Kate Stanley is Assistant Professor at Western University in Ontario. Her contributions to the study of American literature, literary modernism, and pragmatism have appeared or are forthcoming in Modernism/modernity, American Literary History, Criticism, The Henry James Review, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Her book Practices of Surprise in American Literature After Emerson is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
In my first stab at drafting an inaugural post as the new editor of this forum, I went the Raymond Carver route, writing “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Discipline” across the top of a blank page. When that imagined dialogue hung fire for several weeks, I ventured greater specificity, replacing “We” with “I.” Pronouncements still unforthcoming, I searched my hard drive for toeholds. What have I talked about when I’ve talked about the discipline? My Documents folders returned zero hits for the phrase “the discipline.” I tried again, deleting “the” from the search, which revealed that I have only ever used the word “discipline” as a verb or an adjective—most often to describe the reading and writing habits and practices of the subjects of my first book (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Henry James, and Nella Larsen). This lacuna was perhaps predictable: in my early career as a graduate student and then an untenured assistant professor, I was more concerned (and more comfortable) with proffering granular descriptions of literary activity in my field than with scaling up grand claims about the literary institution my studies were constituting
In 1923 Alfred Stieglitz published “How I Came to Photograph Clouds,” a short essay in which he writes:
I always watched clouds. Studied them. . . . So I began to work with the clouds—and it was with great excitement . . . Every time I developed I was so wrought up, always believing I had nearly gotten what I was after—but had failed. A most tantalizing sequence of days and weeks.
This “tantalizing sequence” of initial experimentation would later yield a formidable legacy, as Stieglitz would spend nearly a decade (1923–31) producing the pivotal series of cloud photographs he would title the Equivalents. During this period he printed and exhibited hundreds of cloud images, most taken during the summers he spent with Georgia O’Keeffe at Lake George, in the Adirondacks. When Stieglitz turned his camera to the skies in the early 1920s, the resulting photographs sometimes included a sliver of horizon or the silhouette of a tree, inclusions which hold the vastness of the cloudscape in relative perspective against the scale of the earth. Yet by the late 1920s, most visual references to solid ground disappear from the work, seeming to set the clouds adrift within their frames. Free of mooring, their spatial proportions and positioning indeterminate, the cloud images become disoriented from any authoritative vantage: their shapes and textures may imply certain atmospheric vectors or conditions, but no single beholder’s grounded point of view definitively calibrates them (fig. 1).
What can the acknowledgements page of an academic book reveal to us about the discipline of literary studies? Scholarly acknowledgment is often characterized by the special fulsomeness of its intimate enumeration of gratitude. It’s easy to experience a kind of vertigo when moving from the cozy intimacy of these expressions of thanks to the rigorous delimitations and impersonal critical surveys of the introductory material that follows. What would it mean to close the gap between these modes—to uncordon acknowledgment from prefatory convention so that it infuses more overtly within a monograph’s critical investigations? How might the work of denoting scholarly debts extend beyond a demarcated page to shape the sensibility of a book as a whole?
"The Discipline" explores untold histories of literary study in the twentieth century. What futures for our discipline do these new pasts make possible?