Uncategorized


Those of you who were reading November’s posts might be interested to know that I have indeed begun a second blog entitled ‘The object of autobiography’, which you can find here.

My procrastinatory habits notwithstanding, I found it difficult to motivate myself to begin the second blog because the recent death of my doctoral supervisor returned me, mentally, emotionally, and intellectually to a frame of mind in which writing seemed frankly impossible. Nevertheless, today was an important deadline for me to keep because it is the anniversary of my father’s death. The whole project has, therefore, begun on a more shaky and difficult foundation than I anticipated in my previous post, but I hope it will be no less effective for all that. I have a kind of horror of producing messy, incoherent writing that does not say exactly what I mean it to say, but finding myself back in a place I thought I could escape through writing, I realize I have no choice but to write through it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

When I started this blog in 2011 I wasn’t quite sure what would happen. A friend with a degree in online journalism had been encouraging me to blog for a few years, but I’d never seriously considered it until I found myself with the continuing desire to write and the inescapable fact that, nevertheless, I wasn’t writing.

My rationale for writing the blog was that by paying close attention to the procrastination and, at the same time, cultivating a regular habit of writing, I might eventually get rid of the writer’s block. It did not work out like that, partly because I did not post regularly enough. Saying something in public about something I find personally quite shameful also felt strange and uncomfortable, especially since I share my posts via the Twitter account that my colleagues and students read. Eventually, though, there was a danger that I could just write endlessly about not writing without any change in my writing process.

This past month of blogging has shifted the balance of things for me. In some part that is because of the decision not to try to produce something new every day, but to work on a long post and then untangle and elaborate upon it in various ways. This allowed me to follow my thoughts in different directions, sometimes going further into scholarly questions that relate to my research, and sometimes going further into my own formation as a reader, teacher, and writer.

What has surprised me is how much the autobiographical element of the writing has developed an energy of its own. That might sound strange given that this is a blog, where personal writing is expected, but a personal element is not the same as autobiographical thinking. There is something to Cvetkovich’s idea as I discussed in week 2 that memoir is a particular kind of research method, one that gives shape and form to theorizing the world that cannot be expressed in any other way. For that reason I am going to spend much of the month of December working on the foundations for a new blog project that is clearly focused on autobiography. I hope that many of you who have come to read here this month will visit there.

As I work towards that I would ask you, both new and longstanding readers of the blog, to share with me what you found particularly interesting or useful about what you’ve read here this month. What would you like to read more about? What questions were still left unanswered that you’d like to see discussed again? What other directions could the writing go?

Finally, thanks to all of you for your time and attention this month. For the first time in a while, I feel encouraged about my writing because of your generosity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I.

Memoir became one of my research methods‘ (258/3594)

‘For these reasons, writing in the genre of memoir has not only rescued me from being stuck, blocked or ‘depressed’ (and not by preventing it but by making it possible to move through it), it has also been enabling for my life as a scholar‘ (1054/3594).

‘My turn to practice exemplifies the activist principle of presenting criticism in the form of a productive or alternative suggestion. It seemed more interesting to enter the fray about memoir by actually writing one, the reparative spirit of figuring out what memoir can do for public discourse rather than being exclusively concerned with critiquing where it fails.’ (1061/3594).

‘To see how capitalism feels or how diaspora feels without screening out nostalgia or sentiment or melancholy‘ (1101/3594)

— Ann Cvetkovich

II.

One of the methodological challenges for scholars studying affect is figuring out how to write about the way things feel to and through a particular body. In Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich solves this by turning herself into her research material. Given that she works within a feminist framework there is perhaps nothing very surprising in this since it is very literally a way of making the personal political, but it is fraught with difficulties nevertheless. To what degree can you write about yourself and still call it scholarship? What is the significance of such writing, even when, like Cvetkovich, you are sympathetic to cultivating ‘a way of thinking that does not have to be scientific or to marshal evidence in the form of generalizable data to constitute knowledge’ (2120/3594)? Work like hers is part of a move that pushes the humanities to its limit: how specifiable, particular and contextual can your research object be before you find that a little ‘science’ is a fine thing?

