Methods and Aims

Since arriving at the University of Victoria in 2006, I have been engaged in extending the project I began during my PhD studies of studying literary responses to the legacies of collective historical victimization in small, geographically remote or culturally marginalized societies and their diasporas. In the Israeli and Caribbean cultural contexts I have found complex examples in which literary discourse becomes framed contradictorily around the desire to move beyond past traumas by embracing global cultural enmeshment and a perceived sense that the past inescapably dictates the contemporary reality of political and social isolation. That writers embedded in these societies would vacillate between these two positions bespeaks the ongoing cultural and political consequences of the historical violence experienced by the populations of both regions: for Jewish Israelis, the spectral power of the Holocaust and a perception of ongoing existential threat from without and within infuse nearly all aspects of cultural production and political discourse, including the conflict with the Palestinians; for Caribbeans, the legacies of slavery and colonialism are felt in virtually every institutional transaction and human interaction on the islands or abroad.

As my research has led me to discover, however, these unresolved historical experiences are visible on the social surface of daily life only in disguised and heavily encoded forms. This is why the literature of these societies and groups, which interprets and transposes existing paradigms, has come to play such an extraordinary role in shaping cultural discourse that, whether oppositional or conciliatory, jostles against the assimilation and instrumentalization of traumatic historical memory. I do not argue that literary works in these contexts always play a counter-discursive role, although sometimes they clearly can; but I do maintain that the works I study directly address the conditions and impact of memory in the aftermath of collective trauma using imaginative means generally not available in other discursive modes. My research, in turn, analyzes how these texts produce meaning by investigating their parallel, yet by no means congruent, dynamics of cultural exchange.

Among these analogous ideas and modes, I will highlight three that comprise the intellectual premises of my recent publications taken as a whole and indicate the direction my future research will develop in the formally comparative project I describe in my book manuscript. My first proposition is that traumatic historical experiences produce recognizably similar kinds of social rupture and require homologous cultural resources to ameliorate the worst consequences of such breakdown. Secondly, I propose that within the specific contexts of contemporary postcolonial and post-Holocaust history, literary dynamics are fraught with remarkably similar intergenerational antagonisms between modernists and postmodernists because of their fundamentally different responses to national existence. My third proposition is that the conflict between modernists and postmodernists reaches a crisis over the problem of traumatic events that challenge accepted national narratives of history; such events typically launch a burst of hermeneutic activity in the literary sphere that reveals the instability of established political formations and the historical narratives that underwrite them. These theses inform my existing published work and anchor the comparisons of my manuscript in progress.

My full cv is available below.

lincoln shlensky cv