Kate Mitchell, The [Other] Art of Fiction: Portraits in Neo-Victorian Literature

Join us for this week’s CuSPP Seminar (taking place in-person)

Thursday 24 June, 4.30 – 6pm, AD Hope Conference Room, First Floor, AD Hope Bldg

The painted portrait features in a number of Victorian novels, often invested with the power to divulge a hidden truth about its subject. Portraits also recur in neo-Victorian fiction, though here they may conceal as much as they reveal: in A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which romanticises the written text, the portrait of Christabel LaMotte can only reveal her close relationship to Maud once this information has already come to light through other, textual means. Whereas Byatt’s text describes ‘fictional’ portraits, a number of other neo-Victorian novels construct their narratives around actual pieces of art, imagining the lives of the painters, those of their subjects, or both.

This paper investigates the practice of ekphrastically incorporating historical works of art into neo-Victorian literature, focusing on Deborah Davis’s evocation of John Singer Sargent’s (in)famous portrait Madame X in her literary nonfiction Strapless (2003). When it appeared at the Paris Salon of 1884, the portrait of a Parisian socialite, Virginie Gautreau, showed one strap of her dress falling from her shoulder, causing a scandal that ruined Gautreau’s reputation. Sargent later painted the strap back on, and this is how the portrait appears today. I examine Davis’s imaginative recovery of the earlier image, and what it suggests to us about the power of art to reconstruct the past. How is art conceptualised as historical trace? Strapless makes the image of a woman offered for public consumption, and the story of how this consumes her life, speak to twenty-first century celebrity culture and its prurient fascination with publicly circulated images and the private lives behind them. Since it also exploits and extrapolates upon the portrait of Madame X and the associated scandal, it also speaks to contemporary fascination with, and uses of, Victorian celebrity in fiction today.

Image: fragment of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent, 1884. Source: wikimedia

Kate Mitchell is an Associate Professor in Literary Studies at the Australian National University. Her research is focused on neo-Victorian fiction and the neo-historical novel, and on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary and cultural history. She is author of History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages (Palgrave Macmillan,) and, with Dr Nicola Parsons (University of Sydney), co-editor of Reading Historical Fiction: The Revenant and Remembered Past (Palgrave Macmillan). Her articles on historical fiction have appeared in Neo-Victorian Studies, Victoriographies and a number of edited collections and journals. She serves on the Arts and Humanities Editorial Board of ANU EPress.

What Happens to Women’s Voices During a Pandemic?

Join us for this week’s CuSPP Seminar (taking place via zoom)

Thursday 27 May, 4.30 – 6pm (see CuSPP email or contact monique.rooney@anu.edu.au for zoom link).

‘What Happens to Women’s Voices During a Pandemic? Studying the Impact of COVID-19 on Women Writers in Australia’

Presented by Rebecca Clode, Alice Grundy, Melinda Harvey and Julieanne Lamond

This paper presents the preliminary results from our ANU Gender Institute-funded research into the effects of COVID-19 on the ability of women writers in Australia to have their work published and read. In a context in which feminist literary activism has made measurable improvements to the attention women writers receive in Australia, we ask: what happens to these gains when a global pandemic hits? We know the social effects of COVID-19 are disproportionately impacting women in terms of employment, the home and education. Some are calling its economic effects a ‘pink recession’. What about the literary sphere? With feminist non-profit organisation The Stella Prize, we are collecting data to quantify the gendered impact of the pandemic across three interrelated groups of writers: creative writers (including playwrights); cultural critics/journalists, and literary studies academics. In this paper, we present the results of our data collection and interviews for 2019 to 2020, and pose questions about how to ensure that the literary culture that emerges from the pandemic is one in which women’s voices are heard and valued. 

Rebecca Clode is an experienced theatre director and dramaturg and is the Ethel Tory Lecturer in Drama at Australian National University.

Alice Grundy is a book editor and PhD candidate at Australian National University. Her thesis looks at editorial intervention in the work of contemporary Australian women writers.

Melinda Harvey has published widely as a book critic for over a decade and is a judge of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. She is Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.

Julieanne Lamond is a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Australian National University. She is a judge of the Patrick White Award and editor of the journal Australian Literary Studies. 

Kate Flaherty on the ‘Scottish Gypsy Woman’ on stage

Join us for this week’s CuSPP Seminar (taking place in-person)

Thursday 29 April, 4.30 – 6pm, AD Hope Conference Room, First Floor, AD Hope Bldg.

