The storm had started by the time we poured ourselves into an Uber heading across the river to the famous Surly Brewery Friday night. After a festive few hours of beer and New Haven style apizza (including the obscure mashed potato-garlic version that I’d not previously seen outside of CT), the return voyage was essentially underwater, awash in heavy white flakes and piles of slush. There were cars spinning out on the highway, and wintry mix flying into our car when our driver cracked his window to try to defog the windshield. In the hands of a capable north country driver, we made it back safely & even got to enjoy the remnants of a book launch party in a basement bar around the corner from the SAA Hilton. But my always-seeking-allegory mode wonders – how might we understand that slushy snowscape? What hostile but beautiful ecosystems are we #shax-ers navigating these days?
So many people kept saying what a pleasure it was to be back together after so long. Despite a nagging feeling of #Jax-erasure, since I was among the hardy few who made it to the wilds of northeastern FL in ’22, the palpable feeling of return definitely guided my footsteps this year. The two part seminar on “Intersectional Animality,” in which I played to type by contributing a paper on whales and whalesong, was chaired by two of my favorite Shakespeareans, Holly Dugan and Karen Raber. On both days the very-full seminar rooms felt like old home week, with smart, generous, speculative ideas flowing around the table and from the auditors back into the core group. Of all the things I love about the SAA, the seminar format, with its informality, its connections that develop over time, and its efforts to bring multiple things and people into contact with each other, remains for me the heart’s core. Such a pleasure to work with a group, including some people that I knew before and many I’ve just met!
Both sessions of the seminar circled around the ways in which commitments to animal rights and to racial justice might interact, intersect, or even possibly crowd each other out. It was a test for the controlling ethos of #shax2023, and of SAA as an organization, that thrives mutual support and enjoyment. There is, I admit, sometimes also an undersong of distinction-seeking and competition, as we all want our remarks to dazzle everyone in the room, but most of the time, at least in my (narrow and subjective, and in recent years employed and tenured) perspective, we Shax-ers look to like. I’m not sure how many people I heard say some variant of, “It’s so great to see all these people again” over the past few days.
My favorite moment of the conference, and a real highlight of many decades of SAA-ing, came when I was in the audience for Mira Kafantaris’s “Race-ing Queens” panel. Chaired by the inimitable Margo Hendricks, the panel featured the dazzling line up of Mira herself, the always-smartly dressed Harry McCarthy from Cambridge (UK), Anita Raychawdhuri, and my long-ago grad student Danielle Lee, who teaches at SUNY Old Westbury. It’s a truism of education that if students don’t succeed, it’s because of bad teaching, and when they triumph it’s their own natural excellence shining through. That’s exactly right in this case, as Danielle gave a fantastic presentation of her brilliant and timely work. But I must say that I was deeply proud of her lecture, especially her poise and aplomb during the q&a. Some of the material she was talking about regarding early modern African political actors included things I’ve been talking about with her for a long time, and it was glorious to see it presented before a very large and eager audience. Did I twinge a bit when, asked about the origins of her fascination with Sycorax, she said, well, Dr. Mentz made us read The Tempest in the first semester of grad school? I did, including at being called “Dr”! But it’s so exciting to see her work take off, and soar in such excellent company.
Along with the highs, also one lower note. As I was heading toward the airport on Sat afternoon, my last unfinished session was the #shaxfutures event on “Zoom-flight: Neoliberalism and Embodied Learning in the Post-Pandemic Shakespeare Classes.” This panel was part of the #shaxfutures initiative that began at the infamous 2017 #shakenado conference in Atlanta, when the first panel in the series was a standing-room plenary, “The Color of Membership,” featuring a searing talk from Arthur Little whose words echo a half-dozen years later. The series has continued through this year, but it’s no longer a plenary session, and it has usually been tucked into the last-day afternoon slot. This year, the big Hilton ballroom was substantially (shamefully) less than a quarter full. Until Jane Degenhardt arrived, I do not think any current Trustees were in the room, though past President Jean Howard was on stage to read Crystal Bartolovich’s talk. The papers, which addressed coercive racial, social, technological, and collective structures through which the neoliberal university responded to the Covid crisis, were excellent, varied, and thoughtful. In three very different ways, they spoke to the troubled futures facing our discipline, especially its youngest and least secure members. What does it say about the SAA that we as a community don’t prioritize the one panel (out of a dozen?) that directly addresses precarity and the material conditions of our profession? I loved the standing room panels that I’d been to during the rest of the conference – but where was everyone when it was time to talk #shaxfutures?
How might we make #shaxfutures central to the SAA? I suspect that we won’t, but it would not be that hard. The session could be a third plenary (alongside the conference Plenary, this year about the 1623 Folio, and the NextGenPlen.) A board member or past President could chair the session (as was the case in the NextGenPlen.) Other Trustees could make a point of going, and talking about it in person or online. Trustees and former trustees could take on the task of organizing the panel and/or speaking on it. To do any of those things would require dedicating scarce resources, including time on the program and the time of busy people, but current practice has the feeling of letting #shaxfutures wither.
