Tracy Riley and Maggie Galvan, co-chairs of “‘Spanking and Poetry’: A Conference on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick,” kindly invited me to do a guest post mortem. I’m cross-posting it here since nobody else lengthened the nineteenth century quite like Eve did.

On my way back home on Friday night, I wondered how one could not believe in magic who had shared the experience of that day and that night? I forget who it was at the “Honoring Eve” conference at Boston University who reminded that audience of this splendid quote from A Dialogue on Love:

I want to know, “Don’t you ever find yourself suspicious when I’m so sanguine about these intimate relationships–Hal, Michael, friends, students? Don’t you wonder, can that much good relating really happen? And where are all the conflicts?”

With some thought, he says, “For a long time I was aware of staying agnostic about it. Not suspicious, but close to that. But over time, I guess I’ve figured that if you’ve been systematically misperceiving all these relationships–well, it is systematic; it seems to work in a consistent way for you. […] Are you asking this because you want to flash me a yellow light?”

“No, no, I don’t think so. But I sometimes wonder

whether you think I
overidealize my
friends. Kind of wholesale.”

“You think?”

“I think about it, sure. Last week Mary described me to myself as ‘scattering sequins over us all’–all the people I love. She’s right, she and they do seem so glamorous and numinous to me. I always see the light shaking out of their wings.” (107-108)

Whoever it was who was speaking said that’s the way Eve made us feel, covered in sequins and rhinestones, all sparkly and glittery. And, last night, that’s how it felt, everything magically sprinkled with pixie dust, for those of us who came from Brooklyn, from Oklahoma, from California, from Victoria, from Oxford, from Australia, trudging through foot-deep snow to a building which had been closed due to the weather, but once past security, seemed a hive of activity from the two conferences “Spanking and Poetry” and “The Poetics of Pain.” How could all this have happened without the assistance of magic?

direction signs

Tough Decisions...

And yet, at the same time, I’m aware that there are those whose pumpkins remained stubbornly untransformed, and who might read these words and think of their decidedly unmagical Friday night. To these, I hope that some of Eve’s sequins, Eve’s magic, works its way through switch and router, optical cable and circuit board, to illumine my keystrokes, to dust your computer screen, to work at least some good in a world where there’s precious little of it.

Eve taught what must be the weirdest English Literature graduate seminar offered for credit ever: “How to do Things with Words and other Materials,” which she sometimes described as, “basically a studio arts class,” and conducted at her own studio. The media  involved were paper, textiles, and books, primarily; assignments included hexaflexagons, cards, mail art, collage, and altered books. I’ll admit to being more than a bit skeptical about the whole thing; the whole thing sounded kind of new-agey, and I felt my allergy to hippies threatening to act up. When I saw the informal exhibition which was organized at the end of the semester, though, I was a convert, seduced by the sequins and sparkles. The work was, quite simply, good: inventive, diverse, intelligent, and engaging. cMy only complaint was that you weren’t allowed to touch the materials, which was what was so great about the more informal end-of-semester exhibition I attended. Still, it was neat to see the works in a new light: the show had been meticulously curated by Allen Durgin, dividing the works from about fifty artists into sections of the syllabus, giving us a narrative of the course, rather than just showing end-products. And all that work, just for a four-hour show! Did I mention the Cinderella feeling which pervaded these two days?

But really, most of my Thursday was spent reorganizing nametags, checking people off a list, guiding the poor folks who were going to two unrelated events in  rooms adjacent to ours which involved walking around the exhibit-goers. Anybody more qualified to comment on the show is encouraged to do so!

And then, Friday.

I’m not a morning person. I had set my alarm for six am, given that I still had revisions to do for my paper, and I wanted to get to the Graduate Center so I could print the paper out before my panel, scheduled to begin at 9:15. I was more nervous about getting out of bed than actually delivering my not-yet-finished paper. (I’m not by habit a last-minute junkie–I really prefer being able to have a practice run or two of a presentation-ready draft at least the night before the paper.) The night before, I asked Tracy to call me when he woke up to make sure I was up. So, when I saw that he had called me at 6:30, having successfully gotten up fifteen minutes earlier, I thought he’d been kind enough to remember to give me the wake-up call. I texted him, so that he wouldn’t think I had slept through it. And then, at 6:42 am, I got the text, “Gc is closed.” I immediately called Tracy; it all seemed, as Maggie wrote, like a bizarre bad dream. When I had woken up, I peeked out the window and noticed the heavy snow that continued to fall, and immediately went to the GC website to see if the building was closed. There wasn’t anything posted there, and for some reason, the banner didn’t show up on my screen until after the phone call with Tracy.

So I went back to bed, and proceeded to sleep for longer than I had slept the night before. I woke up at 1:30 in the afternoon, saw a text from Tracy saying “We’re on at 1,” and went through the twenty-odd emails that had been exchanged during my “nap” that resulted in the conference’s resurrection. By the time I got my thoroughly disoriented self to the conference, it was quarter past three, so I can’t comment on what happened before. Here’s my account of what I saw.

There wasn’t one single paper I saw that wasn’t smart, taking Sedgwick’s work in quirky new directions, so thankfully I don’t have to worry about anybody being offended by being left out or damned with faint praise. It was one of the most exciting conferences I’ve been to. The papers were certainly better than most of the ones I saw at MLA. I’ve sometimes heard that graduate student papers have fresher ideas than papers delivered by tenured faculty, but this was the first time I actually saw evidence of it.

