Interpreting Identities: Advancing Literary Anthropology as a Research Method

Interpreting Identities: Advancing Literary Anthropology as a Research Method  

Dennis J. Sumara, Ph.D. (University of Alberta)

This article advances “literary anthropology” as a research method. In addition to presenting an interpretive text which functions as the report of the author’s engagements with literary fiction, and with philosophical, theoretical, and historical writings, the article provides a theoretical and historical overview of literary anthropology as a research method, with particular attention to how this method is influenced by the hermeneutic philosophic traditions. The article concludes with a discussion of what literary anthropological methods might contribute to literacy education and literacy education research. 

Interpreting Identities: 

Advancing Literary Anthropology as a Research Method 

  Reading and rereading novels has become a preferred way for me to challenge and reinterpret narratives I use to describe the relationship between private and public worlds. In juxtaposing relationships I develop with literary characters to those I have with contents of books that are, more explicitly, theoretical, philosophical and historical, I create commonplaces for critically interpretive work. As I elaborate later, although these commonplaces are organized by texts, responses to texts, and interpretations of relationships among these, the word “commonplaces” refers primarily to the ways in which literary anthropological methods create structures that support interpretation and analysis of collected data. Following Iser’s (1989, 1993) discussions of literary anthropology, these research methods have been influential in helping me to more deeply understand how literary identifications create interesting conditions for the interpretation of human experience. While, in the past, I have published analyses of other reader’s literary experiences (e.g. Sumara, 1996), more recently I have been attempting to incorporate autobiographical and biographical material into my work (e.g. Sumara, in press). 

  In this article, I specifically focus on how I used literary anthropological research methods developed from my engagements with Anne Michaels’ (1996) novel Fugitive Pieces to interpret a relationship to my ancestors, with particular attention to my parents’ emergence from events of World War II. These literary engagements were juxtaposed with historical, philosophical, and theoretical literatures concerned with interpreting relationships among history, memory, culture, geography, language, and identity. In addition to these textual artifacts, I examined personal objects of my own and of my mother’s to analyze how human identity is organized by cultural objects and, as well, how these develop new significance when understood in relation to emergent cultural knowledge. 

  So that my interpretations remain as richly textured as possible, a text which includes excerpts from, and interpretations of, literary fiction, autobiographical narrative, and theoretic and philosophic texts is presented. Following recent work by Alvermann and Hruby (2000) and Luce-Kapler (2000) I offer this text as an illustration of one way text-based research reports might present the researcher’s complicity with matters of research interest. In order to further contextualize my interpretations, I precede this text with a review of influences that have helped me develop both the idea and the practice of literary anthropology as a research method. 

Literary Anthropology as Research Method 

  In her books, Literature as Exploration (1938) and The Reader, The Text, The Poem (1978), Rosenblatt argued that the reading of literary texts is an important and unique way to explore the human condition. Unlike some of her contemporaries who insisted that literary meaning could be extracted from a text or from an examination of the contextual and historical circumstances leading to the production of that text (e.g., Leavis, 1950 [1932]; Hirsch, 1976), Rosenblatt suggested that it is the relationship between reader and text that structures the production of meaning. Concurring with literary reception theorists such as Todorov (1977) and Iser (1978), and following Dewey’s (1916) pragmatist philosophy, Rosenblatt theorized the relationship between reader and text as a site for the production of knowledge, not merely the interpretation of knowledge. As is now commonly believed, readers do not merely extract knowledge from a text, nor do they merely impose personal knowledge on it. Rather, readers and texts and contexts of reading collaborate in the continued inventing and interpreting of knowledge. 

  These sites of production are not, as commonly believed, reserved for experiences that Rosenblatt describes as “efferent.” Lewis (2000) has convincingly argued that the sort of “aesthetic” experiences described by Rosenblatt must include an understanding of the complex ways readers’ identifications with texts are social and political events which create opportunities for the pleasures associated with the development of critical insight. From this perspective, literary engagements can (and usually are) both sites for aesthetic enjoyment and for creative and critical learning. 

  This understanding of reader-response theory is compatible with constructivist (Spivey, 1997; von Glasersfeld, 1995) theories of cognition which describe the learner as co-emergent and co-evolving with the learning that is produced. When a reader engages with a work of literature she or he does not merely experience the characters vicariously or learn moral lessons from their actions. As Beach (2000) has recently shown, the reader’s involvement with text continues to represent the complex ways she or he is involved in various “activity systems,” such as book clubs or classrooms, that both shape and are shaped by literary relationships. And, as the developing field of enactivist learning theory is demonstrating (Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2000; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1991) all of these cultural associations are continually influenced by both biological and ecological systems. These overlapping social, biological, and ecological relationships are made more complex by the human capacity to remember, represent, and reinterpret. In important ways, during and following their active involvement with the literary text, the reader reflects upon past, present and future experiences. 

  In the last several decades, a number of anthropologists have written about the emerging relationship between anthropoloical inquiry and literary studies (e.g., Bateson, M-C, 1994; Behar, 1996; Geertz, 1988). Following post-structural theories of language that conceptualize language as a continually emergent system that is unable to fully represent the fullness of human experience (Derrida, 1976, 1978), they have challenged the commonsense belief that researchers’ are able to represent, unambiguosly and exactly, the experience of others. Their work has contributed to an increased interest by human science researchers in the relationship between knowledge and literacy and literary representation practices. Because most human science researchers depend on print text for the dissemination of its research, the question of authorship and of the relationships between truth claims and the writing of text has been closely examined (Behar, 1996; Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Richardson, 19--). Over the years, this has helped researchers to understand that, while there continues to be an obligation to interpret culture, the reporting of this must be understood as a particular kind of fiction, where fiction is understood as a selection and interpretation by the author of experienced events (Lather, 19--). Understanding research reports as forms of fictional representation has facilitated an understanding of ethnographic writing as an interpretive art which relies upon many literary conventions in representations of knowledge (Richardson, 1997). 

