USEP Event Commentary

November 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, the US Ethnic and Postcolonial Studies Association here at Ohio State hosted a roundtable discussion on “Bridges & Borders: Possible Intersections Between U.S. Ethnic and Postcolonial Studies.” The event was great, and inspired me to think more deeply about my own research questions, and the extent to which they have been formed by my coursework in U.S. Ethnic Literatures and Postcolonial Theory. Quick disclaimer: as when I review academic books here, I’m starting from the assumption that the authors and scholars I’m talking about know much more than I do about their respective fields of study, and so I am mostly looking for points of connection, rather than offering a comprehensive assessment of their work. This is true for most scholarly conversations, I think, but, especially because I know these particular scholars personally, I thought some clarification on that point would be appreciated.

First, Anne Jansen, a PhD candidate in the English department, talked about her work on magical realism, and the way in which her longstanding fascination with that form has led her to produce work on the intersection of Postcolonial Studies and US Ethnic Literature. Because canonical magical realism has been understood as a distinctly postcolonial form, having been produced in nations such as Colombia, India, and Nigeria, it has historically been seen as arising from moments of cultural contact. In its execution, it is understood as providing formal disruption to Western cultural understandings, and ultimately privileging pre-conquest values. However, rather than disrupt this theoretical tradition, even when it’s as obviously reductive as Jameson’s “Third World Literature as National Allegory,” Jansen has chosen to examine works that can productively be understood as having much in common with canonical magical realist texts, but which are produced by authors of color within the United States. In studying this particular incarnation of the formal and theoretical tropes of magical realism, as well as placing it in the various contexts of culturally specific American traditions, like African American Literature and U.S. Latina/o Literature, Jansen has found herself precisely on the intersection between the U.S. Ethnic/Postcolonial border(or is it bridge?). She discussed the research challenges particular to her project, especially the need to attend to both the productive intersections between fields, as well as their particular histories and investments. I always enjoy hearing Jansen talk about her work (and it’s odd to be calling her “Jansen,” but for the sake of continuity…), and this was no exception.

One thing that was brought up during the Q&A was how specific many of our projects are to the OSU English Department community, as it might not have been possible at just any school for Jansen to do the kind of project she is doing here. I have to say for myself (and Jansen and I had at least one, usually two classes together every single quarter during coursework) that I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to learn about such a wide variety of literary traditions during my time here — our very first quarter, we took Adeleke Adeeko’s Introduction to Graduate Studies course as well as Joe Ponce’s Filipino American Literature and U.S. Imperialism course, which was an excellent introduction to what would be possible here. Our fields have diverged to some extent, as I have gotten more and more interested in media studies and visual culture studies, but I feel like Jansen’s work serves as a good reminder for me that there are many different modes of complexity one can choose to engage in a dissertation project. Mine is multi-media, on the bridge between social science and the humanities (at least in its framing), and foregrounds queer identity and mental illness. Jansen’s, too, takes on disciplinary bridges, not just between U.S. Ethnic and Postcolonial Studies, but also between social history and literary studies, and between U.S. Ethnic frameworks and specific fields that intersect with that rubric, like Native American and Indigenous Studies and Asian American studies.

Final comment on Anne Jansen: she has a great literature blog here.

The next presenter was Lizzie Nixon, another PhD candidate in the English department, who I had the good fortune to get to know in a seminar on Postcolonial Literature and Theory a few years back. Nixon talked about her work on the relationship between humor and trauma in prize-winning Indian, Black British, and Latina/o Literature from recent years. She talked about her interest in emotional responses to and attitudes toward significant historical events within the literature, as well as what sounds like fascinating work on the prize industry and the marketing of postcolonial literature, which been written about, but certainly merits further inquiry by scholars within this field. In addition to this conceptual framework, Nixon said that she will be looking at rhetorical narrative and cognitive approaches in order to think more deeply about the research currently happening in those fields around emotion and audience. I’ll be honest and say I can’t claim any personal expertise here, but, as came up a number of times during Q&A, research paradigms are exactly as valuable as the extent to which they help one answer one’s research questions, and Nixon’s proposed fusion of concepts is ambitious and intriguing. Again, it’s remarkable to think about the process of taking a class with someone for ten weeks, and then seeing what they ended up doing with the material with which we were presented. There’s so much to be said about U.S. Ethnic and Postcolonial Literature, and I’m so glad to be in a place where people are saying it.

I should also come out and say that, while I am never sure exactly how cognitive approaches to literature work, I know that, in media studies, they serve as complementary to the forms of analysis I myself favor, and bring to the fore important questions about the nature of the intellectual work of reading, for example, which help us to think more deeply about the work of the humanities. Again, it seems like once you’ve crossed one disciplinary bridge, others keep emerging in order to take you on your research path! And while some on the panel discussed the real risk of dilettantism, I think that everyone was in agreement that the most exciting work currently being produced across the humanities is comparative. (Indeed, as Professor Adeeko pointed out, all concepts are by definition comparative, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.) (Also for another day: that pesky Steven Johnson post I’ve got in the works.)

