Sunday, November 16, 2008


My brief report: Just like last year there was much talk about internationalism and transnationalism. Like last year, those panels were almost all about American or English modernists. Like last year, there was a panel discussion of how to make MSA more international. It's pretty pathetic. I mean, modernism was pretty darn international. Too bad these academics are so entrenched in their Eliot/Pound/Stein-centered worlds.

The saddest thing was almost when Per Backstrom and I went to the panel on East European avant-gardes (clearly the most interseting bunch of groups - heterogenous and extreme) given by a bunch of scholars from Eastern Europe, but there was only one more person who attended the panel. We went out with the chain-smoking presenters afterwards and that was fun.

Only a few more folks showed up to our grotesque panel, which still turned out really great. Per talked about "language grotesque", I talked about Aase Berg and the welfare state, Merrill Cole talked about lust murder, lurid sex cabarets and Hannah Hoch in the Weimar Republic, and Colbey Reid gave a really awesome paper that wove in HG Welles's "The Island of Dr Moreau" with the fabric patterns of Matisse and poems by Mina Loy, showing the importance of patterns to the grotesque.

I went to some other good papers - Plath and Surrealism, Berryman's Pound, Marianne Moore and translation, someGerman happenings, Chaplin in Latin America, Djuna Barnes at Coney Island and some other stuff.

Though in the end academic conferences make me feel a little uncomfortable. Not sure why.


Blogger konrad said...

Wait ... "not sure why"? Doesn't this post pretty much insinuate that at least for American conferences (and by extension any other nation's) the academic hootenanny verges on an "after party," attended by outsiders or the non-aligned only at their own peril?

6:49 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

In an earlier post, you said that MSA was "pretty terrific" last year. And then in this post, you said it was "pathetic," after noting that nothing had changed from the previous year. Which is it? Terrific or pathetic?

Sometimes I wonder if, say, the Swedish poetry community (or hell, let's open it up to any national poetry community) is any more diverse, heterogenous, or what have you, than the American poetry community. Sometimes I wonder if American artistic circles are held to a different standard, and if so, why exactly that is the case.

I'm not trying to get all patriotic on anybody's ass here. I just think that this is a case, once again, of American artists/critics/academics being bashed for supposedly not living up to the mythical "melting pot" ideal, while other communities, many of which are actually far more homogenous, get a free pass because that's part of what makes them "authentic."

I mean, isn't it of any value that these people are at least discussing internationalization, that this is apparently an issue of importance to them? That's something, isn't it?

I think the big reason why I'm glad to be out of academia once and for all is that people are constantly accusing each other of, and criticizing each other for, holding the wrong opinions, for not living up to impossible ideals. Academia is full of people who quibble over the most trivial points, not really in order to make statements of actual importance to anybody, but rather just to score cheap points in front of others who might like to score some points of their own in the future. All this jockeying for "relevance" (an act which makes you irrelevant in the undertaking) is obnoxious and tiresome.

2:51 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


The monolingualism doesn't make me uncomfortable; it makes me annoyed and frustrated.

What makes me uncomfortable is more like this scholarly distance from the subject matters.

And also the professionalism, which causes a high level of homogeneity.

Of course all of these are related.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


MSA is "pretty terrific" for many of the same reasons it makes me feel uncomfortable. The papers are of a very high quality - well-researched, well-written, interesting.

But as I noted above, the professionalism leads to a high level of homogeneity (in many cases). So I don't understand how you could not see that it has pathetic elements in it and terrific elements.

As somebody noted in the discussion about Horace Engdahl, there is not one American poetry community, just as there is no one Swedish poetry community. So there is a lot of variation even within the smallest countries (and as far as population, Sweden is one of the smallest around).

The Swedish poets and journal I interact with - like to a large extent the American poets and journals i interact with - are very much international.

As for your other assertions, I find them not only entirely hypothetical but also not all that useful. I don't care if other countries are insular or not.

As for scholarship, at least in Sweden they have a more general idea of "Literature" that includes stuff from all over. That is not to say that there are no problems with their academia (in fact there are many problems with it).

8:14 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, Johannes ... it's a professional association. Going there and acting baffled at the level of professionalization is like going to Fenway and acting baffled that a baseball game is underway.

I understand that there's not "one American poetry community." But I'm talking about the dominant community. Why is the dominant community in America held to a different standard? I'd just like you to admit that perhaps there is something slightly problematic about this criticism you constantly make. It seems that you consider America to be exceptional in terms of its insularity, when the dominant communities worldwide are actually quite insular as well. In fact, aren't most "communities" interested in their own ... interests? Isn't that the role of a community? And if there are so many other communities for you to be a part of, since, you know, the dominant community is not the only community, why do you even care to change it? Why even criticize it? You do have options. You are not nearly as marginalized as you seem to think you are (or perhaps want to be).

6:03 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I am "baffled" at why your argument turn ultimately into personal attacks. I don't think I've ever said I'm "marginalized". I have expressed dismay at the national focus of the MSA (and previously of "American Poetry").

I am also surprised at why you want to turn everything into such a simple black-and-white issue.

I don't like to make a simple blanket statement like: Sweden is more international than the US, not because it's not "true" but because either statement is way too simplistic.

I will say that the MSA is about the study of modernism, a highly international movement/moment. It therefore makes no sense to me that it is so English/American-centered. That's not a matter of me being marginalized but of narrow-minded scholarship.

And the fact of the matter is that Swedish scholarship tends to be far more crossnational. They tend to see themselves as part of an international literature. However, I don't want to idealize Swedish scholarship because it has its own set of problems.

As far as the professionalism of the MSA: What I'm trying to say is that on one hand I think it's really good because the papers are on the whole almost always interesting. But on the other hand there's something deadening about the professionalism and the standardization that results. Again, I don't know why you want to turn this into a yes-or-no issue. I have ambivalent feelings about it.

As for why I want to change the dominant community, I can expound on this at some length but I don't have time right now. I'll write an entry if I have time before picking up Sinead at 4.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


The short answer is of course that I am part of American Poetry therefore I care about its direction. I don't want it to turn away interesting artists and people the way it currently does.

It is true that communities tend toward stability, but there are many gradations of stability. For example, one that is largely porous, rather than largely striated (opposed to for example pop culture, as you frequently mention).

10:56 AM  

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