December 2009


I’m writing this at 30th St Station, working offline for the half hour before the train back to New York City should be about ready to arrive. It’s fitting that I should be surrounded by wi-fi wi-fi everywhere but not a connection in sight. For some reason I assumed that free wifi would be available everywhere at the conference. Instead, we had to pay $10 a day per computer at the hotel (which the department will pay for, thankfully) and free access available only at the Convention Center, and not at the Philadelphia Mariott and Loews Hotels where many of the sessions took place. So it’s been a less blogtastic MLA, but still a rich, varied, and delightful experience.

I’m totally fried right now, brain and body; this will be more livejournal-y than the analytical brilliancies you’re no doubt accustomed to on this blog ;). Today’s–Wednesday? I came here on–Saturday? Since I was performing major surgery on my paper in the frantic days before coming to Philly, I’ve probably been getting 4-6 hours of sleep for the last week. (Normally at this time of year I’d be getting 10-12!) It seems so long ago that I was in my Brooklyn appartment.

Not only has this been my first MLA; it’s the first time I’ve gone to a multi-day non-field-specific conference. At first, I thought that that would make it less exciting than the special holding environment that your typical assemblage of geeky Victorianist makes. As the conference went on, though, I’ve been feeling better and better about this MLA thing.

Looking through the conference program at first, I was somewhat surprised by the number of panels I wasn’t interested in going to. For NAVSA, there’d usually be two or three panels that I would have to struggle to decide which to go to; here, there were plenty of time slots that had no particularly appealing sessions. And I don’t think it’s even because there wasn’t enough of Victorian interest for me. I consider myself as always curious about what’s going on in other areas of specialization. It’s part of the reason why I’m such a regular at Friday Fora (the free wine is totally irrelevant, of course). Perhaps it’s the same reaction I have to NYC cultural events–there’s so much going on, that it’s easier just to ignore everything. By the end, though, what I got out of MLA was a more textured appreciation of what it means to be an academic in Language and Literature.

Going to Victorian conferences makes me focus on scholarship, which is great. What I did here–what I had to do here made me think of all the things about academia that aren’t really scholarship-oriented. I came here for three reasons: (1) I was giving a paper–hence the mega-stress in the week before arriving in Philly (2) I was co-hosting the Graduate Center’s suite, which involved buying and carrying lots of wine, soda pop, snacks, utensils, etc.–hence my mega-stress while I was in Philly (3) I probably would have gone to MLA even without reasons 1 and 2, to check out MLA before I had a job interview, while it was conveniently located in a nearby city.

[On the train now. Discovered that, when I dropped the bag of leftover party supplies, the wine bottles didn’t break, but the salsa jar did. Oh well…]

While having all these different pressures was misery-making in its own way, it also made for a really great experience since I had to wear so many different hats. Here are some of the hats:

  • The poor-relative-to-other-professionals, poor-relative-to-other-graduate-students staying in a more-or-less-fancy hotel. When I arrived, I experienced some degree of culture shock. What do you mean there’s a gym I have 24 hour access to? What do you mean I can get complimentary drinks every evening? What do you mean there’s a balcony, two flat-screeen TVs, two sinks? When I found out that the breakfasts (complimentary) was at a TGI Friday’s, the only restaurant in the hotel, it made me feel more comfortable.
  • The curious graduate-student hat. First MLA, checking things out, interested in what people do.
  • The party-planner hat. I wasn’t so thrilled about this after chairing Revels, but the receptions were actually far more enjoyable (less pressure, less people, less intoxication.)
  • The MLA member hat. For some reason, I felt like I really needed to go to the Presidential Address. A lot of it wasn’t all that exciting–many awards awarded, sans corny acceptance speeches and cleavage-baring dresses. And then the executive report on the MLA–I realized, I’m not just a member of the profession, I’m a member of the profession’s professional organization.
  • Representative of the program’s graduate students hat. Put on during the breakfast organized by the Committee for the Status of Graduate Students, which probably deserves its own blog post.
  • The teacher of language hat. Really underscored by Catherine Porter’s address on the importance of translation for America in the twenty-first century.
  • The teacher of literature hat. Underscored by the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel.
  • The literary critic hat. Presenting on a panel as the only Victorianist made me put this hat on rather than the Victorianist hat. I really enjoyed the panel. There was lots of variety and continuity between the the three papers (Ruth Mack’s was on Defoe, mine was on Dorrit, Matt LeVay’s was on Gertrude Stein)–I just wish there had been more of an audience.
  • The bff hat. It was a real pleasure sharing the room with Angela Francis and Ashley Foster. Definitely better than catsitting!
  • And my fave: the party hat! Bringing some of our Friday Forum magic (with more liquid cheer than usual) to Philly was delightful, not to mention crashing a party for the sake of Anne’s career.
  • One final note: On the last night of the conference, I tipsily asked the front desk whether they were glad they’d soon be rid of us. “Honestly–yes!” The hotel staff was pretty wonderful.

