Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Towards an Erotics of Reception

So for a long time me and my esteemed colleague at the University of Toronto, Anna Wilson, have been putting together a call for papers for a conference next July, which is going to be about loving texts.

From my point of view, the conference comes partly out of my interest in the relationship between sex and language. They're intimately related, of course, in that language can be highly eroticized, and in that our language has some effect on (if it doesn't determine) the way we think about and experience our bodies and our sexualities. But at the same time sex and language can be understood to be completely different: language as cerebral, virtual, unreal, representative, sex as bodily, real, true, authentic, nonrepresentational: sex as an 'outside' to language and power, or sex as the site where we are most intimately engaged with language and power. That's something that's gone on intriguing me for more than a decade, and which partly explains my interest in writing about sex. (I'm also interested, as several years of my students have been mildly-to-profoundly shocked to discover, in sex as a metaphor for writing, as in Calvin Thomas's wonderful essay Must Desire Be Taken Literally? on Helene Cixous, writing, and anal sex.)

I'm also someone who loves books, writing, language, someone who writes fanfiction, someone who gets crushes on books and authors and characters, and someone who teaches literature: so I'm also interested in the way that whole messy range of responses to texts and writings gets cut up and organized institutionally. Me, I feel like writing within a fictional universe and writing an analytic essay about a book are both ways of loving texts, but I know lots of people think that analysis and love are opposed (cf this really beautiful poem by U A Fanthorpe), and that intrigues me too, not only for what it says about literature but for what it says about love.

So I'm really excited to be organizing this conference: not only will I get a chance to talk for a whole day to other people from around the world who are interested in love and desire as modes of making textual connections, but it's going to be the basis for an application for a Research Network grant, so hopefully there will be a whole series of research events on this theme. In the short term, though, I'm particularly delighted that Carolyn Dinshaw (whose book I blogged about here) has agreed to be our keynote speaker. I'm excited to meet her, and to start what I hope will be an ongoing conversation with her and with everyone else who participates!

Here's the Call for Papers. There'll be an official web page for the conference at the University of Bristol website soon, and I'll let you have that link as soon as I can, but in the meantime, please pass on the news to anyone who might be interested, and feel free to link to this post!


A one-day conference co-organized by

The Bristol Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition & the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto

University of Bristol, 10 July 2010

Keynote Speaker: Professor Carolyn Dinshaw, NYU


In reading Cicero's letters I felt charmed and offended in equal measure. Indeed, beside myself, in a fit of anger I wrote to him as if he were a friend and contemporary of mine, forgetting, as it were, the gap of time, with a familiarity appropriate to my intimate acquaintance with his thought; and I pointed out those things he had written that had offended me. (Petrarch, Rerum Familiarum Liber I.1.42)

Love, desire, fannish obsession and emotional identification as modes of engaging with texts, characters and authors are often framed as illegitimate and transgressive: excessive, subjective, lacking in scholarly rigour. Yet such modes of relating to texts and pasts persist, across widely different historical periods and cultural contexts. Many classical and medieval authors recount embodied and highly emotional encounters with religious, fictional or historical characters, while modern and postmodern practices of reception and reading - from high art to the subcultural practices of media fandom - are characterized by desire in all its ambivalent complexity. Theories of readership and reception, however, sometimes seem unable to move beyond an antagonistic model: cultural studies sees resistant audiences struggling to gain control of or to overwrite an ideologically loaded text, while literary models of reception have young poets fighting to assert their poetic autonomy vis-a-vis the paternal authority of their literary ancestors.

This conference aims, by contrast, to begin to elaborate a theory of the erotics of reception. It will bring together scholars working in and across various disciplines to share research into reading, writing and viewing practices characterized by love, identification, and desire: we hope that it will lead to the establishment of an international research network and the formulation of some long-term research projects. In order to facilitate discussion at the conference, we will ask participants to circulate full papers (around 5,000 words) in May 2010.

We now invite abstracts of 300 words, to be submitted by email by 30 November 2009. Abstracts will be assessed on the basis of their theoretical and interdisciplinary interest. We particularly welcome contributions from scholars working on literary, visual and performance texts in the fields of: history, reception studies, mediaeval studies, fan studies, cultural studies, theology, and literary/critical theory.

Some ideas which might be addressed include, but are not limited to:

* Writing oneself into the text: self-insertion and empathetic identification
* Historical desire: does the historian desire the past?
* Hermeneutics and erotics
* Pleasures of the text, pleasures of the body: (how) are embodied responses to the text gendered?
* Anachronistic reading: does desire disturb chronology?
* Erotics and/or eristics: love-hate relationships with texts

This conference is part of the 'Thinking Reciprocity' series and will follow directly from the conference 'Reception and the Gift of Beauty' (Bristol, 8-9 July 2010). Reduced fees will be offered to people attending both conferences.
If you have any queries, or to submit an abstract, please contact one of the conference organizers:

Dr Ika Willis (Ika.Willis@bristol.ac.uk)
Anna Wilson (anna.wilson@utoronto.ca)


Tony Keen said...

My attempts to avoid overcommitment next year mean I shan't be submitting an abstract, but the fact that it's on a Saturday gives me a good chance of actually going. which I certainly want to do, as it looks very interesting.

The thing about analysis and love being antithetical I suspect comes from school experience, and being made to read literary works for class that one doesn't want to (this is nothing to do with the quality of teaching, it's just the child's natural resistance to being forced to do anything). Some people never get past that; it's why, I think, there's so much hostility to academic study of sf, as sf readers assume that academic study will destroy their love for the texts. This is nonsense (and disproved by the self-same people being happy to indulge in long speculative analysis of the same texts on the Internet or in fanzines or in the pub), but it's a hard attitude to shift.

Ika said...

Oh, really pleased that you will be able (probably) to come! And I understand about the overcommitment thing. (We're hoping to have as much time as possible for discussion, in any case, so hopefully there won't be as big a divide as usual between presenters and attendees...)

Yes, I think you're right about the school experience thing: I'm always intrigued by that disconnect people (at least fannish people!) experience between how much they like talking/analyzing at cons or in zines, and how resistant they are to 'academic' analysis, though.

Una McCormack said...

I'll be there, obviously. I'd like to write about Marilynne Robinson's (fannish) rewriting of her own novel Gilead, in her latest novel Home, but I'm not sure there's a paper in it (or whether it quite suits the conference). But I'll be there: it sounds brilliant.

Ika said...

Hooray! I think it is going to be really good.

Beppie said...

I'd love to be there, but my chances of getting to Canada next year are slim to none.

Ika said...

Hey, I never got back to you, Beppie - sorry, I was on the brink of leaving Australia and everything non-urgent got delayed. It's not in Canada, it's in the UK - but I'm guessing your chances of getting there are even slimmer...

Beppie said...

Ika, yes, I misread the call for papers initially. However, I've thought about it a bit more, and I've realised that it actually might be possible for me to get to Bristol next year after all -- and I will be sending you an abstract sometime in the next month or so, I hope!