Conference Review: Posthumanist Modernism at the 2017 ACLA Annual Meeting

July 6-9 2017, University of Utrecht
Saskia McCracken, University of Glasgow

Posthumanism and Modernism have been intimately connected since at least 2010, when Cary Wolfe dedicated a chapter of his ground-breaking book What is Posthumanism? to the poetry of Wallace Stevens [1]. Since then, Posthumanist concerns have become increasingly prevalent in Modernist studies, with recent books on Modernism and ecology [2], Modernism and animals [3], and research on Modernism and matter [4], to name but a few examples. Posthumanist studies is characterised, to over-simplify things, by a turn away from humanism and the anthropocentric, towards the nonhuman, and the interconnection of human and nonhuman beings, objects, and ecologies. This year’s annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association in Utrecht offered a range of seminar streams, and featured keynotes from Mieke Bal, Rey Chow (Duke University), Trinh T. Minh-ha (University of California, Berkley). One of these three-day seminar streams was titled Posthumanist Modernism.

This particular stream brought together scholars from across the globe to discuss international Modernist writing and art, all from a Posthumanist angle. According to one of the organisers, Alberto Godioli, this comparative Posthumanist approach ‘allows us to appreciate an important aspect of the Modernist legacy, since the authors we discussed seem to anticipate many of the issues and concerns that are currently at the centre of the ongoing debate on the Posthuman’. The international scope also challenged the often Anglo-centric approach to Modernism that we’re used to in Britain.

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I am not able to do justice to each of the seminar papers presented, although all of them are relevant to Modernist scholarship today. Instead I’ll point to a few of the papers that highlight the range of the series in terms of Modernists discussed and approaches taken. Angela Fernandes (Lisbon University) introduced many of us to Ramón Gómez de la Serna, the Spanish writer who created the one-man movement of Ramonism, and whose writing parodies humanist scientific endeavour. In contrast to this example of anti-humanism, Pavilna Radia (Nipissing University) presented on what she calls the impulse towards ‘metabodies’ in the work of early twentieth century writer and choreographer Valentine de Saint-Point. Radia claims this work anticipates contemporary holographs and avatars, the beyond-human. These papers foreground Modernists with very different approaches to the sciences and human hubris, both of whom deserve greater critical attention.

The series did not focus on canonical Modernist male writers such as Joyce, Eliot and Pound, although there was a panel dedicated to the apparently anti-humanist writing of Samuel Beckett. The series did, however, offer a wealth of Posthumanist work on twentieth century women writers and artists. Derek Ryan (University of Kent) discussed Katherine Mansfield’s celebration of the ‘cowiness of the cow’, highlighting the difference between anthropomorphic and anthropocentric depictions of animals. Laura Oulanne (University of Helsinki) argued that American writer Djuna Barnes wrote short stories which de-centred the human in favour of assemblages of furniture and artworks. Vera Alexander (University of Groningen) spoke of painter and writer Emily Carr ‘wrestling for space and equal value for different creatures’ through an aesthetic of the anti-human sublime. Objects, animals, and environments were evidently key to the ethics and aesthetics of several Modernist authors and artists.

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Organisers Godioli (University of Groningen) and Marco Caracciolo (Ghent University) proposed models for approaching Posthumanist Modernism, respectively: a ‘Posthumanist continuum in Italian Modernism’ (which ranged from writing that celebrates biodiversity to tropes of cosmic irony), and a typology of metaphors for human and nonhuman ‘enmeshment’. These models were useful for thinking through the work of the authors and artists discussed. The stream might have benefitted from papers on work by POC – the scope of the seminars was international but rather white. Other authors discussed included Italian writers Pirandello, Calvino, and Palazzaschi; Serbian author Radoje Domanovic; Russian exile Viktor Shklovsky; Swedish playwright August Strindberg; as well as English language writers including Virginia Woolf, Graham Swift, and Kate Chopin. The series evidenced the range of Posthumanist approaches to Modernism, and the need for such research. Whether you are new to Posthumanist Modernism, or have a passion for a particular niche in the field, you’ll find something for everyone in any forthcoming conference proceedings.

Photos by Carmen Van den Bergh


[1] Wolfe, Cary, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2010)

[2] Schuster, Joshua, The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics (Alabama: Alabama UP, 2015)

[3] Rohman, Carrie Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal (New York: Columbia UP, 2009)

[4] Brown, Bill, ‘Materialities of Modernism: Objects, Matter, Things’, A Handbook of Modernism Studies, ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2013)

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