I too was in San Diego for the SAA conference, and, here’s some of my observations, at the risk of confirming the sense that academic discourse is entirely solipsistic – we go to conferences and talk about ourselves, and then come home and report on all those conversations. Enough about me: what do you think of me?
The thing about SAA, I’m realising, is that the academic programme isn’t really the point. That sounds as if it’s a bad thing: I’m not entirely sure it is. What’s top of the agenda is meeting people: people you know already, people you admire, people you want/need to suck up to, people you want to publish or be published by, people who will flatter or be flattered by you. Again, that sounds as if it’s a bad thing: again, I’m not entirely sure it is.
Two points follow from this. First, the papers themselves are usually great but drop into a sort of vacuum, exemplified physically by the fact that they tend to be delivered in hotel rooms more suited to expositions and dances (of which more later) rather than classrooms or lecture theatres. The plenary session on ‘Historical Formalism’ was great, but I’m not sure I heard the phrase mentioned outside the introductory remarks, and, since there was no formal opportunity for questions, it remained inarticulately immanent, at best. The only other event we all go to is the Annual Luncheon with an address by the President – and this is a genre which seems designedly not a position paper or a call to arms. Somehow the bigger or meta-questions – I wanted to submit a proposal for a panel which would be called ‘So what?’, not because I don’t think there’s an answer but because it seems the most pressing question to ask – seem to get lost, or maybe they are just pushed over into the bar. The main topic of conversation is not where things are going in Shakespeare studies (who knows?) but whether this was a good hotel for the conference (we all know that: no). In between there are panels and seminars – written about elsewhere on the blog – which offer important opportunities for small groups to get together on a particular topic. But more concerted energy and buzz is created by all the small spin-off meetings and encounters than by the papers themselves.
Secondly, there’s a hecticness about getting together, an elaborate protocol of gesturing towards meeting or really wanting to meet which has some of the delicate beauty of the mating dance of the great crested grebe. I guess there’s some of that literal mating dance stuff, too – but in fact the whole event is saturated with a sort of academic libido (tautology? oxymoron?) in which desire, constraint, hierarchy, narcissism, and overinvestment are all key components. Like all such flirtations it’s exciting and intense and enjoyable, but ultimately unsustaining. But try keeping me away. See you in Dallas! Remind me, who actually did shoot JR?