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Palacký University
06-27-2016, 11:06, Age: 3 y.

Exemplary pleasure" at the American Comparative Literature Association Conference

By: Lianne Barnard

Postmodernism and postcolonialism are dead. That is the main thing I learnt at the Annual Meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association that was held at Harvard University in March 2016. The border between modern and postmodern/post-modern had always been rather blurred, but it seems as if modernism, whatever is meant by that, is the new big thing. To my relief, postcolonialism is only dead in the USA. The term is still attacking imperialist forces, both historic and contemporary, in the UK.

This conference was huge, apparently the second-largest in the history of the ACLA. No-one ever said how many presenters there were, but I counted 152 speakers with surnames starting with A. It was totally different from anything I have ever attended. I admit though that the worlds of Dutch and Afrikaans literatures, my main specialties, are rather small. The scale of this conference had more to do with the way it had been organised than the size of Comparative Literature as a field as such, I suspect. The first two days had 4 streams (A,B,C,D) and the last day had 2 streams (A and B). I was in the A-stream.  We were nine speakers and we met every morning from 8:30 to 10:15 for three days. The advantage was that we got to know each other well and the level of discussion was very high. The disadvantage of this system with hundreds of seminars with few attendees is that it was impossible to get an overview of greater trends.

The discussion in our group ("Philip Roth’s Trans-disciplinary Translation: Psychoanalysis, Ethics, and Philosophy of Mind.") focussed on how the depiction of female characters had changed over the long career of Philip Roth. We all agreed that labelling Roth as "misogynist" would be unfair to the complexity of his characterization. My paper was "Racism, feminism and “Political correctness” in The Human Stain."   We discussed how psychoanalysis was both rejected and affirmed in the many novels of Roth and how Freudian psychoanalysis was simplified by some critics in America who saw it as a method of strengthening the superego against the id. Maren Scheurer (Goethe University Frankfurt am Main) gave a fascinating lecture on Roth, feminism and psychoanalysis. She argued that the early novels call for a psychoanalytic reading of female characters and that Roth was sympathetic to women whose intellectual and emotional needs were not sufficiently met and who could not move beyond prescribed gender roles. The analysts failed to verbalize or “cure” this dilemma and therefore the novels expose a crucial gap between the aesthetics and the ethics of psychoanalysis. Both Roth and Freud can be problematized in terms of feminist thinking.

A few other random points I picked up at the conference:

·         Plurals are in: Futures of Comparative Literatures

·         Other buzzwords (some still incomprehensible to me): Posthumanism, transhumanism, anthropocene, wounded white masculinity, critical race narratology, disidentifying subject, African philosophers of race, Deleuzian dispersal, politics of friendship, intergenerational transmission of trauma, becoming animal, textual materialism, the archive, global modernism

·         Can we talk of Homo Sapiens if our bodies contain that many bacteria?

·         Orphan Black, the Canadian sci-fi series, can generate great debate on the appropriation of women's bodies by corporate culture

·         The reject comes after the subject according to Irving Goh. (Do Google this – it's brilliant!)

·         Teaching is exemplary pleasure

As always at conferences, the gossip at the margins is often the most beneficial. Apparently, the best place to be a professor is in India. You stay on a campus, teach 8 hours a week, have servants and huge funds for attending conferences. British academics (unlike us) receive royalties on books and German academics pay publishers to publish. German academics (like us) also work 100% for sometimes only 50% of their salary. American academics (like us) are very worried about the future of the humanities, while the British scene seems to be flourishing. All gossip, of course, not science.

We did not only gossip and complain.  The first night I found great pleasure in talking to someone from Calcutta who also loves Spivak's "Ethics and politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and certain scenes of teaching." The best definition of comparative literature and the many spaces of global literatures however came not from some professor, but from the Greyhound bus driver who gave a profound answer to my formulaic question:

 "How are you?"

 "I'm not sure. I am here. I am there."

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Last update: 19. 09. 2012, Vladimír Kubák