by Justin Clemens
When July with its bluster and showers comes around to mark the jagged break between antipodean tertiary semesters, then longen scholars to goon to conferences. This season, I took my face out for a walk — as Stéphane Mallarmé says — to two of them. Each had a title, one perhaps snappier than the other. The first, organized by Kate Montague, Sigi Jöttkandt, and Mark Steven from UNSW, bore the name Reason Plus Enjoyment (R+E) and took place 10-14 July. The second, organized by Deirdre Coleman, Claire Knowles, and Peter Otto (what’s with these organizational trinities?), was the ‘third biennial conference of the Romantic Studies Association of Australia (RSAA),” and held 23-25 July at the University of Melbourne. It was called Re-Reading Romanticism: Imagination, Emotion, Nature, and Things. I”m still wondering how nugatory, infinitesimal or alien you’d have to be to wriggle out of that subtitle.
Everyone knows the risks of attending conferences. In addition to the demands of enforced creepy sociability, nobody keeps to time, questions turn into interminable narcissistic sermons, people are cliquey and rude, your stunning paper suddenly goes belly-up…. Intellectual and personal humiliation threatens to squeak out at every moment. I guess that’s the way we uh uh we like it. About a decade ago I was at a conference in Maastricht, when an eminent Christian theologian said the wrong thing about the holocaust, something like that it was an opportunity for Christians to rethink the consequences of the death of God. I’m not sure what to make of such a claim, but for unspoken reasons the entire parliament of registrees somehow spontaneously-yet-independently decided it was beyond the pale. For the next three days, the guy ate alone in the canteen, the shameful butt of contemptuous eyes. Yet it was probably better than living a Frank Moorhouse nightmare: Conference-Ville (1976) now stands as a forlorn monument to an entirely different era. If there’s still “in-flight sadism,” the “Class warfare in the bar-bistro” has been conclusively neutralized.
Given the uncertainty that governs contemporary working life, the effects of heightened global competition now exacerbate and distort all ancient academic routines. The papers get shorter and shorter; there are more and more of them. In contrast to the often outrageously bloated keynote speaker schedules of up to two hours, most punters get a maximum of twenty minutes to spruik their wares, often on panels with two or three other persons presenting on wildly different topics, and where three, four, even more panels, might be running simultaneously. There’s a lot of structural sucking-up to do. It’s easy to make bad decisions under such conditions, when a kind of febrile desperation squats as inconsistent arbiter over the organized chaos.
Luckily, both conferences turned out to be fantastic. R+E was possibly even the best — that is, the most exciting, dynamic, and coherent — I’ve ever attended, although to be honest the RSAA had much better catering. The Romantic miniature Danishes were super-fantastic (as the phrase has it), especially when washed down with unexpectedly palatable tureen coffee. I think I had at least five of them, but it was hard to keep track in all the excitement. Moreover, trying to digest industrial quantities of sweet crusty pastry when you’re being aurally bombarded with densely-packed historical detail can be discombobulating. Tom Ford didn’t help by informing me that ‘the correct pronunciation of RSAA is Arse-Ha.’
80% of the five R&E keynotes were eminent feminist theorists, most of them strongly influenced by French psychoanalysis; the other 20% was Henry Sussman. Jelica Šumič Riha gave a great paper on the paradoxes of enjoyment in Stoic ethics; Joan Copjec spoke of certain epochal shifts in the relationship between images and religious iconoclasm, not least the supplantation of lumen by lux; Juliet Flower-MacCannell on the imaginary de-gendering of subjects in contemporary fashion; Carol Jacobs on W.G. Sebald’s writings about the artist Jan Peter Tripp. By the time Jacobs had finished talking, there was a clamour of hands. Somehow she’d enabled her auditors to come to see new things in the Tripp painting that she hadn’t mentioned and Sebald himself hadn’t noticed — but which couldn’t have become apparent without them.
There was a lot to get excited about: A.J. Bartlett and Bryan Cooke spoke about Plato and Lacan; Rex Butler about Copjec’s work; Sigi Jöttkandt about Lacanian numerology. There was a hard-hitting panel on contemporary gaming, encompassing nerdcore porn, anti-mimesis in avatar design, and locative alternate-reality play, with Tom Apperley, Mahli-Ann Butt and Kyle Moore. Another, with Chris Rudge, Alejandro Cerda Rueda, and Ben Gook, examined the impact of drugs upon culture. Ed Scheer talked about the decomposition and resistance of the drama analogy in contemporary critiques of critique…. and much much more.
I’d somehow ended up on a panel about Mallarmé, with two young Australian researchers Robert Boncardo and Christian Gelder. The previous evening had culminated with a presentation by the Slovenian critic Gregor Moder on the 1941 Preston Sturges film The Lady Eve. Moder’s argument had essentially been a plea for the ethical benefits of stupidity, hinging on the various confusions succumbed to by Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda’s characters, despite the wise advice delivered to Fonda’s character by the suspicious hermeneutic valet Muggsy. The discussion afterwards was hilarious. Knox Peden tried to get Moder to admit that reality would have to obtrude sometime. ‘Ok,’ he asked, ‘the characters in a play are acting as if there is a fire on stage. What happens if a fire really started on stage at the same time? How would the actors let the audience know, given they’ve already sold the fire to them?’ Moder wasn’t having it. ‘”Every theatre has excellent provisions for real fires, there is no problem,” he reassured Peden. This hadn’t quite been Peden’s point, so he tried rephrasing his question, with an equal degree of unsuccess. The fire-in-the-theatre analogy was apparently smoking out everyone’s neural pathways.
