Sunday, February 19, 2012

Austin sumphōnia

Dan Onion. Download his music.
by J J Cohen

[before you read this nonscholarly post, make sure you enter the abyss with Karl three times: 1 2 & 3]

I've already written a bit about the recent Exemplaria symposium in Austin. A week later the discussions that unfolded in Texas are still with me, challenging me to think more deeply about critique and community. A fundamental question that emerged for me from the combined force of the presentations and the Q&A is how to disagree (because critique requires some dissent) in a way that will be heard, will preserve community, and yet can effect individual, scholarly and collective change. Processing, processing ...

sign at Bernadette's
Related to the cultivation of solidarity (because confederations of all kinds are living things; they require unceasing nurture to remain vigorous), I've also been thinking about smaller interpersonal relations, that is, friendship. It was gratifying to see the symposium come together so well partly because the five editors of Exemplaria are friends and their success makes me happy. Medieval and early modern studies can seem vast, but as far as collectives go they are not so extraordinarily large. Personal relations are fundamental to the affinity groups that give fields of study their contours. I've twice heard an EM scholar posit that medievalists generally possess a guild structure (relations tend to be horizontal, and therefore more open), while early modernists arrange themselves into more of a court (vertical organization and a stronger sense of hierarchy). If this model holds -- and I am not so sure it does -- then a court organization would tend to foster rivalry (it's the way to move up) but be potentially more open (anyone can enter a court as a "new man"), while a guild would exhibit more cooperation (its structure is flatter; less competition and thereby less strife) but reveal its basis in foundational exclusiveness (only guild members enter the Guildhall). I might know more after the SAA in April, but my guess is that both fields are a combination of the two structures -- though (and here I go out on my own limb) Early Modernists seem to possess a more keenly developed sense of the performative aspects of professionalism and thereby a stronger cult of the personality. I can't think of medievalists who aspire to the larger than life status of a Greenblatt, or delight quite so much in the cultivation of prickly and selfish eccentricity as ... well I will allow you to fill in that blank. Am I wrong in thinking that medievalists collaborate more often and compete less? Maybe. I make these generalizations from a biased data pool (many of my EM friends are not enamored of those whom they see as powerful in the field), and so I am eager to hear other thoughts.

view from a car window
But back to Austin. Outside of the symposium, one of the pleasures of coming to the city was reconnecting with Dan Rudmann (AKA Dan Onion), who years ago was an undergraduate in my Chaucer and Medieval Literature courses at GW. He's now pursuing a PhD in Sanskrit at UT Austin (and you thought the job market in English bad ...). Dan was good enough to pick me up from the airport, show me around Austin, and invite me to his solo show Thursday evening at Skinny's Ballroom. I was so impressed. Dan has a voice that is big and mature. He writes his own songs, and there he was on the stage with his guitar, stunning his audience into entranced silence. He'd given me one of his CDs many years ago (my kids always loved it and made me play it again and again), so I knew he had talent, but to see him perform live ... well, it was one of those powerful moments when all of a sudden you see a person in a wholly different way, and think about how much good there is in the world. I very much enjoyed the transformation of a student-teacher relation into a friendship over the course of the few days I had in Texas. Having a car handy through Dan meant I also got more of a taste of the city than I would have otherwise, since Austin isn't very walkable. Sitting outside at the Spider House as they lit the firepit on a chilly evening was memorable (Bonnie Wheeler revealed her own obsession with rocks, which trumps mine), and it was fun as well to visit Whole Foods World Headquarters where the bar (yes, they have a bar) serves good wine by the inexpensive carafe. And of course nothing beats a late night of music that yields to an early morning breakfast, along the way passing Eileen Joy in a blanket in a bike-pulled cart. Well, where else would she be at three in morning?

So here's to friendships, community, conversations that can be critiques but might also be transformations, and surprising sympathies that are also symphonies.

1 comment:

Steve Mentz said...

I'm under some sort of air-filled materialist deadline so can't chat too much now, but I look forward to batting around various theories of early mod / medieval differences and cultural forms when I smuggle you into SAA in a Falstaffian basket. It's not immediately clear to me that medievalists are less driven by what William Clark calls "academic charisma" than early modernists. I suspect all causal roads lead to Kalamazoo instead. But, as I say, I look forward to further discourse on this important topic.