|menu from the closing dinner|
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 : 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.