The iconoclastic and ultra-provocative costumes of the avant-garde visual artist, electrifying poet, model performer, and dramatically titled Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874 – 1927) were Greenwich Village legend.… ‘Like an Empress from Another Planet’: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s couture d’ordures
Although Scottish artist, designer and teacher Jessie M. King (1875-1949) is probably most celebrated for her delicate and often whimsical illustrative work, this short article will focus on her clothing designs and dissemination of knowledge via her how-to-publication How Cinderella went to the Ball (1924).… Wrapped up in a fairy tale: Jessie M. King and the production of wearable designs
Tracing Mario Merz’s Cono through cultural moments and a relationship to modernity, as well as the hidden elements of craft, creation and the maker’s labour, which are all deeply woven into this wicker structure…… Mario Merz’s Cono: The hidden power of craft
“LOTE is a literary novel which follows present-day narrator Mathilda’s fixation with the forgotten black Scottish modernist poet, Hermia Drumm. Lush and frothy, incisive and witty, Shola von Reinhold’s decadent queer literary debut immerses readers in the pursuit of aesthetics and beauty, while interrogating the removal and obscurement of Black figures from history…”
You can purchase LOTE from the publisher here.
An Excerpt from LOTE
I demanded Erskine-Lily take me on a tour of Dun, something I’d never properly been given.
At night we swanned all about the town, which had become more palatial, more of a pleasure-ground than ever, amplified by Erskine-Lily’s painting of it as much as my own will to envisage it as such – he seemed to be an astute historian of the place and rendered a context so thrilling I wondered if he was making it all up. This was hard to tell since it was as much a folkloric history as any other. In his company, the town, already a place of alternately consoling and faintly distressing beauty, became an extension of his flat, which was in turn an extension of his attire, physical person, persona.
We visited the square with the grey obelisk.
“This obelisk is where the two so-called angels are said to have been chastised. The town is unnamed in the story, but it says in The Book of the Luxuries that the citizens sealed two winged beings within a pillar. Hermia, Stephen and the other Lote-Os believed this was the very pillar and town. What certainly is true is that the book dates to around the early sixteenth-century and it’s not unlikely a small number of people read and practiced its teachings, as was the case with numerous other contemporaneous mystical treatises. And, as you’ve gathered, Hermia and Stephen sought to re-establish this practice in their own way. There’s a sort of allegory in the book – have you managed to read any of it?”
I told him I didn’t even know there was a translation.
“There isn’t. I managed to get some bits translated. The person doing it lost interest. Then I hired an academic but I could only afford so many pages, including a sort-of-allegory, it’s extremely charming.
“It follows a section on the nature of the Luxuries: Where we consider angels to be spiritual messengers, we might well think of the Luxuries as sensory ones, communicating with the aesthetic aspects of the soul. They are described as having skin like black marble and parti-coloured wings that far outstrip any peacock. They wear immensely gaudy-sounding robes (not unappealing) and outrageous jewel- encrusted slippers (tremendously appealing).
“The book also says these same Luxuries once came to the Lotophagi – the Lotus Eaters – and revealed the lotus fruit to them, showed them how to make wines from it and how to weave and carve innumerable delicacies from its other parts. Ornaments, jewellery, marquetry and so on.
“When the Lotus Eaters beheld the Luxuries, whose mouths were something like ruby, they also stained their nails and cheeks and lips that colour with the juices of the lotus fruit and flower. (Varnish, rouge and lipstick, Mathilda!)
“Of course, everyone knows the Lotus Eaters from Homer. The Book gives another account, saying when dull Odysseus looked upon all this he was horrified. He could not distinguish man from woman. They insulted his sense of goodness, this effeminate people who loved nothing more than to dine upon the lotus and decorate endlessly. To lose themselves in the holy act of adornment, which The Book calls volution.
“The volute, you see, is divine: the sinuous line, the serpentine line, the corolla, the curl, the twist, the whorl, the spiral and so on, are all related in their volution, convolution, revolution. Volution is the essential and irreducible aspect of ornamentation, just as the phoneme is the smallest irreducible unit of sound in language. Locked into each coil, each curl of ornament, just like the coil and curl of your hair, and my hair, darling— Afro hair, as we call it—is the secret salvation of us all.”
