There are three main areas of focus for this talk.
- Arts-based research, a context for an emergent scholarly practice;
- Bruno Latour’s ideas of assembly, epistemology, and the shifting ground of critical practice;
- Erin Mouré writing as way into CanLit as a “matter of concern.”
I. An Arts-based research in a new university
For 7 years, I have been employed in an “Art School.” Participating in Emily Carr’s transformation from Institute to University, I have witnessed the power of a new research agenda and its link to the growing popularity of post-secondary Art and Design education. As researcher, cultural theorist, faculty member, graduate supervisor, and member of an inaugural Research Ethics Board, I have seen remarkable shifts in critical perspectives and an emergent concern with creative practice-based research.
My work at Emily Carr builds on my doctoral research around the “spatial turn” in contemporary culture; it also draws on involvement in cultural production. Post graduation, I was uncomfortable with the division of labour between scholarship and creative production, and I looked for opportunities to work on the production-side of CanLit.
Roy Miki, my PhD supervisor was an excellent role model. I soon found my way into editing and publishing.The city I was studying and working in, together with significant changes to the nature of scholarly and creative practice, played a dramatic part in defining or redefining the conditions or this professional transformation. As seems to be the case with many of my Vancouver-based colleagues and associates, involvement with creative writing led to working with curators, visual artists and other cultural producers (Clint Burnham, Jeff Derksen, Larissa Lai, Ashok Mathur, Lisa Robertson, Fred Wah, Rita Wong, among others).
Yet, despite the progressive politics that underwrites these types of collaborations between academics and artist, I am worried about the way that creative production tends to be co-opted by neoliberal forces.
As critics suggest, neoliberal policy and practice reshapes the university in key ways: 1/ a marked drive by universities to secure external research funding, across disciplines and faculties; 2/ growing interest in monetizing research and pedagogy (e.g. through online delivery, lifelong learning programs, “cost recovery” degrees); 3/ emphasis on internationalization or a strong international profile; 4/ collaborations with industry or “community partnerships.
In the push toward the neoliberal university and a normalization of the new knowledge economy, including creative industries, we need to think about how practice-based art and design research might resist dominant modalities. This, I argue, means thinking about how we do culture differently.
II. Bruno Latour
Thus, I enter a discussion on Contemporary Canadian urban writing with a reservations about the present and future of literary studies. In a climate of neoliberalization, how to do we reclaim interdisciplinarity, internationalization, or (even) the concept of accountability? How do we maintain a vital interest in Canadian writing in this epoque of media convergence (Jenkins)? Can CanLit survive the end of the book? Should it?
Crossing between creative and critical practice is gratifying and challenging. On the one hand, there are the pitfalls of dilettantism or amateurism. On the other hand, there are professional concerns. For example, how does one fit creative methods in a scholarly CV? What mechanism are in place to value and evaluate gallery exhibitions, curation, artist talks, project development, or web design among standard research outcomes. How are these other practices recognized by tenure and promotion committees?
These material concerns point to an crucial aporia in thinking about contemporary scholarship and the reorganization of disciplinary practices, especially as inter-/transdisciplinarity—linked as they are to knowledge translation (KT), knowledge mobilization (KM), and accounting for research outcomes.
I am indebted to Simon Levin for introducing me to Bruno Latour’s work, and for helping me, through our collaborative teaching and research, to understand ANTs potential for coming to terms with public art and creative practice more generally. I’m particularly drawn to Latour’s critique of critical theory, which he sees as a set of 20th century methods that are ill-equipped to deal with contemporary, 21st century problems—war and global warming / ecological devastation.
Latour attempts to re-articulate the association of Science and politics. His work provides a useful way into discussions of about links between knowledge and culture or a framework with which to come to terms with epistemological change. For my purposes, it helps us to how literary studies might be resituated in relation dramatic shifts in contemporary cultural production (and consumption), especially for emerging publics.
The image above is from an 2005 exhibition put together by Latour and Peter Weibel at ZKM in Karlsruhe. The weighty catalogue for which provides an important way into cultural production from a perspective Latour identifies as Dingpolitik. Focusing on the idea of thing as (social) assembly, Latour, with reference to Heidegger’s What is a thing, follows etymological links back through Old English, German to Ding, “‘meeting’ and ‘matter’, ‘concern’ as well as ‘inanimate objects’.”
