Paulson on Gosetti and Rolls, eds. (2020)

Gosetti, Valentina, and Alistair Rolls, editors. Still Loitering: Australian Essays in Honor of Ross Chambers. Peter Lang, 2020, pp. x + 187, ISBN 978-1-78997-256-6

This volume is the second collective enterprise to honor the late Ross Chambers in print, appearing as it does on the heels of a special section in the Romanic Review edited by David Caron. Caron’s collection brought together twenty-eight brief essays that focused on Chambers as friend and mentor, as well as on his collegial and scholarly personality. The present volume hews somewhat more closely (though by no means conventionally) to the Festschrift genre and reflects the deep and ongoing admiration and affection still enjoyed by Chambers in the Australian academy at the time of his death, more than forty years after he left his professorship at the University of Sydney to move to the United States. The collection brings together seven original scholarly pieces variously inspired by Chambers, along with a substantial introduction from the editors and a biographical tribute by Anne Freadman that had been previously published in the Australian Journal of French Studies (“Ross Chambers: A Life in Books”).  

Anyone concerned with the disciplinary boundaries and controversies of French studies will find much food for thought here in Jarrod Hayes’s revisiting of Chambers’s 1990s polemical clash on French Cultural Studies with Sandy Petrey, himself a distinguished dix-neuviémiste and theorist of speech acts and literature. The chapter is also, alas, a reminder that the overall situation of French studies has not exactly improved since the nineties: the student desire to learn or become French, which Chambers and Petrey sought to channel in their different ways, has simply diminished, in Australia as in the United States. 

The collection’s center of gravity, or most representative portion, lies in a series of chapters that extend the arguments, reading methods, and theoretical contributions of Ross Chambers to provinces of modern cultural production that he visited rarely or not at all: the detective fiction of Agatha Christie and its adaptations (Alistair Rolls), the Scottish playwright and novelist Ali Smith (Murray Pratt), the cinema of François Ozon (Joe Hardwick), the female characters of Michel Houellebecq (Sophie Patrick), and finally the translation (and anthologization) of poetry by women (Valentina Gosetti). To the heterogeneity of these topics corresponds considerable variety in the modes of engagement with Chambers’s work, though there is a discernible clustering of attention around what could be described as a Story and Situation—Room for Maneuver—Loiterature axis: accounts of texts and their readings as sites where differences are made, desires are modified, and unplanned things inconclusively happen.

An intellectual high point of the volume, at least from my arguably atypical perspective, is the chapter in which Greg Hainge brings Chambers’s 2015 book on Baudelaire, An Atmospherics of the City, into dialogue with “speculative realism,” a contemporary branch of philosophy also known as “object-oriented ontology” (and that Hainge redescribes as an anti-epistemological epistemology). Chambers’s materialistic construction of Baudelaire’s “malign supernaturalism” as noise intrinsic to an entropic world enables Hainge to claim him as a (perhaps unintentional) speculative realist, a theorist of an “uncanny hinterland of things” (a phrase from Chambers that forms the chapter’s title). For Hainge, this rapprochement provides an intellectual payoff: Chambers’s noisy and non-totalizing mode of reading Baudelairian materiality offers a salutary alternative to object-oriented ontology’s tendency to posit absolute or transcendent resolutions of its own (anti-)epistemological predicament. Here, too, the turn to Chambers provides room for maneuver.

In life and in death, Ross Chambers became a touchstone for many humanities scholars—on both sides of the Pacific. He had the kinds of abilities that could have made him an imperious intellectual authority, together with an extraordinary generosity, openness, and oppositional ethos that made him an ideal or inspiration to many a scholar and student for whom institutions and authority were profoundly problematic. Those to whom his work matters most, such as the authors of this collection, feel themselves summoned by it to what they consider best in their own intellectual calling and their profession—to forms of reading, teaching, and publication that combine critical sophistication and ethical commitment. These essays thus constitute a kind of collective self-portrait of the literary humanities, or at least of a notable tendency therein. It is a self-portrait in the act of reading, or of the critical reader as scrupulous trickster, improvising, deferring, holding off closure and subverting the call for productivity that sounds ever more loudly in the neoliberal university, trying to foster the play of differences and opposition within such spatio-temporal slack as academic life continues to offer. Whence the title: Still Loitering

Will such a scholarly stance long survive in the twenty-first century, with its sinister revival of the counter-Enlightenment and its reliance on technologies that offer instantaneous and little-mediated flashes of the unbearably real? We cannot expect Ross Chambers to go viral, but we can take pride in the ways in which we have collectively learned from the intellectual self-transformations of this genial man, adept reader of the past and engaged witness to his own time.

William Paulson
University of Michigan