Tag Archives: literature

NASSR 2010: Romantic Mediations (remediated)

This year’s conference for the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) was co-hosted by UBC, SFU, and the U of Victoria, and held in downtown Vancouver, just blocks from Stanley Park.

View from the top-floor conference rooms of the hotel. Not distracting at all.


This year’s theme, Romantic Mediations, was particularly productive. I say this mostly because of my own research interest in Romanticism’s popular cultural legacies, but also because of the program’s focused and lively discussions, and, in part, because of the increasingly mediated culture of academic conferences.

The theme directed a lot of attention to the diversity of media forms and the materiality of cultural production in the Romantic period. In the first keynote on Thurs., Aug. 18, William Warner and Clifford Siskin advocated a “history of mediation” as a material and concrete alternative to the more traditional but abstract “history of ideas.” Their presentation seemed both coy and provocative: coy, in that their argument seemed to build (albeit productively, imho) on both Marx and McLuhan without acknowledging either; provocative, in that they styled their talk as an exhortation to adopt their approach. The discussion that followed was feisty: some took issue with what seemed a faddish adoption of computing terminology; some grilled them on their sources and precedents; and some felt they were preaching to the converted, advocating a kind of historical materialism already old very old hat to a field transformed thirty years ago by New Historicism. (For my part, I was left curious enough to at least check out their work, like the Re-Enlightenment Project.)

The theme also prompted a lot of contributions on Romantic theatre and performance, leading me to compile a much better bibliography than that which I’d drawn on to draft the talk I was to give on Saturday (in the second of Danny O’Quinn’s two sessions on “media archaeology”). Fred Burwick’s session on Romantic drama included a paper by Melynda Nuss that I initially worried would moot my own, in her claim that “the technology itself was one of the main items on display” in Romantic theatre. But for Nuss this was premise not thesis for an engaging look at the period’s spectacular “aqua-dramas”: plays on nautical themes, with water scenes that drove the invention of some pretty heavy stage machinery. Subsequently, Friday’s keynote gave me the historical puzzle pieces I didn’t know I’d been looking for, as the Welsh science historian Iwan Rhys Morus gave a tour of the theatrical culture of science in Romantic Britain, and how it gave way to the more professional, less sensational practices of Victorian science. (Now I had more than a better bibliography for my work on the first Frankenstein plays–I had to tweak the paper itself, to give a nod to Morus’ work.)

Dr Morus tells us about the predecessors of Dr Moreau.

This keynote took place at SFU’s Woodward campus, nestled between regular downtown and Vancouver’s downtown east side. Strangely, this would not be the only time the conference found itself adjacent to a zombie parade. Moments before the final keynote on Saturday, I was out on the second-storey hotel terrace overlooking Denman Street, alone except for the keynote speaker, Dr Heather Jackson, composing herself before her talk with a crossword. Shouts from the street drew us to the railing, where a hundreds-strong march soon resolved into a mass zombie walk of the kind so popular now.

What do they want? Brainsss. (Photo credit: Louise)


They staggered down the street. They swarmed a parked bus.

Zombie walk participants swarm a bus. (Photo credit: Goh.)

What a perfect performance of re-mediated Gothic. And there I was, caught for once without my camera to re-remediate it. Of course, what with the ubiquity of cameras and the end of privacy and all, most of the zombies brought along their own cameras, documenting the day in sometimes too much detail.

Surely (as Byron told Banks of vivisection) this is too much. (Photo credit: Christine)

But perhaps I digress. Among the proceedings and festivities, some recurring points of reference that were not zombies also emerged, notably Friedrich Kittler’s history of discourse networks circa 1800 and 1900, and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s theory of remediation: the “contradictory imperative” to resort to hyper-mediation as a means to simulate immediacy, as a perennial response to new and emergent media. For example: describing a printed text as an improvised performance (the topic of Angela Esterhammer’s fascinating seminar); or, for a more contemporary example, tweeting from a conference discussion in progress (i.e. “hyper-mediating” an immediate, “live” experience) to communicate some of the interest and urgency of the moment.

