MLA 2020: “The Unbearable Wrongness of Being”: Abjection, Power, and the Possibilities of the Human in Popular Culture

deadline for submissions: 
March 10, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Debarati Biswas/ Hunter College, CUNY
contact email: 

In her conversation with Katherine Mckittrick, Sylvia Wynter reminds us that black/lesbian/feminists in the sixties such as June Jordan took up and further elaborated “the color line’s range of subjectively experienced nonnormalcy of being.” They voiced their outcry against what Jordan defines as our “unbearable wrongness of being.” This panel examines the presidential theme of being human by shifting our gaze to the abject spaces and formulations that function to deny humanity to certain subjects. To create the “human” normative literary and cultural production interprets racialized and queer subjects through the lens of social death. Locations associated with social death and therefore presumed to be incompatible with sociality or human bonding--such as prisons, segregated housing projects, war torn zones, and other such spaces of exception--have become the abode of displaced masses whom Stuart Hall describes as “perpetually unsettled people.” These spaces, however, have fostered socialites that have gone on to change the way abjected subjects exist in the world and have produced enormous socio-political changes over time. Our panel asks how texts such as pulp fiction, sci-fi, comic books, graphic novels, films, music, and other artistic expressions of marginalized “humans” have interrogated what it means to be human by embracing histories of negative inheritances, How do these cultural expressions from abjected spaces and outcries against the “wrongness of being” conceptualize the unknown possibilities of our freedom and creativity as a species? If as Darieck Scott argues “abjection in/of blackness endows its inheritors with a form of counterintuitive power,” then what are the possibilities of black power/power of the abject?


We invite papers that examine how popular cultural production offers other epistemologies of being human in relation to environments, socialities, and identities that have been abjected from normative formulations of humanity. Popular literature itself figures as a genre tied to excess and assumed to be undeserving of the critical gaze because of its location outside of the academic canon. From British Gothic Fiction to black and queer U.S. pulp fiction to the speculative afro-futurism of pop music stars such as Janelle Monáe, popular culture has been and continues to be a particularly apt location for investigating humanity from a place that exceeds hegemonic notions of cultural value and respectability.


Papers examining genres, spaces, and subjectivities in excess of normative definitions of humanity are welcome, specifically as addressed by popular cultural forms from any geographical location since the dawn of the twentieth century. Paper topics might include:


·       Popular culture and the possibilities of the human as a species

·       Queer of color critique, Cyborg studies, animal studies, posthumanism, etc. and the “nonnormalcy of being”

·       Gothicism as a means of establishing binaries such as human/inhuman, inside/outside, good/evil

·       Speculative fiction, lifeworlds and the human/non-human divide

·       The “praxis of being human” in spaces marked by confinement, regulation, and surveillance

·       Human/non-human entanglements in urban spaces of exception such as nightclubs, prisons, cruising grounds, etc.

·       Spaces of joy, pleasure, resistance, or tumult and the possibilities of the human

·       Unhomely spaces and the possibilities of communities, intimacies, and friendships


Panel Organizers: Debarati Biswas and Laura Westengard

Submission: 250-word abstracts/short bio

Deadline for submissions: March 10, 2019

Email abstracts to

Contact person information: Laura Westengard and Debarati Biswas (