Yeah, Sure. But, How?

Vanessa Evans

I want to take this opportunity to speak transparently about methodology in literary study, its anxieties and potential remedies. I hope I’m not only speaking to myself here, but I think there is much to be gained from students of literary study taking time to think more about that dreaded how. As such, this blog post calls for an honest conversation about why an aura of insecurity exists around the how of what we do. Allaying my own anxieties has been a long road, one that world literature and its theory at first complicated but eventually clarified. I hope I can encourage some of you to find comfort wading into those murky methodological waters with somewhat less trepidation. I believe literary study has real contributions to make here—if we can only talk about them more.

Prior to writing the proposal for my dissertation, it pains me to admit that I didn’t spend much time thinking about how I was constructing my literary critique. I close read with a particular approach in search of certain yields that related to my argument—that was my method (and in many ways it still is). I’m not saying that there is something wrong with this, but there is something wrong with the fact that this was the extent to which I could articulate my process. Somewhere along the line “methodology” had become a bad word for me, a word from more scientific fields that the art of literary critique avoided directly interacting with for fear of wringing the life from what we do. Methods were dry, scientific, and somehow oblique to my work. I argued that literary critique performs, it shows rather than tells, all the while knowing I was hiding somewhere behind such routines. I see this as a symptom of something larger now, and that the anxiety this nodded toward only served to stifle my work and my thinking.

I finally faced the limits of this narrative when I wrote the proposal for my dissertation. Here there could be no sleight of hand—I needed to say how I would make this project happen and that process had to be communicable outside my own head (*sharp inhale*). The fear was (temporarily) immobilizing. Thankfully I spent the months previous preparing for my subfield exam in which some past clever version of myself had chosen texts that actually helped me contend with my anxiety. Two of the list’s three sections were theoretical contributions on Indigenous literary theory and world theory (the latter what I have come to call the body of theory growing out of world literature). Reading these sections and observing the ways they spoke to one another through their commitment to comparative approaches convinced me that this could be a way forward. Here, methodology was being discussed, pushed, challenged, and changed—it was centered rather than peripheral. As a student, reading others speaking candidly about their how in a way I could comprehend shifted my thinking. Say what you want about the problems with comprehensive exams—and there are many—but this reading really helped me.

Now this is not to say that comparative studies and its methodologies are a solution and way forward for all of us with such anxieties. Comparison has its complications. Perhaps Amir Mufti says it best in Forget English! when he exposes the Orientalist logic in world literature, its impulse “to bridge the social distance between First and Third Worlds, between the centers of the world system and its peripheries” (20). Anyone engaging with comparative approaches needs to move cautiously but it remains my contention that there is still a great deal of good to be done here. As such, I follow the lead of brilliant postcolonial and Indigenous theorists and writers working with world literatures—the literatures of our planet—rather than within world literature (a distinction for another day). This approach has allowed me to embrace what I observe to be literary study’s processual nature, a recognition that our readings are necessarily incomplete. Our work is always in process and while there needs to be vigilance here, there can also be kindness and generosity.

Ironically enough, the contribution my dissertation seeks to make is primarily methodological. It’s a project invested in decolonizing the way we perform literary study and it asks for a reconsideration of how we, the students and literary scholars who teach and study Indigenous literatures, can do differently and do better. I do not mean to oversimplify remedies to these and other anxieties we encounter in our work but, rather, to start a conversation about them. There is a heft that comes with what we do and it’s in feeling and conversing about that weight and its various shapes that we demystify our anxieties bit by bit. My way forward has been through comparative studies but yours may be elsewhere—let’s talk about it more.

Vanessa Evans is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at York University. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Calgary and an M.Litt. in Modernities from the University of Glasgow. Vanessa is currently a visiting lecturer at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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