Thursday, August 16, 2012

NCS: A Belated Retrospectve

It’s been a long, long while since I contributed to this blog, and as a result I'm a bit backlogged with things I want to post! Since my last substantial entry, I finished my dissertation, defended in April, and moved to California just two days after graduation in May. Between all of that, continuing to teach online, and wrist surgery (Part the First took place in early July, and Part the Second just two days ago), life has definitely been at its busiest! I have, at regular intervals, kind of felt like this guy:

Since May, I’ve been laboring away on the first of a few retrospectives on my time in Rochester, a task that is proving more challenging than I’d anticipated. I will post it eventually, but in the meantime, I’m going to start contributing again with entries that behave themselves more immediately!

Excited as I was to make the move out to California, leaving Rochester was incredibly hard. I went to college in the same town where I attended high school, and so the move to graduate school was the first one that I made completely on my own terms. Rochester was the place where I met many of my closest friends, where I got engaged, and where, in many respects, I really began to come into my own.  California has certainly treated me very well so far -- and I cannot express how grateful I am to be living in the same house with my husband again! -- but the magnitude of everything I left behind has had me feeling more than a little displaced these past few months.  It’s a feeling I know and understand having grown up in a military family, but I found myself nevertheless needing something to boost my spirits -– something to help me reconnect with the things I love in the midst of newness and uncertainty. 

The NCS conference proved to be just that.  I arrived in Portland very worn out from the transitioning, the surgery, a variety of other stressors, and – I’ll admit it –the mad rush to write a conference paper that made sense to someone outside of my own head.  As soon as the conference began, however, I started to feel a bit more like my old self. Reuniting with friends and making new ones, wandering around an unfamiliar city of impossibly friendly people, eating excellent food (good lord, Voodoo Donuts!!) and enjoying an array of deeply meaningful conversations certainly buoyed my spirits. And the sessions themselves were truly innervating -– I don’t know when I’ve been to a conference so rich and alive with ideas and collaborative spirit.

One of the many things I love about NCS is its structure.  The thematic threads were new to me back in Siena (my first NCS conference, and what a conference it was!!), and I do love their effect –- the way in which they organically encourage extended explorations and conversations. I found the threads this year especially cohesive and in alignment with one another. Papers spoke to each other across sessions in the most serendipitous of ways, and on more than one occasion I found myself so innervated by the energy of a session that I couldn’t wait to get back to writing and to research -– a feeling I had truly begun to miss. The transcendently insane pre-dissertation-filing extravaganza had burned that fire down to a fairly decrepit pile of embers (20 hours a day of editing, as well as deciding, in a fit of madness, to read your entire dissertation out loud to yourself in order to catch all of your typos will certainly do that!).  I was so relieved, as a result, to feel my old enthusiasms returning.

I attended a number of compelling sessions and could very easily devote an entire post to each of them! I will, in the meantime, touch  on some of the highlights. My conferencing began with the Gender and Race panel, and I was absolutely fascinated by Chris Chism’s paper on Mandeville.  She focused on two particular episodes -- one involving a king's dragon-daughter and another involving a sparrow hawk –- to point out the alternative and more peaceable modes of Othering that the Mandeville-author puts forward. Listening to her careful interpretation and contextualization of these episodes really brought home to me the importance of balancing what I like to call 'expansive and contractive reading.' It’s actually an extension of a lesson I learned in Shotokan karate –- the idea being that there are times in one’s training where you have to focus carefully on a single area of your karate in order to improve it (i.e. contractive), and other times where you need to paint with broader brush strokes, taking in large swathes of kinesthetic information all at once(i.e. expansive).  It’s the difference between correcting your foot positioning in back-stance, for instance, versus memorizing all of the movements of a kata so that you can begin to work on it at a deeper level.  To tie this back to Mandeville, what struck me so much about Chism's paper was how it offered a reading of conversion and conquest in Mandeville that was both aligned but vibrantly distinct from my own argument that I made in my dissertation. I focused on the matter of conversion in the text as well, but by focusing squarely on the objects of potential conversion (Jews, Saracens, and Mongols as they appear in the text), I overlooked the anecdotes that she explored in such marvelous detail; and as she revealed in her paper, those portions of Mandeville actually had much to say about the very topics and issues I saw explored in other sections of the text. I was so grateful for her paper as a result, because it reminded me, among many other things, to widen the lens as I work on Mandeville in the future.

