Conference Review: MSA 2019

Upheaval & Reconstruction: The Modernist Studies Association (MSA) 2019 Annual Conference, 17-20 October, Ryerson University, Toronto

Aoiffe Walsh, Yan (Amy) Tang, Farah Nada, and Sean A. McPhail

With 7 pre- and post-conference workshops, 26 seminars, 22 roundtable discussions, parallel sessions boasting an incredible 96 panels, museum and gallery tours, 2 plenaries, performances, film screenings, book launches and awards and a poetry evening, the Modernist Studies Association (MSA) 2019 Conference was a jam-packed 4 days, to say the very least. Below, 4 PhD students report on their experience of the conference, providing you with different threads of thoughts and highlights to reflect on what’s been at stake.


Aoiffe Walsh, Royal Holloway, University of London 

As a settler and Canadian citizen, I am acutely aware of the tremendous lengths still to go in honouring the histories and cultures of indigenous communities upon whose land we live. However, as a UK-based researcher working in modernist studies, I am also aware that we sometimes neglect to consider the often exclusive, euro-centric nature of the field of modernist and avant-garde studies. As such, among the most striking features of the MSA 2019 Conference, held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, was the endeavours made in indigenous representation, both in the dedicated stream ‘Indigeneity’ and ‘Making Modernism In/Out of Canada’, the various panels, roundtables and invited keynotes. The Saturday Keynote Roundtable was a fantastic example of how our field of study need acknowledge the way that our particular methods of historicisation treats indigenous culture. Jill Carter (Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi scholar and practitioner in indigenous dramaturgy and activism) and Riley Kucheran (Biigtigong Nishnaabeg scholar in indigenous fashion and design resurgence, Ryerson University), were joined by Christine Bold (researcher and scholar of Indigenous modernities, University of Guelph) and Elizabeth Harney (professor and scholar of art history, University of Toronto) to explore the intersection between modernist studies and the practice and scholarly consideration of indigenous cultures. This roundtable was an education in the limits of aesthetic modernism. We expect modernist art to look a certain way; perhaps to follow a certain set of tropes or characteristics. The speakers on the Keynote Roundtable confronted these expectations, suggesting that indigenous art does not have to accommodate the aesthetic standards of modernism. Examples of this expansion can be found in Harney’s most recent publication, Mapping Modernisms (2019), a collection of academic texts that hope to reconsider the history of modernism in order to remedy the western narrative of modernist studies. Moreover, Kucheran, drawing on his own experience of contemporary indigenous design in the fashion industry, challenged the expectation of indigenous work to maintain the aesthetics of traditional or ancient art. Instead, these scholars contend that art which discloses the modern indigenous experience, must be considered in modernism.

Each speakers’ position statement contributed to the broader consideration of the modernist appropriation of indigenous culture, calling to mind the use of such categorisations as the ‘primitive’ in modern art as example, a potentially derogatory term that is still alive within literature of modernist studies. This made reference to the significant piece that indigenous art and culture contributes to the assemblage of assimilated influences that form the modernist identity. What the presence of Indigenous modernity emphasised throughout the MSA 2019 conference is the great deal that modernist studies has to gain from the expansion of historical narrative to include indigenous art, and simultaneously the great distance still to go in the decolonisation of art history. 


Yan (Amy) Tang, University of Victoria

Held in the ‘Dish with One Spoon Territory’ shared between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee, the MSA Toronto Conference was an invigorating and intense experience. Topics on indigeneity, climate justice, and academic precarity converged as interlinked threads running through variously thought-provoking panels and roundtables. Following up on last year’s ‘Indigenous Modernisms’ panel in Columbus, Ohio, MSA Toronto cultivated a stronger presence of indigenous studies that contested and complicated the historical, epistemological, political, and aesthetic relationship between indigenous art and modernism. I was compelled by the keynote roundtable ‘Indigenous Modernisms’, which featured stunning presentations on fashion, painting, theatre, and cinema by Riley Kucheran, Elizabeth Harney (University of Toronto), Jill Carter (University of Toronto), and Christine Bold (University of Guelph). Thanks to the organisational work by Kirby Brown, Alana Sayers (University of Victoria), Jonathan Radocay (University of California, Davis), and Stephen Ross (University of Victoria), I was able to hear exciting works from two panels on indigeneity and modernism, ‘Indigenous Modernities’ and ‘Modernisms and Derivative Modernisms’. Erin Kappeler (Tulane University) has generously tweeted about ‘Indigenous Modernities and Modernisms’ panel in her thread, but it’s worth giving shout-outs again to the presenters Joyce Pualani Warren (University of Oregon), Christine Bold (University of Guelph), Angela Calcaterra (University of North Texas), and Audrey Goodman (Georgia State University). The ‘Derivative Modernisms’ panel was equally incisive and informative despite the unfortunate absence of two presenters. Ryan Stafford’s (University of Toronto) paper examined the relations between Harry Smith’s folk music and indigenous rhythm, and Sayer’s paper on the supernatural in the Pacific Northwest revealed how the Western doctrine of discovery persists to this day. 

