Last week, I was in Providence for NASSR. The conference is a mainstay of my plans for each year. NASSR 2018 was my seventh. It also might be my favorite.
Among the most thought-provoking talks that I saw was Lucy Morrison (English/Honors College, Nebraska-Omaha) on "Montagnes Russes at the Start of the Nineteenth Century." Excitingly, Morrison's new project concerns the travel of romantic-period women writers to France in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. The movement of such figures was significant. As Morrison convincingly showed, it intersected with new forms of leisure and entertainment that arose in Paris—namely the first roller coasters called "Montagnes Russes." Strangely, mountainscape rides that French troops saw and enjoyed during the failed Napoleonic conquests abroad became an inspiration for sites of amusement at home.
Artificial hills were crafted from wood and iron. Carts were affixed to them. Patrons would ride at speeds that exceeded those of the first railways. Interestingly, it was at the Parisian "Pleasure Gardens" these rides first appeared that some of the most meaningful social-class interaction in the city was occurring. I'll continue to follow Morrison's work to see how the inflection of cosmopolitanism, class, and travel is expressed by writers who traveled from England to enjoy France in these ways.
In general, after the conference, I've been continuing to think about how some of my favorite scholars in the field are grappling with limits to thought across poetics and sound. Annika Mann (English, Arizona State) has been studying the way stoppages in Charlotte Smith's "Beachy Head" stage forms of immobility and exile on the level of the text. Fascinatingly, as Mann argued and as I was quickly convinced, such moves drive towards the humanization of the reader and intersect with aims to return them to health. The body of the text desires a restoration of the body politic with recourse to communities of readers. I love this idea. I'm also interested in how the temporality of it works. That is, how might authors have considered past reader responses for their practices and production in the present towards promoting future health-based outcomes on the level of the social. I'm always concerned about being too much of a historicist, in these respects. Nonetheless, Mann's thinking inclines me towards a thought experiment. Would it be that Smith might have contemplated critics' responses to the deployment of cesurae—for instance—in the cases of the previous poets that influenced her work in crafting her stoppages? From there might Smith have meditated on how the use of a poetic technique would have been publically legible, considered its politics and political potential, and formed a concept for the ameliorative meaning of a stoppage for the formation of communities to come? Would this way of unpacking Smith's poetics deliver us to a deeper understanding of her practice? Or, conversely, does it pose a series of archival difficulties that are impossible to prove and take us away from conceiving how romantic-period texts operate? I'll keep thinking. Yet I'm most interested in seeing how Mann continues the project.
Michele Speitz (English, Furman)—whose work in romanticism and sound studies began long before the investigation of acoustics started trending—mobilized aurally-attuned methods and means of inquiry for a new reading of Mary Robinson's terrific poem "Ode to the Harp of Louisa." What Speitz showed was that sound emerges in Robinson's poem from nonhuman sources in the human form of poetry. Her compelling takeaway, with clear implications for sound and posthumanism, is that the remediation of nonhuman acoustics shows the limitations of human agency.
I'm interested in knowing more about the soundscapes in which Mary Robinson worked that would've affected her production. Namely, I want to know how different aural media might have factored into poetry in the period. Were there experiments in the field of romantic-period music composition that channeled the nonhuman? Did avian sounds, for instance, become intentionally formed musical notes traveling the clefs of composers as birds traveled the London skies people like Haydn shared with poets like Robinson? In thinking this way, am I asking the wrong questions concerning the point of intention? Is it that nonhuman presence enters into the field of human art—literary or musical—regardless of the artist's intention? I'll look forward to seeing how Speitz's work continues to address these questions.
Given my new work in art history that takes account of architecture and the urban built environment for thinking about the beginning of the conditions of contemporary climate changes in the technologies and infrastructure of Romantic-Period England, I was thrilled to see formations of shared vectors of inquiry among the NASSR community in these regards. Foremost among them was the talk that Thora Brylowe (English, Colorado) gave on paper money and Scottish mill workers.
Through some of the best in-depth transnational archival research I've ever seen, Brylowe walked us through shared circuits of the exile and dispossession of eighteenth-century debtors from England to the American south—specifically, Georgia—and their connection to slave labor, the production of cotton, and its basis for paper production by means of forced child labor in Scotland. Throughout her talk, I couldn't help but recall Walter Benjamin's remark that "there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." The romantic-period books we read are indissociable from the violence that went into the making of each page of paper we engage, often without a second thought. They all index oppressive conditions of production spread across the Atlantic world.
New movements within the field that materialized at this year's NASSR have me excited about the new convivial directions in which this community has moved. I was delighted to see the Bigger 6 Romanticism Collective co-host the annual pub night with the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus. Manu Chander (English, Rutgers), Sarah Faulkner (English, UW), Caroline Winter (English, Victoria), Stephanie Edwards (English and Cultural Studies, McMaster), and Travis Chi Wang Lau (English, Penn) deserve special mention for organizing and crowdsourcing the funding to ensure all who attended—including graduate students and contingent faculty—had access to drinks, the networking opportunities, and the social community of support that the event at its best represents.
I'm also thrilled by the news that the NASSR executive board unanimously approved the formation of the Race and Empire Caucus as proposed by the indefatigable Deanna Koretsky (English, Spelman). Sustaining conversations surrounding the inclusion of long-neglected voices through devoted panels each year will do much to make NASSR a more inclusive conference. I'm also hopeful that the caucus, which I'll look forward to participating in, will facilitate new and more capacious studies among the many romanticists with tertiary interests in contemporary artistic production. I believe that the engagement of scholars in this community not only with historically-marginalized authors but contemporary cultural practitioners working across visual, sound-based, and literary media against racialized violence and oppression will expand and deepen the broader and global interpretive apparatus for indexing and understanding the now. A supernumerary conference in Kingston, Lagos, Port-au-Prince, or São Paulo (perhaps in concert with a large-scale local exhibition or biennale) would be most welcome for this scholar excited by the new forms of innovation, support, and connectedness the field is galvanizing.
In the end, I'm happy to say that I left NASSR 2018 energized, inspired, and full of ideas for future work and collaboration.