Notes on MLA 2013

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has already put up some stories about MLA 2013, including this article covering the growing attention payed to "Alt Ac" (Alternative academia) career tracks, and this one focusing on the general theme for the conference, "Avenues of Access," which was explored by the MLA's President, Michael Berube in his address, as well as in numerous presidential forums interspersed throughout the conference that focused on facets of "Access" broadly construed. (The panels on that theme were on everything from "Open Access" journals, to questions of access and diversity in the Digital Humanities, to disability studies.)

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?
Of the abstracts I received, I picked four panelists, though only three were actually able to make it to the panel. 

Nathan Hensley (Georgetown University) spoke about prose and photographic representations of British actions in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Besides some of the prose texts he referenced, Nathan was particularly interested in photographic representations of the Mutiny, specifically the photo by Felice Beato taken at Sikander Bagh in 1858. The massacre of 2000 rebels at the site was described in prose in graphic detail by a British witness. Beato visited the site a year later and exhumed skeletons of some of the victims, which he then strewed across the ground for inclusion in this photo:

I won't say too much about Nathan's reading of the photo (this is work in progress), but it does seem worth mentioning that his reading engaged with both Susan Sontag's comments on this photo in Photography and Pain as well as comments from Zahid Chaudhary on the same photo in an article in Cultural Critique. (I imagine Zahid also has a section on this photo in book on 19th century Imperial visual culture.)

Another panelist, Sohinee Roy (North Central College), worked with Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, a presentation of testimony related to the Truth and Reconciliation committee’s hearings put together by a white South African woman who witnessed those hearings. Sohinee focused on some of the formal attributes of the text (especially the way in which it aims to create a sense of immediacy and authenticity) as well as its mode of identifying and addressing its audience. 

The third panelist was Michaela Hulstuyn (Standord), who read Charlotte Delbo's memoir of surviving Auschwitz (Auschwitz and After) through the lens of Valery's "An Evening with Monsieur Teste," focusing on how both Valery and Delbo represent the breakdown of the self-other dyad at moments of extreme pain or trauma. 

2. "Labor and Revolution in Irish Literature, 1913-1916"

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.  

Vincent Sherry's (Washington University in St. Louis) paper focused on the 1916 "Easter Rising" as an event that should be read as an expression of aesthetic modernism. Sherry quoted from newspaper accounts of the event that focused on its theatricality. Commentators on the Rising were especially interested in the image of Constance Markievicz leading the rebels while wearing men's cloths. Sheerry argued that the tropes surrounding Markievicz in particular should be seen as a kind of "radical street modernism." Sherry also spent some time looking at T.S. Eliot's "Sweeney" poems, which he read in light of the Rising. He was particularly interesting on "Sweeney Erect": 

Display me Aeolus above
Reviewing the insurgent gales [Sherry suggested we should read: "gaels"]
Which tangle Ariadne’s hair
And swell with haste the perjured sails.
Morning stirs the feet and hands
(Nausicaa and Polypheme).
Gesture of orang-outang
Rises from the sheets in steam…

In effect, Eliot was ridiculing the Irish rebels. 

The well-known Irish literary critic Enda Duffy (UC-Santa Barbara) was also on this panel, and he presented a wide-ranging, synthetic account of modern Irish literature that would be impossible to summarize here. In brief, Duffy argued that Irish literary criticism has tended to overlook the image of emigration and the life and experience of the Irish emigrant -- a facet of Irish life which for historical reasons is actually quite central to modern Irish history.

Duffy quoted from Eavan Boland's poem, "The Emigrant Irish": 

Like oil lamps we put them out the back,
Of our houses, of our minds. We had lights
Better than, newer than and then
A time came, this time and now
We need them. Their dread makeshift example.
                They would have thrived on our necessities.
What they survived we could not even live.
By their lights now it is time to
Imagine how they stood there, what they stood with,
That their possessions may become our power:
Cardboard, iron. Their hardships parceled in them.
Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering
In the bruise-colored dusk of the New World.
And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.

Later Duffy also talked briefly about John McGahern's Amongst Women and Edna O'Brien's The House of Splendid Isolation, both of which thematize Irish emigrants returning home. 

