Literary Studies in Global Contexts: Entanglements, Borders, and Belonging
Abstract: What do Brexit and the recent election in the United States mean for the Anglosphere within current global realignments? To the extent that the rise of English studies globally has been concurrent with the rise of the British Empire and the subsequent rise of the United States as global hegemon after the Second World War, what does the current situation mean for English literary studies? How are we to understand the apparent retreat of both nations from global entanglements into ethnocentric nationalisms and the building of walls, both literal and metaphoric, against perceived others who function as scapegoats for the imagined ills of these once powerful nations? What is the role of literary studies in negotiating such resurgent nationalisms and their promise of global disentanglement?
This talk will address these question from my place as a student of Canadian, indigenous, and postcolonial literatures during an anniversary year in which the Canadian state is urging us to celebrate Canada, even as the many calls to action enumerated within the Summary Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada remain to be addressed. The thinking in this paper derives from my SSHRC and CRC-funded research into globalization and cultural studies, global democracy, and communities renegotiating their identities under globalizing pressures. I will draw on my experience writing an entry on “Globalization Studies” for the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Literary Theory, for which I had to think about what globalization means specifically for literary studies. I am now preparing to respond to Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller’s collaboratively written book, Thinking Literature Across Continents (2017). Such interdisciplinary and transnational research, so much in the ascendant today, complicates understanding of the bonds linking literature to nation, and compels those of us working within literary studies to consider the ways in which the challenges of a shifting global system translate into the material conditions of our work and our lives.
I wish to recognize that this conference is taking place on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation. To make this acknowledgement is to ground ourselves in our responsibility to land, history, and the ongoing negotiations of nationalisms both recognized and unrecognized. This place is also the capital of the Canadian nation-state at the moment of its 150th birthday celebrations, and of a university that in its very name simultaneously makes claim both to the universal, through “university,” and to the indigenous, through “Ottawa.” My talk situates itself within these contested locations of belonging as they figure within the frictions and flows of globalizing processes, and the interplay of residual, dominant, resurgent, and emergent imaginaries that jostle to define the nation.[ii]
What do Brexit and the recent election in the United States mean for the Anglosphere within current global realignments? To the extent that the rise of English studies globally has been concurrent with the rise of the British Empire and the subsequent rise of the United States as global hegemon after the Second World War, what does the current situation mean for English literary studies? How are we to understand the apparent retreat of both nations from global entanglements into ethnocentric nationalisms and the building of walls, both literal and metaphoric, against perceived others who function as scapegoats for the imagined ills of these once powerful nations? What is the role of literary studies in negotiating such resurgent nationalisms and their illusory promise of global disentanglement?
At a time when climate change threatens the survival of the earth itself, and when refugees flee wars and famines in ravaged parts of the world in ever-increasing numbers, it can seem a deflection of attention away from what really matters to think about two wealthy First World Nations trying to close their borders and their minds to these disasters, many of their own making. And it may seem even more perverse to worry about the fate of English literary studies in times like these. Yet if these crises are somehow related, as I think they may be, then perhaps it could be useful to try to think about them together. Not to defend the humanities but to recognize that the challenges we face make it impossible to continue with business as usual. The humanities need to adapt to the challenges posed by global climate change in conjunction with contemporary political manifestations of the changing capitalist system as it adapts within and beyond national borders. Central to that task will be attending to the current role of the imagination in social life.
Why not to “defend” the humanities? The language of defense automatically invokes a border where in reality there is none. The humanities are deeply embedded in every dimension of how people understand their lives and the stories they tell to make sense of the world. To speak of defending the humanities yields too much foundational ground to those who would set up a division and mount an attack on the basis of that false analysis. We need to reset the terms of debate away from reactionary agendas toward forms of agenda-setting that start from our disciplinary strengths: asking questions, telling stories, reading carefully and widely, revisiting history, following through the entangled lines of thought, and listening and thinking together with others about what matters in our lives. These skills are necessary for meaningful democratic participation and for negotiating within the shifting global economy. In previous papers, I have found inspiration in Chantal Mouffe and Bonnie Honig’s versions of agonistic politics and in Carlos Fraenkel’s advocacy of an “open-ended culture of debate.” Today, I want to think further about how, through the work we do, we might enable such practices, which I see as essential to both academic and civic engagements.
