On Pain of Speech: Fantasies of the First Order and the Literary Rant, by Dina Al-Kassim. University of California Press (2010). $34.95 paperback, $15.40 Kindle.
Review by Okla Elliott
Dina Al-Kassim’s new book On Pain of Speech: Fantasies of the First Order and the Literary Rant takes up (among other things) Michel Foucault’s interest in the limit-experience of reading certain texts (particularly Bataille) and turns it around by asking what it means to write such a text—that is, under what conditions, with what linguistic tools, and to what purposes such texts are written. Al-Kassim focuses mostly on Oscar Wilde, Jane Bowles, and Abdelwahab Meddeb—giving each of these authors an entire chapter—and makes regular use of Georges Bataille, Charles Baudelaire, and Aimé Césaire, thus making her project an utterly comparative one that insists on its portability across national and linguistic borders.
The basic argument of the book runs as follows: Speaking truth to power has been co-opted by institutions of power in many instances; these institutions, such as elite universities, exclude more people than they include, thus making them part of the Foucauldian schema of the microphysics of power in society (as he lays out in Society Must Be Defended and other works); therefore, the rant (whose tradition harkens back, Al-Kassim explains, to the “rakish libertinage” of the seventeenth century) is often the only form of discourse available to the dispossessed or the subaltern. She is clear, however, that the literary rant is not a genre. “Postscripts, letters, afterwords: marginal genres at the edges of masterful texts are often the site of the rant’s emergence, but what I am calling the rant is not a genre in itself.” Al-Kassim engages yet further definition by privation, emphasizing that the literary rant is also not parrhesia (“fearless speech”). It is a speech act or series of speech acts that run counter to the powered entities of a society, but it is not necessarily confrontational (though it can be and often is). The essential aspect of the literary rant is that it is unintelligible speech that takes place when no speech is possible.
The theoretical DNA of On Pain of Speech can be easily determined by a quick look at its paratextual elements. The book opens with three epigraphs—one from the philosopher-pornographer Georges Bataille, one from Michel Foucault, and one from Judith Butler. By picking a single line from each of the epigraphs, we can get a reasonable picture of the project Al-Kassim has put before herself. From the Bataille epigraph: “Qu’on me fasse taire (si l’on ose)!”; from Foucault: “We are dealing . . . with a discourse that turns the traditional values of intelligibility upside down.”; and, finally, Butler: “This relation to the Other does not precisely ruin my story or reduce me to speechlessness, but it does, invariably, clutter my speech with signs of its undoing.” A look in the Index lets us see that there are fifty-one references to Freud and sixty-three to Lacan, six for Judith Butler, but only two for Jameson and two for Derrida. This is fitting since Al-Kassim uses many psychoanalytic terms and tries to rethink (rather successfully) Lacan’s thinking on foreclosure, as well as focuses considerably more on speech acts as they constitute the self than on speech acts qua speech acts. It is surprising, however, to see that Gayatri Spivak receives only one mention in the book, and that her widely influential essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is not the occasion of this single reference—surprising because Al-Kassim’s central effort could be seen as exploring how the subaltern attempts (and succeeds/fails at) speech via the rant.
Here I feel compelled to point out that Al-Kassim chooses never to clearly define what a literary rant is. This is not to suggest that she does not give ample examples and even certain quasi-universal features to literary rants, but it would be anathema to the nature of a literary rant, as Al-Kassim conceives it, for it to have specific genre specifications. Its purpose is precisely to explode genre specifications and expectations.
Al-Kassim’s analysis could profitably be applied to much modernist and avant-garde writing, ranging from the feminist-experimentalist Gertrude Stein to the Communist-Dadaist Tristan Tzara to many contemporary post-colonial avant-garde artists (such as the Raqs Collective in India). It can also, however, be applied to the fascist-Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and others of his ilk productively, though given the book’s focus on leftist and post-colonial resistance, it might come as a surprise to Al-Kassim to see her work thus employed. As she conceives her theoretical model, it is already remarkably portable across decades and nations and movements, but it has an even larger scope than the author herself seems to give it. So long as the writing in question “turns the traditional values of intelligibility upside down” and challenges the dominant paradigm of thought at a given time, it seems it could be profitably read through the lens of Al-Kassim’s book. This wide portability and the refreshingly readable prose of the book make On Pain of Speech an ideal text for courses on post-colonialism, Modernism, and avant-garde literatures at the advanced undergraduate level and beyond.
Okla Elliott’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translation have appeared in Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, and New York Quarterly. He is the author of two chapbooks of poetry as well as the co-editor, with Kyle Minor, of The Other Chekhov. His story collection, From the Crooked Timber, is forthcoming in December from Press 53.