The Uprooted Text

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Ali Negahban:

Language comes to the foreground in extreme situations and migration is one such situation. I call migration an extreme situation because it imposes a radical change on the migrant subject. In this essay, the word “migrant” is employed as term where all such terms as exile, immigrant, émigré, and refugee converge. Thus, the differences between these different subjectivities are intentionally downplayed in favour of a community: the experience of migration is so deep that it inevitably leaves its signature under what I call the migrant text (i.e., the text authored by migrants). The migrant text literally emigrates from the dominant form(s) of one’s native language and immigrates into the form(s) of another. Nonetheless, in relation to the migrant text neither emigration means disconnecting from one’s homeland nor immigration denotes immersing in the dominant genres of hostland. The migrant text is primarily a genre. Whether it is poetry or fiction is secondary to it. The migrant text does not fit in predetermined genres, and thus, it sets its own genric laws. The migrant genre does not simply entail texts by those who have physically migrated out of their cultural or linguistic milieu, but all texts that genologically emigrate from dominant languages and create, or search for, their own sets of signs. This essay explores the unifying genre called the uprooted text in which genric elements of both dominant language(s) and new signs are gathered. The uprooted text’s major manifestation is that the migrant fiction is poetic and the migrant poetry is fictional.

Genealogy of Fiction

A genre always has a genesis. Like any genre, the uprooted text has a history of formation and evolution. Before further discussion, however, let us briefly turn to Bakhtin’s concepts of the chronotope and dialogue—two concepts that will shed light on the reflections below. The concept of chronotope designates a network of bridges between the mind, the world, and the text. In Bakhtin’s words:

The chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, as a force given body to the entire novel. All the novel’s abstract elements–-philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect—gravitate toward the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imaging power of art to do its work.i

The spatial indication and the temporal one become united in the writing and reading process, the writer’s and reader’s minds, and create a united image. Chronotopes are the semantic units within the text (or “motifs”), on the one hand, and the world model or the cognitive strategies the writer and the reader apply to the text, on the other hand. The second function of chronotope involves its genological function. As Bakhtin points out: “The chronotopes… provide the basis for distinguishing generic types; they lie at the heart of specific varieties of the novel genre, formed and devoted over the course of many centuries.”ii The “basis” that Bakhtin alludes to is the world model that forms readers’ and writers’ cognitive processes. In other words, the chronotope suggests a dominant structure in which the writer encodes his text and the reader decodes it. Through dialogue and interaction between the chronotopes, one image becomes dominant, because “it is common for one of these chronotopes to envelop or dominate the others.”iii The dominant chronotopic image makes the reader interpret the text according to the rules and boundaries of the implied world model. The hegemonic chronotope binds the text (and thereby, the reader and the writer) in its spatial and temporal given signs. Some instances of such modeling spatial sets include a village, idyllic scenery, a metropolitan area, or a military base. The examples of temporal indications of the chronotopes include a specific social era, the internal subjective time, the dreamtime, the seasonal time, or a cutting of lifetime (e.g., childhood or youth). Chronotopic images make possible the dialogue between the writer and the reader through the interrelated textual worlds that they render in their mind. That is, the stereotyping quality of these images enable them to encode and decode their meanings accordingly.

A “dialogue” is always carried out between chronotopes and it is crucial to the understanding of the novel. By means of dialogue one of the chronotopes dominates over others and this dominant chronotope determines the genre and makes its evolution possible. A change in the arrangement of the chronotopes and specially fall of the dominant chronotope and rise of another chronotope gives birth to a new genre. Genres such as “Romance,” “Picaresque,” and “Realism” are all evolutionary stages of the change in the dominant chronotope. It is through this process that fiction acquires its dialogical status.

Genealogy of Poetry

The poetic word, according to Bakhtin, is fundamentally monologic: it refers only to itself, its object, and its unitary homogenous language. Words in poetry are not associated with their associations and connotations. A word in poetry is not interpreted by its synonyms in the dictionary or from individual or social experiences. Poetry is the use of words without reference to history. The poetic word, Bakhtin holds, is cut off from any social or historical context; it does not encounter the problem of its relation to another word. A poetic word, due to its monologic nature, is only a signifier with an abstracted signified. A poetic word refers to the idea of centralized, unitary language, but not to other languages in the culture, not to heteroglossia (the stratifications within language). In other words, language in poetry is not one of social characters or specific accents of the social classes.iv In this view, poetry has the only perpetual structure that stands out of historicity. Poetic word may appear in different forms or sub-genres but all of them are a priori and preexistent. From this point of view, poetry is meta-historical. It implies presenting the foundational essence of human being.

