So often have I felt so much at odds with projects delineating a method for scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences that the very thought of reading a monograph about method has become a source of considerable irritation for me. I know Jennifer Evans personally and appreciate her in ways that I cannot adequately express here. Those of you who have had the distinct pleasure to get to know her personally know what I mean. But even our existing relationship did not help me resist feeling an initial distance to a book project interrogating extant methods in our field while proposing its own.
In my experience, such projects invariably replace one monolithic set of principles that limit what counts as scholarship with another set entirely. “Your approach is bad. Mine is better.” Moreover, forceful rejection of practices has grown to take on a discomforting individualistic, even egocentric, flair among academics that on its own calls their project’s seriousness into question. Notwithstanding my likely excessive irritation, I am often enthralled by the spectacle of public excitement about novel interventions in various fields of study. I fall prey to the public enthusiasm conjured up by the media sensations around such work and read it regularly.
In those books, I often find myself alienated by faulty promises that their denouncing of extant “bad” practices would open up fields of study to make them hospitable toward new forms of scholarship. By the time I finish reading a book of this variety, all I am left hoping for is to get the time back I lost reading it. While their critiques of received methods are sharp—often excessively so—the alternative they advance never quite lives up to the hype surrounding the book. A line from a song by my favourite German 1990s band, Tic Tac Toe, gets at the heart of the sentiment neatly: “Hey Mr. Wichtig, du tickst ja wohl nicht richtig, erst machst du hier die Show, ja und dann schrumpft dein Niveau.” (Hey Mr. Big Shot, first you make a huge deal of it and then it turns out you’re an underachiever.)
But my feelings—though grounded in legitimate suspicion about the Humanities and Social Sciences, whose methodological purities have too frequently attempted to exclude people like myself from producing parallel scholarship—proved to be misguided with regard to Evans’s book. Instead of frowning, I found myself nodding a lot while reading The Queer Art of History. At one point I was even snapping my fingers so hard that my partner came from an adjacent room to check if I was doing alright. Each page felt like it extended itself to me. Each chapter invited me into its intellectual project and provided me with everything I needed to dwell in its purview as I was. In short, I felt at home in the capacious framework Evans outlines.
Methodological frameworks are spaces that seek to organize our ideas. Their structuring mechanisms enable or disable comfort within them for scholars depending on their intellectual and personal positionalities. Sara Ahmed has articulated this phenomenon in her work on queer phenomenology as the sensation arising when “you can feel the categories that you fail to inhabit” (Ahmed 2004, 154). In apprehending your misalignment with regard to certain structures, your sensation of discomfort grows with the acknowledgement of your failure within them. This goes for bodyminds as much as intellectual projects. How many times have we lamented others dismissing us or our work as ill-fitting in German Studies or the Humanities and Social Sciences broadly speaking? Here, “fit” delineates belonging. Queer people and their intellectual work often do not belong and thus always operate alongside or beneath fit’s terrain. It is precisely at this juncture that the political project of Evans’s book becomes most legible. It seeks to articulate how the politics of identitarian belonging in the project of queer German historiography (indeed, queer historiography broadly) have been sources of discomfort for some groups of people and their histories. In so doing, The Queer Art of History does not traffic in failure or in ill-fit. The point of the book is not to implement firm frameworks disciplining intellectual trajectories in queer historiography. Far from it. I felt that the procedure of reading the book helped me sit and think with intellectual frameworks that decidedly sought out to speak to historical subjects standing in queer relation to queer historiography as they are.
For me, reading this book is thus immensely personal. I have felt like a failed scholar in the face of the disciplinary regimes of the academic status quo in the Humanities and Social Sciences. I still receive emails (often by good comrades) deeming me and my ideas ill-fitting in their intellectual projects. If the misalignment with frameworks produces discomfort, then an alignment with them is a source of comfort. In fact, methodological aligning might just be the stuff of intellectual coziness. This coziness derives its energies from the synergistic relation attendant to a capacious epistemic framework extending itself to an intellectual rendered undisciplined as a result of scholarly work that frequently reaches beyond the confines of disciplinarity. As I read Evans’s book, I felt at home. Methodological coziness is, therefore, the precondition for feeling at home in intellectual communities. If you have no access to methodological coziness, how can you relay your ideas to a community of scholars in good faith or assume that they care about your work? Feeling cozy, in other words, invariably translates to empowerment. In establishing parameters by which people can feel at home in your theories means giving them what they need to thrive with regard to their own intellectual projects variously intersecting with yours. When Evans notes that she is interested in kinship as an alternative critical category for queer historiography, the idea is that the book seeks to practice kinship with its readers. It generates comfort for existing kin relations (e.g., a lot of us already feel at home in the project) and announces new formations in the future.
Evans’ crafting of a method that helps me feel cozy begins in the introduction. There she interrogates “a rigid set of universalist identity categories that have limited whose lives are rendered legible in the past” when it comes to queer historiography (Evans 2023, 7). I re-read this sentence many times, where each revisit was a soothing activity. The reason for my attachment to it is grounded in its coziness. Say the following applies to you as it does to me. You are a queer German Studies scholar who is also a queer guy born in the former Yugoslavia into a Muslim family. During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina you lived in Germany as a refugee. As a queer historical subject, your queer life in Germany never quite aligned with any of the public discourse about queer rights while you were growing up queer there. As a queer scholar, you want to write queer scholarship pertaining to your lived experience. However, you realize that most existing discourse on queer life in Germany in which you hope to situate your own work was often exclusively charted on the basis of methods developed from within the said public queer rights discourse. To situate yourself, you would have to, at best, efface much of your lived experience in order to fit in this broader public discourse. At worst, you would give up the project in the face of the terrain of a field of scholarship not extend itself to you. So, when Evans calls for critique of too rigid conceptions of what gets to be written about as queer German history, I became hopeful of my own future in the field of queer German Studies. It is as though she made a pot of coffee, invited me over, and said “you belong, too, my dear.”
I know some version of the coffee relations I cite above already happened in some venues for me. To many of us, Evans is a great mentor and friend. And that her book extends the same gesture via an intellectual project is in hindsight not surprising. I am ashamed that my disciplinary misalignments made me suspicious of the project before I read it given that I know her personally and should have anticipated that the book would be what it is: an invitation to me and so many of my comrades to sit with Jen and one another and keep writing, for our stories are too important to fade in the face of bad intellectual structures. So I will go make a pot of coffee, re-read the book, and keep writing my own knowing Evans and the comrades associated with or hailed by her book project will be there to support me.
Ervin Malakaj is Associate Professor of German Studies and Director of the Centre for European Studies at the University of British Columbia
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
Evans, Jennifer V. The Queer Art of History: Queer Kinship After Fascism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2023.