  Iser (1989, 1993) has named interpretive practices associated with reader/text relations a “literary anthropology.” With this phrase he suggests that while the reader will always have an interpretation of the text she or he is reading, the interpretation itself participates in the ongoing development of the reader’s self identity. Linked to Bleich’s (1978) concept of interpretive community, which describes the way individual responses to literature are inextricable from the interpersonal, intertextual experiences of reading, literary anthropological research is organized by the belief that a relationship to a literary text can become an interesting location for the continued interpretation of culture and the way culture is, as Heidegger (1966) argued, historically weighted. It is within these literary commonplaces that readers collect past, present and projected interpretations of themselves and their situations. 

  The relationships developed with literary fictions, however, do not complete the interpretive project announced by the practice of literary anthropology. Literary relationships can only exist as information alongside other remembered and imagined experiences of the reader. In order to create critical awareness from these literary anthropological events some explicit interpretive process is required. In preparing the research report that I present later in this article, for example, I spent several weeks re-reading and responding to my notes from previous readings of Fugitive Pieces and making notes of non-literary works which, I believed, were topically related to matters of research interest. 

Hermeneutic Research Practices 

  The process of literary anthropological research only begins with practices of juxtapostional reading and note-taking. These interpreted reader responses require hermeneutic interpretation if they are to become useful to the researcher and, eventually, to those who examine the researchers’ published interpretations. Following the philosophical writings of Gadamer (1990) and curriculum theory developed by Smith (1991) and myself (1996), hermeneutic inquiry might be best understood as the project of trying to make sense of the relationship between experiences of being human and practices of making and using knowledge. Hermeneutic inquiry seeks to illuminate the conditions which make particular experiences and interpretations of those experiences possible. Understood as such, hermeneutic interpretation is not merely a report of how things work, or an inquiry into the socio-political architecture of these events but, rather, is the activity of engaging in creative interpretations. 

  For Gadamer, and for his mentor Heidegger (1966), hermeneutic inquiry and interpretation moved beyond its origins as biblical and legal exegesis and entered into the realm of the interpretation of human experience. Both philosophers aimed to develop hermeneutic inquiry as the study of the complex relations among human subjectivity, language, and culture. Most importantly, they insisted that all understanding is sedimented with prior experience and must be understood historically. Any event of interpretation, then, must not only consider immediate contextual circumstances but, as well, must be developed around the way these circumstances have been historically influenced. From this perspective, the historical and contemporary cannot be neatly excised from one another but, rather, can only be understood relationally (van Manen, 1990). An experience of identity, then, is always one where past, present, and projected understanding merge into events of consciousness that, in part, are presented and shaped by language. Gadamer (1990) developed this view into a dialectical hermeneutics where understanding is described as the interpretation of relationships between persons and cultural artifacts. As one such cultural artifact, the literary text, when studied in relation to the reader and the act of reading, becomes an important site for the interpretation of human memory and history. 

  As Gadamer (1990) has argued, in order for work to be considered hermeneutic, it needs to be historically informed. For me, this means that subjects of research interest must become known as complexly and deeply as possible. In order to try to understand my relationship to my parents, for example, I have spent years reading histories, memoirs, literary texts, and philosophical arguments written by those who are interested in matters connected to events of World War II, including the exodus of Germans from Europe after the war. As I read these texts, I always annotated them, and created files of “booknotes” which contained favourite quotes and short interpretive response passages. These booknotes were filed in binders. Because I concur with theorists such as Iser (1993), Eco (1994), and Rorty (1989) who argue that literary texts (particularly novels) create strong reader identifications and opportunities for interpretation of the meanings generated, I begin processes of analysis by selecting one novel that functions as my “commonplace text.” Usually, this is a text I have read several times. As I complete each reading, I continue my practice of recording cryptic notes into margins and on any other white spaces available. As well, I record the date and conditions of my reading experiences on the inside front cover. Each time a reading is completed, I re-visit my “booknotes” for that novel and add any new quotes that I have found interesting and, as well, any new interpretive passages that I think about as I am typing in these quotes. 

  I consider these textual marking, re-marking, and response activities to contribute to hermeneutic inquiry since they remind me, as a researcher, to try to remember that all experiences are both historical and contextual. Each time I re-visit a literary text that I have previously annotated, I remember the context of my last reading(s) and, at the same time, notice how my current reading context has changed. In forgrounding the historical and contextual aspects of my interpretive situations and practices, and in creating data that represents these aspects, I am developing an archive of data that supports my research questions and interests.  

  At the same time, these textual annotating and re-reading practices help to foreground the way that language continues to interact with memory in the ongoing development of human identities. Although language is a human invention, or as Foucault (19--) has argued a “technology of the self,” it is seldom considered as such. Because it has become so intertwined into human societies, language has become the unnoticed backdrop of experience and, therefore, is no longer understood to be a cultural tool. As I revisit literary texts I have read and annotated more than once, I am continually reminded of the complex and ever-evolving relationships among language, memory, forms of representation, and senses of personal and cultural identities. 

Literary Texts as Commonplaces 

  Significant to literary anthropological research methods is the practice of using a literary text as the “commonplace” around which ideas are developed and interpreted. For me, and for those who have used the method with me, this practice helps organize data and other information without become overwhelmed with the experience of trying to include too much detail in the interpretive report. 

