Sunday, 31 December 2006

Talking, Endlessly Talking; or, Something I Presented Somewhere before Many People (Painstakingly crafted by hand on a train from D.C. to Philadelphia and revised in Notepad on a cramped flight from Philadelphia to Houston.) Below you'll find in situ the corpse of my lively talk. As will quickly become apparent, the word "talk" is no euphemism. I talked a talk. But I almost didn't. Like most panelists, I arrived in Philadelphia toting a paper to be read. Mine concerned the role blogs could play as virtual parlors devoted to the professionalization of sharp minds with rodential social instincts. The first two panels I attended reminded me of my own base nature. The original version of my "talk" betrayed both the conventional insecurities of an MLA panelist—the first-year fear of imposture, father to outbursts profound only in oblivious pretension—and those specific to a graduate student addressing an "unserious" topic. Legitimacy being the motivation behind the panel, why not describe it in a style with impeccable credentials? Why not partake of the inflated rhetoric of the scholar? Two panels into my MLA-crawl, I remembered what my insecurities had obscured: barking fifteen-to-twenty minutes of academic prose may impress the three people in the room who've never encountered it before, but it alienates and infuriates those who have. Those articles written to be read at conferences? They sound like articles, written to be read, at conferences. They are difficult to follow because their content hardly suits their form and the medium flatters neither, the equivalent of a novelization of a film based upon an interpretation of a novel. Novelty aside, who would a book whose front covered declared it to be "based on Huck in Love, the Independent Spirit award-winning adaptation of Leslie Fiedler's seminal analysis of Mark Twain's Huck Finn in Love and Death in the American Novel"? Yet here we are, fidgeting through strings of words and accumulations of arguments best parsed in the privacy of one's own mind. Exceed the limits of the audience's ability to track an argument and a talk will become difficult, yes, but so too does this sentence: Tina told Mark that John thought Pauline knew what Sam had planned for Justine, but Pauline insisted she had no idea John believed that, nor whether the look Justine exchanged wth Mark at work yesterday meant that Tina had inadvertatly revealed Sam's trap before John and his brother Adam could spring it. That sentence could be parsed, but not easily, not on the fly. Perhaps if acceptance packets included an audio edition of The Golden Bowl—or, better yet, Kant's Third Critique—and threats of dire consequences, of career suicide, if they did not become the soundtrack of the initiate's summer, perhaps then we could disentangle complex social relations and order subtle argumentation whilst inadequately-caffeinated in a dimly lit conference hall far from home. Given that academics should be skilled in this mode of communication, the incentive to cultivate such a specialized skill-set is slight. A well-trained audience would solve the problem, but so would a properly trained speaker. All of which...

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