When I first read Cvetkovich’s book I was unsure how to write about it. As I noted in Sunday’s post, I was not convinced of some of her scholarly claims, which is normal, and I was unsettled by her methods, which is also normal for methodologically innovative work. I try to adhere to the academic principle to keep faith with a writer’s particular intellectual project. It doesn’t mean that I try to agree with everything I read, but the first time I read I try to bear in mind what questions the author is trying to answer and why they use the tools they do to answer those questions. After that, I work out whether I need different tools to answer my questions, or whether I can make use of a method or a procedure in what I have read. All this is by way of saying that I think it would be unfair to read Cvetkovich’s book according to traditional scholarly protocols because she explicitly invites the reader to do academic work differently–either by focusing on those things not usually considered scholarly; experimenting with unconventional research methods; and connecting things that usually remain unconnected because of academic conventions. Because Cvetkovich encourages the reader to write differently, I find the most intellectually honest response I can give to the book is to deal with the affective questions it raised for me. I won’t get to all of those in this post alone because I read the book for the first time in 2012, so I’ve been thinking about it and how to write about it for a while now.

There is no doubt, as Cvetkovich writes, that academia is one of the spaces in our society where affect is most strongly disciplined. This doesn’t mean that the professoriat are, as they are frequently represented to be, hopeless and socially inept people living in their heads. Instead, it means that they have long ago acquired the habit, literally, of disciplining their affects. They use them in particular, professionally conventional ways. In literary studies, I would hazard a guess, this is even more true because we must bring an affective response to text to produce our work, but this must be carefully handled and transformed into scholarship through various means (for example referencing other scholars, or finding textual evidence for your claims). For Cvetkovich it is hardly surprising that academics turn to life-writing:

because it reveals the places where feeling and lived experience collide with academic training and critique. I have a feeling that this conflict is one of the causes of political depression among academics and activists, and writing personal narrative encourages the hunches, intuitions, and feelings that intellectual analysis can restrict with taboo-like force (1094/3594).

I began reading Depression precisely because I felt that the range of affects that once charged my writing and research were slowly dissipating. Because some of my doctoral work focused on the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, I was also completely unconvinced that a psycho-medical account of depression had anything to offer me, either to understand my family history of depression or myself. I really wanted another kind of solution.

But although I found the book interesting, it did not help as much as I hoped it might. It did not, as I was fervently hoping, rescue me from my unproductivity. For one thing, I thought this affect stuff is all very well if you’re a queer feminist living in New York, but for an unknown postcolonial scholar working in Northern Ontario, it just isn’t going to work. I can’t write about myself and call it scholarship. Part of that is about very real social, cultural and academic capital. A writer situated in the right network can write about themselves and get published. (A writer who isn’t has to start blogging). I don’t mean to suggest the published work isn’t valuable, because it is. It is just to say that this kind of scholarship isn’t available to everyone, and that is a problem because the most innovative and fulfilling scholarly modes should not only be available to those who work and teach in New York, Oxford and Paris.

Instead of taking Cvetkovich at her word, I decided to redouble my efforts to be scholarly and write about life-writing. I had a long-standing interest in the genre and had taught Master’s seminars in postcolonial life-writing as a grad student, so I thought it might lead somewhere, and it did, sort of. I published a short paper on the topic and taught another grad seminar on the topic, but it didn’t really catch fire.

Some months after another iteration of that work, while offering me some feedback on a longer version of the paper, a colleague who is also a friend, said to me,  ‘it seems like you want to write about yourself’. I cannot adequately describe what a powerful sense of failure swept through me when I heard those words spoken out loud. I felt, and I thought, that I had genuinely ceased to be capable even of scholarship, since it was apparently obvious that I was ‘just’ writing about myself. Notwithstanding my interest in teaching and researching life-writing, as well as reading Cvetkovich’s work, I still had–have–the feeling that to write about myself would be tantamount to admitting that I couldn’t succeed as a scholar.

Scholars write about others, they do not write about themselves, or exhibit themselves in their research. Or rather, they earn the right to do so only after having made serious scholarly contributions. So what was I going to do?

III.

  1. Re-examine the conventions I was trained in.
  2. Experiment with other forms of research.
  3. Consider writing about myself.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Doubt and faith in our practice often arise and pass away depending on what we are using as criteria for success’ — Sharon Salzburg

I.

Like some of my students, the reason I became an English major in university was that I love to read. It never occurred to me that literature could become a way of life, not only because I did not know any writers personally, but because I did not know anyone who really seemed to think, as I did, that words mattered so much. Despite that, despite the fact that I spent much of my spare time writing and rewriting short stories and essays, I went to study medicine at university. I knew that I would never stop reading and I hoped I would never stop writing so it didn’t seem necessary to study literature, but it did seem necessary to do something that would serve others. I can’t really describe how I realized that I had to stop trying to become a doctor, but in my third year I became an English major and never looked back.

II.

