Does one attend a conference? Participate in a conference? Learn from or at a conference? Go to a conference? With increasing frequency, these gatherings of people who presumably share some elements of inquiry or interest in and about the social, cultural, and/or natural world resemble X Factor with a dose of that “guess the suitcase with the amounts of money” show (hosted by Howie Mandel and animated by his, ahem, assistants), rather than an exchange of ideas or posing of questions. Instead, the interactions are too saturated with worries about showing up at a session because of the social repercussions of not being seen, performing a “knowing” self, and an embodied eschewing of any trace of fallibility. (We’ve all gotten so cool.)
When people are preparing to make the journey, sometimes necessitating multiple modes of transportation, the use of passports, foreign currency exchange, with what expectations do they walk out of their doors? And are conferences places where we can still be inspired? Or is there such a primacy placed upon performance and preening, that we have lost our way as learners?
This is not the whole story, of course. The ethos of conferring, communing, and reconnecting with friends and colleagues still does take place. And it is the shared sense of returning to intellectual homes while gathering the metaphorical timber with which to build new additions to this author’s house (nod here to the very excellent essay by Amelie Rorty titled, “The Ethics of reading”) that continues to be my experience at these shindigs — due in large part to intense time spent in the company of people who are ever my teachers, inspirations, laugh partners, and with whom there is great joy in conversation. And, as the pic below inspired me to consider, it gives me pause to remember how, even as time moves on and the topography of our lives is ever-changing, our memories can be made alive again in new ways; and as we hold the past with us, in what forms and with what postures/materials/practices of responsiveness is, at least in part, up to us.