3. The next session I attended was "British Literature and the State, 1880-1940"

Here I was particularly interested in Zarena Aslami's (Michigan State) paper, which was part of a new project focusing on Victorian representations of Afghanistan and Afghans. She briefly referenced G.A. Henty's children's novel, ThroughAfghan Passes and Doyle's “A Study in Scarlet.” She also mentioned the trope of the Noble savage, which is familiar in Victorian discourse about numerous cultural others, including Africans, but Aslami argued that there’s something specific about the Afghan case. (In this short presentation she didn't say what exactly differentiated British/Victorian depiction of Afghanistan from those focusing on other "border zones." 

The second half of Aslami's paper dealt with Gladstone’s Midlothian speeches, where he drew analogies between the British empire’s treatment of the Scots and its treatment of tribal Afghans. Gladstone used the Afghan case to mount a critique of the particular form of Tory High Imperialism that took shape under Disraeli in the 1870s. 

I also enjoyed the paper by John Marx (UC-Davis). Marx's paper was not very focused on literary texts so much as a conceptual or theoretical account of how "mega urban" spaces, new megalopolises (like Shenzhen, China) and conurbations (Tokyo/Kyoto) put pressure on ideas of urban planning or controlled development. He cross-referenced this more contemporary concern against a late Victorian urban designer named Gettis (sp?), who helped draw up the designs that would lead to the expansion of Bombay as a "garden city." 

Another very interesting panel. I enjoyed and learned a lot from Emily Bloom's account of Louis MacNeice's "Autumn Sequel" (the sequel to MacNeice's "Autumn Journal"). MacNeice worked extensively with the BBC during World War II, and indeed presented his long poems first on radio poems devoted to "public poetry" during and after the War. While he enjoyed success with his earlier "Autumn Journal" (1939), by 1954 he expressed a certain ambivalence about the process in the "Autumn Sequel":

Before I know it I find
Myself at a microphone with miles of flex
Twining around me and myself entwined
By headphones with the world and at the becks
And calls of each blind sound wave

I deplore
And yet enjoy this commons of the air
Which closes such great gaps, yet also fails
To open such great vistas. Who is where,
I ask myself, and where are winter’s tales
In this new global world?

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:

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"

This was a roundtable rather than a conventional panel, so here I won't attempt to summarize the specific papers. One of my frustrations regarding the Digital Humanities turn in literary studies has come from my sense that many DH panels at least seem to be full of talk and bluster, without enough immediate intellectual payload. I've attended one too many DH panel which featured panelists putting forward a series of theoretical points for which the proof lay in their own digital humanities oriented websites. (Everyone has to have a website...) 

One theme that came up a few times in this panel did connect: Wendy Chun’s idea that “the trash of the digital world may be its promise.” She mentioned trolling and anonymity as examples of interesting “trash”; I tend to agree. I myself worked a bit on anonymity and pseudonymity in blogging in an article on anonymity and blogging a few years ago. And trolling is interesting too.

Several panelists also alluded to the emphasis on “making [digital] things” in Digital Humanities, rather than simply engaging in “critique as an end in itself.” And this seemed to dovetail with one panelist’s citation of a paper by Stephen Ramsay delivered at MLA 2011: “Just because you have a blog doesn’t mean you do digital humanities.” (Ramsay posted his talk as a blog post here. Check it out, it's worth a read.) This hit home for me, since my primary “claim” (though I'm not certain I really do want to claim it) to have any sort of connection with DH is my blog (I do have another project in the early stages that uses quantitative/ textual mining methodology, but it’s in a half-finished state.)

At times this panel felt like your standard Digital Humanities panel, complete with the usual flash and bluster. At other times, there was a genuine interest in pulling back from some of the more extravagant claims by some DH practitioners -- such as the idea that "making [digital] things" is somehow more productive than "critique as an end in itself." Overall, the intensity in the room during the Q&A definitely got me thinking, though my hesitation and skepticism about the term "digital humanities" remains real. (I probably need to read more before I make any strong statement about where I stand on Digital Humanities on the whole and in its particulars.)

[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.]

Since I did my own dissertation project on secularism, I've been pleased to see the general emergence of a larger scholarly debate on what secularism means and how and when "secularization" has transpired. This panel focused on 19th century American experiences of secularization (not my historical period), but the titles of the papers intrigued me. The panel did not disappoint.  

John Modern talked about the "Prayer Gauge debate" of 1872 -- a curious event where a group of scientists attempted to quantitatively measure the efficacy of prayer. The scientists found that prayer didn't seem to make a difference statistically, suggesting the incident is part of the path to secularization. Interestingly, they nevertheless didn't claim that religion was therefore invalid or irrelevent -- simply that prayer needed to be thought about differently. 

