MSA Debriefing

The annual convention of the Modernist Studies Assocation last week was, I think, the best I’ve ever attended. From the cabbies, the hotel, and the restaurants to the activities and events and the organization, it was fantastic to see a convention go off so swimmingly. (Must file away those tips and tricks for NAVSA 2016 here at ASU, including the axiom that conference hotel must be haunted.)

So what trends are we seeing in modernism? Strong attendance at professionalization workshops shows how desperate the job situation still is, as well as (to make a more inherently intellectual point) a continuing commitment to the monograph as a mode of scholarly production. (The emerging theme from these events was a move away from the “rigorous introduction + series of case studies” model of book writing, replacing it with an emphasis on unfolding a thesis in a way that tells a story.) Two amazing panels on the anthropocene showed a real commitment to thinking about how modernists responded to the anthropocene (while not trying not to slide into gratuitious anachronism). Lisa Tyler’s work on Hemingway, Ted Howell’s work on Forster, John McIntyre’s on Woolf, and Aaron Rosenberg’s work on Wells all scrupulously avoided any tragic “Hemingway/Forster/Woolf/Wells was an environmentalist!” overtones while nonetheless saying that those authors did represent ecological change precisely & significantly.

A fantastic panel on late modernism (y’all at the Weak Theory panel don’t know what you missed) visited the hoary question of defining late modernism and its relations to high modernism in new and provocative ways. Ian Afflerbach pointed out that the test of any suggested periodization involves asking what “conceptual values they reinforce.” Megan Faragher’s work on the Britain in Pictures (WWII-era series of books ultimately linked to MI-5 (say what?)) as propaganda seems like it could shade into a brilliant DH archival project. Lauren Elkin applied the theses/structures of Elizabeth Bowen’s essay “The Bend Back” as a native theory with which to read late modernism.

Two bones of contention wove their ways throughout the conference: the problem of metaphor, and the geographical and historical expansion of modernism that has been going on for at least a decade at this point. Metaphors are bad, you guys (or perhaps yinz, because Pittsburgh). In my work on spatial modernisms, I’m also in the community chanting, “Don’t deploy metaphors as the lynchpin of your argument, as it proves nothing.” Nothing makes me enraged like hearing people speak seriously of “the space of the text” and “textual space.”

I’m going to take a moment and let the icky of “textual space” get washed off.

But at the same time, we aren’t in the business of reality in and of itself, so I don’t like using “YOU USED A METAPHOR” as a bludgeon to shut down arguments. Can we simply ask the speaker about the ways in which they transcend metaphor rather than give the impossible demand that we eschew all metaphor?

At the roundtable organized by David James and Urmila Seshagiri, we heard Laura Marcus, Jesse Matz, Jed Esty, Zahid Chaudhary, and Michaela Bronstein on the question of “Modernism Today: Continuities and Discontinuities,” which follows up on James’s and Seshagiri’s (can we call it classic yet? because it’s great) essay on “Metamodernism” in the Spring 2014 PMLA. (Non-paywalled summary of their theory and its larger historical development in the Wikipedia article.) Jed Esty argued that we might productively label postmodern literature “High Cold War” literature to get out of the post-postmodernism trap. My favorite moment was (forgive me, this is twofold) Chaudhary’s claim, “It’s the Cold War that transmits modernism to us today,” and Anne Fernald’s responding question wondering if we are “complicit in the war machine if we use 1914, 1945, and 1989” as our periodizing dates. For me, this argument about the Cold War—as either some kind of genre (Jed was going in that direction, I think) or as a material mechanism determining canon, teaching methods, and the other ways in which modernism was institutionalized in academia after WWII—is the most persuasive version I’ve seen of the “modernism is everywhere and everytime!” argument.

(Can we call this the TARDIS model of modernism?)

Modernism & DH made a strong showing and good momentum (increasing in visibility from the Sussex conference last year), not the least with the Digital Projects Showcase, which was brilliant, including demos from Michael DiSanto and Robin Isard with the George Whalley Drupal Archive and Adam Hammond with The Brown Stocking on Woolf’s indirect discourse, and others that, sadly, I missed to make my What Are You Reading? session (where I spoke about Jessica Pressman’s Digital Modernism). I like to think this strong showing provides evidence for what James O’Sullivan and I are trying to demonstrate, with the edited collection we have in progress: that DH has reached a time when we can theorize field-specific digital strategies.

The two DH roundtables—Suzanne Churchill’s Digital Humanities and the Harlem Renaissance roundtable & my Problems and Solutions for Modernist Digital Humanities roundtable—I think emphasize how fundamentally collaborative the growth of modernist digital humanities has been. Sure, that’s pretty fundamental and basic as a description about how DH works in general, but I want to emphasize that the institutionalization of modernist digital literary studies as collaboration through conferences like this one is still fairly important to observe. MSA15 showed a fairly low amount of egotistic “GET OFF MY LAWN” stuff going down with modernist digital humanities.

