literature, thinking

Reading Eagleton, Reading Poetry, and “gum”

Gayatri Spivak is to be blamed for many things, not the least of which is teaching us how to examine the figure of the native as a structure of foreclosure (perhaps not her choice of term). The native drops out or is left out or represents the process of being left out of modernity and thinking, becomes a limit, an aporia, or when I’m practicing long-lost math, an asymptote. (This last might make no sense.)

I think about this as I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s vastly entertaining How to Read a Poem. Eagleton has such gems as, “History does not always get the facts in the most satisfactory order, or stage its events in the most convincing way. It was an absurd oversight on history’s part to make Napoleon so stunted, or to cram so many wars into the twentieth century rather than spacing them out a bit more” (36). Truly a roll on the floor laughing moment!

I’m yet to complete the book, but two passages stick out so far.

This is not to say that poems can mean just anything you like. ‘And justify the ways of God to men’ cannot mean ‘And fix my puncture with chewing gum’, at least not as the English language is at present constituted. (Though there is absolutely no reason in principle why the word ‘gum’ could not mean ‘men’. Maybe it does in some African language; or maybe it is slang for ‘men’ in some little known English idiom. In Northern England dialect, ‘gum’ is a euphemism for ‘God’, as in ‘By gum’.) (32)

(I cannot find the other passage just now, but it precedes this one in the book.)

“Africa” and “African” appear nowhere in the index, though, to be fair, neither do lots of other terms, including “English” and “British.” Yet, I’m still compelled to ask about the “function” of this “African language,” especially since Eagleton already has a specifically English example.

It is not simply the Saussurean reading about the arbitrariness of the signifier that is at stake here; rather, following Spivak, it is the structure of logic that “African language” occupies and does not occupy in this passage that is immensely interesting. Let us not forget, to historicize Eagleton, that “gum,” and in this instance, the history of rubber in Africa, is a product of imperialism, and names an ongoing structure of global circulation—Firestone in Africa being one chief example.

To stretch the reading, then, there are ways in which “gum” literally engenders, produces particular kinds of men within a global economy, makes possible their being, at the same time as it renders them invisible. What is produced as “gum” from Africa, no matter how circuitous the route, erases the laboring, gendered bodies—as my reading also, engenders another erasure, the work of women in the rubber industry. This being a limit, all I can do is acknowledge it.

To say that “gum” means men in an African language might also be to say that “gum” refers not to the black laboring bodies but to the white imperial bodies that demand it. Gum engenders a racialized structure of production, naming and mediating relationships between workers and bosses.

The band stretches yet.

We might also attend, if we care, to the placement of that “Maybe” in some African language, in the too-casual aside that Spivak would have us linger on. What is a parenthetical Africa? What does that imply about the structures of logic that African languages are allowed to occupy. Note, for instance, that in the “English” example, gum is clearly slang, occupies a place within a linguistic hierarchy, even has an example attached to it. Example attached to example. Empiricism (something Eagleton plays with in How to Read a Poem) creates a certain structuration of identity. (Structuration, ugly word, but useful).

In contrast, the “Maybe” in reference to the “African language” is left hanging, no evidence, simply speculation. And those familiar with armchair anthropology will quickly recognize the structure of “maybe” that so often turns into “in Africa,” the too-quick speculation that anything is possible in Africa turning into the knowing nod about what “happens” in Africa. If we dare let ourselves, we get drawn into this imagined Africa of manifold possibilities that continue to mark its unknowing absence from empirical structures.

I mean, of course Africa is dying from AIDS. We all know this. Evidence? Well, Africans are dying from AIDS and we all know this. Speculation turned into knowledge. Because, too often, Africa is “too far away” and it’s easier to imagine its facts instead of, well, listening to African-based experts.

Do I stretch too much, appending to Eagleton’s throw-away comment histories and contexts that seem superfluous. Can this gum stand up to the stretch?


How does this “Maybe” enact something that comes to be designated as “African,” an adjective that modifies and delimits possibilities, where language, in its impossibilities, becomes possible, maybe, and meaning is always stretched beyond a Euro-epistemology, Maybe.