Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores

July 12, 2017

On July 7th and 8th we had our annual Graduate Conference here in the English Department at Simon Fraser University. It was an incredible event that produced a lot of engaging and compelling conversations. Our panelists came from our own department and from across the country. A huge thank you to all those who attended, all our excellent panelists, and the organizers of the conference: PhD students Nick Tan and Alois Sieben! 

A special thanks to our excellent keynote speaker, ​Daphne Marlatt, who spoke to us about her 2012 book Liquidities and Rita Wong for speaking to us from the Peace River Valley about the Site C Dam and the Paddle for the Peace

Wondering about the conference? Check out some of the abstracts and pictures: 

Liquefying Canada's 150th and Other Colonial Narratives (Chair: Olivia Ingram)

Yiwen Liu (Simon Fraser University): "Towards the Other End of the Water: The Portrayal of Canada’s Distance and Proximity of the Trans-Pacific Hegemony in A Tale for the Time Being

In thinking of today’s East Asia in the global world, scholars have critically moved away from the “tradition” of Area Studies to trans-Pacific studies. The gesture of breaking down the boundaries of areal territories and re-defining the field of study with the Pacific Ocean is coincident with the inspiration that water gives us in rethinking the ways of being in the world, materially, culturally and politically. In The Trans-Pacific Imagination, Sakai and Yoo argue that after the Asia Pacific War, the American-centered trans-Pacific hegemony has successfully made the complicity between colonialism/imperialism and local ethnic nationalism possible. While Sakai and Yoo’s analysis of the trans-Pacific takes the U.S.-Japan relationship as the focal point, Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale of Time Being complicates the trans-Pacific entanglement by bringing Canada into this complicity. If we follow Sakai and Yoo’s theorization of the “global sovereign state,” which grounds the complicity, then Canada is inescapably involved in this global project. Ozeki’s novel opens up a variety of questions regarding Canada’s ambiguous position in the trans-Pacific hegemony. On the one hand, Canada is still the Great White North. As the Japanese father in the novel says: “[Canada is] like America only with health care and no guns” (42). On the other hand, the German Canadian disagrees: “Canada’s no better. People just going with the program, too scared to speak up. Look at the Tar Sands. Just like Tepco” (121). I argue that despite its attempts to write a story of a transnational sorority that challenges the trans-Pacific hegemony, A Tale is essentially written under the Western gaze and for the Western audience, especially through its imagination of Canada.

Leah Tench (Simon Fraser University): "Fort Langley as Palimpsest: Narrative Sublation and Counter-memories in British Columbia"   

Fort Langley is a national historic site located on the banks of the Fraser River, north of Langley, British Columbia. Owned and managed by Parks Canada, the site is recognized for its role in building the nation of Canada, since it was not only influential in building trade and settlement options for Europeans on the west coast, but is also the site of James Douglas’ reading of the proclamation that created the Crown Colony of British Columbia on November 19, 1858. It is now advertised by Parks Canada as a heritage attraction. The official website states that “Fort Langley brings the heyday of the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading era to life on the banks of the Fraser River, once a British trade route” (“Fort Langley Historic Site”, “About” 1). In bringing history “to life,” the site can be considered what Pierre Nora calls a lieu de mémoire—a site of memory—since it has, over time, “become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of [a] community” (Nora, Realms of Memory, xviii). Fort Langley has been made into a space that represents a specific moment in British Columbian history; as a whole, the site is an effort to preserve the memory of the early nineteenth century and the entrepreneurial spirit of adventure that accompanied settler occupation at the time. Parks Canada presents a carefully curated narrative at Fort Langley, attempting to promote Canada as a culturally homogenous imagined community. This is seen at the site through representations of settler-indigenous relationships as friendly and mutually beneficial for both parties. This narrative attempts to overwrite the violent colonial history of the Fort, but traces of indigenous counter-memories remain visible just under the surface.

Elisia Snyder (University of Alberta): "Indigenous Relationships to Water as Depicted by Disney’s Pocahontas and Disney/Pixar’s Moana"

According to Box Office Mojo, Disney’s Pocahontas has earned over 346 million dollars in total lifetime grosses; and Disney/ Pixar’s Moana has earned over 596 million dollars in its total lifetime grosses. Both films have been nominated for two Oscars each. Based on attention that these films have received evidenced by their sales and awards, one can assume that these popular films have had widespread influence over both the intended child-audiences and their parents or guardians. The films have much in common: both star the daughter of the village chief; both characters have limits and expectations placed onto them by their fathers; and both characters have musical interludes where the characters sing about the worlds beyond their villages and the beckoning call of the water (“Just around the River Bend,” and “How Far I’ll Go”). But what do these films teach children about Indigenous relationships to water?

