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International Conference: Ben Lerner “Edge of Genre”: Poetry, Fiction, Artistic Collaborations

Université Paris Cité and University of Chicago Center in Paris, June 28 – July 1, 2023
Sean Mark et Teresa Teklić

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1At the end of June, the first international conference devoted to Ben Lerner’s work, “‘Let me walk to the edge of the genre’: Poetry, Fiction, Artistic Collaborations,” took place in Paris, at Université Paris Cité and the University of Chicago Center in Paris. Over four days, the conference gathered scholars from around the world, working on contemporary North American fiction and poetry, with a variety of theoretical frameworks and approaches—from critical and literary theory, narratology, and autofiction, to metamodernism, (post-)postmodernism, and the postsecular—and a focus on media and intermediality (literature and photography, musicology, and art).

2After a preliminary workshop on Wednesday, June 28—led by Mary K. Holland (The State University of New York), Daniel Katz (Warwick University) and Anne-Laure Tissut (Université de Rouen), with postgraduate students Sean Sokolov (University of Western Ontario), Paul Enequist (Stockholm University), Marta Zanucco (University of Liverpool), Valentine Alloing (Université Paris Cité) and Wesley Moore (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg)—the three-day program was organised, respectively, around Lerner’s engagements with fiction, poetry and art. Offering invaluable assistance throughout were interns Thibaut Levy, Maureen Gobin, Louisa Da Costa Gravelos and Louise Mathieu, while Sébastien Greppo, Administrative Director of The University of Chicago Center in Paris, provided key organisational and logistical support. The conference proper began, on Thursday, June 29, with warm words of welcome from Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris Cité), followed by opening remarks from the organisers, Yannicke Chupin (CY Cergy Paris Université), Karim Daanoune (Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3), Daniel Katz and Anne-Laure Tissut. The organisers highlighted the pioneering nature of the conference, as the first devoted to Lerner’s work, and expressed their gratitude to Lerner, its guest of honour, for generously agreeing to give two readings and attend a closing question-and-answer session. The organisers also explained the rationale behind the conference title, adapted from a line in Lerner’s Mean Free Path (2010), to provide a loose structure through which to probe the multiple and multiform experimentations with genre in Lerner’s oeuvre, an author who not only works in different genres, as the call for papers put it, but “forces us to rethink the manners in which genres are defined, and the purposes these definitions serve.”

3Opening the plenary session, with the first keynote entitled “‘Love // more avant-garde than shame’: Ben Lerner’s Ethical Aesthetics,” Mary K. Holland began with a reading of Lerner’s “No Art,” from which she developed a sweeping overview of Lerner’s oeuvre as a vehicle for empathy. Underlining the poetry’s articulation of an anti-realist approach, and drawing on John Ashbery, Paul de Man and Jorge Luis Borges amongst others, Holland analysed Lerner’s three novels, Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04 and The Topeka School, in terms of an evolving engagement with form and the ethics of care. Arguing that the embedding of texts and genres in 10:04 frees the novel from its own form, Holland characterised the trilogy as a postmodernist, poststructural whole, unified by its themes and protagonist, and located its ethical centre in The Topeka School, with Adam Gordon’s development into caretaking masculinity as the culmination of twenty years of learning adulthood and positive masculinity. Drawing out the contours of what Holland characterised as “a sincere attempt at non-dominating speech,” she ended her talk with a discussion of the shame of voice in “Café Loup,” Lerner’s short story published recently in The New Yorker.

