Current Tides: Reflections on Trends in Life Writing Scholarship, An SNS Interview with John Zuern – Part 2

In the second section of our interview, John Zuern reflects on methods, collaboration, and (inter)disciplinarity.

Read the second part of our interview series with John as we explore reflections on method, collaboration, and (inter)disciplinarity which inform our previous discussion on Digital Life.


On Precarity and Responsibility

 SNS Network: We are most interested in your recent work on post-2008 financial crash memoirs, particularly your focus on the intersection between exceptionality and exemplarity in crisis writing and its implications for more collective, transformative socialities. In what ways is the memoir genre especially generative for these transitions and emergent sensibilities (and is “sensibilities” the term you would use)? Following some of our questions above, what other methods of life writing as well as scholarship production disrupt or produce the possibility of departure from what you’re reading as neo-liberal selfhood?
John Zuern: I’ve already said some things about this project in my answer to the question about ethics, but I’ll try to respond to some of the specific points you raise in this one. I got obsessed with the financial crisis as it was unfolding and did a lot of initially random reading about it. I pretty quickly started to notice that a lot of the stuff I was finding fell roughly into the “life writing” category, whether it was a blog like Stephanie Alison Walker’s Love in the Time of Foreclosure or Mark Seal’s series on the Bernard Madoff scandal in Vanity Fair

It seems to me that gathering up a corpus of American post-financial-crisis auto/biographical texts and looking at them synoptically, across the widely divergent social strata their subjects represent, might give us some insight into the cultural and psychic dynamics of life in American-style neoliberal capitalism that other studies of the crisis might not be as able to access. Of course I’m not suggesting that texts like these give us direct access to the thoughts and feelings of the people whose experiences they represent, but we can look to how their stories more or less routinely get structured along certain rhetorical and generic lines, adhering, for example, to the conventions of the classical confession or conversion narrative, in ways that refract the “subjectivizing” (subject-forming and dominating) social processes of neoliberalism. Two of these processes in particular, precarization and responsibilization, both of which have been identified and elaborated by a range of theorists in political science and cultural studies, seem to leave their stamp on these post-crisis life stories, introducing tensions that are at once thematic and structural.

One of these, as I see it, is a tension between exemplarity and exceptionality. In some ways this tension shapes all life writing texts: the subject has to be enough like other people (enough of an example of a certain kind of person) in order to be relevant and even comprehensible to an audience, and at the same time, the subject has to stand out as exceptional or special in some way in order to make the story intriguing enough to be worth telling. It may also be a fundamental existential tension, at least for some people in some societies, between wanting to fit in and at the same time wanting to hang on to those bits of selfhood that don’t fit the standard mold of this or that type of person.

In the case of the financial decisions people made in the lead-up to the crash, under the pressures of neoliberal criteria for success and, for some people, coercive lending practices, exceptionality took on particular contours. In the upper echelons of the financial system, traders thought they were smarter than everyone else and could outwit or at least manipulate the market. On a smaller scale, home buyers were also convinced that they could get ahead of the crowd by investing bravely. What I think is so valuable about looking to life writing in contexts like the financial crisis is that the texts compel us reconsider off-the-shelf accusations of “greed” or “gullibility.” This sense of being exceptional is not simply a matter of being self-serving and arrogant; it seems also to be a function, across the class spectrum, of the atomizing, isolating, anxiety-producing effects of responsibilization, which makes people feel that they’re the only ones in charge of managing the precarity of their own existence in a society with almost no social safety net. In their retrospective narratives, authors of post-crash memoirs are compelled to acknowledge, and some actively embrace, the fact that their experiences actually exemplify those of many others caught up in the pre-crisis enthusiasm—that they’re not so special after all.

What interests me most is what these writers do with their newfound exemplarity. For some, it’s an occasion for resignation; for others, it inspires a critique of neoliberal values and a rethinking of their personal and political commitments.

As I try to identify the rhetorical and structural forms these outcomes take in the texts themselves, it’s been helpful to turn to work on life narratives depicting cataclysmic experiences, in particular Susanna Egan’s Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography (1999) and my colleague Miriam Fuchs’s The Text is Myself: Women’s Life Writing and Catastrophe (2004). “Sensibility” is a fine word for the complexes of affect that run through these accounts of the crisis, though for me it has a slightly distracting eighteenth-century ring to it. I’m trying to work with “structure of feeling” from Raymond Williams as it gets filtered through Lauren Berlant’s work.

Berlant’s “cruel optimism” is almost too perfect a formulation for the structure of feeling that seems to have led so many people into the bad decisions that led to the crisis. Probably the most difficult thing for me is figuring out how to think about those choices as at once free (respecting the autonomy, agency, and self-determination of the people who made them) and not free (recognizing the deception and coercion of predatory lending and the deep history of racism, classism, and economic marginalization that often stands behind it). This is the most ethically fraught aspect of the project for me.

