‘Women and the Canon’ was a two-day interdisciplinary conference held in January 2016 at Oxford. The conference was attended by over a hundred people, coming from a wide range of countries and backgrounds, and it gave birth to Gender & Authority, a research network sponsored by TORCH and the Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute. In this blog post Julia Hartley goes over the journey that led to the creation of this exciting new research platform.
The idea of ‘Women and the Canon’ came first as an intuition, and I did not realize back then the project’s importance, the collaborators it would attract, nor the interest and enthusiasm it would elicit.
My interest in the intersection of gender and artistic and intellectual authority began with a canonical male author, Marcel Proust. In spring 2014 I was re-reading the chapter of In Search of Lost Time entitled ‘Autour de Mme Swann’ when I noticed for the first time the striking difference between the sarcasm and pithiness used to describe the uneducated Mme Swann’s efforts to appear arty and intellectual and the serious attention to detail used to account for the elaborate construction of her outfits. The latter passages employed the same language as that found in Proust’s better known passages describing the impressive works of male artists. The text raised the issue of women’s exclusion from intellectual discourse and artistic production, while at the same time celebrating their success in other spheres. Proust himself is a figure made of conflicting elements: on the one hand, as a white male canonical author, we can consider him to be partaking in hegemonic discourse, on the other hand, his homosexuality and his Jewish background gave him an outsider’s perspective on his society. Moreover, due to his reputation as a socialite, journalist and dilettante, he originally held no artistic authority, the manuscript of the first volume of In Search of Lost Time being rejected by the likes of André Gide. The fact that his inherited wealth gave him the monetary power to self-publish this volume, which then led to its merit being recognized, adds a further social dimension to the question of how works of literature enter the canon.
I spent the autumn of 2014 studying the manner in which Mme Swann (to her intimates, Odette) destabilizes received notions of aesthetic hierarchies. Proust got me thinking about wider questions: what is considered ‘art’ and who gets to make it? Who decides this? It is undeniable that women across the centuries have been marginalized from this sphere. Which ones succeeded in being included or at least involved in it, if not as creators, then as patrons, critics and collaborators? How did they do it? Which ones do we remember and why? What about those who were not so fortunate as to be included or remembered? How can we find their traces? What methodological problems does this raise? How do hierarchies between different forms of artistic expression relate to social hierarchies such as gender, race and class?
These questions were going far beyond the Proustian context in which they had originated, and I would certainly not be able to answer them on my own. So what better way to explore them than to organize an interdisciplinary conference?
The title came first: ‘Women and the Canon’. I was fortunate enough to have a spectacular venue at hand: Christ Church, one of Oxford’s oldest and most beautiful colleges — in a certain sense the embodiment of the institutional authority we associate with the canon. The call for papers developed across January 2015 through important conversations with Marzia D’Amico and helpful suggestions from Natalya Din-Kariuki, who played a key role in emphasizing the importance of intersectionality. The project attracted the interest of Adele Bardazzi, who was carrying out research on the absence of the female figure in the lyric poetry of Eugenio Montale. When later that year I heard that David Bowe had secured a fellowship at Somerville College to carry out research on the female voice in medieval Italian literature, I seized the opportunity to invite him to collaborate on this new project. The team was formed and in the summer of 2015 Adele, David, Natalya and I launched the call for papers into the world and waited.
When we reconvened in September we were dumb-founded by the staggering number of high quality submissions that we had received. We had expected that we would be running a single-session conference mainly attracting graduate students and early career researchers. But as we read the abstracts, we realized that there existed the necessary intellectual appetite for us to create something far bigger, attracting scholars from a wide range of disciplines, institutions, countries and career-stages. It soon became clear not only that we would need to run parallel sessions, but that there was also scope for a continuation after the conference, through a seminar series which would allow us to hear the work of those scholars whose topics did not quite fit into the conference’s panels. And thus, the ‘Gender & Authority’ network project was born, attracting sponsorship from both the Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute and TORCH.
The richness of the panels was placed in exciting dialogue with the work of our invited artists, Sara Masinaei who exhibited her photograph series ‘Medial Women’ and Helen McKinnon who composed a choral piece entitled ‘My Voice’, our invited speakers Elena Lombardi, Suzanne Aspden, Paul Lodge and Ankhi Mukherjee, and the roundtable presentation of the research network ‘Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon’. By combining all of these individuals and their different areas of specialization we were able to create a programme which was both vibrant and multifaceted.
When the two days of the conference came, what made ‘Women and the Canon’ a special event was not only its richness and diversity, but the attendants’ willingness to interact, to raise questions and discuss each other’s presentations, making the atmosphere truly collaborative. The general sense of camaraderie was further fuelled by the delicious food provided by our caterers from Buongiorno & Buonasera. Looking back on the conference, every part of my mind feels awakened: I see Sara’s photographs and the Powerpoint presentations analyzing visual elements; I hear the performance of Helen’s piece, the music clips featured in the papers of music scholars and the lively chatter of conversation; I remember the sense of excitement and elation as papers drew to their inspiring close, the passion of animated discussion, arms flying up to respond to the latest comment, and also the shared frustration and anger upon hearing stories of women’s exclusion from positions of cultural authority. And I feel fortunate that the discussion is not over. The ongoing programme of Gender & Authority leaves no time for nostalgia, as we continue working on this important project.