From March 3-5, 2016, Princeton University will host "The Contemporary," a conference on twenty-first century literature and culture. The schedule and visiting information can be found at contemporary.princeton.edu.
The conference received 135 proposals. The most frequently mentioned writer: Ben Lerner—10% of all proposals. The most frequently mentioned concept: "post"—77% of all proposals, with the following as the most frequently mentioned "posts": postmodern—19%; postwar—6%; postcolonial—5%; posthuman—5%; post-9/11—4%. The second most frequently mentioned concept: neoliberalism—11% of all proposals.
What do these numbers tell us about "the contemporary," a field with no established canon or historical period?
The three of us—junior colleagues in Princeton's Department of English—are scholars of contemporary literature. Yet we all work on different aspects of the contemporary: Anglophone fiction and film; poetry; African American literature. We were troubled by the fact that our intellectual communities seemed discrete. What other contemporaries are out there? How might various communities of "contemporists" speak to each other?
In September 2014, we applied for funding for this conference. Our goal: to bring together scholars devoted to the study of contemporary literature and culture, and to connect various institutions—ASAP, Post45, Nonsite, among others. The conference would, we hoped, illuminate how we study our present moment, and the idea of studying "the present moment."
In January 2015 we received a grant for $50,000 and began to plan. We knew that we wanted to avoid simultaneous sessions. We also wanted to encourage discussions across specializations and debate from one panel to the next. The grant was enough to pay for the transportation and accommodation of 25 people, plus meals and incidentals. So we settled on a two-and-a-half-day conference with six plenary sessions.
The most significant challenge was determining how to select presenters. We had two options. We could prioritize our respective conceptions of the contemporary and invite presenters. Or we could attempt to augment our respective conceptions and circulate a CFP. We could, in other words, have the conference we wanted. Or we could have the conference we didn't yet know we wanted.
Ultimately, we decided on a hybrid approach. We would do a CFP for 18 spots—six panels with three speakers each—and invite six respondents. We wrote a CFP and distributed it widely. The invitation read: "We invite early and mid-career scholars to propose 20-minute papers that examine the culture of the twenty-first century and the question of contemporaneity itself."
We limited the invitation to early and mid-career scholars for two reasons. First, we wanted to create an atmosphere of equality. We didn't want graduate students or junior faculty to feel pressure to impress senior scholars—or worse, to avoid offending senior scholars. Second, we wanted scholars to be able to change their minds, to participate without the weight of their past opinions.
We received 135 proposals—far more than we had expected. We spent summer 2015 reading them all. The selection process was tortuous; most of the proposals were excellent. It took us multiple rounds to settle on the final roster. Our shared goal was to select the most compelling proposals and create a balanced conference—one that would reflect our critical concerns as well as the concerns of the proposals themselves. The 18 proposals we selected did not include any by graduate students, so we selected the three strongest graduate student proposals and invited their authors to attend the conference.
ii. The numbers
The proposals, all together, present a portrait of a field. What made this portrait especially interesting was that it was of a field without definite qualities—except an ambiguous attachment to the now. What does this portrait tell us?
Demographics first. Of 135 proposals, we received five from full professors (4%); 19 from associate professors or equivalent (14%); 56 from assistant professors or equivalent (41%); 31 from graduate students (23%);15 from adjuncts (11%); one from a visiting assistant professor (1%); and eight from postdocs (6%). Our final roster of 18 speakers includes 13 assistant professors (72%); four postdocs and adjuncts (22%); and one associate professor (6%).
The number of proposals from assistant professors is important, we think, because it is so high: 56 submissions offer a broad and representative view of the field—or non-field, as it were. This is the academic future of the contemporary: assistant professors will be writing books and articles, teaching undergraduate surveys, supervising graduate students, editing journals, organizing conferences, and interpreting the artworks that define the contemporary for many years to come. The high number of proposals from assistant professors is also important because it provides data to test the relevance of academia to the study of the contemporary. In ten years, we might be able to say that the real conversation was elsewhere.
Other demographics: 76 of the proposals were from women (56%); 92 were from scholars working in the United States (68%); 15 from the United Kingdom (11%); seven from Canada (5%); and six from India (4%). In the CFP, we noted that the "conference will focus primarily on literature in English, but we are open to scholarship that addresses work in other languages and in a range of media." The linguistic emphasis was clearly a limiting condition for the kinds of proposals we received. Only 11 proposals focused on non-Anglophone objects (8%).
Beyond demographics, the proposals illuminate what constitutes contemporist inquiry. Each proposal implicitly announced its understanding of the field in its choice of object and its approach.
Our first observation. The contemporary is not necessarily defined by where it is, but what it comes after. The preponderance of "post" proposals (104—77%) is revealing. The statistic suggests that, despite working without a stable canon or period, scholars approach the contemporary with a profound sense that the field comes after something else.
This is not surprising: attending to periodization is folded into our DNA as scholars. (We also discussed the problem of periodization in the CFP.) What we didn't expect to see was the wide variability in what scholars thought the contemporary was post-to. Although postmodern led the pack (26—19%), it contended with some iteration of post-World War II—postwar (8—6%), post-45 (4—3%), and post-WWII (2—1%)—as the field's default periodization. But even if we were to combine postmodern with the various postwars, they still only account for 40 (38%) of the 104 submissions. Nearly as many proposals—34 (33%)—used a term that was unique (for example, post-1990s, postcritical) or found in only two proposals (for example, postsecular, postracial). If we were to take the earliest and latest post-dates, we'd have a period—post-World War I to post-financial crisis—that covers 100 years.
