Thank goodness I have Google Voice and can make two cent per minute calls to the UK. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to endure the 35 minute wait time to determine that my Heathrow-abandoned notebook is not yet recovered, and not likely ever to be so. RIP small black notebook that substituted for neural encoding.
|The conference is already becoming a blur
Some memory fragments in search of a larger narrative:
- On our tour of San Gimignano, our guide -- histrionic in a lovable way -- declared that because Siena had no water, it had banks. She meant that in the absence of the trade a riverway brings, financial enterprises had to flourish; and indeed I did notice that Siena now has a remarkable number of ATMs per square mile. The guide later declared that medieval people had no perspective in their paintings because the church had forbidden direct representation of truth. We medievalists make careers of undermining blanket statements about our time period like these. Yet a truth in what she said stayed with me long after the tour, and I would express it this way: because Siena has no water (no river cutting the town, no conduit of waters running its walls), it seems self-enclosed, and lacks perspective. I stayed near the university, and traversed the entire town to reach a friend at the Hotel Athena before I realized the beauty of the surrounding countryside, with its olive trees and cypress and azure skies: only at the city walls does this undulating geography come to view. In the absence of a map, walking Siennese streets demands navigation via landmark. The pathways are narrow; blue is visible above, but the effect is of trodding an unspooling maze. You know a larger swathe of sky is somewhere near the middle (the Campo, the living room of the city), and yet you can't always locate yourself well enough in relation to that space to find it without knowing something of what tunnel-like street leads to its airiness. At conference end Stephanie Trigg and I traveled to Florence, bisected by the flow of the Arno, and in retrospect I realized how constricting a space Siena yields. Siena lacks perspective was the phrase I wrote in my notebook. I didn't mean the dictum negatively: more that when you are there, you are in middle space, a geography that will not yield itself easily to a god's eye view. Such spaces have their strengths, their virtues, but often demand departure before a frame coalesces.
- The NCS Siena program was arranged into multiple thematic threads. Though nearly impossible to follow any single one from inception to conclusion, many of us did choose a strand and arrange our conference by its panels. The effect was to offer a series of micro-conferences in search of a larger perspective. My NCS was mostly about animals, since that's the thread to which I was faithful. I'm pleased I chose it, since so many of the presentations were good and spurred enthusiastic discussions. Especial standouts for me were Bob Mills' first steps towards a larger project on biopolitics and animality; Sarah Elliott Novacich's breathtaking reading of Noah's ark as archive; Sarah Stanbury on Derrida's cat and Jerome's lion; Carolyn Dinshaw on the Green Man and the Green Movement; Bruce Holsinger's intentionally riling piece on vellum ethics; and Susan Crane on the creaturely, the technological, and dispersed embodiment.
- From other sessions I attended, some papers that even with my notes lost have left an enduring impression: Aisling Byrne on otherworlds as invitations; L. O. Aranye Fradenburg (the Biennial Chaucer Lecturer) on intersubjectivity, affective companionship, life and play and becoming; Holly Crocker on ethics, performance, and Chaucer as conduct literature; David Wallace's awesomely performative, sometimes even liturgical piece on Jephtha's daughter; the blogger panel; and of course the six presentations that constituted "Touching the Past."
- If I could make a suggestion to the planning committee for the next meeting of NCS (Oregon, 2012), it'd be the following: email session moderators a month beforehand asking them to contact the presenters on their panels and remind them of the time allotted for each paper. The reminder should be positive: the reason to keep papers within their limits is so that the audience can have a conversation about the session. These discussions are the lifeblood of the conference; going over one's allotted time and thereby reducing the participation of the twenty or thirty in the room who have come to talk to the panel is ungenerous. Moderators shouldn't be shy about gently reminding those who go long to move to their conclusion: again, such actions are done not to be cruel to the person who has reached the 25 minute mark when the paper should be 20, but to advocate on behalf of the audience, who shouldn't be consigned to passive audition.
- Maybe keeping on time is my hobbyhorse; it's possible that on this issue, as in too many in life, I'm simply uptight. For the sessions I arranged, I asked each of the speakers to hold forth for no longer than 15-18 minutes, and threatened to start interpretive dancing to any portion of the paper that went longer. It's immodest of me to say this, I know, but because we had about 45 minutes for discussion in each of these sessions, we had some intense conversations in which twelve to fifteen audience members were able to participate. Their questions were serious, and terrific; the sessions would have been impoverished without them. (Shout-out to George Edmondson: his questions were especially provocative).
- Tom Prendergast gave a much-talked about paper on the subjectivity of place that I wish I had seen. I've convinced him to email me the piece, though I wish I had witnessed its performance: I don't think anyone's paper was mentioned as frequently as his. I had a memorable last dinner in Siena with Tom and his family. His son is Alex's age and possesses the same interest in quirky fantasy novels. It was also my second time eating pici cacio e pepe, my favorite local dish.
- The Saturday conference dinner was held on the roof of the Enoteca Italiana, a sixteenth-century fortress within the city. The evening was warm, the terrace lit by candlelight. Wine flowed, the food was excellent (except for the White Plate that constituted the vegetarian main course): a convivial evening that reminded me once more of why consuming food together is an integral part of forming community.
- No conference is without its interpersonal tensions, its misunderstandings, conflicts, sniping. These things existed at NCS Siena, I will not lie. But I will always remember the conference not for its inevitable, all too human undercurrent of mixed emotional responses, but for its joy: meeting many, many new people; learning so much; celebrating simply being together each night as we drank prosecco in groups of six or twelve or eighteen or twenty-five on the Campo.
- OK, I got up at 5:30 to begin this post, and I can hear one of my kids moving above me so my time is running out. I am departing for London on Wednesday, but hope at least to write about the blogger panel before then. Please add your own impressions of the conference in the comments below.