4In the following session, “Lerner in Theory,” Marc Farrant (University of Amsterdam) and Matt Prout (University of Bristol) read Lerner’s work in relation to literary and social theory. Farrant’s paper, “Kansas and Effect: Ben Lerner and the Essayistic Turn in Contemporary Literature,” explored The Topeka School as a pre-history of the present, seeing in the nineteen-nineties triumph of liberal capitalism the seeds of the rise of twenty-first century identitarian populism. Farrant analysed the character of Darren, the “man-child,” as Trump-voting archetype in the liberal imagination, in terms of repressive desublimation, the pleasure-seeking imperative in capitalist society, and the universalised grievance of wounded and angry white maleness, and the debating technique of the “spread” as example of weaponised speech. Engaging with thinkers and theorists like Wendy Brown and Rachel Greenwald Smith, and with developments in the institutional conception of critical theory, Farrant argued for the novel’s self-awareness of its liberal reception, the liberal imagination, and the failures of liberalism to deal with populism. In his talk “‘Disturbed by the Contradiction’: Theory and Practice in Ben Lerner’s Autofictions,” Prout considered the relationship between art and politics in Lerner’s work, and how literary form becomes a site of negotiation of questions about the relationship between the author’s life, politics and work. Lerner’s autofiction, he argued, thematises its own inhabiting of the cleavage between theory and praxis, the virtual and actual, thought and action, while showing its awareness of the comic potential in the mismatch between inner and outer worlds. Prout’s paper thus parsed Lerner’s ambivalent attitude to critical theory, interrogating, via Adorno, the political value of art in Lerner.

5Under the header “Mirroring the Contemporary,” the second panel subsumed different ways in which Lerner’s work relates to medial, social, and political configurations of the present. In her paper “‘Bodies, streetlights, mixed media’: 10:04 and the Mediated Experience,” Maud Bougerol (Université de Rouen) argued that 10:04 highlights the significance of physical objects as prerequisites to any (meaningful) encounter with the world, and she read the narrator’s interactions with the objects around him in terms of a constant mediation between self and world. Not only does 10:04 portray the contemporary world as in crisis—via references to Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and impending climate catastrophe—but also as one in which subjective experience is always highly mediated, and the novel’s aesthetic response to this state of crisis, Bougerol proposed, could be viewed as metamodern. Ryan Lackey (University of California, Berkeley) continued to think about the nexus of contemporary media and literary form. In his paper, “Ben Lerner and the Promises of Parasociality,” he used the parasocial as a lens through which recent autofiction becomes legible. Explaining that the term “parasociality” describes the “illusion of intimacy” created by (some) modern media, Lackey suggested that the same appeal might factor into the recent popularity of autofiction. Readers of autofiction, like users of social media, are well aware that the selves they encounter in these texts are mediated and curated; they no longer demand naive authenticity but a metafictional self-consciousness that texts like The Topeka School provide. Taking a different approach to Lackey’s, Alexander Scherr (Justus Liebig University) did not examine Lerner’s novels in relation to autofiction but placed them in the tradition of the essayistic. In his presentation, “Speech into Stutter — a Deleuzian Reading of Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School,” Scherr argued that the essay as a literary genre and stuttering as a mode of speech production are both characterised by slowness, pauses, and failed attempts. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s idea that great writers can “make language stutter,” Scherr suggested that stuttering, understood as breaking down and rebuilding language, might be viewed as a deliberate strategy of literary composition in The Topeka School to counter the speed of the “spread”. The final speaker of the day, Simon Smith (University of Kent), took an experimental approach to the genre of the conference talk. A poet himself, Smith offered a short “alphabet” of Lerner’s writing. Spanning from “a / autobiography” to “p / possibility,” he brought together many of the conference’s recurring themes and questions—of collaborations, constellations, and conversations. Later that evening, the conference participants reconvened for Writing and Translating The Topeka School, an event with Lerner and Jakuta Alikavazovic, French novelist and translator of The Topeka School. Lerner began with a reading from the novel—choosing to embrace, rather than dissipate, the embarrassment of encounter by reading “the chewing gum thing”—and then Adam Biles, Literary Director at Shakespeare and Company, led a conversation with the two novelists, followed by questions from the audience.

