Sunday, August 12, 2012

NCS 2012 Retrospective (and Digest)


First, please read Eileen's posting (HERE) on the importance of what's happening now at Wayne State University.

Hello, ITM readers! For my second entry on this blog, I've decided to (somewhat belatedly) post this NCS writeup, which I first shared about a week ago as a long status update on my Facebook page. Among the sessions I mentioned in that FB posting were Ruth Evans' roundtable on "The Descriptive Turn." Thanks to recent ITM postings by Eileen (see HERE) and Julie Orlemanski (see HERE), a very interesting discussion has begun and continues to unfold online.

[Also: if you haven't encountered them already, check out these post-NCS reflections by Rick Godden (HERE) and James Smith (HERE); Jeffrey's ITM posting (HERE) will also direct you earlier postings by Karl and related postings by Steve Mentz and Anne Harris.]

So, for ITM readers who haven't seen my NCS writeup, here it is -- slightly revamped, along with a few photos I took along the way. Enjoy!


Medievalists mingling at the White Stag.

I'd use two key words to encapsulate my experience of NCS in Portland: "connections" and "energy." I felt that this was by far the most energetic NCS that I've ever attended (intellectually, professionally, and socially). Threads sustained ongoing links across different panels, and I found that individual sessions were for the most part coherent as originally conceived or that the presentations nicely cohered in the ensuing discussion.

Ocean vista, Manzanita.

The links above have already discussed a cluster of exciting conversations, namely the "Composing Thalassologies" session that I took part in (org. Lowell Duckert and Dan Remein), the "Oceans" thread, the Ocean/Neighbor convergence (confluence?) session (org. Jeffrey Cohen and Patricia Ingham), and an outstanding "Animate Objects" session (org. Allan Mitchell). I'll just add that the "Aquatic Spaces" session (org. Matthew Boyd Goldie and Sebastian Sobecki) also mobilized the energy and connectivity of water in a number of ways: Su Fang Ng examined premodern representations of Southeast Asia and the interconnectivity of islands, continents, and empires; Wan-Chuan Kao (engaging with modern notions of thermodynamics) gave a provocative reading of Chaucerian economies of social energy; Simone Pinet explored productive sociocultural "island laboratories" in Iberian chivalric fiction; and Ethan Knapp (in a preview of what is shaping up to be an excellent project on Gower and commerce) offered what was for me a truly paradigm-shifting paper on the sea as a crucial space of narrative action and computational device in Gower's "Apollonius of Tyre."


Mossy neurons, Oswald West State Park.

I should say that the sessions I found most compelling were the roundtables. The roundtable on distant reading (well actually "the descriptive turn," org. Ruth Evans - again, see the ITM discussions unfolding HERE and HERE) featured a seemingly jarring sequence of presenters whose methodologies and presentation styles are quite disparate: Ardis Butterfield (speaking on circulation of refrains in Anglo-French lyric circuits, with an impromptu plug for the Medieval Song Network), Eileen Joy and Julie Orlemanski (mentioned above), Sarah Stanbury (on mapping Chaucer's Aldgate, with reference to Janelle Jenstad's Map of Early Modern London), and (rounding things out) Carolynn Van Dyke. All of these discussions eventually came together quite well. Much of the coherence here came from having all presenters read a few common texts (articles) beforehand. The discussion quickly pivoted to the role of the digital humanities in our work, especially the question of how online databases shape our research endeavors and our pedagogy. (Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees is suddenly making its way into medievalist discussions as of late; intriguing that there was a lag between its publication and its "moment" of arrival in medieval studies. Perhaps its recent arrival has something to do with the general Zeitgeist -- our current interests in mobile devices, e-readers/tablets, data visualizing, and geotagging -- but I'm sure there's a media theorist out there who has already made that observation.)

Arthur Bahr's roundtable (actually a "short paper panel") on manuscripts was another well-conceived session, encouraging new ways to think about the "stuff" in medieval books. Martha Rust presented on medieval wordlists (e.g. including some charmingly inventive lists of collective nouns); Benjamin Saltzman examined erasure in Chaucer's Friar's and Summoner's Tales; Joni Henry made me think in new easy about merchant marks and doodling miscellanies associated with the 15th-century Fisher family, and Michelle Warren considered some of the theoretical challenges and interpretive possibilities posed by blank space in medieval manuscripts. Again, the objects of study were quite disparate here (aside from many being from the 15th century, it's hard to say they had much in common) -- yet collectively this session did much to jostle some of my own received notions about the materiality of medieval texts and the very notion of what constitutes a "book."

