Surviving Clarke’s Crossing

This piece originally appeared in the June 30th edition of The National Post:

You didn’t have to spend much time in this city before you encountered Austin Clarke. He was a resident figure at the Grand Hotel and Bistro 990, where the staff knew exactly how to prepare his martinis. He was a generous man who regularly hosted young writers, scholars and artists in his home for advice and a meal of bacchanalian proportions. Clarke prepared for such events with visits to Kensington Market, where vegetables, meat and fish were carefully studied and selected. For a time it seemed that Clarke was everywhere: on Bloor, on Church, on Shuter, on Eglinton. This is perhaps why the city feels just slightly emptier, less vibrant, less alive, now that he is gone.

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CFP: Neoliberal Tools or New Humanistic Critique? Toronto, May 25 – 27, 2017

“Neoliberal Tools or New Humanistic Critique? Theorizing Class, Race, and Nation in the Digital Humanities”

Mikinaakominis / TransCanadas. University of Toronto, May 25 – 27, 2017

In recent years in Canada, the digital humanities has enjoyed increasing popularity as a tool for teaching, researching, and disseminating texts, and also a means of generating collaborative scholarship across disciplinary borders. However, the digital humanities, and perhaps its practitioners, have recently been described as a collection of neoliberal tools whose “institutional success has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism in favour of the manufacture of digital tools and archives.” Do the digital humanities represent a displacement of critical questions of power in favour of a cloistered technological positivism? Are the digital humanities a trojan horse for a creeping neoliberal erosion of the humanities, or a framework that makes possible humanistic critique of the alleged value of ‘knowledge mobilization’? What vision of the humanities is at stake in this digital work and how might it be reinvigorated through a critical engagement with theories of race, class, and Indigeneity?

This panel invites papers that investigate these, and other, questions that attempt to theorize the digital humanities in our contemporary context. We are particularly interested in papers that consider how theories of diaspora, Indigeneity, race, and nation are represented within, while also transforming the articulation of, digital humanities and its practices. We also hope to stimulate discussion around the latent forms of humanism within the digital humanities: how might this digital turn represent a new form of Said’s “worldliness” that infuses humanism with a new vocabulary of critique? Along these lines, how can the tools of digital technology be used to further theoretically critical and culturally progressive projects, specifically in the Canadian context? We are interested in both traditional conference papers and presentation or critique of digital projects that engage the aforementioned questions.

Please send paper proposals to Kate Siklosi at or Paul Barrett at by Thursday July 14th.

Genealogies of the humanities

The controversy in the digital humanities over David Allington’s, Sarah Brouillette’s, and David Golumbia’s recent article, “Neoliberal Tools (And Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities” led to mostly predictable responses from humanities scholars, digital and otherwise. While the authors of this article offer a somewhat compelling account of the rise of the digital humanities — or at least one take on it — their arguments are not particularly novel nor unexpected. Indeed, anyone who has presented digital humanities work at a non-DH conference has likely witnessed a similar brow furrowing from senior colleagues. Furthermore, this criticism of DH work has a long history: Tom Eyers previously made a similar argument and Stanley Fish famously offered his hermeneutic critique of DH (to name only a few).

The authors’ claim, that Digital Humanities embodies a form of neoliberalism that is transforming the humanities into a skills and deliverables-based training ground for the tech sector, is a relatively unsurprising critique. Similarly, the response of DH scholars to this critique, to demonstrate the manner in which DH challenges hegemonic notions of research, knowledge, historicism, and interpretation are all well-rehearsed. I suggest here that both are right and that we should think of the digital humanities genealogically in order to recognize that yes, the digital humanities is a trojan horse, transforming our departments and our knowledge work from within, but that the content of that work and its implications for broader notions of the humanities and humanism more generally remains open to definition. DH work may in fact be a form of creeping neoliberalism as Allington, Brouillette, and Columbia suggest, but it need not be.

All your books are belong to us

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In Canada, its never about race

A black immigrant in Toronto waves a household object in a “threatening” manner. Police are called. The man is described as disturbed, unruly, unstable, and most-importantly — dangerous. Concerned police plead with the man to drop the weapon but their cries are ignored. Finally, they are forced to shoot him. He dies. A familiar tragedy.

In 1979 the man was Albert Johnson, a Jamaican immigrant who was killed in his Manchester Ave. home on a Sunday morning holding a lawn edger. His death led to protests from the black community, a high-publicity trial and the acquittal of the two accused officers. The trial of the two officers would eventually result in the establishment of the SIU. In 2015 the man is Andrew Loku, an refugee from South Sudan, who was killed holding a hammer. His death was investigated by the SIU; the officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing.

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Separated by nearly forty years, both men died unnecessarily at the hands of Toronto police. What is particularly haunting about both incidents is not merely the horrors of police violence nor the similarities of their deaths, but rather the virtually identical responses to both deaths in the white Canadian media. In both Johnson’s and Loku’s cases white Canadian law enforcement, media, and judiciary frame the killings as unfortunate incidents & sad tragedies rather than as the racist behaviour of a racist society. The identical responses to both killings demonstrates very clearly how anti-black racism is at the heart of Canadian public discourse.

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Argumentative Game Genie: Rhetoric in the digital humanities

I find that a central challenge of presenting digital humanities work is the need to speak across multiple languages: technical, humanistic, visual, algorithmic. To borrow Susan Brown’s phrase, DH work usually involves working in the gaps between disciplines and these gaps come with all kinds of linguistic and communication difficulties. How do we communicate concepts that we know are important to humanistic inquiry when those concepts rely on analyses of algorithms, data visualizations, geographic information systems and similar obtuse technical concepts and tools? Most DH’ers are familiar with the furrowed brows of our colleagues when we explain that their field of study could be aided with some bizarre and opaque computational apparatus. “Machine learning!?!?!” they say in the  drawn out, pained tone usually reserved for doctor’s describing incurable diseases.