Anyway, I tell this story because, at the very moment I was tying my shoelaces the next morning, the fire alarm went off in the hotel. Was it a real fire alarm? A test? How could I know? Peden and Moder’s discussion was still fresh in my head, so I hesitated. Then I heard a fire engine approaching over the Potts Point rush-hour traffic, and ran for my life. Just as the emergency door slammed behind me, I realized I’d left my paper in the room. So much for what Mallarmé calls “the elocutionary disappearance of the author.” Luckily, my co-panellists made up for my lack. Boncardo, who recently finished his doctoral thesis cum laude on Mallarmé in French (a kind of PhD-share arrangement between the Université d’Aix Marseille and the University of Sydney), gave a bravura discussion of the 20th century history of philosophico-political interpretations of the poet by J.-P. Sartre, Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, and others. Gelder, drawing on the work of the eccentric French linguist Jean-Claude Milner, brought together Mallarmé and Harry Potter. His (hilarious) title says it all: The Boy Who Lived and the Poet Who Should Die. I’ll never think about Henri Potier the same way again. When I finally got back to the hotel that night, my paper was there on the desk, entirely unsinged. The real alarm had been a false alarm. Since, as Mallarmé announced, a throw of the dice will never abolish chance, it was probably better to be sans papiers, after all.
Thankfully the Romantics were too well-disciplined to set off any real false alarms. In between stuffing my face, I heard about cow pasturing in late eighteenth-century Switzerland from Steven Hampton, the cultural, linguistic and situational forces operating on modern Chinese translations of Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud/The Daffodils’ (the uncertain titling of this famous poem having major consequences for the translations) from Zhang Yan, and the contest of bird metaphors in Romantic and post-Romantic verse from Anne Collett. Excellent short presentations abounded. Amelia Dale examined the figure of the monkey in Elizabeth Hamilton’s work. Michael Falk did an incredible digital humanities number [sic.] on word-cluster topoi in Maria Edgeworth’s Vivian. Sarah Comyn outlined the work of women writers in the popularization of political economy in the early nineteenth century. Informants filled me in on highpoints from the parallel sessions I’d missed.
The keynotes were also kicking arse-ha. Peter Otto provided a compelling interpretation of a William Blake image (Plate 17 from The Book of Urizen, reproduced here), reconstructing its poetic, philosophical, personal and printing context. Mary Jacobus bashed Bruno Latour with Wordsworth the Mountain Man. Jon Mee outlined some of the work of the regional arts-and-sciences institutions in forging an English ‘”ranspennine enlightenment.” Tilottama Rajan focussed on the knowledge anxieties raised for Victorian science by John Hunter’s fossil collection. Deirdre Coleman, Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite spoke on the panel ‘Remembering and Reading [the great Romantic scholar] Marilyn Butler.’ Throughout her life, Butler sought to deflate decontextualized theorization and reinvigorate local and situated studies. One of the odd factoids that emerged in question time was that Butler’s psephologist husband Sir David was a co-inventor of the notorious swingometer — which perhaps makes graphically clear the benefits of privileging evidence over speculation.
Once again, I’d ended up on another panel, for which I blame the aforementioned Tom Ford. This one was themed “Re-environing Romanticism,” mixing environmental humanities with some experimental philology. I talked about sand as a poetic figure of the Romantic chemical decomposition of the world into the primal elements that never appear as such within it: P.B. Shelley meets Humphry Davy. Mark Lussier gave a kind of Romantic Beat performance, drawing on quantum theory and new materialism. For his part, Ford elaborated an absolutely stunning philological reconstruction of the emergence and development of the word ‘Romantic’ in English: who would have thought that it grew from a Civil War crypto-Catholic Cavalier caprice concerning carceri? Even the horrible portmanteau of Ford’s title — “The Romanthropocene” — ended up releasing a starburst of sophisticated cognitive truffles.
Conferences have a kind of druggy edge to them — a feature probably all the more appropriate in this context given, as Peter Otto once remarked, the Romantics were probably the first modern drug subculture. Attending Conference-Ville can sometimes feel like stumbling about a bizarre utopian fantasy, in which strange and recondite obsessions parade themselves under the admonitory ears of scholarly care, strenuous discussion, rigorous epistemophilia, and a democratic sense of the public good. So returning to ‘the real world’ — that is, the global inferno of contemporary political and media simulations — can be a shock. While Will Christie was delivering a magisterial paper regarding the struggles over scientific and religious freedom in the Scottish academy of the nineteenth century, the Australian mass-media were going beserk over Bronwyn Bishop’s #Choppergate.
But that’s the lived montage of contemporary life, I suppose, in which the ceaseless clash of antitheses occasionally releases a spark of insight along with the expropriating distress. Goodbye then, July! — in which I learned once more that the only thing to be learned from history is that nothing is ever learned from history. The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Photo from the William Blake archive