Thursday, September 27, 2012

Friendship as futurity (BABEL 2012)

a slide from a plenary that weighed heavily on my mind
by J J Cohen

The BABEL conference was so intellectually sumptuous that I despair of attempting to capture the event.

Rather than imagine a post that I'll never actually be able to compose, I will observe that BABEL included but was not limited to the following: moments of transformative intensity; the pleasure of witnessing participants thrive; impossibly late nights; endemic collaboration (especially nontraditional and emotionally fraught modes); risks; presenters who crafted new ways of performing overcome by the radiance they triggered (I will be saccharine: such smiles of achievement. They make me happy to think back on them now); celebratory silliness; celebratory seriousness; love; some papers that could have been offered at any conference, and some moments of surprising selfishness (how can someone not see the arrogance of allotting themselves twice the time that any other speaker takes?); antagonism and occasional snark (I'm always irritated by that moment when instead of dwelling upon what a plenary achieved academics assert why they would have done better); a pervasive willingness not to dwell upon error or failure (the necessary followers of risk taking: not every experiment culminates well) and an ebullient desire to see beyond such rare founderings; intimacy; multiple sensory modes; synaesthetics; fermentation, cultivation and the wild; catching up with many people close to my heart, and connecting to many more; being annoyed; being annoying; angelic messengering; community; lambency and late night pastry eating with an edge of danger (who knew you could go to jail for talking about the future of the university too loudly at 3 AM?); what Tony Fry inspirationally called rethinking how to make things, unlearning, moving beyond inherited academic structures, decolonizing epistemologies (that might sound like mere jargon but taken seriously it's an important injunction), and the Urmadic Academy ("educational institution without a place").

Most importantly, though, BABEL was for me about friendship as a mode of field change. With Eileen, I state for the record in these computer pixels generated from my own blood (I swear they are) that I am weary of those who critique or disparage BABEL as a cabal of friends -- as if friendship were easy, as if friendship were not a contentious, complicatedly open space for affinity, alliance, sustenance and challenge. Real friendship, utter friendship, doesn't reinforce your comfort in the identity you already possess but unlocks a space for becoming someone better, a roving mode of companionship rather than an exclusive celebration of what already exists. Amity is a difficult endeavor. Friendship should be joyful, but sometimes it hurts. It's all about the futural, and avenir is heavy.

After the conference some of us spent another day in Boston dreaming some possibilities for the next BABEL convocation (Santa Barbara 2014) as well as thinking about the structure of the group in ways that could make it more widely collaborative and its labors better shared. Right now, most of BABEL's work is conducted by a fairly small number of dedicated people -- and, to be honest, despite the generous support of many institutions and individuals for the conference itself, the financial resources required to enable BABEL to realize its immodest ambitions need to grow (DONATE). Eileen, BABEL's sine qua non, presiding genius and ceaseless dreamer/schemer/ingenitor, will be sharing more about the working group's thoughts soon, and will make a plea that I hope everyone realizes is genuine: this enterprise requires many hands and is always seeking supporters, volunteers, friends. And also: filthy rich donors.

I'm debating if I will share the text of my plenary ("The Deep and the Personal") here, only because it would be a fragment of a whole that cannot be recomposed. Lindy and I each delivered a short piece that we thought could characterize a mode of performance central to our discipline, and then we sat together on two chairs at the front of the room and spoke to each other about big questions; inhuman time scales; the challenge of communicating what we know in ways that are heard; beauty; dwelling between disasters; the responsibilities of the intellectual in a time of intellectual antipathy, both towards science and the arts; the possibility of changing the world. Yes I really said that: changing the world by changing how we inhabit the world. We had prepared no material ahead of time for the culminating interview. We did not even know each other all that well: we'd had a lunch together in July, and some email interchanges. But collaboration works only when you trust your collaborator enough that you know they will push you, make you uncomfortable, ask you questions to which you possess no easy answers, journey as your companion to spaces far beyond your comfortable mastery of certain small topics. Collaboration is like amity a mode of transformative challenge. Is it any wonder that Lindy and I started the shared plenary as a scientist and a humanist who had in common an obsession with rocks and catastrophes but were not sure what if anything else, and that we ended the event good and (I trust) enduring friends?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I state for the record in these computer pixels generated from my own blood (I swear they are) that I am weary of those who critique or disparage BABEL as a cabal of friends..."

Coming to this late, as ever, I am bamboozled by its recurrence in all your posts, not by the fact that it is claimed of you all, but simply by the fact that people seem to think it's a bad thing. I spent six years giving papers at Leeds as a loose group of charter scholars who could have been described in such terms, except we never put quite such energy into socialising as BABEL doth; all the same, at last, we have our first volume of essays on its way out. It's always been an open group, but there's a steady core. In this we are imitating an earlier group of scholars of the charters of the early Middle Ages who used to have weekend meetings at one of their members' country house and have now published three volumes of their own essays, albeit via a major university press. Membership has varied, some are now dead, output is slow, but they continue. They are friends. We are friends. Some of us are also friends with some of them. Isn't this just how academic collaboration happens? One finds people who want to do similar things and while that happy state persists one works with them and enjoys it? Surely, when we often know each other as social quantities as well as academic ones, we often wind up publishing our friends' work. If that let sub-standard work out into the wider world, that might be a bad thing (though really, so bad? there is already so much more than we can use, but we all need to be published and it's not as if publishing one person prevents another getting out there too) but mechanisms exist that make that difficult to get away with and it seems a very unfair thing to assert of people.

My personal opinions on this front are (i) that everyone should be aiming to be part of such a group if they can, to keep themselves affirmed in their work and to help find the people who are interested in that work; (ii) that I have never had the sense that, if I could ever come up with something BABEL-ish and put it forward, I would be turned away from a conference even though what I think are important things to study are largely unlike your various works, or, to put it another way, that BABEL's friendship is easily earned and difficult to lose; (iii) and that anyone who doesn't like that is probably just jealous of how much fun you're having.