by Julia Ditter, Liam Harrison, and Martin Goodhead
This special issue is dedicated to papers presented at the biennial BACLS “What Happens Now?” Conference that took place on 2-3 September 2021. The conference focused on representing a variety of concerns and topics represented in contemporary literature studies, and these are reflected in the articles published in this issue: they address the intersections between literary studies, video games and television series, pertinent questions of representation and identity in contemporary literature, as well as exploring the political and social formations of the present through critical and creative methods.
In addition to the articles presented in this special issue, a conference version of the articles can still be accessed via the WHN conference website which documents all of the other papers presented and gives an insight into the panels in which these articles were first presented and the conversations they took part in and shaped.
Susanne Köller’s Ambiguity and Parapraxis: Serially Reframing Trauma in “Peaky Blinders” considers the BBC TV drama Peaky Blinders (2013–) as a complex trauma fiction and pays special attention to the role of seriality and parapraxis in the series’ critical negotiation of trauma. Weaving together concepts from trauma theory and television studies, Köller argues that the narrative complexity of television series that challenges viewers to accept a lack of resolution and embrace ontological uncertainties makes them ideally suited for explorations of trauma, examining the shellshocked Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, as a case study.
Anna Johnson’s “Failure: The Ghost and the Mother” builds upon a paper given as part of the Ghosts, Traumas and Speculations panel. It draws on Johnson’s creative writing and reflections upon creative research praxis, which are centred around an encounter with motherhood: analyses are informed by Avery Gordon’s formulation of the ghost and Jack Halberstam’s queer failure. Johnson’s piece examines how encounters with ghostliness through literary writing interrogate the relationship of failure to care, and the non quantifiable temporalities of caring, as a wider troubling of containment. After Gordon, the ghost is approached here as hauntological in its speaking both to the marginal within the familiar (i.e. ‘citizenship’) and radically alternative or other ways of being. Motherhood in its intersections of gender, race and class functions as a site of ‘particular vulnerability whereby its particularities crystallise the dilemmas and capacities of being as innately spectral. These in turn mirror the creative-linguistic act’s encounter with the mother-figure. In illustrating its point, Johnston’s piece draws upon literary explorations of haunted motherhood along with examples of contemporary creative writing: across time and geography, these stage the struggle to transform ‘“devastating disavowal” into something far more complex, ambivalent, generative’.
George Kowalik’s “New year, new data”: Percival Everett’s Telephone, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, and the Future of the “Affective Turn”, analyses Everett’s ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ novel and Taylor’s campus novel through the lens of Rachel Greenwald Smith’s concept of the “Affective Turn”. By considering the affective qualities and communicative breakdowns of these narratives, Kowalik examines what they reveal about the contemporary novel’s capacity for conveying sincerity and authenticity, especially in an African American context. Despite the generic differences of these novels, Kowalik explores how the desires and emotional struggles of the characters correspond to their social and institutional surroundings, particularly that of the academy. These characters, Kowalik argues, demonstrate “a comparable desire to be affectively responsive in an environment encouraging the opposite”. The protagonist of Real Life Wallace invokes this difficulty as he declares, “I’d like to live in it – in the world, I mean. I’d like to be out there with a real job, a real life” (132). By unpacking the significance of how these novels “express feelings and articulate emotions”, Kowalik deftly details how they, in Taylor’s words, “capture the black experience – not so much in events, but in the experience of a black consciousness moving through the world, through thought” (n.p.).
Holly Parker’s “Affect, Minecraft and (Neoliberal) Techno-Utopianism in Keith Stuart’s A Boy Made of Blocks” was developed from a paper given at the Literary Digitalities, Technologies and Gaming Panel. Parker’s article explores the therapeutic functions of the video game Minecraft in the wake of loss and mutual incomprehension, as depicted within Stuart’s novel The readings of these performance zones challenge models of neoliberal self-fashioning or self-management within mainstream self-help philosophy. Parker draws upon theories of the quasi-political subject proposed within affect theory and psychoanalytic readings of neoliberalism, in order to propose a utopian space present both virtuality and within Stuart’s text. Mourning rather than melancholia emerges in new forms of internal and external trajectories in response to unprocessed and immobilizing grief. Parker reads the tension between such utopian dimensions and the recuperative force of neoliberalism as condensed within the familial relationship. Intertwined with this reading are reflections upon the ethics and efficacy of representation around ASD, where neurodivergency is depicted as complex and irreducible to cultural doxas even as depictions of ASD-related hyperlogic partly serve to expose the lacunae within neoliberalism’s ostensibly rational (choice) models of subjectivity. Parker’s essay invites further lines of enquiry, including reading literary depictions of other virtual spaces and virtualities, in relation to childhood play – as zones of imaginative productivity.