Ironically, however, the growing intensity of digital remediation and back-channel dialogue that have become a much-discussed trend in the digital Humanities–“conference hacking,” if you will–were not much in evidence at NASSR (held at a hotel with free wireless, no less). I could find only one other delegate, Katherine D. Harris, who was tweeting the proceedings. The listserv seemed dormant during the event, although it has circulated some well-deserved kudos to the organizers since (which I enthusiastically echo); similarly quiet during the event was the NASSR grad students’ blog, which now has some post-game commentary. I was alerted to a Facebook page for Romantics scholars, where some delegates have shared remarks and reviews. There may well have been more digital mediating of a conference whose theme so clearly invited it, and maybe I just wasn’t picking up the right channels.

And I could have been doing more, for my own part: I could have posted my suggested hash-tag on the listserv; I could have made time for more than tweeting, which admittedly has its limits for encapsulating conceptual complexity. (After all, it’s only now that I’ve found the time to share my own reflections on the event in detail.) I suppose I was just expecting more of the “remediating,” real-time back channel with which Twitter has become so good at supplying (supplementing?) other conferences like the MLA convention.

I’m not advocating more digital dialogue and mediation because it’s increasingly ubiquitous elsewhere, or just to appear tuned in and wired up (although there is a case to be made that publicly remediating debates over literary history and politics can help to change public perceptions about the stakes–or perceived lack thereof–in such fields). As shown by so many of the talks I attended in Vancouver; as shown by NASSR’s attention to media (from prior conference themes like techne and newness to systems like the listserv itself); and as shown by the wider field’s deep and diverse investments in new media (the Blake Archive, Romantic Circles, RaVoN): the discourse networks and media ecologies around 1800 have continued to shape and resonate with our experiences of discourse networks and media ecologies around 2000. So playing more extensively with the interface of hyper-mediated and immediate modes of communication and representation–playing, that is, with remediation in the performance scene of the conference–can shed new light on the ideologies and implications of media (both new and dead), and can transform the shape and tone of the conference as such, which is by no means a new medium, but one that can be not only compromised, but also (and at the same time) enriched and extended by the myriad forms and deployments of remediation.

Congress 2010, day three

Diana Brydon delivers CACLALS keynote on cognitive justice. Photo courtesy of Boundry.


First stop: Diana Brydon’s keynote for CACLALS. A talk about “cognitive justice,” which we were encouraged to define for ourselves, before she described it as the goal of “reciprocal knowledge production based on dialogues across differences.” She discussed Europe’s Bologna process to illustrate some of the obstacles — and opportunities — for higher education generally (“global higher ed for the moment is more Americanized than it is globalized”) and for postcolonial studies in particular: “neither the political nor the epistemological challenges posed by postcolonial thinking have yet been met.”

Was nice to run into AU colleague Joe Pivato there. Despite what the next photo suggests, I am in fact neither falling asleep nor drunk.

Surprise! You need more coffee. Photo courtesy of Boundry.

Surprise! (At least one of you can see where the camera is.)

Second stop: Saskia Sassen’s keynote for the Royal Society of Canada. This dizzying keynote mapped new connections among territory, authority, and rights (as per her eponymous book) — connections not quite national nor global either, like weaponized state borders (e.g. the USA’s) and the remittances of migrants’ income to their home countries (lots of money travels this way). Her main illustration? States now buying territories in other states, expulsing the people to get at the water, agricultural, and mineral resources. Coca Cola: kicked out of India and then “gently invited to leave” New York state for using up fresh water resources. (Because it takes 15 litres of water to make 1 litre of Coke!) Or China: in talks to buy millions of hectares in the Congo and Zambia for palm-oil plantations. Land purchases that Sassen says are illegal (i.e. states cannot buy the territories of other states), but leveraged through some combination of policy grey zones and tactical blind-eye turning.

In the Q&A that followed, Sassen fielded five questions in a row before answering each in sequence — an impressive performance of recall, improv, and reflection.

But the Q&A went long enough we’d only time for a hurried patio lunch before

Third stop: Will Straw’s keynote for ACCUTE. This was a glimpse into the queer bohemia and pulp press of 1920s Greenwich Village, complete with Canadian connections and a cast of characters that seemed taken from some melodrama of moustache-twirling villains. Among the slides he showed of period gossip tabloids and “spicy” magazines, it was difficult not to get distracted by incidental details. Like the half-page ad for “Melz’s original dissolving rubber prophylactics: more protection, more pleasure!” WTF?

