Performing CanLit Vernaculars

Having long been curious about the performative aspects of our profession, I am increasingly interested in analyzing the diasporic dimensions of our pedagogical practices. Both actually and virtually we move around the world constructing unexpected pathways and connections. Even if we do not have the means to physically travel we certainly all participate in the diasporic dissemination of our pedagogies. The extent to which these performative iterations circulate is not something examined as often as it should be. The question is how can we use this travelling (whether virtual or actual) to think more reflexively about our teaching of varieties of CanLit. To what degree can we think of our pedagogies as diasporic; what do we ‘perform’ and how does this resonate with proliferating debates on the new cosmopolitanism, sometimes re-named as ‘vernacular’ or ‘critical’ cosmopolitanism?

By vernacular or critical cosmopolitanism I am referring to debates that have attempted to move beyond the binary oppositions that have most recently been reinforced by such campaigns as the ‘war on terror.’ Cosmopolitan debates over the last decade have attempted to suggest that there are many regimes of knowledge, not in terms of infinitely relativistic values necessarily but certainly enmeshed in different belief systems (including those supposedly immune realms of science). Thus cosmopolitanism, in the sense of extending the term to the many groups and classes who have travelled and dispersed widely over the globe over the last century and more, offers exposure to these other ways of knowing—if there is a receptiveness to what they have to give. In Homi Bhabha’s (possible) coinage of the phrase, the concept attempts to capture the “growing, global gulf between political citizenship, still largely negotiated in ‘national’ and statist terms, and cultural citizenship which is often community-centred, transnational, diasporic, hybrid” (Bhabha and Comaroff 25). Bhabha also associates this concept with minorities who don’t necessarily wish to claim majoritarianism and whose defining impetus is that of translating across cultures in an economy marked by iteration rather than teleology (Bhabha). It is a direction that occurs as well in Paul Gilroy’s desire for a cosmopolitanism that encompasses a new planetary consciousness whose roots he locates in Montesquieu’s eighteenth-century satiric text Persian Letters. Gilroy calls the phenomenon a ‘vulgar’ or ‘demotic’ cosmopolitanism (74). Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers situates his plea, in similar ways, for a cosmopolitanism that embraces contamination and fallibility, that is, precisely the opposite of instituting the earlier truth-claims associated with ‘European’ or ‘Western’ Enlightenment subjectivity and modernity. Discrepant modernities are indeed the general contexts and vernacular cosmopolitanism is the direction of this model—which includes the marginalized and wretched of the earth. It is also articulated in Stuart Hall’s plea for an “agnostic democratic process”:

We witness the situation of communities that are not simply isolated, atomistic individuals, nor are they well-bounded, singular, separated communities. We are in that open space that requires a kind of vernacular cosmopolitanism, that is to say a cosmopolitanism that is aware of the limitations of any one culture or any one identity and that is radically aware of its insufficiency in governing a wider society, but which nevertheless is not prepared to rescind its claims to the traces of difference, which makes its life important. (30)

These thoughts became linked with notions of performative pedagogy while I watched a lecture given in 2004 by Gayatri Spivak. Among the audience were members of the Subaltern Studies group; several performative moments occurred when Spivak was in conversation with them as another middle-class Bengali who had shared with them a political formation in the Calcutta/Kolkata of the fifties. Some of these interactions were also (presumably) in Bengali thus instantaneously designating insiders and outsiders. In the talk, Spivak situated herself as a teacher who does both high theory and a type of secular activism (this was at the height of the Hindu nationalist BJP movement) and admonished her audience to learn from the subaltern, including the not inconsiderable task of learning other languages. She situated herself as teaching at both ends of a pedagogical spectrum: in the rural schools of India and the classrooms of the Columbia University—the one paid for, enabled, the other.

We don’t all construct our pedagogies in this scrupulous and self-reflexive way but how might the process of naming a diasporic pedagogy unfold? The notion of itinerant teachers throws us back to the beginnings of the university and early technologies of teaching and learning as well as reminding us of the varied history of the vernacular in these processes.(Sheldon Pollock points out that the term ‘vernacular’ contains notions of the native and the Roman verna or house-born slave.) A reflexive pedagogy, not only requires different models for diasporic intellectual work, but these also vary depending on where one is located on the spectrum of privilege. In contrast to Spivak and other international keynote speakers, young scholars who have moved to North America from elsewhere seeking to enter the tenure stream of privilege are pressured to learn the vernacular style. This ranges from current theoretical frameworks and categories, to what one could call a corporeal grammar, or, more popularly, ‘body language.’ For example, intonation, gesture, references to local sporting metaphors, serve to place one’s peers and students within their comfort zone, thus lowering their resistance or skepticism when confronted by unfamiliar bodies. There needs to be as well, in this model, a kind of referencing of cultural stereotypes or of versions that elsewhere we have come to recognize as the mechanisms of orientalism. This last point is a complicated one to unpack and depends very much on the kind of body involved in the performance. If the body is coded as ‘non-Western’ then the expectations of being seen as a ‘native informant’ of non-Western truths (pedagogical, theoretical etc.) has to be balanced by the articulation of familiar North American idioms, including those of dress and address. Gender complicates these matters further. It is worth pointing out as well that diasporic scholars often possess greater awareness of being confronted by multiple audiences; this is a well-understood dimension of being located in these interstices of the academy and of globalization.

