Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Conference II: the ugly

My seminar*, or, how Anthro Foucault Guy became my nemesis.

Day 1: 2 papers presented. Ensuing discussion on bodies, dead and alive.
Anthro Foucault Guy: You know, there's this REALLY INTERESTING guy named FOUCAULT. Maybe you guys in literary studies** have heard of him. blah blah BODIES IN PRISON blah blah CARCERAL. forward a few minutes... FOUCAULT IS A GENIUS.
More discussion on death and temporality.
AFG: Let me inform you about something called CULTURAL RELATIVISM. Anthropology knows a lot about this. It goes like this: other cultures have other notions of death. This changes how they feel about death when they're alive. Like, in some tribes in South America, death is just part of existence. etc.

Day 2:
3 papers presented, among them mine. Ensuing discussion on literary repetition.
AFG, to Kermit: You know, in anthropology there's been a lot of work done on repetition, having to do with chant and ritual...
Kermit: Yes, actually, in the context of my broader project, I've looked at some works that link anthropological studies of chant and ritual to forms of lyric poetry.
AFG: stays pretty quiet.

Day 3:
3 papers presented, among them AFG's. AFG's paper is written in a notebook, and we are instructed to excuse him if he stumbles because his handwriting is not so neat. The paper's argument goes as follows: "Foucault (gently caress book by Foucault) is a genius, but if you combine his views in Discipline and Punish (gently caress book again) with Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, you discover that the individual has individual ways of reacting to structures of power. [Translates somewhat haltingly, on the spot, a passage from Foucault. Translates somewhat haltingly, on the spot, a passage from M-P.] I really think that it's necessary to think about individuals and how they actively participate in disciplinary structures. Plus, the physical structure of the prison is necessary for its disciplinary structure to be effective."

Discussion ensues, with an emphasis on the words "I think that," always delivered with a flair of machismo.

Kermit: (deciding that AFG needs reminding that other people might possibly have thought about Foucault and discipline before) What you're describing as the individual's participation in disciplinary structures sounds a lot like 20th-century revisions of the Marxist idea of ideology, which discuss how individual people are drawn to want to become part of the dominant cultural field, rather than having it imposed on them...
AFG: NO. Marxism is TOP-DOWN. My point is that individuals can respond to things individually.
Kermit: Yes, and these theorists have thought about this.
Moderator: Well, what you're describing sounds a lot like a problem other people have pointed out in Foucault, but what strikes me about your account is... ... and I've generally seen Foucault as a post-Marxist ...

At this point I must break into the first person. No one else (out of the 6 people left in the room) was willing to call AFG out. This shook me, not out of respect for the integrity of the discipline or anything like that, but because AFG was talking with such a combination of sycophancy and egotistic confidence. I wanted to say:

Guys. We are supposed to be colleagues here. When we are too concerned with maintaining polite conference conversation to call bullshit, that's when jerks can get away with dominating other people by delivering wrong assertions or rehashing arguments with macho confidence, and that's just wrong.

I politely made my excuses to the moderator and left early.

*The format of this conference was unusual in that we were supposed to meet each day with the same group of people, to whom we'd each present our papers.
**Anthro Foucault Guy is an anthropologist. This was a literature conference.


EcoGeoFemme said...

Good for you for standing up to him!

Sisyphus said...


Too bad you couldn't find a REAL nemesis, one that hunts you down Javert-like across the country while wearing all black and carrying some sort of cool weapon, rather than it just being some guy who's a dick.

You shoulda just throttled him with some Althusser.

k8 said...

Wow! Just wow! I've gone to conferences outside of my main area, and I can't imagine going to them without checking out the discipline or showing at the very least a polite deference to the expertise in the room. I can't believe more people didn't call him out. Lit. folks can be (and I mean this in the best way) verbally aggressive, so you'd expect a little more reaction when there's blood in the water.

And really, non-academics have heard of Foucault. What silo in the middle of nowhere has he been living in?

Hilaire said...

Yeah, seriously, Althusser.

God, this reminded me of my experiences in my hateful program in grad school (all of which I hated). Fantastic replication. Shudder. You poor thing.

(I cannot wait to trade stories when we are AT THE SAME CONFERENCE in the fall!)

You are awesome for standing up to him.

JD said...

Eeek. Like the others, I'm glad you stood up to him.

I really loved the conference I was at earlier this year that had the same small intimate format; the disadvantage, of course, is when goons like yours are involved.

kermitthefrog said...

For real, I dropped some Althusser and some Raymond Williams for good measure, but the dude had ignorance issues. I think his exposure to non-doctrinaire Marxism was limited by the fact that he was not only an anthropologist, but from Portugal. But ignorance is no excuse for thuggery.

k8 -- The other people in the seminar were a weird combination of personalities and fields. And the one guy who might have backed me up here wasn't there the last day. Otherwise, yeah, I was a little surprised too.

Sisyphus, I have multiple nemeses, but none of them know they are my nemeses. That way, I can stalk them across the country with Althusser.

Psyched for my first conference blogger meetup in the fall! (Strangely, I did meet someone at this conference who blogs non-pseudonymously, but he had no idea I had a blog.)

Maude Lebowski said...

what a total douchebag! good for you for calling him out on it!

Belle said...

I second Sisyphus's great ideas. She rocks, ya know? I vote you stalk him with Althusser and a cricket bat. One or the other will get his attention.