University of Toronto Press Blog

  • On 'Undoing Babel', a Guest Post by Tristan Major

    Tristan Major is the author of Undoing Babel: The Tower of Babel in Anglo-Saxon Literature and an assistant professor in the Department of English Literature and Linguistics at Qatar University.

    The origins of my book began with bewilderment over a single sentence. While reading a sketch of biblical history written by the Old English author Ælfric of Eynsham, I was struck by his brief statement that idolatry had come into the world immediately after the fall of the Tower of Babel. In this account, the lack of any further explanation or elaboration gives the impression that such a claim was relatively commonplace and that it would not be attested or cause any confusion. But for me, an account of the origins of idolatry located so specifically after a definitive moment in biblical history raised questions. Why would Ælfric think that idolatry occurred only and immediately after the Tower of Babel? Was this unique to Ælfric or was it a more widely held belief that he is simply repeating? What does idolatry have to do, if anything, with the multiplicity of languages that the Tower of Babel is better known for?

    After spending more than a decade chasing these questions, I now have a better understanding of the issue. While conducting the research for my book, Undoing Babel, I soon became aware of a need to trace the multifaceted strands of interpretations of the Babel narrative across time. They first appear with early Jewish adaptations of the narrative, which then form the basis for the interpretations of the Latin-speaking Christians of Late Antiquity, who also read and commented on the story in new ways—more suitable to their own contexts and concerns. In turn, these interpretations formed the basis for how the authors of Anglo-Saxon England, and finally, Ælfric himself, read and understood the narrative.

    My initial query on the the origins of idolatry was answered, but it also gave way to the many other unique intellectual developments that slowly developed over time until becoming part of an accepted range of interpretations and implications of the story. By examining these developments closely, I began to see how literary communities are themselves not stable but rather full of potential that allows new interpretations of a text to emerge, form, and then eventually fade out of acceptance. But by applying the findings of this research more generally outside of literary communities of the past, it also became apparent to me how new interpretative traditions continue to develop and form. As I spoke to people curious about my research, I would hear how variously the Tower of Babel narrative continues to produce diverse understandings and new significance. Interestingly, while many people were well aware of the fundamental elements of the story, especially its connection to multilingualism, others exhibited fairly original interpretations, often dealing with religious or political resistance. On one occasion, I was told an elaborate (and totally idiosyncratic) account of the narrative which involved a renewed rebellion from Satan and his followers that attempted to use the tower to attack an indifferent God and free the people of the earth. On another occasion, I discovered that the Tower of Babel could signify a celebration of diversity that ultimately aims overcomes the monolithic tyranny of our contemporary, globalized, consumerist culture. In both instances, the original condemnation of the builders is turned into something positive, and the destructive results of the tower’s construction, as implied in the original text of the Bible, are eschewed and turned back into something altogether constructive.

    These “folk” interpretations will likely not gather any kind of traction among the general literary communities that will determine their viability. But they do indicate how creative interpretation can be and how far it can stray from the original understanding of the text. Despite a temptation to disregard communities of the past as less sophisticated that our own, the freedom for interpretation of a literary text to develop persists across all times and readers.

    As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my research began with confusion over a single sentence, which eventually led me to trace the development of interpretation over a millennium of literary sources. Now that I understand why Ælfric wrote what he did, I am certainly looking forward to the next time I find myself confused over some small, seemingly insignificant point.

  • 'Unbound': Winner of the 2018 Kobzar Literary Award

    Guest post by Dr. Lindy Ledohowski

    “Identities – ethnocultural, gendered, socio-economic, minoritized, regional – are interesting facets of who we are. Often we both are and are not multiple selves simultaneously, and as we asked authors to contribute to this collection, the key question we wanted them to think about was this: What does Ukrainian Canadian-ness mean to them in contemporary Canada? We were both surprised and pleased with their responses.

    This book demonstrates that on close scrutiny, as with any vibrant and dynamic community, there may be more divisions than similarities among the views of individual Ukrainian Canadians. More than sixty years have passed since the first English-language Ukrainian Canadian novel was published, and the literature playing with notions of what it means to be Ukrainian Canadian suggests that it means many things to many people. This book explores the spaces where, in the words of Myrna Kostash, “our collective, though not necessarily common, interests coincide.” And while this exploration uses Ukrainian Canadian (in all its iterations) as its focusing lens, it speaks to other minoritized subject positions in Canada and abroad, and perhaps most loudly to contemporary mainstream Canada as well.”

    So begins the introduction to Unbound: Ukrainian Canadians Writing Home. In thinking about identity politics and contemporary Canada, as diasporic and postcolonial scholars who focus on contemporary Canadian literature both Lisa Grekul and I approached co-editing a collection focusing on English-language Ukrainian Canadian literature in a radical way.

