Who's been a bard dog, then..?

December 18, 1998

Mr Hooker, Shakespeare's mutt, tells his tale as animal autobiographies, queer Walter Scott, The Sound of Music and internet sex diaries all compete for the title of wackiest subject of academic inquiry

Some time in the distant past the Modern Language Association convention became colossal. The programme alone, landing on members' doorsteps with a weighty thump some two months ahead of the annual meeting, is enough to fuse every synapse in the average brain.

People variously describe the convention as a corporation, a carnival and a travelling literary circus - complete with sideshows that swing from the sublime to the grotesque. At this year's meeting in San Francisco, papers on Simone de Beauvoir and The Sound of Music, African radio and Joe Orton will jostle for place with those on Germanic philology and feminist pedagogy.

As America's most liberal city, San Francisco is a sympathetic setting for the decidedly permissive MLA. Perhaps not surprisingly given the venue, there are an unusually high number of panels on queer theory this year. Although the subject no longer has the shock of the new, participants will be busy queering the American poet Emily Dickinson, queering Jewish American identity, queering the English novelist Sir Walter Scott and queering Asian American studies.

In the primordial soup of 888 sessions and three times that many papers, spotting new trends - a fresh US interest in modern British literature, perhaps? - is like reading literary tea-leaves. But some guesses can be made, along with predictions about which conference papers will make it into the newspapers, ever watchful - as MLA members know to their cost - for the ribald and ridiculous.

Tales of a 'ruff' life

Dial M for media. On Monday, December 28, in a room at the San Francisco Hilton, a collection of academics from Wisconsin and one from British Columbia will denounce the "anthropocentrism of critical interpretation''. A conference session called "From an Animal's Point of View: The Dynamics of Animal Autobiography'', looks like a prime candidate for media ridicule.

Literary works under consideration include Sweet William by John Hawkes, the autobiography of a horse, and Shakespeare's Dog by Leon Rooke, with its startling premise that Shakespeare borrowed much of his understanding of emotions and the senses from his dog, Mr Hooker.

Other examples from the genre of animal autobiography are Richard Adams's Traveller, the story of General Robert E. Lee's horse, and a short story called "My Life as an African Gray Parrot".

Session leader Julie Ann Smith, of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, is emphatic that the session was not inspired by the film Babe and the book from which it was taken, The Sheep-Pig, about the life of a talking pig. Smith argues that, while the pig Babe was cast in a starring role in both book and film, his voice and expressions were far too human for him to be considered a real animal antagonist. While animals may have human qualities, "to impose a human identity on animals would not be desirable", Smith explains. "They need to be understood for what they are."

The session was convened by the new Society for Animal Advocacy through Literature, which, Smith says, takes the premise "that the animal's point of view is consistently and systematically erased from nearly every aspect of human culture''. In what may be the most radical re-reading of literature ever, speakers will explore the dumb animal's rightful place in literary texts.

Smith and two other speakers have what Smith calls "extensive animal populations'' at home. Smith looks after 14 rabbits and a cat. The panel's extraordinary subject matter has already tempted at least one university press. This approach to literature comes with the caveat, of course, that the "animal's point of view'' must remain inferential, as animals are mostly unable to express their views, at least in words. Animals clearly have attitudes and perceptions, Smith says, although it is questionable if they have a sense of identity or a constructed self-image.

Dick's holiday fun

Taking a quite different tack are Ryan Bishop, of Southern Methodist University, and Lillian Robinson, of East Carolina University.

The title of their joint paper "How my dick spent its summer vacation: internet sex diaries by tourists returning from Thailand'' needs little elucidation. The diaries in question are posted on the World Sex Guide, under "prostitution by country".

The paper is part of a session on gender, sex and money on the internet. "The 'texts' are often funny, as well as pathetic,'' writes Robinson, in an email interview with The THES, "and our approach shows wit without, I think, trivialising the issues they reveal."

Voicing caution that journalists often "amuse themselves'' over MLA papers that are pedantic or risque, she notes that tourism brings more than $4 billion a year into Thailand's economy, and says the lynchpin of this tourism is sex.

