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Faculty in the department are committed to research and teaching in areas that span a wide range of historical and geographical contexts including British, Canadian, American, South Asian, African, and Caribbean literature and culture. This diversity is matched by the array of conceptual approaches that we bring to bear on these topics. But this diversity is balanced by the many valuable intersections which unite our various projects in terms of the kinds of questions that we ask and the ways that we go about addressing them.
The following statements have been co-written by faculty members in order to give prospective students a sense of the common research threads that run throughout projects and courses in our department. These common themes and convergences do not cover the whole spectrum of our intellectual commitments, but they may help to provide a snapshot of the program’s strengths at both the MA and the PhD level. For the purposes of clarity, the descriptions of these strengths are organized around five lines of inquiry: identity, culture, textuality, political discourse, and power and empire.
Power and Empire
The English Department welcomes graduate students interested in exploring the vital role of literature and culture for the production of religious identities, both historically and in the contemporary world. Members of the department approach this topic using a diverse range of methodologies and theories. Issues currently being researched include the representation of Jewish identity in contemporary Native American and Caribbean writing, and consideration of these representations alongside Jewish writers’ own inter-ethnic readings of indigeneity and blackness. Other questions related to Jewish identity include the ways in which Judaism and the category of “the Judaic” became produced and appropriated in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, and how this category was drawn on to constitute various Christian identities within the combative field of early modern religious discourse.
Another approach to oppositional constructions of religious identity is the examination of Muslim and Christian identities, considered in tandem with other forms of identity depicted in late medieval romances and crusading chronicles written in England. The vexed nature of religious identity in the Middle Ages is also addressed in research on the ways saints’ lives—the most popular medieval genre—reveal both exhortations to conform to Christian ideology and flagrant transgressions of gender roles and norms
Over the past quarter century, critical attention to gender, feminism, and sexuality studies has transformed literary research and teaching. Indeed, literary studies was one of the first disciplines to foster and develop feminist, queer, and gender theory, while enhancing our awareness of the ways in which gender and sexuality are shaped by specific historical and political contexts. Such scholarship has “denaturalized” assumptions about the supposed coherence and essentialism of gender and sexual categories.
Gender, Feminism, and Sexuality constitutes one of the English Department’s greatest strengths in research, teaching, and thesis supervision. Every year we offer a range of undergraduate courses and graduate seminars that explore representations of femininity, masculinity, and the spaces in between, as well as diverse issues regarding sexuality in literary and cultural contexts. The department accommodates students who want to research gender, feminism, and sexuality in any of the historical periods from medieval to postmodern and in a number of geographies, from South Asia and Africa to the Americas.
Through a cultural and historical lens, faculty research projects examine how categories of gender and sexuality inform the production of texts, bodies, subjectivities, and communities, from the most intimate to the most public arenas. We explore how gender, sexuality, and feminist concerns interact with other cultural categories of identity and analysis, including the intersection of aging and gender; the regulation of sexuality as a component of race-making; representations of gender within particular discourses of space, place, and nation; representations of sexuality as and through class; gender, sexuality, and popular culture; and the gendering of religious discourse. Faculty members also directly engage with the changing history or “waves” of feminist theory, political movements, and literary production, in addition to the changing shape of sexuality studies, all within a global context.
This area comprises a number of intriguing questions about identity formation, a set of concerns that often intersects productively with faculty interests in “Gender, Feminism, and Sexuality.” The development of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century, along with its various elaborations in gender studies and new historicism, yields approaches to subjectivity that consider how individual identity is specifically manifested through material practices and global influences. These approaches attempt to decipher the ways in which the disciplinary measures of class, power, and ideology leave their marks on bodies and penetrate interiority. Through understanding the cultural parameters of subjectivity scholars can not only denaturalize the romantic notion of an autonomous interiority, and avoid naively essentializing identity, but also determine the genuine acts of resistance and subversion that emerge within a historical period.
Because identity is not considered to be fixed or stable over time, scholarship in the department also takes into account the cultural parameters of subjectivity. The research of faculty members thus addresses the question of identity formation from diverse socio-historical perspectives: male mourning and the early medieval heroic code; the inscription of religious conversion on medieval bodies; the defenses of the early modern mind in the discourse of natural history; the production of interiority as an instrument of discipline in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the social construction of interiority in the Victorian period; and the construction of aging as a vehicle for social power in Canadian literature.
Many members of the department share an interest in scholarly questions related to cultural legacies and uses of the past—that is, to the totality of circumstances in which a period’s or society’s memory presses its claims on the present. The present continually defines itself by reconstructing its past and through this act of self-constitution constructs multiple histories. Work in this highly varied cluster can include such topics as memory studies in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, examinations of Christianity’s relationship to its Jewish roots, reconstructions of Romanticism’s emergence from scenes of revolution, and efforts to come to terms with the ways in which conceptions of reconciliation and redress organize notions of history, politics, identity, and responsibility in the wake of conditions of diasporic upheaval.