Ben Lerner, Jakuta Alikavazovic and Adam Biles

6On Friday, June 30, the conference opened with Daniel Katz’s keynote “‘The Instrument With Which It’s Cut’: Ben Lerner’s Bildung.” Katz suggested that The Topeka School may be read as a genealogy in at least two ways, in narrating the formation of Adam as a person, and in narrating the genesis of the book itself. In keeping with the conference’s declared intention of reading Lerner across genres, Katz related a line from one of Lerner’s poems in The Lichtenberg Figures to the author’s latest novel, to probe the notion of bildung and its paradoxical relation to sameness and difference. Education, Katz pointed out, is always based on conflicting imperatives to become both a unique individual and to conform with others, cohering with societal norms and groups. Katz identified this tension between singularity and conformity, sameness and difference, as formally and thematically central to The Topeka School. Adam’s growth from boy to man plays out between these two poles, and Katz highlighted that, towards its end, the novel becomes increasingly interested in the joy of likeness, conceiving sameness as sublime, which it finds—not like Shelley in front of Mont Blanc—in the interchangeability of white, middle-class suburban houses.

7In the day’s first panel, two presenters examined “Textual Echoes” in Lerner’s writing. In his talk “Ben Lerner and the Poetics of Conspiracy,” Sean Mark (Université Catholique de Lille) observed the ghostly presence of Ezra Pound in 10:04, whose Cantos appear in the novel in a manner which does not only summon the book as physical object but the historical and poetic spirit of apocalyptic end times and the discourse of conspiracy. Using Pound as “a foil to discuss questions of truth and concealment, conspiracy and collapse,” Mark traced three affects associated with conspiracy theory, uncertainty, paranoia, and groupthink, across Lerner’s novels, and reflected on the role of conspiracy as discursive mode in Lerner’s production. Stephen Ross (Concordia University, Montreal) shifted the panel’s focus entirely onto Lerner’s poetry. His talk, entitled “On the Conversation Partner: Celan, Waldrop, Lerner,” made the case that Paul Celan’s prose, particularly his “Conversation in the Mountains,” and Rosmarie Waldrop’s translation thereof should be recognized as important influences on Lerner. What Lerner inherits from Celan via Waldrop, Ross argued, is the notion that his writing is a staged, failed encounter with an (imagined) other, a conversation with a silent interlocutor, addressed to an absent presence. Like Waldrop’s and Celans’s, Lerner’s prose poetry is characterised by a charged relational dynamics, one that engages with Bakhtin’s notion of “hidden dialogicality,” a “dialogue of two persons in which the statements of the second speaker are omitted.”

8The afternoon session began with a talk by Joseph Shafer (Auburn University) entitled “Determining Art as Thrice Removed.” Shafer argued that Lerner determines art as being removed from immediate experience on at least three levels. The first sees in “Art” an Idea which the actual poem or artwork inherently fails to attain; the second suggests that the reality of an art-object, the sensual experience of its material body, appears absented or withdrawn; and the third degree of separation lies in the mediation of sociality—a reader, interlocutor or fellow artist as “second person,” questioning the so-called art object. Shafer’s paper drew on Adorno and the Frankfurt School, Hart Crane, Ron Silliman and Tao Lin to discuss aspects of Lerner’s poetics, including his use of the virgule, the bonsai structure, and reflections on the white page and figurations of failure. In the following talk, “From the Hatred of Poetry to the (Self-)hatred of the Poet,” Chloé Thomas (Université d’Angers) adopted distant reading methodologies to probe three working hypotheses concerning autofiction and the lyric mode. The first posited that, for Lerner, autofiction provides a mode for the retrospective legitimation of his earlier poetry: the narrative, as Thomas rephrased Genette, whereby “little Ben becomes a poet.” The second suggested that, rather than being distinct poles, poetry and autofiction share a kind of base lyricism. The third questioned the role of trauma, characterised as autofiction’s “faille originelle,” to justify and redeem the novels as literary works. Dwelling on figurations of sincerity and self-loathing, parody and form, Thomas discussed these hypotheses in relation to Lerner’s trilogy and the “autofictional pact” it establishes with the reader. In “Tragedy and the Possibility of Community in Ben Lerner’s 10:04,” Caroline Magnin (Université Paris Est-Créteil) turned to the collective experiences of tragedy and natural disasters in 10:04: Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, 9/11, and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Paying close attention to the portrayal of the city as “connective tissue” binding its inhabitants together, and to the possibilities afforded by art—the healing power of poetry, for example—Magnin’s readings of the novel argued that the communal dimension of these experiences fostered a possibility of community and a transcending of the individual. Closing the panel was Kyra Sutton (University of California, Berkeley), with her talk entitled “‘Between the Terrestrial and the Divine’: Ben Lerner and the Postsecular.” With her analysis focusing on 10:04 and The Snows of Venice, Sutton argued for a “postsecular sensibility” in Lerner’s work, to be intended not as a return to religion, but rather as a way of questioning the neat binary between the secular and the religious—an “escape hatch” in the secular, instantiated, for Sutton, in the moments of revelation amid mundanity, and in Lerner’s messianic mode, where the present is prised open and attention is drawn to “postsecular flickers” as spaces of possibility. On Friday evening, at the Atelier Michael Woolworth in Bastille, Lerner and Virginie Poitrasson, poet and translator, gave a bilingual poetry reading in collaboration with Double Change. This was the first public reading of poems from Lerner’s forthcoming book, The Lights.

