note on heterodox narrative

Testimony, the retelling of an event, or a journey, is always a refutation of abstraction. Combined testimony represents a reclamation of voice and history that re-involves the individual and the community with detached hierarchies of political discourse. In an essay on the shared narrative of resistance, Eileen De Los Reyes begins by discussing her own place in her culture, and in a terrain of oppression that is becoming recognisable by virtue of its global ubiquity. All authors contribute memories, experiences, information, and stories that link together,’ A cumulative comprehension emerges as ‘the reader moves from one text to the next.’ ( De Los Reyes 2002 p3) For De Los Rayes, ‘reclaiming the right to write about and for ourselves’ is a process through which the ‘shared narrative of oppression is countered by a shared narrative of resistance.’ ( De Los Reyes 2002 p5)

The essays and speeches of Subcommandante Marcos, the Zapatistas’ principal spokesman, are replete with references to the stories of the indigenous people of Chiapas the history of colonial oppression, and the literature of South America and the world. ‘We read manifestos and war cries that are also … legends, and riffs. (Klein, 2001) His testimonial is of a different character to de Los Reyes’ cultural discourse of redefinition based on the ‘naming and renaming’ ( De Los Reyes 2002) of oppositional paradigms. Marcos’ language retains the character of subjective narrative that defines the truth of testimony, but assumes the tactical mode of fictional narrative, consistent with the ambiguity of identity that derives from his pseudonym and trade-mark balaclava. If personal testimony is a strategic form of narrative that maintains a point of reference grounded in human discourse in defiance of the tropes of mythic detachment, the form of fictional literature lends itself as a freer discursive device – a tactical mode of cultural positioning that is mutable and inclusive, admitting a broader range of possibilities of expression.

This non-self makes it possible for Marcos to become the spokesperson for indigenous communities. He is transparent, and … iconographic.’ (Klein, 2001)

‘On this day, in all of our villages, the dead are returning to us … They recount histories to us. Because it was through recounting histories that our very first ones taught and learned to walk.’

For the Zapatistas a reinvigoration of an impoverished history ‘ of ‘500 years of oppression’, is an imperative component of the discourse of resistance: ‘ we Indian peoples have come in order to wind the clock and to thus ensure that the inclusive, tolerant and plural tomorrow … will arrive.’   But the ambiguous character of the Zapatistas’ politics of identity indicates a subversive application of testimonial, a trope of heterodox narrative consistent with the Hegelian schema as testimonial.

‘From the mountains … to the Zo’calo of Mexico City, the zapatistas have crossed a territory of rebellion which has given us a flower of dark dignity as proof that we were there. We have reached the center of Power, and we find that we have that flower in our hands, and the question, is ‘what then?’

Fiction offers liberation from the single person focus, allowing the depiction of a wider landscape, a field. But it retains single-person intensity, closeness to the ground. There is a continuum between naturalistic fiction and the allegorical, along an axis of possible worlds increasingly distant from our own.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Real Life Of Alejandro Mayta, illustrates the possibilities in fictional prose for charting diverse cultural territories of oppression and ideology. The narrator of the novel is a writer, the theme of his work the failed revolution of a Peruvian academic and Marxist revolutionary who makes a misguided attempt to galvanise an Indigenous community into action against the State. Throughout the novel, the narrator remains an active voice, informing his reader of the limits of his understanding of the characters who are the subject of his exploration.

The material of these narrative forms is rooted directly in planes of reference other than those of abstraction and theory, it is spatially and temporally located. (Reportage is a many-subject focus with the same emphasis of temporal-spatial fixity). Through the depiction of geography, the spatio-temporal strata of element and event,  topological strata are undermined, and the traditional Aristotlean hierarchical relationship between ‘doxa’ (opinion) and ‘episteme’ (science) subverted.

The title ‘father of prose’ afforded Heredotus, the historian of the fifth century BCE is a misnomer -The Histories places itself within an established literary tradition. But it is the earliest such work extant. Like Pausanius’ Guide To Greece, written seven hundred years later, it is a combination of narrative geography, history, and mythology. In the works of Heredotus and Pausanius,  exploration of this realm is an excavation and reconstitution of symbolic forms and their buried referents. Their prose is exploratory and archaeological in relation to their subject.

