Representation and the Problem of Democracy (3/15/10; MLA '11)

full name / name of organization: 
Dan Colson, MLA Graduate Student Caucus
contact email:

CFP: “Representation and the Problem of Democracy”
A Panel of the Graduate Student Caucus, MLA 2011

The Graduate Student Caucus, an affiliate organization of the MLA, invites current graduate students to submit proposals for a panel discussion tentatively entitled “Representation and the Problem of Democracy” at the 2011 MLA annual meeting from January 6 through January 9 in Los Angeles.

A concern with “representation” is central to literature, democracy, and the intersection of the two–in “literary” texts and in “scholarly” efforts to make sense of them. Both democratic theory and practical strategies for implementing democratic politics revolve around representing individual and collective interests, even when a given instantiation of democratic governance is exclusionary. In fact, many texts that represent democracies focus on their failures adequately to represent. The same can be said of literary scholarship that for the last several decades has strived to democratize the field (by making the body of texts we study more representative) and that in many cases imagines itself as a democratizing force (through progressive politics and equal opportunities for education).

This panel explores the possibilities and limitations of literary representation and literary scholarship. Using democracy as a nodal point, we focus on the overlapping valances of “representation”: as goal, as strategy, as modality. Our aim is to provide a forum for those engaged with the fractured constructions of democracy around which our nation and our profession frequently circulate.

We invite graduate students from various disciplines, fields, and periods to submit proposals. We are interested especially in work that critically analyzes “representation” as a field of contestation rather than as an assumption underlying our approach to literature and “democracy” as a problem (a rupture, a formation) rather than as an ideal. Self-reflexively viewing your work as content (the study of literary representation, democracy, and the literature of democracy) and practice (scholarship as a form of representation in literary-political field largely defined by competing visions of democracy), we ask that you consider the following questions: How does the literature you study claim to represent democracy? How are these claims complicated by a work’s historical moment and the ways in which it has been studied over a period of years? How does the relative centrality of contemporaneous democratic discourse shape a text’s representationality and the ways in which it represents within literary studies? What theoretical or ethical orientations to literature can help us conceptualize representation and its relationship to democracy? What alternatives to representation and to democracy do texts and our discipline offer? How do intersecting registers of representation (e.g., political representation, fictional representation, legal representation) challenge democratic ideology? What is your role as one who represents both representation and democracy in print or in the classroom? These questions offer only a glimpse of this topic’s possibilities, so we ask that you not view them an exhaustive list: we will consider a wide variety of approaches to the session’s theme.

Presentations should be approximately fifteen minutes in length. Please submit an abstract of 300 to 500 words by March 15 to with “MLA Panel Submission” in the subject heading.

For further information please contact:
Dan Colson
Department of English
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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