A few years ago, a friend said to me that it is essentially a very odd thing to live as if the things written in books have anything to do with how we live on a daily basis. It is only the peculiar and closeted atmosphere of graduate humanities training where it appears to matter whether you read Lacan rather than Foucault, or Bourdieu rather than Marx. She meant that people who spend so much of their time thinking cultivate belief in the literally (trans)formative power of books. I agreed with her, without really thinking about it very much, until this week another friend described to me the practice of reading the Bible closely and attentively as a child. That conversation reminded me, that it is not only commonplace to read books as though they connect to our everyday life, it is a practice that sustains faith. In my daily teaching life, when I face students who have not done their reading for class, it feels to me like they have broken faith, not with me but with literature. They want to enjoy books and be free to dismiss those they don’t enjoy; they are not committed to literature as a way of life.

It might seem absurd to bring such an expectation to the classroom. Do microbiology professors expect their students to be committed to biological science as a way of life? Probably not, although they almost certainly expect a certain discipline about attending labs and handing lab reports in on time. Just as we do in literary studies, they have practices in place to train their students to become competent professionals. The difference is that we live in a world where science is already our common way of life. To live as a person who reads books whose logic is figurative rather than literal is already a strange thing; to believe that the Book, or those books, are vital matter to the world we are living in now is even more strange. (In this sense, fundamentalism is indeed, as the Indian critic Ashis Nandy has called it, a pathology of modernity. It is a world where figurative logic is forced to take literal forms in order to survive, and it does so with dreadful consequences for all of us.)

Teaching literature in the contemporary university is very difficult when you are faced with a room of students who are studying literature, but have fewer and fewer ways of thinking themselves as anything other than literalists (or fantasists, since in their desperate attempt to resist being swallowed whole by literal logic some of them abandon thought all together). It becomes even more so when you step outside the classroom and you are faced with administrators and colleagues in other faculties who make similar demands that you turn your work on literature into something useful, relevant and literal in the way they understand those terms.

III.

After I became a phd student, I looked back regularly, wondering if my original desire to be a writer was being obscured by the struggle to write a dissertation about literary theory. Very few people care, even inside the discipline, about the questions of literary theory I spent my days preoccupied with. Nowadays, I struggle to do all kinds of writing, academic and creative, often silenced because of a sense that I can do neither one well anymore–that I am not committed enough to my work, or, in other words, that I am unwilling to work through the moments of doubt. However, it seems to me, that when the teaching is not going well, it is important to keep ahold of a practice of writing, whether scholarly or creative, precisely in order to reaffirm that I am here to make new literary knowledge and thereby ensure literature continues to exist as a form of knowledge in this world. Faith is ultimately a series of small acts of creation, not one of judgment. Whether others are persuaded that what I am doing is relevant, useful or meaningful, is nothing to the continued existence of literature as a way of life, a form of thought.

A little while ago I was reading a book by Jan Chozen Bays in which she describes various techniques for bringing mindfulness to everyday life. One of the techniques that particularly caught my attention was ‘Looking Deeply into Food’, in which you consider the plate of food in front of you and trace the various forms of labour and energy that have gone into making it available to you. You could derive many kinds of lessons from that exercise, from thinking about the politics of food to, as in Bays’ book, contemplating the fundamental interdependence of sentient beings. Although Bays chose to write about food, it struck me that it might be a useful exercise for thinking about any kind of task you have to accomplish where you feel overwhelmed by the notion that you, you as a small, separate individual, are solely responsible for what is in front of you.

Usually, the task in front of me that fits that description is writing, where the success of the task seems to depend on me alone. Good writing teachers will help you understand that writing, though admittedly carried out alone, is immeasurably helped by a social element, by working with writing groups and classes to support you so that you don’t experience your task as an isolated one. Of course support is vital, but I think Bays’ exercise suggests something else that our highly author-centred ideas of writing don’t usually allow us to think about: we never accomplish anything ‘by ourselves’. One reason we are highly anxious about writing is because we have to do it alone, but many of us refuse to give up the struggle entirely because we also want most of the glory for ourselves. At the end of the struggle, however much you acknowledge the contributions and support of others, your name is on the byline or jacket cover.

There are some interesting ways to experiment with this question of ‘being’ the author. Inside academia there are writers like bell hooks, who not only write under a nom de plume but also refuse the capitalization that turns a name into a ‘proper’ name. Outside academia (though not separated from it) there are groups like the Combahee River Collective who refused to separate into individual authors in order to make themselves heard. I think it is quite  significant that women of colour, those who have historically had the least chance of becoming ‘the Author’, have been most willing to rethink the privilege of authorship and practice it differently.

