Better State Forms (MLA 2023)

deadline for submissions: 
March 11, 2022
full name / name of organization: 
Modern Language Association
contact email: 

We need to rethink the state. No one loves to hate the state more than a humanist. Yet does this critique serve us well? What do we mean by “the” state? Humanities scholars often take for granted a unified and homogenous idea of the state as a basis for critique. The settler colonial state, the necropolitical state, the neoliberal state; or perhaps less negatively, the welfare state, the developmentalist state, the liberal state. As this plethora of familiar models suggests, it should be impossible to talk about “the” state as a singular form, to equate it with one function or to define it by one pattern of experience. And yet such singular imaginaries often underpin humanistic engagement with the state. 

What versions, actions, or imaginaries of the state rise to the fore and what relationships with the state might emerge, aside from negative critique, if we theorize the state as a multitudinous form? This roundtable calls for consideration of the simultaneity and incongruity of the state’s forms, of attention to its situated contradictions and pluralities. How can literary training in form be used to illuminate the forms of the state? If form is broadly understood as a repeating pattern that offers structure, shapes what can happen, or mediates effects and perceptions, how does thinking about the state as a form offer opportunities to literary theories of form and literary practices of reading? How do state forms change based on the histories and contexts in which states are produced, or the different standpoints from which states are encountered? In turn, do interdisciplinary approaches to form (Schwarz, Levine) offer tools to literary scholars more used to aesthetic forms and aesthetic objects? Forms include but exceed the aesthetic, and literary scholars would seem most poised to theorize the ways in which state forms repeat across literature and the world. 

Such plurality matters because in an age of anti-statism, better state forms threaten to disappear from view. How can humanists develop a more dynamic, less reified engagement with the state? How can we reinvest the state with concepts that seem to have abandoned it, like public good, democratic accountability, provision, or intervention? This roundtable calls for papers that consider what thinking about the state as a plural form does for the humanities and what formalist thinking might do for the state as bad form that can, and must, be better. 

Please send 300-word abstracts and short bios for this in-person session of MLA 2023 to Rebecca S. Oh (rsoh@illinois.edu) by 11 March 2022.