Tracing the Missing Letter Reassembling Nonhuman Agency in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake

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Anne Jones

Abstract

Literary critque has largely been characterized by what Paul Ricoeur has termed "the hermeneutics of suspicious", a mode in which the critic's job is to "uncover" how a text is symptomatic of discourse and power structures. In this essay, however, I outline an alternative tradition of scholarship that is emerging in favor of what is being termed postcritical reading. I take up Actor-Network Theory (ANT), the methodology offered by sociologist Bruno Latour, a mode of analysis that traces associations between human and nonhuman actors in their performative aspects as they engage in the creation of social reality. I follow a single nonhuman actor within The Namesake—the letter from India that contains Gogol’s “good” name but gets lost in transit. In showing that the absence of this entity evinces it as a social agent in relation with a multitude of other agents, I argue that nonhuman actors are fundamentally entangled with human actors in indispensable ways. Moreover, I not only follow the trace that the absent letter leaves within the text but also how it is enmeshed with actors outside the text. Crucially, The Namesake itself is an actor within the real world, along with its author and readers. Thus, a social matrix is created not only within the text but outside it as well. Viewing social formation in a manner that takes into account how actors—human and nonhuman—behave relationally within a network will enrich literary analysis because texts become entities not to tear apart but to treat with care. Additionally, observing how actors form social attachments (weak or strong) within a text in a way that makes them visible or invisible mirrors how objects in the real world function as well. In the end, we may find that networks within fiction work in very similar ways to networks in our everyday lives.  

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English