The final graduate student presenter was Tiffany Salter, a second-year MA student in the English department, focusing on literature produced in Hawai’i, Alaska, Guam, American Samoa, and other parts of the Pacific. Salter talked about the politics of distribution in this under-studied body of texts; for example, she noted that one was more likely to find coursework in the area at schools located on the west coast. She also talked about a concept near and dear to my own work, which is the reason for valuing a range of cultural production beyond the literary, especially if one wishes to gesture at all toward representational claims about a community. (I should note that the term representation, always fraught, was especially so during the Q&A portion of this discussion, but for good reasons. My take, and I am perhaps inadvertently attributing this to Salter as well: it’s not about one representing all, whether from outside or within, but there are reasons to challenge literature on the grounds of definitely not having much representational cachet. While, indeed, there is nothing more reprehensible than speaking for the Other, there are reasons when we’re talking about human life to talk about more than the individual.) In any case, perhaps because I don’t know much about the traditions Salter studies, I am assuming an excess similarity in our approaches :). My point was simply that I was intrigued by her interest in the terminology of resistance across forms.

And now for the professors!

The first professor to speak was Adeleke Adeeko, who gave a persuasive argument that the U.S. is obviously postcolonial, both having been a colony, and being a colonial (and neo-colonial, etc) power. My favorite argument he made was in favor of a critical reversal in which I am definitely myself invested. In my notes, I’ve written “Don’t only take from postcolonial literature; also bring something back.” (My note-taking skills tend to falter after three presentations.) I believe he was saying that it’s imperative not only to use Derrida to study Yoruba proverbs, as he has done brilliantly, but also to use your acquired understanding of Yoruba proverbs to look at Derrida anew, and transform the critical paradigm you will use in your next approach. Perhaps this is the source of the synthesis I keep trying to find a way to articulate in these posts: it’s a matter of insisting upon taking new, valid critical information as an epistemological critique of the way one tried to know things before. Although it’s of course impossible to use all of one’s knowledge at once (although it can feel like a goal while dissertating!), it is unethical not to use knowledge one has in order to refine his research question to make it more appropriate to the material in the archive at hand.

Which brings me to the third professor to speak, Koritha Mitchell, whose amazing course on the Literary Legacies of Lynching I had the good fortune to take last year. Mitchell, as always, gave an inspiring talk about the ethics of research question formulation, in the context of her own work on black-authored drama from the Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem period in African American Literature. She noted for context that it was not until the publication of the highly problematic Without Sanctuary, a collection of photographs of lynching, that the U.S. Senate finally apologized, a century after its heyday, for never having passed anti-lynching legislation. The fact that this collection of photographs reproduced the depictions of racial violence favored by the mob reveals the disturbing extent to which, as Mitchell and the inimitable Jacqueline Goldsby have explored, the logic of lynching continues to animate race relations in the U.S. Mitchell talked about how she came to study black life during the same time period through black-authored drama, which, rather than reproducing violent imagery, instead focused on loving black homes, the very existence of which was denied by the visual logic of the mob. Her research question was thus focused on how African Americans survived and continued to believe in their right to full citizenship during this period, and she found answers in the literature. It was truly inspiring to see her speak again; that class I took with her was, without a doubt, the most intellectually stimulating one I took at Ohio State. (And I took some awesome classes.)

In between Professors Adeeko and Mitchell, Joe Ponce offered his thoughts. He talked about so much, actually, that I’m not sure where to begin. He talked about post-nationalism in American studies as opposed to Saidian canonical postcolonialism, which in many ways served as a conceptual mirror for Anne Jansen’s conceptual trajectory. Ponce talked about his teaching, especially the experience of teaching Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt and Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman, in order to talk about diaspora and sex. He talked about the importance, especially within U.S. Ethnic and Postcolonial Studies, of talking about “contexts not just concepts,” as well as of thinking seriously about the “poetics of address.” But my favorite point he made was that we should value critical listening as highly as we value critical reading and writing, especially when it comes to interacting with people coming from very different contexts from ours. To me, this relates back to what Tiffany Salter was talking about, about valuing a range of cultural production and expression, some of it not “documented” in the expected ways. Actually, this point is fundamental to the argument I’m trying to make in my own work; while I want to gesture toward complex inner lives and private structures, I don’t want to document them in order to make my case. Rather, I want to trace the possibilities of and conditions for their existence, in order to make a case for valuing them, even when we don’t understand them. I’m not sure if this is what Professor Ponce was getting at — certainly, I don’t think he was thinking of fans :).

Thanks also to Chris for being an excellent MC.



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