Tuesday, May 17, 2011

memories of Kzoo, 2011

MEMSI panel
by J J Cohen

In no particular order, some images and affects from an intense four days at the International Congress on Medieval Studies.

  • I flew from BWI to Detroit with Liza Blake, Lowell Duckert, and the Tiny Shriner. Southwest had given us some drink coupons, so Tiny enjoyed a gin and tonic during the short flight. We rendezvoused with Karl at the airport, then proceeded in what we called our clown car of scholars across Michigan. We raced another such clown car, and even tried to trick its occupants into thinking that we had arrived far ahead of them by texting pictures of a hotel bar in Chicago and telling them we were at the Radisson. Our inability to text images with any of us actually in them proved our undoing.
  • As we entered the Kalamazoo city limits, our XM radio blared "You Can Go Your Own Way." Not much of a song, perhaps, but one you might recall from last year's post. It almost seemed too perfect ... and that is why during karaoke at Shakespeare's Pub that evening I was singing the hymn with Lowell and Dan Remein. But we were completely outshone by Air Supply's "I'm All Out of Love" as interpreted by Karl, backing vocals by Lowell.
  • Sometimes I think that I should possess more dignity, and maybe even set a better example. I'm not sure from where that thought arrives, and fortunately it never lingers long.
  • The GW MEMSI session on Thursday morning on "Objects, Agency and Materiality" was well attended: excellent presentations, lively audience, more to say than we could possibly fit into 90 minutes. Eileen was kind enough to record the conversation, so look for audio files soon.
  • I had an unusual and severe bout of insomnia on Wednesday, so by 9 pm on Thursday (right after the "Commentary" session) I was ready to drop. I was back in my room by 9:30 and unable to leave. This marks a first for me, but I was sad to miss Lorraine Stock being awarded the first Bonnie Wheeler Fellowship that evening. 
  • The next night, though, was the punctum books launch at Bells: a thronged and exuberant event. The festivities concluded with a feast of Chinese food delivered to the Radisson at 3:30 am, so maybe it is a good thing I got some sleep the previous night.
  • Thursday afternoon was Bruce Holsinger and Andrew Coles' series of sessions on "Secularization." Unfortunately the room was far too small, and the talks coincided with the worst of the Kzoo weather: sweltering, humid, stagnant air. It was hard to concentrate, especially by the room's edge: if only these sessions had been in one of the newer buildings ...
  • On Friday morning I delivered my paper on the souls of stones in a session on "Medieval Taxonomies" organized by Emily Steiner. Kellie Robertson did a good job of summing up he collective findings of the session when she spoke in the Q&A of taxonomy not as the power-driven control mechanism (as it always turns out to be in Foucauldian readings), but as a kind of messy and creative art. This panel had one of the most engaged audiences of any session I've attended at Kzoo, and there were many people there (about 70 by a quick count). Clearly Emily is on to something with this topic. Michelle Karnes and Claire Waters gave papers from which I learned a great deal. Chris Cannon canceled, so we each got an additional five minutes, and that made quite a difference: more leisurely exposition, more time to chew over our framings and findings.
  • On Friday I also attended a poetry reading, mostly because I think so highly of Dan Remein. It was enjoyable to attend a different mode of presentation at this scholarly conference, and in fact that session lead naturally to the rich "Queering the Muse" panel directly afterwards.
  • GW MEMSI sponsored a disaster plagued dinner Friday evening that included a monsoon, a restaurant that reserved a table for our large group for the wrong night, a relocation to its sister restaurant, free lobster fondue to apologize, and the most undercooked meal most of us had ever eaten. But there was prosecco, and the twelve of us, and the launch of punctum at Bells thereafter.
  • We'd decided to stay up all night on Friday, but do you know what? Everything in Kalamazoo closes promptly at 2 am. If we hadn't been able to track down a Chinese resturant willing to deliver, we would have had to go to bed at 3:30 rather than eat spring rolls and friend rice in the mezzanine lobby of the Radisson as night became morning.
  • After the well attended Exemplaria session on Saturday morning, and lunch at a nearby middle eastern restaurant, Lowell and I took off for a walk round the Celery Flats where the ITM bloggers spent their first real day together many moons ago. There isn't all that much to see here: some swamp, some trees, a creek, some birds. But getting away from the conference for a bit was envitalizing. As was the whiskey tasting we did when we returned in a secret and always empty bar that I will never tell anyone else about.
  • Patty Ingham twice brought us around in conversations to a topic that is on many of our minds: how do we contextualize what we do within the current animus towards and cuts of scholarly endeavors, especially in the humanities? No easy answers to this one, but a reduction in available resources to many who'd come to the conference was palpable after even a few conversations: many people I know abbreviated their stays and watched their money very closely because so little was being reimbursed by their institution.
  • Sunday was our early morning return to Detroit. Liza and Lowell snored in the backseat while Karl and I chatted about, well, everything, and the rain and wind slammed the car. On the plane flight home an idea for how to extend the MEMSI panel's conversation into the sphere of ecocriticism hit me as well.
  • a lesson from late night food delivery
  • And speaking of ecocriticism ... someone peppered the conference with a flyer for a session on ecocretinism, complete with fabricated scholars and universities. It is probably the best joke I've seen worked at Kalamazoo.
More from me, and my fellow bloggers, soon. Those are some quick thoughts on a stormy DC Tuesday.

The Tiny Shriner pauses for refreshment
Bonnie Wheeler holding my handout


Karl Steel said...

thanks for this, Jeffrey.

Let me just say that when I was singing "I'm all out of love," the "you" in the line "so lost without you" stands for all of you in Kalamazoo. Thanks for drawing me back.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I can't wait to hear about everyone's time at Kzoo. This is the first time I've missed in my 7 year stint as a grad student, and while I accomplished much in the extra weekend at home in NYC, I also realized that perhaps the concrete gains are not as important as the ephemeral things that were lost -- all of you, without whom, like Karl, I too am lost.

In other words: I remembered what it is that keeps me going. In the field, and to that small town in Michigan. Every year, like clockwork.

Viator said...

You were much missed, Mary Kate, and I, for one, could have used you there if for no other reason than to hold my hand through Prof. C's talk on rocks, which proved--for me--to be as unexpectedly traumatic as it was predictably delightful. For as he described a geologist's growing obsession over the question of whether rocks felt pain, and an experiment in which he listened anxiously with a stethoscope for the secret agony of a chunk of granite, I was suddenly reminded of a similarly anguished rock in a story from my childhood--perhaps the most upsetting book I encountered prior to _Atlas Shrugged_. I hadn't thought of it in decades, and couldn't recollect its title, but promised Jeffrey after the talk to track it down: _Sylvester and the Magic Pebble_.


I don't know that it adds much to the discussion of the ontological status of minerals, but I'd love to hear whether anyone else has encountered this singular marvel of children's lit, and what they made of its supposed "lessons." It is, if nothing else, "a striking illustration of the turn of Fortune's wheel" (as Reepicheep consoled Eustice), and of the arbitrary cruelty of even one's own mind. Strong stuff for six-year-olds, though, now that I think of it, perhaps informative for wee future medievalists.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Benjamin: and of course it is a William Steig story! I love these authors intent on screwing up the youth of the world instead of making them moral persons. Lives ruined by literature.

Thanks for bringing the story to my attention.