One of the chief dangers of ethnocentric nationalism is its refusal to engage in such an open-ended culture of debate and the refuge it takes in what Gayatri Spivak calls “monocultures of the mind” (25). The analogy with the damage caused the earth by agricultural monoculture reinforces the link I am drawing in this paper between habits of mind that have caused the crisis of the Anthropocene and those that generate exclusionary nationalisms. The discipline of English can trace its roots to Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Education and the exclusionary nationalisms that fueled, first within the British and then the American Empires. These still find expression today. Jacob Edmund reminds us that “In the run-up to Brexit, Martin Amis hailed the coming splendid isolation of the United Kingdom as quite proper to the English language’s proven literary superiority: ‘there’s no earthly reason why anyone in the Anglosphere should desperately want to learn a foreign language’” (cited in Edmond 647). It’s harder to hold such a view in officially bilingual or multilingual nations but we all need to ask how the kind of arrogance expressed here gets produced? Has our discipline played a role in encouraging it? How might it be countered?
Further questions we need to ask ourselves as students of English include. To what extent is our discipline’s history, current organizational structure, and most popular methodologies, still infused with the ideologies of empire, including the misogynistic white nationalisms now gaining strength in the U.S., the U.K., and other parts of the world? To what extent does it promote imaginaries of possessive individualism? To what extent is it complicit with colonial modernities, and in Canada, to its settler colonial manifestations? We have been asking such questions for a while now but it is essential to remember what we have learned so far and continue to dig deeper. We also need to look at the resources within our discipline that enable us to question such destructive appeals and to offer robust alternatives. Further questions we need to ask ourselves as scholars located in Canada include: Why did ex-Toronto Mayor Ford’s supporters refer to themselves as “Ford Nation”? Why do President Trump’s supporters wrap themselves in the U.S. flag? To the extent that these appeals to leader-embodied nationalisms challenge the official nation-state, what do they suggest about contemporary democracy and its unwritten conventional and institutionalized supports? What work does nationalism do in current times, within both political and academic settings? To what extent are Canadians vulnerable to these appeals to misogynistic white nationalism? What are the legacies and institutions that render us either more or less ready to respond to such appeals?
Although Canada has close ties to the U.K. and the U.S., our democratic systems are different, in both their origins and their evolutions. As a result, appeals to nationalism work differently within each place and we need to attend to those differences. A good example might be Daniel Coleman’s important book, White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada, which documents the ways in which colonial Anglo-nationalism functioned, and continues to function, in English-Canada today. The relation between white civility and Trump-legitimated white rage is more complex than it appears. Official Canadian civility can mask unearned smugness and deflect attention from Canadian deficiencies. Attention to President Trump’s violations of expected standards of civility distracts critique from the policies he is enacting and their short and longer term impacts[iii]. My point is twofold: first, unquestioning standards of civility, assumed to apply universally, carry potentially problematic histories of classism, racism, and colonialism that operate differently within different national contexts and times; and secondly, the functions of these different standards of civility require care in unpacking when applied to leaders who are assumed to stand in for their nations and when applied to groups who are seen to violate these standards, My first point cautions against analysis pitting Trudeau against Trump and my second point raises at least two further examples: Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of Trump supporters as “deplorables” and the anger many of those ethnic nationalists express for the failure of immigrants, in their view, to observe local standards of behavior.
