Sunday, July 25, 2010

post ncs post

by J J Cohen

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
That places me at a disadvantage for narrating the conference, since my archive has vanished and I'm left with mendacious and reconfabulated recollections -- and as I've just demonstrated, my memory is eager to make things up, like the word reconfabulated. So take the following cum grano salis. Or an entire shaker full. You won't get anything as comprehensive or truthful as my NCS Swansea posts, or the NYC overview. You may as well stop reading now.

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.


Anonymous said...

Horrors about the notebook, but your recollection is admirably detailed anyway, Jeffrey. Your point about perspective crystallises something I hadn't quite verbalised about Siena's geography. I don't know if you know Cambridge, but after sixteen years I am rather habituated to a city with non-Euclidean geography that you can't `see through'; the weird thing about Siena is that although it seems to coil and unspool dynamically as one traverses it, as you say, the maps make it seem far more a city of zig-zags than of coils. Not for the first time, therefore, I found dead reckoning from a certain point much more use than maps.

The countryside is absolutely gorgeous. I haven't managed to capture this in photographs but what I have I will put up.

I saw little enough interpersonal damage, at least, and a great deal of conviviality in the short time I was there. I had three sessions; one was ours (which was of course excellent), and of the others one was literature and one harder history. The latter was a fairly awful experience, as these things go, and the former great fun. I should take a lesson from this (and make history more fun to present...).

What's bringing you to London? Drop me an e-mail if you happen to have social time in the schedule that isn't fully booked, do.

Karl Steel said...

Great post Jeffrey.

One of several peculiarities of Siena is that its sites of dominance, yes, are in the town center (compare Ferrara, for example, whose duomo and fortress occupy the center of this flat, flat town), but that they are not situated atop a hill. On the contrary: though the campo is nowhere near as low as Siena's botanical garden, it is also nowhere near its highest point (an honor that might belong to its Duomo or to San Domenico ).

If the campo's the living room of Siena (aptly put), it's also a drainage site, the point into which all of Siena flows (rather than the point up to which all of Siena looks). Again: compare Siena to Portovenere, whose fortress and key churches (photo shows one of them) are far above the town's key sites of habitation; likewise, Gubbio, whose Ducal Palace and Duomo require no small amount of climbing to visit; for a more famous example, Rome's Palatine Hill, or, for an example Jeffrey knows very well, the castle of Norwich, East Anglia.

Some of these differences between Siena and the other towns/cities no doubt have to do when and why the towns assumed the shape they did. But I can't help but think the 'inverted' character of Sienese civic architecture and space helps account for the accommodating, relaxed, almost republican (in the old sense) character of the campo and the city.

My Tuscan food of choice this time around? Ribollita.

Dr. Virago said...

I *love* your description of the geography of Siena, Jeffrey. I found it so utterly confusing at first, and I'm generally a very good navigator/map reader. It didn't help that the map that the hotel gave me was oriented to the *East* -- just like a medieval map! It took me some time to realize that and to coordinate its view with the Google Maps view of my iPhone.

As for Karl's description of the Campo as the drainage site, I think that's what had me a little freaked out about it, and about navigating my way out of it that first night after the sweltering civic reception. (Not to mention that its oval shape makes it hard to know which side of it you're on if you're unfamiliar with it.) And because of that, I always felt more relaxed *out* of the Campo, and especially when I was on the edges of the city and could see the countryside.

As some of you might recall from that first night, I thought I'd lost my UK phone and was worried about someone using it and topping it up, and so I was a little additionally anxious to get out of there on top of the heat and the claustrophobia induced by the feeling of being penned in the courtyard of the Palazzo. (I didn't used to be claustrophobic -- is this an age thing?) And so, when I blew that party and tried to navigate my way back all by myself to my hotel in the NW, the Campo and the city felt like they were closing in on me, too. It was a bit like a forest -- you thought you were going one way, but you ended up back where you started! I very nearly panicked, which is not something I'm prone to do when navigating. (It didn't help that that was the first time I'd been in the city center.) But ultimately I zig-zagged my way out and found the Porto Camollia and the way home.

PS -- It turned out my phone was in my bag the whole time. If I'd discovered that while still at the reception, I might have joined you all for those pro seccos into the wee hours and not felt like the city was an urban version of the forest in the Blair Witch Project! I did ultimately get over that feeling, but the bowl-like shaped of the Campo still continued to freak me out a little.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It's reassuring that I'm not the only one who was disoriented by Siena's spaces!

Jonathan, am only in London for a night: our family vacation this year is a boat ride from Dover to Barcelona by way of France, Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar ... end point = Barcelona for a few days.

Mo said...

So it's Oregon, University of, for the next NCS?