Looking Ahead to MLA 2017

The American Literature Society is sponsoring a number of exciting panels at MLA, as listed under our Events page. Here’s a preview of some of those sessions:

453. Recovery Work: Digital Approaches to the Archive

(Session related to the Presidential Theme: Boundary Conditions)
Saturday, 7 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m.

112B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Program arranged by the forum TM Bibliography and Scholarly Editing and the American Literature Society

Presiding: Anna Mae Duane, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs

Speakers: Sigrid Anderson Cordell, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Jim Casey, Univ. of Delaware, Newark; Melissa Dinsman, York Coll., City Univ. of New York; Amy Earhart, Texas A&M Univ., College Station; P. Gabrielle Foreman, Univ. of Delaware, Newark; Jessica Gordon-Burroughs, Hamilton Coll.; Carrie Johnston, Wake Forest Univ.; Elizabeth Rodrigues, Grinnell Coll.

The Bibliography and Scholarly Editing forum and American Literature Society have selected five presentations for a collaborative roundtable that explores the possibilities and challenges that emerge at the intersection of digital humanities and the recovery of forgotten, lost, or disintegrating texts and archives. Technological change has radically altered how scholars and students engage with texts, as well as the kinds of texts available. There is now a dizzying array of texts available in digital archives, as well as on digital platforms like Google Books and HathiTrust. Digital tools have reshaped editorial practice while online archives have reoriented publishers’ priorities. This roundtable examines how DH has opened up the archive and created space for new directions in recovery work, editorial practice, and analysis. At the same time, this roundtable will also explore areas where further work is needed in order to guard against unforeseen distortions and future gaps in the record.

In “Erasures, Craft and Complexity in the Minutes of the Colored Conventions,” P. Gabrielle Foreman and Jim Casey argue for the urgently-needed recovery work that digital archives make possible. The Colored Conventions Project (CCP) gathers, digitally recreates, and makes publicly accessible hundreds of records from nineteenth-century meetings of African Americans that began in 1830 and continued through the end of the century and around the US. The textual instability and invisibility of so many convention minutes, documents, and traces raise central questions about archival borders and barriers, as well as about print and recovery.

“Recovering Modernist Cities through Digital Augmentation,” presented by Carrie Johnston, Melissa Dinsman, and Liz Rodrigues, explores how the affordances of digital scholarship, and the practice of digitally augmenting a text, challenge us to reconsider the relationship of modernism and its interpretive practices to historical reference, cultures of empiricism, and formalist traditions. “Reading Modernist Cities” (RMC), an augmented text platform, provides an example of the more nuanced recovery work DH makes possible when compared to the definitive annotations of the typical scholarly edition. When embedded in a practice of critical reading, digital augmentation calls attention to the limits of historical context, as an account of working to recreate and recover the historical context of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “May Day” makes clear.

Jessica Gordon-Burroughs considers the material, immaterial, and epistemological implications of digital archives in “Diasporic Connections: YouTube as an audiovisual archive.” Reflecting on the Cuban film archive, specifically works of the Cuban diaspora, including Miami-based Afro-Cuban filmmaker Nicolás Guillén Landrián (1938-2003), Gordon-Burroughs unpacks the complicated corporate arrangements associated with filmic recovery and protection.

Sigrid Anderson Cordell takes up the complications presented by proprietary platforms and modalities from a different perspective in “Why Does Archiving the Web Matter to Literary Studies?” Pointing to a wide array of digital materials—including social media posts, email, websites, literature composed on and for the web, comments on sites like Goodreads, self-published novels on proprietary (and largely nonarchivable) platforms such as the Kindle, and a host of other forms—Cordell demonstrates how the potential gap that would be left if this material is lost affects all scholars, not just those working on contemporary literatures.

Amy Earhart’s “Without the Internet Archive We Wouldn’t Have a Record of Early DH Projects: Problems and Strategies for Recovery and Preservation” concludes the roundtable by focusing on how the history of DH itself is in danger of being lost. Drawing on evidence from her “Small Data and the American Literature Canon” project, Earhart will show how digital humanities projects have lost ground in recovery efforts since the late 1990s boom in digital recovery, due in part to the failure to archive our own history. This presentation will also highlight the differential preservation approaches to early canonical and recovery projects.

503. Alternative Historicisms

(Session related to the Presidential Theme: Boundary Conditions)
Saturday, 7 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m.

111B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Presiding: Anna Brickhouse, Univ. of Virginia

  1. “Historical Emends,”Marion Leeson Rust, Univ. of Kentucky
  2. “Absent-Minded Historicism,”Elizabeth A. Fenton, Univ. of Vermont;Valerie Rohy, Univ. of Vermont
  3. “Historicizing Disaster,”Michael A. Elliott, Emory Univ.

