With just enough distance to sense that I miss it already (in a brain-body hangover kind of way), but not enough for this to be taken too seriously, I offer some morning-after thoughts on the Nonhuman Turn conference.
1. It was a tremendous gathering of forces, of people doing valuable work with ideas, with knowledge-building practices and critical interpretive and reframing strategies (some of them novel and experimental, some of them simply variations on what academics do). For all that was said (at the end) about how washed-out the academic conference format is, this one was actually a very well-scaled meeting, making possible the kinds of conversations and connections that a larger conference would preclude. It was well run, technically savvy, and enjoyable. Remarkable in many ways.
2. The intellectual potential that was there at the outset — in its thrown-togetherness (by Richard Grusin) of an assortment of related conceptual frames, philosophical allegiances, and irrepressible human singularities — was partly actualized, but partly, I think, not. Yet.
That’s because actualization of this sort always takes time, and no one should have expected that these particular elements would have gelled into a robust solidarity on the spot. While more camps could have emerged, what seems to have occurred is a settling around two poles: the Whiteheadophiles and the objectologists. Maybe that much was predictable. (And since that particular debate has been a theme on this blog, this could be in part an artifact of my own perspective. But I heard it from many others.) Incipient other emergences appeared here and there, but not in the way that these two masts sailed around the proceedings in full splendor.
I heard rumors repeatedly of a blogosphere ravenously watching and waiting for the two camps to come to blows, to have some kind of showdown. While that never happened, courageous voices poked their heads to say “hey!” from time to time when they saw openings for a deepened mutual engagement. The “heys” can easily be misinterpreted: “why are we fighting?” can sound like “why are you fighting?”, “why are we (still) doing this?” (for instance, holding such conferences at all) can sound like a dismissive reply to “why are you doing this to us (generating anxiety in an anxiety-driven nation/world)?”, pokes at professional jealousy can sound just like professional jealousy, digs at academic citation practices can just sound smug. In the end, I most admired those who spoke from their heart (eat yours out if that sounds trite).
3. The social-media-blogosphere was always in the background, as much or more so than the art installations and other non-traditional conference effects that were much in evidence. Tweeted questions, Twitter feeds channeling in voices from around the world, Twitter itself being accused of and, at the same time, serving as an excuse for, bad behavior… (Why do people turn rabid behind their twitter personae?)
4. Actualization takes time. This will be a conference that sets off affective currents for a time to come. We will have stories about it, and mold it into our stories. For me, it follows in a tradition that leads back to 2007’s “Nature Matters” in Toronto and 2001’s “Taking Nature Seriously” in Oregon, both transdisciplinary meetings of critical ecotheorists and cultural and animal studies and STS folks. But for others it will connect up with other events — OOO conferences or new media brainstorms or posthuman gatherings of one kind of another.
My hope is that one of those affective currents will be a general acceptance that Whitehead is unavoidable, or at least not easily dismissible, in 21st century thinking about nature, culture, and media. (Thanks to Massumi, Manning, Shaviro, and Hansen for setting that direction out clearly, if not all in one voice.) Another might be that OOO also deserves to be taken seriously, that it’s not just a flash in the pan. And I sense a slight refashioning of OOO in the air, from being mainly a hard-nosed metaphysical doctrine to more of an affective opening toward the things themselves (Bogost’s OOO as the sense of wonder lost from childhood, Morton’s as a transcendental onto-eco-anxiety – themselves diametrically opposed variations that constitute two sensual faces of Harman’s withdrawn metaphysical insight-object). A third current may be the recognition — more, the undeniability — that new, 21st century media have become, and will be increasingly, part of the air we all breathe (as much as the toxins in our bio-onto-epi-genetic bloodstreams), whether we did when we arrived in Milwaukee or not.
5. All that said, the perception that OOO is somehow brash, rude, and intemperate is one that that crowd will have to deal with (or ignore). But I really believe it’s a cultural, stylistic, and somewhat generational thing: the blogo-social-mediasphere does certain things to us — I’m grateful to Wendy Chun and Mark Hansen for clarifying what some of those are — and schools of thought that emerge and grow primarily online will all come to sound somewhat that way. We all need to think about how this changes intellectual discourse.
6. It took some energy for me to live-blog the plenaries. For the most part, that just kept my attention from drifting, but for a few of the talks it was hard work and I wished I could give it up. I didn’t, except momentarily. I had said I’d do it, and I pushed ahead. Not quite sure why I did it at all, really — just thought it would be good: a service to those who weren’t there, a memory-jog to those who were, and a small contribution toward the crafting of a more robust network out of the pieces and bits that Richard Grusin had thrown together to create this 3-day machine.
Oh, did someone mention “Turn Fatigue”? This turn is a long one coming, and will continue for a long time to come. The last three days might serve as a point of contact that will have injected some energy toward new connections, as we all round this corner together.
Most of all, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have met, befriended or rekindled and deepened friendships with all sorts of creative and wonderful people: like Jane Bennett, Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, Steven Shaviro, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, Mark Hansen, Jennifer Slack, blogger friends such as Shane, Scu, Ben, and many, many others. Thanks especially to Richard Grusin for conceiving of and creating the whole thing, and to Mary Mullen and the staffers who made it all possible and refreshingly efficient.
That, at least, is how I saw and felt it. From the vantage point of the day after.
Now I’m thankfully heading back to the tweetless bliss of physicality (materiality, the dance of actuality and potentiality), with those I missed most. (And whom I don’t think I’ll ever get myself to call “objects.” Consider me unchanged in that regard.)