It is also important to recognize that appeals to populism, whether put forward by Breitbart News or the Manning Centre, are not in themselves either innately or widely popular. Basically decent people can be roused to fury but propaganda is necessary to persuade people to see themselves, others, and their world in this way. Neither knowledge of history nor the lived evidence of people’s daily lives necessarily support the assumptions upon which the rhetoric of the war on terror and the fear of foreign others, now depends. That securitization rhetoric needs to be produced and reinforced on a daily basis. Social media’s capacity for insulating people from the world around us further amplifies propaganda that fuels white nationalism and its populism. As postcolonial theory teaches us, ignorance needs to be produced, continuously reinforced, and where possible, actually rewarded for it to squeeze out experiential and formal forms of knowledge, including those habits of critique and reasoned debate that challenge its dominance. In these contexts, ignorance is not a sign of stupidity or lack, as too commonly assumed, but rather a produced certainty about the ways things are and should be, and a produced skepticism about claims otherwise. In its current nationalist forms, in the UK, the US, and Canada, such ignorance relies on the durability of imperial survivals that enable the beneficiaries of discriminatory practices perpetrated by colonialism to misidentify their privilege even as they are able to enjoy its ongoing fruits.[iv]
The clash of civilizations model is a sturdy survival from the days of European imperialism. It relies on an imagined ideal of nations as discrete containers composed of a formula that equates one nation, one language, one ethnicized people, and one culture to a single nation-state, in which the nation is internally homogenous. That container model of a static nation-state is then projected outward within an imagined international system based on cut-throat competition among a grouping of similar monocentric nations. That same model of separate spheres works to set up borders between the human sciences and other sciences, theorized as incommensurable cultures. And it works within English literary studies in Canada to mask the dominance of a focus on England by allocating several period courses to the literature of that island, and only single courses to Canada, the United States, and the rest of the world. As a result of this structure, I find some undergraduates automatically equating English with language in general, and assuming that English literature was the only literature produced in earlier periods or that English is inherently superior to other languages and literatures.
Globally, the container model of nation-states is institutionalized within bodies such as the United Nations but it is a model that has always been challenged by other ways of understanding how people can live and work together within and across state boundaries. The European Union initially provided a model of potential cooperation across national borders within a reimagined supra-regionalism, but it too retains the container model simply scaled up to a higher level. Still, the EU, despite its many failings, appears to challenge the nationalisms that were mobilized by Brexit and that are resurgent in the contemporary United States. Other challenges to these once residual and now re-emergent forms of nationalism come from diverse sources. Cosmopolitan, human rights, indigenous, feminist, ecocritical, queer, critical race, comparative literature, and new materialist studies, each in their own ways, carry potential to point out the inadequacy of the container-state imaginary to accommodate the actual lifeworlds of human collectivities and their systems of exchange. Ethnic nationalisms need to attack these initiatives to make space for themselves. The models of entanglement developed in these interdisciplinary fields offer alternative ways of conceiving accountability, responsibility, and agency based on the challenges they mount to the separations of nature and culture, individual and society, and ontology and epistemology, as each of these has conventionally been theorized.
In his thinking through the relations of blobs and lines, Tim Ingold offers some resonant materially-based metaphors for helping conceive of human relationality differently. Blob and line in ever-shifting relation together create an alternative to the container-based thinking that enables faith in the power of walls and policed borders. For Ingold, “Blobs have volume, mass, density: they give us materials. Lines have none of these. What they have, which blobs do not, is torsion, flexion, and vivacity. They give us life. Life began when lines began to emerge and to escape the monopoly of blobs. Where the blob attests to the principle of territorialization, the line bears out the contrary principle of deterritorialization.” Ingold argues that “in a world where things are continually coming into being through processes of growth and movement—that is, in a word of life—knotting is the fundamental principle of coherence.” This insight has been blocked, he suggests, by the “power of an alternative set of closely linked metaphors. These are the building block, the chain, and the container.” Ingold explains: “though increasingly challenged in fields ranging from particle physics and molecular biology to cognitive science, these metaphors still retain much of their appeal. They lead us to think of a world which is not so much woven from ever unspooling strands as assembled from pre-cut pieces.” For example, he notes “psychologists continue to speak of the building blocks of thought and of the mind as a container equipped with certain capacities for acquiring epistemic content …” and physicists speak of seeking “the most fundamental building blocks of the universe itself.” The ubiquity of such dead metaphors testifies to the ways they now seem merely the common sense and inescapable descriptors of reality. Ingold’s work, along with that of Anna Tsing, Karen Barad, and Donna Haraway, thus offers alternative metaphorical understandings of such matters with the potential to reshape understandings of the human potential to reimagine community, kinship, and relationality beyond the fear-based imaginaries of reactionary nationalisms.
