I love a good lecture. Not delivering them, no. I delight in listening to others share work, pose questions, and engage in this very public form of storytelling — the intonation, a speaker’s prosody, gestures that amplify a point and ad lib connections made as the speaker sees something new in her own words. In an earlier post, I started to share the tales of my experiences while attending the LSE Literary Festival a couple of weeks ago. It is true that the first day ended with an impromptu invitation to judge a slam poetry competition — for which the prize, as the emcee astutely and energetically put it, was “absolutely nothing!” Thankfully, I was allowed to co-judge with two new friends, and yet when our consistently high scores were read out — because I had accepted the invitation on the condition that I was allowed to give everyone 10s; yes, I have a wee problem with public acts of evaluation — we were identified as “The always enthusiastic [my name] from New York!” So much for staying under the radar.
The next day, too, was filled with lectures, although of a different sort. In fact, the lunchtime session about Charles Dickens was a lively dialogue between John Carey and Claire Tomalin who spoke of the author, whose 200th birthday is being widely celebrated, as if he was kin: a beloved yet sometimes cantankerous uncle, a not-too-distant misunderstood cousin, or a treasured grandfather. There was reverence and intimacy in their words, both having studied the life and works of the author. Dickens came alive in a new way for me through their exchange, and was humanized by their knowing smiles about his proclivity for a dichotomous existence — seemingly distant with his spouse and emotionally vulnerable with strangers, like the incarcerated children for whom he created a school and place to live. When Tomalin, whose recently published biography of Dickens was the text that undergirded the conversation, was asked whether there was a need for (yet) another biography of the man, her answer was pointed and precise: “Biographies are like portraits … and no one thinks there are too many portraits of people.” And then it was time for another question. (I was in the front row for this exchange — one of the unexpected perks of not already holding tickets for the free event and standing in the returns queue in hopes that there would be space. Although I’m not sure if this was necessarily a perk as I much prefer an aisle seat near the back. )
The thread of narrative — of how lives are storied and stories make lives — followed me to the evening panel discussion about the representations of finance and economics in literary fiction. Three male authors were being interviewed by a woman, herself an author with the unique perspective of having worked in that increasingly mysterious industry of finance. Literature, they collectively argued, can explicate the inner workings of something even so frustratingly confounding as the state of economics and finance within and across societies with greater effect than more seemingly informative texts. And so for an hour and half the talk moved from Bonfire of the Vanities to the imploding housing market to the depictions of financial crises at crucial points in the past century and half. In the process, the authors also revealed elements of their book research process, including extensive conversations, observations, note taking, and taking in the story from various available documents (news articles, financial reports, advertisements, and more). If I’m not mistaken, they sound quite like ethnographers following the story to wherever it leads.
The cartography of inquiry is endlessly fascinating to me and forms the root of much of my fascination with research — the story of the story, behind the story, the context that allows some stories to emerge and be created (when others may stay germs of ideas desperately in need of modes of expression). It’s the aspect of conference presentations that I have the most questions about and what is too often the least developed in articulation of work – how did you get here? And now that you’re here, what is it that you’re doing? Can we answer those questions without falling into the circular logic of what we do is based on what we think we should be doing so we do it?
In the past month, I’ve listened to musings about representations of memory in film and other forms of art, considered the implications of working class narratives and language practices on identity and sense of self, learned about healing narratives among women from the Cree and Ojibwa communities in Manitoba who are living with cardiovascular disease, and a few more odds and ends. Missing was the occasionally present impulse to be hypercritical of what was being shared, a habit that one picks up in the course of a hypercompetitive environment where people don’t merely sit in the audience; they judge and evaluate and think of all the ways they might have done it better. It’s critical gone awry. It’s a manifestation of what Anne Carson lamented in her essay on the dissolution of the true spirit of the university — an academic context that embraces and strives to be generative of a plurality of ideas rather than an institution hell bent on homogenized and sanitized packets of knowledge.
If there’s another lesson to be learned from taking a step back, it might be that we need to give ourselves more opportunities to really look and see before we give into the knee jerk reactions to point out what’s missing or what’s wrong. A good lesson, I think, to keep in mind when participating as audience members, particularly at academic conferences and further reason to attend lectures or other events that are completely outside the scope of what we have made our intellectual or everyday domain so that the compulsion to judge is quashed. To release ourselves from the very conditions that catalyze our inner [insert mean judge, popular culture reference here] that may be prone to articulating unappealing forms of expression – this may be truly be a gift we give ourselves (and our very thankful family and friends).