Given this need to speak across the gap of hermeneutics & technical forms of knowledge (setting aside the fact that the two are not really all that separate) communication becomes a critical tool in digital humanities work. Indeed, communicating across disciplines and disourses is no small feat. If we have enough trouble communicating with one another in our ‘home’ disciplines, one need not work hard to imagine the difficulty of trying to communicate in a language that is intellectually rigorous,  technically savvy, and even the slightest bit compelling and engaging.

The excellent work of the Stanford Literary Lab has demonstrated the need to adapt scholarly forms of communication to suit digital humanities research. Their work is both compelling in its content — as it pushes DH work in new directions and poses timely questions that challenge the tenets of the ‘discipline’ — and also in its form, using the ‘pamphlet’ as an appropriate genre for communicating this research. Not a peer-reviewed article in the traditional sense, the pamphlet enables the researchers to be more casual, more compelling, more polemic. All in all, a cooler form.

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Austin Clarke’s Aesthetics of Crossing

My recent article, ‘“Our words spoken among us, in fragments:”’ Austin Clarke’s Aesthetics of Crossing’ is free and available in the Journal of West Indian Literature. Here’s a brief excerpt — click for the entire article:

In a fascinating and revealing interview of Austin Clarke by Dionne Brand and Rinaldo Walcott, Brand opens the discussion by wondering:

Why isn’t your work more out there?… why isn’t it acknowledged, because you have been writing a very, very long time,… and I want to know what you attribute that to? I can’t figure it out because the stories are so beautifully made, you know, and touch so much of what is Canadian, what makes up this city… that I don’t understand it at all. I mean, I do, but I wanted you to tell me why you think it is so. (1)

Clarke responds reservedly, explaining that he has “suspicions” about the biases of some aspects of the Canadian literary establishment while also insisting that “there are no Canadian critics qualified to look at the things I write, in the sense of having a sensitive feeling towards what I write” (1–2). This discussion intriguingly suggests the manner in which Clarke and Brand are not decidedly opposed to canonization but rather seek a place within or a form of acknowledgment from Canadian literature. Where canonical crisis is often imagined to have a conservative bent, here it is insurgent.[i] What is it about Clarke’s novels and short stories that they at once “touch so much of what is Canadian” yet remain such an enigma for Canadian literary criticism? Does the absence of “sensitive feeling” towards his work indicate a lack of sympathy towards Clarke and his writing or a deeper unfamiliarity with the formal traditions and aesthetic codes that his work draws upon?

Read the rest here

Black Lives Matter? Multiculturalism & Race

This post originally appeared in Now Magazine:

The shooting death of Andrew Loku by a Toronto police officer on July 5 is hauntingly similar to the killing of Albert Johnson by police in 1979.

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The shootings are separated by nearly 40 years, but both men were shot in their homes on a Sunday morning. Both were wielding household objects, Loku a hammer, Johnson garden shears. Both were black. And in both cases mental illness was cited as a contributing factor in their deaths.

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Codework and Carework: Editing Modernism in Canada

I spent one year as the Editing Modernism in Canada postdoctoral fellow which I mostly spent working in the McMaster University Archives reading and writing about Austin Clarke and learning about the digital humanities. I was somewhat surprised when EMiC decided to fund my Clarke project but as I learned more about the organization I realized that there really is no strict mandate for EMiC work. Their working definitions of modernism and Canadian writing are wide and flexible and indeed part of their project is to push at the boundaries of these definitions; I think this is one of EMiC’s real strengths.

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Austin Clarke, Dennis Lee and Nation Language

When Austin Clarke was revising his short story “The Motor Car” for the Collection When He Was Free and Young and Used to Wear Silks he worked with Anansi editor, poet, and children’s book writer, Dennis Lee (Alligator Pie!). Lee provided extensive notes for Clarke’s proposed stories, including extensive summary and manuscript comments for both the new and revised stories.

Lee’s extensive comments for Clarke’s “The Motor Car”

Lee generally praised Clarke’s work, describing “An Easter Carol” as “breathtaking” and “Give Us This Day: And Forgive Us” as “superb.” One area of concern Lee has with Clarke’s “The Motor Car,” however, is Clarke’s use of dialect or nation language. The main character, Calvin’s, arrival in Toronto is described as:

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“Toronto in your arse, man!” The plane touch down, and the first man outta the plane is, well, no need to tell you who it was. Calfuckingvin! And he pass through the customs like if he was born in Toronto. The white man didn’ even ask him a question … Before the first week come and gone, Calvin take up pen and paper and send off a little thing to Willy and the boys… (11)

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Where the gorblummuh is here? CanLit, Clarke, and Algorithmic Criticism

One of the questions that haunts my research is why is Austin Clarke’s writing so marginal within Canadian Literature? Clarke is not only a foundational Canadian author but also one of Canada’s most prolific. His first book, The Survivors of the Crossing, is contemporary with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and The Double Hook and predates Northrop Frye’s infamous conclusion to Klinck’s Literary History of CanadaClarke has, therefore, been concerned with the question of “Where is Here,” from a diasporic perspective, well before CanLit ever articulated that as the (supposedly) defining question. Yet despite being so prolific and engaged with the themes that centrally concern Canadian literature, there is very little critical writing on Clarke’s work.

A quick search of Google Scholar for Clarke reveals approximately 2100 results, many of which are completely irrelevant or only marginally related to Clarke’s work. Contrast this with the nearly 2000 results generated by searching for “Sheila Watson Double Hook.” Similar searches for Mordecai Richler and  Hugh MacLennan reveal 3,000 and 4,360 results respectively. Searching for Margaret Atwood breaks the internet.

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