He had coloured said hair with a fine nacreous substance.
“We are, you know, fundamentally ornamental creatures. Especially the likes of us. And the Lotus Eaters were the arch-decorators of myth. But even the Greeks must at one point have realised the importance of ornament. They called the universe “kosmos”, meaning decoration, surface, ornament: something cosmetic. Like make- up. Like lipstick! Like rouge. The cosmos is fundamentally blusher. But then the Greeks probably got the idea from somewhere else. They could never stick to it. Which ruined ornament for everyone. Which ruined ornament for everyone. Plato was quite the basher of ornamentalists. He had it in for what he called philotheamones – sight- lovers, spectacle-lovers. Framed them as veritable trash next to his kingly philosophers who loved the true beauty of ideas, not the decorative beauty of the world. Long after the Greek’s seriously puerile demotion of the ornamental, the Romans, Kant, Winckelmann, Hegel and all the rest damned it for being cosmetic. “Inessential ornament”, they called it. Quite hilarious really: if you ever need evidence of someone’s brutishness, it’s deeming ornament inessential!
“They humiliated our ancestors for adorning themselves in flowers and beads and gold and tattoos and braids and jewels; they’re still at it. The universe as decoration, of course, comes from Black people, and the idea survives even after the ransacking and incineration of our libraries and palaces – the same very precise fractal geometry, unknown to Europeans for centuries, can be found underpinning ancient forms of adornment like millennia-old Black hairstyles, but also in the architectural organisation of whole kingdoms, most famously the medieval Benin city and palace.”
“Oh but the allegory! – The Book of the Luxuries says that the Greeks wiped out the people they called the Lotus Eaters and tells us that Herodotus situated them in North Africa. Others West.
“The Luxuries are the primordial lotus-eater. Indeed, they were thought to have disappeared with the Lotophagi until they reappeared one day in a town in order to bequeath The Book of the Luxuries. But they were mistaken for wicked spirits, for demonic tempters, and sealed inside a pillar.
“There was a woman known to visit this pillar, having observed the punishment of the Beings from her rooftop. She returned nightly, whispering to the interior spirits.
“On her rooftop one morning she noted a strange flower, growing from a crevice, something like a lily – or a lotus – but as hard as shell. She plucked this flower and took it to the pillar where she cupped it against the stone and put her ear to it and could hear a form of music inside. The music described a system. In this way, the inhabitants of the pillar dictated to her the Book.
“In accordance with their system she grew a secret lotus garden upon her roof and spent her days in idleness and luxury, cultivating her senses. The End!”
He was vibrating.
“I’m quite devout you know.” “Devout how?”
“Religious! About the Luxuries. I’m a modern day Luxurite, just as She was, some ninety years ago – Hermia.”
I wanted to ask if he honestly, literally, believed in the winged beings. Did he, for example, think they were stuck inside the obelisk right now? I presumed Hermia and Stephen had possessed what amounted to an aesthetic interest in the Luxuries, that their reconstitution of the Enochian Order of the Luxuries (which may never have existed – Griselda had suggested the book was possibly a work of nineteenth century charlatanism) was a matter of taste, and even of principle, but without any serious theism being involved. The great interest in all things occult that sprung up in the period had always seemed largely affected to me, except for some of the post-war talking to the dead: Stephen had grown up in an atmosphere of séances and mediums, his mother often trying contact his father.
The glee Erskine-Lily exhibited as he related the story of the pillar persuaded me not to ask him, just in case. I would not have minded, did not mind. Whereas some individuals’ credulity was entirely off-putting and terrifying, in Erskine-Lily it could never be. Would instead be a corrective to the much scarier fanaticism of the Residents.
No, what was off-putting was the way it reminded me of my own flights of grandeur, which would come when I thought about my Transfixions in the wrong way. It was clear just now that those flights had never stopped. That all this time I had been figuring out a way to augment myself, to mythicise my Transfixions and then slot myself in. And now here it was. They were all part of this, and now so was I. So was Erskine-Lily, who struck me once more as a Transfixion, a living one.
