Michelle Villanueva reviews LITERATURE, GEOGRAPHY, AND PLACE

April 3, 2015 0 Comments Book Review 1473 Views

Eric Prieto. Literature, Geography, and the Postmodern Poetics of Place. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 235p.

Book Cover

Cover from the publisher’s website.

Reviewed by Michelle Villanueva, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

In his book Literature, Geography, and the Postmodern Poetics of Place, Eric Prieto seeks, as he puts it, “to work toward a stereoscopic melding of theoretical and literary accounts of place” (188).  He attempts this in order to articulate a theory of place that encompasses the portrayals and descriptions of place that exist in both philosophical and creative works.  For Prieto, place is defined as “any geographical site (of any size, scale, or type) that is meaningful to someone, for whatever reason” (13).  His is a broad definition, to be sure, but one that makes clear he is talking about more than simply some physical location.  Indeed, he differentiates between place and space, the latter of which seems to comprise simply a geographical area.  Place, by contrast, is a geographical area plus some element of personal attachment.  The examples of place he uses throughout his book, particularly the banlieues outside France’s major cities and the Creole quartiers of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco, highlight place as an area plus some sort of meaning attached it it, whether corporate or individual.

The works he uses to highlight the different aspects of place vary from Chamoiseau’s novel to Jeff Malpas’s Place and Experience to Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable.  Beckett seems at first glance a strange choice for a discussion of place, given that his later works are generally marked by a minimal setting.  Prieto, though, insists that the minimalist treatment of setting in Beckett’s works privileges place over mere space, as the situs of the characters’ activity sometimes only exists with respect to the meaning the characters attach to it.  Similarly, Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopias, spaces with actual, physical existence but also the ability to transcend geography in favor of functionality, points toward the sort of meaning-laden physical area that is the hallmark of Prieto’s understanding of place.

Prieto’s work is most ambitious in its attempt to reconcile philosophical notions of place with the concept of place as it appears in literary works.  These sections are where the book sets forth its most ambitious arguments, and these are indeed the parts where the book is most in peril of losing its reader.  After all, a book with such a lofty goal as to articulate a complete philosophy of place in fewer than 300 pages would be expected to require some heavy lifting on the part of the reader.  The book summarizes the literary works discussed in it sufficient for a reader to understand Prieto’s argument without actually having read the works themselves.   Prieto does, however, assume his reader is well-versed in 20th century philosophical and theoretical concepts.  To follow Prieto’s argument, a reader would need to have more than a passing understanding of Marxist philosophy, Derridan poststructuralism, and Cartesian anxiety.  For such a reader, though, the book provides a new reading of these concepts and links them in ways that allow for new insights into the nature of physical spaces and the meanings people attach to them.

This book is useful to postmodern studies, particularly as it draws a connection between postmodern philosophy and literary works.  For those who may fear that nothing remains of place after poststructuralism, Prieto’s work provides a measure of hope and reassurance that place is indeed alive and well throughout postmodern thought.  Even in those works that at first glance seem to prefer space over the more sentimental aspects of place, such as Maurice Blanchot’s essay “The Conquest of Space” and Henri Lefebvre’s La Production de l’espace, discussions of space come very close to discussions of space plus meaning, which, according to Prieto’s definition, would amount to discussions of place.  Prieto’s book is most valuable insofar as it examines similar ways of thinking about place in a variety of seemingly disparate works.   In bringing together these many works of different literary genres, physical settings, and philosophical priorities, Prieto accomplishes what he set out to do, putting forth, even in fewer than 300 pages, a comprehensive theory of place.

About the Author

Eric Prieto is an associate professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The author of Listening In: Music, Mind, and the Modernist Narrative, he has published widely on literary representations of place and on the relations between music and literature.

[Bio from publisher’s website]

About the Reviewer

Michelle Villanueva is a reader for Kudzu House Quarterly and a candidate for the MFA in Creative Writing – Poetry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in CALYX Journal, WORK Literary Magazine, The Milo Review and dozens of other print and online publications.

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