To rethink human relations through entanglements with others rather than seeking to build walls or delink from such systems is modelled in many of the stories we in literary studies read, teach, and share, helping to expand the possible futures we can imagine. Nationalist idealisms fueling the clash- of- civilizations model die hard for many reasons but here I will stress two. First, they are easier because they are familiar and are repeated and reinforced everywhere. Secondly, they prove useful to capitalism and those benefitting from its shifting dynamics. Who benefits from the upheavals begun by Brexit and Trump’s unconventional behaviour? Who benefits from the appointments and policies already enacted by Trump? The President has surrounded himself with plutocrats who embody the 1% who control so much of the world’s wealth already. They will benefit from the deregulation, privatization, and infrastructural initiatives now underway; from tax cuts for business, which will further hollow out the ability of the state to govern responsibly on behalf of all its citizens; and from diverting what diminished public funds remain toward the military, prison, and private-system educational expansions necessitated by this government’s priorities.
This new American government is not unprecedented. It is true the style is different, less polite and more defiantly destabilizing of the hard-won global order that was forged out of the violence of the Second World War. And that change in style is significant, in that it indicates that the gloves are now off. Diplomacy and soft power are no longer seen as necessary in fulfilling either deregulatory goals or American exceptionalism. But even more importantly, the substance of American policy priorities behind the change in style remains the same. As Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy remind us, citing Noam Chomsky, the UN “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was passed in 1948, the same year that George Kennan, American State Department Policy Planning chief, claimed “that if we are to sustain the ‘disparity’ between our [American] wealth and the poverty of others we must put aside ‘idealistic slogans’ and keep to ‘straight power concepts’” (640). The US has never diverged from this credo. President Trump reiterates these priorities and makes them more explicit, shifting away from soft power– diplomacy, education, and trade– backed by superior military power toward stirring up retrograde nationalisms domestically and further expanding the military to back belligerence abroad.
Tariq Ali traces a direct policy line from Thatcher and Reagan, through the Clintons, the Bushes, and Obama that runs the UK and the US according to the interests of capital, undermining democracy and social services, now that their legitimating function is no longer needed. Ali notes: “Contemporary capitalism requires a proper domestic and international legal scaffolding, and referees to adjudicate on inter-company disputes and property rights, but it has no real need for a democratic structure, except as window dressing.” [v] Nancy Fraser concurs, identifying the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as one between “progressive neoliberalism” and “reactionary populism,” a choice, she argues, that her readers should refuse.
Yet simply pointing this out will not be enough. Like Fraser, I believe we need to refuse the terms of this false choice. But I also see logic behind Trump’s use of reactionary populism to discredit universities, climate science, responsible journalism, and the humanities, by naming them as elites, the purveyors of “fake news,” and “enemies within,” who undermine national security along concurrent lines to those terrorists associated with radical Islam. Therefore, the current strategy of calling Trump stupid or deranged is counter-productive as well as ill-conceived. It mis-identifies the problem, making addressing it even harder than it already is. Current strategies of pointing out the personal and systemic damage caused by defunding academic work and restricting the travel and immigration upon which an open democracy depends, fail to address the values of these decision-makers and their supporters, while risking construal as the whining of an already-privileged few. Universities must continue to argue for the value of open societies and the free flow of peoples and ideas, because these are foundational to healthy democracies. At the same time, however, it is clear that attacks on the universities, such as that launched recently by Betsy de Vos, are part of a deliberate strategy to destroy public education, opening education as another market for profit rather than public good, and disabling the capacity for informed critique. If we recognize those facts, then we will need to choose our tactics accordingly. Withdrawing services may not work for academics now any more than it worked for the air traffic controllers under Reagan. We have seen such attacks on experts and intellectual elites before, in Mao’s China and other places taken over by dictatorships reliant on similar appeals to a people. Because these attacks on elites are so viscerally appealing to those whose identities are validated by the divisions they sow, and so self-confirming in their biases, anyone wishing to question these beliefs cannot afford to debate such imaginaries on their own terms.