On the reverse of a miniature portrait in violet letters.
(Image on frontside: portrait of Erskine-Lily in the style of an oval miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, sporting what might be a silver pinked doublet or androgynous Elizabethan bodice and hooped skirt (the portrait cuts off at the waist); a high collar with a voluminous, gauzy lace ruff that reaches the limits of the image; matching lace sleeve cuffs; emerald earrings; brimmed black sugarloaf hat with a jewelled band, cheeks glazed orchid. On the flat azurite background, a heraldic device depicting a fruit on a branch like a white-pink raspberry, faintly translucent with an opalescent lustre, leaves half green and half yellow, the branch emerges from a cloud; some gold letters below read ΛOTE. This fruit is simultaneously an allegorical device and heraldic as the figure reaches to pluck the fruit whilst gazing towards the viewer.)
Memorabilia: Obscure aesthete-quaintrelle and amateur painter resident in Dun. Revived LOTE, a minor society of the ‘20s founded there almost a century earlier, said in itself to be a revival of a Renaissance society.
Sensation: Moonlight sighing up and down the tube of the spine, and through hollow bones.
The Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium, held at the Royal College of Art, was a day brimming with rich discourse on what the focussed study of personal and organised belief systems can provide to the expanding understanding of the literary, arts and social movements of modernity. Despite the seemingly niche nature of the symposium’s guiding theme, the research presented was notably broad, inclusive and varied in content, with subjects ranging from modern yoga practices and retreat movements to esoteric Christianity and chemical enlightenment.
Appropriately set in London’s illustrious borough of Kensington, where institutions such as the Natural History Museum house some of the most important scientific collections in the world, the Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium presented a strikingly consistent consideration for the place of empiricism in varying spiritual practices. Jules Evans (Queen Mary, University of London) initiated this exploration on the first panel of the morning, presenting on ‘Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and the rise of “empirical spirituality.”’ This paper explored the way that developments in the field of psychology were utilised to bridge the gap between science and mysticism. Integrating such theories as Gerald Heard’s five stages of humanity, which predicts the movement from our current humanic individualist state to a more expansive collective consciousness through an advanced form of spirituality and the practice of meditation, as well as Myers psychical psychology of the ‘subliminal self.’ These concepts were used in conjunction with Aldous Huxley’s work on perennial philosophy, all of which hoped to hold experience of a spiritual nature empirically accountable.
Directly following Evans and corroborating this exploration was Alana Harris (King’s College, London), who presented research on Letitia Fairfield and ‘Rational Religion’, a study of a female experience of the physical – metaphysical interface particularly through interest in politics and public health. Harris provided further examples of a modernist intent on complicating the divide between materialist science and religious or personal spirituality.
A third paper in this trend of investigation of the interaction between modernist scientific movements and spiritual studies was from Leigh Wilson (University of Westminster) on C. K. Ogden’s co-authored pragmatist approach to linguistics The Meaning of Meaning and the way in which he comes to collaborate with James Joyce despite their differing considerations of ‘word magic.’ Leigh contributed a semantic study of the balance and tensions between theories of purely referential meaning and the magic potential of linguistic devices, further unravelling the moments in modernity where occultism comes up against methods of material science.
Other examples of research of this specific nature revealed themselves throughout the day from a variety of subjects across the four panels. Aren Roukema (Birkbeck) spoke on the relationship between Christianity and occultism and the nature of heresy in modernism. Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton) presented on enchanted ancient and modern objects through the pacifist social group, Kibbo Kift, who assimilated new works in biology to support their beliefs in material and cosmic energies. Guy Stevenson (Goldsmiths) spoke on what modern studies of and on psychedelic substances can elucidate about the expansion of consciousness that mystic thought so often necessitates and the way these studies can provide further insight into the relationship between empiricism and mysticism, culture and counterculture.
