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Monday, March 17, 2008

SAA Dubai? Or, Dallas Struck By Zombies, Citizens Flee

I'm inspired by Hieronimo to propose another picture of another city that isn't Dallas, but pretty much could be -- and another place that, without oil, would probably barely be inhabited. Already before my plane landed, when it was skimming along above endless miles of the worst, most densely-packed and depressing tract housing I've ever seen, I thought we might be in trouble in this place. This sense was only increased during a $500 cab ride from the airport to the hotel, past endless dismal corporate parks and "President George Bush Turnpike" -- a drive solely enlivened by the pleasure of noticing "Hasty Beverages" en route. Then there was the view from my room, a landscape of about a million brutalist skyscrapers, seventy-five parking lots, fifty-three lanes of freeways, a few construction cranes, and something called "Donut Chinese Take Away." Like Hieronimo, I went there with an open mind, hoping for good BBQ and Tex-Mex; he can confirm that one of the first things I did when I got there was to call him to say that I suspected Dallas to be the worst place in the world. It has that postapocalyptic, the-people-are-dead-but-there-might-be-zombies kind of feel. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. Who doesn't like zombies? I just wish there had been a few decent restaurants as well. Can't eat brains every day.

Speaking of eating brains (heh heh heh) ... there was the conference itself, which was, as always, a lot of fun. Actually maybe more fun than last year, despite the absence of the schooner bar, the howling wilderness outside the hotel, the zombies clawing at the door, and (after mad dashes past zombies, and after negotiating the preposterously high "extras" charged by clearly zombified Dallas cabdrivers) the pretty mediocre meals. Though I started to get sick on the second day, which robbed me of energy and definitely inhibited my drinking.

I found myself going to a lot more sessions this year, for one reason or another. Sometimes this was a mistake. Is there really ever a point in auditing a seminar? I mean, really? Other than to watch your friends discuss papers you haven't read? That is, unless you're going there with the specific intention of being that person who asks the crazy question, once the seminarians open up their discussion to everybody, and thereby makes all the other people in the room become suddenly fascinated with their shoes or with some tiny square section of the table in front of them. But mostly it was cool. If you're just participating in a seminar, there's an unbelievably small amount of work or worrying about work to do at SAA, which means you can spend more time surfing sessions and seeing what other people are up to. Or, better yet, getting down to the truly important business of eating and drinking.

The theme, I guess, was boredom with facts and things -- "facts" and "things" being oddly conflated, I thought, in the plenary talk that everybody was talking about, which appeared to me to assume that, in general, materialist scholarship and meticulous scholarship are more or less the same, unimaginative thing, and we should stop doing both of them and just be cool. I frankly didn't get the distinction that was being made there, I think between good historicism and bad historicism. Maybe I'm being obtuse, but aren't we always trying to use historical scholarship to imagine other ways of thinking and being? Of course there's a huge amount of terrible, boring, dreary, soul-crushing, eyeball-glazing work out there -- clearly being produced by zombies -- but I'm not sure that the difference between that and the good work can be described in terms of method. Nor do I think it has much to do with whether one claims to follow or to repudiate New Historicism. That whole line of thought seemed to me oddly to accept the olde, circa-1990 critique of NH, which said, roughly, that either it's not new, or, if it is new, it's wrong; the new spin was just that wrong is more exciting. (And yet the point was also that Mulaney wasn't actually wrong, when you look at how people thought about the liberties ...)

So, it was a great performance, but I'm not sure I got it.

I heard some other cool stuff, saw friends, and generally had a good time, despite the zombification.

Where are we going next year? Do I hear SAA Kamchatka? Novosibirsk? Fargo?

Oh, as always, I of course issue my general apology. Dear all: yeah ... uh ... sorry about that.

  • At 3/18/2008 11:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Thanks for these excellent postings, inkorn and hieronimo!!

    For the benefit of those of us who weren't able to attend, could someone give more info about specific panel sessions other than the plenary? I'd like to hear reports about the papers at the potentially more heterodox sessions on Shakespeare and Sexuality, the Untimely, and Anti-Imperialism. Any interesting/scandalous/scabrous new ideas in these?


  • At 3/18/2008 01:31:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    dear anonymous: you could check out my blog for a list of odd facts about the e.m. period I learned at SAA this year, but I'm fairly sure I was not able to make sense of said interesting/scandalous/scabrous ideas, other than to find them confusing and circumlocutory.

    I agree with Inkhorn about Mary Bly, I think- that she said we should stop being historicist and materialist and "just be cool." Which is a lot easier to say if you're an important tenured scholar, so I also agree with Hieronimo's comments below.

