MLA 2014: Notes and Comments

I was at MLA from the beginning all the way to the end – somehow I managed to draw a panel in the second session of the entire conference on Thursday, and a second panel at the very end of the conference. So I was in Chicago for a full four days.

It was on the whole a good conference for me -- I got to see a number of old friends, eat interesting food, and connect in person with a few people I've only met online. I had a great 'power' lunch with my copanelists where we worked through our issues with the recent "post-secular" turn, and revived my involvement with an anthology project where I had earlier withdrawn my name. I even went to a party...

Just a quick disclaimer about the notes below... I generally try not to give away too much about what panelists were saying in their papers so as not to "jump the gun" on their ideas if and when they are going to be published. My notes below are intended to give readers a quick thumbnail indicating what people were talking about, and maybe a brief comment from me in connection. 

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1914 in 2014: Body of War. #s28

The research on this panel was very solid and the papers were well-researched and interesting. Stuff I wanted to investigate more: H.G. Wells’ World War I novel “Mr. Britling Sees it Through” (1916); Mary Borden, “The Forbidden Zone (1929) – an experimental nurse’s narrative. Another panelist was working on another nurse’s narrative, Enid Bagnold’s A Diary Without Dates (available on Gutenberg). The third panelist, David Lubin, was an art historian from Wake Forest University, working on images of plastic surgery. He mentioned Dr. Harold Gillies, the famous plastic surgeon ("the father of plastic surgery") who performed thousands of plastic surgery operations on wounded soldiers during and after the war. Soon afterwards, plastic surgery for cosmetic improvement took off -- especially in the U.S.

One line that stood out to me from Borden: “There are no men here so why should I be a woman?” The panelist (Sarah Cole) was doing some really interesting work with gender in Borden's narrative.

This was also the first time I’d seen Wilfred Owen’s poem “Disabled.”

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him. 
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,
— In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
Beautiful poem -- not sure how I'd missed it earlier, since I've taught Wilfred Owen numerous times over the years.

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Manifesto Revisited. #s76

I co-organized this panel with Roderick Cooke for the Division on Nonfiction Prose. Tamara Beauchamp’s paper looked closely at a particular anti-psychoanalytic obloquy (i.e., rant) by D.H. Lawrence, called A Fantasia of the Unconscious. She also did a good deal of helpful bibliographic work, mentioning Janet Lyon’s influential work on the manifesto, as well as an important essay by Marjorie Perloff called “Violence and Precision.” 

Roderick Cooke’s paper attempted to see a reprise of the Dreyfus Affair in the way French intellectuals responded to the Algerian War in the 1950s and 60s. The Dreyfus affair was of course a key moment in thinking about European Jews and anti-Semitism, but it was also a watershed moment for public intellectualism. Zola’s gesture of accusing the French government of a conspiracy to keep the truth about Dreyfus’ innocence suppressed was a bombshell that continued to reverberate. An analogous manifesto from the Algerian civil war was the “Manifesto of the 121” (1960), largely penned by Maurice Blanchot but signed by 120 other prominent French figures, including Sartre and de Beauvoir. 

Nagihan Halliloglu’s paper looked closely at Alain Badiou’s Manifesto on the Headscarf Ban in France. Badiou’s essay goes against what has been the intellectual consensus on the secular left in France – that headscarfs are somehow “un-French,” and tears apart the French political establishment. He’s often brilliant on the absurdity of the law – singling out this particular religious symbol as a kind of litmus test of French laicite:

Picture a secondary school principal, followed at a few centimeters' length by a squad of inspectors armed with scissors and books on jurisprudence: at the school gate they're going to check whether the hijabs, kippas and other hats are "conspicuous." That hijab, as big as a postage stamp perched upon a chignon? That kippa the size of a two-Euro coin? Fishy, very fishy. The tiny may well be the conspicuous version of the huge. Wait a minute, what do I see? Watch out! It's a top hat! Well now!

But ultimately he is using the headscarf girls as part of a broader critique of capitalism –he’s not really seriously interested in the idea of accommodating religious minorities or multiculturalism.

