My first MSA (modernist studies association conference)

Last weekend I was at the Modernist Studies Association Conference in Brighton. This is a big American conference (think MLA for modernists) and the only major one in my field that I’d not previously been to – the usual timing in early November makes attendance difficult for UK people, as classes have to be rescheduled. The most recent previous locations of Buffalo and Vegas hadn’t really appealed either. So I was very excited to finally go (so excited in fact that I booked the wrong train tickets – don’t ask). The opening night, when we finally made it, featured a poetry reading by Rachel Galvin, Cathy Wagner and Joshua Clover which made a great start to the conference. As did this fetching bag that we received on arrival –


The conference itself was everything I hoped it would be, with a dizzying choice of 15 different sessions on modernism every hour and a half – this led to hard choices as usually everything looked great. Some real highlights were panels about ‘Modernism’s Chronic Conditions’ on illness and time in modernism (Laura Salisbury, Sarah Christensen and Ulrike Maude); about childhood and surrealism; about modernism and crisis with an especially great paper on paranoia by Stephen Ross; about modernism and waste; and about modernism and letter-writing. My own panel on intertextuality went well, except for one question straight out of this Times Higher article on bad academic conference questions ( – a mix of Wandering Statement and Obstinate Question. But ANYWAY…

There were also some real modernist stars among the plenaries. It was great to see Gillian Beer on a plenary roundtable about the everyday which otherwise didn’t quite come together and entertaining, at least, to hear Terry Eagleton try to sum up (or destroy, as he playfully suggested in the questions) modernism and the everyday. His constant recourse to religious metaphor, especially the Messiah, was slightly inexplicable, as was his response to questions about feminist and postcolonial approaches to modernism. Fortunately he was right on when it came to class politics, as we might expect, reminding us of Woolf’s servants and their different relation to the everyday.

The memory that I will really take away from MSA however, was Griselda Pollock’s flawless plenary on Charlotte Salomon, which left me totally in awe of its elegance and pacing. I can’t tell you what she said, as it’s one of the few lectures that I’ve ever been to that could be spoiled by revealing its contents. She had real mysteries to reveal and unfolded them gradually, compellingly, before a stunned audience. At one point, a jackdaw that had somehow got into the auditorium fluttered across the screen and we all gasped. The best plenary I’ve ever seen, perhaps untoppable.

So, in short, given this kind of quality throughout, I’m totally hooked by MSA and hope to be at Pittsburgh next year.


7 responses to “My first MSA (modernist studies association conference)

  1. I was overwhelmed by Salomon’s artwork too. But I also find it deeply problematic that the whodunnit form Pollock was ostensibly mocking in the lecture was left hanging without critique.

    The central trauma of the work — again, not wanting to “spoil” — may function narratively as the big reveal, or the big tragedy, or the big catharsis, or the big working-through, or the big… well, you see what I’m saying. None of these tropes are right. Salomon’s survival of abuse cannot be reduced to a “writing through” model of trauma and representation, and this aspect of the thing was utterly absent from the talk. Julie Taylor’s brilliant book on Djuna Barnes (Djuna Barnes’s Affective Modernism, EUP, 2012) is all about this. She shows that we have to up our game as readers to question the so-called ‘catharsis’ framework, and looks at queer discourse in recent psychoanalytic theory to help think this through.

    GP couldn’t escape a need for the pointed-at horror and emotional gymnastics of interpretation. She made the critical move one of questioning the previous biographers’ willingness towards complicity with the later act, OK — she *seemed* to be moving towards a different approach — but there was a much more basic, deeper issue I found entirely missing in the talk. A kind of emotional tourism of the darkest and most morally dubious kind, perhaps? Especially when she played the clip from the film towards the end. We may as well have been watching a horror film at the movies with our popcorn. I’m v v v glad I was there to learn about the artist, and found it an utterly mesmerizing talk too, absolutely. But as the days go on it knots up my stomach that in a strange kind of a way, the drama of that lecture was almost identical to the drama of looking and pointing at childhood sexual abuse.

    So rather than flawless, I think it was a failure. There is something extraordinary about this: a lecture that in failing, forces further thought, and thus succeeds. Should she have questioned her own willingness to the look-and-point centrepiece — did it sensationalise sexual abuse? Perhaps I am misunderstanding. Perhaps Pollock *meant* to make us think. As powerful a plenary as it was (and we all know the form is often a dead one), I am highly suspicious of the “mysteries” of the “reveal” in this case.

