You can now read a selection of reports on the conference written by the recipients of a postgraduate bursary - see the tab above for details. Additionally, Lucinda Matthews-Jones has written on the conference roundtable, Charlotte Mathieson offers her perspective on the event, and a general conference overview is provided by Nicole Bush.
27 June 2012
Fariha Shaikh (KCL) provides a conference overview:
What are the ‘transformations of objects and effected by objects’: this was the central question that pinned together the vast array of papers and ideas bought together in this two-day conference.
The growing interest of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work as an object of serious study was made evident in the first panel I attended. Alison Lundie (Roehampton) focussed on the rich descriptions of shawls in Gaskell’s major industrial novels, Mary Barton and North and South, arguing that women fashioned their identities through different practices of shawl-wearing. Tara Puri (Kent) explored tea and calico alongside shawls in North and South in search of a ‘readable object world’ that manifested itself through the ‘unhomely’ traces of a contemporary colonial moment. Wassila Mouro (Tlemcen) looked at the intertextual references in Gaskell’s fiction, raising the interesting question of the relationship between the ‘literary object’ of quotations from the ‘textual objects’ of the material world explored by Tara and Alison.
The second panel, on ‘Altered States’ proved to be a refreshing contrast from sensuous fabrics and scented teas: glass lenses, chlorodyne and Hinton’s cubes. Greg Lynall (Liverpool) made a convincing case for the ‘between-ness’ of the lens in the eighteenth century. As myth transformed into reality, and advances in optics made harnessing the sun’s power possible, the lens became a multifaceted object, used as a laboratory tool, display device and an instrument of ‘polite’ culture. Jim Mussell (Birmingham) led us through the fascinating story of the secrets of the ‘medicine’ chlorodyne, a concoction of laudanum, channbis and chloroform, and those secrets it could not, or did not, keep. Mark Blacklock (Birkbeck) spoke on Hinton’s cubes, which visualised the fourth dimension.
Next was John Holmes’ (Reading) exciting keynote on the Pre-Raphaelites and science. He argued that whereas at the beginning, developments in science meant that Brotherhood wanted to adopt a scientific gaze in their quest to capture the ‘truth to nature’ in their work, within a few years, this had changed and the Brotherhood began to shift representations of science. In distinction to other statues of scientists, which depict posed, fixed figures, the Brotherhood’s statues show the scientist in the process of thought – a thinking figure.
The second day began with a panel on ‘Travelling Objects’. Ruth Scobie (York) drew out the fascinating comparisons between the feather screens of Elizabeth Montague’s rooms and William Cowper’s celebration of them in his poetry. Maria Grazia Messore (Cassino) talked about the significance of the merchant figure in Daniel Defoe’s fiction. Emalee Beddoes (Birmingham) drew our attention to the gendered dynamics of tea advertisements in the late nineteenth century. Fariha Shaikh (King’s College London) spoke on emigration literature and argued that this new genre could provide us with new ways of conceptualising space.
In ‘Transforming Texts’, we were given a rare and interesting insight into the history of literature study guides by Mildred Bjerke (York) – a genre that originally encouraged the masses to exercise their own judgement, but has now been appropriated by educational publishers claiming that they provide the ‘key’ to the text. Simon Cooper (Newcastle) argued for a reappraisal of Erskine Caldwell’s experimentations with modernist form.
The roundtable on ‘Single or Multi-Author Blogging’ was persuasive - through the discussions, I was made aware that blogging could be used for teaching purposes, to explore the grey area between professional and private lives, as well as using it as a space to make accessible research that would not be published anywhere.
Sarah Haggarty (Newcastle) gave the last keynote of the conference. Through detailed readings of Cowper’s letters, she gave an insightful reading of how Cowper constructs the delay of epistolary exchange.
A rich and intellectually stimulating two days – without doubt due as much to the quality of the papers, as to the meticulous planning of the conference organisers, Anna Hope and Nicole Bush!