The linked questions of oppressive systems and ecological crisis discussed in the keynote roundtable and these panels resonated in many ways with two other roundtables I attended: ‘Modernism and Ecology 2: Eco-Catastrophe’ and ‘The Future of Modernist Studies in the Age of Precarity’. In the eco-catastrophe roundtable, Anne Raine (University of Ottawa), Molly Volanth Hall (University of Rhode Island), George Phillips (Franklin College), Glenn Willmott (Queen’s University), and Rebecca Walsh (North Carolina State University) collectively demonstrated the necessity of intersectionality and site-specific inquiries in our research methods and pedagogy in the age of Anthropocene. 

In the precarity roundtable, Alix Beeston facilitated a very necessary conversation about the job market, budget cuts, unpaid labor, and other pressing issues of academic precarity with Michelle Rada (Brown University), Benjamin Wilson (University of Kentucky), Pardis Dabashi (University of Nevada, Reno), Rebecca Colesworthy (SUNY Press), and Debra Rae Cohen. The roundtable also featured statements from two absent participants, Jacquelyn Ardam (University of California) and Séan Richardson. I want to give the rest of the space in this review to their voices again as a call for real actions to fight for justice and equality in academia.

Ardam: ‘I wish I had been in a union as a VAP; I wish that my SLAC colleagues with power and job security had advocated for me in a real way. If I learned one thing in my VAP years, it’s that kindness is no substitute for action.’

Richardson: ‘The conversations we have here can only go so far. I encourage everyone to join a union, to fight for the labor rights of their junior colleagues and to prioritise those that need to be at the centre of the conversation: scholars of colour, black scholars, Native American scholars, Latinx scholars, immigrant scholars, disabled scholars, trans scholars and working-class scholars.’


Farah Nada, University of Exeter

The theme of MSA 2019  was ‘Upheaval and Reconstruction,’ which aimed to explore how modernism, a movement linked to crises and conflicts, was equally one of renewal and revolution. More specifically, the theme invited submissions towards two streams, ‘Indigeneity’ and ‘Making Modernism in/out of Canada,’ which aimed to address issues of decolonisation, national identity, and migration, among others.

One fascinating panel was ‘Modernism, Pedagogy, and Structures of Relationality,’ organised by Benjamin Hagen (University of South Dakota), and which included papers on D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, Colette, and Virginia Woolf. Particularly stimulating was the exploration of cybernetics and ‘partial perception’ in Woolf’s The Waves (1931) by Heather Love (University of Waterloo).

In ‘Between Longing and Threat: Forms of Modernist Closeness,’ Siân White (James Madison University) examined intimacy and various ways of ‘knowing’ during the Second World War in her paper on Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948). Amanda Di Ponio (Huron University College) then explored the surrealist theatre of Guillaume Apollinaire, Jenna Marko addressed subjectivities in The Waves through her study of a séance, and Nina White (Teesside University) presented on the iconographic connection between the Irish and Spanish civil wars.

In ‘Modernism, Destruction, and Illuminative Nothingness,’ three panellists spoke about the productive forces imbued in destruction and nothingness. Tim DeJong (Baylor University) presented on ‘waiting’ in Samuel Beckett, Elysia Balavage (University of North Carolina, Greensboro) spoke of ‘generative voids’ in W. B. Yeats, and Jennifer Gilchrist (Independent Scholar) explored literary modernism’s ‘burning houses’ as tropes of freedom and liberation.