Elsewhere Within: Reading Charlotte Cushman as a Gypsy

This paper investigates the relationship between two female figures who loomed large in the nineteenth-century popular imagination. The first is Meg Merrilies the Gypsy from Walter Scott’s second Waverly novel: Guy Mannering; or The Astrologer (1815). The second is Charlotte Cushman—the American actress who by performing as Meg in Daniel Terry’s adaptation of Scott’s novel throughout her professional life, amplified the character’s significance and consolidated her own international renown. Lauded for her mesmerising power and her dedication to her art, Cushman’s life was one of striking contradictions. She was an international entrepreneur, viewed her vocation as continuous with her Unitarian faith, and cohabited with other women in what her letters reveal were erotically charged relationships. When she died in 1876, she was one of one of the most celebrated women in the English speaking world and possessed of a fortune. The moral example of her life was celebrated in obituaries, biographies and even sermons. But how did her public accommodate her radical unconventionality? This paper uses reception of Cushman’s performances to demonstrate how the Romantic trope of the Scottish gypsy woman offered audiences a way to recognise, categorise, and admire Cushman as an outsider within. This is furthermore contextualised by the broader imperial discourse in which Scotland figures as a literary elsewhere within. 

Kate Flaherty is a Senior Lecturer in English and Drama at the Australian National University. Her research is focused on the relationship between performed drama and public culture. Her book, Ours as we play it: Australia plays Shakespeare (UWAP, 2011), examines contemporary Australian performance. Other publications analyse theatrical rivalry, the agency of the touring actress, civic disorder, sectarian tension, military commemoration, and education, through their associations with Shakespeare. Among the venues in which her scholarship has featured are NTQ, Shakespeare, Shakespeare Survey, Contemporary Theatre Review, and Australian Studies along with volumes published by CUP, Routledge, Palgrave, and Rodopi. Recent and current project titles are ‘Reading Riot through Shakespeare,’ and Moving Women: The Touring Actress and the Politics of Modernity. Kate is Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Association, and winner of multiple teaching awards including the ANU Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Education (2019).

Fabricio Tocco on Spectres and Secrets in the Paraguayan Woods

Join us for this week’s CuSPP Seminar (taking place via zoom)

Thursday 25 March, 4.30 – 6pm (see CuSPP email or contact monique.rooney@anu.edu.au for zoom link).

Spectres and Secrets in the Paraguayan Woods: Hugo Giménez’s Matar a un muerto (2019)

This paper deals with the representation of genocide and forced disappearance in Hugo Giménez’s first feature film Matar a un muerto (Killing the dead, [2019]), set in 1978, during the Paraguayan and the Argentine dictatorships. Building on arguments made about the role of dictatorial violence in language in both Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx and A Taste for the Secret and American translator and scholar Marguerite Feitlowitz’s essay A Lexicon of Terror, I offer a reading of the film, which I see as an unconventional example of a genre that is currently reaching its peak in Latin America: the political thriller. I especially focus on how the film spatializes spectres and secrets in the Paraguayan woods to portray instances of state-sponsored forced disappearance in Paraguay and Argentina. Following Judith Butler’s concepts of ‘precariousness’ and ‘precarity,’ I provide a theorization of what I call ‘precarious secrets,’ as a distinctive feature of Latin American political thrillers. Finally, I conclude by asking about the political implications of the cultural representation of secrecy and specters for Latin America today. 

Dr. Fabricio Tocco holds a PhD in Hispanic Studies from the University of British Columbia, Canada. His research deals with the intersections of literature and history, especially the way popular genres inform and are informed by literary and political theory in Latin American cultural studies. His first monograph, a revised version of his dissertation, A Poetics of Failure: Individualism and the State in Latin American Detective Fiction, will be published next year by Lexington Books. He has recently joined the ANU in January as a Lecturer in Spanish and as the Portuguese Convenor.

Neil Ramsey (UNSW, Canberra) on War, Wealth, and the Navy in the Early Nineteenth-Century Novel

Join us for the first CuSPP Seminar of 2021

Thursday 25 February, 4.30 pm, AD Hope Conference Room, First Floor, AD Hope Bldg.

