Zong! as paradox

Much of Zong! is written in the imperative voice (not sure if that’s exactly the correct term, it has been several years since I studied grammar); it makes commands. For example: “clear the law/of/order/cause/delay/of question/&/opinion” (50). In compelling the reader in such a fashion, the text posits a clear speaker, an autonomous, conscious entity with the ability to think and to request action. Who is this thinker? Who’s voice is Philip (and Boateng) representing? These questions raise serious concerns about the efficacy of Philip’s deconstruction and decontamination project. By syntactically dissecting the Gregson v. Gilbert insurance claim document has Philip effectively excised its consciousness, its ability to compel and coerce? Or is she internalizing and reanimating the consciousness and voice(s) of enslavers and allowing them to work their old violence on readers again?

The central, underlying question is one about ‘decontamination’ over space, time, and difference. Does the decontamination take place at the level of the language itself? Or at the level of perception and analysis? If the latter is true, can one person decontaminate language for another person’s use? Or is decontamination a perpetual project, a praxis of living? If one holds that language is constantly remade, and that the substance of communication lies in intention rather than material text, Philips work appears seriously circumscribed. Is it possible to make any sort of net ‘progress’ in the process of decontamination?

This skeptical reading (the one above) feels to me, it’s author, as though it’s slightly missed the mark. As a reader/roughly attentive member of society, Zong! could not be more resistant to the conceptual space of Gregson v. Gilbert. Perhaps the answer to some of these very criticisms is in a contextual reading of the book, a reading which takes into account the cultural, the social impact of the work. In the balance, it would be hard to argue – especially having read the “Notanda” section – that the cultural impact of this work has been to reify the validity of this single source material. Thus, I would propose an additional level of possible analysis for reading poetic (or any other, for that matter) works: context. A contextual analysis would entail some notation of the public reception received by a particular text as a comparative foil for the ideas and possibilities generated by material, syntactic, and formal analysis. Contextual analysis would be sensitive to the style of a work’s impact and would ask readers consider texts as whole pieces – as well as in their constituent parts – with full social lives. It is important to note style as the operative concern in contextual analysis, as it differs from quantity or even critical reception. Contextual analysis asks, “what has this text allowed other people to do or to think? What new possibilities has this text opened? Either in relation or opposition to the result of a particular reader’s formal, material or syntactic analysis.” Likely, robust contextual analysis would require some form research, although a lack of comprehensive research should not bar a reader from engaging in some form analysis in context. Ultimately, ideal contextual analysis would not limit the possibilities of material, syntactic, and formal analysis, shutting down creative new analyses because they have born little cultural weight, or undercut itself because of philosophical disagreements regarding what constitutes the boundaries of acceptable context. Rather, it would simply frame textual analyses within the additional concern of the piece’s actual life and history in the surrounding culture.

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One Response to Zong! as paradox

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Good attention to the implied authority of the imperative voice – though I would ask of the skeptical reading whether or not the text itself disperses the authority and deconstructs it, by breaking it apart and never allowing it to be complete (and through other means)? In that way, by first evoking and then destroying the authoritative legal voice within the text, is she not in fact destabilizing it and undermining the underlying assumptions of authority? I agree that one can take language as continuously reconstructed, but disagree strongly that the “substance of communication lies in intention rather than material text” and wonder where that idea comes from? Is that a position you hold? If so, what is it informed by? Does it come from the readings we’ve done, or are there examples?

    I’m also excited by the idea of decontamination as praxis of living – that could go really far! Especially with concomitant attention to context. I wonder if context always needs to be framed in terms of reception, audience, readership, and public response though? Could context also be individual? Private? Generative (as opposed to receptive)? How might that change it? I love the questions you’ve posited about how a critic might undertake contextual analysis (on the public level)!


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