The uprooted text challenges the Bakhtinian theory of genre in two respects: first, the dominance of a specific chronotope is not applicable to the uprooted text, and the lack of such dominant indicator makes the migrant fiction poetic. Secondly, the notion of “monologue,” which according to Bakhtin is crucial to the work of poetry, is not appropriate in the case of the migrant poetry, as the dialogic nature of migrant poetry makes it novelistic (or “fictional”). Like the novel, the uprooted text has its own genealogy. To better identify the process of the formation of the uprooted text, let us introduce the evolutionary stages in genealogy of the uprooted text. I trace the genealogy of the uprooted text back to the home-ruled text and the host-ruled text.

The Home-Ruled Text

The search for ways to remain in contact with one’s roots comes forward when one sees that such a contact no longer exists. The migrant tries to compensate for the pain of losing the culture of origin by seeking refuge in his native language. She or he speaks to people of shared origins because a common ground is what is needed in order to start a dialogue. To write is always to write within the boundaries and the indications of a dominant chronotope. The home-ruled text is a text that is dominated and ruled by a system of signs that presents a world cast in the migrant’s culture of origin. Given the different chronotopic images a text evokes in different individuals, a home-ruled text is unable to adequately communicate with the host culture. The migrant writer writes in a structure that does not make sense to the people of hostland. Apart from the content, the structure and the genological world model come from the migrant’s culture of origin.

To present the experience of migration in a structure available in the world models of the culture of origin distorts the singularity of the experience. The chronotopic structure of the culture of origin presents an image of emigration that is based on its dominant values and beliefs. For instance, if the dominant value in the culture of origin condemns the notion of emigration, the home-ruled text is always affected by such dominant structuring value. Even if the writer describes motifs that show a successful experience of migration, the reading of the text in the home-ruled genre appropriates the motifs so that the condemnation resides within the text.

The home-ruled text might be a text on migration, but it cannot be a migrant text. As mentioned above, chronotope functions on two levels. In the level of the semantic units and images–-actions or “motifs” within the text—the home-ruled text may present notions and actions related to the experience of migration. However, what prevents the text from being a migrant text is the structural setting of those partial motifs that is unable to present the overall chronotopic image of the text as a migrant text. The degree to which the reader-writer worlds are divergent or coincidental depends on the relativity of their perception of the hegemonic chronotope. One determines the hierarchical levels of chronotopes by applying one’s semantic assumptions to the text. The more interdependent the reader-writer social and intellectual knowledge, the more analogous their perception of a text. This notion is crucial to the dialogue between the reader and the writer, particularly when they have rather disparate experiences. The juxtaposition of the motifs is according to the familiar forms that dominate the writer’s mind. A set of signs that are supposed to imply a love-story in one language does not make the same sense in another one. The writer of the home-ruled text encodes his messages in signs appropriate to his prior knowledge, whereas the host culture’s readers decipher the signs based on a different set of decoding rules. Although desperate of evoking a dialogue with the hostland, the home-ruled text is doomed to retreat into its ghetto.

The home-ruled text, like any other a priori world model, tries to make its chronotopic structure dominant over the migration experience. The home-ruled text, accordingly, contains the semantic elements of migration but disguised in—and consequently distorted by—the structural rules of the homeland’s chronotopes. Therefore, the home-ruled text fails to present the reality of the notion of migration. Consequently, the home-ruled text neither represents the migration genre nor is able to start a dialogue with other genres. Since migration instigates a heterogeneous discourse that tries to have a dialogue with the hostland, it does not stand the homogenizing structure of the forms that come from the culture of origin.

The Host-Ruled Text

The host-ruled text is a text based on the dominant and (apparently) homogenizing discourse. It is alien to the migrant writer’s culture of origin because in the host-ruled text neither the semantic elements nor the world model image come from the home culture. The migrant is committed to accompany the people who had started their travel long ago. Despite his or her pre-migration assumptions, the migrant discovers that the past, one’s origin, is no longer capable of providing a ground for the future. As well, it may even delay the appropriation of the new culture.