Instead, we need to undermine the premises behind them on several fronts simultaneously. We need to look at the whole spectrum of actions that are being authorized “in the name of nationalism,” as our conference title suggests. We need to consider who benefits from such actions. Postcolonial and human rights studies have devoted significant energy to understanding how trauma is transmitted across generations amongst the survivors of atrocities. That work needs to be balanced by more attention to the transmission of beliefs in entitlement across generations of beneficiaries, not just of obvious atrocities but also of the slow violences of systems founded on the development of underdevelopment in Third World nations, and transnational systems of land expropriations, enslavements, and the waging of proxy wars. Literary scholars can learn from work across the disciplines in elucidating how the values that disown accountability for such systems are maintained and promoted today.
If the production of ignorance depends in part on unremitting repetition, as I have suggested, then those of us committed to the search for truth in our research need to find ways to be equally persistent. If ignorance is produced through insisting that inequalities be adjudicated upon a supposedly equal playing field in which privilege and deprivation are given equal weight, then that framing needs to be challenged. If a false model of balance based on a “he said, she said” model is advanced, with no attention to the inequalities built into that structure, then we need to demolish these framings and refuse to play by these rules. If ignorance depends on denying complexity and falsely asserting that clarity can only be found in over-simplification, then we need to find ways of making the complex more accessible and more pleasurable, not by denying the difficulties of difficult knowledge but by enabling entrance into the pleasures of engaging the difficult. If false certainty is seen as more welcome than genuine uncertainty, then we need to find ways to enable people to feel safer in their daily lives and thus enabled to experiment in engaging the unknown. These are steps to be taken within our society, our disciplines, and our universities.
Finally, within these spaces of engagement, we need to offer more appealing alternatives, both rhetorically and practically. Those misogynistic, racist, and inflammatory actions, currently underway in the name of the U.S. government, while horrific in their impact on many ordinary people’s lives, claim to be enacted in the name of an anti-globalization nationalism, yet if one looks more closely at the larger sphere of engagements of which they form a part, then a different picture emerges. Anger at neoliberal economic globalization is being directed at progressive cosmopolitan globalization. What we are seeing on the economic front is yet another stage in neoliberal globalization, in which the regulatory mechanisms through which the state once provided protections for its citizens and their lifeworlds, and the institutional bases on which democratic practices depend, are together rapidly being dismantled. Brexit and Trumpism are different in many respects but what they share is a commitment to deregulation, increased precarity, and an individualism freed of all social ties and supports. The freedom they espouse in the name of the nation is the freedom of the individual absent of context, which in practice means the freedom of plutocrats and the corporations they own.
I see two big challenges here for English students. The first is posed by language. In our entangled world, words are always in motion and mean differently even as people converse across borders of experience and understanding, making communication fraught with friction and confusions. We use what appear to be the same words but we mean them differently. The second is the role of institutions in either facilitating or inhibiting such communicational cross-talk. In literary studies, we need to pay more attention to both these dimensions of our work.
In a paper I delivered last fall,[vi] I tried to figure out why Canada, although not immune to exclusionary nationalisms, currently seems to be in a better position to resist them. I concluded that numerous factors (geographical, historical, cultural, and political) had combined to provide most Canadians with both institutional and ideological supports for our nation’s founding commitment to peace, order, and good government and for their elaboration into policies of bilingualism, multiculturalism, and managed immigration. A few of these institutionalized supports include: universal health care, a strong public education system, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and courts committed to enforcing it, a widely shared view of the law as a living tree, a state-managed immigration system largely run in the interests of the state, a willingness to expand monocultural nationalisms into bicultural, multicultural, and transcultural models, and now, we hope, to re-found the Canadian state on recognition of indigenous prior ownership of the land and all that entails in terms of rethinking our internal “nation to nation” partnerships on more equitable grounds.
