General Aims of our Research Activity
- Trauma and Beyond: The Rhetoric and Politics of Suffering in Contemporary Narrative in English
- Historiographic Metafiction in the Contemporary British Novel
- Structure and Ideology in Present-day Anglo-American Narrative
- The Postmodern Intertext
- The Dialectic Foreshadowing/Hindsight in Contemporary Narrative in English
- The Ethics of Fiction
- Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary Narrative in English
Two are the main aims of the group's activity and they are intimately related. The first is the analysis and interpretation of contemporary literature and culture in English, especially British, Irish, US and, more recently, Australian narrative. And the second, the contribution to the theoretical debate on and the design of models for the analysis of narrative texts, especially in the fields of narrative poetics, the post-structuralisms, myth criticism and ideological approaches including the analysis of the ethical and traumatic components in literature.
The study of contemporary narrative in English is relevant in that it casts light on the intrinsic characteristics of literary works belonging to authors not yet canonised, who are still immersed in their creative process, thus contributing to the detection and configuration of new literary movements, currents or trends. Further, the identification of the distinctive traits common to various authors and works belonging to our own period is also a relevant critical issue in the sense that it offers us valuable clues for the understanding of the society we are living in.
Trauma and Beyond: The Rhetoric and Politics of Suffering in Contemporary Narrative in English [Current Project]
Our current research project is a further development of the earlier one. Its main aim is to establish an interdisciplinary research line on the rhetorical and political dimensions of literary narrative with a view to bringing to the fore the essential role of fictional narratives in the double task of representing both the traumas of our contemporary age and other non-traumatic forms of individual and collective suffering, and of contributing to disclosing and denouncing of conflicts and abuses which would otherwise remain hidden and silenced.
This aim requires the delimitation of a representative corpus of contemporary fictional narratives written in English, and its analysis from an aesthetic and ideological perspective, aimed at establishing the mechanisms at work in the representation and overcoming of individual and collective traumas and other forms of human suffering.
On the strength of this analysis, the project seeks to establish the essential role of narrative literature in the creation and subversion of cultural paradigms. Starting from an acknowledgement of the criticism undergone by Trauma Studies, we propose to move beyond such criticism and even beyond the notion of trauma itself by casting light on the ways in which a new cultural, social and individual politics can be enacted on the basis of a politics of resilience and an ethics of affects.
The main challenges of the project are:
- To contest the widespread notion within a deconstructive trauma paradigm of the "unspeakability" of trauma.
- To investigate forms of rhetorical indirection, such as symbolic language, narrative modes of excess (romance, the gothic, melodrama), fantasy and new hybrid genres onto which the effects and contents of the traumatic event are displaced, thus providing an open and unfixed meaning of trauma.
- To study how rhetorical indirection may avoid the establishment of victimhood as a new essentialist category of identity politics and to consider the possible political and institutional misappropriations of trauma events and victims through acts of remembrance meant to consolidate the status quo.
- To offer methodological, ontological and epistemological alternatives aimed at providing routes of escape and strategies to overcome a traumatic condition (theory of resilience and theory of affects).
Thus, in the first competitive research project undertaken by the group, 'Historiographic Metafiction in the Contemporary British Novel', the team analysed the emergence in Britain in the 1980s of a new narrative trend, called 'historiographic metafiction', similar to that detected by Linda Hutcheon in the 1960s and 70s in other European countries and in America.
We showed how this type of narrative combines a historical theme with a constant interrogation of the act of writing and of the mechanisms of representation, thus expressing a generalised loss of confidence in the capacity of history and of language to tell the truth. We also showed that this world-view was shared both by other contemporary fields of knowledge (philosophy, historiography, linguistics) and by other, more realistic literary trends, a fact which led us to postulate the existence of a paradoxical postmodernist realism.
In the second research project, entitled Structure and Ideology in Present-day Anglo-American Narrative: Subject, Margin, Narrativity, we undertook the analysis of the various discourses employed in the reconfiguration of reality and of the postmodern subject in this type of paradoxically realist novels.
We analysed the way in which these novels combine the parodic recreation of (earlier) dominant discourses (world history, religions, psychoanalysis, various scientific discourses, or canonical literary genres and figures), with a self-conscious interrogation of the act of writing and of the mechanisms of textual representation as a way to redefine the literary form itself, the other cultural discourses, and the structure of the human subject. The project demonstrated that the re-employment of these discourses has a parodic character and has both formal and aesthetic as well as cultural and ideological implications.
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The third project, The Postmodern Intertext: Cultural Hermeneutics of Anglo-American Narrative at the End of the 20th Century, widened the scope of the earlier project, as it set to analyse such aspects of the narrative phenomenon as the construction of characters, narrative subjects and voices, ideological modes, plot schemes, generic conventions, etc., in the Anglo-American narrative of the 1990s. The analysis demonstrated that these aspects evolve intertextually by means of the dialectics between retrospection and the re-interpretation of earlier forms and ideological schemes as forerunners of present ones. These conclusions were the starting point for the fourth research project.
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In The Dialectic Foreshadowing/Hindsight in Contemporary Narrative in English we set to applying the hermeneutic circle to the creation and critique of contemporary narrative in English, from a narratological perspective. The analysis of the genesis of the intertextual process demonstrated, firstly, that this process takes place, not only as the direct influence of earlier texts on the present, but also by means of the a posteriori re-reading of earlier forms. Secondly, that, in contemporary Anglo-American narrative, the dialectic foreshadowing/hindsight is explicitly and prominently thematised. And thirdly, that the critical concepts evolve following the same dynamics. This suggests that the hermeneutic relation can usefully be applied not only to the textual and ideological analysis of the narrative text but also to the intertextual evolution of other types of texts (historical, scientific, philosophical, etc.), or even to the critical concepts themselves.