My paper will suggest that these popular depictions of Indigeneity, femininity, and water have real-life consequences on real-world attitudes toward movements such as #NoDAPL. It would be unproductive to discuss whether these films romanticize Indigenous relationships to water because the very nature of children’s cinema is to romanticize; however, this paper will use close reading to extract the manoeuvers that the films use to romanticize. Both films lay some (tenuous) claim to historicism or accuracy: Pocahontas depicts (altered) historical figures, and Moana showcases Polynesian voyaging history. It, therefore, becomes paramount to analyze which/ whose truths the films keep, and which/ whose they discard. 


A Poetic Aquatic (Chair: Clint Burnham)

Michael Wilkinson (Simon Fraser University): "Wordsworth’s Textured Landscape: Alterity, Possession and the Uncanny in Wordsworth’s 'Michael'"

My presentation argues that Wordsworth’s “Michael” displays a complex relation between humans and nature, one which recognizes the traumatizing effects of violence, as well as gives nature an agency that resists human efforts to possess it.  While Wordsworth prizes human attachment to the local environment, his recognition of colonial and industrial violence upon the landscape, combined with his description of the uncanny, affective power of objects, preserve the alterity of nature. While past Wordsworth scholarship typically interpreted him as a Romantic poet who emphasized the flight to nature over and against human civilization, recent scholarship has challenged this view. Jonathan Bate, for instance, utilized Wordsworth’s The Guide to the Lakes to broaden Wordsworth’s reception from a poet who idealized nature against city-life, to a poet who was also very eager to contemplate and represent “a symbiosis between the economy of nature and the activities of humankind” (39). While Marxist scholarship has challenged eco-critical readings that prioritize human harmony with nature, another source of scrutiny has come from post-colonial theory. For instance, Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley in Postcolonal Ecologies argue that Eco-criticism does not address issues of colonial violence upon the landscape, nor does it effectively guard against relations with the land that imagine a “possessive totality” that can easily lead to a virulent nationalism. A post-colonial lens recognizes that land is a place of trauma, loss and displacement, as well as a site of unity and connection. Environmental discourse needs to recognize the priority of the land, but from within a “complex epistemology,” one that “foreground[s] the landscape…as a participant in [the] historical process” (DeLoughrey and Handley 4). In other words, discussions and involvement with the land must always involve the history of the land, which often includes violence, trauma and dislocation. While I argue that Wordsworth points to markers and reminders of violence in “Michael,” which disrupts a peaceful unity with the land, he also preserves the alterity of nature in his descriptions of nature as “uncanny” – as possessing a surprising agency, one that defies direct human knowledge and resists categorization. As Jane Bennett describes, a theory of the uncanny moves the focus from epistemology to ontology, becoming aware of the “vitality intrinsic to materiality” and how awareness of that vitality disrupts human prioritization to possess material nature through intellect (3). This double focus of Wordsworth – historical emphasis of the land combined with the alterity of nature – can provide a broader understanding of Wordsworth’s nuanced sense of nature, one that both emphasizes the land while providing resources to resist human possession of it. Utilizing DeLoughrey and Handley’s post-colonial aesthetics, as well as Bennett’s thing theory, I will explore Wordsworth’s “Michael” synchronically to reveal a Wordsworth who is deeply concerned with the land – not only as a site of communion, but also as a mysterious and evasive participant in human history. 

Alois Sieben (Simon Fraser University): "Life and Poetry: Spanning the River in One Stride"