    As scholars, both Grekul and I are committed to multiplicity to identities rather than a single, hegemonic way of looking at the world. When we asked our contributors to provide something for the book we envisioned creating, we wanted to give them the greatest degree of openness we could.

    We did not want to constrain their voices, which meant that we did not want to constrain their generic or stylistic choices. It also meant that we were committed to a consultative and collaborative process to bring this book to fruition.

    The book, as a result is an expression not only of some of the best thinking and writing about contemporary Canadian identity politics and literature, but also an articulation of being “unbound” by genre or expectation. This book is profoundly scholarly and profoundly creative simultaneously. And its creation is the culmination of the best feminist practice that we lived over years to pull it together.

    We are terribly and justifiably proud of this book.

    Then when we found out that it was a finalist for the 2018 Kobzar Literary Award, a nation-wide literary prize in Canada that is only offered every two years, we were over the moon.

    Then on March 1st when the winner was announced and Unbound: Ukrainian Canadians Writing Home became the 2018 Kobzar Literary Award winner, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.

    Grekul was in the middle of a busy teaching term at UBC, Okanagan on the other side of Canada from the Toronto-based gala awards night, and I was glued to my iPhone in Kuala Lumpur 13 hours ahead of Toronto.

    Marusya Bociurkiw, one of the contributors who has also been a Kobzar finalist before, represented us, and when she texted me: “WE WON!” I thought she must be joking. As Twitter exploded with the announcement, and Bociurkiw pulled another contributor onto stage with her Erin Moure – who was also a finalist this year in her own right – we all felt the years of hard work being recognized.

    This book is important. This book is revolutionary. This book is interesting. This book is powerful. This book is political. This book is beautiful.

    And this book is a nation-wide literary prize winner.

    On behalf of my co-editor, Dr. Lisa Grekul, I must thank our amazing, talented, intelligent, and formidable contributors:
    Maruysia Bociurkiw
    Elizabeth Bachinsky
    Janice Kulyk Keefer
    Myrna Kostash
    Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
    Erin Moure
    Daria Salamon and Weronika Suchacka who wrote the preface and Natalka Husar who allowed her painting '500 people you didn’t know' to be used as the cover art.

    Lisa Grekul is a novelist and associate professor in the Department of Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

    Lindy Ledohowski is an educational leader and literary scholar. She serves on the board of trustees for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

  • February Round-Up

    Highlights from the month of February.

    Awards:

    Media Highlights:

    New Releases:

  • An Interview between the CJH/ACH and Kate M. Burlingham

    Photo of Kate Burlingham

    Kate M. Burlingham is an expert in US foreign relations and global history, and an assistant professor of history at California State University, Fullerton. Her article, “From Hearing to Heresy: The Temporary Slavery Commission, the Congregational Church, and the Foundations of Anti-Colonial Organizing in Angola,” appeared in the most recent issue of the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d’histoire, a themed issue discussing New Histories of Twentieth-Century Decolonization.

    We asked Dr. Burlingham what prompted her to pursue a career in history.

    “Throughout much of my early schooling, I had excellent history teachers. In high school, we took frequent field trips to the Boston Public Library to comb through microfilm. Those were experiences I loved and that shaped my course decisions when I arrived at college. It helped to be surrounded by beautiful libraries; I grew up in Cambridge MA at a time when anyone could walk into the Harvard libraries to do research or study. I also grew up in a family that valued history as a field of study and as a way to understand the present.”

    Dr. Burlingham notes that this is not always the case. “As a professor, I’m often having to ‘sell’ the major for the skills it gives you, regardless if students intend to pursue a career in history. That was never a justification I had to make.”

    Dr. Burlingham told us that her historical interests are wide-ranging, but she is particularly interested in the actions of Americans outside of the United States and the sometimes unexpected results of these actions. “[T]his [interest] really began in graduate school when I observed that I was the only American historian taking classes in non-western history. For example, most of my colleagues in African history courses who weren’t Africanists were Europeanists or from other disciplines. Given the role of the US in the world, I think it is imperative that US historians also be compelled to take global history and area studies courses.” These classroom experiences made her curious as to how the US looked to outsiders. “Such a perspective,” she explained, “has allowed me to move in and out of the categories historians usually use to label themselves. For me, it makes things more interesting because I’m constantly learning from a wide body of scholars who aren’t always talking to each other but should be.”

    Dr. Burlingham’s article in the CJH/ACH examines the importance of Congregational Missions and Mission schools in creating a political network in Angola that became central to the nation’s independence movement. She notes, however, that this was not the intent of the Congregational Mission. “Missionaries, at least at this early date, were not discussing the end of colonial order but rather its reform. It’s not until decades later that you get a post-WWII generation of missionaries who have more ‘revolutionary’ ideas about the end of European colonialism and even then, often for practical reasons, they tended to be relatively cautious in calling for an end to the colonialism.”

