Tuesday, September 25, 2012

City of History, City of Love: Reflections on BABEL Boston, 2012

by Mary Kate Hurley
fig. 1: an artifact from the ruins

A note to the reader: Any attempt to recreate, share, or communicate regarding the weekend’s BABEL conference in Boston will remain forever only a fragmented recollection of a vibrant series of moments.
A note to the author: That’s why you have to do it anyway.

Boston is a city of history. For me, that cliché takes on an immensely personal tone: there are lines of personal history that cut across this urban space, bringing a New Yorker with eight years of city-time on her clock into contact with a wide-eyed seventeen year old North Carolinian who can’t stop looking up at these tall buildings that dwarf anything she’s ever seen in her slow-time hometown. It was fitting then to return to this city, with the images of old friendships and loves still haunting the periphery of my awareness, to be with my colleagues and friends (two groups that overlap more and more as I grow up in my chosen profession and field).
fig. 2: Actual cloissoné, from the Staffordshire hoard.

I took a train up from New Haven on Thursday evening, missing what was by all accounts a phenomenal opening day. For more on that, see Steve Mentz . Rather than offer a full accounting of the days I spent at BABEL Boston, I want to blog in experimental mode, presenting a series of fragments, culled from notes and from memories – like the garnet and gold cloissoné work of Anglo-Saxon jewelry found in Sutton Hoo and Staffordshire. The resulting interlaced experiences, quotes, memories, and thoughts might function as a kind of idea cloud, a map to find the way back to our time together, a shimmering representation of an event that ended far too quickly but which will no doubt linger in memory for a long time yet. Think of the offerings in standard font as the shining garnet that comes from presentations and talks, and the italic musings of my own thoughts as the gold interlace that both separates and connects these moments and meanings into the narrative of my time at BABEL 2012.

My first session was on “Medievalism and the Uncanny.” Laurie Finke, moderator, began by regaling us with stories of the ghosts that apparently outnumber the students at her home institution of Kenyon College.
The first paper in the panel featured a collaboration between a medievalist and a post-colonialist, thinking of death and the temporalities of the subject-rendered-object. Molly Lewis explored the ways in which jews in medieval texts are marked by chrono-biopolitical death: they cannot become part of the time of the nation because of their own nation. She also observed the “need for a willingness to be haunted as an ethical relationship to the past.” Shyama Rajendran spoke of dreams, and Alcione’s dream of her husband, and the interpretation of “the uncanny as the flickering sense but not conviction of the supernatural.” Continuing on this line of reasoning, the final speaker's exploration of the gothic figured “the library as uncanny, where that which should remain hidden can come to light.”

My next stop was Impure Collaborations. I am a product of scholars who collaborate: When your undergraduate mentor is one half of Overing and Lees, collaboration is a given. I sadly got back from lunch too late to hear the collaboration of sisters, which readers of ITM might know is a dear subject of mine given that my youngest sister, Gina, is a medievalist.

A performance of a conversation between two anthropologists trying to figure out their relationship to alterity and ethnography was a fascinating model of thinking-together. A husband-and-wife team of collaborators illustrated the way that the theory behind video games, with its production of anticipation through the use of selective constraints, could illuminate the ascent of the rondo over the ballade in medieval music. Stephanie Trigg and Tom Pendergrast asked that most important question of collaboration: who is the “we”? Anna Klosowska and Eileen Joy presented a series of interpenetrating narratives of collaborators, of lovers, and of friends. What kind of a space, I wondered, do we create together here or anywhere in the academy? Friendship and collaboration emerged early in this conference as a running theme, but could there be productive or loving antagonism?

I proceeded to a preview session for the upcoming
Postmedieval issue on “Ecomaterialism.” It was particularly generative for me in part because of the possibilities it presents for translation in the actor-network sense of the word, the translation that takes place between humans and the environment, or perhaps even between the humanities and the sciences, as Lindy Elkins-Tanton observed from her position as “flaneur.”

fig. 3: Thomas Meyer's Beowulf, available
available from punctum books.
Jeffrey observed that “fire is framed but not contained,” and Stephanie Trigg outlined competing cultural regimes of fire management in Australia – the Aboriginal, the Imperial. Sharon O’Dair brought to the group a consideration of water, and the way that water circulates, becoming something other than itself, invoking Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and “the feeling [in the Everglades] that you will sweat into the sun.” Brought back to the words of such a dear friend, I wondered if this might suggest a kind of transmigration of the body. Steve Mentz, in his usual capacious manner, asked us to consider that “an airy chronology expands, dissipates, gusts, and disappears,” and reminded us that “living in this wind changes you.” Karl spoke on the Abyss through the medieval disputation of worms and the body, exploring the ways in which “existence means exposure and exposure admits utility; the flesh is inescapably vulnerable. What closer friendship than in a meal?” And Lowell Duckert, in an icy turn, asked us to consider “Do glaciers dream?”

