[Orig published 1/9/18]
Around six pm on Saturday night, turning into the home stretch of #mla18, I left after a blazingly powerful session on Approaching 1492 from the Middle Ages that left the submerged resonance of the year 1000 pinballing around my imagination — the date of the Vinland settlement and also the start, according to Callum Roberts’s magisterial Unnatural History of the Sea, of a decline in fresh-water fish in continental Europe that drove fisherman out onto the salt flood. Walking out of the Hilton, I picked up around ten increasingly urgent text and voice messages: my family’s voyage home from San Francisco that day, already jostled by Delta’s canceling of their early flight into JFK, had encountered stomach flu over the Rockies. It wasn’t clear if they’d be allowed to board the connection into Hartford, or even if that connection would go. After some confused consultation, I rush-packed and taxi-ed to Grand Central, emailing myself out of dinner plans & hoping Metro North would get me home in time to help whoever made it to CT. It was a long cold return: all three of them made it, but not until after 1 am, by which time the temp dipped down to 2 degrees below zero. The three travelers were sick, exhausted, and cold. It was good to be able to welcome them to a warmed-up house and to offer food that no stomach wanted.
That intrusion of reality wasn’t quite the end of my #mla18. While travelers slept on Pacific time the next morning, I drove back to midtown for the Site Specifics panel that closed us out at noon on Sunday. But my disorienting shift out of the MLA’s intellectual flow and into the embodied intensity of parenting sick kids whiplashed me into thinking differently about the conference, its demands and pleasures, and the pressure we put on ourselves and those around us in order to make MLA possible. I usually think about the ethics of MLA in terms of the way it tortures grad students and job seekers, which horrors are being partly transformed by the innovation of first-round Skype interviews, now pretty common, and I hope fast becoming the new norm. After this year’s storm-and-freeze, I’m thinking also about what we’re asking of ourselves.
If we decouple the conference from hotel-room-job-interviews, what is MLA for? Can we reimagine and remake it into something new? What would that new thing be?
I’m not sure I have answers to these questions, but they are the things I’m thinking about as I mull MLA during this week’s slow thaw.
I went to ten brilliant panels in four days:
Thursday: s17: Early Modern Biopolitics; s84 Anthropocene Reading
Friday: s254 Tyranny ; s437 Early English Consent
Sat: s472 Marlowe’s Aesthetics; s507 Precarious Bonds in Shakespeare; s564 Weak Environmentalism; s614 Texts and Localities in Early Modern England; s702 Approaching 1492 from the Middle Ages
Sun: s821: Site Specifics
I hauled back ten books that have no places on my overflowing bookshelves:
Kellie Robertson, Nature Speaks (Penn)
Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Duke)
Dexter Zavalaza Hough-Snee and Alexander Sotelo Eastman, eds., The Critical Surf Studies Reader (Duke)
Heidi Brayman, Jesse Lander, Zachary Lesser, eds., The Book in History, The Book as History (Yale)
Two Object Lessons (Bloomsbury): Bill Germano, Eye Chart & Paul Josephson, Traffic
Four Forerunners (Minnesota): Andrew Culp, Dark Deleuze, William Connelly, Aspirational Fascism, John Hartigan, Jr. Aesop’s Anthropology, Davide Panagia, Ten Theses for an Aesthetics of Politics
But that pair of tens doesn’t capture the swirling riches of midtown in deep freeze, muffled in snow and academic discourses.
I’ll unravel three bread-crumb threads from my circuitous #mla18:
Sixteenth-Century English Literature
I’m on my second of five years as a member of the 16c English Literature Forum, and we supported three great panels this year. I chaired a session on Tyranny with papers from Henry Turner, Stephanie Elsky, and Drew Daniel that was so thrilling and painfully apt that we’re going to reprise it at #RSA18 in NOLA in a few months. We co-sponsored a panel on Early English Consent with the Chaucer group; that session lost its paper on Measure for Measure and its feminist theoretical respondent to the bomb cyclone, but the remaining papers, William Quinn on Chaucer and Maggie Solberg on late medieval Mariolotry, were really strong. The last session on Texts and Localities featured Vim Pasupathi’s brilliant archival work on military musters on and off English stages and Eric Weiskott’s excavation of prophetic texts from the 13th to 16th centuries. Over our dinner meeting, the Forum board talked mostly about the panels we want to sponsor, but we also speculated a bit about the shape(s) of the field. My fantasy-future MLA will have more field-shaping.
St. John’s English PhD Happy Hour!
The most joyous event of the weekend — which I nearly neglected in my zeal to write about all the academic panels before they vanished into non-memory — was the Happy Hour on Friday night for the St. John’s English PhD. The event, which gathered together about two dozen grad students and a hearty cadre of maybe ten faculty in a repurposed conference room in the Sheraton, celebrated our efforts, over the past dozen or so years, to reimagine and recreate the English graduate program at St. John’s. Building our case for many different audiences, from the SJU administration and Board of Trustees to a pair of eagle-eyed academic reviewers and eventually New York State’s Board of Ed, we relied on consistently on the same refrain: we have brilliant students. I had to skip out of the Happy Hour mid-bash to get to my 16c English forum dinner, but throughout the conference I was deeply impressed by the insights and dedication of the SJU students that I saw and heard speak at panels, roundtables, and other events. Plus — in an event sure to warm the heart of any ex-DGS — it was a treat to talk with one SJU student negotiating a job offer in mid-MLA!
Ecocrit and the Environmental Humanities
I also followed, as I usually do, the raft of Environmental Humanities panels. On Th afternoon we filled an overheated Hilton ballroom for a roundtable on the new book Anthropocene Reading, which featured seven of the contributors but, alas, neither Tobias Menely nor Jesse Oak Taylor, our brilliant West-coast editors. I’ve really loved being in this collection, and short talks about Emily Dickinson, indigenous writing traditions, J. M. Coetzee, and semi-randomized Anthropocene pedagogy gave me lots to think with. The high moment of the panel was Dana Luciano’s stunning “Dear Anthropocene” epistolary performance, in which she voiced her powerful ambivalence about this increasingly dominant term in the eco-humanities. Saturday noon featured an all-star lineup for Weak Environmentalism, featuring Jane Bennett, Jeffrey Cohen, Wai Chee Dimock, Paul Saint-Amour, and Susan Wolfson. What is the relationship between weakness and strength?
The last panel of the conference, Site Specifics, about eco-crit in post-industrial New York, was my favorite event of the weekend and a highlight of over two decades of MLAs. Katie Hogan started us off with a shrewd and persuasive reading of urban-rural hybridity via Fun Home. Caroline Holland entangled Mayor Bloomberg’s Million Trees Campaign with John Ashberry’s lyric vision. Anthony Lloi asked us to image rats as undercitizens, oysters as infracitizens, and imaginary creatures as ur-citizens of the metropolis. Kathleen Coyne Kelly presented on speculative futures of Manhattan, via both sci-fi and architectural design competitions. I revealed my obsession with Newtown Creek. Orchid Tierney closed us out with a brilliant reading of Fresh Kills in Staten Island as a subject of Anthropocene poetry and as itself a more-than-human artwork.
I can’t remember enjoying a session more, or feeling more part of something brilliant, new, and generative coming into being as at that final panel, in which the on-stage party of seven (six presenters plus Byron Caminero-Santangelo as chair) more than doubled our three hardy audience members, who themselves contributed great and searching questions in our too-short time frame. Site Specifics represents the future I want for MLA: a short time of intense and speculative sharing, working across time periods and methodologies, willing new things into being through conversation and imagination. Give me excess of it, as the lovesick Duke says in Twelfth Night!