BABEL 2014: Experience and Allegory

From Vanessa Daws's book "Lambay Swim"

From Vanessa Daws’s book “Lambay Swim”

BABEL in Santa Barbara surged over me like (the metaphor is unavoidable) a breaking wave. We happy BABEL-isiti swam through the white water together – in fact on Thursday morning before the first set of plenaries I bodysurfed Hendry’s Beach with a full dozen other conference-goers, a neoprene-clad advance party. For the past three days we rode the waves. On Sunday the foam dispersed us into the morning breeze.

My drive south to the airport Sunday morning with a carful of medievalists rolled time backwards, traveling across my own personal history on Pacific shores & then reaching farther back, swooping out from my body, across the sloping shoulders of wave after wave in the sunglitter. We passed familiar names: Carpentaria. Ventura. Point Mugu. Tarzana. Sepulveda. Santa Monica. Venice!

In one of my talks I lamented not having a whale’s throat to swallow oceans whole. The BABEL-fullness that has followed me home isn’t pacific in the historical etymological sense, in which Magellan misnamed the stormiest waters in the world for peace. Heading home today, I’m stirred up, turbulent, low on sleep. I didn’t manage three meals during any of the conference’s three days. I’m unsettled, and couldn’t scrub the sand and tar off my feet in the hotel shower.

My first talk positioned bodysurfing between experience and allegory. Those two categories swam, talked, drove, ate, and questioned with me all weekend. They’re organizing my espirit d’aeroplane now.

Opening plenary (Th)

Opening plenary (Th)

  1. Experience is better than knowledge.

The heart of this conference for me was the time spent in the ocean. A hardy dozen scholars and artists, many of whom had never met before, gathered at Hendry’s at 7 am on Thursday, before the conference had officially started. We bodysurfed alongside two kids’ surf camps and inside a thick bed of kelp. In the surf I met Vanessa Daws, the swimming video-artist I found on Facebook via Michael O’Rourke & whose picture from the Lambay Swim inspired the four eco-swim poems I published last month. I’m glad we met in the water. Thanks to all our fellow surf-adventurers!

I went back each morning for pre-conference bodysurfing. Lowell Duckert, my partner in co-plenary adventures that also included a dawn plunge into the campus lagoon before the bodysurfing on Thursday, joined me Friday too. We had the gorgeous water to ourselves. No kids, and almost no kelp. The waves were big enough to give us a slight bounce when we plunged down their faces onto the flat water in front.

On Saturday I got to the beach right at dawn – around 6:30 – and bodysurfed solo for thirty precious minutes before being joined by Jeremy Gordon & Juliane Mora, part of a brilliant group of Indiana-based rhetoricians I met at the conference. At 7:30 one of my favorite people, Elizabeth Teare, who hired me for my first-ever teaching job in 1992 (?) in LA and later navigated the turbulence of grad school with me in New Haven, arrived for breakfast with her husband and daughter. We talked about the past, and weddings, and travels. So great to emerge from waves into personal history!

During lunchless breaks on campus both Friday and Saturday I swam with Santa Barbara’s Ocean Ducks, an open-water swimming group that Vanessa had made contact with before the confidence started. Both days BABEL-isti splashed alongside.

All told I figure that I spent over 4 hours during the three-day conference in the ocean. One-seventh of the total conference time? Not sure that’ll be an easy mark to beat!

Lowell in Lagoon (Th)

Lowell in Lagoon (Th)

Immersion was also a subject of the Thursday morning plenary, in which Lowell’s lagoons and my bodysurfing anchored an over-full relay of conference intros and talks by Benjamin Bratton (on the cloud) and a pair of great Pittsburgh-based poets, academics, and activists, Robin Clarke and Josh Zelesnick, who explored academic precarity. (Robin told me on Saturday that she’d successfully taught herself to bodysurf after listening to my talk and going to Hendry’s that afternoon: perhaps the best compliment I’ve ever received after a lecture!) During the session, I fretted as the clock kept insisting that we were going over time. When Robin and Josh started talking I stopped worrying.

My point about experience has to do with the inadequacy of intellectual analysis to capture the world’s dynamism. The split I felt all weekend at BABEL’s core wasn’t something that could be spanned or unified. Experience is not knowledge & can’t perform the movements and create the coalitions that knowledge generates. Experience is the thing that precedes. It’s not always easy to talk about, but I felt as if I edged toward it near the end of the talk. Or maybe what really got at it was Lowell’s insistence on wearing his wetsuit all day? A suit for a plenary, he said.

Experience describes the abundant physicality of immersion, the uncatagorizable sensation of all that water and all that power surging around and with you. It trumps knowledge because experience is always excessive, there’s always something left over, that grain of sand up your nose or the salt water that’s right now still in my ear and won’t drain until sometime, I don’t know, maybe tomorrow, so if I don’t answer when you’re talking to me in a crowded bar later, please know that it’s the ocean in my ear, not you. Theorizing experience is like freezing a flower: you can do it, but what you’re left with isn’t the same as what you were looking for.

  1. Always allegorize!
Lines written in sand (Fri)

Lines written in sand (Fri)

I’m changing the phrasing of the second half of my big BABEL-idea, because I think that the exhorting imperative is more what I was hoping for. Allegory is action! Why not reach for those symbolic structures, flashing around us in the surf like silver fish? The last morning when we were bodysurfing at Hendry’s, Juliane pointed out a brown head bobbing in the swell nearby. The sleek creature stayed close as we all played in the surf. All seals are selkies, at least potentially.

