by J J Cohen
[please take a few moments to ponder and respond to Gil Harris's conference closing questions here]
If I take the time necessary to compose a post that would do justice to the AVMEO conference, I'll still be writing when classes resume next Monday ... and considering that I depart a week from today for a residency at the University of Iowa, and have four lectures to deliver as part of that gig, I've decided that I'll simply share some scattered thoughts and trust that others will contribute to fill in the large blanks. To be honest, having inhabited the center of a whirlwind for those two intense days I also have a difficult time articulating what exactly came to pass. But from my vantage it does seem to have been an important and productive gathering, the work of which I hope will be carried forward for some time.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Middle Ages was conceptualized as an intimate conference: about fifty core participants, most of whom would present papers, joined by another twelve or fifteen attendees and fellow discussants. To foreground the event's focus upon being intensely together in shared conversation, each plenary session consisted of two presenters and then an extended Q&A. Plenary speakers were asked to keep their remarks fairly brief (20-25 minutes) so that we would have at a minimum thirty minutes of communal discussion. We also reminded each person giving a paper in the concurrent sessions to bear in mind that exceeding the allotted time meant depriving their audience of what they had come to the session to do: participate in a lively discussion about their arguments. We built a generous thirty minutes in between each session so that conversations could continue over coffee and snacks. Each day was quite long: Friday for example began at nine in the morning with a double plenary on animals and ended around nine that evening when the reception for Jane Bennett came to its close (and even that was followed by drinks in the Venetian Room of the Hotel Lombardy, followed by bourbon and port in an undisclosed location). Yet despite the threat of exhaustion, the conference vibe throughout seemed to me -- to steal an adjective from Bennett -- vibrant.
Although I took a great deal of public ridicule from our presenters for the choice, we decided that AVMEO would be a "naked" conference: no projectors, no PowerPoint. The downside to this rule was that some of our speakers had beautiful images that they might have shown us. I'm not against technology per se; far from it. I frequently lecture to the accompaniment of projected text and images. My desire at AVMEO was to turn a problem (the rooms we were using were fairly small and rather old; to bring technology into them would have meant placing a projector in some people's field of vision) into an asset: isn't it true that when we are stripped of our inhuman assistants we are connected more intimately to the faces, bodies and voices of our audiences? The experiment worked well: we always had many more questions and responses to talks than we had time, and flagging interest was never a problem, even towards the end of the long days. Some presenters also became quite creative with their handouts: Whitney Trettien passed around facsimiles; Valerie Allen, speaking on rocks, allowed us each to grab a mineral from a velvet bag and hold it during her talk; Julia Lupton created for each member of the audience a set of gorgeous cards with the items of furniture she was speaking about printed upon them. Many others used old fashioned paper, which was nicely tactile (and sometimes a work of art in its own right, such as Dan Remein's handout).
Another reason our presenters were so engaging may have been nervous tension. Among the swag in our conference folders were small beach balls with a surprise animal in each. I had warned the speakers that the audience had been instructed to remove the balls and start inflating them if the talks grew dull, and to begin hurling them if they went on too long. So far as I can tell no beach ball was actually inflated until late Saturday, when Lowell Duckert brought a monkey ball to life at the Venetian Room lounge and hurled it at my head. Later that night the monkey-in-a-sphere went on to play a key role in a game of truth ball.
A conference is an incredibly expensive affair, not simply in terms of the amount of thinking and physical labor it demands (and here I thank the extraordinary team of Gil Harris, Lowell Duckert, and Nedda Mehdizadeh, sine qua non), but also monetarily. Simple things like coffee and cookies for breaks are essential: as every good Jew knows, without food no community can come into being. Add to those a reception and a dinner, as well as travel expenses for the plenary speakers (who graciously accepted a very modest honorarium to attend), as well as a desire to ensure that no one (esp. graduate students) who wanted to participate was left out ... and I can see why registration fees are so high at so many events. I was able to keep enough money aside from the MEMSI budget to fund most of the conference at a level that enabled decent catering and shared meals while also allowing low registration fees. That might not seem like a big deal, but it is for us. MEMSI was founded upon what we call our principle of capacious welcome: MEMSI events are free and welcome all who wish to attend. The best we could manage for AVMEO while respecting this mission was to open most of the Friday events to all, including Jane Bennett's keynote.
And what a keynote it was. "The Powers of the Hoard" looked critically at the phenomenon of hoarding, of keeping every glistening scrap that crosses one's life close, often as a charm against loss. Bennett's sympathetic analysis rendered a process that is too easy to dismiss via pathology into a complicated relationship with the material world. Hoarders recognize vibrant materialism, behold the beauty that inhabits even discarded bottle caps and decaying food, and cling to such inhuman vitalism sometimes to the point at which it becomes lethal. Her talk seemed to me a good response to those who see in her project a relentless affirmation. As her chapter on the life of metals in Vibrant Matter makes clear, her work resonates well with what Tim Morton calls dark ecology.
I want to add that although Bennett is a political scientist whose work generally doesn't stretch back beyond the 19th century, she was a model for the engaged intellectual: present at all the talks, filled with intriguing questions. Indeed, at the end of the conference I thanked the gathered participants, and I meant it: it was the consistent dedication that each person brought to being present with us, to asking great questions and expanding a communal endeavor, that really made AVMEO work.
We will have the podcasts of the plenaries up very soon so that you can listen and judge for yourself on what a portion of the conference, at least, achieved. We'll also be publishing an edited volume from these presentations, and are contemplating ways to keep this event, which seems to me to have become during its progress an Event, alive and catalytic.
If you were present, please add your own thoughts in the comments. I've barely touched upon what happened over those rich two days.
Watching the lucid flow of critical terms go from contemporary theory to Old English words ("thing"!) and back again was exhilarating. Realizing that by the end of the conference, the ethical tables had been turned (the chairs upended) now that we had heard the call of so many objects was completely, wonderfully disorienting. Teaching this week has entailed unprecedented reveling in the materiality of the works of art normally digitally dematerialized before me. The BABEL conference inspired a group of like-minded art historians to gather and marvel and plan. This conference has us reconnected and looking forward to some serious plotting at Kalamazoo. The Event might well become a Phenomenon.
The tremendous generosity of this conference, and the delight that each took in others' ideas, is another of its gifts. For me, very personally, the good will and inspiration of Jeffrey and Eileen brought back powerful memories of the late Michael Camille who, oh wow yes, would have had a blast there.
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