Even those whose research was farther removed from empirical consideration, particularly those papers which shifted the focus from Western-centric modernists to Eastern modern spiritual activity, for example Suzanne Newcombe’s (Open University) presentation of yoga in the early 20th century and Jamie Callison’s (Nord University) paper on modern retreat movements, still maintained concerns of an empiricist nature in their periphery. Newcombe touched on the role that yoga played in movements of mental and physical health culture while Callison proposed spiritual retreat as an embrace, rather than an escape, of modernity through the modernist tendency of ‘self-critique.’ One might get the impression that new work in modernist studies is embracing the often seemingly contradictory nature of modernity, both in ways that emphasise these contradictions and attempt to reconcile them.
That the intersection between the empiricist component of modernism and alternative systems of belief emerged as a central theme of the day might be indicative of one of the defining tensions of modernism: Eastern and Western aesthetic, social and spiritual practice and the ambition to justify such practices in locations of prevailing scientism.
The increasing useful quotation of Tim Armstrong was referenced at this symposium, where he asserts that modernism is ‘both a rejection of the past and a fetishisation of certain earlier periods; both a primitivism and a defence of civilisation against the barbarians; both enthusiasm for the technological and fear of it; both a celebration of impersonal making and a stress on subjectivity.’ The Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium facilitated what felt like an important discourse, one that continues the exploration of intellectual and ideological tensions within modernist studies.
by Aoiffe Walsh
Tim Armstrong, Modernism: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), p. 5.
‘Beyond Bauhaus: Modernism in Britain, 1933 – 66’, the exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) offers a glimpse into the 1930s, focusing on the work and influence of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, artist László Moholy-Nagy and designer Marcel Breuer.… Review: Beyond Bauhaus: Modernism in Britain 1933 – 66
The William Morris Gallery’s compact but eye-opening exhibitions in their temporary gallery space never disappoint – and Pioneers: William Morris and the Bauhaus is no exception.… Review: ‘Pioneers – William Morris & the Bauhaus’
So begins the manifesto for a new project on Mina Loy. The brains behind ‘Navigating the Avant-Garde’ — namely Prof. Suzanne Churchill (Davidson College), Prof. Linda Kinnahan, (Duquesne University) and Prof. Susan Rosenbaum (University of Georgia)– are combining rigorous research with an aesthetically pleasing website. The results are pretty inspiring. Opening up Loy’s work in this way takes us out of the archive (which has recently been digitised here) and into a new space. A non-linear approach to a canon of work that allows for exploration and innovation. Spanning Dada, Surrealism, Futurism a user can travel to Paris, Florence and New York as the creators think about mapping in a way that really opens out what digital humanities can do. Jade French and Charlotte Whalen find out more about a project that takes us from the centre out towards the en dehors garde…
Hello! First of all, could you tell us about your research interests and how you came to have a focus on the works of Mina Loy?
Suzanne Churchill [SC]: The germ of this project grew out of my long term interests in Mina Loy, modernist poetry and little magazines. I’ve also developed more recent interests in digital humanities and how scholars can use digital tools and platforms for both teaching and research. Digital tools and platforms can transform humanities research, not just in what we can do — for example, computerised textual analysis or mapping — but how we publish our research and interact with our readers. So, borrowing from Craig Mod who’s written about the digital book, I started thinking about not just how we could change our scholarship to publish it digitally but how digital might change scholarship. And it does so in a variety of ways, including: digital scholarship has to be more collaborative, it’s obviously multimedia, it’s often non-hierarchical, and all that relates to the collaborative nature of having to work as equal partners, bringing different skills and training, presenting work in more non-linear ways.
Susan Rosenbaum [SR]: My scholarship centers on twentieth-century American poetry, especially women’s experimental poetry, and on interdisciplinary approaches to literature. I’m especially interested in poetry and the visual arts, so the book I’m just completing — or maybe completed! — is on surrealism, American poetry and the visual arts. It’s titled “Imaginary Museums” and explores poetic collections that work across word and image or in many kinds of media simultaneously. Because of this background I’ve been attracted to the possibilities of a digital platform as a stage to explore artwork and literature that crosses genre and media, work that print can’t do justice to.
