Home PageArchivesVolume no. 4Issue 1Interview: Robert Tally

A Place You Can Give a Name To:
An Interview with Dr. Robert T. Tally Jr.

Amanda Meyer


From French philosophy to Kurt Vonnegut, the perpetually publishing Dr. Robert T. Tally Jr. teaches topics in American and world literature in the English Department at Texas State University. He has been recognized by the college and university, receiving three Golden Apple awards and multiple Presidential Award nominations for his scholarly activities.

Tally’s new book, “Spatiality” (part of Routledge’s series, The New Critical Idiom), released in 2012, offers an overview of the spatial turn in recent literary theory, examining such theorists as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, and Edward Soja, while arguing for a geocritical approach to literary studies. Tally is no newcomer to the field of spatial humanities, as he has previously published an edited collection, “Geocritical Explorations: Space, Place, and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies” and translated Bertrand Westphal’s “Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Spaces.”

Fortunate enough to have attended Robert Tally’s lectures firsthand as a graduate student, I recently spoke with this “certified Marxist,” who agreed to sit down and share his thoughts with Newfound on spatiality studies in literary criticism.

Even if I look at a completely imaginary place, … not only is what’s going on in Middle-earth real in the context of that world, but also for the readers who are realizing it as they read. –Dr. Robert T. Tally Jr.

AMANDA MEYER: What first drew you to the concept of spatiality and how long have you been working with this concept?

ROBERT TALLY: It goes back to my interests even at an undergraduate level. I had been a philosophy major, and I was most interested in theories of history. I had been doing a lot with Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche—that was my main thing. The more I was fooling with this stuff, the more I thought that in order to think history, it had to be spatialized, it had to be imagined as something static, seen in its dynamism all at once rather than this linear flow of time. So my interest in spatiality was rooted, paradoxically, in a philosophy of history. The ground was already laid in Marx’s historical stages and Nietzsche’s eternal return, but the discovery of Foucault changed things for me. Foucault, who is of course doing something like writing history, but talking about it in terms of space—precisely because he didn’t see the unfolding of time as a linear process but more as, and I’m oversimplifying to put it this way, various discontinuous spatial formations. For instance, in the historical process that discloses some sort of switch in epistemes we can also discern the transformation of social spaces.

The other thing that happened at this time is that I was studying with some of these professors that I write about now, primarily Fred Jameson. I took an introductory Comp Lit course with him called “What is Literature?” (which intrigued me because I recognized the title from Sartre). It wasn’t until a later semester that someone told me “Oh, Professor Jameson is really famous, he’s a big shot.” I actually got a copy of his book “Marxism and Form” and thought I was very well versed in Marxism, but I didn’t understand that book at all because there were all these Marxist literary critics I had never heard of. I’m actually a “certified Marxist” now. At Duke at the time, they didn’t have minors, but they had certificate programs. “Marxism and Society” was one of these, and Jameson, who was the head of the program at that time, signed a certificate I have somewhere that says I completed this program. One of my conservative buddies in college said to me one time, “you know they just photocopy that and send it right to the FBI?” Like the FBI is worried about Duke philosophy majors who study Marxism!

Jameson’s own work influenced me a lot. His notion of cognitive mapping, which came out of his considerations of postmodernism, enabled me to connect the spatial theories I was beginning to explore with the genealogical work of Foucault, but now grounded in a history of philosophy and tied to the mode of production. Jameson himself has repented his use of the term, which people found too focused on physical space and maps, not understanding how metaphorical it was supposed to be. But my own “misreadings” have been productive. This is probably the most influential body of work for me and helped me to synthesize all of the stuff I’ve been talking about.

MEYER: Spatiality has become a major concept in literary studies. Would you say the time is primed for this book? Is there something about this moment that requires a work like this?

I think this book is very useful as an introduction. The idea is to investigate new terminology or even old terminology that may be used in new ways. When I proposed the book to one of the editors at Routledge a few years ago, at the time I was proposing a book on geocriticism, she initially thought that the term was not well-known enough to merit a “new critical idiom” entry, but she invited me to follow up. So I emailed her something, but I didn’t hear anything. Then, months later, I got an urgent email asking for a full proposal because they were very interested. I wanted to call it “Literary Cartography,” but Routledge preferred the term Spatiality, both because of its broader applicability to literary and cultural studies and because they had another, somewhat related, book in the works: Russell West-Pavlov’s excellent “Temporalities.” But there’s still a chapter devoted to literary cartography. I have used the term literary cartography to examine how the writer produces something like a literary map, whereas the reader in turn would use something like geocriticism as a means of exploring the cartography produced by the writer. Whenever we go to a place in the literary world, there are things coming with us such as our perceptions, memories, and whatnot. Even if I look at a completely imaginary place, such as the one we see in the course I’m now teaching on Tolkien, not only is what’s going on in Middle-earth real in the context of that world, but also for the readers who are realizing it as they read. Maps help you find your way in real or imagined space.

