‘Oh, god, not again: The Well of Fucking Loneliness. When will the nightmare stop?’ Thankfully for the Radclyffe Hall scholars, Terry Castle’s infamous sentiment was not shared by the attendees of Queer Modernism(s) II: Intersectional Identities. However, as co-organiser Séan Ricahrdson (Nottingham Trent University) described in his beautiful welcome address, powerful affective investments are at stake when researching the queer past. Excavating queer modernisms so often involves delving into histories that are, as Matt Cook puts it, emotionally-laden ‘archives of feeling’. Relating a personal experience of queer, haptic, connection, Richardson established the tone of a conference which was full of passionate, intersectional scholarship.
‘a conference full of passionate, intersectional scholarship’
Conference delegates gather in the Faculty of English for the opening of the conference.
Building upon the resounding success of the first Queer Modernism(s) conference at Nottingham Trent University in 2017, the University of Oxford hosted the second year of the conference on 12-13 April 2018. Panellists presented on the place of queer identity in modernist art, literature and culture; their work emphasised intersecting identities and interrogated the relationship between queer identity and modernity. Delegates from China, Turkey, the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, Portugal and Europe presented papers that examined the relationship between queer identity and modernity, demonstrating the dearth of spaces dedicated to these discussions. Academia’s loss became this conference’s gain; the eighty-odd attendees ensured that the conference’s conversations pushed past complacent valorisations and repositioned queerness at the centre of modernist discussions.
In her masterfully disruptive keynote, Jana Funke (University of Exeter) demonstrated how contemporary focus on inversion obscured the greater variety in discourse on sexuality. Funke showed how Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West used Marie Stope’s sexology to understand their failure to achieve sexual pleasure in their marriage, showing the possibilities of queer identification beyond lesbian experience. Funke invited her listeners to move beyond the closed circuit of identitarian labels, and, in doing so, ‘queer’ queer studies.
‘scholars were invited to ‘queer’ queer studies’
Jana Funke (University of Exeter) delivers her keynote address on ‘Queerer Modernism’
Funke’s keynote formed part of a recurrent strand throughout the conference of papers that questioned static definitions of queerness. Maria Christou (Oxford Brookes) presented a thought-provoking paper on the elemental realm of George Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil (story of the eye, 1928). Christou pointed to the ways that food is used and interpellated queerly in the text, where Bataille’s unnamed narrator and his lover Simone, assert a material ontology, re-defining anuses as mouths, genitals as meat and eggs as genitals. However, as Christou noted, the couple’s apparently radical attempts at redefinition in fact render them conservative, an attempt to escape the banality of the everyday that relies upon retaining an awareness of these objects’ typical uses. Jessie McLaughlin (Independent) spoke authoritatively about how the university system, even within queer enclaves, continues to marginalise queer people of colour who identify with modernist texts in ways that challenge academic tradition. Presenting on the difficulty they had experienced in submitting a paper to Queer Modernism(s) II, McLaughlin simultaneously called upon the conference organisers to queer their use of academic convention, while demonstrating the necessity for academic audiences to recognise diverse responses to modernist texts.
‘academia, even within queer enclaves, can still marginalise queer people of colour’
A conference delegate engages in conversation during a coffee break
Hannah Roche (University of York) and Steven Macnamara (University of Nottingham) responded to Terry Castle’s harsh critique of Radclyffe Hall, by illustrating the stylistic innovations (Roche) and potential for queer identification (Macnamara) in Adam’s Breed (1926) and The Master of the House (1932). Hannah Roche called for Adam Breed to be considered a serious modern(ist) novel and as a necessary precursor to the infamous Well. Macnamara persuasively presented The Master of the House, one of Radclyffe Hall’s least discussed texts, as a covert male love story.
Sandeep Pramar (University of Liverpool) delivers her keynote on ‘Nancy Cunard’s Black America’
Sandeep Pramar (University of Liverpool) used her keynote to demonstate the potential for modernists to encompass often contradictory beliefs and behaviours in their pursuit of a queer aesthetic. In her detailed examination of the Nancy Cunard, a writer, heiress and political activist who fetishized primativism even as she established herself as an anti-racist activist, Pramar’s insights warned delegates against relying on reductive subversive/conformist binary when critiquing queer individuals. Her expert keynote also served as a vital reminder to queer delegateson the importance of self-reflexivity within their research and praxis.
After so much work on the queerness within supposedly normative fields and practices, other papers took up the challenge of recuperating normalcy within queer literature. Daisy Lee (Independent) argued against the condemnation of middle-brow form in lesbian fiction, illustrating how the middlebrow style gave lesbian writers an innocuous space in which to establish otherwise silenced narratives. Ben Nichols (University of Edinburgh) similarly put pressure on queer theoretical frameworks that deny the usefulness of ordinariness by marginalisation and violent censure.
‘delegates were encouraged to question the subversive/conformist binary’
A delegate consults the conference programme
Beyond the abundance of papers on literary texts – including fresh readings of Barnes, Conrad, Remarque, Brooke, Stein, and Woolf – there were also panels that engaged a wider field of queer modernist culture. One highlight was a seminar led by Heather Green (Nottingham Trent University) and Sean Richardson on the challenges of curating a queer heritage. This included a discussion of their own curatorial work Forster50, an exhibition and literary walking tour that will bring to life elements of the E.M Forster archive at Dorking. Innovative form also queered the conference, such as Seabright D. Mortimer’s (Independent) use of poetry performance in delivering her paper on queer temporalities and animal bodies in Gertrude Stein’s Paris France (1940).
‘#QueerModernisms both extended the reach of the conference and inspired FOMO in non-attendees’
A range of twitter responses to the conference
The reach of the conference was greatly extended through the lively coverage #QueerModernisms and the @QueerModernism feed received on Twitter, reaffirming the value of social media in both recording the events of conference events and inciting FOMO in non-attendees. The enthusiasm of the delegates on social media was matched IRL, with conversations continuing long after the last paper, and into the pub.
The conference was closed by co-organiser Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston (University of Oxford), who drew attendees back to the Jana Funke’s words: ‘Modernism may be queer in ways that we have yet to fully appreciate’. Moving beyond queer complacency, the conference challenged its attendees not only to recognise the queerness of modernism, but also to interrogate their own queer practices.‘Modernism may be queer in ways that we have yet to fully appreciate’
Two conference delegates in conversation during a coffee break.
By Isabella MacPherson (University of Oxford).
Isabella MacPherson is reading for an MSt in Women’s Studies at Mansfield College, Oxford. Her thesis examines obscenity, emotion, and silence in modernist literature. Other interests include the formation of queer kinships and the political uses of pornography. Isabella represents the Women’s Studies MSt cohort and has arranged seminar series, round tables, and talks on topics such as women’s education, feminist thinking, and period poverty activism.