Captive Minds. Norms, Normativities and the Forms of Tragic Protest in Literature and Cultural Practice



As a foundation and product of grand narratives, norms apply to any and every aspect of individual, communal, and social life. They regulate our behaviors, determine directions in the evolution of arts and philosophies, condition intra- and cross cultural understanding, organize hierarchies. Yet – when transformed into laws – norms become appropriated by dominant discourses and become “truths.” Those in control of language always construe them as “universal” and, as such, “transparent.” The usefulness of norms stems from the fact that they facilitate our orientation in the world. In the long run, however, they are bound to block our imaginative access to alternative ways of living and thinking about reality, thus enslaving our minds in a construction of reality believed to be natural. In a world so determined, dissenting perspectives and pluralities of views threaten to disrupt norms and normativities, along with the order (patriarchal, racist, sexist, ableist, speciesist, etc.) build into them. Benefactors of a normative worldview and average individuals busily trying to fit in police the perimeters of the accepted, disciplining nonconformists, rebels, and nonnormative individualists of every stripe. “Assent — and you are sane,” quipped Emily Dickinson in her well-known poem, “Demur — you’re straightway dangerous — And handled with a Chain —” (209).  Notorious for their inimical attitude to repressive majorities, artists, philosophers, academics, and other “marginal” persons have always challenged deified norms. Opening up liberatory perspectives, they have tried to escape mental captivities and imagine the world otherwise: as a place where difference is cherished and where justice reigns. Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in literature, imagines an alternative reality whose inhabitants, Heterotopians, constantly suspend commonly held beliefs in order to examine their validity. Passive perception, argues Tokarczuk, “has moral significance. It allows evil to take root” (43). Without a periodical suspension of belief in truths so deeply naturalized that they look like Truth Itself, we become perpetrators of the evil glossed over by narratives whose veracity we take for granted.


protest; captive mind; Czesław Miłosz; Olga Tokarczuk; introduction; article summaries

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Miłosz, Czesław, The Captive Mind, Vinatge Books, 1953.
Tokarczuk, Olga, “Moment niedźwiedzia” [The Bear’s Moment] in Jak wymyślić heterotopię. Gra towarzyska [How to Invent Heterotopy. A Parlour Game]. Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2012. p. 43.
Witkacy, Stanisław Ignacy, Insatiability, translated by Louis Iribarne. Northwestern University Press, 2012.

Published : 2020-08-16

PoksM. (2020). Captive Minds. Norms, Normativities and the Forms of Tragic Protest in Literature and Cultural Practice. Review of International American Studies, 13(1), 19-26.

Małgorzata Poks
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland  Poland

Małgorzata Poks, PhD is an assistant professor at the Institute of Literary Studies, Faculty of Humanities, at the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland. Her main research interests revolve around contemporary North American Literature, Indigenous Studies, US-Mexican border writing, Critical Animal Studies, Christian anarchism, Thomas Merton’s late poetry. She has published widely in Poland and abroad. Her monograph Thomas Merton and Latin America: a Consonance of Voices (2006) received the International Thomas Merton Award and in her article “Home on the Border: in Ana Castillo's The Guardians: The Colonial Matrix of Power, Epistemic Disobedience, and Decolonial Love” was awarded the 2019 Javier Coy Biennial Research Award. Poks is also a recipient of several international research fellowships.

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