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.

Why this perceived irrelevance or marginality of Clarke’s writing despite his central importance to the field of Canadian Literature? In 1994 Clarke’s biographer described a “dearth of comprehensive examinations of Clarke’s life and writing” (9) and WJ Keith argues that Clarke’s writing is “characteristically neglected” (78). Even after winning major awards for The Origin of Waves and The Polished Hoe, Clarke’s writing still hasn’t received much scholarly attention.

Of course racism is one possible explanation — because Clarke’s work focuses on black Canadian and black diasporic life it isn’t perceived as being part of CanLit or relevant to the lives of Canadian readers. I’m sure that this was once the case but shouldn’t this be changing given the changing face of CanLit? Canada Reads 2015 sought out a book to break barriers, was hosted by Wab Kinew and won by Kim Thúy — hardly a reflection of the old white men CanLit of yesteryear. Similarly, considering the accolades given The Polished Hoe and the Book of Negroes, shouldn’t Clarke’s writing be somewhat in vogue and conferences, workshops, articles and collections in his honour be forthcoming?

I think two other reasons explain Clarke’s relative marginality within CanLit. First, I think white Canadian critics tend to be interested in representations of blackness outside of Canada. Transnational blackness locates blackness far more easily elsewhere in a manner that avoids linking the histories of colonialism and plantation life with those histories and present-day realities here, in Canada. In other words, its easier and more comfortable for white Canadian readers to read about blackness in America, the Caribbean, Africa — anywhere but here. So Esi Edugyan’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne is largely ignored whereas Half-Blood Blues is praised for its depiction of black life in Europe. Clarke wins the Giller Prize for The Polished Hoe with its focus on Barbados whereas MORE, with its focus on black life in Toronto, goes largely unremarked upon. There are so many recent Canadian novels that feature transnational and extra-national black life — ranging from Linda Spalding’s The Purhcase to Will Ferguson’s 419 — that I think we need a name for this recurring CanLit theme.

"Where You from?" (Out of My Skin)
“Where You from?” (Out of My Skin)

The other reason for the lack of Clarke criticism is that most Canadian critics don’t have the necessary critical framework by which to interpret his work. It seems to me that Clarke’s work draws on a kind of hyper-creolization — a borrowing of themes, motifs, symbols, and languages of the Caribbean, nation language, Christian apocalypticism, jazz, the American Southern gothic, and Canada. The critic who wants to understand an individual text – let alone the entirety of Clarke’s writing – must be able to draw together these multiple influences and historical contexts. This requires pulling together the threads of a wide range of literary, cultural and political influences in a manner that many CanLit critics are not trained to do. Put another way — Clarke’s novels and short stories exceed the frameworks that CanLit critics look for and therefore critics have a hard time interpreting his work.

Clarke surrounded by his influences

My solution to this problem is twofold: I read Clarke’s work in the style of traditional close reading while also using digital humanities methods to engage in distance reading across Clarke’s entire corpus.  The movement between the two positions will, I hope, reveal connections across his entire corpus that show how Clarke rearticulates the established themes of CanLit while also demonstrating Clarke’s formal innovations and experimental moments in his work. My intuition is that these two methods — working in tandem — will reveal Clarke’s place in the Canadian canon as well as the singularity of his literary voice and vision. Yet there are a number of concerns with this practice:

My digital humanities practice takes its cue from Stephen Ramsay’s Algorithmic Criticism particularly his argument that digital forms of reading constitutes a deformation or re-formation of the text:

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For Ramsay, the digital artifact that we generate in our digital humanities work constitutes a transformation of an original text. Yet unlike some more traditional critics, Ramsay  sees this as just an extension of traditional close reading: all of our interpretations remake the text anew, seeing it from a  different perspective and are therefore transformations in their own way. Even when we sit down with a novel and engage in a particular reading — Marxist, Feminist, eco-critical, etc.. — we transform our understanding of the novel and choose to read it through a particular lens. In many respects, digital reading does the same thing just with a far more visible lens.

Yet I worry, particularly for an author like Clarke, that our textual deformations may, in fact, be further mis-readings. What is the difference between a digital humanities de-formation of the text and the kinds of mis-readings that Clarke’s work has largely undergone up to now? If Clarke’s marginalization is both a function of being critically ignored and critically misread then how do my own digital humanities interventions ensure that I’m not continuing this tradition? Even if I’m now reading Clarke is that necessarily a good thing if I’m reading him completely out of context? Do these DH transformations make it easier to lose the ‘original meaning’ or context of a text?

I don’t have an answer to these questions yet but my thinking is that if we take Algorithmic Criticism to be a computer-assisted form of traditional literary analysis, then we need to do all the same things that we do with traditional form of reading to ensure our digital readings adequately contextualize and historicize the texts and fields of literature that we are considering. This has been one major critique of DH work: that in the transformation from text to data we lose historical and political context.

In Clarke’s case this means linking the history of Canadian multiculturalism to plantation slavery and Caribbean colonialism. It means showing the manner in which the multicultural nation is not merely a descendant of — but contemporaneous with — the plantations of the past. It means reading Frye, Selvon, Gilroy, Fanon, Baraka, Eliot and others in dialogue with one another to begin to develop an adequate theoretical framework for interpreting Clarke’s work.

In the case of Clarke it also means bringing the Black Atlantic critique of the category of the human to bear on the “humanism” aspect of digital humanities. Digital Humanities is not just a mechanism but a methodology that brings with it ideologies of text, reader, subject, and race. In this sense Clarke’s work brings the questions of race and biologism to the front of DH analysis

In this respect Clarke’s work forces us to confront the numerous ways in which our DH practices embedded in notions of humanity and humanism that a writer like Clarke would distrust (to say the least)? To return to the beginning of this post, reading Clarke’s work against the grain of CanLit enables us to see the exclusions that structure the field of writing. Similarly, as we read Clarke via DH we also read DH via Clarke.