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NAVSA 2016: Phoenix, AZ


So, this is the last of my 2016 conference japes (read about the others on the #conferences tag).

The schedule put together by Arizona State University was wildly full, and although the theme of the conference was ‘Social Victorians’, there were a number of other interweaving strands to follow.

I moderated one of the opening panels, on ‘Ways of Seeing’. Presentations covered forms of mediated sight and the social function of seeing in non-fiction (Sari Carter‘s paper on Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera), novels (Jayda Coons‘ paper on Dickens’ Little Dorrit and Megan Hansen‘s paper on Collins’ Poor Miss Finch), and in galleries themselves (in Linda Shires‘ paper on the National Gallery).

After that, I mostly kept my panel attendances focused either on my thesis research or my digital humanities alt-ac writing project (*cough* NaNoWriMo *cough*). One of the threads that I followed was on hauntings and ghosts, as that speaks to my research into Vernon Lee and Wilde in particular (Lee Week to come next week!). The panels that I made it to along that theme included topics such as The Social Ghost & Occult Sociability (Roger Luckhurst, Nicholas Daly and Christine Ferguson), Haunted Victorians (Aviva Briefel, Elaine Auyoung, and Jonah Siegel), and Monstrous Victorians (Emily Zarka, Shannon Zellars-Strohl, Elizabeth Macaluso, and Terra Joseph).

Other themes included a focus on forms and formalism, and issues of materiality. I made it to a panel about Poetry’s Sociable Forms (Elizabeth Helsinger, Naomi Levine, and Erin Nerstad), as well as about Materiality and Modernity in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (Allen MacDuffie, Amanpal Garcha, and Claire Jarvis).

A number of the panels that I attended included presentations by people affiliated with the V21 Collective. In particular, I had a great time at the Rethinking Ideology panel (Zachary Samalin, Nasser Mufti, and Nathan Hensley, whose paper at the Swinburne conference I also really enjoyed!). Although Marx, Engels and Althusser are not my usual bedfellows, it was a nice change of pace, and really thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed Hensley’s focus on the critical langauge of past scholarship. Analysing our own metaphors and lexical/stylistic choices helps to draw out the (deliberately or unintentionally) hidden elements of our scholarship.

I didn’t take part in the professionalisation workshop, in part because of the additional cost, but also because I feel like as an experienced professional already, albeit in a different field, I would be taking the space of someone else who might get a lot more out of it. I did take part in one of the mentoring lunches, though, about completing a first book, which was interesting and professionally and practically very relevant! There is a real role for conferences in tackling these professional topics at all levels, so it was good to see NAVSA grasping that opportunity.

(Nearly) Vernon Lee Week

By rights, this week should be Vernon Lee week as I continue writing up, but as most of this week is being taken up by NAVSA, I’m using the few days before as NAVSA prep. I’m refreshing my memory of some of the texts that form the focus of the panel I’m moderating, as well as the individual panels that I’m interesting in hearing. 

The trick to conferences is the prep: having a plan for which papers are most relevant to your work, and the people you’d like to catch up with; being ready for the in-depth discussion of texts that you may only have read once, a decade ago; and having a sense of how your own research and interests dovetail with your fellow conference-goers. 

So I’m going to finish re-reading Wilkie Collins’ Poor Miss Finch, and refresh my memory of Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, and skim over the participant list one more time. I’m going to conference the heck out of you, Phoenix!

Pitching papers

Inevitably at the end of the summer, there is a crunch period for submitting papers to conferences for the next academic year. Some of the biggest conferences have deadlines well in advance of the conferences themselves, as do journal editions that take years to produce, so getting things in for September and October deadlines becomes a bit of a struggle.

I find producing abstracts for pitching to conferences or journals to be a particular challenge because I so often don’t know what I’m going to want to say until I’m most of the way through writing!

Opportunities to review recent articles or new publications have also been coming out of the woodwork, so I now have a wide set of documents open lest I forget about them.

If I have any success at all with my abstracts, this year could be one of many irons in the fire…

Consuming (the) Victorians: BAVS 2016

The annual BAVS conference is a chance for PhD students, ECRs, and established academics to come together and really get into the detail of their research for a few days. This year’s whirlygig was kindly and ably hosted by Cardiff University, and I thought I would do a quick write-up as part of my sporadic conference series (see also Swinburne, 150 years on and Forgotten Geographies).