If the body is coded as ‘Western’ but is transmitting or demonstrating knowledge of non-Western cultures then there is an expectation of proof that one has the Einfühlung (a term that can be translated as ‘empathy’ but carries the sense of being able to permeate another’s being) for the other culture. (I was reconnected with the subtleties of my own mother-tongue, German, at a workshop, “Varieties of Empathy in Science, Art and Culture” where the term ‘empathy’ was derived from its original German Einfühlung and its embedding in nineteenth-century German aestheticism.) To give an example, part of the skill set of these diasporic scholars involves demonstrating their knowledge of other languages; the term Sprachgefühl has an interestingly ambiguous translation that captures some of the contradictions involved (Ross King alerted me to the frequency that this term appears in translation studies). Its literal translation is ‘feeling for’ or ‘of’ language. On the one hand it can be seen to reside within the language, a kind of linguistic ecology that provides an organic dynamic for a vernacular language. On the other hand it can be located within the speaker, and refer to an understanding of the many local dimensions and inflections of a linguistic system. Thus it can be defined as inherent within the language, a buried key to its knowledge, or as a demonstrable skill to be displayed by the speaker. Both are difficult to quantify but the concept undeniably inhabits the pedagogical domain. In the case of Western aspirants to non-Western knowledge (‘wannabes’ in a different parlance) there are certainly tried and tested repertoires for ‘exposing’ their limitations (from charges of appropriation to the dismissive label ‘political correctness’) but on the other hand, if we invoke the mechanisms of the new cosmopolitanism, then perhaps the derogatory inflections of this phenomenon could usefully be revisited.

Negotiating this terrain in terms of a comparativist diasporic pedagogy is tricky to say the least as one walks the tightrope between ‘wannabe’ and ‘native informant,’ between the metaphysical dimension that inheres in terms such as Sprachgefühl, Einfühlung etc. and a pragmatic attempt to grapple with differences and apparent incommensurabilities. While the recent vigilance concerning the appropriation of subaltern knowledge is an important safeguard against the proliferation of neo-colonialisms, we also need to recognize that the desire to know, to feel, another culture in all its complexities is not in itself inevitably a sign of colonial impulses or of touristic consumerism (Gunew). The problems arise when people prematurely claim expertise in this terrain or displace subaltern knowledges. In some ways, the terms of engagement with cultures that are not visceral to one’s subject formation are encountered every day in settler cultures—whether it be with dimensions of indigeneity or of ‘ethnicity.’ Our diasporic pedagogical performances may be usefully harnessed to enable this project to be more scrupulously reflexive.

Works Cited

  • Appiah, Anthony. K. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
  • Bhabha, Homi. “Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism.” Text and Narration: Cross-Disciplinary Essays on Cultural and National Identities. Ed. L. García-Moreno and P. C. Pfeiffer. Columbia, SC: Camden, 1996. Print.
  • — and John Comaroff. “Speaking of Postcoloniality, in the Continuous Present: A Conversation.” Relocating Postcolonialism. Ed. D.T. Goldberg and Ato Quayson. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 15-46. Print.
  • Breckenridge, C., S. Pollock, H. K. Bhabha and D. Chakrabarty, eds. Cosmopolitanism, Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print.
  • Gilroy, Paul. Postcolonial Melancholia, New York: Columbia UP, 2005. Print.
  • Gunew, Sneja. “Subaltern Empathy: Beyond European Categories in Affect Theory.” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies. Special Issue: Affect. 34.2 (2008), 11-30. Print.
  • Hall, Stuart. “Political Belonging in a World of Multiple Identities.” Vertovec, S. & R. Cohen, eds. Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory,Context, and Practice, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002, 25-31. Print.
  • Pollock, Sheldon. “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History,” in Breckenridge, C., S. Pollock, H. K. Bhabha and D. Chakrabarty, eds. Cosmopolitanism, Durham: Duke UP, 2002, 15-53. Print.
  • Spivak, Gayatri. “The Trajectory of the Subaltern in My Work.” U of California Berkeley: Voices Series. 2004. YouTube. Web. 6 July 2010
  • “Varieties of Empathy in Science, Art and Culture” Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, U of British Columbia, October 2008. Workshop organized by Susan Lanzoni and Robert Brain. Web. 6 July 2010.

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