During my epic plane rides recently, I have been reading the French book, À toi, which is comprised of emails between authors Kim Thúy and Pascal Janovjak. Thúy, and Janovjak met in Monaco in 2009 when they were both nominated for the Prince Pierre of Monaco literary prize (Thúy for her debut novel Ru and Janovjak for his book L’invisible). After they met, they kept up what can only be described as an intimate literary correspondence over three months (with most of the emails sent within the first four weeks of their meeting; they are dated and time stamped).
It’s a beautiful book, but I often felt uncomfortable reading these emails, sent off at all hours of the day, often in hurried and breathless (but no less artful) responses. I couldn’t help but thinking, this is what so many pop-psychologists or therapists would call an emotional affair, as they shared secrets and intimacies with one another.* But what it also represents is two like-minded people coming together and sharing their uncommon bond over the experience of exile, living between languages, and, ultimately, a love of the beauty in language. They are, for lack of a better word in English, des intimes, or intimate friends.
As I get through these deeply felt passages, moments of closeness and vulnerability between two authors who lives oceans apart (Thúy in Montreal, Janovjak in Ramallah), I can’t help but think of my own experiences at Congress and at DHSI, specifically with my fellow academics who are a part of EMiC. We’re a group who are devoted to a) the Modernist poetry movement in Canada, b) digital humanities, and c) collaboration. The Modernist poetry community in Canada, you can imagine, was quite small, starting around McGill University and branching out from there. The academic community studying them isn’t much bigger, and those of us who are also interested in DH limits things further. There are quite extensive archives scattered in libraries across Canada that have preserved the intimate relationships that many (most? All?) of these poets/editors/translators had with one another. We bonded over our knowledge of one or another’s letters as it related to our particular project. We giggled over the secret affairs they had with one another, their drunken parties that they recalled with varying levels of detail (or exaggeration) over our own bottle or two of wine.
We were building our own network of intimes over the intimate relationships these poets shared.
Clearly, these literary relationships are not unique to the Canadian Modernist movement, but I think there is something wholly unique about growing DH communities, our commitment to collaboration, and our willingness to, for lack of a better word, be intimate with one another. Contemporary humanities scholarship has, as we all know, celebrated the individual scholar, the lone-author article or book, and, with the dwindling job market and resources, embraced the cutthroat corporatization of academia. We still see this whenconference speakers refuse to have their presentation live-blogged, lest their work appropriated or considered “published” before its “original” author can benefit. This is just one example, but we might talk the talk about forming an academic “community,” in practice, it can be anything but supportive and intimate.
This isn’t to suggest that we all need to be up in everyone else’s business within our own department or small academic research community, nor that solo work isn’t valuable or reasonable (remember, my inspiration comes from a group of poets who essentially wrote single-authored texts), but I am suggesting that we be more open to fostering intimate relationships with those whom we can reasonably create these bonds of (directly translating the noun intime from the French) close friendship. But it isn’t just how academic culture is currently built that discourages these kinds of relationships; my initial discomfort at the closeness shared by Thúy and Janovjak reflects our culture’s inability or unwillingness to accept a variety of close relationships, assuming that it all leads to sex and debauchery. While I know there is a long history of marriages breaking up in the halls of higher education (or conference hotel rooms), or young, impressionable graduate students or faculty being taken advantage of by predatory senior professors, it seems a shame to completely dismiss the possibility of intellectual intimacy, lest the rumor mill sink a career.
I’ve been struggling with describing that je ne sais quoi that a face-to-face conference provides that a webinar just can’t recreate, or at least not as easily, and it is that there is more potential of creating a community of intimes, a closeness that is developed over long dinners and away from the mundane concerns that the job often provides. Clearly, it can be done over email, but Thúy and Janovjak’s relationship started over a dinner in a foreign country before blooming in the electronic ether. I think that this may also be the reason why graduate school, despite many of our protests, remains an attractive option for many young intellectuals; trial-by-fire, stressful situations while students interact with like minds (and great minds) in the field is the type of situation that creates the bonds of des intimes.
And maybe, perhaps, this is why DH is becoming an attractive option for young academics, as well as senior scholars; it isn’t just about building something digital, but about building something tangible, lasting, and meaningful between people, rediscovering the human side of the humanities, rather than the cold professional face it has been forced to adopt. We may be able to more easily justify our involvement and interest in DH in those same cold, professional terms, but we stay because we have found our intimes.
*The title of the book is a play on this closeness between the writers; À toi translates directly as “to you,” like a letter, but also as a possessive, as in “belonging to you.” There is a section of the book where Thùy fantasizes about actually belonging to Janovjak, like a Geisha of old. If I were to translate the title, I’d choose to translate it as Yours, like the closing of a letter, but preserving the double-meaning. But I’m not translating it.