Refiguring Speech
Late Victorian Fictions of Empire and the Poetics of Talk
Amy R. Wong


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

Late Victorian fictions of empire illuminate a crisis of speech in ways that unravel a longstanding proprietary fantasy of Anglo-American speech. This book specifically "refigures" these ruins of speech into an anticolonial poetics of talk. In conceptualizing talk as a negative space against which speech-as-property, and its associated aesthetics of self-possession, defines itself within an enduring Anglo-American colonial imaginary, the introduction discusses how anticolonial poiesis, inspired by Afro-Caribbean thinkers like Édouard Glissant and Sylvia Wynter, and not taken up in an earlier encounter between Victorian studies and postcolonial theory, reroutes stalled questions about speech and the subaltern into more constructive directions. The introduction also offers a historical sketch of late nineteenth-century media conditions, discussing how a concern for territorializing speech and establishing to whom it belongs connects projects of media and of empire.

1 Parroting With and Eavesdropping On Robert Louis Stevenson
chapter abstract

This chapter reads parroting and eavesdropping in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island as unauthorized transfers of speech that resist the adventure fiction's own colonial imaginary. The novel develops an aesthetics of misowned speech through the racialization of pirates as parrots with patched-together bodies that signify not only mimicry but mismatch between speech and embodiment. At the same time, these bodies drive a tacit resistance against seamless, coherent white selves who sustain the colonial order with their "naturally" owned speech. Drawing on Stevenson's demonstrated interest in the unproprietary form of everyday talk and its wayward poetics, this chapter argues that Stevenson's tale licenses a form of unauthorized hearing that motivates a method of reading-as-eavesdropping: that is, employing a listening practice that accounts for the foundational weight of racial logic to the tale, despite the spectral presence of nonwhite bodies in the text.

2 Multilingual Talk and Bram Stoker's White Cosmopolitics
chapter abstract

This chapter attends to multilingual talk as an embodied, communicative experience that mediates multiplicity and difference in ways that challenge the monolingual multimedia network in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Focusing on both the figure of the Count and the gestural, picturesque Eastern European peasants and villagers that crowd the novel's beginning, this chapter argues that multilingual embodiment uncovers and is capable of refiguring a hierarchy of racial logic that undergirds Stoker's tale, in which Blackness is rendered mute, and the East is "broken" by the condition of having too many languages. Reading Stoker's text together with Glissant's notion of the chaos-monde (an alternate vision to Jonathan Harker's "whirlpool of languages") and Anne Cheng's notion of the perihuman, this chapter attempts a critical collation that counters Mina Harker's assimilative remediations in the name of what this chapter calls the novel's "white cosmopolitics."

3 George Meredith's Profuse Inarticulacy
chapter abstract

This chapter reads George Meredith's notoriously difficult One of Our Conquerors as a narrative experiment in profuse inarticulacy that offers a microsociological look at the conquering subject's inability to "digest"—often in embarrassing and excessively embodied performances—ideas into speech. Against the aesthetic ideals of articulation as expressed in contemporary art of fiction debates, Meredith's novel disarticulates the conquering, imperial patriarchal subject in a manner that ultimately un-selves him into a deindividuated part of a commons. Taking up Meredith's commons—which imagines a more collective sense of profuse subjectivity and embodiment—with Fred Moten's conception of a "surround" and José Esteban Muñoz's notion of a "brown commons," this reading points out the colonial limits of Meredith's commons, while also arguing that the text permits an opening into an anticolonial poetics of talk that embraces profusion, leaving articulacy's possessive requirements behind.

4 Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford's Dysfluent End of the World
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford's scientific romance, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story, in which a telepathic race of Fourth Dimensionists topples Western imperial power. A political allegory deeply critical of New Imperialist expansion and state power, The Inheritors features dysfluent white male conquerors stuttering at the end of their world. Drawing from Alexander Weheliye on the racialized limits of biopolitical theory in the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, the chapter argues that dislocating the New Imperial project onto a posthuman imaginary undermines the novel's imperialist critique, because humanity is yet vouchsafed to the dysfluent, white "remnant" at the end of the world. Alternatively, by looking at how gender operates centrally in the novel's posthuman imaginary, this chapter finds an opening to read dysfluency, alongside disability critique, as unfolding instead into an anticolonial domain of talk that has always existed alongside colonial worlding.

chapter abstract

The conclusion offers instances of how an aesthetic of proprietary speech and self-possession remains central to scenes of US media and culture in the twenty-first century. Tracing affects of embarrassment that attend to poor performances of speech by major Anglo-American political leaders—for instance, George VI in the film The King's Speech (2010) and Justice Brett Kavanaugh's tearful loss of composure at his Senate confirmation hearings to the US Supreme Court—the conclusion argues that a colonialist aesthetic tied to the ideal of speech-as-property is shared by the US left and right in mainstream politics. Finally, scenes of everyday talk that exist in the "surround" of academic institutions are presented as potentially insurgent places from which a practice of anticolonial poetics might begin to emerge.