We might, thus, view the contemporary as the study of what makes our present posterior. After all, "post," like "contemporary," is a relative position. It supposes that we are still attached to some fixed event. As such, it expresses an anxiety about legitimacy, and a desire for stability. Without a fixed and originary event, the contemporary might be anchorless, drifting toward an undefined, or possibly non-existent, future, the ultimate "post"—the "post-apocalyptic," a term that appeared in only two proposals, but whose specter was present in many speculations about where we are now and what comes next.
At the conclusion of her essay "On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary" (2008), Amy Hungerford playfully claims that:
...until the contemporary is over, I will call myself a scholar of contemporary literature.1
"[U]ntil the contemporary is over": how might the claim complicate our already complicated understanding of the contemporary? At first glance, the claim raises a standard question—when does "post-anything" end? But the claim also raises a question about obsolescence: will our expertise in the contemporary, at some point, stop being expertise in the contemporary? Scholarship, we assume, is cumulative: the more one learns about the long eighteenth century, the more one knows about the long eighteenth century. Is the same true for the contemporary? Can one become an expert in a moving target? We worry that the answer is no. To commit to the contemporary is to commit to one's continued ignorance.
A second observation. Despite the enormous variety of genres and media available to scholars of the contemporary, narrative fiction was, by far, the most frequently mentioned object in the proposals. Here are the numbers:
Visual Art 4
Fiction was the primary object in 43% of all submissions. Its ratio to poetry was 6 to 1 (58:10), while its ratio to memoir was 19 to 1 (58:3). What do these numbers suggest? That the field privileges narrative fiction (that is, the novel) as a medium for registering what's distinct about our present? The ratio to poetry, most likely, reflects the market: novels out sell volumes of poems by more than 6 to 1. But the ratio to film—58:5? One explanation might be the traditionalism of English departments. (The vast majority of submissions were from scholars in English departments.) Another explanation might be that cinema studies is its own field with its own distinct conversations about contemporary. One could make a similar argument about theatre studies—shockingly, we only received one proposal about theatre.
We were also surprised by the relative paucity of proposals on digital media. Narrative fiction outweighed digital forms almost 6 to 1 (58:10), and papers focusing on digital media counted for only 7% of all proposals. There's a topsy-turvy aspect to these numbers. Though our actual present is structured by the constant production and intake of digital information, the majority of proposals investigated the contemporary through old media. Might those of us who study new innovations in old media feel the need to assert our relevance by interrogating the concept of the contemporary, while those who study new media take the contemporary as a given.?
The non-canon that emerged out of the proposals reflects the complexity and inconstancy of the present. Here are the top 15 writers, including theorists:
Ben Lerner 13
Tom McCarthy 10
Teju Cole 7
Ali Smith 7
David Foster Wallace 7
Mohsin Hamid 6
Fredric Jameson 6
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 5
Giorgio Agamben 5
Don DeLillo 5
Kazuo Ishiguro 5
Ian McEwan 5
Zadie Smith 5
Colson Whitehead 5
Aravind Adiga 4
Walter Benjamin 4
Rachel Kushner 4
Toni Morrison 4
A pointed apprehension about how we inhabit the present's multiple heres and nows unites the writers most frequently referenced in the proposals. In different ways, these writers anxiously examine the present's shifting relation to the past—by tracking the circulation of people and stories across the globe, and by describing the experience of inhabiting an individual human body in a constantly changing world.
Posteriority. Books. Multiplicity and mutibility. We expect our conference, which reflects the submissions we received, to tackle what it's like to read stories about the unknowable present, in our unknowable present.
The numbers may suggest this, then: that we, contemporists, are eager to think with the multiple and uncertain heres and nows of the twenty-first century. If there's one thing that unites us, it seems to be a fervent desire to theorize in motion—to read and watch and engage with texts as they are written and published. This desire, itself no new thing, is particularly pressing in this moment, in which new channels of transmission make a seemingly limitless and constantly-updated archive of the present available. New texts and new voices filter into the permeable bounds of our non-canon at every moment: to think about them, we must think with them. To embrace "contemporary" as a descriptor of the moment we live in and the way we live in it is to embrace what Tom McCarthy refers to as a "perspective of shifting perspectives"2—the mode of uncertain self-location that characterizes the period we still call the contemporary.
Sarah Chihaya is an assistant professor of English at Princeton University, where she works on contemporary fiction and film. She is the editor of Contemporaries, and is currently writing her first book, The Unseen World: Metanarrative and 21st Century Fiction.
Joshua Kotin is an assistant professor of English at Princeton University. His research and teaching focus on global modernism, and poetry and poetics. He is currently completing his first book, Utopias of One.
Kinohi Nishikawa is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in PMLA, Book History, and African American Review; "The Archive on Its Own" won the Katharine Newman Best Essay Award from MELUS. He is currently completing his first book, Collecting the Street: Holloway House and the Archive of Black Pulp Fiction.