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The research project we have just finished is entitled The Ethics of Fiction: Writing, Reading and Representation in Contemporary Narrative in English. The aim of this project stems from the ethical turn that took place in the decade of the 1980s in Anglo-American criticism, that is, the return of interest in the ethical component of writing as a reaction to the cultural relativism and radicalism propounded by certain ideological conceptions of the postmodern era. This ethical turn postulates the in-depth revision of the way in which literature in general and narrative in particular expresses and articulates ethical behaviour. Ethical criticism still lacked an analytical model capable of accounting for such variables as the adscription of text and critic to different cultures, or analytical parameters such as gender.
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Within this context, the project proposed, firstly, the elaboration of a model of ethical criticism applicable to the narrative text, starting from the work of J. Hillis Miller, Emmanuel Levinas, Christopher Falzon and Alain Badiou, among others, articulated around three basic aspects of the narrative text: writing, reading, and representation. The starting hypotheses for the construction of this model were two: firstly, that an ethical reading should admit the resistance of the text to be fixed by the critic. And secondly, that the critic establishes a creative relation with the text and with the identities articulated in it, in which and Other enter a two-sided, transformative dialogue. In its second phase, the project envisioned the application of this model to a representative corpus of narrative fictions written by contemporary British, Irish, US and Australian writers, with a view to establishing the characteristics of the ethical model proposed by each author and work. Our final aim was to determine whether such a model responds to a traditional, humanist ethics, or is rather informed by postmodernist and poststructuralist paradigms.
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In January 2008 we started a new project on Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary Narrative in English. The project belonged to the highly competitive type called Consolider C by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, which meant that our team had achieved the highest level of excellence in the Spanish research system and that we had funds to carry out the project in five, instead of three years.
This project was partially related to the one we had just finished on The Ethics of Fiction. One of the developments of the ethical turn in the nineteen nineties was the rise of so-called Trauma Studies. The starting point for this development was the transference of the medical concept of trauma to the critical field. Several factors contributed to this transference: the effects of the two World Wars and other armed conflicts, the clash of civilisations, the processes of decolonisation and globalisation, and the alienation of affections triggered off by the new technologies and the consumer society.
Given its origins at the University of Yale, trauma theory had so far given preferential attention to the literature of the Holocaust and other armed conflicts, like the Vietnam war. It had also focused, though to a lesser extent, on a literature that points to History as the determining factor in causing interracial traumas. However, no attempt had yet been made to carry out a systematic and comparative analysis of the formal innovations devised by contemporary writers to represent both the collective traumas already mentioned and the individual traumas that appear in other types of contemporary narrative in English. Likewise, these literary works had not yet been consistently approached from an ethical perspective, oriented, firstly, to the identification of the text's resistance to absorb the dominant discourses, and, secondly, to the analysis of possible relationships between (formal) innovation and ideology.
The aim of our project was to accomplish this task, in three main stages:
- Adaptation of the ethical critical model devised in the former project to include aspects dealt with by Trauma Studies.
- Application of this model to a corpus of British, Irish, North-American, Australian and Caribbean narrative works, written from the 1960s onwards. This corpus included works that seem to express collective traumas overtly as well as works presenting a wide range of individual traumas.
- A comparison of the results gathered in the study of the various works and authors analysed, with a view to:
a) tracing formal, thematic, generic and socio-cultural similarities and/or differences;
b) establishing, on the basis of the previous analysis, recurrent patterns in the representation of trauma; and
c) delving into the ethical implications that the use of these recurrent patterns has in the context of contemporary narrative in English.
The main results of the project include the improvement of the psychoanalytic model employed by Trauma Theory by combining it with elements of Levinasian ethic, postcolonial criticism and genre theory. The literature of trauma is usually associated with three main contexts: postmodernism, post-colonialism and a post-war consciousness. But besides the collective traumas linked to exceptional historical contexts, there are also other forms of trauma, induced by the formation of patriarchal identity and related to gender, social class and racial identity, which have been socially sublimated through systematic practices and continued behaviour patterns, so that we do not perceive their traumatic character. The selection and analysis of the corpus was carried out taking into account both types of traumas. The ensuing analysis of this corpus has allowed us to establish several significant tendencies in contemporary trauma narratives:
- The writersâ€™ refusal to promote a closed up value system based on universal categories and moral imperatives, easily transmissible to the readers, in favour of an ethics of sensibility or an ethics of affects, centred on a radical openness towards, and respect for the other.
- The existence of a relationship between formal innovation and the promotion of a deconstructivist ethics privileging the spirit over the letter of the law, the Saying over the Said, Infinity over Totality.
- The emphasis in several of the works analysed on the overcoming of trauma (working through) rather than on denial and repetition (acting out), as a first step in the direction of social compromise and the fostering of structural change.
- The existence of a relationship between the forms of representation of individual or collective traumas and the authorâ€™s race, gender, and sexual orientation.
- In the case of postcolonial works, a connexion was established between individual and historical traumas, and also a tendency to minimise the foundational traumas affecting native peoples.
- In testimonial works, we observed a tendency towards the hybridisation of fictional and non-fictional genres, and towards the construction of Benjaminian "constellations" of realist, modernist and postmodernist elements.
- The recourse to elements of the Gothic, detective fiction, the postmodernist romance, or science fiction, in order to express the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
- The use of archetypal elements (fairy tales, myth, fantasy literature) when what is sought for is the cultural assimilation and transgenerational transmission of extreme traumatic events.
It is our conviction that these features point to a "crisis of truth" involving uncertainty and a difficult access to history, which are symptomatic of a loss of faith in the discourse of modernity in our contemporary western world.