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Locating the Gothic Conference Review

11 Mar 2015 - 11:15

Locating the Gothic Conference Review

Esthie Hugo – Master’s Student

In October of 2014, I travelled* from Cape Town to Limerick, Ireland, in order to attend Locating the Gothic – a three day conference concerning all things sinister and strange. I was to present a paper entitled ‘Hide and Sick: Gothic Pop-Culture in the Contemporary South African Moment’, which explored the Gothic’s potentialities in South Africa through an analysis of the work of contemporary performance-artists Dookoom, Die Antwoord and Spoek Mathambo.


The conference was hosted at Limerick School of Art and Design, and opened with a presentation by Dr Biggs. Making use of the experiences of people with Myalgic Encephalo-myelitis (ME for short) in Britain, Biggs provided a compelling account of the Gothic as a discourse of empathy and vulnerability. The treatment of ME sufferers, suggested Biggs, illustrated ‘a literal enactment of Gothic terror’ imposed by authority figures onto others rendered vulnerable by this illness. For Biggs, these painful everyday experiences necessitated a‘re-mapping’ of the Gothic – one which supports coping strategies that ‘enable us to face, rather than belittle, deny, privatize or otherwise exploit the human pain and suffering that grounds our commonality’. Biggs concluded with  a probing question by asking whether the psychosocial value of the Gothic has been somewhat diluted – or even perverted – with the dawn of mass media consumption and entertainment.  

Sitting in the audience that morning, I could not help but be struck by Biggs’ question. Considered from post-apartheid South Africa, a context that is still largely informed by the traumas and brutalities of our history, this question cut to the bone of what I think it means to be a Gothic scholar today. If the Gothic, following Biggs, functions as a mode cognisant of ‘our need to find and continually renew, ways of facing, of coping with, suffering, horror, cruelty, loss, grief and death’, then surely the form contains powerful psychosocial value, not only for the fraught context of Southern Africa, but also for the vulnerabilities and oppressions that frame the globalised world?

Over the course of the next few days I was exposed to a memorable array of Gothic thought, I heard of work done on medical Gothic – a field of research that deploys the Gothic in order to transcend the limitations of scientific thought. I learnt, too, of Gothic’s impact on eco-criticism, which considered the mode as it engages with the relationship between Nature and humanity. To my delight, the Gothic found release in all forms of research, from medical and environmental studies through to work done on post-colonialism, foreclosure and the global economy.

This is not to suggest that the symposium was all work and no play. It featured a wide array of papers by some of the field’s leading scholars, as well as a festival complete with art exhibitions, music, theatre and even a zombie walk! Thanks to an entertaining and engaging few days, Locating the Gothic confirmed the ways in which the Gothic remains alive to the delights, the vulnerabilities and the complexities that continue to inform the contemporary world.  

*Special thanks to the National Research Fund and the UCT English Department for providing me with the financial means by which to attend.