Tag Archives: NAVSA

Caroline Levine’s NAVSA Plenary or What Can the Victorians Teach us?

by Tara MacDonald

NAVSA – the North American Victorian Studies Association – just held its annual conference in Phoenix, Arizona. This year’s theme was Social Victorians, a rich topic that lent itself to a wide variety of papers. When I decided that I would like to write a post for The Floating Academy on Caroline Levine’s thought-provoking plenary – which ended the conference – I had no idea that I would be writing after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, an event that has prompted an increase hate crimes and reactionary protests. It now seems that Levine’s calls to action for humanities scholars are more important than ever.

Levine’s talk, “Forms of Sociability: Novels, Numbers, and Other Collectives” began with the claim that we, as humanities scholars, typically do not deal with generalities but with singularities. Singularities are exceptions to the rule, oddities, moments or examples of strangeness. Why and how do we study singularities, she asked? Singularities are typically what humanities critics point out, through skills like close reading. Emphasizing singularities can help us to poke holes in broad arguments, to argue for nuance, and to say that things are not as they might obviously seem. But, being scholars of singularities might mean that we are on the defensive or that we don’t get to make large, important claims. Or perhaps it means – and this was one of Levine’s main claims – that we can point out social or political problems but not contribute to their solution.

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Floating Academy: Conference Report: The Local and the Global in Venice

By Tara MacDonald

I’m just back from the NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA Conference in Venice, where I did see the William Morris painting that Eddy discusses in his post below (will add a comment this week, Eddy!). It was a really wonderful conference, with a wide range of papers. As a conference running over four days, with seven panels at any one time, it’s impossible to sum up just one or two specific threads that ran through the talks. What I can say, though, is that the joining of these three different Victorian Studies Associations – from North America, the UK (and the rest of Europe, if you include people like me), Australia, and Asia made for a very exciting, diverse group. It was a real pleasure to meet colleagues from Australia, many of whom remarked how isolated they felt from other Victorianists and what a treat it was to join forces in Venice. I spoke to one conference-goer who was going to visit London after the conference for the first time. Having taught nineteenth-century British fiction for years, it would be her first chance to see the city that she knew so much about but had never experienced for herself. Pretty exciting.

The conference theme lead to a rich variety of papers: I heard Jessica Howell discuss the lives of nurses in colonial Africa, Ross Forman speak about queer relationships and sex scandals in the colonies, and Nina Harkrader discuss the architecture of workhouses in London. In an intriguing paper, Anne-Marie Beller explored the depiction of Italian characters in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s little-known poem Olivia, arguing that Braddon played with, but ultimately challenged, stereotypes of both the English and Italians. In fact, Beller argued that the Italian figure, Angelo, actually emerges as the most tragic figure the text. Braddon depicts a duel between the Italian and English men in the poem – both of whom are competing for Olivia – but when the Englishman accidentally kills Angelo, he brings the Italian man’s body back to Italy and stays to care for his grave. The poem, then, is fascinating as an example of male compassion (Olivia has already moved on with a new lover, so readers need not worry about her) but also as a text that establishes a bond between these two countries. Not surprisingly, papers on the British understanding and representation of Italy were popular at the conference. One aspect of Beller’s paper that was striking, though, was her comparison of Braddon’s poetry, and her depictions of Italy, with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s; these are writers whose work is not often compared but Beller’s juxtaposition was enlightening.

Pamela Gilbert also offered an unusual pairing in her reading of Victorian skin and subjectivity, discussing Hegel alongside Wilkie Collins. I was lucky enough to attend Gilbert’s Work-in-Progress Seminar, entitled Victorian Skin: Surface and Self. She allowed the participants to read a chapter from her book project on this topic and explained that she began the project without a set, strict theoretical framework. Interested in the normative, rather than deviant body (though aware of the murky lines between such designations), Gilbert began by asking herself questions like, what did the Victorians talk about when they talked about skin? How is skin figured as identity, a boundary, or even an object or relic in the nineteenth century? Given changing conceptions of the body, new medical developments, and fluctuations in gender, class, age and racial identities throughout the Victorian period, human skin, as a cover for the body but one that always risks being influenced by outside sources and other bodies, certainly emerges as an important and wide-ranging topic. Her project is one of those that is so exciting and, even, necessary that it’s surprising that no one has explored this topic in depth until now. I’m reluctant to say too much about the chapter that we read, as it is still a work in progress, but I look forward to reading the book when it comes out!

Tara MacDonald

Dr. Tara MacDonald is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Amsterdam. Her interests include sensation fiction, Victorian masculinity, and neo-Victorian novels. Dr. MacDonald holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Dalhousie University, a Master of Arts Degree from Dalhousie University, and a Ph.D. from McGill University. She has also completed her postdoctoral work at the University of Toronto.

Floating Academy: “We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold”

By Eddy Kent

 

Though I could not go to Venice this year — where NAVSA/BAVS 2013 is about to begin — Venice, it seems, came to me, by way of Toronto’s Globe and Mail. Last Saturday’s edition featured on the cover of its arts section an image taken from the “buzz” piece at the 2013 Venice Biennale, Jeremy Deller’s “We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold.”

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Image courtesy of British Council. Jeremy Deller’s British Council commission is at La Biennale di Venezia until 24th November and will tour national UK venues in 2014. http://www.britishcouncil.org/visualarts.

“Hey,” I said to my partner before reading the piece, “that looks like William Morris throwing that yacht!” I’m both proud and ashamed of my nerdiness in this regard.