Courtney Salvey (Kent) writes on the conference theme:
In titling this conference, Nicole Bush and Anna Hope catalyzed a productive academic chemical reaction by combining two terms that are fruitful in themselves: objects and transformations.
The individual papers focused on specific objects, providing the conference-goer with a cabinet of curiosities: Victorian dolls, science teaching tools, shawls, books, tea, models, letters, scientific instruments, Wordsworth’s umbrella, steam engines, roller skates, cigarettes, feathers, drugs, museum buildings, beds, paper, and art objects both visual and textual. Yet these objects were only virtually present: the conference presented words about objects, not the objects themselves. A few papers, like Sally Holloway’s on birth and courtship tokens and Jane Insley’s on the crystal models in Watt’s studio, were about the object as material thing, but many of the papers were about words about objects, considering how objects were transformed in literary works and through language. From Emalee Beddoes’s study of late-Victorian tea advertisements, to Eugenia Gonzalez’s consideration of Victorian narratives of doll production, to Greg Lynall’s tracking of eighteenth-century literary absorption of the burning mirror as an image, to Tara Puri’s exploration of the shifting meanings of specific exotic objects in North and South, these papers focused on the ‘transformations of objects’, rather than ‘transformations effected by objects’. Although explicit discussions of theory were noticeably absent, the papers taken together implied a theoretical stance maintaining the power and importance of words and discourse in the creation and transformation of the meaning of objects. Overall, they exhibited confidence that culture transforms objects, implicitly rejecting technological determinism and asserting the importance of the humanities to understanding both history and the contemporary world.
Yet the conference was not a denial of the transformational power of objects or technologies, but it considered transformations in the academic methodologies of the now rather than the cultural changes of the past. The panel on academic blogging (with Lucinda Matthews-Jones, Martin Paul Eve, Kieran Fenby-Hulse, Charlotte Matthieson, and James Mussell) raised and discussed how a relatively new online platform—the blog—can and is transforming academic practice. Although focused on comparing two types of blog, the round-table implicitly reflected on the options that academic blogging opens for teaching, for publication of research, for development of ideas, for increased interface with the public, for career development, for community-building, and for changing the public image of academia and of research. Thus the blog itself becomes another transforming object.
The subtle ways blogs can change academic practice were reflected in the organization of the conference itself: its website was a blog rather than a traditional website. The blog platform offers small conference organizers an inexpensive and accessible alternative to either expensive stand-alone websites or university-hosted sites that require time-consuming work with university web-developers and web-masters. But ease and affordability are not the only positive features of the blog-as-conference-website: a blog allows the conversation to expand beyond the chronological borders of the conference. Before the conference, the blog format is flexible to allow easy updates which participants can track through RSS feeds and blog-readers. Indeed, the blog format encourages participants to expect multiple entries, facilitating interest in and anticipation of the conference itself. The blog format also fosters continuation of discussion after the conference has been adjourned. Reports, like this one, can reflect on the questions raised during the conference, making responses to papers and topics available to those who were unable to attend the conference or who attended different panels. Thus the blog format makes the conference into a living and vibrant thing, not an academic mummy sealed by time and space.
Camilla Cassidy (Oxford) reports on the panel 'Tracing Narrative and Representation':
This panel included papers from Alex Price (York) on ‘”This old lady’s ruffled bed”: Beds and Bedtime Behaviours in Little Red Riding Hood’, Stephen Kenyon (Glyndwr) on ‘What to do with a severed head? The quest for a voice within The Orpheus Project’ and Philip Holden (Singapore) on ‘Portraits of the Artist: Maugham, Sexuality, Representation’. Though their subjects were strikingly varied, each of these papers spoke insightfully to the idea that objects can transform the ways in which we understand narrative. Each suggested alternative ways of creating narrative, whether by reinterpreting a familiar fairy tale around a suggestive central image, generating new works of art from the impetus of a classical myth, or condensing and complicating aspects of biographical representation through a series of still images.