Bays’ exercise prompts me to do some more thinking about the privilege of authorship, as well as the attitude of individualism that encourages us to believe we accomplish alone or that our accomplishment is ours alone. When I write I can do so because of the people who produced and assembled my computer, the paper mill workers who produced the reams of paper that I have read in the form of books and articles, the people who taught me how to read and write, and the students who allow me to teach them and rehearse my thoughts before writing even begins.

Aware of how the tricky mind of a perfectionist or procrastinator works, I can see that this could easily descend into another kind of mea culpa, in which the writer deplores their own attitude of laziness when so many others have made it possible for them to sit down and write. In the same way that I don’t think Bays means us to be overwhelmed by the value of the food we eat, we don’t have to feel indebted to others for our ability to write. Instead, we just need to bring a little mindfulness to our situation so that when we sit down to write, we don’t have to defend ourselves or assert ourselves as separate from others, but just say what we came to say.

Bays concludes the discussion with a quote from the well-known Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh:

A person who practices mindfulness can see things in a tangerine that others are unable to see. An aware person can see the tangerine tree, the tangerine blossoms in the spring, the sunlight and rain which nourished the tangerine. Looking deeply one can see the ten thousand things which have made the tangerine possible … and how all these things interact with each other.

It matters, then, that you and I sit down to write, not because we are ‘Authors’, but because we have something to say and ten thousand things have come together to make it possible for us to say them.

When I started 2012 with a resolution, of sorts, to write every day for a month it was primarily as an exercise in awareness. I wanted then, as I still do, to be someone who, on a daily basis, writes mindfully and patiently. Clearly that is still a work in progress, but it is equally clear to me that I wouldn’t keep trying to write, however painfully, if I didn’t actually want to do it.

Nevertheless, soon after I started the month of blogging last year I met up with an old friend–who was kindly reading the blog–and he said, ‘you sure write a lot about not writing’. That made me laugh, but I have to admit that I also felt rather shamefaced about it because I was afraid it was true. What I heard my friend say, which wasn’t necessarily what he meant at all, was ‘you keep writing about writing–why don’t you just write (you seem to be able to)?’

The answer is that I find it difficult to say what I want to say, and I’ve realized that this is largely because I am not clear in my own mind who I am writing for. Some writers think that you primarily write for yourself, but I have never found that very convincing because if you wanted to write for yourself there really would be no reason to make it available to other people. If you want to write–and you want other people to read what you write–then you are trying to build a relationship with other people.

After I wrote my last post about writing as an act of hospitality I realized the metaphor was a genuinely enabling one, and a kind of answer to the problem of the ‘others’ to whom we address ourselves. At first, perhaps, you don’t invite just anyone into your home. You make plans, you prepare, and you cultivate a friendship with people before you invite them over. It is possible that for the rest of your life you never learn to have people over any differently. You keep a tight rein on things–only inviting people you like and know into your home, with much forethought about what you will serve them and the music you will play. People entertain and write like that quite profitably and prolifically. Maybe you have always been a bit more freewheeling. You invite anyone over, at any time, with a breezy ‘excuse the mess’ while you push all the newspapers, candy wrappers and other jetsam onto the floor. You invite people in easily, and have some fun too, but perhaps people don’t often invite you back or want to stay around a very long time. Or maybe you love to have people over, but for some reason or other you never quite get around to it and always meet up in restaurants or coffeeshops instead. Whatever it is, you know what you normally do and how it pretty much generates the same  encounter over and over again.

Quite literally, I find myself without a place to host from. I’ve moved around a lot over the last fifteen years–from Canada, to the UK, to Finland, back to Canada, back to the UK–and so I have a lot of friends I would love to have over, but I never seem to be in one place long enough to get the party started. Instead, I have a lot of once-a-year meals in restaurants with friends that I haven’t seen for a long time. I seldom have anyone over and I rely on relatively new friends in all those places to invite me into their settled homes, or old friends to put me up in their homes for 2-3 days at a time while we reconnect until the next annual, or biennial meeting. I suppose this is where metaphor meets the world-as-it-is. I am not sure where my place in the world is.

Diasporic and migrant writing emerges from an experience of dislocation, of making home again in a new place without losing sight of the old place and telling a story about that. But multiple dislocations become harder and harder to narrate. It isn’t that the experience itself is absolutely disorienting (I am not confused about who I am), but more that we still–as yet–lack the narrative forms to tell the story of being frequently on the move, between here and there. (I’ve often wondered how an agent would sell my short stories set in various small towns around Canada and Finland, with some metropolitan tales of London and Helsinki thrown in.)

