Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pre-positions and Dancing Flames: A K'zoo Response

As you might have heard, last Thursday GW MEMSI held its first session at Kalamazoo, "How to Get the Medieval Studies You Want: Institutional Perspectives." The roundtable discussion was attended by 75 people eager to hear about our panel members' proposals, myself included. I want to take a brief moment here to share a few highlights for those who couldn't attend.

Stephanie Trigg spoke about strategies for funding ("grantsmanship" as the Aussies call it), a chronic process which led her to question the difference between privileging "early European" over "medieval." What would happen, she asked, if we let go of the term "medieval?" Is it a matter of silencing? Eileen Joy of BABEL passionately argued for more "feeling" in the field, urging the audience to embrace honesty, service to others, poethical wagers, and above all, friendship; to reconsider the ideas that move us -- things at stake as we write, learn, and collaborate; to highlight our positive experiences, pick our failures, even re-encounter childishness. If we are, indeed, enmeshed with one another, what happens when we think *for* each other and not just *with* each other? Carolyn Dinshaw described three institutional sites at NYU: the department, research center, and the club. She described the club as a curious, yet invigorating blend of the popular and scholarly, a place where playfulness and anachronistic spirits can thrive. In this sense, Dinshaw's club is a place where the "medieval" can be explored. But can theory inhabit this hang-out? Or is theory's "messiness" turned away at the door? Ethan Knapp urged us to rethink the role of theory in the field, focusing specifically on the project of phenomenology (the likes of Husserl and Heidegger). Theory, he put it memorably, offers us an "investigation of the conditions of possibility." Lastly, in the midst of all these vectors of creativity, Bonnie Wheeler asked important questions about the routes we have already created:
What parts of medieval studies do we wish to keep alive that are already there? What do we *want* to hold on to?

As a second-year doctoral student about to take my field exam this summer, our panelists left a profound impression on me. Now I wonder what kind of early modern studies I want in my time left at GWU. In fact, what kind of career do I want? What kind of colleagues, collaborations, department/club would I prefer? Was I feeling the onset of an academic existential crisis, or just the musings of a Hamletic melancholy? But I don't know if there ever is a point when you know and then finally arrive -- and this realization is something I must continually remind myself of. We need -- we want -- these conversations. And the process is key. I honestly haven't "felt" that much at a panel until last Thursday. Here's my guiding thought: one of my favorite books at the moment is the Serres/Latour Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1990). Latour asks Serres in the third conversation to better define his "map of relationships" and the place of vectors and invention. Serres responds with his idea of the "pre-position:" relations that are never fixed but instead literally (and cleverly) precede a position. I love the image Serres paints for us:

"Imagine dancing flames. As I write this new book, I have before my eyes this crimson curtain that fluctuates, sends up great shoots, disappears, is fragmented, invades and illuminates space, only to die out, suddenly, in darkness. It is a complex and supple network, never in equilibrium--in other words, 'existing'--striking and fluctuating swiftly in time, and having ill-defined edges" (105).

Eventually, of course, we must take positions in our map of relationships. As I pondered the con- of our conversations last Thursday, the *with* struck me as something essential, yet sometimes wanting. I've begun to think of another pre-position, the *for* (to borrow from Eileen Joy). Do the positions we take as academics (and people) include the more "illuminating" aspects of fluctuation and change, the *for* each other, or do they inhabit the "darkness," the snubbing, the self-serving narcissism? How do/can we make the flames dance in beneficial and intellectual ways? The MEMSI roundtable was truly an example.
As I continue to drift with my pre-positions -- the multiple vectors my future studies, career, and personal/professional relationships may take -- I am grateful that the panel entitled "How to Get the Medieval Studies You Want" found a way to address the "you" but also extend its scope to the ever-fragile "we" as well.

Thank you to all who attended, participated, and organized.


Eileen Joy said...

Wow, Lowell. Not only is this a really good [and generous] description of what went on at the panel, it is also a fabulous reflection on it as well. I found it inspiring, especially that quotations from Serres and where you went with it. Thank you for the taking the time to write this and to re-inspire what I believe in.

prehensel said...

Well said, Lowell. It was, for me, the absolute perfect way to begin a conference and big and (sometimes) impersonal as Kzoo.

Eileen Joy said...

Could there have been more typos in my response? Must have been all those flames dancing in the way.

Unknown said...

Just to repeat, and to let you know someone's listening: thanks for this.

anna klosowska said...

wow, neat image, L!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Lowell, thanks so much for this response. I was so obsessed with the panel going well and my own role as moderator and shooting withering glances towards anyone who might contemplate transgressing the allotted time limit that I lost track exactly of what the session achieved.

I'm grateful that you gave that back to me, with a surplus.

Myra Seaman said...

Thanks, ineed, Lowell. Your response makes me think how fantastic it would be if future sessions could encourage this sort of post-session consideration from the panel's individual audience members. Just imagine 75 such posts, in conversation with one another, circulating together. And on another front, many congratulations to GW MEMSI for a phenomenally successful first session at Kalamazoo!

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Thanks for this response, Lowell. I was sad to have missed the panel due to a late arrival; it is lovely to be able to at least listen in, belatedly, on your thoughts and musings.

reminds me of a moment from Rilke, unsurprisingly -- "flare up like flames." What a beautiful image.

theswain said...

Thanks, Lowell. Much to think about and I appreciate very much that you took the time to fill those of us like me who were not able to be there.