Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno’s Tone

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Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno. Tone. Columbia University Press, 2023.

Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno formed what they call the Committee to Investigate Atmosphere to answer the question: what is tone? Their resulting book is written in a peculiar first person plural, the “we” that stands for “members of the Committee.” The Committee’s voice is optimistic, sprightly,  and comma-driven, the voice of the essay qua essay, with a pounding rhythm. The “collaborative experiment” (3) the Committee represents was born of a wish to create a “collective reading body” (1) that would try to “reach beyond the limitations of the first person, to find something like a commons” (3). For the Committee, tone begins as the place where two (or more) readers meet when they read the same work. This space, they say, is an atmosphere. But to understand this atmospheric commons requires a different form of academic analysis. Although the first chapter of Tone flirts with the formal conventions of the research article—with an “abstract,” “keywords,” and “introduction”—the chapters that follow aren’t so much concerned with making an argument for what tone is (though a set of arguments does develop). Instead, the Committee puts equal effort into acting out, by accumulation and redirection and overlapping referents, how tone becomes.

In Chapter Two, “Fog, or a Gradual Accumulation,” the Committee takes up Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, thinking through its color (gray) and affect, joining and revising Sianne Ngai’s reading of the same novel in Ugly Feelings. Where Ngai identifies “irritation” as the prevailing affect that readers associate with Quicksand’s protagonist, Helga Crane, the Committee, who identifies closely with Helga—“we understand her precarity, the constant buzzing of crisis” (11)—finds that they “have never been irritated” by her (11). But they still feel that Ngai is pointing towards what the Committee imagines might be tone: Helga’s indifference to others’ attitudes towards her, layered with Larsen’s indifference to the same. “The tone of Quicksand is irritating to some readers and energizing to us, but in both cases it is to (20). The Committee employs prepositions like to—among them inside/outside, between, from, etc.—throughout their investigation, as a way of illustrating the types of prepositional qualities and affective relationships that a literary tone might exhibit.

Tone’s third chapter considers W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, identifying tone as having a quality of distance. This distance could refer to the work’s antiquated diction, creating a distance from its own time period, as well as the sweeping landscapes in which a book takes place. Here, searching for a prepositional phrase from which to access tone, the Committee lands on “from a great height” (29). In this chapter, the Committee’s discussion of tone through analysis and participation in tone through narrative begins to blur. “It was on a slow walk overlooking the Hudson at the end of April, a rare time together in a landscape, that we have renewed our interest in this work, this work of the we, this conversation that is about combining voices, trying to find tone, thinking beyond the individual I” (38). This sentence reads like a trying-on of the tone explored in The Rings of Saturn. The Committee understands Tone as an attempt not only to investigate tone but to produce it. As the book proceeds, this task becomes more central to its own project. 

What is the tone of the hoard? Chapter Four, “Hoard, or an Unaired Room,” brings the work of Jane Bennett and Lauren Berlant to bear on Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate and Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, novels set in a distribution center and in a manufacturing facility, respectively. Here, choking in the maelstrom of production and circulation, the depressive accumulation of ambivalent things of diminishing value creates a distinctive tone. Trying to listen for this tone in a different way, the Committee offers a multi-page itemization of phrases and sentences that mention food in The Factory, once again endeavoring to execute what might be called Tone’s argument through experiments in form: if the hoard is tone, they invite the reader to experience this “shared affective atmosphere” (59) on the page. They find that “the ambivalent tone of the hoard, veering from inside to outside, from shame to greed, from intimacy to alienation, is a dream of public space” (62).

In the book’s fifth chapter, “Aviary, or Animal,” the Committee explores the “tone of the ensemble” (75) through animal/human boundaries—or better yet, Donna Haraway’s “humanimal” (the chapter also engages the novel Humanimal by Bhanu Kapil). Where is the animal voice truly heard or listened for, and where does it become a mere extension of human thinking and sovereignty? The Committee engages Deleuze and Guattari’s “minor literature” and the animal stories of Kafka, along with a spate of short stories (including Mieko Kanai’s “Rabbits” and Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence”) to distinguish “the humanimal tone, intensely gestural and enigmatic” (76-7) that “joins the visceral to the abstract” (77). The preposition in play here is between; the Committee strives to identify literature that sincerely works to hear and speak between human/animal boundaries.

Chapter Six, “Guest Lecture, or Reports to an Academy,” explores “the tone of the talking animal, the alien or guest speaker who articulates with care into the vaguely threatening space of the lecture hall” (84). The tension between one’s inward sense of inauthenticity and the feeling that one is being displayed and extracted from in the name of their own authenticity and “naturalness” is part of what defines the “imposter tone” (91) of the guest lecture, “conditioned by being in front of” (88). By narrating several scenes from a talk they give together, the Committee’s (multi)personal experience is put in conversation with additional novelistic reports to various academies, among them Renee Gladman’s Calamities and J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. In this chapter, anecdote once again becomes form: because, for the Committee, tone amounts to a space that a piece of writing opens up, the work is constantly haunted and shadowed by the tone that its own voice generates. This voice, and this collectivity, is its ultimate interest.

In its final chapter, Tone examines the idea of the lighted window, returning to several of the works already described. The desire for literature, in the eyes of the Committee, is “the longing for lighted windows” (106). Taking a close look at the window, tone might be the color of the light, certainly, but at the end of the investigation we understand what else we might say. In fact, the prepositions the Committee has thus far introduced are easily imagined in relation to the window: one is inside the room (hoard) or outside (“from a great height”); sometimes the window is a screen, where one subject is displayed “in front of” a crowd (academy); an animal literature might strive to speak between or across multiple perspectives there looking through the window; the interior or exterior ambience or odor is appealing or nostalgic or repulsive to its inhabitants; ultimately, “inside or outside,” writes the Committee, “we are at the window” (112). The possibilities contained in the potential relations to the window help us imagine the Committee’s multi-dimensional suggestions as to what tone actually is. Tone becomes not a single noun, but a list of prepositions. Tone concludes with a long description of a Committee member’s walk from their home on a hot summer afternoon, in “thick, yolky” light (115). The Committee reflects on this scene as a vignette, which they describe as an eco-poetic term. And “if tone concerns ecology, then it is about making space for relation” (117). Not the space, not the relation, but all the betweens and withins and outsides and from aboves that make the space—that could all be tone.

Readers will notice that the literature selected by the Committee tends to focus on the institutionally-bound, precarious, and alienated academic who takes walks and gives talks, worries, and likes to observe strange feelings in transient circumstances and foreign landscapes. This may feel like a limitation, but it ultimately creates the circumstances for Tone’s larger formal experiment. Because the archive examined in Tone is abundant with figures whose lives are similar to the members of the Committee, the book is able to wrap itself around a shared protagonist and narrator. The “we” generalizes beyond the Committee. And to the extent we, as readers, are invited to join this more general “we,” Tone offers us a model with a few lessons on how to do literary criticism today. Carrying on and re-making collaborative methods of literary scholarship (the authors acknowledge Fred Moten/Stefano Harney and Laurent Berlant/Kathleen Stewart), the collective voice of Tone brings new urgency, transparency, and intimacy to the act of coauthorship. As for tone itself, hopefully scholars will bring the concept to bear on a widening diversity of archives, expanding the list of prepositions and affects found at the window.

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