Monday, March 26, 2012

The Monstrous Fantastic

Either this is the soundcheck or no one came to my paper
by J J Cohén

Sleep deprived, overfed and overstimulated, I've just returned from the annual conference of the IAFA (International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts) in Orlando.

I was this year's Guest Scholar, which meant that I was picked up at the airport; handed an envelope of cash, a previously unknown thing called a per diem (it is so unexpectedly exciting to be given money in an envelope that I have been fantasizing about being bribed so that the tingle returns); participated in an opening panel on the monstrous with China Miéville, Kelly Link, Veronica Hollinger and Gary Wolfe; got to sit at a special table during China's lunch and lecture; was feted at a luncheon in my own honor, after which I gave a talk, "Undead" (mostly about zombies, but also ecology and fantasy); was interviewed live by the inimitable Edward James (a medieval historian also well known for his work in science fiction); participated in an invigorating seminar on "The Promise of Monsters"; during the conference banquet, was compelled to sit atop a raised platform with the guests and IAFA leadership, apparently because people in the room enjoy watching other people eat; and received an award for my scholarship that included both a handsome plaque and the downpayment for my next laptop. More strange even than any of these things (and here indulge me, or skip the next paragraphs, or in fact stop reading this blog post now because what follows lacks proper scholarly modesty) -- more fantastic than any of these things was that when I received the award and thanked the conference for its bestowal, the room erupted into applause so enthusiastic that, well, I was stunned. The room seats well over two hundred at those tables, so the reaction was loud, and gave me an out of body experience, and a profound feeling of gratitude. Professors get [extraordinarily unfair] jeers these days, not commendation.*

drainage pond, sans gator
I write difficult prose about obscure subjects in dead languages. To find that such work resonates with scholars and writers who are for the most part distant from my field and yet who feel energized by what I've done, well ... I mean, does it get better? Like most of us I conduct my research because I enjoy working with certain materials and questions. They preoccupy me, and it is my good fortune that I am in a profession in which I am enabled to explore them, often with students and friends. Grappling with critical problems and rich texts, coming to some tentative understanding of how things work or might work: that process is sufficiently motivating. Sharing such work to make clear that it's part of an ongoing conversation is an obligation; and of course we then hope that this conversation will be further invigorated by our contribution, so that we can continue the dialogue. The calculation of professional success is not typically a scholarly motivator, despite the ungenerous remarks one often hears to the contrary. Edward James got at this a bit in the interview. He asked me about my early work, and I confided that when I wrote my dissertation (this eventual book) and then edited Monster Theory in 1996, they seemed lonely endeavors. I was trying to create a community through the edited collection especially, mostly because I didn't feel like I was being sustained by one. How strange to be honored in 2012 for work completed when the field was a different place, and how gratifying to see how many futures are still possible for monstrous endeavor. The topic is, I am convinced in the aftermath of this conference, inexhaustible.

the view from the platform
A highlight of ICFA was China Miéville's talk "On Monsters." I am a fan of Miéville's work; The City and the City is one of my favorite books. His narratives are always beautifully written as well as philosophically challenging. Besides possessing an astonishing vocabulary (he sends me to the dictionary, and makes me wonder how they ever gave me a PhD), he is a writer widely read in theory -- though his books never turn into allegories for lit crit. They always trace problems, and stay away from anything easy. Miéville brought up Quentin Meillassoux and speculative realism, for example, during his paper (dismissively: he is not a fan of SR or object oriented philosophy, which surprised me). China's presentation started off as straightforward account of how the uncanny might be broken into various subcategories: the ab-canny, the sur-canny, the sub-canny, the post-canny, the para-canny, and onwards. His account began seriously but spiralled into a proliferative joke. His point was that classification is not analysis, and that such a "taxonomic frenzy" (as he called it) mortifies: "the drive to translate useful constructs into foundations for analysis is deadly," because it violently takes away the potency and possibility of the terms it organizes. What was interesting to me, though, is that China's talk performed something, um, para-canny (right beside itself, there but unseen) that I've also learned from studying medieval encyclopedists: taxonomic frenzy might produce a desiccated system of emplacement in which everything gets filed into a cabinet and drained of its vitality. Or it might actually be so creative in its proliferative energy and so limned by the necessity of its own failure that it undermines its own rigidity in the very process of articulation, becoming an envitalizing and innovative act -- an act of writing -- rather than a system of deadening inscription. China's multiplication of canniness had a power that he walked away from, I think: why abandon your monster like that?

