Conference Report: What is the Contemporary?

University of St Andrews

1-3 September 2014

by Joseph Brooker


St Andrews has become a significant focus for contemporary literary studies, not least because of the presence in the English Department of Dr Sarah Dillon (now departed for Cambridge, but the organizer of significant conferences here in recent years). This conference, though, had a subtly different focus from many in the field.  It arose from the Institute for Contemporary and Comparative Literature in St Andrews’ School of Modern Languages. Crucial to making it happen were Margaret-Anne Hutton, Professor of French and Comparative Literature and  Emma Bond, Lecturer in Italian and Comparative Literature, along with Colette Lawson (Lecturer in German and Comparative Literature) and Fabio Caiani (Lecturer in Arabic).

The conference accordingly had an international flavour. Not only did delegates come from around the world to join the wealthy American golfers populating the town’s hotels, but their disciplinary interests were often outside English studies. One keynote speaker, Professor Lionel Ruffel, came to Scotland from the University of Paris 8 where he has been heading a research project on ‘The Archaeology of the Contemporary’. His keynote address referred to Giorgio Agamben’s text on the same question that formed the conference’s title. Other papers discussed literature originating from Germany, France and Iran. Professor Julika Griem came from the Goethe University in Frankfurt, though her current research focus is very local: John Burnside, Professor of Creative Writing at St Andrews.

The international conference was also unusually interdisciplinary. A panel was devoted entirely to contemporary visual art. Diana Sykes, Director of Fife Contemporary Art & Crafts, joined a roundtable on Practising, Transmitting and Curating the Contemporary, and gave the perspective of a curator rather than an academic. Alice Crawford, from the Library of the University of St Andrews, talked about libraries as a site of contemporary practice. Charles Wilson from Oxford gave an intriguing, erudite address on music, and how the temporal experience of listening might illuminate ideas of contemporaneity. Rebecca Dolgoy provoked discussion with her work on museums and commemoration in Berlin. The conference was far more multi-disciplinary than the norm. In this way too it avoided the homogeneity risked by contemporary conferences in literary studies.

Finally, and most unusually, the conference also considered multiple historical periods. This seems counter-intuitive: if we think of ‘the contemporary’ as our own time, with its particular issues of periodisation, we may not expect to hear papers on the distant past. But one of the proposed themes of the conference was ‘The Contemporary through Time’, with the assumption that every time may have known its own contemporaneity: ‘What did the term, or its (near) equivalent(s), mean in – for example — Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy or early twentieth-century Iran?’ Accordingly, Armand d’Angour gave a highly engaging final keynote address on the experience of the present in classical verse. He explored Sappho, translated a Roman poem into the terms of twenty-first-century social climbing, and identified a musician, said to have thrilled large audiences in the pre-Christian era, as the Elvis Presley of the ancient world.

This report has still only mentioned a handful of the numerous contributors. One could equally dwell on Leigh Wilson’s discussion of Frank Kermode, Katie Muth’s of periodisation, Duncan Kennedy’s of time in Augustine and Heidegger. In closing, though, I will draw attention to two of the talks that most impressed me. Peter Childs, author of valuable works on contemporary British fiction, gave a superbly focused talk on what he called ‘the contemporary past’, and what I have in the past thought of as the ‘semi-historical’. Childs was interested in fiction that delves back two, three or four decades in time, exploring moments that are past yet still part of living memory. As Childs mentioned, one can find the tendency in Dickens, George Eliot and James Joyce, but he was also able to cite numerous cases from recent years in British fiction. Just what is gained or foregrounded by such historical situation was Childs’ concern, limned with great elegance and economy.

The most remarkable address of all, to my mind, was the keynote address by Professor James F. English (University of Pennsylvania). Prof English presented the results of an experiment that looked at fiction since 1960 in terms of statistical trends. Like Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’, English’s work eschewed close textual analysis in favour of number-crunching – though English was also critical of some of Moretti’s claims, and presented his own work as a matter of ‘medium-sized’ rather than ‘big’ data. Considering a potential ‘long-list canon’ of novels nominated for major prizes in literary fiction in the US and UK, English was able to posit a change in typical temporal setting – with more novels since around 1980 set in the more distant past or future. He also offered a parallel set of data for genre fiction; remarkably, I thought (given the importance of science fiction and historical fiction), it showed temporal setting narrowing and genre fiction becoming more focused on the present. English’s presentation, delivered with great intellectual clarity and a precisely informative slide show, felt like one of those unusually exciting moments when one sees new methods or ideas arrive in a field for the first time. It was a particularly striking contribution to a conference unusual in its openness to multiple languages, disciplines and times.



Image from Bob the Lomond, used under a CC BY-ND license.

Author: CCL

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