I struggled against committing myself to an -ism for a long time. It seemed that the academy wanted me to define myself by some period or title and a little bit of that fire in the belly that undergrads seem to have an abundance of reared up inside of me and I refused to conform! So, spoiler alert, I now call myself a Victorianist. Did I rest on my laurels and become the object of scorn for iconoclasm itself? Not really, I just pulled my head out of my ass. The story goes something like this:
Upon beginning my MA in English, I was convinced that I was destined to do something with postmodern literature and the posthuman. After all, I was/am a big fan of Michel Houellebecq and Margaret Atwood and I’d even looked up keywords in Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway so I knew what I was talking about. I took broad-ranging courses to expand my knowledge base in literature generally. I began to question what exactly my role in academia was when I took an unhealthy interest in a particular Medieval manuscript and I became certain for a while that I was meant to study Middle English. I have always had a fascination with Victorian literature as well and the work I was doing continually circled back to that, but I will get to that in a moment. I’ll skip ahead to my disastrous MA project which tried to combine the posthuman and some scatter-brained ideas from Walter Benjamin with a reading of Houellebecq. I worked really hard to make that thing sing, but I never really convinced myself that I had pulled it off. It almost goes without saying that this was the final nail in the coffin of my dreams of studying the postmodern and posthuman. I had completely lost interest in it a while before the project was due, but I was committed. I had begun toying with ideas around Victorian literature and postmodern literature sharing a kinship related to fears of technology and science and this was the idea that I sent to UBC to apply for a PhD. This, as we all know, has worked out in my favour.
With the MA and the final project behind me, I began my PhD career convinced that I was going to study Victorian literature and Medieval manuscript culture. This is not how things are done at my institution, I soon learned. In truth, I should have known this going in. You see, there are some PhD programs that let you have two fields of specialty and I thought that’s what I was doing. I was still resisting giving myself over to an -ism, whether it be Victorianism, Medievalism, or unspecificism. I did not want to be pigeonholed in that way. I was going to be some sort of Renaissance Man, like Da Vinci I suppose. So, I really struggled with the mindset of the academy that you had to be one thing or another. I still do to a certain extent, though for different reasons. After changing my project focus from the science and technology side of things and having lots of conversations with super smart people, I decided that Victorian obscenity would be the best thing for me to do since it is the work that most interests me and I can actually see forward to where I would like to go with it. Also, I now know that subscribing and committing to an -ism does not mean that you have to be defined by it; for the most part, the -ism is a convenient way to communicate your manifest area of expertise (this is obvious) but it also does not mean that you cannot broaden the scope of that particular field to include things that do not fit neatly into the very specific and problematic periodization.
I suppose the question is now whether I think I was a bit of a tool before. The short answer is yes. I like to trace my grad school career a lot like my teenage years. At the beginning I was confident to a fault without knowing much about anything; as I progressed and learned more it became clear to me how much I really didn’t know though I was loth to shed that facade of confidence lest I show weakness in a highly competitive environment full of people who don’t necessarily intimidate me but rather whose opinions I respect and whom I would like to give solid answers to. Luckily for me my journey away from this mindset took a lot less time than my actual adolescence did to come full circle. If we were talking about year-for-year progress, this year would mark the equivalent of my teenage self deciding that Brylcreem wan’t even cool in my father’s generation. Instead, I’m past that, got a decent haircut with high quality product and I don’t mind admitting that I’ve succumbed to the dreaded -ism that my former self disparaged. Like every rebellious teenager and freedom-seeking undergrad eventually learns, what is viewed as selling out is more complicated when it’s actually happening. I never considered fields selling out, but they were somewhere close. Like I said, I was a bit of a tool about it before.
I may be defined by my -ism, but it doesn’t bother me. Everyone is defined in this way in this line of work. It’s up to us to decide whether we are just going to leave it at that. I, for one, do not plan on leaving it at that. Rather, I will see it as a basic and easily conveyed descriptor of what I do. With luck, my future oeuvre will speak for itself and help to shape what kind of scholar I am.