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Interstitial
Posted on Monday, October 27, 2003 - 11:07 am:   

This page is largely devoted to those aficianados of interstitiality residing in academe. Everyone's welcome to post, of course, but you have only yourself to blame if you find yourself in a discussion of the lousy job market, or worse.

It seems to me that the way that certain feminist theorists tried to remake criticism has a lot in common with what interstitial criticism would look like. I'm thinking in particular of Rachel Blau DuPlessis's work and Julia Kristeva's "Stabat Mater." Is there a relationship between interstitiality and feminist theory?
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Tuesday, October 28, 2003 - 08:44 am:   

Hi Veronica!

For anyone who's not familiar with ICFA, I wanted to post something about the 2004 conference, particularly since the focus next year is on the international fantastic. Meaning lots of talk about borders. The conference's focus is fantasy, but there's been a lot of talk about boundary-crossing fantasy and Interstitial Arts in recent years, and I'm sure next year will be no different. Here's some basic information. (Unfortunately, the time for paper proposals is long past, but it's a fun conference to attend even if you're not presenting.) This is from the information I was sent:

25th Annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts
Where: Ft. Lauderdale Airport Hilton, Dania, Florida.
When: March 24-28, 2004.

Here There Be Dragons: The Global Fantastic

The focus of ICFA-25 is on the global fantastic and on the ways in which
language, tradition, and geography shape the narratives we tell. Our
cultures are threaded with shifting strands of the fantastic from around
the globe: Japanese anime, Russian folktales, fragments of the Ramayana,
Latin American magic realism, African trickster stories. Possible topics
include: Postcolonial Theory and the Fantastic; the Racialized Other in
Narrative; the Representation of Race and Gender in the International
Fantastic; Fantastic Film Around the Globe; Legends and Fairy Tales of
Many Nations; Comparative Literature; The Fantastic in Translation; and
the Impact of and on Multiculturalism.

Also, see the website:

http://www.iafa.org
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Saturday, November 08, 2003 - 12:35 pm:   

Once upon a time (Thursday), a valiant knight (Jeff VanderMeer) asked if there was a list available online of academic terms that apply to what we've been calling "interstitial." Because academics have been talking about border crossing for a while now, without ever using that term, and if we want to talk to them, it helps to know their language. And as far as I know there isn't. So I'm going to make a list here.

I'm going to tackle just one or two terms at a time, because most of them I'm not familiar with myself. So these are coming out of The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism, though with ideosyncratic personal comments. None of them are synonyms for interstitial. Rather, they're terms that, if you wanted to talk to an academic about interstitiality (over a dry martini, or rather, since we're talking about academics, cheap wine), you might find helpful.

So here begineth the list. And I hope to goodness someone responds to or comments on these posts, or I'll be the only one talking on this thread. Hellooooooooooo . . .

ABJECTION

An especially handy term. It basically comes from a book by Julia Kristeva called Powers of Horror, published in 1980. Here's how it works. We create the world we live in by drawing boundaries around the things that we believe define us, and excluding the things that we consider "other." For example, by drawing a boundary between humans (us) and animals (other). Different rules apply to us and the other. Animals we're allowed to eat, humans not so much. You can see how this would apply to all sorts of different categories.

The Columbia Dictionary says, and I quote because I can't say this better myself, " . . . the abject represents what human life and culture exlude in order to sustain themselves." In other words, abjection means the process of placing something on the other side of that us/other boundary. One good example here is the boundary we draw between the living and the dead. We are alive; the dead are abject, beyond the boundary. We don't want to have much to do with them. We want them to go away. They're scary.

This gets interesting when you consider what really scares us: when something that has been abjected crosses the boundary back into the "us" category. When the dead come back to life (ghosts, zombies, vampires). When what should be animals begin to behave like human beings (the beasts on the island of Dr. Moreau). Abjection is fundamental to the horror genre. Frankenstein's monster is an accumulation of dead body parts that comes back to murder and destroy. He's a personification of abjection, walking around in broad daylight.

So how does this apply to interstitiality? Well, for one thing, we do the same thing to literary genres. We have something called either "literature" or "mainstream," depending on whether you're inside or outside it. (It's only "mainstream" to the people reading or writing something else. To everyone else, it's the only stream.) Other types of literature are excluded from and lesser than the mainstream. At least, this is what you still find many literary critics saying, if they bother to say it at all rather than simply assuming it. So abjection, the act of placing something on the other side of a boundary, appears in the way we create literary categories as well.

Interstitial fiction tends to be like Frankenstein's monster, made up of different parts. And it can also be dangerous, or at least capable of posing a challenge to the mainsteam. (Just as the monster poses a challenge to what Frankenstein assumes is his enlightened rationalism. Me, whenever I read the novel, I'm with the monster.) Kristeva says that we respond to what we have abjected with both fascination and revulsion. That seems an accurate way to describe how literary critics sometimes respond to texts that cross borders. They seem uglier than the orderly texts we understand, but also more interesting.

I've gone on long enough. But I want to make a final point, which is that abjection has obvious implications for nationality and race (in America, black has long been considered "other," as Irish has in England). Notice how often fiction that crosses borders in terms of genre comes from people, like Irish and African-American writers, who are writing outside of the cultural mainstream. I mention this because I'll probably get to Postcolonialism, sometime in the P's, when it will become important.

Nuff for now.


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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Saturday, November 08, 2003 - 06:51 pm:   

And women are always inherently abject, according to Kristeva, because the primary site of ego/border disarrangement comes in separating the self from the mother. You were your mother, now you're not your mother, and everybody has to deal with that. We're also uncanny, according to Freud.
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Monday, November 10, 2003 - 08:16 pm:   

I've disliked Freud, and I mean personally, since reading Dora. Maybe it's because she and I share a name, but I've always thought he should have been sued for malpractice. On the other hand, the concept of the uncanny is incredibly useful. At least it's been so for me in my own research.

Veronica, I really liked the point you made, on another thread, that we create a literary norm, and whatever is outside that norm is a genre. So we have special sections for children's literature, gay/lesbian literature, or African-American literature, but never for adult literature, straight literature, or white literature (which sound incredibly strange to me even as I write them). I think it starts to hint at something important, which is the way in which genre has broader cultural significance. It's not just about marketing category. I wish I knew more about the theory of genres, so I could talk about it in an intelligent way.

But before I end, here's a quick paragraph on BRICOLAGE.

This term comes from the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, which an accent on the e in Levi, but I don't know how to do an accent in this program. He used it to describe how people in tribal societies would work with the myths and traditions of their cultures, taking elements here and there, with an element of improvisation, and creating something not wholly new but not the same as the original either. Sort of like an artist creating a collage, except fancier and more French. This has become a model for postmodern critics of how theory is created in our era. We're no longer looking for some sort of universally applicable truth. Instead, we're taking bits and pieces of theories and intellectual systems from other eras, and creating something not wholly new, but not like the original. (At least this is what the Columbia Dictionary says. I think it's probably more accurate to say that bricolage has become a new model for how we know the world, not from some universal truth, but in a fragmentary and cobbled-together way. But maybe I'm out of my depth with this term.)

Anyway, I'm interested in bricolage because it seems to me a model for how interstitial works are made. Look at a story I've used a couple of times as an example, Kelly Link's "The Girl Detective." There are elements of fairy tale mixed with elements right out of the Nancy Drew mysteries, in a postmodern and experimental style. It's a sort of collage of genres. Bricolage.

Also, it's fun to say.
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2003 - 12:51 pm:   

Well, I was doing Freud a bit of a disservice there. He didn't actually say that women were uncanny; he noted that very neurotic men tend to find female genitalia uncanny, which is, I suppose, a significant distinction.

I actually love and admire Freud. He is not without his flaws, of course. Chief among them, I've always thought, was his inability to see the psyche created by 19th-century Austria as culturally specific. I read Freud's work not as a prescription for the truthful and healthy development of the normal psyche, but as a very perceptive and accurate description of what happens to the human psyche under, for example, conditions of severe patriarchy. For instance, the concept of penis envy is obviously absurd insofar as Freud thought it reflected on the natural and anatomical "inadequacy" of the female body. But if you place it in the context of deeply unhappy women (the kind of women whom Freud saw for treatment) living in a society where power and prestige accrued to people whose basic difference lay in their possession of a penis--well, it makes sense to me that many of those women *would* be envious.

I always liked Dora for holding her own and leaving Freud hanging when she decided she'd had enough, thank you. And then she got to spend her life doing the playing-card circuit w/Frau K., right?

Anyway, Freud is the man who invented/discovered, named, developed, and explicated the idea of the unconscious, so I have to take my hat off to him as quite brilliant, if unable to transcend his own cultural blindness. Alas.

Hmm. Clearly "bricolage" should be a central concept for my dissertation, but I'd never had it explained to me so neatly. Thanks, Dora!
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JV
Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2003 - 03:12 pm:   

Thanks for Abjection!

