Blog: My field notes from a big fat conference…

By Tom Hoogervorst

Big conferences are crucial when it comes to meeting the celebrities in your field, and perhaps even striking up short conversations with them. And yet the cultural dynamics of these sites of gathering and worship receive considerably less attention than academia’s more imperative issues, such as ‘moving beyond theoretical boundaries’, ‘continuities and changes’ and, of course, the all-important difference between ‘mediation’ and ‘meditization. Time to enter The Field…

After she had finished reading out her carefully manicured, jargon-riddled paper, all while sticking commendably to the time limit, it was time for the Q&A.

“I found your paper really fascinating,” intones a hipsteresque postdoc, with the vacuity of a frequently recited mantra. “But I think we should be really careful to define what we mean when we say…”

He then launches into a lengthy soliloquy about his own forthcoming book – apparently a must-read for scholars interested in the choreographies of anti-generic spectrality – before concluding with the words: “This might actually be more of a comment than a question.”

The remainder of the time is taken up by an earnestly bespectacled male professor who asks a total of seven questions. Nobody seems to mind. Probably a big shot in the field, as his every word is greeted with solemn hums and deferent nods from the audience.

Coffee break. Two greybeards meet, exchanging fond memories of how academia has changed since the 1970s. Among the many people they discuss is yesterday’s keynote speaker, who had partied a bit too vigorously the night before and is yet to be spotted outside his hotel room.

At the other end the foyer – and the other end of the food chain – sits a PhD candidate in a rented suit, nervously checking his iPhone in anticipation of a long-awaited ‘speed date’ with a potential future employer. He looks undernourished. Timid, like a scuttling mouse, he patrols through the carefully demarcated cliques of old friends citing each other’s work. He seems to wonder whether academia will ever yield a viable future.

Meanwhile, his would-be patron finds himself ganged-up on by a trio of overeager postgrads, like oxpeckers besieging a mighty water buffalo. “Hello Professor Smith, do you remember me?” they squeak in high-pitched, somewhat desperate voices.

They are yet to learn one of the basic rules of the game: the attention span of the average conference participant is rarely longer than 15 seconds, as if an in-built algorithm enables them to determine someone’s usefulness within precisely that length of time.

“We should definitely meet up sometime.”

“We should definitely keep in touch.”

Ethnic credentials are passionately showcased, resulting in a richly multilingual polyphony: Japanese, Thai, or Hindi, sometimes mixed with the nasal twang and vocal fry of white America.

Despite some performative Trump-bashing and other displays of left-wing virtue, there’s no denying that everyone here is part of a neoliberal schmooze fest. Held in a lavish, marble-floored convention centre the size of a small country, with 15 parallel sessions, yet lunch and dinner are somehow not included in the steep registration fee.

The once-a-day coffee tastes like the putrefied fluid leaking from a decomposing corpse.

On the third day, many of the participants have already left the conference venue, going on to greener pastures, or shopping malls. They know that if their department’s annual budget is not fully depleted, they may end up with less money the following year.

Suddenly, it dawns on me that I should have bummed a bunch of one-drink vouchers off them before they left, if only to join that boozy keynote speaker in his joyful inebriation.

Photo: @EEB_Flow

(Tom Hoogervorst focuses on language contact and Malay linguistics. He is currently studying the development of the (Indonesian) Malay language through the KITLV’s collection of Sino-Malay literature, while simultaneously attempting to cast a new light on cultural contact, the introduction of new concepts and the role of popular culture during late 19th and early 20th centuries.)

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