Monday, May 12, 2008

Post Kzoo Post

In the only Kzoo conference post not focused upon Tiny shenanigans, I made the declaration that "My work has an audience." I'm not sure why I phrased my Pronouncement thus, other than that I'd been thinking about how much of the work I've done over the past fifteen years has only recently seemed to me to be something other than letters mailed to unknown receivers. (I am exaggerating, as usual: look at the acknowledgments page of any of my books and you'll see who sustained the thought that went into each ... but still, for a long time I had the feeling that much of what I was writing wasn't making it very far beyond the people thanked in those acknowledgments). I was thinking also of my first Kalamazoo, in 1995, when I felt a little lonely and melancholic. Glenn Burger helped me to see the brightest side of what can happen there, but I still left wondering if I'd ever have an audience among medievalists.

On further reflection, though, I realize that this year's conference reaffirmed for me something rather different: I've never been seeking an audience so much as interlocutors. An audience gets assigned discrete tasks like applause (or tsk-tsks), reviews (good and evil), book purchases (or burnings). Interlocutors don't allow the space of a conference panel or the confines of a book jacket to confine them: they engage with work at its moment of production, alter its coming into being, challenge and affirm ... and once this work has found the pseudo-permanence of page and print, they ensure that its life does not come screeching to an end, that its future includes strange new forms and unanticipated progeny. That's what was reaffirmed to me at this Kalamazoo: not that the audience I'd been only imagining early in my career had materialized, but that there is a large group of people with whom to have conversations about mutual obsessions, anxieties, desires. What's best about this group is its lack of stratification: I discovered as many dissertations being formed as I did second, third and fourth book projects by people whose scholarship I've long admired. So, forget audience. Look, I am crossing it out: audience. Without the mutuality that interlocutor stresses, scholarship has a tendency to take root and -- even if it flourishes -- not move much from its place of origin. And what happens if you are trying to thrive in your garden, and no one is stopping by to notice your sparkle? Better to cast your lot with the wanderers. They might take you to unexpected places (karaoke bars in Kalamazoo, for instance) but you might also learn that unlooked for spaces, communal spaces, are really the only ones that matter.


meg said...

Too true. How often do we talk to our students (usually anent the use and abuse of sources) about "entering the conversation" and then turn around and issue our scholastic bleats as if they were arrows, unidirectional and entirely bound by the laws of physics? Make mine a boomerang, thanks.

[Weapons metaphor, um, deployed in recognition of the power of words -- even ours -- to harm self and others.]

Scott S. Boston said...

I am going to venture a post in the spirit of one who has been audience but now will attempt interlocution.

When Dr. Partner ask the question, about who the audience for "this" work is, (other than other Medievalists) I almost raised my hand to speak. I should have. I am not a Medievalist, I am a Theatre and Performance Studies Scholar. I am interested in how we create and perform history, both on the stage and in everyday life and how these areas can influence and interrogate one another. To that end, I believe some of the most thought provoking, scholarship (at least from my point of view) is a product of the people at that table, and others like them. The work found this non-Medievalist interlocutor and it will find many others. I'm just sorry I didn't stand up to be the exception to the rule at the time.

Claire said...

The difference in attitudes during the round-table discussion was night-and-day, the difference between an attitude of generosity on the one hand and an attitude, well, shall I say, less-than-generous on the other. It is the difference between the latent questions I heard from either side during the discussion:

How does our work, medieval studies, make us better people? How can we reach others through this work?

rather than

Where is our audience? Is our work relevant in the face of current atrocities? And my favorite: are we medievalists because it gives us carte-blanche to whine about our place in the academic world, because of a shared attention-seeking disorder?

I, too, wish I had spoken up, but I was very happy that one woman told of the essays she had given her students to read and the discussions that sprouted from that sharing and teaching. Our students are our audience--and we are teaching them to become interlocutors.

Andrew Scheil’s point was also an important one, though not discussed much afterwards: that the immediacy of the text is every bit as relevant as the historical contextualization of the text—in fact, it is that close-reading of the literary text that enables narrative’s transformative power. If we don’t recognize literature as its own kind of knowledge, then those texts become merely specimens in our field and can’t fully do the work that the first two questions address.

dan remein said...

I find this post, Jeffrey, fabulous ("look, I am crossing it out"). Elegant. I had a lot of things to say about this, but I think they are too interworked into my recent post on wraetlic to saying anything concise here. So I will have to let the related parts of my blog post on 'remembering why theory saved my life' stand as a response for the time being.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

they engage with work at its moment of production, alter its coming into being

I think this is essential and gets to the heart of the problem on the table at the Place of Present panel, namely, that it dramatized the question of choosing between our work as something realized only in its quantifiable products and our work as something realizing itself also in its workers. Which is what made Katherine Jager's comment about teaching so demonstrative, it recalled the countless 'vagrant' real others who inhabit and are part of the work of medieval studies, and so remembered pedagogy as our already inhabited material practical home for the wandering everyone wants. Product vs. process, though that is really too destructive a distinction, because both are always co-present. Sepp Gumbrecht's (if I may call him Sepp, since I know more people who call him 'Sepp' than have heard of him!) interplaying presence effects vs meaning effects, and their differently situated subjects and producers (the first world-central the second world-eccentric) would be very helpful here. Cf. my comments. And it could also help to clarify Bruce Holsinger's guarded gestures towards the ritualistic, monastic dimensions of scholarship (liturgy being all about the production of presence).

Anyway, I think Jeffrey's 'coming into being,' like Dan's being together as a theoretical practice, plant a flag that clearly wants to move the boundary of humanistic labor in the direction of the poetic. That medievalist-poets/poet-medievalists seem to be popping out of the ground all around us, much friendlier than the Spartes, is a significant phenomenon in this regard. But it is also because of the historical elitism of humanist poetics that it would have been good for someone to take up Nancy Partner initial but unfulfilled framing of the present question in terms of class.

Eileen Joy said...

I am so late in responding to this post, but I really love the way Jeffrey sums up here, in just a few sentences, the importance of interlocutors, in the best sense of the word, and of casting our lot with the wanderers, which is why I always think of BABEL as a "cell" that's always on the move. I also think Nicola is right to raise the question of poetics and poetical scholarship, which seems to be all around us right now, as well as poets! I've always wanted an artistic scholarship and I feel it, suddenly, developing all around me. How did this happen? We're so lucky. But the thing is, thinking about "audience" [crossed out or not], is that Jeffrey always had the kind he wanted [I think] and just didn't know it, and that's why our academic culture has to change. We have to change the way we "read" each other [solitary room to solitary room, typewriter to typewriter, etc.] so that we can "be-together" as we read, as we write, and as we talk, together, and with each other.

Eileen Joy said...

Oh, and also, thanks for chiming in here, Scott. Better late than never!

Eileen Joy said...

And one other thing in relation to what Jeffrey writes here, which connects to something Dan R. says over at wraetlic, echoing Stacy Klein at BABEL's second Sunday session, that we should want *more* from theory, is that we should also want more from each other, and we should want others to want that with us. For me, a big part of BABEL is helping to create a culture in which this kind of wanting is not disparaged, where it flourishes, and in turn, through interlocution, produces scholarship that shines with a certain rigor of being-together dialectic.