Daniel Burns’ paper wrapped up the panel, looking at the way in which the French pamphlet The coming Insurrection has been represented in the American media. Burns brought to bear a considerable amount of critical material, including Richard Grusin’s idea of “premediation” as well as Hofstatder’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He also considered the Tarnac 9 group in its French context before talking about Glenn Beck’s rather bizarre appropriation of The Coming Insurrection on his now-defunct Fox News show.

Overall the panel felt quite solid though we did not have much time for questions. We also had a relatively decent audience of about 15 people.

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Parodic Form in Asian American Poetry.  #s101

This was an entertaining panel that gave me quite a number of reference points I might use if and when I teach Asian American literature down the road.

Timothy Yu talked about Billy Collins exoticization of the Chinese – which he first noticed in Collins’ “Grave,” but subsequently charted in a large number of poems by this famous American poet. The invocation of “one hundred kinds of [Chinese] silence” in Collins’ poem inspired Yu to do his own parodic project, “100 Chinese Silences.” The quotes he gave us from this work in progress (the first 15 poems have been published as a chapbook) were quite witty and smart.

Juliette Lee and Juliana Chang worked through a large number of poets and individual poems that make use of parody in some way, from John Yau’s “Ing Grish” to Beau Sia’s “A Night Without Armor II, The Revenge” (a parody of Jewel’s “A Night Without Armor”). Juliana Chang’s paper was exclusively focused on John Yau, mentioning his “Genghis Chan: Private Eye XXV” and “Ten Songs.”

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(Post)Racial Vulnerabilities and Race in the Neoliberal Televisual Imagination. #s145 #s250

I also went to two panels that dealt quite a bit with film and television representations of race.

Stefanie Dunning talked about blackface and racial identity in Tropic Thunder. Previously I had thought of Robert Downey Jr.'s famous use of blackface in this film as actually kind of progressive – since it was used so self-consciously and, later in the film, deconstructed. But Dunning’s paper convinced me that if you triangulate that performance with the infamous line about “going full retard” with reference to depicting characters with cognitive impairment, as well as “We’re all a little bit gay sometimes,” the gesture starts to look much more problematic. In effect all three of these modes of performing minority status might be versions of the same.

Douglas Ishii presented on multiculturalism in Grey’s Anatomy – which he argues can be quite thin, in large part because it omits references to histories of oppression in favor of a more feel-good model. And Candice Jenkins did a close reading of Michael Thomas' novel Man Gone Down, a novel about an African American man with an upper-class white wife, who finds himself in a somewhat desperate financial pinch – as he has to raise $12,000 in four days to pay his daughter’s private school tuition. One of the challenges to America becoming a “post-racial” society is the fact of differential accumulations of wealth – these discrepancies have not disappeared, nor are they likely to.

In the second panel, Jonathan Gray gave a presentation on the short-lived ABC drama Last Resort. Gray has also published a article about this show. I was interested in the idea that black masculinity works on television and commercial Hollywood film insofar as it is seen as supportive of the state; this show, perhaps, broke the code by figuring a black male protagonist who turned against the state. Eden Osucha talked about the advent of the “multiracial office family” in contemporary television, locating a starting point for the phenomenon in NBC’s LA Law –a series that started in 1986. She looked at the second episode of the show, when a new black associate was hired. Adrienne Brown talked about Shonda Rhimes’ show Scandal, where the protagonist seems to stand quite alone – without any female friends. In the Q&A, people raised questions about “black female best friends” and characters like Jasmine in Parenthood, and the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

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Reforming the Literature Ph.D. #s290

This was a panel I was eagerly anticipating, as we have in my own department begun talking about ways to reform our own program to better prepare our Ph.D. students for the jobs they are most likely to get.

The roundtable featured Rachel Arteaga, a graduate student from the University of Washington, who has been involved in a number of digital humanities projects and fellowships on that campus – possibly leading to further Alt-Ac and university library gigs down the road. Don Balostoky or the University of Pittsburgh talked about the unconventional design for their Ph.D. program in Critical and Cultural Studies. Juliette Cherbuliez of the University of Minnesota talked about how her program has intensified its focus on preparing its students for Alt-Ac positions. John Allan Stevenson of the University of Colorado talked about a new Ph.D program in German studies at the University of Colorado which has been designed as a four-year Ph.D. It too has an unconventional design. Bill VanPatten from Michigan State talked about the need to emphasize collaboration. Julia Brookins from the American Historical Association, talked about the findings of a major study conducted by the AHA regarding the careers of history Ph.Ds. They looked at 2500 History Ph.D.s and tracked what graduates were doing with their degrees. She also talked about principles for reforming the doctorate.

