Monday, February 13, 2012

Surfaces that are never shallow: The Exemplaria Symposium

menu from the closing dinner
by J J Cohen

I'm just back from Austin, where I participated in the excellent Exemplaria symposium on "Surface, Symptom and the State of Critique."  Congratulations to Liz Scala (who took care of the local arrangements), Patty Ingham, Tison Pugh, Noah Guynn and Peggy McCracken for an event that well honored this field-changing journal.

Some time is going to need to pass before I can digest all of what was said, since twenty speakers delivered provocative position papers on the topic, and then four responses were mounted. I've been watching Sunday's closing session online (unfortunately my plane was early enough in the morning that I could not attend) and am both grateful and amazed that Patty, Randy Schiff, Geraldine Heng and Noah each so ably synthesized the capacious theses and practices of the symposium and then opened up future prospects.

The Q&A following each session was especially substantial. The queries and the answers had such heft that they required a while to unspool and then ponder. A microphone had to travel so that each could be recorded, and then was whisked to the next interlocutor as the response came -- perhaps inhibiting swift interchanges and spontaneous eruptions, yet worth the price in the end for the reach the webcast proceedings possessed (here's a response from Korea, for example). I also had the bad luck of never having been spotted raising my hand. But that's a cavil; watch the archived footage of the panels and you will realize how good each of the sessions were, both in the quality of the presentations and the depth of the questions posed. Note that the 'Politics' session extended to nearly two and a half hours (!), even though we had only three presenters (George Edmondson, Aranye Fradenburg and me): an especially vigorous Q&A unfolded, covering the vast range of topics you'd expect under the rubric, and aided by the fact that we were the last panel of the day, and got to linger. Of the many panels I've done in my career 'Politics' is among my favorite. Aranye's turn to a creaturism over humanism has been especially inspirational to me, and George's situation of our endeavors within the managerial practices of the contemporary university was cogent.

The early modern-medieval divide was ignored, as it should be (though it would have been good to have an Anglo-Saxonist and an art historian, as Elaine Treharne pointed out on Twitter). I departed the conference feeling renewed, and in possession of a long list of topics I'd like to think more about. I can't do justice to the three day's proceedings in a blog post, and the whole thing is available for you to watch as streaming video anyway (suggested drinking game: any time a scholar explodes the surface/depth binary, imbibe). But I will say that after the Exemplaria session at Kalamazoo in which Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus's essay “Surface Reading: An Introduction” (Representations 108 [2009]: 1-21) was so smartly dismantled, I wondered how much remained to say on the topic. As it turned out, plenty. I do not believe that the Best and Marcus piece yields all many useful insights; as was repeatedly pointed out, the essay is glib, presentist, lacking in nuance, and sometimes just wrong. But as a polemic that most presenters reacted against, it gave the symposium a feeling of communal endeavor. Many papers began with an almost ritualized pointing out of problems with Best and Marcus, but always moved quickly to the question of how to do better and where to go next. There was a recurrent emphasis on alliance and confederation (Carolyn Dinshaw's work on amateurism stood out here).

Symptom and surface were rendered incredibly generative through an array of approaches and reinventions (the first two panels were especially adroit at this, but all the sessions reinvigorated the terms). The word that didn't get as full due as it might have at the symposium was critique. Critique often seemed the negative thing that we do when we, for example, point out that Best and Marcus have misread Sedgwick and Jameson. Bruno Latour is partly to blame for this: as I pointed out in my own presentation, Latour's recent work on composition over critique is built on a definition of the word as a revelation of constructedness and false consciousness. Critique (which Julie Orlemanski and I suggested might also be aligned with occupation) also builds, renews, reinhabits, and composes with. Or, at least, it can.

A lively discussion of creating consent and framing disagreement unfolded, but not exactly as a rethinking or redeployment of critique. We too often equate critique with being harsh, as if making severe pronouncements were an act of critical bravery. A book review, for example, that points out why the volume under examination is mistaken or 'dangerous' or unnecessary easily earns the title of critique; pointing out why things are wrong somehow seems scholarly. Critique can of course involve disagreement and argument; what need not arrive as siblings are negativity and dismissiveness, neither of which is especially productive. Critique for me means taking seriously the texts and objects we regard, entering into generous relation with them, exploring what vistas open as well as what possibilities might still be activated. Geraldine Heng (who defined critique as an educated, generous, and attentive mode of reading, an inherently slow process of following and unfolding differences) made an observation that has stayed with me. After I asked in the Q&A how we had all come to agree with each other before we'd even arrived in Austin, noting the amount of head nodding that occurred during the talks, Gerry pointed out that nodding one's head can be an embodied mode of thinking: it means you're taking something seriously, but not necessarily assenting to it. That seems right. It's an open and embodied way of processing information, a form of critical attentiveness.