Dr Neil Ramsey (UNSW, Canberra), From Mode of Production to Hegemonic Regime: War, Wealth, and the Navy in the Early Nineteenth-Century Novel

In this paper I propose a critique of the commercial view of literary history by drawing attention to elements of militarism in the formation of the early nineteenth century novel. The prevalence of the navy in literature of this period has been noted by numerous critics, most notably with reference to Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818). This paper seeks to better theorize this naval dimension by turning to the world-systems thought of Giovanni Arrighi and reformulations of his work via the neo-marxist approach of Jacques Bidet. Questions of finance have loomed large in recent literary analysis, much of which has drawn on Arrighi’s understanding of the historical power and vicissitudes of global finance. I draw attention to a second dimension of Arrighi’s thought, which has been almost wholly ignored by literary critics – that he locates financial power alongside territorial power as an essential conjunction in the historical formation and evolution of capitalism. To elucidate this conjunction I follow Jacques Bidet’s neo-marxist adaptations of Arrighi’s thought to conceptualise how financial and territorial power act as two distinct yet intersecting logics of power, consisting of modes of production and modes of government, that have historically shaped a series of shifting hegemonic regimes within capitalism. Sketching a reading of these ideas in relation to Persuasion, I argue that the literary fascination with the navy in this period reveals how the novel attempts to express and manage the contradictions that historically formed between these competing logics of power of financial markets and biopolitical organisation. I argue that to read the novel in relation to Bidet’s concept of hegemonic regimes helps us to extend and redefine the commercial orientation of Marxist analysis reliant simply on reading in relation to modes of production.

Dr Neil Ramsey is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at UNSW Canberra. He works on the literary and culture responses to warfare during the eighteenth century and Romantic eras, focusing on the representations of personal experience and the development of a modern culture of war. His first book, The Military Memoir and Romantic Literary Culture, 1780-1835, was published by Ashgate in 2011. His most recent, a collection co-edited with Gillian Russell, Tracing War in British Enlightenment and Romantic Culture, was published by Palgrave in 2015. He is currently completing a monograph on military writing of the Romantic era, the research for which was funded by an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship. He is convenor of the Conflict and Society Research Group in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Image: Georg Cruikshank, Midshipman Blockhead, The Progress of a Midshipman exemplified in the career of Master Blockhead in seven plates & frontispiece, 1835

Inaugural Utopian Network Seminar

The first seminar of the utopian network will take place via zoom next Monday, July 27, 2-3.15 pm (see detail below) 


Utopia and Dystopia in Australian Climate Fiction ​

Andrew Milner (Monash University)​

Climate is an important part of fictional scene setting, whether it be geographical or seasonal. And this is perhaps especially true of Australian literature, where the majority of writers are still descendants of Anglo-Celtic settlers, living in more or less uneasy relationship with a distinctly non-Anglo-Celtic natural environment. But “cli-fi” in the sense of the term coined by Dan Bloom in 2007 refers, not to climate per se, nor even to climate change per se, but more specifically to fictions concerned with the effects of anthropogenic climate change, that is, to the literature of global warming. This is a much more recent preoccupation, which dates only from the late 1970s. Most of these fictions are dystopias, but a few also contain distinctly utopian elements. The short history of Australian “cli-fi” will be traced from the first publication of George Turner’s The Sea and Summer in 1987 through to the present.​

Solarpunk: Utopian Tech with an Aesthetic and Social Conscience​

Deborah Cleland and Hedda Ransan-Cooper (ANU)

Solarpunk is a movement, a philosophical orientation and an aesthetic centred around radical optimism. It is about countering dystopian ‘it’s too late’ narratives with a wild unleashing of imagination, and creating spaces in the now for living as if a beautiful, just and abundant future is possible for the current inhabitants of Earth. Among the manifestos, science fiction anthologies and tumblr collections, solarpunks have a drive to understand the cultural and social changes that could, should and would accompany both a conversion to renewable energy as well as an equitable and sustainable redistribution of resources among human and more-than-human populations. Yet solarpunks also have their detractors; those that argue online solarpunk movements are elite and blind to the needs of the poor or people with disabilities. Much like ‘early adopters’ and other groups who pursue an ‘off-grid’ life, they can be accused of seeking expensive technological solutions that impose new costs on far-distant places. We are interested in breaking down this either/or approach and exploring a typology of ways that householders in Australia are embodying solarpunk ethics – what drives them and how do their practices intersect with other concerns around social justice? How can our research on emerging technologies and environmental justice and democracy learn from, and contribute to, the solarpunk community more broadly?

