Academic conferences were more exciting back in the 1990s.
There you have it. Months of research and contemplation on the state of the humanities over the last thirty years, reading this about the “science wars” and this about the fate of writing at the end of the century. All so that I can make the bold claim–commonly heard among the late thirty-something year old set–things were better back when.
Of course it wasn’t all better when. But that is the thing about research. It complicates clichés and grand claims. Big theses ideas are in vogue now (Tipping Point started that trend, Steven Johnson’s work may finish it). But conference papers, in all disciplines, tend to eschew the broad strokes in favor of a message, an emerging idea, an almost-true finding. The conference paper is that unique hybrid genre that is not really grand (books, films) but not so small (unpublished papers). Conferences exist somewhere in “the adjacent possible” to use a term that Biologist Stuart Kauffman coined.
This post is about how I am avoiding preparing my own paper for an upcoming conference by studying the history of academic conferences from 1992-2002. Cultural studies and the culture wars, the creation of departments for and about writing, the invention of a science of “complexity”–these were all subjects cooked up at academic gatherings (and, also, in very long edited collections).
I am obsessed with conferences. Except the one I have to go to.
One major difference between conferences then and now was a sense of urgency about the presentations. The rhetoric of resolve and urgency pulsating through this work can be attributed to fierce debates about the future of the university, and virulent attacks against English departments in particular. Humanities conferences and edited collections of the 1990s were gutsy and polemic. You get the sense that whatever the topic was (identity politics or the canon or critical theory) it mattered.
It is strange to think of scholarship in last days before the digital age more “now” than what we get now. When scholars gave “papers” back then they were, actually, on paper. They had linear arguments, barely any visuals, were read aloud to audiences, printed in standard essay format. They looked just like the conference papers and essays written a hundred years earlier.
But while these relics may appear outdated, they do not feel old and worn. See this cultural studies anthology or this anthology about writing and culture–examples of passion and position and personality. The culture wars inspired these critical-polemical pieces. Today our battles are more dispersed; we are more inclined towards the “relational” than the oppositional.
Uncovering connections or “networks” in writing and cultural practices is important, and good work comes from this kind of scholarship (see this helpful, if tame new collection for example). We live in an age when the lines between matter and human, social and private are blurred (See this explanation by Tiffany Shlain and this book by Jane Bennett.)
Yet something changed after the culture wars ended without a clear winner or loser. The study of literature and writing lost its edge. Books and ideas, writing and literature have been replaced by areas of culture that feel more real and true. Food, for instance.
There are countless tomes on the relationship between food and culture. But I think of the Eat This, Not That books as representative of the enthusiasm and confidence, the sense of urgency and import, that was once directed at texts.
I know that’s too simple. My thesis–then we had books, now there are kale chips–does not account for the emerging new disciplines of the post-postculture-wars age.
One such discipline is Writing Studies. It talks about being a field that studies how writing makes connections and relations. But it is also a discipline that distinguishes as much as it relates.
In their recent “plea for writing” Sidney I. Dobrin, J. A. Rice, and Michael Vastola explain that the field of Writing Studies is about “theorizing writing qua writing sans subject.” They mean that the study of writing should not be about ways to teach writing, but about writing itself: “not bound by the canons, grammars, and rhetorics of pedagogy that have been naturalized as the methods though which writing is learned and performed.”
Writing Studies is this: subjectless. It is not that: about the writer, the student, the process.
I have a follow-up question for this new writing diet. Does it work? Will it work to inspire the many coming to the upcoming composition and communication conference? Because conferences are outlier genres in the academy. They hang out in the in between space of the academy, the boundary between being this and that: published and not, polished and process. Will Writing Studies be able to straddle this fine line?
Time will tell (exactly two week of time).