Hito Steyerl’s media art piece and gallery exhibition Liquidity Inc. (2014) observes a viral internet video—“Worlds biggest wave ever surfed”—moving from projection screen to television screen to cellphone screen and back. This movement augments an argument Steyerl makes in The Wretched of the Screen (2012) about shifting political identification toward “the image as thing, not as representation” (50). Accordingly, instead of immediately drawing the audience’s identificatory desire toward the film’s human subject, Jacob, a war-torn, globe-trotting, exploiter and victim of the financial markets—a kind of generalized citizen of today’s mode of production—the film plays with its audience’s desire for identification with him. There are several scenes where the camera slowly moves toward Jacob, with him looking back into the camera. Yet, by lingering a beat or two too long, these scenes become uncomfortable, most evidently for Jacob, whose twitches, unsure expression and blinking gaze gesture toward a certain impossibility of identification across the screen of the film, a cut impossible to traverse. Instead, Jacob’s status as protagonist of the film seems to reach its crescendo when he stands in front of a looming projector screen showing a viral Internet video: “Worlds biggest wave ever surfed.” What the film seems to be calling for at this climax is identification with the screen itself: all of the alternating screens that project “Worlds biggest wave ever surfed” within the content of the film, and also the screen of Liquidity Inc.’s installation format, which compels users to lie down on a gentle slope leading toward the screen. This paper will investigate how the screen and the audience’s attachment to its visuals combine to generate a flexible patchwork of desire that can conjure collectives through alternative means than person-to-person connection.

Nathan TeBokkel (University of British Columbia): "Irrigation Aesthetics: The Role of Beauty in Agricultural Water"

Aesthetic values are often overlooked in everyday decision-making. One reason for this overlooking is that historically aesthetic values have been viewed as pure—that is, whole and separate from other values. This purity of aesthetic values manifests in the contemporary over-emphasis of purity as an aesthetic value, which is conditioned by, among others, advances in technology (e.g. filtering Instagram photos and recording musical performances). My paper examines its manifestation in discourses around water (e.g. Nestlé’s Pure Life and Sandals Resorts’ pristine blue ocean).

The idea of purity as an aesthetic value has become so pervasive that my paper argues it has influenced government legislation about irrigation water. The 2011 Food Safety Modernisation Act states that “no detectable generic E. coli are allowed for certain uses of agricultural water,” and the 2012 Safe Food for Canadians Act states that “any water that might come into contact with a food must [...] be potable.” Irrigation water can be involved in foodborne illness, but the extent to which the water must be strictly pure is unclear, and it is difficult to assess the role that this aesthetic value plays because of the purity of aesthetic values: unless the other values involved, such as public health, scientific, and economic values, can be shown to be absent or insignificant, aesthetic values are overlooked.

Because this paper sits at the intersection of agriculture and aesthetics, it turns to a figure situated there—poet-farmer Wendell Berry and his three poems about water from his 1967 Farming: A Handbook—to explore solutions to these problems. It examines government legislation, agricultural research, aesthetics, and poetry to argue for attention to aesthetic values in traditionally non-aesthetic problems, to critique the capitalist distillation of water into pure H2O, and to critique institutions that demand purity with one hand while polluting with the other.


Fluid Texts: Materialities and Meanings (Chair: Ryan Fitzpatrick)

Katie Gillespie (Simon Fraser University): "‘up through the surf in the bay’: Imagining Alternative Ways of Being in Space in Arnold's The Forsaken Merman, a DH project"

Digitally operationalizing resources not to produce information, but to produce virtual concretization, a decrease in abstraction, in order to provide new ways of understanding the interconnectedness of the "conditions of human and nonhuman existence" (402) here at a tipping point in the development of Anthropocene. Following Starosielski's call for DH projects that are critically oriented toward the "messy and entangled materialities" "of human and more-than-human worlds" (408), and bringing it together with Parikka's interest in art methods which represent media "as/of substrate" (24), this project will take up Matthew Arnold's The Forsaken Merman as an ideal poem, due to its spatial configurations, complexity, and literal focus on "more-than-human" beings. The project will spatially plot out the poem, to both create a visual field of reference, which mimics the poem's assemblages, embeddedness, and liminal spaces in the positioning of annotative, critical descriptions. Focus will be on the relation of the merpeople to substrate, to cyclicality, to their place in larger assemblages, and a thought to their own "species being" (Oak Taylor) as conscious non-human beings. The paper will discuss the results of the project and reiterate the critical commentary contained within it.

Holly Vestad (Simon Fraser University): "Locating the Periphery: Clinamen as Narrative Praxis in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves"

In the wake of Zygmunt Bauman’s argument for the present moment’s classification as not postmodern but rather a self-reflexive stage of liquid modernity (Bauman; Griselda Pollock), revisiting Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 novel House of Leaves can productively illuminate the implications of this metaphorical groundless present. My essay takes up N. Katherine Hayles’ statement that the 710-page book “threatens always to break out of the cover that binds it” and examines the consequences of this articulated escape. I firstly analyze how Danielewski visualizes Jacques Derrida’s notion of freeplay in material form by way of the novel’s paratext to demonstrate how Danielewski pushes the reader’s gaze to the periphery of the form and content of the book, suggesting that the locale of meaning making is in this remediated periphery. I then contend that Danielewski in fact parodies the process of making meaning in our contemporary moment by using clinamen as narrative praxis, and suggest that clinamen is a crucial metaphor for the present for it visualizes the minute encounter as the site for productive change. 