Historicist approaches and interests are inflected by debates about periodization and interpretive techniques gleaned from gender and queer theory, ethics, national traditions, philology, aesthetics, postcolonial theory, folklore studies, and epistemology. Such methodological breadth is a sign of the cluster’s vitality. Students drawn to this field of inquiry will be trained to work with a wide variety of theoretical vocabularies and practices and will profit from a longstanding departmental commitment to nurturing innovative approaches to problems in literary history and theory.
In the English Department, we are interested in the study of visual culture as it pertains to literary analysis and to the production of culture at large. How has the interaction between text and image shaped reading practices in a range of historical contexts? The marginal drawings, glosses, and annotations in medieval manuscripts, for example, illustrate multiple engagements between reader(s) and writer(s) over time, while the rubrication, illumination, lay-out, and decoration of different medieval manuscripts testify to the variety of reading practices in this period as well as to the ways in which books function as things in the Middle Ages. In a contemporary context, the distinction between word and image is eroded and reconfigured by comic books and graphic novels. These texts employ complex verbal-visual language, narrative techniques, and genre conventions that invite a host of theoretical approaches. As we map the expressive possibilities inherent in the medium’s inventive orchestration of image and text, we might explore the semiotic codes of visual narrative, the material features of production and circulation, fan cultures, and questions of value, or the relation between graphic narrative and film.
We are interested not only in the interaction between text and image, but also in what visual images can tell us about the limits of literature’s capacity to represent, and about the changing nature of literature—and literacy—in the digital era. What can visual media do that literary texts cannot? Photography, film, video, and performance art allow us to think comparatively about literature and its contribution to the field of culture, and to identify cultural trends and developments that transcend any particular expressive form. Inquiring into the dialogue between text and image, as well as their differences, we recognize that both are subject to historical conditions.
The advent of digital media expands our conception of visuality by introducing textual spaces that are architectural and navigable. These spaces are at once networked and closely linked to physical and material sites in ways that printed texts are not. Digital texts thus demand an expanded form of visual literacy that is interactive and procedural. As we pursue these various approaches to digital, visual, and graphic sources, we cultivate an expansive sense of the role of visual culture in the development of literary forms, as well as an awareness that the way we constitute literary and visual fields, and the space between them, continues to change over time
The complex relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, the colonized and the colonizer, may be said to be characterized by ideology and exploitation and necessarily involves issues of culture, power, land and the nation state. The disempowerment of Indigenous people and the imposition of European socio-cultural norms led to the view that Indigenous societies belonged to the historical past. Like the Indigenous peoples themselves, their oral traditions were considered archaic with little if any value or literary merit. Yet, among Indigenous peoples oral traditions provide the foundation of Indigenous societies. Oral traditions are distinct ways of interpreting the world and the method by which knowledge is reproduced, preserved, and disseminated from one generation to the next. Contrary to popular belief, the oral tradition, far from dying out, influences contemporary Indigenous literatures profoundly, resulting in a stylistic and thematic hybrid of the oral and the written, the past and the present, the Indigenous and the Western. This “textualized orality” continues to infuse literature written in colonial languages by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers, and its presence points to the deep influence of the oral tradition in contemporary literature.
Faculty members in the English Department take considerable interest in a wide variety of the topics associated with the cluster “Indigeneity and Orality.” Interests range from critical inquiries of discourses by Indigenous peoples themselves, including a host of related subjects such as translation, aesthetics, voice, empowerment through writing, and the Indigenous artists’ representation of themselves in relation to settler society and ethnic minorities. Settler-colonial discourses about Indigenous peoples are also central to this cluster: topics range from juxtaposing the figures of the immigrant and the indigene, the complexity of relationships between indigenous and immigrant/diasporic identities in the Americas, to the process of indigenization and how narratives, originated by settler-colonial cultures, are appropriated (or problematized) by ethnic minority and diasporic writers and artists.
Whether we are dealing with Chaucer’s adaptations from Ovid, Coleridge’s plagiarizing of German writers, Joyce’s intricate punning in a wide range of tongues, or Anzaldua’s interweaving of Spanish and English, literary texts are regularly constructed out of other languages and other voices. Scholars in the department explore and attend to these multilingual cultural and rhetorical contexts in a wide range of historical periods.
In early medieval England, Old English was written alongside Latin and spoken alongside Old Norse, while after the Norman Conquest, authors writing in English often knew and drew on material in Latin and French, and frequently produced bi- or even tri-lingual texts. In the Renaissance, classicizing programs were embedded in multilingual intellectual and aesthetic discourses linking England to both Europe and antiquity. Cultural producers in Italy, Spain, France and England borrowed common materials, shared common genres, and developed related concepts of dramatic production.