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari developed the concept of ‘minor literature’ to capture the idea of stories that are written for people who don’t yet exist, or better who are in the process of becoming. To keep following my metaphor, minor literature is a kind of hospitality-as-a-way of life, hospitality on a grand scale, where you prepare to host people you don’t know, who you aren’t entirely sure are ever going to show up. You create a space that they will feel is theirs, without quite knowing who they are or when they will arrive. The result might be bizarre (think Kafka or G V Desani or Rosario Ferré), but it is also strangely compelling. You want to keep going back there, but you don’t know why. How does the minor writer, the one who creates this hospitable experience for unknown others, write? Kafka’s example isn’t exactly a happy one, but his writing is, in its extraordinary way, a place where all kinds of people can enter and feel at home. (Years of teaching Kafka has empirically demonstrated that to me.)

It is difficult to say what you want to say, especially when you are a writer since, as Thomas Mann wrote, ‘a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’. All you can do is keep following your impulse to persist in writing and making a place, a text, for people who you trust will appear one day. One day, instead of writing about writing, you will find yourself writing.

Over the last week I read Christopher Jamison’s Finding Sanctuary, about applying Benedictine monastic rules of life outside the monastery. Abbot Jamison has a compelling way of discussing concepts such as virtue, obedience and humility as the crucial tools we have all been missing in our search for inner peace and I enjoyed the book very much.

One of the things that most struck a chord with me was his discussion of how we relate our daily practice to other people. In some of my earliest posts, here and here, I talked about the great desire I’ve always had to enter into meaningful, intelligent conversation with other people, and the increasingly unsettling feeling that academic life was actually becoming an obstacle to fulfilling that desire. It is something I’ve been mulling over for a long time, and when I read my friend Scott’s blog post about an ambivalent experience he had of reading a valuable academic book, I found myself struggling with it again.

I genuinely believe that any sphere of human activity provides us with all we need to live an ethically meaningful life. That being said, writing for a living, especially as an academic, has always seemed a bit tricky to me, because for me it is so full of ethical pitfalls. You have to be in the business of promoting yourself, getting yourself read and cited and creating a coherent academic profile (read brand) and all for whom? Mostly, you are writing for a very small audience of people who may not be friends or community, but have read the same texts in roughly the same context.

From Scott’s perspective, as an activist-intellectual who does his work in spaces that institutional academia either ignores or actively marginalizes, I can see that a particular kind of academic writing–however insightful–appears limited in its productive power to change the world. That is not a criticism of Scott, because it is exactly what I think to myself when I set about my own academic work. I come back to the thought that this is my sphere of human activity in which to do what I can, but I am not always convinced that is a good answer.

One of the examples in Abbot Jamison’s book gave me an idea about how I might reconceptualize this question. The ritual of monastic life is built upon a community of brothers who all know exactly why things are done in a particular way. They are like a group of academics with scholarly conventions that guide their daily lives–you don’t have to explain to them why articles are written in a certain form, or why literature scholars use MLA instead of APA citation styles. Jamison goes on to explain, however, that hospitality is very important in the Benedictine rule and so it should always be possible for guests to be welcomed into the monastery without making it impossible for the monks to go about their tasks.

He explains:

Life is so arranged that a guest can be welcomed generously as a matter of course and without any disruption. In this way Benedict maintains a balance between the internal needs of the sanctuary and the external demands placed upon it. Ritual makes this possible for families as well so that, for example, a visitor can be welcomed to a family meal both easily and graciously, whereas simply feeding the guest is both disruptive and not very hospitable. A test of a sanctuary is its ability to welcome guests without the whole structure being shaken–a fine balance. This balancing act teaches us that real community is an inclusive rather than an exclusive step.

I particularly like the notion that a sanctuary is as strong as its ability to welcome guests–not novice monks (who come with the aim of adapting to the rules) or friends (who you love because you already know them and so you suspend your normal way of living while they visit you), but guests. They may never come again, or want to adapt to your way of life, but the point is that when they come to you they do not feel as though they are in the way, and you do not feel that your life has been fundamentally disrupted.

How many of us can say, in any aspect of our daily lives, that we can simply welcome others into our lives, our conversations or our projects, without being derailed, without needing to make elaborate plans in advance to accommodate them or simply being inhospitable to them? If you have been staying with family over Christmas, or having friends stay in your home, you might have an especially clear insight into this right now.

I think it could be helpful, then, to think of writing as a scene of hospitality. It is my responsibility to set that scene in some recognizably hospitable ways–providing sustenance, light or simply a space of reflection–that allow the reader to take what he or she needs. It isn’t about befriending everyone through my writing, or only speaking to those who already understand the rules, but about setting a place for anyone who wants to visit, however briefly.

Next Page »