The Materiality of the Word (NeMLA 2019)

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2018
full name / name of organization: 
Northeast Modern Language Association

In a letter to his friend Axel Kaun, Samuel Beckett once described the “terrible materiality of the word surface” that faces every writer as they set pen to page. Their goal, Beckett claims, is to puncture this surface, boring holes into the word so that a different materiality “lurking behind” it might seep through. When the word is filled with holes, when what is said is ineffable and indescribable, it is no longer subordinated to its representative function. Rather, the word reveals its own sense and sensuousness, its materiality entirely distinct from that of its referent. The “sounding of impossible bodies” of the voices of the dead in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong, the thunder-words of Finnegans Wake, or the neologisms in the Paradiso each express this materiality of the word discovered at the limits of any representation. Unbound from the relation between the signifier to the signified, the word becomes the site and material for new utterances, intersections, and collectivities to come.

This panel aims to explore the materiality of the literary word in light of the expanded and capacious sense of materiality developed by the New Materialism, Thing Theory, and the “Material Turn” writ large. Though these theories have largely eschewed the linguistic focus of post-structuralism, rethinking the literary word amidst this multiplicity of materialisms creates novel opportunities to explore its formal, political, and affective potentials. In particular, we seek papers that explore the materiality of the word across literary-historical and national boundaries. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Nonsense Words
  • Portmanteau Words
  • Contemporary Poetics
  • Medieval Materialisms
  • Transnational Literature and Vernacularity
  • Words in Translation
  • Modernist Experiment
  • New Materialism and Poetry
  • Religion and the “Flesh” of Words

Abstracts to be sent through the NeMLA portal:


Please contact the co-chairs with any questions: (Joe Romano, Columbia University, Department of English and Comparative Literature) (Nick Pisanelli, Brown University, Department of English)