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Everybody loves imparfait: academic cultures of imperfection.

WHEN TWENTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD JENNIFER LAWRENCE fell On her way up the steps of the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles in February 2013 to accept the Best Actress Oscar, it must have seemed to many of the program's viewers as it did to those in my house that the moment, while it may not have been not absolutely ruined, was certainly compromised. The fall itself was such a little thing, and Lawrence was charming in her gracious and honest reaction. Nonetheless, the fall became forever a part of the moment, a little interruption, a small event in the category of things we never want to happen to us (falling down in front of millions of viewers on live television) mixed in with the big event in the category of things that seem as if they would be pretty nice (winning an Academy Award--or, for that matter, any award). It was, or seemed to be, an imperfection, a bad thing adversely affecting a good thing, a flaw, a blot. But Lawrence's fall also made for a curiously productive and interesting moment. In the hyperproduced and somewhat banal Academy Awards ceremony, it seemed oddly and importantly real. It was so evidently unscripted and so ordinary that it threw into relief the extraordinary weirdness that is the Oscars. It probably made lots of people feel sympathetic things. It made Lawrence kind of loveable, not least as she brought about a kind of symbolic tear in the screen, on whose refracted surface most of us who watch the Academy Awards watch them. Popular culture makes much of such moments of imperfection in celebrity culture. Tabloids celebrate them or, at any rate, delight in finding opportunities to expose what are touted as the imperfections behind the seeming perfection of celebrities' (and especially actresses') skin, hair, bodies, relationships, lives. Perhaps, given the culture of tabloid exposure of flaws, it is not surprising that imperfection is central to so much Hollywood cinema: Lawrence won her Oscar, after all, for her role in a film, Silver Linings Playbook, that is focused on what is typically represented as imperfection across a number of registers--mental health, economic self-sufficiency, adulthood, families, marriages, houses. The film's happy ending is itself arguably imperfect: only a moment between the realities of unemployment, institutionalization, debilitating meds, and scabby ceilings.

The short papers in this forum were presented at ACCUTE'S conference at the University of Victoria, 1-4 June 2013. Speakers in the panel were asked to think about imperfection with reference to the following questions:

* What constitutes imperfection? How relative is its assessment? How do we recognize it? Define it? Measure it?

* What are the politics of perfection? What does it mean to aspire to perfection? Or, for that matter, to aspire to imperfection?

* How can perfection operate as a standard--in the arts? in everyday life? How much do aesthetics come into play in our assessment and valuing of perfection?

* How do we engage with ideas of perfection in cultural representations such as reality television? To what impulses are such representations--of "perfect" homes, dates, bodies, wedding dresses--addressed? What does a critique of these ideas of perfection look like?

* How do academics engage with, resist, or embrace imperfection? Is academic work in fact characterized by perfectionism, in writing, editing, presenting? How much too much do we do toward perfection? How do we deal with imperfection?

* How much do we revert to and inhabit the imperfect tense, an index of what is never finished, always in process?

* How do we represent the things that militate against perfection: illness, grief, travel, family responsibilities, power failures, lost files, missed texts, books we can't get, archives we can't visit, funding shortfalls, competition, filling out forms, applying for everything, trying to get the computer to work, making mistakes? Is it good that things get in the way of achieving perfection?

* Is there something, as the 2013 Ikea catalogue suggests of its new "designed by hand" Malin Figur duvet cover and pillowcases, in the idea of a "perfectly imperfect look" (289)? Is there something in what Leonard Cohen suggests is the opportunity of imperfection: the "crack in everything" where "the light gets in" ("Anthem" 1992)? Can imperfection be a richly productive condition?

The six papers here represent a range of compelling responses to these questions.