Whether Spenserians, ecocritics, Material Collectivities, or surfer environmentalists, allegory is our shared practice. Every paper I heard at BABEL allegorized. I count 67 total talks in my itinerary, not including the sometimes-substantial introductions, the brilliant flash-exhibitions, and the Material Collective’s quite amazing Walk on the Beach, which, even though I ducked out in the middle of it to go swimming with the Ocean Ducks, was for me one of the great events of the weekend.

To allegorize ocean and beach means finding intellectual meaning in grains of sand – but that’s the easy part. The best sessions, for me at least, surprised with their allegorical velocities, their dizzying turns and dives. A splash, and then – floomph! – they’re gone.

I’ll attempt a hyper-compressed three-day narrative, with no apologies for its impossibility but anticipatory regrets for omissions. Come into the turbulence with me!


From clouds onto strands pricked the not-always gentle knights, organizing and bodysurfing ourselves across lacunae, rock-ruling invisible pools but finally unable to cross the beached verge. We faced down inequitous dragons whose defeat may be impossible – but what is impossibility but improbability, as a mathematician might say, squared? Sea creatures didn’t block us so much as organize our #bottlesNbones so that we soaked in seismic aquifers, borrowing sun block from Chaucer at the beach. Where was Ceyx when we needed her? Wracked upon neighborly rocks?


After the morning’s surf I woke inside a zebrafish heart where all was endless and Greek. Dissolving our acidified shells past time limits was a good idea: it exo-skeletized empathy until we arrived, at last, at the impossible heart of the matter. Still enraged by time I returned to the strand and tried to read ocean scribbles in sand. Brilliance surrounded me. An aesthetic coward, I plunged into my familiar blue, leaving clothes and art history ashore. I was happy to find both still there when I came back. My meager contribution to the flash exhibition was an instant photo that did not develop, on which I wrote with a sharpie: “This is an attempt to photograph what water writes on shore.” With joy and trepidation I joined thirteen super-heroes of SCALE to ring the day shut: Subatomic cosmic ocean sand square? relativity intimate foot flash abyss global fear. Hearing the words still make me happy.




Salt and sand clung to me during the last morning plenary as I thought about my grandfather, a 22nd– (or something, I don’t really know) degree Shriner (is that the same as a Mason? I don’t know, and neither does Karl Steel, who’s sitting across the aisle from me on our flight back to JFK) in a hall whose geometry screamed under repeated temporal strain. I wanted more: more fishes and more drawings and Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novels reaching out of Indonesia. When I spoke my assigned speculative part of Dear Climate, I wondered how Una & Marina know me so well that they could write my lines as an acute self-parody. Am I transparent, like water? “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!” In Cute Shakespeare I found refuge and some discomfort. A mid-day swim affixed tar to my left toe that’s still there today as I fly over Grand Junction. (What an evocative name – don’t all conferences aspire to be that Grand Junction, that place of connection, that high desert town facing west?) Anyone who missed the revolutionary work of young scholars in the Sous les paves session organized by Justin Kolb missed that which must now be sought for. So many things I love were there: Marina, Spenser, surfing, saint-seductions, amphibians. But maybe my favorite object in the whole weekend was the word-rope in the Sea Changes session, superlatively organized by Jodi Enders and Ellen MacKay, which included my last (and sixth) speaking part. The rope was braided out of printed words on paper, words each of the six speakers had written and still love and had sent by email to P.A. Skantze. She twisted the pages into maybe 10’ of rope, on which we all hauled and sang out a work-chantey: “Haul away, sea changers!” All the talks were brilliant & provocative, but there was something special in the music of that shared worksong. Glorious – but not quite the end, as we convened one last time in familiar plenaric confines for somewhat uncontextulized hymns of surf-love, and a last enmeshment in early modern poetic seas. Impending ending, plus exhaustion and salt-chapped lips, smoothed over possibilities.

That’s not really all of BABEL 2014 – there is no “all,” only allegorical circulations. I am hopeful that the conversations will surface soon in multiple forms and media. I look forward to seeing them. The things that I spoke of – bodysurfing, beach-walking, Okeanos, weather-genres, beach-revolutions, salty language – have long fetches to travel before their waves crest. I hope my fellow conferees will beat me to publication.

I’m not always a big fan of long sub-titles, but this years BABEL-icious combination of “Precariousness, Risk, Forms of Life, Affinity, and Play at the Edge of the World” opened wide the voracious maw of this conference. If the silver tube in which I now travel above Colorado must mark a return from disorienting utopia – a return from the waves, from beloved California, from a briefly-opened space between and across – perhaps there are things we can take home with us.

Dawn over Hendry's (Sat)

Dawn over Hendry’s (Sat)

I want the empathy that precariousness creates, the free-fall of risk, life’s formal variety, fluid affinities, and the evanescence of play on shifting sands.

I left early from all three nights’ parties, partly to be sure I’d get to the beach at sunup the next day and partly because my rocker powers are sadly diminished. As I fly over the Rockies and write, I’m conscious that, amid all the joy – puns & allegories always intended – and blazing imagination of BABEL, I’m looking forward to going home.

Toronto 2015 looms. Its non-biennial nearness appears (I’m sorry to admit it) a little forbidding. Its time will come, and be welcome. There is only one time after all, that time when all things happen. As the poet said about the iceberg: “now!”





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