  It is important to note, however, that I select novels to function as commonplaces that offer what Iser (1978) describes as instances of indeterminacy. He describes indeterminacies as those gaps in understanding suggested by the text that must be filled in by the reader. Although, of course, all literary texts contain indeterminacies, I aim to select texts that challenge myself and/or the readers with whom I am working to expand our perceptions and interpretations. For example, in my research with grade five and six elementary school students (Sumara, 1998) I selected Lois Lowry’s (1993) science fiction novel The Giver. Although most adult readers would likely consider this novel an easy-to-read example of science fiction, for the students it proved to contain many indeterminacies that required explicit interpretation. In my research with high school English teachers who were interested in learning about the relationship between their personal literary reading experiences and their teaching practices(Sumara, 1996), it was necessary to use a novel that rather dramatically departed from structures known by avid readers of literature. In this research, Michael Ondaatje’s (1992) complex novel The English Patient was necessary to create the desired effect. In the research described in this article, the novel Fugitive Pieces was sufficiently unusual in its narrative structure to provoke me to read slowly, to reread, and to elaborate productive interpretive sites from the indeterminacies provoked by my engagement with this text. 

  Literary anthropological research, from my perspective, is distinguished from all forms of literary criticism through its interest in interpreting and further developing what is conditioned by literary identifications and interpretations, rather than emphasizing the interpretations themselves. And so, while my and my research collaborators’ interpreted identifications with characters and plots is crucial to the development of insight, these only account for one part of the process. More crucial is the way ongoing rereadings of the texts create a form of mindfulness, similar to a meditative practice, where researchers continue to collect new information and interpretations into the commonplace organized by their literary engagements. With each return to the literary text, the reader/researcher is compelled to interpret the temporal period that exists between this reading and the last one, thereby creating a generative recursive process. 

  Many have wondered if this process is limited to print fiction. Can literary anthropological work be created through identifications and responses to other representational forms, such as memoirs, theoretical texts, or movies or television shows? Concurring with arguments made by Eco (1994), I believe that literary texts create generous locations for interpretive inquiry because of the way readers organize their perceptions with them. When readers engage with memoirs, for example, they believe that what is being presented is an account of something that actually has happened. The reader of memoir, then, agrees to believe that what the writer is reporting is “true,” even if the reader understands this as a subjective truth. Novels, however, are another matter. In writing a novel, the author pretends to be telling the truth and the reader pretends to believe that what the author is writing is true. It is the experience of “pretending to believe” that creates the sort of open, playful interpretive space that allows readers to insert, in meaningful ways, their own experiences and interpretations to account for perceived gaps in the narrative. While a reader might be reluctant to invent missing details in a memoir that is being read, an experienced reader has no hesitation inventing details to overcome indeterminacies while reading a novel. 

  This experience if “pretending to believe,” of course, occurs whenever persons watch television comedies or dramas, or when viewing a movie, or even when interacting with contacts on Internet chatlines. However, it is my contention that these experiences do not usually create the same depth of interpretive experience that can occur with repeated readings and interpretations of novels. This, however, does not mean that identifications with other forms of imaginative forms does not have a contribution to make in the ongoing human quest to develop personal and cultural insights. In my teaching and research, I sometimes include the viewing and interpreting of movies with students and research collaborators. If the movies are sufficiently “writerly” and if there are opportunities, over time, to view the movie several times, and engage in juxtapositional reading and interpretation practices, these can create similar commonplaces for interpretation. Missing, of course, is the opportunity for viewers of movies to leave a trace of their engagements in the way readers of novels are able to do. 

Gathering and Interpreting Data 

  I have learned that success with literary anthropological methods, to a large extent, depends on the reader’s ability to “mark” and “re-mark” the text that is being read. In the research I have reported in this article, for example, it was critical that I have access to the same copy of Fugitive Pieces for my multiple readings in order to notice how my perceptions and interpretations were evolving. Like the artifacts I have collected representing my and my mother’s lived experiences, these textual tracings create moorings around which past experiences and interpretations of those experiences are organized and, importantly, where new interpretations emerge. 

  One of the most challenging aspects of the development of literary anthropology as a research method has been to learn how to represent the complexity of the “commonplaces” that are developed during the research and interpretation process. How is it possible to create research reports that present insights developed from literary anthropological methods that include some reference to the complex literary and non-literary associations which enabled these insights, without overwhelming and/or confusing the reader with too many details? Further, how is it possible to create a research report that offers conclusions while still retaining sufficient indeterminacy that challenges the reader to feel able to enlarge the interpretations? 

  Although the “reports” of literary anthropological research always include references to and interpretations of literary characters and their situations, these are only presented to demonstrate how these have contributed to the development of ideas that are of interest to the researcher. In the interpretive text presented later, for example, I discuss my identifications with and interpretations of characters and situations in Fugitive Pieces in order to point to insights that have been, only in part, conditioned and influenced by those identifications. Because my intention in this report is to provide a theoretical argument regarding the relations between history and memory, and between language and geography, I must also present my interpreted identifications with other texts I have read, including theoretical and philosophical texts, and examples from my out-of-text experiences. 

  So that the “report” of insights developed from these juxtapositional reading, response, and interpretive practice remain somewhat consistent with their writerly influences, it is important that it also be structured with sufficient indeterminacies so that the reader is able to become more explicitly engaged in an interpretive collaboration with the author. Although, as a researcher, I must present, as clearly as I am able, some of the insights generated from the literary anthropological research presented, I must also try to create an open text--one that offers sufficient information to conditions and guide perception, without foreclosing possibilities for new understanding to be developed. 

  If these literary commonplaces are to become useful and interesting for others, however, they must become resymbolized into artifacts that can live both alongside and after the life of the researcher. Just as Anne Michaels creates literary fiction to represent some of her critical conclusions and interpretations, I create research reports that aim to function similarly. In the next section I offer Part I of a research report that attempts to show the complex relations of language, history, and memory. Following Part I is a short “interlude” that provides theoretical support for Part II. 