The first keynote set the bar high, and I think may have been my favourite thing of the whole conference. Patricia Duncker was insightful, hilarious, erudite, inspiring, and more or less everything that I one day aspire to be. Her talk about imagining George Eliot was more fascinating than one could have hoped, and I am certainly going to take a look at her books (particularly James Miranda Barry).

I was, I must confess, a little sceptical of this year’s theme. Consumption in the nineteenth century? Nineteenth-century consumer culture and what it might tell us about today’s consumer culture? It felt a little Idylls of the Marketplace. Notwithstanding the continued development of Neo-Victorian genres (a significant subtheme), wasn’t this fairly established ground?

I’m not sure that ultimately I can answer the question of whether the theme could sustain the sheer volume of panels included in the programme, as I unfortunately had to miss some of the sessions (having a conference so near to family is both a blessing and a curse!). From what I managed to squeeze in, the theme did seem at times rather to constrain some of the intended strands of panels, such as those on gender, medicine/science/technology, and digitisation. It did, however, provide an excellent opportunity to focus on work along a materialist line. Analyses ranged from the taxidermy specimen (Alexandra Murphy), recycling and reuse (Christopher Ferguson, Kate Flint), Victorian Valentines (Alice Crossley), violins (Rachel Cowgill), and the collections of the Dickens Museum (Louisa Price).

Another very strong theme was the Neo-Victorian, and in particular TV and film adaptations of Victorian fiction. Presentations ranged from adaptations of Dickens  (DickensianA Muppet Christmas Carol, etc.), Zola’s The Paradise, and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to analyses of Penny Dreadful, and this plethora seemed to at times flow solely from excitement at the level of general public interest in ‘our’ period. Not that there’s anything wrong with popular appeal—I’m with Duncker in enjoying the ‘trash’ of both the nineteenth century and our own!—but long conferences like BAVS can be exhaustingly full to begin with…

Perhaps one of the most interesting panels was on digital visualisation, as the range of presentations on mapping (deep or otherwise) raised the question of how academics produce products for consumption by others. Can maps such as those produced by the deep mapping of the Lake District be repackaged in a readily accessible format for tourists visiting the region? What is the purpose of doing so? How does one acquire the research funding needed for some digital humanities projects when they may not have definite or discrete end-times, the process of peer reviewing them remains unclear, and they throw up re-use challenges owing to the use of proprietary software? This was a wonderful twist on the ‘consumption’ theme, and it threw up a whole range of questions with which I’m sure many of us will be grappling for years to come.

I should also say that one of the useful innovations that has been popping up at a number of conferences is the attempt to run professionalisation workshops focused on PGRs and ECRs. This conference was no exception, with a set of small sessions run ahead of the main conference’s start. I went to two: on creative writing and academia, and on illustrations.

The former was quite fascinating and had something of an alt-ac flavour to it (although unspoken). Damian Walford Davies was insightful in his account of all critical writing as life-writing, arguing for a highly permeable barrier between academic and creative work. His advice to “run with anachronism” because we are inevitably situated from any historical subject matter really struck me, and I look forward to reading some of his poetry, which reminded me particularly of Anne Carson’s Red trilogy. Lucy Andrew provided an interesting insight into the early phases of using academic knowledge for creative purposes. The illustrations workshop was ably run and gave us an opportunity not only to paw at some wonderful texts from the university’s Special Collections—including Moxon Tennyson’s, which are always fun—and to play at doing some lino engraving. It didn’t offer a great deal by way of professionalisation (although I admit that was never formally stated in the programme), but was certainly a pleasure.

And with all these conferences, pleasure and personal take-homes are key. I’m now looking forward to seeing how the NAVSA conference in November sizes up!

Swinburne, 150 years on


To mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Swinburne’s first Poems and Ballads, Cambridge hosted a two-day conference that might best be described as ‘whither Swinburne?

