The State of the Union

Life—it is often remarked—can imitate art, reversing the polarity of what we usually understand as the direction of mimesis. In recent weeks, it has been the case that life has imitated scholarship. Those of you who read my blog regularly or know me as an instructor and researcher are no doubt fully aware of my attempts to reclaim “The Ivory Tower” as an ethical position in which both the academy as a whole and my discipline of literary studies operate at a certain critical distance from what others tend, rather unimaginatively, to designate as “real life”. I advocate for the intrinsic value of research, beyond any utilitarian insistence on relevance, or (gulp) “impact”. Yet what happens in books does not stay in books: they actuate and drive history as much as flesh-and-blood actors. And what has been happening in both books and life for me recently is the tension between union and disunion.

A brief political aside: while I strongly support Scottish self-governance, I feared the damaging loss last week’s referendum might wreak upon the country of my origin. My attachment to England apparently rests heavily on its political and cultural counterweights in the United Kingdom. I will no longer rehearse my position as, no doubt, every American I’ve encountered over the last month is fully aware of it by now, despite my best efforts to shield myself from the demand for commentary. (Such commentary, I admit, has been equally inflected by my cultural consumption of Walter Scott and Outlander.) I must, however, dwell on questions of the nation, union and belonging for the purposes of my scholarship. In the two seminars I am taking this semester, my projects have begun to evolve along the following lines: the further pursuit of my interest in the transatlantic formation of genre through material and intellectual exchange, and the commencement of an inquiry into the Victorian novel’s invocation of sympathy as a necessarily individualized force for nation-building.

As part of the latter class, I have been reading Amanda Anderson’s The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment. In considering literary figures such as the disaporic Jew, Anderson also turns to my old friend, Lucy Snowe, whose travails as a teacher abroad clearly failed to put me off. One theoretical tradition that Anderson draws upon suggests that “cultural conditions might even require the social critic to become an exile, to radically separate him- or herself” (27). Is that what I’ve done to myself, reader? I have found myself recognizing how a displaced scholar characterized his position: “Surely this is Utopia, this life between two cultures equally admirable and deficient”. The very liminality that suggests I am in “no place” is where I have found my strongest sense of belonging. To choose another country, to leave your own: such guarantees of detachment toward national cultures fail to acknowledge what has emerged in discussions with colleagues about the nineteenth-century novel’s depiction of processes of identification, namely, affiliation’s roots in trauma. My chosen exile has become the source of not merely empathy but—for me—has led to the greatest sense of acceptance I’ve ever known: the unexpected comfort of cosmopolitanism.