The 44th Annual Meeting for American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies was held in Cleveland three weeks ago so my apologies that this isn’t coming to you in the full blush of the liveblog moment. But my brain is still sprouting with new names, books to read, perspectives on the state of the field, and connections (however fanciful) between my coursework papers and panelists’ insights. And I may not be the only one who recollects April 4-7 with a blush or two: some acronyms just leave you with no choice. Having never attended ASECS before, I can’t speak for the surely lengthy history of great jokes in this regard, but I can tell you that this year, we were on top of things. I like to think the Romanticists in attendance navigated this innuendo especially well. Telling the Romanticists apart from Eighteenth Centuryists, isn’t so easy; or at least I found myself taking a a few searching looks in the restroom mirror of the Renaissance Marriott Hotel: Where does an Eighteenth Centuryist end and a Romanticist begin?* Who am I, really? (And what am I doing in a Renaissance hotel?)
My conference bookends, the first and last panels I attended, were my favorites. We** listened to our first after a harried drive from Chicago, arriving in time to find parking only in the bowels of the giant casino next door, and seating at the front of the Garfield Room—on the floor. If you haven’t tried it, it’s a good experience: not only are you appreciating some very sharp minds, you get to appreciate them from the vantage of a Kindergarten student, crossed-legged on the carpet. ASECS was wonderfully democratic this way. Latecomers got the floor, whether they were fledgling grad students there to be sponges, tenured professors, or professors a giddy month or two or twenty shy of tenure (spirited conversations were had, especially, with the latter). But plenty of generous seat-offering took place as well (fellow-feeling in full swing here!).
So this panel, a roundtable, was titled “Aesthetics and Individuation: Frances Ferguson’s Work in Eighteenth Century Studies,” and the panelists, none of them officially Ferguson’s students, spoke about their indebtedness to her thinking and the incredible influence she has had on the fields of Eighteenth Century and Romantic studies. From her game-changing article “Rape and the Rise of the Novel,” on Richardson’s Clarissa (1987) to her book “Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation” (1992), Ferguson has been a force, and other strong voices have met Ferguson with forceful questions and concerns of their own. On this panel, John Bender, Blakey Vermeule, Helen Thompson and Nancy Yousef. Here are some of their thoughts, in condensed Shelley-acorn form:
Bender: Romantic marriage is where function and phantasm meet; realism’s reality is gothic; ecstatic interpenetration.
Vermeule: Ferguson advocates a way to be a self that doesn’t need to mean atomism; what does it mean to want to make an impact in one’s career? pertinent
and, one Hilary Rodham gave the valedictorian speech to Ferguson’s graduating class of 1969 at Wellesley College: “More than social reconstruction we need human reconstruction,” Rodham said.
Thompson: modes of doing and non-doing, what counts as rape? the departure of the volitional; external contents of persons; form as the situated production of inner-ness; Sci Fi and physiological formalism.
Yousef: What relations can be used under the word form? Form preoccupies the room of emotional thinking; Ferguson reminds us that historical materialism and formalism co-exist and cannot cancel each other out.
Finally, my last panel of the weekend: “Close Reading Today,” held in the George Bush room (did not specify Jr. or Sr.)
Sandra Macpherson delivered a paper titled “Close Hearing” and posed some brilliant questions: How do we read the sonic properties of objects? How do we talk about sound as matter without turning it into meaning? I’m still thinking about the independence of sounds in verse being other than, or not necessarily, onomatopoeic. I’m very partial to Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” and Macpherson ended her talk with a clip from the opening of the film. A shot so close that at first you can’t tell what’s happening (a ragged thread being led by a needle in and out of a piece of cloth) but the whole time there is the music, a human symphony singing no words in particular.
Stephanie Insley Hershinow’s “Up Close and Personal” talk began with the question: “Does reading make persons or impersonality?” She went on to consider how close reading has been said to fail and why it is nonetheless a mistake to discount the details: “Close reading is to notice something new, even in a text that has been extensively critiqued.”
Matthew Wickman’s paper, “Reading for the Middle Distance: Moretti and the Picturesque,” made a juicy counterpoint to Hershinow’s. How do we read the images of distant-reading (the bubble trees, line graphs, word clouds etc.)? Numbers: do we really know they mean? Counting, Wickman argued, is a figurative exercise, and if we do not know what numbers are, we don’t know who we are—we don’t know what a ‘whole’ is.
The post-panel discussion ended where I wished it had begun: a man asked a question (or rather, stated at length with no question mark in sight), saying new critical formalism had had its day. Macpherson sung out, “Oh it’s back, baby!”
And with that, back we went to Chicago, heads humming with good things to tangle with and sound out in the months ahead.
*Radiohead’s “Where I end and you begin” is an excellent song for a road trip back to the long (and longer and longer) eighteenth century.
**”We” refers to Samuel Rowe (a second year PhD at the University of Chicago), Allison Turner (a first year PhD at the U of C) and to your blogger, Lauren Schachter (also a first year PhD at U of C). We attended as observers, wisely choosing to do this on our break between Winter and Spring quarters instead of writing our papers.