Monique Rooney on Ottessa Moshfegh

Tracing Visible Falls in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018)

Join us for this week’s CuSPP Seminar

Thursday 12 March, 1pm, Milgate Room, AD Hope Bldg, SLLL

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), the unnamed narrator decides to hibernate in her New York City apartment for a year, inducing and extending sleep through excessive use of prescription medication. After finding traces of either semi- or unconscious activity while sleeping, the narrator arranges for conceptual artist Ping Xi to video-record her in her bedroom while she is heavily sedated. The novel’s ‘year’ begins in 2000 and ends on 9/11. Its fascination with discerning a ‘being-in-sleep’ is offset by its invocation of pre-digital media and devices, including both the narrator’s repeat viewings on her VCR of films starring Harrison Ford and Whoopi Goldberg and her interactions with analogue equipment (answering machines, video-cameras). This paper connects the narrator’s voluptuous love of 80s and 90s media with the reader’s reception of the novel in which she sleeps. I elucidate the role and significance of a range of media and devices in Moshfegh’s novel while attending to the limits of sleeper narratability. These limits are made most palpable, firstly, when the narrator experiences loss of her ‘sleep-imaginary’ in the process of viewing Ping Xi’s art exhibition featuring video images of her and, secondly, when she repeatedly watches VCR-recorded images of her friend Reva’s ‘fall’ from the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Both the fall into sleep and fall-toward-death are barely visible records of tenuous life, existing at a threshold where the authentic self momentarily emerges along with its disappearance.

Monique Rooney teaches literature, film and television in the English Program at The Australian National University. Her current research investigates ‘interbrow’—her coinage for middlebrow media produced and received during our time of digital interconnectedness.

Annelise Roberts on the poetics of nuclear testing in Australia

Atomic totem: the poetics of nuclear testing in Australia

Join us for this week’s CuSPP Seminar

Thursday 5 March, 1pm, Milgate Room, AD Hope Bldg, SLLL

British nuclear testing in Australia has been poorly publicly memorialised. This is in spite of the significant risks the program posed to public safety and the remarkably “dangerous” and “deceitful” behaviour of the Menzies government and its agents throughout the episode – behaviour which was condemned by a subsequent Royal Commission as evidence of a grave “cynicism” (Conclusions and Recommendations, 1985). In this seminar, I present an overview of my PhD research into the poetics of texts connected to the nuclear testing program. I read a diverse range of texts – including works of Aboriginal life writing, the memoirs of a surveyor raconteur, and naming practices for places and military operations – through the lens of ‘unsettlement’, a critical device that has been developed in recent work on Australian poetics which enables readings of marginal texts in ways that destabilise the colonial project. Focusing on the appropriation of Aboriginal imagery in the conceptualisation of the nuclear testing program, I build an argument for the existence of a cultural symptom that I call the ‘Australian desultory’: the melancholic result of the conjunction of an unconfronted violent colonial history and the existential anxieties of the nuclear future. I also outline how this research informs my creative practice and give a short reading from the creative component of my thesis, Totem: an epistolary novel.

Annelise Roberts is a PhD candidate in the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics at the Australian National University. Her critical work, poetry and fiction has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Rabbit, Mascara Literary Review, Cordite, and The Suburban Review.

Ash Collins on ‘Culture Play’

Culture Play: Language Learning and Self-Cultivation (Bildung)

Join us for this week’s CuSPP Seminar

Thursday 27 February, 1pm, Milgate Room, AD Hope Bldg, SLLL

In this paper, we explore the implications that the notions of Bildung and play hold for language learning. The opposition between learning as a form of vocational training for the workplace (Ausbildung) and learning as a process of self-cultivation (Bildung) seems to be ever more deeply entrenched in the twenty-first-century university. In language learning in particular, this distinction between two competing aims influences the way in which educators approach curriculum design and inevitably shapes the attitudes learners bring to the classroom. We contest this opposition by applying Friedrich Schiller’s understanding of aesthetic education to language learning. We argue that when learning activities are envisaged as a form of non-threatening and free-flowing play, skills-based language training becomes an experience of self-cultivation in which the language learner creatively renegotiates their own identity through an encounter with both their own values and those of the target culture.

Ash Collins is a Lecturer in the French Department at the ANU. Ash’s main research project currently consists of a comparative study of Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger revolving around the theme of deconstruction and religion. Ash has published several articles in recent years on the work of Nancy.

Manuel Clemens obtained his PhD from Yale University and until recently was Lecturer in German at the ANU.