SCSECS redux


[image from Rowlandson’s “Comforts of Bath,” from Caryn Chaden’s terrific Images of Eighteenth-Century Bath website.]

Despite Hurricane Ike’s pulverization of Galveston and a last-minute move to a new location in Corpus Christi, TX, this year’s SCSECS conference seemed pretty successful to me.  As mentioned in the last thread, some long-time friends and members of the Long Eighteenth (Gena Zuroski, Dwight Codr, ) were there,  along with some friends whose work I’ve followed for a while (Michael Rotenberg-Schwarz and Matt Landers), and I also met a number of people whose work  I’ll be looking for in the future.  The number of attendees was probably down a bit because of the change in venue, but the reduced scale did make for a more convivial atmosphere.  I was also encouraged by the grad student papers, which were ambitious and knotty enough to keep the seniors on their toes.

For me, one of the highlights was Dave Radcliffe’s plenary talk, “No Man but a Blockhead: What the Eighteenth Century can Teach us about Digital Humanities,” which he gave at the Texas State Aquarium in front of a glass wall featuring a pair of graceful synchronized dolphins.  Since I’ve got my own take on Radcliffe’s topic, I’m going to blog it in a separate post, but I’d love to hear others’ reactions about this talk, which was as much about the changing infrastructures of contemporary literary research as it was about the historical parallels between 18c and contemporary scholarship.

I think we have reached the point where we consider the conditions under which we were trained (the hegemony of literature over sub-literature, English studies over American and ethnic studies, liberal arts education over corporate/scientific models of research, tenured faculty over part-time, etc.) to be historical conditions, i.e., “vanished” or “entirely gone,” whatever our feelings about the matter.

Looking over the program and my notes, I was struck by how this set of institutional changes was reflected in the increased attention to the pedagogical circumstances in which we now teach 18c literature, with all the attendant difficulties of leading undergraduate students to grasp an unfamiliar set of terms, styles, conventions, etc. , especially when literary conventions and practices themselves seem as remote as anything we teach in the 18c.  How to explain the differences in style between Tom Jones and contemporary novels, when students are more likely to be reading Manga novels or surfing the net for their leisure reading?

At the same time, discursive analyses of non-literary texts and contexts still seem popular, at least in the grad papers, but these for the most part are still directed toward securely canonical literary texts, without a lot of attention to how notions of genre and literariness are constructed in the period.

In some ways, I’d feel better if graduate student work reflected rather than resisted this relativization of print culture, with a more comparative sense of signification in a variety of media: e.g., not just studies of objects and object-narratives as a sub-genre of 18c writing, but studies of 18c objects and how they line up with other kinds of things in the period.

This is a tall order, but I think it would help us understand the strangeness of our own historical moment, and our own sense of alienation from post-WWII literary criticism, that much better.  But this is just my own sense of how we might extend “literary studies” into the future.



2 responses to “SCSECS redux

  1. I completely agree with the call for more studies “not just … of objects and object-narratives as a sub-genre of 18c writing, but studies of 18c objects and how they line up with other kinds of things in the period,” and wonder how regional societies like SCSECS might attract more scholars from disciplines other than literature and history, such as art history or anthropology. As a literary scholar trying to figure out how to integrate new models of reading “things” into my own work, I would love more opportunities to trade ideas with, say, material archivists at meetings like this one.

    That said, I had a great time this weekend, and had fun catching up and meeting new colleagues.

  2. Gena,

    The examples I was thinking of when I wrote those sentences were the essays in Berg and Eger’s volume Luxury in the Eighteenth Century, which I reviewed a few years ago. I really thought that Dena Goodman’s and Jenny Uglow’s essays there were great examples of that kind of synthetic work.

    Historians like Tim Burke also seem to be doing far more sophisticated work about consumption than much of the stuff I find in literary journals.

    To revert to our own period, the literary critical debates about things like antiquarianism centered on whether objects like roman coins could yield better insights into the poetry of its period than conventional rhetorically-based interpretive readings, which tended to rely on the same group of schoolboy texts over and over again.