Category Archives: Conferences

Distant reading a conference

Conference hashtags via TAGSExplorer
Conference hashtags via TAGSExplorer

Last week I volunteered to chair some sessions for the MIX: Writing Digital conference at Bath Spa University. The conference brought together a wonderful and eclectic mix of creative digital writing and trans-media publishing projects. As perhaps the only literary-critical scholar at the conference (and an eighteenth-centurist to boot), I was on the borders of a lot of the discussions taking place – enjoyable and intriguing though they were. It was perhaps this that led me to play around with my engagement with the conference. So below are some visualisations of the conference programme – in this case the programme also included bios of the delegates and abstracts of the presentations, so it’s reasonably representative of the conference’s themes . The first is a word-frequency analysis of the conference programme using Voyant Cirrus, but with some of the obvious large-frequency words  – like ‘University’ ‘Writing’ and ‘Digital’ – edited out, a move that I think brings out some of the finer detail of the conference’s themes.


Similarly, when the words were visualised as a network (this via Textexture) one can follow connections between themes. A suprising ‘reading’ of the conference programme was produced when I submitted it to the Scientific Music Generator (with its self-deprecating acronymn, SMUG) to generate a 2-minute song. This is perhaps the most radical ‘deformation’ of the programme (a term borrowed from Mark Sample’s ‘Towards a Deformed Humanities‘): while some of the lyrics are nonsense,  I was particularly struck by this wonderfully suggestive verse:

that game technology in-in-incantations experiences will
my-my-my voices for oversharing, and these moved at submissions ways space
ooh author, adaptations
open other working, includes that author

Finally, since I love tweeting during conferences, I put the conference hashtag through Mark Hawksey’s TAGS to produce a visualisation of the conference tweets (see above for the screen grab).

Given so many of the projects and writings discussed during the conference were thinking through the possibilities offered by asychronous engagements with text, it seemed apposite that this kind of playing around with various analysers offered another way of engaging with the various texts of conference.


Smock Races, Ageing Players and Lovely Libraries

More fine comment on BSECS 2014 from Conrad Brunstrom.


Highlights of Day 2 of BSECS 2014….

I missed a lot of course – missed any number of alternative sessions and alternative panels – but I don’t know if I’d want to exchange what I did get yesterday.

The day began with Victoria Joule reminding us all to re-read The New Atalantis and to reimagine the relationship between politics and pleasure, and to reconsider the nature of women’s political engagement in terms other than some derogatory notion of “scandal”.  Peter Radford reminded us of wonderful things that we won’t soon forget – the elite women athletes of the eighteenth century.  Most professional runners were women.  In 1768,  in long anticipation of the Billie Jean King versus Bobbie Riggs tennis battle of the sexes, Mme Bunel beat Mr Tomkins.  Twice.  And Carolyn Williams then spoke eloquently about cards, and those “diversions” that sexist discourse has always sought to stygmatise.

Other highlights…

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Austerity, Beer Ballads, and Sexy Fruit


A quick round up of some of the highlights of Day One of BSECS 2014…

This is not definitive – this is just my list, based on my own peculiar road map through the event.

This conference, like one more than a decade ago, was marked by floods.  Inundations.  As I ran around Didcot Parkway station yesterday it occurred to me that perhaps I loved this conference too much.  Perhaps there was something a little idolatrous about my love of BSECS and God as made wroth and had opened the heavens in order to take it from me.

Then a voice divine the storm allayed, a light propitious shone and a train was found to crawl, inch by inch along a narrow embankment in the middle of what had become a large lake – bubbling and eddying on either side of us.  Oxford had a moat, and our bridge looked…

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Defoe at the 2013 BSECS annual meeting

The theme for the 42nd annual meeting of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies was ‘Credit, Money, and the Market’. Defoe, I thought, is going to be big at this conference.