I think Loy is a great case study for why theories of the avant-garde come up short. As Suzanne was suggesting, Loy doesn’t neatly fit in to avant-garde movements or conventional histories of the avant-garde, and it’s been exciting to think with Linda and Suzanne about how experimental women artists/writers like Loy make possible a new history and theory of the avant-garde. So I would say for me the collaborative aspect of this project has been exciting and just inspiring.
Linda Kinnahan [LK]: My focus has been on twentieth century American and British poetry across the century, working with both modernist and contemporary writers. I was introduced to Loy in graduate school, in the 80s, and at that time there was relatively little scholarship on her. You know, all of my Loy materials fit into one teeny-tiny little slender folder of several articles. Writing about her was often a matter of tracking down, as you all did too, where she shows up in other people’s work or where she shows up in little magazines. So it was really an interesting time to encounter Loy, and she’s stayed with me since those early years, especially as I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways in which poetry and visual cultures and media intersect and interact, with particular interest in photography, Loy, and poetry. When invited to work on this project, I was fascinated by the multimedia potential of digital platforms and the capacity for digital platforms to open up ways of presenting work in non-linear ways so that we can more richly understand the intersections and overlaps of the visual and the verbal. Writing about these multiple, often simultaneous and layered intersections is often difficult to undertake in linear ways . I would say that my interest in visual culture drives my enthusiasm about a digital scholarship but also more and more informs my work with Loy.
Modernism as UX Design
Could you say a bit more about how you created your design language? It feels very crisp and modern.
SC: As I’m sure you’re aware, there are ongoing debates about what constitutes digital humanities along with questions such as whether you need to know how to code. A lot of the leading edge scholars in digital humanities are learning how to do different things with the technology, but there’s relatively less interest in and even a relegation to minimalised or feminised status for anybody who’s interested in the work of ‘building pretty websites’. That’s not considered the serious work of the digital humanist.
But I was inspired by John Branch’s ‘Snowfall’. It wis a New York Times multimedia publication about these backwards skiers who do all this crazy stuff. That’s a topic that doesn’t interest me at all, but the story was designed so beautifully that it became immersive, and I read start to finish. That was a really eye-opening moment, suggesting that maybe I don’t like online reading because it’s typically not aesthetically gratifying. Scholarly websites, precisely because of our hierarchies of values, tend to put that design and aesthetic aspect of experience to the bottom rung. The thicker and denser the prose, the more worthy the ideas, right? And so one of our feminist interventions is revaluing style and aesthetics and reclaiming the perspective of feminist, female avant-garde artists and poets like Loy, who certainly didn’t neglect the significance of design, style, or even fashion.
SR: We want the user to choose their path. Mina Loy’s career can’t be neatly slotted into any of the avant-garde movements which she circled around, and we want her own circuitous path to inspire how our users can navigate the website. Users do not need to follow a linear path.
SC: When you start publishing digitally, your work is instantly more user-centric. As scholars, typically it’s ‘I’m interested in this’ and ‘I want to figure out that’ and suddenly, you have to think ‘what do my users want?’ and ‘how are they going to interact to this material?’.
As soon as you start doing user-centric scholarship, you also have to think about design. Questions of the design and organisation of the site, and the page and the menus and the visual hierarchies and integration of visual media come to the forefront. All of these concerns seem to not so much pull away from my research interests in Loy, but point back to her, as the ideal case study for thinking about how Loy scholarship might be transformed in a digital environment. Her peripatetic career just doesn’t fit into one linear trajectory and she doesn’t fit categories so I started thinking about this project and sought a grant for a full year’s sabbatical to explore it and very soon started talking to these brilliant Loy scholars to my right and left because I knew that this would be bigger and I needed their help.
Were you inspired at all by the little magazine in the development of the site?
