Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Kzoo 2012

by J J Cohen

The 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies has come and gone, and I'm only now feeling like I've made dent on the sleep deficit I incurred. Maybe it was the quality of the sessions, or the fact that the temperatures never hit the 80s and rendered the dorm lounges we use as presentation spaces saunas. Perhaps the lifting of some of the gloom that haunted the last Kzoo contributed, since last year all many of us could speak about was austerity and crisis (not that those things have passed). Maybe it was all the music. Or the collaborations like Exemplaria-BABEL-GW MEMSI. Or the fact that Karl is in Paris. No matter what alchemy catalyzed this goodness, though, 2012 was my favorite Kalamazoo to date.

I wish I had time for a full and reflective post, but I've been slammed by Prismatic essays and unanswered emails and receipts to file and an institute's budget to close out. So, some verbal snapshots and bullet points.
  • Thursday was the fullest day of sessions I've yet attended at Kzoo. I presented in the  Exemplaria session on "Middle English and Its Others" at 10 am, and then went to the two back to back BABEL sessions from 1:30-5:00, and then the postmedieval manifestos from 7:30-9:00. Despite the inherent interest of the themes, I would not have been able to last through four sessions in one day if each had been comprised of three or four traditional papers plus a Q&A that depends upon what random audience member gets to speak up in the limited time remaining. The number of presenters at Thursday's four sessions ranged from seven (Exemplaria, BABEL) to 12+ (postmedieval, which featured twelve manifestos, one of which was performed by seven or eight people, so the total had to be around twenty). These short presentations were uniformly well honed, provocative, and well performed. When you have very little time to make your points, you make them well, without all the preliminaries and caveats that we build into twenty minute papers. The energy in these sessions was unflagging -- and that owed much to the actual presenters, of course, but something about the short form works very well as a conference presentation mode.
  • Come to think of it, I attended no sessions that offered traditional paper presentations -- and I went to seven sessions.
  • Lesson learned from the 7:30 PM Thursday session on manifestos: don't serve wine and then expect good questions. We ground to standstill with "What do you do for fun on the weekends?" Manifestos don't really seek questions, anyway; they spur actions.
  • And emotions. I was moved profoundly as the Material Collective manifested itself. Their piece was read in eloquent sections, as various members stood up in the audience to frame the art history -- and the medieval studies, and the humanities -- that they pledged themselves to compose. Their vision of what they want the field to be, and their articulation of the work they will undertake (well this seems maudlin to write but here it is, because it is true) so overwhelmed me that I found my eyes welling. Something profound came into being with the manifesting of that pledge.
  • This year's GW MEMSI session was on "Ecologies." I was pleased to see the room so full. I'd selected the presenters carefully, knowing there was a significant overlap in their passions, and interests, and possibly something of a shared soul. The presentations exceeded my most ambitious hopes for what the session would accomplish. We needed at least a few more hours in the room to trace out some of the possibilities that arose. I'm hoping to turn "Ecologies" into a bigger project. Watch this space.
  • The MEMSI session focused on, among other things, the agency of the inhuman. Proof of this power was evident in Lowell Duckert's guitar, which traveled from DC with us. From very late night singalong sessions at the Radisson (typically featuring lo mein and spring rolls around 3 am) to the communal rendition of "Landslide" at the James Paxson memorial (Lowell playing beautifully on guitar, Eileen leading the vocals), music transformed the conference into a gathering with a constant and communalizing soundtrack. We were also fortunate enough to befriend David Perry of Dominican University, who is a hugely accomplished musician and likewise had his guitar companion with him at Kzoo.
  • The "Activism in the Academy" session was excellent, and I wish more people had attended. I am working with its organizer right now to do a blog post on it. 
  • I was so agitated after the Activism session that I scrapped my paper for the next one ("Teaching the Canon") and just spoke without reading anything. I'm not sure that I will post this one at ITM since what I wrote wasn't what I said ... and I also made too many jokes at the expense of the early modernists. But they can be easy targets. Right, early modernist readers? You know the academy retains you for your entertainment value, right?
  • Kidding!
  • But maybe not.
  • Immediately after the canon session, I offered to drive David Wallace (this year's plenary lecturer at Kzoo) to Bells for a drink. We were walking to my car, and David remarked that he hadn't seen that much of Eileen to date and I observed that a little goes a very long way. At that moment she drove by in her VW Beetle screaming "Losers!" and making a gesture that she later described as an "L" even though I saw only one digit. Point proven, I think. 
  • Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects debuted at Kalamazoo. It's a wonderful book (says the editor who is quite intimate with each and every essay, having spent so much time with them). Download a copy today -- and please consider buying one as well as a contribution towards future projects.
  • Speaking of buying books, the Exhibit Hall was never all that crowded, and many exhibitors carried far fewer books than usual with them. Palgrave, for example, did not bring any early modern volumes this year -- a shame, because many of us medievalists do read them. I wonder if people are buying so many of their books online and in e-form that the exhibit hall is going to dwindle more and more each year.
  • Among the most frustrating things about Kalamazoo is that I never get to speak long enough with people I haven't seen in a long time and would like to catch up with. Quick hellos and vain promises to rendezvous later seem to have been the norm.
There is much more to say, but I have run out of time. So I will ask you: what did you like best about Kalamazoo this year? What are your fond memories? What did you learn?


Ben said...

Thanks for your kind mention, Jeffrey. Of course, the Material Collective is deeply indebted to what you and your co-conspirators have built with BABEL, which has provided a setting for us to connect with each other and a model for how to think about this kind of adventure. So thanks doubly for that!

Ben said...

Thanks so much for your kind mention, Jeffrey. The Material Collective is deeply indebted to what you and your con-conspirators have built with BABEL, which has provided a setting for us to find each other, and also a model for how to embark on this kind of adventure. So thanks doubly for that!

Chris said...

A small note: I wish the "Fuck" panels and the manifesto panel hadn't had Q&A, but instead had become spaces for longer versions of the sort of clustering conversations that often happen after panels. (The "Ecologies" panel could have had a much longer Q&A, however, especially since the moderator seemed to be looking for ways to start fights among the panelists.)

Otherwise: I'm incredibly happy that all this could happen. Those who worked to make it happen, thanks.

anna klosowska said...

It was awesome, and just as you say--great to have this memoir of what was a great meeting.

David Perry said...

Thanks for the welcome and the music both. And most of all for the ideas and the platforms to share them.

Cameron Hunt McNabb said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your quips about SAA, even though I also thoroughly enjoyed the conference itself. As one who straddles both periods, my game plan usually is that when I'm among medievalists, I say I'm an early modernist ("Oh, so you study Shakespeare..."), and when I'm among early modernists, I say I'm a medievalist ("Oh, so you study the Dark Ages..."). Either way, no one expects too much of me ;).