Hello from Central New Jersey, where I’m at my partner’s house watching it snow while one of his cats purrs on my lap. (In this sense, I am, perhaps, having a very similar experience as that of Rosemary Feal, a.k.a. @mlaconvention.)

So we tried to liveblog but it only kinda worked. Part of the problem, of course, was that most of the panels that Mia and I attended were in the Marriott or the Loews, neither of which had free wi-fi. So a lot of the synchronicity couldn’t happen and, even when it could, it felt a bit awkward to do so — as Mia discovered in the middle of the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel. On the other hand, even if I had the technological capability to, say, tweet during panels, I’m not sure that I would have. It takes me forever to get something typed out on my iPod Touch, and I admit that I would have felt kind of awkward, especially in panels where there weren’t that many people to begin with. I suppose that I am old fashioned in my preference to take notes in my Moleskine (despite the vague sense of affectation) — not because I privilege non-digital writing, but simply because this is the inscription technology (if you will) that works best for me in this context.

I do plan to type up some of my thoughts in the coming day/days because although I wasn’t blogging my real-time notes, I was definitely thinking about at least some of these notes as eventually informing a more public post. One thing that Twitter has done for me is add what may be another level of self-narration to my experience of the world — even when I’m not twittering I am often thinking of how this might be tweeted — though I might in turn argue that tweeting isn’t exactly the same thing as narrating.

All in all, I think it was a great convention. Definitely smaller than the ones I’d experienced previously (Philly in 2006; Chicago in 2007), but less fraught than I was expecting it to be. I had a conversation with someone who said, essentially, “the rewards of the profession are so small that it’s not worth selling my soul, doing something I don’t believe in,” and I think that’s a really wise view of the whole thing. I almost feel less stressed out about the  job market for next year, at least in the sense that I will be better than I am now (even if the market isn’t).

One of the things that has been on my mind for the last couple of days (and that I may try to work out here) is what going to MLA can reveal about my own scholarly identity. I joked that, although I’m a Victorianist (more or less), I go to MLA to pretend to be a Romanticist and to have obsessive conversations about Peanuts. The book exhibit finds me looking longingly at the more theoretical offerings of presses like Stanford, Duke, Fordham, and Continuum, even as I hope that my future lies with publishers with strong 19th century offerings. It’s possible that some of my angst on the first day and a half was a result of this field anxiety, particularly since this was my first MLA as part of the ABD crowd — back in 2007 I was still pre-orals. On the one hand, I was able to see how far I’ve come in terms of the thinking I’ve been doing about my field and my dissertation; on the other, it did also confirm the sense I’ve had for awhile now that I’ve become more narrow in my interests than I want to be — particularly in the last, say, year and a half. It’s probably time for me to start expanding again, keeping up a bit more with theory, reading books published after 1900, maybe trying to write about Snoopy when the inspiration strikes, making room for creative work. It was so good to be excited about all this again — 2009 (as I’ve mentioned before) was the year where a lot of it stopped being fun.

Incidentally, my most productive hour at this year’s conference began at 11 p.m. on Tuesday, when Mia fortuitously found herself at someone else’s department party and invited me to meet one of the biggest scholars in my field. There’s something truly wonderful about not being the only person in the room geeking out over Victorian poetry, and I’m very much looking forward to attending this conference in March. And, speaking of geeking out over Victorian poetry, I may have also talked myself into resuming the Poem of the Week posts once I get back from my vacation.

Am going to hop off the blog machine for now, but just for my own memory (and public accountability/shame), I do intend to write up some thoughts on the following:

  • The “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel — especially the question of what we talk about teaching when we talk about teaching literature and how suspension might help us rethink the hermeneutics of suspicion vs. reparative reading debate
  • Notes from other panels — probably just random unconnected highlights
  • One other thing that I can’t for the life of me remember now, possibly because it is hard to think with a cat purring on one’s lap.

I also clearly need a lesson in how to write short blog posts. This  may also be why I’m a poor twitterer. (Though I do have a number of new followers there from my indiscriminate tagging.)

Anyway. Bye for now and happy new year all.

