Monday, June 03, 2013

ASLE 2013

Some Prismatics: Eileen, Lowell, Serenella, Stacy, JJC
by J J Cohen

I've just returned from my first Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment conference, "Changing Nature: Migrations, Energies, Limits." I'm too sleep deprived to offer a coherent narrative. Some snippets and vignettes in its lieu:
  • As you might expect from an environmentally themed conference, the gathering had a low key, unpretentious feel. Folders were recycled cardboard, waste was minimized, the banquet was vegan. Striking up conversations with strangers was easy -- required, really. This was not the MLA.
  • The first panel I attended was the best -- well worth getting up so early to see, despite not having slept much the night before. Called "Weather Machines," the session had Christopher Schaberg, Andrew C. Hageman and Clara Van Zanten sharing brilliant work on just how those terms intersect. It was especially good to meet Chris Schaberg, whose projects I've been following for a while. See also this, in which he is also a collaborator. I ran into Chris throughout the conference and had some great conversations.
  • Prismatic Ecology had its debut at ASLE. I know the essays in the volume intimately, but having Lowell Duckert, Eileen Joy, Steve Mentz, Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann transform their written compositions into performances was awesome. Though a few of the questions afterwards were hard to interpret (the first was from a man insisting that the book's title needed to be changed to Unprismatic Ecology), the project was well received.
  • If you missed ASLE, you haven't missed Prismatic: The Conference Version. While in Kansas I was notified that our iteration designed for MLA Chicago has been accepted. Stacy Alaimo, Lowell, Steve, Margaret Ronda and Tobias Menely, Will Stockton, Allan Stoekl and Julian Yates and me will perform six minute versions of our essays (Violet-Black, Maroon, Brown, Red, Beige, Chartreuse, Orange, and Grey) while our color is projected behind us, timed to fade at the six minute mark. No worries about going overtime at this one. 
  • The plenaries I attended were generally excellent. Rob Nixon gave an inspiring talk about reading geological strata alongside social stratification, so that the anthropocene is seen not just as a chemical imprint on stone but an accelerated widening of human disparity: that is, while it matters that carbon is readable in the lithic like never before, that change is intimate to the emergence of a worldwide plutocracy, so that every conversation about climate change needs also to be a conversation about social change. 
  • Stacy Alaimo and Cary Wolfe gave a terrific double plenary, one that made clear shared concerns as well as divergences. We were very much looking forward to the Q&A they were scheduled to give each other ... but somehow that portion ended before it began after an audience member took to the microphone ahead of time and posed a very long and rather baffling query. 
  • It was fun to hang out with Stacy (whom I'd met when she came to GW two years ago): despite the fact that she was staying in a hotel a mile from campus, our paths intersected constantly. Cary also joined us one evening in what quickly became our accustomed corner of the hotel bar -- and it was good to see him again so quickly after Elemental Ecocriticism.
  • I finally got to meet Ursula Heise, and to hang out with Misty Schieberle and some current and former UK Lawrence graduate students.
  • Because this was an ecology themed conference, we thought it only right to kidnap Eileen and
    take her for a hike. She wore very nice shoes and kept asking where the martini bar was. To mollify her, we did stop at a brewery on the way back.
  • Another highlight for me was finally meeting Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann. I've been collaborating with them for some time: they wrote the "Onward" for Prismatic Ecology, I wrote a foreword for a book they co-edited, they are composing an afterword for a collection Lowell and I are editing, I moderated their ASLE session on NatureCulture ... We'd been in touch so frequently that I felt like I knew them both already ... and as it turned out, I did. Serenella even got many of us to sing along, late one night, to her iPhone version of an ABBA karaoke machine. Seriously.
  • The food in Lawrence, Kansas is very good and not all that expensive, as are the libations. Lowell, Eileen, Steve and I spent a great deal of time gorging and imbibing together and had a dinner escapade that will never appear in print as careers could be ruined.
  • During the conference my daughter KEC called me filled with excitement at her choice to run for the Student Government office of secretary. Her slogans: "Give me the votes, I'll take the notes!" and "Don't be shy, give Cohen a try!"
  • Lowell and I took an end of conference excursion to Mushroom Rock State Park. He found it, and it is exactly what its name describes. I'm grateful for his companionship. 
  • It was a long conference and I'm happy to be home. I've now entered the period of what I am calling Writing Lockdown. I will emerge when the fall semester begins. More on that, and maybe some related news, soon.


