Perpetual Crisis: Defending the Humanities [February 24-26, 2011]

full name / name of organization: 
University of Wisconsin-Madison Graduate English Students Organization
contact email: 

The Graduate Student Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison English Department is pleased to announce the 7th Annual MadLit Conference. This year's conference, "Perpetual Crisis," engages the intersections between art, science and the academy as institution. Our keynote speaker will be Professor Rita Felski (University of Virginia).

The 2009 edition of Profession registered the increasing anxiety within the disciplines of the humanities regarding the status of humanistic inquiry in the 21st century. The common decrease in university funding for the humanities, the flight of majors to the sciences, and the increase in digitization lead us to ask: why study literature? Why research performance? Why create art? Though the critical discussion of these questions seems frenzied, this discourse of crisis has existed in our fields for the past 100 years, stretching back through I. A. Richards and Paul De Man. Larger questions regarding the tension between humanistic inquiry, science, and institutionalized knowledge have marked philosophical discourse since Plato. What is the history of this crisis? How has it affected the creation and study of literature? What ought the status of the humanities be in 2050?

While grounded in literary studies, these considerations cannot help but engage fields within the humanities, including history, art history, theater, comparative literature, linguistics, and anthropology, and how these fields produce and teach humanistic inquiry. To this end, we hope this conference will invite a discussion of how research in the humanities interprets, responds to, and changes culture.

Keynote Speaker: Rita Felski
William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and editor of New Literary History, Rita Felski is a scholar of critical theory, feminist aesthetics, and postmodern culture. Her 2008 book, Uses of Literature, is an exploration of aesthetic experience. Dr. Felski's other work includes: Rethinking Tragedy (2007), Literature After Feminism (2003), Doing time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture (2000), The Gender of Modernity (1998), and Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change (1989). Her articles have appeared in such journals as The Chronicle, Profession, Modernism/Modernity and Feminist Theory.

We are currently soliciting proposals for 15-20 min. presentations and three-person panels on any aspect of crisis and/or the humanistic tradition. Possible considerations might include:

➢ What is the future of the humanities? How will "the humanities" be defined in 2050?
➢ What is the humanistic tradition? How has it inquired after and had an impact on culture? On history?
➢ How can we bring crisis into the classroom?
➢ What role should digital media play in the research and teaching of crisis?
➢ How do we justify humanistic inquiry to ourselves? Our students?
➢ How can we talk about the humanities in a post-human world?
➢ How is crisis productive? Can it be ethical?
➢ How does period or region define crisis? How does crisis define period or region?
➢ What is the relationship between crisis and the canon?
➢ In what ways does hybridity function as a response to crisis?
➢ How does crisis (re/de)construct identity?
➢ How is crisis uniquely defined in religious, eco-critical and wartime studies?
➢ Does the presence of a specific kind of crisis help brand a work as fitting within a genre?

Please submit a 250-word abstract to the Graduate Student Association at (and the panel chair, if submitting a paper to a special panel) by December 15th, 2010. Accepted papers will be announced by January 15.

It is also possible to submit a proposal for consideration in one of our special panels, listed below. To submit a proposal to a special panel, please email your 250-word abstract to both the panel chair (contact info below) and the GSA (at Papers not selected for the special panels will be sent on to the conference planning committee for consideration in another panel.

Crisis of the Book
Chair: Leah Misemer
Contact Information:
This panel provides a forum for presenters to explore change across a medium through the concept of crisis, taking crisis as a transformative and generative concept. Presenters could examine the topic from a book history perspective by discussing salient moments in how society responded to the evolution of the medium, from a literature perspective by discussing how genre intersects with medium as it evolves, and from an art history/visual culture perspective by discussing how visual changes in the medium have posed moments of crisis and induced change. The topic also provides space for looking at alternative cultural forms that may have created this crisis of the book, such as digital technology, film, or other media in popular culture, and how these forms interact with books. Panels for this paper should address what is seen as the crisis and how that crisis generates (or generated) new forms.

Flirting with Commitment: Marxist Theory Without Praxis?
Chair: David Aitchison
Contact Information:
Most if not all of us in our studies and research typically engage with the interrelation of aesthetics and politics; and most of us will occasionally call on Marxist traditions for help with explanations of social relations – especially in terms of material culture, ideology, labor, alienation, revolution, and so on. Most of us, however, use this interrelation and tradition at best to speculate, theoretically and rhetorically, in a realm of intellectual abstraction divorced from the actual world in which we live and work. Papers for this panel should (implicitly or explicitly) address the question of whether there is room for a more genuine Marxist praxis in our work as theorists and teachers of literature.

(Sleep)Walking: Embodiment, Liminality, and Crisis in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Chairs: Chelsea Avirett and Nancy Simpson
Contact Information: and
This panel asks the central question of how do physical movement and/or states of consciousness inflect ways of negotiating political, religious, or personal crises during the period from roughly 1350-1650?

Hu(man) Crises
Chair: Catherine DeRose
Contact Information:
This panel invites papers that address the social implications of changing categorizations of "man." Nineteenth-century writers struggle to define "man" in philosophical, scientific, legal, medical, and popular literature. Who counts as man? Where does man stand in relation to other men, women, animals, and nature? What separates man from monster? How do writers' answers to these questions support, undermine, or otherwise alter man's social authority in society? Possible papers for this panel might engage with slave dialogues, evolutionary theory, gender dynamics, and/or animal's rights movements. While this panel takes nineteenth-century discourse as its primary example, submissions from any period or critical framework that examine the role of "man" are welcome.

"So What?" Questioning a Common Question in Literary Studies
Chair: Andy Karr
Contact Information:
"So what?" We've said it to our students. We've heard it from our professors. The persistence of this simple question could suggest anything from the particular difficulties of undergraduate literary analysis as a genre to the diminishing relevance of literary study to any other aspect of life. Wherever you hear it, this constant demand for justification is certainly characteristic of crisis. This panel hopes to address the "So what?" question in a variety of ways, such as (for example):
-discussing methods for and/or struggles with teaching students to make arguments about literary texts with appropriate stakes.
-giving a paper that made you really struggle to answer the "So what?" question, and then discussing that struggle.
-giving a paper that seems to have failed to answer that question, and discussing what you think is still valuable in it.
-considering what is at stake in demanding "So what?" of literary criticism—professional or student-written. In other words, asking "So what?" of the "So what?" question.