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Monday, March 17, 2008

SAA Pompeii

Here's a picture I snapped on Friday afternoon at the SAA.

Ok, that's Pompeii, but I think Pompeii may have about the same number of street-level shops and restaurants as downtown Dallas. Where is everybody? On Friday afternoon, in the middle of a work day, there was no one on the street except Shakespeareans. It was like a scene out of The Omega Shakespearean. Very bizarre.

Now, I went to Dallas with an open mind. I was all, "well, I'm not going to be one of those snooty people who are griping about why they'd schedule the SAA in Dallas; Dallas, I'm sure, has its own interesting culture and food and night life, and so I'm sure I'll have an interesting and enjoyable three nights there." That turns out to be wrong. Apparently there are no people in Dallas, only giant office buildings, with giant garages on their ground floors.

P.S. The "historic district" is 20 years old. And the most historic establishment seems to be a TGI Friday's.

Oh well. As for the conference, it was fun as always, with lots of drinking. I learned that we are all either doing really interesting, imaginative, creative, big-picture work that is wrong; or boring, pedantic, niggling little narratives about minutiae that are correct. Those seemed to be the only two options. Apparently it is impossible to be interesting, imaginative, meaningful and right. So I hear anyway.

There was much discussion of New Historicism. From what I heard, again, it seemed there were two options: either we were failing sufficiently to position ourselves in relation to New Historicism, failing to display enough anxiety about our relationship to that movement; or we were all busily critiquing New Historicism in rather silly and boring manners. Again, the third term seemed to be missing to me, which is that most of the younger generation of scholars who I know simply don't think all that much about New Historicism these days, and don't feel much need to do so. They (and I) use New Historicist practices at times and certainly see it as an invaluable prehistory or foundation to our work, but are not (or no longer) so bound up in the meta-question of "positioning" that seems to dominate the field every so often. I also felt like there was a constant reductionism at work in these discussions: all historicist practice was reduced to New Historicism, whereas there was plenty of historicist work, of various stripes, being done pre-1980, and plenty still being done now, and--a crucial point to remember, it seems to me--plenty of other kinds of historicist work being done during the heyday of New Historicism: feminist historicism, queer studies, textual/bibliographic/editorial studies, biographical work, social history, more forthrightly Marxist work, etc etc. New Historicism always seems to gobble up all other kinds of historicism, until it simply stands in for "contextualization" or "historicizing" per se, which somewhat begs the question, doesn't it? Either New Historicism refers to a particular constellation of historicizing strategies, in which case there are plenty of distinctions to be drawn among different types of historicizing, then and now, or else we simply extend it to mean something like "placing literary texts in their historical moment," in which case there seems to be New Historicism, no end of New Historicism, for us and for everyone, for ever and ever, amen. (Ok, that odd pastiche of Greenblatt and the Lord's Prayer got away from me a bit there.)

I guess last year's plenary--which was all about how historical formalism was a new way forward--didn't stick. Or else that's just another version of New Historicism.

Finally, not to get too cranky, but there was something a little perturbing about seeing a number of seriously eminent scholars (I'm not talking about the plenary panel here, which I didn't get to but heard much about) complaining about the lack of "big ideas" and imaginative, large narratives in the work of younger scholars today. Let's face it: it's a luxury of a particular position in the academic class hierarchy to be able to propound grand ideas. If a junior scholar tried to do that for a first book, he'd either be 1) told that this is more of a "second" or "third book project"; or 2) slammed in reviews for being sloppy and forgetting all the little details that countervail his narrative; 3) a combination of 1) and 2), with the added attraction of getting slammed in external reviews for tenure, being denied tenure, falling on hard times, and dying penniless and insane. Let alone if a grad student tried to write such a dissertation. So I think there was a hidden class narrative underlying some of the complaints I heard. (Again, I think these discussions were the result of the plenary panel, and particularly Mary Bly's paper, but I'm not talking specifically about that paper--more about conversations I had or heard in the hallways, the bar, seminar rooms, and an enjoyable cab ride to the airport.)

In other news, I stood on the Grassy Knoll. And I had a seriously good breakfast at a tiny little place near the hotel that served me one hell of a good jalapeno omelet. On the other hand, I had two seriously mediocre meals of what were supposed to be Texas staples: bbq and Tex-Mex. I found two places after much internet food-blog browsing, to which I dragged various BtR and non-BtR friends, both of which were not as good as places I go in my hometown. Perhaps I should have known better since more than one of the food blogs, written by Texans, began with some version of: "Everybody knows there's no good [bbq, Mexican food, anything else] in Dallas. If you simply have to eat in Dallas, try the following:" The best meal I had was something they call Tex-Asian. Who knew?

Met some people I'd been wanting to meet, hung out with old friends, and had several of those nice, fortuitous, hodgepodge gatherings of people for drinking, eating, and chatting. All in all, a good SAA but sadly lacking in the unbelievable sushi and korean bbq that I had last year.

  • At 3/17/2008 06:03:00 PM, Blogger cardinal_wolsey wrote…

    I seem to remember that Ft.Worth is fractionally better than Dallas food-wise, but only just.


  • At 3/17/2008 10:11:00 PM, Blogger Innogen wrote…

    Hear, hear on your "big ideas"=death to the little people point--'tis true, 'tis pity, it seems.

    Did anyone go to the dance? I am curious about it in an anthropological way and would love to hear alllllllllll about it.


  • At 3/18/2008 12:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Um, the dance. in the name of anthropology, I'll share my blurt. Many people who know me know that i am a big fan of the dance, and of dances at conferences more generally. My reasoning is usually something like this: it's hard to find truly unironic spaces these days. So it was with some glee that i approached the regency ballroom. My anticipation escalated when i heard journey's open arms sung deliciously off key. I practically skipped up to two HUGE scholars in the field, gasping "OMG is there karaoke???!!" no, virginia, there wasn't karaoke. it did not help matters that there was a bigger, better, more sweet-sixteen kind of dance happening just below ours. defeated, i hid out in the hotel bar.


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