The well-attended roundtable on the Bodleian's Vernon Manuscript (org. by Courtney Rydel) was mind-expanding in a different way -- not only did I learn new things about an important manuscript that I (surprisingly?) knew very little about, but I felt it was one of the few roundtables I've seen that effectively projected a collaborative sharing/workshop ethos. Sessions of this sort demonstrate that "it takes a village" to tackle a massive manuscript collection like this: we need plural perspectives that encompass many facets: digital and editorial collaboration (Wendy Scase noted the digital facsimile edition of the Vernon manuscript as well as the The Vernon Manuscript Project), bibliographic knowledge (Alexander Devine), devotional and cognitive contexts (Lydia Yaitsky Kertz), literary analysis (Cathy Hume), and multilingual orientations (Liza Strakhov).


Chaucer bookshelves, Powell's City of Books. 

Let me just say a few words about the NCS plenary sessions too. Carolyn Dinshaw's excellent talk on Mandeville deftly negotiated multiple temporalities: medieval (14th century), Victorian (parody and re-appropriation of Mandeville by two scholars nostalgic for lost time), and contemporary pop culture (the in/famous Chaucer blog by Brantley Bryant). [By the way, if you haven't noticed yet -- Chaucer is on twitter! Check out Chaucer Doth Tweet, @LeVostreGC.] As anyone who has seen one of her talks (or read her work) might expect, Dinshaw deftly moved from historicist close readings to theoretical discussions and delivered her talk in an engaging, lively style. I most appreciated was the way Dinshaw effectively "took the pulse" of Chaucer studies at this moment -- not only invoking work that attends to transnational and global networks (including nods to those of us working on cosmopolitanism, travel writing, Orientalism, and postcolonial studies), as well as close engagement with queer temporalities and affect studies, but also acknowledging the ongoing work of the BABEL Working Group and others interested in theory-savvy approaches to medieval culture (e.g. object-oriented ontology, ecology, and non- and extra-human agency, among other things).

I missed Anne Middleton's Langland/Chaucer plenary, but did catch Valerie Traub's talk on the "unhistorical turn" in queer studies. I admired the organizers' decision to end this Chaucer conference by turning to something so deliberately non-Chaucerian, or at least slightly askew: we found ourselves collectively eavesdropping (as it were) on a broader discussion of queer temporality as conducted by (and for?) our early modernist neighbors. In listening to this talk, it occurred to me that theory can form a concurrent "shared language" across literary subfields, with the effect that "the literary" per se is perpetually deferred - or at least momentarily de-centered. Aside from passing references to Madhavi Menon's Unhistorical Shakespeare (and the titles of other works by early modernists), this talk actually didn't feature a single reference to (a text by) Shakespeare -- or Chaucer, or any "literary figure" as conventionally defined.

What I found most intriguing -- as someone who is not quite up to speed on these particular discussions -- is the sense that people theorizing queer historiography and non-linear (non hetero/normative) time are actually reading and actively engaging with each others' work, even if they may nominally "inhabit" different temporal environments (i.e., medievalists, early modernists, and theorists of contemporary popular culture can all work together when it comes to queer time). Although Traub didn't mention this work, Menon's Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (2011) -- an avowedly collaborative endeavor that includes contributions by medievalists like Karl and contemporary queer theorists like Robert McRuer among (of course) early modernists -- materializes as a many-authored publication the effects of collective thinking across time. Any one contributor might gain any number of "queer companions" (haha that's a pun on Menon's subtitle) by means of accidental proximity to others in a bounded collections, with essays arbitrarily alphabetized by Shakespearean text.


Very appropriate motto, across from Voodoo Doughnuts. 

"Mixing things up" seemed to be the theme of this NCS (or at least my own experience of it). Interweaving threads (e.g. Oceans/Neighbors) forced potentially atomized discussions to collide and become more richly informed. I was also impressed by the considerable participation by scholars who who typically inhabit fields adjacent to Chaucer studies, e.g. our Anglo-Saxonists and Early Modernist neighbor-colleagues, but also non-literary scholars from "allied" disciplines of art and history. I think there is something very productive in feeling slightly "out of one's element" at a conference like this (whether one acts as a presenter, participant, or audience member) -- the last thing I'd want is for NCS to settle on a single notion of what the "age of Chaucer" is or should be. After hearing the plenaries by Dinshaw and Traub, I actually found myself wondering if the Society's journal Studies in the Age of Chaucer might more appropriately be called Studies in the Time(s) of Chaucer.