Olivia Ingram (Simon Fraser University): "A Howling History: Reconsidering the Book History Model Through Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems"

In his landmark essay, “What is the History of Books?”, bibliographer Robert Darnton proclaims “books do not merely recount history; they make it” (Darnton 81). This can be said of many famous literary works, but one book of poetry from a small bookstore-publisher in San Francisco exemplifies this statement. Released in 1956 by City Lights Books, Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems challenged the accepted social and moral  of the era and went on to become a cornerstone in contemporary poetryThe history of Howl, particularly its victory in the landmark obscenity trial that threatened to see it banned, is arguably as interesting as the text itself. 

In terms of charting the book's history using current bibliographic models, Howl presents an interesting challenge. While Robert Darnton's communication circuit outlines the people and labour responsible for the production of books, Thomas Adams and Nicolas Barker's updated model focuses on the lifecycle of the physical book. However, to read Howl strictly through the lens of either model would not give an accurate portrait of the history of this particular text. While both Darnton's visual model and Adams and Barker's revision offer insight into understanding book history, a more comprehensive analysis can be undertaken if they are combined to both reflect the history of the physical book as well as the people responsible for its existence and dissemination.


Dickenson and Death's Undreamed Shore (Chair: Taylor Morphett)

Abdul Zahir (Simon Fraser University): "'Til Death: The Macabre Marriage of Dickinson’s #712"

Leah Sharzer (Simon Fraser University): "Jeux de pouvoir (Power Games): Translating Dickinson’s Death-as-Life-force"

This paper proposes turning to translation to unlearn assumptions about the theme of death in Emily Dickinson’s work. Specifically, I analyze the problematics of translating the paradox of death-as-life-force in “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – ” (#764 Franklin). One of the most productive critical tensions in her work, in this poem the paradox of death-as-life-force centres around “The Owner’s” “power to die” as opposed to the speaker’s simple “power to kill.” I argue that Dickinson complicates this hierarchy by her use of rhyme and punctuation, thus allowing the speaker access to the life-giving power of death that, at the level of semantic content, is reserved for “The Owner.” For translation, the question becomes: how do we recreate this way of making meaning in the destination language? I analyze the different choices made by Claire Malroux and Francoise Delphy, two of Dickinson’s foremost French translators, and how they create different relationships between power and death. I then examine how the choices of each translation affect our reading of death-as-life-force and how this produces a new understanding of the original work.


Fluid Aesthetics, Power, and Violence (Chair: Holly Vestad)

Josh Trichilo (York University): "Kawakami Hiromi’s Twin “Kami-sama” Stories: 3.11, Iterability, and Cary Wolfe’s Two Finitudes"

The unthinkable tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2017 in northern Japan and its ongoing issues of dislocation and stigmatization rightly continue to concern what ought to be lasting discussions of the event’s consequences. However, this paper offers a supplement to these important discussions, namely a taking part in the analysis of the unprecedented shifts in what count as thinkable and tenable ways of being in the world with the nonhuman in the presence of this unthinkability. Specifically, this paper discusses what it considers both symptom and allegory of these changes, Kawakami’s twin stories “Kami-sama” (1993/2011), in terms of Wolfe’s systems theory-meets-deconstruction critical posthumanism. Of crucial importance is the formal gesture of rewriting “Kami-sama” itself, precisely because so little is rewritten, which powerfully exhibits Derridean iterability, the play of virtual contexts that always-already occur in any repetition of “the same.” Compellingly performed in Kawakami’s iterative stories, that virtuality has drastically shifted post-3.11 in at least two crucial ways described by Wolfe’s theory: first, that the trauma of the event makes tragically clear both the separateness and integral conditionings of communication (meaning, semiotics) by tracking where it fails; and second, that this alienation from communication equates to an alienation from “the self” not just for “the human” but for “the animal” also. Uncannily and undeniably, then, Kawakami’s stor(ies) (re)present a radical reworking of painfully untenable categories, symbolically offering an example of a way forward in what Wolfe calls our shared finitudes.

