MLA 09: Some Notes on Panels
In a great, collectively authored post at Profhacker, Janine Utell observes the comparative dearth of tweets concerning our shared field. "There was a silence, a whistling void where there should have been voices: where were the literature folks, people doing research, giving and listening to papers in my area? Where are my fellow modernists, commenting on what we were all learning at the convention?" I felt a particular pang of guilt.
While I attended plenty of panels at MLA this year, I didn't tweet too much (that is, at all). While there are technological reasons for my relative silence (anyone want to give me a Droid?), the primary reason I didn't tweet more is because of my assumption that only Digital Humanities folks follow MLA on twitter (not, say, modernists). I mean, what is the sense of tweeting a panel on Pound into a whistling void? But, of course, if there was a whistling void it is at least partially (though probably only partially) my fault. As Janine's comment makes clear, there are actually a good bunch of modernists already on twitter. So, inspired by Janine's comment (and the excellent write-up of the Legacy of David Foster Wallace Panel by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, which I was sure had me up at 8:30 Wednesday), here is a quick digest of my notes from MLA, with all snark and doodles redacted, made in atonement for my silence.
I haven't included all my notes for all the panels I attended. I should note that "653. Cognitive Approaches to Literature: Are We Beyond Science Envy Yet?" was, with the Freud panel described below, the best attended of the panels I sat in on (I'll leave the implied contrast between these two panels to your imagination); but I was primarily interested in trying to understand exactly what a "Cognitive Approach to Literature" would be, that I didn't really take any notes. Should any of the mentioned below find this page and wish to amend/change/contest anything I say below, please let me know in the comments. I'm happy to amend the post as needed. Indeed, going over my notes, I learned that I probably need to take better notes in the future... But if nothing else, these notes may, through the deliberate serendipity of Google, allow some folks to find one another.
150. Unboxing Modernism: Beyond the Divides": Introducing this panel, Melba Cuddy-Keane provided a brief outline of the development of modernist studies from 1970s to the present, from the consolidation of definitions of modernism in terms of formal experimentalization, to the recognition of the exclusions of such formulations (broadly speaking, this narrative seems applicable to literary studies as a whole). Our own period, she suggests, is one of refusing of closure—of attempting to keep the very definition of modernism open. The panelists, she suggests, offer visions of how this might be achieved.
Broadly speaking, the panelists seemed to split into two groups: Ann Ardis and Michael Leja were interested in locating modernism within a larger frame of cultural reference, taking modernism out of the hermetically sealed "box" of high culture (to use the somewhat abused metaphor dominating the panel). Leja was interested in showing the similarities between modernist art (construed broadly enough to include abstract expressionism) and larger developments in visual culture. Ardis discussed periodical studies as providing one avenue that can enrich our understanding of the period, by forcing us to return to the complexity of the primary source. She mentioned anonymous/pseudonymous/collective authorship, and the complex international circulation of such periodicals, as obvious areas of interest. Anita Patterson and Steven Yao were interested in challenging the geography of modernism, locating modernism within a transnational framework. Patterson's work focuses on modernist poets connected to the Americas (Jules Laforgue, St. John Perse, Wilson Harris). Yao's work focuses on the Pacific, particularly with the fascination of some modernists with translating works they could not really read (all those poems "from the Chinese").
In the comments, the provocative question of whether "modernism" was even a valuable term anymore was raised. Panelists did not seem to come to any consensus about this important question, and (alack!) the panel ended before it was fully pursued.
The panelists also provided a helpful run down of some of the most interesting recent works in modernist studies. Among the works mentioned were:
- Christopher Bush, Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media(Oxford Univ. Press, 2010)
- Pacific Rim Modernisms, edited by Mary Ann Gilles, Helen Sword, and Steven Yao (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2009)
- Lesley Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Cornell Univ. Press, 2008)
- Pericles Lewis, Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010)
235. Law and the Modernist Atlantic: These three papers all considered some aspect of modernism's (broadly construed) encounter with "the law." Lisa Fluet's paper "'Liberal Fascism,' Human Rights, and the State: On H.G. Wells" pursued the imagining of the state in the work of H. G. Wells. While the state has tended to be an object of critique in leftist and Foucauldian narrative, Wells's narrative, she suggests, offers a way of imagining the state more positively. Unlike figures like Henry James or Virginia Woolf, concerned with recording subjective experience ("how the world feels"), Wells offers something like a "novel of information" (Fluet here borrows James Wood's term, describing the contemporary novel) concerned with describing how the world actually works. For Fluet, Wells's work offers an important opportunity to do what the novels of James and Woolf cannot do—imagine the state.
