Organisers Report

On the 12th and 13th of April the Faculty of English at Oxford played host to Queer Modernism(s) II: Intersectional Identities, a multi-disciplinary collaborative conference organised in conjunction with the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, Oxford, Nottingham Trent University, and the University of Liverpool.

With the support of The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Séan Ricahrdson (Nottingham Trent University), Rio Matchett (University of Liverpool), and I were able to build on the success of the first Queer Modernism(s) conference, expanding both the scope and the size of the event. The result was a truly international conference, with over eighty delegates from across Europe, the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, Portugal, Turkey, and China coming together to exchange ideas and engage in dialogue in the fittingly modernist environs of the St Cross Building. The conversations that ensued were not merely confined to the venue itself, but continued online via #QueerModernisms and the @QueerModernism twitter feed.

0Image Description: Queer Modernism(s) delegates sit in a large lecture theatre making notes during Sandeep Pramar’s keynote.

A broad range of disciplines were represented at the conference, with panels on fine art, architecture, and pedagogy, a seminar on curation and queer heritage, and papers on everything from sport and modernism to the queer possibilities of the viola. Usual suspects were given fresh readings – such as Jasmine McRory’s (Queen’s University, Belfast) queer eco-feminist account of Mrs Dalloway (1925) – less well-known works by established authors were examined in detail – as in Steven Macnamara’s (University of Nottingham) paper on Radclyffe Hall’s 1932 novel, The Master of the House – and peripheral figures were discussed as serious contender’s for modernism’s queer canon – a claim ably staked for Kate O’Brien (1897-1974) by Naoise Murphy (University of Cambridge).

Particularly satisfying were the ways in which many papers combined theory and practice, featuring not only critical analyses of, but creative responses to modernist texts. So convincing was one of these practice-based responses that several delegates had to be reassured that they had not in fact just heard a hitherto unpublished poem by Gertrude Stein, but the work of one of our presenters, Seabright D. Mortimer (Independent).

hhhImage Description: Two Queer Modernism(s) delegates sit on some steps chatting.

One of the most intellectually bracing aspects of the conference was the willingness of delegates to question the limits of queer theory and to emphasise not only the utility, but the necessity of intersectional thought in offering a fuller account of the political, ethical, and aesthetic stakes of modernism. Time and again, delegates demonstrated that a queer account of modernist culture that does not take into consideration issues of race, colonialism, class, and disability, risked not only occluding the full plurality of modernisms that flourished during the twentieth century, but replicating many of the oppressions they critiqued.

This willingness to reflect critically on the frames within which sexuality and gender have been thought was compellingly showcased in Jana Funke’s (University of Exeter) keynote, in which she asked whether queer theory’s anti-identitarian investments might hamstring its capacity to account for the full range of ways in which people in the early twentieth century experienced, embodied, and conceptualised their queerness.

As an antidote to this presentism, Funke offered a robustly archivally grounded reappraisal of ‘inversion’ in early sexology. Focussing particularly on Havelock Ellis’s evolving work on what he termed ‘sexo-aesthetic inversion’ and ‘Eonism’, Funke highlighted the ways in which, for Ellis, the performative aspects of gender non-conformity were rooted in an innate capacity for creativity and empathy that might allow us to keep the essential and the socially constructed productively in play in our reading of modernist texts and identities.

uImage description: Jana Funke delivers her keynote at a podium in front of a slide reading ‘Queerer Modernisms’.

Funke also emphasised the necessity to think critically about those relationships, structures, and identities traditionally written off as ‘merely’ heteronormative in modernist criticism, encouraging delegates to interrogate the ways in which a figure like Vita Sackville West’s ‘straight’ marriage to Harold Nicholson might have offered greater space for queerness than has hitherto been acknowledged. As Funke succinctly put it: ‘Modernism may be queer in ways we have not yet fully appreciated’.

Sandeep Pramar’s (University of Liverpool) equally provocative keynote offered an object lesson in precisely this kind of nuanced and balanced reflection. In a thoroughgoing critique of the life and work of Nancy Cunard (1896-1965), the émigré American poet, editor, and patron of the arts, Pramar highlighted the ways in which Cunard’s self-fetishising public persona – particularly her BDSM-inflected photographic self-portraits (often shot in negative with Cunard wearing ‘tribal’ jewellery) – problematically combined queer resistance to white heteropatriarchy with an unreflecting and often exploitative primitivism.

=Image Description: Sandeep Pramar delivers her keynote at a podium.

Eschewing the unreflecting Manicheanism of much contemporary criticism, in which a given author is either uncomplicatedly ‘progressive’ or irredeemably prejudiced, Pramar emphasised the ways in which Cunard’s sincere sponsorship of queer people of colour in the Negro Anthology (1934) co-existed with an investment in a semi-mythic ‘African’ identity which prevented her from recognising or responding to the complex positionality of African American artists and thinkers within the United States or the broader terrain of Anglo-American modernism.

iiImage Description: A Queer Modernism(s) delegate reads the conference programme.

The need for an intersectional approach to the study of modernist texts and cultures was also strongly emphasised in a range of papers which discussed the ways in which academia itself often participates in the erasures and exclusions which queer studies seeks to remedy. Jessie McLaughlin (Independent) spoke movingly about the ways in which, as a queer person of colour in a largely white heteronormative university system, they had to improvise and cobble-together a relationship with modernist texts that might not seem immediately legible or ‘legitimate’ under the traditional rubric of academic convention. Through events like Queer Modernism(s) II we hope that we can ensure that space continues to be opened up within academia for people, whatever their background or identity, to come together to build a more inclusive and representative modernist canon and to reflect on and develop their critical practice.

By Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston (University of Oxford).

Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston is Hertford College – Faculty of English DPhil Scholar in Irish Literature in English at the University of Oxford. Their thesis explores Irish modernism and the politics of sexual health. Other research interests include literature and the law, and the institutional construction of obscenity. Their work has appeared in the Review of English StudiesThe Library, and the Irish Studies Review, where they were awarded the 2017 British Association of Irish Studies Essay Prize.



Conference Report

‘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’

0Conference 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’

uJana 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’

o.jpgA 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’

jjjj.pngA 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’

hhh.jpgTwo 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.