Utopia, particularly as a spatial form, is a way of thinking about our own social spaces right now as artificial. –Dr. Robert T. Tally Jr.

MEYER: From our many discussions on utopia, I know it is a shared interest. I would love to hear more about how you deal with the utopian space in this work. You mention that “even the fictional or imaginary places are understood to be ways of representing the personal and social spaces of our real world,” going on to say that in this conclusion you want to “examine those other spaces which are not usually associated with mimesis, realism, or the real world…such particular genres as utopia, science fiction, and fantasy.” Ultimately though, you find even these have real world counterparts and help us “gain a clearer sense of our own real world.”

Even though the real and not real seem perpetually bound together, does a spatial critique offer a more concrete outline of theoretical spaces (such as utopia) and their aspects?

TALLY: I do think so. Obviously, Jameson is a big influence here. For Jameson, utopianism infuses all of his work, but of course his weird view of utopia is quite different from what is traditionally imagined. In his book, “Archaeologies of the Future,” there is a chapter on science fiction as a spatial genre, where the static description of the utopian society overwhelms the narrative flow one expects of the novel form. Part of this relates to how boring critical utopias can be; you spend so much time describing what’s there, static, in a sense, what is or seems spatial as opposed to the flow of time, change, flux, narrative moves. But this is not entirely limited to literary utopias. In any text, it can seem you lurch forward and then stop for dozens of pages at a time describing various parts—mark how it is with “Moby-Dick,” with its incessant pauses to ruminate over this or that discrete element, all the while plunging headlong toward the white whale itself, who only shows up “in person” at the end.

Now I do think, and this is not new, that even the most realistic writing is presenting something fantastic. This is the charm of fiction. You know how people say utopia is not so much an idealization of the future, but a critique of the present? It isn’t so much a blueprint of a perfect society as it is a means of showing what needs to be fixed in our own, debased world. Utopia, particularly as a spatial form, is a way of thinking about our own social spaces right now as artificial, as something that could be imagined differently. As Jameson says, utopia is actually a “meditation on the impossible,” it shows the limits of what we can think rather than showing clearly a state that’s beyond those limits. The value of utopia, or of any literature of radical alterity, is that it helps us think to that limit. Once you can imagine the limit, you can at least imagine there is something beyond it even if you can’t get there yet.
In my current project, “Utopia in the Age of Globalization,” I suggest that the principal aim of utopia today is not to imagine alternatives, but rather to aid us in mapping the all-too-real world that has become so unimaginably vast and complex. The effort undoubtedly fails, but there is value in the attempt, and even incomplete or flawed maps are frequently helpful.

Once you can imagine the limit, you can at least imagine there is something beyond it even if you can’t get there yet. –Dr. Robert T. Tally Jr.

MEYER: Can you explain how to map a truly imaginary or metaphorical space?

TALLY: I think the process is very similar to what you would think of as realistic mapping. It’s not simply mathematical coordinates like on a Cartesian grid. The significance is partly based on all the things that have happened there, what it means to the people who see it. Now you’re no longer talking about undifferentiated space, but a place you can give a name to, maybe something happened there. Maybe the only thing that happened there is that you noticed it. Then it spreads out before you and becomes a part of you and suddenly it becomes significant. You can see where literary criticism falls into place here. Suddenly the words become meaningful. As the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has noted, a place is a space that has somehow become meaningful, and it thereby is open to interpretation, the traditional bailiwick of criticism.

MEYER: What can you tell us of the projected future for the concept of spatiality?

TALLY: I think for some time now a lot more has been done with focusing on matters of space when talking about literature. Regionalism has always been big, and the notion of place in literature has been standard element of literary inquiry for a while. What’s been changing so much is the use of spatial theory, drawing upon geographers like David Harvey and Edward Soja, philosophers like Foucault and Deleuze, who are changing the way people look at literature. It’s not transforming literary studies in a revolutionary way, but allowing us to ask different questions and to arrive at different answers, which always lead to even further questions, and perhaps, will let us see literature in a different way. In the end, the spaces accessible through literature and criticism are less about what we can or cannot know, and more about what stories we can tell.

Amanda Meyer is a graduate student in the Literature Department at Texas State University. She is currently writing her thesis on science fiction and utopia. She hopes to later get her PhD in world literature.

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