From Pentecost to Babel: Writing Between Languages

Spring 2016-2017


Jennifer Scappettone

What happens to literary works whose authors think in more than one language, and allow that excess to be registered in their texts? While in an age of global migrations, multilingual speakers have come to outnumber the number of monolingual speakers, literary studies continue to privilege works aimed at a monolingual audience. This is particularly the case in the United States, where “English-only” attitudes have dominated discourse for over a century. This course instead explores literary works that take up residence in the space between two or more languages, whether national or regional—as well as those that attempt to dodge semantic systems altogether. From modernist collage and transense to contemporary poetry of exile, migration, and diaspora, the works we will study, lodged between tongues, lend nuance and fascination to debates surrounding “global literature” and untranslatability. We will examine the formal and social prompts and repercussions of experiments in polylingualism, barbarism, dialect, creole, and thwarted translation, and will delve into examples of the potential for mixed/new media poetics to accommodate multiple linguistic systems. While it is not at all necessary for students to be fluent in more than one language to take this course, some experience learning or attempting to learn languages beyond English is essential. Texts up for discussion may include George Steiner’s After Babel, Emily Apter’s Against World Literature, Futurist and Zaum poetry, concrete poetry, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Zukofsky’s Poem Beginning “The,” Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Amelia Rosselli’s Diary in Three Tongues and Sleep, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s DICTEE, Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse, Kamau Brathwaite’s Born to Slow Horses, Gail Scott’s The Obituary, Edwin Torres’s Popedology of an Ambient Language, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’s TwERK, Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky, and pamphlets by Antena. (20th/21st)