Intimacy and distance in fiction and scholarship

Nicki Smith

In Claiming the International, Naeem Inayatullah talks about the difference between fiction and scholarship in terms of intimacy and distance.  He argues that fiction creates a sense of intimacy in a way that scholarship can’t/won’t – it invites the reader in, to let her defences down, to see, think and be differently. Scholarship, in contrast, creates a sense of distance – the reader must be on her guard, always looking for faults, and so is positioned against the text rather than with it.  I love this way of thinking about fiction, and it also sums up how I’ve read a lot of academic scholarship.

There are two moments in my life when reading something has radically shifted my sense of who I am and where I ‘stand’.  The first moment was reading a novel – My Loose Thread by Dennis Cooper  – which made me cry a lot because it’s an incredible book but also because I couldn’t understand how I could relate so intensely to such coldness. The second moment was reading a piece of scholarship – ‘Doing Justice to Someone’ by Judith Butler – and that reduced me to tears as well, partly from anger at the violence depicted and partly because I felt that I had finally found ‘my’ politics.  Both of these texts are, in some sense, intimate: for example, they are both written in the first person; they both take on that most ‘private’ realm, the body; they both ask questions about what it means (not) to be (counted as) human at the level of an individual life; and (for me at least) they both confronted what I had understood until then to be my ethical ‘self’.

But distance?  ‘Doing Justice to Someone’ felt the opposite – it left me upset but not disconnected; quite the contrary I felt like I’d found something I could become a part of.  (That for me is one of the most crazy-wonderful things about being a feminist scholar – to be part of something shared where you can say ‘we’ and it means something).  My Loose Thread, though, is the most ‘distancing’ thing I have ever read.  That is part of its power and is what challenged, and reconstructed, my own sense of how ethics ‘should’ be framed.  (I love the fact that Lauren Berlant teaches Cooper’s The Sluts as a core queer theory text for that reason, too).

To go back to Inayatullah’s piece, he contends that scholarship’s production of distance is profoundly implicated in Western colonial imaginaries and so to close that distance – to reveal the ‘author’ as an actually-existing, fallible ‘I’ – becomes an important political project in its own right.  I’m with him on that.  Scholarship can be intimate and, when I read feminist work, I’m reminded of that every day.

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