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by Elise Lonich Ryan

[This post is one of a pair of conference reflections. Also see “On Stillness: #Kzoo2014” by Richard Godden.]

Contingent environments. The entanglements of history. The presumptions inherent in identifying a “we” and “us” who attend conferences, write papers, and decide the kinds of conversations that will offer contours to the maps of the field and yield continued participation in conference rooms. These issues rose to the surface as my connective nodes for the 2014 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) in St. Louis. It was my first time attending the annual meeting of the SAA, and it was my last time attending as a graduate student. Perhaps because of the current fragility of my position in the academy, several conference experiences continue to resurface in my thoughts—experiences that surround the human, the curatorial drive, and the digital.

The collegial and engaged group at the conference made it easy to describe enthusiastically my recently completed dissertation and my then-imminent defense. But this conference also encouraged a reflective and contemplative position toward our collective professional history and toward more individual histories and professional milestones. The conversations I had, the seminars I attended, the new people I met thus made it impossible to avoid returning to the fact that, despite what was a very positive first-time job market experience, I won’t have full time employment in the fall. Indeed, SAA 2014 was filled to the brim with explorations of the capacious and the fragile, the enormity of our work as humanists and the vulnerability that attends upon this work: From the electric plenary session on the legacy of Jonathan Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy and Political Shakespeare, to SAA President Diana Henderson’s concatenation of memories of the support of the SAA community during her own professional crisis and of the Boston Marathon bombing which followed hard upon the heels of last year’s SAA meeting; from seminar perambulations that brought discourses of objects and of class, race, and gender into (at times) uncomfortable contact, to the exploration of environments and chance assemblages which are, perhaps, best represented by SAA’s unique seminar organization.

David Schalkwyk’s talk, “Inside the Humanities/ The Humanities Inside”, is one I’ve continuously pondered since April. Beginning with an exploration of the commentary to Shakespeare’s plays compiled by the prisoners of Robben Island Prison, Schalkwyk then pursued the intertwined questions of how the humanities dwell inside diverse institutional spaces—prisons as well as academic buildings—and inside diverse bodies and selves. What can we rightly designate as “The Humanities”—as an institutional marker that requires funding and resources—in the face of such resilience and dispersal? What does my own desire to start a career in this field and with these texts mean in this instantiation of an environment? Using Alain Badiou’s distinction between the “little style” of philosophy, which operates through historicization and categorization, and the “grand style” of mathematics, which ultimately illuminates philosophy, Schalkwyk asked the provocative question if we could imagine a grand style for Shakespeare studies and—by implication—for English and the Humanities. Wondering if “historicism is our otherness,” Schalkwyk acknowledged the structural reasons for our inability to abandon historicism, especially New Historicism with its built-in mechanisms of analogy and archive that reproduce more dissertations, more monographs, more promotions and (theoretically) more funding and institutional support. Schalkwyk’s tentative solution to these problems is to see Shakespeare as a language to be used, rather than a system of reproduction.

What might this language look like on the page or sound like in the classroom? Would its syntax follow the codes and algorithms that are bringing the Folger Library‘s F21 project to completion? The Folger Digital Folio of Renaissance Drama for the 21st Century (F21) is an interoperable database of nearly 500 plays contemporary with Shakespeare. The interoperability of this database—its ability to search the entire collection based upon comparisons that can then be generalized across the collection—shifted the much-discussed and popular seminars on object-oriented environs into a new light for me. F21’s interoperability is one process that gets us closer to those objects that we long to curate, to care for. This curatorial process signals what seminarians in the object-oriented environs groups marked as a move away from representation, away from stable categories, and into process, presentational arrangements (like affordances), and sympathetic modes of communication.

One of the more striking conclusions shared by the F21 group—and that resonated with this sense of process—is the need to rethink our conception of genre as a search tool and as mode of knowledge. Casting a wider net to accommodate slippages between generic fields broadens what many of those who worked with F21 termed its eventual capacity for a sophisticated “art of comparison.” One group, which focused on determining spoken language cues from physical actions, wondered if searchable stage cues and affective cues which are not indicated directly as cues in the text could help in this task of presenting differing incidents that reconfigure our conceptions of generic stability. The workshop attendants then asked if it is possible to focus on something like character consistency, as opposed to genre, when searching for, identifying and discussing a play?

Like many questions spurred by F21, this is a question which will be worked-out in the classroom—and this is the most exciting aspect of the project. So much of the early experimental use of this project has been done between faculty and undergraduates. F21 affords classroom and individual access to texts that previously only fell within restricted domains. The algorithms that mark these texts also extend the boundaries of our academic communities, engender new strands of affiliation.

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A few months before SAA 2015 commences in Vancouver, MLA will hold its conference in the same city. I suspect that the digital, the curated, and the human will still be topics for debate at each conference. Will I be at one or both of these meetings? How will I meet them? I’ll take my chances and side with Ophelia, speaking—however paradoxically and tragically—the words of potential and of remembrance: “Lord, we know what we are but know not what we may be . . . I hope all will be well” (Hamlet 4.5.43-44; 68).