CFP: [Theory] Modernism and Unreadability (Lyon, France) (4/15/08; 10/23/08-10/25/08)

full name / name of organization: 
Lacy Rumsey
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The conference on “Modernism and Unreadability” aims to explore a major
literary movement, Modernism in the English-speaking world, from the
perspective of one of its most obvious though rarely mentioned effects:
unreadability. Modernism will be approached through the lens of various
texts known to be particularly resistant to interpretation. Several
“borderline” Modernist texts fall de facto under the category of the
unreadable. For a number of reasons and following various modalities and
individual procedures which call for description and analysis, those texts,
now part of the literary canon, raise problems of deciphering as well as
comprehension which defer and displace the question of interpretation. From
Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to Stein’s The Making of Americans via Virginia
Woolf’s The Waves, some of Pound’s Cantos or Beckett’s Molloy,several
canonical texts foil reading, articulation, and commentary. The paradoxical
fact that several of the greatest Modernist texts skirt the limit of
unreadability needs to be elucidated and deconstructed. The question of the
relationship between Modernism and unreadability is far from anecdotal or
secondary. Unreadability is not simply a by-product of excessive
aestheticism: it characterizes and stems from heterogeneous poetics; it
points to a crisis in meaning, and bears the signature of a literary
movement whose very unity is problematic. Admittedly, texts bordering
unreadability are found at all times and throughout various literary
traditions. Yet given its intensity, it may be worth wondering to what
extent Modernist unreadability defines a unique historical moment in the
literature of the English-speaking world. This latter hypothesis may in
turn be submitted to a critical reading, since by contributing to the
construction of the Modernist master narrative, it also underwrites a
polemical notion of literary history as a succession of breaks made
manifest by the emergence of radically new paradigmsâ€"such as unreadabilityâ€"
through which Modernist writings question literariness from the angle of
literalness and challenge literatureâ€"both as a practice and as a historical
institutionâ€"to account for itself, to justify its procedures and its
tacitly or implicitly held beliefs, to deconstruct the very meaning of
writing and reading.

What of the failure of signification and meaning that Modernist writings
repeatedly stage? The question of meaning, of signification and its other,
lurks beneath the obstacles that frustrate reading. Faced with a wall of
literalness,with a deluge of referential data, readers are thwarted, thrown
off balance in their alleged “natural” competence. The complex procedures
whereby reading is thwarted deserve to be analyzed. Language itself is
being put to the test as it is alternately Babelized, disfigured, or
exhausted. The nature of the transgressions in which these Modernist texts
originate needs to be examined: what exactly do they forsake? What
liberties do they allow themselves to take? There is not just one version
of unreadability: its manifestations are multiple and unique. In
particular, it needs to be distinguished from obscurity, enigmaticity, even
hermeticism. We must ask ourselves how such literary productions confront
writing itself with a dimension of impossibility; how unreadability impacts
writability. It is also worth examining the specific forms of boredom and
jouissance it generates.

Papers may examine specific modalities, strategies of unreadability at work
in individual tests, or investigate general issues of poetics pertaining to
unreadability, the aesthetics of reading and reception theory. Critical
responses and positionings vis-à-vis hermetic texts may also be held up to
scrutiny, notably attitudes of denial towards the unreadability of texts
which border the undecipherable and the incomprehensible.

The international conference on “Modernism and Unreadability” will be held
over three days, from October 23-25, 2008, at the Centre d’Etudes Poétiques
(Ecole Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences Humaines / Université Lyon 2)
in Lyon, France.

Abstracts may be submitted by April 15, 2008 to Isabelle Alfandary
(, Axel Nesme (,
and Lacy Rumsey (

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Received on Thu Dec 06 2007 - 17:05:58 EST