Monday, 19 September 2011

Ottawa Morris Conference

As for the Ottawa Morrisfest itself, it was entitled ‘Rethinking Morris, Rethinking Ourselves’, and comprised a weekend of intensive debate by Canadian, American and British scholars in the genial fifth-floor seminar room of the Ottawa University Arts Building. Michelle Weinroth and Paul LeDuc Browne were our indefatigable hosts; and the military presence outside our hotel on both mornings served as a reminder that that particular weekend was also the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on New York.

Plenty of stimulating rethinking of Morris, with a strong focus on how we get beyond older debates which polarised his aesthetics and politics. But how do we ‘rethink ourselves’ too? How do we pose a Morrisian version of that old Matthew Arnold question (in ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’): ‘And what am I, that I am here?’ Or, to put it in more up-to-date terminology, how might we factor the subject into the equation, as Frederic Jameson would phrase it, achieving a properly dialectical self-reflexivity? In a weekend much concerned with frames and framing, what are the frames in and through which we now respond to Morris, the situations to which we want him to be a response?

A quick checklist might include: 1. recent developments in literary studies (the ‘death of theory’, the ‘religious turn’, the rise of creative writing); 2. current national-political situations in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, such as the August riots in London for UK scholars (as I tried to show in earlier posts), or Canada’s alarming drift rightwards in the Stephen Harper years, or the frustrating Obama presidency for US colleagues; and 3. longer-term epochal-global trends that shape us all down to our toenails, such as economic globalisation, immigration and multiculturalism, postmodernism in culture, the digitalisation of communications, climate change and global warming, the rise of China to superpower status and, finally, 9/11 itself and the whole ‘war on terror’ that followed so disastrously in its wake.

‘Rethinking ourselves’, then, need not mean some touchy-feely collective therapy session, but rather this effort to get some grip on the historical determinants that make us the Morris scholars that we are. For we are most certainly not, to borrow E.M. Forster’s old image, sitting synchronously around a table at the British Museum with J.W. Mackail, Robin Page Arnot, J.M.S. Tompkins and E.P. Thompson.


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