Some thoughts in closing
Following the appearance of my belated report on “conference communism” a couple days ago, I received a number of appreciative comments, e-mails, and replies. It would seem I wasn’t alone in my rather low opinion of these conferences. A few of the people who sent me notes to this effect caught me genuinely off guard; it always feels vindicating to know that others agree with you.
Predictably, however, the responses that came in from the speakers who actually participated in the event, especially those who had been singled out for criticism, were less than appreciative. Some seemed to take it all quite personally — and one of them, George Ciccariello-Maher, went so far as to defriend me on Facebook. Was a bit surprised by it, to be honest; I’d always thought he had pretty thick skin, otherwise. For the most part, I think, I’d refrained from the ad hominem attacks and managed to keep my remarks strictly ad rem. Maybe he felt that by attacking his credentials to speak on a given subject, I was thereby indirectly attacking his character. This was not my intention.
Either way, it’s not like it matters. I’d anticipated it anyway. Just goes to show you can’t please everyone.
Normally, I’d let sleeping dogs lie. But since Ciccariello-Maher subsequently accused me of misrepresenting the event (calling my report “literally fantastic”), and my own reaction to it at the time, I think it might be good to set the record straight. He wrote in the comment thread attached to the link I posted:
Oh wait, you forgot the part where you were mocking Jordana [Rosenberg] on Facebook before her talk even started. Whoopsie.
Indeed, during the conference I had made a single snide remark based on the title of her paper — “The Molecularization of Sexuality: Capitalist Accumulation and the Ontological Turn” — which I felt was horribly convoluted and jargonistic. Yet, as I went on to indicate in my report, her paper ended up being one of the two presented that I felt were really worthwhile.
This was why I wrote:
Unexpectedly, the paper I expected to hate the most turned out to be much better than I’d anticipated Jordana Rosenberg…had a couple things the other panelists lacked: stage presence, and an uncanny sense of timing…Plus, it became clear in the course of her exposition that many of the terms included in the title of her talk were precisely those that she meant to criticize.
Out of curiosity, I checked back on what I’d said at the time. Asked how “the paper on sexuality” went, I responded:
The paper on sexuality was actually better than I anticipated, though I (understandably) entered the talk with very low expectations. The speaker had more charisma than the others, whose personalities are more the equivalent of a dead moth.
[My recapitulation of Rosenberg’s argument:] It was an immanent critique of various speculative/metaphysical and ontological versions of queer theory from the perspective of a more Marxist-inflected queer theory. Some of the jargon was unavoidable, probably because the language of the authors she was criticizing was so opaque.
Ciccariello-Maher was unimpressed by this explanation, and thus sarcastically remarked:
Ah, makes total sense then. Nevermind. It makes perfect sense to mock the title of a paper before the author even opens her mouth. It also makes perfect sense to write a blog post about a same-day facebook post that you misunderstood and were corrected about. It all makes sense.
Regarding the titles of various academic papers, maybe others are less prejudiced than I am. For my part, I confess that whenever I see titles like “Conversations with Enrique Dussel on Anti-Cartesian Decoloniality & Pluriversal Transmodernity” (just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?), my eyes glaze over. Should I withhold judgment? Probably. But it’s hard not to fear the worst in such instances. I’ve read far too much bullshit not be wary.
Anyway, to perhaps grant this whole meditation some sense of closure, I’ll just add a couple thoughts. If I’m a bit unfair to the “conference communists” to rib them for their academicism, it’s likely because attending these events can be like holding up a really unflattering mirror on one’s own intellectual interests and pursuits. Nothing’s worse than that gnawing suspicion: “What if this is how I sound whenever I talk about x, y, or z? Hope somebody shoots me if I do.”
Besides, once you attend enough of these conferences and symposia you begin to recognize all the irritating buzzwords and tired habits of thought. At such events, you’re lucky if there’s even one person who’s saying something original or interesting. Yeah, they’ll all reassure each other after each talk about how “important” or “groundbreaking” they think each other’s research is. It’s a thoroughly exhausting affair. The old saying is true: Familiarity breeds contempt.
And it’s not like it’s the conference communists’ fault that their attempts to theorize (and somehow thereby revive) communism for the 21st century prove inadequate or fall short. There’s no “real movement” abolishing the existing state of things today. Or if there is, none that I can see. Incidentally, that’s why I enjoyed Jason Smith’s paper; at least he was looking for a pulse out there in nascent forms of struggle. Jordana Rosenberg’s essay I thought provided a very smart critique of theoretical tendencies that extend well beyond the realm of sexual politics and queer theory, as these are areas in which I’m hardly an expert. Seeing it in written form would be helpful also, as it all went rather fast.
I should add, also, that I think the conference might have gone much better if Gavin Walker had been able to attend and deliver his paper. Bruno Bosteels’ substitution was a last minute decision, from what I understand, and he came through pretty well. Even if I preferred the Paris Commune as an object of thought.
Alain Badiou et al. might even be inadvertently right that communism is nothing more than an “idea” today. Lately, I’ve begun to feel like it’s more like a beautiful dream that someone once had, one which seemed at the time an immanently and imminently approaching reality. Since that time, however, the dream has all but dissipated. That’s where we stand. We can do no other.