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A Symposium: Globalizing the Novel

On March 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., in Duke University's FHI Garage, The Novel Project at Duke presents:

A symposium: Globalizing the Novel


Jeanne-Marie Jackson (Johns Hopkins): The Global Novel of Non-Ideas: The African Death of Philosophical Suicide."

Anna Bernard (Kings College London): 'Hebrew, Arabic, and Death': Palestine/Israel and the Global Novel

Mariano Siskind (Harvard): "Post-global and after-cosmopolitan: contemporary literary dislocations of the non-world"

Preliminary schedule:

10 a.m. Talk: Anna Bernard 

11:30 a.m. Talk: Jeanne-Marie Jackson

1 – 2 p.m. Lunch

2 p.m. Talk: Mariano Siskind

3:30 – 5 p.m. Roundtable

For more information, please see the poster below.

Jane Elliott Visit to Duke Recap

Jane Elliott Lecture and Graduate Student Seminar Recap

By: Kevin Gallin 

Novel: A Forum on Fiction, and the Novel Project at Duke, along with the Duke English Department enthusiastically welcomed back Jane Elliott, senior lecturer of post-’45 Literary and Cultural Studies at King’s College in London, to give a talk and lead a graduate student seminar consecutively on October 27 and 28. Recently, Elliott has investigated the evolution and recombination of politics, aesthetics, and theory in the wake of fading post-modernism, a line she traces through her recent articles and edited collections, Theory After Theory, Genres of Neo-Liberalism, and Suffering Agency. Her lecture on Thursday, entitled “Binary Life,” built on this trajectory, specifically focusing on “life-interest,” a feature of the narrative form that she has defined as the ‘microeconomic mode.”

Elliott gave a compelling reading of Michael Punke’s The Revenant, the novel on which the recent Academy Award winning film was based. The novel places the protagonist’s struggle in the context of settler colonialism that pushes every participant to the very limits of his or her survival.  In doing so, the novel mobilizes what Elliott calls “the microeconomic mode,” a narrative form that crosses genres and media by creating conditions under which “life necessarily exists at the expense of other life.” Played out in discrete exchanges between individuals who must pursue their own “life interest,” these encounters require kill-or-be-killed choices. These games of survival force a shift in the concept of the individual from “a liberal individual with a right to life” to a “a subject with an interest in life” who cannot choose not to choose even though that choice inevitably comes at the cost of another person’s death.  This reduction of the individual subject to their life-interest authorizes a logic of “fractal subtraction” in which every step forward results in even more human death and suffering. Elliott’s reading of The Revenant undermines the film version’s apparent argument for “good colonialism.” Rather than exemplifying the good man doing his best to survive in a corrupt and violent system, Hugh Glass is the avatar of an economic system that grinds each of its constituents down to “life interest.”

Nancy Armstrong’s introduction to the talk called attention to Elliott’s ability to allow theory to emerge from the text as its own self-theoretical dimension, and to “slide across various theoretical discourses that support and give affective heft to the text on which she focuses.” Elliott indeed opened up her reading of The Revenant to address everything from The Hunger Games to Life of Pi, The Road to Zootopia, with occasional pit stops in New Orleans and the Saw film franchise. The lecture sparked a lively discussion afterwards, in which a clearly enthusiastic audience probed some of the limits of the microeconomic mode – when did it start, where did it come from, is there such a thing as a macroeconomic mode? – and Elliott provided answers that drew clearer lines around the scope of her project as a specific form in a particular political and sociocultural moment, which allowed for both compelling readings in her own work and the potential for broad applications beyond it.

These questions were also taken up in the graduate seminar the following afternoon. Elliot started by laying out her writing process for her manuscript, and detailed how after months of research, a great deal of structuring and outlining, and about 20,000 words, she found herself at a loss of how to proceed. She threw out most of that work, but reiterated that she “had to do that work to know that I needed to throw it out.” This acknowledgement of the iterative process of writing was a daunting but ultimately reassuring thing for graduate students to hear as they move toward and through their dissertations. This process also prompted students to ask about the relationship between the works she chose and the arguments she made, and how they influenced one another. To this, she reaffirmed the importance of revision and rethinking, advising that archive and argument constantly reform each other in novel and unexpected ways. Ultimately, though, she challenged the students to trust their own arguments when they think they’re on to something: “No way you can do it unless you believe in it.”

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Society for Novel Studies Tom McCarthy Keynote Recap

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Society for Novel Studies 2016 Conference: Tom McCarthy Keynote 

By: Nick Huber

Tom McCarthy delivered a keynote speech entitled “Vanity’s Residue” to the 2016 Society for Novel Studies Biennial Conference held in Pittsburgh, PA on May 13th and 14th. As the author of four novels including Remainder (2005) and Satin Island (2015), a work of criticism revolving around Herge’s Tintin comics (Tintin and the Secret of Literature), and dozens of essays on contemporary aesthetic problems, McCarthy offered a welcome repositioning of the conference’s viewpoint from the scholar of the novelist to the novelist himself.

And yet McCarthy proved to be as intellectually nimble and canny as readers of his novels might have expected. Proposing we understand the work of the novelist as a series of distress signals or, more emphatically, of pings from a black box unrecovered from terra incognita, from the gap between world and map, McCarthy followed the smoke trails from Clytemnestra to Trevor Paglen in a provocative demonstration of the ricochet from content to form and the point at which the latter becomes the former. The talk’s speculative thesis—that the novelist’s prerogative is to get lost—was a familiar trope but McCarthy built a de-narrativized conceptualization of writing, marking, and transmission that consistently valorized negativity as a powerfully generative force, thereby dissolving any rote New Age pseudo-bildungsroman of self-discovery that often accompanies such a position. The state of being lost, for McCarthy, is not existential so much as material: “how do you put the world on paper?” In a move characteristically erudite and puckish in equal measures, McCarthy deflected easy answers to this question by offering his own in the form of a quotation from an early 20th century geographer (J. A. Steers) that resists settling anything: “As it is impossible to make a sheet of paper rest smoothly on a sphere, so it is impossible to make a correct map on a sheet of paper.” The impossibility of definitively mapping what is perceived, let alone interpreting that map with final confidence, arises out of the materials themselves, McCarthy argued, in the spatial breach between the markings and their referents.

