So, I found this year’s NVSA conference both incredibly entertaining and (somewhat surprisingly) moving.* This is also not to imply, of course, that NVSAs are not usually entertaining (or moving). But this one seemed to be even more so than usual. People really seemed to be going all out, particularly insofar as they created presentations that were truly multimedia in nature, and being — intimidatingly — good at it. By the end of the conference, one of my friends was like, “whoa, we really have to learn Power Point” — and he’s probably right.** But speaking for myself, at least, the challenge isn’t really learning the technical side of Power Point, but rather thinking in a more “digital” way — and I’m not sure Twitter counts.***

Beyond that, though, there were dinosaurs (and standard queer affect questions about dinosaurs) and moldy archives and cookbooks and streets — not to mention the White House-approved (no really) magic show at the banquet. These things make me of good cheer.**** Of course, these are also the parts of this conference — and any conference, really — that are the “you had to be there” moments, the ones that, well, don’t make it into the archive in the same way, the ones that maybe escape the system.

But of course these moments where we were or weren’t there are, arguably, all an archive ever really is — and our systems are always running to catch up with experience. And I think this is what I’m trying to get at when I say that the weekend was surprisingly moving, perhaps even poignant… this common thread, running through so many of these papers, so many of the efforts and projects that were represented here… this desire just to make things make sense. And all the lost possibilities that come with those efforts to arrange, understand, systematize, save, study, respond… remembering that all of those things that seem in retrospect to be so inevitable–how we organize archives, or even that we *have* archives, for instance–might not have been so at the time. (There are other stories, too–the divergence of anthropology and literary study, the time before we could conceive of dinosaurs, and so on…)

Bernard Lightman kicked off the Saturday keynote by stressing the commonalities between scientific and religious thinking–reminding  us, at least implicitly, that these two fields arose in some ways to deal with the same set of human needs: to explain and to want to be consistent, to reassure ourselves about the nature of reality, to be able to, well, make sense.  There’s something compelling (to me) about the struggle to organize experience (while also figure out how to read discontinuites, the gaps in the record–and also how to read among different mediums–the laptop and the printed page, the writing tablet of memory, even). There seems to be a real hopefulness in setting out to, say, rationalize the principles of political science according to that of geometry, to embark upon the project of distilling the best that has been thought and said.

Some of this, incidentally, is no doubt why I’ve been drawn back to strategic formalism lately, and even to some extent religion. I did have occasion to interrogate my relative lack of interest in Victorian science (save, of course, for the relatively narrow area of medical science’s debate over the signs of death). I was challenged especially by Vanessa Ryan’s talk on Herbert Spencer as a figure whose emphasis was on movement and function, not so much “what is this” but “what does this do”? I came away from that panel wondering if this sense of function is part of what still seems to be missing for me in accounts of new formalism–almost as if this is the thing that would make it really new–being able to apprehend movement as it moves, to respond to impermanence from impermanence.  And this turned out to be a version of the question I wanted to ask Veronica Alfano on Sunday before we ran out of time (and did ask her later on): if we put these short poems of Symons, these “moments” and “flashes” in motion on something like the zoopraxiscope, then what are we reading?

Perhaps another one of the questions of the weekend (in my mind) was communicability, how information is packaged and passed on, how it becomes “real ground.” From what some of the archival historians said, it almost seems like something becomes the “real ground” by not being intentionally archived… I was haunted by Paul Saint-Amour’s talk on archives and the fossil record, which raised this question of the accidental registry and problematized the very meaning of human agency (at the very least). This took on a more materialist (and Gothic) dimension in Christopher Keep’s talk on the Victorian “archive crisis” of the 1840s, the point at which it came to light that the records that secured the power of the British state were literally rotting away in basements or being sold off for 8 pounds per ton to fishmongers and jelly-makers (even though some of the paper was, as Keep put it, “too decayed even for the jelly-makers”). However, it’s clear that not every government is keeping up with its archival responsibilities, even today.

And then there’s the fragility of both system and archive: does it disintegrate if you touch it or bring it into the light? Is the magic gone if you can get your head around it? Can you laugh at the silliness but still admit later on, “I don’t know how he did that”? Marjorie Stone projected an image of Browning’s empty writing portfolio, complete with doodles and some transcribed lines from EBB. These aren’t usually the materials I work with, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make me feel something.

That brings up a question of method that I’m not going to take up here, because with the footnotes and everything I’m way over even my usual word count. (And I didn’t even get to talk about Asmodeus, the spirit of systems, or most of the papers that people gave.) But if it makes sense to end on omissions, then this might be a good ending. It was also a rather light year for literature papers–though I did feel like there was a bit more poetry than usual. But, then again, there’s always next year.

More immediately, there is tomorrow, when I head up to Columbia for the Politics of Form conference.

Wow do I love Spring on the East Coast Victorian studies circuit. 🙂

*Here I insert the usual caveats. I missed the first day. I didn’t sleep particularly well. I drank too much coffee. This is all way, way, way out of my field. Infelicities in my reporting should not reflect poorly on the speakers. I am being unsystematic and my archive is highly incomplete.

**I tweeted a link to “In Xanadu Did Kubla Khan a Stately Power Point Decree” in McSweeney’s a couple days before I left and now feel like that was a hopelessly outmoded move on my part.

***Except if it does — which was part of the point that Devin Griffiths was making in his reconsideration of  Matthew Arnold’s project of distilling “the best that has been thought and said” as a project of “Tweeting the Bible.” (I will admit, by the way, to enjoying the part where the talk was interrupted by a tweet from @Mat_Arnold. And if that makes me a geek, so be it.)  

****I liked the magic show, okay? But I will try to cut down on the footnoting.