Critical Distance and Minor Literatures

I spent the beautiful last weekend in May at the annual Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, this year held at Brock University (it moves annually). My contribution to the yearly thought-deluge was a paper I gave to ACCUTE about Lisa Moore’s Alligator (a novel I’ve written about on this blog, here and here). In this paper, I talked about how Alligator is both a Newfoundland novel and an urban novel, and how this challenges Newfoundland’s place as “region” within the Canadian national imaginary, where Newfoundland is thought of as a resolutely rural heterotopic space, a romantic fantasy of an ‘authentic’ nineteenth century Anglo-European territory. I ended the paper by trying to conceptualize St. John’s (and urban Newfoundland more generally) using the metaphorical model of the port. It’s my contention that Alligator forces readers to encounter Newfoundland as a node within multiple and overlapping transnational networks.

There were only two people on my panel, myself and my U of T colleague and friend Joanne Leow, which left almost 50 minutes for questions, answers, and discussion. Happily, there was a sizeable, attentive, generous audience. I’m not at my best during question and answer periods – I ramble, I lose track of the question I’m meant to be answering, and, most frustratingly, I think of things I could or should have said days or weeks after it’s over. So this blog post will be an attempt to put that esprit de l’escalier to some productive use.

Halfway through the Q&A, Professor Nicholas Bradley from the University of Victoria asked me a huge question. To paraphrase, he asked how I feel about critical distance and objectivity when working on something so close to my heart, or to my home.

I did a poor job answering because he’d put his finger on something enormous, something tied up not just with critical thought but also with deep emotions, something I’m still struggling with.

My immediate instinct, when giving my answer, was to praise the value and worth of “objectivity” and “critical distance.” This instinct was not the result of careful examination. I did not come to the independent conclusion that ‘distance’ is good and necessary. Instead, my answer came out almost unbidden, like a knee tapped by a little rubber hammer, or maybe like genuflection. I wanted to reassure everyone in earshot that I wasn’t some myopic crank, but that I was a “legitimate scholar,” whatever that means.

Clearly there is some unpacking to do.

When you work on small, minoritarian, unrecognized or under-recognized literatures, especially literatures that are marked as somehow different (queer, racialized, otherwise ‘ethnic’ texts, etc), the anxiety that people won’t take your work seriously is very real. And of course, when I say “you” in the previous sentence, I mean “I.” And when I say “people,” I mean anyone and everyone, other academics included – this goes beyond the awkward Thanksgiving dinner where you try to explain your work to uncomprehending family members. Small moments of deep learning burble up in my memory – being laughed at for knowing a number of Newfoundland folk songs, for example, or people screwing up their faces in confusion and asking “does Newfoundland even have a literature?” when I tell them what I work on. There are people who are only familiar with the “goofy Newfie” stereotype, who are thus trained to find laughable or ridiculous any attempt to take the place and its culture seriously. Then there are other people who can’t or won’t differentiate “Newfoundland” from “East Coast” or “Atlantic” literatures, even after that grouping, while convenient, is not particularly useful (see Corey Slumkoski’s Inventing Atlantic Canada or Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s The Newfoundland Diaspora).

Even structural things within the academy contribute in their way: I did my undergraduate degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where Newfoundland Studies is a legitimate field. However, I was in the English honours program, which had a long list of canon-reinforcing course requirements. A course in Newfoundland literature wasn’t one of those requirements, and so I did not take a course in Newfoundland literature – no time, no space in my schedule; I did Chaucer instead. In fact, I have never studied a Newfoundland text in a course at any level of post-secondary education: BA, MA, or PhD. At the MA and PhD levels it was an impossibility, in fact – none of the courses had any Newfoundland content, and at neither institution was there an interdisciplinary Centre for Newfoundland Studies through which specialized courses might be offered, as is sometimes the case with other minority literatures. So why wouldn’t people look confused and ask “does Newfoundland even have a literature?” if it’s seldom taught and rarely, if ever, the focus of a course?

These experiences tell you (tell me) that you (I) can’t take certain things for granted, concerns I suspect other scholars of literature don’t have, at least not within the sanctuary walls of the English department. There is a nagging and pervasive anxiety that people will not value the subject of your critical inquiry or intervention. Do Shakespeare or Milton or Dickens scholars have to concern themselves with these feelings, I wonder? No one laughs at them, and no one doubts the existence or worth of the texts they study. There are always courses focusing on them; they are always on someone’s syllabus.

One way I have of trying to soothe that anxiety is to invoke objectivity, critical distance, what have you. But why does the anxiety I’ve detailed above provoke that kind of reflexive response?

Of course, it’s a completely counter-productive move. I might summarize my academic mission like so:  “I’m doing this work because I’m intimately familiar with my culture, its history and its working. Because of that familiarity, I have insights that I do not see reflected in existing criticism; I believe these are useful insights which would enrich critical discourse. Worse, I sometimes see the differences and challenges to orthodoxy that are thrown up by my culture and its difference being wall-papered over, knowingly or unknowingly. I want to use my familiarity, my closeness, to tear away that wallpaper before it sticks.”

Which is kind of the opposite of critical distance, isn’t it? It’s critical closeness. The lack of distance is exactly what allows me to do the work I do, and I’m sure the same is true of many scholars, thinkers, writers, and artists from atypical cultural backgrounds.  Closeness isn’t a liability, when what you’re close to isn’t part of the canon; it’s a tool, and a good tool, too.

So why this reflex to cast that aside and adopt the guise of the body-less scholar, the floating brain in a jar that has no ties to the world, no existence in the world beyond the grounds of the University? The idea that the critic of culture should be without culture him-or-herself? And of course, “without culture” is entirely impossible; what is meant by “without culture” is “part of the University culture that has developed in Europe and North America over the last few centuries.” Or, in other words, is critical distance perhaps merely critical closeness that conforms with the expectations of hegemony?

That’s the big question I’ve taken away from what Professor Bradley asked me (nb: we spoke afterwards, and he indicated that my instinct as to what was expected in answer to his question was actually contrary to what he was was pressing for – yet more evidence that this instinct of mine is a trained one growing out of old fear, and not necessarily prompted by the situation to hand). Is it possible that this unthinking reflex, bowing at the altar of critical distance in a rote, unthinking fashion, may be a way of not angering or irritating the orthodoxy? If you feel like your place in the discussion is already tenuous, you don’t want to do anything that might place it in peril. But I’ve always been prone to a certain cowardice, too. I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable, even when they should feel uncomfortable (and when they will be better for having felt uncomfortable, will appreciate it once the discomfort has passed). When I uttered empty platitudes about critical distance, was that my way of rushing in to say “No one needs to get upset! The way we do things is fine, just fine; I don’t want to wreck anything, I just want a little seat at the table and a few crumbs from the feast”?

If the answer is yes, then what follows is the realization that growing a backbone and being courageous are necessary work for any critic of any minor literature, and that I’m still doing that work.

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