The Materiality of the Word (Panel)


Comparative Literature / Interdisciplinary Humanities

Nicholas Pisanelli (Brown University)

Joseph Romano (Columbia University)

In a letter to his friend Axel Kaun, Samuel Beckett once described the “terrible materiality of the word surface” that faces every writer as they set pen to page. Their goal, Beckett claims, is to puncture this surface, boring holes into the word so that a different materiality “lurking behind” it might seep through. When the word is filled with holes, when what is said is ineffable and indescribable, it is no longer subordinated to its representative function. Rather, the word reveals its own sense and sensuousness, its materiality entirely distinct from that of its referent. The “sounding of impossible bodies” of the voices of the dead in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong, the thunder-words of Finnegan’s Wake, or the neologisms in the Paradiso each express this materiality of the word discovered at the limits of any representation. Unbound from the relation between the signifier to the signified, the word becomes the site and material for new utterances, intersections, and collectivities to come.

This panel aims to explore the materiality of the literary word in light of the expanded and capacious sense of materiality developed by the New Materialism, Thing Theory, and the “Material Turn” writ large. Though these theories have largely eschewed the linguistic focus of post-structuralism, rethinking the literary word amidst this multiplicity of materialisms creates novel opportunities to explore its formal, political, and affective potentials. In particular, we seek papers that explore the materiality of the word across literary-historical and national boundaries. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

Nonsense Words

Portmanteau Words

Contemporary Poetics

Medieval Materialisms

Transnational Literature and Vernacularity

Words in Translation

Modernist Experiment

New Materialism and Poetry

Religion and the “Flesh” of Words


This panel seeks papers that explore the materiality of the literary word revealed when words are pushed to their signifying or representative limits (e.g. Lewis Carroll’s portmanteau words, the worldly babble of Édouard Glissant’s poetics). By thinking through the ways that words come to foreground their own sensuousness and phenomenality, instead of their meaning or signification, this panel aims to stage new encounters between theoretical disciplines, historical periods, and literary forms. In particular, we seek papers that theorize the ways that writers transform the localized space of the word into a new space of communal interaction.