Thursday, April 10, 2014

NeMLA Reflections: Memsahibs, Reader Response, and Comparative India

I haven’t posted anything in a while because I’ve been doing a lot more reading (comprehensive exams in June, yay!) than writing this semester. But, since I’ve just come back from my first conference as a presenter (NeMLA in Harrisburg, PA ), it seemed like a good time to break the vicious cycle of scribbling down ideas only to abandon them in favor of the “Oh, I have to read more first” excuse, however valid it might be.
Recently there’s been a great thread on conferences at Lehigh English’s Grad Student blog, Drown Unbound, and this past week I certainly took quite a bit of advice from my colleagues and grad-students-in-arms  (shout-out to the Knights of the Drown Table!). I applied for funding in advance, used a ruler to draw up a calendar with all the panels I wanted to attend, brought a stack of 12 books to read, signed up to table-sit for the Women’s and Gender Studies Caucus, and arrived the day the conference began, ready to be inspired.
And then the reality of conference-going set in. I should have listened to more of that advice I mentioned from my Drown Unbound colleagues. How could remaining indoors and sitting down for 4 days be so exhausting?!  Exhaustion aside though, I did attend some really great sessions, and thought I’d share some of the inspiration before I forget all of the ideas swirling through my head as I listened. 
Dr. Susmita Roye, an Associate Professor at DSU and recent NEH grant recipient (congratulations Susmita!) chaired a fantastic panel on memsahibs  (Englishwomen in India). While Revathi Krishnaswamy’s Effeminism: The Economy of Colonial Desire  addresses the memsahib as a figure that complicates the binary of masculine colonizer and effeminate colonized male in late 19th-century English texts (On the Face of the Waters and Kim), Roye’s own paper read Munshi Premchand’s negotiations between Indian and English women in his Hindi short fiction as a further complication of this binary. The general theme across all of the panelists’ presentations was that many ‘paradigms’ of earlier postcolonial scholarship (Orientalism, etc.), become unstable upon extensive examination, as there was much more dissent and ambivalence concerning the ideologies of Empire than previously realized in both print culture and fiction (English and Indian).  For more examples of this kind of scholarship, see texts like Christopher Herbert’s War of No Pity .
Also at NeMLA, the Comparative Literatures & Theory ‘keynote’ speaker, Dr. Thomas O. Beebee,  gave a very charismatic (as if he could give any other kind!) talk titled “Reader Response: For Real This Time?”. Though I don’t think Dr. Beebee once uttered the increasingly popular buzzword “digital humanities,” his project included looking at things like Amazon reviews and Google search databases (Ngram viewer, etc), so obviously, if he were to publish this later, ‘digital humanities’ would likely be one of the keywords you’d type into Google to find it! 
Spanning the field from I. A. Richards to Kenneth Roemer, his talk re-visited Reader Response theory with an understanding of reading as a two-way transaction in which “readers transform complete texts, while texts act on readers.” In keeping with his title though, Beebee examined some specific case studies in which literature (‘good’ or ‘bad’, and ‘good’ meaning Barthes's ‘what gets taught’) appeared to have material consequences, as in the case of the Oklahoma City Bombing and Timothy McVeigh’s reading of The Turner Diaries. Framed by the question, “Is there a relationship between fiction and actual belief?” his project sought to use the ‘digital humanities’ tools at our disposal to map some data onto the conclusions of various reader-response theories that were previously founded on anecdotal evidence.
          I can see Beebee’s work as pairing nicely (like a fine wine) with our ongoing conversations at Lehigh English on Literature and Social Justice.  It would be interesting to see how huge databases like Google nGram, Twitter, and Amazon Reviews could serve to bring actual readers into dialogue with pedagogues, academics, and even theorists to answer questions about influence and reception. Though we have spent some time with Mark Bracher’s cognitive paradigms for teaching Literature, I wonder if taking the opposite approach (not looking at “what to teach” but looking at “what’s already being read”) might bring some surprising evidence into the mix. Of course, the limitations of such tools are obvious, as people can create their own ‘fictions’ (i.e. lies) as part of the book review process, but there’s still certainly a lot of work to be done.
Thinking backwards, (or backwardly thinking?) to my own work in the 19th century, Beebee’s talk and a recent CFP for MLA 2015 on Adaptation as Reception, made me think about the silent connections between Indian and American texts at this time. As noted by historian Susan Bean inYankee India, trade between the US and India in the 19th century was greater than that between India and ALL of Europe combined, and though this is pretty evident in the artifact record, it appears to be somewhat elided in the fiction, history, and later, early film records of the time (American, Anglo-Indian, and Indian). However, thinking about adaptations, or even translations, as proof that reading happened (all that stuff about Benjaminian fortleben), brings some interesting cases to light. Poe’s “A Tale of the Ragged Mountain” seems to be engaged with British, or even continental-styled Orientalism, and zipping forward a bit into the early 20th century, Harold McGrath’s 1913 memsahib narrative The Adventures of Kathlyn (later a film as well), and the adaptation of Kipling’s “Without the Benefit of the Clergy” into a silent film, seem to indicate that Americans were reading tales of the Raj, even if doing so indirectly. Sadly though, until the Google Books database(s) begin to distinguish “country of publication” in its collection of texts, triangulating the late 19th-century connections between India, England, and the United States will likely entail long searches of many spotty archival records.
 Unless, of course, a panel proposal might be submitted soon calling for folks to get together and think about India in US and Canadian literature, print, and film of the long 19th Century (1750s-1950s?) at NeMLA next year. . .

No comments:

Post a Comment