First comes the invitation. If the organisers are good organisers, they give you plenty of time, freedom to speak on whatever you want, and are crystal clear about what kind of event it is, and what kind of funding they will provide.
Then a year or so goes by and the lecture then starts to hove into view. You might have to provide an abstract around this time. Then your ticket is booked, and after that there is no going back.
You start to blog about it, perhaps, or allude to it on facebook. Then, when you really should be buying a new pair of shoes to wear, you throw together a first draft, phrase by phrase, partial footnote by partial footnote. You think about the long plane ride on which you'll be able to finish the talk, while thinking consoling thoughts about how you'll polish it up when it's time to send it off to be published.
All of a sudden, you are standing there while they introduce you, and there really is no going back.
As you give the talk, you're conscious of a terrible silence. They are probably just being politely attentive, but the effect is to make you conscious of every half-baked idea you ever had.
Afterwards, everyone is very kind. They say nice things.
You go home, and try to forget about it till it is time to send off the published version, when you race around trying to finish off those footnotes and pressing "Send" with a great sense of relief.
As I did two days ago.
At the moment, I am preparing for a conference at Melbourne — http://hearts-and-stones.arts.unimelb.edu.au/ (That is actually a link, though the colours have gone a bit odd on this template.) This is a small symposium on stone, emotion and temporality. Speakers will meditate on our emotional relationship with stone, whether in the form of rock art, memorials, buildings, art, landscape, etc. etc., with a particular focus on the way stone bears witness to, carries a sense of time and cultural and natural memory.
I am in the luxurious position of not having given myself a paper to give. I'll chair, and convene, and try to bring a bunch of people together who aren't normally part of the same circuit. Some are medievalists, some are modernists, some are Australianists, and some specialists in Indigenous studies. It is almost a dream come true, for me, to bring this company together.
Readers of this blog will be happy to know, I hope, that two of its most loyal readers and commentators, Jeffrey and Kerryn, will both be at this conference. Jeffrey will be opening proceedings on Thursday night with a public lecture (his own dreaded keynote which I gather he is planning to write on the plane): "Feeling Stone", July 28th, 6.00, Elisabeth Murdoch Lecture Theatre, Parkville Campus. And Kerryn will be closing the symposium proper with a ghost story (she is visiting a cemetery tomorrow as part of her research). Jeffrey's lecture is open to all, and is free. Kerryn's will close the symposium. You can register for that, too, though places will be a little restricted at the conference.
I can hardly wait for these two to meet each other. I don't know if they are friends on facebook, though they certainly ought to be. It will be a wonderful meeting of bloggy minds, and I hope that the pleasures of that meeting — how could they not love each other? — will distract them from the anxiety of their talks...
Here is Jeffrey's abstract:
Our vocabulary for stone is impoverished. We describe rock as dumb, mute, unfeeling, unyielding, recalcitrant. Stone can sometimes be invoked as a witness, but most often its testimony is silent,an unfeeling trigger to affect, a passive reminder of tragic human histories. This talk excavates a lithic counter-tradition: stone not simply as a spur to human emotion, but as a lively substance possessed of agency, motility, artistry, and possibly even a soul. Surveying work by medieval and contemporary thinkers, from Albertus Magnus and Geoffrey of Monmouth to Gilles Deleuze, Elizabeth Grosz and Roger Caillois, I argue that stone invites us to a
nonanthropocentric approach of ecologies, landscapes, texts and art.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is Professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI) at the George Washington University.