Cultural Ambivalence and the Aura of Newfoundland

Project sketch, last updated January 2021

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 started to wonder about a number of apparent inconsistencies like the relevance of the place in Western history in the face of what I perceived as 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. Craving to capture that chatoyance, I eventually speculated that multi-faceted layers of ambivalence might be at its core.

To further develop this hypothesis the project first sheds more light on the notion of ambivalence. Against the background of how it is conceived and used across disciplines, a dynamic yet concise definition for ambivalence is proposed: ambivalence is what arises if and only if we face the simultaneous relevance of two opposing concepts or values. This definition allows for the accommodation of an expanded understanding of ambivalence as a characteristic not only of individuals but of collectives, situations, and structures as well – an expansion that I refer to as 'cultural ambivalence' – and helps to distinguish it from notions such as indecision or ambiguity. In order to establish ambivalence's widely ignored creative potential its intrinsic overlap with concepts such as paradox, 'janusian thinking,' and creativity itself is revealed.

Equipped with a well-defined idea of cultural 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 European 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 what was endangered by this 'modernization' in the decades after Confederation. Beside these historical ambivalences two geography-induced instances are analyzed: that of being both central in Western history and socioeconomically remote today alluded to above and the conception of Newfoundland as an ambivalent amalgam of mainland and island which, in turn, implies conflicting aspects of self-sufficiency and reliance. Looking at contemporary Newfoundland, two more ambivalences figure particularly prominently. One goes back to the often voiced experience of settler Newfoundlanders that, while they are indisputably colonizers, they are or were also colonized by Britain and later Canada, a perspective that is critically analyzed and ultimately in part substantiated. The other is that of deep attachment to vs. often termless exploitation of the land as resource and natural environment. The project will identify actualizations of these various ambivalences, reveal their correlations, 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 – establish cultural ambivalence as a powerful research lens. In applying this lens to Newfoundland, the second objective is to enrich and revalue the perception of the place from inside as well as from outside. This will be achieved by reinterpreting a number of apparently isolated phenomena and structures – some of which have been the subject of intense studies before – as manifestations of cultural ambivalence and by interrelating them to provide a more coherent picture 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 revisiting Indigenous-settler relations in Newfoundland. By acknowledging the attachment/exploitation ambivalence towards the land, and by developing a deeper understanding of how it is embedded in a complex network of cultural ambivalence, the project will help undermine entrenched perspectives and facilitate considerations of how forces of traditionally counteracting groups with differing economic and environmental priorities may be joined. Ultimately, this will then also suggest cultural ambivalence as an analytical device to facilitate alternative modes of understanding tension-laden locales or scenarios beyond Newfoundland.

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 processes and relations rather than describing inert systems made of clearly 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 is paramount for enhancing chances that cultural ambivalence will enter the local public awareness and discourse, a prerequisite for the actualization of its creative potential.

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