"Tracking Devices,” a lecture by Nan Z Da
“Tracking Devices” is inspired by an odd phrase in Stanley Cavell’s famous essay on King Lear: the figuration of Cordelia’s death as a “tracking device.” In her death, Cavell writes, “every falsehood, every refusal of acknowledgment, will be tracked down.” What does this mean? What would have slipped under the radar had Cordelia not died? Proceeding from Cavell’s basic point that certain literary phenomena show the fact of having already tracked something, I suggest that literature has no built in "resistance" to tracking that is superadded or malapropos. Text-mining, literary mapping, and suspicious reading are all tracking some preexisting ideas or historical patterns using literary units (forms, topoi, stylistic tics, character traits, words) as proxies. But it is redundant to track something else when fictional and poetic devices already track what is far less tangible, are already there to make available that which would otherwise be lost to forensic or adjudicative knowledge. This intuition—that literary objects track injustices no court of law but that of literary criticism would hear—is tested in Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li's fiction and non-fictional prose.
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