Jane Elliott Visit to Duke Recap

Jane Elliott Lecture and Graduate Student Seminar Recap

By: Kevin Gallin 

Novel: A Forum on Fiction, and the Novel Project at Duke, along with the Duke English Department enthusiastically welcomed back Jane Elliott, senior lecturer of post-’45 Literary and Cultural Studies at King’s College in London, to give a talk and lead a graduate student seminar consecutively on October 27 and 28. Recently, Elliott has investigated the evolution and recombination of politics, aesthetics, and theory in the wake of fading post-modernism, a line she traces through her recent articles and edited collections, Theory After Theory, Genres of Neo-Liberalism, and Suffering Agency. Her lecture on Thursday, entitled “Binary Life,” built on this trajectory, specifically focusing on “life-interest,” a feature of the narrative form that she has defined as the ‘microeconomic mode.”

Elliott gave a compelling reading of Michael Punke’s The Revenant, the novel on which the recent Academy Award winning film was based. The novel places the protagonist’s struggle in the context of settler colonialism that pushes every participant to the very limits of his or her survival.  In doing so, the novel mobilizes what Elliott calls “the microeconomic mode,” a narrative form that crosses genres and media by creating conditions under which “life necessarily exists at the expense of other life.” Played out in discrete exchanges between individuals who must pursue their own “life interest,” these encounters require kill-or-be-killed choices. These games of survival force a shift in the concept of the individual from “a liberal individual with a right to life” to a “a subject with an interest in life” who cannot choose not to choose even though that choice inevitably comes at the cost of another person’s death.  This reduction of the individual subject to their life-interest authorizes a logic of “fractal subtraction” in which every step forward results in even more human death and suffering. Elliott’s reading of The Revenant undermines the film version’s apparent argument for “good colonialism.” Rather than exemplifying the good man doing his best to survive in a corrupt and violent system, Hugh Glass is the avatar of an economic system that grinds each of its constituents down to “life interest.”

Nancy Armstrong’s introduction to the talk called attention to Elliott’s ability to allow theory to emerge from the text as its own self-theoretical dimension, and to “slide across various theoretical discourses that support and give affective heft to the text on which she focuses.” Elliott indeed opened up her reading of The Revenant to address everything from The Hunger Games to Life of Pi, The Road to Zootopia, with occasional pit stops in New Orleans and the Saw film franchise. The lecture sparked a lively discussion afterwards, in which a clearly enthusiastic audience probed some of the limits of the microeconomic mode – when did it start, where did it come from, is there such a thing as a macroeconomic mode? – and Elliott provided answers that drew clearer lines around the scope of her project as a specific form in a particular political and sociocultural moment, which allowed for both compelling readings in her own work and the potential for broad applications beyond it.

These questions were also taken up in the graduate seminar the following afternoon. Elliot started by laying out her writing process for her manuscript, and detailed how after months of research, a great deal of structuring and outlining, and about 20,000 words, she found herself at a loss of how to proceed. She threw out most of that work, but reiterated that she “had to do that work to know that I needed to throw it out.” This acknowledgement of the iterative process of writing was a daunting but ultimately reassuring thing for graduate students to hear as they move toward and through their dissertations. This process also prompted students to ask about the relationship between the works she chose and the arguments she made, and how they influenced one another. To this, she reaffirmed the importance of revision and rethinking, advising that archive and argument constantly reform each other in novel and unexpected ways. Ultimately, though, she challenged the students to trust their own arguments when they think they’re on to something: “No way you can do it unless you believe in it.”