Sunday, April 13, 2014

SAA 2014

awkward group perambulation
by J J Cohen

[support BABEL and read Karl on Gerald before glancing at this]

Just back from the Shakespeare Association of America annual meeting in St Louis -- or, as the enviable hashtag declares, #shakeass14 (and follow that link for the rich Twitter archive of the event). I wish I had time for a full report on the thing, but sleep deprivation and neglect of family conspire to allow me to offer not much but a public thanks to the organizers and attendees. What a heady few days. The novelty had worn off this time, so I plunged in and, with Julian Yates, oversaw two seminars on "Object Oriented Environs." This was our description:
This seminar stages a confluence of two important trends in critical theory: the environmental turn and object-oriented ontology (vibrant materialism, new materialism, speculative realism). These modes of inquiry move beyond anthropocentrism to examine nonhumans at every scale, their relations to each other, and the ethics of human enmeshment with a material world that possesses its own agency. How does our apprehension of the inhuman change when texts become laboratories for probing the liveliness, mystery, and autonomy of objects, in their alliances and in performance?
The proposed seminar proved popular enough to draw a surfeit of potential participants, so we were asked to direct two. We decided that we would run them both on the same day, and culminate with a shared dinner, making for an extended contemplation that worked out well: totally exhausting, but completely worth the fatigue. Drew Daniel, Eileen Joy, Julia Lupton and Vin Nardizzi served as respondents, charged with posing some provocative questions as well as catalyzing conversation. All four were just excellent. Here is the structure we worked out for the two seminars:
Flow of Seminars
Introduction of participants via an object of their choice 
1. Jeffrey and Julian give an overview of the raison d'etre for the seminar. We provide a succinct and alternating overview of the papers, pulling out common themes and provocations to thought.
2. We open the room to wide-ranging discussion to see what our overview triggers. 
3. Each respondent provides a question that the position papers as a collective entity beg.
4. We take a short break that includes a group perambulation of the conference space, hoping that the social awkwardness this movement engenders will be productive (of friction, creativity, and unlooked for bonds) and act as a kind of thinking-in-motion. 
5. Upon return to the room, discussion of the respondent's questions, moderated by the respondents, ensues.
6. Closing summary, brainstorming of next steps (since we have an edited collection emerging from this gathering).
Introductions via objects worked very well, since participants had a chance to demonstrate their sense of humor as well as their enthusiasm for what they study (and fearlessly break the ice). The awkward group perambulation had us most nervous, but turned out well. For the morning session Julian and I led those willing to follow down a long escalator, then immediately pivoted to come back up -- and to their credit two participants figured out the little trick and ran back up the down escalator to try to arrive before us (sad to see them give up and be conveyed downwards all the same). We then admired the St Louis Arch from a grand window and contemplated how objects arrange their surrounding space. For the afternoon session Vin Nardizzi gamely donned a mask (Angelina Jolie, in fact) and led those willing to follow through a door marked NO ENTRY into the guts of the building, the "invisible" space where the catering and dishwashing are done. Both perambulations gave us food for thought as we returned -- as well as a break during which the respondent's Big Questions could be contemplated. An especially resonant moment during the discussion was a turn to the material conditions under which we conduct our work on materiality, and one of the participants spoke of being a post-doc with no secure academic future come August 1. A grad student member spoke of historicism and job market pressures. We wondered together if a focus on objects necessarily obliterates the careful attention to gender and race preceding the new materialism. And so on.

The day could not have gone better. Julian and I were moved by the willingness of our participants to experiment, play, take risks. We also loved that they were so gracious to each other, even in disagreement. The experience reaffirmed for me how essential it is for us to speak better across temporal boundaries, especially medieval / early modern. I was on an intellectual high that lasted through a concluding, thirty person dinner at an Indian restaurant, cocktails at Taste (leave it to Eileen to know about that place: superb old fashioneds), and eventually pancakes at a diner at 2 AM.

Perhaps I will add some more later (and if you attended, please comment and let me know what I have left out!). I'd especially like to say a few words about the terrific panel Steve Mentz organized on ecology and catastrophe. For the time being, though, I want to end by publicly thanking Julian for being a superb collaborator, a nearly perfect roommate, a very deficient superego, and a most excellent friend. A man who passed us in the street even yelled out "Hey Starsky and Hutch!" and I will take that as a compliment to us both, once I figure it out.

My thanks again to everyone at SAA: what a great conference, sustained by copious amounts of smarts and good will.

1 comment:

Patricia Cahill said...

As a participant in the first session, I want to register great thanks for the great conversations you and Julian made possible and to echo your observation that Drew and Julia responded generously and brilliantly to the papers in my group. As an auditor of the second session, I was completely fascinated by how different--and equally interesting--the concerns were of those papers and respondents. And as for what was overlooked above, only one thing stands out: Julia's delightful mouse and beehive-and -Timon-infused notebooks.