I also enjoyed the Ocean Translations session tremendously, in no small part because my inimitable co-blogger (who has, I’d like to add, done an impossibly amazing job at keeping this blog alive while I’ve been digging myself out of the insanity of the past several months!) gave a fantastic paper on The Man of Law’s Tale. I honestly cannot think about MoL, Custance, or, even more broadly,“women who float in boats” (her words) without thinking immediately of Kristi. I’ve heard her present on Custance many times, and I was especially struck this time around by her observation that oceans function as “containers of history” in MoL. She explored the wide array of allusions to Biblical narrative that appear in the passages describing Custance’s rudderless boat rides, and argued convincingly that these ocean passages and the analogies within them serve as a human attempt to connect the land (the containable) with the ocean (the uncontainable). 

The rest of the papers in this session, including one by our fellow UofR compatriot Sharon Rhodes, were wonderfully strong and interconnected as well.  I absolutely loved the fact that the papers were split evenly between Old and Middle English texts and yet remained strongly conversant with one another.  Sharon's uncannily apt evocation of The Knight's Tale at the end of her paper, in fact, served as a perfect transition from Old to Middle English in the session. A question arose, however, in the Q&A over the panelists’ lack of high theory in their work.  It was certainly true that none of the panelists referred to theorists by name or imposed stark and visible theoretical frameworks around their arguments. I honestly didn’t find any of their papers lacking because of this, but rather saw each panelist explore in nuanced and implicit ways how the texts they focused upon grappled with the ideas of liminality, with the limits of human control (cognitive and otherwise), and with a variety of ontological cruxes about the ocean.  I’m not saying that the question was illegitimate by any stretch, but at the same time, I wondered whether it was entirely fair to imply that these papers were potentially lacking because they didn’t feel the need to evoke high theory directly. The speakers, however, did a more than thorough job of gracefully defending their approaches, and that in and of itself was a pleasure to see. By the end of the exchange, in fact, I had the sneaking suspicion that those responses were exactly what the questioner wished to elicit, because he seemed –- at least as far as I could tell – rather satisfied with their responses.

The following day found me at the session entitled “Legal and Literary Forests in Late-Medieval Britain.” My good friend Valerie Johnson presented on The Manciple’s Tale and argued persuasively for a reading of the forest as an ecological threshold — as “a signal to read  the text as a political tale.” Also on the panel was Karl Steel, who gave a lively presentation on deer carcasses and their legal and symbolic implications (you can find a full version of his paper here).     As I listened to his paper, I was particularly struck by his statement that “inanimate objects are forceful entities,”  because it resonated with my argument about books in Chaucer’s poetry, and would also anticipate many of the arguments made throughout the sessions devoted to animate ecologies. Moreover, the conversation that developed in the Q&A period following these papers was especially inspiring.  I appreciated, in particular, the brief discussion on semantics that arose out of Karl's paper.  Is short, one audience member asked about Karl's use of the word “intention.” What resulted was a lively and encouraging offering up of alternatives (agency, direction, propulsion), with additional comments on the implications of each option made along the way.  I found this moment absolutely delightful, because it highlighted the devotion that we all share for words  -- the fact that we all, by becoming literary scholars, become poets as well, treating each word that we include in a given paper with incredible care. 

Being on its sister panel, I all too happily attended the roundtable devoted to animate objects and ecologies, and I found myself thrilled by the energy (dare I say animation?) of both the presenters and the audience. It was the last session of the day, but the room was filled to the brim.  The panelists spoke on all manner of “things”: divine and secular objects, books, straw, eel traps, color, and stained glass, to name but a few.  Jeffrey Jerome Cohen kicked things off by discussing “prismatic ecologies,” posing the question of whether color "possesses an agency that's useful to think with.” He presented the audience with three images that were at once distinct and convergent.  The first was a c. 1375 image of an artist preparing colors with which to paint.  The image, as Cohen observed, highlights the fact that color is a “thing made of other things.” The second image was a 2012 art installation dated by John Ryan. It is, to put it most simply (and to do it no real justice), a large glob of paint on a white canvas. Cohen observed, however, that by being as minimalistic and “hands off” with the paint as it is, this piece allows color to possess a dignity of its own.  As a result, color is allowed to become something autonomous. Finally, Cohen showed us an image of the River Thames and presented it a kind of sculptor. Through this brief survey of images, Cohen advocated for a multi-hued avenue by which we might begin to approach and consider inanimate objects on their own terms. As always, I was struck by Cohen’s ability to take seemingly disparate objects and concepts and demonstrate their synchronicity, a talent that allowed his paper to become prismatic in and of itself.