The first panel I saw, titled, as Linda Neiberg, moderator and behind-the-scenes superstar called it, “Downstairs, 4406.” Despite the arbitrariness suggested by the title, there was a remarkable coherence in the presentation. Lisa McNally’s talk, “Reading Queer,”for me, epitomized what made all the papers wonderful. Her talk could easily have been terrible, but it wasn’t–if you’re reading this, Lisa, I mean that as a compliment not given lightly! She began in the personal, self-conscious mode, speaking of her love for Sedgwick and her fear of embarrassment in declaring her love in front of an audience who also loved Sedgwick. It could have been one of those embarrassingly autobiographical, pedantically self-reflexive, intellectually vapid papers one sometimes finds in identity-politics driven critique–and I confess this was my fear when I heard the opening. What followed, though, was a paper which made critical use of that risk she described in a number of important ways: the risk involved in love, the risk involved in coming out, the risks Sedgwick took again and again, and the risk at the heart of “queer,” if “queer” and “reading queer” are to remain a vital forces–“queer” as Sedgwick invoked it, not as the stable identity category it has become.

All of the papers I saw on Friday took risks, risks which you’d rarely encounter at an academic conference, graduate student or otherwise, without sacrificing any degree of intellectual rigor. Nina Pick’s presentation on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy ended with a lyrical, self-described “camp” “misreading”/evocation of girl-on-girl intimacy, after exploring complex (more-than-triangular!) networks of desire between narrator and character, character and book, reader and narrator, reading and misreading. Olivia Murphy’s talk on Jane Austen and her critics turned from the potentially cringe-making subject of loving Jane Austen to a subtle exploration of love’s complicated meaning and resistance to meaning, inviting renewed critical attention to love in Sedgwick and Austen. I only took one class with Eve, “Reading Relations,” and I thank the three panelists for recalling to me Eve’s ideas behind that seminar.

The next panel I attended wasn’t so unified in theme, but displayed the surprising variety of approaches which also marked the day. Tavy Ralid’s paper on Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go read the novel alongside Hardt and Negri’s account of affective labor in Empire, Sedgwick’s own work on affect, and Sianne Ngai’s chapter on “Tone” in Ugly Feelings. Kristi-Lynn Cassaro’s provocative, humorous, and insightful piece on Giovanni’s Room first made an intervention against queer theory’s mobilization around the term “transgender” as something curiously divorced from actual trans bodies, offering compelling close readings of the book’s opening and closing representations of a body and its reflections. Michael Broder discussed the (almost non-existent) state of queer theory in Classical studies, arguing that despite brilliant foundational work by David Halperin and Amy Richlin, classicists have become curiously resistant to queer theory. And who doesn’t like hearing about Priapus, the Roman god of gardens who’d fuck any intruder, man or woman, in any available orifice? (The f-bomb, of course, is only to follow Michael’s terminology.)

My own panel had an even greater range of approaches, as we each came from different disciplines, and reflected on our own disciplines in relation to Sedgwick. Yours truly gave a, to quote myself, “flaky” presentation, which included recollections of Eve’s pedagogy, the space of the literature classroom, gratuitous block-quoting, thirty seconds of uncomfortable silence (yes!), and repeated discussion of the paper’s various titles. Warren Liew and Emma Kaufman brought us down to earth by discussing the more fraught spaces they dealt with in Education and Criminology, respectively: the high school English classroom in Singapore in Warren’s case, and a prison cell containing a stateless detainee in legal limbo in Emma’s. If it was curious for us humanists to hear from disciplines following the social-sciences model, one got the sense that to hear about Sedgwick within those fields would be equally unlikely. Sedgwick’s work on performatives, periperformatives and affect proved powerful tools in questioning the methodology of classroom ethnography and prison studies.

Jedi Master, Photoshop (GIMP) Disaster

I’m not going to attempt to rehash the collaborative keynote, written by Jonathan Goldberg and Michael Moon snowbound in Georgia, delivered by proxy by Hal Sedgwick and Josh Wilner in New York, and it’s not just because Tracy and Maggie had encouraged us to refill our glasses and take another slice of pizza before sitting to listen to the talk. (And some fairy godmother made sure there was vegan pizza too!) It was the perfect ending to a magical conference, and I’ll let the moment remain special to those who were there. But, what you should know, is that the volume of Eve’s uncollected writings sounds as exciting, innovative, and original as everything she’s done. Her work on queer theory, as we know, was revolutionary, and her work on affect is really taking hold of the academy right now: the new work on Buddhist epistemology, theories of mind, and Proust’s mysticism sounds like it could launch yet another wave of reinvigorated scholarship.

Michael Moon noted that Eve, despite coming of age as a feminist in the seventies and eighties, never caught a taste for feminist science fiction. This didn’t stop him from devoting a large portion of his part of the keynote to a late nineteenth-century French science fiction novel occasionally translated On the Eve of the Future. Somehow it seemed appropriate. And somehow, it seemed appropriate for me to appeal to the vaguely  Buddhist wisdom of Yoda. The world of Star Wars–which I realize counts neither as feminist nor as science fiction–is so much more of a home for me than anything else I associate with my childhood, and that’s what Eve offered us that night and for always–a home for all our alien selves.

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