper to bookseller and finally to reader, transmit a text. Rather than looking at texts as single passive objects that are « transmitted » by active agents, we would then attend to the different ways in which the text (or literary work, or book) is enacted in practices of writing, reading, designing, printing, selling, lending, displaying, commenting or criticizing it. Looking at literature and literary meaning as something that is enacted differently and at different places, a praxiographic approach would then extend literary studies’ view of the loci where literature and literary meaning are produced to sites traditionally overlooked in literary studies, reorienting it both in terms of its object of study and in terms of its methods.

13Attending to the multiplicity of reality is an act, according to Mol; it is an intervention. Such an intervention was Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1991 [1984]), a praxiographic inquiry avant la lettre, in which she shifts attention from the text itself to the event of reading, which she understands as complex and social. Examining that event, Radway may have been the first scholar of literature to have articulated that literature in her case, romantic fiction is enacted by specific people in particular material and social contexts and that its meaning is not to be reduced to the words on the page. Her ethnography of reading acknowledges the materiality of the book, inquiring into the role of changes in « the material nature of book publishing as a socially organized technology of production and reception » in the increase in the romance’s popularity in the 1970s and discussing material factors such as developments in technology, for instance how the invention of synthetic glue affected this process (Radway 1991: 20; 27). It also recognizes how the Harlequin romance helped the women she interviewed « do gender »; how it provided an escape similar to the way in which other women resort to drugs or alcohol, as a way of coping with the demands of their daily existence, providing some relief from « the psychologically demanding and emotionally draining task of attending to the physical and affective needs of their families » (Radway 1991: 92). Here too, the material dimensions are important; for instance, the fact that these books were relatively cheap; or that you could settle in a hot bath with one something, it might be worth noting, one cannot do with most e-readers as yet; also, something one does not want to do with many (valuable) books for a variety of reasons.

  • 3 I write materialsocial in the tradition of Donna Haraway’s naturecultures, to evoke the way in whic (...)

14Exploring the convergence of various social and material factors in the event of reading, Radway paves the way for a praxiographic inquiry into literature, one that attends to the multiplicity of the object of literary studies as it is enacted at different sites and considers how « doing gender » (and hence, gendered identity) is predicated on and emerges through such « materialsocial » practices3. The books she looked at, Harlequin, Silhouette, and Fawcett romances, are primarily read by « married women between the ages of twenty-five and fifty » (55), statistics that indicates it is straight, white, middle-class heterosexual femininity that is being done by Radway’s interviewees and which the books in all their material and social dimensions help fashion and maintain, for instance by enabling the women to cope with (and not challenge) their social roles as wives and mothers. Objects, the anthropologist Daniel Miller writes in his book Stuff (2010), « make us, as part of the very same process by which we make them » (Miller 2010: 60). Radway’s study of romance reading shows how the books she scrutinized literally make the women, keeping them in their places as docile domestic subjects in patriarchal culture.

Doing Queer Things

15The insight that things create us also informs Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, an inquiry into materialities and orientations that concludes with a chapter discussing how disorientation might begin with the strangeness of familiar objects. Seeing « how orientations are organized rather than casual, how they shape what becomes socially as well as bodily given » (Ahmed 2006: 158), Ahmed turns her gaze towards « the queer effects of certain gatherings, in which “things” appear to be oblique, to be “slipping away” » (Ahmed 2006: 166). In the final section of this article, I want to inquire into the queer effects of Carson’s Nox, discussing its queer disorientation of the subject of comparative literature.

  • 4 For a fuller discussion of Nox’s strangeness, see Plate (2015), on which the discussion below is pa (...)
  • 5 Because the pages of Nox are not numbered while its paragraphs are, I use these numbers for referen (...)

16« To make things queer is certainly to disturb the order of things », Ahmed writes, building on the work of Merleau-Ponty (Ahmed 2006: 161). I have already mentioned the (material) strangeness of Nox, a heavy and unwieldy ash-grey box containing a facsimile of the scrapbook Carson made to memorialize her brother, whose mystery she seeks to approach through a translation of Catullus’ poem 101 on the death of his brother, a poem she parses and on which she comments using words, images, scraps of things he left behind4. Speaking of loss, reflecting (on) her quest for her estranged brother and on her coming to grips with his death, Carson uses translation as her main metaphor for remembrance as a practice and performance. Distributing Catullus’ words over the scroll, unpacking them vertically in lexical entries and unwrapping them horizontally across the page’s fold, Carson literally moves the words in different directions to « prowl », as she puts it, the brother and the poem. As she elucidates, « I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end » (7.1; « indigne »)5. Like the translation of the poem she never achieved to her liking, the brother remains beyond capture in (the English) language. « He refuses, he is in the stairwell, he disappears », Carson notes on the page opposite the entry for Catullus’ last word, poignantly commenting on the slipping away of Michael, his memory, and indeed of time. Materializing what remains, Nox tells the interrelated stories of the translation of the poem and the mourning of Michael as the fashioning of a beautiful, queer object.

17Nox, then, moves and disorients its readers a disorientation which restores a new orientation toward the book, starting with Nox, but potentially extending beyond it to other books. Indeed, as the locus of an encounter with otherness through the strangeness, beauty, pathos and presence of the material, Nox moves its readers in new directions and towards new orientations, inviting them to appreciate the shared materiality of people and things the insight that « we too are stuff », as Miller phrases it (2010: 6) while at the same time functioning as a humbling memento mori. In addition, it should be noted, Nox does not only move emotionally; it literally makes its readers move and reorient their own bodily materiality in relation to the book. Searching for images of Anne Carson’s Nox on the Internet, one finds many photographs of the book-in-a-box that display at once the bookishness of Nox and the creativity of its readers as they represent, stage or record their encounter with it. The performances of Nox that individuals perform at home depart from readers’ traditional encounters with books, with the act of reading a private event occurring silently. Part of the transformation of reading culture into « an exuberantly social activity », as Jim Collins writes in Bring on the Books for Everybody (2010: 4), the sharing of the experience of reading Nox on the Internet also attests to a dis- and reorientation. As the book unfolds across floors, couches, shelves and leather armchairs, it is remade into a diversity of site-specific installations. As vernacular artworks in domestic settings that are shared with others through the medium of digital photography, Nox multiplies, requiring that we attend to the manifold ways it is enacted in practice. As such, the new practices of reading it elicits invite a reorientation of literary studies and comparative literature, asking us to take on the challenge of the book’s queer effects to reimagine the crossings between reading as a materialsocial practice and bodily orientations.

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Document annexe

  • Figure 1 (image/jpeg – 3,5M)
    Stacey Shintani (Flickr/Creative Commons)
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1 For a discussion of these, see for instance Pressman (2009).

2 I develop this point more fully in Plate (2018, forthcoming).

3 I write materialsocial in the tradition of Donna Haraway’s naturecultures, to evoke the way in which the social is always also material.

4 For a fuller discussion of Nox’s strangeness, see Plate (2015), on which the discussion below is partially based.

5 Because the pages of Nox are not numbered while its paragraphs are, I use these numbers for referencing. Another way of navigating the text is through Catullus’ poem 101. Therefore, I have added Catullus’ words as references.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1: Anne Carson’s Nox
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Liedeke Plate, « Moving Words, Crossing Boundaries: Anne Carson’s Queer Books and the Material Turn in Comparative Literary Studies », TRANS- [En ligne],  | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2018, consulté le 23 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/trans.1875

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Liedeke Plate

Radboud University, Nijmegen (The Netherlands)

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