The migrant is admitted into the host system and should therefore be assigned a role. But the role is inevitably assigned by the dominant discourse. If the migrant chooses to, or is forced to, write in the dominant genres about the migrant’s singular world, the form would not fit the content. Yet the migrant writer is encouraged to choose a genre among those available in the host-ruled text, as these genres remain the meaningful and communicable genres. This compulsion comes from different institutions of the host culture such as schools, publishers, magazines, media, and social pressure. But the genres they suggest have evolved out of the historical necessities and realities of the host culture, and as such, represent the evolutionary stages of their dominant chronotopes.

Alienation and rupture enable the migrant to better know her or his culture of origin. They provide the migrant with a phenomenological distance to examine the signs and the culture that formed her or his past. In his introduction to The World, the Text and the Critic, Edward Said points out to the situation of Erich Auerbach who wrote his book, Mimesis, during World War II. According to Said, while living in exile in Istanbul, Auerbach did not have access to research materials and the “lack of a special library,” in fact his “separation from European culture,” enabled him to know his culture so profoundly. In Said’s words:

The book owed its existence to the very fact of Oriental, non-Occidental exile and homelessness. And if this is so, the Mimesis itself is not, as it has so frequently been taken to be, only a massive reaffirmation of the Western culture tradition, but also a work built upon a critically important alienation from it, a work whose conditions and circumstances of existence are not immediately derived from the culture it describes with such extraordinary insight and brilliance but built rather on an agonizing distance from it.v

The migrant is burdened with a unique yet taunting experience. To have a dialogue with his other side, the migrant retrieves his past experiences using new set of signs. But the problem of roots shows up in such efforts. The migrant, however, is aware of the genological characteristics of the text. He or she has experienced the incapability of the dominant world models as offered by both home and host genres.

While both the home-ruled and host-ruled texts are presented in preexisting genres, the uprooted text resists from being penetrated by, or inserted in, a frame offered or imposed by either host or home cultures. The migrant’s participation and his input have never been included in the preexisting structure. But now she is forced to express herself in these structures. The migrant who tries to present his work in an a priori genre is like the black protagonist of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye who tries to deny the fact of blackness. The dominant structure is thus coercive, distorting and smothering to the migrant writer.

From this point of view, migration cannot be a true beginning because it presumes that the existing forms are capable of presenting the contents as we expect them to. But these forms impose a certain self-censorship on the migrant because some dimensions of his or her identity and experiences are not transferable to the dominant set of signs. At the same time, though, migration marks an existential beginning: it gives the migrant a new identity and possibly a new social class and self. Ultimately, however, the dominant discourse of hostland pressures the migrant into its dictates.

The Uprooted Text

Migration can be a beginning, only if the migrant makes it to. Since the migrant experiences migration individually, and since the condition of migration is always singular, the migrant needs to create a genre equally singular capable of representing the uniqueness of his world. The preexisting forms conceal the reality of the cross-lingual world and ignore otherness. The cross-lingual world is not a co-existence of two or more different languages, but the existence, influence and contribution of an “other” to the realm of the dominant set. Such contribution pushes the walls of the dominant structure back, enriching the latter, enabling it to become capable of presenting the new chronotopes in its material texts. This contribution is so strong because it conveys all the potentials of the “other” language to an accent that makes communication between the two different languages possible.

The singularity of the uprooted text depicts images that are outlandish and unfamiliar. This characteristic of the uprooted genre challenges Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope when he holds that “any and every literary image is chronotopic.”vi Bakhtin here implies that an invariant structure (a stereotype) exists that, based on his genological approach, only can be rearranged in the dominant sets of signs. He does not suggest the possibility of creating a radically new set of signs. Rather, he implies that the chronotopes are given, but the dominancy of one specific chronotope changes due to the evolution of the genre, the interaction of the texts and the shift in the writer’s encoding and reader’s decoding. Julia Kristeva reaffirms this notion:

[N]ational cultures and entities are having to co-habitate in this same space, however global. An uprooting could not create anything more remote than a neutral universal code…. [T]he point is not to construct some kind of Esperanto, or some kind of abstract language originating from nowhere, but on the contrary, in order to give life to new signs…. [I]t is necessary to establish a bridge from one’s origins to the arrival and appropriation of a whole new set of signs.vii

Contrary to Bakhtin, Kristeva does not imply the impossibility of creating a radically new structure; rather, she suggests the uselessness of such world model. Her notions of “a neutral universal code” and “abstract language” suggest that such systems are unable to launch a dialogue between people. The failure of Esperanto is one example. Nevertheless, to build a bridge between the different world models is a necessity.

