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SAA 2013: Three Memories and a Fantasy

Another one in the books: SAA 2013 saw my first visit to Toronto, many excellent chats generated through the Brownian movement of densely-populated coffee breaks, a high quality pub less than 2km from the conference hotel, a great seminar on “Shakespeare’s Earth System Science” which included historians of religion and intellectual history, and many things besides.

Three moments stand out. Looking at them, they all appear to be about the same thing, which maybe isn’t surprising.

1. Pleasure and Strife: In the Q&A in our seminar, Vin Nardizzi asked a great question about pleasure, a word we hadn’t used in our discussions of global systems and other modes of relation. I answered, in that appeal to secret knowledge that so often marks the way a seminar member responds to an auditor within the deeply formalized ritual of the SAA seminar, that I thought many of our papers about strife and conflict also had been about pleasure, and that strife and strain need not exclude pleasure in any way. It was a slightly mystifying answer, but espirit d’escalier (or d’aeroport) suggests maybe I should have moved directly to Empedocles and his paired principles of Love and Strife that govern the mixing and separating of the four classical elements. I think Vin was onto something: we need a language that talks about both these principles at once. Energy exchange, which emerges through both Pleasure and Strife? Change, in Ovidian, Lucretian, or other models? (Spenserian? Shakespearean?) The Empedoclean model suggests that Pleasure (Love) and Strife are always at odds, the former uniting and the latter separating elemental substances. I wonder if we can find a language of dissension and disunity, of Strife, that is also a language of pleasure.

2Entrainment: The talk I didn’t hear live but heard lots about was Robert Shaughnessy on Global Shakespeare, entrainment, and jet lag. He showed a YouTube video of metronomes coming to assume a common rhythm as a way to talk about global performance culture and the perils of jet lag. The central idea, as explained to me by people who actually went to the talk, was “entrainment,” a process through which rhythmic proximity becomes contagious. For Shaughnessy, entrainment provides a way to talk about the relationship between actors and audience and the bio-rhythmic dilemmas of, say, a UK-based professor giving an early morning talk in Toronto or a RSC company on tour in the Pacific. I wonder if it’s also a way to talk about all kinds of collective action. (The Wikipedia page I link to above includes human foot tapping along with dance, firefly flashing, and misquito wing clapping (!) as examples of this biomusical phenomenon.) Apparently the purely physical form of entrainment was first noticed by the Dutch clockmaker Christian Huygens in 1666 when he invented the pendulum clock; he called it “odd sympathy.” Shaughnessy also referred to a recent book, Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily LIfe, by Steven Strogatz, a mathematician at Cornell. (A copy just arrived at my door just now: the wonders of our amazonian world.)

I’m wondering about entrainment as a model for action across distance. It would do Shaughnessy’s performer-audience work in really interesting ways and maybe also be generalizable to other kinds of remote influence. Including literary or intellectual influences? All the social-intellectual hybrid entanglements of the SAA — the coffe break chat, the paper session or seminar, the late-night visit at the crowded bar, the animated conversation while distractedly walking through mostly unknown streets — might display such rhythmic entanglements and accommodations  I like having a high-concept takeaway to bring back from a conference!

3. The Ghost is a MOOC: Henry Turner’s excellent talk on Hamlet, corporate identities, and the “crisis of the university” drew spontaneous applause when he charged the assembled Shakespeareans to reclaim the  historical homology between “universitas” and “corporitas” in order to challenge rival claims to speak for academic commonality. (I particularly liked the jab about how Business has displaced Theology at the imagined center of the modern Uni.) He clearly touched a nerve, and one that Rob Wakeman, in real-time twitter —  the posts are still legible at #shakesass13, which punny hashtag was called out by name at the lunchtime talk by SAA President Dympna Callaghan — that Hamlet’s dead father, the looming force that drives the play into violence, resembles a MOOC, a fantastic amalgamation of past and future glories that demands a radical curtailing and focusing of our shared pedagogical enterprise. Some hours later — I’m not a real-time twitterer — I tweeted back that MOOC-mania, with its vision of evacuating futurity, might invert the Ghost’s imperative: not “Remember me” but (to pick up on a key term in Henry’s talk) “Remember…nothing.” Henry’s project on corporate identity seems wonderfully complicated, and his desire to reclaim collective unity in the name of some common project was inspiring, and resonated interestingly with Madhavi Menon’s universalizing plea, via Badiou on St Paul, for an “indifference to difference,” a rejection not of difference as such but of paranoid meaning(s) attributed to difference(s). Was there something in the Canadian water that made universalism, or at least communal identities, seem suddenly possible?

There might have been some nervousness in our collective (!) response to Henry’s exhortation, and in some ways Madhavi’s appeals for a universalism beyond historicism, which has drawn some recent fire in PMLA, stirs up an ambivalence about unity that resonates with (entrains?) the idiosyncratic habits of academic thinkers. But that moment in Henry’s talk, plus the coming-together of entrainment, and my own halting efforts to articulate a pleasure in shared strife and intellectual jousting, suggests an academic fantasy that, I should confess, I don’t usually feel all that strongly. The idea of unity seemed oddly attractive at this year’s SAA.

Here’s one last conference vignette that sparked this coming-together fantasy for me. A little after 4 pm on Saturday, four of us were sitting on the corner across from the construction zone near the Fairmont waiting for the airport shuttle. Around the appointed time, the bus arrived, signaled that it was going to pull over, and then drove away without picking us up. We grabbed our rolling bags and sprang into action. The suddenly united SAA foursome failed to catch the bus by walking across the street, but we found a phone number, a working cell phone, another way through the maze of construction, and eventually we recovered the bus-that-had-vanished. As soon as we climbed aboard the united foursome dispersed, and by now we are happily back in homes from Vermont to California to New York. It was nice while it lasted.

I’m not a big joiner and often tell my classes that I hate nothing more than a room in which everybody things the same thing. But this little bus-parable was about strategic and temporary en-corporation, sympathetic and valuable. About timing, good will, and, it must be said, those prosthetic/cyborg-ish vehicles of extended cognition known as iPhones. Were we entrained into a common rhythm or did we assume it consciously? Hard to say. But our ad-hoc community got us to the plane(s) on time.

Can this kind of temporary en-corporation resist the MOOC-ian command to Remember Nothing? I wonder. It’ll be fun to try.

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