Sadly, I had to miss Robert D. Hume’s  keynote lecture: from what I heard from others and from talking with Robert later, Defoe’s novels featured quite significantly. To an extent, I’d got the gist of this particular argument a couple of years ago from one of his postgraduate students at Penn State, David W. Spielman (those who attended the Defoe Society’s inaugural conference in Tulsa 2009 may remember David’s paper). Essentially, in calculating modern monetary equivalents, we’ve all being grossly underestimating the multiplier.[1] For Defoe’s novels such as Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana – in which the protagonists practically drool over their lists of wealth and goods – this is very important. Take Roxana’s estimate of her own and her Dutch husband’s final combined wealth: £100,000. Given that only 200 families in England, or 0.01% of the population, had more than £6,000 this astonishing figure places them at the very top of the English rich list. The modern equivalent, according to Hume and Spielman’s calculation, is between £20 – £30 million. As they have argued, such a remarkable figure asks us to seriously reconsider these novels’ supposed realism. More importantly I think, is the element of fantasy: this is wealth porn (and I always thank David Fairer for pointing out to me some time ago that Defoe’s lists of money and goods seem almost erotically charged).

Immediately following that was my own paper, ‘Swallows and Hounds: Defoe’s Thinking Animals’, so I can’t really report on that other than to say that you can get a partial sense of it by reading on this blog an earlier post entitled ‘Our Summer Friends the Swallows’.

On the Friday I chaired the Defoe Society-sponsored panel entitled ‘Defoe, speculation, and moral hazards’. Frauke Jung (Worcester) spoke on ‘Speculation, News, and Nation: Defoe’s Anatomy of Exchange Alley (1719). Jung’s close reading of Defoe’s pamphlet sought to underline the inextricability of those three terms. The images of what she called ‘malignant growth [and] uncontrolled speculation’ clearly relates to the pamphlet’s state-of-the-nation style. But Jung also emphasised the notion of speculation as bound to news and finance –‘analogous systems’ – as revealed in Defoe’s image of a doorway exchange of furtive stock-price gossip in the alley. Indeed, Jung’s discussion of Defoe’s minute topography of Exchange Alley, “the whole Stock-jobbing Globe” as he puts it, reveals his clever analysis of an ecology of speculative contagion undermining a more natural body-politic.

Jeanne Clegg (University of Venice), in her paper, ‘The market in stolen goods in Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack and Jonathan Wild,’ discussed Defoe’s analysis of the methods by which stolen goods are converted into ‘hard cash’. In Moll Flanders, our heroine has a ‘privileged’ relationship with her own fence – Moll’s old governess turned pawnbroker in the sense that Moll receives preferential rates and benefits from her fence’s very smoothly organized network. In Colonel Jack, Defoe reverses this picture by representing the gang’s receivers as corrupt and untrustworthy. Clegg then looked to Jonathan Wild, arguing that in this novel we see a picture of a receiver who is organized, professional and who has well developed systems, networks and markets. Intriguingly, Clegg measured this against evidence from Old Bailey Online, tracking criminals arrested for receiving and /or theft. Clegg notes that out of 18 trials (in the period of the early eighteenth century) only one criminal had a regular fence: the rest relied on a opportunistic method of choosing receivers which even included genuine pawnbrokers and shopkeepers (which goes far in explaining their lack of success!) Clegg’s argument was that Defoe emphasized the professional and systemized networks of fencing, rather than these haphazard practices, and so contributed to the myth of the organized criminal underground. However, her reliance on the evidence of Jonathan Wild – a work whose attribution to Defoe is now under question – potentially problematizes this as a reflection of Defoe’s particular vision.

The final paper of the panel, by Chris Borsing (Trinity College, Dublin), intriguingly paralleled Captain Singleton’s narrative contract with the reader with its narrative of economic transformation, in his paper ‘Daniel Defoe Names the Price; or, Captain Singleton (1720) Bargains with its Customers’. He wittily argued that this novel offers readers ‘voyeuristic pleasures’ of ‘money regeneration and spiritual laundering’. Bob Singleton and Williams Walters’ transformation from plundering pirates to wealthy citizens at the end of the novel is accompanied by and dependent upon a contract with the reader and their ‘willing collusion’ in their secrecy within British society. Moreover, Borsing’s summary – ‘buyer beware!’ – seemed to suggest that such a contract actually reveals more than it conceals: economic and narrative laundering are inextricable in this novel.

