Against the Grain
Preface by Jen Baker
The ‘Humanities and Arts’, a sometimes overly broad term that can vary from institution to institution, provides an interdisciplinary platform which is often rife with pitfalls and difficulties that arise from trying to amalgamate subjects which are sometimes deemed disparate and exclusive. The following collection of articles for the inaugural issue of HARTS & Minds (as will be the case with all of our editions) attempts not to provide the final comprehensive word on a particular topic, but to bring together the various disciplines in order to provide a nexus of thought that illuminates the interrelation between the subjects commonly categorised as the Humanities and Arts. The articles themselves are not necessarily interdisciplinary; some are indeed engaged specifically with their subject, but have been written in a manner accessible across the academic spectrum. Going ‘Against the Grain’ in the humanities and arts is no easy feat. What can you say in this post-postmodern era when it seems all has been said; when mass-media and the Internet has provided the means for numerous minorities to express themselves; when there appears to be little room for ‘originality’ itself a complex and loaded term or that indeed the minority can become the cultural norm in a matter of hours? Whether it is academia elevating pop-culture to serious scholarly study, the election of the first African-American President of a nation previously publicly segregated, or zombie walks and flash mobs, changing the face of the norm has become the right of the 'Everyman', and therefore much more challenging to accomplish.
This collection of articles does not only consider the contemporary difficulty of going against the grain, but offers specific historical and cultural moments that in some instances emphasise the serious dangers connected with rebellion. The insistence that revolution is futile and that any attempt at protest will only result in destruction and the continuation of the established order is repeatedly observed in key texts and by influential writers such as George Orwell in his dystopian 1984and is deemed to be the inevitable for protagonist ‘K’ in Franz Kafka’s 1925 The Trial:
'One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the dispositions of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some compensating reaction in another part of its machinery — since everything interlocked — and remain unchanged, unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, severe, and more ruthless.'
Roxanne Bibizadeh’s article ‘Women in Exile: Islam and Disempowerment in Fadia Faqir’s My Name Is Salma’ considers this dilemma of either action or conformity through the fictional writing of Fadia Faqir, and in doing so highlights the further difficulty of finding the appropriate voice for rebellion. In the case of feminist and post-colonial writings, the resounding dissonance felt when using the language of the oppressor (whether patriarchal, colonial, or both) can make revolution seem a fragmented process. Nicole Willson’s examination of the Haitian carnival in ‘A New ‘Kanavalesque’: Re-imagining Haiti’s Revolution(s) through the work of Leah Gordon’, uses visual material to suggest that the realities of this socio-historical tradition do not conform to a harmonious Western ideal of aligning the masses. Rather it is an open act of defiance that is bound with acts of revolution. However, it is essential to remember that going against the grain does not always entail a military coup, and does not need to comprise widespread public damnation of a particular political oppression in order to be a bold reimagining of the hegemony. Izabela Hopkins’ ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale, or the Monster Within’ offers a particularly interesting questioning of the ‘norm’ not by exploring its opposition to the 'Other', but by examining the dichotomies that taint the image of perfection that hegemony attempts to maintain.
Through a variety of institutions (some aesthetic, some political, some cultural) the articles of this collection offer an insight into a mixture of revolutionary and unconventional moments that suggest continuity across the disciplines. For example, Liz Renes’ ‘The ‘Curious’ Nature of John Singer Sargent: An Exploration into Nineteenth-Century Masculine Dualities’ does not use the works of Victorian artists and writers, but instead uses their own written reflections of pieces of art and poetry and wider nineteenth-century notions of ‘curious’ works in the light of convention, in order to probe the boundaries of queer re-readings. Jessica Riches’ ‘Insult to Injury’: Rupert Goold and Ben Power’s Faustus’ similarly offers an overlap of both historical and cultural reimagining that suggests socio-political commentary via the aesthetic. However Riches’ article tackles the twenty-first century reimagining of a reimagining, a stage play that re-appropriates and adapts Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus — which itself was an interpretation of an already popular tale — whilst selecting elements of other Marlowe adaptations and cultural icons, providing a postmodern feast of the simulacrum that pays homage to the prevailing theories of critical theorist Jean Baudrillard. ‘Insult to Injury’ engages with the very issue of referring to key critics of twentieth and twenty-first century theory such as Baudrillard, who, like Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Albert Camus, and Roland Barthes, are likely to be met with a residing groan and verbal frustrations pertaining to their overuse. Yet, it is important to remember that all of these critics once went against the grain and that they too complained of the overuse of theories by Charles Darwin, Harold Bloom, and Immanuel Kant. They chose instead to push the boundaries of what is accepted, and sometimes even of comprehensibility, in order to say something new. As Rona Cran suggests in her article ‘the medium is the message’: Re-reading William Burroughs, from Junky to Nova Express’, contemporary critical focus can too often be centred on what is being said rather than the way in which it is said, and this can deprive a text or an historical moment of its revolutionary potential.