Conference Regained

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.

20 thoughts on “Conference Regained

  1. And here is my original comment. (So happy you re-posted by the way).

    What a remarkable and brave post! And it’s not only that your sketch of academia rings so true—the conference stage, the “star” participants, the language that isn’t communication, the ethereal theory. But lots of people—insiders and outsiders—can get that part right, in realistic rendering or in caricature. Your post got at much more than that…and quite beautifully.

    Although you yourself are seemingly still in the midst of academic life (unless I misunderstand), you’ve nevertheless put your finger on something that I grapple with: trying to square my grief over a life I used to love with the relief of having found my way out of it, all complicated by an uncertainty about who I am without it. (Sorry. These are my words. I don’t mean to put them in your mouth. But are they close?).

    In some ways I feel like I’ve risen “above” whatever it was I thought I was reaching for in academic pursuits—climbed even higher on the stair you describe. I don’t mean this in a pat myself on the back sort of way. I simply mean I’ve found a place where I understand and relate to knowledge, language, communication, learning (and people!) in vastly different and, I think, better ways than I ever did as an academic (and,hooray! there are still more stairs ahead). But I still recognize the lure (and sometime grieve the loss) of those heady —if often exclusive and exclusionary— discussions. There’s a certain “high” to being at the top of your game academically. But in the end, that stopped filling me up (if it ever really did); in fact, it started to turn me off. It no longer felt like me.

    Sorry to go on and on. As you say, the heart holds surprising and powerful things. Best wishes as you attend to yours. Thanks again! TJ

  2. Now I understand why everyone seemed to want you to re-post this text! Although I don’t know academia, I totally relate to grieving over your past life and assessing where to go now that you’re clearer about what’s important for you. It’s great!

  3. Toujoursjacques – thank you so much for this lovely comment – you and Charlotte persuaded me to repost and I hoped very much you’d put your comment back up. I felt in complete sympathy with your remarks and in particular that sense of change that is strange and undeniable and enlivening in its way, but also alien and unexpected. I always felt that the battle with the most rigorous of academic discourses (to be polite) was something that the young and the ambitious were most interested in – it just surprises me that I turn out to be no longer either young or ambitious any more! But as you say, the steps beyond that still lead upward, and that’s most encouraging. Smithereens – thank you so much. I know you have your own exciting reasons for steadying yourself for the future! Bloglily – oh thank you so much, my friend. I will always be thrilled to have you along for the ride. Can’t think of a nicer companion.

  4. DEJA VU! What a wonderful range of experiences this post has offered to me. And they say the author is not in control of the narrative. I think that as I have aged it has become apparent that the real nature of life is in human emotions and the intelligence, so great a master of so much else, is still struggling with this, with my apologies to some of the great psychologists and their insights. Each of us must find or stumble along our own way, which becomes our focus, beside what else is going on in the more fathomable parts of our lives. This is one reason for the power of the story in human existence and why so many of your commentaries on narratives offer signposts along the way and spark thoughts and responses. While youth may tell us what we want to do in the exterior world we are probably not far enough on in our interior journey to know what we want to know. Who knows?

  5. Superb post, thank you. I have been at the mercy of academics being obscure, and never understood why that was better than being clear. I love your insights into parenting, your changing relationship with the university you have loved, and your being all out of “compassionate hospitality”. Thanks for re-posting!

  6. Great post — and my goodness did it ring some bells. I used to love conferences so much, and then suddenly I did not love them any more. Fortunately I have now retired so do not feel the pressure to go to them that seems to be a feature of university life.

  7. Hi Victoria,
    I’m on my way to work, so I’m afraid I haven’t read your post yet, but I wanted to tell you that The Boys in the Trees isn’t really very focused on motherhood. The beginning is from the mother’s point of view, but by the time things really start happening, she fades into the background.

  8. I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that Academia is now a combative sport fought out in the public arena? You have to be seen to be putting down everyone else and proving that you are the very best (which often seems to mean the one who is so erudite no one else is clever enough to understand you) so that you can get the funding and the research grants and,and,and…… The notion od academia as a caring and sharing community is becoming a thing of the past, I’m afraid.

  9. I hadn’t seen this, so I’m so glad you reposted it! I would not have missed this brave and eloquent and funny evocation of such important issues for anything. I rarely read anything that both fires my intellect and moves me emotionally – well, I guess that’s one of your points.

  10. Bookboxed – I think that is a very profound thought. I think I’ve always hoped that the intellect could dominate all the other senses, and it seems to be a very flawed plan. I, too, think that emotions provide the most compelling motivations, that they are irresistible in ways that intellectual thought and even sensory demands are not. And I agree with you about stories (that won’t surprise you). Charlotte – thank YOU so much for encouraging me to re-post! I’m glad now that I did. Harriet – I find it very comforting to think that you went through this stage too. Obviously conferences are something that you can grow out of! Dew – thanks so much for this information. I will have to return to your site to remember the plot of The Boys in the Trees as I can’t recall it so well now. That’s the attrition of my memory with age, I fear! Ann – you are so right that academics is a ‘combative sport’ – what an excellent description. The research grant being the most divisive among many different divisive aspects of the culture. That loss of community is about the worst blow it could be dealt as academia really works on teamwork, pooling ideas and mutual support. Jean – oh thank you so much for your lovely comment – I do appreciate it. I find a lot of work that is stimulating, but, as you say, so little that seems properly real.

