Agrarian Debates and the Novelistic Imagination in Europe, 1870-1917

Submitted by Erag Ramizi on Tue, 07/03/2018 - 15:10

Postdoctoral fellow Erag Ramizi presented his research on the peasant question in the European novel  to the circle of fellows this week with a condensed overview of what will become the first chapter of his book on the temporal figuration of peasants in modernity. As a literary scholar, Dr. Ramizi is concerned to demonstrate that the various agrarian debates in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe, subsumed under the umbrella term ‘the peasant question’, were not solely debates about practical issues faced by peasantries [e.g., crop failures, or the lower prices of agricultural commodities, or the utilization of chemical fertilizers, etc.], but were also investigations, albeit indirect ones, of a series of philosophical problems that were not often recognized as such.

Peasant Spreading Manure (Paysan répandant du fumier) by Jean-François Millet, 1854-55

Peasant scholarship, Dr. Ramizi noted, is rife with analyses coming from the disciplines of anthropology, sociology and history. While he too employs insights from all of these fields, he emphasized that his approach to the peasant question as a form of discourse is that of a literary comparatist. He therefore draws from literary texts not so much to dwell on the representation of peasants in literature as to demonstrate that literary space acts as a theoretical workshop for the theoretical inquiries on which the peasant question is predicated and which it simultaneously brings up, those very inquiries that render the peasant question an unacknowledged but integral element of what we customarily term modernism. The point is, on the one hand, to challenge the urbanormativity that almost always vitiates conventional accounts of modernism and even of modernity in general. On the other hand, by eschewing the analysis of peasants as mere data or analytical units but rather looking at their lived experience as it is narrated in literary texts, he attempts to discuss what he takes to be the kernel of the peasant question: what the status of peasants in contemporary society is and how their presence therein is experienced and negotiated; how peasants are perceived, thought and discussed by non-peasant and peasant subjects alike; and what the discourse surrounding peasanthood reveals about the broader social context. His ultimate hope is that these debates and the problems they address may shed some light on the theoretical underpinning of the ecological issues we are currently facing.

The Gleaners (Des glaneuses) by Jean-François Millet, 1857

The research he has conducted so far revolves mainly around the question of time, and this is what he focused on in his presentation. He organized his presentation into three modules: first, the peasant question as an intellectual debate; then, some illustrative examples, drawn from literary texts, of the contradictions to which the peasant question points; and finally, a discussion of the chronopolitics that underpin the peasant question. Or, he suggested, we might think of these modules as the intellectual-historical, the literary, and the theoretical components of the talk, respectively.

His focus on the peasant question also informs, and imparts a singular urgency to, his discussion of land recognition here and now, as he reflected in the course of his presentation. For Indigenous land recognition to resist becoming a routine procedure of consensual protocol, it must retain its disruptive impetus, tearing the fabric of any coherent narrative we try to construct, including those of academic papers and scholarly talks; for indigenous land acknowledgment not to be diluted in ephemeral empathy or smothered in rote performativity, thus seamlessly integrated in the very structures of oppression that render it necessary in the first place, it must perpetually operate as a Brechtian alienation effect that induces us to think critically and act radically, to feel outrage and express indignation over the persisting violence of colonialism. Ultimately, even such a gimmick can and will be recuperated back into the safe space of an institute, museum or academy. But while it retains its energy as a temporary surprise-inducing tactic, it can be deployed to hone once more the attention scattered by a dull presentation on, say, the peasant question, and act as a more urgent, because unexpected, reminder of one’s status as an uninvited guest on Indigenous land than the soporific muttering of ostensible guilt and feigned shame at the very scripted moment at the beginning of an event, thus replicating that very discourse which relegates Indigenous land to a quasi-mythical beginning, then to be ousted by the ensuing voices, languages and thoughts of the descendants of settler colonialists or the newly arrived guests. Colonized territory and stolen land is not a mythical beginning, it is not the now-over-with singular act relegated to historical oblivion, but the ever-present reality in which we live our comfortable and uncomfortable lives, the reminder of which needs to irrupt unsolicitedly, in regulated spaces and times, and to disturb profoundly tranquilized consciousnesses and activities; it must be smuggled in where it is not lawfully permitted and made to operate politically where it is otherwise welcomed ethically. As someone who has lived but the first three years of his life in a community he can call his, he knows intimately the uneasiness of being on a foreign territory and is therefore grateful that he can not simply live and work on Indigenous land but that he is asked to reflect critically on profound issues that may appear only tangential to a temporary guest, but which are in fact utterly and unequivocally exigent.

Peasant with a wheelbarrow (Paysan avec brouette) by Jean-François Millet, 1848-52