MLA 2020: T. S. Eliot and Identity/Politics
“T. S. Eliot: Identity / Politics”
The phrase “identity politics” has become as highly charged as the phrase “politically correct”—more often deployed today as an invitation to attack or defend some group or form of affiliation. For the 2020 MLA in Seattle, the International T. S. Eliot Society will sponsor a panel that recognizes the power of the phrase and the importance of all that it points toward, but we intend to avoid the merely reactive, accusatory and defensive postures that often attend its use.
To that end, we encourage prospective panelists to pause and weigh each term carefully, thinking about how they are and are not necessarily connected. By means of the slash between the two nouns—Identity / Politics—we signal this emphasis on keeping each term lively and mobile, as proximate but also as distinct as possible. Questions that papers for this panel might address include:
- How have Eliot's own politics been reassessed and our understanding of his positions been made more nuanced with the release of so much new material in the Letters, Poems and Complete Prose?
- How does Eliot's "mind of Europe" speak to recent European politics: e.g. the Scottish independence movement, Brexit, the rise of the far right and nationalist politics in France, Hungary, and elsewhere? Does Eliot’s politically oriented writing of the 1930s and 1940s, in particular, prove relevant to thoughts about totalitarianism and authoritarianism today? (This writing includes his letters as well as his published and unpublished essays and, of course, the drama and poetry.)
- How do Eliot's notions of identity or sexual / gender politics, whether in his critical prose pieces or in such poems as The Waste Land, speak to our current cultural moment? Such a discussion might take up transgender rights; queer practice and identity; the construction of femininity; the construction of the racial, sexual Other in Eliot's work.
- What are Eliot's thoughts on American language and literature? Is there an American identity expressed in the languages of its people; might there be a politics corresponding to the languages of those peoples?
- Does genre in Eliot have aspects that might be considered under the identity / politics rubric? We suggest that his extensive speculations about and practices of art in different genres are not only matters of aesthetic experimentation but do invoke and address aspects of experience that fall under both sides of our panel’s title.
Send a 300-word abstract, plus a brief bio, by March 18 to John Whittier-Ferguson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Whittier-Ferguson is a professor in the English Department at the University of Michigan, where he's been since 1990. During the academic year 2017-2018 he served as a visiting professor at the United States Air Force Academy. His most recent book, Mortality and Form in Late Modernist Literature, was published by Cambridge in the fall of 2015. He is the author of Framing Pieces: Designs of the Gloss in Joyce, Woolf, and Pound (Oxford, 1996), and co-editor, with A. Walton Litz and Richard Ellmann, of James Joyce: Poems and Shorter Writings (Faber 1991). He is the Vice President of the International T. S. Eliot Society.