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Reading for Filth: Gross Methods in Literary Studies

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Organizer: Omari Weekes

Co-Organizer: Mary Zaborskis

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This seminar will consider the critical and theoretical impacts of centering the perverse and the repulsive in literary reading. We imagine these foci as queer because what may be considered taboo or abject often disrupts, deviates, or diverges from that which is deemed normal, both in and beyond the field of literary studies. Thus, we will consider materials and practices that have been cast out of normative discourse in order to think through how dwelling on the filthy might leave one in a political space of ambivalence, horror, or withdrawal.
Our seminar participates in a recent move in queer literary studies away from simply rescuing objects or deploying methods that affirm or celebrate that which has been deemed queer. By incorporating the gross objects and methods that disrupt the field’s orientation towards queer recuperation and redemption, we hope this seminar will reach towards and past the upward bounds of respectability not merely to critique the foreclosing parameters of normative discourse, but to plumb the detritus of the everyday as it helps to explore that which may be unseemly but is a constitutive part of queer (and non-queer) life. In Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance, Robert McRuer suggests that lingering on “extravagant abjection” can be a political mode of resistance. Spending time with that which is spectacularly grotesque and marginalized might be uncomfortable, and there is no way to anticipate what the payoff will be—we must linger nonetheless. In Black Queer Studies, Dwight McBride argues that the filthy cannot be ignored because it is in the “unclean parts . . . where life . . . really happen[s]” (82). He worries that an “institutionalized African American studies” that has rendered the filthy untouchable “represents the pitfalls and suffering of a life lived in observance of the rules about what we should be, how we should love, indeed, what we should feel” (82). Both McRuer and McBride propose that the method of dwelling on the abject might be ignored in literary studies because that which is considered so abnormal that it dare not be discussed defies normative teleologies of imagining resistance (for McRuer) or respectable narratives for intellectual labor (for McBride).
This seminar is invested in both what centering the unclean might enable but also what it unsettles for the field of queer literary studies. The field continues to subscribe to respectability and homonormativity. We aim to make legible those objects and practices that seem beyond the pale of legitimate inquiry in order to show the depths of meaning making that disgust and abjection actually make possible.

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