Sunday, November 17, 2013

Contact Ecologies

 by J J Cohen

On Friday GW MEMSI sponsored a symposium on Contact Ecologies with Anne Harris, Bruce Holsinger, Steve Mentz and Kellie Robertson. Haylie Swenson and Lowell Duckert served as moderators. Timothy Morton gave a tremendous keynote (audio here). What a lineup: I've never been part of an event so filled with creativity, generosity, and just plain smarts. I feel honored to have been part of its community. I know I'm not alone in that feeling since my inbox is overflowing with notes about Contact Ecologies and its aftermath. As organizer, I'm relieved. And pleased.

I cannot give the symposium the detailed narrative it merits: a hurricane's eye is not nearly so placid a place as advertised, so my scattered notes do not suffice. Anne, Steve and Tim have already offered their accounts via their own blogs, however, so that takes away some of the onus, and allows me to offer a few memories and observations instead.

  • Sometimes the best way to ensure the intensity of a symposium is to be as specific as possible in delineating what you would like from your presenters, carefully articulating desired emphases and points of convergence in your instructions. But another possibility is to gather some scholars whose work profoundly moves you, trust them to speak well to each other, and maximize freedom and the ability to surprise by refusing to explain the gathering's rubric. It also helps to choose moderators (Haylie Swenson, Lowell Duckert) you know will do a superb job of bringing their unique, humane approaches to making each session work. I like to think of Contact Ecologies as a curated gathering with an inbuilt openness.
  • Broadly thematic gatherings work well for collecting the kind of heterogeneous audience that ensures that many topics are covered and new ideas emerge. As Bruce observed, the day is unlikely to arrive when GW MEMSI sponsors a colloquium entitled "New Approaches to Lydgate." It's not that we aren't interested in the particular and the small scale, but more that we want to find ways a conversation to which Lydgate and his scholars contribute also includes those who work in other geographies, genres, disciplines, time periods. For the same reason, even though our institute is proudly medieval and early modern in its focus, we always include scholars (like Tim Morton as keynote) who do not necessarily know in advance how much their work has to say to earlier periods, and vice versa. Jane Bennett (of the foundational AVMEO symposium) even returned for Contact Ecologies to demonstrate that point yet again.
  • Nothing so big can unfold without big support. Haylie Swenson, my brilliant MEMSI assistant, undertook so much of the nuts and bolts. The presenters and moderators, my amazing colleagues in MEMSI, and -- just as importantly -- the intense and question-filled audience of 60 who spent the day with us (including many faculty and graduate students from JHU, Georgetown and UMD): all these people gave generously to the event.
  • Eileen Joy, Myra Seaman and Travis Neel travelled far to be part of the event. I thank them for their friendship.
  • I arranged for four of the speakers to have breakfast with the 14 graduate students in my "Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies" seminar before the symposium began. I had food poisoning from the breakfast I'd eaten earlier that day, and so my attention may not have been what it should have been ... BUT I was so proud of my students for the kinds of questions they asked and the work they shared. The presenters were fantastic in posing far-reaching queries in return. That session helped spur a day long conversation about craftsmanship as well.
  • Eileen Joy is, rightfully, a legend for her bacchanalic ability. Let it be known, though, that at 3 AM in a certain dive bar in Foggy Bottom, Anne Harris, Kellie Robertson, Lowell Duckert, Alan Montroso and yours truly were going strong. Eileen sat quietly in the corner, mumbling about how she needed to get to bed because she was attending a brunch the next morning. At like, noon. Please. Lowell and I breakfasted that morning with Tim while sleepy-eyed Eileen was still abed, her indolent feast hours ahead of her. 
Thank you, again, to everyone who participated. I don't think this symposium can be topped so I will be silently doddering henceforth towards retirement. 

I hear you get to sleep late and have brunch.

No comments: