Ali Smith’s Quartet: Community, Brexit and the Transglossic

Kristian Shaw 1Lecture Theatre (Conference Room for overflow)

Beginning with Autumn (2016), a sustained mediation on the anus mirabilis that changed the political and cultural landscape of twenty-first century society, and concluding with the post-Brexit fallout of Summer (2020), this panel dedicated to Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet embeds the contemporaneous events of the EU referendum within a wider cyclical process of British history and natural decline.

Shaw’s paper will discuss how Smith directly engages with the events of Brexit, anticipating and responding to recent socio-cultural and ethno-political shifts. The paper will also discuss how the third instalment of Smith’s quartet, Spring (2019), marks a departure from the Anglo-centric focus of her earlier instalments to comment on Scotland’s troubled and ambivalent place within the British constellation, as well as clear political and ideological tensions between the two nations regarding UK immigration policy. Engaging with Smith’s repeated refrain that literature is how we learn to ‘read the world […] most empathetically, most complexly, most humanly’ (PRI), the paper argues that Smith’s quartet contains an aspirational and animating ‘transglossic’ energy in confronting the cosmopolitical crises of the contemporary moment.

Kristian Shaw, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Lincoln 

Ely will argue that Smith’s quartet builds on her previous work to counterpose a sense of literary and aesthetic community to the polarized ideological positions of Brexit. Smith develops a tendency going back to her earliest publication First Love (1995), where her short story “Text for the Day” constructs a literary community of citations, working together fragments of largely female authors to offer a vision of a feminist and politically motivated literature. In Smith’s reclamation of the legacy of Pauline Boty and Barbara Hepworth and her rumination on Rainer Maria Rilke and Katherine Mansfield, Smith continues this trend, proposing a process of historical, aesthetic and literary reflection which might intervene in the affective rawness and incessant speed of events that have overtaken out political and cultural landscape. The paper will conclude by arguing that Smith’s project may be productively construed as the cultivation of a ‘literary community’, which, following the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, allows for creative and interruptive possibilities in the formation of communal thinking, allowing for the imagination of new, shared, and egalitarian futures beyond the crises of the present.

Peter Ely, Early Career Researcher, University of West London

Upstone will examine Smith’s seasonal quartet with regards to the politics of empathy and the development of the ‘transglossic’. Positioning Smith’s quartet as part modern, part postmodern, part magical realist, Upstone will argue that the novels function equally as future-thinking provocation and as interruptive forces that declare an alternative possibility beyond the confines of the current political status quo. This politicised intervention rests upon a dynamic disturbance of established popular viewpoints. Drawing from examples across the quartet, Upstone argues that Smith eschews the easy binaries of contemporary British politics for a politics of empathy that demands an active, interventionist mode of being. In its simultaneity, Smith’s fiction will be said to represent a many-voiced – or transglossic – mode of representation that is acutely and self-consciously directed toward the intricacies of the current political moment.

Sara Upstone, Professor in Contemporary Literature, Kingston University 

The panel will serve as a ‘showcase’ – containing academics at different stages of their respective academic careers.

Sun 4:00 pm - 5:15 pm