Conference Report: “Dis/Orientations and Dis/Entanglements in Contemporary Literature and Culture”

“Dis/Orientations and Dis/Entanglements in Contemporary Literature and Culture” (University of Málaga, 21-23 September 2022)

Beth Roberts, University of Surrey

The concepts of orientation, reorientation and disorientation have been increasingly examined in contemporary literature and culture following the pioneering work of Sara Ahmed in Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006). Indeed, the call for papers for the University of Málaga’s “Dis/Orientations and Dis/Entanglements in Contemporary Literature and Culture” conference makes clear reference to Ahmed, quoting her definition of orientations – “[o]rientations are about the direction we take that puts some things and not others in our reach” (2006: 56) – and posing questions regarding the directions, configurations and affects of and within contemporary texts.

Held from the 21st to the 23rd of September 2022, the University of Málaga’s “Dis/Orientations and Dis/Entanglements in Contemporary Literature and Culture” conference collated a plethora of papers which worked to holistically interrogate orientations, temporalities and perspectives in contemporary literature. Speakers explored various topics surrounding issues of orientation and entanglement, with focuses on disorientation as a practice, entanglements as a restriction and multiple or disrupted temporalities being particularly well-examined.

Conference attendees were immediately treated to a special roundtable which included talks from the much-revered Susana Onega, Ángeles de la Concha and Pilar Hidalgo on “The Contemporary English Novel: Disorientation and Entanglement”. Susana Onega analysed spatial and temporal disorientation in the novels of Jon McGregor, noting how both McGregor’s use of spectral narration in Even the Dogs (2010) and his choice to deprive characters of names in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) highlight his construction of the desire for emotional intimacy in his isolated characters. Ángeles de la Concha then considered Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (2017) and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013), breaking down the retelling of stories in these contemporary novels and interrogating how both novels critique post-truth politics and polarised narratives. Finally, Pilar Hidalgo used the roundtable session to talk about Barbara Vine’s King Solomon’s Carpet (1991) and Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me (2019), examining identity through the disintegration of the binary between human and non-human.

The concept of identity and the human and non-human bled into the panel “Fictional Motherhood(s)” in which Lin Pettersson analysed motherhood and the female body in Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars (2020) and Miriam Borham-Puyal interrogated the blurring of the definition of mother in the 2019 film I am Mother. Pettersson’s analysis considered how the female body becomes entangled in religious and state-controlled strategies in Donoghue’s novel and noted how this entanglement renders the female body dependent on an “architecture of containment”. The female body was also a key concept in Borham-Puyal’s paper, where she traced the impact of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to I am Mother and demonstrated how, despite the body of the character “Mother” being synthetic, the robot is able to replicate motherhood through human methods of nurture and care.

In the session “Disorientating Temporalities, Subjects and Spaces”, the subject matter shifted from the discussion of re- and disorientations in motherhood to the impact of re- and disorientation as narrative strategies. Maria Magdalena Flores-Quesada examined the narrative structure of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017) and noted how the splitting of the narrative into three sections, each becoming less linear, demonstrates how the journey of overcoming trauma is not a linear process. Paula Martin-Salván then talked about the use of “Last Night” narratives in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), considering how these stories create a temporal structure where there “is no origin, only present”. Ana Tejero Marín delivered the last paper of the panel and analysed N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy and The City We Became (2020). In this paper, Marín considered how the narratives become orientated around the spaces and places central to the story and how the growth of cities can be seen to reflect the growth of community power within Jemisin’s works.

Discussions of power were also central to Jean-Michel Ganteau’s insightful keynote, “What Matters: Attention as Orientation in Contemporary British Narrative”, where he examined how the capturing of attention, and thus control, has become the dominant global economy. Ganteau focused on ordinary language philosophy and considered how the ordinary allows for clarity and perception in a way that demands attention and counters distraction and repetition. Applying these notions to literature in the closing section of his keynote, Ganteau cited Jon McGregor as an author whose works tap into the ordinary and allow one to reorientate oneself through the necessity of keeping focus. 

Following Ganteau’s keynote was an insightful panel centring on “Illness and New Orientations”, in which Lucía López Serrano and Silvia Pellicer-Ortín presented papers on orientation and suffering. In this session, Lucía López Serrano considered how Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) can be seen to reflect Byung-Chul Han’s discussions of palliative societies. Drawing on Han’s suggestion that contemporary societies are experiencing algophobia and see suffering as a personal failure, Serrano argued that My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s narrator’s main focus is on avoidance, numbness and ignoring feelings of empathy. Contrastingly, Silvia Pellicer-Ortín’s paper on Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle (2016) centred on the persistent experiences of disorientation and suffering caused by illness. Pellicer-Ortín noted how Grant’s titular dark circle becomes a metaphor for the disorientation of the characters following their stay in a sanitorium due to tuberculosis diagnoses. 

