Disengaging Theory

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So, like I said, I was at this conference during the past few days. I'm going back and forth over whether to write about my time there, because what I have to say will inevitably be taken up in ways I don't intend. But ah well.

A few things that you should understand. The conference was very small, more like a working group than a conference per se, and in that, it bore some resemblance to the Convergences shindig we put on a few years ago. Because the conference needed to be small, it was invite-only. And invitations went out to a lot of people whose work I admire, from both the comp and comm sides of the rhetoric aisle. For two days, we shifted seats around a circle, giving presentations on a range of topics related to rhetoric and theory. So far, so good.

Here's the thing. And you need to understand that this is most certainly not me looking for some sort of validation or compliment or disagreement. The thing is, I didn't belong there. At all.

I've been struggling to deal with this over the last few days, trying to come up with a good analogy that will get at what I've been feeling. I don't mean to say that I don't like, respect, and admire the people at the conference, because I do. I don't mean to say that I wasn't happy to see them, talk to them, and spend time outside the conference with them, because I was. But in terms of my paper, my contributions to the conversations, and my ability to follow those conversations, I no more belonged there than I did the conference on digestive disorders (!!) taking place next door. It was as though I was attending a conference in a different discipline or one taking place in a slightly different language than my own.

The best I've been able to come up with is that it was like watching an athlete trying to come back after a few years away from the game. You can tell that this person knows what to do, but the body just won't cooperate. It's kind of sad and embarrassing. So it was kind of like that, except that it slowly dawned on me as I was sitting there that I was the player. I understood what was going on around me, of course, but I didn't really have the same repertoire of texts to rely upon, I wasn't the same kind of writer, and I definitely couldn't have hit a fastball to save my life.

What's peculiar to me about this was that I don't think it really occurred to me ahead of time how much I didn't deserve to be there, and so I've been a little shell-shocked over the past few days. There was a time, 5-7 years ago, when this conference would have been like an oasis in the desert of the discipline for me, when it would have gotten me fired up and motivated to get back to work. And I suppose I vaguely thought that this would be the case even though I've drifted away from theoretical stuff in my own work and I'm at a place where it's not really asked of me.

This kind of scholarship has never been at what I would call the center of my field, but given my background and my social network, it's been much more central to my conception of the field. And so to discover that I no longer have the particular language, skills, or background required for it was more than a little humbling. And no, that's not an attempt to fish for compliments about how smart I am despite this--rationally, that's not a question for me. I know that I'm not stupid, regardless of how stupid I may have felt over the past few days.

But I've always just taken for granted a certain amount of foundational work that I did in graduate school--that I worked really hard at in graduate school. Studying with the people I did, and having the degree I did, and having the expertise I thought I did was part of my core academic identity, the foundation upon which everything else I've done has been built. And yes, I've moved in other directions, picked up other interests, focused on other texts, and so forth. But I assumed that at least some of this other stuff was still there, regardless of how deeply it's been buried.

What I found out this weekend is that it's gone, by and large. And if you detect a little self-pity hereabouts, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. I've spent a lot of time over the past 12-15 months grieving, and that was my overwhelming emotion the final night of the conference, so much so that I basically left early to be by myself. Only instead of losing someone else, I felt like I lost a part of myself. And the truth is that this loss has been gradual and entirely justified given my personal and professional circumstances. Yet, somehow, I wasn't called upon to face it, and had to wait until the worst kind of performance anxiety nightmare situation to realize that I had no business being in that room, with those people, talking about those topics.

So yeah. That's how my weekend was. I don't know what else to say.


So, I am just here to call, in the most kind way possible, bullsh*t. Seriously. I was there and felt out of sorts because my thing is more media/performance/visual, but there was nothing about your contributions that was any less than anyone else. Sure, maybe you don't want to pontificate in crowds(and why is this a problem, really?)...but your commentary in private conversations was totally valuable and demonstrated your facility with the stuff going on. So...moral is that you have not lost the ability, you have just moved elsewhere...and that is nothing to worry about. Not.at.all.

Well, I've way moved elsewhere and I've been there done that. So I feel your pain. (How many goofy sayings can I squeeze into the text box?) Ten bucks says there were at least 3 other people who felt the same way. We should talk . . .

And I was going to talk about regional rhetoric from what surely would have seemed like a very un-theoretical starting place. I'm sure I would have seemed quite out of place.

I'm scheduled to teach a Deleuze course next spring. And you know what? I couldn't think of anything that has less relevance to what I'm doing right now. Part of it has to do with my circumstances and environment, which don't exactly cultivate theoretical energies. But, on the other hand, I don't care. Maybe I will.

And you might move back into that place. I mean, it's all "there" at work. You couldn't do what you're doing now if it wasn't for the fact that you know all this shit about Hegel (young and old), Deleuze, Baudrillard, etc.

So you should feel a connection with others who are probably going through this same kind of experience.

How comforting to know that you felt just like the rest of us.... xox

Gaddamit boy, quit yur grousin.

oh, god, Collin. i feel like that ALL the time. every conference. every time.

also, i think that sometimes when people are talking the hippest theories, they tend to want to wander around in them, to use the terms of the discourse in fairly fluid and tangential ways. this is ALL GOOD. vibe out. but, there is a time for working *concepts in contexts* in more specific ways, and if you've just written a book (like you have), you see a need to reign in rather than wander. so maybe you were in that place rather than inappropriately *there*. i'm just guessing.

oh, and i wasn't invited. so here's your self-help mantra: "it's an honor just to have been invited." :)

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on October 28, 2008 4:09 PM.

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