  In this interpretive text, I have included a number of quotations from Fugitive Pieces. I have done so for three primary reasons. First, although decontextualized from the novel, the quotes, in themselves, point to concepts that I am attempting to develop in the narrative and expository sections of the text. And so, while most readers of the research report will likely not have read Fugitive Pieces, they should still find the quotes useful. In most instances, I have not indicated which character is associated with the quotes since this knowledge, in my view, does not contribute to the development of ideas presented in the research text. My second reason for including the quotations is to remind readers that the research methods and interpretive practices have been developed primarily around readings and responses to this novel. My last reason for including the quotes is to “interrupt” the expository/narrative flow of the other portions of the research report, reminding readers that human experience is not easily represented, and most certainly cannot be represented fully by any text. In creating an interrupted text, I hope to continually remind readers that my interpretations are contextually and historically specific and, as well, that they are inevitably incomplete. 

• • • 

PART I: History and Memory 

“Write to save yourself,” Athos said, “and someday you’ll write because you’ve been saved.” (Michaels, p. 165) 

  In her acclaimed novel, Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels (1996) interprets the tight weave of history and memory. One character, Jakob Beer, a child survivor of the Holocaust, is smuggled out of Poland into Greece by archeologist Athos Roussos. On the small Greek island of Zakynthos, Jakob transforms his sense of self as he learns to remember in a new language. And he does so again when, at the end of the war, he and Athos travel to Toronto, Canada. With each change in geography, Jakob not only must interpret his present circumstances, but must accomplish a revisioning of his history. He eventually learns that history and memory are not identical. 

History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers. (Michaels, p. 138) 

  For Jakob, the relationship between history and memory becomes central to his work as a poet. Like many living in post-Holocaust times, Jakob puzzles over the paradox of identity--an experience that announces, at once, perceptions and images that are present and those that are imagined. For Jakob, the historical and imagined images are influenced by the traumatic memory of witnessing the murder of his family. These remembered relations continue to weave their way in and out of Jakob’s adult experiences. 

  Jakob’s caregiver, Athos, understands that while the traumatized body is inscribed by its own history, this history is never fixed. As they spend years together on Zakynthos and in Toronto, Athos tells geographical narratives of transformation. His thesis is profoundly simple: Just as geologic forms betray their histories, so too does the human body. 

The present, like a landscape, is only a small part of a mysterious narrative. A narrative of catastrophe and slow accumulation. Each life saved: genetic features to rise again in another generation. (Michaels, p. 48) 

  Athos finds seven-year-old Jakob hiding in a bog that was once the ancient timber city of Biskupin, now an archeological dig where Athos is conducting research. This excavated city was eventually reburied by the Nazis shortly after their occupation of Poland. In order to maintain their invented historical narrative of German superiority, any evidence of an advanced non-German culture was destroyed. Biskupin’s artifacts were smashed, the timber city buried. But not forgotten. It continues to exist in the archeological and poetic narratives that Jakob and Athos eventually write about their relations to this historical time and place. Each interpretation presents the way these traumatic events become complexly connected to small, seemingly trivial events of daily life. As Michaels shows in her novel, the interpretive acts of the archeologist, the translator, and the poet are not meant to resolve history, or to explain, in simple terms, the cultural present but, instead, exist to raise difficult questions about the relationship between history and memory. 

History and memory share events; that is, they share time and space. (Michaels, p. 138) 

  Every moment is two moments. Each speech act, each event (whether noticed or not) is the confluence of history and memory. Interpreting and theorizing any moment is, of course, another moment bearing the character of that which is remarked. Gadamer (1990) calls such activity the hermeneutic circle, referring to the way in which what is newly interpreted depends on what has already been interpreted as it simultaneously affects the ground of its own thinking and products. While we may say that there are two moments--history and memory--they exist as one and can only be captured, however imperfectly and incompletely, in what they contribute to the evolution of human thinking. 

• • • 

  Since its publication in 1996, I have read Fugitive Pieces six times. As is my custom, I have penciled into the book responses to each of my readings. Like Ondaatje’s (1992) main character in The English Patient I have created a Commonplace Book of my copy of Fugitive Pieces. Like many of my generation, particularly those of us who are children of immigrants, I feel compelled to interpret a relationship between my experience and the experiences of my parents, and to those persons from whom and places from which they came. As I read Anne Michael’s novel, and listen to her interviews, I realize that she is trying to do the same. When I become identified with and by characters she has created in her novel, I am able to interpret my life in new ways. 

  It is not surprising that I and other scholars engaged in philosophical inquiry (DeSalvo, 1996; Richardson, 1997; Salvio, 1995) require literary identifications to create intellectual work. While not often considered as such, literary works of art are able to present conditions for thinking and interpretation that are not possible with books that are, explicitly, written to communicate ideas, to make arguments. As Rorty (1989) suggests: 

[I]t is the disciplines which specialize in thick description of the private and idiosyncratic which are assigned [the] job of [associating theory with social hope]. In particular, novels and ethnographies which sensitize one to the pain of those who do not speak our language must do the job which demonstrations of a common nature were supposed to do. Solidarity has to be constructed out of little pieces, rather than found already waiting, in the form of an ur-language which all of us recognize when we hear it. (p. 94) 

  For me, the pleasures and problems of literary identification are necessary reminders that lived experiences are contingent upon the circumstances which organize those experiences. As I come to know Jakob Beer, for example, I understand that his ongoing development requires that he become adapted to new situations, as they arise. These new situations are seldom predictable, but are always influential. Meeting Athos announces a new world of possibilities for Jakob: a new country, a new language, a new set of opportunities. At the same time, these new opportunities mean he must remove himself from his mother tongue and his mother land. In changing languages and geographies, Jakob is forced to translate his understanding of his personal and ancestral past. Like the novelist herself, who is altered through the process of creating lives for characters to which she becomes attached, the characters of this novel are engaged in the ongoing work of inventing identities for themselves. It is the process of creating interpreted relationships among remembered, currently perceived, and imagined pieces that organizes the experience of self identity. 

