Reading the Unwritten in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture

Abstract for paper presented at City University of Hong Kong, November 2012

In twentieth-century British literature and culture, absences and elisions become generative sites that engage readers as active participants in the creation of the examined material. This presentation will explore the implications of my proposition by showing how the nature of the unwritten plays out in both my present and future research.  To begin, I will demonstrate how an appreciation of the unwritten becomes vital in considerations of literary influence throughout the twentieth-century.  This is a point argued in my forthcoming book, which contends that literary influence can be profitably viewed as the unobserved transmission of images, that is, as the layers of visual cues and pentimenti that build up unseen in literary texts.  By way of example, I will consider the image of the Pharaoh Akhenaten as portrayed in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library, Philip Glass’s opera Aknaten and Derek Jarman’s unproduced film Akenaten, and how its curious, silent movements between these texts destabilizes currently held models of literary influence.

This research represents my sustained interest in what I perceive to be a critical theme in modern and contemporary culture and thought—that is, the celebration of absence and the invitation to inspection and creation that these vitally charged voids create.  While it builds in many ways upon current trends in the field (including the re-evaluation of the timeliness of British modernism by Geoff Gilbert and Alexandra Harris; the notion of queer temporality developed by Lee Edelman and Judith Halberstam; and the field of visual studies led by W.J.T. Mitchell and others) it equally strikes new ground by reading literature, art, culture, language, and new media as identically implicated in the pressure to evoke meaning in increasingly productive and dynamic ways.

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