Friday, May 17, 2013

Kalamazoo 2013 - 4/4


Up betimes to prepare my presentation entitled “The Gargoyles of Yerba Buena: Medievalist Architectural Innovation in San Francisco 1900-1940” at the morning session. Unfortunately it coincided with the one event I really wanted to attend this year: a roundtable entitled “The Future We Want,” presided by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, whom I’ve corresponded with but not yet met.

The purpose of my own paper was to show what was distinctive about the profusion of medieval buildings that went up in San Francisco after the fire in 1906, and to argue more generally that medievalist architecture of the 20th century—because of the innovation of cast concrete as a construction technology and the new kinds of buildings in which it was employed—e.g. office buildings, high schools, Laguna Honda Hospital, SF Art Institute, etc.—deserves to be studied separately from either its Gothic Revival (1840-1860) or its Victorian Gothic (1870-1890) predecessors. In other words, medievalism in the 20th century had different things to offer than in the 19th.

Trinity Episcopal Church at Bush and Gough is the best example of castellated church architecture in San Francisco. Surely the ghost of Hamlet's father would feel at home on these lonely battlements, which may have been erected for defense against raids by the Unitarian-Universalists, who are located in a likewise medievalist church building just two blocks away.

The fact that one had to present this in a twenty-minute time slot, the norm for most academic conferences I’ve attended, is completely ridiculous. Still I thought it important to make my complete argument, which seemed to go over pretty good, and I was asked interesting questions. I am grateful to SF State Univ for sending me to spread word of the glory of medieval San Francisco.

Trying to provide an interesting presentation in twenty minutes is like trying to fly with one’s wings clipped, and it has the annoying effect of causing speakers to rattle off their learned discourse at breakneck speed, for fear of exceeding the time limit. This makes it often hard to understand what they’re talking about. I think there ought to be two thirty-minute presenters, followed by a brief pause to allow the disenchanted to escape, and then thirty minutes of discussion for enthusiasts.

In the afternoon I attended two BABEL sessions about “Plunder” and “Blunder” organized by Eileen Joy. We began with a talk about the motion and the vectors (travel paths) of “things,” such as the relics of  San Marco during the Venetian Republic, and then we looked at hordes of “things” that that possess auras and signify lost utopias, ranging from the dragon’s hoard at the end of Beowulf to the objects collected in a Masonic Temple museum somewhere in Massachusetts that houses—quite uselessly, since nobody ever comes to visit—a host of “things” that functioned as symbolic ritual objects during the golden age of male fraternal organizations in America.

A dozen or more short presentations followed on a variety of topics that concerned other things besides “things,” and the afternoon concluded with a lengthy and animated audience discussion about what to do about the process of peer review in journal submissions, which in its present condition seems to upset everyone (myself included, don’t get me started).

Eileen Joy made the altogether sensible, if unlikely suggestion that we should aim to construct publishing as a means of conducting a free and open conversation amongst ourselves wherever we are located as humanities students, and that the criticism from or among reviewers and editors should follow this goal.

But one could argue I think that a male-oriented, adversarial sensibility is at the historical core of the academic process, just as it operates in the Anglo-Saxon judicial trial system and in parliamentary party politics. Just think of the tradition of university debates and medieval disputation—going back to Peter Abelard, who wandered the streets of Paris like a lone samurai questing for philosophical combat.

In general I thought the BABEL workgroup folk obviously enjoy projecting their self-image of something resembling a Parisian street mob during the French Revolution, intent upon demolishing academic hierarchies and traditional shibboleths* such as certain traditional vectors of peer review in the publication process.

But being a Sixties radical myself, their position, if the Babelites collectively may be said to have one, seems far too conservative. After all, when I first went to grad school in America, there weren’t even any women present, and because of the existing institutional censorship there were all sorts of things you couldn’t even begin to talk about in class—including for example why there weren’t any women or minorities present.

My hat is off to the Babelites anyway. Incidentally, if you're involved with Critical Theory in medieval studies, these are the people to hang out with. It seems pretty much absent elsewhere at Kalamazoo.

*Hebrew shibbōleth: literally, freshet, a word used by the Gileadites as a test to detect the fleeing Ephraimites, who could not pronounce the sound sh  (Judges 12:4–6).


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