Wednesday, August 01, 2012

post ncs post: Portland 2012

someone was radiant in Portland
by J J Cohen

[Number three in a longstanding series that includes New York! Swansea! Siena! Read Eileen and Karl and Karl first though. Then read Anne Harris's account of NCS. Then ignore all future imperatives and certainly don't allow anyone else to tell you what to do the rest of the day, because you don't need that.]

I always enjoy New Chaucer Society Biennial Congress, a conference I've been attending regularly since 1994 (Dublin! But blogs hadn't been invented in 1994, so don't click on that word expecting a hyperlink to a very young me's account of the confab; you will feel like a fool). This year's meeting in Portland seemed especially good -- and, yes, I realize that I should not make such a statement, because I was on the Program Committee. How about this: many people said it was among the very best of the congresses. Congratulations to Warren Ginsburg for a job well done, and to Patty Ingham and Karma Lochrie for shaping the program so well, as well as to David Lawton and the many, many people who worked so hard to make the endeavor thrive.

I oversaw two threads, "Ecologies" and "Oceans." Although I was not able to attend every session in either thread, partly because I arrived Monday night and partly because they sometimes competed with each other, I know that both worked extraordinarily well. Bravo to the session organizers for jobs well done, and to the presenters for abiding within allotted time limits (this was the first NCS I've attended where inconsiderate overages were infrequent). Discussions were engaging, with plenty of time to unspool various lines of inquiry. Allan Mitchell's two "Animate Ecologies" sessions were especially rich, their audiences eager to speak. The diversity of the presenters contributed greatly. It was catalytic, for example, to have an art historian like Anne Harris as well as well as a history of the book specialist like Alexandra Gillespie) on the same panel to broaden textual concerns into material ones. I was also thrilled with the "High Water: Composing Thalassology" panel, for three reasons: (1) it was organized by two young in the field scholars of whom I am very fond (Dan Remein and Lowell Duckert); (2) it well integrated the early modern and the medieval (mostly in the form of Steve Mentz, whose presence at the conference was constantly felt; in addition to his own very good paper he asked great questions at the sessions he attended); (3) the presenters were so good (James Smith gave an impressive and beautiful piece on seas and turbulence and modes of knowing; my colleague Jonathan Hsy delivered a piece on polyglot oceanic poetics that hit the ball out of the park). I'll always remember this NCS as full of the pleasure of beholding friends succeed. Do you know what's better than watching someone you care about deliver an extraordinary paper, or hearing their work publicly praised? Absolutely nothing.

Speaking of pelagic materialities and high water marks, Portland NCS also seemed to signify a sea change (and with that I have expended my entire store of aqueous metaphors) in the conference climate (oh wait, that was another). Much of what emerged was future-oriented rather than nostalgic; affirmative, and never plaintive; searching, not merely celebratory -- as if in the aftermath of a tectonic shift (now I am using terrestrial metaphors because my thalassic ones have run dry) (oh, run dry is watery, so maybe not). Let me be more straightforward: I think the field is changing is many good ways, and Portland proved it. There is far less competitiveness and tension than there used to be, a greater sense of shared endeavor. Although the humanities are everywhere endangered, NCS seemed a space set apart from that relentless struggle where we could enjoy together -- with rigor of course but also in companionship and with a sense of fun -- what we do, in all of its temporal and geographical and linguistic heterogeneity.

Carolyn Dinshaw's presidential lecture embodied the change well. It was breathtaking. Focusing on Mandeville as medieval and modern phenomenon, Dinshaw managed to foreground the now of Portland in a way that was provocative. I loved her citations of some friends whose work I esteem. Brantley Bryant as the Chaucer blogger received the careful rumination his work deserves, Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman received citation of an important essay from a book they edited that, so far as I know, was never even reviewed. And Lowell Duckert's piece on recreation from the last Kalamazoo (GW MEMSI ecologies panel) was noted as well. That really pleased me, I have to say, because I've worked with Lowell at GW over the past five years and have watched him develop from a graduate student in search of his project and his voice to a humane and accomplished scholar who (in my admittedly biased opinion) is already articulating a compelling future for the field. Lowell's presentation in Robert Stanton's "Medieval Weather" session was superlative as well. Lowell is about to move to Morgantown to start a job as assistant professor of English. I (we!) will miss him at GW, but his colleagues at West Virginia University have gained quite a brilliant colleague, as well as a very good person.

There, I'm not snarky all the time.

And speaking of brilliant, Eileen Joy was radiant at this conference. We celebrated a Significant Birthday with her, and although the apotheosis I promised everyone did not happen -- or if it did, she never stopped drinking cocktails long enough for us to notice -- but her touch was everywhere visible. May she endure at least another seventy five years on this earth, and may we all be half so spry at her age. Other highlights: catching up with Karl post-France; seeing Mary Kate again and being able to congratulate her in person for finishing her PhD; quiet acts of transgression practiced against Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve at Powell's (I won't name my accomplices, not even under torture, but will note that we attempted to incinerate the tome by placing it next to a copy of A World Lit Only by Fire, and other copies somehow ended up in Fantasy); tweet fighting Meg Worley was we sat on the same panel; Voodoo Doughnuts very late at night and/or early in the morning; Portland itself, a friendly and green city; good beer, as well as the Beervana tour; good food (Myra was especially adept at steering me towards where to eat, since she has been living in the city for a while); karaoke; a poetry reading at Mother Foucault's book store featuring David Hadbawnik, Chris Piuma, and Eileen; seeing more friends of very long acquaintance than I could ever list here; making numerous new friends; escaping to the Oregon coast to hike a small mountain and be dunked by surprise in the sea at Cannon Beach.

Those are a few quick highlights. If you went, what struck you? And note the good news: NCS 2014 is in ICELAND.


Eileen Joy said...

Sometimes, when I see photographs like the one that accompanies this post, it reminds me why I hate time--because time passes, and we can't hang on to those moments when we haven't yet had that first sip of champagne, and the evening is held out before us like a velvet carpet, or an asteroid belt. For the first time in my life, I feel like our field is a playground, filled with friends met and unmet, and that feels right.

Unknown said...

I am esp. appreciative of your account of the "sea change" at the conference. I felt it too - a lot of folks I talked to did. I have never left a conference before feeling so revved up to get back to work. We owe a lot I think to the local organizers and the programme committee, and behind them to the likes of David Lawton and Ruth Evans and the current trustees - it takes a lot of work to change a culture. My happiest moment was seeing a table of graduate students at some great Portland restaurant, after some super sessions, talking happily about, I think, Augustinian phenomenology and beer. Certainly about beer.

dorothyk98 said...

Though I had to miss this one, I am so excited it's going to be in Iceland!

Anne said...

Great thanks to Eileen for sharing her apotheosis so gladly with so many, and with such energy. And thanks to you, Jeffrey, for _your_ good will and tremendous generosity. In the Middle has made such a difference - all the difference for so many conversations. It's truly exhilarating - oh the future shores (metaphoric and otherwise) that await!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Alex: agreed! the local organizers -- especially Warren Ginsburg -- worked incredibly hard under difficult circumstances to make the conference run smoothly. And it did. Of course the good (and inexpensive!) beer helped.

Anne, happy to do it, and thank you for being a part of it.