  For Athos, continued reconciliation of the past with the present and the imagined is performed in his work as an archeologist and historian. Work on his major book Bearing False Witness -- a critical history of Nazi destruction of historical sites and artifacts -- functions as a practice that helps him interpret contradictory and temporally distinct facets of his lived experiences. Athos realizes that if Jakob is to also live interpretively, he must not only learn new vocabularies, he must remember those vocabularies of his past: 

Athos didn’t want me to forget. He made me review my Hebrew alphabet. He said the same thing every day: “It is your future you are remembering.” (Michaels, p. 21) 

  Eventually, Jakob is able to understand his relation to history and to personal and cultural memory through poetry writing. In continually challenging what Rorty has called his “final vocabulary” (1989, p. 73) by inventing new ways of describing old ideas and images with poetry, Jakob is able to invent a more interesting subjectivity for himself and, at the same time, create new cultural artifacts that might help readers to do so. 

  This is how I experience my engagements with literary fiction, particularly with those which have become favorites. My continued rereadings of Fugitive Pieces have been particularly productive, since I feel intellectually attuned not only to the characters of the novel, but to the project of cultural and historical interpretation that these characters announce. While I have not communicated face-to-face with the author about her work, I feel that the two of us, through our shared relationship with characters she invented and characters with whom I identify, are doing some of the necessary cultural work of understanding what it means to live in post-Holocaust times. This literary commonplace continues to help me create a needed relationship between history and memory and, in particular, between the world of my generation and the world of my parents’ generation. As well, it has illuminated, in productive ways, my nomadic disposition. 

• • • 

PART II: Language and Geography 

Just as the earth invisibly prepares it cataclysms, so history is the gradual instant. (Michaels, 1996, p. 77) 

  In the last twenty years I have moved many times and have lived in four cities. During that time I have lived with three different persons, two men and one woman. I think I am getting good at moving, and yet, with each move, I experience a sense of loss. Although I have learned how to negotiate new urban territories quickly, I do not feel that I have come to know them deeply. 

If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another. (Michaels, p. 82) 

  Of course, place is more than geography. A sense of place includes the remembered and lived memories and narratives that organize human experience. When I speak of place, I also mean human subjectivity. This is why I believe that my sense of loss with each impending move has less to do with leaving home again as it is with what this points to: a yearning for a vocabulary that might begin to give form to my personal and ancestral pasts. Who we believe ourselves to be is intimately connected to a lived and imagined language of family and cultural history. And so, when I speak of human subjectivity I mean the way in which language, geography, history, and memory become collected into what can be identified as “I”, “you,” “us,” “them.” Learning to love a place means learning to love one’s involvement in the historically weighted moment. 

The present, like a landscape, is only a small part of a mysterious narrative. A narrative of catastrophe and slow accumulation. (Michaels, p. 48) 

  Even nomadic persons must find ways to invent a continuing identity. Like many academics, I have, to a large extent, organized my subjectivity through relations with books and with authors of these books whom I have come to know over the years. While our associations and identifications are not generally geographically organized locally, they continue to thrive because we read one another’s work, communicate electronically and, occasionally, meet at academic conferences. It is within and between these electronic, typographic, and physical encounters that I am able to maintain a thought and continue the process of inventing an interesting identity for myself. I re-read my own work to remind myself of past relations to other people and their ideas. I also read my work to recall who I thought I was at the time of writing and to engage in the curiously interesting practice of wondering what has become of this person. 

The memories we elude catch up to us, overtake us like a shadow. A truth appears suddenly in the middle of a thought, a hair on a lens. (Michaels, p. 213) 

  This historical retracing of subjectivity through rereading practices is not unlike my occasional wanderings through the small box of personal items I have carried with me through my many moves. In the past, these have consisted wholly of objects I have saved which represent my own experience: photographs of and letters from former friends and lovers, childhood treasures, the recorder that I learned to play in grade 4, evidence of honors I have received. Recently, I added my mother’s collection of objects to mine: her report cards from the private school she attended in Germany before and during the Second World War; her marriage certificate (dated June 21, 1948) to my biological father; the land deed to the house she and my father bought in 1953 in Lethbridge, Alberta; her collection of my elementary and high school report cards, as well as certificates and articles from newspapers acknowledging various of my achievements over the years; a German passport from my Polish father, dated 1940, that bears the insignia of the Deutsches Reich; a photograph of her at age 16 wearing the uniform of the Nazi Youth. 

It is a strange relationship we have with objects that belonged to the dead; in the knit of atoms, their touch is left behind. (Michaels, p. 265) 

  As I sort through my mother’s artifacts I wonder what they meant to her and I wonder what they can possibly mean to me. I experience her touch as I examine documents that have been unfolded and folded hundreds of times over the years. A trace of scent creates folds of memory associated with handkerchiefs, deep coat pockets, and Saturday afternoons at the Eaton’s department store. This juxtaposition of my mother’s and my artifacts creates curious interpretive possibilities: What can be said of her sixteen-year picture and mine? Both clear-skinned, light-eyed, half-smiling faces that, to another observer, could be seen as brother and sister. 