Several times I've been in the audience as a scholar much smarter and more accomplished than I am has used my work as a point of departure, pointing out that I had framed something too narrowly, got a point wrong, or simply did not see a latent potential. In Siena at NCS, Susan Crane delivered a brilliant paper on horses and bodies that made clear I needed to rethink the link I'd posited between fluid bodies and anxiety. At the Exemplaria symposium, Gerry Heng gave an extraordinary piece that included a tracing of the African and Arabian vectors of the word "Antrarian" in The Sultan of Babylon (a word that I have argued is a collection of nonsense syllables glossed as if it were a Saracen language). In both cases these scholars said positive things about my work before venturing down their very different paths. While I appreciate such humane gestures -- and in fact in both cases was quite touched by this good heartedness -- for me there was zero chance of being made uncomfortable or hurt by my work being brought somewhere new. Just the opposite: what could be better than having something I wrote be taken so seriously that a new vista suddenly opens? Does it get better than that? By looking at and with rather than (as I had done) through and past antrarian, Gerry changed how we read the romance, and that renewal seems to me the best of what criticism can do (and a reason for us to stop worrying that novelty is bad just because the modernists praised it so highly: couldn't it be that in their ardor for perspective shift the modernists were on to something?)

The symposium was nurtured by excellent food (we were in Austin, after all) and the care of the Exemplaria editors. It's a source of great happiness to me to see the journal in the hands of Liz Scala, Patty Ingham, Noah Guynn, Tison Pugh and Peggy McCracken, scholars whose work I admire and who are also good friends. My hope is that this symposium is the first in a series. The journal as been the lifeblood of theory savvy medieval and early modern studies for more than two decades, these gatherings (and the electronic modes of participation and distribution used) can be instrumental in shaping the future of the field.

To the organizers -- and participants -- well done.


Karl Steel said...

thanks a million for this Jeffrey. Wish I could have been both places at once.

One of the many things I like about this post is the way it implicitly challenges a way that I think we've been seen here, justifiably or not, namely, as a group of people who GET ALONG TOO WELL. A group of yessers, where affirmative means averse to conflict, or vice versa. Here, though, you've made a space for disagreement, or challenge, or taking things in a new or even radically different direction, generously, humbly, and not-necessarily-serious, if by "serious" we mean STERN. What you've described, I think, is a mode of scholarship that doesn't shy away from our mutual vulnerability to each other. Most gatekeepers, I think, are playing king or queen of the mountain, but they're the only one playing. Here, though, we have scholarship as GROUP PLAY.

Thanks again. Looking forward to making the time to watch the videos.

Jeb said...

I prefer to be a serial theory, label and rubber stamp dodger. I feel too much is imposed on texts, which limits inflection range and appeal.

I often find when I read an article on Shakespeare I end up finding rather a lot about Delueze and little about anything else. I don't mind Delueze but I like Shakespeare as well.

I can speak classical verse well and I am very well trained to do so.To only attack Shakespeare in a distinct French accent seems a bit weird and limiting.

In the theater you only use to be allowed to use Received Pronunciation with Bill as it's middle class Southern English vowel sounds were considered to be a 'neutral accent'. Which I am sure is the case if you are middle class and from the South of England. If not it does not sound remotely neutral.

You need to be free to inflect texts in any number of ways when you have to work with them on their feet. Discussion is a very different form of activity. I think theory can really flatten a full inflection range and limit appeal to one very small group.

I prefer to work on the hoof and I am willing to steal from anywhere when the need arises as long as it seems to work at that moment and place in time. Tomorrow things may be utterly different and I don't want to have any particular attachment to one particular mode of doing things.

Aranye Nin, Ph.D. said...

