January 18, 2023

Veteran Poetics: An Interview with our Keynote Speaker Professor Kate McLoughlin

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/homecoming/

In this third blog post for the HRC Conference on Homecoming after war, the co-organiser, Niels Boenderinterviews the keynote speaker, Professor Kate McLoughlin, Fellow at Harris Manchester College Oxford.

Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, andgiving the keynote at our conference. Let me start by asking about your recent book Veteran Poetics. You draw on a huge and diverse range of texts from modern British literature. Why do you think the figure of the veteran is so salient during this period and in this place?

Literary texts in this period, which begins with the French Revolution, are grappling with the implications of modern, mass, industrialisedwarfare. Those implications called into question many ideas associated with the Enlightenment: that we remain the same person over time, that hospitality is a good thing, that problems can be solved scientifically, that we can learn from experience. Modern war undermined all that and the product of modern war - the veteran - is the obvious and ideal figure through which to explore the situation. Or, more succinctly, veterans tell us what it's like to be modern. 

To what extent do you draw on inter-disciplinary approaches for your work? How for instance do literary studies and history co-exist in your work?

In Veteran Poetics, the main other discipline I draw on is philosophy. I'm a specialist in modern literature but I'm also a trans-historicist. That doesn't mean cutting across history but being historically aware in a local way and alsobeing very aware of literaryhistory.

Do you think there is a specific significance to the moment of homecoming?

The moment of homecoming is what inspired Veteran Poetics: specifically, the moment of homecoming in Wolfgang Borchert's Drauβen vor der Tür(Outside the Door). Reading this German play, which is an instant of post-Second World War Trümmerliteratur(rubble-literature), I was struck by the textual chaos wrought by the veteran who returns home to find he has lost everything. The familiar-turned-stranger, the effect of lost time, the sense of alienation: all these struck me as extraordinarily rich in emotional and conceptual terms.

Especially in light ofyour present work, how do we accommodate the figure of the silentveteran? Im thinking particularly of historians for whom silence is often uncomfortably unassimilable.

I'm still trying to answer that question! The final chapter of Veteran Poetics reads the silent literary veteran as embodying crises in post-Enlightenment communication. I start to suggest in the Conclusion that, rather than trying to get the silent veteran to speak, we might honourtheir silence. This ties in with theories about silence from critics such as Edouard Glissant, Judith Butler, Rita Felskiand Dorothy Hale in the so-called 'post-critique' turn. But I'm still not sure what 'honouringsilence' looks like as actual literary criticism. All I can say is that 'uncomfortable' doesn't necessarily equal 'bad'. 

Your most ambitious claim in Veteran Poetics is the way in which the figure of the veteran upsetsstandard narratives of the Enlightenment. Could you just briefly explain this thesis to our readers?

I say a little about this above. It seems to me that there are certain figures - the war veteran is one example, the refugee is another - who stand counter to the flow of narratives about Enlightenment progress. That's not to say that reason hasn't brought immeasurable benefits. But not without cost, and these figures are the human embodiment of the cost.

Your discussion of the Enlightenment made me think especially of how veteransfigure in non-Western contexts. In countrieswhich had liberation struggles for instance, they are of immense importance to national identity. While accepting this is not your area of expertise, do you have any thoughts on what role the figure of the veteran might play outside Britain?

How we understand veterans is very much culturally specific, becauseit's also about how we understand bravery, gender, sexuality, gratitude, service, sacrifice and a host of other things, including God. Not something I'm qualified to comment on further, but I'dbe fascinated to know more about how these elements contribute to the shaping of the veteran figure in non-western contexts.

Thanks very much for those answers, and we look forward to hearing more about your work in May!

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