Caroline-Isabelle Caron joined the History Department in 2002. As a historical anthropologist, her specialty is 19th and 20th-century Acadian and Québec cultural history. In her research, she looks at representations of the past, in the form of genealogies and commemorations, and at representations of the future, in the form of science fiction. Her work is fundamentally interested in collectivity: she seeks to get a closer glimpse at the collective “encyclopedias” of North American cultures, to access the sum of the experiences and representations possessed by a person, and more generally, by a collectivity. Her current work spans such themes as commemoration, representations of the past in television and film, and women’s creative fanfic production. We have sat down with Dr. Caron to get her thoughts on how the digital landscape is affecting her research and teaching. What follows is the first of a two-part series based on this interview.
Your research frequently focuses on collectivity, commemoration, and cultural production. How do you understand your research to be inflected or informed by an increasingly digital cultural landscape? Are there continuities or discontinuities?
Over the course of the last 150 years, I find there have been more continuities than discontinuities in the way communities are formed. The format of community interactions may have changed, and the emergence of online communities is an important development, but a community is still basically the same as in the past: a group of people who recognize each other as being more similar than different, who share similar interests and experiences, who adhere to the same collective identity and recognize each other as doing so. One hundred and fifty years ago, communities were almost only the result of individuals living in the same place (i.e. sharing family, town, city, ethnicity, country, nation). Yet, even then, many families were just as geographically spread out as online communities are today. They kept alive their sense of togetherness through sending letters to each other. For example, a father would receive a letter from a daughter married away, share the letter with all the family members close to him and then resend the letter to another of his children married off elsewhere. This is not fundamentally different from writing an email and cc-ing it to several family members, who then forward it to others. It’s not so different, just much faster. The biggest change with geographically disjointed communities today is that contact can be quotidian and immediate with the advent of the Web, email and large-scale online communities such as Facebook and Renren. Which means, for example, that in the morning I can send virtual hugs to my friend in Singapore who had a bad day as she is getting ready for bed. Sixty years ago, I would only have written her a letter and hope it would be delivered to her within six months.