Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Kalamazoo 2007

I've written and rewritten this post so many times at this point that if I don't just put it up there, it'll be next May before I do. So here it is, my Kalamazoo, 2007

As an undergrad at Wake, I was given the opportunity to attend the Kalamazoo medieval congress. Part of winning said contest was the requirement that, after the conference, I write a sort of perspective paper on the experience of attending a conference. From the very first time I tried it, I found the whole process incredibly difficult. In fact, I’ve only ever successfully written about the Congress once, despite having won the award that required the post-zoo essay twice. The only place I can manage to talk about Kzoo in writing is in-flight – the transitional space between a place I’ve come from and the next stop on my journey. Fittingly I began this post this somewhere between New York City and Atlanta, and finished it in my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC. This past Saturday night, I attended a dear friend’s wedding – a friend who also happens to be one of the five students who graduated from Wake with me in 2004 who were the intrepid co-founders of the Wake Forest Medieval Studies Student Group (lovingly called Aesir in those early days – I think they stick with a more formal title now, as the group outlasted my generation of medievalists, and still has a yearly conference!). Three of those five Aesir members – including my friend getting married, myself, and another friend who was also at the wedding—met in 2002 in Dr. Overing’s Old English class, which we all took in the Spring of our sophomore year. It’s living proof that difficult classes, like traumatic situations, can bring people together.

Upon my return to North Carolina on Monday evening, I started clearing out my room in preparation for making it a place I can get work done over the next two months. As I was sorting the files my mother’s been trying to get me to thin down since before college, I found the first “post-Kalamazoo” paper I ever wrote. Reading what I wrote about the Saturday evening dance back in 2002, I’m struck with the odd realization that I knew then what Kalamazoo would still feel like five years later:

As I sat, and watched all the madness that was the conference—I realized that this experience was completely unique. For the first time, I was surrounded with people who cared about the same things I do. In this place, everyone cared about what happenedone thousand years ago, and modern literature was involved only in as far as it related back to that period.
Funny how, on the first visit to a professional event – I seem to have felt a little bit like I was arriving somewhere I was always meant to be.

And, to return to the point of this post: what really struck me about this conference was that I seem to have found a “group” of sorts – in both the metaphorical and literal meanings of the word. Kalamazoo 2007 was for me defined by the work done by the BABEL group, and by Eileen’s inspiring paper in the Friday session on Feminisms and Queer Theory. The vision of an “enamored medieval studies” is – and here’s where the “metaphorical” group comes in – a vision that I can want. Karl’s work and the ensuing discussion of the construction of the categories of human and animal (which you can follow here and here, among other posts, at In the Middle) is a question I’ve only just started to “notice” in a sense. My “work”, as such, hasn’t fully developed in terms of its foci. I think for the purposes of the conference I said that the project of my dissertation was “vernacularity and temporality in immediately pre- and post-conquest England” – which is my project – but it’s also still far more than that. For example there are ideas of proto-nationalism, a word I’m not entirely comfortable with because of its modern theoretical and practical weight, that are a part of my project that I haven’t found a way of articulating in a sentence (or a two part title!) yet. Moreover, I find that I’m interested in – and I’m actually using my adviser’s articulation here of what I’m trying to do, as mine is far flimsier – time as it is lived, the intersection of time (both Kairos and Chronos, distinctions Agamben discusses in an article I can’t find the title of at present) with the human. That’s a bit of a digression, but what inspired it is the realization that I’m surrounded by people who are interested in the way that academic things intersect “human” (whatever that means) lives.

Other high points of the year:

  • Kathleen Davis’ paper on Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and the function of the “medieval” as the temporal limit against which the modern posits itself.
  • A far more enjoyable dance than I’ve had previously, though I’ve been known to enjoy the event very much in previous years. I refuse to comment on allegations made elsewhere that I sang anything written by Journey. As for Bon Jovi -- children of the 80s can't deny that one, so I will proudly say that I always belt out the lyrics to Living on a Prayer when the opportunity presents itself.
  • The blogger breakfast, organized by the wonderful Dr. Virago, whom I finally had the pleasure of meeting. I was struck by how many bloggers came to the event, and by the interesting conversations I had there. One of the highlights for me was finally introducing myself to Michael Drout -- on my first visit to Kalamazoo he organized several sessions on reading Old English aloud, and a full read-through of Beowulf (which I highlighted in the first of the “post-Kzoo” papers I mentioned earlier). Also, getting to meet all of my fellow bloggers (many of whom I hadn’t met before) was a wonderful feeling – it was good to see so many of us!
  • Seeing some amazing papers on topics I know practically nothing about (including medieval drama) – and realizing that I do have points of intersection between my work and the late middle ages that can bear interestingly on things that seem far a-field. -- and more importantly, that can productively displace the way I see things in my own work.
This was also the first year that I spent relatively little time re-writing my paper during the conference.

But perhaps the highest point of this best of Kalamazoos was the feeling that I can keep working on this medieval stuff. I returned energized, knowing the long reading road ahead of me would be challenging, but also knowing that there are people in my intellectual vicinity who want to push the boundaries of what this work can do, what it can address.

And there is work to be done.

I’m reminded of a Clement and Cixous quote from The Newly Born Woman. It serves as the epigraph for the book Landscapes of Desire, by Gillian Overing and Marijane Osborn:
...she comes out of herself to go to the other, a traveler in unexplored places; she does not refuse, she approaches, not to do away with the space between, but to see it, to experience what she is, what she is not, what she can do...
When I look back on Kalamazoo 2007, I experience something I didn’t quite expect. I feel hopeful.


Dr. Virago said...

Seeing some amazing papers on topics I know practically nothing about (including medieval drama) – and realizing that I do have points of intersection between my work and the late middle ages

That's what *this* medieval drama scholar feels like when she hears papers on Old English! Seriously, though, that panel was great because so many of you came to support your friends and had smart things to ask them no matter what your own areas. Too often we stick in our own little subfield and that's definitely not an "enamored" Middle Ages. While I do think specialization has its benefits, we should at least be hearing and reading what other people are up to simply out of *love* for the general period (prior to any practical reasons). After all, I doubt any of us original got into this because we had a subfield in mind!

Anyway, great post. Your genuine feeling and enthusiasm is inspiring. And also, I really should've gotten out there on the dance floor with you guys -- maybe I wouldn't have felt exposed then!

Eileen Joy said...

Wonderful post, especially the bit about the BABEL group [haha]. But all kidding aside, here's to hopefulness!