The rise of European colonialism meant the intrusion of English and other European languages (French, Spanish) into already vibrant literary and cultural traditions, and the emergence of new multilingual situations for the composition, circulation, and reception of English language texts in areas of the world such as Africa and the Caribbean. The continental European contexts within which British literature took shape after the Enlightenment are also studied by members of the department. Much of the faculty’s research is concerned with multilingual texts and contexts, presenting graduate students with thought-provoking challenges to traditional disciplinary divisions and periodization.
Just as literature has traditionally been understood to embody Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture as “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” paraliterary genres like science fiction, horror, and romance have traditionally been viewed as subliterary and dismissed as “merely” popular. However, as scholarship increasingly demystifies the cultural authority once uncritically conferred on “literature” by examining the social, cultural, and political work it performs, scholars of English literature have necessarily reconsidered the function and value of “the popular” and “the paraliterary.” It is thanks to the difference posed by these categories that notions of “literariness” become visible in the first place.
The rise of Cultural Studies in the 1970s and the emergence of New Historicism in the 1980s are, in different ways, emblematic of this shift. They share a concern with unsettling our assumptions about what counts as literature and with locating cultural artifacts within and against the ideological complexity of their historical moments. Such questions concerning the production, reception, and significance of popular forms, which illuminate the processes by which “literature” is produced as a privileged discursive category, are taken up in diverse ways by members of the faculty, and are central to the PhD program in English. Ranging from the Middle Ages to the present, the historical and generic reach of faculty research and teaching in the areas of popular culture and paraliterature are substantial. Currently faculty research interests include a plethora of paraliterary and “nonfiction” genres:
- folklore and popular literature
- oral tales, fairy tales, and “les formes simples” such as jokes, proverbs, riddles, and vignettes
- hagiography, medieval calendars, litanies, and martyrologies
- diaries, memoirs, and speeches
- fantasy and romance
- the Gothic novel, the ghost story, horror, and the weird tale
- travel writing
- detective fiction
- Victorian periodicals, sensation fiction, penny fiction, melodrama, criminal biographies, genre fiction, popular news and advice writing
- the little magazine movement in Canada within modernist literary culture
- marginal, leftist periodical publications of the 1930s
- American counterculture and the alternative press of the 1960s and 70s
- science fiction, cyberpunk, and postmodernism
- television, film, hypertext literature, online fan fiction, and video games
One of the distinctive facets of Carleton’s English department is its attention to issues of textual production and circulation. Scholarship is driven not only by what authors produce, but also by how editors, scribes, translators, patrons, compilers, printers, publishers, censors, illuminators, legislators, web designers, and computer programmers contribute to the production of texts. Faculty members examine the ways in which material form influences the production and distribution of texts across the spectrum of manuscript, print, and digital cultures. They also consider how political dictates, reading practices, and circulation mechanisms affect the experiences of both authors and audiences.
Studying the ways in which texts are mediated and remediated sheds light on the complex social and political operations of the book, the periodical, the blog, and other texts. The department’s courses and research projects recover the extra-textual social meaning of these artifacts as they shift from mouth and mind to written or printed text, as they emerge from the printing press and pass to booksellers and newsagents, and as they radiate from the computer screen.
While the concept of an ostensibly unitary “Anglo-Saxon identity” helped to consolidate the national canon of English literature as an object of academic study in the nineteenth century, English national identity is itself a hybrid construct—a product of medieval colonization, conquest, and cross-cultural encounters. As the work of many faculty members in our department recognizes, all national formations emerge from such contradictions. Yet the rise of Euro-American modernity witnessed the creation of state formations that have gained their affective power through what cultural theorist Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities” of national sentiment; such “imagined communities” have in turn depended on discourses of racialization, exclusion, normativity, and cohesion in order to consolidate ideas about national identity.
Across a broad range of historical, political, social, and economic contexts, faculty members in English examine the troubling and enabling character of national formations. Current research projects include the interpellation of English national identity in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century English literature; the relation of transgressive sexualities to discourses of national security and health in early twentieth-century Britain; the influence of European projects of liberal governance and race-making on national formations in Canada; the national allegory and the function of Nordicity as a trope in the production of Canada as an imagined community since Confederation; the role of First Nations’ resistance to the metanarratives of settler-invader nationalism; the creation of the category of the national citizen in Canada vis-à-vis the emergence of a national labour force; the ways that contemporary nation-states negotiate the exigencies of neoliberal competitiveness in the global market; and the interventions of transnational human rights projects in state-sanctioned atrocities.
Many department members share an interest in questions related to the public sphere, a term which, in its original definition, refers to the emergence of a realm of public authority that mediates between the state, on the one hand, and civil society, on the other. We understand the term at its most broad, however, to include conceptions of citizenship; the role of affect in the constitution of the public sphere or “intimate publics”; discontinuous constructions of personhood; the government of freedom; the relationship of literature to the public sphere; and the relationship between print culture and the public sphere.