JeffV
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2003 - 10:18 pm:   

So, must apologize for writing that entire Freud screed and then forgetting to come to the point.

The point that I originally had in mind is that I think we should claim Freud as one of the original interstitial scholars. He thought he was creating a science (many scientists do not consider him one of them; I think it's debatable), many think of psychoanalysis as a kind of art, he combined clinical experience, an at-the-time-new-kind-of theory, literary criticism, and a kind of anthropological theorizing about early civilizations, *and* he shocked the hell out of his contemporaries by daring to suggest that *children and babies* had sexual feeling, thus even blurring what had been accepted boundaries during the 19th century between adults and children!

Sigmund Freud: Interstitial Scholar.

And that's all I have to say for now.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Wednesday, November 12, 2003 - 12:08 pm:   

In an academic discussion of interstitiality, we are bound eventually to run into Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. They require patience because they spend a good portion of their time deliberately taking the piss. They go beyond irony into the realm of the perverse. But if you stick with them, you get to the goodies at the bottom of the box. For example...

RHIZOME is a term they borrow from the life sciences and employ as an alternative to former concepts of human community and social relations. An older (in their view more paranoid and fascist) model represents the social relation as a kind of tree, with all the little rootlings (that's us) flowing upward (and it has to be upward) into the central trunk (the socius). It's not hard to see the fascism inherent in this model; we become socialized by coming together, sticking together, and becoming normalized. The D/G alternative posits that people are really more like rhizomes, all interconnected and interdependent, but capable of resisting fascistic systems through displacement and deferral. The rhizome has no trunk to which it must aspire.

More important, though, is the D/G concept of how social meanings are formed. Because D/G resist any notion of originary plenitude1 as it works itself out in liberal humanism, they find their alternative in interstitial formation of meaning. In other words, value, agency, and all that other good stuff finds its origin not in the individual, as the liberal humanists and fascists would have us believe, but in the spaces between and among humans and their material surroundings.

What does this mean for the production and consumption of fiction? Most obviously, if we agree that fiction is a playing-out of human agency, and that agency is formed and mediated in the interstices between and among humans and their "things," then there can be no validity to a high/low scheme of literary value. To imagine a great mass of unworthy texts giving off an occasional more-worthy text, and so on upwards to the Great Works, is to retreat backward to a pre-interstitial conception of literary value, one which is disciplinary, didactic, and normative. Less obviously, D/G insist that literary production is a reciprocal phenomenon, with the text taking shape in the interstices between and among producers and consumers. So for them, no text is truly "authored" in the traditional sense.

1. Originary plenitude is the notion, derived most strongly from Enlightenment humanism, that we are the makers of our own meanings, that we craft our own psyches, and that we possess certain "rights" by virtue of our origins.
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Nicholas Liu
Posted on Thursday, November 13, 2003 - 02:19 am:   

Not to piss on your parade, especially since I don't actually have anything constructive to add at the mo, but isn't this

'Less obviously, D/G insist that literary production is a reciprocal phenomenon, with the text taking shape in the interstices between and among producers and consumers. So for them, no text is truly "authored" in the traditional sense.'

shall we say, a less than groundbreaking observation? It's quite a common as well as commonsensical idea, surely. It's also not an extraordinarily useful one.
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Thursday, November 13, 2003 - 06:44 am:   

Hi Nicholas!

Just wanted to respond quickly to your last post. I think you're ahead of most people on this one! Only relatively recently have scholars proposed that authorship involves a collaboration between producers and consumers, otherwise known as writers and readers. The older and more traditional idea is that the author places meaning in the work, and it's the reader's task to discover that meaning, what the author "really" meant. (Many high school English classes are still taught this way.)

I think many writers still think this way as well. In workshops, for example, we're often taught that we need to convey our meaning clearly so the reader can understand exactly what we're trying to convey. There's no acknowledgement that the story actually happens in the mind of the reader, who brings to it all sorts of thoughts and associations we cannot know about or control. I think acknowledging the reader's role as a producer of meaning would allow us to be less controlling as writers, to play more with ambiguity.

At least, that's my early morning thought!
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Nicholas Liu
Posted on Thursday, November 13, 2003 - 08:07 am:   

Eh! I thought it would follow naturally from an acknowledgement of subjectivity and whatnot. If what you say is true, I'm not really sure where I could've picked up this idea from, seeing as how I'm completely ignorant of developments in academia. That's the way things are when one's 18. . . well, at least it is for me.

Anyway, my opinion on this is that even though a story (or any other piece of art, but let's stick to stories for the moment) is really a dialogue between the writer and the reader—more accurately, a dialogue between the writer's words and the reader—it is still necessary for us to treat it as if it were a tangible, discoverable thing if we are to interact with it at all. One cannot sit down with a story and say to oneself, "Now, let me see what sort of dialogue I can have with this story." In order to have this dialogue, one must, paradoxically enough, ignore the idea of a dialogue and instead treat the story as if it were a pre-existing object to be unearthed. We must ask ourselves, "What does the writer mean by this sentence?", despite knowing on an intellectual level that the question is at heart fallacious. This attempted unearthing of an ultimately illusory objective meaning is the very form the dialogue takes, and it is for this reason that I think the concept of story-as-collaboration, while perhaps of philosophical significance, isn't really useful, nor its apparent implications practicable.

At least, that's my late night thought. ;) Of course I'm entirely unqualified to pontificate in this manner, but there you go.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Thursday, November 13, 2003 - 11:34 am:   

Nicholas: "It's quite a common as well as commonsensical idea, surely. It's also not an extraordinarily useful one.

As I re-read what I wrote about D/G's notions of (literary) production, I see how oversimplified an account I've given. My purpose in presenting D/G to this thread was more to recommend caution so that the two usages of "interstitial" didn't become horribly confused (as still often happens when literary and philosophical types go head-to-head over the word "realism").

But there is much more to D/G than I suggested above. Their notions of interstitiality do not stop at the reader-text-writer matrix, as those of someone like Stanley Fish might. D/G chase the idea to the grave of meaning, positing a world without Will, a world full of emergent phenomena. It's a scary place, and I frankly dislike it because it allows no room for ethics of any kind. So yes, there's more to D/G than a rather commonsensical idea (which is still strongly resisted by those who worship at the altar of Literary Genius).

As for the uselessness of notions of interstitial production of meaning, I disagree with you. I don't think we can understand textual production until we understand the role of the audience, among other factors. Successful writers respond to their audiences, which is as much as to say that successful audiences condition the production of text. If we still believe in the lonely genius scribbling away in the garret until he finds the key to unlock the mysteries of the human condition, well... shame on us.

Your claim that we finally must resort to authorial intention is too hasty, and it traps you into bad-faith situations, as you yourself recognize. There are many ways to hold a dialogue with the text which do not involve any form of mind-reading of the author. The text, after all, says what it says, regardless of what the author meant it to say. But what it says is open to interpretation.

Finally, to say that literary meaning is formed in the space opened up by the act of reading, is not to say stories are created collaboratively between readers and writers. The reader may have a hand in the production of meaning, but not in the production of the text itself. Except, of course, as that reader is synechdocally "the audience" for whom the writer produces his text.
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Gregory Frost
Posted on Friday, November 14, 2003 - 08:29 am:   

And this Just In:
http://www.observer.com/pages/publish.asp

Call for Papers

"Crossing Borders": Conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing

Lyons (France) 20-24 July 2004 Deadline : 30 November 2003

The twelfth annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) will be held in Lyons, France from Tuesday 20 July through Saturday 24 July, at the Ecole normale sup=E9rieure lettres et sciences humaines, one of the members of Institut d'Histoire du Livre. All through the year more details about transportation, accommodation, etc. will be available on the Institute's web site at http://ihl.enssib.fr/siteihl.php?page=3D=131&aflng=3D=3Den

The main topic of the conference will be "Crossing Borders": cultural transfers between the old and the new worlds, on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific. Presentations of European archival sources for the history of the book are also encouraged. As always, SHARP welcomes proposals for papers dealing with the creation, diffusion, or reception of the written or printed word in any place or historical period.

Proposals for individual papers and entire sessions are welcome. Each panel lasts ninety minutes and consists of three papers ; each paper should last a maximum of twenty minutes to allow for discussion. Proposals for individual papers, 400 words in length, should give the paper title, a short abstract (if possible in English and in French), and biographical identification of the scholar. Session proposals should include a cover sheet explaining the theme and goals of the session, with separate abstracts for each paper. Both proposals should indicate any audio-visual needs. Proposals by email preferred.

The conference languages will be English and French.

A limited number of travel grants will be available to PhD candidates now engaged in writing their theses, and to independent scholars those unaffiliated with institutions which normally support travel to conferences). If you wish to be considered for such a grant, please so indicate at the end of your proposal.

Submissions should be sent to :
Mr Dominique VARRY ENSSIB 17-21 boulevard du 11 novembre F-69623 Villeurbanne cedex Fax : +33 (0)4 72 44 27 88 Email :
varry.sharp@enssib.fr

For more information about SHARP and a link to the conference site, visit SHARP Web at http://sharpweb.org/
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Pat O'Connor
Posted on Wednesday, November 19, 2003 - 10:45 am:   

Hello, Neal.