Getting to know China Miéville was certainly a conference highlight. He is among the smartest writers now composing in English, and I will add to this list he is also among the wittiest, the kindest, and most charismatic. It's fun to converse with him, and supremely entertaining (as well as provocative) to see him present. But it's not so great to be the featured speaker on the conference's second day, after China Miéville has on the previous one brought down the house with a fantastic talk.

I hope China will forgive me for opening my own talk by poking relentless fun at him. He was a VERY difficult act to follow, since he had so thoroughly charmed the audience. I do not possess a posh British accent or a Frenchified "é" in my last name, so I'm at a severe disadvantage. Yet I attempted to entertain and provoke with my own piece, "Undead," about the haunting of our imaginations by both zombies and dreams of an end to everything we know. I looked to the Middle Ages for some other possibilities, zombies without apocalypse, the walking dead who commit us to mending the world we have rather than dreaming of its utter termination. Given that even the writers liked my piece -- the writers who told me that they often leave during the guest scholar talks because they are so dull -- I think it went OK.

A few other conference highlights and observations:

  • Though isolated from much of anything besides chain restaurants (did you know that Friday's has exactly zero vegetarian entrees?), the conference hotel did have a palm-lined pool. I began each morning with a run followed by a plunge: inevitably the pool was empty, and watching the sun rise from the water was a perfect start.
  • Like much of Florida this part of Orlando emerged from the strategic draining of swamps, and the swamp wants to come back. There's a large drainage pool behind the hotel filled with egrets and rainwater. It also has an alligator, often spotted lurking at the small pier that juts out from the poolside bar. I think it knows that most of us were one tropical drink away from becoming a meal.
  • The conference attracts almost as many writers as scholars, so that academic grandstanding is not an option and creativity is constantly foregrounded.
  • The meeting has a friendly, welcoming vibe: it is easy to feel at home right away. Hot tip: next year's guest author is Neil Gaiman, if you want to start your planning now. The guest scholar is Constance Penley, and the theme is adaptation.
  • On Friday night Tison Pugh was kind enough to invite me to his house in downtown Orlando and we walked through his neighborhood and out to eat. I must admit that I always have thought of the city as a place of theme parks and hotels. Seeing it inhabited -- and seeing how charming some of the residential areas are -- was welcome. So was departing the conference for a bit, and not being "on" (Tison knows how boring I am so I didn't even try to speak with him; we ate and we walked).
  • Several students from GW were in attendance, and although I saw them less than I expected, we did have dinner together one evening (that's how I ended up at Friday's, where vegetarians are welcome to get the chicken caesar salad without the chicken, and where my question of "lettuce leaves and toasted bread cubes make a good meal?" was answered with an enthusiastic "It sure does!"). GW's Haylie Swenson was named the runner up for best graduate student paper; GW's Mark DeCicco won the award last year. I'm proud of both of them. 
  • I also got to catch up with a former GW student, Justin Roby, who finished his PhD several years ago. I was happy to see and listen to the papers of many other people I've met through the years, such as Derek Newman-Stille. And I got to meet many, many more.
  • Several people I knew only through Twitter are now real to me. Thanks @cameronmcnabb and @lizz_angello for driving to Orlando just for my talk! The backchannel for the conference was very active. If you are on Twitter, check out #ICFA.
  • I'd never met Edward James before but have long admired his work (if you've read this book you know why). He's wonderful. He asked me to sign his copy of one of my books, and then challenged me when I inscribed it "To my favorite medievalist..." I assured him that at that very moment, he was.
  • Though I had been eagerly looking forward to seeing Jeffrey Weinstock, my very first PhD student and the real reason, I think, I'd been invited as guest scholar, unfortunately a family emergency called him away from the conference shortly after arriving. That was the only sad part about Orlando.
  • The conference has a disproportionate number of medievalists in attendance, and many early modernists as well. My guess as to why is that we know, as the time periods we study knew, that fantasy in its various forms is a powerful mode of sounding out the possibilities of the real.
  • I've never had so many handshakes, hugs and warm conversations with strangers.
So my thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make a conference on the monstrous fantastic so monstrously fantastic. Though I did not get much sleep, I found the five days profoundly rejuvenating. And it is good to be home ... until I depart this weekend for Chicago, and thence to SAA in Boston. Think I'll just leave my suitcase packed.
best part of coming home after a long 5 days

*note that I link to Dean Dad's analysis of the article, rather than the lazy and under researched piece itself; I'm afraid the op ed is getting so much traffic that the Washington Post (which is owned by the for profit online education machine Kaplan) will be encouraged to do more along these lines. 


meli said...

wow that conference sounds amazing! thank you so much for sharing your experience without 'proper scholary modesty' - it was wonderful to read.

