April 2011


So, I found this year’s NVSA conference both incredibly entertaining and (somewhat surprisingly) moving.* This is also not to imply, of course, that NVSAs are not usually entertaining (or moving). But this one seemed to be even more so than usual. People really seemed to be going all out, particularly insofar as they created presentations that were truly multimedia in nature, and being — intimidatingly — good at it. By the end of the conference, one of my friends was like, “whoa, we really have to learn Power Point” — and he’s probably right.** But speaking for myself, at least, the challenge isn’t really learning the technical side of Power Point, but rather thinking in a more “digital” way — and I’m not sure Twitter counts.***

Beyond that, though, there were dinosaurs (and standard queer affect questions about dinosaurs) and moldy archives and cookbooks and streets — not to mention the White House-approved (no really) magic show at the banquet. These things make me of good cheer.**** Of course, these are also the parts of this conference — and any conference, really — that are the “you had to be there” moments, the ones that, well, don’t make it into the archive in the same way, the ones that maybe escape the system.

But of course these moments where we were or weren’t there are, arguably, all an archive ever really is — and our systems are always running to catch up with experience. And I think this is what I’m trying to get at when I say that the weekend was surprisingly moving, perhaps even poignant… this common thread, running through so many of these papers, so many of the efforts and projects that were represented here… this desire just to make things make sense. And all the lost possibilities that come with those efforts to arrange, understand, systematize, save, study, respond… remembering that all of those things that seem in retrospect to be so inevitable–how we organize archives, or even that we *have* archives, for instance–might not have been so at the time. (There are other stories, too–the divergence of anthropology and literary study, the time before we could conceive of dinosaurs, and so on…)

Bernard Lightman kicked off the Saturday keynote by stressing the commonalities between scientific and religious thinking–reminding  us, at least implicitly, that these two fields arose in some ways to deal with the same set of human needs: to explain and to want to be consistent, to reassure ourselves about the nature of reality, to be able to, well, make sense.  There’s something compelling (to me) about the struggle to organize experience (while also figure out how to read discontinuites, the gaps in the record–and also how to read among different mediums–the laptop and the printed page, the writing tablet of memory, even). There seems to be a real hopefulness in setting out to, say, rationalize the principles of political science according to that of geometry, to embark upon the project of distilling the best that has been thought and said.

Some of this, incidentally, is no doubt why I’ve been drawn back to strategic formalism lately, and even to some extent religion. I did have occasion to interrogate my relative lack of interest in Victorian science (save, of course, for the relatively narrow area of medical science’s debate over the signs of death). I was challenged especially by Vanessa Ryan’s talk on Herbert Spencer as a figure whose emphasis was on movement and function, not so much “what is this” but “what does this do”? I came away from that panel wondering if this sense of function is part of what still seems to be missing for me in accounts of new formalism–almost as if this is the thing that would make it really new–being able to apprehend movement as it moves, to respond to impermanence from impermanence.  And this turned out to be a version of the question I wanted to ask Veronica Alfano on Sunday before we ran out of time (and did ask her later on): if we put these short poems of Symons, these “moments” and “flashes” in motion on something like the zoopraxiscope, then what are we reading?

Perhaps another one of the questions of the weekend (in my mind) was communicability, how information is packaged and passed on, how it becomes “real ground.” From what some of the archival historians said, it almost seems like something becomes the “real ground” by not being intentionally archived… I was haunted by Paul Saint-Amour’s talk on archives and the fossil record, which raised this question of the accidental registry and problematized the very meaning of human agency (at the very least). This took on a more materialist (and Gothic) dimension in Christopher Keep’s talk on the Victorian “archive crisis” of the 1840s, the point at which it came to light that the records that secured the power of the British state were literally rotting away in basements or being sold off for 8 pounds per ton to fishmongers and jelly-makers (even though some of the paper was, as Keep put it, “too decayed even for the jelly-makers”). However, it’s clear that not every government is keeping up with its archival responsibilities, even today.

And then there’s the fragility of both system and archive: does it disintegrate if you touch it or bring it into the light? Is the magic gone if you can get your head around it? Can you laugh at the silliness but still admit later on, “I don’t know how he did that”? Marjorie Stone projected an image of Browning’s empty writing portfolio, complete with doodles and some transcribed lines from EBB. These aren’t usually the materials I work with, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make me feel something.

That brings up a question of method that I’m not going to take up here, because with the footnotes and everything I’m way over even my usual word count. (And I didn’t even get to talk about Asmodeus, the spirit of systems, or most of the papers that people gave.) But if it makes sense to end on omissions, then this might be a good ending. It was also a rather light year for literature papers–though I did feel like there was a bit more poetry than usual. But, then again, there’s always next year.