To ask you to sharpen a comment you made on your Wednesday D/G post: taking D/G seriously, you say, involves eliminating the notion of Great Books by individual geniuses. Well and good, and I'm with you there.

In practice, it seems to me that D/G comment on a selection of the same authors that everyone else comments on: Kafka, Proust, Sade, Bataille. I grant you that they do so in different ways. (And I like what Deleuze did with Masoch while saying the same things about Sade that most other Rive-Gauche types said about Sade in the '60s.)

So: is a rhizomatic literary history actually going to have canon effects? Is it going to even bother with a canon? One of the practical problems that the practical members of the IAF return to is the question of pointing to individual works of art and saying, "That's interstitial": to what extent is it worthwhile doing such a thing? We're pretty much in agreement, I think, that insofar as "interstitial" is an effect of existing between categories, then as categories shift various artworks become, or cease to become, interstitial. Interstitial works, it would seem then, have the potential to complicate or disrupt literary history's business as usual. If positivist literary history is seen as a sequence of isms, one after the other, usually inaugurated by a Great Artwork (or a Momentous Event in History), then it is helpful when we find it impossible to place, say, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner or the dialogue novels of Thomas Love Peacock in what is supposed to be a serene history from Richardson to Fielding to Austen to Dickens.

So I return to the initial question: is there such a thing as a rhizomatic literary history, or an interstitial literary history? You can use interstitial books like Hogg or Peacock to criticize traditional histories: but can they form a history of their own? What kind of historical narrative does one tell using the quirky and funny books that don't fit? Do they always and only remain parasitic upon the Grand Narrative, or do they create oddly shaped subgenres not yet identified but, once identified, capable of some historical traction (the way, say, it took a while for the picaresque to be identified, and then someone like Bakhtin went back and found the roots of the picaresque well before 16th c. Spain, in Hellenistic romance and in Apuleius and Petronius)? None of us expect all interstitial fiction to offer interesting relationships to each other; but I think it would be exciting to look for groups and sequences that are tugging against a well-delimited category in the same way, and for the same reason, even if the works are unaware of each other or written in very different historical moments.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Wednesday, November 19, 2003 - 11:38 am:   

Hi, Pat,

Wow, good questions. To begin with, I think most contemporary literary historians, and certainly those like myself who work with print culture and the history of the book, understand that literary history is conventional and always partial, even when it isn't downright contrived. Put another way, the truest literary history is already a lie. The idea that we can take two writers as disparate as (e.g.) Joyce and Eliot, and join them together through some squinting notion of the Modern is, at its root, somewhat absurd. The effort lets us think in general ways about arbitrarily-grouped texts, but its truth-value is questionable at the best of times. What I like about the New Historicism, despite its self-created blind spots, is that it eschews -isms in favor of contexts.

Not to wander, I think this same contextual thinking could make a rhizomatic approach to literary history productive, so long as our understanding of the process continuously touched back on real processes of production. Unlike D/G, we have to remind ourselves that individual Will, however paranoid-fascist it may be, however culturally contingent its roots, is no less real for being so.

This is a new thought for me, mind you, so I'm working through it almost as I write: I normally run screaming from "rhizomatic structures" and "machinic assemblages," and the only "bodies without organs" I want to read about are those in a particularly gruesome horror story. D/G, as I said, leave me too little room for ethical thinking; you can't have ethics without individuality. But even as a new thought, this has got my wheels turning.

Let's see... What if, rather than looking for new -isms, we began looking more intently at cultural contexts: the state of a given market, the adjacencies of product to product and writer to writer, and even the TOCs of magazines and anthos upon which writers and editors comment extensively? We would have to admit up front that the real work of literature is too complex to map in anything that would fit in a Cambridge Companion, and THAT would probably doom the effort from the start. Even (especially?) in academia, most folks won't bother pursuing a thought that can't be added to the corpus of published works.

Okay, in a tentative attempt to sum up, I'd say that any honest literary history would have to be rhizomatic at its foundations. It would have to recognize that there is always more going on between and beneath categories than can be accounted for in any narrative history. In short, it would have to be able to account for those things it can't account for by its narrative nature. Impossible? Yes. And that's why, I think, even the best narrative literary histories have always been dissatisfying to those who read widely and deeply, and who think about literature as a field. You just can't catch everything in one net. Recognizing an urge to break out of categories, and putting some kind of theoretical understanding behind that urge, might indeed be an interesting way to approach literary history. Or it might be a disaster. :-)
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des
Posted on Wednesday, November 19, 2003 - 02:07 pm:   

Cutting through this. People who love fiction tend to love only fiction.
Back to the theorizing.
des
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AliceB
Posted on Wednesday, November 19, 2003 - 03:07 pm:   

des
Couldn't disagree more. But aren't we off topic? :-)
Alice
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Pat O'Connor
Posted on Wednesday, November 19, 2003 - 06:49 pm:   

What's that line from Voltaire that Schulz flipped around for Linus when he was being a pompous humanitarian? "I love people; it's Mankind that I can't stand."

So for people who are distrustful of what literary history (and marketing categories) does to the objects it studies: "I love stories; it's Fiction I can't stand."

I actually like stories so much that I like Fiction too. I also like Literature, which is Fiction after it's taken a shower and bought a new pair of shoes.

But, alas, that means I also like Literary History, when it's narrative, just as I like the New Historicists, when they're narrative. As soon as they start talking about fields, even when they may be perfectly in their rights to do so, I get nervous or (worse) a little bored.

When I think of the great precursors of the New Historicists, the practitioners of the New History in the '70s like Natalie Zemon Davis and Jonathan Spence and Robert Darnton and Carlo Ginzburg, what I love most is their ability to squeeze an incredible story out of the archives. Usually it's a story that complicates or refutes a preconceived notion of the intellectual and social history of a period, so it has a pedagogical virtue that goes beyond emoting over that poor little Chinaman in the 18th c. French insane asylum, or that wacky 17th c. Italian peasant that the Inquisition accused of being a heretic, or whatever.

There's some exciting play between Big Picture and Counter-Narrative in these books which probably does stroke some bourgeois side of me, reassuring me of the worth of individual lives, blah blah blah, and at that point Neal or some other Truer D/G Believer would no doubt be right in setting the Body Without Organs on me, like the big milky sphere which kept The Prisoner from escaping the island ("Vous etes Numero Six," Gilles et Felix ont dit. "Je ne suis pas un numero! " je repond. "Je suis un homme!")

But I don't want just counter-narratives, stories told strategically to attack the Big Pictures that pretend to be without -stices when we know perfectly well those fields are full of interstitial stuff. I want synthetic literary-historical narratives, that make odd and rickety units where you didn't expect to find them before.

Shamed by Terri Windling into consulting a book that's in my field, sort of, that I had never heard of, I got out of the library a book called The Fence and the River, Culture and Politics at the U.S.Mexico Border, by a woman named Claire F. Fox who at the time (1999) was an assistant professor of Spanish at Stanford. The book is short but well-made; it makes many references to contemporary art, but also has a lot of stuff about the different ways that the border has been figured in the past, especially in the reappearance of images from the late 19th century and from the era of the Mexican Revolution.

And at the very end the book goes a little gonzo: it summarizes works that hope to go beyond the border which have been written and performed by otherwise somewhat cynical, certainly post-modern performer-writers like Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco. Then it devotes as much time in the chapter to the Bordertown Series, some (very entertaining and quite smart) anthologies of collective fictions from the late '80s by Terri and Will Shetterly and Charles de Lint and Delia Sherman and Emma Bull and a bunch of other authors associated only with fantasy literature and not with U.S.-Mexico cultural poiitics.

The argument holds up, I think: Fox wants to argue that it is important for Americans to engage in thought experiments (e.g., read fictions) about life in a cultural contact zone in which we rational people are the ones bombarded with powerful magic objects, are victims of racisms and racializations, and in which the Other (Faerie) constantly gives off an air of sneering superiority, just as the Mexicans on the other side of our border must often endure these aspects of U.S. culture.

Two things kept bothering me after I read the chapter: Fox included a photo of someone dressed up as an elf at a fantasy convention, and it lowered the tone, y'know? I was surprised by how that visual triggered a snobbery in me that the argument itself did not. The second thing was that I tried to punch up Claire Fox's name at Stanford, and on the web, and in the MLA Directory, and she's not any of those places, and (although no doubt she has tenure somewhere on the strength of this book, and taking a well-earned breather from the MLA) I was filled with Dread about the consequences of crossing stylistic borders in academic prose, at least before you get tenure.

