New Disciplinary Histories at MLA 2016

807. New Disciplinary Histories
Sunday, January 10
1:45-3:00 p.m.
Location: 19A, Austin Convention Center

In recent years it has come to seem both possible and necessary for the discipline of English to rewrite its history. From the recent Modern Language Quarterly special issue “The Uses of the Past?” to influential new genealogies of formalist close reading offered by surface readers to data-generated visualizations tracing the fortunes of literary fields and methodological keywords in print across the twentieth century, literary scholars are productively defamiliarizing our inherited sense of our discipline’s past by turning over new documents, lineages, and organizing rubrics. Such pragmatic and interested self-regard marks a decided turn away from the disciplinary histories of the late 1980s and early 1990s — works such as Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature (1987) and John Guillory’s Cultural Capital (1993) — which seemed to borrow the methods of other disciplines (institutional history, Bourdieuvian sociology) in order to take authoritative critical distance on our own.

This panel seeks to retell our discipline’s history using terms, tools, and even untheorized practices that appear native to literary study. Each paper alights on an overlooked or understudied moment from the past of English studies to generate a more capacious account of the methods that English has housed.

Chair: Ted Underwood
Ted Underwood is Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the author most recently of Why Literary Periods Mattered (Stanford, 2013). He co-authored (with Andrew Goldstone) “The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies,” an experiment in digital disciplinary history that recently appeared in New Literary History.

Paper 1: Joan Lubin’s “Mechanical Collator, Machine Reader: Stereoscopic Criticism” refocalizes recent discussions of literary critical method (in particular, surface/depth/close/machine reading) in terms of the “stereoscope,” as both mechanical apparatus and rhetorical figure for the analysis of literature across the twentieth century. Her paper considers what Franco Moretti’s pursuit of a “literary history without a single direct textual reading” might look like if the “models” devised to do so were not imported from other disciplines, as they are in Graphs, Maps Trees, but rather conceived of “in-house” in conversation with a disciplinary history that has too often proceeded in seemingly total ignorance of the rich discourse regarding the relationship between interpretation, evidence, method, and object within textual criticism and bibliography.

Joan Lubin is a doctoral candidate in the department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “Social Science Fictions: Novels to Scale in Cold War America” examines literary experiments in empiricism across a set of genre fictions in the postwar period. She was the co-organizer of the “Queer Method” conference at Penn in 2013. Her research and teaching interests include sociology of literature, theory of the novel, history of the disciplines, science and literature, queer studies, and film studies.

Paper 2: Devin Griffith’s “‘Long periods of boredom, short periods of terror’: Crisis and Disciplinarity in On the Origin of Species” considers the role of English studies in the formations of other disciplines: here, Darwin’s use of philology to build his theory of descent through natural selection. Griffiths imagines how we might write disciplinary histories not as dutiful students invested in the reproduction of our field’s received values, but as envious, longing, emulators of other disciplines whose early practitioners borrowed from our own.

Devin Griffiths is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Southern California. His research examines the intersection of intellectual history, scientific literature, and the digital humanities, with emphasis on nineteenth-century British literature and science. Central to his work is the question of how literary form shapes our experience of time and natural systems. Essays on this subject have appeared in ELH, Studies in English Literature, and Book History. His first book is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press in 2016 and is titled, “The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins.” That study examines how historical novels established a new relational understanding of history and furnished a new comparative method that helped to shape the disciplinary formations of both the life sciences and the humanities. His second book project, “The Radical Catalogue,” explores the science of order that organized nineteenth-century print and natural history collections to test the relation between empire and modern information technologies.

Paper 3: Jordan Stein’s “Is Activist History also Disciplinary History?: The Case of Affect Theory” notes that queer theory’s engagement with affect theory is usually considered a theoretical development. He offers instead an account of the cross-pollination of activist and academic work in the early 1990s and considers how formations like this – not part of official interdisciplinary but formative of the discipline – might be preserved in our teaching of queer theory today.

Jordan Alexander Stein is the author of journal articles in American Literary History, American Literature, and ESQ. With Justine S. Murison he co-edited a special issue of Early American Literature on “Methods for the Study of Religion” in 2010, and with Lara Langer Cohen he co-edited Early African American Print Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). His research has been supported by fellowships from the Library Company of Philadelphia and the New-York Historical Society, and in 2012, he co-directed the American Antiquarian Society’s summer seminar in the history of the book, on “African American Cultures of Print.” He is completing “The People Are Clarissa,” a monograph on Protestant literacy and transatlantic print, and developing a new project, “Sex in the Archives.”

Paper 4: Laura Heffernan and Rachel Sagner Buurma’s “Classroom Practice and Critical Disciplinary History” offers a new archive for disciplinary history: the heterogeneous documents produced in the English literature classroom over the course of the long twentieth century. As a test case, we look at syllabi, administrative documents, personal letters, and teaching notes related to the Modern English Literature tutorial course that T. S. Eliot conducted at Southall between 1916 and 1919 under the auspices of the University of London university extension program. Scholars have long seen Eliot’s 1920 volume, The Sacred Wood, as having a determining influence on what and how English professors taught in the 20th century, but we show instead how the students of Modern English Literature undeniably helped shape Eliot’s visions of literary history and literary value in The Sacred Wood. In closing, we suggest the wider ways in which valuing and researching teaching materials from non-elite institutions upend the assumptions and broad outlines of current disciplinary histories.

Rachel Sagner Buurma is Associate Professor of English Literature at Swarthmore College, where she teaches classes on Victorian literature, the history of the novel, and digital humanities. She is finishing a book on the social, literary-critical origins of narrative omniscience, and starting one on how Victorian novelists did research. Her essays have appeared in journals including Victorian Studies, Representations, New Literary History, and Studies in English Literature, and The Journal of Big Data and Society. With Jon Shaw (University of Pennsylvania Libraries) she co-directs the Early Novels Database.

Laura Heffernan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Florida, where she teaches courses on twentieth-century literature and culture. She is co-editor, with Jane Malcolm, of Laura Riding’s Contemporaries and Snobs (University of Alabama Press, 2014). She is currently writing a history of modernist literary criticism, titled “Unliterary Critics,” portions of which have appeared in Modernism/Modernity and Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. She is also co-writing, with Rachel Sagner Buurma, a new disciplinary history of English, titled “The Teaching Archive,” portions of which have appeared in New Literary History and Victorian Studies.

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