As I noted at the conference, "theory" just means what happens when we think about why and how we do what we do when we read texts. Some kind of theoretical reflection is a responsibility for anyone who is paid to teach students how to interpret language as subtly and carefully as possible. But plenty of non-conscious assumptions and ideas about reading and language go into any kind of response to literary objects, so it's not like the thought isn't there somewhere. It's just a question of when it needs to be foregrounded and deliberated.

Thanks, Jeffrey,for this statement. I

Jeb said...

You present theoretical reflection in somewhat neutral tones.

As someone who had to pay around £25000 for my second degree and had to write off a further £3000 wasted on a p.g course. I see things slightly differently.

I was asked to move departments as simply reading Foucault was ideologically unacceptable for one of my D.O.S.'s and the English lit department I was asked to move to was in a state of open warfare between rival factions.

It was not a place to learn anything other than just how badly intelligent and well educated folks can behave.

I don't know if the problem is the same in the U.S. but academics here are not trained to teach and are in most cases more comfortable speaking to a white board, as it is not going to disagree with them. Many also seem to be unaware that mature students may have had educational or previous professional experience (or indeed both) of subjects under discussion. Often you are dealing with staff who have no experience of the subject in hand as they are asked to take courses outside of their expertise or experience yet they pretend they know what they are talking about and get highly offended if you are unfortunate enough to know the subject.

Responsibility towards students is not in my experience a subject particularly high on many academics radar. I have never seen such high rates of blatant sexual harrasment in the workplace as I have at university.

Female students are scared to speak out as against the tiny minority of staff engaged in such practises as they feel it may damage career prospects, which was indeed the case. You move from a workplace where you're rights are protected to an environment that is administered, controlled and policed by the same people.

The attitude here is clearly different and extremely refreshing but it is far from standard.

Patricia Ingham said...

Thanks, Jeffrey, for this very generous account of the symposium.

I also appreciate Karl's point that affirmation doesn't mean "conflict-averse." I still very much find the notion of critique embedded in a dialectical account of insight AND blindness resonant and responsble both. We've all seen the ways that critique can be used as a cover for ungenerous (and unresponsible) attack, cheap shots, and the power of the status quo. My point in the final wrap up was that debate, disagreement, even judgement CAN make us more creative not less--but of course that's not guaranteed either.

I was also thinking a bit about Sarah Kay's question about thinking how groups work, not only intellectually but psychologically. I think one uneasy way that "Best and Marcus" (note the quotation marks) functioned at the Symposium was to allow a lot of triangulation. So one answer to your question, Jeffrey, about why we all agree was to do with this dynamic: triangulation vs. "Best and Marcus" produced the feeling of agreement--I do think that feel was a somewhat false one. But we triangulate as groups all the time--and we regularly build closeness with some by disagreeing together about someone/thing else. This is also alliance building, and so can also be quite useful in institutional terms.

I will say that I was surprised, given the number of different essays we had on the bibliography, that "Best and Marcus" emerged as our collective object--though I do also think that a lot of what was said in response to their Special issue was generative and substantive--I do not think there were cheap shots.

Still--it's good also to remember that we are still, I think, in the middle of a conversation, and I feel further along in my thinking on this than I did when I started.

fleur said...

I wanted to thank you for posting both the schedule and your handout, in addition to these after-ponderings... the conference really did re-inspire me in a lot of ways to restart projects that are easy to let languish outside the direct support of an academic setting. These projects - both reading and writing - are still important to me, so the conference was a timely reminder.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl, you've hit it precisely. The mistake I made at the Exemplaria symposium initially was to frame the gathering as one where consent had occurred before arrival -- but of course that was not the case at all, even if invocations of "Best and Marcus" (scare quotes are quite right, Patty!) made it seem that way at first.

Because "Best and Marcus" offered a polemic (and again, Patty: you've written eloquently of the generative aspects of polemic; here we saw it in action), the essay was answered in correspondingly stark and vigorous terms. THEN the nuance and points of divergence opened up; these tended to be addressed more broadly to the field (and to other participants). The symposium offered plenty of critique. One of its fundamental questions was thereby implicit: how do we disagree with each other in a way that allows that divergence to be heard, taken seriously, and open up the possibility of change? In the end what we had was just such critique in action, and maybe that is better than agonized rumination over the term at a meta level, which might not have accomplished anything.

The question of how to change discourse while retaining a sense of communal endeavor was fundamental to the symposium, and because it was actually put into effective practice there, I left with a sharpened sense of how to do so elsewhere.