Yujin Kim (Ewha Womans University): "Sublime Laughter through the Borders in Sarah Ruhl’s Comedy"

Elmira Asghari (Université de Montréal): "The Fluidity of Power in Juan de Flores’ Grisel and Mirabella"


Ethical Undercurrents (Chair: Alois Sieben)

Ryan Fitzpatrick (Simon Fraser University): "An Experiment Inside an Experiment: Christian Bök’s Xenotext, Rita Wong’s Undercurrent, and the Ethics of Encounter"

In her book Relationscapes (2009), Erin Manning suggests that “[r]elational movement means moving the relation” (30). Spaces are deeply relational, produced by intimate face-to-face meetings as they assemble into larger organizations. For Manning and many other critics, social and spatial change necessitates changing the ways humans relate to each other and to non-human actors. When Leanne Simpson, calling for Indigenous resurgence through land-based pedagogy and practice, asks “[h]ow do our relationships with land inform and order the way humans conduct relationships with each other and other-than-human beings?” (“Land as Pedagogy” ii), she describes the central problem inherent to calls for “new” or “experimental” forms of relation. How do land, relation, and language inform one another? And how can the relations that compose spaces be reckoned with, opened up to new or resurgent forms of encounter that can add up to reorganized social forms? In the face of this question, we ought to be suspicious of the ways that spatial and poetic experiments that challenge dominant forms of organization draw from utopian horizons shaped by colonial and capitalist processes and histories. If change, experiment, and newness are tied to relation, precisely how do the thickly composed relations of the social field squeeze utopian rhetoric back into its avant-garde tube?

In this paper, I will read Christian Bök’s still-in-progress The Xenotext alongside Rita Wong’s activist work in her books Forage and Undercurrent to interrogate the ways that experiment is shaped by the dominant relations of an assemblage. Both Bök and Wong conceptualize their work in relation to a kind of experiment – Bök as experimenter and Wong as experimented upon. In The Xenotext, Bök positions himself, variously, as archivist, lab rat, and pastoral shepherd in relation to a bacteria that is, at once, inscriptive surface, archive, machine, and, somehow, co-author. Using the tools of genetic engineering, Bök organizes a constraint-based poetic using the expressive codes of DNA to write a poem that he inscribes into the body of the bacteria. Where Bök gets swept up in the instrumentalizing drive of science despite the subversive claims of pataphysics, Wong expresses a worry – an apprehension – over the entangled operations of science and capitalism as they treat the earth as both dump and experiment. Wong imagines herself as part of an experiment she has not consented to. Her sense of experiment carries a social dimension – a sense that her language and her body (along with other bodies) are caught up in a larger set of environmentally destructive processes that she can’t control – a body pressured by instrumentalizing and extractive forces. Taken together, Bök’s and Wong’s work clashes through their ethical positions as they propose drastically different ethical paths for poetry in a field of reshuffling encounters, taking opposed positions on what it means to produce new forms of relation.

Dylan Bateman (University of Alberta): "Water/Kinship/Waste/Humanity/Life/undercurrent"

In my essay, “Water/Kinship/Waste/Humanity/Life/undercurrent,” I will discuss how the poems in Rita Wong’s undercurrent suggest the inseparability of the material and conceptual entities listed in my title. The collection, by looking at the destruction of water through waste and at Indigenous people fighting to end this destruction, shows how water is abused and how we can work to save it. Looking to scholars like Heather Davis (“Toxic Progeny”), Teija Aarnio and Anne Hamäläinen (“Challenges in Packaging Waste Management in the Fast Food Industry”), Maya Weeks (“Myth of the Garbage Patch”), and Jill Schneiderman (The Earth Around Us), I will examine the impacts of waste and resource extraction on water, both within and outside of Wong’s collection. Then, I will turn to scholars such as Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee) (“Go Away Water!”), John Kelley (Ojibway) (“We Are All in the Ojibway Circle”), and Donna Haraway (Staying with the Trouble) to think about Wong’s suggested solutions to current waste crises. These authors, like Wong, suggest a model where kinship among humans, other life forms, and nonhuman objects (like plastics) are emphasized over human/nature and living/nonliving dichotomies. Instead of dividing, the collection calls for threading, as I have done in my title. This practice, Wong’s collection suggests, can help us towards interdependence and intimacy with water (a provider of life), other life forms, and nonliving objects that must not be ignored, lest they create continued destruction.