‘The Long 1930s’ was a roundtable chaired by Benjamin Kohlmann (University of Freiburg) and Matthew Taunton (University of East Anglia). It included David Ayers (University of Kent), Kristin Bluemel (Monmouth University), Janice Ho (University of Colorado Boulder), Sean Pryor (UNSW Sydney), and Nicole Rizzuto (Georgetown University). Together they presented on issues of periodisation, politics, economics, and the problem of modernist peripheries, among others, building on Ayers’s initial comment that ‘the 1930s’ is ‘shorthand for politics.’ In her presentation, Bluemel discussed the link between the long 1930s and ‘intermodernism,’ the study of the period from 1914 to 1945. The roundtable led to fascinating conversation with audience members, touching on issues of women’s writing and recording of history, Canada as post-war Utopia, and the letter as literary form.

The evening of the conference’s second day held a screening of Searching for Winnetou (2018) at the SLC Amphitheatre, part of the Ryerson University campus. The film, by Ojibway playwright, author, and filmmaker Drew Hayden Taylor, engages in conversations about cultural appropriation, examining the German obsession with Native North Americans, or what they call ‘Indianer,’ and which stems from novels by German writer Karl May (which were later turned into films). Taylor goes to Germany and finds a society of devoted fans who dress up and live like Indigenous North Americans. A Q&A session with Janine Willie following the screening led to discussions about cultural appropriation, racism, Hitler, and the western tendency to treat the image of the Native North American as an ‘empty symbol’ or ‘hyperreal’ representation, divorced from any referent, as explained by Kirby Brown (University of Oregon). 


Sean A. McPhail, University of Toronto

Given Modernist scholarship’s recent penchant for continually defining and redefining its namesake movement, and considering MSA’s founding aspirations towards ‘reshaping’ the field of modernist studies, this year’s MSA conference offered a diverse array of workshops and keynotes, some twenty-something roundtables and seminars, nearly one hundred panels, and more besides.

What follows is a condensation of one possible experience of the conference’s first two days. I began questioning Modernism’s indistinct generic boundaries in a panel on ‘Reading to Transgress’. There, Eve Sorum (University of Massachusetts, Boston) highlighted the virtues of un-mastery posited by Virginia Woolf, while Jennifer Sorensen (Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi) proposed redesigning course syllabi with the experiential limitations of both instructor and students in mind. Joseph Rosenberg (University of Notre Dame) rounded out the panel by (mock-)lamenting the ‘memeification’ of Samuel Beckett by tennis players and Silicon Valley bros, before highlighting the potential value of selective misquotation.

I next attended a roundtable on ‘New Directions in Canadian Modernism’, where Billy Johnson (University of Toronto) argued for Abraham Beverley Walker’s dual-situatedness within Atlantic Canadian and international black magazine culture in his 1903 St. John magazine Neith. To choose just one more speaker, Karis Shearer (University of British Columbia) enumerated the fascinating and sometimes unexpected conundrums one encounters when attempting to create a permanent digital archive of 166 recordings (created across decades, on different media), having received them unexpectedly from a colleague.

On day 2 I attended a panel on ‘Reconfiguring the Home/front in World War II’, where Ravenel Richardson (Case Western Reserve University) compared the existential and quotidian crises that Frances Partridge records in the war-diaries she kept at her Wiltshire estate. Melissa Dinsman (York College, CUNY) then explored the commodification of war-objects (gas masks as fashion accessories!), before Megan Faragher (Wright State University) discussed gender relations in munitions factories as relayed in Celia Fremin’s War Factory. Maud Ellmann (University of Chicago) tied the panel together by discussing the new significance that everyday objects take on in wartime.

I continued my reflection on modernity and war in ‘Canadian Modernisms and War’. There, Jane Goldman (University of Glasgow) compared Bishop’s and Bradshaw’s different editorial approaches to Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, before finishing with a touching tribute to the novelist’s recently departed nephew, Cecil. Aline Bouwman (University of British Columbia) next presented on Algernon Blackwood’s depiction of trauma and shell-shock in his 1921 short story ‘Confession’. Zachary Abram (McGill University) concluded the panel by suggesting that the root of Canadian anti-war writing might not be found with the publication of Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed, as has long been maintained, but instead in the earlier fiction of pulp-writers like Bertrand Sinclair.

I will emphasise here à la Sorensen that this condensed programme reflects my own scholarly interests and ought to be elaborated upon by other attendees. This summary nevertheless speaks to the multiplicity of speakers and topics curated under the direction of the conference’s organisers: Irene Gammel, Melba Cuddy-Keane, Adam Hammond, and Jim Drobnick. They are to be congratulated for convening an exciting, challenging, and welcoming event.


Next year, the annual MSA conference will take place in New York. Read the Call for Papers and information about MSA’s 2020 theme of ‘Streets’.

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