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 (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/six-conference-questions-every-academic-hears/2006738.article) – 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.