Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Conference Blogging

I might have had an ambitious plan to blog about the Perth conference daily, but that was while I was still in Melbourne, and undergoing the between-conference amnesia that makes you forget the sheer exhaustion of conference-going. It's not as if I was out partying every night, either. I must be getting older, as I quite liked getting back to the hotel at a reasonable hour, crashing to sleep and waking up early for a decent walk before breakfast. Perhaps the young things were out raging? I like to think so.

My hotel was opposite Kings' Park, a huge expanse of parkland between the university and the city. I'd be up and walking along its roads by 7.30, though I never dared to venture into the bushland on either side of the road. There were just not enough people around to feel that would be safe, though it was good to think there was that kind of terrain in the city. The first two mornings I headed up along this more formal direction —


and had breakfast at the big cafe overlooking the city and the river.

The second two mornings I headed to the Zamia cafe. On Friday I couldn't identify this fantastically pungent aroma: what kind of tree or blossom could give off such a strong scent? But it was coming from several huge piles of mulched eucalypts. I don't really know my trees, but from the colour of the bark I would guess a red gum or the characteristic West Australian jarrah. The morning was chill, and the piles were sending up clouds of aromatic steam. The silly camera on the phone barely catches it. I think you have to be an Australian to sense the way this fragrance can fill the lungs with either deep contentment or desperate longing:


The conference was the first big gathering of the ARC Network for Early European Research. I've written about this Network elsewhere. A few comments here, though. "Early Europe" extends, for the purposes of this conference, from 400-1850; and our work is resolutely interdisciplinary. The theme of this conference was "Networks, Communities, Continuities" and it was terrific to see medieval and early modern scholars thinking in these broader terms. My paper was in a session called "Theorizing Medievalism Today", and Jenna Mead, Louise D'Arcens, Helen Dell and I were disciplined in only speaking to our pre-circulated papers so we had plenty of time for some great discussion. Louise had asked us all to think about Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale and so we did, from four perspectives drawing on deconstruction, film theory, psychoanalysis and my own vaguely Bourdieuian ideas about the circulation of knowledge about the medieval. We've been asked to submit the papers to Parergon so with any luck they'll appear in print before too long...

However, there weren't all that many sessions dedicated to medieval literature or medievalism. Or even early modern literature, for that matter. I suspect the historians have been faster to realise the network's purview extends as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

All the papers were supposed to have been put up on the conference website, so that we would only talk to them briefly and allow enough time in the 75 minute sessions for discussion. But when people insist on reading their papers, this is of course intensely frustrating; and really limits the possibilities for interdisciplinary exchange.

The organisers also experimented with poster displays for postgraduates, with only mixed success. I wonder if this ever works well in the humanities? New Chaucer Society pondered this at one meeting, but decided not to go ahead.

Three wonderful moments of affect, though. Constant Mews gave a brilliant paper on the nature of university communities and networks in the thirteenth century, and at one point had occasion to refer to Aquinas, who died before he was 50, said Constant, putting his hand on his heart and sighing. What did it signify? The tragedy of a life cut short? or comparisons with his own productivity? not that Constant needs to worry. But I suddenly realised the comparison might also apply to me in about nine months, and I was less sanguine. It reminded me of the William Hamilton New Yorker cartoon Frank described to me: a man standing disconsolately against the mantlepiece and his wife saying, "Of course you're going to be depressed if you keep comparing yourself with successful people."

Second was Dale Kent showing images of a sculpture of a child by Desiderio. People in the room were already making little murmuring noises at the sight, softening their bodies and leaning in toward each other when Dale showed an image of the back of the child's neck and said, "don't you just want to go 'num num num' into his neck?". And yes, indeed, we did.

Third was Hal Cook (this trio of names gives you an idea of the quality of the conference) describing the "republic of letters" circulating amongst natural historians, doctors and other scholars, and especially Jacobus Bontius, a Dutch doctor in Jakarta in the seventeenth century who researched local plants and animals. This correspondence, said Hal, "floated on a sea of lost conversations".

