What’s a Minor Literature?

In their book on Kafka Deleuze and Guattari give three determining characteristics of a minor literature, or, put differently, the conditions in which a literature becomes revolutionary. These are as follows: 1. A minor literature should deterritorialize the major language (K 16). Such a deterritorialization involves the neutralization of sense, or the signifying aspects of language, and a foregrounding of the latter’s asignifying, intensive aspects. This entails a kind of stammering and stuttering of language, a making strange of typical signifying regimes. Deleuze and Guattari give the example of Black Americans ‘use’ of English (as well as, of course, Kafka’s own ‘use’ of German). We might think of the ongoing creolization of the English language in general, and indeed the increasing syncretism of the contemporary world. A side effect of this is that a minor literature operates to counteract the transmission of ‘order words’, and the exercise of power this entails (‘To hate all languages of masters’ as Deleuze and Guattari remark) (K 26).

2. With a minor literature everything is political (K 17). Political in the sense that the lives and individual concerns of the characters are always linked to the larger social milieu (and not, for example, fixated on the familial, domestic unit). It is in this sense that a becoming animal is always political, a line of escape (for example, Kafka’s Gregor) from conjugality and the nuclear family. This links up with point one above: the animal cry – as sound, as deterritorialized noise – operates to neutralize sense. We might also say to neutralize the habits of representation, of ‘being human’. Asignification here takes on an explicitly political function, in so far as it disrupts any given signifying regime. In fact the relationship between asignification and signification, and between literary-linguistic systems in general, is itself a ‘political situation’, expressing as it does relations of power (relations of domination and resistance). Deleuze and Guattari, following Henri Gobard, provide a tentative matrix for these relations, in fact a four-way model: vernacular language (local and territorial), vehicular language (international, a deterritorialization of the former), referential (the language of sense and culture, a cultural reterritorialization), and mythic. The last is positioned ‘on the horizons of cultures, caught up in a spiritual or religious reterritorialization’ (K 23). This schema can only be provisional; the relationships between, and functions of, different languages will always vary depending on the specifics of space and time (which is to say a definition of the minor will depend on a definition of the major).

3. A minor literature is always collective (K 17). It is collective in the sense that it works as a specifically collective enunciation. There is less emphasis on individual authors and talents, which are at any rate scarce within a minor literature, and more on the collective production of work (its always already collaborative status). In this way, we can see the artistic production of statements as a kind of precursor of a community (and often a nation) still in formation. This is the utopian function, specifically immanent, of a minor literature. A minor literary machine then, prepares the way for revolution. In fact, in many senses a minor literature calls into being the revolutionary machine yet-to-come (‘We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature’ (K 18)). It seems to me that it is especially with this last point that we are given a framework for thinking about several recent contemporary art practices that might be construed as being involved with precisely this utopian pursuit: the collectivization of subjectivity and the calling forth of new kinds of community that this implies. Before I go on to consider this I want to briefly think through points one and two in relation to contemporary art practice.

Simon O’Sullivan

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