We think of photographs as the captured past. But some photographs are like DNA. In them you can read your whole future. (Michaels, p. 252) 

  Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962) reminds us that humans are both biological and phenomenological creatures. Human identities are organized by their physiological structures and their cultural organizations. Recent studies in neuroscience (e.g., Deacon, 1997; Johnson, 1997) have confirmed that the human biological system is marked by experience. Research in complexity theory (e.g., Capra, 1996; Cohen & Stewart, 1994) has expanded this idea, showing how human bodies co-develop with geographic, meteorological, economic, political, and social systems. This has helped those of us interested in literacy research to understand that our inquiries must never merely be confined to examining the personalities, the objects, or the contexts or the histories of literacy engagements but, as well, must be interested in interpreting the relations among these. 

On the map of history, perhaps the water stain is memory. (Michaels, p. 147) 

  As I study my newly expanded collection of artifacts I am provoked to wonder about their relations to one another and, especially, to the ways they announce questions about geography, language, and identity. In particular, they ask me to develop a more fully interpreted understanding of my own relationship to my parents and to the their contexts of experience, including their emergence from World War II. What can I say about how those events, and interpretations of those events, have participated in the creation of my own subjectivity and, particularly, of my own academic interests? 

Never trust biographies. Too many events in a man’s life are invisible. (Michaels, p. 141) 

  In A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, Susan Griffin (1992) juxtaposes autobiographical narratives with historical accounts of nuclear destruction, and of personalities and events associated with the Holocaust. Her thesis is that the usually unknown aspects of experience continue to be influential. Family secrets about alcoholism and incest, for example, continue to color and shape personal identities and collective relations even if they are never disclosed. The unknown details of traumas such as the events leading to the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima or the murder of millions of Jews during World War II continue to shape historical interpretation and historical memory. 

  As I read Griffin’s interpretations, I realize that the gaps in my knowledge about my family are astonishing. I know only a small amount about my mother’s family, almost nothing about my biological father’s. Most of what I know of my mother’s family has been gleaned from often repeated small stories she told me over the years--stories which, as I explain later, do not offer more than the most superficial overview of only a few events. 

  I am not alone in my ignorance of family and cultural stories. A large number of Canadians and Americans of my generation trace their immediate ancestry to the events in Europe during and following the Second World War. Many of my childhood friends were the descendants of German, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and Italian parents. Although most of my friends’ parents spoke their first language at home, my parents did not. Largely because they did not share a common first language, the language of their marriage was English, a second language they learned together. But it was not the English that I know. It was less sure, shaped by German and Polish sensibilities and intonations. More than any other changes they made, for my parents, the change of language required a radical alteration in subjectivity. As Gerda Lerner (1996) suggests: 

When you lose your language, you lose the sound, the rhythm, the forms of your unconscious. Deep memories, resonances, sounds of childhood come through the mother tongue--when these are missing the brain cuts off connections. (p. 39) 

  My mother left Germany in 1949, one year after her marriage to her first husband, a Polish soldier who was working in her family’s area immediately following the Second World War. At that time, according to her account of it to me, it was not desirable for Germans to marry Poles and so emigration to another country for couples of mixed ethnicity was common. Despite my mother’s post-secondary education and newly-acquired status as a member of the educated middle-class in post-World War II Germany, she arrived with her new husband to Canada to work as a farm laborer. Her certificate from the “Displaced Person Professional Testing Board” classifies her as a “housemaid.” My father is classified as both a “farm worker” and “wood worker.” My mother arrives in Canada with her work visa and some treasures from home, including a package of her favorite opera records. She also brings a love of literature, a strong education in the arts, and a desire to continue a life of intellectual stimulation she experienced during her education at the convent school. The latter remains largely unfulfilled. She works as a housemaid for three years and then works in dry cleaning establishments as a presser and a seamstress until her health fails in 1984. 

Language. The numb tongue attaches itself, orphan to any sound it can: it sticks, tongue to cold metal. Then, finally, many years later, tears painfully free. (Michaels, p. 95) 

  Of course, German continued to insert itself into the collective consciousness of our family. Even though the German language did not organize everyday domestic relations in our house, it was felt in the food that was prepared, in the opera records my mother played, and in the songs she sang to me as a child. Eventually, however, even these slipped away. In the last fifteen years meals were primarily inspired by recipes from magazines and music reflected popular North American tastes. Once retired, a great deal of my mother’s time was taken up with reading of romance and mystery novels. She continued to insist that she would die if she could not read. I believed her and that is why I knew she was dying when, one day at the hospital, she explained that she no longer found reading interesting. 

And later, when I began to write down the events of my childhood in a language foreign to their happening, it was a revelation. (Michaels, p. 101) 

  Language does not exist as a veil between subjects and objects but, rather, functions to fuse together, in resymbolized relations, the tightly bound fabric of experiences that constitutes one’s identity. It is the capacity to use language to not only create links among things that are present to consciousness but, as well, to things that are remembered or predicted that gives humans a unique ability to interpret the relations of past, present, and projected experience. Supported by the capacity to remember, to bear witness, and to interpret history, humans are able to engage in the imaginative acts of reconsideration and creative invention. 

  In the last several decades work in curriculum theory (e.g., Pinar, Williams, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995), cultural studies (e.g., Grossberg, Nelson & Treichler, 1992) and interpretive research methods (e.g., Denzin & Lincoln, 1994) has learned to understand how discursive practices shape experiences and how they influence interpretations of experience. Borrowing from literary theory, pragmatist and continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, and poststructuralism, researchers of human experience have learned to pay attention to how people are involved in overlapping, shifting, and contradictory narratives. More specifically, researchers have learned that rather than representing experience, discursive practices create experience. 

