Weekend in the ivory castle

The ACLA conference was pretty monumental – apparently it was the largest one that Harvard had ever hosted, with more than 2,000 participants. Every day there were three streams of seminars, the first starting at 8:30am and the last one ending at 4:30pm with short breaks inbetween, each stream consisting of about 70 parallel sessions, each session in turn usually consisting of four papers plus Q&A – you do the maths. The conference schedule, listing only the titles of the papers and no abstracts, was a booklet of 250 pages. The choice was staggering to the point of overwhelming, in fact.

There were a couple of sessions relevant to my own thing, but apart from that I decided to cast the net pretty wide and go to sessions with topics ranging from graphical novels to Danielewski’s House of Leaves to some old school stuff on Marcel Proust, Thomas Hardy and Henry James. It was all good fun and dipping into different seminars gave a really interesting view of the variety – not only of topics and approaches but also of people. Some seminars were full of young Asian people mixed with professors in tweed jackets, paisley-print neckties and an odd combover, trying to come into terms on modern Chinese literature and art; others had Americans discussing Hašek and Kundera with russians and ukrainians.

On Friday, I noticed an intriguing session in the B-stream (the mid-day one) titled Master of the Universe: Literature, Culture and Finance Culture and decided to check it out. There was a round of introductions before the seminar got started and I opted for full disclosure – stating my investment banking background, which did raise a few eyebrows. Not surprisingly it ended up with yours truly fumbling around during the Q&A session, trying to find a middle ground in explaining the economist’s view of the financial crisis without being either trivial or tedious to a room full of literary scholars.

Anyhow, it was fun and, at least for the most part, interesting. I noticed a few familiar faces from the Amsterdam conference and made a couple of new friends to hook up with once I’m back in NY (which is going to happen tomorrow), plus a few more people to keep in contact with on different topics. All in all, a weekend well spent.


16 thoughts on “Weekend in the ivory castle

  1. I’d pay nonzero amounts of my ill gotten gains of working class exploitation to see the video of Tarmo discussing “the Crisis” with literary scholars.

  2. Great that you liked the conference – did you take the B59s on Asian heroism? But, please, every time you use “ivory” in connection with university I feel something like a vague twinge for a beretta. 🙂

  3. Yes, I did take B59 on Saturday. And as “ivory” really means “detached from everyday life” then do you really think that this is such an inappropriate designation for an event that has 2,000 people discussing for three days at Harvard over things such as “Uncanny Cosmopolitans: Presence, Haunting and Disjuncture in Postcolonial Texts”, “Pastiche Structuration in Contemporary Arts and Media” or “Vamps, Zombies, and the Undead: Rethinking the Politics of Visibility”?

  4. This depends on your definition of everyday life – or life, for that matter. I think, as for that conference, there were at least a proportion of people truly seeking to engage with matters of (everyday) life via a bunch of complex meta-languages (as opposed to people just getting kudos in some academic game – something that I associate with ivory tower proper). And, ok, “meta” as such means it is detached, but then any discussion at any institution is detached, why single out university or complit. But I don’t hope we will ever agree on that…

  5. The “ivory tower” in its common use refers more to a perception rather than is a claim to any metaphysical truth. And people trying to “engage with matters of life via a bunch of complex meta-languages” is precisely the kind of thing that is commonly perceived as “detached from life”. It doesn’t matter how engaged you feel with the pressing and practical matters of a proverbial man on the street, he would look at you as a being from outer space (and quite possibly in dire need of some medical assistance) if you walked up to him and told that “Presence, Haunting and Disjuncture in Postcolonial Texts” is what REALLY matters in this time and place of his.

    Don’t get me wrong, it should be quite obvious that I think those things have some relevance – or are at least interesting – but I really don’t have an illusion that this is in any way a widely shared point of view. And now, think twice before you dismiss this as irrelevant – that will open up a whole new elitist can of worms of some people knowing what really should matter to some other people.

    P.S. When referring to “people just getting kudos in some academic game” I would rather use Das Glasperlenspiel than “ivory tower” – but this discussion is getting rather detached already as well, isn’t it? 😉

  6. 🙂 I thought of using Glasperlenspiel, but by “getting kudos” I also meant the raw pragmatism aspect in academia (“publish or perish”, etc).

    I take your point, it does matter very much what non-specialist people think, whether of literary theory, nuclear physics, or macroeconomic problems. However, as you were not, in this instance, the proverbial common man, why should YOU use “ivory” in this manner? Perhaps in irony?

  7. See, years and years of theoretical training in literary studies is some good, after all! It only took you a few hours and 7 comments to recognise the presence of an ironic trope in the post above. Well done.

    But then again, it might be just empathy, right?

  8. Indeed, please refrain – in my fancy, elitist, faux marxist blog, I should add.

  9. Ah – Sarunas would be very welcome at my Liberal Arts seminar on ‘There is a Spectre’, plus a more school-bookish text on finance, 13 May, if he likes that sort of thing. Seriously.

  10. Hahahahaa, now *I* would be ready to dispense with some of the ill gotten gains of working class exploitation of my own to see that 🙂

  11. Comment baiting and seminar-attendance baiting are, combined in a single thread of comments, not cool.


  12. But Piret, thanks for the invite. If I’m around those parts in mid May, I will likely show up.

  13. 🙂 Just a kind, free-of-charge offer to evil capitalists who always suspect the worst. By the way, I have persuaded a nice exploitative financier to chair it (you both seemed to be into the voyeurism aspect of the thing).

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