Untimely Passages: Dossiers from the Other Shore. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
If, over the last half century, you have come into contact with an especially trail-blazing British Columbia humanities scholar, activist, artist, journalist, interloper in academia, or autodidactic flâneur, odds are they either studied with Jerry Zaslove, collaborated with him, or operated in close quarters with someone in his orbit. In this microcosm, one is never more than two degrees from Jerry. A professor in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University and the founding director of its Institute for the Humanities, Jerry edified his students and colleagues alike with a rare combination of humanity and erudition as he engaged them in far-reaching conversations about literature, art, politics, history, the arc of the humanities, and the volatile cross-currents of urban life. And yet many in his fold have remarked how unfortunate it is that he never wrote the kind of academic monograph expected of scholars of his station. Without skipping a beat, his advocates would respond, “Then again, his students are his body of work.” And there is admittedly a profound sense in which that pervasive wisdom about the Zaslovosphere hits the mark.
Fortunately, there is now another notable text to engage with. Towards the end of his life, Jerry gathered many of his essays for publication in book form. Keenly aware of the timeline, he titled the book Untimely Passages and completed it just before his passing in 2021. Given that he was a trenchant critic of the careerism that dominates academia, it should come as no surprise that the form taken by Jerry’s essay collection playfully subverts the imperious genre conventions of an overridingly neo-liberal academic sphere. Untimely Passages is organized into sections, or “dossiers,” as Jerry calls them, each of which serves as a loose organizing principle for a bundle of essay-chapters. “While they may appear to be diverse essays,” writes Zaslove, “they are united by a common cause—romantic anti-capitalism as a form of resistance and interventions into a culture that has come to be dangerous for humankind” (3).
In his artful foreword, Samir Gandesha, a long-time Zaslove colleague and collaborator, explains that the book’s title speaks to much more than its author’s mortality; it invokes the lives and ideas of two seminal intellectual fellow-travellers, philosopher-poets who exerted an immense influence on Jerry’s project. The concept of “untimeliness” (or “unfashionableness”) is a hyperlink to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, in which he inveighs against the common but moribund relationships to history that he witnessed in turn-of-the-century Germany. The notion of “passages” hearkens back to Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk (Arcades Project), which collects his scattered thoughts and associations bound up with, as Gandesha puts it, “capitalism’s dream about its own self-overcoming through a paradoxical form of awakening” (xii).
Like Nietzsche and Benjamin, Jerry operated from a philosophical stance that was simultaneously of a particular time and place (in his case, North America’s West Coast in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries) and situated radically on the fringes of it. As a consummate outsider who improbably made his way into the nerve centre of Vancouver’s fledgling humanities scene, he includes among his “ideal readers” a lengthy list of kindred dissident spirits: “the service nomads, chimerical patriots of the local neighbourhoods; the exiles, migrants, strangers, members of the intelligentsia who are not bureaucrats; [. . .] hybrids, dropouts, anarchists, tricksters, utopians, visionaries, mystics, psychoanalysts, parasitic and natural anarchists” (14). With this audience of disenchanted “Mercurians” in mind, he mobilizes the ideas of a legion of philosophers, psychoanalytic scholars, and cultural critics, bringing their conceptual repertoires to bear on a range of contemporary socio-economic and cultural phenomena. While many of the theorists in his arsenal are canonical modernist thinkers (Nietzsche, Freud, Benjamin, Arendt, etc.), there are also some lesser-known standouts. Especially noteworthy are the critical concerns of Jerry’s former professor, Wayne Burns, whose “parasitic anarchist” resistance to fashionable literary-theoretical norms leaves a tangible imprint on every essay. The ruminations of Siegfried Kracauer also crackle through the dossiers. A less celebrated member of the Frankfurt School, Kracauer was an early philosopher of media and culture whose meditations on the phantasmagoria of urban modernity figure, for Zaslove, as bellwethers of the mesmeric and deracinated twenty-first century marketplace.
If the book’s theoretical optics are overwhelmingly modernist, its secondary texts are often surprisingly contemporary. The cumulative result is a literary-philosophical tapestry that weaves adroitly from the ideas of Freud, Benjamin, Arendt, Kracauer, and Burns to the postmodern cultural productions of Jeff Wall, Althea Thauberger, and Joy Kogawa; these cross-pollinations serve as opportunities for agile reflections on present concerns about colonialism, gentrification, and the metastases of corporate universities under the duress of an increasingly domineering capitalist milieu. And though his analyses are quick to implicate universities in some of the most corrosive transformations of cities, including Vancouver, his essays also harbour a palpable Enlightenment-inspired hope that the humanities, in particular, can still play a role in extricating us from our self-imposed immaturity as captivated subjects of capital. He therefore counts among his ideal readers “those who once were and might still be called ‘humanists,’ who are in peril now for using that name; and those who do not know they are anarchists until something strange happens and they think that they will be stopped in their tracks for thinking like that” (14).
Untimely Passages is a tour de force of Zaslovian anarcho-modernism. Jerry’s living voice echoes through every page in a poignant manner that his extended student body will recognize and appreciate. Even as his analyses exhume a Rolodex of nineteenth- and twentieth-century letters, every page seems to bellow Nietzsche’s dictum, “And now let us take a look at our own time!” The book will accordingly appeal to readers who yearn to glean vital insights from a recondite humanist interpreter of the phantasms of our dystopian present, a dream machine whose inner workings are much more caustic and alienating than the messaging of the twenty-first century university lets on.
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