I clearly have too much time on my hands. I was just wondering if Neal knows any New Historicist books that do literary history (i.e., that are about literature, perhaps amply or transgressively defined) that retain a narrative flow even as they make surprising connections between canonical and non-canonical works, or jump unexpectedly from one kind of canonical work to another. I did an awful lot of work at one time on Walter Benjamin, and it's tempting to offer him as an example, in the way he made connections between the 17th c. (Calderon, Hamlet, and German Jesuit drama), and all the contemporary German expressionists and Brecht that he never names by name but you know are helping drive his argument. Is there anything else like that that you're using or can think of?
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Thursday, November 20, 2003 - 08:05 am:   

Pat, re: New Historicism. You've probably read the same books I have. If not, start with Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning, which describes his theory of cultural exchanges, and work outword from there. I'm not really a New Historicist, though print culture studies does touch New Historicism as several points.

If you want narrative, though, you could do much worse than Michael Denning's Mechanic Accents and David S. Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance, both of which tell a kind of historical narrative, twisting together the strands of popular and canonical literature and insisting on their interdependence. They also serve up some pretty cool factoids along the way, like the fact that Nathaniel Hawthorne's own son was appalled by his father's obsession with gruesome story-papers and city fictions. Also, Richard Brodhead's Cultures of Letters and Michael Warner's Letters of the Republic tell some fascinating stories. Then there's William Charvat's blissfully thin Literary Publishing in America, and James D. Hart's fascinating The Popular Book. Be advised that these are Americanist works, whereas New Historicism tends to concentrate its attention on Brit Lit, and especially the Early Modern period around the time of Shakespeare. You probably already knew that, so I'm mentioning it for the benefit of any interested lurkers out there.

Hart's book serves up some of the most fascinating stories about print culture you're likely to find, including accounts of people swarming onto American docks to get first crack at Sir Walter Scott's novels; people stealing entire printing plates from British publishers and smuggling them to America by fast ship to make pirate copies of popular novels days in advance of the authorized version's arrival; and the practice in the antebellum south of staging medieval tourneys in imitation of Ivanhoe. You've got to love this stuff!

I enjoy print culture works more than I enjoy New Historicism precisely because print culture and the history of the book gets away from the Foucauldian immanence of "forces" which taints New Historicism. In New Historicism, we're told that cultural exchanges are taking place. That's nice. But in print culture studies, we're shown Who is exchanging What with Whom, and at What Price. Very important, and something the Foucauldians miss. Theory is one of my passions, but I like to watch it land squarely in the world rather than hover around like a noble gas.

Finally, as far as Fox's book is concerned, while I haven't read it, I think I know what it's getting at from your account of it. My concern is that most accounts of cultural contacts have gotten their limbs tangled with the far less useful identity politics still fashionable in universities, to the extent that some theorists (and I'm not accusing Fox of this because I haven't read her work) have forgotten to look at the exchanges taking place at the center. They've become so obsessed with margins that they've given the game away. They want so badly to prove the paradoxical centrality of the fringe that they've left the Old Center (White Anglo-Saxon Literature) untouched. Bad move, IMO, and politically blinkered. Read Geoffrey Galt Harpham's Shadows of Ethics, and especially his concluding chapter, "Imagining the Center," for a more eloquent account of this problem (and some very well-constructed refutations of Homi K. Bhabha and Judith Butler).

What has this to do with interstitiality? Well, one of the things I've been trying to get at for a while on these threads is that I think there's more generic interstitiality going on inside the big standard marketing categories than outside them. When we spend too much time wondering about the hypothetical unclassifiable work, we leave the center to its own devices, and we miss a lot of very interesting generic goings-on. That's part of the reason I tried to complicate our understanding of "genre" early on, though I know I probably didn't make my point as clearly as I could have. The center is an interesting place, if we allow it to be.
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des
Posted on Thursday, November 20, 2003 - 08:41 am:   

Apologies for my off-topic intaglio above - but I was gaining the impression that 'academe' was indeed "obsessed with margins". The fruit of academic study of literature should be to simplify, not complicate. Academe should describe, then interpret, and hopefully evaluate (based on the former activities), the text and nothing but the text. Readers should surely just read the text and enjoy it. Fiction is for enjoyment. We need, I agree, the clean-limbed, clear-cut approach to the 'centre' - which is the fiction itself, uncluttered by culture and consideration of genres/marketing sectors etc. (as well as uncluttered by the text's imputed roots and other marginal extrapolations). So, as I said, those who love fiction, only love fiction. The music of fiction. The art of fiction. The sculpture of fiction. The semantics of fiction. We are the mind's-eye interstice that fiction's shorelines make into a white water river of imagination, vision and joy/sadness.
des
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Thursday, November 20, 2003 - 08:42 am:   

Neal,

Thanks for the Geoffrey Galt Harpham reference. I enjoy his writing and will look for The Shadow of Ethics.

You wrote:

"Well, one of the things I've been trying to get at for a while on these threads is that I think there's more generic interstitiality going on inside the big standard marketing categories than outside them."

Explanation and examples? I'm interested, but not sure what you mean.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Thursday, November 20, 2003 - 03:52 pm:   

Des -- The "fruit" of academic study of literature is to help us to explore and understand that literature more fully, not more simply. And if that means asking questions about what kinds of cultural work a text performs when it circulates, then that's what we do. Taking a New-Critical approach to the text as noumenon gets us no nearer to understanding how fiction really works as a thing in the world. It renders art far too precious and sacred for my tastes.

Dora -- I had the good fortune to take a Lit Theory class with Dr. Harpham a couple years ago. He is a frighteningly smart man who has no regard for unearned self-esteem. He loves literature, loves theory, and has a positive passion for no-holds-barred argument. His class was one of the most challenging and stimulating experiences of my academic life.

Re: interstitiality within and without major categories. I simply mean that the genre categories have more variety in them than some posters here are giving them credit for. So much so, in fact, that folks as diverse as David Brin, Robert Silverberg, Tananarive Due, Robert Reed, Greg Egan, Ursula LeGuin, and M. Shayne Bell can share space inside the covers of a Year's Best (YBSF 6). That's a lot of variety, and a lot of generic play. And that's only in Science Fiction. I'd love to hear what kinds of "interstices" could provide more variety than what we already have.
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Pat O'Connor
Posted on Thursday, November 20, 2003 - 08:32 pm:   

I haven't read Fox's book with the attention it deserves either, Neal. Alas, my worries about her current status in the university is because I fear that she didn't make *enough* gestures towards "the far less useful identity politics still fashionable in universities," as you put it.

As far as the center versus the margins, naturally, to a certain extent, Them's Fightin' Words to any academic who isn't teaching 20th.c.fiction written in English by Nobel Prize winners: anything less than that can be considered, on some level, marginal (and no doubt there are days when Toni Morrison still feels marginal, or J.M.Coetzee; how must the Portuguese winner Jose Saramago feel, then, let alone someone who studies the novel in the turn of the century in the Philippines?). I definitely look from time to time towards people in nearby fields, like Michael Warner (whose 18th.c.Am.lit work I haven't read, only the queer theory stuff) with a certain amount of envy, knowing that Fear of a Queer Planet is more central than any work I'll ever write on queer issues in Latin American literature, simply because his field is American, not Latin American. But then I look sideways to my colleagues who write books on Spaniard exiles in Mexico after the Civil War, or gaucho poetry and the construction of national identity in 19th c. Argentina, and I figure, well, they must think I'm more central than they are. I don't worry for books on U.S.Mexican border politics too much.

In that sense you are very right to couch your argument as a warning to theorists, rather than to scholars and interpreters. You say of some bad theorists that "They want so badly to prove the paradoxical centrality of the fringe that they've left the Old Center (White Anglo-Saxon Literature) untouched. Bad move, IMO, and politically blinkered." Of course it's interesting to see what happened, not in theory but in praxis, back in the '80s when Stanford [oh my, the same institution that hired Claire Fox --Claire, are you out there in cyberspace? We hardly know you, but we haven't forgotten you!] replaced Moby Dick with Rigoberta Menchu's testimonio in a single course which they required for students. That decision became a cause celebre, manipulated certainly by the right and to a certain extent by the left.

It's relevant to bring this up in the context of this conversation not because of whatever Lynn Cheney on the right or Toni Morrison on the multi-cultural left said about this decision, but because of the representatives of the Old Center, who called themselves liberals, like Arthur Schlesinger. They said, Well, if you're teaching it right, Moby Dick is indeed a subversive work, and it can teach a skepticism towards conservative values. I happen to agree with this. It's also a hard book to read properly, and sooner or later students need to learn how to read hard books.

But when the chips are down, I'd still prefer that students in required freshman survey courses be reminded of the history and politics of the Third World, and I was at least a little shocked that so-called liberals had such a tin ear for the work that a book like Menchu's could and should be doing in a liberal education. It can't decenter the notion that formally complex verbal artifacts carrying (but also subverting (but also carrying) large amounts of Western cultural capital help make the central central. Rigoberta Menchu can't decenter that: it isn't a formally complex verbal artifact in that way.