I was a late addition to the Program Committee for the 2017 conference that convinced the Board to inaugurate #shaxfutures, and the initial 2017 session, scheduled back to back with the Queer Natures Plenary, represent the most electric morning of thirty-odd years of SAA-ing. I’d like to see that energy re-connected to the idea that the SAA can and should speak for and with an emerging generation that faces a very different professional landscape today.
One reason that we’ve been retreating from facing the #shaxfuture might be that it makes grim viewing, while our shared love of innovative scholarship creates happier focal points. The political urgency of the first Color of Membership panel from 2017 has been powerfully taken up in the past half-dozen years by #raceb4race, #ShakeRace, ACMRS, the Scholars of Color social, and many other excellent and necessary things, including this year’s “Race-ing Queens” panel and the inaugural Book Salon on early modern critical race studies. We can’t do everything all the time, despite the visions of the multiverse that were an intellectual highlight in another panel. Perhaps #shaxfutures is slouching toward its fated end. I’d be sorry to see that.
(No one, not even me, needs to trawl the back-catalog of my post-SAA posts, but I’ve been complaining about the de-centering of #shaxfutures since 2019 in DC. Sigh.)
It presumably comes down prioritization, which was an unspoken word in the Intersectional Animality seminars, perhaps because setting priorities might reveal conflict. Honest differences are hard to voice, and maybe we don’t want too much conflict around the seminar table. I could not help feeling, as I snuck out of the Hilton into a dazzling snowscape, that the #shaxfutures vision I played a small part in initiating in 2017 is slipping away.
On a happier note, I escaped from the Shaxverse a couple times to visit Dinkytown, the student neighborhood where a teenage Bob Dylan spent his few semesters at the U of Minnesota. (Most Shax-ers did the Prince tour, but I think some old folks like me enjoyed the Dylan backstory.) There, if we can believe the legends and the self-mythologizing Chronicles, Vol 1 (which we shouldn’t believe, probably), a north woods boy discovered modern folk music. We found the sign for Gray’s Drugs, above which Bobbie lived in the winter of 1959-60. We also saw the site of the frat house, which now hosts a different frat in a different building, where Dylan would mostly skip class and listen to records during his one year as a college student, as he began the first of many conversions from 50s rockers to folk singer to … well, lots of things. At a hole in the wall diner across the street from Dylan’s apartment, we bumped into – two more Shakespeareans, with whom we chatted about – Billy Joel? A rare vision, as somebody said.
Among other highlights of the conference were the always excellent NextGenPlen, which featured an impressive lineup of performance-centered talks. I was also blown away by the speculative brilliance of “The Early Modern Multiverse,” organized by Jane Degenhardt, featuring papers by Jane, Henry Turner, Wendy Hyman, and Helen Smith. As I didn’t manage to tell any of the panelists at the time, I kept thinking about the multiple universe theory as a break in 20c physics, as elaborated recently in Benjamin Labatut’s stunning nonfiction-ish novel When We Cease to Understand the World (2021). Labatut, I think, sees in the insights of quantum physics an unsafe break into a new and deadly form of modernity, to which he annexes nuclear weapons and industrial murder on and off the battlefield. When I read Labatut this fall, while wandering the rural byways of Bavaria as a fellow of the Rachel Carson Center, that his vision of 20c “break history” bears an interesting resemblance to ideas about “early modernity” and / or “the Renaissance” as a break with its premodern or medieval predecessors. I’ve learned too much from my medievalist colleagues to believe in any swerve-y visions of modernity emerging from the Not-Very-Dark and in fact Bright Ages – but I’m also intrigued by ideas of rupture as perennial features in conceptions of historical change. Is the multiverse, in its MCU and Oscar-winning guises, a version of cosmological ideas of rupture that bear traces of early modernity’s self-aggrandizing vision of an expanding Europe? I very much look forward to thee projects that these talks initiated!
I found a little less to sink my teeth into at the main conference Plenary, a hymn to the First Folio as, in Gary Tayler’s words, “One Book to Rule Them All.” I suppose that ’23 marks the last a the sequence of anniversaries and deathaversaries that have punctuated Shakespeare studies in the 21c, and I must say I’m not sorry to see them go. I love the Folio and am very happy to be able to read The Tempest and Macbeth &c, but I also think that things like the multiverse and #shaxfutures, or maybe a mashup of Minneapolis’s two musical geniuses Dylan and Prince, might be more stimulating. I held out hope that Gary would pull off the mask and reveal that Shakespeare has always been Sauron, the Dark Lord of Barad-Dur – but alas, ’twas not to be.
As usual, I’m exhausted after the shake-scene, but also wishing I’d been able to find a few more folks, including a grad student working on Shakespeare’s Tempest in dialogue with Dylan’s (album and song) Tempest, and a blue humanities scholar who made the long trip from Australia to the SAA. And I’m very sorry to have skipped out on my seminar’s group dinner Sat night in Minneapolis!
‘Til next year!