SC: I think it is an inspiration, now that you mention it and make that connection! The appeal of the little magazine came from the moment I discovered it early in my graduate career. When I pulled the bound volume of Others off the shelf, modernism was opened up to me as a very different constellation of writers, in which Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and Mina Loy were on the same pages with people I’ve never heard of, like Skipwith Cannell and Jeanne D’Orge and all kinds of “others.” I realised that T. S. Eliot was once a scrappy unknown struggling artist, and suddenly I thought — wow I really need to think about my relationship to these so-called great writers and the monumental works they created in a very different way.
It was such an appealing ideal, not to idealise it, but the modernist little magazine represented an experimental, often short-lived, more egalitarian, experimental space. Women often had very leading roles in these magazine and were featured with more prominence than they were in subsequent histories, and I would say the same for African Americans if we look at the rise of an explosion of periodical culture in the twentieth century, the establishment of The Crisis, Opportunity. Magazines were a really important vehicle for transforming access to knowledge and culture and visual culture, changing the images that circulated in the popular imagination.
The website also has some literal mapping too, in the form of Linda’s notes on Florence and Loy’s time there. How important is this sense of ‘place’ to the project?
LK: I’ve gone to Florence twice with the express purpose of locating and visiting the places associated with Loy or her network of friends, writers, and innovators. It was just really lovely to map out her locations; there’s something about seeing the textures and light of these places. I know we are now one hundred years beyond her time in Florence, but to walk the hill of Costa San Giorgio still opened up my eyes to the early poems she wrote while living there or soon after. I’ve always, of course, thought of these poems from the 1910s as her ‘Florence poems’ but to really see how much that place is embedded in the poems is illuminating. I’m working on a chapter for the project informed by reading the poems through more direct attention to place. Like Suzanne and Susan, I’m thinking about how mapping and navigating speaks to/through Loy’s poems, particularly as these Italian places become sites for exploring themes that interest her, such as gender dynamics. How do these poems relate to physical places and the socio-political presence in her works? You need to go to Florence!
SC: Of course, there are challenges when it comes to thinking about chronology and Loy; her work doesn’t fit neatly into those frameworks. So we’re thinking about reconceiving the site around geographical locations. Studying her work in terms of places that she visited and we’ve visited in order to fully understand her complex, multifaceted, and peripatetic career. We want to foreground these ideas using images and mapping tools…
SR: We want place, travel, and navigation to be a material way we can unsettle the conventional history of the avant-garde, and a means of mapping and thinking about the en dehors garde. We were noticing that late in her career, Loy still draws on some Futurist and Dadaist techniques; her engagement with the avant-garde isn’t restricted by historical periodisation. She does not follow a linear trajectory. This is also something we hope to discuss in the theorising of the en dehors garde.
A Feminist Strategy
Speaking of the en dehors garde, it seems like a really useful way of thinking about centres and margins — why that phrase and why now?
SC: We were thinking about avant garde theories and why they weren’t accommodating Loy’s work accurately, and I got talking to Nancy, Selleck a dear friend of mine from grad school. She’s an early modern scholar and had a career as a professional ballet dancer with the New York Ballet prior to going into academia. She said to me, ‘I think you need a new term. The avant garde isn’t really working — how about en dehors garde?’. I’d never heard of this term. In ballet, she explained, it means coming from the outside or turning outward.
It seemed so perfect to think about an alternative avant-garde this way — and appropriate that the term would come from an outsider to modernist studies. And from the dance world, which was important to this period in terms of being an area of great modernisation and innovation that influenced the other arts and intrigued Loy as well (who is very interested in Isadora Duncan and modern dance). Once Nancy said ”en dehors garde,” it resonated.
SR: It really did. I was writing about the history of experimental women’s poetry in the U.S. and whether or not the avant-garde was a concept that was really useful. There are writers like Cathy Park Hong who make a really convincing case for getting rid of the terminology altogether because it’s so exclusionary. That’s an important stance (see her essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde” in Lana Turner №7). I think developing this concept of the “en dehors garde” allows us to still engage with the history of the avant-garde and the experiments associated with that history, but to encompass those who were doing something different or who were on the margins of those movements.