It's got a different sort of job to do in a student's liberal education, which is about marginality; for completely different reasons it's a hard book to read, too, and is (if taught properly, which is made a bit easier now that a rather self-serving anthropologist has written a whole book contrasting Menchu's account of her life and Guatemalan milieu with other sorts of sources about Guatemalan political struggles in the '80s) about how a voice in the margin has to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to make it into the center, even the wimpy little center that is one required course at Stanford, and in order to become one of the required canonical texts for Spanish Ph.D. students cheek by jowl with García Márquez and Octavio Paz and other Nobel Prizewinners (even though hers was for Peace, not for Literature).

Dear me, way off topic of interstitiality. One of the points I hear you making, which I like a lot, is that to be at the margin of power is not the same as being at the margin of a concept, or a genre, or a form. Authors in the center of power can actually be working at the edge of concepts, genres, forms. I bet it's probably easier to work those edges if you have an unproblematic access to power.

One of the funny things in your argument is the way that power sometimes means structures of domination (WASPs, New England over the Southwest) and sometimes it means being well positioned in the publishing field, having a loyal readership. You've mentioned anthologies and tables of contents: you've made me think about Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon and Peter Straub (and the IAF's own Terri and Kelly-n-Gavin), sort of in a descending chain of anthological being from the canon-setters and taste-makers of the fiction edition of The New Yorker, and the Norton Anthologies and the Pulitzer Committees.

[Do these people and their jobs form a quasi-fascistically hierarchical tree, or should we think of them rhizomatically? You're right that it would be a good idea to see how these people are picked for their jobs, and other practicaly history-of-the-book issues. And D/G would no doubt be right to say that if everyone refuses to climb the ladder to get to the top, then the top ceases to be the top; a person could think that way in the '60s more easily than nowadays.]

We're on the Academic thread. Is there something specific about canon-making in the U.S. Academy that makes room for (or excludes) interstitial works of literature, in a different way than mainstream and avant-garde presses make room for (or exclude) interstitial works of literature?

Since you and Dora do 19th c., and I do Latin America, one way we might think about to answer that question is "the long ago and far away." Far Away: I find it easier to get copies of books and films made in Latin America, for instance, than to keep up on theater in Latin America, which doesn't travel so often or so well. Long Ago: Likewise, are there 19th c. phenomena which it takes more scholarly work to bring under canonical scrutiny than novels, verse, and other literature easier to preserve? What material in your fields do you wish you could bring into the present of intellectual scrutiny?

Flip Side: Up Close and Personal. Although it's typical to say that academia is more comfortable dealing with a work that's settled down and gotten established over the years, nevertheless in my field there have been such things as "Instant Classics!" (I'm thinking primarily of One Hundred Years of Solitude; but I'm also thinking about my experience reading Alan Moore's The Watchmen graphic novel.) In your lifetime and in your experience as readers, indeed, as Academically Trained readers, has a book just leaped out at you and said, "I want to be canonical, I deserve to be canonical, and you want to canonize me right here in the bookstore!"?
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des
Posted on Thursday, November 20, 2003 - 11:15 pm:   

Neal: Taking a New-Critical approach to the text as noumenon gets us no nearer to understanding how fiction really works as a thing in the world. It renders art far too precious and sacred for my tastes.
**************
That's fair enough, of course. And in the spirit of this thread I'm enjoying the points made. I studied English Literature and Stylistics at University in the late sixties, so perhaps I'm a creature of my times. ;-) des

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Nicholas Liu
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 06:46 am:   

I have to say I'm very interested, Des, by how you don't seem to do much theorising (on this board and others) despite having a background that would seem to equip you well for this purpose. Why's this? Honest (and somewhat off-topic, sorry) question.
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des
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 07:49 am:   

Thanks, Nicholas, for the question on this thread (!) - but I suppose I was steeped in the business of not theorizing by my teachers at University at that time (66-69), whereby we studied linguistics, history of language, transformational grammar, stylistics as well as real books (like TS Eliot, EM Forster, James Joyce etc etc.). For example, I recall writing a huge essay about a single paragraph of DH Lawrence (its phonemes, sememes, the sculpture of the insect ranks of its text, clause structures etc) -- and that is not really 'theorizing'. I suppose the nearest I got to theorizing was WK Wimsatt's book The Verbal Icon (about the Intentional and Affective Fallacies). It seems a much cleaner business. All you have is the text. The rest is logically unknowable and misleading. Nothing sacred or mumbo-jumbo about it, as Neal implied, I think!
I suppose this *is* on-topic, because it is about academe, and this is one aspect of academe - and possibly has just as much bearing (and arguably more bearing) on 'interstiality', 'the third alternative' or 'groovepunk' as some of the very erudite posts above (which I'm enjoying).
des
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 09:29 am:   

Des -- Not to be contrarian, but what you describe is formalism, and formalism is theory. Wimsatt and Beardsley were formalists, along with William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, R. S. Crane, Wayne Booth, and a host of others. They had a lock on the American academic scene for decades. Their brand of theory was later challenged by the structuralists, feminists, Marxists, and everyone else who came down the pike. Even so, no one -- and I do mean no one -- escapes formalist theory in school. (Nor should they, as formalism provides some unique tools for critically thinking about literature. One of my biggest problems with the recent Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism is that it under-represents the formalists, both Russian and American.) Formalism has been so much a part of everyone's academic training for the past sixty years of American/British history that it has achieved the status of background radiation; it's there, but we don't always know it for what it is -- theory. The notion that the artwork is sufficient unto itself (your "noumenon") is one of the most hotly contested aspects of formalist theory.

If you haven't already done so, I suggest you take a look not only at some of the formalists I've mentioned above, but also at some of the better non-formalist theorists and critics (who also concern themselves with "real" books). Grab a copy of David H. Richter's The Critical Tradition from a library shelf and dig in. Enjoy! A lot has happened since 1969.
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des
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 09:46 am:   

yes, Neal, I read a book called The Russian Formalists around that time. Purity rampant! Yes, it's a theory as you say, but a logical uncluttered theory (in retrospect from the vantage ppoint of nearly 40 years since I studied these matters) that can, in my eyes, receive no logical riposte - a theory that leads ineluctably to the act (almost a sense of non-theory) of simply reading texts for what they are. The trouble is at University I had the by-lines cluttering the text (eg. 'DH Lawrence'). With a reading of Nemonymous (if I may be so bold), for the first time in literary history (in 2001), you don't even have *that* clutter within a multi-authored anthology! This must be an inevitable consideration for Interstitiality (as understand the term) at least to address?? des
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 10:09 am:   

Pat -- You've given me a lot to think about, and I doubt I can address all your points in one post, so I'll confine myself to a couple of points and hope we can get back to the others later.

When I speak of center versus margin in theory, I'm not taking issue with the expansion of the canon. I think it should be the job of academia to expand our understanding of what literature means (and what kinds of work it does in the world), as well as to bring worthwhile authors in from the cold, whatever their place of origin, etc.

Nor do I have reservations about the usefulness of looking at how literature operates in areas of cultural contact and contestation. These things deserve attention, to be sure.

What I do have a problem with is the kind of cynical appropriation of culture we see in Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?," and the oversimplified view of power structures it breeds. We admit that the subaltern cultures have no voice with which to speak to "power," however we construe that term. We lament that the subaltern's cultural "meanings" are dictated from on high, and this is a bad thing. Then we turn right around and absolve ourselves for "strategically" essentializing a people we don't even really know? And for what? Liberatory ends? What a crass and unconvincing paradox! Have we forgotten the problems we had with Machiavelli when we were undergraduates? Has Realpolitik come back into vogue, and in academia no less? Do we suddenly feel that we can "free" a people from oppression by electing ourselves their interpreters and stopping our ears to what little voice they have? Appalling.

Canon expansion and allied pluralisms are not like Spivak's brand of outreach. Both are inclusive, certainly, but only the former is pluralist. The former says to us: "People are speaking. Listen harder." The latter says: "People are mute. Behold! I am come the Paraclete." It is a cynically normative/interpretive gesture which, at its base, must recognize that non-central peoples are only of political value to us if they conform to what we expect them to be; as soon as they begin to diversify, they lose their value as a class. But it is the natural tendency of people to diversify at least as much as to coalesce. So people like Spivak feel obliged to essentialize, just as the sloppier feminist theorists felt it necessary to smoothe over the rough spots in female experience in order to elect themselves the voice of womankind, and just as the sloppier Marxists sometimes represent American working classes through a British or German lens. This kind of thing never works well for the folks being thus (mis)interpreted.

Whew. On to other things.

You mention "structures of domination" in my arguments about the center. I'm not sure I would use that term, myself. It sounds a little too Althusser for me. Part of what I'm trying to argue is that the center, however we define it, is always-already at war with itself. There is no steady-state core in any culture to which we can point and say, "See? That's the normal state of this culture." Rather, cultures are always aggregates, and only a statistician can look at them and see one thing: the rest of us should rightly see a mosaic. This is not to say, for example, that trends in literature are not heavily influenced and guided by those who control publishing. Nor is it to say that there are no repressively normative forces at work in any society, squeezing out or squeezing in those who lie outside what is acceptable. I just like to be able to put my hands on a thing before calling it real, and I resist paranoid notions of hovering normative forces. Those forces are composed of real people with real power, and they are always historically and culturally contingent, shifting, and contested.