Alex Price discussed various manifestations of the Little Red Riding Hood story in text and image. He drew on versions including those by Charles Perrault, Anne Sexton and Gwen Strauss alongside illustrations from diverse editions of the tale and images from advertising. The pictures that accompanied this talk ranged from sinister representations of the wolf with a bulging belly to a Heinz Salad Cream advert showing the archetypally masculine predator dressed in frills and lace. The subversion and complication of the wolf’s traditionally masculine image raised interesting questions within this paper. Alex Price persuasively argued that the bed is at the epicentre of these various re-readings and re-writings of the Little Red Riding Hood story. This paper discussed the ways in which the image of the bed has shifted over time and according to the priorities of successive authors. This paper persuasively argued that the bed represents a central image in the tale’s “symbolic vocabulary” as well as being “the axle around which the plot turns”.
Stephen Kenyon discussed his involvement with ‘The Orpheus Project’, a collaborative project which incorporates the work of visual artists, poets and musicians in the interpretation of the Orpheus myth. Within this context, his paper explained the suggestive interactions between reworkings of classical myth and the original text or tale. He suggested that multimedia retelling of a well-known myth can create a narrative “rhizome” which presents a multifaceted and branching reimagining of an originally linear tale. We heard spoken word interpretations by Lyndon Davies and were shown images by Penny Hallas. Kenyon drew attention to the diversity of possible interpretations within the single source narrative. Davies, for instance, focused on the tale of Orpheus’s journey while Hallas principally used the image of the severed head. Kenyon also presented an image created collaboratively at an earlier event (‘Border/Lines’) which took Blanchot’s ‘The Gaze of Orpheus’ as its key text. The original image was created by Hallas and subsequently altered by other participants to create a palimpsestic series of interpretations around the idea of the Orpheus myth. Kenyon discussed the site specific elements of this project based in Wales, alongside the technological opportunities which might make this work accessible to a wider audience. He touched on the possibilities suggested by augmented reality technologies and pointed to the ‘enhanced edition’ of The Waste Land app as a notable precedent for the innovative digitalisation of literary texts which branch beyond the confines of linear narrative.
Philip Holden’s paper explored the biographical significance of W. Somerset Maugham’s late sittings for artists and photographers including Carl Van Vechten, George Platt Lynes and Bernard Perlin. These images were considered in the context of Maugham’s resistance to more formal biographies which, Holden explained, is usually attributed to the author’s desire to keep his sexuality private. These images, which ranged from formal compositions to more intimate, explicit or apparently impromptu shots, reveal the tension between a desire for publicity and the perceived need to keep certain aspects of his life a secret. These images explore the clash between celebrity and the suppression of a ‘hidden life’. They suggest an opportunity for an alternative form of biography which “complicate[s] simple oppositions between secrecy and revelation, surface and depth”.
Emalee Beddoes (Birmingham) reports on the panel 'Transforming Gaskell':
This panel consisted of three papers from Kent, Roehampton and Tlemcen, together creating a flowing analysis of the transformation objects and texts in Gaskell's oeuvre.
The first paper by Alison Lundie, “A Woman's Touch: Domestic Arts of Clothing and Needlework Materialising Transformations in Identity” interrogated and socially located Gaskell's rich description of “a shawl” in the first chapter of Mary Barton. Lundie described the codified understanding of shawls in Gaskell: how the skilled and artful arrangement of their shawls and the skilled use of needlecraft marked textile factory “hands” as holders of embodied cultural capital. Through this articulation of taste, knowledge and skill, textile workers re-instated their creative identity – readdressing the metonymic dismissal of individual identity and the industrialisation of the body through the euphemism “hands”. Lundie also illustrated the sexualised and ageist codes of shawl wearing that dictated the appropriate thickness of material and the depth of the point down the back according to age and size – a point which created a dialogue with the concepts of of shawls and tea in the objectification of the female body in the next paper by Dr Tara Puri, entitled “Unstable Objects: Reading Shawls, tea and calico in North and South”.