Giving up the idea of a revolutionary new-set of new-signs, we have to deal with the text in another level. The only choice is to build a new-set of not-new-signs. The notion of not-new-signs saves the historicity of language. That is, given the impossibility of creating a new system of new elements, the writer (here the migrant writer) has to deal with notions such as montage, collage, and hybridization. And that is how changes in the dominant genre become possible.

The idea of a hybrid genre is related to the notion of dialogue. Dialogue is possible when there is heterogeneity within the consisting motifs of a genre. A dialogue begins when heterogeneity emerges, and theoretically stops when the dominance of a chronotope becomes absolute—as in poetry. However, such an absolute dominance of a chronotope rarely occurs. The dominant chronotope rearranges and sets the relations between the dominated chronotopes in a way that its ideal world model is manifested.

The uprooted text defies all conventions and structures made by others. As such, it makes a new arrangement so that there remains no dominant chronotope in the text. The uprooted text becomes a battlefield of divergent chronotopes that are intratextually and intertextually involved in a never-ending dialogue. The juxtaposition of various chronotopes sets a network of poly-dimensional world so that no dimension is able to dominate over others. A variety of superstructures may function in an uprooted text. They may include the idyllic, the realist, or the subjective—self-referential and the compressed chronotopes that imply hyperrealistic images. This wealth of images of the world in the uprooted text saves the text from being stereotypical—a quality that a dominant chronotope inevitably imposes on both the home-ruled and host-ruled texts.

The uprooted text also lets in chronotopes that explore for the reasons and causes of what the individuals and their world undergo. These chronotopes manifest the social realities and evokes the sense of otherness and diversity the migrants feel and experience. The question of causality, however, never gets an answer, as such a resolution is only possible when one of the parties of dialogue convinces or smothers the others. It terminates the dialogue. The presence of other chronotopes stops the realist chronotope from building a homogenizing center to give a concluding meaning to the historical reality. The uprooted text presents the reality of migration and the ruptured world, but does not introduce an ideal center or a world model to terminate the dialogue. Signs that come from nowhere (e.g., Esperanto) are unable to claim substitution for the uprooted text because they are unable to construct a connection or a dialogue. They fail because of the lack of heterogeneity and historicity. There cannot be various stratifications and accents within a universal, artificial set of signs. Such a universal language may imply a utopian language. It conceals the difference and hierarchy that construct the dialogue. It does not have an identity. They are not even uprooted because they do not have roots.

Uprooting, however, does not mean lack or absence of roots. Instead, it means that the roots are there but the dominance of such roots is no longer applicable. The rupture provides the migrant with a constant consciousness of the absent roots. That is, the roots become parts of the content of the uprooted text. They are semantic chronotopes—motifs—that participate in a dialogue with other chronotopes within the textual world. Hence, the uprooted text does not refer to metatextual facts. It refers to the conference of divergent chronotopes and thus becomes self-referential. This quality is the one that makes the uprooted fiction poetic.

The Dialogic Poetry

The uprooted text is a transgression even in monologue. Monologue, as Bakhtin states, is centripetal. That is, monologue comes out of a centralizing, unifying tendency. Yet, there is no centre remained for an uprooted text to refer to. On the one hand, the original language is unable to claim being a centre for the text–-it has emigrated from such a centre. On the other hand, the host language cannot tame the uprooted text because it does not root in the formal version or in any other stratification of the dominant genres. The migrant does not have a homogenous self. Migration has already ruptured it.

