Soziokulturelle Ambivalenz und die Aura Neufundlands

Projektskizze, Stand Juli 2020

Newfoundland has captivated me since I was first invited for an artist residency on the island in 2007. After being struck by the beauty and majesty of the scenery, I learned about the rich and extraordinary history and culture of the place that is situated at the edge of North America, or virtually half-way to Europe. Soon, I also wondered about a number of apparent inconsistencies, like the historical relevance of the place in the face of its remoteness, the simultaneous light-heartedness and graveness radiated by many people, or their cherishing of a European ancestry contrasted by a strong regionalism. Observations like these which I felt were 'essential' yet hard to grasp and only fully perceptible on site eventually made up what I conceived as Newfoundland's chatoyant 'aura' in the Benjaminian sense. As my perception of this aura intensified, so did the place's inspiring grip on me. I was craving to capture that chatoyance and to grasp the fissured texture that was lurking beneath the shiny surface. Eventually, it dawned on me that multi-faceted layers of ambivalence might be at the core of this tension-filled yet stimulating Newfoundland aura.

To further develop the hypothesis that Newfoundland is a case in point for a place that bristles with ambivalence, the project first sheds more light on the notion of ambivalence. Against the background of how it is conceived and used across disciplines, an overarching yet concise definition for ambivalence is proposed. This allows for the clear identification of ambivalence while distinguishing it from notions it has an alleged overlap with, most notably from ambiguity. To develop a better understanding of ambivalence, it is then compared to, and eventually illustrated by, notions that we arguably have a more intuitive understanding of, such as tension, paradox, and melancholia. In the course, I address ambivalence's complexity and establish its creative potential as an alternative to the encumbering force it is usually conceived as. Finally, ambivalence is conceptually expanded to characterize not only individuals but collectives and situations, an expansion that I refer to as sociocultural ambivalence.

Equipped with the idea of sociocultural ambivalence, the project sets out to identify and analyze ambivalences of this type in Newfoundland since the island became a node in the Atlantic Triangle in the sixteenth century. Instances studied in detail include the ambivalence of favouring vs. impeding settlement of the island by British stakeholders in the eighteenth century; the autonomy-dependence ambivalence inherent to early modern economic outposts; and the conflicting efforts to 'modernize' and to preserve the culture that was expected to vanish as a consequence in the decades after confederation with Canada in 1949. These historical ambivalences are augmented by two ambivalences that are induced by the geography of the place alone: the ambivalence of being marginal and historically central alluded to above and an island-mainland ambivalence that is rooted in Newfoundlanders' inclination to conceive of their large home island as a mainland-like world on its own. Looking at contemporary (settler) Newfoundland, two ambivalences figure particularly prominently. One is the often voiced experience of Newfoundlanders of European descent that, while they are undisputably colonizers, they are or were also colonized by Britain or Canada. The other is that of deep attachment to vs. often termless exploitation of the land as resource and environment. The project will identify actualizations of these ambivalences, reveal their correlations with historical and geographical ambivalences, and investigate their creative potential. The idea is to render visible a dynamic network of ambivalences that spans and shakes yet also coheres the Newfoundland society and culture.

The objective of the project is two-fold. First, it aims to defy the neglect and disregard of the concept of ambivalence, reveal its creative potential, and, in an expanded understanding, to establish sociocultural ambivalence as a powerful research lens that can help develop a better understanding of tension-filled sociocultural issues. To illustrate the device's functioning and to demonstrate its potency, the second project part will present Newfoundland as a case study. Employing the lens of sociocultural ambivalence, it attempts to shed new light on a number of intensively studied issues in Newfoundland's past and present and to provide a more coherent picture of apparently unrelated and inconsistent aspects of the local society and culture. Notably, the colonizer-colonized ambivalence inherent to the local settler society will be investigated to fathom its potential for opening the mutual perception of settlers and Indigenous peoples in Newfoundland. Moreover, by developing a deeper understanding of the origins of the observed attachment/exploitation ambivalence towards the land, the project attempts to undermine entrenched perspectives and facilitate considerations of how forces of previously counteracting groups might be joined. Ultimately, the project aims at enriching the perception of the place from inside as well as from outside by providing a lens and a mechanism of analysis that have the power to re-interpret alleged deficiencies and foster confidence and optimism. Looking beyond Newfoundland, the project's objective is to provide a novel analytical device that facilitates alternative modes of understanding locales or scenarios that appear filled with tension and studded with alleged inconsistencies more generally.

Being genuinely interdisciplinary, the project does not rely on a single or homogeneous theoretical framework. Rather, it uses a collection of methodological approaches reflecting a number of intellectual perspectives from various disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. These include problematization, transversality, genealogy, abductive reasoning, reassembling the social, and speculation. What unites these approaches is their capacity to open new realms for reasoning and knowledge through the radical questioning or active ignoring of existing explanatory systems, together with a rigorous appreciation of contingencies. Ideas from cybernetics and complex systems science, such as the ecology of mind and spontaneous emergence complement the methodological tool kit that focuses on tracing integral processes and relations rather than describing inert systems made of firmly demarcated subjects and phenomena.

The creation of artistic and documentary photo, video, and sound works based on footage collected across the island of Newfoundland and presented off and online will augment the scholarly findings and enrich interdisciplinarity with multimediality. The idea is to combine and interweave academia and art to stimulate the eye, the ear, and the brain and to foster the accessibility of the results. This will enhance the chances for the concept of sociocultural ambivalence to enter the public discourse, a prerequisite for the actualization of its creative potential.

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