Kelly McDowell's "The Perverse 'Look' of the Law: Ulysses and Obscenity" offered a close, theoretically informed reading of "Nausicaa" episode. The episode's representation of Gerty MacDowell and Leopold Bloom demonstrate the perversity inherent in the law itself. The normativity of the law itself, in the interacting gazes of Bloom and Gerty, undermines itself. McDowell closed by reading the logic of the "Nausicaa" chapter into the obscenity trials that it sparked.
Thomas Cohen offered a fascinating look at Kathy Acker's literary appropriations, and the legal controversy, by looking at Acker's text "Dead Doll Humility." Drawing on Lyotard's notion of the differnd, Cohen traced the conflict between experimental writing and intellectual property in Acker's work. Cohen helpfully quotes Geoffery Bennington on Lyotard: "an accusation of theft might well also involve a diffénd, if one of the parties does not recognize that the object in question is a legitimate object of property." Such, Cohen suggests, is the case with Acker's appropriations/plagiarisms of four pages of Harold Robbins's The Pirate in Acker's "The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec" ("Dead Doll Humility" responds to the controversy which followed this plagiarism).
294. The Death of Freud?: This was the most crowded panel I attended. The second panelist was unable to attend because of illness, allowing Jean-Michel Rabatè to speak at length. His paper, entitled "What is to be preferred, Death of Obsolecence?", provided a fascinating meditation on the place of death in Freud's work. Rabaté began by contrasting his two titular terms, obsolescence being a sort of incomplete, unsuccessful death. Freudian psychoanalysis, by midcentury, had been co-opted by a "weak adaptive culturalism," (what Lacan decried in "ego-psychology"). Adorno and Lacan both sought to save psychoanalysis from this fate (cf. "In psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations" - Adorno; the entire Lacanian rereading of Freud). In this regard, death, indeed, seems preferable to obsolescence.
From here Rabaté moved to a discussion of the changing place of death in Freud's work. This preoccuptation with death begins early, in a set of letters written in Spanish to Edouard Silberstein. Indeed, Freud seems tohave taught himself at least passable Spanish in order to conduct this correspondence, which was inspired by Cervantes's Dialogue of the Dogs. The letters are interesting because they are structued by an injunction similar to that of free association. They also, however, feature a prohibition on describing death (one is not to say that "One has died"; substituting instead some sort of euphemism). This correspondence, with its anticipation of free association, the obvious importance of language (it was conducted in Spanish), and its vexed relationship to death, provides a model for a set of issues which will continue to constellate in interesting ways throughout Freud's work. (In its ambition to trace key themes throughout Freud's work, and with death in particular, Rabaté's talk reminded me frequently of Laplanche's Life and Death in Psychoanalysis). This concern with death puts Freud in dialogue with the better part of nineteenth-century German philosophy: Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche. Rabaté continued to the famous discussion of death in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where precisely the question of the origin of death is broached explicitly. Is death an internal necessity or is it merely imposed from without? (This is the key question about whether a "death drive" exists.) In closing, he briefly discussed a thinker (about whom I knew nothing) who most emphatically believed that death was not a necessity: the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, a resolutely anti-Heideggerian (and somewhat crazy) figure for whom death is a purely external phenomenon to be resisted (he proposed, as humanity's key project, resurrecting everyone... yeah).
In the Q&A period questions returned to panel's titular question, trying to think about Freud's continuing relevance through the psychoanalytic categories of mourning/melancholia, or the Derridean notion of 'hauntology' (preserving "a specter of Freud"). Rabatè responded by trying to move past these oft-referenced categories. "There is no ontology of psychoanalysis," he insisted. Ontology itself is not a Freudian category; the concern with language, the concern with the Other in us (the work of culture), that is Freudian.
(Oh, and I learned that Freud, like W. B. Yeats, had had a vasectomy—or Steinach procedure—in the belief that the procedure had rejuvenating effects.)
