Cultural Ambivalence in Newfoundland

Research Statement (as of January 2023)

Contexts and subjects bearing tensions that cannot be easily resolved and nurture the imagination have always been of interest to me. Newfoundland offered several such tensions when I first came here for an artist residency in 2007, and the spectrum has widened since. My first observation was the discrepancy between the perceived remoteness of the place and its relevance in western history. Later, I was puzzled by the concurrent lightheartedness and graveness that many settler Newfoundlanders radiate and how they cherish their European ancestry while simultaneously engaging in a strong regionalism. Eventually, I speculated that I was facing different yet potentially related instances of ambivalence and that this angle might add a valuable facet to the understanding and image of the place.

The project's focus is two-fold. First, it sets out to revalue the often underestimated concept of ambivalence and establish it as a distinct and potentially creative concept and research lens. Second, by applying that lens to settler Newfoundland, it aims to enrich our understanding and image of the place by reinterpreting a collection of tension-fraught and, at first glance, little related contexts as belonging to a pervasive and potentially creative web of cultural ambivalence. These include the European colonization of the island, the precariousness in “traditional” outports, the Smallwood era's political inconsistency, clashes between resource exploitation and love of the land, settler Newfoundlanders' recurring claim of being colonized, and the place's irritating nature as both central and peripheral. In terms of research questions, the project asks what a meaningful and productive understanding of ambivalence looks like and if and how it can be used to develop a richer understanding of settler Newfoundland.

Methodologically, the research is based on discourse analysis with a focus on problematization, abductive reasoning, transversality, and speculation. These approaches share the capacity to open alternative trajectories of reasoning through the radical questioning or active ignoring of existing explanatory systems. This tenor is imperative for a project that attempts to reshuffle both the conceptual and interpretive packs by using a neglected concept (ambivalence) to remap a jagged terrain (an array of tensions in settler Newfoundland). Key findings include the conceptual overlap of ambivalence with creativity, the enhancement of outporters' and administrators' creativity through ambivalence, and ambivalence's potential to undermine allegedly demarcated realms of agency and power in both colonial and postcolonial settings. Moreover, ambivalence is found to debunk local myths like constant neglect and recurrent failure and provide tropes like conservatism and endurance with actual content.

The project's originality lies in establishing ambivalence as a productive research lens and applying it to Newfoundland society and culture. Ambivalence proves a potent device for shedding new light on a variety of charged contexts, some of which are put to scholarly scrutiny for the first time (like settler Newfoundlanders' colonized claim and the island's centre-periphery ambivalence). Moreover, assembling a variety of contexts not studied in this constellation before under the umbrella of cultural ambivalence allows me to identify correlations that have hitherto gone unnoticed. The resulting web provides a new explanatory grid and develops a potentially creative facet of the place. This also recommends cultural ambivalence as a potent prism more generally.

The thesis comprises nine chapters. The introduction is followed by a comprehensive study of ambivalence that proposes a definition, distinguishes ambivalence from notions like ambiguity, indifference, and hybridity and develops its overlap with creativity. After illustrating the process of ambivalence, the concept is established as a distinct research lens that is then applied to Newfoundland as a case study. Chapters three to eight develop and analyze instances of cultural ambivalence across contexts and time. Each chapter concludes with tracing links to phenomena studied in previous chapters. The implications and potentialities of the resulting web of cultural ambivalence for contemporary Newfoundland are discussed in the conclusion.

Project start page