With a few alterations here and there, then, I’ll repost my experiences at last week’s conference.
I have a theory that things never turn out quite like you expect. It doesn’t matter how many times you imagine them in advance, you’ll never put your finger on their reality. The one thing I really learned from the conference on Friday was that I’ve been out of academia for too long. Or perhaps I should rather say that I’ve fallen out of love with certain aspects of it. The whole experience was marked by the collapse of time and history for me as the conference took place in the Cambridge college where I spent my undergraduate and graduate life. Walking up the stone steps to Upper Hall brought back memories of the thrill of youthful independence that accompanied the many formal dinners I ate there, full of appetite for life, and then, later on, of standing alongside my brand new husband in the glare of flash lights, wearing an ivory lace dress with dark red roses in my hair, and, later still, guiding a reined-in toddler, like an unbroken pony, up their treacherous unevenness. I’ve walked up those stairs girl, woman and woman-with-child, and it seemed strange to be there again, almost forty with a teenage son and feeling no different really to the way I did back then.
Or so I thought. The main reason I went to the conference was to hear the key note speaker, a woman critic I’ve admired very much in the past and whose books are on my college shelves. The respondant to the talk (someone to wrap it all up and make a few pertinent remarks that ought to lead the way into general questions) was a big name in psychoanalytic and cultural studies and someone I’ve heard give wonderful papers in the past. But I have to say that the main speaker’s talk was very disappointing. It hopped about from personal reminiscence to Plath’s poetry to some installation art, to the painting of Louise Bourgeois and Berthe Morisot, all the while toying with some theory that located itself way up high in the airless ether of abstract discourse. I think she must have been reading from the manuscript of a forthcoming publication, as what we heard was in no way appropriate to a spoken performance, containing great chunks of sentences that alone in a quiet room with the text before you, it might take ten minutes or so to get the better of. Once we moved onto the ‘fantasmatic chains of signification’ I found my mind had pulled the plug. There’s no way you can usefully assimilate that kind of language orally and I wonder at academics who give speeches that are not designed for anyone to properly follow them.
When the respondant finally (of course the talk overran) got up to speak, things did not improve, but they got a lot more interesting. This academic, it transpired, had flown back from the States yesterday, where she had been attending a three-day conference and although she is one of the most intelligent women I’ve ever witnessed in action, it was clearly all too much for her jetlagged mind. Her opening words were ‘Well, I think we all have the feeling that we have attended a major event here’, which is polite academic-speak for: something important may have been said, but none of us have the first clue what it was. Then she went on to offer some gentle correctives to the speaker’s argument, concerning her use of psychoanalytic theory. But what really began to interest me was their body language. Both are important academics and have reached the stage of their professions where they know it. The respondant, who I heartily wished had been on better form, was on her feet offering some very valid additional material to the speaker, who was now seated. But the speaker wouldn’t look at her, and kept her whole body twisted away. She could have been taking notes, I couldn’t see from where I sat, but there was a distinct hostility in her pose. The respondant meanwhile adopted the posture of a standing supplicant, her voice almost pleading with the speaker to give her a break and answer some of her criticisms. Once she’d finished talking, the main speaker ignored everything she had said and opened the discussion to the floor. I found all this far more fascinating than the content of the speech.
The speaker continued to display marked aggressiveness towards the questions from the floor, replying with this odd vocal inflection, saying right? at the end of every subclause, which made it sound like she was explaining something rather grumpily to a student who refused to get it. And it rather tickled me that the lecture she’d given had been all about pregnancy as a triumphant model of what she called ‘compassionate hospitality’, or a way of involving and including another person, regardless of how different or what an unknowable quantity they may be. I couldn’t see much compassionate hospitality in the way she was answering people’s questions. But then I thought that of course it’s the people who are most defensive who are most interested in others being open and receptive to them. At an early point in her talk she’d spoken vehemently about the collapse of feminism and all the female students who were now snapping at her acclaimed heels. ‘They say I’ll take everything you got for me, the rights, the respect, the sex, the career, the freedom, but I refuse to be like you. Don’t call me a feminist. And you know that they’re looking at you and wanting the space you inhabit, wanting your job. Really, you know, they want to kill you.’ At this point someone made an audible snort, and she insisted that no, it was true, absolutely true. And so I guess it made perfect sense that she should be interested in both compassion and hospitality, in both directions up and down the academic food chain. She just wanted somebody else to start being compassionate first, and then maybe she would join in.
So, all that was far more intriguing than the content of the talk. As was the chat I had with the nice woman sitting next to me who told me all about her two young children and her exhausting life and the husband she was in the process of divorcing. That was all most interesting. But once someone started asking earnestly about Laplanche and this rather worrying tendency he had to posit the mother as someone who ‘does not know’, and that this was something she had trouble with, I knew it was time to leave. Anyone who has had a baby understands that absolute not knowing goes with the territory. That baby is a mystery from start to finish, and whilst it’s the cause of much maternal anxiety it’s the saving grace of humanity. Thinking that you know the other person through and through, that you can make decisions for them, that you know their mind as well as you know your own is the basis of tyranny and dictatorship. Democracy is the principle by which everyone has to say what they want precisely because it’s unguessable and the pooling of those wants will ultimately provide a better, more flexible form of society. That’s why mothers would make great politicians if it weren’t for the fact that all that lying and boasting and endless caprice is like the worst stage of kindergarten and it was bad enough the first time around. Still, I didn’t say any of that. I was all out of compassionate hospitality and it was time to go home.
Ever since then I’ve felt completely exhausted. I came home and fell asleep for almost two hours, and it’s not really so very tiring to be bored. It struck me instead this morning that I was feeling grief for my past life, for the time when I used to enjoy wrestling those kind of abstract notions into submission, when I felt that thought could master all of existence. It used to make me feel smart, and now I am no longer interested in any kind of knowledge that isn’t in the service of communication, that doesn’t talk about real things in a way people can understand. Now that doesn’t mean to say I’ve dismissed academia. There are many great thinkers and great writers who are interested in expressing ideas in such a way as to clarify them rather than obscure them. But there is a large and significant portion of my profession who are not. Writing this all down it doesn’t seem like much of a story. But thinking about things is a mere half of the experience, I discover, and what is in your heart is often powerful and surprising. I had a wonderful time as a young woman and a young mother, climbing those stone steps up to the highest echelons of thought, but now it’s time to acknowledge my changing interests and be curious to see where they lead me.