<Book Review>
Disunified Aesthetics: Situated Textuality, Performativity, Collaboration
Lynette Hunter
[Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014 (314 pp.)]

In Disunified Aesthetics, Lynette Hunter explores alternative ways of engaging with literature as a critic and as a reader. She addresses works by Canadian writers, such as Robert Kroetsch, Frank Davey, and Alice Munro associating critical essays with embodied performances. These performance critiques open new ways of interaction between critic, author, and audience and the possibility of welcoming differentiated voices in a disunified aesthetic practice, based on the “participation in art-making to anyone who wishes to engage” (4). The challenging aim of the book is to give voice to people who live ‘alongside’ the hegemonic systems of the nation-state, acknowledging and assimilating differences. Hunter’s analysis is concerned not only with feminism, but also with other representations of the alongside, such as indigeneity and gender minorities.

Disunified Aesthetics is organized in three parts, each one prefaced by a commentary on the aesthetic and ethical questions addressed in the section. The video web links to the performative critiques provided by the author at the end of each essay allow the reader to engage with Hunter’s poetics and with the authors’ writings. The whole book is an exemplar of Hunter’s attempt to collaborate with her audience.

Part One is concerned with the role of art in the nation-state of the 20th century, moving from the aesthetics of ‘enough’, in which the expectations created by the structures of the nation-state are satisfied, to the aesthetics of ‘fit’, i.e. the joyful moment of assimilation of an artistic object inside culture. Hunter’s critique deals with the presence of people who live ‘outwith’ the boundaries of the hegemonic state – addressed by situated knowledge theorists such as Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding – and with the generation of textuality within it. Robert Kroetsch’s The Puppeteer, read by Hunter in correlation with Kroetsch’s prior novel Alibi, raises the issue of cross-dressing and of the theorization of sexuality against a domestic background. In the performative critique ‘Cooking the Books’, concerned with devising alternative strategies to guide students through Canadian women’s writing, fresh and challenging ideas replace the traditional academic way of approaching a text. The analysis of parts of works by the feminist aboriginal author Lee Maracle concludes the first part of the book and it is concerned with the need to find a standpoint while interacting with the works by people with different backgrounds. The reader and the author negotiate a cultural and linguistic common ground in order to collaborate in the different passages required to produce a work. Only in this way the reader can participate and cease to be merely an observer.

The four essays in Part Two are relatively independent from the related performed critiques carried out by Hunter and made available by the web links at the end of each section. Readers are here invited to engage more deeply with the installation and with the medium of writing, dismantling the authority of both the writer and the critic. ‘Bodies in Trouble’, explores the role of gender in the institution and the labor that secludes women, symbolized in Hunter’s performance by a box. ‘Face-Work’ is a reply to Frank Davey’s poetry and to his portrayal of masculinity and femininity. The make-up embodied by Hunter in the performance is a theatrical parallel to the normative codes of behavior imposed to women by the society. The reading process as a re-making of the work is addressed in the last two essays of Part Two. In ‘The Inédit’ Hunter translates parts of poems by the feminist Nicole Brossard, intertwining the excerpts with the critique. The performative critique here is carried out through the translation from French to English but this is not only an operation of translation, it is an active engagement with the text. Quoting Hunter: “I am not trying to translate Brossard. I am trying to produce new material” (183). The translated part of Brossard’s poems and Hunter’s critique are weaved together in such an homogeneous way that it is difficult to isolate them. The last essay is a typographic collaboration between Hunter and Alice Munro’s short stories. It includes two pages of graphic novel, the superimposition of the text on different backgrounds, and other graphic experiments. The use of the text, object of reading and critique, appeals to a joint responsibility between author and reader/critic.

The elements of performative critique and critical writing of the first two parts of the book coalesce in Part Three, the most disturbing and difficult to approach for the reader. The first essay explores the relation between aesthetics and public culture and argues for the necessity of making aesthetics accessible to a wider and more diverse public through the analysis of the poetics of the feminist writer Daphne Marlatt. The typographic elaboration experimented on Alice Munro’s writings in Part Two is carried forward with bpNichol’s Selected Organs. The progressive superimposition of Nichol’s prose to the critical commentary makes the text almost impossible to read due to the overwriting of textual lines. It thus creates a visual performance which acquires meaning beyond the message of the two individual texts. The last essay of the book, ‘Roget Falls in Love’, is the epitome of the interaction between the reader and the work. In the installation, people are involved in the process of cutting, sewing, and folding Hunter’s book Roget Falls in Love. The process of ‘installation’ becomes a process of ‘constellation’ through the participation in the production of the audience members as collaborators. An engaged ethics in which the acknowledgement of differences generates value becomes finally possible inside the framework of a disunified aesthetics.

The Canadian tradition of devising new approaches to criticism (Frank Davey, Nicole Brossard, bpNichol) is summed up in Disunified Aesthetics. Hunter condenses the ongoing dialogue about how a situated aesthetics can help to recognize the place reserved to difference within or outwit the nation-state. This message has obvious ethical outcomes: the engaged ethics that the author advocates is a request addressed to the politics of hegemonic states and it is aimed both at a more differentiated public participation and at healing the split between art and culture.

Due to Hunter’s creation of an appropriate vocabulary to address specific concepts and to the profound insights into gender theory and aesthetics, the book should not be approached lightly by a reader new to the field of performative critique. Although the convolution of the thoughts expressed prevents at first from a full engagement with the book, Disunified Aesthetics makes an impact on the reader and leaves her willing to explore in more depth the implications of the power of aesthetics.

     — Reviewed by Caterina Moruzzi, University of Nottingham

Caterina Moruzzi is a PhD student in Philosophy and Music at the University of Nottingham. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on the enquiry of both the ontological and the pragmatic implications of the concept of authenticity in musical performance.

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