The face one makes on seeing a vintage magazine ad for dissolving rubber prophylactics.

Last stop: the annual ACCUTE dance party. It’s always such fun, and shows such a different and uniquely humanizing side of people, where we get to check our formal roles (student, professor, etc.) at the door … I know I’ve got a thing for dance culture, but I remain amazed that ACCUTE is the only society at Congress that regularly throws a dance party. (Haven’t all the other societies been spending most of the day sitting too?)

Congress 2010, day two

Half the fun of Congress: random reunions.


This morning’s plenary panel for ACCUTE featured three speakers on the complex relationships of First Nations students and scholars to the university in general and English literary studies in particular. Len Findlay moderated and I’m always amazed how eloquently he mixes vernacular and learned language: he described three “frames” of discourse now “re-confining” Canada’s First Nations as “mess up, dress up, and ‘fess up” (referring to the continuing crisis of FNU and the truth & reconciliation procedures taking up the legacy of residental schools, for a couple of examples). Author Warren Cariou advocated “more comprehensive, embodied attention to orality in university literary curriculum” as a means to foster “more genuinely intercultural analysis.” Film-maker and scholar Tasha Hubbard reflected on the complex lived ironies of “indigenous grad students as pioneers” in academia, and very usefully detailed the responsibilities, priorities, and anxieties that First Nations grad students — most of whom come to grad school later in life — must work through while navigating an academic environment too often rife with misunderstanding and racism. Daniel Heath Justice made an impassioned case against chronically “low expectations” for First Nations students: “when you expect the best of people,” and establish a setting in which they can succeed, he said, “they rarely disappoint.” He also gave one of the most plain-speaking rationales of English literary studies I think I’ve ever heard:

Books saved my life. … Literature has changed my life. It initiated my cultural recovery. It didn’t start at home. It started in the academy and it brought me home.

Had lunch with Ben Lefebvre, a grad-school peer from Guelph, now a leading L. M. Montgomery scholar. Then I visited the people at AU Press to find out about open-access publishing: that is, releasing a free electronic edition alongside the for-purchase print edition. U of Ottawa P and maybe WLU P also do this, though AUP introduced OA publishing to Canada.

Paying more attention to Congress-wide events, I went to Ed Broadbent’s talk this afternoon. Watch an archived video of his talk here.

Ed Broadbent addresses Congress. Photo courtesy of Boundry.


He compared the “Golden age of the common man” — the thirty years after World War Two — with the “new barbarism” that began its ascendancy in the hard right turn of the 1980s. Broadbent stressed that social and economic rights (materialized in policies like universal health care, old-age pensions, and other “social safety-net” policies) are legally required in Canada, under section 36 of the 1982 Constitution Act and under Canada’s commitments to the UN (whose foundational 1948 declaration of human rights, he reminded us, was drafted by a Canadian, John Humphrey).

Amidst his more pragmatic, policy-oriented criticisms, Broadbent also supplied a useful interpretive tool for decoding the claims and arguments of neoconservative politicians and ideologues: “when a party advocates slashing housing, health and other benefits, they are assaulting our social and economic rights.” And he made a plug for reading too, encouraging everyone to read The Spirit Level. The authors studied dozens of countries to conclude that more equal societies (those that deliver social services to honour UN and constitutional commitments to social and economic rights) are more stable, just, healthy — better off in every way. Significantly, the USA and the UK ranked at the bottom of the authors’ scale; as Broadbent put it, “unequal societies are not only unfair, they’re dysfunctional.” And he noted that Canada’s ranking somewhere around the middle, but “is becoming more unequal more rapidly than other developed countries.” “It’s time to reverse the trend to growing inequality,” he declared, and cited a survey from the Manning Institute, of all places, showing that 82% of Canadians believe government should play a role in reducing poverty and inequality.

Makes me wish 82% of Canadians would turn out to vote.

The Q&A was feisty, as it kicked off with an NDP hater who seemed keener to rant than query; Broadbent gave just as feisty a retort about the quesitoner’s premises. Nice to see some crackin’, heckle-filled, hot-blooded debate, a welcome change from all the “I’m wondering about…” that’s more typical in my area.

Broadbent's Congress audience. Photo courtesy of Boundry.