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Locating the Gothic Conference and Festival: a South African Review(17 Nov 2014)
By Miss Esthie Hugo
Just over 3 weeks ago, I travelled from Cape Town, South Africa, to Limerick, Ireland, in order to attend ‘Locating the Gothic’ – a three-day conference and festival organised by Tracey Fahey and Maria Beville celebrating all things sinister, creepy and macabre. I was to present a paper entitled ‘Hide and Sick: Gothic Pop Culture in the Contemporary South African Moment’, and capitalised on the long journey in order to actually compose the thing. Before arriving in Ireland, I met up with fellow Gothic scholars Rebecca Duncan and Shannon Rollins in Edinburgh, and after some sight-seeing and ‘research-participation’, the three of us arrived in Limerick somewhat fragile and, certainly in my case, travel-weary. My fatigue was quickly forgotten, however, when the first day of ‘Locating the Gothic’ commenced on Thursday October 23rd at Limerick School of Art and Design.
Keynote speaker, Dr Iain Biggs, opened with a presentation entitled ‘Mapping Spectral Traces: notes from, and on a Debatable Land; Or: (Re)Locating the Gothic?’ (The full text can be found on Dr Biggs’ website: http://www.iainbiggs.co.uk/2014/10/locating-the-gothic/). Despite Biggs’ interest in the Gothic being somewhat incidental (via an interest in animism) his presentation provided a moving account of Gothic as a potential discourse of empathy and vulnerability. Biggs’ address was framed by a phrase that all Gothic scholars will know and love: Angela Carter’s ‘We live in gothic times’. Taking these words as his frequent point of reference, Biggs argued that Carter’s phrase is made powerfully manifest in the long term treatment of sufferers of Myalgic Encephalo-myelitis (ME for short) in contemporary Britain and elsewhere. The treatment of ME sufferers animated what Biggs termed ‘a literal enactment of Gothic terror’ imposed by people in authority onto others rendered vulnerable and helpless by this chronic illness. These painful elements of every day existence necessitated what Biggs termed a ‘re-mapping’ of the Gothic – one which works to support coping strategies that ‘enable us to face, rather than belittle, deny, privatize or otherwise exploit the human pain and suffering that grounds our commonality’. At the close of his presentation, Biggs posed a probing and difficult question by asking whether the psychosocial value of the Gothic has been somewhat diluted – or even perverted – with the dawn of mass media consumption and entertainment?
Sitting in the audience that morning, having travelled a great distance in order to talk about Gothic’s potentialities in the contemporary South African context, I could not help but be powerfully struck by Biggs’ question. Considered from post-apartheid South Africa, a context that is still largely informed by the extreme traumas and brutalities of my country’s oppressive history (and indeed present), this question cut right to the bone of what I think it means to be a scholar of the Gothic in the global – but still markedly violent and oppressive – world today. If the Gothic, as Biggs suggested, holds the potential to function as a critical mode by which to better comprehend ‘our need to find and continually renew, ways of facing, of coping with, suffering, horror, cruelty, loss, grief and death’, then surely the field contains powerful psychosocial value, not only for the fraught political and social context of my country, but also for the complex oppressions and realities that frame the broader, globalised world?
In light of this remapping called for by Biggs, it is worth drawing attention to the fact that a number of papers at ‘Locating the Gothic’ engaged with this suggestion in a variety of insightful ways. (These, I must emphasise, are only a few of the presentations I can mention for the purposes of word limit, and are by no means the only papers that left an impression). I was privileged to hear of work done by Laura Kremmel, for instance, on medical Gothic – a field of research that engages with the Gothic mode in order to transcend the limitations of scientific thought. ‘The Gothic Imagination’, Kremmel suggested, could take up the scalpel and work on dissections and treatments of its own, and thus reach beyond the limits of the clinical, the scientific and the medical. (Throughout Kremmel’s presentation, my mind kept returning the disturbing images and narratives we are continually confronted with in the media of the growing Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Surely Gothic studies can offer us a way to better sensitise, not demonise, this traumatic and horrific occurrence?) I learnt, too, of Gothic’s impact on the relatively new field of eco-criticism – this via Elizabeth Parker’s ‘Perverted Edens: Evil Dead and the ecoGothic’, which cast light on Gothic as it is currently engaging with the troubling and indeed troublesome relationship that exists between Nature and humanity. Kristy Butler made use of the Gothic in another memorable paper entitled ‘Repossessed: Fear, Foreclosure and Economic Crisis’ in order to describe the painful haunting currently enacted by the breakdown of the economy in the United States. In a similar vein, my friend and colleague, Rebecca Duncan, offered the Gothic as a crucial critical idiom through which to re-think the frightening economic vulnerabilities that are experienced by many in South Africa as a result of the country’s embracement of neo-liberal politics.
This is not to suggest that ‘Locating the Gothic’ was all work and no play. The conference boasted not only a wide array of engaging papers by some of the field’s leading scholars, but also a wonderful festival complete with art exhibitions, music, theatre and a wicked zombie walk. By bridging the worlds of the academy and the recreational, the conference and festival served as a reminder of how Gothic can engage vibrantly with both the enjoyable and the critical. Thanks to an entertaining and illuminating few days, ‘Locating the Gothic’ confirmed the ways in which the Gothic remains alive to the delights, the vulnerabilities and the complexities that continue to inform the contemporary world.
P.S. Stay tuned for my upcoming posts on ‘Reflections on the Gothic in Contemporary South Africa: Music, Mayhem and Malevolence’. . .