More immediately, there is tomorrow, when I head up to Columbia for the Politics of Form conference.

Wow do I love Spring on the East Coast Victorian studies circuit. 🙂

*Here I insert the usual caveats. I missed the first day. I didn’t sleep particularly well. I drank too much coffee. This is all way, way, way out of my field. Infelicities in my reporting should not reflect poorly on the speakers. I am being unsystematic and my archive is highly incomplete.

**I tweeted a link to “In Xanadu Did Kubla Khan a Stately Power Point Decree” in McSweeney’s a couple days before I left and now feel like that was a hopelessly outmoded move on my part.

***Except if it does — which was part of the point that Devin Griffiths was making in his reconsideration of  Matthew Arnold’s project of distilling “the best that has been thought and said” as a project of “Tweeting the Bible.” (I will admit, by the way, to enjoying the part where the talk was interrupted by a tweet from @Mat_Arnold. And if that makes me a geek, so be it.)  

****I liked the magic show, okay? But I will try to cut down on the footnoting.

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Last week when I was hanging around the site reliving past glories, I was sort of shocked to realize how out of date my project description is – the prospectus I mention being about to hand in was approved way back in November of 2008. (I was also like, man, we’ve been blogging kind of a long time, albeit sporadically.)

So, what do things look like nearly three years, four chapters, two articles, and one pass at the job market later? I now call my project “That Willing Suspension”: Signification and the Ethics of Literary Form in 19th-century British Poetry – very dissertation-y, but doing the job for right now. Somewhere along the line I decided not to write on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and, more recently, have decided to write a chapter on Percy Shelley. Among other things, the change suggests that I’m really trying to think this as a credible “long 19th century” project, trying to do something other than write an influence study, say, and it also has the effect of at least loosening the grip of 1855. Many of my original ideas about suspension have proved to be pretty constant and borne out in these poems (I was able to mine the prospectus for parts of my dissertation abstract, for instance). Right now, there are two central threads in all of this: suspension marks the limits of our ability to know (as in the suspension of reference or suspended animation), but it also structures a response to that uncertainty (a movement that I argue is parallel to the way that the Kantian sublime is supposed to work—the inhibition followed by supersensible awareness). And I’ve spent a lot of time, particularly as of late, trying to recover experiences of failure and falling short and consider the different kinds of efforts that people make to work through those and remain receptive to experience. Where Matthew Arnold said that poetry was a criticism of life, I’d also say that it constitutes a practice of living. You know, if I wanted to make a slogan out of it.

In the chapter I’m revising right now on Christina Rossetti, I’ve found myself talking less about “images” or “language” of suspension, less about the de Manian referential aberration, and more about techniques or practices of suspension. I’ve started to call this a shift into “method,” though I perhaps have yet to fully work out what that means. In some ways, I’m trying to draw a distinction between the willing giving-over of one’s “disbelief” (as in Coleridge) to an even more actively undertaken mental posture of engaging with an impermanent world. Part of my argument about Rossetti is that suspension is part of her ongoing practice of faith – not a doctrine, but a method of maintaining a balance between engagement and non-attachment. I’ve also been trying to use Rossetti to think about other experiences that overlap with suspension, such as the state of being “held up,” which to me suggests both exemplarity (being held up as an example) and frustration (finding yourself thwarted, prevented from moving forward). This is proving to be more complicated than I bargained for, but it may provide a way for me to get past some of the binaries I’ve been rather comfortably deconstructing over the past few years.

Through all of this, I’ve probably moved closer to formalism than I anticipated. I’m still  not sure that what I’m doing is formalism per se, but it does certainly have an affinity to the practices of strategic formalism that Caroline Levine laid out in her 2006 Victorian Studies article. I talk a lot about how suspension enables my poets to make interventions in other fields – philosophy, religion, science, and so on – which is, I think, somewhat similar to what Levine is getting at when she posits a “destabilizing” relationship between literary and other institutional forms. It’s possible that suspension is (at least partially) what happens when certain kinds of forms overlap, a kind of force field produced most strongly by poetic form when it meets, say, religious doctrine. (I feel like there must be a way to talk about this in terms of musical suspension, the dissonance produced by unexpected simultaneity … but I never quite feel myself to be on solid ground here.)

Religion itself has also become a lot more present in the dissertation. In retrospect, it seems like a fairly obvious direction for a project that deals with, say, Browning’s “Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” or that comes within ten feet of anything Christina Rossetti ever wrote. It’s also, of course, present in Coleridge: the “willing suspension of disbelief” is what “constitutes poetic faith.” And yet. It’s only recently that I feel like I’ve begun to consider these questions on their own terms, possibly as the central terms of this project. (And the religion thing is really the subject of another post.) We’ll see, of course, how that shakes out when I start writing about Shelley next month.