One paper that I was glad to have heard was during a panel organised by Sacha Klement (Exeter) entitled ‘Transgressive Enlightenment?’ After two excellent papers on the desert caravan route, Majid Alavi (Islamic Azad University of Tabriz) in his paper, ‘Similar Landscapes, Different Minds’, revisited the relationship between Robinson Crusoe and Ibn Tofayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzãn, the philosophical fiction written in twelfth-century Islamic Spain and regarded by some as one of the influences upon Defoe’s novel. Tofayl’s narrative was translated into English in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (an edition of Hayy Ibn Yaqzãn appeared in 1713). Surprisingly, it was the third most translated text after the Koran and Arabian Nights, and Locke, Spinoza and Leibnitz pressed for the propagation of Hayy Ibn Yaqzãn. Asking whether Defoe was following Tofayl or whether they were both addressing ‘global archetypes’, Alavi at first underlines the resemblance that despite isolation both Crusoe and Hayy evolved systems of philosophy and experienced spiritual enlightenment. However, Alavi convincingly argued that, by contrast, Hayy’s isolation ‘taught him endless tolerance’ and that Hayy returns to island to avoid the corruption of society and in order to better ‘serve god’. Clearly this is a very different outcome to the first two parts of Robinson Crusoe, although I wondered whether a consideration of the third part of the trilogy, The Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, might have added to this interesting discussion.

Due to an almost inevitable clash between panels, I was unable to see Nicholas Seager’s paper ‘“She will not be the Tyrant they desire”: Defoe on Queen Anne’, but I did catch the final two papers of the conference devoted to Defoe which were part of a panel chaired by Nick: ‘Defoe, Credit and Economic Imperialism’. Michael Genovese (University of Kentucky) presented us, in ‘Bankruptcy and Plague: Credit and Contagion in Defoe’, with the powerful proposition that Defoe’s economic theory suggested a ‘proto-sentimental’ alignment of ‘sympathy and commerce’. A 1707 Review piece established a distinction between the ‘knavish debtor’ and the sentimental victims of misfortune pictured as the ‘sons and daughters of sorrow.’ But strikingly, Defoe also included creditors as objects of sympathy; bound in a contagious chain of mutual ‘entanglement’, one ruin leads to another. Defoe, Genovese argues, suggests that it is only at such times that ‘society’ is revealed: ‘social integration’ paradoxically relies upon the feeling that financial ruin ‘lies just around the corner for everyone.’ In the second paper of the panel Captain Singleton once again came in for attention. Tsai-ching Yeh’s argument (Huafan University), in  ‘Piracy and Trade in Defoe’s Captain Singleton’, brought out tensions within the novel, especially those concerning value and the mobility of property. The novel, for instance, contrasts African ignorance of exchange value with the pirate’s manipulation of that ignorance. This scenario parallels the contrast between Bob Singleton’s unusual ‘apathy about wealth management’ and the narrative arc of the conversion of Bob’s pirate wealth into clean money – in other words, the realization of the value of their property.

It might be expected that Defoe would play a big part in these proceedings, given his substantial number of writings that deal with precisely the conference themes, and that the period in which Defoe was writing featured the rise of a British credit-based economy and the most crippling stock market crash of the century. Yet I was surprised that Defoe’s huge corpus of economic works did not receive more attention in their own right. Clearly, Defoe’s novels still exert a powerful pull on the direction of eighteenth-century studies at both doctoral level and at professional level. Together however, for me these papers evidenced Defoe’s considerable pleasure in economic processes, despite – or even because – they were criminal or immoral. Intriguingly, that pleasure can be felt in the anatomy of such systems as well as in his writings’ investment (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the magical alchemy of speculation, exchange and transformation.

[1] See Robert D. Hume, ‘The Economics of Culture in London, 1660-1740’, Huntingdon Library Quarterly, 69 (2006), 487-533.

The Defoe Society Panel @ ASECS 2012

I attended the panel sponsored by The Defoe Society at this year’s annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in San Antonio, Texas, and was pleased to find that all the panelists this year were addressing Defoe’s 1724 novel The Fortunate Mistress (more commonly known as Roxana).

Laura All’s (Virginia U) paper ‘Trade Names: Shifting Economics and Changing Identities in The Fortunate Mistress’ started in by drawing on Ashley Marshall’s paper questioning the attribution of this novel to Defoe, vigorously steer us away from interpretations of the novel that depended upon assumptions of Defoe’s concerns evidenced in other works, although carefully acknowledging that there plenty of reasons to believe that Moll Flanders and Roxana were by the same author – even if this is not Defoe. The idea of thinking about ‘trade names’ connected, in a new way for this novel, the discourses of economics and identity. Trade names in the predominantly male world of trade, function to make identity legible, or creditable: in Roxana, the figures of the Landlord, Brewer, Jeweller, Merchant – even the Prince – all sustain a legible relationship between who they are and their economic status. For women, however, their name, like their economic status, is highly mediated via the legibility of the patronym. Laura All’s discussion of Susan’s (Roxana’s real name) lack of patronym and her subsequent manipulation of her identity (especially that of ‘Roxana’) reveals a fundamental instability in legibility. By taking Defoe-as-author out of the picture, the paper enabled Laura to connect the novel to the wider and insistent debates about the movability of property and status fluidity in early eighteenth-century England and to women’s precarious position in relation to those debates. That Susan/Roxana is forced to come face-to-face with her self at the end of the novel is evidence of the precarious dangers posed by such female self-fashioning: as Laura concludes, “prying self away from self is an infernal process.”

