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Spoken Word, Written Word: Rethinking the Representation of Speech in Literature

Issue 1, Fall 2015
Issue Editors:
Amir Eshel, Vered K. Shemtov, Anat Weisman

This article traces the representation of speech in contemporary American poetry through three stages: (1) New York poetry, with its drive toward the “natural,” the actual act of speaking, here represented by Frank O’Hara’s “Lana Turner Has Collapsed!”; (2) Language poetry, in which citations, taken from multiplex sources, jostle with the lyric speaker’s own speech forms in a collage composition, here represented by Charles Bernstein’s “Lives of the Toll Takers”; and (3) Conceptualist poetry, where the entire composition is taken from external sources, but structure is created by deletion and rearrangement, here represented by Kenneth Goldsmith’s “World Trade Center.” Goldsmith carries the representation of speech to a kind of writing degree zero, but recent poets are also devising Conceptualist forms that reinvent the lyric; my example here is Craig Dworkin’s Pine-Woods Notebook, which I call a Conceptualist lyric in its use of cited words and phrases for personal ends.

The essay takes as its starting point the observation that contemporary legal mechanisms and cultural institutions confront mass atrocity by turning to multiple acts of storytelling by the survivors. As I show, judicial tribunals, truth commissions, museums, historical archives, and film and literature have replaced the once-singular, authoritative voice of the Storyteller with a choir comprising a multitude of narrators and narratives of survival. Focusing on two historic legal processes in which survivors’ storytelling played a key role, the Eichmann trial (1961) and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1995), I explore the underlying condition of plurality and its ethical implications from a joint perspective of law and the humanities.

What kind of home has poetry provided for code-switching over the course of the last hundred years? Given that speech and literary writing overlap but are distinct from one another, how should we think about the code-switching that’s particular to poetry? What can we learn from the analysis of poetry about code-switching, and from the analysis of code-switching about poetry? These are among the impossibly large questions I broach in this essay, exploring an understudied aspect of poetry’s transnationalism, with a focus on mixed anglophone examples. I argue that code-switching in poetry often points in two opposite directions at once: by virtue of breaking with monologic literariness, it heightens poetry’s speech-effect, its seeming orality; and yet by virtue of its pattern-rich code-stitching, it also signals poetry’s literariness, its bending back of reference on to itself, its insistence on the verbal materiality and sonic textures that resonate even across languages.

One of the distinctive features of multilingual Jewish cultures is the interpretation of a sacred Hebrew signifier by its phonic identity or proximity to a signifier in another language. This essay demonstrates the cultural creativity that might inhere in such “mistakes,” providing examples from three different periods—rabbinic, Hebrew-Yiddish European culture, and modern Israeli Hebrew.

Derrida's Thesis about the Emergence of Logophono-Centrism in its Historical Context

Watch Prof. Gumbrecht's talk and read its transcript.

This essay aims to draw a Jewish countergenealogy to the one traced in Michel Foucault’s famous History of Sexuality, volume 1, to account for Jewish-Christian tensions unexplored within Foucault’s history. Foucault suggests a connection between Christian pastoral confession and the imperative to tell “everything concerning … sex” in psychoanalysis; this essay argues that the outsider status of Jews in relation to this imperative helps account for the distinctively Jewish contributions to the discourse around sex in the modern West.

Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question examines anti-Semitism in the contemporary United Kingdom, in particular Jewish life besieged by anti-­Zionist antagonists. More specifically, the novel, with satire and gallows humor, explores the specific character of a postmodern anti-Semitism. In a society of fluid identities and self-reinvention, archaic prejudices reassert themselves tenaciously, and Jacobson explores possible Jewish responses to this predicament.

The article examines survival and its place as a form of language dominating life in the camp in Primo Levi’s account. Such a focus on the nature of survival as a mechanism of the camp reveals the disintegration of the friend/enemy distinction and opens ambivalent ground between the survivor and the victim. The language of survival determines that all are an enemy of all under conditions of deprivation, scarcity, and violence unimagined by theory. The result is an inability of language to fully represent the experience of the camp, in which all meaning is warped by the gravity of survival. One of Levi’s great achievements as a writer is shown to be the creation of a coded layer of the text that allows access through interpretation to this dark side of experience and the inability to contain it in everyday language. Figurative reading and the language of commerce are shown to be ways to overcome the distance between the language of survival and the language of everyday. The camp’s economy of survival is so close to the normal, everyday commerce that we practice that some harsh realizations about the persistence of the camp in the postwar world are inevitable.

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to comparative literature.

Editorial Board

Vered Karti Shemtov, Dibur Editor-in-Chief
Yotam Popliker, Dibur Executive Editor
Chen Bar-Itzhak, Dibur Editor
Chen Edelsburg, Dibur Curated Editor


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Dibur is made possible by grants from:

  • Stuart R. Epstein, California
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University