I am trying to figure out the meaning behind what could be the most significant ritual of academic life: the conference. I’m mostly referring to the big national conferences, like the MLA or the CCCC but regional conventions work for this cultural-rhetorical exercise.
Three “official” (a few of my good friends agree) reasons justify the conference’s existence: a) networking: getting together in real time with the hope that this will be the year that someone attends and responds to my talk b) it’s getting away: in the last few years this one is probably primary, but whatever is second on my lists of threes usually is most memorable anyway c) creation of a concrete deadline: eight pages of something written is better than just one more book ordered from Amazon.
But while my meditation on the academic conference takes these official purposes into account, here I’m thinking of the conference as intellectual system. Randall Collins’ work started my original interest in “intellectual systems” especially his book The Sociology of Philosophies but so did getting a degree in the humanities in the 1990’s, when we were “post” everything except for all the incredible innovations that were close to but not quite in the gaze of our mind’s eyes, trained as they were to see critique.
The internal and external, the play between sustaining and severing from paradigms connects to my happy embrace of conferences and my somewhat vexed relationship to systems theory. Conferences remind me of where I was and what I haven’t done since, and what everyone was talking about in preparation for the next year’s convention. At once stifling and stimulating, academic conventions perform the paradox of potentiality—the what if that comes about when people gather together in airless hotel rooms to gaze out at the horizon of innovation. We go to conferences in order to present and be present, and in order to distract and be distracted—to be together somewhere else.
And this is a basic truth of complex systems: in order to get here, we must go there. In order to go there, we have to practice being “here.” We exist in relational spheres.
I’m researching the happenings of one conference, the 1994 Conference on Complexity, connected to the Sante Fe Institute and I’m considering preparations for another conference, the upcoming June conference sponsored by the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning.
Both are about perspective, practice: the reality that can be known from observations and relations.
Observations, relations, “assemblages”–all tag neatly into an evolving oeuvre of complex composition. Alex Reid’s blog digital digs offers some of the best work in this area. His recent posts on object-oriented rhetoric reveals a growing interest in posthumanistic theory, criticism, rhetoric, and pedagogy. Political Scientist Jane Bennett calls this “a political ecology of things” in her recent book Vibrant Matter. And a new or renewed embrace for the philosopher Bruno Latour and other heavy hitter theorists like Deleuze and Guattari speak to a desire to explain the ethos in the networked telos. (I love Kasia Skonieczna’s blogpost on these thinkers.)
The digital pushes assemblages to the surface. But conferences, too, are a kind of technology for gathering with purposeful distraction.
All of this to ask: what is the link between complexity and the “great books,” the canon, and the culture wars of the nineties? The back-story for this question far exceeds the energy level I have for this medium (but last week’s “post” helps). At base, I’m asking about the connection between a certain kind of theorizing and a certain kind of practice, about the recursive relationship between ideas and innovation, between reading and doing, between canons (of thought, of literature) and composing.
Alex Reid’s discussion on the failures of 90’s cultural studies and theory helps articulate what could be the link between canons and complexity:
As I see it, having been raised (professionally speaking) in the nineties height of cultural studies and postmodern theory, there is no real explanation there for how ideology functions. And when I say real, what I mean is that the explanations exist solely in the frames of representation and discourse. These are clearly important elements to examine, but they strike me as insufficient. We can speak about the material effects of representation/discourse (e.g. arguing that advertisements affect body image leading to eating disorders) but we have a difficult time accounting for the compositional processes. To use an analogy, we have a kind of spontaneous generation theory (e.g. flies spontaneously generate from dead animals). Our methodological shortcoming, I believe, is that we try to account for all of this strictly in terms of representation and discourse.
I’m wondering if it was possible to be “raised professionally” in the nineties. This sounds awfully cynical, but it’s worth considering the sociology of intellectual uncertainty. What does it mean to be raised when everything under you is deconstructed and everything ahead of you ephemeral?
“Raised” suggests a developmental process— a telos. We started somewhere and then cultural studies and postmodern theory (and process and post-process and dot coms, and attack on public higher education) fed us so we could grow up into mature beings. Reid knows where the theory of the nineties falls short, and is aware, too that “being raised”–if we are to survive–must involve more than a vertical trajectory.
What isn’t quite clear is whether the humanities can or should stand tall again. Less raising, more grazing around, maybe? What are the models, and what is the language for an epistemology of the conference?