Saturday, August 05, 2006

The multiple temporalities of the long-distance conference-goer.

Just back, a few days ago, from the New Chaucer Society conference in New York. What a blast! and what a joy to attend a conference where the papers are nearly always all interesting, accomplished, and pointed. This biennial event is the highlight of my work as a Chaucer scholar and a medievalist. It’s the conference where I know most people, and know the work of most of the people I meet. It’s the audience I write for as a medievalist, and it also includes some dear friends and collaborators. It’s also widely acknowledged as a very convivial, friendly group that makes a point of being welcoming to graduate students. The program was crowded with good things; the analogy of the cake shop comes to mind…

It is tough, of course, to get there from Australia, especially since the conference was a little later than usual this year, so I had to meet my honours students once, then climb on the plane and absent myself for a week, with precious little time for doing anything but going there and coming back almost immediately.

My own panel, “What is happening to the Middle Ages?” was scheduled on the first afternoon. James Simpson, Philip Thiel and I spoke about questions of periodisation and disciplinary boundaries, and Carolyn Dinshaw was the respondent and last speaker. She spoke quite movingly about Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘multiple temporalities’ as they might apply to the life of the medieval in the middle ages and beyond. This concept then chimed throughout the conference, and it’s something I want to think about a lot more in the work I’m doing now, both on the long history of the medieval aspects of the Order of the Garter, from 1348, the year of its founding, up to the present; and also on the relationship between the medieval and the medievalist. This is a distinction that isn’t always meaningful beyond the disciplinary boundaries of medieval studies, but one which is often rigorously policed amongst medievalists. In subsequent discussions it became clearer that this distinction is legible as a distinction between high and popular culture.

Of the many highlights (and not least was the cruise around Manhattan on Sunday night: ordinary food, but on the upper deck, a yellow crescent moon, a scattering of unfamiliar stars, a balmy breeze and lively conversations), a panel of historians talking about medieval peasants confirmed my sense that my ‘medieval popular culture’ project might have legs. It was fascinating to hear the historians say they were always interested to hear what literary scholars could do with texts: it didn’t seem to me that this was a curious fascination with how much we could ‘read into them’; rather, a sense of what we could find that they might miss.

But another reflection upon ‘multiple temporalities’ came to mind as I pondered the ridiculousness of travelling so far (and burning up heaven knows how much fossil fuel) for these pleasures, and the disruption to time and space they involve. The fifteen-hour flight to LA is one thing (and I confess I scraped together enough frequent-flyer points to upgrade — literally, up the stairs to business class); and the transition (fingerprinting, baggage check, security screening) was quick; but the five hours to JFK in sunlight, when the body is convinced it’s 3 a.m. and everyone around is bright and excited, and when the seat reclines perhaps 3 centimetres, is enough to induce deep existential torment. What time is it? Melbourne? LA? New York? I’ve changed my watch so much I can’t remember. Have I been in the plane 30 minutes or 3 hours? Why do I do this? Why is the ipod on a different time zone to either the US or the Australian cell phone? (where does it think it is?) Didn’t we touch down a while ago? What does it mean when my deepest sleep of the whole trip – a good forty minutes – comes between the plane arriving at the gate and the officials at JFK letting us dock? Oddly, the flight home was better for sleep: must have been the over-the-counter sleeping pills that blocked the angst and let me curl up in my economy window seat. Oddly, now that I’m home again, with almost no jet-lag, I find I can, after all, contemplate another trip...

4 comments:

KLG said...

At the risk of completely monopolising your Comments box, two things:

1. Cracker of a post, dude.

2. Welcome home!

Stephanie Trigg said...

Thanks, KLG. And ... are you kidding? Comments are what the blog wants...

J J Cohen said...

It was good to meet you -- no matter how briefly -- in that Starbucks where all the medievalists seemed to be lingering.

As to multiple temporalities, that's an ongoing obsession of mine, as well. I tried to bring together some work on the subject in the intro to Postcolonial Middle Ages and have a chapter on it in Medieval Identity Machines. I'd love to hear more about how your project develops and will look forward to reading about it.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Hi jjc, yeah, the Starbucks! We scorn them here in Melbourne where the coffee is Italian — strong, fresh and aromatic— but in conferenceville they are essential.

Another thing about temporalities that intrigues and mystifies me is the way things we read don't always find a place in what we are writing at the time, but have a way of returning to us at unexpected times. No one believes me that I had 'forgotten' that Wynnere and Wastoure, the subject of my PhD, was also a Garter poem when I started this current project. Mind you, it was over twenty years ago.

I know that chapter in PMA, too, and will return to it soon and check it out again. Thanks for the reminder!