At the room. peoople are standing at the back, there are seats in front. looks like this will be a definitive panel…

These are the speakers:
Wai-Chee Dimock
“I teach literature because I’m paid to do it.” Her “outrageous” answer.

  1. Because we’re directed to.
  2. We have a space.
  3. We have an objective to achieve classroom goals.

None of us would say it? I would, and do!
12:15
Is it teaching literature to tell 1500 chefs about an eighteenth-century grain fed to slaves?
WCD–It contributes to “robust public life.”
12:18
Why teach literature? To reduce prison sentences. Let me reiterate, “This is fine.”
12:24
WCD talking about Facebook group on world lit as a new way of transnationalizing lit teaching. My response: social networks aren’t equal–Orkut is popular in some places, myspace in others, etc.

Jonathan Culler
introduction notes he’s been on College English and Diacritics, probably the only person to combine the two.
12:27
Reading vs. Life. I’m going to shutdown and save battery life and try to listen better.

Jean Howard
1:10–Computer back on. JH’s talk focused on slow reading. Temporality! And I think this liveblogging thing is kind of stupid.


q+a: Rita Felski defends the intellectual rigour of readings not focused on critique, but looking at attachment, etc. Is this related to what I’m doing in my own paper? Will reflect.

Notes before my nap….

It’s interesting to me that a panel billed as “Victorian Poetry, Literary Form, and the Social,” and that had the stated intention of demonstrating poetry’s particularity as a cultural form ended up being, to a great extent, about sleep, death, and dreams – topoi that are assumed to be private and ambiguous. In thinking about my own project, I am struck by the fact that these are, indeed, recurring themes – so far I’ve done Christabel (dreams), Maud (if we were going to add a fourth to the list above, I think madness would be it), “An Epistle” (death, sleep) and am considering doing The Ring and the Book (death) while I’m at it. And the two chapters that I can remember off the top of my head from Slinn’s Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique are ones on “The Bishop Orders his Tomb” (death) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” (sleep). Sleep, death, dreams, and madness don’t of course cover all Victorian poems (come to think of it, I think Slinn also has a chapter on Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”), but it may be significant that these are also the ones we gravitate towards as representative of Victorian poetry in general – and of Victorian poetry as a particular cultural form with particular relations to the social.

Someone asked me in the Q&A if the gaps and hesitations in Browning’s work were perhaps also a failure of poetic nerve. When I answered, I mostly focused on why I didn’t think that was the case with “An Epistle,” which at least in the critical reception has been read as a conservative poem, kind of a dramatic monologue with training wheels. (Though in conversation after the panel, it occurred to me that the poem may be more difficult to read in 2009 simply because people don’t know the bible as well.) On further reflection, I think the person who asked that question may have been asking it more generally about Victorian poetry as well – basically, isn’t suspension basically just a failure of that nerve, a symptom of anxiety of influence. My short answer is going to be no, but it might be worth thinking about why that is. To call these gaps failures of nerve assumes that there’s some (Romantic?) wholeness that the poet is failing to capture, something out there that a stronger poet would have been able to communicate in full, through a language that isn’t so fragmentary. I don’t think that’s the case, but it is a compelling fiction. But part of my argument about suspension being a “constitutive absence” is that it’s not something that happens to subvert an original stability – it’s part of the structure to begin with. (I’m patterning my argument here after Derrida’s in “Signature Event Context” – I don’t see suspension entirely as a synonym for iterability, but they are connected.)

Someone else brought up the image of the thread in the Q&A – the first quote I used on my handout had Lazarus “hold[ing] on firmly to some thread of life.” It was pointed out that you don’t actually know whether the thread is horizontal or vertical. I’d had the same thought as I was practicing my paper just before the panel, even though I was trying to make the argument that the passage was still more horizontal. Probably the more important point is that it isn’t hierarchical – and I did manage to get that across. There’s also a pretty famous thread in “Two in the Campagna.” This is, of course, potentially another kind of suspension. Lots of the work I’ve been doing lately has been with interruption and ambiguity, but there’s also, of course, suspension that is hanging by a thread….

—-

Today’s been sort of a frustrating one so far. The first panel I went to this morning (which shall remain nameless) was marred by the rudeness of one of the speakers – a shame, because the paper before his was actually pretty interesting. (Let’s just say it’s one thing to write a paper that goes one or two minutes over your time and it’s an entirely other, more obnoxious move to just show up with a 20 page paper and see how long the moderator lets you go.) The Victorian Commemorations panel was fine, and I did think that Margaret Linley had some interesting things to say about In Memoriam that I’ll probably have to process later – possibly thinking about the dual public/private status of the lyric. In the Q&A someone brought up the idea that, among the texts in the traditional literary canon, In Memoriam is notable for the amount of disagreement about its basic interpretive details. That was a total side-note to the question that was being asked, but it did get me thinking about the difference between In Memoriam and some of Browning’s canonical dramatic monologues—especially “My Last Duchess” and “An Epistle”—about which there’s very little interpretive uncertainty and where interpretation itself is, to a certain extent, being taught. I wonder if this, too, could be theorized as a difference between lyric and dramatic monologue – and whether there’s something that could be brought over from lyric to read dramatic monologue in a way that doesn’t feel so constrained.