It can be rare to find a conference, particularly a two-day one, so focused on a single volume, but the panels across the two days were rich and varied. What I particularly enjoyed was the strong focus on form, initiated by Herbert Tucker‘s opening keynote. Tucker asked us as readers to attend to ends: end-stopped lines, closing punctuation, the closing of poems, and the use of the word itself. This focused highlighted the intensity in Swinburne’s verse of what might appear to be poetic commonplaces, and I think also invites us to think about the poet’s experience: the relief of finding a good rhyme, the natural breaks where the mind can be allowed to wander, the feeling of having finished one poem but already having to write another. A keynote about ends was a wonderful beginning to the event.

The first panel focused on Poetry, the Body and the Senses, and featured some of Catherine Maxwell‘s interesting work on scentand a quick glimpse into some of the working that will form part of her monograph on perfume in Victorian literary culture (forthcoming from OUP). She distinguished the Baudelairean fascination with heavy, musky, Decadent scent with Swinburne’s interest in lighter, fresher scents, such as eau de cologne. Alongside Maxwell were two graduate students, Kate Snelson, on physical, somatic sympathy, and David Womble, on hyloidealism. Womble’s presentation was thought-provoking, asking how dead speakers display embodied modes of thought in Swinburne’s work. The approach, I think, bears application to some other poets of the era, such as the Rossettis.

The final two panels of day one focused on Affinity and Influence, with a fascinating array of different angles taken. Some papers, such as Jan Marsh‘s comparison between Swinburne and Christina Rossetti, and Oliver Goldstein‘s (@OliverGoldstein) focused attention to Hardy’s reading and annotations of Swinburne, offered a nuanced take on influence and influencing through attention to biographical detail. Others attended to Swinburne’s relationship with other literary traditions, including French (Andria Pancrazi), Italian (Robin Kirkpatrick), and US (Alison Rosenblitt). Particularly interesting was Michael John Craske’s focus on the musical legacy of Poems and Ballads, in the light of TS Eliot’s criticism of Swinburne’s musicality.

Day two took us back to questions of form, with a panel on modes of address. Two papers, from Jason Boulet and Andrea Selleri, addressed Swinburne and the dramatic monologue genre, while Justin Sider attended to the notability of Swinburne’s style, as attested to by contemporary critics. The final panel of the day attended to morality in Swinburne’s volume, with a fascinating examination of the emergence of dystheism, antitheism, monotheism and polytheism by Stéphane Sitayeb, followed by Nathan Hensley‘s exploration of some of Swinburne’s manuscripts, including his unpublished ‘The Birch’, and invites us to consider that work in juxtaposition with contemporary political events, such as the Morant Bay rebellion. Sitayeb’s insights into the use of the words “God”, “God(s)”, etc., were further illuminated by a digital humanities approach from John Walsh, creater of The Swinburne Project. Walsh looks at Swinburne’s indexicality, his paratextual references and bibliographic tendencies, as well as identifying statistically some dominant lexical choices in the volume, like the use of “sweet”, “god”, etc.

Following a second keynote by Peter Nicholls on the relevance of Swinburne for modern-day poetics, the day rounded up with a reflection on the conference as a whole, led by Michael Hurley and Marion Thain (@MarionThain). Some key themes that arose were Swinburne’s multiplicity, as evidenced by the range of conference papers, and whether the field of study has changed significantly in the past decade. Chip Tucker asked the most provocative question: how can we teach and read Swinburne so that he remains relevant to pressing issues facing the academe over the next fifty years? The conference didn’t answer this question, but invited us to wonder why we had chosen to attend the conference, and what we might take away with us to develop the interest of our students and colleagues in Swinburne.

At the level of conference organisation, one thing that did surprise me was the ratio of men to women, which was almost 2:1. It made me wonder whether there is something about Swinburne that might account for what feels like an odd ratio at an English conference.

Recent conferences: Forgotten Geographies

Forgotten Geo

As part of what I hope will be a growing series on conferences, this weekend I got to attend the second half of the Forgotten Geographies conference at Birkbeck.

There were a wide range of panels across both days, exploring Scandanavia, Anglo-Indian relations, Scottish New-Zealanders, Eastern European literature, as well as imaginary geographies.

Day 2 opened with Stefano Evangelista talking about fin-de-siècle Japan and Lafcadio Hearn‘s writings from and about that country. It was interesting to hear how writings that could be read from a twenty-first century British perspective as exoticising or othering—even despite Hearn’s love of Japan—are not necessarily read in the same way in Japan. Hearn’s house in Kumamoto remains a museum, and the 110th anniversary of his death prompted an article in Japan Times.