The disorientations discussed in relation to illness linked well with the session on “Queer (Dis)Orientations” on the second day of the conference. Analysing the use of temporal disorientation in Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019), Sara Soler i Arjona considered how the refugee experiences in the novel offer fragmented flashbacks which function as queer temporal schemas. Arjona’s paper suggested that disorientation in Vuong’s novel allows for the night to achieve utopian possibility where spatio-temporal suspension is possible. Manuel Hueso-Vasallo’s paper also picked up on the utopian possibility of queer disorientation. Hueso-Vasallo considered the process of disorientation in Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise (2022), arguing that the main character of the novel, David, is able to move towards a hopeful outcome by disorientating himself from his path of inheritance and choosing a different journey. Rounding off the panel was Nicholas de Villiers with his paper on the documentary Ask Any Buddy (2019) which includes fragments from 126 adult movies to represent gay culture from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. De Villiers homed in on the mashup style of the documentary and considered how the film disorientates traditional binaries in gay culture, including the past and the present, high and low culture and pornography and art. 

Discussions of disorientation shifted into considerations of reorientation strategies in the afternoon of day two, when Patricia Pulham presented a fascinating keynote on “Reorienting the Past: Anachronism as Affective Strategy in Contemporary Culture”. Pulham drew upon the destabilising of histories by postmodern narratives and historiographic metafiction and considered how contemporary television and film adaptations of historical stories use pastiche and anachronisms to access affective responses. By flattening history, Pulham argued, shows such as Bridgerton (2020) and The Great (2020) can become accessible to viewers and can bridge temporal and spatial boundaries to form an emotional connection. Pulham’s keynote succinctly and comprehensively addressed how shifting focus away from accuracy and authenticity in historical adaptations does not sacrifice historical “truth” but offers an opportunity to express potential historical “truth” through emotive and affective response.

The impact of emotion was felt in the session following Pulham’s keynote, where Shadia Abdel-Rahman Téllez and Rosalía Baena discussed “Disorientation in Pain Memoirs”. Téllez’s paper focused on the memoir Somebody I Used to Know (2018) by Wendy Mitchell and considered how the impact of temporal disorientation caused by dementia can painfully lead to the inability for someone to see themselves as themselves. By focusing on Mitchell’s insistence that she is not gone and is simply hidden behind the disease, Téllez advocated for a shift against the perception of dementia patients as infantilised and passive. Baena’s paper worked in conjunction with Téllez’s to discuss the impact of pain. Centring Lynne Greenberg’s The Broken Body (2009), Baena considered how pain can make itself known through language and argued that Greenberg’s citations and reconfiguring of other writers’ words allow her to reorientate herself after the disorientation caused by her chronic pain. Baena suggested that by recontextualising the meaning of pain and uncoupling its associations with suffering and misery, Greenberg can reorientate her perspective.

The final day of the conference began with a rousing panel on “Literary Entanglements”. Sofía Muñoz Valdivieso kicked the panel off with a paper focused on Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other (2019) and analysed how the interwoven entanglements between Evaristo’s characters build upon one another to create deeper meanings. Marni Appleton’s paper focused on contemporary short stories and the flatness and absence of feeling experienced by women within these stories who become entangled in their performance of external confidence markers. The connections between the two papers and the key theme of feminism allowed for the panel itself to become delightfully entangled; Valdivieso and Appleton’s conversation around feminist methodologies and the deconstruction of neoliberal ideologies in the Q and A following the papers was thoughtful and contemplative. 

Victoria Browne’s keynote on “Disorientation as Feminist Method” was a fitting choice for the last plenary of the conference. Browne began her keynote by counteracting the prominence of the feminist waves with the suggestion that feminist time is not a singular path but is instead a multiplicity of temporalities and experiences. This, Browne argued, offers the opportunity to see the process of pregnant time as non-linear and reject the idea of pregnancy as a singular journey of linear progress. Focusing on the sentimental idea of the future child, Browne suggested that prioritising the pregnant person rather than the potential for a child allows pregnancies that do not end in the production of a child to be accepted rather than vilified. Browne’s paper culminated in an affective and emotive conclusion that celebrated the concept of pregnancy as an emergence rather than a process of production and highlighted the positive impact of disorientating traditional linear time. 

The University of Málaga’s Dis/Orientations and Dis/Entanglements conference sparked many a productive conversation about the impact of contemporary literature on our perceptions of time, space and identity, allowing researchers to consider not only how these themes function in the texts they analyse but also how they manifest themselves in the process of research. Conference organisers Rosario Arias Doblas, Marta Cerezo Moreno and Laura Monrós Gaspar treated presenters and audience members alike to a brilliantly organised, thought-provoking and moving three days of research dissemination and we all look forward to seeing what they plan next.