I know it’s been awhile, Long Nineteenth Century Blog. It’s not that I didn’t want to come visit and tell you everything I was doing in the world of Romantic/Victorian geekery, it’s just, well, you know. Things got busy. Did you know I’ve written *two* dissertation chapters since we last talked? And I don’t really have internet access at my house, and then I was on the market and it was just…well, you know. Life got so complicated. I mean, you know how it is, right? It’s not you, Long 19th Century Blog, it’s me.

So, it’s been about ten months since my last post. And, yes, I have written two chapters, gone on the market (unsuccessfully in the traditional sense, but I’m glad I did it, I still like MLA, and it didn’t crush me in the way it’s “supposed to”), rethought a lot of the project, started thinking a lot about religion, gave a long format talk on Browning at the CUNY Victorian seminar, strategized, theorized, historicized (well, not *too* much), and made some new friends. In a certain sense, I think I’ve started to get a better sense not just of the field but of myself in the field, feeling part of a community on a level I didn’t before. (Or you just hang around for seven years and eventually people start talking to you.) I guess I’d say that I’ve also started enjoying myself again.

So, for now at least, here I am. The future of the Poem of the Week remains uncertain, but I do plan to start posting here every now and then. (Yes, I know we’ve heard this before, etc.) And spring conferences are a good place to start, right?

Over the weekend, I was in Columbus at the very wonderful British Women Writers Conference, where I was talking about Christina Rossetti’s The Prince’s Progress — that is, the long narrative poem she wrote that isn’t Goblin Market. It was a truly lovely conference, and you can relive much of the magic via Twitter,* thoughts that include reflections on my first time as a legitimate member of the “backchannel” in any meaningful way. (Funny to think that a couple of years ago, we were all excited about liveblogging — who knew at the time that would end up seeming so 2009?) There are also several conferences I’m looking forward to in the coming weeks — NVSA is coming up on the 15th, there’s the Politics of Form grad conference at Columbia on the 22nd, and of course, the CUNY Victorian conference on May 6. Good times, and I’m hoping to tweet my way through at least some of these, depending on where I and my iPod can wrangle some free wi-fi access. (I tweet as @annecmccarthy, though not exclusively or even predominantly about matters of the Long 19th Century.)

It was my first time at the BWWC, and I applied mostly because of a special session on poetic form. In the end, I didn’t make it on that panel, but I did give the paper as part of a session on Christina Rossetti (where, oddly enough, I was the only women — my copanelists and the moderator were male, which is something of a feat given the overall demographics of the conference). What I didn’t realize until I got to Columbus was that the single-author panel was a relatively rare beast at this conference (or, in keeping with the theme of the weekend, a curiosity). Most of the other sessions had individual papers from all over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a surprising number of genres being represented as well. In some ways, that made it hard for me to choose which panels to attend (I’m sometimes a bit of a poetry snob), but I ended up appreciating the chance to leave my own period and genre comfort zones and actually, well, learn things. (Not that I don’t learn things in my normal conferencegoing experience, of course, but still…)

Along those same lines, I was really impressed by the generic range of the keynotes. The plenary panel on the first night with Caroline Levine, Sandra Macpherson, and Robyn Warhol was heavily pitched towards the novel (which, admittedly, I groused about at the time), but the second night had Sharon Marcus talking to us about Sarah Bernhard, and Helen Deutsch’s keynote on Saturday dealt rather dazzlingly with eighteenth-century poetry. All of which was quite wonderful. And I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with people both in and adjacent to “my” field, especially since I’m starting to reconceptualize my place in all of this, and to really try to worry this Romantic/Victorian divide as both an intellectual necessity and a professional strategy.** In fact, it was actually quite wonderful to be at a conference where it didn’t seem crazy to explain what I was doing, to talk about my plans for a fifth (!) chapter of the dissertation, and so on. I also had more than one conversation about religion, though that’s been one of the strangely predominant themes of the semester, and of the later work I’ve done for the diss. It’s a topic that, most likely, will deserve its own post or series thereof — there’s a lot I want to work out, and I haven’t yet decided what forum is going to work best for it.

Nevertheless, yay. Yay for the BWWC and for the upcoming conferences (where I don’t have to present anything).

And yay, of course, for at least a temporary return to blogging — still, apparently, in 1,000-word chunks.

*Yep, I was the person who met Tim Gunn at the airport.

**I don’t mean the second one in a cynical sense, by the way. Professional strategy is important and not necessarily soulless — this is one of the lessons I’ve had to internalize in these long unblogged months.