I feel a little like I have been ‘on tour’ for the last year or so. Since February 2009, I have presented papers at conferences, workshops or seminars in Zurich, Las Vegas, Manchester, Rome, Utrecht, Bristol, Stockholm, and Singapore. This sounds like the sort of itinerary ripe for parody along the lines of a David Lodge novel, but none of these has felt like a junket. In fact, because of relatively new childcare responsibilities that have befallen me, none of these trips involved more than four nights away from home – Las Vegas was three nights in a hotel and a trans-Atlantic overnight flight. This means that I haven’t really much of an answer when someone asks ‘What did you make of Singapore?’, because I wasn’t there long enough to even enter into the speeded-up fieldtrip to which geographers inevitably reduce any and all international conference experience. I can tell you, though, what I made of the International Communication Association (‘the ICA’), or at least the slice of if I attended. Which might seem obvious, but my point is that doing conferences in this way makes you really focus in on what it is that these sorts of gatherings are good for intellectually.
What have I learnt? Well, for a start, I have been reminded of just how much of my own serious academic reading is itinerant, as it were, done on the move, in the interstices between other activities which impose themselves on you more strongly. Travelling makes this very evident, although it’s not the only occasion when such opportunities arise – the only proper philosophy book I have read from cover to cover in the last four years is John McDowell’s Mind and World, which I read over the course of a week in January 2007 while sitting up in the early hours of the morning waiting for a very small infant to wake up and demand a bottle-feed. But travelling on buses, trains, and airplanes is, and has always been for me, an important occasion for learning, because of the amount of ‘dead time’ there is to fill (since I started driving to work, in 2003, I have felt this all the more, since driving a car is really not conducive to reading difficult theory; I have managed to listen to the podcast of Hubert Dreyfus’s lecture course on Heidegger while zooming along the A420, but I’m not so sure much of it really stuck).
I have also learnt, or re-learnt, the oddities of ‘disciplinarity’. In Rome, I took part in an intensive workshop, funded by an EU grant of some sort, in which most of the other participants came from Politics departments, but turned out to have far greater ‘intra-disciplinary’ hang-ups (between political theorists and IR scholars, between the normative and the empirical, for example) than one finds in geography. So here, I was very definitely The Geographer, which was a bit strange. This event was a great social experience; we all experienced three nights of detailed tutoring in how to eat Italian food properly. This sounds like a terrible, Lodge-like cliché, but actually this was an important aspect of making this event work, for me at least: we were spending the days discussing pre-circulated papers, each of which had a designated discussant, with a view to working the dozen or so pieces into chapters for an edited collection. This is difficult to pull off amongst people who have never met each other before. It was important to spend some time with one’s fellow workshoppers, if only as a sort of coercive force of academic propriety – it is difficult to either rip to shreds someone else’s paper, or to be too quick to take offense by critical remarks on one’s own, if you have to sit next to them choosing sugary desserts a few hours later.
I do have to say that it has been amongst folks from Politics, broadly thought of, that I have experienced the most disciplinary clunkiness over the last year, in the sense of being positioned most clearly as coming from the outside, as a Geographer. In Utrecht, shortly before Christmas, I attended a workshop on media and cosmopolitanism, which was actually more diverse than the Rome event, including film theorists, legal theorists, political philosophers, and sociologists. But in this company, I didn’t seem an oddity – I suspect people working on media issues are much more used to coming across, and stealing from, other disciplinary perspectives. Or, to put the contrast differently, I suspect the ‘disciplinarity’ of some disciplines is much more internally cohesive than some others – fields like development studies, media studies, geography, or urban and regional studies are, certainly, definable fields and disciplines, but what might account for their observable outlines are the settled patterns of exchange, borrowing and external influence which characterise them. This sense was underscored by my brief time in Singapore, at the ICA conference. I felt quite at home at the ICA, or at least the bits I attended – I had been invited on the assumption that I could talk to other scholars interested in media, culture, democracy, neoliberalism, that sort of thing, and we shared the same reference points, the same sensibilities. I heard some great papers, and actually felt more at home than I sometimes do in critical human geography – people here were talking about Robert Brandom (not kindly), Axel Honneth (much more kindly), and there was a great session on the theme of listening as a medium of public communication and democracy (see http://www.thelisteningproject.net/). One of the things I most enjoyed about the ICA was the sense that a bunch of the people in the sessions I was involved in were struggling to find ways out of some fairly staid, predictable, disabling styles of doing academic ‘critique’ – ways of being critical which remain rather resolutely entrenched in ‘critical human geography’, where too many people seem satisfied with a shared sense that we all already know what we don’t like.