Students interested in this area will be exposed to a wide range of theories, methodologies, and political cultures. Among the more specific interests of the faculty in our department are the historical specificity of our dominant metaphors for public interaction, which are frequently anchored in notions of speech, conversation, and discussion; histories of liberalism; transnational poetry and the construction of diasporic and global justice counterpublic spheres; and the social and political function of print culture in a wide range of contexts, from the divorce trials of the Victorian period to sex scandals in the modernist period; to conceptions of nationhood and sovereignty in First Nations writing; to the periodical press in British India; and to religious disputes in seventeenth-century England.
In what has been described as a transnational turn, scholars are increasingly considering phenomena such as migration, exile, translation, ethnic nationalisms, travel, and trade routes that complicate the national paradigm of literary study. The current prominence in cultural theory of terms such as “globalization,” “mobility,” “cosmopolitanism,” “transculturalism,” “creolization,” and “diaspora” signals this shift away from the national. Such scholarship has helped to theorize culture, not as a bounded object, but as an ongoing and dynamic process of interaction that does not necessarily respect national borders. Accordingly, while research in the Department continues to consider the nation-state as a viable site from which social, political, and economic change can be effected, it is also significantly informed by an interest in the increasingly transnational contours of cultural interaction, transmission, and formation, as well as an awareness of the historical interconnectedness of cultures.
Some of the current faculty research in this area include the relation between mobility and primitivism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts; the emerging twentieth and twenty-first century legal notion of a transnational practice of “universal jurisdiction” over crimes against humanity and war crimes; a study of documentary writers’ and filmmakers’ travel to the war zone of North Vietnam; the politics of mobility and citizenship in interwar Canada; and empire as the history in which migration, exile, and travel are effects of colonial rule and constitutive of the very ideology of the nation.
The emergence of ecocriticism in the 1990s marked a major shift in the study of the relation between literature and landscape, a topic that has become increasingly informed by interdisciplinary debates over the ontological status of “nature,” on the one hand, and by ecological ethics and Indigenous knowledges, on the other. Spanning both constructivist theories of nature-as-discursive-production and environmentalist articulations of nature-as-limit, ecocriticism challenges conventional distinctions between literature and science while substantially complicating the analysis of traditional literary modes like the pastoral and nonfictional genres like nature writing. It examines the inscription of nature and environment in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and national formation, even as it inflects such political modes of reading with a renewed interest in phenomenology and non-human agency. It has thus been a driving force behind the recent turn towards the animal in poststructuralist ethics and cultural theory.
In the English Department at Carleton, faculty research currently explores the dilemma of rendering the non-human world in language and poetic strategies that have historically commodified, personified, and claimed it for human consumption, occupation, and subjective consolidation. Much of this work, too, demonstrates the ways in which traditional indigenous epistemologies and ontologies differ from those of Western civilizations.
The emergence of postcolonial discourse, with the foundational works of theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha on the one hand, and the critical interventions of writers such as Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Aime Cesaire, and Edouard Glissant on the other hand, has had a phenomenal impact on literary studies. It has fundamentally changed our ways of conceiving such issues as subjectivity and agency in texts. As praxis, the postcolonial has allowed the hitherto repressed voice of the subaltern Other—created by Empire and other technologies of dominance, oppression, and exclusion—to emerge and become a legitimate subject of critical discourse and inquiry.
Beyond the initial preoccupation with Empire, and the textual strategies employed by writers from ex-colonial spaces to “write back” to the imperial Centre, as well as the attendant unproductive binaries such strategies created, the postcolonial has evolved in the last two decades into engagements with such discursive categories as diasporas, gender, local and transnational identities, race, and racialization. Carleton’s English Department has considerable strengths in all these areas as they apply to the literatures and cultures of Africa, the black Atlantic (the Caribbean, black America/Canada), Asia (India), and the indigenous literatures and cultures of the Americas.
Faculty research in this cluster explores the cultural impact of traumas as diverse as the Crusades, American slavery, Partition, Apartheid, residential schools, and contemporary human rights violations. In general, “violence studies” interrogates institutional, social, and media-generated violence in its discursive as well as material forms. It overlaps with the related area of trauma studies, which seeks to understand how literary representations respond to the aftermath of slavery, colonization, neo-imperialism, genocides, holocausts, apartheids, neo-liberal globalisation, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations. Of further interest are the complex and shifting relations between perpetrators, victims, survivors, bystanders, beneficiaries, apologists, and witnesses produced within acts of violence and the political and social discourses complicit with that violence. Ethical criticism pursued in violence and trauma studies moves beyond traditional notions of the moral and the good to consider questions of representational ethics and intersubjective responsibility and reciprocity.