I know I've skipped over your post like a stone across a pond. There's just so much more to say.

I'll conclude with an answer to your final question. Have I ever read a book and known right away I wanted it in the canon? Sure. Don DeLillo's Mao II. It's simply one of the smartest books I've ever read, and an amazing comment on the fate of the artist in mass culture. DeLillo's characters, including a writer and a photographer, leap off the page and drive home some very powerful ideas without being heavy-handed or overtly symbolic of anything. Also, anyone interested in how one kind of interstitiality can work in print would do well to read this novel. Not only does the text play with concepts of the place of art in a mass-media society, but it intersperses itself with photographs chosen by DeLillo to be part of the message of the book. Truly an astonishing and nourishing novel.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 01:03 pm:   

Des -- There is nothing "almost...non-theory" about formalism. You're just comfortable with it. And the work of the academy for over fifty years served to make sure generations of Americans were also comfortable with it, until it became a set of unexamined cultural assumptions. That's why the work of the non-formalist critics of the 1960s was met with such outrage and hostility: people want desperately to believe that their assumptions are the truth and don't need examining. As for formalism admitting of no logical riposte, perhaps you should do some more reading. There has been no end to the ripostes which have left palpable marks on formalism in the last twenty to thirty years. It's mostly inertia and good old American anti-intellectualism that's kept formalism firmly entrenched for all this time. Give Americans an opportunity to oversimplify and disgregard something, and by golly, they just might take you up on it.

Note that I'm not slamming the formalists! They gave us close reading, for god's sake. Besides which, I almost chose Early British as my historical field, and you just can't do Early Brit without being a little bit formalist. Add to that, I happen to think William Empson one of the most engaging critics of his generation, and I even enjoy Cleanth Brooks. The world would be a more boring place without the New Critics and the Russian Formalists.
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des
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 01:40 pm:   

Fiction = Text (incontravertible fact).
(except for the blank story in Nemonymous~2!).

Biography, History, Literary Criticism = Opinions, Environmental factors, extrapolations (interesting in themselves.)


des
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des
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 01:50 pm:   

Some stray tangents of mine from early 2001:
http://www.dowse.com/articles/A-CULTURE-WITH-NO-CLUTTER.html

More brainstorming than theorising!
des
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 02:59 pm:   

Des,

I myself love close reading--I think that all good lit crit is grounded in close reading, and currently I'm using a lot of feminist psychoanalytic theory. But I also think that while fiction may equal text, meaning equals a whole lot more. If you just have the text, divorced from not only the assumptions about the world and the history informing it but also from the assumptions about the world and history informing your own understanding (that "you" is general, not personal), then I think it is nearly impossible to make meaning out of it. New Criticism, as I understand it, held that all that was necessary to understanding meaning was the text itself. I disagree. Whether I study/analyze the other paraphernalia that creates meaning (when I do my scholarly work) or simply bring my own context to bear (when I read for pleasure), the text cannot create meaning on its own.

Interestingly, I do not think that New Criticism itself was divorced from political influence. As I understand it, and I may be mistaken, it rose to prominence in the field of lit-crit during the days leading up to, during, and after McCarthyism, when professors were required to sign pledges of patriotism etc. I have a professor who remembers having to do that. So adopting a theory of how to read that explicitly disavowed the exploration of any connection to the world of politics/history did two things: a) safeguarded professors and b) allowed said professors to continue studying and teaching radical texts w/o being penalized for it because, hey, it's got nothing to do w/anything subversive (yes, I know I rejected that word, but hey, I wanna use it here)--it's just reading.

I love formalism, and I've read enough of the work that came before New Criticism to understand its revolutionary-ness. As I said, I think literary criticism that isn't grounded in close reading of texts isn't really lit crit--it becomes philosophy or anthropology or sometimes just crap--but I don't think that it's any more authentic or disinterested than any other tool or criticism.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 07:50 pm:   

Veronica -- I second your cheer for close reading. I got into this career track because I love stories -- all kinds of stories, from Conan to Waiting for Godot and beyond. When I'm reading a text closely, I am reminded why I am one of the most fortunate sons-of-bitches on the planet. I'm being paid (very little) for doing what I would eagerly do in my spare time.

Des -- "Fiction = Text(incontrovertible fact)" = gratuitous assertion, backed up by nothing but "Opinions." If all we need is the text, then why stop at doing away with the writer's name? Hell, do away with the writer! The "art-thrust" should be able to find a way around that little inconvenience, surely. The reader will follow the writer, as night follows day, and we won't have to worry about marketing or economics or culture or any of those other opinions. Why not do away with everything but the notion of Text in the Ideal? It would certainly simplify literature, not to mention saving huge amounts of time, labor, printer's ink, and paper.

You see where formalism takes us, when unmitigated? Right down the wrong hole. Literature is a thing in the world, and as such, it is subject to the same kinds of scrutiny as any other thing in the world. It performs cultural work; it is produced by people influenced by their placement in history, geography, gender, ethnicity, and all those other factors the New Critics found declasse; it is interdependent upon the field of possible literatures at any given moment and in any given place; it is in no way a noumenon. That is a pipe-dream of Platonists and reactionary politicians.

There's your logical riposte to formalism, by the way.
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des
Posted on Saturday, November 22, 2003 - 12:37 am:   

I simply treat literature as I do music. Your 'logical riposte' is an opinion. Mine is a an equation. Fiction = Text. That is incontravertible. What you take from (or give to) the text is, then, opinion. The *nearer* one gets to the noumenon, the nearer one gets to the core of the text (unmixed with unknowable facts) = my opinion. I agree the noumenon is impossible.

It's all question and degree of taste, temperament, intellect, spirituality, profession etc. -- leading from above equation.
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des
Posted on Saturday, November 22, 2003 - 02:09 am:   

Btw, I think it is highly dangerous to import politics into a discussion of Aesthetics, especially if you are offensively associating my views with some descriptions above.

If anything I'm apolitical, but if I try to examine and interpret my actions and thoughts over my life time, then I'd probably come to the conclusion that I'm some sort of liberal socialist.
des
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, November 22, 2003 - 05:04 am:   

All right, I'm dropping this one; we're getting exactly nowhere. Saying a thing fifty-one times makes it no truer than it was the fiftieth time we said it, and I'd rather not play tug-of-war.

Just to ease your mind, though, Des, I wasn't thinking of you in terms of "reactionary politicians." I wouldn't presume to guess your politics. I was thinking of you in terms of "Platonists," a categorization your statement about the impossibility of achieving the noumenon (Ideal Text) confirms.
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des
Posted on Saturday, November 22, 2003 - 06:02 am:   

yes, I like being called a Platonist! :-)

OK, my final position, which has changed during the course of this discussion (thanks!) is as follows.

Three discrete equations:

(1) Fiction = Text

(2) What can be taken from (or given to) the text = reader's 'opinion' or 'reaction' (manifold opinions and reactions, all different).

(3) The nearer one is able to reach towards the noumenon of the text, the more one can shuffle off the variably misleading and unknowable historical, biographical, critical, academic extrapolations from the text = my opinion.
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des
Posted on Saturday, November 22, 2003 - 06:22 am:   

Sorry, last last word: I call the gestalt of those 3 equations: 'Noumenymity' (not Interstitiality or Formalism or even Groovepunk).
Sorry to clutter up the thread. Back to you extrapolations from academe. ;-) Des
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Delia Sherman
Posted on Saturday, November 22, 2003 - 11:27 am:   

Des--Don't know if you know this (and indeed, why should you?) but officially, the Interstitial Arts Foundation (of which this board is a lively part) is not a movement or an "ism" or proscriptive in its definitions. We're supposed to be an umbrella organization that provides a place for Noumenists, Slipstreamers, and Platono-Derridadaoids to trade ideas and maybe come up with some they hadn't thought of before. It's not a cult, it's a houseparty.

Not being a theorist of any stripe (although I'd probably have gone with New Historicism, had it been invented when I was in graduate school--I'm a great fan of the Annalistes, whose books were very useful to me when I was researching PORCELAIN DOVE) I will go back to lurking now.

Delia
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des
Posted on Saturday, November 22, 2003 - 11:35 am:   

delia: an umbrella organization that provides a place for Noumenists, Slipstreamers, and Platono-Derridadaoids to trade ideas
*******
great stuff! Be there, or be square!

des
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Saturday, November 22, 2003 - 02:28 pm:   

Des,

Not sure if your above comment about offensively associating you w/certain political views had to do w/my post. If it did, please know that in no way did I intent to suggest that you held any type of political views at all. I was just trying to contextualize the rise of New Criticism; whether or not I agree w/a given position has so little to do with whether that position succeeds. Some really terrifically bad ideas have caught on like wildfire (Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire) and some wonderful ones have flopped (Frank's Place). I wanted to outline some of the factors that may have contributed to New Criticism's rise to prominence and hegemony in the academy until, oh, the beginning of the 1970s.

