LERMAsteriales: an overview of the day

By Mylène Della Monica (2015)

The LERMAsteriales were divided into eight sessions. The first session developed the idea of commitment in times of war and peace. It began by looking at the work of Ernest Hemingway, emblematic author of the ‘Lost Generation’; we saw how a whole generation of artists could commit to a cause, in response to the trauma of World War I, but also how Hemingway can be seen to have dealt with personal trauma through his female characters. War was also the ‘Greater Game’ of sportsmen, who extended their athletic commitment from stadiums to the greater arena of the front, and who also learnt how to use sport to escape the horrors of war. Lastly, we saw how the United States struggles as a country to commit to peace. War seems to cement union and national agreement, but, when at the end of the Cold War, a plan of military conversion was designed, this new cause clearly did not bring people together. While individuals often do commit to a public cause, it appears hard for a whole nation to really commit when it comes to peace.

The next session opened with a national project that was launched in England in the 18th Century in order to standardize and codify the English language. Dr. Samuel Johnson was bound to the editors by a contract to carry out this project, but dropped it after three years. However, the speaker examined how the moral contract brought him back to his task and led him to edit A Dictionary of the English Language. The tension between legal and moral contracts was also explored through examples of movie adaptations, underlining the commitment and trust between the author and the director. If the legal contract defines the boundaries and freedom of the project, the moral contract implies respect of the work, and trust between the two parties. However, the example of Archibald Menzies, an 18th century Scottish botanist, showed how a man could be torn between three conflicting allegiances: to the Royal Society, the British Admiralty and his passion for science.

The third session was about the commitment to or against a certain identity, and how such commitment can lead to the development of cultural identity. Through the translation of a Medieval text, we saw how translators chose to preserve Celtic culture as a token of a past civilization. From a sociolinguistic point of view, we then examined how countries like Canada or regions like Yorkshire chose to defend their independence from a more wide-reaching identity, and a certain freedom in their language or dialect. Such dialects become inherent to individual cultures and identities which people lay claim to. Finally, adopting a more historical and religious approach, the English Catholics were committed to preserving their double and frequently contradictory identity: both English and Catholic. Facing severe anti-Catholic laws, they defended their faith mainly through doggedly pursuing their religious practice.

This session led naturally to the following one, based on the relationship between the notion of commitment and concepts of race and ‘otherness.’ Henry Morton Stanley developed a new genre thanks to journalistic tools at the heart of his work, and took part in the debate on the Arab slave trade with his only novel, My Kululu, featuring a Zanzibar prince enslaved in Africa. From a more anthropological point of view, the disappearance of Native American tribes was explained by their failure to fight assimilation and how those cultures are slowly dying in favor of a new emerging one. In literature, Percival Everett’s Erasure gave us a good example of how a commitment between the author and the reader was necessary to and understanding of the nuances between ‘signifier’ and ‘signified.’ Everett worked on the Monk’s conflict between the commitment to “readerly” or “writerly” creation, in a text featuring an intellectual bi-racial man who helps deconstruct the stereotypes of both black and white communities.

Obviously, a discussion of commitment is also linked to gender issues. Three visions were developed. Stand-up comedians, such as Kate Smurthwaite, Nadia Kamil and Jo Brand, deal with sexism in their gigs through a range of humorous responses, from more innocent observations to outright derision, that push the audience to empathetic or mocking laughter. These women are committed to reversing stereotypes on stage. At the other end of the spectrum, Phyllis Schlafly devoted herself over more than fifty years to a unique cause: antifeminism. This implacable lawyer was engaged in a long battle against the Equal Rights Amendment, and fought for the preservation of gender standards, defending the 19th century stereotyped essentialist vision of women as home-makers, whose place is in the private sphere. This example stood, of course, in stark contrast with the women workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 19th century, who fought for their rights as workers, against exploitation by their employers.

Commitment is often synonymous with subjectivity. Such is the case in literature, as illustrated by the divergence between the information conveyed by the author and the narrator in James Hogg’s work. The reader is deprived of any single truth in this book; he or she is perpetually given different interpretations. This subjectivity can also be found in language; for example in the use of non-canonical forms such as inversions. Such forms betray the subjectivity of the speakers who emphasize certain parts of their speech and therefore reveal their own commitment. Subjectivity may also be perceived in certain uses of modals. Indeed, the deontic value of a modal expresses a commitment from a speaker putting pressure on someone, while the epistemic value of modals can allow him or her to express doubt or probability, as well as proving that they are unable to commit themselves assertively.

However, there can be significant differences between what is thought of as being commitment or non-commitment. This is the case, for instance, with Raymond Carver who is frequently perceived as a non-committed or a-political author, but who, on further analysis, seems quite committed in many different aspects of his work. First of all, he incites readers to commit themselves in the very act of reading through his minimalistic style. In the themes and characters he portrays, Carver shows commitment in the way he raises the status of those ordinary, everyday people, proving that literature does not just belong to extraordinary men. On the other hand, if Virginia Woolf’s life is considered, her notion of commitment seems paradoxical. It appears to be a series of withdrawals, culminating in her leaving the Bloomsbury Group and committing suicide. However her withdrawals led consistently back to commitment: she committed to her lover after leaving the writer’s group, and through death she was committing to spirituality. Commitment in photography can also be ambiguous. If photographs look objective at first sight, the choice of subject in itself is already a commitment from the photographer, who can also reinforce his or her subjectivity by the choice of viewpoint, perspective or by the use of a caption.

The last session looked at how impressions of reality in fiction could be the result of a commitment from the author. In Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, the author allows autobiographical elements to show through his two main characters, Auden and Britten, who are also used to question the notion of art, and the position of the artist. This returns the question of art back to Bennett’s own writing, and his commitment to themes such as homosexuality. James Joyce in Dubliners was committed to representing reality, to providing an authentic portrayal of people’s lives; but have translations and re-writings of his work respected this implicit contract? The answer depends on each translator’s vision of what is ‘reality’; each re-writer has adapted Joyce’s original pessimism to their own perception of the real. Indeed, Joyce in his ‘writing of darkness’ leaves much space to the reader’s own interpretation. Finally, a contemporary literary exploration of commitment brought us to a famous group of activists, who fight wearing masks representing Guy Fawkes: Anonymous. However, this group seems to restrict its activism to actions on the internet, and does not foresee any concrete actions in ‘reality’. Can we therefore conclude that commitment today is evolving to the fictional and virtual sphere?

Undeniably, as Edouard Brasey pointed out at the end of the day, ‘commitment’ is a notion that evolves in time: ‘the commitment of yesterday will not be the commitment of tomorrow’. This is why ‘commitment’ was such a good choice of theme, since research itself also evolves in time. Research is dynamic, perpetually evolving and that, he suggested, is the answer to all those who wonder why research continues in the social sciences and humanities – because every era, every generation can bring its own interpretation of a subject, can bring a new approach to it, according to its own context and time, and is committed to pushing the boundaries of knowledge even further. Past research on an author, on a human group, on a syntactic concept, on history, or past translations, are bound to be improved and updated, thanks to discussions and scientific exchanges. This was the ultimate point of the day – to bring young student researchers and professors together in order to promote our research and hypotheses, but also and most of all, to progress in our research thanks to the advice and help we received from the scientific community.

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