One element I neglected to mention that I now see as key is our national commitment to a voting system that comparatively speaking is relatively free from gerrymandering and from distortion through unequal access to campaign financing. This is a system where there are limits on campaign financing and there is little voter suppression. As a result, while the number of people actually voting in elections is not as high as we would wish, there is more voter participation, less voter suppression, and less distortion through fundraising, than in our neighbor to the south. These regulations produce greater trust (although still not enough) in the system. Some of these supports were deliberately weakened by the previous Canadian government and not all have yet been reinstated. Bringing back the compulsory long form census and the Court Challenges program will help. But there is more to be done to replace what was lost over the last ten years in creating conditions in which people can freely debate improvements and trust in the processes to get them made.
My point here is that a nation based on these institutional supports and the security they provide is on much stronger ground than one based on atavistic appeals to an idealized past. I do not see Canada as immune to such challenges. Already Trudeau’s form of “progressive neoliberalism” is losing its allure. But we do have resources here that are not available elsewhere, in which people can still turn to the nation-state for some forms of support and redress.
Each state must find the basis of a national imaginary that works best for them. At the same time, every nation-state is part of a transworld system that is transitioning away from an international to a globalizing model. Citizens of those First World nations that benefited from the old models, in which the rules were skewed in their favour, may long for a return to that world, but corporations looking to the future appear to be operating on two fronts: exploiting nostalgia for glory days of the past in order to engineer institutional innovations that will enable them to profit moving forward. Here is where I see some of the danger for Canada. Our history, geography, and institutional protections may have insulated us from some of the insecurities of the changing world system but the social protections they provide have their limits as capitalism continues to rearrange desires in its destructive image.
So where does that leave our inquiries so far? Humanities research shows us that the world has always been globalized, if we define globalization as characterized by movements across and within shifting sets of borders and patterns of trade. That historically-based research remains important in countering the anti-globalization panics of the ethnocentric nationalisms being promoted so vigorously today. The more specialized sense of globalization associated with neoliberal imaginaries of a post Second World War geopolitical world, the financialization of the economy, the threat of homogenizing culture, and the commodification of everything has complicated understanding of what globalization means and what it might mean. The globalization simplistically invoked as the enemy of Brexit and Trump voters is not the globalization that most humanities scholars understand when we write about pre-modern forms of globalization, when we advocate (with Appadurai) ‘globalizing the research imagination,’ or when we critique imperialism, neoliberal capitalism, or the form of “Empire” identified by Hardt and Negri.
I have suggested that theorists and poets, often working with biologists and physicists, are now offering more complex models of the ways in which humans interact with other entities, including other humans, in our world. Although interact is not exactly the right word either. To use it reminds us how deeply embedded those old monocentric ideals of static and bounded ontologies really are.
To get around the problem of the assumptions behind by that word, “interact,” Karen Barad offers “intra-act.” From her work in quantum physics, she argues that the world works through intra-relation. She claims: “How reality is understood matters” (1998 ,103). For her, “the political potential of deconstructive analysis lies not in the simple recognition of the inevitability of exclusions, but in insisting upon accountability for the particular exclusions that are enacted and in taking up the responsibility to perpetually contest and rework the boundaries” (103-104). The ontology she proposes “does not posit some fixed notion of being that is prior to signification (as the classical realist assumes), but neither is being completely inaccessible to language (as in Kantian transcendentalism), nor completely of language (as in linguistic monism).” Her work is more densely argued, but I find an affinity between her thinking and that of Tim Ingold cited earlier. What she calls agential realism “is continually reconstituted through our material-discursive intra-actions” (104 emphasis in original). She seeks to move analysis of how intelligibility is created away from models of representation toward those enabled by entanglement. Given the centrality of representation to both political and literary theories, such a shift offers a challenge to established thinking in both fields.