    Another key aspect to the narrative told in “From Hearing to Heresy” is the Report on Employment of Native Labor in Portuguese Africa, also known as the Ross Report. This report was presented to the League of Nations’ Temporary Slavery Commission and exposed the inhumane forced labour policies of Portuguese Angola to the growing international community. We asked Dr. Burlingham what brought her to the Ross Report.

    “I came across references to the Ross Report when I was doing research for my dissertation in Portugal and Angola on the larger history of the Congregational Missions in Angola. The Report itself, and references to it, linger in official Portuguese government correspondence for years after it happened. I think for government officials it demonstrated to them all the things they feared would come from Protestant missionary work in Angola [and] so was a useful reference point for them to come back to over and over.”

    Portugal’s reaction to the report, and their subsequent embarrassment on the international stage, prompted them to react violently in Angola. The state blamed the Congregational Missions and Protestant Angolans for the report and set out to diminish the missions’ influence and presence. Asked if she thought there was any way to avoid the heavily nationalistic response Portugal had to the Report, Dr. Burlingham replied, “That’s hard to say with any certainty but I’d be inclined to say no. At the moment when discussions in the League of Nations were occurring there is extreme European concern that the League would become an extra-national power that would dictate what should happen within nations’ domestic affairs. It’s that kind of fear that eventually kept the United States out of the League. Add to that concern, the image of a rising US superpower and a decline in European hegemony, of which Portugal owned a smaller piece at this point, and you have a recipe for a nationalist backlash.” She added that it is also possible that Portugal was “doubtful whether other European powers would come to their rescue or if they would use them as a sacrificial lamb on the path toward trying to convince the world that colonialism was truly humanitarian.”

    Kate M. Burlingham’s article, “From Hearing to Heresy: The Temporary Slavery Commission, the Congregational Church, and the Foundations of Anti-Colonial Organizing in Africa,” is available FREE to read for a limited time: https://doi.org/10.3138/cjh.ach.52.3.02.

  • When Concepts Function Badly: Distorted Thinking and our Understanding of Combat Trauma

    Written by guest blogger, MaryCatherine McDonald.

    “Gentlemen” by Drew Cameron www.combatpaper.org.
    Photograph by Zen Cohen www.zencohenprojects.com.

    In her wonderful essay, “Philosophical Plumbing” – in which Mary Midgley compares philosophy with, well, plumbing – Midgley writes, “when the concepts that we are living by function badly, they do not usually drop audibly through the ceiling or swamp the kitchen floor. They just quietly distort and obstruct our thinking.” It’s a haunting idea – that conceptual mistakes can be so invisibly insidious and corrosive. When we think about things like oppression, we often focus primarily on the victims of that oppression, as we should. But we also need to pay attention to the fact that oppressive structures do not only impact individuals – they infect our ideas, and by extension everything that is touched by those ideas.

    Something that I struggle with when teaching the philosophy of gender is getting my students to understand the ways in which structures designed to oppress women or other minority groups eventually impact all of us. Though women are certainly oppressed by the stereotyping, fragmentation, and objectification of patriarchal society, the damage does not end here. The oppressive structures of power also influence the concepts within that patriarchal society, giving birth to all sorts of other flawed ideas. Because we are still so focused on who is oppressed and who is to blame for that oppression, we miss the way in which gendered norms infect all areas of our lives.

    How are the concepts that we are living by functioning badly? And how might we fix them? To continue the plumbing analogy, we first must find the source of the leak. It is in this spirit that I began thinking about the history of combat trauma, and the ways in which our ideas of trauma in general have their roots in pernicious concepts about gender and weakness. If our current classification of PTSD begins with hysteria – a diagnosis deeply rooted in misogyny – how might this impact the way that we understand the phenomenon?

    In the paper, I explore the ways in which we have used the oppressive structures at work within our understanding of PTSD to systematically undermine those who suffer from it. To silence them, negate their experience, and prolong their suffering. It’s not the gender of the soldiers at issue here – it is the way that gender informs our understanding of combat trauma. How do conceptions of femininity (in a pejorative sense) and weakness get imported from history into clinical and societal understandings of trauma today? Finally, what might happen when we free our understanding of combat trauma from these insidious concepts? We come to see it as it really is: an adaptive response to an overwhelming experience that is rooted in an impulse to survive, a response borne of strength, not weakness.

    MaryCatherine McDonald is an assistant professor of philosophy at Old Dominion University. Her research lies at the junction of phenomenology and psychology. She has recently published essays on the phenomenology of combat trauma, the history of post-traumatic stress disorder, and moral injury. Her latest article, “Hysterical Girls: Combat Trauma as a Feminist Issue,” appears in the Spring 2018 issue of IJFAB: International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics and is available here: http://bit.ly/ijfab111a.

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