The conversation continued with Rebecca Davis and Laura Farina both discussing aspects of The House of Fame.  Davis explored how the text describes objects that contain other objects; she used the terminology of hoarding in an incredibly useful way to explain how this poem presents a kind of conservation that “depends on ceaseless movement and recombination.”  Farina took a different approach by exploring “impersonal affect” in The House of Fame. Like Davis, she observed that the poem is full of “stuff made of other stuff,” but she approached the over-stimulation that the narrator experiences through, in part, the lens of autism, drawing on Temple Grandin’s concept of the squeezebox to explain the narrator’s sensations and experiences in the dream vision.  In the end, both of these papers offered up ways of engaging the so-called “vibrant matter” in the poem, and I was fascinated by how they both spoke so directly to one another while also taking such markedly different approaches.

The other papers in this roundtable were equally enervating – from Alexandra Gillespie's lively exploration of straw (bookmarks?) in medieval manuscripts, to Anne Harris’s examination of stained glass and its multihued implications, to Myra Seaman’s exploration of how we “reckon” with objects deemed divine.  The entire roundtable, ultimately, revolved around that question the lies at the heart of object oriented ontology -- namely, what happens when we make ourselves willing to deprioritize human agency? What happens, in other words, when we allow objects an opportunity to misbehave? This idea arose with Mary Kate Hurley's observation that each of the papers dealt in some way with the idea of objects as mediators and with the idea of mediation itself.  Her comment, and Cohen’s response -- that these panels on objects are in some ways designed to figure out what the objects want, and that we have begun to ask why objects do not always “mediate so compliantly” -- would in many ways anticipate the conversation that would continue in the second animate ecology session the following day, one that I felt very fortunate to be a part of.

To that end, I approached my own session with a nervousness that surprised me at first – that is, until I reminded myself that I was speaking on a topic that was incredibly new to me, a topic that couldn't be further away from the material I'd spent the last several years developing into my dissertation. I viewed the paper as an opportunity and as a challenge to myself -- as a way of remembering, among other things, that I could (and should!) talk about things aside from the Crusades from time to time.  I'll confess that when I arrived in Portland the day before the conference, I was still rather uncertain about the merits of what I was saying in my paper.  I felt dangerously far out in left field.  I also worried about having to wait until the last day to present. Truthfully, however, presenting on that final day was the best thing that could have possibly happened. It gave me an opportunity to listen carefully to the conversations that were going on all around me throughout the week, and I even found ways of incorporating and responding to some of them in my paper -- something I had never had the opportunity to do before this conference.  Watching the array of excellent presentations throughout the week, moreover, both inspired me and reminded me of a very simple fact: that we gather together in these places to share ideas both fresh and mature, both established and speculative -- that all are welcome.

I’ll save the details of the session I was a part of for part two of this post (which will be up and running by Saturday, I think).  I'll close for now by expressing my profound gratitude for the many wonderful encounters I had at this conference. Highlights included being introduced to the fantastic fantasy section of Powell’s (and to the Prester John series by Catherynne M. Valente) by a scholar whose generosity and kindness know no bounds, pretending – with some fellow mischief-makers -- to ignite one anti-medieval tome by way of another (see the adjacent photo), getting encouraging feedback on my book project, and, most of all, enjoying the many opportunities I had to reconnect with so many of my old friends from Rochester.  We had a large contingency at the conference this year, and I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some quality time with each of the folks who attended.  One of my favorite and most vivid images of the conference, moreover, was of the banquet. The hum of enthused voices created a din that you had to shout over, and seeing so many people reconnecting with one another – catching glimpses of friendships that must be on their third or fourth decade in some cases – made me so very grateful. I realized, as I looked up from my table where all of my dear friends sat to the numerous other tables filled with similar reunions, that we will always find ways back into each other's lives, and that we have many more adventures to come.  

To be sure, an outsider could look at this conference, or any other that we frequent, and see only a place for "making contacts" and/or for demonstrating one’s worth in the field. For me and for so many others, however, these conferences are opportunities to forge meaningful connections with people who are as crazily passionate as we are about certain aspects of the world.  Conferences as electric as this one, in other words, invite us to commune with one another -- to recognize that we are all, however different our methodologies, striving to read the world, the creatures that populate it, and the texts we encounter along the way in fresh and innovative lights. 

So, here’s to a delightful week in Portland (I raise a glass with my non-gimpy hand)! I am already looking forward with enthusiasm to our reunion in 2014  -- in elf-inhabited Iceland, no less!


  1. I really enjoyed reading this-- I appreciated your sense of intellectual energy and enthusiasm. And I am envious! I wish that more conferences fostered this sense of camaraderie and encouraged such lively exchanges!

  2. So glad you enjoyed the post, Heidi. This conference was an incredibly special one for the reasons you noted in your response, and my hope is that more and more will follow suit!

  3. As I was reading through your post I was wondering, so when is she going to write a book. Then I saw your comment on your book project. Go get em girl!! I'll read it, even though it'll probably be above my reading level.
    Much love,


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