And if your comment didn't refer to my post, well, then, never mind.
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des
Posted on Sunday, November 23, 2003 - 01:00 am:   

Yes and no, Veronica. But no matter. I see now that none of the above posts were *intended* to cast aspersions.

Incidentally, your "I'm using a lot of feminist psychoanalytic theory" -- have you read any of that voluminous 'feminist counselling' material based on the (brilliant) ghost story: THE YELLOW WALLPAPER (Charlotte Perkins Gilman??) ?
Des
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Pat O'Connor
Posted on Sunday, November 23, 2003 - 02:44 pm:   

Hi, Neal.

I've actually read surprisingly little Spivak, so I can't chase you there, except to say that she's someone whose tone (of harsh superiority) tends to overpower her argument (of various solidarities). Tant pis, but it might mean that one ought to return to her arguments.

I too agree that "the center, however we define it, is always-already at war with itself." But (as one has been painfully aware for this last year) the way that the center is at war with itself doesn't always prevent it from having the force to be at war with others. Depending on one's project as a scholar, it might be more worthwhile to see how the center negotiates with the margins, or how the conflictive center negotiates with itself.

Culture is very different from Bush's foreign policy, of course, and culture-in-general is very different from the IAF writers' (differing) views of centers and margins in fiction in the world. There might be certain analogies worth pursuing, I guess: A loud public brouhaha over whether to pursue a right-wing or an even-further-right-wing policy in the US might have the secondary effect of giving the impression that left-wing opinions are no longer even conceivable. In one analogy, then, a conflicted cultural center in which debates are over who's right, Jonathan Franzen ("highbrow") or Oprah ("middlebrow"), might freeze out other voices who want to claim that theirs is the true highbrow, or the true middlebrow, or that they transcend such a distinction.

I remember in the early '80s how the debate between the new minimalists (Carver-Ford) and the new decadents (McInerney-Easton Ellis) left me frustrated because I didn't like either of them, and it wasn't until Rushdie and Carter and Helprin coalesced in my mind to form a counterpoint to that debate that I thought that there was anything really exciting in new fiction. (And not even all Helprin, as it turned out; but yes, all Angela Carter, down to the book reviews.)

I've had DeLillo's Mao II on my shelves in six different apartments for the last nine years without having read it; I'll get back to you on him one of these days. You're right, he's a great example of an author whose books began on the margins, and who in some sense is now part of the center that is in conflict with itself. (When we shift the conversation from literary culture to Culture-in-General, of course by definition anyone who writes art novels is in conflict with a culture of non-readers.)

If DeLillo got to this position a little sooner than others, it's partly because he has always found a way to be talking about the public sphere. DeLillo is fortunate to always have that need as part of his imaginative project: there are great books being written, comfortably within genres and uncomfortably, interstitially, which don't take on What It Means to Be American, and therefore they are less likely to be part of the History of American Literature, for better or for worse. (I was very surprised at the early works of Margaret Atwood, which I went back to after reading her more Public-Culturey speculative fiction The Handmaid's Tale: the genre of dystopian fiction really let Atwood talk about North America in the '80s while her previous novels were well-made domestic fictions that didn't take on public culture in any way.)

I just wanted to remind you that the conflicts of an always-already conflicted center aren't the only possible conflicts on the field, but I knew you already knew that.

Anyway: on a theoretical level, we have in 2003 a few strata of vocabulary to describe stuff that doesn't fit (or that is internally contradictory) :

the formalists gave us a lot of genre labels, so we can often describe a work of art as a combination of unexpected genres;

psychoanalytic criticism gave us the concept of repression and a whole bunch of other ideas for talking about how a subject can be at cross-purposes with itself or fail to cohere in a whole;

for quite a while certain Marxist critics have tried to claim that class conflict frequently expresses itself in the failure of artworks to achieve literary forms;

deconstruction hit the US academy, and a whole industry of critics popped up to show that an artwork or philosopher's work didn't succeed in resolving certain kinds of contradictions;

meanwhile, thanks to Foucault and Jameson, not-quite-Marxist approaches to discourse and culture tended to show that documents usually did more work than previous moments of the past could contain, and social energies circulated through surprising cracks and produced unexpected effects;

meanwhile again, the sociological approach was expanded across the race-class-gender trio, each of which got more complex as spokesperson, first for the disadvantaged of the categories (blacks, poor, women) then for exceptions within these sociological categories (mixed-race Americans; bohemians and other class fragments; gays and lesbians, then queers) produced both critiques of the structures of domination, and defenses of their own anti-categorical world-views:

Whew. That's a lot of -stices to be inter-.

Do IAF writers and readers prefer some of these vocabularies over others, not just for reasons of personal history but rather rooted in their (different but overlapping) projects?

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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Monday, November 24, 2003 - 08:59 am:   

Pat -- Your comment, "That's a lot of -stices to be inter-," highlights for me the difficulties an interstitial approach to literature -- any literature -- is bound to face. Leaving aside for the moment those marketing categories whose overlap and disjunction I think best set the stage for a profitable encounter with so-called interstitiality, we are still faced not only with a bewildering (and exciting because bewildering} range of definitions predicated not only upon the formalist understanding of genres, but also upon later theorists' methods of encountering those genres and the work they do. (Whew, that was a long sentence! I feel so eighteenth-century.)

Your brief survey of literary theory is well-placed in this discussion, not because working writers necessarily give a tinker's damn (e.g.)
what a psychoanalytic critic thinks of the Return of the Repressed in P. K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, or what a Deleuzian has to say about involuntary erotic assemblages in Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, but because it demonstrates the range of ways we have of thinking about literature and of punching little or gigantic holes through and between categories. Paradoxically, because your survey demonstrates by its very plenitude how much was left unadressed by the New Critics, it also points toward possible lacunae remaining to be filled in by new ways of thinking about letters -- ways the IAF might encourage folks to work out for themselves, despite that organization's not being a primarily theoretical organization.

Moving on...

I understand your misgivings about a shift back to the conflicted center, whether that be a political center, as in the world-affairs examples you cite, or a literary center more focused on genre-category approaches to textual identity. And you're right that there is much to be gleaned from investigating the center's -- any center's -- negotiations with its margins. I hope my post didn't give the impression this was lost on me. I am only concerned that, in the rush to co-opt (and not to understand, but to possess for political-academic gain) marginal voices, scholars are rendering the central voices smooth and untroubled. There's a Derridean thing going on here, if I could put my finger on it. I'll give it a try...

In order to claim there is a Center at war with our pet margins, we must confer more coherence and unity of purpose upon that Center than it has any right to possess. In doing that, we build a myth of the Center, and this myth seems to validate our liberatory claims, when in fact, if we returned from time to time and demonstrated that there exists not One Center, but many centers, we could break down this myth of monolithic central cultural authority to the benefit of all concerned.

This is not to say there are not unexamined cultural commonplaces at work in any process of value distinction. Clearly there are. Some things are considered normal, while other things are deviant. And this assumption of normal/deviant leads sometimes to tragic results, from the suppression of same-sex marriage to wars on foreign cultures. So yes, I recognize that there is something like momentum/intertia in cultural commonplaces. But when the chips are down, I prefer thinking of political (and cultural) structures more in terms of floating aggregates than of calcified blocs. The former permit me to imagine what Donna Haraway refers to as "strategic alliances," while the latter give the image of a perpetual game of tug-of-war.

What has all this to do with the writing, publishing, and reading? It asks us, I think, to spend at least a little of our time examining those works against which we oppose our "interstitial" candidates. It asks us to investigate the ad hoc category of the "mainstream," looking for nasty little holes. It asks us how such diverse works as Patrick McCabe's intensely Gothic and unapologetically ethnic work of psychological realism, The Butcher Boy, could possibly rest comfortably in the same category with Robert Coover's experimental anti-erotic novella, Spanking the Maid, or any of Raymond Carver's works of quotidian minimalism. It directs our attention, in short, to the ways in which the big categories already contain their own constellations of interstitial works. If we grant this, then working to spotlight interstitial works outside the big categories begins to beg the question.

Briefly, before I go, I'd like to concede that the conflicts taking place within the center(s) are not the only conflicts. True enough. Centers are, by their nature, normative, and sometimes aggressively so. But I have to ask how many border wars, both in literature and in culture generally, are being fought because we want to imagine our opposition as Goliath and ourselves as righteous Davids. While I know it's not a popular direction in which to take any discussion, I am forced to ask whether we've paid any attention to the ways in which we're portraying whatever opposition we range ourselves against. This, I think, should be the first order of business, before any sniffing-about for casus belli.
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Monday, November 24, 2003 - 12:51 pm:   

Here's something that I've been thinking a lot about. It's academia-specific, but not about any of the issues that we've been discussing so far.

