Reflections about English Institute 2014 and Narrative Conference 2015

Last year (2014), I attended the English Institute at Harvard for the first time. The thematic focus was Medium. So, it is perhaps no surprise that I, given my research interests, took a whirlwind trip to Cambridge. And this past weekend, I presented and participated in the Narrative Conference in Chicago. In this brief post, I catalog some trends I noticed, relevant to my work, across the different papers and presentations I heard:

Objects are in: So, we have been hearing about Thing Theory and reading about things for a while but this was the first year when I heard of things everywhere, across disciplines. It is possible that I was not paying attention to such things earlier or maybe those conversations were not happening out-in-the-open. Ian Bogost (of course) and Mark Hansen referred to Object Oriented Ontology and physicality of the medium at the English Institute, while Amy Elias undertook a short, tentative reading of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow using OOO’s framework to interpret the text. Though my dissertation (in its current form) deals more specifically with materiality and modality rather than thingness, I am happy to hear about things.

Ian Weaver’s “Black Knights’ Archive, Chapter One: Migration,” exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Ephemera and Obsolescence: Contemporary literature, comics, electronic texts, and films along with emerging fields such as Media Archaeology have been interested in these lost, forgotten, and transient stuffs for a while. So, I was not taken aback when Jonathan Sterne traced performances of Shakespeare through different (lost) media technologies over the centuries in his presentation at the English Institute. Martin Harris’ presentation touched on similar issues in a different light as he spoke of theater’s “unplanned obsolesce” as a metaphor within media historical formulations.

Spatiality: For a while, I wondered if I heard so many echoes of this simply because I wanted to (because, you know, I am writing about it) but no…I think it was there, everywhere. At the “Contemporary Narratology Panel,” for instance, Adam Zachary Newton gave us a glimpse of his new project which, among other things, explores the concept of handling books. When he showed a photograph of Henry Darger’s manuscripts, H Potter Abbot asked him to think about the manner in which temporality has been spatialized in those manuscripts’ installation. From my readings of Narrative theory, I find that the field has a “temporal” bias–so, it was refreshing to hear the question of material space being (briefly) addressed. I should note I do not begrudge time and was delighted to hear Christina Lupton and Mark Hansen discuss temporality of and in medium through their presentations at the English Institute. However, at this moment, I am more interested in space, and in spatialization of time/experience than the temporality of space.

Cognition and Visualization: I heard some phenomenal papers about visualization while reading at the Narrative conference. Though I find cognitive narratology’s interest in “theories of the mind” interesting, I find the application of research questions and insights from cognitive neurophysiological research more stimulating. So, in that regard, I enjoyed Renate Brosch’s presentation about the visualization processes involved in reading. Of course, it was not an “innocent” enjoyment. I was being thrilled that people in the world of Narrative theory are taking more and more interest in material/visual/spatial practices, moving beyond the question of “meaning” in reading to questions of “experience”–which is what interests me.

Other observations:

–Plenary talks often have titles that are so broad that they could be about anything.

–Other than those working on media and modality (and sometimes even people working on media and modality), people confuse multimodal with transmedia narratives!

Other Other observations:

Both Harvard Bookstore and Powell’s (close to UChicago) are great spaces to spend time, touch, feel, and buy books.

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