I'm not the only one who thinks the campus of the University of Western Australia is one of the prettiest in Australia. Again, the little telephone can barely do justice to it, but this is a most spectacular salmon gum outside the library:


And a glimpse of the green lawns:


The weather was cold for the first few days, bearing out the organisers' warnings about bringing warm clothes. But by Friday, and our jaunt to Fremantle and the Maritime museum, it was warm and sunny. Here are my delightful companions on our afternoon off:


The future is in good hands!

7 comments:

meli said...

Oh, the smell of gum trees....

When I moved to Adelaide from country South Australia I used to go into the Art Gallery whenever I was homesick because there was a painting by Hans Heysen of cattle behind a grove of slender gum trees, and I could smell the leaves, I could smell them.

And when I moved to York I was very excited to find a ghost-gum in the museum gardens. Haven't found any in Leeds, yet, though.

Kathleen said...

Argh. I just went to post but forgot my Blogger pastword...as usual.

It was great to meet you in Perth, Stephanie, and to chat a bit about your blog. I took some pics of the campus too (http://www.flickr.com/photos/34094573@N00/) - but my digital camera doesn't really do it justice. (Ignore the domestic photos in praise of our new kitchen cannisters.)

I found the conference format a little frustrating in some instances, too - we also went for the "Platonic ideal" of speaking to the pre-circulated papers, not reading them. (We were two postgrads, Nick Gordon and Kate Colleran, and myself, an Early Career Researcher.) I have to say, it paid off doing it that way, as we had 45 minutes of priceless commentary from people like Gene Brucker (a giant in our field of Renaissance Florentine studies). I'm currently considering listing (in both statutory and literary forms) in Renaissance Florence, and it was great to get thoughtprovoking questions and comments from the likes of Stephen Knight - it opened my mind up to the longue duree' effects of my idea over a wider geographical area. That's the beauty of NEER's interdisciplinarity you praise here and elsewhere. We were, further, NEER's guests, so I can attest to the Network putting its money where its mouth is, with regards to postgrads and ECR's.

As for the bright young things being out partying at night, in your stead - we did meet up with some...at night...in Fremantle. We were all doing some organic fruit & veg shopping. Sorry.

I love the nightlife. I gotta boogie.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Hey Meli, I must admit: I did think of you when I wrote that!

Great to meet you too, Kathleen. And yes, I agree about NEER's commitment to graduate students; and the general fabulousness of the plenary speakers and the interest of most of them in other people's work. It can be pretty tough on a conference when the big stars only turn up to their own sessions.

I do recall, actually, going to an ANZAMEMS conference in Perth not so many years ago, and hitting a nightclub after the conference dinner with a bunch of folk, including one of last week's plenaries. How to date the year? Madison Avenue, "Don't call me Baby."

Kathleen said...

That's excellent! I don't know that I want to picture it - for some reason, I never think of academics as good dancers, a prejudice, I know - but I love the idea!

Stephanie Trigg said...

Well, I don't think we were good, but we were willing, at least, and so it was fun for us (and probably for anyone watching, too!).

Apparently the medievalists at Kalamazoo (where I have never been) can kick up a storm, but I also read some pretty acrimonious comments about the ... er.... carnivalesque behaviour of senior academics on the dancefloor this year. I'll see if I can find a link.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Here's Dr Virago with a typically astute and thoughtful comment on the Kalamazoo dance...

http://quodshe.blogspot.com/2007/05/kzoo-report-1-love-dance-hate-dance.html

Kathleen said...

Oh no, the Time Warp, say it ain't so! Classic!

It does bring up the idea of all those "non-collegial" forms of interactions that conferences - particularly medievalist conferences, or is it just me?! too much bawdy Chaucer - seem to encourage. Thanks for Dr Virago's link - that's a great new blog to look at, thanks!