The Literary Self: from Antiquity to the Digital Age

The journey to holding The Literary Self: From Antiquity to the Digital Age, began when Consuelo Martino and Caitlan Smith from the University of St Andrews took part in an Interdisciplinary workshop at the SGSAH Summer School in 2017. During the workshop Consuelo and Caitlan brainstormed a conference that could take an interdisciplinary look at confidence and the self. Soon after, Consuelo and Caitlan advertised for additional organisers to further widen their angles of approach. Miles Beard and Matthew Tibble, from the Universities of Strathclyde and Edinburgh, respectively, were selected to join, bringing backgrounds in contemporary literature and history with them.

As these backgrounds came together, our initial idea for the conference changed. The perspective of authorship became an attractive idea of exploration for us because while there is a strong base of research for it, much of the current academic discourse is still based predominantly on scholarship from the 20th century, and is struggling to respond to the rise of the internet and to the new forms of media that are burgeoning with it. But we did not stop there. We wanted to present a conference in innovative ways and offer the research community something rarely seen. First, we decided that we wanted to host new conversations on authorship from across periods and disciplines, with hopes that this would highlight the links and patterns discoverable across time and research methodologies. Second, we wanted opportunities for our postgraduate presenters to interact and network with senior researchers as a means to strength their own professional backgrounds. What we offered, then, was an interdisciplinary conference featuring PhD students as well as academics at the top of their fields who could facilitate discussions and offer their own perspectives on the subjects presented that in turn would hopefully influence new ideas and scopes of research others had not considered before the conference.

To improve the impact of our conference, we reached out to Inciting Sparks, an interdisciplinary, multimedia platform for developing the impact of graduate and community research across the Arts and Humanities. Through them, we were able to host our social media, live tweeting the event and providing a platform for blogging afterwards. We also contacted FORUM: University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, who agreed to host their fifth special issue on the topic of our conference, giving participants the opportunity to publish their research in a peer-reviewed journal in the months following the event.

Blog IMG 1After a lot of research into potential sources of funding, we were fortunate to receive supportive from the School of Classics at St Andrews, the Action Fund offered by the Institute of Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, and the SGSAH Cohort Development Fund. Such generous funding allowed us to hold the full two-day conference that we had envisioned and enabled participation from a diverse range of scholars both international and domestic.

In January 2018 we published a call for papers. We aimed for a wide breadth of subjects and students represented. While our main focus was towards Scottish universities (within the SGSAH) we still distributed our call for papers widely. This was successful far beyond our expectations. Soon proposals from universities in the USA, Europe, and Asia began to come in, as well as a high number from students in Scotland and England.

Organising the paper proposals into panels and deciding who fit the best into our conference was challenging, and we met in-person for the first time to deliberate at length on these papers. It was HARD. We had several high-quality abstracts that, sadly, we were unable to fit into a cohesive panel. However, a number of papers stood out as working particularly well together, and within the panels we established we were glad to see that a variety of disciplines and periods were represented, and also that we could offer opportunities to students from outside the U.K. to join us and offer their perspectives. For our senior academic discussants, we were ecstatic to recruit Dr Roger Rees from University of St Andrews and Professor Simon James from the University of Durham. Simon also agreed to deliver a keynote lecture on our conference themes.

As we came closer to June, everything started to come together. Programmes and name badges were printed, the conference dinner was arranged, and hotel rooms for those from outside of Edinburgh were booked. Finally, the first day of the conference arrived.

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‘The Literary Self: from Antiquity to the Digital Age’ took place on 4-5 June 2018 at 50 George Square on the University of Edinburgh campus. We held two panels, ‘Identifying Authorship’ and ‘Reception’ chaired by Consuelo and Caitlan respectively, on the first day. With our final panel, ‘Exploration of the Self,’ chaired by Miles, and our keynote lecture, presented by Prof James, ‘Dickens, Autobiography and Mental Time Travel’ on the second and final day. Keeping with the aims of our conference—to stimulate interdisciplinary discussions on the construction of authorship or ‘The Literary Self’—we only allowed speakers twenty minutes to present their papers and held all questions to the end of each panel. After all four speakers in each panel finished presenting we held a discussion session at the end. Each of these was led by one of our senior academics.

