Friday, August 3, 2012

Reflections on NCS Portland

(Update: There have been many excellent write-ups about NCS Portland already.  For a few, see Anne Harris, Jeffrey Cohen, Jonathan Hsy, and Steve Mentz.)

It’s a little more than a week after NCS Portland, and I’m still a bit exhausted.  It was an exhilarating, packed time.  (You can read my paper here in a previous post.) I also made the 5 day drive from New Orleans to Portland.  Since I use a power wheelchair, I tend to avoid flying when possible.  But this trip pushed to the limits my resolve to eschew flying for driving. On the plus side, I saw a lot of the country, and my wife and I drove through The Columbia River Gorge on the way into Portland.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s nothing short of breath-taking.  We drove alongside the river, which was nestled between mountains.  On the way back, we wanted to drive over the river to add Washington to our “states-we’ve-been-to” list, and the bridge was named The Bridge of the Gods.  The view was spectacular, and really, is there a cooler name for a bridge?

The Island of the Dead in The Columbia River Gorge
Portland itself is a wonderful city.  I especially loved how much of a pedestrian city it is—it’s been a while since I’ve traversed a city that much in my wheelchair. And, as everyone knows, the beer is excellent, and they have Voodoo Donuts, which serves bacon donuts with a maple glaze.  Homer Simpson’s drooling “sacralicious” comes to mind. I could easily turn this into a food post, so I better move on to the thing itself: the Congress.

Portland, an excellent city with
lots of green and public spaces.
This was my first NCS (more or less—long story), though I’ve long heard that it’s one of the better conferences for medieval studies.  Everyone was right: it was excellent. I was also particularly pleased to be there since David Lawton is the out-going Executive Director, and I was happy to be able to join in the numerous bouts of applause and public thanks for his tireless work for the society. I am a bit biased here since David was my doctoral adviser, but I know first-hand how deeply committed he is to making the event dynamic and vibrant.  His vision of medieval studies, often reflected in his work for NCS, is future-oriented.  We maintain the health of the field by being generous and welcoming (he is especially passionate about the importance of increased grad student participation) and by putting medieval lit into dialogue with other literatures and other intellectual conversations.  NCS 2012 demonstrated all of this brilliantly.  This is the medieval studies I signed up for.

Unlike a conference like Kalamazoo (this is not at all a negative comparison, just a distinction), NCS has several threads with multiple sessions attached to them. For example, there were threads on the Neighbor, Ecologies, Oceans, the Book, Affect, and a few others.  Theoretically this could create a compartmentalizing sense of there being isolated mini-conferences, but I found just the opposite. My paper was on one of the Neighbor panels, and so I did go to several sessions on this thread, which felt like being part of a continuing, unfolding conversation. There were too many other excellent sessions to ignore, though, so I went to sessions on the human and the non-human, nature into culture, animate objects, and an excellent combination of two threads: oceans/neighbors (more on that in a moment).

My panel was on the Neighbor and the Romance/Stranger.  It was excellent to meet my fellow presenters: Mark Bruce, Emily Houlik-Richey, and George Shuffleton.  Our session had a large amount of agreement, which was surprising since we hadn’t discussed our work with each other previously.  We did, of course, have some differences in how we viewed the romance, that most slippery of genres. Perhaps because of the shared sympathies in the panel, the Q&A was mostly directed to the panel as a whole, and less so individual presenters.  I found this challenging in the best way since it allowed the four of us to think through the implications of the theory of the Neighbor for a study of medieval lit. The other Neighbor panels pushed our conversations forward immensely, but I was particularly impressed with the Oceans/Neighbors panel.  The program committee (they all deserve a lot of thanks for their work overall) consciously decided to hold some sessions that would consider the intersection of varying threads.  In this panel, the presenters considered how bodies of water—ports, rivers, oceans—facilitate and structure neighborly relations.  A few of the papers also reflected on how changed we are by passing through or over bodies of water. George Edmondson gave an excellent talk on the sea as a state of nature qua state of exception, and Candace Barrington considered the changes Chaucer underwent as his work went transatlantic (her paper also validated my fondness of the movie A Knight’s Tale as a guilty pleasure). I wish I could comment on all the other excellent papers I heard, but there’s only so much time.  

I do want to say a few words about the plenaries, though.  I’ve been an admirer of Anne Middleton since my first seminar on Piers Plowman, and it was great to hear her lecture on “Loose Talk.” But Carolyn Dinshaw’s plenary on “All Kinds of Time” was, perhaps, the highlight for me in terms of congress events.  Insightful, provocative, and just damn funny, her talk started with Portlandia, where the Dream of the 90’s is Alive, and went through Mandeville and 19th century parodists of him, and ended with Brantley Bryant’s Chaucer blog. Her talk was an eloquent reminder that we all experience the world polychronically. Going to Portland can feel like time-travel just as much as reading Chaucer can. We don’t live life as a series of discrete now-moments, identical with themselves, but rather we inhabit and are surrounded by a multiplicity of temporalities. We read the past through the present, and vice versa.  We cannot keep strict boundaries between medieval studies (the study of the past itself) and medievalism (the creation and/or re-writing of that past). Keeping them walled off from each other will only isolate our field further.  This is not to say that A Game of Thrones is interchangeable with medieval romance, but the connections can be vibrant, for us and for our students. Especially for our students.

Dinshaw’s talk has framed much of the way I remember the Congress, a reminder that the encounter with multiple and multiplying temporalities is a wonderful one. We all traveled, for example, varying lengths of time to a place like Portland, which has its own particular temporalities, both sincere and parodic.  And more, we all carry various times with us.  I met many colleagues like myself, that is, finished with the PhD but not yet fully established, as well as those further along in their career or just getting going.  When we go to such a big event like this, we get to share time with each other, at least for a little while. We overlap and cut across each others’ times, and I think we’re the better for it.  While the talks and sessions and plenaries were exciting and stimulating, it’s the chance conversations during the receptions and interstitial moments I’ll remember the most. Whether it’s sitting down for a beer in the hotel lobby with a fellow post-doc only to have medievalists that have shaped my own work join us for a drink, or a certain blogger, not to be named, shout “Winter is Coming” at me as I was about to go give my paper.

NCS 2012, Portland was an engaging time, where I heard many, many excellent talks, and where I met several people I previously knew only from their published writings or from Facebook/Twitter.  Warren Ginsburg and the local committee also deserve so much thanks for being such excellent hosts. 

I may have to re-think my no-fly rule and go to NCS Iceland in 2014.  


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