LK: This engagement becomes a very powerful feminist strategy. The gender ideologies underlying the very language of the term “avant-garde” have played out in its theorising. When we use en dehors garde, the idea of movement rather than placement (as in “advanced guard”) emerges. The en dehors garde suggests how writers and works move, how they operate and interact with each other, rather than how a writer might claim a position. The concept of movement becomes very important to us as a strategy of undoing — no longer ‘being ahead’, which has such a hierarchical and privileged connotation, but ‘turning’.
SC: We need to think about different paradigms and platforms for accommodating the contributions of other people who are present and part of these movements as they happened, but not in the ways that our current theories account for.
SR: It’s a feminist intervention to come up with your own theory. Because in the past theory itself had been claimed as a masculine endeavour and then we’re in the position of just reacting to the theories that men have already put out there.
How have academic reactions to ‘feminism’ changed or evolved in the last ten years, with the arrival of digital platforms?
LK: I came into modernist studies in the 1980s and early 90s at a real high point for feminist modernist scholarship. To my dismay, after a while, recovery work and other forms of feminist intervention began (in some quarters) to be seen as a little passé — as if we were somehow getting beyond all that gender stuff. I think I could even look back at conference programmes and see ways in which this energy was in danger of being ellided or marginalized. So, for me, it’s been tremendously reassuring to see younger scholars really interested in reinvigorating those feminist conversations and building new ones. To my mind, the critical issues made visible by feminists have never gone away. There was never any way the could have because we never finished that work! So, I think there’s a new energy that’s really wonderful to see.
SR: I do feel like it’s a lot of younger scholars who are boldly claiming that.
Collaboration and Community
The idea of collaboration seems an important part of the research process . It’s a generous type of scholarship, to share Loy, to allow younger people to identify with her in a very immediate way. How did you develop the collaborative nature of the project?
SR: You know that book ‘Possession’ by A. S. Byatt? I love that book, because it describes a common model of proprietary scholarship, as in, I work on Loy, so she’s “my” poet! I would say all of us are passionate about Loy and other artists and poets we work on, but we aren’t proprietary. The aim of the platform is to democratise access to Loy. I’m all for democratising access to writers and artists, as much as possible, and inviting people in. I detest that proprietary attitude on the part of scholars and critics towards cultural work. Democratising the work of art and integrating it into everyday life is an important part of one strand of the avant-garde.
LK: Absolutely, right now we have a couple of different structural elements planned for the platform that consciously seek to incorporate wider collaborations. We’re developing a type of flash mob to be launched this summer, where we will invite other people to begin generating postings and ideas about the en dehors garde and bringing that spirit of collaboration into the actual development of knowledge. It’s not just our knowledge.
SC: I’m struck by your use of the word “generous” and don’t know if you know Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s recent work on generous thinking in the humanities and digital humanities. This idea of generous thinking — including using open source platforms and freely sharing everything we develop — is very much part of the avant-garde culture of digital humanities and feminist scholarship. It’s about openly sharing, inviting and to collaborating with people as equal partners — so not treating librarians, IT staff, and students as mere sort of tech support or research assistants but recognising them as equal partners in our intellectual endeavors.
I think this ethos informs our ideas for the flash mob formation of the avant-garde, where we will be inviting students, scholars, artists, poets, enthusiasts to contribute posts in whatever form or genre you would like, and also in the non-hierarchical way we imagine presenting these posts. We’re still talking to Greg Lord, our amazing designer and programmer. What we want is the users to be able to first see all the posts in a random grid: you can then select and check favourites and arrange them in your own formation, so that you’re participating in the project. Users effectively get to assemble their own theories of the avant-garde…so there’s this idea of it being collaborative, participatory, somewhat more ephemeral and not locked into one formation that might involve a certain hierarchy; an ever-chaning theory that is sortable, searchable, and interactive.
SR: And we’re trying to also think about the visual design of that kind of shifting array, so we’ve been talking a lot about what that might look like; hopefully it will be visually stimulating.
SC: Yeah, and aesthetically gratifying. So that, for both creators and readers, the work of scholarship could actually be pleasurable!
LK: — and fun.