July 10, 2009

Literary London 2009: 9th–10th July @ Queen Mary, University of London

Writing about web page http://www.literarylondon.org/cfp.html

This was the first time that I'd attended the Literary London Conference, an annual event that is now in its 8th year of running; I was attracted by the theme of this year's conference, "Urban Geographies", and although I could only make it to first of the two days it proved to be an interesting and intellectually productive day.

Professor Miles Ogborn, a cultural geographer, commenced proceedings with a plenary address on "Re-mapping Literary London", which was by far the highlight of the day. Ogborn spoke about the relationship between geography and literary studies, discussing how the disciplines have interacted thus far and identifying the ways in which future developments are beginning to take shape. Speaking from the perspective of a cultural geographer, Ogborn provided some illuminating insights into how geography views the literary interest in its discipline, beginning by stating that cultural geography has some fundamental problems with literary studies. These focused around issues of representation- the forms of representation that literary studies privileges, and the issue of representation itself. To the cultural geographer, the very forms that literary studies works with seem entirely antithetical to the work of geographers. Ogborn then discussed the recent developments in geography with regards to representation, engaging with the non-representational theory posited by Nigel Thrift, which is situated within a broader inter-disciplinary shift towards a focus on practice: a perspective that challenges the view of world as text in favour of other forms of being, multiplicity. Ogborn posited the question, is this bad news for literary geography, referring to a 2005 essay in New Formations which addressed some of these issues. He discussed the approaches that have recently developed, identifying a disjuncture between two directions that have emerged- one focusing on ideas of the text as cultural production, issues of authorship of space and text, formal aesthetics; and another that thinks about the materiality of space and text, the relationship between the two as enactive, embodied, performative. The latter notion of practice was posited as the direction that literary geography can most successfully engage with as it continues to develop in coming years.

I attended three panels throughout the rest of the day. The panel on Kipling and Doyle was, obviously, focused on a slightly later period than that which I work on, so it was interesting to hear about how issues of urban representation developed in the later year of the nineteenth century: I was particularly interested in Mary Conde's paper on Kipling in which she spoke of London as a transition-space in Kipling's work, identifying images of doorways as central to this. I presented in the first of two panels on the Nineteenth-Century novel, discussing the urban encounter in Charlotte Bronte's Villette through a focus on movement, positing walking as a mode through which to theorise subject-space relationships (abstract can be found here). It was an interesting panel, with papers by Nicola Minott-Ahl on dystopian spaces in Vanity Fair, and David Stewart on J.G. Lockhart's writing on Edinburgh. After this, a second panel on the Nineteenth-Century novel included papers by Richard Dennis, who spoke on Gissing's The Unclassed, and Matthew Ingelby who discussed representations of building plots and urban sprawl from 1850-1900. In Richard Dennis' paper I was particularly interested in his discussion of the differences between two editions of Gissing's text: Dennis mapped out the journeys around London undertaken by characters in the different editions, which revealed crucial differences to where and how characters moved around the city- the later edition showed an opening-up of the space of the city. Matthew Ingleby's paper provided an indicative example of how "real" and "textual" spaces can be read in parallel, and I particularly enjoyed his close analysis of passages that revealed parallel methods of textual/spatial construction at work in the city.

The only disappointment of the day was that I had to leave before Rachel Lichtenstein's plenary on "Excavating Memory"; I've not yet read On Brick Lane or any of her other work, but having read about this when I was preparing for the conference I'm looking forward to getting myself a copy for some interesting summer reading.

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