Friday, December 28, 2007

MLA 2007: some notes

It's the second day of MLA, and I'm sort of horrified that there's just as much more to come.

I've heard many good talks and some miserable ones, and some in between. Here are some highlights so far:

Session 21: The Challenge of a Million Books

The crappy panel title notwithstanding, I thought this session, run by the Association for Computers and the Humanities (program here), was very good. Each of the presenters discussed computational methods in literary research. Brad Pasanek and D. Sculley (the latter not present at the panel) used a classification algorithm to test how well patterns in metaphor predicted political affiliations; they have a database of metaphors at, which could come in handy sometime. Glenn Roe and Robert Voyer used text mining to try to understand the classification of knowledge in Diderot's Encyclopédie, and Sara Steger used similar techniques to try to make more precise the formulaic quality of sentimental writing. Good times. I would be especially interested in learning more about pedagogical applications for these techniques.

Session 85: Micro: Studies in the Very Small

Wai Chee Dimock gave the first paper, "Fractals: The Micro in a Global World," and much as I respect Dimock as a scholar, I must say that I found her use of "fractals" entirely specious. She began by suggesting a loosening of the idea of fractals in order to think of self-similarity in terms of scalablility and the structural self-similarity of epic as a genre. Perhaps I was missing part of what was going on, but Dimock's paper struck me as an old-school organic unity paper with the word "fractal" stuck on it. By loosening the definition of "fractal," the usefulness of which I was already dubious, I felt that she robbed it of its power as a concept. She also used the term "recursion" to mean, more or less, repetition, again diluting the meaningfulness of the concept of recursion. It is possible that the short format of the talk prevented Dimock from supplying some crucial justifications for these moves, but I simply came away from the talk with the sense that she has little understanding of complex dynamics, and that they bear no relation whatever to the epic as a genre.

I found Robert Rushing's paper, "Fractal Microscopy: Blowup, Greene, Calvino" more convincing and quite entertaining. Rushing discussed how three texts try to assimilate the traumatic sublime of quantum mechanics (its impossibly small scale, its discreteness, its counterintuitiveness) to everyday life through ideologically charged metaphors. This was my favorite talk in the panel, and came away with an urgent feeling that I need to see Antonioni's Blowup.

Anna Botta gave a paper on dust. I more or less liked it, but can't say much about it, since it was mainly an art history paper and discussed a lot of works that I wasn't familiar with.

James Ramey gave an interesting paper called "Micropoetics: Nabokov's Small-Scale Parasites," which refreshingly used science in a legitimate way. Ramey explored how Nabokov uses the metaphor of the parasite to characterize creativity, especially literary creativity--a sinister generativity. I wound up asking him a question at the end about the difference between being the gestating egg and the egg-laying parent bug, since Nabokov seemed to be enormously interested in the "sting" of the egg-laying. (Some dim person in the audience turned around and suggested that it would help to think of the parasite as species rather than as individual bugs, as if I were confused about it. Sigh.)

Session 93: The Press

This session was arranged by the Division on Nineteenth Century French Literature.

I really enjoyed Cary Hollinshead-Strick's paper, "Personifying the Press: Newspapers on Stage after 1830," which looked at how vaudeville and the press spoke to and about one another.

I also enjoyed Marie-Eve Thérenty's paper, "Vies drôles et scalps de puces: Des formes brèves dans les quotidiens à la Belle Epoque," which looked at a hitherto little-noted genre of short, humorous newspaper pieces. It was a very interesting talk, but as it was in French, I'm sure I only caught about a third of it.

Evelyn Gould's paper, "Among Dreyfus Affairs: The Emergence of Testimonial Chronicle," similarly engaged in a kind of genre study, this time of very long works somewhere in between journalism and autobiography. I'm not really sure I understood how she was theorizing "testimonial chronicle," but she discussed the texts in interesting ways.

I went to a mostly miserable panel late on Thursday evening. It will remain nameless.

I also went to a panel today solely because a friend was presenting a paper on it. In my completely unbiased view, hers was the best paper on the panel, which was on nineteenth century American women's religious poetry. Apart from my friend, one panelist seemed to be trying to recuperate this corpus, which has been widely charged with crappiness, but she seemed to want to do so by pointing out a few exceptional writers (i.e. yes, this genre is crappy, but here are a few diamonds in the rough), and by valorizing these writers in spite of form. I'm baffled. I do want to check out her book, however. The other panelist seemed to have, um, missed the last 30 years of feminist studies?

Session 324: Brave New Worlds: Digital Scholarship and the Future of Early American Studies

I mostly liked this panel; I didn't come away with anything portable, but I learned some stuff about Samson Occom, and am interested in the Charles Brockden Brown Electronic Archive, which draws on fourteen different physical archives, which must be a giant pain in the butt for the people on the project. Interestingly, one presenter was Michelle Harper, the director of project management for Readex. Apparently they're coming out with an interesting feature in which you can annotate digital editions from their archive. It looks cooler that I'm making it sound here, but my notes are sadly devoid of detail, and I'm too spaced out now to remember it.

I gave my paper this evening, but perhaps I'll post on that panel separately, or not post on it at all.

Today I ran into some friends, a former professor, and a woman from Stanford with whom I once took summer German, which was nice. Margery Kempe was right, though: MLA is a desperaat tryal and a terribil oon amonges devils and hir ministeres and necromanceres.


Robert Rushing said...

Hey, thanks for your kind words about my paper at the Micro panel (if you didn't already know, all academics Google themselves relentlessly--I try to keep in down to once a month or so). I thought James Ramey's talk was particularly nice, but I'm a huge fan of Nabokov, and you could see that Ramey really had a feel for N.'s dense and multiply connected language. I thought Dimock's reading of the Iliad was very good (if nearly inaudible), but I share your concerns about watering down ideas about recursion and fractals--one of the pleasures of working on science should surely be coming to grips with the science itself in all its technical glory (and difficulty). I try not to ever use it impressionistically, especially when existing theoretical notions in the humanities can often do the work just as well. For some reason, almost every invocation of "chaos theory" seems to involve a near-total ignorance of the science involved, for example...

As for the MLA, it often is a horrible "tryal" when you're a graduate student (I had some miserable times there when I was a Berkeley grad student). It's actually quite nice when you have a job, because you get to see all your other friends who have jobs there and drink. But, as you've discovered, either way it's rarely about the papers. Good papers tend to come at smaller conferences that cater to a specific segment of the academic world (people tend to work harder when they know that the entire audience will consist of their immediate peers and colleagues).

Natalia said...

Robert, thanks for your comment. I noticed that I wrote at the bottom of my notes that day, "re-read Devaney so as to better shoot down bullshit re: chaos." I could clarify that, in general, I am a big Wai Chee Dimock fan. That fact pretty much made the talk all the more irritating, however.

I can see how drinking would really improve the MLA experience.