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Conference Review: New Work in Modernist Studies 2018

Polly Hember, Royal Holloway

The Gothic turrets and daunting granite buildings of the University of Glasgow looked slightly ominous to a first-time paper presenter such as myself, walking up University Lane on a chilly Saturday in December last year. However, as soon I arrived at the New Work in Modernist Studies Conference (NWiMS), all thoughts of clammy hands and nerves dissipated immediately. NWiMS 2018 was a friendly, relaxed and inspiring one-day conference, hosted by the Scottish Network of Modernist Studies in conjunction with the Modernist Network Cymru the London Modernism Seminar, Modernism Studies Ireland, the Northern Modernist Seminar, the Midlands Modernist Network and the British Association for Modernist Studies, attracting new researchers working on or around modernist studies from all over the UK.

With two parallel sessions running side by side, I opted for the ‘Modernism, Gender and Sexuality’ panel. Rosie Reynolds (University of Westminster) started off with an inspired exploration of aunthood in the fiction of Virginia Woolf. Reynolds asked why aunts were so often depicted as either lonely spinsters or fun troublemakers; as part of the family but curiously excluded from the fixed family unit. In this untethered state of being, with no ‘literary baggage’, Reynolds argued that Woolf’s aunts possessed a transgressive power in their materteral malleability and potential for a new kind of narrative forged outside of motherhood and marriage. Josh Phillips (University of Glasgow) then presented an interesting perspective on how to handle multiple drafts and versions of The Years (1937),providing a helpful and thoughtful discussion on archival approaches to research.

Jessica Widner (University of Edinburgh) and Jade French (Queen Mary,  University of London) both presented papers on Djuna Barnes, picking up opposite strands of the American writer’s literary career. Widner discussed Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) and the enigmatic figure of Robin Vote, described by Barnes as ‘outside the “human type” – a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin’.[1] Widner discussed the beastly becomings and animal states of Robin, deftly weaving in Helene Cixous’s theory on the female imaginary to consider Robin as the empty centre of the text that acts as a transformative space for the reader. French’s paper explored aesthetic of ‘lateness’ and embodied old age in Barnes’s late poetry, confounding the idea of Barnes as unproductive in her later life by reflecting on Barnes’s archives and her compulsion to redraft and her rejection of finite endings, resulting in what French refers to brilliantly as an ‘unproductive productiveness’. Finishing this first panel was a thought-provoking exploration by Hailey Maxwell (University of Glasgow) of avant-garde creative practices in relation to the treatment and formal expression of the sacred. This provided an exploration of the interwar period, leading brilliantly onto a broad panel discussion with questions from a lively round-table audience focusing on the drafting, editing, authoritative power, archives and how to navigate these issues.

As ever with parallel sessions, it always seems a shame to miss half the papers listed on the programme. The topics listed in the ‘Modernist Identities’ session sounded marvellous; from images of false teeth in The Waste Land (1922) with Wei Zhou (University of Leeds) to Emon Keshavarz’s (Durham University) exploration of how domestic heterosexuality masks the trauma of homosocial loss. The ‘Transatlantic Modernisms’ session also boasted some exciting titles: the examination of Zelda Fitzgerald and ballet by Jaime Ellen Church (University of Wolverhampton) and the discussion of black women writers and Hooverite counterliterary activity by Aija Oksman (University of Edinbrugh) all caught my eye.

The ‘Modernism Across Media’ session presented varied encounters with media and modernity, resulting in a productive and dynamic panel discussion. William Carroll (University of Birmingham) considered the charged composition in the photography of Walker Evans. Carroll drew the audience’s attention deftly to the absence and impaired functionality of an empty rocking chair backed up against a wall, considering the depression of America’s small towns and the complex legacy and influence of modernist anxieties that Carroll cleverly connected to David Plowden’s photography.


‘Interior of unemployed man’s house, Morgantown, West Virginia’ by Walker Evans

Modernist Media Studies can often be rather dense, but Tiana Fischer (NUI Galway) presented complex theory in a passionate manner, comparing Marshall McLuhan’s thoughts on how the medium operates through context with Friedrich Kittler’s focus on communication, using James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). Fischer’s paper was not only highly informative but has inspired me to pick up my abandoned copy of Finnegans Wake – something that nobody has ever managed to do before!

From communication theory in Joyce to the ‘endless chattering’ of Carl Schmitt’s artwork; Joseph Owen (University of Southampton) delivered a lively and interesting discussion of degenerate art. Sofie Behluli (Lincoln College, Oxford) explored the figure of the artist in contemporary Anglo-American fiction, drawing brilliant connections between modernist theory to contemporary writers such as Donna Tartt. My paper on gossip, modernism and mass culture focused on the film writer Oswell Blakeston. Dr Andrew Frayn (Edinburgh Napier University) chaired a helpful and engaging conversation between the panel and audience, promoting productive and interesting reflections on media theory, communication and visual culture.

The work presented at this conference was innovative, interesting and highly exciting to be a part of. The ten-minute papers acted as short snippets, gesturing to wider scopes of varied research projects, giving insight into the direction of current modernist studies. This sense of newness was epitomised in the fantastic plenary lecture by Anouk Lang (University of Edinburgh University). Lang’s keynote ‘From Markov Chains to Vector Space: Digital Approaches to Modelling Modernism’ offered a variety of models that digital humanities offers to aid research and interpretation. Lang demonstrated how to use network analysis software to map linkages by layering data to create rich networks of connections. Using Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Lang showed how geo-spatial technologies can reconsider textual spatiality; Lang digitally mapped Anna’s looping movements in London, mirroring Rhys’s thematic concerns with cyclical oppression. Ending with a discussion on how Markov chains can create a surprisingly true-to-life Patrick White twitter bot, this was a brilliant overview of the new techniques and their research potentiality within the field of digital humanities.


Bonne Kime Scott’s ‘A Tangled Mesh of Modernists’, an early example of network analysis from The Gender of Modernism, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 10.

There was a brilliant sense of community at this conference, with networking that felt more like conversation than work. This supportive and energetic atmosphere attests to the positive and inspiring research culture that the organisers fostered. Offering new researchers and postgraduates a chance to meet and opportunities to present in a relaxed environment, this was a fantastic and friendly conference that I feel very fortunate to have been a part of.

[1] Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (London: Faber & Faber, 2007) p. 131



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