The 123rd MLA Annual Convention, Chicago, 27-30 Dec 2007

Guest Post: Andrew van der Vlies, University of Sheffield (

Parodic welcome flyers left in the atrium area of the Hyatt Regency – with the Sheraton Chicago one of the two major convention panel venues for this year’s annual extravaganza that is the Modern Language Association of America annual convention – expressed well the trepidations of this Southern Hemisphere-raised academic about Great Lakes weather: “Welcome to Chicago, because Newfoundland and Siberia were already booked”! However, a mild blizzard on the second day notwithstanding, Chicago weather was generally fine, the convention hotels well-heated, and the entire operation – from discussion forums, panels, business meetings of affiliate organisations and divisions, delegate assemblies, as well as cash bars and receptions on the sidelines – impressively well organised.

This was my first MLA experience and, not being on the job market (it seemed every second person under forty was), I had the bewildering choice of 784 panels. I could have followed any number of ‘strands’, from Medieval to Postcolonial, Children’s Literature to Life Writing, Latin American to East Asian, attending such panels as (opening the programme randomly) ‘New Reading Interfaces’, ‘Hipster Historiography: What is Beat Studies Now?’, ‘Global Thoreau’, ‘Mapping New Nigerian Literature’, ‘Current Research in John Donne Studies’, ‘Multilingual Sephardic Writing’, ‘Celebrity Coupledom and Cinematic Desire’, James Brown’, ‘Technologies of Horror in Latin America’, ‘The Cat in the Hat at Fifty’, ‘Ideenschmuggel: Heine’s Camouflage and Operative Writing’, ‘Teaching and Editing Early Modern Women’s Writing’, or ‘John Clare in History’. In the event, I attended none of these, charting a no-less eclectic course through the programme, attempting to take the measure of some fields closer to my own interests.

Session 39, ‘Conrad and Masculinity’, a panel arranged by the Joseph Conrad Society, seemed as good a place to start as any. Having spent a term of my Oxford MPhil, in late 1998, reading more or less all of Conrad’s work, I thought I’d see what Conrad scholars are up to nowadays. James Crane (a recent graduate of Loyola in Chicago) discussed some ‘geographies of masculinity’ in Conrad’s masterpiece, Nostromo. Accounting for the organisation of space in Sulaco in relation to what he called Nostromo’s ‘spectacular masculinity’ and ‘exceptional individuality’ (citing the character Decoud’s description), Crane attempted to argue that it is chiefly in relation to technologies of the masculine that the novel charts social and private relations. Russell Brickey, a graduate student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, followed, with a paper entitled ‘Man, Impulse, Violence, and the Jungle Effect: Masculine De-Evolution in Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress”’. This was much less convincing than Crane’s. Largely a synopsis, with little critical argument, it was riddled with unfortunate solecisms which, oddly, neither chair nor panellists nor anyone in the audience pointed out until I asked a late question prefaced with as diplomatic a series of corrections as I could manage: Leopold was king of the Belgians, not the Danes; Conrad’s characters are Belgian not British. Perhaps I broke some convention etiquette, though others in the room nodded vigorously. It was a case of saving the best till last: Jesse Taylor’s excellent paper on the work of the ‘face’, alterity, liminality, and the fetish in Heart of Darkness was astute, theoretically sophisticated, beautifully phrased, and modestly delivered. Taylor (PhD candidate, U Wisconsin, Madison) drew suggestively on Taussig’s ideas of the face to complement the ubiquitous Levinas, and offered some intriguing readings.

I’m afraid I missed a couple of intriguing-sounding panels later on Thursday (including ‘Modernist Mean Time’, featuring the excellent Jennifer Wenzel on South African author Sol Plaatje, and Magdalen College Oxford’s Laurie Maguire on a panel on early modern aesthetics and interpretation), as well as the Presidential forum, ‘The Humanities at Work in the World’. Time zone fatigue mostly banished by Friday morning, I fought my way through the snow to panel 187, ‘Brecht and Film Today’, convened by the International Brecht Society, and extremely well chaired by Barton Byg of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I arrived part way into Larson Powell’s (U Missouri, Kansas City) paper on Straub and Huillet’s Schoenberg films (having had to deliver a copy of my own, recently-published Manchester UP monograph to the Palgrave exhibition stand), and their use of direct sound, but heard three excellent papers in their entirety: Martin Kley (U Texas, Austin), ‘From Class Struggle to “Bourgeois War”: Michael Haneke and Brecht in Dialogue’; Christine Long (PhD student, Johns Hopkins), ‘Brechtian Turns in Pan’s Labyrinth’; and R. Patrick Kinsman (Indiana U, Bloomington), ‘New Queer Brechtian Cinema: Gregg Araki’s Totally F***ed Up (1993)’. Kley considered Haneke’s use of montage, of random and unexplained acts of violence, ekphrastic representations of cinema or television screens on-screen, and a constitution of a kind of corporal or corporeal political unconscious, as kinds of quasi-Brechtian techniques and apparatuses. He suggested that the Austrian filmmaker’s self-theorised engagements with Brechtian ideas, especially in his early trilogy (its title rendered as Glaciations, or Civil or – more suggestively – Bourgeois War), may in fact constitute misreadings, but nonetheless offer interventions which are useful in examining the ongoing usefulness of Brecht’s ideas (often variously reinterpreted) for contemporary cinema.

