John Kim (Harvard), “Diagrammatic Compression and the World-Literary Totality”

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[This image, a 1995 poem by Taiwanese poet Chen Li called “War Symphony,” serves as an allegory for literary compression. The first stanza consists of the character for “soldier” (bing), arranged in block formation. The second stanza continues by replacing the character for soldier with two characters (ping and pang) that not only sonically reproduce the gunshots of battle but also pictographically obliterate either one of the two “leg” radicals of the original soldier character. The formation appears broken and disfigured, signaling the decimation of the squad. The final stanza shows a block of “graves” (qiu), which, pictographically, removes both legs from the original soldier character. The poem not only diagrammatically compresses meaning into a series of pictographs, sounds, and structures, but it also reveals to us in its presentation the idea that no conversion from one source to another, no translation or transfiguration – whether between sign and sense, sound and image, or life and death – can ever truly be lossless. Rather, it is in the lossiness, just as it was for Ezra Pound and his ideogram, where art emerges to fill the void.]

Among its many drivers, the landscape of literary activity in Europe and across the world was characterized by a deep urge for compression – whether in the space-time of literary experience, the condensation of imagery, or the enframing of form. The diagram, as a distinct semiotic category, played a key role in the compression of literature for both writers and literary critics, facilitating the cross-pollination of ideas and practices between disciplines (science and literature) and cultures (Europe and East Asia). Paying particular attention to East Asia, my project explores the conflicting and complementary ways in which the diagrammatic compression of literature spoke to the larger “scientific” struggle to transform literature-as-such into an object of knowledge just as it also yielded new, humanistic forms of expression and experimentation.