What would English studies look like if we sought to make that shift? Barad’s book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, takes its title from the wording of a poem, “Cascade Experiment” by Alice Fulton. Poetry and physics together guide her toward imagining new forms of intelligibility. The challenge is not to apply another discipline to our own but to move beyond our disciplinary comfort zones into zones of encounter that can lead us into articulations that better express our revised understanding of reality and the parameters of agency within it. The pressures derived from globalization and the Anthropocene are pushing thinking in new directions: toward deep history, big data, alternative social imaginaries of indigenous and non-Western cultures, and feminist and ecocritical understandings of entanglement. Within such models, nations no longer appear as the central structural modes of organization for collectivities even as human beings no longer appear as the only networked actors. As Barad warns, every frame involves exclusions as well as inclusions and we need to take responsibility for how they work in the world. These developments can lead to dead ends –what Ingold finds in object oriented ontology—but they can also open exciting avenues for advancing what Arjun Appadurai calls “the research imagination” and for framing it anew within what he names “the right to research.” If it is true that global social justice depends upon global cognitive justice, as Boaventura Sousa de Santos and his collaborators argue, and as I believe, then the challenge of situating national imaginaries within the larger framework of an “ecologies of knowledges” approach defines a provisional framework through which we might re-examine fundamental imaginings of home, identity, and responsibility.
To conclude, I have suggested that if nationalism as conventionally understood within the framework of the West has always served the interests of the state, then observers need to ask what interests are being served by contemporary appeals to ethnocentric insularity. I have argued that if we pay too much attention to the nationalist rhetoric, we may be missing a bigger picture. In mobilizing nationalism against globalization, the spokespeople for these nationalisms are actually paving the way for more intensified forms of neoliberal globalization. In blaming immigration for increased precarity, such appeals divert attention from those who are truly culpable. In locating fear in terrorism, attention is diverted from climate change and its impacts. I see this nationalist rhetoric as a smokescreen for further deregulation: dismantling state protections for people and for the earth, air, oceans and other living creatures that sustain us all. How we name an issue plays a role in addressing it. We need to ask: how has xenophobic, misogynistic nationalism become the default resource when people become frightened for their security? And how can the terms of the discussions be altered?
At the heart of these debates is the question of how people understand their world, their agency, and their ability to imagine a better future. Can literary studies play a role in facilitating constructive civic debates around these questions and strengthening people’s ability to imagine otherwise? We need to take discussion beyond the easy clichés of using literary texts to encourage empathy. We know that reading is not always automatically humanizing. With the rise of many competing theories within the broad domain of the posthumanities, we know too that humanizing the imagination is a fundamentally problematic goal in any case. If humans are the problem identified by naming our current era “the Anthropocene,” then perhaps humanity itself needs to be rethought more carefully. Alternative names for contemporary crises, such as “Capitalocene,” shift the blame from all people to some people but without fundamentally enabling a clearer picture of where literature fits within these large scale analyses. Neither “methodological nationalism” nor “methodological cosmopolitanism” seem adequate to the current situation. Could these methodologies be rethought beyond their anthropocentric origins to better meet the challenge of the Anthropocene?
Dipesh Chakrabarty argues: “We don’t yet know what non-anthropocentrism would practically mean” (42). He turns to geologists, biologists, and earth systems scientists and their awareness of “deep time” for insight into answering such a question. Some of the students with whom I am currently working are re-examining the limits of national imaginaries (Nunes), and turning to Karen Barad’s theories of “agential realism” (Shaw), to ecopoetics (Dennis Unrau), and to the speculative fictions of creative writers (Strong) in similarly motivated searches for an ethics appropriate to our time and place. Another (Duthie-Kennikutt) is exploring the decolonial indigenous imaginary of vivir bien, “a Spanish translation from indigenous terminologies such as suma qamaña in Aymara, sumac kawsay in Quechua, and ñandereko in Guarani elaborated by social activist, indigenous organizations, anthropologists, and other scholars,” which loosely translated into English means “living well” according to a principle that one cannot live well unless others do also (Ranta 428). Students in Education are exploring dimensions of cognitive justice in fields as varied as additional language learning (Kharchenko), new media usage (Akoh), and instructor feedback on assignments (Struch). I am learning so much from working with these students and others over the years and look forward to learning more from all of you during the course of this conference.
