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"Transmedial Ekphrasis: César Aira’s “Cecil Taylor”" - Professor Erin Graff Zivin (Spanish and Portuguese and Comparative Literature, USC-Dornsife)

When: Wednesday, May 19, 2021
5:00 PM - 6:00 PM CT

Where: Online

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Sarah Peters   (847) 491-3864

Group: Comparative Literary Studies

Co-Sponsor: Department of Spanish and Portuguese
Critical Theory

Category: Academic


Transmedial Ekphrasis: César Aira’s “Cecil Taylor”

Erin Graff Zivin, University of Southern California

Cecil Taylor, whose experimental atonal jazz piano repelled some and attracted many, exhibited a particular sensibility for transmedial and trans-sensory experience. “Sound has color, perhaps six different colors which most human beings cannot perceive, but animals can perceive,” he explains in a 2006 documentary on his music. It is therefore no coincidence that Argentinean writer César Aira would turn to the iconoclastic musician in order to stage his own version of transmedial aesthetics in his 2011 piece “Cecil Taylor.” Aira’s transmediality is strange: it does not resemble work that more explicitly traverses genres or media—say, transmedial storytelling a la Henry Jenkins, or multimedia artwork—but rather sheds crucial light upon its “own” medium, the book, and genre, the artist’s biography. By opening the literary text to music in a way that does not reduce it to a representation—something that would be impossible in Cecil Taylor’s case—Aira stretches the limits of a what a literary text can do, exposing the unrepresentability necessarily at the heart of literary discourse, the non-linear or anti-teleological force that most narrative labors to eclipse or foreclose entirely. I’ll propose the term “transmedial ekphrasis” to describe the strange incorporation of Taylor’s aesthetic and method into Aira’s, and pursue and extend W.J.T. Mitchell’s argument that “the ekphrastic image acts… like a sort of unapproachable and unpresentable ‘black hole’ in the verbal structure, entirely absent from it, but shaping and affecting it in fundamental ways.” I’ll ask, finally, what role “black holes” and blackness more generally might perform in Aira’s and Taylor’s ekphrastic aesthetics, in dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari, Evelynn Hammonds, Fred Moten, Rizvana Bradley, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, and Tavia Nyong’o, suggesting a new way into the dilemma posed by Mitchell between ekphrastic hope, which aims for the overcoming of otherness, and ekphrastic fear, which worries about the total collapse of boundaries and subsequent annihilation of the other.

Erin Graff Zivin is Professor in the Departments of Spanish and Portuguese and Comparative Literature at USC. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary Latin American literature and other media, deconstruction, the relationship between ethics, politics, and aesthetics, and the intersection of philosophy and critical theory more broadly. Prof. Graff Zivin is the author of Anarchaeologies: Reading as Misreading (Fordham University Press, 2020), Figurative Inquisitions: Conversion, Torture, and Truth in the Luso-Hispanic Atlantic (Northwestern University Press, 2014, winner of the 2015 Award for Best Book, Latin American Jewish Studies Association), and The Wandering Signifier: Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary (Duke University Press, 2008). 

Sponsored by Comparative Literary Studies Program // Co-Sponsored by Department of Spanish and Portuguese & Critical Theory Cluster. 

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