It is in these terms—and in following Agamben—that McCarthy suggested that Melville’s “Bartleby, in not writing, becomes the writer par excellence, embodiment of the Arabic Qualam or Pen, angel of unfathomable potentiality.” Or take his next example, Francis Ponge’s rumination on the capacities of the sponge (which comes to McCarthy via Derrida) which figures writing as “a messy, always incomplete engagement with material surplus, dirty spillage.” These models seem to describe McCarthy’s work as a novelist as well as his work in the International Necronautical Society. McCarthy shared a few examples of the work produced under this heading, including Greenwich Degree Zero, an historical rewriting and filmed reenactment of the 1894 failed bombing of the Greenwich Observatory as the successful 1894 bombing of the Greenwich Observatory. McCarthy, before fielding questions from the audience, traced outward from this reenactment using Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life to consider the figure of “someone—anyone—who is dying” and suggested in conclusion and in agreement with de Certeau that the “dying man who tries to speak” might be, precisely, the writer. 

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An Evening with Colson Whitehead: April 19

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The Novel Project at Duke in collaboration with the journal Novel: A Forum on Fiction, the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts, the English Department, the Center for International Studies/Global Cities, and the Department of African-American Studies would like to invite you to “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” Please join us on April 19th at the Nasher Museum Auditorium, where award-winning novelist Colson Whitehead will speak about his latest work and the craft of fiction. Whitehead’s talk will begin at 5:30 PM to be followed by a Q&A with Duke Professors Mark Anthony Neal, Nancy Armstrong, and members of the audience.

The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Whitehead is the author of seven books: The Intuitionist, nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award; John Henry Days, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Colossus of New York, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN/Oakland Award; Sag Harbor, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award; Zone One, a New York Times bestseller; The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death; and the forthcoming novel The Underground Railroad.

For more information about this event, please view the poster below.

PHOTOS: "What is the Contemporary Novel" Symposium

"What is the Contemporary Novel?" is the second edition of the novel-centered symposium organized by graduate students at Duke University.

The symposium took place on October 31st and November 1st and featured Jane Eliiott (King's College), Justin Neuman (Yale), and Hector Hoyos (Stanford) who presented papers on various aspects of the novel in its contemporary form. 

Here are a few photos from the event held at Duke University's Franklin Humanities Center. 

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SYMPOSIUM: What is the Contemporary Novel?

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A few weeks ago, graduate students in English and Literature at Duke University and UNC, Chapel Hill convened a two-day symposium on the contemporary novel.

Jane Eliiott (King's College), Justin Neuman (Yale), and Hector Hoyos (Stanford) presented papers at the event, after which the floor was opened for graduate student responses and general discussion. 

Below is the description of the Symposium. 


What is contemporary about the contemporary novel?  By no means all recent novels suggest that the novel form—and presumably the cultures that produce and consume this art form--are undergoing something on the order of a paradigm shift. Those novels that do register such an event ask us to consign old worlds, scientific methods, forms of agency (human and otherwise), along with literary genres to the dustbin, forcing us to try out new ways of imagining human life. The novels we want to consider “contemporary” exploit the world-making power of their respective national traditions to make sense of this event, not only by critiquing the categories of self, household, property, and nation that organize traditional fiction and the world it asks us to assume is out there; these novels also try out alternative ways of inhabiting that world and engaging both the social forces that blow it apart and the affective glue that holds it together.

To emphasize the “contemporary” component of “the contemporary novel” automatically raises the question of how novels from various national traditions identify themselves with the present moment in the history of the novel, the nation, international capitalism, and the subjects that populate the novel’s version of community. It will be the job of this seminar to ask what order of event distinguishes this moment in the manner of such earlier periods as, say, “the Enlightenment,” “the Age of Empire,” and so forth.  If we determine that no such event marks this period, on the other hand, we’ll have to ask whether and how the contemporary novel calls periodicity itself into question and how we would then historicize such presentism? 

If we shift the emphasis to the “novel” component of “the contemporary novel,” we raise the no less difficult question of genre, medium, form, or style (call it what you will). Is there some cluster of stylistic features, themes or topics by means of which contemporary fiction makes itself formally coherent?  How do these formal changes turn the novel away from a national readership in order to address a global readership?  Do the formal changes responsible for the new “world novel” support or challenge revisionary philosophical models of human reason, emotion, ethics, secularism, governmentality, sexuality, mediation, aesthetics. 

As a composite concept, “the contemporary novel” is productively invertible: How does it remodel the traditional “world” of the novel—its scope and the kind of event that shapes it? What social, sensory, and affective qualities are required to inhabit it? How does the novel in turn ask a readership, presumably not the national readership of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community,” to reimagine its relation to the real? What inducement do such novels offer their readers? How does fiction supplement other explanations of the event requiring such changes in the categories that organize our world?

The answers to some if not all of these questions hinge on the issue of how we decide which recent novels by which authors count as contemporary and which do not. If we assume that the contemporary novel makes ethical and political demands on its readers, which novels are making these demands? If we assume that the contemporary novel is not interested in garnering the reader’s sympathy for its characters, which novels are eliciting new modes of affective engagement? If we assume the contemporary novel refuses either to set up or invert distinctions between the center and the periphery, what novels are offering these new models of community?

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