Overall this panel left me feeling cautiously optimistic that Ph.D. programs that are currently in distress because of the poor job market might restructure themselves so as to help graduate students prepare for different kinds of careers. Some promising directions for English Ph.Ds. include academic administration, digital humanities type positions, and university press publishing. But we would need to make sure we give our students opportunities to develop credentials in these areas during their graduate student experience. 

The larger message seems to be that we need to start thinking of the Ph.D. as a degree that might lead to the development of a range of different skills and knowledge bases, rather than as a program that leads to the production only of highly specialized knowledge about a narrowly defined subject. I'm hoping to take the message of this panel (or at least the message as I saw it) back to my own department as we continue to talk about these topics this coming spring.

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NEH Grant Workshop

I went to about an hour of a presentation by a representative from the NEH named Jonathan Rhody regarding the different kinds of grants and fellowships that are available. There was a pretty vast amount of information in this presentation, and I could barely keep up in my note-taking. It was helpful in general for me in getting a better sense of different fellowship areas (“Digital Humanities,” “Bridging Cultures,” “We the People,” “Public Programs,” “Education Programs,” “Challenge Grants”) as well as classes of grants (DH Start-up grants vs. DH Implementation Grants).

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Reframing Postcolonial and Global Studies in the Longer Duree. #s346

I was only able to take good notes on Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s paper in this panel. But it was quite a doozy of a historical account of the historical translatability of the concept of “religion.” He talked about a 17th century Dutch Encyclopedia project which had a surprisingly broad scope (including cultural groups from the New World, Africa, Asia, and Europe). After talking about this European example, Subrahhmanyam moved to non-European contexts, such as the invention of “religion” in Japan in the 19th century, and a 17th century Urdu text by a Parsi historian that attempted to consider the concept of religion outside of the Abrahamic traditions. “Who is capable of producing abstractions? Is it true that all of the [big] abstractions [i.e., “religion”] come from Europe? [Hint: the answer is no]

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South Asians in North America: Inter-Ethnic Readings. #s578

Auritro Majumder of Syracuse University spoke about M.N. Roy’s memoirs – specifically his alliances with non-European leftist movements in places like Mexico. How important was anti-colonial thinking to Roy’s concept of world communism? Majumder seemed to suggest that early on this was very important to Roy, but as he revised some of his key policy statements he toned down the anti-colonial emphasis in favor an approach that gave the Soviet Union a leadership role in the planned proletarian revolution.

Maya Winfrey of NYU talked about Vijay Prashad’s role as the sole “brown” representative in a 2003 exhibition catalogue called “Black Belt” – which focused on interactions between African Americans and Asians vis a vis martial arts culture in the visual arts and film. I had not seen either Prashad’s essay in this catalogue or the exhibition itself, but I have seen Prashad’s essay about “Kung Fu Anti-Imperialism.”

Gaurav Desai talked about Mississippi Masala, mainly using material he had to cut from a chapter of his recent book where he talked about Mira Nair’s groundbreaking film. He mentioned a documentary film that probably inspired Nair’s own nonfiction work, called Mississippi Triangle (1984); that film actually focused on Chinese grocery stories in Mississippi. Desai also mentioned Mamdani’s early memoir about the Asian Expulsion from Uganda by Idi Amin, From Citizen to Refugee. This is a book that I myself have looked at in my (as yet) unpublished book manuscript on Mira Nair.

I think this is quite an important topic -- and all of these papers were individually interesting -- but there was a debate about "inter-ethnic" relations that this panel I thought wasn't really able to enter into. My own interest in this is in the changing ethno-racial positioning of South Asians; I'm hoping to some day figure out how to turn my blog argument about Nikki Haley into some kind of academic article. 