    That said, I'm hoping someone will post something about Untimely, which I missed but heard was good.


  • At 3/18/2008 05:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Yes, I'd like to hear more about the Untimely session too. The paper titles listed in the program - Untimely Matter, Untimely God, Untimely Relations - sound enticing but don't give away too much, do they? Still, they do seem to suggest something a little different from the Whither Historicism/Wither Historicism quagmires of the sessions that others have posted on here.


  • At 3/22/2008 12:10:00 AM, Blogger Pantagruelle wrote…

    Dallas definitely seemed like a deserted ghost-town for the first few days I was there, but then on my last day, after everyone was gone, and after having consumer way too many disgusting meals in the West End "historic" district, I discovered the cool part of town.

    Remember where we went for the Thursday reception? Right outside there is a free, quaint, old-fashioned trolley, kind of like the streetcars in San Francisco, that goes regularly up an awesome street called McKinney which is lined with tons and tons of great restaurants, not at all like those awful excuses for food establishments down in the West End. The trolley ends up in a place called the East Village (or something like that) which is an area full of really nice, high-end, yuppie shops, an artsy movie theatre, and more good restaurants and bistros.

    So Dallas doesn't suck quite as much as we were all led to believe, but the local arrangements committee really sucks. So does the Fairmont conceirge desk. I really blame the so-called "local" arrangement committee though. They could have had the decency to put some of this information in the conference program, like other local arrangement committees have done in years past. Perhaps Dallas is such a car-culture city that they didn't know that such things as public transportation existed, but they still should have known about the nice areas of town, even if they didn't know that we could have all gotten there very easily for free.

    At least next year in DC most of us will already know enough about the city from past Folger trips to know where to find a decent restaurant, but it really is a shame that the "locals" who organized this year's conference weren't more forthcoming about the non-zombie areas of their town. There was no need for us to be stranded in Pompeii when a flourishing Rome was right next door.


  • At 3/22/2008 03:54:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Pantagruelle: Funny, I had exactly that experience on Sunday, when I headed out to find a place for breakfast. I ended up on McKinney or whatever, about a 20-25 minute walk from the Fairmont. It was a lovely morning, and people were sitting outdoors at various restaurants. I even counted seven -- seven! -- people who appeared to be walking merely for the sake of walking, or were walking and chatting, or walking dogs. And there were some little shops and things along the way. And apartment buildings -- I could actually see where people were presumably living. It was like, I don't know, some kind of a place where people gather to live and do things together. Whatever that might be called.

    Anonymous: I saw the "Untimely" session. There were two talks (I missed the explanation of why the third person was absent). Jonathan Gil Harris gave an interesting talk that was basically theorizing something like an idea of objects existing in multiple time-frames, or simultaneously co-existing times (he used the word "polytemporality"), starting out from Jamesons's discussion of how literary form works (ie, Jamesons's images of sedimentation, or of an exoskeleton -- Harris tended to dwell on the latter, though I find the former more interesting). He also lingered on the idea of a palimpsest, using a particular example of one that contains an ancient natural-philosophical text, a Byzantine (I think) Greek Christian text written over it, and then various pseudo-Byzantine forgeries from the 20th century over that; and he talked about the complicated relationships that object suggests between these moments, basically looking for ways of talking about time that don't necessarily involve the notion of empty progress or of supercession. I think -- it was a complicated discussion and I'm not sure I got all of it by any stretch. Then Fran Dolan gave a talk on tragedy that sort of escapes me at the moment -- it was interesting but the two didn't seem to fit together very clearly and I was more focused on Harris.


  • At 3/23/2008 11:07:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Oh man, I can't believe I missed the Gil Harris palimpsest exoskeleton talk! That sounds like just my cup of tea (well actually it sounds like my own work theorized in a more complicated and titillating way).

    I also discovered McKinney and the streetcar on Day 1 (which led to a bizarre but delicious sushi experience in a private dining room with a terribly indiscreet light fixture), but I'm still kicking myself for not insisting on exploring the art museum more fully.


  • At 3/26/2008 09:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I'm interested in what people thought about Paul Yachnin's paper, and that paper session in general (as I write so many days later... realizing that it's probably less than fresh in people's memories). I really like the revitalization of the public sphere stuff. Anyway, just interested in what others think.


  • At 3/26/2008 10:13:00 PM, Blogger Pantagruelle wrote…

    @ malkin: If you liked Yachnin's stuff, check out http://makingpublics.mcgill.ca/ . That panel with Yachnin, McLuskie, and Mullaney was part of a larger project, the Making Publics project, which is currently in the 3rd of its 5 year plan.


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