Chris Long’s discussion of Del Toro’s film was perhaps a stand-out paper of the convention for me: wonderfully contextualised, theoretically nuanced, and performing virtuoso close-reading. For example, she noted how the opening sequences of the film associates leftward turns of the camera with the young protagonist, Ofelia; rightward movements of the camera are always used with the fascist soldiers. Even the literal movements of the camera, Long observed, reflect the series of decisions which must be made by characters in the film, and their political implications. Long sketched affinities between Latin American dramatists’ and film-makers’ uses of strategies of alienation and their explorations of public and private trauma, and Brecht’s own work, but was careful to stress their own insistence on differences. She offered a sophisticated discussion, too, of sound design in the film. Patrick Kinsman’s paper, also excellent (and entertaining), considered Araki’s homage to Godard, and through Godard, affinities with Brecht, in Araki’s iconoclastic 1993 anti-‘teen movie’, one of the vanguard of the New Queer Cinema. I’ve not seen the film, but having heard the paper I shall seek it out!

Session 265, ‘Testimony in an Age of Terror’, featured three papers on the limits of representation, and the ethics of writing and remembering, in the context of the so-called ‘War on Terror’. An extremely well-attended session, and one bristling with political energy, its audience responded well – and with rigorous questions – to Gillian Whitlock’s (U Queensland) paper on an archive of letters from Afghan and other asylum seekers in Australian detention (or ‘processing’) centres (Whitlock is author of the recently published Soft Weapons about autobiography and life writing in the context of Afghan, Iraqi, and Iranian politics, and their representations in the West); to Nina Philadelphoff-Puren (Monash) on Australian former Guantanamo detainee David Hicks and restrictions on his ability to testify to torture (by coincidence, this was the day Hicks was to be released from detention in an Australian prison); and to a paper given jointly by Cynthia Franklin and Laura Elizabeth Lyons (both U Hawai‘i, Mãnoa) on cases of testimony offered by two mothers of American soldiers killed in Iraq.

Later on Friday, and unfortunately in an unfortunate ‘graveyard’ spot, the inimitable Linda Hutcheon chaired (superbly) a special session organised by the Division on Literature and Other Arts, entitled ‘Theorizing Adaptation: Ideology and the Medium’ (session 383). Patrick Denman Flanery (partner and colleague at Sheffield), drawing on the examples of adaptations of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited (specifically a 1956 BBC Home Service radio drama adaptation, and the celebrated 1981 Granada Television adaptation for ITV), offered a preliminary theorisation of the relationships among what most theories have hitherto construed as the ‘source’ text, and what Flanery calls a ‘family’ of adaptations – as well, crucially, as the multiple versions of the printed (‘source’) text. This he calls a ‘pluratextual’ approach, which would propel scholarship beyond arguments about fidelity, and draw on the energies of book-historical work to enliven discussion of publishing history and of adaptation. Raphael Lambert, currently teaching at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, explored the usefulness of the idea of ‘médiagénie’ to consider the manner in which some narratives lend themselves to media adaptation – with particular reference to narratives of the Middle Passage. Notwithstanding a small turnout, discussion was lively and engaging.

Despite my very good intentions to attend papers on two early panels on Saturday 29 December (sessions 411, ‘Violence, Terrorism, and Human Rights’; 413, ‘Queer Intermedia’), I just managed to be ready for my own – at 10.15am – after a preliminary reconnaissance of the exhibition space filled with publishers’ stands. Mine was a panel arranged by the Division on African Literature, convened by Charles Cantalupo, and titled ‘African Creative Nonfiction’. It featured Tobe Levin (U Maryland, European Division) on ‘Afro-European Activists: Confronting Female Genital Mutilation’; James McCorkle (Hobart and William Smith Colleges) on ‘The Body of Truth: Marie Béatrice Umutesi’s Memoir of a Refugee’; and my ‘“White. African. White-African”: Identity, Trauma, Genre, and Memory in the Works of Alexandra Fuller’. Questions were dominated by audience responses to the manner in which Levin had read passages graphically describing FGM (several members of the audience left during the most harrowing passages).