364. D. H. Lawrence's Short Stories: Beth McFarland-Wilson's paper, "A Family Systems Interpretation of 'Horse Dealer's Daughter'" offered a reading of Lawrence's story from the perspective of "family systems theory." This approach allowed McFarland-Wilson's reading to understand the story outside the terms of Oedipal desire that predominate in existing readings. Carrie Rohman's "Ecology and the Creaturely in 'Sun'" draws on Merleau-Ponty and reads the character Juliet, in "Sun," as an experiment in the role of the irrational and the creaturely, a flight from humanism to a view of the subject as ecologically situated. The streaming "dark flow" between Juliet and the sun captures well the relationship between the body and the world that Merleau-Ponty describes as the "flesh of the world," the perceiving body that is at once part of the world it perceives. Pamela K. Wright's paper, "Till Death Do Us Part: The Implications of Illness, Disability, and Death on Love and Romance in Lawrence's 'The Blind Man' and Somerset Maugham's 'Sanitorium'", explored the role of disability in the two stories. Lawrence's 'The Blind Man', Wright suggests, offers a more complex and sympathetic representation of the disabled body than that, for example, of Clifford Chatterley, whose disability comes to symbolized a broader cultural impotence.
513. Joycean Materialities: Christy Burns's "Circean Sense: Phenomenology in Joyce" examined the representation of sensate experience in Ulysses. Burns suggests that Stephen (on the beach in "Telemachus"), and Leopold Bloom on the beach later in Ulysses, offer two different attitudes toward the object world (Stephen's disdain of brute materiality and Bloom's immersion in the sensual world). "Circe," in which objects themselves take on a life of their own, dramatizes the tension between these two different attitudes. David Earle's fascinating "James Joyce, Gently Used: Republication and Dissemiation of Popular Modernism" contested the fetishization of the first-edition, to suggest that pulp editions of modernist works served a too-often ignored role in popularizing these works. Earle shared many fascinating popular versions of modernist texts, including an appearance of Joyce's poems in American Girl (the periodical of the American Girl Scouts), and even mentioned the pulp edition of Bubu of Montparnasse, with an introduction by T. S. Eliot (which I've mentioned here). Sean Latham's "Joyce's Dirty Work" took as its object of analysis the literal dirt of "dear dirty Dublin" as an especially valuable way about thinking about the mongrel nature of the Irish nation as it emerges in the age of what Ulrich Beck calls the "risk society."
588. Copyright and the Modernist Atlantic: Versions of the three papers from this panel will all appear in a forthcoming volume, Modernism and Copyright, edited by Paul Saint-Amour. Robert Spoo's "Copyright Deformations and the Transatlantic Publishing Scene" offered a historically rich account of the complex ways copyright impacted modernist literature. The US in this period (and until 1989) did not participate in the Berne Convention which establishes international copyright standards. Instead, to claim a copyright in the United States, a book had to be published/printed in the United States (the "manufacturing clause" of US copyright). Informally, "courtesy of the trade" prevented rampant piracy, but this informal system withered in the early years of the twentieth century as new publishers emerged, and a more competitive publishing environment developed. Joseph Slaughter's "Plagiarism, Promiscuous Translation, and Yambo Ouologuem's Primitivism: or, The Following Takes Place (Again) between 12am and 1am, 14 July 1913," began by comparing two different translations of Oulouguem's Le Devoir de Violence (the long title makes sense). The 1971 translation by Ralph Manheim introduced allusions to Eliot and Dickinson in the novel (replacing allusions in the original to Homer). These allusions became an object of controversy in discussions of the novel. Generally, Slaughter suggests, allusion becomes plagiarism when writer and reader are not able to share a common text/heritage/culture. In this way, the question of allusion/plagiarism in Ouloguem's novel became a question of cultural authenticity—to what extent can an African novelist allude to Western canonicals works without being accused of plagiarism? Paul Saint-Amour's "Modernism, Copyright, and the Counter Factual" suggests a shift in the concept of copyright during the twentieth century from the individual to the population, from the individualized logic of the author function to a more biopolitical logic. This shift in conceptualization of intellectual property, Saint-Amour suggests, and the counterfactual logic the law sometimes uses, are behind contemporary extensions of copyright. But they might also open up new avenues of contestation. For example, while some arguments for extending copyright terms rely on longer life expectancies, mightn't this same logic suggest that copyright should expire sooner in those nations with lower life expectancies?
612. The Legacy of David Foster Wallace: Why would I write this panel up, when Kathleen Fitzpatrick has already done a fantastic job?