Batya Unger-Sargon’s paper (U of California, Berkeley) ‘Any vs. Susan; Or, How Not to Read Roxana’ addressed the way in which previous criticism of this novel have had to deal with Roxana’s two “foils” – her daughter Susan and her maid Amy – separately and incommensurate methodological approaches. Susan is described as attempting to piece together the “broken fragments” of her mother’s story. When she comes face-to-face with her mother, her obsession with the few circumstantial details of her mother’s dress and the dance, rather than the actual women reveals, for Unger-Sargon, how Defoe is offering a critique of empiricism. In a striking turn of phrase, she argues it is an example of “fiction’s death drive.” Such a threat to “narrative pleasure” is also revealed by Amy. Unger-Sargon argues that Amy’s absorption into the fantasy of the romance narrative of Roxana’s life is in tension with, and even undermines, Roxana’s narrative which attempts to deal with facts. Both Susan and Amy, then, function to break the contract between reader and fiction. Only later am I reminded of J. M. Coetzee’s essay on Defoe where he contrasts the taken-for-granted contract in nineteenth-century realist fiction with the self-consciousness of Defoe’s writings.[1]

Sarah Rasher’s paper (U of Connecticut), ‘“She had never been a bride in her life”: the marriage of Amy and Roxana in Defoe’s Roxana’ started from what seemed an unlikely premise: that Amy and Roxana “act very much like a married couple” and closely follows Defoe’s debates on marriage. While there some generalisations about our own personal experiences of marriage, the strongest line of argument proceeded from Sarah’s point that, in a novel with so many poor marriages (Roxana’s “fool” of a husband; the landlord’s; the Prince’s; the Dutch merchants previous marriages), Amy and Roxana connect at many points with Defoe’s ideas on ideal marriages in Conjugal Lewdness. Amy, in this reading, is Roxana’s wife and becomes more so as the novel progresses. Sarah acknowledges that the aspect of ‘marriage’ as a divinely sanctioned state is crucial in Defoe’s thought and that in this respect Amy and Roxana do not fit this paradigm. I’m not sure this can be overlooked. But the paper offered some intriguing ideas. At an early point in the novel Roxana implores ladies to marry anyone rather than a “fool” – given this, Sarah concludes, Amy and Roxana are “ironically more like a legally sanctioned marriage.”

Whether fortunate or by design, the fact that we had a panel devoted entirely to Roxana, or, The Fortunate Mistress enabled a set of papers that spoke to each other in intriguing ways and provoked a lively Q&A that took us right up to the end of our time. A varied assortment of issues were raised: class, the choice of context (what happens if we use The Family Instructor, instead of Conjugal Lewdness?); and the uses of anonymity. One of the most interesting lines concerned the relationship between economics and affection and all panellists agreed that this was deeply marked by gender – an especially significant feature was how frequently female bonds of affection crumbled in the face of economic success. The debate on how we interpret these works was also subject to some discussion and the extent to which we can assign or detect a Defeovian hand to this novel’s ethical stance (and, indeed, whether we can even propose a stable ethical stance). It’s striking that this novel in particular still provokes and frustrates in equal measure: as the novel draws to a close, the uncanny figure of Susan, the ambiguity surrounding Amy’s actions and Roxana’s sudden fall unnerve the critic looking for closure or moral stability. G. A Starr, a while ago, drew on the tradition of casuistry to explain Defoe’s novels’ ability debate several different positions simultaneously: all three papers offered different twists to that interpretative position. In all, a thoughtful session that drew everyone in to the complexity of Roxana and yet also threw us out to issues of methodology and approach. It seemed entirely appropriate that this novel should be simultaneously alluring and yet strangely resistant.

[1] J. M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 (Vintage, 1999).