  As a first generation Canadian of parents who became exiled in English, I have found it challenging to piece together a coherent identity that makes sense to me. Much of this difficulty, I have recently come to understand, emerges from my history of living with an older generation who lost the resonances of early memories through the loss of their first language. While my parents found ways to represent their early experiences with English, it was evident that these were unsatisfying. As various scholars have suggested (e.g., Hoffman, 1989; Lerner, 1997), it is impossible to translate memories from one language to another. 

Athos’s stories gradually veered me from my past. Night after night, his vivid hallucination dripped into my imagination, diluting memory. (Michaels, p. 28) 

  During the last weeks of her life, my mother becomes preoccupied with narrating events from her childhood and young adulthood in Germany. There is the story of how each Sunday her mother drove a bicycle 30 kilometers to the convent school to visit the Mother Superior. “That was her holiday,” she tells me. “After working to keep the farm going for six days, on Sunday she came to have coffee with the Mother Superior. That was her holiday.” She remembers the time when black cars came and took the nuns away: “I never saw them again. They turned the school into a hospital.” There is the story of my grandfather returning from the prisoner of war camp. My mother is the first to notice his approach, although she does not recognize him. “I saw him coming up the road. I called to your grandmother, ‘Here comes another hungry one.’ He was never the same.” 

Sometimes the body experiences revelation because it has abandoned every other possibility. (Michaels, p. 53) 

  I have come to believe that in the last part of her life my mother tried to represent her early experiences but, with English, it was not possible to convey the depth of her knowledge. While continuing to be identified as a German woman because of her accented English, she had become disconnected from the German language and, as a result, from the resonances of her childhood. Her German experiences could not be adequately captured in English, no matter how many times they were told. As a native English speaker, I continued to be frustrated with the thinness of the narrative. I yearned for more nuanced and literary accounts of my mother’s early years. I wanted to hear, in more emotionally charged ways, how she experienced the contradictions of living in Nazi Germany during the years of her adolescence. 

Truth grows gradually in us, like a musician who plays a piece again and again until suddenly he hears it for the first time. (Michaels, p. 251) 

  Days before her death, I show my mother a new book that I took part in authoring. It is a selfish act, since I understand that at this point in her life books do not matter. I point out personal photographs that my co-authors and I included in the book. One photograph is of my mother reading. “Do you recognize this person?” I ask hopefully. She peers at the picture and shuts the book. “It’s an ugly old woman.” I am startled by her response. She resumes leafing through the book, finding the pictures of the house she and my father built from materials discarded from the old Municipal Hospital. “That’s my house. That’s a picture of your father in the war.” She closes the book and fixes her eyes on me: “How did I ever get such a smart son?” She does not mean this rhetorically. It is a real question, announcing the incredulity parents experience when they realize that they and their children have different stories, different songlines. 

After burying the books and the dishes, the silverware and photos, the Jews of the Zakynthos ghetto vanish. They slip into the hills, where they wait like coral; half flesh, half stone. ...In their cramped hiding places, parents tell their children what they can, a hurriedly packed suitcase of family stories, the names of relatives. (Michaels, p. 40) 

  In his book My German Question Peter Gay (1998) interprets memories of living in Nazi Germany from 1933-1939. In providing details of the conflicted ways he exists both inside and outside German history, language, and cultural sensibilities, he is able to show how identity is never stable or resolved. Like the characters in Fugitive Pieces, Gay continues to experience the curious ways the weight of the past endures in the present moment. While it is impossible to escape the effect of memory and history on consciousness, it is possible and necessary to interpret these effects. This is, according to Gadamer (1990), an important project for humans who have developed language as a way to organize memory. Hermeneutically speaking, it is important to make sense of my parents’ lives, not so much to understand them, but to understand how their experience continues in mine. 

The present, like a landscape, is only a small part of a mysterious narrative. (Michaels, p. 48) 

  In the end, I do not believe that my mother was able to say much more about her experience of growing up during the Second World War. Not only was she limited by a language that could not adequately present her memories, but she was constrained by the interpretive tools that had been made available to her. Unlike myself, she did not have an opportunity to spend a large part of her life contemplating her own experience and learning how to critically interpret it. Instead, like many immigrant women, she worked to connect the fragments of lives organized by two languages, two countries, and two cultural and social contexts. I do not believe that she ever fully resolved her conflicted relationship to her own immigration, the loss of her parents and grandparents, or the loss of her language and nation. Before arriving in Canada to invent a new life, her subjectivity was overdetermined by cultural narratives about who immigrant women were generally, and who German women were, specifically. But, of course, her life does not end with the demise of her biological body. It continues to exist in the artifacts she left behind, in the memories of her family and friends, and in the narratives of hers that we have made ours. It exists, in significant ways, in this writing. 

I knew suddenly my mother was inside me. Moving along sinews, under my skin the way she used to move through the house at night, putting things away, putting things in order. (Michaels, p. 8) 

  My position as what Rorty (1989) has called a “liberal ironist” helps me to better understand the difficulty of being theoretically aligned with anti-essentialist discourses and, at the same time, being identified with the political left. I am committed to social justice and to eliminating the cruelties imposed on certain individuals and groups. Although I understand that language can never fully represent the complexity and fullness of human identity and experiences of identity, I also know that in order for individuals to experience a sense of personal and cultural coherence, language must be used to create identities that are able to be recognized. And so, while I do not want to “essentialize” human identities by trying to pin down what constitutes, for example, the absolute requirements for membership in identity categories “man” or “woman,” I understand that, to some extent, these categories have been necessary. I also know, however, that any experience of identity is contingent. It emerges from a biological, geographical, social and cultural history that is given shape and form by language. This helps me to remember that my experience of identity is never really present to me but can only exist after the fact--in the memories and narratives that organize who I believe myself to be (and who I believe others to be). As part of my personal project of reconciling contradictions and difficulties I experience in my lived subjectivity, I create theorized and interpreted narratives to render coherent the available pieces that make that subjectivity possible. This means using tools currently available to me to critically understand the generation that preceded me. I do not do this to condemn or celebrate them. I do so because I understand that because their experience continues in mine I am obligated to try to understand what this means. I experience this as a creative act of invention: I do not discover my identity. I participate with history and with contemporary culture in the making of it. Part of this ongoing process of invention is to learn to incorporate identifications with those who identify and are identified as historically other to me. And so, I continue to read books written by people whom I have not met but, through whose work I identify. Some of these books are memoirs. Some are fictions. Some are works of philosophy or theory. I think about what it means to create these literary and theoretical commonplaces, using my current vocabulary to help me to interpret the relationship between my own sense of identity and my vocation: the practice of teaching and the researching of literary engagements. 

