Stuart J McLean
The problem central to my work is that of theorizing the intersection between the material world and the human elaboration of cultural meaning. I approach this by considering the variety of ways in which human beings have understood and articulated the relationship between their own acts of imagination, remembrance and self-identification and the material processes giving form to their bodies, their material environments and their world. My work seeks to accord no a priori explanatory privilege either to “nature“ or “culture“ as conventionally defined but to focus instead on their intersection and overlap, as revealed through particular sites, histories and material practices. I understand this “˜in-between’ space as a zone, not simply of classificatory ambiguity, but of transformation and generative possibility, out of which new forms of knowledge and imagining can emerge. I have pursued these concerns via a series of interlinked explorations of the dynamics of historical memory, the meanings of cultural creativity and the construction of that definitionally elusive yet world-historically consequential entity known as “Europe.“ Articles published in Social Analysis and the Irish Journal of Anthropology (both 1999) and my book The Event and Its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity (2004) address one of the key episodes of modern Irish history – the Great Famine of the 1840s, which claimed more than a million lives and continues to inspire intense academic and popular debate. I approach the famine, not as a bounded historical episode, but as a complex and dynamic cultural phenomenon, intimately related to the transformations of Irish society from the mid-nineteenth century to the present and requiring multiple modes of engagement on the part of the researcher, including analyses of archival, visual, literary and ethnographic sources. I consider too the multiple ways in which the past is materialized in the present through, for example, landscapes, places and objects, which themselves then assume an agentive role in shaping cultural outcomes and perceptions. Such sites, I argue, afford a potential vehicle for historical experiences and ways of knowing the past (for example, oral histories and local topographical knowledges affirming the spectral persistence of the famine dead) that are often marginalized in academic and official historiography. They thus provide a unique basis for re-conceptualizing both the story of modernity, in Ireland and elsewhere, and the indispensable involvement of material sites in the production of historical knowledge. I am currently working on a second book project, tentatively entitled A Poetics of Emergence; Imagining Creativity beyond “Nature“ and “Culture.“ This explores the possibility of conceiving of creativity, not as an exclusively human capacity (a view sometimes advanced in Euro-American reflections on the topic) but as a relational process operating across the domains of “nature“ and “culture.“ The book argues that human beings in diverse times and places have intuited such a continuity between human creativity and the processes shaping the natural world and that these intuitions have found a variety of expressions through mythology, folklore, literature, art, philosophy and science. The book aims to challenge more restrictive definitions of creativity and to open a space for transcultural and transdisciplinary dialogue by developing a comparative account of human imagination and creativity as informed by and participating in the self-creation of the material universe. Portions of this work have already appeared in the volume Landscape, Memory and History: Anthropological Perspectives (2003), in a special edition (2007) of the Irish Journal of Anthropology (which I co-edited with Steve Coleman of the National University of Ireland) and articles in the journals Trames (2008) and Cultural Anthropology (forthcoming, 2009). I am also engaged in a further ongoing project in collaboration with my colleague Thomas Wolfe (History/Global Studies, University of Minnesota) and Mika Aaltola (International Relations, University of Tampere, Finland). This involves a series of public workshops, held in Minneapolis and Helsinki, supported by a University of Minnesota Title VI European Studies grant, by the Finnish Academy of Sciences and by the research division of the Nokia telecommunications corporation, examining the conceptual, methodological and writerly challenges posed to European Studies by the recent enlargement of the European Union. Among the questions we are interested in exploring are: what is "Europe" made of? When the European Commission and other bodies talk about the "construction" of Europe, what kinds of entities are being mobilized to this end? The workshops aim to facilitate intellectual dialogue between scholars in the United States and in the various EU member countries and have featured participants from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Finland and Ireland. We envisage that the series will continue through 2009-10 and will culminate in a collaboratively authored publication or series of publications. In its focus on the multiple interfaces between discourses on identity and belonging and the materialities of objects, places and technologies in the context of contemporary Europe, I view this project as continuous with many of the thematic concerns of my previous work, while affording an opportunity, at the same time, to explore those concerns on a different scale and through dialogue and collaboration with scholars from other intellectual backgrounds.