I would recommend the above Chronicle links (not paywalled, I don't think) for anyone looking for a general sense of the MLA this year. (Update: or check out this link at Inside Higher Ed, on the MLA's Big [Digital] Tent.)
Below are my own particular notes on the panels that I ended up attending, starting with the one I organized. My goal in writing these notes is not to "opinionate" about the papers or evaluate them, but rather to simply give some thumbnail sketches, and maybe offer up a link or two for people interested in these topics who weren't able to attend. The notes and links are also, needless to say, for myself -- there's lots of "further reading" for me to do in the links and references below.
In general, I attended three "Digital Humanities" panels, two panels related to South Asian literature, one panel on modern Anglo-Irish literature, a panel on "Public Poetry," and a panel on Modern British Literature and the State. I also branched out a bit from my core interests and saw a panel on 19th century American literature ("Secularism's Technologies"), which featured both Michael Warner and Amy Hollywood -- two scholars I admire -- talking about secularism.
Click on "Read More" to read my notes on the panels I attended.
1. "Representing Genocide and Civil Conflict"
This is the panel I myself organized, under the auspices of the Division on Nonfiction Prose, Excluding Memoir and Autobiography. The idea for it was initially inspired by the work of my friend Amanda Grzyb, specifically the book she edited called The World and Darfur. I was also thinking of some of the great long-form journalism I've read in recent years related to genocidal violence in places like Rwanda and Vietnam, not to mention work by earlier writers like George Orwell (i.e., on the Spanish Civil War) and Christopher Isherwood (the book he co-authored with W.H. Auden on the "rape of Nanking"). Here was the CFP I had posted back in spriung 2012:
What role has the creative nonfiction genre played in documenting and responding to genocidal violence and civil conflicts? This panel will explore 20th and 21st Century texts; topics could extend from events such as the Armenian genocide, the Spanish Civil War, the Partition of Indian subcontinent, and the Holocaust, up through more recent genocidal events such as the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia, or the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. Special interest is given to texts that cannot readily be classified as straightforwardly “journalistic,” and which aim to do something other than simply document, with institutional authority and state support, these events. What are the limits of representation and representability? What does it mean to say that certain forms of violence (i.e., violence on a mass scale) are “unspeakable”? Cross-media elements, including engagement with the differing efficacies of photography and film, are welcome. What are the benefits of the creative nonfiction form in addressing genocide or large civil conflicts, and what are its limits?
Friday morning I attended Session 219, "Labor and Revolution in Irish Literature, 1913-1916." I missed some of Claire Culleton's paper on the labor leader Jim Larkin, though it was clear that her approach was essentially to rethink Larkin's reputation as a heroic labor leader in light of biographical evidence that in fact he was much less loved in his own day than subsequently.
Another interesting paper, by David Sherman of Brandeis University, explored two poets who came to prominence in the 1980s, Tony Harrison and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Both were chronicling the changing of the guard -- the rise of countercultural movements (from reggae to punk and skinhead culture). Harrison's poem "V" was first broadcast on the BBC in 1985, and provoked a scandal because of its liberal use of profane language. That first (infamous -- now legendary) broadcast has been uploaded to YouTube and can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPutBM7zfv8.
Sherman also talked about the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, focusing on "New Crass Massahkah" (New Cross Massacre), a song describing the police action that provoked the Brixton race riots in 1982. He played some of this song in the panel, and it was surprisingly loud -- a minute later, someone from the next room came into complain about the noise! (I guess Linton Kwesi Johnson is still a bit transgressive...)
Kelly MacPhail's paper on Edwin Muir was also my first exposure to this Scottish poet. As with many other 20th century Scottish poets, Muir started out experimenting with Scots-English dialect, but ultimately turned against that form (but notably not against Scottish nationalism) in favor of standard English.
5. "The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities"
[As a side-note, this was one of the panels where the Twitter feed was incredibly lively during the panel itself. Search for Hashtags #mla13 #s307.]
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at east,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
“To whom all things the same, as good or evil;
Jehovah, Jove, the Lama, or the Devil;
Mohammed’s braying, or Isaiah’s lays;
The Indian’s powaws, or the Christian’s praise.
With him all natural desires are good;
His thirst for stews; the Mohawk’s thirst for blood:
Made, not to know, or love, the all beauteous mind;
Or wing thro’ heaven his path to bliss refin’d