Rob Barrett said...

I had a fun (concurrent) time at MAA in St. Louis but am thrilled to hear that you enjoyed your time in Orlando. There is an entire community there beyond the theme parks; my parents live in it.

Cameron Hunt McNabb said...

The pleasure was ours--we thoroughly enjoyed your talk and are quite tempted to attend the conference in full next year! Also, so glad you loved Florida! We even have alligators *outside* of retention ponds, too :). And non-chain restaurants. And vegetarians. Onward to SAA and Kzoo!

ASM said...

"I write difficult prose about obscure subjects in dead languages."

Today in class, we discussed one of your essays, which the students declared the most accessible reading of the class, thus far, and the most interesting. Perhaps this says something about you. Perhaps it says something about the rest of the syllabus...

Christy Williams said...

The conference was great, and I very much enjoyed your talk. This was my first time at ICFA, and I have been converted. But your post doesn't mention how wonderful Kelly Link's reading was. I know it's impossible to go to everything at a conference this big, so you may have missed it. Link is a fantastic writer, but underrepresented. I was surprised by how many people at the conference weren't familiar with her work. She read a science fiction ghost story about a birthday party that was strange and creepy but also sweet and wistful. I must admit that I'm a huge fan of hers and presented on her work at the conference.

Rick Godden said...

Echoing ASM's comment, I've taught "Monster Theses" a few times now, to freshman and to continuing education adults, and it's always a big hit. Accessible and provocative, despite the difficult prose and obscure subjects (really it's just the theory that they're not acquainted with--the prose is just fine.)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for the words of encouragement, everyone.

Asa and Rick, I find it strange that "7 Theses" is so often a freshman comp essay! It isn't the best way to write, I don't sound that way anymore ... and yet it is true that I often get nice emails from students who've used it. Thanks for sharing your positive experiences.

Christy, I thought Kelly Link was amazing. I told her that in person: her answers to difficult questions were always so very thoughtful, and so rich. Quite a deep thinker (and from what I've read good writer).

Anonymous said...

Hi Cameron! If I had known that you and Lizz were at ICFA (even for a little while I would have kept an eye out for you!
-Jude Wright

Anonymous said...

I'm certain that I'm not the only one who would like to thank you for being a substantial part of one of ICFA's best conferences in recent memory. I truly enjoyed your talk on Thursday as well as your panel participation.
-Jude Wright

Faye Ringel said...

It was wonderful getting to hear you and speak for a bit: I've admired your work for years. You are among those who have shifted the Medieval Studies paradigm. What a great con report! It's especially neat to see ICFA through the eyes of a traveler from afar, who doesn't take the perks for granted. Writers of fiction are used to being adored by fans, but that isn't usually part of the world for academic writers.

Cameron Hunt McNabb said...

Hi Jude! I should have suspected you were there! Lizz and I just drove over for the day. We'll have to catch up on campus soon :).

Unknown said...

I am sad that I didn't get a chance to meet you (or see your talk). Financial limitations kept me away until late Friday.

I do hope you will attend in the future. This was my first year, and I already know that I am going to go next year, and for the full conference. I'm glad that you enjoyed yourself, though, and that the reaction from the community was so positive. This is a very good thing indeed :)

Deborah Christie said...

I, too, wanted to thank you for your fabulous contributions to the IAFA conference. I wanted to fight my way through the adoring crowds to say so in person, but the gratified hordes were impenetrable. You were one of the first scholars who convinced me that It was possible to study monsters with both my sanity and my reputation intact and I thank you for that. It was particularly gratifying that you mentioned my recent edited collection by name.... It was a total "Squee!" moment for me, though I did refrain from doing the happy dance during your wonderful luncheon presentation. Again, thank you for making this year's IAFA conference amazing and memorable.