Later that afternoon (after more time with the book displays), to a packed conference room, the newest constituted (and now largest) division of the MLA, the Division on Postcolonial Studies in Literature and Culture, presented a panel (number 544) on ‘Postcolonial Studies since 1983: Reflective Assessments’. The Chair, David Chioni Moore (Macalester College), explained the date: the first expressly postcolonial-themed panel at an MLA convention, including Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha as speakers. Tejumola Olaniyan (Wisconsin, Madison), Vilashini Cooppan (UC Santa Cruz), John Charles Hawley (Santa Clara), and Alfred J Lopez (Purdue, West Lafayette) offered assessments of recent developments in the field, and suggested challenges and avenues for exploration ahead. Of these, I found the first and third speakers the most engaging – in Olaniyan’s case, witty, polemical, and usefully interpretive – and on topic. Cooppan’s was a mildly pedestrian survey of the relevance or otherwise of ‘world systems theory’ and studies of the history of the novel to postcolonial cultures (developing multiple metaphors of space for conceiving of the field and its purview, past and future), Lopez’s a tentative gloss on the suggestiveness of the ‘post-global’ which added little to the discussion. Olaniyan’s diagnosis of two broad sweeps of postcolonial theorising, the affirmative (which he associated with theorists asserting the value of difference, and associated with anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial materialist scholars like Aijaz Ahmad, amongst others – and dominant in what Mbembe calls the ‘postcolony’) and the interstitial (theorists of the contingent and hybrid, of mimicry and the provisional – and dominant in the ‘metropole’), provoked constructive critique and discussion (with Ato Quayson leading responses from the floor). Sangeeta Ray asked, pointedly, what had happened to discussions of postcolonial feminism. Hawley had dealt, all-too-briefly, with questions of gender and sexuality, so this was, indeed, a theme missing from the papers. The panel will feature in a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies, to be edited by Moore and Lopez. It will be interesting to see what kinds of arguments join the panellists’.

A feature of the MLA Convention is the array of functions hosted by publishers or university departments, usually with cash bars, in both convention hotels. Opportunities to network, see and be seen, these are perennially popular. I decided instead to sample Oxford University Press’s spread at the launch of four new journals, including Adaptation Studies. Lobster, oysters, an open bar, and a very good selection of fruit, suggested I’d chosen wisely. I also met some fascinating fellow delegates, before venturing north of the river to seek out some fine Chicago restaurant fare – much to be had, mostly west of the Magnificent Mile.

Sunday morning found me in the audience – again, sadly, too small – for another panel, this time on film and Africa: ‘African Blood, Hollywood’s Diamonds: Recent Cinematic Inventions of Africa’ (session 691), a special session chaired by MaryEllen Higgins (Penn State, Greater Allegheny), and featuring Heike Harting (Montreal) on Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland , ‘military cosmopolitanism’, and what Harting called ‘humanitarianist capital’; Patrick Denman Flanery (Sheffield) – again – on the film adaptation of Antjie Krog’s (mostly) nonfiction account of reporting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Country of My Skull (the film being John Boorman’s In My Country); and Higgins’ colleague Clifford Manlove on representations of Africa in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. All were suggestive and intriguing, though Harting’s attracted some hostile attention from an audience member outraged at suggestions about the representation of humanitarian aid. Flanery’s paper criticised Boorman, and Anne Peacock (the screenwriter), for claiming that In My Country provided accurate recreations of TRC testimony; Flanery offered detailed analysis of selected scenes, comparing them with Krog’s work, and with the TRC transcripts, to point to serious, ethically-troubling ellipses, distortions, and changes, and to argue that in the case of such representations of trauma at least, a certain concern with fidelity, and with the ownership of testimony, must be attended to. All three papers, and others, will appear in a collection to be published by the University of Delaware Press in 2009.

Looking back over the programme, I am struck by a number of panels I might or perhaps ought to have attended. As a first experience of a potentially bewildering ‘event’, however, I think I did it justice! Kudos to the organisers, who put on an enlightening display and welcome event for new MLA members on the Thursday evening. Doubtless even more delegates will be eager to attend the 2008 convention – to be held in the milder, coastal air of San Francisco, on the same dates at the end of this year.

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