The roundtables mentioned above were most effective, in my mind, precisely because of their unexpected juxtapositions and moments of cross-fertilization. The distant reading and Bahr's manuscript sessions stick out in my mind as particularly generative as roundtable discussions, but a few presentations within other roundtables were compelling in their own right. Myra Seaman's talk on the agency of divine objects in Ashmole 61 (some images HERE; see also the online TEAMS edition ed. George Shuffleton) really stuck with me. (I also love the idea of basing an entire course around this manuscript!). One pair of papers on The House of Fame opened up my mind to thinking in new ways about this poem I thought I knew -- Rebecca Davis examined how the text theorizes the very notion of an archive and our relationship to "stuff" and things, and Lara Farina's interests in tactility and sensory (over)stimulation makes the text resonate with contemporary disability studies. Jeffrey offered a great preview of the Prismatic Ecologies collection (see this previous ITM posting) in musing on the substantiality of color (and Anne Harris has a bit more on this). Alexandra Gillespie's engaging talk on the curious interpretive and cognitive effects of her own encounters with straw in medieval books (!) was outstanding for its "surprise" factor. As I reflect on her talk, it occurs to me that book historians and theory folks really don't quite talk to each other as much as they should, even within Chaucer studies. Who has more insight into the agency of nonhuman objects than our own book historians, who dwell and engage with such things on a regular basis?


Bicycle and pedestrian lanes, Hawthorne Bridge.

One accidentally disorienting aspect of NCS 2012 was a certain amount of last-minute changes to the schedule. FWIW, there was some drama re: negotiations with the originally intended waterfront hotel venue, which resulted in a bi-located conference across locations in the university hotel and classrooms nearby (those who attended the business meeting were privy to the fuller story, which I will not recount here). In any case, the bi-locatedness ended up being, I thought, a boon to the social atmosphere of the conference: a lovely block of delicious food trucks was conveniently located between these two venues, allowing for some conviviality and fellowship geographically and spatially "between" sessions.

Other changes to the schedule had to do with practical concerns: some people could not travel out to Portland due to expense, illness, or other factors. But here, too, one makes lemonade from lemons. A few of the sessions - whittled down by accident or by design to just two speakers - resulted in a nice conversational intimacy: for instance, I found the points of connection and crossover between Christine Chism's discussion of Mandeville and Susan Nakley's paper on Englishness in The Man of Law's Tale yielded a much deeper and thicker discussion. (Given my own interests in multilingual compositions I'm very sorry I didn't make Chris Piuma's presentation on medieval polyglot poetry - but I hear the accidental intimacy of that session ended up yielding a fruitful outcome.) I don't know what else to say about this, other than wondering if a session deliberately constructed as a special discussion between two strategically chosen interlocutors (with a session chair as mediator) might be an option to consider in the future.


Crowded mileage post, Pioneer Square.

Other bloggers have said this after each NCS, but the notion of a Chaucerian assemblage -- a provisional and semi-accidental community on on its way somewhere, but not yet arrived -- is a great conceit for thinking about the social effects of NCS as a whole. This "juxtaposition of unlikely things" that I found so generative in this year's sessions and roundtables is something I'd very much like to see NCS continue to do in future gatherings; and, in true Chaucerian fashion, I feel that dialogue across diverse points of view (literary, geographical, disciplinary, temporal) should continue.

NCS is at a turning point now, as a new group of people is taking the reigns of leadership (new Executive Diector, Chaucer bibliographer, and SAC editors). I would hope that these transnational, cross-temporal, and interdisciplinary discussions will continue through this regime change -- alongside the more conventional historicist and literary scholarship that NCS has always fostered. It would be great to see if SAC could more visibly reflect the dynamic vibe of the biennial NCS conference. The two-year gap between the NCS meetings can feel like a long one, and I wonder if SAC as a publication might assume a more proactive role in sustaining that sense of lively and energetic conversation. [*]

It seems fitting that the next NCS -- a peripatetic gathering that erratically leapfrogs from one side of the Atlantic to the other -- will take place smack dab in the middle, in Iceland (2014). In my own pie-in-the-sky visions, I imagine this "in between" Icelandic Chaucerian venue as an ideal venue for more energetic connections - oceanic, transnational, and inter-temporal.

Approaching the horizon, Oregon Coast.

[*] NOTE: Karl made this great comment in response to my original FB posting:
"There's a tidbit of the 'dynamic vibe' in the upcoming SAC Animalia cluster in the next SAC issue. Instead of a giant monster (rawr!) SAC article, the cluster comprises several short pieces (by Jeffrey J Cohen, Susan Crane, and me, inter alia), with each of us also writing VERY short responses (like, less than 100 words I think) to ONE of the other pieces. I think word count limitations make it not WHOLLY successful in its realization--it's sort of like a roundtable that has only 10 minutes for q&a because everyone's gone slightly over or because someone's been invited to the table at the last minute (*ahem*: me)--but the MODEL of paper cluster/response deserves lots of praise: and who knows, maybe it's going to be look *great* in print."

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

Marvelous and very generous reflections upon the conference; thanks so much for posting these, Jonathan, and also for the gorgeous photographs. I also take to heart your praise of the conference's "oceanic" and "transnational" and "inter-temporal" moments and even the "unlikely juxtapositions" it occasioned, and wishes for those to continue [also in print, such as in SAC].