Puri's paper applied her excellent distillation of Homi Bhabha's “The World and the Home” to North and South in order to discuss how these 'unhomely moments' collapsed the exotic and the demotic through the imagined sensual tourism of these commodities, which are described as smelling like spice. The cultural appropriation of tea and calico function as markers of objectified cultural capital, highlighting the transformative powers of imperial possessions – that through these social codes are themselves transformed from emblems of the exotic into markers of class and gender.
Finally, Wassila Mouro's paper “Intertextuality in Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell” discussed the intertextual references in Gaskell - which are so regularly referenced but so rarely questioned - and submitted these to rigorous theoretical analysis. Mouro drew out examples of Gaskell's use of integration, collage and citation and brought them into wider discussions of polyphony and the impossibility of autonomous authorship. But under this analysis, Gaskell does not succumb to a Barthesian death, as both Gaskell and the protagonist, Molly Gibson, enter into a polyphonic dialogue of rich literary heritage.
The idea of hands was a recurrent theme within the panel as a symbol of classed and gendered objectification and fragmentation of the female body. Another trope that came to the fore was the idea of the “stitching together” of things and of ideas – an analogy Gaskell refers to in her correspondences. This concept of “stitching together” unified ideas within the papers about the ways in which Gaskell and her characters adopted and adapted texts and objects as a means of 'curating' (for lack of a more appropriate word) the self in nuanced and artful displays of distinction.
Jessica Allsop (Exeter) writes on the panel 'Replacing Objects':
- Jane Insley – “Discriminating Fossils: Crystal Models Belonging to the Watt Family, c 1800”
- Lucinda Matthew-Jones – “Material Culture and Religion: Samuel and Henrietta Barnett’s Attempts to Recover the Spiritual Lives of the Londoner, 1883-1960”
The three papers presented by the members of this panel considered lost objects, found things, and treasured items made important by association. An allegorical mosaic, a collection of crystal models, and the things presented within Dove Cottage, were each read as undergoing transformations, from a historical, curatorial, and literary perspective.
Lucinda Matthew-Jones considered a piece of public art, the allegorical image of Time, Death and Judgement. Her paper contemplated, amongst other things, the role of the art object, the intentions behind its construction and display, and issues of authenticity. Available to the community, the mosaic was understood by its creators to offer an opportunity for the improvement of the local populace, who it was intended to spiritually enliven. Vision, contemplation, and spiritual well being were linked through the art object. Popularly presumed to have been destroyed, Lucinda Matthew-Jones’s paper illustrated her rediscovery of an object that, in being moved, underwent a series of transformations. Physically moved from its original location, and consequently extricated from its history and original associations, it was also fundamentally materially altered. In being damaged and restored by a different artist, content and intention were prioritised over the particular artistry of the object itself, or its authenticity.
Jane Insley presented a paper on a collection of objects utterly divorced from their original purpose and meanings. Stored in a receptacle that indicated that the small models may have initially been subject to an ordering or grouping, the intervening years had stripped the objects of both their purpose and their relation to one another. The prolonged process of documenting, and detective work that ensued indicates, she argued, that objects definitively do not “talk”, and that meaning must be generated through practices of production and perception. Giving a clear sense of the practical obstacles to researching such outwardly incomprehensible things, Jane Insley traced a series of associations through various disciplines, texts, and languages. The successful identifications of the crystal models, and even their intended positioning within a recognised sequence, demonstrates the fragility of meaning held in things, and the profound transformations that occur when this is lost, and indeed re-found.
Polly Atkin outlined an intriguing interlinking of things in actuality and literature. Inspired by a place, a property, the things within it, and the associations that the site and the museum carry, she outlined “re-writings” that allow the collection to continue developing. Creative responses transform the objects and the site, preventing it from remaining static. History and authenticity are contrasted with recent additions – of poetic works inspired by the site and added to its archives, and of physical indicators of modern interactions, such as the modern poet’s name etched into the glass of one of the windows. In a museum that constantly evolves and refuses to remain static, the construction of value, and the motivations for, and methods of presentation are questioned.