  2. Wow, thanks for a very thoughtful and slightly overwhelming reply to an admittedly somewhat frivolous post. You’ll notice that I didn’t discuss the content at all – partly because of ‘spoilers’ and partly because I sensed that I’d be getting out of my depth (not having much prior knowledge of Salomon’s work) in trying to respond to its content fully. I was very much talking about it as a *performance* and, as such, it was flawless in my opinion… But yes, I’ve thought a lot about this talk too in recent days and I’d like to think that a critique of the ‘whodunnit form’ occurred at the beginning rather than at the end in the reference to ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ (where, of course, famously, we learn at the end that our narrator is the murderer). Right at the end of the lecture I thought this was a hint about Salomon, but now I think it was rather a reflection on Pollock’s own status as our narrator and about the ethics of the story that she told. In fact, in the context of the lecture’s beginning I don’t see what else it could have been. Maybe such a self-critique is too oblique to be forceful, however, in relation to those themes. And I think it probably is too oblique and, overall, perhaps too much in conversation with previous biographers, keen to spike their guns rather too gleefully. So, yes, I am troubled by the form and the content of the lecture, but it has made me more thoughtful. And so I’d tend to shy away from accusing it of sensationalism or emotional tourism or horror film metaphors, simply because it’s not how I felt at the time and not how I feel now. The art work has stayed with me as much as the performance, apart from anything else.

    I’ll certainly have a look at Taylor’s book though.

    • Right — interesting. We’ve both gone off and struggled with it, and want to see the artwork directly, without the refraction of Pollock’s layered narrative voice, brilliant though it was. I think my issue is really that I can’t decide what to think. And for that I thank Pollock.

      Thanks for posting your thoughts on the MSA!

  3. I think the idea that the Roger Ackroyd reference questions the frame of GP’s own narration is a really interesting one. Claire Launchbury, on Facebook, has suggested that Pollock may also have been engaging with Pierre Bayard’s reading of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, which suggests that Poirot and Christie may themselves have been mistaken about who committed the murder (I need to read this now). I, too, keep returning to the paper, and bought a copy of the catalogue of the RA exhibition of ‘Life? Or Theatre?’ to help me in my thinking and which I highly recommend. I thought, after the talk, that the paper seemed to hinge on, and indeed to stage, one of the central problems of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis was oddly spectral, even as it somehow felt everywhere, in the talk, I thought. Anyway, Freud suggested in his early work that the enormous numbers of hysterical and neurotic symptoms he was seeing were the direct consequence of ‘premature sexual experience’ – frequently incest. People were outraged by the suggestion and even Freud himself seemed to find it hard to believe that the sexual abuse of children could be so widespread. So he retreated from the ‘seduction theory’ and began to take the position, for which survivors of abuse have never forgiven him, that ‘there are no indications of reality in the unconscious, [. . .] one cannot distinguish between truth and fiction that has been cathected with affect’. But the very title of Salomon’s work, Life? Or Theatre?, seems to hinge on and enact the difficulty that Freud got very close to but perhaps couldn’t quite tolerate, or at least couldn’t think through all at once: the fact that it is true that one *cannot* know; and yet one *has to* know. This gets us to the very centre of questions about representation and truth and their function within the structure of both history and the psyche, I think. I have never seen a paper that staged this fundamental question so compellingly, though it seems to me that, in the end, GP couldn’t quite hold the ambivalence either, and, unlike Freud, perhaps, threw her lot in with ‘life’ rather than ‘theatre’. And in the face of Salomon’s murder in Auschwitz, I think I understand why GP felt she needed to do that. There are realities that have to be asserted.

    • I agree. Thanks, LS, Kebury. I still find the issue intensely troubling, but look forward to more discussion of the work. Perhap from both of you?

  4. How interesting! I’d never heard of Pierre Bayard’s reading of ‘Ackroyd’, which I admit to only reading during a Christie binge during my teens. I’ve been trying to work out the best way to approach the art work so glad to hear you recommend the catalogue. (Actually, I’d love some of her images for my office if nothing else). One of the reasons I’ve been thinking so intensely about the lecture is that I’ve been writing one of my own on Oedipus v. Anti-Oedipus, Freud v. Deleuze and Guattari this week for a theory course this year – incest in Freudian theory is quite difficult to generalise about while holding on to any subtlety. And yet the ideas have to be addressed somehow. So thanks for this intervention, which expresses these tensions really well.

  5. I thought it was a stunning keynote, too complex to be summarized and so very, very welcome for its sophisticated handling of lots of complex theoretical ideas PLUS compelling presentation of amazing work by an artist new to many of us (self included) PLUS some razzle-dazzle. My sense is that the unease of the incompatibility of her two claims–that we have depended too much on biography and that a biographical reading adds to our understanding of Salomon–is absolutely built into the talk. That made it all the better for me. Thanks for writing up what I haven’t have a moment to.

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