Monday, April 09, 2012

Oceanic Shakespeare Feelings

view from my hotel room at dusk
by J J Cohen

[read Karl on Derrida as a table first]

Last week I attended my first SAA (Shakespeare Association of America) meeting. Despite my well documented propensity to poke fun at my early modernist colleagues (because, who can resist?), I will not compose an anthropological account of a medievalist's visit to that other world, Planet Shakespeare, where the quills of outrageous fortune aim their squibs at a sea of trouble, and where in homage to the Bard all metaphors are mixed and playfully devoid of sense. OK, it is true that most papers at SAA follow a set formula for their title ("'Famous Line from Shax Play': A Study of Something Somewhat Related to One Word Within That Line"), that Hamlet surprisingly endures as urtext and wellspring, and that canonicity is alive and well ... but that's all I've got. The SAA struck me as a lively and in most ways ordinary academic conference. I expected to feel a little out of place, but instead recognized someone I knew from somewhere each time I turned a corner or stepped out of the elevator. In other words, I felt welcome and at home.

I attended SAA Boston because Steve Mentz kindly invited me to serve as a respondent at his "Oceanic Shakespeares" seminar. Instead of traditional panels of papers, the SAA confab revolves mainly around these gatherings of 15 or so people who pre-circulate work and arrive in a room ready to speak about the papers they have read and the umbrella topic. The benefit of this format is that the seminar is intense, and (for its participants) so much more engaging than listening to three papers and hoping the presenters don't go over their allotted time so that a few questions may be posed. Probing and provocative discussion unfolds. The downside is that these seminars are not much fun to watch if you didn't read the papers, so once your seminar has concluded there isn't much left to do at the conference besides a plenaries and a few general panels. Of the latter I attended a terrific session put together by my colleague Holly Dugan, considering Shakespeare's primatology. I also went to see a double plenary at which Marjorie Garber, who taught me how to teach, lectured on "Shakespeare and/in the Humanities." Though a silent assumption of her piece -- and that of her co-lecturer -- was that Shakespeare and the humanities are the same thing (to which: ???!!!), I quickly came to realize that these plenary talks were a celebration of the SAA at age 40 and as celebrations they can be anglophile and bardolatrous and all those other things that many of us don't see so much of any more. It was like time travel. As was the meeting as a whole, in a personal way: I lunched and coffeed and simply ran into so many people I know from graduate school that I was reminded constantly how happy I am to have had the chance to get to know them later in life, when the insanity of that time has become a memory we can laugh about together.

Back to the seminars. Much obviously depends upon the leadership of the particular seminar, and Steve did an extraordinary job in that role. The papers arrived on time, discussion began electronically before we stepped foot in the room in the Copley Plaza Westin, and the two hour proceeding was well structured through a series of culminating moves. As an icebreaker we narrated one story of our relation to the sea (I spoke about arriving in my hotel room the previous night, looking out across the harbor and spotting George's Island; on the ruins of the civil war fortress there, staring at an ocean that stretched to vanishing, I proposed to my future spouse in a moment that surprised us both). Steve also gave us a secret nautical term that has entered common language. We were supposed to work it quietly into our remarks at some point, pushing the paper with the term to the middle of the table when we did so. Mine was "grog" so I held it until the end, when I suggested we continue the discussion at a tavern over some.

I enjoyed each of the seminar papers. I circulated a response to three in the "Fresh Water Ecologies" section ahead of time, and posted these blanket questions about the whole group of papers:

So far my big emergent questions have to do with how Oceanic Shakespeares of necessity must also be Rocky Shakespeares, Fiery Shakespeares, and Stormy Shakespeares: that is, it’s pretty clear to me that you can’t trace the agency of one element without tracing that of the others. And that of course brings up the Big Question of agency. Is uber-canonical literature like Shakespeare to be saddled with functioning as store of poetic tropes for, say, the ocean in ways that ultimately have to do with human psychologies and subjectivities, or can the elements speak and act and exert agency in ways that the plays make evident? To what extent must an oceanic Shakespeare an inhuman Shakespeare? Is to ask that question to transport Shakespeare out of history and again make him for All Time? What does the sea do to temporality?

