Conference Review: MSA 2018

From November 8 – 11 2018, the Modernist Studies Association held their annual conference in Columbus, Ohio. In this specially comissioned review, published between issues of The Modernist Review, Sean Richardson (Nottingham Trent University), Michelle Rada (Brown), Patty Argyrides (Queen’s University) and Meindert Peters (University of Oxford) discuss the event.  

What is modernism? We hear you sigh. This specious question plagues dinner parties and modernist studies alike. Casually telling a friend-of-a-friend that you research modernism over a glass of wine immediately elicits a deep sense of regret. The inquiry that follows simply isn’t worth it. At the same time, discussions of when or where modernity occurred (or should that be occurs?) ring like tinnitus from the close of one conference to the opening of the next. Attending the MSA, we braced ourselves for the familiarity of self-conscious onslaught. It failed to arrive.

Instead, Graphic Modernisms invigorated and ignited. Slingshotted forward by the sheer elasticity of the theme, MSA Columbus offered an array of curious critical perspectives. We hesitate to say fresh. Continuation, extension, review, and reappraisal supplanted the siren call of naked originality. During the Indigenous Modernisms panel, Alana Sayers (University of Victoria) reminded us that sometimes the most necessary critical interventions are seemingly the simplest. Against the impulse to internationalize ad infinitum, Sayers drew attention to the histories of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and their complicated relationship with modernity. Devoid of ceremony or posturing, Sayers posed a series of searing inquiries that will undoubtedly find deeper and deeper roots within the field. Vitally, these inquiries require us to ask how we might approach questions raised by indigeneity as a means of not simply broadening our critical eye, but decolonising our scholarly praxis.

This tactful approach to modernity was reflected and underpinned by the feminist strand running through the conference. While Shawna Ross (Texas A&M) advocated radical citation practices that would allow for a more inclusive approach at the feminist roundtable, Margaret Konkol (Old Dominion University) remodelled discussions of failure as productive at Visualizing the Future of Modernist Digital Humanities by asking what is gained when we empower students to consider their work a prototype rather than a draft. Such thinking extended to the relationships between panellists: strengthened by a noticeable ethics of care, it was promising to see scholars repeatedly draw attention to the importance of each other’s work, reframing discussion along collective lines and helping to reduce the individuation that conference settings can so easily breed.

Capitalizing on the conference theme, Afrographics: Visual Cultures of Black Modernism and The Art of Modernist Comics afforded keen insight into print cultures, while Graphic Violence and Graphic Sexualities opened up discussions of the affective, sensuous and erotic. Critically, the porous boundaries between these interpretations of ‘graphic’ espoused an exciting slippage that emboldened a noticeably interdisciplinary streak. Studies of dance, sound, architecture, performance, and theatre at MSA Columbus were prevalent enough to feel commonplace rather than novel, a trend we hope continues in future years. Moreover, this expansive outlook invited capacious and rewarding papers that troubled, extended, and played with the boundaries of modernism without needing to qualify the reason for doing so. Of note here were talks by Seulghee Lee (University of South Carolina), Grace Lavery (University of California-Berkeley) and Marci Kwon (Stanford University).

Beyond the remit of the panel, the Digital Exhibits Showcase materialised the graphic potential of modernist studies. In particular, it was heartening to see scholars engage the digital humanities to broaden their pedagogical scope. Exemplary of this is Object Women, a recently completed project run by Alix Beeston (University of Cardiff) interrogating the relationship between photography and gender via Instagram. Embracing the digital technologies used by students and scholars in their everyday lives, Beeston has carved out a space that expands critical dialogue while fostering conversations with the audience. Such work builds on the open access scholarship of the Modernist Archives Publishing Project and the Modernist Journals Project while signalling that accessible interfaces augment rather than cheapen complex critical discussion. At the heart of the programme, the showcase felt an organ, rather than an appendage, of the conference.

Perhaps there is no better hallmark of MSA 2018 than the International Modernism Roundtable. As the final plenary of the conference, the panel served to sediment ongoing conversations by turning inwards in order to examine the institutional power of international modernist studies associations. How might we continue to better our practice? How might organizations work together to draw on each other, rather than marginalize and monopolize? How might we uplift new voices without tokenizing? These are crucial points to consider and it was cheering to see them handled with honesty and thoughtfulness by Suzanne Hobson (British Association for Modernist Studies), Lorraine Sim (Australasian Modernist Studies Network), Hélène Aji (Société d’Études Modernistes), and Laura Winkel (Modernist Studies Association).

By circumventing usual questions, Graphic Modernisms offered a fulfilling interrogation of modernity that tempered historicist and presentist concerns while crossing theoretical and disciplinary borders. A delight for the intellectually promiscuous and a blueprint for future iterations of the MSA, we thank the team behind the organisation of Columbus for a stimulating and, above all, useful conference.

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