Other forms of literature as old as the prose of Heredotus serve as exemplars of alternate narrative tropes that disrupt utopian constructions and expose discrepancies between the objectifying myths of hegemony and the subjective realms of human experience. Parody, irony, and satire reflect the Situationists’ theories of detournement, or the practise of ‘culture jamming’: The trope allows the juxtaposition of symbols in a manner foreign to the delineated structures of the orthodoxy in an assault on the mythic concept itself. ‘WTO caves in to protestors – global Utopia to begin immediately’ (The Chaser, 2001)

Comic narrative appropriates the symbols and architectures of the mythic forms and recombines them with improper or inappropriate elements and semantic structures. . Bakhtin suggests what is at work in ‘comic dismemberment’ of an epic world or valorized object is ‘the artistic logic of analysis’ (Bakhtin p24) , linking the process to the Socratic method.

Menippean satire, Bakhtin says, has ‘identical roots’ to the Socratic dialogue, and relished: ‘the liberty to crudely degrade..’ (Bakhtin, 1975 ), and in addition ;an intense spirit of inquiry and a utopian fantasy … the entire world and everything sacred in it is offered to us without any distancing at all … in this world, utterly familiarised, the subject moves from heaven to earth, from earth to the nether world, from the present into the past, from the past into the future … in Menippean satire the unfettered and fantastic plots and situations all serve … to put to the test and to expose ideas and ideologues. These are experimental and provocative plots.’ (Bakhtin, 1975)

Impertinent, subversive versions of the myth of State are invoked and suggested.   Parody recombines the genres and styles of myth, replacing its elements, its content, making the original ridiculous. Burlesque exaggerates component mythic elements and caricatures modern heroic figures under construction and intended for inclusion in the classical pantheon. All these forms are engaged in the degrading of orthodox narrative’s epic constituent symbols in a tactical operation of discursive reclamation. Satire exploits semantic dichotomies and causal dichotomies, comparing intention with effect, and confusing disparate external referents in the manipulation of symbols.   In satire, writers invert the meaning of orthodox symbols and overt and latent content – subtexts of corrupt ulterior intention are cheerfully presented as benevolent governance.   Satire revealing the artifice or contradiction in official discourse through reference to latent disjunctive elements, that confound the rarefied, orthodox form. (to be developed)

‘Everything that makes us laugh is close  at hand, all comical creativity works in a zone of maximal proximity. … Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making of it an object of familiar contact, and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation… laughter is a vital factor in laying down that prerequisite for fearlessness without which it would be impossible to approach the world realistically.’ (Bakhtin, 1975)

The comic parodic and ironic forms of literature that have emerged over the millenia to contest orthodox forms and discourse themselves derived from the classical forms are for Bakhtin the rudimentary proto-forms of the novel, grounded in a grass roots narrative of travesty and ridicule:

‘…in popular laughter the authentic folkloric roots of the novel are sought. The present, contemporary life as such ‘ I myself’ and ‘my contemporaries’ – ‘my time’ – all these concepts were originally the objects of ambivalent laughter, at the same time cheerful and annihilating. … Alongside direct representation … there flourish parody and travesty of all high genres and of all lofty models embodied in national myth. … the absolute past of gods demigods, and heroes is… contemporised …brought low, represented on a plane equal with contemporary life.’ (p21)

The loss of the second book of the Poetics from the Organon is a significant disaster: it may be the primary distortion in our conception of Aristotle’s corpus.  The book on comedy may have explored some of the functions of language and comic narrative neglected in the West until relatively recent times.  It may also have explicated Aristotle’s understanding of the social operation of allegory and fable, fundamentally at odds with the cohesive function of tragic drama described in the Poetics’ extant first book.

In the genres of comic narrative, evolved semiotic forms carry elements of heterodox narrative and ideology into public , and collapse the ‘epic distance’ (Bakhtin, 1975) of the orthodox narratives of State.  The mythic cohesive rhetoric is challenged, its symbols contested, and confounding referents exposed.

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