The Essex Sociology of Literature Project
"The Essex conferences on the Sociology of Literature now have a quasi-mythological status in the minds of some who weren't even born at the time; and like all such achievements they represented a creative intersection between a group of individuals and a unique historical moment" (Terry Eagleton)
Between 1976 and 2001 one of the most prominent intellectual and political programmes within the University of Essex was the series of conferences, symposia, and publications organised under the rubric of the Essex Sociology of Literature project. Originally associated with the MA in the Sociology of Literature, the project organised its first conference in 1976; a further seven followed in the first series, all of which were published locally (in ten volumes), with a selection of the papers published by Methuen as Literature, Politics, Theory. A second series -- consisting of six symposia -- followed between 1989 and 1995, with the papers from all but one published commercially, the last volume appearing in 1998. A final conference was held in January 2001 in memory of Francis Barker, a founding member of the project and whose name appears as editor on almost all the publications. This conference marked the end of a 25 year project.
The Essex Sociology of Literature project was initiated in 1976 by David Musselwhite, who had just taken up a teaching position in the Department of Literature at Essex. Also involved in the first conference was another member of staff, John Coombes, two Ph.D. students, Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, and an undergraduate, Richard Osborne. Over its 25 years the project involved, as organisers and editors, many members of staff and graduate students from various departments in the School of Humanities and Comparative Studies at Essex, although Francis Barker and Peter Hulme were the only two associated with it from beginning to end. The full list is as follows: Francis Barker (Literature), Jay Bernstein (Philosophy), John Coombes (Literature), Ian Craib (Sociology), Peter Hulme (Literature), Margaret Iversen (Art History), Diana Loxley (Literature), Colin Mercer (Literature), David Musselwhite (Literature), Richard Osborne (Literature), Jennifer Stone (Literature), Jon Stratton (Sociology).
The conferences provided an important forum for the left as new political and cultural theories began to change the face of English Studies and to have a significant impact on other disciplines. The conferences were passionate and intense experiences for all involved, with between 100 and 150 people attending each year, and the main speakers drawing much bigger audiences. With financial support from the University and the Department of Literature (through its Research Endowment Fund), we were able to bring overseas speakers such as Pierre Macherey, Renée Balibar, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Jane Gallop, and Fredric Jameson to the conferences. Academics from the British left also came regularly -- Stuart Hall gave the first paper at the first conference, Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton spoke at the second, followed later in the series by Homi Bhabha, Anthony Barnett, John Arden, and many others. Catherine Belsey, Anthony Easthope, David Punter, Ian Birchall, and Graham Pechey were among regular speakers.
After a short break, the project's second series took a different form, though using as series title the same three terms, "Literature / Politics / Theory" as had been used for the selection of conference papers published by Methuen in 1986. With other universities taking up the task of conference organising, we committed ourselves to more intensive explorations of particular themes. As the prefaces to the symposia volumes declared: "The sequence of volumes to which this book belongs has a different configuration from that first series, but builds upon its work. The principles behind the intervention remain the same: the process is different. These books present advanced research by people working in this new critical field. Contributors have been invited with a view to achieving a mix of established and younger writers from Britain and abroad, representing a variety of relevant theoretical approaches. In each case participants have been asked to prepare a draft paper in advance of a symposium held at Essex. At the symposium the pre-circulated papers have been discussed, and the direction of the volume assumed a clearer shape. Papers have then been rewritten in the light of the discussions, the underlying commitment being to collective and dialogic methods of work and publication."
The six symposia were obviously different in nature from the conferences -- and a lot easier to organise. They were also intense learning experiences for all concerned -- a three-day long seminar punctuated by some lengthy meals. Again, speakers with international reputations found the format attractive: these included Lisa Jardine, Mary Louise Pratt, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Simon During, David Lloyd, Neil Whitehead, Catherine Hall, Nancy Fraser, Mary Campbell, and Gananath Obeyesekere.
The project's final event -- the memorial conference for Francis Barker -- was obviously very different again, bringing together some of the people who'd attended the conferences in the 1970s along with several generations of Francis's colleagues and ex-students on an occasion which combined sadness and celebration.
Sociology of Literature home page Conferences,
Symposia, and Publications
List of Published Papers Programme for Francis Barker Memorial Conference