This panel reconsiders the role of historicism in American literary studies, with each paper examining a particular case study that presents an impasse in historicist work—a blockage that turns out to be conceptually generative: a potential source of “alternative historicisms.” Together, the papers cover a wide swathe of American literary history, from the late-twentieth-century scene of feminist scholarly writing on the Puritans, to the mid-nineteenth-century epistolary relation between Melville and Hawthorne, to the literature of disaster in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Collectively, the panelists question how recent scholarship engages with various kinds of pasts, and what this can tell us about our work today. Marion Rust examines the relationship between late twentieth-century poet-scholar Susan Howe and colonial captivity narrator Mary Rowlandson to consider the influence of academic norms on feminist literary histories and the ways in which late-twentieth-century entrants into the burgeoning field of American gender studies both inscribed this effect through their emphasis on a superior capacity for ideation to that of their colonial female subjects and used normative constraint as an occasion for narrative improvisation. Rust thus invites us to attend to how our own scholarly moment implicitly inscribes the circumstances of its production.  By reading each other’s work with greater sensitivity to autobiographical nuance, she suggests, we encourage new forms of academic writing in which such intimacies between scholar and subject need not remain so veiled, in order to open literary history to new forms of insight.  Elizabeth Fenton and Valerie Rohy take up Herman Melville’s well-known correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne as an occasion to examine the relation of historicist methodologies to absence—in this case, the archival lack of Hawthorne’s responses to Melville’s admiring messages. Without them, contemporary scholars have been hard pressed to identify the precise nature of the two men’s seemingly queer relationship, calling on other historical sources to supplement a lack that can never be filled. This paper proposes the opposite—to examine absence as absence and in so doing, to outline the impossible properties of both historicism and sexuality as such. Finally, Michael Elliott draws from a larger project on natural catastrophes in the late 19th and 20th century to discuss the challenges of historicizing contemporary novels of disaster, and to consider why the usual frames of historicization (including periodization and futurity) so often fail when one addresses these events, and what this might ultimately suggest about literary periodization.

683. Settler Colonialism and American Literary History

(Session related to the Presidential Theme: Boundary Conditions)
Sunday, 8 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m.

202B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Presiding: Hsuan L. Hsu, Univ. of California, Davis

  1. “Between Two Ghost Dances: Sarah Winnemucca’s Narrative and the Limits of the Event in Literary History,”Mark Rifkin, Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro
  2. “Playing Stories: Settler Colonialism as Ludonarrative Dissonance,”Jodi A. Byrd, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana
  3. “The Liberal, the Anarchist, and the Frontiersman: Dissent and the Settler Colonial Imaginary in United States Literature,”Alex Young, Amherst Coll.

This panel aims to explore the implications of settler colonial studies for scholars working across all periods of American literature and Native American literature. While scholars of American literature have considerably advanced our understanding of uneven cultural exchanges between settlers and Natives, the field has only begun to reckon with the ongoing expropriation and occupation of Native lands. Even in its most subversive or “queer” manifestations, American literature and culture across all periods is premised upon what Mark Rifkin calls “settler common sense”—or the foundational status of settler views concerning sovereignty, place, sexuality, and personhood, which facilitate Indigenous erasure and displacement while securing settler futurity. What archival resources, trans-textual practices, methods, and concepts would be animated by reframing American literature as a settler tradition premised upon the ongoing occupation of expropriated lands? In what ways might grappling with settler colonialism differently reconfigure our understanding of Native American literatures? How does foregrounding settler colonialism as an ongoing process and worldview intervene in other prominent conversations in the field concerning topics such as transnationalism, empire, environment, race, multiculturalism, freedom, and dissent? This panel brings together three scholars whose work has put American literature and Native literature in critical dialogue with the field of settler colonial studies; each panelist will present current research while foregrounding how it connects settler colonial critique with questions of literary form, narrative, and intertextuality.

Alex Trimble Young’s paper, “The Liberal, the Anarchist, and the Frontiersman: Dissent and the Settler Colonial Imaginary in U.S. Literature,” revisits Sacvan Bercovitch’s conception of the American frontier as a symbolic ritual of consensus. While Americanists have generally followed Bercovitch in approaching the frontier as an instance of nationalist, US-exceptionalist rhetoric, the field of transnational settler colonial studies frames the frontier instead as a specific spacio-temporal site in the conflict between settlers and Indigenous peoples. This materialist configuration of the settler colonial frontier operates not only in rituals of consent, but also in ostensibly oppositional discourses of dissent. Drawing on scholarship by Patrick Wolfe, Lorenzo Veracini, and others, Young tracks the frontier concept through early issues of the influential countercultural journal The Evergreen Review. Frontier allegory, he argues, enables a range of oppositional writers to articulate critiques of the liberal state that are nonetheless imbricated in the exclusionist and eliminatory logic of settler colonialism.

In “Between Two Ghost Dances: Sara Winnemucca’s Narrative and the Limits of the Event in Literary History,” Mark Rifkin considers the settler underpinnings of “literary history” itself. Through an analysis of Life Among the Paiutes, Rifkin demonstrates the significance of non-textual dynamics of Paiute history, sovereignty, placemaking, and the Ghost Dances of the 1870s and 1890s for the version of Paiute identity and governance Winnemucca elaborates. Through this case study, the paper will explore the limits of “literary history” as an interpretive frame, especially for engaging with Native writings.

Shifting attention to the settler limitations of video game coding and interfaces, Jodi Byrd’s paper, “Playing Stories: Settler Colonialism as Ludonarrative Dissonance,” analyzes the disconnect that gamers experience in the gaps between gameplay and story. Many Indigenous writers, artists, and scholars have suggested that videogames might offer an important way to present the multidirectional and embodied narratives embedded within traditional stories. This talk will consider how play, story, and the dissonances of settler colonialism influence games such as Never Alone, a sidescrolling platformer game that Inupiat community elders working in collaboration with a game design studio produced. Deploying traditional story, Inupiat language, and culture and engaging in cooperative game play modes, Never Alone seeks to challenge mainstream games to engage indigenous narrative; but how do code and interface—the structures of interface—affect how gamers are allowed to play the story?

Together, the papers on this panel mobilize settler colonial studies to challenge and rethink foundational concepts, methods, and material interfaces that enable American and Native American literary and cultural practices. In addition to demonstrating the political exigency of reckoning with settler imaginaries embedded in American literary and cultural studies, they model how the fields might move towards the decolonization of existing methods and structures.