The mural does indeed depict William Morris rising kraken-like from the Ventian lagoon to scupper a mega-yacht belonging to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Since its founding in 1895, the Biennale has always attracted a small flotilla of the world’s luxe yachts, but this particular yacht caused a stir last time around. Partly because of its size, and partly because of its owner’s notoriety, the Luna met with popular revulsion when it arrived in 2011. Venice’s mayor even kicked around the idea of establishing an “oligarch’s tax” to militate against such luxurious gate-crashers in the future.

The controversy inspired Deller’s mural. In an interview with Tim Adams, Deller explained his thinking:

“Morris came to Venice, and loved aspects of it, and he was apparently a great chucker around of things. I had the sense this yacht and its connection to the art world was the kind of thing that would have pissed him off. So I kind of summoned him up.”

For a Victorianist interested in fin de siècle socialism, this is a fantastic summoning, rescuing Morris and his aesthetic from the chains of their domestification within the heritage industry. As capitialism endures another of its crisis moments, it’s consoling to be reminded of the genuinely revolutionary capacity of art. Deller’s installation has broadly been read along these lines. BBC News’ Arts Editor Will Gompertz hails it as the triumph of “outsider art” and  The Independent ran an editorial calling it “profoundly anti-establishment” verging on the “unpatriotic.”

Deller himself, in an interview with Charlotte Higgins, offers some nuance, calling it “wistfully agressive.” It’s that wistfulness, I think, that requires further scrutiny.

To begin, the Morris mural is gripping, but only part of “We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold.” The mural is flanked in the British pavilion by Deller’s reproduction of Morris’ woodblock prints and the Russian share certificates and promissory notes issued during the “loans-for-shares” scheme of 1995-96 during which the public assets of the Soviet state were sold to a handful of politically-connected businessmen for a fraction of their value.

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Image courtesy of British Council.

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Image courtesy of British Council.

Deller’s double juxtaposition of, on the one wall, the English socialist dreamer with the Russian oligarch in the giant mural and, on the other wall, the finely printed artwork and  financial notes is deliberately crude. The technical and thematic bluntness are meant to startle, and demand to be read allegorically. The installation’s title obviously evokes Aesop’s myth of Midas, but the precise phrasing directs us to Morris’s 1891 essay “The Socialist Ideal: Art.”

In that essay, Morris reiterates the argument made throughout his socialist propaganda of the late 1880s and early 1890s, that socialism is not merely an economic project but rather an “all-embracing theory of life.” Insofar as it has “an ethic and a religion of its own, so it also has an aesthetic.” To theorize that aesthetic, Morris himself ventures into juxtaposition, contrasting the viewpoints of the Commercialist and the Socialist.

The Commercialist is one who commodifies all things. He “divides manufactured articles into those which are prepensely works of art, and are offered for sale in the market as such, and those which have no pretence and could have no pretence to artistic qualities.” In this worldview, the thing called “art” has no intrinsic but only a market worth. And, given the hegemony of commercialism, Morris states “It will scarcely be denied, I suppose, that at present art is only enjoyed, or indeed thought of, by comparatively a few persons, broadly speaking, by the rich and the parasites that minister to them directly.”

It’s hard to reconcile the author who penned this critique of elite art with the hero rising from the deep to save the Venice Biennale. It’s worth asking, from whom is this festival–the world’s premier contemporary art exhibition, and a major benefit to the Venetian economy–being saved anyway? Deller is too clever not to appreciate the irony of his own position, someone who by virtue of accepting the commission to design the British Pavilion in the 2013 Venice Biennale is potentially implicated as the “parasite” ministering to the rich.

In this, the idea of Roman Abramovitch is as much in operation as the idea of William Morris. We misread Deller’s piece, I think, if we simply turn our noses up at the gauche tastes (the yacht has TWO helipads!) of an arriviste plunderer of the common-wealth. Instead, Deller’s image provides a way to ask serious questions about the Biennale itself. Look carefully at the mural again and observe where that yacht is being aimed.

“The Commercialist,” Morris wrote in that same essay, “sees that in the great mass of civilized human labour there is no pretence to art, and thinks that this is natural, inevitable, and on the whole desirable. The Socialist, on the contrary, sees in this obvious lack of art a disease peculiar to modern civilization and hurtful to humanity; and furthermore believes it to be a disease which can be remedied.”

What’s interesting to me, thinking about Deller’s installation, is the effect upon viewers of the idea of William Morris being re-deployed to save art in the 21st century. In an interview with Charlotte Higgins, Deller offers his own reading of Morris: “He was an extraordinary person: his politics, his writings, the way he humanised the industrial revolution, his interest in beauty. He was a true artist, with incredibly strong beliefs: artists wouldn’t get involved like that today.”

Indeed. Here is that wistfulness. Artists today, Deller claims, don’t “get involved like that.” Instead, his installation suggests that they begin always and already implicated. For an artist in this position, unable to escape his interpellation, or to participate in genuinely revolutionary activity, the best you can do is draw a picture of a neo-Victorian Socialist Artist Giant hurling the world’s iconic Mega-Yacht into the lagoon and smashing the institution of elite art. Not totally satisfying methinks. Is this the way to remedy the disease of what Morris called the obvious lack of art in everyday life?

Thoughts? Victorianists in Venice — have you been to see this yet? What are the people in the room saying?

Eddy Kent

Dr. Eddy Kent is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Dr. Kent obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Western Ontario, a Masters of Arts degree from the University of Waikato, and a Ph.D from the University of British Columbia. Dr. Kent’s research interests include Victorian literature and culture, empire, institutions and forms of social organization, and literary theory.