Report & Thoughts: CUSO doctoral module ‘Theories of Intermediality’

View of the lawns of the Hotel Lindenhof, with one set of alps or another beyond

Not a bad site for a graduate workshop

I (Amy) got back on Saturday last week from a two-day graduate workshop on Theories of Intermediality, organised by academics from the University of Bern and held in the hills above Lake Brienz. This was not only  out of my field (everyone but myself was a modernist or a contemporary lit scholar), but out of my language competencies: my greatest achievement for the weekend was definitely the purchase of an ice cream in German.

With most participants coming from Bern or Basel, I got to observe first-hand the difference in methodologies and mindset between the Germanic academisphere and the Anglo-Romance literary communities. One of the key presenters, it think it might have been Prof. Wolf, began his first question with ‘I’m afraid I’m going to ask a very Germanic question here…’, and thus began a weekend peppered with debates about definitions and diagrams. The definition of ‘medium’ came in for particular ire, and by 4pm we were debating whether or not emotions were cognitive and is it possible to communicate with dogs, and if so, whether Prof Eleström’s model of communication sufffiicently incorporated non-human communication.  (Yes, yes and yes, IMHO.)

Point the First: Brief Conference Report

As this conference did not deal with anything medieval (although the first paper, Prof Heffernan’s, discussed classical as well as modern uses of ekphrasis, and now I think I understand the concept of ekphrasis), I shan’t give a full run-down. I will say that the paper which really fired my thinking was Werner Wolf’s paper on use of music in literature, which I am pretty sure was an update on the typology presented in “Metareference across media: The concept, its transmedial potentials and problems, main forms and functions.”1

With aid of diagrams and useful examples, Prof Wolf broke down intermediality into two subfields, extracompositional and intracompositional. Extracompositional covers transmediality, or traits you can study as occuring in two forms, such as narrativity in both literature and music, and intermedial transposition which seems to be his way of saying remediation. Intracompositional intermediality is what, as I discovered this weekend, is usually meant by intermediality: this he divided into plurimediality, where one media form has others embeded into it, such as drama having music in it; and intermedial reference, where one media  (eg literature) either talks about or invokes somehow another. The invoking kind he called implicit reference and subdivided into three types, evocation, formal imitation and (partial) reproduction.

If that all looks horribly confusing, I recommend seeking out the book chapter, since diagrams help. The diagram itself is interesting, and then Prof Wolf’s walkthrough of different modern and contemporary examples dug into the different uses and effects of each type, and then I must say I lost track because I had an idea and started scrawling notes and questions to myself.

Two goats grazing

These goats hung out on the hillside and quietly rang goat-bells while we worked. Lucky goats.

Point the Second: In Praise of the Conférence Universitaire de Suisse Occidentale and its doctoral training programs

Get this: all the universities in francophone Switzerland (plus Bern, on an affiliate basis – Basel recently pulled out) put money into a bucket, and that bucket pays for annual seminar series in multiple disciplines with specific focus on doctoral training. In English, the 2014 program has involved three theory-based conferences, two short workshops on seeking and winning funding, a ‘PhD skills day’ (which covered things like advanced wordprocessor fu, and editing/revision strategies for longer projects) and will conclude with the annual ‘PhD day’ which is a recurring skills / professionalisation / coping strategies program.

Five universities – who in any other country would see each other as competition – put money into a bucket to train their grad students. All travel expenses are reimbursed (CUSO also covers students from other CUSO unis to attend Geneva’s fortnightly doctoral seminars if they wish), and if a workshop goes on for 5+ hours they feed us and in case of multi-day programs there’s an accommodation budget. Switzerland spoils us rotten.

Every time I attend a CUSO event I try to imagine UNSW, UTS and USYD running an English literature training program together (let alone including UWS and Macquarie) and my brain sort of shorts out. I know the Centre for the History of Emotions have a great pan-Australian collaboration thing going on, so it’s not impossible at a project level, but at a department or faculty level? Hah. Hah. Hah.

Size definitely has something to do with it: my department has less than fifteen doctoral students in literature, and perhaps less than twenty all up (… not sure. Linguists are mysterious and possibly mythical creatures), so it’s a great boon to be able to talk with students and lecturers further flung. Obviously USyd has more than that in English, but in French, which would be the comparable reference point? I’m not sure. But CUSO workshops run in all disciplines, not just English – not even just the humanities. There’s an extensive generic skills program including training for private sector work, LaTex, data analysis, the whole kit and caboodle.

My hunch is that university funding models affect collaborative possibilities, though. The CUSO universities are each other’s competition, in that each gets money from its canton corresponding to the number of students.2 But they each get money from their own cantons, plus extra from small cantons who have no universitiy. They’re not competing for the same bucket of money, except insofar as it’s in all their interests to keep Suisse Romande a vibrant and attractive place for postgraduate research so as not to bleed students to their German-speaking cantons or France.


  1. Werner Wolf, ed. in collaboration with Katharina Bantleon and Jeff Thoss. Metareference across Media: Theory and Case Studies — Dedicated to Walter Bernhart on the Occasion of his Retirement. Studies in Intermediality 4. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2009. 1-85.

2. Canton: etymologically similar to English county, and similar in size, but with all the independance dreamed of by US states rights fanatics.

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