Anne F. Harris said...

Thank you so much for this, Jeffrey - inspiring and epic! So cool to see friendships and alliances emerge. To what do you ascribe the puzzling questions? We had a couple in our eco-critical art history panel at Kalamazoo and facebook garners a few. New field?Different vocabularies? Divergent goals?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Glad you liked the post!

That's a good question and one I've been pondering. I'm not sure if I'm ready to say it is ecocriticism itself as the attractor of such questions; but maybe, with its loose borders and accentuating of the personal and its general nebulousness it also pulls in many who are still trying to figure out what it is all about. That doesn't explain why they should be the first questioners to present, though: usually not knowing something makes you hesitate. Doesn't it?

jo(e) said...

Sleep deprivation is always part of a successful ASLE conference. Glad you had a good experience at your first ASLE.

Dr. Virago said...

I'm really, really glad medievalists are representing our field at interdisciplinary conferences. And I'm glad you had such a good and fruitful time!

But can I correct a wee little thing that's bugging me (the way that crocked pictures on a wall bug me -- I just can't help it)? It's not UK, it's KU, though I can understand the confusion. For whatever reasons, the shorthand for the University of Kansas is flipped to KU (perhaps to distinguish it from Kentucky, which I believe is referred to as UK). As a born and bred Kansan with slight OCD tendencies, this is wigging me out! :)

Now, keep doing the important and good work and showing the world that medievalists are cool! :)

Joni Adamson said...

On the topic of puzzling questions, I was sitting next to the young man who asked the first question so many found troubling because of its length. He was new to ASLE, a master's candidate, from Nepal, struggling to articulate, in English, some ideas formed, I assume, from his experience in another place and language. He prefaced his question with these details about who he was. There were many people sitting around him, near the back of the audience, who were frankly appalled at how his question was handled. ASLE strives to be welcoming to grad students from around the world. We give travel grants for them to get there.

Better moderation of the question would have helped. A moderator could have said, "I hear you saying this, is that what you are asking?" But instead, there was what many considered a very unfortunate lack of willingness to listen carefully to the question from a young person who had traveled half way around the world to attend ASLE. Some left the room in disgust after the bungled handling of a sincere question. The young man also left. I do not know what his thoughts were as he left. I do understand that an auditorium is a hard place to conduct nuanced moderation.

For the record, Stacy Alaimo, from the stage, tried to listen to what he had asked and she answered the question as best she could. Bravo Stacy!! But the greater audience was led, by comments from the stage, and others from some not even in the room, to think that something weird or monstrous or unprofessional had happened at the back of the room. I am troubled very much by the response, brewing in the blogosphere and beyond, to "puzzling questions" and the implied idea that those who may not understand the discussion from the stage are somehow just not sophisticated enough in handling new vocabularies and fields . From where I sat, it looked like a very unfortunate response to a person asking a question from a non-First World place and language and perspective. I thank Stacy for her caring response to a sincere question. She managed to answer, as best she could, the question I heard him ask.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

KU! KU! Now I know!

Thanks for the note, Serpil.

Joni, my impression overall is that ASLE is extremely welcoming. As to the particular session you are speaking a bout: from my perspective there was a failure on the moderator's part. First, the questioner should have been politely asked to wait until the conversation between Cary and Stacy had been conducted; I'm still not sure why an eager question meant that we skipped something many of us were really looking forward to. Then when the questionw as posed, I believe that it is a moderator's responsibility to ensure that queries are really questions, not response essays. There are very polite, very helpful ways for a moderator to step in, clarify, and move a question along to its actual posing -- ways that help keep conversation lively and hurt no feelings. It wasn't just the initial question that would have been assisted by a moderator doing some moderation!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And, for the record: there was nothing in my opinion bizarre about the question itself; speaking about ecocriticism from experience has a venerable tradition behind it. But the way its sudden posing was handled and the response it garnered because no one helped shape its point when collaboration via moderation was needed ... that was too bad.