On Publicness; Or, the resurrection of a website

I’ll admit I’m feeling pressure to make myself visible. Fingers crossed, I’m nearing the end of my doctoral program, and the “realities of the job market” have certainly pushed me to be more methodical in how I cultivate my professional, public-facing self. We — graduate students, early career scholars, contract academic workers — are pushed to professionalize, to make our selves marketable in response to competition. Otherwise, we researchers would just like to be alone with our books. We would like to be engaged in the pure pursuit of knowledge. Or so the narrative goes.

My impulse to find connections between my own experiences and my research may become a theme on this blog. True to form, I’m skeptical of claims that our scholarly work is somehow separate from our relationship to economics or our need to share and to be in public. I’m equally skeptical of scholarly claims that *insert person here* has a pure *insert profession or creative practice here*. I have a lot of company in this skepticism. The last fifteen years of modernist literary studies, for example, have spent enormous amounts of energy tracing the logic and mechanisms of self-promotion among artists, writers, and editors. As my dissertation project has focused largely on literary celebrity, for the last four years I’ve been exerting my own energy asking how writers like Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Cunard, and Jean Watts fit into artistic and editorial markets.

The answer to that question is often “uncomfortably.” Despite each woman’s privilege, they often struggled to cultivate their authorial personae with the same ease as their male counterparts. I have been adapting Aaron Jaffe’s idea of authorial agency as an aspect of celebrity identity in order to talk about women’s celebrity. Ultimately, what I’ve found is that women creating artistic careers and cultivating the public personae to accompany and facilitate those careers frequently struggled to be perceived as in control of their art. Without artistic control, what Jaffe calls the “illusory bodily agency” of celebrity culture couldn’t cohere around a female literary celebrity. To make a reductive generalisation: the mechanisms of self promotion were not fully available to them.

DH, one of my fields, frequently comes under fire for its embrace of a promotional logic. DH can often feel like proselytising; it can often feel insufficiently introspective and critical. However, I’ve seen scholars, often of my generation, often working in DH or adjacent to it, find ways of making publicness and promotional logic a form of critical praxis. The editrixes and contributrixes at Hook and Eye are one example; the hosts of Oh, Witch Please are another. It would be difficult for me to overestimate the impact that this negotiation of publicness has had on my development as a scholar. And, in no small part, that negotiation has been effected by women who contend with these questions of being a woman and being an agent in public.

Of equal impact has been my study of historical figures. Nancy Cunard, a British editor and writer, is perhaps the most palpable example. Working in the archival records of Cunard’s life and writing has felt to me like a close and private confidence, but one in which she and I work through what it has meant for her to be in public. She is paradoxical. She is deeply concerned with legacy, but her activism is self-effacing. Her voice bubbles up from her texts almost as though she can’t help but insert herself, even though she does so reluctantly. Research on Cunard feels like we’re both striking a delicate balance between public and private, like we’re both figuring out who we are in public.

I read an argument that stuck with me during this research. When scholars point out writers’ participation in a logic of promotion, they often do so as a kind of “gotcha,” as though it were an exposé on the real state of the arts to point out that they’re just like us. This scholar (whose name I can’t find in my hundreds of disorganized, hand-written pages of notes), says that this stance is hardly a useful one for understanding the interplay between art and economics. Neither is the “gotcha” stance a useful one to apply to academics. I can only hope to explore what my public academic persona might be incrementally and how to perform a public scholarship that does right by the subject matter I study.

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