What about those of us who don't fall into the pre-designated fields for scholars? Not just those who do interdisciplanary work, but work within disciplines as well. For example, my department at Penn is incredibly attached to historical periods and geography as a means of categorizing scholars. This means that even though if asked, I would say that I work on 20th-century non-realism and feminism, and I would include James Joyce in that, I get categorized as 20th-century, and that's fine, until they ask American or British. Because I don't see any reason in the late 20th/early 21st century to make that distinction for my work. It's not like American and British writers don't read each other left right and center these days, is it? In some ways I get around that by saying I do women's writing (although even then I get asked American or British), but then what do I do about the fact that I work on James Joyce and Terry Pratchett, because I think that they address important issues of gendered subjectivity and revision?

How does this sort of thing play out on the job market? In other schools?

What about interstitiality in the academy itself?
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Monday, November 24, 2003 - 03:43 pm:   

Veronica, while there are many good reasons for the periodicity-geography nexus (preventing universities from becoming dumping grounds for one-issue flakes, for example), as far as grad students are concerned, it's all about marketability. You can do transatlantic work all you like (I argue you can't do non-transatlantic work after 1700 and still have any idea how literature works}, but you'll be hired either for British or for American Lit. In most cases, at least.

My thinking about so-called academic interstitiality is that it might feed an interesting dissertation, if that's your passion and you can get it approved by a committee, but you're not likely to be hired as anything outside the major categories recognized by universities -- that most likely means the old periodicity-geography nexus, or Linguistics. This needn't be stifling. The woman who taught my first courses in both literary theory and women's literature was a Brit Mod specialist. That's what she was hired for, and that's what she usually teaches in graduate seminars. Besides which, a key concern of any exam committee, dissertation topic notwithstanding, is the breadth and depth of a PhD candidate's reading within a tradition; that's kind of hard to manage if we're studying something that doesn't have a broad, deep tradition.

But please don't take my word for this. Your best resource is the MLA Job Market publication, which will give you a good cross-section of what universities are hiring for. Be advised there's no guarantee those same jobs will be wanted when you finish your dissertation and go on the market, though they are more likely to be needed if you stick with -- once again -- the periodicity-geography nexus. That's why so many instructors advise students to steer clear of trendy academic niches. "Going into Postcolonial Anglophone Lit? Hot topic today. Good luck finding a job in five years when your diss is complete." That sort of thing...

Of course, being hired as a 20th/21st century Brit Lit person doesn't preclude you from eventually teaching a 20th/21st century American course, once you've published around in Am Lit journals. You might get shot dead in the hallway by the Americanist you're displacing, but that's the academy for you.
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Pat O'Connor
Posted on Tuesday, November 25, 2003 - 08:34 am:   

Hi, Neal and Veronica.

I think you've definitely found a compromise way to describe what we both think on the matter of centers and margins, Neal. Even if, when we got down to cases, we might disagree about whether a particular critical or theoretical intervention is managing these issues correctly, I think we would be looking for the same things in the intervention in question. I especially like the phrase, "the ad hoc category of the 'mainstream.''"

In my own critical practice, I relish the moments when I genuinely forget that something or other is mainstream, when I can get beyond envy or denunciation, to a sincere puzzlement: "Why on earth do so many people respond to *that*?" I might add that this doesn't necessarily take the power of the central away. I have an absolutely dead spot about patriotism, for example --I don't feel it, I don't get, it literally has no power over my mind. But just because it doesn't have any power over my mind, I still have to see presidents get elected on the basis of their appeals to it. Of course, every so often our personal disaffection from something matches everyone else's disaffection, and then governments go poof, as so many of the Communist regimes discovered --although this was a poof that was, arguably, over fifty years in the making.

In literature, center-margin in the world of print depends, I suppose, on sales, which is directly associated with money, and on that odd thing "prestige," which is indirectly associated with money. In America the academy is only secondarily associated with prestige; prestige is primarily conferred on a literary work by a hierarchy of literary magazines which publish and review your work. (As far as I know, no on-line venue for publishing actual fiction is as prestigious as, say, The Sewanee Review or any of the other established literary magazines --someone please correct me if I'm wrong on that-- and the only on-line journals that contribute to the giving of prestige to a literary work are Salon and Slate, in part because their founders have come from the mainstream press and they have assiduously courted that audience and demographic.) But I suspect I'm just making explicit what everyone already knows.

Veronica, as for an interstitial academic project, there is hope. The absolutely best hope is that a great small institution will want a generalist, and/or that your mix of fields will catch the attention of an ambitious department that wants to build bridges to other departments.

Some of these cross-disciplinary fields are almost traditional in their requests. Since no medium-sized department ever has more than one specialist in Spanish history, and most Renaissance Europeanists know nothing about Spain and most 20th c. European political historians know nothing about Spain, it is absurdly common for an historian who specializes in Golden Age Spain to teach courses about the Spanish Civil War, and vice versa.

In many medium-sized departments, women's literature is almost a field unto itself because it is uninteresting to a generation of older scholars, and they will be happy to indiscriminately hand over to you Djuna Barnes and Jean Rhys and Willa Cather and Kate Chopin. (Sometimes they will want to keep Woolf, or Wharton, for themselves.) Nevertheless, your fears are relatively well grounded: at the U of Chicago we did a bunch of job searches in Spanish, and I remember in particular three dossiers that were, to my mind, outstanding, but which did not fit into any categories that I could convince my colleagues that we could use, or, I feared, into categories anyone else could use. I don't know what happened to the career of the most uncategorizable, a Comp Lit dissertation on the motif of the pan-pipe as a metaphor for the pastoral, from Callimachus through Góngora through Keats to (I think) Sexton (or maybe Plath). But the other two made it: an important Argentine woman poet with very little formal critical background named Maria Negroni is now teaching at Sarah Lawrence, and the Duke Ph.D. who wrote about science and travel writings by the English explorers in Argentina (including Charles Darwin) as a contribution to definitions of nineteenth-century Argentine nationhood, is on a tenure track at Champaign-Urbana.

I go into such detail to show you you that anti-realism in mostly-women's lit across England and America in the 20th c. isn't that much of a stretch in comparison. (Isn't Helen doing a Ph.D. on folktales from Herodotus to the Russian steppes with Angela Carter somewhere in the middle pulling the argument's strings?) When you send your dossier out to institutions, you make it clear in your cover letter that you cross certain borders even as you are applying for the job in the field in question, and you send out the sample chapter that is most relevant for the field in question, and you have handy a second finished article or article-in-progress on that field in case someone is an asshole about wanting to make sure you can be a Real Americanist (or whatever) and if they ask for it you send that on too.

But academia is not American publishing, and although some departments are stocked with old fogeys, most actually are intrigued by surprising (to them) juxtapositions, and if you say to them in a chapter, "Hang on to your hats, we're going to route Atwood and Lessing's feminism through the writings of Ursula Le Guin, and we don't give a damn about their national origins but rather their (at times imperfect) loyalties to denigrated non-realistic genres," I think most hiring committees would say, Wow, we think our students would like to see that on a regular basis and none of us can do that and so we should hire her--

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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Sunday, December 14, 2003 - 09:40 am:   

Hey,

Is anyone on the market this year, or heading to MLA for other reasons? Anything interesting-looking, interstitiality-wise, going on at the panels? Good luck to anyone on the market.
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Pat O'Connor
Posted on Sunday, December 14, 2003 - 11:34 am:   

Sorry I'll be missing the fun in San Diego, Veronica, but I have to be back at Oberlin on the 5th and I'm not on the market, so I'm skipping this year's MLA. Do you do any other conferences --besides ICFA, of course?
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Monday, December 15, 2003 - 10:34 am:   

Nah, I won't be at MLA either. I was gonna be, because I got a paper accepted to a special sessions panel, but then the whole panel was rejected by the MLA powers that be. Which is a shame, because I happen to be the only person on earth who really enjoys MLA. There aren't any conferences I really go to regularly--I go to conferences for one of two reasons: they're in the area (so I've been to a few MLAs, a GEMCS, something else I can't remember) and/or I'm giving a paper (it's been known to happen!). I've never been to ICFA, believe it or not...maybe this year.
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Pat O'Connor
Posted on Tuesday, January 06, 2004 - 06:31 pm:   

I've just returned from the holidays in New York, Veronica, and the memory of the warmth of New York is no comfort against the frigidity of Ohio.

I love the MLA too! Especially when people are all rallying around something (my first years there coincided with the beginnings of queer theory). How can we conquer the MLA for IAF-related topics? (And by that I would mean, I suppose, trying to take some of the panel venues for cultural studies to talk about trends in contemporary fiction in the US which straddle or defy genre as the market knows it.) Let's start brainstorming on this and get something ready for 2004.

But in the meantime, convince yourself to come to ICFA. It's in Fort Lauderdale in March. Come on you know you wanna....
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Pat O'Connor
Posted on Thursday, January 08, 2004 - 12:15 pm:   

Hello Helen and glad to see your post on the introductions board. Will you be at ICFA this year? Aren't you in charge of the journal this year?

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