That’s pretty much been the highlight of my day so far. I’m probably out of sorts due to a lack of sleep. I’ve been off my networking game because of the tired, and now of course I’m starting to have that vague anxiety that my Moment To Meet All These Important People has passed and I’ll never have a chance to talk to them ever again. That’s probably stupid – or, at least, I hope it isn’t the case. I’m also irritated with myself because I didn’t give myself enough time to get from the Victorian luncheon (which felt like it was in the middle of nowhere) to the 1:45 panel on “The Thinking Proper to Poetry” which I really really really really really wanted to go to – by the time I arrived, the panel had started and from what I could see, the room was full anyway. Am feeling a little better and less anxious after a couple of strolls through the book exhibit, but I now really want to make sure I get to go to the 7:15 panel on Romanticism and the Antisocial – I need at least one more truly good panel today. (Then again, I’m tempted to go hear Marjorie Levinson talk about bounded infinities again, too. Decisions, decisions.) I also clearly need a nap.

Wordle: My MLA paper

(My MLA paper–well, my MLA paper two drafts ag0–as envisioned by http://www.wordle.net. Click to enlarge if you don’t mind spoilers.)

It’s MLA Eve, of course!

…wait a minute, what most wonderful time of the year did you *think* I was talking about?

Anyway. In the past two days, I’ve been to Chicago and back again–quite a feat, considering the weather there and here this morning and the whole “hey, why don’t I light my pants on fire right before the flight lands? Al-Qaeda, yeah!” ridiculousness. And after my whirlwind of blissfully unironic family hangouts (baby! dogs! Uncle Ron’s bourbon slushies! did I mention a *baby*??), it’s time to unpack and repack and head to Philadelphia in the morning for four days of geeking out over hotel-priced cocktails and all the other joys that MLA brings.

I have to admit that I really like MLA. This will probably be my last year to say that, since next year I pretty much absolutely have to be on the job market and that’s going to change things substantially–after this year, the experience is going to be a lot less fluffy and innocent. But for now, I’m looking forward to it. This will be my third time going, first time giving a paper. I didn’t go to San Francisco last year, lacking even the slightest justification for spending the money. And I found that I missed it–not when I was sledding in Wisconsin with my family on December 28–but later in the spring semester, where I found myself uninspired and losing sight of why I was doing what I was doing in the first place. And, in a hugely dorky way, I’ve been fortunate enough to find MLA (or at least the two MLAs before this one) to be energizing and inspiring. I come home weighed down with books and ideas, I have notes that I can refer to, and I’m reminded that there really are people out there who are reading and thinking and doing cool stuff. And I kind of need that right now for all kinds of reasons.

Whether I’ll get it of course remains to be seen. But, since this is my last pre-job market MLA and since we need to get this blog back into gear for 2010, I’ve suggested to Mia that we attempt a kind of liveblogging of the convention over the next several days. So check this space for talk postmortems and notes — and who knows what else.

(We are also both, incidentally, on Twitter. I’m @annecmccarthy and she’s @mini_mia.)

First up — my own paper! I’ll be presenting some version of the above Wordle during the very first panel session tomorrow (Sunday 12/27) at 3:30 pm. The panel is “Literary Form and the Social: Victorian Poetry” and my paper is of course on Browning. Should be a good time, despite the inexplicable time conflict with the Tennyson bicentennial panel that will force me to miss a talk by one of my heroes, Matthew Rowlinson. Clearly, the MLA assumes that the audience for Victorian poetry is so vast that there is no room in the Philadelphia Marriott that can hold us all at once and so they have wisely forced us to choose between panels at a time. I have a feeling that 25 copies of my handout may have been optimistic.

For now, however, it’s time for me to get off the computer and pack in earnest. Am trying to make the 10:14 train out of Penn Station. My appreciation for New Jersey Transit is running high as I pack all kinds of crazy stuff in my baggage like liquids over three ounces and plan on arriving at the station fifteen minutes rather than two hours before my train.

See you tomorrow, MLA!