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Decolonizing DH: Theories and Practices of Postcolonial Digital Humanities. #s679

This panel, the first of its kind as far as I can remember, was surprisingly well-attended for the "dead zone" of Sunday morning at 8:30am. (Heck, I was even a little surprised that I made it!)  Adeline Koh outlined in a general way what a postcolonial digital humanities might be -- she and Roopika Risam have built a website on this and are working on a book-length project on the subject. Porter Olsen also gave a really interesting presentation about the discourse of imperialism in "civilizational" games like Civilization, Age of Empires, Empire, etc. He also had some provocative examples of hacks and modded versions of these games -- what happens if you give the slaves more power to revolt than the game normally would? 

Alexander Gil described his work looking at DH projects from outside of the United States and Europe, and mentioned an interesting project called Around DH in 80 Days. Amit Ray talked about the economic and corporate basis of much contemporary computing, and argued that mainstream DH (especially the emergent "maker" culture) has not done enough to acknowledge its complicity in transnational capitalism. 

Overall I was heartened and inspired by this panel though at present I'm mostly just an interloper; I'm hoping to get my act together finally and contribute something myself to these discussions at some point soon. 

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Religion, (Post)Secularism, Literature. #s799

The final panel I attended was my own.

One of my co-panelists, Sadia Abbas, had a provocative essay in the recent issue of Boundary 2 on the “postsecular.” Her presentation here focused on the way the Pakistani state presumes and enforces Islamic identity constitutionally – and through the intentional disenfranchisement of the Ahmadiya community. She also mentioned the disastrous Blasphemy law, which has been invoked all too often to justify abuse of the country’s Christian minority.

Michael Allan gave a paper heavy on the sociology of religion, and took steps (this is something I have tried to do as well from time to time) to get from social/political theorists like Carl Schmitt back to the “literary.”

R. Radhakrishnan talked about the gap between his willingness (as a thinker influenced by poststructuralism) to challenge and critique the “secular” on epistemological grounds, and his commitment to a secularist political identity. Can we derive a politics from a complexly theorized idea of (post)secularism?

Allison Schachter talked about work she has been doing on a Hebrew novelist named Lea Goldberg, who published a novel in the 1940s dealing with the question of whether Hebrew literature can be secular – and if it is, how it is received by others.

My own paper was something experimental – something new. I started from the blog post I had written a couple of months ago about hate speech; my goal was to try and take that somewhat personal and anecdotal account and think about "religious hate speech" as a theoretical concept. 

I am not sure whether people liked it or not – the comments were much more focused on other panelists’ papers than my own. Still, here are the three core paragraphs of my paper.

The question I want to pose is what connection speech that offends religious people living in secular societies might pose to the way we understand secularism more generally. If we believe that speech communities ought to restrict racist speech, do we then have an obligation to protect religious communities along the same lines? Is an insult to the Prophet Mohammed or Jesus Christ (for sake of argument let’s think of it as a linguistic insult, not a visual or iconic one) comparable to a personally injurious speech act (i.e. an insult delivered live against a single individual)? On the surface, the answer would seem to be no – since being a member of an ethnic minority or a person with a disability refers to attributes over which we don’t have any control, while religious beliefs presumably will be seen by most secular people as choices.

But of course in many parts of the world, religious identity is as much a set of practices and an ingrained way of life as it is the result of conscious choice. When the idea is to hurt an individual through associating him with a stigmatized minority religious community (think of the various attempts that have been made to slur President Obama as a Muslim), the injury works like hate speech, and I want to posit, cautiously, that a culture characterized by persistent religious hate speech will see its claim to secularity deformed. To me it’s a fairly straightforward thing to defend the legal right of, say, the Danish cartoonists and their publishers to publish material that might offend Muslims, but it’s also important to try and marginalize such speech by derecognizing it where possible.

A starting point to framing the injurious speech act more secularly might be Louis Althusser’s idea of interpellation -- the police officer who shouts “hey, you there,” and by so doing constitutes the hearer ontologically and as a subject of the law (does he mean me? I’m not doing anything wrong right now). Althusser interprets the power of a state actor to name through a religious metaphor: his idea of interpellation is as a kind of divine naming (Butler notes his allusion to St. Paul and the Logos in her critique of Althusser in Excitable Speech, and of course there’s a long section of Althusser’s ISA where he posits Christian subjectification as his prime example of ideology at work). In short, God’s naming is also a creating; in secular form, that is what the state does when it addresses us. Is Althusser secularizing religious subjectification or imbuing what might be seen as a secular linguistic function with strong theological overtones?