Tracing a Web of Cultural Ambivalence in Newfoundland

Project sketch, last updated October 2021

Based on a profoundly interdisciplinary approach, the project develops cultural ambivalence as a distinct and potentially creative analytical device and applies it to Newfoundland as a most rewarding object of study. Ambivalence is here conceived as the simultaneous relevance of two opposing concepts or values, and culture is understood in its widest sense as a particular way of life of a people, period, or group. Cultural ambivalence, then, is non-individual ambivalence and applies to collectives, situations, and structures. Equipped with this clearly defined qualitative lens, I set out to develop and substantiate my hypothesis that Newfoundland is a place permeated by cultural ambivalence.

The project's objective is two-fold. First, I aim to revalue the often underestimated concept of ambivalence and establish the cultural version as a distinctive and broadly applicable research lens capable of opening alternative trajectories of reasoning and understanding and revealing latent creative potentialities. Second, by applying that research lens to Newfoundland, I aim to enrich and revalue the perception and understanding of the place by reinterpreting selected contexts bearing cultural, social, and economic tensions as belonging to a pervasive and potentially creative network of cultural ambivalence. Doing so, I ultimately also hope to encourage readdressing related contested or stagnant matters from contexts such as Indigenous-settler and provincial-federal relations or economic sustainability.

Six instances of cultural ambivalence in Newfoundland are established, analyzed, and correlated. They include: favouring and opposing settlement by British stakeholders in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; autonomy and dependence in Newfoundland outports; 'modernization' and cultural preservation in the post-confederation era; historical centrality and socioeconomic remoteness; and the deep-felt attachment to and often termless exploitation of the land. The sixth instance of cultural ambivalence studied is based on a thorough elaboration of the argument that settler Newfoundlanders' frequently voiced claim of being or having been colonized cannot be dismissed as entirely imaginary. Together with their obvious role as colonizers, the colonizer/colonized ambivalence of the collective of settler Newfoundlanders is established and shown to be an integral node of the web of cultural ambivalence in Newfoundland.

The strength of my approach resides above all in its genuine interdisciplinarity. The narrow set of abstract conditions for cultural ambivalence to arise that I determine enables me to identify it as a common theme of a variety of sociocultural, historical, political, and economic contexts in Newfoundland across time which would otherwise appear a rather eclectic collection. Thus relating periods and phenomena that have not been studied in this constellation before naturally opens new grounds for analysis and understanding.

Rather than employing a single theoretical framework, my studies rely on a collection of methodological approaches and intellectual perspectives from various disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. They 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 for the phenomena under consideration, together with a rigorous appreciation of contingencies. This tenor is imperative for a research project that attempts to reshuffle the conceptual and interpretive pack by applying an underestimated concept (ambivalence) to re-map a jagged terrain (selected charged contexts of Newfoundland history and society) in order to open alternative trajectories of understanding and reveal unexpected creative potentialities. Ideas from settler colonial studies including the Other, Whiteness, Indigenization, and Recognition complement the methodological tool kit.

The written part will be augmented photo, video, and sound works of varying documentary and artistic character that translate the scholarly findings into a sensory language. This will not only expand the list of disciplines involved but 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 is paramount for introducing cultural ambivalence into the local public discourse and permitting its creative potential to be tapped.

Project start page