To sum up the plenary session better than does  Steve Mentz would be practically impossible. Some glimmers through my notes remind me what caught my own attention:
Jane Bennett theorized sympathy as a kind of agency: what happens if the “yearning upright posture” of a tree toward the sun is thought of as a kind of sympathy that “provokes bodies, human and non-human, to move into assemblages.” MIT’s David Kaiser reminded us, through a talk on “How the Hippies Saved Physics,” that entanglement -- (quantum, or maybe otherwise) “means that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

Thomas Meyer’s reading from his translation of Beowulf on the evening of the second day was phenomenal and quite indescribably beautiful: I will definitely use the text to teach translation in my Beowulf course this Spring.

After too little sleep (another recurring theme of this conference), I went to the early morning panel on Synaesthetics.
Jonathan Hsy (fifth ITM co-blogger! Eventually that will stop being AWESOME and just be awesome in a more quotidian manner) illustrated the ways in which synaesthesia is not a metaphor. Emily Gephart spoke on ekphrasis and dreaming, and the way that a “mental image creates echo-objects in our minds.” Will Stockton spoke on “Sex and Synaesthesia,” and “drinking as a kind of sex, a self-spillage" (in bodily and psychological terms). Allan Mitchell “[cried] out against the empire of signs,” and reminded us that “the art of fine eating is the art of not seeming to need to eat.” Finally Ian Sampson explored complexity theory and the adjacent possible.

Overheard at a fantastic session on Hordes, convened by the Material Collective:
Gold is “a historical substance – there are finite qualities of gold and a finite amount of it. ” Asa Mittman reminded us of the utility of the objects in the Staffordshire hoard: “real people used these things.” He encouraged us to think of the cyborg: the “warrior-creature occupies a plane of power, mythic but not mythical” ( I couldn’t help but think of Lytton Smith, and his poem “Monster Theory”: “his wounds not mortal but legendary" ). This warrior creature is part man and part metal, and the “bling” of the metalwork “pushes back against the viewer.” One quote—I think from Serres—left me awestruck: “Is your lucidity never bathed in tears?” I left this session wondering to myself: What is the difference between the hoard and the collection? What actions or ethics do these nouns require or enact?

The final plenaries were gorgeous, leaving me with more to think about (and an energy that belied how tired an afternoon session on Wild Fermentation (and its associated beer tasting) had left me). First, Sans Façon spoke on the interpenetration of art, perception, and science, and particularly on their newest project, Watershed+.

Carolyn Dinshaw and Marget Long presented on “(Un)Earthly Paradise,” a meditation on the representation of Eden as a walled space and the experience and representations of mirages. Dinshaw observed of Mandeville that he bears an affective relationship to Eden in part because “you can’t get in, and you can’t get there from here.” It is present only as an absence. Long explored the “optical” effect of the mirage, and the ontological problems that emerge from the photographs taken of them, this “nowhere that is somewhere.” The most moving portion of their talk was, perhaps, their meditation on collaboration – a theme that emerged repeatedly through the conference, and that was a fitting close to it. To experiment in collaboration, they noted, “you can’t know in advance what will arrive.” Fittingly then, collaboration can also be a romance. I added in my notes: with a person, with a text, with and of the past. They ended with the fabulous mirage performance of “Moonlight Becomes You,” from the Hope/Crosby/Lamour film “The Road to Morroco.”

BABEL drew to an official close with applause for a stunningly executed event. A standing ovation for Eileen. There was applause and appreciation for her, Myra Seaman, Kathleen Kelly, and the myriad others who made BABEL 2012 possible.

The fun continued at the after-party, where, reunited with good friends one last time in this city of history, I closed my little book of notes that will serve as a reminder in later days of what we thought and accomplished in our time together. Since arriving home, I’ve taken the new Ben Folds Five song, which sings that “You might put your love and trust on the line / It's risky, people love to tear that down / Let 'em try / Do it anyway / Risk it anyway,” as my personal post-BABEL anthem (credit goes to friend Emily S. for introducing it to me). Jeffrey might tell about the time we almost got arrested for eating too loudly, or I might try to avoid talking about how I managed to get lost within ten feet of my destination, nearly missing Jane Bennett’s plenary. Others will add their shimmering thoughts to my own, and I will probably find some typos in this post. But in all earnestness: What happened in Boston will, I hope, not stay there.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

In a way I wish we had been arrested, so that the conference could continue during indefinite detention in that promised "quiet cell."

Great post, and great to see you back Mary Kate!

Myra Seaman said...

Yes: marvelous to see you back, Mary Kate! And so nice to have opportunities to really spend time with you again, as at BABEL Boston. Thanks very much for the post.