MLA 2019 Special Session: Reinterpreting Nonsense

Radovan Škultéty's picture
Call for Papers
March 15, 2018
Subject Fields: 
East Asian History / Studies, Humanities, Literature, Philosophy, Russian or Soviet History / Studies

This is a call for papers for a special session at the annual MLA convention to take place in Chicago, Jan 3 - 6, 2019.

We live in the internet era with its mirrored online reality where (almost) everything seems quantifiable, searchable and generally predictable. Our minds are trained to apply logic and reason to analyze the world and organize it using the rules of language. Yet there is a realm outside what is expressible in ordinary language, to which literary nonsense points.

According to (Anglo-centric) Western literary scholarship, nonsense literature in its “classical” form is best exemplified by Victorian nonsense in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books (1832-1898) and Edward Lear’s (1812-1888) limericks, mainly from his collections. These works later inspired authors as varied as Christian Morgenstern (poems in Alle Galgenlieder), Franz Kafka (short stories), John Lennon (short stories, e.g., “In His Own Write” and “A Spaniard in the Works”), and many others. Actually, deliberate nonsense is all around us, but we hardly notice it. It is a vital structural component of popular songs, humor, cartooning, and advertising.

The issue is that the term “nonsense literature” is not directly translatable. While in German scholarship on the subject (e.g., Rolf Hildebrandt, Alfred Liede), a useful distinction is made between “Unsinn” (folk and popular nonsense such as nursery rhymes, and ornamental nonsense which includes wordplay and similar devices) and “Nonsense” (literary or “pure” nonsense such as the classic works by Lear and Carroll), and even though nonsense thrives in various forms and literatures across centuries, the meaningful nonsense as a concept is not expressible in most, if not all, languages other than English.

The linguistic connection is important since it reveals an area of incompleteness that compromises our ability to think rationally about important questions that don’t fit easily into the literal frame of language. In fact, nonsense offers a way to overcome the limitations of ordinary logical language and presents an important creative and aesthetic principle, beyond all utilitarian concerns. In its highest form, the nonsense operates at the higher level of the interpretation of reality on the part of the subject—or of the impossibility thereof. Literary nonsense thus sounds like a deliberate, last-ditch attempt to snatch order from the jaws of chaos: the speech of the 'Fool' as opposed to the tale told by an idiot.

Despite having gained increasing critical attention in the recent years, the literature of nonsense still is a largely heterogeneous field lacking a unifying perspective in the comparative literary framework. Therefore, we propose this panel in a hope to expand the concept of nonsense literature beyond Victorian to cover Russian & Eastern European literature of the absurd, Theater of the Absurd, the Zhuangzi, Zen koans etc.

Proposed paper topics may include, but are not limited to:

- analyzing specific works of literary nonsense, esp. from minor national literatures

- introducing new perspectives on nonsense theories in philosophy and literary studies (the Stoics, Hegel, Nietzsche, Derrida, Blanchot, Nancy, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein and Deleuze) and literature (Stewart, Lecercle, Tigges et al.)

- exploring relation of nonsense to the unconscious domain of thought (e.g., surrealism)

- discussing nonsense communication strategies of meaning, e.g., the use of metaphor, paradox, and private language

- analyzing specific forms of nonsense such as nursery rhymes with nonce words

- nonsense in the age of electronic literature and the post-truth era.

We seek papers from researchers and postgraduate students across the humanities, philosophy, and linguistics that combine creative, multiple disciplinary and cutting-edge epistemologies. Particularly welcome are papers in comparative literature and East Asian literature. Interested participants should provide their short CV and a 250-word abstract to Mr. Radovan Škultéty, by 10 March 2018.

Note: This CFP is NOT an official submission to the MLA convention. MLA requires the submitters to first convene a panel and elicit contributions. The convener will then send in the panel proposal for approval to the MLA. Decisions on proposals come out usually at the end of March/early April.

MLA annual convention is the largest and most important conference of the year for scholars of languages and literature in North America. Language departments of many universities and colleges interview candidates for teaching positions at the convention. It is a great chance to gain exposure in the U.S. academia. It is of particular interest to PhD. students in the last year of their programs. For more information on MLA annual convention and the arrangement of special sessions incl. call for papers, please, visit

Contact Info: 

Radovan Škultéty, special session convener

Shih Chien University (Taipei) lecturer

National Taiwan University, Dept. of Foreign Languages and Literatures, PhD. candidate

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