Amy Hollywood's paper was more associative, and therefore more difficult to characterize. Her most sustained engagements were with particular passages in David Orr's Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. I was most taken with Hollywood's account of Orr's account of a Robert Frost poem, "Silken Tent": 

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. 

I won't attempt to describe  what Hollywood had to say about this. To my own eye, there are some really fascinating theological (and yet secularizing) nuances here. The "pinnacle to heavenward" is a clear gesture to a theological reading. There is also a real ambiguity at the end of the poem about the significance of the "slightest bondage"...

Michael Warner's talk was also quite interesting. Warner mentioned that he had earlier published a review of his co-panelist John Modern's recent book on An Immanent Frame: "Was Ante-Bellum America Secular?"  That essay seems well worth a look (as does John Modern's book more generally). 

But here Warner's textual focus was on a 1788 poem called "The Triumph of Infidelity," by Timothy Dwight. Interestingly, Dwight's great "Satanic" figure in the poem is not an atheist or anti-Church figure like Voltaire, but an actual minister espousing a theory of Universalism, Charles Chauncy. One memorable passage from the poem runs as follows: 

“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

I missed the first paper of this roundtable. What I did see was a student (Heather Duncan) talking about working on a digital project (“DigitalHumanities Interviews”), a project with which the organizer of the panel, Alex Reid, is also involved. The remaining panelists consisted of an academic blogger who’s given up peer-review publication, and a medievalist blogger (Eileen Joy) who is actually leaving her tenured position at SIU to go full time into working with a hybrid publisher called Punctum Books.

Matthew Gold edited a volume called Debates in the Digital Humanities for Minnesota (published 2012). Befitting its topic, the book has an online version alongside its print version. The online version has a cool Web 2.0 interface that allows you to highlight sections that look interesting. Even better, the source code for the project is available open source at Github, making me think I should try to produce something like it for some of my own published and unpublished writings.

Both Eileen Joy and Alex Reid alluded to the decline of academic blogging from its peak a few years ago, which led to the question I asked at the end of the session: if we’re interested in the “middle state” publishing of academic blogging and the middle state publishing of bloggy academic books such as Debates in the Digital Humanities, where are we headed if the formats that are superseding academic blogging – the social web, primarily Facebook and Twitter -- actually seem to encourage an even more informal and less digested kind of writing? 

By this point in the weekend my ability to listen closely was starting to suffer. Here I might just mention the topics the panelists discussed. Suchismita Bannerjee discussed the Indian feminist group blog, and focused in particular on a recent essay by Bonnie Zare ("Pink Saris") on a documentary related to the "Gulabi Gang." Waseem Anwar discussed Mohsin Hamid's digital hypertext fiction, "The (Former) General in His Labyrinth."  

Rashmi Bhatnagar had cancelled, so Rahul Gairola read his paper, "The Double Bind of Dharun Ravi," which worked with Jasbir Puar's idea of "homonationalism" -- which refers to the kind of nationalist pro-gay discourse that some western countries use to vilify non-western cultures that are less gay-friendly. I had many thoughts about the idea of "homonationalism," but unfortunately I could not stay to discuss this with Rahul. For now let me just link to a blog post I came across when I Googled the term: here. That's a bookmark for something we'll have to come back to and discuss more later. 

This was actually the first panel I attended at the MLA this year, but I was still shaking off the drive up to Boston and consequently was not taking great notes. I also missed most of Subramanian Shankar's first paper (though I have his book, Flesh and Fish Blood, and will certainly be writing about it at some point soon), though perhaps it's worth mentioning that he was talking about some of the song-sequences in the 1960s Hindi film adaptation of R.K. Narayan's Guide

A graduate student named Jody Jenson gave an interesting paper relating to transgressive / trans-border romances in recent Bollywood films, Veer-Zaara and Fanaa.  Another graduate student, Rajiv Menon, spoke about the emeregent image of the "new Indian man," as in the context of advertising discourse (he didn't mention it, but I can't help but think of Shah Rukh Khan's famous/infamous "Fair and Lovely" ad along these lines). And finally, a scholar named Allison Klein presented some great research related to lesser-known 19th century texts, specifically one called Lutchmee and Dilloo, a Study of West Indian Life