As we hoped, the conference brought forth several themes, interplays, and areas for discussion on authorship. Our first panel was ‘Identifying Authorship’. It was chaired by Consuelo and brought together Katharine Mawford from the University of Manchester, Francesco Arena from the University of Edinburgh, Lukas Spielhofer from the University of Graz in Austria, and Lisa Nais from the University of Aberdeen. Each investigated who the author in the text was and what the ways of identifying the author in a text are. We saw issues of how authors established credibility or authenticity for themselves within their literary, how the literary medium (starting from the oral tradition, to the codex, and works written in the post-printing press era) affected the credibility of the author, or how it was used to commodify the author to the mass media. A major theme of Truth and Fiction emerged early on and resonated throughout the conference papers. Roger led an exciting discussion on the sense of persona, knowing oneself, and how self-knowledge comes out in literature.

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Next, Caitlan chaired the “Reception” panel, which brought together Talitha Kearey from the University of Cambridge, Alley Marie Jordan from the University of Edinburgh, Rossana Zeti from the University of Edinburgh, and Alexandra Grunberg from the University of Glasgow. This focussed on how authors can respond to, as well as be informed, by the reception they receive. Papers discussed the concepts of multi-authorship and the anexity of competing voices within receptions or retellings of texts. Roger led the following discussion and offered how a ‘reverence’ for the author could be developed and shape future discussions of that author.

On the last day, Miles chaired the “Exploration of the Self” and brought together Salour Evaz Malayeri from the University of St Andrews, Natalya Sarana from the Humboldt University of Berlin, and Ida Hummel Gabrielsen from the University of Edinburgh. This panel centred on how authors are able to represent themselves in their texts, how this relates to our conceptions of ‘truth,’ and the nature of the self generally. In the papers presented, we saw persona and literary agency come out through the text, and literary innovations were explored as a means to communicate the author’s journey to the reader. Simon led this panel’s discussion on the evolution of representations of the self over time, and how the perceived role of the author, as well as the self, can differ across the periods, places, and cultures in which they find themselves.

Simon then presented to us his fascinating keynote lecture, ‘Dickens, Autobiography, and Mental Time Travel’. Looking particularly to the role of memory, Simon took us through Dickens’ view of the self, focussing on the portrayal of an author in David Copperfield and how it can be said to relate to Dickens’ own aborted attempt at an autobiography. Simon was able to manoeuvre his lecture around many topics that had been raised over the past two days and also made mention of the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of his own project, encouraging us to continue working in this vein.

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Throughout the many breaks over the two-day conference, in the wine reception, speaker dinner, and lunch on the second day we were pleased to see more discussion on the topics that had been raised. Simon concluded our conference with a call to continue innovating and to determine what it is that hasn’t been said about the literary self and to say it ourselves. All in all, the conference was a great success and this was borne out by the feedback that we received. Everyone who returned our feedback form would recommend the conference to somebody else and many specifically praised the theme and interdisciplinary nature of it, the two things we hoped would most excite our attendees.

Organising the conference was a great experience as well and showed us firsthand what the other side of the conference scene is like, not just logistically, but in terms of the intellectual and theoretical frameworks that underpin them. We owe this experience to our funders and would like to thank the SGSAH, the Institute for Academic Development Action Fund at the University of Edinburgh, and the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews. We would also like to thank Dr Roger Rees and Professor Simon James for all of their wonderful contribution, and, not least of all, all of our presenters who took time out of their busy PhD schedules to share their knowledge with us and facilitate the dialogues on the literary self that we had envisioned. If you participated, or wished you had, and want to leave some feedback for us, or start your own discussion, leave us a comment below!

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This post was written by Miles Beard (University of Strathclyde), Consuelo Martino (University of St Andrews), Caitlan Smith (University of St Andrews), and Matthew Tibble (University of Edinburgh, co-founder of Inciting Sparks).

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