So my conferencing has, over the last year or so, been much more concentrated than in the past, but this has helped me appreciate how much serious work goes on in these events, as well as reminding me of just where I feel most comfortable. And I have, more or less inadvertently, managed to pick up one or two things about ‘local’ customs along the way, despite my tight schedule. For the Utrecht trip, I arrived in early Christmas, and didn’t immediately register that the airport at Schiphol seemed to be full of people in ‘blackface’, dressed as vaguely seasonal-looking minstrels. This turns out to be Zwarte Piet, a Dutch (and Flemish) sidekick to the proper St. Nicholas (not Santa Claus). The Dutch celebrate St. Nicholas’ day on the 5th and 6th December, so here we all were, gathered to discuss cosmopolitanism, media, and representation (with appropriate references to Deleuze, Boltanski, Derrida), amidst this big national celebration replete with racist caricatures (on one interpretation, at least). Opinion amongst the participants seemed a bit divided – the guy who ran the fantastic radical bookshop which hosted a book launch the night I arrived (De Rooie Rat) had played Zwarte Piet at his kids school that afternoon, and defended doing so on the grounds that ‘the kids really love him’. Which was kind of disarming, actually. I wonder if Dutch people arriving in England on November 5th wonder why we are all engaging in anti-Catholic rituals involving burning human figures on the top of bonfires.
Zwarte Piet was a surprising challenge to certain presumptions about liberal Dutch culture. I’m not sure I was as outraged as one or two of the local academics expected; rather, my response was along the lines of “Really? Still!”.
I had an equally surprising encounter, but of a different sort, in Las Vegas, where I was attending the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (‘The AAG’). This is the biggest gathering of English-language academic geography, and it’s a big, proper US-style scientific conference (although also oddly anarchic in its organisation). I actually found Las Vegas to be a terrible conference location – no coffee shops to escape to, where one can revise and rehearse the paper you are meant to give later in the week. I did have one great encounter, but it was in the shuttle bus back to the airport on the morning I left to come home. The shuttle turned out to have a ‘limo’-style interior, complete with a pole-dancing pole – obviously trips to the airport were not the only thing this vehicle was used for. All the other passengers on board for my trip to the airport were women, and there were a few raised eyebrows about the pole as we boarded. But these remarks had a certain knowingness about them, and as the ride started, these women, a dozen or so ordinary, ‘middle class’ Americans, entered into an extended conversation about what they had learnt in their week in Las Vegas. They all seemed to either know one another, or to be part of the same organisation. And their conversation consisted of a weird combination of matter-of-fact business talk about sales figures and future projections, and, well, sex toys. Now, I am actually quite shy, but as this conversation developed around me, I felt obliged to ask just what it was these women did. It turns out they were all reps for Passion Parties, which is the US’s largest ‘sensual products’ party plan company – these women had been attending the annual conference, the company being based in Las Vegas. Technically, I think the women I was sharing the shuttle with are ‘Consultants’ – they arrange, and sometimes host, women-only parties where, well, ‘sensual products’ are sold. In the UK, Ann Summers, the high street sex toy and lingerie shop, has a roughly equivalent line of business (apparently). These women, on my shuttle, had a great analysis of the geographies of their corner of the economy – during the ride, it was established that selling products in the South took a lot longer than in California – ladies in the Bible Belt passion-partied at a more leisurely pace than those on the West Coast, it was agreed. These women also had a complex analysis of the uncertainty of their business in a recession – couples would be staying in more in the evenings in economically straightened times. But they were also aware that they might find themselves adjusting downwards their own expectations of what people could afford in tough times, risking ‘underselling’. They also all agreed that a tighter economy risked heightening the tension they all felt that they had to negotiate, between engaging with the women who attended their parties as both friends and customers.
This was one of those encounters that had me wondering for a moment if there wasn’t a research project to be done on the economic and cultural geographies of Passion Parties. Then I thought better of it. I’m not sure I believe any more that critical social science is really equal to the sort of understanding that phenomenon like Zwarte Piet and Passion Parties really require. That would entail having a theory of fun.