In trying to work through this question I’ve gained a lot of insight from Miranda Joseph’s reflections on the intersection of “accounting” and “accountability” in her 2014 book Debt to Society. What’s interesting and a little depressing (though not really surprising) for me at this point in the project is seeing how many of these texts depict neoliberal capitalism’s capacity to break down constantly and constantly heal itself (David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism has been really useful on this point). I’m not sure this will go into the final project, but I’m intrigued by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who have self-branded as The Minimalists. They produce classic road-to-Damascus conversion narratives about their disappointment with the trappings of capitalism, and then they package up that conversion as a self-help program and aggressively market it. In doing so they follow the contours of any number of conversion narratives and “exemplary lives” pressed into evangelistic service. The trick for critics, I think, in the face of phenomena like The Minimalists, is not to move too quickly to critique them with the assurance of the Besserwisser and the cynic, but rather to try to understand them as examples of the ways people shape their self-conceptions and self-representations within and against the ideological currents and material constraints of their social world.

In Comparison


SNS Network: Your recent work looks at the Humanities in the “Postprint” era. Could you talk a bit about how you understand the idea of “postprint”? And how you see university contexts, specifically the Humanities, either adapting to or resisting this changing landscape? And again with digital publications in mind, what do you understand to be the possibilities and drawbacks of “non-traditional” publication for emerging academic careers?

John Zuern: I know I’m shamelessly plugging “Online Lives 2.0,” but Laurie and I are also very pleased that Paul Arthur has agreed to contribute a coda to the collection that looks at the implications of the digital humanities for life writing scholarship. Paul is the first person in Australia to be hired into an academic position—at the University of Western Australia—expressly devoted to digital humanities, and in that capacity he’s putting in motion an array of exciting projects. His critical reflections on his work on the Australian Dictionary of Biography and on the future of life writing studies in the digital age are the first things I’d point to for an orientation to this area. Another valuable resource is the 2012 volume of essays by leaders in this field, Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. For me, one of the really compelling aspects of digital humanities in relation to life writing studies are the questions the field raises about the role of “big data” and “distant reading” in literary studies as a whole. At the IABA-Europe conference in Vienna last year (2013), the historian Kirsti Niskanen from the University of Stockholm gave a remarkable keynote about tracing the economic lives of women at the turn of the twentieth century, in particular the consequences of marriage and divorce, by finding patterns in a database of digitized bankruptcy cases.

Shifting the focus of life writing projects from individuals or tight groups of individuals to aggregates and large collectivities seems not only methodologically but also theoretically challenging (and also exciting), and it will be interesting to see what develops in the next few years. It seems to me that projects that try to articulate the goals of close reading with the insights gained from data analysis and distant reading stand to provide more concrete grounding for claims about the intersection of individual lives with their broader social contexts that sometimes remain largely suggestive and speculative.

I don’t really see drawbacks, except to note that digital humanities initiatives often require different kinds of funding and institutional support than more traditional scholarly projects, and in some cases the money might be hard to secure and especially to sustain. In addition, as I say below, it’s still important for tenure-track scholars in their probationary periods to be very clear about what their departments’ expectations are in terms of publications and service and to scale their involvement in any initiatives accordingly.

SNS Network: In “Figures in the Interface,” you suggested that the turn toward figurative language in comparative literary studies is a useful methodological example for comparative work across literary media. What changes in comparative approaches to digital media have you seen in recent years, particularly since the first “Online Lives” special issue? How would you understand collaborative work–multiple authors or participants–in relation to comparative work?

John Zuern: Over the past several years a number of really exciting projects have been emerging in digital literary studies that are essentially comparative. Both Jessica Pressman’s Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media (2014) and Lori Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (2014) look back across literary history to do detailed, nuanced analyses of the material and conceptual shifts and continuities in literary production as it moves into digital formats. David Ciccoricco’s Reading Network Fiction (2007) takes on the question of how narrative theory has to adapt to the various forms of storytelling that have been emerging in new media over the past decades.

One of the most exciting collaborations in digital literary studies is coming out this year, Jessica Pressman, Mark Marino, and Jeremy Douglass’s Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}. In this study, each of the authors engages Poundstone’s Flash-animated text from within their own field of expertise—literary and visual studies, critical code studies, and data analysis, respectively. I can imagine a life writing project taking a similar shape, with different scholars weighing in on texts from various disciplinary and/or theoretical perspectives. For example, a team project on the autobiography and letters of the German philosopher Edith Stein, who converted from Judaism to Catholicism and was killed at Auschwitz, might approach her work along several avenues of intellectual biography, feminism, religious studies, and Holocaust studies. Projects like this would definitely benefit from the affordances of digital publication, which could potentially facilitate more dynamic interactions among the different participants than would a print format.

Collaborating with artists and performers also offers a way to do work in life writing studies that extends beyond conventional academic forms. The Chicago-based performance group ATOM-r (Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality) recently created a dance/multimedia piece called The Operature based in part on the gay writer and tattoo artist Samuel Steward’s Stud File, his exhaustive record of his sexual activities over many decades of the twentieth century. Like digital humanities projects, large-scale creative work requires a lot of time and often funding, but it seems well worth it for some life writing scholars to at least consider what their work might look like as an image, a film, a sculpture, an installation, or a performance. Even if they don’t ultimately create such an artwork, imagining their project on the stage or in the gallery might stimulate new lines of inquiry and presentation.

