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Sunday, April 16, 2006

SAA Day Three: "Thrown Into Taint"

I thought about titling this post "Silver Foxes Lookin' for Romance," but I didn't venture into the SAA dance ($20 per person!) and therefore have no first-hand knowledge of the rhythmic gyrations of Shakespeareans of a certain age. The band, however, was apparently composed of former students of Tom Berger's, a few going back thirty years, which proved to be a real draw for some people. What are the odds that Truewit can muster up that kind of long term commitment from his own band of devoted punk/reggae/ska crooners?

In lieu of something truly entertaining, then, I humbly offer up these observations.

The Morning Paper Panels

I went to two panels in the morning, the second of which was amazing and the first unfortunately not. In the first, the speakers went on for too long and without enough humor, organization, or verve. The papers were smart but all over the place with little sense of direction. What made it particularly painful was that I tangentially know one of the speakers and like her a lot. So while I was sitting there wishing I could tell her, "Wrap it up, wrap it up!," I also knew that no one will remember a random unexciting talk a year from now, much less in three or four years. For example, I remember Lauren Shohet gave a great talk at SAA in 2002, and I think James Bulman gave one with audio clips, but the other people I saw then? I have absolutely no recollection of who they were or what they said. And in the speakers' defense, I found it incredibly difficult not to obsess about myself during their talks--over-analyzing my social awkwardness, fretting over my prospects of successfully landing a book contract, replaying various social snubs, etc.--so it wasn't entirely their fault that I had a hard time paying attention.

The second panel, however, was great, which isn't surprising given its all-world lineup: De Grazia ("Staging Thought"), Guillory ("Marlowe and Ramus"), and Stallybrass ("Shakespeare's Desk"). The papers were everything you'd hope they'd be: wildly intelligent, funny, thought-provoking, engaging. Guillory's current project--or, one of his current three--was the one I came away most excited by (as De Grazia and Stallybrass acknowledged, their talks were on material that isn't entirely new). He described his paper as part of a larger study of the figure of the philosopher in the Renaissance and, in it, suggested that the wars of religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries played a crucial role in shaping the perception of philosophers in that period. For example, even though Peter Ramus's writings weren't particularly theological, he nevertheless became an icon of Protestant (and Puritan) thought. In reaction to such polarizing religious forces, philosophers tried consciously to carve out a space for philosophy outside the period's religious discourses, to remove their writings from sectarian warfare (both discursive and military). I'm obviously not doing his argument justice, but it was a great paper and I can't wait for it to begin appearing in print.

As its title indicates, De Grazia's talk addressed the staging of thought, that is, how plays showed characters thinking. It focused mainly on Hamlet (it's part of her forthcoming book on Hamlet) and suggested various props and blocking techniques used to represent characters thinking; it was better than I'm making it sound. Stallybrass discussed how Shakespeare wrote his plays, starting with how he probably would have folded his paper as he sat down to write and then going on to speculate about such issues as the books he would have had near him, the influence of theatrical competition in shaping the subjects of his plays, the need to incorporate props the company already owned, etc. His main point was that looking for utter originality is the wrong way to think about Shakespeare's plays and, more generally, about all acts of writing; instead we should focus on the intertwined concepts of invention and imitation. Even there, though, there are almost no acts of pure invention; we are all a complex distillation of various voices and influences and histories, and to pretend otherwise is to misrepresent Shakespeare and ourselves (again, this summary isn't doing his argument justice). He also offered this small bit of pedagogical advice: it's cruel to tell your students to write about whatever they want; they need limits, so give them some. (As he was talking, my good friend K leaned over and pointed out that writing a dissertation is basically the worst-case scenario of writing about whatever you want.)

Part of what made each of these three talks successful was that they discussed material with which everyone is somewhat familar and then didn't try to do too much with them. To put it in Stallybrassian terms, they weren't trying to be too original. And from an audience member's point of view, it's much more fun and much easier to follow an argument when you know the play than when you don't. The difference between the two panels really drove home the rhetorical challenge of talking about a play few people know.

The Afternoon Seminar

My seminar was a similar experience in contrasting styles. It included two people who were a bit older than the rest of the group. The first was friendly, welcoming, and unknown; the other was disdainful, smug, and famous. The first introduced himself to everyone in the panel as he or she came into the room; the second did not and promptly left as soon as the seminar ended. The first seemed excited by the seminar and to have enjoyed reading the other papers; the second seemed put off that people were no longer discussing topics that he and his cohort wrote about thirty years ago. Oh, and as is probably clear by now, the first liked my paper, and the second did not.

And thank god. I was actually heartened by his resistance because it makes me think there's some substance to my argument, some conventional wisdom to overturn. In fact, and in large part due to him, the panel was a lot of fun because Professor Bitter Fruit's querulousness helped focus the discussion in productive ways. Somewhat amazingly, his mild hectoring didn't cause me to despair but rather rejuvenated me--I came away more convinced than ever that I'm right and that there's a "critical intervention" to be made. I simply wish I could have, I don't know, shook his hand or exchanged a few pleasantries with him.

The worst part of the seminar, though, was when Professor Bitter Fruit trained his sights on Professor Friendly. I don't enjoy watching a genial older man near retirement being aggressively questioned by someone only a few years younger but infinitely more famous. It's very easy to take down someone's argument in a ten-page paper for a whole host of reasons (well, how would you interpret this speech? how come you haven't talked about this idea?), but it's especially easy when a prime weapon is your own superior reputation; it saves you from actually having to support your claims with the same degree of rigor. Professor Friendly held up for a little while, but then more or less caved, and though I wanted to come to his rescue (I actually think he was right), the conversation shifted in such a way that I couldn't really intervene. It left a bit of bad taste in my mouth, so much so I've been inadvertently developing a psychological profile of people who hold the views of Professor Bitter Fruit. (I realize this makes me insane, but, again, I think I'm right and that he was acting like a bit of an ass.)

As I mentioned above, the seminar as a whole I think was very successful. It avoided the problem of many SAA seminars of people making overly general points that head nowhere and for no real purpose. I'm now thinking larger subgroups are better than smaller (in other words, have people comment and respond to four or five papers instead of one or two), and that somewhat aggressive debates about specific issues are more fun than attempts at synthesizing lots of papers. And I loved our seminar leader; she was great, and I think I may have actually made a new friend (at least I hope so).

Some Random Observations

The harshest pronouncement I heard during the conference: "I find your argument compelling but not convincing," which was followed by some rather aggressive questioning. For what it's worth, the questioner seemed to have the better argument.

The funniest phrase during my seminar: someone was talking about a particular play being "thrown into taint." Come on, how can anyone utter that phrase anymore? Do they not watch The Daily Show, which did a hilarious segment on "being thrown into taint" this winter?

  • At 4/17/2006 01:18:00 AM, Blogger Truewit wrote…

    Boy. I leave Simplicius alone in a hotel room for 24 hours, and he goes all Tolstoy on us. Good reading.

    I loved the "compelling but not convincing" comment, too, and, because I like her work, I will point out that it was delivered by Karen Newman. She was right, too. The same cannot be said for the member of my dissertation defense committee who called my work "likeable, but not believable." That'll stay with me for, oh, I don't know, the rest of my days?


  • At 4/17/2006 01:10:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Great job on the conference blogging, S and T. A perfect combination of irreverence and informativeness. I feel like I was there. But without the chance to drink with you, unfortunately.


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