Thais might protest, but the paper promises to reveal "how this macroeconomic event is reflected in the way sex customers perceive and describe their most intimate experiences".

Emails and females

The evolution of e-mail, that curious cross of letter and telephone, is under increasingly close study this year. For her paper, "E-mail mixing of academic and personal lives'', Patricia Webb of Arizona State University ran a random email survey of 150 college women to ask whether they had an email "voice''. The survey shows how ubiquitous email has become in the US academy.

All but two respondents used it every day, and some for up to three hours. But almost all insisted they spent more time emailing than they liked or wanted.

Susan Herring, of the University of Texas, studied 11 years of early email on the arpanet, the predecessor to the Internet, in an archive she found on the world wide web in a virtual museum.

For her paper, "Variation and change in email style'', she found that while "syntactic complexity'' remained stable - disputing the common perception that email encourages contempt for grammatical rules - people became progressively more rude and less polite in their internet messages over time. "Face-threatening acts'' such as insults or challenges increased; "overt politeness'', in expressions of appreciation, thanks or apologies decreased.

Wild knights and cigars

If there is any message from queer theorists in this year's presentations, it is that the study of homosexuality in literary texts has claimed its place in the mainstream. "The success of cultural studies in the academy has moved the study of homosexuality from the margin to dead centre,'' writes Jo Ellyn Clarey, of the University of Iowa, session leader for "History's closet: detective fiction and the search for a lesbian past''.

In the name of creating a "fuller lesbian studies", her panel will range from "outing" lesbian figures in early 20th-century detective fiction to how the detective novel helped codify sexual "deviance'' in the popular imagination, and how figures such as the "mannish lesbian'' became a ready-made criminal type.

The same aim, of "revitalising'' discussions of queer sexuality by analysing the work of traditional authors, is driving the session on Queer Walter Scott, with its predictably provocative titles such as"Wild knights: Ivanhoe's queer desire". "In general, as against other major 19th-century novelists, Scott's work hasn't been discussed in the light of sexuality,'' says panellist Oliver Buckton, a Cambridge graduate now at Florida Atlantic University, whose own paper dwells on revenge and homosexual desire in The Bride of Lammermoor.

"It's not our contention that Scott was gay, but that rather within the text there are issues of queer sexuality and desire that are relevant to a full understanding of these novels."

"Queer studies is on its way to becoming institutionalised,'' echoes Francesca Coppa, leading the session on "Re-evaluating Joe Orton", inspired in part by the recent publication of Orton works rejected in the 1950s for being too queer. Panellist Patricia Smith, of the University of California at Los Angeles, author of the forthcoming The Queer Sixties, will address the link between Freud, Churchill, and the end of empire in Orton's play What the Butler Saw.

"What I'm going to do,'' Smith says, "is look at how the image of the statue of Churchill being blown up at the beginning of the play, and the loss of one particular part, which is a cigar or something else depending on what version is performed, becomes a metaphor for post-imperial Britain, in which shall we say imperial destiny is replaced by Freudian analysis, for better or for worse." Sometimes, she suggests, a cigar is only a cigar.

Fat bodies, singing bodies

Other forms of drama - film and opera - are now familiar players at the MLA, with its ever expanding big tent. In a session titled "The operatic body", panellists look beyond large-chested sopranos and dispute the idea that opera is just music.

"It's the literature take on it, that opera is a literary text and is embodied in a dramatic art form, and the MLA studies drama,'' says Linda Ann Hutcheon, of the University of Toronto.

A paper on "The fat body" looks at Falstaff, she promises. "The dancing body" considers Elektra and Salome. "The excessive body" is largely concerned with alcohol consumption on the stage.

The hills are alive...

On a more populist level, the session on "Austro-American relationships in film" begins, inevitably, with The Sound of Music.

The University of Colorado's Robert von Dassanowsky - whose mother was a pioneering Austrian film-maker - says the musical, for all its uplifting sound track, is a work with social and political teeth.

The Von Trapp family represent the aristocrats and monarchists, and Julie Andrews the Catholic component, in a contradictory chapter in Austrian history when an authoritarian government suspended parliamentary and democratic rights, but did try to keep the Nazis out of Austria. TC

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