Coming from locations across the discipline--graduate student to emeritus professor--and outside of it, the papers consider how we see ourselves in relation to imperfection or imperfection in relation to us. Peter Schwenger discusses the pleasures of errors, the slips in language that we quickly correct but that "open a chink in the so-called prison house of language" (16). Imperfections in a text can have the effect of making us see what we wanted to say, can, at one limit, interfere productively with meaning and communication and, at another, can liberate us from the rules in relation to which we constitute ourselves as academic subjects. Karen Macfarlane addresses the easy semantic slide from imperfection to failure, arguing that the two are not synonymous, as we often seem to think they are. Imperfection, Macfarlane suggests, "is a place of connection and interaction" (11): "an imperfect surface gives other objects, other things, something to stick to, somewhere to hang on" (11). Not just interesting, this imperfect surface is the necessary ground of inquiry, investigation, questioning--the stuff we do. Derritt Mason also looks at failure, making a case via Judith Halberstam's 2011 Queer Art of Failure for the ways the imperfect tense of sexuality constitutes us all imperfectly. "Instead of trading in failure," he asks, "doesn't queerness via queer theory suggest that everyone lives their own sexuality and gender imperfectly, incompletely, in perpetuity" (14)? Daniel Laforest, focusing on David Bowie and his performance of the song "Young Americans" on the Dick Cavett Show in 1974, draws attention to the ways in which the song brings Bowie's white performing body into complicated relationship with idioms of soul and funk and thus with African-American cultural references. The performance, Laforest points out, was imperfect--awkward Bowie being not-American, being a white guy with a guitar, moving in alien ways--but its imperfection, he also suggests, "was a crucial mechanism in the performance itself" (8), making it possible, making it raise the questions Laforest is asking. Antonia Smith muses on the condition of imperfection as a state of nostalgic longing for what has never been but has always been idealized, proposing that we reclaim "the concept of perfection as 'what is'" (22) and thus shift the conception of imperfection (everything, everyone) out of the picture altogether. Maite Snauwaert reads the imperfection in John Huston's 1961 film The Misfits across the registers of cinema and "real life," showing how the film is intensely concerned at the levels of narrative and representation with the imperfection of its characters and, crucially, of the actors playing the roles. The imperfections, she writes, "of the actors are the driving force of a cinematic imperfection that seeks to convey both an impossible perfection and a human longing for self-improvement" (28).

These papers converge in the recognition of the simultaneous ordinariness and the extraordinariness of imperfection: not being perfect isn't, they suggest, in other words, unusual, but it is also the exceptionally rich, messy, mistake-making, unharmonious space of learning. In one way or another, these papers all celebrate imperfection--not, perhaps, on exactly the same tabloid principle of finding flaws as a way of making interesting articles (although an argument could be made for the value of inquiring minds everywhere), or, for that matter, of affirming the universality of human imperfection, or even as a way of pre-empting customer complaints about potentially flawed products, but because, as they remind us, the work of learning, teaching, thinking, figuring things out is a difficult, mistake-prone, blundering business. Making the whole process more difficult, as academics in the twenty-first century university, we are all really, really busy; we are all trying to read, write, teach, mentor, get to meetings on time, finish things by deadlines, not work at night, do well, enjoy our lives, get things right, not go to class unprepared, not leave a typo in an article, not make a mistake in citation, not offend a colleague, find time with family and friends. There's a lot of room for not doing everything perfectly.

A case in point: on the day of this panel at the University of Victoria, I ended up racing to the room. A little late, a little unready, I also knew I had made inadequate notes for the speakers. When I introduced Daniel Laforest, I failed to point out that he was serving as acting Director of the Centre for Canadian Literature/Centre de Litterature Canadienne at the University of Alberta, an impressive responsibility for a scholar who was at the time still pre-tenure. I forgot the name of the prize which Daniel's book, L'archipel de Cain, Pierre Perrault et l'ecriture du territoire (Montreal: xyz Editeur, 2010), had won in 2011: it was the Jean-Ethier Blais prize, awarded each year by la Fondation Lionel-Groulx to the best book of literary criticism written in French, concerned with Francophone Quebec literature, and published in Quebec. I stumbled over the French pronunciation of both Daniel's book and Ma'ite Snauwaert's Philippe Forest, la litterature a contretemps (Nantes: Editions Cecile Defaut, 2012). When I introduced myself, a colleague generously applauded: I made a nervous half-joke about having a fan club of one, when I should have said, "Such kindness!" or "Without Misao Dean, who has written so many letters and supported my work in so many ways, I would have no career." When I sat down, feeling I had muddled most of the beginning of the panel, the only thing that made me feel better was the fact that it wasn't being filmed and that I would not thus have to watch myself blundering into eternity. (And, of course, that even if it was being filmed, the audience would be considerably smaller than, for instance, that of the Academy Awards for Jennifer Lawrence.) I don't know what perfection looks like, and yet I am always aware of my own imperfections, the things I do that are less than they should be: these things seem to be often academic. Although it seems appropriate that a panel on imperfection should have been a forum for some, it may also be that every day in every way we find ourselves in the way of imperfection. These papers, while they don't necessarily call upon us to seek imperfection, remind us that it is where we always are: the imperfect tense, the ongoing, the incomplete. What we're always working on right now.

Cecily Devereux is a Professor in the Department of English at the University of Alberta and an associate editor of English Studies in Canada.
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Author:Devereux, Cecily
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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