MLA 2021: Twenty-First-Century Forms

For this year’s Modern Language Association Convention, to be held virtually from January 7–10, 2021, I organized and will be speaking on a roundtable on Twenty-First-Century Forms, along with Amy Sara Carroll, Racheal Fest, Christian P. Haines, Hyemin Kim, and Eric Loy. I have included the information about the panel and, below that, full abstracts from each speaker.

181. Twenty-First-Century Forms

Thursday, January 7, 2020, 7:00 – 8:15 p.m. (EST)

If the novel and lyric poem have become residual forms, what literary forms are emerging in contemporaneity? Participants explore emergent literary forms of the twenty-first century and their relationship with, instantiation in, or remediation by other (digital) media: film, television, video, graphic narrative, video games, transmedia, or other hybrid, novel, or megatextual forms.

Amy Sara Carroll (U of California, San Diego)
Bradley Fest (Hartwick C)
Racheal Fest (State U of New York, Oneonta)
Christian Haines (Penn State U, University Park)
Hyemin Kim (Baruch C, City U of New York)
Eric Loy (U of Rochester)

Bradley Fest (Hartwick C)

Panel Abstract: Twenty-First-Century Forms

Drawing upon Raymond Williams’s theory of cultural forms, critics such as Jonathan Arac have argued that previously dominant forms such as the novel have become residual (though certainly not trivial). If the novel and lyric poem have become residual forms, and film, television, and new media are among today’s dominant forms, what particularly literary forms are emerging and what is their role in twenty-first-century imaginaries? This panel explores emergent literary forms and their relationship with, instantiation in, or remediation by other media. With the material transformations wrought by networked digital media, smartphones, new distribution methods, and readily available video capture, literary artifacts are manifesting in a variety of forms and media beyond traditional print ones. This panel will investigate what happens when literature intersects with film, video, graphic narrative, and videogames, when it is dispersed across transmedia artifacts, and when it begins to appear in other hybrid, novel, or megatextual forms. Though studies in new media and electronic literature have paved the way toward an understanding of emergent literary forms, too often such scholarship has been cordoned off (in both directions) from the study of more traditional forms—novels and poems. This panel seeks to broaden our understanding of the literary and of form in order to seriously ask, perhaps once again: What new forms has literature taken and literary making produced in the twenty-first century?


Amy Sara Carroll, “The Strain: Guillermo del Toro’s Multiplication of/as Emergent Form”

Possibly neither the novel nor the lyric poem are residual forms; rather each persists paratactically. Marxist critic Fredric Jameson argued that cognitive mapping in literary, cinematic, and artistic work represents one mode of imagining the unimaginable—late-twentieth-century capital. In the twenty-first century, select cultural producers, following Jameson’s formulation, have mobilized multiples, reanimating the assemblage proper of/as emergent form. Consider the whole of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s collaboratively authored and diverging project, The Strain—the trilogy of novels (2009, 2010, 2011), graphic narrative volumes (2012–15), and a four-season FX television series (2014–17). If literary and cultural studies scholar John Kraniauskas persuasively posited that del Toro’s 1993 film Cronos synced the watch of the North American Free Trade Agreement to that of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, offering a site-specific critique of late capitalism as “symbolic cannibalism,” in this presentation— culled from a manuscript I am currently writing, “Global Mexico’s Coproduction”—I contend that The Strain offers an historical re-constellation of the political economy of vampirism, post-9/11 (2001). Moreover, I argue that the phantoms of Mexico’s colonial past that help us to tell time in Cronos breed cross-generically in The Strain. Which is to say, del Toro’s updated critique of market-state fundamentalisms in and beyond Mexico manifests by way of a serial multiplication of form.


Bradley J. Fest, “A Megatextual Impulse in the Twenty-First-Century Long Poem: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts and Traces, with Days

Digital technologies have made it possible to create massively unreadable works, what I have elsewhere called megatexts, and their appearance across media signals that the megatext is an emergent form. But what happens to other long forms in an era of megatextuality? The work of Rachel Blau DuPlessis, particularly her long poems Drafts (1987–2013) and Traces, with Days (2017–20), suggests the presence a megatextual impulse in the contemporary lyric and asks what it means to write a long poem in the age of hyperarchival accumulation.


Racheal Fest, “Literary ASMR Media”

Since 2009, videos tagged for “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” (ASMR) have proliferated on YouTube. These texts use audio-visual cues to stimulate tingling sensations in viewers. I map the ways ASMR content creators engage with literary forms: some remediate published works through affective reading and role-play; others perform original stories or poems. The talk argues that these new haptic engagements emphasize the irreducibly sensuous nature of conventional literary forms and mobilize them to build new modes of digital intimacy.


