In this edition of the Vassar Critical Journal, the quality and diversity of the submissions we received required us not only to thoughtfully engage with each individual piece, but also to reflect deeply on what kind of journal we wanted to create. Presented with brilliant multidisciplinary work from fields including film studies, art history, and sociology, we wondered whether including so many departures from typical literature-focused investigations might change our identity as a critical literary journal. At the same time, in the face of a variety of highly ambitious but more challenging topics of focus, we grappled with questions of accessibility versus ingenuity. Throughout the submission review process, we engaged in rigorous debates over these issues and ultimately decided that we wanted the journal to be a space that celebrated ambitious original work, even if it might prove more challenging for readers. The innovative submissions we received reminded us of literary theory’s immense potential as a tool for understanding our world, whether within the realm of literature or outside of it. We hope these essays will challenge and excite those who read them, encouraging us all—as writers, editors, and readers—to approach our own areas of study with creativity and ambition.
As we started to make choices about the style of the journal and choose submissions for publication, distinct thematic threads began to emerge among the varied topics and disciplines. All of the essays in this edition examine identities that push back against societal expectations and oppressive conditions or reinforce them. In this way, preoccupation with interiority gives way to a concern with social being or interpersonal connection. Within these reflections on identity, we see a continuum of freedom emerge, as some attempts at forging subversive identity are more effective than others. In “The Convent and the Carnival,” Alexandra Duff determines that performative identities in The Convent of Pleasure and The Rover blur gender boundaries, but ultimately “uphold royalist loyalties to the structure of hierarchical class”; in contrast, works like Karina Burnett’s “‘Girl, Girl, Girlgirlgirl’” and Chenxuan Hu’s “Suede’s Dog Man Star” offer a more hopeful vision, as we see how processes of identification and disidentification contribute to the formation of Black women’s self-definition and utopic imaginings of queer futurity, respectively. This optimism (or lack thereof) is often tied to historical circumstances and cultural movements: in “Here it Ended,” for instance, Simon Goldsmith considers how Lissitzky’s About Two Squares answered the call for a liberatory aesthetic in post-revolutionary Russia; in contrast, in “Curse This House,” Alexander Pham examines how the gothic genre—and especially the type of horror it promotes—reveals the racist underpinnings of American identity. From necropolitics in Bryn Marling’s “Necrophilic Dimensions of Power” to surrealism in Jinming Liang’s “Abstraction Contra Chaos,” the essays in this edition interrogate the idea of dissident identity and highlight the immense value of approaching this concept through a multidisciplinary lens.
Throughout the editorial process, it was immensely rewarding to consider different essays in conversation with each other and find unexpected harmonies between them. This editing process seemed to mirror the same synthesis of ideas that we saw within each individual essay, as the authors repeatedly pulled different threads of theory and inquiry together to weave complex but cohesive tapestries of research and reflection. It is easy to think of literary theory as an inflexible lens, but works like these remind us that it is in fact something much more fluid—a dynamic instrument for reexamining our world in a myriad of ways.
We hope you will enjoy this collection.
Claire Miller ’24