Craig McDonald’s article “‘Being understood creates the fear that you will never be understood again’: Literary Empathy in Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy”, takes on a contemporary debate regarding autofiction, empathy and narcissism. Drawing on a range of criticism that defines autofiction’s generic strengths and weaknesses, McDonald examines Cusk’s trilogy by considering the bonds of empathy and intimacy it forges with its readers. Rejecting dismissals of autofictions’s apathetic tendencies, McDonald details how Cusk moves “beyond conventional novelistic representations of empathy to instead draw on autofiction as a mode to encourage readers to interrogate their own capacity for empathy”. It is this “active readership”, which Cusk’s trilogy solicits and initiates, that “offers a way for readers to perform the affective work of empathising themselves”. Cusk’s autofictional avatar, Faye, sums up this kind of affective identification, as she self-reflexively comments that “these people [her students] wanted something from me; that though they didn’t know me, or one another, they had come here with the purpose of being recognised” (133). While Cusk’s trilogy has been condemned as an exercise in cruelty in many quarters, McDonald counterposes that “it is the close attention that Faye pays to those around her that constitutes the empathetic heart of the trilogy, even when Faye’s external responses might not easily be read as empathetic.”
Finally, in her article “Indiana as Islamistan: Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf ”, Crystal Maritta Sam explores the role that space and place play in the negotiation of the characters’ experience as Syrian immigrants and Muslims in the US. Maritta Sam examines how Kahf draws comparisons between traditional representations of the Midwest and American suburbs, demonstrating how conventional landscape aesthetics, religious myths and idealised suburban domestic spaces form part of a homogenising American ideal that is unattainable – if not undesirable – for immigrants. Unpacking the complexities of “longing and belonging”, Maritta Sam notes how the identities built around places can embody a site of “constant renegotiation and becoming”. By detailing the complex relationship with the vast flatness of the Indiana landscape in Kahf’s novel, Maritta Sam considers how it “initiates important conversations about nation, belonging and identity”.
Julia Ditter, Liam Harrison, Martin Goodhead, “Alluvium Editorial 10.1: BACLS 2021 ‘What Happens Now'” Alluvium, Volume 10, No 1. (2022). n:pag. Web 29 April 2022. DOI:https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v10.1.01
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Julia Ditter (Managing Editor)
Julia Ditter is a PhD candidate at Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and holds an MA in British and North American Cultural Studies from the University of Freiburg. Her dissertation focuses on Scottish literary responses to borders and environmental discourses from 1800 to the present day. She is co-founder and editor of Arcadiana and co-organiser of the EASCLE Webinar series. Since 2020, she is an elected member of the board of the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies. Her research interests include British, Irish and Scottish literatures, television studies, cultural studies, border studies, animal studies, mobility studies and ecocriticism
Liam Harrison (Managing Editor)
Liam Harrison is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, where he teaches across the departments of English Literature, Film and Creative Writing. His research focuses on modernist legacies and lateness in twenty-first century British and Irish fiction and non-fiction. He is a founding editor of the literary journal Tolka, and a founding member of the Contemporary Irish Literature Research Network.
Martin Goodhead (Managing Editor)
Martin is an English Literature Phd at Keele University: his research details with contemporary representations of British working-class subjectivity within post-2008 fiction with reference to hauntology and emergent political imaginaries along with existent practices. He previously completed an MA in English at Keele, graduating in 2018/19 with a thesis on Williamsian working-class Residual and Emergent practices in reference to Mark Fisher’s Hauntology within the novels of Martin Amis, Lisa Blower and Anthony Cartwright.
Martin has worked as a Peer Review Liaison and Editor for the Keele HUMSS journal Under Construction@Keele , before taking over as Editor-in-Chief in June 2019. He previously co-edited Alluvium Journal’s ‘The Global Contemporary: Ecologies of Gender and Class within the Combined and Uneven Anthropocene’ June 2019 issue. Martin is an elected member of the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies Executive Committee (2020-22). He also serves on Keele’s Humanities and Social Science Work in Progress Research Seminar Group, an active member of Keele’s Geopoetics collective Dawdlers, Postgraduate Rep for Keele’s Postgraduate Community and Student Rep on Keele’s HUMSS Postgraduate Research Committee. He co-organized the 2018 and 2019 HUMSS Postgraduate Conferences at Keele, and lead- organized November 2018’s ‘Placing Class within the Contemporary’ interdisciplinary Conference at Keele.