  Reading and thinking, however, do not complete the creative process. As Borgmann (1992) suggests, it is important to make something which can contribute, alongside and after the biological life of the thinker, to the ongoing interpreting of history and the creating of human subjectivity and culture. My work, as I have come to understand it, is to collect the fugitive pieces of history and memory--the bits and pieces of what I find in literary, historical, autobiographical, and other fictions--and stitch them together into interpretive essays (from the French essayer: to try) that attempt to represent the evolution of an idea. 

One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it. (Michaels, p. 136) 

• • • 

Literary Anthropology and Literacy Education Research 

  Over the years my students, research collaborators and I have experimented with different ways to present our work and insights emerging from this work. Although different writers develop unique styles, all of us, it seems, have been able to do so using the basic method of anthropological inquiry that I have been outlining in this article. The reading, marking, rereading, re-marking, of literary texts, juxtaposed with engagements with non-literary texts, other collected research data (autobiographical, biographical, ethnographic), creates the skeletal framework for interpretive work. Alongside and following these reading and response activities we engage in what I call “interpretive linking.” For the research described in this article, for example, I began my work by trying to identify thematics from Fugitive Pieces that were particularly compelling to me. In the early stages of my work, the phrase “Every moment is two moments” (referring to the confluence of history and memory) continued to present itself as interesting to me. During the time that I worked with this novel, I was continuing my study of events of World War II, of pragmatist philosophy, of philosophical hermeneutics, and of reader-response theory. In order to create small pockets of interpretation that were manageable, I would take one quote from Fugitive Pieces, one statement from a memoir (for example, Peter Gay’s My German Question) and one statement from a philosophical or theoretical text (for example, Rorty’s (1999) Philosophy and Social Hope), type these into a new computer file, and assign myself a writing practice that attempted to “link” the three ideas together into some sort of interpretation. While not all of these assigned writing/interpretation practices yielded what I considered to be productive insights, many of them did. As these interpretive “puddles” were created, I printed them and filed them in a binder. Over a period of weeks, as I continued the process of reading, rereading, marking, remarking of text and juxtaposing these with one another and other experiences, and, as well, continued to assign myself the practice of creating short interpretive texts, I discovered that new insights were being developed. 

  While I tend to repeat these research processes, my final research products are always, of course, conditioned by other factors. Although I have written other interpretive texts emerging from my ongoing engagement with Fugitive Pieces, for example, the one presented in this article was created while I was in the middle of making another move across the country, changing academic institutions, trying to understand my relationship to events of the World War II, and continuing the process of learning to understand the way my parents’ experience continues in mine. By referring to my booknotes and, most importantly, developing my interpretive writing around ideas prompted by my identifications with characters from Fugitive Pieces and other texts, I eventually came to learn that in order to better understand some of my preoccupations, I needed to develop a larger analysis of the relationships among language, memory, history, and geography. These thematics, it is important to mention, did not prompt my reading or early response and interpretive practices. Rather, these emerged from my ongoing rereading of Fugitive Pieces and my continued practices of juxtaposing responses from this literary text to responses to other texts and other non-text experiences. 

  The “report” of my research that I develop, then, is one which tries to present some of the insights developed from my work and, as well, some description and discussion of some of the influences that conditioned these insights. Recently, I have come to understand that my teaching methods in literacy education have both informed and been informed by literary anthropology. Although I did not know it during my years of teaching junior high school, for example, when I asked my students to interpret their responses to literary fiction in relation to their own personal and collective experiences, I was involving them in a kind of literary anthropology. In my more recent teaching of undergraduate and graduate students in education, I understand my insistence that we read novels alongside works of theory, philosophy, and history -- followed by writing practices which ask them to create interpretations that link ideas from two or three of these -- is another way of engaging in these research and interpretation practices . 

  I mention these pedagogical practices in order to highlight my belief that, while I present literary anthropology in this article as a research practice, I also use it and experience it as a pedagogical practice. This is not surprising since, for me, the research practices described are an important form of personal and cultural learning. In the interpretive writing presented earlier, the learning emerged from a deep engagement with cross-disciplinary and intergenerational representations and interpretations of my and other people’s experiences. In juxtaposing engagements I had and relationships I developed with a literary text and its characters with material from other sources, I created conditions for a personal hermeneutic interpretation of much larger historical and cultural events. In beginning with the particularities of autobiographical and biographical experience, and developing historical and theoretical narratives around these, I have attempted to perform, what I would consider to be, an important form of cultural learning that is, in part, presented in the “report” of my research. 

  I would like to conclude by stating that it has been helpful for me to interpret a critical relationship with the events emerging from my parents immigration to Canada following the Second World War. This is not so much because of what I have learned about them or myself but, rather, because of what I have learned about how large and small events of history continue to weave themselves into the contemporary world. Although these insights are personal, they also contribute to the social and cultural world. As I come to more clearly understand my relationship to the historical, the geographical, and the social and cultural, I develop new interpretive tools that help me in my daily situations. 


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