Ben Lerner at the Atelier Michael Woolworth

9The conference’s final day, devoted to “Ben Lerner and Art,” began with the third keynote speaker, Yasna Bozhkova (Université Paris Nanterre). Her talk, “‘Crucial Betweens’: Ben Lerner’s Dialogic Poetics,” traced how Lerner’s critical-creative poetics develop in dialogue with other authors, arguing for a “strategic inbetweenness” in Lerner’s “dialogic” composition. As well as the influence of poets like Ashbery and Waldrop, Bozhkova’s analysis illuminated the centrality of the collaborative mode in Lerner’s work with Alexander Kluge, Anna Ostoya, Barbara Bloom, and Thomas Demand: collaborative creations which Bozhkova read productively as “virtual museums.” Her talk paid close attention to the limits of dialogue—the misreadings and delayed transmissions inherent to the “encounter” between artists and subjectivities—to the interplay of the genuine and artificial, and to a poetics of productive failure.

10Next, musicologist James Strowman (Durham University) explored the relevance of music in Gold Custody (2020), Lerner’s collaboration with Barbara Bloom. Strowman’s talk, “‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter’: Music in Ben Lerner’s Poetics,” sought to illustrate how Lerner’s poetics strive to produce a sense of negative capability akin to that of John Keats’s poetry, a notion which Lerner has repeatedly referenced in his writing. Gold Custody, Strowman argued, could be viewed as a palimpsest of musical snippets, showing how songs are intergenerationally transmitted to make up our musical memory, “our polyphonic multimedia selves.” The final talk of the conference was by Sharon Zelnick (University of California, Los Angeles), “The Photo/Text as a Medium of Jewish American Memory: Collaboration and Critique in Ben Lerner, Barbara Bloom, and Adam Golfer,” which continued the reflection on Lerner and Bloom’s Gold Custody, focusing in particular on “The Seam” and “The Voice” sections, and reading it with Adam Golfer’s A House Without a Roof (2016). In the encounter of photography and text, Zelnick argued, photography has traditionally been used to either illustrate or contradict the text. Drawing on recent scholarship on the history and theory of photography, on Jewish mixed-media articulations of memory and identity, as well as Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “post-memory” concerning the intergenerational transmission of stories and trauma, Zelnick’s talk troubled this relationship between photography and literature, analysing how these forms are reconfigured to relate to questions of Jewish memory and articulations of identity. A question-and-answer session with Lerner provided an intimate close to a remarkably rich and rewarding conference, which was seamlessly organised and showcased an array of engaging and diverse scholarship.

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Table des illustrations

Crédits Ben Lerner, Jakuta Alikavazovic and Adam Biles
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22291/img-1.jpg
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Crédits Ben Lerner at the Atelier Michael Woolworth
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22291/img-2.jpg
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Sean Mark et Teresa Teklić, « International Conference: Ben Lerner “Edge of Genre”: Poetry, Fiction, Artistic Collaborations »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22291 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.22291

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Sean Mark

Université Catholique de Lille, France

Teresa Teklić

Formerly Universität Erfurt, Germany

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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