I was trying to push the seminar to make bigger claims. The papers tended to be vast in potential, but typically rather circumscribed in their claims: Shakespeare not for all time, but for an event involving pirates on a small coast on a well documented day in 1596. I also wanted to get at the tension between the local histories that seemed to cluster easily around fresh water (ponds, rivers, bodies of water small enough to be emplaced rather precisely within geography and history) and the invitation to temporal, geographical and cultural hybridity and dispersedness that oceans inevitably extend. Isn't the oceanic the closest thing we have to a metalanguage, or at least to a lingua franca? (And now I can see I was using "ocean" as an elemental substitute for "Shakespeare," so I wonder also what is at stake with that: can a materiality replace a textuality as "our" commonality?) Some of the other questions I tried to raise: We'd spoke a bit about metis, or hand-knowledge, the embodied craft you need to sail. But Metis, daughter of Oceanus, is also the titaness swallowed by Zeus to give birth to Athena. So how does metis curve into intellect? Might we look to Thetis, goddess of the sea, mother of Achilles (bound to history he cannot escape) and daughter of Proteus (who changes and changes)? What do these enmeshments reveal about gender and fluidity? What is the relation between the shore (as a human place, where sea becomes inscribed as historic events that unfold and are marked; where we seek out our store of tropes for emblems, psychology, poetry, accounts of conferences) and the ocean (the blue ecology, the vast and salty and extralinguistic place that is not our home, in Steve's lucid account)? What about estuaries -- admittedly, my favorite kind of place, where land and fresh water meet sea, marsh, and salt? Estuary comes from the Latin word aestus, meaning boiling or tide. Related to it are aestas (summer: that is, a small duration) and, obliquely, aedes (temple, house, edifice: something in which to dwell, something that might last). In the brackish water of the estuary -- always mixed, always moving even when it seems still -- a complicated mesh unfolds in which life adapts and elements combine. Estuaries are also factories for the production of stone: the silt washed into oceans resurfaces millions of years later as the rocks with which we are most familiar. Estuaries as combinatory and impure places invite us to an elemental frame and inhuman notions of time.

I'm not going to report on individual papers since so many came to me stamped with warnings not to quote or cite them. But I will say that discussion we had was so lively that four days later I am still ruminating over what we covered. It was a great pleasure at the conference to get to know Steve Mentz better, to drink numerous Dark 'n' Stormies with him, and to close out two bars in one night doing so (we were joined by some other die hards: Will Stockton, who I met for the first time and almost convinced to buy a horse pillow that looked like a cow as we walked through a mall; Ayanna Thompson;  Lowell Duckert; Liza Blake, among many others. I name them all honorary medievalists for their perseverance). Boston will always seem like home to me, and it was fun to be back in a hotel only a few blocks away from where a cafe once stood in which I wrote much of my dissertation, walking streets that have changed somewhat but not all that much in the years I've known them. I even got to have lunch with my parents. But all in all I will remember SAA as the place that reaffirmed for me how many good, smart people work in the early modern period and how important it is for medievalists and early modernists to work more closely together. We have too much in common, and too much to learn from each other, to allow historical divisions to create segregations.


Jessica George said...
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Steve Mentz said...

Very generous, Jeffrey. I for one would have welcomed more anthropology, but I suspect your feeling of familiarity may well be mine too at NCS this summer. I'm mulling the metis thoughts -- it's not just hand-craft in the Odyssey, either, but also linguistic craft, which is important for my work on sea poetry -- and should get a blog post up in a little while. The point about macro titles and micro papers seems a more general complaint about academic timidity, no? Certainly the historicist strain of this infects early modern discourses, perhaps more than medieval studies -- or at least the ITM version of medieval studies! You're also more charitable that I am toward the easy-listenin' plenaries, though there were some good papers given last weekend.

Anonymous said...

a silent assumption of her piece -- and that of her co-lecturer -- was that Shakespeare and the humanities are the same thing

I don't know that I would characterize what I heard at SAA in quite that way. Shorthand for the humanities, maybe, and one determined by the venue: if you want to talk about the humanities, and you're at a Shakespeare conference, you probably talk about the humanities by talking about Shakespeare.

But perhaps I'm overly sensitive about this sort of thing, since it often seems to me that Shakespeareans are supposed to apologize for wanting to talk about Shakespeare, as though this impulse always springs from some blinkered Bardolatry that we are supposed to rise above in some way (people complaining that too much Shakespeare gets taught as though Shakespeare, rather than the narrowing of the curriculum, is the problem; or attributing the prevalence of books on Shakespeare to craven cynicism or small thinking on the part of the authors without taking publishing needs into account).