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Outsider Hermeneutics


Event Summary

What are the changing criteria which make Outsider Writing "literary" and readable, not merely pathological, incoherent or endlessly boring? Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness are now presented by New York Review Editions as a literary work, while Henry Darger’s Story of the Vivian Girls awaits publication even as its illustrations appear in major national collections. Several poets’ work has been divided conventionally into literary and "disturbed" non-literary writing, from Hölderlin to Ivor Gurney to John Wieners, while William Blake’s work continues to teeter on the boundary. How sustainable are these divisions? Might reading "outsider" literature change the way we read works accepted as literary?

Modernist literary movements (for instance, expressionism and surrealism) aligned their aesthetic positions with "madness" and psychosis, provoking the attack on modernist writing as itself insane or degenerate. This in turn rendered texts curated in the psychiatric archives legible as modernist or experimental. Are such tactical connections adequate for exploring the cultural and formal range of outsider texts? Or do they impose another quarantine, protecting the disciplines of the avant-garde artist from the unhealthy obsessions of the outsider? Are there alternative frames – neither literary nor psychiatric – within which we might situate outsider texts, resisting the global designation "outsider" for more situated anthropological or ethnographic descriptions? Or might outsider texts, once identified, constitute an exceptional aesthetic field, either terminably indefinable, or requiring a new logic of interpretation?

This conference included a full day of presentations on specific works and aesthetic judgment, and background presentations on the influence of outsider writing on the literary, taking cues from the National Gallery (DC) exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art, Louis Sass’s Madness and Modernism and Jerome Rothenberg and John Bloomberg-Rissman’s outsider anthology Barbaric Vast and Wild. A second day (Oct 28) consisted of a closed seminar focused on collective readings of selected texts.

This conference, sponsored by the Outsider Writing project at the Neubauer Collegium, was held in conjunction with a series of related events Oct 24–28 co-sponsored by the Creative Writing Program and the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.

October 24: Poem Present Reading by Eleni Stecopoulos and Verity Spott

October 25: Poem Present Lecture by Eleni Stecopoulos and Verity Spott

October 26: Bhanu Khapil Outsider Writing Performance

Outsider Hermeneutics Program Schedule

Saturday, October 27

9:00 – 9:30 a.m.

9:30 – 10:00 a.m.
Welcome and Introduction

John Wilkinson, University of Chicago
Matt ffytche
, University of Essex

10:00 – 11:30 a.m.
Schreber and Outsider Hermeneutics

Louis A. Sass, Rutgers University
Seth Brodsky
, University of Chicago
Matt ffytche
, University of Essex

11:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

12:00 – 1:00 p.m.
Anna Mendelssohn

Sara Crangle, University of Sussex

1:00 – 2:00 p.m.

2:00 – 3:00 p.m.
Semiotics Without Semantics

Edgar Garcia, University of Chicago

3:00 – 4:00 p.m.
Voices and Voicing

Bhanu Kapil, Poet
Verity Spott
, Poet
Eleni Stecopoulos
, Poet
Cheryl Farney
, Illinois Hearing Voices

Chair: John Wilkinson, University of Chicago

4:00 – 4:30 p.m.
Closing Discussion

Sunday, October 28

These workshops are closed to the public.

9:30 – 10:00 a.m.

10:00 – 11:00 a.m.
Workshop 1: William Blake as Outsider

Presenter: W. J. T. Mitchell, University of Chicago

11:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.
Workshop 2: Antonin Artaud

Presenter: Eleni Stecopoulos, Poet

12:00 – 1:00 p.m.
Workshop 3: Aloïse Corbaz

Presenter: Jina Valentine, School of the Art Institute

1:00 – 2:00 p.m.

2:00 – 3:00 p.m.
Workshop 4: Alfred Starr Hamilton

Presenter: John Wilkinson, University of Chicago