Latour draws attention to the Icelandic althingi or parliament, which ran from 930 to 1789 at Þingvellir, a site in the rift valley marking the crest of the mid-Atlantic ridge, or meeting point of North American and Eurasian plates.
Developing a link between this place and the act of public assembly, Latour spatializes objects. Key aspect of this move, involves his reading of the 2003 explosion of NASA’s Columbia Shuttle. Latour argues that when the shuttle explodes it is transformed from an object, a mere “matter of fact” and becomes an assembly of not just parts but complex social processes and highly specialized responsibilities. As the rocket scientist reassembled the bits of the explode craft in a hangar they provide something of a diagram of how things have come together.
Matter of Concern
This transformation from the smooth to tangled or exploded object is linked to Latour’s distinction between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern.”
Each piece of the shuttle is a “matter of concern”—the product or work of vast assemblage of actors, which for Latour includes human and nonhumans. This example provides a way into thinking about how objects become real, or how scientists produce knowledge that results in what we might commonly think of as real things. It is as if, to quote Latour from another context, one of the “smooth objects to which we had been accustomed to up to now, [is] giving way to risky attachments, tangled objects” (Politics of Nature, 23).
For Latour, matters of fact have four essential characteristics: 1/ they have “clear boundaries, a well-defined essence,” 2/ “the researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and technicians who conceived and produced these objects and brought them to market become invisible“; 3/ the “‘risk-free object’ brought with it … consequences … always conceived in the form of an impact on a different universe, composed of entities less easy to delimit, and which were designated by vague names such as ‘ social factors,’ ‘political dimensions,’ or ‘irrational aspects”; 4/ when these objects did produce unexpected consequences, sometimes “catastrophic,” these were seen to come from outside and “never had an impact on the initial definition of the object, with its boundaries and its essence” (22-23).
Matters of concern, however, are of an entirely different order: 1/ “they have no clear boundaries, no well-defined essences, no sharp separation between own hard kernel and their environment…. they take on the aspects of tangled beings, forming rhizomes and networks”; 2/ there producers are visible, “they appear in broad daylight, embarrassed, controversial, complicated, implicated, with all their instruments, laboratories, workshops and factories”; 3/ “these quasi objects have no impact, properly speaking,” having instead “numerous connections, tentacles, and pseudopods”; 4/ they are expected to produce unexpected consequences “that properly belong to them, for which they accept responsibility, from which they draw lessons, according to a quite a visible process of apprenticeship” (Latour 24).
III. Erin Moure, urban writing as a matter of concern
This lengthy set up leads me to Erin Mouré writing as a matter of concern. Her unique approach to literary text and context make it difficult to disentangle her writing from other tangled beings. As such, I want to suggest that Mouré’s writing provides a key way into thinking about Canadian literary studies as a matter of concern. It is a complex model of sorts, and one that I might argue helps to re-situate CanLit within a network of associations or concatenations. Her writing take us back to its earliest moments—reworking links that radically challenge the geo-political function of the discipline.
The three texts I propose to look at—Search Procedures, A Frame of the Book, and O’Cidadan—pose the question of writing as an open proposition or problem, without proposing answers, or at least those that can be easily abstracted from the reading process. This is not to suggest that these textss refuse referentiality—they do of course. Nor do I want to allow them to swing in the breeze of an easy relativism. Instead, I would argue that they propose an ethics of reading that help map a terrain for engagement.
Mouré’s poetic texts are distinct ways of knowing—sets of questions and systematic re-evaluation of the literary object / objective. As each text provides detailed acknowledgments of the people, places, texts (actors: human and non-human) that provide the conditions of composition, they might work somewhat like a map, blueprint or exploded diagram of contemporary urban writing.
Mouré’s trilogy take us across the millenium and through a range of geo-political stops, moving through languages and complex philosophical discourses in a manner that excites and challenges readers. Thus, a central concern in the writing is between the writer/narrator and her reader/s—and her readings.
These through texts and the critical and cultural concerns they raise provide a platform for my ongoing investigation of the limits of literary studies as a contemporary media practice.