  11. Hope you don’t mind if I stick in a conjecture here. My guess is that blogging has had something to do with changing your world view. I know it’s changed mine. Although I didn’t choose academia as a career, I do have academics in my family, who were often very frustrated with the world of academia, and I did work for an academic publisher for a long time. I am well acquainted with the odd practice academics have of trying to make everything (even completely straightforward things) as obscure as possible. It’s especially odd when you consider that their main function is supposed to be as teachers, and wouldn’t one thing that teachers would desire to help others to learn and to understand?

    The contrary is true in the blogosphere: people are eager to communicate, to teach, to explore ideas together, to ask questions, to be challenged, and (at least with the blogs I read) nobody tries to be superior to everyone else, nor is anybody ever, ever made to feel stupid (well, except when we do it to ourselves through self-deprecating humor). I’ve even witnessed some change their minds about their own theories. It seems to me to be a place where everyone truly practices being on an even playing field and the academic snobbery is gone.

  12. I want to second this thought of Emily’s. I am very new to actual blogging, but I have been observing for many months. I have found the blogosphere to be a good and kind place, where information is exchanged generously and with good intention. I am so impressed with the courtesy, encouragement and support I have already received from so many who don’t know me from Adam as they say. It is clear that there are many levels and realms of expertise here, but no one (so far) shows off or belittles others, or makes it a competition. How very refreshing. And Emily is right. No one who’s been an academic or been part of or in on academic culture will fail to notice these differences. I’m sure there are other factors that come into strong play for you in your changed relationship with academia. But I think she makes an excellent point. TJ

  13. I’m glad you re-posted this. After I saw it in my feed reader the first time and tried to comment it said it didn’t exist! What a conference. When I went to grad school the first time I wanted very badly to be a a professor and lead the academic life. But the further along I got and the more I saw stuff like at your conference and the politics and the deliberate obfuscation to make things as complicated as possible in an attempt to either justify the existence of the literature department and/or make the writer speaker appear so much better and beyond everyone else drove me nuts. I know all of academia isn’t like that, but I knew I was going to hate the part of it that was and decided it wasn’t for me.

    I can hardly wait to see where your changing interests take you.

  14. Your first love was books, authors and the worlds within. You are a natural teacher. The combination is awesome. Just because one of your respected elders in academia is showing signs of fraying around the edges (Remember the Peter Principle? People rise to the level of their incompetence) does not mean that real research and results and conclusions are losing their relevance.

  15. Emily – I think you’re perfectly correct – blogging has been a revelation for me in so many ways, and I much prefer the thoughtful, transparent posts of bloggers to the opaque labyrinths of some critical thought. I do fear that academic rigor is in some instances nothing more than a bid for superiority, and I don’t approve of that at all. And I do think that our two main functions, teaching and research, ought to inform one another rather than be at odds. There are academics who write beautifully clearly and I appreciate their work greatly – I guess I’m just losing my tolerance for the ones who don’t! TJ – you’re quite right to applaud Emily’s point (and I’ve never known her other than utterly perceptive and one of the courteous, compassionate bloggers you mention). I deeply appreciate the blogging community we have here amongst the book bloggers and we’re delighted now to be able to welcome you into it! Stefanie – well now, I didn’t know that about you, although I can see it’s true. You could easily have become an academic with your insight but yes, parts of it are frustrating and I’ve never been fond of game playing in any form. Sometimes people are struggling to put across a complex concept, but sometimes I’ve felt as if I’m being blindsided by a certain kind of discourse that just feels unnecessary. And one of these days I’ll get around to blogging about the mothering discussion at the library which was very interesting indeed – thank you for helping me pursue those interests! Archie – I couldn’t agree more, my friend with what you say about research (although I’d never heard of the Peter principle but I liked it very much!). Don’t worry, I won’t let the obscurantists grind me down😉

  16. Although I’m rather late to the party on this post, I must say how much it touched me. Althouh I have no connection with acadmeia (since finishing my degree almost 25 years ago), I do understand so well the feeling of having outgrown a beloved part of your life. It’s one of the blessings (and curses) of growing older, of being able to see yourself in a certain time and place, remember how satisfying it once was, but knowing at the same time that you have moved beyond it and are viewing life and yourself through a different set of lenses.

    I agree with those who have commented about the manner in which blogging, sharing our thoughts and ideas with a very welcoming community of like minded others, illuminates a new way of thinking and communicating. Perhaps blogging should become as requisite for academics as publishing in scholarly journals??

    Wonderful post, Litlove, and much food for thought as always.

  17. Wow, what a wonderful post. I just love that the woman was lecturing on “compassionate hospitality”–that made me laugh! Also, her comments about the collapse of feminism are fascinating. It must have been so strange to watch all this unfold, and in front of an audience, too. I love your images of yourself, as student, bride, and young mother, on those stone steps. Sounds like you’ll just have to find another staircase to climb for the next part of your life🙂

  18. Ravenous – thank you so very much! I love what you say about growth and moving on – you express it so well and help me to an overview, much needed, of where this change may fit into my life. I think that more and more academics are taking up blogging and that eventually it will be very important to the community as a whole. I do hope so. Getting in touch with a far wider audience for ideas can only do academia some good.

    Gentle reader – thank you! I appreciate your comment so much. I had to have a chuckle at the compassionate hospitality, and where I was sitting, on a side seat at an angle to the rest of the audience, gave me a strange, slightly dislocated perspective on the event. I did feel like I was watching the whole thing from another room, almost. I like the thought of another staircase – the joy of life is that it is full of them.

  19. I learned early in my academic career to take notes when someone criticizes me and ask follow-up questions, even if I thought he was an idiot. It always made me seem much less defensive and like all I cared about was advancing the research, not about ego. Worked beautifully (till I gave up on academics).

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