The panel on Global Emblems of Decadence focused on three fascinating individuals: Forrest Reid, in a paper by Alex Murray (@alexwmurray); Napoleon Lapathiotis, in a paper by Kostas Boyiopoulos; and Ronald Firbank, in a paper by Peter A. Bailey about the presence—or absence—of decadence amongst fin-de-siècle West Indian writers. This panel established a tension between geographical distance, be it Reid in Ulster refusing to move to London, or West Indian writers consuming British Victorian literature, and cosmopolitanism.

The panel on Queer Cosmopolitanism approached a variety of different forms of writing: botanical literature by Reginald Farrer, in a talk by Dominic Janes; correspondence between Carl Van Vechten and Firbank, in a talk by Kate Hext (@kate_hext); and the little magazine form, in Richard A. Kaye‘s paper on Akademos. All three were thinking about geography in different ways. Janes, in exploring Farrer’s non-fiction writings, turned explciitly to topography and the shape and feel of natural landscapes. Hext asked questions about where Van Vechten and Firbank could have met if not in the imaginary space opened up by their correspondence—the likely answer being nowhere—and about how shared imaginary landscapes might be constructed from specific uses of allusive language, such as “camp” and “camping”. Meanwhile, Kaye examined how the little magazine might create political as well as aesthetic agendas.

The final panel of the day that I went to was on Scandinavia and Cultural Transnationalism. As in the Global Emblems of Decadence panel, this panel invited a specific focus on geographical tension. In opening her paper on Knut Hamsun‘s Sult (Hunger), Eveliina Pulkki noted how Norwegian can still be treated as a humourously ‘other’ language and how Norway was often portrayed in auto-exotic terms by its authors. Rebecka Klette (@RebeckaKlette) expanded on how degeneration theory manifested itself particularly in Sweden, while Peter K. Andersson looked at how dandyism manifested in Stockholm, in particular amongst lower class men.

The whole conference was brought to a close by the premiere of a lost Ukrainian silent film, The Lie (1918), recovered from a film archive by Olga Kyrylova and based on the play of the same name by Volodymyr Vynnychenko. This closing keynote was a wonderful reminder of the value of archival research in turning up new material that can enhance our understanding of the periods that we study and open up fresh avenues that might never have been imagined.

Recent conferences: Progress

There have been some fascinating conferences of late, and I’ve been trying to go to as many as my full-time job allows. I thought I’d write up one of the most recent, ahead of the next one tomorrow.

Attending conferences is expensive: financially, and in terms of time. For a part-time student, this is a particular challenge, but good conferences can be academically and personally nourishing, so I’m glad I’ve been able to make the time for them over the last few months.

A few weeks ago, Oxford ran a postgraduate conference with an interesting theme: Progress. The programme really ran the gamut, with presenters who work on everything from Milton (by Gabrielle Linnel, @gclinnel), ergodic print novels (by Brittany Kuhn, @nerdywriterruns), and GIFs as a creative form (by Claire Spears). The roundtable panel invited us to consider how “progress”, often seen as rather passé, might—or might not—be a useful critical term. I found Sowon Park‘s contribution really fascinating; she made a compelling case for the continuing relevance of the humanities in the face of scientific and technological progress that seems increasingly to marginalise the human in order to focus on “productive” education.

The most fascinating part for me, however, was David Trotter‘s keynote. As his work is primarily on modernism, I hadn’t read much of it before, and I was prepared to be lost for much of his speech. However, his work engages methodologically with a lot of the same issues as my own expedition into German media theory. He spoke particularly about cultural techniques, positing the application of make-up in public as such a technique that acts phatically, initiating communication. I will definitely be reading more of his work!

This weekend, I get to attend the second half of Forgotten Geographies; I’ll have to miss most of day 1, as I’ll be in work, but better some than none! The whole conference has been organised by the wonderful @leirebarrera and @sasha_weirdsley, both of whom I met at a previous conference on Aestheticism and Decadence in the Age of Modernism. And that’s really the best thing about attending conferences: relationship flourish, and ideas reproduce. It really is cross-fertilisation for research.