Scenes from a Conference

With much-appreciated financial assistance from a few of you here at AUFS and the fine folks who put together this year’s Religion, Literature & Culture Conference at the University of Iowa, a few weeks ago I made my way to Iowa City. First things first: I absolutely love Midwestern college towns. I like college towns in general, but something about in-the-middle-of-nowhere Midwestern college towns are especially delightful. One minute you’re dining at a Long John Silvers in some random highway-exit town, whose denizens actually wore blue overalls, like they knew I was going to be there and had to fulfill the stereotype, taking in the insanely paranoid, but wonderfully narrative, signs that adorn Illinois’ & Iowa’s rural highways; and the next you find yourself surrounded by the soon-to-be-ex-Iowa-residents, the gorgeous corn-fed students of the University of Iowa. Back to the signs real quickly: the ones telling the story of the grandeur of corn were self-serving in a way that I could understand, if not agree with. More interesting, though, were the ones arguing against anti-gun laws that, at least on a national level, to my knowledge anyway, are not even being discussed in committee. Fox News country is, they led me to believe, very dangerous. Unarmed, I kept my doors locked and windows tightly closed.

All that changed in Iowa City. The windows came down, and I took in the sounds of the local college radio station, KRUI. Tom Waits escorted me to my Days Inn, where I quickly changed clothes and raced over to the English-Philosophy Building for Tom Altizer’s talk. I will confess, though, that I got a little lost trying to find the building, and because I was wearing a sweater on an 80-degree day, which we simply don’t have this time of year here in the Bay Area, I was hot and sweaty, and really quite disoriented by the time I heard Altizer’s homilectical intonations of God, Buddha, Satan, Nietzsche, Milton & Joyce, all invoked in a single paragraph, and sometimes sentence, echoing through the building’s sacredly secular halls. He, in other words, did not disappoint (me, anyway) — though, as he would later confess, he did perplex a feminist studies friend of mine also in attendance, when he invoked the idea of the Divine Mother without introduction or (adequate) explanation. That’s the wonderful thing about Altizer, though — he is an absolute wildcard in everything but his reiterated theology and affection for friends & family.

My wits were sufficiently collected for the excellent Buddhist scholar, Dale Wright, who spoke on non-dualism and responsibilities. I have to confess, though I have gained a lot from Wright’s stuff in the past, this presentation left me very cold. He kept coming back to the idea that for the non-dualist we are all equally responsible for evil in the world. Which, sure, in the abstract, metaphysical sense, this may make sense. But the moment you actually reflect on an instance of evil you suddenly realize this surely can’t be the case. I inquired as to how exactly, for example, African slaves were a party to the evil inflicted upon them, but was basically told that if I kept focusing on particular instances of suffering and evil I would miss the metaphysical reality. Which is to say, I concluded, being consumed by the metaphysical reality is the responsibility of the white, male liberal, who probably doesn’t have a whole lot of suffering heaped on him that he didn’t help create in some form or another. Not sure how appropriately “Buddhist” this is, but hey. (I don’t mean to crap all over Wright here. His stuff is actually really quite good. I just didn’t get this talk at all.)

Later that night, our keynote presenter, David Jasper (my doctoral adviser in days gone by), did Frank Kermode proud and delivered a stirring meditation on the possibilities of reading the Gospel of Mark as a novel. While I wasn’t totally sold on the full range of exegetical implications he drew out of the fact that Mark occasionally uses the optative mood, he made up for it with his thoughts on the many layers of betrayal that move the novel/gospel forward, and indeed on even further into and amidst the social community of its present readers. A deceptively (naturally) simple message was tucked into Jasper’s elusive, literary presentation, and I felt he gave a nice foretaste of where his ongoing research on asceticism is taking him, esp. as it relates to community. I have high hopes that his recent interest in Jacques Ranciere might point him in new, politically fecund directions. Knowing his work as I do, I doubt he will explore this explicitly; which leaves it to the likes of people like me.

For the sake of brevity I will summarize the rest of the conference via bullet-points.

  • The combination of too much coffee and too many lectures creates an odd social environment at conferences, in which you’re exhausted and distracted, but rarely at the same time as everybody else. The moment I collect my badge at any conference I find myself exhibiting signs of acute Asperger’s syndrome.
  • The solution to this is alcohol.
  • I hate it when I’m taking notes during a paper, preparing hard-hitting questions interrogating the core of the presenter’s thesis, practically falling out of my seat I’m so excited, only to realize that the presenter was really only reciting an argument that she will, by the end of the paper, go on to demolish herself in the final quarter of the paper. Whether she actually outlined this progression in her introduction, I don’t know. Not that I’d hold it against her if she didn’t, because as a general rule never do that sort of thing in my papers either.
  • Speaking of my paper, it was amazing! Absolutely mind-blowing. The altar-call was a sight to behold. Though I do wish I’d been more graphic in retelling the notorious threesomes in Against the Day. A missed opportunity.
  • Contemporary German avant-garde video art inspired by a decontextualized line from a Paul Celan poem (“the Lord broke the bread/the bread broke the Lord”) is precisely as you would imagine it to be.
  • If you ever find yourself in Iowa City, might I recommend you check out the Sanctuary pub (for drinks when you have nowhere else to go) and John’s Grocery (for drinks you can take with you when it is time to go.) Oh, and the Haunted Bookshop: an excellent, wonderfully-priced used bookstore that sold me a very cheap copy of Mason & Dixon and a Herman Melville finger-puppet.

Sadly, I could not stick around for the final day of the conference. My hosts in Indianapolis that evening had an unexpectedly early morning planned the next day, and if I was to see them at all I would need to hit the road very early (it being a six-hour drive).  So, with little fanfare and a bagel in hand, another conference ended. Should somebody from the conference happen across the post, do let me know how the final day went (esp. Susan Neiman’s presentation — really bummed I missed her talk).

5 thoughts on “Scenes from a Conference

  1. Somehow stumbled across this post. As a former resident/student of Iowa City, I enjoyed the sympathetic narration of your time there. A Midwestern college town par excellence, Iowa City is. Impressed, as well, with your discovery of the Sanctuary and John’s during such a hurried stay; two of the finest places for fine brews in IC, no doubt. Real quick, one qualm: it may be that the description “corn-fed” still maintains for many Iowans, especially qualifying those rural inhabitants of the state (and, of course, most of the state’s men and women accord to that category), but for the students at the UofI it is surely a misname—even when postured, as it is above, so softly and complementarily alongside gorgeous. The term, I think, comes too easy and is too often used as a conventional boilerplate description for residents of the rural upper-Midwest (perhaps all rural people?). Forgive my pedantic apologia here, but I think the word is a bit imprecise. Best.

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