In 2012, Spivak argued that ‘the world needs an epistemological change that will rearrange desires” (2). That change is now coming through the work of feminist thinkers such as Barad, Haraway, and Tsing, and here in Canada, from the stories of indigenous resurgence articulated by thinkers such as Leanne Simpson, Neal McLeod, James Sakej Henderson, and Taiaiake Alfred. These alternative indigenous nationalisms come from a different place than those fueling Brexit and Trump, as their reclamations of their own once discounted languages are now making clear. These alternative nationalisms suggest the possibility of dancing “a new world into existence” (Simpson 149). Both forms of contemporary nationalism compel us to look more deeply into the intra-actions of matter and meaning for founding ethical relations beyond the impoverished imaginings currently on offer within hegemonic understandings.
Ali, Tariq. (2015) The Extreme Centre: A Warning. London: Verso.
Appadurai, Arjun (2006) “The Right to Research.” Globalisation, Societies and Education, vol.4, no. 7. 167-177.
Barad, Karen (1998). “Getting Real: Technoscientific Practices and the Materialization of Reality.” differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 10.2. 87-127.
—. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke UP.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. (2017) “The Future of the Human Sciences in the Age of Humans: A Note.” European Journal of Social Theory. Vol.20 (1) 39-43.
Coleman, Daniel. (2006) White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada. Toronto: UTP.
Edmond, Jacob. (2016) “No Discipline: An Introduction to “The Indiscipline of Comparison.’” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 53, no.4. 647-659.
Fischlin, Daniel and Martha Nandorfy. (2002) Eduardo Galeano: Through the Looking Glass. Montreal: Black Rose.
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[i] My thanks to the conference organizers for inspiring my further thinking on this theme, my critical and encouraging editor-readers, Vanessa Nunes and Melanie Dennis Unrau, for helpful suggestions and feedback, and the Canada Research Chairs program for research funding that makes this work possible.
[ii] I am indebted to Raymond Williams for his theorizations of these relations.
[iii] After his presidential address of Feb 28, 2017, he gained positive attention for simply, briefly, and minimally returning to the performances of civility expected from a President, without in any way withdrawing from the actions that should continue to disturb any observers who care about women’s rights, human rights, social justice, and democracy.
[iv] See Ann Laura Stoler, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times, for further analysis of this concept. According to Stoler, “the analytical tools we use to identify either historical continuities or, alternatively, profound ruptures from the past may be obstacles rather than openings.” She also notes there could “be a problem with our vocabularies,” suggesting that we “need to train our senses beyond the more easily identifiable forms that some colonial scholarship schools us to recognize and see.” In this respect, she is thinking about the widespread uses of the “‘haunting’ trace,” “an indelible if invisible gash,” “an enduring fissure, a durable mark.” To accomplish such a task, it would be interesting to start by working with Tim Ingold’s provocative rethinking of lines.
[v] The new economic order Ali cites as summarized by the World Bank fits well with Trump’s agenda in most respects: “ruthless curbs on public expenditure; tax ‘reforms’ … allowing the markets (banks) to determine interest rates … systematic privatization of all state enterprises; and effective deregulation.” The one exception is “the elimination of quotas and tariffs, thus encouraging foreign direct investments.” These remain policies Trump advocates for other regimes while insisting on the right of the U.S. to impose quotas and tariffs on others in the name of a reinvigorated nationalism.
[vi] “Renewing Transcultural Dialogues in the Age of the Anthropocene,” Paper for the 4th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Keynote March 18 2017 In the Spirit of Nationalism: Reconsidering the Intersections of Nation and Literature
Department of English Tenth Graduate Student Conference
University of Ottawa
17-19 March 2017