Faculty/Graduate Colloquium — Modernism: Material, Spectral, Aural

In what follows, second-year graduate student Juliana Chow, one of this year’s organizers for the English Graduate Association’s series of colloquia, reports on a recent department event, entitled Modernism: Material, Spectral, Aural.


Rubbish, refuse, trash. Noise, static, din.

I know when I go to talks, I’m supposed to be able to make sense of all the words flung out at me, that there is, subtly or conspicuously, a line thrown out to lead me out of one labyrinth and into another. As William Carlos Williams writes, “jumble is superb.”

This was my sense of things at the English Graduate Association’s third colloquium of the semester. Graduate student Kea Anderson and Professor Mark Goble each presented on modernism’s medium, whether it be sound for Jean Rhys (Anderson’s presentation) or archives, vintage office furniture, industrial e-waste, and what James Agee lists as, “fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement” (Goble’s presentation). If Williams and Agee reorganized material waste into a poem or photograph, Rhys remade sound into a medium for registering the world. Each visually or aurally mapped a way out that was simultaneously a way into their material.

This was probably the eleventh or twelfth EGA colloquium I’ve been to, and each time I’ve left thoroughly impressed by my colleagues and the faculty here at Berkeley. I appreciate their generosity and skill in, well, mapping a way for me into their work. Both Anderson and Goble, in their own way, reminded me that the presentation of what looks like waste (here Goble contrasted Chris Jordan’s photograph of a jumble of cel phone chargers with Jackson Pollock’s paintings) or snatches of rote recitation (like the Heine lyrics from Rhys’ Midnight! that Anderson selected—”Ja, ja, nein, nein…”) is never a blank, artless rendering, but a mediated deliberation. On this page at this moment, what html codes translate the font, size, color, and style of these words? What modernist sense of medium underlies Williams’ poetry, Rhys’ novels?

Of course, if I knew, I wouldn’t have gone to the colloquium—but no one knows everything and each day there is more to know, maybe too much to know. As Rhys writes, “Oh Lord, keep me blind.” Yes, keep me blind—and thank you for leading me out.