Similar to the idyllic chronotope, monologue represents the unifying function of language. In monologue there are no other stratifications of language. The individual in monologue can have the dominant voice because there are no other voices to intervene the formation of signs. The homogenizing nature of monologue makes it a refuge to save the individual from the heterogeneous nature of dialogue. In other words, in dialogue different chronotopes are always in interrelations, whereas in monologue the dominant chronotope is the speaker’s chronotopic image. In a homogenous internal language, people give up their role-assigning languages and forget their social functions. Since people are in interaction with different stratifications of society in their social life, they have to practice different languages in different situations. That is, people have to talk in different roles such as father, teacher, husband, brother, enemy, or friend in the social interactions. But monologue occurs when the individual is united with him- or herself. One puts aside one’s attached and self-alienating roles and talks to oneself as a cohesive soul. The important point here is that talking or writing in a homogenous language means that one writes or talks in one’s individual, innate structure, in one’s own original accent, rather than writing within the boundaries of an alienating, role-assigning system. As a result, the structure detaches the word from the meanings that the external system assigns to the word. Monologue, therefore, designates a self-referential structure.

But the migrant is unable to speak to his or her unified self. The migrant must discriminate between their his or her different selves. And when he or she chooses one self, he or she cannot keep talking to the chosen self because his or her other selves, the unchosen ones, will interfere. Thus, as soon as the migrant refers to the language a dialogue starts.

Poetry is the realm of the absolute dominance of a specific world model. This structure is not the one that refers to a specific signified, but to the form of an abstract one. Poetry communicates through forms, ideas and the interrelation between the elements of the text. Thus, the work of poetry does not transfer meanings or messages. Rather, it provides templates or forms without letting the reader to input his contents in it because inserting specific motifs into the monologic text revolutionizes it. To refer the monologic text to specific space-temporal signifieds (historical reality) immediately ignites dialogue between those elements, as the dominance of the abstract form or the prevailing voice is questioned.

The uprooted poetry opposes the poetic word as Bakhtin understands it. The contradiction that the uprooted poetry brings up is that the generic nature of the poetic word wants it monologic and homogenous, while the inherent heterogeneity blended in the uprooted poetry makes it dialogical. The ruptured self, the lack of a centre and the angle it holds against the mainstream accent are the constant inputs of the migrant into the poetry. The uprooted poetry refers to its creative, hybrid, and synthetic set of signs. Therefore, the uprooted poetry is always novelistic.

Given the uprooted text’s ruptured language, it constantly produces unfamiliar signs. It adds to and deepens the host language via transgression and breaking the rules. It creates a centre out of the decentralized, stratified signs—a set of signs that refers neither to the host nor to the origin culture. A set of signs that refers to a world-in-between, yet never arrives at the destination nor returns to the origin. The uprooted text does not mimic the real world.

Since the migrant experiences migration individually, the uprooted text becomes a singular text. To materialize the singularity of the experience, language becomes the centre. The migrant has his or her individual stratification of language (accent), and this differing language is never detached from him or her. Thus the uprooted text inevitably is divergent from the host culture as well as the culture of origin. That is how the home-ruled text and the host-ruled text are incapable of presenting the migrant’s world.

Otherness is a vital consciousness that is added on top of other experiences the migrant already has. The migrant belongs to a social class: the migrant class. She or he starts writing with an accent: the migrant’s accent–-a divergent angle to the dominant accent that pretends not be present. Furthermore, the migrant adds another dimension of heterogeneity to the dominant language. The migrant text refers to itself, and this very quality makes the fictional work of migration poetic. The uprooted poetry, however, is novelistic because of the dialogic nature of the speaker and his or her fragmentary worlds that always interact with each other. The reader explores a non-filtered world with a breadth of diversified images and a constant dialogue between the various layers of language. The uprooted text blends polyphony into the host language by the means of contributing a new layer to it.

i Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 250.

ii Ibid.

iii Ibid.

iv Ibid., pp. 669-71.

v Edward Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), p.8.

vi Bakhtin, p. 251.

vii Julia Kristeva, “The Question of Exile,” In Alex Coles and Alexia Defert (eds.), De-, Dis-, Ex-. Vol. 2; TheAnxietyofInterdisciplinary (London, Backless Books & Black Dog Publishing, 1998), p. 16.

Published in: “The Uprooted Text”, West Coast Line, No 39, Ed. Peyman Vahabzadeh, Vancouver, Canada: Simon Fraser University, 2003.

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