I also want to mention Ann Cvetkovich’s 2012 book Depression: A Public Feeling, a stunning hybrid of memoir, theory, and criticism that isn’t technically “collaborative” but that explicitly foregrounds and celebrates Cvetkovich’s connections with other scholars and artists.

Self Reflection

SNS Network: We’ve been thinking a lot about our own project — the SNS Network — as a collaborative experiment, of sorts, with online life writing in particular. As it’s functioning now, SNS is a collective voice, writing narratives and reflections about its processes, projects, and methods when in conversation with participants. Its online being, if we can characterize the SNS avatar as such, narrates conversations of and about lives and life writing. With notions of community building, collaborative scholarship, and research ethics in mind (and this is quite a lot, we know), what innovative methods of life writing scholarship do you see emerging and how might they intersect with the demands and continued restraints of academic professionalism, as well as with ethical questions about life-writing as a field. Could, and how could, online co-authorship in particular become a model for life writing scholarship?
John Zuern: As I said at the start, SNS takes a big step in a very promising direction. 
More collaborative, more ad hoc and informal, and more or less “real time” intellectual work is likely to make everyone’s lives better at a historical moment in which life in academia, especially for people starting their careers, is precarious at best. Just keeping people close is of enormous value.
I’ve personally benefited enormously from sustaining relationships with people I got to know in graduate school, and I’ve been part of a number of publishing projects that have emerged partly out of those connections. Having the support of those friends was emotionally and practically indispensable when I was looking for a job. Some of the first things I published when I did get a job were collaborations with my colleague Alison Regan. Academics always invoke “conversation” when we talk about academic publishing, but a lot of the time it feels more like a metaphor than a reality, and SNS seems to be invested in keeping it real. 
Online communication and publishing venues are making it easier to keep conversations going and to make the links between talking to (and arguing with) colleagues and crafting arguments in formal publications more evident and dynamic.
At the same time, as your question suggests, it’s important for people who are either seeking tenure-track positions or seeking promotion within those positions to make sure that whatever they’re doing in terms of writing/creating/collaborating/publishing is likely to “count” in the eyes of search and personnel committees. In the case of promotion, at the moment the criteria can vary widely from school to school, at least in the United States, and it’s crucial for candidates to know the specific expectations. The Modern Language Association and other professional organizations long ago issued statements recommending that the value of digital/online scholarship get recognized in promotion decisions, but it’s still important for people to be able to describe and demonstrate the contribution their work is making, especially if it’s off to the side of conventional print publishing and the more mainstream digital humanities projects. 
With those cautions in mind, I think we can look forward to all kinds of work in life writing studies that is innovative both in terms of the modes of delivery and, in part because of the affordances of those modes, in its methodological, conceptual, and probably even ethical dimensions. 

I personally would like to see more intersections between people working on online life writing projects and folks in digital literary studies. They’re working in the same technological terrain, some of their critical questions are very similar, and a number of prominent works of e-literature have strong life writing components, as a browse through the two volumes of the Electronic Literature Collection will reveal. I’m thinking in particular of J. R. Carpenter’s Entre Ville, Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer’s Public Secrets, and Talan Memmot’s Self Portrait[s] (as Other[s]. Tully Barnett’s essay on Melinda Rackham’s carrier in the 2012 “(Post)Human Lives” special issue of Biography is a good example of a project that takes on a complex digital text. Laurie and I are very happy that “Online Lives 2.0” will include an extended artist’s statement by David Clark about his incredibly rich multimedia work on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life and philosophy, 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (To Be Played with the Left Hand). At Biography we actively encourage collaboration. Many of our special issues have at least two guest editors, and in many cases we’ve been able to bring contributors to these issues to the University of Hawai‘i for intense symposium-style meetings at which authors present their work in progress and get feedback from their fellow contributors. These exchanges have always produced strong collections with cross-connections among articles, which testify to the genuine conversations that helped shape their individual arguments. This kind of face-to-face interaction isn’t always feasible, but I know that similar benefits can come from an online forum, if people step up, get work in on time, and commit to the conversation in good faith.

John David Zuern is co-editor of Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly and an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. With Laurie McNeill, he is currently editing a special issue of Biography titled “Online Lives 2.0,” which follows the journal’s 2003 “Online Lives” special issue. He has recently published on electronic poetry in Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (2013), the life writing of Louis Althusser in Life Writing (2011), and a critical history of the networking company Cisco Systems in the volume Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation (Indiana UP, 2010).

SNS Interviewers: Maria Faini, Orly Lael Netzer, and Emma Maguire
SNS Editors: Maria Faini and Orly Lael Netzer

Emma Maguire is a PhD Candidate at Flinders University of South Australia. She researches automedia, digital life narrative, and girlhood.

Maria Faini is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work focuses on US military culture, social media and digital activism, and art practice as radical sociality.

Orly Lael Netzer is a PhD student at the University of Alberta, Canada. She researches cross-cultural relations in contemporary Canadian literature.

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