MATERIAL MEMORIES, TANGIBLE LEGACIES.
When we first met, Ross did not simply assume that I was "French," as had every other professor at Michigan. When I explained that I was from Mauritius, he did not look vacant, as others mostly did ("Mauritius? Huh...?"). He simply said that we were both from "down under." A bond was created that inspired a lifelong but sporadic conversation. Sporadic because he did not use e-mail, and I was juggling children, research, and a job. I still juggle research, a job, and now a commute and four grandchildren whose parents can use my help. When I received the news of his death I had not been in touch for almost two years. Our last conversation, in late 2015, ended with him laughing and saying: "Well, you have to be the first person who says she's moved to Harvard to be closer to her grandchildren!" His warmth, wit, sense of humor, self-deprecating irony, abiding curiosity, and genuine interest in different points of view created the fabled aura that touched all those who knew him well.
To use a term from Story and Situation, the "situational" circumstances of my thirty-five-year epistolary friendship with him were such that we might remain out of touch for long periods. But Ross was and continues to be a figure with whom I dialogue, argue, disagree, and laugh: an interlocutor against whose critical perspectives I still test some of my own, as I did early on when we debated the paradoxes of textuality and situationality in contrast to: materialist feminist standpoint theory; the value of situated knowledges; or the epistemic privileges claimed by embodied subjects.
Ross was a superb reader, not just of literary and critical texts, drafts or polished articles. He was also extraordinarily attentive to the personal circumstances of those he knew, to the enunciative conditions of a conversation, and to what might remain unsaid or merely blurred by context. He was able to read people in relation to their own ecologies while never taking anything for granted, never reducing them to the logic of a particular encounter. This intuitive understanding of others, this ability to connect and relate is what made him an insightful critic, eminently respectful of texts, never subjecting them to the Procrustean bed of academic practice or the high wire of theory, able instead to illuminate the detail that alters the way we think about an author, or think tout court. What is the "point," he asked, of telling a story at a particular moment in a particular context? How does the desire to narrate regulate our understanding of the material conditions of encounters, narration, and communication? Who has the power to tell stories, how does this power play out in the myriad practices of everyday life, and how do we reshape the narrative, publicly or surreptitiously? More than ever, these are the questions for our time and place: questions we need to keep asking our students in steady, deliberate, and resolute fashion.
Ross's understanding of the performative function of literature remains my most significant pedagogical tool for exploring with students at all levels the intricate relation of aesthetics and politics, the self-situating narrative devices that enable interpretation and produce meaning in a political context where meaninglessness reigns. If words can trap us into conventional modes of behavior, they also give agency. They transform those who utter them, shake up those who receive them, and redraw the maps of supremacy, however fleetingly. To teach literature is to open up such realms of possibility. Ross's seminars opened pathways; his influence on students will remain legendary. The love and loyalty he inspired is a formidable legacy, as is his insight that power differentials are momentous materially but unstable textually, and thus give us Room for Maneuver.
His singular blend of materialism and idealism could be exhilarating for some and quite frustrating for others. He was sometimes misunderstood, much to his frustration and impatience, as I witnessed on a few occasions, at conferences when English department critics of "French theory" would oversimplify or misrepresent and vilify "our" (French) approaches to text, identity, and indeed gender. I remember epic confrontations in the 1990s that truly pained him because so much more was at stake than the ostensible theory wars of that decade.
Then, neither humor nor irony could help him; now, these questions are even less of a laughing matter. I wonder how, after the 2016 election, he dealt with the association that some have made between Trumpism and postmodernism, with the continuing intellectual and political distortions that vitiate debate and sow discord.
I treasure the stash of handwritten letters that I received over the years. They are my material memories of him, tangible examples of his thoughts and advice about academia and its paradoxes, poetry and everyday life, the world and its contradictions. He was always so generous about discussing my work and sharing his own. These letters are my concrete connection to a life, a mind, and a heart that never gave up on the search for sense making, and never stopped believing, against all odds, that literary words can open new worlds of understanding.