The Dialogic Potential of ‘Literary Autism’: Caryl Phillips’s Higher Ground (1989) and Marie NDiaye’s Trois femmes puissantes (2009)

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Editor: Jennifer Stock
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,235 words

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[(essay date 2014) In the following essay, originally presented at a conference in April 2012, Ledent suggests that, despite its literary value, the novel Three Strong Women exhibits “an inability to communicate successfully” with its readers.]

5.1 Approach and Terminology

Like most areas of research, English studies is an unsurprisingly tribal domain. As a scholar working mostly under the banner of postcolonialism, I had until recently only a vague idea of what dialogue analysis was about, and in particular the study of literature as dialogue. For years, this area of knowledge had all the features of a mysterious, foreign field, until I was invited to venture into it at the conference organized by the International Association for Dialogue Analysis in Turku in April 2012. Without being an exemplar of the “rhetoric of blame”—a label which has become one of the most frequent, if sometimes reductive ways of describing the field of research in which I situate myself (Said 1993: 19, quoted in Sell 2000: 19 and 2011a: 6)—, my own critical practice had so far focused on questions of social and historical representation, on identity construction, on revisionist imaginaries, and on power dynamics: in short, on issues that depend as much on a text’s context, both of production and of dissemination, as on the text itself, even if these two aspects of the literary object are difficult to separate.

If the dialogical interchange between the literary text and those who read it had not been very central in my postcolonial preoccupations, I had nevertheless paid at least some attention to questions of form, but mostly with a specific purpose in mind. I had certainly had some interest in questions of dialogicality and polyphony, often in the wake of Bakhtin’s theories (Ledent 1992 and 2005), for instance, but I had used those theories less in order to understand the process of communication between the writer and the reader than to unravel or dismantle the ideologies exposed by narratives, particularly ideologies associated with slavery or colonialism.

In spite of the epistemological differences between postcolonialism and dialogue analysis, to my inexperienced eye dialogue analysis now seemed to offer an approach well worth exploring, precisely because it allowed an examination of literary works outside the contextual straightjacket. To some extent, the need to contextualize can indeed be seen as the Achilles heel of the postcolonial approach, in that the inevitable focus on the elements which have shaped the work of so-called postcolonial writers may draw attention away from their art’s universality. Given this risk, what Roger D. Sell has called a “humanized dialogue analysis” in the literary field struck me as all the more promising, because it was still not totally immune to the world outside the text. On the one hand, this approach can “[assess] the ethical character of any kind of interchange, quite regardless of whether … political factors play a role” (Sell 2011b: 80); on the other hand, the approach “never excludes the possibility that a political explanation will be appropriate...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100125378