Christian P. Haines, “Gaming the Novel: On Late Capitalism and the Interface between Videogames and Twenty-First-Century Fiction”

Critics have explored the novel’s interactions with other media technologies, such as film, photography, and radio, but there’s been far less inquiry into the connections between novels and video games. This paper argues that there’s a subset of twenty-first century fiction that responds to the so-called death of the novel—the supposed obsolescence of the novel in the face of new media technologies—by incorporating gaming understood as a medium of art/entertainment; a set of digital platforms; and a genre of sociality. Novels by William Gibson, L. X. Beckett, and Neal Stephenson, among others, meditate on how video games reformat subjectivity in response to the demands of late capitalism (or what Nick Srnicek has termed “platform capitalism”). Rather than taking a critical distance from digital economies, these novels imagine “upgrading” the human sensorium through a symbiosis between digital algorithms and the flesh, that is, they envision humans accelerating to catch up with the speed and complexity of financialized digital machines. Drawing on media archaeology (especially work by Claus Pias), as well as Marxist critique of political economy (in particular, Nick Dyer-Witheford), this paper argues that such gaming fiction frames both the novel and the human subject as caught up in a race against their own obsolescence. In doing so, these novels imply a biopolitical logic in which the only way to overcome contemporary capitalism is to gamify subjectivity, or to assimilate life into the literal and figurative circuits of digital platforms devoted to scoring and ranking performance.


Hyemin Kim, “Indigenous VideoWriting: Hypergraphic Opacity in Sky Hopinka’s DocuPoetics”

Sky Hopinka, a descendant of Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, is a poet and video-maker who has been melding HD video documentary with poetry to justify the aesthetics and subjectivities of indigenous language, both spoken and written. Hopinka, searching the relationship between image and text, has been adapting and iconographizing indigenous people’s oral records, as well as written poems, inside his videography—most distinctively, wawa (2014), I’ll Remember You as You Were, not as What You’ll Become (2016), Jáaji Approx (2016), and Fainting Spells (2018). Though indigenous documentaries or essay-films often embody the image and sound of their landscapes to rather explicitly represent their oppressed history, what makes Hopinka’s work unique as a literary form is the artist’s asemic superimposition of words (both visually and sonically) allied to the chromatically saturated imagery of landscapes in his counter-travelogues. Even while the superimposition of literary words on the film is not uncommon, as seen with the cases of title cards in the history of typography in avant-garde and art-house cinema, my paper emphasizes that Hopinka’s VideoWriting, in pursuit of intractable vitality and opacity of indigenous language, utilizes Lettrists’ hypergraphics and its modalities, which compounds the forms of sound and image of language for its sensory and convoluted expression. At the same time, as opposed to formal aestheticism and vacuity in non-indigenous asemic or concrete poetry legacy, Hopinka’s work, anchored (and brimming) in archival and performative practices, effectuates his graphism as the polyphonic enigma and materiality of indigenous memories and subjectivities.


Eric Loy, “Great Books Steal: Literary Remix in the Digital Age”

Memes, sampling, appropriation, and remix—creative culture of the new millennium seems propelled not by original expression but by replication. Drawing upon the form of the “remix” as discussed by critic-artist DJ Spooky and of “creative copying” as developed by Marjorie Perloff and Kenneth Goldsmith, this paper will examine the new imitative impulse in contemporary literary production through three exemplary texts.

First, Jonathan Safran’s Foer’s Tree of Codes explores loss and the Holocaust through a “sculptural” remix (e.g., die-cut holes in the pages of the book) of the short-story collection Street of Crocodiles (1934) by Bruno Schulz. Second, Injun by indigenous poet Jordan Abel frames its content through its digital method of sampling and remix. Abel created his book through a “source text” of 91 public domain western novels—total length approximately 10,000 pages— using the basic CTL+F keyboard function to find occurrences of the slur “injun.” Third, Zong!, by the poet M. NourbeSe Philip. Zong! is a literary-historical recovery of a slave ship massacre in 1781. The only surviving public documentation of the massacre is the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert, which Philip manipulates as source material in the production of poetic fragments that “tells the story that cannot be told yet must be told.”

In this paper, I argue that the increased prevalence of creative copying in contemporary literature underscores how digital and print texts are produced as part of a feedback loop between these two media. Affordances of print media influence the development of digital technology; digital innovation changes what is creatively and technologically possible—and artistically permissible—in print. Ultimately, the oft-cited division between digital and print media (cultures) in contemporary practice is an erroneous dichotomy. Such multimedia production, even in “traditional” print books, makes the remix a quintessential form of the twenty-first century.

One thought on “MLA 2021: Twenty-First-Century Forms

  1. Pingback: Recording of Twenty-First-Century Forms at MLA 2021 | The Hyperarchival Parallax

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