This is the right place to mention Erin Templeton’s powerful feminist intervention in the Modernism and Big Data roundtable that took place so early in the conference that it served as the opening salvo for DH for the conference. In what was the first question of the Q&A session, Erin quite awesomely asked about the “hypermasculinist” impression that the roundtable was “giving off” (Goffman intertext mine, not Erin’s). While hearing four great papers by Stephen Ross, Cliff Wulfmann, Jeff Drouin, and Adam Hammond (with David Chinitz officiating), I will say that many thoughts in my own head echoed Erin’s concern about it being the five white men up there. Melba-Cuddy Keane, I think, helped to resolve the tension that inevitably resulted by attesting to the undoubtedly increasing gender parity of DH, but what I think was even better was the painful awkwardness of those five minutes as the (very nice) five white men tried to answer Erin’s question. That painful awkwardness has to happen. The idea of “big data” is one of those concepts that lag behind in terms of seeming anachronistically masculine.

Stephen, Cliff, Jeff, and Adam have impeccable gender-parity credentials elsewhere, in their other projects. But here’s the thing: it was less a matter of “is there any fairness for women in DH doing modernism?” (because there are many opportunities) than “how did this particular opportunity slip away?” Stephen did a great job of facing up to this aspect of the question, in my opinion, but I still am with Erin in insisting that every opportunity is important. I can easily imagine a young woman in that specific audience who is interested in DH but knows little or nothing about DH otherwise; how would she know that she was welcome in DH? Part of me dislikes having to be that person insisting that no gender-related slip-ups can go unnoticed, but I thank Erin over and over that she didn’t let such a petty qualm (“I have to be the cool girl! Why let feminism ruin the fun!”) overcome her just recognition. It was a great question, and as I tweeted as it happened, I do think the roundtable participants tried to face Erin’s question with generosity and directness.

Put simply, though: the roundtable was stronger because we had that conversation. I am more, not less, likely to like/trust/cite/adapt Stephen, Cliff, Jeff, and Adam’s ideas and projects because of it. And more likely to follow Erin’s lead.

I was extremely happy with the way that the roundtable I organized (and Stephen chaired) went. Dean Irvine (Dalhousie) explained the affordances of the Modernist Commons project; I (Arizona State) tried to argue the exigency of new, free digital editions in general (and of my proposed Henry James digital archive in particular); Alex Christie and Katie Tanigawa (U of Victoria) shared their rationale and their maps of Jean Rhys’s and Djuna Barnes’s Paris (Parises?) for UVic’s Z-axis project; Marit MacArthur (Cal State Bakersfield) gave us a fascinating peek into the difficulties of doing DH work on intonation and sound in poetry performance; J. D. Porter (Stanford) gave us a more theoretically inclined account that nicely wrapped it all up. (Helen Southworth was scheduled to give us a rundown of what’s going on with the MAPP and its brilliantly layered approach to representing the Hogarth Press, but alas, she couldn’t make it. But look forward to more action there July 2015!)

Conversations and tweets in/around/among myself and Alex and Katie about developing modernist methods of deforming classic DH strategies and tools led eventually to the Manifesto of Modernist Digital Humanities, which we published with the HTML and CSS stylings of Andrew Pilsch.

The other important tangent that resulted was the meeting of what we’re now claiming is a “board” for the Open Modernisms project, the initiative that began during the MSA listserv exchange spiraling out of Jonathan Morse’s simple question: “What anthology do you use for teaching modernism?” Jane Garrity responded with well-justified complaints that she was having trouble with publishers refusing to publish the kind of new global modernisms, really-broad-sense-of-the-canon, queer/woman/nonwhite-forward anthology that we need for the 21st century. Matt Huculak (current webmaster for the MSA) assured us that this exchange was the hottest action the MSA listserv has ever seen. Soon enough, with proddings from James Gifford, Stephen, and myself, we had outlined a need for a free anthology for teaching modernism. A web app will let you “drag and drop” specific texts out of a large body of encoded texts in many formats (HTML, plaintext, ePub, PDF) so that you can make a custom coursepack, completely free (as most of this stuff is out of copyright), for students to print out or read on their various screens (according to which technologies they have access to).

So Claire Battershill, Alex Christie, Jeffrey Drouin, Chris Forster, James Gifford, Matthew Huculak, Marit MacArthur, Stephen Ross, and I met last Friday night to discuss how to do this thing, and we’re in full experimental/prototyping mode. I’m sure we’ll keep you up to date when we have something more to say about it, but just know that it’s all working quickly and it will be amazing and you may be able to rely on a free custom coursepack for Fall 2015 (albeit with a smaller core of initial texts than we will eventually host).

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