CFP: Relatability (MSA 17)

A specter is haunting university classrooms: the specter of “relatability.” For many teachers past a certain age, this term hardly seems a word at all. Its limitations as an analytic term are manifest: its fuzzy subjectivism treats everything as its own reflection in a manner that inhibits both critique and description. Journalists and commentators have marveled at the viral spread of this critical judgment in the last ten years, yet the sense of “relate” at its core (as in, “I can relate to what you are going through”) comes into usage in the middle of the twentieth century. This panel seeks to uncover a longer twentieth-century genealogy for “relatable” and to consider whether it might be recuperated as a meaningful critical term for thinking about twentieth as well as twenty-first century art and literature. That such recuperation might be worthwhile stems from our sense that relatability constitutes an important strain of modernist aesthetic theory, despite the latter’s association with forms of objectivity and autonomy. Something not unlike relatability seems to underlie Gertrude Stein’s claim, for instance, that “All literature is me to me, that isn’t as bad as it sounds.” From Stein to mid-century modernists such as Frank O’Hara, an aesthetic linked to forms of identification, mimesis, and likeness has been an important resource, especially for queer artists and audiences. More broadly, “relatability” indexes forms of aesthetic experience that have been associated with unschooled or amateur modes of responding to art and literature. Reincorporating such apparently preprofessional forms of relationality into professional scholarship has been an important impulse across the discipline. Indeed, many recent methodological developments in literary and cultural studies–Bruno Latour’s injunction to trace the connections between things, Wai Chee Dimock’s interest in weak ties–suggest that criticism’s job is not to uncover truths or to apprehend unities but to discover that everything is in fact relatable. We solicit papers that consider relatability a€™s modernist pasts and critical futures.
Please send a brief abstract and CV to and by April 10.